ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Interlude: Elsewhen


         Another place, an earlier time.
         Jun looked in the mirror.
         Its polished surface reflected her troubled face all too clearly. Dark rings, the product of too many sleepless nights, circled her somber eyes. Her hair was limp and dirty; it hadn't been washed in days.
         She ought to feel relieved.
         This past week, she had been ill with worry. She needed to escape the closed confines of these walls. She longed to be out in the forest, hiking its natural paths and breathing the chill winter air. Her fiancé had been concerned about her health, though, and he demanded that she stay inside. She'd wanted to tell him why she felt so sickly, and explain how being cooped up only made it worse. The strength to speak had failed her. Her trepidation only became deeper with passing days.
         Now, at last, she had learned that she was safe. She could pretend nothing had ever happened.
         Her slender hands gripped the edge of the porcelain sink, and the urge to throw up contorted her insides. A blunted cramp constricted her muscles. She closed her eyes and counted to ten. When her eyelids opened, she felt a little better, but not much.
         Who are you? she thought to her reflection. What is your life like? Can I step through the mirror and join you there? A story she had read as a child tugged at the back of her mind.
         Then Jun gazed deep into the tired eyes of the young woman in the looking glass, and saw that she wasn't happy either.
         Jun tried to think of the times she had been happy, and found some. She searched for times her fiancé had been happy, and found a few more. She tried to recall a time when they were happy together.
         Maybe they had been, once. Back when they were both too young to concern themselves with things like love, or an arranged marriage. Maybe.
         She realized she was crying, and brushed the tears away.
         No, she couldn't pretend that nothing had ever happened. He certainly wasn't pretending. Their wedding would be - how soon? Next month? Next week? Tomorrow? She couldn't remember, probably because she didn't want to think about it and had blocked it out when he told her.
         Jun made her decision.
         She found him sipping a ceramic bowl of rice wine. Her stomach began to turn queasy again; then she remembered it was the night of the new year. Of course. He was only following tradition.
         Her fiancé smiled at her. "Oh, there you are. You had me so worried, I was about to go look for you. Are you still feeling sick?"
         He rested his warm hand on her forehead, and didn't seem to notice when she flinched. "Well, you don't feel feverish. Maybe you should go to bed early anyway. I'll bring you a nice hot cup of tea. You like chamomile, don't you?"
         "I'm not sick."
         "Are you sure? You said you had pains, and you've been in the bathroom for half an hour."
         "I'm bleeding."
         "What?" Alarm crossed his face. "Where? Lie down, I'll call a doctor-"
         "Not that kind of bleeding."
         "What do you- oh. That. You should still rest. You don't look very healthy."
         "I'm fine. I just need to talk to you."
         His mouth set itself in a straight line. "About what?"
         "I'm..."
         "You're not afraid I'll call off the wedding, are you? Don't be. As far as I'm concerned, you're already my wife. The ceremony is just a formality."
         "...not ready for this."
         "What was that?" A stiff edge underlied his voice.
         "I'm not ready for any of this. Getting married, having children, living as a housewife - I'm only sixteen, I haven't even finished high school!"
         "What do you need a diploma for? I don't want my wife to work for a living. I'll support you."
         "You can't spend money on what I need the most. You want me to stay indoors so much; I hardly ever get to go outside."
         "Why? So you can wander around, hugging trees and petting wild animals? It's time you put that childish nonsense behind you."
         "No. You can't make me spend my entire life behind closed doors. I'll go mad. I'll hate you for it."
         "Not this again."
         "Listen to me-"
         "I should have known; you always get so cranky when it's that time of the month."
         "LISTEN TO ME!" she yelled, batting the sake bowl out of his hand. "I try and try to tell you things, and it's like you don't speak my language! Everything I say is 'childish,' or 'stupid'! Once, just once, why can't you LISTEN TO ME!"
         His eyebrows lowered from irritation, and his arms tensed. He willed himself to relax, with limited success. "What do you have to say that you haven't repeated a thousand times before?"
         "I am not ready to get married. And now that I think about it, neither are you. I need more freedom than you're willing to give me, and you need me to structure my life around you, or something. We argue all the time. If it's not working now, what makes you think it'll work any better after someone pronounces us husband and wife? Just now, I was trying to remember a single time when we were happy together-"
         "Christmas Eve," he said, and her mouth went dry. "It was quite recent. Don't tell me you've forgotten."
         He poured and offered her another bowl of sake. "Come on. Let's drop this silliness, and have a toast to the New Year."
         She shook her head. "I'm not drinking again. Ever."
         "Is that a resolution?" He shrugged and set the bowl down. "I know you had a bit too much that night, but that's no reason to make careless vows."
         "I don't think I was ready for Christmas Eve."
         "Weren't you? You didn't object."
         "I was so drunk, I can't remember if I said anything."
         "You said that you loved me. Whispered it in my ear."
         "I..."
         "I do love you. I'll always take care of you, I swear." He put his arm around her shoulders. His grip was more firm than felt comfortable.
         "Don't you understand?" she implored, plaintively. "Ever since then, I haven't been sick. Not with any disease. I've been scared out of my mind that I might be... um, now that I know I'm not, I still don't feel good about myself, or you, and I have to wonder what it all means. Do you really care about me? Or do you just want to own me?"
         "You're my wife," he answered, and his hand squeezed her shoulder a little more. "That's all there is to it. Now stop asking stupid questions."
         "You're holding me so tight I can hardly breathe."
         "What is your problem, anyway?" he snapped, spinning her around to face him.
         He no longer attempted to hide his growing anger. Resentment crept into his eyes. She had always thought of him as handsome and strong, but at times like this she lost all thoughts of attraction, and his strength was almost frightening.
         "You don't appreciate what I'm offering you. Do you know how many women would sell their souls to be in your place? Do you!?"
         She took a deep breath to fortify her resolve. "I'm going home."
         "This is your home."
         "You know what I mean. We need some time apart from each other. I don't know, maybe a few weeks or a month."
         "You are not going anywhere."
         "I have to. We both need time alone to sort through our feelings. When I come back, maybe we can work something out."
         "It's someone else, isn't it? Some guy you met at school, or in your hometown?"
         "There is no one else! How could there be, when you latch onto me like-"
         "So you want to go look for someone? Is that it?" His hand wrapped firmly around her wrist. "I won't have it. You're my wife; do you think I'm going to let you cheat on me?"
         "Not so tight. You're hurting me."
         "Do you think anyone else will have you? Maybe for the night, but they certainly won't marry you! You're mixed blood, remember? You'll never find a better husband than me!"
         "Let go!"
         "You'll die alone! Is that what you want?"
         "I want you to let me go! Why do you have to act so threatening when you're upset? When you get like this, I can't stand being in the same room with you!"
         "You can't leave me. You're mine. I've had you; you have to stay with me or-"
         "LET GO!" she shouted, with a hard yank. She knew a dozen different techniques to escape holds, but when she was this distressed, she couldn't think clearly enough to apply any of them.
         "No one will ever want you!"
         The words were simultaneous with a heavy shock of pain. Her teeth cut into the lining of her cheek. She didn't comprehend what was happening until the hard floor rapped her head. A sake bowl bruised her face.
         She rolled to her knees, and spat out a mouthful of bloody saliva. Fresh tears blurred her vision. But it wasn't the blow that truly hurt; it was the words, and the dreadful inner apprehension that they could be true.
         "I..." A stricken expression crossed her fiancé's face. He appeared more startled by what he'd done than she was. "Are you all right? Come on, let me see-"
         "NO!" she screamed, shoving him away.
         She fled without looking where she was going; outward-swinging doors burst open as she dashed through them. She ran away from him, away from the syndicate, away from the city, and sometimes it seemed as though she never stopped running-


         No one will ever want you!


         -but no matter how hard she pushed herself, she couldn't outrun the fear that he was right.


Chapter 15: Invasion


    Though much is taken, much abides; and though
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are-
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
         -Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses


         "Explain this."
         Tall, proud, and ruthless, Kazuya Mishima gestured to the multitude of mirrors enfolding his inner sanctum. Most of them were windows to bustling activity within Sanctuary.
         Warriors and soldiers hurried to seize weapons. Children and their guardians scurried into a central building with the sign of the cross. Raven of the Bright River and Lieutenant Sonya Blade were in the middle of it all, organizing their forces in a united effort that far transcended their personal animosity toward one another.
         Two of the mirrors were different, though. Once, they had spied upon Sanctuary's prison cell, and the Temple of Light. Now, they showed nothing more than a reflection of the irate master sorcerer. Kazuya's jet black eyebrows formed a malevolent V-shape.
         Lee shook with terror, as he always did in his brother's presence. Sweat beaded on his forehead, beneath his silver bangs. He had dreaded that Kazuya would learn of his treachery - or was "treachery" the right word? It felt more like a moment of weakness than a carefully planned act of betrayal.
         "I desired to surprise them with a midnight assault," Kazuya hissed. "Wulong was such an effective distraction that none of them thought to look outside their own little world. Yet suddenly, they are warned. How is that? And there are places I cannot see, as though two individuals have resumed their cloaking sorcery separate from Sanctuary's wards, and out of my reagent's reach. Liu Kang would be one of these two. Who could be the other? No one else in Sanctuary shares that ability, save for one of the Chosen whom you say you have killed!"
         The silver-haired devil swallowed, and began with, "I... I went out to stop them... and they... Uncle Wang... he..."
         "This is taking too long."
         Kazuya's clawlike fingers grasped Lee's silver tresses, and jerked his head back. Cruel, jet black eyes transfixed Lee's terrified soul. "Do not resist, or you shall regret it."
         "Ah - aahAAAH!"
         Lee couldn't refrain from thrashing against the sea of hatred that invaded his mind. The foreign presence oozed with contempt, and a lingering satisfaction that it could inspire such overwhelming fear. It seared through layers of his short-term memory, searching for-


         Give yourself up, Uncle. I don't want to hurt you.
         Nor I you, my boy.


         There is something inexplicably hypnotic about the blue-white glow on Wang's hand; it compels his attention, saps his will to move-
         -something doesn't feel right; the world is a little hazier, and the silver-haired devil is woozy, disoriented-
         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-



         Kazuya abruptly terminated his mind-probe, casting Lee away like a dirty rag. "A dreamweaving. You spineless fool, you let Jinrey take control of your senses and deceive you with his hallucination!"
         "Agh..." Lee rolled on his stomach and clutched his throbbing head. He couldn't lift it high enough to see Kazuya's disgusted scowl, but he could hear the scorn that saturated the master sorcerer's voice.
         "I should not have set you to this specific task; Commander Baek would have been the better choice. He may be psychotic, but his strength of will far outstrips yours. You shall not command any portion of my army again. Is that clear?"
         Lee could scarcely believe it. If Kazuya had been a shred more suspicious, or probed just a little further, he would have learned the whole truth. But the master sorcerer held Lee in such low esteem that he automatically assumed the illusion had worked.
         "Y-yes, Mishima-sama," croaked the silver-haired devil.
         Kazuya was no longer paying attention; he had eyes only for his mirrors. The window to the prison cell now showed a vacated hole in the ground. The window to Sanctuary's sacred shrine had exchanged four rows of guards for a group of Chosen Ones and their allies, including Lei Wulong and Jun Kazama. They confronted Kazuya's shape-shifting reagent with harsh facial expressions and weapons at ready.
         "Shikata ga arimasen," the master sorcerer concluded, with a disappointed shake of his head. "We must attack now."



         Detective Takeshi Fujioka contemplated killing himself.
         It was becoming increasingly difficult to justify his own existence. He owed his life to Lei Wulong, the demon who had murdered Chief Thunder. Jun had claimed that Sanctuary needed Takeshi alive, but to do what? Sanctuary had withdrawn into itself. It had ceased sending patrols to scout an enemy who so vastly outnumbered its own meager forces. Its refugees merely trusted the wards to keep themselves safely hidden, and lived their humble lives day by day.
         Takeshi could take no more of this pointless inaction, but neither could he bring himself to make the ritual incisions in his abdomen. He didn't even have a proper sword for it, just his kusari-gama. And when Jun learned of what he'd done, how would she react? With grief and incomprehension, most likely. She was a healer, devoted to preserving and prolonging life. Although she had come to accept the necessity of destroying enemies in warfare, people such as she could never understand the necessity of destroying oneself.
         No. First, he had to go away from here. He would leave Sanctuary, search for the enemy, and kill them until they succeeded in killing him. That would be his purpose.
         It had taken him a full day since Wulong's aborted execution to settle upon this decision, but once it was made, he felt a great freedom. It was as though he had cast aside a heavy burden. He stepped outside his quarters, and into a frenzy just short of outright panic.
         "What is going on?" he demanded of a random soldier, and received a garbled answer concerning a legion of mutants and Centaurians about to storm Sanctuary.
         Hold.
         Takeshi was well trained in deduction and induction; when details clashed against the turning gears of his mind, he felt compelled to analyze the disparities until they made sense. It was plausible that Kazuya had found Sanctuary, since it had given succor to Kazuya's demon. Still, the enemy should know better than to invade; Sanctuary's protective wards were too strong. Unless something tampered with them, that is, but Michelle Chang maintained their integrity in Chief Thunder's place, and no harm had befallen her...
         ...had it?
         A harrowing suspicion took shape in Takeshi's thoughts. He knew that Wulong couldn't undercut Sanctuary's mystic protection - his guards would shoot him dead if they felt any trace of sorcery. What if the greatest motive behind Chief Thunder's murder had been not to sow discord, but rather to usurp his control over the wards? What if Michelle hadn't subsequently been attacked because she was the attacker all along?
         Takeshi sprinted in the direction of Chief Thunder's sacred shrine. He was three-quarters of the way there when the enemy invaded.


         Inside the shrine, Jax contacted Sonya on his microcomputer. Lei requested a 9mm automatic from Kung Lao; the monk reached into his seemingly bottomless hat and handed him one, along with a half-dozen fifteen-shot magazines. Lei loaded his new gun. Jax gave Kung Lao an order.
         Jun felt the land cry out in pain.
         She heard the grating noise of mutants rubbing their arm-blades together, creating fiery sparks that took root and spread rapidly. She felt the reverberations of Centaurians channeling red-gold bursts of eldritch force through their rat-like tails. The horse-monsters were blasting apart every structure or tree they could find, and the resulting explosions fanned malignant flames. Fire seared and consumed the dryads in the plant life. Smoke billowed on the wind, choking the wails of the wind spirits. Ten thousand monsters of Evil infested the consecrated land of Sanctuary, ravaging it like a cancer.
         The hallowed ground called to Jun. She stepped away from Nightwolf, outside of the sacred shrine, oblivious to everything save the suffering beneath her feet.
          Nightwolf looked on the scaly, inhuman face of the thing that had invited an army inside Sanctuary, and emerald psychic energy flashed upon his hands. Ignoring the giddiness from his concussion, the shaman staggered to an upright stance, his feet apart and at right angles to where Reptile languished. He held left hand out in front, fingers curled in a sideways fist, while the middle three fingers of his right hand drew back to his chin. A longbow of emerald psychic energy manifested in response to his pull. He let go of the bowstring, sending an arrow of solid force into Reptile's chest, just left of center and between what would be the fourth and fifth ribs of a human. Viridescent blood trickled from the wound. The creature hissed, slouched on its side, and lay still.
         Kung Lao had already begun teleporting the others, one by one, to Sonya's defense formation. By the time Reptile stopped moving, the monk had whisked away Jax, T. Hawk, and Sparky. Kung Lao took Nightwolf's hand, pulled him through a ripple of distorted space, then came back for Lei and Jun.
         They were no longer inside the shrine. A pair of mutants were, though, with two more climbing through the door. One of them slashed at Kung Lao's throat; the monk teleported away a fraction of a second before her blade severed his jugular.


         When Jax and Nightwolf had delivered their warning of an enemy army camped outside Sanctuary's border, the elderly prophet they had rescued added his own dire prediction: Kazuya was watching their every move, and he would soon tell his legions to overrun Sanctuary.
         Sonya's first reaction was to curse herself soundly. Like everyone else, she had put too much faith in Sanctuary as, well, a sanctuary. Only now, with the enemy ringing them like a hungry boa constrictor, did she think all the different ways they should have prepared against an onslaught: barbed wire, walls of steel or stone instead of flammable wood, booby-trapped buildings, escape tunnels, underground shelters, trenches and foxholes...
         It wasn't exactly that Sanctuary was poorly defended, just that the overwhelming bulk of its defenses were tied into its mystic wards. Sonya had a sinking suspicion that the enemy had found a way to override the wards. The last time she had ignored her intuition, people died. The last time she had trusted her intuition, more people died, but damned if she was going to admit that now.
         Sonya improvised a plan. Liu Kang's Power would conceal Wang Jinrey; Jax would stay inside the range of Nightwolf's cloaking spell while the shaman saw to Wulong and the wards. With all three new arrivals shielded from Kazuya's sight, Sonya hoped to buy a little more time to prepare for the impending attack. She put every second to good use, raising an immediate call to arms. She shouted herself hoarse through the vocal amplifier in her microcomputer. Kabal sprinted at practically the speed of sound, spreading the alarm and distributing the transmitters that could relay her commands to her newly designated sub-lieutenants Zeke, Sal, Pete, Paco, and where the hell was Sparky? Forget it, she'd just have to kill him later.
         Liu Kang refused to join Sonya's formation; he insisted on guarding his wretched Temple of Light, damn him. She could really use a gigantic, fire-breathing were-dragon on her side right now.
         Every man, woman, and youth strong enough to fight grabbed a weapon, or a shovel, as Sonya ordered them to dig trenches and pits by the score. Sub-Zero created layers of ice to make the prospective battlefield slick and disguise the pits. The very young and the very old sought shelter in Sanctuary's church-turned-hospital. Thunderbolt oversaw the evacuation, while Sonya's platoon and the Nation's warriors formed rows to defend this crucial nucleus. To hell with everything else; there was no point in spreading people out or manning the walls when the Centaurians could teleport anywhere among their ranks. She knew the enemy liked to set things ablaze, so she charged Sub-Zero with protecting the hospital from fire, and charged the other Chosen Ones with protecting Sub-Zero.
         In theory, the Centaurians could also teleport inside the hospital and wreak havoc, but as a species they were excessively claustrophobic. They were from the flat, wasted planes of Outworld, upon which they had fought countless wars with the four-armed, human-dragon hybrid race of the Shokan. When the Shokan were on the threshold of extinction, they retreated deep below the surface and survived in subterranean cities, where few Centaurians ever dared to tread - except possibly the fearless General Motaro, but he was an extraordinary case. No, when the enemy had descended upon Earth's cities, the mutants usually stormed inside the buildings and flushed out survivors, while the Centaurians crushed any humans unfortunate enough to be caught out in the open.
         Well, these humans wouldn't be so easy to crush.
         Raven interspersed the Nation's warriors among Sonya's soldiers as the lieutenant instructed, without a word of debate. A tiny corner of Sonya's mind wondered why the wise-woman had instantly become so cooperative. Was it because Raven acknowledged the lieutenant's combat expertise, or was it just that the world had come to an end?
         So much adrenaline and tense anticipation deluged Sonya's body that it was virtually a relief when the enemy launched its attack.
         There were no preliminaries; a herd of Centaurians simply teleported inside Sanctuary's walls, each horse-monster bearing two or more mutants in their great arms. The mutants charged forward, grafted arm-blades ready to thrust, sickly metal-toothed grins drooling with murderous fervor, while the Centaurians scanned the area, teleported away, and fetched more mutants.
         And more.
         And more.
         Thousands more.
         A small portion of the mutants and Centaurians went on a general rampage, setting fires, demolishing buildings, and savagely killing the few straggling refugees who had not reacted quickly enough to the alarm. The vast majority of enemies formed a great ring about the church. They stampeded toward Sonya's entrenched defense.
         It occurred to her that perhaps she shouldn't have sent Nightwolf and Jax to see Wulong. Nightwolf could have concealed her commands from Kazuya's prying eyes, and Jax could have, well, he outranked her, dammit.
         It occurred to her that she had only a few hundred soldiers, another few hundred warriors, and God-knows-how-many scared civilians with which to fight many thousands of mutant berserkers and Centaurian juggernauts.
         It occurred to her that Wang Jinrey, left behind with Liu Kang in the Temple of Light, was even more doomed than everyone else, and whatever secret Wang had for saving the world was doomed with him.
         When she was a cadet, one of her instructors had diligently emphasized the importance of positive thinking. She wished he were here right now, so she could use him as a human shield.
         Somewhere in there, she must have given the command to fire, because the welcome chorus of hundreds of assault rifles filled her ears, and the mutants dropped in waves, with bloody perforations appearing like magic on their bodies. The Centaurian charge did not slow. The horse-monsters heedlessly trampled their fallen infantry as bullets ricocheted off their invulnerable skin. Here and there, a Centaurian might be struck dead by a lucky shot to the eyes, but many of them were careful to shield the one vulnerable part of their bodies with a hand. It wasn't until they were a scant hundred meters away that their formation started to break. Their hooves slipped on the icy coating Sub-Zero had spread on the ground, or fell into the pits Sonya had ordered her forces to dig. Some of them stumbled, or even broke a leg. There was a second wave hard on the heels of the first, though, and a number of the horse-monsters had taken to teleporting themselves directly among Sonya's troops. The Nation's warriors were ready for this; they took advantage of that brief moment of helplessness forced on someone arriving from teleport to drive long spears into the incoming monsters' eyes.
         But there were so goddamn many of them and the Centaurians could crush her people with their sheer weight while the mutants swarmed like maggots in rotting meat and now the monsters were teleporting freely into the thick of friendly fire was about as likely to kill her as the enemy cut Sal's voice off in the middle of a directive and his head with it oh shit wait Sparky had returned to take his place she must remember to kill him later what is this massive roseburst flare Centaurian attack it burns it burns microcomputer melts into slag damn it burns a red-haired man she knows him he's Wolf thrusts a spear in the monster's eye and lengthens her life for oh maybe another two seconds and Jesus H. Christ was she really going to die the seventeenth and final time a so-called "lieutenant" of a so-called "platoon" when she was in charge of a couple thousand idiots well it would be a lot fewer idiots real soon now but "colonel" was more like it or maybe even General Steverns you rat-bastard why didn't you fucking listen when we warned you about the Apocalypse?


         Captain Bruce Irvin led the assault on the Temple of Light.
         Kazuya wanted this place razed. Bruce intended to have the Centaurians demolish it stone by stone, after he finished off its guardian. The deadliest of the Chosen Ones made its lair here.
         Bruce rode up the temple's shallow steps on Reptile's tireless creation, a steed of bones that instantly responded to his thoughts. Syrupy black necromantic energy formed the animate skeleton's riding gear. The captain carried a golden, full-body shield and serrated sword; both had been wrought from the remains of a dead Centaurian. The shield used to be its seamed, impervious underbelly, and the sword had been chiseled from its bones with diamond-tipped tools. Lee had arranged for the syndicate to carve these items from Ouro's carcass, because he knew what Bruce would face. A similarly armed group of one hundred mutants followed the captain, though their Centaurian-skin shields and Centaurian-bone swords were dull tan or silver instead of gold, and they did not have Bruce's specially made, asbestos-lined "armor." Living Centaurians shirked from venturing inside any kind of building, damn their claustrophobic hides.
         Bruce let the vast majority of Kazuya's army plunder Sanctuary as they so willed. After long, boring months of little or no activity they were inflamed with bloodlust, and sure to butcher every living thing they could find.
         "BURN!"
         A sonorous roar hammered Bruce's ears, and a surging torrent of fire erupted from within the temple, blasting the bones of his skeleton mount charcoal black. The captain raised his shield just in time to deflect the conflagration; a few of the mutants weren't fast enough, and their bodies burst into explosive funeral pyres. The rush of superheated air burned Bruce's lungs, and singed his skin underneath his armor. Yet the source of the flames eventually had to pause and draw breath, allowing Bruce to advance.
         "YOU WILL BURN."
         Another fireburst ensued. It cremated Wing Chun dummies, wooden practice weapons, a narrow red carpet, and other perishables scattered about the temple's interior.
         "YOU WILL BURN AND DIE!"
         Now the dragon was before him, in all its feral and terrible glory. Supreme power rippled on its deep green, diamond-shaped scales. It filled the entire foreroom with its mongoose legs and serpentine coils. Its tawny eyes were flawless gemstones of concentrated hatred. Its crocodile jaws stretched wide over Bruce's head and vomited fire. The dragon snapped its coachwhip tail, bowling the foremost five mutants into the path of incineration.
         Bruce admired the beast's great strength. A shame he had to kill it.
         He was a kickboxer, not a swordsman, and he certainly didn't know where the dragon's vital spots were. So, he did not concern himself with accuracy, or finesse. He merely thrust his sword into a random patch of scales, then guided his mount to run as he dragged the blade along the beast's length. Bruce's arms and legs protested the strain, but he had the tough sinews of a life devoted to Muay Thai. His Centaurian-bone blade cut through the dragon's chitinoid flesh as surely as the shield had resisted its fire. The beast's acidic blood sizzled on Bruce's armor.
         The dragon bellowed a curiously high-pitched, ululating roar of pain. Excited gibbering submerged its outcry. Another dozen mutants had reached the monster; they jabbed and pricked it with their own swords, while Bruce steered his skeleton horse around for another pass.
         "Zhàng'àiwù!"
         A number of mutants let out stymied yells, and Bruce brought his mount up short as an invisible wall of force barricaded the wounded dragon. Blue-white sparks and electrical jolts shocked those mutants who had been rash enough to charge into the barrier headfirst. Bruce glared at the obstacle's source: a wizened, blind old man. The kickboxer shouted orders for his mutant troops to test the barrier's length; they soon found that the old man couldn't sustain it for more than fifty meters across. And-
         "YOU... YOU HURT ME!"
         -the dragon, having figured out that its fire was less than effective, lunged down from above. Its sinuous neck guided craggy teeth as long as a man's fingers on a beeline for Bruce's upper body. The kickboxer's mount saved him, galloping out of reach at the last second, and the dragon's maw bit off the head and torso of a luckless mutant instead.
         Wait - how could the dragon attack him through the barrier?
         Of course. It had not gone through but over the wall.
         Nodding to himself, Bruce spurred his obedient mount to leap far higher than any natural horse, clearing the transparent wall and landing by the dragon's left hind leg. At the same time, mutants crawled around the edges of the barrier. They flanked the dragon and the old man on either side. The old man shouted something, and there was another effusion of blue-white sparks. Bruce paid it no mind, trusting the mutants to keep the old man busy. Again, the kickboxer thrust his sword and dragged it along the beast's length, viciously carving a bloody trail.
         The dragon shrieked an oddly human outcry, and Bruce knew that it was dying.


         Jun reached with her mind and soul, into the heart of the sacred land.
         This soil was worthy of reverence; it had nourished life for many millions of years, in the perpetual cycle of the Cosmic Balance. Now it suffered under the weight of a malignancy that should not exist. Evil violated natural sanctity, and the Earth itself rebelled. She felt its ageless fortitude and infinite Power. It filled her, flowed through her, visible as a shining white beacon that flared from her skin.
         She was dimly aware of Lei's panicked voice, telling her they had to go back in the shrine. The cop started to reach for her hand, but there came scuffling noises, heavy breathing, screeching mutant yells and the snapping discharge of gunfire. Enemies were attacking him. Yet she was immune to their blades and fire; her aura of Power turned aside her foes. She stretched out her hands, willing the strength of the land to spread.


         "I thought someone in Sanctuary might try what you are doing. Unfortunately, I cannot allow it."
         Kazuya is before her.
         Jun knows without being told that this is not a physical presence. She has attained the timeless state of the waking dream, a condition that lets her see past dimensional confines, into and through the other side of the master sorcerer's mirrors. His hands rest loosely in his pockets, an uncharacteristically informal gesture that clashes against the stiff trim of his navy blue dress suit. She looks down at his polished black shoes, and cannot help wondering what has become of his cherished sneaker collection.
         Kazuya lifts his right hand, and slowly begins to curl it.
         Jun feels a noose around her throat and a vise constricting her body. She channels her Power to press against the lethal web of necromantic force, but though the Earth's resources are limitless, her frail mortal frame can hold only so much.
         "Kazuya, stop this, please," begs the healer. "You're killing us. I knew you once; you were a good person-"
         The master sorcerer binds his death-web tauter, choking off her words.
         "W-wait, l-let me talk to her," stammers a fearful new voice, and a shudder crosses her shoulders.
         "Talk, then," says the master sorcerer. His death-web ceases to tighten, but neither does it relax. Jun sees who is standing to his left. Her shivering spreads to engulf her entire body.
         "No. Not you too. I knew something had poisoned his soul, but I hoped - I prayed...!"
         Lee extends his open hand. Her nightmare comes spiraling back to her; she can practically see the blood of innocents dripping from his fingers.
         "Jun-chan, don't fight my brother. It's all right. We only have to destroy the Chosen Ones; the rest of Sanctuary will become part of the New Era-"
         "BAKA YO!" she shouts, tears forming in her eyes. "Look at what's happening! Look at the killers you've turned loose! They won't rest until everyone is dead!"
         "But he-" Lee's auburn eyes nervously dart to the master sorcerer. "-you... you said that you would-!"
         "I never stated any such assurance. Perhaps you arrived upon a premature conclusion, but I shall not take responsibility for your foolishness. The Shao Kahn has charged us to obliterate Sanctuary once and for all."
         Kazuya makes a reeling motion with his hand, and the death-web drags Jun to her knees. "However, I could afford to spare this one, if she would only desist her opposition. What say you, Kazama? This is your final opportunity to surrender."
         "Please, Jun-chan," Lee urges. "I don't want to see you get hurt."
         "Lee, I... no. No! NEVER!"
         Jun pours all her strength, will, and soul into a frenzy of resistance. It is not even close to enough.
         "So be it," Kazuya asserts, clenching his hand in a fist. His death-web strains her ribs to the breaking point, and compresses her lungs like molded rubber. The healer collapses on her side.
         "Tasukete..." she implores. The wind's mournful howl spirits away her faint cry.



         Kurtis Stryker had to be insane.
         It was the only explanation he could think of. No sane person could have survived an Apocalypse of demons and monsters, and no sane person could ever see what he was seeing now.
         He thought he saw a man with a bear's head flail his battle axe in a torque.
         He thought he saw a man with a grotesque metal face spit iridescent fireworks.
         He thought he saw a man toss up his hands and call down an ice shower, dousing the flames that had caught on the hospital.
         He thought he saw a man transform into a great red wolf, clamp its jaws on a mutant's neck, and vigorously shake its new chew toy.
         He thought he saw a dark-skinned man grow bigger than a high-rise, and squash horse-monsters like they were ants.
         Just as he was looking for something even crazier, a mutant limb curled around his neck and wrenched his head back-


         The next time you get caught in a headlock, stomp on your opponent's foot and ram your elbow into their solar plexus, like this.


         -only he did better than drive an elbow; he pressed the muzzle of his .45 against his enemy's body and fired. When the hold slackened, he wrenched free, tossed a fragmentation grenade, then ducked and covered his ears as it exploded in a burst of deadly shrapnel.
         Yes, he was definitely insane, thoroughly delusional, maybe schizophrenic, and doubtless locked away in a cozy padded room somewhere. Which was just as well, because in this particular fantasy, his side was surrounded, compromised, and outnumbered ten to one.
         A horse-monster reared before him; its hooves kicked his stomach and knocked him on the ground. Either this was a really good dementia, or he was about to be trampled very, very dead.


         Lei didn't know what on Earth possessed Jun to aimlessly wander into a war zone, but before he could take her hand and guide her back inside, the enemy was upon them. He aimed and fired with the natural accuracy that was partly a gift, partly a practiced skill, and partly because when the mutants are ten freaking feet away from you they're pretty damn hard to miss.
         Somewhere in the background he heard Jun pleading and yelling; who was she talking to?
         As he turned toward her, a massive, rock-hard Centaurian fist smashed into the base of his neck. He slammed against the ground, dazed and aching. Slowed by pain and shock, he rolled on his back and pointed his gun. Heavy hooves loomed above him. At this low angle, he couldn't possibly target the monster's eyes before it trampled him into a bloody paste. He fired a useless shot anyway, but a sharply familiar voice carried over the rapport of his gun.
         "Dou Huretsu Zen!" Takeshi Fujioka shouted, whipping his sickle-shaped blade on a chain in a wide semicircle, parallel to the ground. An arc of glittering, sky-blue Ki surged from his weapon, and splashed against the Centaurian's metallic skin.
         Lei had no idea Takeshi could do that.
         The wash of energy reflected harmlessly off the Centaurian's thick hide, but the sparkling light did cause the horse-monster to turn its horned face, long enough for Lei to kick to his feet, sight his gun on its eyes, and shoot it dead. Planning to return Takeshi's favor, he whirled toward the officer-
         Who had deliberately turned his back on a pair of mutants in order to buy Lei that critical extra second. Who had a set of mutant blades piercing his body, protruding through his stomach and savagely twisting his viscera into a bloody ruin. Who screamed "SHOU ZEN!" and sliced backward with his kusari-gama, sinking the twin sickles into the throats of his attackers.
         Takeshi's face distorted in an excruciated grimace. One of the blades running through his entrails moved up and center in a grisly curve, cutting into his spinal cord; he coughed a gush of crimson sputum, and fell with his limbs bending at splayed, unnatural angles on the ground.
         Lei was a trained police officer. He was supposed to have grace under pressure. He was not supposed to stand there like a half-wit, staring at Takeshi's corpse, until the next wave of attackers could cut him down and make the officer's sacrifice even more meaningless than it already was.
         "Tasukete..." Jun pleaded.
         No, there was a purpose to this. There had to be. Jun was in trouble; he had to help her. If he could just get her to safety, then it wouldn't matter what became of him, or that it's his fault he couldn't find Sanctuary's traitor before it brought holocaust on them all, or that he's a worthless soulless demon alcoholic and no one, no one has any business giving up their life to prolong his miserable existence-!
         "Lei, help me," Jun mouthed in a voiceless whisper, stretching out her hand. She was curled on the ground, gasping for breath, and trembling. An unnatural blue-grey tinge affected her lips, eyelids and earlobes. Her arms and legs had become stiff, like broken pieces of wood. She was dying, but not from any visible wound.
         No. No, he couldn't lose her, she couldn't die-!
         "I'm here," Lei reassured, taking her in his arms. Her right hand clasped his left.


         Contact.
         The link is forged, and he feels what she feels, knows what she knows. It is not so much that he reads her thoughts as that her thoughts are his thoughts, just as his thoughts are hers.
         He perceives the netherworldly presence of Kazuya and Lee. He is aware of the infinite reservoir of the sacred land, and the four things that prevent her from using it to her full advantage.
         First is the necromantic death-web, crushing the life out of her. Second, there are the innate limits of her mortal form, squeezing the flow like a dribble through a narrow bottleneck. Third, the Power she tries to call is not a merciful one, and is in conflict with her essence as a healer. Fourth, and perhaps worst, she is forced to confront someone with whom she used to be intimately close, from whom she once fled in confusion and strife.
         He bows his head and takes the death-web upon himself, freeing her from its confines. He lets the Power cycle through him. It cascades within the soulless chasm of his shell and wraps itself into a narrowly focused spiral, that slips past the bottleneck to where she can unleash it at will. If she does not know how to kill, then he does, and he can lend her the unsympathetic mindset that makes such cold necessities possible.
         As for the fourth...
         Lei wants to tell her that the crimes of her former fiancé are not her fault, but she already knows that; her turmoil is born of blind emotion. Lei wants to tell her that he loves her, but how can that be true when he is less than human, a demon without a soul?
         The death-web strangles his breath and clouds his mind. He realizes he has lost the chance to tell her anything, and that almost hurts more than everything else. A black curtain suffocates his thoughts.


         Contact.
         The link is forged, and she feels what he feels, knows what he knows. A wrenching internal void threatens to drive her mad with unbearable pain, cold, and emptiness, but it is a nightmare she has experienced before, and this time she is prepared to endure it. She understands how greatly he loathes himself. A lifetime of guilt and blame festers within him like a dormant virus, that intermittently flares in bouts of self-destructive sickness.
         He pulls Kazuya's death-web off her without reservation. The necromantic construct immediately seeks a new target, wrapping itself fast around his body and mind.
         Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.
         His physical form was remade by Kazuya, gifted with tougher muscles and bones, so that he can survive a little longer than any common mortal in the death-web's tightening embrace. It is an irony she has no time to appreciate.
         The massacre of Sanctuary has begun. Kazuya is a murderer; Lee is his accomplice. Jun cannot allow her feelings to interfere with what she must do.



         Reptile painfully turned on his stomach.
         This was not the first time these ape-mortals had tried to kill him by piercing his body where an ape-mortal's heart would be. He was badly wounded, and his breath came in shallow gasps, but he was not dead. The mutants in the shrine gleefully desecrated its sacred altar, ignoring him.
         Master Kazuya! Help your servant! he silently called, but the telepathic plea went unanswered. Kazuya had other things on his mind.
         Reptile dragged himself closer to the shrine's open door, inch by long, slow, agonizing inch. When he could finally see through it, his jaw went slack, and his elongated tongue spilled out.
         He had begged Kazuya to let him kill the demon. He had known it was a threat, and a potential reagent, but he had never guessed, never dreamed what a powerful reagent it was! It crouched on one knee, head down, one forearm pressed beneath its ribcage. That witch Jun was holding its hand, even as she stood, no, hovered several centimeters above the ground. Her eyes, once ginger, had become incandescent orbs of crackling energy. Brilliant white Power engulfed the witch and her familiar in a shining star.
         The star went nova.
         Reptile had trained in sorcery for five hundred years, so that he alone managed to partly shield himself from the deluge that immobilized every mutant, every Centaurian, rendering them weak as newborn infants. That was only the beginning of their doom. Reptile knew what would happen next, and that his only hope was to flee - he could not harm that beacon of raw Power, could scarcely keep his eyes open in its presence. Neither could he return to Kazuya empty-handed. He had to salvage something to appease the master sorcerer, or else the Race would never live again!
         Jun spoke. It was her voice, and yet not her voice, that impressed itself upon every mortal mind with supernatural clarity.
         *Kazuya Mishima.*
         The saurian shape-shifted into the image of the Chosen One Kung Lao.
         *Lee Chaolan.*
         Consciously blacking out the pain of his injury, Reptile-Lao used his stolen Power to teleport inside the Temple of Light.
         *Legions of Outworld.*
         Captain Bruce Irvin was there, as overcome with debility as the rest of Kazuya's army. His steed had fallen apart into an inert scattering of dry bones. There was also a gravely wounded monk, with an old man tending to him. The old man whispered soothing words of the sorcery to heal; a soft indigo glow enveloped his patient.
         *Pulse of my blood commands you. Breath of my soul commands you.*
         Reptile-Lao seized Bruce's hand.
         *In name of the Mother Realm, I command you!*
         Struggling to stay cognizant, Reptile-Lao dragged Bruce through a twist in space.
         *BEGONE TO THE BLACK ABYSS!*
         There came a terrible rushing noise, a few smothered cries from those monsters who thought to scream, and Kazuya's psychic shriek of frustration cut above them all. Then it was over.
         The invasion had lasted less than four minutes.



         Jun's eyes closed. Whatever preternatural force had suspended her in midair faded. The last few strands of the death-web evaporated in time for Lei to catch her on the way down.
         Sitting with his legs folded underneath him, he held her as he had once carried her across the wastelands: one arm supporting her shoulders and head, the other underneath her inner knees. Her breathing was shallow, yet steady. She slept peacefully, without any expression on her features.


         No one will ever want you!


         He could no longer put face or voice to the shared memory, but the words stayed in his mind as they had stayed in hers, all these years.
         "You don't really believe that, do you?" he murmured. "You're even more beautiful on the inside than you are on the outside."
         "You should tell her that when she wakes up," Kung Lao suggested.
         Lei blinked and looked up at the battered, bedraggled monk.
         Muddy brown mutant blood soaked his razor-brimmed hat. His vest was torn, his shoulder streaked with red, and he favored his left leg. Seung Mina helped him stand. A bloodstained bandage was wrapped around her head.
         Lei's mahogany eyes closed. Trickles of dampness formed in their corners. He shook his head and looked back down on Jun's serene face.
         "You saved us, you know," the monk continued. "Both of you - it was both of you, wasn't it? They outnumbered us in droves, and they were teleporting inside our ranks. Another minute, and they would have slaughtered us all."
         "Bright light come. Miss Kazama say things. Poof! Monsters gone. What you do?" asked Seung Mina.
         "She unmade them," Lei answered.
         "Monsters all dead?"
         "Almost all. That Reptile escaped with Bruce Irvin. Kazuya is still alive. I'd know if he weren't."
         Lei's voice flattened into a hard, unyielding timbre. "It's not over. He still knows where we are, and so does the Shao Kahn. We have to do something, or they'll keep attacking until they destroy us."
         "So? More monsters come, you make them go poof again, yes?"
         "No."
         "'No'? Why no?"
         Another pair of shuffling footsteps distracted Lei's attention. He squinted up at Raven and Thunderbolt. Their demeanor toward him was regretful, even humble. Nightwolf must have told them the truth about Chief Thunder's murder.
         "We were wrong about you," Raven admitted, somberly.
         "Please forgive us," Thunderbolt appealed.
         Lei mumbled, "Whatever," and let his head fall.
         "You have just worked a great miracle. You need sleep."
         "Not tired."
         "Sleep," impelled the young brave. He did not have to expend his Talent. The power of suggestion was enough to render Lei unconscious.



         Lee was the first to recover, perhaps because hadn't been in the direct path of - whatever that was. He gazed down on Kazuya's semiconscious form, and drew a dagger from his boot. He rested its tip on the master sorcerer's neck.
         Now. Lee could kill him now.
         It would result in Lee's death as well, and the destruction of so much more. But he would have his revenge. This was his chance.
         The best chance he'd ever have...
         Why am I hesitating? the silver-haired devil asked of himself. It can't be because he's helpless; I've murdered before. It can't be because of what will happen to me; my life lost any meaning a long time ago. And it definitely can't be because I give a damn about the consequences.
         Lee's hand quivered slightly as he raised the dagger above Kazuya's vulnerable throat. The silver-haired devil gritted his teeth. He plunged the knife down-
         -and its blade clattered against the metal floor.
         I can't kill you, Lee sadly realized, because you are the closest thing I have to a brother.
         "Aah..." Kazuya moaned. He started twitching, as if reacting to a nightmare. "Ahrgck... aaAAARGH!" He awoke thrashing, and lashed out in a blur of motion. Lee's head snapped back from the impact.
         "Get away get away GET OUT!" the master sorcerer shrieked, though it was unclear whether he addressed Lee or some other, more private devil.
         Lee's stomach churned with acidic bile. His fear had come back. For one, brief moment, he had been completely free of the terror that crippled him in Kazuya's shadow; now it was back in all its revulsive cowardice.
         In fit of cynical self-disgust, he wondered whether he should have taken the opportunity to annihilate everything while he had it. Gods knew he would never get another.


End of Chapter 15: Invasion