Wait, I think I've been in a situation like this before. I'll just keep my mouth shut and not jinx anything.
I am keeping Japanese honorifics for Falcon, simply because he is the last true practitioner of the wonders of the Orient and that is too
Color Pages, Dramatis Personae, and Prologue
Chapter 3 (1/2)
Chapter 3 (2/2)
Chapter 5, Epilogue, and Afterword
The Triad had found out where the Zaltzman assault team was hiding before the Lagoon Company, and now it was no exaggeration to say that the Lagoon's reputation was in shambles. But Chang, ever magnanimous, had given Dutch another chance.
He'd suggested that a team of freelancers infiltrate the hideout instead of having Triad members do the job--a team of freelancers that would, naturally, include a fighter from the Lagoon. The crew of the Lagoon, being in no position to refuse, had had no choice but to send Revy to join Chang's handpicked team.
And that was how Revy came to find herself jostled this way and that in the dingy back of a Jeep Cherokee, squashed in with five other people as they headed toward an abandoned factory just outside of Roanapur as per their informant's tip. She hadn't been told anything about who would be working with her... and now, thinking back on it, that was when she should have realized that something was up.
"Oooooh... The minstrel boy to the war has gone! Ah hey hey! In the ranks of Deaaaaaaath ye will find him, his father's sword he hath girded oooooon! An' his wild harp sluuuuuung behiiiiind him!"
The Irishman behind the wheel was obviously doped to the gills on cocaine, barely keeping his grip on the steering wheel as he belted out a soulful traditional song. Somehow, he'd gotten even worse than the last time Revy's life had depended on his skills.
"If I'd known this crazy motherfucker was driving again, I'da grabbed a tuk-tuk instead..."
The beautiful woman sitting in the front passenger seat snorted at Revy, absently checking her makeup in the small compact mirror she had open.
"No worry. Leigarch high to moon tonight, but he never make driving mistake."
The glossy black hair that hung down to the small of her back and the silk cheongsam she wore, slit dangerously high on her thigh, might have led one to believe that the woman was a hostess at some expensive nightclub. But in reality, she was an infamous bounty hunter, feared even in the lawless madhouse of hired guns that was Roanapur.
"...Why the fuck're you all here anyway, huh?! C'mon, tell me, yes lady!"
"Mouth still dirty like sewer, bitch. Should have learned manners before learn English, yes?"
Though Leigarch's partner, Shenhua, was of Chinese descent just like Revy, she claimed to be benshengren(1), and her English still needed some of work. Still, she was a first class killer, and her skills with the pair of liuyedao she wielded were without equal.
Revy had fought alongside her just once--come to think of it, that time had been at Chang's request as well--and watched with her own eyes as Shenhua effortlessly filleted a group of men armed with guns without even giving them time to pull their triggers.
"Fine, I guess he coulda gotten you, but why the fuckin' Tango Brothers too?"
Revy shot a glare at the third row of seats, and as though in reply the three Hispanic men sitting there side by side began to sing, their voices rising in a lively rhythm.
"♪Mister Chang called us so we go to kill.♪"
"♪Riding along in a jeep.♪"
"...Okay. I get the message. Now shut the fuck up."
The three men humming blithely, seemingly unaware of the murderous atmosphere, formed the trio of killers known as the Albondigas Brothers. The brothers had made their way to Roanapur after realizing that their tango band was going nowhere, taking up professional killing along the way. They'd kept the habit of talking in staccato beat even after switching from singers to killers, though, making them into a deadly annoyance to their peers as well as their foes.
Revy snorted. "Meh, I can't believe Chang... He coulda just fuckin' told me where the fuckers are an' then I coulda gone an' finished the job myself," she muttered.
"That just mean he not believe in Lagoon crew. He want someone to keep eye on idiots who help tanker attack team."
"...The fuck you just say to me, cunt? You must be even dumber'n I thought if I heard you right. I musta misunderstood, right, yes lady?"
Revy shot Shenhua a poisonous glare, but she only returned it in kind, murder in her eyes.
"Only stupids believe bitch who lie about where papers are in Basilan. Never hear of boy who cry wolf?"
"...Jesus fuck, you're still on the rag about that? Lemme guess, you don't have much luck with the guys, do ya? They all run away for some reason, right?"
"I think that is none of your business, yes?"
The Albondigas Brothers continued joking amongst themselves, heedless of the murderous atmosphere building up like a storm cloud around the two women.
"♪One day the team began to fight amongst themselves.♪"
"♪Fighting about things long past.♪"
"...Didn't I tell you cocksuckers to shut the fuck up?!"
Shenhua sighed, her desire to kill completely extinguished by the tango rhythm.
"Anyway, make sure to kill idiots who attack Chang Da Ge where I see you. No other way to believe you. You understand, yes?"
"Yeah, yeah, I getcha, yes," Revy said, raising her voice in a mocking parody of Shen Hua.
"Just don't hold me up... and, listen. You see some fucker who looks like a rapper or somethin', packin' a gun that looks like it's made outta plastic, he's mine. Kill him, and I'll kill you. Get in my way, same deal."
All of her arguing with Shenhua had done little to distract Revy from her current mission in life: killing Jake. Every moment spent squabbling in the jeep was a moment wasted. She wanted to fill that motherfucker with hot lead A S A fuckin' P.
"Oh? Look like there bad blood there, yes? Much fun. I think I will watch."
"♪A rift had formed in our team.♪"
"In our team!"
"♪But, soon that rift was mended.♪"
"I said, shut the fuck up!"
Completely unaware of the fighting going on behind him, Leigarch drove on, lost in a wonderland of Irish folk music.
"Thy songs were maaaade, for the puuuure an' freeeeeeeeeee! They shall never sound in slaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaveryyyyy! Yeaaaaah!"
The truth about Roanapur and the things that happened inside its borders had never really been revealed to the outside world. The criminal organizations that held sway over the city had joined forces to keep the hive of villainy preserved forever, reducing the amount of information that escaped the city limits to the absolute minimum.
And so it came to be that sometimes, very rarely, a foreign company with too much ambition and too little common sense saw that the prices of land and labor in Roanapur were extremely cheap and, unaware that Roanapur might as well have been named Sodom, thought to set up shop within the city.
Naturally, almost all such foolish plans were brought to a swift end by the forces behind Roanapur, sometimes indirectly--through subtle threats and interference--and sometimes directly--through direct warnings. But from time to time, very rarely, when the company manager in question was very foolish indeed, plans for expansion continued until a building was raised.
There was nothing worth mentioning about the tragedies which inevitably followed. Either way, it was easy to find half-finished deserted buildings in and around Roanapur's city limits, buildings whose occupants had mysteriously disappeared mere days after construction began.
The hideaway that had been chosen for Jake's team was one such deserted factory. Surrounded by forest on all sides and difficult to reach on foot from the city limits, the factory presented a perfect hideout, safe from the unwanted attention of wandering vagrants and the homeless.
If the factory had been outside of cell phone range as well, Jake would never have agreed to settle there. But fortunately, the signal came through strong and clear, allowing Jake to continue his second life online.
Jake smiled, enjoying the reactions of his faithful readers on the guestbook of his blog, Deadly Biz. But that happiness proved to be a fleeting thing, for the transceiver at his side chose that moment to ring. It was Alonzo, who had been posted outside as a lookout.
"There's a car heading this way. This is bad... do you think someone was following us?"
Alonzo had shown a sharp reaction, but to Jake it seemed far too early to worry about being found. They'd just arrived that afternoon, and hadn't even left the grounds after arriving.
"No way, bro. Probably a pair of sweethearts come out for some fun. Do whatcha want with 'em, I don't care. Peek on 'em, maybe join 'em..."
"Fuck off, man... hey, wait, five people just got out. They look... holy shit! Shit shit shit! One of them's the bitch from the Lagoon!"
Jake winced as the sharp crack of gunfire erupted simultaneously from the receiver and, faintly, from outside.
"...Alonzo? Yo, man, you there?"
The transceiver was silent.
Still looking as though he couldn't quite believe his ears, Jake put his laptop into sleep mode and stood up.
"What's going on?"
Pedro rushed in from the side room, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. It seemed he had sharp hearing if nothing else.
"I think Alonzo's just bit it. He said the woman from the Lagoon was here."
"The hell? That's impossible. How the hell did she find us?!"
"Yeah, fuck if I know. Something's wrong. Nobody shoulda known we were here..." Jake murmured in a low singsong, slowly drawing his UCJ Custom and shoving it under Pedro's nose.
"...unless they had an inside source, know what I mean? Hey, Pedro. You dropped a line to the Triad?"
Jake's tone was friendly, but Pedro went white as a sheet, almost foaming at the mouth with fear.
"O-o-of course not! I didn't even have the time to, even if I'd w-wanted to! Me'n Alonzo didn't even know what Roanapur was until you dragged us here this morning! How would I kn-know about the chinks?!"
"Yeah, you're right," Jake said, shrugging as he accepted Pedro's reasoning and withdrew his gun.
"Then what the fuck's goin' on? No way Stan did it... Ah, come to think about it, where's Stan? What's he doin'?"
"He's somewhere in the hallway over there, staring at the wall and talking to himself."
They went to check on him and found their illustrious leader tripping, so high his head was probably in the clouds, crouching in the hallway and murmuring desperately to himself.
"...Kapitan... no... I..."
"Stan! Yo, Staaaaaan! Anybody home?!"
Jake grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him hard, then slapped him smartly a couple of times. Finally, Stan looked up at Jake, muddy recognition appearing in his hazy eyes.
"We got trouble, bro. Trou-ble. Got it? Understand me? We are in deep shit, man!"
No use. Jake shrugged wordlessly to Pedro. Pedro, realizing that they'd lost another precious ally without even a single shot being fired, shook his head in despair.
"Hey, Stan. It's gonna be okay, got it? Just run out the back door there. Call our client, okay? Got it?"
Nearly unconscious though his eyes were open, Stan nodded, still mouthing words. Well, it looked like he'd understood. Jake couldn't afford to babysit him any longer. Writing Stan off as a lost cause, he let go of the druggie's collar.
"Hey, Jake. I'll take his rifle."
Perhaps unable to trust the Smith & Wesson automatic hanging from his belt, Pedro grabbed Stan's Dragunov from its place on the table, the night vision scope still attached.
"Yeah, whatever. He ain't in any condition to say no, anyway."
"...Yeah, I recognize him. He was part of the party last night. This's the place," Revy said quietly, looking down at Alonzo's lifeless face. The body had fallen face down and she'd had to kick it to turn it over.
"诶呦(My my), that was fast."
Shenhua sighed, looking so put out that Revy almost asked her if she'd been expecting something else. At least it was clear that the Lagoon Company wasn't working together with the enemy.
The five killers who'd left the Cherokee turned their backs to the dark forest and looked up at the abandoned factory jutting up in the moonlight. Leigarch had chosen to stay behind in the car, enjoying a bit of quality time with his best friend, a certain white powder. His role in this was over, as long as none of the targets decided to make a run for it by car.
"Now, what plan we have for going in?"
"You need a plan? I thought I told ya."
Now that she knew for certain that Jake was in her sights, the fire inside of Revy flared up fiercely. She had become a human cruise missile.
"Only one rule in this plan. Don't get in my fuckin' way. That's all."
Drawing her cutlasses, the hunger for blood floating about her like a tangible aura, Revy stepped inside the factory without a second glance.
"♪How scary Revy is today.♪"
"♪What do you think we should do, sis?♪"
The brothers Albondigas looked to Shenhua, their voices slightly subdued. Perhaps Revy's murderous intent had penetrated even their thick skulls. For her part, Shenhua was too busy thinking to be afraid.
According to Chang, four killers had escaped from the tanker. There probably would have been maybe one or two more on the ship that came to rescue them. That represented the entirety of the force that the enemy could field. Revy had taken out the sentry just a moment ago, so that was one down. But the abandoned factory was too large for four or five people to hole up in. If Shenhua's team just charged in without a plan, it was a safe bet that they'd probably miss one or two.
Even as Shenhua turned over the possibilities inside her head, the sounds of gunfire and frantic shouting drifted out of the open door. Cautiously peeking inside, she could see that there was someone standing high up near the roof shooting at Revy with a rifle, and another one who was shouting something at her.
"Mmm... Only two come to welcome party for bitch, yes? This not right... Tango Brothers. We go around to back door. Bitch can take care of self here."
"♪Around the back we go to kill.♪"
"♪Catching anyone who runs away.♪"
"...You three very very need to shut the fuck up. Quiet now, and follow me."
Still arguing noisily, the four started around the factory to the right, heading toward the back exit.
Almost the moment that Revy stepped foot inside the factory, she was greeted with the bark of a Dragunov rifle coming from above.
It wasn't solely due to luck that she hadn't taken a bullet there. She'd been expecting an ambush of some sort and had immediately sprinted forward and thrown herself behind cover the instant she entered. The sniper had chosen that moment to try and fire.
Sniping a moving target was more the stuff of cinema and novels than reality--there weren't many snipers who could actually pull off those kind of shots. Naturally, the first shot fired at Revy had missed completely, and Revy realized in an instant that the shooter she faced was not the sniper from the Zaltzman.
A good sniper didn't just have great aim. The number one rule was never to fire a shot that a chance of missing. A sniper had to know exactly what the limits of his skill were, compare the situation at hand to said skill, and only pull the trigger when he could be sure of hitting what he wanted. Any sniper who didn't realize that was simply second rate. Revy could tell that whoever was behind the Dragunov's rifle now wasn't a professional. It was just some dumb fuck who'd fired instinctively upon catching sight of her.
"Hey, Revy! Nice of you to come to my place! Wanna fuck?" Jake called out to her from somewhere in the darkness.
Most of the machinery in the factory had never been taken away, leaving the inside of the building looking like a maze of steel. In other words, Revy would have to play a deadly game of hide and seek... not one of her favorite ways to fight by any means.
"Fuck off already, Jake! Go jack off to one of yer shitty internet posts!"
A second bullet from the Dragunov glanced off the floor in front of Revy, leaving a bright spark in its wake. The sniper was pretty bad, yeah... but not quite so unskilled that Revy could afford to write him off in her mind. His skills with a rifle were nothing to write home about, but he still knew exactly where Revy was. Probably using the night vision scope like back on the Zaltzman. Poorly aimed or not, it only took one bullet to end a fight. If she stuck out her head too often, who knew? The sniper might just hit the jackpot.
"Oh hey, you saw my site? I dunno what to say!"
Jake walked out into the open and revealed his position, secure in the knowledge that the Dragunov was covering him.
"So how's it feel to be a star on the internet? The eyes of the whole world are on ya, baby! Ain'tcha feelin' hot and bothered?"
Jake's cheerful voice brought back the memory of that shameful site in Revy's mind, reviving the rage she'd felt.
"I ain't a fuckin' sicko like you, ya cocksuckin' poet wannabe!"
"Aww, c'mon, Revy. You don't really wanna live your whole life out here in some no-name town, do ya? Are ya just gonna stay some gun-toting thug for the rest of your life?"
In contrast to the roaring blast furnace that was Revy's rage, Jake's voice was friendly and calm, as though he were a teacher lecturing a truant child.
"You got the gift, babe. It'd be a goddamn shame for someone like you to end up as piratin' fishbait. You got the talent to make it on another stage."
The words just served to enrage Revy more. His flamboyant preaching had allowed her to nearly pinpoint his location, but every time she tried to move to a place that would get her a clear shot, the Dragunov fired a warning from above, preventing her from moving. God fuckin' dammit!
"The fuck're you talkin' about, ya fuckin' psycho... The hell do you think you are, anyway? Huh?!"
"Let's work together, Revy. C'mon, think of it. Ultimate R and Cool J! We can be stars, baby!"
"Hollywood ain't the only way to stardom these days. The times've changed! Anyone can find a way into the limelight. It's the internet revolution, baby!"
Jake's proposal was so preposterous that it actually served as a shock to bring Revy back from the boiling point.
"...How stupid are you? The Romulans brainwash you or somethin'?"
Her bubbling rage cooled for the moment, Revy finally began to think up a plan.
She needed to decorate Jake's ass with some 9mm parabellum piercings, and to do that, she needed a proper course of action.
First, she had to take care of the wannabe sniper above her.
"Any kinda talent you got, it can be enough on the net. The law, common sense? It don't matter, yo. All you need is a story and a character... you don't even gotta show your face! I proved that!"
Ignoring Jake as he babbled blithely on, Revy deliberately threw herself out from cover and rolled behind another piece of machinery. The Dragunov obligingly followed, firing at her new hiding spot. But that had been just what Revy wanted. She glanced upwards, gauging the sniper's position from the direction of the shot... he was somewhere near the roof. There. He stood half-hidden by one of the vents in the ceiling, aiming down at Revy.
"Us killers, we ain't gotta hide in the dark no more! Some ultimately cool skills're all y'need to keep ya goin'. Hey, didja know, in Japan they call their stars 'talents'. The Japs know what's comin' up the information superhighway!"
Jake's ridiculously grandiose speech continued, delving ever deeper into the depths of farce. Still paying him no heed, Revy made another calculated movement, watching for the Dragunov's muzzle flash. Yup, from the vents again. What a fuckin' dumbass. The sniper was so secure in the superiority of his night vision scope that he'd even neglected to switch positions between shots.
Come to think of it, while Jake was ranting on trying to convince her to switch sides, the man up in the rafters had kept firing with intent to kill. What was going on? Hell, the dumbass up there was probably just as surprised by Jake's sudden speech as she was. He was probably trying to kill her now and end it quickly.
"C'mon, Revy. I can see it now. Your fans're out there, waitin' for ya! The 21st century's gonna be the age of internet idols! You an' me together, ten thousand hits a day'll be easy!"
Having already tasted defeat at the hands of a sniper once, Revy had come prepared. She paused in retrieving her hidden card from its place on her belt; it wouldn't be courteous, she reflected, to leave Jake's grand speech unanswered.
"Hey, Jake... I gotta say I was wrong about ya. I thought you were just some crazy dumbass or somethin'."
"So now you know I'm not, right?"
"Yeah, of course."
Revy smiled... A corpse's grin, stretching dead like a slash from the Reaper's scythe across her face.
"You're somethin' entirely new, some sorta godawful thing so fuckin' terrible they don't even have a name for it. Fuck if I know what to call you. Maybe I'll drag yer dead body to some scientist and he can give it a fancy Latin name when I'm done with ya."
She pulled the pin on her flashbang before Jake could form a proper reply and tossed it high into the air.
The bang came first--the sharp sound of rapidly scattering aluminum and potassium perchlorate--and then the flash, turning night into day. For the sniper, peering through a light-gathering night vision scope, the effects were catastrophic. As the marksman above her staggered drunkenly, Revy gripped just one of her Cutlasses in both hands and aimed, slowly and carefully, at the disoriented man.
Revy's gun sported no scope, but even still she could clearly see the silhouette of a man starkly outlined against the dim light of the late evening sky. Like all beginners, he'd blindly assumed that the highest place with the best view was always optimal. He'd pay for his mistake with death.
Just one shot was all she needed. The Cutlass roared, a strangled cry was cut short, and the two objects of different mass fell together, Dragunov and corpse, a reenactment of Galileo's tests at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
"...Heh, whaddya know. I got him."
She'd expected the Weaver stance to feel awkward, seeing as how she'd rarely used it outside of a firing range, but it seemed that once it came down to it, it was like riding a bike. Either way, with that obstacle out of the way, Revy was finally free to turn her attention to the main course. Quickly drawing her other Cutlass as well, she dashed down the corridors after her prey, the heady scent of blood flooding her senses.
Bereft of his partner, Jake tried to beat a hasty retreat, heading straight for the inner levels of the factory. Revy stopped him dead in his tracks with a few well placed shots right in front of his face.
"Yo, it's your turn now, baby. C'mon, lemme hear some more of yer business proposal."
"...Well, fuck me."
It was finally time for their showdown. Sensing that her rage and frustration were soon to be swiftly and violently alleviated, Revy grinned a predator's grin and licked her lips hungrily.
Stan crawled through the darkness, his consciousness flickering haphazardly back and forth over the boundary between the real danger he faced and hallucination.
The enemy was here. The enemy was near. Jake told him... run, through the back door.
But who was the enemy? The Mujahideen? The government? The Taliban? Who was he supposed to be fighting? Who did he have to kill? Who was chasing him? Was he in Panjshir Valley, or Turkey, or Greece...?
No, he was in Thailand. A port city called Roanapur. This place had nothing to do with his past.
But... why, then, was he being chased by the phantom of his kapitan? She had made a glorious return to Russia. He was the only one left crawling in this filth. No. He mustn't remember. Those were but bygone dreams. But if so, just who was Balalaika?
Yes, Kosloff. I died. The soldier named Stanislav died. Only the empty shell of what he used to be continues to move mindlessly about. It crawls blindly, in search of heroin. No, please, don't look at me. I beg you, leave me be...
With trembling hands he grasped at the empty air. Perhaps he was trying to grab hold of reality, to keep his consciousness in the present.
A rifle... These hands need a rifle. My Dragunov, my partner. The only thing I can rely on. The smooth feel of its stock will wake me from this nightmare. But... it is not here. Where is it? Where is my rifle?!
He sobbed with anxiety. He didn't know where the back door was. He didn't even know which direction he had to run, only that the enemy was drawing ever closer. He couldn't move. If he moved now and was caught, he'd be killed...
Suddenly, someone was there, supporting. Large, strong hands gently tapped his shoulders.
...Stan-dono, have no fear. Have you come to your senses?
An ally. It was a friend. The vysotniki had... no, wait... who was this...?
...Head straight down this hallway. When you can go no further, turn right. Then you shall be able to escape. There is no need to be confused...
He managed to nod, struggling to shake off the disorder inside him. But the very next moment, another worry made itself known in his breast.
If Stan ran away, then what would happen to this unknown friend?
...Worry not about me. Now go...
The unseen man gave him a gentle shove to send him on his way. Only then did Stan's brain start to work again.
In his present state, he was only a liability. He had to leave as fast as he could. He couldn't afford to get in the way of his allies.
Breathing deeply, Stan followed the instructions he'd been given, staggering unsteadily down the hall.
Shenhua stopped, a strange sense of wrongness washing over her.
She hadn't felt anything for certain. If her senses hadn't already been set on edge, she would certainly have failed to notice a thing.
She gazed into the abandoned factory's darkness. Felt the subtle change in the essence of it.
Yes... Until just a moment ago, Shenhua's hunting instincts had passed on to her the feelings of her prey, the fear and anxiety making themselves clear through the darkness. But that had suddenly disappeared, as though the enemy itself had vanished without a trace. Had the target died of something like a heart attack, passing away silently in the inky depths of darkness?
No, that wasn't it... Shenhua narrowed her eyes and heightened her awareness to its limit, pressing her skills as a swordswoman to their utmost. There was, indeed, still a fleeing enemy. But the presence of that one had been overwritten by another. The presence of a hidden blade, something silent and transparent, but infinitely dangerous nonetheless.
"...Is about now time to be closing in, Albondigas. Are you ready?" Shenhua said out loud, deliberately calling out to her allies. Revy had killed one enemy, and since she was fighting two more on the other side of the factory, that left one, perhaps two at most, more for Shenhua and the trio to face. With a numerical advantage like that, she could afford to reveal her position in an attempt to draw the target in.
But... there was no response. Where three voices should have replied in a lively tango rhythm, there was only silence.
"这个王八蛋(Son of a bitch)..."
She swore in her mother tongue despite herself.
Tres Albondigas, the youngest of the three brothers, had heard Shenhua call for them.
But his eldest brother, who should have been first to reply, was silent. As the youngest, his role was to chime in when his brothers said something... which meant, inversely, that if his brothers didn't speak, he couldn't just up and say what he wanted.
As Tres walked forward aimlessly, helplessly, a squelching noise at his feet made him shift his attention downward.
He was standing in a puddle of blood. The realization made him spin in place, looking about wildly, and soon enough his gaze settled on the body of his eldest brother, Uno Albondigas, draped lifelessly over a machine tool.
Uno's throat had been torn wide open by some sort of hooked weapon, his face forever frozen in an expression of agonized shock. He'd been ambushed and killed so quickly he hadn't even had a chance to cry out.
Memories rose unbidden in Tres' mind, of the happy days he'd shared with his brother. Uno, who had always looked out for his younger brothers. There had been the time they'd argued about who had the better tan, and the time they all went together to look at the flowers, and that time they'd gone to look at the moon...
"Aaaaaaaaagh! Unooooooo!" Tres cried, anguished rage coloring his voice--for he had looked up to his older brothers just as much as Uno had looked out for him.
"Cocksucker! Where are you?! Where are you, you murd-"
The thin hiss of metal cutting air was all the warning Tres got as he swung his Mossberg shotgun around blindly, before the shuriken buried itself deep in his skull. The keen blade easily pierced through bone and lodged itself in his brain.
From his vantage point on the catwalk high above the factory floor, Dos Albondigas, the middle brother, immediately realized the meaning of Tres' words abruptly cutting off.
Though he understood that both his brothers were dead, he kept his cool, calmly assessing the situation. Dos' motto had always been to look out for number one, regardless of what his siblings believed.
Both Uno and Tres had lost their lives to a silent killer. Not even a silencer would have been able to produce such noiseless kills. That meant that the assassin had forgone guns and had instead used a knife or similar close quarters weapon to strike silently from behind.
That, in turn, meant there was no need to move from where he was... Dos grinned in satisfaction.
The catwalk on which he stood was a completely straight line from one end to the other. Anyone who wanted to get at him would first have to mount one of the two flights of stairs on either end. In other words, Dos could cut off any attempts on his life simply by keeping an eye on those two points.
No matter how fast the would-be killer charged, Dos' Striker fully automatic shotgun would fire faster still. There was nothing to be afraid. All he needed to do was stay still, and victory was his...
Dos had no idea of the terrible power of the Orient's wonders, and so perhaps his confidence was understandable. Never in his wildest dreams could he have envisioned the assassin silently crawling up the wall and onto the ceiling, a soundless moving shadow, preparing to strike from above.
One final flash of intuition made Dos look up, and he beheld a huge man swathed entirely in an ebon black ninja outfit flying through the air. Like a jumping spider leaping toward its prey, the man grabbed Dos from behind and in the same instant kicked off of the catwalk, once again becoming airborne. His trajectory flipped him over in midair, leaving both him and Dos upside down, plummeting toward the ground below.
Who could tell what thoughts flitted through Dos' head in the scant milliseconds before impact?
Dos was the only one to smash headfirst into the unyielding concrete. All of the fall's terrible shock was absorbed squarely by Dos' body, while the man who had taken him on his final flight bounced lightly away without a scratch. Such was the power of this fearsome technique, designed to transfer all of the force brought on by the weight of two bodies accelerated by gravity into one person's spine... the secret ninja art, Izuna Otoshi.
The assassin in black had slain three men in as many minutes, but he had no time to savor his victory. The moment his feet touched the ground once more, he threw himself backward. Shenhua's liuyedao passed within a hairsbreadth of shaving off his nose, instead cleaving an old steel drum behind him in twain.
Shenhua's twin liuyedao were connected by a long, sturdy cord. By using that cord as she swung or threw her blades she could become a killing machine, capable of creating deadly storms of steel that could slay at unimaginable distances.
Using this method, she'd attempted to decapitate her opponent from afar by flinging her blade, but he evaded the attack without even looking, as though he'd felt it coming. Not only that, but her cord suddenly went slack, the familiar weight at the end vanishing.
The man in black had used the blades hidden in the palm of his left hand to sever Shenhua's cord even as he avoided her sword. The ninja weapon, known as the bagh nakh by some, had been the tool that had torn open Uno Albondigas' throat, and also that which had enabled the man to climb up sheer walls.
Shenhua changed the grip on her remaining weapon, holding it like a guonaodao as she waited for her enemy to make his next move. She wanted nothing more than to comment on his clothes--for swathed from head to toe in light-absorbing black, and with his face hidden by a facemask, he looked for all the world like one of those, sprung straight out of a bad movie--but after witnessing his fearsome skill firsthand, his strange taste in clothes had ceased to matter in the slightest. Just the fact that he'd managed to disarm Shenhua of one of her weapons was proof that this man was a master of the highest caliber.
The man in black gazed at Shenhua for a moment, as though to gauge her skill, then slowly drew a straight and slender blade out from behind his back. And this time, Shenhua was unable to hide her shock.
What kind of fighting stance is that?!
She had never seen or heard tell of such a stance. No, not just that... it was so completely wrong in every aspect imaginable that Shenhua couldn't even begin to understand it. Even a cursory glance revealed countless openings in the man's defense, and everything--from where he placed his center of gravity, to where he planted his feet, and even the way he held his sword--everything about the stance was a bonanza of aspects that flew completely in the face of all she knew about kill-or-be-killed close quarters combat.
But even then... despite everything she instinctively understood in that instant, there was not a single element of hesitation in the way he held himself. She hadn't the slightest inkling of what kind of training had gone into creating such a stance, but she knew one thing for certain: it was deadly.
The man showed no hesitation in entrusting his life to this preposterous stance. It was clear that it had seen him through countless battles.
That was exactly why Shenhua felt threatened by this unknown factor. It meant that she couldn't read how the enemy would attack. Whether she chose to attack or defend, she couldn't predict how that stance would change to react. It was hard for her to imagine what might happen if she chose to extend herself in a strike at one of those blatantly obvious openings.
For every second that passed without motion, anxiety and fear grew within her. Shenhua had fought and killed for many years, but not once had she ever encountered such a strange adversary.
The moonlight filtering down from the factory's open ceiling illuminated the man's eyes, shining from within the depths of that unknowable mask. They were blue. Blue eyes as deep as the dark ocean depths, so deep she felt like she might fall in and be lost. Even as she locked gazes with the man, Shenhua felt as though her will to fight, and even her ability to concentrate, were being absorbed by the fathomless depths in those eyes.
How? How can he be so skilled?! I can't even read his intentions...
She could sense nothing in the man in black's blade--not nervousness, not anxiety, not confidence or murderous intent or even the desire to fight. He was on a level far beyond such states of mind. His blade was like that of a buddha, transcended above earthly concerns... Shenhua found herself facing a presence so absolutely heavy and blank, it was like trying to read the intentions of a boulder.
The first to move would die. That was what her instincts told her. But just by keeping his stance, the man tormented Shenhua more with each passing second. Thanatos(2) whispered reassuringly in her ear, telling her to charge in without thinking, and she felt cold sweat trickling down her spine.
Just as Shenhua clenched her teeth, unable to ignore any longer the panicked cries of her senses, the man in black moved. But it wasn't the hand that gripped the sword. His left hand darted suddenly into his clothes, as though to bring forth a new weapon.
Even as he moved, Shenhua's liuyedao was already slicing through the air. It wasn't that she thought the attack had any chance of connecting. She had had no choice but to attack, gripped by the fear that if she didn't attack then, if she missed that instant, the man in front of her would surely devour her.
Instead of meeting her desperate strike with one of his own, the man in black hopped back.
A billowing cloud of choking white smoke suddenly surged up before Shenhua's eyes. The man's left hand had been going for a smoke bomb.
Flustered even more than before by her enemy's unexpected movements, Shenhua threw herself backward out of the smoke cloud and hid herself behind a steel pillar in an attempt to acquire a clear field of vision.
Free of the blinding smoke, Shenhua belatedly realized a change in the sound of the gunshots coming from the opposite side of the factory. Up until then she'd heard only intermittent rifle shots, but now the gunshots came fast and furious, as though two handgun users were exchanging fire. Had the man in black noticed before her, and retreated in order to help his allies?
But even as Shenhua took a step forward, intent on chasing her opponent, a shuriken clove the air in front of her eyes, missing her by just the slightest margin and coming to a quivering stop in the steel pillar beside her. It was a clear warning, telling Shenhua in no uncertain terms that she was still being watched.
Shenhua hid behind the pillar once more. But no matter how much she tried to sense the location of her enemy, she couldn't tell from where he'd thrown the shuriken. The shadows were on his side, not hers. He knew where she was, and she couldn't even guess where he was... The cards were stacked too much against her. Had he left, or was he still watching? She had no way of knowing.
Furious at being entrapped, and trembling with fear at the skill that had done so, Shenhua cried out into the darkness.
"你是谁?! 有种的说出你的名字! (Who the hell are you?! At least tell me your name!)"
But only the echoes of her voice rang hollowly in the ruins... There was no reply.
As though a shadow born of darkness had no name to reveal.
Actually, the man just couldn't understand Chinese, but Shenhua had no way of knowing that.
Having lost Pedro far earlier than he'd expected, Jake found himself in dire straits.
To tell the truth, Jake hadn't been looking forward to, or even expecting, a one on one gunfight with Revy. That was the difference between the imaginary character Ultimate Cool J and his actor, Jake U. C. Jake had always tired his targets out first by throwing cheap hired guns their way, and then stepped in at the last moment to record the kill with his UC Custom. Naturally, there were certain differences between his blog posts in Deadly Biz and what actually happened, but hey. He was making entertainment, not a fucking documentary.
Either way, there was no way in hell he was going to take care of Revy without first withdrawing and getting some breathing room, and so he retreated hastily, focusing solely on keeping himself alive. But Revy had doggedly pursued, not losing sight of him for a moment... not giving him a single moment outside of the range of her guns. Her grim tenacity and ferocity reminded him of a piranha that had caught the scent of blood in the water.
Jake had fallen in love with Revy's skills at first sight, but now he found himself thinking that it might've been okay for her to be just a little worse with her guns. True, she was definitely good enough to attract a crowd, but more in the way that a caged beast would be than a seductive idol. Every time she fired and he blindly fired back, hoping against hope that the hasty spray of bullets would get her off his back, she seemed to become more and more inhuman. It felt like he was being chased by a T-Rex wielding pistols akimbo. Had this bitch really evolved from mammals like the rest of mankind?
With every ounce of his being focused on Revy--more accurately, on surviving Revy--Jake didn't notice the masked man who appeared silently behind him until he tapped him on the shoulder. Jake nearly had a heart attack.
"Fa, Falcon! What're you..."
"Stan-dono has safely exited the grounds. Jake-dono, you too should make haste."
Jake pointed at Revy, who was still sprinting at them with murder in her eyes.
"I'm tryin', yo! I'm fuckin' tryin', but she's on my ass and she won't let up! Falcon, do somethin' about her! Fuckin', I dunno, ninja her ass!"
"...It shall be done."
Jake ran away without a second glance, leaving the masked man behind. Revy caught sight of him and faltered for an instant, recognizing the costume and simultaneously remembering that he should by all rights have been fish bait. But the part of her that was like a shark out for blood quickly shoved that aside in favor of pursuing Jake, dismissing the cosplayer as nothing more than a minor obstacle, a pebble on the road. All he had on him was a sword, or so it seemed.
"The fuck outta my way, asshole! Move or I'm gonna make you move!"
Revy brandished her Cutlasses threateningly, but the masked man had already grabbed a handful of ball bearings from within his costume, and even as she approached he threw his hand outward in an arc, spreading them on the ground before her.
It hadn't even entered Revy's mind that she might be stopped in such a manner. Unable to slow down, her boot heel came down squarely on one of the metal spheres, the bearing shooting out from under her and sending her crashing painfully to the ground.
"Owww... Ow! The fuck?! Jesus!"
Revy yelped as her behind made contact with the floor. Mixed in with the ball bearings the man had thrown were sharp caltrops, and the keen points dug mercilessly into Revy's hips.
"You motherfuckin' cocksuckin' dogfuckin' cunt! I'm gonna fuckin' kill ya!"
Revy had dropped her left Cutlass when she fell, but she raised the one in her right hand and aimed, this time aiming to kill the masked annoyance.
But before she could pull the trigger, the man exhaled sharply, firing the blowgun he'd raised to his lips. Detecting a minute difference in the weight of her gun, Revy made a split-second decision and removed her finger from the trigger. The man in black sensed his chance and ran, tearing through the darkness like a shadowy gale and vanishing without a trace.
Revy didn't even watch him go, instead staring dumbly at the dart stuck in the barrel of her Cutlass. She picked it out, noticing how it shone in the dim light--it had been soaked in some sort of flammable liquid. Nitrocellulose. If she had pulled the trigger, there was no telling what would have happened to her hand.
Her rage disappearing in the face of her shock, Revy could only gaze into the darkness where the man in black had stood.
At least she had a story to tell Eda the next time they got together for some drinks.
...Ninjas really did exist.
Stan walked on, guided along the streets solely by the light of the moon.
He still hadn't entirely shaken off the heroin entirely, but for the moment, at least, he was free of the confused hallucinations that had gripped him just a minute ago. He could tell where he was, and when he was. He knew where he was headed as well. If he walked straight through the night, he would reach the city limits of Roanapur before dawn.
He had no way of knowing whether or not his allies had made it out of the abandoned factory. If they were still alive and unharmed, his client would make sure that they would meet again, and even if none of them survived, Stan was still intent on finishing his mission alone, if need be.
It wasn't that he held any particular animosity toward Chang Wai-San, nor that he felt any particular loyalty to his client. He had never abandoned a mission midway; that was all. Now that he thought about it, perhaps that was the only thing about himself that he was sure of anymore. To call it pride would be laughable. But now that both his past and the honor that he'd held in his heart were in shambles, there was nothing else left for Stan to cling to.
Just when he was beginning to lose all sense of how far he'd walked... Stan stopped, feeling a threatening presence seep into the air.
The next instant, hard beams of light lanced out of the darkness, blinding him.
Two Mercedes-Benz's had been hidden in the thickets beside the road, cunningly parked so as to be nearly invisible to the human eye at night. Now they held Stan captive in the glare of their headlights.
Even as he instinctively raised his arms to cover his field of vision, Stan could see, through the blinding light, many shadows quickly exiting the cars. Their movements were not those of common thugs, full of meaningless swagger and wasted effort, but the swift and efficient actions that could only be carved into the body's muscle memory by countless hours of grueling training. If Stan had to think of an example... Yes. His old comrades would have moved so, deploying from the side door of a Hind that had just landed in a hotspot. The nostalgic emotion that swept through him, so preposterous an emotion to be feeling in his situation, soon changed into something far heavier and foreboding.
As his eyes became accustomed to the glare of the headlights, the first thing he noticed was that the men arrayed before him were dressed in paratroopers' field fatigues. And then, when he'd adjusted enough to make out the stripes on their sailor shirts, he realized that he'd seen all of their faces before.
Kosloff, David, Zamyatin. The best of the best of the Spetsnaz, with whom he'd plunged through the depths of Hell itself. The unforgettable faces of the Vysotniki...
His knees shook. His throat grew suddenly dry.
The faces of these wraiths paid no heed to the line between reality and nightmare in this wretched world's end, Roanapur. How had they, who had always pursued Stan in the memories of his past, suddenly come forth to block his way?
"...I never thought I'd see you again as one of the living, comrade junior sergeant."
And one final figure revealed itself, slowly stepping out from the back seat of one car. She had cold blue eyes, like glaciers. One side of her face was scarred by burns.
She stood in front of Stan now, her officer's coat hanging loosely from her shoulders above a seductively cut business suit, leisurely smoking a cigar.
"Kapitan Pavlovena... You... You can't..."
"That name belongs on a tombstone somewhere. It isn't a name fit for someone walking among the living."
Stan stopped, his voice breaking with regret at the coldness in that voice.
"Then should I call you Balalaika? Leader of the mafia in this wretched city...? Is that what you've become?!"
The woman, known to some as Fry Face, to others as Balalaika, merely smiled as she gazed down at him.
"Yes. I see there's no need to explain the situation. That makes things easier."
It was a smile that held all the sins and betrayals of the world, the sort of grin that only a hyena, tearing away at the rotten flesh of crime in the lightless underbelly of the world, could make.
Bereft of the strength to even stand, Stan fell to his knees.
"How, how have you come to this..."
"Chatting with you about bygone times would be amusing in its own way, but that isn't what I'm here for tonight," Balalaika said calmly, heedless of Stan's tears.
"I've come to find the meaning and the value of what you tried to do. If you are unaware of the balance of power in Roanapur, you are probably also unaware that what you tried to do would have been a severe blow to us. If that wasn't your intention, killing a former comrade would sit ill even on us.
Stan only knelt with his head bowed, showing no sign that he had heard her. And as for Balalaika, there was no warmth, no pity in her eyes as she gazed down upon him.
"Stanislav Kandinsky. If you forsake this mission and surrender yourself to us, we will take full responsibility for any and all repercussions that may arise as a consequence of your doing so. We will strive to our utmost to ensure your safety. But... if you do not take this offer, then we will remove you by force."
In those candid but unyielding words Stan heard voice of his old Vysotniki commander, the unfaltering will which had stood fast in the face of torture. Unable to resist, unable to refuse that voice, Stan slowly raised his head and looked into the eyes of the woman who called herself Balalaika. In her figure, wreathed from behind by the moon's soft light, he saw the unmistakable beauty and sublimity he remembered.
Now, even Stan could not deny it any longer. This woman was no fake. She was no shoddy impostor. She was his commanding officer, Captain Pavlovena herself.
"Stanislav. I once fought side by side with you on the battlefield. You are a trusted comrade-in-arms, one to whom I entrusted my life many times. The courageous actions you showed then were more than sufficient to be honored. That is why I will not force you to make a decision--I ask of you only your choice. I will give you time to think. Tomorrow, at six in the evening, I will be waiting at the Roanapur harbor. Know that it will be your last chance to contact us."
Balalaika turned, as though she had said all she had to say. But Stan couldn't let her go, not without mustering the last remnants of his broken voice, calling out to her retreating back.
"Why?! Why has a... a hero like you become nothing but a petty criminal?!"
Balalaika stopped, listening to his tortured plea.
"Answer me, Kapitan! What happened to the pride you held close in Afghanistan?! What happened to your honor?!"
She looked over her shoulder at him, her lips turned upward in the approximation of a smile.
...No, it couldn't be called a smile, in any normal sense of the word. It was an expression that looked foreign and terrifying on the face of a human being; it was more like a rift in her features, a bottomless pit that would devour all that dared come near.
"...Yes, of course. You never even went back to our homeland, did you. Then perhaps it is not so strange that you cannot understand."
And from the rift burst forth a torrent of hellish magma. If one had to express it as a human emotion, perhaps one could have called it laughter. An expression of violence, infinitely evil, infinitely destructive, a glimpse of something that would not rest until it had burned all that dared stand in its way to ash... That was the sound of Balalaika's mirth.
"Very well, I will teach you, Stanislav. Just as you lost your pride, we were forsaken by it."
Stan froze with shock, staring at the laughing woman in front of him. And in the wave of emotion that came just before the sadness, he understood the truth.
...No. This woman is not Sofiya. The Kapitan would never laugh like this.
Then this must be none other than Balalaika...
Only then did Stan realize that he was facing the one they called Fry Face in hushed whispers, the queen of evil who was feared by all.
"To the country that called itself Russia, the battlefield of Afghanistan was nothing more than a nightmare to forget. The meaningless memory of a hideous dream that had been dreamt once, long ago, when they still called themselves Soviets. And so... what were we to that new and shining country but shades, crawling out from the depths of that nightmare? That is what happened to us, we who were given the damning title of 'Afghanistan veteran'. We lost our chance to die, and in doing so we lost our place to live."
There was something there, in the endless abyss of her manic laughter, that had transformed Kapitan Pavlovena into Balalaika. It was whatever had happened to them when they returned home from the battlefield, the prejudice that had been leveled at the weary heroes. Something that Stan had never experienced.
"That is why we are still dreaming. We do not care any longer where we are, as long as the smell of blood and sulphur is there with us. Everyone here has already realized that without the lies we called causes and honor, we can continue dreaming as much as we want, as long as we want."
An indescribable sense of loss overtook him, choking the words before they could leave his throat. Stan couldn't even begin to imagine what had happened to them upon their return hom.
Balalaika stopped on the verge of turning away once more, looking back at Stan. She whispered to him then, the tone of her voice suddenly almost wistful.
"Comrade junior sergeant. You are still dreaming as well, are you not? Can you feel those dry sands? Can you hear the howling of the wind?"
"Then you are a happy man. I find myself envying you."
Her piece said, Balalaika stepped into the back seat of her car, her coattails gently waving in the wind. The Vysotniki followed her.
The two Benz's turned, their engines roaring a challenge to the silent night as they returned to Roanapur.
Only Stan was left, bereft of even the strength to stand.
(1):: 本省人. Chinese who moved from China to Taiwan around the seventeenth century, as opposed to the waishengren (外省人), Chinese who moved to Taiwan with Chian Kai-shek after 1945.
(2):: Greek personification of death.
Chapter 3 End