written by Victar, e-mail
Victar's Archive:

   "He moved in, and my right sleeve dagger was in my hand. Then I was past him, ducking under his arms. Six inches of steel were buried, at an upward angle, between his fourth and fifth ribs, twisted to notch on the sternum... Contrary to popular myth, the guy would probably remain alive for over an hour. But contrary to another popular myth, he would be in shock and so wouldn't be able to do anything to keep himself alive."
       -S. K. Z. Brust, Yendi

         Call me Kano.
         It's not my real fucking name, as you'd better understand; but it serves me well enough. It means "motherless bastard" in Japanese.
         That was meant as a sort of a joke.
         Is it not funny? Well, what the hell else am I supposed to do? I have to do SOMETHING to stay sane! I've been rotting here, shackled to the same spot in some gladiatorial arena, for more weeks than I can count! The manacles on my wrists are connected to a pair of short, heavy chains anchored to skull-shaped stone outcroppings on my either side, so that I have precious little room in which to move, and the slab of rock on which I'm forced to stand looks like some type of podium in the middle of the biggest damn football stadium I've ever seen. Am I making jokes to die for, or what.
         That human filth Tsung expects me to write down my fucking autobiography, or something, in this yellowed tome bound with the skin of some luckless mammal (I have a suspicion that it's actually human skin. It would be in keeping with Tsung's nature if it were). He said that it would be "amusing" to read. He promised me that he wouldn't take my soul if I did as he directed. Not that Tsung's promises are worth dogshit. It doesn't matter. I intend to destroy this journal long before he gets his devil's hands on it.
         I also intend to escape before he learns that I've dispatched his precious book. I am not a religious man, not even in the sense that the Mafia is Christian, but I don't want him to take my soul. I'm not making a joke of any kind when I say that he "steals souls"; I've SEEN him do it! He lifted his struggling victim with his left hand, and a pale, sickly green light, the green of rotting meat or gangrenous human flesh, flowed out of the twitching body into Tsung's open right palm. The victim's corpse shrank and dried into a brittle, crumbly grey husk, just as a burning log gives off its essence in a few moments of flame, and then reverts to charcoal and ashes. That's why I call Tsung a "devil," even if I am a monster myself. I've seen a lot of rotten stuff in my lifetime, and I've done a lot of rotten stuff, but no one, no one has ever accused me of consuming anyone's soul.
         I'd better shut up about Tsung before I turn fucking hysterical. I can't afford to become mentally unbalanced; I might not be able to recover if I did.
         Damn, damn, damn, this is nothing but a string of insane ravings. All right, I'll be coherent... I HAVE to stay coherent... I'll start at the beginning first; then, I'll explicitly elucidate the connection between me and the woman manacled to a second podium, several dozen yards to my left...

         I don't know where I was born. It can't have been anyplace fancy, because my mother barely made enough to support her drug habit. She must have turned tricks for a living; no one would ever hire a junkie, male or female, to do legitimate work. But I don't remember. I don't remember what she looked like, or who my father was (some john looking for a cheap thrill, I suppose), or why she kept me with her after I was born, or why the hell we traveled from America to Japan. All I can remember is how she died. Some bastard murdered her in Tokyo; maybe he didn't like what she was selling, or maybe he was high on something and too whacked out to realize what he was doing, or maybe he was just a fucking psychotic killer. He cut off her screams by strangling her to death. I wish I could remember his face, or his voice, because if I knew who he was, I'd find him and murder him - slowly, excruciatingly. But the only detail that I can recall is her screams, gradually fading into a choking rattle as I fled the scene for my worthless life. I was about five years old.
         There's more - a LOT more, enough to fill a fucking encyclopedia - but it doesn't matter. I'll just say that since then, I've learned one thing, the only true thing I know to exist in this universe: No one will ever give a damn about you, so don't you ever give a damn about anyone else. It'll only screw you up if you do. Because I know that, because I know that all those spineless concepts of things like "love" or "friendship" are nothing more than fabrications to fool the gullible masses of sheep and cattle, I've been able to climb high. Very high. I turned the Black Dragons from a penny-ante get-together of teenage hoodlums into an INTERNATIONAL organized crime network. I didn't do it alone, but believe me, I've gotten most of the credit and deservedly so - why else would Japan deport me when I tried to return there, why else would I be a wanted criminal in thirty-five countries?
         And an unwanted criminal in all the others.
         I ought to quit this racket and become a fucking stand-up comedian.

         Mileena visited me today. Damn, but that bitch gives me the creeps. There's something wrong, something abnormal and artificial about her; I can hear it in her voice when she speaks, and I can see it in her eyes when she looks at me. I don't think she's human.
         "And how are you today, my darling Kano?" she asked me, in that rasping, grating parody of a real woman's voice. "Is there anything I can do for you?" Those words may sound solicitous enough when put on paper, but believe me, they were inflected with enough sarcasm and cruel mirth to lay to rest any doubts I might have had about her bad intentions. "Are you hungry, by any chance?" she nearly whispered, pointing one of her sai mere inches from my throat. I flinched and drew back as far as I could, which, given the meager length of my chains on either side, was not all that far. "Thirsty?" The tip of her sai now rested ever-so-gently on the apex of my jugular. I could feel the fine point cut a fraction of a centimeter into my first layer of skin. "I know what it is like... to thirst."
         I'd say that I wasn't afraid to die... if it were true. It isn't. Rather, I knew that even if she decided to kill me, then Tsung and his master, Shao Kahn, would just do their Jesus H. Fucking Christ number on me, and - damn, this can't be making any sense. All right, I'll explain about the first tournament and my role in it.
         It all started when I received an invitation to compete in Tsung's "freestyle" martial arts tournament. I mean, I was literally delivered a printed invitation with detailed instructions in gold ink; the works. I don't know how the hell Tsung's messenger found me, seeing as how I'm constantly on the move in my never-ending quest to avoid the electric chair - or the firing squad, depending upon which nation I happen to reside in at the time. I did some checking to be sure that the invitation was the real thing, and not some law enforcer's trap; then, I went for it. During my investigation, I'd learned that there was a palace of solid gold on Tsung's miserable piece of real estate. Just imagine! All I'd have to do was take out Tsung and any other chumps that got in my way, and then the Black Dragons could take the entire damn island over! We'd be looting for months!
         I didn't realize what I was buying into until Scorpion killed me. He's another... thing... that I don't think is human, but that's beside the point. He incinerated my body into so many charred bones and ashes. It was quite painful. I was very unpleasantly surprised. But not nearly as surprised as I was when Tsung brought me back from the dead.
         As soon as I'd first laid eyes on Tsung's pathetic island, let alone Tsung himself, I could feel that something wasn't right. But I couldn't fathom what it might be until I died the first time. I still don't know precisely what it is - "necromantic magic," "regenerative bio-chemistry," "Satan worship," call it what you will, but the normal laws of science or nature or what have you just don't work around him. Death is a minor inconvenience. Tsung pitted a number of warriors, including me, at one another's throats in death match after death match. Whenever one fighter seemed to gain the upper hand against everyone else (sometimes by killing them all), Tsung would use his wizardry to resurrect the fallen and repeatedly pit two of them against the lone winner. And we'd do our damndest to take that lone winner down, too, because Tsung had promised that whoever finally emerged "worthy" of the privilege would be able to battle him for untold riches and power beyond human knowledge.
         I personally would have settled for the chance to kill him, and then to experiment and find out whether or not I could assure his permanent destruction. You see, I'd watched Tsung resurrect the dead time and again, and one factor is always constant: first, he brings together every scrap of human remains short of the puddles of dried blood coagulating on the stonework. Even if someone is burnt to ashes, the initial step is to sweep all the ashes into a pile. Then, and only then, does he begin to work his perverted sorcery. I hypothesize that if some vital part of a dead person - such as, say, the head or the heart - were completely lost, perhaps cremated and its ashes scattered upon the wind, then Tsung wouldn't be able to revive the victim. At least, that's my theory.
         Well, even a dullard like me can sense that whatever mystic forces used to surround Tsung are multiplied a thousandfold here, in the Outworld. Shao Kahn makes Tsung feel like the Good Witch Glenda. I know that Shao Kahn can bring anyone back from death just as easily as Tsung could. And the Kahn can't want me permanently dead, or else I'd be table scraps for the carrion birds that seem so prolific here. No, he's keeping me alive for some purpose; perhaps for nothing more than his depraved entertainment. I ought to try my comedy routine on him sometime.
         I'm getting at something with all this talk about death and revivification; my point is that even if Mileena had decided to kill me, I'd simply be brought back after a while. It would, however, have been very painful to die, and in the last thirty years I've already had all the pain I care to experience, thank you very fucking much.
         "Shall I get you a drink?" she hissed, increasing the sai's pressure by the most infinitesimal amount imaginable.
         Now, it was she who was making the jokes. Whatever supernatural aura about Kahn and Tsung's domain that lets them undo natural processes such as death also eradicates other, more commonplace phenomena... like the need for food or drink. Hell, even the need to piss or shit. Which is just as well, I suppose, but I get creeped out if I think about it for too long.
         "Mileena! What are you doing!"
         It's hard to describe what a relief it is to hear a human voice outside of my own head. Most of the inhabitants of the Outworld are either gods or monsters, and my "fellow" prisoner has not spoken a single word to me or anyone else since being brought here. Even if this new voice belonged to Mileena's twin sister and rival assassin working for Shao Kahn.
         "Oh, Kitana," Mileena pouted, in that vocalization so eerily alike yet hoarsely different from her sister's, "you never let me have any fun!"
         "Master Shao Kahn's orders are to leave the prisoners be."
         "And since when do you care anything for the Master's orders?" I couldn't see underneath either Kitana's or Mileena's face masks, but I could have sworn that Kitana gritted her teeth, while Mileena smiled from ear to ear.
         "I don't know what you are talking about, sister."
         "Don't you... sister?" Mileena took her sai away from my throat and flipped both her weapons about in either hand. I could hear the air hiss as she performed the smooth, practiced and virtually hypnotic motion. Kitana said nothing. Mileena crossed the distance past Shao Kahn's empty throne, to the raised, circular stone slab where my "fellow" prisoner was held. She flipped her pair of sai once more before suddenly holding them crossed beneath the other's throat.
         "And how are you feeling, my dear Sonya? Could I possibly bring you something to sate your appetite?" Sonya did not move or blink; she merely stared at her tormentor with her icy blue eyes. Damn! I hate to admit it, but she's braver than I am.
         "Mileena!" snapped Shao Kahn's second assassin, and the first assassin withdrew her sai. A single pass with her hands made both weapons vanish, as if she'd never held them. I could not have said where she might have been able to hide them on her person. Her crimson ninja uniform, like Kitana's blue one, was skin-tight and left very little to the imagination... excepting only her face. Then Mileena herself vanished, slipping downward through the solid ground like some dematerializing phantom, and was gone. She is not and cannot possibly be human, I tell you.
         "Damn! I was gonna order a fuckin' burger an' a Coke," I quipped. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because I felt significantly, well, safer talking in Kitana's presence. I don't know why that should be, either; she's assassinated just as many of Shao Kahn's enemies as Mileena, if not more.
         And then, damned if she didn't answer me... again, why? I can't remember ever hearing her say anything conversational before, ever. "You have not succumbed."
         "Baby, c'mere a li'l closer an' I'll 'succumb' to anything you want," I leered, fixing her with the most lecherous sneer I could manage. What the hell? What was she going to do if she took offense, kill me?
         "I mean that your spirit has not yet succumbed to the Outworld. It will, in time. The Outworld corrupts everyone. The longer you stay, the more it will eat away at your heart and mind... until..."
         "Until what, babe?"
         "Until you are ready to serve the Master. Then he will free you and accept you into his unholy army. He could use another highly skilled fighter and leader. Baraka is a death machine, but he is flawed. He is violently unpredictable, and too easily baited into a rage."
         I don't know much about Baraka, Shao Kahn's general and right-hand "man," and I don't want to know. He has a pair of retractable fucking swordblades implanted in his either arm, and he knows how to use them. The one time I saw him in action, he was wielding those blades as if they were a natural part of his body, like claws are to a cat. And he is abhorrently evil. I've heard rumors about the bloody massacres that Shao Kahn has sent him on. I know only a very few people who are as ruthless as he is; I can see one of those people whenever I look in a mirror.
         I don't think that I could serve under General Baraka for long. There's no question that we would inevitably try to "permanently" assassinate one another; the only variables would be when, where, and how.
         "Sorry, babe, but I've already got a contract," I lied. The Black Dragons probably didn't think of me as their leader anymore; hell, I'll bet that they've presumed me dead ages ago and are currently fighting one another tooth and nail to determine my successor. It will take me forever to re-establish control of the organization when I get out of here...
         ...if I get out of here...
         "The offer stands," Kitana said, in a quiet tone that could almost be described as sad. "When either of you are willing to align yourselves with the Master, you will be freed and allowed the honor of serving him." She raised two broad, sharp-edged white fans (where had she gotten them?) in her either hand, and bowed, holding one fan spread in her right hand in front of her while her left arm twined behind her back. Then she departed, simply by walking away.
         Hm. Work for Shao Kahn? That almost sounds like a viable option... and not because of any bullshit about the Outworld "corrupting" me; the idea of anything trying to make me more corrupt is as redundant as trying to murder a cadaver. Rather, from a practical point of view, it's... interesting. At least I'd be rid of these damnable chains. I'd have to deal with Baraka, but that could be arranged. Alternatively, if I were to join the Kahn's army, I might have the chance to escape...
         What am I thinking! Escape to where? This is the fucking Outworld! One of the favorite pastimes of the Outworld's "native population" is to wander around in packs, savagely dismembering anything that looks smaller and weaker than they are. I'd have no place to go and nothing to do when I got there.
         Well, it's not as if I'm going to starve to death if I just wait here. I think I will, for a time. Hell, I suppose I could unchain myself whenever I choose; I still have my lockpicks secreted away in my ammunition belt. I don't know why Shao Kahn didn't take the belt off me when he made me his prisoner. He didn't even take away any of my throwing knives. (I wonder, is he overconfident, or merely incompetent?) He didn't confiscate Sonya's wrist bands, either. Of course, it's not like she poses any particular threat with them on; their energy blast can't scratch her chains, and she hasn't used them to stun anyone or anything since being brought here. Neither she nor I are that stupid. We know better than to foolishly reveal or waste our weapons before the right time. And we have been watched, ever since we were both taken prisoner; we have two guards apiece, whose very presence has been enough to make me think twice - even three times - about any ill-planned escape attempts.
         Ah, Sonya, if only you'd been smart enough to carry a hairpin on you, with which to pick your own locks! Perhaps I'll send you a postcard after I get out of this hellhole: Wish You Weren't Here.

         I haven't said much about my little "history" with Sonya yet, have I? Well, it goes back over eight years, to when I was still consolidating my power in the New York outpost of the Black Dragons. I nearly got busted because one of my own faithful hoods had turned on me. I swear, good help really is damn hard to find.
         I was "negotiating" the "transfer" of an entire truckload of ammunition and heavy artillery - the type of firepower deadly enough to cleave a man in half from across the thoroughfare. And I was doing it with Scale, who I thought was loyal, who I'd fucking picked up off the street and turned into a respectable gang member, who even owned a slight piece of the action. For one, false moment, I let my mind wander, as I absently thumbed the safety of my economical and lethally compact plasma rifle...
         ...and then the sudden sharpness of bright yellow lights flooded my eyes. I heard "Freeze! Police!" and the click of almost a dozen weapons being trained on me! I had no choice but to drop my plasma rifle. Before I was forced to the floor, I got one last look at Scale, who was backing slowly away in the direction of the cops - and then I knew! I knew he'd set me up!
         Sometimes I wonder why. Money? Power? Had I ever done anything to him? Hell, I'd treated him just as well as any of my other lieutenants, which admittedly wasn't all that well. Other times, I just curse the son of a bitch for setting into motion what would eventually be my greatest obstacle...! But I'm getting ahead of myself again.
         The officers forced me to kneel on the ground, roughly, and handcuffed my arms behind my back. I could have picked those handcuffs in seconds, but not while there was a small army of them with their weapons trained on me!
         "You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law," recited the cop directly in front of me. He had wavy blond hair and bright blue eyes. I could almost call him a "pretty boy" if it weren't for that grim, stern expression on his face... the expression of a professional. I should know; I'm a professional myself, albeit in a directly conflicting line of work. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but his name was Daniel Blade, and he was a mere eighteen years old. Barely more than a rookie. But I'd never have guessed it to look at him.
         "Look, Kano, I-" Scale started to say to me before the blond officer's partner roughly shoved him away. And that's when I snapped. I was going down, I was probably a jailbird or a dead man, but damned if I wasn't going to take that fucking worm of a TRAITOR with me! Heedless of the risk, I slipped my lockpicks out of the reverse side of my ammunition belt into my hands. Oddly enough, if there had been fewer enemies I might not have succeeded in getting free; but the crowd was so large that I guess everybody expected everybody else to keep one eye on the captive. Even Blade had momentarily diverted his attention to my whining double-crosser of a right-hand man.
         "It was just-" Scale started to say, but I was free before he could finish the thought. His eyes grew wide for an instant; then he turned and fled for his pathetic life. I vaulted over Blade's idiot partner before any of them could figure out what had happened, and tore after Scale with nothing but murder on my mind. As I pursued Scale around the back of the truck, I heard Daniel Blade shout, "No! Don't shoot!" A dim, detached part of myself wondered why the hell not. If our places had been reversed, I'd have shot me.
         I was closing in on Scale, who had never been a fast runner begin with. By the time I had reached the far side of the truck, he was within range my throwing knives, and I hurled one at his exposed neck.
         The spinning blade flies, end over end in the air...
         Damn! How could he POSSIBLY have ducked that fast!
         At that point, I lost not only my temper, but also my mind as well. Even as Scale dove underneath the truck in a vain quest for safety, even as Daniel Blade rounded the corner of the truck's far side and drew a bead on me with his firearm, I brought up my plasma rifle, which I must have recovered after freeing myself, even though I have no memory of retrieving it, and fired blindly in Scale's direction.
         In the direction of the truck.
         In the direction of the truck full of fucking ammunition.
         Oh, Scale died all right; so did Daniel Blade, and at least half of his friends. I should have died, too. I guess I'm just too tough a bastard to wither and croak in the midst of a motherfucking explosion. I lost most of the right half of my face as it was. Well, I eventually got it replaced with some stolen bio-cybernetics; considering that my new right eye can see in the infrared spectrum, I might almost say that the change was an improvement. Almost. I sure as hell didn't have any more problems with traitorous lieutenants... not in New York, anyway. The entire damn incident gave me the next best thing to a legendary reputation.
         It also gave me my greatest enemy.
         Her name is Sonya Blade; she's Daniel Blade's twin sister; and she's been hunting me like a bitch hellhound ever since I recovered from the debacle that killed her brother. I won't go blabbing on and on about the details; it is enough to say that the US para-military police force that she leads has dogged me through all thirty-five of those nations that have branded me, and a sizeable portion of the others as well. And, try as I may to rub her out of the picture, she's just too damn good. Our story has literally been one stalemate after the next for eight long years.
         She must have decided to go after me because she thinks I killed her brother; why else would she devote her life to hunting me down? I suppose technically I did kill him, but you wanna know the irony? I never intended to. I swear that I didn't want to hurt him, perhaps because I'd seen a fraction of myself in his grim professional eyes, of what type of noble idiot I could have become had my life been a little bit different. The only one I'd wanted dead was that renegade Scale, may he rot forever. When I fired on that truck and set off the explosion, it wasn't a calculated plan - shit, I nearly died in that blast along with the others!
         I've seen some horrible things, and I've done some horrible things, but as chance would have it, I got my fucking nemesis on account of a fucking murder I never fucking intended to commit. Ironic, huh?
         Ah, fuck it.

         Baraka killed me today.
         There was no warning, no threats, no warmup whatsoever; he just walked very calmly up to where I was chained, and pierced my chest with those damn extendible swordblades in his arms. He lifted me up a little ways - not very high, my chains wouldn't allow it - and coolly observed me as I writhed and spat curses at him. I had no way of telling whether he was amused or insulted by my barrage, because Baraka, like most of the Outworlders, does not have a human face. His unnaturally wide mouth is filled with teeth like metal shavings, permanently frozen into a sickly grin. His sunken eyes reflected no light and no spirit. I heard a single, characteristic grunt of satisfaction emanate from his gruesome visage before the pain completely overwhelmed my senses. My last living thought before I slipped into shock was to wonder if this type of monstrosity is what a man turns into after Shang Tsung consumes his soul.
         Shao Kahn brought me back, of course. I don't know why Baraka bothered to kill me in the first place; perhaps he was trying to teach me a lesson? To hell with it; I've made up my mind. I can't stand to remain here one more fucking day. One way or another, I AM going to escape!

         And I nearly did, too.
         Of course, if I was going to escape, then there was only one place that I could escape to, and that's the Portal - the same Portal through which I was brought here. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before. Just put it on the fucking list of things I don't know, all right?
         Picking my locks so unobtrusively as to avoid capturing my sentries' attention was not as difficult as I'd feared it would be. After all, they'd been guarding my sorry ass for how long - weeks? Months? Years? Time doesn't feel the same in the Outworld as I seem to remember it on Earth. Boredom had set in. Hell, there was only the two of them watching me, plus the other two watching Sonya several dozen yards away. They never saw it coming.
         Sonya Blade might have, though; as I've said before, she'd never spoken to me once since we were captured, but time and time again I have noticed her studying me, carefully, from afar. It had never once occurred to me to try to enlist her help to escape; for one thing, we were so widely spaced that I couldn't possibly communicate with her without speaking loudly enough to let the whole damn Outworld listen in as well. For another, she was my blood enemy, even there, and even then. She had not and would not ever forgive me for the death of her brother. No, I couldn't make any plans that would include her help, no matter how useful it would be to have another fighter at my side. And it would be best if I could slip away from my makeshift prison while she was asleep.
         Yes, that's right; while she slept. I do not know why the need for sleep stayed with us in Shao Kahn's domain, even though the needs to eat or eliminate had faded. (By now, I've got to seem like a fucking ignoramus, don't I?) But there are certain advantages to having a telescoping infrared implant for a right eye. I could see the subtle changes in her body heat and breathing despite the distance between us; there was no way she could have fooled me by pretending to sleep. Just a little ace in the hole, all the better for me to steal away without her knowledge.
         Once I picked my way free of those goddamned chains, I withdrew a blade from my tunic... aimed out of the corner of my infrared eye... and hurled the knife at the guard to my left.
         The spinning blade flies, end over end in the air...
         I didn't wait to track its passage; I just trusted my skills and tackled the guard at my right. Had he been allowed another second of preparation, he could have set his sword like a spear and impaled me in mid-lunge, as surely as Baraka had skewered me like some piece of meat on a stick. But he never had that crucial second. I drove my right fist into his larynx, crushing it. The hand that I used was the same hand that had ripped Sonya's beating heart out of her chest, back when we had both been Tsung's dancing puppets. (Bile rises in my mouth when I am forced to admit that she killed me a fair number of times as well.) Even as the right-hand guard silently gave up his life, I heard the wet thunk of my blade, and the soft thud of a not-quite-human figure collapsing to the ground. I didn't have to look over my shoulder to know that the knife had embedded itself through his right eye and into his brain, killing him instantly.
         And then I ran for my wretched life and soul. I must have made it almost a hundred yards before Sonya's guards noticed that something was amiss and sounded the alarm. The chase was on.
         I'm a fast runner; hell, I've been practicing since I was five, haven't I? My legs did not feel the least bit weaker for having stood on the same damnable piece of stone for weeks on end, yet another perverse thing that makes no sense whatsoever. And I had a very STRONG incentive not to stop, not to slow down, not even a little bit. So I didn't.
         At first, I had only a dull idea of which way I was heading. I was tearing through the battlefield wasteland that adjourned the arena in which I'd been held prisoner. My surroundings looked the same in all directions: nothing but a barbaric plain strewn with grotesquely murdered corpses from some nameless Outworld war. I didn't let my eyes pause on any of them; they were all long since stripped of weapons or anything else of use to anyone save the vultures. I knew I couldn't stay there for long; the terrain was too open to afford any cover, and I could hear my pursuers' shouts none too far behind me. A couple of times I heard a heart-catching whish and saw a makeshift arrow or other weapon miss me - sometimes by yards, sometimes by inches - as my hunters tried to bring me down. I never looked back once. If one of those deadly barbs was going to hit me, then I'd damn well know it when it happened.
         It was mostly by chance that I saw the forest. Hell, it was a minor miracle that I hadn't run in one big circle - or maybe I had, and the circle was so goddamned big that I never noticed. I dove into its protective embrace none too soon. There was a path; I avoided it. Instead, I sought to lose my trackers in the depths of the wood.
         Only then did I become aware of the screams.
         The entire timberland was alive with discordant howls, shrieks, and sobs. Its cacophony of loud, wordless voices ranged across every possible characterization, young and old, male and female, and the gamut of reverberating overtones varied from furious to horrified to sadistically gleeful. My stomach churned when I saw that the voices were coming from the trees themselves. Each tree had the outline of a different face etched in its bark, and the faces were all shouting and screaming, all at once, in a raucous, unholy din that threatened to drown what little lucidity I had left...
         ...and one... one of the trees screamed just like my mother had screamed... there could be no mistake, it was exactly as I remembered her voice... I forced myself to refrain from searching for which one it was, but the effort took a toll upon me. And I moved at a brisk pace through that, that evil place, but no matter how far I traveled, her screams continued to follow me. At one point, I almost thought I heard the forest's dissonance assume the guise of words: JOIN US... JOIN US... JOIN US...
         Naturally, I told the voices to fuck off.
         I doubled back several times until I was sure that I'd lost my pursuers. I damn near lost my wits as well, but eventually I was able to stagger to the forest's outskirts, weakened and shaking, but still alive, and still free.
         Well, almost.
         She was blocking my way. She could have been either Kitana or Mileena, save that her ninja uniform was colored green; not the drab olive green of Sonya's special forces apparel, but the fresh, virgin green of the youngest of the forest's vegetation. She didn't say anything; she just stood there and appraised me with the faintest trace of... curiosity?
         I withdrew a blade from my tunic - and she knocked it aside with inhuman swiftness. Nearly a full second after the fact, I realized that she, like Kitana, held razor-sharp fans in either hand. My arm was bleeding from where she'd forced me to drop the knife.
         I am good. I am fast. And I can aim better than any ordinary man because of the targeting capabilities built into my infrared eye. It made no difference; I knew, then and there, that a battle between me and this unearthly emerald beauty could end only one way. Even if I weren't physically fatigued from hours of running, or psychologically drained from the private hell of the living forest, it would have been very tough to defeat her; the speed of her reflexes was superior to that of any mortal I'd ever known. As it was, no contest.
         But that didn't stop me from trying. "Tell me how to get to the Portal or I'll kill you," I threatened.
         Her eyes did not change their languidly inquisitive expression in the least. She fluidly lifted her elegant left hand, neither hurrying nor hesitating, and pointed to an overgrown forest trail that I would never have seen, had it not been deliberately shown to me. I glanced at the trail, then back to her-
         She was gone.
         Why the fuck hadn't she called my bluff? I don't believe that I'd intimidated her, not for one second. Why did she help me? Was it a way in which she could strike back against Shao Kahn? If so, then what beef did she have with the Kahn in the first place? I don't know. I don't even know who she was. And at the time, I didn't give a damn. As tired as I was, I rushed down the trail like a madman. Part of me feared that I was running full tilt into a trap; another part of me was oddly convinced, almost serene in the assurance that I was headed straight for the Portal.
         Both feelings were absolutely true.
         The Portal was not without its enigmatic "guardians," if they can be called that; but they were not the sort of sentinels that would have given a rat's ass about the likes of me. They were cloaked in voluminous, purple robes that concealed every square inch of their bodies, assuming that they had bodies. Even their hands were invisible beneath the pressed-together bells of their sleeves, and their faces were masked by the shadowy depths of their hoods, which were pulled down very low. Two of them hovered upon nothingness, suspended by forces beyond my comprehension in an swirling orange haze of atmosphere; two more kept silent watch upon two large, flat stone squares that flanked either side of the Portal. There were four more stone squares leading directly from the precipice where I stood to the Portal's maw. All six squares were paper-thin and attached to nothing, somehow staying fixed in the midst of the whirling miasma as though they were ordinary ground; all six squares were nearly as far apart from one another as any human could possibly jump unaided.
         The Portal awaited, a mere four squares away, its black, circular vortex eager to swallow up any fool brave or stupid enough to dive into it... such as, say, me. A bloated moon hung just above its upper left, and the forbidding sable aperture seemed to absorb the moon's pale light into itself. Every few moments, a blue-tinged streak of electricity broke the Portal's impenetrable blackness. There it was: escape, freedom from this hellhole, a way out of the horror and madness of the Outworld!
         I lunged for it like a dying man in the desert would lunge for an oasis, or even the mirage of one. The abysmal gulf between the four floating stone squares did not deter me in the least; I'd made greater leaps before. I ran, I jumped, and I landed cleanly on the first square.
         Two more running jumps, and I was on the third.
         One more jump-
         The crackle of energy hissed through the air, and something stung my right leg. I made it to the fourth square, one last jump away from the Portal back to Earth, but my leg was numb, unable to support my full weight, and I fell to my left knee upon the stone. What was worse, was that I recognized the numbness... it was all TOO familiar... and I knew who my assailant was before I could turn and focus my blurring vision upon her outline.
         "NO!" I shouted, and then a second, stunning blast of energy from Sonya's wrist bands cut off my voice. The twirling, vermillion oscillations of charged force caught me precisely in the small of the back. I nearly fell off the stone square. The Portal was so close!
         Sonya tensed and sprang with the kinetic power of a machine, vaulting from the stone square where she had stationed herself, and somersaulting in mid-air towards the one on which I lay. Her purple robe, no longer useful as a disguise, had been cast off her body, and it vanished into the rift of churning currents below. She made it to my square easily, landing with consummate skill, and then hit my jaw with her closed fist before my wordless cry of anguish and rage finished leaving my throat. My incisors cut into my lower lip, and I tasted my own blood - far from the first time. She didn't speak. She didn't blink. Like an programmed automaton, like a wind-up doll, she drew her hand back to strike again. How in a thousand hells had she gotten free of her chains and tracked me this far?
         "Listen!" I pleaded, and my voice cracked for the first time since I was sixteen. I brought my left palm up and barely halted her fist in mid-descent. "We can both escape through the Portal! Don't-"
         Her other hand hit me again. I had to struggle to stay conscious. I had to move like the wind if I was going to escape. So I did. As she aimed a final blow to my head, I reached within my tunic and cast my last knife at her.
         The spinning blade flies, end over end in the air...
         ...and buries itself in her throat.
         It had been point-blank range; there was no way I could have missed.
         She still did not make a single sound, but the blow she had directed towards me wilted to barely a slap, easily blocked. It was then that I knew I had won. Not only could I escape through the Portal, I could take Sonya's carcass with me, or just shove it off the square into the bottomless void! My most relentless enemy would be dead, permanently dead, forever! I was free! I HAD WON!
         I heard a single, characteristic grunt of satisfaction from behind, and felt a coolness upon the left side of my neck. I have been told that my smile stayed upon my face even after Baraka, divested of his purple disguise just as Sonya was of hers, cleanly sliced my head off of my shoulders; and that it stayed even after my decapitated body sagged back to its knees, then to a prone position, then twitched and thumped next to where my severed head had come to rest on the stone square... just across from Sonya's corpse.

         Shao Kahn brought us both back, of course.
         We've each been manacled to the same slabs of rock as before; our guards have been re-posted; and this time, the bastard was smart enough to take away my lockpicks. He's collected my blades, too, from the various bodies in which I'd left them. He says I'll get them back when I decide to swear allegiance to him. And I've had time aplenty to think his offer over.
         But often my thoughts drift to other matters. Out of all the mysteries, out of all the things beyond my knowledge and understanding, there is at least one thing that I have finally figured out. I know how Sonya was able to "free" herself and "track" me to the Portal. She must have "freed" herself by volunteering to help Shao Kahn recapture me; how else could she have gotten out of her chains? I suppose that she did not offer to serve the Kahn outside of bringing me back, though, for if she had then she would not still be held prisoner.
         And as for her "tracking" me to the Portal - well, where the hell else COULD I have gone? She must have deduced that; she and Baraka must have been lying in wait all along, while I was thrashing my way through a wasteland, a forest, and Satan knows what else.
         If she weren't my blood enemy, I could almost... admire her resourcefulness.
         Last night, something crumbled within me, and I spoke directly to her for the second time since we were both taken prisoner. The guards made no move to silence me, yet another odd thing without explanation.
         "Sonya... I never meant to kill your brother."
         Something must have broken within her as well, because, after an interminably long pause, she made a reply. It was the first thing she'd said to me since we were captured.
         "I know."
         "You... know?"
         "Then why...?"
         I didn't need to complete the question; she knew full well what I was asking. "You are a thief and a murderer, Kano. That is reason enough."

         I keep thinking back to what Kitana said... about it being the nature of the Outworld to slowly corrupt one's spirit, and force it to succumb. I'm already so corrupt that it makes little difference to me. But Sonya...! Underneath her external veneer of military-style professionalism is, or used to be, the soul of an idealist. Someone who actually gives a damn about others, who risks her life in the name of such worthless concepts as "justice," "liberty," shit like that. As hard as this place is for me to take, it must be infinitely harder for her. She's never had to live with corruption eating her soul inside and out before. It must have cost her dearly to refuse my suggestion to flee through the Portal, but her fucking ideals demanded that she do everything in her power to prevent someone as evil as me from being let loose to prey upon the world once more.
         I'm still waiting for my chance to escape. I know that it WILL come, sooner or later, and I intend to capitalize upon it when it does. But this time around, I'm not going to bother to dispatch Sonya, permanently or otherwise, not if I can help it.
         Why? Because she's so far gone already... her spirit is so weak, fading and nearly spent...
         That to kill her would be too great a kindness.

end of The Spinning Blade