ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


PART III: DESTRUCTION


Chapter 14: Super Police



    "Deep down in his gut he was absolutely certain that he had learned everything he needed to know, that if he could just find some way to juggle and rearrange the bits of knowledge and information he possessed, the entire picture would finally take shape and become clear."
         -Mike Resnick, Stalking the Unicorn: A Fable of Tonight


         -e.
         Dizziness.
         Disorientation.
         Bright light.
         Where am I...?
         My head hurts. I raise it gingerly, and try to think.
         The Order of Light believes that when mortals perish, their souls may go to the Black Abyss, the Grey Kingdom, or the Paradise.
         The Black Abyss is hardly ever discussed. There is dissent as to whether it is the bottomless gulf of N'Kai, the unquenchable desert of Limbo, or the nameless void of utter nonexistence. One thing is agreed: the souls of the cruellest and most despicable beings, those who are thoroughly beyond hope of redemption, shall go there and never return.
         This would explain why it is seemingly impossible to resurrect a truly evil being, after a certain amount of time has passed. The soul is simply irretrievable. This also may be why pseudo-immortal necromancers such as Shang Tsung fear Death so greatly. They know, or suspect, what awaits them.
         The Grey Kingdom is where the overwhelming majority of mortal souls shall pass. Much is rumored of this mysterious land and its enigmatic rulers, if indeed it has any. It is a place without cheer or sorrow, pleasure or pain.
         What happens next is also a disputed topic. Some say the Grey Kingdom brings a peace not known in Life, and eternal sleep. Others think a soul is cleansed of its past, and reborn in an appropriate mortal body. Still others claim the Grey Kingdom is the first stop on a longer road to the depths of Hell, where a wicked yet not irreparably corrupt soul may redeem itself through penance, or a restless soul may find ways to involve itself in mortal affairs once more. Perhaps all of these are true.
         The Paradise is something else entirely. Precious few mortals earn passage to its unknown lofts, for to reach it, a soul must not only be pure. Love is the key. If the bond of true love mutually binds the hearts and souls of two virtuous beings, for as long as they live, then Death itself does not have the power to separate them forever. The Paradise is a land of joyful reunion and eternal contentment, and the love preserved within is said to be the foundation of the Cosmic Balance.
         This is why the Order of Light allows its monks to marry. Believing what they do, how can they deny their adherents' inalienable right to search for their one true soulmate?
         These are not the only things that may happen to a soul, however. It is possible for a consummately skilled, supremely powerful necromancer to recall a soul, and return it to Life in its repaired vessel of flesh. Yet the necessary cost of blood sacrifice Power is so enormous, requiring so much murder and torment, that only a monster will undertake the crime of resurrection.
         It is more common for a necromancer to simply trap a soul upon the mortal planes of existence, preventing its final journey. Displacement, you see, is a way to accumulate energy. When you use a rope and pulley to lift a heavy sandbag up to the ceiling, you store an amount of potential energy. You may let go of the rope at any time to release that energy, in the form of a weighty crash as the falling bag hits the floor. Or, to take the reverse direction, tie a balloon filled with helium to trivial note. The helium, displaced from the lower-density atmosphere above, strains to pull the note upward; if the strain is great enough, the note flies.
         So it is with a soul. A proficient necromancer may, under the correct circumstances, contain a soul and channel its inevitable effort to depart into great Power. That the soul suffers terrible anguish from being so abused is of little concern to merciless fiends such as Shang Tsung, the Shao Kahn, or Kazuya Mishima.
         Kazuya Mishima!
         With his name comes partial remembrance, for he is, indirectly, responsible for my... death?
         I am Raiden, god of Thunder.
         What happens to a god when he dies? Where does his "soul" go?
         *Where do you wish?*
         The Angel is before me.
         I stand and study her, learning nothing new. Her aqua eyes reflect the end of everything. The azure gem in her forehead radiates a Power that transcends mere elements. Her austere stance is in keeping with her penultimate authority over all that draws breath. She is both elegant and terrible.
         She destroyed me for overstepping the boundaries of the Divine Sanctions, just as I feared she would. Yet here I am, manifested before her.
         "Did you bring me back?" I can scarcely believe that I am asking the question. The Angel is one who rends, not one who rebuilds. She never returns those who fall within into her dominion to Life. Never.
         *I told you that if you manifested before your Chosen Ones, your essence would be unmade. I did not specify for how long it would remain that way.* Haughtiness drips from her excuse, as though she has completed some distasteful chore and no longer wants to think about it.
         Well, that is her problem.
         "You were bluffing. You were bluffing all along!"
         *Do not tempt me to reverse the decision.*
         "I do not care! It was all for nothing! For six months I have waited, hearing the desperate entreaties of my Chosen Ones, and unable to answer a single word for fear of you. For fear of your bluff! Now, I know that I could have called it at any time. I could have prevented Chief Thunder's murder. I could have exposed the traitor in Sanctuary! I could have-!"
         *You shall be quiet,* she says, and my mouth harshly shuts itself, with my teeth biting painfully into my tongue.
         *It was not a bluff. I could not let you respond to the prayers of your Chosen Ones, or the prayers of any common mortal, because of the Divine Sanctions. If you had tried, I would have unmade you before you could manifest, and I would not have remade you.*
         Then I remember. When I finally garnered the courage to act, it was in response to the heartfelt plea of-
         "Jun Kazama," I say, as the Angel frees my teeth and sore tongue.
         *She is one of my Chosen, as is Lei Wulong. That is why you were allowed to appear in Sanctuary, and why you are restored now.*
         It is then that a small riddle clears itself up. The Angel must have sent Kazama's prophetic dream, to encourage the healer to call for my aid.
         *You have served me well - without intention, as the ancient laws demand. Even so, it is only because you were a god that I could undo what I had done.*
         "Now what?"
         *Now, you may do as you will. Stay here, and continue to record events of the Mother Realm; or go, and continue to influence them.*
         "Am I immune to the Divine Sanctions, then?"
         *In a manner of speaking.*
         "What do you-"
         Wait.
         Something is wrong with my voice. It is flat, and shallow. Gods do not sound like that. I am experiencing the unorthodox hurt of a bitten tongue.
         I touch the sore member with my index finger; the digit's tip is moist with spittle and reddish blood. Gods do not bleed. Not in this celestial domain.
         "Wh-what have you-?" I stutter, another absurdity. Gods do not hesitate upon words; our communication transcends the tool of language. I reach for the cosmic Power that is my essence, yet all I find is a pitiable sack of flesh, with a limited magical Talent concerning elements of the storm, such as might be wielded by a-
         "You have made me a mortal!"
         *It is both a boon and a price. You wanted so dearly to be liberated from the Divine Sanctions, and I cannot be troubled to worry whether you shall violate them again.*
         "B-but is this permanent?"
         *Should the Mother Realm reclaim its independence - an unlikely, yet possible outcome - it shall be in need of a thunder god. Otherwise, I see no reason to return you to what you were. If you travel to the mortal planes of existence, you shall become trapped upon them until you regain divinity.
         *If you perish as a mortal...*

         She smiles. It is an exquisitely beautiful expression, yet not a kind one.
         *Are you certain you do not wish to remain my scribe?*
         I am not at all certain. Still, duty compels me; I must warn my Chosen Ones about-
         About-
         What was I going to warn them about?
         I have previously assumed the likeness of a mortal, even had my Power temporarily limited to the realm of mortal abilities, when I participated in the corrupt Tournaments of Shang Tsung and the Shao Kahn. But never, never before have I forsaken my divine knowledge. Trying to concentrate, I hold my hand to my forehead. The action does not help.
         It is gone! The universal wisdom, the multitude of hidden secrets, the intertwining paths of possible futures, it is all gone. My mind is a mortal brain, and it cannot hold the nigh-omniscience of a god. I sacrificed myself to preserve the cursed demon Lei Wulong, and I cannot even recall why!
         Perhaps I will scribe the fate of the Mother Realm for a while longer. Somebody has to do it.




         The makeshift jail cell contained six alert guards, one apparently unconscious prisoner, and three of his friends, all awaiting Nightwolf's return. For hours, the three friends had pored over a mystery they could not solve, until their minds went numb from the strain. Finally, they had agreed to give themselves a rest, and engage in a temporary diversion. Each of them possessed a hand of seven cards, spread in a fan-shape, and a small deck of additional cards to draw from. They peered first at their hands, then at each other.
         "Okay," Sparky decided, as he set down a card with a finely brushed picture of a red mountain range. He turned it lengthwise and added another card, depicting a straw doll in a clamp. "Black Vise on you, Lao."
         "Me? Why me?" Kung Lao indignantly returned.
         "So I can fantasize about putting your head in one. I'm done now."
         "Well, fine. Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter, I'm done. Guess who the Hippie will attack next turn, hm?"
         "You bastard."
         "Quite inaccurate. My parents were happily married. If you wish to cast aspersions, they should be directed to me personally."
         "Okay, you're not a bastard. You're cheap."
         "Much better, Sparkles."
         "I told you to stop calling me that!"
         Kung Lao snickered, and nodded to Jun. "By the way, it is your turn."
         "Um." The healer bit her lower lip. "I think I want to summon these Scryb Sprites?"
         "Well, go ahead. Put down a Forest and tap it for mana."
         "Uh, okay." She set down a card with an illustration of lush woodlands and rapped it with her fingernails, making a soft tap-tap sound. "Now what?"
         "Are you sure you've played this game before?" Sparky questioned.
         "You asked if I knew magic. I've never heard of this game. Lei, are you sure you don't want to join us?"
         She looked over her shoulder, to where the cop reclined on a plain wooden bench. His eyes were closed, and he had been positioned on his back, though his arms drooped on the floor. His breathing had settled into the slow, shallow rhythm of a sleeper.
         "Say, I just remembered," Kung Lao said, snapping his fingers. "Lei, here's a little something I should have given you a long time ago. These once belonged to the late, great Johnny Cage. You've seen his movies, haven't you? He's best known for Dragon Fist, Dragon Fist II, and the award-winning Sudden Violence.
         "Anyway, Cage always loved his fans. I'm sure he'd want you to wear these in his name. Well, mostly sure. I know you'll find them helpful when you get out of here." The monk removed a soft, rectangular leather case from his divided vest, and loosely tossed it by Lei's motionless hand.
         "You're wasting your breath," Sparky grumbled. "He's in a coma."
         "Soo desu ka?" Jun mused, rolling her eyes.
         "Suuuure he is," Kung Lao drawled, with a wry smile.
         "Aw, c'mon. Look at him. He's been out like a light ever since that god died."
         "Gods do not perish so easily. Raiden has died before - Sub-Zero's brother killed him, in fact - and he has returned to when and where he was most needed."
         "Oh, yeah? Where was he when Shao Kahn invaded the Earth?"
         "The gods of Light help those who help themselves."
         "I oughtta clobber you for that. And if I run into any more 'gods of Light,' they'd better have a real answer for me, or I'll 'help' them to a fat-"
         "You needed to see me?" growled a new voice.
         The three card-players turned to face a thoroughly exhausted Nightwolf. His clothing was stained with sweat, and his long hair was matted from days of neglect. Dust and toil sullied the red war-paint on his face, and the feathers on his headband. The shaman probably would have collapsed, if not for his ability to borrow strength from Sanctuary's sacred lands. Though he must have felt grief and great anger upon learning of Chief Thunder's murder, his only display of emotion was a stern frown. Jax was with him.
         "Thank you for coming," Jun gratefully acknowledged. "Did Sonya tell you everything?"
         "We exchanged information. While all of you flew into a panicked frenzy over some demon, a great mass of mutants and Centaurians surrounded Sanctuary's outer borders. The enemy knows where we are. They swarmed so thickly we were barely able to steal past them."
         "Funny thing is," Jax noted, "they weren't looking for us, and we thought they'd been alerted. Any type of organized search could have brought at least one of their squads close enough for Nightwolf's cloaking magic to fail, but it didn't happen."
         Nightwolf continued, "We have warned Raven and Lieutenant Blade of these dire straits. They have declared a state of emergency. I have maintained my personal concealment spells since we set foot in Sanctuary, but my range is limited. As soon as this business is finished, I must replenish myself in the shadow of Liu Kang's concealment, and review Sanctuary's wards.
         "So, is this the demon that brought such uproar?" Nightwolf scrutinized Lei's tainted aura, while Jax scanned the cop with his microcomputer. "I cannot believe that our Chief would invite such a creature without taking precautions."
         "He did," Jun affirmed. "He said that Lei should be guarded at all times, and made him swear the Oath."
         "Indeed. Did Chief Thunder warn the demon of 'swift and severe' consequences, should its Oath be broken?"
         "Well, yes. I'm pretty sure he did."
         "And did the Chief touch him at all?"
         "Um, soo desu nee... yes. Yes, he did. He shook Lei's hand."
         "Right or left?"
         "Right, I think."
         Nightwolf crouched next to Lei, and picked up his limp right hand. The shaman chanted a series of syllables.
         Golden light radiated from Lei's palm.
         It shone brighter, so strongly that the others had to avert their eyes, then dimmed to a steady glow. The illumination marked Lei's hand with the symbol of the Phoenix, bathed in fire.
         "He is innocent," stated the shaman.
         "That's what I've been saying all along," Jun smiled. "Finally, someone listens to me."
         "Not that I don't agree," Sparky interjected, "but what exactly is the pretty light, and why does it convince you?"
         "This Oathbind has been in place for four days, and no one has tampered with it. If the demon had violated his Oath to obey the laws of Sanctuary and the Nation, even while under another's control, the Oathbind would have immolated him."
         Jun sucked her breath in a startled gasp. "Wh-why didn't anyone tell us? I never would have let Lei fight!"
         "Our laws do allow one to fight to protect oneself, to protect others, for purpose of instruction, or to answer a challenge. As to why the Chief did not tell you, I presume it was because he did not want you to remove the Oathbind. It is easily undone, yet subtle enough that one would not detect its presence unless one knew where and for what to look."
         "But what if Lei had, say, picked up a glass of brandy and carried it outside Sanctuary's only bar?"
         "That would have been an unlawful deed, and would have resulted in his destruction. I surmise that the purpose of assigning a guard was as much to protect Wulong while he learned the Nation's laws as it was to protect others from Wulong."
         "Can you take the spell off, please? I don't want Lei to get hurt by accident."
         Nightwolf tilted his head one side. His strict face showed little change of expression. Jun half-expected his ears to swivel away and toward, like the ears of a true wolf do when it is uncertain about a potential enemy.
         "I understand that Raiden has manifested on the demon's behalf," he finally said, as if that were the answer to everything. Perhaps it was. The Nation would not be alive and free save for the thunder god's warning of the Apocalypse. Nightwolf touched Lei's palm, causing the golden glow to vanish.
         The shaman turned to the cop's six guards. "I have proven the demon's innocence. Go spread word to Raven, Thunderbolt, and the rest of Sanctuary."
         "No, DON'T!" Lei exclaimed, sitting bolt upright.
         Sparky jumped nearly six feet up from his seat. "What? You were-!"
         "According to my computer scan, you were definitely in a lower state of consciousness two seconds ago," Jax observed.
         "That's nothing. You should see him play dead," Kung Lao quipped.
         "Listen to me," Lei urged of Nightwolf. "You must realize that Kazuya has found a way to spy on Sanctuary. Right now, he thinks I'm blamed for the murder, and you're masking us from his eyes with your cloaking magic. If word circulates that we're trying to find the real killer, Kazuya will find out and warn it. Let's see if we can figure out who it is first."
         Nightwolf snorted, but the head guard, T. Hawk, motioned for the other watchers to stay where they were.
         T. Hawk studied Lei as a bird of prey might assess a rodent, and said, "I thought Kazuya used a dream to speak to you. He called you his tool, and said you had to fulfil a purpose."
         "Oh, Kazuya wasn't lying, he did need me to help him, but not as his assassin; I was a, a..." Lei's hands clenched into fists, and shook with frustrated ire. "...a freaking DISTRACTION to keep you all busy while the real murderer went about its work!"
         "What 'work'?" Jax demanded.
         "That's the question, isn't it? But it has to be something, or else why bother with a distraction...?"
         Suddenly, Lei's eyes became wide. "Oh, no. Could it be? That? Even though Jun said - eh, I'm a fool, I should've known better than to assume.
         "I thought the assassin hadn't killed any more victims because it was me, and I was being guarded, but guess what? My being in Sanctuary had nothing to do with Kazuya's original plan. It couldn't; there were too many variables involved. It was pure chance that I happened to run into Jax's patrol, or that they needed me to stick around and help them, and if it hadn't been for Jun they would have left without me. No, my arrival was just a convenient stroke of good luck, because I made the perfect decoy.
         "Before I say anything further, Major, might I ask where you were when Chief Thunder was murdered, three nights ago in the hour before dawn?"
         "With Nightwolf, on our mission."
         "Nightwolf, is that true? Or should I say, were you asleep at the time?"
         "It is true. I was not asleep; we traveled from dusk to dawn."
         "You're sure the major was with you every step of the way? He never could have disappeared for a few minutes, without your noticing?"
         "With his dead weight on my back? I could only hope he would disappear."
         "Hey!" Jax cut in.
         "That settles it, Major; you have an ironclad alibi," Lei concluded. "I had to be sure you weren't - Nightwolf, what in blazes are you doing?"
         "None of your business, demon." The shaman had crouched and rested his hands on the floor. His fingers flickered with emerald tendrils of mystic power.
         Lei's mahogany eyes narrowed. "Do you know who murdered Chief Thunder?"
         Nightwolf stood and locked stares with Lei. "Unfortunately, I do not."
         "Do you have any idea where to look?"
         "I fear not."
         "Do you have one freaking clue to go on?"
         "Your point being?"
         "I am Detective Lei Wulong of the Royal Hong Kong Police, and I have a suspicion as to who killed the Chief. A hunch isn't good enough, though. I need more information to form a complete picture, which means that I need you to answer the freaking question!"
         "We do not share the workings of Mystery with outsiders." Nightwolf's achromatic eyes flashed with scorn.
         "Which do you care more about? Your precious little secrets, or avenging your Chief and preserving the safety of Sanctuary?"
         "I..." The shaman recoiled. His chin had been proudly thrust out, but now he turned his head to the side and scowled.
         "Well?"
         "I was... checking the wards. These past four days, there has been little unlawful behavior recorded. T. Hawk committed the most serious infractions; he choked someone, and later challenged that same person to a duel without first gaining approval from the Council of Elders."
         Lei glanced to T. Hawk, and raised an eyebrow. The wrestler flinched, looking away.
         "No need to apologize," the cop muttered. "I was so tanked up, I hardly felt the hemorrhaging. Really."
         "You can tell that from the wards?" Kung Lao asked of Nightwolf. "All we knew was that they're unchanged, and stronger."
         "I created them, so that I know how to read their subroutines and request output. However, I would need to stand before the sacred altar to learn any more from the wards, or rewrite their programming."
         "'Programming'? Are we talking about sorcery or computers?"
         "Sorcery. Some shamans use archaic tongues as the language of their Mystery. Jun uses music. I use C++."
         "Wait a minute, wait a minute," Lei broke in. "Exactly how is it that you can touch the ground and know if anyone in Sanctuary broke a law?"
         "By swearing the Oath, one registers in the focus of the wards. They will record-"
         "What if you don't swear the Oath?"
         "Then one would not be registered, which is why the Oath is so important."
         "Do you know of anyone in Sanctuary who hasn't taken the Oath?"
         "No. Everyone must swear the Oath before they are invited in."
         "What about Kabal?"
         "Who?"
         "The Chosen One fetched by Jax's last patrol. He was in pretty sorry shape. I don't think you could have roused him without killing him. Did he swear the Oath?"
         "No. Lieutenant Blade swore the Oath on his behalf. If he had committed an unlawful deed, she would have been recorded as the perpetrator."
         "Hm. Which means that - actually, it means two things. First, Kabal is definitely eliminated as a suspect. Second, the assassin managed to sneak inside Sanctuary without taking the Oath."
         "What you say is impossible. No evil being could find Sanctuary."
         "Unless someone who knew the way served as a guide."
         "He would become weak while crossing the outer borders."
         "What's so bad about a little weakness?"
         "If he tried to cross the inner border, he would become like one dead."
         "Unless someone extended a gracious invitation."
         "Every person invited into Sanctuary must take the Oath!"
         "Ah. Nice little closed circle of logic, that. Jun told me that only you and Chief Thunder have the authority to invite people in, is that correct?"
         "It is."
         "What if both of you were gone?" Sparky quizzed.
         "Then the privilege would transfer to-"
         "Never mind that," Lei dismissed. "The assassin gained entry when Nightwolf and Chief Thunder were still here. Am I right to assume that if anyone else had tried to invite an evil creature in, the wards would still keep it out?"
         "Of course," the shaman confirmed.
         "Okay then, what exactly do you have to do to invite someone? Are the literal words 'I invite you in' absolutely necessary?"
         "No. Any phrase, gesture, or action which communicates one's permission to enter will do, as long as it is clearly expressed and delivered with full intent. One cannot be coerced with threats or sorcery to offer an invitation."
         "Do you have to be physically there, speaking or waving to whoever wants in?"
         "It would be possible to communicate an invitation through individual telepathic contact, or writing. This is moot because Chief Thunder and I have never invited anyone without personally inspecting them, and having them swear the-"
         "Okay, okay, I get it. I was just double-checking about invitations, because I think I already have most of what I need. Had it for a long time, in fact, and if I hadn't been so guilt-ridden I would have seen it ages ago.
         "You see, Nightwolf, the assassin is Kazuya's nonhuman shape-shifting reagent, posing as one of Jax's last patrol. We know-"
         "Hold. If one of the patrol is a traitor, then we must arrest them all at once!"
         "Bad idea!" Lei snapped. He started pacing back and forth like a caged animal. "If we start rounding up a bunch of people, it'll create a stir that you can't hide with your limited-range cloaking magic. As soon as Kazuya learns of it, he'll warn his assassin, and it'll bolt. It's a shape-shifter, remember? It can hide by morphing into anyone or anything. Our best chance of catching it is if we confirm which patrol member it is, and concentrate on nailing that person. Now shut up and pay attention, all right?
         "We know the killer isn't human because Sub-Zero deduced that from a sample of its blood, we know it's a patrol member because Kazuya needed inside help to break Liu Kang's cloaking spell, and we know it's a shape-shifter because it assumed my demonic form long enough to murder Chief Thunder - in front of his wife, might I add - and pin the blame on me.
         "There are two possibilities. One is that a shape-shifter replaced a member of our patrol sometime during its mission. The other is that the shape-shifter has been in Sanctuary all along, posing as a person whom the major eventually selected for his patrol, but I doubt that. I know how Kazuya thinks. He is determined, decisive, and he doesn't care to play waiting games if he can help it. If he really did have a plant in here prior to when Jax set out, his army would have converged on Sanctuary a long time ago.
         "No, there was someone in Jax's patrol who had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was the perfect opportunity for a shape-shifter to unobtrusively substitute itself for that person."
         Lei stopped his pacing and fixed Jax with a steady look. "You remember, don't you?"
         The major's ebony brow furrowed. Then his khaki eyes bulged, and he sputtered, "No! I never thought-!"
         "That's all right, neither did anyone else. But we really should have figured that something was up when Liu Kang's cloaking spell failed and that golden Centaurian singled out Jun, even bellowed something about taking her dead or alive."
         "Um, Lei, I thought you didn't suspect me?"
         "Huh? Oh no, of course not, Jun. Like I said before, you guided me into Sanctuary. You couldn't have done that if you weren't already invited, which neatly eliminates you as a candidate.
         "But as I was saying, there was something very strange about that attack. You know what I'm talking about, don't you Lao?"
         "No. We just barely survived."
         "That was very strange."
         "What?"
         "Think about it. There were what, nine Centaurians plus Baek? I killed four Centaurians, including the golden one, and Jun and I were separated from the action. How did the rest of you fare?"
         "I killed one Centaurian, but that was all. When Sonya set off her explosion, the remainder of our enemies teleported away and didn't come back."
         "Why not? You'd used your little trump card; they got away before it could hurt them. The rest of you were weakened. Why didn't they teleport back and finish you off?"
         "Uh..."
         "I'll tell you why: their primary goal was not to destroy you, because a renegade had already been planted among you. Their primary goal was to remove Jun from the picture, maybe pick off a few of you in the process."
         "They came damn close to 'picking off' me!"
         "Like I said. The point is that Jun's exit opened up a window, to mix my metaphors. It provided a cover story, to explain why one of you had to stay in physical contact with the others as you crossed into Sanctuary, and felt weak while you traversed Sanctuary's outer borders. Perhaps it even made getting an invitation easier. Now do you remember?"
         "Well, I was hurting pretty bad for the rest of the trip, but I did overhear some things..."
         Kung Lao's mouth fell open. "Gods of Light! You mean-!"
         "Wait for it. This is still a hypothesis, and there are other possible explanations. Kazuya might have wanted Jun for more personal reasons-"
         "Nani?" said the healer.
         "-and the individual we're thinking of might not be the only patrol member who was dead on their feet when they reached Sanctuary."
         "I think I passed out when we arrived," Kung Lao added.
         "And after you arrived, the assassin was free to wander around Sanctuary, take notes, look for weak spots, find good patsies, make a telepathic report to Kazuya or whatever. This is what really scares me, you see; if Kazuya could break Liu Kang's cloaking spell with help from his reagent, then he could break Sanctuary's cloaking magic as well, couldn't he? That's why his army knows where we are. If Nightwolf weren't shielding us right now, I'd be nervous about saying all this out loud. I'm gambling that the reagent has to be in the shadow of Nightwolf's cloak to help Kazuya see through it, or else Nightwolf would never have made it back to Sanctuary alive.
         "Anyway, once Kazuya has a good idea what's going on, he devises a new plan and puts it into motion. His assassin murders Chief Thunder and sets me up. This almost makes Sanctuary tear itself apart in civil war. The killer probably could have sparked that war if it had committed a few more murders or fanned a few more flames, but it doesn't bother.
         "Why?
         "Because it has something more important to do. Something Kazuya told it to do. Something that's been keeping it very busy, while the rest of us were conveniently distracted by my trial and execution."
         Lei appraised Jun with a thoughtful glance. "I think you might realize who I'm talking about."
         "Lei, I didn't stop to count all the people who attended-"
         "Okay, okay, maybe you didn't, but I did. Let's try one more piece to the puzzle, and if it all checks out, we'd better take action right away. Nightwolf, you were there when Jax's patrol returned, weren't you? They called you to get your seal of approval on Kabal, didn't they?"
         "Yes, but we have no time for this little game! You have narrowed the possibilities to a few people. We must subject each of them to a mind-probe!"
         "Another bad idea! Mind-probes can be really, really dangerous when performed on an unwilling subject, or even on a willing subject. Trust me on this. But you bring up another tidbit, which I hadn't thought about - out of the entire patrol, one person was vehemently paranoid about being mind-probed. Now do you remember, Jun?"
         Jun's swallowed, and hugged herself fearfully. "Masaka! Ano hito wa-!"
         "Hang on just a little longer. After the first onslaught of Centaurians took its toll, our patrol had eight survivors: Jax, Sonya, Liu Kang, Kung Lao, Kabal, Michelle, Jun, and me. We've eliminated Jax and Jun here, also Kabal and me. You'll notice that I don't think it's Kung Lao either, seeing as how I've let him listen in on all this. That's because even though Lao's a shape-shifter, he let Sub-Zero perform all sorts of experiments on him, and he let Liu Kang probe his mind. Both are convinced that Lao is a human being, unlike the killer.
         "That leaves three people. Nightwolf, when you greeted the patrol, I think one of these three said something to you - a question, I'll bet it was a question, and I'll bet it had something to do with Kabal. It wasn't blatant, it wasn't obvious, but when you got around to answering that question, you inadvertently granted entrance to a shape-shifter who should have already taken the Oath, but hadn't. Now do you know who we're talking about? Can you say the name we all have in mind?"
         Nightwolf closed his eyes in thought. Seconds passed, and wrinkles formed in his forehead.
         Suddenly, a tidal wave of surprise surged upon his features; it crashed into a surf of outrage, the fury of a wounded wolf. Weariness sloughed off his shoulders. There was no time to be tired now, not when the enemy who has used and betrayed him was still at large.
         Nightwolf clenched his hand. A shimmering hatchet of emerald psychic force appeared in his rigid grip.
         "Dark Mane," he pronounced, in the same tone Raven had used to speak Lei's death sentence.
         "Huh?"
         "That is her true name among the Navajo. You know her as Michelle Chang."



         The young warrior held out her hands before the sacred altar.
         Her eyes were closed as she chanted a litany in Navajo. Completely absorbed in her task, she remained oblivious of the seven inquisitors surrounding her, until Kung Lao gave his hat a steep downward tilt and raised his voice.
         "Praying for forgiveness, Michelle?" The monk's question dripped with acerbic sarcasm, rather than his usual light jocularity.
         The young warrior whirled to face them. Tension pulled at her muscles.
         "Whatever you're planning, don't try it," Sparky warned. His M16 rifle was approximately two meters from her heart. His threat carried the implicit warning that no sorcerer can shape-change or teleport faster than a speeding bullet.
         "What are you talking about?" Michelle snapped.
         Nightwolf pointed to her with his psychic hand-axe. "Kabal was near death; you sustained him in Jun's place. You asked, 'Do we bring him in or let him die?' When I told you to bring him in, I invited my own Chief's death into Sanctuary! I am unworthy to wear this!" He tore off his feathered headband, throwing it to the bloodstained, ash-streaked floor. Wrath and bitter recrimination, directed both inward and out, constricted his red-painted face into a nightmare grimace. "Now, step away from the sacred altar, and let me learn what you have truly done to Sanctuary's wards!"
         "Fine," she said, spreading her empty hands and backing away from the emblem. Nightwolf moved to where she had been. His psychic hatchet disappeared, since he could not sustain it and enact the necessary rituals at the same time.
         Jax gave the mental command to turn his bionic arms into keen blades, long and sharp enough to decapitate Michelle with one swipe. "When the enemy's first ambush surprised my half of the patrol, you were with them, weren't you? I didn't see you, but you were with them. It was a massacre. I was knocked unconscious - probably by you, since a Centaurian hoof can crack open a man's skull. It was the perfect chance for you to 'rescue' me, make yourself look like Michelle, and gain our confidence. You USED me!"
         "And ME!" T. Hawk rumbled. "On the night of your crime, you pumped me for information about Sanctuary's security. When the sleep spell descended, you pretended to yawn until I succumbed. I slept until you woke me up, having cleaned our Chief's blood from your hands! You murdered him so that you could take his place before the sacred altar!"
         "You planned to frame Lei all along," Jun quietly stated. "That's why you kissed him in the bar, isn't it? He wanted to drink there until he passed out, but it was a public place. You needed him in an isolated room with few or no witnesses. You baited Hawk into brutalizing him, so that I would - how did you put it? - 'have no trouble making him go home.'
         "When it looked like Hawk might kill Lei, you became upset. I assumed it was because you cared about Lei's life. The truth was that you needed a live scapegoat." Sparkling white Ki flashed on the healer's fingertips. Her ginger eyes reflected more sorrow than anger.
         "Lei was right about me. I do cling desperately to what I want to believe. I knew something was wrong with you, that your life-essence had become darker and crueller ever since the night of the patrol massacre, but I dearly wanted to believe you were still my friend. Kung Lao told me that the only way to see through a shape-shifter's disguise is if you catch it doing something that the person it mimics would never do. The Michelle I used to know did have a temper, but she never drank, never manipulated men into fighting over her, would never cast spells in a shrine stained with innocent blood, and certainly never treated me like a doormat."
         "Just out of curiosity," Lei added, "anyone ever tell you it's a total cliché for the murderer to return to the scene of the crime?"
         Michelle shook her head. A trace of apprehension clouded her cinnamon-brown eyes. "This is all speculation. You have no proof."
         Nightwolf's chanting terminated in a terrified gasp. The shaman became rigid.
         "What is it?" Jax prompted. He had never seen Nightwolf fall into a state of shock before. A sinking feeling settled in the major's stomach.
         "She... she has not corrupted the wards, or drained their power. She did not have to! In the course of three days, she has-"
         While everyone's attention was riveted on the shaman, Michelle's hands moved faster than thought, projecting a lime-green sphere of bio-kinetic energy. It exploded with a deafening BOOM, a ground-shaking earthquake, and a blinding flash of light.
         T. Hawk and Nightwolf were thrown off-balance. Nightwolf cracked the side of his head against the altar and blacked out. Unable to see, Jax made a wild swipe with his blades; they whistled on empty air. Kung Lao's thrown hat did the same. Sparky fired a single burst from his rifle; it missed, and he dared not continue shooting blind for fear of hurting his friends. Michelle sprinted toward the open door.
         "Shogai!" Jun cried. Though she had not yet recovered her sight, she remembered where the shrine's only exit was, and blocked it off with her soul barrier. Michelle collided with the wall of force; sparks of Ki briefly framed her in a nerve-wracking jolt of pure white energy.
         The young warrior cursed. Her outline shimmered, fluidly molding itself into the likeness of Kung Lao. The space about copy-Lao began to warp, in a dazzling hypergeometric display-
         "WHEEAH!"
         -but before the shape-shifter could complete its teleport, the one person who had not been struck blind connected with his running side kick. Lei's extended left heel dug deep into the small of copy-Lao's back, slamming him against Jun's soul barrier and drilling him with another painful jolt.
         Copy-Lao's body blurred, and reformed in the image of demon-Lei.
         The blood-red mark in the copy-demon's forehead shone brilliant gold. Lei dropped on his left hand, sweeping his right leg in a low curve just above and parallel to the ground. His kick cleanly knocked the copy-demon's ankles out from under it; the golden glow on its forehead sputtered out. Lei accelerated his motion into a full circle, spinning and raising his right leg for a second, waist-high turning hook kick. He voiced his battle cry again as his heel smacked against the falling copy-demon's chest, driving it into Jun's soul barrier one last time.
         Jun and the others were beginning to recover their vision when the shape-shifter flopped on the ground. Its body lost resolution again, but this time its borrowed form seemed to melt away instead of rearranging. Livid blue demon skin became viridescent green, with overlapping scales. Though its eyes remained blood-red, vertically slitted cat's pupils formed in them. It blinked with a cloudy third pair of sideways-moving eyelids. The creature's face lengthened into a toothy, snub-jawed iguana snout. Its breath smelled faintly of vinegar, and its moan deteriorated into a weak hiss.
         "Ugh," Lei grimaced, squinting over the top of Johnny Cage's shades. "I can't believe I kissed you."
         "Lei, you did it!" Jun jubilantly exclaimed, hugging him. "You really are Super Police!"
         "Eh, well, ahem... y-you know, I-I think I do like it better when you use my name." Lei's face flushed and his heart pounded, but not from the effort of his fight. "Uh, Jun, I..."
         "Yes?" She let him go, and showed her most beautiful smile.
         For one, timeless moment, he seemed about to say something emotional; then his right arm pressed unconsciously against his midsection, and he turned his face away.
         "I was... just wondering. Last thing I remember, the firing squad was about to, eh... well, not that I'm complaining, mind, but could you tell me why I'm not dead?"
         "The thunder god Raiden appeared, and asked the Nation to grant you a stay of execution."
         "No, really. Why?"
         "You heard me."
         "I don't believe in gods."
         "Maybe not, but at least one god believes in you."
         Jax interrupted with, "Jun, if you're finished debating theology then we need your help over here. Nightwolf's suffered a concussion."
         "Oh, my goodness. I'm sorry, I'll be right there." Jun approached the insensate shaman, directing her Ki to heal and revive him.
         While she worked, Sparky studied the defeated saurian. He couldn't believe his eyes, yet neither could he be mistaken. "You - you're Reptile! You saved my life once!"
         "And you helped us escape the Outworld Tournament," Kung Lao added. "I thought we were allies!"
         Reptile weakly raised his head.
         "Yesss, I have helped thee and thine in the passst. And what didssst it bring me? The demon sssorsscerer Ssshang Tsssung wreaked genosscide on mine kindred! HE MURDERED THE RASSCE! They all died becaussse of me, and thee, and mine aid to thee! For that, thou Chosssen Onesss ssshall have mine everlasssting malissce!
         "And thou-"
         The creature pointed to Lei with a trembling, scaly finger.
         "Thou art a ssshape-ssshifting demon, sssame asss he who ssslew my kin. Now dossst thou wonder why I hate thee!?"
         "No. I'm wondering why you want to help the bad guys, instead of getting even with them."
         "The Rassce isss dead! Canssst any among thou bring them back? Wouldssst thou if thou couldssst?
         "No!
         "The Ssshao Kahn isss the only one who can and ssshall ressstore them to Life. He promisssesss me revenge on Ssshang Tsssung, who hasss fallen into hisss disssfavor. He tellsss me to ssserve hisss ally, Kasszuya Missshima, and ssserve I do.
         "Yesss, I killed Chief Thunder. I wouldssst ssslay a thousssand thousssand like him, if the Rassce canssst live again! If only a few of the Rassce canssst live!"
         Reptile's teeth gnashed, and his claws dug into the floor. "If a sssingle mate can live..."
         "The Shao Kahn deceived you," Kung Lao sighed, shaking his head. "In the Outworld Tournament, we broke his power and freed all the souls he'd imprisoned. His reserves are depleted. He's desperate for energy now, which is why he had to take over the Earth. Even if he gained total control over our world, he'd still be in debt, needing to conquer more worlds just to sustain himself. He no longer has a power surplus to splurge on resurrecting people."
         "No! It isss not true!"
         "The Order of Light never lies."
         "Enough of this," T. Hawk intervened. "What have you done with the real Dark Mane, you monster!?"
         Reptile's lips drew back, smiling with a mouthful of deadly sharp teeth. "Asssk Kasszuya."
         Kung Lao was pondering how even a nonhuman could remain in a shape-shifted body for nine days and retain his own identity, when something distracted him.
         It sounded like a loud noise that had covered a fair distance. A reverberation that could have been a scream followed. He exchanged glances with the others; they had heard it, too.
         Jun's fingers paused in midair above Nightwolf's face. "Something is horribly wrong! I can feel it on the wind."
         Reptile's threatening smile stretched a little wider. "Thou art too late. Everyone isss too late."
         Nightwolf's eyes opened. He groaned, muttered something, and struggled to sit up.
         "What is it?" Jax demanded. "What did that thing do to Sanctuary's wards?"
         The shaman answered in a low, stunted monotone. "When neither Chief Thunder nor I are present, the privilege of extending invitation transfers to whomsoever maintains the wards in our place."
         Lei looked through the shrine's open door. The shouts and screams were louder now; he could feel the rumbling of hooves on the earth, hear bursts of gunfire, and see plumes of smoke rise from a spreading orange-red blaze.
         Sanctuary was burning.
         "Thessse passst three daysss, I have sssent mine mind to contact them one by one," Reptile sneered. "I invited them in. I invited them all in!"


End of Chapter 14: Super Police