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.
         Lee sized up his opponent in the Iron Fist Tournament.
         The passage of years had changed Lee's adversary. He'd become, if not taller or larger, then more thickly muscled. Youthful vigor had given way to the sturdy endurance of adulthood. His loose, casual apparel also reflected an unusual difference; instead of the sneakers he used to collect and cherish, he wore a pair of black boots. His dark leather belt was cinched tight against his denim jeans, and the twisting, diagonal scar on his chest showed through his flyscreen shirt. When he rolled the sleeves of his white jacket up past his elbows, Lee glimpsed the simplistic icon of something on the jacket's back - a man? No, a semihuman creature with horns and folding, batlike wings.
         Strange.
         By far the most compelling change, though, was in the eyes of Lee's opponent. Formerly kind and gentle, they had become jet black pools of paradox, at once burning with hatred and frozen with ruthless determination.
         Lee adjusted the fit of his own unicorn jacket and said, "It's been a long time, brother. Eight years. Hell, for the last six years, it was like you'd disappeared off the face of the Earth. I was afraid you'd died in the Peace Corps massacre, but old man Heihachi never believed that for a second. Where have you been, all this time?"
         Kazuya's mouth tightened in a frown.
         "Lee," he said, in a soft yet foreboding tone, "I have returned to destroy my father and lay claim to the Mishima syndicate. I grant you one opportunity to stand aside, now. If you are wise, you will take it."
         Lee chuckled. "Nice bravado. But they're calling me the 'silver-haired devil' these days, and it looks like I'll have to show you why."
         "You are no devil."
         "How would you know?"
         Kazuya answered with an attack.
         He was so fast that Lee scarcely reacted in time to bring up his guard. Gods, Kazuya had grown strong! Even blocked, the sheer force of his punches made Lee stagger two steps back. No matter, Lee reasoned; now that Kazuya had committed himself to an offensive, it would be a simple matter to evade his next blow and counterattack.
         Lee was wrong.
         He tried to sidestep Kazuya's axe kick and then crouch for a low punch to the kidney, but his foster brother seemed to react with supernatural premonition. Kazuya shifted the angle of his pivot to perfectly compensate, and the heel of his boot struck Lee's chest twice - once on the way up, and again on the way down. Lee reeled; stringent, unbearable pain laced his injury. Kazuya must have broken a rib-
         For Lee, that was where coherent thought ended, and an odyssey of anguish began. He was only partially cognizant of a punch that seemed to pierce his liver, or the kicks that pummeled his jaw and sent rivulets of crippling distress shooting through his left knee. A blow to the solar plexus made him clutch at his gut and sway like a stalk bending in the wind. He might have vomited if not for the distracting spectacle of indigo thunderbolts lacing his enemy's fist. Kazuya crouched and spun clockwise on one leg; his Ki became a lightning discharge, adding an electric fervor to the supremely intense jumping uppercut that crashed against Lee's chin, and made the world turn upside down.
         After all that, the shock of hitting the hard floor felt almost downy.
         Lee attempted to climb to his feet, though he could never remember whether it was to continue the fight, or run away. It didn't matter; both options were denied him. A horrible, twisted wrongness permeated his left leg. He could not rise higher than one knee before his brother barreled into him with irrepressible momentum. Kazuya slammed him against the floor, which could have been a pillow compared to the jarring succession of punches that brutalized Lee's face into a bloody, savaged wreck.
         Kazuya was breathing hard, but not from exertion; it was unbridled loathing that made him seethe as he glared down at the battered body of his foster brother.
         "You ask where I have been. I have seen more suffering than you can comprehend, more brutality and murder than you can ever know. I have decided to put a stop to it. To this end, I have spent six years amassing my Power. And you - what have you done? Office paperwork? Have you been a humble syndicate clerk, blind and deaf to the atrocities committed every day, all across the entire world, just as you pretended to never notice what the man I despise to call 'father' put me through?"
         Lee was in no shape to offer an answer, and wouldn't have known what to say even if he were. Kazuya curled his fingers around his brother's throat.
         There was a searing, white-hot blast...


         ...and when Lee came to, the intolerable pain was, thankfully, reduced to a dull, groggy ache. Bit by bit, his vision cleared enough to see white walls, the pulleys that suspended the cast around his left leg at an angle to his bedframe, and Ganryu's concerned face.
         "Young master, can you hear me?" urged the large man. "Speak to me?"
         Lee's lips moved, though it took a quantity of effort to force the faintest sound past them. "Wh-what happened?"
         "Thank the gods," Ganryu sighed, with clearly audible relief. "I feared that I had not found you in time."
         "Found me?"
         Ganryu nodded. "When you did not join me for our usual workout, I searched for you, and learned that you had faced Mishima-sama-"
         'Mishima-sama'? Lee wondered, but did not say aloud.
          "-alone in a secret match, as part of the Iron Fist Tournament. When I did find you, you had me terribly worried, but the doctors give me good news. Seventeen of your bones have been broken, but they should mend without permanent disability."
         "You... you saved my life."
         "No more than the medics who tended to you. My greatest fear was that you would never wake up; you have been comatose for seven days now. It gladdens my heart to know-"
         There came the creak of an opening door. Ganryu fell silent, stepped back, and bowed low. A chilling dread settled upon Lee; it quickened into panic when he saw who approached his bedside.
         Clad in a navy blue dress suit, every inch the calculating executive, Kazuya Mishima folded his arms and stared down at his recuperating foster brother. Malice radiated from his basilisk glare. Lee recognized Ishida and Kimura flanking him. Weren't they Heihachi's bodyguards? Why would they be assigned to Kazuya, unless-
         "So, you are going to survive after all. Pay close attention to what I say," Kazuya hissed. His jet black eyes narrowed. "I rule the Mishima syndicate now. I rule you. You will do what I tell you to, and do it to the utmost of your ability. If you fail me, defy me, or seek to desert me, your life shall be forfeit, in the slowest, most excruciating manner possible. Do you comprehend this?"
         For the first time in years, Lee knew what it was like to be terrified.
         Fear overwhelmed him. It widened his eyes, sickened his stomach, poisoned his thoughts, and made his very soul quail before the man who had broken him. He couldn't reason, couldn't fully understand the nameless horror that rendered him mute and helpless, scarcely able to nod.
         "Good," Kazuya acknowledged. "There is one more thing you should know. At the end of our conflict, I planted a death-link within you, by means of my Power. It cannot be undone. Should I perish for any reason, you will also die. The reverse is, of course, untrue. Remember that, lest you foolishly contemplate any treachery against me." He left without another word, along with Ishida and Kimura.
         Minutes passed before Lee regained the ability to speak. "H-how...?"
         "As far as I know, Mishima-sama defeated his father in single combat, winning the Iron Fist Tournament and inheriting the syndicate," Ganryu explained. "Some speculate that he killed his father, though no body has been found. We all work for Mishima-sama, now."
         "Oh, no," Lee gasped, shuddering. "No..."
         "Do not be alarmed. The takeover was with a minimum of disturbance, except that the old vice-president protested, resigned, and subsequently disappeared. I hear that Mishima-sama is looking for someone trustworthy to take his place. In the end, I expect that business will proceed as usual. We both know that Heihachi Mishima used to have his cruel, merciless side; however harsh his son may appear to be, he cannot possibly be worse than the father."
         "But Gan-kun, he's changed," Lee plaintively whispered to his friend. "He's changed so much."
         "It's all right," Ganryu reassured, with a well-meaning smile. "What else can your miraculous recovery be, but a sign of the gods' favor? Everything will be fine. You'll see. Everything will be all right."


PART V: SALVATION


Chapter 23: Ends and Means



    "Is there worse evil? Is there worse evil than that which goes in the mask of good?"
         -Lloyd Alexander, The High King


         Liu Kang awoke to quiet sobs.
         The last thing he could remember was the agonizing crack of his spine nearly being broken, yet he no longer felt the severe pain that had accompanied it. Had Jun healed him?
         He tried to sit up, succeeded with a minimum of discomfort, and concluded that she must have. He grudgingly resigned himself to the obligation of having to thank her. With an effort of steady concentration, he prudently crafted a mystic ward to cloak himself and his surroundings from Kazuya's prying eyes.
         Then he saw the source of the hushed weeping.
         Lee Chaolan was scarcely two meters away. How had he managed to bring himself all the way down here, with both legs crippled? Probably at a crawl, given the smeared, reddish trail that stretched behind him. The silver-haired devil's palms were on the floor, his straight arms supporting his torso as he rested on his hip, his knife-savaged legs unresponsively lying in a scissors fold. His head was down, and his chest heaved with misery. Next to him were Jun, lying unconscious on her back, and Ganryu, slumped against the corpse of a gigantic bear.
         The unicorn hilt of Lee's knife protruded from Ganryu's right eye. It had killed the former sumo wrestler with a single blow. In Liu Kang's estimation, death had been close to instantaneous.
         "You. Talk!" the monk demanded of Lee. "What has happened here?"
         Lee answered in a quivering, grief-stricken sniffle. "I was g-going to kill Jun-chan and couldn't do it. I-I had to stop Gan-kun from killing her instead. The only way I could. H-he... he was my only friend..."
         Liu Kang turned to Jun. Her life-force was weak, probably because she'd had to use a great deal of sorcery in a short space of time. Liu Kang took her hand in his own. He closed his eyes, willing his Chi to support hers, and roust her from the depths of slumber.
         "Mm... hm? Lei?" she mumbled, stirring. Her ginger eyes flickered open, and revulsion registered on her face. "Oh. It's you."
         "Thank you for healing me," Liu Kang stated, getting the arduous chore over and done with as quickly as possible.
         "Doo itashimashite," she replied, unenthusiastically. Jun rolled on her stomach and rubbed her eyes. Then she became aware of the bodies, living and dead, that surrounded her.
         "Nani...?" she said in a hushed murmur, as her eyes came to rest on Lee.
         The silver-haired devil didn't seem to hear her, so Liu Kang answered for him. "Near as I can tell, Chaolan saved your life."
         Jun moved to Lee's side. His sobbing presently ceased, though he still wouldn't raise his head.
         "I've never seen you cry before," she said, emotional uncertainty clouding her voice.
         "I did the night you ran away," Lee distantly recounted. "Every day that passed, and you didn't come back, I hated myself more. I-I never meant to hit you, or upset you. I'm so sorry, Jun-chan. I'd give my soul to take that night back-"
         "Don't say such things," she reprimanded, sternly. He cringed just a little, and fell silent.
         Jun looked inside herself, searching for the source of her vehemence, and the memories associated with it. Then she looked at Lee again. He raised his head slightly, enough for her to see the tears for his lost friend streaking his torture-scarred face. She recalled being afraid of Lee at times in the faraway past, though now it was difficult to remember why.
         The last vestige of fear left her, and with it, the hostile resentment that had lingered within her for so long.
         "It's all right," she consoled, lightly touching the hand of her former fiancé. "I forgive you."
         Her amnesty had the effect of a calm spell on Lee. The halting stutter left his voice as he continued his confession.
         "It was, I think, a couple years ago - maybe less - when everything started to go wrong. I keep wondering if there was any way I could have stopped it. Maybe if I hadn't been so overconfident when I fought Kazuya in the Iron Fist Tournament. Maybe if I'd ever had the courage to murder him."
         "Lee-"
         "He had this Plan, this 'Plan' with a capital 'P,' to save the world. To make it better, wipe it clean of all evil and suffering, I don't know, I still don't understand it completely. For his Plan, he needed wealth and power. He didn't care what the syndicate did, so long as it brought him money. Smuggling, buying and selling political influence, racketeering, we even kidnapped Michelle's mother because she was supposed to know the secret to some Indian treasure. When he promoted me to vice-president, I got especially involved in smuggling exotic wildlife. He was searching for you, I didn't know why, and sooner or later the syndicate's resources would have to find you. So I started making a garden for you, for when you came back. The animals are asleep now, all of them; I persuaded Kazuya to let me preserve them when he told me about the coming Apocalypse. I knew you'd want the animals to be saved.
         "Then we started kidnapping all sorts of people. It wasn't supposed to - I mean, at first I thought it was for the best. We weren't taking anyone hostage, we were saving them, because they'd be safe with us when the Apocalypse came. But then we were running out of room to hold the sleepers. It started with a Mafia family that somehow crossed the syndicate. I thought it strange that Kazuya would want such depraved people to see the New Era, but then I learned why he really had them brought here. He needed... he needed souls to fuel his Power."
         Lee stopped to swallow a lump in his throat. "It started with a Mafia family. Then he started targeting martial artists, especially participants in the Iron Fist Tournament, and I can't remember how many others. The Proving was my idea. At least that way, people would have a chance to fight for their lives; it wouldn't be just cold-blooded... cold-blooded..."
         "Murder?" Liu Kang suggested.
         Lee shuddered. "Kazuya said he would spare Ganryu's life if I killed Michelle. If I refused, they'd both be tortured to death. I didn't know what else to do; I can't stand up to my brother, I can barely speak to him without breaking down. I didn't know he'd burn out Ganryu's mind. I just didn't know..."
         "Lee," Jun softly addressed. "You're on our side now, aren't you?"
         The silver-haired devil paused for a long time. "I... I have to be. If I'm not, then I killed Gan-kun for nothing."
         She nodded. "Liu, give me your hand. I need your help to heal him."
         The monk's tawny eyes creased with distaste. "I dispute the wisdom of this. Have you forgotten that Chaolan sealed us in with the demon Wulong and left us to die? There is no proof that we can trust-"
         "If Lee wanted us dead, he could have let Ganryu kill us, or done it himself while we were both unconscious. He saved my life, and probably yours too, even if you won't admit it. Now, give me your hand!"
         Liu Kang hesitated briefly, then allowed her to clasp his hand and draw upon his life-force. With swift efficiency, she worked the sorcery to repair Lee's legs and heal his other abrasions.
         When she had finished, she said to Lee, "It looks like you've lost a lot of blood. You'll probably feel weak for a while."
         He looked at her, curiously. "I don't know why you bother."
         "Doo itashimashite," she muttered, a trifle of annoyance seeping into her composure. But it was only a trifle.
         "Enough of this, Kazama," Liu Kang curtly dismissed. "Perhaps you have forgotten our mission, but I have not. Chaolan, tell us at once how we can reach Kazuya."
         "You can't," Lee dully returned.
         "What more do you want of us? Must I invade your mind to receive an answer?"
         "No, I don't mean you can't because I won't tell you, I mean you can't because you can't. Kazuya is in his inner sanctum; he's nearly always in there, sometimes he won't come out for weeks on end. There's a portal to it in his antechamber, but he controls it. As long as he's alive, there's no way anyone else can make the portal open, or pass through it, unless he invites them inside."
         "Are you quite certain of that?"
         "It's what Kazuya told me."
         Liu Kang exchanged a worried glance with Jun. "This would explain why I did not detect the presence of any portal in Kazuya's antechamber. If it is indeed completely under his control, then it would manifest only upon his explicit whim."
         Jun bit her lip, looked at the floor, then looked back to Lee. "There must be something we can do."
         Lee stared off into space. At last, a hint of what might have been a smile flickered across his lips.
         "There is." He started to stand, and clutched at the bars of Kuma's former cell when his legs shook with anemic weakness.
         "Help me," Lee growled, his frustration evident on his face. Jun put his arm around her neck and shoulders, enabling him to walk with her assistance.



         Lei Wulong crossed the border between realities in a single bound.
         He landed on a metal floor, ringed by a dizzying array of mirrors. Above and beyond stretched a black, formless void. And in the center of all, reflected at every angle, was the master sorcerer who had wreaked such atrocity - who had cursed Lei to be a soulless, shape-shifting demon; who had murdered thousands of people, at least; who had willingly colluded with the force of Entropy itself; and whose defeat was the sole hope of liberating the Earth.
         There was something odd about the set of his shoulders, as if they were a trifle lower than Lei had seen them last. There were other, telltale signs - the pale shade of his face, the glisten of sweat on his brow, and a frazzled wisp or two that strayed from the slicked-back spikes of his hair.
         He's fatigued, Lei realized, and a flicker of optimism lightened his heart. Well, that's his problem!
         "Kazuya Mishima!" Lei forcefully declared. "I challenge you to single combat!"
         "At last, Wulong, you have returned," Kazuya calmly replied. "After I sent you away, I nearly despaired that you would find the strength to make it this far. Yet when I had to relocate the syndicate to this continent, I caused you to be teleported as well, so that you could fight your way here. That you have done so proves you are worthy. You have earned the right to know-"
         "Shut up! You're a soul-stealing necromancer; now that I've made the challenge, you can't talk your way out of it. You have to fight me or forfeit your Power!"
         "My Power, and a great deal more," Kazuya agreed, with a slight nod. "Yet I did not invite you within my domain for the sake of a feud. It is time for you to learn the full workings of my Plan. It is time for you to join my cause."
         "No. It's time for you to get beaten to a pulp."
         "Have you never wondered why I have done all this? Why I became allies with the Kahn, why I shared my Power with you, why I invite you to join me now? Detective or no, you cannot have deduced all; else you would not dismiss my offer so abruptly."
         "Shut up and fight me. Now."
         "You show such ingratitude, even after all I have done for you."
         "After all you've done for me?" Lei repeated, almost hysterically. "What have you EVER done for me!?"
         "I spared your life. I preserved your soul within the syndicate, protecting it from the Shao Kahn's aether. I granted you a gift of my Power, though you still shun to embrace it. I improved your physical body through sorcery, making you stronger, tougher, with heightened vision and a reinforced skeleton." Kazuya showed a modest smile. "And I have cured your-"
         "Not another word about that!" Lei snapped, flushing.
         "As you wish. Taking all my generosity into consideration, will you not spare the courtesy to hear me out?"
         Lei's shook his head, without taking his eyes off the master sorcerer.
         "Shikata ga arimasen," Kazuya sighed, turning away.
         Lei's first impulse was to rush him, but an indefinable worry held the cop back. Something about the master sorcerer's demeanor clashed against Lei's instincts. Kazuya was much too composed for someone facing a dire threat to his Power, especially when he was in a weakened condition. And he must have expected Lei to challenge him; he would be a fool if he didn't.
         Instead of a brazen charge, Lei approached Kazuya with small, steady steps, presenting the side of his body to his foe. Just as he closed within range for a swift kick, a shock jarred his outermost foot, as if he'd stubbed his toe against an electrified fence. Crackles of indigo Ki flickered about the point of contact. Lei made more, tentative probes, and discovered that the nearly invisible barrier formed a solid wall, separating him from the master sorcerer. It was fortunate that the cop had not tried a reckless frontal assault, or else he might have collided head-on with the barrier, and the impact could have been sufficient to trigger his curse.
         "What the freaking hell is this!?" Lei demanded.
         "A mystic wall of force. Have you never seen Kazama use such? Wang Jinrey taught the spell to us both. Of course, hers was much more exhausting to maintain because she powered her sorcery with her own life-force, whereas I have the aid of three thousand souls."
         "No. No, you have to fight me; I've challenged you-"
         "Indeed you have," Kazuya cordially acknowledged. "Yet as the challenged party, mine is the privilege of choosing the time and setting of our match, within reasonable parameters, of course. Tonight, I have much work to do. After a short rest, I must ensure that the remainder of the Chosen Ones' army falls before me, and that their souls are conscripted for my purpose. Tomorrow, I shall fight you. At the hour of noon, unless I persuade you to withdraw your demand and fight by my side, instead."
         "No, you can't do this!" Lei raged, lashing out at the barrier and recoiling from the shock of its jolt.
         "A blatantly false summary of the situation," Kazuya mused, turning to the nearest mirror. Its silvery surface reflected an image of the grounds outside the syndicate, and the Chosen Ones' makeshift camp. One, small portion of the view was blurry and indistinct, but most of the picture was clear, and very grim. "In the meantime, you are welcome to observe my triumph over the Chosen Ones. Once I have destroyed the last of them, perhaps you will respect me enough to hear what I have to say."
         "Okay," Lei growled, unable to hold back his increasing frustration. "Have it your way. Tell me how your daddy beat you up when you were a kid, so now that you're all grown up, you like to butcher people by the thousands. I'm listening."
         Kazuya's thick, jet black eyebrows formed a malevolent V-shape of discontent. "I have shared my memories with you so that you would understand. It seems that you do not."
         "Oh, I understand all right. I understand you're a sick, perverted, psychopathic monster!"
         The master sorcerer shook his head. "Do not think I am unaware of what you are trying to do. I do not even have to read your mind. You seek to make me angry, so that I will foolishly remove the barrier and accept your challenge before I am fully rested. Be advised that your tactic will not work."
         "Baka yo!" Lei snapped, disparagingly. "Kazuya wa soya de baka baka BAKA!"
         One of the master sorcerer's eyebrows lifted in curiosity. "Are you attempting to hurl crude insults in my native tongue?"
         "Oh, did I say something to offend you? Ganko da wa ne? Gomen yo!"
         Kazuya smiled with amusement. "You speak my language like a woman. You are parroting something that you learned from Kazama, are you not? How ironic that you would turn to her for help, even after you have killed her. Yet she cannot aid you now. Only I can."
         Lei carefully kept his surprise off his face.
         He doesn't know that Jun and Kang are still alive? Maybe he's been too tired to check in on them lately. Maybe they're cloaked by now. The detective furrowed his brow. If he thinks to look inside their cell, though, he'll realize something's wrong when he doesn't find their corpses. I have to keep him distracted, at least until I figure out what can provoke him into fighting me!
         The problem was, Lei reflected, that despite a nightmare odyssey of shared memories, he didn't know what really motivated Kazuya. Was it revenge? Pride? Hatred? Megalomania? A combination of all these? Until Lei understood what Kazuya considered truly important, the detective had little chance of psychologically manipulating the master sorcerer.
         Besides, few things can distract a person more than to let him talk about himself.
         "All right," the cop resignedly acceded. "You win. Tell me why you're doing all this."
         "At last, you would hear me out?"
         "Whatever. It's not like I've got anything better to do."
         "Excellent. Yet first, allow me to ensure our mutual privacy."
         "What are you babbling about?"
         "Has it never occurred to you that others could be watching us, even as I have been watching you? The Shao Kahn, definitely; my father, perhaps; and another force that I shall not name. I have not concerned myself with such matters before, because I necessarily had to conserve my Power for more important ends. But now that you are here, it is time to close the blinds. This is my inner sanctum; my own personal domain. As long as I draw breath, no living being may intrude upon these premises unless I so permit!"
         Kazuya raised his fist. A fiery ball of indigo Ki engulfed his hand, blazing with supernatural radiance.



         With an act of will, the master sorcerer shields his domain from all who would peer into it. On the other side of the Earth, Shang Tsung spits a curse and Heihachi Mishima glowers menacingly, as the image in their mystic window turns to garbled static. In a hidden locale, the Shao Kahn's metal mask conceals any response on his visage, but his resurrected queen knows that he is annoyed. And far above them all, I, Raiden, can no longer transcribe the unfolding dialogue between Lei Wulong and Kazuya Mishima.
         If I were still a god, I might have complacently accepted this, and turned my attention elsewhere. Yet my mind is that of a mortal now; it burns with mortal curiosity - and mortal courage. Once again, I do the unthinkable, and seek the one being with the ability to change this turn of events.
          She is tall, beautiful, and terrible. Her omnipresence is such that I cannot repress a fearful shudder when I approach her. I am afraid of her, yet I am not without a lever to use against her, for I have figured out her secret.
         "Kazuya has screened me out," I tell the Angel. "I need your help to continue my chronicle of the fate of the Earth. Please, show me what is transpiring between him and Wulong."
         *Your ubiquity irritates me,* she warns, disdaining to look upon my countenance. *Why should I do as you ask?*
         "Because Kazuya is also one of your Chosen."
         She turns and transfixes me with her azure eyes. They show no emotion, only cold eternity.
         "I saw you with him, the night before the war. Never have I known you to take such personal interest in a living mortal - except once. Once, when I saw you observing your Chosen Ones Lei Wulong and Jun Kazama. Therefore, Kazuya Mishima must be the same as they."
         *A bold inference.*
         "And a true one, for if it were false, you would have denied it by now. So, let me hear what Kazuya has to say for himself. I would observe and record all I can about this enemy who has come so close to obliterating my Chosen Ones, and who may yet succeed."
         *I do not choose to do so at this time,* she declares, haughtily.
         "Why not?"
         *That is not for you to know.*
         "Do you want me to be your scribe or don't you?"
         *Go. Find other events to record.*
         "What are you afraid Kazuya will say?"
         Her white-feathered wings flex with aggravation. *I fear nothing.*
         "If it is not fear that influences you, then what? Anger? Hurt? If you will not tell me, then I am forced to transliterate my speculations instead. From the manner in which you spoke to Kazuya, I suspect that he has somehow displeased you."
         *'Displeased'?* she whispers, with the lethal chill of an airborne virus. Her rancor abruptly escalates to overpowering fury. *He has BETRAYED ME!
         *He was the strongest of my Chosen. The noblest of them. The purest of them. He was to unite and lead them against the impending Apocalypse. Yet he turned traitor! He crafted a secret alliance with the scion of Entropy, and he used the Iron Fist Tournament to lure my Chosen within his clutches!
         *Ten warrior souls they were; one by one, he eliminated their threat to his plans. The crushed elder Mishima hides from him, watching but not interfering on the other side of the world. A satellite destroyed the android with a human soul. The masked priest, the dojo teacher, the silent assassin, the hot-blooded brawler, the alien swordsman, Kazuya took them all captive and sealed them within his frozen vaults. The wandering warrioress has been murdered in his dungeons. All of my Chosen have fallen before him, all save the two weakest!
         *And you pretend that I am 'displeased'?*

         "Are you quite certain that Kazama and Wulong are the weakest of your Chosen?"
         *More than any of the others, the healer balks to so much as kill. Kazuya has already vanquished the drunken detective once; now, he seeks to turn Wulong against me!
         *Yes, I am misery and apathy, suffering and destruction. Yes, my merciless judgement falls upon innocent and guilty alike. Yet I am also a force that transcends mortal reckoning, and I am not subject to their petty definitions of right and wrong! What right has Kazuya to sabotage my role in the Cosmic Balance? What justification has he to defy my authority? How dare he call me 'evil'!?*

         "I do not know," I answer, honestly. "But by refusing to present the substance of Kazuya's arguments, you tacitly concede their superiority. I cannot pronounce untrue something that I do not understand, and neither can you, no matter how severely you wish to."
         The azure gem in the center of her brow changes color to gold.
         For one, dreadful instant, I fear that I have pushed her too far; then the warning light dims to a sparkle, and she folds her alabaster arms.

         *Very well, then. See, and judge for yourself.*



         "I don't believe a freaking word of this," Lei mumbled, shaking his head.
         "It is not a difficult concept to grasp," Kazuya sharply admonished. "The purer a soul is, the more difficult it is to take. This is why the Shao Kahn's aether is so slow to capture every human soul in the world - it has to start with the most selfish, the most vile souls and gradually work its way up to the most pure. It is also why the Kahn craves a soul of pure and noble intent to accelerate the process. Possession of a pure soul would imply to the nameless powers that be that he has dominion over all the Earth's souls, even if this is not in fact the case, and once the Kahn's claim is set in stone then he will no longer need to rely upon his aether to harvest human souls. Now do you follow?"
         "I get your crazy logic just fine; my problem is with your ridiculous presumption that the Kahn's curse is killing only evil people, all over the world."
         "Specifically, it is killing only people of selfish and malevolent intent, at least at this stage. There are admittedly some variables affecting the formula - for example, an evil person seeking refuge on sacred ground would be spared - yet the generalization is a sound one. The Chosen Ones never told you of this, did they?"
         "You're lying."
         "No. Men such as you and I may attempt to deceive with truth, but we prefer not to lie."
         "You're still wrong, and I can prove it!" Lei exclaimed, pointing to Kazuya with an accusatory index finger. "I saw Jiao lose his soul to the Kahn's curse, and I saw his body crumble to bones. Jiao was a Hong Kong policeman for twenty years! He was a good cop! He was my friend! He was-"
         "On the take," Kazuya coolly finished.
         "What?"
         "Is that not the proper idiom? Jiao accepted wealth and favors in exchange for secret information that stymied police operations, exposed undercover agents, and even precipitated the assassinations of some of his comrades. I know this because he accepted bribes from the Mishima syndicate, through layers of intermediaries, of course. Yet we were not the only ones to buy him. To the best of my knowledge, he was never threatened or blackmailed; he sold you out for greed alone."
         "You can't possibly expect me to believe-"
         "How do you think I knew of you and your partner's role in undermining one of the syndicate's holding corporations? The two of you were working undercover, after all. How do you think I knew exactly what would lure your partner onto a Mishima Airlines jet? At first, I considered arranging for your demise as well, but Jiao's information dissuaded me. He reported that you were an incompetent drunkard, harmless by yourself, and that your partner had been almost wholly responsible for 'the bust,' to appropriate another idiom. And so, I concluded that disposing of you would not be worth the expense. As it turned out, Jiao was mistaken about your character, yet I am glad that I made the decision I did."
         "Okay. Okay, let's pretend you're right. You still can't believe that the Kahn will be content with just the evil souls. He wants to annihilate all life on Earth, and you know it!"
         "Indeed. Which is why I shall turn upon him."
         "What?"
         "Why else am I cloaking our discussion from the Kahn's sight? Why do you think I refrained from offering him Jun Kazama? For she would undoubtedly have been what he needs to confirm his grasp on the Earth - assuming that he could have taken her soul, which is not a certainty because, as I have said, a truly pure soul is extremely difficult to simply steal. Yet I did not take the chance, because I do not intend to let him have the Earth. In approximately another year, I expect that his aether will have sufficiently purged the world of evil. Then, and only then, shall I banish the Shao Kahn from this realm."
         "Just like that? You think you can snap your fingers and make the Kahn go away?"
         "He must answer my challenge to single combat, and once he is defeated, his Power shall be broken."
         "How can you fight him? You know that for a challenge to stick, it has to be made in physical person. No one knows where the Kahn is!"
         "I do."
         "What?"
         "It has been specified in our contract that I should know his location."
         "Where is he?"
         "Pledge yourself to my cause, and I shall tell you."
         "Not a chance."
         "We shall see."
         Lei's hands opened and closed. "What makes you so sure you can beat the Kahn?"
         "Because I have the Power of honorable souls to support me. The Shao Kahn possesses many more souls than I, but they are almost unilaterally weak-willed, feeble, corrupt souls. Whereas I possess the noble souls of many of the world's strongest fighters. If I can succeed in harvesting the souls of the Chosen Ones, then my victory is all but guaranteed. I seek the Chosen Ones' destruction not because I wish it, but because I must."
         "Yeah, and once my buddies in homicide dragged in a killer who was raving about how he had to paint the walls with blood. Saying it doesn't make it true."
         Kazuya's eyes flashed, resolutely. "All I have done - all I have done has been out of necessity!"
         "Everything?"
         "Everything."
         "Pitching your own father off a cliff?"
         "I needed to assume control of the Mishima syndicate; he would never have stepped aside willingly. And I should not have to convince you of Heihachi Mishima's evil."
         "Torturing your foster brother?"
         "Chaolan must fear me, else I cannot trust him. I need a loyal servant to manage the daily workings of the syndicate, so that I am free to concentrate upon my own Power."
         "Blinding Wang Jinrey?"
         "He challenged me to single combat, and nearly became my ruin. If anything, I was wrong to show him mercy, for he has since escaped and conspired with my enemies."
         "Killing Michelle Chang?"
         "She reflected my mind-probe, an act which came disastrously close to unhinging my sanity, in front of my own employees. I cannot afford to show weakness before any of my hirelings; the overwhelming majority of them are as ruthless as I, yet uncomprehending of my honorable ideals. The risk of treachery is great enough as it is, without rumors of my frailty or leniency circulating. That is why she had to be destroyed."
         "Sending Bruce Irvin to assassinate my partner?"
         "That was when my alliance with the Shao Kahn was still tentative, when I was primarily concentrating upon other ways to rid the world of evil. To do so, I thought I would need wealth and influence. Your partner chipped away at that influence. I could not allow her interference to continue."
         "And the four hundred and thirty-four other people on her plane?"
         Kazuya's mouth tightened in a thin line. "That was an accident. It was a mistake to use Irvin; I did so because he eagerly wanted to prove his gratitude to me, and because he would not be so easily traced back to the syndicate. But he was a fool. He was supposed to kill Detective Yue Cheong after her flight landed and she disembarked. She recognized him while the plane was airborne; he panicked, and precipitated the crash. I could neither prevent it, nor save the passengers' lives. It takes a tremendous amount of Power to teleport even one person without physical contact, and that one person must not resist the transport to safety. That one person had to be Irvin because he could be used to further my Plan, and because none of the other passengers would likely submit themselves to my Power."
         "Okay, so the plane crash was an 'accident.' Was it also an 'accident' to kidnap and murder hordes of people, including just about everyone in the Iron Fist Tournament?"
         "I was in need of souls to fuel my Power; yet that was not my primary purpose in seeking out participants of the Iron Fist Tournament. When the Kahn is banished, and the New Era has come, the world shall need strong leaders to guide it into the enlightened future. Deep beneath the Mishima syndicate, ten thousand fighters and other people that I have Chosen are kept safe, sleeping without dreams, awaiting that glorious dawn."
         "If you've just been putting people to sleep, then why did you slaughter my friends when we tried to bring you to justice?"
         "Unfortunately, the syndicate can hold only so many sleepers, and by then nearly all the vacancies were filled. Also, your team surprised me. I had to defend myself."
         "Uh-huh. And what about all the thousands of innocent souls you've been torturing?"
         "How many times must I impress upon you that it is necessary! To bring about the New Era, I need the Power they provide me. Those who perish here, on the syndicate's grounds, donate their lives and souls to forge a greater good - a far nobler purpose than they could ever hope to achieve alive. I am not as unfeeling as you may presume; yes, I am aware of the torment they suffer, and I wish there were a way for the innocent to serve me without pain. When the New Era dawns, I should no longer require the souls of the innocent. I intend to release those souls, and rely entirely on the souls of the guilty to perpetuate my paradise."
         "Right. So what's your excuse for trying to exterminate Sanctuary?"
         "It is specified in my contract with the Kahn that I must destroy the Chosen Ones and their refuge, or forfeit the consequences. It was a necessary obligation to undertake; else I could not have persuaded the Kahn to spare the syndicate and my servants, or pledge not to harm me, or most important of all, reveal his location."
         "You've got a freaking rationalization for everything, don't you? But you can't stand there and say you murdered all those people because you had to. I have your memories. I know you were burning with revenge when you tried to kill your father and, I'll bet, lots of other times too. How much of this has really been because you couldn't think of any other way, and how much is because you're lashing out?"
         "Why did you kill Bruce Irvin?"
         "Don't change the subject."
         "I have patiently answered over a dozen of your questions; you can spare the effort to reply to a few of mine. Why did you kill Bruce Irvin?"
         "Self-defense. He was trying to kill me."
         "Was that your only reason?"
         "Isn't it good enough?"
         "If your sole aim was to protect yourself, then why did you feign debility when you fought him?"
         "I knew you were watching, and I didn't want to show you any more of my style than I had to."
         "Then why did you not produce your handgun at once, and grant Irvin an opportunity to surrender?"
         "I did give him a chance to surrender. Several chances."
         "But never with your firearm trained upon him, which might have influenced his decision considerably. And once you did shoot him, why did you continue to fire well after he was dead, squandering the last of your ammunition?"
         "I already know guns are useless against you anyway."
         "That is, at best, a poor evasion."
         "All right, so I wanted revenge on him," Lei admitted. "The bastard confessed to murdering my partner, and all the other people on flight 636. And if the only way to get to you was to kill him first, well, I'm not going to cry any tears over doing it. But I wouldn't have killed him if he'd surrendered, and it was still self-defense."
         "If you were still a policeman, I question whether a judicial review would exonerate you as thoroughly as you claim. Yet now, do you understand me better? Yes, I cannot deny an inevitable element of revenge in the justice I work, but I do not, I will not allow emotions to dictate what I do, be they revenge, compassion, or pain. All my decisions must and shall be based only on what is necessary. Hatred is the greatest source of my strength, yet I do not undertake my work because I hate; I do it because it is right. That is why I have had to kill, even as it is why you had to kill Irvin."
         "You let me kill Irvin so you could make a point?"
         "It is a valid one, is it not?"
         "Look, we're talking about you, all right? And we're not talking about just one murder, or a couple. You've killed so many people-"
         "'Many'?" Kazuya harshly returned. "No. Only a few thousand. Do you comprehend, can you conceive how insignificant that is on a global scale?"
         The master sorcerer made a sweeping gesture with one hand. The mirrors around him whirled with colors, resolving into a multitude of images all over the world - or at least, the world prior to the Apocalypse. Lei recognized the desert of Kazuya's memories, with its village of starving people, and in another mirror, the scene of the Peace Corps massacre. Other mirrors showed war, hunger, and disease on six continents; imprisonment and torture, killing fields and shallow graves.
         "This world holds over five billion souls," Kazuya flatly stated, "half of whom are victims to the evil of the other half. Overpopulation threatens increasingly scarce resources, spreading famine and pestilence, pushing people to fight one another for dwindling scraps of food, especially in the Third World. My Plan will solve this threat by culling the world population of the torturers, the murderers, the fiends who terrorize and exploit their victims. The innocent will be spared. When the Kahn is banished, the syndicate's resources will turn the wasted land green once more, and I shall guide the survivors to the peace and contentment of the New Era. To ensure this paradise for billions of human beings and all their descendants, three thousand lives is not too high a price to pay - it is but chaff in a field of wheat. To see my dream made real, no individual life, no one soul is too precious a sacrifice!"
         "No one soul?" Lei rasped. "Not even your own?"
         "Especially not my own."
         Lei's eyebrows almost touched in puzzlement. Then, as the meaning of Kazuya's words became clear, the cop's jaw went slack with disbelief. "No. You... you didn't..."
         "I took your soul," Kazuya quietly explained, "so that you would understand the burden I willingly suffer, as part of my contract with the Kahn. It hurts, does it not? A cold, dark inner void that never goes away, that no drug and no sorcery can soothe. It eats at you voraciously, threatens to drive you insane, and at times makes you wish you were dead. My dream is all that empowers me to continue. My dream, and my hatred." His aristocratic deportment wavered, just long enough for a hint of vulnerability to show through.
         Lei's face turned ashen pale. "You sold your soul to the Shao Kahn...?"
         "Not 'sold,' technically. A more appropriate term would be 'mortgaged.' He holds it as insurance that I shall destroy Sanctuary and its Chosen Ones; should I perish with my contract unfulfilled, the Khan shall gain permanent ownership of my soul. This is the risk I have taken, for the good of humanity as a species. But now that you know what I endure, it is no longer needful for you to feel the same pain. Join me, Wulong, and I shall return your soul."
         "I never took bribes when I was a cop. What makes you think I'll start now?"
         "It is not a bribe. It is a boon that I offer you, because you are my brother."
         "No. No, this is getting too weird," Lei denied, shaking his head. "My parents had no relation to yours; hell, we're not even the same ethnicity, all right?"
         "You are the brother of my soul," Kazuya clarified. "My true brother, more than that wretch Chaolan ever was, or could have been. I have looked within your mind, and felt the hatred and determination inside you. You are like me, like my very reflection, save that you have turned the greater part of your hatred the wrong way - inward. It is not yourself that you should hate! Hate the tyrants and the murderers, the cruel and the uncaring, the very people whom the Shao Kahn's aether shall eradicate from the Earth!"
         "You mean, people like you?"
         "Hate me as well, if you must. My methods appear harsh, but that is only because my foe is more implacable still. Death itself is my enemy - the natural force that strikes down the innocent alongside the guilty as it has done for millennia, without pity, without justice. Is that not the greatest evil of them all? But in my New Era, only those who deserve an early death shall meet it! These are the ends that justify my means!"
         The master sorcerer stretched out his hand. "You can no longer pretend to be morally superior to myself, because you have the blood of Kazama and Kang on your hands. Yet now you know the greater purpose of my cause, and it cannot fail to register a chord in your heart. Your talent as a mystic reagent is nearly limitless; combined with my Power as a sorcerer, we shall be unstoppable! Join me, Wulong. Join me, and help me usher in the New Era!"
         "Uh-huh. Then what?"
         A shade of confusion dampened Kazuya's fanatical fervor. "I beg your pardon?"
         "Let's say it all works out. The Kahn's curse destroys half the people in the world, you kick him out, and the New Era begins. Then what? Do you really think that solving the problem of overpopulation, or ridding the world of evil, is as easy as killing a bunch of people?"
         "The key is to kill the evil people, and enough of them. Once I attain sufficient Power, I can duplicate the Shao Kahn's aether if need arises, and keep the world forever pure."
         "So. You didn't get any of my memories."
         "Of what do you speak?"
         "Practically every night for the last six months, my sleep has been plagued with your goddamn memories until I'm freaking sick of it! But you've never bothered experiencing any of my memories, have you? If you had, maybe you'd know what it's like to be a street cop, or an alcoholic. Maybe you'd have gotten a closer look at the human condition, instead of peering down on it all from your precious little ivory funhouse, or whatever this place is supposed to be!"
         "Do you have a point to make?"
         "Kazuya, almost no one is born evil. It's learned behavior, and usually learned through misery, which is in turn caused by any number of social problems: abusive or neglectful families, addictive drugs, crumbling infrastructure, psychological illness, and of course the traditional scourges of war, famine, and pestilence. As you've mentioned, overpopulation exacerbates all these bad things. But your scheme won't solve any of these problems.
         "Let's start with overpopulation. There are only two ways to stop it: birth control and death control. If you don't have birth control, Nature will inevitably require death control. We both agree that this is bad. But all you're doing about it is appointing yourself God, so that you decide who gets the death control axe."
         "I do not believe in a God any more than you do; yet if there is one, I shall be infinitely more scrupulous than He."
         "Don't be so sure. You put your trust in the Shao Kahn's curse to take only evil people, but you have admitted to some, what was the word, 'variables'? I think I know what they are.
         "Let's get back to Jiao. Scarcely a day after the Apocalypse began, he lost his soul to it. Now maybe you're right, maybe he was crooked scum. But you were just saying that the Shao Kahn's curse has to start with the worst and most vile people. Maybe Jiao was bad, but was he the worst? Worse than all the serial killers on and off death row? Worse than every Mafia boss on six continents? Worse than the masterminds behind the genocide in the Balkans, and Rwanda, and more other places than I can name?
         "No, I don't think so. And I'll tell you why. The curse doesn't claim people on account of how 'evil' they are, as if true 'evil' were something you could measure out like teaspoons of curry. It takes them according to 'selfish and malevolent intent.' But even that is subjective. The curse isn't a freaking jury. It doesn't actually spread out all of a person's memories, check off his good deeds and bad deeds, objectively weigh them against his motivations, and finally arrive at a percentage, does it? I'll tell you what I think it does - it takes one look at how a person sees himself, whether he considers himself selfish or noble, and it decides on account of that. That's why Jiao was one of the first to be taken; even though his crimes were not as horrible as some people's, he was honest enough with himself to know that he was selfish."
         Kazuya folded his arms. "Your description of how the Shao Kahn's aether functions is not entirely inaccurate."
         "Well gee, thanks for the vote of confidence. The problem with how your pretty aether works is that not every evil person thinks of himself as evil! Bloody hell, most of them think they're on the side of the angels!
         "Do you need examples? Do I have to describe cases of domestic violence where the perpetrator feels he is exercising his right to 'discipline' his family? I'll bet that's how Heihachi's mind works. Have you studied enough of your own country's goddamn history to learn how holy and noble its military saw itself during World War II, even as it raped and burned Nanking? Hell, for someone with Mafia connections, you freaking ought to know that most capos think of themselves as businessmen who provide for and protect their families. John Gotti sure did.
         "The list goes on and on; human beings can and will justify the most abominable crimes to themselves. People who admit their own evil are damn rare. What makes it really funny is that a person can't turn away from his evil unless he first recognizes that what he's doing is wrong. So the Kahn's curse is actually killing off two subsets of criminals: not only the brazenly evil, but also repentant people like Kabal the cop-killer, who just might struggle to redeem themselves if they were given a chance - a chance that the Kahn's curse denies.
         "Then there's the reverse side: good people, or ordinary people, who don't think very highly of themselves. It's called 'humility,' and it's supposed to be a virtue, but it puts them at greater risk of losing their souls than, say, true-believer terrorist fanatics."
         Kazuya sighed. "I never said that the Shao Kahn's aether was a perfect tool. I expected that I should have to supplement it with more conventional measures, and to this end I have begun production of an android militia, among other means."
         "So you can kill anyone you don't like?"
         "So that I can ensure the destruction of evil people who escape the aether."
         "How will you know if someone's really evil? Read his mind? Are you going to mind-probe billions of people, all by yourself?"
         "There will be an administration, of course..."
         "You haven't freaking thought it all through, have you?"
         Kazuya's jet black eyes narrowed, dangerously.
         "Like I said, you're not really solving the problems of crime, or overpopulation. You're just setting yourself up to be a totalitarian despot. But if we really are going to reach an enlightened New Era, then humanity has to learn to solve its own problems. Getting back to overpopulation - the only way humanity can correct it is to control its own birth rate. And if the only way to make humanity restrict its birth rate is for the problem to escalate until natural death control forces people to address the issue, that's still better than appointing yourself executioner whenever the breeding gets out of hand.
         "Now, addressing the problem of world evil, or from my point of view, crime. And I don't just mean street crime; I'm also including domestic crime, such as the abuse you suffered, and war crimes, such as the massacre that wiped out your Peace Corps mission and damn near killed you. No one has figured out how to completely solve it yet, but for a start, you need a system of justice. You need a framework of laws made by the people they govern, you need a means to responsibly enforce those laws, and you need to provide suspected perpetrators with a fair trial. Because humans are so prone to corruption, your system also has to have ways of holding those in power accountable for their actions. What type of world government do you have in mind for your New Era, Kazuya? Who will hold you and your henchmen responsible for your crimes?"
         The master sorcerer shook his head. "I have already told you why my deeds are necessary. I shall not repeat myself."
         "You are completely missing my point, but now my voice is beginning to get tired, too. So let me point out one last thing, and I'll make it nice and simple for you, all right?
         "Your entire Plan hinges on one assumption - that you will beat the Shao Kahn. If you fail, the Earth is doomed. But when you challenge the Kahn, he will have every advantage. He'll be able to set the time, place, and rules to whatever he likes the most. Here in your private funhouse, you have all the souls you've enslaved helping you, but what if the Kahn wants to face you elsewhere? Are you sure you're strong enough to win?
         "It's one thing to brag about how tough you are, but you don't really know you have what it takes unless you can accept any challenge, anywhere, anytime. How can you trust yourself to conquer a supremely powerful evil being if you're too weak to handle a rematch with one broken-down alcoholic, right here, right now?"
         Kazuya unfolded his arms and held them by his sides. His narrowed eyes remained inscrutable windows of emotionless passion, yet crackles of indigo Ki snaked about his fingers like discharges of static.
         "I have lowered the barrier," the master sorcerer stated, in a cold, hostile monotone.
         Lei couldn't believe it had worked.
         "What are you waiting for?" Kazuya prompted.
         "Hold on. If I beat you, do you promise to tell me where the Kahn is?"
         "As you request. Yet, should you fall before me, do you swear to join my cause?"
         "If you beat me, I'll serve you to the end of my days."
         "Very well. Attack me, if you dare."
         Lei shifted into defensive stance. Kazuya made no effort to do the same; he merely stood there, hands at his sides, his demeanor entirely of ice. Cautiously, the cop approached his enemy. In a motion that was simultaneous with the thought, he snapped his fist toward Kazuya's face-
         -and was dragged to his knees, shaking, as an inexorable necromantic web wrapped around his body and mind. It weighed down his limbs and strangled the breath from his lungs. He had tasted this force once before on the battleground of Sanctuary; now, in the heart of Kazuya's domain, he felt its full potency crushing him like a vegetable. There was not even any chance to speak. Lei desperately hoped that he had distracted the master sorcerer for long enough, that Liu Kang and Jun could succeed where he had failed.
         "You would question my strength; then feel it for yourself," Kazuya hissed, slowly curling his hand in a fist even as his death-web constricted tighter. "'To the end of my days' indeed; do you think I cannot see through your self-destructive promise? I recreated your body once; I can do so again. After the Chosen Ones have fallen to me, I shall have the Power to make you as immortal as the Phoenix you emulate. You shall serve as my reagent, brother, even if I must cauterize your mind as I did to Ganryu, and your days shall wax abundant!"


End of Chapter 23: Ends and Means