ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


PART II: DAMNATION

Chapter 7: Sanctuary



    The white room is pure the doctors are brave
    If there's a cure I want to be saved
    Sanctuary

         -Kansas, Under the Knife


         Lei looked at his palm. It still tingled from Chief Thunder's handshake.
         "No wonder he invited you. He could not bring himself to turn away a fellow Phoenix."
         The cop regarded a slim, dark-haired Native American woman, clad in a gown decorated with black feathers. She analyzed him in a single blink of her sagacious eyes. Her face was, if not welcoming, then at least quietly impartial. The square, confident set of her demeanor belied strength, courage, and much wisdom.
         "Whatever the reason, I'm grateful ma'am."
         "I am Raven of the Bright River, wife to Chief Thunder. And you are the Phoenix, which rises from its own ashes; the aspect of my husband's guardian totem defines you. We have all put a great trust in you. See that you do not betray your Oath."
         Grim foreboding permeated her warning. Lei self-consciously lowered his eyes and thrust his prickling right hand in his blazer's pocket. When next he looked up, Raven was nowhere to be seen.
         "How did she know?" the cop muttered under his breath.
         "Know what?" Jun asked.
         "My martial arts form - well, the one I'm in the process of creating. I call it the Phoenix style. I could swear I haven't told any of you about it, not even Kung Lao."
         Lei scanned the surrounding crowd. Chief Thunder had long since departed without pomp or fanfare. Most of the other spectators were also dispersing, now that the hearing had been resolved.
         "Lei, hayaku!" Jun grinned and motioned for him to follow.
         "Just a moment. I need to speak to - ah, there he is. Officer Fujioka, wait a minute!"
         The I.C.P.O. representative was moving away at a steady pace. Lei hurriedly caught up with him. "Dammit man, talk to me; you-"
         "What you do want?" Takeshi coldly requested.
         Lei squinted for ten seconds, carefully scrutinizing the officer.
         "I can see your heat-shadow," he concluded. "You're real. Alive. Not a dream or a hallucination."
         "You do have point?"
         "But I saw Kazuya slice you open down your breastbone. You lost more blood than I care to think about. There's no way you could have saved yourself before you went into shock. And then the Apocalypse hit."
         "I repeat: you do have point?"
         "How did you survive? Did Kazuya-" the cop swallowed a lump in his throat and lowered his voice. "-did he curse you too?"
         "I do not know what of you talk."
         "Are you sure?"
         "Yes."
         "Show me your forehead."
         "Do not presume to command me. That is all I say to you." Takeshi started to turn away.
         "Hold it, you still haven't answered how-"
         Lei reached and lightly brushed aside Takeshi's short bangs, searching for Kazuya's mark. The officer's forehead was a uniform expanse of tanned skin, dented only by a few ghostly precursors to wrinkle lines. No midnight ellipsis stained him.
         "Take your filthy hand off me!" Takeshi spun; a sickle-blade on a chain shot from his sleeve. Lei sidestepped, and the curved weapon missed his cheek by two centimeters instead of cutting it open.
         A motion of the officer's wrist recalled the blade to his hand. Dangling it on a short length of chain, he twirled it in slanted circles as he spoke.
         "You did save my life, I know not why. It was duty to tell Chief Thunder that. It was not preference. I despise you because you are disgrace to our profession. Do not approach me. Do not talk to me. If again you touch me, your hand you do lose!"
         "Nan no mondai ga arimasu!?" Jun demanded, pushing forward and glaring at Takeshi.
         "Why is fine young lady of your quality defending this alkaline?"
         "That's 'alcoholic,'" Lei corrected, wearily.
         Anger flashed in Jun's eyes as she stared Takeshi down. "Lei faced Kazuya and paid the price, while you fled for your miserable life, didn't you? And now you can't even be polite to him! I'll bet you're pretty happy with yourself, smug in your imagined superiority!"
         "Let it go, kid," Lei sighed. "If he doesn't want to talk, we can't make him."
         "You think I glad?" Takeshi snapped, his chestnut eyes reflecting equal measure of Jun's indignation. "Think I want to lose team? Think I want to owe life to drug addict? Do you comprehend humiliation of confessing failure to all Sanctuary!? If I did be a little faster, prepare more to serve devil-criminal's warrant, maybe I do not have disgrace. It is shame that haunts me always. My fleeing is double shame."
         The officer's hand curled over the crushed shell fragment hanging around his neck. He transferred his austere gaze to Lei. "Devil-criminal did dig claws into your heart. You did scream; horrible sound. It cut short, silence of breath forever stilled. Your head did fall at broken-neck angle. Your blood and entrails on devil-criminal's hands. You were he who did die, Wulong. Not this one. So you tell me, how do you still live?"
         "Eh..."
         "If your question you cannot answer, of others do not ask." Takeshi pivoted in an about-face, and left.
         "Did you really have to endure working with him?" Jun asked.
         "No," Lei mumbled, looking away. "He had to endure working with me."
         "I'm sorry he treated you like that. I didn't know Takeshi had it in him to be so obnoxious; more than that, I never dreamed he'd be the type to abandon his allies."
         "He isn't. He had every reason to believe I was dead, and even if he hadn't, he was too badly hurt to have done anything about it. He's a good cop. Damn sight better than me, anyway."
         She tilted her head curiously, then said, "Let's go. There's so much I want to show you. If Nightwolf were here, he could try to remove your curse, but Sonya says he left with Jax on some mission. Still, there are other people here who might be able to help you. We can go see them after you've had a chance to clean up."
         "Uh, didn't the Chief say that someone has to guard me at all times? Who's going to...?"
         Jun flashed a pearly white smile and winked. "Who do you think?"
         "Huh?" Lei's eyebrows went down, and he started shaking his head. "No. Oh, no. No, kid. No. The whole reason I brought you here was to make sure you'd be safe."
         "I am not a kid, and I brought you here!"
         "You know full well how dangerous my curse is; the last time it triggered, I sliced up your arm and nearly gutted you, didn't I? I won't put you at risk again. A sweet kid like you should be babysitting toddlers, not demons."
         "I've saved your life, fought by your side, and defeated you in both human and demon forms - what more does it take? When will you give me some respect?"
         Lei folded his arms and studied the blades of grass around his feet. "I'm not going to argue about this. I'm just not."
         "Then I will watch you," proclaimed a basso profundo voice from behind and above the cop's head. Lei turned around, and gained an eye-level view of a muscular stomach. His gaze traveled up.
         And up.
         And up.
         Craning his neck and shading his eyes, Lei wasn't at all sure that the austere figure in front of him was a man. It seemed more like a mighty Colossus, stepped down from its pedestal to walk among mere mortals.
         The enormous figure reached well over seven feet; burly muscles and sinews filled out his frame. Copper bands wide enough for an ocelot to pass through encircled his upper arms. Any lesser man would have been lost in his oversized clothing, but it stuck tightly to him. The armholes of his sleeveless denim vest had been artificially widened, by means of simply tearing the fabric until it settled into a comfortable, albeit frayed cut. His jeans and fringed leather boots showed wear, fading, and strained seams. Even his belt stretched at its widest notch, though his abdomen was firm and strong as a ribbed washing board. At the summit of this human mountain was a stern pair of umber eyes framed by an unkempt shock of dark hair. Threaded among his locks was a headband patterned with alternating blue and white triangles; two white feathers with red tips dangled from a gold ring hooked into it.
         The human Leviathan returned the cop's disbelieving stare with suspicion.
         "Do you have a problem with that?" he pressed, dangerously.
         "Nn-no," Lei weakly denied. "Not at all."
         "Konban wa, Hawk," Jun greeted. "Lei, this is Thunder Hawk, Zuñi wrestler of the highest renown. 'Thunder' is such a common name around here that most of us call him 'T. Hawk,' or just 'Hawk.'"
         "Uh, pleasure to meet you, T. Hawk." Lei nervously ran a hand through his matted hair and displayed his good-natured smile. "So you're a 'Thunder' just like the Chief, eh? What a coincidence, so am I. We ought to start a club-"
         "How dare you insult our honored leader!?" roared the wrestler. With the sudden force of a tornado, he seized Lei's collar and hoisted him aloft, shaking him in midair. "How dare you insult me? I can sense the sickness corrupting your heart, and smell the liquor tainting your breath! Do not compare yourself to us; we are nothing like you!"
         "Hawk, yamete!" Jun shouted.
         Lei made no effort to resist the wrestler. Instead, he gasped through his chafing throat, "I've sworn an Oath not to hurt anyone in here. Have you?"
         As swiftly as it had flared, T. Hawk's outrage cooled to kindled coals.
         "I will forgive your arrogance this time, demon. In the future, be more careful with your tongue." He roughly set Lei down on his feet. "Now, come. You stink of blood, booze, and sewage. I will not endure it. You will visit the baths, if I have to drag you there and throw you in."
         "Well, since you ask so nicely," the cop mumbled, rubbing where his collar had dug into his neck.
         "Lei, are you all right?" Jun whispered, inspecting the reddish marks on either side of his throat. "Hawk doesn't have to be your guard. We can find someone else."
         "Thanks kid, but what I really need you to do is make an appointment with whoever you think can help with my curse. All right?"
         Jun raised an eyebrow and tilted her head back, looking up at T. Hawk. At first he met her gaze evenly, but then his right eye twitched and he glanced away.
         "I should not have lost my temper like that," T. Hawk conceded. "Do not fear. I will not harm him, unless it becomes necessary to protect the people of Sanctuary."
         "See? It's okay, we're friends now," the cop added, with a jittery chuckle. "Go on, we'll be fine."
         Jun reluctantly nodded, and crossed Sanctuary's inner border. Her slender figure soon disappeared behind a cluster of buildings.
         A thick hand with fingers like pliers seized Lei's shoulder in a pincer grip.
         "I promised her that I would not hurt you," T. Hawk said, ever so softly. "That is why you are still conscious. For your own sake, do not refer to me as 'friend' again."



         "Hmph," Heihachi snorted, turning away from the summoned vision. "I trust you have a reason for showing me this hideout of savages."
         The demon sorcerer Shang Tsung spread his lips in an inhumanly wide, sharp-toothed smile. "The best reason of all: because I can. A short while ago, even my omnipresent power could not have placed this 'hideout of savages' on a map. But now that your son's spy has been invited among the enemy, their cloaking magic is useless. The Chosen Ones' cover is blown, and they don't even know it."
         Heihachi folded his powerful arms, and regarded the lush greenery beyond the portal in a new light.
         "So, why hasn't my foolish son sent his army to burn the place to the ground?"
         "I'm sure he wants to, but Sanctuary has other, stronger wards that protect it more directly from an invasion. Uninvited guests are crippled with weakness, and an uninvited creature that tried to force its way past the inner bounds would be destroyed. As long as the wards are maintained, Kazuya's entire army would have to be invited inside before it could do any real damage. Your darling son has tricked the fools once, but even their stupidity has its limits. I'm sure he's working on a way around the problem, though. Aren't you curious to find out what his plan is?"
         "I am more curious to learn what you are holding back."
         "Oh, nothing you don't already know," Shang Tsung chuckled. "At least, not if you've been paying attention so far."



         Washed and refreshed, Lei unconsciously adjusted his collar and ran a hand through his damp hair. Though he tried to keep in step with T. Hawk's long strides, he couldn't help being distracted by this strange new island of civilization. Dusk had begun to settle upon the land, but that only improved his eyesight.
         About two-thirds of the folk he saw were of Native American descent, judging from the texture of their skin and set of their features. They were from a wide variety of different tribes. A handful of them wore clothing woven from grasses or sewn from animal leather, but many could have blended in on any downtown street before the Apocalypse.
         Another fifth of Sanctuary's refugees were clad in military fatigues; most likely, they were members of Sonya's platoon. Every now and then Lei would spot a small gathering of them moving independently from the greater rhythm of the Native American crowd. These two main groups tended to cluster and keep to themselves, not mixing if such could be helped.
         The rest of Sanctuary's residents were an eclectic multiplicity of individuals, all ages, from all corners of the globe. Lei did a double take when he passed a Filipino stick-fighter disarming one of Sonya's marksmen, in front of a watchful crowd. The two warriors bowed to one another; then the marksman retrieved his weapon, and the two repeated their demonstration in slow-motion for the benefit of their students.
         Lei wasn't sure what kind of edifices he'd expected - tepees and log cabins, perhaps. Indeed, there were a few such, but there was no true unity to the multitude of dwellings. It was an insane jumble, without pattern or reason. A finely hewn stone house rested next to a haphazard hut of grass and thatch, which in turn leaned against what looked like a modern apartment building. Fresh grass carpeted the earth, and tall deciduous trees spread their boughs overhead. Along Sanctuary's perimeter, a thick wall of timber ran in a misshapen line that stretched for kilometers, gradually curving back on itself.
         One structure in particular stood out.
         Lei tried to look away from it as soon as he realized what it was, but it stayed in the corner of his eye, drew his gaze back, and slowed his pace to a standstill. It was a combination saloon and casino, hewn from wooden planks and decorated with colorful paints. A man in plain clothes pushed through the loosely half-open hatchway; the swinging door flipped back and forth, showing a tantalizing glimpse of the interior counter and the elixirs behind it.
         Out of desperation, the cop covered his eyes with his hand, but that didn't block out the smell of fermented grain on the air. His throat suddenly felt very parched.
         "Why is that here?" he whispered, pointing to the saloon. "I thought Sanctuary was holy ground."
         "Drink and gambling are neither holy nor unholy. They simply are."
         "I gave the sauce up, you know," the cop muttered, more to himself than to the wrestler. "Swore never to touch it again. No matter how bad things got. No matter how desperately I needed it."
         "You have wasted enough time. Come," T. Hawk growled. Lei followed the sound of his guide's voice, not daring to take his hand away from his face until the smell of fresh liquor had faded.
         Nearly all the people who filled the next section of Sanctuary's dusty, dirt-path streets were engaged in some task or another. A group of at least thirty women and children fashioned iron-tipped spears: one band sanded the shafts, a second ground the points to keen sharpness against whetstones, and a third joined points and shafts with cords of sinew. It wasn't just that they were making weapons; the orderly, methodical manner in which they went about it captured Lei's attention. A few of the weapon-makers appeared grim, and at least one threw herself into the labor with the passion of a zealot, but most just looked bored.
         One of the women looked up at the cop, and interposed herself protectively in front of a small boy. Lei shamefully dropped his eyes to the ground, then glanced at the other side of the street.
         In strong contrast to the primitive spear-making, eight men and two women in military garb cleaned, inspected, assembled, and rationed bullets for light machine guns. Other refugees calmly walked past a pile of enough live ammunition to kill half of Sanctuary.
         Lei pointed to the unguarded gun-workers. "Are you sure that's a good idea? Any psycho could just grab a weapon and start shooting innocent people."
         "Every outsider invited into Sanctuary must first take an Oath to do no harm. The madness you describe cannot happen here."
         "That's what they all say," the cop murmured.
         "What?"
         "Uh, I mean, are you sure Jun told us to go this way?"
         "Her message said to meet her at the hospital. It is directly ahead."
         Lei squinted at the structure in front of him.
         Its majestic iron gate parted before a flight of stone steps. Stained glass decorated the windows, which shined with glittering color. Carved stone gargoyles leered over its shingles, looking ready to flex their wings and stab with their granite claws. Cresting the sharp-angled roof was a long, narrow steeple topped with the sign of the cross.
         "That is not a hospital. That's a bleeding Christian church," Lei said, suspiciously.
         "Once. The healers have claimed most of it for their own. Sanctuary has other public shrines, where all residents may worship as they choose."
         "Six months ago, if someone told me I was going to see a freaking faith healer, I'd have thought they were nuts."
         "They do not heal on faith alone. They possess four powers: skill, medicine, sorcery, and science. If you are wise, you will stop tearing apart everything you see." The wrestler's long legs covered the stone steps three at a time. He halted in front of the church's embellished double doors.
         Lei started to reach for the door handle, then hesitated. "Uh, after you?"
         "I will not turn my back upon you, demon."
         "I have a name, you know. If you have trouble pronouncing it, you can always call me Super Police."
         The Zuñi warrior folded his arms and parted his lips in a derisive sneer.
         "Or not," Lei sighed, pulling open the heavy door.
         Inside was a remodeled open space. Most of the furnishings had been cleared away to create a waiting room, of sorts. Magazines and books lay scattered on the remaining pews. Electric lamps hung from the ceiling, side by side with candelabra. Light from each source sparkled upon the stained-glass windows. Colors of every hue danced at the edges of the display, but overwhelming it all was the central tidal wave of whiteness. Its flashing purity flooded the cop and glittered blood-red on his eyes. The brilliant tsunami paralyzed him, drowning his senses in a surge of livid horror.
         "Aaah...!"
         His desperate cry died in his throat. He let go of the door and dropped to his knees, clutching tightly at his midsection with one arm, while his other hand covered his forehead. His entire body trembled, on the verge of a seizure. Though he shut his eyes, the bright influx stabbed the inside of his eyelids and froze his mind. He was dimly aware of being roughly shaken by the shoulder.
         "-is your problem, demon!? Speak!"
         "Zhèr téng," Lei gasped, in an excruciated whisper. <And I need a drink worse than you can imagine.>
         Jun's crystal-clear voice pierced the shining confusion. "Hawk, let go of him. You made a promise, remember?"
         "This is none of my doing. The demon collapsed when it tried to enter. It must be too corrupt to endure-"
         "Stop talking nonsense."
         She lightly touched Lei's hand and asked, "What is hurting you?"
         The cop shook his head.
         "Lei please, talk to me. I can't help if I don't know what's wrong."
         "Méiyôu döngxi..." He held one trembling hand palm out.
         Jun's voice softened and adjusted to a different direction. "Sonya, could you...?"
         "Already on it." The lieutenant's microcomputer beeped. "I'm not scanning any injuries, but his heart rate's up and his nervous system is a wreck. Something's given him a shock."
         Jun returned her attention to the cop. "Sub-Zero says he wants to examine you and your curse. He knows more about science and medicine than almost anyone else in Sanctuary. As soon as you're feeling up to it, we'll see him."
         "Hâo." Lei unenthusiastically started to wipe his brow with one hand, then stopped in mid-motion when he received a blurry glimpse of her, through hindered eyes. The view gradually tuned itself into focus.
         She, too, had taken advantage of the opportunity to cleanse herself, and she'd put on a change of clothes. Their cotton and denim fabric was the blue-white of an early morning sky, before the Apocalypse blotted out the sun. This new outfit was much lighter and more casual than her last; a tank-top exposed her trim midriff, and cutoff shorts revealed her limber thighs. Her clean skin carried a radiance that had previously been hidden beneath the dust and dirt of the open road. A dull silver bracelet with inset pink gems adorned her right wrist. Her black hair shimmered; a barrette with a soft cloth bow held back her bangs. Compassion shadowed her ginger eyes.
         "Nî hâo mêi," Lei whispered, wonderingly.
         "Michelle, I thought you restored his memory." Jun turned her head toward the young warrior-mage, who stood next to Sonya.
         "I did," Michelle sniffed. "You need to train your pet better. Rap its nose with rolled-up newspaper, and order it to speak in English."
         "Is that supposed to be a joke?" More bafflement than anger colored Jun's question.
         "It's a good thing you're bringing it in for a checkup. Be sure to get its shots, in case it bites you. Have it wormed and fitted for a flea collar while you're at it."
         "I don't have fleas," Lei muttered. He shook his head and covered his eyes with a slow, groggy effort.
         "What has happened to you...?" Jun confronted Michelle with an upset glare, trying to understand her motive. Sonya and T. Hawk also appeared surprised at Michelle's vehemence, though they kept their thoughts to themselves.
          "You look so cute, doting over your precious pet. But if you're going to drag it all around Sanctuary, you should at least put it on a leash." For the first time since the disaster that wiped out half the Chosen Ones' patrol, Michelle bared her teeth in a smile; yet it was not the warm, kindly expression that Jun remembered. It was pure malice.
         "Chang-san, anata wa betsujin noyou da wa," Jun said, remorsefully.
         "The restraints you describe are not necessary. I am the one guarding Wulong," T. Hawk interjected, completely serious.
         "Not anymore," Sonya declared. "He's one of mine. You know the terms of our treaty; each side polices their own."
         "The Council of Elders has final jurisdiction."
         "True, but they didn't assign you, did they? Until I hear from them, I will delegate Wulong's watchers as I see fit. Thank you for your help, but it is no longer needed."
         T. Hawk's brow darkened. "I won't be brushed aside so easily."
         "And I will let no one threaten my soldiers. Maybe the rules are different here, but in the Nation I come from, you don't choke people just because they say something you don't like!" She matched his glare with equal measure of her own determination and command presence.
         "I have admitted that was wrong, and sworn not to repeat it."
         "Which is why I'm not dragging your ass before the Council on charges. This time. I won't let you be tempted again."
         A twinge momentarily affected the outer corner of T. Hawk's right eye. It was the only outward sign of his relent. "Who will you assign to guard Wulong?"
         "Jun has volunteered, for now."
         Lei started to object, but his heart wasn't in it, and T. Hawk's wary protest drowned out his half-formed words. "With all due respect, Kazama is a healer, not a soldier."
         "She has faced and subdued Wulong in his cursed form before. She's one of the few people in this entire damn reservation who isn't afraid of him. Furthermore, I've had Sub-Zero duplicate my Project Heracles microchip to assist her. She has standing orders to use it on Wulong if he changes shape, or any other threat as she sees fit. And for the record, combat medics are soldiers; look it up."
         "Oh, come on, Hawk," Michelle snorted. "Don't you have better things to do than look after other people's pets? Give it back to its owner, and let her keep it in a kennel."
         "Yameta hoo ga ii desu yo," Jun warned. Her slender arms knotted with tension, and white sparks flickered on her tightening hands.
         "Wait, kid," Lei intervened, shakily climbing to his feet. "Let me talk to her."
         "Kodomo ja nai!"
         The cop shrugged off Jun's protest and approached the young warrior. A slight limp affected his walk; mild, infrequent shudders still troubled him.
         "Michelle, do you carry some grudge against me personally?"
         She snorted and refused to make eye contact.
         "Please. If you're going to hate me, at least give me a reason."
         "Then you can have one. It's your fault they died." Her accusation dripped with inflammatory venom. "You delayed Sonya's scout party when you drove Liu Kang mad. If not for you, they would have returned sooner. Our patrol would have left sooner. The enemy wouldn't have ambushed us. I wouldn't have left six good people to die in the desert! Catsclaw would still be-"
         Veins protruded on her throat; her cinnamon-brown eyes brimmed with tears. "And you ask why I should hate you?"
         Jun started to interrupt with a rebuttal, yet Sonya caught her eye and mouthed, Let them talk it out. The healer bit her lip and held back her retort.
         Lei hung his head. "I tried to warn Liu Kang against looking into my soul, but he didn't listen. I'm sorry for what happened to your friends, and for what it has done to you."
         "Keep your pity."
         "Not pity. Sympathy. The distinction is important."
         "Sympathy won't bring back the dead!" Michelle's vitriolic outburst simmered down to a low, constant boil. "But I know you don't intend to destroy everything you touch. You're just a drunken animal Jun fished out of the sewers. I despise you for what you are, not what you've done."
         She reached into her leather jerkin and pulled out a heavy steel object. "Here, take your damn gun back. I can't bear to carry it one moment longer."
         "Eh?" Lei accepted his .38 revolver with a surprised bow, and inspected it. Michelle had cleaned and reloaded the weapon. "Thank you. I thought I had lost it for good."
         Alarm crossed T. Hawk's face. "Why are you arming this demon? He could-"
         "That kind of madness can't happen here, remember?" Lei dryly cut in, replacing his gun in his empty holster.
         "It's only a matter of time before you use it to shoot yourself in the head," Michelle hissed.
         "KAGAYAKU HIKARI!" screamed Jun.
         A dazzling surge of white light blazed from her fingertips in a zigzag trail, and flooded Michelle's face. The young warrior's head snapped back; her eyes closed and her mouth twisted in a hateful screech.
         "You DARE!?" Michelle charged forward in a blind lunge, but heavy arms quadruple her strength restrained her. Jun patiently watched T. Hawk grapple with the young warrior. Soundlessly absorbing her backward kick to his shin, he locked one arm behind her back and gripped the other by the wrist, restraining the fiery aura that flared on her fingers.
         "Stop this!" T. Hawk commanded. "Have you forgotten the law? To settle your grievances in a duel, you must first gain the Council's approval and make the formal challenge."
         "She challenged me!"
         "No. I was trying to clear your head," Jun softly denied. "I can feel the grief, blame, and rage festering in your spirit, like a black pestilence. It has changed you from my friend into someone I cannot recognize. And - gods help me - I don't know what to do about it."
         Michelle stopped fighting against T. Hawk, who cautiously let her go. Her pencil-thin eyebrows dipped low over her cinnamon-brown eyes.
         Something Jun had said gave her anger pause. The young warrior seemed almost frightened. Then, her mask of outrage returned.
         "Fine," she spat. "Protect your precious pet. Be an accomplice to its crimes. Just don't come running to me when it turns on you."
         Michelle stalked away from the church. T. Hawk briefly lingered, searching Jun and Sonya with a calculating stare, then moved to follow her.
         "When you need my help, or when it becomes time for someone else to guard Wulong, use the bracelet to signal me," Sonya said to Jun. "Take care."
         "Taihen osewa ni narimashita." Jun crossed her hands low in front of herself, and dipped in a grateful bow. The lieutenant nodded and left.
         Jun turned to Lei and asked, "Are you ready to see Sub-Zero now?"
         The cop didn't answer. He'd crumpled to his knees, with both hands shielding his face. Intermittent convulsions wracked his frame. She crouched next to him.
         "Lei?"
         "You could have warned me you were going to do that," he wheezed.
         "The light flash?" Her smooth face became stricken with pained remorse. "Doomo sumimasen, I didn't realize it would affect you so badly."
         "No, no, it's okay, I'm fine. Just give me a moment."
         "But you once said that bright light doesn't hurt you."
         "Physically? No." Lei rubbed his eyes and blinked rapidly, attuning his focus on the church's stone steps. "I just don't happen to like it."
         She touched his hand, and felt the lingering, nervous vibrations quivering under his skin. "This is why you couldn't enter the hospital, isn't it? It's too brightly lit, and you have a phobia."
         "I'm not afraid of a little light," Lei refuted, jerking his hand away. "I was startled, that's all."
         "We don't have to go inside. Sub-Zero can see you somewhere else."
         "I've faced armed criminals, hordes of bloodthirsty mutants, Centaurian warriors the size of Toyotas, and you think I'm scared of a few lights?" A thread of hysteria wove itself into the denial.
         He shook his head turbulently and backed up the steps. "I came here to see a freaking faith healer, and that's what I'm going to do, and I don't care how freaking bright it is in there." With a determined effort, Lei threw open the doors.
         The brilliant tidal wave returned.
         He'd tried to prepare himself for it. At least it wasn't a complete surprise this time, yet the simultaneous burn, chill, and aching void clutched him tightly. He shut his eyes and nearly staggered back, then bowed his pounding head and plowed three paces forward into the merciless white curtain. That was as far as he got before his legs buckled beneath him, the trembling returned full force, and a fierce sickness violently wrenched his innards. He slipped to one knee, steadying himself on his right hand while the other pressed tightly into his midsection.
         "Damn it, I'm n-not afraid of a little light!"
         He could feel the slight shift in the air currents, and the almost noiseless tread of Jun's dainty feet as she reached his side. She rested a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, gentle as a single downy feather.
         "R-really, I'm not..."
         "Ii desu." She put his arm around her neck and shoulders, and helped him to stand.
         "I'm afraid of a lot of light," Lei confessed, with a harsh twist of self-loathing.
         "Kochira desu. Issho-ni itte." When Lei stumbled, she adjusted her footing to support his weight. Step by step, she led him through the shining waterfall.



         Michelle could hardly walk in a straight line.
         She'd originally intended to simply return Lei's weapon and be done with it. Somehow, the anger inside her had taken control. It dug tangled roots in her thoughts, shaping her frame of mind, twisting her actions, and making her do things she wouldn't have if she'd been thinking clearly.
         Despite her harsh words to Wulong, she knew in her heart that he wasn't the real source of her pain. No, the cop was nothing more than Kazuya's contemptible pawn. Yet the anger inside her demanded a target, and with the most evil demons beyond reach of her vengeance, she hated whatever she could find.
         This would not do at all.
         Control is the mainstay of magic and war. If she could not master herself, it would be the end of everything. She had to pull herself together before she reached the point of no return.
         "Are you well?"
         Michelle stopped walking and looked around, shaken.
         "Hawk? Why are you following me?"
         The large warrior coughed and cleared his throat. "You are clearly upset. Do you want to talk about it?"
         "No. I need to be alone for a while."
         "As you wish, but then why are you headed for the central square? Your private quarters are on the other side of Sanctuary."
         Michelle rubbed her forehead, laboriously sorting through a disorganized morass of chaotic thoughts. "Of course... over by the Temple. I wasn't paying attention, was I? Sorry." She changed direction, heading for the welcome relief of solitude.
         A stray idea passed through her head. She drew a whisper of power to her fingertips, enough to create a phantom mirror in her hand. Glancing into it, she could see the reflection of T. Hawk watching her leave, with a sad, deeply concerned frown on his face.
         How curious...



         Jun hummed a soft tune as she guided the way; its soothing cadence helped take the edge off Lei's feverish quaking.
         "You're hexing me with another of your calm spells, aren't you," the cop murmured, transferring his other hand to his aching forehead.
         "Feel better now?"
         "Eh, I guess, but you really shouldn't waste your magic on me."
         "It isn't a waste, and I am at full power. I can borrow strength from Sanctuary itself if I need to."
         Lei risked opening his eyes a sliver.
         Jun had brought him to a hall of recovering patients and empty hospital beds. Soft brown wallpaper muted the ambience. The fluorescent ceiling lamps weren't as ruthlessly intense here, which helped a little more.
         He steadied himself against the wall, and slowly removed his arm from around Jun's shoulders. Jittery unease still troubled him, in barely manageable quantities.
         Jun squeezed his hand and let it go. "It's very courageous of you, confronting your fear like this."
         "Yeah, yeah. I'm so brave I could just retch."
         "You can use the bucket next to my bed," called a jocose voice. Still squinting, Lei turned his head in the direction of the sound.
         Kung Lao smiled and waggled his fingers.
         The young monk sat up on a flat berth with a stiff mattress. In place of his usual warrior's raiment, he'd been reduced to a plastic blue patient's gown. Out of modesty, he kept the pressed white bedsheets drawn up to his chest and wrapped under his arms. His wide-brimmed, razor-edged hat was gone. His flat, unlined countenance and the curls in his dark hair were completely exposed, for the first time Lei could remember since training with the Order of Light.
         Directly across from Kung Lao was another, more incapacitated figure. Lei couldn't make out the details because four armed soldiers in green-and-black fatigues staked each bedpost, obscuring his view.
         One of the soldiers, a limber young man with corn-blond hair and the uniform markings of a second lieutenant, did a double take. One straw eyebrow went down while the other shot up; he scratched his head and listened to a whisper from one of his fellows. He confided something back, then cleared his throat and addressed Lei.
         "'Scuse me, but are you really Jackie Chan?"
         "Don't call me that. I hate that," the cop winced. "Name's Lei Wulong. No relation."
         The second lieutenant faced his glum comrade with a wink. "Told you. That's two weeks' cleaning detail you owe me."
         "Now that you've met Sparky, aren't you going to inquire how I'm doing?" Kung Lao patiently suggested.
         Lei rolled his eyes. "Hey Lao, how're you doing?"
         "Very well, thanks ever so for asking. I've been talking to one of the nurses. We both have legendary ancestors. Hers traveled the world battling evil and searching for the ultimate meaning of the soul. And do you know, I've talked her into joining the White Lotus Society? She's the first female initiate in ten generations!"
         "Sounds great. Liu Kang didn't object?"
         "He's still recuperating; heck, he's virtually in a coma. That makes me acting head of the order."
         "You're going to be in for it when he wakes up, aren't you?"
         Kung Lao shrugged. "One more reason why I need to get out of here and back into training as soon as possible. The healers did a bang-up job on me, by the way. I've got a little metal grafted onto my ribs now, but you'd never know the difference. They still won't let me out of here, though. They won't even tell me where they put my clothes. Gods, it feels strange not to wear my hat. Let me know if you learn where they stashed it, okay?"
         "Will do. Anything to cover up that ugly mug of yours," Lei chuckled, with an ungracious smirk.
         "Go ahead. Rub it in. Just because you were born with the looks of a movie star."
         "Want them?"
         "You're not serious."
         "You should try it for, eh, at least five years." Lei shook out his hands and snapped his fingers; his embroidered, sky-blue handkerchief appeared in a glittery haze of azure sparks. He held the kerchief by diagonal corners, between the first and second fingers of each hand, and twirled it into a loose, ropy configuration.
         "The first couple dozen times someone teases you, it's a joke." He laid one end of the kerchief-rope upon the other, overlapping folds of cloth on his hooked fingers, then reached through the loop they made to swiftly and smoothly draw a central knot around his middle digit.
         "You can do impressions, pretend to sign autographs, or just smile and let tourists take pictures with you." When the knot was tight enough, he let his finger slip free and dangled the tied kerchief by one end.
         "It isn't until, oh, at least the sixtieth time that your identity starts to fade." Lei held the tied kerchief horizontally by both ends and gently blew on it. The knot dissolved into a flat silken expanse.
         "You're exaggerating. So what if someone occasionally mislabels you, Jackie? You know who you are."
         "Tïng hâo," Lei wryly cautioned, drawing the kerchief through his fingertips until it disappeared in a fanfare of azure sparks. He clasped both arms behind his back and leaned slightly forward. <I really hate being called 'Jackie.' Especially by someone in bed.>
         "Oh?"
         "Think about it."
         "Oh." Kung Lao grimaced.
         "Hey, what did you just say to him?" Jun quizzed, with a playful tug on Lei's sleeve.
         "Huh?" Lei blinked and anxiously cleared his throat. "Oh, nothing at all. Just a joke."
         "Want to hear the translation?" Kung Lao offered, drolly.
         <Lao, hold on a minute->
         "What, she's too pure to hear it and I'm not? I'm supposed to be the monk."
         <I take it all back, okay?> Lei pressed, in a rushed attempt to placate his friend. <You're not ugly. You're freaking gorgeous, and your fashion sense isn't bad either. Just don't tell anyone I said so, eh?>
         "I swear," Jun mused, "if you keep this up, I'll have to learn Chinese."
         A high-pitched, delicately feminine cough came from behind the trio. "Excuse, Miss Kazama? Mister Sub-Zero want talk with you."
         "Hi, Mina!" Kung Lao called. "Lei, this is Seung Mina, night shift nurse and the Order of Light's newest member."
         The willowy nurse smiled and acknowledged the introduction with a slight nod.
         "So Mina, when are you going to let me out of here?"
         "Tomorrow. Not before!"
         "But I feel fine."
         "Mister Sub-Zero say you need rest time. You stay. You no argue, you stay. Miss Kazama, you ready?"
         "Let's go," Jun said to Lei.
         "No, not he, Miss Kazama," Seung Mina interrupted. "Just you for now."
         "But I've accepted the responsibility of guarding against Lei's curse. I can't leave him alone."
         "All I know is what I told."
         "I'll watch him," Kung Lao cheerily offered. "If he gives me any trouble, I'll thrash him within an inch of his life, right Lei?"
         "Heh. You wish." The corners of Lei's mouth turned up a little.
         "C'mon, admit it. You've lost your edge. Jun toasted you without working up a sweat, didn't she?"
         "Haven't you ever had an off day?"
         Jun chewed on her lip, thinking Kung Lao's suggestion over. Then she detached the dull silver bracelet from her wrist and handed it to the monk.
         "Do you know how to use this?"
         "Sure I do. It's one of Sonya's trinkets, right? Just depress control switch and-"
         The monk's finger accidentally brushed against a pressure-sensitive pink gem, with instant results. Roseate waves poured from the device. Surprised, Lei started to dodge out of the way, but the tangible force enveloped him in a glowing cocoon and raised him off the ground. It slowed his movements virtually to stop-motion, holding him prisoner in a cylinder of liquid energy. The cylinder pressed against the ceiling, carrying its helpless captive inside. Lei screwed his eyes shut and held back his nausea; when he tried to speak, his words were distorted and unintelligible.
         "Lao, quit it!" Jun snapped.
         "Whoops, sorry about that. How do I turn this off again? Oh yeah, tap it three times."
         Lei's glowing pink cage suddenly disappeared. Lei turned in midair and almost landed on his feet, but his left leg twisted underneath him and he hit the floor with a groan.
         "Is your ankle sprained? Let me see."
         The cop brushed off Jun's worried inquiry with a flick of his fingers. "No, I'm fine. Just peachy. Besides, it's reassuring to know that gizmo actually works. You go along, okay? If this faith healer wants to talk to you, it's probably important."
         "Sub-Zero isn't a faith healer; he's a scientist. Take care, okay? I'll come back as soon as I can."
         After she'd departed with Seung Mina, Lei stood up and leaned against the wall, keeping his weight off his left leg.
         "You should've let her cast a healing spell," Kung Lao appraised.
         "It's not a sprained ankle, just a strain on an old injury. It'll fix itself by the time she comes back, and I don't want the kid draining her power. She might need it to defend herself against my curse, gizmo or no gizmo."
         A thoughtful expression just shy of unease crossed Lei's face. "Why do you think the faith healer wants to talk to her? Could she be ill? She looks healthy enough."
         "She's fine. Her life-force is touched with concern, but strong and free of negative energy. Rollins probably wants to quiz her about your medical history and habits, just like he questioned me. He's quite curious about you."
         "'Rollins'?"
         "That's just something I say to annoy him," Kung Lao explained, with a humorous grin. "No one knows his true name, only that he's a renegade from the Lin Kuei, a clan of Chinese assassins. He calls himself 'Sub-Zero'; you'll find out why soon enough."
         "You really think he can fix my curse?"
         "Next to Nightwolf, he's got a better chance than anyone. And if Rollins can't do it, at least you'll have a dandy excuse to be with Jun." The monk winked.
         "Lao, don't joke about her."
         "Seriously."
         "Then stop playing matchmaker."
         "Don't you like her?"
         "Of course I like her," Lei sighed, resting the back of his head against the wall. "She's been kind to me."
         "Well, there you have it. You like her, and she likes you."
         The cop closed his eyes and ruefully shook his head.
         "What, are you blind? She likes you."
         Lei glanced at the armed escort on the other side of the room, then lowered his voice and turned his head so that they could not read his lips. "She has a soft spot for anything sick, or hurting. That's all.
         "It's in her psyche profile, you know. Ever since she was a little girl, she's been taking pity on faltering wildlife and nursing it back to health. Birds with broken wings, bunny rabbits savaged by the neighborhood cat, dehydrating frogs, even insects. Her house was filled with strayed or abandoned pets, while she worked to find them homes. She failed a biology course because she refused to take part in the vivisections; otherwise, she was a straight-A student. She spent her spare time volunteering at hospitals and animal shelters. It's not her fault she's drawn to pain and suffering; she can't help it."
         Kung Lao moved to adjust the brim of his nonexistent hat; a frustrated grimace crossed his face when he felt empty air. "Jun likes you for who you are, not what you've been through. If you don't believe me, ask her."
         "If you don't believe me, ask yourself: why else did she stay engaged to Kazuya for as long as she did, eh? You heard how the sick bastard treated her."
         "Huh? Jun never said that her fiancé was Kazuya-"
         "You missed her verbal slip at my hearing."
         "-and even if it's true, so what?"
         "The last thing she needs now is to get involved with another screw-up. She knows it, I know it, and you're old enough to know it." The cop let his face fall forward into his hands. "Crap, I feel like I'm exploiting her. But I figure she'll get tired of me and move on soon enough."
         "You really ought to give yourself a break."
         "People who schedule their lives around their next drink don't deserve a break."
         "You're dry now, aren't you?"
         "Oh, sure I'm dry. I'm a freaking pillar of salt. Ever hear the expression 'dry drunk'?"
         "If you need more time to adjust to being sober, I'm sure they'll let you stay in the hospital for as long as you have to."
         "Wouldn't make a difference."
         Lei folded his arms and looked away. "Remember when I stayed at your temple, Lao?"
         "Uh-huh."
         "I said I'd come to study your martial arts-"
         "And you did."
         "-but that wasn't my real reason for being there. It was a freaking detox camp. I never told you that before, did I?"
         "It would explain why, during the first couple weeks, you were shaking, irritable, weakened, nauseous, sleepless, and talking to things no one else could see or hear."
         "I wasn't talking to them, I was telling them to shut up and leave me alone. Anyway, at first I thought my plan was working great. After a few months, I was fresh, eager, well-adjusted, ready to start my life over a new man, right? Right. I said goodbye, hiked off, and boarded the first plane home to Hong Kong. Twenty-four hours after it touched down on the runway..."
         Lei pantomimed rasing a glass to his lips and tilted his head back.
         "What drove you to it?"
         "Doesn't matter. Bad things aren't going to stop happening just because I want to quit the damn sauce. Take today. I've been here barely an hour, and I've been choked, reviled, and dropped from ten feet up."
         "I said I was sorry about that..."
         Lei tensed slightly upon hearing the sound of approaching footsteps.
         Jun entered the room. Goose bumps dotted her exposed forearms, and her skin had acquired a faint reddish tinge. She absently rubbed her stiffened fingers as she reclaimed her bracelet from Kung Lao.
         Crossing her lowered hands in front of herself, she made a demure bow and said, "Lei-san ga itsumo osewa ni natte-orimasu."
         "Kochira koso," the monk returned, with a dismissive flick of his wrist.
         Jun took Lei's hand. Her skin was cool, like a melting icicle. "Sub-Zero will see you now. Come on, this way."
         "Uh, what were you telling Lao about me, just now?"
         She flashed a captivating smile. "You're too pure to hear it."



         Jax surveyed the dusty wastelands as best he could, which was not very well at all. The overcast night sky offered no stars or moon to guide his vision. Murky darkness lent a ghostly beauty to these burnt-out plains, but it was a dead, empty elegance.
         "Why have you stopped?" Nightwolf asked, in a low, wary tone.
         "There's no way to stay on course without making a light, and that would increase our risk of being spotted, even with your cloaking magic."
         "Your mortal eyes may be blinded, but mine have the gift of the wolf. Leave the navigation to me. We shall arrive within forty-eight hours."
         "Is Kazuya that close?"
         "No, but night has fallen. It is now my time. Prepare yourself; we have not a moment to spare."
         Nightwolf crossed his arms in front of his chest. A dull reddish-green glow spontaneously outlined him, framing his hollow features against the sea of darkness. The whites of his eyes shined; their ivory radiance gradually turned the deep evergreen of conifer trees, pulsing with a life of their own. His hair tingled with static; individual strands extended from his head and swayed in the cool evening breeze.
         Nightwolf began to change.
         His clothing became a mask of viridescent energy, which blended with the reddish-grey hue of thick hair growing through his skin. The shaman fell to his hands and knees, then picked himself up on his toes and fingers. Bones lengthened and shortened. His upper and lower jaws protruded, while his forehead receded and his neck realigned. Rounded ears molded themselves into triangular points. Perhaps most eerily of all, he grew as he transformed, staring Jax in the eye even as he stood on all fours. He parted his elongated mouth in what might have been a smile, letting his long, pink tongue loll over a forest of pointed teeth.
         Jax knew that this red wolf the size of a horse was a friend, but he could almost swear it was laughing at him.
         "What are you waiting for?" rumbled the wolf. Its voice was a guttural collage of growls, forced through a throat not designed for human speech. "Get on my back. We have much ground to cover before dawn."



         Sub-Zero definitely lived up to his name.
         His "laboratory" was a rime-coated basement, more like the lair of an ice drake than a place of medicine. Frost made intricate designs on the concrete walls, and the floor was slick with a flimsy coat of black ice. Lei and Jun both had to tread with care on the slippery surface.
         Lei was relieved to encounter only a little light, provided mostly by soft aquamarine bulbs in the ceiling. Wheeled metal carts filled with tools, computers, and electrical devices were haphazardly scattered about the area. An omnipresent, unnatural cold was concentrated in here; it seeped through Lei's clothing and slowly worked its chill inward. The cop's hair, still damp from his recent bath, swiftly froze into stiff, spiky fragments. His breath became misty clouds.
         Sub-Zero took no notice of the numbing cold, even though his divided vest left his arms and most of his torso bare. Each strip of his vest was partitioned into eight raised squares of light blue cloth, complementing the royal blue of his leggings. His black hair was cut very short, in an inelegant but efficiently square trim. A long red scar bisected the right half of his face, stretching vertically from his forehead to the corner of his mouth. Though the mark crossed his eye, he appeared to retain fully binocular vision. His skin was unnaturally pale, close to albino. If not for the epicanthic folds creasing his icy blue eyes, he could have passed for Caucasoid instead of Chinese, and an anemic Caucasian at that.
         Lei spared Jun a glance. Her clothing was definitely too light for this place. The hairs on the back of her neck stood out. Her teeth were chattering; she folded her arms in front of herself and shivered.
         "Here. You may as well put this on, at least while we're down here." The cop shrugged off his blazer and extended it to her, trying to seem casual. "Sorry about the brandy stains, but I did have it cleaned, so at least the smell should be gone."
         "Don't you need it?"
         "Nah, I'm used to feeling cold."
         "Arigato gozaimasu." She slipped into the light coat. Its sleeves were long enough that she had to roll back the cuffs in order to free up her bracelet. "I guess Hong Kong must have some pretty harsh winters, ne?"
         "Huh?" Lei's eyes widened as he realized his lapse; he quickly recovered with, "Uh, yeah, they can be pretty... wintry."
         "Pardon?" Sub-Zero asked, looking up from the monitor of his hand-held computer. "Is the cold still bothering you? I've already toned it down specifically for your visit."
         "Thank you sensei, but I can get by," Jun assured, buttoning the oversized blazer. Lei nodded in agreement.
         "Ah, good." He keyed a sequence into his microcomputer, approached, and swept Lei from head to toe with the device. The air became noticeably more frigid.
         "You're the source of this cold, aren't you?" Lei deduced.
         "It's my Power. I am an Ice master." The acknowledgment was detached and clinical, as if he were talking about his blood type. "Would you please sit on the table there? I need to gather more data."
         "Uh, sure." Lei did as he'd been instructed.
         Sub-Zero puttered about, poking, prodding, and taking his patient's temperature with a variety of icy frigid metal instruments. He wrote the results into a little black book, then retrieved an empty syringe and promptly stuck it into the cop's upper arm.
         "Hey, wait a minute-"
         "Don't worry, it's a clean needle," Sub-Zero dismissed after the fact, raising the syringe's plunger in order to draw a sample of Lei's blood. He discharged the rusty liquid in a vial and scanned it with his microcomputer. "By the way, I appreciate your coming. I've never had the chance to study a case of demonic possession before. You're making an enormous contribution to Science."
         "And mother always said I'd never amount to anything. Guess I showed her." Lei involuntarily shrank back from a tiny flashlight Sub-Zero shone into his crimson-streaked eyes, making them glitter blood-red.
         Sub-Zero set down his flashlight and brushed aside Lei's bangs, in order to examine the midnight ellipsis staining his forehead. The scientist held his microcomputer up to the blackened skin and thoughtfully pondered its readout.
         "Jun has been kind enough to brief me about the curse Kazuya put on you. Has it caused any ill effects besides the shape-shifting?"
         "Well... there's the nightmares. They've got to be a direct symptom. I used to have problems with bad dreams before, but never this consistently. Or vividly. I can't stay asleep for more than a few hours unless I'm drunk out of my mind, and even then, the nightmares return once I've slept the high off."
         "Can you describe these nightmares?"
         "Eh..." Lei ran one hand through his ice-spiked hair and swallowed.
         "Ii desu," Jun soothed. "Watashi-tachi wa anata no tomodachi desu."
         "All right, all right, I'll tell you," the cop resignedly acceded. "If you think it will help with a cure."
         In a disconnected, aimless tone of voice, he described the brutally violent dreams that plagued him: being beaten until he spit up blood; the derogatory insults and the physical agony; fearing for his life and the inability to fight back. He went into especial detail of one recurring nightmare, in which he plummeted to death by drowning, even as he saw his lifeblood mix with the stream at the bottom of a chasm.
         Sub-Zero took meticulous notes. Jun turned ashen pale with horror. She unconsciously clutched at the blazer, pulling its front tight.
         "This is what you suffer every night? Doomo sumimasen," she whispered, sorrowfully.
         "It's not that bad," Lei hastily reassured. "Only dreams, you know? The effects fade as soon as I wake up. Anyway, I have a theory about them. Kid-"
         "I am not a kid."
         "-you've said that when you used to run into Kazuya, he'd often be bruised or have other injuries, and he'd make excuses about them. Right?"
         "Well, yes. He..."
         Her voice trailed off as the insight dawned upon her. "They're not dreams at all, are they? They're memories. Kazuya's memories."
         "Bingo. I think I'm reliving what his father put him through when he was growing up. In the chasm nightmare, I feel the rocks cutting into me right where Kazuya is scarred. It's got to be a replay of when old man Heihachi pitched his son into a ravine."
         Jun's ginger eyes became misty, as her mind reached back past the years. "Heihachi used to frighten me. I rarely saw him, and when I did I was always quick to get out of his way. He never spoke to me, yet I remember feeling something cruel and merciless about him. It was an instinct I didn't dare put into words. He seethed, like a volcano that isn't completely dormant."
         She hugged herself in sympathetic fear. "How could he do such terrible things to his own son?"
         "Maybe Heihachi went through the same hell when he was growing up. Or maybe he was born twisted. Either way, there's no doubt in my mind he taught Kazuya everything Kazuya knows about cruelty. It's an old cycle: sick parent hurts child, child grows up sick and hurts others."
         "But Kazuya wasn't like that..."
         "Oh, really?"
         "I mean it. He wasn't the type of person who would want to harm-"
         "Tell that to everyone he's murdered."
         Jun fell silent.
         Sub-Zero wrapped a sphygmomanometer around Lei's arm, just above the elbow. He rapidly compressed the device's balloon-like nozzle attached to rubber tubing, making the wrappings press tightly against Lei's skin, then paused to record Lei's blood pressure.
         As he worked, he commented, "I can prescribe something to help you get a full night's sleep. You've mentioned that using alcohol as a tranquilizer had a beneficial side effect, so perhaps if I substituted a harmless sedative-hypnotic-"
         "No," Lei forcefully refused. "No drugs. I'm through with poisoning myself."
         "I wouldn't prescribe you any addictive-"
         "I said no drugs. Not one freaking herb. What else have you got?"
         Sub-Zero wordlessly plucked a frost-coated, two-dimensional object hanging from the icy wall of his chamber. Its frame consisted of willow-thin twigs bent in a circle. Moderately slender white threads curled inside the loop, crossing one another in the pinwheel pattern of a spider web. Suspended in the center of the web were a bead and a small, orange-red feather.
         "What is it?"
         "Nightwolf calls it a dream-catcher. It's supposed to help one control and remember dreams. I haven't found any scientific or mystical basis to its function, but who knows?"
         Jun took the item from him and hung it on a clip attached to the pocket of her cutoffs. "We'll put it over the door to your quarters. If it doesn't help, there are a few more spells I could try."
         "Well, that's very nice, but the nightmares aren't a big deal. I just want to stop turning into a freaking killing machine. So, can you remove the curse?" Lei earnestly asked.
         Sub-Zero unwrapped the sphygmomanometer from the cop's arm. "Right now, I'm still trying to understand it. If I could just get a closer look at that scar Kazuya put on your chest, it would help."
         Lei sighed, and unbuttoned his shirt.
         Sub-Zero scrutinized the diagonal scar with his microcomputer. He retrieved a rubber-tipped reflex hammer from one of his tables, then used it to lightly tap the blackened skin over Lei's sternum.
         "Does that hurt?"
         "No, not really."
         The scientist put down his instrument and made a brief notation in his black book. "Now, you say that you become possessed only when attacked and injured, correct?"
         "So far, but it isn't consistent. I've been choked or gashed at times, and nothing happened. On the way in here, a wolf chewed up my arm without setting it off."
         "Yes, Jun told me about that. I've formulated a theory based on my readings. It needs verification, though. Close your eyes. Don't pay attention to your surroundings; just relax and empty your mind."
         "Why?"
         "Please. This is for Science."
         "Whatever." Lei obeyed.
         With his thoughts purposefully turned inward, Lei did not recognize the whistle of moving air in time to dodge. A whipping, open-handed slap struck his cheek, forcefully twisting his head and knocking him off the table. He landed on his shoulder with a wheezing grunt of pain.
         "What are you doing!?" Jun angrily targeted her bracelet upon Sub-Zero.
         The scientist's brow furrowed distastefully. "It was necessary, to test my hypothesis. Now put that away."
         Lei rolled into a defensive crouch, growling, "What the hell was that for?"
         "Have you noticed that you aren't changing shape?"
         The cop studied his hands. They remained quite ordinary; his recently trimmed fingernails showed no evidence of blood or demonic claws. He returned his wary gaze to the scientist. "Go on."
         "Your scar tissue carries an exceptionally high-density network of afferent nerves. Jun tells me that a Centaurian triggered your curse when he hit your torso. Think now: every time you've transformed, has it been in response to being cut or struck hard enough to hurt somewhere on your scar?"
         Lei rested his chin on one hand and pondered the matter.
         "Now that you mention it - the first time, I was stabbed here." He indicated the portion of his scar on his high upper right chest, near the shoulder. "Every time since then... yeah. Yeah, I think you're right."
         "I believe that physical pain keyed to the pigmented tissue, and only the pigmented tissue, is the trigger. It sparks a chain reaction. But to be certain, I'd have to deliberately manifest your curse and study the results."
         "What?" Lei protectively covered his chest with both arms. "No! Are you crazy? Do you want to be freaking ripped limb from limb? Because that's what happens whenever-"
         "Don't be so distraught; you'll be kept under complete control. I simply need to gather data on your shape-shifting-"
         "What part of no don't you understand?" Jun demanded. She tapped her bracelet; it beeped ominously.
         Sub-Zero tsked. "Put that toy down, Kazama. I won't ask again."
         "Hold it. Time out." Lei made a T-symbol with his hands. "Your experiments be damned, can you cure my curse or can't you?"
         "I'll tell you what I've learned about your physiology so far.
         "You are the most unique being I've seen this side of the Outworld. The cellular makeup of your eyes is radically altered; in addition to quadruple the average density of rods and cones, there are cells in your retina that I can't identify, and you've gained tapeta. Those are reflective membranes found in animals such as cats or cows. It's the tapeta that make your eyes glow whenever light is shined directly upon them. No wonder you don't care for bright light; the intensity of clear summer day would probably be enough to blind you. I recommend carrying a pair of sunglasses.
         "Your bones have been toughened; I'll need a marrow sample to determine more, but sonar confirms something I had a hard time believing in the first place: a Centaurian punch did not shatter your skeleton. Your internal organs also appear mutated. They're more compact, and some are coated with extraneous sheaths of muscle.
         "But even though you may be twenty-six, you have the liver of a forty-year-old man. It's suffered serious abuse, and I doubt the cause is any curse. It's a good thing you're quitting the alcohol, because keep it up and sooner or later you'll start bleeding on the inside.
         "Your entire system carries substantially higher than average traces of epinephrine, adrenocorticotropic hormone, melanocyte stimulating hormone, and lesser signs of many other chemical messengers, some of which I don't recognize. I think they are instrumental to fomenting your transformations, though your shape-shifting is probably not an entirely physical process. That is a supposition put forth simply on the established fact that most lycanthropy involves elements of mystic Power, primarily to sustain one's life while the composition of one's cells is warped. In conclusion-"
         "I'm not human anymore, am I?" Lei quietly remarked.
         Sub-Zero's icy eyes clouded, and he thoughtfully rested his chin in one hand. "I'm afraid I don't have any samples of your DNA from before you were cursed with which to compare-"
         "It was a rhetorical question, dammit."
         "How can you say such a thing?" Jun burst out. "Of course you're human, Lei! Humanity isn't some medical test readout; it's what's in your heart and soul!"
         Lei cringed from her exclamation, and shivered. "If you say so..."
         "I don't just say it, I know it. Who you are is not decided by any message on a computer screen."
         "Eh, I'm not arguing with you, okay? You're right; it's what's on the inside that counts. So let's get back to the subject at hand."
         Lei locked his mahogany eyes with Sub-Zero's. "Well?"
         "I'm sorry. I've barely started to comprehend the mechanism of what makes shape-shifters transform. If you'd only reconsider letting me monitor one of your conversions firsthand-"
         "When hell freezes over."
         The scientist shrugged helplessly. "I can promise you I'll be investigating these readouts for weeks to come."
         "Damn." Lei's fingers curled into fists; he bowed his head and willed his latest episode of shaking to go away. "I knew I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up. Knew it."
         "At least take this." Sub-Zero moved a pile of clutter on one of his tabes to free a dull brown, full-torso vest. It was made of several layers of nylon cloth, and complemented with light padding.
         "This is high-quality textile armor, very difficult to penetrate; it might offer some protection against your curse being accidentally set off. Unfortunately, it can only cushion impacts so much, and anything that strikes hard enough to bruise will probably affect you in a bad way."
         "Xièxie." Lei put on the vest and buttoned his shirt over it; the task took three times as long as normal, due to the cold that made his fingers stiff. "And thanks for your trouble. I only wish you had as much fun as I did. Come on kid, let's ditch this freezer."
         "Wait," Sub-Zero enjoined. "I'm not the healer or the psychologist Nightwolf is, but I can still help with your other problems."
         "Like what?"
         "To start, you can take comfort in the fact that you're not the only alcoholic in Sanctuary. There are others here, learning to arrest their addictions one day at a time. They hold a group support meeting twice a week; I can put you in touch with-"
         "Just what I need. A hangout full of other drunks." Acrid sarcasm discolored the statement.
         "Actually, it is considered terrible form to show up drunk at a meeting. Anyone who does is immediately expelled until sober."
         "Yeah, well, thanks but no thanks."
         "There's also the matter of your abdominal cramping."
         Lei became a shade paler. "I don't have cramps."
         "You can stop pretending," Jun softly suggested. "I've seen you do this too many times, including when we entered the church." She pressed her forearm into her gut just below the ribs, in a parody of his behavior.
         "Aw geez, not again. Look, I'm sorry about that; it's just a bad habit that gets the better of me sometimes."
         "It is not only the action. On occasion your face and voice appear distressed, like something is horribly wrong. You don't have to go on this way. Whatever is hurting you, we can make it better, if you'll only let us."
         "I keep telling you, kid, it's nothing."
         "As far as I know, you're speaking the literal truth," Sub-Zero dryly agreed. "I haven't found any disease, injury, or condition that would cause an immediate problem. Should you be experiencing pain, though, I'm sure we can find something to alleviate it. If analgesics are out, then perhaps lying down with a heating pad would help, or acupuncture, or physical therapy-"
         "Will you give it a rest? I'm fine, I'm perfectly okay! My only problem is turning into a monster; when you find out how to stop that let me know, otherwise leave me alone!"
         "As you wish, but there's one final matter to address. If you remember, you've recently been bitten by a wild animal. You'll have to be inoculated against rabies and tetanus before I can let you walk out of here."
         <Just like Michelle said,> the cop muttered to himself.
         "Nurse Seung Mina has been preparing the vaccines. Jun, would you be so kind as to fetch her? I think you can find her on the first floor, medical supply wing. We'll wait here."
         "I'm sorry sensei, but I'm charged with guarding against Lei's curse. I can't leave him alone."
         "I'll temporarily accept the responsibility."
         "Go on, kid," Lei encouraged. "It'll do you good to get out of this ice cave."
         Jun looked at Sub-Zero, and thoughtfully laced her reddened fingers. She closed her eyes, feeling the slight movement of the cold air currents and the icy whispers of the frost spirits. They hinted of isolation, a callously disengaged existence, but also deep-seated honor and respect for life. She was left with the conviction that she could trust this cold scientist, even though she didn't particularly like him.
         Her eyelids opened and she nodded once. She started to offer her bracelet to Sub-Zero, but he refused with a brusque gesture.
         "Have you forgotten who duplicated that microchip for you? If I needed a copy I would be wearing it. My Power is sufficient."
         Jun bowed to him, returned Lei's blazer, and departed, softly closing the insulated door behind her.
         "She's gone. You can speak freely now," the scientist calmly stated.
         "About what?" Lei replied, without missing a beat.
         Sub-Zero set his microcomputer down, and briefly summoned a shimmering blue nimbus to one hand.
         "My Power over Ice includes an extreme sensitivity to temperature changes and humidity - in settings, or in people. You might call me a living polygraph. I imagine you've used such devices in your line of work, haven't you?"
         "Rarely. Lie detectors are nearly always inadmissable in court. So choose your accusations carefully."
         "It isn't my place to accuse. I'm here to help, but there's only so much I can do if you won't cooperate."
         "I took a slap in the face from you, what more do you want?"
         "The truth. I have trouble interpreting the finer details of other people's biorhythms, and you're no ordinary person, but one thing is clear: when you say you're 'perfectly okay,' you're lying through your teeth. You are suffering from chronic pain."
         Lei's voice dropped to a graveyard whisper, so hushed that the frozen mist in his breath stayed longer than the vibrations on air.
         "'Chronic' isn't quite the right word. My headaches are 'chronic.' This is 'constant.' Sometimes I close my eyes and wish it would go away, just for a little while."
         He shuddered and bent slightly forward, folding his forearms underneath his ribs. "Don't tell the kid, all right? She'd only feel sorry for me, and that wouldn't do either of us any good."
         "I still don't understand the cause - but you already know what it is, don't you?"
         "It's nothing. Nothing any doctor can help with. So shut up and forget about it; that's what I try to do."
         "Is it a terminal disease? I've had success in treating such things before."
         "I said shut up! Talking about it only makes it worse!" Lei snapped, wincing. "Besides, I already told you."
         "Did you?"
         "Yeah. I'm not human. I'm not even sure I'm still alive... but if I were dead, I really don't think it would hurt so much."
         "You are alive. You have lungs that breathe, and a heart that pumps fresh blood through your arteries. You're not one of the dead."
         The ethereal chill in Sub-Zero's voice deepened. "I've met the dead, and looked into the unfeeling abyss of their hollow eyes. Don't wish you could join them."
         "Who's wishing?" Lei shook his head in denial. "You have no idea how terrified I am of death. More than the need for revenge, more than the idea that I can do any good with the strength I have left, I think it's the fear that keeps me going."



         Wang meditated.
         Despair had engulfed him for many months, ever since he'd been defeated, blinded, and shut inside this cell. He'd come dangerously close to losing all faith. But now, he knew there was a chance. The world could yet be set right, and good people were fighting to do exactly that.
         His time would come. He would be free. Just a few more days, and they would be here.
         Just a few more days.
         The old man took advantage of his recently lengthened chains to stretch out his arms and legs. Months of being held spread-eagled against the cell wall had atrophied his muscles, but that was healing. Over the past couple days, he'd unobtrusively accelerated the recovery process with mild exercise and judicious applications of his Chi. When the others came to get him, he would be able to run on his own, and fight if there were need. Lee may have refused to release him, yet by giving him the freedom to move, the lad had unknowingly increased his chances of a successful escape.
         The door to Wang's cell burst open; its back hit the prison wall with a loud slam. Wang's head snapped up in surprise; he was certain that only a few hours had passed since Lee's perfunctory daily checkup.
         "Lee, my boy, is that you?"
         Even as the old man uttered the words, he knew it was someone else. The newcomer's aura felt too cruel, stained with the ugly residue of those who took pleasure in hurting others. It might have been Shimada the jailer, except that it lacked the sickly, brittle texture of Shimada's cowardice. Nor was it like the jailer to be so rough on the prison furnishings; he saved his brutality exclusively for helpless people. That left any number of the Mishima Syndicate's employees, but there was one who came here more often than most - or at least, who used to, before Lee had issued his edict against torture.
         "Pipe down, you blind fool. No one can hear you."
         Hearing the voice clinched it. Wang had come to know this pitiable individual almost as well as Shimada, during the long, hard months. It was Mori, the animal keeper.
         "I've had a rotten day. Alex nearly bit my arm off, Roger's going stir-crazy, and Kuma's frothing at the mouth."
         "So, once again you wish to take out your frustrations on me? Mori, I must warn you to stay back. The shadow of doom is cast over you. If you have at me again, I fear it will be your end."
         Wang slipped into a defensive crouch, keeping his back to the cell wall.
         The animal keeper only chuckled, a sadistic, all too familiar sound. "You really think you can kill me, you feeble old bastard?"
         "I do not threaten. I prophesy."
         "Oh, yeah? Let's see you predict this!"
         A tanned, salted leather thong lashed Wang's cheek, simultaneous with the taunt. The whip cut a deep blister in his flesh, inflamed by the salt. Wang's enervated legs struggled to hold his weight as he fumbled to stand up. He did not fight for his balance; instead, he felt for it, reaching out with his mind as well as his hands. Again, the lash was coming for him; a windy whistle alerted him to its target. He shifted footing and turned sideways. The strap missed his mouth and slapped the mortared stone behind him.
         Wang knew the whip was almost certainly longer than the reach of his chains. Thus, the only way to stop the assault was to stop the weapon. When the lash stretched for his throat, he ducked and raised his arm instead, allowing the whip to wrap itself around his wrist, then yanked. Mori stumbled forward from the sudden pull; he had not expected the old man to fight back so fiercely.
         "Why, you-" Mori's labored breathing became a sharp exhalation, and his shoulder joint creaked as he swung his hamlike right fist in a heavy punch.
         Wang reacted with the speed of thought, catching Mori's fist in both hands. Using the strength of his whole body, Wang wrenched the animal keeper's arm back on itself and pushed him into the floor, on his side. The old man stepped over him in a narrow straddle, low to the ground with the front knee bent and the back leg stretched far behind, locking Mori's bent elbow over his own thigh. Wang exacerbated the stress on the trapped joint until he felt the necessary crack of broken bone, then let go.
         "You - you broke my arm!" Mori's aura burned with anger, but also pain and trauma. The old man could feel his shock, almost palpable against the dank coolness of the cell. Mori flailed and straggled out of reach.
         "Take your weapon and go. May the gods have mercy on your soul." Wang uncoiled the whip from around his wrist, heedless of the raw, inflamed streaks where it had cut into his skin. He tossed the limp lash at Mori's feet.
         Mori snarled, a sound less human than those of the animals he kept. He snatched the lash with his good arm and bolted from the cell, slamming the door behind him. Only when he was long gone did Wang sigh, slump against the wall, and gradually sink to the floor in exhaustion.
         Just a few more days...


End of Chapter 7: Sanctuary