ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 3: Broken Glass


    A poison bittersweet
    is all I need to taste
    eliminates the pain

    You cannot go far
    carrying the weight of who you are

         -Saigon Kick, Going On


         The first thing to hit Kung Lao was the stench.
         Rotting garbage, excrement, and unidentifiable filth exuded an overwhelming fetor. No wonder the mutants never came down here. Kung Lao halted halfway into the manhole, and had to concentrate on breathing only through his mouth for several seconds.
         The metal ladder down was so old that it was beginning to work free of its concrete anchors, and it creaked balefully with every cautious step. Since Kung Lao was the last one to descend, he carefully replaced the manhole cover above, with the half-empty garbage can balanced on top of it. His action cut off all light from outside. Everything was pitch black, except for the faint pink radiance of the electromagnetic pressure waves emanating from Sonya's microcomputer. The waves' faint glow was barely enough to reveal the motionless outlines of Jun and the Chosen One, suspended in midair. They slept peacefully, she from exhaustion, he from stasis.
         Liu Kang leaned heavily on Sonya's free arm, his head down, one forearm pressed underneath his ribcage as if he were in great pain. He remained oblivious to the outside world, occasionally mumbling anguished phrases in Mandarin.
         "Keep close to the sides," Lei counseled. "You don't want to fall into the sludge-bed in the center."
         Sonya made a disgruntled noise. "I can't see a damn thing. We need some light."
         "Eh? Oh. I guess you probably do."
         "What is that supposed to mean?"
         "It means I'm not carrying matches or a flashlight. Sorry. What about that gizmo on your wrist?"
         "I'm straining its power output just to carry our friends. Lao, can't you cast a light spell or something?"
         "Hm. I'm not a Fire mage like Liu," pondered the monk, "but I think I know just the trick." He gracefully removed his wide-brimmed hat and held it in the palm of one hand, indented side up. Flexing his free hand, he wiggled his fingers and made several fluid passes over his headgear.
         "Torus Imperiosus, Pillars' Junxi, from Oneiric Mesosphere I summon thee!"
         Nothing happened.
         "C'mon," Kung Lao urged. "Please?"
         A brilliant, cone-shaped white beam erupted from within the hat. Slowly, delicately, a marvelous creature emerged. Its spherical white eyes were the primary source of the light, though the rest of its pseudo-amphibious body also shined. A pair of flexible, backward-pointing antennae complemented the sides of its head. Its back was cherry red, with a feathery ridge down the middle and a row of yellow spots lining either side, while its incandescent underbelly matched the pure white of its eyes. It hovered, using webbed toes and a vertically flattened tadpole tail to languidly swim in midair. The three-foot-long creature dimly resembled a fanciful salamander, except that it had neither mouth nor nose.
         "What is it?" Sonya asked, incredulously.
         "A Lamp-eft," answered the monk. "Don't worry, it's harmless. It'll need some of my ambient bio-energy to sustain itself in this darkness, but I have enough to spare."
         "Not so close," Lei said, worriedly.
         The Lamp-eft had taken a curious interest in the cop, drifting in front of him and sweeping his face with its searchlight orbs. For a moment, the white beam reflected a blood-red glow off his eyes; he made a sound like a cat choking on its hairball and backed away, holding up his hands and turning aside his face. When the Lamp-eft followed, he sagged to one knee and started shaking.
         "Take it away. Please," Lei winced.
         Kung Lao snapped his fingers. "Hey. Come back here. Leave him alone."
         The Lamp-eft shifted its luminous gaze to the monk.
         "You heard me."
         Reluctantly, it wriggled toward him.
         "I need you to stay with Sonya. Understand? You stay with Sonya."
         "Lao, his eyes," Sonya whispered, with a subtle gesture toward the cop. "Did you see-?"
         "Yeah."
         "I still don't trust him."
         "Then trust me."
         "What if you're wrong?"
         "Keep the Lamp-eft near you," sighed the monk. "Its light weakens creatures of darkness."
         Kung Lao approached his kneeling friend. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let the Lamp-eft accost you."
         "I desperately need a drink," Lei muttered, standing. He kept his head down, and pressed one forearm below his ribs in an eerie parody of Liu Kang - or perhaps it was Liu Kang who mimicked him.
         "We all owe you another apology," Kung Lao continued, quietly. "My brother Liu Kang had no right to intrude upon your privacy."
         "Forget it," the cop dismissed with a wave of his hand.
         "Do you know what is wrong with him?"
         "Eh, he stumbled across a memory. That's all. He'll be fine as soon as he figures out it isn't real."
         Kung Lao spared a glance at his stunned Shaolin brother. "Liu's mental disciplines are strong. I can't imagine what type of shock could break them down."
         "It's not that bad." The cop straightened his stance and let his arms hang by his sides. "I'm sure he'll recover soon."
         "Is it..." The monk searched for an undemanding manner to phrase his next question. "Is there anything else you can tell us?"
         "Give him an hour," Lei rasped, staring into the darkness ahead. "If he hasn't regained his senses by then... eh, just give him an hour."
         "All right. So, which way do we go?"
         Lei reached inside the back pocket of his slacks, fishing out a miniature notebook and a sketchy, amateur map. "This is a summary of the data I've collected. The notebook details the patterns and territories of the mutant tribes I've observed inside the city. And this..." He unfolded the map, and pointed to one of several circled spots on its penciled trails. "This is where we are. East takes you to the city border. West leads toward, uh, a sort of a safehouse I've set up. It's rather... messy, but if you need to stay there, you can."
         Lei handed over both items.
         Kung Lao looked at Sonya. "I think we should head for the safehouse."
         "Why not the border?" she challenged. "If Liu Kang wakes up by the time we reach it-"
         "He still won't be able to protect us with invisibility. The trauma has drained his psychic reserves. When he does regain full consciousness, he'll still have to regenerate his Chi. Jun could use time to recuperate, too. We need to rest for at least a day."
         "We'll be late for the rendezvous."
         "I know."
         "I'll send the major a message." She keyed a command sequence into her microcomputer.
         While Sonya worked, Lei studied the slumbering young woman hovering next to her. The Lamp-eft looped around the sleeper. Lei blinked, and shaded his eyes from the creature's light.
         "That really is Jun Kazama, isn't it?"
         Kung Lao pushed up the brim of his hat. "You know her?"
         "Briefly acquainted. We were matched against one another in a blood-sport tournament called 'Iron Finger,' or something like that. Nice kid. Decent fighter."
         "Who won?"
         "She did. Beat me pretty soundly, too."
         Kung Lao raised an eyebrow.
         He'd sparred with both Jun and Lei in the past. Jun was indeed competent, but she lacked the killer instinct, whereas Lei was potentially in Liu Kang's class. Though the cop did not have Liu Kang's speed, his agility was matched only by his remarkable talents for misdirection and improvisation. Jun might be able to defeat Lei; the outcome of a tournament battle is never set in stone. Kung Lao found it difficult to believe that she'd have an easy win, however.
         "Should've known better than to turn my back on her," Lei shrugged, with a slight half-smile. That hardly explained the conundrum, and yet... it had been over a year since Kung Lao's last sparring match with Lei. Had the cop allowed his skills to deteriorate?
         Kung Lao couldn't think of a polite way to ask that question, so he settled for saying, "I'm glad to see you survived the Apocalypse. Did you seek refuge on sacred ground? That's how Jun weathered it; she had the good fortune to be invited into Sanctuary just before it hit."
         Lei's half-smile faded. "'Sacred ground.' Right. Sacred to Dionysus, maybe."
         Sonya tapped her microcomputer thoughtfully. "Jax is not happy, but he knows it can't be helped. Let's go."
         "This way," directed the cop.
         He led them along the disused sewage canal in silence, broken only when he voiced warnings about slippery footing or crumbling stonework. Kung Lao guided Liu Kang's stumbling tread. Sonya, unwilling to put complete faith in the map Lei had provided, meticulously noted each branch and turn of their path in her microcomputer's data banks. After about three-quarters of an hour, the group reached a boarded-up branch tunnel. Some of the boards and nails had been pried apart. A tattered blanket hung over the forced opening like a curtain. Lei took one edge of the blanket in his hand, and hesitated.
         Seconds ticked by, yet he did not move.
         "Wôde línghún..." Liu Kang gasped, forlornly.
         "Zhè bú shì zhënde," Kung Lao reassured. <Can you hear me, Liu? It isn't real. It is only someone else's memory. You're having a nightmare. Please, wake up.> Liu Kang shivered. Kung Lao could not tell whether that was a good or bad sign.
         "Why have we stopped?" Sonya inquired, guardedly. Kung Lao left his Shaolin brother with her and approached Lei.
         The cop remained stationary. He was gripping the blanket's edge so tightly that the color drained from his clenched knuckles. Kung Lao peered at his face.
         Conflict.
         An inner struggle trapped Lei, paralyzing him with indecision. His eyes were closed, his head was down, and he clenched his teeth. The internal war threatened to completely consume him.
         "Lei, is something wrong?"
         "Nn-no." He shook his head.
         "We can always turn back, you know. Are you sure you're all right?"
         Silence.
         "Lei... is there something in there you don't want us to see?"
         Lei's head snapped up. The tension in his countenance melted away. As suddenly as it had appeared, the conflict was resolved.
         "Watch your step," the cop advised, tonelessly. "There is a lot of broken glass."
         With that, he batted aside the blanket and ducked through the opening. Kung Lao followed. The Lamp-eft quizzically poked its luminous eyes over his shoulder.
         "No kidding," remarked the monk.
          Sparkling Lamp-eft light glittered on a tremendous accumulation of shattered glass containers. Red, blue, deep green, all colors of broken fragments, bottoms, and bottle necks formed a tortured mosaic. Corks and metal caps peppered the confusion. The heady odor of strong alcohol underlined the omnipresent sewer stink.
         Shifts in the earth since the hour of Apocalypse had tilted the canal floor. Its sludge-bed congregated on one half, while the other half sloped up from the muck at a slight angle. Scattered pieces of glass blanketed the cement; more were visible within the shallow end of the sludge-bed. The mortared walls were stained with spilled liquid and nicked from impacts. Only one intact glass item could be seen: a dirty jigger, set next to the sludge-bed.
         There was a splotched, rusty bucket near the makeshift entrance. A pile of discarded clothing and rags lay by the wall, several yards away.
         Sonya drew back the blanket and peeked inside.
         "This is not a safehouse," she concluded, grimacing in revulsion. "This is a house of despair."
         Kung Lao brought one finger up to his lips. "Ssh. We're the guests here."
         "'Ssh' my ass. This cesspit is the residence of someone you'd trust with your life? Just how badly do you want to die?"
         "Can you think of a better place to hide?"
         "No, but the sooner we get the hell out of here, the better."
         "Then it's settled. You keep an eye on Liu, and I'll clear a spot for our sleeping friends." He reached into his hat, withdrew a long-handled whisk broom, and set to sweeping a portion of the glass clutter into the sludge-bed. Lei brushed past him, crouched next to the sludge-bed, and plunged one hand into the murky gunk.
         "Dammit, it has to be here somewhere... ah. Knew it." The cop withdrew a long-necked bottle from the cesspit. Semi-liquid grime dripped from its length.
         Sonya stared at him.
         "Keeps it cool," Lei explained with a shrug. He snapped the fingers of his free hand; a dirtied cloth appeared amidst a miniature shower of azure sparks. He used it to wipe off the scum that clung to the bottle's neck, and bit off the cap, spitting it onto the floor.
         Sonya scowled in disgust. "You are not going to-"
         "You have no idea how badly I need this." Lei retrieved the jigger, filling it with golden-brown liquor and quaffing the contents. "But where are my manners. Want some?" He proffered the open bottle.
         "Like I want a root canal."
         "Lao?"
         A troubled expression crossed Kung Lao's face. "The White Lotus Society forbids its members to drink, remember?"
         "Oh, yeah. That's right, isn't it." The cop retreated to a relatively uncluttered spot by the far wall and sat down. A second glassful disappeared down his throat.
         Having cleared a portion of the sloping floor, Kung Lao withdrew a thick blanket from his hat and spread it out. Sonya adjusted her microcomputer to lower Jun and the wounded Chosen One to the ground, while the monk continued his sweeping.
         The Lamp-eft fluttered around Liu Kang's head. Its searchlight eyes peered at him until he flinched. He shivered again and whispered, "Wô zài nâr...?"
         "Liu, can you hear me?" Sonya asked. Her comrade blinked and rubbed his eyes. The pressure he'd lent upon her elbow eased.
         "Lao, I think he's coming out of it." Kung Lao dropped the broom and rushed to his brother's side.
         "Wh-where am I?" Liu Kang stammered.
         "Home sweet home. Stay 's long 's y'like," Lei slurred, pouring himself another glassful.
         Liu Kang stretched his neck, taking in the gloom of his shadowy surroundings. "This place is a stinking sewer."
         "Home sweet stinkin' sewer, then. Wanna drink? Oh, tha's right, y're with th' White Hemlock Society, or wha'ever."
         Liu Kang started to kneel, and stopped when he heard the crunch of jagged glass fragments grinding underneath his feet. The others guided him to the cleared area next to the sleepers, where he could settle down cross-legged. Occasional shivers continued to plague him, and he hung his head. Kung Lao clasped his brother's shoulders.
         "Liu, I was so worried. How are you feeling?"
         "I feel like I am going to be sick."
         "Retch bucket's in th' corner." The cop waved one hand toward the rusty pail. Liu Kang appraised him with an ominous glare. Lei stared back with bloodshot eyes.
         "Um, I don't think you two have been properly introduced," Kung Lao said, hurriedly stepping between them before tension could build any further. "Lei, this is Liu Kang, grand champion of the White Lotus Society. Liu, this is Detective Lei Wulong of the Hong Kong constabulary."
         "They call me Super Police," Lei volunteered, helpfully.
         "I do not believe it," Liu Kang snorted.
         Kung Lao cleared his throat. "Liu, shortly after you had left to combat Shang Tsung, Lei visited our order. Master Wu granted his petition to study our disciplines and martial arts."
         "A drunkard such as you could never be a member of the White Lotus Society!" Liu Kang snapped to the cop.
         "Seven Hells, no. Jus' hung with 'em f'r a while. Say, how're Master Wu an' th' rest?"
         "Murdered."
         Lei had been in the process of refilling his jigger, but it slipped through his fingers and chipped its rim on the ground. Its spilled contents traced a winding course down the subterranean slope. The cop set down his liquor bottle and hugged his knees, gazing moodily at the aqueous trail. "Damn. A lotta that been goin' 'round, lately."
         "There was nothing you could have done," Kung Lao stated, sorrowfully. "I am thankful you happened to depart when you did. Had you stayed one week longer, you very likely would have been slain with the rest."
         A long period of silence ensued. Lei finally broke it by clapping one hand over his forehead.
         "Hey! I jus' 'membered. There's somethin' I wanna tell you," he drawled, pointing an unsteady finger at Liu Kang. "I wanna congratulate you an' th' lieutenan'. Y'had a reeeeal good act goin' there!"
         "I beg your pardon?"
         "Y'had one a' th' best good cop/bad cop routines I ev'r seen, an' I oughtta know!" Lei burst into a fit of drunken laughter, holding his sides with folded arms. "Boy, did I ev'r fall f'r it. Y'think I'd know bett'r, bu' I was down on my knees an' ev'rythin'!" He made an abortive grab for the fallen tumbler, realized that it had come to rest two feet beyond his reach, and crawled to retrieve it. Settling against the wall once more, he shakily poured himself another drink.
         "Yue an' me used t' do routines jus' like tha', y'know. 'Cept she always played th' bad cop. Nev'r worked when we tried t' switch roles. She said it was 'cause I was too nice. Can y'believe tha'?" He drained the jigger in a single gulp. "Seriously. Can y' freakin' believe tha'!?"
         Without warning, Lei forcefully smashed the half-empty liquor bottle bottom-first on the sewer floor. Its body shattered up to the neck; pieces of broken glass erupted from the impact, cutting bloody trails into his arms and face. The cop didn't seem to notice. He rested his chin on drawn knees, and covered his tearing eyes. "Can y'believe tha'...?"
         Liu Kang glanced at his friends. Both were clearly ill at ease, but unsure of what to do about it.
         "Lao, Sonya... may Wulong and I speak in privacy?"
         They nodded, and stepped outside the blanket-covered entrance. The Lamp-eft remained, dancing around Liu Kang and the sleepers in swirling aerial patterns.
         "Kung Lao's assessment is correct, Wulong. You could not have prevented the slaying of our brothers. The demon sorcerer Shang Tsung had cast a spell that made his assassins impervious to attack."
         "Wha' makes y'think I didn' kill 'em m'self?" the cop retorted, bitterly. "I'm s'posed t' be an evil thing, 'member?"
         "No. You are cursed, not evil. I know that now, though it was wrong of me to learn the way I did. For that, I apologize."
         "F'rget it."
         "I wish I could. Tonight, I expect I shall spend sleepless hours striving to do precisely that." The monk unconsciously started to press his forearm against the pit of his stomach, then perceived what he was doing and stopped the reflex. "But for you, the nightmare never ends. I do not know how you can bear it. If I were in your shoes, I think I would be driven insane."
         Lei's head drooped. "Eh... it isn' tha' bad..."
         "This time, I know you are lying." It was not an accusation; merely a statement.



         They called him the "Killing Hawk."
         To most mortals, Baek Doo San was an enigma. He almost never spoke save to give a command or answer a question. His voice did not vary in timbre, and his countenance did not deviate from cold neutrality, with one exception. That was when he could immerse himself in the thrill of violence. When Baek was fighting or slaying, a wild madness overwhelmed him, and it never subsided until his enemies were all broken or dead.
         Preferably dead.
         But this time, Kazuya's orders were very specific. Baek was to find one of the Chosen's patrols and crush it, capturing at least three of its members alive. He would have the aid of ten Centaurians and one other.
         Kazuya Mishima was one of the few men who understood Baek, at least to a degree. Shortly prior to the end of the world, Kazuya had offered Baek a choice: work for the Mishima syndicate, or suffer the consequences. Baek's answer was itself a question: "Will I have license to kill?"
         Kazuya would have preferred to capture the entire patrol, but he knew that Baek's deepest loyalty was to the act of bloodshed. If the Killing Hawk were not allowed his due, his allegiance could turn. And Baek was the only one suitable for this task, because the rest of Kazuya's subordinates were rightfully terrified of the Centaurians. Centaurians were brutal, remorseless beasts with superbly keen senses. If they smelled the slightest hint of fear from a mortal, they considered him fresh meat. To a Centaurian, even a blood oath of fealty is meaningless in the presence of mortal trepidation. Kazuya had lost more than one retainer discovering this.
         The Killing Hawk had accepted his assignment in silence, and proceeded directly to the Centaurian pens. His allies were waiting for him. Chief among them was Major General Ouro.
         Like all Centaurians, Ouro was huge. His shoulders reached an additional two feet above Baek's six-foot frame. He glared down at the Killing Hawk with eyes of solid gold. Two thick, golden ram's horns curled from Ouro's head. His reddish, vaguely human-like chest and arms bulged with so much muscle that it perverted them to gross proportions. A pair of cone-shaped golden spikes studded his elbows. Ouro's only hair was a narrow, brushlike growth that coursed a thin trail down his scalp and humanoid spine.
         Below the humanoid waist, Ouro's body was a mixture of equine and rodent. His forelegs appeared almost slender next to the meaty hands that dangled on line with their knees. Ouro's crooked hind legs rested in a permanent semi-crouch, so that his horse's back sloped downward instead of being level. Spattered mud obscured the gold of his hooves. The skin of his horse-body was dull tan, and had no fur. A golden, metallic seam encircled his humanoid torso, and evenly divided his equine breast and belly. His golden rat's tail extended in segmented coils, stretching some twelve feet long total; he usually carried it in an S-curve, though at the moment it twisted and writhed impatiently. Ouro's gold-colored markings set him apart from the other nine Centaurians, all of whom had barren white eyes and silvery highlights.
         Rumor had it that Ouro was the second mightiest Centaurian alive, next to only the fabled General Motaro himself.
         Baek did not spare Ouro a second glance; he and the Centaurian had worked together before. What captured Baek's attention was the squat individual standing at ease among the gargantuan horse-men. This one had to be the "other" Kazuya had mentioned. Whoever this "other" was, the fact that he could wait complacently amidst Centaurian warriors was testimony to his self-control.
         A deep black hood shrouded the individual's face, and a floor-length cloak likewise concealed his body. Resting next to the hem of his cloak was a lumpy, voluminous burlap sack.
         "Identify yourself," Baek commanded. The cloaked one pushed back his hood.
         His iguana face was covered with viridescent scales, and had a protruding snout. Sinister red eyes, with vertically slitted cat's pupils, were set just a shade wider than the binocular vision of a man. When Baek stared into those pupils, a third, cloudy white eyelid briefly closed sideways over them. The stranger smiled, displaying rows of knifelike canines. His breath smelled faintly of vinegar and blood.
         "Reptile isss thy humble ssservant," the creature declared, bowing with a flourish.
         "Tell me how you can serve."
         The creature steepled its hands, which were tapered and carried wicked claws half the length of their fingers.
         "I posssesss sssome trifling ssskill in sssorsscery. Obssserve." He slashed open the burlap sack and shook out its contents: the dried bones of what was once a horse. The musty whiff of their decay affected the air.
         Hissing an alien incantation, Reptile crossed his hands, then pointed at the pile and croaked, "ARISSSE!"
         One by one, the bones put themselves together from the hooves up. Fetlock joined cannon bone, carpus, and radius; hock linked with tarsus, tibia and femur; all four limbs connected with the spine and ribs, until a skeletal horse grinned at Baek. Splotches of inky black necromancy wrapped around the joints and held them in place; more jet shaped itself into the effigy of stirrups, saddle, and bridle.
         "Thisss sssteed will asssissst thee in battle," Reptile explained, "sssinssce common horsssesss become mad with fright in the presssenssce of ssCentauriansss, and of courssse, the mere sssuggessshtion of mounting a ssCentaurian'sss back isss a mortal insssult."
         Ouro's nostrils twitched; his tail lashed, and his eyes narrowed to slits. That was the whole of his reaction, however. Reptile had to be one of the Shao Kahn's high-ranking valets, on loan to Kazuya. Otherwise, Ouro would not have allowed him to articulate that and live.
         Baek nodded once. "Tell me what else you can do."
         "Many thingsss, Commander Baek, but perhapsss the mossst ussseful ssskill isss thisss."
         With a high-pitched whistle, Reptile focused his power upon a spot directly above his extended forearm. Liquid black gobs of pure necromantic energy manifested and congealed, shaping into an avian visage with a hooked beak and curving talons.
         The solid black bird of prey spread its wings and screeched a shrill cry. Blazing red points of fire appeared on its head, in place of true eyes.
         "If thou isss willing, Commander, I canssst link thisss creassshtion'sss eyesss with thine own. Thou mayessst sssend it asss a ssscout; it will cover many timesss the area of an ordinary patrol in a fracssshtion of the durassshtion, and itsss enhanssced visssion will pierssce all sssave the ssstrongessst consscealment ssspellsss. Onssce it hasss found a sssuitable target, thou mussst sssimply exssschange a glanssce with thy ssCentaurian alliesss, and their innate powersss mayessst teleport thee into the thick of the fray."
         Baek did not smile, but a pitiless gleam of bloodlust flickered in his sorrel eyes. This was the closest he came to being pleased, when he was not killing.



         A relaxing warmth basked Jun's feet. It gradually traveled up to her face; when it touched her closed eyelids, its intensity seemed to pour through them until she blinked. The vibrant glow directly above her turned like the beam of a lighthouse. She sat up, squinting, and regarded the vermillion, salamander-like creature that floated about her head. Its radiant grace was a welcome distraction from the onerous reek of the sewers.
         "Ah! Utsukushii desu," she smiled. It responded to the compliment by dancing in enthusiastic curlicues.
         Jun stretched and noticed the motionless Chosen One lying nearby. She could feel the static tingle of her stasis spell in effect. Judging from its weakened intensity, she must have been unconscious for approximately twelve hours.
         "-mean it. We could use your aid. You are a good fighter and a superior marksman. Much of Sanctuary's populace consists of refugees with relatively little combat training. We need warriors, and even more importantly, teachers to train those warriors. You should return with us."
         Recognizing Kung Lao's optimistic voice, Jun peered into the shadows beyond the Lamp-eft's light. The younger monk's wide-brimmed hat set his silhouette apart from three others, two standing beside him, one sitting hunched over with his back to the wall.
         "Lao, we do not have the privilege of inviting strangers into Sanctuary." The flat, no-nonsense declaration could only have come from Sonya.
         "They will never let him in." Serene and self-assured in his rectitude; that was Liu Kang.
         "No." Though the deep voice speaking the refusal sounded familiar, it was a subdued husk of what Jun remembered it to be. She rubbed her eyes and strained to pierce the gloom.
         "What do you mean, 'no'? Why not?" Kung Lao probed.
         As if in response to Jun's need, the Lamp-eft drifted along her line of vision, illuminating her three comrades and - that really was Lei Wulong, wasn't it? He'd changed out of his bloodstained clothes into a similar outfit only slightly less shabby, with a tan, loose-fitting blazer hung over his shoulders.
         He turned away from the Lamp-eft, shrinking against the wall. "Aw no, not you again..."
         Kung Lao whistled to the creature. "Hey, hey. I thought I told you to stay away from him."
         "Wait," Lei sighed, holding up his hand. "Your little friend there isn't actually hurting me. His spotlight brings back some... painful memories, is all. You want to know why I can't travel with you? Well, take a good look." He raised his head. His eyes flickered from mahogany to blood-red and back again in Lamp-eft's glittering light.
         The cop resignedly brushed aside the ash-grey forelock in his sable bangs. Directly underneath it, a vertical, midnight ellipsis marked the middle of his forehead. The blemish formed a stark badge against his washed-out skin. Lei unbuttoned his collar and tugged it down enough to reveal a similarly colored patch on his upper right chest.
         "This is part of a second brand, a black scar here to here." He traced a diagonal slash on his torso, reaching from close to his right shoulder down to a little above his waist on the left.
         "You are cursed," Kung Lao softly affirmed.
         "You knew?"
         "I share my brother's ability to see the auras of living beings. Yours is azure tainted with jet, yet the azure - your personality and identity - is clearly dominant."
         "'Dominant,' eh? Maybe for now. Not always, though. So listen up.
         "The first time it happened was, I guess, a few minutes before the world went to hell in a handbasket. I was drunk and in some bar brawl with three other guys. Can't recall what it was about, though I swear I wasn't looking for a fight - just to get thoroughly plastered. Is that so much to ask?" The question was almost plaintive. Lei interlaced his fingers and took a deep breath.
         "Anyway, I knocked two of them out. The third guy stabbed me. And then..." The cop's voice flattened into an unemotional monotone. "I don't remember. I never remember. It's like drowning, or falling into a bottomless pit; you feel your awareness being snuffed out, and you can't do a damn thing about it. My next memory is waking up, and-" Lei separated his fingers and stared down at them. His hands were shaking. "-and I sincerely need a drink before I can describe this."
         "Not again," Sonya growled in disgust. The cop ignored her. He quickly retrieved a pair of glass bottles from the sludge-bed, wiped them off, and opened one, pouring a hit into his dirty jigger. He downed it in a second.
         "Where was I... oh, yeah. Waking up. First thing I see is the poor bastard torn apart, disemboweled, his liver decorating the... eh, I changed my mind. I'm not going to describe it. Think Jack the Ripper, and fill in the details for yourself." Another glass of cold liquor disappeared, and manifested itself in his characteristic slur. "S'like some animal got him, that's th' first thing I'm thinkin', an' then I realize my clothin' 'n' arms are kinda damp. Sticky. I'm wonderin' if I spilled my drink on 'em, so I take a closer look.
         "An' I see th' blood. Still fresh.
         "Was splashed on my forearms, drippin' from my hands, underneath my fingernails - a li'l a' th' blood on my clothes was mine, but there was waaaay too much bright red, artery stuff, th' kind that'll kill a guy in seconds if s'allowed t' drain. I hope that's what happ'ned." Lei swallowed a third shot. "I hope he didn' suffer.
         "Dammit, I'm not a killer. My job's t' protec' people, not murder 'em. While I'm thinkin' this, though, what I did finally sinks in, an' I get sick all over th' floor. Oh, I seen some bad stuff b'fore, don' think I haven', but there's a diff'rence b'tween seein' it an' knowin' y're th'... animal that done it."
         "Uh, Lei," Kung Lao interrupted, seeing that the cop was pouring himself his fourth glass in under a minute, "maybe you should go easy on the wine there-"
         "Shut up, Lao. I know how much I c'n take, an' I don' plan on passin' out 'till aft'r I finish tellin' this. And s' NOT wine, I HATE wine, s'brandy so get it right.
         "Eh, f'rgot where I was again. Oh, tha's right. Sick. Drunk. An' beaten' up real bad, but wha's goin' through my head now is I gotta turn myself in. Face th' cons'quences a' my crime. Sheesh, I was breakin' down in tears, confessin' t' th' kid I been talkin' to earlier, beggin' her t' get the phone and call th' police, an' I'm ramblin' for sev'ral minutes b'fore I realize she's not movin'. She's jus' standin' there, wi' a crazy green glow surroundin' her, an' she's frozen in th' middle of a scream. S'a look a' pure terror on her face. Somehow, tha's even worse.
         "I stagger outside, and I'm so far gone I walk alla way 'cross town t' th' station before I realize ev'ryone, ev'ryone else is stuck in some crazy mann'quin pose, wi' tha' damn green glow. I reach th' station, go in, an' th' night shift, Chih, Hsieh, Jiao, they're all freakin' veg'tables. All th' stress finally takes me down, I pass out an' wake up sober hours later wi' a splittin' headache, an' no, s' not a nightmare aft'r all, s'real. An' f'r some reason, I'm not so hurtin' or bruised anymore, bu' before I c'n stop t' marvel at tha', th' mutants are here.
         "They're bargin' into a buildin' atta time, lookin' f'r somethin', an' tha' somethin' has gotta be anyone who's still breathin', 'cause th' momen' they see me, they attack. I retrea' t' th' lockers, get m' .38, can't get away from 'em, shoot some of 'em, get cut up, an'... I don' remember. I never remember. Bu' I wake up an' they're roadkill. Tha's when I figure out las' night wasn' jus' me gettin' violent when drunk, it's somethin' deeper. So far, s'only happ'ned when I been attacked. Gettin' hurt inna fight seems t' be th' trigger, but I don' know if s' th' only trigger. Maybe trippin' over a rock could set it off.
         "An' tha', Kang, s'why I was so quick t' s'rrender, earlier. Yeah, I was afraid. I was terr'fied outta my freakin' mind tha' I'd black out an' wake up wi' your kidneys in m' hand."
         "That would not have happened," the monk responded, impartially. "I would have eaten you alive first."
         "Oh, an' I think y'asked if I attacked your Chosen frien' ov'r there. Well, I don' know. I don' remember. S'likely, though. Th' mutants were abou' t' get 'im, so I tried t' in'ervene; we b'came s'rrounded, I'm fightin', an' I black out again. I really hope he pulls through. If I b'lieved in gods I'd be prayin' I haven' killed 'im." Lei's hands were shaking so much that a copious quantity of the brandy he poured splashed over the jigger's rim.
         "You did not inflict the Chosen One's mortal wounds," Kung Lao assured. "He was stabbed in the back. The entrance and exit punctures were neat and sharp, dealt by long blades like the mutants carry. Quite different from your, um, handiwork on the dead mutants, if that's what it was."
         "Well, ain' tha' jus' peachy. Cel'bration time." Lei drained the jigger with one hand and whipped the half-empty bottle against the wall with the other. Jun flinched from the crash, though she was too far away for any of the glass shards to threaten her.
         "See, Lao? Tha' was five. I don' pass out 'till six or seven.
         "Anyhow, now y'guys know why I can't come wi' ya. I'm a danger t' oth'rs. I shouldn' even be sittin' in th' same room wi' alla ya, bu' right now I don' think I c'n stand up." He limply tossed the broken bottle neck away. "I don' see oth'r human s'rvivors often; when I do I stay th' hell away from 'em, 'less it looks li' they're gonna die if I don'. Once I saw a li'l girl abou' t' be trampled by one a' those horse-men, an' I try t' stop it, an' don' get there fast enough, an' eat a hoof, an' black out again, same freakin' story. Now lemme alone, aright?"
         "Not so fast," Kung Lao contested. "Liu and I are warrior-mages, and Jun's talent is primarily restorative, but Sanctuary's chief sorcerer, Nightwolf, specializes in creating and breaking enchantments. He could remove your curse."
         "No." Both Lei and Liu Kang voiced the denial at the same time.
         Kung Lao glanced from one to the other. "How do you know if he doesn't try? What makes you so certain?"
         Liu Kang looked away. Lei drew up his knees.
         "Doesn' matt'r who he is, he can't do nothin'. I don'..."
         Tell him, whispered a tiny voice in the back of Lei's head. He deserves to know the whole truth.
         "...I don' have some stupid werewolf bite or nothin', th' curse's rooted deep an' there's no spell or med'cine tha' c'n do a damn thing."
         Coward.
         "Well, how did you get this curse anyway?" Kung Lao pressed.
         The cop bowed his head.
         "What happened to you?"
         Tell him.
         "Damn it, Lei, talk to me!"
         Isn't he your friend?
         "'m hearin' too many voices. Shut up, alla ya."
         "Oh no, don't think you can tune me out that easily - what is it, Liu?"
         "Wulong speaks correctly," the somber elder monk explained. "The curse is a side effect. No counterspell can heal the underlying malady. There is nothing that anyone in all of Sanctuary could do."
         "What's all this crap about side effects?"
         "I have said too much already. It is not my right to speak further."
         "Fine! Lei, I say it is not a given that you're stuck with the curse, but assuming you are, so what? We are trained fighters. You know firsthand how good Jun and I are, and I can vouch for Liu Kang and Sonya. Even if your curse activates, which is unlikely since we aren't going to attack you, we know how to defend ourselves. We could subdue you, if necessary."
         "Oh? D'ya really think so?" Doubt soaked the question.
         "Yes," Kung Lao immediately replied.
         Lei slowly reached inside his blazer and withdrew a firearm in a leather case. "Lao, thi' is m' .38. Take it. Be damn careful; s'loaded, wi' th' safety on." Lei proffered his revolver. Kung Lao vacillated. "I said, take th' gun. Take it now." The younger monk uncertainly acquiesced.
         "Now, take it outta th' holster."
         "What are you-"
         "Do as I say." Kung Lao obeyed, double-checking the gun's safety in order to be certain that it was, indeed, on.
         "Tha's a goo' weap'n y'have there, Lao. Durable. Efficien'. Goo' aim. Now, poin' it at me."
         "What?"
         "Could y' use tha' .38 on me, if there was no oth'r way t' protec' your life? Could y'allow one a' your pals t' do th' same, if they had to? Could y'learn t' live wi' y'rself aft'rward? Thi' time, stop an' think b'fore y'answer."
         After a moment of deliberation, Kung Lao cautiously returned the revolver to its holster, placed it on the ground, and tugged the brim of his hat down.
         "Didn' think so."
         "You're assuming that deadly force would be required, and it wouldn't, especially since there are four of us and - Sonya, where are you going?"
         She did not turn around. "I remember the alley where we found Wulong and the Chosen One. An entire pack of mutants had been wiped out. Some of their swordblades were broken into pieces. Force does not get much deadlier than that."
         Liu Kang put one hand on his brother's shoulder. "He is a shape-changer, Lao."
         "So are you."
         "Technically, that is correct, but I am more accurately described as a were-dragon, one type of lycanthrope. The difference lies in where and how one obtains the power. My inner essence remolds me into the creature of my aspect at will. Wulong's transformations are fueled and forced upon him by an external source of evil, just as the shape-changer Shang Tsung harnesses the torment of enslaved souls in order to power his metamorphoses. This distinction is explicated in the twenty-second line of the Forbidden Scrolls, as I have recopied from memory..."
         "Jun, you're awake. Good. How is the Chosen One?"
         Jun blinked. Sonya was crouched in front of her, blocking off her view of the others.
         "He's stable. The stasis spell is holding, but I'll have to renew it in twelve more hours, and at least every twenty-four hours after that; the obligatory interval may decrease with time."
         Sonya frowned. "Will you have the strength to maintain the stasis until we reach Sanctuary? If casting it knocks you out for half a day-"
         "Renewing it won't take as high a toll. It is always easier to maintain something than to create it. I will be able to travel afterward."
         The frown disappeared.
         "Good." Sonya briefed Jun on all that had happened since they found the Chosen One, finishing the summary with, "We may as well rest for another twelve hours; Liu Kang says he'll be ready to protect us with invisibility come tomorrow morning."
         "I understand."
         Jun looked over Sonya's shoulder. Liu Kang and Kung Lao had seated themselves nearby. The elder monk meditated in a reverse cross-legged pose, while the younger monk studied Lei's notebook and sewer map by the Lamp-eft's light. Several dozen yards away, Lei remained hunched in the shadows of the far wall. Jun stood up and started to move toward him.
         "Don't, Kazama."
         Jun turned around. "Moo ichi-do itte-kudasai?"
         "Don't approach Wulong. Leave him alone. Rest and concentrate upon regaining your strength."
         "Is that an order, Lieutenant?"
         "Do I have to make it one?" Sonya stood and folded her arms, regarding Jun with cold, analytical authority. "I know what you're like, Kazama. You can't walk past a crushed beetle without feeling its pain. Ordinarily, that would be your problem, but right now one of the Chosen is depending on your magic to survive. Though I'm no sorceress, I know that a tranquil frame of mind is essential to casting spells."
         "I am fully aware of the responsibility to my patient. All I want is a chance to speak with Lei."
         "No, that is not all you want. You want to heal him. Hell, you desperately wish you could snap your fingers and cure all the diseases in the world. Tough. This time there is nothing you can do, and we can't risk it affecting your emotions."
         "Don't you ever tire of it?" Jun asked, sadly.
         Sonya's sapphire eyes narrowed. "Come again?"
         Jun folded her arms, but not in the same manner as Sonya. Her right hand, fingers and thumb aligned, curled around her left arm above the elbow. Instead of resting on her opposite elbow, her left hand drooped somewhat. She searched the lieutenant's indifferent face and the long, flaxen hair, held back with a raven headband, that framed it. Sonya had the impassive demeanor of a samurai thrown forward in time.
         "Always obsessing with the military objective. Always shutting your heart within concrete walls. Never allowing yourself to care. Never daring to think of others as people - they are allies, enemies, tools to be applied and kept in good working order, but not living beings with souls, and bonds, and affections. You think it is a strength to be like this, and perhaps sometimes it is, yet it comes at a price. When you concentrate solely on efficiency, you forget what it is like to be any other way. You cannot remember that there is fortitude in love. Yes, my spells require a clear mind, but that is not all - I must sing them from the heart, and the songs are about reverence for life. All life.
         "I understand the principle of triage, lieutenant. Triage is the necessity of prioritizing whom you help when you cannot save everyone. Triage is not sacrificing your ability to care. If I could make myself feel concern for the welfare of one person and forget about the welfare of another, the trait would cost me the talent to channel Ki for healing spells. It is no coincidence that people who are consumed with hatred, resentment, or lust for power limit themselves to negative spells of destruction and decadence. They cannot cast any other kind."
         "Quite a speech," Sonya coolly evaluated. "You are wrong, however, about at least one thing. I have not forgotten what it is like to care.
         "I grew up in a place like this. Not a sewer, though it might as well have been; it was a house of despair. Oh, I know all about the power of love, and guess what? It's not enough to keep someone you care about from slowly destroying herself, day by day. In the end I was going mad. I escaped to the sanity of the special forces at age nineteen.
         "Forget about Wulong's curse. Maybe it can be broken, maybe it can't; but it isn't his only disease. You do not want to let yourself feel sympathy for an addict - and that's what he is, don't fool yourself into thinking otherwise."
         "I guess I have to ask you to trust me, then." Jun allowed her arms to fall by her sides. "To trust in my professional competence and moral responsibility, which are above all else committed to keeping the Chosen One alive. That is the only thing that concerns you, isn't it? For a moment there, I almost thought you might be worried about me personally."
         Seconds passed in silence. Sonya's businesslike comportment did not soften.
         "I will not order you," she said at last. The lieutenant turned away, approached Kung Lao, and joined in his study of Lei's notebook and sewer map.
         Jun walked into the shadows.
         Lei hadn't moved; he was still next to the far wall. His head was down, and his arms were wrapped around his drawn knees. The holstered revolver lay by his feet. Pieces of recently shattered glass were scattered to his right; the dirty jigger and an intact bottle of brandy were on his left.
         "Um, hi," she stammered, kneeling across from him. "I wanted to talk to you after our match, but you had disappeared, no one knew where. I was on the telephone with the Hong Kong police department for an hour, wrangling with translation problems and trying to leave a message, until they finally told me you were gone. You see, I was investigating the Mishima syndicate's illegal trafficking in endangered animals, and I heard a rumor you were after them too - the syndicate, I mean, not the animals - and well, I thought maybe we could pool information, or something... um... you are awake, aren't you?"
         Lei slowly raised his head. "Y'wan' Mishima info, eh? Okay, y'got it. One: Kazuya Mishima s'a murderer. Two: he's aroun' here somewhere. Not in th' city, an' not real close, sev'ral dozen miles away or somethin', bu' he's aroun'. He's no frozen veg'table, I'd know if he was. Three: don' mess wi' him, kid, y're too young t' die."
         "I am not a kid. I'm twenty-two years old."
         "Tha' reminds me. I was gonna leave town yest'rday f'r some reason, an' I couldn' 'member why. T' track 'im down an' pu' a stop t' 'im, tha's why. An' I'll be leavin' soon as... eh, soon as I c'n walk inna straight line." He leaned back, resting his head on the wall and closing his eyes.
         "Do you know which way you'll go to find him?"
         "Eh, not really, bu' if I look long enough..."
         "There has been an increase in mutant and Centaurian activity on the plains, lately. If you just wander around, then sooner or later they'll get you."
         "Beats rottin' in here."
         "There's a better choice."
         "Eh?"
         "Come to Sanctuary with us. Nightwolf could cast a spell to pinpoint Kazuya's location. Our scouts could share their findings with you. We could help each other."
         "Sounds real nice, bu'-"
         "I overheard about your curse. It doesn't change anything. We need you, and you need us.
         "Do you remember what Kung Lao said about Sanctuary's population? Too few of us are skilled fighters, let alone teachers. We have Sonya's platoon, Chief Thunder's warriors, and that's about it. Our enemies have an entire army. If you don't come with us, help us train our forces, I guarantee that someone will die when your wisdom and instruction could have saved his life."
         "Tha's a pretty crazy spec'lation, kid."
         "No crazier than the speculation that you would kill someone. Don't you see? If we're so weak that we can't defend ourselves against one little curse, then we are in dire need of your help!"
         "Right," he muttered, skeptically.
         "And I'm not a kid. I've earned a driver's license."
         "So, 'm curious now, wha' do I need y'r help f'r? I c'n find Kazuya on m' own, 'ventually. Mutants an' Centaurians? So wha'? I tear 'em apart, 'member?"
         "If you can find Kazuya at any time, then why haven't you done so already?"
         "Eh?"
         "How long have you been living here? I've noticed a lot of, um, debris. How long have you been returning here, after telling yourself that you were going to leave?"
         "Eh..."
         "It's been months, hasn't it."
         "Dunno."
         "Have you even ventured outside city limits? Sonya told me about the information you've gathered on the local mutants and sewer system, but apparently you haven't written down anything on the surrounding area."
         Lei put one hand on his forehead and wiped it down his face. "Y'd make a goo' d'tective, kid."
         "It isn't that you're afraid to leave; it's that you can't. Not alone. Look at how you're living here! Look at what you're doing to yourself! Whatever demons are torturing you, you can't overcome them on your own. You must come with us."
         "'Must'? Where's thi' must comin' from? Th' only thing I must do s' have anoth'r drink," the cop murmured, sarcastically. His left hand fumbled for the intact brandy bottle; once it was in his quavering grasp, he bit off the cap and unsteadily refilled his glass. "I don' s'pose y'wan' any?"
         "You can't swallow that and deny you have a problem."
         Lei had been holding the glass of brandy up to his lips, about to tilt it; when he heard her quiet statement, he sluggishly set it down.
         "I used t' have rules, y'know.
         "Nev'r drink on duty. Nev'r drive when I been drinkin'. Nev'r, ev'r star' fights. Tha' sorta thing. I thought, long s' I stuck by th' rules, ev'rythin' was jus' fine, an' I had control. S'pose I still do, a li'l. I c'n go wi'out thi' stuff-" He tapped the open bottle, causing it to ring faintly. "-f'r a couple, few days atta time. Like yest'rday.
         "Anyway, I guess th' rules don' matter s' much s' they used t', bu' th' principle's th' same. I'm not hurtin' anybody."
         "You're hurting yourself."
         "Well, duh. I mean, 'sides tha'."
         "You're hurting your friends."
         "Frien's? Used t' have some a' those. Th' ones Kazuya didn' kill 're froz'n veg'tables, or worse. Jiao turned t' bones, right in fron' a' m' eyes. Nope, I don' have t' worry abou' hurtin' frien's."
         "Not even us?"
         "Huh?"
         "Kung Lao and me. Liu Kang and Sonya are a little more reserved, I know, but they're good people at heart-"
         "No. Oh, no. No, kid. No." The cop exaggeratedly shook his head, making his shoulder-length hair whip back and forth. "Y' don' wanna be frien's wi' a drunk. Only bring y'grief. Th' soon'r y' give up tha' crazy idea, th' happier y'll be."
         "I don't let anyone choose my friends for me." Though she meant the retort to be haughty, it wavered a trifle when she spoke it.
         "Didn' expec' me t' admit it, did ya."
         "Um..."
         "'Look a' wha' y're doin' t' y'rself,' y'say. 'Y' can't deny y'have a problem,' y'say," he parroted, elevating the pitch of his voice into a surprisingly accurate, albeit slurred, impersonation of hers. "'Look'? I don' have t' look, s'nothin' t' see tha' isn' bleedin' obvious. 'Deny'? Don' talk t' me abou' denyin'. I know all abou' denyin'. Tried it f'r sev'ral years, b'fore finally givin' it up. Even tried straight'nin' out, once. Lao don' know it, bu' m' stay 'n tha' temple a' his doubled s' a detox. Mast'r Wu knew, though. Granted me p'rmission anyway. Gen'rous guy, th' mast'r. 'm real sorry t' hear he's dead.
         "Anyhow, thi' time s' diff'ren'. No denyin'. No pretendin'. Thi' time, I know why I'm smashin' m'self 'till I pass out." Lei picked up the glass of brandy and held it at eye level. Turbulence from his shaky grip roiled its contents. "When I say I need thi', I don' mean 'cause I wanna loosen up, or calm down, or some lame 'scuse like tha'. I mean 'cause I'm hooked, an' I'm gonna feel li' dirt if I don' get m' fix." He downed the glass in a single gulp. "An' thi' time, I know why I don' care."
         Jun bit her lip, waiting for him to continue. When it became clear he wasn't going to, she tentatively queried, "Why don't you care?"
         "Huh?"
         "Is it because of what has happened to the world? At Sanctuary, we've dedicated our lives to fighting the evil. It isn't a hopeless cause; the Chosen Ones have driven the darkness back before. If you join us, you'll have a purpose-"
         "Goo' guess, kid. Goo' guess." Lei flashed a rueful smile, and resolutely poured himself another drink.
         "I am not a kid. I'm a registered voter."
         "Seven's th' magic number, y'know," the cop continued, over her protest. "Aft'r sev'n..." He paused to guzzle the brandy. "Aft'r sev'n, I know f'r sure I c'n say anythin' I wan', an' I won' 'member it t'morrow mornin'. Y'know, some people talk abou' blackouts li' they're somethin' bad. I used t' agree, bu' not anymore."
         He clumsily retrieved his holstered revolver and held it up. "F'r 'xample, if I could act'ally 'member butcherin' tha' one poor guy, I'd prob'ly a' used m' .38 on m'self a long time ago. Oh, don' look so nervous, kid, I nev'r take it outta th' case when I been drinkin'. S'nother a' th' rules." Lei had severe difficulty coordinating the return of his gun to his blazer.
         "So, y' wuz askin' me why. Why it don' matt'r no more. Well, 'm not gonna tell ya why. Bu' I'll say thi': Liu Kang knows. Y'can ask 'im t' tell ya. Bett'r yet, ask 'im t' show ya! Hah!" He spontaneously burst into a heaving fit of sardonic laughter. "Then see if y'don' nee' t' be locked inna rubber room! Heh-heh..." The laughter dissolved into a muffled, congested sound, and he wiped his eyes with one hand.
         "Maybe I'll do that." Jun looked away. Her already downcast heart sank a little lower when she heard the gurgling noise of Lei refilling his jigger.
         "Sev'n's th' magic number, y'know. Aft'r sev'n-" <gulp> "-I c'n say anythin' I wan', an' I won' 'member... won' 'member nothin'..."
          "You mentioned that once already."
         A soft thud followed by the clatter of glass on concrete answered her. She glanced at Lei. He was sprawled listlessly on one side. The emptied jigger rolled from his hand; it came to rest against a larger jagged glass shard. The liquor bottle had tipped over, and lay parallel to the sewer floor's incline. Its dribbling contents formed a tiny stream, inching toward the sludge-bed. In the dusky shadows, she could barely make out the top large-print words on the container's grime-caked label:

Brandy 100% Proof

         "Baka yo." Jun closed her eyes and wished she could listen to the wind. These stagnant underground depths were so quiet...
         Absolutely quiet.
         Jun opened her eyes and listened more intently. There was no sound at all, when she ought to be hearing the faint rasp of-
         "Lei?" She nudged his shoulder and studied him carefully. "Lei, can you hear me? Are you all right?" He did not respond. The darkness made it hard to be sure, but she should have been able to see the slight rise and fall of his chest. There was none. Jun's instincts fluttered in alarm.
         No, no, she thought to herself, don't panic. The first priority was to clear his airway. His collar was already open in a loose V-shape, so at least his clothing couldn't be obstructing it. She straightened out his limbs, setting his near arm over his head and his far arm along the body, then placed his far leg over his near leg. Grasping his shoulder and holding his head, she pulled him onto his back; his hips and legs automatically followed. She shifted one hand underneath his neck, and raised it while tilting his forehead backward with the other hand, in order to lift his tongue from the back of his throat. Still watching his chest for signs of movement, she placed her ear over his mouth. There was no motion of air. She listened, then listened harder, straining to hear any sound of-
         "Lao, Sonya, Liu, come quickly! He's not breathing!"
         The Lamp-eft immediately zipped above Jun's head before any of the others could reach her side. Grateful for its light, she opened Lei's mouth, quickly searching for vomit, false teeth, or any other foreign material that might interfere with resuscitation. Finding none, she pinched his nostrils closed, took a full breath, and sealed her mouth over his. The scent of strong brandy revolted her, worse than the stink of the sewers; she disregarded it and exhaled, swiftly and deeply. His chest expanded in response. She raised her head and let air escape from his mouth, watching his chest fall.
         "What happen-" Kung Lao started to say.
         "Check his pulse," she tersely interrupted, for her hands were full with supporting Lei's neck and holding his nose, as she continued to share her breath once every five seconds. Somewhat dumbfounded, Kung Lao put his thumb and index fingers on either side of Lei's windpipe.
         "Well, his heart's beating, though it's kind of weak. Um, should we...?"
         Sonya put one hand on the monk's shoulder. "Jun knows what she's doing. It is better if we do not interrupt. One of us can take over when she tires, but for now, wait and keep checking his pulse once a minute."
         Kung Lao nodded. A hush settled upon the gathering for an extended length of time.
         Lei suddenly started to cough. Jun tensed in alarm, but his hacking swiftly subsided, and when it did his chest resumed rising and falling on its own.
         "Um, he appears to be breathing by himself now," Kung Lao noted, "so I don't think you should continue-"
         "WAKARIMASU YO!"
         Jun hadn't been aware of her building anxiety until it burst from her in a shriek. "Gomen-nasai, I didn't mean to yell at you, it's only - I'm sorry, I didn't mean it."
         "I know. Don't worry about it."
         Jun gently set Lei's head down and positioned it to one side, in order to prevent him from choking on his tongue. "One of us should watch him until he awakens, in case he stops breathing again."
         "Can't you cast a spell to sober him up?"
         "No. Transmuting ethanol into a harmless substance is one thing, but once the toxin is absorbed within the bloodstream, any expenditure of Ki would necessarily affect the entire mixture. Tampering with a person's blood can have disastrous consequences."
         "If I may," Sonya interjected, crouching next to Lei and scanning him with her microcomputer. Jun backed away a couple steps.
         "So, what happened?" Kung Lao asked.
         Jun covered her eyes. Tears were beginning to form in them, now that the immediate crisis was over and she could afford to expend the effort. "I was just speaking with him, when he passed out and..."
         "Wow, talk about knocking them dead."
         "That is supposed to be one of your jokes, isn't it Lao? You're trying to cheer me up, aren't you?"
         "Yeah. Would it make you feel better if I pulled a rabbit out of my hat?"
         "No, but thank you for offering."
         Sonya tapped her microcomputer's monitor. "His blood alcohol level is 0.32%. That's high enough to kill a person."
         "You should have let it," said Liu Kang, gazing pensively upon the unconscious cop.
         One by one, Jun, Kung Lao, Sonya, and the Lamp-eft swiveled their heads toward the elder monk.
         Kung Lao pulled the brim of his hat so low it eclipsed his eyes. "Liu, that's cold. Even for you."
         Jun fixed Liu Kang with a venomous stare and seethed, "You take that back."
         Liu Kang squinted from the Lamp-eft's direct glare. "I apologize. I did not realize that I was thinking aloud."
         "I don't want your excuses! Recant what you said, now!"
         "That is impossible. Members of the White Lotus Society are forbidden to lie."
         "Ignore him, Jun," Kung Lao soothed. "It's late, we're all tired-" She pushed him aside and marched to where Liu Kang sat cross-legged, by the cop's feet.
         "Ki-sama...!" she snarled, white rage burning in her eyes. Her fingers curled and uncurled. Her teeth clenched together, and her arms quivered. "What has Lei ever done to you? Why do you hate him so much?"
         "You misinterpret. The thought did not spring from hatred, but rather pity."
         "Nan no hanashi-o shite-irun desu ka!?" she exclaimed, throwing up her hands in a wild gesture of confusion.
         "You denied him a painless end to the suffering," Liu Kang clarified. "Though you meant well, you may have committed the greatest cruelty of your life."
          "I'LL SHOW YOU CRUELTY!" The outburst was simultaneous with a wrathful lunge. Kung Lao restrained her before she could complete her attack on Liu Kang, grabbing her from behind and dragging her out of range.
         "HANASHITE!" Jun thrashed violently, but her fury was so great she could not concentrate upon applying her martial arts. Liu Kang remained tranquil.
         Sonya barked, "Kazama! I will not tolerate infighting!" Jun halted her struggles, though acrimony still churned in her eyes. Liu Kang dispassionately returned her hateful scrutiny. The entire role-reversal unsettled Sonya and Kung Lao; Jun was supposed to be the collected one, the halcyon one, while Liu Kang had the temper quick as Fire.
         "I put my trust in you, Kazama," the lieutenant sharply reminded. "Now you must trust us. Lao and I will monitor Wulong until he awakens. In the meantime, you need to rest and regain your strength. Is that clear?"
         "Very clear. So let me go," Jun hissed. The lieutenant nodded to Kung Lao, who released his grip.
         "I do not blame you for your reaction," Liu Kang told Jun. Perhaps a hint of remorse colored his voice. "You do not understand."
         She spat upon him.
         For the first time that evening, the elder monk's composure was rattled. A flicker of exasperation appeared upon his face; he wiped off the spittle and said, "I think it would be best if we do not speak to one another for a time."
         Jun spun on her heels and retreated into the far shadows.
         "Lao, keep an eye on Wulong. Liu and I need to talk," Sonya commanded. She took Liu Kang far enough away from Kung Lao and the Lamp-eft to assure relative privacy.
         "Liu, I understand your sentiments-"
         "No, you do not truly understand. You did not see."
         "Quiet! I recognize your right to your opinions. I may even share them, to a degree. But there is something you must understand. We need Kazama. She is the only one capable of renewing the Chosen One's stasis spell. She needs to be in a calm state of mind to do that, and your baiting does not help."
         "It was unintentional."
         "Was it? I imagine I'll take your word on that. And you can take my word on this." She seized his shoulders and dragged his face within inches of hers. "Next time, you will keep your fucking thoughts to yourself or I will unintentionally beat the shit out of you."



         Jax hated waiting.
         Second after lethargic second passed, and there was still an hour to go. Inactivity grated on him. The major wanted to be moving, or fighting, or doing anything other than merely searching the horizon and checking his microcomputer every other minute. He knew that patience was an absolute requisite for even the most active soldiers in the field, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
         His patrol had ranged far beyond the borders of Sanctuary. If anything went wrong, there could be no reinforcements. Their mission was simple: find and retrieve the Chosen One. Liu Kang had tracked him to the decrepit city that squatted on the far horizon, like some hairy spider. Light from the predawn sky glittered upon the disused city, separating it from the shadowy plains.
         Jax had wanted to bring their entire patrol into the city, but it would have meant sacrificing their camouflage. Invisibility spells worked better the farther away one was from the enemy. Out in the open, it was fairly easy to keep one's distance from the enemy, provided that one's scouts gave ample warning. Inside narrow urban confines, it was not so elementary, especially when many mutant tribes liked to establish populous home territories within the cities they'd conquered. Furthermore, invisibility spells were easier to maintain when they covered the fewest people. So, Sonya gone in with a handpicked team of three others: Liu Kang to provide them with cover, Kung Lao to teleport them out of trouble if need be, and Jun Kazama to cast restorative magic should the necessity arise. It had seemed like a good strategy at the time, but when Jax learned that incapacitation had forced a delay on Sonya's team, he questioned the wisdom of the decision.
         There was relatively little enemy activity on the plains adjoining the city. On the surface that would appear to be a good thing; yet it was strange. Mutant and Centaurian patrols had recently quadrupled in frequency amidst the lands surrounding Sanctuary, and this city was only some fifty miles distant from their home base. Why was everything suddenly so quiet? What was the enemy planning?
         For the thousandth time, Jax checked on Sergeant Catsclaw and Michelle Chang.
         Their aptitude for illusion magic was not as great as Liu Kang's. Alone, each of them could project a cloaking field one-fourth Liu Kang's strength. That amount increased to three-fourths when they pooled their mana, for in sorcery the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. But the protracted expenditure of magic is taxing, so by necessity they took turns, one hiding Jax's team from view while the other rested. It was Michelle's turn now.
         Sitting cross-legged in the center of their makeshift camp, she held her arms bent with the hands held palm up to either side. The predawn light shined upon her creamy-tan face. Most of the rest of her skin was concealed underneath the military fatigues Jax had persuaded her to reluctantly wear. Her long ebony hair was bound tightly in a single primary braid, though slim wisps of individual bangs trailed down the sides of her neck or poked over her forehead. The double triangle pattern of her red-and-white headband could be seen between those bangs; a brilliant crimson feather pointed up from the headband's left side. Jax had warned her that wearing such an obviously visible marker was only asking for trouble, camouflage spells or no, but he did not have the authority to demand that she leave it behind. She was not a soldier under his and Sonya's direct command; she owed her allegiance first to herself, and second to Chief Thunder.
         Michelle's cinnamon-brown eyes, which carried a mild slant from the Chinese side of her heritage, were narrowed but not quite closed. She chanted continuously in Navajo. Jax had been told that chanting or singing, while not necessary to casting spells, helped to properly center the mind and extend one's endurance. Her voice was beginning to grate from hours of use, though; she'd have to turn her duty over to Catsclaw soon.
         The sergeant stretched and yawned, just waking up. Jax wished him good morning.
         If not for Catsclaw, none of Sonya's platoon would still be alive. He was the one who had first suggested, then helped them forge an alliance with Chief Thunder. That agreement secured them protection on Sanctuary's sacred grounds, in return for their aid in battling the evil.
         At times, it was an uneasy alliance. Jax wondered whether they could have maintained it at all, if not for Catsclaw's diplomacy. The sergeant's unique identity as a born Cherokee and a loyal member of Sonya's platoon made him a man of two worlds.
         Jax scanned the remaining men and women, soldiers and Cherokee allies composing his patrol. Most of them were sleeping while they could, for they were scheduled to rendezvous with Sonya's team and move out soon. Everything seemed to be fine.
         Until there was a sparse flicker in the predawn light.
         The major glanced upward. A black, avian shadow glided across the sky's dull grey. Judging from its wide wingspan, it was probably a bird of prey...
         ...but what would it be doing here? Shao Kahn's curse had killed off most animal life.
         Jax started to voice an alarm, and never finished. A crushing hoof blow to his stomach cut him off in mid-yell. As he landed on his back, he heard shouts and bedlam. One moment all had been peaceful; then the enemy surrounded them. Where had the monsters acquired the sorcery to pierce his patrol's camouflage? Was Shang Tsung working with them?
         The major aimed his left bionic arm at the equine underbelly of the rearing Centaurian that had teleported in and accosted him. Jax invoked the plasma cannon. Two fiery bursts shot from his hand; though they weren't enough to kill the rearing horse-man, their scorch stunned him long enough for Jax to rise and punch the equine-body's lower sternum. The weakest spots of a Centaurian were the underside and vital spots on the head; those areas carried natural armor the consistency of pinewood, while every other surface had plating hard enough to turn aside gunfire.
         Jax knew exactly where to hit, though, and the satisfying scrunch of breaking bone rewarded his efforts. He forced his arm underneath the Centaurian's horse-ribcage, using his enhanced strength to tilt the beast further back. Its human torso bent over and tried to grab Jax's head in its misshapen arms, but the major locked his right hand around a particular blob of interior muscle and shoved the beast further away with his left. His enemy seized up. The major let go of its innards and withdrew his bloody artificial arm; the enemy flopped on its side and twitched noiselessly a couple times before it finally stopped moving.
         Jax whirled around. The other Centaurians had his patrol encased in a ring. Already, two more were stepping forward to replace the one Jax had slain. They had the triple advantages of number, power, and worst of all, surprise. Battle cries and screams of pain filled the air - but most of the battle cries were enemy neighs, and most of the screams were from his patrol.
         Catsclaw and Michelle were fighting side by side. Hampered by bleeding from one arm, Catsclaw fired his gun at a Centaurian who happened to be bigger and stronger than the rest; the early morning light splashed golden instead of silver against its metallic horns and tail. Catsclaw was aiming for the eyes, the one part of a Centaurian's exterior that is in any way susceptible to bullets, but this particular monster was smart. It turned away from him, hiding its face and whipping its metallic tail at Catsclaw's ankles. The sergeant went down.
         Michelle shouted a wordless challenge to - a human? Sitting astride a grisly horse's skeleton, he seemed more like the specter of Death than a mere mortal. Shadows engulfed him, but his eyes burned with a savage inner glow, and his maniacal laughter threatened to drown out the din of battle. His steed's knifelike hooves had reduced two of Jax's patrol to bloody carcasses. Eager to make it three, he directed his mount toward Michelle. As Jax moved to join forces with her, he saw a momentary picture of her spinning, sidestepping her foe's charge. She leaped, flying off the ground and driving the heel of her boot into the man's side, knocking him off his mount-
         A powerful slam to the back of Jax's head disrupted the image. Everything spun out of control. There was no warning prior to the attack; it had come out of nowhere, from no one. The jarring impact of his body hitting the ground was oddly distant, as though it were happening to someone else.
         An instant before the world went dark, Jax glimpsed something split and twisted before his eyes. It was the crimson feather from Michelle's headband, torn off in the struggle and trampled into the earth.



         The dream is always the same.
         Violence.
         There is an unfamiliar quality to everything. The deep bass voice roaring at him is not speaking words he should recognize; yet he understands its meaning only too well. His limbs are not the right length; they are too short and weak. His entire body is too frail to effectively defend himself. He cannot see the towering form of his attacker properly, though that could be due to the tears stinging his eyes. The only consistently recognizable sensation is the pain.
         You are worthless! booms the voice. A heel's hard edge plunges into his gut, followed by a series of sharp raps battering his chin. It hurts. He tastes blood.
         Can't you do anything right?
         He tries to shout something, an apology maybe. Before the air escapes his mouth, a crushing impact hamstrings him, sends him sprawling on the ground. A fist pounds his forehead-



         "AAAH!"
         Lei sat bolt upright and regretted it. His throbbing headache intensified. He rolled on his side and clutched at his stomach, choking back dry heaves.
         At least the agony of his other dream-injuries was fading. The tang of dream-blood in his mouth had changed to a foul, cottony inflammation. Dizziness assaulted him; keeping his head and shoulders off the ground was an impossible task. He sank on his face and clutched his temples.
         "Tsó sûn. Gáy hó mä?" The seemingly amiable voice brought rippling surges of fresh pain to Lei's pounding head.
         "Not so loud," he whined.
         "M-hó yëe-sëe," Kung Lao whispered, pleasantly. <I should have realized. You are, of course, suffering from the mother of all hangovers. My condolences.>
         Lei raised his face from the ground. Scattered beams of light from the dancing Lamp-eft threatened to make him even sicker, so he covered his eyes and groaned, "Lao, why are you speaking in Cantonese? Is there something you don't want the others to overhear, or are you just showing off?"
         <I don't suppose you recall last night?>
         "Eh... some."
         <Jun is renewing the Chosen One's stasis spell as we speak.> Lei realized that he could hear her singing somewhere nearby, though the background noise was thankfully soft. <You do remember Jun, don't you?>
         "The kid? I think she was... talking to me. Something about the curse not making a difference. Not sure about the rest."
         <And that's all you recollect?>
         "I already told you, dammit."
         <You don't remember her kisses?>
         Lei risked peering through his fingers. A nauseating sparkle of light reflected from the razor-edged brim of Kung Lao's hat, tilted just high enough to expose his broad Cheshire-Cat grin.
         "What?"
         <I think she likes you, you lucky scoundrel. I've never seen her so passionate. Why, she was practically screaming->
         "Right. I get it." Lei settled into a sitting position. "This is supposed to be another of your jokes, isn't it Lao? Ha-ha. Very funny. My sides are splitting. Actually, my head is splitting," he groused, cradling his tender brow.
         <Members of the White Lotus Society never lie,> the monk proudly declared, placing one hand over his heart and holding the other one up, palm out.
         Lei searched Kung Lao's Cheshire-Cat grin for any trace of insincerity.
         "No. I didn't."
         The grin stretched a little wider.
         "Not with an innocent young kid like her."
         <Why, is that a look of complete and utter mortification I see on your features?> Lei hid his face in his hands. <And here comes the lovely damsel now, having finished her spell. You know, you really ought to be extra nice to her, given what she was doing with you last night. Offer to take her out for dinner and a movie, or something.>
         "Lei, I'm glad you're awake," Jun said, kneeling next to the two of them. "I need to talk to you about last night. You - is something wrong?"
         "Wô hên hòuhuî," Lei whimpered.
         <Oh, come now. The two of you make such a cute couple!>
         Jun furrowed her brow in puzzlement. "Lao, what are you telling him?" Taking a closer look at the monk, she instantly recognized his Cheshire-Cat grin. It could mean only one thing.
         "You're playing one of your jokes again, aren't you? Quit it."
         "Aw, c'mon Jun, don't you think I've earned the right? I had to spend half the night watching him breathe."
         "I said, quit it," she repeated, with a feather-light cuff to his shoulder. "This is serious.
         "Listen to me, Lei. Last night you drank so much that your central nervous system shut down. You stopped breathing. I had to artificially resuscitate you. I was genuinely terrified."
         Lei blinked and looked up, shading his eyes with one hand. "That's it?"
         "What do you mean, 'that's it'?"
         "Lao," growled the cop.
         The monk turned the brim of his hat all the way up, revealing an expression of perfect inculpability. "Did I speak a single untrue word? Did I?"
         "What by all the gods do you mean, 'that's it'?" Jun snapped.
         Lei winced and covered his ringing ears. "Please not loud. Loud is bad," he entreated.
         "'That's it'? 'THAT'S IT'? Didn't you hear me? Am I not getting through to you? Last night you nearly died, and the only thing you have to say for yourself is 'THAT'S IT'!?"
         Lei buried his head, in a vain attempt to escape the excruciating cacophony.
         "Well?"
         "Xièxie nî."
         Lei's croaking whisper was so pitiful that her indignation swiftly drained away. "Um, I don't know what that...?"
         "Thank you for saving my life. Sorry my manners are so bad. I have a headache."
         "You mean a hangover."
         "...not going to argue with that. I'm just not."
         "Look... you're coming with us, right? Sonya says we're setting out in a couple minutes, so-"
         "Sonya says we're setting out now," the lieutenant called from the safehouse doorway. "My computer link with Jax has been broken. I'm praying it's because of technical difficulties, but I have a very bad feeling about this. We can't afford to waste any more time here. Let's go, everyone!"
         Sonya used her microcomputer to lift the motionless Chosen One. Liu Kang and Kung Lao joined her.
         "Come on," Jun urged, tugging at Lei's elbow The Lamp-eft flitted above him, shining its radiant warmth on his scalp. He didn't move. "You can't stay here; this place is killing you. You've got to come with us."
         Still no response.
         "I said NOW, Kazama!" Sonya enjoined.
         "I didn't mean to yell at you, okay?" Jun rushed, lowering her voice. "I promise I won't do it again. So let's get going, all right? Lei? Lei, answer me."
         "...tóutòng..." he moaned, pathetically.
         "You must come with us," she stressed, trying to drag him to his feet. Her efforts were unsuccessful; he was some twenty-five pounds heavier than she, and she lacked the requisite leverage.
         Concern clouded Kung Lao's eyes. "Jun, we can't force him. I don't like it either, but we have a duty to the others. We have to go.
         "That means you too," he added, speaking to the Lamp-eft. It swam in an irresolute circle, then torpidly wriggled toward him.
         Jun let go of Lei's arm. "I guess... I guess if you really don't want to, I can't..." He made no reply and remained motionless, head down, hands clutching his brow. She gradually backed away, turning around and following the others through the safehouse's blanket-covered entrance hole.
         "For what it is worth, I regret the necessity," Sonya commiserated. "Sometimes there truly is nothing you can do." Jun nodded, rubbing the damp inner corners of her eyes.
         When she took her hand away, she saw a tiny thread of scarlet blood on her little finger. One of the glass shards must have...
         'Must'? Where's thi' must comin' from?
         "Chotto matte!" she excused, dashing back in and blundering through the darkness until the Lamp-eft poked its luminous eyes through the entrance, guiding her return to Lei's side.
         "Issho-ni itte-kudasaimasen ka? I-I mean, won't you please come with us? Please...?"
         Lei raised his head, and brushed matted hair away from his face.
         "Eh, okay," he mumbled, reaching for his blazer and climbing to his feet. He slung the jacket over his back with one hand and pressed the other against his aching forehead, as he ducked through the safehouse entrance. Kung Lao's eyebrows shot up in surprise.
         "Well, she said the magic word," muttered the cop.
         "You mean to tell me that you were just waiting for someone to say 'please'? What are you, a Lamp-eft?" Lei ignored the monk and shrugged into his jacket, falling into step behind Sonya and Liu Kang. The repetitive echo of multiple footsteps on the sewer's walls worsened his blinding headache.
         "Wô xüyào jiû," he groused under his breath, reaching inside his blazer's inner pocket and taking out a small glass flask.
         Kung Lao caught his eye, and shook his head disapprovingly.
         "I know, it's not a hangover cure." Lei unscrewed the cap and tossed it away. "But neither is anything else, and my skull is about break open - what is it, kid?"
         "Chotto nondemo ii desu ka?" Jun inquired, indicating the flask and tapping her throat.
         "Eh? Oh, sure." He handed the container to her.
         Jun resisted the impulse to recoil from the repulsive odor of distilled liquor. She delicately stroked the vessel's lip, humming quietly to herself.
         "Itadakimasu." She drank a tiny sip and returned the flask.
         "That's all you want? Well, suit yourself," Lei mused. He took a hefty swig-
         -and spat it into the central sludge-bed.
         "Hey, HEY! You changed it to WATER!"
         "Watashi?" Jun pointed to herself; her eyes widened in angelic innocence.
         "Yes, you. Change it back."
         "Who do I look like, the Pope?"
         "C'mon, I mean it. Change it back."
         "Make me," she returned, playfully.
         "I'll get you for this," Lei groaned, chucking the flask over his shoulder. It smashed into pieces on the sewer floor, one more pile of broken glass left behind. "Stop giggling like that. I'm vowing vengeance here. You should be scared."
         "Nyah!" Jun taunted, sticking out her tongue and pulling down her lower eyelid.
         "If you're trying to intimidate someone, you really oughtn't let the corners of your mouth turn up as though you can barely keep yourself from laughing," Kung Lao helpfully observed. "It gives the wrong impression."
         "This is not a smile. This is a menacing sneer. The distinction is important."
         "Yue, whoever she was, was absolutely right. You are far too nice to play the bad cop. Face it, you're typecast for life."
         "Now I have a headache," Sonya grumbled. Her sapphire eyes made contact with Liu Kang's. "Tell me again why we can't leave all three of them behind?"
         "I am keeping my thoughts to myself, if you recall. You tell me."


End of Chapter 3: Broken Glass