ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 8: Nature Walk


   "Look around at the other species. Most of them are much stupider than humans are, yet they have their male-female relationships all worked out. Yet here we are, humans, the most sophisticated species on Earth, having evolved to the point where many of us have satellite dishes on our lawns, and we have less savvy, in terms of our relationships, than invertebrates."
         -Dave Barry's Guide to Marriage and/or Sex


         Jun glanced at Lei as they climbed the winding stairs out of Sub-Zero's frozen basement. Lei rubbed his left inner elbow, sore from recently administered vaccinations. Stressful tightness pulled at his face.
         "Won't you stay a little longer?" Sub-Zero urged, dogging their heels. "There's a battery of tests I still want to run on you. When do you think you could return?"
         "When you have a freaking CLUE how to fix my curse!" Lei snapped, storming into the sickbed room above.
         Jun bit her lower lip. Though she hadn't known the cop for very long, it seemed unlike him to lose his temper. On the other hand, Sub-Zero's 'treatment' had been a literal slap in the face.
         "How am I to devise a cure without understanding the affliction? I don't comprehend your aversion to letting me observe your shape-shifting in a controlled environment-"
         "Rollins, enough. Lei's had a bad day," Kung Lao calmly interrupted, from his hospital bed.
         "Stop calling me that. You know I can't stand that," the scientist automatically countered.
         Kung Lao only smirked.
         "Well, so be it. Wulong, you know where to find me when you change your mind." Sub-Zero disappeared down the path to his icy lair.
         "Dónde está...?"
         The question was feeble and groggy. It came from the bed shielded by three privates and a second lieutenant, directly across from Kung Lao. Lei recognized the voice, despite the mechanical rattling sound that underscored it. Curious, the cop approached.
         "Está aquí. Me lo puedo sentir," the patient groaned, fearfully.
         "'Scuse me, but you can't come too close," said the second lieutenant - 'Sparky,' wasn't it? "Lieutenant Blade is having us watch this guy, for everybody's protection."
         "How's he doing?" Lei asked.
         "The operation went smoothly enough, and Sub-Zero upgraded his condition from critical to stable. He's been slipping in and out of consciousness for a while now."
         "El diablo ha venido para mí! Necesito una arma ahora mismo!" The patient sat bolt upright.
         "Ssh. It's okay," Jun soothed, stepping forward. Now it was she who blocked Lei's view of the convalescent. "You're safe now."
         "No chica, hay gran peligro detrás de ti!" A gaunt, tan finger pointed between the guards, at Lei.
         "La chica ya sabe de mi maldición," the cop replied, slowly spreading his empty hands. "Ella es mi guardia, si lo puedes creer."
         Jun's eyebrows went up. "You can speak his language?"
         "Spanish? More or less. Picked up the basics in Chile, when I was studying under an old master... eh, it's a long story."
         "Why are you all just STANDING there!?" shrieked the patient. His piercing wail carried a heavy Latino accent.
         "Take it easy," Sparky suggested, adjusting the hold on his rifle. "Calm down before you blow a gasket, mask boy."
         "My name is Kabal." The resolution was firm and determined, rooted in bitterness. "I no longer answer to any other."
         "I'm glad you've recovered enough to speak," Jun said, with a gentle smile. "You were very close to death for a long time. Do you remember us?"
         "Sí, I remember you. Un poco." Kabal took a deep breath, punctuated by an artificial, wheezing rustle. "You were singing. You took the pain away, and sent me to a land of dreams. But that monster behind you - Virgen María salve a te, do you really know what he is?"
         "I know Lei isn't a monster."
         "Por qué esperas?" Kabal's protest became a high-pitched whine as he directed his plea to Sparky. "You've got a gun; use it! Shoot the devil before it murders us all!"
         "If you don't cool down, I'm gonna have you shot up with tranks," the second lieutenant warned.
         Kabal's hands clenched the bedsheets tightly. "Damn you, diablo! You may have fooled them, but I know what you are! The second you reveal yourself, I'm going to kill you!"
         "How can you say such horrible things?" Jun burst out, putting her hands on her hips. "If not for Lei, we wouldn't have found you in time."
         "'In time'? This is 'in time'? Look at me, chica! Look at what I've become!"
         Kabal leaned forward. Jun clasped her hands; her head and shoulders drooped sadly. Lei edged a little to the side, enough to get his first solid glimpse of this emphatic young man.
         A ghoulish mask covered his entire face. It formed a grey steel dome over his head; long trails of his braided black hair hung behind it. Two rounded, protruding portals over his eyes had such thick glass that they hid the color of his irises. A triangular, slotted piece of plastic fit over his mouth and nose; corrugated tubing connected the mouthpiece to succession of metal containers hooked into a belt around his waist. The wheezing sound that accompanied his breath came from the extravagant machine attached to him. Though there had to be a human face lurking under that alien configuration of metal and plastic, Lei could see nothing of it.
         "You're still alive," the cop stated, quietly.
         "And that disappoints you, no?" Kabal's rigid mask could not convey expression, but contempt and boiling hatred soaked through his voice.
         "No. No, I-" Lei swallowed, nervously. "The mutants were about to finish you off. I tried to save you."
         "Only so you could have the pleasure of killing me yourself!"
         "Nn-no, that's not-"
         "No me digas mentiras! I saw what you became: a devil that lives only for slaughter. You tore off half my face, and you would have ripped out my lungs if the she-mutant hadn't beaten you to it!"
         "I'm sorry," Lei whispered, bowing his head and shamefully covering his eyes with one hand.
         "Don't pretend to shed crocodile tears-"
         "That is enough, Kabal." The command came from Kung Lao, of all people. He had risen from his bed, with the sheet wrapped over his hospital gown like a toga. The monk stared into and through the unfathomable eye-lenses of Kabal's alien mask.
         "You are one of the gods' Chosen now, and you must learn to bear the appropriate obligations. No matter what side effect Lei's curse had, the fact remains that he did save you and you do owe him. You also owe us. To mistreat one of your rescuers is to mistreat us all. Is this truly the course you intend to follow through your new life?"
         "Tú no sabes nada de mi vida," Kabal muttered, but he broke eye contact as he said it.
         Jun softly cleared her throat. "I'm sorry we couldn't restore your lungs. Healing magic is not all-powerful. It only speeds and supplements what the body can do on its own. At least with the respirator Sub-Zero made for you, you can live a long and full life. Isn't that something to be happy for?"
         "I don't want happiness. Only revenge." Kabal shook his head. "Lo siento chica; I am confused. Qué loco decided that one unarmed girl should guard that devil, while four men with guns watch me?"
         "Lieutenant Sonya Blade, and you'll speak of her with respect," Sparky growled.
         "Blade? The Sonya Blade? Dios mío!"
         "Pardon miss," one of the privates drawled to Jun, "not that it's any of my business, but if you're supposed to be keeping an eye on Wulong, he just went out that door."
         "Hm?" Jun turned her head in time to see the door out of the patient's hall swing closed. "Lei, wait! Where are you going?"
         Catching up to him was easy. He'd come to a stop on the portal's other side, frozen by intense light beyond.
         "You mustn't walk away from me like that," Jun chided, worriedly. "I'm supposed to protect against your curse, remember?"
         "...sorry..." The word was a dismal aspiration. Brilliant ceiling lamps basked Lei in a harsh white glow. He shivered and recoiled, slowly sinking to one knee. The piercing light almost seemed to crumble him, like a statue made of sand.
         "Are you okay?"
         "Just thinking." Lei hung his head dejectedly, causing his sable hair to fan in front of his face. "Kabal is right. When I shape-shift, I turn into a... a killer. No one knows how to remove my curse. Maybe I am too dangerous for this whole escort thing. Maybe I should be locked up instead."
         "What good would that do anyone?"
         "Huh?"
         "Didn't you come here to train our fighters? How can you help us if you're put away in a cell? You might as well have stayed in the sewers."
         "I... guess you're right."
         "Give Kabal time. He does have reason to be grateful to you, even though he won't admit it. Hopefully, Kung Lao and I can help him see the truth."
         "Yeah, I overheard you two defending me. You really shouldn't waste your breath like that."
         "It isn't a waste."
         "No, you don't understand. I didn't rescue that guy because he was a saint, or because I thought he would appreciate it. I did it because it was the right thing.
         "I'm police. Been one for eight years now, and you don't stay if you're looking for gratitude. The taxpayers' idea of 'thanks' is to gut your budget. They double your patrol area; then you're told 'there's never a cop around when you need one.' Your firepower's a joke compared to what the gangs are packing. You could cut the crime rate in half, and you'll still get blamed for the other half, like you're the bleeding criminals. There's no point in getting upset over it, though."
         She brushed the ash-grey forelock in his tresses to the side, looking soulfully into his exposed mahogany eyes. "Your job must be very hard, sometimes."
         "Eh, it's not that bad. The hours are okay, the pay's kind of nice, and the retirement plan sure beats the mob's." He squinted and shook his hair so that it fell forward, once again screening out some of the blinding light.
         "Are you sure you're feeling all right?"
         Don't say 'fine,' Lei thought to himself, carefully keeping his face hidden. If you say 'fine,' she'll know you're lying.
         "Lei?"
         "Same as ever, really. Just one thing I'd like to ask you, though."
         "Yes?"
         "Which way is the exit? I can't see a blasted thing."



         Lee's dream is filled with darkness.
         It is thick and heavy, slowly suffocating him. Tearing and kicking, he fights against its press, yet the effort only further depletes the breath in his lungs. The inexorable curtain claims him an inch at a time. Fear affects him, but at least it is not the blind, unreasoning panic that renders him helpless in Kazuya's presence. No, this is merely the fear of death. It can be controlled, if not conquered.
         You murdered me!
         The scream is not sound, nor made by a living voice. Its waves of fury and madness pound upon Lee's head, impressing their demand for vengeance.
         I had to. There was no other way, he thinks, grimly clinging to the words. They are critical. If he stops believing them, even for a second, he knows he will succumb to the darkness forever.
         A catastrophic wail shatters the blackness into sharp pieces, which cut into his skin like knives. The jagged fragments embed themselves in his arms, throat, and heart. Choking on pain and shock, he sees something beyond the abyss.
         Eyes.
         Dark Mane's cinnamon-brown eyes, framed with long lashes and flashing with unfulfilled hatred.
         Lee wakes up.



         "Uu-ahgh!"
         The silver-haired devil's shriek became a rattling cough, as he rolled off his stiff mattress and flopped on the ground. His skin was sweaty. He could still feel dream-shards stabbing his heart, and the wrathful glare of those eyes.
         "Kusou..." Lee reached into the back pocket of his vinyl slacks, groping for a flattened cigarette pack and a book of matches. Thick fighting gloves hampered the action; these past few days, Lee had become so distraught that he'd taken to sleeping in his clothes. He dropped half the menthols before successfully withdrawing one and getting it to burn. Fervent craving made his hands tremble as he raised it; its ashes spilled dirty trails on his purple shirt.
         The tobacco's familiar taste was not enough to soothe his nerves. It was as though those eyes remained directly in front of him, staring through all his weaknesses and shriveling his soul. If he didn't get out of this dark room, and fast, he just might scream again. Lee stumbled out of his sleeping quarters and walked briskly down the hall. At times like this, only movement could calm him. His cowboy-boot soles rapped soundly on the hard floor.
         What is this disgusted, miserable sensation that fills me? Guilt? I haven't felt this wretched in nearly six years.
         It was late enough that most of the Mishima syndicate slumbered. Not that it made any difference. Awake or asleep, there was only one person in the entire conglomerate that Lee could truly talk to.
         Ganryu was not in his quarters. Nor was the sumotori to be found in his training hall, the baths, or the outdoor grounds. Perhaps it would have been quicker to have servants conduct the search, but the silver-haired devil preferred to do such things on his own.
         Lee mulled over the unusual situation. It was out of character for Gan-kun to suddenly disappear, especially since Kazuya all but destroyed the sumotori's conscious mind. Ganryu had barely recovered enough to comprehend and obey simple orders. But Lee hadn't given him any orders, other than to take care of himself. Could Kazuya have demanded something from his former chief bodyguard?
         Upon thinking about his brother, the silver-haired devil could not repress an automatic shiver. There was only one place left for Lee to look. If he went, he might not necessarily encounter Kazuya. If he didn't go, he'd be pacing the syndicate's corridors until dawn.
         "Shimatta." The decision was not an easy one; Lee's feet made it for him, carrying him toward Kazuya's antechamber.



         Lei blinked as he stumbled out of the church, into the welcome nighttime darkness. Sanctuary had outdoor lamps, but they were few and widely spaced. The cop breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
         Jun stretched her arms and rolled her neck, easing the tension that had begun to gather in her muscles. She dipped into a low stance, with most of the weight on her bent front leg, and twisted her upper body in a circle. Her movements were perfectly fluid, with natural grace. The gentle twilight only enhanced her innate radiance.
         Damn, she was beautiful. Her fiancé had been such a fool to drive her away...
         What am I thinking? Lei suddenly demanded of himself. He tried to avert his eyes, but they refused to move; he had to shield them with one hand instead.
         Not this again. She does not need it from some worthless shape-shifting demon alcoholic. It's probably not for real, anyway; just an overreaction because she doesn't despise me on sight, like she should-
         "Doko-e ikimashoo?" Jun's honeydew voice melted through his self-directed tirade, leaving him in a momentary state of confusion.
         "Huh?"
         "I'd like to show you around Sanctuary, unless you're feeling too sleepy."
         "Eh, me? Nah, I've always been a night person. But, um, I don't think you are? I mean, maybe you should use that bracelet, call up someone else to take over before-"
         Before you confess how attractive you find her? whispered a sibilant voice in his head.
         "-before you tire yourself out."
         "Baka," Jun returned, with an amused smile. "I know my own stamina. Now, is there anything in Sanctuary you especially want to see?"
         "Uh..." Lei shut his eyes, under the pretense of rubbing them. It was much easier to push back all the troublesome thoughts when he couldn't get a clear look at their catalyst. "Well, if I'm here to teach people, then isn't there someplace where I should go and teach?"
         "You mean, like the White Lotus Temple? Usually the lessons are from sunup to sundown. I doubt you'd find anyone there at this hour, except for Stryker." Her bubbly enthusiasm subsided as she said the name.
         "'Stryker'? Who's he?"
         "One of the Chosen." A sad, wistful look crossed her face. "That's all I know for certain. I think he might have been a police officer, once." She shrugged, listlessly.
         "Really? I'd like to meet the guy."
         "Well, he isn't hard to find." Jun glanced away. "Is it okay to stop by the barracks first? We need to hang up your dream-catcher." She tapped the spiderweb-pattern craft clipped to her shorts pocket.
         "Um..."
         "Kochira desu. Issho-ni itte," Jun encouraged, gesturing for him to follow.
          "...I guess." Lei kept his eyes on the ground as he plodded next to her.
         While they walked, she chatted about the history of Sanctuary. Nightwolf was its founder; when the gods warned him of the Outworld invasion, he tried to persuade as many of the world's strongest warriors as he could to join his preparations for the Earth's defense. Unfortunately, few people believed him. Most of those who answered his call were Native Americans of various tribes, and even then, only a few individuals from each tribe - except the Cherokee. For when Nightwolf convinced the Cherokee leader Chief Thunder of the danger, the Chief in turn convinced his many followers. Together, the Native Americans formed their conglomerate Nation; Chief Thunder was their elected leader, balanced by the Council of Elders.
         By chance, one of the true believers happened to be Sergeant Catsclaw; it was he who had orchestrated an alliance between the Nation and Lieutenant Sonya Blade's 34th platoon. Sonya had gotten the word out to the other Chosen Ones, who had used their connections to induce what friends and associates they could to seek shelter here. Hence, the curious mix that formed Sanctuary's population. According to the treaty, Sonya's soldiers were not full citizens of the Nation, though they were assured of equal protection under the Nation's laws. The soldiers were frequently called 'guests' to their face, or 'outsiders' to their backs. Chief Thunder was trying to discourage the latter practice.
         "Uh-huh," Lei murmured, intrigued by the story. As he followed her up the stairs to a tall, square-shaped building with many windows, he thought of how he'd seen Sonya's platoon and citizens of the Nation clump in strictly segregated groups. "Say, kid-"
         "I am not a kid, and I wish you would stop calling me one," Jun reproached, with an annoyed stare.
         "-is it my imagination, or are relations a little uneasy between the soldiers and the Indians?"
         She tapped her chin, thoughtfully.
         "When Nightwolf first invited me in, and Chief Thunder tutored me in healing magic, almost every citizen of the Nation was very open and friendly to me. That changed when I agreed to work for Sonya; they don't talk or smile as much as they used to when I'm around them. On the other hand, Sonya's soldiers are no longer as stiff and reserved in their dealings with me. Our mission to find the Chosen One was supposed to be a special accomplishment, because it was the first joint patrol between the Nation and the 34th platoon, yet half of us never made it back. And now, the discord I feel on the wind has grown worse than ever. It doesn't make sense. Everyone here is on the same side."
         "Eh, you wouldn't be so surprised if you knew more American history. Next time you chat with your Indian friends, ask them about the massacre at Wounded Knee, or the Trail of Tears, or-"
         "Lei?" Jun raised a finger to her lips and continued in a hushed whisper. "Keep it quiet, okay? We mustn't disturb the sleepers; Sonya is very strict about that."
         The cop had become so engrossed in his discourse that he'd failed to notice his surroundings. They'd come to a halt in a long hallway marked with alternating doors. Some were closed; some weren't. Lei glimpsed a slumbering soldier past one of the open portals.
         Jun opened one door with the number "13" displayed in raised brass figures. She called a tiny point of white light to her fingertip as she entered the dark room, keeping it purposefully dim so as not to hurt the cop's eyes. Lei peered past the jamb. Inside were a carpeted floor, a dresser, and a low, flat sleeping mattress on a wire frame. A pair of dark red curtains obscured a thick glass window, with its dull copper lock firmly latched. One corner held a boxlike white refrigerator, so small it didn't reach up to Jun's knees.
         "Wait a minute," Lei said. "This isn't a barracks. It looks more like a college dorm."
         "I think maybe it used to be one. Most of the buildings in Sanctuary were, um, borrowed and adapted after the Apocalypse."
         "'Borrowed'? You snap your fingers and poof, the entire freaking superstructure appears on your lawn?"
         "Actually, the ritual takes several weeks. Don't worry, we'll put everything back once the Earth has been set right. Now, it's time to ward away those bad dreams."
         Jun searched the walls until she found her prize: a miniature black tack, embedded high in the dull plaster next to the doorway. Then she detached the twig-and-feather dream-catcher from the clip on her pocket, and looped its gossamer thread around the minuscule support. She had to arch her back and stand on tiptoes to complete the task, an action that made her tank-top ride up a tiny bit.
         Lei quickly buried his face in his hands. Dammit, quit ogling the kid. Just because your liver has forty years' wear doesn't mean you're a dirty old man!



         Ganryu was guarding the great double doors.
         Stoic and unmoving, he'd planted himself in a wide-legged horse stance, directly in front of the portal. His glazed eyes were fixed firmly ahead, staring without seeing. His hands were up in a classical defensive pose.
         Lee's silvery eyebrows came together, curiously. Kazuya rarely bothered posting sentries in front of his antechamber.
         "What are you doing here, Gan-kun?"
         Ganryu's head turned, slowly, stiffly. His body did not follow. "Mishima-sama is my master. Must protect Mishima-sama."
         "I know Kazuya didn't station you here. It's not like him."
         "Must protect. Be loyal." Ganryu's spoke in a monotone, without thought or emphasis. He sounded more like a computer than a human being.
         Lee studied the blank face of his friend, searching in vain for a vestige of humanity. All he saw were the smooth, round features of a heavyset, middle-aged man, crested with black-hair tied in the traditional topknot. A pinkish, vertical scar creased Ganryu's forehead. Had Kazuya inflicted that mark when he ravaged the sumotori's mind, or had Lee simply never noticed it before?
         "Look, Gan-kun, I was wondering..."
         The silver-haired devil faltered, unsure of what to say. Once, it wouldn't have mattered. Gan-kun would have understood. But now-
         "Mishima-sama is my master. Must protect Mishima-sama."
         -now Ganryu could understand nothing, could think of nothing save his loyalty. He'd become a mindlessly devoted automaton. The final irony was that Kazuya no longer needed or bothered with Ganryu's blind obedience.
         "...never mind."



         "Is your headache bothering you again?"
         "Eh?" Lei swiftly removed his hands from his face and looked away. "Oh, no, not at all."
         Jun worriedly studied him with a skeptical eye.
         "Really. I don't get them unless I'm hung over or stressed out."
         "You have been under a strain," Jun quietly noted. "You've had a really awful day, haven't you?"
         "Oh, well..."
         "It isn't right. You came here to help us, yet so many people have been horrible to you. Even the wolves didn't understand."
         "Especially the wolves," Lei muttered, rolling his eyes. "Don't worry, kid. It's not that bad. The welcome here may be a little rough, but it beats drinking myself to death in the sewers."
         If you weren't here, though, I doubt I could say that with a straight face. Lei started to rub his temples, as if to shove the unbidden thought to the back of his mind, then realized she was appraising him with that concerned expression again.
         "And I don't have a headache right now, I swear," he added, sheepishly folding his arms behind his back.
         Jun's delicate eyebrows came together. Attuning herself her environment, she felt whispers of his internal distress echo on the surrounding atmosphere. She couldn't tell whether the pain that tore at him was physical, emotional, or both. He still didn't seem willing to talk about it, and if she renewed her offer to cast a healing spell he'd most likely just turn her down again. She turned the conundrum over in her thoughts as they exited the improvised barracks.
         "So, eh, you say we can find Stryker at the White Foxglove or whatever Temple?" the cop mumbled.
         "He never leaves it." Once more, Lei noticed that dejected tincture briefly affecting her voice. He resolved not to ask her about Stryker again; hearing that sad resonance practically made everything hurt a little bit more. "For now, there's someplace I'd rather take you, if that's okay. Is it?"
         "Eh, well-"
         "Kochira desu. Issho-ni itte," she suggested, with an affable tug on his sleeve.
         "-where are we going?"
         "You'll see." Jun winked.
         Twilight shadows only enhanced her tantalizing beauty. Lei wasn't sure whether he regretted his preternatural night vision or was grateful for it. The captivating view unraveled his thoughts one by one, and the longer he looked, the less everything else seemed to matter. He could almost forget about the ceaseless, chilling void within. Almost.
         Then she turned her face away, gazing up at the darkened sky, and it all came crashing back triple force. Renewed wellsprings of hurt threatened to fold him in half. With a steady expenditure of will, he resisted the constant agony. He slowed to a crawl.
         "You're dragging your feet. Watashi wa hayaku arukimasen, ne?"
         "Uh..."
         What is making me so nervous? There's nothing to get excited about. The only reason she's with me at all is to monitor my curse. She's not my date or my girlfriend, just my babysitter.
         "...sorry." Lowering his eyes, Lei tried to simultaneously pick up his pace and empty his mind.
         "Where are you going, demon!?"
         A suspicious, threatening demand jostled Lei out of his reverie. Jun had brought him to the front gate of Sanctuary's outer wall. Burning braziers created inconsistent shadows that danced and blended in the twilight. Beyond the gate lay a dirt path leading into forested wilderness. Two sentries stood at either side of the portal; firelight gleamed on the perfectly keen edge of a single-bladed battle axe, held a hair's thinness away from Lei's throat. The silver-white of the axe-blade's outer edge gave way to deep blue traced with abstract gold patterns closer to the haft. Gripping the battle axe's long handle were a pair of heavy hands sporting huge claws-
         No. They only appeared to be clawed. In truth, the axe-bearer wore a bearskin cape over his head and arms; the bear's dead claws arced from his knuckles like hooked daggers. The head of the slain grizzly covered his hair; its fangs protruded over his temples, shielding his face and hanging in front of his ivory-yellow eyes. He emulated the bear in other ways: by the raw power of his compact, thickly muscled arms and legs, by the slightly hunched stance he took, and by the thunderous growl that stirred in his throat.
         "Rock, quit it before I get angry," Jun retorted. She touched her fingers to the keys of her bracelet.
         The man-bear lifted his chin a trifle. "You are not-?"
         "Put the axe up or you go flying!"
         "Do as she says," instructed the second sentry, his voice a calm croon as opposed to Rock's avalanche rumble.
         "Wolf, we should not allow-"
         "Haven't you heard? The demon is her charge, not ours." Rock gritted his worn teeth in a frustrated grimace, but shifted the weapon closer to his body.
         Wolf leaned on the thick wooden shaft of his spear, relaxed without being unaware. Vivid red streaks of war paint outlined his eyes and ran down his sharply triangular nose. His russet hair was close-cut and tightly bound in a single ponytail. He wore little save a tight-fitting pair of shorts and modern sneakers. Though he was smaller and more wiry than Rock, the firmness of his muscle tone testified to his strength.
         Lei decided that he did not want to get into a fight with either of these men.
         "It's nice to know at least one person in the Nation has some sense," Jun sighed, lowering her bracelet. "We're going outside for a while-"
         "We are?" Lei muttered.
         "Have fun," Wolf suggested, with a complacent shrug.
         Deep wrinkles appeared in Rock's brow, underneath the fangs of his bear-headdress. "For what purpose are you taking the demon outside of the settlement?"
         "It's her demon, Rock; don't trouble your head with it," Wolf interjected.
         "If you must know," Jun resolutely replied, "I'd like him to meet some friends of mine, who will treat him with the consideration and respect he deserves."
         "It is better than the demon deserves to be here at all!" snarled Rock.
         The cop cleared his throat. "Uh, folks? My name's 'Lei Wulong.' If that doesn't roll off your tongue so good, they also call me 'Super Police.'"
         Wolf's lips briefly parted in a sardonic leer. Rock spat on the ground by Lei's feet.
         "That's enough!" Jun snapped. "Are you going to let us pass, or must I challenge you to a duel first?"
         Perhaps it was a trick of the firelight, but it seemed to Lei as though the bear-warrior's harsh composure gained a trace of concern. "Jun, is this wise?"
         Jun folded her arms; petulant stubbornness hardened her face. "I know you mean well, so I won't take that personally."
         "For the last time, Rock..." Wolf yawned. Distrust gleamed in the bear-warrior's ivory-yellow eyes, yet he stepped to one side. Jun clasped Lei's hand in hers and swept through the settlement's front gate, pulling the bemused cop after her.
         Rock watched them go with an uncertain frown. "I do not understand. No one is patrolling the woodlands at this time; what type of 'meeting' does she have in mind?"
         Wolf rolled his eyes. "Weren't you ever young?"



         For the second time that evening, the door to Wang's cell swung open, but it merely creaked instead of slamming against the far wall. A rush of warm light pouring through the aperture vanished as quickly as it came. The door closed with a quiet rattle. This latest visitor wanted to remain in shadow, despite Wang's blindness.
         The prophet eased off the cell floor. He'd been resting on his back, in order to keep the recently blistered side of his face from touching the ground.
         Wang immediately recognized the newcomer's aura. It was the inconsistent grey of morning drizzle. Not the jet black of hatred, nor the pure white of grace, nor the rainbow colors associated with varying emotional traits; merely the grey that remains when other passions have been cauterized from the heart. Except that now, something new broke the foggy swirls - a streak of sickly brown bitterness, like the crumbled core of a rotting log. There was the kssh of a match being struck, and a thick, charcoal odor drifted on the atmosphere.
         "Lee, my boy. I did not expect you to return so soon." Wang heard the soft sigh of a puff of smoke being exhaled, followed by a scraping sound as Lee leaned against the rough stone wall and gradually slid to the floor.
         "Does something trouble you, lad?"
         When Lee spoke, his voice was hoarse and hushed. "Uncle, what do you see?"
         "My boy?"
         "You know what I mean." The silver-haired devil put his arms around his bent knees and flicked ashes from the tip of his menthol cigarette. "You have the power to look into the future. It's why my brother keeps you chained in here, instead of sending you to sleep with the others."
         "Your brother has lost his way. It saddens me to perceive what he has become." Wang's tone dropped to a mournful whisper. "It is my fault, you know."
         "Oh?"
         "Yes. Kazuya would not menace the innocent today, save for my intervention. When Heihachi told me that an 'accident' had befallen his son, it was I who found the boy, bleeding and almost drowned in the bottom of a ravine. Of course I felt that I had to save him. He was only five years old. How could he have grown up to be such a terrible monster?"
         "We're all monsters, Uncle."
         "No. That is not true."
         "Oh, yes it is. Old man Heihachi was a monster because he put Kazuya through hell - a living, daily, hell on Earth. You and I were monsters because we never did anything about it."
         "I didn't know-"
         "Don't give me that. How could you not know? Hardly a week went by when Kazuya wasn't black and blue."
         "Young boys can often be rambunctious. I was a boy myself once-"
         "And how often did your antics lead to broken bones?"
         Wang bowed his head. "It seemed so impossible. Heihachi was the son of my good friend Jinpachi. I couldn't - I didn't want to believe he could do such evil things. In many ways, I was more blind then than I am now. But Lee, you mustn't blame yourself. You, too, were only a child."
         "I'll tell you what I was: a poor excuse for a brother. Just a cheap substitute imported from another country, for lack of anything better."
         Lee exhumed another draft of smoke, and set down the smoldering cigarette. "You want to know the funny part? Old man Heihachi never laid a finger on me. Left me completely alone. Wouldn't say two words to me if he could help it, I guess because he never thought I was worth the effort. It sounds insane now, but I used to be so jealous of Kazuya, because he got all the attention. Dammit, sometimes it almost seemed like the old bastard actually cared about him, when I knew that could never be true for me.
         "My revenge was to keep the dirty secret. I let my brother's nightmare go on, when I could have told you, begged you to stop it somehow. No wonder Kazuya despises me. I should be grateful he let me live."
         "We cannot undo the past, Lee. Perhaps it is too late to save Kazuya, and perhaps it is not, but he must be stopped at any cost.
         "You asked what I see in the future. Kazuya also asks this; he tries to beat what he wants out of my body, or tear it from my mind. He does not understand that my gift must be freely bequeathed, else it does not manifest at all. You are different in that you do not make extortions; only humble requests. When you ask, possibilities whisper to me, and I will answer your question.
         "I see death. Death and ashes.
         "There are bodies, burning buildings, and the writhing agony of tortured souls. The taste of blood fouls the wind, and cries of suffering become a chaotic din. Much of what I have seen has already come to pass, yet the vision is not complete. Sometimes I see it come full circle, in a final stroke of killing. Every victim frozen in green fire becomes a soulless corpse. This world is reduced to a barren wasteland, and all its life is crushed, never to flower again. The ashes cool into dead embers, from which nothing will ever rise."
         At first, Lee did not answer. When he spoke, his quiet rasp did not so much break the silence as glide over it. "This vision... is it what will be, or what might be?"
         "The future is not absolute; we shape it with our deeds. There is a chance. As long as the Chosen Ones survive, as long as there are men and women committed to doing good, there is always a chance. You are a crucial piece of the puzzle, Lee. If you join us-"
         "Never," Lee interrupted, flatly. "I'm with Kazuya now. We'll set things right, our way. You'll see."
         "Do you truly believe his fancies of creating a New Era, molded in his own image?"
         "Can't be any worse than the world we've left behind. Or the world we've got now."
         "You know better. The syndicate's crimes torment you; I can feel the regret tainting your life-force. And now, you are about to become part of a greater massacre. Kazuya has spoken to me of a plan to destroy the Chosen Ones' last stronghold."
         "We have to crush them," Lee mumbled, looking away. "It's in our contract with the Shao Kahn."
         "It is not your contract. Kazuya made the deal; you have no part of it."
         "We're all part of it. My brother holds our lives and souls in his hand. To turn against him is to die."
         "I know you are afraid of him-"
         "That's not what I'm talking about!" Lee snapped, in a sudden blaze of lightning animosity. "Do you think I enjoy belonging to a syndicate of killers? That turning traitor has never crossed my mind?"
         The crackling, livewire sizzle faded to a faraway mist in Lee's auburn eyes. "It would be so easy. Kazuya trusts me completely; all I'd have to do is wait until his back was turned, then insert the stiletto at the right angle. It might even be a kindness. But it would have the same effect as cutting my own wrists. I can't go through with it."
         "Murder is not the answer, Lee."
         "What else do you suggest? Running away? Trying to warn that precious little camp before Kazuya's agent destroys them from within? Don't make me laugh."
         Wang leaned forward, attuning himself acutely to the ebb of Lee's faltering spirit. "Who is this agent?"
         Lee mashed out the cigarette's stub on the cold stone floor. "Like it would matter to you. Even Jun-chan doesn't realize, and she was always the sensitive one."
         "Jun is there, too?"
         "Yeah. I wonder how the hell she got mixed up with all those Indians."
         "Are you prepared, then, to watch Kazuya put her and all the rest of Sanctuary to the sword? Thousands of innocent people live there-"
         "It won't be like that. My brother only has to eradicate the Chosen Ones."
         "I need not prophesy to know that he will butcher men, women, and little children alike."
         "No! Not the children!" Lee plucked a fresh cigarette; shaking in his hands nearly extinguished the match before he could set the slender menthol alight. "They will be spared the Proving. The others will at least have a chance, and the bravest and strongest among them will survive to be part of the New Era."
         "You want to believe that, yet you cannot hide from the truth. You came here because you need to be reassured that you walk the right path, when you do not."
         "No, that's not why I came. I was bored and couldn't sleep." Lee's subdued voice thinned to a callous edge.
         "The choice is yours, Lee: risk and hope, or complacency and slaughter. I have faith in you, my boy. Though you may not understand now, sooner or later, you will."
         Lee shook his head. His silvery bangs fell in front of his eyes; he pushed them back with one hand. "I doubt it, Uncle. Just as I doubt you will ever understand."
         Lee's joints creaked as he stood up, and the cell door's latch rattled. Warm light bathed Wang once more. "I'll check on you again, later."
         "At least think about what I have said. Please."
         "Like I have anything better to run through my head until daybrea-" Lee abruptly broke off his mutterings. The cigarette in his hand bent itself in half. Tension constricted him in knots. A slash of furious red rippled through his aura.
         "My boy?"
         "Your face," Lee hissed. Fury concentrated the words into drops of distilled rancor, though the fury was not directed at Wang. "You have been tortured!"
         "This?" Wang raised one hand to the welt on his cheek. "It is nothing. I resisted an attacker, a short while ago. The scratch will heal well before morning; it would be gone already, if not for the salt."
         "Someone has disobeyed my orders!" Lee raged, so loudly that the prophet flinched. "Was it Shimada? I'll skin him alive!"
         "My boy, you must calm yourself. I am fine."
         Lee's eyes narrowed.
         "It wasn't Shimada, was it? He prefers iron brands. Besides, he's too much of a cowardly rat to defy me. No..." The silver-haired devil squatted, in order to get a closer look at the long, shallow mark on Wang's cheek. "You were struck with a lash. There's only one person here who favors whips: Mori. Don't worry; I'll give him a lot worse than he gave you before I kill him."
         "Lee, no. Killing people is wrong."
         "Maybe, but it's all I know," the silver-haired devil coldly pronounced. He rose and turned toward the exit.
         "By all the gods in heaven, Lee, you must not do this!" Wang slipped to his knees and held out his hands, with one tightly clasped over the knuckles of the other.
         "Are you actually praying for that son of a bitch?" Lee shot back, incredulously.
         "I pray for you. Your soul is not beyond redemption."
         "You have no idea how wrong you are. I've damned myself with innocent blood, and there's no going back." The silver-haired devil dropped his cigarette and crushed it with his boot. "Though if it makes you feel any better, Uncle, then I won't kill Mori. I promise."
         "Lee, wait!" called the prophet. "It is never too late to turn back; please, you have to believe me!"
         The cell door shut and latched with a decisive click.



         As she strolled through the darkened woodlands, Jun summoned a fluorescent will-o'-the-wisp to her palm with a single, trilled note. Its faint radiance bathed her in a pure white glow.
         "This isn't too hard on your eyes, is it?" she asked of Lei. The will-o'-the-wisp drifted above their heads in a lazy swirl.
         "Oh no, kid, but are you sure you want to drain yourself like that? I'm sure we can double back and, um, get a flashlight or something."
         "It isn't a drain, and I keep telling you, I am not a-"
         A sudden frown crossed her delicate face; it appeared to be a cross between misgivings and sorting through memories. She folded her arms behind her back.
         "You know, there's something I've been meaning to ask you for a while now. It concerns our match in the Iron Fist Tournament."
         "Uh, what about it?"
         She looked as the branches above, swaying in the light breeze. "I'm a trained fighter, but I'm not that good, and you had a reputation for being... tricky. Unpredictable. Maybe almost unbeatable. Yet our match was over so quickly, it practically seemed like you weren't fighting at all - were you? Were you even taking me seriously as an opponent?"
         Jun bit her lip. A tiny amount of trepidation had showed through her voice, and she was, if not quite holding her breath, then regulating it a little more rigidly than usual while she waited for an answer. There was more to this question than she was asking.
         What difference does it make? Lei wanted to reply, but he stifled the thought because it clearly did make an important difference, to her. Seeing her like this was, in a fashion, harder on his eyes than ten thousand lights.
         How am I going to talk my way out of this one? I can't lie to her. She deserves better, and I doubt I could get away with it in any case.
         "Everyone has off days," Lei mumbled at last. "You talk as if having people underestimate you is a bad thing. Not at all. Especially not when you're pitted against them in a fight. One little misjudgement on their part can be the difference between life and death on yours. Take it from a tricky guy."
         "Is it true, what Kung Lao said? Have you lost your edge?"
         "Eh, well, I've... lost a lot of things."
         You were close to losing your sanity when she found you, whispered the voice in his head. He closed his eyes and ground his teeth together, overriding the nonexistent sound; the effort almost caused him to miss Jun's next, tentative inquiry.
         "You're not upset about losing the match to me, are you?"
         "Huh?" Lei's eyes snapped open. "Is that what's bothering you? Oh no, I'm certainly not about to hold the Tournament against you. Just as I hope the folks I beat don't hold it against me. If they're still alive, that is. They disappeared soon after losing - probably kidnapped by Kazuya."
         He stared off into space for a moment. "Do you know, I don't think there ever was a clear winner to that Tournament? It was still in progress when we tried to arrest Kazuya, and then green fire fell from the skies. So I guess he's technically still King of the Iron Nail Clipping, or whatever."
         "I know. After I beat you, I was on my way to fight Michelle. The Apocalypse came before our official match could take place. Thank you for sharing the truth; it means a lot to me."
         She smiled. It was an enchanting vision of loveliness. He was suddenly unsure about whether he should have skirted certain facts, but would she have presented him with that dazzling gift if he'd been completely forthright?
         Lei suddenly realized what a ridiculous motive that was.
         I don't believe this. If I can't get it together, I'll make an even worse impression on whatever associates of hers I'm supposed to meet next.
         "So, uh, when do we run into your Indian friends?"
         "Moo ichi-do?" she quizzed, curiously tilting her head.
         "Eh, well, I overheard you tell Rock and Wolf that you wanted me to meet some folks out here. Is it any particular tribe? Or do some of Sonya's platoon like to camp out? We've been walking for a while now, and I haven't seen any human heat-shadows."
         She laughed, gently. Lei felt that he should be annoyed at that, but it was such a gorgeous sound; like the warbling of a meadow lark. If anything, he wanted to listen to it again.
         "Lei, you silly, there are no people here at this time of night." She linked her right arm in his left and lightly patted his elbow, effectively striking him dumb. When he tried to put concepts together into a spoken sentence, they slipped and fluttered like wriggling eels, matched by a sudden arrhythmia in his heart.
         Did I hear that right?
         No one else is out here? Did she just make some excuse to Rock and Wolf, in order to get me alone on a nature walk? Why would she do such a thing?
         It can't be what I'm thinking.
         'She likes you,' Lao said. Could that crazy monk actually be right about something for once? But - she knows I'm a drunken screw-up and way, way less than she ever deserves. There's got to be something I'm not seeing here. She doesn't really... does she? When he tried to figure it out, the light feel of her forearm against his utterly disrupted his thoughts, and pulled him back to uncertain reality. One simple solution would have been to disengage his arm, yet he could not bring himself to let go.
         And then the silent voice was back, adding its own advice to the confusion wracking his head. What are you waiting for? Tell her how you feel. Ask her if she feels the same way. The worst thing that could happen is that she rejects you.
         No, he thought back, despondently. That's not the worst that could happen. She thinks I'm human. If I let myself get any closer to her, I'll have to tell her the whole truth about what Kazuya did to me. And then she'll-
         He shivered, but not from the cool evening breeze that riffled the half-open neck of his shirt. The chafing void within him solidified into a painful knot. A grueling, heavy lethargy settled upon his shoulders.
         I can't let anything start. There's only two ways it could end: bad or horrible.
         "You look sad," Jun quietly observed. Lei swallowed and began to stammer a denial, but she shook her head and continued with, "Don't worry. It's okay to be sad. When I feel depressed, or everything seems hopeless, I come here."
         She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the night air. "Isn't it beautiful?"
         "Hâo mêi," the cop agreed, but he was looking at her out of the corner of his eye when he said it.
         She came to a stop. They had reached a grassy clearing, with a medium-sized flat stone in the center. Somewhere not too far, Lei could hear the faint ripple of a splashing brook. The will-o'-the wisp ceased its patterns, and instead traced a wide crescent about the clearing's edge.
         "This is my favorite place," she softly explained. "I've never shown it to another person before."
         "I'm... honored."
         "Chotto suwate-kudasaimasen ka?" she suggested, gesturing to the flat, grey stone with her free hand.
         "Well, I-"
         The tiniest tug of her inner elbow against his affected him like an earthquake. His legs nervously shook, and felt ready to collapse.
         "-guess I could use a short rest," the cop mumbled, easing onto the stone seat.
         Jun nodded, let go of his arm, and turned in a slow circle, singing a wordless melody. A faraway look came into her eyes, as though she were listening for a special sound, or contemplating an unguessable thought. Her slender neck turned, and her ginger eyes swept the area. Her eyebrows briefly dipped low. There was something so impossibly mesmerizing about the way light from the will-o'-the wisp sparkled against her silky black hair.
         Lei swiftly bowed his head and covered his face with both hands. No. I can't let myself think of her like this. It's not fair to either of us.
         He wasn't sure for how many minutes he desperately tried to convince himself of that, or just when it was that she took a seat next to him. Jun was looking over her shoulder, into the shadowy wooded depths beyond. Her eyebrows were still a trifle lower than usual, as if in puzzlement, or perhaps a hint of impatience.
         Lei cleared his throat. "Uh, kid? I... I think we'd better be getting back now, before the folks at Sanctuary start to worry about-"
         She turned back and held a dainty finger up to her lips. Her speech was a scarcely audible whisper. "There may be times or places when it is suitable to call me 'kid.' This is not one of them."
         "But-"
         She leaned forward and hushed him with an exquisitely graceful motion of her hand. "Please. Don't say anything. Just for a little while." Her elegant face hovered close, closer than Lei could ever remember her coming to him.
         Close enough to kiss.
         For an intangible instant, the possibility was before him.
         Then the empty inner pain folded on itself, twisting in his gut. It would never let him forget what he'd been reduced to. His heart felt as though it were caving in on itself.
         "Nn-no," he gasped, turning aside his face and pulling away from her. "I'm sorry; I should never have let you bring me here."
         Her brow furrowed deeply. "Is something wrong?"
         "It's not your fault; you've been very kind. But every instinct I have tells me this is bad idea, and the last time I ignored my instincts, it resulted in disaster..."
         Something about her silence unnerved him. She turned and held herself perfectly still, with her face toward the back of the clearing. He couldn't quite see her eyes, but her eyebrows were all the way down now, and her mouth formed a perplexed frown.
         Oh, no. Have I hurt her feelings? Anything but that.
         "A-and there's my curse to take into account," Lei stammered, in another blind attempt to explain his reaction. One of his hands protectively clutched at the half-open neck of his shirt. "As long as I have it, I don't dare risk - I mean, one accidental scratch and you could find yourself in a compromising, um, position-"
         "They won't hurt you, I promise," Jun said.
         Now it was Lei's turn to appear baffled. 'They'? She really did bring me here to 'meet friends'?
         "I know the wolves attacked you," Jun continued, reassuringly, "but that was only because of miscommunication on both sides. All of Sanctuary knows you're one of us, now. It won't happen again."
         Understanding finally seeped in.
         "Your 'friends' are critters, aren't they."
         "Yes. The birds, the beasts, the small animals - as many of them are awake during the night as during the day. Any time I'm weary or dejected, I come here to see them. They gift me with their wisdom, their company, and the strength to continue. I thought you might like to be introduced."
         Once again, she searched the deserted glade. "I don't understand why they haven't appeared. I sang the notes to invite them. It was my hope that perhaps, if we kept quiet enough, they would come out, but I don't think they're anywhere in the area. Where could they have gone?"
         Giving up her search for woodland denizens, she realized that the cop had lapsed into a pained torpor. His head had fallen forward, while one arm pressed tightly into his midsection as though covering a mortal wound.
         "Lei, are you all right?"
         IDIOT! he silently berated himself. What made you think she could EVER be attracted to you? The only thing you have going for you is your looks, and she knows you too well to be swayed by that!
         "Lei?"
         "They're not coming, kid. Not as long as I'm here.
         "It's because of the curse. Animals won't have anything to do with me. They know what I really am. It's why the wolves were so keen on attacking me - if I hadn't been so frazzled at the time, I would have realized that I was their target, not you.
         "When I first woke up with this scar, the alley cats rooting through the garbage around me nearly died of fright. The entire sewers were crawling with rats before I moved in, but I'll bet you never saw a single whisker, did you? Even parasites won't suck my blood."
         "Chigaimasu," she refuted, shaking her head. "The animals don't know you at all. If they did, they would be here."
         "Kid... use the bracelet. Call up someone else to watch me. Then you'll be free to play with the critters."
         She crossed in front of him and bent on one knee, down to his elevation. "Do you want me to leave you alone that much? Have I done or said anything to upset you?"
         "Huh?" The cop was visibly startled from his brooding. "Nn-no, no, never, it's just that I don't want to isolate you from your, eh, friends."
         "Well, in that case there will be time to see them later. You've been very generously indulging my whims; now it's my turn. Come on. I'll take you to see Stryker."
         "Uh-"
         "Kochira desu. Issho-ni itte," she beamed, taking his hand and pulling him to his feet.
         Damn, but her smile was beautiful.



         Michelle stepped out of her private quarters, and deeply inhaled the night air.
         Most of Sanctuary was asleep, but she no longer felt the least bit tired. A few hours' meditation had been just what she needed to reassert control of herself. She felt calm, detached from the driving anger that had plagued her before.
         What now?
         She had an idea of the different places she could go or people she could talk to, but her mental layout was hazy. Michelle decided to get a better view of matters.
         There were a half-dozen tall oak trees in the field-sized gulf between her residence and the White Lotus Temple. Their rough bark provided ample handholds for a quick climb. In a matter of minutes, she gained a bird's-eye panorama of the entire settlement. Sanctuary's outer wall of thick timber surrounded irregular clumps of wildly diverging buildings. Darkness clouded much of the landscape, and lamps were sparse, but a whispered invocation honed her night vision so that she could detect every movement. Few people stirred; she thought she saw a gathering near the saloon, and of course there were sentries. Yet they were far less in number than seemed right, for a population of this size. She rested her chin in her hand, thinking the matter over.
         It's because of an unhealthy dependence on the protective spells, she reasoned. Not only has sorcery kept this place hidden, but no uninvited creature can approach without being drastically weakened. So, Sanctuary has never been attacked. Complacency has set in. But how strong is the magic that everyone trusts with their lives? How strong is it, really? Her experience showed that it could have unforeseen weaknesses. No magic is infallible. A spell is never more powerful than the person who casts it.
         Her wandering mind snapped to attention when she saw something unusual near the main gate. Two figures were entering Sanctuary from the outside.
         Could it be a returning patrol? She'd heard that Chief Thunder had issued an edict banning any more such, in the wake of increased enemy activity. Who had slipped out of the settlement, and why?
         Her enhanced vision focused. She quickly recognized the distant people.
         It was that witch Jun and her pet demon.
         How very curious...



         Wide, shallow braziers atop long iron stems flanked the columns of the White Lotus Temple. Smoke twisted from the slow-burning coals; the fires crackled just brightly enough to paint the serene columns in flickering red and yellow, against the heavy black of the surrounding night. The tread of countless feet had formed smooth depressions in the temple's stone steps, and centuries of rain had worn rivulets in its roof. Inside, candles and kerosene lamps supplemented the thankfully low-key lighting.
         There was a mixed medley of furnishings and clutter, mostly related to martial training. Flat wooden boards, some of which had been broken into splintered halves, were piled atop cement blocks. A row of Wing Chun dummies lined the right-hand wall, their smoothly polished protrusions sticking out like porcupine quills. Wooden practice swords and spears clumped together in a corner. Soft mats were rolled up against the left-hand wall. A long, red rug stretched through the center of this main hall, reaching to the base of an elevated, thronelike chair with dull brass armrests.
         Liu Kang was seated in the chair.
         In these uncertain shadows, his deep crimson headband became a bloody wound struck across his forehead. The monk's eyes had been serenely closed, but now they whipped open. Their tawny irises reflected more darkness than light. Lei broke off his inspection of the temple and returned the distrustful stare.
         "Kung Lao said you were still asleep," the cop remarked, neutrally.
         "There is no slumber so deep, no spell so potent as to keep me unconscious in the presence of a demon."
         Liu Kang paused for long seconds. When next he spoke, it was in Mandarin; the words remained as flawlessly formal as they had been in English.
         <Wulong, I felt your arrival in my dreams. It was an extreme shock when Kazama persuaded Chief Thunder to grant you invitation. I was certain you would be executed.>
         <Sorry to disappoint you,> growled the cop.
         <I know.> The pronouncement was sad and quiet. Liu Kang touched his hands together and bowed from the waist. <I am sorry for you as well. Again, she has denied you surcease from the pain.>
         <Don't you know sarcasm when you hear it?>
         <You maintain the pretense because of her, do you not?>
         Lei flushed. <Leave the kid out of this.>
         <You cannot hide the truth from her forever.>
         <No, just until she gets tired of me. Then it won't matter anymore.>
         <Then there will be no reason left for you to go on at all.>
         <Don't talk to me like that, you self-righteous->
         <She cannot help you, Wulong. No one can. She can only prolong your suffering. When the time comes to destroy you, I shall do so out of pity.>
         <I'd rather be hated!> Lei struggled to control his breathing, and his fingers constricted into stiff, clawlike curls.
         "What are you talking about?" Jun asked. Though she could not decipher the words, she could hear the sorrow in Liu Kang's voice and the turmoil in Lei's.
         The cop shook his head. "Eh, nothing that makes a difference. For the love of-"
         <You can never love her. You can never feel love, joy, or contentment again; only the crushing void. If she knew, I think she would cry for you.>
         "BÌ ZUÎ!" Lei screeched, sharply pointing to the monk with his index finger. Jun flinched from the amplitude of the scream.
         "He's baiting you, isn't he?" she inferred, with a disapproving frown.
         "And doing a damn good job of it," the cop muttered.
         "Liu has a talent for getting under a person's skin. I'm not sure he knows he's doing it."
         Transfixing Liu Kang with a resentful glower, Lei snarled, "If it weren't for my promise, I'd gag you with your own headband."
         "Should you move to betray your Oath, I will be waiting. I cannot act before then because I have sworn the same pledge."
         "Ignore him, Lei," Jun pressed. "You wanted to see Stryker, remember?"
         "So I did." Lei exhaled his breath in a tired sigh, and let his hands relax. "All right then, where is...?"
         He trailed off when he followed her line of sight to the row of Wing Chun dummies. A human silhouette lurked at their far end, nearly invisible to a casual scan of this shadowy temple; yet to Lei, the figure's warmth was as vivid as that of the firelight. The cop approached.
         Stryker sat on a whittled wooden stool.
         He appeared to be in his late twenties. He was bent over, as if exhausted from some terrible burden; his head was down, and he rested his forearms on his knees. Two gloved, thick-fingered hands clutched at the short handle of a T-shaped baton. Creamy brown bangs poked underneath the brim of a black, adjustable baseball cap slung over his head. Loose skin hung from his arms. His dingy blue-and-white tee shirt fit a little too snugly around his paunch; he carried perhaps ten or fifteen pounds more than was healthy. His body bristled with armaments. A holstered .45 pistol was slung on a paired set of chest straps; its ammunition formed a belt around his waist. Unidentifiable bulges filled the deep pockets of his weatherproof black slacks. Even his boots looked like they had hidden compartments.
         "Eh, hi, Stryker. Pleasure to meet you. Name's Lei Wulong, also called 'Super Police.'"
         Silence.
         "Uh... you are Stryker, aren't you?"
         The other man did not answer.
         "'Kurtis Stryker' was the name on his badge," Jun quietly explained. "Three months ago, Liu Kang sensed the presence of another Chosen One in the area, and led a patrol to bring him here."
         "Uh-huh. Hey Kurt, she's talking about you in third person. You going to let her get away with that?" Lei mused, raising an eyebrow.
         Still, Kurtis Stryker did not respond.
         Jun sadly shook her head. "He's been like this for as long as I've known him."
         "'Like this'? You mean, catatonic?"
         "The wind spirits tell me he has suffered unbearable loss."
         Liu Kang evenly stated, "He must retain some perception of the outside world, for he did agree to the Oath by nodding his head. And he will obey a direct command, if it is given in a firm voice. He helps keep the Temple clean for us. I have never heard him speak."
         "Can't you look in his head and fix what's wrong?" Lei shot back.
         "I dare not batter down the black walls surrounding him. The risk is too great that both our minds would be shattered beyond hope of recovery."
         "Didn't stop you before."
         Liu Kang looked away. "A mistake that I shall never repeat."
         Jun said, "About once every other day, I come and talk to Stryker. I'm not sure whether he hears me at all. But you're a fellow police officer. Maybe if you talk to him, it will help. It certainly couldn't hurt."
         "Ah." Lei coughed and cleared his throat.
         "Well, Kurt, I hear you hang out here a lot. Guess we'll be seeing quite a bit of each other, then, because I'm going to be teaching people how to fight, and this is supposedly the place to do it. You want to know the funny thing? Last time I was in this temple, I was a student. And it was several thousand miles away, in the mainland's Honan province, but as far as I can tell these folks just waved their hands and brought the whole building here. Neat, eh? Like something out of Star Trek. You ever watch that on TV?"
         The question hung in empty air.
         "I've seen all the movies, you know. I used to rent a whole lot of stuff: action movies, science fiction movies, local movies, foreign movies, even the occasional Sony game. So what if I'd already blown the month's budget on a drinking binge? There's always enough change left over for a rental, if you know where to find it."
         Lei snapped the fingers of his right hand. A shiny nickel appeared between his thumb and forefinger, in a cascade of azure sparks. He spread the other three fingers wide, and held up his left hand, showing its front and back to be perfectly empty. With a slow, debonair flourish, he rotated the nickel flat, grasped it with the thumb and forefingers of both hands, and pulled it apart. Two large, equally shiny half-dollars emerged. Lei flipped both coins in the air.
         "Don't tell the I.C.P.O., eh? Technically, only the government mints have the right to magically produce money. I could be in serious trouble if Takeshi ever found out." Lei winked and snatched the half-dollars out of the air with one hand; when he spread his palm open, both coins had vanished.
         Stryker shuddered.
         His hands clenched the grip of his baton so fiercely that all color drained from the patches of skin his gloves left exposed. His biceps tightened into dense knots beneath folds of dry skin. A distant rattle sounded from the back of his throat, and he slowly raised his head. The mute policeman's eyes were the dirty hazel of a rainwater puddle, simmering with latent threat. An embittered grimace distorted his long, pale-skinned face.
         "You..." he rasped, hatefully, in a whisper made hoarse from months of disuse. "You're one of them!"
         Lei's eyebrows slipped up in pleased surprise. "Hey - you spoke!" He beamed a lopsided grin to Jun. "Did you hear that, kid?"
         Jun clutched at he buttons on her silvery bracelet. "Lei, stand away from him! He's-"
         "-attacking me, I know." The Hong Kong cop turned just in time to deflect Stryker's wide baton lunge with the outer edge of his forearm.
         "I'LL KILL YOU!" Stryker roared, grasping the baton in both hands like a club and chambering it for a strike to Lei's head.
         "Not fighting like that you won't," Lei, remarked, wryly. He did not seem to duck underneath the swing; rather, he swayed, as a willow tree bends in the wind. Stryker's whiffed attack overbalanced him; he staggered forward, while Lei smoothly weaved to the side.
         "Let me handle this, okay kid? Kurt here could use a few lessons. Keep that wrist-gizmo handy just in case, though."
         Pulling out his .45, Stryker hissed, "Not again. Never again! I'll blow your brains out-!"
         Lei instantly pivoted, whipping the heel of his left foot in a high arc that collided with Stryker's half-drawn pistol. The gun flew from his hand.
         "Lesson number one: don't EVER announce what you're going to do. What in blazes do you think you're playing at, eh?" Lei touched down in a right-sided stance, yet quickly readjusted his footing to present the left side of his body.
         "Stryker, no!" Jun called, fingering her bracelet. Lei was in her line of fire. She dashed around the dueling pair, looking for a clear shot-
         "Hold." And suddenly Liu Kang was there, having silently descended from his seat on high. He held her wrist in a dragon's-claw grip and resolutely shook his head.
         "We have to stop this!" she exclaimed.
         "Wulong has asked you not to interfere."
         "But-"
         "His life is naught save a hollow mockery," the monk intoned, in a sepulchral echo. "You refuse to allow him death. The fight is all he has left; would you take that from him as well?"
         "What if they hurt each other?"
         "Watch." Liu Kang gestured to the two police.
         Stryker made a guttural sound of frustration and spared a glance toward his gun. It had come to rest some twenty-five feet away.
         "Lesson number two: don't take your eyes off your opponent, not for one second!" Before Stryker could turn back, the Hong Kong cop pulled the brim of his baseball cap down over his eyes and snickered.
         Stryker turned his cap all the way around, slinging it backwards on his head. At the same time, he wrenched his baton in a wide arc. The weapon whistled against empty air. Just as he reached the outer edge of the swing, he felt his enemy's hand grasp his wrist and force it behind his back.
         "Are you committing all your strength to one strike, when you can't even aim? Not sound, not sound at all. At least be prepared for the lack of resistance."
         The demon had slipped behind him! Stryker's free hand made a grab for where its head had to be, and became trapped in a wristlock. He tried to throw his weight against the fiend, yet a stinging prod to the back of his knees buckled him. His enemy abruptly let go, and Stryker fell on the matting.
         "Now come on, I know you can do better than that. You're one of the Chosen, for goodness' sake. Get up and try again." The taunt was lighthearted, almost mischievous. It made Stryker's blood boil.
         Jun furrowed her brow. A creeping realization built within her. Stryker wasn't a bad fighter, though months of inactivity had probably slowed him. He was simply outclassed.
         "Was Lei this good when he studied at your temple?" she asked Liu Kang, in a bare whisper.
         "I was not present at the time, yet the fact that Master Wu allowed him to study at all implies volumes. Master Wu would grant temporary sanctuary to any who needed it, but to share the ancient techniques of our order with an outsider - that is most unbelievable, indeed. He must have seen something extraordinary in Wulong."
         "But if Lei was this strong before, then how was I able to beat him so easily? Unless..."
         "You," Stryker breathed, quivering from the intensity of his hatred, "you're one of them." On the surface, his enemy appeared to be a wiry, short-statured Chinese man, but underneath he carried the same corrupt taint as the demons who had-
         -who had-


         The sky spits green fire. Almost everyone in his city is held paralyzed, glowing in the ghostly light, yet perhaps one in twenty humans retains freedom of movement. A hideously radiating vortex opens above the urban sprawl.
         Monsters pour from the hellhole.
         Some are mutated killers with metal-toothed grins. Some are man-beasts, giants with the lower quarters of a horse. Others still are clawed, fire-eyed demons in twisted mockery of human shapes. These are the most horrible. The mutants and Centaurians murder with only a thrust of their blades, but the demons take their time - they will torture a victim for hours, and leave behind naught save a shriveled, soulless husk. All the monsters have a single purpose: to find and butcher human survivors.
         He is the leader of a skeleton riot patrol, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, explosives, and gas grenades. It does no good. Bullets ricochet off the horse-monsters' skin; the demons walk through fire; and for every mutant that falls, ten more take its place.
         His riot patrol can save no one, least of all themselves. Alphonse is one of the first to die, spitted on a sickle-blade like a roasted piece of meat. The demons capture Lorenzo; his screams last for a full night before they finally cease. Andrea becomes infected with madness. She turns her gun upon five of her own teammates, then fires the last bullet into herself.
         He should be dead as well. No living person can survive the holocaust that sweeps his city. No sane person can walk away from its burnt-out husk.



         "I'LL MAKE YOU PAY!" Stryker roared. His hand dug into the pocket of his slacks; then he withdrew the empty member with a confused look on his face.
         Lei turned the corners of his lips up in a crooked grin. "You didn't spell out exactly how you planned to destroy me before you acted. You're learning. Slowly, but you're learning. If you were learning quickly, you wouldn't give me any warning at all, but hey."
         "Why, you-"
         "Looking for these?" Lei flipped a fruit-shaped grenade in the air, caught it, and made it vanish in a shower of azure sparks. "Took them off you when you were down."
         The Hong Kong cop carried himself completely at ease, hands up in guard position, legs slightly bent, taking slight quarter steps to the side as he surveyed his furious opponent.
         Stryker charged again, with a wordless, guttural snarl. This time, he slung his baton low, aiming for Lei's ankles. The Hong Kong cop flipped in backwards, out of the way.
         "You're still going a little too wide on the backswing. Try a shorter, snapping motion; leaves you less open to counterattack, eh?"
         "Damn you, monster! Fight back! STAND AND FIGHT!" Every time Stryker lunged at his phantom enemy, the result was the same - a dodge, a turn, a skillful counter that left him more frustrated than ever. Fatigue wore upon him, and his breath came in irregular, heaving gasps. The demon remained feather-light on its feet.
         As Jun watched the oddly choreographed dance, her face became first blank, then cross with pent-up suspicion. This struggle would have been over long ago, if Lei were to counterattack in a manner that actually dealt damage. Yet he did not. Instead he dodged, or deflected, or grappled, all the while offering advice in a friendly, if slightly patronizing tone of voice:
         "-you call that a fighting stance? A stiff breeze could tip you over! No, no, keep your weight lower to the ground; that way you'll be ready for me when I try to trip you up like this-
         "-and don't climb back up by crawling to your knees; kick with both feet like a frog! You don't know how to fight from the ground yet, so you'd better spend as little time on it as you have to!
         "Sheesh, from the way you're favoring your right leg, it looks like you've pulled a muscle. The moral is: stretch out. Every morning and evening. I'm sure you've seen Kang and the rest go through the motions; get in the habit of doing the exercises. A little flexibility goes a long-"
         "SHUT UP!" Stryker screamed. When he punched the demon's taunting mouth, the fiend dipped so fast it seemed to have read his thoughts - and then its arms were around his throat; it had twisted behind him again, only this time it had his head in a sleeper hold.
         "WHEEAH!" Shouting a raspy battle cry, the demon pulled back on Stryker's neck. Stryker's legs folded at the knees in an automatic reaction; his tailbone hit the ground, an impact that could have been quite painful if not for the mat that cushioned it. The enemy was seated behind him, legs spread in a wide V, with its wiry arms securely about his throat. One hard wrench would break his neck.
         "Got you now," the monster chuckled. "What're you going to do about it?"
         That was when the despair hit.
         It was futile. It had always been futile. Stryker no longer knew why he struggled, when this demon was so much stronger than he. He was as helpless now as he had been when they first came, massacring everything in their path.
         The stress drained from Stryker's muscles. He let his head fall forward. For the first time in months, a sense of peace settled over him. There was a strange freedom in accepting the inevitable.
         "Come on, Kurt, aren't you paying attention? I said, what are you-"
         "Do it," he whispered.
         "What?" A surprising amount of annoyance permeated the question.
         "I never knew why I was spared, but now I understand - it was just an oversight, wasn't it? Correct your mistake. Kill me."
         "Is that really what you want?"
         The monster's voice dropped to a faraway murmur. "It's so easy, isn't it? To just surrender to the darkness, and let it blot out the pain..."
         "Yes." The despair mounted, and Stryker closed his eyes, anticipating the end. "Yes, it is."
         "Well, I don't care how much it hurts!" And suddenly, the grip around Stryker's neck was gone. The demon crouched in front of him now; its mahogany eyes riveted him with a dark, piercing glare. "You have to be stronger than that - dammit, you're a freaking Chosen One!"
         Stryker's eyes became wide. His hand automatically went to his throat. Only now, he realized that the demon had never held him so tightly as to constrict his air supply.
         "Why...?"
         "The next time you get caught in a headlock, stomp on your opponent's foot and ram your elbow into their solar plexus, like this." Lei demonstrated the motion and showed the target area on his own body. "Otherwise, it really will be over, and maybe not just for you. The entire world is counting on you Chosen!"
         Stryker blinked and shook his head. Had he been mistaken about this enemy? Yet he could still feel the loathsome brand that devoured it, and set it apart from the untainted mortals nearby. What was going on?
         "Then the world is doomed," he wheezed, unable to figure out the riddle. "You're only one of them, and I can't even touch you."
         "Not yet. But don't give up on yourself so quickly. The difference between us, Kurt, is that you've never had more than department training and maybe a little field experience, while I've been traveling the bleeding world to study martial arts ever since my early teens.
         "You've got potential, Kurt. You have the strength, and I know you have the will, else you'd never have brought yourself out of that trance to begin with. You're back among the living; now it's time to do some good with your life."
         With that, the demon turned and walked away from him. Stryker shut his eyes and submerged himself in the depths of thought.
         Lei flashed a broad smile as he approached Jun. "Sorry that took so long, kid; thanks for putting up with me. So, where do you want to go next?"
         Jun folded her arms. Her fingernails dug and dragged, leaving white trail marks on her skin. Her jaw set itself in a terse line, and hostile accusation filled her ginger eyes.
         "Kid, is something wrong?" Lei asked, taken aback.
         Jun's hands clenched; she forced them rigid by her sides and transfixed the cop with a wrathful stare.
         "You threw our fight!"


End of Chapter 8: Nature Walk