PHOENIX REBORN

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



Chapter 4: Challenges


   "Do you need to test your power that much?"
         -Steven R. Boyett, Ariel


Tokyo Sunrise: "News You Can Depend On"
Section 2A
October 21, 2017


FIRE RAVAGES BUSINESS DISTRICT


IKEBUKURO: At approximately 11 p.m. on Friday, October 20, flames consumed four office buildings from 4100 to 4116 Ichi Street, in the Ikebukuro district's most severe disaster since the earthquake of 2011. All four damaged structures were property of the Mishima syndicate, whose Tekkenshu forces successfully cooperated with the Tokyo Fire Department to contain the blaze before it could spread past the block. Damages are estimated to cost in the billions of yen. No deaths have been reported, most likely because the business offices had been closed for the night. Though the cause of the disaster is currently unconfirmed, the Tokyo Fire Department reports that faulty electrical wiring is the most likely culprit; once combustion started, a preponderance of flammable construction materials in the makeup of the four buildings expedited its spread.
         Police recovered one witness from the scene, Mr. Eijiro Fujisawa. Fujisawa was treated for second-degree burns on his chest and right arm, and is currently in stable condition. His statements have been incoherent and self-contradictory, including ravings about a "lightning devil" and the repeatedly yelled demand to "get out of my head!" Fujisawa, who has a previous conviction for armed robbery and served six years in prison, was initially taken into custody on suspicion of arson, but the charge was dropped within two hours of being made. Police cite lack of evidence.
         Representatives of the Mishima syndicate have declined to comment.





EXCERPT: private journal of Heishiro Mitsurugi
December 3, 2017


         Dear Diary,

         No, no, that's not right. This isn't a diary anymore. This is a journal. Kids keep diaries; adults keep journals! I just passed my twentieth birthday last Friday; that means I'm a man now, independent and self-sufficient.
         At least, that's what Dad said when he threw me out of the house.
         It's not like I'm homeless, 'cause the job I start tomorrow comes with its own room and board - I'm expected to live there, and he knew it - but I'm not sure why he tossed me out. Maybe it was just his way of telling me something. He never was very eloquent with words. Actually, the message is pretty clear: Don't Screw This Up.
         I have to do well at this job. I have to. It's my last chance. I've been trying to get into a college, any college, for two years now, but my high school grades are abysmal, and my application test scores are worse. It isn't the language questions, I always ace those. It's the numbers.
         I hate numbers.
         I've never been good with them. Never in a million years. They always slip out of my head. Even simple arithmetic doesn't work well with me; I get basic sums and products wrong half the time if I don't do them extremely slowly and triple-check my answers. It's always been this way for me. I try as hard as I can, throw myself into hours of study, and I do badly. I slack off, concentrate more on the areas where I've got some talent, and it doesn't matter, I still do badly. Plus, my family's broke and I've barely made enough from part-time jobs to pay for my own needs, so even if I could get in, I don't know how I'd ever make tuition.
         I have to do well at this job. It's my last chance!
         It came like a blessing from Heaven. The Mishima syndicate is offering me everything I could have dreamed for: paid acceptance into their own private university! All I have to do is work for them. The syndicate, I mean, not the university. If my performance is satisfactory for the first six weeks, I can start taking classes next semester.
         What I don't understand is why.
         Mishima University has got to be the most prestigious college in all Japan, better than even the Universities of Tokyo and Kyoto - in terms of forming connections, that is. Networking. Business contacts. Almost all the top corporate CEOs in the country have a Mishima U degree - well, maybe more like three-fourths, I think I read that in a magazine somewhere. It's the ticket that can get you top consideration for damn near anything. They're reputed for taking only the best of the best. And they want me?
         Why?
         Oh, Dad told me that it's standard for Mishima syndicate employees to be educated there; Heihachi Mishima doesn't want any dummies working for him, I guess. But that begs the question. Why was I offered a job with the syndicate? It's not like I sent in an application or anything - I never applied 'cause you'd think I'd have better odds of being elected Prime Minister. Why would any of the huge and powerful people in that huge and powerful syndicate ever have the slightest interest in me? I wonder if it's 'cause Dad has connections with someone in the syndicate and he pulled strings. It was kind of hard to ask him a question like that, though, when he was slamming the door in my face. I think he's changed the locks by now, too. I had to spend what's left of my pocket money on a cheap hotel and cheaper food over the weekend. Now I'm down to my last 5,000 yen. Tomorrow I show up for my first day of work.
         I wonder if the food at the Mishima syndicate is any good.


December 4, 2017


         The food here sucks, and I'm terrified I'm going to be eating it through a straw.
         I had no idea this place was so... violent! At least from my point of view. The truth is, I didn't know what my job was, exactly, until I showed up this morning. All I knew was that I was supposed to work for the syndicate. I didn't even know if there was anyone I should report to, or some servant's entrance I should use, so I just dressed up in a business suit and approached the front door of their Tokyo headquarters.
         Man, that building is huge.
         Their foremost tower is the incredibly tall skyscraper at the north edge of the Shinjuku neighborhood. Behind the tower is this sprawling complex, polished so brightly white it makes your eyes hurt to look at it. I think it covers several square kilometers. I'd never seen any of this before, 'cause I've been to Tokyo only a couple times in my life. I tilted my head all the way back and I still couldn't see the sun; a big satellite dish on the roof of the central skyscraper blocked it out. That tower must have had at least a hundred floors, each one marked with a horizontal row of windows. Staring at the windows, I noticed that they were all covered with some kind of black paint; I couldn't see through any of them.
         Oh, well, I figured. If I have to sit next to a window while I work, I'll probably just gaze out it all day, and that could cost me my-
         That was as far as my thoughts got before I was ambushed.
         It wasn't exactly a sudden shock. In the middle of my contemplation, I felt this itch on my throat, and when I moved to scratch it, the feeling tightened into an uncomfortably sharp-edged pressure. A thin but forceful hold crossed over my chest, stiffly holding my neck against the cutting line.
         I reconsidered that whole "moving" thing.
         A voice whispered, "You are trespassing."
         It was a woman's voice, but not like that of any woman I'd ever known. There was a harsh, dissonant undertone to it, as if she had gravel in her vocal chords. My throat wasn't feeling all that good, either. I suppose I really should have been a lot more scared than I was, but, well, she accused me like she was some kind of security guard. Which meant she wouldn't hurt me as long as I didn't make any sudden moves, right?
         Right?
         I expected her to ask me who I was, but she didn't talk any more. Like she was waiting for me to do something. So I said, "I'm Heishiro Mitsurugi. I work here."
         "Do you."
         "I can show you my IdentiCard. It's in my right front pock-"
         "I know who you are, idiot!" The pressure on my throat vanished; a sharp smack to the side of my face replaced it. I staggered away and held up my empty hands.
         "Um, then have I done something to offend you?" I asked, tentatively. "Because I've never met you before in my life."
         She didn't answer at first, but just ran the palm of her fingerless glove along the length of her short sword, wiping off the slight trickle of blood that marred it. I swallowed hard and touched my neck. There was a tiny crease of wetness on one side of my throat. She must have stopped short of rupturing my jugular, seeing as how I could still breathe and all. I suppressed a reflexive urge to cough. My eyes briefly squeezed shut anyway; when they opened again, I got a much clearer look at her.
         What I saw so startled me that I coughed in earnest.
         From the roughshod sound of her voice, I suppose I expected to be face-to-face with an ugly hag. She was nothing of the kind. She couldn't have been more than a few years older than me, and oh, was she shapely! She wore this jet black, form-fitting bodysuit, mostly cloth, although it tapered down to netting at her arms below the elbows, and at her legs below the knees. Her shins especially had some kind of hard, black armor covering them, as if to give an extra wallop to her kicks. Even though the fabric almost completely covered her, it clung so tightly that I could see every curve of her muscular thighs, smooth waist, and especially her bosom - I can't even come close to describing that, only to say that if I thought I could have stared at it without getting my throat cut for real, I would have!
         The mystery was her face. She had a mask stretching from ear to ear, wrapping over the bridge of her nose, and its fabric was so thick I could see no impression whatsoever of what was behind it. Above the mask's border, though, were two almond-brown eyes, set with artistic perfection, and framed by two delicate eyebrows. She kept her long, black hair tied back in a loose topknot; her bangs clumped together a little as they drooped over those amazing eyes.
         "I asked you a question, rookie," she hissed, returning her short sword to a nearly-invisible sheath securely attached to her back. And I realized that yes, she had asked me a question all right; I'd just been staring so much at her brea- um, well, generally staring at her that I'd failed to register the words. The rocky sound of her voice was so discordant; it absolutely did not belong in that amply curved, unbelievably desirable-
         -steady, Heishiro. Remember, this job is your last chance.
         "I'm very sorry," I apologized with a bow - I really didn't want to take my eyes off her, but it was probably for the best that I did. "Could you please repeat it one more time?"
         "I said, why didn't you fight back?"
         "Um, well, I figured it would get me killed."
         "So?" There was something coldly disturbing about the casual way she said that.
         "Well, what would be the point? We both work for the same syndicate, don't we? I mean, you're something like a security guard, right? I'm sorry, should I have checked in with someone before I came? This is my first day of work, and I'm not sure who I'm supposed to report to."
         She folded her arms. "I am Taki. I have condescended to assist in your training. It seems you will have to begin with the basics."
         "Um... training?"
         She raised a darkened eyebrow, appearing almost amused.
         "I-I mean," I stuttered, "you want me to work in security too, or something?"
         "What did you expect?"
         "Well, I..."
         "Yes?"
         "Isn't this, like, an office building? I mean, no one ever told me exactly what my job was here, but I figured you needed someone to help you sort files, or enter data, or oversee phone lines, or..."
         "Or?"
         "...or, um, edit. I've had some practice at editing things. Translations, too. When I start taking classes in your university, I want to major in language sciences, so I can be an editor."
         She laughed. Mockingly. I folded my arms and studied the ground. I don't particularly enjoy being humiliated by a woman, no matter how fine-looking she is, but she was apparently my supervisor; what else was I going to do?
         "Don't you know," she smiled - actually, I didn't know for certain that she was smiling under her mask, but her eyes sure looked like she was smiling - "why you were recruited to serve the syndicate?"
         "Um... no."
         "Are you aware of the legendary exploits of your ancestor?"
         "The what of my what?"
         "You bear his name; dare you tell me that I, a stranger, know more of your own family history than you?"
         Oh, that.
         Well, yeah. Dad used to tell me bedtime stories about my ancestor Heishiro Mitsurugi, who lived some 400 years ago; I was, in fact, named after him. He was a wandering, mercenary swordsman who refused to pledge fealty to a master and become a samurai, despite many offers. He supposedly went in search of this ultimate sword that turned out to be evil, and he helped a golden-haired woman champion of the gods destroy it, or something. When Dad starts telling stories, it's hard to figure out where history ends and myths begin. I can scarcely remember any of the legends now, though, because it's been so long since I last heard them. At least ten years, I think. Dad never did talk as much after his divorce.
         I said, "Um, okay, I do know a little about my ancestor the ronin. What does that have to do with anything?"
         "Your ancestor was not merely a 'ronin.' He was one of the greatest swordmasters who ever lived. Armed with only his katana, he could destroy entire companies of trained soldiers wielding muskets. You are his descendant. And you think the syndicate wants you to push papers?" She laughed again. "Come with me. We must begin your instruction. There will be time enough later to crush your dreams."
         Her talk was beginning to make me a little nervous. Did she really expect me to become some kind of master swordsman? In this modern day and age? Why? How? I'm a 'ronin' only in the sense that I've struggled for the past two years to get into a college. Sure, Dad used to show me a few things with bokkens, and I even belonged to my high school kendo club, but it was always just playing, a hobby. I've never even held a sword that wasn't made of wood. And now I'm supposed to learn to be, like, a reincarnated legend-?
         Well, I told myself, it could be worse. As long as my instructor was this drop-dead gorgeous babe, how bad could this "training" possibly be?
         I found out.
         "I told you to practice the stroke one hundred times. One hundred. Not a single stroke less - no excuses! Keeping proper count is the least of the focus you will have to learn! Do another one hundred strokes at once, this time in the reverse direction, and come to an exact stop when your weapon touches the paper!"
         I found out real quick.
         "The armor is not for your protection. It is to build your stamina. When you are strong enough to move freely with another fifteen kilos of metal attached to you, you may have a chance in Hell. Now, attack me, and this time try to be more adept than a lumbering box turtle."
         Boy, did I ever find out.
         "Wrong, wrong, your breathing is all wrong, again! How many times must I remind you? Don't gulp air through your mouth unless your nose is caked with blood!"
         An hour past noon, I begged her for a lunch break. She gave me water to drink, but when I hesitantly asked her for food, she did that evil smile with her eyes again.
         "If you can penetrate my defenses once," she offered, playfully, "you can eat."
         I tried.
         I tried and tried and tried.
         She moved so fast! Like a ghostly shadow, always vanishing a half-second before I could reach her, and I think I got as close as I did only because she deliberately let me. She never slowed down, never got tired, I don't think she was even sweating under that uniform. I'd swing my bokken, it would whoosh against empty air, and I'd feel the familiar thump of the flat of her short sword against my armor. I'd lunge and she was to the side of me. I'd turn and she was behind me. I'd parry and I was flat on the ground, again, like I always was whenever I did something dumb. I did something dumb a lot.
         The armor was hot and heavy. It weighed on my shoulders like a massive backpack, and my insides growled with hunger. I became so exhausted that I could never get up right away; I'd have to heave and pant my breath out for several seconds first, while Taki would shake her head and murmur, "Hopeless. Just hopeless."
         I think it was around five-thirty when a messenger of God came to save me.
         Well, not really, but I was so burnt out I could barely tell the difference when this other guy entered the training hall. He signaled for Taki's attention. She responded noncommittally. I collapsed in a heap.
         "Just a moment," she said to the newcomer. "Got a ration stick on you?" He nodded and handed her a small, box-shaped object in metallic foil. She threw it to me. The brown, dry, sticklike bar inside looked vaguely edible. I wondered why she was being so nice to me all of a sudden; I thought I didn't get to eat anything yet?
         Then I took a bite of the rock-hard, tasteless stuff, and decided that this must not count as "eating."
         As I struggled to chew without losing a tooth, I watched Taki talk with the other guy. I'd like to describe him, but when I try, the only word that comes to mind is "average." Average height, average weight, average stature, straight black hair neatly cut short in the common style, and no particularly distinguishing features on his plain, clean-shaven face. He wore a very ordinary black business suit, matching necktie, and hat with a rounded brim. Maybe his eyes would have lent him some individuality; I don't know, because a pair of impenetrably thick black sunglasses completely hid them. Even his voice was average-sounding, evenly toned, neither high nor deep, and absolutely unremarkable except for a light Shinjuku accent.
         "-sure he has not returned here?" Mr. Average pressed of Taki, as I polished off the brick that masqueraded as food. "He was supposed to meet with Doctor Abel at this time. It is not like him to be tardy. I thought perhaps he had lost himself in training again."
         "Do you see any devil-spawn?" she snorted.
         "You should speak of the young master with more respect."
         Taki rolled her eyes. "Of course. No, the 'young master' has not been here today, unless he used his Power to make himself invisible and sneak past my sight, which must be what he does to you - isn't this twice in the last two months?"
         "I was only obeying his orders! Lei Wulong was harassing him-"
         "It doesn't matter if he 'ordered' you to buy paintbrushes. You've lost him. Old man Heihachi will have your head."
         He glared at her. At least, I think he was glaring, judging from the way the muscles in his neck tightened and held his head perfectly rigid; with sunglasses like that, it's kind of hard to tell.
         "That is, Mishima-sama will have your head," Taki self-corrected, patronizingly. "Yours and Ishida's."
         "I am Ishida," he snapped, repaying her patronizing tone with interest. "Is it a waste of time to ask you for your help!?"
         "Maybe, maybe not. What do you want from me?"
         "Stay with Doctor Abel, in case the young master arrives there. I must continue my search."
         "There will be a price."
         "What? I'm not asking you to-"
         "You are asking me to be in the presence of the 'young master'; you know what that means!"
         Ishida ground his teeth together. "What is your price?"
         "My price is that you will both owe me a favor. If you can find the 'young master' before Heihachi comes back, that is; otherwise, the most I can hope to get from either of you will be an organ donation."
         "If we fail to locate the young master in time, Mishima-sama's wrath will be the least of our concerns." Ishida stiffly turned his back on her and hurried away, taking long strides.
         "Come on, rookie," Taki said to me. "Let's go."
         I was only too glad to have my break extended - and compared to the lesser Hell she'd just put me through, following her at a brisk walk was complete relaxation. Or would have been, if my body weren't so sore and tired all over. She seemed to be in a slightly more amiable mood than she had been in the morning, so I dared to ask a question.
         "Who's this 'young master' you were talking about?"
         "You don't know?" Her eyebrows went up a little, then back down again, then flattened in a decidedly malicious manner. "No, I suppose you don't. And you had better learn quickly. Jin Kazama is the young master. He is Heihachi Mishima's grandson, acting vice-president of the Mishima syndicate, and your absolute superior. But those details do not begin to touch upon what he is. What he truly is."
         Her voice lowered, and gained an eerie, chilling resonance. A malefic gleam flared in her eyes, the possessed look of a fanatic.
         "He is the Fatal Lightning, that can rip apart your mind and lay your most private memories bare. He is the son of the devil necromancer Kazuya Mishima. He is a telepath - do you know what that means? It means you are a book spread open to him. You cannot lie to him. You can keep no secrets to yourself. You possess no thoughts that he cannot know as his own. He knows you. He knows everything that passes through your mind. Be careful what you think, rookie. Guard your thoughts, before he steals them all from you, leaving you without a past, a future, or a soul of your own."
         My boss can read minds?
         It was so hard to believe such a thing. She made him sound more like a demon out of a campfire ghost story than a real person. And yet-
         -well, okay, I do know a little about Kazuya Mishima, the turncoat who sold out the Earth in the Great Invasion. Modern history books don't say much of anything about him being a Devil, but, well, Dad used to tell me stories on the side about that, too. As a young boy, I came to half-believe them. Now, listening to Taki's fierce description, and seeing the driven look in her eyes, I could tell that she believed. Because underneath the cruelty of her words, I could hear the resonance of something else - something worse than fear. Fatalism.
         "Our boss can't be that bad," I hurriedly suggested. "I mean, you work for him, right? So does Mr. Av- I mean, Mr. Ishida. And you're both fine, aren't you?"
         "'Fine'?" she repeated, hollowly. That deathly ring to her tone became colder, emptier. "You do not understand. Not yet. But you will. You belong to him now, as surely as the rest of us; you've signed your name on the dotted line, damned yourself with a stroke of a pen. You are not like us now, but in time, you will become like us. Your soul will shrivel and your humanity will die."
         This was beginning to seriously rattle me.
         I tried to venture another denial, but the words crinkled and died in my throat. My eyes fell to the ground, and stayed there as I followed her, until I ran headfirst into a thick, aluminum door.
         "Ow!" I said, rubbing my forehead and squinting at the thing. It had the words "EXPERIMENTAL LABORATORY - KEEP OUT" emblazoned in big, black letters. The door sported a trim, vertical pull-handle. It was locked. Taki slipped a metal something from somewhere I couldn't see; her hands moved in a blur. The door unlatched with a click. I couldn't tell if she'd picked the lock or used a key.
         I said, "Couldn't you just knock?"
         She threw me a condescending look as she pushed the door open. Inside was... well, if a room could by any rights be called both "spacious" and "cluttered," then that's what it was. Equipment and papers were everywhere, but they weren't just thrown about randomly. All the files and typing and crabbed pencil scratches and graph paper printouts were organized in nice, neat piles, catalogued by some non-alphabetical strategy. Various tables had been heaped with such papers, computer disks, and books with titles like Bio-Mechanical Cellular Interface Recombination. Nearly all the piles of stuff had been pushed to the sides of the room, as if to clear a wide, central swath for whatever purpose. A big computer terminal rested in one corner; its monitor displayed a screen-saver program that constantly diagramed different anatomical cross-sections of the human body.
         There was a humming sound. At first I thought it was the computer, but no, on second listen it came from the back of the room. There was something mounted against the far wall. It was a coffin-shaped chamber stood on end, with walls of dark blue glass, maybe eight feet tall by three feet wide. A network of black wires and pipes, ranging in diameter from hair-thin to thick like a tree, coiled around and thrust into the thing. I couldn't see much through its tinted surface, just a long shadow.
         An old man paced back and forth in the middle of the cleared area, with both arms folded behind him. Boy, was he ever old. Practically the oldest person I've ever seen. Old like a shriveled skeleton, old like a vulture; I'm not sure if I should hope to grow that old, or pray that I drop dead a long time before it happens. His hair was almost gone except for a whisper-grey fringe around the back of his skull, his posture was stooped like a shrew, and his skin was so dry, pale, and brittle-looking. It was the washed-out, liver-spotted skin of a geezer, but it wasn't exactly wrinkled in the way I'd expect. The few creases on his face were deep all right, especially the semi-trapezoidal grooves from the outer edges of his nose to his upper lip. Overall, though, his face was so unlined it was as if he'd never changed his expression in his life. He wore a rather plain white lab coat, and carried something that looked like a cross between a hand-held computer and a clipboard. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses dangled over the bridge of his hooked nose. The curved lenses of his eyewear seemed almost as thick as the misty cataracts that clouded his olive eyes.
         The shrew-man paced a few more times before he noticed us, then straightened - no easy task, given the involuntary cringe that twitched his shoulders and the corner of his mouth as he struggled to break out of his stoop.
         "You are late!" he barked, in a gruff, caustic reprimand. He spoke in English, with a thick, exotic accent I'd never heard before - like he had something stuck in his throat. I wondered where he was from. He didn't really sound American, or British.
         "Um..." My eyes darted nervously to Taki, but she wasn't paying attention to me or the shrew-man. She only stared at the far chamber - at the shadow inside it.
         "Thirty minutes I have languished!" ranted the shrew-man. "What has been taking you so long? The day has only twenty-four hours, and I must spend at least six of them asleep! I cannot afford to squander the rest in useless waiting!"
         "Uh, mister - er, Doctor? You are Doctor - Doctor Abel, you are?" I suppose I shouldn't rag on his English accent all that much, because it's got to be twenty times better than mine. I can do written translations all right, because I've paid attention in school and even studied a little on my own, but actually speaking the stuff is a completely different story. You have to think so much faster with your mouth than with your fingers, and you can't just erase muffed syllables, and the natural order of the words is all screwed up.
         "That is I," he huffed, sounding annoyed.
         "I think you are confusing us with someone else," I explained, speaking slowly in order to get the words right. "We are only here to wait for, uh, the young master."
         "The young master? The young master! Who do you think has been forcing me to wait? The young master requests, no, he insists upon testing Prototype Alpha, yes, he says he will be here to do it personally, but does he appear? No! He only sends you, and you are late! I am not allowed to continue my work until the safety disengagement protocols are tested! Who does he think he is, commanding a test and not carrying it out? I have a schedule to uphold! Blood will spill if I do not attend to it!" His olive eyes glittered like cursed jewels, and he gritted his yellowed teeth. I suddenly felt a very strong desire to be somewhere else.
         "We're, um, very sorry about that, but there's nothing we can do, so we'll just wait outside, okay?" I edged toward the door and tried to open it.
         "'Nothing you can do'? Nonsense! You are just what I need!"
         I gripped the center of the vertical door handle with both hands and yanked hard. It was stuck. No, worse than that, it was locked!
         "Taki!" I whispered, turning toward her. "C'mere and do something about this, quickly! Taki?" She didn't answer me. She was leaning against the back wall, and shaking.
         Her bangs swayed from the quivering that rustled her frame. Only a few seconds ago, she had the confident, authoritarian poise of a seasoned instructor, and now... well, the last time I saw that look, it was in the eyes of a wild baby rabbit that my cat had caught. I made Kitty drop the poor thing, but the baby rabbit didn't try to run away; it just crouched there, motionless and afraid, and it died within the hour. Infected by the bacteria that live inside a cat's mouth, or so I was told.
         "Taki!" I urged. "C'mon, snap out of it, please!"
         "No, no, you cannot leave; I need you to participate in this test!" Abel demanded.
         "Taki? Taki, open this door! Can you even hear me?"
         The humming noise from the other end of the room stopped. A decrescendo ksssh sound whispered in its wake. I heard Abel drone something about tests and prototypes, that it showed excellent foresight for me to armor myself before coming here, because it allowed him to experiment with a higher impact setting, and would I please be courteous enough to face him when he was speaking to me?
         Taki screamed.
         It was a shrill, agonized wail from deep within. Her hands clutched at the mask on her face, and she crumpled to the floor, huddling into herself.
         I did not want to turn around. I did not. It was some overwhelming, external drive - curiosity, maybe, or just unconscious reflex - that made me slowly twist in place, and compelled me to look upon what had driven Taki insane.
         I still wish I hadn't looked. I wish I'd just let it hit me from behind.
         It - he? - gods in heaven, he was a man, or had been once, and he had not been a small one. He stood close to two meters tall, at least a hand and a half above me. Thickly packed muscle tissue wrapped around his long arms and legs, making him appear powerful and fierce; I could see the tendons bulging from his skin, and tension in his veins. The blue-purple lines of his throat, in particular, traced a cordlike pattern between two swirling black tattoos on the sides of his neck. Two small, metallic, knob-like protrusions stuck out from the middle of the tattoos.
         He looked tough. He looked mean. But his daunting physical prowess wasn't what held me paralyzed with fear. It was his scars. He wore nothing to cover his chest; just a silver-buckled belt suspending a pair of brown, ankle-length camouflage slacks, seamless brown shoes, and a pair of black gloves with short, elastic wrists. So I could clearly see the darkened marks perforating his upper body. Nine of them. I counted. One savage trail ran straight through his eye, splitting the left side of his face into off-center vertical sections. Seven brutal pockmarks were scattered all over the right and central portion of his trunk, ranging from his collar to his belly, and a corresponding long seam cut down the left side of his chest.
         I'm no doctor, but I've watched enough TV to know bullet wounds when I see them. He'd been shot. He'd been shot seven times, with at least three hits to his right lung, and he'd been gutted with a blade. There's no way anyone could have survived that-
         -as soon as the inevitable conclusion formed in my head, I pushed it back in terror, and desperately searched the man's face for any possible denial of what I knew had to be true.
         His face was gaunt, rigid, and expressionless. His silvery-white hair had been shaved close to stubble and smoothed back, so that his widow's peak traced a sharp V on his forehead. I noticed that his ears stuck out a bit from the sides of his head; it was almost a little comical, but I didn't feel like laughing when I looked into his eyes.
         The eyes of a zombie.
         They were deep-set, ringed by dark hollows, and had a glassy film over their steel grey irises. They focused on me like the lens of an automatic camera, but there was no recognition behind them. His eyes were still and lifeless, without spark or soul.
         Taki's screams died to voiceless sobs.
         I didn't feel too sane myself.
         A cold sweat broke out on me. I backed against the door. My legs were trembling so much that leaning against its aluminum length was all that kept me upright.
         "Impressive, isn't he?" Abel beamed, excitedly - gods, he was bragging about the thing as if it were his child! "Functional in less than three months! The young master would not grant me an intact body to work with; I had to accept this damaged, poisoned wreck, yet even with such inferior material, I have succeeded where all of my colleagues have failed! Twenty years of research have paid off; the first soldier of my Cyborg Army is independently operational! Say hello, Prototype Alpha."
         The man moved. It was not a natural or graceful motion, but neither was it clumsy. It was artificial. Calculated along planar, strictly rigid lines. He raised both hands on level with his head, keeping his elbows bent at a perfect right angle. Then suddenly, he dipped into a very low, wide-legged crouch and started to laugh.
         It was the most ghastly sound I've ever heard - cackling, crazed, hollow of life or joy. He lowered his hands to the ground and brought them in to himself in a recurring, circular motion, as if daring me to approach. The monstrous sound echoed again and again, each time exactly the same, repeating like a recorded sequence.
         "I do not yet have it programmed for speech," Abel explained, with a smile as sick as that of the twisted thing he'd made. "Such finely coordinated motions are quite difficult to properly-"
         "Make it stop!" I shrieked. The monomaniacal laughter was more than I could bear; it was an abomination, ringing in my ears and tearing at my wits. I can still hear it in my head if I hold myself too still.
         Abel tapped his computer-clipboard. The laughing man fell quiet and immediately altered position from the taunt to a stable ready stance, left leg forward, hands clenched and raised to protect the torso. His right and left fists took several practice swings, whiffing past the chin of an invisible opponent. Those lifeless, steel grey eyes stared into me, and though I wanted more than anything to look away I could not move.
         "This man-" I gasped to the doctor, "-this man is dead!"
         "You are not very bright, are you?" Abel snorted. "That is the purpose: a soldier that never tires, never requires pay, never mutinies, and never dies. And you, my young friend, have the honor of assisting in its first active combat simulation. You are about to become a part of History itself!"
         "No, wait, don't-"
         "Prototype Alpha," Abel commanded, "attack!"
         And the dead man lunged for me.
         He was a fast one, or maybe it's just that I was incapacitated with fear, because he had me in his grasp before I could even think to get out of the way. His gloved left hand seized my hair, and wham, wham he drove his other fist into my gut. The breastplate of my armor offered some protection, but his blows connected so hard they drove dents into the metal and connected with my stomach beneath, pounding blackballs of shock that spread through my whole body and threatened to make me upchuck that so-called "ration stick." But what made it really god-awful was that he started laughing again as he did it; his staccato "MuahahahaHAHAHAHA!" coursing through my ears and my blood, even as he half-tossed me up with his left hand and smashed my chin with a final hit, batting me away like a tennis ball. I slammed against the door, and bumped the back of my head.
         The dead man roared.
         He bellowed this guttural, animal outcry as he half-crouched almost to bent knees, mechanically poising his arms, one up, one down, and rushed forward to crush me. His bullet-ridden torso swiveled, adding momentum to the clockwise circle of his rock-hard left fist as he brought it up, over, and down on the top of my skull. Taki probably would have admired his form, if she'd looked up from her sobbing to see it. I must have blacked out from that for a couple seconds, because next thing I remember I was stretched out face-first on the ground, and I distantly heard Abel's disapproving reprimand:
         "No, no, this will not do at all; it is not a combat simulation if you do not fight back!"
         I tried to get up. The dead man did not hinder me; he waited patiently in ready stance, which was good for me, because it took me a couple tries in the heavy armor to shakily plant my feet under me and force myself up, leaning against the door the whole time. I know I should have tried to roll and spring to my feet like Taki taught me, but my head was spinning so much that I was afraid one more revolution would make it fly off. As hard as Taki had pushed me and even bruised me during this day from Hell, at least she'd always been careful to avoid hitting my head, and taught me to do the same. You do not strike at a person's head unless you don't mind killing them. A person's skull has the strength of an eggshell: resistant to evenly distributed force, yet vulnerable to a localized crack, and it can take so much less than you think to damage the brain inside. In sparring, you never do real head blows. If you're good enough, you can practice by directing your head blows a centimeter short of their target; that's as close as Taki dared to come, and I'm not good enough to risk trying it myself.
         As I struggled to remain on my feet, another thought came to mind as to why head blows should be avoided when you practice: even if they don't kill you, they're likely to leave you in no shape to put up much of a fight. I wondered if I could explain this to Abel. I took a deep breath, and gasped, "Doctor, um, I don't think this test is going too well."
         "Do not worry," he reassured. "This was just a, how you say, 'warmup'? I will change the setting now."
         "Oh, thank you," I sighed in relief.
         "Prototype Alpha: KILL!"
         What?
         Oh, my god - what?
         The dead man leaned back, cocking his powerful right arm as if drawing an arrow from a heavy bow, aimed straight for my face. I barely got out of the way in time, stumbling around to the side just before his fist hit the metal door, and pounded a coconut-sized dent where I had been.
         Taki has told me that a true life-or-death situation can bring out the desperate side of a person - the survival instinct that can transform the scrawniest weakling into a fighting demon. Which is why, if you want to kill someone, the best way to do it is as swiftly as possible, before their overdrive kicks in and does everything it can to keep them alive. And it's also why, when you're thrust into a life-or-death situation, you don't want to deny it; you want to recognize it quickly so you can tap into your own power. At the time, I wanted to think she was speaking hypothetically - especially the part about the best way to kill people - but it's the only explanation I have for what happened to me next. Something in me went click when I heard the old doctor's dry, rough-voiced command. I wasn't thinking or acting consciously anymore. My arms and body moved with a dreamlike loss of awareness.
         It really did feel like a dream: vivid, intense, removed from reality, because that can't possibly be me ducking down, underneath the dead man's high kick, and stabbing my heel at the ball of his foremost foot, right when his balance is centered. I'd faced similar assaults from Taki a hundred times if I did once, but I was never fast enough to successfully react to her, and the dead man had to be close to her match in speed, so you see, I still can't say how it was me who did this. As the dead man stumbled, my bokken lashed out, swooping down to up in my stiff arms; it actually cracked against his jaw and knocked him on his back. I wasn't even on the ground anymore. I'd taken to the air, and I was about to land on him and drive my wooden sword into his scarred chest, but he'd already started to gather himself in a backward roll. My arm whipped out as I touched the ground, and I think I grazed his retreating ankle, but it didn't slow him any.
         He was lunging toward me again, hands of doom arcing for my forehead as he spun his torso in line for a backfist strike, undead eyes sighting precisely down the length of his arm; my own forearm went up to deflect him, but the sheer force behind his punch was staggering. I reeled back from it, and the second punch from his other hand. He swiftly turned his torso the other way, at last skating forward like a boxer with one final, outstretched fist that pushed me hard against the wall. For the smallest split-second, the effort of that sequence left him in a motionless, outstretched pose; I could just imagine tiny mechanical gears spinning in limbo for their next instruction, as he paused there, right hand outstretched, left leg forward, neck hooked so that his steel grey eyes stayed on exacting level with his extended knuckles.
         I remember hearing an infuriated, wordless battle cry, and thinking that it wasn't the voice of anyone in the room: not the dead man's morbid echo, and certainly not Abel's sandpaper accent or Taki's grating sarcasm. But it could never have been my uncertainly-wavering tenor either, so I'm still not sure what it meant. It came at the same time as my wooden sword hurled itself in a tremendous overhead slash, breathing with a life of its own and straining to tear off my arms with its vivid urgency; it plunged toward the dead man's head-
         -but he'd already broken his pose and lowered into a crouch; as my sword flew, he stood and thrust with his right fist, supported by the power of his knees and thighs. The channeled brunt of his uppercut dug underneath my ribs at the same time as my wooden sword broke in half against the top his skull - WHAM!
         The agonizing shock in my gut jolted through my whole body. My arms buckled, my hands spasmed, and I heard the dull clatter of two separate pieces of wood hitting the ground. And just like that, the spell was broken. I was plain, ordinary Heishiro again, crippled with pain and wanting very badly to throw up.
         The dead man was laughing again.
         That hellish, programmed noise tortured my ears and swamped my senses as the centered shock in my body raised me off the ground. With just one hand, he heaved me over his head and threw me on my back; the concrete floor hit me in one hard, all-encompassing blast. I felt the thud of a stiff kick into my ribs, and probably more, but after that it just sort of ran together into one massive overdose of pain. Moving was out of the question. I was completely helpless when the dead man locked my throat in his hands, cutting off my breath.
         You know that stuff I wrote about not wanting to grow old?
         I take it back.
         I take it all back, gods, I don't want to work here! I don't want to be a bodyguard, or a swordsman, or a legend! I don't want to get killed just for doing a job! This place scares me! Everyone in it scares me! I can't let my mind wander, I can't let myself rest, because if I do then the nightmare comes rushing back to me all over again, I'm being strangled by a zombie and I'm forced to stare into his undead eyes all the while, and the worst part is I have no voice to scream with-
         "STOP!"
         It was Doctor Abel who barked the monosyllabic command, and as soon as the word echoed in my ears, the dead man let go of my throat. My chest heaved in a sputtering rhythm. I... I think I was crying. Yes, I'm sure of it, it's something that makes me feel sick to confess, but if you cry, at least it means you're still alive, which is more than I can say for the thing that had broken me. Somehow, I regained enough strength to turn over on my stomach and bury my face in my arms, so that no taunting zombies, women, or old men could see my weakness.
         I felt a nudge in the side of my ribs. It pushed a sore spot, setting off a renewed sizzle of pain underneath my armor, and making me yelp loudly.
         "Go on, get up," droned Abel's wheezing, accented voice. "It is time for you to go. You are done here, and I work best alone. Up. Up! What is your problem?"
         "Huh?" I murmured in an unsteady daze, lifting my head. "M-my problem...?" My eyes magically succeeded in focusing on Abel's dried-parchment face, and the significance of what he'd asked belatedly seeped into my thoughts. "You... you...
         "YOU TRIED TO KILL ME!" I shrieked, attempting to push myself off the ground. "Y-you sicced your dead zombie on me and- and told it to-"
         "What?" Abel snorted. "Ridiculous. You are not my property to kill; you belong to Mishima-sama and the young master."
         "I HEARD YOU SAY IT!" I cried out in my own defense. "You told it to kill me!"
         "I have told you, the whole purpose was to verify the safety disengagement protocols! I tell the young master they're perfectly responsive, the prototype can be rendered inert and harmless with a single word; but no, he says that the safeties must be tested in actual combat. I tell him it is a waste of my valuable time; he insists, he says he has to be sure. Run along now. Find the young master and tell him his precious test was a success."
         "I-I can't leave. The door is locked."
         "It does not lock from this side."
         "But it is."
         His whisper-grey eyebrows drew together, then lowered contemptuously. "There is a catch inside the handle. Squeeze it as you pull."
         The thought of being able to get out of that monstrous torture chamber, and away from the zombie with splinters from my smashed bokken embedded in the buzz-cut stubble on its skull, was enough to rouse me to a wobbly crawl. Taki was still in no shape to help me. When I tried to stand, bruised agony and spinning dizziness forced me back down to my knees, but I managed to get to the door. This time, I felt along the underside of the handle, and sure enough, just beneath the top of its length was a flat protrusion to squeeze. I tried to pull it open, bracing myself on numb knees and straining with both arms. I'd heaved it a few centimeters out of its jamb, when it suddenly flew outward of its own accord and bowled me back on the floor.
         "Excuse me? Is the young master here?" inquired a polite, masculine voice with a light Shinjuku accent. My eyes still weren't working their best, but I recognized the indistinguishably average silhouette.
         "Ishida! Help!" I gasped, clutching at the pressed, impeccable fabric of his jet black slacks. "Save us!"
         He briefly surveyed the entire room before he looked down to the worm groveling at his feet. Perhaps he couldn't see too well in the dimness of the lab, because he removed his impenetrable sunglasses as he studied me. His eyes were dull brown and as unmentionably average as the rest of him.
         "I'm Kimura," he said, quietly. "I see you've met my cousin."
         Kimura helped Taki and me out of that hellhole and into the corridor beyond - Abel was so absorbed in fine-tuning his zombie that I don't think he noticed our exit. Kimura couldn't stay, though; when he promised to summon a medic for me, I thought I heard a tremor of anxiety running through his voice. Then I realized what it meant.
         "The, uh, young master," I muttered, working around the need to wince. "You've really lost him, haven't you?"
         Kimura hung his head in shame. "Pray that we can find him. Quickly."
         "Is it really that bad? I mean, you don't know that he's in danger, do you?"
         "You must be new here. The young master is not fully adjusted to the outside world. It precipitates the worst in him, especially when he is alone. The last time..."
         "What?" I prompted, as a tight ball of worried tension condensed inside my collection of aches and pains. "What happened the last time?"
         He shook his head and hurried away. I tried to lean back against the corridor wall and rest, but I couldn't because I had to cough. I was terrified that I was going to cough up blood, but the effort just laced more pins and needles along my bruises.
         "The last time," Taki said in a hoarse monotone, "it took the Tekkenshu two hours to bring the fire under control."
         On the one hand, it was nice to see that she'd recovered her sanity, or at least a piece of it. On the other, I think she's less scary when she's insane. If the "last time" was less than a couple months ago, then it would have been right around-
         "Y-you don't mean-? I-I read about the Ikebukuro disaster in the Tokyo Sunrise, but it said that faulty wiring-"
         "Of course it blamed 'faulty wiring'! The syndicate owns the Tokyo Sunrise!"
         "Is - is the young master always so destructive?"
         "I told you, he is the Fatal Lightning. Lightning does not merely burn. It sears your soul and stops your heart. Forever." A bitter strand of hate overtook the despair in her voice. "It will not let you rest even when you are cold in your grave. It controls you, uses you, binds chains of force into your dead flesh, until you become its slave for all time."
         Clutching my throbbing forehead, I peered at Taki. She'd slunk down to her hunched over sitting position, with her knees drawn and her back to the other side of the corridor. Her almond eyes were closed; light from the spartan ceiling lamp sparkled upon their tear-trails. I thought about what she was saying, and how she had been reduced to a screaming wreck a few minutes ago.
         She had seemed so tough when I first met her. No, she was tough; she knew how to fight and she could work out all day without breaking a sweat. Is it possible for a person to be that strong on the outside and not be strong on the inside, too? Well, maybe it is. Maybe my first impression of her as a tough person was totally off-base, or maybe I'm just so weak that I'm easy to impress, I don't know... but I couldn't shake the feeling that something a lot worse than simple fear had sparked her reaction to the zombie. And she was crying tears now...
         Tears for whom?
         "The dead man," I mumbled. "You knew him, didn't you? You knew who he was."
         She didn't nod; she just answered without emotion. "His name was Bryan Fury. He used to work for the syndicate, too. I... I knew the telepath wanted to gain something from his death, but I didn't... didn't know exactly what..."
         An icy shiver ran up and down my spine.
         "Fifteen minutes ago, you tried to defend that devil-spawn," Taki continued. The tears stopped flowing from her eyes, which became dark and cold. "You heard the doctor - this is that fiend's pet project! He chose Bryan for it, he personally oversees it, and you dare speak of him as if he were a human being!?"
         "I..."
         "'Save us,' you cry. You pitiable wretch. It's too late to save any of us. We belong to Satan now. When he can get no further use out of our living bodies, we will join his army of the walking dead."
         The growing fear inside me could no longer find a voice. It shook me, twisting me up inside and out. I thought about my boss, Jin Kazama. I thought of lightning and fire, a presence that could invade my deepest thoughts, a dictator who commanded the likes of Abel to create an undead army. I thought about all of this, and I wanted very badly to hide in a corner until my thoughts went away.
         That was an hour or two ago. I've recovered enough from my beating to write all this; I just hope no one asks me to get out of the cot I'm recuperating on. Ishida and Kimura still haven't found Jin.
         I hope they never do.
         I hope he stays lost forever.





INTERVIEW WITH JIN KAZAMA, section 3
February 5, 2018
5:45 p.m.


         Welcome back. On time as usual, I see. How was your weekend?
         Uh-huh. That's nice.
         Hm? Oh, well, Lee's been working from sunup to sundown; I'm beginning to worry about him. Julia's researching her latest paper on, um, I think it's the ancient Harappan civilization. Xiaoyu decided to name her amusement park "WonderLand." She wants it on a pink neon sign. Do you know, the place is actually pulling in enough revenue to pay for its expenses now?
         Huh? Me?
         Uh... I'm okay.
         I kept my promise to Julia. It wasn't as hard as I thought, because she managed to find a counselor who wasn't afraid of me.
         I hate talking to people who are afraid of me. And for most of my life, that's pretty much been the same as saying "I hate talking to people." Fear and hatred are probably the two most difficult emotions to block out, and if the other person is in my line of sight, then no amount of effort can completely shield me. You'd think I could get used to it, but just when I want to believe my mental walls have grown thick enough, I'll accidentally look into someone's eyes and recoil from the picture within - a distorted version of myself, at best a threatening tyrant to be appeased, at worst a monster to be killed.
         I've wondered why that is. Why so few people can ever look at me and see just another human being. Is it because I can hear their thoughts? Maybe I should have tried to keep my powers a secret, but I've never had it in me to deceive people. Is it because I resemble my father Kazuya? The Devil forced him to wreak such atrocity in the Great Invasion that I can't blame the survivors for mistrusting me. Is it because of my position of authority within the Mishima syndicate? Lee and I have so much work to do, so many corporate wrongs to set right. Or is it just something within me, my attitude combined with all the other factors, that makes other people afraid?
         What about you?
         Yes, you. I know you used to be afraid of me, too. Why was that?
         Yes, I really want to know. I'm not insisting that you tell me, but if you're willing to do so, then I'd find it very helpful and appreciate it a great deal.
         ...oh.
         That... that was a mistake. A dire one. It would have become much worse than just a "mistake" if not for Lee; it would have become blood on my hands, and I owe him for helping me to see that...
         I... I have to think about this some more...
         What?
         Oh, you're right, of course - I'd forgotten this was an interview. Where do you need me to pick up?
         December 4th?
         That's about two months ago, hm... let me see... no, it isn't that I don't remember; I'm just trying to match the events to the date. What day of the week would it have been?
         Oh, yes. Yes, I know what you're talking about now. It was a Monday afternoon when my father Lei Wulong tried to speak with me, for the first time in the four years since my mother died. I'm not sure how he found me, but then, it isn't as if I was trying to hide, and he is a detective.
         I encountered him in the Ginza shopping district. I don't normally visit that place very often - in fact, I'd been there only twice before - but Christmas was coming up, and I wanted to go there before the last-minute rush. You see, my mother and I used to celebrate the custom of exchanging Christmas gifts. My father Wulong never understood the point, since none of us were Christian, but I digress. This year, I wanted to look for something that would respectfully show my gratitude to my grandfather, for taking me in and teaching me Mishima-style karate. I suppose I could have sent a servant in my place, or even ordered something from the Internet Shopping Network, but I really wanted to see and evaluate the prospective gift personally. Only that way would I know for certain whether it was right for him. Even if it meant braving the outdoor marketplace.
         sigh
         You know the effect crowds have on me. I've gotten better at shielding my mind from the crushing presence of other people's thoughts and feelings, all pressing in on me at once; the fact that I can venture into Ginza at all is proof, when four years ago, merely entering Tokyo for the first time was enough to make me fall unconscious. But it takes hard work to keep so many voices out of my head, harder than the most strenuous exercise. I had tried to prepare myself through meditation, and I'd deliberately come at dusk, just as the busiest spots of the market were winding down, and it was still difficult beyond words. After about forty minutes of blindly and emphatically trying to focus on music, antiques, artwork, anything but the pounding cacophony a hundred times louder than ordinary noise, I was a nervous wreck. I doubt I could have been polite to Amaterasu the Sun Goddess. And then my father accosted me.
         Except... except that by then, I had long since ceased to think of him as "father." I saw him as a liar and a murderer, who had killed my true father and abandoned my mother to die. This abhorrent image of him had become so locked in my head that I couldn't react to him any other way. I hated him. Just completely hated him on sight, no thought, no reason... damn, with that crowd submerging me, I'm not sure I could have reasoned my way through one plus one equals two. He tried to talk to me - I think he was pleading with me - but I didn't listen to a word; even now, I can't quote for certain what he was saying. I turned my back on him. When he tried to follow me, I told my bodyguards, Ishida and Kimura, to get him out of my sight. He resisted. Fiercely. He might have overpowered them both if not for an uncontrollable coughing fit that suddenly crippled him. Violent spasms brought him to hands and knees. The hatred in me flared, and I wanted to hit him, but then various people in the crowd began to react to the struggle.
         I was already in a weakened mental state; now I felt shock, revulsion, and fear. To all surrounding eyes, it seemed as though a man were being beaten to death in broad daylight. I swear to you, Ishida and Kimura only grappled with him, they never struck him a single blow, but there was no way for the onlookers to know that. Vocal outcries of "help," "police," and "stop this" blended into a tremendous, rising wave of psychic panic. So much horror, so many physical and mental voices rioting in my head:
         My God, they're killing him-
         "Run away, it's a Yakuza assassination!"
         -my children, where are my children?
         "Mommy, why is that man on the ground?"
         I can't stand by and watch this!
         "In the name of Mishima-sama, stay back or I'll show you what a beating is!" That was Ishida, he'd completely lost his temper, and his anger ignited a surge of righteous indignation in the people confronting him. Mass rage and panic fueled one another into a turbulent geyser-
         "Everyone, please! He is only ill, we are summoning an ambulance-" I think I was the only one who heard a fragment of Kimura's attempt to calm the crowd; he always did have a quiet voice and quieter thoughts.
         Jin, wait, listen to me, please-! That was my father's desperate broadcast, in its own way the most fearful of all. He was brought low by pain, but not from any external wound; I could feel an echo of the grinding heaviness in his chest, lungs, and liver that took away his voice. The fear I sensed in him wasn't for his own life; a black curtain of fatal resignation shrouded the darkness of his thoughts. He was afraid for me, and of what could happen to me... and maybe, just maybe, afraid that I would never forgive him. I couldn't sense any more than that because of two sources of interference: one from the hysterical crowd, and one from the visceral wound of shame festering within my father's psyche. With a sight that extended past corporeal bounds, I could perceive the red film of dripping gore coating his hands and sleeves. It was the blood of Kazuya's death and the lies he had told about it, staining him as a butcher, a monster, a murderer-
         -no, no, I will not tolerate any contact with your despicable mind! I refuse, I shut you out, I will not listen to you! I will not listen! NO!
         It was chaos. It was impossible. When I tried to concentrate on blocking out my father above all, I became even more vulnerable to the tidal wave of the crowd. A scuffle had started between my bodyguards and some onlookers with misguided intentions; the panic was spreading to touch another hundred people; I couldn't think on my own anymore. The masses' collective fear and the driving need to escape my father consumed me. I'd broken into a stumbling, loping run, fleeing in a random direction, no longer aware of who I was or what I was doing.
         The next thing I remember, it was hours later. Night had fallen. I huddled in a darkened brick alley, directly opposite two sets of dented, overflowing garbage cans, my hood pulled over my face and my cloak wrapped around me.
         Hm? Oh, I usually prefer to wear a hooded cloak over my normal clothes during my rare public excursions, because the barrier of dark fabric helps keep me psychically apart. It doesn't offer that much benefit, really, but every little bit counts. I wish I could wear it at high school, but they have a strict dress code. Uniforms only.
         My head felt like it had been split open with an axe and glued together with toothpaste. I was hungry, tired, and had a foul taste in my mouth. There was dirt on the knees of my school uniform and bruises on my arms, probably from tripping and falling somewhere. But I felt too exhausted, physically and psychically, to apply healing sorcery to myself just yet.
         I didn't recognize my surroundings. Probably not Ginza anymore; the buildings were too squat, dirty, and run together. There were no streetlights. I craned my neck looking for a street sign, but I couldn't see much of anything in the darkness. The block was more or less deserted; it was quiet enough that I could - barely - resurrect the walls in my mind and hold them steady.
         Ishida and Kimura were probably worried sick about me, I reflected. Grandfather too, if he'd come home from his trip yet. Better contact them, let them know I'm okay. I tried to compose my mind and send them a telepathic message-
         -and my headache became ten times worse.
         ...aaargh, I can't do this, not without at least another couple hours of rest. Even if I can reach them, I won't be able to communicate anything except pain; hell, it's not like I could tell them where I am right now. If I overestimate my limits, I could pass out again, and this does not look like a nice neighborhood to sleep in.
         I had good reason to be leery. You see, the last time I'd been alone on the city streets at night - well, you've heard of the Ikebukuro disaster, haven't you? Grandfather was furious. He almost forbade me to leave the syndicate ever again. He didn't actually lose all that much money to the fire damage because he had insured the buildings, but it was costly for him to keep my name out of the news and the police records; he had to call in a lot of favors. It didn't seem right to me that he should do that. I was ready to confess everything to the police and face the consequences, but my grandfather commanded me to be silent, and I was feeling too ashamed to disobey him.
         Anyway, the memory of that entire catastrophe was fresh in my mind as I cradled my throbbing head in the alley. I decided that I'd better get home to the syndicate as quickly as possible. I still had my wallet in the right side pocket of my pants, and I was carrying more than enough to afford cab or mass transit fare; trouble was, I didn't see any kind of vehicles driving down the empty street.
         Well, then... maybe a telephone?
         There were no pay phones in sight, but there was a single open business at the end of the block. A fading electric lamp cast long shadows on its painted sign, which read The Dragon's Tail and featured a coiled, four-clawed serpent, couched in a glaring splash of red and orange. I wrapped my cloak tighter around myself and approached.
         There were voices within. Lots of them. Maybe around two dozen, physical and mental, but at least that was plenty less than what I'd been through a few hours earlier. I braced myself against the backlash and ventured inside.
         It was a dump.
         Perhaps the dilapidated appearance of the surrounding block should have prepared me, but gods, the place was a disgusting wreck. The wooden timbers looked like they were infested with termites. Half the front bar stools had their cushions ripped off. There was dirt, grime, and carved or spray-painted graffiti everywhere. Strong alcoholic fumes made my eyes water; the only thing worse was the stench coming from the men's room. No one was manning the bar. I looked around for a pay phone, and to my relief saw one in the far corner. Unfortunately, a mass of densely jam-packed people separated me from it.
         They formed two semicircular halves of a big ring, with a cleared space in the center. I noticed that the people in one half of the ring were clad mostly in black leather, while the others wore a variety of more frayed, casual clothes, predominated by blue jeans. Both sides were cheering loudly, their cries ranging from jubilant outbursts to sneering catcalls and vulgar epithets. I swayed from the force of their combined, self-feeding fervor. Damn, my head hurt.
         The phone, I thought to myself. Just concentrate on reaching the phone. There's only a couple dozen of them; it's no different from being in a high school classroom. Okay, make that being at high school with a severe case of stomach flu, but still, I can do this...
         As I edged my way into non-leather half of the throng, I felt two emphatic psychological states, over and above the rest. A pair of people were in the center of the ring, matched against each other in a physical struggle. One was a big, bearded man in blue jeans; I heard his friends cheer for him as "Nanao." From him came disdain, contempt, and annoyance with regard to his opponent: a petite young girl, no older than fifteen, dressed in black leathers. Light sparkled from a broad silver cross around her neck, studded with twinkling diamonds; I wondered if she were a real Christian or just wearing it for the glitter. Emotionally, she was caught up in the immediacy of the challenge, not thinking past her next attack strategy or defensive reaction. She had violet hair - this was no trick of the light, her hair really was the color of forest wildflowers. I couldn't help taking a closer look, and spotted the tips of black hair-roots close to her scalp. It seemed odd to me that someone would want to dye part of their own body such an outlandish pigment, but I suppose I really shouldn't be one to criticize hair.
         The leather-clad onlookers were all rooting for the young woman - well, all except one, who leaned back against the far wall and half-closed his eyes. I heard yells of "Get him, Yukie!" so I assume that was her name. The strange thing was, her fans weren't sincere. Although their vocal exhortations matched those of the men cheering for Nanao decibel for decibel, on the inside they weren't particularly wound up over her winning or losing. They were bored. They were waiting for this fight to be over.
         But if they were that uninterested, then why cheer for her so fiercely?
         Team loyalty?
         Aargh, Jin, you're doing it again, getting drawn into other people's emotions when it's none of your business, stop it, block it out, reinforce the walls, plow through the crowd, the telephone's only a couple meters away now-
         Yukie's shrill scream sliced through my barriers. I felt a sharp surge of - no, not quite fear or pain, it was loathing and disgust at being touched that made her cry out as her opponent firmly grappled her waist. He flung her bodily into her leather-clad comrades, who toppled like crushed bamboo stalks. Yukie sobbed and crouched on her knees, both arms wrapped around her stomach, her face pressed into the floor. I was rattled for a moment, worried that she was hurt, but no... no, she wasn't badly injured, and her emotional state had stabilized into calm anticipation. Her outward appearance of tears was a sham. She had expected to lose all along - no, she had planned to lose.
         Why...?
         Aah, hell with it, just get the damn phone.
         I drew my hood and cloak more tightly around myself as I squeezed next to the banged-up old pay phone with the shredded remnants of a vandalized phone book chained to it. That's all right, I don't need the book, I remember the number... I think...
         How much does it cost to make a phone call, anyway?
         Yes, I'm really asking you. How much does it cost?
         That little?
         I didn't know then because the instructions on the telephone had been scratched out, as if by a knife. I decided that maybe if I shoveled in enough coins, I'd be able to just call and receive whatever change was due me. Now that I think about it, it probably wasn't very wise to openly flash a wallet in that seedy place, but fortunately for me no one took notice; they were all too caught up in their jeers and rebuttals.
         "Ah, quit yer whinin'!" Nanao snarled to the weeping Yukie. The currents of his own disgust rippled against my mental barriers - disgust for having to fight against someone who was so much smaller and weaker than he was.
         I wondered if I'd put enough loose change into the coin slot yet.
         It's embarrassing to admit, but the truth is, I wasn't sure exactly how to use a pay phone. I'd never had to do so before in my life. Certainly not in the wilderness of the Yakushima mountains, and once I came to the syndicate, well, I was still kept pretty sheltered and sequestered. I almost never went anywhere without bodyguards to run errands for me. So there I was, stuck trying to figure out what to do, and the vociferous background noise was not helping my concentration.
         "Pay us!"
         "You owe me cash!"
         "Pay your dues!" Greed and zealous self-gratification oozed from the demands of the blue jeans side of the crowd, the side that surrounded me. Had they been making wagers on the outcome of the fight? Is that even legal? Probably not - no, wait, I know people sometimes gamble on the outcome of sumo matches, don't they? I've never gambled myself, so I don't really know. I do remember that some of the people in that crowd, especially the ones who weren't clad in leather, bore the touch of poverty - a hunger that isn't quite satisfied on what you can scavenge, clothing a day dirtier than what you're able to launder. I've heard that gambling tends to be more popular among the poor than the rich. Perhaps this type of challenge was a bright spot of excitement in lives that were dull and largely devoted to scraping together basic necessities, I don't know.
         I pulled a lever near the upper right corner of the rusty telephone. All my coins spilled out of a door-slot in its base.
         "This was not a fair match."
         I froze when I heard the new voice. Paralyzed right there, with my fingers still pressing down on the telephone lever. It wasn't the words or the tone, it was the psychic wavelengths of the personality who spoke them:
         Darkness.
         Scorn.
         Misery.
         Hatred.
         I didn't have to turn around to know that he was the one leather-clad gang member who hadn't been cheering earlier. When he had been withdrawn and quiescent, the tumult of the others had masked the black ripples of his thoughts, but now - now, my headache returned with a vengeance. This one person was so twisted up inside that he made it worse than the rest of the crowd combined.
         "You agreed to the bet!" Nanao retorted. "Three matches, three losses for you. It's not our fault you're so desperate for street fighters that you have to conscript scrawny little girls! You've lost. Pay up."
         "Triple your winnings says you can't handle a real fight."
         "A real fight from what? You? You're scrawnier than she is!"
         "Unless, of course, you're too exhausted from beating on a girl. If you want to plead weakness, then take what little you've got and leave while you still can."
         "You gotta big mouth, punk. A big mouth and a small-"
         "Hwoarang will kick your ass! I'll bet this on it!" Yukie burst out, tearing off her diamond-studded crucifix and throwing it on the floor. Other leather-clad gang members followed suit, tossing out more money or gold jewelry. Nanao's distaste at accepting another seemingly pitiful challenge immediately softened in the wake of renewed greed, shared by his fellows-
         -dammit, for the last time just concentrate on the telephone! Block them out, block everything out, block out the darkness and the bragging, not necessarily in that order, and think, dammit, think, how are these devices supposed to work?
         Take the receiver off the hook.
         A dial tone? That has to be a good sign. Now, insert the money, and um, do I have to dial a "1" or something first? No, I'm in Tokyo, same as the syndicate headquarters, that shouldn't be necessary. At least, I hope I'm still in Tokyo... how about if I try just the plain number? Tap the buttons and-
         I'm sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed, consoled the automated voice from the earpiece. Please check the number and try again. When I self-consciously touched the earpiece rest lever, the change I had put in spilled out that little swinging metal door in a jingling shower.
         "BLOOD TALON! BLOOD TALON!"
         Voluminous cheers punctuated a storm of renewed conflict, washing against my senses. Hwoarang's leather-clad friends were rooting for him, this time with the utmost sincerity. I felt a backlash of Nanao's pain and pushed it aside, as I decided to try what I should have done in the first place: hitting the "operator" button. A response came sooner than I expected, and in less than a minute I was making a collect call to the Mishima syndicate - I know it sounds cheap, but the truth is I honestly had no idea how to make my coins stay in that incomprehensible metal box; it kept spitting them back out. I was nearly holding my breath until the receptionist agreed to accept the charge.
         "Young master?" she asked, uncertainly. "How may I serve you?"
         "I, uh, need transportation," I stiffly requested, suddenly reluctant to explain that I was completely and utterly lost. "Could you please contact Ishida and Kimura? Tell them to pick me up at a place called-"
         Before I could finish that sentence, Nanao slammed into me. I mean, physically slammed; he collided into the back of my cloak, hitting me at an angle and sandwiching me against the telephone. But the mere impact was nothing compared to the simultaneous barrage of psychic trauma, amplified by the personal contact:
         Cracked and splintering ribs driving bone shards into the chest. Burning puppet strings reduce the right arm to a mass of dangling, bloody livewire. Choking stickiness in the throat, ringing shock in the forehead, stabbing pain, air hisses spastically from the mouth, can't breathe, can't stand, can't move, can't-!
         All in a flash, I felt Nanao's wounds as if they had been driven into me, and I reacted at a level below conscious thought. My Power manifested, instantly and automatically, surging through my hands in a static electric discharge that blew apart the telephone in a flashing explosion. The blast blinded and even singed several of the onlookers, but you know, I don't think any of them realized - then - that I had caused it. To them, it was as though Nanao's crash into me had torn apart the rusty old phone, and the sparks were from the electric wires inside the ruined object. As for me, I was frantically grappling for psychic balance. The last time I'd lost control like this, I'd started a fire that-
         -no, no, don't panic now, you can't panic, a life is at stake! Ten seconds ago this whole conflict had been none of my business, but now Nanao was dying; both his lungs had collapsed, and if he didn't get treated he would suffocate. I was far from the best frame of mind or strength of body to attempt healing sorcery, but it couldn't be helped. Fortunately for Nanao and me both, the half of the crowd surrounding us was so stunned that it bought me time to regain tenuous control of my own faculties and set to work. I draped my cloak so that it covered my hands and Nanao's broken ribs - it helped to have a physical barrier, no matter how thin, to shield me and my patient from the surrounding voices. His shirt was untucked, so it was a simple matter to pull it up and place my palm on the sucking chest wound.
         I shut my eyes and let my focus coalesce upon the damage within. I made my Power spread in delicate, sensitive tendrils, using my reluctant link with Nanao to pinpoint the exact source of his damage. It's one thing to nudge bone shards into their proper alignment, and prompt the body's regeneration at an increased speed. That's not so hard. The real problem was his pleural cavity - that is, the layer between the two membranes that encompass the bulk of a person's inner chest; its fluid seals the surface of the lungs, and when it's ruptured, the lungs shrivel up like empty balloons. My mother had taught me how to treat this a long time ago - you not only have to close the rupture, but also gradually withdraw air from the pleural cavity, in order to gently reinflate the lungs. Medical surgeons use sterilized chest tubes for this process; I had nothing like that in my possession, so my Power sculpted makeshift tubules from Nanao's own cells, held in place by polarized electric charge and sheer concentration. Easy, now... easy... too fast and the delicate connective tissue could tear, I'd have start all over again...
         "Out of my way!" There was no lapse of time between the warning and the sweeping kick that cracked against my cheek and sent me sprawling in the corner. Stinging me far more fiercely than the blow was a psychic lash of dripping, agonizing hatred.
         Hwoarang.
         His rage wasn't directed at me. He perceived me as little more than an inanimate object. He was angry at Nanao for having fallen so easily, angry that the fight had been over almost before it began. "Get up. Get up, damn you, get up! I'M NOT DONE WITH YOU YET!" He gripped Nanao's collar with both hands, heaving him bodily off the floor - a remarkable feat, for the wounded man must have weighed at least ninety kilograms. Nanao did not answer because he had lost consciousness, but at least he'd resumed a raspy half-breathing on his own. I'd restored one of his lungs before I was interrupted.
         "Hwoarang, you can put him down! We won. We can collect the bet now," Yukie pleaded, hanging on his arm. Hwoarang didn't respond to her; he shook Nanao and screamed words that I couldn't make out. They sounded like they could be Korean - I know a little of the language, and I thought I recognized the tones - but it was a dialect that I had trouble understanding. Which was strange, because Korean doesn't really have mutually unintelligible dialects like, say, Chinese.
         "Do as she says!" I commanded, in the sternest, most forceful voice I could muster. Which wasn't very stern or forceful. The healing sorcery had taken a lot out of me.
         Hwoarang turned his head.
         On the surface, he looked like a punk. A young one. Certainly no older than my own age of nineteen years, and with a noticeably slighter build than me, though he was about my equal in height. His thin, pinched face had a Korean curvature; he definitely looked Korean, except that his skin was ghostly pale. I don't mean the pigment-free complexion of an albino, either; more like someone who is deathly ill or suffering severe malnutrition, though he obviously wasn't sick or starving - at least, not physically. His pallid, bloodless skin contrasted sharply against the obsidian black of his leathers, or should I say, deep blue stretch pants with strapped, black leather overlay from ankle to mid-thigh. Sharp, multi-pointed spurs jutted out the heels of his matching leather boots. At his waist, an obsidian belt marked the brim of a tight-fitting, sleeveless shirt colored the same dark violet as Yukie's hair. Fingerless, obsidian fighter's gloves guarded his hands. As a final highlight, he had pushed a pair of obsidian shades above his eyes; they crested his forehead, framing a wild, unruly tangle of watery-red hair. The folds of his cropped tresses clumped and layered in an unkempt pattern, like the ruffled feathers of a raptor. And his eyes...
         I did not want to look into his eyes. The eyes are windows to the soul, it is said, and his was not a soul I wanted to see. But I knew that I couldn't afford to show any weakness, so I returned his glare from beneath the hood of my cloak, wrapping the black fabric more tightly around me, and wrapping my barriers more tightly around my mind.
         His eyes were the brown of rot and decay. He appraised me with the cruel, calculating gaze of a predator. But there was more to him than mercantile hatred. There was buried torment. It hadn't been just anger that drove him to punish Nanao; it was desperation, suffering, a keening inner cry-
         -I felt myself getting pulled in too deep, and barely steadied myself in time to hear what he was saying. Externally, that is. Internally, he was an endless, wordless scream.
         "Are you challenging me?" The words were calm and liquid; they betrayed no hint of what was inside him.
         "If that's what it takes," I answered. "After I've finished treating your opponent. You've hurt him badly. If he dies because you won't let me near him, then I'll see you arrested for murder."
         Hwoarang smiled. His canines were unusually long, with pronounced points; they poked slightly over the edge of his lower lip. "Idiot. Cops don't give a damn what we do to each other, as long as they get their share of the skim. You don't belong here, do you?"
         The rest of his leather-clad associates smirked or leered in response to his question. I wondered if he was their leader. "What difference does it make?"
         "Life is cheap down here," he spat, a spark of seething resentment flashing past his rotting eyes. "Your kind doesn't understand that. You want to pretend that it means something. You make me sick."
         I made him sick? He was giving me a damned migraine.
         "It must mean something to you," I suggested, quietly. "You're alive, and you have the will to fight."
         I was trying to reason with him, calm him down.
         I don't think I could have said anything to enrage him more.
         He didn't scream with his voice. His face became like stone; his body did not tense. But beneath the surface, his silent shriek broadcast itself at a tortured pitch. I staggered from it, and clutched my forehead.
         "If you try to test that will," Hwoarang said, "it will be to the death."
         "I told you, after I've finished treating my patient! Put him down, carefully-"
         "Agree to my terms, and I will not harm him. I will give you two minutes to pretend that you are making a difference. Refuse, and he dies now."
         "Five minutes."
         "You're pushing it."
         "Hwoarang, don't," Yukie nervously implored, clutching at his elbow and throwing me a fearful glance. "There's something bad about this one, I can feel it-"
         "Shut up," he snapped to her, but true to his word, he refrained from taking out his anger on Nanao. I finished reinforcing the seal to Nanao's pleural cavity, slowly drawing out the air and reinflating his other lung; mended the fractures in his arm; and accelerated the healing of his concussion. He started to revive as I finished.
         "Who the hell are you?" he mumbled, in an unsteady baritone.
         "Doesn't matter. Here. Go to a hospital and get yourself checked over," I softly told him, passing him several bills underneath the protective cover of my cloak. His eyes went wide, then creased with loathing.
         "I don't take charity," he growled. He hands tightened into fists, and he tried to rise, twitching with pain.
         "Then give it to someone who does." I turned my back on him, and never saw him again.
         The crowd was ablaze with enthusiastic, greedy whispers of betting and haggled odds. At this rate my headache would never get better. Hwoarang was waiting for me, impatiently practicing a set of high roundhouse kicks - his form looked like Tae Kwon Do. Which probably meant that I'd face a lot of high-hitting, kick-based attacks, though I knew better than to commit too heavily to such a speculation. As Hwoarang turned, I noticed a Satanic design on the back of his violet shirt: the long, narrow skull of a ram, with curling white horns and a slash of bloody red below its jawbone.
         Hwoarang settled into a narrow fighting stance, marked by a light-footed bouncing in place. The left side of his body was turned toward me, with his back straight and his hands angled to shield his chest. I could feel that part of him wanted more than anything to charge me headlong and lose himself in combat, but he held himself back with the same discipline that concealed his inner torment.
         "You're a sorcerer," he appraised. "You used sorcery to heal him."
         "It's not too late to call this off," I suggested.
         "It was too late a hundred years ago." His rotting brown eyes narrowed to grim slits. "Take off the cloak. I want to see who I'm dealing with."
         "No."
         He snapped his fingers. Drained from healing, teetering on the edge of psychic overload, I didn't register what was happening until three or four of his leather-clad comrades ripped my cloak off my shoulders. Well, at least now I knew that Hwoarang was definitely their leader, for all the good it did me. The chatter of mental voices all around me grew louder, without the fabric to serve as a damper. I gritted my teeth, and pressed both hands against the sides of my head, stepping into a wide-legged stance so that I wouldn't reel like a drunkard.
         Would you like to know what the worst thing about a psychic headache is? Painkillers don't help it. Not healing sorcery, not aspirin, nothing makes it go away except rest and silence. And I wasn't about to get any of either. Instead, I had to hold my ground against a whole new onslaught of Hwoarang's emotions:
         Shock.
         Disbelief.
         Denial.
         Fear.
         "You," Hwoarang gasped, "you're dead!"
         "I'm beginning to wish," I winced under my breath.
         I don't think he heard me. "You're dead, you've been dead for twenty years, I FELT THE STORM WHEN YOU DIED! You're dead! YOU'RE DEAD!"
         Twenty years? Was he referring to the Great Invasion? He didn't look like he had been born when it happened.
         "KAZUYA!" he screamed, so out of touch with reality that even his own gang members shrank back from him. "Your hold on me died with my master, I WON'T BE YOUR SLAVE! I'll kill you all over again, as many times as I have to, I'll kill you, I'LL KILL YOU!"
         The last of his restraint ignited into an open flame. He rushed me wildly, heedlessly, leaving the ground in a flying aerial kick that hurled him bodily at me, his left heel on target for my chest, ready to crush my ribs as surely as he had crushed Nanao's.
         I summoned my wall of Force.
         Grandfather never did approve of my sorcery, whether used for healing or fighting, so that I almost never practiced it while training under his guidance. And of course, I couldn't give my study of sorcery anywhere near the same priority that I did to learning how to fight the Toshin. But my mother had taught me these skills, and in her memory I could not let them atrophy. In the four years since I'd come to the syndicate, practicing in secret, I'd refined an alternate technique for projecting a barrier of Force strong enough to repel all incoming attacks. What I do is clench my fists and cross my arms in an X front of my chest, then flex them apart in front of me, like this; the action resembles a double outer block. The created barrier, generated from within the center of the X, is itself invisible. You can clearly see the flashes of indigo electricity outlining it, though, especially its upper half.
         This technique has a couple advantages over my mother's style of thrusting out her palm. It's faster, stronger, and can be done at a closer range. This disadvantage is that it's trickier to sustain, shape, or move the barrier, with my hands set at its edges rather than in the center. And in the mental condition I was then, I couldn't possibly keep the wall of Force up for more than a split-second. But I didn't have to. All I needed to do was push Hwoarang's attack away; while he staggered, I could let the barrier dissolve and ready myself to repel his next attack. This went on for a while. At first, the crowd was awestruck by the electric display, but soon they started to grumble restlessly - they wanted to see blood.
         Well, tough.
         What?
         No, of course I didn't want to fight Hwoarang. Making or answering a legitimate challenge is one thing, but I don't care for extortion. And I mean that in more than one way. It had taken me a while to figure it out, but I'd come to realize that the entire leather-clad gang was running a gambling scam. They'd challenge other groups to a fight, and pretend to lose; then Hwoarang would show off his true skill, and his associates would collect on the artificially inflated odds against him. That had to be illegal, and I resented being dragged into their scheme. But what really irritated me was how Hwoarang had tried to use a human life as a bargaining chip. If he wanted a fight that badly, then damned if I was going to give it to him. I never explicitly promised him a battle to the death, and even if I had given my word, I wouldn't have felt obligated to keep it. A vow made under the duress of a life is not and should not be binding, because life is precious beyond all vows. To give a person who recklessly threatens human life exactly what he wants is to reward and encourage his evil behavior.
         My head hurt too much to explain that to Hwoarang, though.
         "What is wrong with you!?" he exclaimed, hammering at my barrier with both fists, then lurching and shaking out his numb hands. "Fight back! Fight back! It's not single combat if you don't - fight - BACK!" He punctuated each of those last three words with kicks targeting my feet, midsection, and face, respectively. His attacks rattled my barrier more than I let myself show. But the repeated electric jolts were taking a heavier toll on him than fatigue was on me. He sank to one knee, trembling with aftershock and barely contained furor.
         "Kazuya," he hissed through grinding teeth, "you bastard...!"
         "I am not Kazuya."
         He stared up at me. His rotting brown eyes widened.
         "He was my father," I clarified, now that Hwoarang had worn himself down enough to hear me out. "I'm told that I look like him. My name is Jin Kazama."
         "I don't believe this," Hwoarang mouthed, shaking his head. "I don't believe any of this...!"
         "I regret my father's crimes deeply. Is he the reason why you have such hatred inside you, and against me? Did someone close to you die in the Great Invasion?"
         "Someone close to me...?" A chuckle escaped him. It was not an amused sound. It was the edge of madness. He threw back his tangled raptor hair and laughed, until his growing frenzy peaked in a maniacal scream.
         "I DIED IN THE GREAT INVASION! Burned to a skeleton! They threw me in a mass charnel pit with the rest of the corpses! Do you know what it's like to have soil insects gnawing away at your flesh as fast as it can reform? Do you know what it is to suffocate over and over again, because you have dirt and mold in place of lungs? Do you know what it is to have a cairn of boulders pressing on your chest, trapping you for months in the earth and the maggots and the dark? Do you!?"
         I wanted to think that he was speaking metaphorically. Certainly, the rest of his gang looked leery of him as he ranted his gruesome tirade, and yet I couldn't feel one shred of hyperbole emanating from his poisoned darkness. He literally believed every word he was saying. Perhaps whatever he lost in the Great Invasion had thrown him into such grief that it created a false reality in his mind?
         "So you're Kazuya's brat," Hwoarang sneered, as his mood abruptly shifted from raving to pensive. "Never thought the reclusive power-monger had it in him. 'Kazama'... 'Kazama'... where have I heard that name before?" His raptor eyebrows traced a dual arch. "Of course. The bitch who exterminated ten thousand of our troops."
         "Watch your tongue!" I snapped.
         "So, she is your mother." An evil light glinted in his hate-filled eyes. "Did I call her a 'bitch'? My mistake. I meant 'whore.'"
         My blood boiled.
         Yes, he was baiting me. Yes, I even think I was partially aware of it. It didn't matter. I loved my mother. So much of me had perished with her, four years ago. All I had left of her was her memory, and to hear this - this creature befoul that memory with his filthy insults-!
         "You shut up," I seethed, pointing to him. My outstretched index finger shook with impending rage.
         "I heard Jun Kazama was captured during the battle for the Mishima syndicate. Looks like Kazuya got good use out of her."
         "Don't you talk like that! My mother gave up her life to save the world! She-"
         "-was a whore," Hwoarang stressed, matching my intensity. What made it even worse was the vicious sincerity of his taunt, combined with the pounding bloodlust of the crowd. It amplified the fury of my own thoughts, and my mental discipline was already close to shattered.
         "That's a lie!" I shouted. Crackles of indigo electricity sizzled violently on my fists.
         "Kazuya never took a wife. You don't even have his last name."
         "I'm warning you-"
         "You really are a bastard child-"
         "-don't you talk that way-"
         "-the product of the Devil and his whore!"
         "-about MY MOTHER!"
         And that's when I lost control.
         When I lashed out, I was possessed with the agonizing memory of how I had failed to save my mother. I wasn't just attacking Hwoarang. In disparaging my mother, he had become like the monster that murdered her; I was fighting to avenge her, fighting in blind desperation against my past shame. In a mindless burst of frenzy, I lunged at him with my right fist. He was prepared for it, of course; he'd been waiting for it all along, now that he'd figured out how to reach past my wall of force and inflame my deepest wound. He brought his forearms up, forming a stiff barrier against the punch that still pushed him back. While I was overextended from my wild swing, he retaliated. Tucking one long leg close to his body, he thrust out his heel in an almost perfectly straight line; the impact drove into the pit of my stomach and hurled me away. I was barely coherent enough to fall properly, using my arms and legs to absorb most of the shock.
         Hwoarang advanced and swung his right foot in a downward swipe, as if to kick a wildflower free of its stem; the side of his foot smacked my head. I was too consumed with vengeful lightning to feel more than a disembodied push and grind, as the rotating, circular blade of his metallic heel-spur slashed open my skin. Crouching on my left foot, I turned in a clockwise circle, sweeping my right leg in a spinning kick to knock him off his feet, but he aborted my attack with a strong shove to my knee, upsetting my single axis of balance even as his left arm locked my right. He twisted behind me, turning so that he faced away from the side of my body even as he used his hold to keep me from turning toward him. I do know how to escape a basic armlock, but I have to be in a stable frame of mind to do it; and so I failed to win free before he raised his right heel high above his head, then whipped it behind him to crash heavily on the back of my skull.
         This time I really did feel it, and the collision of the hard floor meeting my face, and I'm not even going to describe how bad my migraine had become. I managed to roll on my back in time to see Hwoarang's triumphant, predatory smile, as he raised his knee and drove the spur of his boot toward my exposed neck.
         I grabbed his foot.
         Wrapped both hands around it even as it came shooting down, and through that hold I channeled every filament of my raging inner core. Brilliant electric tendrils erupted about Hwoarang's body. I heard distant shouts and screams from the crowd, saw flying sparks and smelled smoke, and Hwoarang's surprised "Aahr!" floated above it all as my Power reached up to his unprotected torso and electrocuted him. If not for the insulating effect of his leather, he would have been shocked beyond the ability to move; as it was, he convulsed so spastically that his shades flew off his head. I seized the chance to scissor my own legs around his and force him to the ground with a twist of my lower body. Letting go of his foot, I pounced on his trunk, chambering my fists and alternately driving them into his face. When he struggled to push me off with his right hand, I gripped it and held it close to my chest, throwing myself back perpendicular to where he lay and bracing his torso with my calves. The skin of his hand was cold and grisly, resembling the feel of fish scales more than human flesh. Bending his supine palm like a lever, I forced the hyperextension of his elbow joint until I could hear the grinding crack of its break, and my rage still wasn't satisfied.
         I rolled backwards, and we both staggered tenuously to our feet. Hwoarang's right arm hung limp, no longer able to guard his chest. A stream of blood tricked down my forehead from where his heel-spur had gashed me; the thick wetness mixed with my bangs and stung my right eye. We both swayed and tottered. Electrical shock had left him visibly trembling, while my head hurt so fiercely I had to half-crouch in order to stay upright. I summoned a ball of indigo lightning to my fist. He subtly adjusted his fighting stance, putting his right foot forward instead of his left. We attacked. I propelled my right fist in an upward gut punch, while he snapped a spinning kick, purposefully keeping the angle of his foot low to compensate for my stooped posture. Both hits connected at the same time; I felt the jarring, ringing slam of a final blow to my head while my fist plowed underneath his sternum, simultaneously letting loose with an explosive electrical discharge. There was a senseless cascade of red pain, reflexive clutching, and heavy dullness. I had a disjoint glimpse of Hwoarang wrapping both arms around his gut, sinking to his knees, and toppling on his face. Then the decaying floorboards were rushing up to meet me, one last time. I heard the thud of him hitting the ground as an eerie echo to my own, dislodging whump, which reverberated through my bones and muffled my headache in a black blanket.
         And that's all I remember of December 4th.


         If only I hadn't lost control.
         I will regret what I did, and the merciless consequences that came of it, until the day I die. If I had handled the confrontation with Hwoarang in a better way... if I hadn't lost my temper, if I hadn't attacked him and spilled my own blood in the struggle... I didn't even have to fight him, you know. All I had to do was stall for a few more minutes, until Ishida, Kimura, and a small army of Tekkenshu arrived. I'm told they fired gunshots into the air to scatter the crowd, before they collected me and took me home.
         What?
         Of course they knew where I was. I'd telephoned the syndicate, hadn't I?
         Oh, didn't you know? All the syndicate's phone lines are equipped with automatic caller ID. Even though I hadn't been on the line long enough to tell the receptionist where I was, she had the origin of my call on record, and I knew it. So my initial plan had been to just hold Hwoarang off with barrier spells until Ishida and Kimura came. But then it all went out of control...
         ...and when I regained consciousness, I was in a flustered semi-panic, terrified that an innocent person could have been hurt or killed in the fallout of my fight with Hwoarang. My bodyguards reassured me that they had dispersed the crowd without inflicting any casualties, and extinguished the fires caused by stray sparks of my Power. When I tentatively asked them about a leather-clad Korean with watery-red raptor hair, they mentioned that they had seen an unconscious but still-breathing person matching that description; he'd been carried away by his comrades. I heaved a sigh of relief, thanked Ishida and Kimura profusely, and had them quietly transfer a large payment from my personal account to the owner of The Dragon's Tail. To compensate for damages, of course, including but not limited to the loss of the telephone. My bodyguards and I agreed to, uh, not mention any of the incident to Grandfather unless he asked.
         I was upset with myself for losing control, but I thought - gratefully - that at least no permanent harm had come of it.
         I was wrong.
         Gods in heaven, I was wrong.
         Yukie...
         I'm sorry, Yukie... you were right to be scared. If only I hadn't lost my temper... if only I had stayed in control...
         If only I had stayed in control...


End of Chapter 4: Challenges