ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Interlude: Elsewhen


         Another place, an earlier time.
         "'Scuse me. Pardon me. Sorry about that!" Lei ducked and weaved through the press of the crowd, struggling as close as he could to a sprint without actually shoving anyone out of his way. His task was slightly easier because whenever individual people happened to glimpse his bloodshot eyes, or smell the refuse and hard liquor staining his clothing, they were inclined to step aside.
         The airport was congested with foot traffic. Lei soon lost count of the number of times he had to turn sideways, or even crawl in order to get ahead. He had to hurry, because her plane would depart in a few minutes. If she were true to form, she would have waited until the last second to climb aboard, and he'd have the chance to see her before she left.
         He was in luck. She'd been true to form.
         "Yue, wait!" he called, espying her curved figure. She must have heard him, yet she continued straight up the ramp to her flight. "It's me! YUUUUUE!"
         An airline worker was in the way. He wheeled a luggage cart filled with a tremendous assortment of suitcases, boxes, and baggage stacked in a triangular pile. Lei had no time to alter his course, so instead he planted his hands on the topmost suitcase and vaulted over it. At the peak of his jump, the case's leather surface dislodged from under his fingers, bringing him down in a cascading avalanche of baggage. A falling professional makeup kit struck the back of his skull, knocking the world into an unfocused blur.
         Yue turned her head.
          "Ow! Eh, 'scuse me. Sorry about that," Lei apologized to the dumbstruck airline worker. "I'll help both of you clean it up in a moment." He extricated himself from the mess and limped painfully toward his former partner in the Royal Hong Kong Police.
         "I don't believe it," Yue grumbled, sardonically. "I've walked into a Jackie Chan movie."
         "Let's just pretend I didn't hear that, eh?" Lei fingered the painful bruise on the back of his head, and covered the impulse to wince with a sheepish grin.
         "You've been drinking again. I can smell it."
         "I'm sober now, I swear-"
         "And you're a mess. Coffee grounds in your hair, garbage on your clothes; you tried to walk home drunk and passed out in some godforsaken alley again, didn't you?"
         "I'm sorry, I know I should have cleaned up, but there wasn't time-"
         "Where did you wake up? On a street? In a dumpster?"
         "-because they said you were going away, and I-"
         "Damn straight I'm going!"
         "-needed to tell you-"
         "I can't take it anymore. I won't! You may have set your heart on killing yourself, but I don't have to stick around and watch! I've earned this vacation, and I've even got free tickets. If you're trying to talk me out of it, tough shit. Nothing you do or say can keep me here. By the time I come back, you'd better be either locked up or dead in a ditch!"
         Lei gave up attempting to break through her tirade. She did have a great deal of cause. When she had said her piece, he tried again to explain, in a more subdued tone.
         "It was a drunk tank."
         "What?"
         "That's where I woke up. The department found me on one of their sweeps and dragged me in. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life." He sighed and ran a hand through his dirtied hair. "Sort of the straw that broke the camel's back. On top of everything you said, all the crap that's happened... and you know what really troubles me? It's been months since I worked on my Phoenix style. Here I am, trying to create a unique fusion of martial arts, even traveling the world to incorporate new techniques, and somehow it's all landed on the back burner to smashing myself unconscious each night. I can't go on like this. I won't. I'm straightening out, Yue. Quitting the stuff for good."
         Her face flipped through a succession of emotions: surprise, disquiet, skepticism, and last of all, a slight flicker of hope that she tried to conceal. "I want to believe you. Really, I do."
         "My own flight leaves from the airport across the city, in another few hours. I'm going to a Shaolin temple. They don't let you drink up there, so I can dry out and get back into fighting shape all at once."
         The hope crashed on a rockslide of despair. "Nice one, Lei. You had me going for a moment there."
         "It's true! Their Master has granted me sanctuary-"
         "You can't treat yourself at some damn temple! What you need is to check into detox-"
         "Last call for flight 636," said a prim stewardess further up the ramp on which they both stood. "All passengers, please board."
         "I'm coming, okay? Just a second!" Yue snapped. To Lei, "My god, can't you at least go to a real shrink, not some idiot recluse who thinks he's a holy man?"
         "It's all right, Yue. I'll be fine."
         "Dammit!" shouted a new voice, speaking in English with a pronounced American accent. "That 'ho is holding everything up! She gonna get on the plane or not?"
         A powerfully built man stepped onto the ramp. His gravel eyes glared first at the stewardess, then at Lei and Yue. His dark skin, a shaded cross between African and Southeast Asian, made him stand out among the mass of mostly Chinese people. He looked uncomfortable in his black formal business suit, as though it were restricting him somehow.
         "I'll be there, asshole!" Yue retaliated.
         "Look," Lei nervously addressed his partner, "I had to see you before you went because I don't want you to worry about me. Okay?" He took her hand in his own, and smiled.
         "I've already decided to stop worrying about you. You're out of my life, forever." She forcefully pried open his fingers and jerked free her hand.
         "I... I know that right now, I'm nothing worth caring about. But I'll be a different person when you get back. You'll see."
         "Goodbye, Lei," she sighed, shaking her head from exasperation. "Don't sell any more of your kidneys, all right?" With that, she disappeared inside the airplane.
         From a panoramic airport window, Lei saw her jet take off. Its engines fired, propelling it along the runway until it crested into the sky like a gigantic bird. It grew smaller and smaller, gradually merging with the brewing cover of dark grey storm clouds.
         A flash of lightning illuminated the bold-lettered words MISHIMA AIRLINES on the plane's sleek metal exterior. Lei continued to stand there, watching, long after the aircraft disappeared from view.
         There was a rumble of thunder.
         It began to rain.


Chapter 12: Revelations


    "Understanding is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth."
         -Captain John Sheridan, Babylon 5, "Into the Fire"


         "NOOO!" Seung Mina screamed, throwing herself between the changing shape-shifter and the hostile crowd surrounding him. "No hurt Teacher Lao!"
         "Shit, get her out of the way!" Stryker bellowed. "I can't shoot-"
         Sub-Zero acted without words, pointing both hands at her and extending his will in a frigid blast of mystic Power. The fighting nurse used the broken haft of her wooden glaive as a short pole vault, leaping over the icy streak and kicking him in the forehead. He went down.
         Rock and Wolf moved forward as one. Stryker holstered his .45 and drew his taser, launching its electroshock probes at Seung Mina, but at the last instant she ducked and stabbed at Rock's feet. Rock staggered, and the taser's probes latched onto Wolf's chest, completing an electrical circuit of over 250,000 volts.
         "AAARRROOOH!"
         "Uh, sorry 'bout that."
         "Settle down, little girl!"
         "Argh, my head..."
         "Hai! Hai! YAAAH!"
         Jun did not involve herself in the raging chaos. She concentrated wholly on the shape-shifter. He had fallen into a position of abasement, with what used to be his forehead resting on the floor. His outline was lost within a morass of black and white, only roughly resembling the shape of a humanoid; random patterns fluctuated so rapidly through the mix that it made her eyes hurt. His speech was distorted, as though filtered through layers of muffling fabric, yet he used Kung Lao's voice.
         "Nineteenth descendant of the Great Kung Lao's line. That is who I am. That is who I have always been." He repeated the words over and over in rhythm, like a chant.
         Jun's eyebrows dipped low. It was taking the shape-shifter an oddly long time to complete his transformation. He was at her mercy; even if he assumed the form of a demon, she could strike and render him unconscious before he recovered from his sorcery. If he wanted to attack, then wouldn't he have done so by now?
         She kept her Ki at ready, just in case.
         "Grab her waist!" Rock shouted, herding the frantic nurse toward Stryker with the flat of his axe.
         "I got her!"
         "That NOT my waist!" Seung Mina slammed her elbow behind herself, sinking its point into Stryker's gut, and simultaneously stomped on his foot with the spike of her heel. He wheezed, tripped backward over Wolf's prone body, and collapsed in a heap.
         "Ugh," Wolf gasped. When he tried to make his shocked muscles constrict, they twitched and convulsed with a will of their own.
         "That does it!" Sub-Zero crossly exclaimed, snapping a hypodermic syringe into his hand. "To hell with the Power; I'm sedating you!"
         "No, keep away!" she shrieked, but in the time it took to face the scientist, Rock slipped behind her and trapped her arms by her sides in an unyielding bear hug.
         "That's it. Hold her still while I reduce the dosage; she's a slender little thing," Sub-Zero detachedly observed, moving up the syringe's plunger.
         "No! NOOO!" She flailed helplessly as the scientist turned her right wrist supine, exposing its veins. "TEACHER LAO, HELP ME!"
         "Mina?" The fluctuating shape-shifter broke off his chant. His amorphus form abruptly resolved-
         -into a slightly smaller, infinitesimally more humble version of Kung Lao, whose only garments were cheap plastic hospital gown, and a bedsheet wrapped around his body like a toga.
         "Sensei, stop. That won't be necessary." Jun's request reverberated with the strength of command presence. Sub-Zero raised an eyebrow, yet removed the tip of his syringe from the nurse's vein. "Seung Mina, do not be afraid. We are not going to harm your teacher unless he attacks us, or tries to teleport away."
         "And you, Lao," Jun addressed the monk, for her innermost intuition suggested that it really was his name, "you have a lot to explain. I had no idea you were a shape-shifter. Liu Kang doesn't know either, does he?"
         "I've... been meaning to tell him for some time now." Kung Lao let out his breath in relief. "Thank you, Jun. I'd stayed in an altered form for, gods, was it over six hours? I'd forgotten that I'd changed myself at all. If you hadn't reminded me when you did-"
         He blinked, and noticed that he was staring down the barrel of Stryker's gun. "Um, do you mind pointing that somewhere else?"



         Wang Jinrey waited.
         His rescuers were almost there. He could feel their proximity. By nature, he was a patient man; faith had sustained him for six long months, even when there had been no apparent cause to cling to life. Yet now, when hope shined more brightly than ever, an external pressure worried at his soul.
         Time was running out.
         He knew it instinctively, could sense the ticking seconds being lost on the wind. Kazuya's plan to destroy the Sanctuary was dangerously close to fruition. A shadow-man had given Wang the information the Chosen Ones needed to bring their war to an end, but would they learn the crucial secret too late?
         Footsteps approached.
         It had to be Lee, arriving for his daily inspection. Wang had prayed that the lad would turn away from the darkness, yet their last exchange of words had not gone well. There was nothing more to say. One way or another, the young man would have to choose where he stood.
         Wang felt sad that he dared not trust Lee. He trusted himself even less. If he were to speak with the lad, he feared that his inner tension would betray him, and the people who were coming to rescue him. For the greater good, he could not risk raising Lee's suspicions. So the old man settled on his face and consciously slowed the rhythm of his breathing to a shallow whisper, pretending to be asleep.
         The prison door swung open, and the smoky effluvium of a burning cigarette lingered on the air.
         Lee's quiet tread came to a halt. His joints creaked faintly as he kneeled next to the old man. He stayed there, motionless and silent, for long minutes. Wang could not help feeling a contradiction of emotions twisting the young man's life-force: misery, consternation, attachment, bitterness, and grim resignation. At last, Lee's fingers brushed gently against Wang's skullcap.
         "Uncle..."
         The word was a bare whisper of regret. Its sadness echoed in Wang's mind long after Lee was gone.



         "All right," Kung Lao sighed, "let me take it from the top.
         "Last night, when I resisted the sleep spell, I knew something was up. I wanted to check it out, but I didn't know where Sub-Zero had stashed my clothes. Liu could have been in danger, and there was no time to spare, so I teleported to the Temple of Light and, uh, altered my true form-"
         "Into yourself with clothing?" Jun prompted, still on her guard.
         "Into an idealized version of myself. Kung Lao, Flawless Warrior of Light, Destined for Great Battles with Grand Dramatic Flourishes, blah blah blah. It's not just that this gown is a poor fashion statement; I needed to be ready to fight if I had to. But the temple turned out to be empty."
         "Liu Kang and I must have already left," Stryker filled in. He kept his .45 in hand, but no longer aimed his gun directly at the monk. "He'd dashed out of here without saying a word, and when I tried to follow him, I got lost."
         "Yeah. The empty temple worried me even more; it's not like Liu to interrupt his nightly meditations. I teleported from place to place, looking for him, until I finally had the idea to drop by Chief Thunder's shrine. Liu was there, all right, but we'd both arrived too late to do anything for the Chief. You know the rest, except that in all the uproar I completely forgot I'd changed my shape. And that, my friends, is a very bad thing."
         "Why?" Jun requested.
         "Shape-shifting is extremely dangerous. The longer you stay in a borrowed form, the more out-of-touch you become with your true self. Even if the borrowed form is just a variation of yourself. It's possible to twist your soul into something completely different, and lose your own mind to another way of thinking.
         "Six hours, gods! I've never dared to stay in another body for longer than a few seconds before. Jun, your intercession must have been a gift from the gods of Light. I'm in your debt. If there's anything I can do to help you out-"
         "You're still a suspect in Chief Thunder's murder," she repudiated.
         "I am?"
         "You're an admitted shape-changer, you can teleport, and you have no alibi to speak of. That's not what troubles me the most, though. I was too caught up in events to think of it at first, but now I remember that you traced the killer's teleport from Chief Thunder's shrine to Lei's room. I know that the assassin's life-force left that room. And yet, you never tried to trace that second teleport. Why didn't you - unless you were the assassin, and you deliberately wanted to lead the Nation to Lei's door?"
         "Um." Kung Lao dropped his eyes. "Uh, Jun... you really believe Lei is innocent, don't you?"
         "Answer the question!"
         "There was no second teleport."
         "Nani?"
         "Chief Thunder's killer teleported into Lei's room, but didn't teleport out. If there had been a second teleport, I would have sensed and traced it."
         "Are you telling me the truth!?"
         "Yes, he is," Sub-Zero dryly interjected. When Jun stared at the scientist, he explained, "My Power hones my perception of the temperature and moisture variances in living beings. I can detect when most people are lying."
         "'Most people'?"
         "A sociopath might be able to deceive me." Sub-Zero thoughtfully rested his chin in his hand. "Come to think of it, though, any being who would willfully murder the Nation's revered leader would have to be, at the very least, psychologically aberrant."
         "Okay, okay," Kung Lao muttered, tiredly. "I wasn't exactly myself last night. Maybe I could have missed something."
         Jun nodded. "All right. Let's inspect Lei's room, and you can double-check for any traces of sorcery. Mina, Stryker, why don't you two stay here and keep an eye on the temple?"
         "Because he pervert!"
         "Don't point at me like that, you homicidal maniac!"
         "Me? I no carry crazy zap-guns!"
         Kung Lao cleared his throat. "Jun, even if there were a second teleportation trail, it would be stone cold by now."
         "We'll see."
         "Um..."
         "What is it now?"
         "Do you mind if I get dressed first? Or should I say, do you and Mina mind turning your backs while I do it?"



         "Quita esta camisa de fuerza!" Kabal railed, through the triangular speech grate of his exotic mask. He struggled against the tight cloth folds of the improvised straitjacket binding his arms, and the thick straps that fastened him to the hospital bed.
         "Your restraints are for our protection," Sonya flatly replied. "You gave Paco a concussion he'll feel for a week. Sub-Zero never meant for the plasma release valve on your respirator to be abused in such a manner; what the fuck did you do to its safety filters, anyway?"
         "I've always been good with gadgets."
         "I want to rip the damn apparatus off your face and throw it away."
         "That would kill me."
         "No shit."
         "Look, I regret what I did to your man, but I had no choice; he wouldn't let me out! If he hadn't stalled me for so long, I might have found the demon in time," Kabal spat in frustration.
         "Oh, really? Maybe Paco didn't delay you for too long. Maybe it wasn't for long enough."
         "Qué?"
         "Where were you at the exact time of Chief Thunder's murder?"
         "Running around Sanctuary, looking for the demon."
         "Can any witnesses testify to your whereabouts?"
         "People everywhere were sleeping from la mágica mala. I doubt anyone saw me."
         "So, you don't have an alibi."
         "Esto es ridiculoso! You know it was the demon. He had his victim's freshly butchered heart in his hand!"
         "Kazama says she felt a different assassin teleport into his room, plant the organ on him, and leave."
         "La chica es loca. Haven't you seen her fawn over the monster? It has deceived her!"
         "When we were at Wulong's door, you happened upon us so quickly I barely had time to turn around. It almost felt like you had teleported."
         "I told you, I run fast!"
         "Is that the best you can say in your defense?"
         "I am not your enemy!"
         She glared at him, coldly.
         "You don't like me, do you?" Kabal rasped, in a sulking tone.
         "'Don't like you'? No. I hate you, Galgo."
         His mask could show no change in expression, but the muscles in his shoulders became tense.
         "Yes, I know who you really are. Galgo: a thief, drug-runner, and murderer. You're not just any member of the Black Dragons gang; you're one of Kano's most loyal right-hand men. You've got a rap sheet ten feet long, and you gunned down one of my best people in cold blood!"
         "It wasn't cold blood."
         "Shut the fuck up!"
         "No! If you want to hate me, fine, but at least get your facts right! His weapon was in his hand. I was afraid for my life."
         "He was shooting RIOT BULLETS!"
         "It was dark. I couldn't tell the difference."
         "Schultz had a wife and four kids. He dedicated his life to protecting innocent people from thugs like you. And all you have to say for yourself is, 'It was dark'? 'I couldn't tell the difference'?"
         A change settled over Kabal. He stopped pulling against the stiff cloth of his straitjacket. His head slumped, and his breathing dropped to a faint rustle.
         "I'm... I'm sorry."
         "Like hell."
         "I never wanted to... to kill anyone. I joined the Black Dragons because they were tough. And because I needed money; if people really wanted to buy our drugs, then how was providing them different from selling booze over a counter? If we didn't do it, someone else would.
         "Later, I had thoughts about getting out, but then I met María. She wasn't just part of the gang; she was my life. Your enemies took her from me, her and everyone else I cared about. Kano and the Shao Kahn betrayed us all. Revenge is the only thing I have left.
         "Those monks, they tell me that a god has Chosen me to help destroy the monsters, just like he Chose the rest of you. If you believe nothing else I say, then believe this: I want to fight for you. I'll gladly sacrifice my life if it brings you closer to killing them all. That is why I am not your enemy, Lugarteniente. That is the best defense I can give."
         "Not good enough."
         Sonya snapped her fingers. Liu Kang stepped forward, into Kabal's line of sight.
         "Qué pasa?"
         "Galgo, I swore an Oath that you would bring no harm to the people of Sanctuary. I have to be sure you didn't betray me. Liu will pull the truth from your soul."
         The monk's tawny eyes narrowed in distaste. "Sonya, this was not our agreement."
         "Shut up and do it."
         "No. Not without his express consent."
         "That never bothered you before!"
         "I have changed. And, in all complete honesty, I do not wish to risk either his lucidity or mine to fulfill your whim. We already know that Wulong killed Chief Thunder. I fear that your friendship with Kazama is leading you to speculation."
         "Un momento," Kabal interrupted. "If I allow this, will it prove to you that I am sincere?"
         "Probably," Sonya growled.
         "Will you let me out of esta chingada camisa?"
         "I'll think about it."
         "Muy bien. You can look into my mind. But it has to be you, Lugarteniente; not him."
         "I'm no telepath!"
         "Maybe not, but if he can go inside my thoughts, I bet he can send someone else. Can't he?"
         Liu Kang raised his eyebrows. "It is possible, albeit inadvisable. First, be warned that it would not be a one-way conduit; you will come into contact with more about each other than you may have ever wanted to know. Second, the two of you must not become embroiled in any form of psychological conflict. You could literally drive one another insane. Given your mutual antipathy, I would fear greatly for both of you."
         "And what about you, Lugarteniente?" Kabal pressed. "Are you afraid to find out any more about what you hate so much?"
         Sonya's hands clenched. Her sapphire eyes flashed like sheets of ice.
         "Do it, Liu," she commanded.
         "I am reluctant to be party to this."
         "Objection noted. Do it. Kabal and I will bear the consequences."



         Barracks room 13 was a shambles.
         Drops of blood stained the floor, rumpled bedding, and scrunched-up pillow. A breeze from the open window stirred Jun's hair. Lei's footprint was on the silk handkerchief that she had dropped on the floor. She recognized the squat refrigerator, the tack, the broken half of a mangled dream-catcher, and Lei's blazer slung over the far bedpost.
         Splintered fragments of the shattered door were scattered about the area. If Lei's bed hadn't been out of the line of fire, he could have been seriously hurt by Kabal's blast. The doorknob remained firmly stuck to its adjacent frame, though the rest of the portal had been reduced to a gaping hole. The knob still wouldn't turn, even in response to her Ki.
         She called Sub-Zero's attention to it.
         "Hm," the scientist ruminated, analyzing the knob with his pocket computer. "This lock has been virtually fused into a single lump. Seems to be the effect of a strong, acidic enzyme. Let me collect a sample of the residue."
         Something was amiss.
         What was it that didn't seem right? Jun turned her head very slowly, taking in each detail and matching it against her memory.
         The window! It had been closed the last time she saw it. She inspected its frame more diligently, and spotted smeared bloodstains on its latch. Sub-Zero scanned the smudges, confirming that they matched the other stains.
         "Probably Chief Thunder's blood," the scientist noted. "I'm afraid I don't have any samples from him on file, though, so that's just an educated guess."
         "I'm sorry, Jun," Kung Lao said, despondently. "The assassin definitely teleported in here, but I can't feel the faintest residue of a teleport out. I don't want to believe it myself, but I think we have to consider the possibility that it really was Wulong."
         Wolf nudged Rock and muttered, "Two week's gate detail says he won't convince her."
         "No deal."
         "Of course the killer didn't teleport away," Jun answered, looking out the window. "He knew that you would trace it - or if it was you, then you feared someone else would trace it. He escaped out this window."
         Kung Lao peered through the portal. "This is kind of high up."
         "A skilled shape-shifter could have transformed himself into something that would weather the fall. Maybe he took on the form of a bird, and flew swiftly to wherever he wanted to go."
         "Um. Maybe."
         "Lao, we know it wasn't Lei. We have a sample of the killer's blood, and it doesn't match."
         "That reminds me," Sub-Zero noted, snapping his fingers. He produced an empty hypodermic syringe.
         "Hey," Kung Lao protested, uncomfortably. "Why are you coming toward me with that?"
         "Don't worry, it's a clean needle. I'll take a blood specimen from you, now."
         "Uh, okay, but what for? Ow."
         "Come on, that wasn't so bad," offered the scientist, scanning the syringe's bright red contents with his pocket computer.
         "Do I get a band-aid and a lollipop now?"
         "Hmph. Your blood appears quite human, unlike the specimen Jun brought me. It seems this could put you in the clear."
         "Uh, much as I'd like to agree with you, I'm afraid it doesn't."
         "Why not?"
         Kung Lao closed his eyes in concentration. The liquid in Sub-Zero's syringe changed color from red to black, then green, then back to red.
         "You see? As a shape-shifter, I have limited control over all my cells, living, dead, or recently separated. If I wanted to, I could make the contents of that syringe into anybody's blood, or just about any other liquid. Sustaining it in an altered form would be a tiny bit more difficult, but nowhere near as exhausting or dangerous as keeping myself in a different form. So, if there were a rogue shape-changer in Sanctuary, then you wouldn't find him by taking blood samples - unless you could do it without his knowledge, that is. Exactly how did you get some of the killer's blood, anyway?"
         "Never you mind. Just tell me more about shape-shifting," Jun requested.
         "Um..."
         "Lei's life depends on it. So does mine."
         "Yeah. That's what it boils down to, doesn't it? Life or death."
         He slanted the razor-edged brim of his hat to one side. "You know, I used to believe that shape-shifting was inherently evil, mostly because Shang Tsung practiced it; you know how depraved he is. I once destroyed our temple's Forbidden Scrolls of shape-shifting and lycanthropy, thinking that the knowledge was too horrible for human hands. And then, well... have I ever told you how I defeated the Shao Kahn in combat, and won the Outworld Tournament?"
         "Many times."
         "What I didn't mention was that I couldn't do it with only my own skills. I needed an advantage. More than my own life at stake; the Earth itself hung in the balance. So, just as the Kahn was about to crush me, I did something unthinkable - used the secrets of the Forbidden Scrolls to transform myself. I must have switched between the forms of a dozen friends and enemies to keep the Kahn confused and off-guard, before I finally used Liu Kang's body to defeat him.
         "I've never shape-shifted since, until last night. It's an extremely hazardous sorcery, and I'm not sure Liu would approve.
         "You see, my Shaolin brother is merely a lycanthrope. He can only assume one form other than his own, and that's the dragon. Also, he powers his transformations with his inner essence. Lycanthropy is the most limited branch of shape-shifting; it is also the safest, because a were-beast's animal form is closely attuned to his human one. Liu as a person is so much like the dragon, and Liu as a dragon is so much like the person, that he is at little risk switching freely between the two.
         "My form of sorcery is more variable. Theoretically, I could metamorphose into just about anything; the greatest limitation is the amount of power I may draw. The bigger, stronger, or more alien a shape is compared to my own, the more energy I'd need to assume it, and the harder it would be to keep my own mind while in the borrowed form. For practical purposes, I doubt I could ever metamorphose into anything larger than, say, a jungle cat.
         "What fuels my shape-shifting is the polar inverse of your own magic, Jun. While you draw on the natural life in these sacred lands, I draw on the natural death. Whenever people, creatures, or even plants perish, it leaves behind a resonance that can support what I do - what's wrong?"
         "You..." She could not repress a shudder of horror as she took a step back from the monk and raised her hands into guard position. "You feed off death?"
         "If I so choose. It's a source of psychic energy, left behind when a soul departs this world. The stronger the soul, the closer his site of death, and the more recent the departure, the greater the resonance it leaves behind. I don't hurt anyone, Jun. I simply draw upon what already exists in the cosmic balance."
         "And how much energy would it give you to kill a strong and noble person!?" she hissed through her teeth.
         Kung Lao clasped both arms behind his back and looked away, for a time. Finally, he pushed the brim of his hat up with an index finger, revealing copper eyes filled with concern.
         "There are other, faster, more efficient ways of amassing necromantic power. In the Order of Light, we do not commit blood sacrifice. Do you understand this? My ancestor, a son of the Great Kung Lao, was once accused of blood sacrifice. His crime was never proven, yet the allegation alone was so terrible that the Great Kung Lao banished him, purged all records of his name, and Forbid the knowledge held within what were once the Scrolls of Flux. It was centuries before the Temple of Light permitted the wayward son's descendant to return."
         "Enough history. Tell me, how do I identify a shape-shifting sociopath? If Sub-Zero can't necessarily figure out when the killer is lying, and blood samples won't work, then what will?"
         Kung Lao's face fell. "Uh, Jun..."
         "What?"
         "I doubt a shape-shifter could exist in Sanctuary without Liu and me knowing it."
         "Liu Kang doesn't know about you."
         "I haven't practiced the sorcery often enough for it to have much effect on my aura. That's probably why Liu doesn't feel anything different about me - or if he does, he just chalks it up to long-term stress. But don't you remember? He recognized Lei as a shape-shifter at first sight. So did I, by the way."
         "I don't like where this is going."
         "Jun, I don't think there are any shape-shifters in Sanctuary other than Lei and me, and I know where I was last night."
         "Is it really so easy for you to see through a shape-shifter's disguise?"
         "Not exactly. When a shape-shifter adopts the form of another being, he becomes that being in almost every aspect: appearance, voice, scent, biology, aura, unconscious idiosyncracies, even skills and sorcery. Physical-based skills such as fighting techniques are automatically assimilated. Intellectual skills such as language are a little more difficult to access, and personal knowledge or memories are even more vague, but there is correlation.
         "The primary difference is in the conscious mind. Thoughts and emotions remain the shape-shifter's own, at least for as long as he maintains control. It's nearly impossible to detect a shape-shifter in his altered form, except perhaps by behavior - say, if you catch him doing something that whoever he's impersonating would never do.
         "No, Liu and I probably wouldn't be able to see through a shape-shifter's disguise. But when he reverted to his natural form, even for an instant, we would know that he was among us. Liu would feel it in his sleep, in a tar pit with the lights turned out."
         "So maybe the killer hasn't reverted to his natural form yet."
         "That is unthinkable. A shape-shifter has to assume to his original body periodically, or lose his identity forever. And once he loses his core identity, he can never shape-shift again; attempting to do so will kill him. Even Shang Tsung himself never liked to stay in another body for longer than he had to. It's a miracle I lasted six hours; if my borrowed form hadn't been so close to my true one, I'd never have found my way back. No human shape-shifter could ever stay more than eight hours outside his own body."
         "Sub-Zero said the killer's blood doesn't appear human."
         "Um. Look, Jun, about the blood. When Lei is in demon form, everything about him is different, right? I'd expect his blood to be different, too."
         "It would not be surprising," Sub-Zero added. "I dearly wanted to examine Wulong in demon form, but he wouldn't let me, and now I imagine the Nation won't let me."
         "You got that right," growled Wolf.
         Kung Lao expelled his breath in a burdened sigh. "For what it's worth... I know Lei would never willingly murder an innocent person. I never would have thought it possible before, but Kazuya must have been controlling him somehow. Perhaps you could plead that Lei was not in his right mind-"
         "That's enough," Jun decided. "Lao, I may need you to testify in court."
         "Well, sure."
         "In the meantime, you have not acquitted yourself as a suspect. Sensei, could you please keep an eye on him?"
         "My pleasure," Sub-Zero agreed with a nod.
         "Now wait a minute-" sputtered the monk.
         "You should have told me you were a shape-shifter before. There are dozens of tests I want to run on you. You'll make a tremendous contribution to Science."
         "Aw, no..."
         "We'll start with recording your natural height, weight, blood pressure, heart rate, electroencephalographic patterns-"
         "If Jun weren't my friend, I would never put up with this."
         "Well, I suppose I could sedate you, but I'm hoping it won't come to that. Now, are you going to come along quietly? There's a good alleged assassin. Stay on your best behavior, and I'll give you that lollipop."
         "I never liked you, you know."
         As Jun watched them go, she contemplated her inner confusion. If Kung Lao truly were the killer, then why would he be so cooperative? And if he weren't, then who else could be a likely suspect? As far as she could tell, Kung Lao was the only person in Sanctuary with the ability to teleport, like the assassin had teleported.
         She closed her eyes, reviewing what she knew. The killer was a shape-shifter. He could teleport. And he had cast a sleep spell that covered all of Sanctuary.
         Jun was familiar with sleep spells; she'd cast them more than a few times herself. They depressed the central nervous system, just like any other tranquilizer. Trouble was, they weren't very strong. A wide-awake person could resist one without too much difficulty, which was why few mages ever wasted energy on a sleep spell in combat. Yet the sleep spell that engulfed Sanctuary had been enormously powerful. True, the fact that most people had been either slumbering or just waking up when it hit had intensified its effect, but still...
         She thought back to when she had felt the sorcery. Something about the sensation nagged at her; there had been an unyielding determination beneath the drowsiness, almost like a spoken command. Déjà vu flickered in the back of her mind, as though she'd been in the presence of something she'd felt before.
         Someone she'd known before.
         "Kazuya," she whispered. Her eyes whipped open.
         Of course; the killer couldn't have been working alone. Weaving such a potent sleep spell would have left him without the strength to destroy Chief Thunder in pitched battle. Kazuya had cast the sleep spell. Kazuya was the key.
         Another memory, scarcely a day old, clamored for her attention.


         I saw Kazuya slice you open down your breastbone. You lost more blood than I care to think about. There's no way you could have saved yourself before you went into shock. And then the Apocalypse hit.
         I repeat: you do have point?
         How did you survive? Did Kazuya - did he curse you too?


         Jun hurried at once to the quarters of Officer Takeshi Fujioka. No response came to her knock, yet past the closed door she could feel the brooding life essence of a single person, consumed with turmoil and self-recrimination. She used her Power to unlock the door, and pushed it open.
         Darkness.
         Takeshi had covered the windows and doused the lights. Ordinarily, Jun would have respected his wishes, but trepidation caused her to summon a shining glow to her cupped hand.
         Wolf leaned closer to Rock, and whispered something in his fellow guard's ear.
         "What?" rumbled the bear-warrior.
         "Can't you supervise one little girl by yourself for a few minutes?"
         "That 'one little girl' can fend off a legion of braves with one little hand!"
         "I'll be right back."
         "Fujioka-san! Doko desu ka?" Jun called. It was not the politest greeting; if her worries turned out to be unfounded, she would apologize later for the intrusion. <I must talk to you immediately. It is important. I'm sorry if this is a bad time.>
         <All time is bad.> The statement was not an attempt to repel her, merely a simple declaration of fact.
         Jun stepped inside. Takeshi kneeled on the slats of the bare floor, facing the far wall. He gripped the sickle-blades of his kusari-gama in either hand. His wrists trembled slightly, and his head was bowed.
         <Why is that, Fujioka-san?>
         <Because, little flower, I have committed a crime.>



         T. Hawk raised his head.
         His first thought was that Jun had returned, but no. The woman descending into the cell was taller, more willowy, and wracked with the hallmarks of grief. A young brave followed her.
         Raven and Thunderbolt had returned. Chief Thunder's wife and son had eyes only for the demon.
         Lei Wulong sat against the back wall, with his knees drawn and head down. He had remained in that position, unmoving, ever since Jun's departure. His mahogany eyes twitched a little, perhaps noticing Raven, or perhaps reacting to the glimmer of light that Thunderbolt generated on his palm.
         "You had best not approach so close to the demon," T. Hawk rumbled. "If it attacks-"
         "-we will be free to kill it," Thunderbolt confidently finished. His glimmer escalated in brightness.
         Lei made a faint whimpering sound.
         In the wake of the glare, his eyes changed color to blood-red. He shrank against the wall and covered his face with the back of his hand. His arms shook; their skin became pale. Thunderbolt intensified the light by degrees, first to the pounding beat of noonday sun, then to the unparalleled radiance of a solar flare.
         In the field of glittering whiteness, T. Hawk could scarcely glimpse the demon splayed on the floor, face down, hands over his head, quivering with abject terror. The monster constricted as though he were in excruciating pain. T. Hawk recalled from experience that the demon suffered in the presence of bright light.
         Raven's lips curled, in what might have been a smile.
         They are deliberately torturing him, T. Hawk realized, with an uncomfortable twinge. He could not blame them. The murderer deserved it. T. Hawk had himself attacked the fiend in a fit of rage, after it had menaced his friend.
         So why did his stomach churn so fiercely as to make him feel ill?
         "Your pardon," T. Hawk uncertainly began, "but we cannot see to shoot. For your own safety, please tone it down."
         "Quiet," Raven snapped, yet Thunderbolt wordlessly reduced the light to a manageable amount.
         The wise-woman leaned on her staff, glaring at the demon with acute hatred. "This is only the beginning of what we will do to you. You will suffer a thousand times worse than you made my husband suffer. We will make you bleed, burn, and beg us for mercy. Then you will die."
         "I..." The demon's voice was a reedy, whispery rattle of agony. "I... didn't kill Chief Thunder."
         "LIAR!" she screamed, brandishing her staff. "You don't believe that!"
         Lei writhed on his side. His eyes flickered open, and stared vacantly at his bloody left hand.
         "I have to believe it," he emphasized, in the desperate gurgle of a drowning man. "Jun said..."
         "Even now, Kazama seeks evidence to disprove your guilt. She has found nothing. A blade contaminated with your demon's ichor, a wild theory about a nonexistent shape-changing assassin, it is all fantasy!" Raven described in minute detail the yield of Jun's investigation.
         "You are guilty as sin itself," she finished, "and wiping the blood from your hands will not save you. Nor will it save Kazama. She will die with you, and become your last victim."
         "No..."
         "Yes," Thunderbolt rejoined. "We have urged her to reject your evil, but she will not listen. What have you done to her, demon?"
         "I - I don't understand."
         "She was like a sister to me, once!" he shouted, streamlining the light's glare to a furiously narrow focus. Lei quailed and turned his head, letting his hair cover his face. "How do you make her betray us so? You cannot be controlling her mind with sorcery, or else I would sense it. Did you threaten her life? Feed her a drug?"
         Thunderbolt's garnet eyes filled with nauseous disgust. "Did you seduce her?"
         Lei's fingers clenched. He pushed his upper body off the ground. His reply was flatly indignant, despite the unrestrained, shuddering turbulence that wracked him.
         "If anyone's controlling her, it's you. You're going to kill her if I'm found guilty, so of course she has to believe that I'm innocent. It's her only chance."
         "Don't play dumb," Raven spat.
         "I really hate it when people say that to me. Usually because I'm not playing. Will you freaking humor me? What am I missing here?"
         "WE OFFERED HER AMNESTY!" Thunderbolt cried. "If she would only recant the lies she speaks in your defense! And she refused! Why? WHY!?"
         Lei's shaking increased. He braced himself against the cell wall. His blood-red eyes widened, then squinted in disbelief, and he swallowed a lump in his throat.
         "I don't know," he whispered, trapped in a net of incredulous shock. "Maybe she doesn't believe you?"
         "We are not like you!" Raven retaliated. "We keep our promises!"
         "Then she... she must really think she's doing the right thing. I'm sorry, I don't know. I can't help you."
         "Oh, yes you can. You can confess your crime, and pray the gods have mercy on your soul."
         "I don't believe in gods, and you don't know anything about my soul."
         "Damn you, Wulong!" she snapped, ramming the end of her staff into the floor by his feet. "You murdered my husband! Have you no remorse at all?"
         Lei turned his bloodshot eyes into the brilliance, until they locked with her tear-stained gaze. "You are calling for the execution of an innocent young woman. Have you?"



         <What is your crime, Takeshi?> Jun asked, quietly.
         <When Wulong sought refuge within Sanctuary, I spoke in his support. Now he has slain Chief Thunder. I knew that Wulong was refuse, that he had fallen into the hands of evil, and yet I spoke.>
         <Yes. You said that Lei had saved your life, when Kazuya was about to kill you. That was true, wasn't it?>
         <The truth damns me further. It is a disgrace to owe my life to one such as he. Would it be better not to live at all?> Takeshi's voice carried that same, distant quality Lei had used, the last time she talked to him. The more she heard of that despairing echo, the less she liked it.
         Jun kneeled to Takeshi's right. <Listen to me. Lei is innocent. I know because I was guarding him, and his life-force never slipped past my scrutiny. You need to answer my questions, however.>
         <Why?>
         <Because if Kazuya has cursed you like he did Lei, and you try to disembowel yourself, you will activate your own curse and embark on a rampage.>
         Takeshi set down his kusari-gama. <Kazuya Mishima has put no curse on me.>
         <You were once in his clutches. He hurt you, badly. How did you escape?>
         As if moving in a dream world, the officer sluggishly pointed to a crushed shell fragment, which he wore on a plain string necklace.
         <A woman gave this to me. Claudia Silva, she called herself. Some say she is not a true woman, but rather the spirit of the Brazilian rainforest made manifest.
         <In the process of exposing the corruption behind a televised blood-sport tournament, I was pitted against her in a fight. I spared her life. The twisted people running the tournament were brought to justice; Silva escaped with their blood money, and used it to purchase vast tracts of jungle wilderness. She left me this shell, with instructions to crush it in my hour of greatest need.
         <Two years later came the black day when eight of us confronted the devil-criminal Kazuya Mishima. Six of us died swift deaths. The devil-criminal cut me open like a food animal. Kazuya was about to slay me, when Wulong charged him. While they struggled, I languished on the floor.
         <I remember... I remember the smell of fresh blood. Wulong's battle cries, the devil-criminal's hissing, and the horrible, keening sound that accompanied a bright flash of light. I tried to prop myself up on my elbows. There was Kazuya, dangling a battered Wulong by the throat.
         <'You,' said the devil-criminal, 'you are like me.' There were more words, yet I could not hear them, for the devil's claws pierced Wulong and he screamed his last.
         <My arms gave way beneath me. When I slapped against the ground, the shell Silva had given me cracked. A stream of color dissolved the world. Wulong's death-scream echoed in my ears. Sometimes at night, I wake up, still hearing that scream.
         <Kazuya killed him, little flower. That demon you brought to Sanctuary has his shape and his face, yet it is not him. I should have known that.>
         <What is the next thing you remember?>
         <I was in Silva's jungle home. She tended to my wounds. We were in a shrine where primitive people had once worshiped gods of the rainforest; the holy ground protected our souls from the Apocalypse.
         <When I had healed, Silva told me that I would be needed in a great war. She waved her hand, and I was in the midst of a patrol from Sanctuary. The Chosen Ones were quite startled. They examined me thoroughly, as did Chief Thunder, before I was permitted to reside here and fight with the others.>
         Despite the story's exotic feel, it carried a ring of veracity that Jun was inclined to trust. She considered the implications. This Claudia Silva had teleported Takeshi across great distances, without being physically present to cast the spell. And if she could do it, then why not Kazuya?
         Perhaps the assassin was not Kung Lao after all, but rather someone without the innate ability to distort space. Perhaps Kazuya, watching from afar, had teleported the assassin as needed.
         <Fujioka-san, I do not believe you are cursed like Lei. Liu Kang, Kung Lao, even the forest animals would know if you were. But you must not harm yourself. A murderer is loose in Sanctuary; he has already killed one good man. If you destroy yourself, he will have killed another. Sanctuary needs every fighter it can get.>
         <I know it does. That is the only reason I am still here to speak with you, even though I am unworthy of perishing on the field of battle.>
         <Come to the trial. When I prove Lei's innocence before the jury, you will know you did the right thing when you spoke in his defense.>
         <Still, you cling to the demon.> Takeshi reached with his right hand. His fingers lightly caressed her cheek, and his chestnut eyes reflected endless sorrow. <You must let go of him, little flower, or he will drag you down into his hell. And that would truly be a tragedy.>
         She shook her head, and used her fingertips to gently guide his hand away from her face. <Come to the trial, then, and watch the tragedy play out. Either way, it is bound to be interesting.>
         "Soo desu, hana-chan. Ee. Saiban-e ikimasu," the officer softly agreed.



         The remainder of Jun's search yielded nothing useful. Evening had fallen when she regrouped in Lei's cell with Sonya and Sub-Zero, to share what they had learned. Jun noticed that Lei, while uninjured, appeared in worse shape than when she'd seen him last. He lingered in the far corner with his back to the walls, knees drawn, both arms pressed tightly underneath his ribcage. His eyes were closed, and his face had a tense pallor.
         "Are you all right?" she asked.
         "It's not that bad," he rasped, feebly. "Never mind me. Talk to the others."
         "Um, okay. Where's Kung Lao?" Jun looked at Sub-Zero.
         "Oh, I finished my preliminary tests and turned him over to Liu Kang," the scientist dismissed. "Liu was not at all pleased to learn about his Shaolin brother's little Talent. I imagine dear Lao will be under effective house arrest for a time."
         "Okay. Lei, we're meeting here because you're the detective. I want to know what you can piece together of this. Sensei, have you found anything new?"
         "Nothing absolutely conclusive, but I have a new twist for your theory. That blood sample you found? It could belong to a saurian."
         "A what?"
         "They're a peaceful race of intelligent reptilian beings. Sparky once lived with them for a few months; ask him to tell you about it sometime. I've personally encountered only one saurian before. We called him Reptile, and as coincidence would have it, he was indeed a shape-shifter. He could also turn himself invisible, create explosive spheres of bio-kinetic force, and I don't know what else. He was Shang Tsung's apprentice for some five hundred years, you see, so he'd studied a great deal of sorcery. Reptile was on our side, by the way; we Chosen Ones might never have escaped Shokan without his aid. Perhaps another of his race has turned rogue."
         "Are you sure the blood is from a saurian?"
         "Well, there's the rub. I've never had a chance to analyze saurian blood before. But it would explain the pigment - I saw Reptile injured once, and I think his blood did have a greenish tinge - as well as why there are fifty-eight chromosomes in each cell; that's not a particularly humanoid number. Oh, and the enzyme that melted the lock on the door to Wulong's room? It could be saurian venom."
         "I see. Sonya, have you found anything?"
         "Ay, la cabeza..." the lieutenant groaned, kneading her temples. Deep lines marred her skin. Her face was ghostly pale, as though from some terrible strain.
         "Sonya?"
         "Kabal hasn't killed anyone lately. Hell, Schultz is the only human being he's ever wasted. I don't fucking believe it."
         "Are you all right?"
         "Better off than he is."
         She gazed straight ahead, sapphire eyes unfocused. "I'm a soldier, Kazama. I serve my country. Sometimes it's bloody work. Sometimes the casualties mount, but it's for the right reasons. The right causes. Why is he so horrified? He's the gangster. He's the fucking murderer, not me...!" She gritted her teeth in a snarl.
         "Um." Jun absently touched the tips of her index fingers together. "Okay, that leaves me. Lei, you know that blood sample Sub-Zero was talking about? Well, I found it at the scene of the crime-"
         "-when you pulled Raven's blade out of the sacred altar," Lei tonelessly finished.
         Jun stared. Lei filled her stunned silence with a step-by-step recounting of everything she had learned; when he finished, she finally burst out, "How do you know all this!?"
         "Raven told me."
         "Well, how did she-" Jun caught herself, then looked at the guards with calculating clarity. "Wolf."
         Stationed near the cell entrance, the wrestler calmly returned her accusing glare. "You called?"
         "I wondered why you ducked out of Takeshi's quarters for a little while. You're feeding our information to the prosecution, aren't you? Aren't you!?"
         Rock's jaw went slack. "That is why you-?"
         "Oh, quit whining, Jun," yawned the wrestler. "Why do you think Raven really lets you share a cell with the demon? The guards overhear everything you say to each other, and pass anything important along to her."
         Jun's hostile expression became one of stricken betrayal. "Hawk? Is that true?"
         T. Hawk awkwardly adjusted his neckline. "Raven is our Chief's virtual successor, until such a time as new elections can be held. To disobey her could qualify as treason."
         The healer slapped her open palms against the cell floor in frustration. "Shimatta!"
         "Well, this was a shitty idea," Sonya grumbled. "Screw it. I'd better prepare your case somewhere private."
         "You?"
         "You were expecting Perry Mason?"
         "Do you have any experience with criminal law?"
         "More than anyone else in my platoon."
         "Which is?"
         "Two high school mock trials. Damn, I wish Catsclaw were still alive; he had a degree in this shit."
         "First, let us kill all the lawyers," Lei said, in a spine-chilling monotone.
         "Don't you fucking wish." Sonya roughly shoved her way out of the cell. Sub-Zero started to follow her, then paused for a thoughtful glance at Lei.
         "I'll see you after the trial," the scientist commented.
         "Don't count on it."
         "Oh, but I am. One way or another."
         "Iki-nasai!" Jun furiously shouted. The scientist shrugged and left.
         "What was that all about?" Lei queried, raising an eyebrow.
         Jun nervously hugged herself. "Um, I'm... I'm so sorry, Lei. I needed his help. To get it, I had to promise him something from you."
         "Over my dead body."
         She bit her lip and looked close to tears.
         "Hey..." Lei ran a hand through his hair and fidgeted, keeping his other arm tucked against his midsection. "Hey, it's all right, ki- uh, Jun. I was kidding, honest. Whatever he wants, I'm sure I'll be either grateful to do it or past caring. Okay? Don't worry about it."
         She sniffed and massaged the corners of her eyes. "I haven't found much, have I?"
         "Don't feel bad. You did the best you could." He meant the words to be reassuring, but their tone deteriorated into a strained wince.
         "We're still no closer to catching the assassin. I've talked to people for information, and learned a lot of things, but I can't understand the big picture. And there are so many puzzle pieces that I don't have. So many things no one can tell me, or will tell me."
         "It happens."
         "You won't answer me, either."
         "Eh?"
         "Lei, I... I know you don't want to talk about it. I wouldn't ask you if I weren't desperate. But I know you haven't told me everything about your curse."
         Lei's head drooped. "Oh."
         "You're in some kind of pain because of it, aren't you? That's why you clutch at yourself, even though Sub-Zero couldn't find any physical cause. No, don't stop doing it, not if it makes you feel better. There's still more to it, isn't there?"
         "It doesn't matter, ki... eh, Jun."
         "Maybe it does. Maybe it's the keystone piece, and you just can't see it. I have to know. This is the only lead I have left, unless you can think of a better one."
         "You're out of leads," he mumbled. That distant tone was creeping into his voice again.
         "Please, Lei. I'm begging you."
         "It doesn't matter..." He felt so far away, as if he were on the other side of the world.
         "Why not? What's wrong, Lei? Why won't you answer?"
         Her entreaties had no effect. He'd withdrawn completely now; nothing she could say would span the endless gulf. At last she gave up and rearranged the puzzle pieces already in her mind, trying to make them fit together in an understandable manner. Her thoughts kept returning to Lei.
         It doesn't matter.
         She'd heard him say something like that before, with the same dolor. When? And where? She closed her eyes, tracing back the days one at a time.


         So, y' wuz askin' me why. Why it don' matt'r no more. Well, 'm not gonna tell ya why. Bu' I'll say thi': Liu Kang knows. Y'can ask 'im t' tell ya. Bett'r yet, ask 'im t' show ya!


         Jun's eyes were opened.



         "The Temple of Light is closed. It has been polluted with the presence of shape-shifting sorcery. We will conduct no more business until it has been cleansed," Liu Kang stated, from his elevated chair. He appeared to be alone. Jun listened closely to the wind spirits, and felt what could have been Kung Lao's life-force, beneath her.
         She looked closer at Liu Kang. Night had fallen, and firelight from the temple braziers was dim enough to drape him in shadow, yet she could discern a taut resentment to his face.
         "You had a fight with Lao, didn't you?" Jun surmised. Rock and Wolf exchanged glances.
         "He is in the crypt, undergoing penance. I know of your theories, Kazama. Kung Lao respectfully requested that I examine his mind and soul, so that I could lay your suspicions to rest. He is not what you seek. You are chasing after an assassin that does not exist."
         "Lei is innocent."
         "Have you forgotten how easily Kazuya penetrated my cloaking spell? He was using Wulong as his reagent, just as he used Wulong to kill Chief Thunder."
         "You're wrong, and I'll prove it. There's something I need you to show me."
         "To show you?"
         "Yes. About Lei."
         "If I knew of anything that could absolve him, I would have come forward with it."
         "Maybe you know more than you think you know, which is why I have to know it too."
         "I beg your pardon?"
         "When you looked into Lei's mind, you learned about his curse. You saw something more than what he's told us, didn't you?"
         "If there were such a thing, and Wulong did not want you to know, then I would not have the right to speak of it."
         "Lei suggested that you show me."
         "Did he?"
         "Yes. You know that I wouldn't lie to you, Liu."
         The monk steepled his hands. "Kazama, do you comprehend the difference between telling and showing?"
         "Yes."
         "And the risks that the latter proposes?"
         "Yes."
         "If I tell you, you will know. If I show you, you will understand. You will think what he thought, feel what he felt. It will not be pleasant. You will hurt. Above all, you must remember that it is not real, that it is only someone else's memory. Do you accept this?"
         She nodded. "What do I do?"
         "Come closer. Look into my eyes."
         Jun approached. Dancing shadows obscured the monk's tawny orbs. The darkness deepened with each step she took, until it was all around her, blotting out everything. An endless expanse of midnight isolated her in unbroken void, except for a single pool of light.
         Liu Kang's serene voice filled the darkness. The light's revelations await you, but you must be prepared to accept the consequences. It is not too late to turn back. I can simply tell you what happened.
         "No, I don't want to just be told. I want to understand."
         Jun stepped into the pool.


         Pain.
         The light is damnation. Its singular brilliance consumes her with merciless frenzy. A piercing influx of electrical fury savages her skin, engulfing her in agonizing shock, but that isn't the worst of it. No, the worst is the crippling immobility that slackens her muscles. Her body, savaged from a brutal beating, collapses as if it were made of rope.
         A sharp-clawed hand wraps around her throat and lifts her high. Her left eye is swollen shut, and the vision of her right eye is blurred with sweat and blood, yet she catches a nightmare glimpse of her tormentor's face.
         It is Kazuya Mishima, monstrously changed. Dragon's wings flex upon his shoulders. His skin is livid blue, marred with dark purple veins. His hair is a forest of spikes. Slightly curving horns protrude backward from his skull. An elliptical mark in the center of his forehead shines dim gold, the afterglow of recently expelled power. Cruel lips curl into a malicious smile, filled with triangular teeth. Most horrible of all are his blood-red eyes, with jet black pupils that reflect only one emotion: raw determination.
         There is no trace of the kind soul he used to be. The Devil is all that remains.
         A sea of hatred descends upon her mind. There can be no defense against its acidic, burning waves; it drowns her, dissolves her, picks apart her innermost thoughts. She struggles against her paralysis, seeking to claw, to kick, to do anything. Loathing fills her, both for her enemy and for her own worthlessness. She has to kill the monster. The people closest to her, Yue, Hu, Qiao, and all its other innocent victims must be avenged!
         "Ssso determined," hisses Devil Kazuya. "Obsessed with vengeance. And hatred, such hatred. You... you are like me. All the way down to your-"
         His claws sink deep into her body.
         She screams.




         Lei stared ahead.
         He was beginning to feel drowsy, but he couldn't sleep. He did not dare. If he fell asleep, would it happen again? Would he awaken in blood, grief, terror, and panic?
         Murderer! YOU SLEW MY HUSBAND!
         Lei shuddered and pressed his arms more tightly underneath his ribs. His eyes started to close; to keep them open, he concentrated on the cracks of the cement wall opposite him.
         A young woman's sobs reached his ears. At first he thought it was a trick of memory, but then the angle of their source moved into his line of sight, and he heard Liu Kang's steady, reassuring voice.
         "Listen to me. It is not real. It is someone else's memory. You are all right. The nightmare is over."
         "Itai..." Jun moaned. Tears streamed from her eyes. One of her arms was draped around the monk's shoulders; he supported her limping steps. She couched her other arm tightly against her midsection, directly below the ribs.
         "Samui. Totemo samui!" She shivered, as though stranded in a place far colder than the depths of Sub-Zero's lab. Her suffering was painful to behold, worse than a million lights.
         "Wh-what's going on?" Lei stammered, shaking off his numb withdrawal. "What have you done to her?"
         "So dark. Cold. Empty. It hurts!"
         "What have you done to her? Leave her alone!" Fiercely protective outrage supplanted the bewilderment on Lei's face. He tried to snap to his feet, but he'd been sitting motionless for so many hours that his stiffened muscles tore and protested, bringing him down to one knee.
         The monk helped Jun sit on the floor, saying, "All I did was show her your secret. The one you would not tell her, for fear she would despise you."
         "You..." Lei snarled. "No! You made her relive-!"
         "I did not 'make' her do anything. It was her own choice, selected in full knowledge of the consequences, and at your suggestion."
         "My suggestion? My suggestion? MY FREAKING SUGGESTION!?" Lei repeated, hysterically. "I would never, EVER tell her to-!"
         "You were drunk at the time," Jun whispered, through the tears.
         "You are a strong one," Liu Kang observed, looking down on her with impartial scrutiny. "When I was in your place, it was nearly a full hour before I could respond to the outside world. I shall leave you now."
         Lei paid no attention to the departing monk. He crawled next to Jun. "Are you okay, kid? Eh, I mean, Jun? Aw, please don't cry. Please."
         Her sobs ceased, and her trembling lessened. "Why are you trying to comfort me? I'm not the one who's-"
         "Ssh. It's okay."
         "No, it's not! You're not! How can you stand it?"
         "I've had six months to adjust."
         "'Adjust'? How could you ever get used to it? It's dark and cold, a horrible emptiness inside that never goes away! I... I can't..." She swallowed a thickness in her voice. "I can't heal you, Lei. Nothing I know will... will cure this... will stop the pain."
         "It's not that bad."
         "You're lying."
         Lei sighed.
         "The first time you say it, it's a lie. And the second time, and the third, and the fourth. But if you keep saying it often enough, fervently enough, you'll start to believe it. And if you can truly believe it, with every fiber of your being, then it isn't really a lie anymore, is it? Good and bad are in the eye of the beholder."
         "Why didn't you tell us? Were you really afraid we would despise you?"
         "Worse. I was afraid you'd pity me. But - damn it, Jun, if I'd known you were going to put yourself through my hell, I swear I would have told you-"
         His voice caught in his throat, and dropped to a fearful whisper. "I didn't really suggest that you hurt yourself like this, did I?"
         "It was in the sewers. You were very drunk."
         "I... I don't remember."
         "I know."
         Lei hung his head in disgrace. "I'll never drink again."
         Jun wiped away the last of her tears. "You mean it, this time?"
         "Eh, I mean it every time. This time, though, I think it'll come true. Look, Jun..." He licked his lips, anxiously. "Do you think we can get the Chosen Ones down here?"
         "I guess I can send a message. Why?"
         "Because all of you deserve to know the whole truth. Beginning to end."



         "It all started when my partner died."
         The Chosen Ones listened to Lei's narration in silence. Liu Kang sat reverse cross-legged, with his palms touching in prayer. Kung Lao subconsciously moved to adjust the brim of a hat that wasn't there, since the guards had temporarily confiscated it like any other weapon. Sonya took notes on a yellow pad, and Sub-Zero punched the keys of a hand-held computer. Stryker and Kabal lounged against the far wall. Kabal in particular spared frequent, jittery glances at Sonya, as if he were afraid of her.
         Lei's guards shifted uneasily in the crowded close quarters. Jun consciously resisted the lingering reflex to clutch at her own midsection, in response to the afterimage of a pain that wasn't hers. Lei fidgeted on the cell's bench, and interlaced his fingers atop the peeling paint of the smallish black table.
         "Actually, it started well before then, when Yue and I were investigating corruption within a certain Hong Kong corporation. Kickbacks, price-fixing, money-laundering, underworld ties, that sort of thing. We exposed some people in their hierarchy, brought shame on their heads, it was quite a scandal. Yue did most of the work, though. By that late stage in my career, I was drinking so much that often as not, I'd have a hangover when I showed up for my job.
         "It was shortly after that when I began to realize what my drinking was doing to me, and flew up to Lao's temple to dry out. The Temple of Light doesn't get television, radio, or newspapers, so I didn't hear anything until I returned to Hong Kong. I walked inside the station, fresh and ready to resume my job, and all my friends were looking at me with such sadness. They'd drawn straws to decide who would tell me. Jiao lost.
         "Yue's plane had gone down.
         "The last time I saw her, she was getting aboard a Mishima Airlines flight to some vacation paradise. She never made it - well, maybe to the paradise part. Her plane had crashed on some island in the middle of the ocean. There were no survivors."
         A lump formed in Lei's throat; he swallowed it, and rubbed his eyes.
         "Kazuya Mishima apologized publicly for the tragedy. He was on TV and everything, reciting some pseudo-heartfelt speech about regret and culpability and I don't know how much crap. A lot of Mishima Airlines executives lost their jobs.
         "No one could figure out why the airplane crashed. There should've been a black box, a flight record, something to give the authorities a clue, but nothing like that was ever recovered. Sometimes, I... I see it in my mind, as it might have happened. I can hear panicked screams, the screech of howling wind; the plane dips in a nose dive and explodes in a ball of fire.
         "The... the bodies they found were charred, mostly shattered into pieces by the crash. Dental records were the primary means of identification. Four hundred and thirty-six passengers and crew, all dead. At least it - it must have been over quickly.
         "But dammit, Yue deserved better! Of all the people in the world, I'd expect her to go out fighting, not trapped and helpless in some sardine can of death.
         "Damn...
         "When Jiao told me about it, it hurt. Hurt something awful. First thing I did was run to the closest bar and drink myself into a sort of perpetual coma, trying to wash away the pain. I... I missed her funeral. All her friends were there, and I was passed out on the floor of some rathole. I should've been there...
         "Sorry. Sorry, I'm getting off track.
         "Anyway, I tried to get back into the routine of my job, sort through the remaining paperwork while the department found me a new partner. And then, leafing through the stuff on Yue's desk, I found something in tiny print. Neither of us had noticed it before. It bothered me. I checked it out, and one thing led to another.
         "The Hong Kong corporation - the corrupt business that Yue and I had brought down - it was a branch of the Mishima syndicate. They owned it through a hellish number of layers, holding corporations, subsidiaries, I can scarcely remember it all, but they owned it.
         "Just like they owned Mishima Airlines.
         "Remembering something Yue had said to me, about free tickets, I broke into her home and searched her garbage. She used to live in this cheap dump of a flat, and lucky for me, no one had cleaned out her stuff yet. I found an opened envelope and a letter. Yue had received tickets in the mail, gifts for winning some freaking magazine sweepstakes, I don't know. She always liked to enter those things.
         "I investigated the magazine. It took me two weeks to dig through the layers of bureaucracy, trace the records of who was in charge of what, but finally I learned the truth.
         "The Mishima syndicate owned it.
         "Other people thought I was paranoid, but it was all I could think about. The syndicate. The syndicate. The freaking Mishima syndicate. My drinking was totally out of control by then; I showed up for work drunk, and that was the end of my job. I'm not a detective, Jun; not anymore.
         "Anyhow, I searched for months, selling off my possessions for money to drink my meals, even got thrown out of my apartment when I couldn't make the rent. Out of a hundred different angles, I could come up with nothing that directly tied the syndicate - and Kazuya Mishima - to the plane crash, to Yue's murder. And I couldn't shake the gut feeling that it was murder, even though there wasn't enough evidence to persuade anyone else.
         "When the Mishima syndicate sponsored its blood-sport Iron Dermal or whatever Tournament, I knew that I was right all along. Because I recognized the face and voice of one of the fighters. He was a recent, off-the-record employee of the Mishima syndicate. I'd seen him board Yue's plane. It was him, exactly the same, only his lips were a little thicker, like from some kind of facial injury.
         "His name was Bruce Irvin. He was supposed to be dead. He'd been reported dead, along with four hundred and thirty-five other people.
         "He was a Muay Thai kickboxer. Lost his family when he was young, and spent most of his life in poverty and hunger, fighting for whatever he could get. His violent kickboxing career culminated in a bout with a heavily favored champion. A mafia family tried to bribe Irvin into throwing the fight, but instead, he killed his opponent in the ring. This cost the underworld so much money in lost bets that they put a price on his head. Then came an inexplicable 'massacre,' if that's what it really was - virtually everyone involved in the hit contract on Irvin disappeared, overnight. Almost the next morning, Irvin became an unofficial employee of the Mishima syndicate. He's worked for them ever since. He was working for them when he boarded Yue's plane.
         "I had so many suspicions, but no proof.
         "Then, the Mishima syndicate started kidnapping people. Fighters. Their families. Anyone who lost a match in the tournament. That was my lead. You already know what happened next, how I set myself up as a target, and begged my old department for help.
         "My friends went to the I.C.P.O. and tried to enlist the aid of the renowned Detective Chun Li. She took one look at me and directed us over to Officer Takeshi Fujioka. Maybe the fact that I was dead drunk incited her displeasure, I don't know.
         "We caught a few syndicate goons, and when they confessed they'd kidnapped people on Kazuya's orders, we got an arrest warrant for the bastard himself. Serving it was another matter. When we infiltrated the syndicate to confront him, Kazuya just... transformed himself into some kind of devil, and tore apart my friends like paper. They shot him from point-blank range; he didn't even twitch. Out of desperation, I tried to fight him hand-to-hand. Funny; even though he could shrug off bullets, my blows actually seemed to hurt him, don't ask me why."
         "Sounds like a localized, continuous projectile ward," Kung Lao noted. "Skilled or powerful sorcerers sometimes use them; I think Nightwolf is familiar with the spell. It deflects thrown or propelled objects, but has no effect on energy or close-range attacks."
         "Whatever. Well, I... I like to think that I put up a good fight. But in the end, he spread a pair of batlike wings and took to the sky. At first I thought he was going to fly away; then this mark on his forehead gleamed brilliant gold, and a beam of light shot out from it. I couldn't get out of the way.
         "The light hit me, and it was like being electrocuted. I was paralyzed. Couldn't move, couldn't fight back, couldn't do anything. Ever since, when really bright light of any kind shines on me, it's like it's happening all over again - I'm so terrified I can't react.
         "Kazuya picked me up and probed my mind. He said..."
         Lei's voice momentarily flattened into a cold, ruthless, perfectly accurate match of Devil Kazuya's hissing sibilance. "'You... you are like me. All the way down to your soul.'
         "And he-"
         A shuddering fit gripped Lei. He drew and exhaled a deep breath to calm himself.
         "Kazuya took my soul.
         "Ripped it right out of me. I'm not going to tell you what that's like. I'm just not. Trust me, you don't want to know. Liu Kang found out the hard way, when he tried to look into my soul and nothing was there. I'd never believed in souls before, until - crap. You just don't want to know.
         "But that's how I really weathered the Apocalypse. I wasn't on any freaking holy ground. The green sky-fire steals people's souls, and I don't have anything for it to take."
         Astonishment and horror filled the faces of the people before him, guards and Chosen Ones alike. The only exceptions were Jun, who sniffled despondently, and Liu Kang, whose serene external appearance did not change.
         Sonya broke the shocked silence with a tentative query. "If you don't have a soul, how can you still be alive?"
         "I - I don't know," the cop weakly answered, looking at the table. "Maybe I'm not. Men only become demons after they're dead, don't they?"
         "It is... theoretically possible," Kung Lao mumbled, in a state of dismay. "A skilled necromancer could take the soul and spare the life, but it wouldn't be a-" He abruptly cut off, and flinched from Lei's gaze.
         "It wouldn't be a kindness? Is that what you were going to say?
         "Never mind. There's only a little more that I haven't told you. When Kazuya was done with me, he discarded me like a piece of trash, and I landed hundreds of miles away in Hong Kong. Scarcely fifteen minutes had passed. A short while after the Apocalypse hit, my curse activated in a fight with the mutants, and when I came to I was in some American city. Where you guys eventually found me."
         "Teleportation," Sonya muttered.
         "Yeah, that's the only explanation I can think of."
         Kung Lao pondered, "When I transport someone or something through a spatial rift, I must grasp them and bring them with me to my destination. To teleport a person without continuously touching him would require a tremendous amount of power. I can't see a young wizard like Kazuya being able to generate that much energy, unless he could harness the Earth itself to do his bidding. Or unless..."



         The Mishima syndicate squatted in the depths of darkness.
         Nightwolf and Jax spied it from afar. In the nighttime murk, its distant, electrically lighted perimeter sparkled like fireflies. Swarms of moving shapes milled about. It was a restless army of mutants and Centaurians. Their agitation did not strike Jax as a good sign.
         Nightwolf reverted from wolf form to human form. The shaman appeared ill.
         He trembled, and a rattle sounded from the back of his throat. His hands tore at his long hair. He fell to his elbows and knees, convulsing.
         "What's wrong?" Jax urgently requested. When he scanned Nightwolf with his microcomputer, he could not find an immediate cause of distress.
         "Can't you feel it?" gasped the shaman. "Suffering. Evil! This is no mere fortress; it is a web of foulest necromancy. Any mortal who dies on these premises loses more than just his life. Kazuya Mishima enslaves his soul, and uses its torment to fuel his sorcery!"
         "Good thing we both intend to survive this mission."
         "Can't you hear the howling? It is the wail of a thousand tortured souls!"
         "Focus, man, focus!" Jax demanded, shaking the shaman by the shoulders. "You have to get a grip. Remember our plan!"
         Nightwolf's achromatic eyes gradually became sparkling clear. His shaking abated, although his fingers dug into the dusty earth like burrowing claws. "Our plan will not work. The souls cry to me; they warn of a shadowy construct that will pierce my cloaking spell. If we come any closer, we will be discovered."
         "Great. So what do we do now?"
         "Now, we wait."



         Jun continued to work with the puzzle pieces well after the Chosen Ones had left, past when T. Hawk rotated off his shift at watch, late into the night. Still, they would not fit; at least, not into something she could use to pinpoint the true assassin. Maybe it was just exhaustion and stress that kept her from thinking clearly.
         Then one tiny piece, infinitely inconsequential and yet heartrendingly important, clicked into its proper slot. She looked sadly upon Lei, who had once again sunken into the depths of depression.
         "She was the one, wasn't she? Your partner, I mean. Yue. She was the woman you tried to marry, and who turned you down. That's why her loss hurt you so much. You were in love with her."
         Lei nodded, almost imperceptibly. "Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head. Talking to me. Offering advice. But I - I know it isn't really her, so I never listen. Never."
         "It isn't your fault she died."
         "Y-yes it is. She was on that plane because of me. I drove her crazy with my drinking! If she hadn't been so desperate to get away from me, she might not - might not have-"
         "I don't care if you bought the tickets for her, it's not your fault! Lei?"
         He hunched forward. Two newly forming trickles of moisture slid torpidly down his face.
         "It doesn't matter anymore, Jun. It just doesn't matter."


End of Chapter 12: Revelations