ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 18: Bait for the Trap


    Gandalf: This war is without final hope. Victory cannot be achieved by force of arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed. You have only a choice of evils.
    King Aragorn: Then, if the choice be mine, I choose to march!
         -The Return of the King [animated motion picture]


         Jun wandered through the bustle of Sanctuary's gathering army, lost in thought. She absently weaved past ranks of men and women dressed in everything from T-shirts to camouflage fatigues to tanned deer hide, and carrying everything from spears to machine guns to plasma rifles. Her eyes did not scan the throngs of building activity, though; they were cast down.
         "Repeat after me. Kiai!" shouted a familiar voice.
         "Kiai!"
         The unified chorus of exclamations distracted Jun from her self-absorption. She looked up and saw Kung Lao leading the Order of Light's sixteen pupils, Seung Mina among them, through a set of warmup exercises. Jun noticed that their workout was less vigorous than usual, probably because Kung Lao didn't want his followers expending too much energy before the long march began.
         In the middle of a pivot and high kick, the monk made eye contact with her. He signaled for the student furthest to the right to step forward and continue leading the exercise. Kung Lao detached from the others, and approached Jun.
         "Ohayoo," Jun halfheartedly greeted her friend.
         "Good morning to you, too," he pleasantly answered.
         "Um, is there something I can do for you?"
         "That's my question."
         "Wakarimasen."
         "You look like you have a lot on your mind. Want to talk about it?"
         "I, uh, don't want to keep you from your students."
         "The Order of Light promotes self-sufficiency. They'll be fine."
         She glanced back at the initiates, and a question nagged at her. "Where is Liu Kang?"
         "Beats me. Resting up for the big trek, I suppose."
         "You're not worried?"
         "He doesn't usually join our group exercises anymore, especially since the Apocalypse. In fact, he doesn't interact much with our initiates at all. I'm primarily responsible for their training. Liu probably has more fighting skill than I do, but his temper is much more unstable. When we tried to equally divide our teaching, pressure would build in him until he'd lash out in unthinking rage, misdirected at his own pupils."
         Kung Lao casually strolled toward the edge of the army. Jun followed him, until they had drifted comfortably out of earshot of the others. A wistful expression settled on his features, beneath the shadow of his razor-brimmed hat.
         "You know that about a year ago, Shang Tsung and the Shao Kahn massacred the Order of Light. Liu and I were the only survivors. Liu came that close to losing his sanity and his soul over it. Sometimes I think that he can't bear to associate too closely with our new disciples, or just about anyone else, for fear of what it will do to him if they die."
         She nodded in sympathy. "Were you able to settle the issue of Seung Mina's membership with him? You once said that the Order has been all-male for hundreds of years, and Liu wanted it to stay that way."
         Kung Lao shrugged. "He did. But I'm as good as running the Order these days, so if he doesn't like my decisions, what's he going to do? Fire me? Even Liu has to admit that Mina has untapped potential. Besides, we need all the members we can get. Not many people of either gender are cut out for the ascetic discipline of monastic life."
         He pushed the brim of his hat up a few centimeters. "Why the curiosity? Do you want to join?"
         "Um..."
         "The Order of Light does allow its adherents to marry, you know. So you'd still be free to pursue your feelings for Lei."
         She blushed and covered her face.
         "Ah ha. I thought he was on your mind."
         "Why don't I just hang a sign around my neck?"
         "Because he'd still be too clueless to read it, and it certainly wouldn't make your sentiments any more obvious to the rest of us."
         "You really think he doesn't know?"
         "Have you told him yet?"
         "Um..."
         "Then he doesn't know. Trust me." Kung Lao folded both arms behind his back. "Look, this is only my advice, take it however you want. But I really think you should tell him."
         "Are you sure?"
         "C'mon, what's the worst that could happen? That he turns you down? Gives you some line about how he just wants to be friends? Then at least you'll know. It'll hurt for a little while, but nowhere near as much as if you lose him without ever having told him."
         "But he..."
         "Yes?"
         "He hates himself, Lao. He hates himself so much. I felt it. He's drowning in his own sea of hatred; how can he ever love me?"
         "He thinks you're beautiful, Jun."
         "H-hontou desu ka?"
         "It's the sort of thing he wouldn't dare tell you, unless you were safely unconscious. Such as immediately after you stopped the invasion, say."
         "I... did he really say that...?"
         "Now as to whether he could ever love you, well, I can't answer that. Only he can. I know, I know, you've probably been taught that the woman is supposed to act aloof and hard-to-get, while the guy sings all the serenades. But remember, this is Lei we're talking about. It isn't just that he once proposed marriage to someone and got burned. If his self-esteem were any lower, it'd be pushing up daisies. Whatever he may feel, he'll never have the courage to tell you, not in this century anyway. You'll have to be the one who tells him. Welcome to the nineties."
         She bit her lip and looked at the ground.
         "Still feeling uncertain, huh? How about if I relate a quick story while you make up your mind.
         "You already know about the Outworld Tournament, and how we Chosen managed to win it and just barely escape, right?
         "Well, most of us escaped. Not all. You also know that Liu Kang and I would never have survived the trip there, let alone gotten out again, if not for the grace of Princess Kitana, the Shao Kahn's adopted daughter and rightful heir to the throne of Outworld.
         "She used to be the Kahn's most loyal assassin, murdering to suit his evil whims. He'd so twisted her world and her head that she thought she was doing the right thing. We helped show her the truth, though in the end, it was her own inner strength that brought her to our side.
         "What I've never told you before is that, well... I started getting, perhaps, some kind of feelings for her. I'd appreciate it if you kept this part of the story to yourself, by the way. At times it almost seemed as if my emotions were reciprocated, but I never tried to bring the issue out in the open, and neither did she.
         "Why?
         "I can't speak for her - maybe she was afraid, or maybe she didn't give a damn about me after all. But I was definitely afraid. Not just of being rejected, mind; you have to remember, we were in the middle of a hostile world, and the odds were very high that neither of us would live through the next few days. Good grief, Jun, I'd already gotten killed once before the Tournament began.
         "The sad thing is that in the end, when the Kahn's defeat uprooted tidal waves of stolen Power, and you could hear millions of screaming souls calling for vengeance, and the Portal was about to collapse, and we Chosen dove through a split-second before it all went to hell...
         "Kitana didn't come with us.
         "I don't know why. Maybe she couldn't reach the Portal in time, or maybe she felt obligated to stay and defend her home. I pray she's all right. She's tough, she's a survivor, so I'm convinced she's still alive. She's just all alone on that other world.
         "Sometimes I wonder. If I had gathered the courage to tell her, would she have come back with us? Would I have stayed behind? Would we be together now? Maybe she would have laughed in my face, but then at least I would know. I wouldn't be left wondering until the day I die. Or until the end of the world, whichever comes first."
         "Um, why are you telling me this?"
         "You're a good friend, Jun, and I don't want you to suffer from the same mistakes I did. Maybe you will anyway, but if you do, it won't be because I held my tongue."
         "No, I mean, why are you telling me and not Lei?"
         "Oh, I've tried, but I can't get through to him. He's not going to admit anything to me, to you, to himself, or to anyone else unless you tell him first. No, it's not fair, it doesn't make sense; it's just the way he is."
         She touched the tips of her index fingers together. An awkward expression settled on her face. She was about to speak, when-
         "Where is Wulong!?" Liu Kang irritably demanded, pushing between them.
         "Good morning to you, too," Kung Lao pleasantly answered.
         "We are about to embark on our journey. He is delaying everything! If he desires to renege on his commitment, he should at least have the integrity to inform us!"
         "I'll bet Sub-Zero could find him, through his medical monitor, or that Nightwolf could use Sanctuary's wards to track him down. Unless, of course, you've already offended them both with your temper the length of bear's tail. Then I imagine you'd be reduced to displacing your anger on me, like usual," the younger monk sighed.
         The elder monk turned away from his Shaolin brother and snarled to Jun, "You are Wulong's mate, or yearn to be. You must know where he is!"
         "Saa," she disdainfully sniffed, breaking eye contact.
         "Tell me, or I shall-!"
         "Tell you what, or you'll what?" Lei's voice sounded from several meters away, tranquil, but with the subtle undertone of a threat.
         "At last," Liu Kang declared, facing the approaching cop. "Wulong, Kazama, we are setting out. The instant we cross Sanctuary's outer borders, you both must remain within range of either my cloaking sorcery or Nightwolf's, at all times."
         "Hold it. Neither of you can possibly cloak an entire army," Lei said, dubiously.
         "No. Just the two of you, and myself. Our mission is supposed to be a secret, however ill-kept, and it would be a refreshing surprise if we did not make the enemy any more aware of our true goal than absolutely necessary. Do you comprehend all this, or must I repeat it for you?"
         "Don't bother, I've got it. You're going to totally exhaust yourself, so that you'll be weaker than dirt by the time we reach the syndicate. Good idea, Kang. One of your finest."
         "Save your concern for yourself. Nightwolf and I will equally divide the labor. Kung Lao and Sub-Zero have agreed to lighten our burden; they will be our reagents as needed."
         "In exchange, Rollins made our favorite were-dragon here promise to hold still for one full day of intense scientific examination," Kung Lao wryly commented. "And I get to watch."
         "Great," Lei snorted to Liu Kang. "So not only am I stuck on a covert mission with you, I get to take your abuse all the way up there. I'm sure you're every bit as thrilled about it as I am."
         "I still pity you."
         "Shut up," the cop snapped, flushing. Liu Kang walked away.
         Kung Lao straightened his hat. "I think you almost won that one, Lei, but he got you in the end. Excuse me, it's probably time I returned to my students."
         The monk winked at Jun, said "Remember what I told you," and left.
         "What did he tell you?" Lei asked her, genuinely curious.
         "Um..." she uncertainly mumbled, looking away. "Lei, I... I-I..."
         "Yes?" he prompted. A certain amount of disquiet eroded his composure, as if he were catching some of her nervousness. She inhaled deeply, and almost had the fortitude to say it-
         "He asked if I wanted to join the Order of Light."
         Almost.
         "Oh." Lei turned his head a little to one side. A couple seconds ago, he could have sworn she was about to say something different, but now he wondered whether it had been a trick of perception. "Do you?"
         "I don't know what I want anymore," she sighed, quite truthfully. "I really don't."



         Heihachi Mishima wanted to strangle his guest.
         The demon sorcerer Shang Tsung had been unable to see into Sanctuary, ever since Kazuya's invasion had failed. It was frustrating. Heihachi would have turned on the demon days ago, if it had not retained its Power to peer into the Mishima syndicate, and create visions of Heihachi's sons.
         Heihachi despised his son Kazuya, and his gaijin adopted son Lee. He looked upon them both with disgust and contempt. Yet the one thing worse than having ungrateful, treacherous sons was having ungrateful, treacherous, incompetent sons. Though Heihachi would never have admitted it aloud, in his eyes, their failure reflected badly upon him as a father.
         Resentment curdled within him. It made him want to kill someone. Anyone.
         How in the Eight Paths to Hell had a lowly Chinese dog and a simpering mongrel bitch managed to thwart Kazuya's onslaught?
         "Why, Heihachi-kun," Shang Tsung glowed, "is that a note of racial prejudice I hear?"
         The elder Mishima's lips parted in a sharp-toothed snarl. He had not been aware of speaking that thought aloud.
         "Just asking," the demon cheerfully continued, fixing its solid white eyes on the lens that took shape between the wriggling motion of its hands. "Besides, isn't that mixed-blood healer girl your would-be daughter-in-law?"
         "Do not remind me," Heihachi spat.
         He resisted the impulse to wrench the demon's foul head off its shoulders, and stepped closer to the sorcerous window it had conjured. Through it, he could look down on the wasted plains of the post-Apocalyptic Earth as if from high above. His grimace became a thoughtful frown when he saw what filled the panoramic view, like a thick column of army ants.
         The Chosen Ones were on the move. They marched at the head of their militia, if the ragtag collection of two thousand soldiers, Native American warriors, and ordinary people burdened with heavy weapons could be called that.
         "They're taking a dead-on course for your sons' lovely syndicate," Shang Tsung cooed. "I can't wait to see what happens when they get there. Can you?"
         "Bah. What are you so excited about? You should be angry. Kazuya failed to raze their stronghold."
         "Tsk. You pessimistic mortals, always so anxious to see the worst in everything. Maybe if you make it past your first century, Heihachi-kun, you'll gain perspective."
         "You cannot possibly be pleased at this turn of events."
         "Come, now. If the Shao Kahn really wanted it to be over so quickly, he'd send a hundred thousand more mutants and Centaurians to slaughter the Chosen Ones right now. But that wouldn't be nearly as entertaining. Your darling son has agreed to take care of the Chosen or surrender the consequences, and he has to succeed or fail on his own. Either way, I'm sure the Kahn will enjoy watching every second of it, just as I do."
         "You and the Kahn are both fools."
         "Oh, you assume that only because you don't know what we're up to," the evil thing chuckled, licking his lips. "That pure soul is so close, I can almost taste it." He leaned a little closer to the mystic window, when suddenly, a puzzled furrow wrinkled his brow.
         "Something's not right," Shang Tsung muttered. "Where is Liu Kang? I can't spot him anywhere."
         "Is his soul the one you want? The one that will secure your grip on the Earth?"
         "Don't be ridiculous. He might have qualified once, but by now the 'purity' and 'nobility' of his intentions are diluted with an obsession for revenge on his enemies, the lingering desire to manipulate his so-called allies, the desperate need to survive, disfiguring taints like that. No, while I suppose the Shao Kahn would find his soul useful, it's not the crucial keystone. In fact, it's been promised to me. I'm going to have such fun torturing that miserable pipsqueak's spirit, once this little adventure is concluded!"
         "Then whose soul do you need, and why don't you simply take it for your own?"
         "Do you really think it's that easy?" queried the demon. "And I'm Cinderella. No, no, no, what you don't understand is that the purer a soul is, the harder it is to claim.
         "Why do you think the Kahn's curse is so slow to harvest all the human souls on the Earth? The selfish and cruel ones fall to us easily, but most of them are in that grey area between purity and foulness. Worse, the Chosen Ones' souls in particular are protected by the gods. We can kill the upstarts, but we can't harvest their spirits until the Earth is completely ours - until we finally get that one, special soul of pure and noble intent.
         "And that one, special soul is protected by much, much worse than the gods, I promise you. Merely assassinating its owner wouldn't give us what we need. The Angel looks after her own, even as they enter her domain.
         "It does help if you can crush a soul's owner in 'honorable' single combat, it does indeed. If we had tried to conquer the one we want in that manner, it might conceivably have been enough to harvest what we crave - that was how the drunken detective lost his soul, even though he has the same patron. Then again, the detective's intentions weren't wholly pure. It's almost amusing. While most mortals are contaminated with the craving to save themselves at any cost, he is polluted with the craving to destroy himself.
         "No, out of an entire world of mortals, there is but one pure soul that lies within our grasp. And the only sure way for us to own it is if-"
         The demon abruptly broke off his musings, and stared more acutely at the portal.
         "If?"
         "You know, I can't find the detective or his healer friend anywhere, either," Shang Tsung observed, sounding as if he were offhandedly trying to change the subject. "Are they hiding underneath a blanket of cloaking sorcery, along with Liu Kang? I can't believe that any of those three would stay behind."
         "If?" Heihachi repeated. An avalanche of menace rumbled behind that one word, but Shang Tsung didn't seem to notice.
         "That would be telling," the demon smirked. "Enough of this little parade. Let's take a look at what your sons are up to, shall we?"



         With each passing day, Lee Chaolan found it more difficult to distinguish nightmares from reality.
         On one level, he was aware of Kazuya standing in his carpeted antechamber, giving orders to Lee, Bruce Irvin, and Baek Doo San, in preparation for the Chosen Ones' pending assault. But on another, deeper wavelength, Lee could hear them. Feel their anguish. Sense their psychic clawing, and hear their clamorous howls for vengeance.
         How many souls had Kazuya enslaved, inside the necromantic grid he'd woven into the mortar of his syndicate? Of those, how many had met their deaths at his hands? At the hands of his servants? One of the trapped and tortured spirits had perished on the point of Lee's dagger. Her rage colored his dreams whenever he fell asleep. Now, it had come to silently haunt him while he was awake.


         You murdered me!


         "-shall have leadership of the syndicate's human employees," Kazuya calmly said to Baek, as if he were deaf to the incorporeal wailing. "Do not expose them to undue danger. Spread your fire; you need only force the invaders to keep their distance from the syndicate. Let the Jack-2 assembly do the work of killing them."


         You murdered me!


         There was nowhere Lee could run, nowhere he could hide from his own crimes. The intangible furor threatened to submerge him; by the time he broke free of its undertow, Kazuya was speaking to Bruce.
         "-am aware that you enjoy the thrill of combat. Thus, it shall be denied to you; this is your punishment for failing me. For the time being, your duties are assigned to Commander Baek, and you are assigned to Vice-President Lee Chaolan. Follow his commands as if they were mine."


         YOU MURDERED ME!


         "Lee? Do pay attention when I am addressing you," Kazuya warned, dangerously.
         "Wh-what?" The silver-haired devil was startled to realize that Baek and Bruce had vanished. For one, crazy instant he thought the souls had taken them away. He twisted his head around, gasping, "Where are...?"
         The master sorcerer's jet black eyebrows lifted, ever so slightly. "Commander Baek and Captain Irvin departed these premises approximately thirty seconds ago, when I dismissed them. Whatever distraction weighs on your mind, you had best ignore it and concentrate upon the matter at hand."
         "I'm trying," he almost whispered.
         "That is insufficient!" Kazuya reprimanded, and Lee's uncontrollable fear of his brother smothered him, supplanting the paralyzed hesitation within. "You will not 'try.' You will do, precisely as I say! There is no margin for doubt or tribulation. Wulong is coming, and we must be prepared to handle him."
         Lee was perplexed at this sudden turn in conversation, but it was a relief to have a puzzle on which to concentrate. It diverted his attention from the blood on his hands. "Did you see him in your mirrors?"
         "No, yet that is meaningless when at least two of the Chosen have the Power to conceal him from my sight. Sanctuary's army of two thousand is little more than a sidebar to the true threat. Wulong shall seek to break my Power. I know because it is what I would do. As you are aware, there are only two ways he may achieve that goal, and both require that he seek me out. He may attempt to infiltrate the syndicate on his own, but I expect him to bring associates. Tell me, is Doctor Boskonovitch's Project Loki in satisfactory working order?"
         "M-mostly, Mishima-sama. He can have it retooled in a few days."
         "Then you shall put it to good use. Be sure to apply its wavelengths to a living subject, for Wulong can perceive endothermic radiation as surely as you can see light."
         Kazuya spent several minutes giving his servant stringently detailed instructions. That in itself was unusual; typically, the master sorcerer would assign a general task to Lee, and let the silver-haired devil implement it. Was Kazuya explicitly describing a plan because he no longer had faith in Lee's abilities, or because Lei Wulong was presumably involved?
         The more Lee heard, the more convinced he became of the latter supposition. He'd never understood why Kazuya had once spared Wulong's life, let alone given him the Power to shape-shift into a demon, but clearly there was a connection. When Lee heard the second part of Kazuya's plans, concerning what was to be done with Wulong and his allies, Lee knew that his brother either had a sadistic grudge against the cop, or...
         Or?
         Lee changed his mind. He had no idea what motivated his brother's schemes. Though if he were to guess, he'd bet it was a sadistic grudge.
         "As you wish, Mishima-sama," Lee tiredly stated.
         Something in the silver-haired devil's tone caused Kazuya's expression to turn several degrees colder than usual. "For your sake, you had best not fail me this time. I should not have to threaten you. The syndicate's crimes are your crimes, and my life is your life. You know full well what will become of you, if the Chosen have their way."
         Lee nodded. He knew, all right. He just wasn't certain whether he cared anymore.
         "There is one other concern. It was superficial before, yet needs to be addressed now. Your charge, Ganryu, has stationed himself outside my antechamber for days on end."
         "I know. He's guarding it. He thinks he's protecting you."
         "Be that as it may, he must be removed. His presence could raise Wulong's suspicions."
         "I've tried talking to him, many times. He doesn't respond to me on any meaningful level. I don't think he recognizes me any longer. You'll have to tell him to leave."
         Kazuya's jet black eyes narrowed to half-closed slits of smoldering animosity.
         "You seem to be confused, Lee. In your delusion, you are attempting to mandate a course of action to me, your superior. That is not how our relationship is structured. I tell you to do things, and you do them."
         "Or else what?" the silver-haired devil shot back. "You'll murder me, like you made me kill Michelle? You'll burn out my brain, like you did to Ganryu? Fine, go ahead, and get someone else to do your petty legwork!"
         Kazuya sighed.
         Lee wasn't entirely cognizant of the clawlike fingers digging into his scalp, or the crackles of indigo Ki that seared his skin. There were jerking, spasmodic muscular contortions. Scalding tears that only further conducted the livewire electric charge. White-hot flames curling his clothing and hair. Screams that didn't sound all that different from those of the insubstantial souls.
         He wasn't sure how long it lasted. Eternity, it felt.
         Maybe ten minutes.
         But it all seemed like it was happening to someone else. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with him, or his limp, burned body lying inert on the floor. The plush carpet brushed against and irritated the corneas of his open eyes, but the strength to close his eyelids was lacking.
         "You will obey me, will you not?"
         The cool, casual question drifted from someplace far away, but an inner urgency demanded that it be answered at once. Terrible things would happen, if it wasn't answered promptly. The problem was, Lee's voice wouldn't work. He started to panic when all he could manage was a soundless whistle of air.
         "You do fear me, do you not?"
         Panic became desperation, and desperation forced a windy, wheezy, all but silent whisper through Lee's chafed lips.
         "Y-yes..."
         "Good. For a brief moment, I almost thought you had ceased to do so." Oddly enough, so had Lee. But now, he understood how silly that was; how could there ever be an end to the terror that constantly devoured him in his brother's presence?
         "You are dismissed. Go, and do as I have bidden you."
         "C-can't..."
         The silver-haired devil couldn't see Kazuya's irritated frown, but he felt it like an ill omen, inflaming the agony of his burns. "Are you expressing disobedience, or inability?"
         "C-can't hurt Ganryu... he's my friend. Can't talk to him. Doesn't recognize me. Only you. He'll only obey you."
         "It would have behooved you to explain this earlier." The master sorcerer didn't receive a reply to that, but then, he hadn't particularly expected one. "I said, you are dismissed. Go."
         "C-can't..."
         "I have not permanently damaged your mind, and your body will heal. Now, leave my sight at once."
         Lee tried to move, and didn't get very far.
         "Hold." Kazuya sighed again, and shook his head. He closed his eyes in brief concentration, issuing a telepathic command.
         "I have notified Ishida and Kimura. They will take you from here, and help you recover. Carry out the plan as I have instructed, and leave Ganryu to me."
         "Th-thank you..." Relief and gratitude poured through the whimpered, heartfelt adoration.
         Kazuya summoned the portal to his inner sanctum without another word, and stepped through. The quietude of his interdimensional retreat soothed him. Only the dull rap of his footsteps upon the metal floor broke its silence, and only the polished expanse of his mirrors disrupted its black void.
         "What!?" he suddenly snapped, whirling around.
         The younger Mishima's lips parted in a sharp-toothed snarl. He tried to conjure a vision in his mirrors; when his effort failed, he half-suspected that a powerful sorcerer was cloaking his intended target. But damn it all to the Eight Paths to Hell if he didn't feel that somewhere, somehow, his father was watching him.
         And smiling.



         Jax knew he ought to be glad.
         The long march to the Mishima syndicate had been thoroughly uneventful. Every once in a while, the lingering feeling that they were being watched settled on his shoulders, but that was all. No enemies accosted them. His scouts hadn't come across a single living thing. It took his militia five long days to walk the distance that Nightwolf's lupine form had run in two nights. Nothing happened. It was downright boring.
         This was supposed to be good. Soldiers, or at least most soldiers with a strong instinct for self-preservation, preferred to be bored when they traveled through hostile territory. It was the interesting moments that could get you killed. Yet by the fifth day, as the weary militia approached their goal, a heavy weight of uncertainty congealed in the major's stomach. Jax sent Kung Lao and Nightwolf to scout ahead - Kung Lao because he could teleport, and Nightwolf to keep them both hidden as best he could. Not that it made much difference; Kazuya had to know that the Chosen Ones were closing in on him.
         Or charging headfirst into his trap.
         As night fell, the major listened to Kung Lao's report, along with Sonya, his second-in-command; Raven, liaison for the Nation's warriors; and Liu Kang, leader of the covert mission on which their combined hopes rested. Lei, Jun, and Wang were also there, on the supposition that their combined knowledge of the Mishima syndicate just might be helpful in hammering together a coherent strategy. Nightwolf, with the help of his reagent Sub-Zero, temporarily expanded his cloaking spell to shield the war council from prying eyes. The Chosen Ones Stryker and Kabal hung part-way back. Stryker looked uncomfortable, as if he had no idea why he was involved in any of this. The indented slits to Kabal's alien mask were as unreadable as ever, yet his clenched fingers signified his tension.
         Jax quashed the urge to scan the evening sky for the black bird that could pierce their cloaking sorcery. If it were to fly overhead, then either his sentries would spot it, or Liu Kang would sense its presence.
         "What did you find?" Jax bluntly asked Kung Lao.
         "We're guessing that there's a few hundred people scattered around the syndicate's perimeter. Most of them were armed with military assault rifles. I thought I recognized Baek in charge of them, but we couldn't get too close because the syndicate's cloak-piercing device is constantly circling its borders-"
         "-which are ringed with explosive mines," Nightwolf added. "The trapped souls cry to me of this, as if the many piles of upturned earth were not warning enough."
         "That's it?" Jax probed. "Kazuya should know that a few mines won't stop us, and Nightwolf's projectile ward can protect our ranks from their gunfire."
         "For a while," the shaman reproached. "I shall have to rest the night, and depend upon Sub-Zero and Kung Lao as my reagents, and even then, my protection will be limited. A projectile ward is much simpler than the depth of a cloaking spell, yet to spread my cover across an army of two thousand people will be extremely difficult. Do not count upon having immunity for longer than a couple hours."
         "I shall need much less time than that," Liu Kang confidently declared. "When Kazuya falls, his syndicate and soldiers will collapse with him."
         "Speaking of soldiers," Jax dryly noted, "Lao, are you quite certain about the number? A few hundred? That's less than a quarter of our forces."
         "No," Kung Lao denied, shaking his head. "I said there's a few hundred people. There are many, many more soldiers."
         "Do you mean mutants? Centaurians?"
         "If only. Or maybe not. Centaurians are tough, to be sure, but I've never seen anything like this before. Here, take a look for yourself." He removed his razor-brimmed headgear, reached into it, and withdrew a small, camera-shaped black box.
         "Tú acumulas las cosas más extraordinarias en el sombrero," Kabal commented.
         Kung Lao merely shrugged and flicked a switch. The camera-device emitted a brief flash of light. Lei winced from its brightness, which soon coalesced into a picture-perfect, three-dimensional image. The cop squinted at the holographic recording.
         It depicted a hulking thing, vaguely resembling a large man with a massive chest shaped like an inverted pear, oversized arms, and comparatively stunted legs. Though it towered taller than T. Hawk, the absurd bodily proportions almost made it appear comical. Yet there was nothing amusing about the ponderous weight of its tread, especially when one took into consideration the relative swiftness of its movements. If it were made of dense metal - and judging from the shiny glint of its steel-grey arms, and rounded rivets holding together the multiple plates of its drab olive carapace, it was - then in order to patrol the syndicate's border at a constant speed, it had to possess tremendous strength. An arm that long and that heavy, swung at even moderate force, could easily crush a person's bones.
         The metal construct's "head," if such it could be called, bore a cosmetic similarity to that of a Caucasian man, with a vertical strip of "hair" dividing its scalp in lengthwise halves. The thing's eyes blazed with crimson radiance, lending a dull red glow to its face.
         Lei's own eyes turned blood-red, as they reflected a scattering of the hologram's light. His deep voice shifted a shade lower, and he growled, "Jack-2."
         "You recognize him?" Stryker muttered, jerking a thumb at the image.
         "Not a 'him.' An 'it.' That thing is a killer robot, the brainchild of a Russian scientist called Doctor Boskonovitch."
         Sub-Zero immediately perked up. "Really? I've heard of him. He's a genius. He's made revolutionary breakthroughs in cybernetic data compression and safeguards, nanotechnology, anticoagulant medicine, hydraulics, ocular..."
         The scientist trailed off when he became uncomfortably aware of the exasperated pairs of eyes glaring at him. "Uh, sorry."
         Lei cleared his throat. "As I was saying, Boskonovitch designed that thing's Prototype Jack and Jack-1 incarnations during the Cold War. After the great détente, or whatever, the fracturing Soviet government sold all their Jack machines to the Mishima syndicate for a quick buck. Heihachi Mishima allegedly sought to destroy them, as a gesture of world peace. The old bastard was lying, or rather, telling a half-truth. He did eventually dismantle the Jack-1 production line, but only so he could recycle its parts into a new, improved Jack-2 model.
         "Except that his best research and development people kept running into problems. Glitches. They couldn't make the damn killing machines work; their programs kept erasing themselves after a few hours of operation. It's said that Heihachi offered Boskonovitch billions of dollars if he would help fix the project; the good doctor refused. An attack of conscience, I suppose. I've even heard a rumor that Boskonovitch purposefully put the flaw into his Jacks, to sabotage their destructive power. Who knows if it's true or not.
         "Anyway, a little over a year ago Kazuya suddenly took control of the Mishima syndicate, and - should we assume this to be complete coincidence? - the good doctor went missing. As did his young daughter, by the way. And when I entered the syndicate's Iron Mitten or whatever Tournament, one of the finalists was a gigantic bucket of bolts, very similar to what you're showing me now. They called it Jack-2. Damn thing almost killed me. I was just barely able to outmaneuver it."
         "If I may," Wang quietly intervened. "I know for a certainty that Doctor Boskonovitch is, shall I say, a 'guest' of the syndicate. His daughter was grievously ill, having contracted a terminal disease from a tragic exposure to outlawed biological weapons. I believe Kazuya initially enticed the doctor with veiled suggestions that he would bend the syndicate's resources to researching a cure. There was also a rumor that Kazuya was behind the accident that infected Boskonovitch's daughter in the first place. At first, I thought it was a lie; that was before I came to understand what the young man has become.
         "In any case, Boskonovitch soon understood that the syndicate had little intention of curing his daughter. It simply wanted to use her as a lever, to pressure him into designing the ultimate killing machine, which he did. The Prototype Jack, which he overhauled, fell to pieces during a test flight, but not before Boskonovitch solved the fatal flaw in its memory core. And so he created Jack-2, the first of a new model.
         "Only this creation, also, had a glitch. If it could be called that. It possessed traits that, to a human mind, seemed to mimic emotion. After it failed its initial 'combat-readiness test' against Lei Wulong, it developed an attachment for Boskonovitch's daughter. Or perhaps the doctor had simply programmed it to protect her, yet it any case, it carried her away from the syndicate.
         "When I learned of these events, and pressed Lee Chaolan for more information, he told me that the syndicate had made a business deal with Ultratech to track down the rogue. One of Ultratech's stealth satellites quickly spotted and destroyed it from orbit. The daughter was recovered and put into cryogenic suspension, supposedly for her own well-being. As for Boskonovitch, it appears that Kazuya has kept him hard at work."
         "With a gun barrel pointed at his head, no doubt," Lei muttered. "Well, if these robots really are the same as the one I fought, then I can tell you they're not invincible. They're bulletproof, but they don't carry any kind of guns, lasers, or heavy artillery; they were designed to kill people without destroying property. In other words, to crush heads, smash ribcages, that sort of thing. You do not want them to land a direct blow on you. But they're top-heavy, and easy to tip over if you undermine their balance. Their legs are disproportionately weak, especially at the knees. Also, their central processing units are located where a human brain would be; destroy that, and they're out of commission. Hey Lao, just how many Jack-2s did you see patrolling the syndicate, anyway?"
         "Well... it's hard to be sure. I'm making the estimate by assuming that their distribution is evenly spaced over the syndicate's entire grounds-"
         "How many, Lao," Jax rumbled, a deep baritone of suspicion forming in the back of his throat.
         "Twenty thousand. At least."
         A long stretch of silence settled over the gathering.
         At last, Jun timidly ventured, "I don't understand. If Kazuya's forces outnumber us ten to one, why hasn't he sent them out to confront us?"
         "Because he isn't taking any chances," Lei calculated. "He knows that if even a few of our troops were to slip through a gap in his army, and take over a tiny piece of his syndicate, it would weaken him. He's entrenched his defenses in the strongest position. He doesn't have to confront us; he's expecting us to come to him."
         "What makes you so certain?" she asked, curiously.
         "It's what I would do."
         Jax nodded. "Kang, once you're close enough to give Kazuya your challenge, you must send me a telepathic signal. That will be our cue to attack. To strike any sooner would risk that our forces could be repelled before your fight with Kazuya begins."
         "I do not see why any innocent lives should be wasted in the futility of a frontal assault," Liu Kang evenly replied. "Nor why an army should be necessary to my mission at all."
         "You have not tasted Kazuya's death-web," Wang sharply returned. "If you are to have a prayer of defeating him in single combat, our forces must occupy, must at least dispute a corner of the syndicate's grounds. Else all we have done is for naught."
         "Do as you will, then. It matters not. I shall comply with the major's request."
         "Good." Jax folded his bionic arms. "Our next order of business is to work out specific combat tactics. Sub-Zero, you're the scientist, and I know you've studied cybernetics. Is there any way we can short out these robots?"
         "You mean, like a computer virus that would precipitate a total system crash? Or better yet, reprogram them to fight on our side?"
         "Whatever works."
         The scientist shook his head. "I don't know. I tried to tell you earlier, Boskonovitch is a genius in the field of data compression and safeguards. There isn't a virus in the world that he wouldn't know inside and out. If I had unlimited time and equipment to download the central program of one of those androids, maybe. But that would require at least a few months; at most, years. It once took me nearly six months to reprogram a single LK-4D4 unit, and that was when I had full access to-"
         "Enough for now. I see your point."
         "The good news is that if they are metal, our plasma rifles ought to melt a hole right through them. And if they're as unbalanced as Wulong says, then I could coat the ground under their feet with a film of ice."
         "Ice, or any other slippery surface," Lei agreed. "It's too bad these plains are so dry. The Jack-2 model is coated with a rustproof alloy, but a little mud could work wonders for our side..."
         Even as the words left his mouth, a vivid fork of lightning crisscrossed the heavens. A pervasive rumble of thunder followed. Without any further preamble, a steady stream of rain poured from the sky. Yet the droplets inexplicably bent around the Chosen Ones and their army, leaving them perfectly dry while the loose earth surrounding them turned to moist clay.
         Jun looked at Lei, inquisitively, as did Wang and the Chosen Ones. The cop spread his hands and shook his head in total incomprehension.
         "It seems we have the blessings of the gods," Raven said, speaking aloud for the first time.



         Not a god. Not anymore.
         Now, I am simply Raiden, demoted to the standing of a flesh-and-blood mortal. Once, I could have sent a deluge to flood the Mishima syndicate off the face of the Earth, and lightning bolts to electrocute the evil within. That was in the past. Yet I retain a fraction of my once-godly powers, such as a mortal gifted with elemental Talent might possess, and it is my rainstorm that turns the dirt of the desolate plains into slick mud. There is no plant life to absorb the water; the Shao Kahn's curse has made the last vestiges of greenery shrivel and revert to dust.
         I watch from above, I write, and I worry, even as the Chosen Ones discuss their strategic options and eventually conclude their war council. The forces of Light and the forces of Darkness both rest, awaiting the clash they all know will come with the morning.



         Most of the Chosen Ones' army slumbered. Nightwolf was one such; Rock, Wolf, and T. Hawk took turns watching protectively over him. Others could not fall asleep so easily; Second Lieutenant Sparky belonged to this category. He demonstrated his favorite card game to his recently promoted comrades, Zeke, Pete, and Paco. Nearby, Liu Kang spoke quietly to Wang Jinrey.
         "I understand that you have prophesied disaster, should we choose to slay Kazuya," the monk began. "I respect that. Yet I would know if the sole rationale behind your prediction is a fear that, in such an event, we will become like him."
         "It is the only reason I know of, at this time," the aged prophet answered. "Is it not enough?"
         "By itself? No. It is the existence of your oracular vision that convinces me. They say you are touched by the gods. I have encountered divine prophecies before; they have an unnerving tendency to come true."
         Lei Wulong paid little attention to their conversation. He tested his reflexes, which, after ten days of abstinence from drink, were as close to normal as he would need - or so he hoped. A spin, a snap, a single twist, and his 9mm automatic was in his hand as if by magic, ready to fire. With a flick of his wrist, the gun disappeared, in favor of a silver-bladed knife. A close and knowledgeable inspection might spot either weapon concealed beneath the loose folds of his azure fighting coat; then again, it might not.
         Jun Kazama watched him, almost hypnotized by the instantaneous fluidity of his movements. She did not carry a firearm or a blade. Her only weapons were her own Power, and a silver bracelet around her wrist. She looked down into the jewelry's gleaming sparkle, as if searching for a truth hidden to her own heart.
         Yet among entire militia, none were so deeply engrossed in thought as Major Jackson Briggs. Jax sincerely hated waiting, but as bad as that was, his own doubts were worse.
         Two thousand good-hearted men and women followed him. Trusted him. They were ready to risk their lives at his command. And for what? He had told them that they would wage a righteous war against the forces of Evil, and take back the world that the Shao Kahn has stolen. But only a handful of people knew the whole truth: their sweat, their tears, and their life's blood were little more than a distraction, bait for the trap.
         The major's troops retained a few advantages. Not only was there Nightwolf's projectile ward; Jax had certain abilities wired into the hardware of his bionic arms, abilities that, he speculated, Kazuya did not know about. These would help reduce the seemingly insurmountable odds, yet even so...
         Tomorrow morning, the major might well lead his entire army to their deaths. And he could not be certain that their sacrifice would have any meaning at all.
         "All right, Jax. What is it?"
         "Huh?" the major blearily mumbled. Sonya crouched next to where he rested, appraising him with thoughtful suspicion.
         "You've got that morbid look on your face again. Out with it. What are you obsessing over this time?"
         "Nothing I can say aloud. Kazuya could be watching us right now."
         "Oh, really? Then I hope he takes a good look at this." She turned in the direction of the syndicate, and defiantly thrust her upraised middle finger in the air.


         Inside the syndicate's forbidding walls, Lee Chaolan drew and examined his fighting dagger.
         It was an excellent weapon. The prancing unicorn on its hilt had a silver mane, tail, hooves, and horn, and its inset gemstone eye refracted light in a shining sparkle. As for the blade, it was long and tapered, finely honed on both edges. The point was so sharp that when he gently touched it to the base of his palm, it lifted free a tiny droplet of red. A thought occurred to him, concerning how easy it would be to draw the knife's edge from his wrist to inner elbow, and watch the resulting dark crimson fountain spill as freely as the downpour outside.
         He detached this idea from the miasma of bitterness within, and held it up to the light like a fine crystal. Perhaps its most appealing facet was that Kazuya would be annoyed. Lee's brother would not shed a single tear, yet he would be burdened with the chore of selecting a new vice-president, or - Satan forgive - doing his own goddamn dirty work.
         "Young master?" inquired a nervous voice.
         Lee's gaze drifted to Shimada the jailer, who flinched and shrank back. Few things are more intimidating than the cold look of a person who does not care whether he lives or dies.
         "You have something to report?"
         "I-I just wanted to tell you that your instructions have been carried out, young master. The chains are freshly anchored, the cell is reinforced, and the door can be bolted from the outside with silver and iron. Not even a wild animal could break out. We used Alex and Kuma to test it."
         "Good work. Go."
         Shimada appeared only too glad to scamper away.
         Lee realized that the jailer had avoided so much as looking at him, face-to-face, during the entire exchange. Or any time in the past five days, for that matter. The silver-haired devil wondered why. He acknowledged that the rest of the syndicate would be leery of him, but Shimada was a specialist in torture, and quite familiar with its effects on appearance.


         And Kazuya himself?
         The master sorcerer paced the length of his inner sanctum, conjuring visions of the outside world. He glowered at the rainstorm, which reduced the view of his android army to a misty haze of splashing water.
         Something pulled at the back of his mind. It felt like an unfinished task, subconsciously ignored in the midst of other concerns. He reviewed the past five days step by step, and finally remembered.
         May as well get it over with.
         Kazuya summoned the portal to his carpeted antechamber and passed through. He took no notice of Boskonovitch fine-tuning Project Loki, underneath the watchful scrutiny of Ishida, Kimura, and Bruce, among others. It was Lee's responsibility to oversee their work. The master sorcerer did not acknowledge his underlings' respectful bows, or Boskonovitch's frightened recoil, as he stepped through the great double doors.
         Kazuya blinked from the light of the delicately wrought candelabra overhead. He realized that he had not ventured outside his antechamber for a fortnight, ever since he tried to mind-probe a rebellious prisoner and nearly lost his sanity for it. Ever since Ganryu disloyally tried to intervene on her behalf, and Kazuya responded by cauterizing his chief bodyguard's brain.
         The master sorcerer looked upon the stiff, heavyset form of the one-time sumo wrestler, planted in a wide-legged stance before the great double doors. Ganryu's glazed eyes were focused directly ahead. They showed less life than those of the androids patrolling the syndicate.
         "Ganryu. Hear me," Kazuya commanded.
         Thunder rumbled outside. Ganryu sluggishly turned his head, without moving his body.
         "You must depart this station at once."
         The big man spoke, in a slow monotone. His voice was hoarse, sepulchral. "Mishima-sama is my master. Must protect Mishima-sama."
         Kazuya's jet black eyebrows formed an irascible V-shape. "I have no need of your protection. You are to vacate these immediate premises."
         "Must protect. Be loyal."
         Kazuya scowled.
         The thought of killing Ganryu came and went. He had promised Lee that he would spare the bodyguard's life in exchange for Michelle's death, and Kazuya preferred to keep his promises, when they were explicitly given. He contemplated the dilemma, and arrived upon another possible approach.
         "I intend to make use of the syndicate's detention facilities, in the near future. I need you to secure them for me. You must go there and make them safe, so that you can protect me, should I arrive for inspection. Do you understand?"
         "Must protect. Be loyal."
         "Yes, you must protect me. Go down to the prisons and keep them safe for me. Go. Leave. Now."
         At first, it seemed as though the half-truth would have no effect; then Ganryu ponderously turned away and shuffled down the hall, his heavy, mechanical tread again recalling the inhuman robots that patrolled the syndicate.
         An ominous new presence settled upon the master sorcerer's mind.
         It was invisible, intangible, yet all-encompassing. Kazuya traveled down the hall, but he could not walk away from the sensation. The very air turned into a thick, cloying soup that clogged his lungs. As he ascended a set of shallow, red-carpeted stairs, the otherworldly presence made the syndicate's interior shimmer, and swim. The master sorcerer moved onto an exterior balcony, passing from the inside aether into a splashing downpour that soaked his cloth and drenched his skin.


         *They are coming for you.*
         The presence speaks in a voice that transcends sound, slicing through layers of consciousness. Time slows, and comes to a virtual standstill, in the shadow of an inexorable force.
         Kazuya does not search for the origin of the warning. He looks straight ahead, into the rain, into the darkness. "Let them come. I am ready. Your Chosen have fallen to me; the gods' Chosen shall do the same."

         *Not all of my Chosen have fallen.*
         "Wulong and Kazama are the only ones left who oppose me, and they shall presently cease to do so. If Kazama is not with the army, then she will perish when Sanctuary perishes. And Wulong's soul is already mine. The rest of him will soon follow."

         *It is not too late for you to turn back.*
         "You are mistaken."
         He hears a fluttering rustle underneath the steady hiss of rain, and feels the motion of air on the back of his neck.

         *Your new ally has abandoned you. Left you to face the forces of Light on your own. He is waiting for you to fail.*
         "I will not fail."

         *In the end, he shall turn upon you.*
         "The Shao Kahn and his minions cannot harm me in any manner. Our contract expressly forbids it."

         *Entropy shall find a way to dissolve any restriction. It consumes everything, with eternal voracity.*
         "You are no better."

         *I am a part of the Cosmic Balance.*
         "Then I shall cast down the Balance, and lift the Scale of the New Era in its place.
         "You belong to the old order. You are apathy and suffering, injustice and hypocrisy. I have seen your blight, and buried your victims. You personify all that I hate. At least the Shao Kahn has the honesty to admit what he is, and the desolation he works. Yes, I know he is watching me for his entertainment; let him watch, and let him be entertained. I will never yield to you."
         The Angel's white-feathered wings spread wide.
         She embraces Kazuya from behind, tenderly putting her alabaster hand upon his chest. A blazing streak of lightning frames them both in grey and white; his determined eyes glitter blood-red in the brilliance, then cool to jet black, matching the nighttime darkness.

         *You shall return to me. In one form or another, you shall return. All mortals do.*



         As starless night became sunless dawn, the rainstorm ceased. Tension hung thick and heavy on the moist air. Lei and Jun each had to take one of Liu Kang's hands, in order to establish the telepathic link by which they would serve as his reagents. Jun's face briefly showed a disturbed reaction when she clasped the monk's dry, calloused fingers. Consciously repressing his distaste, Lei followed suit-


         Pain.
         The sword slices into his body, carving through his length like a serrated kitchen knife through a finely cooked game hen. Nothing he can do will stop it. He turns, he twists, he attacks, he exhales searing dragonfire, but his every effort is denied. The sword returns again and again. Agony laces the cuts, and his lifeblood streams from many wounds. His Power is for nothing; he is going to die at the hands of a common mortal-



         Lei's head snapped back, as he wrested free of the violent memory. He met Liu Kang's tawny eyes, and a new understanding, even sympathy, blossomed.
         "So that's why you've been acting so insufferable these past few days," the cop mused. "You're afraid, and trying to hide it. Kazuya's lackey came that close to killing you, and now that you have to take on the bastard himself-"
         "Quiet!" the monk harshly snapped, pulling away his hand. "I am the strongest of the Chosen. I shall crush this Kazuya in single combat, as I will all who defy me!"
         "Here's hoping you're right."
         Liu Kang started to snarl something, winced, and pressed one forearm beneath his ribcage.
         "Are you okay?" Jun asked.
         Stop. Do not use words that the enemy can overhear. Feel along the link; speak to me with your mind. The monk straightened, and forced his arm by his side. It is only a shared memory. My sanity will hold.
         I know,
she replied, through steady concentration. I feel it, too. But if Lei can get used to it, so can we.
         Enough stalling,
Lei abruptly interposed. We've got a job to do.
         This way,
Liu Kang agreed. He led them toward the syndicate.
         When they reached its border, Jun stumbled and fell to hands and knees. Lei sensed her distress along their three-way link, and dropped in a crouch to support her.
         Are you all right?
         Can't you hear it?
she thought back, despairingly. They're enslaved. They suffer. There are so many souls trapped here, on these grounds!
         You must ignore them,
Liu Kang sternly constrained. Focus on the mission.
         One of them is calling my name... I don't know who it is...
         Ignore them! Focus!
         But she... she's trying to tell me something...

         Lei helped the shaken healer to stand. It's all right, ki- eh, Jun. We're here to set them free. Remember Wang's prophecy about you? You have to be strong.
         I can't hear what she's saying, the others are screaming too loudly-
         Ignore them, I said!
Liu Kang commanded. Focus! Do you have the resolution to guide our mission, or not?
         I'm sorry.
She rubbed the inner corners of her eyes, and did her best to block out the tortured psychic cries. She had to attune herself to the wisdom of the earth spirits, who showed her a safe path through the mines.
         This way. Tread only where I tread, and be careful. Now it was she who took the lead.
         Fortunately, once they were past the minefield, threading among the artificial robots and scattering of humans proved to be a simple matter. Neither men nor machines appeared to notice the three strangers quietly slipping past them. Liu Kang's sorcerous cloak, bolstered a great deal by Lei's potential and a little more by Jun's, was holding.
         When they were halfway to the syndicate's inner complex, Liu Kang froze. Through him, Lei and Jun felt the threatening presence of necromantic Power overhead. A black, winged hawk-shape glided above them, its piercing eyes of red fire blazing like twin stars. Then it was gone.
         It could not see us, the monk affirmed, but beneath his air of conviction, Lei and Jun felt an underground sea of relief.
         They approached an unguarded door to the syndicate's central complex. Liu Kang tried the handle; it opened without resistance, allowing them to venture inside.
         I don't like this. It's too easy, Lei worriedly communicated. Where are the sentries, where are the locks? I don't even see any infrared burglar alarms.
         Do not preoccupy yourself with trivia,
Liu Kang sharply corrected. The enemy's foolishness is all to our gain.
         Can you turn into a dragon now? It'd make me feel safer.
         To transform would require me to neglect the cloaking spell. When I am a dragon, I cannot concentrate on the subtle nuances of sorcerous invisibility; I think and react as a natural predator.
         You mean, your IQ drops to the level of a rock.

         Jun felt the level of hostility between the two men rise. To stem the mounting tide, she advised, Come on, we have to keep moving. The antechamber is this way.
         Despite her own suggestion, though, she was dearly tempted to stop and look around. They passed through halls richly decorated with elegant paintings, marble sculptures, finely woven carpets, and ornate golden candelabra. All of these lavish furnishings were new to her. Heihachi Mishima used to keep this place bare and spartan. It must have been Kazuya who embellished the syndicate with works of beauty.
         No other people crossed their careful path; apparently, nearly all of the syndicate's employees had been conscripted to serve in the forthcoming war. The three infiltrators had scant trouble reaching the great double doors to Kazuya's antechamber, which had been propped wide open. Inside, darkness spread like tepid amorphia.
         Jun hesitated.
         Are you sure this is where we'll find Kazuya? Lei asked.
         Well, Uncle Wang said the antechamber has some kind of portal to his inner sanctum, which is where Kazuya likes to work his sorcery and spy on the outside world. If he's not in his inner sanctum now, then it's only a matter of time before he returns to it. But-
         Liu Kang pushed past her, striding confidently through the doorway.
         Wait, dammit! Lei cautioned. At least give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness. I can see the heat-shadows of several people inside!
         It makes no difference. Kazuya may be there, or not, yet in either case they cannot perceive us.

         Lei hurried to catch up with the monk, then stopped and blinked when the surroundings became apparent to his light-sensitive eyes. Bruce Irvin was there, along with half a dozen other black-clad bodyguards. They held long-necked, modified rifles, and warily stood at attention.
         Kazuya reclined in a cushioned central throne. The master sorcerer's eyes were closed, and his folded hands rested in his lap.
         Why is there a throne? Lei wondered. I thought Wang said this room had no furniture.
         Something isn't right,
Jun added. I can feel it on the wind, in the cries of the souls-
         Irrelevant,
Liu Kang dismissed. Jun felt him reach out telepathically to Jax, giving the army its signal to attack.
         Lei peered more closely at Kazuya. Kang, wait. There's something funny about his heat-shadow; it's a couple centimeters short of his outline. I don't like the looks of his guards, either-
         It matters not. Once I give the challenge in physical person, the necromancer must answer it, or forfeit his Power.
         No,
don't-!
         "Kazuya Mishima!" the monk shouted, dropping his mystic cloak. "I challenge you to single combat!"
         The master sorcerer's eyes flicked open.
         "Yeah, right," he drawled, indifferently.
         Lei's suspicions immediately crystallized into solid certainty. The real Kazuya did not talk like that. Ever.
         "IT'S A TRAP!" the cop screamed, snapping his gun into his hand. Yet even as he brought it to bear, irresistible lassitude made his fingers fall slack. His legs crumpled beneath him. A stinging sensation itched on the side of his neck; it came from a drugged dart, which had lodged itself there the instant their cover had been broken.
         The bait had been taken, and the snare was sprung. As a black curtain muffled Lei's senses, the last thing he saw was Jun, calling white sparks of Ki to her fingertips.
         Despite the risks inherent to tampering with one's bloodstream, Jun tried to make her healing Power counteract the drug-coated dart in her shoulder. She swayed, yet tenaciously hung on to consciousness as "Kazuya" stood up from his throne. In a crackle of energy, the technological illusion of Project Loki faded. The holographic image of the master sorcerer broke into static, which gave way to the silver-haired figure of Lee Chaolan.
         The healer gasped.
         Shock and sadness engulfed her in a chaotic maelstrom of emotion, unraveling the Power that flickered and leaked through her fingers. Her legs buckled. Tears brimmed in her eyes. A spasmodic shudder crept past her shoulders.
         "Lee, no," she whispered. "What has he done to you?"
         Jagged, blackened burn-scars sliced down the length of Lee's face, dividing his cheeks and twisting his skin into a ghastly, savaged mask. His eyebrows had been singed off; all that remained were twin welts. Clumps of his silver hair had been burned or torn away at the roots. His unicorn vest hung loosely open; through it, she could see more blisters lacing his chest and arms like zebra stripes.
         Anyone else would have found his cold gaze indecipherable, but she had once been close to him for many years. She identified the surprise, dismay, and perhaps a hint of internal conflict behind his steady auburn eyes. She carried that last impression, and the hope it lent to her heart, into the black realm of unconsciousness.
         Liu Kang was the final one to succumb. He called on his inner Power to change into dragon form, yet a motion of Lee's fingers sent another dart into his stomach, and chemically induced weakness brought him down.
         "Coward!" he hissed through his teeth, falling to all fours. "Fight me! Stand and fight...!" His arms spread underneath him, and he sprawled on his face.
         Lee's emotionless voice was the last thing he heard. It carried a harsh rasp, due to the burn-scars that laced the silver-haired devil's throat.
         "I wish I could, but Kazuya has other plans for you."


End of Chapter 18: Bait for the Trap