ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 20: Monsters


    Now here is a riddle to guess if you can...
    What makes a monster and what makes a man?

         -Clopin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame [animated motion picture]


         Kazuya observed the carnage with avid interest.
         Through one of the many mirrors enclosing his inner sanctum, the master sorcerer watched the prison cell that contained Liu Kang the monk, Jun Kazama the healer, Shimada the torturer, and the hissing, spitting demon that had once been Lei Wulong. The demon's livid blue arms wrenched apart its chains as if they were fragile wire filaments.
         Shimada tried to flee.
         He found the cell's only exit locked and bolted from the outside. Lethal claws sliced into the torturer's midsection, carving out one of his floating ribs and making him drop his iron brand. Consumed with panic, Shimada retreated to the blazing hearth and reached for two more heated metal pokers. Demon-Lei's hands wrapped around the torturer's wrists, and pulled with inhuman strength. Shimada let out a shrill, high-pitched wail as his limbs were torn from their sockets; his bright red blood splashed copiously on the fireplace. Demon-Lei lunged for him again, taloned claws carving deep rents from throat to abdomen, and scooping out a tangled morass of bloody entrails.
         The torturer's death-wail cut short. He toppled into the crackling fire. His blood and intestines reduced the flames to glowing coals. In the semidarkness, demon-Lei's eyes blazed solid red, matching the luminescence of the mark in the center of his brow.
         Kazuya nodded to himself.
         His plan was working, if not as well as he might hope, then as suitably as he expected. Lei Wulong had not yet chosen to embrace his gift of demonic Power; if he had, then he would kill with the exacting precision of conscious intellect, not the rabid fury of animal instinct. Because Lei resisted the Power, it reduced him to the level of a mad beast - a beast that would in turn slaughter its cellmates, while they huddled trapped and helpless in their heavy chains. When demon-Lei ran out of victims to kill, he would revert to human form, with the fresh blood of his allies staining his hands. Only then, when Lei could no longer pretend to be any less of a brutal murderer than Kazuya himself, would the master sorcerer have a chance of turning Lei's allegiance.
         Perhaps it would not work. Perhaps Lei would destroy himself, or remain defiant to the end. But Kazuya had confidence that Lei could be broken and recast in the appropriate mold. The master sorcerer had delved the depths of Lei's mind, and felt the similar bonds of hatred and determination. He'd already claimed possession of Lei's soul; the remainder would soon-
         What?
         A dissonant feeling plucked at the back of Kazuya's mind. He shook his head and closed his eyes. The sensation persisted.
         Something was wrong; the Power at his command no longer seemed quite so solid, or every bit as responsive. Clenching his teeth, the master sorcerer turned to his other mirrors, which monitored the ongoing war between his own forces and the Chosen Ones' militia.
         "Shimatta," Kazuya growled, disgustedly.
         Foremost among the ranks of that meager little militia was one of the Chosen, a thick-muscled black man who had become neither meager nor little. Through some form of wizardry, be it sorcerous or scientific, he had increased to impossibly gigantic size, towering higher than many a building. The giant kicked and swatted aside Jack-2 androids as if they were mosquitos. He stomped his foot, and the last of the hidden mines exploded in a shower of wet mud. Cheers sounded from the army that followed his cleared trail, onto the grounds of the syndicate. Their very presence, their usurpation of a sliver of the soul-snaring grid woven into Kazuya's property, undermined the master sorcerer's Power just a tiny bit.
         This could not be tolerated. It would seem, Kazuya reflected, that he'd have to personally involve himself in this pathetic war after all.
         The master sorcerer gathered his strength, focusing the whole of his consciousness on the battlefield. Behind him, and without the necessary modicum of psychic energy to sustain itself, the extraneous vision of the prison cell winked out.



         "Lei, no!" Jun shrieked, fearfully. The demon ignored her. It continued to rend Shimada into bloody pieces, well after the last spark of life had fled the torturer's glassy eyes.
         "Kazama!" Liu Kang hissed. "You must act now, while the monster is distracted-"
         "'Distracted'?" she echoed, in a horrified whimper.
         "Pull yourself together, damn you! Can you not remove my collar?"
         She wrested her eyes away from the bloodshed. "I-I don't think - I mean, the collar has a powerful ward on its lock. If I try to open it with anything except the key Lee wears, it will probably kill you. Or me. But I might have a chance against your other shackles-"
         "Then attend to the chains on my feet, now!"
         Jun crawled toward him, as close as the brace around her own ankles would allow. When she stretched her arms to their furthest length, she was just barely able reach the locks that secured the monk's feet to the wall. Though the collar around her neck disabled her sorcery, she could still hear the whispers of the wind spirits. She beseeched them for guidance, and through the motion of air currents, she felt the shape of the lock's inner mechanism.
         Jun poked the tip of her unicorn-hilt dagger into the keyhole. She had surreptitiously lifted the weapon from Lee's boot, scant moments ago; now, the knife made an unwieldy, yet serviceable tool. Her collar would not let her cast any spells to unlatch Liu Kang's locks, but that sorcery was only an extension of her own knowledge. With the aid of the wind spirits, she could sense and depress the tumbler just... about...
         There!
         She did not pause to celebrate her accomplishment, but rather set to work twice as quickly on the lock that shackled Liu Kang's other foot. Undo a manacle, free an animal from its cage, open a steel-jawed trap; in the end, how much difference is there between any of these things?
         "Excellent," said Liu Kang. He landed on the ground in a crouch, and stood as though being strung against a wall for gods know how long had not stiffened his muscles in any way. Jun briefly wondered how he'd gotten his hands free; then she saw that the joints of his thumbs' metacarpals were folded underneath his palms at an unnatural angle. He'd dislocated his bones in order to slip out his wrists.
         Liu Kang effortlessly reset his joints. Perhaps his hands would be sore for a little while, but any damage he'd inflicted on them would rapidly heal. If only his feet hadn't been shackled, then he would have turned on his captors well prior to this moment, but he couldn't dislocate his heels in the same way. As it was-
         "HssssSSSSSSS..."
         -he had a severe problem. Demon-Lei had finished butchering the torturer into unrecognizable scraps of meat, and now it turned toward him. Light from the fire's embers framed the demon in an unholy red glow, shifting shade from bright crimson to deep maroon, and glimmering upon the sanguine fluid that soaked its arms.
         "I always knew it would come to this, Wulong," the monk said, turning the side of his body to the demon, and raising his bent arms to shield his chest and abdomen.
         "Liu, be careful," Jun pleaded. "If you can just knock him out, he'll change back into human-"
         "Silence, woman. Do not distract me."
         "HsssSSSHAH!"
         Jun swallowed, heavily. She dearly wished she had her bracelet, for she could have used its technology to subdue demon-Lei without hurting him. But the device was gone from her wrist; her captors must have recognized it for the weapon it was, and confiscated it. There was nothing she could do now except set to work on her own chains, and pray.
         The lock sealing the braces around her ankles was substantially harder to deal with. She had to consciously block out the demon's incensed hissing and Liu Kang's piercing battle cries while she worked. Just as the clasp broke open, and she could rub her sore ankles, she heard two discordant sounds at once: the demon's wheezing sputter, and Liu Kang's pained squawk.
         Jun looked up.
         Three twining trails of liquid red marked a savage rupture in Liu Kang's right shoulder. The demon swayed, favoring its right leg, though there was no way to tell whether any of its own blood had mixed with Shimada's.
         The healer stood. Her joints and tendons protested the strain; she ignored the stiffness, saying, "Let me try to deal with him, Liu. I've subdued him once before-"
         "I told you to be quiet! I shall crush this wretched beast, as I will all who defy me!"
         "HsssSSSHAH!"
         Human and demon clashed in a vicious tangle. The fiend's claws struck for Liu Kang's chest, yet even as its shoulder moved to take the action, the monk was already twisting to the side. Demon-Lei's claws cleaved air alone. Liu Kang immediately took advantage of the opening; while the demon recovered from the momentum of its swing, the monk slipped behind it, curled his arm around its neck, and attempted to choke it into submission.
         The demon reached behind itself, seizing Liu Kang's upper arms. It bent in half, and its superior strength easily pitched the monk over its head. Liu Kang landed on his feet, but not quite stable.
         The blood-red mark on demon-Lei's forehead changed color to sparkling gold.
         Shining radiance parted the ash-gray forelock in his sable bangs. Demon-Lei straightened, tilting his head back. His arms flexed at the elbows and flung wide. An infernal blast of golden brilliance leaped from the center of his brow.
         Liu Kang tried to dodge, but he was caught off-balance, and could not recover quickly enough to evade the instantaneous javelin of light. It touched him, enveloped him, consumed him in a flash of golden fire, followed by rippling crackles of azure, indigo, and violet energy. He screamed once and fell to his knees, his muscles limp and paralyzed.
         "HSSSS!"
         The demon's serrated teeth glistened pearly white against the shadows. It took hold of the insensate monk's arms, ready to tear him apart just like Shimada.
         "STOP IT!" Jun demanded. She rushed the demon and rammed it with her shoulder.
         "HSSHAH!"
         The demon's left arm let go of Liu Kang and struck at her, while its right arm flung the monk into the wall. A heavy impact stunned Jun. Her teeth cut into the inner lining of her cheek, and her face met the hard floor. A nightmarish past memory of being similarly attacked spiraled through her mind; she pushed it away and did her best to stand, despite the uncoordinated dizziness that made the shadowy surroundings reel like a horrific merry-go-round.
         Somewhere in the swirling chaos, she glimpsed Liu Kang sprawled and unmoving on the floor. She could not count on any more help from him.
         As this sober reality sank into her dazed mind, the wind spirits screamed a warning into her ears, and she retreated scarcely in time to evade a slash that would have shredded her stomach. The demon snarled, stumbled, and lunged in a low, feline pounce. Its wicked claws cut deep into her right thigh. Her muscles constricted with pain; she limped a step further back-
         Her leg wouldn't work.
         Jun did not look down upon her wound, but it hurt like the hosts of perdition, and she could put no weight on her limb. She lost her balance, and started to fall. Dangling wall-chains flashed before her eyes; she grabbed them with one hand and hung on, using them to keep herself upright as she dragged her good leg close enough to prop herself against the wall.
         A scant few meters away, demon-Lei's blood-red, soulless eyes stared into hers.
         Fear devoured her. If she weren't giddy from a concussion, if she could stand on her own, if she could use her sorcery, she might stand a chance against the monster Lei had become. But without the leverage to apply her own strength, her chances of turning his strength against him were practically nil.
         Unless...
         She still had the unicorn-hilt knife. When demon-Lei next charged her, she could thrust the weapon into his eye, impaling his brain. She would have to go for the kill; anything less would leave him ample opportunity to gut her. If she could strike him dead on the spot, then maybe, just maybe, she and Liu Kang would have a slim chance of completing their mission-
         Tears brimmed in the healer's eyes.
         Though the creature before her retained no spark of Lei's conscious awareness, it still had his face, and to kill one would be to kill the other. Her knife-hand shook; sweat covered her palms, undermining her grip on the weapon and the wall-chain. Looking upon the demon, she thought of Lei - his kindness, his quiet humility, his fierce loyalty to her and her friends. She remembered the drowning sea of self-hatred that poisoned him on the inside, and the inlet of compassion and caring that surfaced above it. She remembered how he had held her, in the hour before dawn, when he had chosen to sacrifice his life for hers. And she remembered her feelings, which she had uncertainly kept sealed within her own heart. At last, she recognized them for what they were, and knew that she could never kill Lei.
         Neither could she allow him to kill her. She thought of how Lei had reacted when he believed he'd slain Chief Thunder, and knew that to let Lei become her murderer would be as cruel to him as killing him, if not more so.
         What did that leave?
         "Lei?" she softly implored, through the gathering tears. "Isn't there any part of you that remembers me?"
         The demon hunched in a half-crouch, and hissed like a furious cat.
         It was hesitating, but not from any recollection of goodwill. No, it more likely remembered that she had beaten it before, judging from the cautious glare of its eyes and the anxious tension in its muscles. Once bitten, twice shy. Not for long, though; sooner or later, it would figure out that she was crippled, and then it would move to finish her off.
         "Lei? Please, don't you know me?" She gazed deep into the demon's solid red eyes, searching in vain for any trace of the person she cared so deeply about, the person she...
         The person she...


         Looks like you called it wrong, doesn't it? Well, look again.


         Lei's voice sounded, not from the demon before her, but from the recesses of her own memory. The healer's eyebrows went down in puzzlement.


         Look closer. Don't stop at the surface.


         Jun looked, not only with her eyes, but with her soul.
         She extended her senses, taking in the demon's rapid, deepened breathing, its quivering posture, and its breathy, constant hissing. Borne on the spirits of the wind, she could feel the quickened pounding of its heart, and smell its increased perspiration amidst the charnel odor of fresh blood. The healer was familiar with all these symptoms, and the natural reflex that prompted them.
         In that moment, she perceived the truth. The truth that had been before her all along.
         "You're afraid," she whispered, lowering the knife.
         The demon made a feral, hawking sound.
         "Nightwolf said that you are the product of hatred, but hatred is itself the product of fear," she continued, compassionately, without anxiety or anger. "Physical pain brings you to the surface, and you remain in constant agony because Kazuya took your soul. You don't understand what's making you hurt so badly or why; in confusion and terror, you lash out at everything around you. You're like a wolf caught in a trap, who tries to bite anything that comes near it."
         "HssssSSSSSSS..."
         "It's all right. We're not here to hurt you." Leaning against the wall to support herself, she let go of the dangling chain and slowly held out her open hand, palm up.
         The demon's legs coiled, preparing to launch it in a murderous attack.
         Jun began to sing.



         Jax's giant form swept away android and human enemies alike. Yet just as the major led his army into the syndicate's territory, he felt the harsh crackle of sorcery. Indigo Ki enveloped the microcomputer he wore on his wrist. In an explosion of fiery sparks, the device shorted out. Five seconds after that, he reverted to ordinary size, winded and all but helpless with exhaustion. He swore a bitter curse.
         "It's just as well," he heard Sonya mutter underneath the chaotic din of battle. "Another minute and that microchip would've killed you. At least now we're in enemy territory; all we have to do is hold our position until-"
         Nightwolf cried out.
         He was not the only one. The emerald glow that had shielded the Chosen Ones' warriors and soldiers flickered; the army yelled as a few stray bullets made it past the projectile ward and tore into their bodies. At the peak of their formation, Sonya saw one of her sub-lieutenants, Zeke, go down, with a crimson stream flowing from what was left of his head. Baek Doo San, the commander of Kazuya's human troops, laughed wildly as an indigo glow warded his forces from return fire. The horde of enemy androids intensified their attack.
         "Help me!" Nightwolf exclaimed, slipping to his knees. "Kazuya is fighting my sorcery!" Sub-Zero and Kung Lao were already there, supporting him, but the grim, strained look on Sub-Zero's face did not bode well, and the dark shadow of Kung Lao's hat stopped just short of his grave frown.
         "Chosen Ones, to me!" Nightwolf declared. "We must all stand together if we are to have any chance!"
         Jax, weakened and winded, limped toward him. Kung Lao clasped the major's hand. Kurtis Stryker also joined the human chain.
         Kabal grumbled, "No soy brujo-"
         "You are Chosen by the gods, and that links us despite your lack of Talent!" Nightwolf shouted, answering the skepticism behind the words. Kabal took Stryker's hand.
         Sonya turned, ready to delegate her command to Second Lieutenant Sparky, but he had already anticipated her need and taken charge. Raven coordinated her efforts with his, smoothing the transition. Sonya took Jax's hand.
         In a sudden, whirlwind rush of sensations, she felt Kazuya's staggering Power.
         She could hear the agonized cries of the enslaved souls that fueled it, and the relentless tidal wave of his will pressing against her and her allies. His raging sea of hatred flooded her, drowning her thoughts. Seven Chosen Ones struggled against the master sorcerer, and the whole of their combined essence was many times greater than the sum of its individual parts, yet Kazuya had the strength of two thousand souls behind him. His Power superseded the Chosen Ones' by a palpable margin, slowly overwhelming them all, for the strongest of their number was somewhere within the Mishima syndicate, unable to lend his aid.
         And then withered, frail hands clasped Sonya's and Kabal's, as an eighth person turned the human chain into a circle. He filled Liu Kang's vacancy with the courage and wisdom of many years. His composed, harmonious frame of mind eased the disjoint personality conflicts in their group consciousness, and bolstered their combined Power to the point where they could, just barely, resist Kazuya's efforts to destroy them. Nightwolf's projectile ward stabilized, though Kazuya successfully kept his own troops similarly protected.
         Sonya curiously regarded the newcomer who had turned the tide, and was ultimately not surprised to see Wang Jinrey. A gripping fear still troubled her.
         "Isn't Kazuya supposed to be fighting Liu Kang, right now? And if he is, then how can he spare the effort to work sorcery? Unless Liu has already been..."
         She trailed off, not wanting to finish the sentence. Kung Lao started to tell her that he'd know if his Shaolin brother had perished, but remembered that Kazuya was watching them and held his tongue.
         "We must fight on," Wang insisted, with the forceful self-assurance of a prophecy. "Do not lose hope, else we shall lose all!"
         Well, at least we've got Kazuya's attention, Sonya thought to herself. Let's see how long we can keep it.



         Mellifluous singing filled Liu Kang's ears.
         The last thing he remembered was being flung into the wall. His head hurt from the sharp rap against cold stone. How long had he been unconscious? Minutes? Hours? No, it couldn't have been for too much time, because the lingering effect of demon-Lei's infernal blast still weakened him. His muscles did respond to his wishes, just not as quickly or gracefully as he desired. Endeavoring to remain silent, he pushed himself off the ground, and turned his head enough to see a miracle.
         She was holding the monster at bay.
         Jun actually kept the fiend spellbound, wrapped in her web of music. In the guttering remnants of firelight, Liu Kang could hardly make out demon-Lei's shadowy outline, and Jun's silhouette. She was wounded, able to stand only with assistance from the wall, yet her song had an inner strength in distinct contrast to her external frailty. She sang a hauntingly beautiful, wordless melody. The demon stayed in a partial crouch, its clawed hands poised like the forelimbs of a praying mantis; it swayed in unconscious rhythm to her music, and did not attack.
         When - no, how had Jun become so powerful that she could bind a demon to her will? How could she work sorcery, with the runic collar around her neck? For Liu Kang could see the device's glint of gold, a tiny spark of reflected light against the uniform gloom.
         No, questions later. For now, he had to deal with the emergency. Jun could not hold the monster off forever. Even now, Liu Kang could hear her tiring from blood loss, and the notes of her music grew weaker.
         The demon twitched, uncertainly. Liu Kang had to subdue the monster now, while it was still trapped in her snare. He crept nearer.
         "Lei o ai shite-imasu," Jun softly called, tears trickling down her cheeks.
         The demon straightened.
         Its head moved in response to the quiet pad of Liu Kang's feet, and it started to turn around. In a flash of instinct, Liu Kang knew that it was aware of him. He had only one chance. If he attempted to choke the fiend, it would just throw him off again. If he tried for a head blow, he might knock it senseless. Yet the monster had the strength of an elephant and the speed of a cheetah, while the monk's muscles were still sluggish and unreliable. The demon might well evade the attack, after which it would make short work of both Liu Kang and Jun, unless-


         For some crazy reason they left me my gun. It's strapped a little to the right of the small of my back, under my clothes.


         Lei himself had said this, an unguessable amount of time ago. In fact, the holster had slipped in the wake of his shape-change and the struggle; it now dangled by his hip. Lei's own weapon was in easy reach.
         Liu Kang had less than an eyeblink to weigh his options, select the surest one, and act upon it. Without another thought, he seized the firearm and pulled its trigger. The demon still had not completely turned around, and so the explosion hit it squarely in the back. It grunted and flopped on the floor.
         Jun screamed.
         "Silence!" Liu Kang harshly snapped. "I have just saved our lives, the only way I could! Your spell was faltering-"
         "THERE WAS NO SPELL!" she shrieked, trembling with unchecked emotion. "You - you're as much of a monster as Kazuya!"
         "Perhaps. To fight monsters, one must sometimes become a monster. Now, let me attend to your wound."
         "If you come any closer, I'll kill you!" she warned, brandishing her knife.
         Lei groaned.
         Liu Kang immediately stepped back, aiming his firearm. "Do not move, demon, else I shall fire!"
         "Uh... okay."
         The monk retracted his arms, holding the gun close to himself with its muzzle pointed skyward. "You are-?"
         "Sane? More or less. Can I stand up now?"
         "Are you not injured?"
         "Well, I... wait. I remember. You shot me in the back."
         "You do not sound wounded."
         The cop eased to his feet, rubbing his spine with one hand. "I think I've got a bruise the size of a cantaloupe. It's only a bruise because I'm wearing a bulletproof gift from Sub-Zero. Good thing you didn't know about it, or else you might have had the sense to aim for my head, you idiot."
         "Lei, thank the gods," Jun sobbed. "I was terrified you were-"
         "You're bleeding," Lei realized, turning to her. "Aw, no-"
         "It will heal," she reassured, feebly.
         Lei and Liu Kang helped her lie on the ground. Lei slipped off the bloodstained azure fighting coat he wore over Sub-Zero's textile armor, tore free a piece of its clean inner lining, and pressed the piece against Jun's wound. Liu Kang wrapped the coat's black sash around the injury to his shoulder. After a careful check for broken bones, Lei elevated Jun's legs above her head.
         "What do we do now?" she asked, distantly.
         "Now," Lei returned, "you are going to stay quiet and not move, until you come out of shock."
         "I mean, about the mission. We're trapped."
         "Not for long. Sooner or later, Kazuya will send someone to fetch me."
         "Are you sure?"
         "Yeah. The devious bastard never does anything without a deeper purpose. I don't think he sealed us in here just for the pleasure of watching me kill you. When his people come, we'll be ready for them."
         "They shall expect to find only you still alive," Liu Kang speculated. "We shall turn that to our advantage." He extended the handle of Lei's gun to the cop. "Allow me to return this. You are far more skilled than I in its use."
         Lei reclaimed his weapon. "You know, you're either very brave or very trusting."
         "Trusting. In your demon form, you have not the intelligence to use it upon me; in human form, you have not the desire."
         "Oh, but you're wrong."
         "Am I?"
         "I do have the desire; I'm just not going to give in to it." Lei put away his gun.
         "What I did, I did out of necessity. I cannot see in near-total darkness, as you can, so that I was unaware you had reverted to human-"
         "Save it. Once we bust out of here, we're splitting up. You protect Jun; I'll strike out on my own. At least that'll reduce our chances of killing each other."
         "I concur."
         Jun started to speak a faint protest, but Lei cut her off with, "Don't even say it. This is twice now my curse nearly made me kill you; I'm not going to tempt fate a third time."
         "But..."
         "You are outvoted, Kazama," Liu Kang serenely stated. "Two against one."



         Lee Chaolan unwrapped the bandage around his left arm.
         Its gauze was clean, of course; Kazuya had healed the wound well before the silver-haired devil had covered it. The bandage's only purpose had been to conceal the long, savage scar running from his palm to inner elbow, a stark reminder of his suicide attempt. Now Lee cast limp length of white cloth atop the paperwork on his desk, and wondered why he had bothered to hide the scar at all.
         Lee wondered why he bothered to do anything at all.
         This medium-sized room wasn't exactly an office; it was more of a storage bin. One big filing cabinet, with records of all the prisoners who had ever resided in the surrounding cells, or who slept in the vault beneath them. Lee wasn't sure why he kept track of their names and faces anymore. Maybe just because it was something to do.
         Lee opened Jun Kazama's file folder.
         It contained a photograph he'd taken when she was fifteen. The picture showed her sitting on the hood of a school bus, during a warm spring day. A chipmunk perched on her slender forearm; she smiled at it, benevolently. Next to the photograph, a sheet of paper listed the upgrades of her status from "missing" to "at large," and then "captured." The tip of Lee's pen touched the line below that, in preparation to writing "deceased."
         He couldn't do it.
         His pen quivered in his hand, until he had to set it down. The silver-haired devil exhaled a deep breath, and wiped his hand down the blackened burns that permanently scarred his face.
         By now, he reasoned, Lei Wulong had almost certainly killed his cellmates and reverted to human form.
         Lee fingered the master key on a thick chain around his neck. He thought of returning to that sealed slaughterhouse in order to retrieve Wulong, as Kazuya had instructed. He thought of looking on the carnage within, and seeing what was left of Jun's savaged body scattered upon the floor. A sickening urge to vomit coursed through his innards. Then, it occurred to him that he didn't have to look.
         Lee summoned Ishida and Kimura.
         The matched pair of bodyguards responded promptly, as always. For perhaps the thousandth time, Lee studied their impenetrable dark glasses, conservative black suits, neatly cropped hair and dispassionate demeanor, searching futilely for any distinction by which he could tell them apart. As if it mattered. As if anything mattered.
         "Bring Wulong to me," requested the silver-haired devil. "Be careful; use tranquilizer guns to pacify him, and see that he's effectively restrained."
         They bowed and left without a word.
         Lee's gaze drifted back to the photograph. Ashes from the smoking cigarette in his mouth spilled on it, obscuring Jun's picture in a crumbling haze.
         Lee set the cigarette in an ashtray. His arms became weaker; he rested them on the desk and slowly put his head down, blocking out the world and almost everything in it.
         Almost.
         Murderer, Michelle's soul whispered, her voiceless accusation stabbing through the depths of his mind.
         Leave me alone, he thought back, defensively.
         Beast.
         I did what I had to.
         Monster!
         There was no other choice!

         She laughed a maniacal scream.
         He could feel the presence of other enslaved souls as well, haunting him, clawing at him. Mori's haughty scorn plied apart his resistance; Shimada's helpless plea joined in, begging to know why he had been left to his fate. And more, thousands more, all the syndicate's victims weighed like a headstone on Lee's own tomb. The silver-haired devil waited for Jun's disembodied voice to find him, and drive him irreparably insane.
         Something - a shift in the cries of the souls, a disturbance in the air, the faint smell of drying blood - warned him. He started to look up, into the path of a flying kick.
         "KIAAAAAH!" The piercing battle cry fused with the howling of the souls, giving a solid voice to their inaudible outrage.
         Lee reflexively tried to throw himself out of his chair; instead of crushing his neck, the flexed heel of his enemy wrenched his right shoulder, spinning him around. He dived, rolled, and rose with his dagger in his hand. Then he saw who had attacked him, and nearly dropped his weapon.
         "You," Lee gasped to Liu Kang, "you're dead-!"
         "Stay back, Kazama," the monk warned, keeping his tawny eyes fixed on his opponent. "Chaolan is mine."
         Behind Liu Kang, leaning against the doorway to the record-keeping room, Jun looked at Lee with a cold expression on her face. Her skin had a deathly anemic pallor, and part of Lei Wulong's bloodstained fighting coat was tied around her right thigh.
         Liu Kang glared at Lee with the wrath of a dragon, and made another strike to Lee's throat. Years of training saved the silver-haired devil. He stepped back, deflected the blow, and slashed at the monk. For one, horrible moment, Lee thought that Jun's and Liu Kang's vengeful spirits had come for his own soul.
         Then he saw the red trickle, from a shallow gash he'd inflicted on the monk's left upper biceps.
         "You're not dead," Lee growled. "Dead men don't bleed."
         Liu Kang warily circled the silver-haired devil.
         "You're also unarmed."
         "I need no blade," said the monk.
         "Really."
         In one swift motion, Lee drew the dagger across his own left upper biceps, leaving a shallow wound that matched the monk's, and threw his knife into the wooden wall. The dagger embedded its point an inch deep, and quivered like a bowstring.
         Liu Kang's eyes narrowed.
         "It's called a fair fight," Lee said, answering the question behind the look.
         "Fair," Liu Kang snarled, as though it were the foulest curse.
         Lee darted in close, sending his fists in two successive punches to the monk's face, followed by an elbow to the gut. Liu Kang responded with breathtaking grace; his forearm served as a cross-guard one moment, and a weapon the next. He targeted Lee's elbow, striking it sharply, and seized hold of the silver-haired devil's arms. Liu Kang turned and twisted his enemy's limbs in a half-circle, expecting to hurl Lee in an overhead throw; the silver-haired devil anticipated and jumped with the motion, using his enemy's own grip to turn him around and reverse the technique. Liu Kang let go and kicked low to Lee's shin.
         Lee also let go and jumped up, well above Liu Kang's kick, snapping his legs in a vertical scissors motion. His boots caught the monk's jaw, though not as directly as he would hope; Liu Kang had managed to turn himself sideways and lean back, evading the worst of Lee's double kick. Lee landed, dropping and sweeping his heel low to the ground, but Liu Kang had already sprung away like tumbling acrobat, rolling and coming to his feet by the far corner. He spat out blood and a broken tooth, assessing Lee with newfound respect.
         Liu Kang was the Order of Light's grand champion, and virtually undefeated in single combat, but he was unaccustomed to opponents who could match his lightning speed, in thought as well as reflexes. The last time he'd encountered any such had been a full year ago, in the Shao Kahn's last Tournament; none of the disciples or allies he'd trained with since had the natural talent to nullify this one, crucial edge. And so Liu Kang's greatest strength became his greatest weakness, as he strived to remember a tactic that didn't involve taking advantage of a swifter response time. Worse, the collar around his neck disabled his sorcery, preventing him from focusing his Ki into offensive bursts of elemental Fire.
         Then again, if he were free of the collar, he could just assume his dragon form and incinerate Lee. No point in brooding about that.
         "You are fast," commented the monk.
         "So are you," Lee replied, advancing cautiously.
         "How did Kazuya break you?"
         "Let me demonstrate."
         Lee rushed closer, slashing his right heel on a bone-crushing trajectory for Liu Kang's outer knee. When the monk retreated, Lee pressed his attack by hopping closer and repeating the kick two more times, until he'd backed Liu Kang in the corner; then he finished with a hook kick to the midsection. The monk surprised him by slipping closer, face-to-face, and preventing Lee's final kick with a double-handed clout to his enemy's thigh. Lee retracted his leg and snapped his right hand in a backfist, but Liu Kang had already crouched low, well underneath the silver-haired devil's knuckles. The monk immediately reversed his ducking motion, channeling his strength into a forceful uppercut.
         Lee's left forearm guarded against the attack, but since the silver-haired devil was already tentatively balanced on one leg, the barrier alone wasn't enough to stop Liu Kang's assault. The monk's uppercut pushed past Lee's guard, digging into his lower lip and bowling him backward. Lee twisted as he fell, hitting the ground in a lengthwise roll and springing to his feet in an instant kippup. Liu Kang used the precious second he'd bought to escape the corner.
         "Nice one," Lee said, wiping a crimson dribble from his mouth.
         "I should hope so."
         "But is it the best you can do?"
         "Judge for yourself."
         Liu Kang lunged closer, driving his left elbow toward Lee's forehead. The silver-haired devil stepped to the side, avoiding the attack easily, but it had been a feint; the true threat came from Liu Kang's right hand, which landed a solid punch to Lee's solar plexus. Shock from the blow registered on Lee's face, and another elbow hit him square on. Liu Kang kneed his solar plexus again, stabbed at Lee's knee with his heel, and kicked twice more to Lee's midsection and upper body. Lee finally wrenched his arms up in time to soften the last couple hits, but his face twisted with tightly controlled pain. He retreated, whipping in a back handspring parallel to the wall, and came to rest almost on his right knee, his right ankle sharply bent and his left leg held rigidly square. Liu Kang charged him-
         -and never saw, never had a chance to stop himself before Lee thrust his right leg straight up, in the monk's path. Lee's blazing kick cracked against Liu Kang's sternum; the silver-haired devil lent a slight angle to its momentum, so that it knocked Liu Kang back against the wall. Lee's torso dipped low for counterbalance, and at his fullest extension his heel pointed to the ceiling; he dropped it down on the monk's head, and finished with a spectacular high flip.
         Lee clipped his enemy's forearm with both insteps on the way up; apparently, Liu Kang had managed to resume his guard despite the punishment he'd endured. As Lee turned in midair, he noticed that the monk had staggered closer to where the silver-haired devil would land. When Lee touched the ground, his arms already formed a shield against Liu Kang's wild swipe - a shield that seemed unnecessary when the monk's hand closed well short of Lee's face.
         Then Lee felt a stiff tug on the back of his neck, and his auburn eyes widened.
         Liu Kang had grabbed the key on a metal chain around Lee's neck, as it swung high from the jolt of Lee's landing. Lee's first instinct was to duck and free his head from the chain, but he knew that if he let Liu Kang have the key, he was finished. A split-second of paralyzed indecision was all the monk needed; he slipped behind Lee and turned a virtual pirouette, twining the metal chain.
         Lee's hands went to his throat. The chain dug into his windpipe with crushing force. The metal links that constricted his neck were too thick to break apart, and Liu Kang had the chain's slack entwined like a twist-tie about the back of Lee's neck, so that the silver-haired devil could not free his head. Clutching at the tightening chain did little to help his air supply. He gnashed his teeth and threw himself backwards, attempting to drive an elbow in the monk's stomach or sandwich him against the wall. Liu Kang was ready for this, and adjusted the tension of his pull as a tug-of-war team might brace its hold on a rope, keeping the noose around Lee's neck securely taut.
         Lee made a choking noise. Progressive weakness seeped into his limbs; his lungs were parched for want of air, and a numb sensation crept from his fingers and toes upwards. Liu Kang's grating voice penetrated the foggy haze.
         "'Fair'? 'Fair' indeed. You left us to die, hobbled by our chains. 'Fair' has no meaning to monsters such as you!"
          The constricting vise around Lee's neck abruptly loosened, but the pain in his windpipe remained, and he gasped desperately for breath. He was only half-aware of the blows that battered his face, ribs, gut, and thighs, and he could not defend against any of it.
         "Or such as I," added the monk.
         Still wheezing, Lee gained a fragmented glimpse of his own unicorn-hilt knife in Liu Kang's hand; the monk must have taken it out of the wall. Lee heard Jun ask a question he couldn't make out, though Liu Kang's reply was crisp and distinct.
         "No, Kazama, I shall not kill your precious fiancé. I need only ensure that he will remain immobile."
         Lee felt a cold, savage lash of renewed pain thrust into and through his left knee. The source of the pain twisted viciously, tearing apart the hinged joint, and then withdrew, leaving behind a fountain of agony. The sharp-edged violence repeated itself on his right knee. His lungs heaved an outcry, but their lack of breath reduced it to a whispery murmur.
         Liu Kang took the master key off of Lee, and used it to split apart his collar with a satisfying click. The smile on his face became a sneer of victory, which in turn became a roar of triumph, as he abandoned his human form for the coils and scales of a tremendous dragon.
         "KAZUYA! I COME FOR YOU! YOU WILL BURN!" boomed the great beast. A searing wave of fire surged from its crocodile jaws, blasting a hole in the wall. Its scaled length lumbered through, and its bellowed threats shook the syndicate to its foundations.
         "Liu Kang, wait!" Jun shouted, limping after the behemoth. "You're going the wrong way!"
         Lee coughed. His fingernails dug into the floor.
         Jun paused and looked at him. She recognized the blue-grey tinge to his lips, eyelids, and earlobes, and the strained rustle of his abortive attempts to breathe. If she turned her back on him now, he would surely suffocate.
         For the first time in her life, she was tempted to let a person die.
         Lee had served as Kazuya's right-hand man, a willing accomplice to the sorcerer's crimes. He had killed Michelle Chang. He'd abandoned Jun to suffer a gruesomely horrible death, abandoned her soul to be trapped in Kazuya's diabolic web of torture. But the worst part, the part that made her tremble with open loathing, was how he'd tried to make Lei her murderer. When she thought of what that could have done to Lei, her hands clenched and her ginger eyes flashed with anger. Even now, Lei had separated from her and Liu Kang, taking his chances on his own. She might never see him alive again, and Lee was directly responsible.
         She could leave Lee to die now, just as he had left her.
         And she wanted to.
         Merely wanting something didn't make it right, though, nor did it justify compromising her sworn oath as a healer. She might be surrounded by monsters, but damned if she was going to become one herself.
         All these thoughts flickered through her mind in less than the second it took to retrieve the master key and rid herself of the collar around her neck. Jun kneeled next to Lee, tilting his head back and touching his mangled windpipe. With her will, her soul, and her music, she worked the Power to undo damage and clear blockage. Lee coughed in response.
         When she was done, his breathing resumed in a shuddering, yet regular rhythm. He groaned, mumbling something that she couldn't distinguish, and didn't care to.
         "Urusai yo," she told him, curtly. She retrieved the bandage on his desk, sliced it in half with her knife, and wrapped the pieces around his wounded knees with brisk efficiency. "There. At least now you won't bleed to death. Have the sense to lie still, and the rest of your injuries should heal on their own. I don't have any more time or strength to waste on you; I need to catch up with Liu Kang."
         A moment of concentration mended the wound in her own leg, though the increased exhaustion of her psyche offset her renewed physical stamina. In this syndicate within a wasteland, far removed from any ecosystem of natural life, her Talent was infinitely more draining. Shouldering the burden of fatigue, she stepped through the smoldering hole that the dragon had made in the wall.
         "Mata... nigeru no ka?" Lee gasped, plaintively.
         Jun spared him a final, contemptuous glance over her shoulder. "After we break Kazuya's Power, I will see you held accountable in a court of law for all your crimes, starting with the murder of my friend, Michelle."
         With that, she sprinted after the dragon.
         <Not again,> Lee called after her, through the delirium that clouded his mind. He struggled to lift his head off the floor, and managed to push himself up on his left forearm, stretching his other hand after her retreating figure. <You're not... running away from me again...!>
         Michelle's soul screamed a maniacal laugh.


End of Chapter 20: Monsters