written by Victar, e-mail
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Chapter 28: Blood Sacrament

   "Let the blood flow! In the union of blood and dust does magic lie!"
         -Vicky Wyman, Xanadu: Thief of Hearts


Subject: For your eyes only
To: [name withheld]
From: President Jin Kazama
Date: February 21, 2018

1) I wish to commend your dedication to the recordkeeping project.

2) I would like to schedule another interview, for tomorrow evening if possible.

3) I've decided that I need to directly confront Julia and Lee, about my chronic memory lapses. Your mediation would be greatly appreciated. I'm tentatively planning to speak with them the day after tomorrow. Our conversation should be recorded, in case I black out during it. If you could set up the proper equipment beforehand, I would be much obliged.

[signed] Jin Kazama

February 21, 2018
8:45 a.m.

         Good morning.
         Okay. Jin's gone to high school, and I've got another couple hours before my college classes start. I've been preparing myself, and I'm ready. I think. I can tell you about...
         About the most frightening experience in my whole life.
         The moment when I was to be the Toshin's blood sacrifice.

         It wasn't just the fear that made it so bad, though. It was the humiliation.
         Heihachi Mishima's servants had dressed me in a tailored wedding gown. Then they gagged me, with a thick piece of white silk. I tried to put up a struggle, but there were too many of them. They dragged me to a golden altar, with intricate tracings looping around four gem-encrusted manacles. The restraints snapped shut on my wrists and feet. I could do nothing but force muffled noises through my gag.
         Heihachi thought of me as his grandson's 'bride.' I felt more like a farm animal strung up to be butchered.
         Trapped in a splayed position, I saw most of my surroundings upside down. My head dangled partway over the altar's circumference, and above my upturned view I saw a shallow depression in the stony floor. A twining bloodstain fed into the depression, converging in a pool of dried crimson sludge.
         Someone had been murdered here before me.
         No longer wanting to look at the floor, I strained to see what was above. The sacrificial chamber was a wide, circular space, within Heihachi's gold-plated reconstruction of the Toshin's Temple. Burning torches lightened the room, and dark archways surrounded it. There was an overhead balcony, an especially grand arch leading outside, and a vast hole in the ceiling. The rising full moon hovered past the hole's apex.
         Heihachi's emotionless servants obeyed his bidding, forming a circle around the golden altar. I'd say there were around fifty Tekkenshu, in reddish plate armor. There was also a pair of 'bridesmaids' in lacy, manila-colored gowns, carrying bouquets of white roses.
         Both bridesmaids had the solid red eyes of a bloodslave.
         Like Jin, they had been tricked into consuming a mixture of Heihachi's blood and the blood of a vampyre. They were statues in human shape, looking straight ahead without seeing. I recognized them. One was the syndicate servingwoman who used to attend me, and the other was the servingwoman who used to attend Xiaoyu.
         I didn't see a best man for Jin, though. Perhaps that was to be Kimura's role, before Taki kidnapped him.
         I'm sure you already know this, but... only the bridesmaids were bloodslaves. Heihachi's Tekkenshu were still human. I could tell by the way they moved; they didn't have the clockwork rigidity of bloodslaves.
         I think I know why Heihachi didn't use bloodslave poison on his private army. For one thing, I assume he trusted their loyalty. More importantly, though, a typical bloodslave can't take any action except in response to a specific command. Heihachi knew this. He also knew that for his men to be effective soldiers, they had to have at least some capability for autonomous thought.
         Last chance, my dear Julia; you don't have to feel any of what is to come. Let me put your pretty soul to sleep.
         That did not count as autonomous thought.
         The telepathic voice whispering in my mind was quiet and focused. The most awful thing about it was how strongly it resembled the mind-voice of the person I had grown to love - same resonance, same natural rhythm, same almost-musical quality. Except that now, the music was dissonant instead of mellifluous.
         STOP SCANNING ME! I mentally screamed to Jin Kazama. What was left of him.
         He stood across from the altar. His bangs were swept back in the style of his father, Kazuya Mishima, and he was wearing a navy blue dress suit such as Kazuya had once favored. In his right hand, he grasped Heaven's Dagger: the sacred medallion of my tribe, transformed into a killing tool.
         Jin kept himself rigid, taking no action except in response to his grandfather's commands. Outwardly, he appeared to be a mindless bloodslave. Inwardly, I knew that he had regained some type of awareness, but it was not enough to bring him back. Instead, the bloodslave curse had warped his personality into... into...
         I couldn't comprehend what was wrong with him, or why. All I knew was that the paranoid, malicious creature lurking behind the bloodslave mask was not Jin Kazama. Not the Jin I loved. Not the Jin who once said that he loved me.
         The real Jin would not hurt me like this. The real Jin would never offer my soul to the God of War.
         I am the real Jin! The telepathic flare was hurtful and petulant. It would seem that this monster in Jin's guise was still scanning me, despite my mental protests.
         Great Spirit. Was there anything I could possibly do? Even if I could break free of my restraints and my gag, my very thoughts were under constant scrutiny-
         There was a way to block Jin's telepathic scan. I remembered. All I had to do was create a strong enough mental barrier.
         I recalled the chant that I had used before, and rehearsed it in my head.
         Then I concentrated on it. Hard.
         Harder still.
         Sa-min, sa-ya, sa-moh, sa-mah...
         You deluded, lovely soul. You were able to thwart the camouflage program, not me. I was not just born with Power. I
am Power.
         The serpentine words slipped through my forming barrier...
         ...but I was drawing my folds ever tighter, like twisting the rod to a set of Venetian blinds. Narrowing the chinks through which stray, spying feelers could slip through. Systematically caulking the leaks with raw discipline.
         It was working. I could feel it working.
         He could feel it, too.
         I can crush your puny barrier any time I want to, he insisted, arrogantly.
         Maybe, I thought back, through the one conduit I'd left open for psychic communication. But can you fight a mental war and keep up your pretense of being mindless?
         Jin's lip lifted in a snarl. Just a little; if I hadn't felt the resonance of his spite, I might not have noticed it.
         At that moment, Heihachi happened to turn and look at us, from a couple meters away.
         Jin made his face blank.
         His grandfather scrutinized him closely. For a moment, Heihachi's right hand rested on the hilt of the longer of his paired ceremonial swords.
         Jin remained motionless.
         Heihachi removed his hand from his sword hilt. He withdrew a grey book with a leather binding from inside the vest of his fur-lined dress suit, instead.
         Heihachi started reading from the book.
         He spoke in Japanese, and because of the translation protocol in my head, I was able to understand him. Sort of. He described the God of War: destroyer of worlds, absorber of souls.
         There was an eerie cadence to Heihachi's words. It sent cold shivers through my body. Even if I tried to repeat his speech, I don't think I could reproduce the pervasive sense of ill omen.
         With a queasy feeling inside, I realized the ritual had started. At the peak of the ceremony, Heihachi would command Jin to plunge Heaven's Dagger into my heart.
         What could I do?
         I was gagged, latched to an altar, could hardly think behind my psychic barrier, and Heihachi was going to force his own grandson to murder me. What could I really do?
         Close my eyes?
         Accept my death like a warrior?
         But I didn't want to die, dammit. I was only eighteen and never got to attend college, never became an archeologist like I'd dreamed, never even shared a real kiss, I didn't want to die!
         And I... I didn't want Jin to die with me.
         Heihachi planned to destroy his own grandson, once the Toshin was dealt with. The old man imagined that Jin and I would be 'married' in the afterlife. But the Jin I knew, or once knew, had too much left to do in this world. His compassion had been the last hope of redeeming the House Mishima. With that hope extinguished... with Heihachi reaping the immortality he craved from the Toshin...
         There are few things worse than being murdered. One of them is knowing that your death will eradicate something good. Another is knowing that your death will perpetuate a remorseless evil.
         This was wrong. The Toshin had to be stopped before it could destroy the world, but not like this. Not with Heihachi inheriting its mantle of godhood.
         This was wrong.
         This was so wrong...
         Something cracked inside me. My mental barriers fractured from the stress.
         I knew you couldn't keep that up for long, Jin gloated. And he was right. My defense against his telepathic scan was crumbling.
         There was nothing I could do. Nothing.
         Heihachi's speech reached a turning point. His voice elevated in pitch, and he commanded his grandson to approach the altar.
         A rising gorge of panic undermined my mental barrier. Tears trickled from my eyes. My raw terror was leaking for everyone to see, and for the thing in Jin's guise to feel. I expected him to exult in triumph.
         He didn't.
         He was still scanning me, but not as closely as before. His solid red eyes would not meet mine. However, I did sense a certain wavelength of...
         It wasn't exactly doubt, or hesitance. More like the lethargy you feel when you have a grueling chore ahead, and you'd much rather indulge yourself in something fun.
         Part of him didn't want to go through with this.
         A small part. Too small to resist the curse of the bloodslave. But it was still a part, and it was still there, even though Heihachi's poison had driven the rest of him mad.
         Even consumed by bloodslave insanity, Jin didn't want me to suffer. That was why he had tried to put me to sleep. And, part of him still cared enough to monitor me with a telepathic scan.
         There was a piece of him left. A deeply buried piece of the real Jin. But I didn't know how to reach that one piece, unless...
         Maybe I'd had it all backwards. Maybe my only hope - our only hope - wasn't blocking his scan, but rather, opening myself to it.
         So I did.
         I didn't just let my mental barrier go. I burst it apart, with a flood of my repressed emotions. All my terror of impending death, all my outrage at being victimized, all my love for Jin and my fear of what would happen to us both - I sent it in an onrushing tsunami, overwhelming the link of his scan. Cresting the whitecap of my deepest feelings, I sobbed my heart out without being able to utter a word.
         Jin. This is wrong. You know it's wrong!
         I couldn't tell if I was having any effect on him. My own heart was close to being torn in two, so that I could scarcely feel the repercussion of his presence. His face remained the expressionless mask of a bloodslave.
         Heihachi commanded his grandson to raise Heaven's Dagger overhead.
         If you do this, you won't just be killing me. You'll destroy yourself, the good person you are at heart, if Heihachi doesn't finish you off first. And you might even doom the whole world! You're depending on your grandfather to vanquish the God of War, but Heihachi never even fought in the Great Invasion!
         Jin lifted the golden knife. It gleamed in the moonlight.
         This is wrong.
         Heihachi proclaimed, "Only blood can open the way to the Toshin, and his Elixir of Immortality. So it has been written. So it must be."
         You know this is wrong.
         "This innocent's noble sacrifice will bring forth the Divine, and earn her place among the Gods!"
         Please! This is wrong!
         "Immortal Toshin! Manifest, and let us bask in your Divine Power! COME BEFORE US, O GOD OF WAR!"
         Jin showed no visible response to my pleas.
         Do you want to know the really deranged thing?
         The thought that I had through all my pain, and all my panic?
         Heihachi's ritual required the blood of a 'virgin innocent,' spilled by one whom the innocent loved. My blood, spilled by Jin.
         Now, I won't apologize for not having slept with anyone or killed anyone, all right? But as I lay there helpless, baring my soul to Jin, the thought came that if only I didn't love him - if I could stop loving him - then my sacrifice wouldn't summon the Toshin. I'd still be dead, and Jin would still be my murderer, but the Toshin wouldn't return for a few more months. Time enough for Taki and her allies at Kagura's Temple to succeed where I had failed. Time for them to save all humanity from both Heihachi and the Toshin.
         Even if Jin and I were doomed, there were so many other people who deserved better than what we had brought on ourselves. I especially feared for those who were closest to me: Ling Xiaoyu, Shingo Yabuki, Catsclaw... grandmother...
         If I could just stop loving Jin, then at least they would be safe.
         If I could just destroy all the feelings I had for him.
         If I could...
         ...I can't do this.
         I love you, Jin. For the sake of the world, and for your sake, I wish I didn't. But I... I do, and I can't help it...
         Jin's knife hand trembled. Or maybe not. It could have been a trick of the tears in my eyes.
         I love you, Jin. I'm sorry.
         Heihachi's invocation culminated with the injunction to plunge Heaven's Dagger into my heart.
         My tears were so thick that I could no longer see. It was just as well; I didn't want my last sight in this world to be a good person forced to commit a vile crime.
         It would all come to an end here. My grandmother's worst nightmare fulfilled. Jin Kazama would murder me at Heihachi's command, just as Lee Chaolan had murdered my mother at Kazuya's command. It was the most terrifying moment of my existence.
         I waited for the sharp thrust that would end my life.
         And waited.
         And waited.
         "What are you waiting for!?" Heihachi demanded of his grandson. "SACRIFICE HER!"
         Curiosity compelled me to blink away my tears.
         Jin was still standing over me. Only his eyes were half-closed, and there was tension to his face, a tautness that hadn't been there before. His knife-hand was openly trembling, now.
         Jin? I thought, and now I realized something.
         I don't know when it started, or where. I'm almost certain it began well before I was aware of it, but beyond that, I don't know. All I know is that, past my own pleas, grief, and fear, something else had become mixed in the turbulence. Thoughts and emotions that weren't my own. Yet they were just as lost and confused as I was, and just as overflowing with panic. I had almost failed to distinguish them from my own frame of mind.
         Jin's mouth worked, forming near-silent words.
         "This..." he whispered. "This is wrong..."
         "I said KILL HER!" Heihachi bellowed, and I felt a metaphorical shockwave of the old man's outrage.
         But I also felt something stronger from Jin himself.
         "This is wrong," he repeated, though I think it was still too soft for Heihachi to hear. "This - this is-"
         What I next felt from him can only be described as total dread.
         "GRANDFATHER!" Jin screamed, recoiling from the golden altar. "What are you doing? What are you trying to make ME do!?"
         His eyes were so wide as to be practically lidless. They were still the solid red of a bloodslave, but now I could see emotion past them. Pain. Excruciating anguish over what had been done to me, and to him, by the one person he trusted most.
         Then, I heard the battle cry.
         I knew the man who made that defiant proclamation. I'd spoken with him once before. But this time, there was something emphatically different about his voice. It wasn't weakened to a hoarse rasp. It was strong and sure, surging with unbridled determination.
         Detective Lei Wulong!
         Great Spirit! I could hardly believe it but there he was, leaping down from the upper balcony. Jin's part-demon stepfather looked pale, gaunt, and sickly, worse than I remembered. Yet he charged with far more strength than his cancer-ravaged body should have been capable of.
         And he was not alone.
         Mitsurugi and Taki flanked him on either side, dressed like legends from feudal Japan. Ling Xiaoyu and Anna Williams were right behind them. And there were others leaping down from the circular balcony, a mass influx of bizarre warriors converging on Heihachi in a three-pronged formation. I recognized some of them from the Iron Fist Tournament. Eddy Gordo, the capoeira master in dreadlocks; Yoshimitsu, the masked swordsman in full-body armor; King the Second, jaguar-masked pro-wrestler and champion of orphaned children; and the lumbering giant robot had to be Gun Jack.
         Though I didn't know their names at the time, I can tell you now who the rest of the warriors were. Paul Phoenix, the hot-blooded rebel with hair slicked straight up like a bundle of hay. Forest Law, the youthful dojo teacher-in-training. Armor King, King's teacher, in a black panther mask. Tiger Jackson, a nineteen-seventies style dancer with the biggest Afro hair-sculpture I've ever seen. And Goro Daimon, the gigantic caretaker of Chizuru Kagura's Temple.
         How did all these great fighters come together at just the right place and time? How did they infiltrate the ritual without being seen by Heihachi's army?
         Oh. Is that right?
         I happen to know that concealment sorcery is not easy, especially at close range. Even with the rest of Kagura's Temple helping Wulong's crusaders against the outside Tekkenshu, it's impressive that Taki cloaked the whole strike force from the inner guard. Thanks to her, Lei Wulong's raid surprised Heihachi's Tekkenshu as much as it did me.
         Even so, Heihachi's soldiers reacted with mercenary reflexes. Forming a protective knot around Heihachi, Jin, and the golden altar that held me, they leveled their machine guns against the invaders and opened fire.
         The words did more than reach my ears.
         They went past layers of thought I never knew I had, and resonated in my soul. This was far beyond physical speech. These were the words of Protection, words of-
         Great Spirit.
         My eyes strained themselves wide. If my mouth hadn't been gagged, then my jaw would have dropped open in a breathless gasp.
         This, you see, was my first time.
         The first time I saw the angel.
         He was standing on the far end of the balcony, wings outstretched, hands upraised, silver hair shining, and white fire blazing in his eyes. A sword of energy sparkled in his right hand, like a beacon of his incandescent Power.
         I recognized him. From memories that weren't mine, Catsclaw's memories of my mother's death. The angel had been mortal then, but there could be no mistaking his face.
         Lee Chaolan. Heihachi's adopted son. My mother's killer.
         Catsclaw used to tell me that Lee Chaolan repented the evil he had done, before he died. That Lee had given up his life to betray Kazuya and turn back the Great Invasion.
         Earlier that night, Jin told me that Lee Chaolan had become an angel. An angel whom Heaven's Dagger had summoned from beyond this world.
         I hadn't completely understood. I wasn't sure that I believed.
         Until then.
         White radiance, shadows of the angel's purity, glowed on each of Lei Wulong's warriors. The radiance absorbed the kinetic energy of enemy bullets, translating it into beautiful flashes of light. Listless husks of discharged ammunition fell harmlessly from people's bodies.
         Lei Wulong's strike force tore into the front row of Tekkenshu, engaging them in swift, brutal hand-to-hand combat. Yet these were Heihachi's elite troops, as superlative in battle as they were in loyalty. They wasted no time in drawing long knives, and matching their attackers' fisticuffs. Furthermore, the Tekkenshu had the triple advantages of tight discipline, extensive training as a team formation, and sheer numbers.
         *FATHER!* cried the angel on high.
         I didn't see when Lee Chaolan took flight. I just remember him suspended in front of the full moon. His sword flashed in one hand, and the other hand sparkled with the energy of his mystic shield. His feathered wings were spread wide, yet he did not need to flap them for lift. The angel looked down, focusing on one man.
         Heihachi Mishima.
         Shouts, screams, and battle cries surrounded the old man and the holy spirit above. In the midst of chaotic bedlam, I remember seeing Lei Wulong look up and swear, "Dammit, Lee! Not now!"
         It did not matter. The angel's message to Heihachi pierced all, with divine clarity.
         *Father, it is not too late for you! As the son who will always love you, I beg you now: abandon the path of slaughter, before it destroys you as it destroyed Kazuya!*
         Heihachi craned his neck to regard the angel. I got a glimpse of the old man's face.
         There was almost no change in his expression.
         No awe. No wonder. No signs of humility, adulation, or even respect. All I saw was a slight deepening of the glower that had already turned his lips in an ill-tempered frown. As if acknowledging that a dire prediction had come true; though he may have hoped it wouldn't, he'd known all along that it probably would.
         And he had come prepared.
         Heihachi withdrew something from his pocket. It was a plain silver box with a few buttons on it, nothing more. He pointed the box at the angel above.
         "You are no son of mine," growled the old man, pressing one of the box's buttons.
         For a moment, the angel froze with his wings splayed wide.
         Then he screamed.
         Lee Chaolan buckled in midair. His back arched, and his wings flailed frantically. Streaks of vivid yellow electricity wrapped about him.
         The angel fell from the sky.

         Lee rarely talks about what Heihachi did to him, on that day.
         It's only now I begin to realize... realize how much...
         How much it must have hurt.
         I don't mean just the physical damage, from the weapon Heihachi used on Lee's mortal host. It must have dearly hurt Lee on the inside. To attempt one last reconciliation with the only father he had ever known, and have it thrown back in his face.
         'You are no son of mine'...
         Lee must have spent his life in the shadow of that sentiment. Even death could not protect him from his own father's scorn.

         The angel's body changed as he hurtled to earth. His wings disappeared, his hair shortened, and his clothing became darker, scruffier. By the time he hit the stone floor with a bone-jarring thud, he didn't look like Lee Chaolan anymore. He looked like Bryan Fury, the prototype for the Mishima syndicate's Cyborg Army project.
         Electric streaks hounded Bryan's body. A pair of knife-wielding Tekkenshu pounced on the fallen angel's host-
         -and jerked back, spasmodically, as two crack noises coincided with spiderweb patterns bursting onto their faceplates. They dropped dead. I didn't know it then, but I can tell you now that the hidden sniper was Nina Williams, the Silent Assassin.
         However, since Lee/Bryan was down, the mystic white radiance protecting Lei Wulong's strike force had vanished.
         "OPEN FIRE!" Heihachi ordered, and while the front ranks of his Tekkenshu struggled to hold Wulong's forces at bay, the back ranks leveled their weapons. Weren't Heihachi's men worried about hitting their comrades?
         The inner row of Tekkenshu sprayed gunfire on the outer row's war-
         -yet instead of being cut down, Lei Wulong's forces fought stronger than ever, as a fuzzy green glow replaced the angel's magic armor. The source of the glow was above the struggling warriors, on the upper balcony's opposite side.
         Professor Shingo Yabuki.
         Jin's physically challenged schoolteacher held his right hand above his head. His green energy boiled, forming livid flames. The fire did not burn him; it was a part of him, focused through the sun-sign fighting gloves blessed by the divine Kyo Kusanagi.
         Shingo's teeth were set in a determined grimace. His muscles tensed from extreme effort, and he trembled in place. Yet the green flames burned, and his mass shield held.
         In fact, it did more than hold. While the angel's protection had merely absorbed gunfire, this new protection actually reflected bullets upon their marksmen, with lethal results.
         Mm, I've pondered that too. I even asked Lee, once. This is what he told me.
         As a Guardian of the Grey Kingdom, duty-bound to respect all life, Lee Chaolan can't cast any spell - even a defensive spell - with the potential to destroy a life. This is why Lee's projectile ward could not reflect bullets on the soldiers who had fired them. Shingo Yabuki was another matter. As a mortal, he had the freedom to protect his own at the cost of harming others.
         And so, Shingo's reflective shield exacted a devastating toll on Heihachi's Tekkenshu. The outer ranks were getting hit front and back with friendly fire. I assume the Tekkenshu's armor was bulletproof, but the joints and faceplates were vulnerable, especially at such close range. Furthermore, even bulletproof armor won't insulate you from the momentum a bullet packs. You can be knocked off your feet, easily, leaving you wide open to whatever enemy you were scuffling with. Though the second volley from the Tekkenshu lasted only seconds before they ceased fire, the effects were severe in the extreme.
         Now, Wulong's forces had the upper hand.
         I should mention that Jin and I might have been in grave peril from stray bullets, except that Shingo's shield covered us as well. It also covered my bloodslave bridesmaids, who just stood motionless during the whole frenzy, and Heihachi Mishima. Taki must have warned everyone that Jin had death-linked his own life to that of his grandfather.
         Speaking of Heihachi...
         He had been disgruntled before. Now he was furious. His bitter enemy had caught him in the act. His forces were falling like fumigated insects. Heihachi's dreams of immortality, of becoming the eternal ruler of the world, were crumbling away.
         "Jin!" the old man raged to his bloodslave grandson. "Complete the ritual! NOW!"
         Jin, who had been swaying in a flustered daze all this time, rapidly blinked his solid red eyes. He was barely able to shake his head, whispering, "No - no, Grandfather, what has happened to you? Why are you-?"
         "KILL HER!"
         "NO!" Jin shrieked, shaking with horror.
         "Then I shall do it!" Heihachi declared, madness flaring in his jet black eyes. The old man struck two quick blows to his grandson's face, followed by a turning backfist that whipped Jin's head to one side. Heihachi ripped Heaven's Dagger from Jin's hand, and then loomed over me.
         Locking Heaven's Dagger in a two-handed grip, Heihachi raised it above my chest.
         Lei Wulong's strike force was winning their battle, but the last rank of Tekkenshu still blocked them from the golden altar. Taki tried to vault over the Tekkenshu, with another of her tremendous leaps; even as she landed on the other side of their circle, one of them hit her from behind. Shingo's sorcery could not protect me from Heaven's Dagger, which was the antithesis of sorcery. Shingo did drop his projectile ward on Heihachi Mishima; there was a gunfire blare as one of Nina's sniper bullets struck the old man's left wrist, yet he kept an inflexible grip on Heaven's Dagger.
         If not for my gag, I might have yelled something to Heihachi. Something like, 'This won't summon the Toshin, you idiot! I'm not in love with YOU!'
         I doubt it would have stopped him. He was beyond sanity now, a raging dragon frothing at the mouth. Maybe he hoped that my love was superfluous to the ritual, or maybe he just craved revenge on the girl and grandson who frustrated him so.
         Heihachi plunged the knife down.
         I squeezed my eyes shut.
         Fresh blood spilled on the altar.
         I could feel it splash, soaking through my white wedding dress. When I dared to crack open my eyes, I saw a thin red stream, staining the altar's side. A rivulet of bright crimson began a slow, winding descent to join the stagnant blood-pool in the ditch below.
         But it wasn't my blood.
         Heihachi still gripped Heaven's Dagger in both hands, clutching it so hard as to turn his knuckles white. The knife was suspended scarcely an arm's length above me, because someone had blocked its lethal descent.
         He had brought his arm in an overhead guard. Heaven's Dagger pierced his upper right forearm, poking through the gap between his radius and ulna bones; blood streamed from the wound. Yet it was not physical hurt, but rather emotional distress that creased his jet black eyes.
         Normal eyes.
         They were their natural color. Jin had broken the curse of the bloodslave.
         Heihachi's dragon rage escalated further still. "You dare!?"
         "I have to protect her," Jin said. It was not an apology. It was a statement of purpose.
         Heihachi growled like a beast.
         "Grandfather - the Toshin is making you do this, isn't it? It's using you to summon it back from the void! You have to resist it. I love you, Grandfather; I won't let it take your soul!"
         Heihachi's growl became a roar.
         He dragged Heaven's Dagger to Jin's elbow, practically slicing his own grandson's arm in two. Jin could not repress an agonized yelp; more of his blood spattered the altar and me. Heihachi wrenched Heaven's Dagger out of his grandson's flesh.
         With an incoherent bellow, Heihachi lunged for me again. Jin looked ready to faint, but he came to my defense, bringing up his uninjured arm in an outside block-
         -and another shot from Nina Williams ripped through Heihachi's left elbow. The old man dropped Heaven's Dagger.
         At that moment, Heihachi must have seen something reflected in Jin's eyes. Something above and behind Heihachi's own form. Or perhaps the old man sensed the shadow that had fallen over him, blotting out the moonlight.
         Heihachi turned around.
         The source of the great shadow towered above him. It stretched well over his head, and Heihachi was not a small man. Bulging muscles armored his adversary's immense frame.
         This was not merely a man. This was a fabled Titan, reincarnated in a mortal body.
         Goro Daimon.
         The caretaker of Kagura's Temple spread his arms wide, high above his head, ready to crush the serpent in his path.
         Heihachi reacted far more quickly than I could have guessed possible. He slammed his right fist into Daimon's sternum, in a supremely powerful shove.
         The Titan didn't flinch.
         In retrospect, I think Daimon felt the blow. Perhaps it even broke a couple bones. But he was so heavily anchored, so charged with the passion of the fight, that nothing could derail him. Even as he took the hit, he closed his grip on Heihachi. His mighty hands locked on the old man's shoulders, and...
         And Daimon flung Heihachi about like a flimsy rag doll.
         I am not exaggerating, here. The gigantic caretaker dipped to his knees as he hurled Heihachi overhead and slammed him into the floor, keeping a deadly tight grip on his shoulders. Then Daimon hurled his victim overhead the other way, into the floor again.
         And again.
         And again.
         The earth shook from successive impacts.
         Daimon threw Heihachi into the air once more, this time letting go of the old man. By the time Heihachi hit the ground, Lei Wulong's warriors had incapacitated the last of the Tekkenshu.
         Heihachi Mishima could not get up. He could do nothing but writhe, like the trampled viper he was.
         Goro Daimon stomped one of his wooden platform sandals on Heihachi's abdomen. Flexing his arms and throwing his head back, he proclaimed his triumph with a wordless victory cry.

         There is a lesson to be learned here, I think.
         Heihachi Mishima prided himself on his Strength above all. Many are the failings of which he can be accused; weakness is not one of them. He was a fighter to be reckoned with, who dedicated himself to honing his skills. He was not the King of the Iron Fist Tournament for nothing. If you need proof of this, then remember that Heihachi Mishima vanquished Hwoarang in single combat. And Hwoarang was a 400-year-old vampyre master of martial arts.
         Heihachi Mishima was strong indeed. Yet he was also arrogant, in that he judged other human beings solely by their Strength. He embraced Strength above all, and with that Strength he expected to rule the world. But his dragon's pride refused to acknowledge that there are things even more vital than Strength.
         Don't get me wrong, here. Strength is important. Since before the dawn of civilization, human beings have needed Strength to survive. Yet the pursuit of Strength for its own sake is a hollow quest. You must seek Strength with a greater purpose; you must dedicate that Strength to an honorable cause. Else there is no meaning to what you do.
         Because if you pursue might for no other reason than to be mighty, then it doesn't matter how much success you achieve. It doesn't matter even if you are King of the Iron Fist. There will always be someone stronger than you.

         Heihachi Mishima had lost his gamble for world domination.
         Lei Wulong and his allies had won the crusade to stop him. Though some of Wulong's warriors were injured, not one of them had been crippled or killed. Even Bryan Fury was slowly getting up, though he appeared shaken from whatever Heihachi had used on him. The first thing he did, once he was able to stand, was seize Heihachi's silver box and crush it underfoot. He also wanted to stomp Heihachi underfoot, or so it seemed. Goro Daimon had to physically hold him back, while Lei Wulong snapped a double set of handcuffs on the broken world leader.
         "No," Heihachi disavowed, his shattered body robbing the protest of volume. "No, you cannot do this! I am destined to become Immortal. I am destined to rule the world!"
         "You have the right to remain silent," Wulong replied, in a dark, throaty tone. "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If your habit of murdering your own servants has scared away all your lawyers, a public defender will be appointed for you..."
         Jin clutched his bleeding arm. Streaks of his indigo Power uselessly crackled about the wound. He murmured, "It's... it's not healing. Why isn't it healing...?"
         Jin sagged against the golden altar.
         I made a noise like "Mmph! Mm-MMPF!" through my gag.
         "Eh?" said Wulong, looking toward us.
         Then, "Oh, no - oh, hell, no, Lee! LEE! WE NEED YOUR HELP!"
         Wulong dashed to his stepson's side in panic. I couldn't guess how much blood Jin had lost by then, but it was no trifling amount. It soaked my dress, and the altar, and Jin had definitely slipped into shock. He was so weakened that he could no longer think straight. He couldn't remember that what Heaven's Dagger cuts, sorcery can't heal.
         "Father?" Jin whimpered, looking vaguely in Wulong's direction. "Father, I... I..."
         "Ssh, son, don't try to talk - DAMN YOU, LEE! GET OVER HERE, NOW!"
         "I am here," Lee said.
         He was, I assumed, still possessing Bryan Fury's body, but his appearance had changed. He looked like... like the human image of Lee Chaolan, dressed in a formal black tuxedo. I remembered his fire-scarred face, from the nightmare of when he murdered my mother.
         "My son is bleeding to death!" Wulong exclaimed.
         "Hush. Give me space to work."
         White radiance sprang from the angel's hands, coating Jin's injury. The light didn't make the wound vanish, but it did stopper the bleeding, as surely as if it were medical gauze.
         Lee made Jin lie on the floor, and elevated Jin's injured arm. Wulong raised Jin's legs. A silver needle with sparkling thread appeared between Lee's fingers. With the swiftness of a celestial being, he used the thread to sew Jin's gashes closed.
         What's that?
         Oh. Well, that's right. Sorcery can't directly heal a wound from Heaven's Dagger. However, indirect methods are another matter.
         "With rest and fluids, you will be fine," Lee reassured Jin. "If you were an ordinary young man, there would be cause for concern, but it would seem you have inherited Kazuya's exceptional resistance to physical damage."
         Jin seemed barely cognizant of Lee, though. His head lolled, until he was looking at Lei Wulong.
         "Father," Jin mumbled, groggily. "Father, I..."
         "Ssh," Wulong soothed, clasping his son's free hand. "Don't talk."
         "B-but I have to tell you... I have to tell everyone-!"
         Jin's eyes closed; from shame or fatigue, I couldn't tell.
         "Y-you didn't murder Kazuya... I w-was wrong to judge you. Wrong to shut you out of my life. I was wrong about everything... Father... Father, I'm so sorry-!"
         "I have my son back," Wulong whispered. Tears sparkled in the detective's eyes.
         What I wanted to say was, 'I'm happy for both of you, but could someone please get me down from this altar?'
         What I actually said was, "Mmph, mm-MMPH?"
         "Julia!" pealed a familiar, high-pitched voice. "It's okay I'll get that off you right now you had us so scared I was so afraid something bad would happen to you-"
         Delicate little pixie hands worked the knot on my gag, pulling it off my face. I choked and heaved for breath.
         "-and Lei almost didn't let me fight for you he wanted me to stay behind where it's safe I was so mad he knows I'm a fighter he knows I'm trained and he almost didn't let me fight but I didn't blow up I kept my cool I explained how I had to help save you and Jin especially you because-"
         Xiaoyu sniffled, a little. "Julia, y-you saved my life..."
         My eyes involuntarily drifted to the nearby shallow basin of dried blood.
         "Thanks for returning the favor," I breathed, coughing up a miserable tickle in my lungs. "Now, could you please get me down?"
         "Uh, I don't know how to make the shiny gem-things let you go."
         "I'll take care of it," another person said. "Stand back, Xiao-chan."
          I knew that voice. It had been a while since I'd last heard it.
         "Mitsurugi?" I asked, straining my neck to see him.
         He wasn't anything like I remembered.
         Oh, his body was roughly the same size and shape, which is to say, a little on the slender side. But there was an overwhelming change in him, and I don't just mean how he dressed like something out of ancient history. I could see it in his eyes. There was more confidence, more dedication.
         And more darkness.
         I'm not sure if that's really the right description. It was just an impression I had from his solemn demeanor, the controlled manner in which he spoke, and the swift precision with which he drew his katana.
         His katana?
         Wait a minute-
         "Don't worry, Julia," Mitsurugi calmly reassured, holding his sword in both hands. "I know what I'm doing. Just hold still."
         "But you've been training in swordsmanship for only a few-"
         A set of chiming, cracking sounds assaulted my ears. It happened so fast that I couldn't process it before I finished processing my sentence.
         My gemlike shackles broke into pieces. All four of them.
         Mitsurugi sheathed his katana, without looking at its scabbard.
         Xiaoyu helped me ease off the altar. My whole body was sore, and my neck had a dreadful stiffness.
         I glanced across the altar, to where Jin lay. Lee seemed to have everything under control.
         I turned back to Mitsurugi and asked, "What happened to you? You've been missing for over a week-"
         "I know."
         "I was half afraid you'd been killed; Jin almost thought you'd killed yourself-"
         "It's a long story."
         "How did you - where did you - did you elope with Anna, or what?"
         A split-second after the words left my mouth, I knew they were a mistake. Mitsurugi tried to cover up his internal wince, and almost succeeded.
         "Uh, sorry," I apologized, casting my eyes down.
         "It's all right," he sighed, with quiet resignation. When I looked up, he had turned his face aside. I followed his line of sight, to Anna.
         She was a few dozen meters away, in the middle of some argument with her half-sister Nina. My eyebrows went up when I saw the assassin, now sporting white hair. Nina was angrily shaking her index finger at Anna, who lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug. From the distinctly human way in which Nina gesticulated, I presumed that the Toshin no longer possessed her.
         Mitsurugi staggered.
         He cradled his forehead as if he were dizzy, and grasped the edge of the golden altar. Leaning against it, he slid down to a sitting a position.
         "Are you all right?" I asked.
         "Fine," he said, weakly.
         "Mitsu?" Xiaoyu queried. She darted to his other side, and kneeled next to him.
         He hesitated before answering. Then dropped his voice and muttered, "It really is okay, Xiao-chan. I promise."
         "You sure?"
         "Yeah. I just tire out rather easily. Ask the young master to tell you about it, sometime."
         Mitsurugi spared me a weary glance. "I'm glad we were able to save you."
         "I'm glad you're not dead," I replied, and you know what? I wasn't just mouthing the words to be polite. I really meant them. "Thank you for helping me."
         "The young master saved my life. You saved the life of my best friend."
         Mitsurugi's eyes fluttered shut.
         "Xiao-chan," I addressed. "I think... I think I owe my gratitude to a lot of people here. I'm going to tell them now. Why don't you stay with Mitsu until he feels better, all right?" Though I was inclined to believe Mitsurugi's claim that he was merely exhausted - he had seemed sincere when he reassured Xiaoyu - I figured that someone should monitor him for a while. Just in case he stopped breathing.
         "Julia, are you sure?" Xiaoyu worriedly asked me. "Aren't you hurt?"
         "The blood on my dress is from Jin. I never took a scratch."
         "But you've been through something horrible. Maybe you should rest, too."
         "I'm fine."

         This was a lie.
         As I look back to those two little words - 'I'm fine' - I realize they were a lie. They were the most deceptive kind of lie: the kind that you make yourself believe, even as you tell it to everyone else.
         I made myself believe this lie. I insisted to myself that I was fine, even as I said it to Xiaoyu, and I would not let myself confront the truth.
         Because you see, I still had my fantasies.
         In my own mind, I was the clever heroine who had defeated Heihachi Mishima. With a great deal of help, that is, but even so. As the noble protagonist of a silver-screen fairy tale, I now took my subconscious cue to revel in the triumph of Good over Evil. I would smile joyously through the closing credits, and live happily ever after.
         I couldn't worry about the terrifying ordeal I had just lived through. What kind of storybook princess would I be if I stopped to feel afraid, or unhappy, or the least bit upset? Sherlock Holmes never let his emotions derail his poise, not even when he faced Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. And if I wasn't as perfect and flawless as my fictional idol, then what was I?
         A scared young girl, who had gotten in way over her head?
         A foolish scatterbrain, who never had the slightest idea of what she was doing?
         No. No, I couldn't possibly admit that. I made some mistakes, yes, and I owed a great many people a profound debt for saving me. But was I frightened? Was I shaking in terror and pain, from everything I'd just suffered?
         I told myself that I wasn't. Locked away all the post-traumatic anxiety, and pretended it didn't exist. Outwardly, I was calm and dignified.
         Inwardly, I was in as deep a state of shock as Jin.
         It's important that you remember this.

         I've also got another, smaller confession to make.
         I really did feel grateful to the warriors who had risked their lives to save Jin and me. I really did want to thank them in person. However, there was a stronger motive driving me to look around, and that was my relentless curiosity. The hopelessly inquisitive part of my mind couldn't help wondering: who were all these strange people? Why had they chosen to help me? Most of them didn't know me.
         So, I set out to find the answers. In addition to expressing my gratitude, of course.
         One person I didn't have to ask was my martial arts teacher, Shingo. He'd descended from the upper balcony to heal people; when I saw him, he was using his magic gloves to mend a concussion that Forest Law had received. Paul Phoenix fretted nearby, impatiently. When I told Shingo how thankful I was for his help...
         "I will never forget what you did for me," he replied. Something caught in his throat.
         "Hey. Hey!" Paul snapped, to me. "Let the healer do his work, will you?"
         I extended my thanks to the middle-aged bruiser in biker leathers.
         "Ahh..." Paul looked a little uncomfortable. Running a comb through his stiff, vertically slicked hair, he said, "It was Forest who jumped at the idea. You should be thanking him."
         "Really?" I said, looking to Forest. "You were that eager to fight against a horde of Tekkenshu?"
         Forest showed a nervous smile. "It was less scary than riding on Paul's motorcycle."
         "What?" Paul said.
         "You drive like you want to die," Forest told him, matter-of-factly.
         Paul's comb got stuck in his broom-like tresses. "Hey. Hey! You NEVER complained about my driving before!"
         "Um, I was trying to be polite. But a couple minutes ago, my whole life flashed in front of my eyes, and I realized something. I like being alive. I want to stay that way."
         "As soon as we get out of here, the first thing I'm going to do is call Dad. The second thing I'm going to do is get myself a driver's license. No more riding on the back of your motorcycle. Ever."
         "Fine!" Paul snapped, petulantly. "And you can stop yakking about your girlfriend!"
         "Hey, if you get to stop being 'polite,' then so do I! I'm sick of it, dammit! All the time, ALL the time, 'Oh, I miss her, I want to see her, you don't think she'll take up with someone else because I'm gone for a month, do you?' Goddamn it, can't you shut up? Either she'll be there for you after you've made yourself into a warrior, or she won't! Get over it!"
         I decided that this would be a good time to slip away. I could still hear both of them bickering when I tried to approach Nina and Anna.
         "The Mishima syndicate owns it ALL!?" Nina exclaimed. "Our father's house? His land? Everything?"
         Anna slipped to her knees. "Nina, I-"
         "THE PAPERS TO MY SWISS BANK ACCOUNT ARE IN THAT HOUSE! If the syndicate has found those, then they - they - am I FLAT BROKE!?"
         "Nina, I don't know, I really don't-"
         Then again, maybe now wasn't a good time to talk to the fractious sisters.
         "And where do you think you are going?" Nina demanded of me.
         "Uhh..." I gulped back an irrational knot in my esophagus. "I, uh, wanted to thank you. Both of you. For helping me."
         "You want to thank me, you Devil's harlot? MAKE THE SYNDICATE GIVE BACK WHAT IT STOLE!"
         Anna sobbed into her hands.
         I hastily excused myself.
         Goro Daimon was standing guard over Heihachi Mishima. The captured world leader's hands were double-cuffed, and he had a metal brace restraining his legs. Also, Daimon had taken the old man's ceremonial swords.
         Daimon acknowledged my gratitude with a nod, and held out a golden object.
         Heaven's Dagger.
         He had cleaned it of Jin's blood.
         "This belongs to you," the caretaker rumbled. I accepted the sacred treasure of my tribe with a grateful bow.
         Heihachi coldly glared at me, and said, "I will not save you from damnation."
         I'd fantasized about this moment, many times, but none of my daydreams were like this. I'd always imagined that Heihachi would be furiously raging at me, proclaiming his undying hatred for the clever heroine who proved his downfall.
         "What?" I said aloud.
         "You foolish child; you have damned yourself with your love! The House Mishima is cursed. When you become part of it, the curse will embrace you. If you give yourself to my grandson, and perpetuate the doomed dynasty, then you will ensure everlasting misery for yourself and all your line! I tried to save you. I tried to give you eternal bliss with my grandson, and you refused!
         "You have sealed your own fate. I wash my hands of your blood. I will not save you from damnation!"
         Something occurred to me. A question.
         Was Heihachi mentally ill?
         Did he suffer from an early stage of senile dementia? Alzheimer's disease, maybe?
         This was the first time I'd ever wondered about it. I still wonder, on occasion.
         Oh, all right. I'll keep the rest of this part brief.
         Thanking King and Armor King wasn't as easy as you might guess. It's not just that the two professional wrestlers hid their faces behind a jaguar mask and black panther mask, respectively. There was a growling undertone to both their voices. They weren't hostile toward me; it was more as if their identities were fused with the great cats that were their totems.
         Incidentally, King the Second was by far the more loquacious of the two. Armor King spoke in short sentences, when he had anything to say at all. When I dared to indulge my curiosity, I learned that King was involved because the Toshin had murdered his predecessor. Furthermore, the Mishima syndicate had seized a controlling interest in the old King's religious charity: the Church of the Virgin Mary's Mercy. The successor King hoped to restore his church's independence. As for Armor King, he was the old King's rival, and the new King's teacher. This had been one battle that Armor King could not let his student fight alone.
         The other masked warrior in the room, Yoshimitsu, was much friendlier than I would have guessed. I found him conversing with a young woman, who was doing maintenance work on Gun Jack, the giant robot. The woman introduced herself as Jane. I don't know exactly what her tie to Gun Jack was, but she referred to him like a big brother. It was her hope that the right combat data simulation would help restore Gun Jack's 'soul.'
         Yoshimitsu rested his sword on his shoulder as he talked. He told me that he wanted to obtain a sample of the Toshin's blood for his close friend, Doctor Boskonovitch. The masked swordfighter planned to do that with the help of Kagura's Temple, when the Toshin inevitably returned. Meanwhile, it was Yoshimitsu's personal code to steal from the rich - Heihachi Mishima - and aid the poor, which is to say, me.
         Eddy Gordo was off by himself, distrustfully studying Jin Kazama from afar. He regarded my expression of gratitude with callous neutrality. He did tell me why he'd fought to save Jin and me, though. Nine years in the past, Gordo had been framed for the murder of his father. Now that Gordo was out of prison, he wanted to enlist the Mishima syndicate's help in finding the real criminals.
         Oh. Well, I know that Lee and Jin assigned a special investigation team to help Gordo, but I haven't heard whether they came up with any results yet. I think the team is still on the case. They are working from a stone cold trail, you know. For Gordo's sake, I hope that sooner or later they find the truth.
         The next person I thanked was Tiger Jackson. Don't ask me to elaborate on why he joined the rescue mission, because I could hardly make out a word he said. He talked in heavily accented dialect and dated slang. Something about how he was "Struttin' on the Iron Fist scene," with the intention of "smackin' down fools, and makin' the ladies swoon."
         Well, one look at his hideous orange disco shirt, garish gold neck-chains, white-framed lawnchair sunglasses, and tacky finger-rings almost made me swoon. But not the way he intended. Is it true people really used to dress that atrociously?
         By this time, more personnel from Chizuru Kagura's Temple had arrived on the scene. When I tried to extend my gratitude to one worker, she demurred, saying that she was just here to clean up. The Temple's fighters and sorcerers had wiped themselves out, dealing with the Tekkenshu forces stationed outside this replica of the Toshin's Aztec Temple. Now that this room was secure, the Temple's more humble servants were carrying away Heihachi's injured and dead soldiers. The dead were being set aside for eventual return to the syndicate, while the injured would be treated and turned over to the police.
         The police?
         I asked more questions, and learned that Interpol was due to arrive within a half-hour. Lei Wulong hadn't been able to directly involve them in his crusade because of international protocols, but now the detective had proof of Heihachi's crimes. Specifically, Wulong now had a videotape of the ritual to summon the Toshin, and an informant who could implicate his former master in countless murders and scandals.
         Two more Temple workers were helping Shingo Yabuki detoxify my bloodslave bridesmaids. Shingo was demanding something like, "Is this the purpose you want to serve?" Whatever he did seemed to be working; they both broke out of statuesque mode. One fell to her knees, while the other fainted in a Temple initiate's arms.
         I looked back to Wulong and Jin.
         Lee's handiwork on Jin's arm was long since complete; silver stitches sealed the wound. Jin no longer appeared quite so pale or disoriented. He was sitting up again, though he still looked weak. It was Wulong who had taken a turn for the worse. He was coughing so hard that he seemed about to hack up his larynx.
         "Father-!" Jin cried, clasping Wulong's shoulders.
         "S'okay," Wulong wheezed, between coughs. "The twins' gift wore off, is all. I'm lucky it lasted this long."
         "You're safe. That's all that matters."
         "Is it?" accused a suspicious female voice.
         She folded her arms, and fixed Jin with a haughty glare. "What do you remember, from when you were a bloodslave?"
         "Taki," Wulong warned, but his sickness sapped the threat.
         Jin blinked and shook his head. "It's... it's so blurry..."
         "Don't pretend," insisted the half-mutant woman.
         "I'm not pretending, I swear. I really don't have a clear picture, until - until Grandfather tried to make me-"
         Jin's eyes grew wide. He looked around with heightened fear, calling, "Julia? Julia, where are-"
         "I'm right here," I said, approaching so quickly I almost tripped over my bridal dress. "I'm fine."
         This was the second time I repeated the lie. I think it was so deeply ingrained in my psyche that even Jin's telepathy never questioned it.
         "Thank the gods," Jin breathed.
         "While I wouldn't want to deny the gods their due, the real thanks go to the people who have earned them." I expressed my gratitude to Lei Wulong and Taki.
         "You're a good kid," Wulong coughed, with an inscrutable half-smile.
         "You are an IDIOT!" Taki exclaimed, to me. "Have you forgotten what this Devil did to you? The burns are still on your neck!"
         "What?" Jin said, confusedly. "What did I - oh gods, Julia, did I hurt you-?"
         "The bloodslave poison controlled you at the time," I explained.
         "No it did NOT!" Taki screeched.
         "Taki, please," I stressed. "Detective Lei Wulong has only a little time left to spend with his son. Can we at least table this discussion for later?"
         I was, to my shame, using Wulong's terminal illness as an excuse. The real reason why I stopped her was that she was coming dangerously close to revealing my internal lie.
         I am fine, I subconsciously told myself. I can't see the burns on my own neck; therefore, they do not exist.
         Taki turned her back on us, and stormed away.
         I politely excused myself from Jin's and Wulong's reunion. There was one more person I had to thank.
         Two people, actually.
         Lee Chaolan/Bryan Fury crouched on one knee, next to the outer rim of the depression filled with stagnant blood. He wasn't looking at the gory pool, though; he was gazing ahead at empty space. His shared body was still in Lee's human form, so I assumed that Lee was currently in control.
         Lee was saying something like, "He is in the care of Kagura's Temple. They will do what they can to help him, as will I."
         The angel in human guise broke off his conversation with the air, and looked to me.
         "May I help you?" he asked.
         "Uh, I... I w-wanted to thank you. You and Detective Bryan Fury. For fighting to save us."
         It was harder to speak to him than I thought it would be. Haunting memories of my mother's death disrupted the thoughts behind the words. Repressing the buried nightmare, I clung to my lie.
         I said, "You - you both looked like you were hurt pretty badly, for a moment there..."
         "I have repaired the damage to Bryan's body," Lee stated.
         "Bryan appreciates your kindness, though he would be reluctant to admit it. He does want you to understand that he was under Doctor Abel's control, during the unfortunate incident when he first met you. Bryan has never desired to cause you harm."
         My neck itched. Figuring that it had to be a psychosomatic reaction, I forced myself not to scratch.
         Lee closed his eyes and bowed his head.
         "I can't undo the evil I have visited upon your family, but I am grateful for any opportunity to assist you. If there is anything you need of me, you have only to ask."
         I could ask him anything?
         Anything at all?
         "Are you sure?" I wanted to know. "I can ask you any question?"
         "Or any request, yes."
         I wondered if Lee really knew what he was getting into, here. If he had any idea how insatiable my curiosity can be, or how many conundrums danced in my head.
         Is our fate predetermined, or generated by our free will?
         What is the true nature of the Great Spirit?
         Exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
         The time and place didn't seem appropriate for a lengthy existential dialogue, though. I started with a simpler mystery instead.
         "Who were you just talking to?"
         "There is a soul trapped here."
         "A soul? You mean like a... a ghost?"
         For the first time since my rescue, I let myself shudder in fear.
         Lee raised a silver eyebrow.
         "You're different," I hastily clarified. "You're an angel."
         "I am not an angel," Lee dismissed, with a single shake of his head. "I am a Guardian of the Grey Kingdom."
         "Please do not be afraid. You have nothing to fear from this imprisoned soul, just as you have nothing to fear from me."
         I wasn't sure how to explain myself to him, or even if I could explain.
         Should I go over this, one more time?
         All right.
         Though I am not as frightened of spirits as some Navajo, I am familiar with countless legends about the evil that vengeful ghosts wreak upon the living. Human monsters such as Heihachi Mishima are terrible indeed, but at least they are mortal. The malevolence of a ghost reaches far beyond human limits. When a person is so accursed as to see a ghost, only the proper curative ritual can save him. Sometimes.
         Not always.
         I didn't argue with Lee, because I didn't see any point to it. I didn't ask Lee who the ghost was, because I didn't want to know. Navajo try to avoid speaking the names of the dead, so as not to attract the attention of their malicious shades.
         Perhaps Lee did know this, about my tribe. Perhaps it was why he refrained from mentioning the ghost's name, even as I refrained from asking it.
         "If there is a ghost trapped here, in our world, then we should do whatever is necessary to send it away," I stated.
         "I concur," said the angel. "The difficulty lies in that I do not have the Power to free him. Heaven's Dagger has bound him here, as part of the ritual to summon the Toshin."
         "Which part is that?" I can't help it, I really can't. When I'm faced with a riddle or a problem, my mind starts casting about for information that might solve it. It's how I am.
         "The blood sacrifice ritual is twofold. It requires the blood of a virgin innocent, spilled by someone the innocent loves, as a beacon. The innocent's love for the one that spills the blood amplifies the lure of the innocent's pure soul. This draws the Toshin to the general area of the sacrifice. However, it is nearly impossible to permanently imprison a pure soul. To keep the Toshin from chasing after a pure soul it can't obtain, the ritual offers it a soul that is unable to escape. This is the soul of a warrior born, for the Toshin is drawn to strong souls almost as surely as to pure souls."
         "That's the reason why Heihachi wanted to murder Xiaoyu, and had someone else killed after she escaped? It was all a cosmic bait-and-switch ploy?"
         "Your analysis is, in essence, accurate."
         "Well, if - if Heaven's Dagger trapped this ghost here, then can't Heaven's Dagger get rid of it?"
         Lee shook his head. "Heaven's Dagger chained the soul when it killed its victim. It can't break the chains, any more than it can bring its victim back to life."
         "There must be something we can do." I wanted this ghost out of here. Far away from where it could threaten Jin or me.
         "I'm... still thinking about how to accomplish that. Perhaps when Chizuru Kagura returns from her travels, she will have a suggestion."
         "If you don't have the Power to get rid of this ghost, then who does?"
         "The Toshin would have the Power to free this soul. Or devour it, as originally intended."
         "So, the Toshin is more Powerful than you?"
         "Who else is more Powerful than you?"
         "You said you're 'of the Grey Kingdom.' Is that where you get your Power from?"
         "My Power is a bequeathal from the Lords of the Grey Kingdom, yes."
         "Are there other angels - I mean, other Guardians who might be stronger than you?"
         "There are other Guardians. Some are stronger than I; however, I do not believe they would help us."
         "Why not?"
         "Allow me to explain. There are three types of Guardians: those who serve the Black Abyss, those who serve the Grey Kingdom, and those who serve the Paradise. We of the Grey Kingdom are the weakest and most diverse."
         "What if you combined your Power with other Guardians like you?"
         "To override the curse of Heaven's Dagger would take hundreds of us. At least. Even then I can't be sure, and I... doubt that I would have much success, rallying others of my order to this cause. Or to any cause."
         "My past crimes are common knowledge, as is my Word of Treachery. I am not held in high standing, among my own."
         "Oh." Note to self: remember to ask what he meant by 'Word of Treachery,' later. "What about the Guardians of the Black Abyss? Are they stronger than you?"
         "Yes. By an inestimable amount. Yet this is moot, since they never leave the portals to their unknowable domain."
         "Absolutely never."
         "Then they're out."
         "The Guardians of Paradise are perhaps the strongest of all. I have perceived them as dragons with feathered wings-"
         "Angel dragons?"
         "I shall attempt to behave as though I did not hear that," Lee muttered. "The Guardians of Paradise have a duty to pure souls. All pure souls have a single wish to enable their chosen destiny, yet sometimes their virtue compels them to aid another soul with that one wish. Hence the need for the Guardians of Paradise, to protect and escort the most innocent souls."
         "So, if we can get a Guardian of Paradise to help out this ghost-"
         "I fear that is extremely unlikely. As Powerful as the Guardians of Paradise are, their pride is greater still. I have never known them to assist impure souls."
         "And this ghost is 'impure'?"
         "He dedicated his life to serving a master he knew to be corrupt."
         "Are you sure the Guardians of Paradise are too bigoted to help us?"
         "They have been known to disincorporate lesser Guardians, for having the impudence to address them."
         "Imagine having your soul shredded into thousands of pieces."
         "It is not necessarily a permanent state. That which is rent apart can be reassembled. If a soul's will is strong enough, it may be able to reincorporate on its own, given time."
         "No kidding."
         "Still, disincorporation is never a pleasant trial to endure."
         "Are you speaking from personal experience?"
         Lee looked away.
         "You're scared of the Guardians of Paradise, aren't you?" I softly inferred.
         "I was impudent once," admitted the angel. "I paid the price."
         "Now, however, I have more than my own soul to worry about. Bryan Fury's body is mortal. He would not survive the wrath of a dragon."
         "What if a 'pure soul' talked to a Guardian of Paradise?"
         "Are you volunteering?"
         Lee's scarred face showed a slight smile. "The Divine Sanctions prevent them from interacting with living mortals, in any case."
         "You're talking to me right now."
         "The circumstances that brought me here appear to have allowed for an exception. Yet, while I do not consider myself to be directly violating the Divine Sanctions, I am very likely... to adapt one of Bryan's euphemisms, 'tying them in a knot.'"
         "What about other types of - uh, celestial beings?"
         "The Divine Sanctions prohibit such from interfering with the living world. Any entity willing to violate the Sanctions would be a dire menace by definition, perhaps to all humanity. Especially if said entity had the Power required to claim a sacrifice meant for the Toshin itself."
         "Okay, so we're back to asking the Guardians of Paradise for help."
         "It is a paradox," Lee acknowledged. "My domain has not the Power to aid this imprisoned soul, yet the domain that could help him would only tell me that he is of my domain. If they consented to speak to me at all."
         "What if a Guardian of Paradise owed you a favor?"
         "Or any of us."
         "Any Guardian would certainly be honor-bound to repay a debt. However, I can't imagine how such Powerful beings would ever be in need of our assistance."
         "Perhaps if we found a Guardian of Paradise, and did something to help him?"
         "Such as?"
         "Uhh... do you know about any Guardians of Paradise who might be in trouble?"
         "No, I do not."
         "Come on. No one can have that much Power without sometimes getting into trouble."
         "The Guardians of Paradise are regulated."
         "By whom?"
         "Paradise itself, or so I am told."
         "Paradise itself?"
         "They are accountable to it, just as we of the Grey Kingdom are accountable to the Grey Lords. Once every given span of Time, all Guardians must report to the domains we serve, for personal evaluation. Any Guardian found wanting is summarily stripped of its rank, privileges, Power, and Word."
         "What if a Guardian of Paradise didn't report in?"
         "Unbelievable." Lee's denial was completely automatic.
         "Doesn't mean it's never happened. If these Guardians of Paradise are as prideful as you say, then they might even engineer a cover-up."
         "Impossible." Again, he said it automatically. Without any pause to contemplate what he was responding to.
         "Wait, slow down. I'm going to rephrase what I said, and before you answer, I'm asking you to stop and think about it very carefully. Please. All right?"
         "As you wish."
         "Are there any Guardians of Paradise who have gone missing? Just disappeared, and no one knows where they are to this day?"
         Lee's silver eyebrows furrowed in thought.
         I patiently waited for his answer.
         "I know of only one Guardian of Paradise who could fit that description," Lee said, slowly. "Vivarexis, the Dragon Eternal. The most Powerful Guardian that ever was, or likely ever will be."
         Ah ha!
         "But," Lee cautioned, "it is widely presumed that the Entropy of the Shao Kahn destroyed Vivarexis, millennia ago."
         "Presumed, not proven. Right?"
         Lee had to stop and think some more, about that.
         "Vivarexis was Word-bound to Eternity," he reasoned. "Now that you suggest it... perhaps a measure of his essence could have survived Entropy itself."
         "So Vivarexis might be just, uh, disincorporated or something. If we can find him and put him back together, then he'd be obligated to help us with this ghost."
         "Your plan is tenuous, yet potentially valid." Lee nodded to himself. "The Outworld Investigation Agency is due to arrive soon. It couldn't hurt to ask them for an envoy to Queen Sindel. If any being knows where the remnants of Vivarexis lie, it is she."
         Wait, wait a minute.
         "The Outworld Investigation Agency?" I squeaked. "They're coming here? Along with Interpol?"
         "Yes. Wulong called in a favor that Catsclaw owed him. They would already be here, except that their jurisdiction is strictly limited in lieu of a clear extradimensional threat-"
         "Catsclaw is coming HERE?"
         "Yes. Do you know him?"
         More than that. Much more.
         It had been far, far too long since I'd last seen Catsclaw. I know he isn't my father, but he is the closest I've ever had to one. At that moment, I realized how much I'd missed his paternal guidance.
         "Julia?" the angel asked, lowering his empathetic voice. "Are you all right?"
         I couldn't answer that truthfully. Neither could I bring myself to deny it.
         As fate would have it, I didn't get the chance to do either.

         One more aside here, if I may.
         I suppose that so far, I sound like I'm neatly winding down to a resolution. Heihachi lost, the good guys won. Dramatic story, happy ending, and the rest was just cleanup. Right?
         Of course you know that's not right.
         It didn't end as painlessly as that. It couldn't have. There had already been too much corruption. Too many reckless choices. Too much spilled blood.
         In more ways than one.

         "Nooo..." Jin groaned. "No, gods, we didn't stop it. We just slowed it down... Father! Lee! WE DIDN'T STOP IT-!"
         Lee rushed to Jin's side, as did I. Jin was struggling to stand, despite Wulong's feeble efforts to hold him back. "It's coming, it's coming for everyone! Right now! It's- ugh..."
         Jin shuddered from weakness, and could no longer keep his footing. I caught him in both arms, and I...
         I could see something glowing in my hand.
         Shining bright gold, with inset flares of ruby red.
         Heaven's Dagger.
         "It's coming," Jin whispered, and his head lolled in a semi-faint. I tried to settle him against the altar.
         "You're not doing that, are you sweetheart?" Wulong quietly requested, gesturing to the glowing artifact in my hand. I shook my head.
         Wulong looked at Lee.
         "I feel it," said the angel.
         "So do I," coughed the demon cop. "How much time do we have?"
         "Perhaps three minutes."
         "Get the kids out of here."
         "If we move my nephew, it will track him."
         "Then get the girl out of here!"
         "I'm not leaving Jin!" I exclaimed, clasping his limp hand in my own.
         "We don't have time to forcibly remove her," Lee denied, with a shake of his head.
         "What is it?" I questioned. "What's going on?"
         Wulong unsteadily stood up.
         Lee transformed in a burst of white light.
         Once again, I was witness to an angel. An angel who spread his wings, and raised his white fire sword. I think he assumed his true self partly to prepare for battle, and partly to summon the attention of everyone around him.
         Wulong started shouting.
         I should be able to tell you what he said, except that I had conflicting sensory input. From Jin. At this close range, with my hand touching his, I was receiving a backwash of telepathic impressions - fear, lingering pain, weakness, dizziness, and still more fear. Not just fear for his own life; he was afraid for me, his stepfather, his grandfather, and everyone else gathered here, because...
         While I tried to make sense of the emotional sea flooding my head, people all around us scrambled madly in response to Wulong's and Lee's commands.
         I remember seeing Lee hustle the lesser Temple acolytes out of the Toshin's replica Temple, along with my ex-bloodslave bridesmaids. Xiaoyu helped Mitsurugi to his feet. She seemed ready to panic. He said something to her; I couldn't hear what it was, but it calmed her down. Nina and Anna broke off their argument. King and Armor King tensed like the wild cats they were. Paul swore a curse. Forest just looked shocked. Yoshimitsu drew his sword; Taki summoned lilac-white fire on her fingertips. Gun Jack sparkled with electric currents, and Jane yelped from a minor shock. Eddy and Tiger yelled something at Wulong, angrily, until a sharp directive from Lee settled them.
         "You!" Wulong demanded of Heihachi Mishima, even as Lee called more instructions to the other warriors. "How many Tekkenshu can you summon to our aid?"
         "None," growled the handcuffed old man, "unless you release me."
         "They will not obey me when I am held like this! They respect only Strength, as surely as I do! RELEASE ME!"         
         Wulong gritted his teeth.
         In split-seconds such as this, life-shattering decisions are made.
         "Uncuff him, Daimon," Wulong instructed, tossing the necessary keys to the mortal Titan. "And return his swords. Yabuki, you heal his injuries."
         Goro Daimon complied without a word. It was Shingo who balked, saying, "Lei-san, we can't trust-"
         "I know that."
         "I'm already worn out. If I expend the energy to get Mishima-san in fighting shape, I won't have enough left to do the same for you."
         "I know that! Do as you're told, now!"
         Shingo did as he was told.
         "Give me a radio," Heihachi snarled, even as Shingo's ministrations eased his bruises. Wulong complied, wordlessly handing him a black box. Heihachi fiddled with the dials, but it seemed as though he could call up little except static. The one time a voice did answer him, all I caught of it was, -only two choppers remaining-
         "Have you miscreants butchered ALL my men!?" roared the irate dragon.
         "They are not dead," Daimon rumbled. "Our sorcerers have teleported them far away, until-"
         "Call in your divisions from outside Tokyo," Wulong rasped.
         "They will take too long to arrive!" Glaring at Daimon, Heihachi demanded, "Order your witches to return my men!"
         "Impossible," Daimon refused. "Our sorcerers are exhausted, and will remain so for days."
         "I am surrounded by INCOMPETENTS!" Heihachi raged, to the full moon above.
         I still didn't know what was going on.
         What impending crisis could be so grave as to make Lei Wulong release his deadliest enemy? What monstrous evil-
         Oh. Oh, no.
         I could feel it too, I realized. Raw foulness, like airborne mold. Growing steadily stronger. Heaven's Dagger attuned me to the impending sickness.
         The sacrificial altar matched the dagger's glow.
         Oh, Great Spirit no.
         "We have to get back!" I warned Jin. He was still dazed from blood loss. I pulled him to his feet and led him away, half dragging him, half guiding his stagger. We quickly reached the rest of Detective Lei Wulong's warriors. Lee Chaolan was directing them to stand in a formation.
         I spared one last glance over my shoulder.
         The blood-red facets on the altar erupted with hellfire light.
         It was an energy surge to split the heavens, and perhaps it did, because I could no longer see the sky. Just brilliant, unholy radiance.
         And the shadow within it.
         The shadow hovered above the altar, turning about in midair before it landed. It stood tall like a man, taller than Goro Daimon, but its bulging muscles were not composed of human fibers. Its skin was the dark green of my nightmares, contrasting against the golden glint of its girdle, circular shield, and the mismatched armor bands about its right shoulder, right wrist, and left thigh. A massive plume trailed from its tall, exotic helmet, which was shaped like three long, flat symbols joined at the edges.
         The shadow narrowed its eyes. They were the fevered red of a plague carrier.
         The Toshin had returned.
         There were a thousand other things I should have been thinking about, I know. I should have been petrified with fear, or else racing to devise some ultimate plan against the Doom that menaced us.
         But I couldn't. My mind doesn't work that way.
         Instead, I wondered how on Earth the Toshin could have been called back.
         We had stopped the blood sacrifice, dammit! I wasn't even scratched! How could it have worked? How could the Toshin have been summoned from the void, unless-!
         Oh, no. Oh Great Spirit no.
         Blood sacrifice had called it back. The blood of a true innocent, shed by one the innocent loved.
         Jin's blood. Spilled by Heihachi.
         So it was that, amid all the chaos, all the panic and omnipresent evil, when there were a thousand other things I should have been thinking about... I turned to Jin and whispered, "You're a virgin?"
         That's how I missed the start of the battle.
         One moment, I was asking Jin a rhetorical question; the next, Lee was leading Lei Wulong's warriors in an all-out assault against the God of War. I saw flying limbs, heard a cacophony of battle cries, and a horrendous, booming demand echoed above everything:
         Julia. Jin's mind-voice was weak, yet steady with purpose.
         Yes? I thought back.
         Help me get closer to it. I... I have to find its name...
         You're in no shape to-
         That thing murdered my mother! It'll destroy the whole world if we don't stop it!

         I had to admit that this was true.
         You said... you said we needed its true name before we could use Heaven's Dagger against it... didn't you? I can't remember very well...
         Yes. Yes, I said that.
         Then help me closer. Help me take its name out of its mind.

         The God of War spread its arms and tilted back its head, arching its spine. Multiple spots of tarnished gold radiance flashed from its body, shocking Wulong's whole strike force, flinging them into the chamber's far walls. Even the angel was battered. Only one attacker remained standing.
         Goro Daimon.
         The Toshin wrapped the immense caretaker of Kagura's Temple in a bear hug. Curling its unearthly arms around Daimon's thighs, it lifted him six feet off the ground, and squeezed with the Strength of a god.
         There was a horrific, cracking noise.
         Daimon did not cry out, but his own back arched, and his face froze in a painful grimace. He clawed at the monster that held him; it clutched its grip tighter still, until a second, internal crunch completely shattered Daimon's composure.
         And perhaps it would have, if not for the sharp, high-pitched battle cry from behind. For even as the Toshin tried to absorb Daimon's soul, a second warrior struck. I doubt that anyone was more surprised than I as to who it was.
         Anna Williams.
         The mistress of bone-breaking Arts had adopted one of the most unusual fighting stances I'd ever seen. Her body hunched full-forward, bent at the wast; her arms spread wide like avian wings. With a tremendous shout, she brought her hands together in pincer formation, right at the Toshin's waist. Though the blow did not fell the Toshin, it made the monster drop Daimon. The caretaker of Kagura's Temple was down with two broken legs, but he was alive.
         It was Anna who was in deadly peril now.
         The Toshin turned on her, seized her, and held her above its head in both arms. While she thrashed like a fish on a hook, I saw the next person to recover - Heishiro Mitsurugi - come to her defense with a dazzling display of swordsmanship. His blade cut through the Toshin's skin like it wasn't there, drawing splashes of blood, yet the monster did not fall. I could have sworn Mitsurugi dismembered both its arms and cut off its head, but its limbs never did more than hover an inch or two out of place.
         "It's more powerful," Jin said aloud, in anguish. "More powerful than it should be. The ritual has invigorated it-!"
         Great Spirit...
         The Toshin threw Anna down. Hard. Very hard. She did not move to get up.
         Then, the Toshin reached for Mitsurugi. Just lunged with one hand, and clutched at the swordsman's chest.
         For a split-second, they were both motionless. Man and monster, each at arm's length.
         There was a horrible crunching noise.
         Mitsurugi's sword fell from his fingers.
         I couldn't see if he was dead or alive, because a flare of lilac-white fire obscured everything. The Toshin dropped Mitsurugi like a broken toy, and turned to face the next warrior who had recovered to challenge it: Taki.
         This was when the true extent of the nightmare began to dawn, on me.
         Goro Daimon, the strongest of us all, had fallen in an instant. One by one, the Toshin was tearing apart the rest of us.
         Jin was right, I realized. We had to learn the Toshin's true name, and use Heaven's Dagger against it. Nothing else had a prayer against the God of War.
         Jin leaned on me, as I helped him closer.
         He held out his hand, fingers flexed like tiger claws.
         Taki's lilac-white flame had become an inferno. She unleashed it against the God of War.
         The Toshin crossed its arms in front of its face, bringing up its shield, and twisted its body away from Taki's supernatural maelstrom. For a moment, it almost seemed to be injured-
         -but then it surged through the lilac-white fire, unscathed. It had not been recoiling; rather, it had been preparing for a retaliation blow. Too late, Taki broke off her sorcery and drew her short sword. She impaled the Toshin as it battered her midriff, but it hurt her far more than she hurt it. Her sword flew out of it as she went tumbling backwards.
         I guided Jin around the God of War, as it faced its next rival: Heihachi Mishima.
         Jin still reached as if to claw at empty air. His eyes focused on the fiend that had murdered his mother. Sweat beaded on Jin's face. I could feel telepathic echoes of his strain.
         The King of the Iron Fist drew one of his paired swords, stabbing at the God of War-
         -and he might as well have tried to cut a mountain.
         The Toshin was the irresistible force and the immovable object combined. Unlike Mitsurugi's sword, Heihachi's katana didn't even graze its skin. It immediately retaliated with-
         Great Spirit. That was Anna's attack. The exact same move: bending full-forward while lifting both arms as avian wings, followed by a lightning-fast pincer strike to the waist.
         Heihachi Mishima fell.
         Jin started trembling, from the strain of his telepathy. Though I did my best to support him, I was careful not to touch the skin of his hands or face. If I received any backlash from what he saw in the Toshin's mind, it could potentially incapacitate me.
         The Toshin turned in our direction. I guided Jin's retreat, all the way back to the bloodstained golden altar, before the next pair of warriors recovered to ambush the God of War.
         King and Armor King.
         Armor King seized the Toshin by the legs, but instead of trying damage it, he lifted it high on his shoulders. At the same time, King came flying - from where, I couldn't see - and hit God of War with a full-body slam, knocking it off Armor King's shoulders and pinning it to the ground.
         While the wrestlers battled the green-skinned monster, I saw who else was just beginning to recover their senses.
         Lee Chaolan and Shingo Yabuki.
         The angel and the cripple exchanged glances. Though they were a good distance away from Jin and me, Shingo's voice carried as he said, "At this rate, we won't have a chance."
         *There must be something that can hurt it!*
         "There is. How desperate are you?"
         *Desperate enough.*
         "Then go to its other side. We'll trap it in the crossfire."
         *Yes,* Lee agreed, spreading his angel wings to fly over the Toshin's head.
         The Toshin propelled Armor King away with a backflip handspring kick, and rushed King with an uppercut that hurled the jaguar-masked wrestler twenty feet.
         The God of War fixed its fevered red eyes on Jin and me.
         "No," Jin moaned. "Oh, gods, no, I can't do this-!"
         "Yes, you can!" I urged, desperately.
         "No, it-"
         Jin's hand dropped. He shuddered with fatigue.
         "It... it has forgotten its true name... it doesn't know its own name!"
         The Toshin advanced on us.
         "Julia, get out of here," Jin whispered.
         "No. I'm fighting by your side," I declared, brandishing Heaven's Dagger.
         I didn't hear the remainder of Jin's protest, because there came a louder sound.
         In stereo.
         Lee Chaolan and Shingo Yabuki voiced simultaneous war cries, steadily growing decibel by decibel. They were now on either side of the God of War. Each of them had one hand upraised, and fiery energy consumed their bodies, shading them in supernatural light - green fire for Shingo, white fire for Lee. I thought I recognized the nature of the mystic forces they were generating. Weren't those shield spells?
         How did they expect to hurt the Toshin with shield spells?
         Well, whatever they were doing, it was in perfect tandem. They copied each other flawlessly-
         No. Lee was copying Shingo.
         Shingo had showed me this technique of charging one's Ki before. It was Kusanagi-style martial arts. Shingo hadn't used his gloves to summon a flaming shield during the demonstration, but it was the same move. I knew it.
         And Lee was mimicking it perfectly. He wasn't even looking at Shingo; his attention was on the Toshin.
         Four things happened at once.
         Shingo rushed the Toshin, holding his one arm wide and high, projecting his fire in a massive shield spell.
         Lee Chaolan rushed the Toshin, holding one arm wide and high, the other low, both wings outstretched, projecting his fire in a massive shield spell.
         Jin tried to protect me from the blast. He succeeded, to a certain extent; I only glimpsed the beginning of the explosion, white fire clashing with green fire. I don't remember seeing the resounding discharge, only hearing it in my head.
         On, and on, and on...
         And one last thing happened.
         I knew.
         It was at that moment I knew. That instant. Seeing Lee imitate Shingo...
         Only purity within and purity without can close the wound that is Toshin. Jun Kazama's prophecy resonated in my thoughts.
         That was it. That was the last piece of the puzzle.
         Lee Chaolan was the key. He had been the key all along; Heaven's Dagger had called him to our world for a reason. A reason that Lee himself didn't know.
         He couldn't see it, on his own. Perhaps he wasn't able to. Perhaps he had lost too much of his mortal self to suspect the truth. But he had unwittingly told me, and now I knew.
         I knew how to end the Toshin's menace forever.
         "Jin?" I called. Something wasn't quite right with my voice, but I didn't have time to worry about that. "Jin! Where are you? I know what to..."
         I looked around for him, frantically.
         Great Spirit.
         Jin was lying on his back. His face was contorted with pain.
         It would have been a terrible enough sight by itself. What made it worse was that I had seen this once before. A vision, in the mirror.
         A vision of Kazuya's death.
         Jin had feared the vision as if it were a prophecy. And now, seeing him as Kazuya's corpse had been, dressed in a perfect match of Kazuya's navy blue dress suit...
         No. No, Jin was alive. He had to be alive. The explosion couldn't have killed him.
         Could it?
         I searched the area for other survivors.
         Shingo Yabuki and Lee Chaolan were down, flung to opposite sides of the stone-floored chamber. Shingo's prosthetic arm had been blown off. Lee had lost whole clumps of wing feathers. Neither of them was getting up.
         Goro Daimon and Heihachi Mishima were also down, lying motionless where the Toshin had left them.
         Nina had vanished. So had Anna. If I were to guess, I'd say the Silent Assassin had chosen to cut her losses and flee with her unconscious sister.
         Yoshimitsu, Mitsurugi, and Taki had also vanished, I didn't know where-
         Oh. Really?
         I knew that Yoshimitsu had wanted to collect some of the Toshin's blood for Doctor Boskonovitch. So, he took samples from Mitsurugi's sword, and Taki's sword? And in return, he teleported them both to the good doctor, for treatment of their injuries?
         I suppose you're right. It sounds like a fair trade.
         The rest of Wulong's strike force - King and Armor King, Eddy and Tiger, Paul and Forest, Jane and Gun Jack, Lei Wulong and Ling Xiaoyu - must have been just starting to rise from the Toshin's electric discharge, when the second explosion flattened them again. They were scattered about the periphery of the chamber. Only the Toshin remained standing.
         But it wasn't standing tall.
         It was wobbling. Weaving.
         Shingo's and Lee's gamble had injured it.
         This was my chance. I could use what I knew to end the monster's threat!
         I could...
         Something was wrong.
         When I tried to stand up, I didn't get the appropriate sensory feedback from my limbs. Heaven's Dagger was no longer in my hand. When I saw Jin stir - he was alive! - I called out to him, but he made no response.
         Something was wrong with my voice.
         It didn't sound right. Or maybe it was fine, and everything else didn't sound right. As if I could hear myself talk normally, but other noises were coming from too far away.
         Something was very wrong...
         ...and then I saw what it was.
         Right in front of me, on the floor... lying in the blood-soaked basin next to the golden altar... was one more body.
         I was spread on my back, with Heaven's Dagger clutched in my right hand. My eyes were closed, as if I were sleeping. The explosion must have hurled me away too, and I must have hit the ground harder than I thought.
         A lot harder.
         Wait, wait. How can I be sitting here, looking down on my own body?
         I did not want to think about the first answer that came to mind. Desperate to disprove it, I peered closer at myself... and saw that I was breathing.
         Yes. The motion of my chest was slight, but I was definitely breathing.
         "I can't be dead," I murmured, more from confusion than relief. "I'm still breathing. How can I be dead if I'm still breathing? How can I be looking down on myself if I'm not dead?"
         "You're not dead," a voice muttered from behind me. "You're dreaming."
         The voice was oddly familiar. I mean, it had a recognizable cadence, but the tone wasn't as I remembered - drained and weary, instead of grouchy and hostile. I might have placed the speaker at once, if the scene before my eyes hadn't distracted me.
         Though the Toshin was reduced to a stagger, it was not wandering aimlessly. It stumbled toward a specific target, among the battlefield of fallen warriors.
         Heihachi Mishima.
         "I'm dreaming?" I repeated, in shock. "Then this - this isn't real?"
         The voice behind me answered with pithy sarcasm. "Oh, this is real. Happening right now. You're just seeing it through your dream, instead of through your eyes."
         "I can't be in a dream! How can I be here, dreaming all this while it happens!?"
         "Well," drawled the voice, "you are lying in my blood, and holding the weapon that killed me. I suppose that has something to do with it."
         Great Spirit.
         I did not want to turn around. I did not want to see what was talking to me. I did not, I did not, I really did not. It was my own curiosity that compelled me to turn, even though I was screaming inside not to, I don't want to turn around, I don't want to see...
         I saw the ghost.
         He was clad in a shadow memory of the black dress suit that was the Mishima syndicate security uniform. He rested on the lip of the blood-soaked basin where my body lay; his back was against the golden altar. His skin was so anemic as to be almost white, and I could see why: spirit-blood dripped endlessly from his wrists. His inner forearms had been torn open, and-
         I'm not going to be sick. I can't be sick when I'm dreaming; I could choke on my own vomit, and that would be a truly miserable way to die.
         He had chains of gore feeding into his arms. The links were made of bone. Gristle, sinew, and ghostly blood coated them. His hands were awash in his own spirit-blood, and his bone-chains anchored to the blood-soaked basin in the real world. Tethering him next to the golden altar.
         This was not even the worst part.
         The worst part was that I knew him. It is awful indeed to see any ghost, but it is far more horrible to see the ghost of someone you know. This shade was familiar. I recognized his dull brown eyes, and the shape of his body, except-
         Except that his face was different. And I don't mean just his pallor.
         His skin was less smooth. His features were more distinctive. A larger nose. Some frown lines. A mole on his left cheek. He was only dimly recognizable.
         "Ishida?" I mouthed, without voice.
         Curiosity and fear clashed in my head. The fear made me tremble, but the curiosity required me to point at him with a shaking finger. "You... y-you..."
         The piece of me that is always assembling puzzles figured it out. This was indeed Ishida. This was how he really had appeared, once.
         "D-did you undergo plastic surgery? To make yourself look like Kimura?"
         "Did you think I was born looking like him!?" Ishida snapped. "We're cousins, not identical twins!"
         I let my trembling finger drop.
         "Every generation, the House Ishida and the House Kimura present the House Mishima with a pair of matched warrior servants," he sighed, fatigue leaching the resentment from his voice. "It wasn't my idea. I just did what I was told."
         A shudder hunched my shoulders.
         At the same time, the Toshin reached the fallen King of the Iron Fist. Its hand closed six inches away from Heihachi's chin; the monster hefted him overhead with telekinetic force.
         Heihachi was only semiconscious. Though his eyes drifted open, he could make no effort to resist the God of War.
         "Grandfather!" Jin shrieked. "NO!"
         I attempted to wake my sleeping self up - shouted at her, tried to pinch her, and so on. My 'hands' went right through her, and she remained oblivious in her dream.
         However, Jin managed to rise. And charge. Despite his weakened state, he barreled into the Toshin with the force of a battering ram. The Toshin dropped Heihachi, as it absorbed the shock of Jin's blow. Then it lashed out at him, stabbing with its hand as if it held a dagger.
         As if it held Heaven's Dagger...
         Jin tried to block the strike to his solar plexus, but the Toshin plowed right through his guard. Jin gasped and crumpled, next to his insensate grandfather. Somewhere far away, I heard the building rhythm of helicopter blades.
         "I've got to wake up from this dream," I whispered, carefully avoiding eye contact with Ishida's specter. "I can't just sit here; I can't be a shadow on the wall while everything happens around me!"
         "Welcome to my Hell," growled the ghost.

End of Chapter 28: Blood Sacrament