Chapter 121:

Chapter 121 - Waking Giant


The shadow glided out into the darkness of the enclave’s entryway. By latching onto Viper’s own shadow, and then Beretta’s, it had managed to avoid discovery thus far.

But the time for hiding was over. Now, bonded with the shadows of an entire city, it could move freely! It melded with the western wall and slithered up the enclave’s rough exterior, careful to avoid straying too high. Noon was fast approaching, and the dark clouds above Ballistona Enclave–generous as they were–wouldn’t be enough to obscure the sun entirely.

It had to find a place to settle. A place to release its living cargo. The intelligence that guided it seemed inexorably drawn to the top, urging it to move along the curving surface of the enclave’s high walls until it joined the shadows cast by Ballistona’s tallest structure: the arms factory.

Here, the sun’s rays held no purchase. In such abundant shade, scaling the wall and slinking down into the city proper was simplicity itself! Moving through the enclave’s streets, it dipped between passers-by as they hurried to and fro. Talk of invaders at the gates (and the shootout that would inevitably follow) filled the air; citizens scurried into their shacks and tenements, fearing for their lives.

The shadow passed unnoticed, traversing alleyways and crowded squares alike as it glided to the rear of the factory. Once there, it latched to the building’s grimy wall and carried on toward the roof. Only when it slipped up over the rooftop’s edge, exposing itself to the dull glow of the overcast sky, did it finally slow. The light made it sluggish and weak, straining its ability to contain its prey.

Then, before it could make it into the shade of the factory’s smokestacks, the shadow split apart. Marka clawed his way out onto the rooftop, gasping, while the inky blot leaked its black essence into the open air. Gradually, that essence began to take shape: first, the outline of legs and a torso; then a pair of arms; and finally, a head, complete with a pair of baleful eyes that glowered at Marka with dark intensity.

“So good to see you again, cousin,” Diallo said, his freshly-reformed lips curling into a taunting smile. “How have you been keeping? Still stinging from that knife wound I left you with in Sebastopol?”

Marka looked up at him stubbornly, then clamored to his feet. A pair of strange, looping lengths of metal dangled from his hand, clinking audibly with each breath he took. “Diallo,” he growled. “What is this? Where have you taken me?”

“Not far. We stand atop Czar Gunn’s arms factory–the most important facility on the range, I am told.” He took the opportunity to peer about at the surrounding countryside, then, drinking in the sight of a county bled dry. “A far cry from the beauty of our homeland, hm? And yet, there is something inspiring about it…”

Diallo fingered the grip of the jet black pistol on his hip, searching for the right words. “An intoxicating ruggedness,” he decided. “Like a promise from the land itself–a promise that all will be tested, and that only the strong will survive.”

“Of course you would see it that way,” Marka grumbled. “Why have you come here, Diallo? The Moukahla empire was yours for the taking. If you wanted strength, there was no need to cross an ocean to get it.”

“It was not mine for the taking, Marka. You gave it away! To Lazar, of all people!” Diallo began to pace, incensed as always by his cousin’s characteristic stupidity. “By the time I returned to Port Pistola, he had already established himself as the new kingpin! What was I to do? Grovel at his feet? Spend another few years living in the shadow of an absolute incompetent while I waited for my turn? No. No, I chose to act. I chose to set my sights higher.”

“By siding with the Czars? Those who would enslave us all, just as the wizards did?” Marka shook his head sadly. “You are blind. You think yourself powerful now that you have a destined weapon… But from what I have seen of its powers, you are no better off than before; still, you live in the shadows of others.”

Diallo chuckled to himself. “Who gave a fool like you the right to be so perceptive?” he replied. “I liked you better when you were lazy and complacent.”

“And I liked you better when I considered you a friend.”

“I was never your friend, Marka,” Diallo spat. “Watching you bumble your way through life, and yet still somehow succeed, has been the greatest torment of my life. But that all ends today.”

His eyes flicked to the bits of linked metal dangling from Marka’s hand. “I heard everything. That woman at the gates disarmed you, didn’t she? Transformed your only defense into… What? A puzzle? A puzzle for children?” He barked a laugh. “‘Unlink the two pieces of metal’, is that it? How delicious. You will never do it–I have seen you struggle to decipher the time.”

Now it was Marka’s turn to show agitation. His fists clenched, splinted fingers curling subtly around the brainteaser in his hand. “I am more than you take me for, cousin.”

At that, Diallo could only smile.

“We shall see.”

Marka broke left, running for the base of the nearest smokestack. Diallo imagined that his dimwitted cousin must see it as a respite–something he could hide behind while he fiddled fruitlessly with his little puzzle.

He wouldn’t give him that chance. He pulled his gun and fired at the smokestack’s shadow, making him one with the shade, then coursed toward the structure itself just as Marka had. What that idiot failed to realize was that, with the sun favoring the east, shadows were being cast west; the long shadow of each of the four smokestacks fell across the surface of its neighbor, linking them together in a network of darkness.

In his current, inkblot-like form, Diallo could traverse that darkness with ease. He cut through it like a shark surging through the ocean depths, speeding around the brick-hewn circumference of the smokestack with impunity. Sure enough, when he came around to the other side, he found Marka there tinkering with his toy.

“Come on, come on,” he whispered, clanging the circuitously-shaped metal rods against each other in his efforts to force them apart. Tempting as it was to watch him continuing to make a fool of himself, Diallo saw fit to intervene: he glided down behind him and emerged from his shadow-vessel halfway, tugging a knife out from the sheathe beneath his vest.

Then, with an exultant cry, he plunged the blade deep into Marka’s back. The big man exhaled sharply and lunged away from the wall, spinning to confront him–or at least, the visible half of him–with a look of utter astonishment.

“Your tactics are as predictable as ever, I see,” Diallo gloated, smirking as he sank back into the brick. Marka took off running again, and for a moment he dared to hope that his dimwitted cousin might surprise him by varying his approach… But no; he simply ran to the next smokestack over and dove behind it just as before!

Dimwit, he seethed, flowing through the channel of shadows connecting him to Marka’s new hiding place. I have seen animals with more cunning! He slid up the wall and descended upon him again, lashing out with the second of his three knives. This time, to avoid being disarmed, he took care to wrest it back from the flesh of Marka’s lower back.

The big man howled in pain and limped on toward the next smokestack in line. Diallo could hardly contain his disappointment. After all the time he’d spent anticipating this day–the day the Blunderboss finally fell–it seemed the man was destined to go out with a whimper. With a shake of his head, he receded into the shadows and gave chase, preparing himself to deliver the least satisfying finishing blow of his life.

He came around to find Marka squatting there, fiddling with his trinket yet again. Diallo leaned out from the wall behind him and held his blade aloft, ready to thrust it deep into the side of his cousin’s neck…

…Only to see it glinting radiantly in the midday sun.

From there the sunlight shifted, traveling along his arm and going on to engulf his torso. He looked up to see the sun itself cresting the smokestack’s rim and peeking through the smog. It was almost directly above him now, and his powers had begun to weaken accordingly.

“What is the matter, Diallo?” Marka snarled, turning to face him through the spent shadows wafting off his form.

“Don’t you know what time it is?”


Diallo took a brutal right hook to the jaw, sending him tumbling across the gravelly surface of the factory’s roof. He rolled to a stop and languished on the ground for a long moment, struggling to recover his wits. Luck… It must have been luck! He is an idiot–he always has been!

He could never have planned such a thing!

That’s when he heard it:

The triumphant ring of two linked metal rods sliding free of each other.

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