ASHES OF THE PHOENIX
written by Victar, e-mail email@example.com
Victar's Archive: http://www.victarfanfics.com
Chapter 4: The Right Thing
"There are even times when there is no right answer... just
the least objectionable of several bad choices."
Myth-Nomers and Im-Pervections
Since embarking on their return journey, Jun's comrades
had all settled into their individual
patterns. Liu Kang led while Sonya navigated. Kung Lao kept in step behind them; the Lamp-eft
he'd summoned floated above, illuminating their way with its searchlight eyes. It occasionally
swam in twisting figure-eights around the wounded, stasis-frozen Chosen One, whom Sonya's
technology suspended in midair.
Liu Kang set their pace at a brisk, steady stride, as fast as
was feasible without breaking into
a run. The elder monk was constantly on the watch for trouble, despite the dreary tedium of his
sewer surroundings. So far, no enemies had appeared. The greatest danger seemed to be
asphyxiating from the stench of the central sludge-bed. That would soon change, though; they
were due to reach city limits any minute now.
Jun looked forward to that minute. Despite the
increased risk that traveling in the open would bring, it would be a relief to finally escape these
still, silent depths.
Jun spared a glance over her shoulder, as she'd gotten in
the routine of doing every couple
minutes. Lei was lagging behind again, hanging back as far as he could without being entirely lost
to the shadows. His head was down, eyes on the ground, with one hand covering his forehead. No
change there - but this time, she saw that he tightly pressed his free arm into his gut, directly
below the ribcage. Had he started doing that just now, or had she merely failed to notice it
She slowed her pace a trifle, until she was walking beside
"Don't worry; I can keep up," muttered the cop.
"It isn't that bad. It's only a hangover, and believe me, it's
hardly the first... eh, I don't
suppose you could cast a spell to cure it, though?" he asked, the inflection of his voice changing
from dismissive to hesitantly hopeful.
"No. A hangover results from alcohol-induced fluid
retention in the membranes surrounding
the brain cells. No honorable healer will channel his or her Ki in a manner that directly affects the
physical brain, unless it is a matter of grave import. The risk of causing permanent damage is too
"Huh. I shouldn't be surprised. Do you have any idea how
many failed hangover remedies
"Um... a lot?"
"Forty-seven, including but not limited to: ice water,
vitamin C, fruit juice, eggs, eight
different types of home-brewed tea, heating pads, hot water bottles, acupuncture, yoga, voodoo;
hell, even aspirin doesn't do much good. And drinking more only makes the headache worse. So if
anything, I guess I should be grateful for your little prank back there." Lei displayed a
good-natured smile, though it quickly disintegrated into a wince.
"Is your stomach also bothering you?"
"You're clutching your abdomen."
"Oh. So I am," Lei mumbled, looking down at himself. He
removed his forearm from his
"If you have an ulcer or similar ailment, I could cast a spell
to alleviate the symptoms."
"No, no, it's not what you think, just a... bad habit of mine.
It's nothing." There was a
strained quality to his voice, though, and a shudder traveled through his frame.
"Are you sure? You sound like you're hurting."
"Trust me, kid. When I say it's nothing, I mean it," he
rasped, letting his other hand fall from
his forehead. Another shudder affected him. There was tension in his face, as if he were repressing
the need to cringe.
You may have committed the greatest cruelty of your
Jun had violently rejected Liu
Kang's calm pronouncement when she first heard it, yet its echo haunted her...
"Wh-what was that again?" she stammered, jostled out of
"Didn't hear me, eh? Well, no wonder, what with that coin
in your ear." Lei gingerly reached
for her ear, and plucked a dulled penny between his fingers. "Hm. It's dated nineteen eighty-three.
Poor kid, you must've been half deaf for over a decade." His amiable smile returned, this time with
a wry twist; it almost masked the underlying distress.
"I am not a kid," she amended. "I'm twenty-two."
"Well, as I was saying, you don't look too happy yourself.
Is something bothering you?"
She stared at the dirty concrete floor.
"Just curious. You don't have to tell me if you don't want
to." Lei began flipping the penny,
lightly tossing and catching it with his fingertips.
"I..." She grappled with herself, then decided that she had
to know the truth, even if it
confirmed her worst fears. "Y-you're not sorry I saved your life, are you? I did the right thing,
The coin alighted edge-first on the back of Lei's hand. A
flick of his wrist sent it rolling
along his metacarpals and up his backward-curving fingers.
"Did you do the right thing? Now
what kind of a crazy question is that, eh?
"Let me offer a piece of advice. Never - are you listening?
Good, because this is important -
never let anyone tell you what the right thing is. If you know it's the right thing only because
someone else says so, then you don't really know at all, do you? Ask other people for their
desires, suggestions, opinions, comments, wisdom, stir-fry recipes, but not for the right thing.
Judge the right thing for yourself."
Jun shook her head. "I'm not sure I trust my judgement. I
hate these sewers - they prevent
me from listening to the guidance of the wind spirits."
"Wind spirits?" Lei's eyebrow arched dubiously. He
balanced the penny on one fingernail.
"These wind spirits, do they sound like voices in your
"No, they communicate with sensations, impressions," she
explained, deliberately ignoring
"Whatever you say, kid-"
"My name is Jun. It is written with the character indicating
level, or standard." She
transcribed thirteen brush strokes in the air.
"-and guidance can be good, as long as you understand
why you adopt the recommendations
you do - but sometimes you have to go without it. You have to accept that the choices are hard,
and trust in your own decency. You start by gathering as much information as you can." Lei
tossed the coin above his head and snapped the fingers of both hands; two more pennies appeared
in a double shower of azure sparks. He deftly juggled the three coins without looking, and winked
"Then, you think about it for as long as you can. That may
not be very long at all.
Sometimes you have to decide in a split-second, or the decision will be made for you. Call it!" He
sent the penny in his left hand flying in an extra-high arc, while his right hand continued to juggle
the other two.
"Heads or tails. Quickly!" Lei bounced the coin off the toe
of his loafers. It curved over and
behind his shoulder; he kicked it back the other way with his heel.
"Heads, you say? Catch!" He spun the penny her way. It
dropped into Jun's cupped hands.
"Which way did it land?" Lei queried. He let the two
remaining coins fall on his palm so that
one balanced on the surface of the other.
"Ah. Looks like you called it wrong, doesn't it?"
"Well, look again."
She peered at the penny. Engraved upon its coppery
surface was a wide, flat
building, with a broad roof supported by Parthenon-style vertical columns. A series of steps more
expansive than the structure itself led to a tiny human figure, standing in the middle of the pillars.
UNITED STATES of AMERICA
E PLURIBUS UNUM
adorned the coin's
central picture. Nothing unusual there...
"Look closer," Lei prompted. "Don't stop at the
As she studied the coin, she gradually brought it up to eye
level. When its edge aligned with
her pupil, she saw a faint seam tracing its circumference. Suspicious, she turned the penny
"Hey, this coin is tails on both sides!" She flicked the penny
back to Lei, who resumed his
carefree juggling. "Cheater."
"I've got one with two heads, too," he smirked. "If you'd
called tails, that's the one I'd have
"Oh, and to answer your first question: no, I'm not sorry to
be alive. Maybe a little
embarrassed, but not sorry.
"You see, as long as you're alive, you have the chance to
better, for yourself or others. When you're dead, that's the end of it. Show's over." Lei snatched
the coins from their aerial trajectory and spread his hands; all three pennies vanished. "So, thanks
again for the rescue. I owe you one."
"You're welcome. You know, you sound a lot different
than you did last night."
"Last night I was drunk. Whatever I said, I don't know
whether to start apologizing for it
now or wait until we stop; that way, I can get down on my knees first." Equal doses of whimsy
and contrition colored the repentance.
"C'mon," Kung Lao coaxed, "into the hat."
Looking ahead, Jun saw that her comrades had reached a
ladder, which led up to a rusty
grate in the ceiling. Sonya impatiently drummed her fingers on her microcomputer; Liu Kang had
already climbed halfway up the ladder. Light from the dingy grey sky filtered through the ceiling
grate, diluting the Lamp-eft's brilliant eye-beams. The salamander-like creature drifted around
Kung Lao's head.
"Look, it's been fun, but we're leaving the sewers now. I
can't keep you around.
If you drain any more of my ambient bio-energy, I won't be able to walk, let alone teleport. It's
time for you to go home, so what are you waiting for?" Kung Lao cajoled.
spotlight eyes gazed soulfully at him.
"I think it wants to say goodbye," Jun inferred,
approaching the creature.
"You've been a
great help to us," she said to it, with a warm smile. "Arigato. Sayonara."
"Yeah, yeah, we all appreciate your aid," Kung Lao agreed.
"Maybe I'll summon you again
sometime. Now will you go into the hat?"
Instead of complying, the Lamp-eft rotated on its
"You're forgetting the magic word," Lei pointed out.
Kung Lao rolled his eyes. "Of course. How silly of me.
Will you please go into the
The Lamp-eft drifted lazily into the monk's headgear, and
Lei shook his head in disbelief. "I think I'm actually going
to miss the critter."
It had been a long time since Heihachi Mishima last played
the role of host, and he did not
miss the experience one bit.
"Here. Eat," he growled, setting a tray in front of his guest.
It carried one small bowl of
steamed rice, a glass of cold water, and a pair of plain chopsticks.
"Why, Heihachi-kun," Shang Tsung cooed, "your
generosity knows no bounds. Surely you
know that food is not a necessity for me? I subsist handily upon the lives I steal, and I have taken
infinitely more than my fill."
"Our deal is hospitality in exchange for information,
demon. Here is the hospitality. When
you are finished, you will disclose what you and your master have done with the world, and with
"Oh, no need to wait. Settle down, and I'll tell you
everything." The shape-changing sorcerer
picked up the bowl and chopsticks.
"I humbly receive," he smiled, tasting the rice one grain at a
Choking back waves of loathing, Heihachi kneeled across
from the evil monster.
"Let's see, where to begin?" Shang Tsung pondered.
"Perhaps with the most obvious
questions that must be cascading through your head.
"By now, you must have noticed that you no longer need
to eat, drink, or discreetly carry
out certain bodily functions derived thereof. You can thank the Shao Kahn for that. His aura,
which has grown so great it overshadows the entire Mother Realm, is what sustains all mortal
lives. It's the only way he can provide for his armies, really, since his very existence tends to blight
soil and poison water. It is too bad he can't restrict his aura's nourishing effect to just his allies; I
suspect our enemies would fall a lot more quickly if we could starve them out. I'm sure we'll crush
them anyway. It's only a matter of time.
"Another effect of the Kahn's aura is to speed the body's
natural healing processes. Small
scrapes vanish within the hour. As for larger injuries, well, you can take all sorts of punishment
and recuperate in a day or two, provided that you have the opportunity to rest. The Kahn's aura
does not make you immortal, however. You will still die if you suffer so much trauma or blood
loss that your heart stops before your body can heal. And you can't regenerate limbs or vital
organs, unless you're a lizard. In these frenzied times, the surest ways to kill someone are to cut
off the head, pierce the heart, exciting joys like that."
"You are spouting useless trivia," Heihachi snarled. "I want
to know how filth such as you
gained access to our world!"
"It wasn't easy. The Cosmic Furies barred the Kahn and his
armies for millennia before I
"My first attempt was the simplest and most direct way to
win another realm: the right
of challenge. That's what my Tournament was all about - did I mention what a shame it was that
you weren't in it? A forceful, strong-willed soul like yours would have been perfect. More than
enough to tip the Furies' balance in my favor."
The demon's empty white eyes glowed vividly, and
he licked his lips between bites of rice. "Fortunately for you, in these plentiful times I do not
particularly need your soul."
"I do not fear the likes of you."
"That's what they all say," shrugged the evil thing. "They
chant it like some magic
incantation that's supposed to keep them safe, and it never does. Brave or cowardly, I take their
souls just the same.
"There's just a little problem with collecting lives and souls
until you have enough power
to breech the dimensions. You can't refuse challenges, and you always have to win.
things can break a necromancer's power: death, or defeat in single combat. If you lose a fight with
anyone or anything, you have to start all over again. You can't cling to the souls you've gathered,
or they will literally crush the life out of you.
"Sad to say, I lost my Tournament. The Kahn and I
conspired to hold a new tournament in the Outworld, and we lost that one too. Quite distressing.
Most of the blame belongs to Liu Kang and the rest of those irksome Chosen Ones, may they all
painful and lingering deaths.
"I'd made a backup plan, though.
"The Cosmic Furies are rather like a customs office. They'll
keep you out of an unconquered world unless you have some tie to it. I was born here - don't look
so surprised, did you think we demons grew on trees? - so it's easy for me to travel between
dimensions. The Kahn is another matter, but long ago I deduced that if he were married to a
native of the Mother Realm, he could move right in.
"Not just any native would do, though. The soul of his
bride had to be willing, and have a
supremely high level of power. Women with that kind of fortitude generally balk at becoming the
passive vessel to the destruction of all they've ever known, don't ask me why.
"However, the Kahn
once had a Queen of the Outworld. It's too bad she
died, yet her loss was our gain. It took me ten thousand years, Outworld time, to contrive for her
soul to be reborn here. Once that happened, it was a trivial matter to accelerate her growth and
revive memories of her past life. Voila! The Kahn is now wedded to a citizen of the Mother
Realm, and the Furies can no longer keep him out.
"The down side is that the transition isn't as smooth as it
would be if we'd won the Mother
Realm through conquest. It's taking an awfully long time to gather this world's mortal souls. We
should have seized them all months ago, but I don't think we have a sixth of them yet.
"We need an
extra sacrifice to speed things up: a single soul of pure and noble intent. Once we have
that, our grasp on this world will be beyond dispute!
"Unfortunately, pure souls are the hardest to
find. You'd be surprised how many so-called 'virtuous' mortals have selfish motives, even if
it's nothing more than 'I want to survive.' Shao Kahn currently has his eye on one pure soul,
though, and sooner or later I expect he'll get it.
"Another snag is those aggravating Chosen Ones.
"The gods of the Mother Realm can't
interfere with us directly, since we have annexed this world to the Outworld. Instead, they have
selected a Chosen few mortals and protected their souls, not to mention the souls of anyone else
who was smart enough to hide on sacred ground.
"Still, it isn't that big a problem. Although the
Chosen Ones' souls are protected, their lives are most assuredly not. The Kahn's armies have
already hunted down and killed most of them."
Shang Tsung set down his empty bowl. "That was
quite a feast. I'd almost forgotten what it is like to taste rice. How can something that looks like a
nest of young maggots be so nourishing to mortals?"
Heihachi pondered all that had been said.
"Tell me this, demon. You claim that a
necromancer cannot refuse challenges, so are not you and your master required to accept the
challenge of the Chosen Ones?"
"As in, hold another Tournament? How stupid do you
think we are? That's what stopped us
before! Oh, this time I'm sure we would win, but why chance it?
"True, the Shao Kahn can't refuse
a direct challenge, yet first the challenge has to be made. Shouting into the wind isn't enough.
The Chosen Ones don't know where the Kahn is, so they can't challenge him. They won't banish
him with a third Tournament, because they won't live long enough for there to be a third
Tournament. They're running in place, struggling harder and harder just to survive.
only one concentrated base of resistance left. Shao Kahn has charged your darling sons with
destroying it. I'll let you guess what becomes of them if they fail. Or maybe you won't have to
guess. Maybe you'll see for yourself - if you're nice to me."
He held forth the empty bowl. "More,
"You say you were killed?" Lei tilted his head and
doubtfully raised one eyebrow. "As in
"Oh, yes. Baraka's blades went in here and here," Kung
Lao answered, pointing to two spots
on his chest. "Then he carved down around here." The monk traced a half-circle on his torso.
"Very lethal, and boy did it hurt."
"White Lotus Society never lies, remember?"
"Then what am I talking to, eh? A zombie? Are you cursed
to wander the earth, feeding on
the brains of the living?"
"Don't worry. If I were, I certainly wouldn't be interested in
your tiny little cerebrum."
"Uh-huh. My tiny little cerebrum thinks your tiny
little cerebrum is out of its tiny
"That you're out of your skull? I knew it."
"-Shao Kahn brought me back to life, so I could fight for
his entertainment. If you don't
believe me, ask Sonya. She's died fifteen times."
"Sixteen," the lieutenant corrected without turning around.
"And keep it down, both of you.
My computer scan detects no enemies within a half-mile radius, but we don't want to take
Lei searched the wasted plains.
"My primitive scan detects nothing but dirt within at least a
whole-mile radius," he noted, more quietly. "It looks safe enough to continue the conversation,
though damned if I can accept all this crazy stuff you're telling me, Lao. I can persuade myself to
believe in demons, sorcery, and even the Shao Kahn, but not that hoopla about a god protecting
"It's true. Liu, Sonya, Jax, myself, and our stasis-frozen
associate over there are among the
Chosen Ones of Raiden, god of thunder."
"I thought your order was an offshoot of Chinese
Buddhism. Since when do you worship
"My order venerates all the gods of Light. Raiden joined
their ranks only recently, but his
voice has since become the strongest among them."
Lei sent a skeptical puff of breath through his lower lip,
blowing a few of his matted bangs
away from his face, and looked at Jun. "What about you, kid? Are you supposed to be one of
Raiden's Grade AA approved, or whatever?"
She did not answer. Her arms wrapped tightly
around herself, and her eyes were downcast. Grief consumed her face.
"Hey kid, are you all right?" Lei asked, worriedly.
"Minna shinde-imasu." She was on the verge of breaking
Kung Lao put a hand on the cop's shoulder, and drew him
aside. "Jun always gets like this
when we're on the plains. I think it has something to do with how the Apocalypse killed off the
"They're all dead," she whispered. "Plants, animals, insects
- the Shao Kahn annihilated
everything. Even if we could banish him, what good would it do? The whole world is dead."
"The whole world is a very big place. There's got to be
some critters left," Lei comforted, a
"There are a few in Sanctuary," Kung Lao confirmed. "Plus
there must be other naturally
resistant people and animals, like Lei."
"Eh? 'Naturally resistant'?"
"You aren't a Chosen One, Lei; I'd see it in your aura if you
were. Jun isn't either, but
Sanctuary's sacred grounds protected her from the Apocalypse. You, however, weren't on
"Okay, okay, I get it."
Jun raised her head. Her ginger eyes were as bleak and
grim as the lifeless wastelands about
"I used to devote my life protecting living things. 'Ecology
fighter,' I called myself, only
now there's nothing left to fight for. Sometimes I don't know why I continue. Sometimes I wish
the Shao Kahn could have the pure soul he wants so badly and be done with it."
Liu Kang glanced over his shoulder.
"Do not speak of me that way, Kazama. I have enough
problems without your vindicative wishes!" he reprimanded, sternly. Lei flinched from the loud
"Hold it. No way. Not a chance," the cop refuted, shaking
his head. "Kang, don't try to tell
me your soul is this uniquely ultimate pure-and-noble-intent or whatever the bad guys
"I am the prime target of the Kahn's extermination
"He may want you dead, but don't flatter yourself.
Whatever spiritual looking glass you used
on me worked both ways. On the inside, you are almost as screwed up as I am."
"Bite your tongue," Liu Kang snarled, "for you are in far
worse shape than you pretend,
drunkard. 'Naturally resistant' indeed; why do you not tell them the truth? Are you afraid they will
despise you if they know?"
"Baka yo!" Jun snapped to the elder monk, clenching her
"Did you just insult me in Japanese, Kazama?"
"Liu Kang wa soya de baka baka BAKA!"
"That is it. I have tolerated more than enough of your
abuse! I insist upon an apology!"
shouted the monk, halting his forward march. Jun gave a disdainful sniff and started to walk past
him, but his arm barred her path.
"Move it or lose it," she warned.
"Not until you apologize."
"Tondemo nai!" Jun put her hands on her hips and mirrored
his angry glare.
"What the hell!?" Sonya charged, turning around. "Are you
two delaying our rendezvous so
that you can have a catfight?"
"Looks like it," Kung Lao mused.
Lei anxiously ran one hand through his tangled hair. "Uh,
sorry Kang, I shouldn't have let my
mouth run off like that. Please accept my sincere-"
"I requested nothing of you, you suicidal-"
"You take that back," Jun demanded, "or at least get
moving; we can yell at each other while
"You insufferable little-"
"I'm not the one who's stopping our progress!"
Lei gently rested his hand on Jun's shoulder. "Apologize to
Surprise registered on her features. "Aren't you angry with
him? He just called you-"
"I know, and it isn't wholly inaccurate. Please apologize to
"I am not a kid!"
"You're acting like one."
Jun started to retort, and faltered.
"Ganko da wa ne? Gomen," she muttered to the elder
Liu Kang folded his arms. "Is that supposed to be an
"It's an apology," Kung Lao affirmed. "Trust me, it is."
The elder monk looked at him
Kung Lao threw his hands up in the air. "Why does
everyone doubt my impeccable
"Liu, are you going to start moving, or do I have to use my
gravitational field on you?"
Sonya asked, so sweetly that it had to be a genuine threat. The elder monk paused for one last
glower at Jun, then turned and followed the lieutenant.
"Was that really an apology?" Lei whispered to Jun. "Just
"Technically. Don't repeat it to anyone you respect. I
assume you don't speak Japanese?"
"I've traveled a lot of places, and picked up the basics of a
lot of languages, but I only visited
Japan once. Didn't stay for very long, either."
"That's too bad. The countryside is beautiful, or used to
Jun cleared her throat and
continued in a minuscule voice. "What did you mean by 'it isn't wholly inaccurate'? He called you
suicidal, but you said you don't want to die."
Lei sighed and rubbed the waning ache in his forehead.
"Eh, if you were paying attention, I
also said I was screwed up.
"It's hard to explain. These past several months, no matter
how hard I tried to get away, I'd
always end up circling back to that damn 'safehouse' - or maybe 'liquor cabinet' would be a better
name for it. Every time that happened, I'd stop at the entrance, knowing that if I stepped through I
wouldn't stagger out again for hours, or days... maybe never. I'd fight the temptation, and I'd
"Used to be I'd struggle against it for up to an hour. That
was down to only a
few seconds, yesterday.
"I still can't believe I've really left the blasted city. Part of
convinced I'd die there. That's another one I owe you for."
Kung Lao adjusted his hat so that it sloped a hint above
level. "If you wanted to leave so
much, why did you hesitate to join us until Jun asked you politely?"
"Tell you what, Lao. First, spend at least a third of your life
enslaving yourself to a freaking
beverage, until when it says jump you say 'How high?' on the way up. Then see how well
to being ordered around by anyone or anything else. 'Please' is a very important word to me. It
implies that I actually have control."
"Do you think you might want to give up drinking?" Jun
"Oh, sure I want to give up drinking. I also want to stop
turning into something out of a
slasher movie whenever I get hurt. I want Kazuya and his henchmen to pay for their crimes. I
want - is anyone taking notes? - I want my friends alive again, all of them, starting with Yue. I
want all those innocent people everywhere unfrozen and breathing, I want those blasted mutants
and horse-men to disappear, while I'm at it let's return all the critters and green stuff, just put the
whole planet back the way it was, okay? I want back everything I lost the night the world went to
hell. I want every other person I meet to stop mistaking me for Jackie Chan; dammit, I don't look
that much like him. And I want a xebec. I've always wanted a xebec, ever since I was a little kid.
Can you wave a magic wand and give me all that?"
"What's a xebec?"
"I don't know, I just want one."
Kung Lao thought the list over. "If you ever figure out
what a xebec is, I might be able to
conjure one out of my hat. No guarantees on the rest, but we're working on the saving the world
"Sounds like one of those things I'd enjoy doing even more
when sober. What the hell. I quit
once, I can quit again."
The cop raised his right hand and put his left hand over his
heart. "I, Lei
Wulong, solemnly swear never to touch a drop of anything alcoholic, ever again."
A smile momentarily dissipated Jun's sorrow. "I knew you
had it in you to do the right
Lei returned her grin and quickly folded both arms behind
his back, before she could notice
how much his hands had begun shaking.
He prepared for his morning workout in a vast hangar. It
was one of the few places in the
Mishima complex where he could attain peace of mind, if only for a little while. The hangar had
fallen into disuse since the Apocalypse; an untested shuttlecraft was stored near the far wall, along
with its fuel tanks most of the equipment for building and maintaining it. Kazuya Mishima no
longer needed such mundane tools, for he had gained the power to transplant his entire syndicate
across the continents in the blink of an eye. And so he'd generously granted the personal run of
this spacious expanse to Lee.
The master throws his dog a bone.
Lee noticed that he had unconsciously grown tense. He
brushed a stray lock of his silver hair
away from his eyes, and relaxed one muscle at a time. Sitting with his right leg tucked in, foot
aligned upon the left inner thigh, he extended his left leg and slowly bent forward until his
forehead touched the floor. He cleared his thoughts of everything save the placid pull upon his
A repetitive noise intruded upon his calm. It was the echo
of footsteps on the
concrete floor; judging from the weight of the tread, only one person could be making the
"Forgive me, young master, but I beg leave to speak with
Lee raised his head and
regarded Ganryu, Kazuya's chief bodyguard.
Ganryu's first vocation had been sumo wrestling. His sumo
career had been short yet
brilliant; he'd been the youngest sumotori of the century to attain the status of maku-uchi, and the
consequent right to tie his hair in the warrior-caste topknot. But after he lost his match against the
reigning yokozuna, he was unable to find consistent employment in the sumo ring. He had been
indebted to four separate creditors when he accepted then-President Heihachi's offer to work for
the Mishima syndicate.
Ganryu's sheer size was an emphatic deterrent to any who
would do current-President
Kazuya harm. The sumotori stood over six feet tall, and only a fool would mistake his
two-hundred and seventy-five pounds of bulk for fat. He was a walking mountain of power, able
crush a man's jaw with one hand, and casually hurl him a dozen yards away with both. Despite
Ganryu's massive appearance, he was deceptively fast on his feet, in part because he never
Yet underneath his imposing exterior, and when not caught
up in the reckless passion of
a fight, he was a surprisingly clement person. His benign temperament made him the odd man out
of the Mishima syndicate. Lee sometimes wondered whether Ganryu regretted the lifetime
contract he'd signed.
If anyone else save Kazuya himself had imprudently
disrupted the silver-haired devil's
morning ritual, the retribution would have been swift and painful. But Ganryu was, if not a friend,
then the closest Lee could claim to one. Their fellowship went back several years, with debts on
both sides. Out of an entire corporation of mercenaries and predators, Gan-kun was the only
person Lee could truly talk to.
Lee made a brushing-off gesture with one hand. "There's
no need to be formal. We are
Ganryu kneeled, bowing over so low that the belt-knot of
his plain white gi
brushed against the ground. "Young master, I have come to plead a favor. It concerns one of the
"You mean, of the two Baek captured this morning?"
Ganryu's brow furrowed. "I thought that Mishima-sama
wanted Commander Baek to
return with at least three living captives."
"If Kazuya wanted three, he should have told that madman
to bring back four or five. You
know how Baek is." Lee shrugged. "His performance was less than ideal in other ways. Despite
having every advantage on his side, he fractured half a dozen of his ribs, lost a Centaurian, and
worst of all, allowed one of the Chosen to escape."
"A pity. But, about the prisoners - have you seen them
"No. Have you?"
"Only briefly, yet one of them..." the sumotori heaved a
sigh and closed his eyes. "Young
master, she is beautiful."
"Oh, no. Not again." Lee shook his head. "What is it with
you and Indian women, anyway?"
"I did not say she was Native American."
"You didn't have to. I swear, how many is it now, five?
Six? How big a harem do you think
you'll have when the New Era dawns?"
"It is not like that. The others were merely infatuations.
She is different. She has always been
different. Her every movement is-"
"Do you even know her name?"
"Her true name is Dark Mane. It suits her perfectly. Her
midnight tresses are as smooth as-"
"Yeah, whatever. So, let me take a wild guess: you want
her to survive the Proving. Fine,
fine, I'll see that she's matched against you. Refrain from killing her, and you're all set."
"I fear it is not that simple. Mishima-sama wants to
question the prisoners personally. You
know what that means."
A nervous tic affected Lee's face. He looked away. "It
doesn't mean her death certificate is
"Perhaps not, yet I am afraid for her. I am sorry to
interrupt your morning workout, but I
have no choice; my shift begins in thirty minutes. Mishima-sama plans to interrogate the prisoners
in the detention facility an hour after that. Young master, I beseech you to be present."
A shiver ran down Lee's spine. It was an involuntary
reaction to his fear, and self-loathing
for feeling the fear. "If Kazuya decides to kill her, you know I can't stop him."
"Don't 'young master' me, dammit! He's only a year my
-and the thought of being in the same room with him
has me trembling, Lee almost
finished, but did not. He did not have to. Gan-kun knew.
"Please. You're the only one who can talk to him-"
"By that you mean I'm the only one who can address him
without risking my life, just
multiple broken bones."
"-and he listens to you."
"He listens to me?" Lee repeated, incredulously.
"He listens to me?" A bitter,
chuckle sounded from deep within his jittery innards. It grew into unstable cackle, and threatened
to drown him with hysteria. "Where the HELL did you EVER get an INSANE IDEA LIKE
Ganryu stolidly waited for the silver-haired devil's mad
laughter to subside.
your own value. You are more than vice-president of the Mishima syndicate; you're the one who
oversees all its operations. Mishima-sama spends the days in his private chambers, planning his
schemes and expanding his powers, but he has precious little direct contact with the outside. He
could not run this place without you. More importantly, you are the only one he trusts. He is leery
of everyone else: Commander Baek, Captain Irvin, even myself, though I have served him
"Of course Kazuya trusts me! We all know why that is,"
Lee spat. Because I'm too
paralyzed with cowardice to think of betraying him.
"I know I am pleading a great sacrifice of you-"
"No, you're not. That's the worst part of it. You're not."
The silver-haired devil looked
disgustedly at his shaking arms. "All you want is for me to be there, maybe put in a good word for
your pretty trollop. That's nothing. Absolutely... nothing."
Lee suddenly flexed his quavering fingers like claws, and
drove them into the concrete.
Sky-blue crackles of electric Ki exploded from the force of his thrust, chipping the stony material.
dragged his hands across the width of a painted yellow line, watching small rivulets of his capillary
blood fill the trenches he carved.
"How can I refuse such a trivial request, especially when it
comes from you?" Lee finally
whispered. "I haven't forgotten, Gan-kun. I'll never forget."
"Thank you, young master! Thank you so much!" Ganryu
kowtowed again and again,
professing his gratitude. There were even tears in his eyes.
The silver-haired devil didn't know what to make of it. Too
many conflicting thoughts ran
rampant in his head: disbelief, pessimism, terror, self-hatred, and the detached realization that his
morning meditations were thoroughly shot.
"My God, what happened?" Sonya gasped. "Where are the
"They surprised us," Michelle narrated, tonelessly. She had
long since passed the point of
being able to shed tears. Nearby, Jun softly sang as she tended to Jax's head wound.
Michelle said, "Somehow,
they saw through my concealment spell and teleported all around us. There were too many of
them. Jax was knocked out; I grabbed him and ran. My cloaking spell must have worked better
covering just the two of us, because we got away."
"Catsclaw also knows concealment magic. Could he
Michelle closed her eyes and shook her head. "We were the
only ones who escaped. They
took the bodies of the others with them when they left."
"Damn." Sonya dug her fingernails into the wasted earth.
That was the only sign of grief she
would permit herself to show; the rest had to be hidden behind an impassive facade. "How did
they break your cloaking spell in the first place? They'd need a skilled sorcerer to do that."
"A bird. There was a black bird," Jax groaned. The major
pushed against the ground with his
bionic arms, despite Jun's restraint. "Dammit Kazama, I'm fine, only a little dizzy, so let me talk!
This is important."
"You're lucky you only received a concussion," she
observed, helping him to sit up.
"Centaurians can shatter a person's skull with one hoof."
"I've always been thickheaded. Ask anyone," he muttered,
"What's this about a black bird?" Sonya prompted.
"It appeared a second before the attack. I think it was some
type of spying device. There
were paranormal forces at work; I could feel them in my bones. I don't know whether it was
Shang Tsung, but the enemy has gained some type of powerful ally.
"There were ten Centaurians, though I reduced their
number to nine. One of them was larger
than the rest, with gold horns. A human was with them. He rode on a skeleton horse - another
supernatural phenomenon, though I don't think he was the wizard. He wasn't casting any killing
"A human, you say?" Lei quizzed. "Can you describe
"Who are you?"
"Lei Wulong, Hong Kong police department."
Jax focused on the cop, noting his ragged clothes,
bloodshot eyes, and the tremble that
affected his hands, despite his effort to squelch it by clasping them together.
"We need all the help we can get," the major concluded,
unenthusiastically. "Welcome to the
34th platoon, Officer Wulong."
"Detective, actually, but feel free to call me Super
"Don't hold your breath. About your question: the human
who attacked us was a tall Asian
man, around six feet. His hair was dark brown, straight, and tied in a ponytail; no beard or
sideburns. He wore a khaki military outfit without boots; his feet were bare except for guard
straps around the insteps. He was constantly laughing and screaming wordless, bloodcurdling
outcries while his mount trampled Kate and Congden to death. I can't be sure of much more,
because it was still dark when he attacked."
"Was he Korean?"
"I don't know. It's possible."
"And you say he was laughing and screaming?"
"Like the devil himself."
"This begins to sound like Baek Doo San. Michelle, did
you recognize him?"
The half-Navajo, half-Chinese young woman interlaced her
fingers and contemplated the
inquiry. "Should I have?"
"Depends. You remember that 'Iron Thumb' or whatever
fighting contest, right? Well, when
I entered, I dug up everything I could on the other competitors, including you, Jun, and Baek.
You were never matched against Baek, as far as I know, so you may not have met him before.
You might not remember me, either. We were both spectators at one of the bouts, between this
assassin and, oh, who was that guy? Hair slicked straight up like you wouldn't believe-"
"I did not confront this Baek at any tournament. As for
you..." She examined the cop and
disdainfully wrinkled her nose. "Did you reek of booze, in this previous encounter you
"Eh, probably. Well, like I was saying, the major's
description resembles Baek. Especially the
screaming part; Baek goes into an uproarious homicidal mania whenever he sees blood. The guy
is a total psychopath. He has a nasty record of brutality and clashes with the law ever since he
killed his own father, allegedly by accident.
"What do you think, kid?" Lei asked of Jun.
"When I tell you that I am not a kid, do the words register
in your head, or do they simply
pass through your ears without causing a disturbance?
"Yes, I remember Baek. Though I never fought against
him, I witnessed one of his matches.
His degeneration is horrible. He is gravely sick man. He is lost so deep in the twisted corridors of
his illness that he thinks it natural to be what he is, and he pretends to enjoy it. The truth is that he
hurts himself even as he hurts his victims, and no matter how much violence he turns outward, the
inner pain never goes away."
"You can see all that just from watching the guy
"I do not 'see' it. I feel it, and the wind spirits
heighten my senses. Jax, Michelle, if
you has been near Baek in the past few hours, I might be able to identify the residue of his aura on
Jax grunted, "Michelle, you kicked him off his skeleton
"I am not letting anyone pry my mind!" she snapped,
"It isn't a mind-probe," Jun soothed. "Don't you remember?
I'm not capable of initiating
contact with another's psyche. There will be no intrusion upon your privacy, I swear. All I ask is
that you let me hold your hand for a moment."
Slowly, warily, Michelle extended her hand. Jun touched it
for the space of a heartbeat.
"Yes," she confirmed, letting Michelle go. "You were
recently in proximity to Baek Doo
"I suspected as much," Lei asserted. "It seems we have an
enemy in common, because I can
promise you that Baek was not acting alone. Odds are he was working for his boss, Kazuya, who
extradited him and put him on the Mishima syndicate's payroll shortly before the
"Kazuya. You mentioned that name before," Kung Lao
recalled. "Who is he, and why would
his flunky lead an attack on us?"
"Kazuya Mishima is a remorseless killer, President and
CEO of the Mishima syndicate, also
sponsor of that Iron whatever tournament. He is somewhere within several dozen miles of this
general area. He's alive, not frozen like some popsicle-"
"How do you know that?"
"I'm a detective, aren't I? Since at least one of Kazuya's
underlings survived, it's possible that
the others have, too."
"I can think of one way that might happen," Sonya
growled. "This Kazuya could have made
a contract with the Shao Kahn, to spare his syndicate in exchange for its service. Kano made a
similar deal with the Kahn, on behalf of his Black Dragons organization."
"If your pact theory is correct, it explains why Kazuya
would send his employee to attack
you," Lei concluded. "You may be up against more than just Shao Kahn's mutants and
Centaurians. The Mishima syndicate has access to cutting-edge technology and a private militia,
but its most critical resource is Kazuya himself. He is a criminal genius, master manipulator, and
Machiavellian schemer. He could be the most dangerous enemy you've ever faced. Be very, very
careful how you plan to take him on."
Light pierced Wang Jinrey's murky cell.
He knew there was light because of the slight warmth that
touched his face. Four sets of
measured footsteps accompanied the invasion. It couldn't be Shimada the jailer, come for yet
another attempt to make him talk, scream, or writhe; Shimada preferred to work alone. The ugly
black burn marks on Wang's body and the scarred, hollowed pits of his sightless eyesockets were
testimony to months of Shimada's fruitless efforts.
In his eighty-four long years, Wang had learned
how to disconnect the spirit from the suffering of the flesh, yet he did not know how to ease the
melancholy that ate away his heart.
"Konnichi wa, ji-san." The hissed greeting sounded
familiar. Wang could not fail to
recognize the grim, compelling aura that pulsed about the one who had spoken.
"Kazuya, my child," the aged man creaked, his voice
hoarse from weeks of disuse. "Have
you at last repented your evil ways?"
A stinging slap answered him, along with the jarring
sensation of his head hitting the
stone wall, and the slight rattle of the short chains that bound his spread-eagled frame. He let
out his breath, allowing the throbbing in his cheek to flow with it.
"Stop living in a dream world, old man," Kazuya coolly
warned. "Soon the New Era will
dawn, and it is not too late for you to be a part of it. The first step of my plan to raze the Chosen
Ones' last fortress has been successful. The
second is about to be set in motion.
"I know you have the gift of prophecy. Tell me what the
holds, and I vow you shall live in comfort to the end of your days. Mock me again, and you will
know nothing save misery."
"Wage war against the Chosen," whispered the oracle, "and
a great army will fall."
"Ganryu, you are with me. We have another interrogation
to attend," Kazuya evenly
commanded. "Ishida, Kimura, stay and spend a little quality time with Grandfather Jinpachi's
dearest old friend."
If Wang still had his eyes, he would have closed them in
anticipation of the fresh onslaught.
With the grating creak of rusty hinges, the door to
the cell holding Catsclaw and
Dark Mane swung open. Catsclaw concentrated on the sound; it was a welcome distraction from
the red-hot iron brand searing his exposed forearm. Catsclaw's torturer, a stocky, wart-faced troll
of a man, glanced at the lone newcomer.
waka-shujin. Shibaraku desu ne." He removed the brand and bowed low. <Your presence
honors this humble one.>
<Stuff it, Shimada. I'm in no mood for your
groveling.> Though Catsclaw did not
understand the words, the disgust they carried was evident. <Are these two the latest
<Yes, young master.>
<Okay. Go crawl in a corner and hide. Now.>
Shimada bowed again and backed
the bellows by the far wall. He set to work, fanning the coals and further heating his brand.
newcomer flicked open a hand-held lighter and applied its flame to a slender menthol cigarette.
Brightness from past the partly-open door framed his profile half in light, half in shadow.
The most distinctive feature about him was his smooth,
silvery hair, neatly parted down the
middle and cropped with exacting precision. Unsteady torchlight from the wall-sconces reflected
off his metallic locks, and a wireframe medallion dangling on a dull grey chain around his neck.
His blue jeans with a silver-buckled belt, thick-soled boots, fingerless fighting gloves, and black
leather vest made him look like a punk. The vest had a rearing white unicorn emblazoned on its
back. It hung loosely open, exposing his bare chest.
He expired a cloudy grey puff of smoke, then glanced at
the prisoners. His eyes were
stagnant auburn pools, callous and without compassion, but also without malice. The silver-haired
stranger leaned casually against the doorway and took another drag on his cigarette.
"Namae wa nan da?" His query was aloof, as if he didn't
particularly care about the answer.
Catsclaw looked at Dark Mane. Both of them hung from
short chains, spread-eagled on the
clammy prison wall. They'd been searched and stripped down to a few rags. Dark Mane's head
was down; her undone, ebony tresses spilled over her face, hiding it.
"I don't understand Japanese," the sergeant quietly replied,
"and I don't think she's
"Oh, she's awake. She's breathing too rapidly to be asleep.
Perhaps she's shy." The stranger
cigarette, dislodging ashes from its tip. "So, what are your names?"
"I am Catsclaw, rank sergeant, of the 34th platoon. Her
true name is Dark Mane."
The silver-haired stranger nodded once. "I am Lee
Chaolan, vice-president of this sorry
dump." He pursed his lips and exhaled a drifting smoke ring, which gradually widened until its
vapor dispersed entirely.
"Cigarette?" he offered, nonchalantly holding out a
"Your loss." The wrapped packet disappeared inside his
"What do you want with us?"
"I? Nothing. Gan-kun fancies himself in love with your
pretty friend there, but don't fret. It'll
"My brother is the one you should worry about. He will be
here soon. I recommend that you
answer his questions as completely and honestly as possible."
"Or else what?" The sergeant glared defiantly.
"Hm. It seems Shimada has already started on you," Lee
commented, observing the burn
marks on Catsclaw's arms. "I don't know why he bothers. He's never cracked any of the officers
or Indians that went through here. He broke a private, once, but the slob didn't know anything
"No, I'm not going to give you the usual threatening
speech. Just a warning. Kazuya
Mishima has the power to reach into your mind and take what he wants. If you remain silent, or
he thinks you're lying, then that's what he'll do. He won't have any regard for your continued
health. The last person to resist him was reduced to a mindless stupor.
"Naturally, the wretch did
not survive his Proving. His bones are scattered on the floor of Kuma's lair."
"It's a little test the syndicate puts you through, to find out
whether you deserve to see the
New Era. If you pass, you are put to sleep, until this dark age is behind us. Fail, and you forfeit
more than just your life, although a healthy fighter like you ought to have a decent chance."
A shadow blotted out the light from beyond the half-open
The darkness' effect on Lee was profound. Even before he
had fully turned about, he started
shaking like a trapped animal. The cigarette slid through his trembling fingers; he hurriedly
dropped to one knee and mashed the burning stub out with his palm. Lee bowed his head, shut his
eyes, and gritted his teeth in anger, but the rage was directed inward. Catsclaw could almost smell
his fear, a pungency that mixed with the cigarette smoke flavoring the stale air. Wondering what
could inspire such terror, the sergeant peered through the doorway.
Kazuya Mishima stepped inside.
It had to be he. He possessed the countenance of an
absolute ruler: strong, decisive, and
arrogant. Jet black eyes reflected only one emotion: raw determination. Two thick, black
eyebrows slanted diagonally inward, a pernicious embellishment to his assertive face. His short
hair was slicked into stiff, backward-pointing spikes, balanced by a keen widow's peak on his
His formal attire carried the latent suggestion of royalty. A
navy blue, velvet dress suit
trimmed with black inner lining and sash fit him perfectly. The front of his dress suit was neatly
folded open, showing a white-cuffed, half-buttoned inner shirt, and a triangular swath of the
crimson body shirt beneath that. His polished black shoes made little noise as they tread upon the
cracked stone floor. A heavyset bodyguard followed Kazuya's heels.
Catsclaw was not a highly accomplished mage, but he was
to detect the tremendous, unadulterated power of Kazuya's aura. Despite his youth - the sergeant
estimated his age in the late twenties - Kazuya Mishima was a master sorcerer deserving the
The master sorcerer took in the dingy cell at
a glance. His austere eyes came to rest on the kneeling, shivering vice-president.
<Exactly what are you doing here, Lee?> Though the
sibilant question did not carry
particularly accusatory overtone, Lee's shaking increased.
<J-just checking on the prisoners,
<You have fouled the air of this place with tobacco. You
know I hate that. I should hurt
you for it.>
One of Kazuya's hands became a fist. Lee cringed.
<And yet, it is not wholly your
fault. There is no way you could have known I would personally interrogate the captives. The
only ones aware of my decision were my loyal bodyguards.
<Since you have already taken the
trouble to come here, Lee, you may as well stay. You might even learn something.>
fist unclenched. The contempt dripping from his discourse had an even harsher effect on the
silver-haired devil than the threat of bodily harm.
The master sorcerer fixated his attention upon Catsclaw.
"I shall not waste words. I intend
to have from you the secrets of Sanctuary's mystic defenses. You have one chance to volunteer all
that you know, now. If you are wise, you will take it."
Catsclaw met his determined eyes with a blank stare.
"Very well. You were warned." Kazuya grasped the
sergeant's tangled mop of hair and
pulled back his head.
A sea of hatred enveloped Catsclaw, drowning him in
breaking waves of rancor.
He tried to
summon the psychic bulwark Lieutenant Blade had taught him to maintain, an opaque grey
emptiness, but the sea flooded and filled it. Catsclaw choked, flailing against the torrent. Oily
liquid abhorrence poured into his mouth and submerged his head. The vile sea turned to caustic
acid, eating him inside and out. Its excruciating touch burned his every pore, dissolved his gut,
shredded his flesh into agonized pieces. He heard a distant scream, and realized it was his.
The sea of hatred drained into hazy reality. "You should
have told me that they
did not trust you with their defensive enchantments, that despite your shared ethnicity they still
counted you among the outsiders. Your mistake." Catsclaw could barely hear the calm
pronouncement over his own, heaving sobs.
"Let us see whether they trusted your colleague."
"D-Dark Mane doesn't... know... anything," whimpered the
"That is what you believe. I desire to learn what the young
lady herself thinks. Raise your
head, miss; your pretense of slumber does not deceive me. Resist my will, and you shall only make
it harder upon yourself."
Dark Mane did not move.
"I told you to raise your head," Kazuya
commanded, slipping one hand under her chin and lifting it.
She bit his fingers.
Her teeth dug through the flesh and into the bone, drawing
a trickle of blood. She ground
her jaws together. When Kazuya instinctively attempted to tug his hand away, she made eye
contact and stared with a single-minded intensity.
The master sorcerer froze. Sweat beaded on his
forehead. He bared his teeth in a hostile grimace.
It took a moment for Catsclaw to perceive what was
He knew that Dark Mane
was strong-willed, but he never dreamed she had the audacity to reflect a mind-probe. She'd
seized control of the two-way link Kazuya had established, and reversed its flow. All other factors
being equal, it never would have worked, but the master sorcerer was caught by surprise and
distracted by the physical pain in his hand - a pain one-thousandth the severity of his own sea of
hatred, turned upon himself.
"Aaahgk... gck... yeaaaaAAAAAAARGK! You BITCH!"
Kazuya shrieked. His free hand
smashed into her face, crushing the bridge of her nose and disrupting their link. He tore his
trapped hand out of her mouth and hit her again.
She spat blood at him, some of it his, some of it
Two more men, nearly identical in appearance and
conservative dress, ran through the open
cell door. <Mishima-sama, are you well? We heard->
<You heard nothing!> Kazuya screeched, whirling
and pointing his bloody fingers at
them. <Do you understand? As you value your lives, you heard NOTHING!>
<Yes, Mishima-sama,> the two men chorused in
Kazuya quivered, in a desperate struggle to reassert his
totalitarian composure. It returned
by gradual degrees.
Dark Mane smiled and licked her lips.
"Shimada! Shimada, you ugly cur, where are you?" Though
the tremor had left Kazuya's
bearing, it was not yet entirely gone from his voice. The jailer scampered forward, clutching his
white-hot brand, and kneeled.
"Kill her. Slowly. Take at least a week to do it."
"With extreme pleasure, Mishima-sama."
"W-wait, please," Lee stammered, standing up. "She hasn't
faced her Proving yet; shouldn't
we test her firs-AAH!"
Kazuya's spinning kick was so fast and unexpected that
see it, only its effect of slamming Lee into the back wall. The silver-haired devil clutched a
newly-forming bruise in his abdomen.
"Make that two weeks, Shimada. Start right now. I want to
hear her scream."
"Your will be done, Mishima-sama." Shimada rose and
lightly touched his brand to Dark
Mane's cheek. A sizzling sound resulted. She gritted her teeth, unable to refrain from a reflexive
"No, you can't!"
The deep bass shout had come from Kazuya's heavyset
muscled Shimada aside as easily as swatting an insect. "Mishima-sama, I beg you not do
Kazuya's eyes narrowed into malignant slits. "And why not,
"I love her." The big man put his hands over his heart.
"Her and every other Indian harlot in the world. I am aware
of the little arrangement you and
Lee make whenever the syndicate captures one; don't think I am not. I shall tolerate it no longer.
You must choose between your 'love' and your loyalty."
Ganryu kneeled and bowed his head low. "Mishima-sama, I
cannot let her come to harm. I
plead with you to allow-"
A hand motion from Kazuya sicced his other two
bodyguards on the prostrate supplicant.
They drew metal rods and hit him on the back of the head and neck. He rose anyway, grabbing
their throats and lifting them off the ground, but their distraction left him wide open for Kazuya's
lunging punch to his midsection. Crackles of indigo Ki reinforced Kazuya's blow, which he
followed with a straight punch and two backfist strikes to Ganryu's forehead. The big man
dropped his enemies and reeled; they hit him again from both sides, targeting his face.
collapsed on the floor. They continued to beat him about the head.
"Stop, you're killing him!" Lee cried. Kazuya made a
cutting-off gesture, and the other two
bodyguards withdrew. Ganryu remained lying face down, motionless.
"That is the intent. If you seek to protest, you had better
have a good excuse," Kazuya
"He is my frie-..." Lee trailed off, recollecting that the
master sorcerer considered such
arguments invalid. "He is an exceptionally useful servant, strong, experienced, and well-trained. It
would be very difficult to replace him."
"Better no chief bodyguard at all, than a disobedient
Lee's mind worked frantically. His fingers dug into cracks
on the stone floor.
Mishima-sama, there must be some way..." he implored. "I'll do anything you ask. Anything."
"You would do that anyway," Kazuya scoffed, but then a
thoughtful expression crossed his
"Ishida, Kimura, carry Ganryu to my antechamber and see
that he is properly restrained. I
will soon join you." Ishida and Kimura picked up the unresponsive giant in an extremity carry, one
grasping him beneath the arms, the other threading his hands under the inner knees. They heaved
with their combined might and hauled him out of the cell.
<Now, Lee, about your request. I present you with a
wrinkled his brow. What did Kazuya not want him to overhear?
<If you slay this harlot, I will
spare Ganryu's life. I do not mean challenge or fight her; I mean slay her, while she is helpless in
her chains. Refuse, and she dies at Shimada's hand, as does Ganryu.>
Lee blinked in confusion. <What difference does it make
who kills her?>
<None whatsoever, and it is time you realized that.>
The master sorcerer prowled in a
circle around Lee, gazing down at him.
<I know you, Lee. I know how you think. You believe
that you are somehow better or more honorable than the rest of us, because you never kill except
in the heat of combat.
<That is a delusion.
<Like it or not, you are part and parcel of the whole
Mishima syndicate, and its evils are your evils. Your willing cooperation makes it so. You need to
understand what that means. It is time you got your hands dirty. No, it doesn't matter whether
you wield the brand or simply turn your head; the end result is the same, and you are a fool to
shirk your responsibility for it.
<Come to my antechamber after you have murdered
her.> Kazuya started to turn
toward the cell door, then paused. <Oh, and Lee... do not attempt to trick me. I will know. I
won't even have to scan your mind.>
The master sorcerer left. Lee remained where he was for
Finally, Shimada asked <Having trouble deciding, young
master? Let me soften her up a
bit while you consider.> The jailer blew tenderly on his iron brand, and moved to press it upon
Dark Mane's other cheek.
<Stop. Put that down,> Lee mandated. Shimada's
disappointment was conspicuous,
when the silver-haired devil withdrew a fighting dagger from his right boot, the jailer did as he
Lee approached the prisoners, testing the knife's honed
edge against his thumb. The
weapon matched his polished silver hair, and had a prancing unicorn engraved upon its
"What are you going to do?" Catsclaw growled,
menacingly. Lee ignored him and looked
into the spiteful, cinnamon-brown eyes of the woman who had dared to humiliate Kazuya
"So, your true name is Dark Mane," he told her in a
She spat in his face.
He made no move to wipe the bloody spittle off.
Shimada readied his brand. "Young master, such disrespect
cannot be tolerated! I will-"
"No, you will not," Lee said, coldly. "I will do the
Catsclaw shouted, "What? No, DON'T!"
His exclamation had no effect. The silver-haired devil
swiftly drove his dagger between Dark
Mane's fourth and fifth left-hand ribs, into her heart.
She did not utter a syllable. The resentment
in her eyes dwindled into a glassy stare. Her head slumped, never to rise again.
"I have seen enough for one day," Heihachi glowered.
"Close the window."
Shang Tsung spread his hands. His magical lens curled in
on itself, until it vanished in a
single point of darkness.
"Well, Heihachi-kun, what do you think of your darling
"Hmph. There may be hope for them yet."
"You call that killing?" Shimada mused, his gravelly voice
resonating beneath Catsclaw's
furious howls. "It hardly took a second. Oh, well. Back to this one." The jailer applied his brand
to the sergeant's face. Lee pulled his knife out of Dark Mane's corpse and wiped its blade clean on
"You BUTCHER!" Catsclaw shouted to the silver-haired
"Would you rather I'd let Shimada kill her?"
Catsclaw snapped a vicious sequence of obscene insults,
none of which affected the
vice-president. Lee walked away and opened the cell door.
"Gods damn your 'Proving,' you fraud!" the sergeant yelled
to his retreating back. "Your
entire syndicate is a huddled nest of weaklings, and you are the most cowardly of them all!"
Lee halted, and slowly swiveled his head. "What did you
"Do you think I didn't see how terrified you were? Shaking
like a crippled rabbit!" Catsclaw
recoiled from Shimada's brand, straining to disregard the welt it blazed on his face. "For all your
talk of 'Proving,' you are nothing but a spineless insect who slaughters the helpless. You are a
"Only one person calls me coward, and you are not he."
The silver-haired devil flipped his
dagger, catching its hilt, and suddenly hurled it. Its blade lodged in a worn grove crossing the
stonework near Catsclaw's head, missing both the sergeant and Shimada by inches. The startled
jailer nearly jumped.
"Release him, Shimada."
"Do it. I take full accountability."
"Young master, are you sure-?"
"You will obey my orders, or the next dagger goes into
"As you wish, young master." Shimada searched through
his ring of keys, and set to work
unlocking Catsclaw's manacles, one by one.
"By my authority, Sergeant Catsclaw, the scheduled time
of your Proving is moved up to
right now. You are matched against me," Lee hissed. He touched the medallion around his neck.
"This is a master key. If you take it from me, you will have the run of the entire Mishima complex.
You'd never make it out of here alive, but I suspect you want to try anyway."
Shimada opened the last of Catsclaw's restraints and
scampered away from the freed
sergeant. Catsclaw rubbed his sore wrists and ankles.
Without taking his eyes off Lee, he dipped
two fingers in the dripping blood of Dark Mane's death wound. He used her blood to paint
angular lines on his face, matching the burned marks of Shimada's brand.
The sergeant ripped
Lee's thrown blade out of the cracked stone wall. Lee drew an identical dagger from his left boot.
The silver-haired devil settled into a ready stance,
presenting the right side of his body. Most
of his weight rested on his back leg, while his front leg was perpendicular to his back foot. His
right hand gripped the fighting dagger firmly, but without clenching. He couched his left arm close
to his thoracic cavity; the back of the hand shielded his throat, while the forearm protected his
heart and lungs.
Catsclaw adopted a similar posture, but with his balance
more evenly distributed
and his center of gravity higher. Treading lightly, the sergeant circled his enemy. Lee calmly
turned in place, always keeping the edge of his body toward Catsclaw.
want revenge for your murdered comrade? Come and get it."
Red flashed before Catsclaw's eyes, red the color of Dark
"I'll carve open
your stomach!" he snarled, darting in with a quick slash. The threat was deliberately misleading;
his true target was the left side of Lee's neck. The silver-haired devil saw that he was not cutting
low and matched the outer edge of his left forearm against Catsclaw's weapon hand, stopping it.
At the same time, Lee swiftly snapped his front leg into Catsclaw's forward knee; the toe of his
heavy boot locked Catsclaw's leg straight, making him stumble. Lee stabbed the sergeant's
unguarded midsection. Instead of vying to retain his balance, Catsclaw went with the momentum
of his stumble, subtly redirecting it into a lateral roll on the ground, away from the thrust. Only
the last inch of Lee's dagger penetrated before the sergeant escaped.
Lee dashed to close the distance between them. As
Catsclaw's roll turned him on his back,
the silver-haired devil drove the bloody tip of his weapon toward Catsclaw's eye. The sergeant
twisted a fraction faster than Lee estimated he was capable of, and the descending weapon's edge
scratched his ear instead. Completing the roll, Catsclaw extended his free hand in a glancing blow
to the underside of Lee's chin. Catsclaw's prone position sapped its force, and Lee absorbed the
shock without seeming to feel it, but it bought the sergeant sufficient time to contract his hands
and feet underneath himself.
Lee launched from his own crouch in a backward
handspring; the insteps of his boots met
Catsclaw's upraised forearm, forcefully pushing him away. Catsclaw bumped his head on the stone
wall that has somehow come behind him, and when his vision cleared he saw the silver-haired
devil's thrown dagger speeding toward his throat. He dodged to the side; Lee's dagger buried
itself in his left upper arm instead. There was no time to pull it out, for Lee had followed his
weapon's flight path and was snapping the back of his fist toward Catsclaw's face. The sergeant's
left arm was in no shape to parry, so he caught Lee's attack with the crossguard of his dagger. Yet
with both hands and a smarting pain occupying his attention, he was unaware of the silver-haired
devil's knee until it rammed his gut, sandwiching his back and spine against the wall.
With an involuntary grunt of pain, Catsclaw swiped at
Lee's exposed chest. The silver-haired
devil seized his wrist with the left hand, using the other to rip the knife out of his shoulder, and
drove his knee into the sergeant's abdomen again. Catsclaw held back the urge to retch and
twisted his wrist so that its edge was against the weak point in Lee's sweaty grasp, between the
thumb and index finger. When Lee attempted to knee him a third time, he yanked his knife hand
free and speared the silver-haired devil's thigh in one swift, downward motion. The blade's keen
point tore through the worn denim of Lee's jeans, digging up to the hilt in the muscle
"Aaah!" Lee gasped, but when Catsclaw jerked the knife
out, he met with extra resistance.
The wall behind him did not allow him to fully apply his weight in the backward pull. The
silver-haired devil took advantage of the delay to hop close to Catsclaw's left side. Catsclaw's
wounded left arm could not prevent Lee from wrapping his right arm about the sergeant's neck
and wrenching it.
Catsclaw's body twisted with it rather than risk snapping
vertebrae, so that the sergeant faced away from the silver-haired devil's headlock, parallel to the
wall. Lee pushed back and down with his weight and the strength of his good leg, forcing
Catsclaw to fall with him. The sergeant's knife hand made a blind thrust for the enemy in back of
him, and only scratched Lee's jacket. Catsclaw's trapped head struck the stone floor, hard.
Flickering torchlight became empty darkness.
Lee turned a swift sit-up into a forward somersault. He
sprang to his feet, now required to
keep most of his weight on his good right leg, and glared at his adversary. Catsclaw did not
Lee hobbled closer to the sergeant, and studied him
cautiously. Satisfied that Catsclaw was
longer conscious, Lee crouched next to him.
"Not bad," breathed the silver-haired devil, covering the
deep wound in his thigh with one
hand. "Not bad at all. But not quite good enough. You have failed your Proving." Lee rested the
tip of his dagger upon Catsclaw's pulsing jugular.
Seconds passed, and accumulated into minutes.
Lee ground his teeth together, a frustrated symptom of his
Shimada nervously cleared his throat. "Your pardon, young
master, but if you hesitate too
long he may regain consciousness, and I would point out that he is unfettered."
"Tell me something, Shimada. This killing of helpless
people, does it become any easier the
more often one does it?"
"Oh, definitely. Eventually you will come to enjoy it, like I
"I see." Lee's auburn eyes narrowed. "One problem: I do
not want to become like you. I
despise myself enough as it is."
He removed the dagger from Catsclaw's neck. "This was
not a fair
Proving. Burns, a forced mind-probe, and rage over the death of his comrade weakened
"That never bothered you before."
"Shut up. Kazuya was right about one thing; I've shirked
my responsibility for too long.
There are going to be some changes around here, starting with this prisoner. Give him time to
heal and grieve, and then he will have a second chance to Prove himself, against a different enemy.
"Oh, and Shimada? One more thing."
"Yes, young master?"
Lee spun and smashed the hilt of his dagger into the jailer's
crooked teeth. Shimada cried
out, staggering backward; Lee's hands grabbed his collar and whipped him into the wall.
"Y-young master, why are you chastising me?" Shimada
whined through split lips.
"This is not punishment. This is getting your attention."
Lee held the edge of his dagger
against the jailer's throat. Shimada gasped and trembled, rocking his head back as far as it could
go; the dagger remained pressed just hard enough to avoid drawing blood.
"From this instant
forward, there will be no more torture. We both know how useless it is. Do you understand me?
If someone has to die, they die, but no more torture.
"I will personally inspect all live prisoners daily. If I find
any evidence of maltreatment, I will
beat you until you vomit blood. I will feed that blood back to you. Then I will slice you open from
throat to crotch. If any of the prisoners are missing, I will flay and dissect you, one organ at a
time. Is that clear?"
"-doesn't give a damn what goes on down here. I
am the one who supervises all the
syndicate's employees, including you. You report to me," Lee stressed, slamming Shimada
against the wall one more time. "Don't even think of running to Kazuya. He can always find a new
jailer, but there is only one person he trusts enough to be vice-president of the Mishima
The silver-haired devil threw Shimada into the bellows'
smouldering coals. Then he
walked lamely away from the jailer's frantic outcries.
Lee disregarded the sharp pain in his wounded leg; it would
heal soon enough. He torpidly
limped out of the dungeon, to the main hall, and through the great double doors. Looking down
at the richly patterned carpet of Kazuya's darkened antechamber, Lee strived to blank out the fear
and self-hatred that automatically assaulted him.
"You are bleeding on my floor, and carrying a weapon,"
remarked the master sorcerer.
Ishida and Kimura both coiled, ready to spring if the silver-haired devil made any move to harm
A rush of lassitude overwhelmed Lee, probably the last of
his adrenaline wearing off. He
could not bring himself to make a reply, and instead eased sluggishly onto his good knee.
"At least it is not one of your nauseous tobacco sticks,"
Kazuya sighed. "Have you done
what I told you to do?"
"Then you may have Ganryu back, alive, as I promised."
The master sorcerer snapped his
fingers; Ishida and Kimura helped guide the sumotori forward, out of the shadows.
Something was not right about Ganryu's stumbling
Lee raised his head. The big
man's glazed eyes stared directly in front of him; when Ishida and Kimura let him go, he crumpled
on hands and knees and stayed there, like a puppet with cut strings.
"Ganryu?" Lee questioned, concernedly. "Gan-kun, can
you hear me? Are you all right?"
The sumotori did not answer. Lee waved his hand in front
of his friend's vacant eyes,
evoking a reaction of any kind. Ganryu remained stiff, breathing shallowly.
"Mishima-sama, what did you do to him?"
"I permanently eliminated all disloyalty from his brain.
Unfortunately, the human mind is a
tangled thing, and it is difficult to eradicate one part without affecting the others. He may regain
awareness in due time, possibly even the ability to comprehend simple commands. Since you are
so interested in his welfare, I am turning him over to you. Take him with you when you
Lee dropped his dagger and covered his face with his
hands, rather than let Kazuya see the
shock consuming him. His dismay coalesced into a single, questing thought.
By all the gods we
fight against... did I do the right thing? Did I?
End of Chapter 4: The Right Thing