PHOENIX REBORN

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



Chapter 23: Blood of Kindred


   "How can you condemn me to be your murderer? I thought you loved me."
         -Kate Novak and Jeff Grub, Song of the Saurials


INTERVIEW WITH JIN KAZAMA, section 7
February 17, 2018
12:45 p.m.


         Going somewhere?
         Uh-uh. You're not getting away that easily.
         Not when you've been avoiding me for ten days straight.
         Come on. Let's go.
         To my family shrine in the pocket dimension, of course. So that you can interview me without being disturbed.
         I said no. You are not getting out of this. Not unless you want me to personally take over your responsibilities for this recordkeeping project. It was my idea to begin with, you know.


         There.
         Sorry about being so demanding. It's just that every time I ask you when my next interview is, you stall me, or you change the subject. At first I wondered if you were still a little afraid of me, but I know better than to underestimate you by now.
         I've been thinking a lot about it, these past several days. Until I figured out the truth.
         It isn't that you're afraid of me. It's that you're afraid for me.
         Because there's something wrong with my mind.
         It's like epilepsy. Petit mal seizures. Every once in a while I black out, and lose a small piece of my short-term memory. I'm just talking for one moment, and then I can't remember what I was saying. It was happening especially often during our interviews, and that's why you discontinued them.
         I'm right, aren't I?
         Now, now. Can't lie to a telepath, remember?
         I should've known the 'medical research' that Julia wanted me to volunteer for was more than it seemed. She was - she is too deeply worried for my welfare. Oh, that damned ice scientist is very interested in research, but he's also studying whatever's wrong with me, isn't he? Trying to find the cause of my epilepsy, if that's what it really is.
         No?
         No it isn't epilepsy, or no he isn't trying to find the cause?
         Do you know what the cause is? What it really is?
         Just the fact that you're not answering means I'm right.
         Hey. Hey, calm down. I'll quit interrogating you about this, okay? For now, at least. It's only that these - these blackouts have been troubling me for a while, and it's nice to have some assurance that I'm not crazy.
         Uh-huh?
         Uh-huh. Why should I tell you what I plan to do, when you're being so close-mouthed about what you know?
         Yes, I realize that you're worried for me. Now you know how I felt when Bryan had to check you into the hospital. If I tell you about what I'm planning to do, will you promise to be more careful of your limits from now on? Hm?
         It's a deal, then.
         I don't know what I'm planning to do.
         Hey. A deal is a deal; it's not my fault you assumed I had a plan.
         Still...
         Julia knows more about this than she's letting on. Lee too, probably. My natural impulse is to confront them. I've even got a paranoid feeling about their involvement, but...
         I'm not going to judge. I'm not going to assume.
         That's what I did to my father, Lei Wulong. The way I accused and despised him for over four years... the way I turned my back on him, for crimes that he never committed... it is a shame upon my soul. A shame that I have to live with, for the rest of my days.
         I'm not going to treat Lee and Julia the same way I did my father.
         Lee is my uncle. Julia loves me, and I love her. Whatever reason they have for hiding things from me, it must be very important. I'm not sure how to confront them yet, or even if I should confront them - but this problem with my 'epilepsy' is serious, and I doubt that ignoring it will make it go away.
         So, I'm going to do some more thinking. Whatever I finally decide to do, it won't be rash, and it won't be behind their backs. Or behind your back, either. That much I can promise you.
         However, now that I've realized all this, it's time for our interviews to resume. I don't know what point you've reached now, but I feel it's important that you have my perspective.
         Exactly how far along are you, anyway?
         That much!?
         Good grief.
         It's rather fitting, though. Fitting, and fortuitous. Because now, I can continue where Julia left off: after the Mishima syndicate New Year's Eve party.
         Argh.
         Just thinking about that makes my head hurt. Still.
         It's good that Julia has already told you about the whole event; my own memories are fuzzy at best. She covered how I became psychically drunk, right? Swamped by an inebriated crowd? How she helped Xiaoyu escape the syndicate, and then dragged me here - into my family shrine, within the isolated pocket dimension that was once Kazuya Mishima's inner sanctum - to psychically sober me up. Once I was in my right mind, she hoped to flee the syndicate with me.
         Her plan had a fatal flaw, though.
         I couldn't see Grandfather for what he was.


         Heihachi Mishima...
         My grandfather...
         I don't know why I was so blind, to what he was. To what he really was.
         I honestly don't know why.
         Especially since I'm a telepath. Yes, I loved him dearly; yes, he was very careful to shield his true thoughts; and yes, I never deliberately tried to look into his mind. Even so, it all seems like such a poor explanation that... that...
         That whoever reads your record will probably think I'm a total idiot.
         Julia knew the truth, though.
         She knew that Grandfather was... sick.
         He was sick with a... a personality disorder, I guess it's called. There was a darkness in him, a lust for Power that corrupted his soul, even though I couldn't see it yet.
         Grandfather intentionally planned a horrible fate for Xiaoyu, Julia, and me. Julia knew it, and I should have known it. Should have guessed the moment I laid eyes on the white kimono he wanted Xiao-chan to wear to the party. And the suit he wanted me to wear. And the gown he wanted Julia to wear; I delivered it to her quarters myself, though she wasn't there at the time.
         We were, all three of us, to dress for our deaths.
         Yet, though Grandfather wanted me to wear something that sent horrified chills down my spine, I didn't make the connection to his true plans for me. Instead, I put on an outfit that Xiaoyu had given me for Christmas. If Grandfather were to berate me for setting aside his gift, then at least I could use my obligation to Xiao-chan as an extenuation. I never gave the matter another thought after that, not even when Julia pointed it out to me.
         Why couldn't I see the truth?
         Why couldn't I recognize the symptoms of Grandfather's illness?
         Why...
         ...couldn't I...
         ...damn it. I hate it when this happens.
         No. No, I'm not giving up this interview. If I hit a snag like this, where I - where I can't remember what I was just talking about, then I'm pushing on ahead. Anything that gets left out, well, I guess the others can help you piece it together. But it's crucially important that you hear this from me. I'm the only one who can tell you what happened between Grandfather and me, after he barged into the pocket dimension and threw Julia out the portal.
         What?
         All right. I'll accommodate a compromise. For now.
         If you really don't want me to talk at length about violence, then I'll just summarize what happened. Grandfather didn't really batter me that much. He punched me in the face once, directly over my left eye - yes, it was a powerful blow, but I've endured worse in more than one Iron Fist Tournament match.
         Grandfather had never hit me before. Never.
         Not even when he taught me Mishima-style karate. He'd never sparred with me at all; he trained me against the Mokujins instead. He was concerned that striking me in any way, even a pulled punch, would lead him to brutalize me. Like he had once brutalized his son Kazuya.
         At the time, I thought it was remorse that made Grandfather restrain himself so. My empathy sensed that he was afraid of losing control.
         My empathy was right, but not for the reason I thought it was.
         If Grandfather were to lose control against me - if he were to become too caught up in the passion of the fight - then his own mental barriers might come down, and I might see him as he truly was. I might see what he truly planned.
         Why couldn't I see his plans?
         Why couldn't I, with all my telepathic Power...?
         ...argh. Not again.
         No, no. I can get used to this. It would be nice to at least know if it's a treatable condition, but either way, there are worse things than having sporadic blackouts for the rest of one's life.
         Such as, not having a life at all.
         And for one second, in my family shrine with Grandfather, I feared that would be the case.
         In the heat of the moment, enraged beyond reason, he almost lashed out with a lethal attack. But Grandfather... whatever else Grandfather may have been, he was strong. Strong on the inside, as surely as on the outside, and with that Strength he regained his rigid self-control.
         He was still furious with me.
         He thought that I had 'defiled' Julia.
         As in, um, made love to her.
         He'd instructed me before, very strictly, that I was to do no such thing. Not before my 'marriage' - Grandfather's idea, not Julia's or mine. At that time, Julia and I were only beginning to understand our feelings for each other. Her family had every reason to hate mine, I hadn't even finished my senior year of high school, and most crucial of all, the Iron Fist was still underway. Until I destroyed the Toshin and avenged my mother, I could hardly think of planning my own future, let alone asking anyone to share that future with me. But Grandfather was convinced that Julia and I should be married, and he always was rather hard to argue with.
         Uh-huh?
         I'm not entirely sure why Grandfather thought I had, uh, seduced Julia. My best guess is, Hwoarang led him to believe something like that. Hwoarang had seen Julia drag me into the pocket dimension, and I think he had his own reasons for planting doubts in Grandfather's mind.
         As a result, Grandfather was outraged beyond belief with me. Though I begged and apologized and got down on my knees before him, though I fervently swore that I hadn't been physically intimate with Julia, he still didn't seem completely certain I was telling the truth.
         I was only about ninety-eight percent certain that I was telling the truth, myself.
         My memory of being psychically drunk was a complete mess, and I had a terrible headache from a psychic hangover. Worst of all, I knew that while I was intoxicated, I had... assaulted Julia's mind. Telepathically flooded her with my feelings, I mean. As ashamed as I felt about that, if Julia and I had actually engaged in physical intercourse, then, um...
         Wouldn't I have remembered something of it?
         Wouldn't Julia have mentioned something of it?
         When I thought about those questions, my psychic hangover intensified, and I was only ninety-eight percent certain again.
         "I planned this marriage for your happiness!" Grandfather raged, hitting me once more. This time it was a turning, full-strength backfist to my gut. I tightened my abdominal wall for some defense. "How do you repay me? By absconding with your bride! No matter what the outcome, do not pretend that your interest was less than prurient. Your disobedience has put more than you can ever know at risk!"
         I nodded, shaking.
         "Now. Use your Power to locate Miss Ling Xiaoyu."
         What?
         Oh, that was right. Julia had cajoled Xiaoyu into running away from the syndicate. Was Xiao-chan out on the Tokyo night streets, dodging Tekkenshu patrols in what seemed, to her own mind, a big game...?
         "I said now!" Grandfather roared, and I did as he had asked.
         Tried to, anyway.
         Xiaoyu's image would not manifest in the mirror I kept in the pocket dimension. Though I strained for a couple minutes, I couldn't reach her. Since I couldn't call her image in the mirror, I couldn't contact her through telepathy either. Not in that place of solitude, cut off from all the human minds on Earth.
         What had happened to Xiao-chan?
         Was she all right? Could she have gotten into an accident, or run across trouble, or-?
         Wait. Wait, now that I thought about it - Julia had mentioned giving Xiaoyu 'a couple devices,' to 'improve her odds.' I'd seen it myself, through blurred vision.
         "I'm sorry, Grandfather," I apologized. "Julia - I think she gave Xiaoyu something to wear, gloves or an armband or something, and it's blocking my sorcery."
         Grandfather bared his teeth, like a territorial wolf.
         "Umm... I assume the Tekkenshu are still looking for her?"
         "Do you know where Miss Ling may be headed?" Grandfather demanded of me.
         I concentrated as hard as I could, and finally dredged up a groggy name.
         "Julia said something about a Temple. Someone's Temple. Kay... Kago? Kagu-?"
         "Kagura's Temple?" Grandfather finished, in a growl.
         "That sounds right."
         Grandfather breathed a silent curse.
         "Um, is something wrong? Do you know that place?"
         "I have never been to it."
         "But-"
         "Silence."
         "I'm just afraid for Xiaoyu. She's all alone on the streets, at night-"
         "I said silence. This is no longer your problem."
         Grandfather shook his head, resignedly. "I must see to your mistreated bride - and you have most assuredly mistreated her, whether you have debauched her body or not! You will stay here. You will meditate on the wrong you have done, and pray for your bride's forgiveness. And you will not use your damned sorcery to spy on events outside the antechamber; your Power has caused more than enough evil for one night!
         "I will come back for you tomorrow, when I have decided what is to be done with you. Above all, you will stay in here, until my return. Do you understand?"
         "I'm sorry, Grandfather. I'm sorry about everythi-"
         "Do you understand!?"
         "Y-yes, Grandfather."
         "Reopen the gateway. Now."
         I recalled the portal. Grandfather stalked through it, without another word.
         Then I let the portal close, and succumbed to despair.
         Despair, grief, and remorse.
         Grandfather was right, I thought to myself. I had mistreated Julia. Telepathically attacking her like that - no matter how drunk I was at the time, I had no excuse. I was grateful to Grandfather for looking after her, and disgusted with myself for being such a... such a monster.
         She would probably hate me, once she recovered. And she'd have good reason to.
         Every time I think I have my Power under control... every time I think I'm getting better at disciplining myself...
         Though I managed to keep myself from drowning in self-pity, I was thoroughly wretched for a nameless stretch of time. An hour, maybe.
         Then, something interrupted my lonely penance.
         Sorcery.
         The portal to the pocket dimension was opening again, and not on my account. The energy powering the gate was purest white.
         Grandfather wasn't a sorcerer.
         Taki? No, she never came in here. Besides, no one had seen her for over a week.
         Then who-?
         By the time I thought to call a view of the portal's other side in my mirror, he was already stepping through. A radiating pool of immaculate white framed his tall, powerful body.
         The white light faded, giving my eyes a chance to adjust.
         He... he was...
         "Prototype Alpha?" I said aloud, bewildered beyond imagining.
         Yes. He was Prototype Alpha.
         The first and last 'success' of the discontinued Cyborg Army project.
         His bullet-scarred body had once belonged to Detective Bryan Fury. However, he had developed independent thought, and free will. He had told me that he was really Lee Chaolan, my uncle. He had told me that he was sharing his body with Detective Fury's soul. Yet, I couldn't believe any of this.
         Detective Fury had been dead for months. Lee Chaolan had been dead for over twenty years. Prototype Alpha was completely invisible to my telepathy; I could sense neither thought nor emotion from him. So, I presumed that he was an artificial intelligence, under the preprogrammed delusion that he was Lee Chaolan. In return, he hypothesized that the cybernetics in his brain interfered with my ability to receive his thoughts.
         Now, as I looked upon the cyborg gifted with inexplicable sorcerous Power, I was a little apprehensive. Not that my last encounter with Prototype Alpha had been hostile; on the contrary, I had helped him escape the syndicate. Even so...
         "What are you doing here?" I asked him, still somewhat perplexed.
         "I have been looking for you," he answered, with no hesitation. "Checking this dimension was a long shot; I'm glad it paid off."
         "But - but how did you get into the syndicate?"
         "It's almost deserted. There's only a skeleton staff left. It wasn't hard to steal past them."
         "The syndicate is - almost deserted?"
         Oh, no. Grandfather must have sent nearly everyone home, after Julia, Xiaoyu, and I started a riot at the New Year's Eve party.
         "Father is also gone," Prototype Alpha continued, "as far as I can tell. So are Julia Chang and Ling Xiaoyu. Do you know where they are?"
         'Father'?
         Oh. He meant Grandfather, of course. Lee Chaolan's adoptive father.
         "Grandfather promised me that he'd see to Julia," I explained. "I guess he's taken her somewhere. Xiaoyu is probably at Kagura's Temple by now. Wherever that is."
         "Don't you remember? You gave me the Temple's address, when you told me where Doctor Boskonovitch is currently residing."
         Really?
         I hadn't known those locations were one and the same.
         "Well, the doctor is supposed to be a good man," I muttered, hanging my head. "So Xiao-chan should be okay."
         When I glanced up, Prototype Alpha was no longer looking in my direction.
         He was staring at the shrine to my ancestors.
         At the shelves I'd built, at the offerings I'd left, but most of all, he stared at the pictures of my family. It was as if everything else in his mind had ground to a halt; all he could do was slowly approach the memorial, without taking his eyes from it.
         "Uh, that's my family shrine," I told him. "You can look at it if you like, but please don't-"
         "The statue," he whispered, picking up the enhanced photograph of Kazumi Mishima.
         "-touch anything."
         "Yes, this is definitely she," he reminisced, wistfully regarding her image. "Which of your ancestors is this woman?"
         "Uh, Kazumi Mishima. Grandfather's wife. My grandmother."
         "No wonder Kazuya wanted the statue so much. It looked like his mother."
         "Um, what are you talking about?"
         "How I first met him. Forgive me for being so-"
         Even as Prototype Alpha replaced my grandmother's picture, he froze. When he moved again, it was as if he were wading through quicksand. He selected another picture and held it, stunned beyond presence.
         The frame in his hands did not contain a photograph, but rather a shaded, shadowy pencil sketch. A sketch of Lee Chaolan. It showed my silver-haired uncle at his desk, one hand partly covering his eyes. If you looked at it just so, you could see the heartbreak in his face.
         "I remember this," Prototype Alpha softly said. "It was the night Jun-chan ran away from me."
         "There aren't very many photographs of Lee Chaolan," I hesitantly explained. "None of them seemed appropriate. So, I went looking through old surveillance tapes, and drew that from something I saw on one of them. It... it just felt right."
         "You drew this?"
         "Uh, yes."
         "My brother used to catch people's souls in webs of necromantic energy. You catch them with pencil and paper."
         He returned the picture, still moving in semi-slow motion. Then he looked at me-
         -and his eyes widened. As if he were shocked by something that he had failed to notice before. His slow-motion stun evaporated, replaced by concern and dark displeasure.
         "What is it?" I said, on guard.
         Prototype Alpha advanced toward me. He stopped two steps away from where I kneeled.
         "You've been beaten."
         My hand automatically went to my face. I'd been so deeply mired in guilt that I'd forgotten to heal the damage from Grandfather's fist. I accelerated my body's healing Power, which would have finished its unconscious self-repair in another hour or so, anyway.
         "Father gave you that black eye, didn't he?" Prototype Alpha quietly observed.
         Rather than admit as much, I retorted, "He is not your father. You are not Lee Chaolan."
         Prototype Alpha adjusted his right fighting glove.
         It happened so quickly I could scarcely blink. One moment, Detective Fury's body was sternly regarding me; the next, he had changed. He had changed in every aspect, except for his auburn eyes. Yet even though everything else about him was altered, many parallels remained. He was still dressed in slacks and an open leather jacket, though now the designs on his clothing were different. His face and body still carried scars, yet they were primarily black-streak burns instead of bullet wounds. His silver hair had grown to chin length, and his face had become more delicately boned.
         In short, he looked like Lee Chaolan. As surely as if he had stepped out of the picture - apart from his scars, which he had not obtained until near the end of his life. Though I'd seen him shape-change like this before, it was somewhat disconcerting to observe a repeat performance.
         Lee - I still didn't believe he was Lee, but that's what I'll call him for the sake of convenience - Lee said, "Whatever you believe I am, do you deny that my memories are real? Do you think that I don't know what it is, to be abused by family?"
         Umm...
         "Lei Wulong was right. Your life is in grave danger. I'd wanted to believe that Father had changed, but-"
         "W-wait, you've got it all wrong," I protested, weakly. "Grandfather didn't mean to hit me. He was just angry."
         "That is no excuse."
         "He thought I hurt Julia."
         "Did you?"
         "I'm afraid I... did something to her mind."
         "What is it that you fear you did?"
         "I don't know, I was drunk. When I regained my senses, she - she was acting so strangely, begging me to run away with her, crying in my arms. She... she'll be all right. She'll recover, I think. I hope. She - I pray that she'll be all right. Grandfather will take good care of her, I know he will."
         "We must find her, and soon. But first, you have to be taken to safety. Jin, will you please come with me, to Chizuru Kagura's Temple?"
         "Why?"
         "Your stepfather is there. He is gathering allies, for a rescue mission; once you and Xiaoyu are guaranteed safe, the only one left to recover will be Julia Chang. Then - well, I fear that Bryan will not let me stay in his body long enough to be of further assistance, but I can only hope-"
         "Lei Wulong is not my father!" I shouted, a sudden flash of anger overriding any inclination to be polite. "I'll have nothing to do with him, or any of his damn lies!"
         Lee looked genuinely startled.
         "You still don't know?" he asked. "You still believe - do you truly think that he abandoned your mother to the Toshin? Wulong loved her more than his own life. He never would have deserted her, not knowingly. She must have tricked him. I know because she also tricked me."
         Lee's last sentence didn't make complete sense to me, yet I was too riled to ask what he meant.
         "Wulong - he didn't mean to abandon my mother, but he did murder my real father in cold blood! And because he murdered my father, going to Grandfather for help was never an option. Not until it was too late to save my mother!"
         "You still believe that Lei Wulong murdered Kazuya Mishima?" Lee said, as if he were having a hard time comprehending all this.
         "I KNOW he murdered my father!" I yelled back, snapping to my feet.
         "How can you cling to that misconception? How can you not know the Truth?"
         "What are you talking about?"
         "This is Kazuya's inner sanctum! I assumed that you had discovered it recently, sometime after our first meeting. Are you saying that you've had access to this place for years?"
         "What do you care if I did?"
         "This is where Kazuya died! His blood courses through your veins; his Power is your legacy! And yet, you never looked for yourself? You never even tried to see the Truth? The spell is not a difficult one!"
         The blood in my veins-?
         "I have purified this place, and made it into a shrine to my ancestors," I told Lee. "I will not allow it to be polluted with blood sorcery."
         "Truth is not pollution. Truth is the only hope of saving the House Mishima."
         "I'm not going to discuss this any further."
         "Then I shall not discuss it with you."
         "Good."
         *I SHALL SHOW YOU!*
         And he changed.
         In a brilliant explosion of light and Power, he changed.
         He still looked like Lee, but white radiance erased his scars. A luminescent aura blazed from him, condensed in his eyes as twin pools of white. His clothing carried the same sheen of purest white: a long surcoat, emblazoned with the silhouette of a rearing unicorn, draped over a short-sleeved shirt of silver chainmail, and heraldic leggings. His hair gleamed silver, and his right hand held a sword of incandescent white fire, so bright it hurt to see. And from his back...
         Wings. Vast, white-feathered wings, spreading wider than he was tall.
         You remember what it's like, don't you?
         The first time you saw Lee, in his true form?
         It's not just his appearance. You feel it in your soul. To protect and serve, to reform and redeem; these are the motives that define his existence, his purpose, and his Power. When you look at him, you know. You know that he is more than mortal, more than a spirit.
         He is an angel.
         You're in the presence of something holy. Something that no pious human being can deny. Not without a far better reason than any self-motivated protests of 'purity' or 'pollution.'
         I couldn't resist him. I couldn't raise a hand to defend myself.
         He cut me with his sword - not a heavy-handed, killing attack, but with all the delicacy of a master surgeon. I scarcely felt the paper-thin slice that creased my left upper arm, along a line of the Toshin's jagged burn-scar. Lee has since told me that he can modify his sword at will, to be solid or harmless to corporeal beings. Here, he deliberately made it sharp enough to draw a bright red dribble of my blood.
         Lee held his sword at eye level, its blade pointing to his left, a slender line of red fluid hanging from its edge.
         *By shared blood I call. Kazuya Mishima.*
         Part of me wanted to interrupt him, wanted to break out of my paralysis, but I couldn't.
         *Past departure I call. Kazuya Mishima.*
         Not just because he was an angel.
         *The end of breath. Kazuya Mishima.*
         I could sense his thoughts, now that he was in his true form.
         *The heart's labor ceased. Kazuya Mishima.*
         As his angel self, I could feel him. The guilt that drove him to atone for his past crimes; the unyielding, pathological honesty that strictly shaped his perception; and perhaps most strongly, the anguish at having to cast this blood sorcery. At having to recall the damnation of the foster brother he once loved.
         He really was my uncle.
         He really was Lee Chaolan.
         *SHOW US THE DEATH OF KAZUYA MISHIMA!* proclaimed the angel, his command resonating with such thunderous fortitude that I feared the onset of Armageddon.
         Lee slashed at the metal floor with his sword. Droplets of my blood spattered the riveted squares.
         The same squares upon which Kazuya had died, over twenty years ago.
         "W-wait!" I finally stuttered, though it was far, far too late to stop anything.
         There was a second explosion of Power. Dark. Omnipresent.
         Suffering long since lost to the winds of Time. The echo of past hopelessness. And pain. Such pain. It left me petrified and helpless, able only to watch.


         I saw the inner sanctum, as it had once been.
         The shrine to my ancestors was gone, as was the intact mirror. Broken glass and shattered, hollowed-out mirror frames were everywhere; it was similar to how I had originally found this dimension. Except that the bloodstains on the floor, and on the fractured glass, were fresh instead of long since dried.
         I saw Lei Wulong.
         My stepfather.
         Not as he currently was. Not as a sick, wasted, dying man. He was a younger Lei Wulong, battered and bloodied, yet still possessed of a sturdy frame and abiding Strength. The ponytail of his hair was much shorter, scarcely dangling past his shoulders, rather than reaching all the way down his back. He was dressed in simple Chinese clothes: an azure top with white inner lining, a black sash, black slacks, and flat-soled black shoes. Rents and bloodstains marred his garb, more hallmarks of the vicious battle he had just won.
         He clasped the shoulders of a second man. A broken, beaten man. A man who lay helpless, at Wulong's mercy.
         Kazuya Mishima.
         My father.
         Haughty and cruel, full of hatred and vengeance. Clad in a regal, navy blue dress suit, and possessed by a monstrous Devil. The necromancer whose black sorcery enslaved and tortured thousands of murdered souls. Kazuya Mishima, the traitor to all humankind. The traitor whom Lei Wulong had defeated in single combat, turning the tide of the Great Invasion.
         "Let them go, Kazuya," Wulong urged, in frantic desperation. "Let the souls go! Your Power is broken; if you try to hang on to them, their effort to depart will kill you!"
         "And you," the necromancer sneered, malevolently. "And that traitor, Chaolan. I planted a death-link in you both - he when I crushed him in the Iron Fist Tournament, and you when I remade your body!" Laughter convulsed him, bringing him to the brink of hysteria. "I have not lost! Our battle is a draw!"
         "Kazuya, NO!" Wulong screamed. "Don't do this!"


         I wanted so badly to intervene. To somehow stop the doom that was playing before my eyes. Yet, when I tried to touch Kazuya and Wulong, I passed right through their shapes. Even though they otherwise seemed as solid as you and me here now.
         An angel's hand rested upon my shoulder.
         An angel's wing lightly folded me, in its feathery embrace.
         *This is only a shadow of the past,* Lee consoled. *You cannot change what has been.*


         A livewire golden streak - the lethal repercussion of three thousand souls forcing their exodus - stiffened Kazuya's features in a grimace of agony.
         And that... that is how my father died.
         He took his own life, in Lei Wulong's arms.
         "No," Wulong mouthed, cradling my father's remains. "Brother..."
         Then, the death-link in Wulong's body activated.
         I watched it unfold, saw it constrict him without mercy. It forced him to drop Kazuya's lifeless remains. For one, timeless instant, Wulong stared at my father's vanquished corpse, even as I had seen it in Wulong's own mind. Then Wulong crumpled to the floor, quivering from the death-link's toll. The last word on his lips was my mother's name.
         Lee Chaolan died elsewhere in the Mishima syndicate, from what I'm given to understand. Kazuya's death-link killed him.
         Lei Wulong also would have perished, if he hadn't known how to put himself into a trance that simulated death. A trance so deep, it tricked his death-link into burning itself out.


         The vision ended.
         The bodies of Kazuya Mishima and Lei Wulong disappeared. Blood and destruction faded into nothingness, as the pocket dimension returned to the present day. But even though the revelation vanished from view, it stayed firmly etched in my mind, and with it stayed an omen.
         An omen of death.
         You... you know how much I look like my father Kazuya.
         When I watched him die in Wulong's arms... it didn't feel like I was just seeing the past. It felt like I was also seeing the future. Death calling to death.
         My own future, destined to mirror the dark fate of Kazuya Mishima.
         When Lee spoke again, his voice made the premonition stronger. I had the unshakeable feeling that the old debts demanded a blood price. That what had been would inevitably become what is. It sent a shiver of mortal terror through my soul.
         *The reason why Lei Wulong has carried guilt for Kazuya Mishima's death, all these years - the reason why you have seen blood on his hands, when you confronted him about your father - is that he believes he allowed Kazuya to die. He believes that he could have prevented Kazuya's suicide by rendering him unconscious. He believes that by failing to attempt such a measure, he succumbed to the part of himself that wanted to destroy Kazuya and me. Wulong feels that he betrayed his promise to your mother.
         *Wulong had promised your mother he would do everything he could to see that Kazuya was taken alive. He was so ashamed over his failure to do so that he kept the exact circumstances of Kazuya's death a secret. This is the secret he has kept hidden from your mother and you, since before your birth. The secret that he confessed to me, and wanted me to tell you.
         *Yet before you pass judgement on Wulong, consider this.
         *Wulong had only a brief moment in which to react to Kazuya's impending self-destruction. Furthermore, Wulong had just endured great battery, during his battle with Devil Kazuya. It is very hard for mortal human beings to think or act clearly, when they are suffering from shock, injury, and blood loss. It is hard even for Super Police.*
         Only then did the Truth start to sink into me. Only then did I finally begin to understand what I had done to my stepfather.
         No. To my father.
         My father, Lei Wulong.
         And Wulong was truly my father. In every possible way other than literal genetic ancestry, he was my father. He married my mother, and he loved her. He raised me, and he loved me. Though he knew that I was not of his blood, it did not matter to him. I was his son, and that was all that mattered.
         Father...
         Memories filtered back to me. Memories that I had angrily denied, in grief and childish rage, for over four years. My memories of Lei Wulong - watching television with him, staring in youthful amazement as he created colored scarves out of midair, struggling vainly to learn his Phoenix style, listening raptly to his Super Police bedtime stories...
         The full realization hit me. Unequivocal. Irrefutable.
         The realization of what I'd done to my own father.
         He was dying a piece at a time, from the ravages of liver cancer. Yet, when he most needed my love and support, I...
         ...I judged him guilty for crimes he did not commit...
         ...I scorned him, loathed him, cut him out of my life...
         ...I'd even brutalized him, in a fighting match his body was in no shape to withstand-!
         He loved me as his own son, and he never stopped loving me. But I... I stopped loving him.
         I felt sick. Ready to vomit.
         Infinitely worse than a psychic hangover. That was only an imbalance of the mind. This was a sickness of the soul.
         The sickness of what I'd done, reflected on myself. The sickness of my shame, clogging my throat and twisting my insides.
         The sickness of what I had done to my own father.
         I couldn't stand anymore. Crumpled to one knee, one hand falling on the floor while the other clawed at my hair. My head fell; tears both fresh and bitter flowed from my eyes. Tears of misery, and horror, and revulsion of the self.
         "Father," I gasped, shaking like a dangling autumn leaf.
         Then I cried, "Father!" and hurled my sorcery into the shrine's mirror. Grandfather had commanded me not to conjure any visions of the world outside the syndicate's antechamber, but he - he didn't know. He believed Lei Wulong to be a murderer, he didn't know the truth-!
         I had to see my father Wulong. Had to speak to him. Had to call his reflection in the mirror, and use that link to enable telepathic contact.
         I had to tell him I was sorry...
         ...but I couldn't reach him. Couldn't call his image. Couldn't call anything; only static, only-
         -no. No, my father couldn't be dead. His cancer couldn't have claimed his life, not yet! Not before I had a chance to-
         -to see him again-
         -to tell him I was wrong-!
         *Jin? Jin, listen to me! Cease this; you are wasting your Power!*
         Lee stepped in front of the mirror and spread his wings, blocking my view. Only when interrupted by an angel did I give up my fruitless attempts to contact my father.
         "He's not dead, is he?" I pleaded. "My father is still alive? Please tell me he's still alive!"
         *Wulong was alive, last I saw him. I left him at Kagura's Temple, earlier this night. You will not be able to contact him through telepathy or sorcery; the Temple is well protected against such intrusions.*
         Lee folded his wings.
         *Jin, come with me to the Temple. Your stepfather wants to see you again, as surely as you want to see him.*
         "I can't," I whispered, in distress. "Grandfather told me to stay here."
         The angel waited, in silence.
         "How much longer does my father have?" I breathed, in fear of the answer.
         *Perhaps a few days. Perhaps not. Jin... I cannot promise you that he will survive the night.*
         My father was dying. Precious seconds were slipping away. I could have asked Lee to take Wulong a message, but...
         I had refused to see my father. Refused to talk to him. Refused to have anything to do with him, for the last four years of his life. Now he was dying, in the care of strangers. If I did not go to him now - if he passed away tonight - then his last living memories of me would be nothing but darkness and pain.
         He loved me as his son, and I repaid him with hatred.
         Father...
         "Grandfather doesn't know," I said aloud. "He believes my father murdered Kazuya. Grandfather couldn't have known, he-!"
         With a heavy heart, I swallowed back my churning sickness.
         "I have to see my father again. I have to. Grandfather - I pray that he will understand. He has to understand-!"
         *I shall fly you to the Temple. It is the fastest way.*
         Nodding in agreement, I used my sorcery to reopen the portal.
         Lee followed me outside the pocket dimension. I broke into a stumbling run, out the antechamber doors and up the steps to the nearest outdoor balcony.
         It was raining outside. A soft, steady drizzle, with a distant rumble of thunder. A faraway flash of lightning briefly cast stark shadows of white and black.
         An angel's hand rested upon my shoulder.
         An angel's wing lightly folded me, in its feathery embrace.
         *Take my hand,* Lee said.
         I reached for his hand...
         ...and heard a gunshot.
         It was not an echo of sound. It reverberated in my psyche.
         Distress. Distress and misery, mourning and heartbreak; horror beyond description, worse than physical pain. It was all so close, so cruelly close. A woman's wailing cry. I recognized the self-centered feel of her mind.
         "Anna!" I exclaimed, stepping back. I looked wildly around for the source of her overwhelming emotional anguish - no, not around, up. It was definitely coming from above.
         *Anna Williams?* Lee said, puzzled.
         "She's somewhere nearby, and she's in danger! She-"
         *Show me.*
         Lee clasped my hand in his own.
         I felt the receptive presence of his mind, but only barely. It was so light, like a feather from one of his wings. Without another word, I let my telepathic impressions flow through the link of physical contact. Lee nodded once, and we were aloft.
         Flying with an angel...
         Though Lee has birdlike wings, he doesn't fly in quite the same way that birds do. It's not strictly a matter of physics. All he had to do was extend his wings; as conduits to his Power, they immediately launched him. Flapping them was necessary only to guide his airborne course. He towed me by one hand, yet his Power supported me with a Strength far greater than any tensile. At one point I took the questionable action of looking down, and glimpsed a dizzying, panoramic view of neon lights and city streets. Urban Tokyo at night.
         Lee and I soared higher, shooting past stories of the syndicate headquarters' main skyscraper, until we reached the top floor. Its window glass was tinted black, yet there were tiny traces of light coming from minuscule cracks in the frame. Lee turned his wings parallel to the faraway ground, halting his ascent. He called his sword to his free hand, and carved a wide circle in the window. Dispelling his sword, he snapped a midair kick; the circle of cut glass fell inside. With a one-handed heave, he cast me through the hole in the glass. I landed in a roll.
         Then, just as Lee folded his wings to squeeze through his makeshift entrance-
         "AAH-!" he cried - not an angel voice, but a human voice, and his glowing white Power bled from him as if through a mortal wound. He was tipping backwards-
         "Lee!" I shouted, seizing his arms and yanking him the rest of the way inside. He collapsed on one knee.
         His body had reverted to Bryan Fury's bullet-scarred form.
         "No," Lee stressed, clutching at his head. "No! Not yet! I deny you. I imprison you. I deny you!"
         More gunfire sounded.
         Multiple discharges, this time. Close enough that I could hear the sharp, successive reports, instead of just feeling them.
         "We have to find Anna!" Lee declared, taking off from his crouch like a sprinter. Perhaps he was now close enough to home in on her misery by himself, I don't know. In another minute, we reached a set of double doors.
         Beyond the doors was the source of the distress that we had followed. Anna's pain was so severe it almost blinded me; but I could not tell if it was the pain of dying, or the pain of worse.
         The double doors were locked. I pounded on them, fruitlessly, then regained my wits and summoned a thunderstorm of indigo lightning. Lee probably would have tried to help me, but he was on both knees now, head down, fists on the ground, in a renewed battle of wills with Detective Fury's restless soul.
         I slammed all my lightning directly into the wooden doors, searing them, electrifying them, burning them until they burst wide open.
         Beyond...
         Death.


         Perhaps this is a good place to stop, for now. Since you asked me to curtail my descriptions of violence.
         Besides, I had no idea how Anna had come to be there: bleeding on the syndicate's topmost floor, consumed by torment, surrounded by slaughter. Even now, I have only a general understanding of what happened. If this record is going be thorough, then...
         She should probably be interviewed about it.
         You don't have to be the one who talks to her, though. I could have someone else do it. Just this once.
         No, don't get me wrong. I'm very impressed at the effort you've put into this entire project. I've no doubt that you're capable of interviewing Anna. It's just that, well...
         You shouldn't feel like you have to.
         Uh-huh?
         Uh-huh. All right.
         My offer remains open, though. Okay?
         Okay.





Tokyo Sunrise: "News You Can Depend On"
Section 4D: Personal Advertisements [Men Seeking Women]
December 28-31, 2017


LIGHTNING SCARLET: I know how to find your kindred. Meet me in the silent place, at the hour of death.
       - Lone Swordsman





INTERVIEW WITH ANNA WILLIAMS, section 3
February 17, 2018
6:15 p.m.


         I wasn't sure you'd come.
         Yes, I know you said you would, and I've never had any reason to doubt you. But...
         You don't have to do this.
         I could just write a summary of what you'll need for your record. You don't have to-
         No. No darling, I didn't mean to give you that impression.
         I can talk about it. I'll be all right. I'd be lying if I said it doesn't hurt to remember, but that doesn't mean I should pretend none of it ever happened. The only reason I'm hesitating, is, well...
         Do you really want to go through with this?
         Are you sure?
         As you wish. Don't worry, I remember your rules. I'll keep to them.
         Just - just let me get a fresh water glass from the waiter, first. My throat is a little dry.


         All right. I'm ready.
         What do you need to know?
         Oh, dear.
         I... I was...
         ...I was afraid you'd ask me that.
         There's a problem with answering it.
         When you ask whether I loved Heishiro Mitsurugi... the question itself implies a yes-or-no answer. I did, or I didn't. All or nothing, passion or emptiness.
         Life isn't that simple.
         Love... isn't that simple.
         I was certainly very fond of him. He utterly adored me; it's a wonderful feeling, to be adored. However, I wasn't quite honest with him, and I don't just mean the - the trouble I got him into.
         He liked to talk about the most inane things.
         At first he was rather shy, but as we became closer, he was more bold. He lost his stammer around me, and, well...
         If he had been any other boyfriend, I might have been more open about my feelings. But I - I confess that, even though I enjoyed Heishiro's affections, I knew he was an employee of the Mishima syndicate. That he had connections, no matter how lowly, which might be of use to me. That these connections might be more accessible if were to lead him on a bit. So no matter how dull, insipid, or senseless his chatter was, I would always smile and pretend to be raptly interested. I would force myself to pay close attention, much as I once used to when I was taking college classes from some rather tiresome professors.
         What?
         Oh, no. No, not at all, never.
         I don't mean to suggest that I was suffering, when I was with Heishiro. No, the worst that I ever felt was a little boredom, on occasion. Only on occasion. He did make a sincere effort to show me a good time, during our dates. A rather confused effort, but a sincere one. And overall, I did have a very good time.
         I did my best to show him a good time, too.
         I succeeded, I think. If anything, I succeeded too well.
         He fell in love with me.
         Not just puppy-dog infatuation. True love. Undying love. Love as portrayed in sad poems and tragic movies.
         Do you know, I didn't really expect that?
         I'm accustomed to dazzling men with my body, and my charm. But once they tend to know me as intimately as I know them, well...
         I've been with quite a few men, ever since I was in high school. Yet, I've never stayed in a single relationship for very long, and I've never... I've never had anyone fall truly in love with me. Not before Heishiro.
         So, when you ask me if I loved him...
         In a way, I did. Some. Not as deeply as he loved me, but I did have feelings for him.
         However, despite the feelings I had for him, I used him. I used him, and then I abandoned him. That's not because I felt nothing for him, though.
         I had to save my sister. Above all else, I had to save my sister.
         Nina was the only family I had left, and I didn't know where she was or what had become of her. I had to find her and save her, save her soul at any cost. That need, that mission consumed me. It drove me so fiercely that... that there was only so much room left in me to feel anything else. Even love.
         And because Heishiro loved me, he tried to help me with my quest.
         He found out what had happened to Nina. Most of it. A horrible monster called the Toshin had possessed her - I'd already guessed something like that, but it was nice to have confirmation. She murdered a great many people, and tried to assassinate Jin Kazama, under the Toshin's influence. In the end, Nina was banished from the Earth, into the clutches of her vile master.
         What?
         Oh. Well.
         I should have known, really.
         So, it was Julia Chang who banished my sister? I suppose I should have figured that out. She was the one who told Heishiro about what had happened to Nina.
         Yes?
         Mmm, no. In retrospect, I don't think so.
         Julia had banished my sister only to stop her from murdering more innocent people. So, I wouldn't have carried a vengeful grudge against Julia, if I had known. I wouldn't have hurt her.
         Much.
         But, when Heishiro told me what had happened to Nina, I... I cried for my sister.
         I'd touched the Toshin's mind once, and I remembered what that horrible thing felt like. Its hunger, its abominable influence, its sickening corruption - to think of my only sister, in the grip of that loathsome fiend-!
         How was I ever to get her back?
         How was I to save her soul?
         There had to be a way. There had to.
         The syndicate had to know how to rescue my sister. Heihachi Mishima had renewed the Iron Fist specifically to lure the Toshin, hadn't he? He had a plan to summon it, didn't he?
         There was an obstacle, though. My own security clearance was far too inferior to access the syndicate's classified files. I needed the IdentiCard of someone with a much higher ranking.
         When I discreetly questioned Taki, Heishiro's mysterious teacher, she just happened to know of a black market where I could get fake IdentiCards made up. I obtained imitation cards for Ishida and Kimura, the cousins who were Jin Kazama's personal bodyguards. The fake cards wouldn't fool any computer, but I hoped that one of them could fool one of the cousins for long enough. Except that there was no way I could switch the cards myself. Ishida and Kimura were far too suspicious of me.
         So, I used Heishiro. Ishida and Kimura weren't suspicious of him. Almost no one ever was. Virtually everyone seemed to underrate him, and the cousins were no exception.
         Heishiro didn't tell me exactly how he managed to swap Kimura's real IdentiCard for the fake one, not that I stopped to ask. Once I had Kimura's real card in my hands, I felt that much closer to saving Nina.
         I was so naive.
         This - I need you to please make sure you put this in your record. I was naive.
         Please, you have to understand. I really did think I could pull off my entire caper without getting anyone in trouble, especially not Heishiro. So, when it all blew up in my face, I fled the syndicate in complete panic. And I...
         I left Heishiro behind.
         Inside, I kept telling myself that Heishiro would figure out something had gone wrong. He wasn't the brightest young man on Earth, but he wasn't stupid, despite his unintentional tendency to sometimes give that impression. He would know enough to run away too, or cover his tracks.
         Wouldn't he?
         Either way, I knew that if I went back for him, I would only get caught. If I were caught, then there would be no one left to save my sister. So, I abandoned Heishiro.
         I...
         No, I'm all right. In Allah's holy name, this is only the beginning. If I can't handle talking about this, then I'll be of no use to you at all.
         Mm?
         Oh, dear. That's another thing I was afraid you'd ask.
         The truth is, I had made a deal with Taki. On the side.
         Three days after my first date with Heishiro - actually, it was Taki who approached me. She wanted to know all about my love affair. It would seem that Taki relished juicy gossip.
         She was also a powerful sorceress.
         So, I made a bargain with her. I told her almost everything, in exchange for a few favors. Things that I asked of her, as extra insurance. This was all well before I fled the syndicate.
         Taki enchanted a pendant that Heishiro had given me; he'd seen me looking at it in the window of a jewelry store, and bought it for me on impulse. As long as I wore the pendant, on a ribbon around my neck, its wards protected me from Jin Kazama's telepathy and divination sorcery. Taki didn't like the young Devil any more than I did.
         She also gave me quite a bit of money. Cold, untraceable cash.
         Last of all, she promised that she wouldn't share the things I told her with anyone else. I knew Heishiro would have died of embarrassment, if too many private details got around.
         Taki may have had a minor attitude problem, but she was quite honorable about keeping her word. And it was rather fun, gossiping with her. We kept our friendship a closely guarded secret. I'll bet no one else in the syndicate knew. Not even Jin, the resident telepath.
         However, the one thing Taki wouldn't do was help me save my sister. Heishiro told me about how the Toshin had made Nina try to kill Taki, but I don't think that's the reason why Taki wouldn't help me. Taki just refused to directly betray the syndicate, I don't know why.
         Is that so?
         The syndicate took care of Taki's mama?
         Well, that makes sense. If it had been my mama, I'd probably have felt the same way.
         So, Taki's enchantments allowed me to hide from Jin, after I fled the syndicate. Her money was how I got by, on my own; I had more than enough to pay for my needs, as I sought refuge in the darkest, most anonymous corners of Tokyo. I'd learned a few things about disguising myself during my past conflicts with Nina, and I put the knowledge to good use.
         After I ran away, I had to forfeit my Iron Fist Tournament match against Jin, of course. I remembered how my sister's match in Kazuya's Iron Fist had been a deathtrap. A trap that ultimately would have killed both her and me, if not for the mercy of Lee Chaolan.
         Well, Lee Chaolan was twenty years long dead. There would be no one to rescue me, if I walked into a similar snare.
         I wondered if I should leave Tokyo, or even the whole country of Japan. But if I did, I'd be giving up on my sister. Although I had no idea how to find her, let alone save her, I couldn't just forget about her.
         Then one morning, a few days later, I was idly casing the Tokyo Sunrise newspaper's personal advertisements. You know that I've always had a fondness for reading the personals. It's my second favorite way to begin the morning. Or end the evening.
         Mm?
         My first favorite way, mm... at the time, I couldn't let myself think too much about that. Or else I'd really start to miss Heishiro.
         As I was saying, though, I read the personals. And in one of the tiny columns, there it was.
         A message from Heishiro.
         Yes, it was definitely from Heishiro, intended for me. It had our pet names for each other. 'Lightning Scarlet' for me, as the beauty of the Iron Fist; 'Lone Swordsman' for him. It's connected to a story about his legendary samurai ancestor, I believe. He told me about it, once.
         My goodness, Heishiro loved to tell stories. When he wasn't talking to me, I could swear he was writing everything he ever lived, thought, or loved in his journal...
         I found myself getting a little misty-eyed, but blinked it all back, and studied Heishiro's message more closely.
         'I know how to find your kindred.'
         Did that mean he'd learned how to rescue my sister?
         'Meet me in the silent place, at the hour of death.'
         It took me a while to puzzle that out.
         I spent the better part of an afternoon reviewing the time I'd spent with Heishiro, all the things he'd ever said - and he had said a lot, believe me. With concentration, I finally remembered something relevant. A late-night walk I'd once taken, with him. We were following the course of a small stream, more for amusement than anything else, and we found an old stone bridge that the stream ran through. Resting under the bridge... I remembered how quiet and peaceful that place was. So much so, that even dear Heishiro had stopped talking, for a while. Such blessed respite.
         Actually, he had seemed a little nervous about being under a bridge - superstitious, even - but he lost his fear when I took advantage of the tranquility to kiss him.
         Yes, that was probably 'the silent place.' As for 'at the hour of death'...
         Midnight on December 31st, of course. The death of the old year.
         Although I was inordinately pleased at having figured out Heishiro's message, I had reservations about acting upon it.
         Could it be a trap?
         Heishiro wouldn't do that to me... would he?
         He did have every reason to be angry with me. I'd probably broken his heart, and might have cost him his job. I couldn't imagine sweet, gentle, somewhat inept Heishiro ever wanting to harm me, but...
         I decided to arm myself with his gun anyway. Just in case.
         You see, Heishiro had given me his own, fully loaded firearm. He'd said that he hated guns, and he didn't ever want to touch or carry one. Although it was technically illegal for me to possess a gun in Japan, I charmed Heishiro into giving me his with something about needing it to protect myself.
         This wasn't really the truth.
         The truth was, I honestly didn't feel comfortable, having an intimate relationship with an armed man. Heishiro's gun reminded me too much of my sister. Heishiro's sword was different; my sister almost never carried such bulky weapons. She preferred small killing devices like daggers, garrottes, and the rest. However, the very idea of dating a man with a firearm...
         It would be like dating my brother. If I had one.
         So, I had obtained the gun, and I'd hidden it outside the syndicate. I'd never considered retrieving it before, much less carrying or using it. Until I figured out Heishiro's message. I didn't really believe Heishiro wanted to hurt me, but someone else from the syndicate could have been manipulating him. I didn't feel completely safe, meeting him at midnight.
         At the same time, I had to go. He was the only lead I had on my sister.
         In the end, I strapped the loaded gun to my left outer thigh, and wore a black evening gown with a long side-slit to give me easy access to the weapon. Since it was intermittently raining on New Year's Eve, I concealed the firearm's presence with a knee-length black coat. I prayed to Allah that I would never have to draw the gun, much less use it.
         Sometimes, though, Allah knows things - cruel, terrible things - far beyond the comprehension of His faithful.
         And so, in the dead of midnight on New Year's Eve, I met Heishiro in the silent place.
         We were alone. I was dressed all in black, down to my spike-heeled black shoes, so that I blended into the darkness. Heishiro was also in black; the black formal suit that was the uniform of Mishima syndicate security personnel. His sheathed sword was at his hip.
         Did this mean Heishiro hadn't lost his job, after all?
         Except...
         He was too stiff.
         That was my first negative impression, seeing him there. He was far too stiff. Like a rigid steel pole. He waited at strict attention, as if he were a soldier. He'd never been like that before, not around me.
         Was he overcompensating for a broken heart?
         If I could only look into his eyes, I was sure I would have been able to read his feelings, but he was wearing a set of opaque motorcycle goggles. A dark, elastic strap reached around the back of his head, holding the goggles firmly against his face.
         Maybe that was why he was just standing at attention? Maybe his eyewear prevented him from seeing my approach, in the darkness?
         "Heishiro?" I called, hesitantly. "It's me."
         When he turned in my direction, there was something wrong with his movements.
         They were too coordinated.
         Heishiro - the Heishiro I had known - well, he was a bit of a klutz. A trainable klutz, mind you; in fact, that was one of the things I had liked most about him. He was always quite willing and able to learn. Still...
         I'd never, ever seen him move with this much precision. It was almost artificial.
         Was this really Heishiro? His body language was all wrong.
         Could he be an imposter?
         But his message had contained things that only Heishiro could have known. Things that I hadn't even told Taki.
         Could the real Heishiro have been caught by the syndicate? Could the telepath Jin Kazama have taken things out of his mind, and-
         No, no, calm down.
         I'm not going to panic. Not yet.
         "Anna, I've found out how to get your sister back," the bodyguard said. He was definitely speaking in Heishiro's voice...
         "Will you come with me."
         ...but the cadence was all wrong. Flat. Emotionless. Completely lacking in spirit. Even the question didn't really sound like one; there was no rising tone at the end.
         "Heishiro, are you all right?" I asked, tentatively.
         He said, "I'm fine."
         "You don't sound like you're fine."
         He said nothing. Just remained standing at attention.
         "Heishiro, talk to me. What's wrong?"
         "Nothing is wrong."
         "Then why do you sound so - hollow?"
         He coughed, discreetly. I couldn't tell whether it was genuine, or pantomime. "Sorry. My throat isn't in the best shape, right now."
         His voice remained a monotone.
         I touched his face.
         It was difficult to see him, in that darkness under the bridge, but I could feel his skin. He made no effort to resist me. I ran my fingers across his cheeks, his ears, and his clean-shaven upper lip.
         He was Heishiro. Not an impostor. I knew what Heishiro felt like, down to the slight mole by his left ear; yet still, something was wrong.
         His skin was cool.
         Not ice-cold, but cool. Maybe a little clammy. As if he'd taken a chill from illness.
         "Are you sick?" I asked.
         "It's nothing," he returned, in that terrible monotone.
         I moved to take off his goggles.
         The instant my fingers touched them, he gripped my wrist. Firmly. He guided my hand back down to my side, very steadily, and with irresistible strength. I couldn't have gotten out of his hold without attacking him.
         Heishiro let my hand go, and said, "You do want to see your sister again, don't you."
         Umm...
         "Yes," I admitted. "Yes, I do. Very much."
         "Then come with me."
         "Wait. Can't you tell me anything about - about where we're going? Or how you plan to save my sister?"
         "There isn't much that I can tell you, right now. I'm under orders."
         "Whose orders?"
         "My master's orders."
         "Your master? Do you mean Heihachi Mishima?"
         "No. My other master."
         "Who is that?"
         "You'll know when you meet him."
         "I want to know now, and I'm not moving until I do."
         Heishiro said nothing. He merely stood there, at attention, no response at all.
         "Heishiro, I don't mean to hurt your feelings. It's just... it's just that..."
         I'm afraid you might be leading me into a trap.
         "...I really did break your heart, didn't I?"
         "Yes," he answered, so unfeeling that it made me shiver. "But it doesn't matter now."
         He folded his arms behind his back, and turned away.
         "Please, Anna. Don't make me talk about this. Or about anything. Just come with me. My master and I have found a way to bring your sister back, but we can't do it without your help. Will you come with me."
         This felt wrong.
         On every possible level, this felt wrong, and the worst part - the part that made me cringe inside, the part that had my instincts hollering - was Heishiro not wanting to talk.
         Heishiro... my Heishiro...
         He loved to talk. Always. He'd fall quiet out of respect, sometimes, but not like this. Not so withdrawn. Taciturn. Empty.
         What had happened to him?
         Had my desertion hurt him that much?
         This all felt wrong, it felt so wrong. But...
         I had to save my sister.
         It was because of my sister that I had misused Heishiro in the first place. It would be... hypocritical... for me to give up now. I had to save my sister, and Heishiro was my only lead.
         "Yes," I agreed, softly. "I'll come with you."
         "This way."
         He led me in silence, past darkened corners and unlighted byways. However, I had enough sense of direction, and I had gained enough knowledge of Tokyo, to realize-
         "We're headed toward the Mishima syndicate headquarters," I said aloud.
         Heishiro didn't answer. He just kept walking at a swift pace.
         "Wait!" I called, and he stopped. "Why are we going to the syndicate?"
         "My master is waiting for you there. Everything is set up, so that we can get your sister back."
         "Your 'other master' - is he Jin Kazama?"
         Horrible nightmares of the past returned to me. Nightmares of Devil Kazuya, sewing a mind-control web into my thoughts. Jin Kazama was the Devil's son. What if Jin had done the same thing to-?
         "Jin Kazama is not my master anymore," Heishiro denied, starkly.
         "But you used to call him 'young master.'"
         No answer.
         "Heishiro, did Jin do anything to your mind?"
         "No."
         "Is he a part of this?"
         "Jin Kazama has nothing to do with the plan to bring back your sister."
         "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
         "I can only ask you to trust me."
         "Heishiro, I don't mean - it's not that you would lie to me. There are ways that sorcery can control a person, and I'm afraid that young Devil might have..."
         No answer.
         Maybe Heishiro was telling the truth. Although there was definitely something wrong with him, I couldn't say for certain that it wasn't just a broken heart.
         On the other hand, if Jin truly had ensorcelled Heishiro's mind...
         ...then I intended to make him free Heishiro. Even if I had to break every bone in the young Devil's body.
         Assuming that I wasn't captured by fifty guards, first.
         "Heishiro, I can't just walk through the syndicate's front doors. They're hunting for me."
         No answer.
         "Heishiro?"
         "Exactly what is your question," he said, in that deathly monotone.
         "Are we going to sneak inside the syndicate headquarters?"
         "Yes."
         "Won't that be difficult?"
         "No. The syndicate should be largely deserted, by the time we arrive. Mishima-sama intends to evacuate or transfer most of his personnel."
         "Why would he do that?"
         "He's preparing to summon the Toshin. He expects your sister to appear with the Toshin. Mishima-sama intends to murder your sister, in revenge for the casualties she inflicted on his Tekkenshu. Do you want to prevent that."
         "Yes, of course I do-"
         "Then come with me."
         "Hold on. How are we going to get inside the syndicate?"
         "We will use an underground entrance. No one will see us, until you meet my master."
         "How many guards does your master have with him?"
         "My master is waiting for you alone."
         If Heishiro really were under Jin's mind control, then he could be lying.
         But...
         If this truly were Jin's trap, or Heihachi's trap, then why go to such lengths to cajole me inside the syndicate? Why not just sic a Tekkenshu patrol on me, out in the street?
         No. Although my instincts rattled my skeleton in terror, I knew that any trap set by the House Mishima would almost certainly have sprung by now. Heihachi Mishima did not become the ruler of one-third the world by sportively toying with people, and if Jin were anything like his grandfather, then he also knew better.
         "All right," I conceded. "Let's go see your master."
         "This way," Heishiro said, leading me.
         I'll skip the rest of our journey. I don't think it really matters; all that's important is that Heishiro was true to his word. We did sneak into syndicate territory without being seen, though I think the pendant Taki had enchanted helped with that. It made us invisible to the surveillance cameras.
         At last, Heishiro and I took an underground tunnel to a hidden service elevator, which went up, and up, and up, for the longest time.
         There came the toll of the elevator bell.
         ding
         The doors opened.
         Heishiro gestured for me to exit first, then followed me. The elevator closed its doors and descended, leaving me stranded in a strange room.
         With no way out.
         There was only the one set of double doors; they were sealed with locks, bolts, and a very heavy crossbar. But that wasn't the first thing that drew my attention, oh no.
         This... this room...
         If I had to choose one word to describe the place, it would be 'occult.'
         It was all in red and black. Black hardwood floor, black walls, black ceiling. A great pentagram had been traced in sloppy red, on the ground. A red circle surrounded the pentagram. Thick, half-melted red candles burned at each of the pentagram's points. More red splashed the walls, drippy symbols that I couldn't understand.
         The writing was in blood. All of it. Chicken blood, I presume; the gutted corpse of a plumed rooster, feathered wings intentionally spread wide, lay in each of the room's four corners.
         Aside from the candles, the only source of light was a great, sturdy brazier. It marked the head of the pentagram, and reached taller than my height. Its torch flame burned with the vigor of an open fireplace.
         A stranger leaned with his back against the brazier's left side, arms folded, legs idly propping him up. He didn't seem the least bit bothered by the heat that made me sweat, uncomfortably. Firelight framed him, as if he were calmly bathing in the furnace of Hell.
         He didn't look like a hellfiend, though.
         He looked like a teenager. A teenager dressed in punk gang leathers. A silver crucifix, studded with sparkling diamonds, hung on a chain around his neck. His shoulder-length, orange-red hair was swept back in feathery tangles. Though his face appeared Asian, his skin was awfully pale. Not quite albino, but close to it.
         Was this Heishiro's 'other master'?
         He seemed... familiar.
         As if I'd seen him before, somewhere. But that couldn't be. I certainly hadn't laid eyes on him since I'd awakened from twenty years of cryogenic suspension, and he was too young to be anyone I'd met before then.
         Wasn't he?
         While I was wondering about all this, Heishiro crossed the pentagram, acting as if nothing were the slightest bit unusual. He stopped at the brazier's right side, and stood stiffly at attention.
         The teenaged stranger turned his face toward mine.
         "I'm going to tell you why you have to die," he said, casually.
         "What?" I gasped.
         "Just as a courtesy. You see, the vampyres who murdered me never bothered to tell me why I had to die. Because they were hungry? Because they thought peasants tasted better? Because they were gourmets who disdained livestock blood? No, they never once thought to explain themselves, right up to the day they were all destroyed.
         "That's always been a sore point, with me.
         "I hate those bastards. I hate myself for being a monster like them - I hate being like them! So, you still have to die, but at least it won't be the same way I did. At least I'll tell you the reason, and anything else you want to know. Anything at all. You only have to ask."
         Heishiro wasn't reacting to any of this. Just standing there, stiffly at attention.
         "Who are you!?" I demanded, of the stranger.
         "You don't remember me at all, do you?"
         Wait...
         "I have seen you before," I recalled. "Briefly. When I was under Kazuya's mind control. You were with Baek Doo San."
         "Well, isn't that gratifying."
         "Were you put in coldsleep for twenty years, too?"
         "Hardly."
         "But you looked just as you do now. That's not possible, unless you... unless you're..."
         "A vampyre," he confirmed, with a singularly evil grin. It exposed the prominent points of his canines. "Spelled with a 'y.' As in, 'leave your garlic in the spice rack.'"
         "Who are you. Who are you, really."
         "'Hwoarang' is the name I use the most. 'Blood Talon' to the gang I've been hanging out with, not that many of them survived your sister's last rampage. I've occasionally gone by other names, in the past four hundred years. Even had a mortal name, once, but I don't remember it. Or the names of my family. All I remember is how vampyres murdered them."
         Hwoarang looked away. "They were the lucky ones. They got to stay dead. You'll get to stay dead too, by the way. I'm not that cruel."
         "What about Heishiro?" I asked, fearfully. Not fearful for my own life, mind you. Vampyre or not, this Hwoarang wasn't going to kill me without a fight, and I am a mistress of the bone-breaking Arts. No, I was afraid - petrified - of the answer to my question.
         "'Heishiro'? You mean your lover, here?" Hwoarang dryly commented. "I never did ask his first name."
         "What - what's wrong with him?"
         Hwoarang flashed that evil smile, again.
         "Mitsu darling?" he said, in a falsely sweet parody of my own vocal cadence. "Show her."
         Heishiro remained motionless.
         "I mean take off your goggles, you idiot!" Hwoarang snapped.
         Heishiro removed his opaque eyewear.
         His eyes...
         The Heishiro I remembered used to have dusky brown eyes. They were the first thing I had ever noticed about him - his eyes, and the way he looked at me with such worship.
         Now, the dusky brown was gone from his eyes. And the worship. And anything even remotely resembling emotion, or humanity.
         His eyes were red. They were red all the way through. What had once been the whites of his eyes were now solid red. His irises were dark crimson, and his pupils matched the red of the bloody pentagram on the floor.
         "Heishiro, what have they done to you?" I whimpered, trembling on the inside.
         He didn't answer.
         "Talk to me, mortal woman. He won't respond to you unless I command him," Hwoarang huffed, snatching the eyewear from Heishiro's hand. The vampyre put the goggles on, pushing them well above his own forehead, so that they anchored the foremost crest of his tangled hair.
         "What have you done to Heishiro, you MONSTER!"
         "Oh, let's have a little credit where credit is due. It wasn't my choice. I'm currently a slave myself, under the control of Heihachi Mishima.
         "No, it was 'Mishima-sama' who persuaded Mitsu to volunteer for an 'experimental project.' Mitsu drank a concoction of Heihachi's blood, my blood, and a few other ingredients. Mostly artificial colors and flavors, to disguise the fact that it was blood. Mitsu didn't know what it would do to him, of course.
         "I prayed it would kill the poor sap. I prayed to Satan that it would only kill him.
         "By the way, you should know that the only reason Mitsu sealed his own fate was that he felt guilty. Guilty over the way you made him betray the syndicate, somehow. So, his condition is really all your fault. I just wanted you to know that."
         "Is he - is he still alive?"
         "Do you know, I'm not completely sure anymore? Maybe technically. What do you think, Mitsu?"
         Heishiro did not answer.
         "Oh, that's right," Hwoarang corrected. "You CAN'T think, you stupid ZOMBIE!"
         The red-haired vampyre shook his head, disgustedly. "That's the problem with bloodslaves - and Mitsu is only a bloodslave, not a vampyre like me. Even old man Heihachi knows better than to make more like me.
         "No, ever since Heihachi's 'Cyborg Army' project fell through, he's wanted a new way to make an unbeatable, absolutely loyal force of elite soldiers. This is what he got.
         "Unbeatable? Well, Mitsu now has all my fighting skills, and I'm pretty good with a sword. Haven't used one in an age because they're so messy, but old talents die hard. Especially when you're undead.
         "Absolutely loyal? Oh, sure. You bet your pretty head.
         "The catch is, Mitsu darling doesn't just lack free will. He lacks ANY sort of will. I'm not even sure what's in his head, if his brain's rotted away or what. 'Mishima-sama' was rather upset over that. His brand new bloodslave couldn't say or do anything unless expressly ordered to, by his master, and it had to be very specific orders. Any confusion, and Mitsu only stands there.
         "However, there is a little something I conveniently neglected to tell 'Mishima-sama.'
         "Mitsu darling isn't just Heihachi's slave. He's my slave, too. Oh, Heihachi's orders come first, since he is also my master. However, the old man isn't worrying about Mitsu or me, right now. He's too busy working himself into a knot over... other complications. So that I was able to set this whole room up, and send Mitsu out to fetch you, just like the ad we ran in the personals.
         "That's another thing I kept back from 'Mishima-sama,' you see. Before Mitsu darling got turned into this, he told the old man that he didn't know where to find you, but sometimes people know more than they think they know.
         "Mitsu may not have much of a brain left, but all his memories are still there. Including his memories of you. It took a lot of questioning to learn how I might contact you, and exactly what I should put in the newspaper to catch your eye, without drawing old man Heihachi's attention. Not that he strikes me as one to read the personals, but you never know.
         "And if you don't mind, I'm really curious. Did you ask Mitsu darling anything, when he brought you here? Did you try to interrogate him at all? I'm asking only because I spent hours programming him. I meticulously instructed him with how to respond if you said this, or did that, or whatever. I wasn't completely sure he'd be able to pass for a human being, but I couldn't go after you myself; 'Mishima-sama' has ordered me to stay inside the syndicate. It would be nice to know that all my effort didn't go to waste."
         I wasn't going to give Hwoarang the satisfaction of answering that.
         Instead, I demanded, "I want you to remove the curse you've put on Heishiro."
         "I'm sure you do."
         "Get him back to normal, now! Make him human again, or I'll - I'll torture you!"
         "Sorry - and believe it or not, I do mean that. I'm not sure he can be made human again. I'm not even sure he'd want to be made human again, after you're murdered. The poor fool really was in love with you.
         "But this leads me back to what I was originally going to tell you: why you have to die. It's nothing personal, Anna dear. It's only that there's no other way."
         "No other way for what?"
         "For me to die."
         "You want me to kill you?"
         My voice faltered, when I said that. I'm not an assassin, like my sister. I'd never killed anyone before. Even though this - this creature wasn't human, the way he talked to me convinced me that he wasn't a liar, either. He really was just a slave, and a pawn, forced to desperate measures.
         It was Heihachi Mishima who had committed unspeakable depravity upon Heishiro. It was Heihachi Mishima who deserved my hatred, not Hwoarang.
         As dangerous as this vampyre was, he was a victim too. How could I murder him for that?
         "Don't worry," Hwoarang shrugged. "I know you're not a killer. Besides, I'm immortal. I can die only at the hand of someone who has beaten me in single combat. A person has to crush me in a fight to the death, and then consciously decide to finish me off, instead of keeping me for a slave. Problem is, everybody I don't destroy first would much rather have a slave.
         "Everybody except Jin Kazama," the vampyre added, as an afterthought. "The bleeding-heart idiot voluntarily released me from his control. Don't ask me to make any sense of that."
         "If you don't expect me to kill you, then how do you plan to die?"
         "Your sister is going to kill me."
         What?
         "Nina?" I whispered, almost daring to hope. "You really have found a way to rescue her?"
         "'Rescue' her? Not a chance. The Toshin controls her, body and soul.
         "No, what I'm going to do is bring her back to our world. Before 'Mishima-sama' summons the Toshin, and her with it.
         "You see, the old man has figured out how to entice the Toshin into an ambush. He plans to subdue it with Heaven's Dagger. Then, he'll harness the monster's Power to make himself Immortal. At the rate things are coming together, it looks like he's going to succeed. He's going to become Immortal, and there's nothing I can do to stop it-!
         "There's nothing..."
         For the first time since I'd met him, Hwoarang's veneer of heartless evil cracked. He trembled, a little. Echoes of fear - true terror - started to seep into his voice.
         "I can't have an Immortal master. My other masters were bad, yes, they were very bad, but at least they all died. Eventually. If 'Mishima-sama' becomes Immortal, then I'll - I'll be his slave forever. I can't have that, I can't have that-!
         "He's planning to make more bloodslaves, too.
         "He's been bleeding me dry for weeks, stockpiling my blood. Because even mindless automatons can be useful to him, and his precious syndicate. He intends to make an army of them, using me for an inexhaustible supply of vampyre poison-!
         "It was bad enough before. I've had to serve tyrants and despots before, but not like this. Never like this. Not since - not since I was a slave to the vampyres that murdered me, and this is worse! At least they were only serial killers!
         "It has to stop now. I have to make it stop. If the only way I can make it stop is to be a monster, then I will be a monster. If the only way I can die is to have you butchered like a sow, then that's what I'll do."
         "You want to murder me, to bring my sister back, so she can kill you?"
         "She was slaughtering everything in her path, before she got banished. I've no reason to believe she'll pass me up."
         "But why should killing me bring her back?"
         "It's your blood, Anna dear. It's all in the blood. Blood sacrifice is the most ancient ritual there is. The fresher the blood, and the more you spill, the higher your odds of success. For maximum potency, you want to sever the aorta.
         "It's how old man Heihachi intends to summon the Toshin. First, he needed to lure it close enough, ethereally speaking, with his Iron Fist Tournament. Now, he's going to bring it into our world with blood sacrifice. The blood of a virgin innocent, spilled by one the innocent loves. Because Love is, allegedly, the greatest Power of all. Love and blood - combined, these can call the attention of even a god.
         "In my case, though, it's difficult to obtain a proper virgin innocent. Even if I could get my hands on one, I'd still have to find someone whom the innocent loved, yet who was willing to murder the innocent. That's a tough casting call.
         "However, I don't have to summon the Toshin. All I need, in order to kill me, is the Toshin's minion. Your sister. And to get a lesser servant like her, I don't really need the blood of a virgin innocent. Blood of kindred will do.
         "Your blood.
         "That's why you have to die.
         "Any other questions?"
         No. None.
         All that remained was to fight my way out of this trap.
         I put up my hands in defensive guard, turning the outer edges of my open palms like knife blades. "I'm warning you, Hwoarang. If you try to kill me, I'll defend myself. I'll break your bones if I have to!"
         "You haven't been listening, Anna dear," the vampyre drolly tsked, shaking his head. "I've told you about the Power of Love, but you're hardly listening to a word I say.
         "Besides, the one hope I have left is the prophecy of a blind old seer. He said that I will die for a murder I do not commit. So, I'm not going to commit your murder."
         No. No.
         He couldn't mean-!
         Hwoarang snapped his fingers. Heishiro drew his sword, holding it in both hands.
         No, no, NO!
         "Mitsu, darling? Carve out her heart!"
         Heishiro attacked.
         Years of training - years of battling my wrathful sister - made me react on conditioning and instinct. Even as he moved, even as he swung his sword in an overhead chest swipe, I stepped up to him and caught his wrists on their downward motion. Pumping his arms like a dual lever, I used Aikido and natural momentum to tumble him in a flip. He landed on his back, unable to fall right because of the grip I kept on one of his arms.
         "Heishiro?" I called, pain and panic leaking through my voice. "Heishiro, can you hear me? If you really have kept your memories, then there must be something left of your spirit, too! Wake up! Remember who you are!"
         "Clarification on those orders, Mitsu darling," Hwoarang drawled. "Kill her. Then carve out her heart."
         Heishiro moved to get up.
         I tried to restrain him, but he was too fast for me. And too strong. Relentlessly, inexorably strong. He wrenched free of my grip, and then he was coming at me with his sword again-
         -and again my training kicked in, at this close range I could stop his strike with both hands clamped around his wrist, arresting his assault before-
         Heishiro reacted instantly.
         There was no thought, no calculated planning in his vacant red eyes. Even as I tried to stop his sword arm a second time he pulled away from me, tangled my leg off balance, and punched his other fist in my face. Hard. Split my upper lip open; I tasted and spat out my own salty blood, crumpling to my knees-
         -and Heishiro crouched, stabbing his left leg in a hard kick that twisted my folded ankle. He perfectly blended the motion into a seamless upward slash with his sword, as if guided by the strings of a master puppeteer. Reflexes saved me, made me throw myself back, away from the deadly swipe.
         Reflexes and my moderately thick coat, that is.
         If not for the extra layer, I could have been gutted; as it was, his blade tore through enough to deal me a painful gash, and push me against the wall.
         I tried to make myself stand up, using the wall as a brace. But when I looked into Heishiro's unfeeling, blood-red eyes, my legs trembled. All the strength ran out of me.
         I begged, "Heishiro! Please! You have to remember!"
         He angled a downward stop-thrust, targeting my breastbone.
         I was already beginning to feel weak from loss of blood, yet once again I reacted on training and instinct. Twisted my shoulders just in time, and he pinned my coat to the wall instead of me. Deep in the wall.
         His sword buried itself in a crack of the wall's mortar.
         Though I tried to pull away, my coat restrained me, and I could feel the uncomfortable press of razor-edged steel, dangerously close to my side. Heishiro was trapped too, his hands wrapped around his firmly lodged sword. With a burst of energy, I slipped part-way out of my coat. But I still had to deal with Heishiro, and I-
         I didn't want to hurt him.
         I swear I didn't want to hurt him. I'd never meant to hurt him, I-
         I'm not sure when I started crying.
         The tears were already pouring down my face, mixing with my blood. Heishiro was so close to me, caught in a half-crouch with his sword stuck in the wall, somehow unable to let go of his weapon. In a semi-standing position, I was almost looking down on him; his face was scarcely three inches from mine.
         I implored, "Heishiro, isn't there anything left of your soul?"
         He pulled on the sword.
         "Heishiro?"
         He put one foot on the wall, using it as a brace to pull harder.
         "Mitsu...?" I sobbed, miserably.
         One of my tears fell on his face. So did a single droplet of my blood.
         Heishiro's sword came free from the wall, even as my coat fell from my shoulders.
         He staggered away. Blinked. Shuddered.
         His face changed. His eyes remained that horrible blood-red, but they grew wider, and his eyebrows drew back.
         Emotion. There was emotion on his face.
         Confusion. Dread. Pain.
         His mouth parted, ever so slightly.
         He said, "A-... Anna?"
         Not in a deathly monotone. In a wavering, fearful whimper.
         Hwoarang said, "What?"
         Heishiro convulsed. Fell to one knee, still holding his sword stained with my blood. In a horrified croak, he said, "My... m-my master o-ordered me to kill you..."
         Hwoarang yelled, "What is going on here!?"
         "You don't have to do what he says!" I cried, to Heishiro. "Fight it, and break the curse! Fight it!"
         Heishiro's voice twisted with affliction. "I c-can't... nn-not for long-!"
         Hwoarang screamed, "This is NOT supposed to HAPPEN!"
         Heishiro brought up his sword, holding it in a steady stance, one foot a little ahead of the other, knees slightly bent. Like a true samurai.
         His blood-red eyes focused on my hip. At where the slit in my black dress revealed the gun I'd strapped to my thigh.
         He said, "Y-you have my gun. Use it. K-kill me."
         Hwoarang roared, "You worthless bloodslave reject! STOP STALLING AND MURDER HER!"
         Heishiro lunged for me.
         Although I managed to draw my gun - his gun - I couldn't point it at him. I just couldn't hurt Heishiro, especially not when I'd called him back. There had to be another way to free him from the curse, there had to!
         The hesitation proved my undoing. Paralyzed between actions, with Heishiro's gun in my hand, I didn't react to his fresh assault until too late.
         I could have died then and there.
         Heishiro would have killed me, if not for that fragment of humanity that manifested as extreme horror on his face, soul-rent agony in his wounded battle cries. His blade slashed at me three times, when all I had to protect me was a flimsy evening dress. He dipped low for another stabbing kick, undercutting my balance, then hit me with two more broad strokes and a final, swooping cut, dragging his blade from my thigh to side to neck. I fell on my back, still clutching Heishiro's gun, bleeding from half a dozen gashes.
         All of them superficial.
         Heishiro was holding back. He'd battered me with the flat of his weapon, and his blade had grazed only shallow rents in my skin.
         But even though my wounds weren't lethal, the shock of receiving them all at once stunned me. I couldn't even roll before Heishiro crouched, stomping his shoe on my stomach, so hard that it forced out my breath.
         His sword's tip drew down my neck, severing the ribbon that held my enchanted pendant. The jewelry fell away. A new crease of blood welled from the base of my throat.
         My fingers curled around his gun. Lying on the floor, I pressed its barrel against Heishiro's heart, but I still couldn't squeeze the trigger.
         Hwoarang screeched, "You damned bloodslave! Finish her off! Finish her NOW!"
         Heishiro's eyes brimmed with blood-red tears.
         He whispered, "If you let me murder you, you'll never see your sister again."
         I squeezed the trigger.


         He knew.
         Heishiro knew just what to say, to... to make me do the unthinkable. To make me kill him before he could kill me. He knew me that well.
         He... loved me that much.
         He...
         ...I... I'm all right. I can continue this. Don't worry about me.


         Heishiro didn't cry out, when the smoke-powder hole burned into his black suit, and the bullet pierced his heart. It was I who screamed for both of us, screamed louder than the report of the gun. Heishiro just closed his blood-red eyes as he slumped to one side, falling off my supine form, collapsing near the center of the occult floor-pentagram.
         Hwoarang shrieked, "I don't BELIEVE this!"
         I stood up, trembling.
         "You - you WITCH! Do you have any idea what you've done? What you've RUINED!?"
         I could barely pay attention to his rant.
         My soul felt barren. Desolate. Razed to nothingness.
         Heishiro was dead. I killed him, I-!
         No.
         I didn't kill Heishiro. I just pulled the trigger.
         HE killed Heishiro.
         That - that red-haired MONSTER murdered Heishiro!
         Something in me turned cold. Dead. Ruthless. As I stood upon the pentagram, looking down at Heishiro's motionless remains, lethal premeditation seized me.
         Was this how my sister felt, when she assassinated her victims?
         Hwoarang snarled, "To hell with Love. To hell with the prophecy. In the name of Satan, to hell with all of it! I AM going to commit your damned murder, and paint every corner of this room with your blood! What this sacrifice lacks in quality, it'll make up for with quantity!"
         As I turned to vampyre, my eyes must have flashed with the icicle glare of a Medusa.
         I pointed Heishiro's gun at him, braced in both hands, and said, "I am going to destroy you."
         "I'm immortal, remember?" Hwoarang snorted, arrogantly. "You can't kill me with that worthless thing."
         "I DON'T HAVE TO!"
         And I fired.
         Two, three times. Riddled his chest with bullets. While he reeled from pain and shock, I walked up to him, placed the barrel against his right knee, and fired again.
         I took out his left knee in the same way. He collapsed in a quivering heap.
         I kept firing, until I was out of bullets. Successive impacts battered Hwoarang's body, and red-black vampyre blood spilled from his gunshot wounds.
         I'll never forget the look of astonishment, frozen on his face.
         I don't think he had expected me to shoot him. I really don't think he did.
         What I did next surprised him even more.
         Hurling away the empty firearm, I shouted, "I CHALLENGE YOU TO SINGLE COMBAT!"
         "What?" Hwoarang gurgled, coughing up a mouthful of red-black blood.
         I savaged him with my bare hands.
         He couldn't even stand, much less resist me. I grabbed his left palm, ignoring the clammy, fishy feel of his bare skin. Reached under his shoulder to bash his jaw. Locked his left arm in both my own. Braced my legs and pulled against the natural set of his bones, until they cracked. He cried out. His other arm covered his face. Turning my back to his back, still holding his broken left arm in my right, I gathered his right arm in my left. With both his arms anchored in mine, I flipped him over my head, using my spine as a lever. He landed on his back, writhing like a snake.
         I stepped on him, impaling his chest with the stiletto heel of my shoe. As I viciously ground its spike into one of his many gunshot wounds, I spat, "I've beaten you!"
         He couldn't get up, let alone resist my proclamation.
         A tormented grimace crossed his face. Worse than physical pain. Much worse.
         The agony of being enslaved.
         He breathed, "And what do you want me to do... master?"
         I walked away from Hwoarang, heedless of his blood on my shoe. Blood that left red-black footprints.
         "You can't use me to get revenge on Mishima-sama; he's still my master, too. You can't-"
         I took the sword from Heishiro's lifeless fingers. Hwoarang somehow managed to roll on his side, supporting his bleeding torso with his one intact arm. He stared at me in disbelief.
         "You... you're..."
         As cold and empty as a bloodslave myself, I approached the fallen vampyre.
         "...you're going to set me free? You're really going to set me free?"
         I stopped next to him, and adjusted my grip on Heishiro's sword, holding it in both hands.
         A red-black tear trailed from Hwoarang's eye. "Th... th-thank you... thank you so much-!"
         I brought down the sword.
         Hwoarang whispered, "Yukie."
         It was over in a single stroke.
         Orange-red flames, fire the color of Hwoarang's raptor hair, burst from his decapitated body. The blaze burned without heat, consuming his flesh without touching his clothes. In the space of heartbeats, all that remained of his corpse was charcoal-grey ash. Gunshot holes perforated his vacant gang leathers. His diamond crucifix lay in a pool of red-black blood.
         There was a pounding noise, from the double doors.
         I didn't answer it. I couldn't answer anything, couldn't do anything. All I could do was let the killing sword drop from my numb fingers. Sinking to my knees, I collapsed on my hip, hanging and shaking my head. I buried my tearful face in one hand, while the other strained to hold me up.
         That was how Lee and Jin found me. Bleeding, sobbing, and surrounded by death.


         What's that, dear?
         I... I don't know.
         I wish I could tell you that I killed Hwoarang out of compassion, in order to free him from his undead curse. But, at the moment I brought my sword down, I wasn't thinking of setting him free. I wasn't thinking of anything, except grief, pain, and revenge.
         It's probably good that I didn't think. Because if I had reflected on it, I might have seen it in terms of the prophecy Hwoarang had mentioned. The prophecy that he would die, for a murder he didn't commit.
         Heishiro's murder.
         If I had seen it as... as Heishiro having to die so that Hwoarang could die... then I'm not certain I would have given Hwoarang the mercy he so dearly craved. I might have kept him alive, for spite.
         This...
         This is harder than I thought it would be.
         I'm not really finished, though. There is more. After Lee and Jin found me-
         Yes?
         I'm... I guess I'm not all right, just now, but I will be. In time.
         How about you?
         Okay. Let's continue this tomorrow night.
         And thank you... for the reprieve.


End of Chapter 23: Blood of Kindred