PHOENIX REBORN

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



Chapter 3: Toll of the Bell


   "They all said I couldn't go back. Is it allowed, then, after all?"
   "It is not allowed," said the Scorpion. "But whether you go back or forward, it is the same. You will reach your home one way or the other. Which way you go will depend on me."

         -Mary Stewart, "Ludo and the Star Horse"


AUDIO TRANSCRIPT: Files of Chief Detective Lei Wulong
Department of the Hong Kong Police Force
Classification Level: Omega
Section 202A-2
December 2, 2017
10:05 p.m.


         Activate Omega Level Classification.
         Please...?
         I hope that whiny static crackle is a good thing.
         This is Chief Detective Lei Wulong of the Hong Kong Police Force, having more-or-less "safely" arrived in Japan, testing out my remote link to our classified computer records - this had better work. It had damn well better-
         coughing
         Why does it have to be verbal interface? Do I sound like someone who's in the shape to talk? And what if the force has any mute cops on it, eh? Bastard software designers-
         coughing
         Damn, I want a drink. And not just for my throat. This place... hearing the language again, seeing the people... hell, I almost thought I ran into Jun at the airport. It wasn't her, of course; just some woman with similar hair, and wearing a black-and-white sleeveless outfit like what used to be Jun's favorite. Faces were nothing the same. I damn near broke down anyway. Wanted a drink so bad I had to count to a hundred before I could catch a cab to the Tokyo main police station.
         The last time I wanted a drink that bad was four years ago, when the Toshin murdered my wife and Heihachi took away my son. When I woke up in the dirt, with bruises on my face, Heihachi's drugs in my blood, and unbearable shock hanging over my mind.
         I hurt from a heavy beating at the hands of Heihachi's goons, but - it's kind of funny - not as badly as I should have. I could stand, and walk. You can thank two of said goons for that; not the Tekkenshu rank-and-file, but the pair of lookalikes in business suits who were with 'em. It was those two who stopped the rest from breaking both my legs. And so I was able to stagger around in a torpid search, despite the numb, dizzy haze left over from whatever sedatives they'd shot me up with.
         I'd been discarded in a ditch, not far from the wreckage of my burned home. Everything in the house was ruined. Everything. Falling debris from the roof had crushed the TV. The laptop I'd brought home for Jin's birthday was melted into slag. Whole rooms were reduced to ash and charcoal.
         Jun... I couldn't find Jun. Couldn't find a body. Or a grave that had to be hers. But I couldn't cling to a false hope, either. Jin said he saw the Toshin kill her, whatever a Toshin was. More than that, though, I knew my son - knew how strong a telepath he was. There'd been times when he'd contacted my mind while I was halfway around the world. If Jin's mother were still alive, anywhere on the Earth, he would have been able to sense her thoughts. And he'd said she was gone.
         No, I wasn't really looking for any evidence to confirm that she was dead. I was looking for something that would lead me to her murderer. Traced the entire struggle from where it began in the shrine Jun had made, found the severed head of a red-haired woman I didn't know, and followed the panicked, widely spaced footprints of my wife and son running back to the house. Fire's wake and blood on the riverbank brought the trail to a murderous end. There were deep tracks and marks made by something huge. At the shrine, they looked vaguely human; at the riverbank, they were nothing of the kind - more like clawed, two-toed dinosaur feet. But it wasn't what I saw or measured that told me the most about this Toshin. It was what I felt.
         A tingling sensation. Power, certainly. Like the aftermath of a static charge, calling to an old, unwanted residue in my blood. I used to be a demon, you see; Kazuya made me into one just before the Great Invasion began. It's why my eyes change color every now and then. The curse is broken, but the side effects remain.
         This level of Power, though - a background field this intense, with this long a half-life, caused by nothing more than the Toshin just wandering on by - could not have been left by any mortal sorcerer. Not even Kazuya, possessed as he was by a Devil. The last time I'd been in the presence of something this potent was at the end of the Great Invasion, when the thunder god Raiden regained his "celestial divinity" or whatever, and ascended into the skies.
         Mind you, I'm not exactly saying "god" in a religious sense, here. I'm the last person who would bow down and worship a being like Raiden. But when you're dealing with a transcosmic personality brimming with enough raw, elemental Power to potentially blast apart the entire world, even I have to admit that really, a good way to describe it probably is as a "god."
         A god.
         The Toshin was a god.
         A god had murdered my wife. A god.
         If it had been a man, I'd have hunted him down to the ends of the Earth and killed him, but a god? How do you take revenge on a god? You can't even find a god; gods find you when they feel like it, not the other way around!
         "TOSHIN! COME BACK HERE!" I screamed, or something like it. "COME BACK AND FACE ME, YOU COWARD GOD!" I raved and shouted, slipped into hysteria for a while; nothing came of it. Eventually, my mania drained away, leaving me more exhausted than ever, until the full, horrible truth crept deep into me and dragged me down to hands and knees.
         I'd lost my wife.
         I'd lost my son.
         I'd lost everything. Everything.
         That was when it really started to hurt. Much worse than physical pain. Much, much worse than knowing you're going to die. Unbearable. Inescapable. So bad it makes you want to take something sharp and cut yourself, slice your veins open and bleed on the ground, just to distract your soul from its own anguish. I loved my wife and she was gone. I loved my son and he despised me for a murderer. There was nothing I could do about any of it, no purpose I could cling to as I sobbed and drowned.
         There was only one thing I could even think of doing.
         Stricken senseless with grief and pain, I stumbled down the trail to the only village near my home. The pilot who normally shuttled me to and from there had long since flown away. All the natives avoided me. None of my family was ever popular there; I was the foreign demon, Jun was the witch, and I won't even get into what our son had to endure. They currently seemed to be making an extra effort to shun me, though. Perhaps because Heihachi's men intimidated them, or perhaps because they were superstitious about the god that had torn apart my family. For whatever reason, the only help I got out of any of them was directions to the only bar.
         I swear that alcohol must be the universal drug. I've been to nations all over the world, and had easy access to drinks in damn near every one. Undercover cops have offered me drinks. Heads of state have offered me drinks. Muslims have offered me drinks. No one was offering now, but even that tiny little village had a rickety old shack on its fringe, where I could limp in, sit down, and demand a shot of hard liquor without even thinking about it.
         I didn't care that I was an alcoholic. I didn't care what the stuff had done to me in the past, wrecked my job and my life, and was probably responsible for the liver cancer I'd come down with. Once I started on that liquor glass, I knew I wouldn't be able to stop; I'd smash myself unconscious and revert to a junkie who exists only to get his next high, I knew all this and didn't care. All I cared about was getting something, anything to stop the pain, or at least dull it for a little while, no matter what the price. I picked up the glass, holding it on level with my mouth-
         -and I saw her. Standing across from me. Looking at me with those beautiful ginger eyes, brimming with sparkling tears.
         It wasn't really Jun, of course. It wasn't really my murdered wife. This wasn't the first time I'd experienced hallucinations of dead friends or loved ones; I'd been especially susceptible to such things in the Great Invasion, when I was trying to go dry and suffering from severe withdrawal. I knew that what I was seeing now couldn't be real. It was just a side effect of the leftover drugs in my blood. I knew all this, but when I looked into her sad, sad eyes I couldn't turn away. I just couldn't. My hand trembled, splashing and spilling some of the potent drink on my skin.
         "Don't look at me like that," I croaked to her. "Don't."
         Her eyes drifted from me to the glass, and back again. She shook her head, just the tiniest bit, and crossed her hands over her heart, fingers curled inward.
         "No. Don't act like this." I shook my own head in response, and my glass hand was quaking so much that my other hand had to grab my wrist and hold it steady. "What else do you expect me to do? Do you think I can get our son away from Heihachi? When we hid Jin's existence so thoroughly there's no legal record of me as his father, when Heihachi's syndicate owns a third of the world on a silver platter, when any medical test will show that he's Jin's genetic kindred and I'm not? When Jin hates me for a murderer, and for a rat that left you to die?"
         The tears trickled down her cheeks.
         "You're not real," I whispered, miserably, holding the liquor glass closer to myself. "You're not real, and Jin hates me. So it doesn't matter if I drink. I can't hurt either one of you. I... I can't..."
         She held out her elegant hand, resting it on the countertop.
         I looked at her, and I remembered. I remembered how much she'd loved me, loved without condition or justification, because she didn't believe that love should be conditional or justified. Slowly, surely, understanding seeped into my mind. It didn't matter if she wasn't really there. It didn't matter if this was a daydream or a drugged hallucination. I knew, deep inside, that she loved me so much she would never want me to go back to being a drunk. It would be a horror to her, and to my memory of her. Perhaps even as awful a horror as the god that killed her. To make that horror real would be to murder her all over again. I cried as I set down the drink in her gentle hand. My tears were so thick I couldn't see to walk out of there; I had to feel my way along.
         It wasn't until the next morning that I fully realized just how close I'd come, then and there. To spell it out: I was groggy from tranquilizer drugs. I was about to dive into a drinking binge. These two situations do not mix. If I'd taken that drink, it would have stopped the pain - forever.
         Four days later, at the first break of dawn, I approached the front steps to the Temple of Light.
         The Temple had been a part of Sanctuary for nearly a decade, but I'd learned that they'd moved back to where they used to be, on a remote mountainside in China's Honan province. I'd climbed the mountain trail leading to the Temple once before, back when I was a young man, in a quest to detoxify my body of both physical and mental poisons. Since then, I knew the Temple had seen battles and atrocities, perpetrated by inhuman monsters that almost completely wiped out its Order of Light; and yet, so little had changed. There were still the same, broad stone columns, the same flat-topped, shingled trapezoid of a central roof, the same steps worn down by the tread of centuries. There were only two new additions that clearly stood out. One was a long, shallow ramp that stretched parallel to the Temple steps, leading inside. The other was a statue of Kung Lao.
         Kung Lao...
         He used to be a buddy of mine. A good one. I lost a lot of friends in the Great Invasion; maybe burying him was the worst loss, just because it was the last. It was his death that converted the Shao Kahn's queen to our side, and therefore turned back the Great Invasion. I've always felt that Kung Lao deserved a higher place in history than I did, even if it was the queen and not he who banished the Kahn to the ends of Time. But I took Kazuya down with my own personal hands, and I'm still around after the invasion's over, so I'm the one who gets the pretty medals. There was a certain comfort in knowing that at least Kung Lao's home had honored him properly.
         I looked up at the statue. It stood brave and bold, one leg stepped upon an elevated base, one arm resting upon that leg's bent knee, as it gazed steadfastly into the sunrise. It was maybe four times the size of a man. Its smooth grey stone was worked so perfectly into the likeness of my old friend that I assumed Liu Kang must have overseen its creation. Only someone who closely knew Kung Lao could have exactly matched the staunch, yet good-humored set of his face. Or how the left half of his divided vest tended to slip a little further than the right. Or how he always set the brim of his hat just a few degrees above level when he had that look of cautious, guarded optimism in his watchful eyes.
         There was an inscription on the statue's base. It read, "In memory of all who died so that the Earth could live."
         Yeah, sure. We remember the people who go out in a blaze of glory. But what about all the other victims? What about the people who die for no good reason at all? Are they somehow worth less for it? My wife risked her life and soul to fight against monsters, fight in the name of the gods that supposedly protected our world, and what did it get her? Murdered, sixteen years later.
         Murdered by a god.
         Murdered...
         I leaned against the statue, and slowly crumpled beneath its feet.
         "Hey, I know you! You're Lei Wulong Super Police, hero of the Great Invasion! I've seen pictures of you in Uncle Wang's history books, I have, I have, I have!"
         Something peeked out from behind the statue's legs. Something small, quick, and restless. I should say "someone," really, but she was so tiny and fast and zipped about in circles that I could hardly identify her as a human being.
         "We hardly ever get visitors this is so cool did you come to study more fighting they teach your Phoenix style here not many people use it I tried but it was too funny for me I bet you have some great stories to tell! C'mon, tell me a story of the Great Invasion! Tell me, tell me, tell me! C'mon inside, everyone's just getting up and I know they'd all love to hear a story from Lei Wulong Super Police!"
         She became still for just an instant. I got a glimpse of a skinny little child - twelve at the time, though she looked noticeably younger; certainly, her figure had yet to acquire any feminine curves. She had pencil-thin eyebrows, bright cocoa eyes, and an exuberant mouth. Her long black bangs parted erratically over the right side of her forehead, while the rest of her hair sprang out in a pair of bouncy ponytails, held in place with bright yellow ribbons. Matching yellow, decorative trim garnished the cuffs, sides, back, neck, and shoulders of her deep blue fighting dress, which split at the waist into the traditional front-and-back folds for easy movement. Preserving her modesty was a skin-tight black leotard with another touch of yellow to its thigh cuffs. Her short, knobby legs were bare except for two deep blue, yellow-trimmed shoes with black socks, completing the perfect tricolor ensemble. It was so perfect, in fact, that she almost seemed like a little Chinese doll, in doll's clothing, all wound up and ready to spring into clockwork action.
         "C'mon, c'mon, inside, inside, inside!" she exclaimed with jubilant fervor, taking my hand and zealously pulling me toward the temple steps with a lot more strength than I'd give credit to that tiny little body. "C'mon in and tell us all a story about Lei Wulong Super Police!"
         "Uh..." Did I hear a 'spring'?
         "HEY, EVERYBODY! COME AND SEE! Lei Wulong Super Police just came to our Temple, he's here, he's here, it's really him, he looks just like his picture well almost like his picture-"
         "Eh, look, sweetheart," I mumbled, in a bewildered try for her bubbling attention, "you really don't have to raise a fuss like this, and there's no need for the fancy titles, either."
         "Really? Can I call you 'Lei'? Can I call you just 'Lei'? Can I, can I, can I?"
         "Uh... sure."
         "Yay! This is soooo cool!" She jumped happily off the ground, kicking up her heels and merrily clapping her dainty little hands. "Next time Uncle Wang takes me on a trip, I'm gonna tell everyone I meet that I'm best friends with Lei Wulong Super Police!"
         "Ling Xiaoyu!" reprimanded a stern, aged voice that I hadn't heard in years. "That is not a respectful way to greet a guest. Go inside. There will be time for proper introductions later."
         "Aw, Uncle Wang..."
         "Go. Now."
         She pouted for an instant, then turned and dashed sprightly up the temple steps - I don't think she was upset or anything, more as if the concept of moving at a walk was beyond her immediate comprehension. I squinted up at my deliverer.
         What can I say about Wang Jinrey? He was a martial arts master who used to be a close friend of my wife, almost like family to her when she was growing up. He fought alongside all us good guys in the Great Invasion. I never really knew him well, but what I did know was more than enough for me to put my complete trust in the blind, wizened old man - and I do mean old; his life stretched past a whole century.
         "Please forgive the little one," he said with a humble bow. "She is easily excited, as young girls go."
         I raised an eyebrow. "That's a little girl? I thought it was a pixie."
         Another voice from years gone by sounded from the top of the steps. "Welcome, Detective Lei Wulong. It long time."
         I blinked. "Seung Mina? What... what happened to you?"
         It was Seung Mina, though no longer the vigorous young fighting woman I remembered from the Great Invasion - she'd settled into the full bloom of early middle age. That wasn't what surprised me so much, though. No, what I stared at was the gleaming metal, high-backed chair with diminutive front wheels and long-spoked back wheels. A snug leather strap kept Mina's inanimate legs secure to the chair's bottom tray. Her hands pushed forward on its wheels, guiding her vehicle to the edge of the first step.
         She leaned forward in a respectful sitting bow, and said, "An old piece of past catch up with me. I tell you all about it later, if you like. You must be tired from long journey; please, come in. Rest. Eat. You always welcome here." She turned her wheelchair around, and rolled inside. Following, I collapsed on the first mat I could find and slept for hours.
         It was dark when I woke up. Wang Jinrey offered me something to eat, and quietly asked what had brought me here. I spilled the whole story, except for the part about my liver cancer. Hearing about Jun's death did not appear to startle him; he just looked sad, and bowed his wrinkled head.
         "I had to come here," I finished, mournfully. "Maybe even join the Order of Light for the rest of my life. I'm not sure there's anywhere else where I can be completely safe from myself. I came that close to drinking again."
         "You already belong to the Order of Light, in spirit if not official title. It is an honor for the Temple of Light to host its second greatest living champion, next to only Liu Kang himself," he replied. "But the touch of destiny is upon you. When you are ready, there will be need for your strength in the outside world once more. With the blessing of the gods-"
         "Gods?" I snapped, harshly interrupting him. "Gods!? Have you been listening to me? It was a god that murdered my wife!"
         "Are you quite certain of that?"
         "I felt its Power! As strong as those alien creatures you pray to, in your pretty devotional shrines!"
         "If it was a god, then I can assure you that it was not a god of Light. This temple venerates no deity by the name of 'Toshin.'"
         "Then WHAT WAS IT!?" I cried, violently throwing down my empty plate. "Why did my wife die? Which of those pseudo-divine tyrants is responsible, and how can I kill it?"
         "You cannot. Only purity within and purity without can close the wound that is Toshin."
         I almost lashed out at him, in a fit of sudden madness, but an odd tone in his voice stopped me. His head was turned a little to the side. I'd seen him like that only once before, when-
         "Is that a prophecy?" I mumbled, remembering his gift to see into the future.
         "I am sorry," he sighed, his voice returning to normal. "It is all I can give you."
         "Does it mean the Toshin can't be killed? Or does it mean that someone else has the Power to kill it and I don't? Maybe only someone who's 'pure' enough?"
         "I do not know."
         It occurred to me that maybe I'd learned all I could from him. Maybe it was time to start asking questions of... something else.
         "Wang," I said, "there is a special, walled-off chamber at the back of your temple; it has an altar, a stained glass window, and many thick candles. I would like to make use of that chamber tonight."
         "As you wish. It may not serve you as you desire, however. You never were one of Raiden's Chosen Ones."
         As far as I was concerned, that was Raiden's problem, not mine.
         He owed me. That so-called thunder god owed me, me and my wife, we both helped get him back in the celestial cosmos where he belonged, didn't we? Now my wife was dead, I was dying, our son had fallen into the grip of a ruthless despot, and if Raiden wouldn't do anything about it, then why the hell make a shrine to him!? All this and more flashed through my mind, as one by one, I lit the multitude of candles scattered about the darkened devotional chamber. At last, I blew out my match, and tapped my foot impatiently. I stood, and I waited, and nothing happened.
         How are you supposed to summon a god, anyway? Prayer? I'd never done anything of the kind since I lost faith as a kid, but for my wife's sake, I forced myself down on my knees and recited a short something like I used to hear Liu Kang or Kung Lao say. I "prayed," and I waited, and nothing happened.
         Hours passed. Nothing happened.
         In the dead of the night, I snapped.
         I started shouting things. Threats. Howls. Curses in seven languages. I went on a rampage, crushing candles, tearing apart tapestries, using my focused Chi to punch chips in stone. Turning my entire body in a jumping crescent kick, I spun in midair and smashed my right heel against Raiden's hardwood altar, breaking the ancient, carved structure into splinters. Last of all, I barreled headfirst into the stained glass window, shattering the symbolic design of a fork-tongued dragon, heedless of the stinging cuts the glass shards made in my skin.
         Pure white beamed from beyond the window.
         It grew brighter and brighter, engulfing me and all my surroundings, until I was alone in a sea of empty white, no features or landmarks, nothing but blinding white brilliance. I had to close my eyes from the intensity; when I dared to open them again, she was before me.
         It was hard to see her. She glowed white against a background of white. I squinted as hard as I could. The first things I could focus on were her eyes. They were frozen, icy aqua pools, devoid of sympathy. They were not human eyes. Nor was her face a human face. There was an azure gem set within her brow, but even more than that, her features were a little too perfect, her cheeks too pristine. Her crimson lips were a trace too statuesque, her alabaster skin a shade too flawless. Her spun-gold hair was held in a bun save for two thin, loose trails on either side of her face. A leafy, perfectly symmetrical olive garland circled the back three-quarters of her head. A sleeveless, vaguely Grecian top and short-legged slacks gathered at the knees loosely draped her body. Holding the white, satiny fabric fast was a golden band about her waist. More gold trim ornamented her brow, and encircled her upper arms below the shoulders, as well as her legs and laced, open-toed sandals. Her feet were as unnaturally immaculate as the rest of her. Stretching from her shoulders were her most distinctive feature: two broad, white-feathered wings, long as she was at their fullest extension.
         She was an Angel, and she was utterly without comparison, but I will not call her beautiful. My wife was beautiful. The Angel was something that compelled the eyes and would not let you look away, but "beautiful"? In the sense of something that could love, or be loved? No. That is not true beauty. When I looked upon her, I did not see warmth, or feel kindness. I saw coldness. I felt death.
         It simmered in my insides, as if my liver tissue were protesting the malignant growth that squeezed it. A stabbing pain, sharp like the cut of a blade, tore open my abdomen and savaged my vitals; it sliced into my spinal cord, wrenching in sickly twist-
         -then it was gone. But the memory remains. I still feel it sometimes, when I'm lying awake at night.
         The sudden shock of that experience brought me down to one knee, but then I realized I wasn't hurt. At all. Even the cuts I'd gotten from breaking the glass window were gone. I straightened, met the Angel's unfathomable eyes, and said, "I expected to talk to Raiden."
         *You are not one of his Chosen. You are one of mine.* The voice of the Angel was as crystalline as the icy pain I'd just felt. It penetrated the core of my mind, more direct and clear than ordinary words, ringing like an exquisite bell-chime.
         "Who are you?"
         *Mortals before you have called me Pistias Sophia. If you must use a name, use that one.* She folded her impeccable arms. *A god has approached me upon your behalf, but you are here only because it is what I will. Because of your great service to me in the past, I allow you to make three requests. Choose your words carefully.*
         Three requests? Since when did I walk into a fairy tale?
         "All right," I told her. "I 'request' my wife back. Alive. Take me in exchange if you have to, life and soul both!"
         She turned her head away, unblemished nose in the air. *Not a day nor a night goes by that some mortal, somewhere, does not express such a wish. A parent seeks to trade his life for that of his child; a lover her life for that of her beloved; a loyal vassal would sacrifice himself for his liege. Yet I make no bargains. My will falls equally among all living beings, and I do not acknowledge debts incurred or received.*
         "I thought you said I get three requests."
         *You may request. There is no promise to grant your desire.*
         "Then why did my wife have to die? Can you at least tell me that?"
         *The Toshin is drawn voraciously to souls that are strong or pure. Yet among all the souls in your world, hers was the greatest lure, for she was once my Chosen avatar, and called directly upon my Power to Unmake ten thousand lives. It was a Power that came with a price, and the price at last fell due.*
         "Like hell!" I snapped. "I could have protected her from that monster! I could have taken her to Sanctuary; not even an evil god could waltz past their wards! Why didn't you warn us?"
         *I did warn her. I did not warn you for the same reason that she did not warn you: because your love for her would have interfered with her duty, and your destiny. It was her duty to banish the Toshin for a maximum of five years, though the cost would be her life. It is your destiny to anticipate the Toshin's return. For your son's sake, you must prepare yourself well.*
         "There's no guarantee I'll still be around when that thing comes back!"
         *No. There is not. Nor could I grant you one, even if you were to request it.*
         "Then how can I avenge my wife at all?"
         *To give her sacrifice true meaning, you must fulfil your destiny. The soul of your wife will need you. Your son will need you. The others will all need you. When the Toshin returns to menace your world and your son, it will be weaker. Because of that, you will all have a chance against it; a chance that no mortal had when it was first roused. I am permitted to say no more.*
         "Okay. If you're stuck under some celestial gag order, then I'm ready to make my second request. I want you to get my son away from Heihachi Mishima, and bring him back to me!"
         *Are you quite certain that such an action would be in your child's best interests?*
         What?
         My first impulse was to yell at her, demand to know how she could even say a thing like that. "Pistias Sophia" is a name that implies wisdom; if she knew anything about Heihachi, then she knew he was a cruel, abusive, murderous tyrant! I wanted to berate her, but those deathly aqua eyes stared into my own, and their frost chilled my throat. She extended one of her vast wings, sweeping it in a half-circle; a vision formed in its wake.
         It was Heihachi, and my son, inside a spartan training room. Thick, mortared blocks of grey stone formed the walls, and box-shaped pillars held up the ceiling. The only decoration was at one end, a stylized figure painting of a green-skinned warrior garnished with red and gold. Wide gaps between the pillars formed open-air windows to a blue spring sky, filled with white and grey clouds. The central window had a set of broad steps leading up to it; Heihachi stood at the peak of those steps, arms folded, mouth set in a stern frown, watchfully gazing down upon my son. And Jin - Jin was in the center of the stone floor. He was dressed to fight, wearing nothing but a pair of black drawstring slacks with an orange-red flame-pattern engulfing the right leg, and sparring gear on his hands and feet. He gave an extra tug on his left karate glove before he turned to face his opponents. Then his eyebrows rose in surprise; he looked up at his grandfather and hesitantly asked, "Is this what I'm supposed to train against?"
         Jin's enemies were not human. They weren't even alive. They were a pair of crude wooden dummies, fashioned from logs with the bark still on them. Ball-shaped wooden joints held together their two-sectioned arms and legs. Both of them had metal chain-links stretching from their elbows, and polished spheres in place of hands. There were indentations on their stump-like heads dimly resembling eyes, and protruding, sawed-off snout-branches that could have passed for noses. One dummy had a cylindrical body, while the other's trunk was roughly curved to resemble that of a woman. The "male" dummy had a two-twined branch with green leaves growing out of its head; the "female" dummy had a white, daisy-like flower sprouting from hers. They were at opposite sides of the room.
         "These are the Mokujin," Heihachi explained, gruffly. "Approach them, and they will attempt to beat you into submission. They will cease on the command of an instructor, or when you are no longer able to fight back. For now, you will train against only one of them. Choose your enemy, and show me what you can do."
         Jin set his sights on the male dummy. As soon as he came within a few meters of it, it sprang to life with a clatter, and I glimpsed writing carved on its back when it stepped away from the wall. It hunched over part-way and held its arms before it like animal paws, approaching with ponderous steps, then struck at Jin with a heavy, swinging uppercut.
         "Shogai!" my son cried, thrusting out his palm and barricading the Mokujin with a flashing wall of sorcery. He used the time he'd bought to dart around to its side-
         "NO!" Heihachi roared. "Stop this instant, both of you!" Chastened, Jin immediately turned around, neglecting his spell. The Mokujin adopted a dormant, beast-like posture.
         "Have you forgotten already!?" the old man raged. "Your sorcery is useless against the Toshin!"
         Jin's eyes grew wide. "I - I had forgotten," he confessed, kneeling from shame. "I'm-"
         "Quiet. Listen to me. This Power you have, it is excellent for terrorizing mere men, but you must not rely upon it. You must learn to stand and fight without it! The strength you need to battle the Toshin will not come from any 'magic.' It comes from you. Your will. Your fire. Take the rage you feel for your murdered family, take the pain, take the need for revenge, and shape it into a fire that burns in your body and soul! Harden yourself into a weapon that can wound even a god, and then you will have no further need for sorcery! Now. Show me again."
         Again, my son challenged the Mokujin. This time he went on the offensive, taking advantage of his greater speed to strike first. He snapped one foot after the other down to up with the can-can kicks he'd learned from his mother; the Mokujin hunched over in a protective crouch, stopping the first kick and completely ducking the second. It countered with a series of overhand punches, swinging its arms in great circles like the blades of a windmill. Jin barely got his defense up in time. He staggered backward from the onslaught, his upraised forearms shielding his face and head from the wooden blows, until his gaze dipped down to the floor. Ducking underneath the last strike, he threw himself on the ground, face up.
         My mouth tightened, a little. Jin was trying to use the Phoenix style I'd taught him. He had the technical accuracy, somewhat, but he still hadn't grasped the subtleties of misdirecting one's intent. His eyes had signaled what he was about to do well before he even moved, and the Mokujin had somehow picked up on it. Before Jin could kick from the ground, it sailed into the air and landed butt-first on his chest, slamming the breath from his lungs.
         "Stop," Heihachi commanded, shaking his head in disgust. The Mokujin somersaulted backward off my son. Jin wheezed, put a hand to his chest, and summoned his healing sorcery to mend whatever damage the dummy had done to his ribs.
         "That is Wulong's style!" Heihachi ranted to Jin. "Do you even realize what you are doing? You are glorifying the practice of the man who murdered your father!"
         "I..."
         "And it does not suit you, does it? Has it ever served you at all? Lying on the ground as if you have already given up the battle - have you ever had success with such techniques!?"
         Jin hung his head. "I'm... still trying to learn them."
         "If for fifteen years you try and fail, then it is time to try something else. Do not pollute these sacred grounds with Wulong's inferior tactics again! Use what I have shown you!"
         "I'm sorry, grandfather."
         "Do not apologize. Do better. Now, show me again."
         Again, Jin squared off against his wooden opponent. It made a grab for him, its arms swinging in from either side to crush him in an engulfing hug; he ducked and retaliated by whipping his right leg straight up, smacking its torso with his heel, then bringing said heel down on its head with so much force he knocked the dummy flat on its back. It was a nearly perfect axe kick that he performed, a kick that neither his mother nor I had ever taught him... and a kick that Kazuya Mishima had once used to beat the crap out of me.
         I watched Jin fight some more. My son couldn't have been studying Mishima-style karate for more than a few days, and it showed as he struggled to get the proper set of his hips and channel his full power into his punches and kicks. Even at that early stage, though, I could see how easily he was adapting to it, and blending it with the arts of his mother. Every so often, around when he concluded a full bout with the Mokujin, it would change its fighting stance, attack patterns, and response time. I saw it use moves from aikido, karate, capoeira, and other arts; once, I could swear it imitated my own Phoenix style. The constant variety forced Jin to continually search for weaknesses in each art, even as he strived to learn a new one of his own. Heihachi interrupted the training every once in a while, with a stern correction or pointed observation. Never praise. But the decisive set of Jin's eyebrows told me that he wasn't fighting for praise. He was fighting for strength. He was fighting for revenge.
         Kazuya used to have that look of raw determination to his face - the look that meant he would let nothing and no one stand in his way. But I'd never before seen that emotion reflected in the eyes of my son. My son, the heir to Kazuya's legacy.
         Heihachi's lips curled into a thin smile.
         This entire vision was nothing like what I'd expected to see. I expected the Heihachi of Kazuya's worst memories, an abusive, out-of-control monster who would torture Jin or try to kill him. Instead, I saw... a teacher. A good one.
         My wife had been right all along. Heihachi had changed. He'd learned restraint. He'd learned that brute force alone would not bring him control of the world, or of his grandson. But when I looked closer at the manipulative shine in the old man's jet black eyes, and the possessive sneer on his face, I knew that I was right all along, too. Heihachi's surface level of self-discipline had changed, yet the dark core of his true nature remained the same.
         *Have you seen enough?*
         I nodded to the Angel. Her wing folded, causing the vision to dissipate.
         *Even if your son were to be transported from one physical location to another, such an event would not alter his perceptions of either his grandfather or you. Know this: you cannot bridge the rift between yourself and your child until you confess the shame you have kept hidden since before his birth.*
         "I didn't murder Kazuya. He killed himself."
         *So you have said before.*
         "I have nothing to be ashamed of!"
         *You say that, yet your heart does not believe it. Unless you bring the entire truth out into the open, you cannot cleanse yourself of the guilt you carry. Now, make your last request.*
         I didn't like the way she said that.
         One, final request. What to ask for? Was there anything more I needed to know from her? Probably not. Was there some magic present I could demand, some special phrase that would give me whatever I needed to avenge my wife and save my son?
         I settled on the most general catchall I could think of. "Is there any way in which you'll help me?"
         *I have already done all that I can.*
         "Have you. Have you really. Or are you just afraid to go up against a god?"
         She stared into me with those cold, cold eyes of stillness. *It is you who should be afraid, you and all mortals like you. As inimical as the Toshin is, you at least have a chance against it. But if it were not for the Laws that hold my Power at bay, nothing that lives would have even that much. To see me is to know your own doom. My extended presence upon your world would risk its end. And for me to confront the Toshin, the physical manifestation of Immortality and polar antithesis of all that I am, would bring about the destruction of the Universe.*
         If she was trying to scare me, she succeeded. If she was trying to make me admit it, she failed.
         "Wait a minute," I growled. "If you can't do anything for me, then why invite me to make three requests? Were you just toying with me all along!?"
         Her head drooped, breaking whatever mesmerizing spell her presence had on my eyes. *If it matters, no. Though I could not grant your desires, it was my hope that you would learn what you most needed to know from having them refused. Only Time will tell whether my hope was in vain.*
         I think I'd rather be in a fairy tale.
         "Thanks for nothing, then," I mumbled, turning away.
         *Wait.*
         I looked back at her, and raised an eyebrow.
         *I can help you no further. But one of my servants may come to your aid, at the right place and time.*
         "'May'?" I muttered under my breath.
         *Those who serve me must do so not because I command it, nor out of hope for reward, nor from any motive greater than the conviction of their own souls. Such are the Laws. So it has always been. The vast majority of mine do not know that I am their patron - just as you did not know, when you worked my will in the Great Invasion.*
         "I worked your will? And here I thought I was fighting to save the world."
         *Exactly. In restoring the Cosmic Balance that governs your world, you also restored me, for I am a part of that balance. In the domain of the living, I am terror and suffering; yet in my own domain, I am protector and mercy. It is only because you live that you are incapable of knowing my compassion. Go back, now. For your son's sake, do not return to me until the threat of the Toshin is forever gone.*
         "How about if I don't return to you at all. Ever."
         She smiled, an expression that was at once both ruthless and solicitous. *You shall return to me. In one form or another, you shall return. All mortals do.*
         It was daylight when I arrived back at the Temple. I felt weary down to my bones, but the thought of trying to sleep - of closing my eyes and facing whatever morbid images flickered inside of them - was more than I could handle. I made my slow, halting way to the front steps, and rested in the noonday sun. Looking out at the open ground in front of me, I saw the daily training that Seung Mina conducted from her wheelchair, with the help of two assistant instructors. Paraplegic or not, she could still teach.
         The little pixie girl was the most eager pupil of all. She had a natural talent that took my breath away. I saw her dip into a crouched stance as graceful as the Phoenix of myth, her weight mostly on her hooked right leg, her left leg extended far in front of her. Her torso hovered almost as low as her bent knee, and her arms extended in an upward V-shape like delicate wings. When her sparring partner, a man three times her size, tried to strike down at the tiny little target, she rolled to the side quicker than thought and took hold of him in mid-swing. With a deft twist of her arms and a subtle thrust of her legs, she tipped him off-balance and threw him flat on his back.
         Wang Jinrey sat down next to me. I didn't see where he'd come from. He didn't say anything for a while, so I cleared my throat and mumbled, "I'm surprised you're not helping Mina with the training. I know how good you are at this stuff."
         "Though I do still teach, my heart has grown weak, as of late. Seung Mina insists that I restrict my regimen to light activity. I have agreed, in exchange for her promise not to allow any extreme measures, when the time comes."
         "Oh." I wondered which of us would outlive the other.
         "Raiden's devotional shrine is a shambles," Wang continued. He didn't say it with any accusatory overtones; more like he was just making conversation. "It shall take us months to fully restore it."
         "No freaking kidding."
         "I hope you were able to attain enlightenment."
         Yeah, right. Enlightenment from the Angel of Death. I started to tell the old man to leave me alone, when part of what I'd seen flashed through my mind again.
         "Wang," I sighed, "did I ever tell you how I defeated Kazuya Mishima in single combat?"
         "No, I believe not. I presume that you overpowered him with your superior skill."
         "So does everyone else. And they're wrong. All of them."
         "Is that so?"
         I nodded. "I fought Kazuya twice. Both times, he pounded me into the floor. The first time, I barely got a blow in edgewise. And the second time - the second time, I didn't win because I was a better fighter. My strength wasn't enough. My speed wasn't enough. My skill definitely wasn't enough. I got the drop on him because of two things. One was when I broke his curse and so surprised him that he didn't react to my first attack in time. The other was a... a trick.
         "Kazuya had made the mistake of sharing his memories with me. I knew his greatest hatred, and his worst fear. When he shape-changed into a Devil and nearly brutalized me into a coma, I became so desperate that I had to use his own fears against him. I baited him into a blind rage; he got careless, made a stupid blunder. It was the only way I could beat him, Wang. He was that good. He was that strong. And Heihachi Mishima was his teacher.
         "Maybe... maybe it is in Jin's best interest to study with his grandfather. For now. He'll need the strength of his Mishima side, when the Toshin comes for him." I clenched my hand in a fist. "But Heihachi is a jealous megalomaniac, and eventually, Jin's youth and Power will be too much for him. He'll try to kill my son, Wang. It's only a matter of time. I know when he'll do it, too. He'll strike when he no longer needs to use Jin as Toshin-bait, and not before. Or maybe he'll just let the Toshin murder Jin; save himself the dishonor of getting family blood on his hands."
         "Then you must survive long enough to do something about it," the old man softly returned.
         I gazed into his blind, empty eyesockets. "You know, don't you?"
         "About the menace that shrouds your liver? Yes. I have practiced healing sorcery for close to a century, and the malady of your life-force is plain to my psychic sight. You are in need of immediate surgical treatment."
         "I know, but I'm afraid," I confessed in a whisper.
         "Afraid of surgery?"
         "Worse. I'm afraid that if I leave this place too soon, I could start drinking again."
         "Then we do operation," Seung Mina declared.
         I spun to face her. "How did you get up here so fast?"
         She smiled and flexed her arms. "No worry, Wulong. Wang and I know what to do."
         "You? You're just a nurse-"
         "Sixteen years ago. I doctor now. Correspondence course."
         "If you do not undergo treatment," Wang added, "then your affliction could spread at any time, and once it does, neither technology nor sorcery will hold much hope for you."
         I hung my head. "What the hell. Worst thing that could happen, I'm with Jun again."
         coughing
         Damn. For a while there, I almost thought the lozenges were a help.
         coughing
         Four years. I've made it through four years, thanks to them both, and that's more years than a lot of cancer patients ever get to see.
         I wonder if I'll see the next one.
         coughing
         Goddamn verbal interface. Why does it have to be verbal? Do I sound like someone who's in the shape to talk?
         Computer - cough - deactivate Omega Level Classification.





INTERVIEW WITH BRYAN FURY, section 1
February 2, 2018
5:45 p.m.


         You're early.
         You're fifteen minutes early.
         Why did you wake me up early? Did Chaolan screw up my message? Six o'clock in the evening! Six! NOT before! I HATE being woken up EARLY!
         Oh, no. Don't you duck out on me now. You're not going anywhere. Get back here and sit down. Sit.
         You want I should make you sit?
         That's better.
         Now. What have they been saying about me?
         Don't play dumb, I know what you've been up to. You've been talking to all the others, haven't you? The pretty boy Kazama, his Brainiac girlfriend, and especially Chaolan, you've been recording their biased accounts like it's the word of God! The only reason I told you to come here is to make damn sure you get the facts in their stories straight. I won't be judged by them, and I sure as hell won't be judged by you. Just what kind of shit have they all been saying about me!?
         Huh?
         What do you mean they haven't gotten to me yet? They can't leave me out of it! I saved Kazama's ass! Hell, I saved EVERYONE'S ass!
         Everyone that lived to tell about it, anyway.
         What?
         Did I say I saved them all by myself? Did I? Don't you put words in my mouth! If they're not talking about me, then why should I bother with you? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't throw you out on your-
         Oh?
         Oh, really?
         Why should I pretend I don't know you? I'm not in the mood to play any of your stupid games. And why should I tell you anything about myself? Who do you think you are, Sigmund Freud? Do you expect me to lie on a couch and talk about my mother? You still haven't given me a reason to-
         What?
         Public?
         What are you talking about? Pretty boy Kazama just wants you to make a record for his nice, neat files all in a row. He's not going to make anything public, not when he can use the syndicate to keep it all hushed up! Do you really believe he's going to let the whole world know what an idiot he is? Rich people have more pride than that. You're a liar or a fool, I don't care which.
         What the hell? -no, I'm not talking to you, wait your turn - I don't believe this. It's true? Public? Shut up. Go away. Go to sleep. This is my interview, I'm conducting it alone.
         Damn. Kazama's really going to do it.
         I don't have a choice. I have to put up with you, just to make sure you get your facts about me right. One thing you'd better be careful of, though:
         Don't judge me.
         Don't you dare judge me. You don't know anything about me, or what I've been through, and even after you hear it you still don't know because you haven't been through it. Don't even think of trying to pass some holier-than-thou judgement on me! Just sit there, listen, and get what I say right.
         I was a good cop, once.
         A damn good cop.
         Detective Bryan Fury, of the International Police Organization - they called me "Snake Eye," like the cobra that hypnotizes rodents with its glare. Earned my gold shield when I was just twenty-one. Though I started out in larceny and homicide, my specialty was undercover work, particularly to expose organized crime; what can I say, I do a good mob impression when I want. I busted more high-level kingpins in the ten years of my career than even that overglorified alcoholic, Lei Wulong.
         God, how I hated him.
         It wasn't always hatred, of course. I mean, the first time I ever heard his name was when I was nine years old, the Great Invasion was over, and nations everywhere hailed him as this wonderful war hero. When I got into the IPO, I became more familiar with all the myths and legends attached to this so-called "Super Police." It was downright superstitious. And when I got transferred from America to Hong Kong, shit, no one would ever shut UP about him.
         I started out respecting the guy. Maybe even believing some of the fanfare - what? Oh, that he could make Godfathers incriminate themselves just by looking at them, that he could thumb through case files and solve mysteries with ten-year cold trails, that he could shoot down entire armed gangs with nothing more than his favorite 9mm automatic, basically the greatest cop that ever lived blah blah blah. But in Hong Kong, the rumors were absolutely ridiculous. They were saying stuff like he was fucking bulletproof, he could fly, he could see in total darkness, he slept with every female cop on the force, he channeled the soul of Jackie Chan - you do know who Jackie Chan was, don't you? The movie actor who was mysteriously murdered ten minutes before midnight on May 19, 2013?
         Funny thing was, no one knew much of anything about Wulong's personal life, or where he went on the weekends. On practically the day of Jackie Chan's murder, Wulong just up and disappeared altogether, stayed missing for about six months - then came back and bingo, he's merrily welcomed back into the Hong Kong Police Force with a promotion! If I'd pulled a stunt like that, I know I'd at least have gotten a pay cut. Oh, and he started working seven days a week too, which only made the stories about him worse. I couldn't get away from it even when I knocked off for the day; I'd turn on the TV and see him either on the news, or doing Sony commercials.
         Anyway, this annoying, squat little Chinese bastard didn't even belong to the IPO, and all my coworkers worshiped him like he was God. I got thoroughly sick of it. So I decided to make myself better than he was. Better than he could ever be. I'd collar more criminals, build a bigger information network, completely blast apart his legends with a legend of my own.
         That's how I started getting tight with the Mishima syndicate.
         They provided me with tips, see. I didn't care where or how they got their info; maybe Chaolan can tell you. He runs their entire damn spy network now, not to mention everything else - pretty boy "President" Kazama is just the poster child. They both claim they're trying to "reform" the whole corrupt conglomerate. Dunno if they can do it, but it sure is fun to watch them try. I think a new Mishima-related scandal has gotten dug up and pasted all over TV practically every other day since they took over.
         But old man Heihachi was top dog of the syndicate when I became one of its formal "liaisons" with the IPO, like, around six years ago. Officially, the syndicate was lending its Tekkenshu militia to help the IPO when they were short on manpower, coordinating their immense influence on the Hong Kong government to assist our investigations, offering the occasional tax-deductible donation, stuff like that. Unofficially, they needed us to look the other way so they could smuggle and deal illegal drugs. Heroin, cocaine, and barbiturates especially.
         Oh, no you don't.
         Shut up. I don't care if you didn't say anything; don't look at me like that. I told you not to judge me! Shit, I didn't even know at first what I was buying into. They gave me tips on drug lords, illegal weapons suppliers, rogue murderers, they gave me what I needed to make a collar record that would break Wulong's balls, that was all I cared about. Now I know that I was just a useful tool to help them sweep away their competition, but hey. What I didn't realize was, they collected dirt on me at the same time. So I didn't have a choice when they came to me and said to help keep certain narcotic deals running nice and smooth, or else.
         What?
         Or else I would a) lose their "friendship" and be put on a blacklist, b) lose my job in an engineered scandal, or c) disappear. Like several other IPO members had disappeared. I'd wondered why the syndicate was never any help with those mysteries. It really shouldn't have been so hard to figure out, I suppose.
         I was in deep now, but what did I care. I was still working to be a police legend, wasn't I? Just because I ignored some criminals, did that make the criminals I caught any less dangerous? Here, I'll tell you something, and you make sure you get this down - anti-drug laws are a pile of shit. The government has no right to tell people what they can or can't put in their bodies. No one does. No one can stop a junkie from doping himself, if that's what he really wants to do, and no one has the right to try. All the laws do is provide Mafias with an incredibly lucrative source of revenue, and give cops like I was something to distract us from getting actual murderers off the streets.
         Problem is, by driving the drug trade into underground hands, you make it a blood-soaked mess. It falls under the control of murderers. You create a motive for gangs and mobs to earn a windfall by supplying drugs at artificially inflated prices. You spark turf wars, you push addicts to commit crimes just to scrape up the cash they need for their habit, innocent people get killed from that sort of crap. At least the Mishima syndicate made an effort to be quiet and businesslike about the whole thing. They didn't go on massive slaughterhouse rampages; they just picked off their enemies, and only their enemies. Their product was clean enough so that the proportion of junkies who died from impure hits or unintentional overdoses dropped to a record low - if you don't believe me, look up the statistics. Heh, they even provided disposable needles to go with injected stuff like heroin; that probably did more to quash the spread of AIDS than the whole damn World Health Organization.
         Way I figured it, if you're going to have drugs around - and you are going to have drugs, if a fucking century of anti-drug laws hasn't made them go away then nothing ever will - they may as well be controlled by a single business. One that almost seems to have scruples at times, at least compared to a posse that will send bullets into the brains of every friend, family member, and pet of their victims.
         Like the Ivory Claw.
         In Hong Kong, at least, they were the most entrenched of the syndicate's rival drug dealers. I devoted a good part of my life to unentrenching them. Practically busted or kicked them all off the island, and I'm proud of it - you don't want to know what they liked to do on the side, especially to young boys and girls. They had a bitch-nasty reputation for getting bloody revenge on anyone who crossed them, too. Oh, Lei Wulong and the HKP also had a hand in digging them out, even worked with me and the IPO on it, but you look at the collar record, you'll see my name on top where it belongs. Because I had the Mishima syndicate backing me. And here's the kicker - I passed the syndicate's Ivory Claw info on to Wulong, and he got good use out of it too, and he didn't ask where it came from, either! At least he didn't try to steal my credit. I almost think he cared about giving those bastards what they deserved as much as I did. Almost.
         Well, a short while after our big joint-department team up was a headline-grabbing success, I got a call from the syndicate on my cellular phone - huh? - oh, I don't know, this was around four months ago. Middle of last September or something.
         Ha. It's funny. I can rattle off exactly when this movie star died, but I can't remember when I did. It's in some obituary somewhere, I'm sure.
         Anyway, I got this call on my phone. The guy on the other end said he was from the syndicate. I didn't recognize his voice; he talked in this soft, smooth Cantonese lilt. He wasn't my usual contact, but then, I'd logged a request to truck with someone other than Taki for half a year and running. Besides, Taki only ferried written messages - higher-up syndicate mucky-mucks did talk with me directly sometimes, just not very often. Guy on the phone wanted me to meet him at this half torn-down vacant building, and discuss how they'd rearrange their heroin and cocaine distribution to fill the void left by the Ivory Claw. Offered me a special reward for my help. Was very insistent that I meet him now. Threatened to cut off my syndicate privileges if I gave him any lip.
         Yeah, it was stupid to go.
         The syndicate would not say words like "heroin" over the phone. They weren't that dumb. They kept their telephone contact strictly to legit matters, like the Tekkenshu hotline I could use to summon emergency backup. Their real business was something they only discussed in a sort of code, and even then they kept it to written messages and personal contact. They wouldn't tell me to go to some haunt, either; their mucky-mucks liked to sit in nice, cozy offices. It was my own damn fault, all right? I didn't think it through. I wasn't in... the best state of mind at the time.
         No, I am not going to be more specific. You try to figure it out.
         So I went there, see. It was late at night. Building was dark and creepy and full of shadows. That suited me fine; I hate sunlight, always have. There was one little halogen bulb stuck in the ceiling, dim like a burnt-out candle, hardly enough to see the outline in front of me. He was a big guy. Huge. Can't remember how huge. Seemed like eight feet tall, although I know that can't be right. Definitely, he was a stretch above me, and a towering monster compared to most Chinese. He was heavy, too, but not obese.
         The guy said "You are Detective Bryan Fury?" like he really wanted to be sure. He'd been the man on the phone, all right. He wasn't the only guy in the building, either. I glimpsed at least one or two other forms in the shadows. No surprise there; high syndicate mucky-mucks don't go anywhere without plenty of bodyguards hanging around. The screwy thing was him asking my name. The syndicate always knows who you are; they never ask unless they're deliberately testing you. Was I being tested? Fine, whatever, test away.
         I said, "Yeah. Look. You tightwads owe me; you know damn well what I just did for you. I want my payoff, and I want it now."
         "Don't worry," he smiled. I know he was smiling because his teeth practically gleamed in the darkness, white and perfectly even. He raised his index and middle fingers on level with his face. "You'll get what's coming to you."
         The next thing I heard was, "Freeze! POLICE!"
         There was just barely time to process the sound of the voice - I knew that voice, I knew it - and realize that if I move, I'll get shot. If I freeze, I won't. I want to move anyway. I want to kill him.
         God, how I wanted to kill him.
         "Hands behind your heads, both of you!" Detective Lei Wulong, and a half-dozen of his HKP cronies had the drop on both me and phone-man, who looked for all the world like a deer caught in headlights. Wulong clapped a pair of cuffs on phone-man, and a woman with light brown hair jerked my hands behind me. Just like that, we're apprehended and-
         "Damn you, you know I'm a cop!" I snarled to Wulong, as I felt metal close on my right wrist. "You've screwed up. You've made a big mistake. You have no right to do this! At least cuff my hands in FRONT of me, damn you!"
         Wulong raised a sable eyebrow. "Tracy, do as he asks. And read him his rights."
         "I KNOW my rights you - you - WHAT am I being arrested FOR!?"
         He folded his arms and lowered the eyebrow. "Graft, racketeering, and narcotics trafficking, to start. We've got you dead to rights, in your own words. Do yourself a favor, Snake Eye. Tell us all about it. We can help you."
         In my own words...?
         "My phone," I gasped. "You slipped a bug on my phone! When we were working together, you-! My phone-!"
         "You mean this one?" Wulong turned his wrist, and poof, in this tiny splatter of azure sparks he's holding my trim black cell phone. I'd put it inside my pocket scarcely fifteen minutes ago, and there it was in his hand. It was still switched on; I'd been so witless I'd forgotten to turn it off.
         "You thief," I accused. "Pickpocket! Give me my phone back!"
         "In a moment. Listen to me, Bryan. I'm a cop like you, and I know you care more for your record than for money. It's not really a matter of bribes, is it? The Mishima syndicate is forcing you to run drugs for them, aren't they? Blackmailing you. Threatening you. And now that you've been exposed, you're a liability to them. If you won't talk to us, then we'll have to hand you over to IPO internal affairs, and, well, you tell me. How deep are their hooks in your bureau? How many IPO officers have 'disappeared' over the last year alone? Or committed 'suicide'? Help me out, Bryan, and I'll help you. We can protect you from them."
         Nice speech, I thought to myself. Good delivery. But I knew it was all an empty sack. The syndicate doesn't ice people unless it has to, and by now I'd figured out that the whole phone setup was no syndicate deal. It was just a crummy sting operation, one big hoax to trick me into a confession. I could still get clear of this.
         I said, "Give me my phone. I want to call a lawyer."
         A female voice spat, "You idiot!"
         Tracy - it had to be her, she was the only woman there - snapped a police baton into her hand, and held it against my throat. "Are you really that dumb? Or is there something more you're trying to hide?" Her furious green eyes narrowed. "Are you the type of dirty cop who makes other cops 'disappear'? Is that why you don't think it can happen to you? Maybe we shouldn't let them snuff you. Maybe we should save them the trouble!"
         "Take it easy, Tracy," Wulong soothed. "I've worked with Bryan; I know him better than that. He's no cold-blooded murderer. Besides, the syndicate prefers to use its own hit men." He looked at me with troubled concern, even sympathy. "But they will send one of their own after you, Bryan. They will. Just like they sent their own after so many of your own. You need us, and we need you. With your help, we can root them out of the IPO once and for all. I know there's a good cop inside of you, the good cop who helped us put away the Ivory Claw. The good cop who cares about his murdered brothers."
         Care...?
         Moron. You can't care about other cops. They die too fast. They die all the time. On the street or off it, what's the difference? Everyone dies. Where are you getting these stupid ideas, anyway? You think I have one shred of evidence connecting the syndicate with any IPO deaths? You think anything I could ever give you would amount to more than a flea bite on their ass? I just run drugs, dammit, and they have enough on me to cover their tracks with me under twenty tons of asphalt. What good do you think me turning against the syndicate would do? It would only get more cops killed, probably as many in your department as in mine! I can't help the dead by making more dead, and neither can you. It doesn't matter if I care; you should know it doesn't matter, you of all people should know-
         -I don't believe this.
         It was the most obvious fucking good cop/bad cop routine in the world, and it damn near cracked me. I don't know, I don't think I'm doing it justice. It's not just the words. The words are so flat and meaningless when I repeat them. It's the way Wulong said them, like - like - he was holding out his hand, searching me with this deep, impassioned gaze, strong, sincere, but not so sincere that you instantly know it's a fake. I think he really believed everything he was telling me; more than that, it was like he had some kind of inner need to fight against all the evil in the world, no matter what the risk, and he was calling to stir up the same drive in me. I can't explain it, not very well. Maybe, just maybe, it was stuff like this that made the root of some of the legends about him. I probably would have spilled my guts, if I didn't hate him so much. Hell, I had to close my eyes and concentrate on how much I hated him, hated him for setting up this whole fake sting operation, and work to keep my voice even.
         I said, "I... want a lawyer."
         Actually, it was more like "I... want a law-oof!" because Tracy jabbed her baton in the pit of my stomach. It wasn't a particularly vicious jab, though; she knew better than to leave a bruise. She said, "Wulong, I can believe you're wasting your breath on this lowlife! He's just another syndicate whore. He deserves what they'll do to him."
         Wasting breath? Shit. This bitch wasn't anywhere near as good at the routine as Wulong was. But I could show her. I had a routine of my own.
         I said, "You'd know all about being a whore, wouldn't you?"
         She slapped me with her left hand, not quite strong enough to leave a welt - again, because she knew better. I felt a hard impression right around where the base of her third finger would be; sure enough, when I peered closer I could see a plain gold ring.
         "You've been practicing," I sneered. "Does Wulong like it when you do that to him? Is he into being dominated?"
         "You asshole," she seethed. "You think we don't know what you are? That we didn't see it when we had to work with you? Runny eyes, muscle aches, sweating anxiety if you have to stay on shift for too long - it's what tipped us off to you in the first place. You don't just deal this stuff, do you? It's not just a matter of threats or blackmail, is it?" She put her fingers under my chin, tilting my head up. "You a junkie, Bryan?"
         "Nice hands. Bet you put them to good use. Must be tough work, keeping the legendary Super Police satisfied."
         "It's not a stimulant like cocaine, is it? You're not wired enough. What's your favorite poison, Bryan? Or do you like to mix your stuff?"
         "I'll bet you do a good job on him, though. You have to be a better whore than you are a cop."
         "We've got enough on you for a search warrant. If we get one, what will we find, Bryan? How much raw product do you stash around the home for your own use?"
         "Why don't you try searching my body? I'm sure you've already been over every inch of Wulong's. You might enjoy the change of pace."
         "Or maybe we shouldn't even bother. Maybe we should just stall IPO internal affairs for a few days, watch you dry out. How long can you go without getting high, Bryan?"
         "Does your husband know you like to fuck Super Police?"
         "Shut UP!" she cried, cracking her baton against my skull. This time, it was hard enough to really hurt, and send the world spinning like a kiddie toy. "Shut up, you worthless junkie dog!"
         Ha. I win.
         "Tracy," Wulong reprimanded. It was more of a sigh than a scold. She huffed and turned her back. He approached me closer and told me, "You can still go straight, you know. It's hard, but you can do it. I know because I'm an addict myself. I know how bad it can hurt until you reach for something to make the pain go away, and I know how that need can blind you to-"
         Suddenly, he couldn't talk anymore. He went into a coughing fit; practically had to double over. I'd seen him act a little under the weather before, but nothing like this - like he was sick with the flu or something. Well, I thought, working seven days a week will do that to you.
         "Maybe I got it the wrong way," I mused. "Maybe it's you who has trouble keeping her satisfied. Would explain why she's got such a temper, don't you think?"
         Wulong cleared his throat, recovering enough to continue in a weaker croak. He said, "When Bryan Fury wants to talk to me - the real Bryan Fury, the good cop who cares - I'll be here to listen to him. I promise." Then he turned to the phone-man and said, "What about you? You know you've compromised the syndicate. Badly. And you know they've got their hooks in the IPO. If we just give you to the IPO like we're supposed to, you'll never live to go to trial. We're your only chance."
         What?
         Phone-man pressed both hands close to his chest - he'd also had his wrists cuffed in front of him, for whatever reason. His eyes darted fearfully; it was strange to see such a towering man look so cowed. He stuttered, "I - I'm afraid..."
         Whaaaat?
         "...afraid of that man," he continued, with a nervous jerk of his head toward me. "C-can we talk away from him? Where he can't hear us?"
         What the hell? Wasn't phone-man a cop too, who posed as a syndicate boss to lure me into this entrapment sting? Were they all just continuing an elaborate setup to make me confess? It seemed like the most plausible explanation, but-
         "Give me back my cell phone, damn you!" I demanded of Wulong, in a worried seizure.
         "Nn-no, don't!" phone-man cried. "H-he'll use it to summon his syndicate's killers! They'll massacre us all!"
         "Don't worry," Wulong consoled. "It'll be all right. We can move out of earshot." He put a comforting arm around phone-man's shoulders and drew him away from the rest of us.
         This was wrong. This was all wrong. I knew that phone-man didn't belong to syndicate. But if he was a cop posing as a syndicate man, he was doing it all screwed up. The syndicate's Tekkenshu didn't do massacres, or at least not something as brazen as wholesale police massacres in the middle of an urban district. The syndicate made individual people disappear, one by one. Wulong knew that, and more importantly, he knew that I knew. He would have taught his decoy better than to make such an idiotic blunder, and flaunt himself for the fake he was. But then, who or what was phone-man? And why did I suddenly feel so-
         Oh, shit, no.
         "Wulong, don't!" I yelled. "It's a SETUP!"
         "Eh?" the older cop muttered, suddenly tense and alert.
         Phone-man turned three-quarters away from Wulong, extending his index and middle fingers on level with his face. He brought his hand down in a swift, chopping motion.
         And the world exploded in blood and thunder.
         I heard the blaring report of automatic weapons, on all sides. I don't know how many of the other cops managed to get their guns out in response to my yell. But all our enemies must have had theirs drawn and waiting, just waiting for their leader to distance himself from the rest of the targets, and give them the signal to open fire. There were shouts and screams, gaping red splotches riddling uniformed bodies, and panicked lunges for cover. I felt a stringent impact punch through my lower right abdominal cavity, so quick and clean there was scarcely any pain, the same for another shell that hit my high upper right chest. It came at a tall angle, I could feel it, and I heard Tracy shout that our enemies were above us. In the middle of the chaos, though, the only thing I had eyes for was the bastard who had set me up, and caught way more cops than he'd bargained for.
         Phone-man tried to throw a punch at Wulong, but he couldn't chamber his arm properly because of his handcuffs. Wulong weaved away from the attack and barred his left upper arm from shoulder to elbow along phone-man's chest. The older cop also pushed on his enemy's gut with his right hand, leaned back, and kicked up his left leg, forcing phone-man to fall backward with him. Phone-man voiced an outraged yell as his head cracked against the ground. Both of them remained untouched in the hail of gunfire - the cops didn't want to risk shooting Wulong, and the hit men didn't want to shoot their boss. Wulong snapped his gun into his hands; he didn't try to sit up, he just shot from where he was lying supine, turning his arms this way and that like some kind of radar was guiding him. And maybe it was, because I swear that every time a sparking flare tore from the barrel of his 9mm, there came a synchronized howl of pain, or the thud of a body hitting the ground, like a grisly percussive concert-
         -interrupted by another onset of coughing, this time so violent that it merged with the echo of gunfire. Wulong gripped his chest and tried to get up on his knees. Phone-man socked the helpless older cop on the side of the head, and wrested away the keys to his own cuffs; in less than a second his right hand was free to draw a knife from his suit. It wasn't an ordinary knife, either. Its "blade" was cone-shaped instead of flat, with a severe quarter-moon curve, tapered from a thick base to a pointed tip, and gleaming white as his teeth. It wasn't really a knife at all.
         It was a claw.
         An Ivory Claw.
         I don't remember charging phone-man. That is what happened, I assume - one second I feel bullets tearing into my body, and phone-man's brandishing his tie to the Ivory Claw over Wulong's spasmodic, helpless form, and all I can think is, "You bastard. You set me up to be killed!" Blind rage was pouring through my mind, for that one instant exclusively concentrated on the assassin. Next thing I know I'm launched at him in a flying kick; I've left the ground and I'm turning over on my side in midair, just to get maximum torque as I ram my ankle into his gut and bowl him flat. I landed on my back; couldn't get both hands under me for proper support because of my own damn cuffs.
         You know what epinephrine is, don't you?
         Used to be called "adrenaline," a long time ago. It's the stuff that surges through you when you're in a desperate situation, shutting down pain, speeding up your reflexes, wiring your muscles and nerves into overdrive. It's something that can make you fight like a rabid animal even if you've got two or three fresh bullet wounds straight through your vitals, even if your enemy's the size of Frankenstein and can get up faster than you because he doesn't have a hole to the right of his spinal cord. It's what can keep you rooted stiff even if his claw-knife slashes quicker than you can see, ripping down your left temple, piercing your eyeball, and splitting your cheek open down to your jawbone - yeah, that's what really happened, you think I got this scar from S&M?
         Well, while he was on the downswing, I was on the upswing. I chambered both my hands in a hammerlock - what else was I going to do, with them cuffed together like that? - left palm and fingers wrapped around my right fist, and whack, whipped them up against his chin. His neck snapped back, but now he knew I couldn't see shit on my left side and stumbled in the right direction to take advantage, I turned my head but damn he was fast, how can someone that big move like he's a racehorse? Or maybe it's just that shock had slowed me down, I don't know. By the time I'm enough in line with him to lash out my shin in a Muay Thai spin kick, that claw-knife stabs me again, at the end of my left inner clavicle, just below my throat, here. Much deeper than before. At least three or four inches, and he carves down, plowing right through my ribs and probably half a dozen organs too, all the way to my waist. There's this psychotic grin on his face, he absorbs my kick like he doesn't even feel it, and he leans in, those gleaming white teeth barely an inch from my own contorted grimace.
         I knee him in the balls.
         Hard.
         Wonderful stuff, epinephrine.
         Because that's what keeps me from keeling over when the force on his knife weakens, and his upper body folds in half, his mouth sucks breath in this overwhelmed O-shape, his eyes bulge wide, you get the picture? He's in total paralysis for one split-second. That's all I need grab his wrist, force him to wrench the claw-knife out of me, and use his knife-hand to cut his own throat.
         His mouth worked, forming silent obscenities. His right hand remained locked around the claw-knife in a death-grip; the other pressed against his neck, spurting crimson between its fingers, clutching as if to hold the long gash across his jugular closed. He made an incoherent gurgle as he sprawled on the ground.
         I didn't feel so good myself.
         I couldn't hold up my head, but I did not want to look down at what had been done to me. It was beginning to hurt, now. Beginning to really hurt. I let my head fall to my left, so that the blind half of my throbbing face would be turned toward the nauseous, distended oozing I felt from my gut, and I don't mean just blood, either. My right eye got this swaying, half-focused glimpse of Wulong, still in the middle of a coughing fit - the entire struggle with phone-man had only lasted a couple seconds, even though it felt like much more. I still heard gunfire. A tiny little place in the back of my mind pointed out that since phone-man was now dead, his cronies no longer had to worry about hitting their boss, which meant they could open fire on me and Wulong at will. Wulong could eat lead for all I cared, but I needed to take cover...
         ...or move...
         ...or something...
         ...hard to think... hurts too much...
         And then I saw it.
         Close to where Wulong hunched over and wheezed, like right near his heel, was my cell phone. He must have dropped it, making it snap open on impact, because it lay there ready to use, yellow-lighted buttons keen and bright. If I could just get my cell phone, punch the autodial, I could call up the Tekkenshu and have them wipe out these last shreds of a scraggling gang!
         If I could just get my cell phone...
         It was only a couple yards away, but when I tried to step toward it my leg wouldn't work right, and my slashed abdomen wracked me unbearably. I tottered, falling to both knees and my left hand. The phone was on my left, but if I messed with my tripod I knew I wouldn't get up again, so I stretched out my right hand. The chain of my cuffs held it back; I turned my trunk sideways and let my left hand slide forward, maximizing the reach of my right. My phone was only a couple feet from my fingers, while Wulong was right next to me, hacking like he was going to vomit up his gizzard.
         Dammit, if I could just reach my cell phone...
         -and then I'm hit. Repeatedly. It slammed into my right lung, my stomach, just below my sternum, more places. It was a different set of impacts, this time. The stuff I was hit with before - oh, there's probably a ballistics report somewhere that can confirm it, but I'm betting it was Teflon-coated. The kind of so-called "cop-killer" slugs that can pierce straight through iron or kevlar. Nice thing about those bullets is, they also tend to go straight through human flesh, which means they spread less traumatic energy when they rip into you, which means they don't do as much actual damage to your insides. All other factors being equal, anyway. But what I felt now was a totally different breed of bullet. The kind that's made to flatten out and fragment like a ball of liquid, throwing every ounce of impact into its target in a horrific splatter that savages flesh and poisons the bloodstream. The sort of thing that can be stopped by any vest, because it will practically splash all over the armor, but that's up to 99% lethal if it hits so much as an extremity. And I wasn't hit in any extremity.
         Got to... got to get my cell phone...
         I flopped on my face, hands outstretched in front of me. My right eye just happened to fall in line with my phone, so close, only an inch further away than the length of my arms. Somewhere, I heard Wulong's gun fire; a gasping outcry answered the blare. The older cop coughed a little more, but the sound was quieter now, under control. I reached for my cell phone...
         I want my cell phone...
         It was so tantalizingly near my outstretched fingers, but my muscles were seizing up on me now, and I couldn't even slither like the snake I called myself. I wanted so badly to reach it, could feel things I didn't even know I had inside me tearing from the strain, but I needed to reach it...
         ...I had to reach it...
         I... I want my cell phone, dammit...
         I...
         ...touched the autodial with the tip of my middle finger.
         beep
         The light tone sounded so clearly, so distinctly, like the toll of a bell in the silence - and it was silence, I realized, because the gunfire had stopped. So had Wulong's coughing, for that matter; there was just empty, desolate silence.
         And pain.
         The full strength of the pain.
         No more epinephrine to block it out. No more distractions. Just endless, excruciating agony tearing apart my face and upper body... I can't move at all... I'm lying in a shallow depression in the stone floor, engulfed by a pool of sticky wetness nearly an inch deep; my right eye gets a blurry image of the thick, oozing spread of syrupy crimson... that... that can't all be from me... it just can't...
         ...that's the last thing I see... my eye stops working...
         ...God, it hurts...
         ...there's a sound, a female voice, feels like I've heard it before... I try to listen, just to take my mind away from how much it hurts... "-nothing you can do for him and you know it, get over here, Haw and Wa-duck need your help!"
         ...remorseful male whisper, congested and raspy... sounds like he's sick... "I'm sorry, Snake Eye."
         ...when does it stop hurting?
         ...when...?
         ...I'm acutely aware of the irregular throb on the side of my neck. It's my pulse, and it was racing a few moments ago, but it's getting slower now... there's this deflated, squeezing rustle when I inhale, like my lungs try to expand and can't generate the pressure... I'm cold, but I can't shiver, I can't do anything except lie there and hurt...
         ...new voice... drifting from a long way away... speaks with a Japanese accent... "Glory to Mishima-sama!"
         I'm waiting for the next throb in my neck, the next beat of my pulse, or the next rustle of my lungs... it's... it's not coming... voices fade in and out of my sound threshold...
         Sick voice. "-threw himself in the line of fire to save me-"
         Japanese voice. "-notarized contract. You have no legal jurisdiction to interfere."
         Sick voice. "-not going to let you vultures-!"
         Female voice. "Lei! Don't stop the chest compressions!"
         ...can't hear any more... at least the pain's going away now... thought it would never stop...
         Oh, no.
         Oh, shit, no.
         That's when what was happening finally penetrated my stunned, stupored brain. You want to know what was made it really awful? The most bitter torture, worse than the agony of spilling my blood and guts on a dirty patch of stone? Wulong thought I'd deliberately eaten lead for him. I hated him, I'd wanted to make my own legend just to outstrip his, and now I was going to fucking become part of his, everyone would think that I idolized and worshiped him so much that I'd martyred myself to save him, no, no, that's not how it happened, they can't think that, I'd rather the Ivory Claw had iced me alone in the dark, I'd rather anything but this, God, is this some kind of twisted cosmic joke?
         Wulong, Wulong you bastard, I didn't try to save you, I hate you, I hate you, I HATE you! I hate you for your false glory, I hate you for bugging my phone, but most of all, I hate you for believing I'd EVER want to give up my life for you - do you think the entire fucking world revolves around you? Do you?
         I hate you, dammit...
         I hate you...
         That was my last thought - how much I hated Wulong. It was a hatred that burned in the fading recesses of my drowning mind, even as the last of the pain went away, and I went away with it.
         My life was over.
         My Hell had just begun...


         What? You're still here?
         Leave me alone.
         Leave me alone, and don't come back until someone tells you something about me!
         Just leave me alone...
         No, I will NOT take a message for Chaolan! What do you think I am, his secretary!? Get out! Get out!
         You want I should make you get out?
         That's better.





AUDIO TRANSCRIPT: psionic verification session
Re: homicide of Detective Bryan Fury, IPO liaison
Mishima syndicate files H21022-EF
Mishima syndicate phonic records tag 12330-GH
September 28, 2017
5:30 p.m.


KAZAMA: This is Jin Kazama, acting vice-president of the Mishima syndicate speaking. With me is syndicate correspondence officer Taki. Miss Taki, would you please make a statement to identify your voice for the record?

TAKI: Um - sir. Glory to Mishima-sama, sir.

K: Thank you. Please, sit down. Don't worry. I know this is your first ever psionic verification session, but I promise you, you have nothing to fear. I've already read your written report; I just need to talk with you in person for a little while. I don't mean any slight to your integrity. It's only that this matter is so gravely serious that I have to be completely sure. All right?

T: Y-yes, sir.

K: Okay. To summarize the situation for the record: two weeks ago, on September 14, 2017, one of our International Police Organization liaisons, Detective Bryan Fury, died in a Hong Kong shootout. Three weeks prior to then, Detective Fury had signed a notarized contract with the Mishima syndicate, willing unconditional custody of his mortal remains and all his possessions to us, in the event of his death. In return, we were to grant him a generous monthly stipend for the rest of his life. However, he never lived to receive his first payment. Given the highly suspicious timing of his demise, I felt obligated to assign a separate, internal investigation that would be independent of both the IPO and the Hong Kong Police Force. It must be determined with absolute certainty whether any part of the syndicate could have had any complicity in Detective Fury's death. If this were to be found the case, then those responsible would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and the syndicate's contract with Detective Fury would necessarily be rendered null and void. Now, Taki-

T: A-are you going to r-read my mind, sir?

K: Hm? Oh, surface thought reception isn't really like that; I'll have no direct link with your mind at all. You have nothing to be afraid of. Just please, tell me in your own words what your relationship with Detective Fury was. I already know, I only need you to say it aloud for verification. All right?

T: I... I-I... you know? Y-you already know?

K: You carried written messages between him and the syndicate, didn't you?

T: Y-yes. Yes, I did.

K: Did you ever read the contents of these messages?

T: Nn-no, sir. I couldn't even if I wanted to; they were in code.

K: See, this isn't so bad, is it? Now, if you could please briefly summarize the results of your investigation. How did Detective Fury die, and was any part of the syndicate responsible?

T: He... it was a revenge killing, sir. Set up by the Ivory Claw. What was left of it. The Hong Kong Police were also present because they had put a trace on the same telephone that the Ivory Claw used to lure Detective Fury to where he died. Detective Fury was stabbed... shot...

K: Are you all right?

T: I-I'm fine.

K: Could the syndicate have contributed to his death in any way?

T: No. None of the assassins had any significant ties to the syndicate. Detective Fury did try to summon help from the Tekkenshu before he died, but by the time they arrived, it was too late... h-he was gone...

K: You're absolutely certain about all of this. Especially that Detective Fury was already beyond help when the Tekkenshu came for him.

T: Y-yes. The involved Tekkenshu have submitted to a polygraph examination regarding that point, and the surviving policemen have corroborated their claim. Doctor Abel's cryogenic autopsy confirmed the severity of Detective Fury's wounds. No one c-could have saved him. I've traced and personally validated everything the syndicate could learn about the killers; they definitely belonged to the Ivory Claw, and none of them had any significant syndicate ties. Both the HKP and IPO investigations have also been wrapped up, with the same answers. I'm... completely satisfied that the syndicate isn't at fault.

K: Thank you very much, Taki. I sincerely appreciate it. Um, is there something you'd like to ask me?

T: No, sir. No.

K: Uh, that's definitely a direct lie, but never mind.

T: No, sir! No! I- I mean - it's only - I thought you were going to read my mind, sir. I thought that was the whole r-reason why I had to meet you.

K: Oh, now that I've had the chance to speak with you in person, I'm convinced beyond any possibility of doubt that your report tells the whole truth. Just like I knew how important it was to you to find out whether the syndicate had any part in your contact's murder - I could sense that the moment you returned to our Tokyo headquarters; your internal distress was that strong. It almost overwhelmed me in the middle of my studies, twenty floors up, and I didn't even know who you were at the time. That's why I wanted you to carry out this investigation. I knew from your emotions that if there were any failing on the syndicate's part, you would not rest until you found it - Taki?

T: You've already read my mind? You've been reading it this whole time? Ever since I returned from Hong Kong-?

K: Um, well, it's not so much "reading" as "receiving"-

T: I... I... please, sir, may I go?

K: Don't worry, I only had to lower my barriers for this verification session; they're back up now-

T: I can't take this anymore, let me out of here-!

K: Please don't be upset-

T: Let me out of here!

K: I- I can tell you've been under a lot of stress lately; considering the excellent work you've done, why don't you-

T: LET ME OUT OF HERE! Mm-my memories are all I have left, you can't take those too! You can't! You can't!

sobbing


K: I... I swear I would never attempt a direct memory probe on you without your consent-

T: LET ME OUT OF HERE!

sobbing, pounding


K: Of... of course you're free to go; and as I was saying, why don't you take a few days-

T: AAAAH!

door slam
rapid footsteps


K: -off.

sigh

K: And a bonus. I really think you deserve a bonus.


End of Chapter 3: Toll of the Bell