written by Victar, e-mail
Victar's Archive:

Chapter 16: Mourning

    Was it for naught I bled for thee,
    Defying omnipotent powers?
    The blood was mine; the battle, thine
    To smother in bright-blooming flowers

         -S. K. Z. Brust, Teckla

         I weep for the dead.
         My tears are the rain. They fall from the sky in a steady stream, extinguishing fires, disinfecting wounds, and cleansing Sanctuary.
         Ten thousand monsters of evil overran these sacred lands, and would have made them the tomb of my Chosen Ones, if not for two special mortals Chosen by the Angel herself. Jun Kazama tapped into the Power of the holy ground to momentarily become the Angel's avatar, and eradicate the invaders from the realm of the living. Yet Kazama could not have invoked the Angel's supreme authority without the aid of her sorcerous reagent, Lei Wulong.
         At last I know why I sacrificed my godhood to save him.
         I am Raiden, now but a mortal of Thunder. When I look down upon the ransacked bastion of my Chosen Ones, I know that I should be thankful. A catastrophe that could have massacred thousands of innocent people was reduced to a skirmish that cost the lives of less than a hundred. For each body that the people of Sanctuary lay to rest, there are over one hundred black smears staining the torn grass and dirt; such are the only physical remains of the slain army. These, too, are washed away in the rain of my tears.
         *Why do you weep?*
         The Angel has arrived, without my noticing her approach. I should not be surprised by that. She comes unexpected to the vast majority of mortals, and I presume the remainder would as soon not know when and where they are destined to meet her.
         Slowly, carefully, I explain.
         "I am in mourning because there has been suffering and death. And because I need not divine wisdom to know that more is to come."
         *Yes,* she agrees, thoughtfully gazing down upon her Chosen. *Isn't it lovely?*

         Lei opened his eyes.
         There was something very different about waking up. Awareness came to him as a buoyant progression, instead of an unpleasant jolt. He felt oddly... refreshed.
         There were other things, too. Or rather, a lack of them. He didn't have the aching headache, inflamed mouth, and agonizing hypersensitivity of a hangover. He hadn't screamed himself awake from a violent nightmare, his heart pounding and his skin drenched with sweat.
         Lei resolved not to get used to it, just yet.
         He didn't recognize the room. It certainly wasn't the barracks; the quarters were too spacious, and the bed was too soft. There was even an adjacent shower. Lei was mildly gratified to find that it worked, and indulged in washing off four days' worth of accumulated grime.
         Clean clothes had been set out for him. It was his favorite type of outfit - an azure, long-sleeved fighting coat with a wide black sash, dark slacks gathered at the ankles, and simple, flat-soled black shoes. Had Kung Lao arranged this? Or Jun? It was the same type of garb he'd worn during his stay in the Temple of Light, and to the Iron Fist Tournament.
         He dressed himself at leisure, noting that his textile armor had also been returned, along with his shades, kelly-green hair binder, 9mm automatic, and miscellaneous cards, coins, and silk scarves. As a final touch, he rolled up the white inner lining of his sleeve cuffs to better free his hands.
         Lei stepped out the door to the guest bedroom. Nightwolf was waiting for him on the other side.
         "Sleep well?" the shaman asked.
         "Eh... yes?"
         "Eh, no. Not that I remember."
         "Good. And thank you."
         "Who, me?"
         "You, and Jun Kazama. The two of you rescued us all from death."
         "Oh, that."
         "I have begun reprogramming the wards. They will act to stun you and cage you, in the event that your curse should manifest within Sanctuary. You no longer need to be guarded."
         "Uh, okay, that's nice. How's the kid doing?"
         "If you refer to Jun, she awoke and departed some time ago. I believe she did wish to speak with you, once you were fully rested. You may find her in Officer Fujioka's former quarters."
         Nightwolf gave Lei directions.
         "For now, I must attend to other matters in Sanctuary, and finish my work on the wards. We will speak again, at a later time. You have sought my help in removing your curse, and I owe you any assistance I can provide."
         Lei thanked him and set out from the guest house. On the way, he passed by the church-turned-hospital that had become the center of a battlefield.
         Newly dug graves surrounded it.
         Some two-thirds of the burial plots had feathers, colorful decorations, or offerings of food and drink resting on their mounds of upturned earth. The remaining third were marked with jutting M16 rifles, their bayonets stuck into the ground. Mottled camouflage hats and helmets were slung over the weapons' stocks.
         Following a stray thought, Lei took a detour past the sacred shrine.
         He came across Takeshi Fujioka's kusari-gama, marking where the officer had fallen. The weapon's chain was wrapped around a short pole, embedded in the earth. A moderate breeze rustled the dangling sickle-blades, causing them to make slight clink sounds.
         Lei resumed his course, and soon reached his destination. The door was open; he knocked gently on it, and stepped inside.
         Jun had crafted a humble memorial.
         It consisted of a plain wooden shelf, with a few objects scattered upon it. Twisting trails of aromatic smoke wafted from twin sticks of burning incense. A central stone had Takeshi's name painted down its vertical length in delicate, flowing brush strokes. There was also a small portrait, in a modest paper frame. Jun kneeled before the memorial, her head bowed and hands clasped in silent prayer.
         Lei nervously cleared his throat.
         "Eh... I hope I'm not intruding. Nightwolf said I could find you here."
         "Ii desu," she quietly answered. Lei wasn't completely sure what that meant, but it didn't sound antagonistic. Unsure of what to do next, he eased into a kneeling posture next to her.
         Was she crying?
         No, not right this moment, but there were dried tear-trails on her face. Her huddled shoulders bore a heavy weight of sorrow.
         "Um... how are you holding up?"
         "Are you okay, ki- eh, I mean, Jun?"
         She shook her head.
         "Want to talk about it?"
         At first she did not respond. Then her head sank lower still, and her hands fell flat and listless on the floor.
         "I killed ten thousand people," she shuddered, in a plaintive whisper.
         "Uh, you mean the mutants and Centaurians?"
         "No. People.
         "Lei, I saw it all. For one tiny instant, I could feel everyone and everything in Sanctuary - thoughts, life-force, knowledge. It was like I was a part of it all, or maybe it all was a part of me. Most of it is gone, now, but I keep a few impressions. I remember what they were like.
         "They're from a horribly desolate place. They are born to, live, and die by violence. The Shao Kahn has poisoned their world, so that the only way to survive is by killing others for his entertainment. They suffer for his pleasure. They've never known anything but hatred and death. It's not their fault."
         "It's not yours, either."
         "I... I know they would have killed us, and that we have to stay alive to have any hope of stopping the Shao Kahn, but..."
         "Tell you what. If it makes you feel any better, you can blame me. Okay?"
         "No. Not okay. You already blame yourself for too much. It hurts you. I felt it."
         "Eh, then maybe you'd better not follow my example. How's that?"
         She lifted her face, and looked to Takeshi's picture for a long time. "You hold yourself responsible for what happened to him."
         "I am responsible."
         "Chigaimasu," she denied, with a single shake of her head.
         "He died saving my life, dammit."
         "From his point of view, you died to save his. Fujioka-san never liked to leave his debts unpaid."
         "Um. Did you, eh, know him very well?"
         "I'm not sure anymore, but he was a good friend. Why do you ask?"
         "Eh, well, I never really knew him at all. He despised me, and had plenty of reason to. But when I was in desperate trouble, he helped me out. I mean, at the time my friends and I came to the I.C.P.O. for help, we had absolutely no incriminating evidence on Kazuya at all. Fujioka agreed to help us on his own time; it wasn't even part of his regular job. I never asked him why. Didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, or whatever."
         "He probably felt it was his duty, or his specialty. He'd brought down a corrupt fighting tournament once before."
         "Yes. And he had a very strict personal code; he wouldn't ever compromise it for anything.
         "When he first came to Sanctuary, I didn't get along with him. Even though we're from the same country. Lei... you know I'm mixed blood. Part Ainu, part Korean, and part Japanese. His blood was purely Japanese. Police like him put my fingerprints in a book, treated me like a criminal, only because of my heritage.
         "I got into an argument with him about that. Do you know what he told me?
         "He agreed that it was prejudiced to single out a minority that way. But he didn't think the practice should be abandoned. He thought it should be expanded, so that everyone in Japan was fingerprinted. His belief was so strong that he requested the same be done to him. For two days and two nights, he stood motionless outside his superior officer's door in silent, respectful protest. They finally booked him for insubordination, and in the process they recorded his fingerprints like he wanted.
         "I think his former department sent him to the I.C.P.O. not just because he was highly qualified, but also because they didn't know what else to do with him."
         Lei was considering this, when a frosty draft of air raised goose bumps on the back of his neck. The cop glanced over his shoulder and saw Sub-Zero.
         "Aha! There you are, Wulong," the scientist confirmed, with a satisfied nod. "I've been looking all over for you."
         "Just a minute, all right?" Lowering his voice, Lei said to Jun, "Guess I'd better step outside and see what he wants. I'd better, but I'm not going to unless I know you'll be okay. Will you?"
         "I know what he wants. I promised him I'd talk you into doing it. He seemed to think I could talk you into anything."
         "Did he. Did he really."
         "If I asked you to jump off a cliff, would you?"
         "With or without a bungee cord?" An amiable half-smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
         The faintest trace of amusement sparkled in her ginger eyes. "Go ahead. There's something I have to arrange. I'll tell you about it in the hospital, after he lets you go."
         Lei departed the room, closed its door, and confronted Sub-Zero in the hall. "All right, Rollins. What do you want?"
         "You're not my type."
         "Very unbelievably funny. You can be reasonable about this, or I can freeze you in a block of ice. There is a host of scientific tests I must run on you, preferably while you are still alive."
         "Oh. That's the favor you demanded in exchange for helping us with our trial? I go back to being your guinea pig?"
         "Yes. And I need to gather the primary data before either of us gets called on a suicide mission."
         "What are you blathering about?"
         "Jax and Raven have scheduled a war council with the rest of us Chosen, the Council of Elders, and that rescued prophet who's supposed to know how we can save the world. I can tell you right now that their master plan is going to hinge on a suicide mission. Take my word on it."
         "Uh-huh. Well, all right, you can stick me under a microscope or whatever. I'm not going to let you set off my curse, though. Some things are too dangerous to mess with."
         "As you wish."
         "Say, as long as you'll be puttering around in that lab of yours, there's something I could use your help on. Do you think you could get me a prescription for Antabuse?"
         "It's a drug that makes you throw up if you drink even a swallow of-"
         "I know what disulfiram is. I thought you refused to ingest medication of any kind."
         "Well, I'm getting desperate. The last time I went on a drinking binge, I got beaten up pretty bad, and I hurt the kid's feelings even worse. It'd be nice to have a sort of safeguard against that happening again."
         "You do realize, of course, that disulfiram will not reduce your physiological or psychological desires to drink. It will only make you violently ill if you do."
         "Good enough."
         "Hm. Your body chemistry is unusual enough that I'd have to take extra care with the dosage. I'll want to watch you for side effects. You'll have to wear a medical monitor at all times. But first, I must run the tests," Sub-Zero resolved, briskly leading the way to his lab. Lei fell into step by his side. "I'll try not to keep you past the evening. No promises, though. I need to complete a more involved analysis of your circulatory system, lymphatic system, nervous system, endocrine system, musculoskeletal system, digestive system, reproductive-"
         "Whoa, there. I said you weren't my type and I meant it."

         "YOU HAVE FAILED ME."
         Kazuya did not know which thing he hated more - the Shao Kahn's scathing indictment, or the amused tone that delivered it. Looking into a mirror that doubled as a window to other realms, the master sorcerer met his ally's contemptuous sneer with a cold glare of raw determination.
         "It is not concluded, as well you know," Kazuya hissed. "I have succeeded where all your servants have faltered. I have located Sanctuary. We know where the Chosen Ones are."
         "Wulong has no place in this discussion! We both know that Kazama cannot rescue the Chosen a second time, and that they cannot remain huddled within their minuscule haven indefinitely. It is only a matter of time before I regain entrance. I request another division of your troops to destroy them."
         "I do not forfeit so long as there is breath in my body!"
         "On what, precisely, do you base this premise?"
         The Shao Kahn's only answer was a rumbling chuckle, which escalated into booming laughter. His malevolent presence receded deep into the mirror, until the master sorcerer was alone inside his inner sanctum.
         Kazuya paced in circles. He tried to conjure visions of Sanctuary in his mirrors, but all he could see were meaningless scrambled blurs, and all he could hear was white noise. Reptile had fled the Chosen Ones' last bastion, and without his presence as a beacon and willing reagent, Kazuya could not see through the cloaking wards.
         The master sorcerer's lips briefly parted in an ill-tempered grimace. He regained his stolid composure with an act of will. A wave of his hand summoned the portal to his carpeted antechamber. He stepped through.
         Reptile and Bruce Irvin were waiting for him.
         Reptile kneeled underneath the heavy chains that bound his legs together, and shackled his arms behind him. A golden collar engraved with mystic runes encircled his neck; this artifact disabled his sorcery, including the Power to shape-shift. No such restraints held Bruce, who kneeled solely out of deference. Ishida and Kimura kept careful watch over them both. Lee stayed behind and a little to the side of the quartet, letting the dark room's shadows partially conceal the terror that wracked him in Kazuya's presence.
         The master sorcerer's jet black eyes came to rest on Reptile.
         "You have failed me," Kazuya stated.
         The saurian's cloudy third eyelids closed part-way over his slit-pupiled eyes, perhaps indicating the same as narrowed eyes suggest of a human.
         "Nay, I have ssserved thee well. Every deed thou didssst wisssh, I have performed. Thou wissshed me to infiltrate Sssanctuary, and it isss done. Thou wissshed me to ssslay Chief Thunder and affixsss blame to Wulong, and it isss done. Thou wissshed me to invite thy army within Sssanctuary, and it isss done. I counssseled, nay, begged thy permisssion to ssslay the demon reagent Wulong; if thou hadssst but lissstened-"
         A flick of Kazuya's finger brought immediate violence.
         Ishida and Kimura drew long metal rods, and savagely beat Reptile about the back and neck. The saurian's eyes bulged from pain and shock. A final blow from Kimura made him sprawl on his belly.
         Kazuya performed an elegant chopping motion with one hand, and the beating ended. Reptile exhaled a cross between a groan and a hiss.
         "I shall accept no excuses," declared the master sorcerer. "Be grateful that I am willing to spare your life. You have created netherworldly devices to carry my servants, and to pierce the Chosen Ones' cloaking sorcery. I require more of these, as many as you can manufacture."
         "Wilt thou honor thy bargain?" the saurian weakly returned.
         "To what, precisely, do you refer?"
         "The Rassce isss dead. Thou mussst recall them from the Grey Kingdom; that isss why I have ssserved thee!"
         "At no time have I made you such a promise, even by implication. The Shao Kahn has temporarily granted me your services for the purpose of destroying Sanctuary and its Chosen Ones. That is all. If you expect something in exchange, you must discuss the matter with him."
         "But the Ssshao Kahn pledged that thou wouldssst work the deed in hisss name! Thou art hisss ally of equal ssstanding; thou doessst partake of hisss Power. Thou mussst posssesss the ability! Ressstore mine kindred to Life, I beg thee! I ssshall create a thousssand thousssand weaponsss for thy war, if the Rassce may live again. If a few of the Rassce may live. If a sssingle mate may live!
         Kazuya folded his arms. His thick eyebrows hovered flat above his jet black eyes.
         Reptile's third eyelids retreated, as the callous truth became clear. "Canssst not thou do it? Doessst thou not know how? Doessst thou lack the Power to fuel sssuch necromansscy...?" He bared his needle-sharp teeth. "The Chosssen Onesss ssspoke truly! Thou and thine hath DESSCEIVED me!"
         "Watch your tongue."
         "The sssame to THEE!"
         With that spiteful uttering, Reptile stretched wide his jaws. His pink tongue shot out like a frog's, save that bony spikes protruded from its tip. The deadly member stretched toward Kazuya's throat, but before it could touch his jugular, the master sorcerer reacted with superhuman speed. He brought his left arm up, elbow bent so that the forearm was at a forty-five degree angle to the ground, and stepped back in a guard position.
         Reptile's tongue wrapped around Kazuya's arm. Its bone-shards tore the sleeve of his dress suit, and scored red rivulets in his flesh. Acidic drool sizzled on his skin.
         Ishida and Kimura sprang to action, cracking their metal rods soundly upon the saurian's skull. At the same time, the master sorcerer twisted his guard hand and summoned electrical crackles of indigo Ki to his fist. Reptile's vinegar saliva conducted the shock; his mouth and tongue went rigid, then slack, and he slumped to the floor underneath Ishida's and Kimura's clubs.
         The deep green scales of Reptile's head turned the color of dying grass, below the bodyguards' relentless assault. Reddish-viridescent blood trickled from the corners of his mouth.
         "W-wait," Lee hesitantly stammered. "What about Alex? Maybe he'll help us in return for her freedom."
         Kazuya repeated the chopping motion. Ishida and Kimura withdrew. Reptile lay where he was, eyes closed, tongue spilling out. Small droplets of crimson fluid dripped from Kazuya's left arm, pooling on the patterned carpet.
         "'Alex'?" the master sorcerer repeated.
         "Sh-she's an oddity the syndicate captured while it was smuggling Australian wildlife. An intelligent lizard, kind of like him."
         "Why have I not been previously informed of this Alex?"
         "I-I'm sorry, Mishima-sama. Y-you said you didn't want me to bother you with the details of our smuggling-"
         "That shall do," seethed the master sorcerer. "Very well. You may attempt your tactic to gain this animal's cooperation. Once you have fully exploited the whole of his talents, kill him."
         "Yes, Mishima-sama."
         Kazuya made a dismissive motion with his right hand. Ishida and Kimura carried the battered Reptile out of the antechamber.
         The master sorcerer transferred his attention to Bruce.
         "You have also failed me."
         "Yeah, I know," the kickboxer answered. "Whatever you gotta dish out, I'm here to eat it."
         "You seem resigned."
         "Well man, you saved my life. It's yours to take back whenever you gotta."
         The master sorcerer's eyebrows arched. "Go. I shall contemplate what to do with you."
         Bruce silently obeyed.
         Kazuya said to Lee, "How many employees does the syndicate currently have?"
         "A-about five hundred."
         "How many of those know how to fight?"
         "Maybe half."
         "That is far from sufficient."
         "B-but weren't you going to get more soldiers from the Shao Kahn?"
         Lee flinched from his brother's pernicious glare.
         Then Kazuya's shoulders fell just a trifle slack, and he pressed his bleeding forearm tightly against his abdomen, directly below the ribs. A bare hint of exhaustion showed through his jet black eyes. For one, fleeting moment in time, he wasn't a master sorcerer, a tyrannical overlord, or a murderous Devil. He was just weary.
         "Shikata ga arimasen," Kazuya sighed, with a rueful shake of his head. "I had intended to hold them in reserve, but it seems we have no choice. Reactivate the Jack-2 production line, and prepare it for combat. Station them around the syndicate's perimeter, with active search-and-destroy routines. Ready the syndicate's human soldiers, and give Commander Baek authority over them. Have the commander's cloak-piercing device maintain a continual lookout."
         "Are we going to be attacked?"
         "You presume correctly. I have it on sound authority that the Chosen Ones are coming, and if they do not bring an army with them, then they are even greater fools than they pretend to be. Report to me tomorrow at this time, for further instructions."
         "Yes, Mishima-sama."
         "And send someone to clean the blood off my carpet."

         Jun swept the hospital floor, waiting. She had already visited the injured, using her healing Talent to speed recovery and alleviate pain. There weren't that many patients; it had been over a full day since the attack on Sanctuary, and by now most of the wounded were either healed or buried. She spared a glance at the insulated door to Sub-Zero's icy laboratory. Just as she looked away, a distant, muffled crash of breaking glass sounded from its direction.
         Jun set the broom against the wall and took a hesitant step toward the door. Touching its cool surface, she could hear and feel indistinct mumbles, broken by a sharp-voiced shout.
         "Kazuya did WHAT to me!?"
         "...only a hypothesis; to confirm it, I'd have to compare these findings with..."
         The rapid, staccato beat of ascending footsteps interrupted Sub-Zero's low-pitched droning. Jun hastily took up the broom again, and pretended to be sweeping when Lei flung open the door. At first he winced from the light; then, with shaking hands, he slipped on his shades. His agitation lessened a little.
         Jun noticed a metal band with a small digital screen around his right wrist. She recognized it as a medical monitor.
         The scientist's tranquil voice sounded from the rimed stairway. "Thank you for your cooperation; if there is ever anything I can do for you-"
         Lei shut the door with a violent SLAM and leaned against it, tucking his folded arms beneath his ribs. His head fell forward. His sable hair only partly obscured the abhorrence and revulsion on his face.
         "Um..." Jun nervously bit her lip. "Are you all right?"
         "Me? Oh, sure. I'm fine. Better than ever, you could say." An irate twist of sarcasm flavored his words.
         "'Better than-'?"
         "Don't ask. Look, whatever you wanted to talk about, can it wait? I need to go to the Temple of Light, beat someone up, and call it 'teaching.'"
         "Okay, I'll go with you. You can teach me."
         "Huh? No, wait, I didn't mean-"
         "When you faced me in the Iron Fist Tournament, you threw our fight. You owe me a fair rematch."
         "Eh, but, that is-"
         "Don't pretend that your curse is still a threat. Nightwolf told me about how he improved the wards."
         "Well, I-"
         "I'm not letting you out of this, you know."
         "Uh... you're not?"
         "I might even be able to teach you a few things. For example, I think you do have enough Talent to learn a basic light spell. And haven't you mentioned something about traveling the world to incorporate new techniques into your Phoenix style? Have you ever studied Aiki Ju Jitsu before?"
         "All right, all right. As long as I've got a bungee cord."
         "Never mind. Let's go."

         Major Jackson Briggs surveyed the private room that he had selected for the war council. Six other Chosen Ones lounged on one side; Raven and the Council of Elders were on the other. In the center, Wang Jinrey waited patiently, hands together so that the sleeves of his loose shirt touched the circumference of one another.
         Wait. Only six other Chosen Ones?
         Jax performed a quick tally: Liu Kang, healed from his brush with death; Kung Lao, having dry-cleaned his hat; Sonya, with skin grafts along the length of her burned right arm; Stryker, absently flipping his baton; Kabal, restlessly fidgeting with the belt to his respirator; and Nightwolf, bearing a stern and somber frown on his face.
         "Where the hell is Sub-Zero?" Jax demanded.
         "I'll get him," Kung Lao offered. He teleported out in a blip of distorted space, and reappeared pulling the scientist by his hand.
         "But I was just beginning to collate my data," Sub-Zero protested. A venomous stare from Sonya quieted him.
         "Nightwolf, did you fix Sanctuary's wards?" Jax asked, folding his bionic arms.
         "With Kung Lao's aid as a test subject, I have reprogrammed them. They will now identify and monitor shape-shifters, by continually observing the consciousness patterns of all living beings in Sanctuary and matching them against-"
         "Skip the details. Bottom line: can Kazuya spy on us?"
         "He almost certainly cannot."
         "Once, I was completely certain. My entrenched perspective brought about the death of my Chief." The shaman's head drooped. His long black hair spilled freely over the sides of his face, for he had vowed not to don his feathered headband until Chief Thunder's murder was avenged. "However, I did speak to Wulong this morning; he reported that his sleep was sound and without dreams."
         "What do his dreams have to do with anything?"
         "Kazuya has been sending him nightmares-of-past-memory for the past six months. In order to deliver such visions, he must necessarily be able to focus upon their recipient. That he failed to send a nightmare is evidence, albeit not proof, that he cannot reach us."
         "As an additional precaution, I am concealing us with my own cloaking spell," Liu Kang interjected. "We cannot incorporate any more people, though, lest I be pushed past my limit."
         "That'll have to be good enough," Jax concluded. "Ladies and gentlemen, I've gathered you all here so that our guest only has to tell his story once. Mr. Wang, it's time. Spill it. How do we save the world?"
         Wang bowed his head a slight degree.
         "As you know, the Shao Kahn's legions dominate the entire globe, and their combined total outnumbers us countless thousands to one. We can neither turn back the invaders nor lift the Kahn's curse with brute force. Our one hope is to banish the Shao Kahn to the Black Abyss from whence his Entropy came, before he solidifies his grasp on our world. That is, before he can claim a soul of pure and noble intent. Where the Kahn goes, his legions must follow.
         "The only way to banish the Kahn is by rite of combat; a new Tournament must be held. Since the Kahn is in control of this world, the burden of extending the challenge lies on our shoulders. He will be compelled to respond, but first the challenge must be delivered.
         "There are two ways to serve a valid challenge. First, a challenge may be communicated face-to-face, in the physical flesh. Since the Kahn is in hiding, we cannot reach him that way. That leaves us one other means: we must break the power of his ally. To defeat the Kahn's ally is to challenge the Kahn himself, else he and his collaborator would not be defined as 'allies.' The Shao Kahn has many slaves and servants, but upon this world he has only one ally in equal standing, and that is Kazuya Mishima."
         Wang paused.
         "That's it?" Sonya eventually asked. "All we have to do is beat the tar out of Kazuya? Where'd you learn this, anyway?"
         "Yes, yes, and as to your third question, a man of shadows told me. Major Briggs identified him as Noob Saibot."
         Her neck stiffened, and her nostrils flared. "I remember Saibot. He's one of the Shao Kahn's flunkies. How do you know he wasn't lying?"
         "He appeared very sincere, and he did help me escape."
         "That proves nothing. If anything, it makes the case stronger against him. This could easily be a trap."
         "Not necessarily," Kung Lao interposed. "The Shao Kahn suffers from the eternal ennui that inevitably plagues all immortals. He's been known to grant his enemies a so-called sporting chance, just so they're motivated to put up an entertaining struggle. That's the main reason why he's had me resurrected in the past, and you too, Sonya. Noob Saibot could have helped us on the Kahn's orders, in hope of staging a good spectacle."
         "I still say it smells like a trap."
         "The Shao Kahn doesn't have to trap us," Jax pointed out. "All he needs to do is stall us until he collects every soul in the world, or one soul of pure and noble intent, and that'll be the end. And it does sound right; the whole purpose behind Shao Kahn's previous Tournaments was to gain control of our world through 'rite of combat.' I think it's time we made this 'rite of combat' work for us, unless you have a better idea."
         "Hell, no. I wish I did."
         "Next question is, how do we 'break' Kazuya's power?"
         "That, the Order of Light can tell you," Liu Kang quietly answered. "Kazuya is a soul-stealing necromancer. Only two things may break such a necromancer's power: death, or defeat in honorable single combat. Either of these will free the souls he has imprisoned, and which form the base of his strength."
         Wang nodded. "What I have said about the Kahn also applies to Kazuya: he cannot refuse a challenge to single combat, but first the challenge must be made in physical person."
         "Screw that," Sonya rebuffed. "I say we kill the bastard."
         "No, you must not!" the old man urged, pushing both hands palm out in an earnest gesture of warning. "Murder is not the answer."
         "Did Saibot tell you that?"
         "No, but it is something that you Chosen Ones, of all people, should understand."
         "Our platoon just buried twenty-seven good soldiers, including Sal, who once took a bullet Kano meant for me. The Nation here lost another sixty-eight warriors and innocent citizens. And all you can say is 'you should understand'? 'Murder is not the answer'? What do you think THEY'RE doing to US!?"
         "If you follow in the footsteps of your enemy, you shall become him, and I foresee great doom upon your souls."
         "Oh, yeah? I foresee a fucking Apocalypse if we don't take our enemies down fast and hard! Wait, that already happened, didn't it? You don't have a moral leg to stand on, you sermonizing-"
         "Lieutenant," Jax sharply corrected, and Sonya fell silent.
         Jax quickly glanced around the room. Stryker and Kabal were nodding, in agreement with Sonya. Nightwolf showed no change in expression. Sub-Zero just looked bored. Liu Kang and Kung Lao shook their heads.
         The major turned to Raven and the Council of Elders, who were deep in pensive consideration. "You've been pretty quiet, so far. What do you make of this?"
         Raven exchanged a brief, low-pitched inquiry with one of the Council.
         She faced Jax and questioned, "You have risked your life rescuing this prisoner who can see into the future, and now you would choose to ignore his prophecy? No. The wise do not turn deaf ears to those touched by the gods. By all means, let us crush this necromancer in single combat, capture him alive, and put him on trial for his crimes.
         "Then we will kill him," she resolved, cold vengeance soaking through her voice. "Slowly. Painfully."
         The major thought it over. Personally, he would rather kill Kazuya and be done with it; that would leave much less room for error. On the other hand, Jax could ill afford to alienate either the Nation or the Order of Light.
         "How's this sound: one of us will challenge Kazuya to single combat. If that person fails, the rest of us will have to settle for killing Kazuya any way we can."
         "In that case, I should be the one to challenge him," Liu Kang declared, "so that there will be no doubt of the outcome."
         "Do not grow overconfident," Wang reprimanded.
         "I am grand champion of the Order of Light. I won Shang Tsung's Tournament. Kung Lao had to shape-shift into my body to win the Shao Kahn's Tournament. If I cannot best Kazuya, no one can."
         "You should still beware. Kazuya is a shape-changer, master sorcerer, and well-trained in Mishima-style karate. He will not be easy to defeat. Simply reaching him to make the challenge will be a struggle. He is currently entrenched in his syndicate, which has numerous defenses. Even if you win past those, know that he has a terrible Power.
         "I once promised Kazuya's grandfather that I would never let the house Mishima fall to dishonor. When I learned of the evil Kazuya had wrought, I confronted him. We battled. In the midst of our struggle, he bound me in a sorcerous web that strangled my breath. When I awoke in his prison, he had his underlings pluck out my eyes."
         "Jun Kazama has told us of his death-web. It cannot be as strong as you fear, else he would have used it to assassinate me by now. Perhaps Kazuya can smother one small mortal, but I am a were-dragon. Let him try to bind the jaws and coils of my dragon form. Let him try to stifle my fiery breath. Just let him try."
         Nightwolf added, "Kazuya's death-web can target only one person at a time, and it demands a massive amount of Power. It could take him days to recover the strength he spent attempting to bind Jun. He would not be able to cast the death-web at all save for the necromantic grid he has woven into his syndicate. All who perish there - and many brave people have done so - lose their souls to his snare. It fuels his speed, strength, endurance, and Power well beyond mortal limits."
         "Is there any way we can short out this grid?" Jax pressed.
         "If we were to take possession of even a piece of his syndicate, it would reduce his hold over the enslaved souls - not enough to break his power, but definitely enough to weaken him, and presumably enough to disable his death-web. He has lost his army of mutants and Centaurians to his failed invasion; the question is, how soon will he replenish his forces, and with what?"
         "The faster we move, the less time he'll have to regroup."
         "Qué diferencia hace?" Kabal retorted. "All we need to do is take Jun y su diablo with us. Ellos pueden destruir al sindicato-" He made a cutting motion across his throat. "-just like they killed the invaders."
         "Brilliant idea," Sonya snorted. "Why don't we drop an A-bomb while we're at it?"
         "Qué es tu problema?"
         "You really think it's gonna be that easy?" Stryker snapped. "And I'm Little Miss Muffet!"
         "My turn to answer," said Kung Lao. "Jun used the Power of Unmaking. It's not a force mortals are meant to have. Not many have the potential, and fewer still ever dare to do it. The Power of Unmaking comes at a price, levied sometime in the future, that can be paid only once. The exact nature of the price varies with the extent of the Power, and maybe other things too. I've never heard of anyone Unmaking as many as ten thousand living creatures before. Jun has mortgaged something costly to repay her miracle; whatever it is, she doesn't have the rights to it anymore. If she tried the Power of Unmaking again, she would fail, and the effort would kill her."
         "Told you it wasn't gonna be that easy," Stryker muttered.
         "I trust Liu Kang's and Kung Lao's ability to gauge a person's Talent," Jax continued. "They tell me that no one else in Sanctuary can duplicate what Kazama did, and that Kazama could not have saved us without Wulong's help as a deceptively powerful reagent. The good news is that Wulong can magnify the strength of our other spells."
         "Provided that the mage who joins forces with him is prepared to suffer," Liu Kang returned. "To fuse one's Talent with Wulong's potential is to feel what it is like not to have a soul. It is difficult enough to stay sane during such torture, let alone work complex sorcery."
         "Could you?"
         "Probably, for at least a little while. I pray this is a hypothetical inquiry."
         "Looks like we have enough to make a plan. It starts like this: we march on Kazuya's syndicate with every soldier our platoon can muster, and take it away from him. Raven, will the Nation's warriors march with us?"
         "Do you have to ask? Need I remind you that Kazuya Mishima controlled the assassin who murdered our Chief Thunder, and the army that ravaged our home? We will join you, we will break this cowardly warlock, and we will make him pay for his crimes!"
         "You have our gratitude. Now, here's the tricky part: while our forces take over the syndicate, Liu Kang will sneak inside under the protection of his cloaking magic, find Kazuya, and challenge him to single combat."
         "You forget," Nightwolf rumbled. "Kazuya's syndicate has a device that sees through cloaking sorcery."
         "Regular strength cloaking sorcery, sure. But Liu Kang is Sanctuary's most powerful mage. If he combines his Talent with Sanctuary's most powerful reagent-"
         "No," Liu Kang interrupted, holding up one index finger in pointed denial. "Not Wulong. You cannot mean Wulong. Anyone but Wulong!"
         "I knew you'd send him on a suicide mission," Sub-Zero sighed. "You didn't have to drag me out of my lab to tell me that."

         <Wake up, please. Talk to me. You must know the True Speech!>
         The words were soft, with the undertone of a subdued growl, and punctuated with sharp clicks. Something was unfamiliar about their intonation, making them hard to recognize. Perhaps it was the urgent thread of concern that permeated them.
         Reptile's eyes opened a sliver. His vision wavered; black streaks partly obscured it. His head hurt terribly. He could taste his own blood in his mouth.
         <Where am I?> he croaked. He tried to sit up. The effort made him giddy and sick. Clawed, scaly fingers gently held him in place. His forehead felt like someone was driving a nail through it.
         <Lie still. You have been hurt. But please talk to me; who are you? I thought my tribe was the last of our kind, yet you are too old to have hatched after I was taken prisoner.>
         <Our... kind?>
         Through the blur and the haze, Reptile saw her.
         She was so much like him, and yet not the same. Her snout was longer and broader, resembling the proportions of a crocodile more than an iguana. Her forelimbs were smaller and weaker, and her hind limbs were digitigrade instead of plantigrade, with knife-sized toe claws and backward-jutting spikes on her upraised heels. He'd never seen anything quite like her mottled green-and-black coloration. And her slit-pupiled eyes were vivid yellow instead of red.
         <I am Rrreeyowwla, of the desert hunters,> she said. <These ape-mortals call me 'Alex.'> Now he understood why her inflection was so odd; her tongue was far too short, perhaps no more than quadruple the length of an ape-mortal's. Her speech had more growling than hissing.
         <I am not certain even you could pronounce my name; your tongue would have to be at least an armspan longer.> His voice was a shallow echo of its usual self. Speaking made his jaw sore, and increased the pain in his head, but he was desperate to share and learn more. <I am called 'Reptile' among those with short tongues.>
         <Where are you from?>
         <Where are you?>
         <An island so vast, it takes many moons of hard running to cross from coast to coast. We have stories that, a great many lifespans ago, it was part of a far vaster landmass, upon which the Race flourished.>
         <It can't be. You - you're from the Lost Continent!>
         <Lost no longer, for the ape-mortals have conquered most of it for their own. My tribe hides from them; they are so many, and we are so few, that we could never survive a conflict. Yet when a band of them approached, I could not flee, for I had a clutch of eggs to protect. I tried to lead them away from my nest. They stung me with a sleeping-venom, and I have been here ever since. My children must be dead, without a mother to keep them warm. I have tried and tried to escape, but their explosive sticks are always faster than I am.>
         <I am from the Mother Continent. My tribe made its home in the tropical jungle. An evil demon murdered them all, and I have served the ape-mortals who imprisoned you in the hope that they could bring my kindred back from death. I was deceived. But you - you are alive! A whole tribe of you is alive! Where are they now? Did they survive the Apocalypse?>
         <All I know is that something horrible has happened to the world. I can feel it. Whether my tribe was able to hide from it or not, I do not know.>
         Reptile's teeth locked in a remorseful clench. <The Shao Kahn's curse. It has frozen nearly everyone in green fire, and it takes their souls one by one. Only the Chosen can bring an end to the nightmare, and I have just done my best to destroy them! In my grief and madness, I have worked great destruction. If only there were some way to undo what I have done...>
         The black spots in front of his eyes were getting larger, and his head pounded so greatly he could scarcely think. Disconnected numbness settled upon him, starting with his fingers and toes, and swiftly worked its way up. <Listen to me! Not all ape-mortals are evil. A small number of them fight against the darkness that engulfs our world. You must... you must help them if you can...>
         <Are you all right? Your voice is so faint I can barely hear you.> Alex whistled anxiously. Reptile's hand was turning stiff. The already pale scales of his face drained to an even lighter shade of green.
         <Talk to me! Aren't you healing? Don't all wounds heal in the space of a sleep-cycle since the great evil came?>
         Reptile did not answer. His breathing dipped to a shallow, ragged rasp, and finally ceased.
         Alex glared angrily at the silver-haired ape-mortal who had brought Reptile to her cage. He studied her with mild curiosity. Two seemingly identical ape-mortals stood at attention behind him.
         "Get doctorrr. Now!"
         Silver-Hair removed a smoldering white stick from his mouth and exhaled murky grey clouds. "So, you do understand our language. I wondered."
         "No talk! Dying, he is! Get doctorrRREEEYOWWL!"
         Silver-Hair tilted his head, and the lines of short fur above his eyes moved so close they almost touched. "Ishida, Kimura, do as she says."

         "Is Wulong in my home?" Liu Kang's face settled in a dour mask as he approached the Temple of Light. He sounded as if he referred to a brood of cockroaches.
         "His medical monitor tracks him here. His heart rate and breathing are up, as consistent with vigorous exercise," Sub-Zero confirmed, checking the pocket computer in his hand. "Now can I go back to my lab?"
         Jax gave a terse nod and climbed the temple's steps, followed by Liu Kang and Wang Jinrey. Voices drifted from inside.
         "All right, all right, I give up! You can let me go now!" Wang smiled a little, recognizing Jun's spirited outcry.
         "Say 'please.'"
         "Why should I?"
         "Heh. You should be more polite to your elders."
         "You're my 'elder' by only four little years!"
         "Ah, but I've got the liver of a forty-year-old, you know." Wang sensed the azure-black essence of Lei Wulong's life-force pinning down the white flare of Jun Kazama's. The cop's legs ran crosswise over her neck and waist; he'd trapped her left arm in a bar, with his hands securely gripping her wrist and locking her elbow between his partially bent knees.
         "Hanashite kudasaimasen ka?" Jun resignedly pleaded.
         "Well, since you ask so nicely..." Lei released her wrist and turned a backwards somersault into a quick rise to his feet.
         "How exactly are you doing this?" she asked, rubbing her sore elbow. "You see me try a technique once, then you turn around and use it on me like you've practiced it for years."
         "Physio-eidetic memory. Sort of. It doesn't always work like I want, and eight years of heavy drinking didn't help it any. I have to concentrate a lot. Guess you're pretty easy to concentrate on." Lei winked at her, playfully.
         She smiled back, then turned her head when she noticed Liu Kang, Jax, and...
         "Uncle Wang!" she delightedly exclaimed.
         "It has been a long time, my child," the old man replied, returning her welcoming embrace.
         "Hey. How come you get to call her 'kid' and I don't?" Lei asked.
         "Age has its privileges."
         Jun clasped her hands and began, "Were you the prisoner whom Nightwolf and Jax set out to-?"
         Alarm flooded her countenance, as she became aware of his scarred face and empty eyesockets. "Masaka! Oji-san no mei ga nai! Who did this to you?"
         "Kazuya. It is a long story."
         "I'm... I'm so sorry. I wish I could restore your sight."
         "Do not feel bad. I am well, and grateful to have my freedom."
         Liu Kang cleared his throat and addressed Lei. The folds about the monk's tawny eyes crinkled with distaste. "I require your assistance to infiltrate the Mishima syndicate."
         "Do you. Do you really."
         "Unfortunately. If there were any other option, I would choose it."
         "Nightwolf is the only other mage in Sanctuary with the Power to conceal," Jax said. "But we'll need him to cover the rest of us with his projectile ward, especially if the Mishima syndicate is packing any kind of firepower." The major explained his plan, and what he needed Lei to do.
         "Hang on, I've got a score of my own to settle with Kazuya," Lei interrupted, looking fixedly at Liu Kang. "What makes you think I shouldn't be the one to challenge him?"
         "You have tried to battle Kazuya before, and failed miserably."
         "Kazuya's curse transforms you into a mindless demon when you are struck on the chest. You have not kept yourself in peak physical condition. You are an alcoholic. You-"
         "All right, all right, I get it already!"
         "So, will you serve as my reagent? Say that you refuse. Please say that you refuse."
         "Yeah, well, no matter what you tell me, I feel like doing the opposite. Count me in."
         "And me," Jun chimed in.
         "Huh? Oh, no. No. No, Jun. No," Lei stressed, shaking his head. "There is absolutely no way-"
         "What if one of you gets hurt? You'll need a healer. What if you run into a locked door? You'll need someone to unlock it. And I do know my way around the syndicate. It was my home for several years."
         "Look, this time I have an actual line of reasoning, okay?"
         Lei loosely flipped his hand, producing a deck of playing cards in a flash of azure light. He mixed them up in a Hindu shuffle, removing the lower bulk of the cards with his left hand, letting the remainder drop into his right palm, slipping the bulk in his right upper fingers, and repeating the process.
         "Maybe you don't remember, but I've been told that the Shao Kahn wants a pure soul. Once he gets his greedy paws on that, it's all over. The world is doomed." Without hesitating to look at the cards, he plucked out the Jack of Clubs and showed it to her. "My soul obviously doesn't fit the bill, since the bad guys already have it." He returned the Jack of Clubs to the deck, and selected the King of Spades. "Liu Kang's doesn't either, trust me on this."
         "I beg your pardon?" said the monk.
         "But you, Jun..." Lei momentarily held up the Queen of Hearts. He returned the card and cut the deck with one hand, letting it fall into two pieces with one piece slipping atop the other. "Let me put it this way: when I was your reagent, I saw what you're like on the inside." His right hand held the deck about its edges, with enough finger pressure to give it a convex curve, and spread the cards face up in an overlapping line, from the tips of his left fingers to his elbow.
         She looked away, uncomfortably. "I'm not as 'pure' as you think."
         "Close enough. I can't bear- I mean, we can't afford to risk letting you fall into the hands of the bad guys. We really can't." He raised his left arm with an even lift, gently tossing the cards into the air. In a smoothly continuous motion, he turned his body to the left, gathering the midair spread back into a single deck, which vanished in another flare of azure.
         "If your mission fails for want of my help, then we're all doomed anyway."
         "Major, tell her she can't go. It would make me breathe a lot easier."
         Jax appraised Jun thoughtfully, then looked to Wang and said, "You're the one who can see the future. What do you predict?"
         The old man held himself very still. His head gradually turned, as if trying to pinpoint a fading echo.
         At last he said, in a reedy voice, "If she is weak, she will guarantee your failure. If she is strong, she will increase your chances of success. Major Briggs, will you allow me to test her? Withhold your final judgement until you see her performance."
         "Go ahead."
         Wang faced Jun and dropped back into a guard stance, raising his withered hands to shield his head and torso.
         "My child, you have long studied the art of combat. I must now challenge you to show us what you have learned. Let the outcome determine the path you travel. Wulong, Kang, Major Briggs, please stay clear." Lei raised an eyebrow and folded both arms behind his back. Jax and Liu Kang stepped aside.
         "Oji-san, you are blind," Jun objected, shaking her head. "This is not a fair test."
         "Indeed it is not - for you. Have you forgotten who taught you to sense the essence of a life-force?"
         Wang darted forward with the speed of a hummingbird. Taken off-guard by his initiative, Jun reacted with the pose of the stork, turning sideways on her right leg, lifting her left knee at a low angle, and snapping out her left fist. He dipped low at the waist, evading her strike. Wang slipped his left arm behind her back and his right arm around her thigh, using both holds to lift and carry her above his head. He let her fall on his other side. She rolled with the throw, tumbling head over heels as she hit the ground. After the second somersault, she regained enough control over her momentum to plant her hands firmly on the Temple's stone floor, and flip to her feet. She spun back to Wang, who waited for her a few dozen meters away, with his hands hidden underneath the circumference of his touching sleeves.
         "If that is the best you can do, my child, then I am sorely disappointed."
         "Oh, yeah? I'LL SHOW YOU!" Jun shouted, wrath twisting her face in an angry pout. She sprinted toward him at her top speed.
         The old man gathered his Chi in a blue-white flare about his right hand. He lifted his left arm and leg, priming his focus to strike her just as she ran into range. With split-second timing, he lunged forward, bowing his head and swinging his charged hand in an arc, down to up-
         -only she had already stopped an instant before he expected her to, thrusting out her soul barrier to greet him instead. Flashes of her Ki outlined his impact, as the wall of force sent an electrical shock through his body.
         "Oh-ahh!" he wheezed, staggering back.
         "I know you think poorly of overconfidence, Uncle," Jun said. Her face no longer appeared furious, merely stoic and reflecting her concentration. "You dislike it so much that even the illusion of it prompts you to act rashly, in return."
         Jax furrowed his brow. "A feint? Who taught Jun to be devious?"
         Lei shrugged, lifting both eyebrows in the perfect appearance of innocence.
         Wang crossed his wrists in front of himself. A blue-white star shimmered on his clenched hands; it burst against Jun's soul barrier, breaking it apart in a rainbow shower of sparks. "Your magic has become stronger, and that is good, but you must not rely upon it too much. The Mishima syndicate lies in a barren wasteland, where you cannot draw upon the biosphere to sustain your power."
         "Wakarimasu yo." With her body turned to the side, Jun stepped closer and kicked low to Wang's shin. The old man seemed not to block her attack so much as glide in response, using his left hand to guide her limb off-kilter. His right hand built momentum in a half-circle curve that culminated with both hands thrust in the pit of her stomach.
         "Aah!" She lost her balance, and fell on her back. Wang moved to kick her while she was down, spinning on his left leg as he scuffed her hip with the heel of his right. She rolled to the side, just out of range of his second low kick, then gathered herself in a backward somersault and stood up. Lingering pain in her abdomen made her lean forward, and her right hip ached, but Wang did not give her the chance to cast healing magic on herself. He pressed his advantage, stepping forward into a bent-kneed, sideways stance so that the set of his legs resembled a square. At the same time, he pushed out with his right fist, and his inner strength erupted from his clenched fingers in a fountain of blue-white Chi.
         Jun anticipated the attack, and moved to deflect it with her outer forearm, but she was unprepared for its full strength. It was far too easy to forget that this seemingly frail, supposedly feeble old man was a master at finding and exploiting weaknesses. She was forced a step back, then transformed her shifting balance into a full clockwise spin, and whipped her right leg in a ramrod-straight kick.
         Wang shouted, "Hah!"
         -because he'd seen it coming a mile off, of course, she should have known better than to try such a slow move at close quarters, but there was no time to berate herself now. He'd caught her kick in one hand, and used the other to undermine her pivoted leg. With a simple, straight-armed twist, he whisked both legs in a corkscrew wrench, dumping her back on the ground. Instead of rolling, she opted for the speed of an in-place kippup, rocking back on her hands and springing to her feet. Her hip protested the cost, and her stomach was still tender, constricting her posture. She bet that he would target one of her two weak spots, and she was right.
         The old man squatted and sprang, channeling his vigor into his bent left arm, but just as his hand neared her waist, she sidestepped. Now, when he was overextended, was her best chance. Jun grasped his arm firmly, wrenching it around and back in a clockwise curve. She expected to either lock his arm or force him to tumble in reaction. Indeed, he did start to pitch forward, but as he did so he hooked his left leg in a swiping reverse kick that smacked his heel hard against her right shin. Wang landed heavily on his back, but she had to let go of his arm and drop to one knee. She hobbled away as he rolled to his feet. Between her smarting hip and her tingling shin, her right leg was proving less and less useful.
         Jun searched for a good tactic to use against him.
         The problem was, he had sixty years more experience than she did, and he knew her style. He had trained with her and taught her much, back when she lived in the syndicate, and again when she sought his help in preparing herself for the Iron Fist Tournament. She could slip past his guard on rare occasions, or possibly trade attacks, but she had never defeated him before. Though Kazuya had blinded him, he could still "see" her as clearly as ever, because he was receptive to the glow of her life-force. Wang had been right; this test truly was weighed in her disfavor.
         What to do?
         Well, if he were anyone else, she'd wait for the right opportunity to dazzle him with a flash of light. She'd gotten very good at that spell, especially since coming to Sanctuary. But of course, that trick wouldn't work on a blind man...
         ...would it?
         If this test lasted too long, his skill would almost certainly get the better of her. Perhaps in another five or ten years of training it would be different, but for now, her best chance was to end this quickly. Committing herself to the gamble, she huddled in a crouch and summoned her Ki - but instead of channeling it out in a brilliant burst, she concentrated it within herself, forcing all the strength she could muster into a supremely intense inner ball.
         "Ah!" Wang cried.
         She knew her ploy had worked because his stance wavered uncertainly, and he retreated two steps. He would recover in another second, but for now she had her edge. She twirled about, evading his literally blind lunge to where she had been. This time she had all the opportunity she needed to swing her left leg in a circle, and course her gathered Ki through it as she sharply dropped her heel against his face. The impact wrenched him in a sideways midair spin; he slapped the floor face-first, still rolling, but clearly stunned.
         She saw blood streaming from his broken nose, and felt absolutely terrible.
         "That's enough," Jax declared. "Jun, what did you do to him?"
         "Um, just a moment, okay? Oji-san, I'm so sorry. Please let me help you." It took only a few moments for her healing power to undo the damage she had done, as well as the damage he had done to her.
         "No need for apology," Wang reassured, when he had regained his senses. "I am proud of you, my child.
         "Major, she knew that I relied, perhaps too heavily, on my sensitivity to her life-force. She concentrated her inner essence into a shining burst, which affected me much as a bright flash of external light could affect you. I shall have to be more wary in the future."
         "Your skill is admirable, Jinrey," Liu Kang noted. "I would greatly appreciate it if you could spare the time to familiarize me with what you know of Kazuya's fighting style, tactics, and anything else of possible use."
         "Of course."
         "Before you start that project," Jax said to Liu Kang, "tell me: would it be a problem if you had to cloak yourself and two other people, instead of just one?"
         "It should make relatively little difference. I have no particular objections or endorsements to Kazama's participation."
         "Wulong, are you still against the idea?"
         Jun brushed aside her sweat-streaked bangs and asked, "Did I pass the test? I don't understand. The only way I could beat him was with a couple tricks that won't work twice."
         Lei slipped off his shades and thoughtfully assessed her with his mahogany eyes. "Aw, did you think you were being tested just for how good you can fight? Sure, that's important, but Kang here is the one who has to take on Kazuya.
         "Our job is infiltration. It's the sort of thing where you have to think fast on your feet, and come up with quick solutions to dangerous problems. Don't knock the tricks; they may work only once, but it's not like we're going to get a second chance. Besides, you're right. It would be handy to have someone who can heal, unlock deadbolts, and best of all, who knows the syndicate like the back of her hand."
         "Um, six years ago. They may have made some changes by now."
         "We'll worry about that when we get to it. In the meantime, why don't you start sketching out some floor plans for us, okay? Also guard schedules, primary and alternate escape routs, we'll compare all of it with what I remember and what Wang knows later."
         "All right. I'll start work on it during your meeting."
         "I have a meeting? Who am I supposed to meet?"
         "Sanctuary's support group for people who've had problems with drinking. That's what I wanted to tell you about. It's okay, I've cleared everything with them. They're expecting you."
         "You promised."
         "Oh. Yeah, I guess I did. While I was sober, even."

         Lee disliked Doctor Boskonovitch.
         Bitter disgust gathered in his mouth and gut whenever he saw the pale, balding little mole of a man, eyes peering wide as they could through thick-rimmed coke-bottle glasses. It wasn't a personal antipathy, nor was it strong enough to make Lee want to hurt the helpless wretch. It was just that Lee would far sooner deal with someone who hated and wanted to kill him than someone who lived in terror of him.
         Well, not him specifically; Boskonovitch was petrified of the entire Mishima syndicate and everyone in it, ever since Kazuya had kidnapped and enslaved him. The syndicate put Boskonovitch's genius in multiple scientific fields to good use, forcing the frightened doctor to design and produce a private militia of sophisticated androids - the Jack-2 model.
         Crap. Why the hell did Kazuya take such pride in making people fear him, anyway? Fear could make other people do what you wanted them to, but it couldn't make them want to be with you. It pushed people away, leaving you more alone than you've ever been, except for a brother who despised you, a father who ignored you, and a syndicate full of killers and slaves to boss around...
         "Nan da?" Lee mumbled, realizing the doctor had said something.
         "I-I'm sorry, young master. I can't help this creature. It's dead," Boskonovitch whimpered, in that quivering voice with a trace of Russian accent. His beady eyes flicked nervously from Lee to Alex to Reptile's body.
         "What? How!? He looked stable enough a little while ago, and injuries are supposed to heal fast, dammit."
         "rrrrrRRRRR..." Alex growled.
         "I'd need an autopsy to be certain, but from what I see, he has undergone severe head trauma. There are fractures on his skull. I suspect he suffered a stroke. If a clot, broken blood vessel, or other damage blocked the supply of oxygen to his brain for even a few minutes, then he could have died before he had the chance to heal. I-I'm very sorry, young master-"
         "Shut up."
         "RRREEYOWWL!" Alex screamed. The doctor backed against the door to her cage, hitching up the collar of his white lab coat as though he wanted to burrow underneath it. If Lee or his bodyguards had been inside Alex's cell, she would have attacked them, but the doctor was the only ape-mortal in her reach, so she lunged at him instead. Her deadly fore talons touched his throat-
         "Don't or you'll never see your children again!" Lee threatened.
         Alex hissed and swiveled her long-jawed head toward the silver-haired devil. "My childrrren dead. You killed!"
         "I don't think so. We did find a nest of giant lizard eggs close to where we caught you; I just didn't know they were yours. The syndicate artificially incubated them until they hatched. Your babies are sleeping with all the others, dreaming of the New Era."
         She made a skeptical clicking noise. "You killed!" she repeated, but this time she indicated Reptile's body with a flick of her head and tail.
         "Actually, they killed him for Kazuya." Lee jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Ishida and Kimura. "The guy under your claws had nothing to do with it. He's just a slave. Now let him go!"
         Alex squinted at the doctor. He had fainted, his eyes rolling up as far as they could go. If she slashed now, she could kill him before Ishida's and Kimura's tranquilizer darts stopped her...

         Not all ape-mortals are evil.

         She took a step back from her prey, who slumped unconscious on the floor. The prick of a sharp needle, followed by inevitable dizziness, were more short steps on her own road to oblivion.
         "I hate... this parrrt..." she growled, collapsing.

         Lei hesitated before the well-lit doorway to the spacious meeting hall, until Jun reminded him to don his shades. The majority of people present were citizens of the Nation, though he spotted a few who appeared to be from Sonya's platoon.
         "I hope it goes well for you," Jun told him with a kind smile.
         "Eh? Aren't you staying?"
         "That wouldn't be right. It's only for people who've had problems with a dependency on alcohol. I've never had any desire to drink since I was sixteen. Besides, I'm sure Hawk will be glad to show you around, won't you Hawk?"
         Her line of sight reached high above Lei's left shoulder. He warily followed it, craning his neck all the way back, until he achieved eye contact with the human Colossus.
         "It would be an honor," T. Hawk confirmed.
         "Uh... it would?" Lei mumbled, adjusting his shades above the bridge of his nose.
         "You enabled the miracle that saved Sanctuary."
         "Oh. That."
         "I have done you ill. Nightwolf and the Council of Elders have convicted me of unjustly bringing you harm on two occasions. My penance is also twofold. First, I apologize to you. It was wrong of me to do what I did, and I plead your forgiveness."
         "Eh, whatever. What's the second part?"
         "What would you?"
         "I am to grant you a boon. Name any gift or task within my power, and it will be done."
         "Really? Anything? Anything at all?"
         "So long as it is in my power, in accordance with the laws of Sanctuary, and not unduly life-threatening. I am obligated to obey your wish, no matter how laborious, humiliating, or-"
         "How about showing me your style?"
         "My what?"
         "When we squared off in the bar, you took on a stance like this." Lei mimicked what he had seen, bending his arms at right angles and suspending them at shoulder level, fingers pointed forward and palms facing the ground. His hands weaved in small circles as he stepped lightly on the balls of his feet. "I've never seen anything like that before, ever. Is it how Indians wrestle?"
         "It is how I wrestle."
         "Well, whatever it is, maybe I could incorporate parts of it into my Phoenix style. At the very least, I have to know how to defend against it. You literally wiped the floor with me."
         "You were drunk at the time."
         Lei made a brushing-off motion. "Eh, I wish I could remember more of your techniques, but it's kind of fuzzy, seeing as how I was on the receiving end of them. Why don't you get back to me after this meeting or whatever is over, and we'll compare notes, okay?"
         "As you wish."
         Lei nodded, clasped his arms behind his back, and noticed that most of the other people in the room were seated. The meeting was about to start.
         "Uh..." Rubbing the building crick in his neck, he looked back up at the towering wrestler. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but I think you'd better go. Jun said this group was supposed to be only for, well, people like me, who've managed to screw up their lives and everyone in them going from one drink to the next..."
         " I'll meet you at the Temple of Light later and- wait a minute. No." Lei slowly lifted a quizzical index finger, pointing to the wrestler. "You?"
         "No freaking kidding?"
         "It is part of why I hated you so much at first sight. You embodied that which I most despise in myself. My actions remain inexcusable."
         "You were hooked on the stuff? And you've managed to quit?"
         "Yes to both."
         "One day at a time, Wulong. One day at a time."

End of Chapter 16: Mourning