ASHES OF THE PHOENIX
written by Victar, e-mail email@example.com
Victar's Archive: http://www.victarfanfics.com
PART IV: REDEMPTION
Chapter 17: Soul-Searching
"Know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn
how to care for ourselves, but otherwise we never shall."
Lei practiced the Art of Tai Chi.
It was the grey hour before what passed for dawn, since
the Apocalypse. Soon, Sanctuary
would awaken. Today would mark the beginning of their great counteroffensive. The news had
spread like wildfire last evening; though almost everyone had heard that they would wage war on
the Mishima syndicate, only the Chosen Ones, the Council of Elders, and a privileged few were
privy to the real plan. In another hour, two thousand men and women would rise with the dawn,
and set out to save the world.
But for now, Sanctuary was quiescent. Lei took advantage
of the relative peace to compose
himself for the trials ahead.
Heavy anxiety clung to him, as it always did when he tried
to abstain from drink. Sometimes
it manifested as convulsions or trembling hands; more often, it settled into an internal agitation
that disturbed his frame of mind. It made everything outside look bleak, and the nothingness
inside ache all the more.
A sudden shiver almost made Lei lose his balance during
the sequence of Carry Tiger To
Mountain. He caught himself, easing into the clockwork rotation as his left hand circled upward
to ear level, palm down, fingers pointed in the direction he faced. His left leg took a long step to
the rear, toe pointing southeast, and he set his heel down without weight. Shifting so that his right
foot carried the preponderance of his mass, he brought his left hand forward, while moving his
right hand past his thighs and turning it palm up.
Tai Chi helped him. It could not quench the desperate thirst
that parched his throat, or
soothe the constant pain that wracked his soulless shell. But when he immersed himself in its
effortless balance of energy and inactivity, his distress naturally became part of the greater
equilibrium. Misery and loss, agony and desire; these curses receded in perspective, if not
It wasn't that bad. He could deal with it.
As Lei reached the sequence of Step Back And Repulse
Monkey, he became aware that he
was no longer alone. Someone moved by his side, attempting to duplicate the continuity of his
motion. As he rotated counterclockwise into Diagonal Flying, the newcomer became apparent in
his field of vision. He did not deliberately turn his head, or interrupt the sequence; he just
recognized that Jun was up early, and continued his form.
She kept up with him as best she could, occasionally
sneaking glances from the corner of her
eye to see what he was doing. She mimicked his fluid movements with remarkable accuracy;
perhaps this was because the martial art in which she had trained, Aiki Ju Jitsu, used a footwork
pattern similar to Tai Chi.
Eventually, his practice reached its close, as he crossed his
hands and brought them down by
his sides. He breathed deeply and evenly, still acutely aware of the crippling inner pain that made
him want to fold in half, but better able to withstand it.
"Um..." Jun hesitantly began, once the exercise was
concluded. "I, uh, hope I'm not
bothering you. Nightwolf said I could find you here."
"Méi guänxi," he quietly answered. Jun
wasn't completely sure what that
but it didn't sound antagonistic.
She clasped her hands together, and looked around. They
were in a grassy clearing at the
cusp of Sanctuary's settlements. An incongruous wooden picnic table rested a few meters away.
Centaurian hoofprints marked the grass and torn earth, and half the table had been charred black
in the wake of the invasion.
"Can we sit down for a little while? There's something I
need to tell you."
"Sure, ki- eh, I mean, Jun. Anytime." Lei rested on the
unburnt edge of the table's near
bench, and loosely gestured for her to sit on the opposite side.
She settled next to him instead. "It's about our
"Eh..." He appeared a trifle uncomfortable for some reason.
She glanced at his face, but
couldn't read his expression. He'd turned a little bit away from her, and he absently rubbed his
brow as though he had a headache. "What about it?"
Jun tried to think of how best to explain the matter. Since
she had pressed Lei to speak
directly in the past, she decided, it was only fair that she be direct herself. "We mustn't kill
Lei's voice dropped to a lower tone. There was tension in
the set of his jaw. "Why are you
telling me this? Kang's the one who's supposed to take him on in 'honorable' single combat. My
job is just to help keep us hidden until Kang gets close enough to make the challenge. Your job is
to help us find our way around, and maybe patch Kang up after the big fight. That's all."
"No, it isn't. Lei, I was listening when Jax told you the
plan. I know that he wants us to kill
Kazuya if Liu Kang doesn't beat him."
"Heh. Well then, let's hope Kang wins, all right?"
"No, Lei. Listen to me, please. This is very important.
"I can feel the voices of the wind spirits. They gift me with
their wisdom and guidance. They
whisper to me of terrible disaster, if we kill Kazuya. Wang has also predicted our doom, if we
become like the enemies we fight."
"Wang Jinrey is a pacifist. He'd predict doom if we kicked
down an anthill. I know. I've
studied his psychological profile, along with those of all the other folks in that Iron Sucker or
"I've never known his prophecies to be wrong."
"How many times have you known them to be right?"
"Um, his foresight is kind of a sporadic gift. It doesn't
come to him all that often, and when
he does make predictions, he usually relates them only to the people who are directly
"How many times, Jun."
"Well, the first time I've heard him actually say a prophecy
was yesterday, when he tested
"In other words, you have no freaking idea how accurate
She started to retort, stopped, and tilted her head a
Lei still wouldn't face her. Was it because he didn't want to
risk betraying his emotions on his
features? Her instincts answered yes.
"You're planning to kill Kazuya, aren't you?" she asked,
nine-tenths certain that she was
"I've agreed to stick to the strategy. Kang gets to issue his
challenge and fight it out," Lei
carefully replied, and the evasion in his answer made her completely certain.
"You can't kill Kazuya."
"Oh, yes I can. He might cast spells to make himself
bulletproof, but if a fist can hurt him, so
will this." Lei twisted his hand. A silver-bladed knife snapped into his palm. It vanished so quickly
that only a split-second of memory could remind her of its appearance.
"Why not? Because you hear voices in your head? It's not
like I pay attention to the ones in
"The wind spirits are real. Their warnings have a
Lei shook his head. "What kind of logic is this, anyway?
You know damn well that we're
fighting a war. People get killed in wars. It's not pleasant, it's not pretty, but it's necessary. If
anything, Kazuya deserves death a thousand times more than the worst of his troops, because he
is the mastermind behind their bloodshed. What, exactly, makes his life so much more valuable
than the lives of his soldiers?"
"I... I'm not sure..."
"All I know is what I feel, and fear. There is a reason, even
if we can't see it yet."
"Oh, I think I can see it pretty clearly."
"I don't understand."
"You keep forgetting, Jun. I was your reagent. I got a
glimpse of what was going on inside
of you. When you unleashed that force to wipe out the invaders, you could have also killed
Kazuya. And his brother Lee, for that matter."
"Lee is a slave," she hastily explained. She paused to
swallow a nervous tremor, which
quivered in her stomach like a fluttering moth. "Kazuya is controlling him through fear, and some
kind of death-link. If Kazuya dies, Lee will also die. I don't fully understand it; it's just something I
felt in Lee's thoughts. If we can only free him of Kazuya's hold-"
"Lee is not the one I have a problem with."
She hugged herself, dropping her eyes to the ground.
"Look, I'm not blaming you. You used to be close to these
people, ever since your
childhood. But before you start telling me what to do, I just want you to take a good, hard look at
your own motives. This is about the fate of the world. We can't let it be decided on anyone's
She straightened, with the strength of her resolve. "Lei, do
you remember when they
accused you of murder?"
"I said you were innocent. I knew you were
innocent, because I had been monitoring
you. No one believed me. Sonya, Raven, even you thought that my emotions had blinded me to
the truth. But that wasn't the case. My testimony was independent of my personal feelings."
"Was it?" His question carried a strained rasp. She couldn't
quite put her finger on what it
"It's true there have been times when my emotions got the
better of me, but that wasn't one
of them, and this isn't one of them. The last time you refused to believe me, you nearly got
executed for it. Now, like you say, the fate of the world is at stake. I've tried to warn Jax, I've
tried to warn Liu Kang, and I'm trying to warn you. Are you sure you can afford to doubt
"Are you sure," he slowly returned, "that you're not just
afraid for your fiancé?"
Her eyes widened, and she caught her breath in surprise.
"I ran away from him six years ago. That part of my life is
"Is it. Is it really."
"All right. Yes, I admit I'm afraid for him. I suppose I do
still care about him. I hope - I pray
it's not too late for him. But Lei, I swear to you, that is not why I had to spare Kazuya's
life. The wind spirits warned me that if I destroyed him, it would be our ruin. We must break
Kazuya's power through single combat. We must not kill him."
Lei folded his forearms tightly against the pit of his
stomach, and hunched part-way forward.
"No. Don't beg for his life. I don't think I could stand it."
Again, that strained rasp affected
his voice. She leaned forward, trying to get a better view of his face without being obtrusive.
"Whatever. Fine. I'll do everything I can to see that Kazuya
is taken alive."
"Um... by 'everything you can,' you mean...?"
"I'm not going to repeat myself! I know you have no good
reason to trust my word, but
that's the best I can give you!"
At last, she recognized what afflicted his voice and posture,
and made him hide his face.
He was trying very hard to camouflage it as disgust.
The terrible memory of what it was like to be in his place
haunted her, and she felt awful for
not realizing it before. Kazuya had condemned him to the excruciating agony of a soulless
existence, and here she was pleading for Kazuya's life? No wonder Lei was upset with her.
"Lei, surely you know that when we break Kazuya's power
through single combat, it will
free all the souls he has taken, including yours. You won't have to suffer anymore."
"It's not that bad," he wheezed, tiredly. "I can deal with it.
I'm just a little shaky because it's
been a few days since I had a drink, is all."
"I could try another calm spell."
His curt refusal distressed her, a little, but it would be petty
of her to dwell on that when she
knew the torture he struggled to endure. "Is there anything else I could do for you?"
"You've saved my life. You were my friend when nearly
everyone in Sanctuary despised me.
You stood up for me when the Nation thought I was a murderer. I don't have the right to ask
anything more of you."
Nightwolf prayed for Chief Thunder's surviving
The sacred shrine had been restored. Nightwolf had spent
hours exorcizing the evil and
death that had contaminated it. He kindled a new fire, and put a water-filled medicine pot used for
purifications on the blaze. Ritual tea simmered in the pot. Raven and Thunderbolt drank of it.
Their hair was damp, for they had immersed themselves in a creek to wash away the taint of
Nightwolf took a bird that had been killed with an arrow,
plucked off some of its feathers,
and cut a modest piece of meat from its right breast. He set the meat in the fire. It sizzled quietly,
without popping or throwing pieces toward the family. This was a good sign, for it suggested that
with the blessings of the gods, Thunderbolt would live to carry on his father's legacy.
"Today I go to war," Nightwolf told Thunderbolt. "You
must maintain the wards in my
absence. Do you remember how to support an enchantment with your life-force?"
The young brave's face tightened. "How can you ask me to
stay behind, while the rest of you
hunt my father's murderers?"
"We are not merely asking," Raven solemnly replied. "The
Council of Elders has ruled upon
this. Someone with the gift of Mystery must remain here, to sustain that which guards our
mothers, children, and the old."
"But why me?"
"It was either you, or one of the Chosen, and we need their
strength to ensure victory over
Kazuya. They are more proficient in the sorcery of war than you are. You are on but the threshold
of adulthood, and yet to come into your full Power."
Thunderbolt gritted his teeth.
"I will carry your vengeance when I march with the
others," Nightwolf said. "If I do not
return, someone must take my place and protect our people. And now, I must leave you to your
Grave resignation overtook the unhappiness on
Thunderbolt's face. Nightwolf started to
leave, paused, and turned back to Chief Thunder's wife and son.
"I deeply regret my folly," he told them, sorrowfully. "I can
never atone for it; all I may do is
pledge my life to our crusade. I shall not return until Chief Thunder has been avenged. This do I
"You are not to blame," Raven answered. Thunderbolt
nodded once in agreement.
"I invited Chief Thunder's murderer into Sanctuary."
"We gave the same assassin access to Sanctuary's wards,
and nearly executed an innocent
man in his place. If you are responsible for one death, then we are responsible for all who perished
in the invasion. Yet none of us can afford to obsess upon guilt, death, or self-pity, when there are
survivors to protect and enemies to fight. Remember that."
Nightwolf departed the shrine. He took with him the
remainder of his purifying tools, and
hid them in a cleft where they could not be found. That left only one more duty before the great
The shaman went in search of Lei Wulong.
He had reprogrammed the wards to monitor shape-shifters,
so that he had no trouble
locating his quarry. Jun Kazama was with the demon. Nightwolf appeared to have unwittingly
interrupted a conversation, judging by the way they abruptly stopped short and stared at him.
"Your pardon," Nightwolf said to Lei. "I came to discuss
"I think I know what you're going to say," the demon
muttered. "You can't cure me of it,
can you? If you could, you would have already done so."
"It is more complex than that. Again, your pardon," and
this time he addressed Jun. "This is
most likely a private matter."
"Um, all right," she modestly replied, preparing to
"Eh, wait," Lei intervened, raising one hand. "You don't
have to - I mean, since you'll be
working with me on the mission, you're entitled to know all you can about my curse."
"Okay. Should Liu Kang be in on this too?"
"Let's not push it."
"Very well," Nightwolf concluded. "I will tell you both
what I understand. Wulong, Kazuya
Mishima may have planted his curse within you, but your own hatred was the soil in which it took
root. Your psyche sustains and reinforces the curse, to such an extent that the greatest wizard in
the Universe could not simply wave his hand and undo it. The streaks of jet that taint the azure of
your aura do not represent a foreign substance thrust upon you; they are your own darkness,
which in turn nourishes your demonic madness."
"Hold it. Are you saying I'm an evil person, and that's why
I shape-change into a monster?"
"As I said before, it is more complex than that. You ask
whether you are evil, when evil
itself is not so easily defined. For the sake of argument, allow me to postulate that evil is the
willingness to cause misery in order to advance one's own desires. But if one's own desires are
selfless, even for the betterment of others, then is any misery caused by seeking to further such
pure and noble intentions 'evil'?
"The potential for selfishness exists within us all. It is,
perhaps to some extent, an outgrowth
of the need to survive. Good and evil may be thought of as balancing the instinct to preserve
oneself with placing a supremely high value upon the lives of others. If 'good' is defined as the
willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to protect the lives of others, then in this respect, you have
proven yourself to be a good and honorable person.
"Yet these abstract concepts of good and evil are tangential
to your curse. Your demonic
side is the product of your negative emotion, even though emotions in and of themselves are
neither good nor evil. They may lead you to good or evil deeds, and guide you for weal or woe
down the path of life, but you are ultimately responsible for the choices you make. You are a
demon not because you hate. You are a demon because your hatred rules you."
Lei blinked and shook his head. "I have no freaking idea
what you're babbling about."
"I do," Jun said.
"You were my reagent, Lei. I got a glimpse of what you're
like on the inside, too."
"Oh." He looked away from her. His neck and shoulders
crumpled with heavy shame. "I'm
"It's not your fault." She touched his hand, which gripped
the bench so tightly that his
tendons became taut cords. "You are a good person. But Nightwolf is right; you are
poisoned with hatred. It consumes you like a sickness, and this isn't a disease I can cure with the
right spell. You have to find a way to heal yourself before it destroys you."
"I don't get it. You talk like I'm some raging berserker.
Sure, I hate Kazuya for what he's
done to me, but-"
"That isn't what I'm referring to."
"Didn't you just now promise me that you would take
Kazuya alive? Could you have agreed
to that if your hatred of him dictated your every action?"
"Don't be so sure. You can't begin to guess what kind of
revenge Raven's going to have on
Kazuya, after we bring him back. I can. It would probably be more merciful to knife him."
"We'll deal with that when we get to it, and it's beside the
"Then what in blazes are you getting at? Other than
Kazuya and his henchmen, there's no
one I really-"
"You hate yourself."
Lei's head drooped. "Oh."
"Your self-loathing controls you, more fiercely and terribly
than Kazuya ever could. It
distorts how you see the entire world. Sometimes it even drives you to endanger or hurt
Her voice remained steady, but her ginger eyes reflected
sadness. "Lei, when you nearly
drank yourself to death in the sewers... it wasn't a complete accident, was it?"
"Eh, I... don't remember very much about that..."
His mumbled excuse hung in empty silence. Jun and
Nightwolf looked at him without
accusation, anger, or pity.
"All right, I remember that we were talking. Bits and pieces
of the conversation stay in my
mind, though a lot of it is too fuzzy to make out. You were trying to persuade me to come to
Sanctuary with you, and I was worried that my curse was too dangerous for me to hang around
other people. But you were making some pretty good arguments, and I didn't have answers for
them, and deep down inside, I really wanted to come. I was afraid that - no, I knew that
you were going to convince me, and if my curse made me harm you - even thinking about that
was too horrible for words. I was scared out of my mind about what could happen if I turned on
you, and sort of in a quandary, when...
"I poured myself another drink, and held it up to my eyes.
Looking at the glass, the idea sort
of... occurred... that if I could just gulp down enough of this stuff, quickly enough, it would solve
all my problems. You wouldn't be in danger of me, and I wouldn't have to worry about it
"I-I didn't - I mean, it's not like this was a coherent plan, I
wasn't thinking clearly at all. I'm
not really - eh, let me put it this way: I don't want to die. I'm scared of dying. Kazuya took my
soul; if I die without a soul, what will happen to me? You have no idea how terrified I am of that.
It's just that being really drunk takes away my fear. It doesn't numb the pain, but certain things
that would normally frighten me no longer seem all that bad... aw, hell. What does any of this
have to do with my curse?"
Jun thoughtfully chewed on her lip. "Lei, do you remember
your fight with T. Hawk, in the
"Eh, sort of. What about it?"
"He beat you up and smashed you into the floor. Then, as
he was turning to walk away, you
got up again, and tried to goad him into shooting you. What was going through your head at the
"I'm not sure. I was pretty drunk."
"You must remember something."
Lei stared off into space for a while. When he resumed
speaking, his voice was flat and
"Somewhere in there, I think I realized how badly I'd
blown it. Going sober, I mean. I'd
thrown it all away, alienated you, and to top it off, I couldn't fight Hawk worth dirt. I guess I was
pretty disgusted with myself, and with damn good reason. I was drunk enough so that, well, I
already told you how being smashed takes away my fear. So it didn't seem to matter whether
Hawk would use the gun on me or not. I didn't think he would, but... eh, I guess I've answered
"Yes. Your thoughts were filled with self-hatred."
"What if they were?"
"You were hissing."
"I heard you, very clearly. You were hissing like a snake; it
was the same sound you made
when I fought you in your demon form. I was terrified you were going to shape-change right
before my eyes. You didn't, probably because Hawk had been careful not to strike you on your
scar. But you were definitely hissing."
"I... I don't remember..."
"Okay. So I don't think much of myself. I've got plenty of
reason for it; what am I supposed
to do, start lying to myself about what a wonderful person I am?"
"What are your reasons for hating yourself?"
"Eh, isn't it obvious? I'm a drunk, a liar, I've screwed up my
life, projected everything
contemptible about myself onto innocent people, including you, got Yue killed-"
No, you didn't, whispered a soft voice in his
"-how long do I have to make the freaking list?"
"You didn't cause your partner's death. She perished in a
plane crash, which Kazuya and his
henchmen might have arranged."
"She was on that plane because I drove her crazy with my
"It still isn't your fault."
Nightwolf furrowed his brow. "The reasons you describe
appear to relate, in one manner or
another, to your alcoholism."
"You can drop the 'appear,'" Lei snorted. "I know it's all
because I'm a drunk."
"You've committed yourself to quitting," Jun
"Oh, I'm trying. I've tried before. This time I'm even on
Antabuse, going to these weird
meetings, and does this count as a session with a shrink? I don't know. Given my track record, I
don't have high hopes about how long I'll stay dry."
"You once told me you had rules. Even when you were
losing control of everything else,
you stayed by the rules, in order to avoid putting innocent people in jeopardy."
"I told you that?"
"Yes. In the sewers."
"I must've been really wasted."
"If you had the will to make and keep rules, you have the
will to quit."
"Please don't take this the wrong way, but you have no
freaking clue what you're talking
about. Yeah, I used to have rules. So what? They didn't last.
"'Never drink on duty.' Probably the only reason I kept this
rule was because Yue would
have strangled me if I'd broken it. When she died, it all went to hell. You already know that I
showed up for work drunk, and got fired for it.
"'Never start fights when I'm drunk.' This rule went into the
trash bin well before Yue's
death. No, I didn't bully or harass anyone, but with just a few drinks I'd start acting stupid. I'd
flash big wads of cash - I've got a credit rating of solid rubber on account of drinking my money
away, so I have to carry cash wherever I go - anyway, I'd throw it around in seedy joints, and
sooner or later someone would try to rough me up and take it. You know what that leads to.
"'Never drive when I've been drinking.' I broke this one in a
big way. Can't even remember
what happened, it's mostly a blackout. Somehow, I parked my car next to a liquor shop, and next
thing I knew it was morning. I woke up at home with a terrible hangover, and the front end of my
car was scrunched up like it was paper. I was scared. Really scared. Practically went over
the dents with a microscope, looking for traces of blood. When I didn't find any, I pulled a few
strings in the department - actually, it was more like begging, but I got a list of all reported auto
accidents that night. None of them appeared to involve me, which was a relief. Retracing my
route to the shop, I found a freaking brick wall with scraps of my car's paint job on it. Must've
smashed into it at a relatively low speed, but... don't you see, I could just as easily have hit an
innocent person and killed him. I resolved that I'd never drive drunk again, no matter what."
"You decided to quit drinking?"
"No, I wrecked my car. It took several hours of hard work
with a sledgehammer. Why are
you looking at me like that? It was my car, I could do what I wanted with it. Anyway, after I
finished, I let its metal hulk rust in my driveway, and commuted to work by taxi or bus. For that
matter, Yue was always behind the wheel of our police car. I haven't actually driven anything in a
long time. My driver's license expired years ago, and I never got a new one. It was the only way I
could keep to the rule."
"What about your gun?"
"You had a rule never to take your gun out of its holster
when you've been drinking."
"Oh. Eh, I... guess I never did actually break that one.
There were times when I've come
close, but... if I had, I don't think I'd be here talking to you. This doesn't have all that much to do
with my point. Rules or no rules, I've turned myself into a drunk, and I don't have much faith that
I'll ever become less despicable than I already am."
"Wulong," Nightwolf said, "do you know what causes
"In my case? Brandy, and lots of it. Though if I can't get
my hands on that, I'll settle for any
kind of hard liquor, and if I can't get that, I'll drink anything with a buzz."
"I am referring to that which allows some people to drink
moderately without losing control,
and turns other people into addicts. Insofar as I know, modern science points to genetics as the
culprit. The genes you were born with. Certainly, alcoholism is well-documented to run in
families, especially among families of my people and East Asians such as you. Alcoholism cuts a
wide swath across all other cultures as well. People from all walks of life turn into alcoholics.
Being addicted to drink is not due to a lack of morals or honor. If you have inherited the genetic
predisposition, and you drink, it is what will inevitably happen."
"Eh, I think I heard them rambling about something like
this at the meeting."
"What Nightwolf means is that you didn't become an
alcoholic because you're somehow a
'despicable' person," Jun urged, laying a gentle hand on Lei's arm. "You can overcome
this. I know you can. And we'll be there to help you, every step of the way."
"I... okay. Okay, I don't have much hope, but I can give it
another chance anyway. Still, even
if I do manage to go straight, so what? It doesn't change what I've done, and I doubt it will turn
me into much of a better person, when I'm worthless to start with."
Jun raised her eyebrows just a little bit. "How long were
you a policeman?"
"Eh, about six years."
"How many lives have you saved?"
"What kind of a question is that?"
"If you don't know, try to estimate."
"How can I begin to guess something like that? If you give
a ticket to a driver who's cruising
thirty miles over the speed limit, did you save a life before he could run over someone? If you
catch a robber, did you save a life before he killed someone in one of his heists? And sometimes
people die no matter what you do."
"But you have saved lives."
"Okay. Maybe a couple times, like when I dropped that
rioting psycho who was firing an
assault rifle on a crowd of people. I don't know."
"Well, I know you've saved lives since we met you. You
rescued Kabal from the mutants.
You saved me from a golden-horned Centaurian. When you believed you had killed Chief
Thunder, you were ready to die in order to spare me from execution, and to protect Sanctuary
from yourself. You worked with me to save Sanctuary from an invasion. And now, you're putting
aside your differences with someone you dislike so you can help save the world."
"I wouldn't say I dislike Kang; he's just an arrogant
insensitive self-righteous donkey, is all."
"I'm not going to debate that, but don't you see my
meaning? You think of yourself as
'worthless,' but a 'worthless' person wouldn't do these things. Now do you
She's on to something, the voice observed.
"...I don't know. On one hand, I can see what you're
saying, but on the other... I just don't
"It is common for alcoholics to feel and project
self-hatred," Nightwolf noted. "Yet the
darkness marring your life-force is so thick, so heavily entrenched, that I question whether its
earliest origins could stretch further back than - how long have you been addicted to drink?"
"Uh, maybe about eight years. When I was in high school,
I'd sometimes go to parties and
get plastered on weekends, but I didn't start really needing to drink on a regular basis until after I
"What was your life like before then?"
"It is a very personal thing to ask," Jun softly
acknowledged. "We can both promise you that
we will keep everything you say in the strictest confidence."
"Eh, I don't know why it would matter. There's really not
much to tell."
"What about your family?"
"Well, it was pretty small. Just me, my parents, and my
brother. Half-brother, actually. He
was from my mother's first marriage; that's about all I know. I've never asked her about that, if her
first husband died or left her, or whatever. I don't know if I have any other relatives. My family
emigrated from mainland China to Hong Kong when I was six, you see. Maybe I have aunts and
uncles or something still living on the mainland, but if so, they've never bothered to track me
down and I've returned the favor."
"Can you describe what your family was like?"
"Dunno where the heck you think you're going with this.
There's really not a whole lot I can
say about my father or my brother. They were both police. Killed in the line of duty when I was
around seven - practically within a few weeks of each other, too. My mother was devastated. I
was, I guess, too young to completely understand why they were gone, and were never coming
"My father used to drink a lot. This is something I'm sort of
piecing together from bits of the
past. One of my earliest memories is about how I should never disturb him when he was sleeping -
when he was with a hangover, actually. Also the strong smell of his breath, and his bad temper.
But it's pretty fuzzy. My brother, well, he was kind of quiet. He used to do Tai Chi every
morning; he started showing it to me when I was very little. Some of my happiest memories are
about practicing it with him. I looked up to him a lot. I wish I'd had the chance to know him
Lei shrugged and fell silent. When moments passed, and
Jun still looked at him as though she
expected him to continue, he said, "Uh, is there anything else you wanted to know?"
Her eyebrows came together, curiously. The puzzled
expression gradually became one of
sympathetic concern. "You left out your mother."
"Oh. Yeah, I guess I did. What is there to say?"
"Did she raise you by herself since you were seven years
"Eh, pretty much. When I turned eighteen, I wanted to
become a cop, and she wouldn't hear
of it. She'd already lost a husband and a son to that profession, you see. We had a big argument
over it. I stormed out, and I've been on my own ever since."
"Did you keep in touch with her?"
"Oh, I supported her - arranged for a piece of my paycheck
to automatically go to her, so
she'd be able to live decently. She's an older person, you understand; she was in her late thirties
when she had me, and her health was never that great. So she retired early, and like I said, I saw
that she was provided for. At least while I had a job, anyway."
"But did you talk to her? Exchange letters?"
"Not in years."
"Can you describe what she was like?"
"She was my mother," he mumbled, absently running one
hand through his sable hair.
I think they already knew that, the voice dryly
Jun nodded somberly, as if he'd said the most informative
thing in the world. "How did she
"She provided for me. I had food to eat and a roof over my
head, most of the time. As soon
as I was old enough, I had to get a part-time job to help pay the bills, but we got by."
"But how did she treat you?"
"I told you, she provided for me. That's better than a huge
number of children ever get."
"But was she kind? Cruel? Attentive? Neglectful?"
"What, are you expecting to hear some horror story about
my childhood? Sorry, I don't have
one. My mother supported me until I was an adult, then I turned around and supported her. That's
the way it works. Why are you asking me about her, anyway?"
Jun's eyes became misty with deep thought. "You once
mentioned something about your
mother. You said she told you that you'd never amount to anything."
"Did she say that sort of thing a lot?"
Lei uncomfortably tugged at his collar and looked away.
"I don't know. Yeah, I was pretty much a disappointment
to her. My grades weren't good
enough, I wasn't polite enough, I couldn't keep the apartment clean enough, my cooking was
terrible, I wasn't earning enough money, I was too lazy, too slovenly, I spent too much time
outside our home. She'd get upset about it sometimes. What do you mean by 'a lot'?"
"What do you mean by 'sometimes'?"
"I'm not sure. She didn't really yell at me all that much.
Maybe once a week or so. Usually
she'd settle for a stern reprimand. She despaired that I'd ever be able to earn a decent living, and
she used to scold that she'd have to work to support herself through her old age. Are you going
somewhere with any of this?"
Jun exchanged glances with Nightwolf, and turned back to
Lei. "You once told me that if
you say a lie over and over again, you'll start to believe it. And when you start believing it with
every fiber of your being, then it isn't really a lie anymore - or at least, it's no longer a lie to
"Uh... yeah. I guess I said that."
"Has it ever occurred to you," she measuredly reasoned,
"that if the person who raised you
has been repeatedly telling you that you are worthless, ever since your early childhood, then
perhaps you would start to believe it, even though it wasn't true? That what she said could
become locked in your mind as something you assumed about yourself, without even thinking
Lei pressed both forearms below his ribcage and looked at
the ground. "In all honesty, I try
to avoid thinking about her at all. I arranged for my paycheck to be automatically garnished to
support her, and that was the end of it. Hell, I don't know what's become of her since the
Apocalypse. The green fire probably froze her in her armchair, while she was watching one of her
late-night TV shows. I don't know."
Lei lapsed into a long minute of silence, his eyes still on the
Jun noiselessly tapped her fingers against the table's
wooden surface. She took a deep breath
and ventured to ask, "Do you think your mother loved you?"
"Do you think-"
"I freaking heard what you said. What kind of a question is
"It's the kind that can probably be answered with a 'yes,' a
'no,' or an 'I don't know,'" she
replied, absolutely serious.
"This is crazy. How many times do I have to repeat it, I
had food to eat and a roof over my
head. Isn't that enough?"
"Do you think so?"
"It's not like I was mistreated," he huffed, turning his face
away. "You're confusing me with
Kazuya. He's the one whose father beat him half to death practically every day."
"It is possible to inflict lasting harm with words, as surely
as with blows," Nightwolf stated.
"That you could have suffered worse does not necessarily indicate that you were treated
"I don't know where you're getting all these crazy ideas.
My mother provided for me."
"But did she love you?" Jun asked.
"She... she provided for me... she..."
Lei trailed off. He rubbed his forehead, wiping away the
sweat that had formed on his brow.
"She didn't want me to become a cop," he said, in a low,
distant tone. "She'd lost a husband
and a son to that profession, and they couldn't support her after they were dead. She wanted me
to be a doctor, because doctors make more money, and have a higher life expectancy. She was
afraid I'd get killed, and then I wouldn't be able to provide for her, in her old age. I doubt she'd
miss me if I died; she'd just regret that she put eighteen years of income into raising a son, with no
financial security to show for her investment. I... I guess I can't rule out that she loved me, but if
she did, she never told me so. Look, can you explicitly spell out what any of this has to do with
me turning into a demon when I'm struck on the chest?"
Nightwolf answered, "Being struck is a psychological
trigger that Kazuya has implanted
within you, through shared memories and a physiological sensitivity that he has wired into your
nerves. He was able to link his psyche to yours because you possess the mirror of his
"What are you saying? Are you saying I'm the same as that
"His hatred is, I presume, turned outward toward the
world. Yours is turned inward, toward
yourself. Yet it is hatred all the same, and through this hatred both of you are made demons."
"I don't believe a word of this. I am not like him."
"Lei, I still have the memory that Liu Kang showed me, of
when Kazuya cursed you," Jun
added. "Do you remember what Kazuya said?"
"This is crazy. I'm not going to sit here and take this!" Lei
snapped, standing up.
"He said, 'So determined. Obsessed with vengeance. And
hatred, such hatred.'"
"You're spouting complete nonsense!"
"He said, 'You - you are like me...'"
"Kazuya didn't know what he was talking about, and
"'...all the way down to your soul.'"
"I AM NOT LIKE HIM!" Lei screamed, clenching his
quivering hands so tightly that blood
drained from his knuckles.
Jun did not flinch. She simply gazed at him, with those
compassionate ginger eyes, until
self-conscious realization unraveled his anger.
Lei's hands unclenched. They continued to shake, no longer
with rage, but with nervous
anxiety. He sank back down on the bench.
"Sorry... I'm sorry... you're..." Lei swallowed bile and
covered his eyes. "You're right. I am
like him in at least one way: I'm thoroughly screwed up on the inside. But I don't know how I can
ever get past that."
"Understanding is the first step," Nightwolf said. "You are
confronted with a vicious circle:
your self-hatred leads to drinking, and your drinking leads to self-hatred. Having grown up in a
loveless home, you find it that much harder to love yourself. The curse builds upon all these
factors, exacerbating what is already there. However, there is also good inside of you, and
strength, and caring. You need to recognize and embrace these qualities within yourself. Only
through this can the curse be broken."
"Lei, I..." Jun almost whispered, tenderly laying her hand
on his arm. Her voice wavered and
"I'm sorry. I need some time to think about this," Lei
croaked. "Can you two go on ahead?
I'll join the big march on the syndicate when it sets out, but right now..."
Jun and Nightwolf nodded. They left him alone at the
Alone, that is, except for the voice in his head.
You know, you're a funny detective. You can uncover
baffling criminal schemes from
only a trace of evidence, but you can't see the blindingly obvious sitting in front of your
Lei squeezed his eyes shut, held his breath, and covered his
ears, until the nonexistent sound
went away. He exhaled, and opened his eyes again.
Yue is standing by the other side of the table.
She looks the same as she did in life, her half-size too small
uniform freshly ironed and
pressed, her short brown hair tucked neatly under her cap. She drums her finely manicured nails
on the table's surface, and appraises him with equal measures of annoyance and concern.
"You're not real, Yue," Lei murmurs, in a daze. "You're
not a ghost. You're just a dream, a
hallucination dredged out of my subconscious..."
"Well, then maybe your subconscious is trying to TELL
you something IMPORTANT, ever
think of THAT!?" she retaliates, slamming her open hands on the table. Her words have gained a
compelling resonance, so much like the flesh-and-blood voice he remembers that he can no longer
distinguish the difference.
Lei blinks and rubs his eyes, but the vision does not go
away. He wonders if he is about to
experience the acute convulsions of delirium tremens.
"No, I am not a goddamn DT, I am a simple concept in
desperate need of your attention,"
Yue retorts to the unspoken thought. "Jun and Nightwolf are right. Your only chance of surviving
all this, of taking back a life worth living, is to rise above this endless cycle of self-hatred in which
you've trapped yourself. You have to let go."
She nods. Her exasperation softens into solemn quietude.
"Let go of the guilt. The pain. The
grief and the rage. Let go of the blame for the faults that aren't yours, and reconcile with the faults
that are. And you have to let go of me."
"How can I do that?" he responds, still reluctant to believe
that he is talking to her. "I was in
love with you. You died because of me. And I... I didn't tell them in so many words, but during
those long months in the sewers, there were times when all I wanted was to point my .38 at my
head and end it quickly. Whenever I started thinking like that, I'd close my eyes, lie down, and
hold on to your memory until the compulsion passed. I had to stay alive in order to avenge you.
To stop Kazuya and his goons from killing any more victims. Only I couldn't stop him. I couldn't
even leave the city. When the kid pointed that out to me, it finally sank in that my only choices
were to go with her, or rot in the sewers until the end of time, but I couldn't go with her because
I'd put her in danger... I think that's why I broke down and..."
"I didn't say that you should forget about me," Yue
clarifies. "You have to let go of me, and
stop tormenting yourself over the things you can't change. It's not your fault I used you for a
one-night stand. It's not your fault I died."
"Three nights," he mumbles under his breath. "And even if
it wasn't me who made your plane
crash, it was me who treated you so awful. After you turned down my marriage proposal,
I made you the center of everything I hated about myself, and drove you past the breaking point
by slowly killing myself with hard liquor."
"If I were still alive, and if I knew that it would help you to
heal, I would forgive you. You
know that I would. Since I'm gone, you have to forgive yourself. Make peace with my memory,
Lei. If not for my sake, then for your own, and for the sake of the young woman you love."
"The kid? I..."
"Jun is not a child. That's just something you say to
distance yourself from her, and to hide
from your own feelings. Even though you try not to call her a 'kid' to her face anymore, you still
think of her as one, because the alternative would be to think about someone with whom you have
fallen in love - someone who can hurt you, like I hurt you. And that terrifies you more than dying,
more than turning into a demon, more than anything in the world."
"What you say is impossible. I don't have a soul. How can I
feel anything for her without
"You do have a soul. Kazuya may have taken it
from you, but it's still your soul."
Lei starts to shake his head in disbelief. "It just can't be
Yue exhales a skeptical puff of breath past her lower lip.
"Then what do you feel in your
heart when you look at her? When she talks to you? When she touches you?"
"She's beautiful," he reflects, gazing wistfully in the
direction he saw her leave. "And not just
on the outside. Everything about her - the way she moves, the way she cares, her kindness, her
voice, and especially her soul. She's so beautiful that when I'm around her, it doesn't hurt so bad. I
mean, the pain doesn't go away, but it's like it doesn't really matter so much. I am scared of dying,
really scared, but when Raven and Thunderbolt offered me a trade - my life for hers - there was
only one choice I could make. I'd do it again in a second. Somehow, passing out of existence isn't
quite so bad if you know something that beautiful is going to survive you.
"I still have the memory of how Kazuya treated her. Sort
of. There's no sound left, no image,
it's like words on paper, but what he told her is still in my mind: 'No one will ever want
you.' How could he lie to her like that? How could she believe it? He had no right to hurt her so
Lei's nails dig into the table's rough surface, heedless of the
splinters that pierce his
fingertips. He grinds his teeth in a feral growl.
"No, I don't want Raven to take revenge on that bastard. I
want to do it myself. I want to be
the one who drives the knife into his throat, and I want to feel his warm blood splash on my hand.
It's crazy. He killed you, Yue, and he killed my friends, he's killed more people than I can name,
he took my soul and left me in constant pain, but when I think of what he did to her, that's
what damn near pushes me over the edge.
"Except that now she walks up to me and says we have to
take that murderer alive. She says
she still cares for him. When she told me that, it was like I was stabbed. I couldn't even
look at her, or I would've broken down completely.
"Damn, but I should have seen this coming. It's because of
who she is. She can't hate him for
raising his hand to her. Hell, she forgave me for trying to kill her..."
"You were possessed by your curse at the time," Yue
"...and you want to know the really funny thing? She's
already inflicted the worst possible
punishment on him, without realizing it. She ran away and left him. I can't imagine anything that
could hurt more than to have her as a fiancée, and then lose her like that. When I think of
it that way, suddenly it all turns around and I almost feel sorry for him. Almost."
Lei brushes back the ash-grey forelock in his bangs. The
midnight ellipsis stands out on his
forehead, a menacing emblem of his inner blight.
"I... I wish I could love her. I wish she loved me."
"Perhaps she does," Yue suggests.
"No. She... she's been kind to me, but that's because it's her
nature. It's part of what makes
her so beautiful. Yes, she's stood by me, even testified to my innocence when the Nation thought
I'd murdered their Chief. But that's because it's in her soul to heal and protect anyone who she
thinks can be saved. You heard her. Her testimony at the trial had nothing to do with any personal
feelings for me."
Yue looks at him, sadly. "To open yourself to her love, you
need to free yourself from your
hate. And to free yourself from your hate, you have to let go."
Lei stands and turns his head toward Sanctuary's
settlements, observing the morning bustle
as rows of people ready themselves for war. They will move out soon.
"Let go, Lei," Yue entreats, in a whisper that is fading with
the sunless dawn. "Let it all go."
"It's time for you to disappear now, dream or subconscious
or whatever you are," he sighs,
trudging toward the gathering army. "I've already cried all my tears for you, and I don't have the
strength to shed any more."
End of Chapter 17: Soul-Searching