Disclaimer: I am back on this, and still do not own JCA.

Beta: The awesomely patient Zim'smostloyalservant.


PDJ Proudly Presents:

"Queen of all Oni"

CHAPTER XV

Worth of a Warrior

or

Does Size Matter?

Nature was never quiet, a vast swampland such as this even less so. Birds and insects made their cries and calls, while the sounds of water shifting hinted at unseen alligators, or perhaps crocodiles. The noise of man could not drown it out, only add to the din. As such, this pier and its shack in the middle of nowhere seemed utterly inadequate as any sort of sanctuary amidst the living green and life teeming water.

The J-Team walked up the pier, swatting at the mosquitoes feasting on them.

"Once again, the mask serves well, protecting my face from the little devils," El Toro commented.

"Sensei, I still think we should have Captain Black look for Viper. I have a bad feeling," Tohru spoke up. He was awkwardly trying to fend off the insects with swatting motions, his large size very much working against him.

"Is bad feeling willy? No? Then Uncle says we let thief goof off and stay on target!

"Besides, thief still angry at Whisker man for swapping counterfeit in her ransom. Logical, but cold action," Uncle admits. The old wizard did not seem bothered by the bugs, leading the others to silently wonder if he had too little blood for taking to motivate them. Or in Paco's case, to wonder if he tasted too sour.

"Don't worry Tohru, Jade would never hurt Viper. Knowing her, she will reveal some kind of hostage based scheme next time we see her," Jackie assured the sumo. Jackie was trying to ignore the pests; smacking was pointless anyway in a place like this, he thought.

"Yade was much cooler before she was blue. Such shameful ways to treat your opponents," Paco said, trying to smack a mosquito.

"Why we bring boy again?" Uncle demanded.

"He would find a way to tag along anyway. So why not just bring him?" El Toro said. He sounded exhausted at the admission.

"Hana Fuda cards say mask is in this shack, and for once, removal ingredient, fish, is at hand if needed," Uncle said, holding up his puffer. They entered the unassuming, if isolated, shack, and Uncle stopped with a shudder.

The inside of the shack was not only bigger than expected, it was also more bizarrely decorated than Uncle's study, several of them thought. There was a cliché skull candleholder, voodoo dolls, and a scroll wall-hanging showing an elaborate eye.

"Dark magic resides here! We must find mask quickly before dark forces ease it into Jade's hand," Uncle gasped.

"Sensei, I do not sense any dark magic besides mask willies," Tohru said, glancing about the eccentric surroundings. Hadn't he seen this before? The television show Jade liked to watch.

"Sensei, I think this is a set!" Tohru said as the others began to look for one supernatural-looking artifact among many.

"A set up?!" Jackie exclaimed.

"No, a TV set. Jade used to watch a show because it had a female magic user on it. What was her name?" Tohru racked his memory. His attention had only been polite; he had tuned out a good bit of Jade's praise for the Psychic Network.

"Miss Kimber, of Miss Kimber's Psychic Shack!" A woman called out. A dark curtain was pulled back with a flourish, revealing another room, where a TV camera rested, and a green-eyed African-American woman wearing gypsy-style clothes. Uncle recoiled at the sight of her, holding out his puffer fish, but then lowered it.

"Bah, Tohru is right, no dark magic here bedsides mask. No magic here at all. Just fake TV set," the old wizard declared.

"Easy there, ol' timer, just because it's on TV doesn't make it any less real. Not all of us with the gift are above using it to turn a benevolent profit. But then, despite the attitude, you genuinely do love the shopkeeper lifestyle," she remarked.

"Bah, lucky guess. Faker probably trained to spot little hints to know a man's trade," Uncle huffed.

"Well, I know you are here to take the mean old mask in the hope it can help you save a little girl. Though I've got to tell you, Jackie, the saving she needs isn't entirely what you have in mind. And El Toro, you're a lot more capable than you realize. Don't let it get you down when you need others to help you get back in the ring," she advised, weaving among the men.

"So you do have the mask?" Jackie demanded, getting a bit creeped out by the predictions. He was used to flashier magic; this seemed a bit creepier. He couldn't tell if it was real or fake.

"Right there on the shelf, hon. And you'll be finding something else, but finding it doesn't mean it's not still lost," she shook her head sadly, both indicating an Oni mask on her shelf and pulling out a Viper voodoo doll. She tossed the doll to Jackie, who caught it by reflex while El Toro grabbed the mask. It had a more brutish and less demonic look than some of the others. A bald head, with a strong chin and nose, a single large white horn growing from its brow being the prominent feature. Over all, an unhealthy shade of yellow, with eyes a bit too big.

"Gracias, how much for the mask?" El Toro asked. He was not sure how it worked with masks like this – just taking it would be stealing, no?

"No charge, big guy, since it will end up on this guy's face. Glad I insured those windows," Miss Kimber told them. She pulled out a Hak Foo voodoo doll, with overstuffed arms, and stepped back.

"So this is the mask destined for my face. At last," the mercenary himself spoke, stepping through the doorway.

"Senor Uncle!" El Toro said, thrusting the mask into Uncle's hands. The sumo, the wrestler, and the archaeologist faced off against the spiky-haired mercenary.

"Taking us all on alone, Hak Foo? Your head's big enough without the mask," Jackie remarked.

"I would be all too pleased to demonstrate my capacity to do just that, Chan. But, I want that mask and I want it NOW!'" he yelled. The windows broke on either side of the door, letting Left and Right roll onto the floor and come to their feet.

"And when you get it, you had better stop whining about masks!" Right yelled, glaring over at his human ally.

"Muy Bueno, a three-on-three fight between the greatest warriors on both sides! …Do not tell Viper I said that, please?" Paco asked, realizing the potential insult in his statement.

"Actually, no," Right smiled. Left put two fingers to his lips and whistled. With muffled footsteps, a dozen Ninja Khan rushed through the door, forming six each behind the two officers.

"Remember our little brothers, Chan? They have been cooped up so long, Her Majesty decided it was time for them to come out and play again," Right chuckled. He and his brother drew their swords in sync, the Shadowkhan behind them following suit with an array of weapons.

"Bad day!" Jackie gulped.

XXX

Jade sat under an umbrella on a black airboat hidden among the purloined shadows of trees, legs crossed, eyes closed. She smiled and opened her eyes, looking to where Hebi sat sharpening her sword and looking over what she had pick-pocketed from the rental agency again – an unexpected side effect of Hebi's creation seemed to be a near compulsive need to relieve humans of their stuff given an opportunity. Blankman had already asked for his wallet back four times. Jade found it a rather endearing quirk.

"I knew my ninjas would perform better with Vassals on the field. Snatching that mask and using it to bait that muscle head into a trap outside – Right really does take after me. Left doesn't seem quite so clever, but then Right has already used up most of the Drones I gave him. Oh, there went the last one.

"Good tag team action from those two. And now they are off, with Right in pursuit, with Hak Foo. Left and his guys should keep Paco and the wizards out for awhile," Queen Jade said, getting up. Picking up the umbrella, she took a moment to adjust her mask. She had dispensed with the scarf, taking the half-mask from a Drone to go along with her blindfold and hood.

Hebi noted that with the combo, one couldn't really see anything of the Queen's face now, just a dark shape with two faint red lights beneath the hood. Much more intimidating looking than the masks worn by any of the Drones they had encountered.

And, Hebi thought with disgust, they had learned why Drone masks should not be removed until they matured into Vassals. Not disgusting, as it would have been as Viper, but it was just plain ugly. She had made a point to rib the boys about having been that ugly not so long ago.

Sadly, only Right reacted in any interesting way. Left simply took it as a statement of fact, how boring.

But for now, as the Queen took a seat, lightly twirling the black umbrella, she gathered her stuff. They had a plan to set into motion. One that would drive a poison dagger into the J-Team itself.

XXX

Jackie glanced back, seeing Uncle raging on the pier as Tohru opened the engine. Sabotage. He should have expected it from Jade. At least the other Shadowkhan had vanished.

When Hak Foo and Right's airboat cut into his line of sight, he was reminded of the seriousness of being separated from the wizards.

"Jackie! I am no expert with this vehicle; we may have to make a fight of it!" El Toro called over the roar of the rotor blades as the luchadore worked the controls.

Sure enough, the Shadowkhan working the blades was smiling as his black airboat closed the distance between them, Hak Foo crouched on the prow, glaring at Jackie.

"We can't go any faster?!" Jackie called to El Toro.

"I don't think so! I only learned how to drive this two hours ago!" El Toro answered. The black airboat used a lump of sand like a ramp, somehow clearing the water to fly forward.

'That is not fair,' Jackie thought as it landed to their right, mast even with them. Right called to the mercenary.

"Take the controls, I will stop them!" Right called. Hak Foo ignored him, rising from his crouch.

"Angry crow takes flight!" Hak Foo said.

"Gopher recedes!" he said, landing in a crouch to avoid the oar Jackie swung at his head.

"Strike like snake!" he struck out with a kick that forced Jackie a step back, but not enough to keep Jackie from breaking an oar over his head. Hak Foo stood up grinning as Jackie sighed.

"Of course." Right leapt onto the boat, leaving the black vessel in their wake.

"Hello again, Chan. Looks like a two on one fight. With my brother absent, this might be a challenge," Right remarked. Hak Foo ignored him, charging Jackie, who held the remainders of the oar like boken.

"Two on two!" El Toro said. The luchadore slammed into Hak Foo from the side. As the two began to grapple, making their way to the edge caused the boat to tip that way as it sped on. With a shared glance, Jackie and Right ran to the other side, Right drawing his katana.

"You have the mask," Right said, looking at the piece of wood Jackie was holding.

"Is this the part where you offer to let me go with no trouble if I hand it over?" Jackie asked, irritated.

"No, there is no chance you would, after all. Hmm, not sure why I even said that. I should watch less of those late night movies the Queen rents, maybe?" With a shrug, he came at Jackie with a war cry. They passed each other, Jackie's weapon breaking on his face, and Jackie untouched.

They turned, Jackie left with no weapon and Right with no hit to his name, blinking splinters out of his face.

"Well, that was pointless. Must be cheap composite or something. TREE!" Right said, pointing behind Jackie toward the front of the boat.

"I am not that gullible," Jackie answered. His eyes widened, though, when Right turned from him to run to the control chair.

"This model has cruise control?! How do you unlock it?!" The shinobi demanded, struggling with the stubborn steering wheel.

Everyone else stopped their fight. Including El Toro, who had Hak Foo in a headlock as Hak Foo tried to flip him off.

El Toro turned on his heel, Hak Foo falling over the side and just catching himself to be dragged along in the water up to his waist.

El Toro knocked the Shadowkhan out of his way with a shove.

"Unlock is simple, press pedal, move lever so… and strong pull back. Strong pull!"

Chrrink!

"Sorry?" El Toro said, holding the steering wheel as they hurled toward the downed tree at top speed. Jackie and El Toro both screamed as the wrestler held up the broken steering mechanism.

"Rat abandons sinking ship!" Hak yelled, before jumping overboard.

"What he said," Right echoed, turning his back on Jackie to escape into the water. Hitting the toppled tree, rather than crumpling, the airboat went onto it like a ramp and was flying through the air.

"WAAAHHHH!" they screamed as the boat came down towards an island clearing amongst the trees.

Crump!

They held onto the boat as it impacted, bounced, and slid, the propeller sputtering and finally giving up the ghost.

"Ohhhh, at least we still have the mask," Jackie moaned, falling off the wreck onto mostly dry land. El Toro stumbled out after him and braced his hands on his knees. Lifting his head, he pondered what he was seeing before lifting Jackie off the ground.

"Is that an X?" the luchadore asked. Jackie saw a large X had indeed been carved into the soil a short distance from where they landed on the ground.

"Jade," Jackie stated with certainty.

"Aw, I just lost twenty bucks," Jade lamented. She was seated on the large roots of a tree near the clearing's edge, sheltered by the shadows of leaves and fanning herself. Though Jackie guessed it would be hot with how bundled up she was.

"Got your ninja back, I see," Jackie remarked.

"Of course – you didn't really think I would let that brute Ikazuki hobble me permanently, did you?" Jade snickered. She snapped her fan shut, and four ninja rose out of the shadows in front of her. The two heroes prepared to face off with them, only for Jade to wave her fan, and the ninjas sank back into the shadows.

"Ehh? Yade?" El Toro asked.

"No real point in fighting you with no mask involved. Is there?" Jade chortled. Jackie's hand flew to the pouch he had attached to his belt. The pouch was still there, but it was empty.

"Looking for this?" a muffled voice called from behind them. A sheathed sword struck them each over the head, nearly knocking them to the ground, before blue and black shot between them.

At first, they thought it was another ninja, but ninja do not wear armor. A samurai, and they glimpsed blue hands as it knelt before Jade, handing her the mask.

"That's right Jackie, ninja and samurai, bad, bad day for you," Jade laughed as the samurai stood. It wore a Kabuto helm, complete with ornamental horns, but other than that was clearly different from the previous Samurai Khan. Much smaller and slimmer in build. The armor, black with red enamel, was more compact than he had seen in the museums. The cuirass and shoulder guards apparently slimmed down to accommodate more movement.

Pulling its helmet off, it turned to face them both.

"Bald, and a woman?" El Toro noted. He had thought Shadowkhan did not gain distinctness until they had had a large amount of time in the real world.

"…Viper?" Jackie asked, eyes widening in shock. El Toro turned quick to look at his friend in shock, and then back to the enemy. Blue skin, red eyes, no hair, and her smile was showing off pointed teeth. But…

"Madre dios! It's contagious?!" El Toro cursed.

"Hardly, and it's not a disease. Now don't worry, dumb ox, I wouldn't give you a mask even if you asked for it," Jade laughed.

"But Viper! How? What?" Jackie stuttered, grabbing his hair. Viper put a hand to her mouth as she giggled.

"Oh, you are so cute when you're befuddled, Jackie. And it's so easy to trigger that reaction. Good thing I'm into the kind of blue you don't get with shirts now, or I might feel a bit bad about hitting you," Viper laughed, "But I will answer your question. I-"

"Crocodile emerges onto dry land to seize prey!" Hak Foo yelled, bursting out of the water and running towards Jade.

"No!" Jackie protested. Viper drew a katana, and three Samurai Khan rose to block his path. Hak Foo reached Jade, who tossed him the mask.

"Just put it on!" she ordered.

In the same motion he grabbed it out of the air, Hak Foo smacked it onto his face.

"You were right, my friend, bad day indeed," El Toro gulped.

"LION ROARS IN TRIUMPH!" he let loose a deep, unnatural roar, his face merged with the features of the mask.

"Remove your samurai. I will destroy them with the most deadly tribe of Shadowkhan yet. Wolf calls pack!" Hak Foo declared. Viper acquiesced, sheathing her sword, sending the samurai back into the shadows.

Hak Foo raised his arms and shadows bloomed in the clearing. The Shadowkhan rose, sharp points of black with short arms, the holes in their masks not showing eyes, but rather a blank stretch of blue skin. They faced the heroes, who looked at them in surprise.

"They are so…?" Jackie said, looking at them as Hak Foo's eyes bugged out.

"Small?" Viper supplied.

"Adorable!" Queen Jade squeed. She ran over from her spot to the back row of Shadowkhan, scooping one up in the palm of her hand.

"Aren't you just precious," she cooed, stroking its back with one of her fingers. Hak Foo's eye twitched.

"Small ... does not ... have to mean. Weak. Attack!" he sputtered. They charged and leapt in mass at El Toro… and bounced off his belly to splat on the ground.

"…Well, I guess that General was using his big horn to compensate for something," Viper laughed, clapping Hak Foo on the shoulder. As El Toro pressed a counterattack, stomping the Mini Khan into vapor, the twitch spread to Hak Foo's whole body.

With a scream of rage, he grabbed the horn with both hands and started pulling.

"Is that it? I guess averages mean that at least one sealed evil would not really be much of a threat, eh?" El Toro said, seemingly having disposed of the squad of small monsters.

"RAAAHHHHH! I DO NOT WANT THIS MASK!" Hak Foo roared, still trying to pull the mask off with brute strength.

"Oh shut up! You're spoiling my moment with the little cutey-khanootie here," Jade snapped, continuing to pet the Mini Khan. Viper seemed amused, watching Hak Foo practically stumble about in his efforts while Jade kneeled on the grass stroking the tiny evil in her hand.

"This would not be happening if you had just let me use the mask of Ikazuki like I wanted! Instead you had to waste it brainwashing the thief!" Hak Foo yelled, pointing at Viper.

The bald Shadowkhan facepalmed. Jade put the Mini Khan down, walked over to the fuming Hak Foo, and jumped up, grabbed half of his mustache, and yanked him down to face her.

"You… STUPID DUMB HEAD OF FAIL! DO YO REALZIE WHAT YOU JUST DID!?"

"HEBI AND I SPENT TWO HOURS GOING OVER THAT 'I CHOSE THE DARK SIDE BECAUSE YOUR FAIL AND LIST OF INADEQUACIES' SPEECH! THAT WOULD HAVE HAD THEM ANGSTING OVER GREEN RANGER BETRAYAL FOR TWO, MAYBE THREE ENCOUNTERS!

"BUT YOU LET THE STUPID CAT OUT OF THE BAG WITH YOUR STUPID SELF! OPERATION CHIRPING CHUPMUNK IS OVER BEFORE IT COULD START!" Jade screamed into his face.

"AND WHAT IS MAKING THE NOISE LIKE SOMEONE BOILING A BIG TON OF EGGS?!" she continued to scream, looking up.

Another airboat sped onto the dry land, its propeller jammed up with all sorts of ninja weapons, Tohru providing the propulsion with a chi beam. Uncle leapt down onto the ground, holding a glowing vial.

"Mask removal ready Jackie!" he called.

"Excellent, get over here and-" Hak Foo called, before Jade yanked the other part of his mustache.

"No way! If I'm not getting to inflict needless mental torment on my family and friends today, you are not getting rid of the mask you hate today either.

"Goodbye, Jackie. Have a nice day!" Jade snapped. Right stepped forward and threw a smoke bomb. When it cleared, Viper was the only Shadowkhan remaining.

"Viper?" Jackie said, hesitantly. The Shadowkhan woman sighed and put her helm back on. He saw there was a small snake as a crest on it. Obvious really, he supposed.

"Hebi will do, since Hak Foo already ruined the Queen's plan," Hebi admitted. Jackie frowned, trying to make sense of all this. El Toro stepped up in the silence.

"Viper, you refused Jade once. You told me it was because you cared about Jade. Too much to let her ruin her life, like you nearly did with crime. Like I let magic take over my life. Surely you have not forgotten that resolve," the luchadore pleaded. Hebi frowned and glanced at the big man.

"My memory is quite clear, thank you El Toro. I even picked up quite a few memories from Ikazuki. And that's just it – I'm not quite Viper anymore; Queen Jade mixed Ikazuki with her to get me, a Shadowkhan woman with all the affection and attitude of Viper, but with Ikazuki's darkness and loyalty to follow my leader wherever she goes.

"I can still see flaws in her plans, but it just no longer matters. Save for advising her on how to increase her chances of success. I will protect Queen Jade, and her dreams, even if they are everyone else's nightmares.

"As a courtesy on Viper's behalf, I'm telling you this so you don't expect some kind of mercy or sudden change of heart to save you. I remember, but it doesn't matter anymore. The past is past.

"And whatever part of Viper may want to aid you against her that still exists, or was interested in affection toward another Chan, is locked too deep to ever reach you. It is in your best interests to treat me as a new arrival. The Queen would hate to have you lose because of some angst-induced stupidity, I think.

"Till next time boys," Hebi said. With a tap of her foot, she began to sink into the shadows.

"Viper, wait! What do you mean affection…" Jackie called out. He let it hang as the fallen thief disappeared into the darkness. He stood there, stunned; El Toro put a hand on his shoulders. He couldn't think of anything else to do for his friend.

"Senor Uncle? We must now save Viper, too?" Paco asked Uncle, who still stood by the airboat, watching his nephew.

"The dark forces are growing ever stronger. AIYAH!" Uncle yelled, spotting something in the grass.

Paco joined the wizard as he plucked something from the grass.

"Mini Khan," Paco stated, as Uncle produced a jar. He swiftly dropped the creature into the jar and screwed a lid onto it. Briefly, a design in green appeared on the glass and lid.

"Ha cha! Captured Shadowkhan! Jade has missed a step. Quickly, we must return to shop and do research!" Uncle declared. His attention fell on his exhausted and passed out apprentice, and Jackie's wrecked airboat.

"Mask man, Jackie, row Uncle back to shop!" he ordered, pointing to the two men.

Later, Windsor Mansion:

Jade laughed as the Mini Khan chased each other up her arm, over her shoulders, and down the other arm. They had not been responsive enough for her taste at first, but some coffee and sugar had gotten them moving.

The blue girl wrapped in black sat on the floor of the parlor, wrappers around her as a testament to her lunch of different schools of take-out. The room was dark – like most rooms, the windows had been bricked up, the now superfluous curtains stirring freely in a cold wind that had taken to wandering the halls. Candles holding flames of red or flames of blue burned silently in place of the vanished bulbs, turning the darkness into a dance of shadows as the ghouls stirred in the walls and floors restlessly, sending ripples through the surfaces.

The Shadowkhan did not seem the last bit put off, as ninja and samurai patrolled the halls and swept and dusted the rooms. They went about their work in silence, even their foot falls soft, and anything moved for their chores taken and replaced with nary a noise.

Aside from the playing Queen, noise came from below, in the basement.

Here, an abundance of candles illuminated the dojo as General Hebi walked down the stairs. The two officers looked to her from their places at the foot of the steps, and she pointed to Left. The scarred Shadowkhan bowed to the waist and stepped into the shadows.

"Any progress?" Hebi asked Right. The handsome Shadowkhan shook his head and gestured vaguely at the scene before them as Hebi reached the foot of the steps.

"Swarm gathers and strikes, NOW!" Hak Foo bellowed. His appearance and demonic deep voice should have been irritating, but as it looked like he was yelling at a moving puddle on the floor, the effect lost something. Then the puddle tried to jump as one at a scarecrow-like dummy dressed liked Jackie Chan. The dummy successfully repelled the assault, several of the Khan dispersing.

"Ha! I should have known, with all your complaining, you would suck with a mask after finally getting one," Hebi cackled. The Oni-faced man turned his ire on her.

"At least I have the will to command an army, you sneaking woman – you would never have even dared to try and command the power you now wield without the Queen's interference. What do you even know of combat besides taking the easy way?" Hak growled. Right drew his sword slowly and pointed it at the angry man.

"Careful, human; you are disrespecting a General and lady of the Shadowkhan. She could do nothing else and already she is your superior," Right said. Hebi reached over and gently pushed the katana blade down to point towards the floor.

"My status as General is quite warranted, human." Tapping her saya, a single samurai rose from the shadows before her.

"One of my samurai against as many bite-sized bits as you care to feed him," Hebi laughed.

"Um, General, even Drones should not eat Drones," Right said, before Hak Foo roared, spreading his arms. Around him, the floor practically disappeared as Mini Khan spread out from him. Scowling as sweat ran down his face, he pointed at the samurai.

"SHOW YOUR FURY! EVEN DOGS CAN KILL A LION WITH ENOUGH NUMBERS!" he roared, shaking the basement beams. The samurai drew his sword, and the swarm rushed at him.

Two Minutes Later:

"Woodpecker, peck wood!" Hak Foo declared, before head butting one of the columns/beams. Hebi patted the samurai on the shoulder and gave him a peck on the war mask, standing on tiptoes.

"Good boy, a pity I'm not allowed to raise up officers. But as a reward, I order you to go make and eat a ham sandwich, treat yourself to pickles as a topping," she said. Without responding, the samurai turned and walked past Right toward the stairs.

Another thump from below made Queen Jade pause in her enjoyment of the Mini Khan. Curious, she lay on her side, pressing her ear to the carpet through the layers of cloth that protected her. She heard a muffled roar she placed as Hak Foo.

"It sounds like quite the fight down there," she grinned, the silk adjusting some as her face moved beneath it.

"I guess Hak Foo figured out what these little guys can do. Let's go take a look, shall we?" she asked Left. He bowed his head and waited as she gathered up the Mini Khan in her gloved hands. Together, they walked through the dark halls, any Khan they passed ceasing their labors to bow deeply at the waist. She chuckled at the sight of such a samurai who had been wielding a duster pole to wage war on the chandelier cobwebs.

When Left opened the door, the running commentary hit them full force.

"Tasmanian devil SPINS!" Hak Foo roared, before they heard wood and stone cracking.

The grin under her mask slipped into puzzlement as they descended the stairs to find Right and Hebi both sitting at the foot of the stairs, eating popcorn from a large blue bowl. Hebi glanced back, offering them a handful of popcorn.

"Your Majesty, popcorn?" the samurai General asked. The Queen continued to descend, watching the powered up Hak Foo attack the dojo/basement.

"What happened?" she asked the two officers.

"He discovered his tribe is even more useless than he is," Right commented, flicking a piece of the salty snack into his mouth. Jade gasped at that and closed her hands over the Mini Khan she was carrying.

"Hey, those are Shadowkhan you're talking about. Clearly he's the problem. And not just with the fail. Some of those pillars are probably load carrying. I will not have an angsty lackey destroy my base. Nothing less than a would-be bigger bad or my archenemy is allowed to even try that!" Jade insisted.

"Oh, don't worry, he hasn't lost it so much he would bring a building down on himself," Hebi assured the Queen, reaching out and patting her head.

"Beaver topples tree!" Hak Foo screamed… And began gnawing on one of the ornamental beams.

"…Okay, he has lost it. I'll fix it," Hebi admitted. Drawing her sword, she got up as the Queen took a seat on the lowest step and grabbed a handful of popcorn. Pulling her lower mask down, she scarfed the food before replacing it and chewing.

THWUNK

The shadow katana actually vibrated a bit from the flat-sided blow to the masked man's head. But it sent Hak Foo to the ground.

"Where's the removal potion?" the mercenary asked. Huffing, Queen Jade crossed her arms and floated into the air to hover over Hak Foo. The two yojimbo followed her to stand over the stunned man.

"Really? All that time you wanted a mask and now you just want to get rid of the one you got? Here is an idea, why not order these guys to show you what their special power is?" Jade asked, reaching down to place the Mini Khan she had brought on Hak's chest.

Frowning, the horned man lifted his head to glare at the puny monsters.

"Reveal your strength to me and the Queen!" he commanded.

Finally, the Mini Khan scurried off Hak Foo and past Jade. It leapt up each step, too light to make a sound, into the mansion proper. Jade floated after it, her yojimbos and General following her. Hak Foo waited a moment, before getting to his feet and joining the sow pursuit.

The Mini Khan led them to Blankman's room, but after drawing near to the door, the creature flinched back. With an about face, it returned to the first floor and made its way outside onto the road.

"This might take awhile," Jade huffed, glad it was nighttime as they pursued the little guy into the night.

X X X

Jackie leaned his back against the counter, waiting for the teapot to whistle. Thinking, over and over.

He knew something like this would happen. Jade had only seemed to view these adventures as fun, like some Saturday morning cartoon show, but he knew luck could only hold so long. Each time they won, he had hoped that was it – no more dark forces, no more crazy criminals, no more dark magic.

Because eventually, it would leave them marked, as Uncle was. He knew there was much he didn't know about the man who had done so much to raise him. But he knew Uncle had sacrificed much to the battle of good and evil.

Chi Master Fong had been a loss to Uncle, he had come to see. And Uncle had been forced to leave behind so many friends, leaving the theater career he had trained for since childhood. And when Jackie felt like yelling at his elder for his behavior, he could all too easily recall Uncle was shaped by a life where things like these adventures had come into it, and not left him unscathed.

He had asked Uncle in private not to teach Jade magic. Uncle had agreed, but had warned Jackie, Jade was drawn to magic. Uncle had chosen to put Jackie on the warrior's road so he could both defend himself from the supernatural and not have it dominate his life. But Jade… Uncle feared Jackie's path would not be hers.

'And now Jade draws Viper into her madness. But then, we are all wrapped up in it now, aren't we? Once magic gets a grip on you, it does not let go easily. Or does it ever give up? Maybe it just waits to come back, like a cancer. Like what it had done to Jade.'

The sound pulled him from his melancholy thought, or rather a sound cutting off.

El Toro placed the teapot aside, giving Jackie a small smile.

"The pot has been whistling for a bit, mi amigo. Senor Uncle would not appreciate burned tea," the luchadore commented. Jackie nodded agreement, and El Toro put a hand on his shoulders.

"Dark times, no doubt about that. But Jade must be desperate to go to such lengths. And Hebi admitted it – Viper still exists. And even if Viper is buried too deep to aid us as the Oni says, then it's our place to dig her out," El Toro said. Jackie said nothing, watching the big man pour a cup of tea. Finishing that cup, El Toro continued.

"There was a time I could not imagine living without the power of the Ox. But now I feel I was never truly alive in the ring with such a dishonorable power flowing through me.

"Things can change for the worse, or they can change for the better. And if I have learned one thing about good and evil, it's that evil never gives good its proper weight class.

"I have faith in those two, Jackie, and in us. Two spells put them on this course, but we are here because we chose to be, for honor, duty, friendship, and love, eh?

"I'll put my money on those with a greater drive to win every time. Those types, they surprise the audience quite a bit," El Toro told Jackie. Jackie gave a small smile, while Paco beamed.

"El Toro, you have the most inspiring spirit of them all!" Paco cheered. The door to the study swung open, revealing an Uncle who was even more irritated looking than usual.

"Enough noise! You want wizards to figure this out or not!?" Uncle demanded.

"Actually, let them in! We should put this to a vote!" Tohru yelled from inside. The three other J-Team members exchanged worried looks.

"Vote!? Magic is not a democracy!" Uncle yelled back. Still, he crossed the room and grabbed Jackie's shirt and pulled the younger man inside. With a moment's hesitation, the luchadore and his towel boy followed.

An array of lights was fixed on the table where the Mini Khan was held under an overturned jar. To deny it shadows to escape with, El Toro guessed.

"What is going on?" Jackie asked Uncle, who released him. Tohru sat at a desk, scowling with his arms crossed. He actually reminded El Toro for a moment of the thug the sumo was when they first met.

"Sensei is pushing a bad idea," Tohru started.

"Aiyah! Apprentice is thinking without his head! Shadowkhan prisoner is great opportunity to learn about Shadowkhan. Perhaps even make strides toward suppressing Shadowkhan nature in niece," Uncle ranted.

"Dissecting a Shadowkhan, when we know there seems to be a link between them and the masks. Hak Foo may know what we do to it and tell Jade. Or what if he finds out some other way? Jade believes we are against her, that we do not care about her save as some evil to be defeated. Treating what she regards as her own kind like a test animal will only validate that view of hers. Drive her deeper into madness and desperation," Tohru rumbled.

"Niece is already falling into darkness and madness regardless of what we do! Uncle's way at least may give us idea of how me might pull her back!" Uncle declared hotly.

"Or make her even less likely to take a hand offered in aid, and more likely to bite it off," Tohru answered coldly.

El Toro shook his head at the argument; it sounded like they both had good points but there could be no productive teamwork with such hostility. And Jackie was slumping in a new spot. And Paco… where was Paco?

To the wrestler's horror, Paco was ignoring the argument to inspect the captive Shadowkhan.

"Yade was right, it is kind of cute. In a creepy way," Paco remarked. He was grabbed by one of El Toro's large hands, pulling him away from the captive dark creature. For good measure, El Toro stepped between the boy and the danger, his shadow falling over the jar, to the little Shadowkhan's curiosity.

"Paco, just because something is small does not mean it is not dangerous. Take Yade, for example," El Toro admonished. He flinched and was surprised, wondering what brought that on. Paco didn't notice, looking at his feet at the admonishment by his idol.

"Sorry, El Toro," the boy apologized.

"Yes, well, just beee…" The large man swayed. Putting the heel of his hand to his brow, he was confused. He felt lightheaded, drunk even, but he had not had any alcohol for at least a week!

'What…?', he wondered as the world went dark.

"El Toro!" someone shouted. The last thing he registered was something crashing to the floor and the sound of glass shattering.

The newly four-legged Shadowkhan stretched on the tabletop, flicking bits of its destroyed glass prison away. It seemed to smile at them, revealing rows of large sharp teeth.

"How?!" Tohru shouted.

"What?!" Jackie shouted.

"El Toro!" Paoc cried out, his hero helpless before the cat-sized monster.

"Aiyah!" Uncle yelled. Grabbing his blowfish, he fired off a chi bolt. It struck the monster just above the mouth, sending it tumbling off the table.

Paco ran to El Toro, Uncle passing him and kicking the table aside. The Shadowkhan growled as them, then began to sniff the ground.

It dodged the next chi blast and the one after, before darting into a shadow on the wall.

"I thought we were warded against shadow travel," Tohru remarked, catching up to his sensei.

Whack

"Wards keep shadows from entering, not leaving! Though Uncle admits it may be time to rethink that design," the chi wizard remarked.

"El Toro, wake up!" Paco shouted, shaking the downed luchadore. Uncle frowned, adjusting his glasses.

"Bad magic is at work."

X X X

The back door to the gas station burst open, and a fat man with a salt and pepper beard ran out, huffing. Three black shapes pursued him through the small parking lot, quickly but without hurry, pointy and low to the ground. Reaching a car beneath a light pole, he fumbled in his pocket, sweating and muttering prayers into gibberish.

The shapes reached him just as he slid the keys into the door lock and turned.

"Hhhh!" he wheezed, wide-eyed, pulling the door open. He collapsed over the driver seat of his car, only his breathing revealing he was still alive.

"HAHAHAHA!" Hak Foo laughed from the gas station rooftop, bathed in the light of the moon that pierced the cloud cover. Before his eyes, the Shawdowkhan grew, from small dogs to the Queen's stature. He glanced back, recalling the customers and employees who had fallen before the manager tried to make his break for it.

Baring magnificently intimidating teeth, his new warriors roared in agreement with his mirth.

"Lion pride roars in satisfaction," Hak Foo chuckled. A slurping sound ruined his moment. He glared to his left and saw the Queen perched on the ledge, her legs swinging free. She was drinking an extra large soda, no doubt from the station itself, through the folds in her mask.

"Meh, not impressed. And just look at them! Before they were adorable, now they're B-movie material! It's like finding a child star twenty years later," the Queen grumbled.

"So you say, but just think – other armies are limited by their talent, but this army has limitless potential!"

"Really? How do you know they don't explode if they eat too much? Or maybe the growth spurt is temporary, like how anyone gets hungry again? And they also make bigger targets now.

"This sucks. I thought we were going see 'good things come in small packages', but instead it's just about the little guys bulking up to stomp the bulk bully. Bad Aesop, bad!" The Queen muttered.

Scowling, Hak Foo looked to the other Khan. Hebi just shrugged, drinking her own soda at the ledge, while Left did not acknowledge him. Right stepped up to the Queen and spoke up.

"Still, they are a Shadowkhan army, and Hak Foo is more capable than any human to wear the masks-"

"Don't forget Black, he had a General's qualities," Queen Jade interrupted, shooting an irritated glare to the handsome yojimbo.

"True, but we should now consider how best to use this army at our disposal," Right finished.

"Quite right, Right," Jade chuckled at the word play.

"Alright, Hak Foo, if you are a General, here is your mission. Take your army and destroy the J-Team," Jade said, turning her attention to the horned warrior. He grinned, baring his fangs in answer.

"Without causing excessive casualties or damage to the city. Show us you can be more than a particularly loud brute," Jade continued. She floated back into the air and walked away, her entourage falling into step around her. Hak Foo watched them go.

"Still clinging to some morality? No matter – with this power, I will finally best Chan, that is all that matters," Hak Foo proclaimed. With a roar, a ring of Mini Khan appeared around him. Darkness filled the ring and he began to sink into it.

"But first, the General needs to supply his troops with suppliers. All the better to lure noble fools onto the battlefield. LION PRIDE SETS OUT TO THE HUNT!" Hak Foo declared before vanishing.

Stepping into the gas station store, Jade noted the samurai had already cleaned it out, and took an offered bag of chips. Slicing it open with a claw, she began to eat the contents.

"So what is the plan with him?" Hebi asked.

"There is no plan," Queen Jade told her.

"He will lose without support from one of us, that is certain," Right pointed out.

"Thank you for drawing my attention to what I already know, Right. I expect him to lose. The masks hardly matter anymore, and with the loss of Viper, defeat might encourage Jackie to step up his game. So an easy win over Hak costs me nothing, but earns me some false sense of security on my enemies' part. Not to mention the redhead will pipe down about wanting masks."

"Pardon, Your Majesty, but even if the Tablets are the primary objective, that seems little reason to throw away an army. Any army," Right pressed. Jade waved off the comment before eating another chip.

"I also don't like Hak Foo – he's human and needs to be reminded of his place in the pecking order. One of you can save him or something when he fails. Meanwhile, Hebi and me are going to eat a ton of sushi."

"What about you Left, nothing to say?" Hebi asked the stoic Shadowkhan standing nearby. He glanced slightly toward the General before turned to face the Queen.

"Hak Foo is human, but he is quite formidable as a warrior if little else. With the loss of Viper, I believe he stands a far better chance than you are stating," Left replied. The other three Shadowkhan looked at him with some surprise before sharing looks of almost pity at such a naive statement.

"So anyway, Right, make sure Hak Foo follows the rules and bail him out after he loses. And leave the mask. I won't be happy if you bring that garbage back, Right," Queen Jade declared. The shinobi officer bowed before turning to walk into the shadow of the soda fountain and out of sight.

"So, where do you like for sushi?" the Queen asked her General.

X X X

"New Shadowkhan tribe is most insidious yet," Uncle said. They had put El Toro on the couch, after assuring the panicky Paco he was not dead.

'Stupid boy! Masked man is breathing, the dead do not breathe!' had been said at a high volume.

"They put people to sleep? Do they bite?" Jackie asked. Tohru shook his head and lifted El Toro's right hand up. Uncle passed his own hand under the limb.

"No shadow," Uncle stated. Jackie and Paco's eyes widened, seeing it was true, no shadow was cast over Uncle's hand, even as Uncle put his hand over El Toro's face, casting his own shadow on it.

"These are shadow eaters – they grow strong by preying on mortal shadows. Not unlike the Jiangshi of China. Though unlike those foul creatures, only the chi residing in shadows is threatened. El Toro will not awaken until Hak Foo's bond with his Shadowkhan is broken," Tohru explained.

"The Jiangshi… we had a time limit there, sunrise. What if El Toro turns into some kind of Shadowkhan minion!" Jackie panicked.

They turned their attention to Tohru, who lifted his hands, shrugging.

"I can't say. His remaining chi should not be affected and guard against such corruption as becoming some kind of minion. But I cannot be certain without observing him for some time. Time we may not have.

"These Shadowkhan surely have a limit to their growth, or Tarakudo would certainly have prevailed ages ago. But with a city like this and so few able to defend against any dark forces, Hak Foo and Jade may have a Shadowkhan army as never seen before," Tohru announced. He was checking over El Toro with his own glowing lizard, Uncle watching keenly.

"Hmm, I do not think there is immediate danger of El Toro's chi being lost, the connection between him and his shadow seems to remain. But when the sun rises and the city awakens, the Shadowkhan will have all the shadows of San Francisco at their mercy," Tohru stated.

"We must find Hak Foo. End this army before its true threat can rise with the dawn," Uncle added.

Jackie nodded and Paco smacked a fist into his palm.

"We will show the Mini Khan that when they mess with El Toro, they get Paco!" the boy shouted. Uncle smacked the boy over the head.

"Mini Khan not important! Even if we caught them in droves, Hak Foo can summon still more. One more thing! Hak Foo being unmasked will release shadows of El Toro and any other victims! One more thing, Hak Foo is dangerous when human; with Oni strength, it will require all of us to remove mask," Uncle admonished the boy.

"Sensei, I believe we can track the Shadowkhan who stole El Toro's shadow, as it remains connected with him. But we will need an item so attuned to El Toro it can act as a medium for the two halves of his chi," Tohru said.

All eyes fell on the luchadore's face, or rather, what was covering his face. Paco gasped, then scowled, nodding his head he pointed to the grown-ups and spoke.

"Hak Foo will pay for this! Everyone out, this shame will not be more than it must be!"

X X X

Hak Foo, not for the first time, found it stunning, the willful blindness and ignorance of the bleating sheep of humanity. He stood atop a monumental Shadowkhan in the park, and he could feel his army swarming through the city, a plague of darkness leaving the weaklings lying prone in its wake. Yet only ambulances could be heard. No great panic at the doom that had come among them, much less an effort to fight back.

Weakness, not of flesh, but far worse, too weak to dare see the truth of the world around them. Scowling, the mercenary shook his head. Such thoughts brought back unpleasant memories; he should savor his well-earned victory.

"Spider waits in his web," he remarked. He easily sensed the arrival of the yojimbo Shadowkhan on the great head with him.

"Tiger senses dog's approach," he said, turning to face the ninja. Right sneered at him before looking out on the city.

"Interesting. I expected you to just attack Chinatown," Right remarked.

"I was ordered to keep this tidy. And there is no need to chase the mouse when you can simply lay out bait. Chan cannot stop my army without taking this mask. He will find me, and he will come to his doom," Hak Foo stated.

"'To his doom' – dramatic dialogue worthy of the Queen's late night movies, Hak Foo. But Jackie Chan will not come alone. I know better than to offer you help with your rival, but if you wish, I will even the odds, as it were," Right told him.

"I have an army whose strength grows by the second. I will prove my worth and end this long drawn out rivalry. But by all means, watch. Watch, and you will see what this power can do when wielded by someone who is worthy," Hak Foo declared.

"Hmm, noisy owl fails to spot mice," Right answered. Hak Foo blinked, before whipping around and seeing a stream of his Khan being wiped out in flashes of green. The horned redhead smiled, baring a mouth full of fangs.

X X X

This was terrible, Jackie thought. Running down the sidewalk, they could see the center of the threat, with its thin stream of Shadowkhan surging. Worse, that stream branched off into tributaries that Tohru blasted through with his chi zapper, clearing a path. The shadows were parading and feeding.

They were on foot because of car wrecks blocking the road. Until now, the Mini Khan presence had been subtle enough, but it seemed this close to the center, Hak Foo's forces had yet to disperse.

They had known this would happen. Hak Foo was not just a more formidable foe than anyone to yet wear a mask. The mercenary was the definition of power hungry. He had dedicated his life to getting stronger, and lacked any of the restraint or pride of a true martial artist. Evidenced by his eagerness to embrace any magic, even cast off his humanity, all to gain more power.

And now that consuming drive seemed to bleed over to his Khan.

In the distance, they could hear the roar of the growing monsters.

"Aiyah! Sun will rise soon. Shadows will be everywhere! One more thing, if Hak Foo is not stopped soon, San Francisco will awaken to niiiiightmare!" Uncle shouted.

Jackie grit his teeth. How many times? How many times in his life would he have to deal with all this dark forces stuff? He had not signed up for it, had never asked for it. All he had wanted was a peaceful life following a useful trade. But time and again he was caught up in saving the world. And what had it cost him? He suspected Black was the only reason he had not been fired from the museum in favor of a more "stable" candidate. And now it had cost him Viper, and Jade.

He should not be fighting them! Or anyone! How did this become his life, he wondered despondently?

And if they won, could they really cure Jade? Or would he have to stand back and watch her and Viper both be sealed away for centuries? And then fresh from that horror, he'd probably be called on to fight Zeus' belligerent evil step brother or something over magical bottle caps that will destroy the world if all of them were put on their respective bottles!

"EAGLE SPOTS LOWLY WORMS!" Hak Foo roared. Jackie blinked in surprise. They had arrived, Paco of all people standing in front of the group, holding up El Toro's glowing mask.

Hak Foo stood atop a massive Shadowkhan that loomed over the city park the trail had brought them to. Jackie expected Jade would call it Shadowzilla or something if she were here.

"Hak Foo, where is Jade?!" Jackie demanded, stepping forward.

"Far from here, Chan! With this mask, I am more than capable of ending this tonight myself. Already a great city falls to its knees before my power," Hak Foo told them smugly. Tohru stepped up beside Jackie, blowfish held at his side.

"You have seen the masks used, Hak Foo. That power is not yours, it belongs to the General sealed in that mask. Wear it too long and you will lose yourself to the Oni on your face as surely as Chow and Captain Black did. Jade has given you only slavery to another minion," Tohru warned.

"Hyena laughs at frightened cow! Hahahaha! I am not so weak as to be dominated by this mask. I shall dominate it! Look around you – already you see the power it contains when wielded by a true warrior!" Hak Foo laughed, looking truly demonic against the lightening sky.

"YOU ARE NO TRUE WARRIOR!" Paco shrieked, his voice cracking. Hak Foo blinked, stunned, catching sight of Paco holding the glowing mask.

"Heh, pup barks at the tiger before him. Run along and wait for the shadowless sleep, there is no place for you here among the mighty," the mercenary uncrossed one arm to wave him away.

"You are a fraud! You call yourself a true warrior, yet you take pride in serving wicked men! You have no true loyalty, serving any master that can rent you! And you have no respect for true strength, eager to take the quick and easy path with dark magics!

"You have no place among the mighty! El Toro Fuerte lies struck down by a cowardly attack by your leeches, and yet he is worthy many times over. Because he had the strength to give up the false strength of magic, even after being its slave for so long. You, who would so eagerly put on the chains he broke free of, you must climb so high otherwise you would have to look up at even beggars like the miserable bug you are!

"El Toro cannot defend his honor, and I am not worthy, but I will carry it for him as best I can," Paco declared, pulling on the mask, currently gold with glowing green.

"…Lion will swat fly," Hak Foo growled, leaping from his perch.

Hak Foo leapt and they expected him to fall, but the Oni strength added to his own propelled him into the sky. He did something in the air, and was hurtling down.

'Oh no!' Jackie thought, recalling his last fight with an empowered Hak Foo.

"Run!" Jackie yelled, snatching Paco and running as fast as he could. He trusted the others to follow his example.

"ASTEROID WIPES OUT DINOSAAUUURRRRSSSS!" the Oni-masked warrior roared over the sound of the wind he was ripping through. Jackie did not see the impact. But he felt the rush of air, before the ground bounced and rippled beneath him.

Even he couldn't keep his footing as the ground exploded into chaos beneath him. He fell, making sure Paco came out on top, and the ground settled.

Jackie looked around from his back – every nearby tree was either uprooted or teetering precariously. The lampposts flickered at odd angles, and the walkways were jagged, dangerous messes of concrete.

"HRRRRAAAAA!" a monster roared nearby, from a crater, Jackie realized.

"Paco, go," Jackie said, getting to his feet. A glance confirmed the two wizards were alright, while even the giant Khan was groaning on its side, clearly injured from being toppled by its General.

"No! Honor-"

"Paco, Hak Foo is a beast, but now he is monster. That is good, because his pride will make him stupid. We can fight that. But I can't fight that with him hunting you. You've already helped, so let me tag in, luchadore," Jackie said.

He smiled when Paco, after a moment's hesitation, ran off. He knew the boy would not go far. He supposed he would not have either in Paco's place. He just hoped…

"Jackie, removal potion!" Uncle called. Jackie reached into his back pocket and felt the plastic medicine bottle had broken, soaking his pants. He pressed his hand to it and it pulled away glowing green.

"No more distractions," Hak Foo spoke. Jackie watched the Oni-masked man appear slowly from the dust cloud thinning from the crater. Red haired, that mustache, and his outfit… Jackie saw the Oni visage suited the battle hungry mercenary more than anyone to date.

"Aiyah!" Uncle cried out. Chi blasts went off, and Jackie dared to glance to the side as a stream of Mini Khan, with human-sized shadow-fed Khan, separated him from the other two. And started to form a circle around the wizards.

"Army ants will devour the elephant and the goat. But this is between you and me Chan; we will finally see who is the strongest."

"Really? You enlist to plunge the world into darkness, unleashing evil, and that is all you care about? I do not know if I am the strongest. I would be shocked if I was. It's probably some elder living happily somewhere, having long since realized that title is meaningless and decided to do something better to define their life. Beating me will not make you anything Hak Foo," Jackie said, voice thick with disgust.

"No, it will make me THE VICTOR!" the last words were more of a roar than words as Hak Foo charged. Jackie fell into his stance, already seeing the blows he could not afford to take.

He was not going to win, he admitted. Good thing Uncle had made enough potion for four.

X X X

"Jackie!" Tohru shouted, seeing his friend sent flying as Hak Foo's punch powered through the warrior's defenses.

"Look to yourself Tohru, the Shadowkhan are upon us!" his sensei shouted. Sure enough, the swarm of tiny Khan was closing around them like a noose. So many.

"Hahahaha! Army ants devour dog. But first, elephant smashes beetles!" Hak Foo laughed. At his words, the giant Khan moved. It was still silent despite its massive size, but the ground trembled.

Back to back, blasting at the Khan drawing closer, the wizards watched the monster open its cavernous mouth, sucking in air for a roar.

Tohru stopped firing his blowfish, reaching into a pocket. He threw the roll of paper as hard as he could, past the monster's teeth. Reflexive to the motion or by some swallow reflex, the behemoth snapped its jaws close. And let out a puzzled gurgling sound. It swayed, stepping back, and fell with a crash.

Hak Foo and Jackie paused in their one-sided fight as the colossus fell, green foam churning from its mouth.

"Tohru feed Shadowkhan sutra?" Uncle asked with a wry grin.

"I did not know if it would work, but I didn't think blasting its mouth would do anything," Tohru admitted.

"Apprentice has learned we-AIYAH!" Uncle was cut off as a tendril composed of Mini Khan grabbed him around the left knee.

"Sensei!" Tohro grabbed for the wizard, his fingertip brushing the back of the old man's wrist. No sooner had Uncle been swallowed by the rising, teeming darkness than Tohru made to wade in after him. A wave of darkness rose up in his path; he blasted away, the Khan being replaced as quickly as he destroyed them.

Uncle emerged, still firing green blasts in a burst, the small Khan sent flying.

"Little evil wants piece of Uncle?" the shopkeeper spoke as the Khan drew back. Looking to the ground, he saw it quite clearly – his shadow, a skewed but still working lamppost above him.

The Khan swarmed his shadow.

"JACKIE, TOHRU, FIGHT! Fiiighhh…" the wizard ordered, eyes drooping. He fell limply to the ground, the Shadowkhan flowing away from their spent prey and Hak Foo laughing.

The mercenary leered at the panting Jackie Chan and at the stunned sumo.

"I knew my rise to General would be your fall! Now fall before my might!" Hak Foo laughed.

Tohru realized he would not last on the defensive. Letting loose a furious barrage of chi blasts away from Uncle's fallen form, he cut through to the torn ground beneath and dashed through it.

He needed something – he could not leave Jackie to fight alone. What would Uncle do, what would Jade do? Something unexpected, turn whatever small edge they had into the battle turning fact. He had his paper sutra. There was no time to chant to place it as a circle; he was not even sure how well it would work, as it was designed to keep things in, not out. And even taking out a chunk of these monsters would only provide time…

'What am I missing? There has to a way! I can't let them down!"

Wood splintered underneath his feet, throwing off his stride. The sumo caught himself and saw he was on what had once been a very large picnic table. It occurred to him he had cut through this park before. A good place, now turned into a battlefield. And where were the gorged monsters? There was not just the one that had been feeding, he had somehow gotten clear of the rest, but now they were swarming after him, a black surf surging over the broken beach.

Tohru picked out a good solid board nearly as tall as himself. It came free with ease, the leverage screws still stuck in it.

Chanting under his breath, he set the board one end against the ground with one hand, and drew out the remaining sutra with the other. The scroll glowed green before the simple yet musical chant of old Japanese, wrapping itself around he sun-bleached wood.

Picking up his blowfish from where had dropped it on the ground, he watched a wave of Mini Khan rise up. He fired a chi blast onto the sutra-covered wood.

Light poured over it.

X X X

Amidst the roots of an old fallen tree, Paco watched the fight. He wanted to run out there, like Yade would, and find that special something that would let him help. But while he had his moments, in his own opinion, he knew Yade was the master.

The mask's light had faded, leaving him in the dark that actually protected from evil this time. But not for long – the sun would soon rise. The demons would feast on the city, and what then?!

"El Toro," he whispered his hero's name, recalling a lesson with him.

"Paco, what is this that you are doing?" El Toro asked as he held the boy effortlessly in a pin.

"Lucha libre, El Toro!" Paco answered, trying to look up. With a sigh, the luchadore released him. Paco stood slowly, looking ay his mentor's feet, knowing from that sigh that El Toro was disappointed.

"Paco, with lucha libre, and all truly honorable ways, the keystone is humility. A warrior must know what they can achieve, never devaluing themselves. But nor must they try and do what they simply cannot."

"But it is by trying to become strong enough to achieve what you cannot that one becomes stronger."

"If a frog spends its life trying to fly, it will never succeed. But worse, had it embraced its mighty hops and strong swimming form, it could have held grace to put those born to flight to shame.

"Paco, you are trying to be me. But you are small; my style is something you cannot use yet. Perhaps never.

"No, do not despair for things that may never be! A boy dreams of what he wants, and the world does not change. A man uses what he has and strives to change the world so that it is closer to his dreams.

"You still do not understand.

"Let us say that all you could do was hold a foe in place for three seconds. That was all you could do at all. For the rest of the fight after, and all before, you may as well not exist. Three seconds of holding.

"It does not seem like much, especially as others are fighting from first blow to last, with techniques and skills far more impressive than a simple hold.

"But if you focus on that three seconds, and the battle, that one move could save an amigo's life. It could render a mighty foe helpless long enough for a vital blow to land on them. Or break a teamwork strategy's rhythm to turn the tide.

"You are a pebble, Paco. Do not try and be the boulder; strive to see how the pebble can tip the scales.

"Now let's try again."

When the wave of tiny ninjas swept over Senor Tohru, Paco felt like crying. Not in sadness, but in anger at his own uselessness. What was that moment if the heroes fell one by one before it came?

Then, as the wave settled, green burst through it. He caught sight of a pulsing beam of green pushing its way slowly out from the churning darkness. Then it whirled into a circle. Smoke filled the air as Mini Khan were vanquished like blades of grass before a mower blade.

A thud of wood on packed soil filled the air and the smoke blew outward.

Tohru stood in a circle of untainted ground, a glowing green staff tucked under his arm, held at ready. The Mini Khan horde pulled back.

In the stillness, the sumo's deep breath was audible. Eyes opening, they locked onto Hak Foo.

"ONI BE GONE!" the wizard shouted, before he charged into the mass of Shadowkhan, the green glowing staff jumping from hand to hand in as much of a blur as its shifting rotation, striking to all sides even behind him, leaving a trail of smoke in his wake and bursting before him as leaping Mini Khan were smashed aside.

"Deer stares at headlights," Hak Foo muttered. Jackie was knocked down again, staring at Tohru rather than taking advantage of his foe's distraction. Paco bit his index finger; it was not honorable to attack a distracted foe, but when fighting forces of darkness, the penalty of defeat could justify compromising the finer pints of honor.

Viper had lectured El Toro at length on that when she had heard of the Sun God statue incident.

X X X

"Swift bee evades lawn mower!" Hak Foo yelled, before Tohru's staff could connect.

He twisted out of the way, trusting the instinct not to block. As the glow nearly grazed his shoulder, he realized it had been a smart maneuver. His shoulder was tingling from that magic. He had never seen his one-time professional rival fight like this.

The man had been on the brink of despair. But…

No, Hak decided, falling back, taking the precious moments to study the style. The how did not matter at all. He was not going to have his time of victory be interrupted and delayed by a weakling who changed sides in a war.

His roar sounded the same even to his ears, but he knew it would summon what he desired.

There was nothing "mini" about the Khan now rising in a half circle between him, Chan, and the berserker wizard. No, not a berserker – the wizard had paused, watching the new opponents rise.

They had been feeding. Some were over a story tall, others smaller than a good-sized dog.

"Well done. As a reward, I give you an upgrade in adversary," Hak Foo chuckled. At his unspoken command, the biggest rushed him. The smallest would follow, taking advantage of their ability to slip into the battle of giants. The wizard might be mightier than expected, but soon enough his shadow would be nothing more than fuel for Hak Foo's army.

But first, Chan at last.

"You have been underperforming, Chan," he said to the archaeologist who had gotten to his feet again. Even his stance was not what it should have been.

"At first I was disappointed, to not beat you at your best. Then I realized what had stolen your might," Hak Foo said, watching the already confusing press of battle nearby.

"It's the reason you fight, the foundation of your strength. Other people.

"I expect that like my own, your teachers had nonsense about the battle not fought, or service to others being the true reward? I may serve others, but my contracts give them loyalty in exchange for what I need to grow stronger.

"In this world, there is nothing you can count on but yourself. When you learned of how magic infests this world of so-called reason, you should have realized that. But still, you cling to others!" Hak Foo backhanded Jackie, sending him rolling. He did not even bother to name the strike, grinning widely.

"A building is only as strong as its foundations, and a warrior's strength is more than training. To break rocks apart with a human fist, you must have the will to do so.

"My will is rooted in myself, my ambition to be the strongest warrior in the world, to be peerless and be known by all as the strongest. Simple, strong, and unshakable so long as my vision remains unclouded by sentiment.

"But you, you would draw your strength from weaklings – no, your ties to them. Being a protector is as good as chaining yourself to what you protect. And when that bond falls, the chain will drag you down with it.

"And so it has, Chan. The fake daughter has turned into your enemy, and the woman you were too weak to take as a lover has been stolen. Treachery and loss, they are nothing to a man who lives for himself above all else. Your weakness is exposed at last!"

Jackie got to his feet, hunched, but glaring up at the man in the Oni mask.

"All your victories become meaningless now. Look, already the wizard's strength is fading. And soon the sun will rise. My Shadowkhan army will sweep across this city and devour every shadow before the sun sets. And then onward North, South, and East.

"I will purge this world of the weak! And because of your weakness, you can do nothing but be the next to fall.

"Tiger charges trembling deer!" Hak Foo yelled, charging toward Jackie.

Jackie watched him come; the word seemed slow, head injury? But no, assessing his condition was not on his mind. Instead, with an almost lazy steadiness, his thoughts turned over Hak Foo's words.

Lazy, no, that was not right either. It was slow, deliberate, careful. Like the brushing Jade had always found so boring. A process so careful and meticulous it gives an impression of hesitation.

Jade… yes, he had fought for her, and Viper. But not just for them. He had heard Jade say it during that fateful New Year's, somehow. Her parents, all of China, were counting on him, and her. For all the courage and cunning she had shown, up until then- No, she had also shown strength and skill, though he was loath to encourage it in someone so young and reckless. But when she stopped looking up to him and truly fought herself, realizing the need to step up when he couldn't…

He had been proud. That moment, when fears of her virtues being twisted to some vain, empty purpose, had been laid to rest. The fear her honor was based solely on those dear to her, such as when she had betrayed their quest to save him from petrifaction. By her choosing to face an evil she had seen him come up short against.

That moment of despair had shown her as a noble person, and her lapse in killing Shendu, and the evil that now enshrouded her, did not diminish that.

Viper… he could admit he had stopped caring about her past. He had been afraid of a future with her. Of locking her into this bizarre, dangerous life he seemed to have acquired. The fact she would resent such protective thoughts made it worse.

And of course, the fear any children they had would be like Jade, recklessly throwing themselves into danger, never seeming to grasp the simple joys of a peaceful, productive life.

And of course, the fear he would end up like Jade's parents, find the responsibility of a family too much and try and pawn it off to someone else while saving face. He had not realized how bad it was, but he had never tried to find out. And he was still certain that fear and darkness had made the bad seem worse and hidden what light there had been there.

The darkness twists things.

If he fell here, it would be someone else's duty to stem this darkness. Would they care about the women beneath the shadows? Perhaps, perhaps not.

And the city – Hak Foo would do what he said, without remorse. Jackie thought of the students in Jade's class, the Buttercup Scouts, even that Drew boy she disliked or that bully she had beaten up. They weren't perfect, and maybe their lives would not turn out well, but they deserved a chance to stay good or get better.

And the adults, elders, everyone – the world deserved better than being at the mercy of those who did not care about the consequences of their actions. But that was the world that would come, unless-

Jackie moved. The grab seemed too easy; he watched Hak Foo's eyes widen on the masked face, and wondered what his own face was showing. Super strength was nothing when he harnessed the mercenary's momentum and added to it.

Time fast-forwarded to catch up, and a tree exploded as the masked man hurled into it.

Hak Foo burst from the broken rubble in a shower of splinters.

"Termite-OW!" Hak Foo roared as a rock hit him in the brow. Jackie Chan stood straight, one hand cupping small rocks, the other tossing one and testing its weight. He frowned at his foe, and let lose a hail of projectiles.

Raising his arms to shield his face from the barrage, Hak Foo charged at Jackie. At the last moment, ignoring the hits, he skidded on one foot, chambering a kick that might just kill his hated foe.

The kick whistled through the air, perfect form, and no connection. Jackie crouched low, sweeping the remaining foot from beneath the mercenary. Hak Foo caught himself awkwardly with his hands before his back hit the dirt, only for the heel of Jackie's shoe to crack over his forehead.

"Now," Jackie said simply. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a glowing green vial. Uncorking it, he poured the potion on his free hand before clapping them together, hastily muttering the chant as he grabbed the stunned warrior's face.

"NO!" Hak Foo shouted, eyes snapping open, trying to skewer Jackie with his horn. Jackie jerked back, still pulling on the mask. Roaring, Hak Foo grabbed Jackie's forearms, trying to counter the pressure pulling at his face.

"Can't crush my bones? Super strength fading and fatigue catching up?" Jackie asked.

"Shut up!" Hak Foo spat.

"No metaphor?" Jackie grinned.

Then light burst across the scene as day broke.

"Time runs out for stubborn mouse!" Hak Foo shouted, gasping around the words as the mask loosened. Jackie frowned, and then shuddered. Glancing back, he saw his long shadow being swallowed by the Mini Khan.

"You lose, Chan!" Hak Foo crowed like a rooster.

"Coward…" Jackie muttered, as his hands fell from the mask and he collapsed.

Hak Foo looked down at him, mask sagging on his face, and laughed, bending over and putting a hand to his belly. Grinning crookedly, he looked to where the last wizard still fought, and with a pointing gesture sent the newly engorged shadows to put a stop to him.

He was superior! He was supreme! He was victorious!

Something practically bounced off his back and slid a small arm around his neck.

"For El Toro Fuerte!" Paco called. Free hand glowing green, he grabbed the single horn and yanked as hard as he could.

"Tiger swats flea!" Hak Foo screamed. He grabbed Paco over the shoulder and ripped him free, tossing him aside. Paco's grip was strong, the mask following him as he took flight.

"What?" Hak Foo whispered, touching his face.

"No!" he screamed, watching his army melt down to miniscule specks as the shadows took flight across the sunlit ground. And then the Mini Khan themselves vanished. His furious gaze swept to Paco, who was getting to his feet, holding the mask.

"You! Return the lion king's crown!" Hak Foo snarled, stepping toward the boy.

The ground pounded. Hak Foo looked to the noise and saw Tohru swing a beam of wood at him as the sumo charged.

He leapt up, dodging the powerful but simple attack with an "angry crow takes flight". Or he would have, had his whole body not taken that moment to cramp at the beating. So he only hopped about a foot off the ground in pain, and Tohru broke the makeshift staff over Hak Foo's chest.

'Baseball, gets hit out of park,' Hak Foo thought as the darkness closed in while he was propelled through the air.

X X X

"Well done, Paco. You saved us," Tohru said. He watched as his friends picked themselves up. Uncle was actually smiling a bit as he dusted himself off. Tohru winced at the sight of Jackie; his friend looked a mess. Good thing they had healing potion for these eventualities.

It was no Horse, but it did speed things along nicely.

"It was not much," Paco muttered, taking off El Toro's mask.

"It was everything," Tohru responded.

Clapping, brisk and solitary, drew all their attention. Right was watching them, and applauding, sitting atop the fallen Hak Foo.

"Very good! You had me worried for a moment, but you rallied nicely. After this fool refused aid and assistance, if he had won he would be even more insufferable than usual," the handsome Shadowkhan said.

He watched the heroes rush to cover Paco, who still held the mask, and shook his head.

"Not to worry, I do not dispute your prize. Fairly won. I am just here to return the human to be chastised for his failure. The applause is just my appreciation for a worthy display. Though the wrestler has yet to prove himself, I think," Right said. Shadows expanded around the two of them and they started to sink.

"Well, I must be-"

"Right. I have a message for Jade, and Viper," Jackie said.

"Hebi," Right corrected, but the descent stopped, Hak Foo almost swallowed.

"Tell them I am not giving up. I don't care how many times we lose or get outwitted, I will do everything I can to protect this world from the dark forces. I will not let the darkness twist this whole world like it has them. And I am not, and will never be, ready to accept they are lost either, they are better than what they have become.

"So I will have to better for their sakes. I will. Tell them," Jackie said.

"…" Right stared at him, and gave a small smile and nod. The Shadowkhan and Hak Foo sank out of sight.

"Senor Jackie. El Toro is the greatest, but that was great," Paco said. Jackie closed his eyes and gave a somewhat goofy grin in embarrassment. Uncle cleared his throat.

"Yes. But one more thing, how did apprentice fend off Shadowkhan swarm that cheated up Uncle?!" the old wizard demanded.

"Yes, when did you devise that technique, Tohru?" Jackie asked. With Jade changing the playing field, it was good to know they had some tricks up their own sleeves.

"Uh, I don't know?" Tohru admitted, sheepishly looking at the broken piece of wood he still held.

"WHAT!?" Uncle demanded.

Windsor Manor:

The air stank of sushi. And Hak Foo used the term "stank" as a man who liked sushi. The conference room table was filled with platters of sushi takeout. If the bags in the room's far corner were any indication, they had hit over a dozen restaurants. The Queen and her General were enjoying a takeout banquet. Had been for the ten minutes he had stood there.

He willed the aches and pains not to affect his posture, focusing instead on his employer and her chief lackey. A fascinating contrast. With her helmet off, Hebi had the oddness you expect of a bald woman, but that quickly passed as such minor aberrations did, in his experience.

She ate briskly but refined with her chopsticks, a samurai refilling her saucer cup from a large glass bottle of clear liquid.

Queen Jade was not even bothering with sticks. Grabbing pieces between her fingers, sometimes three at a time, and devouring them, her own takeout drinks being discarded by her upon being emptied and replaced with a fresh one. Her cloth mask was pulled down to reveal her mouth; otherwise she was hidden beneath that black cloth, the red of her eyes shining through.

As alien as Hebi looked, the small hidden figure was the one that sent a chill up his spine as they both gave him their attention.

'She looks more like those shinobi she commands than Left and Right do,' Hak Foo noted.

"Hak Foo, you have failed me," Queen Jade said, pausing in her gluttony.

"Yes, I apologize," Hak grumbled.

"You need not apologize for the expected," she grinned as his fists clenched at his side.

"The masks are a small priority, and the Mini Khan a disappointment anyway. So all I ask is that you stop whining about wanting masks. As the only willing human on staff, you will likely get another chance. And if not… well, too bad for you.

"Now go, your human stench grows irritating to my pallet!" The Queen chuckled. Hebi smiled along with her as Hak Foo turned away from the monsters. The corridor was relief away from those two.

He had been party to plenty of immoral things, but the violation of Viper's will… he did not object, but a part of him could not help but be offended at the process. Mercenaries were not loyal as a rule, but allegiance was given, not taken. And it seemed more had been taken than that single choice.

A weakness, such morality, he supposed. It still puzzled him what endured long after he had declared himself supreme over such sentiment.

But still, the corridor, while a relief, was still unwelcoming. Candles red and blue illuminated it, ripples from the prowling ghouls playing across the floor and ceiling. It was hardly recognizable as the vain headquarters of the Shadow Hand of not so long ago.

This mansion was no longer a place of humans. Like the Queen, it was sliding into darkness unknown.

The daylight was more of a relief than he could ever admit as he stepped out of the front door. It was always night in there; the Queen was careful to keep the day outside. Obsessed as she had not been when this started.

Feeling someone's eyes on him, Hak turned to find the gaze. He knew the window, though he could not spot the man. Blankman's office – the only human who did not seem to retreat before the mansion's corruption. In fact, Hak's times in the mage's office had shown it seemingly untouched by the Queen's influence.

How? And why did the Queen allow it? If she did not notice, perhaps he should inform her?

"No," he said aloud, before beginning the long walk back toward his flat/dojo. Time to heal and train for the next encounter. His goals remained unchanged.

Uncle's Rare Finds:

Training – they said it was everything to a martial artist. Jackie disagreed; to the martial arts, training is everything, but to those who practice it, there has to be a reason for the dedication. For some, it is the purity of attaining the strength and peace of the conditioning. Others use it to cope with other aspects of life.

He had first found reason through Uncle, his first and in most ways greatest teacher. To please his father figure, and then as time passed, it was part of who he was and a tool that could, on the unexpected occasion, aid his trade.

Jackie stepped back from the training pillar he had been using, wiping a drop of sweat from his brow. None of the equipment was destroyed this time in the small shop training room. He did not desire or require typically senseless displays.

"Well done, you have your balance back," El Toro said. The luchadore, mask replaced on his face, stood in the doorway. He gave a nod of approval, looking over the equipment.

"You were right earlier. There is nothing to be gained by dwelling on the loss. Not when we can still strive to protect what we still have, and rescue what is lost," Jackie said. Looking around the room, Jackie could see Jade eagerly throwing herself at the training, her overacting, almost injuring herself by trying for moves beyond her skills. Or when she would actually follow his instructions calmly, that expression of utter focus on her face.

At times, that expression had troubled him – a child should not be so focused, especially this one. But it had also been wonderful. In those moments he had known, known, that she truly did want to learn, that she would carry on what she had learned without it being some passing fancy.

The moments that reminded him, without any of the drama of an adventure, just what boundless potential was within his niece as she put everything into achieving the goal before her.

He was not going to give that girl up to the darkness. Viper either, and he now let himself accept that Viper had been taken, and sooner or later Jade would have done so.

What would he have done if he had known? Had her stay behind, safe behind wards? He could not command Jade in such a manner, Viper would have been rightly insulted if he had done so with her. He would have wanted to keep that woman safe, and she would be flattered, give him a kiss for caring, maybe. Then smacked him for the insult of not having faith in her being able to take care of herself.

And sooner or later, Jade would have gotten her, and Hebi would be created anyway.

That was out of his hands. The future was in his hands. Not all of it; he was not alone. But he had his role to play, and he would give it everything, for everyone.

"It's a bit funny, Jackie," El Toro said, taking position by the punching bag, a common ground. Jackie set himself up to kick while El Toro supported the piece of equipment.

"What is?" Jackie asked.

"When trying to lift spirits before, it came back to Jade. I wasn't ready to give up when I lost the Ox, I did give up. I sat down to mourn over my torn mask and lost power like a child. People thought I held to the rule of the mask with such dedication because of honor.

"The truth was, ever since I found the Ox, I was terrified of losing it. I thought I was nothing before I found that magic, and I would be nothing again when I lost it. Disgust with my own weakness did not move me. Your courage and skill, without magic, did not either. Not even Paco's tears.

"Jade used your wisdom to help me.

"Jade might not be on our side, but she is still with us in very real way, amigo. And I think your teachings are still in there, refusing to let the darkness claim her entirely.

"You have done well with her – I decided to stop patronizing Paco and be a teacher to him by your example.

"Now that we have you back, I think it is the Shadowkhan who need to be wary of tomorrow," El Toro grinned. Jackie answered with a solid kick to the bag that made the masked man take a step back. The Mexican's smile widened slightly and he shifted back into the starting position.

Windsor Mansion:

Contentment. It had been too long, Queen Jade decided lazily.

Gorging herself to such a degree had satisfied her stomach, as she was certain nothing had since her scarring. She considered idly if Lung had left her leaking chi or something.

The thought slipped away; too much bother to worry over. She shifted her coils slightly. She was lying stretched in her full naga form, tucked between an unarmored Hebi and the back of a couch. Warm, secure, and with the reassuring scent of the other female. And of course, the darkness of the room, ensuring no foul light pierced her eyes to spoil this mood.

"Your Majesty," Right's voice scratched against her bliss.

"Sssss!" the Queen answered.

"She's not in the mood, pretty boy," General Hebi supplied. Jade settled back a bit at those words. But Right kept talking.

"I have been thinking. I understand our immediate goals do not require the masks. But if we are to eventually remove the King in favor of yourself, we should at least gain the measure of each General. But we failed to even have a discussion with this latest General, despite ample access to the mask. He remains as unknown now as he was prior to recent events," Right said.

His weight shifted, the floorboards beneath the thick blue carpet voicing their age. The Queen lifted her head to rest on Hebi's stomach, the head and whole length of course still covered in her protective cloths. Eyelids closed, she still made out the shape of Right in the darkness, and the red line that marked his eyes.

"Are you saying I made a mistake?" she demanded.

"…Of course not. But I wonder if our plans have shifted-" Right began.

"Let's just say they have," Hebi told him. The Queen turned her head to rest it on the blue hakama the female General was wearing.

"Then what is the new strategy? Left and I need to know what is expected of us," Right continued.

"You will be told what you need to know. Nothing more is required of you, male," Queen Jade said. She punctuated the sentence with a yawn that almost unhinged her jaw. Rolling her head back into its comfy spot, she smiled as Hebi ordered the former Yojimbo out.

It was disturbing that she had forgotten to meet with that General. But oh well. It was most likely he was just another enemy, beyond persuading anyway. Everything would still go according to plan. The nerve of that male, thinking it would be otherwise. Even Blankman had learned to be polite with her to get what he wanted.

When she was willing to give what he wanted.

Letting the strange spiral of ever-odder thoughts carry her down into sleep in the darkness, Queen Jade rested for the battles yet to come.

Somewhere in Manchester:

Glasses tinkled and men laughed in a suspiciously 'typical' pub. Darts thunked onto their board, and one onto the wall eliciting a curse from a man who had one too many The smell of booze and unhealthy food wafted through the noise ridden air.

In a corner booth of the pub, a trio of men laughed and sang, mugs raised up.

"God Save the Queen, hahaha!" The Enforcers' chorus gave way to laughter. Draining their frothy mugs, Finn turned his attention to some documents he hoped would lead to a big job. Chow simply relaxed, leaning back in the booth, studying the cracks in the ceiling plaster idly.

As for Ratso, he was enjoying with stunned amazement the best barbecue ribs he had ever eaten.

"Ah, this is how it is supposed to be, fellas," Chow said. He held out his empty glass mug for a refill.

"No magic, no monsters. Just a job well done with a sweet pay day to spend," the small Chinese man said. He smiled, watching a buxom waitress refill his drink from a pitcher. Then at his word left the pitcher for the table.

"All about having the right boss. To Her Majesty, long may she reign or whatever!" Ratso cheered, brandishing a rib with his free hand and empty mug in the other. He grinned at a passing bearded barfly-looking type as Chow topped him off.

"Long live the Queen," Ratso said to him. The man just pushed his sunglasses up and adjusted the arm in the sling before moving on.

"Yeah, yeah, great for us," Finn said, looking up at his two celebrating friends.

"Come on Finn, we're free and clear, enjoy," Chow insisted. Finn rolled his eyes.

"But we are also unemployed. We need to get some work while we still have some capital to make ourselves a real operation. Not just drink it all away. Or eat it away," Finn pointed out.

"Eh, easy come, easy go. Or hard come, easy go, in our case. I say enjoy it while it lasts," Ratso said, before taking a deep pull from his drink.

"Hey, that was just a long rough patch. Now it's back to business as usual!" Chow protested. Seeing the pitcher was nearly empty, he picked it up and held it out.

"Hey beautiful, how about some more British gold, and we give some more tips to put you through college, eh?" The ex-enforcer called. A clicking sound surprised him, and he felt something cold around his wrist.

Looking out, he saw the handcuff the injured Agent Wisker had slapped on his wrist, the man himself standing with several uniformed British policemen.

"Hello boys, you're far from home," Wisker grinned. Chow lowered his face into his other arm on the table while Finn began jabbering incoherently and smacking the back of his head against the booth. Ratso sighed and looked down at his half eaten rack of ribs and sides of potatoes.

"Business as usual, alright. Can I at least get this to go? I did pay for it," the broad-shouldered criminal asked the agent.


AN: This chapter was very hard. Glad its done. Hope the next one is easier. Long days and pleasant nights to you all.

I think three chapster for other stories are mostly ready and I will release them soon now that this is done. Happy about that.

Later.