ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.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."
         -Socrates


         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 intensity.
         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 meant, 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 mission."
         "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 Kazuya."
         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 whatever tournament."
         "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 affected..."
         "How many times, Jun."
         "Well, the first time I've heard him actually say a prophecy was yesterday, when he tested me-"
         "In other words, you have no freaking idea how accurate he is."
         She started to retort, stopped, and tilted her head a little.
         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 right.
         "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.
         "You mustn't."
         "Why not? Because you hear voices in your head? It's not like I pay attention to the ones in mine!"
         "The wind spirits are real. Their warnings have a purpose."
         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..."
         "Aren't you?"
         "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 personal feelings."
         She straightened, with the strength of her resolve. "Lei, do you remember when they accused you of murder?"
         "Yeah."
         "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 meant.
         "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 me?"
         "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. "You knew?"
         "Yeah."
         "I ran away from him six years ago. That part of my life is over."
         "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.
         "Lei, please-"
         "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.
         "I'm sorry."
         "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.
         Pain.
         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."
         "No."
         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?"
         Lei sighed.
         "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 relatives.
         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 death.
         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 task."
         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 swear."
         "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."
         "I shall."
         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 march began.
         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 your curse."
         "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 leave.
         "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.
         "What?"
         "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 sorry..."
         "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."
         "Huh?"
         "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 point anyway."
         "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 yourself."
         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...
         "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 anymore.
         "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 bar?"
         "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 time?"
         "I'm not sure. I was pretty drunk."
         "You must remember something."
         "Well, I..."
         Lei stared off into space for a while. When he resumed speaking, his voice was flat and unemotional.
         "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 your question."
         "Yes. Your thoughts were filled with self-hatred."
         "What if they were?"
         "You were hissing."
         "Huh?"
         "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..."
         "I do."
         "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 head.
         "-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 drinking."
         "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 reminded.
         "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?"
         "Eh?"
         "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 alcoholism?"
         "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 understand?"
         "Eh, maybe..."
         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 know."
         "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 graduated."
         "What was your life like before then?"
         "Huh?"
         "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 back.
         "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 better."
         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 old?"
         "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 commented.
         Jun nodded somberly, as if he'd said the most informative thing in the world. "How did she treat you?"
         "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."
         "Oh."
         "Did she say that sort of thing a lot?"
         Lei uncomfortably tugged at his collar and looked away. "Eh, maybe."
         "Maybe?"
         "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 you."
         "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 about it?"
         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 ground.
         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?"
         "Wh-what?"
         "Do you think-"
         "I freaking heard what you said. What kind of a question is that?"
         "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 well."
         "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 overwhelming hatred."
         "What are you saying? Are you saying I'm the same as that murdering bastard?"
         "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 neither do-"
         "'...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 failed her.
         "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 table.
         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 nose.
         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."
         "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 that?"
         "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 true."
         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..."
         "Well?"
         "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 badly-!"
         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 remarks.
         "...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