written by Victar, e-mail
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Chapter 25: Phoenix Rising

    "Two beings did rise from the ashes of the Phoenix. They were the first two firebirds. All firebirds which are or were are their children. So, love breeds its own immortality. All things considered, that's the sort of immortality I'd rather have..."
         -Tabbe le Fauve, Xanadu: Phelia's Tale

         Far away from the Mishima syndicate, on the other side of the world, Shang Tsung smiled.
         Moments ago, Kazuya's will had reduced the demon sorcerer's divinations to static, but now the mystic view focused clearly upon Kazuya's inner sanctum. Mirror-shards covered the riveted metal floor, adrift in an endless sea of darkness. In the center of it all were the motionless bodies of Kazuya Mishima and Lei Wulong.
         Shang Tsung's smile extended into an unnaturally wide, sharp-toothed sneer.
         "Victory is ours," the demon sorcerer pronounced, triumphantly.
         Heihachi Mishima, who had been pacing like a caged tiger, turned toward the portal and froze with shock. "No...!"
         "I should offer you my condolences on the death of your son," Shang Tsung suggested, evil enthusiasm flaring in his empty white eyes. "I should, but unfortunately, I have none to give. Do allow me to thank you for your charitable hospitality, however. I've so enjoyed my stay!"
         Heihachi shook his head in denial. "No. This cannot be. This is wrong!"
         The elder Mishima's powerful hands clenched; sizzling crackles of indigo Ki curled up and down his arms. Slowly, he raised his lightning-creased left fist until it was on level with his chin. "I should have been the one to kill Kazuya. It should have been I!"
         "Well, if you wanted to be teleported there, why didn't you just say so?"
         Even as he voiced the wrathful cry, the elder Mishima struck. His iron fingers locked around Shang Tsung's neck, squeezed, and lifted the demon high off the ground.
         "I thought you didn't want to get involved," Shang Tsung mused, still grinning, and speaking without difficulty despite the pressure on his windpipe. "Isn't that why you meekly consented to sit back and observe, day after day, while the Chosen Ones and their friends did all the work? You, who can shed tears over the death of an animal, but not for the demise of your own flesh and blood? Really, now."
         "KOROSHITE-YARU!" Heihachi roared, slamming Shang Tsung against the nearest wall. Yet the demon sorcerer never flinched, never showed any hint of pain or discomfort.
         "No, I don't think so," Shang Tsung sweetly replied. "You can't hurt me, and you definitely can't kill me, because I'm not really here."
         When he said this, his physical form seemed to dissolve into smears of darkness, as did the vision he had conjured. Heihachi lashed out with his right fist, yet the evil thing parted before it like nighttime fog. Heihachi's knuckles struck and split upon the hard surface beyond; his Ki radiated from the point of contact, sending destructive fractures throughout the wooden wall. Sharp splinters dug into his skin, tearing bloody ribbons on his damaged hand.
         "Sayonara, Heihachi-kun." Shang Tsung's echoing laughter filled the remote mountain shrine, until the elder Mishima's furious scream drowned it out.

         A relaxing warmth basked Jun's feet.
         As it traveled up to her face, she also felt the gentle touch of weathered hands on either side of her head, and the soothing balm of healing Power. Her eyes opened; brilliant luminescence made her blink and squirm.
         "Be at peace, my child," Wang Jinrey reassured, letting go of her face. "It was not our intent to startle you. You have, thankfully, suffered no more than a few mild burns and a minor concussion. How do you feel?"
         "I'm... confused," she murmured, shading her eyes. The radiance in front of them resolved into a vermillion, salamander-like creature dancing lazy figure-eight patterns in midair. Its eyes shined like twin searchlights.
         "What...? No, wait. I remember you. You helped us in the sewers," she said to the lissome Lamp-eft. She held out her hand; it wriggled lightly against her fingertips, and rolled over.
         Liu Kang's voice, serene yet with an undertone of indignation, sounded from her right. "Jinrey, are you certain you prefer that specific creature's assistance? Could Kung Lao not have summoned a seeing-eye dog to guide you?"
         The blind man smiled. "A trained canine would lack certain qualities that I find useful."
         "Such as?"
         "The ability to test your patience." The Lamp-eft fixed its searchlight eyes on the monk, and its head bobbed. Jun could have sworn it was laughing at him.
         "I'm okay now," she said, repressing a broad grin rather than risk hurting the monk's feelings. "What happened? Where is everyone? We did win, didn't we?"
         The smile disappeared from Wang's face. "Yes, we have won, but at great cost. Half our army lies slain, and I know that you count many of the fallen among your friends. I am sorry."
         "However, we have gained thousands of reinforcements," Liu Kang added. "Major Briggs and Lieutenant Blade are currently holding a dialogue with them. It seems that the overwhelming majority are willing to join our cause. In fact, Jinrey and I are free to check upon you because many of our new allies are skilled not only in fighting, but also healing, sorcerous or otherwise. The last of our wounded have been cured or stabilized; all that remains is to bury our dead."
         Something about that somber pronouncement cut to the core of Jun's heart, as though she had been touched by a chilling specter of ice.
         She sat bolt upright. "Oh, no! I remember - Lee was hurt, you have to help him, quickly! He..." She trailed off as Liu Kang slowly shook his head. "What is it?"
         "I am truly sorry," Wang apologized, in a sad, hushed whisper. "More so than I can express in words."
         "Why are you talking like this?" Jun glanced first to the blind man, then to the monk. Liu Kang's tawny eyes briefly met hers; he looked away, uncomfortably. She followed his line of sight, and her breath caught in her throat.
         "Oh, no," she repeated, hoarsely. "No..."
         They had draped a plain white cloth over Lee's body. The fabric had a wrinkle in its length, enough to expose his left hand. In a stunned, numb haze, Jun kneeled next to him and touched his wrist. His skin was cool, and stiff from rigor mortis. There was no pulse.
         Deep inside her, something broke.
         Lee Chaolan had been her close friend since childhood, her fiancé for an arranged marriage, and on one occasion, her lover. Six years ago, when his possessive temperament had intimidated her so much she could not think straight, she had run away from him in confusion and fear. When they met again, he had abandoned her to die, and less than a few hours past she had been strongly tempted to let him perish in turn. Yet he had also saved her life, and in the end, come to the rescue of the Forces of Light, in full knowledge of what it would cost him.
         "He... he knew this would happen," she recalled, stricken and shaking with grief. Tears formed in her eyes, trickling down her face and onto the white sheet. "It's why he wouldn't help us, at first. H-he knew that no matter what the outcome, he'd... he'd..."
         She wasn't completely aware of the uncontrollable sobs that wracked her body; it was all an incognizant blur of bitter pain and heartache, until she gradually came to her senses. Wang Jinrey was holding her, as he used to when she was very little. He didn't say anything; he just let her cry in his arms, until she could cry no more.
         Discomfort rattled Liu Kang's composure. He hesitated on words for a long time, then swallowed and ventured to say, "Chaolan shall be interred with the highest honors."
         "No," she denied, pulling away from Wang and rubbing her red-rimmed eyes. "Lay him to rest in one of the mass graves."
         "Are you certain?"
         She nodded, sniffling. "Lee never cared about status or ceremony. But he always... he always hated to be alone." Wang Jinrey inclined his head in agreement.
         "As you wish. What would you for Wulong?"
         "What do you mean?"
         The monk's eyebrows shot up in mild bafflement. "Did you not know?"
         "Know what? Where is Lei?"
         He bit his lower lip, a most un-monastic gesture. "Ah, Kazama, you have weathered a great deal. Perhaps you should rest a little more-"
         "Where is Lei?" she insisted, her muscles constricting with tension.
         "You may as well explain," Wang advised. "There is nothing to be gained by stalling."
         Liu Kang cleared his throat. "We assume it was Wulong who challenged Kazuya to single combat and defeated him. Surely, you must have sensed it when Kazuya struggled to keep hold of the souls he had enslaved, even after his Power had been broken. The effort killed him. In effect, he committed suicide."
         "I know," Jun confirmed. "I felt what happened. It triggered Lee's death-link; I tried to save him, but..." A shudder took her, and she almost succumbed to the inner pain again, yet she managed to steady herself and blink back the tears. "What does any of this have to do with Lei? Where is he?"
         "Where is he?"
         "Sub-Zero and Kung Lao are still trying to open the portal to Kazuya's inner sanctum."
         "Okay, so he's trapped there until we can get him out-"
         "No, Kazama. He is also dead."
         "What?" Color drained from her face. It was too much, too many shocks to take in all at once. "You don't know that! How can you say such a thing?"
         "When Kazuya cursed Wulong, he placed a death-link in Wulong's body, even as he had done to Chaolan." The monk furrowed his brow. "Did you genuinely not know? Was this not the true reason why you pleaded with us to spare Kazuya's life?"
         "Lei is not dead!" she shouted, springing to her feet. "You're wrong, you have to be! You're wrong!"
         "You're WRONG!" she screamed, shoving past him and sprinting down the syndicate's corridor, in a frantic race to Kazuya's antechamber. Liu Kang started to move after her, but Wang's wizened hand restrained him with surprising strength.
         "Let her go," the blind man requested, somberly. "She needs to make the journey alone. We shall follow, but at a walk." The Lamp-eft hovered above his head; its eyes flickered as if in recognition of the turmoil around it.
         "I do not understand," Liu Kang uncertainly muttered. "If this was not the reason, then why did you and she both predict disaster, in the event that we should slay Kazuya?"

         Their celebration is quiet and informal. Upon the roof of New York City's tallest skyscraper, the three of them enjoy a toast to their envisioned success.
         Shang Tsung, relaxed and refreshed from his extended vacation, leans back in his ornate guest chair and sips a crystalline glass of chilled white wine. He seethes with evil and self-serving deceit, yet he is in the presence of the one being on the Earth that makes his foulness dim by comparison. For across from him, in a tall throne ornamented with human skulls, sits the Shao Kahn himself.
         He is the force of Entropy personified, the living embodiment of the evil that has overrun the Earth. The very air about him shimmers and warps, breaking down to its lesser components. Time itself seems brought to a standstill, as if those in his physical presence are adrift in a waking dream.
         For reasons beyond my current knowledge, the Kahn's manifested form resembles that of a mortal, albeit one of towering, muscular stature. Ten feet tall is he, able to look down upon a fully grown Centaurian. He wears little save his sparse battle dress: spiked wrist guards and shoulder pads, an X-shaped chest harness, a belt with a two-flap loincloth of interlocking plates, and greaves with recurving metal points at knee level. These armaments leave much of the skin on his chest, arms, and thighs exposed, yet those who have fought him know that his hide is easily as durable as any metal alloy - or should I say, "knew," for precious few have faced the Kahn in combat and lived to tell the tale.
         Today, the Shao Kahn has chosen to distinguish himself with an additional garment - a floor-length, dull maroon cloak with a grey hem. A stray howl of wind makes the cape sway as if it were a living thing. As for the Shao Kahn's face, that is the one aspect I cannot describe, for it is always hidden behind his horned mask of cast iron. The mask's front resembles the upper half of a human skull; a ribbed fringe of armor curves across its back. Only the Kahn's mouth and chin are visible, unless you count his eyes. They lurk deep beneath the indented eyesockets of his metallic skull-face, burning like hungry crimson flames yearning to endlessly consume all there is. The Kahn acknowledges but does not partake of food or drink, for such victuals offer little sustenance to him.
         The third member of this gathering is seated between the other two, with the voracious manifestation of Entropy to her left and its single most loathsome minion to her right. Like Shang Tsung, she holds a glass of white wine; unlike him, she does not drink it.
         She is a tall mortal, though nowhere approaching the stature of the Shao Kahn. She possesses an innate poise that sets her apart from her dining companions, as does the distant, almost nebulous expression on her face. Upward-slanting black marks sharply accent her silver eyes, stretching from their outer corners to the base of her forehead. Ebony earrings in the shape of downward-pointing isosceles triangles adorn either side of her head. Her hair, grey with a thick streak of jet black distinguishing its center, is so long that it spills over the back of her chair and touches the floor. She wears a leotard of smooth, satin-like fabric, dyed Tyrian purple. The leotard has a sharp division from the neckline to nearly the midriff, emphasizing her supple cleavage. Matching, shin-length stockings and inconspicuous wrist guards complete the ensemble. Her fingernails are extravagantly long, and painted black. Her lips, also painted black, form a smile.
         She is Sindel, the Shao Kahn's evil queen. Once, she ruled the Outworld by his side; now, ten thousand years after her untimely death, Shang Tsung's necromancy has caused her to be reborn upon the Earth. She is not only the Shao Kahn's perfect complement, but also his greatest prize, and the critical key to his conquest. For in absence of a victory earned through the rite of challenge, it is only through marriage to her that the Kahn may circumvent the Cosmic Furies, and tread the Earth at all.
         Something about Sindel's presence - no, about her very existence - is a puzzle to me. It is a contradiction I cannot isolate, and so I place the amorphous worry at the back of my mind.
         Noob Saibot is also there, albeit close to invisible against the darkness that covers the sky and drapes the land. The formless shadow-man silently serves food and drink to his masters, at once both guarding them from harm and attending to their every whim. I have heard rumors that Saibot's true allegiance may be to another, even more mysterious being, but I have no proof to offer, especially in light of his unblemished loyalty to the Shao Kahn.
         "A toast," Shang Tsung proclaims, lifting his wine glass. "To our conquest of the Earth." Sindel rings her goblet lightly against his. The corners of the Shao Kahn's lips turn up in a sneer.
         "My only wish is to serve you, Master."
         The Shao Kahn's smile broadens. He knows a lie when he hears it.
         As do I.
         I am Raiden, and though my status may have been reduced from god of Thunder to a lowly mortal, my bravery has increased. I know not why. Perhaps it is the writing of this chronicle that has changed me; for one by one, I have seen the Chosen Ones and their allies risk all, and sometimes even lose all, for the greater good. Even their mortal enemy, Kazuya Mishima, dared to gamble his soul in pursuit of what he thought was right. Perhaps being confronted with such stalwart courage time and again has had an enduring effect upon me.
         Or perhaps the loss of my godly wisdom has made me an idiot.
         No matter. The time for pondering and reflection from above has ended. At long last, the hour has come for me to forsake the celestial planes, and walk upon the Mother Realm once more. So it is that I choose to materialize in front of the evil gathering, disrupting their premature festivity with a loud thump of my wooden staff against the building roof. An hour ago, the necromantic wards about their territory would have prevented me from approaching them at all, but that was before Kazuya's defeat spelled out a challenge to the Kahn's Power.
         I do not summon a supernatural rainstorm to embellish my appearance because my voice is now a mortal voice, capable of being overwhelmed by wind and water. And perhaps also because, newfound bravery or no, I am cautious enough to conserve my Power in the presence of beings such as these.
         "Shao Kahn!" I charge, pointing to him with my staff. "My Chosen Ones and their confederates have broken the Power of Kazuya Mishima, your ally of equal standing! This act is in and of itself a direct challenge to your authority. You must now name the time and setting of the rite of combat!"
         The Shao Kahn laughs long and hard.
         "No," I calmly counter. "You are mistaken. I know, for I have deduced the workings of your secret plan.
         "All this time, you have craved only one thing to secure your grip upon this realm: a pure soul. Specifically, a soul of pure and noble intent. All this time, you have had your eye upon one such soul, and you have been waiting to gain total control over it.
         "Your problem was that the purer a soul is, the more difficult it is to take. You cannot simply steal a truly unblemished soul. This is why you did not bother to have your servants directly attack the healer Jun Kazama; pure though she was, it is doubtful that you could have extracted what you need from her. No, there is only one, sure way for you to acquire a pure soul, and that is if its owner freely and willingly relinquishes it to you through contract.
         "You were never after Kazama's soul. You wanted the soul of Kazuya Mishima.
         "Evil we may call him, and evil his deeds may have been. Yet upon knowing the true purpose of his Plan, none can deny that his intentions were as pure and noble as humanly possible, even as they paved his road to Hell. This is why you deigned to bargain with him, required him to exterminate your enemies, and forged a contract that granted you unconditional ownership of his soul, in the event that he should perish with his task unfinished.
         "Then, you settled in to enjoy the show. You thought that either Kazuya would destroy the Chosen Ones, thus eliminating the sole threat to your rule, or else he would be destroyed, and you would gain inalienable title to the pure soul you craved. Hoping for the latter outcome, you sent your servant Noob Saibot to indirectly aid the Chosen Ones. But no matter how events played out, you expected to be greatly entertained."

         "You are wrong, evil one. It was your expectation that the Chosen Ones would slay Kazuya, making him a martyr for his cause. That did not happen! No one murdered Kazuya; he killed himself. And he did so out of no pure aim, for once his Power was broken, the truly noble response would have been to submit to the Chosen Ones' justice, or even assist in their crusade against you.
         "No, Kazuya committed suicide for one reason only: revenge. Revenge against Lee Chaolan, who betrayed him, and Lei Wulong, who defeated him. Kazuya had death-linked their lives to his own, and he deliberately exacted a blood price for their heroism.
         "You may have Kazuya's soul, but it will avail you not, for it is pure no more. It has been tainted through an intentional act of supreme selfishness! And now that a challenge has been given, you must face my Chosen Ones in a new Tournament!"

         The Shao Kahn stares at me.
         I can feel his malice, contempt, and loathing like a tangible force. He rises. I almost quail before him, yet I manage to steel myself.
         With a cold tremor of fear, I realize that a direct confrontation may not have been the wisest possible tactic on my part. I try to teleport away and cannot; the Shao Kahn's will seals me within his domain. My only remaining option is to raise my staff, but I know it will not be enough. The Shao Kahn alone is a being of immense power, a foe capable of annihilating whole worlds. With the aid of Shang Tsung, Sindel, Noob Saibot, and as many other servants as he chooses to summon, he has me at his mercy. I grit my teeth, prepared to go down fighting-
         *Stop,* commands a beautiful, terrible voice from behind me. The Shao Kahn stiffens. Shang Tsung's eyes grow wide. Noob Saibot abruptly merges with the shadows and vanishes from view.
         I need not turn around to know that the Angel is with me. I do not know whether to be relieved or more frightened than ever.
         Sindel lets go of her wineglass. It shatters into pieces by her feet.
         "I - I know you," she confesses to the Angel. Her voice trembles with fear, which is only to be expected, but also anguish, and a yearning, as if for something dear that has been lost. "You came for me. You took me away... where? When...?"
         Confusion engulfs Sindel. She begins to shake. Then the Shao Kahn clasps her shoulder in an immovable grip, and her tremors cease. The tumult in her eyes slowly ebbs away, until they revert to callous silver pools once more. The smile returns to her black-painted lips, although now, I can see how artificial and rigidly forced it is.
         *Raiden is correct,* the Angel tells the Shao Kahn, her cold words wrapping all who hear her in a blanket of ice. *The soul you have gained through contract has become insufficiently pure to award you what you crave. Furthermore, the challenge has been given. You must answer it in seven days, and in the meantime, you may not harm the ones who have issued it.*
         *No, but you are bound by the same Laws that restrict me. Though you may stretch them, distort them, and pervert them past all recognition, I shall not permit you to break them!*
         *Mayhap so, but I am the step that kills. Though your essence may be Immortal, your manifested shell is not!*
         I hear a sound like the musical ringing of chimes. Turning, I see the azure gemstone in the Angel's brow change color to gold. Mindful of what is to come, I dive out of her way, even as a brilliant javelin of light leaps from her forehead to strike the Kahn in an explosive electrical storm. Again, I try to escape via teleportation, and this time I succeed. The Shao Kahn's roar of frustration follows me, as does the Angel's final pronouncement.

         *A new Tournament shall be held for the fate of the Mother Realm, in spite of your best attempts to prevent it.*

         Now that I had ventured to the Earth's surface, my status as a mortal prevented me from returning to the heavens. And so, I transported myself to Kazuya's antechamber, where Sub-Zero and Kung Lao were still trying to open the portal to the sorcerer's inner sanctum. Jun clasped her hands together tightly, her eyes closed in silent prayer - I hoped she was not praying to me. Second Lieutenant Sparky was also there. He awkwardly tried to comfort the healer.
         "I came as soon as I heard about Lei," the soldier explained, tugging nervously on the cuffs of his uniform. "For what it's worth, I don't wanna believe it either..."
         He trailed off upon noticing me. One by one, the others turned their heads and stared. I explained why I had come, and delivered my message of hope. They listened in silence, then continued to stare. Long seconds passed. Still, they stared.
         As a mortal, I have known courage and fear, anger and grief. This was my first taste of exasperation.
         "For what do you wait? A new Tournament comes in seven days, and you must prepare for it at once!"
         Sub-Zero tapped the keys of his hand-held computer. "So you're a mortal now, hm? Not necessarily an ordinary one, though, judging by these readouts. Would you object terribly to a few routine tests? Nothing too extensive, I'd just like to enact a brief scientific analysis of your new circulatory system, lymphatic system, nervous system, endocrine system, musculoskeletal-"
         "To hell with that," Sparky snorted. "This ex-deity has got a lot of questions to answer, starting with what he and his friends were doing when the Shao Kahn conquered the Earth! So Raiden, you tell me this. What kind of gods are you all supposed to be if you can't even protect your own damn worshipers!?"
         "Calm down, and be polite. God or mortal, we need him on our side," Kung Lao chided, frowning at Sparky. "Raiden, on behalf of the Order of Light, could you please help us with this stubborn portal?"
         "There is no time," I refused, with a shake of my head. "We must-"
         "Make time." The command came not from Kung Lao, but rather his Shaolin brother Liu Kang, as he entered the antechamber along with Wang Jinrey and the Lamp-eft. "Wulong fought and perished bravely for our cause. We shall not leave his mortal remains to rot in some nameless pocket dimension."
         "Not to mention Kazuya," Sub-Zero commented. "I've never had the opportunity to dissect a true shape-shifter before. After all this save-the-world mess is over and done with, Kazuya will make a tremendous contribution to Science. In the meantime, I'd like to preserve his anatomy in Ice, and the sooner we get to him, the better condition his cadaver will be in."
         "What?" Wang demanded, with utter revulsion.
         "Well, it's not like they're going to let me have Wulong, now is it? We skua gulls have to make do with whatever we can scavenge."
         Jun had been silent so far, but she could hold back her emotions no longer. In a burst of agitation, she cried, "Stop talking like that! Lei isn't dead, you're all just assuming he is and you're wrong!
         "Raiden, please tell them," she implored, turning to me. "If you've been watching us all this time, then you know Lei didn't really have a death-link, did he? He's still alive, isn't he? Please..."
         I gazed upon her face, and saw my own, albescent eyes reflected in her tears. I had no words with which to answer her. And so I responded the only way I could - by concentrating my diminished Power upon prying open the portal to Kazuya's inner sanctum.
         The work was difficult, and taxing. It would have been impossible if Kazuya were still alive to contest my efforts. Fifteen minutes passed, as a small, crackling blur of indigo light gradually coalesced into an oval-shaped door between dimensions. Jun did not wait a moment longer than she had to; as soon as it grew to the width of her slender waist, she dived headfirst within the shining gate.
         She landed on the floor of an alien, self-contained realm. Darkness surrounded her, until the Lamp-eft wriggled through the portal and swept the vicinity with its searchlight eyes. Jun slowly turned about, taking in the cold, lonely place.
         Broken mirror-shards and a spattering of blood littered the riveted metal floor, the borders of which dropped away to empty darkness. Kazuya's lifeless husk formed the centerpiece to the grisly mosaic. The sorcerer's features were frozen in a final, twisted grimace of hatred and pain.
         Lei Wulong's inert form was nearby. The cop lay curled on his side. Dull red bloodstains matted his hair, skin, and torn clothing. His eyes were closed, and his face was peaceful, without expression.
         In an eerie, haunting way, the surrounding expanse of broken glass was strongly reminiscent of Lei's former "safehouse," in the sewers. Jun remembered something Lei had once said, about how part of him had been convinced he would die there. She'd thought she had taken him away from that dank, miserable burrow of despair forever, yet here was its very facsimile. The notion that he could have survived so much, fought so hard, only to succumb full circle was too horrible for her to bear.
         "Lei?" she ventured, timidly. "Can you hear me? We've come to rescue you."
         She crouched next to him, and called upon her Power to heal. Though she still felt inwardly fatigued, her recent rest had replenished enough of her strength to repair his broken bones, and seal the cuts in his skin.
         When she was done, she used her arms to support his upper body. His head and neck lolled back, loosely, until she adjusted her hold to compensate. She could feel the lingering warmth of his skin on her fingertips. She brushed aside the ash-grey lock in his sable bangs, and the Lamp-eft's searchlight eyes peered down upon his face.
         The midnight badge was gone from his forehead. He had freed his soul from Kazuya's curse.
          "You did it, Lei," she whispered. "You won. We won. You can wake up now. Oki-nasai."
         He did not respond.
         "No. No, it can't be." Renewed trickles of moisture formed in her eyes. Refracted light from the Lamp-eft turned her tears into minute, sparkling gemstones. "Lei, you h-have to wake up..."
         By then, the portal had grown wide enough for the others to slip through. Sub-Zero approached, and scanned the premises with his microcomputer.
         "What are you reading on Lei?" Kung Lao asked the scientist, anxiously.
         "This is odd. Wulong's medical monitor isn't reporting any heartbeat or respiration, but his body temperature hasn't cooled. Rigor mortis should also have set in by now, not to mention dependent lividity, as has happened to Kazuya. I don't understand. Clinically speaking, he's dead-"
         "I'll explain later. Jun? Jun!" The healer didn't seem to hear him; her head was down, and her shoulders shook with sobs as she cradled Lei's upper body close to herself. "Listen to me. Don't try to use artificial resuscitation or cardiac massage, but see if you can revive him with, uh... what is the opposite of a sleep spell, anyway?"
         Liu Kang seized Kung Lao's shoulder in a dragon's-claw grip and hissed, "You shall be quiet."
         "She is having a difficult enough time accepting this as it is. Do not exacerbate her suffering."
         "-he could be-"
         "I said quiet, else I shall hurt you!"
         Kung Lao glowered at his Shaolin brother, then turned to Wang and requested, "Can't you talk some sense into him?"
         The blind man merely held up one hand, indicating patience.
         "I love you, Lei," Jun whispered, through the tears.
         It was then that the miracle happened.
         I suppose I should have known. Lei Wulong's totem is that of the fiery Phoenix, which returns to Life from its own ashes. If I had been a god, I would not have been surprised to see him open his mahogany eyes, and answer the healer with the groggy, yet sincere declaration of "Wô ài nî."
         As a mere mortal, however, I must report that I was so startled I dropped my staff. Liu Kang took a step back. Sparky's eyes bulged. A broad smile appeared on Wang's face. Kung Lao displayed a matching grin. Jun held Lei tight within her arms, and wept fresh tears of joy.
         Only Sub-Zero remained as dispassionate as ever. "Excuse me, Wulong. I don't want to intrude on your reunion, but would you mind explaining how you survived being clinically dead for over an hour?"
         "Huh?" Lei mumbled, blearily.
         "It's an old trick," Kung Lao offered.
         Sub-Zero shot him a quizzical look. "'Old trick'? His heart and lungs were stopped!"
         "Not stopped. Just slowed a whole lot. Lei once showed me how to suspend one's bodily functions in various stages of hibernation, although I've never been as good at it as he is. My guess is, Kazuya's death-link was killing him. His only chance was to trick the spell into thinking he was already dead, and hope that would make it burn itself out. The problem with going into that deep a trance is, well, it's not always easy to get back out. Right, Lei?"
         "Huh?" Lei mumbled, blearily.
         "You knew this all along, didn't you?" Sparky charged of Kung Lao.
         The younger monk pushed the razor-edged brim of his hat all the way up, fully exposing his cheerful face. "I did mention it to you once. Is it my fault you've never seen Lei play dead before?"
         "...not sure I'm playing," the cop murmured, weakly clasping the healer's hand, and looking deep within her ginger eyes. "I love you, Jun. And if this isn't heaven, I don't know what is."

         More has happened since then. Much more.
         The Tournament was indeed held for the fate of the Earth. All the Chosen Ones participated, as did some allies, and many enemies. In the brutal battles and web of events that unfolded, I learned the answer to one final puzzle - what it was that had troubled me about Queen Sindel.
         Truly evil beings cannot be resurrected or reborn after a certain amount of time has passed. Definitely not after ten thousand years, for their souls vanish into the Black Abyss, and are never again seen upon the known planes of existence. So, how could Shang Tsung resurrect the Shao Kahn's malevolent queen?
         The answer is that Sindel was never innately evil; she was merely under the Shao Kahn's control. Once, ten thousand years ago, she had been wife to a king called Jerrod, and the mother of twin girls, whom she named Kitana and Jade. She ruled a fruitful land called Edenia, until the black day when the Shao Kahn conquered her realm, murdered her king, and claimed her as his queen. Under the Kahn's rule, Edenia degenerated into the corrupt wasteland of Outworld. As for Sindel, she escaped into the embrace of Death - or tried to escape, for Shang Tsung's necromancy denied her soul its rightful place in the Paradise.
         It was in the Tournament that Sindel's true identity came to light. Her daughter, Princess Kitana, was one of many to compete; with Kung Lao's aid, Kitana gained a reunion with her long-lost mother. At first, it seemed as though nothing could override the Shao Kahn's enslavement of Sindel's mind, but then the Shao Kahn took Kung Lao's life. In tragedy came the seeds of salvation, for when Sindel saw her daughter's grief over the one person she might have grown to love, it reawakened the hurtful memory of losing her own husband, ten thousand years past.
         Ironically, it was Sindel - the very being who had enabled the Shao Kahn to invade the Earth - who championed the Forces of Light, and ultimately won the Tournament. She turned upon the Kahn, overthrew him, and banished him to the ends of Time. And where the Kahn went, his legions of minions were compelled to follow. Even Shang Tsung could not escape. Though perhaps Noob Saibot may have successfully fled to the shadowy realm of his other master; I can only guess.
         The Shao Kahn's defeat restored Life to Edenia and the Earth. Both worlds became green again. All the souls Shao Kahn had enslaved, including the soul of Kazuya Mishima, were set free to meet their fates. All the surviving human beings who had been frozen in green fire returned to their normal lives; among these were the general of an army base Jax and Sonya had once tried to warn, and the patrons of a seedy Hong Kong bar where Wulong's demonic curse had first emerged.
         There was, however, a certain amount of consternation caused by the deaths of nearly a fifth of the world's population. Scholars, philosophers, and theologians alike noted that most of those who perished tended to be greedy at best, outright criminals at worst, and selfish in general. Many conflicting theories were proposed as to why the human race had been so culled.
         As for myself, the Angel has reinstated my godhood. So it is with the insight of a divine being that I now conclude my tale. Begun as a dismal chronicle of the death of a world, it has evolved into a tome of eternal hope; for it describes how a handful of mortals made it possible for the Earth itself to rise anew, resurrected as if from the ashes of the Phoenix.

Epilogue: End of the Beginning

         This narrative has come to a close. And yet, as I look upon its pages, I see something missing. For all the brave people who rescued the world and survived, life goes on. I would be remiss in my duty as a recordkeeper if I did not pause to mention what has since become of them.

         After winning their war to save the Earth, Jax and Sonya formed the Outworld Investigation Agency, or OIA. Aided by Sparky, Catsclaw, Paco, and many other loyal soldiers too numerous to name, they used science to breech the interdimensional pathways, and led myriad successful missions to explore new worlds.
         The masked man known as Kabal blended seamlessly into a stealthy new life upon the city streets. He was once a criminal servant of the Black Dragons ganglord Kano; now, he fights a private war to serve justice. It was Kabal who tracked down Kano, took him captive, and turned him over to the United States police. As of this writing, Kano's trial has lasted six months and counting, been broadcasted upon innumerable networks, spawned two dozen related books, and cost American taxpayers at least 1.5 million dollars.
         Kurtis Stryker returned to his city of origin. Though the chaos that had run rampant during the invasion was gone, and the city's surviving inhabitants had been saved, all his coworkers and closest friends were dead. He felt like a stranger in his own home. Finally, he petitioned the OIA to enlist him; Jax and Sonya welcomed his addition.
         Sub-Zero held a conference with Doctor Boskonovitch concerning the revival of Boskonovitch's daughter, who remained preserved in cryogenic suspension until such a time as a cure for her sickness could be found. Yet I presume their results were unsuccessful, for the daughter still sleeps. As for Sub-Zero, he had a great many enemies from his former Lin Kuei clan to elude, but he did so with the help of a guardian spirit who watched over him, and a cybernetic friend with a human soul. To this day, Sub-Zero engages in the zealous pursuit of his beloved Science, and it is his technical genius that supports the OIA in its bold explorations.
         In the wake of the loss of Chief Thunder and Raven, Nightwolf was elected as the new leader of Sanctuary. He now governs it with a firm and just hand. Even after the Apocalypse ended, the majority of Sanctuary's citizens chose to stay within their new nation-state, to which America's President conceded autonomy when he realized that no one could enter it without first being invited inside. Thunderbolt became Nightwolf's apprentice, both in matters of sorcery and matters of state.
         Other inhabitants of Sanctuary left to seek their destinies elsewhere. T. Hawk pursued, and eventually helped to win a crusade against the mad dictator who had stolen his tribe's land. Wolf dreamed of being called to serve the cause of Good; following his vision, he entangled himself in the complex weavings of another underground fighting tournament. Michelle Chang's mother, who had been imprisoned among the sleepers in the Mishima syndicate, retired to her desert home, where she could grieve in peace for her lost daughter.
         Liu Kang also grieved, over the death of his Shaolin brother Kung Lao. He did not know what to do, or how to run the Order of Light by himself. Kung Lao had always been the one who kept Liu Kang's temper in check, who had the wisdom and patience to train new initiates. Liu Kang was at a loss for ideas, when Seung Mina made a suggestion. Acting upon it, the monk traveled across the world, until he found Wang Jinrey paying his respects to the grave of his old friend, Jinpachi Mishima. Liu Kang beseeched the blind man's guidance. Ever since, Wang has been training Liu Kang to be a teacher, even as Liu Kang trains his students. The Temple of Light remains within the haven of Sanctuary; Liu Kang has not forgotten the massacre that all but eradicated the Order of Light, and he knows that Sanctuary is as well-protected against such attacks as any land can conceivably be.
         The saurian Alex returned with her children to her Australian home, where her tribe continues its peaceful existence. Curiously enough, though, at least one world the OIA has explored possesses intelligent saurian inhabitants akin to Alex and the late Reptile. There is even some evidence that a few saurians survive within Edenia. But neither Queen Sindel, Princess Kitana, nor Princess Jade have confirmed or denied the rumors floating about their rejuvenated kingdom.
         Heihachi Mishima reclaimed ownership of the Mishima syndicate, and had it transported brick by brick back to Japan. He shed never a single tear over the loss of his sons, Kazuya and Lee. His private corporate empire thrives, and always manages to appear clean and law-abiding on the surface. Beneath the surface is another matter, but Heihachi has never been successfully prosecuted for his crimes - yet.

         And Lei and Jun?
         Six months after the Apocalypse, Lei brought the woman he loved, and who loved him, to a special clearing in Sanctuary's wilderness. Here, seemingly a lifetime ago, she had hoped to introduce him to the creatures of Nature that were her friends. The animals had shied away then, but now they approached him freely, though he appeared leery of Nightwolf's lupine spirit-brother, and nonplussed when a squirrel started digging through his hair.
         "Um," Lei nervously muttered, realizing that he had no idea how to broach his intended subject. "Uh, thanks for coming with me, I wanted to - eh, can you call off your little bushy-tailed friend here before I go bald?"
         She extended her delicate hand. The squirrel scampered up the length of her arm, and perched on her shoulder. She looked at Lei with light and love in her ginger eyes, and nodded for him to continue.
         "Uh, where was I? Oh yeah. I, eh, that is, I was going to, er..." He sucked in his breath, and renewed his determination to complete a sentence. "Iwantedtodothismonthsago, it'sjustthatIwasstillgettingusedtobeingsober, is all."
         "It's all right," she reassured. "You've been doing fine. You'll get accustomed to building a new life without drinking."
         "Eh, that's just it," he conceded, willing his jittery vocal chords to slow down, even if his heart continued to pound at a breakneck pace. "I needed a little time to prove to myself, and you, that I can do it. But it's been six months since I had a drink, and the Earth hasn't swallowed me yet, so I... I want to offer this to you."
         His legs shook a little as he eased onto one knee. He pulled a small velvet box from his pocket, and opened it with trembling hands. Inside was a polished gold ring, ornamented with a dazzling diamond.
         Jun looked at it for a long time, then at him. Adoration filled her eyes as she accepted the velvet box. "Lei, I..."
         "Wait," he cautioned, holding up his hand. "Before you make your decision, there's something you should know about me."
         "Lei, I love you," she answered, and simply hearing those words helped to alleviate his anxiety. "I don't care what's in your past."
         "I've already told most of it to you anyway. This is something different." He sighed, and absently ran one hand through his sable hair. "It, eh, concerns raising a family."
         She nodded, waiting for him to continue.
         "I think I've heard you mention that you would like to have children someday, and, well, if that's going to be with me, you deserve to know that I'm, eh..."
         "Are you sterile?" she prompted, when he seemed to have stalled. Her question held neither accusation nor disappointment, only gentle concern.
         "I used to be. It's kind of embarrassing." Lei shook his head. "I don't know for certain if I was born that way, or if the drinking did it. For a good piece of my life, I thought it was great, because I never had to worry about getting anyone pregnant. The crazy thing is..."
         He paused to clear his throat. "Let me put it this way. You already know that Kazuya altered my physical body. Gave me night vision, toughened my bones and all that. Even though I broke his curse and won back my soul, a lot of what he did to me was permanent. Well, there was one other change that I've never told you before. I didn't know for completely certain myself, until Sub-Zero got hold of Kazuya's cadaver and confirmed a genetic match."
         Lei took a deep breath.
         "Kazuya cured my sterility. Don't ask me how; I guess he used sorcery. Don't ask me why, either. Maybe because he really did think of me as his brother, I don't know. The short version is that I can have kids, they just won't be mine - genetically, I mean. They'll be descended from the house Mishima.
         "I love you, Jun, and more than anything else in the world, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. But if... if you don't want this, if you want to look for someone else to settle down with, I... I'll understand. I just... just had to tell you..."
         Jun raised her delicate index finger to Lei's lips. He fell silent.
         "Would you like to have a child?" she asked, solemnly.
         He swallowed hard. "Uh, actually, I... I guess I would, at that."
         She slipped the diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand. The precious stone caught and reflected sunlight in mesmerizing, rainbow shimmer, yet its elegance was nothing compared to the smile that graced her beautiful face. And the tender feel of her arms around his neck, the touch of her lips upon his - these were the most wonderful things in the world.
         "I'm keeping my last name," she whispered in his ear.

End of Chapter 25: Phoenix Rising