ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 11: Due Process


    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury... nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
         -5th Amendment to the US Constitution


         Sanctuary did not have a true prison system. In these early months of its establishment as the Chosen Ones' last bastion, it had not been troubled by any internal disputes fiercer than the occasional brawl. Such incidents were typically punished with additional hours of community service, from cleaning to weapon-making, above and beyond a refugee's expected duty. Though there had been tension between the Nation and the 34th platoon, the overwhelming common threat of Shao Kahn's invasion had provided a strong incentive for cooperation.
         Until Chief Thunder was murdered.
         Hateful looks targeted Kurtis Stryker as he made his way along Sanctuary's dirt paths. A Native American woman spat on the ground and ducked inside her home as soon as she saw his approach. A man standing in the doorway fingered the length of his rifle, and a child fearfully hid behind the man's legs. Stryker was, after all, an outsider; just like the demon who had brutally slain their revered leader.
         Stryker could have told the family that he'd tried to kill the demon the moment he'd first set eyes on it. That the vast majority of Sonya's platoon had absolutely nothing to do with the monster, and most of the rest had been as suspicious of it as the Nation had. That it was Chief Thunder who had freely chosen to invite the fiend within Sanctuary, and paid for his mistake with his life. But what good would it do? How do you reason with raw grief?
         The handful of people who were outside hurried swiftly about their business.
         In the wake of panic, both Raven and Lieutenant Sonya Blade had urged their respective factions to stay indoors and remain calm. Sonya had threatened to shoot any soldier who caused problems. Raven had threatened to lock any troublemakers up with the demon. She'd already decreed that its accessory, Jun Kazama, would be detained alongside it. If the demon were to instigate another rampage, then the healer would either become its next victim or be cut down in the guards' crossfire.
         A shroud of despair had settled upon everyone, including the sentries stationed in front of the hollowed-out cellar that doubled as a temporary jail.
         "Halt!" demanded a tall, broad-shouldered man in the headdress of a bear. The beast's yellowed fangs dangled perilously over his ochre eyes. He brandished a tremendous, single-bladed battle axe. His red-haired companion held the tip of a long spear uncomfortably close to Stryker's gut.
         "What do you want?" said the red-haired guard, evenly.
         "To see the demon. Do I need a permit?"
         "Put down all your weapons. Now."
         "Yeah, yeah." Stryker set down his police baton. Then, careful to tell them exactly what he was doing, he removed his .45 automatic, taser, grenades, and compact explosives.
         "I do not like the size of that pile," growled the bear-guard, eyeing the heaped armaments.
         "Neither do I, but I'm traveling light."
         "Search him, Rock," snapped the red-haired guard. Rock subjected Stryker to a swift pat-down search.
         "You missed the poison needle in my baseball cap," the policeman mumbled, exasperated.
         Rock looked worriedly at his companion. "Wolf, I told you we should conduct strip-searches, but-"
         "Hey! It was a joke, all right?" Stryker hastily added.
         "Take off the cap." Wolf rumbled.
         "I'm not really-"
         "Take off the cap."
         Stryker sighed, and did as he was told.
         "Enter at your own risk."
         "What do you mean, at my own risk?"
         "We have six men with guns watching the demon. If he shape-changes, or seeks to teleport, or the guards feel the slightest tingle of witchery, they will shoot. They will not worry about any outsiders in the line of fire. Any other questions?"
         "Yeah. Haven't I seen you on TV somewhere?"
         "Shut up and go inside."
         "Now I remember. Professional wrestling! They used to call you 'The Hurler,' didn't they? Because you once picked up a fat guy by the ankles and whipped him around in circles, until he hurled all over the-"
         "Shut up and go inside!"
         Stryker grinned, nastily. "Just needling you. Didn't mean to make you hurl."
         "In NOW, or I skewer you!"
         "Whatever." The policeman ducked inside the darkened cellar.
         Rock's eyebrows dipped curiously low. "And you say I have a temper."
         "I left the wrestling circuit because there was no one strong enough to challenge me, not because of a disgusting episode that made my ratings plummet!"
         "Ah."
         "I was 'The Hurler' because I tossed men out of the ring! My reputation inspired so much fear that my agent couldn't book me any competition. Other contenders would pretend to be sick when they heard my name!"
         "You mean, the thought of facing you made them hurl? Ha!"
         "Oh be quiet, you pea-brained-"
         "Now, now. Don't hurl insults."
         Stryker tuned out their bickering and squinted, impatiently waiting for his eyes to adjust to the cell's dim light. True to Wolf's words, a half-dozen braves with semiautomatic weapons watched the demon. Foremost among them was a towering Colossus of a man, with a look of extreme discomfort pasted on his imposing, raptor-like features.
         Lei Wulong sat on a rickety wooden bench next a smallish black table. He'd been stripped down to a few tattered rags; they hung half-open on his torso, revealing part of a jagged black scar. His mahogany eyes had no focus. Dried tear-trails stretched from their inner corners down the length of his face. His left hand, still stained with Chief Thunder's blood, rested limp on the table. Jun held his right hand tenderly, but he did not appear aware of her presence, or of anything else. Sonya was also there.
         "What are you doing here?" asked the lieutenant.
         "I heard about everything. Figured there's a chance I could help." Stryker waved his hand in front of Lei's eyes and snapped his fingers. Lei did not respond.
         "He's been like this for hours," Jun explained, sadly. Her voice was hoarse. "I've tried speaking to him, but..."
         "Yeah, well, maybe you just didn't say the right thing." Stryker leaned forward, putting his hands flat on the table, and locked his hazel eyes with those of the demon.
         "HEY, WULONG! STOP FEELING SORRY FOR YOURSELF AND TALK TO US!"
         The demon yelped a piteous outcry and pulled away so quickly, it banged its head against the wall.
         "Argh," Sonya grumbled, wincing. "How about a little warning, next time?"
         "You're telling us!?" boomed the Colossus guard. He and his five confederates were tensely on edge, fingers poised about the triggers of their weapons. The demon's quavering whimper distracted their attention.
         "Th-this isn't self-pity... this is self-recrimination... the distinction is important." Lei covered his face with both hands. "R-really, it is..."
         "I don't give a damn what you call it," Stryker snorted. "You've thrown the Nation into anarchy, put Jun's neck on the chopping block, and pushed Sonya to the brink of starting a war. You owe them answers. After all the suffering you've brought, the least you can do is be coherent for your own miserable trial!"
         "I'm sorry..."
         "Like that will help anyone." Stryker turned around and pushed his way out of the cell.
         Lei removed his hands from his face. They were shaking. He stared at the blood on his left member. "Ch-Chief Thunder is dead, isn't he?"
         "Yeah," Sonya said, tiredly. "He is. Raven says she saw you kill him. According to the Nation's laws, Kazama is equally responsible for the murder, because she was supposed to be your guard. Your trial is tomorrow. Raven and Thunderbolt are calling for the death penalty. Kazama is pleading innocent. I need to enter a plea for you: innocent or guilty."
         "B-but you can bring the Chief back, can't you?"
         "Wulong..."
         "Kung Lao told me all about it!" Lei rushed, standing up. "He was brought back from the dead. You were brought back from the dead! Sixteen times! You're fine now, aren't you?"
         "Lei, sit down," Jun soothed, putting her hands on his shoulders.
         Sonya adjusted her black headband. "Lao and I died during the course of the enemy's corrupt Tournaments. Don't ask me why Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn resurrected us; what's done is done, and I'm sure they regret it by now."
         "But there's got to be a way to bring the Chief back!" Lei shrieked, hysterically. He clasped his quivering hands together in desperate supplication. New tears formed in his eyes as he redirected his entreaty to Jun. "You're a healer, don't you know how to do it? You do, you have to! You do! You do!"
         Jun began to sing.
         It was a soft melody of quiet comfort, one that hushed fears and placated sorrows. Lei gradually slid back down, until he was again seated on the bench. Nervous tremors still pulled at him.
         "Not another calm spell," he groaned, bowing his head. His voice was more subdued, however.
         Jun ended her song. "It isn't. Hawk warned me that if he or the others feel any sorcery in here, they have orders to open fire. I wish they would let me cast a calm spell on you, though, because you're in withdrawal again."
         "Wh-why can't you bring Chief Thunder back?"
         "Because death is part of the natural order of things."
         "I... I don't understand..."
         "Dissolution is a phase in the cosmic balance, terrible yet necessary. To tamper with that balance would only bring more of the chaos and entropy our enemies embrace. It would also require massive blood sacrifice. I know very little about necromancy, but I can tell you that to undo the balance for a single person, dozens, maybe even hundreds of other innocent people must die. Their souls suffer torment and their life energy is harvested like grain, all so a lone mortal can deny Nature.
         "Resurrection is an evil act, performed only by decadent beings such as Shang Tsung and the Shao Kahn. None of us knows exactly how it is done, we wouldn't do it if we could, and Chief Thunder would never want such an atrocity committed in his name."
         Lei swallowed. "It t-takes h-hundreds of lives?"
         "Or more."
         "Mine... wouldn't be enough?"
         She linked her arm with his, and sat next to him on the bench. "Lei, you didn't kill Chief Thunder."
         "But..."
         "You never left your room."
         "...I had this dream. Only it was more than a dream; it was real. Kazuya was there, speaking to me. He called me his tool. Said he wanted me to fulfill a purpose."
         "He was lying."
         "Nn-no. No, I don't think he was. I think I would have known if he were." Lei's voice dropped to a ghostly husk. "A-and then I attacked him, and - I don't remember. I never remember. Just like all the other times, I never remember. He's still alive, though; I'd know if he were dead. But wh-when I wake up, the severed heart of a good man is... is..." He started to shake uncontrollably, much worse than before.
         "The real assassin teleported into your room just long enough to plant it in your hand, while you were sleeping."
         "Y-you saw this?"
         "No, I couldn't see it because the door was sealed somehow. I felt the assassin's life-force. Your life-force never departed that room. If you had moved, I would have sensed it."
         "Through a closed door?"
         "You're innocent, Lei. You've been set up."
         "Psychobabble," he moaned, closing his eyes. "I have human blood on my hands, and my alibi is psychobabble."
         "Look at your left hand, Lei."
         "I-I don't think I can..."
         "Look at it!" Jun commanded, grasping his wrist and forcing his hand flat on the table, palm down.
         Lei's eyes fluttered open. They blinked rapidly, taking in the tiny scattering of crusty red marks on his skin, noticeably less than the crimson imprints on his palm. "There's blood."
         "Look closer. Don't stop at the surface."
         "I-I don't understand," he whispered, pathetically.
         "Take a look at your fingernails. What do you see?"
         He squinted at the red flecks that remained like grisly nail polish. "Th-there's blood on them."
         "But not underneath them."
         "Well, of course not. I trimmed my nails just yesterday." That hysterical note was insinuating itself into his speech again.
         "Look at your entire hand. Yes, there's a little blood on it, but not nearly as much as there ought to be! If you really had torn out a person's heart, your nails would have dark crescents beneath them, and the back of your hand would be drenched with red!"
         Lei fell silent for a long time, studying the stained member.
         Finally, in a faded creak, he asked, "Y-you really think I didn't...?"
         "I know you didn't."
         Lei sighed. "I plead innocent."
         Sonya raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that?"
         "Innocent," Lei stressed, without raising his head.
         "Lies," Raven stated. Her voice was weakened from hours of weeping.
         Sonya looked suspiciously at Raven and Thunderbolt. They had entered in silence; though the lieutenant had seen them coming, Jun was visibly startled.
         Chief Thunder's wife and son appeared calmer now than a few hours ago, which was to say, only simmering with the need for revenge rather than consumed with furious bloodlust. Thunderbolt had shaved his head, marked it with ashes, and wrapped himself in worn clothing. Raven appeared even more unkempt; snarls tangled her long black hair, and her eyes were red-rimmed from shed tears. She leaned on her staff as though it were the only thing that prevented her total collapse.
         "What do you want?" asked the lieutenant.
         "To speak privately with you and Kazama," Raven coldly replied. "It is important, especially to her. You could say that her life depends upon it."



         A tiny corner of Lee's mind, the part that kept track of such things, noted that Kazuya had been summoning him with alarming frequency, lately. It was having a deleterious effect on his psychological stability. He could barely stave off a nervous breakdown in his brother's presence, and hated himself for it. Unrestrained terror made him shake like a trapped animal. The metal floor of Kazuya's inner sanctum hurt his knees.
         "Sanctuary is almost mine," Kazuya observed, as usual brusque and to the point. "It is time to send out my army. They are to move into position and await my signal to invade, which will come in two days. You are not to personally lead them; I have a more important task for you here."
         Was it Lee's imagination, or did the master sorcerer sound fatigued? Had he recently cast some kind of major spell?
         "Two of the Chosen Ones have departed Sanctuary. They are coming here to rescue one of our prisoners; it has not been said which. I expect they will arrive late tonight. You are to kill them. Report to me when it is done."
         Oh, is that all? the silver-haired devil bitterly thought. Perhaps by now, he should have been more accustomed to the dismissive manner in which Kazuya handed down broad assignments, and let him puzzle out the details by himself. Certainly, Lee's skill at making said mechanics fit into place was, to a large extent, what had earned him virtual command of the syndicate.
         "You are dismissed. Go."
         "Mishima-sama, y-you..."
         "Why are you still here?" Kazuya requested. An irate gleam manifested in his jet black eyes.
         Lee could not long endure those merciless orbs, so he looked away. His gaze fell on one of the many mirrors enclosing this lonely place. Its surface reflected an image of Sanctuary; Jun and one of the Chosen were engaged in heated debate with two Native Americans.


         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? I need not prophesy to know that he will butcher men, women, and little children alike.


         Lee's only hope to say it was to close his eyes and rush through the words, without stopping to think what effect speaking them aloud could have. "Wh-when you take over Sanctuary, y-you're only going to wipe out the Chosen Ones, aren't you? Everyone else will have a chance to be part of the New Era, right?"
         Kazuya's upper lip curled slightly, betraying his disgust. "We have spoken of this before. The Chosen Ones must die so that the New Era may live. Now go, before I hurt you."
         Lee went.
         After he was safely out of there, he realized he had no idea which Chosen Ones were about to stage a prison break on the syndicate, or how to recognize them, or what powers they had. But doubling back to ask Kazuya was out of the question.



         "You little fool," Raven scorned. "Can't you see that you are being used?"
         "Chigaimasu." Jun defiantly folded her arms.
         "Hold, Kazama," Sonya suggested. "You really ought to think this over."
         "There's nothing to consider. I was there. I know what I felt. Lei never left his room! He's innocent, and the real killer is still out there!"
         Thunderbolt spat, "You're lying!"
         "No," Raven sighed, shaking her head. "She is not lying. That is the worst part of it."
         The wise-woman appraised Jun with a soul-rending stare. "I know you too well. My husband knew you too well; if not for the purity of your spirit, he never would have accepted you as an apprentice. You could not deceive us if you wanted to."
         "Does that mean you believe me?"
         "No. The enemy is controlling you. He is making you cling to what you believe is truth, in spite of the evidence before your eyes."
         "Chigaimasu yo!"
         "We are offering you a way out, Kazama. If you renounce your reprehensible story and submit yourself to penance, your life will be spared. Continue to act as the enemy's catspaw, and we will destroy you along with the demon."
         "Lei is innocent, and I can prove it! Let us investigate this crime. We'll find out who really murdered my teacher!"
         "You are not leaving your cell!" Thunderbolt raged.
         "Wait." Raven held up her hand to stay him. Addressing Jun, "If you are permitted to do this, and find nothing, will you recant your plea of innocent?"
         Jun lowered her eyes. "I'm not sure I can agree to that. I know what I felt, but... please let me search. I promise you that if I learn anything which makes me believe Lei committed the crime, I'll testify to it in court."
         "Kazama!" Sonya crossly interrupted. "They can't force you to testify against yourself; that's in violation of-"
         "It is agreed," Raven said, ignoring the lieutenant's protest. "You have the rest of today to search for what you need to prepare a 'fair' defense. Rock and Wolf will be your watchers."
         <What!?> Thunderbolt demanded of Raven, switching to Cherokee. <Mother, what is wrong with you?>
         <My son, that is enough. It is the seven days of mourning, and you are not to show your anger,> the wise-woman quietly responded.
         <We cannot allow this criminal to wander around Sanctuary!>
         <It is in our best interest. Do you know how much discontent her arrest has stirred?>
         <Bah! The outsiders->
         <Not just among the outsiders. Our own people as well. Especially our own people. Kazama was the student of both Chief Thunder and Nightwolf. Her healing spells have cured the ailments and saved the lives of countless citizens. Too many of her friends see her as a victim, or worse, are seriously considering her insane claims. A few even question why we have selected a jury that excludes all tribes save Cherokee, or the appropriateness of my presiding as judge. The Council of Elders could divide over this.>
         <That is their problem!>
         <No, it is our problem. The Nation must remain united at all costs. What we truly need is a confession; if there is any chance that Kazama will give us one, it behooves us to take it.>
         <She will never confess! She'll only try to escape!>
         <Even better. That would be a confession in and of itself. She cannot get away from us, but if she is foolish enough to make the attempt, then we will be free to kill her and the demon outright. Such was our agreement with the lieutenant.>
         Sonya cleared her throat. "May Kazama and I have a word in private?"
         Thunderbolt glowered furiously. Raven nodded and swept out of the secluded room, gesturing for him to follow.
         When they were gone, the lieutenant said, "Change your plea, Jun."
         The healer's eyes grew wide. "Moo ichi-do?"
         "Accept their offer. Submit a plea of guilty. The Nation will spare you."
         "Sonya, you defended Lei when a mob was about to kill him, and now you're telling me to-?"
         "They were going to kill you as well. I couldn't let that happen."
         "Lei never left his room! I would have felt it if he-"
         "Just before Chief Thunder's murder, there was a sleep spell. It knocked nearly everyone in Sanctuary unconscious, including me. Your distress signal woke me up."
         "I stayed awake!"
         "Did you really? Or do you just want to believe that so badly that your emotions are overshadowing your reason? You've always been ruled by your heart, and I'm afraid it will be the death of you."
         "Nan no hanashi-o shite-irun desu ka!?"
         "You're in love with him, aren't you."
         Jun's angry posture softened. Her indignation drained away, and she sank into her chair.
         "Itsu...?"
         "My first suspicion was in the sewers, when you nearly clawed out Liu Kang's eyes for suggesting that we should have let Wulong kill himself in peace. That's not like you, Jun. You're not a violent person. I can think of only one emotion that would unbalance you so much."
         "Watashi wa baka," Jun mumbled, lowering her eyes.
         "Plus, there are rumors going around Sanctuary. The latest gossip is that you and Wulong absconded into the woodlands for a midnight tryst."
         "Nani?" The healer stared at her in bewilderment.
         "You really shouldn't have flaunted him in front of the sentries like that. Rock and Wolf couldn't keep a secret if their lives depended on it. Incidentally, if I'd thought you were irresponsible enough to take Wulong as your lover while on actual duty, I never would have assigned you to-"
         "Y-you've got it wrong," Jun stammered, blushing.
         "Do I?"
         "I took him on a nature walk to help him relax. That's all. We didn't even kiss. I was on duty, like you said, and he's been under a lot of stress lately, and..."
         "And?"
         She covered her reddening face. "I don't think he's attracted to me at all."
         "Ah."
         "He treats me like some kind of kid sister. I'm hoping that in time, he might come to see me differently, but... whatever rumors you've heard, they are totally false."
         "Good. It always hurts more to lose a lover."
         "Sonya-"
         "The Nation is not going to let him live, Jun. He killed their Chief."
         "You aren't convinced of that!" It was more of a desperate suspicion than a fully objective statement of fact, yet the briefest, tiniest flicker of uncertainty on the lieutenant's face told Jun that she was right.
         "I'm ninety-nine percent convinced."
         "What's prompting the other one percent? Is it something new? Maybe we can use it in court."
         "Very well, Kazama." Odd. Jun realized that for a moment there, she had been on a first-name basis with the lieutenant; now the instance rippled and faded, leaving only the businesslike relationship between commander and soldier. "I'll talk to Kabal; there are a few questions I need to ask him. You do what you think is right. We'll see what we find."



         Baek Doo San sat on a simple metal chair, alone in his quarters. Alone, that is, except for Reptile's solid-black necromantic construct with eyes of red fire, perched on the bedpost. The thing was in the shape of Baek's namesake, the Killing Hawk, and perhaps three times the size of a natural bird. It wasn't truly a living creature, though, any more the skeleton steed Reptile had also animated.
         Baek hunched part-way over, resting his folded arms on his knees.
         Times like this, with no killing or mayhem to distract him, were the worst. He had learned how to push clamoring memories to the back of his mind, blank out the emotions and pretend they didn't exist, but he could never make himself forget. Only in the midst of slaughter could he forget.
         Moving of its own will, his hand reached for a closed locket on a white cord around his neck. His index finger flicked it open with a touch. Inside its ebony, oval-shaped exterior was the black-and-white picture of a man with Baek's sorrel eyes, sharp-boned face, and dark brown hair. A mustache and beard distinguished the man in the locket, though, as did some deeper lines about the brow. His right arm hugged the shoulders of a young boy, upon whom he looked down protectively.
         "Father..." Baek whispered. His throat became dry.
         He tried so hard not to remember. Time and again, he'd struggled to divest himself of this last, lingering reminder, yet he could not bring himself to throw the locket away.
         Blood condensed on the picture.
         He could see the crimson liquid form out of nothing, smothering his father and the boy he used to be. Every time he looked into the locket, the blood came back. It was his crime, his damnation that blotted out the past in a pool of his father's blood.
         A knock at the door startled him so much that he nearly screamed.
         Without waiting for an invitation, Lee entered. Ishida and Kimura shadowed their master.
         "I've got a job for you, and I need your bird."
         Baek snapped his locket shut, and clenched it so tightly that his fingers paled. He riveted his eyes on the silver-haired devil. The temptation to kill Lee weighed on his mind.
         "I know the damn thing can see through cloaking spells, and the Chosen Ones know better than to come here without some kind of magical protection."
         A kick to the throat. Yes, if the Killing Hawk were to drive his heel into Lee's larynx, then the younger man would fall to his knees, gasping a death rattle and spitting up blood. Lots of blood.
         "How does the thing work?"
         Ishida and Kimura would try to intervene. They too would bleed. Baek would pivot and cave in Ishida's chest with the force of his roundhouse kick, driving splinters of rib bones into the very organs they were supposed to protect. He would wrap his palms around Kimura's throat, pull the bodyguard over his head, roll onto his chest, and crush his trachea with both hands.
         "Dammit, are you listening to me?"
         Kazuya would be displeased, yes. Kazuya would send people to punish him. More people for Baek to kill. Their blood would drown him in a manic tidal wave.
         "Snap out of it, or I'll have you beaten!"
         There were only so many people in the Mishima syndicate, though. Baek would eventually run out of victims. Then what?
         "That does it!" spat the silver-haired devil. "Ishida, Kimura-"
         "You say you have a job?" Baek stated, in an emotionless monotone. "Someone for me to kill?"
         "I'll ask the questions. How do I control your bird?"
         "You can't. It's tied to my eyes."
         "So untie it."
         "I don't know how."
         "Great. Just great." Lee huffed in exasperation, and lit up a slender menthol cigarette. "So if I keep you and your bird around to help me, who's going to work with the Centaurians?"
         The Killing Hawk stared.
         "Oh, to hell with it. Just send the damn thing flying around the syndicate's perimeter. Use it to keep watch. Alert security the second you spot anything out of the ordinary, and be sure you notify me, too. If you find any Chosen Ones, you can kill them. Got that?"
         Baek didn't move, or even blink; he just stared at Lee with those intractable sorrel eyes.
         "You'd better not screw this up, or I'll take it out of your hide." Lee slammed the door as he left.
         Once outside of that unnerving room, he took a long draught on his menthol cigarette. Its smoke was comforting, though not calming.
         "Goddamn psychopath," the silver-haired devil muttered to Ishida and Kimura. "No wonder Kazuya never talks to him anymore."



         "Lei, I know you can hear me," Jun pressed, when her first questions went unanswered. "This is your life we're talking about."
         "Of course I can hear you. I just don't have anything to say."
         "Last night, I told you that we would talk when you were sober. That time is now. I'm worried about you. You've said that you wanted to give up drinking, but-"
         "We're facing execution, and you're preoccupied with that?" Lei rasped, incredulously. "What, are you afraid I'm going to show up drunk at our trial? Well, let me set your mind at ease. While you were gone, I asked Hawk if he could get me any brandy down here, and he said 'no.' Actually, he said something in an Indian language, but judging from the vicious way he expectorated each syllable, I imagine it boils down to a 'no.' Feel better now?"
         Jun folded her arms. "After we establish your innocence, then what?"
         "I-"
         "What will you do?"
         "-really don't think we have time for this, the trial is tomorrow, and-"
         "Where will you go?"
         "-if we don't throw together some sort of case, it will all become pretty moot for both of us, won't it?"
         "What are your plans?"
         "Dammit kid, I-!"
         "What, Lei? You'll what?"
         He glared at her. She met his gaze with a steady, nonjudgmental stare of her own, until he flinched and dropped his eyes to the table.
         "It doesn't matter what my 'plans' are. What will happen is that sooner or later, very probably sooner, I'll go straight back into that bar and plaster myself to the wall. There. I said it. Don't act like you're surprised."
         "Have you changed your mind about quitting, then?"
         "What the hell difference does it make?" He wrapped one hand around the knuckles of the other, in a vain attempt to keep both members from shaking.
         "I need to know. Until I do, I don't think I can concentrate on proving your innocence, or anything else."
         "So? I doubt you can prove it any case!"
         His exasperation abruptly faded into blank neutrality. A thoughtful note crept into his voice. "You know, I still can't believe the Nation would execute you for something that isn't your fault. You guarded me the best you could. I was inside a closed room. No one thought to consider the risk of a teleport..."
         "Lei, stay on topic. This is-"
         "Maybe it's not too late for you to plea bargain," he distantly mused, looking at the wall as if it possessed some decoration infinitely more fascinating than its chipped, rough-hewn cement. In a matter of seconds, his indignant mood had dissolved into a quiet disconnection. "They might reduce your sentence."
         "That is not an option! Our only chance for survival is to firmly establish your innocence, but I can't make myself focus on that until this is settled! If you really do want to reclaim your life, I need to know that. If you're-"
         She stopped, swallowed back mounting anxiety, and tried again, speaking slowly and with sadness. "If you want to drink yourself into an early grave, then I need to know that, too."
         "Why in blazes should you give a damn?" he snapped, his disposition reverting to uniformly hostile without any warning. His slide from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other was a disturbing sight. "It's my freaking life!"
         "Yes. And it hurts to see you throw it away."
         "No, it doesn't!" Lei shot back, slapping his open hands on the table. He rose from the bench, whipping his head back and forth. "What I do with my life has no effect on you!"
         "You're committing a slow form of suicide, Lei. Do you really think that means nothing to me?"
         "I'm-"


         The table has changed; it is a singularly messy police desk, overflowing with stacks of untouched paperwork. Other piles have illegible scrawls or sloppy typesetting. Nearly submerged under the cascade is a nameplate with the raised bold words "Detective Lei Wulong," in both Chinese and English.
         The people have changed; they are uniformed officers of the Hong Kong constabulary. Their weapons are standard issue, holstered at their sides, and they surround him in a half-circle. He recognizes his closest friends in the department: Chih, Hsieh, Jiao, Hu, and Qiao. Towering over them all is a humongous Colossus of a police shrink.
         She has changed most of all. She is taller, heavier, and broader in the shoulders and hips. Her face is narrower, with features set like those of a cat. Her short brown hair is fitted perfectly beneath a cap she almost never removes, even when indoors, and her uniform is utterly spotless, freshly ironed and pressed. It always seems just a bit too small for her; at times, he has wondered whether that is intentional. Does she deliberately mean for the cloth to cling so tightly to the curves in her figure that it leaves virtually nothing to the imagination?
         It is not her body that confounds him now, however; it is that unbelievable look of regret and sorrow in her eyes. Of all the people in the world, she cannot possibly have conspired with friends and professionals to orchestrate this confrontation, because it would require her to care.
         "-not going to stand here and listen to this crap! I'm doing my job just fine; what more do you want?" He flings the question in her face, daring her to answer. He is eager to know what she wants, so that he can refuse to let her have it. She still won't care, but he will take at least a small measure of satisfaction in the denial.
         "You're not doing your job 'fine.' You used to be a brilliant officer, but now you're barely scraping by, and it's getting worse," she returns, in her husky voice. "Look at your desk. From here, I can see five separate cases that are held up because you can't put together legible paperwork. It's not just a matter of self-discipline; yesterday, you walked in here, and your hands were shaking so badly you couldn't use a typewriter. You were swearing at the machine, and it was in perfect operating condition. I don't even want to think about what could have happened if you'd had to draw your gun."
         "It was a bad day."
         "I'll say it was, because you had a hangover. Your eyes were bloodshot, you covered your forehead as though it hurt, and you snapped at me whenever I spoke louder than a whisper. That's the eighth time in two weeks. Hu and Qiao can attest that you were-"
         "All right, all right, so I've been off lately," he growls, pacing like a caged animal. "You know damn well why. I'm sorry, but I can't stand working with you anymore. Is it my fault they're slow to process my request for a new partner?"
         "There's more to this than your job. It's about your life. Your physical from last month shows-"
         "How the hell did you get your hands on that!?"
         "-so much fatty tissue in your liver, it's sick. Your stomach lining is so inflamed, the last time you tried Sichuan cooking, you had to rush into the men's room and throw it back up. You haven't eaten a straightforward lunch in months, and when you're done for the day, you drink your dinner at that bar around the corner. Just last Wednesday, I saw you through the place's window when I drove home. You were passed out on the floor, and I'd only stayed for an extra hour after you left shift."
         "You were watching? Well, maybe I should've put on a freaking tuxedo so you could take my picture!"
         "The doctor's conclusion is that you're killing yourself, Lei. It's only a matter of time before your organs start to fail, if you don't overdose in one of your binges first."
         "Hey, I know how much I can take-"
         "You're also sterile. It's due to an abnormally low sperm count, influenced by years of alcohol abuse."
         "You have NO BUSINESS saying that in front of OTHER PEOPLE!" he shrieks, pointing accusingly at her.
         "You're my partner. I can't stand by and watch you destroy yourself."
         "Why the hell not?" he challenges, spitefully. "I won't take any more of this charade, Yue! STOP PRETENDING THAT YOU CARE!"
         "My name is not Yue."



         With a jarring twist, the world folded in on itself. Images of the past ruptured and split, giving way to the cell, the guards, and a young woman who was different from Yue in every way.
         Lei sagged against the cement wall. Dizziness made him slump to the floor, and he cradled his spinning head.
         "Wh-what? Who...?"
         "I'm Jun Kazama," said the beautiful young woman. It took a few moments for the truth of that statement to penetrate his consciousness. "I'm your friend. Do you recognize me now? Are you all right?"
         "Eh, yes, and dunno," Lei muttered, rubbing his eyes.
         "You've been pacing and shouting incoherently for a couple minutes now. I'm glad it's over, because you were making the guards nervous. Was it another hallucination?"
         "Hallucination, flashback, DT, take your freaking pick."
         "Who is Yue?"
         "My partner. We worked together in the Hong Kong police department for five years." With the hushed declaration, he surrendered the last of his emotional resistance.
         "It was like she was standing right there, in your place. She once confronted me about my drinking, along with a group of my friends and professional help to back her up.
         "They went on for, I don't know, it seemed like hours. Taking turns. Never raised their voices, or acted angry, or anything like that. They just recited things. Lists of things. All the different ways my drinking was hurting my job and my life, all its embarrassing, painful, or dangerous consequences; they gave so many separate events, it still makes my head ache.
         "Yue was the last one to speak. For a little while there, you sounded so much like she did. I'm... I'm sorry..."
         "It's all right."
         "No. No, it isn't. Because I've been treating you the same way I used to treat her."
         He drew up his knees. "I don't remember much about last night, but it's a little clearer than it ought to be. Probably because I was dragged out of there before I drank myself into a coma, or whatever. I tried to blame you, didn't I? Gave you some line about how you made me get drunk because you yelled at me, or something.
         "I used to say things like that all the time. Especially to Yue; I'd let her think that it was all her fault I was so screwed up. Hell, I used to believe it was because of her.
         "It wasn't until I first tried to quit - I mean, really, completely quit, not some half-baked, never-kept promise to cut back - that I began to understand the truth. Some people helped show it to me. One of them was Master Wu. He taught me about the mess inside of my head, and helped me realize how I was projecting everything I hated about myself on innocent people, like her. And you.
         "It's not your fault I got drunk. The things I said last night were lies. They were even worse than the lies I used to tell, because at least back then I didn't know they were lies. Please kid, you have to understand this: it's not your fault. It's all lies." A heavy inflection of pleading underscored Lei's confession.
         On the edge of her vision, Jun noticed that T. Hawk was intensely concentrating upon them both. The wrestler's face was unreadable.
         "I'm not going to blame myself for your drinking, now or ever," she reassured. "I can't be angry with you for lying, though, because I lied too."
         "You did?"
         "Yes. I lied when I said I hated you."
         "Oh."
         Lei dropped deeper into melancholy. "It would be easier if you really did hate me. Like Michelle does. Then I could drink myself into a stupor without hurting you."
         Jun's shoulders stiffened when she heard the reference. "What's so special about Michelle?"
         "Hm? Eh, nothing in particular. Like I said, she hates me; lots of people do. That's what makes her safe, though. When someone hates you, then nothing you do or say can harm them, and nothing they do or say can harm you."
         "Are you kidding? She had Hawk grind you into the floor."
         "That's not the kind of hurt I'm talking about," Lei dismissed, with a flick of his hand. "I meant the type of pain that stays in your head and heart, for as long as you live."
         "Do you really think you'd be happier if I hated you?"
         Lei shook his head. "I said it would be easier, not better. Not for me, that is. It would probably be better for you, though."
         "Why?"
         "Um..." Lei glanced at T. Hawk and the guards, then back to her. "I don't know if you want them to overhear-"
         "It's all right. Tell me."
         "Eh, well, you used to be... in an abusive relationship. I've seen stuff like that. You can't be a cop without running into plenty of dysfunctional people, and I've seen my share. Wife-beaters, deadbeats, drug addicts..."
         He paused to take a deep breath.
         "...alcoholics.
         "I used to think 'There for the grace of whatever go I,' and metaphorically pat myself on the back, because I wasn't one of those screwed up people. It was a long time before I finally had to accept that I am one of those people. Kid, more than anything else I... I don't want to turn you into one of those people.
         "It's no fault of your own, but you've been mistreated before and you're liable to repeat the pattern. It happens all the time; couples or families hurt each other, split up, and look for new partners to abuse - or to abuse them. Don't you see, even by just being my friend you're twice, a dozen, a hundred times more likely to make yourself as sick in the head as I am. I'm afraid that if you stay my friend, it'll happen. I'd sooner die than twist you up like that, especially after all you've done for me."
         Jun absorbed the heartfelt speech in silence.
         When at last it seemed he had nothing more to say, she answered, "You were referring to my fiancé, weren't you? It's true that we used to have an awful effect on each other.
         "It wasn't exactly that he wanted to hurt me, or make me feel miserable. He needed me too much. I think that was the root our problems; he craved my attention so badly, and became insanely jealous when I bestowed it on anyone or anything else - friends, family, school, or especially animals. It made him angry when I looked after injured wildlife, or went for long nature walks alone. As time went on, he became more and more possessive, while I missed my freedom. We had many arguments about it. I used to be on both sides of a lot of yelling.
         "It all came to a turning point six years ago. He wanted me to marry him and have children. Just drop out of school, move into his home, and spend the rest of my days as a devoted housewife.
         "I... I think I would like to get married and raise a family someday, but you have to understand, I wasn't ready. I was only sixteen and still in high school. The idea of spending the rest of my life behind closed doors terrified me so. When I tried to explain my fears and suggest a brief separation, I think I only made him more afraid of losing me.
         "You already know the rest. He hit me, and I ran away from him forever.
         "That period of my life has had effects on me, I guess. I've come to know myself a lot better since then, and the guidance of the wind spirits helps me. Perhaps the worst legacy is that when something truly hurts or frightens me, I'll lash out. Like I lashed out yesterday.
         "I shouldn't have yelled at you, Lei. I'm not going to blame myself for what you did afterward, but I am sorry for what I did.
         "You see, Lei, when you refuse to use my name... when you insist on calling me a little 'kid'... it hurts my feelings. Over time, the pain built up until I finally snapped and let it all out at once. But I know - I guess I knew all along - that I can't force you to respect me, and I can't let your perception of me overshadow who I really am.
         "So in the future, I'm not going to correct you. On the other hand, if you insist on calling me 'kid' then I won't answer you; when you want my attention, you have to use my name."
         Lei stared at her, as if seeing her for the first time. "It hurts your feelings?"
         She nodded.
         "Wh-why didn't you say so? I had no idea."
         "No idea? If I told you once, I told you a thousand times-"
         "Well, I knew it annoyed you, but that's not the same thing, eh?"
         His head drooped. "I respect you. Really, I do. You're tough, you're smart, and you've saved my life. I only call you 'kid' because it's easier."
         "'Easier'? You mean, easier to pronounce?"
         "No. Just easier. Sorry. I-I can use your name. Jun." His eyes closed, and that faraway tone was seeping back into his voice. "It's a pretty name. I don't deserve to have someone with that name for a friend."
         "I'm not going to stop being your friend," she reassured, laying a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "No matter what happens. Sparky and Kung Lao are your friends, too. We can help you take your life back - but first, you have to want to do it."
         "I'm not sure it matters anymore. Yeah, I want to quit. I don't think I can." He sounded weary, like a heavy weight had settled on him.
         "You can't do it alone. If you accept other people's help and commit yourself to working with all of us, though, you'll have a much better chance."
         "Eh?"
         "Do you remember what Sub-Zero said? Sanctuary has a support group for alcoholics. A number of people here have had problems with drinking, especially among the Native Americans. In fact, the only reason that bar exists at all is as a compromise. The Nation allows it so that those among Sonya's platoon who like to drink will keep it to just that one place. It's illegal to possess or consume alcohol anywhere else in Sanctuary."
         "Oh."
         "When Nightwolf returns, I'm sure I can get him to counsel you. He's very wise, and he owes me a favor. And Sub-Zero might be able to help you more, too; I don't think there's anything he can't make in that lab of his. I know of a drug, disulfiram-"
         "Antabuse?"
         "-that makes you extremely sick if you try to drink even the tiniest-"
         "I know what Antabuse does. You need a real freaking doctor to prescribe it, not some freeze-dried faith healer."
         "Well, disulfiram is one more option. Or else we could arrange for you to be banned from Sanctuary's only bar; that would have a similar effect, at least for as long as you stay here. Don't you see, Lei? It's not hopeless, if you'll only abandon the self-fulfilling prophecy."
         "All right, ki... eh, Jun. If we both get out of this alive, I'll do whatever you think is best - hang with any group, talk to any shrink, take any drug."
         He'd settled completely into that distant, disconnected persona again. Out of all his mood swings, Jun decided that she liked this one the least. Despite his compliance, she couldn't shake the instinctive fear that she was closest to losing him.
         He removed his arms from around his drawn knees and pressed them tightly into his gut, below the ribcage. Jun recognized the pained symptom, but decided not to draw attention to it now; she'd brought him through so much already, and his psyche hovered at a disturbingly weak ebb.



         If there was one thing Bruce Irvin prided himself upon, it was strength.
         His lean body was a hardened weapon; its lethal force had earned him the name "Nightmare Impact," back when he fought in the streets for money and sport. Not an ounce of slack flesh showed on his muscled chest, compact arms, or ruthlessly powerful legs. Curving black tattoos snaked across his skin, which was a shaded cross between African and Asian. On his upper pectorals, the dark lines resembled a pair of upturned talons, curling around two dots apiece. On his back, a magnificent wyvern spread its wings, which rippled as he flexed his dorsal muscles. A compact strip of stiffened, upswept black hair ran down the center of his head, and a closely trimmed, patchlike beard distinguished his face
         Bruce was outfitted to fight in his chosen style, the no-frills, brutally practical art of Muay Thai kickboxing. A pair of indigo shorts, emblazoned with fiery orange-red trails along the cutoffs, fit him snugly. Layers of tightly wrapped fabric wound about his hands from above the knuckles to beyond his wrists, and about his feet from insteps to calves. The braces' purpose was not only to protect, but also to avoid the unwarranted, cultural insult of showing his enemy the soles of his feet.
         The kickboxer's gravel eyes focused on the heavy bag in front of him. It was as tall as he was, and twice as wide; packed sand filled it, and it dangled from the ceiling by a short length of steel chain. A slight wisp of a smile crossed his face, hinting of his anticipation. His lips were unusually thick, the lasting result of a punch that had split them one year gone past. The one who had thrown that punch paid for it with her life.
         Bruce lunged.
         He hammered the bag with a barrage of punches. First he connected with a straight hit from the left fist. Then he shifted to present the right edge of his body and drove the scabbed point of his elbow into the unyielding mass, turned full forward to thrust with an underhanded blow, and lashed out again with another straight punch. Finally, he propelled his sharp-boned knee into his target, violently pushing the weighty object away. He skipped backwards, setting himself in line with the heavy object's swinging path, and paused in a light-footed guard stance, almost but not quite bouncing on the balls of his feet. The bag rushed toward him like a massive club.
         Bruce kicked.
         He expelled his breath between his teeth with a hissing sound, as he stepped forward and sliced his bare shin into the barreling obstacle. The collision jarred his bones and sent shockwaves through the object. Chain links snapped from the ceiling, and the bag slammed into the far wall with an earthshaking whump.
         "Not bad. That sack will never threaten the syndicate again," came Lee's sarcastic, throaty voice from behind.
         The silver-haired devil sounded more hoarse than usual today, even taking into account the death he chain-smoked constantly. Foul, clogging trails from his cigarette hovered about him and his bodyguards. Ishida and Kimura coughed, discreetly and in perfect unison.
         "Did the man send you?" probed the kickboxer.
         "Close enough. Kazuya needs something done, and you're a good candidate." Lee did not explain that Bruce was, in all likelihood, the only remaining person in the syndicate who had a remote chance of surviving this job. He didn't want the kickboxer to think too highly of himself.
         As soon as Lee confirmed that Kazuya's orders were involved, Bruce's disposition transformed from surly to staunchly loyal. "I'm ready. What's he want?"
         "Oh, nothing much. Just conquer Sanctuary, take its people captive, and kill the Chosen Ones. Think you're up to it?"
         "Anytime," Bruce answered, with no hesitation at all.
         "You'll lead an army of mutants and Centaurians into place. In two days, Kazuya will give you the signal to attack. Until then, you're on your own. I'm sure you'll have no trouble keeping the mutants in line, but show one hint of fear to the Centaurians and you are a dead man."
         Bruce smiled. "You know all about showing fear, don't you?"
         "Shut up! We've lost a lot of people to those horse-rats. Are you sure you can do this without getting yourself killed?"
         "If the man needs it, I do it."
         Lee exhaled an elliptical smoke ring. "What did Kazuya ever do for you, anyway? Pull a thorn out of your paw?"
         "The man didn't just pull it, he uprooted the bush what pricked me."



         Getting Lei to respond was becoming progressively more difficult. He appeared exhausted now, barely able to keep his eyes open, and he gazed vacantly at the dirty concrete floor of the cell.
         "Lei, I need your help for this," Jun patiently explained. "We have the rest of today to establish your innocence. Where do we start looking?"
         Apparently at the floor, given his fascination with it.
         "Come on, Lei. I've tracked down wildlife smuggling rings before, but I don't know anything about murder investigations. That's your field, isn't it? They call you 'Super Police,' don't they?"
         "Nn-no," he mumbled. "No one ever did. It's sort of a running gag."
         "Well, you're still a detective, aren't you?"
         No answer.
         "What does it involve? When you're given a case, what do you do? I don't know-"
         "Exactly," Lei sighed. "You don't know."
         "Moo ichi-do?"
         "Information. You don't have it. You need it. You have to get it. Mostly by talking to people. That's what being a detective is about, most of the time. Any field - vice, homicide, theft, racketeering, the process isn't as different as you think. Ask questions, and search for clues to the answers."
         "What kind of questions?"
         "If the killer wasn't me, then how come it looked like me? How did it get into Sanctuary in the first place? After it teleported into my room, where did it go? Who's most likely to be its next target, and how can he or she be protected? Find out about everything even remotely associated with the attack. When you interrogate your suspects, look for motive, means, and opportunity-"
         "Who's a suspect?"
         "Who isn't a suspect? If it can make itself look like me..."
         "Oh." Jun thought of a shape-shifting assassin masquerading as anyone within Sanctuary, and suddenly felt very afraid.
         "And start with the scene of the crime. Always visit the scene of the crime." Lei lapsed into silence.
         "All right. Let's go." She tugged at his sleeve.
         "No," T. Hawk resolutely denied. "Raven has granted you permission to conduct a search, but the demon stays here."
         Jun nervously eyed the array of braves guarding Lei. Their cold, hard stares and weapons held at ready did little to reassure her. Even T. Hawk appeared remote.
         A question popped into her head, and was out of her mouth before she realized it.
         "Hawk, why are you here? You hate guns."
         "That is the point. If anyone else were in charge of this brigade, they would shoot the demon dead and be done with it, Lieutenant Blade's threat of civil war be damned."
         Jun hesitated, still uncertain about leaving Lei alone with a roomful of people who had precious little compunction about destroying him. And yet, if she and Lei couldn't put together a presentable case for the jury tomorrow, they were both as good as dead regardless.
         Lei rasped, "Go on, ki... eh, Jun. Don't worry about me. I trust the guards."
         Jun finally nodded and moved toward the exit, where Rock and Wolf waited to escort her.
         "Do you genuinely trust us?" T. Hawk mused, after she had left.
         "Yeah." Lei nodded, forlornly. "I trust you'll kill me if you have to."
         "Your faith is not misplaced."



         Jun studied the scene of the crime.
         More specifically, she studied the outside entrance. Four rows of guards surrounded Chief Thunder's shrine. The door was wide open; through it, she could see that the fires of the sacred altar had died down to an unenthusiastic crackle. They were still burning, though. Someone was maintaining the wards. She heard Michelle's forceful, steady chanting, and glimpsed the young warrior's silhouette in the radiance of the sacred fires.
         "No closer," Rock told the healer. "We must not disturb her."
         "Michelle has taken over the duty?" Jun gasped.
         "Of course," Wolf replied. "She is the only citizen of the Nation who can perform the Mystery. All our other Mystery people are dead or gone."
         "Can't one of the Chosen do it?"
         "An outsider, tampering with our wards?" Rock growled. "After all that has happened? Never!"
         "What about Thunderbolt? Didn't he inherit his father's talent?"
         "He is only fifteen years old. Still a student of Mystery."
         "Michelle is only twenty. And she's-"
         "What? She's what!?"
         Jun looked back inside. She couldn't see the young warrior's face, but the rigid hold of her outline betrayed tense determination.
         Michelle had been through a great deal of hardship. Heihachi Mishima had ordered the murder her Chinese father before she was even born, and on her twentieth birthday, Kazuya had kidnapped her Navajo mother. Her tribe had not believed Nightwolf's warning of impending doom, and when the Apocalypse came, they were trapped in the desert - frozen in space and time just like every other unprotected mortal in the world. It was only by chance that Michelle had come to Sanctuary in time to take shelter; she'd been searching for Jun, her then-opponent in the Iron Fist Tournament. And so, the young warrior had lost everyone close to her.
         Catsclaw's demise must have hurt her even more. In the six months that Jun had come to know Michelle, the two young women had constructed a certain level of trust and friendship. Though Michelle was prone to angry outbursts from the pent-up rage inside her, her association with Catsclaw had seemed to alleviate her temper. Until the fateful patrol massacre, when she had become darker, more brooding, more consumed with grief and rage than ever.
         Jun could only speculate how she was taking Chief Thunder's death. Probably not well.
         The problem was, sorcery required a clearly focused mind. Strong emotions could disrupt that precarious balance and unravel the spell, even spark a mutually destructive chain reaction.
         A knot of trepidation tightened in Jun's stomach.
         The healer knelt and placed her hands flat on the earth. Ignoring Rock's and Wolf's puzzled questions, she sent her essence deep into the sacred land, searching. In the heart of soil and stone, she could feel the benevolent glow of Sanctuary's wards, concealing and protecting the land from uninvited intruders. She probed deeper, asking silent questions of the earth, and feeling for any corruption.
         Her brow furrowed. She tried again, careful to note every sensation and imprint of the protective spells, and inevitably came to the same conclusion:
         They were stronger.
         There could be no mistake. Before, the wards would have crippled an uninvited evil being with weakness; now, they would render him virtually comatose. The resonance of energy flared more intensely than ever. Michelle was not merely continuing Chief Thunder's task; she was superseding it. As long as she maintained the protective spells in this manner, Sanctuary would remain safe from harm...
         ...or would it? The wards had not saved Chief Thunder. An assassin had somehow found his way past Sanctuary's defenses. When and where would he strike again? Were more killers on his heels?
         "What is going on out there! Who is pawing through my wards?" Michelle's irritated outcry snapped Jun out of her trance.
         "You! I should have known." The young warrior stood in the doorway and glared at Jun. Michelle's hair was frayed; lines marked her face, and her shoulders slumped. That was not surprising. Channeling one's life-energy is exhausting, dangerous work.
         "Jun, desist at once or we must harm you!" Wolf shouted, pointing his spear at her.
         "I'm not doing anything," Jun countered, slowly standing up. She searched Michelle's harsh, taut face for any remnant of past camaraderie, and found none. "I was just examining the condition of the wards. You know I would never disrupt them."
         Michelle's cinnamon-brown eyes became thin creases. "'Examining the condition'? You think I'm unfit to do this, don't you!"
         "No, I-"
         "Bring her inside!" Michelle commanded. Rock and Wolf each took one of Jun's arms and pulled her toward the door.
         "I can walk," Jun insisted, though in fact she had to skip to keep up.
         The shrine's interior had no furniture, only the burning altar of fire with pictograms carved into its base. She craned her neck about, searching for anything unusual.
         Evidence of Chief Thunder's struggle with the assassin was everywhere.
         There had been no more than a token effort to clean the ashes and blood that stained the floor. Dull red seepage marked where Chief Thunder had struggled, and fallen. Grey streaks of charcoal powder spilled down one side of the altar and scattered on the ground nearby; had the fire's fuel been disrupted during the fight? Near the entrance, one section of the wall bore a long, blackened gash, as though someone had taken an acetylene torch to it.
         This did not feel right at all. The entire shrine needed to be purified and blessed, for the sake of the living as well as the dead.
         And what was that glint?
         "Stop daydreaming, Jun. This is important," Michelle commanded. Jun returned her gaze to the young warrior, though she kept the glint in the corner of her eye. It was lodged beneath a smoldering charcoal log on the altar; she might easily have overlooked it, if not for the help of the wind spirits.
         "I know how little you think of me, and my talents. You're wrong. If you have inspected the wards I maintain, then you know how wrong you are. I am in control. My personal feelings will not interfere with what must be done!"
         "I'm impressed," Jun answered, in complete honesty. "Really. I'm just afraid for you."
         "Do tell."
         "An assassin struck here before. He could come back."
         "They have your pet demon in custody right now. I'd feel better if it were dead, but since when does anyone listen to me?"
         "Lei didn't-"
         "Don't give me that!" Michelle scowled, with more contempt than outright hatred.
         The young warrior turned away, folded both arms behind her back, and paced around the great altar in a circle. Jun nervously followed.
         "I have only one thing to say to you before I throw you out of here: you are helping the enemy. You saved the demon's life. You brought it here. You persuaded Chief Thunder to invite it! Now you're advocating the demon's defense, stirring up discontent, capturing everyone's attention, and dividing all of Sanctuary with your protests and pleas - you couldn't fit better into Kazuya's schemes if he controlled your mind with sorcery!"
         As Michelle lectured, Jun held out one hand as if in appeal; then abruptly, an idea formed in her head. Without making a sound, she focused her will into miniature soul barrier, paper-thin and barely covering her hand. Had her shield of force been any bigger or stronger, the young warrior would doubtless have sensed its mystic presence, but it was just sufficiently inconspicuous.
         Jun unobtrusively extracted the glint from the fire. Her barrier served a double purpose, protecting her hand from the heat and the object from any impression of her fingerprints. Her prize had sharp edges; it would have cut her if not for the shield. She wrapped her fingers around it, concealing it from view.
         "If you would only admit what you are doing, then I might feel some sympathy for you. Probably not, but I might. Still, you remain blissfully in denial. For that you deserve to die, and I will shed no tears over your grave. Now, get out of here and don't come back!"
         Michelle whirled around and imperiously pointed to the door.
         Jun demurely clasped her hands in front of herself, bowed, and departed the shrine.
         She had wanted to ask Michelle about Sanctuary's protective spells, in order to figure out the loophole by which the assassin had gained entrance, but clearly the young warrior was not going to listen to reason. Jun prayed that she would be okay. At least Michelle had quadruple the number of Chief Thunder's guards securing her; if the killer struck again, even aided by another sleep spell, hopefully enough watchmen would resist to offer sufficient protection.
         Hopefully.
         "All right, Jun, what did you take?" Wolf yawned.
         The startled healer flinched. "Um, I-"
         "She took something? I didn't see," Rock rumbled.
         Wolf grinned at his fellow guard. "Well, you're blind as a bat. A deaf-mute bat. You need glasses."
         "My bear fangs scratch the lenses."
         "Contacts?"
         "Who wants to stick a solid thing in their eyes?"
         "A big brave warrior like you, scared of a little piece of plastic? Ha!"
         "Stop laughing at me, you runty-"
         "Now, now. Don't bend a lens."
         Jun gulped. "I-I don't know what it is, only that it didn't belong there. I'm sorry, I thought it might be important."
         She showed Rock and Wolf the object in her hands: a small, thin metal blade. A reddish-viridescent stain smeared with ashes corroded one of its edges.
         "Hmph," Wolf dismissed. "Looks like some sort of weapon. Put it down at once."
         "I can't throw it away; it could be critical to finding the real murderer. How about if you carry it for me?"
         Wolf looked uncomfortable, but Rock shrugged and said, "I don't see why not."
         "Thank you. You're a good friend, Rock."
         "It is nothing." He produced a leather drawstring pouch, and she dropped the blade into it.
         Jun considered her next step.



         Sub-Zero's laboratory was even more frigid than before. This time, Jun remembered to borrow a coat before entering. Rock had his bearskin to keep himself warm; Wolf appeared unusually resistant to the cold, despite his sparse outfit.
         "Hm?" murmured the pale-skinned scientist, sparing a glance over his shoulder at Jun and her entourage. "Oh, it's you, Kazama. I was hoping it might be Wulong. Do you think you could send him down here? There's still a battery of tests I'd like to-"
         "What? Haven't you heard?"
         "Heard what? Afraid I haven't come out of here much, lately."
         Jun swiftly brought him up to date.
         Something bothered her about his reaction to Chief Thunder's death, or rather, lack of reaction. He evinced no surprise, disbelief, sorrow, or emotion of any other kind. His apathy chilled her more than the low temperature ever could.
         "Well, that's unfortunate," the scientist concluded. He sounded as if he were consoling her over a failed cake recipe. "Am I to perform an autopsy on the victim?"
         "No outsiders will touch him," Wolf firmly retorted. "He will be washed and laid to rest in the tradition of his tribe."
         "Then what do you need me for? Don't tell me this is a social call."
         Jun bowed and entreated, "Sensei, I need you to prove Lei's innocence. Please help us, I beg you. Rock, could you show him what we found?"
         The bear-warrior silently slipped the blade out of his pouch.
         "Looks like it could be one of Raven's toys. They're spring-loaded in her staff, you know," Sub-Zero remarked.
         "No, I didn't."
         "Really? Ah well, you've never belonged to a clan of so-called ninja. There are ways to craft a seemingly ordinary blunt weapon just so, with a lethal surprise inside. I recognized the contours in Raven's walking stick when I first set eyes on it. Can't say I blame her; times are dangerous."
         "Then maybe Raven used it to defend herself and her husband against the real killer. Can you analyze its stains?"
         "Mm. Yes, I suppose I could. For a price."
         "What?"
         "I'll be glad to assist you, but in exchange, I want Wulong to return down here. There's still a great deal I need to learn from him-"
         "That is impossible," Rock interrupted, hefting his axe. "The demon will stay in his cell until the Nation executes him."
         "In that case, I want his cadaver."
         "What?" Jun exclaimed. "I can't promise you anything like that!"
         "Oh, I think you can."
         Sub-Zero formed a glittering ice crystal in his cupped hand. He absently tossed and caught it on his fingertips as he spoke.
         "You have a power, Kazama. The fact that you're standing here right now is proof of that. You've been arrested for a deadly serious crime, and yet you're allowed to wander around Sanctuary like any other free person? I doubt there are many others who could do the same in your place.
         "People naturally have a soft spot for you. You're remarkably charismatic. I'm not affected, but then, my own Power provides me with certain immunities.
         "As far as I can tell, you're not using any sorcery. It's not just your looks and charm, either, though that's part of it. I theorize that it's your pure soul. You're so nice you don't even realize you're manipulating people right and left.
         "Unfortunately, I expect even you have your limits. Unless you can produce a 'real' assassin complete with proof, I doubt you'll convince an all-Indian jury to let Wulong go. But who knows? If you can actually sway a hostile jury, then I'm confident you can persuade Wulong to return here, or for that matter, to do anything else short of jumping off a cliff.
         "Check that. I think you could get him to jump off a cliff, if you wanted to.
         "The more probable possibility is that you will fail. In which case, I shouldn't have much trouble securing Wulong's remains for scientific dissection - unless, of course, you were to object. Then I would have a terrible amount of trouble. And you would raise a fuss, wouldn't you?
         "I thought so.
         "Well, I prefer to negate obstacles to what I want before they have opportunity to solidify. So, in this scenario, you agree in advance to stand back and let me have the body."
         "You vulture!" she spat, quivering with outrage.
         "Vultures thrive in hot climates. 'Skua gull' would be more appropriate."
         "Kusou...!"
         "You want my help. I want to study Wulong, dead or alive. Do we have an agreement?"
         Jun ground her teeth together. This place was too dry and chilly to allow tears, whether from frustration or anguish.
         Forgive me, Lei...
         "All right," she conceded, through a tightly clenched jaw.
         "Excellent."
         "The joke is on you. Don't you realize that if Lei is sentenced to death, then so am I? I wouldn't be in any condition to stop your ghoulish plans!"
         "Indeed?" The crystal elongated into a pair of Ice tweezers. "Well, should you be executed, then consider yourself permanently released from any obligations to me. Now, if you please?"
         Sub-Zero used the tweezers to pick up the blade, and spent several minutes scrutinizing it with various instruments and computers. He scraped off a sample of the stain on its edge, and put it in a slide underneath a microscope. Every couple minutes, he stopped to make a notation in his little black book.
         "Um, how long will this take?" Jun finally ventured.
         "Mm. That's right, you're in a hurry, aren't you? Trial tomorrow, and everything.
         "Well, the ashes appear quite ordinary, but they're glued on with the dried, caked remnants of coagulated blood. And here's the interesting part - I don't think it's Wulong's blood. He's type A, and this is... actually, I'm not sure what this is. It's pretty well-cooked. I'm moderately certain there's no A-factor in here, though."
         "'Moderately'?"
         "I believe you were asking how long I'll be at this. I'm sorry I can't tell you for certain, but the more time I have, the more thorough a job I can do. I'd like to compare this to various other blood samples I have on file, and analyze its chromosomal structure. From what I have now, though, I'd venture that this isn't human blood; there's a curious pigmentation, and the erythrocytes aren't quite the right shape or size."
         "Will you be ready to testify your results in court tomorrow?"
         "I'm not sure they'd let me. It might qualify as speculation. We don't know for certain that the blade is from Raven's staff, or that it did wound the killer; you ought to double-check with her about that."
         Jun's heart sank when she thought about plying the proud, grieving wise-woman with questions about her recent tragedy. It slumped even lower when she thought about the likelihood of drawing out any answers.
         "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
         "Such as?"
         "What do you know about shape-shifters? If you've been studying them-"
         "Actually, Wulong is the only shape-shifter I've examined up close."
         "Well, what type of sorcery is it? How do you track down a shape-shifter, or see through his disguise?"
         "Tsk. The Lin Kuei clan used to forbid shape-shifting, so I never learned that branch of sorcery when I was one of them. And the whole point of shape-shifting, as I understand it, is that no one can see through your disguise. I can't assist you there."
         Then who can? Jun wondered, looking at the frosty floor.
         A stray memory rattled in her head; she chased it and pinned it down. It had been deep within the sewers, when she'd overheard-


         He is a shape-changer, Lao.
         So are you.
         Technically, that is correct, but I am more accurately described as a were-dragon, one type of lycanthrope. The difference lies in where and how one obtains the power...


         "I'll bet Liu Kang knows," she said, slowly and distinctly.
         Sub-Zero looked up from his microscope. "Oh, are you going to stop by the Temple of Light? In that case, I'd appreciate it if you did me a favor."
         "What do I look like, some kind of courier?"
         "Kung Lao left these behind when he checked out of here last night. He still hasn't come back for them. I hope you don't mind; I'm rather busy in here right now, and most of the staff is absent."
         Sub-Zero strode to a long, insulated rectangular box in the far corner of his lab, propped open its lid, and extracted a nondescript paper bag. The scientist set it down on one of his many cluttered metal carts. Curiosity got the better of Jun, and she peeked inside.
         "Shimatta!" she gasped. Her teeth chattered, and she hugged herself tightly, but it was not the cold that made her shiver so.



         "Liu Kang isn't here," Stryker mumbled, without making eye contact. "Sonya asked him to do something, I don't know."
         "Did he say when he would be back?"
         "I don't know."
         Jun looked past him. The rest of the temple was empty except for Kung Lao and his most recently recruited student, Seung Mina. They were in the middle of a sparring match.
         "Keep your guard up, keep your guard up," Kung Lao affably suggested, circling his pupil. "Don't let it down for a second, or you know what comes next!"
         There was something different about the monk. It wasn't obvious at first glance; only someone who knew him very well might have noticed, and even then only if they were looking for it. Jun could scarcely put the distinction into words. He was a little more surefooted, though he'd always been a masterful fighter; a shade less willowy in his frame, though he'd never been weak; a trifle more immersed in the fight, though he never was easy to distract.
         His razor-edged hat was slung as low as possible without completely blocking his vision, immersing his face in shadow. Kung Lao never wore it like that unless he was in a black mood, which flatly contradicted the cheery tone of his well-meaning banter.
         Seung Mina appeared quite different from the prim hospital nurse with whom Jun had occasionally worked. She was clad in a blue fighting dress, embroidered with gold trim; its two-flap skirt left her legs free for a triple set of lunging side kicks. Kung Lao skillfully sidestepped the spikes on her heels. She wielded a long, wooden practice glaive like a natural, spinning it in both hands and stabbing with its dull tip. Kung Lao teleported out of reach of her final thrust; her weapon's point split against the wall instead. The monk rematerialized behind her and dropped to the ground, kicking at the spike of her right heel. Her shoe turned on its side, and with it her foot; she let out a frustrated squeal as she flopped ungracefully on her side. As she fell, Kung Lao removed his hat and used it to slice her weapon, neatly dividing its shaft in two.
         Jun dearly wished Liu Kang were present, but she dared not wait until he returned. "Come on, all of you!"
         "I still think this is a preposterous theory," Sub-Zero grumbled, following her. Rock and Wolf kept their opinions to themselves. Stryker stared at them, uncomprehendingly.
         "You need to practice your footwork and balance more," Kung Lao said to his fallen student, offering her a hand up. "And for the gods' sake, why are you fighting in heels? Treacherous, unstable things; I thought modern women had given up the custom of handicapping their own two feet-"
         "Step away from her, Lao," Jun commanded. "If that really is your name."
         "Hm? Of course it's my name."
         The monk turned around. He put on his hat, once again slanting its brim uncharacteristically low. "Jun? When did they let you out of prison?"
         "Step away from her, now!" the healer commanded. Rock and Wolf held their weapons at ready, although unease affected their faces. Sub-Zero generated a frigid, blue-white nimbus of Power upon his hands.
         "Miss Kazama, what wrong is?" Seung Mina quizzed.
         "You have no license to wander into my temple and order me about like that, but for friendship's sake, I imagine I'll humor you." Kung Lao took five paces away from his student. "So, what exactly is the problem?"
         "We know what you are."
         "Come again?" the monk returned, but his voice faded. A glimmer of trepidation crept into his eyes, beneath the shadow of his hat.
         "Show him, sensei."
         Sub-Zero emptied the contents of a plain paper sack. A divided vest, pair of brown leggings, boots, and other pieces of clothing spilled from it. Last of all was a wide, flat black hat with a razor-edged brim. The article practically tingled with mystic Power.
         "The clothes are meaningless," Jun said, struggling to keep her voice even. "But I happen to know the hat is a unique inheritance from the Great Kung Lao himself. There's none other like it in the world. So what is that on your head?"
         "I..."
         "It's a part of you, isn't it? You changed yourself in order to be wearing it!"
         Stryker lifted his head. Shock registered on his face. Drawing his .45 automatic, he quickly joined the confrontation.
         "Gods of Light..." Kung Lao swayed as though he were dizzy. He gripped his forehead and sank to his knees. His entire body shook with panic. "I... I'd forgotten I was... forgot completely...!"
         Sub-Zero frowned. He still wasn't certain how much leverage he gave Jun's suspicions, but Kung Lao's shaken reaction lent them credibility.
         "For your own sake, don't try to teleport," the scientist warned. "My Power will stop you, and I can drug you unconscious if necessary."
         "Gods help me!" the monk whispered, burying his face in his hands. "I - I have to remember - it's so close!"
         "Who are you?" Jun demanded.
         "N-nineteenth of th-the Great Kung Lao's line..."
         "You're a shape-shifter!" Stryker screamed, aiming his gun at the monk's head.
         "Yes." As Kung Lao spoke the soft, resigned affirmation, his outline began to blur.
         "Watch out! He's changing form!" the healer cried. She instantly summoned her Ki to her fingertips, ready to protect her friends.


End of Chapter 11: Due Process