written by Victar, e-mail
Victar's Archive:

Chapter 25: Solemn Promise

   "From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to Your Majesty," said Holmes, coldly. "I am sorry that I have not been able to bring Your Majesty's business to a more successful conclusion."
   "On the contrary, my dear sir," cried the King. "Nothing could be more successful. I know that her word is inviolate. The photograph is now as safe as if it were in the fire."

         -Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia

SCHEDULE C. - Deaths
Registration District No. 13 08-07-001204

No. 1/1

Name and surname of deceased: Constance Fury
Date and time of death: August 7, 2001 [approx. 8:00 p.m.]
Sex: Female
Age: 30 years
Rank or Profession: unemployed
Where born: New York
Residence: Wilkinson Public Assistance Project,
Apt. #16
Certified cause of death: opiate poisoning
Name of physician (if any): none
Name, description, and residence of informant: Bryan Fury
[son, age 13, resided w/mother]
When registered: August 15, 2001
Religious denomination: Protestant
Remarks: Fatal dosage most likely self-injected.

February 19, 2018
7:15 p.m.

         You're here on the dot.
         Why am I not surprised.
         Yeah, yeah, whatever. I'm ready to pick up. Not that there's anything particularly exciting in most of it, but I suppose nit-picky pretty boy Kazama wants all the details, right?
         Uh-huh. Thought so.
         Fine. I don't owe the pretty boy this, and I sure as hell don't owe you this, but I'll tell you anyway. If only to keep you from going to Chaolan.
         Oh, the angel wouldn't deliberately slander me. He probably wouldn't spill anything personal about me, if I told him not to, but I don't want him doing me any favors. It's enough of a pain to owe him my life; I don't need anything else on the plate.

         Okay. So.
         Lee Chaolan flew us to Chizuru Kagura's Temple.
         I was naturally along for the ride, hanging out in the back of my own head, while Lee crossed half of Tokyo in his angel true form. Lee also carried that spindly Mishima syndicate flunky, ex-bloodslave, and all around bewildered idiot Mitsurugi. The flunky screwed his eyes shut, and clutched at the angel like he was holding on to his mommy. But hey, at least he stayed quiet. I'd half-expected him to be shrieking or sick the whole way.
         I wasn't feeling too great, myself.
         God knows I've never cared for Lee's economy air travel, and that particular night, I had an extra reason to be edgy: Lee was damn near exhausted. I could feel it. After everything he'd done - having it out with Lei Wulong, keeping me mentally tied down, getting exorcized by Toshin-Nina, having to patch up my body when I invited him back - hey, who wouldn't be wiped out?
         Problem was, I could hardly afford it if he got a wing cramp while we were, oh, one or two miles above the ground.
         *Do not worry,* Lee reassured. He probably wasn't reading my mind, but he can feel my emotional state same as I can feel his, and he must have caught my concern. *This is our swiftest means of travel. I am acutely aware of my limits; rest assured that I shall not falter.*
         I'd feel safer if I could walk, I thought back.
         *It would be only an illusion of safety. You do remember that the Mishima syndicate seeks to destroy you? And that they have a great many spies, who would easily recognize you?*
         Right, right, whatever. Lee's logic made sense, but I still breathed a major sigh of relief when we touched down.
         At the weirdest damn Temple I've ever seen.
         Huge goddamn red arch, like a square-shaped half of a McDonald's thing on steroids, right in front of the place. Long, shallow steps, and humongous white pillars holding up the roof of-
         -shit, why am I even bothering, here? You know where Kagura's Temple is. You can go take your own damn notes.
         Okay, okay. I'll give you the quick recap.
         Kagura's Temple: big, impressive, and totally spotless. Maybe there was some old Japanese tradition in the design, but there was also a lot of modern pizzazz, down to the sculpted silver statues at the bottom of the front steps. Two of them. A pair of men; one had a headband, and the other had some kind of cord loosely strung between his knees. Each of them was holding up one hand. The statues doubled as round-the-clock braziers, because flames were burning from their held-up hands. What's screwy was that while the headband-statue had normal red-orange flames, the bound-knees statue had purple flames.
         Must be a special type of fuel, or something.
         The sky had lightened a little, getting ready to break the first dawn of the new year. Because it was so early, I wasn't surprised to see only one person outside the Temple: a crippled beggar, sleeping next to the orange-flame statue.
         Lee set Mitsurugi down. The flunky swayed, and opened his eyes.
         "Is this Kagura's Temple?" he whispered, like the moron he was.
         *Yes,* answered the angel.
         Lee, I thought, you need to get some rest. Give me back control. I'll take it from here.
         I could feel him hesitating.
         Lee, what is it?
         I could feel him wondering if this was really such a good idea.
         Hey. Hey, come on! I said you could have control for 'a little while,' not forever!
         *Yes, of course. It is only that...*
         What, damn you? What?
         Oh, shit.
         You don't fucking trust me, do you?
         *I have faith that the good in your soul solidly outweighs the evil.*
         *However, Bryan... this is a somewhat different setting than what you may be familiar with. We are at a Temple. A sanctified place. There are certain rules and ethics for observed behavior, here. They will understand that you are unfamiliar with traditional etiquette, and make allowances accordingly, but-*
         What the fuck do you think I'm going to do? Wreck the place?
         *No, I am certain that you have no such intention. However, you might be inclined to use foul language when addressing the Temple personnel, or treat them with your characteristic ill temper, or...*
         *...or, Grey Kingdom forbid, I fear you might surreptitiously appropriate items or funds that are not yours. Please reassure me. Tell me that I am wrong.*
         Goddamn holier-than-thou angel was still on my case because I'd picked up a few things from Mitsurugi, Anna, and pretty boy Jin Kazama. After I'd saved all their asses from Toshin-Nina, not before!
         You'll have to start trusting me sooner or later.
         *This is not reassuring me.*
         Tough shit.
         *I suppose that since you unconditionally refuse to swear the Oath of the Guardians, then it is unlikely you would agree to any lesser Oath, yet...*
         Lee, for the last time, cut the crap and give me control. You're too tired to stay in charge of my body, and you know it.
         *Very well. I shall be watching you, however. Please... be nice.*
         Up yours.
         But hey - I didn't say that, when he gave me back my regular body. Didn't even direct the thought to where he could hear it. That's about as 'nice' as I get.
         Lee settled down in the back of my head. He made himself comfortable, but he didn't quite fall asleep. He really was watching me. I could feel it.
         Ahh... I hated being goaded like this, but hell. I'd recently learned the hard way that I had to live with the angel, and I mean that literally. Without him, I'd drop dead. Which meant that there was no good in pissing him off over stupid little things, or getting pissed off at him over stupid little things.
         Fine. I'll show him not to judge me; I'll prove him wrong. I can put a lid on the cursing, I can cut the Temple folks some slack, and I can...
         ...ah, dammit.
         "Hey, you," I announced. "Flunky."
         Mitsurugi had been gaping in awe at the purple-flame statue. He turned toward me, and his eyebrows went down all confused-like.
         "Lee?" he said, looking at me, then looking around vainly for the angel.
         "He's taking a break, for now."
         "Taking a-? Oh, I see! You share the same body, don't you?"
         It's MY body. I just let Lee use it, sometimes.
         "Look. Idiot. I've got something for-"
         "Mr. Fury, please," the syndicate suit interrupted, holding up one hand. With a deep bow, he continued, "I'm Heishiro Mitsurugi. If you find my last name a mouthful, then you're welcome to call me 'Heishiro,' or 'Shiro' - that used to be my nickname in high school - or even 'Mitsu,' if you honestly can't pronounce anything else, but not 'flunky,' or 'idiot.' Okay?"
         I stared the wimp down.
         He looked straight back at me, and shrugged. "Isn't it only fair? I'm not calling you 'zombie,' or anything like that. Not anymore."
         If Lee hadn't been watching me like a mother hawk, I would've punched the flunky's teeth down his throat.
         "This is yours," I snarled. "Take it."
         And I held out his gun.
         Now you get this straight - I was not threatening the flunky, and I sure as hell wasn't pointing the weapon at him. I held it out butt-first. Shit, it was already empty of ammo; the only thing it would have been good for was a pistol-whipping. But from the way the flunky paled, you'd think I'd just cocked it against his head and told him, 'Make my day.'
         "What's the matter?" I snapped. "Is this gun yours or not?"
         Ah, Bryan, I believe that is the weapon that nearly killed him, Lee observed, a somewhat more human voice in the back of my head.
         Shut up. You're the one who wanted me to give everyone's stuff back!
         Lee knew I was right, so he shut up.
         "Am I never going to be free of this horrible thing?" the flunky whispered, accepting his gun like it was covered with poison thorns. He blinked and shivered, when he tucked it away. As if he were coming down with a bug.
         Okay. Now to get inside this Temple.
         Only there was a problem with that.
         When I came closer to the huge building, I saw that it had no doors. At all. No windows, either. You'd think that there would be a great big entrance at the top of the steps, but no, nothing. Just a wall with a blank surface.
         What the hell?
         Was there a back way in? Maybe. I didn't see any paths leading around the temple. Just lots of summery grass and flowers - yeah, that's right, a flower garden in the dead of winter. Don't ask me to make any sense of it; I'm not a sorcerer or a gardener. If I circled behind the Temple, I'd probably mess up their carpet of white violets. Not that I cared, but it might antagonize Lee.
         Ah, Bryan-
         Shut up.

         If I'm going to antagonize Lee, it'll be on my terms.
         In order to enter, all you need to do is-
watching me, remember? I thought back, irritably. So just settle back and watch, damn you. And keep quiet, unless I ask you a question.
         I've hurt your feelings, haven't I.
         What did I tell you about keeping quiet!? At least until you get your damn strength back. You'll be needing it soon enough. We both will.
         That is true,
Lee acknowledged, and hushed up.
         I walked over to the crippled beggar.
         He really was a pathetic wreck, you know? Just some middle-aged victim of God knows what tragedy. I could tell he was a cripple because his left arm and leg were obviously made of wood, plus he had nearby claw cane, and a black patch strung over his left eye. The rest of him didn't look all that great either. His gold-buttoned, fake high school uniform was all rumpled and messed up. Decades of wear creased his fingerless fighting gloves, marked with faded solar symbols. His once-white headband and T-shirt were dirty, sweat-stained. He had the most ragged shave this side of a hedge clipper, and his short, dark brown hair was a dysfunctional bird's nest. He was totally passed out, like a wino sleeping off a cheap rotgut bottle, although I didn't see or smell any liquor on him.
         I nudged the beggar with my foot.
         Not hard. I wasn't kicking him, wasn't even really prodding him. When he didn't react, I crouched and knocked on his wooden arm.
         "Hey, you bum. Wake up!"
         Mitsurugi leaned on the nearby orange-flame statue, heavily. In a weakened voice, he said, "Uh, Mr. Fury, I don't think he's a-"
         "Do you know how to get into Kagura's Temple?"
         "Um, no, but-"
         "Then shut up while I talk to this wretch. Got that?"
         The flunky shut up.
         The crippled beggar stirred.
         "Yeah, wakey-wakey. It'll be worth your time, if you can help us."
         "Waa...?" He rubbed his eyes with his right hand. Rubbed his right eye, anyway, and scratched an itch in the hollow socket underneath his eyepatch.
         I flipped out pretty boy Kazama's wallet, and tossed all its cash in front of the beggar.
         "We need to know how to get into Kagura's Temple. Tell us, and you can keep that." Lee might act self-righteous if I kept the filthy rich pretty boy's money for myself, but he better not argue over giving it to a helpless panhandler.
         "Kono?" the beggar mumbled, looking confusedly at the money. Then he squinted at me, and looked twice as confused.
         "Yeah. All this. IF you can tell us how to get in! Because if you don't know, you can keep begging for scraps and we'll find another way. You got that?"
         The cripple sat up on the Temple steps. He cocked his head curiously, focusing on the wallet in my hand.
         "That's Kazama-san's billfold. Is he with you? Were you able to save him?"
         "And Chang-san - is she with you, too? I don't see her anywhere." He strained his neck, looking all around.
         "I'm sorry," Mitsurugi replied. "Mishima-sama has them both."
         The cripple let his head fall, miserably. "I knew I never should have let Chang-san attempt a rescue all by herself-!"
         "Do... do you really think Mishima-sama would hurt his own grandson?"
         "Do you really have any doubt?"
         Mitsurugi swallowed hard, and looked away.
         "Mishima-san can't hold his black ritual before the night of the full moon," the cripple informed him. "Tomorrow night. There is still time to rally against the darkness. If you can stand upon these steps, then your soul is indeed worthy to join our cause, and we are grateful for your help.
         "And for yours," he added, with a nod to me. "Welcome to Chizuru Kagura's Temple."
         "You're not really a beggar, are you?" I said through gritted teeth, slapping my hand over my eyes.
         "Me? Oh, no, no. I just live on a fixed income." He said it perfectly friendly, not the tiniest bit sarcastic or insulted. "I'm Shingo Yabuki. A pleasure to meet you both."
         "Heishiro Mitsurugi," the flunky introduced. He tried to bow, but he was too shaky to do a good job of it.
         "Ling Xiaoyu-san's friend?"
         "She's been kind to me, yes."
         "Then I have some good news for you. She arrived here a short while ago, with the help of Chang-san's devices. Ling-san is currently sleeping off her, ah, excessive intoxication, but she is safe and sound. I've been waiting up for Chang-san and Kazama-san; I guess I must have fallen asleep. Sorry.
         "And you must be Bryan Fury-san, yes?" the cripple continued, showing me a vapidly pleasant smile. "The police detective who generously serves as an angel's mortal host? Lei-san has told us about you."
         "I'm not a cop anymore," I growled. Then I tossed Kazama's wallet to Yabuki, declaring, "Look. You Temple folks can see that this gets back to the pretty boy, after his ass is dragged out of the fire. Right?"
         "Of course. On behalf of the Temple, I give you my word. Kazama-san's billfold and all its contents will be returned to him." Yabuki promptly scooped up the money scattered on the steps - a more impressive trick than it sounds, since he had only one hand to scoop with. As he fit the cash back inside the wallet, he added, "I see that you have also obtained Kazama-san's IdentiCard. It could prove useful for bypassing the syndicate's alarm system, when we mount the rescue mission. This is very helpful, thank you."
         Oh, don't fucking mention it.
         Mitsurugi asked, "Could you let us inside the Temple?"
         "I can call the caretaker for you, but I'd like to offer one word of caution first. Not that the two of you would ever cause any trouble; just so you know.
         "Kagura's Temple has very strict rules against infighting or violence. Combat is permitted only with the caretaker's approval, and only for purposes of self-defense, teaching, or to answer a formal challenge. I'm just saying this because a recent guest here caused a small disturbance. The Temple sentries are currently, ah, setting her straight."
         "So who is this rowdy broad?" I wanted to know.
         "Nina Williams-san. Are you familiar with her?"
         "She's possessed by the Toshin!" Mitsurugi exclaimed, fearfully.
         "Not anymore," I said, at the same time as Yabuki. He looked at me. I shrugged. He explained, "When she became a little too abusive of the acolytes, the caretaker took it personally."
         I raised an eyebrow. "Some old guy caretaker smacked down the legendary 'Silent Assassin,' just like that?"
         "Daimon-san is a former champion of the King of Fighters Tournament. He used to be one of Kusanagi-sama's teammates; it was an honor that he earned through the nobility of his soul, as surely as the strength of his body. Also, the Temple wards may have weakened Williams-san somewhat."
         "What was she doing here, anyway?"
         "Trying to get help for her injured sister, I think."
         Mitsurugi drained another shade paler.
         "Anna is... here?" he whimpered.
         "Anna Williams-san? Yes, I believe that's the sister's name. The healers were able to fix her up just fine - Mitsurugi-san? Are you all right?"
         The flunky had been acting tired, before. Now, he looked totally wasted. Leaning on a statue wasn't enough to keep him steady anymore. He crumpled to his knees, then spilled on his side, KO'd.
         "Oh, dear," Yabuki murmured. Raising his right hand, he called, "Medical emergency! We need some help, here!" A burning green flare of pure sorcery shot skyward from his fighting glove.
         I refused to show any surprise.
         "Shingo, why are you still out here?" piped up a young, female voice.
         "Shingo, what are you doing with these Mishima syndicate rejects?" whined a similar voice.
         I never saw them arrive; they were there just like that. Out of thin air. Startled me so much that I had to clamp down on my defensive reflexes. I stared at the girls.
         Yeah, they were definitely kids. Maybe around fourteen or so. Both of them had long black hair reaching down their shoulders. They swept their hair away from their faces with bandannas tied over their foreheads. They had fine, smooth, China-doll skin, chocolate-brown eyes, and funky clothes. Skin-tight black pants with high heels. Loose, blousy tops with billowing sleeves, tight sashes, and a stripe down the center as well as around the sleeve cuffs. One girl had a white top with red stripe-and-sash trim; the character for 'sun' was clearly written on her bandanna. The other girl had a deep blue top with black stripe-and-sash trim, and the character for 'moon' was on her bandanna. Except for the difference in how they dressed, the girls looked exactly alike.
         Identical twins, I'd bet.
         They were pretty cute, too. They'd probably be downright sexy, once they got past jailbait age.
         "No time for chatter," Shingo reprimanded the girls. "See to your patient first, always! Fury-san, do you know whether Mitsurugi-san has any pre-existing medical conditions?"
         "He was shot through the heart. Pretty boy Kazama healed him, or tried to."
         "Kazama-san used sorcery to mend his heart?"
         I spread my hands. "It's the truth. Oh, and the flunky also used to be a vampyre's bloodslave."
         "I suppose this will somehow make sense later," the cripple decided, shaking his head. To the girls, "Did you two hear all that?"
         "Yes, Shingo," said the girl in the deep blue top, rolling her eyes.
         "Shot through heart, healed by Devil, ex-bloodslave to a vampyre," confirmed the girl in the white top, waving her hand. A stretcher of flashing light appeared underneath Mitsurugi. One second there was nothing; the next, there was this glowing handle-tray, complete with a protective collar-brace to stabilize the flunky's neck.
         That's sorcery for you. Much more convenient than hauling around real triage gear, I suppose. The girls used their magic stretcher to lift Mitsurugi, and disappeared.
         Again, just like that. There wasn't even a light flash. Only a flicker, as if for a split-second the girls and Mitsurugi were only faded photographs of themselves; then, all three of them vanished.
         Shit. Now I've seen everything.
         "Don't worry," Yabuki reassured me. "The Temple healers will take the best possible care of your friend."
         "He's not my friend."
         "Of your acquaintance, then."
         "Look, Yabuki - is that the only way to get inside this stupid Temple? Teleporting in?"
         "Not at all," rumbled a new voice.
         This was no little girl's voice, either. It was deep, solid, and definitely belonged to a man.
         He was a big guy. Really big. Biggest damn Japanese I've ever seen, and that's including sumo wrestlers. Had to be six and a half feet tall, at least, which put him half a foot above me. He also looked bulkier than me, but not fat. Oh, no. Not one stray ounce of flab on this muscle-bound, gargantuan behemoth.
         He was dressed real simple. Plain, off-white slacks with leg cuffs so ragged, you'd think rats had gnawed them. A knotted black belt held up his rat-chewed pants. His flimsy, off-white jacket was only slightly less tattered - he was one of those weirdos who doesn't bother actually putting their arms inside a jacket, just drapes it over the shoulders. Likewise, his forearm guards, headband marked with the red-circle Rising Sun symbol, and wooden platform sandals had all seen better days. His sandals made loud clack, clack sounds as he came down the temple steps.
         Since his clothes were even more shoddy than Yabuki's, it could mean only one thing.
         "You're the Temple caretaker," I mumbled.
         He inclined his head, slightly.
         I had to tilt my neck back to get a good look at his face. He almost seemed like he was squinting at me, but no, his eyes were just naturally extra-narrow. His short black hair had salt-and-pepper grey streaks. He really was an older guy, easily pushing fifty, but I could still believe that he'd flattened Nina Williams without working up a sweat. Wards or no wards. It wasn't just that he was big; it was the way he moved, and held himself.
         Relaxed. Fluid. Unhurried, but not slow. Completely sure; no doubt, no hesitation.
         This colossus was a master martial artist. He was so good that his discipline unconsciously stayed with him all the time, in body and mind. Add his sheer size and strength to that, and...
         I'm good. I'm tough. Hell, I'm a Cyborg Army prototype. I still would NOT want to get into a real fight with this man.
         "Goro Daimon," he said, introducing himself with a short half-bow. "You - Bryan Fury? Chaolan's vessel?"
         "Uhh... yeah."
         "Be welcome here."
         He didn't say it as friendly as Yabuki. More like an ultimatum.
         "Shingo. You need rest," warned the giant. Another ultimatum.
         Yabuki looked down at the steps. "But..."
         "Your friends are not coming. They have been captured."
         "I just need a little more time to... to think about what Kusanagi-sama would do."
         "He would rest, for the impending battle."
         Yabuki sighed, and nodded.
         "Come," said the gigantic caretaker, glancing at me.
         Hey. When someone that big tells you to do something, you don't refuse without a damn good reason. I followed him up the stairs. Folded both arms behind my back, and wondered if there was anything I could say to defuse his wary attitude. He acted as if I was barely inside the border of what he could tolerate.
         Not that I cared what he thought of me. But if this behemoth took it on himself to watch me as closely as Lee was watching me, then I'd never get my revenge on Lei Wulong.
         "I'm surprised you're not fighting in the Iron Fist Tournament," I threw out, for the hell of it. "You look tough enough to enter."
         "I am retired."
         "No shi... I mean, really?"
         "Raising my daughters is a full-time job."
         "You mean, the twins?" With the Power to teleport? Shit. If this hulking brute was a sorcerer on top of everything else, then I definitely didn't want to provoke him. Not unless I had to.
         "Yes. Taiyou Kagura and Tsuki Kagura."
         'Kagura'? As in Chizuru Kagura, the woman who owned this Temple? Maybe the kids had inherited their sorcery from her, not him.
         "So, you're Chizuru Kagura's-?"
         "Husband," he finished, as if he thought I was ignorant of the word.
         "She wanted to keep her last name, huh?"
         "'Kagura' is an assumed name. To conceal her true bloodline from demons and Devils. I offered her my name, but she would not endanger me so."
         "Is she also going up against old man Heihachi, along with everybody else?"
         "That may not be possible. She is away now, fighting to protect our world. I wish I could help her, yet I must stay to guard our children, and our Temple." Maybe I was edging closer to Daimon's good side after all. He was getting downright talkative.
         Daimon crested the top of the stairs, and walked straight toward the Temple's front wall without slowing.
         Then he went right through the wall.
         I tried touching the wall. There was nothing there. All I had to do was stroll through, and I was inside.
         An illusion!?
         Lee, you fucking knew about this, didn't you?
         You did request me to keep quiet.

         "It is not wholly a mirage," Daimon told me - maybe he saw the pissed-off way I was staring at the stupid false wall, I don't know. "It is solid to those who have no invitation here."
         "I knew that," I lied.
         "Follow me."
         What else was I going to do? Tell him to fuck off?
         I followed the giant man to a big, wide room all in black and white. There were four women dressed in Shinto priestess robes or whatever, chanting and singing and waving their hands, shit like that. They were all in a circle around another woman, who was spread-eagled on the floor, over a yin-yang symbol. She wasn't tied down or anything; she was just lying there, looking for all the world like she wanted to get up but didn't have the strength. Her teeth ground together. Flashing magical waves washed over her body, bleaching the maroon of her leopard-spot vest to a soft baby-blue. Sorcery fizzled on her bone-white hair.
         Nina Williams.
         Anna was there, too. Dressed in a humble kimono, and looking a lot better than the last time I saw her; I guess the Temple healers really had fixed her cuts. She didn't even have any scars that I could see. She tightly clasped her hands together, and chewed on her lip, anxiously watching her sister.
         "Miss Nina Williams arrived here without invitation," Daimon stated, neutrally. "Then, she had the temerity to attempt violence upon our own."
         "Are you going to kill her?" I asked, out of idle curiosity.
         "No. I do not believe that she acted wholly of sound mind. She was recently possessed by Evil, and the fallout from that has corrupted her judgement. Our sentries are cleansing the last of the Toshin's residue from her body and soul."
         "Doesn't look like fun."
         "She is not in physical pain."
         Daimon appraised me with a dangerous stare.
         "Those who threaten violence wholly of sound mind, on these grounds, are not dealt with so mercifully."
         "Hey," I grumbled. It took some effort to make myself reflect the behemoth's glare.
         "I know of your personal grievance against Lei Wulong. He is our guest, as surely as you are. Whatever ill feelings you hold, they will not escalate into mayhem."
         The whole reason I'd come here was for revenge on Lei Wulong. With both Daimon and Lee on my ass, how the hell was I going to get what I came for?
         "Just a minute," I groused, trying to think of a distraction. The best idea I had was to turn to Anna and say, "Hey, gorgeous! Over here."
         She wrenched her sky-blue eyes away from her sister, as if I'd called out at the climax of a movie. I tossed Anna her damn pendant, telling her, "You left this behind."
         "Heishiro," she whispered, looking at the jewelry in her hands. "Did he come here with you? Is he okay?"
         Does being carted around by twin teleporting jailbait count as 'okay'?
         "He looked like he was having a heart attack over your name," I answered, with a casual shrug. "Better hope they keep a defibrillator here."
         Her back straightened from surprise. Then her eyes narrowed, and she said, "You are not Lee Chaolan."
         "Smart girl."
         "Bryan Fury, I assume."
         "You should take the Mensa test."
         Daimon said to Anna, "Our healers are tending to the man of whom you speak. If you wish, I will inform you when he is capable of receiving visitors."
         "Thank you. I'd like that, very much."
         The giant returned his threatening gaze to me, and continued, "As for you-"
         "Hey, you don't have to worry about me," I interjected, holding up my open hands in a peaceable gesture. "I've already got a guide around this place."
         "Is that so."
         "In here." I tapped my head.
         "Yeah, yeah."
         "And where is he guiding you now?"
         Down the west hall, take a right, follow the stairs to the basement, first door on your left.
         I repeated Lee's directions.
         For the first time since I'd met him, Daimon's squinty eyes widened enough for me to make out their color - chocolate brown, same as his kids.
         "Of course," he responded, repeating that clipped half-bow. "If you need anything, you have only to call."
         Then he walked away. The retreating clack, clack of his wooden sandals gradually faded from my hearing.
         I didn't show it on the outside, but I was pretty goddamn relieved.
         Lee, what's this place you're 'guiding' me to, and why did it scare him off?
         It is not that he is frightened. He is merely acquiescing to your wish for privacy.
         Uh-huh. Now answer the first half of my question.
         If you would but go there...
         I didn't come here to follow you on some kiddie tour! I came for revenge on Lei Wulong!

         No reply.
         Not out of hostility or spite. More like he wasn't sure what to say.
         You really want me to visit this damn basement?
         For my sake? No. For your sake? Yes, very much.

         Great. Now the angel was making even less sense than usual.
         Oh, what the hell. One quick side trip. Not because Lee wanted it, but to give myself a little time. Time to figure out what I'd do about the angel watching me, when I had my chance for revenge on Lei Wulong.
         Goddamned dying alcoholic glory hound demon cop would have to hide out in a place where I couldn't just walk up to him and kick his ass...
         We're here, Lee said, before I was aware of reaching a metal basement door. It was cold to the touch.
         Wait a minute. Before I go through, I want to know what to expect on the other side.
         No verbal response. Just a feeling of uncertainty.
         I... promised you that I would provide you with answers.

         What the fuck are you talking abou-
         Oh, shit.
         Taki? I thought, more subdued.
         Lee... why can't you just tell me if she's dead or alive?
         Because I do not know.

         I looked at Taki's crimson mask, that Lee had tied around my left upper arm.
         Then I touched the door again. Yeah, it was chilly all right. The other side could be cold enough to serve as a morgue.
         I went in.
         The first thing I felt, walking inside that room, was a flashback. A bad one. Real enough to make me stumble. That place... the dim lighting, the books, notes, and clutter, the human cryogenics unit, the computer, the incomprehensible tech stuff strewn here and there...
         It was the fucking parallel-universe spinoff of Doctor Abel's lab. I don't mean it was exactly like the hellhole where that shriveled old bastard made me into his Cyborg Army prototype. It was superficially different. A lot more spacious, for one thing, and it had a short set of stairs leading from the entrance to the floor. Also, the decor wasn't modern. More like the 1890s, what with the stone floor divided into squares, the gas lamp of wrought iron, and the cruddy candlelight in place of real electric bulbs. Part of the area was chain-fenced off, with wooden boxes of God knows what stored behind the metal links. Multicolored specimen jars filled the scattered wooden shelving.
         What prompted my bad memories was the general feel I was getting off this place. Technology. Obsession. Classic mad scientist lair, real enough to be the set of a B-movie.
         Taki was nowhere to be seen, though. She wasn't in the cryo unit; a young girl was stuck in there instead. Like six or seven years old. Must have been a cute little thing, once, but her freezing had leached all the color from her skin. There was a back door near the cryo chamber.
         The only other person in the room was an old guy, working at the computer. Not quite as old as Doctor Abel, though he looked pretty similar: balding with a fringe of white hair around his scalp; dry, wizened skin; hooked nose; white labcoat; extra-thick glasses. Beneath the labcoat, he was dressed in a plain blue shirt, red necktie, drab olive pants, and brown loafers. He had some kind of weird device next to his computer - a black box with a red knob on its antenna. He paused his typing every once in a while to fiddle with the box's controls.
         The old man glanced at me, as I strolled down the stairs. He did a double take.
         "You again," he spat, as if to a cockroach that kept coming back despite his damnedest tries to squash it. "What do you want now, you false angel?"
         "I'm Bryan Fury, not Lee," I told him.
         "No? You are not the mass-murderer? You merely live at the mass-murderer's sufferance?"
         Deep inside, I could feel Lee shrinking from his own guilt.
         "Let me guess," I suggested. "You're Doctor Basque- uh, Bosek-"
         "Boskonovitch," he huffed, cantankerously.
         "Right. Look, I'm not here because I want to give you a hard time, okay? I just need to find out about Taki."
         "'I' want. 'I' need. Does the entire Earth turn at your whim?"
         Temperamental son of a bitch, this doctor.
         "Do you know what that dead man inside you is? What he did to my daughter? Do you!?"
         I flicked my eyes to Boskonovitch's little girl, frozen in the cryo unit, and muttered, "Yeah. I'm sorry for your loss."
         Boskonovitch got out of his wooden chair, still clutching his box with the red antenna-knob. He had a hard time standing up, like his back was hurting him.
         "And do you know," the doctor continued, as cold as the air that was giving me goosebumps, "what Chaolan did to me?"
         Uh, Lee?
         No answer. Just a sense of overwhelming remorse.
         "He did NOTHING to me!" Boskonovitch screamed, loud enough to make my teeth hurt.
         This looked like it was going to be a rant. Nothing to do but ride it out.
         "He did nothing to me - NOTHING! Never beat me, never tortured me; he saved my life from a vengeful saurian once! He never even KIDNAPPED me, not literally - all he did was ASK for my help! AFTER he poisoned my ONLY CHILD!
         "I know he can hear me through you, and I know he can speak through you, and he is not going to escape me this time. Last time, he flew away before I could make him answer, but not now! Now, you are going to speak for him, and you are going to make him tell me why!
         "Why did he sicken my Jessica? WHY did he MURDER HER!? It could not have been to get to me! He never even TRIED kidnapping me, or intimidating me, before he INFECTED HER!
         "I have written a biography of him and his brother, to raise funds for my research. I have learned more about Chaolan than I ever wanted to know, yet I could not find the reason why! Why did he target my innocent daughter? Why?
         "Did he-"
         The doctor choked back a sob.
         "Did he think I would refuse him, is that it? Did he think my conscience was so strong, he had to threaten my daughter in order to force my cooperation? THAT IS A LIE, AND HE KNOWS IT! I was evil enough to create the original Jack and Prototype Jack killing machines; I would have done so again to save my own miserable life. He never had to destroy hers! HE NEVER HAD TO! Why did he do it? Why? WHY!?"
         Boskonovitch crumpled like a falling house of cards.
         "Why...?" he wept, trembling.
         Still no answer, but I could almost picture him in psychic space - sitting with his arms wrapped around his drawn knees, head down, stricken beyond words.
         Lee, come on. This guy deserves an answer.
         Kazuya didn't want to take any chances with the doctor's loyalty. My brother gave me strict orders... I was afraid to question them...

         I repeated Lee's explanation to Boskonovitch.
         The doctor removed his glasses, and feebly rubbed his eyes.
         "Look, uh... I know this won't help, but Lee is sorry for what he did."
         "If he is truly sorry," the doctor hissed, "he will bring me a sample of the Toshin's blood."
         "What for?"
         "My daughter is dead. But if I have the blood of an Immortal god, I can use it to make her live again!"
         He is deluding himself,
the angel whispered, sadly. Clinging to a false hope.
         I repeated Lee's assertion.
         "Then do not help me!" Boskonovitch raged, springing to his feet. "I have an ally of my own, and he will bring me what I need to save Jessica! He will-"
         The doctor broke off, with a strained wheeze.
         "He will help me, before my own time runs out."
         I... I noticed that Boskonovitch's life-force was weak before, but I didn't... stay long enough to diagnose him.

         "Oh, you do not know?" the doctor snorted, noticing my confusion as he limped back to his chair. "Then tell your false angel friend. When I helped him create the coldsleep technology, I acquired a pathological organism - do not fear for your own skin, it is not contagious. It has taken twenty years for the disease to reach this stage, but before it takes me, I will have the Toshin's blood, and I will use it to save my daughter! And in the meantime..."
         He eased back into his computer workstation, and menacingly pointed his box-with-a-knob at me.
         "Do not come to me again. Either of you! I care not whose life is at risk; I care not how much you plead!"
         That was when I remembered something Lee had said, when Taki was dying from the nightshade she had drunk. Something about taking her to a doctor.
         "Did Lee bring Taki to you?" I questioned, slowly. "Did he beg you to save her?"
         "He could not take her to a hospital, oh no," the old man grumbled, shaking his head. "The Mishima syndicate owns them all. And he could not ask the Temple healers to treat her, now could he? Or did you not know that sorcery is notoriously unreliable against poisons? No, he brings her to me, and begs me to save her, and after I strive my hardest, I find that he has flown away. He claimed that she had tried to kill herself; are you sure that is true? Are you sure he was not the one who poisoned her?"
         "Yeah. I'm sure."
         "He still should have stayed. As should you."
         "Look, Doctor, just tell me. Is Taki dead or alive?"
         He shrugged, callously. "She would be dead and buried, if she were not half-mutant. I could never have kept her alive, save for her inhuman resilience. She fell into a coma, in which she has remained for this past week."
         "Until less than an hour ago, when she woke up."
         "Lei Wulong talked to her. He roused her from her slumber."
         "She is part mutant. He is part demon. Mutants are extraordinarily sensitive to demons and Devils; ask the war criminal inside you, if you do not believe me. He used to supervise both.
         "Taki is in there," the doctor dismissed, with a wave to his lab's back door. "See her if you will, but should any of your other friends fall sick or dying, do not come to me for help! You are fortunate I helped you with this one."
         The doctor went back to work at his computer. Completely ignoring me.
         I turned and climbed the steps out of his chilly lab.
         Shut the door behind me, and inwardly resolved never to come here again.
         Bryan, wait. Where are you-
         To find Lei Wulong,
I thought back.
         And Lee was blocking my way.
         He'd just stepped out of my body, connected as always by those screwy silver strands from his fingers to my throat, and interposed his ghostly form.
         "Aren't you going to see Taki?" Lee pressed, a cross between confusion and fretting.
         "Why? Because Wulong was the one who brought her out of a coma?"
         "Wulong has nothing to do with this!"
         "I wanted to know if Taki was dead or alive. Now I know she's alive. That's it. That's all I asked for."
         "I don't understand you," Lee protested, shaking his head. "At first, I thought you hated her; then for a time, I could have sworn you truly cared about her; and now-"
         "It's not your job to 'understand' me! Just because you live in my head, it doesn't mean you know who I am or how I think!"
         Lee looked at me, in a calculating way.
         "You do care about her," he slowly inferred. "You care so much that it hurts. That's why you're running away from her."
         "I am NOT running away!"
         "Then why won't you talk to her?"
         "None of your fucking business."
         "If you don't know the answer, then you are running away, physically and mentally."
         "And who made you a certified shrink?"
         "The Lords of the Grey Kingdom. They instilled me with many Powers and much knowledge, concerning human-"
         "SHUT UP!"
         Lee shut up, but he didn't get out of my way.
         I turned my back on him in disgust. Put my hands on the corridor wall, rested my forehead against it, and tried to think of what would get this dead man off my case.
         A standard brush-off wouldn't cut it. Not where Taki was concerned. Lee had fought me tooth and nail to save her against her will, once before. Only one thing could reach him now. Only one thing had a chance of getting through.
         The truth.
         "Taki wants to die," I told him, flatly.
         "'Wants'? Present tense?"
         "Yeah. I don't want to die with her."
         "Are you speaking literally, or metaphorically?"
         Lee nodded. Partial comprehension dimly showed through his face. "Why do you believe that she wants to die?"
         "Isn't it fucking obvious? She drank nightshade! She tried to kill herself, and damn near succeeded - she would have succeeded, if not for you! But don't you start feeling too smug and superior about yourself. You've only delayed the inevitable. As long as she wants to die, she can and will find a way to make it happen. You can't stop her, and I can't stop her. No one can. All you've done is prolong her misery!"
         "You believe that she wants to die because she attempted suicide?" Lee condensed, carefully choosing each word.
         "Why is this so hard for you to get?"
         "When I tried to kill myself, it wasn't because I wanted to die. It was because I was more terrified of being alive - terrified of living in my brother's New Era, in which the murdered soul of the woman I loved most would haunt my dreams each night."
         "You're not Taki."
         "What if you're wrong? What if she is like me, at least in this one respect?"
         "I'm not letting you tangle me up with words! Taki wants to die. I'm not going down with her. That's all there is to it!"
         "Yes, that is how your mind works, isn't it? When you see someone engage in self-destructive behavior, rather than risk your emotional well-being to get involved, you decide it's because they 'want' to be like that. Is this not a faithful summary of your perceptions? Was this not your self-justification for being a Mishima syndicate drug dealer? Whenever you saw people sickened or killed by the very poison you helped peddle, you merely said to yourself, 'Oh, I'm just giving them what they want.'"
         Lee had never before confronted me over the drug-running I used to do for the syndicate. I wonder how he knew about it. From my mind? From scanning Abel's computer files about me? Or was he just guessing?
         "I'm right, aren't I," Lee reflected.
         "I thought that because it's true, damn you! I WAS giving people the drugs they wanted, and if it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else!"
         "Well, now I'm curious. Does this twisted logic truly permeate every aspect of your perception? Are you so far gone that you can twist your own mind to make it fit, even in examples when it should be plainly and irrefutably false?"
         "What the fuck-"
         "Do you believe Lei Wulong nearly destroyed himself fighting me because he wanted to? Even after you heard his confession?"
         "-do you-"
         "Do you believe Anna shot Mitsurugi because she wanted to? After you saw her tears and remorse?"
         "-think you're-"
         "Do you believe that I put up with your chronic verbal abuse because I want to?"
         "-talking abou-"
         "Did you donate your mortal remains to the Mishima syndicate because you wanted to?"
         That stopped me cold. A thousand times colder than all the ice in Boskonovitch's cryo unit.
         "Oh, did you think I had forgotten that? Not a chance, Bryan. I remember what Jin told me - that you willingly signed a contract relinquishing your corpse to the syndicate, in the event of your untimely death.
         "So, why don't you elucidate something for me. Did you really volunteer to become a Cyborg Army slave because it was what you wanted?"
         I had to turn away again.
         "Lee... what do you want?"
         "I want you to talk to Taki."
         "So that you do not repeat my mistake."
         "Your mistake?"
         "I never questioned Kazuya's dream of a New Era, not until close to the end. Not even when he ordered me to endanger Jessica Boskonovitch. Not even when she died. She was only the first of my victims, Bryan. The first of a long list, because I never questioned what I thought or how I saw the world! All I did was twist my own mind, to make what I perceived conform to what my brother said was necessary!"
         Well, one thing was clear.
         I was not getting out of this. Not when the angel keeping me alive was so passionately caught up in his war criminal past.
         "I don't have anything to say to Taki," I hedged, knowing it wouldn't work.
         "Yes, you do."
         "Like what."
         "You can test the way you see the world. You can ask her whether she truly wants to die."
         No, there was definitely no getting out of this. The best I could do was extract a demand in exchange.
         "I don't want you listening in on Taki and me."
         "As you wish. I will stay here."
         "Can those damn silver threads of yours stretch long enough for that?"
         "Yes. They shall not break, so long as you do not desire it."
         Wait a minute. Maybe I could turn this to my advantage.
         "And you're also going to wait outside the door when I deal with Lei Wulong. You got that?" I insisted.
         "Agreed," Lee returned, with no hesitation. "You have my word, as a Guardian of the Grey Kingdom."
         This was working out after all. As soon as I got through a quick visit with Taki, I'd have my chance for revenge on Lei Wulong - Lee wouldn't be able to stop me!
         I went back into Boskonovitch's lab. The doctor didn't bother looking up at me, as I wrenched open the back door near the cryo chamber.
         Taki wasn't the only person on the other side. Two other women were there, dressed in Temple getup. They looked startled to see me.
         Not as startled as Taki, though.
         She was sort of haggard. Wearing another of those simple kimonos or whatever, resting on a plain bed with deep blue sheets. A couple bags of intravenous fluid or whatnot looked like they had been recently disconnected and hung up nearby. Taki wasn't wearing a mask, but her hair was undone; it spilled over her half-mutant face, hiding the distorted, partial grin that was her natural expression.
         "Bryan?" she whispered.
         "Yeah, it's me," I confirmed. "Just me. Lee's sitting this out."
         The other two women looked at me, real suspicious like, but Taki called to them and exchanged a quick, hushed conversation. They stepped outside, and closed the door.
         "Friends of yours?" I mumbled, jerking my thumb at the exit.
         "My suicide watch."
         "No shit."
         "They agreed to allow us some privacy, on the condition that they continue to monitor my health with their magic. If anything happens to my vital signs..."
         Insert awkward pause here.
         I slipped Taki's mask off my arm, and unworked the knot Lee had tied in it. Offering it to her, I said, "Here. Lee took this from you."
         "You... you would rather I put it on?"
         "Doesn't matter. I just think it's despicable that Lee would steal, especially from people who are passed out and helpless," I declared, loftily.
         Taki tied on her mask. It was... I don't know, I think it was like emotional armor to her. Wearing it allowed her to sit up straight in the bed, and brush her hair back.
         Insert awkward pause number two, here.
         "Lee forced you to come in here, didn't he?" she suggested, a little sadly.
         "No, he didn't," I denied, and it was only half a lie. It wasn't as if Lee had threatened to terminate my life support, or anything like that.
         Third and final awkward pause.
         "Look," I sighed. "I... I just want to ask you something, all right? Then I won't bug you anymore. Okay? And if you don't feel up to answering, don't sweat it. I can be out of here right now, just say the word."
         "What do you want to know?"
         "Do you want to die?"
         She didn't answer, at first. Just looked down and closed her eyes. As if she were thinking about it.
         "If you say you don't want to die, then why'd you try to kill yourself?"
         She raised her head, and furrowed her eyebrows a bit.
         "Why did you?" she returned, hoarsely.
         "Why did you destroy your own life?" she repeated, when I looked at her funny.
         "I don't know what you're-"
         "With the heroin."
         "Did you think I didn't know?" she mused.
         Actually, I would've been surprised if she didn't. She was a master spy - excuse me, 'information specialist' - not to mention a gossip-monger. She probably knew things about me that I'd never heard of.
         "You started using poison on yourself less than two weeks after... after you ended our relationship. You kept using it until the day of the Hong Kong shootout that killed you."
         That is not true.
         I ran out of stuff the night before I was fucking gunned down, okay? That's why I was in such bad shape, at the time. I was too deep in withdrawal to see that goddamned Ivory Claw assassination setup for what it really was. Not until it turned into a bloodbath.
         "Why did you addict yourself? You couldn't have had any illusions about what heroin is, or what it would do to you. You've seen it ruin countless human lives. Your own mother-"
         "Not another word about her."
         "Was it because of me? Did you undertake a slow form of suicide because... because of how I lied to you, and-"
         "No," I said, flatly cutting her off. "You may find this hard to believe, but you are not the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Not even close."
         "Then why?"
         I could have refused to answer her. But if I did, then what reason would she have had to answer my question? It wasn't as if she owed me any favors.
         "Trade?" I offered, trying to sound indifferent. "I tell you, you tell me?"
         "All right."
         "I was a good cop, once. Back when you were in junior high, probably."
         "I never attended public school."
         "You know what I mean. Eight, nine years ago or whatever. I was a good street cop. Damn good. So good I earned my gold shield when I was only twenty-one. Became part of IPO soon after that.
         "Maybe that's when it all started breaking down.
         "You don't just stop being a good cop overnight. I've done a lot of things I'm proud of; you ever look at my record, you'll see it all there. All of it. But...
         "Somewhere in there... do I have to tell you how deep the Mishima syndicate's hooks were in the IPO? Deep enough to rub out any cop brave enough to stand up to them. Maybe that was why I got sucked in. Or maybe it was because of my own ambition, how eager I was to throw in with the syndicate, without looking twice at what they really were. I don't know. Somewhere in there, I turned around, and I wasn't a good cop anymore. I was a good Mishima syndicate flunky, pretending to be a good cop.
         "But when I got high...
         "When I got high, it felt different. It felt like it didn't matter anymore, and you know what? It really didn't matter. If I was nothing more than a Mishima syndicate flunky, then what difference did it make if I hooked myself? It was my fucking life, I could do what I wanted with it. If the only way I could be a 'good cop' was in a drug-induced fantasy, it was better than nothing."
         "Is that why you hate Lei Wulong so much?"
         "Do you despise him so greatly because he is Super Police? Because he is the personification of everything you failed to-"
         "Hey. Hey! This wasn't part of our deal."
         Taki fell silent.
         "Look. You asked me why. I told you. Your turn now. Do you want to die?"
         If Taki's teeth weren't half-mutant needle-sharp fangs, I could have sworn she was biting her lip, under that mask of hers.
         "Do you know what Lei Wulong said to me?" she whispered, at last.
         "When he woke you out of that coma?"
         "He... he asked me to fight on his side. Against Heihachi Mishima. He wanted me to help save his Devil stepson, and the young girl in love with the Devil. He knows about my mother, and he offered to put her in a witness protection program..."
         Taki hunched her shoulders.
         "My mother is agoraphobic. For her to leave home - I think she would be more terrified of that than anything the syndicate would threaten her with. The syndicate takes care of her. They see to all her needs. But...
         "She fought against the Great Invasion once, and suffered from it. She hates evil so much, and all things evil... I don't know what to do anymore. I could never live with myself if anything happened to her, but I don't... I don't think she would want me to continue as the tool of a monster like Heihachi Mishima. She taught me sorcery so that I could use it for self-defense, virtue, and justice. Not... not to abet the syndicate's unspeakable crimes...
         "I didn't know what to do.
         "I couldn't see any other way out.
         "I'm sorry, Bryan. It's - it's not about what I want. It's all out of control. I didn't think I had any other choice. I'm still not sure I do. All I know is...
         "...I remember the angel inside you... Lee Chaolan. He was the last thing I saw, when he carried me here, and I remember thinking, 'Am I dead now? Is he flying me to Heaven?' But I knew that couldn't be right. Heaven is for people who dedicate their lives to being good, and selfless. Not people like me.
         "I don't know what to do."
         Taki stopped talking.
         I cleared my throat.
         "What you do now," I said, slowly, "is... is your choice. Your choice only. I'm not telling you what to do, and Wulong is not fucking telling you what to do either. If he tries to make you do something you don't want, I'm going to kick his ass, I don't care what the Temple rules are.
         "I'm going to ask you to do something, okay? You don't owe me this, you don't owe me anything, but I'm going to ask you anyway.
         "Wait it out.
         "At least for another couple days. I'm going after old man Heihachi tomorrow night, and I won't be alone. Whatever you decide to do with your life, keep it or end it or whatever - wait until I'm done with the bastard before you choose. Okay? Don't make your decision until after that asshole is permanently out of the picture. All right?"
         Taki remained silent.
         "All right? Promise me?"
         "You are going to oppose the Strength of Heihachi Mishima?" she breathed, terror-stricken.
         "Damn straight."
         "He will destroy you."
         "I've got an angel backing me, remember?"
         "Heihachi has a Devil backing him."
         "Bring pretty boy Kazama on. Just bring him on."
         "You don't comprehend. Heihachi Mishima has Power beyond your-"
         "I told you, Taki, it's my life. I do what I want with it, and what I want is to get even with that fucker. I've had enough of him using people, especially me and you."
         "You can't save me from him. You can't save anyone."
         "I already have."
         "Someone you know. That syndicate flunky I saw you with, a couple times. Heishiro Mitsurugi. Remember him?"
         Taki's eyes grew wide like bottle caps. "He's alive?"
         "Not in the best shape anymore, but yeah. Still alive, last I saw him. These Temple wackos are looking after him now."
         Taki stared at me, unbelieving.
         "Okay. Okay, so I wasn't the only one who pitched in to rescue that idiot, and I can't guarantee how long he'll live - he has one hell of a heart condition - but I helped get him out of a fate worse than death. That counts for something, right?"
         Taki lowered her eyes.
         "I promise," she said, so faint I could hardly hear.
         "You promise you won't do anything to hurt yourself? At least not until after I'm done with old man Heihachi?"
         "Thanks," I told her.
         "And, uh..." I added, uncertainly. "Thanks for letting me stay at your place. The last few weeks."
         "It was nothing," she croaked.
         I left.
         Taki's guards were still giving me the evil eye, but I blew them off, and walked straight back through Boskonovitch's lab. Up the stairs, out the second door, and into the hall. The silver strands growing from my neck didn't hang loose like string; they automatically shortened as I retraced my steps.
         Lee was waiting for me. Not in his human form, though. Not anymore.
         It was because he was so tired, I think. He'd reverted to being an angel, maybe without realizing it. He was sitting with his back to the wall, head down, arms resting on his drawn knees, and his giant white wings neatly folded.
         Lee was only half-awake, but he sluggishly responded to my arrival, raising his head to ask, *Did you talk to Taki?*
         *Did you test your view of her?*
         "This isn't any of your business, you know. It never was, and it isn't now. You fucking know that."
         *Was your view correct?*
         God's holy angel or not, I've had enough of this.
         "Look. You were right about something this time, okay? But don't you get high and mighty full of yourself. You were right once. That doesn't mean you can write off what I know is real!"
         Lee tilted his head. His silver hair shined in a dazzling sparkle.
         *And what is it,* the angel carefully phrased, *that you 'know' to be real?*
         Well, he asked for it.
         "People have the right to do what they want, with their own lives.
         "Anything they want.
         "If they want to get high, that's their right. If they want to kill themselves, quick or slow, that's their right. And it isn't just that they have the right to do what they want, they WILL do what they want. Always. Always. ALWAYS! You can't play God with people's free will - not over drugs, not over suicide, not over ANYTHING! You can't-!"
         Lee's silver eyebrows wrinkled. I could see his puzzlement, reflected in his eyes of white fire.
         "You still don't get what I'm talking about, do you?"
         *You are making extremely broad generalizations, about an extraordinarily vast number of human souls.*
         "Okay, then let me put it more specific for you. Let me take it down to something you can understand.
         "Let me tell you a story. A true story, you got that? I'm not making this up. It's-"
         I had to stop, and swallow a thickness in my throat. "It's something I once ran across. I've seen a lot of bad shit when I was a cop; don't think I haven't."
         I sat on the hallway floor, back to the wall, on the angel's left side. That way, I could tell him the story without looking at him. I stared straight in front of me, instead.
         "There's this young boy, you know? Living alone with his mother, in a cruddy neighborhood. Father's not in the picture. Dead or a deadbeat, one-night stand or a john, who knows.
         "The mother's got... problems. Problems with her state of mind, problems with trying to survive in a ghetto hellhole, that sort of shit. Problems that only get worse after the Great Invasion.
         "Somewhere in there, she starts using junk. Heroin. Maybe to take her mind off the other things she has to do, just to make the rent for a roach-infested crack in the wall.
         "I don't fucking have to tell you what junk does to people, do I?"
         *No. No, you need not elucidate.*
         "Good. Because the boy has to grow up with this, day after day, until he can't stand it anymore. He wants to stop his mother from killing herself, but how is that going to happen? Talk doesn't work. Throwing away her junk doesn't work; she just gets more. Nothing works.
         "Finally, when he's thirteen, he does the only thing left that he can think of. He turns her in. To the police. She has to dry out in a dirty jail cell.
         "Must have been a living hell for her...
         "So bad that as soon as she gets out on bond, she goes straight to her dealer for more. But the dealer's a paranoid son of a bitch. He knows she was busted. He knows she'll rat on him, if it's the only way she can stay out of the system and get high again. The dealer knows damn well that a junkie's only loyalty is to their next high.
         "So he gives her that high, no charge. Hell, he was probably the one who bailed her out in the first place. Wanting to take care of her himself, before she could get him into any trouble.
         "He gives her a hot shot. Cut so pure, that when she takes it... she literally dies with a needle in her arm."
         I shook my head. "And you want to know the really fucked-up thing? She should have known better than to go back to the same dealer, after she was busted. She should have known she was shooting herself up for the last time. It didn't matter, to her. She wanted to poison herself, and she wanted to kill herself, and it didn't matter what her kid or the law or anyone else fucking thought of it. It was her choice, and she did what she wanted.
         "So. What do you make of that?"
         There was a soft, feathery touch on my shoulders.
         Lee's left wing was curling around my back. Tenderly. Sympathetically.
         *I feel sorry for the young boy.*
         "Hey!" I shouted, standing up and getting some distance. "Did I say this had anything to do with me? Did I!?"
         Lee refolded his wing. *No. No, you never made such an assertion. My apologies.*
         "Yeah, you had better apologize."
         "What? What now?"
         *It has taken me a long time. Far longer than it should have, yet I have finally deduced one of your secrets.*
         "Oh, really?"
         *Yes. I know the true reason why you refuse to swear the Oath of the Guardians. Why you refuse the Oath to serve and protect mortal souls.*
         "Oh, really."
         *You refuse because... you have already sworn it.*
         Lee looked up at me, with those white fire eyes that I could swear were seeing into my soul. *To serve and protect, to uphold and defend - is this not the Oath to which you dedicated yourself, upon becoming a police officer?*
         "Something like that," I muttered, staring down the hall. As if the most fascinating movie in the world was playing at the far end.
         *And since you have broken your Oath in the past, you can see no value - you can see only dark hypocrisy - in attempting to renew your vow. Is this not an accurate summary of your perception?*
         "I never broke my Oath!" I shouted back. "Never!"
         "I... tied it in a fucking knot, but I didn't break it! Never murdered anyone. Never helped cover up any murders. All I did was run drugs. All I did was give people what they wanted, and what they were going to get for themselves anyway, no matter what the law or their kids or their mothers thought about it!"
         Lee actually seemed to be considering what I said.
         Then he replied, *I think it is now time for you to see Lei Wulong.*
         "Well, I'm so fucking glad I have your permission!"
         The angel didn't even blink from my sarcasm. He merely guided me to Wulong's room. When I got there, Lee waited outside of my body, just like he said he would.
         There was a pair of male guards at the door to Wulong's room, and at first, they weren't about to let me in. They looked like they trusted me about as far as they could stab me. But before I could get seriously tempted to take them down, Wulong's voice sounded from past the door. Real low and throaty; I couldn't catch what he said.
         One of the guards went in and talked with him, quiet-like. I made out one part of Wulong's response:
         "I gave Snake Eye my word that I'd be here to listen to him."
         The guard came back out, and gestured for me to step inside. He closed the door behind me, leaving me in relative privacy with Lei Wulong. The almighty 'Super Police.'
         God, how I hated him.
         Or did I?
         I could remember hating him, very clearly. I could remember hating him so bad, it was like fire in my mouth. If I closed my eyes, I could remember the endless burn of hatred inside. Hatred for everything about Lei Wulong. Hatred that had been the last thought in my head, when I was dying from a Hong Kong shootout.
         Now, I had this so-called 'Super Police' cornered. Fuck Lee, fuck the Temple rules, fuck the behemoth caretaker, fuck all of it - I finally had my chance for revenge. The chance I had waited for, all this time. I stared Wulong down, and...
         And he already looked like shit.
         I'm not sure why it threw me so much. I mean, I knew he was dying of liver cancer. He didn't have much time left, I knew that, but...
         But I'd never really seen it before. At that Hong Kong shootout four months ago, Wulong had been strong enough to stand and fight. Since then, I'd only seen him once, when Lee had confronted him in a vacant lot. It had been dark. Wulong had been supported by some kind of Power that masked his sickness, I don't know. Even after Lee got the better of Wulong, I still didn't score much of a good look at the cop, before Lee dropped him off at Kagura's Temple.
         Now, I could see.
         I could see all too well.
         Wulong was wasted. I don't mean drunk, I mean physically wasted. Gaunt. Pale, for a Chinese. Getting down to skin and bones. Pillows propped him halfway up in a sheet-covered bed. He had on a loose, purple Chinese thing that probably doubled as a makeshift hospital gown. A bag with fluids or liquid food or whatever hung on a rack near him; it hooked into his arm through an IV needle. A breathing tube ran under his nose. There was a small, plug-in laptop terminal to one side of his bed, with a screenful of typed text, and an attached black box.
         Wulong coughed. It sounded like he had a boulder on his chest, crushing him. His free arm shook, as his hand covered his mouth.
         Was this really the man I hated so much?
         This miserable, shrunken wreck of a dying cop?
         What was I supposed to do now? I'd wanted revenge on him, yeah. The whole reason I'd come to Kagura's Temple was so I could get my revenge. Now I finally had my chance, and what was I really going to do?
         Kill him?
         Yeah, right. Even if I didn't have to worry about pissing off Lee, or Daimon, or anyone else...
         I can kill. I have killed, when I was a cop; always in the line of duty, or related to it. But when I kill, I do it quick and sure. Not like this. Not inch by tortured inch. There was no, I'm telling you no death I could give Wulong that would be worse than how he was going now. Nothing that would even compare to it.
         Well, then what if I don't kill him? What if I just beat the crap out of him?
         Shit. In the state he was in, a good beating could have killed him whether I wanted it to or not. Besides, Lee had already taken the liberty of giving Wulong a workover, earlier that night. Using my body, no less. The idea of doing it all over again suddenly seemed so... futile.
         Oh, I know. Why don't I use psychological torture? Why don't I, say, make his beloved pretty boy stepson despise him, so that he has to suffer alone and heartbroken for the rest of his fading life?
         Brilliant revenge!
         And Heihachi Mishima had already done it.
         There was nothing left. No more pain I could make Wulong feel. And, looking at him like this... seeing how pitiful he was... I was finding it hard to remember why I'd wanted to make him feel pain.
         Why did I hate him so much?
         Because he was an over-glorified legend, inspiring policemen everywhere?
         Because he busted me, for my Mishima syndicate drug-running?
         Or, to put it another way... because he was a good cop? Because he was a better cop than me?
         Nah. Taki couldn't have been right about that. I couldn't have been so burned up over... over jealousy... over feeling inferior...
         No. No, Taki couldn't have been right.
         Could she?
         Wulong took a deep breath. He didn't have the strength to talk in more than a hoarse creak, but I was good enough at reading lips to fill in the parts where his voice gave out.
         "Hello, Snake Eye."
         "Don't call me that," I growled. "That was my cop name."
         "Once a cop, always a cop. Dirty or clean."
         "Don't bait me either, asshole. Lee's not here to hold me back."
         "I know. I can see the strands."
         "You can...?" My hand went to my neck.
         "Five of 'em, silver, growing out your throat and feeding back through the door. It's how Lee keeps you alive when he's not inside your body, isn't it?"
         I had a bad feeling about what this probably meant.
         "What's that?" I grumbled, realizing that Wulong was talking.
         "Was there something you wanted to ask me?" he repeated, nice and slow, like this was a lot of hard work.
         I mentally went around in circles, reaching for some excuse, any excuse, any question to put to him.
         At last, I said, "Yeah. What happened to Haw and Wa-duck?"
         "Haw and Wa-duck - don't you fucking turn senile on me! They were the idiots you and your partner were busy giving chest compressions to, while you let the syndicate cart me away in a frozen casket!"
         "Oh. The Hong Kong shootout. Sorry." Wulong had to stop and cough. "Wa-duck pulled through, but he had some trouble with post-traumatic stress. Couldn't take being on the job anymore. Had to resign. Working as a security consultant, last I heard."
         Another cough.
         "Haw didn't make it."
         "My men had a total of four dead, eight wounded, and one of those was paralyzed below the waist."
         "Would've been a lot worse, if you hadn't warned us."
         "Would've been a lot better, if you'd done a competent job of securing the area!"
         "I know. Haven't screwed up that badly since when I was drinking."
         I couldn't believe he admitted it.
         "That isn't really why you came to see me, though. Is it?"
         No, I came to pound your face. And I would, if only the whole idea didn't seem so petty and worthless.
         Shit. If I couldn't get any revenge out of him, then what could I get?
         Hmm. On second thought, that was actually a pretty interesting question.
         "You still want to take down old man Heihachi, don't you?" I snorted. "And save your pretty boy stepson, along with his fake Indian girlfriend? And you want Lee to fight for you?"
         "Yes. He said he would help me, if he could find a way to settle things with you. I'm glad the two of you were able to work out your differences."
         "Uh-huh, right. Maybe Lee promised to fight for you, but I never did."
         "You have your own reasons to oppose Heihachi."
         "Sure, but I have no fucking reason to rescue pretty boy Kazama. Not unless you give me one."
         "Because you know it's the right thing to do."
         "Ha-ha. Very funny." I jabbed my finger at Wulong. "You weren't there to see it, but I already saved your brat once. If you want me to do it again, you have to give me something for it.
         "I want a clean slate.
         "I know you've got friends in high places. Maybe not high enough to go against the syndicate directly, but you can still call in the right favors. You can get me completely cleared, off all the books. That's my price."
         "Cleared of what?" Wulong croaked.
         "What do you THINK? You fucking BUSTED me, remember!? Bugged my phone, followed me around, slapped me in handcuffs! Stuck me with charges of 'graft, racketeering, and narcotics trafficking' - is any of this coming back to you, yet?"
         "Those charges were never formalized, on account of you getting killed during the arrest."
         "You still wrote the paperwork like any good cop, didn't you? It's all in the system. Hell, you probably have international dirt on me!
         "Get this through your greasy, long-haired head. I am not putting my ass on the line so I can come out of this a fugitive, or a lockup. You may not be a D.A., but you're still going to give me a deal, and that deal is going to be a clean slate. A total clean slate - you wipe EVERYTHING! I'm not getting arrested over anything I did for the syndicate, down to spitting on the sidewalk!"
         Wulong raised an eyebrow, and squinted with his other eye.
         "Feeling guilty, Bryan?"
         "You are, in effect, demanding a pardon."
         "Hong Kong thinks you're dead. America thinks you're dead. Your 'slate' is officially spotless. Even if it weren't, you know a better person than me to give you a 'deal.'"
         "Oh really?"
         "My son. Jin Kazama."
         Wulong coughed some more.
         "After we put Heihachi away for his crimes, my son will inherit the Mishima syndicate. Virtual rulership of one-third the world. More than enough Power to wipe any records you want."
         "What makes you think the pretty boy is any better than his grandfather?"
         "What makes you think he isn't?"
         I almost started into a tirade on Wulong's Devil stepson.
         Yeah, pretty boy Kazama had been in charge of the Cyborg Army project. Yeah, he was a total dupe and a willing tool of old man Heihachi. But...
         There was something I couldn't get out of my head. A picture.
         A picture of the pretty boy calling up all his ungodly Power, in order to save the life of a worthless syndicate flunky. Not for money, not for personal gain, not for any other reason than because the flunky was dying.
         I remembered something else, too. The total horror on the pretty boy's face, when Lee finally made him understand how evil the Cyborg Army project really was. The way that pointy-haired idiot immediately bent and broke all the rules to make sure his damned black op would be shut down, that there would never be any more like me.
         "Okay," I snorted. "So the pretty boy is a little nicer than Heihachi. That doesn't mean I can trust the brat, especially since I have no way to get a deal out of him."
         "Do you truly believe he would refuse to help you?"
         "I don't care! I'm not begging for 'help' from a filthy rich pretty boy!"
         "Unless," Wulong reconsidered, "you plan to go back to dealing drugs. My son would never allow that."
         "I told you, don't bait me!"
         "Then, you're giving up the drug trade for good? Even though you see nothing wrong with it?"
         "What the fuck do you care?"
         "But if you don't see anything wrong with selling poison for your own profit, then why ask me for a pardon?"
         "You shut up," I snapped, pointing to him. "What, you think you're better than me? Afraid to get dirty with drug-running scum? For the love of God - Lee would never let me TOUCH crap like that again, even if I wanted to! There. Your conscience nice and satisfied, now? You happy to know you're keeping your stubby fingers clean?"
         "It's a start," Wulong acknowledged.
         "No shit."
         "But, what if Lee weren't part of you anymore? What if you found a way to survive without him?"
         "I wish."
         "What if your wish were to come true? Would you see anything wrong with going back to the drug trade? Have you ever seen anything wrong with it?"
         If he weren't already as good as lying in a hospital bed, I would have given him an unforgettable reason to be in one.
         "I told you, I don't want to be in that business anymore. Ever. You ask me if I'm going back to it one more time, and they'll find you hanging from that breathing tube."
         "And so, you long for a pardon?"
         "Your disease has fucked up your mind!" I yelled throwing my hands in the air. "You're confusing me with Lee Chaolan. HE is the criminal from the Great Invasion! HE collaborated with monsters, HE sold out humanity, HE ran the death camp that murdered two thousand people! Don't you talk to me like I'm him. I am NOT like him!"
         "NO! All I did was run drugs!"
         "And you never murdered thousands of people. You never collaborated to destroy millions of more victims, all over the Earth."
         "You just helped them kill themselves."
         I reached for a good retort to that, and came up empty. Wulong pounced on the gap with a speech of his own.
         "When I went after you, I got a general idea of how much 'product' you helped move on a daily basis. It was not a small amount. We're not talking marijuana or peyote, here. We're talking immense quantities of heroin, cocaine, and barbiturates, and not just within Hong Kong. You tell me, Bryan; how many kilotons of death did you help spread to the world?"
         "I never kept track."
         "It was more than enough to addict two thousand lives. I saw that much in just the days I was tailing you, and you've been in the trade for years.
         "It really was enough to destroy millions, wasn't it? And not just the addicts, but all those who suffered from the addicts' sickness. All the friends and family members who lost their loved ones to high-stakes poison. All the victims who suffered robbery, assault, or murder, just so desperate junkies could score payoff for the monsters you collaborated with!
         "But you're right about one thing," Wulong finished, offhandedly. "You're not like Lee. At least he admits to being a criminal."
         "Will you SHUT UP!?"
         I don't know why Wulong was giving me such hell. Maybe because he was a drunkard gone sober? I've heard it said that no one, but no one, can be more of a hardass than a dry drunk. For whatever reason, Wulong was on my case, and really getting under my skin.
         Beating the shit out of him wouldn't help. It'd just make him feel like he was right, and I had to show him he was wrong.
         "You don't know anything - ANYTHING! You can't tell people what to do with their lives, and you can't shove your morality down anyone's throat. If a junkie, a whore, or a high school kid decides to snort a line or stick a needle, they are going to do it, and they will do it, no matter HOW you try to stop them! All your fucking laws do is create a black market. Why do you think the Mishima syndicate has never legalized any hard drugs, in the nations they've taken over? Because it would KNOCK OUT THEIR PROFIT MARGIN!
         "People do what they want, and if what they want is poison, they're going to have it. Whether it's from me or anyone else. I never murdered anyone! All I did was give people WHAT THEY WANT!"
         "And reap immense personal profit."
         "The syndicate hardly paid me shit! They just gave me tips to bust real criminals."
         "Like I said. Immense personal profit. They knew exactly what to lure you with; the one thing you wanted more than anything else. The one thing that could seduce you away from what you knew was right. An easy path to fame and glory, on the job."
         Who the fuck is this action-movie-star-in-his-spare-time to talk about chasing after fame and glory!?
         "I don't have to deny any of what you're saying, because it has nothing to do with what I was just telling you!" I yelled.
         "Because you weren't really hurting the people you swore to serve and protect."
         "You were just catering to their free will."
         "And when you started using junk on yourself, that was your own free will."
         "Yes, damn you! Yes!"
         "And when you signed yourself up to become a living zombie, that was also your free will."
         This was bad.
         It was like Wulong knew my weak spots, all of them. Like he was poised and ready to rip into me. Like he had been planning this all along.
         I think he was planning it all along. I really do. He'd been rehearsing how to break me in his head, ever since he learned I was still alive.
         That's how good a cop he was.
         "You think I don't remember, Bryan? Mishima syndicate Tekkenshu waved a notarized contract in my face, right before they hauled away your blood-soaked remains. You literally signed your body over to the syndicate. Of your own 'free will.'
         "But you're no dummy.
         "You should have known better than to give the syndicate any incentive to see you dead. Hell, you did know better, didn't you?"
         "Didn't you?"
         Shit, shit, shit.
         "Were you high, when you put your name on the dotted line?"
         "I was NOT!" I shouted back.
         "Because you had run out of stuff to get high with? Had your funds run dry, since the syndicate was paying you with cop tips instead of money? Heroin can be an expensive habit."
         I couldn't look him in the eye, just then. Turned away instead.
         "If you weren't high when the syndicate made its pitch, then you were in withdrawal, weren't you? Sweating, shaking, kicking, and sick. Reaching for something, anything to make the pain go away. When here come the men in black suits to save you. Just sign right here, and you can have the cash you need to keep yourself steady. All they get in return is the rights to your body, after you're dead. What do you care, what they do with it? What do you care, if they turn you into a remote-controlled killing machine? You'll be dead, it won't matter to you anymore. It won't matter anywhere near as much as your twisted, nauseous, rising bile-"
         "SHUT UP!" I shrieked, like a damned woman.
         "What kind of 'free will' is that, Bryan?"
         This was wrong.
         "Is that the kind of 'free will' you can justify spreading to the world?"
         This was all wrong.
         I came here to get revenge on him. I was supposed to make HIM feel like shit!
         When did it go sour?
         Where did it all turn to mud?
         "Wulong... why are you giving me crap over this? What do you want from me?"
         The dying supercop took a deep, heavy breath.
         He'd been propped part-way up. With trembling effort, he pushed himself the rest of the way, sitting on the bed with his back hunched.
         His eyes glittered blood-red.
         Not like a bloodslave's solid red eyes. Wulong's pupils remained black as midnight. It was the rest of his eyes that reflected crimson hellfire. Monster eyes. Demon eyes.
         "I want Bryan Fury on my side. The real Bryan Fury. The good cop who cares."
         "He's dead."
         "I don't believe that. Neither does Chaolan. Neither do you. You said it yourself; you've already risked your life to save my son once. It wasn't a selfish drug-dealer who did that. It was a good cop, who fights for what he knows is right."
         "Wulong, look. I help you. I take down old man Heihachi, I get your pretty boy back safe, and his fake Indian girlfriend, and I don't go to jail, not over any shit I ever did for the syndicate. Call that a fucking 'pardon' if you want to. Hell, go ahead and call Lee my parole officer, I don't care! That's the best you're getting out of me. Take it or leave it."
         Wulong sank back on his pillows.
         His blood-red demon eyes faded to their normal brown.
         "Can you call Lee in here?"
         I was uneasy, as I got the angel to join us.
         With a gesture to Wulong, Lee asked me, *Have you told him that his stepson dearly wishes to see him again?*
         "Snake Eye was just getting to that," Wulong rasped.
         Lee turned his head toward the cop.
         *Can you see me?* asked the angel.
         "Don't break out the coffin yet. The folks here have given me a little extra time on credit, no money down."
         *Sharing their life-force?*
         *It is only a stopgap measure. You will soon reach the point where no amount of borrowed strength can help you.*
         "Not until after I save my son." It wasn't begging, bargaining, or any of the other mind games dying people play on themselves. It was raw determination. "Bryan wants to help, but he's afraid of going to jail afterward, over things the syndicate used to make him do."
         *It should be possible to prevent that.* Lee looked at me, a little askew. *Though I may need to request that you reside in Japan, at least for a time.*
         "Why?" I wanted to know.
         *After we bring Heihachi Mishima to justice, Jin Kazama will undoubtedly inherit the Mishima syndicate. He will be confronted with the monumental task of purging its corruption. He may need my assistance, which means that I would need to equitably share control of your body. In return for your full cooperation, your sincere repentance, and your court testimony if needed, I shall ensure that you are spared incarceration for your past misdeeds. Is this an acceptable agreement?*

         By now, I suppose you know that it was.
         I fucking accepted it, didn't I?
         That's why I'm stuck in Tokyo. Oh, Lee would probably let me go back to America for a visit, or to Hong Kong, or anywhere else, if I asked him. As long as I came back soon enough for him and the pretty boy to untangle the latest Mishima syndicate scandal. But like I said, I hate owing the angel any more favors than I have to.
         What the hell. This country is bizarre, but I'm getting used to it.
         Besides, the movies are pretty good.

         At the time, though, I didn't get out more than a nod before a whole bunch of other people burst into Wulong's room. The behemoth caretaker, Daimon. The sickly doctor, Boskonovitch. And most surprising of all, Taki's guards. They didn't look badly hurt, but their hair was all messed up, and their faces were red as beets.
         "What the hell is going on?" I demanded, before Wulong could say a word.
         They all ignored me, and turned to the dying cop instead. Daimon gave Wulong a handwritten note, covered with a messy jumble of letters, numbers, and symbols.
         "Yes?" Wulong coughed, looking up from the paper in his hand.
         Daimon said, "Taki has escaped."
         "She isn't your slave!" I shouted. All of them still ignored me.
         Wulong asked, "Did she hurt anyone, on her way out?"
         One of the female guards shook her head. The other one looked like she wanted to crawl in a hole and die.
         Boskonovitch said, "She left behind that note. It is code. I could attempt to decrypt it, but if there is any chance you already know the key-"
         "No, this is Mishima syndicate code. They keep changing the decryption parameters every week."
         "GIVE ME THAT!" I roared, ripping the note out of Wulong's limp hands.
         Now they paid attention to me.
         "You idiots - all of you! This isn't current syndicate code. It's old code. Old enough to be common knowledge!"
         "Can you read it?" Wulong rasped.
         I squinted at the paper. Tried to remember how to work the system in my head.
         "It's directions," I muttered. "An address. To somewhere in Tokyo. Also a bunch of mumbo-jumbo syllables, and hand gestures."
         "Sorcery? Instructions to negate a specific cloaking spell?"
         "How should I know?"
         Daimon and Wulong exchanged glances.
         "Heihachi is holding the kids in a secret place, protected by Taki's spells," Wulong reasoned. "Could this be how to find it?"
         "It is possible," Daimon assented. "The question is whether she is trying to lure us into a trap."
         "Taki wouldn't do that," I snarled.
         "If she has left to warn Heihachi Mishima of our threat-"
         "What part of 'Taki wouldn't do that' isn't getting into your thick head!?"
         The human behemoth folded his tree-trunk arms, and looked at me, real dangerous-like.
         Wulong raised both eyebrows.
         Boskonovitch nervously edged closer to the door.
         The female guards took a step back.
         I suddenly had a strong urge to start running. Sometimes, though, it's safer not to back down.
         "Taki gave me her word. She promised she wouldn't do anything self-destructive until I went after old man Heihachi, and she knows that nothing would be more suicidal than to go crawling back to him now!"
         "Then where is she? Why has she left?"
         "I don't know, all right? Maybe she went back to her house to pick up supplies, or something."
         "If she has departed to warn her master, then it is too late to stop her now."
         "Taki promised me. She is NOT going back on her word!"
         "For the sake of Mishima's hostages," Daimon rumbled, "I pray that you are right. Because our sorcerers are in need of rest, and we must gather more fighters. If you are wrong, then there is nothing we can do about it."

End of Chapter 25: Solemn Promise