ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

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


Chapter 24: The Greatest Power


    "Where there is great love, there are always miracles."
         -Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop


         "Stop."
         Lee held up one hand in a gesture of warning. Liu Kang eyed him, warily.
         Lee removed his arm from around Jun's shoulders, and struggled to remain standing without her assistance. He had to lean heavily against the wall, for he was still weak from recently suffered shock and blood loss. A brief grimace contorted the ugly, blackened fire-scars that disfigured his face.
         Lee brushed back a stray lock of his ragged silver hair. He resolutely fixed his auburn eyes ahead, upon the steel door that barred their path - if a door it could be called. It seemed more like a sliding panel, securely embedded in its surrounding frame. Instead of a handle, there was an impressive array of square-shaped buttons and dim, steady lights. A camera lens peered from a mounted post above.
         Supplanting the technology, Liu Kang could feel the ominous presence of an intricate sorcerous ward, brimming with deadly paranoia and fueled by the immense Power of three thousand enslaved souls. Liu Kang glanced at Jun.
         "I've never been down here before," she said, answering the question behind the look. "I didn't even know this place existed."
         "Kazuya added the vaults after he took over the syndicate," Lee rasped. "Stay back, both of you. I have to give the security clearance." He staggered a step toward the doors, and nearly collapsed from the exertion.
         "Perhaps I could assume my dragon form and force my way through," Liu Kang offered.
         Lee shook his head. "The sensors are equipped with both sorcery and technology, and the defenses are programmed to disintegrate intruders - or as a last resort, to kill the sleepers. Not even a shape-shifter or a teleporter could avoid setting off the traps. Kazuya made sure of that."
         Step by slow, halting step, he limped the rest of the way to the door, using the wall to partly support his weight. The camera lens tracked him, until it angled straight down as he rested his palm on a smooth black panel. Lights flashed in response.
         Please state identity.
         The dispassionate words filtered through a speaker grate in front of Lee. Jun's eyes grew wide.
         "Why is the computer speaking with my voice?" she asked, with a shade of troubled concern.
         Lee turned partway toward her, though he hesitated to make eye contact, and shrugged uncomfortably. "I missed you."
         Please state identity.
         "It's me," the silver-haired devil muttered to the speaker grate. "Lee Chaolan."
         Recognition pending. Please stand by. Strobe patterns flickered on Lee's face, and there came the soft humm and whirr of mechanical activity.
         Palm print: match. Retina scan: match. Voiceprint: slight disparity. Facial depiction: severe disparity.
         "That's because Kazuya tortured me, you stupid machine!" Lee snapped, slamming his fist against the grate. The whirring sound became noticeably louder.
         EEG patterns: match. Identity confirmed. Welcome, young master. How may I please you? it said, in that eerie rendition of Jun's voice. The healer blanched, then glowered at Lee.
         "Code white," the silver-haired devil continued, ignoring Jun's scowl. "The New Era has dawned. Begin the Lazarus procedure for all units, all at once."
         Checking. Vice-President Chaolan authorizes the Lazarus procedure, simultaneous for mass cryogenic suspension units Alpha through Omega. Correct?
         "Yes. Do it."
         Please state passcode.
         Lee's lips curled into the barest, thinnest smile. "O brave new world, that has such people in it."
         The steel door slid open with one swift motion. A blast of icy frigid air came from beyond. Jun shivered and hugged herself, as the intense cold raised goosebumps on her skin.



         Kazuya's death-web constricted Lei like the coils of a gigantic snake. Helplessly dragged to hands and knees, Lei could not move, could not breathe, and a dark curtain was gradually blotting out his thoughts. He waged a losing battle with unconsciousness, and had almost succumbed when suddenly, he felt a change in the necromantic strands that bound him.
         Weakness.
         Their pressure slackened, enough to let him take an unsteady breath. He struggled to stand; it was like trying to swim upward through tar. The enmeshing strands were reluctant to give way, but he could feel their strength lessening with each passing second. Though he couldn't quite raise his eyes from the floor yet, he could clearly hear the shock in Kazuya's voice.
         "What...?" The master sorcerer stiffened. He twisted about, glancing from mirror to mirror within his inner sanctum. "What is happening? Show me!" A virtually frantic wave of his hand filled the looking glasses with images of the syndicate.
         "No," Kazuya whispered. "No, it cannot be..."
         Lei tried again to lift his head, and this time succeeded; he could almost hear the silent snap of the death-web's stands breaking apart. He looked in the multitude of mirrors, which seemed to cover every inch of ground within and without the syndicate. Each looking glass showed the same thing:
         People.
         Fighters.
         Thousands of them!
         They swarmed through the syndicate's corridors, smashing its furnishings and shouting incensed yells. As one great mass, they poured through its gates, attacking the syndicate's Jack-2 android militia with unstoppable fury. Just past the syndicate's outer borders, Major Jackson Briggs sounded a call to arms and led his army in a renewed frontal assault, trapping the syndicate's human defenders as if between a set of pincers.
         "No!" Kazuya exclaimed, dementedly. "The sleepers cannot be awake! It's too soon, I don't have enough Power to control them-!"
         The Jack-2 androids were tough, but they were also slow, predictable, and outmatched by a horde of the world's finest fighters, chosen for their strength by Kazuya himself. Foremost among the multitude, Lei recognized individuals from the Iron Fist Tournament, inciting and leading the rest.
         A hot-blooded fighter with garish yellow hair slicked straight up like a circus freak used a standing footsweep to trip one robot, then rammed his elbow into it with a massively powerful push, capped with a brilliant eruption of orange-gold Chi. A lean, wiry martial artist kicked another android into the air as he executed a backflip, then catapulted the machine higher with a second, even more spectacular aerial twirl. A wrestler in a jaguar mask gripped another robot by both legs and swung it in circles. He built up torque until at last he hurled the android into still more enemies, and brought them all down in a noisy clatter of dented metal.
         In the center of the maelstrom, Liu Kang had transformed into a dragon. The tremendous beast lumbered onto the battlefield, reared on its mongoose legs, and spewed its fiery breath. Its flames reduced scores of androids into heaps of molten slag, clearing a path between the newly awakened mob and the Chosen Ones' army. Dragon-Kang lifted his crocodile jaws to the sky and bellowed his challenge.
         "THE SYNDICATE IS OURS, KAZUYA! IF YOU WANT IT BACK, YOU MUST COME AND TAKE IT!"
         "NO!" the master sorcerer shrieked. His hands tore at the stiff spikes of his jet black hair. More strands of his death-web broke apart. Lei remembered what Wang Jinrey had said - that Kazuya's Power was inseparably tied into his ownership of the soul-snaring grid embedded within his syndicate - and renewed hope surged within the cop's heart.
         Kazuya raved, "This is IMPOSSIBLE! No one could bypass the sleepers' defenses! No one could activate the Lazarus procedure! NO ONE! Only Chaolan and I have the security clearance...!"
         The closest mirror zoomed in on a picture of Lee and Jun. Lee's face was pale, and he leaned heavily against the wall to support himself. Jun seemed to be telling him something; he shook his head in response.
         "Chaolan," Kazuya repeated, in horrified astonishment. "Chaolan has awakened the sleepers. Chaolan was to ensure Kang's and Kazama's destruction, and yet they live!" Shock twisted into vehemence as the master sorcerer clenched his hands. He trembled with ire. His furor peaked in a piercing scream.
         "HE HAS BETRAYED ME!"
         "Now do you understand, Kazuya?" Lei pressed, teetering off-balance as he fought to wrench his legs out of the fading mire that held them. "You've gambled the whole world that you've got the strength to conquer the Shao Kahn, but it's not even your strength that you're betting on! You've stolen it all from three thousand souls; without their help, what do you have left?"
         "Urusai!" the master sorcerer snapped, whirling around.
         "Give yourself up. Surrender to the Chosen Ones. You can expect more mercy from them than you ever gave any of your victims!"
         Kazuya's jet black eyes changed color to blood-red.
         "No," he seethed, calculated malice permeating his composure. "I possess one last weapon to use against them. I possess you. Your Power as a reagent shall infinitely amplify mine, and I shall eradicate the invaders who infest my syndicate!"
         "It isn't going to happen."
         Sharp crackles of indigo Ki laced Kazuya's left fist as he brought it up, clenching it on level with his chin. "I shall obliterate all resistance from your human persona, and your demonic persona is innately subject to my will!"
         Kazuya attacked.
         He charged the cop head-on, sharply angling his left fist as he swung it in a curving motion from down to up, targeting the ribcage. A similar blow from his right fist followed. Lei's feet were still trapped in the crumbling strands of the death-web; he couldn't adjust his stance in time. He brought both arms up to ward against Kazuya's dual attack, but even blocked, Kazuya's force was so great it buffeted the cop backwards. Lei's thigh muscles strained to keep himself upright as he resisted Kazuya's two lightning-swift punches to the face, followed by a snapping right-hand backfist. When Lei pushed against the backfist with his open palm, indigo crackles of the master sorcerer's Ki flashed in front of his eyes, blinding him in a sudden rush of light. Sightless, Lei knew that something was wrong when the blow itself weakened to a mild tap, but by then it was too late. The full, redirected force of Kazuya's momentum channeled through his left fist, and plunged into Lei's abdomen like a cannonball.
         "AAH-ugh!" Lei gasped, clutching at his gut with both arms and doubling over. He fell to his knees. The last strands of the death-web faded to nothingness, but they had served their purpose by trapping him long enough to succumb to Kazuya's feint. The scar that Kazuya had inflicted on Lei's chest burned like an inferno. Feral darkness combined with the aching, heaving urge to retch.
         Lei had felt this ominous press before. Each time, it had suffocated his consciousness in a black curtain. Each time, it had subsequently let him awaken amidst brutal slaughter, with fresh blood on his hands.
         "Now you are wholly mine," Kazuya pronounced, his words inflamed with possessive exultation. "Embrace the Power, and become like me; or fight against it, and become a mindless beast. Either way, you are subject to my dominion, and I have won!"



         On the battlefield outside the syndicate, the tide had turned once more - this time in favor of the Chosen Ones and their allies. Thousands of newly revived sleepers, angry over their kidnapping and led by the top-ranking contestants of the Iron Fist Tournament, swarmed upon the syndicate's forces like a voracious column of army ants. To practically the last man, the awakened sleepers were battle-hardened, blood-sport fighters, warriors, and killers, especially handpicked for their lethal skill, and they tore apart the Jack-2 androids with ease.
         Jax led his one thousand troops from Sanctuary in a renewed assault against the syndicate's five hundred human defenders. The major's advantage was not only in numbers. Nightwolf's projectile ward shielded the Chosen Ones' army from enemy bullets, yet this time, no such protection appeared about Kazuya's troops. Jax did not question his good fortune; he simply seized advantage of it. In scarcely the blink of an eye, his army's gunfire cut down the syndicate's first rank of defenders like red-trimmed stalks of grain.
         Then the dragon reared its terrible head.
         "PUNY GRUBS!" it roared. "LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPONS, OR YOU WILL BURN!"
         Almost in unison, the rest of them surrendered.
         All except one.
         Commander Baek Doo San laughed, wickedly, as he brandished a Centaurian-bone sword and Centaurian-hide shield. He'd disdained to use either armament before, but that was when Kazuya's sorcery had protected him. Now, he raised his supernaturally hard shield to deflect bullets; Lieutenant Sonya Blade barked an order to cease fire, lest her own troops be struck by ricochets. Kabal struck with his hook-tipped weapon; Baek caught its curve on the edge of his shield and shoved the wielder aside. The commander turned and kicked at Stryker's baton, and his heel crushed bones in Stryker's right hand. Sub-Zero attempted to freeze the commander with elemental Power; Baek's shadow-hawk swooped down from above and clawed at the scientist, causing his icy blast to veer wide. Even the dragon appeared uneasy at taking on the mad commander, who was armed with the very weapons that had nearly slain it a few days earlier. Yet before Baek could come within range of dragon-Kang's crocodile jaws, a smaller, faster shape darted between the two of them.
         "Everyone, back! He MINE!" Seung Mina shrilled, hefting the new weapon Kung Lao had conjured for her use. It was the Tiger Fang, a thick blade with a sharp-angled tip mounted on a long iron pole. The weapon appeared heavy, unwieldy, yet she handled it with consummate grace.
         "You," she accused the commander, "you from my country, my home. You murder my friends! You disgrace our ancestors, and bring shame to Land of Morning Calm! I challenge you now!"
         Baek's lips spread in an evil smile. His shadow-hawk voiced an inhuman screech.
         "The girl is insane," Stryker grumbled, awkwardly drawing his taser with his left hand. "All I need is one clear shot-"
         "NO," boomed dragon-Kang. "DO NOT INTERFERE. THIS IS NO LONGER WAR; IT HAS BECOME A MATTER OF HONOR." Not even Jax seemed inclined to argue with the tremendous beast.
         "YAAAH!" Seung Mina screamed, rushing her opponent with an unbelievably swift succession of jabs. Baek's shadow-hawk swooped toward her face. When Baek raised his shield against the blade of her Tiger Fang, she ducked low and pivoted on one leg, striking underneath the shield's protection with her heel. The shadow-hawk's talons, which had come perilously close to savaging her sepia eyes, grazed the back of her neck instead. Baek swung his sword down at the same moment as her kick knocked his foremost leg out from under him; falling, he was unable to put the brunt of his strength behind the blade, so that it only slashed her thigh rather than slicing off her leg.
         Baek went mad at the sight of her blood.
         He hurled his shield at her, and charged after it without reason, wildly swinging his sword and laughing like a lunatic. She raised her Tiger Fang, bringing its pole against the flat of his blade - a move that saved her life, or else the unnaturally sharp, Centaurian-bone edge would have cleaved her weapon and her body in half. Seung Mina did not stop there, though; she forced the pole of her Tiger Fang further forward, until it rammed against Baek's neck and cut off his maniacal screams. He tried to kick her, but she had already left the ground, leaping over his head like an acrobat on parallel bars. She landed on his other side, using momentum and adrenaline to haul him over her own head by the hold on his neck. Baek crashed into the ground face-first.
         The shadow-hawk dived at Seung Mina again. She whipped her Tiger Fang in an arc from left to right, using the flat of its blade to smack the bird out of the air. Then she turned her weapon in line with her arms, setting it like a spear, and waited for Baek to rise. He laughed as he did so, though a wheezing rattle interrupted his mania. Without any pretense of caution or strategy, he made a reckless, full-forward lunge for her.
         Seung Mina did not hesitate. She thrust her Tiger Fang into and through his abdominal cavity.
         Baek shuddered and dropped his sword. His shadow-hawk screeched a discordant lamentation and fluttered to his shoulder. He helplessly grasped the shaft that impaled him. A growing splotch of red oozed from both sides of his wound; he slipped to his knees, staring up at Seung Mina.
         Baek's lips moved. For the first time in years, ever since he'd killed his father and damned himself, he spoke words that were neither a command, nor a response to a question.
         "K-... komapso..." He squeezed his sorrel eyes shut; a sparkling glint of moisture appeared in their corners. His right hand fumbled for an oval-shaped, ebony locket on a white cord around his neck.
         Seung Mina gritted her teeth, and gave her Tiger Fang a savage twist.
         <I... I thought I would go on killing and killing, killing forever; I thought the blood would never stop... thank you... th-thank->
         "YAH!" she shouted, planting her heel on his shoulder and pulling her weapon out of him with a vicious wrench. Blood dribbled from Baek's mouth; he collapsed in a spreading pool of dull red.
         <F-... father...>
         The ebony locket fell from Baek's hand. His shadow-hawk spread its wings and made one last, echoing cry, as its black shape slowly dissolved into nothingness. Its eyes of red fire dimmed to cinders, then winked out.
         Seung Mina kneeled on the bloodstained ground, and retrieved the ebony locket. A touch of her index finger flicked it open, revealing the black-and-white photograph of a young boy and the father who had loved him.
         She wasn't aware Liu Kang's shape-shift to human form, or his advance; he just seemed to appear beside her, appraising her with what could only be called wonder. "Kung Lao was correct about you. You truly are worthy of induction within the Order of Light."
         Kung Lao approached Seung Mina's other side. With a downward glance to Baek's lifeless body, the younger monk asked, "What did he say to you?"
         "Nothing," she quietly answered, closing the locket and curling her fingers around it, protectively. "It no matter."
         Kung Lao turned to his Shaolin brother. "Liu, what happened? Where are Lei and Jun? Did you challenge Kazuya?"
         The elder monk's tawny eyes widened. "Gods - I had forgotten! In dragon form, it is so difficult for me to remember-!"
         "Remember what?"
         "I came to warn you all. Kazama is fine, yet my divinations can locate neither Lei Wulong nor Kazuya Mishima. My conclusion is that they are both within the sorcerer's inner sanctum. I have not the Talent to open the portal into his domain; we must pray that one of us can do so, and we must set to the task at once!"
         "What's the big hurry?" Stryker interrupted, cradling his injured hand. "We've taken over Kazuya's syndicate; he's nearly powerless now, right?"
         Liu Kang shook his head. "The blame is partly mine. I should have listened to the healer's wisdom, and not let Wulong split apart from us. I fear that he has gone to challenge the sorcerer on his own."
         "So? What's the worst that can happen?"
         "Do you recall what Wulong and Kazama did to the army that invaded Sanctuary?"
         "Yeah. So you're saying..." Gradually, the frightening realization worked its way into Stryker's thoughts, until his face drained of all color. "Uh-oh."



         It is like drowning, or falling into a bottomless pit.
         I possess one last weapon to use against them. I possess you.
         The harder he struggles, the more deeply the darkness pulls him in.
         Your demonic persona is innately subject to my will!
         This is his last chance - failure this time does not mean that he will cause just one death, or several. If he becomes the demon now, it will be the end of the Chosen Ones, and all who fight alongside them. It will be the end of hope. It will be the end of the world.
         Faces flicker before him, speaking with voices pulled from his memories.
         You are a demon because your hatred rules you, Nightwolf tells him with calm, matter-of-fact authority. However, there is also good inside of you, and strength, and caring. You need to recognize and embrace these qualities within yourself. Only through this can the curse be broken.
         It is a fine thing to suggest, but it's nothing more than words, abstract concepts.
         You have to let go, pleads his lost partner.
         How? For what seems like his entire life, he's thought of himself as worthless, lowest of the low, a piece of alcoholic gutter trash who poisons the lives of everyone he touches...
         You really ought to give yourself a break, Kung Lao suggests.
         How do you make yourself feel something? How do you tell yourself you are a good person, when you don't believe it and never have?
         Lei o ai shite-imasu, Jun softly calls, tears trickling down her cheeks.
         What does that mean?
         In a burst of desperate insight, he recalls that the last time he fell victim to the demon within, Jun restored his humanity. He thinks of the song she was singing, of its haunting, ethereal beauty, and clings to it as if it were driftwood in the middle of an ocean. Remembering the angelic melody brings tears to his eyes, and staves off his final plunge into the darkness for a precious instant longer, but he can still feel his hold on consciousness slipping.
         Lei o ai shite-imasu.
         What does that mean? Why does it feel so important? He dearly wants to ask her, and can't remember why he didn't when he had the chance. Was it because the question had escaped his mind? Or was it because he had been afraid of what the answer would be?
         Why would he be afraid of the answer?
         Lei o ai shite-imasu.
         He can practically see her standing before him, holding out her hand. She is so beautiful. Everything about her is beauteous; her face, her voice, her kindness, and especially her soul. He yearns to protect her, to be with her, yet how can he ever hope to be worthy of her? To so much as exist in her shadow? How-
         Lei o ai shite-imasu.
         He remembers.
         Though the words are unfamiliar, he has seen that look in her eyes before. It was there when she pleaded with him to join her patrol. It was there when she fought and struggled on his execution field, when she begged the very gods to save him. It was there when she embraced him, in jubilant rejoicing. And it is the same thing he has felt in his own heart, all this time.
         At last, he knows.
         At last, he understands.
         You think of yourself as 'worthless,' but a 'worthless' person wouldn't do these things. It is the truth. Not because she has said it, but because he has done things that he knows to be good, and strives to do even better, despite all that conspires against him.
         Don't be afraid. You are at heart a good person; no curse can change that. Trust in me. Trust in yourself.
         I... I can, he tells her, gathering his strength and resolution. I do. I will.
         He acknowledges the sources of his self-hatred. Guilt and pain, grief and rage; if he did not feel these emotions, he would not be human. Yet their insidious domination is what separates him from her, isolating him in a glass cage he has built around himself. The only way to be free is to release their hurtful control over his life. Admit to the feelings and the fears, but never let them take away your hope - whether it is hope for a better tomorrow, or hope for a better you.
         He accepts who he is, and aspires to what he can become.
         He renews his commitment to what is good, and his determination to do what is right.
         He lets the hatred go.
         I love you, Jun.
         The glass cage shatters into a thousand pieces, and the darkness shatters with it.



         "What - what is happening?" Kazuya questioned, uncertainly. "Why aren't you changing shape?"
         Lei crossed his arms in front of his chest. Azure Chi flared from his hands, spreading to engulf his entire body in a single flame.
         "This is not possible!" the master sorcerer exclaimed. "You share my Power! You are under my control!"
         Lei assumed the Stance of Phoenix Illusion. Balancing on his right leg, with his right arm arced above his head and his left bent across his chest, he lifted his left knee above the waist.
         "NO!" Kazuya howled. "It cannot be!"
         "Your curse has no hold on me," Lei said, even as his Chi concentrated into a blinding azure-white star, centered about his bent leg. "I have found the Power to break it - the greatest Power there is."
         Shock and panic kept the master sorcerer rigidly captive, as paralyzed as his death-web had held Lei a scant few moments ago. Kazuya could not think, could not react to the turn and spin of Lei's leaping Phoenix Kick. At the last moment, the sorcerer tried to create a mystic barrier to protect himself, but it was too little, too late. Lei turned in a counterclockwise midair crescent, dropping his heel across Kazuya's face and chest in a supernatural explosion of Chi.
         The master sorcerer hurtled into and through the nearest of his mirrors, which fractured into a cornucopia of shards. Beyond, the riveted metal floor extended into a short ledge, which ended in a sheer drop against empty darkness. Kazuya landed painfully on his back.
         Lei finished the symmetry of his style's single most powerful attack with a smooth landing spin, and saw where the master sorcerer's form had come to rest.
         "HssssSSSSSSS..."
         Then he froze with horror as Kazuya changed.
         The sorcerer rolled and crouched on one knee. His skin turned livid blue, with dark purple veins. Folding, batlike wings split from the upper half of his dress suit, shredding it to scraps of fabric. Wickedly recurved talons sprouted from his hands and feet, splitting his polished black shoes into disjoint pieces of leather. A blood-red, inset gem shined in the center of his forehead.
         Devil Kazuya screamed.
         As if in sympathy with the keening wail, all the rest of his mirrors broke apart in one great shatterstorm. Lei threw his arms over his head, and huddled face-down on the floor; shards of glass cut his arms and his back, tearing his clothing, and crisscrossing him with bloody gashes.
         Devil Kazuya attacked.



         "Come on, Lee," Jun urged. "You've rested for long enough. We have to join Liu Kang and the others on the battlefield."
         The silver-haired devil shook his head. "You go on."
         "No."
         "Don't argue, Jun-chan. Just do it."
         "Why are you trying to get rid of me?"
         "Why should you care?"
         Her ginger eyes narrowed, and suspicious caution supplanted their concern. "You still have a lot to answer for. Just because you helped us doesn't mean I'm going to let you escape."
         "Ah." He chuckled, as if enjoying a private joke.
         "I mean it."
         "Of course you do. That's what makes it funny." An inscrutable half-smile briefly flickered across his lips. "Well, if you must know, I'm waiting for a 'friend,' of sorts. He was stored in cryogenic unit Theta, but I expect he's searching the syndicate for me right now. We have some unfinished business to settle, and you don't really need to be around for it. So you go on ahead, Jun-chan; I'm sure the battlefield has plenty of wounded who need your help. I promise I won't be going anywhere."
         "Who is this 'friend'?"
         Lee seemed about to answer, when his face abruptly turned cold and expressionless. He looked over her shoulder and nodded, slightly. Jun turned around.
         Standing behind them both was a tall, black-haired Cherokee man dressed in military fatigues. His eyebrows angled down in the fierce set of hatred. He had gotten ahold of a knife and cut his face with it; red trails formed slanted lines across his cheeks, like vivid war-paint. He gripped the weapon in his hand, and pointed it at Lee's heart.
         "Catsclaw!" the healer gasped. "You're alive! We thought the rest of our patrol had been killed!"
         "They were," growled the soldier. "All except me. Get out of the way, Kazama."
         "What?"
         "This doesn't concern you, Jun-chan," Lee stated, dispassionately. "I promised the sergeant another chance at me, when the New Era dawned." He pushed himself away from the wall, in an effort to stand unaided; a spate of dizziness made him clutch at his forehead and sway.
         "No. Stop this, both of you."
         "Your face has changed, Chaolan," Catsclaw spat, noticing the jagged burn-scars that stretched from Lee's lower eyelids to his chin. "Did one of your victims do that to you?"
         "Considering that I've betrayed him, I suppose you could call him that," Lee mused, positioning his arms in a wavering defensive guard. "I don't think I'm in any shape to give you much sport, though. Sorry."
         "You're not in chains; that's more of a chance than you gave Dark Mane."
         "I know," the silver-haired devil replied, softly. "I thought I was granting her a quick death, instead of a slow and torturous one. But if I hadn't killed her..." a heavy thread of emotion choked his voice, and he had to swallow a lump in his throat. "If I hadn't killed her, she might still be alive. She might have been rescued, or fought her way free by now."
         Lee took a step forward, but Jun could see in his eyes that he had no intention of harming Catsclaw, or fending off the knife that pointed to his own heart.
         "I said stop it!" Jun demanded, directly interposing himself between both men.
         Catsclaw's grim expression exploded into outrage. "He is Kazuya's chief lackey! He murdered Dark Mane - you knew her as your friend, Michelle Chang!"
         "And he'll answer for his crimes in the Nation's court of law! But on the day of his trial, I will testify that he saved my life, and Liu Kang's, and risked his own to set you all free. More than ever now, we have a chance of winning this war, and it's because of what Lee had the courage to do!"
         "You can ignore her," Lee cordially suggested. "She's exhausted. If she tries to cast a barrier spell, she'll collapse from the strain."
         Catsclaw's sharp-cut features tightened in an animal snarl. "I don't care what you've done in a pitiful attempt to gain her sympathy. You're a murderer, and you will face justice. Now."
         "You don't want justice!" Jun rebuked. "You're out for revenge, and you know it! Don't you have a degree in criminal law? Doesn't the principle of a fair trial mean anything to you?"
         Lee threw his head back and laughed out loud. Jun and Catsclaw both stared at him with confusion.
         "Sorry," he finally managed to say. "It's just that you have no idea how wrong you are, Jun-chan. I'm not going to be dragged in front of some Indian jury. No, sergeant," and his near-mania vanished as swiftly as it had come, leaving behind only emotionless indifference. "If you still want your revenge, this is your last chance to come and get it."
         "Catsclaw, don't," Jun insisted. Weak, fading sparks of white Ki flickered on her fingers, though the effort made her hands tremble. The sergeant moved to shove her aside-
         "WAAAAOWL!"
         -and a clawed, scaly, three-fingered hand clamped on his shoulder.
         It was Alex. Three infant reptiles clung tightly to her back and neck. She rumbled a series of growling, clicking noises to the sergeant. He bared his teeth at her; her jaws snapped open and shut scarcely an inch from his nose.
         Catsclaw paused for one last glower at Lee, then turned and left for the battlefield. Alex followed.
         "Wh-what was that all about?" Jun wondered, staring at the bipedal reptile's retreating back, and the younglings that rode on it.
         "The lizard knows," Lee muttered. "Don't ask me how. Animal instinct, maybe."
         "Knows what? That you wanted him to kill you? I could see that clearly enough."
         Lee shook his head. "I didn't 'want' him to knife me, but at least it would've been quick and clean."
         "Lee, you may have heard some bad rumors about the Nation's court system, but no matter what sentence they hand down, you won't be tortured. I'll see to it, I swear."
         The silver-haired devil made no response; he just leaned against the wall again, and closed his eyes.



         Lei's silver-bladed fighting knife was less than a stick against Devil Kazuya's tough skin. A single slash of those deadly claws ripped gaping welts down the length of Lei's right arm, forcing him to drop the useless weapon. Devil Kazuya pressed his attack with brute force. His speed was mesmerizing, his strength unsurpassed. His blows could not be blocked, for their sheer power plowed through any attempt at defense; Lei's only options were to dodge or retreat.
         Yet Devil Kazuya possessed cunning as well as brawn. When Lei tried to take the offensive and dart close enough for a step-in crescent kick, his enemy sidestepped with unimaginably perfect timing, slipping past Lei's attack and countering with a brutal succession of punches. Lei reeled as the devil pummeled his face straight-on, turned for a backfist, then kicked high, crushing Lei's clavicle into a synaptic blare of hurt. Defense was impossible; it took everything Lei had just to stay conscious.
         Devil Kazuya dipped low. The talons on his feet slashed Lei's leg, undercutting the cop's balance, yet before he could tip over the devil hit his face again with the left hand, surged forward with an uppercut from the right, then crouched and sprang with a supremely charged, jumping uppercut. The devil's wings flapped for assisted lift as his clawed fist crashed into Lei's chest and chin, breaking ribs and hurling the cop onto a bed of mirror-shards. Trembling with agony and blood loss, Lei tried to stand up; his gashed leg slipped, and he fell back down. He slowly rolled on his stomach, leaving behind a spattering of red upon the glass fragments.
         "By sssorcery or force, I shall control you!" Devil Kazuya snarled. Hatred glowed in his blood-red eyes, making them burn like coals as he advanced. Lei remained motionless until the devil was only a couple meters away.
         Then the cop sprang into action.
         "Aa-SHU!" he cried, coiling and pushing off from the ground in a skid. He slid into Devil Kazuya feet first, kicking his enemy's legs out from underneath him. The devil voiced a cry of outrage.
         Lei painfully rose to one knee. Performing the sudden slide had cost him. Getting up cost him even more. Breathing hurt. His gashed arm had gone numb, his kicked leg protested in the extreme when he put any weight on it, and he didn't dare look at how much of his own blood matted his hair and his clothing. His desperate maneuver had bought him a little time, and the advantage for one more attack, but if he failed, he would not rise again. His best, and perhaps only chance was to lash out in the one way that would cause the most pain.
         "Give up your nightmare of a dream, Kazuya!" Lei spat through bloodied lips. "It's no different from your father's!"
         "What?" demanded the devil. The luminance of its blood-red eyes escalated to a bonfire blaze.
         "I know because I've studied Heihachi Mishima as thoroughly as everyone else in the Iron Fist Tournament. He wanted to make the world into a utopia, same as you. The only difference was that he freely admitted to wanting to rule it!"
         "Be still!" Devil Kazuya seethed. "That man no longer has any connection to me. I hate him, I have vanquished him, and I am free of him forever!"
         "Free to follow in his footsteps, you mean. In the past two years, you've guided the Mishima syndicate straight down the path he originally chartered. Did you want to overthrow him? You have become him-"
         "No, you are wrong-"
         "-in deed and in thought-"
         "-you ssspeak utter nonsense-"
         "-all the way down to your soul."
         "I am not like him!"
         The inset gem in Devil Kazuya's forehead changed color to gold. He spread his dragon's wings, flapping them for lift. Lei's fingers curled around a glass shard, despite the sharp twinge of its razor edges cutting his skin.
         "Look at what you've done!" the cop challenged. "Look at how you've hoarded wealth and influence, brutalized your family, murdered to serve your own ends, and plotted to dominate the world! All of these are things Heihachi Mishima has done before you!"
         "I AM NOT LIKE HIM!"
         At the peak of his flight, Devil Kazuya unleashed the Power within the gem on his brow. A narrow beam of golden brilliance surged from the inset stone, shooting toward the cop like a javelin of light-
         -and Lei held up the broken mirror-fragment, reflecting the eldritch radiance upon its source.
         Devil Kazuya screamed once more, yet this time, it was a shriek of utter anguish, as his own Power turned upon him. It encased him in a ball of fire, followed by ripples of azure, indigo, and violet energy, searing his nerves and paralyzing his muscles. He could not move. He could not fly. He could not fight.
         Devil Kazuya had lost.
         Broken and beaten, he dropped like a stone, and flopped awkwardly on the floor. His body reverted to his human form.
         Lei dropped the mirror-shard, and painfully limped to the master sorcerer's side.
         "It was all for nothing," Kazuya whispered, consumed with venomous despair. "Three thousand lives and souls - I took them for a greater purpose, but you have rendered it meaningless. I have murdered for nothing, damned myself and my soul for nothing. You have made it all nothing."
         "I didn't defeat you," Lei said, tiredly kneeling next to Kazuya's sprawled, inert form. "Your own hatred did. Your hatred - and your compassion.
         "Among all your memories, you've never shown me what happened to you between the Peace Corps massacre and your battle with Heihachi in the Iron Fist Tournament, but I think I know. In the six intervening years, you went on a quest for Power. Power to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, or so you believed. But when you found and embraced your new source of Power, it changed you against your will. Warped you into a devil. Only a tiny piece of your old self remained, to rail desperately against what you had become.
         "That tiny piece is why, when I first fell into your clutches, you threw me back to where I'd come from, and later transported me with you when you moved your syndicate to another continent. You've claimed that you wanted me to join your cause, but you've looked into my mind; you should know that I would never willingly do such a thing. You've claimed that you wanted to harness my Power as a reagent, but if that really were the case, why didn't you just burn out my brain a long time ago? Or when you captured me along with Jun and Liu Kang?
         "No, the real reason you spared me was because you needed me. You needed someone to stop you, defeat you, break your Power. All this time, a part of you has been working toward your own downfall."
         Lei exhaled his breath in a long, slow sigh. "You really are like me. You really are the brother of my soul."
         "You... you are wrong," the sorcerer wheezed. "Wrong about everything."
         "No. I know I'm not. Join us, Kazuya." Lei firmly clasped the sorcerer's unresponsive hand. "It's not too late for you. We can help free you of the devil within, and your strength can help us overthrow the Shao Kahn."
         Kazuya's jet black eyes flashed.
         "New York City," he hissed, spitefully.
         "Eh?"
         "That is where the Shao Kahn is - not that the knowledge will serve you. You shall not live long enough to pass it on."
         "What do you-"
         Lei stopped in mid-sentence. He could feel that something was horribly wrong. Though Kazuya's Power had been broken, the omnipresent press of enslaved souls was still imminent. Thick, cloying tension hung upon the air. The cop remembered something Kung Lao had once told him about necromancers, and his mahogany eyes grew wide.
         "Let them go, Kazuya," Lei urged, taking hold of the sorcerer's shoulders. "Let the souls go! Your Power is broken; if you try to hang on to them, their effort to depart will kill you!"
         "And you," the sorcerer sneered, malevolently. "And that traitor, Chaolan. I planted a death-link in you both - he when I crushed him in the Iron Fist Tournament, and you when I remade your body!" A bubbling cackle of laughter shook him, and gained momentum into outright hysteria. "I have not lost! Our battle is a draw!"
         "Kazuya, NO!" Lei shouted. "Don't do this!"
         A searing blast of golden lightning snaked about the master sorcerer's form. He jerked as though electrocuted by a livewire current. His face twisted in a grimace of hate and agonizing pain. His muscles shuddered involuntarily, then stiffened.
         "No," Lei mouthed, in numb denial. "Brother..."
         An unnatural crackle of indigo Ki streaked across Lei's chest and throat. He gasped, and doubled over from its searing electric touch. More shocks followed, riddling his entire body with convulsive torment.
         "Nngh-no," he refused, brought to hands and knees by an inexorable force that slowly burned and crushed him, inside and out. "No! Not now! Not when I finally have something to live for...!" A rigid burst of static encircled his arms. There was no way to fight the sorcery of Kazuya's death-link; it assailed him with unyielding intensity, grinding his bones and shocking his muscles, and it would not cease until he was dead.
         "Jun..." He was only faintly aware of crumpling to the ground.



         The newly awakened sleepers had reduced the last of the Jack-2 androids to scrap metal when it happened.
         The ground rumbled as if from an earthquake. Howling wind rushed from all directions, and spiraled into a cyclone. Flashes of golden lightning burst in random patterns, and the syndicate's walls buckled from an unseen strain. Thousands of souls cried out, not in suffering, not in pain, but with the exultation of freedom. It could mean only one thing.
         "Kazuya has tasted defeat," Lee murmured in distant amazement, opening his auburn eyes.
         "We... we won," Jun replied, with a shy, girlish smile. "We won!"
         "Yeah." That mysterious upturn appeared on the corners of Lee's lips for a split-second, then disappeared again. "You really should go, Jun-chan."
         "This is not like you at all," she observed, searching his fire-scarred face in puzzlement. "Why are you trying to push me away?"
         Lee sighed. Jun realized that she'd heard the faraway, detached quality to his words before, in the voices of other people - at times from Lei, and once from Takeshi Fujioka. And in each of those instances...
         "I'm not going to let you commit suicide," she ventured, and the slight motion of his singed eyebrows confirmed her intuition.
         "I already have."
         "No. You're not getting off the hook that easily."
         "There's no longer a choice. Ever since I decided to betray Kazuya, there have been only two possible outcomes: that he would triumph and kill me for my treachery, or that he would fail. You know he put a death-link in me. It can't be removed."
         "Lee, I told you before, we did not come to kill Kazuya. We're here to break his Power through single combat, and that's what just happened."
         "You're in love with someone else, aren't you?"
         Perplexity creased her brow, in response to his sudden change of topic.
         "It's that cop, isn't it? Lei Wulong?" Lee softly continued. His hand gently touched the side of her face, brushing lightly against strands of her dark hair.
         Jun's mouth tightened, and she gave a quick nod.
         Lee had changed, in the past six years. She could remember a time when such an admission would have immediately thrown him into a jealous rage; yet now, all he did was let his hand drop and close his eyes. "I... I hope he treats you better than I did. I hope he brings you the happiness I never could."
         "Why are you talking like this? What are you trying to say?"
         "You lived with us for years, but never really knew my brother, did you? Just like you never really knew me. If you had known Kazuya, you'd understand that he will never suffer to be taken alive."
         "What?" Fear registered on her face as she became acutely aware of the insurmountable force of three thousand souls, souls that Kazuya struggled to hang on to, despite his broken Power. "No! You-"
         A flicker of indigo Ki laced Lee's body, causing his muscles to convulse involuntarily. He bit back a pained yell and sank to the floor. More electric streaks sizzled through him; it took a supreme act of will to ignore their livewire shock, and concentrate on speech. "It's - it's all right, Jun-chan. I'm not afraid. I'll never be afraid again."
         "No! There has to be some way to stop this!" Weak, unsteady sparks of healing Power flashed on her hands as she touched Lee's skin and labored to undo, or at least lessen, the spreading damage of Kazuya's death-link. Another surge traveled from Lee to Jun, disrupting her efforts in a flash of violent lightning. The healer shrieked as the force of the discharge flung her against the other side of the corridor. She collapsed, and did not rise.
         "Jun-chan!" Lee anxiously cried.
         She is only stunned.
         Between spasmodic intervals of increasing torment, Lee saw her.
         Dark Mane stood before him, tall and proud, looking as she had in life. Her thick, black hair spilled over her shoulders, stirred by a wind from no natural source. And for once, her cinnamon-brown eyes stared into him, not with hatred, not with incensed accusation, but rather calm, quiet neutrality.
         She touched him, and the jarring pain vanished, though he could still feel remote echoes of the burning, grinding sorcery that gradually rent asunder his life. He was able to say one final thing, before the crushing trauma of the death-link stifled what was left of his voice.
         "I - I'm sorry I killed you, Michelle. I'm so sorry..."
         I know.


End of Chapter 24: The Greatest Power