ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 10: Serpent in the Garden


    And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. And he cast him into the abyss, and closed and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years should be finished. And after that he must be let loose for a little while.
         -Apocalypse, 20:01-03


         I want so badly to warn them.
         Kazuya's agent has insinuated himself within Sanctuary. With terrible, precognitive clarity, I see what is to come. More than anything else, I wish I could stop it. Desperation born of impending calamity tears at me. I yearn to intervene with my lightning and hurricanes.
         At the very least, I want to cry a warning... just a single word of warning...
         *Your desire is in violation of the Divine Sanctions.*
         There is no denial I may make. Even if it were in my power to lie, I could not deceive her. No mortal can cheat her, though many have tried; no god can defy her, though many pretend to. The most I may do is simply confront her. There was a time when I was unafraid to do so, but that was in the past.
         She has innumerable names, and infinite forms. Sometimes she is the cutting edge of violence, the explosion of a bullet or the kiss of a knife. Sometimes she is pestilence that chokes, sickens, and eats away one's insides. Or else she is the natural decay that comes with time, as mortal cells become slower and less efficient, until they simply stop. On a barren threshold between worlds that threads upon itself like a serpent eating its tail, she is a great dragon of bones, whose formless black eyes rake the depths of one's soul.
         Here, she appears to me in what is, perhaps, her most benign manifestation.
         Radiant white engulfs her. It shines from her alabaster skin, and lends an ethereal glow to the narrow, feathered wings folded against her shoulders. Her aqua eyes are a fathomless sea unto themselves. Crimson lips occasionally seem to be smiling - in mercy or cruelty, who can say? Her tightly bound hair is the gold of sunset, or of a living soul. She is adorned in gathered ivory folds of cloth, tied with golden thread about her forehead, upper arms, waist, and sandals. A light wreath garnishes the sides of her forehead. Inset within the center of her brow is a gem of deepest azure.
         Mortals of the Mother Realm have described her as Pistias Sophia. I will refer to her simply as the Angel.
         She embodies a force that has dominion over all that lives, even gods, for 'immortality' is at best a relative concept. It is for this reason that she enforces the Divine Sanctions. Nothing less than the threat of utter annihilation can be trusted to restrain beings of celestial magnitude.
         Such as myself.
         *The Mother Realm has come under the dominion of Outworld gods. You may not answer the prayers of your Chosen Ones.* Her pronouncement is cold and pitiless, without compromise.
         ~What about you, then?~ I contest. ~Why don't you do something?~
         She folds her arms and turns away her head, as though I am beneath her notice.
         *I have my own Chosen Ones, just as you have yours. They must succeed or fail on my behalf.*
         ~Why should you have to rely on mortal agents? You are not a god, and therefore not bound by the Sanctions.~
         *No. There are other, greater Laws that keep me at bay, and necessarily so. Do not misjudge what I am.*
         She holds me in place with the gaze of a Gorgon.
         *The Shao Kahn and I are not as different as you might think. The greatest disparity between us is that I respect my boundaries in both letter and spirit, while he has forgone the spirit for solely the letter. As horrific as the Kahn's reign may be, it is not without hope. Should I abandon that which constrains me, nothing that lives shall ever know hope again. That is why I cannot intervene any more than I already have. And if you seek to assist your Chosen, I shall unmake your essence with less than a thought.*
         I am Raiden, god of Thunder, yet I hold less power than an insect.




         Alone and proud, Kazuya stood within his inner sanctum.
         The master sorcerer's plan to destroy the Chosen Ones was working admirably, so far. His reagent had infiltrated Sanctuary.
         Kazuya reached out with one hand, palm cupped and upturned. In response, the multiple mirrors surrounding him swirled with changing colors. The master sorcerer felt for the power of his reagent; when he found it, the whirls resolved into a cornucopia of people, their sleepy images captured on glass in the grey hour immediately prior to morning. Every nook and cranny of the Chosen Ones' last bastion was laid bare to Kazuya's prying eyes. Every whisper of gossip was plain to his ears. Moreover, the master sorcerer could feel that which lurked within the sacred earth; Sanctuary's defensive spells were just beyond his fingertips, a hair's breadth out of his grasp.
         This was going to be a problem.
         Sanctuary's wards had a twofold purpose: to conceal from the eyes of evil, and protect from the presence of evil. No uninvited evil creature could tread upon the sacred lands without being drained of nearly all strength, or use sorcery to directly harm any of Sanctuary's refugees. Now that Kazuya knew where Sanctuary was, he had the option of sending his army to burn it down, but his troops would quite possibly be decimated.
         No. First, the spells had to be dealt with.
         If not for his reagent, Kazuya never could have slipped past the cloaking spells. Undermining the second half of Sanctuary's defenses would be much harder. Though Nightwolf was not currently around to maintain the wards, Chief Thunder was doing a damnably good job in his place. The wards' rate of disintegration had been slowed to a negligible amount. If Kazuya were to accelerate the decay, someone within Sanctuary would doubtless sense it, and that would ruin the element of surprise.
         Yet the master sorcerer could not be content with merely waiting. Though Kazuya was familiar with the virtue of patience, his ally the Shao Kahn was not. There had to be a better way.
         The master sorcerer smiled to himself.
         Of course. It would be so simple. Not easy, but simple.
         Kazuya gathered his Ki. He could not use his power to directly, personally destroy those who stood in his way, just yet. Soon, though. Very soon.
         "Sleep," Kazuya commanded. With the hissing word flowed lassitude, exhaustion, the all-encompassing desire to let go of the conscious world and surrender to the black abyss.
         Pictures in the mirrors responded all at once.


         "-and we have to convince them that eight hours is too long for a shift at watch," Michelle narrated to T. Hawk. The great wrestler sat opposite her in a secluded space, intent upon her words, though weariness from the long night pulled at his eyelids. "By the end of that time, a watchman will be too tired to..."
         Sleep.
         "To..." she yawned, covering her mouth with one hand. "Where was I? Oh, yes, the guards. Their shifts should be rotated at four-hour intervals. We need to talk to..."
         T. Hawk tried to concentrate harder on her monologue, but when she yawned again, so did he, and his head slumped forward of its own accord.


         Kung Lao had been up late, brooding in his hospital bed. He knew that he ought to get some sleep, but something was keeping him awake - apprehension? Anxiety?
         An instinct without clearly defined cause unnerved him. Maybe it was just that his flimsy plastic hospital gown made lousy pajamas.
         Or maybe it was the Black Dragons gang member in the opposite bed.
         Sonya had assigned a quartet of soldiers to watch the recuperating Chosen One. Kung Lao recognized the guards as Pete, Sal, Zeke, and Paco, four of the 34th platoon's best.
         Just how dangerous was their charge?
         During the trek back to Sanctuary, Kung Lao had overhead Sonya and Jax discussing the Chosen One they had recently rescued. "Kabal," the masked man now called himself, but it was a newly adopted name. He had once been Galgo, a thief, murderer, and member of a cutthroat gang led by the evil Kano. Since Kano's escape from the Outworld, divinations and rumor suggested that he and the Black Dragons had made a pact with the Shao Kahn. Therefore, Galgo had been a minion of that which ravaged the Earth.
         Not the sort of thought to make one feel drowsy.
         But now, Kabal was one of Raiden's Chosen. There could be no confusing that brand upon his life-force: a brilliant zigzag of jagged lightning across the heart. It was the mark of a god, the same streak that distinguished Sonya, Jax, Nightwolf, Sub-Zero, Stryker, Liu Kang, and Kung Lao himself. For whatever reason, Raiden had deemed Kabal equally worthy of representing the forces of Light.
         Do gods ever make mistakes?
         Sleep.
         It was more of an essential feeling than an audible, articulate word that suddenly assaulted the monk's consciousness. He might have assumed it was ordinary weariness, if he had not sensed it before. The most recent time had been when Liu Kang tried, with less than complete success, to render him unconscious during their trek back to Sanctuary. Liu Kang had said it was for his own good.
         "Liu? Is that you?" Consciously resisting the spell that weighed on his mind, Kung Lao sat bolt upright, scanning the entire hall for a mage. He found none, but noticed that three of the four guards Sonya had assigned to watch Kabal were stretched senseless on the floor. The fourth guard cupped his forehead, swayed from dizziness, and stared uncomprehendingly at his slumbering comrades. Kabal was also sitting up in his bed, clutching the sheets tautly with his wiry fingers.
         "You feel it too, don't you?" Kabal rasped to Kung Lao, through the grating whistle of his plasma-powered respirator mask. "Mágica mala. El diablo is about to strike!"
         "Now wait a minute..."
         "You must let me out of here!" the masked man demanded of his one remaining guard, Paco. "We have to stop the monster, before it kills again!"
         "No, I can't." Paco shook his head as if to free himself from a mesh of cobwebs. "Lieutenant Blade's orders are clear. You have to stay put."
         "Ay, caraaaajo!"
         "I'll investigate it," Kung Lao decided, slipping out of bed and wrapping its sheet around himself as a temporary garment. "You two keep alert. And do you have any idea where Sub-Zero stashed my clothes?"
         "No sé nada."
         "Probably in some icebox."
         "Never mind." Kung Lao teleported out of the hospital in a blip of warped space.
         The shimmering layers of distorted atmosphere were a strain on Paco's eyes. He started to rub them-
         -and a forceful closed fist struck his cheek. Paco staggered away and brought around his rifle. Kabal's punch had been weakened because the masked man threw it from a sitting position, but it bought him the time he needed to spring out of bed and face his guard. Kabal clutched at the plasma generator belt that powered his mask.
         "No quiero herirte, pero tengo que-"
         "I'm third fucking generation, okay?" Paco snapped, speaking around the soreness that made his cheek stiff. "I don't speak your gibberish, so you just lie back down, nice and easy, and I might forgive you."
         "Lo siento."
         Kabal's hand squeezed one of the segmented chambers on his belt. Faster than words, faster than thought, a shining star of iridescent violet with a core of roiling white erupted from his alien mask. The turbulent roar of released energy accompanied it, like the concentrated echo of a breaking wave.
         There was an explosive flash...


         Sleep.
         Liu Kang immediately snapped out of his meditations, and sprinted out of the Temple of Light. His sharp footsteps rapped soundly against the floor.
         "Hey... where are you going?" Seated on a humble wooden stool and lost in the recesses of thought, Kurtis Stryker massaged his eyes. An inexplicable weight of lassitude had threatened to overwhelm him a moment before, but the sudden vision and sound of Liu Kang running rekindled his fixation on the waking world.
         Stryker frowned and followed the monk. His legs were sore from earlier exertion, though; by the time he limped outside the temple, Liu Kang was nowhere to be seen.


         Raven of the Bright River looked up at the uniform grey of predawn sky, wishing she could see moon, stars, or sun. Since the Apocalypse, the only way left to keep track of daily cycles was through intensity of light, which was never very intense. She missed a time when the sun shone so fiercely, one could not step outside without having to protect one's eyes.
         Today promised to be lonely. Her husband's duty had occupied him all night, and he would doubtless be too tired to speak when he was finished. She had prepared his bed in advance. He would need all the rest he could get, if he were to singlehandedly sustain Sanctuary's wards until Nightwolf's return.
         Sleep.
         The wise-woman swayed. Her hands tightened their grip on her staff. Early morning was normally her most vigorous time of day, yet the external pressure to succumb brought her to her knees. Her staff was all that kept her from sprawling unconscious on the ground. She did not need supernatural intuition to know that something was dreadfully wrong.


         Sleep.
         The sacred power of the Phoenix increased Chief Thunder's resistance to fatigue of all kinds. Engrossed in ritual, concentrating entirely upon chanting and stoking the flames of the holy altar before him, the Chief never noticed the silent command. Nor did he hear the quiet thud of his outside guards collapsing, as they fell asleep at their posts.


         Jun hugged her knees outside the closed door to Lei's room, waiting out the hours until dawn. The tapped energies of Sanctuary's sacred lands sustained her, awake and moody. Through the portal, she sensed the warm glow of Lei's quiescent life-force, faint but steady. A corner of her mind stayed continually in touch with the feeling, as comfort that the cop's previous drinking binge had not stopped his heart or lungs. Perhaps it would have been easier to open the door and study him directly, but she didn't want to wake him up... or worse, hear him mutter more things in his sleep.
         "Why is he attracted to Michelle?" she asked, very quietly, of the wind spirits. "Is it because she's Chinese too? She may be beautiful on the outside, but she hasn't shown him any kindness."
         Sleep.
         Jun blinked. She had to stand up in order to remain awake. Even the natural energies supporting her were not enough to avoid a yawn, and yet, she suddenly felt very tense on the inside. The pervasive sensation of being watched settled upon her soul.


         Kazuya narrowed his eyes. A handful of people had managed to resist his sorcery, but that was to be expected; nay, capitalized upon. Everything was going according to plan.
         The master sorcerer focused on a central mirror, one shrouded in darkness. In the heart of the shadows, Lei Wulong slept sprawled on a mattress.



         The dream is always the same.
         Violence.
         There is a twist, however; for once, the dreamer can fight back. He is taller, stronger, older than before. If he cannot match his menacing enemy in size and strength, he will fill the gap with raw determination.
         "I should have let you drown in the gorge! This time, I won't send anyone to save your miserable hide!" roars his enemy's profound, hateful voice, in a language the dreamer shouldn't understand. The power of his foe's flying side kick is so great that even when he throws up his arms in a shield, he is forcefully pushed away. Just as he tries to regain his balance, three sharp raps from heavy fists crash into his jaw, buffeting him and shoving him off his feet.
         Stop. You should not fight here, urges a voice in his head. This is a battleground of dreams and memories. It is like quicksand; the harder you thrash, the more deeply you are sucked in!
         He ignores the voice. There is no time to waste listening to it; he must destroy his enemy, or die. Even as his tall opponent lurches toward him, he flips over on his stomach and thrusts his left leg up and back. His heel connects with his enemy's groin.
         "UUU-ugh!" grunts his opponent, and for once, the mighty behemoth is not so mighty; he almost looks small, shrinking in on himself like a marionette with drooping strings. His hands cover the injured area.
         "That's so you'll never give me any brothers or sisters," the dreamer growls, unable to keep his inner hatred from spilling forth in a scornful taunt. "Because if you did, I know you'd make them suffer like you made me, old man!"
         His name is Heihachi Mishima, and he is not your father! These are not your memories! This never was your battle!
         "...you'll pay for that..." Heihachi groans. Beneath his imposing brow, his jet black eyes glitter dangerously.
         The threat is real. To counter it, the dreamer presses his advantage, rushing forward with a forward-facing shift in footwork to support his own series of rapid fire punches, left, right, left, and right. Heihachi tries to bring his hands back up in defense, but once the first strike connects with his grimacing face, he cannot resist the inevitable, furious wave. The dreamer finishes with a snapping front kick; it knocks the older man flat on his back.
         "You don't deserve the Mishima syndicate! I'm taking it away from you! I'm taking everything away from you!"
         Stop it! You are not of the house Mishima!
         He does not acknowledge that desperate, shrieking voice as he sails through the air, landing on Heihachi's torso. His knees crush the wind out of the old man, and one, final punch to the face makes those loathsome eyes roll up under their eyelids.
         "You hear me!?" the dreamer yells, but Heihachi does not hear. The old man's arms and legs go completely slack. He is battered unconscious, utterly defeated.
         But he is still alive.
         The dreamer wraps one hand around his bruised knuckles, and contemplates his options. He stands, viewing their fighting ground.
         It is the same ravine from twenty terrible years ago. Scarcely a dozen meters away, solid earth ends in a jutting precipice over a chasm of doom. A low-flying cloud cloaks the yawning gulf in mist. Distant birds soar through the void.
         Perfect.
         He shoves both arms under the old man's back. Using the hold like a forklift, he carries Heihachi - not an easy feat, but the exhilaration of adrenaline flows freely through his blood. At long last, he will have revenge.
         Step by step, he brings Heihachi's limp body to the brink of the gulf. He has only to let his arms drop, and the old man will fall to his death.
         That is what Kazuya did! You are not Kazuya!
         He has only to let his arms drop.
         You're a better person than this!
         He has only to...
         You are LEI WULONG!
         "Wh-what...?" With the streaming brilliance of enlightenment, he realizes that he is about to coldly murder a helpless person. The thought repulses him, clashing against everything he considers honorable and good. Yet another, darker set of values urges him forward. A crueller, more ruthless mind partly superimposed over his own sees no wrong in casual killing for revenge. He struggles, trapped between separate identities. One exists in his heart, but the other embodies the very stuff of his nightmare.
         "He is evil. Why not let him fall?" The merciless question comes from all around; its callous tone is dramatically different from the well-meaning, almost protective voice in the dreamer's head.
         "There are... other ways to bring Heihachi to justice." With each word, the dreamer's core identity becomes firmer, more separate from the intangible hatred that surrounds him. "Kazuya could have arrested his father, put him on trial for his crimes, and purged the Mishima syndicate's corruption. Instead, the son became the mirror image of his father's evil."
         "How dare you say that? I am nothing like him!"
         A chop with the side of the hand strikes the dreamer between his shoulder blades. Stunned, he falls to his knees. His arms shudder, and give way.
         "NO!" he cries, but the numbing sting of the blow restricts his actions; his attempt to grab the falling man clutches only empty air. Heihachi plummets into the gulf without a sound. Mist swirls, hiding his tumbling body from view.
         "Do not act so traumatized. The old man is still alive. Somehow, he survived and climbed back out of that pit to plague me," spits the sibilant, hate-filled voice. "It is my fault. I should have finished him off properly, but I have a weakness for poetic justice. If not for my obligation to destroy the Chosen Ones, hunting down and killing my father would be my foremost priority."
         The dreamer slowly turns around. When he sees the speaker, it shatters the last, binding wisp of schizophrenic confusion.
         "You," Lei growls to Kazuya Mishima. "Give it back!"
         The master sorcerer lifts one jet black eyebrow. "Give back what?"
         "Everything!" Lei rages, throwing up his hands in anger. "All the lives you took, all the good things you've destroyed! Give me back my-"
         "Why should I?"
         "Then I'll TAKE it from you! If I have to cut open your chest to get it, I will!"
         No, Lei! Don't fight him here!
         Kazuya smiles. "One moment you shirk from murder; the next you embrace it as the solution to all your problems."
         "I already TRIED arresting you! You shape-changed into a devil and butchered six good officers!"
         "An unfortunate necessity. Yet I did spare you their fate, and give you a gift of power. I suppose a modicum of gratitude would be too much to ask?"
         "Damn you!" Lei's hands clench, and shake with furor. "Give it back, or I'll avenge your victims with your blood!"
         "You cannot challenge me here. This is my domain, and you are my tool. You shall not wake from this nightmare until I so permit, and you shall not approach me until you have fulfilled your purpose."
         "HssssSSSSSSS..." Lei does not know why he makes the vicious, serpentine sound. It simply flows out of him, the natural outgrowth of his accumulated hatred. "Give. It. BACK!"
         "Come and get it," sneers the master sorcerer.
         No, don't!
         "HsssSSSHAH!" Lei screams as he lunges forward, consumed with unthinking ferocity.




         Chief Thunder's ritual finally reached its culmination.
         He stretched both hand-axes skyward; the crackling emanation of his life-force flashed about his arms and weapons like lightning, making the feathers that crested his bald head shine radiant gold. Chief Thunder bid his strength to become one with that which consecrated the sacred earth against evil intruders.
         As the session came to an end, he finally began to feel the long night's toil. To draw any further upon the Phoenix's fiery stimulation would risk burning himself from the inside out. Chief Thunder let his arms fall. He would welcome a warm bed before he so taxed himself again.
         Something was behind him.
         One instant, there was no one; the next, it was in the shadow of his fires. Chief Thunder whirled and chopped with the axe in his right hand. Claws wrapped around his forearm. He pulled his limb free before they could tighten, but as he did so his enemy's talons dug long rivulets in his skin. Dull red blood spilled freely from the wound. His arm went numb, and the axe slipped from his stained fingers.
         "HssssSSSSSSS..."
         The Chief stared in shock at his ambusher. Its superficial appearance was in the mold of Lei Wulong, but its skin was livid blue, studded with spikes and sharp creases. Stains and lingering whiffs of strong alcohol affected its rumpled clothing. Its solid red eyes sparkled furiously, matched by a pulsing glow from the vertical ellipsis in its forehead.
         "This cannot be!" gasped the Chief.
         "HsssSSSHAH!" the demon screamed as it lunged forward, reaching for his throat.
         Chief Thunder could not afford to wonder how the monster could be here, attacking him; there was barely enough time to retreat from its lethal swipe. Its claws passed through the sacred fires on the extension of their swing, shearing through charred wood. The demon cried out, gripping its burned hand.
         "Phoenix!" the Chief shouted. He dipped on one knee, swooping the flat of his left axe blade in an underhanded half-circle. His inner strength reformed itself into the image of his blazing patron spirit, an elegant firebird that flew from his axe and into his enemy's face, then exploded in a sparkling pyre. Blinded by the purity of the light, the monster shrieked in pain. It was the perfect opening.
         "SAMMAMISH!" roared the Chief. The feathers lining his scalp became a living wreath of molten gold, blazing with supernatural strength, as he rammed the monster with a headbutt. What would have been a gut-wrenching blow, combined with the power of the Phoenix, became an unstoppable assault. He added a knee strike to the pit of its stomach, followed by a forceful uppercut, smacking the flat of his axe under his enemy's jaw.
         The demon hit the ground with an almost human outcry, then lay still, poised on its back. Its blood-red eyes flicked shut, and its fingers became stiff.
         The world swam for a moment. Chief Thunder reeled from his own abrupt motion. Fatigue and blood loss weakened him. The lightheaded sensation was dangerously close to unbearable, but he dared not guess for how long the demon would remain unconscious, and if his guards had not come in response to the noise of the fight, they had to be incapable.
         First, he would deal with this threat to Sanctuary. Then he would attend to his own health.
         Looking down upon the unearthly, livid blue pallor of the demon's face, Chief Thunder sadly shook his head. Reluctance threatened to stay the Chief's hand, for Lei Wulong also bore the totem of the Phoenix. But Lei's curse had caused him to violate his Oath. Chief Thunder did not understand how such a thing could be, yet it was. All his precautions had been for naught. There was only one option left.
         "I will send you to the great beyond with honor, warrior." The Chief raised his remaining axe high above his head, to the fullest extension of his left arm.
         The demon's eyes snapped open.
         Its blood-red forehead mark changed color to gold. A piercing, narrowly focused beam of light erupted from it at the speed of thought. An infernal blast engulfed the Chief, consuming him with electrical pain, but that was not the worst of it. No, the worst was the uncontrollable slack that depressed his every muscle. It was like being poisoned. His last axe fell from his grasp, and the floor rushed to greet him.
         Demon's claws stopped his fall. They secured a hold around his throat and hoisted him off the ground. Dangled by one monstrous hand, Chief Thunder could feel every prick of its pinpoint talons, yet his body would neither react to their sting nor obey any of his commands.
         It was a sham! Chief Thunder belatedly realized. The monster had feigned unconsciousness just to lure him in close!
         "HSSSSsssss... heh heh." The demon flexed its free left hand and smiled, exposing deadly sharp serpent's fangs. Yet it did not strike. A slight change rippled through its blood-red eyes.
         Hesitation?
         No, not quite. It was deliberately waiting for something. Impatience constricted its mouth into a feral frown.
         Chief Thunder called all the power of the Phoenix to his command. His body remained disconnected except in feeling. The most he could do was focus on the demon and peer into its life-force, searching for an answer to the questions that bewildered him.
         To his complete astonishment, he found it.
         "You..." he aspirated, barely able to push the breath over his gums. "You are not of the Phoenix! You're-"
         "Husband!" As if from far, far away, Raven's voice called in fear. "I have felt an evil presence, and your guards are asleep at their posts. Are you-"
         Five driving nails pierced Chief Thunder's breast.
         "HSSHAH!"
         The demon threw the Chief aside and turned its head. Its forehead mark shone brilliant gold; a paralyzing beam of infernal light leaped from the gem. Raven dived to the ground, pointing with her staff and squeezing its hidden catch. A thin throwing blade sprang from the secret compartment in her weapon's shaft; it whistled past the monster's side, tearing open cloth and carving a spatter of crimson fluid. The infernal blast streaked above Raven's head and scored a black rent in the wall behind her.
         For one, terrible moment frozen in time, she had a clear view of the demon's all-too-humanoid face. Then there was a shimmering half-twist of distorted space, and it was gone.
         Raven tensed, ready to strike with her staff when the demon reappeared, yet it did not come back. Her eyes rested on her husband's limp form. He'd settled on his face, and lay very still.
         "Thunder, my love, are you hurt?"
         Then she saw the blood pooling under his chest.
         Raven rushed to his side, heedless of any monsters that might suddenly materialize. Without stopping to think or speak, she turned her husband over. When she saw what the demon had done to him, she threw back her head and screamed.



         Click.
         There was a muffled sizzling sound. Past the closed door to Lei's room, Jun felt something new. She couldn't tell what it was, only that it overflowed with psychic venom. It hovered threateningly above the repose of Lei's life-force. The wind spirits cried in alarm.
         "Lei? Are you awake?"
         Jun reached for the door. It was locked. She knocked loudly.
         "If you're okay, answer me!"
         No reply.
         Panic flooded her. "SPARKY, EVERYONE, HELP! SOMETHING'S WRONG!" She pounded against the door-
         -and caught herself. No, this would not do. She had to be calm. Only in a stable state of mind could she wield her power.
         Jun focused her Ki on the doorknob. Shining white sparks engulfed the metal. She bid her sorcery infuse the lock and undo its catch. Yet no click resulted. When she tried the knob again, it still wouldn't work. Something was immutably wrong with the latch mechanism.
         "What's up?" Sparky blearily mumbled. Other platoon members poked their heads into the hallway, some annoyed, some curious. It would seem that whatever sleep-inducing trance had settled upon Sanctuary earlier was wearing off.
         "There's-" yet even as she started to tell him, the nameless, oppressive source behind the door receded, moving away until only the feel of Lei's dormant life-energy remained. "The door won't open!"
         He thumped the heavy wooden portal with his hand. "Good wood, this. It's too sturdy to force down, unless we get a battering ram or something. Hey Lei, you in there? Gonna answer us or what?"
         With trembling fingers, Jun keyed a distress sequence into her bracelet. "Sonya, come quickly!"



         "Hawk! Hawk, wake up!"
         "Mrrmph... hrrm?" The wrestler rubbed his eyes and raised his head. Weariness weighed upon him, but it was merely ordinary fatigue, not the oppressive lethargy that had drowned him before. "Sorry. How long-"
         "I don't know!" Michelle violently shook her head. Her high voice was fraught with tension, and she breathed heavily, as if in fear. "Didn't you feel it? A sleep spell! I think it covered all of Sanctuary!"
         "What?"
         "Come on! We have to warn the Chief!"
         T. Hawk sluggishly lumbered out of his chair and staggered after her. She sprinted on a direct course to Chief Thunder's sacred altar. A straggling crowd had begun to gather around it, mostly confused citizens of the Nation who had come to their Chief for guidance. T. Hawk also glimpsed a few of the Chosen Ones.
         "What is going on here?" The titanic wrestler muscled his way through the crowd. As he gazed upon their faces, he saw an unnerving variety of emotions - shock, grief, terror, and rage. An unnatural hush had fallen.
         Michelle's quavering words carried through the eerie silence. "You're too late. Everyone is too late."
         "Too late for what? What has happened!?" Wading through stunned people, T. Hawk at last saw the focus of their attention.
         "No..." The wrestler froze with horror.
         In the middle of the gathering, the crowd respectfully parted, forming a wide circle around Raven and Chief Thunder. Thunderbolt kneeled before his parents, and covered his face with both hands.
         Liu Kang and Kung Lao were also there. Kung Lao had one palm upturned, and beneath the shadow of his wide, razor-brimmed hat, his eyes flashed solid white with concentrated Chi. Ripples of power coursed about his sable vest and brown leggings. He was chanting under his breath. Liu Kang placed his hands together and bowed, reciting a silent prayer, yet inner frustration marred his veneer of repose.
         And Raven...
         The wise-woman kneeled as she supported her husband's unmoving form. Her head was down. Wracked with misery, her long hair hanging disheveled, she resembled a ghostly banshee. Her shoulders hunched with silent sobs. Slowly, as if moving underwater, she reached for Chief Thunder's open eyes, and brushed them shut.
         Slightly to the left of center, the ceremonially painted skin of the Chief's chest gave way to a gaping, bloody pit. Shards of his broken sternum and ribs poked through the rent.
         He was dead.
         Chief Thunder, the Nation's revered leader and greatest warrior, had been murdered.
         "Who... who did this?" Thunderbolt murmured. Building anger tightened his garnet eyes, and inflicted an unsteady vibration in his voice.
         "No idea, but I'm tracing the assassin's teleport," Kung Lao answered, without turning around. "I'll find out where he went in a moment."
         Raven glared at him. Rivulets of tears ran down her cheeks.
         "You know who the killer is. We all do. I saw him murder my husband!" she railed, lifting her head to the sky. "It was the demon Lei Wulong!"
         The crowd gave a collective gasp.
         Thunderbolt drew a straight-edged knife from his boot. Tearing open his shirt, he drew his own weapon across his chest, inflicting six shallow slashes where Chief Thunder once marked himself with war paint. Silhouetted in the weak light of early morning, he appeared the very likeness of his father.
         "I've found it." Kung Lao's eyes returned to normal. "The killer teleported to barracks room 13."
         "Wulong's quarters," Michelle growled.
         Uneven ripples of infuriated talk thrummed within the crowd. Thunderbolt hissed, "The outsiders brought that monster here. They must be in league with it!"
         "No, that cannot be!" Liu Kang sharply returned. "Wulong had to be acting on his own. Do not let one man's crime destroy all we have built together!"
         Thunderbolt raised his bloody knife high. His entire body quivered with torment, and a scream of reprisal burst from his lips.
         "WE WILL HAVE REVENGE!"



         Jun, Sparky, and a growing number of soldiers watched as Sonya leveled her microcomputer at the Lei's door and channeled a burst of roseate energy. It splashed upon the wood, leaving a smoking crater the size of a pear.
         "This is too slow," she concluded with a frown.
         The space next to her became a distorted half-twist, and suddenly Kung Lao was there.
         "There's a bloodthirsty mob on my heels," the monk warned. "Liu was trying to reason with them, but I don't think it will work. Quick, where's Lei?"
         "Inside," Jun answered, pointing to room 13. "But-"
         Kung Lao tried the door; when it refused to yield, he used his razor-edged hat to chop along its grain.
         "Why don't you just teleport past it?"
         "I'm vulnerable for an instant after I rematerialize, and I don't want whatever's in there to have a free shot at me, all right? Damn!" The monk swore as he scored splintering gashes in the wood. "I'm not going to break through before they get here!"
         "Yo lo hago," came a raspy new voice. Sonya tensed at its sound, whirling and targeting her microcomputer.
         "Sorry," wheezed the speaker, holding up his empty hands in a gesture of surrender. It was Kabal. He was sloppily dressed in rumpled military fatigues. "I mean, I'll do it. Just let me try."
         "You're wearing Paco's clothes!" the lieutenant accused. "What have you done to him? And where are the rest of your guards!?"
         "I had to put on something. He is only stunned. The others may be sleeping or awake by now; no es importante! Por favor, I swear I am not your enemy! The true monster is el diablo Wulong. He murdered Chief Thunder, and used magic to bring himself back here! An Indian woman saw it all!"
         Jun shivered in disbelief.
         Chief Thunder is dead? It's impossible. He... he showed me so much... A shift in the air currents carried the lamentations of the wind spirits, and she knew that Kabal was right. Fear and loss took hold of her, crippling her with heartache.
         No. No, I must mourn my teacher later, she enjoined of herself, blinking back tears. Right now, I have to tell everyone that- She started to speak, but her voice wouldn't respond; it was too clogged with anguish.
         "How did you get here so quickly?" Kung Lao demanded of Kabal.
         "I ran. No hay tiempo por esto! We must destroy el diablo before it murders again!"
         "Lei couldn't have hurt anyone!" Jun exclaimed, wiping her eyes. "I've been guarding him for the past several hours. He hasn't left this room!"
         "An assassin teleported into and out of Chief Thunder's shrine, and I've traced his teleport to inside that room," Kung Lao said in a low, quiet tone.
         "Will you please let me at the door?" Kabal pressed. Kung Lao exchanged worried glances with Sonya.
         "Go ahead. We'll deal with you after this business is settled," the lieutenant decided. Turning to Kung Lao, she lowered her breath and questioned, "What's this about a mob?"
         "What do you think? Raven and Thunderbolt are leading a company of the Nation's strongest warriors here. They want revenge on Lei."
         "And everyone associated with him?"
         "Um..."
         "ALL OF YOU, LISTEN UP!" the lieutenant called to the hallway of gathering soldiers. "We have a Code Red emergency! You know the drill - get everyone up and going on the double, move, move, MOVE! Sparky, you relay this to the other floors at once!"
         While she shouted orders, Kabal stood away from the door and adjusted the plasma release valve of his respirator. A warped ball of white-violet energy surged from his mask. The dazzling mass hit the wood with an enormous crash, punching a massive hole through the portal and part of the wall. What was left of the door slammed open on its hinges, clearing a path to the shadows within.
         "Is that what you did to Paco?" Kung Lao muttered.
         "At a lower setting, and cállate! We must kill the demon!"
         "No!" Jun shouted, aligning her bracelet.
         "She speaks correctly. You will not slay Wulong," Raven emphasized, in a husky voice. "That is the Nation's sole right!"
         What was once a moderately roomy hallway had become insanely crowded. Along much of its length, members of Sonya's waking platoon milled; many wore little save nightshirts, yet almost all of them held weapons. Sonya directed them to form narrow ranks with a motion of her hands.
         On the other side, the Nation had come. Raven was foremost among a throng of armed warriors. Thunderbolt and T. Hawk were in a frontal row.
         "Wait!" Jun implored. "Lei couldn't have hurt anyone, because I've been constantly monitoring his life-force. If he'd teleported out of his room, I would have felt his absence!"
         "Were you his guard? Then his crimes are your crimes!" Thunderbolt bellowed, pointing to her with a red-stained knife. Angry murmurs and outcries sounded from the gathering, though a few faces - T. Hawk's, especially - showed concern.
         "You are doubly to blame," Raven seethed, "for it was you who persuaded my husband to invite his own death into Sanctuary. I saw Wulong murder him, and the demon's trail leads here!"
         Jun shook her head. "You saw something that looked like Lei. But it wasn't Lei! Just a few moments ago, I felt an evil presence arrive and depart from this room. I think the killer deliberately led you here; he wants you to believe-"
         "Zhè-li tài châo-le. Wô tóu téng." Lei's weak, dry-throated whimper came from past the ruined door. "Qîng nî-mén zôu-käi..."
         "Come out, demon. Come out where we can see you!" Thunderbolt demanded.
         "Eh? Wh-what's going on out there?" Groggy and disoriented, Lei shambled through the doorway, blinking feverishly in the light. His right hand was compressed tightly over his forehead. But in his left hand-
         A pallor of dread settled upon everyone present.
         "Shimatta!"
         "Madre de Dios!"
         "Gods of Light..."
         "Oh, shit."
         "Murderer! YOU SLEW MY HUSBAND!"
         "Huh?" At first, Lei stared upon the sea of shocked reactions in confusion. Then he became aware of the familiar, sticky feeling on his left-hand fingers. They held something soft, and fleshy.
         "AAAH!" Lei's eyes became wide, and the washed-out tan of his face blanched sickly pale. Despite the horror that engulfed the crowd, no one seemed more frightened than he as he dropped the savaged human heart. It landed with a wet slap on the floor, its shredded aorta dripping small pools of red fluid.
         Lei's knees shook. He collapsed like a broken toy, quivering in abject terror.
         "It's a trick!" Jun protested. "The real assassin planted it on him, while he was aslee-"
         "KILL THEM!" Thunderbolt roared. "KILL THEM BOTH!" The Nation's mob surged forward.
         "Shogai!" Jun thrust out her palm and her soul. Her will formed a barrier, blocking off the entire hallway. The front wave of people crashed into her shield. Sparks of purest white Ki splashed as weapons, limbs and faces were galvanized against the transparent barrier. A medley of voices howled, in pain or rage, Jun could not tell. She simply concentrated upon keeping her shield stable, calling upon the fortitude of the sacred earth to support her efforts.
         Kabal took advantage of the chaos to move directly in line with Lei. The demon was completely oblivious to his presence. Lei curled in on himself, trembling like a scared child. His utter helplessness was appalling. Kabal reached for the control to his plasma release valve-
         -and a swift blow to the back of his head turned the world into a black vacuum.
         "Sorry, but I think Paco would agree you deserved that," Kung Lao sighed, dusting his hands over the unconscious masked man.
         Meanwhile, no one could penetrate Jun's soul barrier. It turned aside fists and steel, responding with an electrical jolt that stunned muscles and muddled the mind. One brave started to level a gun, but T. Hawk boomed, "You fool! THE RICOCHET WILL HIT US!" and wrestled the weapon out of his hand.
         Raven, having been at the peak of the crowd, was the most affected by Jun's barrier; every time she managed to pull away from its dizzying surface, another attack forced her back into it. Finally, in one pause between lunges, Raven regained enough self-control to issue a command.
         "Stop it! STOP, ALL OF YOU! THIS ISN'T WORKING!"
         At first, her cries went unheard, but as the stun-effect of Jun's wall spread to more warriors, the attacks lessened, and people heeded the wise-woman. Thunderbolt was the last to obey. He threw himself into the barrier like a berserker, paying no mind to the shocks that wrenched his body, until he fell to his knees in a defeated heap.
         "You cannot continue this indefinitely," Raven said to Jun.
         "No. Just until you come to your senses."
         Raven gritted her teeth. She knew that Chief Thunder had trained Jun to draw strength from the living land, and that ability could hypothetically sustain her sorcery for hours or days, if necessary. The wise-woman inwardly cursed the bitter irony.
         "Lieutenant Blade!" Raven snapped. "On behalf of the Nation, I demand that you turn Lei Wulong and Jun Kazama over to us for immediate execution!"
         Sonya folded her arms and shook her head.
         "You cannot refuse! You've sworn an Oath to obey us!"
         "No. I've sworn an Oath to obey your laws. Your laws entitle any person accused of a serious crime to trial by jury, and you damn well know it."
         "They are murderers!"
         "Wrong again. Wulong is an alleged murderer. Kazama is an alleged accomplice. Both are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. This is no court of law!"
         Her sapphire eyes flashed. In them were sympathy for Raven's loss, yet steadfast determination balanced it. "Don't you understand? Wulong and Kazama are part of my platoon. If you kill them without a trial, it will set a precedent. What will keep you from massacring any of my soldiers, at any time, solely on basis of accusation?"
         Raven shook her head. "If you do not have faith in our honor, then there is little I can do to change that. But if you shield these murderers from us, we shall hold you equally responsible for their crimes."
         "And if you execute them without a trial, our alliance will be broken! I will take my platoon and leave!"
         "We cannot allow that! You know too much about Sanctuary. The information could fall into the hands of the enemy."
         "Try to stop us, and there will be war."
         "You would risk a war over the lives of two murderers?"
         "You would risk a war rather than give two people a fair trial?"
         The wise-woman's eyes narrowed.
         "A trial, Raven!" Sonya shouted, losing her temper in a sudden burst of outrage. "Is one fucking trial really so much to ask?"
         Kung Lao cleared his throat. "Chief Thunder always had the deepest respect for the law. He never placed himself above it in life, and he would not want you to disregard it now."
         "Quiet!" Consumed with weariness, Raven leaned on her staff and closed her red-streaked eyes.
         Husband, is this truly what you wish? Guide me, I beg of you. I don't know what to do...
         <Mother.> Thunderbolt lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, and spoke to her quietly in Cherokee. <Don't give in to the outsiders. We will surround their murderers' den with a company of braves, and burn it to the ground.>
         <And how many of those braves will die in the battle?>
         <It is a price they are ready to pay.>
         As Raven hesitated, a hushed sound distracted her.
         It was the demon's crying. Broken and crumpled, he lay face down on the ground, clawing at the floor with his bloody left hand. His body shook with muffled, choking sobs.
         Strange. Looking at her husband's killer ought to have inflamed her rage, and yet it didn't. Instead, the tragic clarity of insight settled upon her mind.
         You are only the pawn of a greater evil, she realized, gazing soulfully upon the weeping demon. Her black eyebrows lowered, and her mouth became a flat line. In a way, we all are. Nothing would please the enemy more than a civil war within Sanctuary. He seeks to divide and conquer. I cannot let that happen!
         Raven lifted her head. Fresh tears gathered in her eyes, tears of wisdom and sadness.
         <We will not squander the lives of our people,> she said to her son, softly, but with the firmness of renewed inner strength. <That is what the enemy wants us to do.>
         <But Father->
         <His killers will not go unpunished. I swear it.>
         Raven cleared her throat, and addressed Sonya in English.
         "Very well, Lieutenant. Wulong and Kazama will have their trial, in accordance with the Nation's laws." Her face darkened. "Since their crime was committed on the Nation's soil, against a member of the Nation, we will select their jury from among the Nation's citizens. I will preside as judge. And when we deliver the verdict, you will not only accept it; you will see to it that every outsider under your command accepts it as well!"
         "Agreed," Sonya said with no hesitation.
         "Give them to us."
         "I'll hold you personally responsible for their welfare. If they are harmed before their trial, it will be the end of our alliance."
         "They will be safe as long as they do not attempt escape. Now, give."
         Sonya lightly touched Jun's shoulder. "Let the barrier down, Kazama."
         Jun swallowed a lump in her throat. Knowing that her wall of force could do no further good, she lowered her hand and allowed the ethereal barrier to fizzle out. Raven snapped an order in Cherokee; rough hands took hold of Lei and Jun, forcing them out of the building.
         Lei offered no resistance at all. His head bowed in consummate shame, and he passively stumbled as if through a thick fog. Jun cast one last look over her shoulder, at Sonya.
         I hope you know what you're doing, her ginger eyes seemed to say.
         "The trial will be held at dawn tomorrow," Raven told the lieutenant. "You had better prepare a good defense, because I assure you, there will be no opportunity for appeal."


End of Chapter 10: Serpent in the Garden