PHOENIX REBORN

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.com
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Chapter 5: Winter Night Sky


   When Kazuya Mishima first took control of the Mishima syndicate, he personally micromanaged its most sensitive operations, as well as the structure of its Iron Fist Tournament. But by the time he cemented his alliance with the Shao Kahn, he had become the syndicate's President in absentia, known to isolate himself in his inner sanctum for weeks on end. It was an eccentricity that would prove his undoing, for it necessarily forced him to delegate a compromising amount of authority to his vice-president and foster brother, Lee Chaolan.
   What disaster could have induced such severe agoraphobia in one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world? What trauma could have made the King of the Iron Fist too paranoid to rule his own syndicate? The most likely answer lies in the story of the Williams sisters. Although their fatal path crossed Kazuya's before the Great Invasion began, the repercussions were destined to haunt him throughout the war, and ultimately contribute to his ruin.


         -Dr. V. Boskonovitch, Rise and Fall of the Devils


INTERVIEW WITH ANNA WILLIAMS, section 1
February 5, 2018
6:45 p.m.


         It's so sweet of you to take me out to dinner like this.
         I didn't know Tokyo had an East Indian restaurant. How long did it take you to find this place? You really shouldn't have gone to so much trouble.
         Mm?
         Oh, you're such a dear. Yes, you're right, I do feel more at home. Mama used to cook me alu chole. It seems so long ago... it is so long ago, over twenty years longer for the rest of the world than for me. But it could have been worse; it could have been one hundred years.
         That was the original plan, you know. No less than one hundred years.
         I'm ready, now. I know it took me a while to answer your message, but that was only because... because of what I...
         Did you really mean what you said before?
         About us?
         I... I have to make you a promise.
         I promise you, I will tell you everything. Listen to it, publish it, share it with the whole world if you wish; my days of keeping secrets are over. After all I've done to you, the very least you deserve is the truth.
         Just don't... don't try to pretend, okay? Not to spare my feelings, and not to get the interview you need. My feelings are sturdier than you may suspect, and you have already paid for the interview with your blood. You don't have to pretend this dinner is anything more than a dinner. You don't have to pretend...
         You don't have to...
         ...you're not serious.
         No, I didn't mean - don't be silly. I don't need Jin to look in your mind for me, I swear I don't.
         sigh
         I'm as ready as I think I can be. So, how is this supposed to work? Do you have a list of questions for me, or...?
         Mm?
         Mmm...
         If it's important to you, then I... I suppose can pretend that you are not who you are, but I was dearly looking forward to dinner with who you are and not with who you are not. If that makes any sense. What if I slip up? What if I accidentally call you by name?
         Mm, so you are editing this. Well, I trust your discretion.
         Your request is just a teensy bit general, though. I'm not sure where to start telling you about myself and where to stop. How should I begin?
         Well, all right.
         I was born Arjumand Banu on the fifth day of Raby` al-THaany, 1396 Anno Hegirae, in the city of Agra - mm? - oh, sorry, that's April 5, 1976 by your calendar. And I'm not "Arjumand" anymore; papa legally changed my name to "Anna Williams" when I was fourteen.
         You've never been to Agra, have you?
         I miss it, sometimes. Especially the Taj Mahal. I've never been inside, but I used to love just watching the sun rise over its curving spires, beautiful rays glimmering against the rose-colored dawn. Or else I'd gaze upon its stately silhouette, outlined upon the rising moon and glittering stars of the winter night sky. Do you know, my birth name is the same as that of the woman who inspired that elegant memorial? I used to romanticize endlessly over the story of the Shah Jahan and his inseparably beloved wife. He built the Taj Mahal as her mausoleum. It has been the final resting place for them both to this day. Eternal love, eternal bliss.
         Doesn't it just pull at your heart?
         I lived in a world of fantasy stories. I had to, because my real world was so small and lonely. Mama and I were all by ourselves in the city. We were... well, we weren't quite starving to death, but there were many nights when I went to bed hungry, and "luxury" was the chance to wash my hair more often than twice a week. And I could almost never talk with anyone outside of going to the marketplace to buy food.
         You see, my mama had brought shame upon her family by giving herself to a married man - worse, a foreign infidel. His name was Richard Williams, and he was my father. Mama's family learned about her transgression when she became pregnant with me, and they cast her out the day after she delivered her child. With spiteful tongues and remorseless eyes, they declared that she had never been born. And as the daughter of someone who was never born, I was twice removed from all existence. If I had been a son, perhaps they might have relented, but a bastard girl is an intolerable expense - it costs good money to raise a dowry, money better spent on children not conceived in sin.
         At least, that was their way of thinking. I would much rather believe that I was created from an act of love. Wouldn't we all?
         Isn't that all any of us has ever wanted? To be loved...?
         And so mama raised me by herself, pariah outcast and bastard daughter living together under one tiny roof. I didn't attend school. Not enough money. Mama taught me what she could, which fortunately included reading and writing, in English as well as Arabic. I think mama was originally from an educated family; how else could she have known so much? I don't know for sure, though. We used to have a very few books with which to practice reading, including a collection of, um, would it be right to call them "fairy tales"? Except that they didn't mention fairies. They were about djinns, efreets, thieves who struck silently in the night, and heroes who vanquished them all - or who became tainted with greed, and suffered the consequences. Scheherezade was my idol. I read that book over and over again, until I could recite every story by heart. I'd retell those stories to the sparrows, because no one else would listen to the foolishness of a little girl.
         But my mama's deepest, most abiding teaching, the one that sent the strongest roots into my soul, was her faith in Allah. She taught me how to put my trust in Allah's great plan, and His guiding hand. I would pray with her five times a day. Religious law concealed me in garments that exposed only my hands and eyes. I was forbidden to be with any man who was not my relative or husband - when for all purposes, I had no relatives and no chance of finding a good husband. I just had my stories and prayers.
         Mama and I got by. Although I didn't know it then, I can tell you now that the money which put food on our table actually came from my papa, who mailed us a precise sum on the first of every Gregorian month. It was just barely enough for us to subsist upon, at first, as long as we scraped together what extra we could with whatever work we could find - and it was not easy for an outcast woman and her girl-child to find honest work. Sometimes the less discriminating merchants would take pity on us, and let us sweep sidewalks or clean basements for a trifle. I do know that my mama was never reduced to selling her body, and she drilled into me that I must never sell my body either - the harshness of such a life is too great. Which reinforces my belief that it was love, rather than wealth, that first attracted mama to my father.
         But as the years passed, natural inflation wore away at the real value of our pittance support. And then, when I turned fourteen, my mama... she... it was all over in a few months. One morning she found a lump in her breast, and then she became so weak. So sick. She couldn't get out of bed, she was so tired. In the last few days, she was too sick to eat or drink, no matter how much I begged her. I invoked Allah's name, and cried holding her hand; in a soft, fading puff of breath, she whispered that I had to go to my father.
         I wouldn't go. Not until the very end. There is a grave on the outskirts of Agra, far removed from the sanctified plots for the respectable children of Allah; it lies hallowed only by tears and love.
         Her last gift was a one-way ticket to Ireland.
         I'm not sure how she saved up enough to afford it. I know that one of the last things she did before she became too weak to stand was sell off all of our scant possessions, but that alone couldn't have accounted for the full expense. Perhaps she had set aside a tiny piece of the meager allowance that sustained us, over the course of years. I do know that my father never sent the ticket to her, because I remember the look of complete shock on his face when I appeared on his doorstep, a bashful, nervous teenager with nowhere else to go.
         His other daughter was furious.
         Her name was Nina. She was all he had left of his marriage. I wish I could tell you more about that, but Nina almost never talked to me about her mama. What I do know is that Richard Williams married a British Aikido champion. Nina's mama loved to fight, and she was supremely talented, but she accepted one challenge too many when she entered the Mishima syndicate's blood-sport Iron Fist Tournament. She got hurt so badly that she needed a blood transfusion. The awful thing was, this happened in the early 80's, before anyone really knew how to screen donated blood for a disease called hepatitis C. She died a couple years later. Since papa never became infected - you do know hepatitis C can be spread in more ways than just shared blood, don't you? - and since I know papa had at least one affair, I wonder how close he really was to his wife. Were they both trapped in an unhappy marriage, because good Catholics aren't supposed to divorce?
         It makes me feel sad, when I think about it. Nina lost her mama even earlier than I lost mine, and maybe her mama and papa lost each other long before that. How much must it have hurt her when I first appeared, as living proof of the rift that had divided her beloved parents?
         But even though Nina hated me at first sight, papa did not turn me away. He took me in, made arrangements to formalize my Irish citizenship, and told me that I must learn to live as a good Catholic. At first I didn't know what to make of it. Then, slowly, certain... realizations... began to sink into me.
         I used to walk about papa's mansion at night. It was the grandest, most dignified building I'd ever seen next to the Taj Mahal itself. There were polished classical sculptures lining the marble halls, ballrooms so vast that six families could live comfortably inside them, and courtyards filled with every wildflower known to the northern latitude. A fleet of impeccable servants kept it all in perfect upkeep.
         Papa was a rich man.
         Immensely rich...
         Yet, while living in all this splendor, he never sent my mama and me more than scraps. The weekly allowance I had now was twenty times what we used to receive each month, and that was mere "spending money." But that wasn't what really upset me. I couldn't get angry over comforts I might have had in the past; it was ridiculous, like making yourself sick over bad food you ate a year ago. No, what truly hurt was that his stinginess had cost my mama her life.
         She had been sick with breast cancer, and she never had the chance to get treatment. Never even went to a hospital. No money for it. Not one coin extra from my father, who dined on gourmet delicacies a dozen times the cost of a doctor's visit.
         I think that was when I began to hate him.
         Did he want me to be a "good Catholic"? If his God guided him to turn his back on my dying mama, to conveniently ignore me until I forced my way into his life, then I would have none of it! I refused to go to the church that he and Nina attended faithfully. Papa and I gradually stopped speaking to each other, until we never exchanged words except out of absolute necessity.
         I hated my sister, too. She began hating me first, but I soon learned to hate her back and hate with a vengeance, because I knew she hated me and didn't even try to hide it. Papa disapproved of our disputes when he was at home, but the friction between Nina and me escalated in the private high school we both attended.
         Do you know, that school had a law against wearing certain types of religious clothing? They wouldn't let me cover my face with a veil. At first I was afraid. I didn't want to defy Allah's law. Then, Nina asked me why I wasn't attending classes. I cried when I told her about it.
         Oh, the look on her face! Such a mean-spirited, derisive smile creased her lips, and she sneered, "If your precious 'Allah' thinks you're too weak for this place, then you should go back to the peasant dirt you came from."
         That ignited my anger, but it also provoked deep thought. Mama had taught me to put my trust in Allah; wasn't it His hand that had guided me to this strange new culture? And I didn't want to go back, I really didn't. I hated my sister and my father, but they were the only family I had left; I couldn't run away from them, and I couldn't let them get the better of me! So I let the school confiscate my veil. I let other students and teachers - other men see my face. And do you know what?
         They thought I was pretty.
         I was an exotic wonder, Lightning Scarlet, the Arabian beauty from across the continent. Like nothing they had ever seen before. The complete center of attention, endlessly adored and proposed to, with notes from secret admirers stuffed in my locker and party invitations jamming my mailbox-
         Now, now. You're not jealous, are you? It was only high school.
         I transformed completely. Arjumand Banu had been the shyest, most timidly insecure girl you can imagine, but Anna Williams was the gregarious beauty queen with a thousand friends. I could speak my mind, and people would listen to me! Women in Ireland could be seen and heard, could dress as they wished, go where they wished, be with as many men as they wished. So much heady freedom. So many people vying for my attention! A thriving social life of my very own! I sank my teeth deep into the succulent forbidden fruit, and now I can't remember how I endured my isolation before. I think I would go mad with loneliness, if I had to live that way again.
         Oh, how my popularity incited my sister's rage! Do you know, I bet she used to be the resident beauty queen before I arrived? She probably didn't think much of it at the time, either. Nina was always so aloof and estranged from the others. Only when someone prettier upstaged her spotlight did she come to miss being adored.
         Our clashes started small.
         She stole one of my red high heels. When I confronted her about it, she slapped me in the face, but I know she really stole it because I later found it tucked under her bed. Neither I nor any of the servants would have hidden it there.
         I slipped a dye into her shampoo. Her flaxen blond hair turned sickly green for weeks, and she couldn't hide it at school because of the dress code.
         She beat me up. My face was black and blue for days. I told everyone that I had fallen down the stairs.
         I put a dose of mild poison in her tea. She had to lock herself in the bathroom for an hour.
         She added a hallucinogen to my espresso. I nearly threw myself off the roof, convinced that I could fly; a servant rescued me.
         I burned every piece of clothing she owned. She had to wear one of my dresses to school, and its color did not suit her at all.
         She beat me up again. I resolved to study the Aikido she used, visiting our mansion's private martial arts instructor on a daily basis. He said I had a natural talent for it, just like my sister.
         At the end of one of our more bitter arguments, Nina called my mama a prostitute. That evening, I broke into her room - she had put a lock on the door by then, so I got in by crawling across the roof and cutting the glass on the window - and destroyed her entire collection of Tom and Jerry cartoons. I deeply regret that, now. I liked Jerry. But maybe not as much as she liked Tom.
         She tried to beat me up for that, but this time I left her with a black eye. I wasn't as good a fighter as she was, not yet; but she wasn't expecting me to put up a competent struggle, and my newly studied skill took her by surprise.
         When I was sixteen, my pent-up anger caused me to move out of the mansion, although papa still paid for my rent and schooling. I started seeing less of Nina. She would abruptly disappear for days on end, and papa never seemed worried about it, and when she came back she wouldn't talk about where she went or what she did. I wanted to know. I started following her. She was always able to shake me. Our rivalry took a more violent turn.
         We didn't hold back in fights anymore. We'd break each other's bones. I fractured her hip; she left both my arms in traction for two months. I told papa that I'd fallen down the stairs.
         When I discovered that she had a gun, I secretly replaced its bullets with blanks. Knowing what I do now, that prank probably came the closest to killing her out of anything I ever did.
         She cut my throat while I was asleep. She was careful to do it right, inserting a hollow tube in my neck so that I could still breathe, in scared, reedy gasps. I don't even have a scar, thanks to plastic surgery.
         I blew up her car.
         Oh, I was careful to do it right too, timing the detonation so that neither she nor any innocent bystanders were close enough to get hurt. Much. I think one poor fellow suffered some heart trouble from the excitement, even though all the flames were a hundred yards away.
         She wrecked my car, too. She took a machine gun to it while I was still inside.
         I'm just touching on the highlights, here. By the time I graduated from high school - I was eighteen, Nina was twenty - my sister and I hated each other so much that we couldn't eat or drink in each other's presence. I also despised my papa, and I was jealous of his close bond with Nina. But it was my sister whose very appearance inevitably sparked violent mutual conflict, and heaven help any poor fool who got in our way.
         So, when Nina decided to enter the Mishima syndicate's Iron Fist Tournament, I signed up too. More than anything else, I wanted to humiliate her in the ring, where all the blood-hungry spectators could watch. I didn't know why Nina competed, but I assumed it was because she had inherited her mama's love of the fight. Nina seemed quite intent on earning the right to challenge Heihachi Mishima, the King of the Iron Fist-
         Mm? Oh, let me see, this would have been about two years before Great Invasion began. Nina never got to fight Heihachi, because at about the same time as when I had my much-anticipated match with her, Heihachi faced his son Kazuya in single combat. No one knew where they clashed or what happened, only that Kazuya came back the winner. There was gossip that Kazuya had murdered his father. We all know now that the rumors were greatly exaggerated, but at the time, Heihachi wasn't around to personally disprove them. Kazuya became the new King of the Iron Fist, not to mention President and CEO of the Mishima syndicate.
         There's not much else I can tell you about that Tournament, or the other people who competed in it, because I focused exclusively on destroying my sister. We fought each other to a battered double elimination. She vanished for about two months afterward. The next time I saw her, I was just stepping out of the shower. She surprised me with a camera, snapping a photograph of me in the nude - just from the waist up, thank Allah, and I barely managed to cover myself with my arms. Sort of. The photograph developed right in front of my eyes, and she flaunted it, teasingly, before she made her escape. Can you imagine my chagrin when that picture became the centerfold of a certain men's entertainment magazine?
         Mm?
         Are you sure you want me to tell you which issue? Because if I tell you, why, you'll have to tell the public, and then who knows how many thousands or millions of men will want a copy? Well, I said I wouldn't keep secrets from you and I meant it-
         Mm, I didn't think you wanted to know. Sweetheart.
         Looking back now, I see the picture as a silly prank, but at the time it was the last humiliation I could possibly endure. I vowed I would never have anything more to do with my sister, and threw myself completely into my college studies. My major was Psychology. Maybe I subconsciously wanted to learn why my thoughts, and the thoughts of all those around me, were so desperately charged with out-of-control passions.
         I was on summer break for my sophomore year when papa had the accident.
         That's what the police told me, anyway, but they wouldn't give me any details - only that he had suffered severe head trauma, and that his prognosis was poor. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, asking for me and my sister. I don't know if I went because I felt sorry for him, or because I wanted to watch him die.
         He looked so old.
         The lines in his face were so much deeper than they should have been for a man in his early fifties. His hair had turned all grey, not that there was much left of it; whatever violence had struck him burned most of it off. He had so many bandages around his body, a tube running under his nose, and a sack of watery-yellow liquid dripping into a needle in his arm. I looked first at him, then at the clean, soft, hospital bed he lay in, the color TV with satellite channels suspended from the ceiling, and the gentle Renaissance paintings adorning the walls. Papa might be dying, but he was dying in a thousand times more comfort than my mama had.
         I wondered where Nina was, if she was going to show up at all. Had she disappeared on another of her mysterious trips? Did she even know what had happened to her papa? Probably not, I think. She would have come to see him if she knew; she was the one who loved him.
         Papa looked like he was sleeping, at first. I nearly resolved to leave when his withered, mottled hand reached for my wrist and held it. The grip of his fingers was weak, but his nails dug deep into my skin, forming desperate creases in spite of his frailty.
         "Anna," he called. "Anna, it is- it is you? Anna...?" His pupils could not focus on me. His voice was a fading, sinking croak; he sounded like my mama when she breathed her last words. It was then that I knew he had only a little time left. When I turned that thought over in my mind, I was numb on the inside. I didn't know whether I should feel good or bad, because I couldn't feel anything at all. I tonelessly confirmed who I was.
         "Nina?" It wasn't so much a question as a helpless, feeble plea.
         "Not here," I told him, curtly. "And I have to leave soon."
         His eyes closed, squeezing together so tightly as if to shut out the whole world. He whispered, "No, please don't go - please - not until I've told you... not until I've..."
         There were tears on his face. Small, moist pools of contradiction, shining in the soft glow of the hospital lamp. I watched them trace winding courses down his cheeks as I heard his words. Heard the words I never thought could come from him. Heard his whimpering, grief-stricken confession.
         "I have not been a good father.
         "I've neglected both of you, but Anna, I wronged you the most. I let you and your mother languish in poverty, because she was like a dream to me - a picture in a book I read a lifetime ago. She - she no longer seemed real until you came, with her face and her eyes... I could not bear the weight of my own neglect, so I turned my back to you, housed you without caring for you, paid for you without looking at you... Anna... Anna, can you ever forgive me? Anna, I love you, you're my daughter and I wish to God I had been a better father to you..."
         His breath trailed into a gasping wheeze.
         Deep within my anesthetized core, something stirred.
         It moved in response to his croaking lament; I felt an arrhythmia in my heart, and cold sweat on my palms. The new sensation spread through my bitterness, mixed with it, coursed through my blood and bones, pooling in my eyes until I blinked from gathering tears.
         Allah's light shone through liquid prisms of soul-borne regret.
         I knew that papa's confession was true. Is there any person in the world who can look Death in the face and lie? With that knowledge came infinite sadness, a slow crumbling on the inside. The heavy walls I'd built around my heart for the past six years had a foundation of sand, and now they were sagging, sinking deep beyond, opening the way to something I had thought lost with my mama.
         "It's all right," I told him.
         "Nn-no it isn't," he sobbed, miserably. "B-because you and your sister... I neglected you, and you suffered on the outside; I neglected her, and she suffered on the inside... Anna, Anna I'm begging you, please save her!"
         "Papa, I don't understand."
         "She is an assassin."
         An icy shiver streaked through me. When I stammered a baffled denial, my papa told me more about Nina - about the side of my sister that I had never fully acknowledged, not even in our most brutal conflicts.
         He said he used to have business contacts on both sides of the law, and with the IRA. That was how Nina had first been exposed to a world where those who worship God by day will retire at night to plot with the ruthlessness of Satan. She became entangled in that world because she loved the thrill, the challenge, the wildness of a double life. She started as a spy, and became a freelance killer, commanding the highest price.
         No. No, I thought to myself, this can't be true.
         I wanted to believe that papa was delirious, but the touch of his hand and the deep, sober conviction of his story could not be ignored. Images of what I knew flickered through my mind: my sister's cold, calculating surface, the exacting precision with which she had cut my throat, the guns, knives, and other weapons she always kept near her person, how quickly she could catch on to being followed, her mysterious disappearances for days at a time. Could all these tiny pieces of evidence, each perhaps meaningless in and of itself, point to a more sinister whole? Could my sister really be someone who would casually, soullessly, stalk and murder human life?
         "I'm so sorry," papa wept. "Your suffering turned you away from me; Nina's suffering turned her to darkness; and you fell upon each other, you and your sister. Anna, please, you must not be enemies! You must not hate one another! Please - please can you tell Nina? Tell her I love her. Tell her I'm begging her - I'm begging you both, begging you to stop the violence before it destroys you. Please, save your sister before it's too late!"
         "I-I don't even know where she is," I stammered, shaking with terrified disbelief.
         "Iron Fist Tournament." He shuddered with weakness, as though saying the name of the competition that killed his wife demanded an unpayable toll. "Please, Anna... save your sister... make peace with her... Anna..."
         I held his hand, and I did not let go. Not until the end.
         The Williams estate includes a small cemetery. It is, I think, the most unpretentious place in our entire home - there are no statues or exotic plants, only a set of graves arranged in straightforward rows. Perhaps papa's family believed that lavish expenses should be saved for the living, I don't know. If all you saw was papa's grave, marked with a short, round-topped granite headstone, you'd never imagine how wealthy he really was. But when I came to revisit him one week after the funeral, the sun was shining in a clear blue sky; verdant grass swished in the light breeze, and almond-shaped leaves rustled as if to the music of Allah. We could, all of us, only hope to one day rest in a place so peaceful. I'd brought papa a leafy bouquet of red, yellow, and violet flowers, wrapped in a cone of white paper.
         I did not expect to find Nina there.
         She crouched before papa's grave, carrying in both arms an offering of mixed-color blossoms similar to mine. With a gentle, remorseful motion, she left the flowers in front of papa's headstone, and slowly stood, her eyes downcast upon the carved words "In memory of Richard Williams." She must have been lost in thought about him, because she didn't notice my approach until I was only a few yards behind her.
         Nina reacted like a startled mongoose - she didn't make a sound, but her right hand immediately went to her hip, beneath the black leather hem of her short coat, drawing a handgun and leveling it at my heart. I stood where I was. Nina's icy blue eyes narrowed with hatred.
         Anna... Anna, can you ever forgive me?
         I shook my head, and indicated papa's grave with my own eyes.
         Anna, I love you, you're my daughter and I wish to God I had been a better father to you...
         Nina looked back, over her right shoulder. Slowly, mistrustfully, she lowered her gun. She kept it in her hand as we walked past one another. We did not speak; the only sound we made was the low click of our heels on the humble stone walkway. Moving as if through a pool of quicksand, I copied Nina's previous gesture, crouching and setting my bundle of flowers precisely alongside hers.
         Please, Anna... save your sister... make peace with her... Anna...
         "Nina, stop!" I cried, turning toward her retreating form. She had reached the cemetery gates; at first I thought she would ignore me, but instead, she folded her arms and waited, defiantly, for me to approach her. Each step I took lifted me further out of my disconnected haze, until I stood directly across from her, in the clear, crystallizing light of day, and looked deep into the heartless ice of her eyes.
         "Is what Papa told me true?" I asked her, forlornly. "Are you really an assassin?"
         The corners of her painted lips turned perceptibly upward. "If I were, do you really think I'd tell you?"
         "Nina, I was with him when he died. I wanted to believe he was wrong, but if he wasn't, then... then you have to stop killing people before you damn your soul for eternity!"
         "Why should you care?"
         "Papa begged me to save you."
         "You hated the old man. Almost as much as you hate me."
         "So I'm supposed to keep hating him forever, is that it? I'm supposed to hate him and hate you and hate everything until I bring all my years of hatred to Allah, on my day of judgement? Is that how I'm supposed to be?" Fresh tears brimmed in my eyes, and I shook my head. "I'm tired, Nina. I've been hating for so long all the feeling has been leaking out of me, it's like I'm running out of room to feel anything else. I don't want to be like this forever. I can't. I won't. Papa is gone now, and I'm afraid you're dying too - dying on the inside. I won't let you die, Nina. You're my sister, you're the only family I have left. I won't let you send your soul to Hell."
         "You haven't changed."
         I sniffled and wiped my eyes.
         "You still think you're superior in every way," Nina growled, stabbing me with her icicle glare. "You've always pretended you were so much better than me, and now you're trying to claim the moral high ground." She slowly curled the fingers of her left hand into a fist. "You're not holier than me, you're not responsible for my soul, and if you ever had a shred of gratitude for what our father gave you, you should have shown it while he was alive. You need to be beaten until you shut up."
         I was at a loss for what to do. I'd poured out my heart, and reached nothing but scorn. Then, what she'd said about being beaten tugged at something else papa had told me.
         "Nina, why are you in the Iron Fist Tournament again?"
         She turned her back on me, contemptuously.
         "Are you going to assassinate someone in it?"
         Without another word, she walked away. Silently. Confidently.
         "I won't let you do it, Nina!" I called after her. "I'll stop you! I'll stop you for your own good! Nina! NINA!"
         And that's why I returned to the Iron Fist Tournament, in the summer of 1996.
         But this time, I did more than simply sign up and pay the entrance fee. I chartered a first class flight to Tokyo, and petitioned for a personal audience with Kazuya Mishima, the King of the Iron Fist. At first none of the syndicate bureaucrats would deign to take me seriously, but I insisted, and cajoled, and batted my long-lashed eyes, and when they tried to make me leave I got into a little tussle. I broke a few arms - simple, clean breaks, the kind that heal easily, not messy compound fractures. Then I turned around, and two identical men in black business suits asked me very humbly to please follow them. They escorted me up to nearly the top floor of the syndicate's foremost skyscraper.
         "The young master will give you five minutes," one of them said to me, as they opened an imposing pair of double doors.
         'Young master'? Did he mean Kazuya?
         Unsure of what to expect, I stepped inside.
         It was a spacious office. Luxuriant, dark shag carpet covered the floor, and the grey walls had such a smooth finish I wanted to reach out and touch them. But there was hardly any furniture at all. Just a single wooden desk, bare except for a scrawny plant on its right corner, unevenly balanced against a larger, leafy potted stalk on the floor by the other side. The fresh greenery was a discontinuous contrast against the limpid yellow of the desk's top surface. The front of the desk looked much more natural, polished and decorated with the silhouettes of two rearing unicorns, and some abstract shapes in the center-
         -no, wait. Looking closer at the shapes made them resolve into words. Or rather, one word repeated three times:
         Obey.
         Obey.
         Obey.
         This was beginning to make me just a teensy bit nervous.
         Behind and on either side of the desk, massive panes of plate glass fitted with the grey walls, forming a vast picture window that stretched from floor to ceiling. Through it, you could see Tokyo at night - and do you know, I think the view has hardly changed in twenty years? There are still flashing, multicolored billboards, towering skyscrapers lit up as if with a thousand eyes, and low-flying aircraft that wink their pinpoint sparkles in competition with the stars. I suppose it looks pretty, at times, but I still think all the manmade lights in the world can never compare to the beauty of Allah's moon and stars in the winter night sky.
         There was a man in a swivel chair behind the desk, facing the window. I almost wondered if he'd heard me come in, but then he languorously rotated around, and crossed his right knee over his left.
         I knew he was not Kazuya before he finished turning. The last Tournament had left me with a vague impression of what Kazuya looked like, and this young man's hair was all wrong: silver and layered in a short, feathery cut, instead of jet black and stiff like an overstarched shirt. And he really was youthful, despite the color of his tresses; he couldn't have been past his twenties. He sincerely needed a better wardrobe, though. I swear, this is what was going through my mind - I couldn't help it, his sleeveless shirt was the most garish shade of purple I'd ever seen, and his black leather pants were so shiny they reflected the light and hurt my eyes, and he actually had on these forearm-length black fighting gloves with silly little triangle-ridges along the metacarpal thumbline, and... and cowboy boots! I am not making this up, tanned leather cowboy boots. Did he think he was living in a Western?
         Poor dear desperately needed a woman to take care of him. And teach him how to dress.
         His head had been down; now, he looked up at me in one quick motion. His eyebrows shared the silver touch of his hair, but I knew he wasn't an albino because his slanted eyes had a deep auburn pigment. He was in fact rather handsome, with unblemished skin and a finely modeled physique. Why, the best thing I can say about his atrocious shirt was that it showed off his impressive arm muscles very nicely. Even his insensitivity to fashion couldn't detract too much from the allure of his body.
         I smiled at him.
         He didn't return the smile, but he looked at me and mm, well, I'm familiar enough with men to know desire when I see it. Ah! There was such longing in that stare. Desire, longing, and loneliness. It took him a few moments to compose himself for speech. I imagine he had to stop himself from exclaiming the first seven things that came to mind.
         "Miss Anna Williams?" he said at last, as if testing the words. They carried a light, off-pitch accent. His voice was quite soft, and would have been much more pleasant if not for a coarse rasp that undercut it. But I suppose we can't all be songbirds.
         "You have the advantage of me," I confirmed, basking in the warmth of his adoration.
         "I'm Lee Chaolan. I take care of problems for my brother." That, I eventually learned, was a teensy bit of an understatement. He was vice-president of the entire syndicate, and its countless holdings. Who knows how many billions it was all worth? He probably helped control more money than most people outside the Federal Reserve. And he was cute, too. And mm, here he was eying my beauty.
         Lee abruptly broke off his stare, steepled his hands, and turned his head to the side, gazing through the panoramic window. His eyelids fluttered shut, concealing his desire.
         He should know better than to give up so easily, I thought. Poor dear is probably shy.
         "So, what is this message that is so important, you want to give it directly to Kazuya?"
         "Mm? Uh..." I vacillated over trusting him. I think what swayed me was his looks. I've always been somewhat more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to an attractive person of the opposite sex. Call it an unfair bias of my character if you must, but I think it is a tendency shared by most of humanity - I'm just one of the few who will admit to it. "It's about my sister."
         "Nina Williams?"
         "Yes. I think she may be an assassin-"
         "Not 'an' assassin. She is the Silent Assassin, a modern legend among professional killers."
         "Are - are you sure about that?"
         "Twenty-two hits attributed to her, all politically powerful individuals with topnotch protection, and those are just the ones we know about. She has no trademarks, other than stealth, secrecy, and speed. She has no official computer records in any nation; they've all been selectively erased. It's how she remains undetectable. Last Tournament, someone hired her to take out old man Heihachi, but Kazuya beat her to it. Did you come to warn us that she's here to kill again?"
         "Um... y-yes." Hearing him package my sister in that cold-blooded description almost paralyzed me. I could scarcely stammer an answer, much less think about any more flirting. I suppose a tiny piece of me had been hoping, desperately, that my fears would be proven laughable. Instead, I had bone-chilling confirmation of my sister's dark side, and from that moment I knew I could never turn back.
         "She's probably after Kazuya this time," Lee continued. "You can buy a corporation for less than what it costs just to arrange a meeting with her, and my brother is the only Iron Fist participant with enemies who are that wealthy, and that determined. And it would fit her pattern; she's a thrill-seeker. She won't accept a job unless the target is a challenge to her skills."
         "H-how do you know all this?"
         "That's my job." His eyes turned back toward me, yearning, lonesome auburn pools reflecting unspoken dreams and secluded nights. "Would you like to help us stop her?"
         "Me?" I asked, maybe just a little too meekly.
         "Without your help, I may have to tell my men to kill her. She could slaughter them if they don't use lethal force. But you - you're her sister. She has a history of stopping short of killing you. If you work with us, we should be able to capture her alive. What do you say?"
         I hadn't been at all sure what I was going to say when I stepped inside this place. And now, here was the ideal solution, presented before me like a red carpet. It seemed almost a little too perfect.
         "You promise you won't kill her?" I pressed.
         "If it comes to a choice between my brother's life and hers, then no, I can't promise you that. But I hope that your assistance will keep me from being put in that position. I can give you my word that we will make every effort to catch her without hurting her too much. Kazuya has specifically asked me to take her alive, if at all possible."
         My lips spread in their broadest smile yet. "Where do I sign?"
         And that's how I started working for the Mishima syndicate.
         Technically, I was a security guard, but days went by and I was never assigned to protect anything. They made me do clerical tasks instead, mostly revising English-language translations of this or that corporate document. I was also in the Iron Fist Tournament, and I fought a couple matches here and there; compared to the brutal catfights I used to have with my sister, they were nothing difficult. The worst injury I suffered was to my mascara.
         After about a week of this, I was... well, just a teensy bit bored. And curious. And lonely; the other syndicate people weren't very sociable at all. You couldn't really trade gossip with anyone; they all seemed convinced that Kazuya could hear anything you said, anywhere, anytime. At least, that was the impression I got the few times I managed to get past the language barrier. I sort of had to take a crash course in Japanese, but there was only so much I could learn in such a short while. And if any of the other workers were as comfortably fluent in English as Lee, well, then they were reluctant to demonstrate their talent.
         There were men who might qualify as attractive, mostly strong, silent types in black business suits and mirror-lensed sunglasses. Scarcely a single one of them said two words to me outside of "Proofread this." It was beginning to make me lose self-confidence in my appearance.
         But even if none of them were paying any attention to me, I knew someone who would. Or thought I did. It was a Saturday evening when I decided to pay him a visit.
         Lee Chaolan liked to work long hours - up to eighteen a day and more, I learned. It took a little poking and snooping, but I found the place where he most often spent his extended nights: a dreary little recordkeeping cell, half a dozen flights underground and lost among winding hallways. The deeper I crept, the more I thought I heard things. Saw things.
         What sort of things? Oh, aimless, drifting sounds on the lowest threshold of your hearing, like the echo of a conversation you've forgotten. Or a glimmer of reflected lamplight, peeking through a rolling fog. But whenever I tried to pinpoint the distraction, why, there would be nothing at all. Just me in the halls of an empty syndicate.
         Well, not quite empty.
         Lee's basement workroom was virtually the opposite of his office. There were no windows. It was dark and dingy and cluttered with overstuffed cabinets, endless loose papers, file folders strewn all over his desk, and a computer with half a dozen different plug-ins. No plants, nothing to make the place appear cheery. The only decoration was a silver ashtray marked with the ebony outline of a rearing unicorn. What can I say; perhaps he liked mythical beasts?
         His fingers rustled atop the computer's keyboard. He'd removed his fighting gloves so that he could type; they rested to one side of his mousepad. I looked closely at his left hand. Sure enough, his third finger was bare; no wedding ring, and no impression of ever having worn as much. He was indeed a bachelor. Not that I really needed the confirmation; what else could he be, with his closeted habits and abominable taste in clothes?
         He was also smoking. The cloying smell of burnt tobacco filled the air, a thick, irritating tickle that nudged my lungs. Lee continued to type with one hand as the other tapped his cigarette free of ashes. Unfortunately, he missed his ashtray by at least a handspan, spilling a sprinkle of charcoal among the photographs and papers covering his desk. He was so deeply engrossed in his work that he didn't notice me until I whistled.
         Lee looked up from his computer monitor, then back to it. Then his eyes grew wide, the cigarette fell from his mouth, and when he tried to say something he started coughing with surprise - or perhaps it was smoke inhalation?
         That's why the poor dear has such sandpaper in his voice, I thought to myself. He smokes too much. Well, it's nothing a few nicotine patches couldn't fix. Yes, a better wardrobe, a cleaner lifestyle, and mm, we just might have some prime potential for-
         "What are you doing here?" he exclaimed. The untended cigarette smoldered, forming a darkening spot on his desktop papers.
         "You were staring at me."
         "How on Earth did you get in here!? This is a secure area! My guards-"
         "Oh, you don't need to worry about them for a while. Psh - what would you want them to guard, anyway? Musty old files and cabinets?"
         "You'd better not have killed them," he muttered, shaking his head and covering his eyes with one hand. "Do you have any idea how much paperwork that generates?"
         "My goodness, what do you take me for? No, no. I just-"
         "Good. Tomorrow morning, I want a detailed report on how you managed to infiltrate this sector. Include every weakness in our security system that you even thought of exploiting. Now, get out."
         "Not so fast."
         "Excuse me?" He took his hand away from his auburn eyes and searched me, carefully.
         I slipped around the edge of his desk, turning a little to show off the profile of my good side. I was wearing my deep blue, strapless cocktail dress with the graceful bird of Paradise embroidered upon the right half of the long skirt, and an asymmetrical slit up the other side. Usually, I prefer my scarlet dresses, but I had an impression of Lee as the subdued type - one who would respond more favorably to moodier colors.
         "You were staring at me. Intensely. Don't try to deny it. Why, I thought-" -and here I picked up the paper with a growing black spot from his smoldering cigarette stub- "-you'd burn a hole right through me."
         Ah! Such bewilderment on the poor dear's face. You'd almost think he was startled. But then a guilty flicker of acknowledgement crossed his features; he knew in his heart what I was talking about. He coughed again, discreetly this time, and mumbled, "Sorry. Won't happen again."
         "I'm not looking for an apology."
         "If you want blood, I gave at the office."
         "I don't want to hurt you at all. I want you to admit why you were staring at me."
         "Hmph," he muttered, turning back to his computer screen.
         "You're lonely, aren't you?" I asked, resting my freshly manicured hands on his shoulders. I'd removed my elbow-length dress gloves before entering, the better to offer a personal touch.
         "What?" His right index finger depressed a key, and did not lift. The cursor zipped across the screen, forming line after line of the same character repeating itself.
         "Is this how you spend all your nights? Alone in the dark, with nothing but a mute computer screen to keep you company?" He might have tried to appear reserved, but his skin was warm and responsive to my fingertips. "Wouldn't you like a little companionship?"
         "Don't talk like that," he said, lowering his eyes, but without making any effort to pull away from me. "For both our sakes."
         I leaned closer, near enough to whisper in his ear. "Your voice says one thing, but your body says another. Why else were you staring at me?"
         "Anna..."
         "You were staring at me. Is it truly your desire to look but not touch? No. I don't believe that, and neither do you."
         "...you..." He clasped both hands close to himself, tightly, as if straining to keep them from reaching toward me.
         My hooks were deep in him now. His loneliness made him vulnerable; I was slowly winning him over, I could feel it. Just a little further, and he'd be all mine. Delicately now; the poor dear was clearly very bashful, and I didn't want to frighten him by acting too aggressive. I ran my fingers through his beautiful silver hair and massaged his shoulders. He sighed, letting out his breath in a slow, resigned exhale, and I knew I had him. I'd melted through his walls of ice, and touched the molten core beneath. Confident of my own allure, I slid both arms around his neck. My face hovered close to his, and though he was still too shy to look at me, the set of his mouth told me that he yearned to. A little closer, and I could touch his lips with my own. A little closer, and...
         "...really want to know?" The question jarred me, like a skid interrupting a strain of exquisite music. Just when I thought I was getting somewhere with him, too.
         "Mm?" Well, maybe it would be good to let him talk. Draw him out a bit more.
         "It must not leave this room. Not as long as I'm alive."
         "Mm." I hoped this wouldn't take too long.
         "You understand, don't you? And you still insist on an explanation?"
         "Mm-hmm." There was no savvy way to tell him that I'd forgotten the question.
         "It's... your hair. It's the same color - you cut it short in the same style - as my wife."
         Wife?
         In Allah's name-!
         Inwardly, I was mortified. As much as I enjoy playacting a scandalous role, I do have specific limits that are singularly important to me. Allah's laws forbid intrusion upon the holy union of two human beings-
         -wait. Let's not leap to any hasty conclusions, just yet.
         "If you're married, then why aren't you wearing a ring?" I asked, carefully.
         "She... left before we could hold the ceremony."
         Ah ha. "'Left'?"
         "I... I didn't appreciate what I had. Not in the right way. I knew she was precious, but the only way I could treat precious things was to hoard them, sequester them, lock them up... she was like a flower, she needed open air and sunlight or she'd die and I never understood that. She was so beautiful, so kind and thoughtful; what was it in me that drove her away?"
         "Maybe you talked about other women too much?" I suggested, dryly.
         "No, never..." He shook his head, oblivious to my innuendo. "It was my temper. It had to be. I - I argued with her so much. And I hit her. I couldn't control myself, didn't even realize what I'd done until I saw the bruise forming on her face. It was the only time I was ever violent with her, but I scared her so much - I must have hurt her so much - I'd do anything to take that night back; I've been waiting for her to come home so I could apologize to her, swear myself to her, swear I'd never hurt her like that again, I'd sooner take a knife to myself... she disappeared and I've been waiting for her to come home..."
         "Waiting for how long?"
         He fell silent for a while. I could feel the hope ebbing out of him, as a growing kernel of realization sapped his drive to continue. "Five and a half years."
         I breathed easier, free from worry. He wasn't married after all, which meant that he was all mine. I merely had to help him get over this unhealthy fixation on the past. His confession about being violent with a woman did put me on guard, a little, but he seemed sincerely repentant. If he did try anything rough with me, I'd just have to cripple him.
         "Has it ever occurred to you that maybe she's not coming back?" I touched his cheek with the back of my hand, sympathetically.
         "She's in the Iron Fist Tournament."
         "But she hasn't made any effort to contact you, has she?"
         "It's - it's just as well. If she came here now, the voices would be too much for her. She was always so sensitive."
         Mm? Now what was he rambling about?
         "The suspension units aren't safe to use yet," he continued, discohesively. "I've told Boskonovitch to make them his top priority, but I can't rely on them to protect her. Not until I know there's no risk of side effects. We don't even have any female test subjects. And she won't be able to stay here unless she sleeps. We can't protect her soul unless she sleeps. The voices would drive her mad. Completely mad. It's better if she sleeps, if she doesn't wake up until the New Era has come. Kazuya doesn't want her brought here until she loses a match anyway, just like all the others-"
         "I have a better idea. Why don't you let her go?" I purred, suggestively, before his queer babble could scramble my train of thought. "Come back to the pleasures of the present. Give yourself a chance to look elsewhere for love. You never know what you might find." I slid my hand down from his shoulder, over the firm strength of his chest and abdomen. He wasn't carrying an ounce of stray flab. He didn't just go to the gym three times a week; his muscle tone was on the level of a professional athlete. I wondered how long it had been since he'd applied all that vigor and stamina to something other than a fight. Probably at least mm, say, five and a half years?
         Lee gripped my wrist.
         His hold didn't chafe or squeeze me, but it was firm; I couldn't have pulled from it without applying enough Aikido to ruin the seductive mood I'd tried so hard to create. Lee wordlessly moved my hand away from his body.
         "What's wrong?" I asked, a little bemused.
         "You haven't read your contract with us, have you?" he returned, with a single shake of his head.
         "What do you mean?" He was in point of fact correct; the document I'd signed had been in Japanese, and I certainly couldn't read all those little chicken scratches.
         "The Mishima syndicate has a strict policy against fraternization between employees. That means you and me." He let go of my hand and rested his folded arms on his desk.
         "So? What do you care what some little scrap of paper says?"
         "It is not just a 'scrap of paper.' It is Kazuya's will. He does not tolerate improper conduct among those who serve him. Ever."
         "So who's going to tell him?"
         "He would know. I can't keep secrets from him. Neither can you. No one can. Believe me, Anna; whatever... 'pleasures' you have in mind aren't worth what he would do to you. Or to me."
         I heard the explanation, but - this is the funny thing about my personality - it didn't really register. I was too naive, too guileless to fully understand the depths of his warning. My ears reported a reasonable, non-judgemental explanation of why I was being turned away, but my heart! My heart responded on a deeper, more primitive level.
         Lee Chaolan had rejected me.
         My advances had never been rebuffed by a man before. Never. And now this - this bureaucrat who'd been left all alone for over five years - he didn't think I was good enough for him? What did he take me for? A common street harlot? How dare he send signals if he didn't have the spine to act on them! How dare he toy with my feelings like that! How dare he!?
         "What are you afraid of?" I demanded, disparagingly.
         Lee's hands clenched into fists. His eyes flashed, and I could believe that he'd struck his last girlfriend. But I was a fighter too, confident of my skill, and I had no fear of him.
         Then his anger ebbed, as if he'd shunted it into a mental closet and locked it away. He slowly relaxed his hands and muttered, "You can't hear them yet, can you?"
         "Hear what?"
         "Them." He wasn't staring at me anymore; instead, he seemed to be looking through me, past me. It made me want to turn around and peer over my shoulder, even though I knew nothing was there except for overflowing file cabinets. "All of them. During the day, they're easy to ignore. It's at night, when the quiet stillness spreads, that they start to encroach. The Suzuhara family is the loudest. Maybe because they were the first. Maybe because there were so many of them, and they all cry together. If anything, it's probably a blessing you can't hear them. Can't hear the accusations. Can't hear the threats. Can't hear the howls and the pleas and the sobs. The voices, the voices are everywhere..."
         Voices?
         Uh-oh...
         "The first you hear of them, it's at the edge of your perception, like a half-remembered dream. They grow stronger as you become more attuned to them. And as more of them join the chorus." His fingers pressed at his temples, like he was trying to keep something out. "They never stop. Never get any release from the pain that tears at them. It's only you who stops hearing them, who manages to keep yourself in the waking world for a little while, until night falls and the silence deepens and you can hear their wailing. You tell yourself that it's necessary, and it doesn't help. You tell yourself that they deserve it, and it doesn't help. I don't know how Kazuya can stand it. I know he can hear the voices - he has to, he must; he uses them to fuel his Power!"
         The more Lee spoke, the more he changed. Something baleful descended upon him by degrees, each word making him more remote, more possessed. His hands trembled with emotional palsy, and his eyes glittered with repressed terror in the dim light. I don't think he was completely able to see me anymore; he was lost in the corridors of his delusion, a spiraling black staircase of sickness.
         "You don't want to join them, Anna," Lee stressed. The desire was gone from his eyes now; a feral blend of panic and morbid resignation had replaced it. "You don't want to sing with the concert of the damned. And that's what will happen to you if you cross Kazuya. Your life is the least of what he will take from you. You've been kind to me, listening to things I couldn't confess to my closest friend. I don't want to hear you cry with the others, I don't want your soundless screams in my head!"
         I took a cautious step back from him. "You're insane."
         "I almost wish I were. But if I lose my mind, there will be no one left to protect Jun-chan."
         Another step. "You need to see a doctor."
         "I have to keep my faith in the New Era. I have to. We're doing this to make a better world. It's the only way."
         Two more steps. "That's wonderful, darling. You go on ahead and do all that."
         "It's all right, Anna. I know you joined us in good faith. There will be a place for you to sleep, safe and protected, when the Apocalypse comes. I'll make sure of it."
         "Oh, don't trouble yourself on my account. Good night, now. Take care." A few more steps and I'd reached the exit. I resisted the anxious impulse to slam the door after I slipped out.
         In Allah's name-!
         He was schizophrenic.
         That was the only way I could account for it; Lee Chaolan had to be suffering a degenerative wasting disease of the mind. The poor, poor dear! I pitied him in earnest, wondering if there were some drug or psychotherapy that could salvage his sanity. I felt sorry for his sickness, but I really didn't know how to help him. Perhaps if I could bring to Kazuya's attention that an endless stream of unreal voices tortured his vice-president?
         The problem disturbed me, and prevented me from getting a full night's sleep. I was yawning at work the next morning; just as I decided to set my head down on my desk and take a quick nap, those two identical men in black suits approached me again.
         "Mishima-sama has summoned you," one of them said. "This way."
         Of course they meant Kazuya Mishima. I've been told that in your country, "-sama" roughly translates to "Lord" or "Master"; it is one of the most exalted forms of address you can use when speaking a person's name, short of calling him Emperor. Nearly everyone at the Mishima syndicate referred to their boss that way, with an undertone of reverence and terror. Except possibly Lee, now that I think about it; he tended to speak his brother's name without the title, but with twenty times more fear. Make what you will of that.
         I went with my escorts, naturally. But when I tried to ask them what "Mishima-sama" wanted with me, they wouldn't answer me at all. They guided me through the syndicate's richly ornamented central halls. Lush red carpeting ran underneath my feet. I wanted to stop and admire exotic wildflowers nestled in dragon-shaped vases, works of art so refined they had the quality of a photograph, tasteful golden candelabra wrought in patterns of angels with diamond wings. Papa's mansion had been similarly wealthy, and just as garnished with precious metals and fine textiles, but nowhere near as beautiful. By the time I climbed a set of wide, shallow steps and stood before a great pair of carved double doors, my neck hurt from gawking so much.
         Lee Chaolan was in front of the doors.
         "You can go now," he mumbled to my guides. There was a crushed, dispirited quality to his hoarse words, but I didn't pay overmuch attention because I gazed, enraptured, upon a magnificent statue of polished gold. It showed a noble Phoenix rising above its funeral pyre, wings spread aloft, avian eyes reaching up to pierce the heavens.
         "But Mishima-sama told us to bring her to him," one of the identical men contested.
         "I said go. I will take full responsibility."
         "Yes, young master." They bowed and left.
         I sniffed disdainfully, and turned to Lee. "Now what do you-"
         Then I saw his face.
         He looked awful. Just awful! There were deep, blue-black rings around both his eyes, and several other nasty marks on the exposed skin of his face and arms. From the gingery, pained way in which he leaned against the doors, I daresay he had plenty more blemishes on the rest of his body, too. There were visible traces of dried blood on his chin and upper lip, and his fine silver hair had become tangled, even torn in places.
         The poor dear!
         "What happened to you?" I gasped, when I got my voice back.
         "An accident." He fumbled for a cigarette and lit it, wincing with barely concealed aches. "Listen to me, Anna. When you meet Kazuya, do not - this is important, do not act toward him in any manner less than strictly professional."
         "What, exactly, are you saying?"
         Lee's face tightened. "Don't try to seduce him."
         At first, I couldn't believe what he was telling me. Then sensory memories of last night's rejection came flooding back, and hurtful petulance overrode my pity.
         "You already had your chance," I sneered, vengefully. "It's too late to get jealous."
         "No, that's not what I-"
         That was the wrong thing for him to say. If he'd admitted to being even a little bit jealous, it might have appeased me enough to listen. "Get out of my way, you spineless worm."
         "I'm trying to warn you! My brother had to pay a - a high price for his dream. He's not what he appears to be, not anymore. He's changed more than you can imagine. If you try to charm him, you'll only remind him of what he's sacrificed for the good of the New Era. He has a short temper on his best days; anger him, and he'll add you to his net of screams-"
         "OUT OF MY WAY!" I shouted, before he could deluge me with any more of his schizophrenic paranoia.
         Lee drew aside from the doors, mumbling, "It's not my fault... whatever he does to you, it's not my fault." I pushed past him, entering a big, dimly lit antechamber, empty of all furnishings. The only decoration was its woven, aquamarine carpet with an abstract, cross-shaped pattern of red and gold radiating from its center.
         An elliptical window of glowing light formed directly above the cross.
         The brilliance grew in length and diameter until it could easily accommodate a human being. Pointed tendrils of radiance glimmered about its curved rim. I couldn't see anything through it, but I heard a male voice from beyond - smooth, flawless, self-assured, and speaking perfectly accentless English. It said, "Come inside, Miss Anna Williams. I invite you in."
         Was that Kazuya? Talking through a hole made of light?
         Well, I'd come this far. Taking a deep breath, I brushed my fingers through my hair and confidently strode through the shining portal. As I set foot on the other side, the world shimmered all about me, first blurring, then hastily coming back to exact focus. I stared in amazement at my new surroundings.
         It was a riveted metal floor encircled by mirrors. Mirrors everywhere. Vast plates of polished glass, at least twice as high as a person, angled so that they all reflected diffuse light from an indistinguishable source. I saw my own image multiplied countless times, my dress a vibrant splash of crimson in the darkness. And next to it was the matching picture of Kazuya Mishima.
         Have I mentioned that this wasn't the first time I'd seen him? I think I caught a glimpse of him in the previous Iron Fist Tournament - he'd looked like a vagabond at the time, in his sweat-stained white jersey, scruffy old blue jeans, and worn red sneakers. I'd never have deigned to speak to him then. But now-
         Mm, here was a man who knew how to dress.
         Ah, but he was the epitome of an aristocrat! I remember him exquisitely; his velvet, navy blue dress suit was so elegantly formal that he could have ruled over a court of nobles. Why, he even had the refinement of French cuffs - the sleeves of his white inner shirt were rolled back and pinned into place with jet black opal cufflinks, the perfect match to his piercing eyes-
         What?
         But you wanted to know about me and my sister, and Kazuya had a rather profound influence on us both. Isn't my first real impression of him an important part of the story? Unless-
         You're not jealous, are you?
         You are jealous. You are!
         You're so sweet.
         I'm so sorry, but you did tell me to pretend I didn't know you. I got so caught up in the game that I forgot to think of your feelings. You poor dear; just as you feel strong enough to see me again, here I am talking endlessly about other men - first Lee Chaolan, and now-
         Are you sure?
         Well, all right. If you're certain that you're ready for me to continue. Promise you won't get too upset, now?
         "I have summoned you because your half-sister is my enemy. You possess knowledge of her that I lack. I am in need of that knowledge." That was the first thing Kazuya said to me, when I met him face-to-face. No introduction or welcome; down to business right away. Perhaps that should have warned me more than anything Lee had implied.
         I was, actually, more than a little taken aback. "Um, what do you mean? I've already told your vice-president about all my fights with her. Although I'm not sure how helpful it is; she's never really tried to kill me. I think. Lee did pass my report on to you, didn't he?"
         "What leads you to question his loyalty?" The interrogation was sharp and sudden; a blaze of red fire reflected in Kazuya's eyes as his head whipped toward me. His thick, jet black eyebrows formed a menacing V.
         "Um, nothing at all, it's just-"
         "I am aware of your harassment of him. You are fortunate that your potential usefulness outweighs my personal displeasure. For now."
         "B-but I- I didn't-" The dark shadow on Kazuya's face deepened. Perhaps I shouldn't have protested at all, but once I started, I couldn't stop until I burst out with the whole confession. "I swear I didn't attack him! Or even threaten him! That wasn't me, may Allah strike me dead if I lie to you! I don't know how he got hurt so badly-"
         "I beg your pardon?" The prompt was cold and ominous. It did not sound like begging at all.
         "Those awful bruises. He's covered with them. Haven't you seen?"
         "Oh, that. It was his own fault," Kazuya dismissed, with an efficient gesture of his hand.
         "But that's just my point."
         "Is it?"
         Well, I'd been waiting for the chance to say this. "Mr., uh, Mishima-sama, I don't think your brother is all right. In the head, I mean. He-"
         "Do not refer to him as my brother," Kazuya hissed, severely. "Chaolan is no kin of mine."
         "Uh... sorry, I'm so sorry. But he hears voices that aren't there. He was telling me just last night about horrible, invisible screams - he wasn't joking, he was really terrified. And he's even more terrified of you. Between the hallucinations and the paranoia, I really don't think he's well. He needs to see a doctor. Can you - can you do something about that?"
         Kazuya's irritation abated. "Terrified of me, you say?"
         "So much that he trembles."
         "Indeed."
         "You don't think he - could he have done that to himself? The bruises, I mean. If he's so sick that he's hurting himself-"
         "You need not concern yourself with his welfare any further. I shall contemplate what you have said." An ironic glimmer of a smile touched Kazuya's lips, then faded as quickly as it has come. "Yet this is all tangential to your purpose for being here. Tell me about your half-sister."
         "Uh..." His shift was so abrupt that it left me momentarily stalled.
         "I am waiting."
         "What do you want to know?"
         "Everything."
         "Everything?"
         "As many personal details as you are able to recollect. Her culinary palate of choice. Her habitual articles of clothing. Her preferences in literature, music, and popular entertainment. The classes she took in the secondary school where you were both enrolled. Descriptions of her family, friends, acquaintances, and romantic interests..."
         He grilled me for the longest time. At first he paced in circles around me, evaluating me acutely with those jet black eyes; every once in a while, he would stop me with a reprimand like "That is not true."
         "Well, all right," I'd relent, "so her hair tended to be a little better than mine in the mornings. But it was still awful! All oily and limp..."
         The longer the inquisition went on, though, the more I learned to correct myself in advance whenever personal vanity threatened to mm, should I say, smudge the literal truth? Eventually Kazuya stopped circling me; instead, he settled back as if reclining in a cushioned chair, interlocking his fingers and regarding me with the majesty of an imperial ruler. The strange thing was, I couldn't see the chair. I could swear he was sitting on nothing at all. But the room was so dark, I figured, that maybe you could make a chair out of the right clear plastic and it would be invisible?
         "Stop distracting your thoughts and continue," Kazuya charged.
         I continued.
         I told him about the racy purple leotard Nina liked to wear when she beat me up, and the yellow side-scarf she kept tied to her hip, I once saw her reading Dracula but she never listened to music, she didn't care for stereo headphones even when they were all the rage at our school, she and I once vied to date this really cute soccer player who ended up getting transferred anyway, she liked to watch Tom and Jerry cartoons and she always loved Tom the most, he was her favorite cartoon character ever, she liked to drink her tea with milk, and she liked her Scotch whiskey on ice even though she never drank enough to get tipsy, she never wore perfume but favored lavender eye shadow, also vivid ruby lipstick and nail polish, she painted her toenails too just like I did, she religiously drilled herself in Aikido from four to seven p.m. almost every day, at least back when she was living at home...
         Kazuya made me talk and talk and talk until my throat was sore and my legs were stiff from standing and I was shaking a little from stress and I couldn't remember if I'd already said this or that and something was really starting to bother me-
         "Why do you want to know all this, anyway!?" I exclaimed, after the third time he demanded clarification on Nina's birthmark - a small mole close to her right ear. She'd had it surgically removed just before her junior prom.
         "You forget your place," Kazuya returned, coolly. "I ask the questions. You answer them."
         "But I'm only worried about you. She wants to assassinate you, and you - you sound like you're in love with her!"
         That made him sit up in his invisible chair. "Excuse me?"
         "Why else would you want to know all these intimate details? What do you want to do, arrange the perfect date with her? Why haven't you taken any measures to stop her, when you know she's in your Tournament right now! You're falling under her spell. I know what she's like; she'll use her beauty to get close to you and then she'll destroy you! You mustn't let that happen. For the sake of her soul as well as your own!"
         Kazuya stared at me.
         I couldn't read his eyes. He was so much more of a mystery than Lee; reserved and hidden beneath a cloak of shadows. Did he feel angry? Threatened? Or did he also desire me? I wanted to believe the latter, but something didn't feel quite the same about that stare - more appraising than admiring or longing. Then again...
         "Set your fears to rest," Kazuya finally said, with that faint ghost of an amused smile. "What you fail to understand is that knowledge is power, especially in matters of the psyche. The more I possess, no matter how trivial, the greater my advantage. You may trust me when I say it is not your half-sister in whom I have lasting interest. It is you. The enlightened future will have need of men and women like you, strong in body and pure of heart. The defeat of your half-sister will be your test. Succeed, and you shall earn your rightful place in the history of the glorious New Era."
         Well, that's what he said.
         What I heard was, 'I find you attractive.'
         Can I help it if I was lonely? If my ego was at its most vulnerable since I was an outcast in India? I'd been in this strange, foreign land for two weeks, working at a syndicate where no one seemed interested in me at all. And now, why, Kazuya had paid me a compliment; perhaps not as smooth and flowery as could be, but you ought to know how easily I can be swayed by a kind tongue. As for the formal young man himself - mm, come to think of it, he really was rather handsome, in a shadowy sort of way. And rich. And classy. But what truly stole my heart, made me spread my lips in the widest possible effusion of happiness, was that he'd said he preferred me to my sister.
         It wasn't true love that I felt for him. It was jealousy of my sister, six years' worth of concentrated bile disguised as a warm, infatuated glow. Bitter envy is a sin in the eyes of Allah; I am ashamed to admit my weakness now, yet at the time, I could not tell it for what it was. So that when Kazuya rose from his unseen throne and dismissed me, I said, "When will I see you again?" as if to a paramour.
         He raised an eyebrow, curiously.
         Perhaps I was being too familiar. Perhaps I'd read all the signs wrong, and I didn't really appeal to him at all. Yet I felt that I had to find out, one way or another, even at the risk of another painful rejection. I approached him and linked his left arm in my right, brushing the chest of his luxurious designer suit with my other hand. Gathering the whole of my self-confidence into a single question, I murmured, "You don't really want me to leave, do you?"
         When the smile returned to his lips, I knew that I had won my gamble. "In truth, I expected that you were in need of rest. I must have you at full strength." He touched my cheek, lightly.
         "Oh, but I'm ready for you right now," I purred, seductively stroking his neck.
         "Ah. As you wish."
         His fingers curled in my hair...


         I sat bolt upright and tried to scream. My voice wouldn't answer. It shut itself down, click, not allowed, no crying allowed.
         I didn't know why I wanted to scream or where I was; there was an unmentionable terror in my head, but it rippled apart as light flooded my vision. There were tears forming in my eyes, but they couldn't run down my face and I didn't know why. I didn't know anything.
         His fingers curled in my hair...
         "Easy, Anna. It's all right. You're safe."
         Except that voice. I knew that voice, recognized its soft, raspy intonation. And I knew that smell: the thick, cloying tar of cigarette smoke. More details slowly filtered through my senses. I was on a small - what do you call those collapsible little one-person cots? Futon, yes. A small white futon, actually a bit shorter in length than I was tall. I clutched a flat cushion over my chest, gasping for breath and completely, utterly confused.
         "What happened?" I asked Lee, plaintively. "Where am I?"
         He removed the spent cigarette from his mouth and stubbed it out on the floor. For how long had he been kneeling across from where I lay? Suddenly, I felt as though I were exposed, vulnerable, but when I clutched at myself I saw I was still wearing my brilliant red dress, not a stitch out of place. Only my high heels had been removed, and set next to the futon's edge.
         His fingers curled in my hair...
         "You were in audience with Kazuya. You fainted. He told me to take care of you until you recovered." Then, sarcastically, "He knew he could trust me not to take advantage of you."
         "I... fainted?"
         Lee nodded. "I had Doctor Boskonovitch look at you. He says you'll be all right. Recommended that you get more iron in your diet, though - anemia will do that to you."
         "But I..."
         I didn't remember fainting. Or even feeling giddy. I didn't remember anything, after I made my move on Mishima-sama; once he returned my touch it was just an unbroken sheet of black. A gaping, empty hole. All right, so I hadn't gotten much sleep and skipped breakfast and answered questions for half a day standing on a cold metal floor, but- me? Faint dead away? I'm used to having men swoon over me, not the other way around.
         "I hope I didn't make a bad impression," I murmured, wistfully.
         "On my brother?"
         "Do not call him that! You are no kin of his!" It wasn't a conscious thought; the words tumbled out of my mouth automatically, like blinking in a sudden glare. Lee's reaction was even more startling. His eyes grew wide with fear - fear of what? - and he shuddered. His head slumped. I'd seen that posture before, I realized. I'd seen it in the mirror, many times, before I learned how to defend myself against my sister. I looked at the ugly, blue-black rings circling Lee's haunted eyes, remembered how frightened he had been when he spoke of his brother the previous night, and the new light of truth dawned upon me.
         "It was Mishima-sama who had you beaten, wasn't it?" I asked, softly. "That's why you are so bruised. It wasn't an accident at all."
         "It was my fault. I shouldn't have told you about the voices."
         Lee did not raise his head. His words were flat, so lifeless as to be beyond despair. Perhaps once, he had possessed the spirit to fight back; but it had been crushed, buried underneath an immeasurable weight of terror.
         That was when I first understood Lee for what he truly was: a crippled beast of burden, indentured by violence and bound with fear. Noble, silver-maned unicorn, trapped in an iron noose, master's saddle and bridle gradually corrupting him to an evil shadow of his former self. The halter strangled him slowly; it took a piece of his soul at a time. He was his brother's slave.
         I felt as though I should react to that somehow. Feel something. Yet nothing stirred in my heart; Lee's confession was merely an anecdote to be filed away. Mishima-sama does not like it when his people talk about hearing voices. Remember that for future reference.
         The next few days are very bleak in my memories. Wake up, morning stretches, proofread for Mishima-sama, evening workout, sleep, no extravagance, no petty concerns, just do the job, do as you're told, then rest for the night and do it again. I was wooden inside. Except in my dreams; again and again, I'd wake up in the middle of the night with a whispered scream struggling to get out of my throat, and I didn't know why it was trapped there or from where it had come.
         His fingers curled in my hair...
         But I didn't have to worry about it; there was always more work to do, ways I had to train myself, I had to be ready for when Mishima-sama needed me to defeat my sister. He'd said that would be my test.
         I realize something, just now - during that time, I never said a single prayer to Allah. Not even to beg Him to watch over Mishima-sama, or help me save my sister's soul. I was stirred to nothing. You can't really pray if you don't feel; you can try, but it isn't the same. Nothing is the same.
         This was my world when Lee summoned me, and briefed me about my first assignment as Mishima-sama's bodyguard. Or should I say, as one of several bodyguards. We were to protect Mishima-sama while he watched an evening match in the Iron Fist Tournament, between my sister and one Detective Lei Wulong.
         "It'll be you, me, Ishida, Kimura, and Tagami," Lee explained. "You and Tagami will watch the fight along with Kazuya, in the observer's gallery. The rest of us will keep Nina in our sights. We'll be equipped with tranq rifles; the drug can stun a person in seconds. Now, Kazuya's instructions are very specific - whether Nina Williams wins or loses, you must step into the ring, challenge her next, and defeat her in single combat. We'll apprehend her after that. I'll keep in touch with you and the others by stereo link; here's your headset. Know how to use it? Good. Any questions?"
         "Yes. If all of us move to capture my sister, then who will protect Mishima-sama?"
         "Tagami. He's Kazuya's chief bodyguard. Anything else?"
         There was a great deal else, starting with, 'Does Mishima-sama think he's immortal?' I mean, was he really going to casually sit a hundred yards away from a world-famous assassin as if he were a spectator at a baseball game? Couldn't he just play a tape of this fighting match on TV? For that matter, why arrange a fight between me and my sister before we could take her into custody? Why not just find and get her now? Mishima-sama was making a mistake, he was playing right into Nina's hands. Every instinct I had warned me that she would use this as an opportunity to murder him.
         But my objections had no voice. Mishima-sama had already anticipated that my sister would move against him; that's what he had bodyguards for. And since I could make no protest that Mishima-sama did not already know, I could not speak at all. I had my orders. They could not be denied. I had to defeat my sister, and protect Mishima-sama with my life.
         His fingers curled in my hair...
         Why is there a scream hiding in my throat?
         I met and dismissed my coworkers with a single glance. Two of them, Ishida and Kimura, were the matched pair of suits I'd encountered twice before - mm? - no, no, they weren't the Ishida and Kimura that you're familiar with, although I'll admit the resemblance is uncanny. I think they must all be related.
         Tagami appeared slightly different from Ishida and Kimura; he was perhaps a little taller, with a thinner face and a bulkier chest. But, like them, he was mute and impersonally framed in the same dark formal business suit and tie, his black, close-cropped hair covered by a shallow-brimmed hat, his eyes concealed behind mirror-lensed sunglasses. The stiff, strict manner in which all three of them stood at attention made me wonder if they were really alive.
         I wondered if I was really alive.
         The thought struck itself down before it completely formed, crossed out with a jet black X, or is that a jet black V with an inverted V below it? Do your job, don't question, don't make trouble, protect Mishima-sama...
         Something is wrong, I wanted to say aloud and couldn't.
         I was in the observer's gallery with Mishima-sama and Tagami when I thought that. My hand rested on the one-way mirror that separated us from my sister and Detective Lei Wulong, who turned out to be a short, disgraceful wretch. His half-open white shirt was dirty and stained. Bloodshot streaks discolored his eyes, grime smudged his skin, and his sable hair was greasy, clumped, disgusting! I was grateful for the glass barrier that protected me from him, or I should say, from how he must have smelled.
         The two fighters circled one another. Well, Nina circled. Wulong staggered, drunkenly.
         I could see a transparent reflection of Mishima-sama's face on the glass; he fixed all his attention on Nina and Wulong. No, wait - he was specifically studying Wulong, I could tell when the detective tripped over his own feet and Mishima-sama's eyes followed his collapse. Wulong really was falling-down drunk. Mishima-sama's intense gaze was as unreadable as it had been a few days before. Tagami stood rigidly motionless by his master's side, but I felt that behind those impenetrable sunglasses he watched everyone and everything with vigilant suspicion.
         Nina tried to grind her spiked heel into Wulong's neck. He raised his shaking hands to fend her off and got impaled for it, but tripped her anyway with a swift kick from the ground. It was a miracle he could get any leverage on her at all, and a greater miracle that he could stand back up, given the dizzy, disoriented manner in which he scarcely kept his footing. He was barely able to snap an unsteady front kick, which actually connected with Nina's chin.
         Something is wrong, I thought again, without knowing why. The wrongness converged on my head, amplified the discord in my heart, ate relentlessly at my mind. I pressed my fingertips on my face, squeezing my eyes so tightly shut that red spots flickered in front of them, but the wrongness stayed, it grew thicker. I heard Wulong shout a battle cry; Nina's groan of pain followed, making the wrongness more intolerable than ever.
         "-answer me? Anna? Anna, this is Lee. I repeat: target has lost the match, it's time for you to enter the ring and make your challenge. Anna, are you receiving me?" came a familiar smoker's rasp, only slightly distorted by a crackle of static, from the little black speaker nestled in my ear.
         Something is wrong! I wanted to shout back and couldn't. The thoughts behind my voice had been stolen, and I had nothing left to communicate. I saw Nina kneeling, clutching her gut, bruises on her face and blood trickling from her nose; I saw Wulong aimlessly weaving his way out of the arena. He was probably too drunk to see three feet in front of his face, let alone find the "EXIT" sign on his first try.
         "Miss Williams, you have been given a direct order," noted a sibilant voice from behind. "To defy it is to defy me. That is not your intent, is it?"
         No, Mishima-sama. Never. It is my self-definition to serve you; I have no voice, no thought to express why I should not leave this gallery at once, so that my hands move of their own accord, opening the only door to the arena, the Silent Assassin awaits my challenge.
         Except-
         Except that I wasn't supposed to challenge a Silent Assassin, was I? I was supposed to challenge my sister. I knew my sister. I'd fought her, many times. She was a better grappler than that. Much better; she could mutilate a sober man twice her size without breathing hard. How could that dirty, inebriated creature ever have defeated her so easily?
         Could she have lost on purpose? No! Not the spiteful, haughty, arrogant woman I knew. She would never let herself be humiliated like that, not for anything in the world!
         Something is wrong. That's... that's not...
         "Anna, for the last time, get out here!" Lee commanded.
         It was so hard to form in my head; but I would have understood it right away if it didn't have so much competition from the nightmares and the staleness and the pounding, driving demand that slithered underneath black walls and manipulated in muffled silence, if I'd had room in my mind to think my own thoughts, feel my own heart, know myself as I know my-
         -as I know my-
         "THAT'S NOT MY SISTER!"
         I whirled toward Mishima-sama, shrieking my revelation to him, but he could not answer me; he'd thrown his head back yet not quite far enough, the furthest edge of silver steel carved a glittering arc outlined in crimson mist. A luminous, liquid crescent gushed from his neck. His jet black eyes glazed with acute pain and petrified shock. The crimson fountainhead soaked his dress suit, dyeing a blotted swath of its navy blue velvet to royal purple, the color would have accented him better if he weren't convulsing in agony. Not a whisper of air could reach his lips through his severed windpipe; in silence he jerked, in silence he fell, in silence Tagami raised the bloody short sword.
         Mishima-sama crumpled to his hands and knees, head bowed, drooling an irregular rivulet of still more crimson to pool upon the gallery floor. Tagami steadied his weapon directly above Mishima-sama's neck, and I knew the next cut would decapitate. It was not enough for Tagami to murder his victim; he wanted to defile Mishima-sama's severed head. The ultimate insult. The final humiliation.
         "NO!" I screamed. I had been rushing to Mishima-sama's side since the first dawning of truth, and so I was there before I thought to be there, jet black puppet strings irresistibly compelling me to act. My palms clapped in concert upon the flat sides of the descending sword and I pulled crossways to its momentum, it would slice through any direct block but its force could be redirected, guided off its path, its wielder was part of that force, Tagami followed the blade. He did not expect this, did not expect me to be there in time, that was my advantage, that was how I could unbalance him so far that he tumbled over Mishima-sama's huddled body.
         The mirror-lensed glasses dislodged from Tagami's head when he hit the ground, as did the hat. I saw his true face revealed. Black dye showed tiny roots of flaxen blond near the scalp; artificial pigment darkened the lily white natural skin color. Clothing disguised the figure, contacts the eye color, cosmetics the gender; but I knew that icicle glare, knew those eyes with the hatred of a Medusa.
         Nina!
         "You BITCH!" shrieked the Silent Assassin, in all her Gorgon's fury. I had spoiled her coup de grâce. For that, I had to die.
         "MURDERER!" Black strands tore the violent cry out of me. She had killed Mishima-sama. For that, she had to die.
         Lee also voiced an incoherent scream, as if he were being eviscerated; the tortured noise was a distraction ringing in my ears, I could not let it interfere. My hands moved to wrench off the headset and throw it away. The action took less than half a second, but it stalled me long enough for Nina to recover her feet like a cat. There was no holding back for her now, no softness, no sympathy for her sister. She swung the sword in a lifting arc, edge vertical, it could have sliced me from groin to chin if I hadn't sidestepped. I tried to move in close, guiding my left hand in a crosscut strike, I needed to get her sword arm, stop the arm and you stop the weapon-
         -and crack, the flat of the blade veers off its previous course to rap my temple, I hadn't thought her first attack might be a feint, that she might alter her trajectory in mid-swing, that the dull side of a sword can potentially be as dangerous a weapon as the edge. I hadn't thought at all, I can't think at all, my head hurts too much and there's something inside it-
         -and outside it too, she has my hair in the fingers of her right hand, wrenching me back over her bent knee, her left elbow poised over my upper sternum. She has sheathed her sword; it served its purpose to stun me until she could get close, she wants to punish me with her bare hands, she hates me that much-
         -no, no! I pluck my triple-bladed fan-knife from its hidden thigh sheath near the split side of my dress, snap it open with a turn of my wrist, desperately slash with it even as her elbow descends, there is bone-grinding shock, centered in my high upper chest and wrenching my whole body, my back protests with a surge of pain and threatens to break, but I hear her snarl from outrage. There is a triple welt grazing her face, marring her, she was always sensitive about her skin, but that's not why I used the blades; they've been treated with the same sleeping drug as Lee's darts, I've won, she's going to fall unconscious now, she-
         -it's not working, the drug is not working I don't know why it isn't working she scissors her legs around my waist, dragging me to the floor in a curled leglock, she has me pinned with her left knee like a clamp over my stomach, her right leg is a brace under mine, her heel digs into my face as she grips my leg with both arms and strains the Achilles tendon, pulling, pulling harder, a miserable screech escapes my lips as the rack of her body tears my sinews apart-
         -I can't think, can't think at all, that's what makes it so awful, she always was the more practiced fighter, I'd be hard-pressed to defeat her in an even match. Without my thoughts I'm a trapped animal, helpless, if I could think I could remember how to escape this hold, strike back at her, stop her from savaging my joints, because my one scream of pain was not enough for her, she wants to hear it again, there is a sadistic smile on her lips as she forces my leg at a right angle and now hyperextends the knee, the only thought in my mind is the blaring agony of my yielding ligaments, I feel an appalling crack in my own body and I'm done for.
         I can't get up. I can't move. Nina stands over me, triumphant, unstoppable, unbeatable; she draws her sword streaked with Mishima-sama's blood and sneers, "I should have done this a long time ago." Again the blade is raised high, this time over my head-
         -and a golden Phoenix erupts all about her.
         It is the most dazzling light I have ever seen, striking her from behind, consuming her body in effulgent fire, irradiating her, sparkling on her sword; she is preserved in time and rapturous brilliance for one, eternal instant.
         Then the weapon falls from her fingers, clattering discordantly on the floor.
         Her arms droop, numbly. Her legs tremble. Her jaw slackens. Though her lips work, she can't speak. She is utterly paralyzed; her limp frame rocks but something catches her, a hand, a clawed hand, it seizes her hair and suspends her like a toy doll. I see what is holding her and terror constricts my heart, terror like I've never known; more than the fear of losing my life, or even my immortal soul, in Allah's holy name, Allah forgive me, in Allah's holy name-!
         It was Mishima-sama.
         It was Satan.
         I saw him there, holding her effortlessly; though his throat had been sliced to the bone scarcely a few seconds before, a bandage of indigo electricity sealed the gash, crackling, spitting sparks, it didn't even leave a scar as it faded. But the gory waterfall still drenched his dress suit, what was left of it, for the forced eruption of dragon's wings had shredded its upper half, talons on his feet had ripped apart his polished black shoes, all his skin had turned livid blue mottled with dark purple veins, horrific, monstrous, horns jutted back from his skull, the last flickers of golden hellfire still glimmered from the crimson gem set in his forehead, his eyes glowed with the blood-red fire of the damned.
         He was the Devil.
         Mishima-sama was the Devil.
         He ignored me, of course; ignored my whimpering terror, ignored the trampling footsteps of his other bodyguards finally reaching the gallery. All his unholy hatred concentrated upon one target: my sister. His grotesque free hand dug into her mouth, clenched on something, ripped it out and threw it away, I saw it bounce in the far corner amidst a dribble of oral blood. It was a single tooth.
         "Who hired you?" demanded the Devil.
          Nina didn't answer, except with the unbridled hate in her eyes. Her lips pursed. They were the only part of her body that wasn't stunned into an unresponsive stupor; I could see her face strain with the impossible effort to move.
         "You will confesss!" The monster adjusted its grip, taking her by the shoulders, its claws squeezing so tightly they shredded her suit and drew blood. "Who forged you a sword of silver? Who supplied you with the antidote to our toxins? Who insisted that you cut off my head?"
         "G-go to Hell," she mouthed, silently.
         "WHO HIRED YOU!?" The Devil slammed my sister against the wall and chambered his inhuman fist, ready to strike her in the face-
         -and stopped. Deliberately. His blood-red eyes narrowed to questing crescents; without turning his head, he commanded, "Ishida. Kimura. Hold her."
         They responded at once, those lesser minions of Evil, each taking one of my sister's arms and propping her up as if tied to a scaffold, leaving their master free to grasp her hair with one hand and cup her cheek with the other.
         "You will give me what I want," said the Devil. His malevolent eyes stared into hers.
         Seconds passed.
         Nina became stiff. Dark veins bulged from her skin; her eyes screwed shut and her jaw tightened, I could almost feel her quivering, struggling, suffering. I felt sick, physically ill, nausea and revulsion overwhelming the debilitating shock of my injuries. Bile gathered in my mouth, as if I were watching something reprehensible, perverted, obscene, even though the only physical contact between the Devil and his victim was that of his hands on her face and hair-
         His fingers curled in my hair...
         Something was stirring inside me, pulling against the web that clamped my thoughts firmly in place, restless, rising, even as my sister thrashed without motion.
         Nina screamed. It was pain that made her cry out this time, anguish from no visible source; the wailing hurricane of noise swept through me, in me, tore past barriers I didn't know I had, fragmenting, pieces falling, disjoint, crumbled-
         Obey. Obey. Obey.
         My brother had to pay a - a high price for his dream.
         You forget your place.
         I must have you at full strength.
         His fingers curled in my hair...

         I remembered.


         When the first wave smothered me, I had no idea what it was or how he was doing it; it was a sea of blackest hatred in my mind, submerging the room of mirrors and Kazuya's sharp-browed face. It engulfed me, eating away at me, peeling apart my memories, burning in my head like acid. I recoiled from its scalding touch and cried, "Why are you doing this?"
         "Resist," he said, curtly. "Fight back, with all your strength."
         "But I - I already told you everything you-"
         "Resist or be destroyed!"
         It hurt so much I wanted to strike him, but I couldn't; black sorcery embedded its barbs in my nerves, my muscles, I couldn't move, couldn't even stand, he suspended me by the hair with his fingernails digging into my face and his jet black eyes transfixing mine, I had to fight him purely on the level of thought. He was ripping apart my mind. Deliberately. Exactingly. Memories laid bare and discarded: the grief over my mama's death, the dumbfounded surprise in my father's eyes when I nervously introduced myself, the brutal pain of my sister's beatings, the breathless exhilaration of learning how to fend her off, the haphazard awkwardness of the first time I ever made love-
         Tears streamed down my face; I screamed as I tried to lash out against him, hold back the invasion, struggling, using pieces of myself as a weapon, one woman's outrage against the sea. For a moment, it almost seemed as though I could beat him back, dam the flow, press against the tide with my soul, but then the waves resurged ten times taller, a hundred times more determined, and I was lost.
         "WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS!?" It was the last thing I could cry before I shattered into fragments; I made the words a whiplash, and even though I fell apart, my final strike stung him. A telepath can't probe a person's mind without revealing at least a piece of his own, but I pried loose more than just a piece. I learned the answer to my question, and more.
         He knew Nina wanted to kill him, but he also knew she could not be acting on her own. She was a professional. Someone had hired her. Even if she were destroyed, they would just hire someone else. He had to find out who they were. He intended to learn that from her. And he wanted to know everything from her; even if he were to drug her with sodium pentothal, truth serum, he might miss some critical piece of information about his enemies. So he planned to take what he wanted from her mind; that was why he needed to capture her alive. He knew she had a strong will, though. She would not be easy to break. The information I'd given him about her would help, he could use that as a lever to pry open weaknesses in her psyche, but he needed still another edge.
         He needed to practice on someone like her.
         Kazuya didn't attack me because he hated me, or wanted to hurt me. There was immeasurable hatred in his thoughts, in everything he did, but not for me; he acknowledged me as an innocent. He savaged me because he felt it was necessary. There was a vision in him, a dream of creating a utopian New Era, of eradicating all the evil in the world, and to serve that dream, he would sacrifice any innocent.
         He violated my mind and left me a senseless wreck. He could have violated my body as well, or my life; but he didn't. It wasn't just that he could use me as a servant, although that was part of it. You may find this impossible to believe, but according to his twisted, brooding sense of right and wrong, it would have been immoral to inflict any more harm on me than he deemed necessary. So he knitted the largest pieces of my psyche back together with spiderweb threads, suppressed my memory of the violence, and tied it all in place with a subliminal command to protect and obey him as my master, as Mishima-sama. He thought he was being kind to me.
         Death was too good for him.


         "Ultratech." Devil Kazuya smiled, his sharp-fanged leer in malevolent contrast to Nina's heaving sobs. "Of course. It would have to be the syndicate's most intimate business partner; no one else knows enough about us to come so close to me. It would seem I underestimated their spy network. Do not worry. You have given me what I need to destroy them from within."
         "NOOOO!" Nina shrieked, the tormented wail of a lost soul.
         "Yesss." Now the Devil had no remaining qualms against striking her face; he did so with the back of his left hand, snapping her head about like a toy ball. The sickle-shaped claws on his right hand grew another half inch, curving like long knives, and he raised them on level with her throat. "A pity you shall not live to see it. Since you enjoy taking heads so much, I can think of no better way for you to die."
         It was going to kill my sister. I'd slaved for the Devil to save Nina's soul, but it was going to betray my trust and send her to Hell. That was the final rift to break free my entangled mind, shrivel the spiderweb, return me to myself. I could think again. I could feel again. And the one emotion I felt was mortally indignant fury. It didn't matter that Nina had crippled my right leg. Mishima-sama - no, Kazuya - no, the Devil - he wasn't even looking at me, nor were his matched pair of silent vassals; one working leg was all I needed to propel myself in a vengeful lunge. I swept my right hand in a full semicircle from my waist to my head, slapping the bat-winged monster's face so hard that he hurtled off his taloned feet and hit the other wall.
         "You BEAST!" I spat, over the satisfying whack of the impact. His wings flailed reflexively, helping him right himself.
         The Devil's blood-red eyes stared into me, murderously, and I didn't care. My right leg was useless and on fire and I didn't care. Ishida and Kimura had dropped Nina, drawn a pair of clubs, they were advancing on me, and I didn't care. There was a muffled sputter, followed by a nasty itch in my neck, and I didn't care. Then my head spun, my remaining knee wobbled, I realized what the itch was, reached for it, pulled out a fletched dart far too late to do anything about the tranquilizer that dragged me to the ground. Turning as I fell, I saw Lee, sweating heavily, rifle in hands, silver hair disheveled, bloody spittle trickling from the corner of his mouth, legs quivering, he'd had to lean against the gallery's doorway in order to take aim.
         The last thing I heard was the Devil's remorseless judgement. "Kill them. Kill them both!"


         They cried out in my dreams.
         Voices. So many voices. Hundreds, at least, each one different. All of them in pain. They weren't physical voices; they wept without tears, sobbed without sound. I couldn't hear them before because I hadn't suffered enough; misery calls to misery, I couldn't keep them away, with increasing horror I understood what they were.
         Devil Kazuya's Power did not merely come from Hell. He collected the souls of his victims. Those who died within his syndicate became trapped in the walls, in the floor, in the very mortar, prisoners whose agony fueled his supernatural strength. Many of them had been cruel souls, killers in life whom he'd brought here for summary execution. But not all. Far from all. Allah's mercy save me, far from all.
         Had I become one of them? Was this my punishment for abandoning Allah to serve the Devil? Allah, I beg you, forgive me, I did not know what I was doing - I did not know-!


         Dream and reality enmeshed by degrees.
         Cool water splashed on my face. The sonorous hum of machinery murmured in my ears. I was grateful for the sound; it helped to submerge the crying, whimpering remnants of what had once been the Suzuhara family of Yakuza. And their wives. And their children.
         "-you hear me? Speak to me?"
         That voice was different. It was real sound. I knew that voice, recognized its gritty smoker's rasp. My eyes whipped open.
         "You monsters," I whispered to Lee.
         I tried to move. It was no use; I was sealed in a transparent capsule, cog in a machine, wired lab rat, all I could do was stare at him and hate.
         He wrote something down in a small notebook and said, "Excellent."
         "Monsters," I repeated, creeping hysteria and claustrophobic histrionics threatening to crack my voice apart. "Monsters! Murderers! Devils! All of you! Allah will strike you down for your crimes! Allah will judge you! You can pretend you're human in front of other people, but you can't hide what you are from Allah!"
         My accusations echoed in the enclosed room, which seemed to be empty except for Lee, myself, and the vast machine that held me captive. The silver-haired vice-president folded his arms, still holding the notebook, and tapped his foot impatiently. Then he raised an eyebrow and mused, "Anything else?"
         "What?"
         "Is there anything else you'd like to say to me, while you still can? Insults, questions, or last requests? I feel as though I owe you that much, at least."
         I spat at him, but he was a couple yards away; too far for me to hit.
         "Well, then, goodbye," he dismissed, closing the notebook.
         "Wait!" I shouted. It's one thing to cherish stories about valiant heroes who go to their deaths defiant and proud; it's another to actually be in their place. "What are you going to do with me? What have you done with my sister?"
         "If you mean the Ultratech doppelganger who fought Lei Wulong, she killed herself before the tranq guns could take effect. Cyanide capsule in her tooth. The real Nina Williams is in the other half of cryogenic unit Alpha; our tests on the two of you have been a success."
         "Tests?"
         "I told my brother that we needed expendable guinea pigs for the cryogenic suspension units. Talked him into letting me have both of you." Lee put away his notebook and lit up a cigarette. "The cryo chambers are fully operational now, and safe to use. If it makes you feel any better, you've helped save many lives. We're running out of places to keep the people we've kidnapped from the Iron Fist Tournament; Kazuya probably would have ordered another round of executions if we hadn't gotten the system running."
         "Executions," I repeated, numbly. Then, "Me?"
         Lee looked away. "That's what he said to do. As soon as I'm done using you for the tests."
         "I saved his life!"
         "You also smacked him in the face. In front of his guards. My brother heals quickly, but he never forgives an insult."
         "And you're just going to do what he tells you to?"
         Lee drew on his cigarette and exhaled a murky cloud of grey smoke. "In a manner of speaking."
         "You really are his slave," I snarled. "What did he do to you? What did he put in your head?"
         "Not in my head." He absently shook his silver tresses back and forth, dismissing the suggestion. "I need that intact to do my job. He put it in my body. It's a death-link, a piece of his Power. It can't be removed, not without killing me. If he dies, I die with him."
         "How do you know he's not bluffing?"
         "Because it triggered when your sister ripped open his throat. It had me in convulsions until you bought him the time he needed to shape-change and regenerate. Then it went back to being dormant." Lee hung his head. "Sometimes I wish he would just kill me and be done with it. But if I'm gone, there will be no one left to protect Jun-chan."
         "I saved your life too, and you're going to execute me for it?"
         "No. I'm going to put you to sleep for one hundred years."
         That stunned me.
         Lee must have seen the perplexed surprise in my arching eyebrows, because he shrugged and explained, "Kazuya wants you killed after I'm done testing the cryo units on you. So I'm going to test them on you for a long time. Long enough for you to outlive us, anyway. I've fixed the controls so that nothing can override them, not even my own command. I have to; otherwise you might wake up early, along with all the other sleepers we're going to revive when the New Era dawns. And then Kazuya would destroy you."
         One hundred years? I didn't know whether Allah had answered my prayers or cursed me for my lack of faith. I didn't want to die, didn't want to have my soul trapped in this horrible place, but one hundred years! I'd wake up in a different world, everyone I knew or loved would be dead, my sister-
         "What about my sister?"
         Lee's auburn eyes turned cold and hard. He slowly raised his left hand, fingers curled, thumb pointed downward. He twisted his palm flat as he drew his thumbnail in a merciless line across his own neck.
         "No," I gasped, trembling. "You promised!"
         "I said we'd try to capture her alive. I never gave my word about what we'd do after that."
         "You can't!"
         "Can't I? We found Tagami's body. She garrotted him like a dog. Now I have to select a replacement, and I- damn it, I can hear him. She knew. She was careful not to murder him until the day she had to impersonate him, because she knew I'd learn the truth by nightfall. I can only hope her voice will drown out the others. Better her than someone who doesn't deserve it!"
         "She's my sister!"
         "I doubt she feels the same way toward you anymore. You set her up to be captured, interrogated, and broken." Lee puffed on his cigarette. "I don't know exactly what my brother arranged to do to Ultratech, but I can tell you one thing: their central headquarters is gone. The whole skyscraper, vanished, nothing but an empty lot where it used to be. Their most advanced technologies have been lost or destroyed. They've been thrown into chaos. We're leveraging a hostile takeover of what's left. We're going to dissect them from the inside out, and put them back together in a shape of our own choosing, all because of Nina's betrayal. For a professional assassin, there can be no greater shame. She'd murder you right now if she could."
         "I don't care! She's my sister, and you owe me! Either you put her to sleep for a hundred years too, or kill us both now and get it over with!"
         It was a desperate gamble; I wagered my life because I couldn't think of anything else as a stake. After all I'd been through, all the violence and pain and conflict I'd shared with my sister, I couldn't abandon her. I couldn't wake up and find her gone, our bitter war forever unresolved. It would be like slicing off half of myself.
         I held my breath. Lee flicked ashes off the tip of his cigarette.
         At last, the silver-haired vice-president sighed, "Her voice does resemble yours. I suppose I'd rather not hear her cries, even if she isn't you, any more than you are Jun-chan." He moved out of my line of sight, and the mechanical hum increased. I felt cool water on my face again. Folds of protective darkness gathered about me, darkness like the winter night sky.
         "Oyasumi-nasai, Anna," Lee softly called. "When you wake up, my brother and I will be long dead, and the world will be a better place."


         Well, he was half right.
         I'm not sure about the other half. Is the world a better place? Is it really? I don't know how you can tell something like that. Maybe if you poll every human being on Earth, and ask them all how happy they are? But on the other hand, I'm not sure the world is a worse place, either. I'm not even sure it's stayed the same. I mean, of course it hasn't stayed the same - I can't believe platform shoes are back, they are the most ridiculously clunky things I have ever seen - but I'm not sure it's stayed the same on the better-worse scale.
         What do you think?


End of Chapter 5: Winter Night Sky


END OF PART I: ABSORPTION