ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.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."
         -Robert Asprin, 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 before?
         She slowed her pace a trifle, until she was walking beside him.
         "Don't worry; I can keep up," muttered the cop.
         "I know."
         "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 great."
         "Huh. I shouldn't be surprised. Do you have any idea how many failed hangover remedies I've tried?"
         "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?"
         "Eh?"
         "You're clutching your abdomen."
         "Oh. So I am," Lei mumbled, looking down at himself. He removed his forearm from his lower torso.
         "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 life.
         Jun had violently rejected Liu Kang's calm pronouncement when she first heard it, yet its echo haunted her...
         "-thering you?"
         "Wh-what was that again?" she stammered, jostled out of her reverie.
         "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, didn't I?"
         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.
         "Yes."
         "These wind spirits, do they sound like voices in your head?"
         "No, they communicate with sensations, impressions," she explained, deliberately ignoring his cynicism.
         "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 at her.
         "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.
         "What?"
         "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.
         "Um, heads?"
         "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.
         "Tails."
         "Ah. Looks like you called it wrong, doesn't it?"
         She nodded.
         "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. The phrases

UNITED STATES of AMERICA

E PLURIBUS UNUM

ONE CENT

adorned the coin's central picture. Nothing unusual there...
         "Look closer," Lei prompted. "Don't stop at the surface."
         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 over.
         "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 given you.
         "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 make things 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.
         The Lamp-eft's 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 back.
         "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 hat?"
         The Lamp-eft drifted lazily into the monk's headgear, and disappeared.
         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 my heirs."
         "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 time.
         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 intervened.
         "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.
         "Only two 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 die 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.
         "Really, there's 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, please."



         "You say you were killed?" Lei tilted his head and doubtfully raised one eyebrow. "As in biological death?"
         "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."
         "Right."
         "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 little skull."
         "It's true-"
         "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 chances."
         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 your soul."
         "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 Japanese gods?"
         "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 into tears.
         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 wildlife."
         "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 shade awkwardly.
         "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 any-"
         "Okay, okay, I get it."
         Jun raised her head. Her ginger eyes were as bleak and grim as the lifeless wastelands about them.
         "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 noise.
         "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 need."
         "I am the prime target of the Kahn's extermination squads."
         "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 fists.
         "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 we walk!"
         "You insufferable little-"
         "I'm not the one who's stopping our progress!"
         Lei gently rested his hand on Jun's shoulder. "Apologize to him, kid."
         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 him, kid."
         "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 monk.
         Liu Kang folded his arms. "Is that supposed to be an apology?"
         "Gomen yo!"
         "It's an apology," Kung Lao affirmed. "Trust me, it is."
         The elder monk looked at him suspiciously.
         Kung Lao threw his hands up in the air. "Why does everyone doubt my impeccable veracity?"
         "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 curious."
         "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 be."
         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 always lose.
         "Always.
         "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 me was 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 you take 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 inquired, timidly.
         "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 part."
         "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 thing."
         Lei returned her grin and quickly folded both arms behind his back, before she could notice how much his hands had begun shaking.



         Lee meditated.
         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 hamstrings.
         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 approach.
         "Forgive me, young master, but I beg leave to speak with you."
         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 to 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 hesitated.
         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 alone."
         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 prisoners."
         "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 yet?"
         "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 signed."
         "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."
         "Young master-"
         "Don't 'young master' me, dammit! He's only a year my elder, and-"
         -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, gravelly 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 THAT!?"
         Ganryu stolidly waited for the silver-haired devil's mad laughter to subside.
         "You underrate 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 faithfully."
         "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. He 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 others?"
         "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 have-?"
         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, self-depreciatively.
         "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 magic."
         "A human, you say?" Lei quizzed. "Can you describe him?"
         "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 Police."
         "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 describe?"
         "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 fight?"
         "I do not 'see' it. I feel it, and the wind spirits heighten my senses. Jax, Michelle, if either of you has been near Baek in the past few hours, I might be able to identify the residue of his aura on you."
         Jax grunted, "Michelle, you kicked him off his skeleton horse."
         "I am not letting anyone pry my mind!" she snapped, vehemently.
         "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 San."
         "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 Apocalypse."
         "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 future 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.
         "Ah, 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 detainees?>
         <Yes, young master.>
         <Okay. Go crawl in a corner and hide. Now.> Shimada bowed again and backed toward the bellows by the far wall. He set to work, fanning the coals and further heating his brand.
         The 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 conscious."
         "Oh, she's awake. She's breathing too rapidly to be asleep. Perhaps she's shy." The stranger tapped his 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 half-empty wrapped packet.
         "No."
         "Your loss." The wrapped packet disappeared inside his unicorn vest.
         "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 pass.
         "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 useful.
         "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 mental 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."
         "'Proving'?"
         "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 door.
         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 forehead.
         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 sensitive enough 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 greatest respect.
         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 any particularly accusatory overtone, Lee's shaking increased.
         <J-just checking on the prisoners, Mishima-sama.>
         <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.>
         Kazuya's 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.
         "Worthless."
         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 sergeant.
         "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 happening.
         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 her own.
         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 unison.
         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 Catsclaw didn't 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 flinch.
         "No, you can't!"
         The deep bass shout had come from Kazuya's heavyset bodyguard, who muscled Shimada aside as easily as swatting an insect. "Mishima-sama, I beg you not do this."
         Kazuya's eyes narrowed into malignant slits. "And why not, Ganryu?"
         "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.
         Ganryu 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 warned.
         "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 one."
         Lee's mind worked frantically. His fingers dug into cracks on the stone floor.
         "Surely, 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 face.
         "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 choice.>
         Catsclaw perplexedly 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 long minutes.
         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, but when the silver-haired devil withdrew a fighting dagger from his right boot, the jailer did as he was told.
         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 crossguard.
         "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 Mishima.
         "So, your true name is Dark Mane," he told her in a graveyard whisper.
         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 killing,"
         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 sons?"
         "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 her rags.
         "You BUTCHER!" Catsclaw shouted to the silver-haired devil.
         "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 call me?"
         "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 coward, Chaolan!"
         "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."
         "What?"
         "Do it. I take full accountability."
         "Young master, are you sure-?"
         "You will obey my orders, or the next dagger goes into your throat."
         "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.
         "Do you want revenge for your murdered comrade? Come and get it."
         Red flashed before Catsclaw's eyes, red the color of Dark Mane's lifeblood.
         "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 beneath.
         "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 his neck 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 stir.
         Lee hobbled closer to the sergeant, and studied him cautiously. Satisfied that Catsclaw was no 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 indecision.
         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 do."
         "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 him."
         "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?"
         "B-but M-Mishima-sama-"
         "-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 syndicate."
         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 their master.
         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?"
         "Yes, Mishima-sama."
         "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 movements.
         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, without 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 leave."
         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