ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Prologue: Beginning of the End


         I am Raiden, god of Thunder.
         I am of the Mother Realm, a land called "Earth" by its mortal inhabitants. Once I was a destroyer. More recently, I have been a protector. At present, I am only an observer, for the dying Earth is now ruled by Outworld gods. I record what I have seen in hope that one day, there will be those who can learn from this message. That there will be anyone left to read this message.
         It is a complex event, the death of a world. In this narrative, I put down the most crucial pieces to the first major battle that the dwindling survivors fought. They struggled against an infestation of enemies who wanted to take the breath and soul of every human being, for no other reason than because they could.
         Because He could.
         He is the Shao Kahn, an immeasurably ancient being of vast power. Before he came to Earth, he stripped the Outworld all but dry of life, and more worlds before that. Much of his history is unknown to me, for humans have only venerated me for thousands of years. Prior to then I was not self-aware. How can a lightning bolt perceive itself? What could an inanimate universe think of it? Yet when a sapient being observes the lightning and trembles, his perception adds to the variety of reference frames that involve the lightning, and therefore involve me. I am the holistic fusion of all in the Mother Realm that touches upon the essence of the storm.
         The Shao Kahn is also an elemental force. He is the personification of Entropy. How he became this is lost to time. He himself does not know. Perhaps he was once mortal. Perhaps he was at the core of the Universe when it formed. Our understanding of him is limited. What we do know is that he consumes endlessly, and hungers endlessly, forever devouring the flame of life and searching for more. He is the source of the evil that has overrun the Earth.
         Yet the Kahn is not alone. Entropy cannot exist without agents to spread disorder, to unknowingly or deliberately break the most complex creations down to their simplest pieces. One of these agents was the shape-shifting demon sorcerer called Shang Tsung. He was merciless, devious, powerful, but not infallible. Twice he tried to unbalance the Cosmic Furies that isolated the Earth from his master, and twice a select few mortals closely thwarted his plans. The third time, Shang Tsung found a way for the Kahn to subvert the ancient barriers, and claim the Earth for his banquet table. Even so, Entropy is not a forgiving force. The sorcerer knew this. Now that the bulk of his services had been rendered, he was becoming a little more expendable every day the Kahn further tightened his grip on the withering Earth.
         So, Shang Tsung decided to take his first vacation in five hundred years.



PART I: DISSOLUTION


Chapter 1: The Hour of Apocalypse



    "May you live in interesting times."
         -ancient Chinese curse


         Six months before the end of the world, they tried to give warning.
         "They're out there. They're coming. The only question is when," Major Jackson "Jax" Briggs cautioned, bringing his predictions of invasion to a close.
         "Not quite. I have two more questions," General Steverns replied. "What the devil have you done to your arms, and how the hell did you get into my private office without an appointment!?"
         Lieutenant Sonya Blade repressed a sigh. She had doubted this would work.
         "Sir, I have grafted bionic implants onto my arms, in preparation for the coming war," Jax explained, rolling up his sleeves and holding forth his upper limbs for the General's inspection. A malleable sheath completely coated them from the shoulders down. The silvery substance gleamed like metal, yet did not hinder his flexibility, and fit him so perfectly as to reveal every ripple in his powerful biceps and triceps. Evenly spaced, thin seams ran around the circumference of his arms, dividing the coating into seven sections. These were not joints; they were merely cosmetic aftereffects of the attachment surgery.
         Jax's shining bionic arms clashed against the dull green of his uniform, and the deep brown of his skin. He was a heavyset man; what he lacked in height, he more than made up for in sheer strength. A faint Harlem accent affected his voice. "I recycled a unique substance - the remains of an Outworld warrior's spiked shoulder pads. It has properties like no element ever seen on this world. Its existence is another piece of evidence to confirm our reports.
         "We bypassed your security to gain access to your office. The men outside your door are unconscious, sir, but they have not been harmed. I take full responsibility."
         The General made his palms into a steeple. "Major, did I hear you correctly? Did you assault my men just so you could repeat the ludicrous story I've read in your reports? Demon sorcerers, alien worlds, mutant armies, gods and dragons, need I go on? If you had any credible evidence to back up your fairy tales..."
         Jax's eyebrows descended. His face became visibly tighter.
         "We were there," Sonya interrupted, before the Major could say something he might regret. "We have witnesses, Liu Kang and Kung Lao."
         "Two Chinese monks living on the other side of the world," the General snorted, derisively. "You'll need a lot more than that before you can justify triggering a nationwide panic! Don't think for a moment that this little break-in makes your fable any more credible."
         "Dammit man, this threat is REAL!" Jax boomed, slamming his fists on the General's desk in a burst of outrage. The furniture's smooth wooden finish promptly split along the grain. Its broken halves caved inward, spilling various papers, writing instruments, folders, and a cheery picture of the General's wife and children.
         "I- I'm sorry sir," Jax stuttered, backing away from the destruction he'd wreaked. "I'm still acclimating myself to-"
         "Major," Steverns barked, "you are only a field grade officer, but I understand that you have served your country exceptionally well. If you depart these premises immediately, I might consider giving you a demotion, instead of the court-martial you deserve. Not definite. Might. As for you, Lieutenant Blade, I'm transferring you and your platoon to a different senior officer. Your career is too promising to keep you under the command of this sideshow freak! Now, both of you leave my sight THIS INSTANT!"



         Three months before the end of the world, Liu Kang and Kung Lao taught their students.
         "No, no, no!" Liu Kang snapped. "You will never summon Fire like that! Focus your mind, focus your essence, and try again." Four initiates to the new White Lotus Society balanced themselves on one leg, keeping the other raised with the knee bent, and stretched out their arms with the palms flexed and the fingers overlapping. "Repeat after me: KIAI!"
         "KIAI!" shouted the students. Nothing happened.
         "Pathetic. KIAI!"
         "KIAI!" Perhaps there was the weakest trace of etheric energy tingling in the air. Then again, perhaps not.
         "This is a joke. KIAI!" As Liu Kang projected his voice, he called upon the elements, absorbing and channeling the quintessence of Fire. A dragon's maw of blazing golden force streamed from his palms, running parallel to the students' faces. It came so close that stray sparks landed on the fourth pupil's clothing. The smoky scent of burning fabric drifted on the breeze.
         "KIAI!" shouted the other three students, but the fourth lost his balance in an unsteady attempt to slap out the smouldering flicker on his shoulder.
         "Do not allow yourself to be distracted!" Liu Kang yelled, whipping the back of his hand across the errant student's face. The pupil cried out and fell, scraping his spine and arms on the rough gravel underfoot. "If I were an enemy, I could have ground the life out of you while you looked away. That flame on your shoulder has more strength than you do!"
         "T-teacher, I-" the student whimpered.
         "Don't you talk back to me!" Liu Kang's fingers curled like the arc of a hawk's talons. He took a step forward, raising one arm - and found it blocked.
         "Liu, that's enough," Kung Lao whispered. He had caught Liu Kang's strike on the upper surface of his wrists, which were held high in a crossed guard.
         "Class is dismissed for today. Remember to study and practice your lessons," Kung Lao continued, loud enough for everyone to hear.
         Liu Kang retracted his hand. "You heard Brother Lao. Get out of here." Though he kept his voice low and even, his eyes burned with rigidly contained anger. "I said go! MOVE!" The class, which had already been backing away, turned around and accelerated into a dead run.
         When they were out of earshot, Liu Kang's eyes narrowed into thin slits of scorching disgust. "Lao, this is-"
         "The third time you've struck one of your own Shaolin brothers for no reason!" Kung Lao clenched both hands. White ripples of his innate power congregated upon them. Though he was four years younger than Liu Kang, he was the elder monk's equal in fighting and mystic prowess. "Or should I say, the third time I've caught you doing it. By all the gods of Light, what is your problem?"
         For a moment, Liu Kang appeared ready to attack his younger Shaolin brother. Then he let out his breath in a tired sigh. The Fire in his eyes died down to cinders, though it did not go out. "You are right. I was a little harsh."
         "A little!?"
         "I held back. He'll keep all his teeth."
         "Oh, really? I saw a bruise the size of a fruit forming on his cheek - but that's not the issue. Hitting people outside of the sparring arena is wrong. It's in direct violation of the Shaolin code, and you know it! You're supposed to be their teacher, Liu. When you lose control to your petty frustrations and lash out, what do you think it teaches them?"
         Liu Kang looked away. "It is merely that I am worried. The enemy is coming. They will arrive soon."
         "Quit trying to change the subject-"
         "No, you listen to me! Yes, I push them hard. Sometimes the strain is so great I forget myself-"
         "And quit making excuses!"
         "-yet the reason I am driven, the reason I drive them, is because we are all running out of time. If this new generation of Shaolin warriors is not prepared, they will suffer the same fate as Master Wu and the rest."
         "Liu..." Kung Lao shook his head and adjusted his hat perfectly level. Though the gesture appeared casual, it was in fact a rather delicate action, for he had to be careful not to cut himself on the article's wide, razor-edged brim. "You know it took both of us over a year to learn how to harness elemental forces, and we were Master Wu's best students. These initiates have been with us for only what, three months? And neither of us is an experienced instructor."
         "It cannot be helped. We are all that is left of the old order, Lao."
         "Yeah," muttered the younger monk, looking at the ground. "I know."



         One month before the end of the world, Reptile returned home.
         "Reptile" was what the ape-mortals called him. His true name was a liquid, musical thread of hisses and clicks that could not be accurately transcribed into any human alphabet. He was a saurian, member of a peaceful race evolved from the dinosaurs that once walked the Mother Realm. Over the past sixty-five million years, the world's saurian population gradually shrank, stabilizing at a few hundred members congregated on an island in the secret heart of the Green Hell.
         Reptile had been living away from his home for five hundred years. He had pretended to serve Shang Tsung, yet he harbored a secret revulsion toward the demon sorcerer ever since learning his evil plans. Twice, Reptile had played a significant part in upsetting the schemes of his "master"; afterward, the saurian became stranded in the Outworld's wastelands. By human standards, it had taken him a long time to make his way back to the Mother Realm; but to a saurian with a ten thousand-year lifespan, it was hardly an eyeblink.
         The instant he stepped through the dimensional portal to his old nesting-cave, he knew something was wrong.
         His keen nose smelled a rancid odor on the breeze. It could not be a rotting food supply, for saurians are notoriously stingy about their craving for fresh meat, and will promptly bury any feast more than a few minutes old. Furthermore, the sounds were missing. It was midmorning; he should have been able to hear the voices or feel the vibrations of his clan going about their daily business. A nameless worry started to take shape in his thoughts.
         <Kindred?> he called, in the euphonious True Speech. <This one has returned. Can any hear?>
         No answer was forthcoming. Reptile stepped outside, and saw the reason why.
         Holocaust.
         His egg-mother and her mate lay spread-eagled on the ground, their intestines scooped out of their body cavities and strung around their necks, their other entrails scattered haphazardly on the dirt nearby. His egg-siblings were nailed to wooden fixtures rammed into the ground, their tongues torn from their mouths, their scales marred with tears and burns. His neighbors were suspended from the boughs of a tree, with great iron hooks rammed through their chests and long slashes running through the great veins of their arms, legs, and throats. Wooden bowls set underneath their feet held stagnant pools of their drained blood.
         Saurian-made dwellings and structures were burned or smashed to ruins. Ashes and stains of reddish-viridescent blood covered the ground. Green-scaled limbs and sharp-toothed heads lay where they had been ripped from their bodies. Everywhere he looked, destruction and murder met his eye. The killing had been recent; carrion feeders had only begun to feast upon the saurians' cold, decaying flesh.
         Saurian emotions do not mirror those of ape-mortals, and Reptile in particular was much more casual about the ending of life than most of his kin. Yet in the face of such a massacre, it was all he could do to shut down the parts of his mind that were howling in madness, and begin his search for survivors. He methodically investigated each hut, cave, and crevice, blanking out the grief that threatened to crumple him like so much paper. He found only more death - friends, rivals, casual acquaintances, young and old cruelly torn apart and left to rot. None had been spared. Finally, he cursed himself for being a fool and ran to the saurians' group nesting site. The eggs within had been reduced to crushed shells, dried yolk, and stiffened embryos. Not a single egg remained intact.
         When he shuffled onto the destroyed nest, his motion triggered a delayed spell. His sanity was so far gone that he could not react. If it had been killing magic, he would have perished, but its only effect was to create a flickering image hovering in midair. At first it was of a huge, insectean fireworm, with pincered jaws and bladed legs. Then it warped and shrank, assuming the guise of an all-too-familiar ape-mortal.
         "So, you finally came back, you miserable turncoat," sneered Shang Tsung's visage. He looked different from when Reptile had seen him last. Jagged black streaks ran down the sorcerer's face and surrounded his eyes, which glowed solid white. His long ebony hair spilled over his back in a loose ponytail. He was clad in form-fitting dull yellow tights, with a strip-harness overlay on his torso. A pair of steel guards ornamented his wrists. Most noticeable of all, he oozed midnight depths of necromantic power - so much that this mere afterimage threatened to absorb the sunlight and dim the land.
         "I suppose you're wondering what happened. Well, the Kahn and I have finally found a way to get what we want, no thanks to you. Soon we'll own the entire planet. Before the big event, though, I've paid a personal visit to this abscess of lizards that spawned you, you TRAITOR! A few of them tried to fight. Most of them tried to run. They never stood a chance, the dumb beasts, now that the Shao Kahn has granted me more power than EVER! I had them all tortured to death. I took my time doing it, and enjoyed it. And I want you to know it was all because you betrayed me. Have a nice day."
         Reptile allowed himself to scream.



         One week before the end of the world, Lee wrestled with his own dread.
         Damn, he thought to himself, automatically lighting a menthol cigarette. A draught of its warm taste did little to soothe his shattered nerves. He exhaled a murky grey cloud of smoke and closed his eyes. A slight quaver in his fingers caused tiny flecks of ash to fall from the cigarette's tip.
         He was Lee Chaolan, vice-president of the Mishima syndicate. His shining, metallic tresses and ruthless methods had earned him the nickname "silver-haired devil." Lee was a talented and deadly fighter, trained from childhood in the secrets of Mishima-style karate, among other techniques. His skills had crushed more antagonists than he could remember into battered submission. Once, Lee thought he was invincible. Once, he was completely fearless.
         Times change.
         Lee hated himself for being afraid. He detested the clogging sensation in the back of his gullet. He cursed the rapid beating of his heart. And he abhorred the quaking weakness in his legs, which compelled him to lean against the whitewashed wall. Weakness was the one trait Lee despised above all others.
         Screw it. There was only one way he could pull this off, and that was not to think about it. Just go through the motions without letting oneself realize what one is doing. Walk toward and through the great double doors, into the carpeted anteroom beyond. Don't look ahead; keep the eyes on the floor and continue in a straight line until-
         "I did not summon your presence." The voice was smooth and sibilant, with a hidden chill beneath the surface. Lee flinched when he heard it. He was terrified of that voice, and furious with himself for feeling the terror. "You had better have a good excuse."
         Lee dropped to one knee, fixing his eyes on the carpet's cross-shaped pattern of red and gold intertwined upon a field of aquamarine. His own unsteady whisper threatened to falter, but staring at the design seemed to help. "Mishima-sama, don't do this."
         "Excuse me?" The prompt was anything but apologetic.
         "I know what you are planning. Don't do it. The price is too high. It's too high for you, the syndicate, and all humankind. I can't stop you, but if the world is made into a charnel pit, it won't be because I didn't say anything. Brother, please... don't do this."
         Silence.
         "Lee, do you recall our last conflict?" The silver-haired devil tried to repress a shudder, and failed.
         "Yes, Mishima-sama."
         "How many of your bones did I break?"
         "Seventeen, Mishima-sama."
         A rigid grasp seized Lee's wrist and jerked him to his feet. Somewhere far away, a detached part of him knew how to twist free of the iron hold, yet he could not make himself translate awareness into action.
         "If you wish to keep the rest intact, you will not approach me in impudence again." A sharp kick cut across the left half of his face, violently whipping his upper body to one side.
         "You will not address me as 'brother.'" Another kick slashed the right half of his face.
         "And you will not carry your filthy burning sticks into my beautiful antechamber." Lee felt the floor make contact with the back of his head before he was aware of falling.
         Ripples of unholy power curled through the air.
         The pervasive mana was so loathsome it arrested the remainder of Lee's will, paralyzing him where he lay. While he stared at the ceiling, raging at his own helplessness, a window to a presence harrowing beyond belief took form.
         "HAVE YOU HAD SUFFICIENT TIME TO CONSIDER MATTERS?" The booming, malevolent voice cut into Lee's ears like a whetted sawblade.
         "Yes," Mishima hissed. "There is one condition I would add. I request a division of your finest warriors, their services to be commanded as I see fit."
         "A BOLD DEMAND."
         "Perhaps, but not an unreasonable one. If we are to be allies, we should be able to combine forces as needed, should we not?"
         "WITH THIS CONDITION GRANTED, DO YOU AGREE TO ALL MY TERMS?"
         "Yes."
         "IN FULL AWARENESS OF ALL THE CONSEQUENCES?"
         "Yes."
         "THEN OUR PACT IS SEALED. YOU AND YOUR MINIONS WILL BE SPARED. I WILL CONTACT YOU WHEN YOU ARE NEEDED." A pause. "KAZUYA, DO YOU REALIZE THAT THE BODY TWO PACES BEHIND YOU IS ALIVE AND CONSCIOUS?"
         "Please do not be concerned. It is merely a piece of refuse. My apologies for the mess, Emperor Shao Kahn."



         Two days before the end of the world, Jun Kazama listened to the wind.
         It ruffled her bangs, working them free of the white barrette that kept them back. The late spring breeze whistled a mellifluous lament that echoed with apprehension and loss. She turned in a slow circle, feeling its source, and the incongruity in its invisible eddies.
         Something was wrong.
         The wrongness spread like an invisible blanket, draped upon the forest surrounding her. She listened more intently, trying to isolate the detail that churned her stomach and sent shivers down her spine. There was only the creaking of branches and rustling of leaves, as the wind swayed them back and forth. That was part of what set her on edge; the woodlands were too quiet. Where were the melodies of songbirds, the chattering of squirrels, or the buzzing of insects? She had followed the dirt path deep into the forest's heart without seeing a single animal.
         That wasn't all, though. A more sinister trepidation lay beneath the puzzling silence. She could not feel exactly what it was, only that it was there, a rotting, artificial sickness unlike any she'd ever known. It worried her. She'd come to this forest to calm herself, yet found only more anxiety.
         She was about to turn back the way she had come when the wind brought her a new sound: a lonely, distant howl. A wolf's howl, she was sure of it - yet weren't wolves long since driven from this part of North America?
         The lupine wail came again. It was not a howl of greeting, or fellowship with the pack; it cried out in pain and need. She could not ignore it.
         Jun left the dirt trail, consciously keeping track of the sun, the orienteering compass in her hand, the landmarks, and the occasional scratches she would stop and make upon the earth. Every so often, the howl would sound, confirming that her northeastern path led her closer to its source. She traveled over two miles, at last reaching a plateau speckled with uneven layers of shrubbery and undergrowth.
         A wolf was in the partial clearing.
         Grey and black highlights splashed its cinnamon-red coat, yet it was much larger than a common red wolf. Its shoulder reached half her height, and she estimated its weight to be at least one hundred and eighty pounds. The wolf's golden eyes locked with her own. It swiveled back its ears, bristled its fur, and bared its teeth. As it drew away, there came a rustling clink. The wolf's growl became a whimper.
         Now, she could see why it had been howling.
         Two semicircular disks with double rows of wavy-edged teeth closed tightly on its upper right foreleg. Dark stains marked where the jaws had cut into the skin. This animal had been caught in a steel trap and left to die. It must have been stranded at least a day, for its tongue was dry and swollen with thirst.
         The wolf growled. Jun held out both hands, palms up.
         "I am not your enemy," she told it, calmly. "I can help you." She took a step toward the animal. It lowered its head, keeping its ears pressed back and its teeth bared. Jun ceased her advance and slowly lowered her hands, knowing that one snap of those jaws could crush the bones of her arm. "Do not be afraid. I am your friend. You must not give in to the fear. Please, you must trust me." As she repeated the gentle, soothing words, she studied the device that held the wolf captive.
         It was a horizontal coil-spring steel trap. The tension in its double springs pried a pair of metal slats up from the trap's bottom. These slats loosely encircled both of the trap's jaws, forcing them together. A heavy chain clasped the trap to the trunk of a mature oak tree. The trap itself was stained with rust and blackened, no doubt, with a solution designed to hide its appearance and remove any trace of human scent. She was familiar with this kind of device. Though widely illegal, it was also cruelly efficient.
         She took a step closer, still speaking soft assurances. The wolf's growl became a snarl; it lunged forward, its maw snapping shut on the air a foot from her throat.
         "Poor thing," she murmured, sadly. "You're really scared, aren't you? As long as you are so frightened, I can't get close enough to unlock the trap - unless..."
         Continuing the comforting words, she eased along the wolf's periphery, always staying just out of its tethered range. Fortunately, the clasp upon the oak tree was too snug to rotate in response to the wolf's pull. She led the animal around the tree's base, until the short length of chain was wrapped about the oak's bark. Keeping her gaze on the wolf held a scant handspan from her face, she reached behind herself and rested her fingertips on the spot where the wound chain joined the steel clasp. Her compassionate voice became a song.

         Door open, lock unlatch
         Springs coil, metal loops compress
         Lie flat against the base
         Iron maw relax
         Do as I bid you
         Set the prisoner free


         She repeated the verse over and over. On the fifth iteration, a spark colored the soft white of a heron's plumage flickered upon her hand, glowing faintly against the rusted chain. The wolf shied back. Jun focused on the twin springs. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
         To call upon one's Ki requires a double toll. One price is measured in physical endurance; more than the fleetest instant of Ki takes a massive demand upon the body, akin to sprinting for miles without rest. The second price is upon the fortitude of one's spirit, weakening the barriers that protect one's mind from the chaotic realm of madness and nightmares.
         A quiver shook Jun, and she almost broke contact with the chain, but not quite. Centering her will, she sang with measured, lilting notes. More white sparks traveled along the iron, around the tree, and nestled upon the pair of springs. Bit by bit, the coils pushed together, lowering the punctured slats until they slipped over the jaws' hinges, and lay parallel to the ground.
         Now came the delicate part - prying open both jaws while keeping the double springs depressed. Jun's heart raced from the strain. She had to divide the core of her Ki four ways, never letting any one part dip too low, or the trap would close and her spell would be undone. Sparkling flashes migrated along the metal teeth. A creaking squeal emanated from hinges long since left to degrade. It came close to disrupting her concentration, but she adjusted the rhythm of her song to incorporate the squeak. The metal teeth slowly withdrew from the torn fur, dried blood, and cut muscle in the wolf's leg. Spots flashed in front of Jun's eyes; she would not be able to continue this for much longer.
         Now, she thought urgently, shifting her gaze from the trap to the wolf's golden eyes. A small corner of her fading awareness noticed that the animal had stopped growling. You must pull free now!
         The wolf reared high on its hind legs, slipping its injured forelimb from the steel trap's open mouth. At that instant, the white sparks died out and jaws closed with a spiteful rattle. The red wolf sprang away, flattening its ears and keeping its weight off its wounded leg. Then its ears perked forward, and it took a hesitant step around the sprung trap. Still wary, the wolf lowered its nose, sniffing the inert hand of the unconscious young woman who had freed it.



         Three hours before the end of the world, Lei limped into a bar.
         He didn't crane his neck to look at the sign above the entrance, because that would reopen a savage slash along his right collarbone. A semisolid mass of clotted blood had congealed upon the wound. More maroon streaks discolored his deep blue shirt, tracing unsteady lines across its ripped fabric. The tears had a diagonal slant from upper right to lower left, crossing his chest and abdomen, and nearly dividing the wide black sash around his waist. He kept his right forearm pressed against the rended cloth and drying blood, which left ugly crimson blotches on the white inner lining of his rolled sleeve cuffs. His left arm hung listlessly. His dark slacks were also ripped and stained; gashes in his left thigh and inner knee caused him to favor his right leg as he slowly made his way to an open seat near the bar counter. He had to squint to see it, for his left eye was nearly swollen shut, and a bluish-black ring surrounded his right eye socket. His hair, sable except for a single ash-grey forelock, was matted with sweat and blood from a head wound. The tresses by the nape of his neck tapered into a thin plume, thrown back in a sloppy ponytail and held with an inconspicuous kelly-green binder. Stray locks only partially concealed the blue-purple bruises on his face. The halting manner in which he moved betrayed the presence of similar contusions on the rest of his body.
         Various customers lounged by and around the bar, or in the darkened booths by the back wall. Two men with slicked-back hair and dark glasses held a muted conversation in the far corner. Another man smoking a pungent cigar glanced at his watch nervously, and stared at the bar's entrance. A gaudily clad woman led an intoxicated youth up a flight of rickety wooden stairs. Few of the clientele gave Lei a second glance as he gingerly settled on the bar stool. This was partly due to the dim lighting, which hid the worst of his lacerations in shadow. It was also because this particular bar was a place where people minded their own business, if they knew what was good for them.
         The bartender, a surly, overweight man with a thick beard and handlebar mustache, glanced at Lei and returned to polishing a glass mug. Lei rested his right his right elbow on the counter, holding back the impulse to wince. He snapped his fingers; a momentary flash of azure sparks illuminated his hand, and a fifty-dollar bill appeared between the second and third digits. The bartender immediately snatched it.
         "What can I getcha," he grumbled, his expression softening from sullen to neutral. "Food? Drink? Ambulance?"
         "Drink," Lei rasped. "Strong, and keep it coming. None of that weak, watered-down sewer runoff they try to pass off as drink. Can't stand that stuff; it's just awful. Absolutely no flavor at all, and-" he blinked, noticing that the bartender had set down a few shots of whisky and ambled away.
         "Nice talking to you, too," he mumbled, gulping down one jigger of the bitter liquid as best he could without tilting his head back.
         "Hiya, big spender. Looking for company?" crooned a female voice. The speaker stepped into the periphery of his vision and lounged against the bar counter. She reeked of cheap, tangy perfume. Far too much makeup covered what might have been a pretty face, if not for the gauntness of her cheekbones. Her red dress clung tightly to her figure, exposing much of her cleavage and leaving little of the rest to the imagination. Too little, for underneath the supple roundness of her small breasts, her ribs pressed against the imitation satin. She couldn't have been older than sixteen.
         "I can - hey!" she remarked, taking a closer look at his squarish face, smooth features, and mahogany eyes. "Are you Jackie Chan?"
         "Don't call me that. I hate that," he muttered, starting a second jigger. "Name's Lei Wulong. No relation to anyone named 'Chan,' or 'Jackie,' dammit."
         "Whatever you say. You look like you've had a rough time. Want me to take your mind off it?" she suggested, running her fingers through his hair and along the left side of his neck.
         Lei gently disengaged her hand, and shook his head.
         "Why not? You queer, or just hurting too much?"
         "Oh, I'm hurtin' aright," he returned, his normally crisp speech beginning to lose its edge as the whisky seeped through his empty stomach. "But that's not th' point. I don't buy th' kinda thing you're sellin'. Ever." He finished off the shot and tossed the empty jigger back on the counter. "Matter of principle. What kinda cop would I make if I broke th' laws I'm supposed to enforce, huh?"
         When the call girl heard him say the word "cop," her face became pale and nervous. "Um, suit yourself," she stammered, taking a step back.
         "Wait. I wanna ask you somethin'."
         "Are you saying you'll arrest me if I don't-?"
         "No, I'm sayin' I wanna ask you somethin'," he repeated, holding out his hand and snapping his fingers. A twenty-dollar bill appeared amidst another shower of azure sparks. "G'wan, use it t' get yourself a decent meal." When she hesitated, he slapped it down on the counter and hollered, "Bartender! Get this poor kid somethin' t' eat. She needs it." The order placed, he started his third jigger.
         The call girl bit her lower lip. "Uh, look, sir-"
         "Lei. They call me Super Police, y'know."
         "Never heard of you," grunted the bartender, setting a cold-cut sandwich in front of the call girl.
         "I-I don't know nothing," she stammered, glancing from the sandwich to Lei.
         "Don' worry, I'll start wi' somethin' easy. Wha's t'day's date?"
         She told him.
         "An' th' time?"
         "A little after nine p.m."
         "You sure abou' tha'?"
         "Yeah."
         "Then why am I in Hong Kong?"
         "Uh, what?"
         "Why. Am I. In Hong Kong?"
         "Maybe because you live here?"
         Lei furrowed his brow in concentration. "Actually, tha' is true. Beside th' point, but true. Lemme s'plain. Y'see, abou' fifteen minits ago, I was in Japan. At leas', I think it was Japan. Sure looked like Japan, or wha' I think Japan would look like, if I were there, which I was. Almos' certain I was. So why 'm I in Hong Kong now?" He rested his forehead in one hand, and a haunted look came into his eyes.
         "I don't know."
         "Damn. I don' either... hey, where you goin'? You haven' touched your san'wich."
         "I gotta work for a living."
         "So take th' night off." Lei snapped his fingers and produced a handful of bills, but instead of magically appearing in his hand, the money fell out of his sleeve cuff. "Whoops. Guess 'm outta pra'tice. I was gonna spend tha' onna plane ticke' home, bu' I think y'need it more'n I do."
         "You sure you're a cop?"
         "Well, I'm on vacation too. 'Y'need some time off,' they tell me. 'Y're takin' it too hard,' they tell me." His eyes became moody, and he set his mouth in a thin line. "I am not takin' it too hard. I'd like t' kill the guy who said that."
         The call girl raised an eyebrow.
         "Not tha' I really would, giv'n th' opp'rtunity," Lei corrected, a shade hastily. "I wouldn'. I'd jus' like to. Tha's an importan' distinction. C'mon, siddown, eat. I wanna tell you abou' somethin'..."
         What have I got to lose, she thought, gathering the bills scattered on the floor. The sandwich looked, if not appetizing, then at least remotely edible, and listening to this drunk ramble on couldn't possibly be worse than what she usually went through each night.
         Two hours before the end of the world, Lei's slurring had become more pronounced.
         "...called 'Iron Knuckle,' or somethin' li' tha'. Reeeeally nasty fightin'. Lotsa people hurt bad, killed, an' tha' wuz jus' qual'fyin' t' enter. So I sign up. Y'know, mebbe it wuzn't such a goo' idea. Mebbe I should've 'vestigat'd anoth'r angle. F'r tha' matt'r, mebbe I should've b'come a doct'r like Mom always want'd, 'stead of a bleedin' cop..."
         One hour before the end of the world:
         "...assassins, an' cyborgs, an' robots - an' there wuz thi' BEAR! A big, freakin' BEAR! Goddamn huge. Goo' thin' I didn' have t' fight it. Bu' someone did, or wuz going to, crazy huh? Can' remember his name, jus' how glad I wuz not t' be 'im. That an' his hair. Y'wouldn' b'lieve wha' he did wi' his hair! Heh-heh, I almos' crack up jus' thinkin' abou' it..."
         Ten minutes before the end of the world:
         "...an' I lost it. I lost somethin' importan'. Really importan'. It wuz... wha' wuz it? Somethin' I wuz jus' talkin' abou'? D'ya 'member? Wha'ever it wuz, it wuz importan'. Really importan'. It wuz so importan', I need a word better 'n importan' t' describe it. Wha's a goo' synohm - symnan - simnyah - eh, wha's anoth'r goo' word f'r importan'?"
         "Shit!" the call girl hissed, looking over her shoulder.
         "Nah, tha' don' quite mean th' same - huh?"
         Behind them were three burly men clad in black leathers and torn jeans. The foremost one was the largest, towering well over six feet. He wore thick-soled army boots and kept his curly brown hair covered with a red kerchief. The one on his right had a black skull face tattooed on his cheek, while the one on his left sported a single earring shaped like a tiger. Other patrons took one glance at the trio and quietly began to evacuate the premises. The bartender ducked behind his counter and crept toward the back door.
         Red-kerchief leered at the nervous call girl. "Why, Tieh," he smirked, "aren't you happy to see me?"
         "Wh-what can I do for you, Mick?" she stammered, meekly.
         "What do you think?"
         "I-I've got your cut of tonight's take ready. If you want it early, that's no problem. I'd never hold out on you, you know that."
         "Y'know thi' guy?" Lei asked. All three men ignored him.
         "Oh, you wouldn't?" Mick mused, stretching his lips into a gap-toothed smile. "Funny. Word on the street is you're hanging out with a battered, drunken wreck who flings large sums of money around like confetti. Not a customer, just some helpless fool who thinks he's immortal."
         "Izzat a' insult?"
         "Tieh, you should know by now how much the boys and I like meeting with such individuals. So why did you wait so long to introduce us to this broken-down dog, hm?"
         "Tha' wuz almos' definit'ly a' insult."
         "Um," Tieh gulped, "I'm sorry, I didn't think-"
         Mick took hold of her chin, cutting her off and forcibly tilting her head upward. "No, you didn't, you stupid cheap whore."
         "Hey, hey, s'nothin' new if y'insult me, bu' leave th' kid alone," Lei interjected, his tone of voice shifting from an amiable slur to a deep growl as he slid off the stool. "I'm warnin' ya, they don' call me Super Police f'r nothin'."
         "Never heard of you," Skull-tattoo grunted.
         "Careful, Pops," Tiger-earring sneered, folding his arms. "You're falling-down drunk."
         "An' y're a bloodsuckin' parasite, alla ya - ugh!" Lei tripped over one of the stool's metal crossguards and collapsed face-first, rolling onto his back with a moan.
         "Do him," Mick ordered, without taking his eyes away from Tieh. Tiger-earring unfolded a long switchblade and crouched next to the inebriated cop. But instead of the hushed shtip of the cold blade piercing flesh, there came the hard crack of crunching bone.
         "What the-?" Mick let go of Tieh and turned around. He was too late to see Lei rock back, press both palms against the smooth wooden floor, and kick upwards in a modified kippup. Lei's heels connected with Tiger-earring's teeth. Tiger-earring flew into Mick; the pair of racketeers tumbled while Tieh dove behind the bar counter. Lei landed on his feet, still favoring his right leg, and leaned against the counter to keep from reeling. Skull-tattoo clasped both hands in a hammerlock and moved to strike the cop from behind, but the abrupt intake of his breath gave him away. Hearing it, Lei let go of the counter and dropped underneath the swing.
         "WHEEAH!" yelled the cop, hooking his right leg around the back of Skull-tattoo's foremost heel in one, swooping motion. As Skull-tattoo tottered, Lei chambered his right fist close to his body and drove it into his enemy's solar plexus. Skull-tattoo doubled over and groaned; the noise ceased when Lei brought an elbow down on the top of his head.
         Approaching steps sounded from the opposite direction. Lei looked over his shoulder and extended his right heel straight back in a reverse kick. It must have hit someone, judging from the soft impact and gasp that followed, but his vision was too blurry to tell whether it was Tiger-earring or Mick.
         "I can't believe you fuck-ups! He's only a drunkard!" Mick shouted from several paces away, settling the issue. Lei attempted to retract the kick and spin around, but his injured left leg suddenly failed him. Stumbling, he flailed his arms and grasped the counter's edge, using the handhold in conjunction with his good leg to pull himself back into a semi-standing position. Now Mick was bearing down upon him; the floor quaked with each tread of reinforced army boots. Lei scrambled for his last full shot of whisky, tilting the glass as if to drink from it-
         -then suddenly whipped its contents into Mick's eyes. The lead racketeer did not slow down; Lei weaved away from the brunt of his charge, yet took a glancing blow on his left shoulder. Soreness in his torn triceps became a searing pang, staggering him. Mick, his eyes stinging from the alcohol, used the opportunity to wrap both hands around the cop's throat. A dark curtain was smothering Lei's consciousness, and he knew that once it closed, it would not open again.
         Lei smashed the empty jigger on Mick's forehead; bits of glass dug into the racketeer's face. When Mick threw his head back and hissed in pain, Lei jammed the jagged edge of the broken glass against the racketeer's exposed neck, just hard enough to draw the tiniest crease of red. The unspoken message was clear: Let go now, or I cut your throat!
         Mick flung him toward the far wall. Lei hit the ground rolling and choking. The broken jigger bounced from his hand. Mick tried to brush glass slivers off his ruined face, but only pushed them deeper into his skin. He made a gargling sound of anguish.
         Blocking out the torment of his damaged leg, Lei forced himself to stand and wobble toward the racketeer. The cop sidestepped Mick's wild swing. Mick took a stumbling stride forward, off-balance from his missed attack and still partly blinded. Lei grabbed the racketeer's shoulders.
         "Whee-YAT!" The cop extended his left leg at an angle to the ground and redirected his enemy's center of gravity over it. Mick tripped, sprawling on the floor. When he started to get up, Lei seized a bar stool and slammed its seat into the back of the lead racketeer's head three times. Mick stopped moving except for the slight expansion and compression of his chest.
         Lei dropped the stool and used the bar counter to support most of his weight. He tried not to think about the wounds he'd torn open, or the way his left leg exploded in agony when he put any sort of pressure on it. His heart pounded frantically. His breath came in rapid, shallow gasps. Sweat dripped upon his face, and trickles of fresh blood oozed through his tattered clothing. Alcohol and adrenaline numbed some of the distress, but it was getting worse with each passing moment. He was gradually slipping into a state of shock.
         "Hey, kid, y'okay?" he coughed, squeezing his eyes shut. "Can y'get th' bartend'r? Think I may need tha' amb'lance aft'r all..."
         Tieh peeked over the bar counter. Mick and Skull-tattoo were both senseless, but Tiger-earring was-
         "Kid? Did'ya hear m-"
         "Behind you!" she shrieked.
         Tiger-earring grimaced when her warning alerted the cop of his silent approach, yet he'd come close enough to retain the initiative. Wrapping an arm around Lei's neck, he drove his switchblade toward the heart. Lei interposed one hand in the knife's path, partially deflecting its lethal course. The blade cut the back of his wrist, sliced across his chest, and sank into the groove above his top right rib.
         Tieh screamed.
         Lei clutched Tiger-earring's arm and folded in half, hauling the racketeer over his head. Tiger-earring cracked his tailbone on the floor. He scurried away, in anticipation of a follow-up attack that was not coming. Lei remained where he was, swaying a little, with the switchblade lodged in his high upper right chest. Mechanically, he curled one hand around the knife's hilt and wrenched it out. His fingers trembled, and the bloody knife slipped through them. A blank emptiness crept into his mahogany eyes. He sagged to his knees.
         Shock had set in. The dark curtain was closed.
         Tieh screamed again.
         "You're a tough bastard to kill, I'll give you that," Tiger-earring sneered. He folded his arms and waited for the insensate cop to fall over.
         "HssssSSSSSSS..."
         Tiger-earring's eyes widened. His triumphant expression changed to disbelief, then fear. By then it was too late to run. His screams drowned out Tieh's, but only for a short while.



         At the hour of Apocalypse, a sheet of pure black enveloped the skies. It blotted out sun, moon, and stars. Wind gave way to dead calm. Flowing waters became stagnant and foul. Green earth blackened, degrading into charcoal. Plants turned brown and withered. Animals went frothing mad with panic, or cowered in abject terror. Mortals felt a sickening pull from the inside out, a cloying presence that enwrapped their will and clutched greedily at their lives. An intolerable, keening cry engulfed the globe.
         And then they came for humanity's soul.


End of Chapter 1: The Hour of Apocalypse