PHOENIX REBORN

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



Chapter 10: Dragon's Diplomacy


   "Although the use of the Old Speech binds a man to truth, this is not so with dragons. It is their own language, and they can lie in it, twisting the true words to false ends, catching the unwary hearer in a maze of mirrorwords each of which reflects the truth and none of which leads anywhere."
         -Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea


AUDIO TRANSCRIPT: Mishima Syndicate Primary Control Room


Excerpt #1
December 6, 2017
1:43 a.m.


HEIHACHI MISHIMA: You are late.

DOCTOR ABEL: It could not be helped.

M: Take control of Prototype Alpha. Now.

A: Yes, Mishima-sama.

M: You! Status report!

TECH 1: The enemy has decimated the Shinjuku, Kotoku, and Ginza Tekkenshu Corps. The Ikebukuro Tekkenshu Corps are en route with reinforcements. We have sent all security personnel to protect the Residential Wing. All noncombatants can be completely evacuated within 3.5 minutes.

M: Do not evacuate yet.

TECH 2: Enemy is within 100 meters of the Residential Wing!

A: Testing remote command relay system. Audio receivers operational.

M: Send in the prototype.


Excerpt #2
December 6, 2017
1:54 a.m.


M: I WANT THAT MEDALLION! NOW!

A: Yes, Mishima-sama. At once.

T1: Mishima-sama! The reinforcements have arrived!

M: Deploy them about the syndicate periphery. They are not to advance upon the Residential Wing until I say.

A: What is that vixen doing to my prototype!?

T2: Looks like a Frankensteiner.

A: NO! Prototype Alpha: KILL!

M: I commanded you to retrieve that medallion, not-

A: I'm not going to pry that toy loose from her while she's alive and you know it! Any more of this pointless struggling could irreparably damage the prototype!

M: Very well.

short pause

A: sigh This is too slow. I simply must program the prototype with a killing technique swifter than manual strangulation.

T2: What-? That white light again!

T1: I can't see!

sizzling

M: Now what?

A: All audiovisual and motor command relays have shorted out. My poor prototype-!

T1: Surveillance camera 16C back online.

M: Elevate its volume to maximum.

increased background static

   -JULIA CHANG: uuugh...

   -PROTOTYPE ALPHA: Wh-where am I...? This... this looks like...

M: Who is that? I commanded the Tekkenshu to stay back!

A: gasp It is the prototype.

M: What!?

   -P: ...home...

M: Abel! Are you doing this?

A: Nn-no, this is impossible. The prototype should not be able to maintain life support on its own. It is not even programmed for speech!

   -P: I... I'm alive. I'm alive! I can touch, I can smell, I can - air! I'm breathing real air! cough Foul air, at that. How-?

   -C: G-give... give that back...

   -P: Michelle?

M: Can you activate its self-destruct?

A: Well, the neuro-metabolic shutdown signal is on an independent transmission, but surely you're not suggesting-?

   -P: I-I'm sorry, is this yours?

   -C: ...mine... cough

   -P: Michelle, how-?

   -C: ...get away from me...

   -P: No, you must not run! Can't you see the militiamen? They could shoot you if you rush them!

   -C: Let go!

   -P: Michelle, no! I won't let you be killed again!

   -C: What were you trying to do before!? And my name's not- coughing

M: Destroy the prototype.

A: But Mishima-sama-!

M: Activate its self-destruct! Now!

   -P: You're... not Michelle?

   -C: Let go of my wrist!

   -slap

   -P: Pain... that was physical pain. I really am alive!

M: DESTROY IT!

A: I can't! I worked so hard to create it!

M: Then get out of my way!

click

   -P: Oh, no.

   -buzzing

   -P: ...aaaghhkkk...!

   -thud

   -C: Hey. I didn't hit you that hard.

A: AAAAAH! It's ruined! Ruined! sobs

M: Apply the Ikebukuro Tekkenshu to the Residential Wing. Their priority objective is to retrieve that medallion, and the remains of Prototype Alpha. Keep back a rear detachment to block any approach from the media, until we have a statement ready. And summon a damage control squad; I want this mess cleaned within an hour.

T1: Yes, Mishima-sama. What about the girl?

M: Capture her alive for questioning. Use soporifics. And you - have all the syndicate's internal surveillance records for the past twenty-four hours erased.

T2: Yes, Mishima-sama.

A: sniffle You just told him to bury the evidence, didn't you? It wasn't enough for you to destroy my prototype; you have to destroy all remembrance of your crime as well!

sobs, choking

A: But what if a piece of the truth slipped through your grasp? How badly could it hurt you?

M: Get out of my sight.





INTERVIEW WITH JULIA CHANG, section 3
February 10, 2018
6:45 a.m.


         You're up early.
         I'm... I'm fine. My sleep was a little rough. Bad dreams. But I'm feeling better now.
         A little better.
         A very little.
         Just... just tell me what you need, so I can get this over with. I have a paper to work on.
         Right.
         Nice transcript. Abel secretly recorded it, didn't he? Probably as a way to stab Heihachi in the back. Or else as insurance against Heihachi stabbing him in the back.
         Hmph. It's a rather intuitive deduction, given that the transcript begins when Abel enters the room and ends when he leaves. Not to mention that if Heihachi had known it existed, you wouldn't have it now. Abel probably concealed the wire on his person, rather than plant it somewhere in the Primary Control Room and risk it being discovered. You must have turned the syndicate upside down to find where he hid this recording.
         Oh. Really?
         That must have been fun. I'm sorry I wasn't there to see it.
         So, I assume you want me to continue from where the transcript ends?
         Well, in my own defense I'd like to point out how distraught I was. After all I'd been through - running, screaming, a death-defying motorcycle ride, banishing the Toshin's minion, and nearly getting strangled - I was so strained I could hardly stay conscious. And that was before the Tekkenshu threw a gas canister at me.
         They used a formula that was colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Just like that, I heard a hissing noise and collapsed before I could even think of holding my breath. I felt a faraway echo of the ground hitting my face, as though I were outside my own body. Darkness crowded my eyes.
         My forehead hurt.
         It was a dull, groggy ache, on the side of my temple. The pulse of my own blood vessels made for an oscillating headache. There was lingering tenderness in my neck and lower spine, and my legs were sore with cramps. It wasn't all that bad, as long as I held perfectly still except for deep, slow breaths. However, it was enough of a discomfort to gradually pull my consciousness out of the darkness. I became aware of more feelings: the soft press of bandages against my forehead, the hard flatness of a surface under my back, and the quiet murmur of spoken syllables.
         Glaring white invaded my eyes.
         I blinked, struggling to take stock of my surroundings. I was in a square-shaped room, on something that I won't dignify to call a bed - more like a long cot with only a layer of wax paper between me and the cold metal. That explained the back pain.
         Something was missing.
         There had been a weight around my neck, a counterbalance I'd grown accustomed to carrying on a beaded cord. It was lifted, gone, only the cord left behind - this was not good, because the weight had been-
         "My medallion!" I exclaimed, jolting fully awake.
         An earthquake struck.
         Not in the literal sense, but that tiny white room spun and shook; I had to grab the cot's edge to keep from pitching over its side. It took me a few moments to realize that the quaking effect stemmed from unsteadiness inside my semicircular canals, not outside them.
         "So. You have recovered your strength."
         It was a dragon's voice that addressed me: strong, deep, unshakeable in its self-confidence, and utterly ruthless in its designs. I knew that thick, stolid Japanese accent, stirring like the deep-seated rumble of a volcano. I'd heard it before. Not in person, but rather from assorted video documentaries, with footage from his rare public appearances.
         Heihachi Mishima.
         Billionaire, septuagenarian, President and CEO of the Mishima syndicate - there stood the towering executive, as greedy for Power as the dragon Smaug had been for treasure. Bristling twin peaks of grey hair garnished either side of his balding pate. Two virtually identical, sunglass-wearing strongmen in black business suits flanked his imposing frame. Smooth black fighting guards with white-stitched seams covered the lower halves of his forearms; their leather polish was so impeccable that I could see a glimmer of my own, fiercely defiant reflection.
         He was just as I had pictured in my dreams, except that he was dressed in traditional Japanese attire rather than a tailored designer suit. Yet his current outfit looked every bit as expensive as an Armani original. His kimono and hakama both must have been spun from the finest silk, dyed a royal blue so deep it could swallow up the ocean-
         -excuse me?
         You know what a hakama is. Don't you?
         Oh all right, all right. I'm pretending I don't know you. No, I'll go a step beyond that, and pretend you're a scatterbrained idiot. Why do you insist on all this double-thinking, anyway?
         Objectivity?
         Yours, or mine?
         Hmph. Well, maybe it is easier for you to pretend you're on the outside looking in. And at the time, I actually didn't know that Heihachi's wide-legged slacks were called a "hakama." But the shifting folds of deep blue did catch my eye, embellished as they were with artful streaks of gold and black along the outer shins. The pattern continued seamlessly into the flow of his kimono - that was his matching, loose-sleeved short robe. A silken sash tied the kimono's front, but its hem hung open enough to partly reveal Heihachi's bare chest.
         Ugh.
         This is not a pleasant memory, mind. It ranks only slightly above when Bryan Fury almost killed me.
         All revulsion aside, though, I did notice the remains of a dark-pigmented mark on Heihachi's sternum. It was a pair of diagonal slashes, extending in an asymmetrical X. The upper right and lower left streaks stretched several times the length of the upper left and lower right. Kazuya Mishima had inflicted that scar, over twenty years ago. He defeated and branded his father, just as the father had scarred the son, in a malevolent cycle of violence feeding upon them both like the serpent eating its own tail. I wondered what legacy of scars Heihachi sought to perpetuate upon his grandson, Jin Kazama...
         Jin!
         Bitter shock paralyzed me. Toshin-Nina's mad howls of vengeance burned in my ears; nightmare vision flashed in front of my eyes. I had seen her twist Jin's neck, and heard the terrifying sound of breaking bone. She... she killed him...
         I'd known Jin for scarcely an hour, but he had seemed so caring. So idealistic. Though he looked like the very reflection of his Devil father, the short time I had spent with him left me with grave doubts as to whether he truly was heir to the House Mishima's evil legacy.
         Perhaps he had been the opposite. Perhaps he had been their last hope for redemption.
         Why didn't he fight back?
         Why did he keep trying to free Nina from the Toshin, when she was obviously beyond his Power to save? Just before Jin confronted her, he had almost murdered Hwoarang, whom he mistakenly believed to be the Toshin's diabolic minion. But when Jin found the true minion, he never once tried to attack her. I didn't understand. Had he felt displaced remorse over nearly killing an innocent man? The hypothesis rang hollow in my head, and now I'd never be able to ask him.
         I'd never...
         ...Jin...
         No, I thought to myself, I will not cry. I will not reveal any feelings to Heihachi Mishima; he will find no entertainment in my grief.
         I will not cry!
         Let the dragon try whatever ploy he would. Let him seek to beguile me with words, or strike me with blows; I was ready. I would tell him nothing. There was nothing he could possibly do to get a response out of me! Nothing!
         "Your grandmother is worried about you," Heihachi said, ominously.
         Nothing except that.
         "What have you done to her!?" I exclaimed, in a sudden rush of panic.
         I had not thought through the consequences of daring to challenge dragons. I'd been prepared to risk my own life, or even my soul, but I never once realized that I was putting my grandmother in danger as well. In referring to her, Heihachi was effectively telling me that her life was in his hands. The cruel knowledge that the House Mishima had murdered my grandfather and my mother formed a devastating barb in my throat.
         Heihachi raised his eyebrows slightly. "Calm yourself, child. I merely directed one of the syndicate's American liaisons to install a video transmitter within her dwelling. It was the swiftest means by which I could speak with her face-to-face. And I was quite curious to ask her about you, Miss Julia Chang."
         Layers of silken deception cocooned the dragon's speech. While the words were smooth, perhaps even gentlemanly, dark ulterior motives poisoned their intent. I could feel it. One must never listen to dragons in complacency, for their riddles and half-truths form a web without strands, ever-creeping to snare the soul.
         "How..." I needed to buy time, needed to keep the dragon weaving his mind-web about inconsequential matters while I purified my resolve. "How did you know my name? Or where to find my grandmother?"
         "Come now, child. Her abode has not changed since the years when Michelle Chang competed in my Iron Fist Tournament. As for your name, you have already proclaimed it to the entire syndicate, have you not?"
         Right. I knew that.
         "Yet you are not truly Michelle Chang's daughter, are you? She was an Indian-Mandarin half-breed. If you were her offspring, you would sport darker skin and sharper eyes." Heihachi brushed his scaly claws against my hair and cheek. It felt disturbingly like how one of my tribe might touch a young ewe, in order to evaluate the quality of her wool.
         "Take your dirty talons off me!" I snapped, jerking my head away.
         "A fosterling," he confirmed, retracting his claws. His lips curled into an amused leer.
         I wanted to lash out at him, but I held myself back. Rigidly. He was the King of the Iron Fist and twice my size. His matched pair of bodyguards watched me with relentless suspicion. Even if I were able to gain an advantage, I was still deep within the dragon's lair, surrounded by his legions. I entertained no illusions as to how I would fare, should this confrontation escalate into violence.
         "Such an ungrateful girl," Heihachi mused, his leer softening to idle contemplation.
         "I owe you nothing except grief!" I spat back.
         "And why should that be?"
         "Because you... you..."
         I should not have risen to the bait, but his callous attitude infuriated me so. "You MURDERED my grandfather! When he tried to quit your syndicate, you had him beaten to death like a dog!"
         "You have no proof of that." The dragon's brow darkened, dangerously. "Beware, child. Slander has its consequences."
         "I have proof that your sons killed my mother in cold blood. Because you raised them to be animals like you!"
         "Do not speak of my sons!"
         Heihachi tensed. His malevolent black eyes narrowed, and I knew I had scored a successful hit on an old wound. Yet, with a visible display of effort, he consciously suppressed his anger. I wondered why. What did the King of the Iron Fist want from me so badly that he would strive to hold his legendary temper in check?
         "You have misinterpreted my initial meaning. It is not I whom your ingratitude has wronged," the dragon continued, forcing the roughness in his voice to smooth itself out. "Your grandmother bequeathed you the kindness of a home and a family, and how have you repaid her? By fleeing to another nation, leaving behind only an inadequate scrap of paper to explain your insanity. Was it your desire to make her weep, even plead for your safe return?"
         I...
         I must not listen to this. It is the nature of a dragon to lay verbal snares, crafted to entangle victims in their own doubts and fears-
         "It was the very first thing she said to me, are you aware of that? 'Please. Send my granddaughter back safe. I will give you anything.'"
         'Anything'?
         "My medallion!" I gasped, clutching at the missing weight above my chest. "You took it! You stole it from me, and now you're ransoming me for it!"
         "Watch your tongue," the dragon countermanded, sternly. "If there is any thief present, it is you. Heaven's Dagger was never yours to take; you plundered it in disobedience to your own grandmother's wishes!"
         "Heaven's... Dagger?" My medallion wasn't a weapon - was it?
         "An ancient name for the relic. It is a cursed device, legendary for bringing sorrow and death to those who hold it. Look at yourself, child. Look at how it has subconsciously compelled you to madness. Was it truly with a clear mind that you elected to abandon your home?"
         I clenched my teeth.
         "I think not. It has been written that when there is a gathering of living souls worthy to tempt the Toshin, Heaven's Dagger will inevitably use a mortal vehicle to draw itself into the assembly. So that I have been expecting you to join my convocation, or someone like you, serving as an unwitting host to the evil artifact."
         No. No, that's not right. The sacred treasure wasn't a relic of evil; it had tried to warn me of evil, of Heihachi and the Toshin. He was twisting everything around-
         "You are shaking your head," Heihachi mused. "The evil thing has utterly brainwashed your thoughts. You are fortunate indeed for my intervention, young lady."
         "THAT'S NOT TRUE!" I shouted back. "You're the evil thing; the medallion helped me, it gave me the sorcery to repel Nina-!"
         Heihachi's smile returned.
         Oh, no. I was getting tangled in the dragon's word-snare. He wanted to know all that I knew about the medallion, and he had just provoked me into spilling a little more. I shut my mouth and turned my face aside.
         "You were saying?" Heihachi leaned slightly forward. "I did not believe you to be a natural sorceress. You have neither the demeanor, nor the residue of raw energy. So tell me, precisely how did you attune yourself to the Power of Heaven's Dagger?"
         I could have said that watching Jin die tore a wound in my soul, and a Force greater than any I had known swept in to fill the void. I could have said that, for one drifting instant, the spirit of the land itself had moved me. Or I could have said that the link between Nina and the Toshin had been like a tenuous elastic cord, stretched to its limit; a slight boost to the Earth's natural resistance was all it took to make the cord retract, pulling Toshin-Nina into the netherworld of her dark master. But Heihachi was a fiendish dragon and I hated him, so I said none of these things.
         "Give me back my medallion."
         "Again, you fail to understand. I will explain, with sufficient clarity to impart meaning into even your stubborn head." Heihachi's eyebrows flattened, and for just a moment, he let his facade of humanity drop. Undiluted avarice and the burning drive for Power creased his reptilian glare.
         "It is not 'your' medallion. Your grandmother has recognized my destiny, and bequeathed it to me of her own free will. The title has been written, signed, and notarized. Heaven's Dagger is mine, both legally and by divine right. Do not lay claim to what is mine!"
         He was breathing hard when he finished, barely containing his outrage. It took a few seconds for him to regain his self-control, and reassert his human disguise.
         "Your respect for your elders is sorely lacking, yet that is not a surprise. What else could be expected of such a remorseless girl? Your grandmother has my deepest condolences. I know all too well how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have thankless children."
         No, not this again. I must not listen to him. I must not.
         "It is a monumental shame, to think of the wound you have torn in an old woman's heart. And to what end? Have you no love for her at all?"
         No. No, I'd never meant to hurt my grandmother; my quest had been for the greater good, surely she understood that-
         "You made her suffer so that you could chase your selfish, frivolous fantasy!"
         "Don't talk like that, you MONSTER!"
         I couldn't hold the tears back anymore.
         They came in runny, moist rivulets, staining my cheeks and thickening my voice, impossible to stop or to hide. A thousand smaller stresses fed into the enormity of what I'd done to my grandmother, and the combined weight tore my barriers down. Something had blocked me from acknowledging my actions before - perhaps it really had been the medallion that colored my dreams and mesmerized my waking. I'd been so enthralled that I'd forgotten how terrified my grandmother had been, that night when I first unearthed the object. I'd forgotten my vow to throw it away forever.
         Why did I betray her? What good had it done to rescind my promise and leave her to fear? I failed to save Jin's life...
         It hurt. It hurt so much that the only thing I could do was hurl my pain in Heihachi's face.
         "How dare you talk of having no remorse!? Who are you to speak of love for your family! Your own grandson has been murdered, and you don't even feel any grief! All you can think about is your damned precious treasure!"
         "You..." growled the dragon. His hackles bristled, angry, scales flaring-
         -then suddenly smoothing themselves, as his resentment curled into intrigue.
         "...are concerned for his welfare?" Intrigue sharpened to calculated, vested interest.
         "More so than you!" I spat back.
         "Even though he is an aberration of Nature?" Heihachi paced in a slow stalk, circling my flat-backed cot like a hungry tiger. His geta - traditional wooden sandals, elevated on blocks attached to the soles - made regular clack sounds on the hard floor. "Jin has the Power to call forth inhuman energies, and bend them to his will. He can reach inside men's minds, and read their souls. You know all this, yet still you fear for him more than you fear him?"
         Wait a minute.
         Jin 'has' the Power? Present tense?
         "What are you telling me?" I whispered. "I saw Jin die..."
         Heihachi gruffly said something that I didn't understand.
         It must have been a command in Japanese, addressed to his pair of strongmen. Before I could think to react, they each had one of my arms. They practically carried me out of the room, following Heihachi's long strides.
         "Hey - hey stop that, put me down! I can walk! I can walk!" Panic possessed me, and I tried to kick my captors. They did set me down, but I don't think it was because of my feeble efforts. The two of them kept a razor-close eye on me. And I noticed something else: they weren't completely identical. The one on my left had a bandage around the back of his head; it hadn't been noticeable at first because the cloth was as dull black as his short-cropped hair. Under the bodyguards' wary monitoring, I followed Heihachi, mentally marking each turn in the winding syndicate corridors as we went.
         Heihachi stopped in front of a large, circular glass portal. Gesturing to it, he said, "See for yourself."
         I looked through the window.
         My face paled.
         Weakness shook my knees.
         When I first saw Jin, I mistook him for a Devil. Now, I feared he was a ghost. He lay so still on that white-sheeted bed, stains of his own dried blood marking a grisly trail on his throat. His eyes were closed, as if in sleep. His head lay stiffly immobile in a white, saucer-shaped neck brace, which elevated points of his needlelike hair a centimeter or two above his mattress. Bandages wrapped his upper body. A small black clamp attached to a long cord gripped his right index finger, transferring data on his blood pressure. A transparent oxygen mask covered his mouth, and wires ran from his chest to the monochromatic screen of a cardiac monitor. Peaks and valleys marked the monitor's bright green display line in a regular pattern.
         He was alive.
         Jin was alive!
         "How?" I breathed.
         "Sorcery," Heihachi growled.
         But that... that begged the question...
         I knew Jin had the Power to mend his injuries, but there are limits to what healing sorcery can do. No healer can cure a broken neck, because no magic in the world is powerful enough to restore a damaged spinal cord. Healing sorcery only accelerates and supports the body's natural regeneration, and no human body has the ability to replace dead nerve cells.
         Was my memory playing tricks on me? Had Toshin-Nina actually stopped short of breaking Jin's neck? I could have sworn that she crushed his vertebrae. I'd been so sure he was dead-
         The tears were in my eyes again. It was getting harder to resist them.
         "My grandson's Power has prolonged his existence, when any common mortal would have perished," Heihachi continued. "Yet healing sorcery is drawn from life, and at this moment, his own life essence is tenuously frail. He needs the gift of another's strength. He needs a willing reagent."
         "Won't you help him?" I softly inquired.
         "I am not a sorcerer."
         "So?"
         Heihachi's jaw tensed. Something he had said before clicked in my memory.
         "You called him an 'aberration of Nature,'" I said, accusingly. "Because he's a telepath and a sorcerer, and you're not. He can do powerful, incredible things that you can't. You hate the whole idea, don't you? If you tried to be his reagent, your own jealousy would undermine the attempt. It might even kill him."
         "Do not pretend that you share my grandson's telepathy." He said it 'telepashee,' repressed anger insinuating itself into the hiss of his serpent's tongue. "It was sorcery that turned my sons against me, and sorcery that destroyed them. Now, I find that only sorcery may save my grandson; yet I cannot rid myself of loathing for the Power that has caused naught save ill for the House Mishima."
         I turned and glared at the silent men in black. "What about the two of you? Don't you want to help Jin? Or are you filled with hatred and jealousy too?"
         The bodyguard with a head bandage cringed. The other one didn't exactly flinch; instead, he adjusted his gaze from directly upon me to a couple inches past the side of my head. As if to keep watching me without having to look me in the eye.
         No. They might have had the strength, but they were too afraid to consider sharing it. And Heihachi's darkly resigned frown confirmed that, for all his avowed hatred of sorcery, he was familiar with its basic restrictions. He knew that he couldn't compel his flunkies to be Jin's reagents. The consent of a reagent can't be coerced by mandate; it has to come from within. Otherwise the spell is doomed, and possibly the caster with it.
         I shook my head, disgustedly.
         Among the Navajo, 'witches' are dreaded almost as much as Death itself. My mother was feared and somewhat ostracized for being a sorceress. Although she died fighting for the Earth, many Navajo today regard her memory with at least as much suspicion as respect. Sometimes, even my grandmother's own clansmen would treat her and me both with cautious antagonism. After all, hadn't my grandmother given birth to a witch, and hadn't she taken me in to replace a witch? And now, an entire ocean away from my home, I looked past Heihachi's wrinkles and his servants' black shades to see exactly the same, sublimated mistrust on their faces.
         Did everyone in this deathtrap of a syndicate hate and fear what they failed to understand?
         Did everyone in the whole world?
         I touched my hand to the window's cold surface, looking sadly at Jin. "What is his prognosis?"
         Moments passed, without an answer. I didn't care for the pervasive knell of silence. It felt like the howl of dry wind over my mother's grave.
         Heihachi said, "Come."
         The bodyguards looked like they might drag me by the arms again, but I shot them the most ferocious glower I could manage and hastened to follow Heihachi. He led me through a pair of metal doors, into the intensive care unit.
         New impressions filtered through my senses. There was a steady, regular beeping from the cardiac monitor. The hissing ksssh of a corrigated pump, compressing and pausing at slow intervals. The low-key hum of fine circuitry. And the strong, unpleasant smell of chemical antiseptic.
         Heihachi stopped by his grandson's bedside.
         "Jin," he addressed, judiciously. "This young lady has volunteered to be your reagent. Use her to heal yourself."
         What?
         Heihachi's withering gaze became colder, as he glared at his Jin's motionless face. "I said, she has volunteered!"
         "Uh, I don't think he can hear you," I muttered.
         yes, I can.
         I nearly shrieked.
         In retrospect, it was silly to be so startled. It's just that I'd never heard Jin's mind-voice before. It wasn't an external sound, but rather a quiet, internal reverberation. It was accented in the same mild cadence, ever so slightly musical, that formed his physical voice.
         sorry. broadcast... easier... to one person...
         His telepathy was faint. I could feel a sympathetic echo of motionless agony, reflected on its imprint.
         grandfather... mistaken... isn't he...? There was no bitterness in the question, only lingering pain.
         "Uh, well..."
         it's okay... don't worry...
         Jin's mind-voice was growing weaker. He was just barely conscious; oblivion crept along the edge of his thoughts, gradually peeling away his fading grip.
         "I am volunteering," I said, and the strength of my own conviction surprised me.
         It surprised him, too. but... the risk...
         "Ssh. Just trust me, okay? Same as you trusted me about Hwoarang; I was right about him, wasn't I?" Kneeling next to Jin's bed, I clasped one of his still hands. "I've done this before. I know what I'm getting into."
         Silence.
         "Jin? Oh no, don't you give up on me. Are you listening? I'm here to help you back, you can't let go now! Jin!"
         Darkness.
         "Wake up, damn you! Stay with me! Jin, you - y-you idiot..."
         Emptiness.
         The tears returned, so thick now there was no hope of keeping them inside; I could only hold Jin's tepid hand, and cling to the dull, flickering glow of his dim life force. "...why? Why did you get yourself like this? You knew Nina was your enemy; why couldn't you fight against her? Why...?"
         I opened my eyes to midnight.
         Everything that had been there a moment ago was gone - Jin, Heihachi, the ICU full of life-support equipment, everything. I was alone on a tiny island of rough, jutting pumice rock, no wider than a medium-sized woven mat. A black sea lapped the shore of my perch. Tentatively, I dipped my hand in the sea. It was neither warm nor cold; it felt clean like water, yet its consistency was as viscous as oil. My fingers went numb for a moment, aching from a sensation that was not touching my physical skin. Patterns took shape in the sea, resembling human figures. Distant voices brushed my ears.
         I had told Jin the truth about doing this before. Just not the whole truth.
         You see, Catsclaw used to let me be his reagent for simple sorcery, a long time ago. There is a very real risk involved; namely, being exposed to the memories of your partner, and having your memories exposed to him. The side effects can range from disorientation to brain damage. Once, when I was eleven years old, I accidentally witnessed the death of my mother, as Catsclaw had seen it. I saw Michelle Chang chained and branded with hot iron. I saw Kazuya Mishima psychically torture her. I saw Lee Chaolan thrust a silver dagger into her heart.
         The nightmare was too much for me, and I had a nervous breakdown. Weeks passed before I could say two words in more than a whimper. When my grandmother discovered what had put me in that state, she banned Catsclaw from our home. It was a full year before she forgave him, on the condition that he would never practice 'witchcraft' with me again. But I've never forgotten the raging, helpless horror of watching my mother die.
         Well, this time I wasn't helpless. And I wasn't going to let another person die.
         I carefully dipped my feet in the water. They tingled. It was a strange sensation, but not unpleasant. Step by step, I gradually waded deeper. The water reached my waist, and my chin. Mild currents brushed against my body.
         One more step, and the black sea closed over my head.
         Water rushed into my lungs, but I remembered what Catsclaw had taught me about mental discipline. In the realm of the psyche, I am as I perceive myself, and I perceive myself as able to breathe fluid as easily as air. I will not be afraid. Just relax and blend with the background.
         The echoing voices grew louder and clearer, although I still couldn't distinguish what they said. Images returned to shimmer in front of my eyes, their reflections taking new life within the sea.
         Hwoarang. I saw Hwoarang, in the bar where Jin and I had found him; instead of being surrounded by corpses, he had a crowd of enthusiastic speculators and fellow gang members eagerly anticipating his next fight. The raptor-haired brawler sneered, displaying his unnaturally sharp canines, and hissed a derisive taunt.
         I didn't understand what he was saying.
         Lei Wulong? Yes, that was Lei Wulong! I could scarcely believe it but I recognized him, Hong Kong's most famous superstar detective, just like his appearances on TV. He leveled his gun at a small, warbling bird. A cruel smile possessed his face. His eyes flashed blood-red. An instant before he pulled the trigger, he breathed a remorseless suggestion.
         I didn't understand what he was saying.
         There was a Japanese woman with short black hair. Although she seemed to be approaching middle age, she retained a slender figure and smooth skin. Something indefinable about her reminded me of Jin. She stood in a darkened woodland of black and grey; slight tears glistened in her eyes as she asked a sad, haunting question.
         I didn't understand what she was saying.
         And there was more - half a dozen, a dozen, maybe even endless displays. But in practically every one, I couldn't make out the words. They were all in Japanese. I wanted to know what was happening; voracious curiosity pushed me to deduce what I could from the context.
         I caught the name "Toshin," like a chill carried on the wind. It was the woman who had said it, or rather, Jin's memory of her.
         My frustrated incomprehension escalated to outright torture. This was about the Toshin? About the inhuman monster whose evil mystery had lured me thousands of miles from my home? The whole riddle plagued me so! What was going on, what did these memories mean? How was Jin connected to the enigma? How did the pieces of the Toshin's puzzle fit together? I want to understand but I can't, I can't decipher the words, it doesn't make sense, I want to understand-!
         -and suddenly, I could understand. Meaning filtered through the vehicle of unfamiliar sounds. Literal communication and ambiguous impressions of background knowledge all became immersed in my consciousness, even as I was immersed in the black sea.
         Say bye-bye birdie, Lei Wulong sneered, shooting the innocent thrush - Siberian blue robin, actually, member of the thrush family. There had to be a story behind this.
         Hwoarang's barbs sharpened to a bloodletting point. I heard Jun Kazama was captured during the battle for the Mishima syndicate. Looks like Kazuya got good use out of her.
         That's a lie!
Outraged fury erupted from a voice that was at once both mine and not mine.
         Kazuya never took a wife. You don't even have his last name.
         I'm warning you-
         You really are a bastard child-
         -don't you talk that way-
         -the product of the Devil and his whore!
         -about MY MOTHER!

         Now it begins to make sense.
         Jun Kazama, heroine of the Great Invasion. Jin Kazama. Of course, of course, why hadn't I seen it before? When I'd researched the Mishima syndicate, I hadn't found any mention of Jin's mother, but then, I hadn't been specifically searching for information about Jin. It was Heihachi upon whom I'd concentrated my analysis, along with a side interest in the dark saga of his sons.
         But how were Jin and his mother connected to the Toshin?
         It is coming for me, and it will come for you, because we are among the few people who have any chance of stopping it. Only purity within and purity without can close the wound that is Toshin. I heard the prophecy repeated in Jun's voice, so vivid and lifelike I nearly called out to her, begged her to tell me more.
         Darkness descended upon her form.
         +YOUR SOUL IS STRONG AND PURE.+
         And it was there.
         Sickness. Corruption. The red-eyed, green-skinned dragon from my dreams, living pestilence come to ravage the Earth. Disguising its true nature as a gold-armored warrior, it attacked Jun Kazama. I saw everything through the eyes of her son, as he had lived it. She fought the beast, and broke it, yet it renewed itself in fire.
         I felt a distant shadow of what it was to be burned alive.
         The last thing I perceived was a dream-vision of the Toshin, having shed its humanoid body for its monstrous true form, an ogre-dragon hybrid. It held Jun Kazama in a lethal, backbreaking bear hug and there was nothing I could do - why am I too weak, why don't I have the strength to stop it? Fire and open wounds bleed away my vitality; I call out with my mind-
         Mother! NO!
         Her thoughts answer me. I love you, Jin. Remember that.
         And...
         And the darkness yielded to brilliant white.
         It was a star of immaculate beauty, overcoming the unholy night, banishing the foul gargoyle to formless vapor, spreading its purity to cover everything...
         ...then fading, dimming, dying. The celestial whiteness drifted away, leaving only the abyss of the black sea.
         So that's why, I whispered, into the watery gulf.
         Jin had given me another, precious clue to help me solve the mystery of the Toshin. As grateful as I was for that, implications of the memories I'd seen sidetracked my thoughts. I was enmeshed within the answer to my original question.
         When you thought Hwoarang was the Toshin's minion, you were ready to tear him apart. But when you had proof that Nina was the Toshin's minion, you never even defended yourself. Because she was a woman. Because your mother was murdered, and you were helpless to stop it.
         The very idea of a woman being hurt or killed brings it all back, doesn't it? Any woman. Even if she's trying to assassinate you. Jin, you idiot, your sexist double standard was almost the death of you! You'll never take revenge on the Toshin if you get killed...

         Bit by bit, the darkness lightened. Blurry shapes gradually solidified into the ICU background. Feeling returned to my body - my real body, which hadn't moved since I kneeled next to Jin. My hand still clasped his, but now his skin was warm instead of tepid, and his fingers returned the squeeze, very slightly.
         Jin's eyes fluttered open. His free hand weakly tugged at his oxygen mask, freeing it from his nose and mouth.
         "...arigato..."
         "...you're welcome," I mumbled. It required an unusual amount of effort to say the words. Or to keep my eyes open. Exhaustion threatened to sprawl me on the floor.
         Jin couldn't adjust his head because of the neck brace, but his jet black eyes moved to Heihachi's towering visage. "Grandfather..."
         "Not another word," the old man huffed, curtly. "Concentrate upon your recovery. Your first match in the Iron Fist Tournament is in three days, and you will have to be ready for it."
         To his servants, Heihachi added, "Bring the girl. Gently."
         I didn't have it in me to raise my head, let alone protest when the two of them reached for my arms. This time, though, they were noticeably more ginger as they helped me stand up.
         A knot gathered in my stomach. I didn't have the energy left to put up even a pretense of a struggle-
         Don't be afraid. Jin's mind-voice, measurably stronger yet still a soundless whisper, offered the diffuse sensation of emotional reassurance. Ishida and Kimura won't do anything to hurt you.
         On their own, maybe not. But they were Heihachi's underlings-
         My grandfather is a good man. He's grateful to you.
         What? Were we thinking about the same Heihachi Mishima?
         It's all right. You'll see. Everything will be all right...
         Jin's mind-voice trailed off as Ishida and Kimura carried me out of the ICU. Heihachi purposefully walked at a slower pace than before, easing my transition back to the room where I had first awakened. As his strongmen set me down on that rock-hard cot, I managed to remain sitting, but had to hold my head in my hands. Inwardly, I was trembling with exertion. Lassitude made it hard for me to gather my thoughts.
         Heihachi studied me. Not with human suspicion, or lust; it was a dragon's rapacity that glittered in his jet black eyes. Eyes the same color as his grandson's, yet leading to an infinitely darker soul.
         "Ally with me," said the ancient, grey wurm.
         "Wha'?" I mumbled, dizzily.
         "Your soul is strong. I know, for I have seen you prevail against a vassal of the Toshin. My Iron Fist Tournament has need of contenders such as you. Join my cause. Be in my Tournament. If you are victorious, the syndicate will grant you your heart's desire."
         "And if I refuse..." A thickness in my tongue made it difficult to speak, but I could still do it if I moved my mouth slowly and steadily.
         "Then you shall never test your soul to its limits, or fulfill the legacy of your warrior mother. I will send you home."
         "In a body bag?"
         "Have a care with your insinuations, child." The dragon folded its forbidding arms. "I will send you home on a private hoverjet. You and your grandmother will eke out your days in the desert, forever in hiding from the monumental events of destiny that shape the rest of the world. If this is the pathetic existence you would choose for yourself, then what further interest have I as to when or how it ends?"
         I glared at him. Skeptically. He glowered back for a time, but at last he broke off his gaze with a deep-chested sigh.
         "Consider this, then. My grandson has taken a liking to you. When he recovers his strength, he will inquire after your welfare. Persistently. He may even use his Power to reach across continents and personally confirm your good health. It would distress him immensely if any harm were to befall you, and I have no desire to needlessly upset him. Now are you able to spare a modicum of trust?"
         No. Not for a murderer such as you.
         But I was intrigued. I'd wondered why Heihachi had been taking such pains to control his temper around me, and now I was tantalizingly close to the answer. He wanted something from me. Something that he knew he couldn't take by force, and I don't mean just life essence.
         "Exactly what are you offering?" I asked.
         "The Mishima syndicate will furnish all your living expenses, for as long as you are here. When the time is right, I will return Heaven's Dagger to you."
         That set me on guard. This dragon would never willingly part with the least of his treasures, let alone Heaven's Dagger.
         Or would he?
         "I thought you wanted to keep my medallion forever."
         "You assume wrongly. It is only a tool to achieve my ultimate goal."
         "Which is?"
         "To vanquish the Toshin."
         "And just why are you so interested in doing that?"
         "Need you ask?" Heihachi lifted a wire-grey eyebrow. "The Toshin is an engine of annihilation. In less than a year, it will escape its banishment. Left unchecked, it will murder, absorb, and destroy until it has reduced the world to nothingness. You are aware of that, are you not? It is simply difficult for you to understand that I share your desire to protect the Earth."
         Protect the Earth? He wanted to own the Earth!
         I searched the dragon's calculating eyes. They were too opaque to reveal his secrets, yet too greedy to be innocent. He was holding something back. He had to be.
         At the same time, though, he also had to be telling at least half of the truth. I knew from my dreams that the Toshin posed a genuine threat to the entire world; for Heihachi to oppose it was arguably a matter of self-preservation. Furthermore, the Toshin strived to destroy the very Earth that Heihachi claimed for himself. With a dragon's insatiable possessiveness, Heihachi sought to guard his hoard against the vandal.
         "So what do you need me for?" I rasped.
         "At the peak of my Tournament, my grandson and I intend to challenge the Toshin. You will assist us."
         "In what way?"
         Heihachi only smiled.
         "And just how are you going to kill the Toshin? It's Immortal."
         "I shall prevail."
         "You have to tell me more than that. I need to know your plan is a sound one, or else I'll have nothing to do with your suicide quest. Give me the details."
         "Not here. Not now. It is too soon."
         "I'm not getting into this blind."
         "Ally with me, and I give you my word that before I confront the Toshin, I shall fully explain my plan to conquer it."
         "You'll explain your plan to me?" I pressed, leery of his subtle misdirection.
         "Yes. At which point you shall be free to refuse participation, should you change your mind."
         "And that's all you want from me?"
         "Well..." a carnivorous smile curled his lips. "You are not even the least bit afraid of my grandson, are you?"
         "What do you care?"
         "He has some difficulty socializing with others. Your companionship would be an invaluable asset to him. If you were to stay and help him prepare for the trials ahead, he would most certainly appreciate it."
         "Are you saying that you want me to live here?"
         "You would be an honored guest of the syndicate."
         "For how long?"
         "Until the Toshin's threat is ended; after which, your fate shall be your own. Do you agree to an alliance?"
         It was a trap.
         It had to be a trap. I did not trust the dragon's diplomacy; he sought to trick me into the depths of his lair. And yet...
         "Will you promise to leave my grandmother alone, and guarantee my safety?" The dragon was reputed to take tremendous pride in keeping his word to the letter. But first, his promise had to be given.
         "Very well," Heihachi assented. "Ally with me, and I give my word that from this time onward, neither I nor any part of the Mishima syndicate shall become involved with your grandmother. As for your safety, I swear that no harm shall come to you as long as you are within the grounds of my home. Beyond these grounds is another matter; I cannot be responsible for your continual protection, unless you would consent to traveling with bodyguards. Would you?"
         I narrowed my eyes at Ishida and Kimura. They remained impassive.
         "I thought not. Well?"
         It still felt like a trap, but what was the alternative? If I turned away now, what chance would I have of reclaiming my medallion? Or of opposing the Toshin? Perhaps I could even use this to my advantage. Perhaps, living in the Mishima syndicate, I could learn something that would help me overthrow Heihachi, after the Toshin was finished.
         As much as I hated Heihachi, he truly was the lesser of two evils.
         "I agree to your terms."
         "Excellent. Ishida and Kimura will attend to your needs." Heihachi's voice lowered in pitch as he addressed his servants. "Look after her. Do not mistreat her in any way. This is your last chance." Something significant changed in the structure of his speech as he said that, but I was too tired to comprehend what it was.
         The old man stalked out of the room.
         The lackey with a head bandage grumbled, "I don't believe this. Demoted to babysitting!"
         Oh, really? As much as the slur rankled me, whenever I have to choose between venting anger and satisfying curiosity, my curiosity wins every time.
         "What did he mean by this being your 'last chance'?" I queried, aloofly.
         Head-bandage almost jumped out of his skin. What was his problem? Hadn't he ever heard a woman speak directly to him before?
         "Y-you - you can understand-?"
         "She has been inside the young master's mind," the other one said, pedantically.
         Head-bandage recoiled from me. Ten minutes ago, he could have beaten me to a pulp if Heihachi had commanded it, and now he was backing away with fearful, quivering steps. The other one didn't alter his emotionless composure, though. He said, "I suspect that the answer to your question lies within your own memories."
         "How should I have any memories of you? I've never met either of you before tonight-"
         -have I?
         No one had told me which of them was which, but suddenly I knew. I just knew I was talking to Kimura, the calm one. The agitated one with a head bandage was Ishida. And-
         "-you're Jin's bodyguards?" I said, tentatively. "Except that he ran away from you - again - and Heihachi must be angry with you. Isn't he?" My temples were getting sore. I put my hands against them to relieve the ache.
         Damn. I must have unwittingly acquired more of Jin's memories than I realized.
         "Mishima-sama has been merciful with us," Kimura answered.
         "'Merciful'?" Ishida snarled, his mood changing like quicksilver from frightened to vexed. "He docked us five years' pay! To be taken out of our next ten years' salary!"
         "So quit working for him," I suggested.
         "What!?" Ishida almost screamed.
         "Unless, of course, you're afraid he would kill you?"
         "You miserable little-!"
         "Cousin," Kimura admonished. Addressing me, he continued, "Our contracts are for life. To suggest that we might wantonly refute our signed pledge to Mishima-sama is a deadly insult. However, even if you were not under Mishima-sama's explicit protection-" -Kimura's mirror-lensed gaze turned sharply to Ishida as he stressed those words- "-we both acknowledge that you are from a different culture. You most likely did not comprehend the enormity of your unintentional disparagement. Is that not true, cousin?"
         Ishida had clenched his fists and held his arms ramrod-straight against his sides. The tension didn't leave him, but it did settle down a little as he turned away.
         "Americans," he muttered, as if it were a curse.
         "Now," Kimura added, "Miss Chang, you appear to be fatigued. If you would please allow us to escort you to suitable quarters?"
         "Not yet," I sighed, suppressing a yawn. "There's something I have to do first."
         "May we assist you?"
         "Fine. Come and show me how to work a 'video transmitter,' or whatever it is." I half-walked, half-stumbled out of the room. It wasn't until later that I thought back to that moment and recalled that Ishida and Kimura had followed me through the syndicate, not the other way around. I automatically knew which corridors to take until I was inside a medium-sized room filled electronic equipment, including a surveillance camera and a blank, big-screen monitor built into the far wall. Ishida and Kimura demonstrated how to work the strange devices, so that I could see and talk to my grandmother.
         Heihachi had been right about at least one thing. My grandmother needed to know what I had chosen to do, and she deserved to hear it directly from me. I had to convince her that I was okay, that Heihachi hadn't kidnapped me. I had to convince her that I was making the right decision.
         It would not be easy. My one chance of persuading her would be if I could exorcize all doubt from my own mind, and cling tenaciously to my visions of a heroic triumph over Heihachi and the Toshin.


         What? What about the surveillance tape?
         Um...
         I have to ask my grandmother first. If she gives her permission, then all right. I'll translate our conversation from the Navajo, and you will owe me a favor. A big one.
         What do you mean, why? Do you think it's going to be easy for me, looking back on that? Everything she said was prophecy, and I didn't listen to her. Even if I had listened, I don't know what I could or should have done differently.
         Could I have exacted more scrupulous terms from Heihachi? My head was swimming and groggy, making it so hard to think straight. It was no accident that he had me be Jin's reagent before he offered an alliance. Heihachi deliberately waited to make his pitch until I was physically weak and psychologically disoriented.
         Should I have rejected any affiliation with the House Mishima? Then I would have been stranded at arm's length from the syndicate. It still might have been the better choice. I might have had the opportunity to search for more honorable allies, perhaps starting with Lei Wulong.
         But I was too sure of myself. I was the legendary dragonslayer, the detective heroine; tough, fearless, indestructible, swept into the pages of a glorious adventure. If I were cast in a role akin to Sherlock Holmes, then Heihachi Mishima was my Moriarty, engaging me in a magnificent story of intrigue and deceit. I thought that I could play this game and win. I thought that once the Toshin was dealt with, I, and I alone, would avenge Heihachi's crimes upon my family.
         I was wrong.
         It wouldn't hurt so badly - I wouldn't feel so much shame - if I were the one who suffered from my arrogance. It didn't happen that way.
         Jin...
         Maybe there truly is a curse upon the House Mishima. Maybe I couldn't have changed what Jin would do - what would happen to him. I don't know. All I know is that Toshin-Nina's judgement of my soul was correct. I was overconfident. And I never admitted it, not even to myself, until everything swelled beyond my control.
         No, wait. That's not accurate, because nothing was in my control to begin with. I was buoyed in the whirlwind of the dragons' mortal struggle, and I fancied myself to be flying.
         Yet when the whirlwind gives out, it's a long way down. And you never know whom you might crush underneath you, in the crater of your impact.


End of Chapter 10: Dragon's Diplomacy