Disclaimer: I do not own Jackie Chan Adventures. Or a Harley.

Betaed by: the awesome and dependable Zim'smostloyalservant


PDJ Proudly Presents:

"Queen of All Oni"

CHAPTER XVIII

Out of the Shadows

OR

All them Seeds Sprouting Fruit


Miss Kimber's Psychic Shack, Sometime Ago:

It was a bit of a cliche, but seeing the future was not a fun thing.

Not that she couldn't change the future, but often she could only see so far down those roads she could affect. The worst was when you could see far down one road, but not the others. Knowing the consequences of one curse, but not others.

So, sometimes you saw how something bad would lead to something good, but you could not tell if you could get that same result without the unpleasantness. The knowledge you possessed only made your ignorance more painful.

More painful than a bastard would-be Darkest Mage seemingly having loosened half the teeth in your head.

The taste of blood, she had felt it coming. It was almost a relief to experience it in truth now.

Seeing her shop and home ransacked while she lad helpless and beaten hurt more, truthfully. A magic user's place of power was a sanctuary, even for fortune tellers who might get laughed out of the circles of the powerful. For someone who understood that bond to ransack it…

"Wannabe, jerk," she spat blood and spit onto his sneakers. She knew he wouldn't kick her over that.

His thugs were still ransacking, but he had given up finding it here. Now he stood over her, unruffled and well polished in his appearance surely a fine contrast to her current state. Stroking his chin, he considered her, affecting a calm collected air that was given lie by the hunger in his eyes.

That was the calling card of dark siders, a fool trying to fill cups without bottoms by finding more to pour in.

"So, Miss Kimber, you saw me coming?" he asked.

"Verde, where else would you be but meddling in things you don't understand half as well as you think?" Miss Kimber answered. He smiled, and if she wasn't being held down on her knees, she would slap that grin off his face.

Thankfully, there was no panic; she knew how this would end, now. Both what she couldn't escape, and what she didn't need to fear. While he weighed his options, her cards had already been played.

"So, you sent it away. I don't suppose you'll tell me where? Save me some time and I will be merciful."

"Save you time? As if I would convenience one such as you. You seek the Shadow Man, his power. You know his story, yet you would follow his folly. No magic can cure a fool of his foolishness."

"…You are brave for one who can see so much yet has so little power beyond that."

"Child of a man, who thinks power is best measured by doing damage. Finish it or be gone, I have a house to tidy up," she said. She was tempted to spit blood on him as he bent down to look her in the eye. Oddly, he was quite handsome; she had failed to notice that before, knowing what she did of him.

"Well, it's a pity, but in time you will serve," he sighed. She blinked at that, and her blood ran cold as a distant possibility suddenly fell into place as a certainty.

He fearlessly shoved the fingers of one hand into her mouth, prying her abused teeth apart. Meanwhile, he also pulled a black flask from a jacket pocket. He didn't taunt anymore, just chanted, as he unscrewed the cap and the markings on the flask began to glow with dark magic.

'Why couldn't you just kill me?' Miss Kimber wondered.

San Francisco, Later:

Nothing is more worthless than regret. To pine for mistakes made and dwell on how much easier something could be under different circumstances. The circumstances are as they are, period. The proper question is, what are you going to do about it?

Sitting in the cozy seafood joint near the Chinatown border, Verde tapped his pencil's eraser against the notes he had written out on the notebook.

Uncle's Rare Finds. Not a place any practitioner of dark magic in the know should idly get close to. Their profession tended to attract the sort who underestimated the opposition. Waved the rumor and exaggeration card freely about, and knocked over a bottle of nitro with their foolish waving!

Taking a sip of his soda, he let the taste soothe his mind, the cool sweetness passing over the tongue and down the throat.

Yes, calm. Genial, controlled, always controlled. Darkness was never a true ally. Darkness had to be controlled to be safe; one's own darkness was no exception.

Fact, he needed that vessel to achieve his current goals. Fact, it was in Uncle's Rare Finds, a dangerous place with people who had fought and won against demons, monsters, and Daolon Wong himself;so many times it could be written up and sold for a TV show.

'As if a network would run it,' he gave a grin at the little joke.

Still, brute force would not prevail him. It wasn't like beating down a single seer who relied on trickery to divert force, and foresight to give her time.

Two wizards, both trained fighters, with plenty of experience in both under fire. And Jackie Chan himself.

He had put his ear to the ground when he was last here on contract with the shadow girl. Sadly, no repeat business. Well, Ming must have failed, because she was still active.

And the other man, the threat that his own scrying had revealed, still served her. He had underestimated that tubby little man twice, and each time had been embarrassingly thwarted.

The second time in particular had been disturbing. Did this Blankman know about his trick? Secrets were a high commodity among wizards. The more people knew what you could do, the better they could plan to negate or outright turn your power against you.

Like Wong again. To hear tell, the final fight between him and "Uncle Chan" had supposedly just been a single spell gelding Wong's magic, followed by the old Chinese man slapping the Darkest Mage into submission! And that was what tended to happen with rivalries between serious wizards that lasted too long. One learns too much, and finds a chink in the armor, and uses it to take you down.

He knew little of Blankman, but clearly Blankman knew something of him. And if they were on the same path, then he would bet his bottom dollar his head was on that guy's list somewhere.

So he needed to up his game, and up it soon. Another fact.

So again, how to get in there? Trying his best trick on a wizard was always risky. More than magical creatures, wizards held a deep understanding of magic that made them better able to resist than those it flowed through like blood.

As for Jackie Chan, far too risky without a heckuva distraction.

Hmm, yes, he supposed the obvious way was the best. Not the weakest link, but one weak enough to be exploited, yet strong enough to be useful if needed.

So how exactly to get in touch with the masked man?

San Francisco:

It turned out to be easier than expected. The man clearly preferred to cook for himself, and had a thing for fresh ingredients. And he stood out so well that a little inquiry revealed his store of choice.

The next part was key. A good Trojan Horse relied on deception. And the best infiltrators, in his experience, were those who had no idea they were being used as such.

But what he had in store was not exactly subtle. So it needed to be covered, distracted. Magic like other obstacles things could be outsmarted where it could not be overpowered.

Uncle's Rare Finds:

"Magic can take many forms, and just so have champions of good and agents of darkness taken many forms.

"In the city of New Orleans, where many ways and magics came together, there emerged an agent of darkness. One of the most powerful of the modern era.

"His origins are shrouded in darkness, and his name erased by his foes for the power it could give him. Once a bokor, local mystic of great repute in magic circles, he revealed himself as an ally of the dark forces.

"Taking the title by which he would be remembered, the Shadow Man, he waged a war unseen for the very soul of that city, and had he won, the power to spread his darkness up the great river and across the seas.

"He was at last defeated. But the Shadow Man had gained immortality of a sort - even as his body was reduced to ash, he lived on in his undying shadow. A voodoo woman was able to catch his wayward shadow and sealed it in a cylinder of enchanted silver.

"And so, like many great evils, the Shadow Man was not slain but imprisoned. And guarding this prison became a sacred duty. For darkness calls to darkness, and there are ever those who would unleash evil for their own ends.

"So that's why Uncle is not putting new item into inventory!" Uncle yelled at Jackie, scooping up the cylinder protectively. The J Team stood around minus Paco, in the library, considering the silver cylinder.

"Sensei, do we really need another evil to deal with? I mean, after all, it seems every dark chi artifact we store here ends up stolen," Tohru pointed out, eying the silver cylinder warily. It sat innocuously, not terribly attractive, requiring a good polish and boasting at least three tiny dents that he could see. A packing peanut still sat perched atop it, even.

It certainly left less of a impression than the Demon Archive.

And case in point for why he disliked having more dark magic in the shop.

"Can't we send it to the Vault?" Jackie asked. Uncle smacked both of them.

"Aiyah, last guardian sent it to Uncle! Claimed magic foresight showed keeping it in Uncle's shop was best route to protecting world from return of the Shadow Man. So in Uncle's shop it remains!" the old man proclaimed, taking the cylinder into the back room.

"And one more thing! If shouting Conrad man calls again, we are still not liable for Jade's shoplifting while she is evil! Give him Captain Black's number!" Uncle yelled from out of sight.

Jackie gave Tohru a tired look.

"So, want to bet Jade will want this bit of shadow magic?" Jackie asked.

Windsor manor:

"Who needs little bits of shadow magic now?" Queen Jade chuckled.

"Because you have the big book of all shadow magic?" Hebi asked, to her right. Jade just smiled, not turning her head, as she couldn't see the General anyway. A patty of herb paste was being pressed against her closed eyes, held in place by potion-marinated silk tied to cover her upper face.

It tingled pleasantly despite the foul odor. Tingled as opposed to the pulsing warmth she felt from the neck down, in sync with her heart. Lifting her hands out of the potion she was soaking in, she felt the substance dribble away even as more of it clung in a coat on the limbs.

A few beats and they started to dry, drinking in the wonderful substance.

"Ahh," she sighed, letting her arms sink back into the slowly shrinking bath.

Listening closely, she could hear the drone who was blowing through a bamboo tube to keep the coals under the copper tub properly… er, whatever the name was for that state.

It was a a wonderful feeling, but it was also leaving her impatient. Perhaps it was the strength returning to her light-busted frame, but she wanted to be doing something.

And the thrill that she had pulled it off. The masks had been incidental for awhile now, their losses merely strikes to her pride. Well marked and nursed grievances, to be certain. Each to be repaid with interest of course, but still a secondary concern.

The real prize, shadow magic, was hers, lock stock and barrel. With the healing magic, even the dread of that… thing was somewhat reduced as she now had the means to repair herself.

But there was no urge to rest on her laurels. No, she was waiting to move forward, and she had already decided what that meant. Hebi interrupted her thoughts by shifting in her seat.

"My Queen, it's time to remove the eye patch," the Samurai General said.

The Queen levitated herself out of the tub, and righted herself to stand in the air as a drone came forward at unspoken command and slipped a black towel over her shoulders as the potion trickled off her. Hebi delicately cut away the bindings with a claw and pulled the patch away from the Queen's face.

Jade smiled, awaiting the continued darkness of the back of her eyelids.

And saw the black outline of Hebi against one of the blue burning lanterns.

Eyes snapped open, and teeth were bared.

"It didn't work?" Hebi asked, taking a step back. Lacking further orders, the blowing Shadowkhan let out another breath through the tube. The Queen's eyes snapped over to him at the noise. Hebi waved away the resulting puff of blue smoke and watched as the tub split apart along the cut, contents spilling out to sizzle on the coals, raising a low hanging black mist.

"Were you done with that, my Queen?" Hebi asked.

"Basically, I went for overkill in the proportions. And it still wasn't enough," the Queen threw off the towel, and another drone came forth and began to dress her in regal ninja attire.

"It was supposed to heal wounds. So your eyelids are like scars, perhaps?" Hebi suggested.

"…My muscle tone isn't restored, either. The weakness from the incident has been purged, but that means I can regain that strength. Hopefully not having to resort to the old fashioned Jackie way; I have waited long enough for power."

The drone now offered her the final items of clothing, her mask and blindfold. The Queen frowned at it as Hebi put her hair into its topknot.

"Bring a light. A real one," the Queen commanded.

X X X

El Toro hoped he wasn't coming down with something.

He hadn't been able to shake this chill that seemed to wander his back. It had started yesterday after that memorable bit of grocery shopping, and kept him up longer than he would have liked.

Surely a clumsy man spilling a slushy on him wasn't enough to make come down with something. He was middle-aged, not old!

He tucked the groceries under his arm as he walked up towards Uncle's Rare Finds. Dwelling on the possibility of getting sick wouldn't stop it from happening, and would just be a waste of time; either he'd get sick, and work through it, or he wouldn't. It wasn't something to get worked up over.

Even so, the luchadore couldn't help but notice that the chill shuddered and squirmed across his back as he walked through the shop doorway. But it only lasted for a moment, and El Toro did he best to quickly forget that it had happened.

"Masked man! Stop loitering in Uncle's doorway!" the wizard demanded from where he stood behind the counter, "You might be blocking customers!"

El Toro was tempted to point out that he hadn't seen a single customer enter the shop in the entire time he'd been staying with the Chans, but decided that he felt poorly enough already without adding a two-fingered smack to the forehead into the mix. As such, he merely grunted in agreement and made his way towards the kitchen.

"Good to see you as well, Señor Uncle," El Toro said, walking through the shop to the kitchen.

He was debating the merit and vice of fixing a cup of coffee at this hour, when the chill exploded outward from his back. Before he could gasp, his mouth was clamped tight, muffling sound, and his body went rigid.

Unbidden, the image of a box, in the back room, came to mind. Uncle working his magic on it. All of their hands placed on the box with the final spell.

To the luchadore's horror, his body turned, and he started to make his way toward the backroom. Then paused and dumped the contents of the grocery bag into the garbage can.

X X X

Verde watched through his puppet's eyes.

The delay had been nerve wracking; being separated from part of his power in such a way for so long, he could not imagine any wizard bearing that so gracefully. But patience and being able to play cool were why he had come up over so many other would-bes and could-have-beens.

The wrestler had been the only choice. His ink parasite puppet technique could be resisted by magic users, and he was not certain he could fool someone like Jackie Chan with a ruse like he had the wrestler.

The boy, he supposed, could have worked, but there was no amount of refinement that could make a zombie made with this technique pass for normal. And a child would be restrained much more easily of discovered.

As the zombie wrestler opened the box, whose image he had pulled from its poorly managed mind — and thus with sheer simplicity bypassed all the wards and spells keeping not only evil entities, but humans not part of the pact, from removing it — Verde smiled wide.

The cask went into the shopping bag, and he had the zombie replace the lid.

It was just a simple matter of walking back out through the door now, without arousing any suspicion.

"Aiyah! Why is Uncle's tea in garbage!?" a shrill howl made Verde wince through the connection.

X X X

Uncle was beyond angry — he was in the place of outrage and confusion he had come to inhabit ever more with his elder years. Honed to a fine art as young people insisted on either simplifying what deserved to be complex, and complicated things that should be simple.

In this case, what appeared to be perfectly good groceries, including his precious tea, dumped in the trash as if it was the most natural thing imaginable.

No, this he would not accept. He was tolerant and patient with the young and foolish, far more than they deserved; but Uncle would be giving a piece of Uncle this time!

So when the masked man emerged from the back room looking a bit dazed, Uncle already had his trademarked smack chambered and ready to unleash. And unleash it he did, reaching the man with long steps. There was the satisfying feeling of contact. And… no reaction?

"Eh?" Uncle said, cocking his head as the wrestler made no noise and did not even seem to budge his head to the blow as he stood in the doorway.

"Thief?" Uncle said, to prod the large man.

The expression, as he could see through the mask, was blank, and that may have been why the blow blindsided him.

The lashing fist took him in the side, sending him stumbling such that it was almost flying. He hit the wall, training and experience letting him stop well.

"Intruder!" Uncle yelled out. He was not sure, of course. Wrestler may be possessed, as he battered Uncle and ran now out the door. Or it may be evil magic double, maybe shapeshifter fooling wards?

But bad magic was afoot for certain.

As Jackie burst into the room, Uncle burst out, rushing to the back room. The box.

"Aiyahhh!"

X X X

"El Toro!" Jackie yelled as he cut past the corner, bringing the man into sight.

No time for explanations or questions, Tohru had fallen behind even. Uncle said it was El Toro, but was it?

He would never betray them. Even Jade and Viper had been victims of magic, and…

The masked man fleeing down the alley stopped and turn to face him. Jackie stopped some distance off, looking to the plastic grocery bag he knew had been used to smuggle out that newest piece of evil to cross their paths.

"Are you really El Toro, or some trick?" Jackie asked, moving into a stance.

No reaction, as El Toro assumed his own stance. His gut said this was his friend, but something was very wrong. Then he saw it. A black line moved along El Toro's neck, before curling up back under his shirt collar.

"Possession? Of course; Shendu fooled Uncle with that, too. Help me if you can, we will fix this," Jackie vowed. The controlled man stared blankly at him and dropped the bag to the pavement, the metal inside clattering through the thin plastic.

Any hope that this gesture was some resistance from El Toro was dashed as the man silently charged him.

Snatching a trash can lid off a nearby can, Jackie caught the blow on the metal and evaded a follow up elbow.

He hesitated to strike the other man over the face. And paid for it, with a hand grabbing his forearm and the luchadore sending him nearly face first into a dumpster.

"Right, guess even with no will, I need to respect your skills. Sorry," Jackie said, putting himself back to face El Toro. Who had not stopped.

With an alarmed cry, Jackie dropped to the ground as El Toro's body punched the space where his face had been and hit the dumpster like a bell.

From his spot, Jackie kicked out, knocking El Toro's weight bearing foot off the ground. The other man fell without skill. Jackie frowned as he grabbed a cracked bucket that had rolled out from somewhere.

"Stop driving his body so recklessly!" Jackie snapped. As the controlled man looked at him, Jackie forced the cracked plastic pail down on the other man's head.

"Where's…?" Jackie wondered, stepping back as the possessed man struggled with the obstruction. Restraining El Toro without hurting him would be much easier with the sumo. And hopefully the exorcism spell used last time could solve this.

Frowning, he looked to the bag still on the ground. He had known it would be trouble.

Someone was behind him, he realized.

Dodging the blow, he came about and grabbed the man's wrist, squeezing and twisting to make him drop the stiletto, which clattered to the ground.

The assailant was a tall man of African descent, dressed just nice enough to stand out all in black, Jackie noted, and head shaved. Who smiled at Jackie widely.

"Hello, and checkmate," the man chuckled.

"What?" Jackie said. Then cold burst in the hand restraining the criminal, and Jackie recoiled. The chill did not relent as it surged up Jackie's arm.

"Fortune favors the bold," Verde laughed, as dark marks surged over Jackie Chan's skin.

Windsor Manor:

"It seems to be fine progress. For regaining muscle mass, I can arrange a trainer list within hours and have them here in days when you make a pick," Blankman said. The Queen ignored him, looking over the symbols she had carved onto the conference room table.

She had not invited him, but he had shown up somehow anyway. Still, sending him away was not necessary.

"Meager progress. Mere light still drives spikes into my head, wizard! Without this mask, I could be driven off with a FLASHLIGHT, like some cheap haunt! The Tablets have failed." The mask was more comforting than she cared to admit, did it remind her of the healing patch or had that been so enjoyable because it reminded her off the mask?

And someone was prattling on again, interrupting even unpleasant thoughts.

"You just acquired them. Perhaps a more thorough search? You have demonstrated spells can be-" Right said from his spot at the table.

"Quiet. Leave the spells to the spellcasters.

"What matters is that there is another source. I have felt it. The shadows have been calling me, and their call has grown since the Teachings were made whole.

"They have been waiting," Jade said, placing her hands on the tabletop. She lowered her face toward the scarred wood, inspecting the curve of a line.

"They?" Left asked.

"Knowledge and power. My aspirations."

"Wasn't freedom one as well?" Right quipped.

"I need power for that. When I want your opinion, I will ask for it," the Queen said.

Twilight Ascension. An overly grand name for something the Queen considered far too mundane. In essence, it allowed one to physically journey to the Shadow Realm. Which Shadowkhan did anyway, but usually only a split moment as they moved through the interface or whatever between realms to teleport.

She already knew how to send her spirit there. Really, this was more of a technique than a proper spell. Yes, she would likely have figured this out on her own eventually, as it seemed to have been a basic skill for Shadowkhan once upon a time. There wasn't even energy drain on being there, only the coming and going, and with repeated use apparently one became far more efficient at that.

It was never spelled out, but the Queen could read between the lines. The Shadowkhan had not just been active on this, the mortal, realm, but on the realm of their own element.

Had humans realized it? And if they could, would they have been able to make the journey? No wonder the Shadowkhan even at their weakened state under Tarakudo had done so well. A near unassailable fortress with fluid, world-stretching borders.

Something was there. Waiting for her to find.

The Red King had not cared for it. That city in her visions. Like many new rulers in history, he had declared a new era by abandoning his predecessors' capital in favor of one of his own.

But he had missed something. He was a man, and it had been secrets of women left behind.

It was so clear, so why was she getting badgered by minions?!

"If it is a Shadowkhan 'thing', we should be able to accompany you," Right pressed. The Queen rolled her eyes; he was just restating what General Hebi had already said. Though she was now standing off to the side — fortunately a single reprimand was quite sufficient to remind the General of her place.

"'Can' and 'will' are two different things, Right.

"What I seek, you will not be able to assist with. Therefore, there is no need for you to be there," the Queen said. The sweet thought of some hidden power was tantalizing, like a song. These delays were grating.

"While it is of course your choice, need I remind you the injuries that are the primary source of your current frustration were inflicted when you were ambushed while you were alone?" Blankman added. He did not have the decency to flinch at the glare she pulled down her blindfold to properly send at him.

Ohh, sometimes she wondered why she put up with that useless paper grubbing mortal.

Then Left spoke, and she along with everyone else looked to him.

"That is true. Even if we cannot assist, we as your yojimbo should accompany you. It could allow you to better focus on unraveling this power you speak of, if we and General Hebi are there to guarantee your safety, my Queen," Left said.

"I can summon an army if need be. I no longer require yojimbos. And this discussion is over," she declared. Turning to face the nearest wall, she focused, using the described hand gestures as recommended for her first time.

Shadow bloomed and rippled along the poorly lit wallpaper. Finally!

"Wait," Left spoke up as she floated into the air. Nostrils flaring under her mask, she turned to face him. Only to see him down on one knee, holding up a sheathed, curved dagger she had never seen on him before.

"It is dangerous to go alone. Take this, my Queen," he said.

The Queen raised her hand, fully intending to swat the mere steel aside, as if it was anything to her power. But Jade paused, recalling all the times she had been held back for danger's sake.

This was not a condemnation. It was aid.

Queen Jade silently took the sheathed blade, and with skill she was surprised to find, tucked it into her outfit such that it seemed to vanish.

Frowning at almost everything, she passed through the enscrolled shadows, into Shadow.

X X X

It was certainly no Astral Realm, was more or less Jade's first impression. Though it was similar, in a way, the Shadow Realm.

It was an atmosphere with no sun. Shades of black and red dominated the bottomless sky. First glance made it seem a void. But it was not, so there were currents, massive and glacial, and ribbon-thin riptides in these vapors.

There was life here. She could feel it, breathe it in.

Mortals would no more be able to perceive the complexity and prosperity here than a being wholly of this realm would see Earth as anything but over cluttered and filthy in its sheer overabundance.

Such thoughts one could linger on, contemplating existence and actions.

But she was not here to linger, and she was interested in answers, not more questions. She could feel it in her bones, her scars, a pull beneath all these currents. Her destination. Her destiny. It was at hand.

So she was not pleased when a school of blue snakes slithered forth to challenge her. Dark, almost black, blue on her their heads and serrated backs, with light blue bellies. And worst of all, green eyes that reminded her of Ikazuki.

They hissed, bearing fangs at her. She hissed right back, her claws tearing through her gloves as she raised them, and shadow magic flaring from her.

They hesitated, and dipped their heads before peeling off in two wings. Part of her wanted to give chase. To take their meat for the tasting and savor the hunt even more.

But no. No delays.

The pull was stronger; her need was ever more urgent.

X X X

Uncle was being carried when he awoke. Slung over a shoulder.

Free otherwise? No, Uncle's ankles were tied. Not rope, cord? And handcuffs on his wrists. But in front, not behind. Ha cha that!

So then. They had caught up with Jackie, who had decked him in the face. So, mind control or some body leaping possessor.

Not Jade's work, he decided. His wards had taken much of what he knew about Shadowkhan and remodeled with her Trojan shadow trick in mind. He could admit Jade had not only been pushing Tohru as a wizard while she grew in power, but also continued to exercise her own cunning.

So, a mercenary, brought in by Jade, or some unrelated evil.

"He's awake, set him down gently," a man said. Hmm, not a local. Uncle was set down in a chair, none too gently. Opening his eyes, as the jig was up, he saw it was the enslaved El Toro that had been carrying him.

"Aiyah, another abandoned warehouse? Captain Black should get budget to buy up all so he can have them torn down, or used, so dark forces lose go-to real estate!" Uncle shouted, taking in the grimy warehouse which smelled faintly of some kind of oil and the harbor.

"What can I say, I have a weakness for the classics," the man chuckled. He was facing away from Uncle on the other side of a banged up metal folding table, dressed in a black suit, and putting a top hat onto his shaved head. Uncle noticed a long green feather had been stuck in the hatband.

He turned around to reveal a face a bit younger than Uncle would have expected.

"Evening old timer, you can call me Monsieur Verde. And yes, those cuffs are magical, or should I say anti-magical? My career has taught me that knowing how to turn the magic off is often a better trump up your sleeve than just another spell," the man said.

"The stink of dark magic hangs thick about you. You come to city for piece of Uncle?" he demanded.

"Ha! If that's a roundabout way of asking if I'm involved with your little despot of a niece, then the answer is no. Though I admit, I do have a matter to settle in regards to her," he said, his tone losing its joviality at the last part.

"Then you just want to unleash Shadow Man. Bah, dark wizards always trying to unleash ancient evil, need hobbbyyy!"

"A hobby, you say? Well, that's more original than the last goody good, she implied my pursuit of dark powers was compensation for a so-called lack of success with the ladies. You can ask her how well it worked out for her," the dark wizard said, snapping his fingers. A woman stepped out from behind a support column. A dark-skinned woman with curly dark hair, and dull empty green eyes, wearing a white gown.

"Aiyah, psychic woman?" Uncle asked.

"Not my shadow puppet technique. That has a twofer limit. Just some ol' fashioned zombie juju with Gramma's own recipe. So inefficient for minions, but after her obstructions and psychic sass… Well, it's the little things that make life so enjoyable," the dark wizard said, walking over to the zombie and tilting the tall woman's chin up as if he were about tooo-

"Aiyah! Uncle is not audience to dark wizard's dark doings," Uncle yelled. The younger man frowned but stepped away from the soulless body, and reached into his coat pocket.

He pulled out a doll, a doll of the psychic in what Uncle was certain was her clothes last time he saw her.

"Hello, sorry to see you again like this," the doll said. The voice, he was certain of.

"Aiyah! You seal soul of still living?" Uncle demanded. The dark wizard tossed the soul doll onto the table; it let out an indignant cry as it landed face first.

"Yep. I hear you are very strictly Asiatic in your magic, so you probably don't know how useful souls of the living sealed, especially magical types, can be. She was a rare find, one with enough power to be worth the exercise; their essence is almost impossible to contain in a usable manner.

"Now, you may be wondering, why? Why show you this?

"Because I need your most basic cooperation to make this move along smoothly. And demonstration is best for showing that I am not someone who takes being trifled with well. And before you tell me where I can put this doll, I am not threatening you.

"Which would you pick to go first? Your nephew, or the mundane man you so callously let get drawn into waters he should never have swam in? Hahaha!" the dark wizard said, nearly dancing over to where Jackie and El Toro stood motionless.

"Uncle," the doll whispered.

"Eh?" Uncle said, glancing to her as the dark wizard prattled about torments. He raised an eyebrow as the doll lifted her head.

"He doesn't know. I didn't struggle for escape, I struggled for movement, and I won. And I saw the future one last time before he cleaved me from my flesh. Cooperate by the skin of your teeth, drag but don't stop. And you all can get out of this clear and free," she whispered, the doll mouth actually moving to smile.

Uncle noticed she did not reference her own fate, but before he could ask, she put her face back down to the tabletop, and Verde was coming back.

"Old timer, will you cooperate?" The dark wizard asked. Uncle scrunched up his face as if he were considering.

"You are not going to align with wayward niece?" Uncle asked. As he had hoped, the wizard smiled, no doubt seeing Uncle as dancing around submission. Dark wizards, always so willing to believe it would go their way.

"I did some commission work for her. I do that kind of thing, bills to pay, you know? But I am proudly my own boss. And I certainly would not change that to bend over for a tyke on a power trip," Verde chuckled, fiddling with his tie.

"Then you will clash with niece. Uncle cannot see her tolerating you, or you her. And shadow magic with such dark masters will lead to conflict.

"Dark forces pummeling one another could be good for Uncle," Uncle ground out.

Now Uncle had him.

"Ha! So enemy of my enemy is not a friend but a welcome diversionary strategy? Alright, old timer, I can respect that.

"So just keep that in mind and do your part, and the three of you can get back to keeping the world safe for democracy or whatever it is you hero types prattle about anymore," Verde laughed.

"And to be clear, make a wrong move and I'll have the luchadore twist your boy's head off like a bottle cap," Verde threatened, looming over Uncle.

"I just need you to stand there on that symbol, actually. Rigging this so light and dark have to both contribute in some manner to unlock. Hard to believe they could pul it off."

"Ha! Your novice is showiiingg! Uncle has seen such balance locked sealing before," Uncle mocked.

Verde looked up from the array he had spray painted in purple on the concrete floor. He glared and held up his hand, fingers poised to make a snap. Uncle glanced to where El Toro waited behind Jackie.

Uncle huffed and stepped onto the array where directed.

"Very good, now then…" Stepping onto an intersection of lines across from Uncle, purple smoke began to swirl around Verde's arms.

"…Let's make some magic," the wizard grinned.

Shadow Realm:

"Yes, I have been here before," Jade said, floating through the streets of the ancient city. So grand and beautiful, but so tired as well. It brought to mind one of those fancy royal guards — standing rod straight and impeccable in uniform, but glance at the eyes and you can see their exhaustion, a simple wish to stand down.

The sadness of the city, it made her weary.

"So, this is where the Shadowkhan were? Before the masks and everything?" she said softly.

No, longer than that. This city had not been stricken, it had been abandoned. That was another root of this sorrow.

She looked up at the red sun seen over the rooftops. Japan's symbol was the rising sun, this was a setting sun. Fitting, she supposed, for a race that had been a nemesis to the humans of Japan.

It was a broad avenue, not a canal as she had wondered in her dream. The road itself was covered in black dust that caked the alleys and banked against buildings. The wind kicked it up like veins of smoke, lazy in the stale moving air.

Or did it? Watching one of the clouds of dust, she could swear it was a shadow. The dust became shadows? Or the shadows crumbled to dust only to briefly rise again?

Her hands drifted to her fans; this was not a good place to be. There was a treacherous urge to flee, back to the lands of night and day. But she would not surrender the prize so easily.

And what was that prize, exactly, she found herself wondering, pausing in her advance. It had been so obvious and clear, talking with the others, but now its exact nature seemed just out of reach.

A gong sounded, drawing her eyes to the end of the avenue, and the shadow clouds parted to reveal the summit of the high hill.

A palace? A shrine? A holy palace?

It was not immense, fitting as a crown to the hill, but it radiated grandeur and awe. There was magic at work, she acknowledged. But it was magic she had come for, so she made her way to the black stairway carved into the hill. Swept clean, she noted.

This was not like the city; something still dwelled here.

Looking up the long flight of steps framed by fallen red arches, she tried to take in the building. Any detail became blurry, indistinct when focused, and taken as whole it was like a human trying to swallow a watermelon.

"You have called me. I come," she said to the unseen force. And lowering her feet to the clean stone, she began to climb the stairway.

Uncle's Rare Finds:

Tohru held the vial up to the candle, the shadow within reacting. Expanding, then compressing, in a pattern of increasing speed. He had helped Uncle gather this one after the previous piece had been used in his own rescue from Ikazuki.

Not a pleasant experience. To use this manner of magic went against both their inclinations. But use it Uncle had, and now he would.

The array was drawn on the floor, glowing a faint green around the two locks of hair, black and white, and a plastic bag holding some short beard trimmings.

"So, you can find them?" Paco asked. Tohru looked to where the boy was standing by the door. Not holding back, but hesitant to approach. Not like Jade would have been.

"Yes, we have been taken too many times. And Viper was the last straw. Uncle and I devised this spell specifically to track despite shadow magic. We actually tried some hairs from Hak Foo we retrieved, but Jade's magic is too strong.

"This, on the other hand…"

Paco entered now, hesitantly, but relaxing when Tohru did not object. For his part, Tohru went over to the the back room shelf and went over what he would bring.

"Can it take you to them?"

"He has put wards up blocking such."

"You cannot get past them?"

"No. But I can tear through them," Tohru said, settling on the umbrella and the puffer. It felt right, good enough.

"You need back up! Tag team," Paco said, offering his tiny hand to the sumo.

"…Okay," Tohru nodded his head. Paco blinked, then grinned.

X X X

Jade stopped, finding her way blocked by a sword.

Well, "blocked" might be a bit too much of ado about it. It was stuck, thrust down into one of the steps in some kind of Excalibur rip off. The thing was not even a katana; her residual absorption knowledge said it was a short sword of some type. It caught the red sunlight, giving it a dull, burning look on the blade. And something was strung from the pommel.

Stepping up to inspect the sword, she saw it was a green ornament. A jade piece cut into the likeness of a small, ovular leaf.

Frowning, she reached for the ornament.

"Stop."

Jade froze, a chill filling her in an instant. A shadow shaped like a man stood over her. Two red eyes burned on the shape of a head, hot embers that made her feel sweat on her back even as the thing spread cold in this stale air.

"That is not for you," the ghost said. And yes, that was what it was, Queen Jade realized, drawing in a calming breath. All she had been through, and she was letting some spook, spook her. Ha!

"Did you call me just to deliver empty threats?" Jade asked, fingering one of her fans.

"I did not summon you," the ghost said.

"No one summons me," Jade snapped. The ghost drifted back, dissolving into the dusty shadows blown on the wind here. But even as it vanished from sight, she could feel its presence was close at hand.

But she believed it, eyes turning to the grand building awaiting above. As important as she was, not everything could involve her. And a sword was not the kind of might she was looking for.

Which didn't mean she would forgot this tidbit. Oh no; she would find out what this ghost and sword's deal was. But like the mask and tablet hunt, one needed to have priorities in order.

The rest of her ascent was not been challenged, but she was finding herself wishing it had been.

Even the wind seemed to be fading now, its voice stilling while dead shadows danced forlornly in its grip. A grip that now did not so much as tug at the cloth protecting her. Even her fans offered only a cold comfort as she fiddled with them.

There was a smell though, a sweet scent. It called to mind spices, or perhaps incense, but something else that evaded her. And then she was before a pair of shogi doors, blue paper framed by red painted wood. Immaculate.

The Queen frowned at the door, half expecting a ghostly hand to form from the dust to open the way.

'No?'

"Come, child. Why do you linger in the forlorn winds, when you are welcomed by your own?" a woman spoke. And not just any. The quality of the voice was unmistakable to her ears. Heard in only two voices she had ever heard.

Grabbing the edge of the door, she flung it aside, sending it to clap and rebound against the greater frame.

Before her was beauty.

The incense from before was now flowing out nearly visible, and music was drifting from somewhere, a stringed instrument playing a graceful calm tune just barely loud enough for her to hear. All around was red, black, and blue, worked into the woodwork, the polished wood floor, and wall hangings depicting figures and scenes that seemed just barely too abstract to identify.

And on a raised platform, sat three beautiful women.

Shadowkhan women.

"Welcome, niece," they said in sync. Jade stepped forward, the door closing behind her, just barely tugging at her pants. Before she could glance back, though, the one on the left spoke.

"Come closer, sit. Rest," the elegant woman said. Jade noticed there was a mat on the floor before them. A most lovely shade of blue, she thought, walking up to it.

Kneeling, she sighed. She had not realized how tired she was, how on edge that place had her.

She looked to the women. Their kimonos were all blue, adorned with pattens of red and black in various shades. But despite the unified colors, each design was different, unique. Unlike the hair, which was expertly adorned atop their heads. Not just expertly piled into intricate designs, but adorned with combs and needles of gold and ivory, glistening in the light.

Their faces were rounded, like blue moons, soft and feminine, prominent lips that fit well, and eyes glowing like the last defiant embers amidst the ash.

Jade felt shabby, the Queen grateful for a mask she had thought regal.

"Who are you?"

"Your teachers, of course. Long have we waited one to instruct anew. And you have awaited us, have you not?"

"Uh, I don't-"

"Of course you have. You know the progress you have made, while perhaps commendable, has been costly. More than it needed to be," one of them said, leaning down to whisper in Jade's ear. Jade glanced back at her, and looked back to the platform. There was only one of them sitting there now.

"You want help. But what you need is help you can trust." A hand was laid on her shoulder. Oh, there was the other one.

"You require guidance. We can give you that," the center seated woman slid off her mat and down from the platform. She never stood up; Jade watched as the woman swayed, seeming to dance unknowingly to the distant tune.

"I am a Queen…" Jade said. It almost sounded like a question.

Was she? These looked like royalty. Where had they been? Where had she been? This was much nicer.

Hands were on each of her shoulders, and as she tried to ask a question, her face was cupped by the woman in front of her.

"No need to speak. Relax, let us ease your burdens. You are a girl among women, there is nothing to fear. The men are not here," the woman whispered soothingly. She pulled Jade's mask off, casting it aside.

A frown appeared on that face, a sour note was struck, and for a minute, Jade wondered at the dryness in her throat. Then a hand was over her eyes, drowning out the light, soothing the mind behind those damned windows. It pulled back, and though the light returned, it was not burning. Jade smiled, and received one in return.

They were wrapping her in silk. Purple silk. A kimono. Where had it come from? Had the music gotten louder?

"My, my, what have you been doing to your hair? A topknot of some kind? You're not a man child," the lead Elder said, undoing Jade's hair and running her fingers through it.

And nails on her scalp. She flinched, only to relax as the music picked up and the incense wafted around her. Massaging her scalp, so gentle, her eyes drifted close.

X X X

Uncle stood in his place and let the spell happen. The Kimber doll was resisting, but it was useless. Uncle resisted the urge to grit his teeth; with the zombies standing vulnerable to their master's whim, he dared not give away his plans of defiance.

As he watched, the cylinder's lid twisted. Mixed green and purple magic playing over it, holding it now suspended in the air. No, not even that, power from within was also lifting it.

"Yes, that's it, come on!" Verde said, abandoning his chanting but keeping up the near frantic dance he was doing on his part of the array.

Some of Uncle's spells called for dancing and such. But this was more dramatic.

The darkness surged, and there was an audible pop in the midst of the cacophony.

"Yes!" Verde yelled.

The lid of the cylinder went flying, and a hand of darkness shot out, grasping at the air. No, a hand of shadow. Seemingly finding traction in the magic-laden air, the hand gripped and pulled visibly.

The form came all at once, freed from the pressure, it would appear. It was not just black — Uncle glimpsed markings as it scattered and started to reform.

"MINE!" Verde yelled, leaping into the Shadow Man.

A high screech pierced Uncle's senses, making him flinch. Verde landed with a controlled, coiled crouch. The Shadow Man's essence whirled around him violently, still more inhuman shrieks and perhaps actual words twisted around, emanating from the mass.

The dark wizard stood, arms outstretched, and as Uncle watched the dark magic essence was sucked into his bare arms, along now glowing lines of power inscribed on the flesh.

As the last traces of the Shadow Man vanished, quiet returned to the warehouse. The sound of the Kimber doll falling over seemingly of its own weight made Uncle glance.

Time enough for Verde to burst out laughing. Sure enough, Uncle looked back to see the young man had thrown his head back laughing. Typical.

"Man, oh my, what a rush! That is Power, with a capital P!" Verde laughed. He turned to face them, eyes now black, like they had been drenched in oil.

"My eyes are different, aren't they? Dang, I need a mirror.

"But wait, no, first thing is first. We're not going to be doing that bit where one gets the power-up and then doesn't do the first pragmatic thing on his check list," Verde said, turning away. He looked down to his shadow, spread long on the floor from the lamp. The dark wizard snapped his fingers.

"Up and at it," he commanded.

The shadow pulled its feet away from him and condensed, until it was like a silhouette of the man standing over it. Kneeling down, he laid his hand on its chest and started to chant. Black mist rose from his arms and flowed down into it. Three glowing green eyes opened on it.

Verde smiled, standing up.

"The one called Blankman. Find him, and kill him. No theatrics, I want him dead," he commanded. The shadow nodded and whisked away over the floor, up a wall and out of a window.

"Bene," Verde chuckled. Then he turned his eyes back on his captives.

"Don't touch the doll," he said, seeing Uncle looking to it.

"I'm no dime store witch. Anyone tampers with that soul seal, I will know certain as my alarm clock going off in the morning."

"Dark wizard has what he wanted. Release Uncle and others," Uncle demanded.

"Ah, that's right, a deal for release. You know, I really would love to. I mean, after all, breaking deals is so bad for business. I mean, you play straight with only a little fun loophole abuse for years and get a nice rapport with the magic seeker types. But one guy you turn into a meat balloon and he explodes, and suddenly all that goes down the drain," he shook his head in mock sadness.

He advanced on Uncle, looming over him, black eyes drinking the light.

"But I have a feeling even if I did let you go without harassment and went after your niece, taking pressure off you, that you'd set out to take me down and take it personal, especially getting some 'rescue the damsel' cliché for my new dolls," Verde said. He pointed with the last words to the oddity of the zombie Kimber picking up the doll Kimber.

"Uncle says evil men make excuses for being evil. At least Daolon Wong had some pride," Uncle smirked, adjusting his glasses.

Verde raised his right hand and opened the palm. Black magic erupted out in a blast, knocking Uncle into the air and out of the array.

"Well, Wong will never have been the man who took down near all the Chan clan in one night. I'll take that prize over pride any day of the month," Verde rumbled.

Then his head snapped up, nostrils flared, as he sniffed the air. He turned to see beyond the Kimbers, where a darkness was spreading on the floor.

Shadow Realm:

Her mind soothed, the Queen began to drift away, contentedly, to sleep.

"Truly? This is what you aspire to?" a deep, rough voice spoke. Jade's eyes snapped open. Hands clapped down harder on her shoulders, thighs, and head.

"Begone," the lead woman commanded, looking past Jade. Wasn't there a door there? Jade reached up to brush a hand away so she could look. Her arm met silk. As did her knees as she tried to squirm. Was this a kimono or a sack?

Of course not a sack, she laughed to herself as a beautiful chord played.

"So disappointing. Even after everything, I dared to hope for something more," the man said again. The door slid open out of sight, and dust blew in on the wind. The women hissed, drawing tighter around her.

"Man, leave this place. It is no concern of yours, Hiruzen, these are affairs of women!" they hissed, the one in front of her displaying pearl white fangs.

"No." A floorboard creaked, and Jade watched as the wind whipped around, seemed to wash the beauty off the room. The bright colors faded or rotted into brown or maggoty white wood, and spotted torn paper.

And why had she been so tired?

"Have you forgotten your oaths?!" the lead woman demanded, pulling Jade's face to her silk-covered bosom. Jade flinched at the cold chill hitting her face. And still found no sleeves, the silk now so tight she could barely wiggle her arms. Pulling back a bit, she glanced to the side. And saw her fans on the floor near the left wall.

When had she…? What was…?

"I vowed to serve the bloodline so long as I lived. I live no longer. And neither do you. Look child, and see," A dark figure crossed her line of sight, a blur of black. Somewhere, wood cracked and tore, a single sour note was struck, and the music stopped. Another gust of wind took away the last lingering scent of incense, leaving Jade to breath only the stale air of this place.

The first thought was that she had smelled that before, the earlier scent. Not incense at all, that time with Uncle. Embalming spices. For the dead.

There were no beautiful women around her in elegant silk.

They were naked, save for pieces of black rags clinging to pieces of yellow bone poking through gray, withered flesh. Below the waist was nothing but long, flesh-crusted spines, twitching on the floor, scratching the wood. And their faces…

Withered and rotted, with only flickering sparks of red in the too dark void of the eye sockets.

Jade screamed as their claws sank deeper into her body. The sound was cut off as the lead horror slammed her jaw shut and grabbed her tongue with the fingers that had rammed up through the bottom of her mouth.

"Silence! You should be honored — through your life, the Matriarchy of the Court of Ten Thousand Candles will live again, through your flesh. It is an enviable destiny, accept it!" the corpse demanded.

"No matter how many times you cheat death, you still belong in your graves," the man remarked, watching.

Jade struggled anew as they turned their bile on the other ghost. There had to be a way out! Everything else could wait.

She tried to call for her ninjas, but the call would not go out. Her magic was not up to it. They were draining her of it, and then would hijack her. With her own magic. She couldn't even call for help like she did with Lung; they would not allow it.

And her fans were out of reach.

Jackie blast it all! There had to be some way out of this! She would not be bested again by some villain nobodies out of left field.

Struggling, something dug into her back. Left's dagger.

But it was too tight, how could she… one of the spines scrapped across the floor as the lead corpse pulled its claws out of her head to whirl upon the ghost ninja.

Spine, tail. Ohhh!

She constricted into a serpent, leaving her neck the only thing tightly bound by the sack. It was shrinking again, but there was time; the tip of her tail found the pommel of the dagger sticking out from her tail. And by the same magic of her body that let it store so many things in that constriction, she pulled the blade from it sheath, gripped in her tail.

The two monsters hissed, their claws still sunk into even her shifted form. One leaned down to her ear. Its breath was like a rotting grease trap.

"There is no escape, mongrel. Submit and preserve whatever passes for your dignity," it commanded. Jade turned her own blazing glare on those pathetic foul sparks of life.

"No." The blade passed through the purple silk like it wasn't even there. Angled up to stab through the jaw and out the top of the bald skull of her tormentor.

"Cousin?" the other monster asked. Jade's victim rasped, and Jade willed magic through the blade with a single, primal thought.

"Burn," she thought so intently she almost thought her victim could hear it. It was no spell; the amount of magic ripped from her for it was great, and its passage like some epic vomiting. But blue fire erupted along the blade and ignited the skull.

With a shriek, the monster pulled its claws out of her, shambling back. The blade didn't move, cutting its way out through the creature's face between the eyes.

The lights went out of those eyes, and with a familiar poof rendered in black, it was gone.

San Francisco:

Verde scowled, darkness leaking from his eyes, as he advanced on the growing circle of shadow on the floor.

Raising his hands, shadow rose in wisps from his fingers toward the large and still growing mass. He spoke words of power and control, the air seeming to shudder at their utterance. He grinned wide as the shadow shrank slowly.

The grin slipped as the receding shadow revealed a green glow underneath. A second circle that was still spreading. The shadow shrinking bubbled up in the middle and inflated rapidly, like a balloon. Verde chanted louder and quicker. The darkness retreated, withering, revealing a dome of green light.

Verde took a step back, one hand raised high. Then the dome burst, sending a wave of green light outward.

Verde stumbled back, narrowing his eyes. Steam rising from his massive frame, Tohru looked up from a one hand braced crouch, and glared at the dark wizard.

"You-" Verde began.

"RYAAAHHH!" Tohru roared, whipping out a glowing green umbrella and charging toward the wizard.

Verde raised both hands and fired off two blasts. Tohru opened the umbrella, deflecting the magic. And kept going, hitting the dark wizard with the extra large enchanted canopy. With the air knocked out of him, Verde was lifted off his feet and carried forward by the sumo's momentum, pinned against the umbrella canopy.

Paco looked around and saw Jackie and El Toro standing stock still. Then move as one, their heads turning to Verde being pushed across the warehouse.

"Get 'IM!" Verde shouted, getting his feet on the floor, darkness erupting from him and slowing Tohru's advance.

The two went into motion, running across the floor. Then green light erupted from beneath them, and they stopped in their tracks.

"What?!" Verde shouted, attempting to look past Tohru, who was glaring down at him now over the umbrella.

Uncle crouched at the edge of the array, hands on the powered lines that now flickered green.

"It is not spell that can break your control. But it is powerful enough to disrupt your command enough for nephew and masked man to stop selves. Typical young man, not cleaning up after himself and tripping over mess," Uncle snarked, even as sweat rolled down his face and he started chanting.

Verde screamed wordlessly and, grabbing the edges of the canopy, covered his hands in shadows, tightening his grip even as the shadow burst into green flame.

And tore the canopy apart.

He lunged toward Tohru, practically snarling, dark hands outstretched.

Each hand was caught in a larger one. Verde stopped, feet clacking to the concrete floor. Even as Tohru loomed far more impressive, only wisps of green chi came off him as he pushed back against the geyser of darkness coming from Verde.

"Amazing," Paco said, watching the two wizards check the evil before him.

Then a doll tugged at his pants leg. Paco screamed and kicked it away, several evil toy movies surging to the forefront of his mind. When it stopped tu,bling it stood up and gave a look that somehow conveyed exapseration.

"Another zombie!" she warned, pointing. Paco followed her to see a dark-skinned woman in a white gown sneaking up on Tohru. The green light was catching on what he recognized as a switchblade.

Shadow Realm:

It poofed into smoke, not dust. And it came toward her. No, it was 'her', Jade realized. She breathed in the shadow, a portion of her stolen magic returning.

"What have you done, wretched filth?!" the other monster demanded. Jade twisted in her serpentine form, effectively shrugging off the silk that was in a race to burn from her chi fire or crumble to dust, its magic disrupted.

The other monster had recoiled; no one had hands on her now. Blood was dripping from where they had punctured her, she could feel it now.

She glared as the two undead creatures swept about before her, angry and wary. The ghost stood off behind the platform they had been on. She had little doubt the broken remains of an enchanted instrument was beneath one of his feet. Or perhaps a pile of sawdust? They had tried to dry her out, like everything else here.

"You may have escaped our trap, but you are still weak, and within our power. Give up, and we will let your mind live on beneath our dominion," the lead monster said, even pointing a finger, as if accusing her. Ha, she had had more menacing fingers pointed at her with more intimidating authority by humans without a drop of magic.

She opened her mouth to tell them so. Only for her abused tongue to throb and threaten to poke out one of the tears at the bottom of mouth.

'Oh, forget rants. Just die again!' she thought. They were chanting, gathering black shadow power in their hands.

Her power! Boosting their own mojo with her stolen awesome! Oh, and they were between her and the fans. Clever.

As if she were just a drained magic user.

"MM AHDE RAAN U MERFDGS!" she roared through her mutilated mouth, spitting some blood in the process.

She flew through the air toward one of them. They did not stop chanting, and Jade saw an array light up on the floor just as she was about to reach them.

A trap. She knew that design. Bad day.

A wall of boiling shadow energy sprung up. She plowed into it flank first, a fair approximation of taking the impact on the shoulder. It burned, it pushed her back as it struck.

Yes, the Teachings mentioned this. While it was nigh impossible to kill someone with their own shadow magic, like any chi, it bypassed many defenses to do damage easier. Ah, magic, so funny, unless you were a scientist being driven to the abyss of despair searching for a rational pattern.

She pushed back, and through. Who needed reason, when you were a magic on-fire not-dying snake with a dagger in your grip and a heart full of strawberry flavored vengeance?!

This time, she cut the head at eye level. Nothing cool, like the upper half staying in place after being severed. It went flying. Eugh, even their brains looked decomposed. But then again, brains were yucky normally.

Oh well, unimportant.

'Taste the awesome,' Jade thought, as still more magic returned to her.

Shrieking in rage, the last monster floated backward to a corner, away from her and the watching ghost. A simple spell shredded the burning clothes from her and the burning hair. Huh, not bald, but shorter than she would have planned.

Gathering the lingering heat with a new willed spell, she focused on the wounds, burning them closed. There must have been some magic in their claws, numbing the area still. But at least she wasn't leaking.

She moved her lower jaw around, still keeping a wary eye on her prey. Hmm, her tongue was still swelling. This was not like that whiskered agent punching holes with her using purely mundane weapons. Or good chi. Until she got some quality potion, it would be more like human recovery.

Well dang, no breaking speech to the thief? That was lame. And was it the right time to be focused on that? Maybe she was still loopy from the goofy gas hypno music combo, and now blood loss?

'Okay then, wrap it up,' she thought, slithering through the air toward the hideous would-be Jiangshi.

"…I surrender," the monster said. Jade stopped, cocking her head as the undead woman put her hands together and bowed her head slightly.

In lieu of a question asked, Jade hissed. Apparently the querying nature was understood, as the magic stealer looked back up and started talking again.

"You have won, young one. As you have no doubt guessed, our hope was to drain you of your chi, and then take your living body for ourselves to live again.

"But that is no longer possible. Even if I had you helpless before me again, I do not have the strength alone to dominate your being with stolen chi.

"I would make you an offer.

"We three were the Elders of the Matriarchy, the fifth and last generation of the Matriarchy that ruled the Second Age of the Shadowkhan. While I know you possess the Teachings, I also know you have had great ordeals. Ordeals that have marked you.

"There is knowledge, and there is knowledge. Secrets never written down, only revealed through long experience.

"I would share this with you. That of a shadow sorcerer and a ruler who reigned long over restive subjects in a world full of peril. My guidance to you, all my knowledge.

"All that I ask is that you let me indwell you. Let me live again, even if only as a voice in your head. To have even a sliver of the feeling of life and youth again.

"There are so many ways I can help you master the dangers that circle you. More than you even suspect. And if I cannot rule again, at least I can guide a ruler, lead you as the Second Age lives again, with you as the Sixth Generation.

"Will you aid me, and aid yourself?" the Elder of the Matriarchy asked. She held out a hand to Jade. Jade could see her own blood drying on those claws.

Was this a trick?

She slithered forward, looking the old evil doer in the eye sockets. She smiled, and got a ghastly attempt at a smile in return.

Jade stuck out her abused tongue and pivoted on the spot, cutting the monster's head clean off. It was like cutting through a roll of wet toilet paper.

'Never thought I could use that little misadventure as a monster metaphor,' Jade thought. The body poofed, letting her magic return.

The head, though, the head hit the floor, cracking across the skin like it was made of porcelain.

Jade frowned, not taking her eyes off the head, which was "bleeding" chi from its stump. So she missed the ghost coming up next to her. That took her eyes off it.

And true to form, it did something then.

"Noooo!" the head screamed, rolling slightly side-to-side on the floor. Jade would not have believed it, but it was actually withering even more before her eyes.

"I can't die! Please Hiruzen, Allfather! I feel Yomi's emissaries' breath! Save me! I can't die!" the withering head pleaded. Jade looked to the ghost of a ninja. Another undead, but a stronger presence for certain.

"No," he answered, "It is past time you were done, fool princess, I would not save you now even if I could. Go with dignity, if you can."

The advice was ignored. The ancient undead kept screaming its pleas and terror, even as it was reduced to a yellow skull. Only fading away on a final wail as the skull crumbled away into more black dust.

A moment of silence, then the building started to creak and melt around them.

"Come," Hiruzen commanded. Jade obeyed reflexively, following him back to the open door, wood snapping audibly behind them as they stepped back into the full light of the exhausted sun.

San Francisco:

"Paco, get me close enough, and I can get through," the doll said. Paco eyed the doll that had followed him as he took down the zombie woman. Not very hard — he was no true luchadore yet, but the zombie had ignored him, or tried to as he brought her down and kicked away the knife.

Now he had her pinned. Well, he was trying too; smallness was not exactly a luchadore's strength.

"What do you mean?" Paco demanded.

"His control is weak now; his attention was already split, but he just suffered a major hit and has had no time to master this new power. It's making his technique as subtle as a baseball bat. If I can make physical contact with my body, I can control it," she said.

Oh! So she was the soul from the zombie? Yes, that made sense.

"Can you help Señor Tohru?"

"Yes, he and Verde will both die if nothing is done. He must live, or the Shadow King will reign once again," she said.

Paco held his position against the struggling zombie as the doll approached awkwardly, nearly falling over from trips on the concrete floor. Finally, the fingerless doll hands poked into the nearest arm trying to escape Paco's hold. And stopped struggling.

Warily, Paco got up, and watched as the doll grabbed onto its body's neck, which stood up now, rigid and unnatural as before, and now stranger with the doll on its back.

It was odd what things still struck you as weird even with a life of mystical adventures, Paco thought. Tohru and the dark wizard cried out in anger again as the magic audibly increased in their conflict.

"You are like Señor Uncle, a wizard?" he asked.

"No, but I can still tilt the scales. Best not look, hun," the doll said.

The doll was not facing him, and the zombie was erect like a robot as it took its first steps. But something clicked for Paco with those words.

"Wait! Are you going to die?!" Paco demanded, running in front of the zombie.

"My! Not just brave. You will go far, kid," the doll managed to smile over the shoulder of the human body.

"Are you?" Paco repeated.

"This body, definitely. The doll body with my soul might survive, not looking forward to that," she affirmed, stepping past him. Toward where the war of wills and magic was being fought. Paco could feel the hairs of his neck standing up.

"No! There must be another way!"

"You can't lose Tohru. Even with Verde gone, he is too essential to what is to come. Now there is no time to waste."

The zombie kicked out without warning, hitting Paco in the stomach. He crumpled, having not seen any hint of that coming. The next kick was to his head, dazing him.

"I didn't foresee you being here. But it makes no difference now. Stay good, little hero," Kimber said, before stepping over his groaning form toward her doom.

Shadow Realm:

Dust clouds were rising from the city below. Squinting, Jade saw it was falling apart, as if the buildings were being imploded, block by block.

"Nothing so dramatic. They are collapsing under their own weight. The weight of time can only be delayed in its reckoning. But I think it may allow that, knowing that however many delays it is presented, its due will be paid eventually.

"The Elders. They feared death even more than the loss of their youth and power. The spell, hidden by being dispersed across the whole city, allowed them to claw back from death after Tarakudo killed them. But it was not life of any sort they returned to. They were even more miserable haunts before they sensed your return and built themselves into something that could conceivably harm you.

"And yes, I can read your mind. I learned a few tricks waiting between life and death, and brief physical manifestation is hardly the best." Hiruzen said. The city crumbled to dust, and glancing back at the shrine, it was the same. Things came apart, crashing together but ultimately just breaking down into more dust, caught up in the wind.

To her surprise, even ravines were opening now, the very ground the city stood upon vanishing.

"I remember when this city was built. The dawn of the Second Age, when the Matriarchy came to power. To build a city here was to be a sign of their power and divinity, separate from the mere mortal world. Prior to that, we dwelled on Earth primarily.

"The First Generation envisioned it as an eternal monument to the glory and rightness of the system they established. Well, history has rendered its verdict on the matter.

"Do not be alarmed, the hill and stairway are linked to my torment, not their magic, it's safe here… Well, perhaps not, as you are safe nowhere, by your own folly," Hiruzen admitted.

"I had high hopes for you. But perhaps that was foolish. The very fact you came to exist is a miracle. What more did I have a right to hope for?

"Tarakudo and the others felt I must have had a plan. And I did.

"I planted a seed. Which grew into a tree that bore exactly one fruit. And they both endured until a human woman in that land across the sea plucked and ate that fruit. Taking into her that seed of potential. Which passed to her firstborn daughter.

"Through centuries and generations, it passed like a hidden torch. Had any of them died by anything before that first daughter was born, the seed would have passed from the world.

"But it didn't, and though it weakened with time, the magic needed to awaken it growing greater as it grew smaller, fate rolled in my favor a second time.

"Your mother was destined to birth the Chosen One, of all things. What else could have made Kagehime's essence take root in place of that woman's? But still, it was not enough to awaken your potential.

"A convoluted road. A single misstep and it would have come to nothing. So it should be no surprise that fate now mocks me with the path you have taken. That I might see in you as a person what I once saw in the heartbreak over generations.

"You still have no idea what a shadow is, what a shadow needs. You are better than they were, you know that, which is why you killed them. But the same weakness, the same potential, festers.

"I already have meddled more than the dead should. You have my words, and if they are not enough, then such is the final failure of my hopes."

He paused turning his eyes from the vanishing city to her, as she resisted an urge to shiner in this wind.

"Nothing remains for you here, young one. Go back to the sunlight lands. I will watch here and dream of Kagehime who I failed loyally."

Jade glared at him; she did not appreciate a rambling lecture just after shaking off being zombified. And being stabbed in about six hands worth of palces, and set on fire. And one more thing, she was currently naked as said fire had disrobed her!

And while he had aided her, she was not sure whether or not this Hiruzen had done so only to spite the Elders.

Still, it affirmed her choice to reject the undead's offer. Even the smallest piece of her self was a poor trade to creatures defined by failure.

But then, Hiruzen had been a failure too, after all. She glared at him, hoping his mind reading let him see the spite against this vain old man come through. He was dangerous, and not to be trusted. The Elders had made many mistakes — their legacy made that apparent — but binding him by some kind of magic oath had not been one of them. No, their mistake had been having lackeys like Tarakudo, who were out of control and dangerous.

Shaking his head, Hiruzen faded out of sight. Not into the dust, but more traditionally just out of sight, like a proper ghost.

Jade frowned at the desolation of the hill, and glanced at the stairway. That sword… it would be something to remember and deal with later. Like the ghost himself. But for now, even with her magic restored, she needed to rest and heal. And clothes, even her mask had been lost she noticed.

The world and the realms were vast; there would be more threats in addition to those she knew of. Being ready was the only solution.

So very much to be done. Sliding the dagger back into the unseen folds of her back, left partially sticking out of her back like a spine, Jade uttered a spell, sending her back to her base.

And so the wind reigned once more beneath the gaze of the tired sun, where a city once stood.

Windsor Manor, A Bit Earlier:

Blankman sat at his desk, an unfinished game of solitaire laid out before him, and a phone held to his ear. The battery was removed and placed on the desk by a card, while two runes glowed a faint blue on the black plastic.

"Yes, it seemed like a promising investment. But the signs are abundantly clear. Rectification is no longer the desirable outcome for our projections," he reported.

"Understood. Father, do you require assistance?" a man spoke to him from another continent.

"Keep monitoring for Tobias. It would be awkward if he or his associates were to interfere in a business transaction. The rest I can handle myself," Blankman said.

A shadow slipped through the closed window, twisting through the unseen lines of the wards. Creeping along the bottom paneling, it made its way toward the desk.

"And the principal? Will you resolve that at this time?"

"No, such extreme action would also be undesirable. And you forget the principal is not the goal this time."

The shadow rose up on the wall behind Blankman, hands spreading as it reached for his shadow, cast beneath it. Reaching for the head, as its fingers extended into claws.

Blankman flicked with a heel; pivoting the chair around around to face the shadow and, shooting from the hip, fired three shots from his revolver into its face. The shadow exploded silently, tatters flying across the walls of the room before zipping out of sight through the window still asunder.

"Pardon, something just came up. I will call you later for the update on the Nine. Hmm? Oh, that's lovely, tell her I hope to see her in it at the next gathering. Orange always was her color. Goodbye," Blankman said, hanging up the phone.

San Francisco:

Verde suddenly screamed, and the darkness wavered. Tohru stepped forward, and shock waves visibly rippled in the air as the darkness buckled. With a cry, the Kimbers were sent flying.

Verde shook his head and stiffened his stance, but Tohru kept pushing. Tohru's eyes snapped open, shining green. Verde blinked.

And green exploded from his arms.

"AAAAAAHHHHH!" Verde screamed, reeling back, Tohru releasing one of his hands. Verde coughed as the darkness drew back into him.

"No, Shadow Man! We can win this together!" Verde pleaded. With another cry, darkness burst from his chest and swatted Tohru aside.

The shadows formed into the shape of a man in the air of the warehouse. Who reached out and, with a touch to the air, formed a blob of darkness that solidified into the shape of a top hat, which the Shadow Man put on.

"Thank you, Uncle," Jackie said, as the array died down. Uncle released the broken spell, trying not to pant. Miss Kimber also sat up, and reached out, picking up the doll of herself.

She smiled along with Uncle as Tohru picked himself up and whipped out a puffer fish. The three warriors were now free to face the unleashed evil.

Shortly:

Paco held the cylinder lid down, even after hearing it click. It was not until Señor Uncle offered his hand that he released it.

Magic was truly amazing. It had been so strong, like a fire hydrant stream, but so much worse. He could not believe something so powerful could be imprisoned in something so small and normal looking.

He wondered if… The thrill of victory gave way to fatigue as his thoughts almost turned to Yade.

"Hey, Little Hero," Miss Kimber said, walking up to him. She was smiling wide, and holding the doll in the crook of her arm.

"Uncle and company save psychic woman. Even," Uncle declared.

"Tohru, you actually let him come, didn't you?" Kimber asked Tohru, as he kneeled panting from the battles. Looking to them, he nodded.

"I see."

"Where is the dark wizard?!" El Toro shouted, looking around. Sure enough, everyone but Kimber looking around could see no sign of Verde.

"Aiyah!" Uncle yelled.

"How do they do that?"

"We were a bit preoccupied with the Shadow Man," Tohru pointed out.

"Call Captain Black! Dark wizard is at veeery low ebb, even agents might catch him if we move quickly," Uncle ordered.

"I will go after them, he will regret using me against my friends," El Toro declared.

"By all means, Señor Luchadore," Kimber said, smiling like a cat, "But there is no outcome now where this night ends well for Monsieur Verde."

Not Far Away:

Verde stopped, putting his back to the alley wall, resisting the urge to slide down it. Holding his arms out in front of himself, he closed his eyes and called up the best healing cant he could manage.

Which amounted to painkillers, he admitted. Too much of his power was rooted in the shadows now torn from his arms. There were his tools, of course, and artifacts. But most of what he had brought with him to San Fransisco he had just now abandoned.

So focus. Most lost, but not all. There was the stash; healing potions in this state would leave his arms a mess of scars that would be long and painful to fix, to remake the marks of power. And not enough for magic wounds to be totally healed.

But he had the foresight to stash a full First Aid kit with the magic. Along with a nice thick wad of cash.

Okay. So first move was to avoid capture. They would be after him. He doubted they could track him now by magic. But there was nothing to stop purely mundane men from slapping him into cuffs, and the Chans would call on their allies.

So resolved, he pushed himself off the alley wall and started walking. Keeping an eye out for anything like a discarded coat that might conceal his arms from passersby if he had to rush through the busier parts of the city.

From the culmination of more than a year's planning and longer aspirations, to limping away defeated and searching for the best tract back up… Well, certainly his night couldn't get any worse, he thought.

Then a piece of paper hit him in the face. He reflexively grabbed at it to toss it aside, but it stuck fast, his blood-slicked fingers fumbling for an edge. Then he realized there was no strong wind to send it flying.

And the second thing he realized was he wasn't drawing any breath with the paper over his nose and mouth.

"MMMM!" he cried, clawing at the paper with both hands.

"Evening, Monsieur Verde, I believe you call yourself? Though of course, that is not your real name," a man said, stepping from nowhere. Verde's eyes widened; the man he had most sought to kill tonight had come for him.

So quickly? Did he learn so fast, or was I already in his sights, he wondered, as he forced calm. He was aware he could master his body to survive a bit longer.

"You tried to assassinate me earlier. Quite rude. And that failure, along with other unrelated failures tonight, I believe establishs a pecking order.

"You have no recourse. Your pursuers are of a mundane nature, and they will not be able to save you from that paper, which is enchanted to adhere tight and block all air.

"Only I can save you. But in the end, it will be your place to decide your fate. Unlike so many of you pretenders and your forbearers, I have no interest in slaves.

"So I offer you a choice. You can die, or you can make a deal with me and live.

"…Don't look at me like that. A choice of life and death is still a valid choice," the man called Blankman said, kneeling down as Verde fell to his own knees. The balding man reached into his sports coat and pulled out a piece of paper. Blank, save for a line near the bottom, marked with an X in front of it.

"Your blood mark will do as a sign of agreement.

"…Oh, that. Don't worry, as you are pressed for time, I will fill in the details later," Blankman said.

Verde wanted to scream, but there was darkness edging in from the edges of his vision. Everything blurry, he desperately lashed out at the blank contract with his left hand. Even now, he felt the magic activate.

Blankman's hand reached out and filled his vision.

Sweet air rushed down his throat.

Rolling over onto his back on the rough concrete, Verde heaved in one breath after another. Lights dancing in his eyes, the contract was held over him, blocking out the piece of night sky he had been seeing between the buildings.

Not quite so blank, now. Written on that line was a name. Henri Vastey. His blood, his signature, his true name. The man pulled the contract back out of sight, and as Verde gazed forlornly up at the light-polluted heavens, he heard a familiar sound. A pen dancing on paper.

"Thank you for your cooperation. For the moment, I will leave you to the care of the State. Well, Interpol's shadow, at least. But do not worry, they will see well to your medical needs, and I will collect you at my convenience. We'll outline the full length and breadth of your employment later, but for the moment, I have added a nondisclosure agreement.

"Well, your next appointment is almost here, so I bid you a good night, Mr. Vastey," Blankman said. He seemed to walk away in a purely mundane manner. But still, the Darkest Mage was at least thirty seconds out of sight before the pair of agents ran up to him cautiously, Verde noted.

The arrest passed in a line. As exhaustion took him, he passed into an old nightmare. The story of a fisherman, in his tiny boat, who caught a shark.

"Thank you for your cooperation," the shark said this time.

Morning:

Miss Kimber returned the other woman's look with a smile tailor-made for mischief. That got the stuffy old maid to go back to her magazine.

The seer was relaxing in her bus seat, playing idly with the doll. The vessel of the Shadow Man was tucked away in her carry-on luggage above her head.

She felt better than she had in years. Her fated encounter with the Shadow Man had reached the best possible outcome, one so narrow she had not considered it. The best she had hoped for was for him to kill her outright, which would have made it far more likely for him to be stopped.

And of course, once he took her soul and body, there had been the horrifying possibility she would serve as both his zombie spy and bedwarmer.

As matters unfolded, she had thought for certain Tohru would kill her body leaving her trapped as the doll, effectively powerless.

Instead, she was alive, and the doll was now under her magic. She would be killed within seven to eight years, but when it happened, she would be ready with this vessel to cheat death for a time. Among other things, the transference would let her trade her foresight for more… 'dramatic' power.

There would be some losses, and she was going to cherish these extra years of human flesh, but it was a future she was content with.

And for no reason more than its improbability. Even without their Jade, the J-Team could beat the long odds of fate.

Her own little role in this campaign might be done, but she was going to prepare for any of the roles that may come for her when the age changed. Yes, the storm was coming, but they were all far from helpless before it, she could truly believe now.

But first, home and some well deserved R & R, Miss Kimber smiled.

Windsor Manor:

Sleep was a luxury rarely indulged at times like this. But one sorely missed. This was not France, nor was it Indochina, and he was, despite everything, not as young as he once was.

Blankman looked to the hiding place of the document in which he would frame the indenture of a powerful wizard. And had to turn his attention elsewhere.

They were nearing the end of the tipping point, in this affair of the Shadowkhan.

He had witnessed enough of the mystic, the politics, and the madness that seized upon even the most rational individuals in such bizarre high stakes games. Whether it was the fate of an isolated town or the whole world, there were only so many patterns that played out.

And eventually, it always led to a spiral.

Yes, spirals, he mused, closing a fist gently as he watched the fingers move.

The Queen had returned injured, naked and deeply troubled. Sequestering herself in her room with only General Hebi to heal and rest. Not even immature outbursts were to be had from her.

Save for ordering Hebi to pick her up and carry her to her room, and saying what she would do there, she had ignored any query. He was no even certain she had heard or noticed him or her bodyguards presence after saying those words.

Her mental state was degrading, and that degradation may have jut bee accelerated. While certain constants, her obsessions, could be counted upon, she was already too unpredictable for comfort.

Yes, any initial hopes were quite shattered.

What remained to be seen was what could be done with what remained.

"*sigh* It never ceases to sadden. The young people, squandering their potential. But that, I suppose, is why throughout the ages, it is the elders who have best wielded power," Blankman mused, shuffling his deck.


Author's Note:

Well, here we are again. This chapter fought tooth and nail. Verde was quite an opponent when it came to writing his fight. And as often seems to be the case the result seems underwhelming. Special thanks to Zim for being so patient as my hang ups in this chapter stretched from weeks to months with so little progress.

To be clear I do not think I ever planned to show a fight with the Shadow Man. The fight was basically supposed to end with Verde getting his arms chewed up buy magic and losing the shadow man essence But it occurred to me that essence would not go down without fight, and it better explained Verde giving the heroes the slip there. But as the fight with the Shadow Man would not drive any plot in its description, and I very much wanted this chapter over, we made if offscreen and brief. Hope it did not ruin the experience for any of you.

And on the subject of Verde, while Idid take some nips from a certain Disney movie for him and the Shadow Man, I had not seen that movie when I came up with Verde. But I had seen "Live and Let Die" several times as it was my best friends favorite Bond movie when we were teens.

Well then, whenever the next chapter comes I hope it will be easier and quicker. Whether or not there is some final interlude we are close to the end. The next chapter, a possible interlude, and then the two part finale followed by the epilogue.

New or old, thank you readers for sticking with this so far.