ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 2: Encounters


    Tertius: Timoth must be very special for you to go looking for him. You must be great friends.
    Onyx: Friends? Oh, aye... ever since we tried to kill each other.
         -Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, issue #10


         Dust settles after Armageddon.
         Six months past the day of Shao Kahn's conquest, the Earth is slowly turning into an extension of the barren Outworld. The Sun never shows; it is perpetually hidden behind a forbidding, blackened veil. Plants and animals are dying out. Humanity is bound into mass sacrifice, save for a few who remain free of the Shao Kahn's dread sorcery. One such survivor was Heihachi Mishima.
         Perhaps the Kahn's curse overlooked him because, sensing its impending arrival, he had purified his remote mountain home. A humble gateway marked the border of the sanctified precinct. Plaited ropes decorated with strips of white paper ornamented the top of the gateway. More white strips were curled around rocks and trees nearby, and also the entrance to his squat wooden residence. Next to the door was an ablution basin filled with cold water and a wooden ladle. A pair of stone dogs flanked the front step. One dog had its mouth open to symbolize the primal Beginning; the other had its mouth closed to signify the End.
         Inside the dwelling's wooden walls was a broad, flat expanse. A wavy pattern of rich brown against solid black shaded the floor's sanded slats. Widely spaced candles, with melting wax the soft white of faraway stars, offered scant illumination. Their glow, in conjunction with the filtered light from distant windows, was barely enough to reveal a dozen stone effigies of legendary warriors. Here, in this isolated, darkened expanse, Heihachi trained.
         He was a towering figure, almost six feet high, every inch brimming with power. Though he had survived over half a century, the only evidence of his advancing age was the occasional grey hair threaded through the long jet tufts fanning either side of his head, just above his ears. The rest of his scalp was bald. A thin, divided mustache traced twin lines along his upper lip, curving sharply down along his face and balancing the vertical cleft in his chin. His bushy, angular eyebrows screened two cruel, narrow eyes. His apparel was unpretentious; merely a wide-legged pair of slacks tied with a white overcloth, wooden raised platform sandals, and a protective coat of gauze wrapped about his hands. Recently acquired scars creased his bare chest.
         Once, Heihachi was the venerated President and CEO of the international Mishima syndicate. Once, he was feared as the "King of the Iron Fist," a title earned through an ongoing contest of strife and murder.
         Times change.
         Heihachi concentrated upon his current obstacle: a misshapen granite boulder that weighed twice as much as he did. He searched its surface, observing how the patterns of the quartz, feldspar, and mica clumped into an asymmetrical whole. The minerals had been forced together by extreme temperature and pressure underneath the Earth's crust, yet their bond was not inviolate. All objects were ultimately fragile, be they a man's ribcage, a woman's skull, a block of wood, or a piece of stone.
         Heihachi brought his left arm high above his head, his elbow slightly bent, his hand constricted into a fist. He rocked back on his right leg, suspending his left with the knee flexed at a perpendicular angle to maintain balance. At the same time, he drew upon his inner wellspring of Ki. Crackles of indigo electricity gathered upon his upraised fist. Their static charge polarized the atmosphere, giving it the faint aftertaste of an evaporated summer squall. When the electrified essence was at its peak, Heihachi rammed his fist upon the boulder's hidden seam, sending the whole of his strength and Ki into the cold stone.
         The boulder shattered with explosive force. Bits of granite dug like shrapnel into his exposed chest and head, but that didn't matter. He shook the gravel from his bleeding face, knowing that the superficial injuries would heal within an hour. Injuries had a way of doing that, ever since the end of the world.
         Polite applause sounded from behind.
         Heihachi had been so absorbed in his training that he had not sensed the loathsome, corruptive aura surrounding the evil thing. It could have used the advantage of surprise to destroy him while his back was turned, yet it merely emphasized its clapping with a smile when he whirled to confront it. The demon-thing was, as usual, in the guise of a mortal man. Levitating in midair, it reclined as if on an invisible couch, and met Heihachi's glare with empty white eyes.
         "Totemo ii desu, Heihachi-kun," the demon-thing beamed, approvingly. <Very nice indeed. But I wonder, how would you fare against a block of pure ruby? Or diamond? If you like, I could conjure one for you to practice upon. It would be no trouble at all.>
         "Do not pollute my beautiful language with your unclean tongue, Shang Tsung."
         "Oh, so you do remember me? I'm flattered. It's too bad you turned down the invitation to my glorious Tournament. You missed a great deal of excitement."
         "This house is warded against evil. You have no place here."
         "'Warded against evil'?" the sorcerer repeated, transforming the phrase into a sneering taunt. "I don't think so. If it were, you wouldn't be able to set foot inside, would you Heihachi-kun? Evil does a poor job of guarding against itself. Or do you really think that one rinse from a bowl of water can wash away all the misery you've caused?"
         "What is it you want?"
         "Why, the world on a silver platter, and all eternity to enjoy it. Since I already have that, however, I'm merely looking for somewhere to relax and enjoy my well-earned vacation. This is a very nice place you've got here. It has such a scenic view, and the locale is quite conveniently removed from all those noisy mutants and Centaurians. You know, the ones on a worldwide rampage to find and slaughter survivors like you. Say, that is a hot spring I noticed in back, isn't it?"
         Heihachi's thick eyebrows pressed close against his eyelids. His lips parted slightly, exposing his even teeth in an animal snarl. Indigo electric crackles flashed upon his clenched fists.
         "Of course, I don't expect to take advantage of your generous hospitality in return for nothing," Shang Tsung continued, still smiling. "As compensation, I thought you just might be interested in news of current events. Did you know that your sons are quite the rising stars in Shao Kahn's hierarchy?"
         "I have no sons," Heihachi growled, breaking eye contact.
         The demon sorcerer shrugged, and waved one hand. A shimmering circle of necromantic energy formed. Heihachi did not look at the image within, yet he could not shut out the voices that emanated from it.
         "-estimate the Chosen Ones' base of resistance to be somewhere within this hundred-mile radius. We can't be any more precise than that. Powerful enchantments prevent the intelligence battalion from divining the source."
         "I trust reconnaissance has conducted an exhaustive search of the environs?"
         "Yes, Mishima-sama. Several searches. They can't find anything. It is thought that the enchantments protect the base from ordinary as well as magical scrutiny."
         "Then we shall have to rely upon my plan. I expect you to keep me posted of any difficulties in its implementation, Lee."
         The voices abruptly ceased. Heihachi turned around, only to see the circle dissolve.
         "Well, if these matters do not concern you, then it can't be helped. I'll have to enjoy my time off somewhere else. I hear the Galapagos are quite lovely this time of year," Shang Tsung ruminated. The demon sorcerer swung his legs over his invisible couch and stood, still hovering several inches above the wooden floor.
         "Another time, Heihachi-kun," he said with a bow.
         "Wait. Show me more."
         "Why, Heihachi-kun," the sorcerer glowed, clasping both hands together in a mock-heartfelt display, "are you inviting me to stay within your honorable residence?"
         "No. I am commanding you to show me more, or I will break your neck."
         Shang Tsung did not appear in any way intimidated.
         "Well, since you ask so nicely..." The demon sorcerer amalgamated his mana, creating a new black lens so large it nearly touched both floor and ceiling.
         "Observe. It begins here."
         A city took shape within the lens.



         The city was like a snapshot, frozen in time. Mortals everywhere were as still as exquisitely crafted statues, unmoving, unblinking, locked in whatever they were doing at the hour of Apocalypse. A man on the street corner stared at the roiling predawn sky, his sightless eyes questing in vain for the source of his doom. There was a woman behind the driver's wheel of a car, her attention fixed upon a traffic light that had gone dark for lack of power. In the crosswalk, a twelve-year-old child was suspended in mid-stride, trapped as he had been racing to get home. An invidious, sickly-olive aura surrounded the three of them, and billions of mortals like them, torpidly wearing against the innate bastions of their spirits.
         Suddenly, the man's aura withdrew from his body and congregated upon his head. A bright flash of pure gold, rippling and quivering, slipped from the top of his skull into the surrounding murk. Gold mixed and was lost within a small sea of sickly-olive, which became a thin streak shooting across the heavens at lightning speed.
         The man's skin stretched tightly over his frame, until it started to flake off. His flesh became desiccated, and his organs shriveled into brittle husks. His body dissolved into bits of charcoal and ash, leaving behind the cracked bones of a grinning skeleton. The skeleton collapsed into an inanimate pile, while the restless wind stirred the grainy remnants of what was once muscle and blood.
         Shao Kahn's curse had claimed yet another life and soul. The woman and the child remained stationary, waiting their turn.
         Lei shivered.
         He'd seen this happen before, and he did not know which was worse - the horrific consumption, or being unable to do anything about it. In the six months since he had first awakened to the silence of the cursed Earth, he'd tried everything he could think of to bring someone, anyone out of the enchanted state: talk, smelling salts, electric shock, even various exorcism rituals from religions he'd never really believed in anyway. Nothing worked.
         Lying flat on the roof of a former car wash, Lei turned his binoculars away from the dead man and scanned a broad arc. The city was largely quiet; most of its human survivors were long since fled or killed, and the Centaurian marauders had withdrawn accordingly. Occasional gangs of mutants still roamed its alleys, though, searching for fresh victims. Over by a disused memorial to World War II veterans, the leaders of two mutant packs fought a duel for supremacy.
         Lei figured that, with caution and a little luck, it wouldn't be too difficult to make his way to the city's border unnoticed. It was time to depart this place. He'd told himself the same thing yesterday, and the day before, and a long succession of days before that. But this time he truly was going to leave, mutants and Centaurians be damned. Really, he was.
         Wait. What was that?
         Lei adjusted the binoculars' magnification. A quartet of beings had just flickered into view near the horizon, in the shadow of a vacant motel. He could have sworn they'd materialized out of empty air. Strange, but definitely not the strangest thing he'd ever seen. What caught his attention was the beings' faces, or rather, their distinct lack of monstrously wide mouths filled with metallic teeth, frozen in permanent smiles.
         They were human.
         The distance was too great to make out much more than that. All four of them wore hooded black cloaks. One had a decidedly feminine curve to her hips, underneath the cape she wrapped tightly around her body, and something shiny glinted on both her wrists. There was a man with a crimson headband tying back his hair. In place of a hood, the third wore a wide-brimmed black hat, slung so low that it hid most of his face. The fourth was a petite, thin-limbed woman. She removed her hood, revealing medium-length, raven hair and a youthful face.
         Lei almost let go of the binoculars.
         No. It couldn't be. Wasn't she from Japan? What would she be doing in this broken husk of an American city? Or at least, Lei thought this city was in America. It certainly looked like America, or what he thought America would look like, if he were there, which he almost certainly was.
         Lei shook his head, clearing it of stray wonderings. She was too far away to positively identify, and it made no difference in any case. He'd have to plan his exit route so as to avoid both the humans and the mutants. That would be easy enough, if he took the underground sewers to-
         A scream interrupted Lei's train of thought. He did not need the binoculars to pinpoint its source. He'd been so intent on scanning the horizon that he'd completely missed the spectacle right under his nose. A lone human, injured and unarmed, was fleeing on foot from about a dozen mutants. Most of the sunken-eyed, metal-mouthed pursuers had keen blades growing out of their flesh. The lead mutant carried a human thigh bone, carved and painted with obscure glyphs. He pointed the bone at his quarry; a flash of etheric fire streaked from its knobbed tip. Flames surrounded the runaway's head. He collapsed.
         Don't get involved, whispered a cautious voice in the back of Lei's mind. He's doomed. There are too many of them. Remember what happened the last time? There's nothing you can do.
         "Like hell," muttered the cop.



         Galgo ran.
         He'd always been a speedy runner. That was why his friends called him Galgo, meaning "greyhound." Only now his friends were all butchered into so many cuts of meat. He had tasted the same cold steel they'd been force-fed, and it left red-soaked gashes in his back and legs. The wounds would heal on their own if he only had the opportunity to rest, but there was no time to do anything except run, run faster, run farther, push his endurance to the limit and beyond.
         For how long had he been running? Hours? Days? It seemed as though he had been running forever, never quite outdistancing the howling hunters, never quite falling within their grasp. One of them came close enough to swipe at his back with the long, straight blade sprouting from its fist. Galgo screeched from the new shock of pain and sprinted even faster, yet he could not maintain the increased velocity for long. Fatigue numbed his legs, wore at his heart, and threatened to stiffen his body until he was a mirror of the frozen people he passed. His lungs heaved from the constant toil; his head felt light and dizzy. The mutants were only a handful of strides behind him now.
         There came a sputtering crackle, like the sound of a bonfire consuming autumn leaves, and a searing inferno enveloped his head. His straight, greasy hair burned. Blazing agony tore at his face. He fell, desperately trying to beat out the fire. Salty tears came from his eyes, further stinging his burned skin. Through the moisture and flame clouding his vision, he glimpsed his death. Its jaundiced, abnormal face was split in an inhumanly wide metal-toothed grin. It raised a bloodstained sickle-blade that curved from the back of its forearm, ready to reap his life-
         -and a pair of binoculars smacked it on the forehead.
         "WHEEAH!"
         A human silhouette followed, landing on Galgo's attacker with a deep-voiced battle cry. Galgo slipped out of his leather jacket and wrapped it upon his head, smothering the fire, though the misery of his burns remained all too fierce. The harsh krak of a gunshot repeated several times, echoing off the surrounding brick and concrete buildings. Blinking, Galgo saw an unreal vision of the shadowy figure pointing a long-barreled handgun at the mutants and squeezing the trigger. The pack recoiled. A few of them fell, clutching at newfound holes in their bodies.
         "Come on!" enjoined Galgo's deliverer, grabbing his hand and pulling him up. Galgo's legs had grown rigid during the brief pause; forcing them to move was ripping apart his muscle fibers one by one. Galgo stumbled two steps forward and tripped, gasping and trembling from exhaustion. The rescuer glanced over his shoulder and urged, "Hurry, this way!"
         For one, timeless moment, Galgo had a clear impression of the stranger.
         Something about him struck Galgo as dreadfully wrong. Perhaps it was the feral look in his eyes, mahogany islands adrift in a sea of white streaked with red. Perhaps it was the distinct whiffs of sewage and strong brandy that lingered on his clothing: a white shirt stained with grime and rolled up at the elbows, suspenders, dingy tan bell-bottomed slacks worn through at the knees, and loafers with wide rents in the heels and toes. The ash-grey forelock in his matted, sable hair felt particularly ominous. This stranger had saved his life, or at least prolonged it for a little while; yet every fiber of Galgo's intuition screamed that he was trading a pack of hellhounds for Cerebus himself.
         Galgo tried to voice the doubts that crowded in his mind. He managed only a single, hoarse syllable.
         "Who...?"
         "Lei Wulong Super Police, and this is NOT the time to play twenty freaking questions!" Galgo felt himself being pulled and prodded into a run; he half-galloped, half-staggered as he followed Lei into a disused car wash. A serenely frozen attendant took no notice of them, nor did the crumbled bones of the driver in a car stopped part-way within the garage. Galgo blindly plunged into the murky depths, dogging the heels of a stranger who perfectly threaded his way around machines, brushes, frozen people and stopped automobiles, as though he could see in the dark. Galgo could not tell for certain whether additional footsteps joined their own, but he strongly doubted that the mutants had given up-
         Hold it.
         Hold everything.
         Did he say "police"? For the love of God, did the stranger who had saved him actually call himself "police"?
         It was too much. Sharper than pain, fiercer than burns, more debilitating than a marathon, the supreme irony of it all overwhelmed Galgo. The last of his mental defenses broke down. He started to laugh. Hysterical convulsions shook him, felled him to a crawl, and still the laughter wouldn't stop. Lei said something that he couldn't make out over his own wild cackles.
         "You are-" Galgo tried to explain, and faltered from the effort of attempting to translate the absurdity. "Tú eres policía y yo soy reo; antes del Apocalipsis, habríamos tratado de matar al uno al otro!"
         Galgo heard the quiet click sounds of Lei reloading his revolver, and wondered if the cop was going to shoot him. But Lei simply hauled him into an upright stance and dragged him further. Now he could definitely hear the pounding of footsteps behind them both. A dim light shined ahead; was it the way out? The illumination grew stronger, opening into a blind alley strewn with refuse and garbage cans. A tilted metal dumpster rested against the far brick wall.
         "Yo asesiné a un policía una vez," Galgo giggled, madly. "Al igual que tú!"
         "You can tell me your blasted life story over drinks later!" the cop snapped. Did he understand Spanish, or was that just a lucky guess? "Right now, we have to reach the exit before they-"
         Three mutants waited just beyond the doorway. One of them held a wand of bone.
         "-head us off," Lei mumbled. An instantaneous flash of fire spouted from the bone-wand's knobs. Lei flung himself backward, landing on hands and heels; the blazing streak missed him by an inch. Both refugees glanced back the way they had come; another six mutants were closing in on them, cutting off their avenue of retreat. The maniacal craving to laugh drained from Galgo as suddenly as it had come, leaving only grief.
         "Why? Why did you turn on us!?" Galgo howled to the mutant leader. Fresh tears formed in his eyes. "We had a deal! DRAGONS HAD A DEAL! Kano said-"
         "Kano have no more use for you," sneered the lead mutant.
         He brought his bone-wand in line with Galgo's chest, yet before he could summon the killing stroke, the harsh report of a firearm blared. A divot oozing dirty-brown blood appeared in the lead mutant's forehead, followed by matching punctures in the heads of his associates. Lei pivoted on one knee, pointing his revolver's barrel toward the other six; the krak of his gunshot sounded once more before they were upon him.
         Galgo turned around.
         Everything felt like a bizarre waking dream. The mutants seemed to be moving in slow motion, as two of them peeled off from the group attacking Lei and raced toward him. Galgo could only stand and watch them raise the serrated saw-blades protruding from their arms. Those blades were poised to eviscerate him, just like all the rest of his gang - José, Daniel, María...
         ...sweet María...
         "No!" Galgo shouted, ducking the lethal shears as the world snapped into real-time. The closest mutant reversed his swipe, striking Galgo's burned face with the back of his fist. Galgo reeled, falling onto a pile of metal parts.
         Galgo's hands curled around a random piece of junk, while the attacking mutant stepped next to him. The grinning enemy chopped downward, targeting his liver; Galgo thrust the metal length crosswise in its path. Serrated saw-blades met a rusty tire iron with a hooked end. Sparks flashed from the contact.
         "Voy a vivir," the gangster seethed, matching the mutant's soulless, red-eyed gaze. "Me oyes? Voy a vivir!" The enemy only stretched his smile wider.
         "Aah-ugh!" Somewhere close by, Lei uttered an involuntary cry of pain.
         The second mutant - a female, Galgo noted - was circling him, preparing to stab him in the kidney. Galgo shifted his weight, letting the male mutant's blade slide along the rusty tire iron until its hook encircled his enemy's wrist. Adjusting the hook's curve so that it caught against the mutant's forearm sheath, Galgo wrenched hard to the right. His foe twisted with him, and the female's arm-blade accidentally found the pit of her companion's stomach. She did not appear perturbed. When she jerked her weapon out, muddy-brown blood dripped from its tip.
         "HssssSSSSSSS..."
         A malicious, snakelike sound resonated from one side, supplemented by furious mutant yells, but there was no time for Galgo to turn and look. The female mutant feinted toward the gangster; his dodge became a stumble when he tripped over the mutant leader's body. His enemy leered down at him, her pallid flesh and stringy brown hair framed in the doorway of the exit. She snatched the dropped bone-wand with blinding speed, firing it before the gangster could roll to his feet; yet she must have underestimated its recoil, for the blast shot wide over his head and made her wobble. Galgo struck her solidly upon the jaw, using his tire iron like a club. The bone-wand flew from her hand; it broke into jagged, brittle halves as it clattered against the floor. She went down.
         A nightmare was standing behind her.
         "Madre de Dios!" Galgo whispered.
         It was bleeding dull red from a deep wound in its side, and another, shallower slash running crosswise along its right-hand ribs, but that was nothing compared to the quarts of muddy-brown mutant blood that drenched its clothing and skin. Scraps of tattered gristle and organs clung to the talons on its hands. Although its distorted face bore a strong resemblance to the cop that had saved his life, one look into its vacant eyes convinced Galgo that it was no longer even remotely human.
         It made a serpentine hiss, and lunged for the gangster's throat. Galgo reeled backward; the thing's claws carved triple welts on his cheek instead, laying his face open to the bone. The gangster lowered his center of gravity, the better to regain his balance. When the abomination attacked again, Galgo held up his tire iron in a horizontal barricade.
         The monster's hands wrapped around the tire iron's ends. With a downward yank of both arms, it bent the iron into a loop. Bits of rust flaked off the warped metal.
         Galgo silently swore never to mistrust his intuition again.
         The gangster let go of his useless weapon and retreated further, his eyes bulging from the thing's casual display of unearthly strength. He expected to run into the blind alley's brick wall, but instead, two whetted points of white-hot torment pressed into his back. They split from his chest, extruding like newly hatched insect larvae, then whipped him into the side of the metal dumpster and withdrew, leaving him in a consumptive, bubbling shock.
         Galgo clutched at the dumpster's rim, and stared at the mutant woman who had stabbed him in the back. A brown-black bruise affected her sickly-yellow jaw. Licking his blood from her forearm blade, she squared off against the thing that had once been a man.
         It hissed again, charging her. She thrust forth her blades, wanting to impale it, but it gripped the scalpels with its hands and snapped them off, heedless of the red droplets that dribbled from its palms. The female made a strangled outcry. She jammed one hand around its throat and grasped its waistline with the other, using both holds and mutant brawn to hoist it off the ground. It spat and flailed; though it was doubtless stronger than she, it no longer had the leverage to fully apply that advantage. Its foreclaws whipped viciously toward her neck as she threw it into the alley's brick wall.
         The monster hit the mortared surface with a sickening smack, and landed in an inert heap. A spot of dull maroon remained, where its skull had come into contact with the graffiti-covered brickwork.
         The mutant woman swayed a bit, stiffly turning around. She smiled at Galgo with two mouths - one filled with metal shark's teeth, the other spread wide across her jugular and gushing fountains of muddy-brown drool. She toppled upon the concrete and moved no more.
         Galgo's hold on the dumpster was slipping. He tried to catch his breath and couldn't; a hollow emptiness pinched his ruptured chest, making him gulp like a fish deprived of water. A surge of lassitude assaulted him, and he sank to hands and knees. He had been running and suffering for such a long time that he desperately needed to rest, if only briefly.
         Yes, that was it. If he could just lie down for a moment, it would help.
         If he could just lie down...



         "Well?" Sonya prompted.
         "The Chosen One is definitely within this city," Liu Kang replied.
         "No shit."
         "I do not like discontinuing our invisibility any more than you do, but I cannot maintain it and pinpoint the Chosen One's location at the same time." Eyes unfocused, the monk slowly turned his head from left to right, as if straining to hear a distant sound. Tiny sparkles of mystic power flashed upon his dilated pupils.
         Jun removed the hood of her black cloak and listened to the whistling sorrow of the wind. "We are being watched. I can feel it."
         "Watched by what?" Kung Lao asked, softly. "Mutants? Centaurians?"
         "I don't think so."
         Liu Kang suddenly snapped out of his self-induced trance. "This way!" He dashed out of the shadow of a run-down Motel Six, across open territory.
         "Liu Kang, wait!" Sonya shouted in alarm.
         "We cannot! There is no time!"
         "But Kung Lao can-"
         Liu Kang wasn't listening. Sonya cursed and ran after him, followed by the others. They cut through an intersection, passed in front of a car and its frozen female driver, curved around a child suspended in mid-stride, and bounded over the crumbled remnants of a lost soul. Their exertion did little good; Liu Kang was easily the fastest of the quartet. Jun pulled ahead of Sonya and Kung Lao, but even she was steadily losing ground to the elder monk.
         "Dammit, Lao, get me in front of him!" Sonya directed, looking over her shoulder and extending her hand to the younger monk. Kung Lao obliged, taking her hand and calling upon his mystic prowess. Reality collapsed upon itself. The world tilted at an obtuse angle; when it straightened out, Liu Kang was running toward them.
         "Stop!" Sonya demanded. The elder monk did not slow. When he was nearly upon her, she seized his pumping arms, stuck one foot into his stomach, and pitched back in a reverse throw. His own momentum carried him over her head; though he tried to flip and land in a crouch, his shoulders hit the paved street before he could fully spin around. He rushed to stand up, but Kung Lao grasped his arm and twisted it into a lock that kept him on his knees.
         "Liu, listen to us!" Kung Lao urged.
         "But the Chosen One-"
         "Let me know where he is, and I can teleport us to his side faster than we could run."
         Liu Kang ceased struggling as the realization sank in. Kung Lao let go of his arm.
         "He is in-"
         "Don't tell me. Show me."
         The elder monk nodded. Resting his hands on Kung Lao's shoulders, he met his Shaolin brother's calm gaze. Silent seconds ticked by. Jun caught up with them just as Kung Lao broke contact. It was testimony to her endurance that she was neither tired nor breathing hard, despite the long journey to this city and the race she had run.
         "Right," Kung Lao said, taking Sonya's hand. They both departed in a blip of distorted space.
         "Next time, Liu," Jun quietly remarked, "please try to think before you act. You'll live longer." Liu Kang opened his mouth to retort, yet before he could say anything, Kung Lao reappeared and summarized what he had seen.
         "There's no danger, but people are hurt. Prepare yourself," he advised, catching Jun's eye and taking her hand.
         Jun's stomach did a triple half-gainer. Teleportation never did sit well with her. When the universe stopped spinning, she choked back her rising bile twice - once from the dizzying trip, and once when she saw the savaged throat of the dead mutant woman at her feet.
         Jun staggered, leaning against the garbage-strewn alley's brick wall. A Chinese man soaked with muddy-brown mutant blood lay crumpled at its foundation. She dropped next to him, and caught her breath in surprise when she saw his face.
         "Masaka! Kono hito wa..."
         "He's not as badly injured," Sonya interrupted, checking the readout of the microcomputer on her wrist. "Liu Kang and I will tend to him. Jun, you and Lao see to the Chosen One."
         "But-"
         "I gave you an order, Kazama!"
         By then Kung Lao had vanished and returned with Liu Kang. The younger monk removed his hat, reached into it, and withdrew a mysteriously large volume of clean cloth. He handed half to Liu Kang, then hurriedly led Jun to the Chosen One's side.
         Their patient rested on his back with his eyes closed. Second-degree and third-degree burns covered his face. His right cheek had been brutally torn open; chunks of pink flesh were missing, exposing a whitish sliver of his maxilla. A grey tint affected his tanned skin; his lips, eyelids, and ear lobes had turned blue. The veins of his throat protruded, blue streaks in contrast to the red of his other wounds. His chest and mouth worked rapidly, desperately, and his fingernails dug into the rubbish next to him. A muted sucking sound complemented his rapid attempts to breathe. Jun flipped up his shirt and frowned in worried sympathy when she saw the twin perforations in his breast.
         "María," he mouthed noiselessly, "María, no salgas de mí..."
         "His lungs have collapsed," Jun diagnosed. "He's dying. If we were in Sanctuary, they might be able to save him."
         "We're not in Sanctuary," Kung Lao pointed out.
         "I know. Until we return, I must put him into stasis. Stand ready. I may need you to physically support me if I tire; we only get one chance at this." She gently rested her hands upon the Chosen One's chest. A professional calm settled upon her, displacing the sadness she felt for the victim, because to summon one's Ki in any emotional state other than calm is not prudent.
         Jun began to sing.
         Her wordless melody filled the air at first, though it shortly quieted to a faint hum. Its soothing caress relaxed the agitation that had been unconsciously building in Sonya, as she tended to the wounded Chinese man.
         The wounded man was suffering from shock, blood loss, and a concussion, but fortunately his internal organs didn't seem to be damaged. She applied clean fabric to the laceration in his side and the abrasion on his head.
         "Liu, give me another of Lao's cloths," Sonya requested, expectantly holding out her hand. Nothing filled it.
         "Liu!" she barked, turning away from her half-bandaged patient. The elder monk paid her no heed; his attention was wholly fixed upon the injured man, and his teeth ground together tautly.
         "Liu, snap out of it and help me!" Still no response. Sonya resisted the desire to throttle him, instead pulling another cloth from his tightening fist.
         "...shénme...?" The mumbled word came from behind her. She turned around. The wounded man was stirring. When he saw her, anxiety flickered in his mahogany eyes.
         "Nî shì shéi?"
         "It's okay. We're friends," she gently replied, holding out her open hands in the universal gesture of peaceful intent. "Please don't try to move. You're hurt." He looked at her blankly and shook his head, drawing back against the wall.
         "Friends," she repeated, with a kindhearted smile. Her mind scrambled to recall the smattering of Chinese dialects she had learned and forgotten, during a brief past mission in Hong Kong. What was the word for "friend"? Pang - no, peng-something - peng-yao?
         "Péngyou," she said, hoping that her tones were right. The injured man shook his head again and raised one hand, palm out, apparently gesturing for her to keep her distance. "Liu, I really need you to translate for me and Jackie Chan here."
         "Don't call me that. I hate that," murmured the injured man. His weakened voice carried no trace of accent. "Sorry. For a moment there, I couldn't remember - sorry." He awkwardly attempted to inch away from her.
         "Will you please hold still? I'm not finished dressing your wounds."
         "I-... eh, all right," he sighed, giving up his retreat. "It isn't that bad, actually... I've lived through worse... just need some time to heal." He pressed one hand against his forehead for a few moments. "There was someone else. A human. Hispanic guy. Is he...?"
         "Our best people are tending to the Chosen One. If anyone can save him, they can."
         "Oh." A lull. "Be careful when he wakes up. He confessed to being a criminal and a cop-killer. I hadn't read him his rights at the time, though." A slightly amused half-smile accompanied the joke.
         "I know what he is." Her reply was completely serious, and injected with a latent, resentful tension. She swiftly suppressed her internal acrimony, however, and its effect on her mien had diminished almost to invisibility when she finished tying the last of the makeshift dressing. "I'm Lieutenant Sonya Blade, U.S. Special Forces."
         "Sonya Blade? The Sonya Blade?"
         "You've heard of me?"
         "That would be one way of putting it. You left quite a trail of destruction when you chased the Black Dragons' ringleader through Hong Kong. It took six hours just to put out the fires. I was out all night on riot patrol."
         "Next time, I'll have to ask Kano not to blow anything up."
         "You do that," he agreed, his half-smile broadening into an affable grin. "By the way, I'm Lei Wulong. You might have heard of me, too. They call me Super Police."
         "Doesn't ring a bell."
         Without warning, Liu Kang advanced and roughly shoved her to one side. "Sonya, get away from it."
         "What-"
         "It is dangerous! Do not come near! I will deal with this thing."
         "Excuse me," Lei interjected, politely. "Who are you calling a 'thing'?"
         "You." Liu Kang fixed his mouth in a grim snarl.
         "Okay, just checking."
         "You," growled the monk, "you stink of evil!"
         "You could use a shower too," Lei sighed, painfully standing up. "Look, 'Chosen One' or whoever he is appears to be in good hands, so don't mind me, I'll be leaving now-"
         "Do not move or I will kill you." The cop froze.
         Sonya's expression became concerned. "There's no call for-"
         "Yes, there is! This thing is what nearly murdered the Chosen One!"
         "You're jumping to conclusions, Liu. If he were allied with the mutants, then why would he be stained with their blood?"
         "I don't mean anyone any harm," Lei said, slowly holding up his empty hands.
         "Do you deny it, then?" Liu Kang spat, turning on the cop. "Do you deny assaulting the Chosen One? Answer me!"
         "I..." A tremulous, haunted qualm was creeping into Lei's countenance. "I-I don't remember..."
         "Then I will pull the memory out of your soul."
         "What? You can't do that-"
         "It won't hurt unless you resist."
         "I just took on a dozen freaking mutants, and you think I'm afraid of getting hurt? But you can't-"
         "You cannot stop me."
         "No, I don't mean it that way, I want to warn you-"
         "You dare to make threats?" the monk seethed, his hands clenching from ire.
         "No, no, I-"
         "If you were innocent, you would not object! You must be a servant of the Shao Kahn!"
         "Who is Shao Kahn?"
         "Don't play dumb," Liu Kang snarled. Tendrils of elemental Fire flickered upon his arms. "Your taint is so vile that it can have only one source!"
         "I swear I've never heard of-"
         "LIAR!" Liu Kang lashed out his fist in an unrestrained burst of anger.
         "NO!" Lei shrieked, automatically catching the strike in his palm. "Don't attack me!" Panic flooded his face and voice as he fell to his knees. "I-I surrender, all right? I'll be your prisoner, only don't-" A lump formed in his throat, interfering with his ability to speak.
         Liu Kang smiled triumphantly. "Who is afraid now?"
         "I'm not going to argue with that," Lei shuddered. "I'm just not."
         Sonya stepped forward. "Liu, this has gone far enough."
         "At ease, woman," the monk dismissed. "I won't hurt the thing, as long as it cooperates."
         "Okay, fine, I'll cooperate," Lei conceded, looking down at his bloodied hands. "I'll tell you why-"
         "No, you will not," Liu Kang charged. He firmly grabbed Lei's hair and jerked it back, compelling the cop to meet his piercing gaze. "You will show me."
         "Stop, you don't want to do this, I don't-" Lei's voice quit in mid-protest.
         A single bead of sweat formed on Liu Kang's forehead. For the space of a heartbeat, both men were held motionless in a mutual trance.
         Liu Kang screamed.
         His high-pitched, ululating wail traumatized Sonya's ears. His hand spasmodically let go of the cop's hair, and he tipped over backward. Sonya caught him and asked what was wrong, but he couldn't hear her. Terror contorted his face, and his unfocused eyes darted about at random. The scream gave way to silence. His breathing and heart rate slowed.
         "Liu, are you all right? Talk to me!" she implored.
         "Hëi," whispered the monk, but he wasn't addressing her. "Köngdòng. Lêng. Zhèr téng!"
         Lei's muscles went slack; he sank against the brick wall and closed his eyes. "I need a drink. I really do."
         Kung Lao rushed to Liu Kang's side. "What has happened to my brother?"
         Sonya checked her microcomputer. "I'm not sure. He's uninjured, but he appears to be in a state of extreme psychological trauma."
         Lei bowed his head and hid his face in his hands. "I knew it was a mistake to stay sober this morning. Knew it."
         "What did you do to him?" Kung Lao demanded, confronting the cop.
         "He wanted to see into my soul. I tried to warn him. He wouldn't listen to - eh?" Lei looked at the younger monk in puzzlement. Kung Lao pushed up the razor-edged brim of his hat, and his eyebrows rose in surprise.
         "Lei?"
         "Lao?"
         They exchanged bewildered stares.
         "What are you doing here?" Kung Lao asked, at the same time as Lei said "Where did you get that ridiculous hat?"
         "Hurting," Lei answered, at the same time as Kung Lao said "Inheritance."
         "Lao, how are the others?" Sonya interrupted, brusquely.
         "He's in stasis. She's unconscious from the strain of casting the enchantment."
         "Then there's a problem. We have four invalid people-"
         "Three," Lei muttered. "I'm not that bad off. I can walk."
         "-the noise we've made is likely to attract attention, and worst of all, we won't have the camouflage of Liu's invisibility spell until he recovers. We won't even have the cover of darkness in a few more minutes. We're sitting ducks."
         Kung Lao reflected on the situation. "What we need is a place to hide."
         "I agree. Where?"
         "You're the urban warfare veteran; you tell me."
         Lei cleared his throat. "I know a place. Underneath the fourth garbage can along that far wall is a manhole. It leads to the eastern drainage tunnels, which branch into the central sewer. The mutants don't bother going down there. Here, I'll show you the way."
          Lei eased to his knees, then to his feet, and limped toward the indicated subterranean entrance.
         Sonya motioned for Kung Lao to come closer. "Could he be leading us into a trap?"
         "No," the monk responded without hesitation.
         "Liu Kang sensed evil within him."
         "Everyone has evil within, Sonya. The only question is to what degree we allow our own iniquities to rule us."
         "Are you absolutely certain we can rely on him? This time, think before you answer."
         Kung Lao paused in momentary contemplation. "You don't know Lei like I do. I'd trust him with my life."
         "Don't look now," she advised, "but we are."


End of Chapter 2: Encounters