ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Interlude: Elsewhen


         Another place, an earlier time.
         Lei stalked the darkened Hong Kong streets. A steady downpour drenched him, soaking through his clothing and running in wet rivulets down his spine. He made no effort to avoid dips or potholes in the road's worn pavement, sloshing through small lakes of rainwater like they weren't there. His eyes were fixed firmly ahead, on a watery horizon filled with neon lights and empty darkness. A brilliant sheet of lightning reversed the polarity of everything he saw; the embittered, roaring rumble that followed was a pale echo of his personal turmoil.
         Everyone else stayed huddled within their houses and cars, or hurriedly skipped to a safe port under the protection of an umbrella. Not Lei. His very name meant "thunder"; why should a little rainstorm bother him? If anything, he welcomed it. Let the deluge pour; hell, let it flood the entire city and drown it off the face of the Earth.
         That wasn't going to happen, of course, so he'd have to settle for drowning himself.
         He was only partly conscious of the impulses to turn down the dirtiest and most decrepit street whenever he came to an intersection. It didn't matter, anyway. One place was as good as another, as long as it was so cheap and squalid that no one he knew would ever run into him. He picked a shoddy fleatrap at random. Heady vapors seeped past its rotting, half-open door.
         Don't go in there, urged a tiny whisper in the back of his head. Not by yourself. You know what happens when you enter this sort of place alone.
         "Shut up, voice. You're the last thing I want to hear," Lei growled, shoving open the door and striding through. A couple of patrons stared at him curiously. He ignored them and slapped one hand on the splintered wood of the main counter. A harried, middle-aged woman in a dirty apron shuffled toward him.
         "Can I get you something?" she offered, tiredly.
         "Yeah. One gallon of industrial alcohol. If you don't have any, fetch the next strongest stuff you can find, and keep it coming."
         "How you planning to pay for that?"
         He snapped his fingers, and a velvet case appeared between them, with a glittering object nestled inside. It was a polished gold ring, crowned with a brilliant diamond. The precious stone refracted light in a mesmerizing shimmer.
         Lei slammed the diamond ring on the counter as though it were a handful of loose change. "When this is used up, you let me know."


Chapter 5: Veneer


    People think you're a devil in disguise
    I don't care; just tell me all your sweet lies

         -Dead or Alive, My Forbidden Lover


         Darkness pervaded the inner sanctum of Kazuya Mishima.
         It was a quiet place, cold and lonely, the hidden secret of the Mishima syndicate. The veiled sanctum was not located upon the Earth, but rather in the shadows that the Earth cast upon the Astral Planes. A mystic gate in the master sorcerer's antechamber led to this refuge, but only a handful of his most trusted employees knew of the portal's existence, and fewer still ever stepped through it. Kazuya controlled the portal; he alone had the Power to invite guests inside.
         The sanctum's floor consisted of flat, square-shaped aluminum panels, with rivets set along their inside borders. There was no furniture in the empty room; instead, the master sorcerer reclined upon a throne of invisible force, generated by his own will. The polygonal "walls" were vast, flat mirrors without frames. Any image in a single looking glass automatically bounced from mirror to mirror. A smaller copy of the initial picture would show in the first mirror as well, and the sequence would repeat until the one image became a cornucopia of seemingly infinite reflections.
         Normally, the picture so multiplied would be of Kazuya himself, but the master sorcerer had filled the mirror directly in front of him with a summoned view. It was a wide-angled pan of his enemies, the Chosen Ones' patrol. After their rendezvous, they had set out on their return journey to Sanctuary, and when night fell they'd set up camp. Now it was nearly dawn. Kazuya studied each patrol member in turn.
         Michelle Chang was sound asleep, enjoying her rest while she could. Lei was also sleeping, but he tossed and writhed tormentedly. In contrast, Jun was the personification of serenity as she renewed her stasis spell, which sustained the life of a mortally wounded Chosen One. A gentle song shaped her enchantment; echoes of her music filled Kazuya's sanctum.
         Kung Lao stood watch, constantly scanning all directions and the sky for danger. Lieutenant Sonya Blade used a tiny pair of tweezers to work delicately on a hand-held patch of wires and circuits. An electric spark flared, making her drop the tool; she grumbled profanities under her breath.
         Nearby, Major Jackson Briggs spoke to Liu Kang in hushed tones. When the monk answered, he did not look directly at Jax, because he had to fix the bulk of his conscious perception upon projecting the mystic field that hid the entire patrol from hostile eyes.
         Liu Kang's concealment spell was quadruple the potency of any common mortal mage's. The loss of half the original patrol's members meant that the monk had fewer people to cloak, which further strengthened his magic. All else being equal, Liu Kang's efforts would have prevented the master sorcerer from monitoring the Chosen Ones, but a new variable had entered the equation. Kazuya's plan was smoothly in effect.
         The master sorcerer leaned back, resting his interlaced fingers upon his chest. Underneath his hands and layers of clothing, diagonally crossing his torso from upper right to lower left, was a jagged black scar - identical to the one he had inflicted upon Lei Wulong.



         The dream is always the same.
         Violence.
         It's his fault. It's invariably his fault; why would he suffer like this if he did not deserve it?
         A weakling like you can never be my successor! roars that booming voice. A sledgehammer impact cracks his face; a second blow widens the fracture. Something hard and smooth hits his head, back, arms and legs all at once. It is the floor.
         You are less than dirt! Heavy pieces of carved wood drive themselves into his body, treading him underfoot like the soot he is. He feels the crippling shock of his lower ribs cracking. His stomach heaves and ruptures, triggering a reflex that makes him choke on his own vomit-



         "AAAHgk-!"
         Lei rolled over and clutched at his heaving gut. The flat planks of the wooden dream-floor caked into the crumbling dust of the wasted plains. Dream-vomit in his mouth turned to warm saliva, which he spat out. He shivered. A chilling, aching void lurked beneath the receding pain of his dream-beating.
         "This is intolerable," Michelle snapped to the trembling cop. She shook out her ebony hair, which had become mussed from her interrupted sleep. "I am sick of you waking everyone up with your damned shrieking!"
         "Too late; everyone already is up. It's nearly dawn," Kung Lao pointed out.
         When she shifted her vitriolic glare to him, he lowered his voice. "Michelle. You need to make peace with your inner rage, instead of taking it out on others. I know you grieve for our fellow warriors. We all do. Congden was a good friend of mine, and one of the few people who actually laughed at my jokes. I know what you're going through, what it's like when people you care about are killed, and the anger that you feel over the loss."
         "You know nothing," she snarled, baring her teeth.
         "I know that great sorrow and anguish drive you. The emotions affect your aura, even though you hide them from your face."
         Her haughty demeanor eroded; her shoulders hunched, and she turned her head aside. When she spoke, it was in a distant, detached tone.
         "They were all murdered because of me."
         "It's not your fault. You cloaked the patrol as best you could."
         "You don't understand. You've no idea what I'm talking about."
         "Michelle, you are not to blame. Shao Kahn's allies committed the murders, not you."
         "It might as well have been me. The outcome is the same. And nothing you can do will bring them back." A harsh, inimical finality saturated her rejoinder.
         Lei paid no attention to their talk; the struggle to control his shivering consumed him. Capricious tremors especially affected his hands. He knew he should have expected that. Shakes, anxiety, cravings, they all came and went erratically whenever he went for too long without-
         "Damn, I need a drink," he whimpered, reaching into his blazer for a flask that wasn't there.
         You swore off alcohol, remember? whispered the nagging voice in his head. The cop pressed his hands over his ears, in a futile attempt to shut it out.
         "Are you all right?"
         Lei gradually became aware of Jun kneeling next to him.
         Light from the dawn lent a mild glow to her cheeks, and sparkled on her ginger eyes. A stray puff of morning breeze stirred her dark bangs, and the trails of cropped hair that a white barrette held behind her ears. Her sleeveless, snowy-white vest fit her slender figure snugly, without being tight; her coal-black stretch slacks revealed the trim suppleness of her slender legs. Waiting for him to answer, she unconsciously adjusted the rolled cuffs of her thick white socks and the fastened straps of her Mary Jane shoes. There was an indescribable elegance to her movements...
         "Wô zài xiâng shénme?" the cop said to himself, bowing his head and covering his eyes.
         "Um, I heard you cry out just as I finished the renewal. Was it another nightmare?"
         "It's not that bad." He sluggishly crawled off his blanket and shook it out, then concentrated on folding it into a compact square that Kung Lao could fit inside his bottomless hat.
         "That's three times in one night. You should have let me cast a sleep spell on you."
         "Eh, I don't need a spell to fall asleep. Staying that way is the tricky part, unless I happen to be plastered." The quiver in his hands undermined the neatness of his folding, and he resorted to rolling the blanket in a lumpy bundle. "It's only a few lousy dreams. You'd think I'd be used to them by now."
         "This is a recurring problem? How long has it troubled you?"
         "Look, I'm sorry to wake you guys up like that; it's embarrassing, really, but I'm fine. No need to worry."
         "If your sleep patterns are being habitually disrupted-"
         "I said I'm fine, dammit!" The cop hurled the wadded-up blanket into the dirt by Kung Lao's feet. It hit the ground hard enough to kick up a small cloud of dust.
         The outburst undermined Lei's precarious self-control. His shaking intensified; he gripped his left wrist with his right hand and slouched to knees.
         "You are not 'fine.' You're in withdrawal," she inferred, concernedly.
         "Eh..." Lei gritted his teeth to keep them from chattering. "This happens sometimes when I dry out. It's not that bad; I'll be able to travel."
         "You don't have to pretend you're invincible. You're one of us now, and that's all that matters."
         "I'm not pretending to be invincible. I'm pretending to be normal." Lei looked down at his knuckles. They had turned almost white from the tension.
         Jun extended her open hand. "May I?"
         "Whatever."
         She touched the back of his hand and sang a haiku. A soothing wash flowed from the point of contact. It coated the agitation in his muscles like an immersion in lukewarm water. The worst of his shaking abated in its wake, though slight, intermittent tremors lingered.
         Lei let go of his wrist and rubbed it in disbelief. "What did you do?"
         "A calm spell. It should lessen the convulsions for at least several hours. Have you ever encountered any other severe reactions? Nausea, hallucinations, or delirium tremens?"
         "DTs? Good grief, no. I'm not that far gone." He absently massaged his forehead; the ghost of a headache was beginning to affect it. "I was a heavy drinker for only five years. You have to let yourself go for a lot longer than that before-"
         Suddenly unable to meet her gaze, he cleared his throat and averted his eyes. "Eh, sometimes I hear things that aren't really there, but I've gotten pretty good at tuning them out."
         "No matter what happens, or how hard it gets, we'll be here for you."
         "Eh, thanks."
         "As for the nightmares, maybe you should consider-"
         "Not now," he refused, standing up. "Not first thing in the morning, anyway."
         "Later today, then?"
         The cop did not answer. He looked straight ahead, letting his arms hang by his sides. His posture was erect, but without the stress of forcing the chest out or pulling the stomach in. His heels were together, with the toes pointing out so the feet formed a V. In a few moments, his ragged breathing settled into its own, inherent rhythm.
         Lei slowly began to move.
         At first the actions appeared simple: a shift of weight to the right foot, a step to the left, and the raising of both arms, up to shoulder height and down again. The slight quiver in his hands was the only disruption to the smooth preparatory sequence.
         Then the motions became more complex, though still at a constant, unhurried speed, as though he were submerged in water rather than empty air. His forearms curved about an invisible ball, while his footwork naturally shifted his distribution of weight as needed to step and pivot. He raised the invisible ball to shoulder level, collapsed it, and pushed the husk away, simultaneously turning and redistributing his inertia in a graceful pattern. He continually kept his spine perpendicular to the ground and his center of gravity low.
         "What are you doing?" Jun asked, genuinely curious.
         "Tai Chi. It helps." Lei incorporated the answer's spoken rhythm into his transfer from the Grasp Bird's Tail sequence to the Single Whip.
         "Kazama, Wulong, we need you to join the conference," Sonya called. Jun looked over her shoulder. The others had all gathered in a circle, with an open space wide enough to accommodate two more people. Everyone was seated except Sonya, who had taken over watch duty from Kung Lao.
         Lei did not evince annoyance, frustration, or any other negative emotion in response to the interruption. He merely brought his form to an early close, straightening his legs and lowering his hands until he mirrored the beginning posture.
         The cop seated himself in the gap between Jun and Michelle, closing the circle. Michelle distastefully wrinkled her nose, and edged away from him.
         Jax cleared his throat.
         "Thank you for your attention. Ever since last morning's ambush, I've been racking my brains to figure out what went wrong, and how it could have been prevented.
         "For months now, the attacks on our patrols have not involved advanced sorcery, and we've grown overconfident. We've become so accustomed to the convenience of mystic invisibility that we forget to think for ourselves. As leader of this party, I bear responsibility for the lapse that cost us the lives of our friends."
         The major lowered his eyes. "I have no excuse. I'm prepared to relinquish my command to Lieutenant Blade. The decision rests in your hands."
         Sonya was the first to respond. "Stop talking shit, Jax."
         "You're being too hard on yourself," Jun gently consoled. "Any of us would have been just as surprised in your place."
         Kung Lao glanced at Liu Kang. "We have not forgotten the second Tournament, and the escape plan you created to get us out of that deathtrap city of Shokan. You risked everything to distract General Kintaro. If not for your gambit, the White Lotus Society would very likely have died with Liu and me. I think I speak for both of us when I tell you to quit the maudlin introspection and get back to what you're good at: commanding."
         Liu Kang confirmed Kung Lao's words with a slight nod.
         "When the Centaurians attacked, I could save only one person," Michelle stated, coldly. "I chose you. Do not make me regret the decision."
         After a drawn-out silence, Lei nervously muttered, "Don't look at me; I'm just here to help the good guys."
         "That's five affirmative votes, one abstention," Sonya summarized. "And the next time you pull a stunt like this, Jax, I'll have to hurt you."
         "Very well," accepted the major. "From this moment on, we must assume that the enemy could - no, will mount another surprise attack. We cannot rely upon Kang's spell alone to protect us. No more than half the patrol can afford to be asleep at any one time. We'll divide the night watch into two shifts. Chang, Lei, and I have the first watch; Blade, Lao, and Kazama will take the second."
         "Wait, what about Liu?" Kung Lao asked.
         "I will maintain our cloaking spell at all times," said the elder monk.
         "It's three days' journey back to Sanctuary, and that's assuming we have to make only minimal detours around mutant and Centaurian patrols. Are you seriously planning to cloak us the entire time?"
         "I can last for several days without sleep, if you recall."
         "Yes. I also remember what it does to you, and how you take it out on me."
         "We all have our burdens to endure."
         "Look. If you try to hit me again I'll be ready, but don't forget about Lei's curse, all right?"
         "That's another matter we need to address," Jax interjected.
         The major fixed his stern gaze on the cop. "Lieutenant Blade briefed Chang and me about your curse, Wulong. You are a shape-changer. When you are attacked and hurt, you transform into a mindless killing machine, is that correct?"
         "Eh, pretty much."
         "Then, in event of an enemy attack, you must keep behind our defense. You are under strict orders not to engage the enemy in close combat. I wish you could provide us with covering fire from one of our plasma rifles, but we lost them all in last morning's disaster. Sonya, were you able to repair my microcomputer?"
         The lieutenant shook her head. "Sub-Zero might be able to salvage some of the hardware, but it's shot. Right now, it would make a better coaster than a weapon."
         "My .38 is all I need," Lei assured.
         "A gun of that caliber won't stop a Centaurian unless you hit its eyes. If you hit any other spot of a Centaurian's exterior, the bullet will ricochet and endanger us," warned Jax. "Do you know any magic?"
         Lei snapped the fingers of his right hand. A playing card, the ace of diamonds, appeared amidst a tiny shower of azure sparks. He passed his left hand over its surface; it became the ace of hearts. The card vanished in a turn of his wrist and another spray of azure embers.
         "Amusing," Jax growled, "but useless."
         "For what it's worth, the sparks are real. I didn't believe in real magic until I first encountered it at Kung Lao's temple. I know how all the tricks work, and the stuff they could pull off wasn't any trick. So I asked them to teach me; but when I tried to learn a basic light spell, well, I didn't get very far. It still makes a pretty nice effect, don't you think?" A tiny pyrotechnic display crackled on his fingertips.
         Kung Lao studied the cop with a judicious eye.
         "Hm... Lei, I can tell from your aura that you're capable of only the most rudimentary sorcery. Nothing personal; your affinity for magic is an inborn trait, like eye color or fingerprints. If I'm not mistaken, though, you're a reagent."
         "I'm baking soda?"
         "No, I mean you could join your essence with that of another sorcerer, to fine-tune his focus and boost the total power of his spell. For example, I can't teleport farther than a couple kilometers without exhausting myself, but if you were to work with me-"
         "Do not even think it," admonished Liu Kang.
         The sparks on Lei's fingertips fizzled out. "Eh, he's right. Remember what happened before? You don't want to come anywhere near my 'essence'; it's as screwed up as the rest of me."
         "You're confusing the issue," Kung Lao protested. "Liu tried to force a mind-probe on you, and paid the price. That is the complete opposite of mystic synthesis, which requires respectful consent from all involved parties."
         "You don't understand. Kang went into shock when-"
         A shudder interrupted the cop.
          "-when he discovered my curse. It could have a bad effect on you, just like it did on him."
         "Your curse is not contagious. I could tell if it were."
         "I didn't say you could get it, I said it could have an effect. As in, say, driving you stark raving mad."
         "Liu, you don't think that-?"
         "It is a likely possibility."
         "Jun? Michelle?"
         "If you burn out your mind collaborating with this lush, don't say I didn't warn you," Michelle sniffed.
         Jun cupped her hand. A crystalline sparkle of concentrated white manifested upon her palm. The dancing glimmer formed a tiny star, bubbling and flickering; its radiance glistened with elemental splendor.
         She slowly extended her hand to Lei. The sparkle twirled in a miniature orbit around her fingertips.
         "Take my hand, and we can make the light grow."
         Apprehension clouded Lei's mahogany eyes. "I... I really don't think that's wise."
         "Don't be afraid. You are at heart a good person; no curse can change that. Trust in me. Trust in yourself."
         Lei's hand started to move of its own accord, tentatively reaching for hers; yet an instant before they could touch, he trembled and pulled away.
         "I can't," he whispered, shamefully turning aside his head. "I don't dare."
         "That's enough, Kazama," Jax declared. "This neither the time nor the place for psychic experiments." Her shoulders drooped, and the light diminished from her fingertips.
         "There is one final matter we must discuss before we set out," continued the major. "Our original mission was to rescue the Chosen One; now, we have a responsibility overriding that. We must warn Sanctuary about Kazuya Mishima. Wulong, I originally planned to have you fully debriefed upon our return, but we have to be prepared for the worst. Even if only one of us makes it back alive, that one must be able to relay everything you know about this new threat. So give us the entire dossier, down to the last detail."
         Lei took a deep breath.
         "Kazuya Mishima.
         "Date of birth: October 31, 1968.
         "Height: 181 centimeters.
         "Weight: 76 kilograms.
         "Nationality: Japanese.
         "Hair color: black.
         "Eye color: black.
         "Blood type: AB positive.
         "Distinguishing features: a diagonal scar crossing his chest, from when his father threw him into a trench at the age of five.
         "Living relatives: adoptive brother, Lee Chaolan. Also, Kazuya was suspected of killing his father, Heihachi Mishima, about eighteen months ago. But they never found a body, and I've heard rumors that Heihachi is still alive.
         "The Mishima family is one of the wealthiest in all Japan. Due to its highly secretive nature, little is recorded of its members' lives outside the professional activities of the Mishima syndicate..."



         Lee shuffled the faded photographs one more time.
         He'd dug them out of a musty album, hidden under a sheaf of old paperwork in the syndicate's archives. They were somewhat blurry and off-kilter, but their images were recognizable enough. Most were of natural scenery and wildlife, though a few showed members of the Mishima household. He picked a snapshot at random and held it up for Ganryu to see.
         "This is a mountain," Lee said, pointing to a regal, cloud-tipped peak that rose above the rolling forests. "Do you remember how to say the word, and what it means? 'Mountain.'"
         The big man made no response of any kind.
         Lee brushed a stray lock of silver hair away from his face. He looked into the hollow, unfocused eyes of his friend.
         "Maybe we should take a break, Gan-kun," he sighed, letting the snapshots fall on the small table between them. "We've been at it for how long, a couple hours now? If there's something else you'd rather do, feel free to speak up."
         Ganryu remained seated in his chair. His spine was stiff, matched perfectly against the chair's straight back, but his arms and jowls were completely limp. A slight trickle of spittle formed on his lower lip.
         Unable to bear the pitiful sight, Lee lowered his auburn eyes.
         "What the hell am I doing?" asked the silver-haired devil, speaking more to himself than to the former sumotori. "I don't know how to heal your mind. I don't even know where to start. All I know is how to kill." His hands worked with spontaneous precision, extracting and lighting a menthol cigarette before he was conscious of the need to lose himself in its charcoal taste.
         "Young master."
         Lee's head immediately snapped up; yet the voice addressing him did not belong to Ganryu. It was too rigid, a few notches higher in tone, and carried a subdued Shinjuku accent. The silver-haired devil stared at Ishida and Kimura.
         Clad in matching black business suits and dark glasses, Kazuya's bodyguards resembled one another so closely they could have been twins. Glancing from one to the other, Lee could find no disparity in their stolid demeanor. They even breathed in perfectly coordinated rhythm. Kazuya probably liked it that way.
         Lee's fingers tightened around the base of his cigarette. He removed it from his mouth as he stood up, and blew a cloud of smoke in their faces. They did not flinch.
         "Well?" the silver-haired devil prompted, darkly. "Was beating Ganryu half to death not enough for you? Are you here to finish the job?"
         "We had our orders," said the left-hand bodyguard.
         "Orders. Of course." Lee tapped his cigarette, spilling its ashes on their clothing. "And if Kazuya ordered you to kill yourselves, would you do that too?"
         "Yes." The swift answer, resonant with dutiful sincerity, came from both of them at once.
         "Just checking. So, why have you come?"
         "Mishima-sama requests your presence immediately."
         The cigarette fell out Lee's hand and rolled on the floor, still giving off wispy ashen plumes.
         No, he demanded of himself, tensing his muscles and closing his eyes, don't show it. Don't let them see the fear.
         In the past year and a half, Lee had learned by trial and error to suppress the worst of his terror. As long as he kept moving, and emptied his mind of conscious thought, he could prevent the most violent symptoms of his fear from manifesting - provided that Kazuya was not physically present. But even if the damn quaking subsided from his hands, it never completely left his heart, and he wanted to tear the traitorous organ out for it.
         "Young master?"
         "I'll be there," Lee growled, hiding his apprehension underneath a layer of ill temper.
         "...master..." Ganryu whispered.
         Lee whirled and leaned close to his friend. "Ganryu, what did you say?"
         "Master."
         The sumotori spoke in a monotone. His hand tremulously moved over the scattered photographs, and stopped over an old family portrait showing Heihachi, Kazuya, and Lee. Ganryu clumsily let his fingers fall on Kazuya's unsmiling likeness.
         "Mishima-sama... master."
         "I..." Lee stopped, swallowed the lump in his throat, and started again. "I'll return as soon as I can, all right? Keep looking through the photos; see if anything else comes back to you."
         "Mishima-sama is my master."
         "Yeah. Mine too."
         The silver-haired devil tread the familiar path to Kazuya's antechamber, keenly aware of Ishida and Kimura following him. When he pushed open the great double doors, the pair of footsteps behind him came to a halt.
         "Aren't you coming?" Lee asked them.
         "We are to bring another outside this chamber, to wait for Mishima-sama's convenience," explained the left-hand bodyguard.
         "Are you indeed." The silver-haired devil's eyes narrowed a trifle. "Tell me, Ishida. Does it bother you that Kazuya treats you more like a gopher than a warrior, even though you're prepared to die by the warrior code?"
         "I'm Kimura. Ishida is my cousin."
         "Second cousin," Ishida clarified. That was all either of them would say.
         "Why do I bother," Lee mumbled, entering the shadowy antechamber.
         It was unoccupied. The aquamarine carpet muffled his tread as he shuffled toward the empty room's dead center, marked on the plush weave with a red-trimmed golden cross inside a circle.
         Thirty seconds passed.
         Then, electric crackles of indigo Ki spontaneously flickered across the space in front of him. They became a vertical line, which flattened into an oval-shaped, one-sided portal. Kazuya's sibilant invitation sounded from beyond the gateway's eerie luminance.
         "Come inside, Lee. You don't want to miss this."
         You have no idea what I want, the silver-haired devil acidly thought, stepping through. If you did, you wouldn't let me live.
         The seemingly endless reflections on the mirror-walls of Kazuya's inner sanctum briefly disoriented him, but he soon adjusted. Lee advanced, his pace slowed by the trembling limp that affected his legs. He stopped tensing his muscles, letting them quake as they would. There was no point in even trying to hide his fear now.
         Kazuya was raptly absorbed in the crystal-clear vision of his enemies, projected on the mirror-wall. Lei Wulong's deep voice reverberated from the silver-backed glass, filling the sanctum.
         The master sorcerer leaned forward on his invisible throne. Lee followed his line of sight, and stiffened when he recognized the solemn young woman seated next to Lei.
         "I wondered why the syndicate couldn't locate Jun," Kazuya commented. "Now we know. She was hiding in Sanctuary all along. You do remember her, don't you Lee?"
         "I was... just sorting through the photographs she used to take."



         Jun tried to pay close attention as Lei recounted Kazuya's abbreviated biography, but something made her mind wander. It was an uncomfortable queasiness, like a shadow cast over her soul, and it stirred up memories of hurt and self-doubt. Distant vagueness crossed her ginger eyes; she slowly turned her head, in search of something unseen.
         "Stop daydreaming, Jun," Michelle admonished. "This is important."
         Jun blinked. The nameless feeling slipped out of her grasp, fading before she could identify its source. "I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me."
         "I'm almost finished, anyway," Lei mumbled. "Like I was saying, known or suspected agents of Kazuya's syndicate perpetrated a rash of abductions, without warning or reason, shortly before the Apocalypse. Kazuya primarily targeted blood-sport fighters and their families. Michelle, I have reason to believe your mother was among the kidnapped victims-"
         "Don't," she cautioned. A dangerous flicker crossed her cinnamon-brown eyes.
         "Eh?"
         "Don't ever refer to my kin. You don't have the right."
         "Navajo custom forbids speaking of those who have passed on, lest their spirits be disturbed," Jun explained.
         "Oh. Uh, sorry, Michelle," the cop humbly apologized, with a sitting bow. "Anyway, the Mishima syndicate was especially interested in the people who entered its 'Iron Hangnail' or whatever tournament. Any participant who lost a match would inevitably disappear within a couple days, never to be seen again. When Jun defeated me, I figured I was next.
         "So I set a trap, with the help of some friends from my department and an I.C.P.O. rep. Kazuya's drones came after me right on schedule; we caught them red-handed and wrangled a confession out of them.
         "Then we... we t-tried to serve Kazuya with a w-warrant for his arrest. He... m-massacred us." The cop's voice had been falling in an uneven decrescendo; now it gave way to dead silence.
         "How?" Jax prompted, after several seconds.
         "He..." Lei's mouth turned dry. The cop swallowed and tried again. "He has... power."
         "'Power'? Do you mean sorcery?"
         "Y-yes." Lei shuddered. A bead of sweat trickled down his brow. Jun tilted her head in puzzlement; her calm spell shouldn't have worn off this quickly.
         "What type of sorcery did Kazuya work?"
         Lei's lips parted, but no sound came out. He shivered again and doubled over, clutching at his midsection with one arm.
         "Are you well?" Kung Lao asked. "You look like you're running a fever."
         Lei shook his head. Sonya scanned him with her microcomputer.
         "...zhè bìng bù huài...!" the cop emphasized to himself, squeezing his eyes shut.
         A subdued breeze stirred Jun's hair, blowing slight wisps across her compassionate face. She listened to the current's yearning whisper, and bit by bit the pieces fell into place.
         "Kazuya is the one who cursed you, isn't he?"
         Lei nodded and pressed his free hand against the ash-grey forelock in his bangs, attempting to ward off his renewed headache.
         Kung Lao snapped his fingers in a flash of insight. "Of course. Kazuya deliberately branded that black scar on your chest, in mockery of his own. And that's how you know where he is; his curse links you to him."
         "What?" Liu Kang exclaimed.
         "I know he's alive. N-not where," croaked Lei. "C-could be two kilometers away or two hundred... any d-direction."
         Tightness crossed Liu Kang's face, as he balanced the strain of his concealment spell against the necessary composure to phrase a question. "When Kazuya destroyed your team, how did you escape?"
         "I..."


         Hold your formation! Takeshi shouts. Lei snaps to his feet; he sees Hu and Qiao leveling their pistols at what used to be the suspect.
         "No, don't!" Lei cries, his flesh-and-blood voice superseding the ghostly echoes of the past. "Bullets won't stop him! Get out of the way before-"
         Hu and Qiao fire three rounds at point-blank range, as a double slash of merciless claws carves into them. Hu staggers, staring dumbly at his own gutted entrails. Qiao's head folds absurdly back, until his skull touches his spine; only a loose flap of skin still attaches it to his neck. A tangle of panicked voices fills the air.
         It killed them!
         Fall back!
         AAAGH!
         Shit, we need backup! A burst of static blares from a hand-held radio, but red rain soaks the device and shorts it out.
         OIYAA! Takeshi yells, rushing the suspect. He leaps forward in a flying kick; the monster bats him out of the air with one claw-swipe. Takeshi falls, twitching. Stark red incisions run down his sternum, splitting his kevlar vest.
         The fiend seizes Takeshi's throat and lifts him high, flexing its bloody free hand.
         "No! NOOO!" Lei screams. "You won't! I won't let you!" He moves to intercede, but something forces him back; a steady hold on his body and arms won't let him run, won't let him fight.
         "It's all right," the monster says, but the voice is wrong. It is reassuring, sympathetic; its very sound melts the surrounding unreality.



         "Damn you!" Lei swore, straining to pull free, but his strength was nothing compared to the steel grasp of Jax's bionic limbs. Sonya and Kung Lao helped to secure the cop, grappling his arms while Jax gripped his torso.
         "It's all right. You're among friends," Jun soothed.
         "What she said. Don't fight us, okay?" Kung Lao added.
         Lei stopped his struggles. "Lao? Wh-what happened?"
         "All of a sudden, you jumped up, started shouting, and lunged to attack something that wasn't there. Sorry to restrain you like this, but we were afraid you'd hurt yourself. Feeling better now?"
         "No..." Lei's head drooped. Jax and Sonya exchanged glances, then let him go. Kung Lao and Jun helped the cop settle down.
         "Whatever you saw or heard, it wasn't real," Jun consoled. "Don't worry. We're here for you."
         "No. No, I can't be getting DTs; I was a heavy drinker for only five years-"
         Eight years, Takeshi corrected.
         Lei looked up.
         The I.C.P.O. detective stood a little to Jun's right, with his arms folded. An ugly, three-clawed tear divided Takeshi's chest into vertical halves; red wellsprings oozed from the cut and dribbled down his conservative uniform. His analytical, chestnut eyes sparkled with keen accuracy. Adorning his throat was a small shell on a plain string; Lei had once wondered why he wore the unusual necklace, but never asked.
         It was three years before anyone did notice you had a problem, another three before you did admit it, and two more to get you where you are today.
         "-I mean, eight years," Lei admitted, hanging his head. Takeshi slowly vanished from the feet up, dissolving and mixing with the morning fog.
         Sonya double-checked the readout of her microcomputer. "I'd say it was only a hallucination. DTs usually come with violent, grand mal seizures, which can kill a person without medical treatment. Your convulsions have been fairly mild."
         "Stress appeared to bring it on," Jun worriedly observed. "I think you've told us enough. You can wait until after the acute withdrawal phase to finish the story."
         "Eh, okay. Just one more thing. I didn't escape. I survived, but I didn't escape."
         Liu Kang touched his fingers together and looked at Jax.
         Lei's hands clenched, fingernails digging into palms so hard they made creases in his skin. "No matter what the cost, I'm going to track that murderer down and make him pay."
         "Kazuya wasn't always a murderer," Jun said, quietly.
         Every member of the circle stared at her.
         "Lei has shared what he knows; now it's my turn. There isn't a lot I can add, though.
         "Kazuya was soft-spoken, and kept to himself most of the time. He'd often have bruises or other injuries; he'd say he got them while sparring. But when I trained with him, or watched him spar, he was the model of self-restraint. He was very levelheaded; almost nothing could ruffle him. And he really liked to collect sneakers. I mean, he had whole rooms full of them, domestic and imported, every brand, color, shape and size imaginable.
         "One time, when I found an injured dove on his property, he showed me how to properly splint its wing until it healed enough to fly. When he was eighteen, he left home to join the Peace Corps under an assumed name. He spent two years traveling the world, helping those less fortunate than himself.
         "Kazuya was a good person, once."
         "Wait, wait," Lei interrupted, holding up a quivering hand. "How'd you become acquainted with him in the first place?"
         "My father and Kazuya's grandfather were both good friends with a wise man named Wang Jinrey. Kazuya, Lee, and I used to call him 'Uncle Wang' when we were young."
         "That's your only connection?"
         "Um..." Jun shifted uncomfortably and bit her lip. Her shoulders hunched forward, and her eyes flitted nervously.
         "Aw, I didn't mean to rattle you, kid. No one's accusing you of any crime."
         "I am not a kid. How many times do I have to tell you that before it takes?" She shot Lei a look of reproach and continued, "When I learned Kazuya had taken over the Mishima syndicate, I thought he'd guide it away from the destruction it had wreaked in his father's name. I didn't know he had tried to kill his father. I didn't want to believe he was using the syndicate to smuggle endangered animals, let alone hurt or kill innocent people. Somehow, he changed."
         "What do you remember about Kazuya's prowess for sorcery?" Jax bluntly demanded.
         "The last time I spoke to him was years and years ago. I was just beginning to understand Ki then, so I can't tell you very much. He definitely has the potential to channel his Ki, but I don't know to what extent. He is very strong-willed, though. That could make him a formidable sorcerer."
         "Very well." Jax folded his arms. "Wulong, you are temporarily dismissed from this war council. We will call you when it is time to set out."
         "Huh? Why're you-?"
         "I said, you are dismissed, Detective."
         "Come on," Jun suggested, lightly resting her hand on his shoulder. "You can show me some more - what did you call it? 'Dai Ki'?"
         "Uh, that's 'Tai Chi'-"
         "Can you teach it to me?"
         "Well, I'm kind of out of practice..." Ignoring his protests, she clasped his hand and helped him stand up, guiding him out of earshot of the others.
         "I see Jun has a new pet," Michelle mused. "I hope she remembers to get its shots."
         Kung Lao raised an eyebrow. "I can never tell when you're joking."
         "We don't have time to waste on humor," Jax declared. "Kang, I assume you have a good reason for signaling me."
         "Yes." The elder monk separated his fingers. "We may have been compromised. My cloaking spell could be rendered useless. Major, I can confirm that Kazuya is a powerful necromancer, akin to Shang Tsung. I know this from Wulong's memories."
         "Do you think Kazuya is the one who broke Chang's cloaking spell?"
         "It is possible, but not a certainty. He could not see through a cloaking spell as easily as Shang Tsung.
         "While Kazuya has the power of a master sorcerer, learning the subtleties of applying raw potency against magical invisibility takes time. Shang Tsung is over a millennium old, but Kazuya has barely passed his first quarter-century. At this early stage in his life, I expect his sorcery to exhibit more fortitude than finesse. However, if he does have a compass planted among us, then he would no longer need finesse."
         "What 'compass'?" Kung Lao questioned, suspiciously.
         "Wulong."
         "That's absurd."
         "Do you truly think Kazuya spared him out of mercy? You said it yourself; Wulong is a reagent."
         "You can't use someone as a reagent without their undivided consent. Lei would never agree to-"
         "Are you sure?"
         "Aren't you? You're the one who read his mind, remember? You know better than anyone else what his soul is like."
         "I read his mind. It is in turbulent disarray. I knew how he was cursed, but not who had done it until Kazama figured it out. Although Wulong has an inflexible conscience, the curse does link his perceptions to those of Kazuya Mishima."
         "Have you forgotten the Law of Duality? If Lei can't sense Kazuya's exact location, then Kazuya can't sense Lei's."
         "Perhaps we should resolicit Wulong's opinion on that."
         "No."
         The younger monk lowered the brim of his hat. "I know Lei. If you suggest that his presence could somehow endanger us, impossible though that is, he will walk. He won't listen to reason or discuss alternatives; he'll just turn around and leave. It would have the same effect as formally banishing him, and if that's what you want, at least have the guts to admit it and call for a vote. You already know where Jun and I stand."
         "I have presented my case. What do the rest of you say?"
         "The enemy already decimated us once, before Wulong joined," Jax pointed out. "We're at risk whether he stays or goes."
         Michelle closed her eyes in deep thought. "I have nothing against Jun. Gods forbid I take away her pet."
         "If Wulong leaves, then I expect Kazama will follow," Sonya said. "Not immediately; she knows the Chosen One will die if she does not periodically renew her stasis spell. But once we turn him over to Sanctuary's healers, she will desert. Before I can allow that to happen, Liu, you must present me with stronger evidence of your suspicions."
         "That settles it," asserted the major. "Let's move out."



         "What do you think, Lee?" Kazuya inquired, casually.
         I'm thinking of the dagger in my boot, and how easily I could drive it into the base of your neck, if only my hand would stop shaking. I'm thinking of how much you would deserve it, for what you've done to Ganryu, what you ordered me to do to Dark Mane, and for selling out the Earth.
         "Lee?"
         "Your plan is working."
         "As always, your perception of the conspicuous is beyond reproach."
         The master sorcerer made a cutting motion with one hand, and the voices of his enemies ceased. "I have decided upon our next step. By now, Ishida and Kimura should have brought Commander Baek Doo San to my antechamber. I trust the injuries he sustained in the last raid are fully healed by now?"
         "Yes, Mishima-sama."
         "Good. You will relay the following to him. He is to lead the Centaurians in another attack."
         Kazuya snapped his fingers; crackles of indigo Ki solidified into a palm-sized looking glass in his hand. Its silvery surface reflected an ongoing vision of Chosen Ones and their allies.
         "Give him this, and identify the individuals for his edification. Jun Kazama should be captured alive if possible, killed if necessary. As for the others, have the commander thin their ranks. He must let at least three of them escape unharmed. Any questions?"
         The silver-haired devil hesitantly accepted the looking glass. "Are you sure we shouldn't let Baek in on the plan? He could kill our agent if we don't explicitly prohibit him."
         "You should have more faith, Lee. The enemy appears to have accepted our proxy as one of their own. If he is given special treatment, it will increase the risk that they might see through his veneer.
         "One more thing. During his last raid, Commander Baek failed to completely fulfill my orders. He brought back only two living prisoners, when I expressly requested three. You will communicate my disapproval. Enlist Ishida and Kimura's help if you must, but do not brutalize him too severely. I want him to carry out the assault tonight."



         The day was uneventful. Kung Lao traveled ahead of Jax's party as the scout. Three times, he teleported back to the major, reporting a nearby mutant or Centaurian patrol. The party carefully treaded wide detours around the nonhumans, who appeared like tiny stick figures in the distance. Yet the enemy never noticed or followed them. Liu Kang's concealment spell was holding. After sixteen hours of brisk travel, they set up camp.
         Jun renewed her stasis spell without a word of protest, but it taxed her. This wasteland was so barren that all the Ki she generated had to be summoned from within herself; she could not draw upon the vibrancy of the living biosphere to cushion the strain. Staying awake for her turn at watch was harder than she had expected. Kung Lao tried to help by retelling some of his stories, but as the sky lightened from the approaching dawn, her mind wandered. Though she tried her best to concentrate upon scanning for danger, she found herself contemplating the sleeping patrol members instead.
         She knew the least about Jax. They'd never exchanged words outside of a businesslike context, but Sonya trusted the major, and Jun trusted Sonya. The three of them had an understanding: Jun worked with Jax and Sonya, applying her skills as needed, and in return they respected her status as a conscientious objector. From the beginning, Jun had made it clear that under no circumstances would she take a life, war or no war.
         A hesitant shadow of a frown crossed Jun's lips when she regarded Michelle. At a tender twenty years of age, Michelle was the youngest member of the party, though her womanly figure and face made her appear older than she truly was. Even Lei had taken to calling the young warrior by her first name instead of that irritating "kid" epithet. The enemy's last raid must have inflicted deep scars upon her, because Jun could not remember the last time she seemed so remote, almost spiteful. Michelle had more than reasonable cause to feel moody, but Jun missed her smile just the same.
         Then there was Lei.
         A tangled muddle of conflicting feelings gathered within Jun.
         In retrospect, it was probably good that he'd turned down her offer of a sleep spell; she was already pushing close to her limits. Fortunately, he seemed to be getting by quite well without it. He was stretched out on Kung Lao's yellow-brown blanket, eyes closed, crossed hands resting lightly on his chest, completely oblivious. She'd worried that the nightmares might recur, and resolved to thoroughly discuss the matter with him if they did. So far, his respiration had slowed past the point of unconsciousness and stayed there for hours without disturbance.
         Well, that took care of one feeling: the worry. All that she had left to work through were the skepticism, curiosity, trepidation, aggravated exasperation, and perhaps something else too fragile to survive being dragged out in the open, just yet.
         "-and Liu roars, 'WHO DARES TO STEAL MY PREY?' You've never seen him in dragon-form before, but it's shocking even if you're familiar with it. He can devour a person in two bites; I've seen him do it! So, tiny little humble me tells the Princess to run for her life, and then I challenge this humongous monster..."
         Noticing the glazed look in Jun's eyes, Kung Lao waggled his fingers at a thirty degree angle from her face without eliciting a reaction. "Oh, and did I mention that plaid Fungi from Yuggoth told me I might have already won ten million dollars?"
         "Mm-hmm," she murmured.
         "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were completely tuning me out, while automatically mumbling interjections to fool me into thinking you were listening."
         "Uh-huh."
         "Sonya, can you zap her with your energy stun rings? Just this once?"
         "Sorry. The power reserves are running low," the lieutenant dryly responded, drumming her fingers on her microcomputer. "I'm storing what's left for a little surprise, in case the Centaurians try another ambush."
         Jun absently tapped the tips of her index fingers together. "Lao, could you-" she caught herself and lowered her voice to a whisper so quiet, it scarcely carried past the two of them. "Could you tell me something about Lei?"
         "Well. Um." The monk rotated his hat's brim a half-centimeter clockwise. "I, uh, don't think I could tell you anything he wouldn't answer himself."
         "Is he married?"
         "No idea. Lei, are you married?"
         "Not at all," the cop answered, without missing a beat.
         Jun's jaw dropped. Sonya's eyebrows shot up; according to her microcomputer's readout, Lei's heart rate and blood pressure had been suppressed below the level of stage-four non-REM slumber barely a second ago. Either he was an extremely light sleeper, or there was more to him than met the eye.
         "What-? You were-!" Jun sputtered
         "Fooled you, didn't I?" Lei flashed his good-natured smile and sat up.
         "He taught me that trick," Kung Lao remarked. "It can come in handy if you doubt the salubrious intentions of your compatriots. But you trust us, don't you Lei?" Embellished innocence flavored the question.
         "It isn't that I don't trust you, it's what I trust you to do. So, why'd you want to know my marital status? Were you thinking of proposing? Hate to disappoint you, but you're not my type. Not even close. Try not to get all heartbroken about it," Lei consoled, with exaggerated empathy.
         "Don't worry about me; it was Jun's question."
         Jun blushed and covered her face. "How am I supposed to tell whether you're asleep or awake?"
         "Oh, that's easier than you think. If I'm not shrieking from some nightmare, I'm probably awake." Lei brushed the tangles in his sable hair behind his head. "Anything else you'd like to know, kid? It's only fair, seeing as how I did some research on your background when I learned you'd oppose me in that Iron Callus or whatever tournament."
         "Um..."
         "I'm twenty-six, blood type A, and contrary to appearances I bear no, repeat no relation to Jackie Chan; I've checked back fifteen generations, just to be sure. And I have absolutely, positively, never been married." He raised his eyes to the starless night sky, and a slightly more somber mood settled upon him.
         "Proposed once, though." Lei gazed into the opaque heavens as though searching for the answer to a riddle.
         "It's funny. I knew it was a bad idea from the start. True friendships are so hard to come by, and so easy to ruin. But I had these feelings for her, no matter how hard I pushed them back or tried to forget about them. And then, before I had any idea what was happening, everything changed."
         The corners of his lips turned up, in a rueful half-smile. With a sweeping gesture, he pulled a vibrant, multicolored silk scarf from between the thumb and fingers of his left hand. He allowed the silken article to drift for an instant, suspended on the slight evening breeze.
         "I thought she loved me. I really did."
         Lei pulled the scarf through the thumb and finger of his right hand. The silken article lost its color, fading from a bright rainbow to dull grey.
         "I was wrong. I'd never been so wrong in my life." He spread his hands, and the scarf vanished in a display of azure sparks.
         "During the next several days, I went on one long drinking binge. Somewhere in there, I think I lost the diamond ring and sold a kidney to pay it off. At least, that would explain why one of them was missing. I hope it went to someone who needed it."
         "Some people lose their hearts. Only you would lose a kidney," Kung Lao said.
         "I'm sorry," Jun commiserated.
         Lei shook his head. "Don't be. The entire affair was only the latest stretch of a long, downhill slide, and getting married would not have solved the real problem. Wouldn't even have slowed it down."
         The cop lowered his eyes from the darkened heavens, and slipped a sidelong glance to Kung Lao. "So, Lao, did you by any chance get married when I wasn't looking?"
         "Are you kidding?"
         "C'mon, I know your order's doctrine doesn't require celibacy."
         "The doctrine doesn't exclude women from membership either, but the White Lotus Society has been all-male for the past two hundred years. You wouldn't believe the arguments I've had, trying to persuade Liu to change that! And our old temple was at least what, a hundred-kilometer hike from the nearest outpost of civilization? It wasn't exactly the best prospect for a date on Saturday night."
         "You did study abroad in America for several years."
         "Yeah, and I learned more about game shows than women."
         "Uh-huh. There is someone, isn't there."
         "I wish." The younger monk pulled his razor-brimmed headgear down a fraction.
         "There's someone. You can tell by the way he fiddles with his hat," Lei whispered to Jun, with a conspiratorial wink.
         "Look, I'll level with you," Kung Lao sighed. "The closest thing I have to a girlfriend lives on another planet. Literally. Whether we save the Earth or not, I may never have a chance to speak to her again. Even if I did, I'm not sure what I'd say. She's a bit more... um..."
         "Older woman, is she?"
         "Earthworld time or Outworld time?"
         "What's the difference?"
         "Ten thousand years, give or take a century."
         Lei sounded a long, low-pitched whistle.
         "That's Earthworld time, dummy," Kung Lao chided. "Time flows at variable rates from world to world. Outworld time, she's about my age."
         "Ah."
         "Well, maybe a little older."
         "I knew it," the cop smirked, with a sly grin.
         "Okay, if you're so smart, then why don't you give me a couple pointers?"
         Lei rolled his eyes. "You're asking the wrong person. I've been a worthless drunk for so long, I can't remember how sober people get together. You're better off asking Lieutenant Blade or the kid for advice."
         "I am not getting involved in this conversation," Sonya asserted, without turning their way. "At least one of us has to actually keep watch for enemies."
         "Um, don't look at me," Jun appealed, still feeling too abashed to make eye contact. "Please don't."
         Lei shrugged. "In that case, Lao, here's my best tip: don't throw up on, near, or around her. Nothing, but nothing ruins the mood quicker."
         "Noted for future reference. Okay Jun, it's your turn."
         "Nani?" she squeaked.
         "Hey, you started this whole thing. Go on, tell Lei how single and available you are," he encouraged, with a playful nudge.
         She flushed a shade deeper red and whimpered, "Tamarimasen."
         "Eh, I think we've embarrassed the kid enough for one night," Lei attested, holding up one hand. "No need to-"
         "I had a fiancé once."
         Jun wasn't sure when or how she chose to talk about it, but once she started, the words poured out with a will of their own. "My parents arranged it when I was young. I didn't question it; it was just the way things were going to be.
         "My mother used to tell me how fortunate I was, because I would be marrying into such a distinguished family. She spent years looking for a respectable, well-off family who'd accept me, and it was extremely lucky that one finally did. You see, I - I'm not purely Japanese. I have some Korean blood on my mother's side, and a tiny bit of Ainu on my father's. That sort of thing isn't supposed to matter anymore, but..." She bit her lip. The red flush faded from her face; a sinking weariness replaced it.
         "It's just the way some people think; I can either ignore it, which has no effect, or argue about it, which has no effect. When it comes to an arranged marriage, many families will hire private detectives to ensure that the intended doesn't have a trace of Korean blood. It isn't too obvious when you look at me, but anyone who wants to find out will - either by asking me directly, or by a discreet meeting with the police. Lei, if you have done any kind of background check on me, you probably found my fingerprints. I've never committed a crime in my life, but the law required it of me, only because of my lineage."
         "That is a crazy law," remarked the cop, "and anyone who thinks your race had a damn thing to do with your character is crazy."
         "He used to say things like that," she recounted, wistfully. "My fiancé, I mean. He could be a very sweet person, but he could also be cruel. Sometimes he'd say things he didn't mean. It hurt more than I let on. He'd usually apologize later. Usually.
         "He used to tell me that he loved me, and I believed him. I kept thinking it would get better, yet it never did. It got worse. We quarreled a lot. He'd misread my intentions, and become angry about it. There were... misunderstandings." She hesitated, troubled by disconcerting memories.
         "Finally, he went too far. When I tried to suggest that we needed some time away from each other, he snapped. He hit me.
         "I'm trained in my family's traditional Aiki Ju Jitsu, so I do know how to defend myself. I should have been able to avoid being hurt, but I wasn't expecting it, not from him. It was more than I could bear. I never had anything more to do with him." She fell silent, her story told.
         Kung Lao cleared his throat. "If you'll pardon the opinion, the fellow you speak of does not sound like a 'sweet person.' He sounds like a sick person."
         "I never said he was perfect."
         "There's 'imperfect,' and then there's 'screwed up,'" Lei quietly compared, looking away. "Trust me. It takes one to know one."
         She looked at him curiously, and was about to speak when his eyes became wide with alarm. He fluidly whipped his upper body back, pressing his palms on the earth and shooting to his feet in an instantaneous kippup. His revolver was in his hand before Jun could see him draw it; he cocked the weapon and held it close to his shoulders, with its muzzle pointed skyward.
         "Jax, Michelle, everyone, we're under attack! Ten of them, teleporting all around us!" Lei shouted, frantically twisting his head from side to side.
         The others reacted immediately, their reflexes honed from months of training. Kung Lao pulled a spear with backward-pointing barbs and a heavy oaken shaft out of his hat. Sonya keyed a short sequence into her microcomputer. Liu Kang snapped out of his meditative trance. Jax rolled off his blanket and primed the weaponry in his bionic arms. Jun joined formation with the rest of them, backing into a tight defensive circle around Lei and the stasis-frozen Chosen One.
         "Relax, you fools," Michelle spat. "The boozer is hallucinating again."
         "No, this is real! I can see into the-"
         "Settle down, and put away the damn gun before you shoot one of us!"
         Jax scanned the surrounding wasteland, and saw nothing. The predawn sky was also empty; there was nothing like the shadow-bird that heralded the previous attack.
         He faced the cop and extended his hand. "Wulong, I think you had better give me the gun."
         "BEHIND YOU!" Lei pointed his revolver half a meter above Jax's head and squeezed the trigger.
         A heavy, muffled grunt sounded in back of the major, as a massive Centaurian slumped on its side. Viscous trickles of cerise blood streamed from its right eye. Another horse-man reared over the corpse; Lei fired when it reached the peak of its stance, and its neigh became a death-wail. The other Centaurians quickly shielded their eyes with their hands. Lei retracted his gun close with its muzzle pointed straight up, searching for a clear shot.
         The Chosen Ones' circle was barely holding against the Centaurians' onslaught. Jax kept one at bay with the plasma cannon built into his bionic arms. Michelle drew upon her talent as a warrior-mage; an orange-red flash of psychic energy formed a nimbus on her fist. As she rushed headlong into a horse-man, her power exploded in a vivid blast of heat and light. Shockwaves staggered the beast.
         Where Liu Kang once stood, there loomed a tremendous, serpentine monstrosity. The scaled behemoth parted its crocodile jaws and exhaled scorching flame upon two more horse-men. Though dragon-Kang's fiery breath did not burn their invulnerable skin, its sheer impetus kept them at a temporary standstill.
         Insane laugher roared above the din of battle. Sonya's opponent was not a Centaurian, but rather a human riding a steed of bones, his feet firmly planted in stirrups of tangible necromantic force. His sorrel eyes burned with bloodlust and madness.
         "Baek," she snarled. He spread his arms wide, as if welcoming an invitation.
         Sonya unleashed a torrent of electromagnetic pressure waves from her microcomputer. Baek swiftly balanced on his mount's spine and dived off. Pulsing lines of roseate force lifted the skeleton-horse up and away, but before Sonya could redirect her technology upon the rider, his flying left heel crashed into her face. The scissors motion of more kicks too fast to defend against battered her. She hit the earth with a dizzying thud, while all around her the hateful, shrieking laughter continued. She caught an unsteady glimpse of the madman towering above her. Keeping his right leg straight as a finely sanded board, he raised his heel above his head, preparing to bring it down on her throat.
         Sonya tapped her microcomputer twice.
         Now its energy focused upon her, boosting her forward and upward with artificial speed. Cycling her legs, she pummeled his face with one heel after the other, until the lift wore off. She landed on her feet, wiping blood from her broken nose. Baek reeled, spitting out his shattered teeth.
         A golden-horned Centaurian closed in on Jun.
         "Shogai!" she yelled, pushing out with her hand and her soul. The golden Centaurian ran into a potent wall of invisible force. Flashes of immaculate white Ki sparked from the points of contact, inflicting stinging jolts of torment.
         "FOOLISH LITTLE GIRL," it whinnied. "OURO WOULD HAVE TAKEN YOU ALIVE, BUT NOW YOU ARE DEAD!"
         "I - am - not - a - CHILD!" she shouted, using her indignation to further fuel her mystic wall. Though the psychic obstacle forced Ouro back, Jun tired rapidly from the strain. Ouro reared, drumming at the sorcerous construct with his golden forehooves. His incessant pounding further destabilized her barrier.
         Sidestepping a Centaurian's charge, Kung Lao twirled his spear and brought its thick shaft against his enemy's front knees. The monster's momentum added to the force of the impact. Although its tough skin did not bruise, the horse-man tripped. Its humanoid torso reflexively bent over, planting both misshapen hands on the ground to brace itself. Kung Lao reversed the rotation of his spear, horizontally aligning its point with the set of his shoulders, and drove its tip into the monster's unguarded left eye. As the monk jerked his weapon out, the seventh Centaurian rammed his ribcage with its melon-sized fist. Kung Lao flew backward, losing his grip on the spear, and collided with Jax.
         The seventh Centaurian triumphantly lifted its right foreleg and thrust its hand in the air - a fatal blunder, for Lei seized the opportunity to shoot its eyes dead-on. But the damage had been done; both Kung Lao and Jax were down, freeing Jax's Centaurian to charge into the broken circle. In the split-second it took Lei to pivot and aim, he knew he would be too late to prevent the monster from trampling the stasis-frozen Chosen One.
         "Shogai!" Jun cried, twisting and pushing out with her free hand. The Centaurian collided with a second wall of force, just as its foremost hoof was centimeters away from crushing the inert victim's face. Shining flashes of white Ki stunned it; it shielded its eyes with sausage-like fingers.
         Kung Lao groaned.
         Michelle retreated two paces.
         Sonya punched.
         Baek kicked.
         The dragon snapped its tail like a whip.
         Jax fired his plasma cannon.
         Jun shrieked.
         She had been fatigued when the battle began; dividing her Ki two ways claimed an insupportable toll. Sensing weakness, Ouro raised the tip of his metallic, rat-like tail over his horned head and channeled a red-gold surge of eldritch energy through it. Jun's wall of force shattered. Ouro wrapped his meaty hand around her slender waist and chambered his fist. Lei aimed his revolver at the monster's golden eyes-
         His hands were shaking.
         Not now! the cop silently screamed to himself, but his tremors only became worse. He couldn't fire; the risk was overwhelming that he might hit Jun, directly or by ricochet.
         "Kagayaku hikari!" Jun commanded, pointing at Ouro's face. A sparkling eruption of brilliant white light flared from her fingertip; Ouro's fist unclenched and covered his eyes.
         Lei dropped his firearm and snatched the blanket he'd been sleeping upon. The cop vaulted onto Ouro's back, throwing the cloth over the horse-man's head.
         "WHAT FLEA DARES!?" bellowed Ouro. He bucked and kicked, still holding on to Jun. Lei tightened both arms around the monster's humanoid throat and pulled, striving to break his neck, but Centaurian bones are many times tougher than those of a human.
         "Get over here, quickly!" Jax called. A high-pitched, mechanical wail oscillated, increasing to a deafening volume. Jun had a brief vision of dragon-Kang using his sinuous body as a living barricade between her friends and the Centaurians. There was a bright surge of roseate light-
         -and the world twined like knotted rope, coiling and uncoiling in a garbled warp of space. Jun felt a familiar, sickly churning in her gut. Ouro dropped her in the dirt; she rolled onto her stomach and bit back dry heaves.
         "YOU DISGUSTING INSECT!"
         Jun looked up. Ouro used his long arms and great strength to rip Lei off his back. The golden-horned Centaurian dangled the cop by the throat and coiled his fist. Lei drove the ball of his foot into the monster's chin; it was like trying to kick a mountain.
         "No!" Jun cried, scrambling to her feet.
         The horse-man hammered his fist into Lei's abdomen. Ouro's snorting whinny drowned the cop's agonized outcry. Lei hurtled clear across twenty meters and flopped in the dust. Ouro turned on Jun.
         <Barrier!> she shouted, recalling her wall of force, but it was deteriorating more swiftly than ever. She could not maintain it for long under Ouro's pounding barrage, so she dropped it without warning. The golden-horned Centaurian stumbled, surprised by the sudden lack of resistance.
         Ignore the exhaustion, Jun thought to herself. Creating another barrier would make her pass out. At most, she had enough psychic fortitude left for one last flash of light. Out of desperation, she lunged for Lei's fallen blanket.
         "HssssSSSSSSS..."
         As Jun gathered her new weapon, a malefic, serpentine sound filled her ears. Lei was barreling toward the golden monster's flank in a berserker charge. Confident in the invulnerability of his equine hide, the Centaurian didn't spare the cop a glance. Ouro concentrated upon attacking the sorceress, whom he perceived as the more dangerous foe.
         It was his final mistake.
         Lei swiped with his right hand; his fingers carved open the beast's stony skin like a knife slicing through cooked meat. Ouro wobbled and tried to turn around; Lei turned with him and cut deeper wounds with both hands. Splashes of cerise gore soaked the cop's shirt and forearms. The golden-horned Centaurian reared, desperate to escape the relentless assault. Lei seized the beast's drumming forelegs and yanked them against the natural bend of the knees until they broke with an ugly crack sound.
         Never before had Ouro encountered such physical might in a mortal. The Centaurian teetered on his hind hooves, then lost his balance and collapsed on his side, his ruined forelegs unable to support his great weight. He threw up his arms; they were shredded into nerveless scraps of meat hanging from bloody bones. The last thing he felt was the searing rip of sharpened claws cutting into his throat.
         Lei turned around.
         "Shimatta!" Jun gasped.
         Predawn light framed a grotesque parody of her friend. His skin had turned livid blue streaked with dark purple veins, so tense they visibly protruded. Splashes of Centaurian blood mixed with the unnatural pigment, staining his forearms mauve. More vital fluid dripped from the claws studding his hands; each talon matched the length of its corresponding finger. His feet also carried thick claws, which poked through holes in his worn loafers. Sharp, backward-pointing spikes jutted from his elbows, tearing the cloth of his shirt when he flexed his arms. Two conical, jet black horns extruded from his head, pointing straight back. The morning breeze parted his hair about the black mark on his forehead, which now pulsed with a blood-red glow. His eyes matched the unholy radiance; they'd become solid red pools, forsaken of intellect or spirit.
         Kazuya's curse had transformed him into a demon from Hell.
         Jun glanced nervously to either side. She saw nothing save desolation. Ouro must have teleported; there was no telling how far away they were from the Chosen Ones' campsite. She was on her own.
         "Lei? Try - try to remember me. Remember who you are." She tremulously held out her hand. Demon-Lei hissed and hunched over in a partial crouch. Trying not to think about how effortlessly he had slaughtered the Centaurian, she took a step forward.
         "That's right. I'm Jun. I - I'm your friend." She meant the words to be soothing, yet somehow they quivered sharply with anxiety. "You - you must remember-"
         "HsssSSSHAH!" he spat, charging her.
         "Aah!" She threw the blanket at him; he shredded it in midair. Panic overwhelmed her, and she started to run, but he caught up to her easily. A glimpse over her shoulder confirmed her worst fear. She dived and rolled; a slash that would have taken off her head merely grazed her back. As he followed up with a downward strike, she braced herself on both hands and her left leg, whipping her right leg in a circular sweep parallel to the ground. Her kick knocked demon-Lei's clawed feet out from under him. He collapsed, only to stand back up twice as fast as he'd fallen.
         Demon-Lei snarled wordlessly and swung his claws toward her chest. She automatically stepped back in a guard position, presenting the side of her body and moving to deflect his lunge with the outer edge of her forearm. He batted aside her guard like a twig blown in a hurricane. It was the stance that saved her; instead of cutting out her heart, demon-Lei's talons made a seamless incision in her arm, running down the length of the humerus.
         Blood streamed from the wound, joining the red welts that crossed her back. When Jun tried to retreat a step, he clutched her bloodstained wrist and jerked her closer.
         <Blinding light!> she shouted, summoning brilliant whiteness to her free hand. With a shrill screech, demon-Lei let her go and covered his eyes. He reeled, then made a blind claw-lunge for where she had been standing a moment ago.
         Her intuition made the leap.
         Demon-Lei operated solely on instinct, without reason, strategy, or even animal cunning. Every time he attacked, it was with a headlong rush, followed by a slash with the foreclaws. It was always the same. Just like-


         "You must be wary of this adversary. He is extremely deceptive," Wang had warned her, prior to her first match in the Iron Fist Tournament. "Lei Wulong has eliminated four other finalists so far. You might feel relief that he did not kill or permanently cripple any of them. Don't. The fact that he can surpass such brutal competition without resorting to lethal force says volumes about his skill.
         "Study him carefully. Exploit his weaknesses. Remember your training. Above all, do not let yourself be distracted!"
         She'd taken the advice to heart. As she squared off against the cop, she noticed the slight, quarter-steps he subtly made to the side, and shifted her alignment to compensate. Suddenly, he took the initiative, snapping his left hand in a backfist strike to her face. When she ducked, he smoothly transformed the initial strike into a counterclockwise spin and whipped a second backfist over her head. Jun seized the opportunity to wrap both arms around his waist and drop into a bowlegged stance, lifting with the muscles of her hips and thighs. She arched her back, carrying him over her head and into the freshly-mown grass behind her. She took no pride in his wheezing grunt of pain, but cautiously dashed away, awaiting his next move.
         Lei rolled to his feet. If not for the grass stains on his deep blue shirt, and the slightly cramped manner in which he tilted his head, one could hardly guess he'd been hurt. Eyes unreadable, he contemplated her, then sprinted forward and attacked in exactly the same manner as before.
         Why? she had wondered, tripping him before he could complete the first swing. Why aren't you varying your tactics? If you're trying to confuse me with some new strategy, it isn't working. Is this really how you defeated your previous opponents?
         She never had gotten an answer out of him...



         ...but now she had something better: a plan.
         "I'm over here," she boldly proclaimed.
         Demon-Lei hissed and swiveled to face her. He still kept one clawed hand over his eyes, but the fingers were spread and the eyelids had opened enough to expose a tiny crease of his blood-red orbs.
         "That's right, I'm here. Come on and get this over with," she taunted. Her bleeding arm throbbed, and the lacerations on her back were burning-
         Above all, do not let yourself be distracted!
         I'm trying, Uncle Wang, she thought, blocking out the distress and concentrating on the charging specter.
         Demon-Lei was faster than she and many times stronger, but she had the final advantage: she knew what he was going to do, well before he moved to do it. When his clawed right hand reached for her, she was already waiting to grab its wrist.
         Though she could not grapple with his strength directly, she could turn it against him, extending the downward momentum of his swing well past its intended stopping point. She bent his elbow at the same time, locking his right arm behind his back, and exerted an extra push to unbalance him. He fell face-first. She kneeled on his back and neck, pinning him to the ground.
         "Now, you stay down! I'm not letting you up until you remember who you are!"
         The dusty earth muffled demon-Lei's infuriated hiss. His left arm flailed, and his legs kicked at the knees, but he lacked sufficient purchase to throw her off.
         "Cry all you want; you're staying down until - AAH!" she squawked, as his left arm made a constrained slash and awkwardly scraped her cheek.
         Her cringe was enough of an opening for him to throw himself to the side, forcing her off his back. He twisted, unlocking his trapped arm, and raised the knifelike claws dripping with Ouro's blood and her blood-
         "I said DOWN!" Jun shrieked, whipping her fist solidly into his temple before he could fully spin around. He lurched back a step and yanked his right arm free of her grasp; his left arm remained threateningly upraised.
         "HSSSssss..." Demon-Lei swayed, buoyed by the wind, then toppled face down in the dirt and lay still. Jun clutched numbly at her bloody arm, watching the livid blue tint of his skin fade to a more familiar, washed-out tan.



         "What happened?" Kung Lao gasped.
         "We survived. Barely," Liu Kang answered.
         The younger monk struggled to sit up, and a sharp ache cut into his chest.
         "Do not move!" Liu Kang grimly commanded. Kung Lao slumped back down, but not before catching a nightmare glimpse of what used to be their battlefield. Some monumental force had scooped out a vast chunk of the ground, leaving behind a divot in the shape of an inverse cone.
         "Gods..." he whispered, laboring for breath.
         "Gods had little to do with it. Sonya set her microcomputer to auto-destruct, and my dragon-form shielded us from the blast. I doubt it destroyed the remaining Centaurians; they teleported away. We must depart before they return."
         "How are - the others?"
         "Jax is fine. Chang's scrapes will heal. I have some light burns, nothing serious. The Chosen One is still in stasis. Sonya was severely beaten up; she has lost consciousness.
         "You have taken a bad hit. Several of your ribs are broken; at least two of them have comminuted fractures, which will not heal on their own. It is a miracle the shattered pieces of bone have not pierced your lungs. You must lie still until we can take you to Sanctuary's healers, or I will be the only full-fledged member of the White Lotus Society left."
         "Jun can-"
         "No. She cannot."
         "Why?"
         Liu Kang looked away.
         "And Lei - you haven't said a thing about him. What happened to them?"
         "Chang is attempting to determine that." The elder monk glanced at the young warrior-mage. She trudged around the side of the vast divot, cradling a small metal object.
         "I found this," Michelle dully intoned, showing them Lei's .38 revolver. "Nothing else. They had to be caught in the blast."
         "They were both fighting a golden-horned Centaurian," Kung Lao said. "I saw that much. If it teleported with them, they could still be alive. I can trace the teleport, find out where they - ugh!" His face twisted in a grimace.
         "You cannot move without risking your life," Liu Kang cautioned, laying a stern hand on his Shaolin brother's shoulder. "In your condition, sorcery will kill you."
         "The Chosen One will die if we don't find Jun."
         "No. He won't," Michelle quietly rebutted. "I'm not a healer of Jun's caliber, but I think I can prolong the stasis spell until we reach Sanctuary - if we hurry as quickly as possible."
         "You can do that? Why didn't you tell us you were capable of-?"
         "Would you believe me if I said I haven't had much faith in my powers, lately?"
         Her caustic bitterness softened into a tempered melancholy. "It is what Jun would want me to do. I know it is."
         "We're leaving now," Jax declared.
         "What," wheezed the injured monk, "are we going to abandon them?"
         "Jax, Chang, and I have our hands full carrying three invalids, and time is of the essence," Liu Kang justified. The elder monk picked up his half of the makeshift stretcher supporting Kung Lao, while Michelle took the front end. Jax used the power of his artificial arms to lift both Sonya and the Chosen One.
         "Exactly when did we decide we're no better than the enemy we're fighting?"
         "You forget what enabled the enemy to attack us in the first place."
         "You don't mean-"
         "Wulong. It has to be."
         "Not possible."
         "There was no immediate disruption of my cloaking spell, yet the enemy knew precisely where to teleport, and Wulong sensed their coming well before they appeared."
         "If it weren't for Lei's warning, we might all be dead."
         "So I noticed. He must not have realized he was Kazuya's tool until too late, since you refused to let me tell him."
         "I keep telling you, you can't use a living being as a reagent without his consent! The negative biofeedback would-"
         "It is not possible to conquer the Earth without first winning the right by Tournament combat, but the Shao Kahn found a way around that!" Irate choler blazed in Liu Kang's eyes.
         "You're wrong. I know you are. You know you are."
         "Pray that I am right. Because if I am wrong, the enemy will negate my spell again - and this time, none of us will live to tell the tale."


End of Chapter 5: Veneer