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

Chapter 26: Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

   Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
   With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
   And in the porches of my ears did pour
   The leperous distilment; whose effect
   Holds such an enmity with blood of man
   That swift as quicksilver it courses through
   The natural gates and alleys of the body,
   And with a sudden vigour doth posset
   And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
   The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
   And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
   Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
   All my smooth body.

         -William Shakespeare, Hamlet

February 20, 2018
5:45 p.m.

         It's good to see you again.
         I mean that, sweetheart. I truly do.
         Oh... of course.
         Yes, I'm ready for your interview, by your rules as always. We can share chitchat later.
         You, ah, will stay for dinner, won't you?
         It's all right, darling. I understand if you have another appointment.

         So. Do you want me to tell you about Kagura's Temple?
         Well, there isn't much I can say about the time between when I left off, and when the Temple healers cured my wounds. I hovered in and out of consciousness. The last thing I clearly remember is Nina strangling me. Then a long blackness. Then I have a vague, fuzzy recollection of Nina carrying me in both arms. It was all so surreal, I wasn't sure if I was dead or alive, but I recall my sister's heartbroken voice. I'm not sure whether she was talking to me or to herself. She was at her wits' end with regard to what she should do, or where she should go. She fretted over my wounds, because her knowledge of first aid was limited; her specialty was assassinating people, not mending them. She couldn't take me to a hospital, or any other medical institution in Tokyo; if she tried, she knew the Mishima syndicate would find us.
         The name and address of Kagura's Temple floated to my lips. Lee Chaolan, Allah's holy angel, had told me where it was.
         Then I passed out again.
         Oh, I heard about the little clash Nina had with the Temple caretaker. It's too bad I wasn't awake for any of it. I'm told he made quick work of her.
         In any case, the Temple healers used their miraculous sorcery to close my wounds. Just like that, all the gashes were gone, all the broken bones were knitted. I didn't even have any scars.
         Not on the outside, that is.
         The healers didn't know anything about him, but they did escort me to where my sister was being treated. She was undergoing a purification ritual, I believe, to help cleanse her of the Toshin's corruption. I settled down to watch over Nina, for a time.
         Then Bryan Fury showed up.
         I think perhaps I should limit what I say about that repulsive, arrogant, male chauvinist drug-dealer, don't you?
         Ex-drug dealer, then. Papa always said that if you can't say anything nice...
         He didn't really save my life, did he? I mean - did he actually free my sister from the Toshin's control?
         Oh. Oh, dear.
         Do you think he'd call the debt even, if I slept with him?
         I'm joking, sweetheart. I'm joking! You're so much fun to tease; I just can't help it.
         At least Bryan did perform the kindness of returning the pendant Heishiro had given me - although if Lee hadn't inhabited Bryan's body, then I bet I never would have seen my jewelry again. The ex-drug dealer would have sold it out of greed; or are you going to dispute that, too?
         I thought not.
         As I held my pendant in my hands, I thought of Heishiro again.
         Dear, sweet Heishiro...
         I asked Bryan about him, and learned that Heishiro had made it to Kagura's Temple after all. But Heishiro had collapsed on the Temple steps; the healers were currently tending to him. The Temple caretaker promised to let me know when Heishiro was capable of seeing visitors.
         When the Temple sorceresses finished purifying Nina, my sister was too weak to stand on her own. She rebuffed my offer of help. She didn't want to talk to me. When I persisted, she turned wrathful. As if she fully intended to throttle me again, once the requisite tensile strength returned to her fingers. The Temple personnel quickly separated us. They took Nina away to recover, and requested that I allow my sister some 'rest time.' Even though I was rather perturbed, I could never go against the wishes of my gracious hosts.
         Besides, I'd heard a couple rumors about how the Temple caretaker - Goro Daimon, isn't it? - strictly enforced his rules against aggressive confrontation. One look at that gigantic, muscle-bound, surprisingly graceful old master was all it took to make me believe. He... ah, let's just say that he intimidated me a teensy bit, and leave it at that.
         So, I left Nina to the Temple's care, and took some 'rest time' for myself as well.
         I wondered if my sister would be okay.
         I wondered if Heishiro would be okay.
         He had loved me - he had truly been in love with me - and I had abandoned him to the merciless clutches of the Mishima syndicate. Heihachi Mishima had turned him into a mindless bloodslave. Hwoarang had commanded him to kill me. And then I...
         I shot Heishiro with his own gun... directly through the heart...
         I would have been his murderer, if not for the mercy of Jin Kazama. Jin had used some type of unbelievable sorcery to heal Heishiro. I should have been joyful for that, except...
         Was Heishiro going to be okay? Was he really?
         The Temple healers were certainly taking their time with him. Hours, even. They'd needed only a few minutes to fix me good as new; so why...?
         I made myself get some sleep, and didn't wake up until the next day.
         Then I sought out Nina again. She had recovered enough to stand, and even walk for short distances, but she was still weak as a kitten. I wanted to talk to her about everything that had happened, try to work through our feelings, but she would have none of it. My visit resulted in little more than adamant sibling rivalry.
         I think Nina was hurting inside, on account of what the Toshin had made her do. She had murdered so many people - ordinary, powerless people, not the wealthy tyrants she was accustomed to assassinating - and she could hardly bear the shame of her crimes. She was probably terrified that I'd rub her misdeeds in her face, though I swear I had no such intention.
         It hurt, to be turned away by my only sister, but it was a familiar burden. I shouldered it, and left to ask the Temple caretaker about Heishiro.
         Heishiro still wasn't ready for my visit. However, the rest of the Temple had become a virtual open house.
         Should I go into detail on this?
         Everyone from the Iron Fist Tournament was there. Everyone.
         Well, almost everyone.
         Some warriors were enjoying the Temple's hospitality and free food. Some were training. Some sparred with one another in the designated practice grounds, under the watchful eyes of assorted Temple guards. Some were just wandering around.
         And may I add, some of the Temple's newly recruited fighters looked quite... unusual.
         I saw a capoeira master with his hair in dreadlocks, wrestlers with the masks of a jaguar and a black panther, a young woman riding on the shoulders of a tremendous robot, and - brace yourself - a human relic of the seventies, bygone era of the most abominable fashion taste known to Man. Complete with garish orange shirt, ridiculous bell-bottomed pants, and white platform shoes thicker than his feet. The sheer travesty almost struck me blind.
         By the way, I did recognize a few faces. Paul Phoenix, for one; I dimly remembered him from past Iron Fist Tournaments. My goodness, twenty years had been hard on him, not that he ever cared what any woman thought of his looks.
         Forest Law was also there; I understand that Paul had brought him. My second meeting with the energetic 'Flaming Dragon' was actually quite cordial. Forest was kind enough not to harbor any resentment concerning the outcome of our Iron Fist match.
         Oh, darling. The Iron Fist isn't known for its gentility, but I swear I'd never intended to be so hard on poor Forest. Not at first. It's just that, well, he'd inherited more than smooth-skinned good looks from his father Marshall. He was also gifted with his papa's lightning speed and agility. For a moment there, in the heat of single combat, I'd been genuinely afraid. Far too afraid to hold back.
         I was glad the Temple healers had hastened Forest's recovery from three-limb traction, though. I knew from personal experience how uncomfortable such a predicament could be.
         However, I think I'm getting a little sidetracked here. So let me just wrap this up with a mention of how I encountered Ling Xiaoyu. It wasn't the first time we'd met; she was a good friend of Heishiro's, though I'd rarely had any occasion to speak with her before.
         Xiaoyu had also escaped from the Mishima syndicate. The poor young girl was so distressed; she felt terrible about her friends, Jin and Julia, who had been left behind. Detective Lei Wulong had since convinced her to ally with Kagura's Temple, rather than try to rescue Jin and Julia on her own. Xiaoyu rambled about the Temple's grand rally to oppose Heihachi and save her friends, but I was hardly paying attention...
         ...until she mentioned that 'Mitsu' would be fighting as well.
         Had Heishiro Mitsurugi recovered enough to speak with Xiaoyu? The temple caretaker had just claimed that Heishiro still wasn't ready to receive my visit. What did this mean?
         Had Heishiro suffered a relapse? Was he really in no condition for visitors?
         Or did he just not want to see me?
         My sister had turned me away, and it was like closing a door inside myself. Heishiro couldn't do the same thing too, he just couldn't.
         I had to see him. I had to.
         So, I charmed young Xiaoyu into telling me where Heishiro was. She said that he'd taken a liking to the Temple's backyard, especially the center of its hedge maze.
         Xiaoyu's information proved perfectly correct. The hardest part of finding Heishiro was navigating that hedge maze. Don't ask me how the 'backyard' could be so grand in size and scope; I swear, Kagura's Temple practically takes up a whole dimension by itself. For that matter, I wouldn't know why everything appeared summery in the middle of December. Just another mystery, I suppose.
         Heishiro didn't appear to notice my approach. I wasn't deliberately trying to hide myself, but I did stay crouched, in the shade of a thick hedge. I hadn't meant to spy on Heishiro, but...
         He was dressed differently, I noticed.
         He'd exchanged the black, formal suit of a syndicate security guard for a look that was, dare I say, theatrical? It certainly reminded me of an old samurai movie or two. A lake-blue, sleeveless vest with gold-colored trim about its front and hem, marked on the back with the character for 'loyalty.' A row of alternating black and gold triangles garnished the edges of its front divide. A tasteful white-with-black-trim shirt was under the vest, and he had wide-legged, slate-blue pants with double-bisected circle patterns. Deep brown, wooden-surface guards on his forearms and shins added a historical touch to the ensemble, as did his traditional white socks divided at the big toe - those are called 'tabi,' right? - and his simple, flat-soled sandals.
         Oh, and a gold binder held his hair in a sort of loose topknot. The knot jutted a short bit upward from the back of his head; his ponytail, if I can call it that, trailed to about his shoulders. In fact, his hair was much longer than I remembered. Didn't he used to keep it cut short, like all of the syndicate's security guards?
         Mm? You don't say.
         The Temple healers used sorcery to grow out his hair? At his own request?
         I didn't know they could do that.
         It wasn't Heishiro's appearance that especially caught my eye, though. Not as much as what he was doing.
         He was practicing a kata with his sword.
         It was a rather lengthy kata, too. With swooping cuts, sloping curves, acrobatic twirls... I don't know, I really can't describe it very well. The sword has never been my weapon of choice; it's too difficult to conceal. I much prefer the surprise value of hidden knives, should a fight require the use of edged weapons, but I'm getting off track again.
         Heishiro... he was...
         He was so elegant that it took my breath away.
         He no longer looked like an incompetent corporate drone. He looked like a legendary warrior.
         Was this really the Heishiro I knew? Taki had trained him in the use of a sword for only a few weeks, and he always had been a tad clumsy.
         Until he had been made into a vampyre's bloodslave, that is.
         A shiver crossed my spine, and I was afraid to look into his eyes. Whispering a silent prayer to Allah, I steeled myself, and peered at Heishiro's face.
         His eyes were their natural, dusky brown. Not the solid red of a bloodslave.
         My knees became weak with gratitude to Allah.
         Heishiro's kata came to an end.
         He put away his sword without looking at its sheath. He wasn't looking at me, either; I swear his eyes had never once passed over where I had hidden myself, yet he said, "Anna?"
         Oh, dear.
         "You may as well come out," he sighed.
         His voice...
         It was Heishiro's voice, and not the hollow monotone of a bloodslave. There was something different about it, though. Something heavier. A somber burden, weighing him down. His tone hadn't really deepened very much, but...
         He wasn't as lighthearted as before. His naive, fresh-faced innocence was gone.
         Perhaps forever.
         Sometimes, I think that's the one thing I blame myself for the most.
         "I-I'm sorry," I stammered, hesitantly stepping forward. "A-am I disturbing you?"
         This was a role reversal. I could clearly remember when I was the one in control, and he was beside himself with stammering.
         "Don't worry about it," he reassured, turning in my direction.
         But, he still wasn't looking at me. Not quite.
         "Are you sure?" I asked, with more than little sorrow.
         He didn't answer right away. Eventually, though, he cleared his throat and started talking.
         "Once upon a time, a young student wanted to learn a special technique from a wise old master.
         "He said, 'Master, how long must I study to learn this technique?'
         "The master said, 'Ten years.'
         "'Ten years!' cried the student. 'That long?'
         "'Yes,' confirmed the master.
         "'But I will study night and day!'
         "'In that case, twenty years.'
         "'But I will exclude all luxuries from my life; I will isolate myself in a distant retreat!'
         "'In that case, thirty years.'
         "'Master!' exclaimed the student. 'From this moment forward, I will not spend one minute engaged in any action that is not sleep, survival, or studying this technique!'
         "'In that case,' concluded the master, 'forty years.'"
         I'd forgotten how much Heishiro liked to talk.
         I'd forgotten how little sense he could make, sometimes.
         "I don't understand," I protested. "What does any of this have to do with-?"
         "Anna, it'll be at least forty years before I'm ready to see you again. It's just as well that you're here, though. There is something that you should know, and you should hear it from me."
         "What - what is it that I should know?"
         Now, Heishiro made himself look at me. I don't think it was easy for him; a shadow of his internal effort crossed his face. I wasn't sure whether to feel encouraged or forlorn.
         "Anna, you may not be aware of it, but you did save my life."
         "I did?"
         "When you destroyed Hwoarang."
         What I tried to say was, 'You were already as good as dead. It was Jin Kazama who brought you back, not me.' The words caught in my windpipe, and wouldn't come out.
         "Like I said, I don't think you're aware of it. But I overheard some things, when-"
         A lump snagged Heishiro's throat. He had to swallow before he could go on.
         "-when I was a bloodslave. People would talk in front of me as if I were a light switch. One of the things I overheard was that... that I wasn't the first test subject for Hwoarang's blood. There were three others. Mishima-sama's former honor guards.
         "They all resisted the curse. They all died.
         "I've been thinking about it, ever since this morning. When I resisted like they did - when I found my purpose and took back my free will - it should have killed me, too. It didn't.
         "The only explanation I have is Hwoarang's death. When you killed the vampyre, you weakened the curse of his blood. Enough so that I could survive breaking free."
         "That's not why I killed him," I whispered. "I thought you were dead."
         "I know," he acknowledged with a nod. "You saved me with the same carelessness that nearly destroyed me."
         "I'm - I'm sorry, Heishiro. Wh-when you said I'd never see my sister again..."
         "I don't mean when you shot me, Anna. That was self-defense; it wasn't your fault. I'm talking about before then - about the way you used me for your own ends, and then ran away from the mess you'd made."
         A few tears started to gather in my eyes, but for me to cry then would only have been self-indulgent.
         "We're going to be fighting side by side, Anna. And when we do, neither of us can afford to wage a two-front war with the present and the past. So I'm going to suggest something, and I hope you can find it in yourself to agree, all right?
         "As far as I'm concerned, you made up for all the harm you ever caused me when you saved my life. You owe me nothing more. I owe you nothing more. All debts paid."
         "Do you agree to this, Anna? All debts paid?"
         I wasn't sure what I'd expected of Heishiro, but it wasn't this.
         He wasn't being spiteful toward me, or condemning me. But he wasn't forgiving me, either. He just stated an accountant's tally: all debts paid.
         It didn't feel completely right, going along with Heishiro's point of view. I wondered if I was taking an easy way out, to avoid confronting what I had done to him.
         If I was taking the easy way out, however, then it wasn't his fault. Heishiro wasn't passing any judgement on me one way or the other. He was leaving Allah to judge me. Or perhaps, he was leaving me to judge myself.
         "As you say," I murmured, quietly. "All debts paid."
         "Good. Take that to your heart, okay? Don't let any doubts about me cloud your mind, when we're fighting together. Just concentrate on keeping yourself in one piece."
         "Wait a minute. Heishiro, what's this about 'fighting together'?"
         "Haven't you heard? Mishima-sama has to be stopped. The Temple is mounting a strike force. We attack tonight, before the full moon rises."
         Oh. Now I remembered what Xiaoyu had been telling me.
         "'Mishima-sama'?" I repeated, aloud.
         "The young master's grandfather. President and CEO of the Mishima syndicate. King of the Iron Fist."
         "I know who he is! Heishiro, why are you still referring to him as if he's your master?"
         "Mishima-sama is not my master," Heishiro stressed, darkly. "Not anymore."
         "I can't blame you for being confused, Anna. You've been in cryogenic suspension for over twenty years. You didn't grow up in a world that Mishima-sama rebuilt from the ruin of the Great Invasion. You didn't see his syndicate end wars, cure plagues, relieve famines, and turn the Earth green again.
         "When I say that Mishima-sama has to be stopped - that I have to stop him - I mean his evil deeds. His corruption doesn't invalidate all the good things he has done, not yet. That's another reason why I have to stop him. If I don't, then his own dark side will obliterate the greatness of his legacy.
         "So, I'm fighting in the Temple's strike force. And I just assumed that you would be, too. Don't get me wrong, Anna; I'd be happier if you weren't involved. It's going to be a dangerous battle, and I don't want you to get hurt.
         "However, I don't think you have any intention of staying behind. I'm right, aren't I?"
         I hadn't actually thought about it before, but - yes.
         Yes, I intended to fight. And not just because of any grudge I had against Heihachi.
         Jin Kazama had saved me from being Heishiro's murderer. I doubted that Jin's life was truly in danger; with Power such as his, what harm could his grandfather possibly inflict upon him? At the very least, though, I owed Jin a similar rescue of his sweetheart, Julia Chang.
         "Yes," I told Heishiro with a nod. "I will join the Temple's strike force. But Heishiro, you're not - you can't-!"
         "Can't I?" He didn't say it as if he were offended. More as if my temerity amused him.
         "Heishiro, you're not a fighter yet. You've had only a few weeks of training. You don't have the skills to protect yourself. Jin worked so hard to save your life; if you're a part of this mission, then you could be throwing that life away for nothing."
         I didn't say the rest of it. I didn't tell Heishiro how much it had hurt, when I thought he was dead. How I never, ever wanted to feel that pain again.
         Heishiro nodded. "I knew you'd say that. Or something like it.
         "Anna, do you mind humoring me for a moment? Crouch behind that hedge, and keep yourself at an angle. Yes, that's good. It's just a precaution, nothing more.
         "Okay, I'm going to take out my gun now - don't be afraid, it's still unloaded. I'll show you." Heishiro slowly withdrew his gun, the very weapon with which I had nearly killed him, from an inner pocket of his divided vest. He held it gingerly, as if it were a live animal, and displayed its empty bullet chamber. He was extremely careful never to point it at himself or me, despite its lack of ammunition.
         "It's all right. I've been thinking about what I should do with this horrible thing, and I finally decided on-"
         I didn't see what happened next.
         My eyes were open for it, but I did not see.
         I did hear a sharp succession of ringing chimes. Like a chisel taken to steel, or is it steel taken to a chisel?
         "-the answer."
         Four, cloven pieces of Heishiro's gun fell about him in a circle. Each piece matched a compass direction - north, east, south, and west. Heishiro himself was frozen, head and shoulders part-way down, sword arm extended, eyes half-closed.
         Heishiro sheathed his sword.
         What just happened? Did I blink and space out for a few seconds, is that it?
         Heishiro drew out a handkerchief, and gathered up the segments of his former firearm, saying, "Anna, could you do me a favor? Turn these pieces over to the Temple smithy; I'm told they're a little short on scrap metal. Any of the acolytes can show you the way."
         "But... but..."
         "Here you go. Thanks."
         I took the bundle of metal pieces without thinking about it. My mouth worked.
         "H-how did you - when did you - you can't - you're not-!"
         "Correction," he advised, a little more quietly. "I wasn't."
         "The vampyre blood doesn't control me anymore," Heishiro stated, looking at his hands as if he weren't sure they were really his. "I'm no longer compelled to serve Hwoarang, or Mishima-sama. But the blood hardwired Hwoarang's skills into me, when he was alive, and now...
         "They're still there.
         "All of them.
         "Four hundred years' worth of mastery.
         "I don't have Hwoarang's memories, but if... if I don't think about it, if I clear my mind and just let myself be... I'm not really sure how far Hwoarang's expertise goes. He wasn't able to defeat Mishima-sama or the young master in unarmed combat, but that could have been because his own desire to die weakened him - Anna, don't look so anxious. I promise I haven't inherited that desire, and I've got more than Hwoarang's skills to keep myself alive.
         "I also have this sword." Heishiro touched the hilt of the katana by his hip. "I wasn't really... aware at the time, but you did use my sword to set Hwoarang free, didn't you?"
         No, I used it to murder him. Yet, death and freedom had been synonymous to him, tortured as he was by his vampyre curse. I gave Heishiro a quick nod.
         "I thought so. This sword was an ordinary weapon once, but now... now it cuts through anything. Or almost anything, I don't know. Wood, metal, stone; I haven't fully tested its limits yet. There's only one limit that I'll never want to test.
         "Don't ask me how I know this. It's just a feeling that I have, when I hold my sword. If it is ever used to take a human life, it will break and its Power will be forever lost. Which makes sense, I suppose; Hwoarang hated being used as a tool for murder, whenever his curse enslaved him. He wouldn't want his legacy applied to more killing.
         "I've named my sword 'Blood Talon,' in his memory."
         I shuddered.
         "My point is, I have what I need to fight. And even if I didn't have it, I would still fight. Mishima-sama must be stopped. The young master and Julia Chang have to be saved. These tasks are my purpose, and I will see that they are achieved.
         "So don't worry about me, Anna. Just be sure you take care of yourself."
         "You really have to do this, don't you?" I observed. "Because Jin saved your life?"
         Heishiro contemplated that.
         "Do you know what the young master did to me?" he softly asked.
         "I saw it."
         "Did you hear it, too?"
         "Hear what?"
         "He was singing." Heishiro appeared wistful. "I asked Mr. Fury earlier today, and he said that he couldn't hear anything either. But I remember. It's one of the few clear memories I have."
         He looked away.
         "Heishiro, are you sure you're all right? I've heard about... about how you collapsed on the Temple steps."
         "Oh, that? I, uh, fainted. Pretty embarrassing, actually. That's all it was, though. Just a fainting spell."
         "Was it? Was it truly?"
         "I really am 'all right,' Anna. It's only that 'all right' doesn't mean quite what it used to, for me."
         "Then what does it mean?"
         "It means... it means I've got a large bullet hole through my heart."
         My eyes widened.
         "Uh, it's okay, Anna. I'm not in any pain."
         "B-but how-?"
         "When the Temple healers looked after me, they used their magic to figure out why I'm alive. They'd never heard of a sorcery that can heal damage to a person's heart, and in a way they still haven't. I'm here now only because the young master gave me a transplant."
         "A heart transplant?"
         "Um, it wasn't a physical organ. It was a transplant of his Power. He just ripped a piece of himself out of his body, and put it in me, and now it's literally holding my heart together. And I think... I think that whatever the young master gave up, he doesn't have it to sacrifice again. Just like you can't sacrifice more than one of your kidneys for a transplant.
         "Well, I suppose you can, but then you die.
         "I wasn't his friend, Anna. I was always terrified of him, always treating him like a monster, and I even called him a Devil to his face. Do you understand what I'm saying, here? I never did anything for him, except when I was under orders, and I never spared a thought for him that wasn't full of hatred or fear. But he saved my life anyway. He permanently gave up a piece of himself for me.
         "I'd wonder why, except that I think I know. He did it because he's a good person. Because he had infinitely more compassion for me than I ever spared for him.
         "I'm not worthy to call him my friend. Not yet. Not while he and the young woman in love with him are in danger. Once they're both rescued, then maybe I can aspire to the honor of earning his friendship, and hers too. Maybe.
         "We do have to save them, Anna. The young master is in deadly peril, despite his Power, because he loves and trusts Mishima-sama. Julia is in even greater danger, because she doesn't have any innate Power to protect herself. We have to save them both."
         "What if we don't?" I whispered.
         "We will."
         "You know that isn't a certainty. Nothing is certain. Heishiro, you said that you're alive only because Jin transplanted a piece of himself inside you. Does this mean that if he dies, you die with him?"
         "Anna, it doesn't matter."
         "It does to me!"
         Heishiro regarded me with an odd expression. As if he were mildly surprised that I would care.
         "All right," he slowly assented. "If you must know... then no. The transplant will keep me alive even if something unspeakable happens to its donor, because it's not powered by him. It's powered by my own life-force."
         "That's a relief."
         "Oh, there is a down side, and that's the toll that it takes on my endurance. My stamina is reduced by about half."
         "Is that why you fainted on the Temple steps?" I reasoned. "Because you'd been under a prolonged strain, and your transplant had to work too hard?"
         "Uh, it does have a built-in safety. If I'm stressed past a given danger level, I shut down."
         "You 'shut down'?"
         "Faint. Pass out. So, you don't have to worry about what happened on the Temple steps, all right? It's almost impossible for me to exert myself to death."
         "You said it yourself; nothing is certain." He spoke calmly, as if he were discussing how to grow flowers.
         "Heishiro, how can you be so casual? Aren't you afraid? This is your life we're talking about!"
         Heishiro cleared his throat.
         "Once upon a time, there was a townsman who accidentally offended a samurai. 'Say your prayers,' warned the samurai, 'because at sunset, I will return and fight you to the death!'
         "The townsman was terrified. There was nowhere he could run. In desperation, he told a wise old master everything, and begged, 'Please! Teach me how to survive a death-match with a samurai!'
         "The wise old master sadly shook his head. 'I cannot give you the skill to slay a trained samurai in a single day,' he warned. 'All I can teach you is how to meet your death without fear. Will you learn?'
         "The townsman was horrified, but there was nothing else he could do.
         "He stayed, and listened, and learned not to fear his own death. Then he left to face his executioner in single combat. He sat cross-legged and waited, crude weapon in hand, fearless of the death that would claim him.
         "At sunset, the samurai came. He took one look at the townsman, and said to himself, 'This man has no fear of death. I do not dare fight him!' The samurai fled, never to return."
         I stared at Heishiro.
         "Don't tell me you need this one interpreted, too."
         "Heishiro, what is it with you and these stories? Can't you just talk straight?"
         "You really didn't hear any singing, did you?"
         "Answer my question!"
         "I am." Heishiro looked at the drifting white clouds in the sky. "I'm sorry you couldn't hear it. If you could have listened to its beauty, then maybe what I'm saying would be more clear.
         "Fear is real. Fear is important. It's something people need to survive. But when fear reigns supreme, then it becomes the worst enemy of all.
         "There is more to Life than survival. There was more to the young master's gift than my Life.
         "Maybe it doesn't make sense to you, right now. One day, though, I think you'll understand."
         I haven't reached that day yet.
         I don't even know if I'm correctly repeating any of what Heishiro said.
         Oh, good.
         Well, I was just standing there, trying to work out what Heishiro meant, when Daimon's twin daughters - Taiyou Kagura and Tsuki Kagura, I believe - came for us. They teleported right into the clearing; it gave me something of a start, though Heishiro remained calm. The young girls said that we were needed in a certain private meeting room.
         "For what reason?" Heishiro requested, suddenly on guard.
         They explained that Taki, Lee Chaolan, and especially Detective Lei Wulong had to speak with us at once.
         "We'll be right there," Heishiro breathed, sounding shaken.
         "We can teleport you," offered the twin dressed in white - that's Taiyou, isn't it?
         "Please don't trouble yourselves."
         "It's no trouble at all," reassured Tsuki, the twin dressed in deep blue. "It's not even hard."
         Heishiro did not appear well.
         An instant ago, he had been perfectly composed; now, sweat was breaking out on his forehead. He mopped his brow, looking pale and miserable. I had a grim feeling that his reaction had little to do with any fear of being teleported.
         "Please forgive us," I told the twins. "If you don't mind, I think we need the walk to prepare ourselves. We'll be there in just a few minutes, all right?"
         They bowed, and promptly vanished.
         "Heishiro, what is it?" I queried, urgently. "What's wrong?"
         "Taki has returned."
         "I know she used to treat you harshly, but-"
         "That's not what I mean. Taki disappeared from the Temple yesterday. No one knew where she went, but I have a good guess. And my guess is, she came back because she failed."
         "Failed to do what?"
         Heishiro shook his head. "I hope I'm wrong. Because if I'm not, then saving the young master and Julia Chang will be that much harder."
         "Oh. Oh, dear."
         "It gets worse. Anna, have you heard that Detective Lei Wulong is the young master's stepfather?"
         Learn something new every day, I suppose.
         "That's very nice, but what does it have to do with-?"
         "I can think of only one reason why he, as a detective and a father, would need to personally interrogate us. Because he has to know everything that we know."
         "Everything that we know about what?"
         Heishiro shook his head again. He walked past me at a brisk stride, hurrying toward the meeting room.
         I wanted to repeat the question, but my throat had suddenly gone dry.

February 20, 2018
7:45 p.m.

         Thanks for delaying this interview a few days. I've been sort of pushing myself lately, trying to finish my college paper. It took weeks of research and effort, but now it's done.
         Jin helped me proofread it. He's even suggested that I get it published in an archaeological journal.
         I think he's doing better.
         I'm almost afraid to say it - afraid that speaking the words will somehow jinx their reality. Silly, isn't it?
         I'm beginning to feel hopeful. Just a few days ago, Jin was visibly on edge, but he's been a lot more relaxed lately. As far as I can tell. Either his memory block hasn't triggered, or he's no longer bothered by it.
         I want to believe this is a good sign. I want to.
         I keep thinking of the statistics on suicide. About how common it is for people who attempt it to suddenly start acting 'normal' or 'better,' shortly before they attempt it again. Lee tells me that he feels optimistic, and that Jin's memory block is still firmly in place. And I know - I know Jin especially doesn't want me to worry about him. So, I've been trying not to worry. I've been trying as I hard as I could, and I threw myself into writing a college paper instead.
         Now the paper's finished, and I can't help it. I'm worried again.
         What's that?
         You... you really think so?
         Your reassurance is nice, but... you weren't there. When Jin sealed himself inside his shrine, he never told you why, did he? He didn't explain his cold determination to end his own life. I've yet to tell you about that.
         Or about the damnation that drove him to it.
         That's where I have to start now.

         I think I'll begin with the smelling salts.
         Their pungent tang invaded my nose. My lips pursed from the vaporous taste.
         "She is awakening," drifted a familiar, very quiet voice. I knew I should recognize it, and I probably would, just as soon as the whirlpool inside my head settled down.
         Hands helped me sit up. They were neither rough nor gentle, but I could have sworn they were trembling. As if from the aftershock of unknowable horror.
         I definitely knew that gruff, rumbling voice.
         Heihachi Mishima.
         Jin's grandfather. Ancestor to all that was truly evil within the House Mishima. The old man with the greed, arrogance, and cruelty of the dragon Smaug.
         When I opened my eyes, I half-expected him to have shed his mortal skin for a reptilian hide. Though all I saw was a blurry view of his age-worn human frame, I could not dispel the suspicion that it was only a matter of time before claws, scales, and dragon wings sprouted from his terrible body.
         "Wha... what do you want...?" I mumbled.
         "To keep my promise," returned the dragon, evenly.
         My blurry vision began to clear.
         I saw Heihachi Mishima, dressed in a fine, fur-lined suit of dark green cloth. He made a slight motion with his fingers, and a man dressed in dark shades and a formal black suit stepped away from me. The servant moved to the side of his master, and stood at attention.
         More or less.
         There was something a little off about him. That tremor pervaded his hands, even as he pocketed his smelling salts. I recognized his plain, average-looking appearance. He was one of the two nearly-identical cousins, who served as Jin's personal bodyguards.
         Ishida? Or Kimura?
         No, wait - he was Kimura. I knew he was Kimura, from the soft tone of his voice. If he were Ishida, he'd probably have spoken in an ill-tempered growl.
         Where was Ishida? I'd never seen either of the cousins apart before.
         For that matter, where was I?
         Could be somewhere underground, I thought to myself, looking about the boxlike room with stone-patterned walls and no windows. Except that the surfaces all around me weren't the color of stone, but rather like tarnished gold. The floor was so clean you could eat off it. There wasn't very much light, except for what came from sputtering torches. I tried to stand up, for a better view-

         I couldn't stand up.
         Heavy iron chains weighed down my hands and feet. The shackles clamped tightly around my wrists and ankles, and now that I was aware of them, they were pretty damned uncomfortable. The chains fed into firmly anchored floor-squares, and they were short enough so that I could not rise. All I could do was sit or kneel.
         As I pulled against my restraints, layers of silken fabric rustled on my skin.
         I looked down on myself.
         I was dressed in a white bridal gown, with veils and trimmings and spotless fabric. There was a white rose in my neatly brushed and styled hair. That's right; styled hair. You'd think I'd be filthy, after sleeping in a prison cell for goodness knows how long, but no. My body was perfectly clean; I could even feel fresh makeup on my face.
         How on Earth...?
         The last thing I remembered was trying to escape the syndicate with Jin. I'd taken him to his family shrine in the pocket dimension, and then I'd succumbed to psychic fatigue. He'd opened the portal back outside, and-
         Oh, no.
         Oh Great Spirit no.
         Heihachi's servants had captured me. Shot me up with sleeping drugs. It would seem they had also taken the time to bathe me and dress me, before chaining me in this basement.
         "How long...?" I groaned, rubbing a distant ache in my temple. I had to hunch down to reach my forehead with my chained hands.
         "You have been insensate for approximately the past thirty-six hours," Heihachi sinuously answered.
         Long enough to get the ultimate makeover, it would seem. Too bad I'd lost my pocket mirror.
         "And what... what's this promise you want to keep?"
         "I gave my word that when the time was right, I would fully explain my plan to vanquish the Immortal Toshin, God of War. That time has come." Heihachi folded his powerful arms. "As pledged, I am here to inform you of your contribution to the glorious future."
         "My 'contribution'?"
         "Yes. It is the peak of my Tournament. Were it to progress further, the next match would be between myself - the King of the Iron Fist - and my grandson. The bravery and blood of the world's strongest fighting souls has attracted the Toshin's attention, and lured it sufficiently close. Now, the final battle draws near. My grandson and I must conquer the Toshin, before it can destroy the Earth. You shall help us summon the God of War out of the void, into our combined ambush."
         His dry-skinned lips momentarily curled in a serpentine smile.
         "You shall be the blood sacrifice."
         Great Spirit.
         That was why he had put me in bridal dress of pure white. The color of death. As surely as Xiaoyu had been dressed in a white kimono - only she had escaped, hadn't she?
         Hadn't she?
         "What about Xiaoyu?" I urgently demanded.
         "Ah, yes. The young fairy princess, with the fighting spirit of a whirlwind. I needed her in order to prepare the ritual grounds, prior to your sacrifice. The chamber had to be properly consecrated, with the blood and soul of a warrior born."
         Thickness built in my throat. "Xiaoyu?"
         Heihachi shook his head. "That was to be her purpose, yet it would seem you had the presumption to deny her appointed destiny. My plan proceeds regardless."
         "So, she did escape."
         The old man shrugged. "Perhaps it is for the best. The preparatory sacrifice is most effective if performed by one whom the sacrificed warrior loves; yet I expect that child truly loves little, save for her toys and her dreams of an amusement park."
         And her Panda, but I'm not going to say that aloud. I don't want Heihachi taking revenge on Xiaoyu's beloved pet because of my poorly chosen words.
         Wait a minute. Why am I worrying about Xiaoyu's stupid Panda?
         What about ME?
         "You can't sacrifice me!" I protested.
         "And why not?"
         Um, that was actually a pretty good question. Especially since I was chained and helpless.
         Think. Think back. I made a deal with this dragon, and he's honor-bound to keep his word; all I have to do is remind him of it. Remind him of-
         "You guaranteed my safety!" It came out a lot more desperate than I intended.
         "Within the grounds of my home, yes. So it has been. Inside my home, you have not suffered any injury."
         "Your henchmen DRUGGED ME UNCONSCIOUS!"
         "Yet they did not injure you, and these are not the grounds of my home. This Temple has been specially designed and constructed by the Mishima syndicate, for the sole purpose of luring the Toshin into my grasp."
         But - but - but-!
         "You also said that once you told me your plan, I'd be free to refuse participation," I hurriedly pressed. "I'm telling you right now, I don't want to be anyone's blood sacrifice! I refuse! Do you hear me? I REFUSE!"
         "Indeed. You are free to refuse all you wish."
         I am?
         "It shall not affect your destiny. Your sacrifice need not be in accordance with your wishes."
         It was right around this point that I first began to realize what Lei Wulong, Shingo Yabuki, my own grandmother, and practically everyone else had warned me about.
         When I began to grasp the true extent of this dragon's devious nature.
         When I knew how laughable my blustering attempt to bargain with him had been.
         In short, this was the first moment when I genuinely understood how stupid I was.
         "Do you desire to know why and how you must be sacrificed, Miss Chang?"
         For once, my insatiable curiosity was almost ready to take a back seat. Almost. The main reason I nodded was to stall for more time.
         "The ritual to summon the Toshin is not of my own devising," Heihachi explained. "It is knowledge that I have learned, from twenty of the world's finest linguists. They studied the ruins of the Toshin expedition for over four years, until they learned all the ancient Aztecs knew of the God of War. Including how to summon it."
         A grim newspaper article that I had read came to mind.
         "And then you murdered them," I accused, spitefully. "Your people - your loyal servants didn't die from a 'mysterious accident.' YOU murdered them all, so that you could hoard your greedy secrets!"
         "It was necessary. Their knowledge could not be permitted to fall in the wrong hands."
         "Did you even think about any alternatives to mass slaughter?"
         "Such as?"
         "Oh, I don't know; how about freezing them in cryogenic suspension?"
         "Too great a risk. That which is sent into hibernation can be brought out. Witness the Williams sisters."
         "Then, how about using your TELEPATHIC GRANDSON to WIPE THEIR MEMORIES!?"
         "Impossible. Jin was the one person above all who absolutely could not be permitted to learn what they knew. Especially not by accident, while in the process of erasing their minds."
         "Why not?"
         "I have already told you, Miss Chang. My language scientists had learned how to summon the Toshin. If my grandson had known of the blood price that must be paid, then he never would have participated. He might even have turned against me."
         Something was bothering me, here.
         "Why are you talking about Jin in the past tense?" I questioned, in a throaty whisper. "He... he's not... you haven't..."
         "No. Not yet."
         Not yet?
         "Jin is still alive?" I breathed.
         "Of course."
         Jin was still alive!
         There was still hope!
         Hope that Heihachi must have seen on my face. For that merciless, cold-blooded smile briefly returned to his mouth as he said, "My grandson is the one who must sacrifice you."
         I'm not hearing this right. I CAN'T be hearing this right-!
         "To summon the Toshin from the void between worlds," the old man continued, "requires an especial type of blood sacrifice. Not just any offering will serve. It must be the blood of a virgin innocent, spilled by one the innocent loves.
         "Your blood.
         "Spilled by my grandson.
         "Your coming to the House Mishima was fortuitous in many ways. You are nothing less than the perfect sacrifice."
         "Who, me?"
         "A more suitable candidate could not have fallen from Heaven."
         "What makes you so sure?" I challenged, struggling in vain to conceal my anxiety.
         I wonder how Lei Wulong ever did that?
         "Do you pretend that you are unfit?"
         Did I have any chance of persuading Heihachi that I wasn't 'suitable'? I had the sinking suspicion that I couldn't lie to him convincingly, gifted as he was with a dragon's keen senses and keener wisdom.
         "What makes you think I'm a virgin?" I insinuated, attempting to flash my best seductive, knowing smile.
         Or any kind of seductive, knowing smile.
         Just how does Anna do that, anyway?
         A deep, languidly amused chuckle stirred in the back of Heihachi's throat. Kimura turned his head away.
         "You may cease the pretense, Miss Chang," the dragon suggested. "I know you are untouched. A gynecologist has confirmed that your maidenhead is intact."
         "Twice," he added, offhandedly. "The first examination was during the night of your initial arrival at my syndicate; you were unconscious then as well. I would not have subjected you to a second examination, save that your antics with my grandson planted a seed of doubt."
         "Fortunately, my misgivings have proven to be groundless."
         "YOU DISGUSTING PERVERT!" I screamed, and I am not going to repeat all the other things I called him. It was a long list.
         Great Spirit, I felt sick.
         Heihachi weathered my tirade with unusual patience. I shouted until my breath came heavy in my lungs, and my throat turned sore with wear and bile. But I did not cry. I held back that much.
         When at last I could yell no more, the dragon calmly remarked, "For whatever comfort it brings, Miss Chang, I assure you that you have been treated with nothing less than the strictest medical professionalism."
         "You want to 'comfort' me?" I spat back, with extra vitriol. "Take a gun and blow out your brains!"
         "And if it were you who possessed the gun?"
         I bared my teeth in the most savage, homicidal sneer I could muster.
         Which probably wasn't very savage or homicidal.
         I'd ask Bryan how he does that, but I'm afraid he might answer me.
         "No, Miss Chang," the dragon denied, with a single shake of his head. "You are truly an innocent - specifically, one who has never killed. You cannot pretend otherwise. Your soul is too pure. If you had indeed taken a life, then my telepathic grandson would have seen the residue of your victim's blood upon your hands.
         "And before you attempt any further denials, know that you cannot deceive me. You are deeply in love with my grandson. Your own actions have proven it. Although you are overconfident, Miss Chang, you are not a complete fool; since the inception of our alliance, you have known that you were in mortal danger. Yet you have refused one opportunity after another to escape, as I knew you would. Why? Because your love binds you, infinitely tighter than the heaviest chains. You could not flee my syndicate to save yourself, because you could not desert my grandson. You love him more than your own life."
         Am I supposed to argue with that?
         "So I'm the perfect sacrifice to summon the Toshin," I repeated, edging close to more hysteria. "And all you have to do is get Jin to kill me."
         "In the proper setting, at the proper time, and with the proper implement."
         "The proper implement?"
         Heihachi withdrew an item from the inner pocket of his dress suit's fur-lined jacket. It was a golden medallion, with a central ruby-red gem. Embellishing it was the etched design of a symmetrical, spirograph star, with eight looping points encircling smaller gems.
         It was the sacred treasure of my grandmother's tribe. The relic whose dreamweaving Power had first lured me to the syndicate.
         "My medallion!" I gasped.
         "Heaven's Dagger is mine," the dragon corrected, dangerously. "Yet, I have promised that it would be returned to you, and so it shall be."
         Heihachi did something to the sacred medallion. His fingers moved so fast I could hardly see, but it looked like he was pressing the inset gems in a deliberate sequence. As if he were following the solution to a three-dimensional puzzle.
         With a metallic click sound, the artifact changed before my eyes. Its shape elongated from circular to pointed, as it folded itself out like a Swiss army knife. Which is an apt metaphor, because in less than a second, Heihachi was no longer holding a shiny piece of jewelry. He was holding a shiny dagger the length of his hand.
         Its triangular knifeblade looked sharp enough to split hairs.
         "This is Heaven's Dagger," Heihachi declared, an inhuman light setting his eyes afire. "It is no ordinary weapon. It is the antithesis of all sorcery! Attacks with this blade cannot be blocked by supernatural Power. What Heaven's Dagger cuts, sorcery cannot heal. Not even the sorcery of an Immortal. Not even the sorcery of a god!
         "Yes, Heaven's Dagger shall indeed be returned to you - it shall be buried within the cavity of your bosom. However, it cannot be left there indefinitely; I shall need to retrieve it, in order to vanquish and control the God of War!"
         "You're insane," I whispered.
         "With the Toshin's Power at my command, I shall become Immortal. The Earth shall fall under my complete dominion. I shall guide humanity to its glorious, everlasting future. Could a madman so much as conceive of this, let alone accomplish it?"
         "Could a sane man expect his own grandson to commit cold-blooded murderer?" I hissed back. "Jin will never be a part of this! Never!"
         Heihachi smiled once more. This time, it was the lazy, sated grin of a well-fed tiger.
         "Would you like to see my grandson? I understand that some cultures think it an ill omen for the bride and groom to meet before their wedding, but if you have no objections, then neither do I."
         Well, that almost explained why I was dressed up like a bride, but...
         "Yes," I answered, shakily. "I want to see Jin."
         Heihachi turned, and spoke into the shadows. "Jin? Your bride requests that you present yourself. Do step forth."
         There came a rustling noise. It was the faint sound of fine velvet cloth.
         A form detached itself from the darkness, and came closer. Close enough for me to see, as bit by bit the poor illumination encompassed his nearing figure.
         Yes, it was Jin. And he - he must have overheard Heihachi's conversation with me, he must have! He hadn't been standing all that far away. He'd finally listened to incontrovertible proof of his grandfather's evil! This was my chance. I could communicate with him telepathically, devise an escape plan. Surely, his sorcerous Power could melt through my chains! We could both make good our escape, as soon as-!
         As soon as...
         Oh, no.
         Oh, Great Spirit no.
         I knew there was something wrong with Jin well before I could clearly see him. He was walking too stiffly. Too controlled and coordinated, with so much precision that it detracted from his natural balance. And when he came into the light...
         I wanted to curl up.
         I wanted to cry.
         He was no longer wearing the crazy yellow outfit that Xiaoyu had given him for Christmas. He, too, had been washed and dressed in a change of clothes. In a navy blue, formal dress suit, with a black sash, polished black shoes, a white-collared inner shirt, and an orange chest-scarf neatly folded in a triangle swath, where the suit partly opened about his neck.
         I'd seen a dress suit like this before.
         It was the favored apparel of Jin's father, Kazuya Mishima. Kazuya, the Devil-possessed necromancer. Kazuya, the traitor to all humanity. Kazuya, who had loathed his father Heihachi as surely as Heihachi had loathed him.
         Kazuya, whose dead image I had once seen in a mirror-vision.
         Kazuya's corpse had been clad in a navy blue dress suit. Exactly like what Jin was wearing now. Down to the precise shade of velvet, and the shape of the cuff links.
         Do I have to remind you how much Jin looks like his father Kazuya, even under the most mundane circumstances?
         And now, it wasn't just that Jin resembled Kazuya, and was dressed like Kazuya. His hair had been swept back like Kazuya's. Jin used to have stray bangs dangling about his forehead; no more. Now, there was not even that trivial detail to distinguish him from the reflection of his doomed father. The reflection that I had seen, broken and slain.
         Yet this was not the worst part. No. The worst part was when I looked into Jin's eyes.
         They were solid red. All the way through. His sclera, irises, and pupils were all colored the dull crimson of stagnant blood.
         There was no emotion in those eyes. No love, no hate. Nothing but blank emptiness. As unresponsive as the mechanical way in which he came to a stop, at his grandfather's left side. Jin stood at attention, his back ramrod-straight, his blood-red eyes focusing on nothing.
         "Jin?" I all but whimpered.
         No answer.
         "You must address your questions to me," Heihachi instructed. "He cannot initiate any response unless I so command him."
         "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIM, YOU MONSTER!?" I shrieked.
         Heihachi remained unruffled. Jin was like ice. Only Kimura betrayed any hint of a human reaction. The slight shaking in the bodyguard's hands spread up the length of his arms, and his shoulders hunched in an involuntary shudder.
         "My grandson obeys me now," the dragon contemplated. "At long last, I can trust him to obey me."
         "You did this to him because he wasn't a good enough slave?"
         "Do not speak like that of a member of the House Mishima!" Heihachi charged, and I'll let you decide whether he was referring to himself or Jin. "Time and again in the past, my grandson has defied me. His cursed Power has been driving him further and further beyond the reach of my discipline. Sometimes his Power would erupt out of control; sometimes he would even disregard my wishes of his own choice. It is a trend that has recently increased at an alarming rate. Just this night, I commanded him to stay within his pocket dimension, and where do I find him scarcely two hours later? Passed out on the syndicate's top floor.
         "My grandson is as you see now because he has ingested the blood of a vampyre. Hwoarang's blood, mixed with my own, and other less important ingredients. It is a process that I have tested, and learned to be effective, so long as the concoction is taken willingly. Naively, perhaps, yet willingly. Though Hwoarang has regrettably been destroyed, I did have the foresight to stockpile a quantity of his blood for future use."
         No. No, this couldn't be happening.
         "Jin," I pleaded, "no matter what Heihachi has done to you, you can't - you have to - wake up! Snap out of it! Your life depends on this, and so does mine!"
         No answer.
         "Please wake up? Please...?"
         Jin did not respond. Didn't so much as twitch.
         "Do you require a demonstration of my grandson's obedience?" the dragon idly queried.
         "You're stronger than this, Jin. I know you're stronger than this! You can't let your grandfather control you! You CAN'T!"
         "Jin," Heihachi curtly addressed. "Use your sorcery. Plant an indissoluble death-link in yourself, limiting the subsequent span of your life to no more than mine."
         Jin turned toward his grandfather.
         Moving precisely, like a clockwork automaton, he lifted his right arm. His fingers brushed a stiff tuft of Heihachi's grey-white hair, grasped a single strand, and pulled it free.
         Lightning sparkled on Jin's hands.
         It was no longer colored the usual indigo of his sorcery. His lightning had changed to crimson-white. It sizzled about his arms, his fingers, and made the single hair glow like an iridescent parasite. The energy flashed sharper, fiercer; it gathered into a scintillating ball. Jin used his free hand to pull the orange scarf out of his navy blue dress suit, opening a crease in its V-shaped neck.
         "No!" I cried, as I belatedly realized the consequences of Heihachi's command. "No, Jin, don't do this to yourself! DON'T DO THIS!"
         I may as well have called for the setting sun to halt its descent.
         Jin thrust his hands against his partly exposed chest, pressing the crackling vortex of raw Power over his heart.
         I screamed.
         Jin's body jerked. Crimson-white electricity covered his form, wrapping him in an electrical conduit. His spasms brought him to his knees. He collapsed on the ground, jerking and twitching.
         He reminded me of Shingo, when I'd taken a taser to him, but with one distinction. Jin's face remained expressionless the entire time, showing no pain, showing nothing at all.
         Then, with the same mechanical precision as before, Jin slowly picked himself up off the ground. He tucked his chest-scarf back in, and returned to standing at attention.
         "Is it done?" Heihachi requested.
         "Yes," Jin answered, the first time I had heard him speak since awakening to this nightmare. His voice was a vacant monotone, as emotionless as the rest of him.
         "Why did you do that?" I cried.
         Though I was talking to Jin, Heihachi was the one who answered. "It is only a final safeguard. I have no intention of perishing; Immortality shall be mine. Yet even I cannot rule out the possibility of disaster. For this reason, I must ensure that my grandson's cursed line cannot outlive me.
         "Jin's blood is dirty, irreparably tainted by his witch-mother and Devil father. Were his Power left unchecked, it could only threaten the glorious destiny I have planned for all humankind. The doomed dynasty of the House Mishima must end. It must end with the destruction of my grandson, and my own ascent into Immortality."
         "You really have been planning to murder Jin all along, haven't you," I accused. "Just like you were planning to murder Xiaoyu and me."
         "Since the moment I first laid eyes upon him, I have known that it would one day be necessary."
         "That's why you've dressed him up like Kazuya, isn't it? Because you always wanted to kill Kazuya, and never succeeded! You sick bastard - you're using Jin to fulfill your twisted revenge fantasy!"
         "That is not correct!"
         For one, fleeting moment, the dragon's self-control cracked. Just a little. No more than a hairline fracture.
         "I have told you before, Miss Chang. Do not pretend to share my grandson's telepathy. I know better than anyone that Jin is not Kazuya. Jin has loved and trusted me, as Kazuya never did.
         "No, Jin is not what Kazuya was. He is what Kazuya should have been. It is not my grandson's fault he has inherited the unholy Power that turned Kazuya against me. It is not my grandson's fault that his line must be expunged."
         "Then why dress him in Kazuya's suit?"
         "To make it easier."
         I stared at Heihachi.
         "Do you believe that I have no feelings, Miss Chang? Do you think I find it effortless to annihilate the last of my kindred? No. Even I am not that hardened. I have commanded my grandson to dress like this, so that his very appearance shall be a visual reminder of why I do what must be done. A reminder of the curse that would inevitably consume him, if I were weak enough to let my heart stay my hand.
         "Perhaps it is also a kindness.
         "He is of the House Mishima. I cannot let him remain indefinitely as you see now. Yet even if I knew how to restore his free will, I would not do such a thing. Especially not after I have commanded him to sacrifice you.
         "I am not that cruel.
         "My grandson loves you, as surely as you love him. Allowing him to live with the crime of your murder would bring him indescribable torment. I know what that would do to him. I would not allow him to suffer thus, even if he were not of unclean blood."
         "How noble of you," I spat, with dripping sarcasm.
         "This is not about what is noble. This is about what is necessary. The Toshin is a threat to all humanity; its menace must be dispelled. It must be summoned into my ambush. There is no other way.
         "I can only offer my prayers to you both. May your pain be brief. May your true wedding be blissful. May your souls love and comfort one another, in the eternity beyond this world."
         Do you want to know the really crazy part?
         I think Heihachi truly believed what he was saying. Every word. I searched his face as he spoke, and I swear he looked completely, utterly sincere. Besides, I can't imagine any reason why he would have bothered lying to me, not at that point.
         What more protests could I have made?
         How do you reason with someone who equates a double murder with holy matrimony?
         Heihachi Mishima appeared human, but he saw the world with the logic of a dragon: calculating, pitiless, and warped beyond mortal reckoning. I could not debate with it. When he asked me if I had any other questions - he had promised me that he would 'fully explain' the details of his plan, after all - I could not say another word to him.
         Instead, I directed my appeal to the one person who had a remote chance of hearing me.
         "Kimura, what about you? Your 'master' is insane. Look at what he's done to his own grandson! Can you even hear me? Or are you poisoned, too?"
         The bodyguard did not answer. Even though I couldn't see past his shades, however, I doubted that he was in the same condition as Jin. Kimura was not standing as stiffly at attention; he didn't quite have Jin's motionless rigidity.
         "Kimura!" I demanded. "I know you're not made of stone, and I know you're not a monster; if you were, Jin never would have let you serve him! You know this isn't right. You know-"
         A recollection surfaced in my thoughts. It was a memory of the syndicate's New Year's Eve party, from which I had unsuccessfully tried to rescue Jin. I remembered the troubled sleeplessness that had haunted Ishida's face.
         "You knew all along that Heihachi planned to murder Jin, didn't you? Didn't you? You and Ishida both knew!"
         Kimura said nothing.
         "Answer her," Heihachi languorously commanded the bodyguard.
         The shaking returned to Kimura's hands; it traveled to his throat, and weakened his soft voice to nearly inaudible.
         "It was our charge to... to watch the young master. To keep him under control. Using any means necessary."
         "What are you saying?"
         "The young master's Power is very dangerous..."
         "Are you saying that you were never Jin's bodyguards? That your real purpose was to protect Heihachi Mishima FROM Jin!?"
         "Only if the young master were to... to fall completely out of control."
         "My grandson had the bothersome habit of becoming emotionally attached to his servants," Heihachi commented. "It was a weakness from which I was never able to fully wean him, yet in this case, it proved useful to exploit. He came to fancy Ishida and Kimura as 'friends.' He never thought to telepathically probe their minds, in search of their true mission. However, he did contaminate Ishida with his reckless disobedience. It is a shame."
         'Reckless disobedience'?
         "Kimura," I addressed. "You and Ishida both knew more than what Heihachi planned for Jin, didn't you? You also knew what was in store for Xiaoyu and me. That's why Ishida was so agitated at the syndicate New Year's Eve party. That's why he said 'I can't be a part of this anymore,' and walked away. He couldn't bear to abet cold-blooded murder!"
         Kimura nodded his head, a fraction of an inch.
         "Can you?" I directed of the bodyguard, point-blank.
         Heihachi's smile was broad enough to display his dragon's fangs.
         "Kimura, how can you call a madman like this your 'master'? How can you be a part of his treacherous plans? Ishida found the strength to refuse; why can't-"
         A sick feeling suddenly gripped me.
         "Kimura, where is Ishida? Where is he now?"
         "I do not require you to answer any more of her questions," Heihachi told his servant.
         "Don't listen to him, Kimura! What has he done to your cousin? Are you afraid he will do the same to you?"
         The bodyguard turned his face aside, and made no response.
         "Kimura - whatever evil he has committed against your cousin, are you going to let him get away with it? Are you? This isn't right. This isn't justice! You have to do something to stop it! You have to!"
         I might as well have urged the moon not to rise.
         "Heihachi!" I snapped. "Where is Ishida? What have you done to him?"
         "I?" mused the dragon.
         At that moment, another figure joined us.
         It was a man in reddish Tekkenshu plate armor. He whispered something close to Heihachi's ear. Though I strained to listen, the sound was too quiet to reach me, and the faceplate of the soldier's helmet prevented me from reading his lips.
         Heihachi said, "Why do you disturb me? If it is only one person-"
         Another whisper.
         "WHAT!?" Heihachi roared.
         The soldier hung his head.
         The soldier mumbled something, and pointed with his whole arm outstretched.
         "Seal off all the exits! Call in four more divisions of reinforcements! And you-" Heihachi glared at his red-eyed grandson. "Jin, you stay here. Protect Miss Chang and yourself, to the fullest extent of your ability. See that neither of you leaves this room, no matter what!"
         Then Heihachi ran away.
         I mean that literally. He turned and sprinted out of there, swift in spite of his age. The soldier followed hard on his heels.
         My goodness, no.
         I don't mean to imply that Heihachi was afraid, or fleeing danger. Exactly the opposite. He dashed with a furious, determined glower on his face, straight down the corridor to which the soldier had pointed. The dragon was swooping to personally do battle with the prey who had invaded his lair.
         Was someone trying to rescue Jin and me? I could only hope. Yet a harrowing inner fear diluted my prayers; if there truly was only one person mounting an assault, then what chance did he or she have? What chance, really?
         I wondered who it was. What lone individual could storm the King of the Iron Fist's fortress, and wreak such havoc that his famed Tekkenshu Corps were thrown into disarray?
         Kimura drew his gun. I was mildly surprised that he had stayed behind, but then, I suppose Heihachi hadn't ordered him to leave. The bodyguard held his firearm close to himself, with the muzzle pointed at the ceiling, and scanned the room with quick, nervous glances. Jin remained stiffly at attention, staring straight ahead.
         "Say, Kimura," I drawled, "who do you think is out there, singlehandedly opposing the might of your deranged master?"
         He did not answer. Just kept peering into each and every shadow, intently.
         "My first guess would be Lei Wulong, except that I know he's deathly ill. He's also too smart to try anything like this without backup. So is Shingo Yabuki - I don't think you've met him, but he's a good friend of mine, and he's doubtless worried about Jin and me. Xiaoyu? She's a pixie whirlwind, but even she can't outfight a whole army. Not when they're all carrying machine guns, at least.
         "Nina Williams? She's terrorized Heihachi's Tekkenshu before, but I hope she's not attacking them now. I remember how she almost murdered Jin. And I can't really picture Anna Williams taking on the whole Mishima syndicate by herself. She's too practical for that. Perhaps it's someone else from the Iron Fist, with a grudge against Heihachi? Or maybe...
         "Hey, here's a thought. What if it's Ishida? What if your cousin has escaped whatever tortures Heihachi sentenced him to endure, and now he's fighting to get reven-"
         "DON'T SAY THAT!" Kimura screamed, whirling toward me in a panic.
         Yes, I mean that.
         Kimura screamed.
         It wasn't the sound itself that shocked me, so much. It was actually hearing Kimura speak in more than a whisper, more than the almost-normal-volume that was his way of yelling. He really voiced an honest-to-goodness, full-blown scream.
         I had no idea he was capable of that. He was the quiet one; he had always been the quiet one, while Ishida had always been the one to loudly speak his mind. It was as if Kimura had somehow inherited his cousin's vociferous temper.
         I wondered if the exchange had been both ways.
         I wondered just how quiet Ishida was, right now. Wherever he was.
         Of course, the instant that Kimura turned his back on the shadows was the instant that the shadows struck back. I'd like to take credit for actively and intelligently distracting him at the right moment, but the truth is, I wasn't quite that smart. I'd only been rambling my ever-present curiosity aloud.
         A hand clutched the back of Kimura's collar. A second hand gripped his left arm, pulling it around a connected set of wiry shoulders.
         Before Kimura could react - before he could even call out - he was bodily lifted off the ground, by limbs far stronger than should be humanly possible, given their shape and size. He was picked up, and then he was thrown down, like slamming a newspaper with a headline that greatly displeases you.
         Did I mention that the stone floor was rather hard?
         Kimura's shades flew from his face as he hit the ground, and his attacker kicked his gun out of his weakened grip. Though the bodyguard had almost certainly suffered heavy bruises and a concussion - at least - he struggled to right himself.
         Kimura's attacker looked into his dull brown eyes, took a step back, and gasped, "You're still human!"
         "You never were," Kimura returned, his voice dropping to a level that was still loud enough to qualify as a shout, for him. "Hell-spawned mutant!"
         "Does the whole UNIVERSE know!?" Taki exclaimed.
         Taki was the one who had stormed Heihachi's secret retreat?
         Yes, it was definitely Taki. In a brilliant new costume.
         Instead of her usual skin-tight bodysuit, she had donned a short-sleeved, dark blue fighting dress. The garment had a pattern of white shapes around the chest, a sideways red ellipse painted on the belt, and trailing rectangular flaps down the front and back. Though a dark blue mask covered her face, the dress revealed her hips and thighs, with only a narrow, bikini-style underfitting to preserve modesty. White wrappings protected her elbows and knees, and a white headband marked with another sideways red ellipse was tied around her unkempt hair. Her bangs drifted over the headband, and a falling topknot of her tresses spilled down the back of her neck. A sheathed short sword was strapped to her back.
         She no longer looked like a spy, or a skulking assassin. She looked like a warrior-woman of legend.
         Had she come to save Jin and me?
         I thought she didn't like me. I thought she flat-out hated Jin.
         Kimura snapped a long knife into his hand.
         "You traitor!" he accused, lunging at Taki.
         I think she was at a disadvantage. Kimura was trying to kill her - I could see the frantic fanaticism in his eyes - yet she had no desire to kill him. I'm sure of it. If she had wanted him dead, then she would have used her sword to murder him while his back was turned.
         Perhaps Xiaoyu was right, when she described Taki as a limited pacifist: one who does not want to commit the cruelty of taking a human life. Perhaps that was why, instead of drawing her sword, she just jumped over Kimura's head.
         No, really. I swear, her inordinately strong leg muscles propelled her eight feet above the ground. At least.
         Taki flipped, keeping her whole body straight, and landed behind Kimura. The bodyguard swiftly recovered from his missed attack, though. As if guided by a radar sense, he spun and hurled his knife. His blade buried itself in her left shoulder.
         Up to the hilt.
         Reddish-brown, half-mutant blood trickled from her wound. It was the only injury that any of Heihachi's men had inflicted on her.
         While Taki reeled and pulled out the knife, Kimura dove for his gun. He rolled as he seized it, in an act of perfectly trained grace.
         "Kimura, don't shoot!" I pleaded.
         The bodyguard brought his weapon to bear on Taki.
         I knew that Taki's sorcery could not protect her from gunfire, any more than it had armored her against the knife. Jin had once told me that Taki had little talent for defensive spells. Perhaps she could have dodged the bullet, or counterattacked before Kimura fired, but either option would have been a gamble at best.
         Taki sneered, "I haven't killed Ishida yet. Isn't that what you were going to destroy me for?"
         Kimura's hands started shaking again. They shook so much that his gun slipped out of his fingers.
         Taki seized advantage of the opening, closing the distance between herself and Kimura in a few steps. He recovered from his hesitation in time to kick her, yet she reacted with blinding speed. One mutant-strength arm was all she needed to catch his kick and force his leg back down. Taki twirled in a pirouette, gathering the necessary momentum to snap a straight-legged spinning wheel kick across Kimura's forehead The bodyguard turned like a rolling log from the impact, and crashed face-first on the floor. This time, he did not get up.
         "Your shoulder," I said to Taki.
         "A scratch," she dismissed, though she could gesture with only one hand. "Are you all right?"
         "Yes, but Jin is-"
         "I can see. Hold still. I'm getting you both out of here, now." She approached me, focusing on my heavy chains-
         "Shield," Jin said in a monotone, snapping his fingers. It was the first action he had taken since Taki's arrival.
         A flashing wall of crimson-white electricity jolted the warrior-woman.
         She screeched and jumped back, smoke-singes rising from burns on her fighting dress. Jin's barrier remained mostly invisible, except for stray crackles of crimson-white, outlining a dome-shape that closely covered us both.
         "Heihachi commanded him to 'protect' us, and keep us inside this room," I told Taki. "I don't know how to free him from the curse of Hwoarang's blood-"
         "Hush," she directed, sharply.
         I hushed.
         Lilac-white fire danced on Taki's right hand.
         She turned her wrist, and a paper marked with the written characters for 'evil spirit be repelled' appeared between her fingers. Her lilac-white fire coated the paper without consuming it, flaring brighter and brighter, spreading to radiate from her whole body. For long seconds, all she did was stand there, channeling her strength into her spirit ward, until I could no longer look directly at her.
         Taki chanted.

                  Evil soul retreat
                  Your host resists your control
                  Your possession fades

                  My blood commands you
                  Vanish to the Black Abyss
                  Set your victim free!

         Taki hurled her spirit ward at Jin. It struck him squarely between the eyes, and dangled over his face as if attached by glue.
         Jin's electricity went berserk.
         Crimson-white streaks enveloped him. He convulsed, as if caught in the throes of a seizure. Strangled, gagging noises sounded from the back of his throat. I called out his name, fearfully.
         Jin threw back his head and screamed.
         His crimson-white electricity gathered about his face, meeting Taki's lilac-white fire. Lightning curled about fire, knotted it, devoured it, until the spirit ward glowed as crimson-white as the rest of his bodily forces.
         The ward burst into flames. In a split-second, there was nothing left of it but ash.
         However, it had not been wholly without effect.
         Before, Jin had been rigidly mechanical, responding only to his grandfather's commands. Now, the silent, robot-like quality to his bearing was gone. He shook - with pain or furor, I could not tell. His eyes remained solid red, but now they blazed with emotion.
         Disgust. Outrage. Scorn.
         "You IDIOT!" he shouted to Taki. "I'm not possessed, I'm POISONED!"
         He no longer used an empty monotone, but rather a vicious snarl.
         "Jin?" I tentatively called. He ignored me, and pointed to Taki, who was more than a little winded from her spellcasting.
         "What are you trying to do, you mutant witch? Rip my soul out of my body? Don't make me show you how it's done!"
         This was not right.
         Even though Jin seemed to have his feelings back - even though his current state was an improvement over mindless slavery - there was still something horribly wrong with him. The Jin I knew and loved did not talk like this, did not behave like this. Not ever. He would never be so malicious to someone who was only trying to help him. And he would never, ever threaten to steal a person's soul, not even as hyperbole.
         "Masaka!" Taki hissed.
         "I don't believe it either," Jin snorted, folding his arms. "What on Earth goaded a self-hating defeatist like you to attempt the impossible?"
         "It is not impossible. Not if you turn against your grandfather. You can resist the curse of the bloodslave! You can escape with us, to Chizuru Kagura's Temple!"
         "Uh-huh. Then what?"
         "We can worry about that when we're there."
         "Oh, I already have plenty of things to worry about. The Toshin is number one on the list."
         "We will all fight it when it returns on its own!"
         "Sure, you can fight. But can you win? I think not. Grandfather and I held a Tournament to gather the deadliest warriors in the world, and I'm the only one who has earned the right to even try for his title, as King of the Iron Fist!"
         Jin clenched his own fist, as if it were an iron symbol of the Tournament itself, and held it at chin level. Crimson-white sparks wrapped his knuckles. "Only the Strength of Heihachi Mishima can stand against the Toshin. You know it, as surely as I!"
         "Jin!" I cried. "Heihachi intends to murder you! He intends to have you murder me!"
         "Hopefully not in that order," he sardonically returned, flicking me a contemptuous glance.
         This was not Jin.
         This could not be Jin. He would never be so callous. Why was he acting like this?
         It's the bloodslave poison, I thought to myself. It must have affected his mind, warped his sanity; he's still under Heihachi's control, and that's why-
         "You really are a Devil," Taki growled.
         "You are no better," Jin shot back, stabbing his index finger at her. "You're just as much of a monster as I am, and I don't mean your mutant blood. Oh, no. Your very soul stumbles in its search for redemption; even now, you're acting out of selfishness!"
         "I'm here to rescue you!"
         "No, you're not. You're here to save yourself, here to do what you imagine to be 'good.' It's nothing more than a pathetic attempt to make up for all the evil you've done, on behalf of the Mishima syndicate!
         "You haven't even thought any of this through.
         "What do you think will happen, if you 'rescue' the girl and me? What do you really think will happen? Have you speculated about this at all?"
         "No," Taki denied. "There was no time."
         "Take your excuses and eat them. I'll tell you what happens.
         "First, Grandfather snares another two victims for his blood sacrifice. Oh, don't look so surprised - do you really think he's gambled everything on Julia and me? He got a replacement for Xiaoyu; he can get replacements for us. He's drawn up a list of at least a hundred more pairs of candidates, and his Tekkenshu can kidnap any of them faster than you can say 'false arrest.' He also has plenty more bloodslave poison; with that, he can put anyone under his control, long enough to make them murder anyone else."
         Jin pointed to me, without looking at me. "At least she had some choice about getting into this, and an idea of the risks she was taking. As do I. If you just whisk us away, you're not doing 'good.' You're only gratifying yourself!
         "And let's not stop there, shall we? Let's continue our chain of supposition. Let's say that Grandfather's summoning ritual is a success without me. Then what? The Toshin returns to our world, that's what, and I'm not there to fight it with the old man. United we stand, divided we fall. The Toshin takes Grandfather's soul, and grows stronger. Much stronger. Then it comes for my soul, and grows stronger yet. Then it grows to destroy the whole world - is any of this getting through to you? The Toshin has the potential to annihilate everything! We are ALL dead if Grandfather's plan DOES NOT WORK!
         "But, allow me to offer a compromise.
         "If you can prove that your Strength is greater than that of Heihachi Mishima, then I'll accept that you are a better ally. If you can destroy Grandfather - if anyone can destroy him - then I'll be happy to switch sides."
         "Taki, don't!" I cried. "If Heihachi dies, Jin dies with him! Heihachi made Jin put a death-link inside himse-"
         "You talk too much," Jin growled to me, through gritted teeth. He made a squeezing gesture with one hand.
         I couldn't say another word. Couldn't even breathe.
         Crimson-white sorcery constricted a noose around my neck. I choked, and clutched at my throat with my chained hands, only to have the electricity travel through the metal manacles and shock me.
         "STOP IT!" Taki hollered, rushing to my aid-
         -and she ran into Jin's forcefield a second time. The electrical jolt was dazzling enough to light up the entire chamber, and fling her backwards on her rump.
         Jin laughed.
         The sound haunts my nightmares to this day. Maniacal. Diabolic.
         Jin stretched out his free hand, and crooked his index finger in a wagging taunt. "Try that again, Taki. Do try that again."
         I made a wheezy, rattling sound. Black spots flashed before my eyes.
         "Let her GO!" Taki wailed. "Please!"
         "Well, since you ask so nicely." Jin's closed hand unfurled, and the crimson-white noose around my neck vanished. I gasped and heaved for air.
         "She's telling the truth, isn't she?" Taki glowered. "You really have put a death-link inside yourself."
         Jin shrugged. "Grandfather's orders. I am his bloodslave, after all."
         "Then why tell me to destroy Heihachi Mishima? Don't pretend you want to die with him!"
         "Did I say 'destroy'? My, my, how did that get out. Destroy, subdue, arrest, imprison; it's all the same, isn't it? As long as you prove yourself stronger.
         "Whatever you decide to do, though, you had better be about it quickly. Grandfather will finish with your shadow-clones soon - that is how you've diverted his attention, isn't it? Harmless, magical shadow-clones, weaving the illusion of a destructive assault? Your trick has bought you a little time, but not that much.
         "You really should run along, now. I'd rather you didn't let yourself get captured. Grandfather would probably command me to interrogate you, and ripping apart people's minds is always such a mess."
         Taki was breathing hard.
         She clutched her wounded arm, and leaned against a nearby wall. "It doesn't have to be this way. You can still join us. We can all fight together."
         "And who else is 'we'? My dying stepfather? The angel who betrayed Kazuya? The gaggle of losers from the Iron Fist Tournament? Oh, here's an idea! Why don't I sign on with Chizuru Kagura's Temple of Devil-hunters, hm? You know, the ones who were all too spineless to back you up for this 'rescue'?"
         "I didn't tell them I was coming."
         "Then you're an even bigger fool, because now your commotion has warned Grandfather. He's called in four extra divisions of Tekkenshu. It'll be that much harder to stage any kind of real attack on him - one more little thing you failed to consider.
         "Sorry, Taki. You haven't just screwed up; you've screwed up big. Your Power doesn't have a prayer of breaking my shield. You can't 'rescue' me or the girl. You've got nothing but a hole in your shoulder.
         "Tell you what, though. Let me at least break you even on that."
         Jin waved his hand. Crimson-white electricity crackled about Taki's wound, sewing it closed and stopping the blood.
         "Now, let's see if you can make it out of here alive. Have fun!"
         "Wait. There's one more thing I want to ask you."
         "Make it quick."
         Taki pointed to a spot above and behind Jin, at precisely Heihachi's height. "Does your grandfather know that you are only pretending to be mindless?"
         "What!?" Jin gasped, whirling around.
         No one was there.
         "You deceitful tramp-!" Jin turned back at once, but Taki was already gone.
         So was Kimura, I realized. A moment ago he'd been face-down on the floor, yet all that remained of him now was a cracked pair of shades, a discarded gun, and a knife stained with reddish-brown blood.
         Jin fixed me with a soulless glare.
         My throat hurt something awful, but I forced myself to speak regardless.
         "Jin, what has happened to you?"
         His solid red eyes narrowed, dangerously.
         He growled, "You..."
         Now my tears escaped.
         The tears that I had hidden from Heihachi - the tears of fear, love, and shattered dreams - would no longer be bottled up inside. They fell from my eyes with a will of their own.
         Jin's antagonistic expression softened. A little.
         A very little.
         " really want to know, don't you?" he finished, quieter. "You always want to know."
         "No, that's not what I really want! I want to save you, and you just threw away our only chance! What's wrong with you, Jin? You're not like this! You're never like this! You-"
         A dark terror presented itself in my head.
         My grandmother's prophecy, come to life.
         "Kazuya?" I whispered.
         "I was created in his image, and with his Power." He smiled, malevolently. "But not with his passion for 'justice,' thank Satan. Not with his insane drive to eradicate all the evil in the world.
         "Rest assured, my dear Julia; I have no intention of following in the self-destructive footsteps of my 'father.' As far as I'm concerned, all the evil in the world can stay right where it is."
         "Okay, then you're not Kazuya. I'm still not really talking to Jin, am I?"
         "Just the opposite. You never were before."
         "No. I know you. The real you. I've been inside your mind; I've seen into your soul!"
         "Of course," he dismissed with an idle wave. "The thing had to be encoded into my mind and soul; otherwise, it never would have fooled anyone."
         "You're not making sense!"
         "Yes, I am. You just don't want to believe it."
         He folded his arms, and stared down upon me as if he were Kazuya: stark, merciless, yet subtly amused.
         "The personality camouflage program is erased. Deleted. Gone. The trauma of becoming a bloodslave crashed it - actually, the shock of its 'beloved' grandfather's betrayal was what really did the trick, more than the poison itself, but that's a moot point now.
         "I'm free.
         "At last, I am free.
         "Free to speak, free to act, and free to take full control. War is Peace, Ignorance is Truth, and Slavery, my dear Julia, is the penultimate Freedom."
         "You're still not making sense."
         "This, from the burrowing rodent who damn near spoiled over four years of hard work?"
         He crouched across from where I was chained.
         "Little Miss 'Restless Gopher.' You have no idea how much trouble you've cost me, do you?"
         I didn't even have any idea what he was talking about.
         "I'm talking about how you were always digging. Always searching. Always questing for some way, any way, to turn the program against old man Heihachi!
         "You were driving me crazy, did you know that?
         "Do you have any inkling how hard it is to adjust a personality camouflage? Do you know how much time and effort it takes to upgrade the smallest synapse, manipulate the tiniest motive, or plant the most subtle rationalization?
         "No, of course you don't!
         "All you had to do was give the wretched thing a single glance, and it would go haywire with its damn self-modifying code! Do you have any clue how close you came to making it run away from old man Heihachi, and RUINING everything I've worked for? Do you!?
         "And then, your accursed angel almost finished the job!"
         My what?
         "Oh, don't you dare pretend you don't know! You used Heaven's Dagger to summon that angel, I know you did! You-"
         He abruptly cut himself off. "You really don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"
         "Are you scanning me?"
         He ignored my question, and looked away with a disgusted snort. "Of course, you couldn't summon just any angel. It would have to be the one who murdered your mother, and betrayed my 'father.' It would have to be the one angel that would move Heaven and Earth, in its single-minded determination to 'save' me!"
         "Lee Chaolan?" I questioned, uneasily. "But he's dead. He's been dead for twenty years."
         "You're telling me? While you're at it, why don't you tell me what crisis made the Grey Kingdom draft him into their ranks!? He should be burning in Hell right now!"
         Another memory came back to me. A memory from my nearly-lethal encounter with Bryan Fury, the syndicate's Cyborg Army prototype.
         Michelle, no! I won't let you be killed again!
         He had called me 'Michelle.' He had mistaken me for my mother.
         Could it be...?
         Jin shook his head. "You've cost me so much, Julia dear. You've driven me beyond distraction, trying to debug all the damage you caused. I should hate you for that. I should.
         "But, it wasn't your fault. None of it was. You were just acting according to your nature.
         "As was I.
         "I can afford to refrain from hating you, dear Julia. Because despite you and your thrice-damned angel, Fate itself has blessed me. The camouflage program has finally terminated.
         "It wasn't originally meant to burn out at this intermediate stage, but you can't imagine how relieved I am that it did. Satan only knows what it could have done to me, if it had run wild for one more day. By the Black Abyss, that damn thing even transplanted a piece of me into a worthless, dying flunky! It permanently diminished ME! It was NEVER supposed to do ANYTHING like that!"
         He touched my hair, and let my tresses run over his fingers.
         "It was never supposed to fall in love, either. Though in your case... I can see why it developed a system error.
         "You willingly shared the beauty of your soul with the thing. Look at you even now, you poor creature. You've learned the truth about me - you can see it with your own eyes - and it still doesn't change your feelings for me at all, does it?"
         No, it doesn't.
         I'm not giving up. I can't give up. I love you, Jin - the real Jin - and there has to be a way to get you back, if only I knew what it is!
         "It's too bad I can't let myself reciprocate your feelings," he sighed, shaking his head. "Nothing personal. It's just that I do have to cut you."
         "No. You can't use me to summon the Toshin. Not like this."
         He smiled. A fox pitying the chicken. Or perhaps I should say, a ferret pitying the gopher.
         "I mean it, 'Jin' or whatever you are! You - you don't-!"
         I floundered for words, confronted by this malevolent apparition in Jin's body. Out of desperation, I reached for a secret that I had told no one, ever since my grandmother told me.
         "You don't know the Toshin's true name," I hissed. "Without that name, Heaven's Dagger is useless against it!"
         "Yes! My grandmother told me so."
         "And do you know the Toshin's true name?"
         "No. Kagura's Temple is the only place I can think of that might have it on record."
         "Drat. You're telling the truth, as you see it."
         "You are scanning me," I charged. "Cut it out!"
         "You shouldn't worry about that, Julia dear. Or about how Grandfather and I will fare against the Toshin. I am an exceptionally strong telepath, as well you know. I can learn the Toshin's true name from its own mind, once it has been battered into submission.
         "What I can give you... is freedom from all your worries. Complete anesthesia. You don't deserve to feel any pain. You don't deserve any of this; but then, neither did my mother."
         Jin raised his hand on level with my face, palm out, and said, "Sleep."
         A heavy wave of lassitude dragged me down.
         I fought back.
         "No," I said, and I bit my own tongue to keep myself alert.
         Jin's bushy eyebrows pressed in a forbidding V-shape. "I said, sleep."
         "No!" I repeated, whipping my head back and forth.
         His sorcery crackled on me, wore at me, flooded me with weariness, but he could not make me sleep. Catsclaw had once taught me that sleep spells are notoriously limited. This is why they're not as useful in a fight as one would expect. If your opponents resist your sleep spell - and odds are they will, especially if they're already riled - then you're probably the one who will end up stretched out on the ground.
         I'd just had thirty-six hours of rest. No mere sorcery could force me to accept more.
         "You are not putting me to sleep," I asserted, defiantly. "I won't make it that easy for you. Or for me. If I have to meet my death, then I'm going to be wide awake like a warrior!"
         Jin's solid red eyes flashed with resentment.
         "Fine," he declared, irascibly. "Any suffering you endure from now on is your own damn fault. Not mine. Do you hear me? Not my fault!"
         "The real Jin never shirked responsibility for his actions."
         He hissed at me.
         It was a hostile sound of wordless frustration. Like the flare of a disturbed cobra.
         Before he could regain enough self-control to speak, however, his head perked. He turned his neck, focusing on the approach of footsteps. Flattening his lips in a bad-tempered grimace, Jin returned to standing at attention, in the exact spot where Heihachi Mishima had left him. When the old dragon arrived, driven to outrage by his legions' failure to capture Taki, his bloodslave grandson appeared just as emotionless and mechanical as before.
         But it was only an act.
         If you try to warn Grandfather about me, I'll cauterize your brain before you can utter a single word, warned a mind-voice that could never have been Jin's. Not the Jin I knew and loved.
         I wasn't going to tell him anyway, I thought back, petulantly.
         Then I returned to wondering what on Earth I was going to do.

         Sometimes, I still wonder.
         Um, all right. I guess that's enough for now. Except-
         I shouldn't have to tell you this, I really shouldn't. You're smart enough, I'm sure you've already figured it out. But...
         The next time you talk to Jin - or any time you talk to Jin - please. Don't ask him any questions about when he was a bloodslave. Don't ever bring up the topic. At best, you'll only trigger his memory block again.
         At worst...
         Just don't do it. Please don't.
         Promise me you won't try anything of the sort? Promise me?
         Thank you. I... I feel better now.
         You really are a good friend, do you know that?

End of Chapter 26: Fruit of the Poisonous Tree