ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 13: Blood Atonement


    "Often and often I blame myself for not having given more attention to accounts of public executions... How had I failed to recognize that nothing was more important than an execution; that, viewed from one angle, it's the only thing that can genuinely interest a man?"
         -Albert Camus, The Stranger


         Once, I was Raiden, god of Thunder. Now, I am a living ghost.
         The army of Kazuya Mishima is on the move, with Captain Bruce Irvin at its forefront. They are taking a direct course to Sanctuary. The means to conquer is within Kazuya's grasp, for a traitor lies in Sanctuary's midst, and my Chosen Ones have been too slow to destroy him. Only a miracle can save them now.
         A miracle - or a warning.
         I do the unthinkable, and search for her. No lucid man or god ever seeks her, because to find her is to know the hour of one's end. But I am desperate.
         I find her gazing down upon the Mother Realm. In particular, she studies the mortals Lei Wulong and Jun Kazama; I wonder what it is about them that fascinates her so? Could it be the raw potential that lies dormant in them both? She has never taken interest in such things before. To her, it makes little difference whether one is strong or weak, good or evil, human or god. All that matters is whether one is living or dead, and she is better disposed toward the dead.
         Her white-feathered wings flex with annoyance, for she is aware of me.
         *You have no business here. Leave,* speaks the Angel.
         ~Not until you hear me out,~ I reply.
         *Impudent.* Her aqua eyes look into me, laying bare all my weaknesses. *I have informed you that you may not answer the prayers of your Chosen Ones. Manifest yourself before them, and your essence shall be unmade. You shall not be warned again.*
         ~Then you must manifest before them. Bring them a warning. It would be no greater interference than when I alerted them of the coming Apocalypse.~
         *Your Chosen Ones do not pray to me. No sane being does.*
         ~Nevertheless, you must warn them!~
         *You presume too much.*
         I have provoked her. With a tendril of her consciousness, she pierces me in a thousand places. My essence tears, crackling with discharges of electricity as a mortal might bleed. I am brought to my knees before her.

         *Go back to your appointed task of recording the downfall of the Mother Realm, and do not approach me again.*



         Jax always hated waiting.
         His silent fretting burned his entrails like a vial of swallowed acid. He'd set out with Nightwolf to rescue a prisoner, not to stand around like a couple of stick figures. They could not go forward, or else the enemy would see through Nightwolf's concealment spell, and they would be prey to the milling herds of mutants and Centaurians. Neither could they go back; they had come too far, risked too much to get here. Now, Nightwolf said they had to wait, so Jax waited. He loathed every second of it, but he waited.
         Nightwolf had settled in a cross-legged position, hands resting to his either side, palms upturned. The shaman chanted. His achromatic eyes sparkled with mystic power.
         At one point, he broke off his chanting. His eyes closed. Sweat beaded on his brow. His mouth moved as though in speech, but it was too dark to read his lips. Finally, his eyes snapped open. He clearly said a single word.
         "Good."
         "You wanna explain?" Jax requested, hard-pressed to disguise his impatience.
         "Another will help us. He will free the prisoner we seek, and deliver him to our hands."
         "That's not just good, it's too good to be true. When will this mystery guy make his move?"
         "At the stroke of midnight, when the shadows are their deepest."
         "Oh, yeah?" Jax checked his microcomputer. "Well, I'd say that's right about... now."
         An inky blot of darkness pooled before them.
         Amorphous shadows formed an unfathomable well of gloom, which heaved and rose like a tidal wave. It slapped the earth and ebbed away, leaving behind the wheezing, gasping body of an old man. He had no eyes, only scarred, empty eyesockets.
         As for the darkness, it reshaped itself into a humanoid outline. Words came from it, though they did not quite sound like mortal speech; they were more akin to the boiling, popping noise of bubbles forming in pitch.
         "There you go. One blind old geezer, delivered safe and sound. Well, mostly. Have a nice time taking him home."
         Jax immediately stepped between the darkness and the listless old man.
         "You're Noob Saibot!" he exclaimed, priming the weaponry in his bionic arms. "You serve the Shao Kahn!"
         "Yes indeed. Which is why I can't stick around to watch the fun - and believe me, the three of you are going to encounter a great deal of fun any moment now! Ta-ta. Have a nice death!"
         With that, the human shadow dissolved into the darkness from whence he came.
         "What do you mean? Come back here!" the major demanded.
         "Never mind," said Nightwolf. He focused on the old man before them. "You are Wang Jinrey, are you not? We have come a long way to learn what you know. Tell us at once."
         Wang tried to speak, but all he managed was a whistle of air.
         "We can't waste time on this," Jax grumbled. To Wang, "Are you well enough to travel?"
         The old man nodded.
         "So be it," Nightwolf acquiesced. In the space of a heartbeat, the shaman transformed from human to a great red wolf, far larger and stronger than any natural animal.
         Wang showed no fear. Was it because he couldn't see the fangs and claws before him, or because he knew deep within that the beast was a friend?
         "Get on my back, both of you," rumbled the wolf. Jax helped the old man sit by the wolf's shoulders, then climbed on himself.
         Nightwolf ran.
         He loped steadily, gliding over the dusty plains. His pace was noticeably slower than it had been before. Jax knew that he had to be tiring. Nightwolf had maintained their cloaking spell for two days straight, with only his meditations to sustain himself. His wolf form could run far faster than men could, however, and they needed to escape the swarming enemy as quickly as possible. Jax could almost hear the pounding of their hoofbeats - no, on second thought, there was no "almost" about it.
         Jax turned his head around. In the distance, he spotted the shadowy blur of several Centaurians. Was one of them carrying something, or someone, in its misshapen arms?
         The horse-men were gaining rapidly on Nightwolf.
         Was it coincidence? Could the enemy just happen to be traveling in the same direction as they were?
         Or could they see through Nightwolf's cloaking spell?
         Jax searched the dark sky for a black bird with eyes of burning red fire, such as the one which had heralded the destruction of half his last patrol. He didn't find it. Besides, hadn't Nightwolf been aware of the sorcerous construct? Wouldn't he know if it had seen through his mystic cloak?


         Believe me, the three of you are going to encounter a great deal of fun any moment now!


         Jax cursed himself for being an idiot.
         "Nightwolf, stop! They're on to us!"
         "What?"
         The great wolf skidded to a halt on the dusty earth. Jax leaped off his back and keyed a quick command into his microcomputer, scanning the refugee they carried. The major soon discovered that his worst dread was true.
         "You've got a bug on your skullcap. They're using it to track us!" Jax extended his bionic right arm, plucking off Wang's head-covering and flinging it away.
         "Oh, no," old man rasped, in a scarcely recovered whisper. He felt his bald head and mumbled, "Lee must have planted it on me..."
         "Yes, I did."
         In a dizzying twist of time and space, nine massive Centaurians ringed them in a circle. Standing in front of the monsters was a human with silver hair and stagnant auburn eyes. He carried a sharpened dagger, with a rearing unicorn engraved on its hilt.
         It was too late to run. The enemy had teleported all around them, and at these close quarters, Nightwolf's cloaking magic was useless.
         "I hoped that the Chosen Ones weren't after you, Uncle," Lee quietly stated. "We have a great many guests hidden within our walls, dreaming of the New Era. You were the logical choice, though. You know too much about the house Mishima, and you have the gift of prophecy."
         "Lee..." Wang dipped into a squat, wide-legged stance presenting the left side of the body. His left hand hovered protectively over his exposed front knee; his right hand bent ninety degrees at the elbow, in a plane parallel to the ground. Both hands weaved in small circles. Mystic energies rippled upon his right-hand fingers. Sparks of Wang's blue-white Chi reflected on Lee's eyes.
         "Give yourself up, Uncle. I don't want to hurt you."
         "Nor I you, my boy."
         "Tough," Jax snarled to the silver-haired devil. "Because I want to hurt you!"
         The major keyed a three-part sequence into his computer.
         Sub-Zero had warned him that its Project Titan microchip was an untested prototype, that invoking its technological wizardry could put his life at great risk. Still, Jax had no choice. Three mortal men didn't have a prayer against nine Centaurians. They were doomed unless this worked.
         A translucent field of energy briefly engulfed the major, making his skin tingle.
         Jax grew.
         His arms and legs lengthened. The top of his head shot up toward the sky. His shoulders cast shadows upon shadows. Everything that he wore or carried expanded with him. He towered higher than a warehouse, more vast than a dragon, an immense giant so great that he could crush a Centaurian's skull beneath the heel of his boot.
         Which he did.
         Ignoring Nightwolf and Wang, the horse-monsters rallied against this new threat. Their ramming attacks and sorcerous blasts barely nipped Jax's boots. He kicked them aside, picked them up and broke their backs like toys.
         Jax's Power was a horrific strain. He could feel his own heart struggling desperately to keep pumping blood through his enormous body, yet he couldn't stop. It was an incredible rush. He laughed out loud for joy.
         Lee heard an external pandemonium of grunts, whinnies, and booming guffaws, but he couldn't react. There was something inexplicably hypnotic about the blue-white glow on Wang's hand; it compelled his attention, sapped his will to move. And so he stood in spellbound confusion, as the last of the Centaurians neighed its death-wail.
         Lee knew that he was next. The Chosen Ones were not going to let him live. After all he'd done to cling to survival, the crimes he'd committed, the humiliation he'd endured, this was how he would die - and he wouldn't even take his brother to hell with him.


         "No!" Lee cries, pulling his eyes away from the mesmerizing glow.
         Something doesn't feel right; the world is a little hazier, and the silver-haired devil is woozy, disoriented. There is no time to recover his balance, though, because the human giant has turned on him. It lifts its great, textured boot, ready to grind him underfoot like the insect he is.
         Lee aims and flings his dagger far, far up the giant's enormous height. The knife flies in a parabolic arc, and buries itself up to the hilt in Jax's microcomputer. Sparks fly. Jax roars a bellow of pain as his gigantic form collapses, shrinking rapidly.
         The major clutches at his heart. His khaki eyes bulge wide; he makes a strangled gasp, then flops and lies still.
         He is dead.
         Lee can't believe it worked.
         That sandpapery, fuzzy quality to everything persists; it slows Lee's reflexes, and he doesn't respond to Nightwolf's rushing charge until the shaman's shoulder collides with his chest, knocking him down. Nightwolf metamorphoses into a great red wolf and points his muzzle to the sky, howling. The silver-haired devil takes advantage of this stupidity to draw another dagger from his boot, and drive it into the werebeast's upturned throat.
         Lee wrenches out his dagger. Bright fountains of blood gush from the wolf's cut jugular. Its mouth works frantically, and its legs seize up. Its body shimmers and shrivels, into the corpse of a Native American with a gashed throat.
         Lee still can't believe it.
         "Am I next, lad?"
         Werewolf blood drips from Lee's dagger, as he faces Wang Jinrey. That damn giddy sensation persists, as if everything were happening underwater.
         "You're coming with me," the silver-haired devil sluggishly mumbles, through the miasma that clouds his thoughts.
         "Never."
         "You're dead if you don't! You can never make it back to Sanctuary on your own, and even if you did, my brother would destroy you."
         "I am old, Lee. I confront Death every evening, and give thankful prayers for my continued Life every morning."
         "Stop being poetic! Don't you know why I risked my neck to lead a herd of those horse-man killing machines? I could have sent Baek instead, but he would never bring you back in one piece!"
         "It must have taken great courage to work with the Centaurians. Or is it merely that you are so terrified of your brother, nothing else can frighten you?"
         "Shut up! If I let you go, Kazuya will kill me for betraying him, and you'll still be as good as dead!"
         "If I am to die, I would rather it be at your hands." The old man stands proudly erect and spreads his arms wide. "Strike, if you must, and my soul shall weep for yours."
         "No. Don't make me do this." Lee's hands are shaking. He can barely see or hear through the pounding unreality that drums upon his brain.
         "You know that I would sooner perish than go back. Strike."
         "No. No...!" Lee takes a step forward. The bloody tip of his dagger is only inches from Wang's chest. "Don't... don't force me to...!"
         "Strike!"
         "NOOO!"
Lee shrieks, and he does not know whether it is his own will or some coercive, exterior command that drives his knife between the old man's fourth and fifth left-hand ribs. Wang perishes without a sound, sliding off the bloodstained murder weapon and hitting the earth with a soft thud.
         Lee's fingers spasm, dropping the knife. The silver-haired devil falls to all fours. Tears form in his eyes. He feels ready to throw up.
         "This can't be happening," Lee whispers. His shoulders constrict with anguish. "It's not real, I can't believe it..."
         Wait.
         It truly is beyond belief. Not only have the Chosen Ones fallen so easily - too easily, Lee thinks - but Wang Jinrey is a martial artist, skilled in the practice of Shin-I-Rokugo-Ken. He has used that art to defend himself before. Wang would not surrender his life without a fight, or at least a cause.
         Something is drastically wrong.
         The wrongness engulfs Lee's thoughts, covers his eyes, and plugs his ears; but now that he is aware of its true nature, he can resist. He pushes it away, whipping his head back and forth, and concentrates his rebellion into a single scream.
         "IT'S AN ILLUSION!"



         The foggy haze distorting Lee's senses cleared. Now he could see the truth: the nine Centaurians remained dead, but the Chosen Ones were very much alive, though the dark-skinned Chosen One was back to his normal size and appeared winded. Wang, still poised in that wide-legged stance, was quite uninjured and lunging toward the prostrate silver-haired devil.
         Lee tried to raise his arms in defense, but he'd been hypnotized for too long. Wang stepped forward on his right leg; his fist connected with Lee's forehead in a starburst of blue-white Chi. The world faded to black before any pain could register.
         "What exactly were you doing to him?" Nightwolf asked, looking down on Lee's unconscious form.
         "I tried to make him believe that he'd killed us, but something went wrong, and he saw through my dreamweaving. Perhaps I underestimated his love for me." Wang heaved a sad sigh. "How can such a strong will be so helpless before Kazuya's threats?"
         "Too bad your trick did not work. It would have thrown the enemy off our trail." Nightwolf clenched his fingers. A shimmering emerald hatchet of psychic force congealed in his hand. "Step back, old man."
         "No." Wang interposed himself between Lee and the shaman. "There has been too much killing already."
         "He is the enemy!"
         "For now, perhaps. I had all but given up hope for him; then I felt his reaction to my dreamweaving. I will not deny him the opportunity to redeem his soul."
         "If we kill him now, it will buy us a little time. If we let him live, he will send more enemies after us!"
         "It is possible, but understand this: should you attempt to slay the lad as he lies helpless, you must destroy me first. Then I will never give you the information you need so dearly." Wang settled into a defensive stance, ready to fight.
         "You're bluffing."
         "Dare you take the chance?"
         "The two of us can overpower you without killing you, easily!"
         "We shall see."
         "No," Jax decided. "Put the axe away. We don't have time for this."
         "You fool!" snarled the shaman. He bared his teeth in a lupine grimace, and for a moment of tension, it didn't seem as though two men confronted one another. It seemed that an alpha wolf challenged a kingly lion.
         "Nightwolf, you're exhausted. If you waste any more strength on this, you won't be able to keep up our cloaking spell, or carry us on your back. That will slow us down a hell of a lot more. Remember the mission."
         "He is one of them! The silver-haired wretch is one of the murderers who provide Kazuya with souls to torment!"
         "And our job is to stop Kazuya, but we can't do it if we don't complete the mission. No stalling. No infighting. The mission is all that matters."
         Nightwolf spat a curse and lowered the hatchet. His weapon disintegrated into a sprinkling of emerald sparks.



         Jun dreams.
         The world is a panorama of red and black. She turns in place, and finds herself on a grassy field. Crows are cawing. Wind spirits howl their lamentations in her ears. She takes a step forward, and feels the earth tilt at an angle.
         People surround her; their outlines are black shapes against the crimson backdrop. Though she cannot see their faces, she recognizes their silhouettes. Lei stands isolated from the others, with his hands bound to an austere obelisk. Across from him, six Native Americans ready their rifles.
         Lei's shadowy face turns toward her. His voice is the hollow echo of a living man's.
         No, don't look. You must not see this.
         With a terrifying inner chill, Jun knows that she is witnessing his execution. She tries to speak a plea to the men with guns, but no sound can come from her mouth. When she moves forward to intercede, a hand clasps her wrist in a dragon's-claw grip.
         My spell failed, Liu Kang tells her, in dire and ominous tones.
         Jun turns her head, searching for support. She sees nearly all of Sanctuary gathered before her. The Chosen Ones and associates are foremost, in a stark row. They are painted in light the color of fresh blood, and darkness so deep it will drown the soul.
         Do you know who your friends are? speaks Kung Lao, holding his hat over his heart.
         Do you know your enemies? Kabal rasps, through the filter of his alien mask.
         Do you know yourself? Jax bluntly demands, folding his bionic arms.
         What do you know? yawns Michelle, making no effort to hide her disdain.
         He told you not to look, Sonya whispers from behind, and a black veil obscures Jun's sight. The healer struggles, ripping off the blinders with her free hand.
         Ready, commands Raven. The executioners sight their weapons upon Lei's heart.
         Again, Jun cries for them to stop; she makes no sound.
         Aim.
         Neither the Nation nor the Chosen Ones can hear her words; they are deaf to reason, warnings, and pleas. No mortal can hear her. To whom else can she appeal?
         This is her last chance. There has to be someone who can help her! There has to!
         Fire!
         The rifles flare in staccato bursts. Lei twitches spastically from multiple impacts. Blood-red cavities flower upon his chest. His eyes squeeze shut, and his teeth clench together, yet he does not cry out. His legs fold beneath him, until he slumps listlessly against the obelisk.
         He is dead.
         So is everyone else.
         Mortal howling fills the air. Jun whirls to see every man, woman, and child in their death-throes. Raven's skin stretches tautly over her skull, then splits apart; she claws at the mortifying wreck of her face. The Chosen Ones' bones bleach light red against the dismal black background. People of the Nation wriggle like spitted worms, and suffocate on the degrading wreck of their own lungs.
         Kazuya walks confidently amidst the carnage. Lee is to his left. They seem to tower so greatly over the languishing mortals. Fire springs in the wake of their footsteps.
         Sanctuary is burning.
         Greedy flames consume the multitude of writhing bodies. Jun hears the moans of countless tortured souls.
         Come back to us, Jun-chan, Lee urges. Come back to our family. We miss you so much. He extends his open hand; sanguine fluid drips from his fingers.
         "No!" she denies. Now she has her flesh-and-blood voice back, now that she is doomed and nothing she can say will make a difference. "Stop it, you're killing them!"
         That is the intent, Kazuya dryly observes. Although I could be persuaded to spare you.
         "Shogai!" She pushes out with her essence and soul, blocking their approach with her mystic barrier. Kazuya's jet black eyebrows form a sinister V-shape of discontent.
         You have chosen your death, hisses the master sorcerer. Just as Wulong chose his.
         The pestilence contaminates her. She can feel it eating her inside and out; her flexed palm becomes a matted mass of bloody flesh, ropy tendons, and jointed bones. Her own healing power is not enough to stop the decay. Smoke from the wildfires chokes her breath.
         "Help me!" she wails. Neither the Chosen Ones nor the Nation can answer her; they are too busy dying.
         "Lei, help me..." she entreats, holding her decomposed arm out to his bullet-strewn body.
         Lei cannot respond to her; he is dead.
         As her life ends in sickening torment, the only thing left for her to do is scream.



         "AAAAAH!"
         Jun sat bolt upright, gasping for breath. Her heart pounded furiously, and sweat dampened her hair. She hugged herself tightly, shivering with trauma.
         "Are you all right, ki- eh, Jun?" Lei asked, crouching next to her. Deep worry lines marked his haggard face. His eyes were shot through with red streaks, and his head hung from weariness.
         "It was so real," she whispered, fearfully.
         "Eh? Oh."
         Lei searched for the right words. He'd lost track of how often he'd screamed himself awake from a nightmare; now, for the first time, he was on the other side of the situation. "Just a bad dream, was it? Well, it's over now. You'll be okay."
         "No, I-I've had nightmares before. Not very often, but I've had them. This was different; it felt so real! Like being touched by Death..."
         "Ssh. It's okay. You'll be all right."
         "You were executed. Then I died. I-I feel like it's going to come true-"
         "No, it won't. It's okay, Jun. They're not going to execute you."
         "That's not what I meant; I wasn't-"
         "They won't hurt you," Lei insisted, holding her close in a protective embrace. "You're too valuable to them, you're a healer, and you haven't done anything wrong. They won't hurt you, I swear-!"
         He suddenly realized what he was doing and let go of her, stammering embarrassed apologies.
         "Ii desu yo," Jun reassured, but he shook his head and retreated to the shadows of the cell wall. The darkness draped his face in black, making him look almost the same as in her nightmare. Much of the dream had already faded, although bits and pieces flashed through her mind.


         My spell failed.
         Do you know who your friends are?



         In a burst of clarity, she understood. "Lei, it's... it's one of us."
         "Eh?"
         "The shape-shifting assassin who murdered Chief Thunder. It's one of us. Our patrol. Don't you remember how Liu Kang's cloaking spell failed, without his knowing it? Everyone was convinced that Kazuya couldn't have sabotaged it on his own. He needed inside help, from his reagent. From one of us."
         "I wondered how long it would take you to figure that out," Lei mused, distantly.
         "What?" she snapped, slapping her palms against the cell floor. "You knew!?"
         "Came to the conclusion a half-hour after you left for your search, yesterday. Should've remembered it sooner, but I guess I've been out of the trade for too long."
         "Why didn't you tell me before? I could have-" she cut herself off. "No, I'm not going to berate you. There isn't time. Have you made any other deductions?"
         "Eh, well, I know how the killer got past Sanctuary's wards. He was invited in."
         "Of course! It's the only explanation. The wards are virtually impenetrable, and if they had been disrupted, whoever was maintaining them would have felt it. I would have felt it, too. The only way an evil being could insinuate himself within Sanctuary would be to trick someone into inviting him. I wish Nightwolf were here! He and Chief Thunder are the only ones with the authority to invite newcomers into Sanctuary, and make them swear the Oath."
         "By the way, this hypothesis would exclude you as a suspect - you were able to find Sanctuary on your own, meaning that you'd already been invited inside. You didn't need to con an invitation out of anyone."
         "You suspected me?"
         "For, oh, about a millisecond or two. Nothing personal."
         "Okay. Anything more?"
         "Just something for you to ask yourself. Why hasn't the killer attacked anyone else?"
         "Um... I guess I was too busy hoping he wouldn't to think about it."
         "Well, think about it. With one murder, he brought Sanctuary to the brink of civil war. Another death would have everyone literally at each other's throats. Isn't that what Kazuya wants? Divide and conquer?"
         "I... I don't know. Maybe the killer wants suspicion thrown on you, and is waiting because another attack would be evidence of your innocence."
         "Or maybe something is preventing him."
         "I'll have to give that some more thought, later. Right now, we now have a definite list of six suspects. Let's go down it one by one, okay?
         "Jax is gone on a mission. He's probably not the killer, unless he somehow separated from Nightwolf and doubled back here. In which case, he could be impersonating anybody, and we're back to square one. So let's assume it isn't him for now.
         "Kung Lao willingly subjected himself to Liu Kang's mind-probe, and Liu says he's clean. I got the impression that Liu helped Sonya mind-probe Kabal, or something like that, and Sonya says Kabal isn't the one. That's assuming we can trust Liu and Sonya, but the only way I wouldn't trust them would be if one of them were the assassin, in which case Kabal and Kung Lao would still be eliminated.
         "Michelle is maintaining Sanctuary's wards. I've checked this thoroughly, and I can feel it right now; the spells that keep our home safe are exactly the same, uncorrupted, undisturbed, only stronger than ever. That has to work against Kazuya's wishes. By all rights, Michelle should be the assassin's next target. I'm hoping that doesn't happen. At least I did try to warn her.
         "Sonya came close to starting a civil war in Sanctuary, but in the end she worked out a compromise with Raven. That also has to be against Kazuya's will. If Sonya really were a shape-shifting agent, I'll bet she could have Sanctuary burned to the ground by now.
         "As for Liu Kang... it could make sense. What if his cloaking spell 'failed' because he didn't mean for it to work in the first place? Lei, when he read your mind, you must have seen some of his; the sorcery always flows both ways. Do you remember anything suspicious?"
         "Eh, dunno. I get the idea that whenever anyone messes with my head, they see a lot more of me than I do of them. Kang's a dragon. He hates his enemies and wants to destroy them. Controlling that hatred is an uphill struggle. He looks calm, sometimes, but it's mostly surface."
         "Hmmm."
         "Kung Lao knows Liu Kang a lot better than I do, though. They've probably done that joined-mind bit lots of times before, am I right?"
         "Well, yes. It's a very fast way to relay detailed, accurate information."
         "So, if Kang's conscious mind were any different - because, say, he'd been replaced by a shape-shifter - don't you think Lao would have picked up on it when Kang probed him?"
         "Um." Jun swallowed, disheartenedly. "We just eliminated all our suspects."
         "Have we. Have we really."
         "There has to be something we're not seeing. I'll keep thinking about it. Lei, you've been up all night, haven't you? You really should get some sleep."
         "Sorry, ki- eh, Jun. I can't right now. I'll sleep after the trial."
         "Well, I can understand if you want to keep worrying at the problem, but I doubt you'll be able to reach any answers if you're exhausted."
         "After the trial." Lei's voice receded even further, to a faraway murmur. "I'll sleep after the trial. Sleep for a long time."



         Sanctuary held court on its central square. A horde of people showed up to watch, including the Chosen Ones and Takeshi Fujioka. There were no formal trappings, and few seats. Attendees were expected to settle down on the grass, though jury members, potential witnesses, and the like had a few benches and fold-up chairs for their use. Jun missed the minimal preamble, because she was listening to Sonya and Sub-Zero debate last-minute changes to the defense's strategy.
         "...and you say a shape-shifter's dead blood cells do revert to their natural state, unless the shape-shifter makes a deliberate effort otherwise?"
         "My experiments with Kung Lao seem to indicate as much, just as dead shape-shifters revert to their natural forms."
         "So, if the killer never realized that Raven's blade cut him-"
         "Which is possible, if he healed before he noticed he was injured."
         "-then your alleged saurian sample could be genuine. What about your analysis of the clothing Wulong was wearing at the time of the murder?"
         "Well, he did have the shirt I gave him on, and it's undamaged. It should have protected his upper body from being cut at all. We need to call Raven as a witness, get her to tell us where her blade wounded the assassin."
         "Raven's the judge."
         "So? That's her problem. If she says she cut the assassin anywhere on his trunk, then we've got proof."
         "Circumstantial proof."
         "Better than nothing."
         Sonya was still scribbling page after page of notes on her legal pad when Thunderbolt, speaking for the prosecution, summoned Sub-Zero as a witness.
         "Young man," the scientist commented, "are you at all familiar with the expression, 'A person who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client'?"
         "You are being called to answer questions, not ask them."
         Sub-Zero shrugged, and stepped up to the plain chair that served as a witness stand.
         "Do you swear to tell only the truth?" Raven prompted.
         "Yes, but isn't your oath missing a couple parts?"
         "It is not your place to question the Nation's justice!"
         Thunderbolt cleared his throat. "You have a special power, Chosen One. It lets you detect when people are lying, does it not?"
         "Objection, your honor," Sonya requested, standing up. "That's a leading question."
         Raven's eyes flashed. "In the Nation's court, all questions are fair."
         Sonya bristled a little, but sat without further protest. Jun exchanged reassuring glances with her, then looked to her left, at Lei.
         "Zuò shénme xüyào zhème cháng de shíjiän?" Lei muttered, pressing both forearms below his ribcage.
         "Yes, I can tell when most people are lying," Sub-Zero answered to Thunderbolt. "A sociopath might be able to trick me, though."
         "Can you tell when Lei Wulong is lying?"
         "Actually, yes. I know because he tried to lie to me once, and I stopped it cold, if you'll pardon the expression."
         "Very well. The prosecution requests that you monitor all future witnesses. If they do not speak the truth, you must let us know."
         "I suppose I could do that, but who would monitor me?"
         "If the defense trusts you, then so do we." The young brave leaned so close that no one else could read his lips, and mouthed, But if you give us false signals, we won't let you have the demon's corpse for your unholy pursuits!
         Sonya looked to Lei, who showed no reaction; then to Jun, who bit her lip.
         "Sub-Zero fought by my side in the Outworld Tournament," the lieutenant said. "I suppose I trust him, but-"
         "It is settled. The prosecution calls its next witness: the demon Lei Wulong."
         "Objection, your honor! You can't force the defendant to testify against himself; I know your laws protect people from-"
         "That is correct. The prosecution cannot compel the demon to be its witness," Raven replied. "If Wulong takes the stand, it must be of his own free will."
         Lei raised his head. "It is."
         "What!?" Sonya exclaimed.
         Lei stood. His shoulders were stooped with fatigue, and his voice was a dull, gravelly rasp. "I choose to testify, of my own free will."
         "Ahem. For the record, Wulong seems to be expressing a sincere desire," Sub-Zero uncertainly added. "And I don't think anyone is influencing his mind with sorcery; I can usually distinguish things like that."
         "Wulong, don't be an idiot!" exhorted Sonya. "You can have the chance to explain your point of view when I present your case. Get back here, dammit!"
         Lei paid her no attention.
         Jun stared blankly at him as he swore an oath to tell the truth. What is going on inside your head, Lei? Is this some kind of gambit? Does your pride insist on meeting the prosecution's challenge?
         "Lei Wulong, you are a soulless demon, are you not?" Thunderbolt began.
         "Yes. Kazuya Mishima, an ally of the Shao Kahn, cursed me and took my soul. I'm not human. I'm not sure I'm still alive. I shape-shift into a demon that dismembers people."
         "Er, only when someone activates your curse by-" Sub-Zero started to say.
         "Quiet, you!" Raven demanded. "One more extraneous word, and you will be in contempt of this court!"
         "My curse always seems to manifest when I'm struck on the scar Kazuya left on my chest. I believe there may be other triggers," Lei finished.
         "Did your curse manifest the night before last?"
         "Yes, it did."
         "Did you kill Chief Thunder while in demon form?"
         "Yes, I did. Kazuya cast a sleep spell to knock out nearly all of Sanctuary, and teleported me as needed to use me as an assassin."
         "Do you think it likely that you will kill more innocent people?"
         "Inevitable. It happened once, it'll happen again."
         "Do you feel any remorse for your crime?"
         "I don't have a soul. How can I feel anything?" No emotion of any kind colored Lei's voice.
         "He's lying!" Sonya hissed through her teeth. "I know he's lying about remorse - I saw him break down in tears! Why doesn't Sub-Zero catch him on that?"
         Jun was frozen in a stupor. Her lips moved on their own to whisper, "He's not lying. He's asking a question."
         "What?"
         "Something he once told me. 'A question can't be proven true or false, and therefore can't be a lie.'"
         "That's the most ridiculous-"
         "It doesn't matter what you think; as long as Lei believes he isn't lying, Sub-Zero won't catch him on anything."
         Thunderbolt said, "The healer Jun Kazama claims that you are innocent, because during the time of the murder, she was continually monitoring your life-force through a closed door. Do you have any response to this?"
         "Yes. She's mistaken in her mind. I'm convinced that Kazuya's sleep spell knocked her out when she was supposed to be watching me, just like it overwhelmed Chief Thunder's guards and pretty much everyone else. Jun's a nice kid, and stand-up honest, but she has a weakness for anything that's sick - namely, me. She really thinks she can save me. It's not that she's lying; she's just clinging to what she desperately wants to believe. It's not her fault. She means well, and she tried her best to guard me."
         Jun's fingers crackled with white flashes of her building Ki.
         "Are you controlling her mind with sorcery?"
         "Who needs sorcery to control a person? I'm an alcoholic. I've been manipulating innocent folks into covering for me for years."
         "Aren't you going to object to any of this?" Jun snapped to Sonya.
         "Hell, you really think there's a point anymore?"
         Thunderbolt requested, "Given your testimony, Wulong, do you want to change your plea of innocent?"
         "Yes, I do. I plead guilty, as charged."
         Sonya ripped the pages out of her yellow legal pad, and violently shredded them into confetti.



         Why am I still alive? Lee wondered.
         The question rattled him. He'd been unconscious, helpless. Why hadn't the Chosen Ones killed him? Surely they knew he'd only come after them again.
         Except that he wasn't.
         When he thought about leading another group of Centaurians, his forehead ached. The idea of sending Baek left a filthy taste in his mouth. But if he were to let Wang and the Chosen Ones go, he'd have to return to Kazuya, who must have been watching the entire debacle through his magic mirrors. Then Kazuya would just dispatch someone else, and...
         "Come inside, Lee."
         The silver-haired devil realized that he was stepping through the portal to Kazuya's inner sanctum. Out of his three options, he had somehow chosen to confess his failure. His fear of the master sorcerer folded his legs underneath him, in a posture of abasement.
         "Report."
         "Why?" Lee half-growled, half-whimpered. "Don't you already know, with your all-seeing mirrors and-"
         "I said report," Kazuya repeated, with the callous nuance of a deadly threat. "When I tell you to do something, you do it."
         He doesn't already know, the silver-haired devil perceived, in a dawn of insight. He can't see through the Chosen Ones' cloaking magic without help from his reagent!
         "Y-yes, Mishima-sama."
         "Did you destroy the pair of Chosen Ones who attempted to raid the syndicate? Do not seek to deceive me. I will know if you are lying."
         "I killed them both, Mishima-sama," Lee stated. It was true, after a fashion.
         "And the prisoner they tried to rescue?"
         "It was Wang Jinrey. My knife pierced his heart."
         "Excellent."
         "'Excellent'? He saved your life when you were a child!"
         "Presumably because he had nothing better to do," dismissed the master sorcerer. "I had lost hope of gaining anything useful out of him. I kept him around only because I thought you had a sentimental attachment. It is good that you have learned to put such drawbacks behind you. You may go."
         Lee went.
         The second he cleared Kazuya's chambers, he fumbled for his cigarettes and lit one up. When he thought of how Kazuya would react upon seeing Wang and the Chosen Ones arrive in Sanctuary, he pulled another cigarette and smoked two at once.
         I've given you safe passage to Sanctuary, Uncle, Lee thought, peering aimlessly at the twin puffs of murky grey vapor. Nothing good will come of it, but I know it is what you wanted me to do.



         Jun was numb for the rest of the trial. She could scarcely recall what transpired, or how; everything was a blur, until the jury returned with its final verdict. Their deliberation had taken approximately twenty minutes. Raven read their results aloud.
         "Lei Wulong: you are accused of the murder of Chief Thunder. The jury finds you guilty, as charged. Your sentence is death. It will be carried out by firing squad, one hour from this time.
         "Jun Kazama: you are accused of complicity in the murder of Chief Thunder, because you failed in your duty to guard Wulong. The jury finds you guilty, as charged. Your sentence is death."
         Jun bowed her head and covered her face. Is this how it ends? I can't believe it. I'm going to die in a perverse love-suicide...
         "However, in light of extenuating circumstances, the purity of your soul, and your invaluable talent as a healer, your sentence is commuted. We spare your life so that you may save the lives of others. Such is the wisdom and mercy of the Nation."
         Lei had been unconsciously holding his breath; he exhaled it slowly, and his chin rested on his chest.
         "Nani?" Jun gasped. "Dooshite...?"


         They won't hurt you, I swear-!


         "You knew they would do this," she arraigned, looking darkly at Lei. "You planned it! You made some kind of deal with them, didn't you? Didn't you!? You lied on the witness stand so they would let me go!"
         "I wasn't lying," Lei dully returned. "I wanted to believe you, Jun. I really did. But..."
         "Move, demon," T. Hawk gruffly instructed.
         "...Occam's Razor," Lei sighed, as his guards took him away.
         "Wh-what?" Jun stammered.
         Sonya put a reassuring hand on the healer's shoulder. "Occam's Razor states that when there are multiple explanations for a single occurrence, the most probable theory is usually the correct one."
         "'Probable theory' my foot; this trial was rigged!" Jun retaliated, pulling away. She whirled and pointed accusingly to Raven and Thunderbolt. "When I refused to recant my plea of innocent, you used me like a poker chip to bluff a confession out of Lei!"
         "I can only pray that killing the demon will restore your sanity," Thunderbolt dolefully replied.
         "This was not a fair trial!" Jun cried, turning to the Chosen Ones. "You know it wasn't! Why aren't you doing anything? Why?"
         For the first time she could remember, Sub-Zero appeared genuinely flustered. "Wulong sincerely believed everything he said on the witness stand. I'm sorry. I would have preferred to study him alive."
         Kung Lao fretted with his hat. "I don't like it either, but we've all sworn an Oath to respect the Nation's laws. So have you, Jun."
         "It is for the best," Liu Kang consoled, bowing with his hands together. Stryker and Kabal shirked from the healer's glare.
         "Part of my agreement with Raven was that my entire platoon would accept the verdict," Sonya explained. "I can't risk starting a civil war over a convicted murderer."
         "And what kind of a hypocrite are you?" Jun demanded of Raven. "This isn't justice! If you really could prove Lei's guilt, then you would have had no need for secret bargains! You would have me executed as well, because I deserve to die for failing in my duty!"
         "Yes, you deserve to die!" the widow angrily retorted. "Once, you were the daughter of my spirit. Now, you are a patricide! You deserve to die for what you've done!"
         Raven's furious scowl molded itself into a sneer. "And yet, I expect you will suffer more if we let you live."
         "Come on, Jun. Let's go," Sonya quietly suggested.
         "THIS ISN'T RIGHT!" shrieked the healer. Tears burst from her eyes, as she threw up her hands in frustration and trembling fear. "Can't any of you see it? Don't you feel how wrong it is?"
         "This way, Jun. One step at a time."
         "This isn't right..." Sobs disrupted her words. She was barely conscious of Sonya leading her out of there.



         One hour.
         Lei only had to stay awake for one more hour, and then it wouldn't matter anymore. His mind wandered from sleep deprivation. Focusing on the cracks in the concrete wall no longer helped; he knew their patterns so well he could see them with his eyes closed.
         With his eyes closed...


         Wind howls upon the dry, dusty earth. The ground is cracked and pitted; no plants can grow here. Yet this is not the wake of the Apocalypse, for a burning noonday sun shines fiercely overhead, drenching Lei with heat and light. In the detached landscape of his waking dream, this pounding brilliance does not discomfort him. He sees a primitive village of dark-skinned people.
         They are so thin.
         Their skin stretches tightly around their bones. Their muscles are atrophied to nothing, and there are no deposits of fat to form a cushion. Arms and legs are like meager twigs, and he can see the contours of their skulls in their gaunt faces. Everyone is weak and listless.
         Scrawny, scarecrow children paw through the dust, looking for stray edible grains. Some of the children have disproportionately swollen bellies, but not from consuming food. People's eyes are glazed with hunger. One mother tries to suckle a crying child, yet her flaccid breasts are incapable of producing milk.
         Kazuya is also there.
         His smooth face makes him appear younger, mayhap about twenty years of age. In the wake of the intense heat, he wears only a pair of ragged white slacks, tied with a black drawstring belt. A jagged, diagonal scar crosses his chest.
         Lei knows that he is witnessing another of Kazuya's memories. This time, however, Lei is on the outside looking in.
         Kazuya of the past brushes sweat from his brow, slicking it back with his drooping jet hair. He passes out bowls of mushy porridge to the starving people; a handful of other white-clad relief workers do the same.
         "I did this for two years," states a sibilant voice from behind.
         Lei spins to confront the arrogant, pitiless Kazuya of the present. His hair is in stiff spikes, and the flawless cut of his navy dress suit masks the scar tissue on his chest.
         "It never made a difference," present-Kazuya continues, perhaps a trifle wistfully. "There was indeed food enough to save them. The problem was distribution. Civil war engulfed these people in fractured anarchy. Both sides used starvation as a weapon. Clan warfare and roving looters were rampant. We were fortunate if we could ship one truckload in ten past the checkpoints, bribes, kickbacks, and outright raids. Most of the resources we raised ultimately filled the bellies of the guerrilla factions, while the peasants ate their own clothing to postpone their imminent deaths."
         Past-Kazuya and his fellow relief workers have run out of food. A little girl pulls weakly at past-Kazuya's slacks; he kneels and does his best to comfort her.
         "I regret the necessity of Chief Thunder's demise," present-Kazuya expresses to Lei. "You, however, do not have to perish as well. Now that you have fulfilled your purpose, it is time for you to return to me."
         Lei says nothing.
         "I have given you a gift of power. If you do nothing, Sanctuary's pathetic munitions will slay you before your can show everyone your true self. There is a way out, however.
         "Embrace the power.
         "Accept the demon as yourself. Feel the joy of its strength.
         "The power reduces you to the level of a mad beast because you resist it. Open yourself to it, and you will gain control. You will be able to fly, shield yourself from mortal implements of destruction, or use any of your skills. You will be forever liberated from your miserable addiction to ethanol. The Nation will not be able to hurt you. Nothing will ever hurt you again."
         Lei does not reply.
         "Are you afraid you will initiate another rampage? Fear not. Once you have control, you shall kill only those you choose to kill.
         "The power is your sole chance, not only of survival, but also vengeance. Do you not seek revenge upon me? Or the return of your soul? You shall never have either if you allow those savages to destroy you."
         Past-Kazuya brushes the flies off a skeletal boy's face. The child does not respond, or breathe; he is dead. Past-Kazuya digs a grave in the sifting earth.


         Kazuya was a good person, once. Somehow, he changed.


         At last, Lei begins to understand the truth of Jun's assertion. Despite the living hell Kazuya suffered as a child, he matured into a kind and decent man - until something irreparably corrupted him.
         Something transformed Kazuya of the past into a monster drenched with innocent blood. Something made him a scheming murderer, the willing ally of evil incarnate.
         Something... or some Power.
         Lei turns his back on present-Kazuya, and plods away from the desert of this waking dream.
         "Come back here!" the master sorcerer crossly demands. "You cannot walk away from me; you cannot survive without me! Wulong? Wulong! You owe me-"



         "-ANSWERS!" Sonya bellowed, slamming her fist so hard on the cell's table that the furniture cracked and split. "Why the fuck did I stay up all night preparing your defense, when you pull this shit behind my back? Well? Don't pull that fucking zombie act, I KNOW you can hear me!"
         "What does it matter?" Lei mumbled, bleary from the hazy transition between dream and reality. "The kid's off the hook. Isn't that all you really cared about?"
         "Tell me why you confessed. Now."
         "Eh, well, it was a deal. I testify, they commute the kid's sentence, and I get a firing squad. Raven wanted to torture me to death, but Thunderbolt persuaded her to accept-"
         "Bullshit."
         "Huh?"
         Sonya put her hands on her hips. "You have a death-wish, don't you?"
         Lei rested the back of his head against the wall, and searched her impassive face.
         "How many people have you killed, Lieutenant?"
         "None of your damn business."
         "It's a lot, isn't it?"
         "I don't keep track."
         "Well, I do.
         "I've killed two people in the line of duty. One was a young woman who couldn't aim a .22 automatic worth dirt. The other was this middle-aged guy who had joined in the riots that plagued Hong Kong, during the aftermath of your little chase with Kano. He was sweeping a crowd with bursts from an assault rifle. People were dying. I had to drop him quickly, and I couldn't get close enough to use wooden bullets. Both these times, the department exonerated me of any wrongdoing.
         "Sometimes it troubles me, but I knew I might have to use deadly force when I became a cop, right? I can deal with this. I can live with this.
         "Then, Kazuya put a curse on me. When some thug with a tiger-earring stabbed me, I turned into a demon and disemboweled him. Makes me sick whenever I think about it, but the guy tried to kill me just as dead, and nearly succeeded.
         "Self-defense, right? I can deal with this. I can live with this.
         "My curse caused me to kill several times after that. Not humans, though. I stayed the hell away from humans. Sometimes I'd get cornered by mutants or Centaurians, and I'd tear them apart, but they're the invaders. They murder whatever crosses their path.
         "I'm helping out what's left of humanity every time I slaughter one of those monsters, right? I can deal with this. I can live with this.
         "I've come close to killing more people. I slashed Kabal's face, probably would've gutted him if I'd had the chance. Worse, I... I attacked the kid. Did she ever tell you about that? I sliced her arm open; it's a miracle she didn't bleed to death.
         "Kabal's recovered as much as he ever will, though, and the kid's fine now. She doesn't even hold it against me. Can you believe that? She freaks out something fierce whenever I call her 'kid' to her face, but not a word, not a resentful thought over the time I tried to murder her. Is a light supposed to turn on when this starts making sense?
         "Point is, though, that in the end they're both all right. I can deal with this. I can live with this.
         "And then, I eviscerate the heart of an honorable man, who gave me a chance when so few others would.
         "I can't deal with this.
         "I can't... live with this.
         "It isn't that I want to die, lieutenant. I'm scared of dying. It's just that being used to kill people terrifies me even more.
         "I'm police. My duty is to serve and protect the public. Even if that means protecting the public from myself. I tried isolating myself; it didn't work. You tried keeping me contained with guards; it didn't work. There's only one way left to ensure the safety of Sanctuary, and it has to be done before any more victims pay the price. I'd do it myself if I weren't sober.
         "Now do you understand?"
         Sonya nodded.
          "If I still had my soul, I think I'd trade it for a drink right now," Lei brooded. "No one's going to serve me anything down here, though, so it looks like I'll be keeping my promise to the kid after all. Do me a favor, would you? Take care of her. All right?"
         "Kazama isn't a kid; she can take care of herself. We'll be there for her, though. I think that's what you're really asking."
         "Eh, close enough. And keep her off the field, okay? The last thing she needs is more nightmares."
         The lieutenant left the cell without another word.
         Jun was waiting outside, pale and shaken.
         "Did you hear everything?" Sonya switched off the radio link on her microcomputer, and retrieved the receiving link from the healer's trembling hands.
         "Y-yes." Jun wiped tears from her eyes. "Th-thank you. I w-wanted to ask him myself, but... but..."
         "You've been through a lot. You should go back to your quarters and sleep for a while."
         "No, I can't. I have to be on the field."
         The healer looked away. Sonya followed her gaze past the central square, to a fallow plot of land. The Nation had planted a stake and a thick, temporary wall of soft wood in the earth. A swelling crowd of spectators awaited the impending execution.
         "Jun, I don't think that's a good-"
         "I have to be there," the healer stressed. "I have to."



         "It is time, Wulong."
         Lei passively responded to T. Hawk's stiff prodding, and trudged outside of his makeshift cell. When he stepped through the door, the daylight made him blink. His legs shook. He stumbled to his knees, quaking like a frightened starling.
         "Get up," T. Hawk rumbled.
         "I... I thought I was ready for this and I'm not. Not even close," Lei shuddered. Somehow, he channeled his fear into the necessary effort to climb back to his feet.
         "Just keep moving."
         "Hawk... if you die without a soul, what happens to you?"
         For once, the colossal wrestler's hostile composure softened, if only a little. "This way. It is not far."
         Almost Sanctuary's entire population had turned out, in a vast crowd. Make that two crowds; the Nation and the 34th platoon clumped in sharply segregated groups. The Chosen Ones were lined up in the front row.
         Sonya adjusted her black headband. Liu Kang bowed with his hands together in prayer. Kung Lao held his hat over his heart. Kabal carried a pair of iron rods with hooked ends; he held them in a cross by his feet. Sub-Zero rested his chin on his fingers. Stryker hitched his pants.
         Scanning the solemn multitude, Lei recognized a few more faces.
         Seung Mina nervously chewed her hair. Sparky tugged on the cuffs of his uniform. Takeshi Fujioka was unreadable. Rock and Wolf were locked in some hushed quarrel. And-
         Oh, no. She was here, too.
         Jun had relapsed into a state of grief-stricken shock. She lingered to Sonya's right, arms crossed in front of her chest. Her shoulders quivered with misery and fear.
         Lei wrenched his eyes away from the healer's tear-stained face. Why did she have to be here?
         Damn it, kid, is this really the last impression you want to have of me? Scared, shaking, and riddled with bullets?
         T. Hawk cuffed Lei's hands behind the wooden stake.
         The colossal wrestler stepped back, readying his M14 rifle - and a frown crossed his face. Breaking away from the other five executioners, he addressed Raven and Thunderbolt.
         "This worries me."
         "Are you concerned about Wulong's curse?" Raven replied. "Don't be. Aim for his heart, and he will die before he can change shape."
         "No, that is not what I meant. I am sorry, but I cannot participate in this." The wrestler proffered his long gun on his upturned palms.
         "What? I charged you with-"
         "My duty was to slay Wulong if he tried to shape-shift, or escape. This is different. I saw you both browbeat that confession out of him. If he truly were Kazuya's assassin, then why would he submit so humbly? Wouldn't he have tried to wreak more havoc by now?"
         "That witch Kazama got to you, didn't she? I should have known! You-"
         "Mother, it is no great trouble. I will take Hawk's place," Thunderbolt soothed. The young brave accepted T. Hawk's rifle, and stood with the other executioners.
         "Lei Wulong," Raven declared, "you have been convicted of murdering our leader, and my husband, the noble Chief Thunder. He freely invited you within our home, and you killed him. Your monstrous crime demands blood atonement."
         "W-wait," Lei anxiously stuttered. "Wh-what about a blindfold?"
         "No!" she snapped, so shrilly as to mimic the cawing of a bird.
         "Nn-not for me. For the ki- eh, Jun. I-I don't want her to see this."
         Sonya removed her black headband, and tied it about Jun's eyes.
         "What are you doing?" the healer whimpered, as the dark cloth blotted her sight and her tears.
         "It's his last request. You gonna deny him that much?"
         "But it's... it's..."
         It's exactly like my dream, she thought, when her voice failed to give the words. The nightmare came rushing back to her, its horrible, blood-soaked impression so close to reality, she could almost touch the future...
         It wasn't a dream. It was a warning!
         Her stomach twisted, and her eyes became wide beneath the blindfold. Refracted in the crystalline prism of intuition, her grief and shock waxed into overwhelming panic.
         "You mustn't do this! He's innocent!" she cried, tearing off the headband. "If you kill an innocent man, we'll all suffer the retribution! YOU MUST NOT DO THIS!" She made a lunge to throw herself between the firing squad and its target; a dragon's-claw grip clamped upon her wrist and held her back.
         "You are hysterical," Liu Kang placidly stated. When she tried to pull free, Sonya put her other arm in a lock. Jun's misdirected kicks scored glancing blows on Kung Lao's knee and Kabal's thigh.
         "Kazuya KNOWS we're here, the REAL murderer is still among us, WE HAVE TO STOP THIS BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!"
         "We should remove her from the field," Thunderbolt suggested.
         "No," Raven refused, with a cruel smile. "I want her to suffer."
         "Don't kill him! No! NO! DON'T KILL HIM! This is wrong, everyone will die if you do this, you can't, YOU CAN'T!"
         "I knew I should have brought a sedative," noted Sub-Zero.
         "Why don't you use your Power on her?" Stryker asked.
         "Why don't you use your taser?"
         "Because I've had it with fighting neurotic women."
         "Tell me about it."
         "WE HAVE TO STOP THIS! LISTEN TO ME! Isn't someone listening? Anyone? Anyone at all? Can't any of you hear me? WHY CAN'T ANYONE HEAR ME?"
         "Ready your weapons," Raven commanded. The firing squad obeyed.
         "LEI! I don't want to lose you! You can't die here! Not now! Lei, I- I lo-"
         "Aim."
         "GODS IN HEAVEN, NO!" the healer sobbed, from the depths of her soul.
         "Fire!"



         I can watch no longer.
         All this time, I have hesitated out of fear. Once, nothing could frighten me; an odyssey of suffering changed that. Yet here is a cursed, soulless mortal, named after my element no less. He is paralyzed with fear, driven to the brink of insanity by it; even so, he willingly chooses to sacrifice himself, for what he believes is the greater good. But I am a god, and my knowledge far exceeds his. In the depths of my divine wisdom, I know this is the last chance - not only for him, but also for my Chosen Ones, for Sanctuary, and for the Mother Realm itself.
         Lei Wulong can help save them all. I cannot.
         He is not expendable. I am.
         Still, the fear restrains me. The specter of nonexistence freezes me with trepidation, cows me into meekness. It is not until I hear Jun Kazama's heartfelt prayer that true understanding permeates me, frees me from the shackles of terror, inspires me to do what must be done.
         A streak of lightning frames Sanctuary in black and white. The booming roar of thunder overwhelms Raven's death-command, and pounding waves of rain drive back the firing squad. In a brilliant sheet of Light, I answer the healer's prayer.
         Lei Wulong faints, mistaking the explosion of my thunderstorm for the lethal report of a gun.
         My manifested form resembles that of a mortal man, though I am not and have never been human. When I speak, my words impress themselves in the mind and memory of every living being in Sanctuary. They listen to me in rapt silence.
         ~Hear me, mortals. I, Raiden, god of Thunder, plead with you to defer this execution until Nightwolf's return.~
         The Chosen Ones release the healer. She turns to me and says, in a wondering whisper, "Did you send me the dream?"
         ~No, that was none of my-~
         Suddenly, I cannot communicate. My voice is stolen from me, as is my substance, my very being. My form becomes translucent. It dissolves in the downpour, and my consciousness is fading with it.
         The Angel warned me she would do this. Odd that there is no pain. The last thought in my existence is that she will have to find another scribe to replace m-



End of Chapter 13: Blood Atonement


END OF PART II: DAMNATION