ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 6: Open Invitation


   "There are things which can take human form and deceive all save the most clever. But few of those can enter a house unbidden. In the Wild Wood, only the foolish or the very powerful invite a guest within."
         -Rick Cook, Wizard's Bane


         Lei groaned.
         The cop awkwardly pushed himself off the ground. Dizziness made his head swim, and his right temple ached terribly; it was almost as bad as a hangover. A strip of cloth had been tied about the swelling.
         "...shénme...?" he mumbled, pressing one hand against his forehead.
         "You've been unconscious for about twenty minutes," Jun told him.
         Lei blinked, and focused on the kneeling young woman.
         She appeared unusually worn. Her dark hair was frazzled; her shoulders slumped from fatigue. A deep red welt marred her cheek, and a wide swath of yellow-brown fabric, torn from what used to be a blanket, was wrapped around her left arm from shoulder to wrist. Dull red bloodstains streaked the makeshift bandage, and discolored her snowy-white vest. She cradled her injured limb.
         "Nî shòu shäng le," he said with concern, indicating her bound arm.
         "It's healing," Jun reassured. "So are the cuts on my back. I'll be good as new by tomorrow. What about you? I'm afraid I gave you a concussion. How do you feel?"
         "Eh? Wô bù dông. Qîng shuö màn dianr?" Lei absently started to run his hand through his matted hair, and froze when he felt a sticky sensation on his fingers. Slowly, he brought his hand down to eye level.
         Splashes of moist cerise blood marred his skin and coated his forearms. The life fluid's fetid odor clung to his clothing, overwhelming its reek of hard liquor and sewage. Creases of gore had encrusted underneath his fingernails, turning them black.
         Lei's eyes became wide with horror, and his hands started to tremble. Events came spiraling back to him: the ambush, the golden-horned Centaurian's attack on Jun, his own attempt to intervene, the teleport, being struck-
         <It happened again, didn't it?> he whispered, fearfully. <I tried to->
         "Calm down," Jun soothed. "The important thing is that we're both all right."
         The dread in his mahogany eyes became anguish blended with panic. He struggled to his feet and backed away from her.
         "What's wrong? Where are you going?"
         <I can't stay,> he said in quavering, tormented tones.
         "Wait! I don't understand a word of-" Lei shut out her protest, turned around, and started to run. The dizziness accosted him, worse than before; he slipped on a patch of drying blood and nearly fell.
         "For goodness' sake!" Jun quickly caught up to him. He held out his cerise-spattered palm and shook his head violently. She halted, recognizing his frantic gestures to keep away.
         "Look, I'm sorry I hit you, but I had no choice. You were possessed by Kazuya's curse. Don't be afraid, all right? I won't hurt you."
         <No, don't follow me.> Shame burned his countenance; he turned his head. <I can't remain near you. I'm too dangerous. I was a fool to think I could travel with you; my arrogance nearly got you killed!> He staggered away from her, vying to keep his balance despite the giddiness that made him clutch at his temples. He promptly tripped over Ouro's carcass.
         "Eh?" Lei squinted. It took a moment for the world to stop whirling, but when it did, he had a clear view of the freshly butchered horse-man.
         "If it weren't for you, the Centaurian would have killed me," Jun gently explained. "I saved your life; now you've saved mine, and I guess we're even."
         Lei's brow furrowed in puzzlement.
         He scooped a handful of the plains' dry dust, and used it to scour most of the cerise gore off his skin. <Well, I just realized one thing. We're in the middle of Centaurian territory, and separated from the others. I can't abandon you, not until I know you're someplace safe.>
         "Um, Lei? You know I don't speak a word of Chinese. Could you please talk to me in English?"
         The confusion in his brow spread across his entire face.
         "You do understand what I'm saying, don't you?"
         Lei shook his head as if to clear it, and closed his eyes in deep concentration. "Qîng zài shuö yí-biàn?"
         "Oh. Oh, dear." Jun anxiously bit her lip. "I didn't mean to hit you that hard."



         Wang stirred.
         Although heavy manacles restricted him, it was a relief to be able to move at all. Instead of holding him spread-eagled against the wall, his chains had been lengthened enough to let him sleep on the cell floor. The chafing sores on his wrists and ankles were, if not quite healing, at least beginning to lessen.
         He could feel growing vibrations in the ground and air.
         "-murdering bastard, I'll rip out your colon and make you eat shit before you die! You're a dead man, I'm telling you, no matter what it takes I'LL SEE YOU DEAD! DON'T YOU FUCKING WALK AWAY FROM ME!"
         The click of a door being shut and locked muffled the furious rant.
         With a rusty creak, the entrance to Wang's solitary prison swung open. Light poured through the gap; its welcome warmth touched his scarred eyesockets.
         "Ji-san wa doo da?" The greeting was quiet, practically indifferent. Though Wang was blind, he had a clear picture of the silver-haired speaker in his mind's eye. After all, he'd watched the lad grow up.
         "Lee, my boy. I am the same as ever. And I am still worried about you." Lee's aura felt as smokey and inconsistent as the trails from his menthol cigarette, which lent a cloying unpleasantness to the air.
         "Right, whatever. Is Shimada behaving himself around you?"
         "The jailer has not tortured me, if that is what you ask. Not that it matters."
         "It matters to me. I don't like having my orders disobeyed." The silver-haired devil puffed on his cigarette.
         "He can't have harmed the sergeant; only a healthy man could yell that loud," Lee added, almost conversationally.
         "Your presence brings me hope, my boy. I feared that you, too, had mortgaged your soul to the all-consuming evil. Now, I can feel the truth. It is not too late for you, so long as you retain the ability to feel compassion."
         "Don't get the wrong idea." Lee's voice flattened into a hostile monotone. "I don't give a damn what becomes of you, or anybody else."
         "If that were true, you would not have come here."
         "I don't have time to waste arguing," Lee dismissed, turning his back. "You're here, you're fine, that's all I need to know."
         "My boy, you understand that what your brother is doing is terribly wrong. Kazuya has to be stopped. If you will not help me, then at least set me free of these restraints."
         Lee hesitated in the doorway. "You'd never make it out of here alive."
         "You do not know that until I try."
         "No. If you want to commit suicide, fine, but I won't dig your grave."
         "Do you truly believe that existence here, dying a little further each day even as the world dies around us, is better than taking a chance?"
         For a moment, Lee's hand hovered over the master key about his neck.
         Then, his fingers curled into a resentful fist.
         "It's good enough for me," he spat, slamming the prison door shut with a resounding clang. Its closure blocked out the influx of light, and left the blind man in cold darkness. Lee's retreating footsteps soon faded out of earshot.
         Wang sighed.
         The darkness sighed back.
         "Who is there?" called the blind man.
         A masculine chuckle answered him. It was thin and slippery, with an undertone of cheerful menace.
         "I am pitch and I am night. I am umbra and I am twilight. I am your mortal enemy, and I am your only friend.
         "You may address me as Saibot."

         Wang leaned forward. Saibot's aura was as shadowy as he, and even more inconspicuous; it slid past Wang's sixth sense like a thread of oil.
         "You are one of the Shao Kahn's slaves; I can feel that much."
         "Please. We prefer to be called the emancipation challenged."
         "Why have you come?"
         "To tell you a few things. You see, you and most every other mortal left alive all want to dispute the Shao Kahn's hold on the Earth, but you haven't the slightest idea how. Well, I know how. And I'll tell you. I'll even set you free, at the right time. If you survive long enough, you just might pass on the secret to someone who can actually use it.
         "Then again, you might not.
         "Life can be pretty risky, that way."




         <Your words - they sound familiar, I should know what they mean, but I can't remember...!> Lei compressed his dusty hand against his forehead. A growing headache further impeded his concentration.
         "I'm so sorry," Jun whispered, lowering her eyes. "I wish I knew how to restore your memory."
         The cop looked at her quizzically. Her words were meaningless, but her dejection was clear.
         "Aw xiâo-péngyou, zhè bìng bù huài." He snapped his fingers. <What with all the drinking I've been doing lately, I'm lucky I can remember my name.>
         A scattering of azure sparks sprinkled the air. A sky-blue pocket handkerchief, embroidered with the character for "thunder," appeared in his left hand. Lei spread open his right hand, revealing a shiny half-dollar.
         <The knowledge is still in my head, I'm sure of it. It's just hidden.> Holding the coin between his thumb and forefingers, he draped and adjusted the handkerchief over it.
         <See?> he prompted, lifting the cloth's front corner enough to reveal the metal image of John F. Kennedy. <It'll come back to me in time.> Lei covered the coin again, and twisted the handkerchief. The coin's circular shape impressed itself through the silk.
         <I've picked up about half a dozen languages, some more fluently than others. All that learning can't be completely undone in an instant; it's simply a matter of extracting the right words.> He pushed the coin up through the handkerchief, until it smoothly penetrated the silk and came loose in his hand.
         <No real damage done.> Lei displayed both sides of his handkerchief; it had no incisions, rents, or seams. <So don't feel bad. It's a relief to know you're okay. I only hope the others also survived.>
         A faint smile briefly touched the corners of Jun's mouth. "I've no idea what you're trying to tell me, and I don't have time to figure it out. We have to plan our next step."
         From the side pocket of her slacks, she withdrew an orienteering compass mounted on a flat plastic case, etched with a long arrow. Placing it on the ground, she turned the entire compass until its moving red pointer aligned with the capital N and the Direction of Travel arrow.
         "North is this way." Jun continued to talk as she worked, in hope of somehow sparking Lei's memory. "Sanctuary was approximately ninety-five degrees east of our last campsite." She turned the plastic case, while keeping the compass steady and its pointer aligned along the north-south vertical. When the Direction of Travel arrow was in line with the compass' ninety-fifth degree mark, she drew a matching line in the dust.
         "I doubt the Centaurian teleported us more than twenty kilometers off-course; it didn't have the time to concentrate on a more powerful spell. So if we were to head in this direction," she said, pointing, "we would reach familiar territory in another day. Familiar to me, that is."
         <We go this way?> Lei asked, jerking his thumb to the east. <All right, let's move.> He stood up and dusted himself off.
         Jun remained in place. She returned the compass to her pocket, cupped her hand, and started to hum.
         <Hey kid, what's the holdup? It isn't healthy to just stay here. Dead or alive, that horse-man is bound to attract attention. His friends may come looking for him.>
         "I have to find the Chosen One. My stasis spell will expire in a couple hours; he'll die if I don't renew it. Liu Kang is better at seeking magic than I am, and Kung Lao can track teleports, but if they could find us they would have already."
         White sparkles of her Ki merged into a gleaming midair pointer. It turned in a slow circle. Concentrated strain dimmed the volume of her humming. Her breathing quickened, and her hands became tense. She tightened her jaw; beads of sweat formed on her forehead. Still, the mystic loadstone rotated in circles.
         Lei squatted next to her.
         "Nî lèi le," he observed, worriedly.
         "I'm... not getting anything. Even if he'd been killed, I should be sensing the psychic residue of his death. I could use your help with this."
         Jun expectantly held out her right hand.
         Lei shook his head and edged backwards. <No, I - I don't dare endanger your sanity that way. I couldn't live with myself if you - no. Just no.>
         "If you're not going to help, then shut up," she muttered, pouring more of her fatigued psyche into the sorcerous construct. It spun faster.
         "I don't understand." Jun's entire body constricted from the stress of keeping the pointer active; even so, it was gradually fading into luminous vapor. "It's like someone's blocking me. Someone powerful. But Liu wouldn't... would he?"
         Her eyebrows drew together. The mystic loadstone spun until it was flat blur of white light, which soon degraded into dim sparkles.
         <No luck, eh? Well, it can't be helped. Let's get going, kid - kid?>
         Jun's head sank. Her arms sagged. She collapsed on her side.
         "Xiâo-péngyou, nî hâo ma?"
         His only answer was the nearly soundless whisper of her breathing.
         Lei felt her wrist for a pulse. Her heartbeat had settled into a subdued yet steady rhythm.
         <Hm. Guess you were even more tired than I thought. Let's hope the others are having an easier time of it.>



         Michelle chanted.
         She performed the Come to Life ritual, a short refrain of the Life Way/Flintway ceremonies devoted to healing, with some modifications. In this case, her goal was not to restore consciousness to her patient, but merely nourish the spell that preserved his faltering spirit on this side of the grey kingdom.
         It was hard work.
         The fluctuating stasis field absorbed her vital energy greedily, pulling at the strength of her heart and her consciousness. For twenty long minutes she repeated the healing phrases, feeding her psyche into a gaping void that demanded more. Her thin eyebrows dipped low in a frenzy of concentration. Droplets of sweat trickled down her cheeks. Her hands started to tremble. In some rituals that might be a sign that the Holy People had blessed her with the portent to see into the future, but here it did not bode well.
         "Bet you two hours' guard duty she fails," Sonya murmured.
         Jax turned his head, watching the lieutenant painfully prop herself up on one elbow. Her other arm was in an impromptu splint, slung around her neck. Ugly purple bruises blemished her face, and a dark ring circled her right eye. Her lips were split and swollen; she spoke thickly, and with difficulty.
         "How long have you been awake?"
         "Few minutes."
         "How do you feel?"
         "Like crap. But you should see the other guy."
         "Did you kill him?"
         "He should be so lucky." She managed a lopsided grin; one of her canines was missing. "How long has it been since the attack?"
         "A couple hours. Kung Lao's in a bad way; Liu Kang put a sleep spell on him to keep him quiet. We lost Kazama and Wulong."
         "Shit."
         "They could still be alive, but even if we found them, Kazama would be too exhausted to renew the Chosen One's stasis spell. During the ambush, I saw her channel enough power to drain an elephant. So, Michelle's doing her best to keep the Chosen One alive. Let's hope she's up to the task."
         "Do we have to?" Sonya growled under her breath.
         "Lieutenant."
         "Don't 'Lieutenant' me; you know damn well who that half-dead rat-bastard is. What he is."
         "Yes. He is one of Raiden's Chosen - one of the few people alive with a prayer of saving the world."
         "You really believe that, don't you?"
         "Liu Kang never lies."
         "Liu Kang doesn't know we sacrificed over half our patrol to drag home a Black Dragons capo! You know Galgo's record. He gunned down one of our best people in cold blood. He's the same kind of murderer as Kano; have you forgotten what happened when we tried to join forces with him?"
         "Looking back, we know that was a mistake, but at the time it was a handful of us humans against the entire Outworld. Even you agreed to a temporary alliance."
         "Yes. And Johnny Cage paid the price. Stabbed in the back, just like so many others."
         "He knew the risks when he ventured into the Outworld. We all did."
         "So now we're going to blindly take those risks all over again, is that it? Maybe I should stick you with a fucking knife right now, and save Galgo the trouble. The only thing that rankles worse than keeping him alive is leaving Kazama and Wulong to die."
         "They are survivors, and Kazama does know the way to Sanctuary. If anyone can make it back on their own, they can."
         "How long would it take Liu Kang to find them?"
         "Too long. Michelle is straining her limits to keep the Chosen One alive. If we delay our return, it will kill him."
         Michelle's chanting came to an end. She quivered and fell on her hands and knees, laboring for breath.
         "How are you feeling?" Jax asked the young mage.
         "Faint," she murmured, striving to hold on to consciousness. "Spell is... decaying. Have to... do this every six hours. Maybe more often."
         "Is there anything we can do to help?"
         "No." She sighed, gradually working herself back into a stable state of mind. "Liu Kang is struggling to keep up our camouflage, and you're not a sorcerer."
         "Can you maintain the spell by yourself, until we reach Sanctuary?"
         "I have to." Grim resolution smoldered in her cinnamon-brown eyes. "No matter what the cost. I have to."



         By degrees, Jun became aware of a mild, swaying motion. On one side, she felt warmth; on the other, a cool breeze slid along her bangs, under the nape of her neck, and down to her ankles. Her chin had fallen forward on her chest; her bound arm was carefully positioned across her abdomen. She lifted her head and rubbed her eyes.
         "Xiâo-péngyou, nî xîngle ma?" She did not hear the soft question as much as feel its vibrations on her skin. The smells of dried blood and sweat affected the air, overshadowing older whiffs of liquor and sewage. Jun took her hand away from her eyes.
         The world had turned solid black. Since the Apocalypse, both moon and stars had faded from the overcast sky, leaving precious little means to discern one patch of inky darkness from another.
         "Mmm...? Oh, no - it's night; I must have passed out for hours! The Chosen One..." She tried to sit up, but couldn't find any purchase. She was suspended, hammock-like, between two supports: one anchored around the back of her shoulders, the other underneath her inner knees.
         "Nan desu - why are you carrying me? Please put me down."
         "Ssh." Lei gently set her on her feet, and raised a finger to his lips. Jun couldn't see the gesture, but she heard the hushing noise.
         She listened first to the wind, then to the earth, putting her ear on the ground and straining to catch the telltale agitation of the enemy. There was none.
         "Looks like it's safe to talk, for now."
         Jun sang a brief note, summoning a sparkle of white light to her fingertip. The radiance reflected a blood-red glow off Lei's eyes. He flinched, shook his head, and covered her hand with his.
         "I know you don't like bright light, but there's no danger right now and I need this to study your trail," she insisted, removing his hand.
         <Please don't argue with me, kid. They may not be close enough to see your beacon yet, but->
         "You're memory still hasn't come back, has it? Well, maybe someone at Sanctuary will be able to help. Nightwolf and Chief Thunder are both skilled healers of the psyche; they taught me most of what I know." She kneeled next to Lei's footprints and took out her compass. The brisk wind had already begun to erase his tracks, though enough remained to discern their heading.
         "Oh, good grief - you've been traveling southwest! If anything, I bet you've been walking in circles. You probably thought we needed to distance ourselves from the dead Centaurian, but it's a good thing I didn't sleep any longer than I did. We have to get back on course immediately."
         Watching her set the compass, Lei shook his head and replied, "Wômen méi mí-lù-"
         "This way. Come on." Keeping the compass in her hand, she set out for the east.
         "Dêng yí dêng! Tíngzhî!" The cop hurriedly dashed in front of her and held out his palms to halt her progress.
         "What's wrong?"
         "Bànrén bànmâ guàiwù," Lei said, pointing to the east. "Kuài, xiâo-péngyou." He took her hand and started to lead her southwest.
         "What? This isn't the right way." She pulled her hand free.
         "Zhè hên jîn-jí!"
         "Look. Neither of us can cast cloaking magic. Our only hope of surviving this open terrain is to make for Sanctuary as quickly as possible, before an enemy patrol can find us. We can't afford to waste any more time."
         Lei covered his eyes. <And here I was thinking how much easier it would be to get you to safety now that you've recuperated enough to walk on your own. I mean, you're pretty light, but I'm not in as good a shape as I used to be, and I had to take several breaks to rest my arms.>
         "No more chatter. We have to get moving, right now." She turned east.
         "Yôu guàiwù," Lei insisted. <We have to remove ourselves from their course, and quickly. I don't know how keen their senses are, and I don't want to take any chances!>
         "Where on Earth do you think you want to go? Sanctuary is the only remotely safe haven for hundreds of-"
         " Xiâo-péngyou, xiängxìn wô!"
         "You've addressed me as 'xiâo-péngyou' several times now. It means 'kid,' doesn't it? Quit patronizing me!" Her hands clenched, making her slender arms taut, and her eyebrows lowered belligerently.
         Lei shuddered and pressed his hand against his forehead. His headache had returned at double strength. "Wô xüyào jiû."
         "My name is Jun Kazama. I'm Jun. Jun!" she exhorted, jabbing her glowing index finger at her face. "Is that so hard for you to say?"
         The cop let out his breath in an exasperated puff and rolled his eyes. "Wô jiào Léi Wûlóng. Nî hâo, hên gäo-xìng néng rèn-shi ni."
         Jun's eyes narrowed. She knew sarcasm when she heard it.
         "I've had enough of your condescension."
         "Xiâo-péngyou-"
         "Tamarimasen!" she cried, turning her back. Jun folded her arms and ground her teeth together, in an effort to displace her building frustration.
         A choking sound came from behind her.
         She looked over her shoulder. Lei had fallen to his knees. His head was down, and he plowed his fingers into the dust. His hand shook so much that the trails were jagged lines.
         <I've been trying. I swear I've been trying.
         <For some fourteen hours straight, I've been driving myself crazy, straining to remember one freaking word that would make sense to you. No matter how hard I reach, I can't...>
         He removed his quaking hand from the serrated trail and looked at it, detachedly. <I can't remember the last time I wanted a drink this much.>
         The harsh set of Jun's mouth softened.
         "Well, I guess we don't have to leave right now," she conceded, kneeling next to him. Taking a closer look, she saw that dark bags had formed underneath his eyes.
         "You're probably exhausted. We can wait here for a while. It's your turn to sleep; I'll keep watch."
         "Eh? Wô bù dông."
         "You." She pointed to him. "Sleep." She put her hands together, miming a pillow, and rested her head on them.
         "Nî bù dông!" he snapped, lashing at the dust-
         -and suddenly, his snarl became a chuckle.
         <Why didn't I think of it before?> Lei mused, letting a handful of loose earth sift between his fingers. <Actually I know why, it's because I haven't slept in two days, without even a caffeine high to keep me going, but never mind that.>
         He quickly traced multiple strokes in the dust, drawing six ideographic characters.
         "Oh, of course..." Jun realized, watching him. "In written form, both our native languages use roughly the same-"
         "Bànrén bànmâ guàiwù," Lei interrupted, underlining the finished phrase and pointing east.
         Jun read each character in turn. "'Half-person-half-'... is that supposed to be 'bird'...? Those last two mean 'monster.' Harpies?" She tilted her head, thinking it over. "Jax did warn us of a shadow-bird that-"
         Lei snapped his fingers. <Whoops. I'll bet you're used to the traditional characters, not simplified ones.> He erased and redrew the fourth word.
         "Half-man half-horse monster - Centaurians!" Alarm flooded her ginger eyes. "But what makes you think they're east of us? There's no sign of-"
         "Xiängxìn wô."
         The cop showed her his empty holster. <We might have a fighting chance against them if I still had my .38, but I dropped the damn thing. So we've got to get the hell out of their way, right now!>
         "Wait - I remember; you warned us of the Centaurian ambush a few moments before it happened. Somehow, you could tell they were coming."
         "Nî yí-dìng yào xiängxìn wô," Lei urgently stressed, holding out his hand.
         Jun clasped it firmly. "All right. You be the guide."
         He took off southwest at a dead run, pulling her along. Normally, keeping up with him would have been easy for Jun; she was an accomplished runner and fully rested, while two days' worth of fatigue slowed Lei's pace. But she couldn't sprint and sustain her magic light at the same time, which meant that she had to stumble blindly through endless darkness.
         "How do you know we're not running straight into them? I can't see-"
         "Xiängxìn wô, xiâo-péngyou!"
         "Why do I bother," she muttered to herself.
         They had been running for about thirty minutes when Jun first felt it - the wailing whispers of the wind, and the earthen tremors beneath her feet. It was the pounding of many hooves.
         In another thirty minutes, the Centaurians' rumbling tread became an earthquake.
         The ground sloped downward without warning. Jun tripped and staggered; Lei never broke his stride. When they reached the bottom, he turned sharply to the left and came to a halt.
         <We're crosswind of them, and this depression should conceal us from their sight - at least, I couldn't see underneath those rocks when we passed the crest. We might have a chance, especially in this darkness.>
         Jun felt the breeze cry out. "They'll be upon us any moment now."
         <Stay low, beneath this ridge.> Lei pushed down on her shoulder. Jun's eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough to see his silhouette point to the ground.
         "You think we can hide from them, is that it? I hope you're right."
         She crouched under a jutting stone overhang. Lei quickly doused the telltale white of her vest with handfuls of brown-black dust, then threw a liberal coating on his own clothes. The two of them waited in the dip of the land, listening to the ever-increasing clamor of hooves.
         Jun knew better than to look for the herd's shadow; if she could see them, they could see her. But the whistle of the wind carried tidings of at least a hundred horse-man warriors, widely spaced in a long, sweeping line. Each monster was locked in a full gallop. They covered the terrain at a tremendous speed.
         Closer...
         The Centaurians were directly above them when the drumming of their hooves skipped a beat. So did Jun's heart. The monsters leaped down the slope, sailing over their heads and landing with a deafening thump.
         Their earthquake tread resumed in front of Lei and Jun. Dim, tiny gleams of reflected light sparkled off their metallic rat-tails, disrupting the darkness. Gradually, the pounding echo of their hooves receded, though it lingered long after the night had swallowed up their silhouettes.
         They couldn't have been looking for us, Jun thought, or they would have stopped to search this divot. They must be scouting for Sanctuary itself. She allowed herself a smile. The monsters would never find the sacred lands; Chief Thunder and Nightwolf had seen to that.
         "You were right all along, Lei. I'm sorry I doubted you. Thank you." She riffled through her memory for words she'd heard him use a few days before. "Um, I don't know if I'm saying this right, but... xièxie nî."
         "Bú kè-qi, xiâo-péngyou."
         "I am not a xiâo-péngyou."



         Nightwolf meditated.
         The Iroquois shaman was seated cross-legged in his private shrine. Its sole furnishing was a single fire pit, ringed with stone sculptures of wolf spirits. A plain stone knife lay in the center of the flames. Paintings on tanned animal hide covered the walls; their many images told the history of the various Iroquois tribes, from ancient times to modern. Nightwolf had mixed the paints from plant dyes and berry juices, using his own artistic skill to render vivid scenes of the past and present. The most recent painting was of the Apocalypse: green fire raining down from the heavens, killing the land and stealing the souls of mortals everywhere.
         To purify himself for this holy ritual, Nightwolf had taken a sweat bath. First he'd warmed himself in the airtight hut of heated stones, until his pores expelled the darkness of his body and soul, and then he'd plunged into Sanctuary's coldest river. Icy-cool water droplets hung from his long black hair, tied back with a plain blue headband. Two slender white feathers with the tips dyed red, symbols of his courage and nobility, hung limply from the strip of fabric. A flat-headed golden pin held in them place by the stems. Two pairs of metal guards adorned his wiry arms; one was plain steel and wrapped around his wrists, while narrower cobalt rings encircled his upper arms below the shoulders. The first pair he wore to protect against the backlash of a bow, but the second had been a gift from Raiden, the god of thunder. Nightwolf had sworn never to remove them until the Earth was free. The shaman's only other garment was a plain leather loincloth.
         Since the Apocalypse, he had tried many times to contact the gods. Their answer was always the same: silence. Every time he performed the ritual of holy supplication, he sent the shadow of his psyche further, and still his plea was lost upon endless indifference. Even Raiden, who had warned him of the coming doom and showed him how to protect his brethren, made no answer.
         "They are killing us, one by one. They wait us out and pick us off, while all around us the Earth cries out in dying torment. Our dwindling numbers are no match for their legions, and they are only the enemy's foot soldiers. Their master Shao Kahn is the key, but he is hidden; we cannot fight what we cannot find. How are we to end the nightmare?
         "I beseech thee, Holy Ones. I understand you can no longer intervene in the Earth's affairs, but what prevents you from giving us the knowledge we need to save ourselves? How can we make ourselves worthy?"
         Calmly, methodically, Nightwolf reached into the center of the fire. His fingers closed on the stone knife. Blistering heat ripped into his skin, making it swell red with pain, but he paid no attention to the burns. With unhurried precision, he used the chipped knife to carve incisions above each of his ribs in sequence. Its heat automatically cauterized each cut.
         "I offer you the sacrifice of my blood, the sweat of my body, and the tears of my people. Show me the way, I beg of you."
         He cast his essence beyond the ken of this mortal world, into the void between heart, soul, and breath that surrounds the home of the gods. His call fell into the abyss, was absorbed and lost in the endless chasm. For hours, he cast his quest, searching for the answer...
         ...an answer...
         ...any answer...
         Help me.
         What was that? It could not be the voice of a god; it was too weak, frail, and flawed. And still, it carried an underlying core of desperate strength, boosting its plaintive cry.
         Help me. I have what you need. To challenge the Kahn, you must-
         Their tenuous contact stretched upon mention of the Evil One's name. Both sender and recipient felt the moat of the gods recoil, and knew that to continue would sever their link before the vital information could be transferred.
         Show me who and where you are, Nightwolf thought.
         A mosaic of impressions overwhelmed him. In a single heartbeat, he knew the wisdom and folly that came with advancing age. He knew loyalty, sadness, resolution to prevent the coming of evil, and despair in failing to achieve that goal. He knew what it was to be imprisoned, shackled, tortured, and to sense the slow destruction of those once regarded as family.
         Help me... The final cry hung like a musical note, vibrating in the empty gulf, until it merged with the silence of the gods.
         Nightwolf's achromatic eyes whipped open.
         His next step was clear.
         The shaman quickly donned his traveling clothes, which reflected modern utility more than tradition. His jeans were ribbed along the sides in a latticework, to promote flexibility and cooling. He tucked their cuffs into sturdy, deer-leather boots with long fringes, and shrugged on a similarly tailored, black leather open vest with a stylized red wolf's head painted on the back. When he stepped outside the shrine's entrance, Thunderbolt was waiting for him.
         The young brave carried a darkly worried light in his eyes. Thunderbolt was Chief Thunder's son; though his youth precluded him a place in the Council of Elders, his fortitude had earned him great respect from the tribes and much pride from his father. Four feathers decorated his hair.
         "Mystery Man, I am grateful for your presence. We need you to mediate. The Chosen Ones have returned, and are demanding to take an outsider past the Nation's inner borders without first administrating the Oath."
         "I will be there at once."
         The twelve armed braves guarding the entrance into Sanctuary's inner heart respectfully stepped aside to let Nightwolf through. They appeared unusually tense, and some gripped the handles of their weapons tightly. Major Jackson Briggs had been in the middle of a futile argument with one warrior; both men fell silent upon the shaman's arrival.
         Nightwolf surveyed the returned patrol. It saddened his heart to see how few they were. Only five of the original thirteen patrol members had come back.
         Nightwolf looked at the wounded, stasis-frozen body of their prize. Eight lives in exchange for one. He wondered whether it was worth it.
         Michelle crouched next to the injured Chosen One. She chanted in a continuous stream. Her muscles were weak and her voice hoarse. The young mage crumpled from the building strain, supporting herself on hands and knees. Her chant skipped a few words, then continued, more depleted than ever. She'd lost her feathered headband, and her sweat-soaked ebony braids had come undone. Her tresses spilled to either side of her face, hiding most of it, but Nightwolf could glimpse a hint of her desperation.
         The other patrol members were also spent. A pair of healers carried the unconscious Kung Lao to Sanctuary's infirmary. Liu Kang had collapsed from exhaustion. Sonya's pale face had become taut and angular, and she riveted her inimical gaze upon the Chosen One as if she were a Medusa, seeking to turn him into stone. Even the tireless Jax appeared unusually weary.
         The set of Jax's jaw relaxed a minute amount. This was the closest he came to showing relief.
         "Thank God you're here, Nightwolf. We need Sanctuary's healers to work on the Chosen One now, or there won't be anything for them to save. Jun's stasis spell has almost run out, and Michelle's pouring everything she's got into keeping him alive. It's a miracle she's lasted this long; ever since we entered the outer limits, she's been on the verge of total collapse. When her strength gives out, he dies. So you understand the urgency."
         "Yes," Nightwolf agreed with a nod. "Just as you understand that he must take the Oath."
         "He's unconscious. We can't revive him without killing him, and even if we could, he wouldn't be able to talk. Both his lungs have been pierced."
         "Nevertheless, he must swear to obey the Oath, if only with a nod of his head. This is our last refuge, major. Many enchantments protect it, but if even one enemy were to slip undetected past these inner bounds, he could bring us all to ruin. That is why every outsider must vow never to bring harm to these sacred lands or their inhabitants, before we will grant him invitation. No exceptions. No postponements."
         "Didn't you hear me?" The major's voice became a cold, rumbling growl. "If you don't bend the rules this once, the Chosen One dies, and our mission was for nothing. Four of our people and four of yours were lost for nothing. Catsclaw, one of our precious few magic-users and the diplomat who created our alliance, perished for nothing. Is that really what you want?"
         Nightwolf's achromatic eyes flashed. They reflected the balance between life and death, and all the terrible choices that must be made between the two. Those searching eyes scanned the Chosen One, Michelle, Jax, and Sonya in turn.
         "So be it, outsider. We will grant the Chosen One entrance, and allow our healers to treat him - but one of you must take the Oath in his place. If he violates our laws or brings ill to us, you will bear the consequences."
         "Understood. I, Jackson Briggs, solemnly swear-"
         "No. Not you." Nightwolf's transferred his penetrating gaze to Sonya. "You will take the Oath on his behalf."
         Sonya stiffened. "Why me?"
         "Because you hate him."
         A disgusted grimace crossed her face. "Damn straight I hate him."
         "Sonya-" Jax began.
         "Give me one good reason why I should."
         "I'll give you three. Because he is a Chosen One. Because we've lost too many people to bring him this far. And because I'm giving you a direct order."
         "I think I liked you better when you were demoted."
         Michelle's chant became a wailing screech. "I can't continue much longer! Do we bring him in or let him die?"
         "All right, I'll say it," Sonya hissed to Jax, "on one condition. We will keep him under armed guard at all times. Got that?"
         "Agreed."
         Sonya turned her sapphire eyes to Nightwolf. "I swear this injured man will obey Sanctuary's laws, and the laws of your Nation. He will do nothing to endanger this refuge or the people it protects. I will see to it. If he violates this Oath, I will accept all consequences in his place. Good enough for you?"
         "Sufficient," said Nightwolf. "Bring him in."



         Dawn crept upon the dead wastelands, lighting them bit by bit. Jun recognized the terrain; its dips and flat plateaus formed a familiar pattern. Sanctuary was near.
         "Lei, we're almost there. We'd better - Lei?"
         He'd veered off at an angle to her trail, and was walking parallel to Sanctuary's border.
         "Wait!"
         He stopped and looked around, with a bemused expression on his face. She quickly closed the hundred meters between them. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes.
         <Eh? That's strange. You were right beside me a second ago. How'd you get all the way over there?>
         "I should have tried to warn you earlier - Sanctuary's mystic defenses will fool your perceptions. It's how we avoid enemy detection. I'm not affected because Nightwolf has invited me in. You'll have to hold on to my hand while I guide you across the outer border."
         She took his hand and resumed her eastern course.
         <I hope you know where you're going, kid,> he murmured dubiously.
         "Have some faith in me, okay?" Her eyebrows knit together; what was that phrase he had repeated the night before? "Xiängxìn wô."
         <Ah, I see.> He winked and displayed a good-natured grin. <It's not that I don't trust you, it's what I trust you to->
         The world abruptly tipped on its side. Grey sky and dusty brown earth merged, flowed, and dissolved, replaced by a spinning, viridescent rush. Jun tightened her grip on Lei's hand and pulled him further into the silent maelstrom. He stumbled; a sinking weight pulled upon him, clouding his thoughts and amplifying his fatigue. It felt as though he had become ten times as heavy. His legs buckled, and he fell to his knees on the soft grass.
         Grass?
         Lei sluggishly ran his fingers through the deep green blades. They were the real thing, fresh, springy, and vibrantly alive. The world had become a forest, thickly furnished with tall deciduous and conifer trees. He'd collapsed in an isolated clearing on the border of the woodlands. Twenty meters behind him, the greenery gave way to a misty, dreamlike haze. Past that, he could almost glimpse the dead wastelands from which they had come.
         "We made it!" Jun flashed a jubilant smile. "I think the Nation's inner border is another twenty kilometers from here, but we're safe now. The enemy can't find this refuge, and even if they could, it is so heavily warded against evil they'd be - Lei?"
         Lei momentarily struggled to lift his head, then gave up and spoke with his eyes on the ground. His voice was a muffled shell of its normal self.
         <This place is protected. I can feel it. You're safe. You're finally safe; that's all I really wanted to...>
         He wobbled from the strain of standing up. A slight breeze nearly unbalanced him; he let go of her hand and gestured first to her, then deeper into the forest.
         <You go on. I hope we can meet again, someday.> Turning around required so much effort it was painful. Somehow, he managed a halting limp toward the border.
         "What...? Where are you going?"
         <Do I have to spell it out for you, kid? Do I have to tear out the grass and write it up in the dirt?
         <I can't stay. My curse puts you in too much danger. I've known that ever since I saw you hurt and realized I'd done it. This time, we were both lucky. You survived, and I don't have another murder on my conscience.
         <I can't risk letting it happen again.
         <This place is protected from evil. It's protected from me, and my curse. It's weighing me down with the burden of my crimes. Hell, I don't know why I'm still alive; standing on sacred ground ought to be enough to... eh, I can't stay.> He shuddered, holding one hand against his pounding forehead.
         "You look terrible, not to mention exhausted. You need to rest-"
         <Don't worry about me. I'll be all right once I get out of here,> the cop responded, hearing the distress in her voice. He tried to sound reassuring, but the words came out as a feeble croak. Lei resumed his pained trek for the border.
         "Quit that," she gently insisted, retaking his hand. "You can't have come all this way just to leave now."
         He firmly detached his hand from hers and made a cutting gesture, along with a decisively negative shake of his head.
         The puzzlement in Jun's face gave way to understanding, followed by resignation. "All right. I can't make you come with me."
         "Zài-jiàn, xiâo-péngyou." Lei wanted to at least look her in the eyes as he bid her farewell, but shame and remorse bowed his head. That, and the anxious suspicion that if he were to look at her one more time, his flagging resolution would be destroyed.
         Isn't that what you want? whispered a haunting voice inside his head. He concentrated so hard on blocking it out that he wasn't aware of the swish of footsteps through grass, keeping perfectly in step him, until he was only five meters from the border.
         <Why in blazes are you following me?> He glanced at her sidelong, partially shielding his eyes with one hand.
         Jun pointed to herself, then to him, and lastly to the border. "I'm going with you."
         <Huh? Oh, no. No. No, kid. No.> The cop shook his head. <There is no way->
         "You can't make me stay behind. Either we both remain in Sanctuary, or we both leave." She folded her arms defiantly.
         Cumulative weariness dragged Lei down to his hands and knees. <If I weren't such a disgrace, I'd wish I had the strength to argue...>
         A growl interrupted him. The guttural sound multiplied, resonating from several directions at once.
         Lei lifted his head.
         A pack of wolves surrounded him and Jun. They had come in silence, taking advantage of the mortals' petty argument to approach undetected. There were at least fifteen animals; each one bristled its fur and bared its fangs. Their golden eyes reflected territorial anger. Largest among them was the alpha wolf, a beast half Lei's height and easily as massive. Its thick fur coat was cinnamon-red splashed with grey and black. Red blood from a fresh kill stained its muzzle. It glared at him with instinctive, animal hatred.
         Lei stared back, and gathered his strength.
         "What is wrong?" Jun quietly asked the alpha wolf.
         Its growl became louder.
         "I see." She rested her hand on Lei's shoulder. "He is-"
         <Get behind me, kid!> Lei fought against his dragging lassitude with a renewed burst of effort, grabbing her arm and yanking her in back of him. Fifteen hostile wolves swarmed in a moving semicircle around them both, but Lei noticed that none of the animals dared to cross the border. The alpha wolf snarled, barked, and dragged its sharp black foreclaws through the grass.
         <You're not getting your teeth in her, not while I'm still standing,> the cop warned it, darkly.
         "Lei, stop it, you're only making this worse!" Jun tried to pull in front, but he wrenched his hold on her wrist, forcing her to stay in back of him.
         <Keep moving toward the border; it's only a couple meters away. Easy, now->
         An intelligent gleam flickered in the alpha wolf's eyes. It understood what Lei was trying to do, and responded with a vicious lunge for his throat.
         "No!" Jun shouted, but neither man nor beast paid heed.
         Leaden heaviness dulled the cop as he lifted his front leg in a snapping kick and his arm in a shield. The wolf had the advantage of initiative. Lei's foot dug into its belly, too late to counter the beast's momentum. Its jaws locked on his forearm. Razor lupine teeth cut through his skin and dug into bone.
         "Kagayaku hikari!" An instant flare of white light streamed from Jun's fingers, blinding both Lei and the alpha wolf. Its jaws loosened enough for the cop to tear his arm free, though the animal's teeth left bloody furrows in their wake. Shooting pain ripped along the bite, crippling his limb, and a stream of his dull red blood splashed on the grass. The alpha wolf sprang away and barked twice. Five other wolves attacked Lei as one.
         "Shogai!" commanded Jun, thrusting out her palm. The pack animals ran into an invisible barrier. Flares of white Ki vividly illuminated their collective impact.
         <Good work, kid! Now to get you out of->
         "Lei no BAKA!" Jun spun, adjusting her position, and twisted her arm. She could have aligned the edge of her wrist between Lei's thumb and forefinger and pulled free, but that wasn't her intent. Instead, she wrapped the fingers of her hand around his wrist and turned his own grasp against him, wringing his arm in a clockwise circle even as she hooked her heel around his instep. Slowed by weariness and completely surprised, Lei pitched forward, tumbled in midair, and landed painfully on his back. All the while, Jun kept her other hand palm out, generating the wall of force that kept the wolves at bay.
         She let go of Lei's wrist and pointed emphatically to the ground. "Stay down, don't move!"
         <But-> When he tried to gather himself in backward roll, she planted her foot in his stomach - not hard enough to hurt, yet with just sufficient pressure to stop him.
         "I said, stay down." Shining light glittered on her index finger; she traced three swift, luminous strokes in the air, forming the character for "down" or "below."
         <We're surrounded by slavering wolves, and you're telling me to-?>
         "Xiängxìn wô," she requested, kneeling next to him and firmly pushing down on his chest with her free hand.
         <You're crazy.>
         "Nî yí-dìng yào xiängxìn wô."
         <I'm crazy for listening to you.>
         Jun passed her free hand above Lei's bitten arm, singing a haiku to focus her Ki. Blood clotted, chipped bones aligned, and torn skin sewed itself. When her healing salve was complete, she raised her head and spoke to the alpha wolf.
         "He is not your enemy."
         The beast did not stop growling.
         "I know you can sense his curse. It doesn't matter. He is my friend, and our ally.
         "Remember the day I freed you from the trap? I asked you to trust me then, and I ask you to trust me now. This one is not an invader. I brought him here. He was only trying to protect me, just as you were."
         The alpha wolf ceased growling. Its ears irresolutely swiveled from back to forward. Jun closed and lowered her outstretched palm, ending her wall of force. Warily, the animal approached.
         "Uh, xiâo-péngyou?" Hearing Lei's uncertain half-question, the wolf lowered its body to the ground and flattened its ears.
         "Ssh. Be still. He has to be sure about you before he'll let you pass through his territory," Jun whispered. "He's no ordinary wolf. He is Nightwolf's spirit-brother, and smarter than most people I know. Two days before the Apocalypse, I saved his life and passed out from the effort. He led Nightwolf to my side, and that's how I was invited into Sanctuary."
         With a deep croon of warning, the alpha wolf reached their side and glared down at the cop. A half-dozen different ways to lash out against the beast flashed through Lei's mind, but all of them involved movement, and Jun's pressure combined with the overwhelming lassitude glued him to the ground.
         <Nice doggie,> Lei whimpered. The alpha wolf bared its jagged yellow teeth.
         "Xiängxìn wô," Jun reassured. Lei closed his eyes and hoped he wouldn't regret teaching her that phrase.
         Even rows of light, tiny pinpoints prickled the cop's neck without puncturing it.
         His eyes snapped open. Wolf teeth were touching his skin. The beast bit down ever so slightly for ten heartbeats, then pulled away, leaving lines of bloodless, dimpled pockmarks on either side of Lei's throat.
         Pointing its muzzle to the sky, the alpha wolf howled. Its fellow pack members joined it, forming a wailing chorus. Then they swiftly dispersed, vanishing into the woodlands. Their howls carried on the wind, as a decrescendo reminder of their claim to Sanctuary.
         "Are you all right?" Jun asked the cop.
         <I never liked dogs. Can't stand them, ever since one bit me when I was a kid.>
         "Lei?" She waved her hand in front of his face. His eyes did not track or respond to the action.
         <Yue and I used to have a deal, you know. She handled the police dogs, and I cleaned up after them. Didn't mind it a bit, as long as I didn't have to get too close to the critters.>
         "I think you're in shock."
         <There was a sign about dogs a few blocks away from the department. I passed it whenever I commuted to work.>
         "And you need sleep."
         <It was a deliberately preserved, historical landmark from back when Hong Kong was squarely under the thumb of the British Empire. You know, one of those racist things that reads "No Dogs Or Chinese Allowed.">
         "Nemutte." She passed her fingers over his eyes and drew upon her Ki. Lei was too exhausted to resist; his eyelids fluttered shut and his muscles fell slack.
         She reformulated her power into a flashing tray underneath the unconscious cop, lifting him off the ground. Six months ago, this type of effort would have drained her in seconds, but Nightwolf and Chief Thunder had since taught her how to borrow strength from the surrounding natural life. In this lush forest, away from the dead emptiness of the wasted plains, her mystic endurance was multiplied a hundredfold.
         She set out for the Nation, carrying Lei by virtue of her will.



         Lupine howling echoed in the distance.
         Nightwolf listened to the baying of his spirit-brother. It soared above the cry of the pack, delivering a message of caution. He interrupted his preparations for travel, and went directly to Chief Thunder's residence.
         Raven of the Bright River greeted him at the door.
         Though not a shaman, Raven was well-known for her insight and acuity. It was she who oversaw the domestic economics of fitting thousands of refugees into limited acreage, a task made only somewhat easier by the way Shao Kahn's aura removed the need to eat or drink. Some would say that Chief Thunder had married the wisest woman in the world; certainly, few debaters could match her shrewd, effective reasoning.
         Nightwolf inclined his head in respect. "I must speak with the chief at once. And Major Briggs, if you can find him."
         "You are in luck; they both happen to be in conference, along with Lieutenant Blade." She gestured for him to come inside, and brought him directly to both leaders. She knew that he would not disrupt their session if it were not crucially important.
         "-must understand, I am not going to abandon them. Too many good people have already been sacrificed."
         Jax's clear, uncompromising voice reflected the tension that had crept into the cozy room, tugging at the major's eyes and tightening Chief Thunder's frown. The two of them were so deeply locked in their debate that only Sonya took notice of Nightwolf's entrance.
         "That is exactly why you cannot go," Chief Thunder replied. "When a patrol departs Sanctuary's border, we are lucky if one man returns home. That is why I have set forth the edict against scouting parties. We cannot afford to lose any more warriors."
         "I'm not asking you to endanger any of your people; the search party will be assembled from mine."
         "If you continue to think in those terms, it will bring ruin to us all!"
         Chief Thunder's right hand curled into a fist, which he thumped over his heart. With conscious effort, he uncurled it and held both hands cupped to either side, as if weighing items on a balance.
         "'Your people.' 'My people.' As if human lives and souls should be divided into categories, or assigned values according to their label.
         "No, Major. Now more than ever, we must not be separate entities. We must think and plan as one!
         "When I say we cannot lose any more warriors, I refer to every man, woman, and youth able to bear a weapon, be they of the Nation or of your platoon. I also refer to you, Chosen One. Strains have rocked the alliance in your absence; there were even two outbreaks of violence. Those responsible have been judged and punished, but we need your presence to calm the grumbles of malcontent."
         "Sounds like Sparky wasn't up to running the platoon while Sonya and I were out."
         "If I were you, I would learn the whole scope of events before coming to that conclusion, but that is another issue. We cannot gamble your life on the wish of finding two stragglers, who are not Chosen Ones, and who may already be dead."
         "I've already failed too many people. I'm not adding Kazama and Wulong to the list."
         Nightwolf cleared his throat. "Do you speak of Jun Kazama, the healer?"
         Both leaders faced him. Jax briefly made eye contact with Sonya, as if to ask How long has Nightwolf been standing there? A whisper-thin smile crossed her lips.
         "The same," said the chief. "She and an ally named Lei Wulong became separated from the major's patrol, during a conflict on the wastelands."
         "My spirit-brother tells me that she has returned to Sanctuary. She brings with her a seemingly tame demon, in the guise of a mortal man. I came to warn you of the demon, but perhaps the outsiders know more about him than I do."
         Sonya shrugged. "I've already briefed Chief Thunder about Wulong's curse. God knows Liu Kang freaked when he set eyes on the poor sot; it wouldn't surprise me if your animal friends also had a bad first impression. You've brought us good news, Nightwolf."
         "Have I? I can only hope."
         "We need hope," Chief Thunder quietly stated. "It is our most precious commodity."
         "Then I can offer you a little more. My divinations have located a prisoner, approximately a hundred miles from Sanctuary, who sincerely believes he has the secret to forcing a confrontation with the Shao Kahn. We must rescue him and learn what he knows, at once. It could be our last chance.
         "He is kept in the stronghold of one of the Kahn's allies, a powerful sorcerer by name of Kazuya Mishima. A large party could never tread the unholy grounds without alerting Kazuya, but I believe that I can slip in and out under cover of my cloaking magic.
         "That is my second reason for coming, my Chief. I seek your leave to set out at once."
         "Denied."
         "Chief-"
         "We need you here, to work the magic that protects our home. Someone else must go in your place."
         "Who, then? Who else can cast spells to erase all signs of their presence, without which the rescue will be doomed from the start? Catsclaw is dead. Liu Kang and Michelle Chang are spent, when a few hours' delay could mean the difference between destruction and a chance at life. None of our other surviving mages specialize in the Power to conceal."
         Chief Thunder turned his head slightly. Nightwolf could almost see him measuring Sanctuary's need for a shaman against the world's need for a plan to stop the great evil.
         "You must not go alone," the chief concluded at last.
         "This mission has to be one of stealth, not open warfare. I cannot afford to take an entire patrol-"
         "Then don't," Jax interrupted. "Take me."
         "Why you?"
         "Because I'm trained in covert special operations. Because Sub-Zero has constructed a new microcomputer exclusively attuned to my biorhythms; if it can do what he claims, I'll have the power of an army to back you up. And because if this prisoner really does know how to save the world, then I will set out to find him, with or without your cooperation. Count on it."
         "And count on me going with you," Sonya added.
         Jax made a swooping, determined gesture with one of his metal-coated hands. "No, lieutenant. One of us has to stay here and oversee the 34th platoon. That is an order, and I will not accept further debate."
         "I definitely liked you better when you were demoted."



         He is battered and bruised. Breathing hurts.
         Aching constricts his limbs, and his innards quiver as he is lifted high. He has a fleeting glimpse of the barren abyss below. A crumbling stone is scuffed over the chasm's ledge; it falls for long seconds, skips off a section of shale, and plunges into the impossibly distant stream winding along the bottom.
         He is terrified. Pleading will only bring more pain, but he tries it anyway. One of the holds carrying him aloft is about his throat; it constricts, choking off his words.
         Good riddance, booms that hating voice.
         Suddenly, he is released into empty space. Cloud-filled sky, chasm, and a dove flying in distance rotate past his eyes, for he spins as he falls. Wind shrieks zealously in his ears, and he flails helplessly. He plummets at increasing speed. Panic freezes him. An outcropping of jutted stone rushes toward; it is the furious hammer of doom, and of all that has ever hated him.
         This is when he knows he is going to die.
         His last scream is torn from his windpipe when the stone strikes him, a brutal impact that shatters his ribs and pierces his skin. He sloughs off the rock, and is too overwhelmed with strangled agony to feel his continuing fall. Water lies below, too shallow to save him, too deep to let him peacefully bleed to death. When he crashes into it, face-first, it floods his lungs even as its bed of sharp rocks shatters his legs and cracks his skull. He is dying two deaths at once; one of contusions, and one of bubbling suffocation.



         "Hhgck-!"
         Lei wheezed and clutched at his neck, uttering a smothered cry. His chest throbbed. The back of his tongue lodged in his throat; he coughed it free and gasped for breath. Dream-agony became a cramped soreness pervading his arms and legs, the toll from several days' hard travel.
         "Hey, let go of me!" Jun snapped, somewhere to the cop's left. Her words were a meaningless phonetic collage, but Lei recognized the petulant streak running through them.
         Weariness dragged so heavily upon him he could scarcely move. His mind felt enmeshed in fog, as thick and heavy as the weakness that crippled him. There came a faint beeping noise, and a brief flicker of light at the edge of his vision.
         "It's them all right. Computer scan confirms it." He had to search for a moment to place the pensive, analytical statement as belonging to Lieutenant Blade. "Release her."
         "What kind of a welcome is this?"
         "It is good to have you back, Kazama, but you know we don't have the authority to invite Wulong into Sanctuary's inner bounds. Chief Thunder has generously agreed to review his petition for asylum. Wulong will have the chance to present his case in a moment."
         A third female voice, low-pitched and resonant with sarcasm, muttered <I can't believe it. She actually dragged her animal all the way here - and judging from the smell, it's been dead for at least two days.>
         The stiff heel of Michelle's boot prodded Lei's shoulder, roughly turning him on his back.
         <Hasn't anyone ever told you to be kind to animals?> he groaned. Jun helped him sit up, while Michelle crouched directly across from him.
         <Jun told us you can't remember how to speak English. Can you?>
         Lei shook his head. <I can't even remember Cantonese, and I've been speaking that ever since I was six, after my folks and I emigrated from the mainland->
         <Did I ask for your autobiography!? Hold still and clear your thoughts. I will fix the problem.> An orange-red nimbus of mystic energy formed around Michelle's hand.
         <Uh, wait, that may not be a good idea.> Lei shakily raised his arms in a barrier. <You don't want to expose yourself to my memories->
         <'Don't want to'? I'd rather shovel manure! But Nightwolf left eight hours ago, and Chief Thunder has enough to worry about without wading through your cesspool of a mind.>
         Lei cleared his throat and lowered his eyes. <Uh, it isn't that I'm not grateful for your willingness to help, but you have to understand, I'm just worried that looking into my mind would have a bad effect. On you, I mean. Because of my curse. When Liu Kang tried->
         <I know your secret.> Scornful contempt dripped from the pronouncement.
         <You... do?>
         <You think that I don't? That I can't see it in your eyes, and hear it your voice? That I don't recognize this, and what it means?>
         Michelle flicked aside the ash-grey forelock in his hair, exposing the midnight ellipsis on his forehead. He flinched and covered his brow; she wiped her hand on the grass as though it had been dirtied.
         <Kazuya made you into his joke. He stripped you to less than the shadow of a living man, an empty shell cursed to wander the earth. But if you want to pretend you're human, and your friends are too stupid to tell the difference, that's not my problem. Just make sure you understand one thing.>
         Her mouth became a thin-lipped sneer.
         <Don't insult me. Don't imply your pain can affect me, because it does not and never will. I already have too much of my own. Now are you going to hold still and take your medicine, or not?>
         Lei swallowed, nodded, and bowed his head.
         Michelle hooked her glowing fingers and dug her nails into his scalp. Her smooth face twisted into mask of disgust tempered with intense concentration. Lei squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. Shaking gripped him; his hands trembled fiercely. He plowed his fingers into the grass, in an instinctive reaction to brace himself. A scream started to take shape in his throat; he forced it back down his windpipe, quivering from the exertion.
         <I said hold still!> Michelle spat, forcefully pushing him away even as she ripped her psychic presence free. Lei's head snapped back, violently.
         Jun steadied the cop, and appraised Michelle with a guardedly neutral stare. "What kind of a healer are you?"
         "Don't get jealous just because I sustained the Chosen One when you could not."
         "It's - it's okay, kid. I remember now." Lei whispered, hunching over and covering half his face with one hand, while the other pressed deep into his gut. He took a shuddering breath, struggling to contain the nausea that gathered in the pit of his stomach. Jun spotted a tiny sparkle of refracted light, on a moistened trail near his inner eye.
         "You're-"
         "Zhè bìng bù huài. Wô hên hâo - eh, I mean, it's not that bad. I'm fine." He winced and gulped back the rising bile in his mouth. "Michelle? Xièxie nî."
         "Shut up," she hissed, turning her back and stalking half a dozen meters away.
         Jun arched her delicate eyebrows and addressed the cop with a hesitant question. "What were you and she just talking about?"
         "Memories. Jokes. It doesn't matter."
         "Um, Lei-"
         "Zhè bìng bù huài..." he croaked in a haunted, desperate whisper.
         "Lei? I think the chief wants our attention."
         The cop sluggishly raised his head.
         Before him was a true leader among men.
         Though Chief Thunder was not the tallest of the entire assembly, his regal demeanor set him apart. His dark garnet eyes were even, calculating and cautious. Brown stubble roughened his lower cheeks and chin. Thin scars traced weblike patterns on his sun-bronzed chest; matching badges could be seen along his calves, through rents in his torn jeans. Intimidating stripes of black paint marked his skin, forming two dagger-curved patches around each eye and six stripes parallel to his ribs. Both his ears were pierced with triple rows of flat silver disks. He did not have hair; instead, ten long feathers, white tipped with red and black, were affixed in a vertical seam across the middle of his head and down the nape of his neck. Each feather extended as a proud tribute to the bravery and honor of his deeds. He carried a pair of hand-axes with keenly hewn blades.
         "Uh, nî hâo." Lei timidly lifted one hand in a self-conscious wave.
         Chief Thunder crossed his muscular arms in front of his chest, and appraised the cop with a piercing, critical stare.
         "Nice place you got here," Lei nervously continued. "Peaceful. Real pretty. Uh, I didn't mean to intrude or anything... it's just that I, uh, had this crazy idea I could help the good guys. Or something. And then I was only trying to get the kid here to safety, and then she wouldn't let me leave without her, and well, I... eh, I don't want to cause any trouble. I'm willing to go away if you think that's best. It's not that I don't want to stay here, I do, but I also want a drink like you can't imagine, and I'm not sure that's a good idea either."
         "You will not leave," said the chief. "You have seen too much. The question is whether you will reside upon these grounds, or be interred within them."
         Color drained from Lei's face. "Oh."
         "I have faced demons before." Chief Thunder's rich voice reverberated with wisdom and hardened courage. "Faced them and slain them. With the blessings of the gods and the power of the Phoenix, I have cut through the shells of your devil kindred, reduced unholy apparitions of bone to dust. Yet I have never seen an abomination such as you. The worst, cruelest, and most bloodthirsty demons at least reflected their foulness in their visage.
         "Do not think I am deceived. I know of your curse, and the threat you pose. You cannot hide the darkness and hatred that tarnish your life-force. Now that you have regained the gift of speech, do you have anything to say in your defense?"
         Lei hung his head. "Yeah. I haven't had a drink in five days. I can't remember the last time I was sober for so long."
         Chief Thunder's eyes narrowed to acute slits.
         "Really, I can't..."
          Jun put her hands on her hips and glared caustically at the chief. "Why are you making threats? You should save it for the real enemy!
         "Lei is my friend, and our ally. He braved a horde of mutants to save the Chosen One we were sent to retrieve. He led our scout party to safety when we needed time to regain our strength. A Centaurian ambush could have wiped us out if it weren't for his warning. His marksmanship cemented our defense against the monsters, and when one of them targeted me, he risked his neck for my sake. If it weren't for Lei, I wouldn't be here. So if you want to put him six feet underground, you may as well bury me in the same-"
         "Whoa, hold on there," Lei hastily interrupted. "Don't take the kid too seriously; it's been a long trip, and she's been tiring herself out with a lot of magic lately-"
         "I am not a kid!"
         Chief Thunder's hairless brow slipped up a trifle. He swept his imposing gaze across the gathered multitude of refugees, Native Americans, and soldiers who had come to observe this hearing.
         "Who else has words to say on the demon's behalf?"
         "I do." The declaration was steady, composed, and soaked with a heavy Japanese accent.
         Lei's spastically turned his head, searching for the speaker. His spine grew rigid when he spied a formal, impassive man with thin-creased features and austere chestnut eyes.
         "No. It can't be..."
         The impossibility stepped forward, keeping his hands by his sides, and bowed low to Chief Thunder. A crushed shell fragment dangling on a plain string necklace swung outward from the motion.
         "I am Takeshi Fujioka, I.C.P.O., and Detective Lei Wulong did save my life."
         "No. No, I didn't. You're dead." Hysteria crept into Lei's bearing. "You're dead, I saw Kazuya murder you, you and all the others, I'm hallucinating again-!"
         With practiced speed, Takeshi turned and whipped one hand. A metal sickle on a chain dug its crescent point in the earth, a centimeter from where Lei sat.
         "If you do have one piece of common sense, then you do not discredit your supporters, yes?" Takeshi retracted his weapon, fluidly spinning the sickle-blade in a circle. Lei stared at the other cop in dumbfounded amazement.
         Takeshi bowed to Chief Thunder again. "It is true, the devil-criminal Mishima did kill the rest of our team and badly hurt me. Detective Lei did sacrifice self to distract the devil-criminal. I did escape, thinking Detective Lei murdered. That is all." He made one more bow, and stepped back to the front row of the crowd.
         The chief nodded. "Does anyone else have words to say?"
         "Sure." Sonya casually adjusted her raven headband, pulling back her flaxen hair. "Liu Kang and Kung Lao both. But Liu's making up half a week of missed sleep, and Lao's recovering from surgery, so I get to be their proxy.
         "Wulong, both Liu and Lao agree that you're on our side. Liu knows because he probed your mind, and Lao values your friendship so much he would trust you with his life."
         She looked at the cop with suspicion, but not outright accusation. "There's something you have to come clean on, though. How did you know to warn us?"
         "Huh?"
         "Liu thinks you sensed the Centaurians' attack because their controller, Kazuya, used you as a mystic reagent. Lao thinks it's impossible for you to be Kazuya's reagent without knowing or consenting to it. I think you have some explaining to do. Now."
         "Oh, that. Eh, remember how we were in the sewers, and I didn't need light to find my way around?"
         "I assumed you were familiar with the territory."
         "Well, yes, but more than that. It's a side effect of the curse, I think... I can see certain kinds of light other people can't. Pitch darkness to you is like morning or dusk to me.
         "Ultraviolet is a pretty color," he reflected, wistfully. "Sort of like violet, only more so. I can also see infrared, especially heat. Centaurians are very hot-blooded creatures; on a cool night, I can spot them from dozens of kilometers away.
         "Anyway, a few seconds before the Centaurians attacked our patrol, I saw heat-shadows roughly shaped like monsters, marking where they were about to appear. Kung Lao's the teleport specialist, so maybe he can tell you why teleporting in would heat up the air, but I knew it wasn't a hallucination because I never dream in infrared."
         He tilted his head, curiously. "What's this about me being Kazuya's baking soda?"
         "Liu thinks Kazuya used you to undercut our cloaking magic."
         "What...?" Lei shivered and shook his head. "I-I had no idea, I didn't mean to jeopardize any of you-"
         "That's not possible!" Jun countered, standing up. "You can't use an unwilling person to focus your sorcery; those who try always end up in shock, mad, or dead."
         "A lot of supposedly unbreakable rules have been broken lately, Kazama," Sonya noted. "We don't have any other explanation for the failure of Liu's spell."
         Lei's face became stricken. "If I had kn-known this, I n-never would have-"
         "Stop it, both of you!" Jun cried.
         She looked Sonya in the eye. "Don't you realize that every man, woman, and child has some potential for magic? Even if most people can't do this-" She held out her hand and generated a spray of white sparks, crackling on her fingertips. "-what do you think grants us the power to imagine, dream, or create? Just because Lei would make a better than average reagent doesn't mean he's responsible for the failure of Liu's spell. If you assume Kazuya can use someone without their knowing it, then the culprit could be you, Lao, or Liu Kang himself!"
         "There is the fact that we never had any trouble after Wulong was separated from our patrol."
         "I was separated, too. So how do you know it wasn't me?"
         "Wulong's curse links him to Kazuya, while you have no connection."
         "'No connection'? He's practically family; I was engaged to- why am I telling you my personal life?"
         She threw her hands up in the air. "Chief Thunder, it's time to end this. You know that Lei is a good person at heart."
         "His intentions appear to be honorable, but I cannot allow Sanctuary to be threatened."
         "It's already threatened. The instant you decide to kill an innocent man, Sanctuary will cease to exist, because it will no longer be a Sanctuary. It will become a nest of killers no different from the enemy we're fighting!"
         Long seconds passed in silence.
         At last, a hint of dry humor sparkled in Chief Thunder's garnet eyes. "It is hard to argue with a soul of such purity.
         "Wulong, if you are to reside here, then you must take the Oath. You must vow to obey the laws of Sanctuary and the Nation. You must pledge never to endanger this refuge, or the people it protects. Do you swear to abide by these terms, in letter and in spirit?"
         Lei ran his fingers through his sable hair and nodded. "Y-yes. You have my word."
         "Take my hand."
         Chief Thunder set down his weapons and extended his right hand to Lei. The cop shakily grasped it - and in doing so, felt the leaden heaviness fall away from his limbs. Bewilderment crossed his features as he stood up, unsteady from the newfound lightness.
         The chief constricted his grip, and Lei felt an electric tingle on his clasped palm.
         "Know that you will be held strictly to the terms of this Oath. If you violate it, the consequences will be swift and severe. Furthermore, you must be guarded. At all times, there must be someone charged with the responsibility of monitoring you, and subduing you, should your curse accidentally manifest. Do you understand and agree to all of this?"
         "Yes. I do."
         "Then be welcome among the Nation, Detective Lei Wulong. I invite you in."



         Deep within his inner sanctum, Kazuya Mishima leaned back on his invisible throne, crossing his legs and interlacing his fingertips in a steeple. A summoned image of the handshake between Lei and Chief Thunder filled the foremost of the master sorcerer's mirrors.
         Kazuya smiled to himself.
         This was working even better than he'd planned.


End of Chapter 6: Open Invitation


END OF PART I: DISSOLUTION