ASHES OF THE PHOENIX
written by Victar, e-mail email@example.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
-Kansas, Under the
Lei looked at his palm. It still tingled from Chief Thunder's
"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
"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
"Just a moment. I need to speak to - ah, there he is. Officer
Fujioka, wait a minute!"
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
"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?"
"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
"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
"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?"
"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
"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
"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
"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
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,
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"I am more curious to learn what you are holding
"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
"Drink and gambling are neither holy nor unholy. They
"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
"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
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
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.
"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
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
"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
Lei started to reach for the door handle, then hesitated.
"Uh, after you?"
"I will not turn my back upon you,
"I have a name, you know. If you have trouble
pronouncing it, you can always call me Super
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.
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
"-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
"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
The cop shook his head.
"Lei please, talk to me. I can't help if I don't know what's
"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
"Nî hâo mêi," Lei whispered,
"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,
"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,
"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
"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
"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
She snorted and refused to make eye contact.
"Please. If you're going to hate me, at least give me a
"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
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
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
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.
"You could have warned me you were going to do that,"
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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.
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
"It isn't a waste, and I am at full power. I can borrow
strength from Sanctuary itself if I need
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
"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
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
"You're going to be in for it when he wakes up, aren't
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
"Go ahead. Rub it in. Just because you were born
with the looks of a movie star."
"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
"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
"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
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
"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,
<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
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
"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,
"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
"C'mon, admit it. You've lost your edge. Jun toasted you
without working up a sweat, didn't
"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."
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
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
"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."
"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."
"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
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
"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
"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?"
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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.
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.
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Ii desu," Jun soothed. "Watashi-tachi wa anata no
"All right, all right, I'll tell you," the cop resignedly
acceded. "If you think it will help with a
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
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
"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
"But Kazuya wasn't like that..."
"I mean it. He wasn't the type of person who would want
"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
"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
"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
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
"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."
"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
"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
Lei rested his chin on one hand and pondered the
"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
Sub-Zero tsked. "Put that toy down, Kazama. I won't ask
"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
"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
"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
"I don't just say it, I know it. Who you are is not decided
by any message on a computer
"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.
"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
"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."
"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
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
"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
"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
"Nurse Seung Mina has been preparing the vaccines. Jun,
would you be so kind as to fetch
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,
closing the insulated door behind her.
"She's gone. You can speak freely now," the scientist
"About what?" Lei replied, without missing a beat.
Sub-Zero set his microcomputer down, and briefly
summoned a shimmering blue nimbus to
"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
"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
"I took a slap in the face from you, what more do you
"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
"I said shut up! Talking about it only makes it worse!" Lei
snapped, wincing. "Besides, I
already told 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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
Just a few more days...
End of Chapter 7: Sanctuary