PHOENIX REBORN

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.com
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Chapter 8: Slaves of Circumstance


   "I will never forget how shocked I was when I began reading about slavery's total horror."
         -Malcolm X, autobiography


INTERVIEW WITH LEE CHAOLAN, section 2
February 8, 2018
6:15 a.m.


         Ah, good morning, but are you certain you should be up and about already? Bryan was just communicating to me that last night, you collapsed in front of him and stayed unconscious for approximately two hours. Was this solely because you craved an audience with me? What kind of emergency-?
         Indeed.
         Perhaps we'd both better sit down.
         Are you comfortable? All right.
         So... you know what I did to Jin's mind. Or think you do.
         Do you?
         I see.
         Your interpretation is not entirely accurate. For one matter, it is inappropriate to hold Julia culpable for my actions, regardless of what she may have suggested that I do. Free will is a quality that I treasure, yet it comes with the heavy price of personal responsibility. It was I who had the Power to affect Jin's thought processes, and I who decided to use that Power.
         What I did was craft a psychological block. Very specific, very limited, yet thorough in what it precisely covers. That's all it is; a block. My nephew... he... he's the same person he's always been. He remembers nearly everything that has happened. It is only that he can't hold certain thoughts in his conscious mind. He will become disoriented if you confront him with the wrong things.
         Ah, well...
         To begin with, the block will trigger if you say anything to suggest that it's there in the first place. He can't be allowed to know of it, or else he might inflict grave damage on himself trying to excise it. Currently, he believes that his occasional lapses are no more than the side effects he usually suffers from being a hypersensitive telepath. Other than that, the block is only... only designed to...
         ...its sole purpose is to prevent him from killing himself.
         That... that was why he sealed himself in the shrine. He intended to take his own life. And not merely out of grief, or depression; not from anything that can be treated with medicine or therapy. It was cold, merciless, self-destructive logic that compelled him, just as it forced Kazuya's soul to walk into the Black Abyss.
         Jin Kazama... he's...
         ...he's so much like his father...
         I'm not pretending that what I did was noble. It's an ugly thing, to seal off part of a person's awareness. But at least a block has the potential to be undone, while not even Guardians have the Power to restore a life.
         I couldn't let my nephew destroy himself. I couldn't let the curse of the House Mishima be fulfilled. Not again. Not when... not when I promised...
         Let me tell you a story.
         Or rather, let me continue my story from before. Then you will truly understand why I made the choice I did. All right? I'm disconnecting my telephone this time; we won't be disturbed until I've explained the rest of what happened, when Jun-chan and I were the last two souls trapped inside the Toshin.
         I wasn't certain why she wouldn't use her wish, the one wish bestowed upon any pure soul, to escape her prison. She wouldn't choose to remain just so that she could be with me. I knew this because, as a Guardian of the Grey Kingdom, I can't lie to myself any more than I can lie to others. Her one, true love was her husband, Lei Wulong.
         Admitting that hurts me less than it used to. A lot less. Time, fate, and acceptance have sutured my old wounds. Once, they burned like fire; they had dwindled to a twinge by the time I was reunited with Jun-chan. Now, they are only shadows of past memory, tracing shapes that can't be held.
         Shadows do not make one hurt. Shadows merely are. While I, once a shadow to the living realm, have been blessed with a new family to care for. Jin, Xiaoyu, and Julia are all so closely tied to the people I loved the most, or owed the most, that I often think of them as if they were my own children. My heart is loathe to feel pain when I am in the presence of their happiness.
         As for Jun-chan, well, her soul proved resilient to the trauma of her own sacrifice to the Toshin. She didn't even seem to be upset that I still addressed her with the affectionate diminutive suffix. It's just how I'm accustomed to thinking of her, probably because I've known her since she was a seven-year-old girl. By the time she turned sixteen, though, calling her "Jun-chan" could immediately provoke the most furious accusations. She used to rail at me for treating her like a child; as if she were afraid I'd underestimate her beauty, intelligence, or inner strength. The passage of years had mellowed her, however, so that she humored my eccentricity with no hard feelings at all.
         Jun-chan and I travelled through the landscape of the Toshin's psyche for three "days," if days they can be called. We simply walked until we needed to rest. I doubt the elapsed intervals would match accurately against this world's rotation about its axis, because the passage of Time is discontinuously variable in differing realms. When I say that I've been dead for twenty years, I mean according to your calendar; my personal experience is not so easily chronologized.
         I feel that it is important to recount some of the things Jun-chan and I said to each other, during our journey. It will help you understand.
         On the first day, we shared stories about what we'd both been doing since the Great Invasion. I did more of the talking, but only because she had so many questions, such as-
         "Did you go to Limbo because these Grey Kings made you?" I remember how she tilted her head, curiously, when she interrupted one of my narratives to ask that.
         "Lords of the Grey Kingdom," I corrected. "And no, they never sent me anywhere in particular; I'm allowed a great deal of latitude." What I left out was that I had been searching for my brother Kazuya. I'd heard a rumor that the Black Abyss led to Limbo, and if Kazuya were truly there, then I intended to find him no matter what the cost to myself.
         "But you were just telling me that all souls who went to Limbo had to stay forever."
         "Unless they had a living body to carry them out, yes, that used to be the case." Which probably explains the origin of the rumor. "It's different now, because of the treaty."
         "What treaty?"
         "Ah, it's like this. Limbo is home to primal forces of godly Power, but they aren't exactly 'gods' as we might think of them. Most are too inhuman or destructive to approach, but two of them embody virtuous principles. One was a manifestation of 'Good,' another of 'Life'; both were responsive to a negotiation that no one had offered before."
         "You?" she smiled.
         "Uh, well, yes. Me. I think I was the first Guardian to venture within Limbo. None of the others wanted to risk being trapped there for eternity, I guess. Anyway, I sort of mediated an agreement - Limbo's more benign rulers would grant safe passage to any soul, dead or alive, who wanted to escape their domain. In return, they would receive the potential dispensation to contact worshipers and avatars in the domain of the living. They let me out of Limbo to take my proposal back to the Lords of the Grey Kingdom, who accepted it."
         "You must have set a lot of souls free."
         "Oh, I don't think it was that many. Some of Limbo's dead wanted to stay. Especially the retainers of Leucrotta Castle; they're fanatically loyal to their demon mistress." Kazuya's soul was nowhere to be found, however; the rumor had ultimately been false. "So, what have you been doing, all this time?"
         Her shoulders slumped, and she lowered her eyes. "There was a very poor village near my home in Yakushima. Sometimes I'd visit and give people food, or heal them without charging any money. That was all, though. After the Great Invasion, I just wanted to live in peace with the wilderness; I let people like you and my husband work to make the world a better place."
         She confessed that as if she were guilty of a sin. Her shame embarrassed me. Was I making her feel inadequate? That had not been my intention. "Well, you had a son to raise - Jin, wasn't it?"
         "Yes." She half-smiled, contritely. "Even his name was selfish of me, because it was really my name. But Lei didn't protest; he went to such lengths to give me the life of my dreams. And after I've spent sixteen years of indulging in everything I wanted on Earth, you're telling me I've earned myself a place in heaven?"
         "If anyone deserves happiness, you do, Jun-chan."
         "You're biased."
         "Just because I'm biased doesn't mean it isn't true."
         "Do I have to go to this 'Paradise'?"
         "Uh..." No one had asked me that before. "...no, I don't think so. And I don't think you could be forced to stay there if you changed your mind. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a Paradise. It would be a concentration camp."
         "What other options are there, for a soul?"
         "Seriously?"
         "I'm just curious."
         "The Black Abyss compels the most remorseless evil souls into itself, but the majority of mortal souls are allowed into the refuge of the Grey Kingdom. Lost souls sometimes wander the varying realms; that's where Guardians like me come in, to help them find their way."
         "What's this Grey Kingdom like?"
         "Very quiet. Very peaceful. Emotionless. No joy, no sorrow, just drifting grey fog. What happens next depends on the soul. Exhausted souls may choose eternal sleep. Tainted souls may be sentenced to purge their corruption in Hell; restless souls may pursue the fiery road on their own. Worthy souls may apply for an honorable duty, if someone of noble character speaks for them. There are other possible fates, I think, but the most common one is probably to be reborn in the domain of the living. I'm not sure why you might consider any of these for yourself, though. I've never heard of any soul in Paradise who wanted to leave."
         "How do you know it's really such a wonderful place? Have you been there?"
         "Ah, no. It's not my domain. I know a little from the Guardians of Paradise, though, and they're like me; they can't lie."
         "Who are these Guardians of Paradise? Are they angels like you?"
         "I'm not an angel, Jun-chan."
         "Are they?"
         I shrugged. "Actually, I think they're dragons."
         "Really?"
         "Well, that's how I perceived them..."
         "And they're all as honest as you?"
         "'Honest,' isn't the right word. To be 'honest' implies that you consciously exercise the moral choice between what you believe is Truth and what you believe is falsehood. Guardians can't make that choice. We're, um, programmed that way. Pathological truth-tellers."
         "You're not serious."
         "Is it that hard to believe?"
         "You don't sound like you have a pathology."
         "Oh, I can still speculate, or quote someone else's words despite the relative truth of their own statement. I'm just obliged to make it clear that what I'm saying is speculation, or a quote."
         "But how-?"
         "The Lords of the Grey Kingdom require it of all Guardians. It's part of what holds us accountable for our authority, because we can't give false answers to any inquisition they might make- Jun-chan?" The alarm on her face startled me.
         "You - you just let them burn out a piece of your mind?"
         Her horror left me sincerely taken aback. "It was a small price to pay."
         "A 'small price'? Part of your own intellect?"
         "No one forced me to become a Guardian, Jun-chan."
         "Didn't you sacrifice enough, when you gave your life for the rest of us? What right did they have to take away any more?"
         "What right did I have to abet genocide?" I returned, gently. "How many times did I stand by and do nothing, while my brother ripped apart people's minds or tortured their souls? You know what I was during the Great Invasion, Jun-chan. You know what I did."
         "Kazuya enslaved you."
         "And that's supposed to mitigate everything? Does it invalidate my responsibility for the three thousand people our syndicate killed? Or the one billion lives our ally harvested? It isn't as if Kazuya used sorcery to control me; just intimidation, and a death-link."
         "You died to help us win the war."
         "Yes, I died, and then I thought Michelle's soul was going to take revenge on mine. I didn't resist because I had no right; I'm the one who murdered her. But she... she protected me. She wouldn't let any of the syndicate's other victims hurt me; instead, she brought me to the Grey Kingdom for judgement. She even spoke for me, telling the Grey Lords of both my good and evil deeds.
         "I wasn't prepared for their verdict. Begged them for any other possible fate. Pleaded for a chance, any chance to atone - if there were any sacrifice I could make, any penance I could serve.
         "Michelle consulted with them.
         "They said yes.
         "I was shown mercy, Jun-chan. Mercy from the one soul who should have hated me above all, and mercy from the judges who should have damned me. I have a second chance, now. The chance to help people instead of hurt them. That is worth an infinitely higher price than I ever had to pay."
         She didn't appear to entirely accept my point of view, yet with a downcast flicker of her eyes, she seemed willing to let the matter go. "Was anything else changed in your mind? When you became a Guardian, I mean."
         "Uh, I don't think so. Why? Do you notice a difference?"
         "You're a lot nicer than I remember. But I'd rather believe that's a change you brought about in yourself." Her smile briefly returned. It always was one of the most beautiful graces I've ever had the privilege to witness. I couldn't help reciprocating it.
         "Well, other than the pathology, all the Grey Lords did to me was entrust a measure of their Power, and... uh..."
         "Yes?"
         "...alter my true form." I hadn't originally planned to mention that. You'd think that after so many years of being a pathological truth-teller, I'd know better than to talk myself into a corner.
         "That's not your true self?" she quizzed, pointing to me.
         "No, this is how I remember myself," I explained, uncomfortably tugging on the lapel of my tuxedo. "More or less. It's variable, and a matter of perception. My true form is... different."
         "If you can make yourself look like you want, then why do you keep the awful scars?"
         "Why don't you make yourself look sixteen years younger?" I returned, wryly.
         "Point taken."
         "The scars are part of my memories," I added. "Erasing them would be like pretending my memories didn't happen, and I can't let myself do that."
         "Does your true form have scars, too?"
         "Not visibly."
         "What's it look like?"
         "Utterly ridiculous. I don't even have eyes."
         "You're blind?"
         "No, I just don't have eyes. Not visibly."
         "Show me."
         "No."
         "Come on," she teased, playfully tugging my sleeve. "I want to see."
         "I'm not a slave anymore, Jun-chan," I chided, amiably. "Not even your slave."
         "I bet it doesn't look as bad as you think it does."
         "Not 'bad.' 'Absurd.'"
         "Worse than when you'd wear that gaudy purple shirt?"
         "What's wrong with the purple shirt? I liked the purple shirt."
         "And those funny cowboy boots?"
         "Hey, those were my lucky boots. I won fighting competitions when I wore those boots."
         "All I'm saying is, you used to dress like that and now you're afraid of looking silly?"
         "You told me I was handsome in that outfit!" I gasped, genuinely shocked.
         "You were handsome. Your outfit was something else."
         I groaned.
         "Oh, you are so vain!" she laughed, mischievously.
         "Don't get me started, Jun-chan..."
         On the second day, she asked me less about what I'd been doing and more about our current journey.
         "Will it take us a long time to reach this place where you can make a portal?" She didn't sound impatient, just interested in the answer.
         "Well, you could still just use your wish to grant your soul the destiny it deserves. The Toshin knows that it can't keep you here."
         "Never mind that for now. I was only wondering."
         "I'm not sure how long. I've never crossed the distance on foot before."
         "Yes, you have. When you freed all the other souls."
         "I, uh, wasn't on foot."
         "Oh?" An impish grin crossed her face. "You wouldn't have been... flying?"
         Aaarr...
         "This true form of yours," she contemplated, mirthfully. "Does it have wings?"
         ...rrrgg...
         "Feathered wings?"
         ...gghhh...!
         "You are an angel. You are!"
         "Now wait one moment. Pathological truth-teller, remember?" I tapped the side of my head for emphasis. "I'm not an angel, and I'm not lying."
         "Just because you don't believe it doesn't mean it isn't true."
         Argh. Argh. Argh.
         "Come on," she jubilantly goaded. "Take me flying."
         "Now you want to fly?" I countered, skeptically. "How many times did I offer to teach you hang gliding? How many times did you turn me down?"
         "I was scared of getting killed. Doesn't exactly apply any more, does it?"
         "I still don't think it's a good idea, Jun-chan. The Toshin might notice."
         "Doesn't it already know what we're doing?"
         "Almost certainly, but why aggravate it?"
         "You're probably right. Just where will this portal that you're going to make lead, anyway? How can it take me to the Paradise if you haven't been there?"
         "Ah, you know about the sorcery to create gateways?"
         "Some. I studied a little of it after the Great Invasion, and tried to teach what I knew to Jin, but I wasn't very good at it. Can you do it anytime you want?"
         "Not quite; my Power has its limits."
         "So, there are things you can't do?"
         "Well, yes. That's correct."
         "Do you have the Power to heal?"
         "Not in the sense that you do. I suppose it would be redundant; nothing I do can affect the living, and Death is the ultimate cessation of all bodily ailments. As for conjuring gateways, I can only do that at conducive nexus points, such as the mountain peak we're headed toward. I'm sorry I can't transport you directly to the Paradise; it's-"
         "Not your domain?"
         "Exactly."
         "Then where will you make a gate to?"
         "I thought I'd send you to the Crossroads."
         "Another nexus point?"
         "More like the ultimate nexus point. It is, in a sense, the intersection of all places. You will be naturally pulled to where you belong the most."
         "Hmm..." A pensive look crossed her face. "It sounds perfect."
         "Once you're there, watch for the Guardians of Paradise. The light of your pure soul will attract them."
         "Maybe you could introduce me to them personally?"
         "I can't, Jun-chan. I have to stay here."
         "Why? You said there are no other souls to set free."
         "Not now. But sooner or later, the Toshin will escape its banishment, and then it will absorb more."
         "Unless someone stops it."
         "That would be a miracle, but in the meantime, I have to keep the way out open. The Toshin already assimilates the skills and memories of its victims. If it could hold on to their souls as well, its Power would increase at a cataclysmic pace."
         "Couldn't you fight the Toshin directly if you were outside it?"
         "I tried when I sensed its awakening. As an Immortal, the Toshin normally exists in the domain of the living, where I can't touch it. When it was released, a cave-in briefly forced it outside the fringes of the living realm. I challenged it, but its Power vastly exceeded mine."
         "You lost?"
         "How do you think I wound up in this place?"
         "Oh. Oh, dear."
         "It's probably for the best. I can do more good in here than out there, and until the Toshin can be destroyed, I have a duty to hinder it as much as possible."
         "'Destroyed'...?" A thoughtful glaze descended over her eyes. "I've felt a message of destiny in a dream: only purity within and purity without can close the wound that is Toshin."
         "I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean. The 'purity within' shouldn't refer to the souls that the Toshin absorbs, though, because having souls makes it stronger."
         "Hmm..."
         "Especially when it comes to noble souls like you. My past crimes keep me from being too 'pure,' though. That's another reason why I'm an ideal gatekeeper."
         "But you'll be all alone."
         "Sometimes. For the sake of the Toshin's victims, I hope it's most of the time."
         "Lee, I know you. You hate to be alone; it's the most horrible punishment anyone could make you endure!"
         "I... I'll probably keep myself in a trance, when there aren't any new souls to set free."
         "You're just going to stay here forever?"
         "Forever is a long time. Perhaps one day, another Guardian will take my place."
         "'Perhaps'? There weren't any Guardians here before you, were there?"
         "There wasn't any need before, because the Toshin was imprisoned. You shouldn't worry about me, Jun-chan; I'll get by. I won't be completely alone. Do you know who I met, before I woke you? Jackie Chan. I couldn't believe it. And there were so many others, even a few I recognized, people from the Iron Fist Tournament - Jun-chan?"
         "Others..." she repeated, sorrowfully. Her ginger eyes blinked, and brimmed with moisture. "Lee, if you... if you m-meet my husband and son, will you... will you please look after them? I want so badly to be there for them, but I... I can't..."
         "Don't be sad," I reassured. "With any luck, I won't encounter them for a long time. At least."
         "If you do, though... I-I'm sorry, I know it's selfish of me to ask, I'm just scared because... Lei... he's sick with liver cancer, I don't know how badly or how long he has. I told Jin to go to Heihachi if anything happened to Lei, but I never had the chance to-"
         "Heihachi Mishima?" I interrupted, raising an eyebrow. "My surrogate father?"
         "Y-yes..."
         "Has he changed that much?"
         "What do you mean?"
         "I mean that the only reason he took me off the streets was to provide Kazuya with a rival. He didn't see me as family; at most, I was just a tool to help him mold his 'real' son. With Kazuya gone, it's hard to believe he would shelter someone who wasn't his blood kin."
         "Heihachi is Jin's grandfather."
         "I know you were close to our House, Jun-chan, but I doubt the old man would ever recognize the child of you and Lei as-"
         "I'm speaking literally. As in biological grandfather."
         "What?"
         She bit her lip, and looked at the ground.
         "You mean, you and Kazuya...?"
         "It's not what you're thinking," she hastily amended. "I think." Then, "What are you thinking?"
         "Uh..." I wasn't certain about her facial expression, but she seemed embarrassed rather than upset. "Hey. Why didn't you tell me I'm an uncle?"
         "I'm so sorry. I should have, shouldn't I?" She anxiously touched the tips of her index fingers together. "It's just that Lei and I kept the truth secret for so long. I guess it became a habit."
         "So your husband does know?"
         "Oh, yes. He explained everything to me when he proposed."
         The manner in which she phrased that perplexed me, a little, but I didn't want to press for details if it would mortify her further. "Don't worry, Jun-chan. If I ever do meet the people you love, then of course I'll take good care of them."
         "Promise me?" she insisted, sadly.
         "I promise. They're my family too, you know."
         "Thank you so much!" She hugged me then, and cried on my shoulder, in an outpouring of gratitude and genuine warmth. It is a memory I cherish more highly than those of most of my life.
         On the third day, Jun-chan was withdrawn. The central mountain of the Toshin's psyche loomed closer; perhaps its towering presence cast a pall on her, because when she did speak, it was a soft entreaty of remorse.
         "Lee... are you happy, as a Guardian?"
         "Wh-what?" I asked, startled. "What sort of a question is that?"
         "It's the sort that can be answered with a 'yes,' a 'no,' or an 'I don't know,'" she solemnly replied.
         "It's an honor to be a Guardian. I'm thankful for the privilege."
         "But are you happy?"
         "I... oh, Jun-chan, don't scramble me like this."
         "You really are a pathological truth-teller," she affirmed, drooping like a wilted flower. "You can't say you're happy when you're not."
         "Jun-chan..."
         "You're miserable, aren't you? You're miserable and alone."
         "...don't..."
         "Deny it if it isn't true, then. Deny it."
         I tried to refute her claim, and found that I couldn't. The most I could do was put it in perspective. "I'm better off than I have any right to be. And I'm not a slave anymore; I'm not controlled through fear. You have to understand how important that is. I remember what it was like to be so miserable and alone I was ready to kill myself; this isn't it."
         "But you're not happy."
         I sighed. "Why are you asking me this?"
         She remained silent for a time, and closed her eyes in deep thought. When she opened them again, she said, "I made a small shrine next to my home. My son and I used to visit it and pray for the dead. One of the stones had your name carved on it. Once a year, I would think about what you did for us - how none of us would have survived if it weren't for you - and I would pray that, wherever you were now, you were happy."
         "I - I'm okay, Jun-chan. It's my own weakness if I don't feel content."
         "What weakness?"
         Oh, well. Maybe if I explained how trivial my malaise was, she wouldn't feel so upset. "You're familiar with Buddhism, aren't you?"
         "Some."
         "One of its central tenets is that suffering comes from desire. If I could only rid myself of desire, then maybe I really would be happy. I'd make a poor Buddhist, though."
         "Sometimes desire is a good thing. We'd never have freed the world from the Great Invasion if we hadn't wanted it free."
         "And sometimes desire brings nothing but futile discontent."
         "Desire for what?"
         I looked away.
         "Lee... you're not still hung up over me, are you?"
         "Not that much." It surprised me how easily I could speak those words, and know that they were true. "It's more general.
         "It's the little things that I miss, nearly as much as the big ones. The taste of fresh air in my lungs. The feel of summer sun on my face, or winter cold, or anything else. Just being able to truly feel, with more senses than a detached piece of conscious perception. Sometimes I almost think I miss physical pain. Almost.
         "I squandered my life, when I had it. Blinded by jealousy and loneliness and fear, I didn't truly enjoy what was most precious, while I could. And now...
         "Now, I have a chance to atone for my crimes, but I can't protect those who need me the most. When I see cruelty in the domain of the living, I can't intervene on anyone's behalf unless it's too late and they're dead. I... I want to help the living. That's what troubles me the most, I think. Being unable to make a difference for the better in people's lives, just like I failed to make a difference before - except close to the end, but that was virtually a fluke, Jun-chan. If it hadn't been for you, I would have died for nothing more than my own selfishness."
         "You want to be alive," she summarized, quietly.
         "It can't be helped."
         "Why not?"
         "What do you mean?"
         "When the Lords of the Grey Kingdom offered you the chance to begin a new life, why didn't you take it?"
         "I... how did you-?"
         "You've said that you're not a slave. No one is controlling you through fear anymore. No one forced you to be a Guardian. You've also said that the Lords of the Grey Kingdom offered you two fates, and being a Guardian was the second one. But if the first fate were something horrible, like being damned to suffer in Hell, then you would be controlled by fear, wouldn't you? You'd be laboring underneath a constant threat.
         "You didn't plead with them to spare you torment, did you? You turned down what you wanted most of all - the chance to live again. I'm right, aren't I?"
         Sometimes I do forget how perceptive she is.
         "They seemed to think it all balanced," I muttered. "Live to help murder a billion people, die to help save four billion - they seemed to think it worked out in my favor. As if human lives and souls can all be tallied on a giant measuring scale."
         "Why did you appeal their judgement?"
         "Because in order to begin a new life, you have to give up everything from the old. Memories. Experiences. Everything."
         "You wish you could live again, and keep your memories?"
         "I can't let them go, Jun-chan. If I forget what I've done, then how do I know I won't repeat it? Something in me was evil enough to orchestrate mass-murder; how can I be sure it won't resurface and make me an even worse monster than I was before? Your influence was the only thing that saved me from damnation-"
         "You're giving too much credit to me, and not enough to yourself."
         "I can't take that chance. Too many people have already suffered at my hands." What I did not tell her was that I'd sooner follow Kazuya into the Black Abyss than give up my memories. "Jun-chan, are you all right?"
         She had turned away from me. Her shoulders quivered. When I stepped around to face her...
         "Oh, Jun-chan, no. Don't cry for me, please. I'm better off than I ever could have hoped to be. I'm doing good work; helping souls is my greatest comfort, and the second greatest will be knowing that you're where you belong, safe and happy in the Paradise. Okay? Don't cry. Your tears are too precious to waste." I reached to brush a gem of sparkling clarity from her right cheek-
         -and she stayed me with a single gesture. Instead, she took the tear upon her own fingertips, and clasped my hand in both her own.
         Beautiful white light streamed from her grasp.
         It permeated my skin, engraving without searing. Too late, I realized her intent and tried to pull away; in a final, brilliant flash, she let me go. I stumbled back and nearly fell.
         The pure white sigil of a rearing unicorn shimmered on my palm. It glowed for a moment longer, then subsided.
         "If there is any way for your wish to be granted," Jun-chan declared, "it will be."
         I could have been stricken dumb with shock.
         "I can't believe you wasted your wish like this no one can live again and keep their memories not even a pure soul like you not even this can make it possible even if it could be done what makes you think I deserve this more than you you're the one who has a family that needs you and I have to stay inside the Toshin!"
         Well, I could have been.
         "Remember your promise," she replied, serenely. "Another gatekeeper will replace you here. I'm sure of it."
         "Jun-chan - don't you realize what you've given up? You can't take this back."
         "All the more reason not to fret about what's already done. I'll find the Paradise without any wish. Eventually."
         "I'd better get you out of here before you make me neurotic. You are the most incorrigible-"
         I froze.
         Something was very wrong.
         Thick blackness clouded the mimicry of atmosphere that enveloped the Toshin's dreary psyche. A scraping vibration rumbled through the earth. Rapacious malice compressed my thoughts. One look at Jun-chan confirmed that she felt it, too.
         "It knows," I hissed through my teeth. "The Toshin knows you've thrown away your wish. It knows it can keep you here!"
         A crescent formation of claws broke from the soil around us.
         Three taloned, sickle-shaped digits and a semi-opposable thumb curved from each vaguely humanoid hand. Bony limbs armored with a ridged, dirty brown carapace scratched their way out of the earth. Mindless heads poked from the ground. Their faces were elongated like dog skulls, yet their skinless bodies resembled those of wasps. Except that they had no stingers; with animal knives on their limbs and backward-pointing fangs filling their plated mouths, they didn't need any. Stiff, forward-slanting antennae jutted from their heads. Spiky manes trickled down the backs of their necks. Half-crouched on their hind-legs, they were still slightly taller than me. There were at least twenty of them, with more constantly winning free of the soil.
         One by one, the creatures spread their narrow, batlike wings. They gave testing flaps to shake off excess dirt. They opened and shut their toothy jaws with raucous, meaningless chatter.
         I clasped Jun-chan's left hand in my right and said, "Turn around. Casually. Pretend you don't see them. Stay calm, and keep talking like we were before."
         "What are they?" she asked, coolly. If anything, she was more composed than I was.
         "Byakhee. Pieces of the Toshin's consciousness. Walk with me, slowly, and gather your strength." I could feel the gibbering things take a half-step after us, staying within attack distance.
         "You've faced them before?"
         "I had a brigade of strong souls with me the last time."
         "Why are you so worried? We're already dead; what's the worst they could do to us?"
         "Do you really want to find out?"
         The Byakhee's droning, repetitive noises became louder. They were hobbling after us, stamping their stiff legs and bracing their demon wings.
         Steady...
         "All right," Jun-chan conceded. "Do you have a plan?"
         "It's like this: you're going to get your wish after all. One of them, anyway."
         "That's your plan?"
         "That's my plan." I stared at the mountain peak ahead, trusting the rest of my perception to appraise me of the soulless creatures' movements.
         Steady...
         "When I say 'now,' protect your eyes from the light flash and don't let go of my hand. If you could perceive yourself as weightless, it would help."
         "I understand."
         The closest Byakhee voiced an especially stringent wail. Its jawbone clacked like a percussive instrument. The creatures' stumbling shuffle halted.
         *Now!*
         At the instant of the lead Byakhee's leap, I summoned the Power of my true form. In the enshrouding darkness of the Toshin's mind, the sudden flare of the transition was akin to a concussive grenade. That distraction, combined with my immediate takeoff, was just barely enough to elude the lunging thing's greedy claws.
         We flew for our souls.
         Or perhaps I should say, I flew towing Jun-chan's soul. She had the mental discipline to take my advice to heart, perceiving herself to be so light that she offered no drag at all. In an aerial half turn, I lifted her hand over my head, pulling her on level with myself while I momentarily folded my wings. She didn't need a word of explanation; she just clasped her arms around my neck, the better to ride on my back and leave me with both hands free to wield my sword. For the Byakhee had also sprung aloft; their wings vibrated with an insectile buzzing as they strained to chase us. I'd reached the base of the mountain when the closest monster was near enough to gouge my face. Something stopped its claws a finger's width away from my skin; pure white sparks flew as its talons scrabbled against an invisible barrier. Jun-chan was protecting me, of course; her Power was my shield. I turned at a right angle and slashed with my weapon, cleanly severing the Byakhee thorax from opisthosoma.
         Redirecting my flight path into a nigh-vertical climb, evenly parallel with the sheer mountain surface, I reached into my own core for the necessary Power to propel me ahead of the voracious horde. Fortunately, the thin-winged Byakhee were more poorly designed to sustain a direct ascent than I was. Jun-chan and I gradually managed to gain a fair lead on them. Just as their cries had receded to the clamor of distant crows, she dared to whisper something in my ear.
         "Your true form - it's beautiful."
         Aaarrrrrgggghhh...!
         *It's not over yet,* I admonished, repressing my humiliated groan. *Although they find it draining, Byakhee can warp through space - they'll ambush us when we reach the peak.*
         "I'll hold them off. You concentrate on making that portal."
         *Jun-chan, I won't let you fight them all by yoursel-*
         "I don't know where the Crossroads are, and even if I did, it would take me twenty times as long to make the gate! This is the best way. You know I'm right."
         Of course she was; she'd always specialized in the sorcery to create barriers, while I had more experience in the sorcery to generate portals. Her plan was logical and sound. Something still disturbed me as we landed on the mountain peak; actually, it was an accumulation of little things that she'd said before. But there was no time to think about it, because with an unholy, ringing distortion and a mind-bending ripple of space, a multitude of flapping monsters swarmed us. I cut with my sword, felling two more of them. The rest backpedaled away, circled us, and attacked again - colliding head-on with Jun-chan's soul barrier, which she extended around us in the shape of a dome.
         The Byakhee brayed. Their mouths snapped open and shut. Yet this time, their collective buzzing gained a unifying resonance, shaping itself into communication.
         +YOU MAY NOT LEAVE.+ It was the Toshin's voice that came from their combined, nonliving throats. +SURRENDER NOW, AND REMAIN INTACT. RESIST, AND SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES!+
         Brandishing my sword, I stood back-to-back with Jun-chan and declared, *I am a Guardian of the Grey Kingdom. This soul is under my protection!*
         "Lee!" she directed, fiercely. "Don't waste any effort on them. Just put your trust in me and do it!"
         She wasn't 'Jun-chan' anymore.
         In the past three days, I'd seen her run an emotional gamut from heartache to gaiety, and address me with everything from tear-stricken supplication to girlish teasing. Now, she spoke with the confidence of destiny. When I looked over my shoulder at her, I saw the regal nobility of a Queen. It showed in her defiant posture, in the flashes of white Ki shining on her fingertips, and most especially in her eyes. She was no longer merely a lost soul; she was Jun Kazama, Ecology Fighter, battle-hardened veteran of the Great Invasion, and she withstood the Byakhee's attack with the strength of Nature. The insect-creatures frantically hammered against her seal. Explosive white sparks drove them back, yet they renewed their assault again and again. Jun clenched her teeth, trembling with effort, holding back the onslaught.
         As much as I yearned to help her, I could not. Focusing my own concentration, I traced a long oval-shape with my sword as I resisted the magnetic cling of the Toshin's hunger. I sent my light piercing, rupturing, gradually reaching through. But I couldn't afford to be gradual; Jun wouldn't be able to withstand the Byakhee for much longer. I heard her wordless, defiant cry soar above their angry buzzing-
         There!
         The portal radiated in front of me, fully formed, a shimmering white oval out of this empty hellhole. I was exhausted from the dual strain of the long flight and difficult spell, but I didn't care. It no longer mattered what the Byakhee did to me now; Jun was as good as escaped. I knew it, and the Toshin knew it.
         +NO! NO! I WILL NOT LET ANOTHER SOUL GO FREE!+
         *Jump through!* I shouted to Jun. *Quickly!*
         She said, "Remember your promise."
         When I saw the determination in her eyes, I realized her intent.
         Jun had said that another gatekeeper would take my place, but I had not recognized her true meaning. She had not protested my calling her 'Jun-chan' because she had needed me to underestimate her. She knew that if I'd figured out what she was planning, I would never have allowed it.
         But even as all this flashed through my mind - even as I turned toward her, and reached to pull her through the portal - she was already in motion. She had released her hemispherical barrier; the Byakhee poured through, descending on her en masse, and she did not cower from their diving talons. She was spinning in a pirouette, keeping her right leg ramrod straight, and at the instant I faced her, her heel struck my chest with unstoppable momentum. I tried to spread my wings, but my own portal was directly behind me; there was no chance to avoid hurtling through the white oval. The last I saw of its other side was a multitude of Byakhee claws and teeth, tearing into Jun's form. I called out her name, struggling to fly back to her rescue. It was too late; the Crossroads sucked me into and through its ever-changing intersection.


         Now do you understand?
         I promised Jun-chan I would watch over her son. She was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for me, and for him. And Jin Kazama isn't just my nephew; he's all I have left of the two people I loved most in this world. I... I had to prevent his self-destruction, even if it meant violating his mind.
         What good is the Power of a Guardian, if it can't save one innocent life? You must surely know that Jin is a true innocent, despite the guilt he carries inside. His only crime is the sin of origin.
         You care about him as well, don't you?
         It's why you pushed yourself so hard last night. You are acutely aware of your debt to him. So listen to me - before you do anything rash, such as attempting to dislodge his mental block, consider this:
         He believes that he is human.
         He is free to live a human life, and feel human love. What good would it do to take that away from him? His condition is almost certainly incurable, but I believe it can be controlled. He has been physically and psychically stable for nearly a month now; the latest tests have verified it. If he can make it past his twentieth birthday, then I think he will be all right. Sometimes I almost worry more for Julia than for him. Though she loves him dearly, she has yet to fully accept the whole truth.
         What?
         If you don't know, then I'm not going to spell it out for you. I won't make it easy for you to intentionally undermine the block. It's designed not to cause harm, but if you force it to activate too many times, Jin may suffer indirect side effects. By which I mean, he will become disoriented because he knows that he has been repeatedly disoriented. I'd feel much better if you could terminate your interviews with him altogether, or at least minimize them, but the final decision is for your conscience to make.
         I pray that it will be the right one.





INTERVIEW WITH JIN KAZAMA, section 6
February 8, 2018
7:15 a.m.


         What? Now?
         You're an hour late. I assumed you were too incapacitated to keep our appointment, given how you ran yourself ragged yesterday evening.
         No, no, that's all right. I can make time. If I take a syndicate limousine to school instead of going on foot, it'll free up half an hour for an interview, right now. Xiaoyu will understand if I don't walk with her today. She knows how important this recordkeeping project is to me.
         Hm?
         Oh, no. Not another of your hypothetical questions... all right, all right. What is it?
         Uh-huh.
         sigh
         For me, there is only one possible circumstance that could justify planting a block in another person's mind: if a life were at stake.
         This is... this is not truly a hypothetical question, is it? You're afraid that I might have done something to you, or someone you care about. That's why you were so anxious last night, behaving so strangely and asking me about other telepaths-
         No? I'm wrong?
         It doesn't matter. I swear to you, I would never alter anyone's mind, with the one exception of to protect another. But if a life did potentially hang in the balance, then yes, I would make an exception. I... I have done it before. Once. You're already familiar with the details, aren't you?
         So, what else do you need to know?
         That can't be all.
         Your record is far from complete. I've scarcely begun to tell you everything that happened during the Iron Fist Tournament. One of the most critical reasons why I selected you for this project was that I thought you weren't afraid of me, and that you wouldn't have any qualms about consulting me directly.
         Was I mistaken?
         Oh, good. I'm glad.
         I see. So Julia has already told you about my second fight with Hwoarang, up to a point.
         I... I'm ashamed of how savagely I reacted, upon seeing him. Merciless revenge consumed me. I'd found Hwoarang crouched among dead bodies; a bitter well of hatred festered within him; he had even confessed to murder. There was no doubt in my mind that he had to be the Toshin's minion. So I fought him without holding back, shocked him senseless with my electrical Power, broke his bones, set parts of the bar ablaze. And then I was ready to kill him, pinning him prone on the floor and prying back his head with a grip on his raptor hair. One, final punch would snap his neck.
         Lightning crackled on my fist.
         I struck.
         A high-pitched female voice screamed, "DON'T!"
         The killing blow buried itself in a wadded-up cushion.
         It was Julia's doing, of course; although at the time, I didn't yet know her name. I recognized her only as the girl I'd accidentally crashed into earlier that night. She had scooped up Hwoarang's discarded leather jacket, and now she used it to insulate herself from my lightning as she blocked the deathstroke. My Power blazed so fiercely that sparks reached past the leather barrier, singeing her face and hair. She flinched, gritting her teeth, but did not retreat from the fire.
         I exclaimed, "What are you doing!?"
         She probably couldn't answer me in words because of the electricity. Instead, she stood in a single motion, sweeping her right leg straight up like a skyscraper. Her heel clocked me soundly on the chin, bowling me off Hwoarang's back. Stunned, I stared up at her as she deliberately stationed herself between me and the semiconscious gang leader. She was only moderately less disoriented than I was, for she had to smother a small flame in her hair and rub sensation back into her face before she could confront me. She settled into a stable fighting stance, her left leg far ahead of her right and supporting most of her weight, hands guarding her chest and holding the leather jacket like a shield.
         "This man is innocent!" she declared.
         I didn't just hear her words; the reverberation of her belief overshadowed everything else - my internal rage, the background noise of nighttime Tokyo, even Hwoarang's black, hate-filled core. This one girl had so much inner resolution that she might as well have been a telepath, emblazoning her pronouncement directly in my mind. In fact, I belatedly realized, echoes of her strong-willed thought patterns remained in me from our first encounter on the street. I had answered her in English then, and continued to inadvertently speak and think in English up through my fight with Hwoarang.
         Now, she protected the fallen killer, proclaiming him to be blameless. Her resonance was sincere, and of the deepest clarity. She was not controlled by sorcery, or possessed by any supernatural entity. She genuinely believed what she was saying. Her conviction was so great that it broke through my barriers and made me freeze, but only for a moment. The pain of my mother's death, combined with the suffering of the Toshin-minion's latest victims, gave me the determination to repel her influence.
         I said, "Get out of my way."
         "You'll have to kill me first."
         Voicing a loud yell, I spread my feet in a bowlegged horse stance, tucked my chin, and called upon my Power to enhance my strength in a threatening display. My hands glowed white-hot, trailing sparkles of Ki waiting to be unleashed.
         "Don't test me," I snarled, pointing to the girl. Crackles of indigo lightning snaked from my feet to my outstretched index finger.
         "Do you want to stop my heart with that!?" she snapped, driving her biting sarcasm like psychic knives in my brain. "Or do you just want to break my bones like you crushed his? Do you like to hurt people, is that it? And that's assuming you win, when you're so battered you can't even heal your own bruises. I don't want to fight you, but I won't let you murder an innocent man!"
         Hwoarang stirred, feebly lifting his head from the floor. His eyes, marked by red-black trails stretching down the length of his cheeks, creased with confounded bewilderment. More red-black trickled from his mouth, the residue of my beating. He mumbled, "What...?"
         I growled like an animal. The girl didn't move.
         The damnable thing was, she was right about my condition. Winning that rematch with Hwoarang had cost me. He'd kicked me within a shred of blacking out before I snapped his thigh; even now, I could scarcely focus on the girl's blurring outline. She was smaller and thinner than me, probably not faster, and almost definitely not a sorcerer. But she did know how to fight, given her stance and her kick, while I ached all over. Especially in the chest; my healing Power was straining itself to set and repair the ribs that Hwoarang had broken. In my current shape, I could barely stay conscious, and I doubted that I could overwhelm the girl without hurting her badly.
         Why was she defending the Toshin's minion?
         "He is a MURDERER!" I screamed, furiously. "Look at the people he's killed! I'm not going to let him live!"
         "YOU look at THIS!" she shot back, with equal vehemence. She displayed both sides of his leather jacket, spreading it out like a tablecloth. It was midnight black and well-worn, otherwise unremarkable. "I can see the bodies, thank you very much - can you see the blood? This place is covered wall to wall with it, but his jacket is not! He is not! Except for a little on his face and hand, but you saw how he got that - it wasn't from killing anyone! If he were the murderer, he'd be soaked with the blood of his victims!"
         "Clothes can be changed. Blood can be cleaned."
         "That's not all. I talked to a witness; she said the killer was an 'onna'! What's an 'onna'?"
         "You are."
         "What?"
         "'Woman.' It means 'woman,'" I clarified, shaking my head. "This so-called 'witness' didn't understand what you were asking."
         "I asked who's been killing people; she said it was an 'oni no onna'! Does he look like an 'onna' to you?"
         "Sh... shut up," Hwoarang gasped. "...shut up, you whore..."
         That pushed me over the edge.
         It was the same insult he had previously used to slander my mother. Maddened by his filthy words, I moved to silence him. Again the girl blocked me, catching my lunge on the leather jacket and bracing herself in the center of the thunderstorm. I was at less than full strength, yet she had to strain with her whole body to keep me in place, even as the ball of energy on my fist burned through the jacket and discharged fireworks.
         "You have the wrong man!" she screeched.
         "I KNOW he's the assassin! He confessed to killing Yukie!" I broke off my attack to angrily point to the throat-slashed body of Hwoarang's follower, still holding her diamond-studded crucifix.
         "He's lying."
         "He CAN'T lie to me, I'm a-"
         "-telepath, I know, and I also know that it IS possible to mislead a casual scan. You intend to deprive a person of his life; what right do you have to do that without proof of his crimes? You can't be sure he's the killer unless you look deeper."
         Her belief was so single-hearted that it rocked me, until I genuinely thought about forcing my way into the endless scream of Hwoarang's mind. "No."
         "Then send me."
         "What?"
         "That is within your Power, isn't it? You can forge a mental link between others. Do it. I'll look into his recent memories, and if I find that he murdered any of these people, you can have him."
         "If I sent you in, you wouldn't have any idea how to get back out. You'd die with him."
         "Maybe. I'll take that chance."
         I looked into her eyes.
         They were dark brown - so dark as to be brown-black, but they were not windows to a black soul. There was courage in those eyes, and righteousness, and more than a little fear. The most driving facet of her personality, though, was the restless need to solve, assemble, put things together and figure them out. I also saw a revised picture of myself - gods, I looked vicious, yet at least this time the image was a human one. She had rationally reconstructed her first impression of me, and now she was putting her opinion to the experimental test.
         But there was still more to her - underlying the methodical patterns of her surface, shining in the essence of her soul. Its reflection could be seen in her challenge, her willingness to risk life and sanity for the sake of a complete stranger. I... I couldn't sustain my hatred when I looked in her eyes; it seeped out of me, leaving behind only the determination to see this matter through. Hwoarang still had to be dealt with, but not because I hated him. I had to do this because he was a threat, and I had to protect people from that threat.
         People like her...
         "No, you won't," I sighed, allowing my lightning to wane. "I will. And when I do have proof of his crimes, I will see to it that he never murders any more innocent people. You will not interfere again."
         "Deal," she agreed, yet she kept a suspicious eye on me, just in case I was trying to trick her. Staying on her guard, she crouched scarcely a handspan away from where I examined Hwoarang.
         He was... healing.
         It wasn't a blindingly fast process - my own Power is usually a little quicker, even if I don't use sorcery on myself - but when I scanned his body, I could sense that the crushed bone in his leg was already beginning to knit. He'd be able to stand within an hour.
         He was definitely no ordinary youth.
         At the same time, though, he wasn't a sorcerer like me. His self-healing came from something biological within his composition. It was also very taxing. He was severely weakened now, and would remain incapacitated for a good while; certainly long enough for me to learn what I needed from his mind.
         I did not want to do this, but lives were at stake. If I backed down now, I would risk the girl's life if I tried to kill Hwoarang, weighed against the lives of the people he would murder if I let him go.
         "You fool," he seethed, as I dug my fingers into his tangled raptor hair and wrenched his gaze to meet mine. "Don't do this. End it now."
         Remorse? I couldn't be sure.
         "You don't get off the hook that easily," I refused, staring into his rotting brown eyes. "Open your mind. Show me the blood that stains your soul."
         He did not resist.
         I'd expected him to put up a psychic struggle twenty times as fierce as the physical. Instead, I saw-
         -I felt-


         The rat squeals and wriggles in my hand, fearing what is to come. I've no interest in prolonging its terror; sinking my teeth into its furry neck, I sever and spit out its head in a single bite. I suck the warm moisture of its lifeblood without spilling any on myself, a skill made automatic through experience.
         I hear a scream.
         It comes from the direction of The Dragon's Tail, one of my followers' favorite hangouts. The rotted bar is several blocks away from this dirty alley where I feed in solitude; I can't eat rats in front of my gang or else they'll all want to do it.
         Another scream. No, more than one. And I can feel the tense ripples of tremendous Power, coming from the same place as the panicked outcries.
         Tossing away the rat's desiccated husk, I sprint to The Dragon's Tail. Halfway there, I can make out a booming demand for the blood of Kazuya's son, but there are no more yells by the time I arrive. There are only sanguine splashes, marking a back door slammed open.
         I go inside.
         I see Yukie.
         The other bodies don't register on my consciousness. I'm just standing there, in the doorway, motionless for long minutes. Just looking at Yukie, splayed in a pool of her own blood, her violet hair strewn like a macabre halo. At last, I approach her. Crouching by her side, I touch her savaged throat, feeling the coagulated viscosity of her life's blood. Slowly, morbidly, I lift my stained fingers.
         The droplets hanging from them are fresh crimson, not red-black gutter sludge. Not tainted with evidence of my curse.
         Yukie will not regenerate. Her suffering is over.
         I should be thankful for that...


         No. No, I am not Hwoarang, I am Jin Kazama, and to my astonished surprise, I have found the truth I needed to learn. Now I must disentangle myself from his identity, careful as not to damage his mind-


         -my master doesn't want to hurt my mind? That is so pathetic I can't even laugh-
         Show me the blood that stains your soul.
         -because it is not allowed to end here, not allowed to disobey, the command has not been retracted, its repercussions remain. My master Jin Kazama has instructed me to show him the blood, and blood he will have, blood he will see-


         -they're lodged in my throat, serpent fangs, twin pincers driving into my jugular, while the knife stabs deep into my body, carving. The twisting metal in my intestines is fatal yet slow, I twitch in helpless shock. I can't even scream, but mother, father, my little sister, they scream for me, the black shapes suck the color out of their faces, my sister's head thrust back and wide-mouthed, unmoving within my line of sight, the terrified sympathy of her sightless eyes is cold comfort, she looks like Yukie, or is it that Yukie looks like her-


         -there is no choice, no room for will, no capacity for revenge; there is only the irresistible compulsion - do what she says. Not because I want to, not because I am afraid of her. I hate her, I loathe her, I want to destroy all of them, but I am a puppet on her strings, I have to do what she says. I cannot desert, I cannot turn on them, I cannot kill myself, her demands cannot be denied-


         -the toddler is crying. Earsplitting, tooth-grinding wail. Infant tears stream down its cherubic cheeks; she accepts it from me, I am held fast like a statue, I can only watch as she delicately slits its throat from ear to ear. She lounges as she feeds, indolently, and bids me to fetch another tender morsel-


         "Hwang Sungkyung will send you to HELL!"
         The clang of blades on blades rings in my ears; reflected sunset dances on unsheathed killing metal. He is a flash of vibrant spring green, moving too fast to see; cutting, thrusting, slashing, he jams his sword through her heart and kicks her off it, she claws at him as she falls, tearing bright red banners down his turqoise pants leg. One by one, he challenges them all, and they cannot run away.
         A thud, a groan, a whimper; they answer him, they gash him, they are cut down, his legs dip into a lengthwise split as he brings his weapon over his head, cleaving the skull of my final tormentor. Then he comes to me. Bloody rents stretch the length of his body. I think of what I've done; strength leaves my ankles and I kneel before him. He raises his sword with red-black stains-
         -and topples like a fallen tree, lying motionless and pale in a growing crimson pool. Wind carries drifting billows of grey ash, carelessly left in so many piles mocking human shapes...


         "You got something to prove, brat? C'mere and try it."
         Cannot refuse. Cannot walk away. Must turn around. Must answer the challenge, will collapse and crawl toward it if I try to resist - must fight, must struggle, must-
         -pain-
         -shockwaves from the impact leave me helpless, in body as surely as mind-
         -obey, it is as it was before, spitting up blood and cringing from broken bones, must respond to commands, do as my new master says-


         And then it... it got worse.
         I'm not going to describe all of what I saw. I don't like to think about it. I don't like to talk about it. What I had to relive in increasingly jumbled sequences, escalating in intensity, was only a taste of Hwoarang's interminable nightmare. Those memories are a part of me now, and will stay with me for as long as I live.
         I felt what it was to vomit whole any food I was made to choke down.
         I felt what it was to be brutalized daily by a laughing madman, so driven by his own demons that he never once thought to notice mine.
         I felt what it was to have dragonfire boil away my flesh. What it was to be trapped in a lightless prison of rock and dirt, natural rot eating me for months. When uniformed men dismantled the mass grave's cairn to retrieve the bodies of their comrades, they yelled in terror of my rising. I'd have yelled back at them, if I had the vocal chords to do it.
         But the worst - what made it excruciating, unbearable, long decades of living damnation interspersed amid the passage of centuries, was the absolute compulsion to obey. I must do what I am told, whether it is a trivial errand, a degrading humiliation, or a despicable crime. I must obey. I must obey. I must obey. Cannot desert a master, cannot deviate from the letter of his command, a master says to work and I work, a master says to kill and I kill, a master says to please him and I-
         I...
         Gods...


         I was screaming, giving voice to the endless cry inside Hwoarang when another psyche interfered. Firm, thin hands pried my fingers loose from his raptor hair and pulled me away, breaking the link of physical contact; even so, I was less than half aware of my own identity. My whole body shook, the scream stayed in my throat and would not go away until the heave of a rising gorge replaced it. I pressed both forearms tightly against my gut and folded over my knees, vomiting from a sickness of the soul.
         "What did you show him?" That was the girl with brown-black eyes, but she was so far removed, the sensations of fire and blood and worse still coated my skin, I could scarcely stay in this reality, think of myself as Jin Kazama, except that her voice was like a glimmering beacon, something concrete to hold on to. I mopped sweat from my brow with one hand and gripped my throat with the other, in a desperate attempt to curb my hyperventilating breath.
         "Why don't you take a look for yourself, you little bitch?" That had to be Hwoarang's caustic sneer. "Still want to? Go ahead. Let's see if you can handle it any better than he did."
         "I'm sorry I talked him into doing that, but I couldn't think of how else to convince him that you didn't-"
         "SHUT UP!"
         "You didn't murder any of these people, did you?"
         "You..." Hwoarang couldn't fully sit up because of his broken leg; instead, he painfully braced his torso with both hands, baring his sharply pointed canines in a grimace. "How did you know?"
         "Because you showed no signs of having been in a struggle. There wasn't any blood on your jacket-"
         "Don't repeat that drivel! How did you know? How did you really know!?"
         Her detached expression softened into sadness. She reached with her right hand, and brushed her delicate index finger against red-black blood furrow leading from his left eye. "This is how you cry, isn't it? You were weeping for Yukie."
         Hwoarang touched his own eyes and drew his hand away, looking at the traces of red-black left on his fingertips. Then made a fist and hissed, "Shit!"
         "Why did you lie to me...?" I asked, still in a tenuous daze. "How did you lie to me!? You said you killed Yukie!"
         "I did kill her," he answered, darkly. "If I hadn't spilled your blood in this dump, she would still be alive."
         "What are you talking about?"
         "The thing that murdered her is after you, idiot. It's following your blood. That's what Immortals do to track people; we trace the blood. The stains from yesterday's fight drew it here."
         The sick feeling in the pit of my vitals worsened.
         I - I was responsible for luring the Toshin's minion here? For the victims it had claimed inside these doors? Because when Hwoarang had baited me with insults, I couldn't stay in control?
         I had to throw up again.
         It was just as well that I hadn't eaten any dinner that night.
         The girl with brown-black eyes adjusted her crouch so that she rested on one knee. Studying Hwoarang with a quiet blend of scholarly interest and regretful sympathy, she said, "'We' trace the blood?"
         "Bite me."
         "Are you Immortal?"
         "Stuff it down your throat."
         "No. Answer her questions," I directed, in a low, strained tone. "All of them. Completely. The truth." For she seemed intent on learning the same things that I needed him to clarify, but the mental agony I'd tasted and the throbbing ache in my head hampered me from putting together my own interrogation.
         Again, Hwoarang flinched. His lips parted in a wince, but not from physical pain. I recognized that twinge; I'd relived it many times in his mind. "Immortal, undead, I don't care what you call it. I don't age. I don't die."
         "What are you?"
         "A vampyre. And a slave."
         "A vampire?" the girl restated, dryly.
         "No. A vampyre. If your ears are too thick to hear the difference, it's not my problem!"
         "What distinction is there?"
         "'Vampires' are imaginary monsters who turn into bats, shrivel up in sunlight, all that theatrical crap. I just drink blood and don't die."
         "Why should you be a slave?"
         "I don't make up the rules! Do you think I want to be like this? It's part of the curse, it's what I am!"
         "Exactly what are 'the rules'?"
         His eyebrows flattened menacingly, and he looked like he wanted to sink his teeth in her throat. But when I said, "You will not hurt her," that tortured shiver accosted him again, and with another surge of inner bile, I realized what he would explain before he spelled it out.
         "You can't refuse a challenge to single combat. You always have to meet it. If you lose, and your opponent doesn't want you dead, you become his slave for as long as he lives. Or she. And let me tell you something, you bitch, no matter how good you are, no matter how much you practice, no matter how hard you fight, there will always be people who are stronger than you. Or faster. Or who just get lucky; you can take apart twenty of them and the twenty-first will knock you out cold while you're winded. And then you've got a new master, because you only have to lose once.
         "You can't desert your master. Can't lie to him. Can't take any action to harm him. Can't refuse his commands. Any commands. My last master was Baek Doo San; he actually wasn't so bad, for a psychopath. The worst he did, other than drafting me into Kazuya's bloody little war, was beat me into the ground every day. Hell, I even learned a few things from the bastard. In the past four hundred years, I've been a peasant, I've been a soldier, I've been a child-killer, and I've been a whore - you want to ask your retching boyfriend what that's like? He's my new master now; he beat me in single combat, and you had to stop him from killing me!"
         "How could he kill you if you're Immortal?"
         "Not in single combat. That is the only way to break the curse. The one thing that can kill you is if someone defeats you in a one-on-one fight and chooses to finish you off, instead of keeping you for a slave. It has to be one-on-one; you have to fight back for all you're worth, or else it's not single combat and you can't die from it. Nothing else will destroy you for good - not fire, not decapitation, nothing. I've tried."
         "Is that why you tricked Jin into thinking you'd butchered all these people? So he would destroy you?"
         "It would have fit the prophecy."
         "What prophecy?"
         "An old seer predicted that I'd die for a murder I didn't commit. Lately, I've just been... drifting... hooking up with gangs in the hopes of making it happen. I thought I'd get blamed when one of them killed someone. Never thought it would be like this. Kazuya's brat here isn't very bright, but he was strong enough to take me to a draw once. If I'd known what a bitch you are, I would have gone after you first. But don't you worry your pretty head for now; I can't hurt you because he is my master and he said so."
         "What if...?" began the girl. The wheels in her mind were turning. With a cough, I spat out acid from my own vomit, and voiced an idea gleaned from her surface thoughts.
         "I command you never to be a slave again."
         "NOT within your POWER!" Hwoarang shrieked, in a sudden burst of indignation. "You can't break my curse with words; you can't change what I am!"
         "Can't I even release you from my control?"
         "You just did, moron. Don't you see? You've returned my 'freedom,' but only until I lose another fight. Now what? Do you expect me to be grateful?"
         "There has to be some way I can help you."
         "You're a real bleeding heart, aren't you? You actually care about these wretched mortals, despite what they put you through; I felt it in your mind. You're compassionate. It makes me sick. It's my last chance." Hwoarang let his head fall. "I'll only say it once: please. Show me mercy. Set me free of the curse."
         "You're asking me to kill you," I realized, dismay clouding my spirit.
         "Right now, you're the only one who can. Do you understand what the alternative is? Have you grasped what it's like to be a slave over and over again, or do you want to see more?"
         I looked at the girl. Her brown-black eyes darted nervously away. Slipping to both knees, she clasped her hands together and rested them on the floor. If I were to act, she would not stop me a third time.
         I recalled my lightning.
         Its destructive brilliance burned on my fist. Taking a deep breath, I raised my hand. Hwoarang closed his eyes.
         He has begged me for this, I told myself. This is a mercy. A kindness. To refuse would be far crueller; I knew, because I had seen. All these things, I repeated to myself. I repeated them several times, looking upon his tormented face.
         Upon his face... and the crimson trails that marred it, from the inner corners of each eye down to his chin.
         Hwoarang, don't! There's something bad about this one, I can feel it-
         I'd never truly known Yukie. Never so much as spoken to her. But I shared his memories of her, and now, it was the silent echo of her voice that stayed in my mind. I remembered how terrified she had been for him - terrified that I would be the one to destroy him.
         "I can't," I sighed, letting my hand fall.
         Hwoarang's fingernails carved rents in the decaying wooden floor. "What?"
         "This isn't right. You're not a murderer."
         "How can you say that!? You SAW what I've done!"
         "You were controlled."
         "Do you think I kill people only when I'm a slave?"
         "Destroying a person in single combat isn't the same as murder."
         "Are they any less dead because they had the chance to fight back?"
         "You're the one who is compelled to answer any challenge, not others. You are not evil. You don't even feed on human beings."
         "That's to avoid the pollution of human diseases!" He tapped his canines. "See these? Hollow. Lead straight to the bloodstream, same as a dirty needle. HIV doesn't kill my kind, but it does make us so weak we become easy prey. I may be the last one left."
         "Perhaps, but the real reason you live on animals is that you don't want to risk spreading your curse."
         "As if it's easy to transmit in the first place. It isn't! Most vampyre food has the good luck to stay dead!" Trembles gripped him, putting him on the verge of a seizure. "Why won't you do it? What's your real reason?"
         "It isn't what Yukie would want."
         "WHAT!?" he screamed, violently. "What does she have to do with anything?"
         "Ask yourself."
         "I never gave a damn about her!" Hwoarang abruptly turned his face away. I interlaced my fingers, meditatively sensing his emotional surface.
         "That is a blatant lie. You're not enough of a sociopath to deceive my telepathy, unless what you say has some kernel of truth."
         "What, do you think I was bedding her? Is that what you're imagining?" He shook his head. "She was a stray, that's all. A starving, runaway animal. She had no idea what I was! She just caught street rats for me, while I let her pretend to be my trollop so the rest of my gang wouldn't touch her. Do you want to know why she couldn't stand to be touched? Do you want to know what her family used to do to her? Do you?"
         "She shared your pain, and you tried to help her."
         "No, no! Stop twisting it! I just used her for food!" Encroaching weakness pulled at him, making his head and shoulders sink. "I hate having to catch my own rats..."
         "She isn't the only person to whom you've been kind," I continued, measuredly. "You saved Hwang Sungkyung from bleeding to death. Dressed his wounds, and left him to recuperate at an inn."
         "Only because he killed the vampyres that did this to me! I thought their destruction would make it stop. I didn't know about the rest of the curse. If I had, I would have waited for him to recover and finish me off!"
         "In the battle for the Mishima syndicate, you threw yourself into Liu Kang's dragonfire so that you wouldn't have to kill for Baek and Kazuya."
         "That's NOT how it HAPPENED!"
         "It wasn't something you planned in advance, but-"
         "What is wrong with you!? How vile do I have to be to earn your mercy?" He clawed at his hair, despairingly. "Do I have to insult your mother some more, is that what it takes?"
         I crouched across from him. "Come with me, to the Mishima syndicate."
         "You've already renounced your mastery over me. It's too late to start ordering me around again."
         "That's not what I meant. We have access to the best doctors in the world. We'll find a cure for you-"
         "Stop thinking of me as a mortal! I'm not sick with any mortal disease; I'm already dead! There IS no cure for DEATH!"
         "I won't give up on you that easily."
         "This isn't about me! This is about you not wanting to sully your precious clean hands!"
         "I'm sorry you feel that way. When you change your mind, the syndicate's doors will be open to you."
         "I'll kill you," he threatened, rabidly. "You can't just walk away from me! I'll make you suffer and then I'LL KILL YOU!"
         "I'm sorry. I can't afford to spend any more time or energy here; the Toshin's vassal has to be stopped. I'll have to trust that your wounds will regenerate on their own."
         "Hold on a minute," the girl with brown-black eyes piped up. "You're not going to keep running in circles all over Tokyo, are you?"
         When I tried to telepathically regain the Toshin-minion's trail of terror, my head hurt. Badly. There was too much outside confusion, riotous mass hysteria in the wake of its rampage, and probing Hwoarang's mind had already strained my psyche close to the breaking point. I couldn't reach past a half-kilometer without stirring up too much chaos to think in words.
         "Do you have a better idea?" I cautiously asked the girl.
         "As a matter of fact... if this thing is tracking your blood, then aren't you more likely to find it if you go directly to wherever you've, um, bled the most?"
         Her logic crystallized my worst fear.
         "The training hall," I whispered, my eyes growing wide. "It's going to attack my home! Grandfather is in grave danger!" I rose, preparing to sprint all the way back to the Mishima syndicate-
         -and stumbled, my legs quivering with weakness. I had to collapse and catch my breath. The girl's brown-black eyes searched me with worry.
         "Are you all right?" she asked.
         "Just tired. The run... the fight... the mind-probe..." An oddly belated question entered my head. "How did you know I'm a telepath? Or about what I can and can't do?"
         "You're Kazuya's son, aren't you? As if that weren't obvious from looking. I've never met a telepath before, but a close friend of mine has. He's a veteran of the Great Invasion, and he told me all about the Power that Kazuya and Liu Kang both possessed."
         "Oh." I laboriously climbed to my feet.
         The girl's eyebrows drew together, as she studied my shaky movements. "You really are exhausted, aren't you? You're in no shape to continue this wild goose chase."
         "I'll manage."
         "Wait," Hwoarang rasped.
         I looked at him. He awkwardly snatched his leather jacket from the girl. Thrusting his hand into its right pocket, he withdrew a silver key on a metal chain. He threw it to me with a light jingling noise.
         "My motorcycle is parked on the other side of the building. Take it."
         "Doomo arigato gozaimasu," I thanked, with a deep bow.
         His ill-tempered veneer cracked into unbridled frustration. "I'm NOT doing this to help you! I HOPE you catch up with that thing! I HOPE IT TEARS OFF YOUR HEAD!"
         He yelled more threats, but I didn't have time to listen; instead, I staggered out the back door of The Dragon's Tail. Sure enough, Hwoarang's motorcycle was there - it had to be his, it was the only two-wheeled vehicle in the trashy lot. I didn't pay attention to its make or anything like that. The only things I remember about it now are that the tank below its handlebars had a multi-lined skull-and-crossbones design painted over its sides, and a violet helmet one size too small for me resting on top. I tossed the helmet over my shoulder and never heard it hit the ground. Straddling the cycle's seat, I used the key to fire up its engine.
         A pair of slender arms clasped my waist.
         "Now what are you doing?" I exclaimed, incredulously, looking over my shoulder at the girl with brown-black eyes. The helmet clung protectively to her head, its strap securely fastened under her chin. She had seated herself behind me on the motorcycle.
         "I'm going with you. When you find this demon, you'll need all the help you can get against it."
         "Don't be absurd! I won't let you-"
         "You don't have time to argue, remember?"
         If only she would stop being right all the time, then maybe she wouldn't be quite so annoying. "At least promise you'll stay out of my way."
         "Okay. I promise you get to take point against the big horrible blood-soaked oni no onna," she agreed, with more than touch of sarcasm.
         "And I'm holding you to that." Now, let's see - the motor is straining pretty fiercely, so why isn't the cycle moving? Is some brake mechanism in the handlebars holding it back...?
         "Um, are you sure you know how to drive one of these things?" the girl suddenly asked, with a dose of worry infused into her voice.
         "I think I picked up the basics from Hwoarang's mind," I muttered, fiddling with a nondescript lever that turned out to be the headlight switch. Maybe I needed to do something with the kickstand...
         "You think?"
         "It can't be that different from riding a bicyiiiiIIIIIAAAAHHH!" A startled cry ripped out the end of my sentence, as the mechanical slingshot propelled us into motion. Rushing with a will of its own, it tore across gravel, dirt, sidewalk, and street, bucking perilously over rocks and curbs. Airborne dust and insects blew against my face, stinging my eyes until I could barely keep them open to see the flashing mural of buildings, traffic lights, and honking cars that we passed. The girl held on to my torso for dear life, although she was kind enough to avoid putting any pressure on my still-healing ribs. Through the contact, I felt a dizzying rush of her fear. She was inwardly berating herself for ever sticking up her nerve. I would have been happy to stop the cycle and let her off, but I had no idea how to do that without breaking both our necks. When I had to round a corner, I used a forceful discharge of my Power to counter the cycle's natural lean and keep us one centimeter above plastering our skin all over the street.
         Damn. Maybe I should just say I managed, okay? Because the harrowing rush of the journey was nothing compared to what waited at the end. I sensed the Toshin-vassal's relentless hunger in my mind before I could see the extent of its destruction, even as we crossed the border to Shinjuku. Its challenge thundered in my thoughts...
         ...its challenge...
         ...what was I saying?
         ...what was I...?
         ...something... something's wrong...
         ...you're... you're right of course, we're out of time, I have to get to school now, but this... this is a problem. Lately I've been getting these... these... I'm just spacing out sometimes, and I can't remember how or why or what I was saying - I was telling you about catching up to the Toshin's minion, wasn't I? It challenged me with-
         ...with...
         ...what was I saying?
         ...what was I...?
         ...something's wrong... I can't properly finish an interview anymore; I don't understand. Why...?
         Do you really think so?
         I know - yes, I do get problems just from being around other people's thoughts, and lately I've been trying more than ever to acclimate myself through immersion. I suppose that has strained me a great deal. Julia and I are planning to see a movie in a public theater this evening, but it probably counts as more of a psychic stamina exercise than a date.
         It's just that these recent episodes of mine feel like they're getting more frequent, especially when I talk to you - do you honestly believe I shouldn't worry about them?
         Well, then, I guess you're right. See you later. Have fun sorting through files and tapes for the project.
         Just don't - don't do anything to hurt yourself again, okay? You really did have me worried last night.





VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: Tokyo Mishima General Hospital
video surveillance cassette X0009543
Room 102-D
December 6, 2017
12:32 a.m.


The field of view shows a male patient lying in a hospital bed, eyes shut, breathing tube running under the nose, arm connected to an intravenous nutrition feed. Two female voices sound off-camera.

ORDERLY: You can't just force your way in here; visiting hours are-

TRACY: Detective Tracy Wong, Hong Kong Police Force! You're not going to give me the runaround; I know you have him!

O: But-

A woman dressed in plain clothes approaches the hospital bed.

T: Oh, my god.

A woman in a nurse's uniform follows.

O: Mr. Lei Wulong is no longer in critical condition, but we are keeping him under observation. If you must pay your respects, please keep them brief.

T: What - what happened to him?

O: Internal bleeding, induced by multiple tumors, stress, and a physical skirmish. Representatives of the Mishima syndicate had him brought here. We've done what we can.

T: 'What we can'? What do you mean by that?

O: He's dying.

T: No...

O: His cancer is too far advanced. I'm sorry. His medical records indicate that he's been fighting a losing battle with it for quite some time.

T: How... how long does he have?

O: At most, another month. Syndicate President Heihachi Mishima is taking full responsibility for the expense of his care.

T: Lei...

Tracy sits on the edge of the bed, and takes Wulong's hand in her own.

T: Lei, can you hear me? It's Tracy. Don't try to speak, just squeeze my hand if you can, all right? Lei...?

Ten seconds pass.

T: Was... was that a 'yes'? You can hear me? Lei...

Tracy sighs.

T: Idiot. I told you not to go to Japan by yourself. And what's all this hogwash I hear about you being in the Iron Fist Tournament? I said you were in no shape for this, not when you can hardly talk between coughing fits, but did you listen to me? Do you ever listen to me?
         They're... they're dropping the Toshin case.
         It's a direct order from the executive branch of the Hong Kong government. Your jurisdiction to investigate this matter is suspended. So is mine. I'm not even your partner anymore; reassigned as of, um, today. I only came to Japan because... because I knew you'd want to hear this in person from a friend, not over a com link from the brass. In another six hours, I'm boarding a flight back home.
         I'm going to miss you.
         Sure, you're moody and paranoid and worst of all, half the force just assumes I'm sleeping with you. Never mind that I'm married and have a daughter; you're the incredible legendary Super Police and I'm your partner, therefore I must be having a love affair with you, right? If I hear one more bullshit rumor, I swear I'm going to break some kneecaps.
         But you... you taught me better than to let rumors dictate my life. You taught me everything I know about this job. Everything that's real. I'm becoming a trainer; I swear to you, I'm going to pass on all your wisdom to the rookies, teach them how to survive and fight and make a difference in this sorry world. I... I don't want to leave you like this, but I think they... they can take better care of you here. Keep you more comfortable, at least. If... if there's anything you r-really want done, just send me a message and I promise I'll see to it, okay? Do you understand? If you do, then can you squeeze my hand one more time?
         Lei?
         Lei, you're cutting off the blood to my fingers...

Wulong's eyes open.

WULONG: ...it's... it's here...

T: Lei?

W: ...it's awake... it's found a host... it's searching...!

T: What are you talking about?

W: IT'S GOING TO KILL MY SON!

Wulong throws himself from the bed, and tries to force his way out of the room. Tracy restrains him.

W: No, no, NO! Wasn't my wife's soul enough for you? You won't murder my son like you did her! You won't! You won't! I WON'T LET YOU!

O: (speaking into the camera) Room 102-D, we need the patient sedated now!

W: No, let me out of here, it's going to murder him, I have to stop it, LET ME OUT OF HERE! Jin! JIN! NOOOO!

Two more orderlies enter with a doctor. The orderlies and Tracy grapple with Wulong.

T: Lei, stop this! It's me, Tracy, don't you recognize me?

W: I WON'T LET YOU KILL MY SON!

While the others hold Wulong, the doctor injects him with a sedative.

W: No... Jun, I've failed you... I've failed our son... Jun...

Wulong falls limp.

DOCTOR: Transfer him to the second floor, and this time strap him down. We can't risk letting this happen again!

The orderlies remove Wulong.

T: Wait-!

D: No, you wait right there, Miss. How did you get in here? What did you think you were doing?

Tracy displays her police badge.

T: Detective Tracy Wong, Hong Kong Police Force. Lei Wulong was my partner, and-

D: I don't care what your relationship is; you just provoked a delusional paroxysm in one of my patients!

T: I - I'm so sorry, it won't happen again. But if you could please tell me something-

D: Make it quick.

T: Lei was always so close-mouthed about his family; I've never heard him admit to being married before. Does he have any next of kin? If so, then they should be notified at once.

D: We checked that when we admitted him. Our records on him come straight from the Mishima syndicate comprehensive database, and they confirm that Mr. Lei Wulong has no living relatives. He does, however, have a history of sporadic hallucinatory dementia. That is the most likely explanation for his outburst.

T: I see. Thank you. I won't bother you anymore.

Tracy leaves. A beeping noise sounds from the doctor's pocket.

D: Now what?

The doctor removes his pager and speaks into it.

D: This had better be good; my shift ended five minutes ago-
         -what?
         How many trauma cases? What's going on out there, a war? Fine, fine, I'll be there; it's not like I can't use the overtime.

The doctor replaces his pager.

D: Looks like it's going to be a long night.


End of Chapter 8: Slaves of Circumstance