ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.com
Victar's Archive:
http://www.victarfanfics.com


Interlude: Elsewhen


         Another place, an earlier time.
         Yue looked out the window.
         From her comfortable, first-class seat, she could peer across the runway and through the broad glass windows of the airport. The policewoman's thin eyebrows became straight lines, hovering low and flat above her eyes.
         He was watching her.
         She could barely make out his tiny figure from this distance, but there could be no mistake. He was supposed to be on his way to catch his own damn flight up to some crazy temple, but instead, he had stayed behind to watch her. Her filthy, self-destructive, alcoholic idiot of a former police partner was watching her flight take off.
         Lei, she thought, more from sadness than exasperation, when will you finally learn to let go?
         She closed her eyes and shook her head. The roaring whine of jet engines filled her ears, and she felt the tight pressure of acceleration as her aircraft took to the overcast sky. Brewing grey clouds made her view of the earth below fade to a murky wash. A single, jagged streak of lightning flashed, making her blink in response to its brilliance.
         There was a rumble of thunder.
         It began to rain.
         The stormy weather emphasized her own black mood. Gods damn that wretched excuse for a cop anyway; why couldn't he check himself into a detox clinic where he belonged? Or else a mental ward? If anyone needed to be locked up for their own protection, it was-
         -why was she brooding about him, anyway?
         This was her vacation. Her well-earned flight to a month of relaxation and pampering. She was traveling to escape the pressures of her job and her life, not to mention Lei himself.
         It wasn't her fault.
         Okay, so she should have known better. For that matter, so should he. You never, ever get personally involved with a coworker, for the simple reason that if the relationship goes sour, it will poison your working environment, your efficiency on the job, and quite possibly the rest of your life. Except that it was never supposed to be a relationship. He certainly wasn't the type to get bogged down in the emotional baggage of a pair-bond, and neither was she. Hell, he had a reputation for sleeping with anything in a skirt - a true reputation, or so he had once confessed to her while on his fifth shot glass.
         People like him know better than to confuse casual pleasure with lasting adoration. People like him do not fall in love as easily as that.
         It wasn't her fault.
         Get married? Her? Why? She was a workaholic on the job, and a hedonist off it. Her life had no time to spare for the needs of a husband, let alone children - not that she'd have had to worry about the latter with Lei, of course, but that was beside the point.
         Why had he become so infatuated with her? Was it a deep-seated need springing from years of past neglect? Was it a desperate attempt to compensate for his own insecurities?
         Was it because she'd led him on?
         No, damn it, no, it wasn't her fault!
         Yue's finely manicured nails moved slowly down the thick glass window, producing a hideous screeching sound. The noise brought her out her stewing acrimony and back to the real world. She massaged her eyes, in an unenthusiastic attempt to clear her head.
         I'll be a different person when you get back. You'll see, Lei had promised when she boarded her flight. He'd insisted that he was going to quit drinking himself into a shallow grave, and become completely sober by the time she returned. For his sake, she hoped he could actually do it.
         Failing that, then for her sake, she hoped he'd drop dead.
         It was a spiteful thing to think, but nowhere near as vicious as the manner in which he was slowly killing himself, day by disintegrating day, as the poison he drank sickened his liver and dissolved his mind. He'd been a truly brilliant detective once, at least her equal in skill and talent. Then, she'd seen him degenerate over time, until he'd sunk to something she was ashamed to call "partner." But it was out of her hands now, and he was out of her life, and she was going to have fun on her goddamn blasted bloody miserable vacation if it killed her. She was leaving him behind because, as cold-blooded as she sometimes might seem to be, she was not so callous that she could watch him die by degrees and not care.
         It wasn't her fault she didn't love him...
         Someone was watching her.
         Yue straightened in her seat. Reflected on the window glass, against the ominous background of grey storm clouds, was the dark face of a man. He was the American who had hurled insults at her when she'd hesitated getting on her flight. His eyes bored into her with hostile contempt. She twisted around in her seat, returning his antagonistic glare tenfold-
         He was gone.
         Her questing eyes scanned the rows of passengers, but she couldn't spot him. Had he ducked out of the first-class section?
         And why did she suddenly feel so worried?
         Alarm bells rang in the back of her head. It seemed silly; so what if a strange man had glowered at her and slipped away? What was she going to do, arrest him for staring? Still, her sixth sense would not be quiet. It flooded her body with warnings of a dire threat, and made her grip the armrests of her seat with fearful tension.
         Who was that American? Why did he make her so nervous?
         Could he be a known criminal?
         She recalled an image of his face: his dark skin, a shaded cross between African and Southeast Asian; his patchlike beard; his beady, gravel eyes; the narrow strip of dense, curly hair dividing the top of his skull in a vertical line; and his thin, tight-set lips. While she wasn't gifted with a naturally photographic memory, years of training had taught her to identify such telling details from even a brief glance. This is one of many skills one must learn if one is going to be Super Police.
         The stray reminder of Lei's would-be nickname caused her to mentally stumble. She regained her composure, and compared what she knew of the American against descriptions of known outlaws. It wasn't difficult; the strange man was so unusual that he markedly stood out, at least in a Hong Kong airport. If she'd seen his picture in a local mug book, then she would definitely remember it...
         ...wouldn't she?
         With a sick feeling in her stomach, she recognized him. Not from her job, but her time off it. She'd followed gossip about blood-sport fighting, and remembered a story about an American kickboxer - a half-black, half-Thai killing machine called the "Nightmare Impact." He'd slaughtered a heavily favored champion in the ring, earning the wrath of both sides of the law. But the authorities were never able to catch him for the murder, and mafia family gunning for his head had mysteriously disappeared. What had the kickboxer's name been, again? Bruce-something. Bruce Irving? No, Bruce Irvin, that was it. Was this the same person?
         Could it be coincidence?
         Could it not be coincidence?
         In her eight years on the job, Yue had learned to trust her instincts. Right now, they told her that an ordinary, innocent traveler would not size her up like a farm animal to be slaughtered.
         Yue did not waste another second. She slipped out of her seat and headed toward the airplane's flight deck, roughly pushing past the prim stewardess who blocked her path. Yue reached a cramped, hollowed-out room within the jet's nose. The pilot stared straight ahead, through the reinforced glass windshield of his vehicle, completely unaware of her presence. The copilot did a wide-eyed double take.
         "Hey," gasped the copilot, "what are you-"
         "Radio our destination at once," she commanded. "I have reason to believe that a dangerous fugitive is aboard this flight."
         "Look, lady," the flustered man drawled, "I don't know who you are, but you have no business-"
         "I am Detective Yue Cheong of the Royal Hong Kong Police, and wanted killers are my business!" she snapped, flashing her police ID. "Now do as I say, before-"
         "Oh, no you don't," warned a rough, threatening voice, speaking in English with a heavy American accent.
         Yue whirled around, and stared at the gleaming barrel of a Heckler & Koch P7M10, a .40 caliber weapon that combined raw stopping power with a squeeze-cocking mechanism suitable for one-handed use. Bruce Irvin - she no longer doubted that it was he - held the gun in his right hand, keeping its muzzle squarely trained on her heart. He stood less than a meter away, carrying himself with the cautious-yet-relaxed poise and constant readiness of a natural fighter. If she were to try any sort of attack, he could shoot her dead before she touched him. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the copilot sitting slack-jawed in a frozen stupor. The pilot remained oblivious.
         "How did you sneak that past the metal detectors?" she asked, more to buy time than because of any particular curiosity.
         He smiled, exposing uneven rows of yellowed teeth. There were gaps where incisors and canines ought to be. "The man got connections."
         "Who is 'the man'?"
         "None a' your business. Just move next to the flyboys there, nice an' easy. We're gonna have a little change of course-"
         The prim stewardess' voice came from the entrance to the flight deck. "Captain, I'm so sorry, I couldn't stop them-" Her eyes bulged when she saw the gun. She sucked in her breath and began to voice a scream-
         -which Yue did not listen to, for in the split-second that it took for Bruce to glance at the distraction, the policewoman smashed her knuckles into his face. Her punch split his lips and crushed a hole in his teeth. That should have stunned him enough to make him drop the weapon, but he held on to it despite the bloody wreck she'd made of his mouth. She blocked his gun-hand with her outer forearm and seized his wrist; he pulled the trigger anyway, causing rapid bursts of violent discharge. Although she had the twin advantages of leverage and surprise, his physical strength was far greater, so that it took everything she had to keep his weapon just barely out of line with her body.
         The stewardess screamed again.
         Yue's enemy thrust his knee into the pit of her stomach. She reeled from the blow; an instant's relent was all he needed to free his gun hand and send three teflon-coated bullets into the policewoman's torso.
         The stewardess screamed a third time.
         "Shut UP, bitch!" Bruce bellowed, firing at the stewardess' head. An armor-piercing round burrowed into her eye and out the back of her skull, rending apart bone and brains. Bruce turned to the pilot and instructed, "If you don't wanna get more a' the same, you'll-"
         With a shocked stare, he perceived that the pilot slumped limp and unmoving at his controls. A winding dribble of crimson spilled down the side of the pilot's damaged head. The copilot's neck carried a similar grinning red wound, and his head tilted back at an unnatural angle. The flight gauges, levers, and meters of the airplane itself had deep holes embedded within them; unsettling crackles, whines, and clanks came from the savaged instruments. A sudden stall made the floor of the plane tilt under Bruce's feet.
         "Shit," he grumbled to himself. "This wasn't supposed to-"
         He didn't feel the tackle until he hit the ground, and the weight of a human body kept him pinned flat on his stomach.
         "You have the right to remain silent," Yue seethed. "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law." She labored for breath, and her voice hovered on the edge of collapse, yet adrenaline and determination lent her the strength to keep him trapped.
         "Ain't you dead yet?" Bruce demanded.
         "Oh, no. If I'm going to die, then I'm taking you with me," she spat, but he could hear the pained weakness behind the threat.
         "It'll be a lot more than just me if someone don't take over flyin' this-"
         Several things happened at once. The aircraft's stall became corkscrew spin, and the lightness of accelerating descent nearly threw Yue off her captive's back. Panicked cries sounded from the airplane's passenger section. Bruce closed his eyes, as if listening to something only he could hear.
         "Too late," the kickboxer flatly pronounced. "There's nothin' the man can do. You're all goin' down."
         "You first," she hissed, clutching at his head and wrenching his neck in lethal half-twist - or at least, that was what she tried to do. His form abruptly dissolved underneath her, into absolutely nothing, and he was gone. She might have thought it all a dream, if not for the corpses in the flight deck, the sting of her sucking chest wounds, and the roiling turbulence that buffeted the floor underneath her.
         Yue peered through the windshield of the flight deck, and caught a whirling, nightmare glimpse of an island rushing up to meet the falling aircraft. She estimated the collision would be in roughly another five seconds. The policewoman struggled to crawl closer to the flight controls, but the strength was ebbing from her limbs even as blood drained from her body.
         Four seconds.
         In the throes of desperation, she threw herself across the last meter, and wrapped her hands around a lever.
         Three seconds.
         Yue wrenched the nondescript stick toward herself, as far as it could go.
         Two seconds.
         It would have helped if she had some inkling what this lever was supposed to do, or what any of the other controls meant, or any goddamn idea at all how to fly a plane. Maybe it wouldn't have saved her, or anyone else, but it would have helped.
         One second.
         That does it, Yue steadfastly thought to herself. In my next life, I'm going to be an accountant.


Chapter 21: Voices


    "To the undiscerning eye, justice and vengeance can look the same."
         -Rashida Scalebane, "Divine Retribution" [Magic: the Gathering, Visions]


         Keeping close to the walls of the Mishima syndicate, Lei Wulong folded one arm behind his back, confirming that his concealed weapons were in place and ready.
         Now, where did Jun say that secret passage was? Three archways past the top of the carpeted stairs, and the catch was hidden in the carved wooden bookshelf, behind the book about Ikebana, the art of flower arranging. Lei reached past an elegant miniature porcelain filled with brightly blooming violets, for a tall, thin volume with floral designs decorating its dust jacket. To his mild surprise, there was a mechanical click, followed by a squealing creak. What was once a seamless wall swung outward, opening a gateway into shadow.
         There was a thick layer of undisturbed dust on the floor of the secret passage; no one had used it in years. Lei used it now only because he was isolated from Liu Kang's cloaking magic, and couldn't think of a better way to avoid being caught.
         Lei replaced the Ikebana book. He dashed inside the corridor before it swung shut, enclosing him in near-total darkness. Even his infrared-sensitive eyes were close to blind, though a minuscule distinction between the temperature of the walls and the temperature of the air allowed him to feel his way along at a moderate pace.
         Where do you think you're going, idiot?
         Yue's sardonic voice, or rather, the memory of her voice, reverberated in the back of his mind. For perhaps the thousandth time, he blocked out the ghostly murmur-
         Wait.
         Jun had said she could feel the souls that Kazuya Mishima had enslaved to his will. What if Yue's caustic voice, a phenomenon that had sporadically haunted Lei for over a year now, was more than a hallucination? What if...?
         I said, where are you going, and what will you do when you get there?
         "Yue?" he uncertainly whispered to the darkness, backing against the corridor wall. A shiver gripped him; he didn't know whether it came from fear, remorse, or lingering withdrawal. "A-are you here? Is that really you?"
         Like that's the most important thing in the world right now? Idiot!
         His shaking became worse, so severe that he had to lean against the wall to remain standing. He squeezed his eyes shut.
         The soundless voice couldn't truly belong to his former partner and lover. It just couldn't. Grief, guilt, terror, and misery curled within him at the very thought. If he dwelled on it any longer, he'd lose his mind. He had to believe it wasn't she, ignore the silent demands and press on.
         He had to press on...
         Press on to do what? Just how far do you think you'll get, sneaking around on your own? Kazuya's sorcery can track you anywhere.
         "Th-there's an army fighting to distract Kazuya."
         How long do you think they'll last? Have you forgotten they're outnumbered ten to one?
         "Then I'll distract him, at least until Liu Kang and the kid can get rid of their collars and make their move."
         You should be with Kang and Jun. Helping them.
         "I-I couldn't stay with them," he all but whimpered to the darkness. "I'm too great a threat."
         Bullshit.
         "I almost killed them both."
         But you didn't. And if you were with them now, your help could improve their odds of survival. So don't hide behind excuses; answer honestly. Why are you running away from them?
         "Because of my curse," he insisted, rubbing a recurring ache in the center of his marked forehead.
         She brought you out of it.
         "I don't understand."
         Don't you? What's the first thing you remember, after you lost control and shape-changed into a demon?
         The cop drew and exhaled a shuddering breath.
         "Singing. I remember singing. The kid has such a beautiful voice, it's like a rainbow made of sound. And she said something to me, in Japanese..."
         Lei nearly stumbled as he thought of that moment, adrift in time; the moment when his consciousness had emerged, recalled from the black depths of his demonic alter ego. He could almost see Jun holding out her open hand, her beauty and kindness shining like a light in the darkness, stirring feelings he'd thought slain and buried with his lost partner.
         "Lei o ai shite-imasu," Jun had said, tears in her eyes and tenderness in her voice. Her words felt crucial somehow, as though they were the key to life, death, and everything that makes a difference in between. He wondered what they meant.
         You should have asked for a translation, suggested the sardonic other voice in Lei's mind.
         Lei shook his head and swallowed hard. He couldn't afford to obsess about riddles now; he had to make himself move further down the secret passageway, step by step, to his destination.
         It's not too late to retrace those steps. You're a reagent, remember? Alone, you're helpless against Kazuya's sorcery, but when you use your potential to amplify Jun's or Liu Kang's magic, then the lot of you actually stand a fighting chance. So what if you're cursed? Jun brought you out of it once, she can do so again. Maybe she can help you break free of it forever. Maybe she would have, if you hadn't been so quick to bolt!
         "I'm not really hearing you, Yue," the cop insisted, clenching his hands and teeth in bitter anguish. "You're not really here. You're just a piece of my memory, a flashback, a symptom of my withdrawal. I have to believe that. I have to."
         Idiot.



         Outside the syndicate, at the crest of a raging war, Commander Baek Doo San also heard a voice in his head - Kazuya's cold, determined, ruthless voice, issuing telepathic instructions.
         I am about to devote the whole of my energies to a magnified ward upon you and your contingent. Your strength and resistance to damage will be temporarily akin to that of a Centaurian. Use this window of opportunity to sabotage the enemy's formation, and disrupt the Chosen Ones who resist my will.
         Baek nodded in response. Through the eyes of his shadow-hawk circling above, he coolly observed the ring of Chosen Ones who meditated in the center of their army, and the Jack-2 androids that besieged them all. The commander's lips curled into the barest, thinnest smile.
         At last, the killing could begin in earnest.
         He led the charge with a maniacal shout, which became a roaring scream of laughter when he drew first blood. Baek had a mere five hundred soldiers, less than half of whom possessed any combat experience to speak of. Yet the indigo glow of Kazuya's ward turned aside bullets, toughened their skin against blades, and lent terrible power to their blows. Combined with the horde of inexorable androids, Baek's attack became a relentless tidal wave of death and destruction.
         The commander wielded no weapons, and needed none. Charged with the power of his master's sorcery, Baek used his hands and heels to shatter bayonets, crush bones, and trample wounded victims. When a colossal Native American barred his path, a whisper of the commander's mind sent his shadow-hawk to rake the enemy's eyes with its talons. Seeing the bloody trails on his opponent's face drove Baek into a mad frenzy. He battered the human Colossus with a series of powerful kicks, beginning with a half-turn and thrust of his left heel to what would be the upper chest of an ordinary man, and which sank into his enemy's solar plexus. Baek incorporated the motion into a seamless full turn. Now he used his left leg to support himself as he dipped low, knee bent at a right angle but with his ankle joint leaning forward enough to keep his center of gravity directly over his supporting foot. His right heel clashed with his enemy's knee, locked it, and broke it. He finished by switching legs once more, and channeling the brunt of his power into a chest kick that cracked ribs and shoved the human giant off his feet.
         A tall, proud, dark-haired woman stood behind the fallen Colossus. She virtually radiated leadership, even though it was the corn-blond enemy soldier next to her who yelled the command to tighten ranks. Laughing like a madman, Baek targeted the woman. A red-haired spear-carrier tried to impale him; Baek used his amplified strength to break his enemy's weapon and teeth.
         "Rock CRUSH!"
         Another massive warrior, this one with the headdress of a bear, stepped in front of Baek's injured enemy and swung his axe. Its blade left a small, shallow crease in the commander's shoulder, but that was all. Kazuya's ward had reduced the executioner's stroke to a glorified paper cut. The commander used his unearthly strength to wrest away his enemy's own axe and turn it against him. Baek chopped at his foe's gut, sinking the axe-blade so deep he felt a jarring shock as its edge met the bear-warrior's spine. The bear-warrior's eyes glazed, and his head jerked as he topped to the ground. Baek left the axe in the body; pausing to pull it out would only delay him from more killing.
         The corn-blond man shouting orders yelped and barely dodged the slow, heavy-handed swings of a Jack-2 android. More androids and warded human soldiers forced him back, further squeezing the badly outnumbered army.
         And with that offensive surge, the last of the dark-haired woman's immediate defenders were dead, hurting, or falling back. Baek flew at her with a running side kick. She pointed her staff at him, yet he never felt the blade that sprang from its tip. His heel drove into her neck, snapping its vertebrae in one clean hit. She was dead before she hit the ground.
         "HYUNGDO!" screamed the high-pitched voice of another woman, at least an octave above the din of battle. It was the first time Baek had heard anyone speak his native tongue since the horrible day when he had killed his father and fled South Korea. He advanced upon his latest victim with relish.
         She was a willowy slip of a girl pretending to be a warrior. Her glaive and two-flap fighting dress were ragged, spattered with blood and oil. Her sepia eyes burned with rage.
         <You kill Raven! I KILL YOU!> she screeched, yet she, too had underestimated the resilience of Kazuya's ward. The indigo glow diminished her weapon to scarcely a bamboo staff, and her life to even less. She let out another, piercing shriek of fury when Baek whipped a lightning kick to her face-
         "Mina! NO!"
         -and now a new outcry became a wordless, feline yowl as one of the Chosen, a short monk with a razor-brimmed hat, invoked his strange and terrible Power. His human body flowed, metamorphosing into the sleek black curves and elastic muscles of a massive jungle cat. The animal pounced on Baek before he could kill the Korean girl. Though Kazuya's ward enhanced Baek's strength an unearthly degree, the commander was caught in the middle of his one-legged kick, so that the black panther's momentum inevitably slammed him against the ground. He tucked in both legs, planting them against the animal's belly, and used the muscles in his thighs and calves to heave the beast over his head.
         The panther landed on its feet, but the damage had been done. The Chosen Ones' circle was broken, and their emerald projectile ward flickered dangerously. Baek ordered his troops to open fire with their own guns.
         The ensuing chaos forced the other Chosen Ones apart. Now each of them had to use their individual skills or sorcery just to stay alive. One created ice from thin air, another hurled grenades, and still another spit iridescent fireworks from his grotesque metal mask, yet as a collection of individuals they posed much less of a threat than as a group. Somewhere within the explosions of gunfire, the screams of the injured, and the battle cries of the stalwart, Baek heard a dark-skinned Chosen One with arms of gleaming metal call for a retreat.
         The commander frowned. Surely, the killing wasn't over yet.



         Kazuya nodded to himself.
         His change in tactics had worked. He had been unable to directly destroy the Chosen Ones or counter their sorcery - their combined effort had been just barely enough to resist him - yet they could not stop him from quadrupling the protection of his own troops, setting the stage for a successful counterattack. The master sorcerer was exhausted, physically and psychically, from channeling such massive amounts of raw Power, even if only for a brief time. Now he was almost too spent to maintain his personal projectile ward, let alone shield Baek and the rest, but his purpose had been served. Kazuya watched in satisfaction as the invading army retreated, yielding its hard-won ground. The syndicate was his again, every inch of it, and the Power of its enslaved souls coursed freely and responsively to his whim.
         He smiled slightly when the Chosen Ones tried to regroup and pierce the wall of Jack-2 androids guarding the syndicate's perimeter. Kazuya's enemies had broken through once with the aid of their technology, but now that edge was spent, and it was only a matter of time before the last of them would fall.
         Confident in his forces' ability to eventually finish off the Chosen Ones, Kazuya was free to turn his attention to events elsewhere in the syndicate. In particular, he desired to know at once what had become of Lei Wulong.
         Surely, Kazuya mused, Wulong had slain his own allies by now. How would that affect the cop? Had it completely shattered his pretensions of nobility, or would he need further corrupting? The master sorcerer felt too weary to conjure more than one fresh vision in his mirrors, so he focused solely upon Lei's image, and saw the result take shape before him.
         Kazuya's eyebrows lifted, curiously.



         Bruce Irvin guarded his master's antechamber.
         He knew that Kazuya no longer cared whether this room had sentries or not. Yet the kickboxer felt it was the least he could do, for he owed his life to the master sorcerer. It had been Kazuya who, for no particularly obvious motive, had eradicated the mafia family that was once after Bruce's head. Kazuya had graciously provided Bruce with sanctuary from the law as well, accepting him as an underground employee of the Mishima syndicate.
         Before he met Kazuya, Bruce had lived wayward and homeless, shuttling from the streets of one American metropolis to another. He remembered next to his nothing of the solider who had been his father, or the Thai woman who had been his mother, for he'd lost both parents and all ties of family at an early age. He'd had no goal, no drive past the need to subsist on whatever he could get. He knew what it was like to wrap your feet in newspaper to keep them warm, and cover the rest of your body in a used garbage bag to keep it dry. He knew the hunger that forces you to scavenge half-eaten food left on the ground, and the violent sickness that leaves you fevered and vomiting, alone on the threshold of death. He'd learned kickboxing as a brutal way to defend himself, and to earn whatever he could make in illegal, blood-sport fighting matches. In the thirty-two years of Bruce's harsh life, Kazuya was the first and only person who had ever done anything for him.
         Now, Bruce was a starving drifter no longer; he had a new purpose, and that was to fight for Kazuya's cause. He'd heard only a little of his master's plans to bring the Earth into an enlightened New Era, but he didn't care whether the world to come would be a blissful paradise or the face of Hell. Bruce was convinced that the New Era could not be any more cruel or savage than the abyss of despair he'd left behind.
          The kickboxer rubbed his eyes to keep himself awake. Fatigue was catching up with him. He'd spent a good ten hours standing watch with Lee, Ishida, Kimura, and the others, until Lei Wulong and company had stumbled into their trap. After the invaders had been subdued and taken away, Lee saw no more need to guard this place, though neither had he forbidden Bruce to remain behind. And so Bruce was left alone in this expansive, richly carpeted chamber, bare of furnishings except for a single throne in its center.
         Bruce concentrated harder on his vigil, shifting his hold on his rifle loaded with tranquilizer darts. He would have preferred his H&K P7M10 with Teflon-coated "cop-killer" bullets, but Kazuya and Lee had resolutely refused to arm him with such, ever since the disaster that destroyed flight 636.
         Something was wrong.
         Instincts honed by a lifetime on the streets alerted him to another presence, even though the darkened room's only set of double doors remained firmly shut. He rose from the throne and started to turn - then stopped as the cutting edge of a knifeblade touched his throat, and short but wiry arms gripped him from behind.
         "Don't move," came a deep, low-pitched warning. Bruce recognized Lei Wulong's voice.
         An idle corner of the kickboxer's mind wondered how the cop had escaped captivity and noiselessly insinuated himself into this closed room, but those details were unimportant. What mattered was whether Bruce could break free without getting his jugular slashed. The answer to that question involved more variables than he liked, with the odds stacked in his disfavor. Though the kickboxer was steadfastly loyal to Kazuya, he also had a vested interest in the integrity of his own throat.
         "Drop the rifle," Lei demanded. Bruce was reluctant to give him the satisfaction, but as long as he remained trapped in a hold at close quarters, his gun was useless. He had more confidence in his empty hands than a rifle stock as a weapon. Bruce let go of the gun, which landed on the textured carpet with a soft thud.
         "Take me to Kazuya, right now, and I won't kill you," Lei offered.
         "You're a lying bastard," Bruce calmly returned.
         "Not at all. I'll misdirect, quote out of context, or omit pieces of the truth if I need to, but I don't like to lie. And my parents were married, believe it or not."
         "It don't matter. I ain't betrayin' the man."
         "'The man'?"
         "Yeah. You wanna kill him, you gotta kill me first."
         "I'm not here to kill him. I'm here to challenge him to single combat."
         "The same way you're challengin' me?"
         "Shut up and take me to him."
         "Fuck off."
         The grip restraining Bruce became more tense. "What the hell is wrong with you? I studied your psyche profile. You pride yourself on your strength, and judge other people by theirs. Since when would you give up your life for a weakling like Kazuya?"
         "The man ain't no weakling."
         "Then why won't he answer my challenge?"
         "'Cause you ain't worth his time. You're such a wimp you gotta hold a knife to my neck, 'stead a' facin' me like a real man."
         "That means a lot, coming from Kazuya's paid assassin. That is what you are, isn't it?"
         "Go to hell."
         "Dammit, I know this room has a freaking portal to Kazuya's inner sanctum! Where is it!?"
         "I ain't gonna tell you nothi-"
         Bruce abruptly cut short his refusal. His gravel eyes closed for a moment. His lips, made permanently thick from a lasting facial injury, spread in a humorless smile.
         "Whaddaya know. The man was just talkin' in my head. He wants me to tell you, the only way you gonna get to him is over my dead body."
         The knife edge against Bruce's neck quivered slightly, as though the hand holding it was trembling. "Are you sure you want to stick with a boss who thinks you're disposable?"
         Bruce answered with violence.
         He threw his head back, and his skull connected solidly with the forehead of his attacker. Perhaps the knife could have cut his throat at that instant; then again, the hand holding it shook severely, and Bruce appeared to have gotten the drop on Lei. The kickboxer took the opportunity to grip the cop's knife-arm with both hands and fold in half, heaving Lei over his head. Lei smoothly went with the motion, but halfway through Bruce gave the cop's wrist a savage wrench, forcing Lei to drop the knife. The cop rolled as he landed from the throw.
         Bruce didn't waste any time stooping to retrieve the knife or his rifle; he stepped forward and whipped his left leg in a fierce kick, slicing a circular path slightly above waist level and parallel to the ground. Alarm registered in Lei's mahogany eyes; he dropped back just a shade too hastily and warded against the kick with a downward motion of his forearm. If Lei had been more confident he might have stayed within range to counterattack, but by the time he closed the distance between them Bruce's guard was safely up, and easily able to deflect the cop's hesitant punch.
         "I don't get it, Irvin. You're a hired murderer, aren't you?" Lei charged, belligerently. "You made a plane full of people crash just to get one policewoman, didn't you? Since when does a cold-blooded killer like you stay loyal to anyone except himself?"
         Bruce paid no attention to Lei's accusations; if the cop wanted to exhaust himself babbling a windy tirade, that was his problem. The kickboxer pushed his knee toward Lei's midsection, and it was practically amazing how quickly his enemy retreated. Bruce pressed his attack, switching to the second knee and finally lunging forward with a third, critically powerful knee thrust. Lei dipped in a crouch, stopped the last blow with his crossed forearms, darted back up with an easily avoided shin kick, and retreated further, dangerously close to the wall.
         "You gotta weak spot," the kickboxer sneered, nastily. "You're scared a' bein' hit in the gut, ain't you?"
         "I'm under a curse," Lei evenly replied. "Did Kazuya ever tell you that?"
         "Yeah, I know all about it."
         "Then you know you'd better stop this now. You're used to slaughtering people, not demons, aren't you?"
         "I wanna see you turn into a demon. Maybe then you'll put up a decent fight!"
         Again, Bruce moved in, thrusting the ball of his foot in a kick to Lei's chest. When the cop made the predictable effort to dodge, the kickboxer dropped low, abandoning the feint for a crouching sweep kick that twisted Lei's ankles out from under him. Bruce smoothly channeled his spin into a jumping uppercut. Lei turned in mid-fall, just enough so that Bruce's blow only glanced his cheek instead of knocking out his teeth, but it was more than enough to send the cop sprawling on his back.
         Lei planted his palms behind his head, gathering the strength to rock back and kippup to his feet. There was a strained, wheezy rustle to his breathing, though, and a pronounced limp in his cautious sidesteps. His mahogany eyes betrayed fear.
         Was this really the fighter Kazuya had wanted to capture so badly? Why? His frailty was pitiful. It scarcely took any skill or strategy to outmaneuver him. All Bruce needed to do was target his chest with the lightest swipe, and redirect the full strength of his blows elsewhere when Lei automatically moved to defend his weak spot. True, the cop always seemed to dodge or turn just enough so that Bruce's blows didn't land as firmly as he would like - his succession of punches to Lei's face should have battered his enemy unconscious, or at least caused him to spit out blood, but all it left were thick bruises and a black eye. Still, the cop was virtually defenseless. A cut kick to his knee rendered him barely able to stand on one leg; a crushing hit to his left elbow made his arm hang limp and twisted, as if its bones were broken. This battle had been over before it began.
         Enough sport, Bruce decided. It was time to finish off this puny weasel. The kickboxer crossed both arms in front of his face and turned sideways, gathering and amplifying his strength in a flare of violet Ki.
         Lei hung back uncertainly, with a puzzled frown on his face.
         The kickboxer surged forth in a frenzied blur. There could be no retreat, no defense against his instantaneous assault; he smashed his fist into Lei's face, ending in a balanced pose as if he'd just pitched a baseball.
         "Aah-ugh!" Lei's pained outcry blended with a hard smack as he hit the wall, and slowly sank to the ground. He tried to stand up and couldn't do it; his left ankle turned under him. It wouldn't support his weight.
         At last, Bruce had the time and opportunity to safely retrieve Lei's dropped knife. Its silvery blade glinted in the semidarkness.
         "Time to die," Bruce smiled.
         "W-wait," Lei gasped, shrinking against the wall and cringing like a mouse. "B-before you kill me, there's something I have to know-"
         "I don't gotta tell you shit."
         "Nn-no, please!" The cop's begging was such a humorous sight that Bruce could not help pausing to savor it. "It's about Detective Yue Cheong. She was on the same airplane you were, flight 636-"
         "That 'ho?" Bruce laughed.
         "Y-you were sent to kill her, weren't you?" The tremble in Lei's voice became an anguished remonstrance. "Kazuya had you murder her, and four hundred and thirty-four other innocent people!"
         "What's it to you?"
         "I have to know if she's really dead. If you killed her."
         "Why?"
         "I... I was in love with her."
         Bruce's thick-lipped smile became wider, as he read the emotional torment on Lei's face.
         "Okay, I'll tell you. Yeah, the man wanted her dead. I was supposed to whack her after the plane landed, but she found me out while it was still in the air. She fought like such a bitch that by the time I put three slugs in her, I ended up takin' out the flyboys too, and the controls, and the whole plane went down."
         Lei's mahogany eyes changed color to blood-red.
         "And now I'm gonna send you to join her," Bruce taunted, moving in for the kill.
         "No, you won't," Lei growled, a hard, cruel edge sharpening his voice. "You won't murder any more victims, ever again."
         "What's to stop me?" Bruce's smile transformed into a homicidal sneer, as he came close enough to thrust the knife into Lei's throat.
         With his eyes fixed on the inviting target of Lei's jugular, Bruce never saw the cop move. The rushing, roaring blast of successive explosions, and the stabbing, bursting pressure in his heart, lungs, and liver seemed to spring from nowhere. The trauma of repeated jolts pushed Bruce back. His knife-hand became weak, as did his legs; the ability to stand deserted him, and he collapsed on his knees. He tried to speak; salty crimson wetness bubbled from his mouth in place of words.
         Lei stood, without showing pain, without favoring either leg. His hands were perfectly rigid as he let the spent magazine drop from the handle of his 9mm automatic, and inserted a fresh clip of ten bullets.
         "I could have done this at any time, but I had to be sure about you first." Lei's blood-red, demonic eyes blazed with the fire of revenge, a fire that brings no warmth and no life. "I had to be sure you were guilty. I had to be sure you deserved it."
         Only then did Bruce comprehend the extent of Lei's deception. The cop hadn't been badly hurt at all; his leg wasn't lame, his arm wasn't broken. He'd skillfully protected his vital spots from the worst of Bruce's attacks, and pretended to be helpless just so he could draw out a confession.
         "I had to be sure." Lei's gun barrel leveled on a dead course for the kickboxer's right eye.
         There was a vivid shock of red, against the backdrop of white-hot pain that riddled Bruce's body.
         Then nothing.



         Lei? Lei, snap out of it! He's dead, you can stop firing now!
         The cop didn't respond to the admonition; his fingers continued to reflexively jerk the trigger of his weapon, long after the blare of its gunfire subsided into vacant click sounds.
         Way to waste the last of your ammunition, hotshot. Now what will you do if more of Kazuya's goons show up?
         Lei's head sank. The useless gun fell from his limp hand.
         "I... I did it, Yue. I avenged you. Your killer is dead. So why-" Tears brimmed in his eyes, and he quivered on the verge of total collapse. "-why do I still hear your voice? Is it because I'm going crazy? Or..."
         His hands clenched tight, and his blood-red eyes narrowed to merciless slits. "...or is it because the fiend who arranged your murder still lives?"
         A crackling, indigo wheel of light formed directly above the punctured wreck of the kickboxer's remains. Lei braced himself, ready for anything.
         Kazuya's sibilant solicitation reverberated from the portal. "Be welcome within my domain, Wulong. I invite you in."
         Without lowering his eyes, the cop pried apart Bruce's stiffening fingers, retrieving his silver knife. Lei stowed the blade underneath his textile armor and vaulted over the corpse, into the shining gate.


End of Chapter 21: Voices