part one of two

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

   "All the time people say to me, 'Vlad, how do you do it? How come you're so good at killing people? What's your secret?' I tell them, 'There is no secret. It's like anything else. Some guys plaster walls, some guys make shoes, I kill people. You just gotta learn the trade and practice until you're good at it.'"
       -S. K. Z. Brust, Phoenix

   "Step One: Barter your soul to demons."

         For as long as I can remember, Master Kahn has been my god.
         It is so easy to serve him, officially as a warrior and unofficially as an assassin. All I have to do is obey, and in return, he takes care of my every need. I never have to worry about the future's pitfalls. The only purpose I need in my life is to protect and serve Master Kahn. If not for him, I would be lost, faced with innumerable uncertainties, and utterly alone. Alone, that is, except for my only blood relation. She is my twin sister, Mileena.
         Mileena... how should I begin to describe her? I have never seen her unmasked. Never. Even when we were children, she wore that pink satin mask about her nose and lower face at all times, although I freely went barefaced.
         Once, when we were young, I tried to pull Mileena's mask down as part of a madcap child's prank. We were playing in the Armory; that intensely warm chamber fascinated us both. (Master Kahn allowed us both the free run of his entire domain. We had guardians, of a sort, but they never spoke and never intervened unless we were in imminent danger... such as when I tried to hold the pretty, lime-green waters of the acidic castle moat in my cupped hand.) We were drawn to the slow-moving, incandescent rivulet of molten iron near the Armory's far wall. The liquefied metal flowed through a parallel set of carved stone gutters, one taller than we were, another at our feet. There was no ledge or rail to protect the unwary from falling in. Molten overflow in the upper trough slowly poured through evenly spaced perforations into the lower trough. Both troughs channeled their contents to other chambers reserved solely for weapon-making. One end of the Armory stored the weaponsmiths' latest crop of newly-forged armaments. At the other end of the Armory, broken weapons and armor accumulated until they were smelted into fuel, so that the cycle could begin anew.
         Among the heaped piles of cold steel and languid pools of hot metal, Mileena and I were playing hide-and-seek. She was counting, with her arms crossed in front of her face, and she leaned forward on the far side of one of the Armory's square pillars. The viscous rivulet of oozing metal silently coursed some ten feet behind her. Our guards observed both of us carefully. Since Mileena had turned back upon me, I, mischievous little girl that I was, hatched a spontaneous scheme: what a funny practical joke it would be, to yank down her mask and finally see what she looked like underneath it! It would be a simple matter to silently approach her and whisk her satin veil away, before she could react. Or so I thought.
         I was wrong. As soon as my fingers touched her cheek, she swung her elbow back, hitting my forehead. She followed up the unexpected blow with a reverse kick, the hard heel of her foot catching me solidly in my chest, all without turning around. I flew backward. My arms clumsily flailed in an instinctive impulse to soften my fall; they twisted underneath me when I landed upon the Armory's warm stone floor. A sharp ledge struck the back of my head, hard enough to scrape open my skin. The ugly, crackling sound of something smoldering assaulted my ears. I had landed just short of the lower creek of molten iron; the further extremity of my long black hair touched the superheated metal, and its red-hot warmth had set my tresses alight. Had Mileena been strong enough to kick me with just a little more force, I might have fallen in completely. I think I screamed, and started to cry.
         Our guards rushed forward. Before they could reach me, Mileena turned around, simultaneously readjusting the corner of her mask, and jumped. She cleared the distance between us effortlessly - I would have gaped in awe of her grace if I weren't so terrified - and landed heavily upon my upper body. The wind rushed out of my lungs, one of my ribs cracked, and I almost, but not quite, fainted from the pain. My eyes were wide with bewilderment. Hers seethed with undiluted hatred and malice. Her left hand grabbed my hair and wrenched my head back, within inches of the gutter of molten metal. By now my guards were next to me and attempting to restrain her, but they could not stop her right hand from delivering a crushing blow to my throat.
         I died.
         I clearly remember dying.
         When I awakened, Mileena was by my bedside. She said that she was sorry I had gotten hurt, but it had been my own fault for provoking her. Then she asked me why had I done this to myself, hadn't I known better, and had I learned my lesson for the future? Her hands spasmodically clenched and unclenched while she waited for my answer. When I managed a slight nod, she turned and left without farewell. Once she was gone, I noticed that I had been holding my breath, and slowly let it out, waiting for the tension in my muscles to recede.
         She had been faster than me. She has always been faster than me. I grew up knowing this; our games of tag were a constant reminder. I would invariably be "it," and she would taunt me, always staying out of my reach, while I strained to keep up with her. She sprinted without exertion, gliding like some ethereal ghost, her feet barely seeming to brush against the ground. I pursued, desperately laboring for additional velocity, my unwieldy feet pounding with each frantic step. But the full extent of her swiftness never truly sank in until that one day, the first time she ever turned on me without restraint. Every move she'd made had been a blur, faster than I could react, faster than our guards could react, perhaps faster than anyone could have reacted. Since then I have undertaken countless hours of daily training, tests of strength and stamina, acrobatics, and sprinting, so that I myself am one of the most agile warriors in the Outworld. Despite all my efforts to narrow the gap, she remains faster than me.
         Perhaps that is why I have never tried to remove her mask again, or even ask her about it. Three years after that fatal incident, I took to wearing a mask of my own at Master Kahn's request. Since then, I have never questioned why Mileena wears hers; I've assumed that the Master expects it of her, just as he expects it of me.
         Comparative dexterity aside, there is only one other physical distinction between Mileena and me: our voices. Her voice rasps and grates upon every syllable. She cannot speak two words without sounding cruelly sarcastic. In contrast, my natural voice is fairly mellifluous. I can even sing, a little. I flatter myself to think that I am tolerably good at it. Sometimes, during the rare moments when I am not busy carrying out my obligations to Master Kahn, I retreat to my private quarters and reread the two books I have upon music. I've been training myself to play a small, wooden flute, which took me two months to painstakingly carve. The Master takes a dim view of such "frivolous" undertakings in general, but he has not explicitly forbidden me to practice my hobby... not that I have ever brought the topic up for discussion.
         I've never told anyone, including my sister, about my private studies in music. Mileena has her secrets, and I have mine.

         People should know better.
         One would think that by now, Master Kahn's subjects would have learned not to oppose him. There is not a single successful tale of anyone who ever rebelled against him in the smallest way. But there are always fools who are lost in their own self-importance, jokers who think "it can't happen to me," and suicidal madmen. These are the ones who keep me busy. My duty is to search out troublemakers and deal with them - permanently.
         I remember them all. Sometimes, when I am wandering the misty domain between wakefulness and sleep, I can see their faces frozen in death. When I am fully asleep, I sometimes hear their voices cry screams, pleas, insults, or incoherent cries of rage. The effect is so chilling that I awaken in a cold sweat. I don't know why. They don't pose any threat to me. They are dead, and will stay dead forever; the only beings in the Outworld with the power to undo death are Master Kahn and his recently returned minion, Shang Tsung, the shape-shifting sorcerer.
         The Master had spent over five hundred years preparing for the day when Shang Tsung would pave the road to further conquests and glory. Shang Tsung's duty was to unbalance the Cosmic Furies, and permanently breach the barriers between the Outworld and the Mother Realm. He planned to open the gateway at the climax of his grandiose martial arts Tournament, but something went disastrously wrong. A Shaolin monk named Liu Kang won the Tournament, sowing the seeds of chaos amidst the sorcerer's designs. The carefully nurtured vortex between two worlds collapsed in on itself. Shang Tsung died. Shang Tsung's Outworld liaison, the four-armed, half-human half-dragon prince Goro, disappeared without a trace. If Master Kahn had any part of Goro's body, then he could expend his power to revive Goro, just as he brought Shang Tsung back from the dead, just as he brought me back when Mileena killed me. Master Kahn's single most powerful servant, Adjutant General Kintaro, searched the rubble of Shang Tsung's former palace for three days and three nights without finding Goro. Goro is gone forever only because his body cannot be found... an irony appreciable to anyone familiar with the protocols of death and murder.
         Such as myself.
         I do not understand why Master Kahn has renewed Shang Tsung's youth and replenished his power. The Master claims that Shang Tsung stays loyal to him out of "respect." I have maintained an uneasy, covert vigilance of the sorcerer regardless. Master Kahn may be generous enough to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I am not so charitable. Shang Tsung is too capricious, too prone to excess, and too self-obsessed with his quest for "immortality." He is not as loyal to Master Kahn as I am.
         Then again, I suppose few beings are as loyal to Master Kahn as I am.
         He is my god, after all.

         For several weeks now, Master Kahn has been keeping two warriors from the Mother Realm prisoner. They are chained to concrete pedestals in his Arena, near where the Wasteland borders his city of Shokan. The Master has decreed that they shall remain there, on display like taxidermic trophies, until they swear allegiance to him. It strikes me that he is going to a disproportionally large amount of trouble over two mere mortals, but it is not my place to question his will. I have, mostly out of boredom and curiosity, taken it upon myself to personally inspect the captives. There was quite literally nothing better for me to do. Master Kahn had not sent me on any missions in weeks, presumably because there hadn't been any recent events serious enough to warrant my intervention.
         I was not the only one who was bored. Mileena was there, talking to the male prisoner. She was too far away for me to make out her words, but when she brought one of her sai up against the great vein of his throat, her meaning became all too clear.
         "Mileena! What are you doing!" I called, quickening my pace. She turned her head toward me, without letting up on the pressure of the sai.
         Mileena's eyes are brown, like mine, yet I can't help thinking that they should be blue - the cold blue of deadened human skin overexposed to the frosty bite of the elements. For Mileena is a practitioner of Ice Sorcery. Where she learned it, I don't know... Ice Sorcery is rarely used or taught in Shokan because of its dangerous and unpredictable side effects. Some say that the Sorcery of Ice chills both outward and inward, literally and figuratively. It is reputed to replace one's capability for compassion with glacial aloofness, and turn one's blood as frigid as the current of a winter river. "Cold, her look; cold, her touch; and cold, some say, her heart," goes the archaic adage.
         I do not know whether the warnings are true. Mileena can be cool and unfeeling sometimes, but that was part of her nature long before she undertook her sorcerous studies. She has become moderately adept at using Ice Sorcery offensively through her chosen weapon, the paired sai. The desire of her will converts her silver sai into the azure essence of pure frigidity, which she can hurl at a distant foe; then, her weapons mysticly re-form on her person.
         Most times, I doubt that the casting of a few spells could have any effects upon her personality or physiology. And then there are times when she looks at me as if to freeze me solid where I stand, and I shiver as if flinching from an arctic wind.
         "Oh, Kitana," she drawled, "you never let me have any fun."
         "Master Shao Kahn's orders are to leave the prisoners be." I have never understood her fascination with torture any more than her fascination with ice. The infliction of physical or mental torment is a notoriously unreliable means of extracting information; the one being tormented won't necessarily say the truth, but rather whatever he thinks his captors want to hear. And outside of being used to gather information, torture is a pointless waste of valuable time and resources. Our duty is to swiftly eliminate the Master's enemies, not to wallow in gratuitously excessive displays of sadism. I have told Mileena that more than once. It is not that she refuses to listen; rather, it is as if I am speaking to her in a cryptic foreign language, and she cannot comprehend my words.
         Instead of continuing her protests, as I expected her to, Mileena shocked me by abruptly asking, "And since when do you care anything for the Master's orders?"
         What in all the Astral Planes...!?
         "I don't know what you are talking about, sister." Was this another of her mean-spirited jests? If so, then it was not at all funny!
         Mileena removed the dagger from the prisoner's throat, and twirled her paired sai in her either hand. "Don't you... sister?" I remained rooted where I stood, speechless with disbelief and motionless from astonishment. Master Shao Kahn is my god! My loyalty to him is and has always been absolute! How dare she insinuate - just what was she insinuating?
         My sister had crossed the distance to the female prisoner, and was treating her in much the same way as she'd treated the male. The prisoner did not react in any way save to vacantly stare at her. "Mileena!" I snapped once more. She used her sorceries to warp and disappear from view before I could question her further.
         The male prisoner interrupted my stunned silence with an expletive, and made a pass at me. I suggested that he accept the offer to become part of the Master's army, and resisted the desire to behead him. He refused, but I knew that it would be only a matter of time before he came to see things our way. He had the feel of a killer. Not just any common street thug or deranged madman, but a practiced, professional killer, who knows how to knife one enemy and invite all the others to a feast.
         I could feel the gaze of the female prisoner on me as I departed. Turning around to look at her, I saw - blankness. Nothing. No spark. No substance. Her eyes were stagnant pools of blue-tinged grey, more cold in their own way than my sister's worst, most hate-filled stare could ever be. At least I know beyond doubt that Mileena is alive.
         That day had been jarring, but it was nothing compared to the days that followed. At one point, I happened to walk past the Arena. I briefly deliberated going in, then decided against it. I'd give the prisoners a little more time to reflect upon their hopeless state before reiterating the Master's offer. I was about to leave when I glimpsed Mileena and Major General Baraka in the shadow of the door jamb. They were engaged in hushed conversation.
         Major General Baraka is one of the few beings who genuinely frightens me. He is not human; he belongs to a malformed generation of one-time humans whose bodies and genes were scarred by fallout from the Great War. "Mutants," we call them, yet that simple word cannot begin to describe their hideous appearance. Their skin is colored a jaundiced yellow-brown; their bodies are lean and wiry. The males almost never have hair. Their strength is, on the average, one and a half times greater than a corresponding human's. Cut them open and they may bleed red, brown, or brackish black blood, depending upon the individual. Their flesh is colder and stiffer than ours, and adapts to foreign objects more easily; some of them undergo surgery without anesthesia to graft metal weapons onto their limbs. Baraka in particular has retractile swordblades embedded in the backs of his forearms. By far the most psychologically chilling aspect of the Outworld's mutants is their faces - especially their sunken, solid red eyes, and their anomalously wide maws of metal-coated teeth. Their faces are virtually frozen in a nauseating rictus grin, with their lips peeled abnormally far back, further than any living human could manage.
         Despite the impression I may give, it is not Baraka's image that instills quiet terror within me. Appearances can be extremely deceiving, as any experienced spy will tell you. No, what bothers me is that I know Baraka; he is prone to unreasoning fits of murderous rage, due to his unpredictable temper. I suspect he has no true loyalty to anyone, not even Master Kahn. Baraka is a nigh-unstoppable killing machine with no heart, no soul, and no remorse. I should know; I've ordered him to kill and watched him relish every second of it.
         Setting aside my unease, I approached the strange couple, intending to question Mileena about the accusations she'd made the previous morn. Before I could say a word, though, she took her eyes off Baraka, glared at me, and hissed, "Leave, 'sister.' This doesn't concern you!" Baraka also stared at me; I could only guess what thoughts might lurk behind those empty red eyes.
         I had nothing to gain by prolonging the implicit conflict, so I muttered, "I need to talk with you later," and left. At the time, I thought nothing more of the encounter. It wasn't until much later that I began to ask myself just what business Mileena and Baraka might have that "didn't concern me."
         I spent the evening practicing my singing within the soundproof walls of my private quarters. The next morning, I heard so many wild tales that at first I was sure they must be groundless rumors; but all my sources confirmed everything. The male prisoner had slipped out of his chains and attempted to flee. Baraka had stopped him, with help from the female prisoner. Both prisoners had died in the process, and the Master had chosen to resurrect them.
         The female prisoner?
         Why didn't Master Kahn ask me to hunt the escapee down? Must I chain myself to a concrete pedestal before he considers me worthy?

         The furious scream cut into my ears so harshly I thought they might bleed. I choked back a snarl and fixed my eyes on the screamer. It was that miserable excuse for a petty magician, Shang Tsung. For the thousandth time, I wondered why the Master had bothered to resurrect him. Was there no one else in the entire Outworld who could create a permanent gate to the Mother Realm? And why, for that matter, did the Master agree to back Shang Tsung's wild fantasies of a second Tournament? Even now, they scheme to "lure" their enemies into their "trap," the better to "destroy them." Why should they need a Tournament to do that? No matter who or what threatens the Master, Mileena and I could make them vanish for good. We are not called "the Master's Right Hand" and "the Master's Left Hand" for nothing. But he has not requested our services. I don't understand. We have served the Master faithfully! Neither of us has ever failed! Shang Tsung has failed, and yet the Master entrusts him with the responsibility of delivering their "mutual enemies" to his "Tournament"...!
         One advantage to wearing a mask is that my concealed face cannot give away my inner feelings. My eyes won't betray me, unless I am not careful to rigorously control the burning drives to narrow my eyelids into slits, or knit my brows into angry furrows. And so, as I heard Shang Tsung's sniveling yelps encroach upon the divine sanctity of the Master's throne room, I erased all traces of righteous outrage from my demeanor. Not that Shang Tsung could see me - I hid in my ceiling niche close to the Master's throne - but it is a good habit to keep in practice.
         "Damn you, Shao Kahn!" the sorcerer ranted. "Enough of your games! Do as you wish with the rest, but LET ME KILL LIU KANG!" I held one of my bladed fans in each hand. A word, a single gesture from the Master, and I could have dropped from above, using their lethal edge to shear off that whining dog's head before I touched the ground. It would not have been the first time... yet Master Kahn neither spoke the word nor made the gesture. He did not want me to interfere.
         "-you've GOT to let me KILL him, he's a danger to us all! I'll bring you other mortal warriors for your Tournament! I'll bring you a whole ARMY of mortal warriors! But LIU KANG HAS TO DIE! YOU MUST-"
         Master Kahn stepped down from his ebony, skull-decorated throne, swinging his massive right arm in a gesture that might have seemed lazy if not for its staggering velocity. His open hand squarely cuffed Shang Tsung's face. Shang Tsung slammed against the wall behind him with a sickening sound, then slumped to the floor. The force of his crash had crumpled the solid gold decorations upon the wall's white marble surface. A slow-moving stain of fresh blood worked its way downward from where the back of his skull had connected.
         " this a bad time?" he croaked.
         No man could have survived that blow, not if he were caught unawares as Shang Tsung had been. Yet the shape-shifting sorcerer not only lived; he was still conscious, albeit dazed. I have no explanation for this, other than a speculation that his external, humanlike appearance is just another disguise.
         "I GIVE YOU ONE WARNING," boomed the Master. He did not have to elaborate; Shang Tsung knew precisely what would happen to him if he did not heed the notice, and heed it well. "KNEEL, SLAVE, AND REPORT. HAVE YOU BROUGHT ME THE WARRIORS THAT I SENT YOU TO RETRIEVE?"
         Oh, the abhorrence in Shang Tsung's eyes! Couldn't the Master see it? I redoubled my vigilance.
         Shang Tsung genuflected and quickly explained that he'd tried to transport the warrior Liu Kang to the Master's palace. Soon after he brought Liu Kang through the unstable, prototype Portal near the fringe of the Master's domain, the monk turned upon him. Shang Tsung had fought back, severely hampered by the Master's orders not to kill or do severe injury to Liu Kang. The sorcerer had fled, leaving Liu Kang behind to wander the Outworld.
         Shang Tsung's face flushed deep red. "If it were any other, yes I could. But Liu Kang...!" He licked his lips and shook his head slightly. "That is not within my power."
         The sorcerer flinched and averted his eyes from the Master's piercing gaze. "Master, you don't understand! I haven't told you what Liu Kang is capable of; after we both entered your realm, he-"
         The rumbling of Master Kahn's mirth sounded again, so pervading that the stone arch I crouched upon vibrated in synchronization. "AND IF ONE OF MY SERVANTS WITH MUCH LESS POWER THAN YOU WERE TO SUCCEED IN THIS TASK - THEN, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?"
         At first, Shang Tsung looked ready to complete his interrupted sentence, but all he said was, "Master, I pity the servant who tries." I wondered what debased thoughts were crawling through his corrupt mind. Certainly not pity. Shang Tsung never wasted pity on anyone save himself.
         "SO YOU CLAIM," sneered the Master, folding his arms. I could just barely see his lips curl upward beneath his polished steel mask.
         Insight flared.
         At last, I knew the answer to a riddle that had plagued me for weeks. I intuitively grasped why Master Kahn deigned to permit Shang Tsung's continued existence:
         Master Shao Kahn is very old. I've heard appraisals of his age range from one thousand to ten thousand years. Those estimations are off by a factor of twenty. He is, quite literally, the oldest living being in the Outworld. Is it truly surprising how easily even the extravagant pleasures of conquest, rule, and power bore him? He has already seen and done so many things... Shang Tsung was a weak and traitorous lackey, yet his pathetic antics amused the Master. That Shang Tsung was no professional jester, but rather a deadly serious contender in his own right, only sharpened the razor keenness of the irony.
          The master chuckled; his pet clown fumed in silence. Then, without raising his eyes to my ceiling niche, Master Kahn thundered, "KITANA, I CHARGE YOU TO BRING ME THE WARRIOR LIU KANG, ALIVE AND UNHURT. YOU WILL SET OUT, ON WYVERNBACK, IN NO LESS THAN ONE HOUR FROM THIS TIME."
         I damn near dropped both my fans.

         I hate those wyverns.
         They are messy, ill-tempered, dangerous beasts. They also stink and carry disease, due to their habit of feeding on carrion. Despite all the legends, wyverns do not truly make optimum cavalry mounts. They can barely stay aloft with the additional weight of a human-sized rider - perhaps two riders if both aren't too heavy - so that wearing armor or using any save the lightest weapons is out of the question. It is far too easy for a ground-based enemy to bring a wyvern down with any sort of projectile, even a mere arrow shot from a longbow. The animals' hides are thick enough so that few things short of a mounted lance can inflict truly grievous damage on them, but that is not the chief danger. It takes little to upset a wyvern's tenuous aerial balance, because they have no rudder. Just as ships have a rudder to guide their course through water, so do flying birds have tail feathers which they can spread into a fan shape, to help them chart their path through the air. Wyverns do not have feathers; their skin is dry and leathery, and their tails are like long whips. The appendage hangs back and down when they are aloft, its weight stabilizing the creature a little bit, but not very much. It is a minor miracle that wyverns can stay aloft at all, that stray gusts of wind do not undermine their equilibrium and send them spiraling to earth. And if something startles the dumb beasts, such as, say, the glancing blows of a few arrows...
         I've learned the basics of wyvern-riding as part of my training regimen. I can barely stand it. Myths and legends glamorize riding a wyvern as some joyfully exhilarating undertaking. Ha! It is no grand adventure; it's literally a nauseating experience - one look down, and you're likely to vomit. The beast itself infrequently voids its bladder or bowels while a-wing, another reason why one never wants to be underneath a wyvern in flight. Flying wyvernback is also inherently hazardous. Even given the most masterful riding skills and the most docile mount, falling off of the wyvern is always a risk. The creatures are prone to sudden moments of panic while in flight, and are notoriously poor at landing.
         Fortunately, wyverns breed like rats, and the Master has gathered a voluminous army, so that he can easily replace the soldiers and wyverns lost in all-too-common accidents. He also has the option of resurrecting his more useful minions, should he deem them worth the expenditure of energy. I am the Master's Left Hand. If I were to fall to my death, he would revivify me, provided that my body could be found and brought to him. The knowledge does little to allay my inner queasiness when I am about to fly wyvernback, as I was within an hour of receiving Master Kahn's command.
         "Wait, Kitana. May I have a word with you before you depart?" The question was extremely cordial. That immediately set me on edge, for I knew the one who asked it, and he is by nature one of the most disrespectful bastards in the Astral Planes. Furthermore, his attitude toward me in particular has always been just short of openly hostile. I don't know why; I've never done anything to him. Even so, I found it hard to believe that he'd abruptly change his discourteous ways, solely out of the nonexistent goodness of his black heart.
         "What do you want, Shang Tsung?" I replied wearily, going over my wyvern's riding gear once more.
         "Just a moment of your time, I assure you."
         "Make it quick."
         "Very well. We both know that you excel at homicide."
         "I am not an assassin." I have repeated that lie so many times, to so many different beings, that it rolls off my lips with ease. Shang Tsung did not contest the statement. He knew that I was lying, and I knew that I was lying, so what point would there have been in pressing the matter?
         "As you say. But when you do track down Liu Kang... well, accidents can happen."
         I should have suspected as much. "Master Kahn's orders are to bring the monk back alive and unhurt."
         "Of course they are. I've merely come to warn you that carrying them out to the letter would be an extremely strenuous challenge. I can help you; I can inform you of Liu Kang's abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and guide you to his most likely current whereabouts."
         "All right, tell me."
         "First, promise that you'll expunge this dire threat to the Kahn."
         The sorcerer's facade of false chivalry crumbled away posthaste. I finished my inspection and swung myself into the wyvern's saddle, literally looking down upon his bristling visage. "He'll kill you, you little bitch! You don't know what you're getting into. Without my help, you won't stand a chance!"
         "I need no help from a coward like you."
         Shang Tsung raised his clenched fist and bared his teeth. He always was easy to bait. I adjusted the clasp of my sable cloak, a seemingly innocuous gesture that allowed my arms to brush against and confirm the proper positioning of my concealed weapons: fans, caltrops, garrotes, four darts tipped with sleeping sap, and three darts tipped with deadly nightshade.
         "Liu Kang is the most dangerous enemy you'll ever live to face," hissed the sorcerer, punctuating each word with his scorn. "I take no shame in retreating from him."
         "Don't you? What a pity." I shook the wvyern's reins and dug my heels into its side. It squawked and ambled toward the cave's front opening, flexing its wings. As my mount hopped out of its roost and pulled into a glide, coasting upon the eddies of the wind, Shang Tsung hollered several things that I will not repeat.
         The wyvern and I soared above the corpse-strewn battlefield which encircles the Master's city of Shokan. Master Kahn's servants used to tell me epics about the Master's glorious conquests and the base, spineless vermin who attempted to usurp his power. I'd listen especially raptly to their stories of the Great War. Some thirty years ago, there was a group of dark warriors who, led by a mated pair of humans, tried to force the Master off his rightful throne within his castle. The resulting siege wreaked havoc on both sides of the castle's gates. By the time of the Master's divine triumph, the rebels had butchered two-thirds of Shokan's native population and scattered the remaining third. So much blood soaked the battlefield that the gods descended to curse the land, turning the soil to gravel and the waters to lethally caustic acid. Since then, the battlefield and all the terrain for miles around Shokan have been called the Wasteland, an arid place in which only the most devolved and predatory creatures can survive. Having caused their fair share of destruction, the gods then departed the Outworld entirely. They have never manifested here since; or at least, not in any form powerful enough to mention.
         Since the land surrounding the Master's castle is agriculturally barren, and only a few tribes of mutants are mad enough to live there, Master Kahn uses the battlefield's noxious plains to dispose of traitors and criminals. His standard method of capital punishment is to impale the guilty on pointed wooden poles - usually through the heart, though his most despised enemies may face the slower, more painful death of impalement through the liver or intestines. Then one end of the pole is firmly planted in the ground, propping up the corpse. It is impossible to approach the Master's castle without passing by hundreds of such grisly displays. Thus does Master Kahn warn his vassals of the penalty for betrayal.
         I guided the wyvern in the direction of the flickering, unstable rift between worlds that was Shang Tsung's nascent Portal. Once I reached it, I would search the nearby area until I could find either Liu Kang or his spoor. Then I'd track him down, subdue him, and bring him back. Master Shao Kahn had given me an artifact from the Golden Age to help me restrain the monk. It was an enchanted cord, unbreakably strong, and invulnerable to damage from anything save hellfire. The cord had been woven from fishes' breath, bird spittle, a woman's beard, the miaowing of a cat, the sinews of a bear, and mountain roots - if you choose to believe the legends, that is. I cared little about the historical origin of the gossamer silver cord; all I needed to know was that it worked. It did. I'd tested it by drawing the stropped edge of my fan across it several times; it showed no trace of wear or fraying.
         My mount swiftly carried me past the corpse-strewn plains of the battlefield and above the treetops of the Living Forest. The evening sky had already changed color from dull grey to vivid orange when I'd set out; now, the gradual onset of night was slowly quenching the atmosphere's illusionary fire. By the time I reached the Portal, the only light in the sky came from the Outworld's softly glowing moon. Unlike the Mother Realm, Shokan has no stars. Since I could not search effectively in the darkness, I guided my wyvern down, intending to land near the Portal and make camp for the night. Had I been anyplace else in the Wasteland, I might have been in danger from its nomadic mutant populace, but the savages fear sorcery. They will not come within miles of the mystic gate.
         Just beyond the edge of a sheer cliff face, the Portal lay fixed in midair. The empty chasm surrounding the Portal is not truly a bottomless abyss; solid ground does lie a few miles below, although low-flying clouds frequently obscure it. The land has not always borne this jagged geographical scar. Prior to the Great War, it consisted of gentle, verdant plains. That was before the curse of the gods changed everything.
         I steered my wyvern about the Portal's shifting focus, coasting above the matrix of stone squares suspended in midair near it. The stone squares formed the closest thing to a bridge between the Portal and the solid ground a couple dozen yards away. Levitating above some of the squares were the Master's shadow priests, wraithlike beings garbed in hooded purple robes. I ignored them, for they never interfere in mortal affairs, and rarely speak to anyone save the Master himself.
         A single streak of lightning cracked across the sky, terrifying my mount and nearly costing me my neck. Thunder hammered upon my ears. Ominous rainclouds hid the moon, plunging everything into complete darkness. The wyvern squealed and bucked, as a sudden onslaught of driving rain pelted my eyes and made the beast's skin slick. A furious gale rose out of nowhere; its violent turbulence bent the beast's wings back. The wyvern's scream joined the howling of the gale. I felt myself slipping off, and desperately clutched at the reins. The wyvern jerked its head upward, clumsily flapped in a hovering pattern for one heartrending second, and miraculously skidded to a rough landing on the cliff.
         I whispered a prayer of thanks to the Master.
         More lightning tore through the troposphere, as though my heartfelt benediction had angered some cosmic being... and perhaps it had. As soon as the brilliance faded, I saw the luminous avatar of a god. He presented himself in the form of a mortal man, garbed in white with a blue surcoat upon his torso. Two patches ornamented the sleeves of his raiment. Each was colored the lustrous yellow of a lightning bolt, and bore streamlined black brush strokes depicting the symbol of the storm. Underneath the god's wide, cone-shaped hat, his eyes blazed with scintillating electricity. He floated in the swirling, ozone-tinged winds just off the edge of the cliff. The rainstorm that soaked me to the bone bent and parted about him, so that not one drop landed upon his person.
         I dismounted from the wyvern, and quickly slipped a black hood over its head before it could panic again. The god addressed me while I did so, even though I had turned my back upon him; perhaps he wasn't used to being ignored. His "voice" could only be described as medley of contradictions: roaring, yet silent; proud, yet sadly humble; ancient, yet imbued with the vigor of eternal youth. The message was not so much composed of discrete words as it was of impressions, emotions, sensations. His meaning rang clear and true, more easily grasped than anything approximated by such clumsy mortal tools as speech or language. It was the voice of a god. Beyond that, I cannot describe it.
         ~Raiden would talk with you, mortal.~
         I turned around, meeting his unearthly stare with my own.
         "Raiden can choke on his own lies!" I shouted above the thunder, making no attempt to hide my intense hatred. I fully expected him to blast me in a fit of divine wrath, but strangely, he showed no response to my insult at all. His lack of a reaction made me even angrier. "You, you and all the other gods like you, you despoiled this land! You abandoned this world! You are Master Kahn's enemy! You nearly killed me with your grandstanding theatrical entrance! And you want to 'TALK'? CALL OFF YOUR DAMNED THUNDERSTORM BEFORE YOU SAY ANOTHER WORD!"
         The downpour tapered off as quickly as it had come. The rainclouds that had brought it drifted away, revealing the tranquil light of the moon.
         ~Is that better?~ asked the god.
         I stared back, not believing he had done it.
         ~An evil time comes upon us, Kitana,~ he continued, his face as unreadable as ever. ~The war between the darkness and the light has begun. The fates of worlds hang in the balance. You are needed, Kitana. You have sided with Shao Kahn, with the darkness, but I come to give you one last chance to ally yourself with the light.~
         I glared at him, in silence broken only by a puzzled whimper from the wyvern.
         "Who are you to dare..." It was not a question. "Who are you to lecture me about darkness and light? I know all about you, god of thunder. Who are you to dare?
         "Before the Great War, you and your brother, Fuijen the wind god, wrestled for seven days out of each year. Your titanic struggles generated hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods that wreaked havoc on the peaceful inhabitants of the Astral Planes!
         "During the Great War, you sent forty days and forty nights of continuous rainstorms upon the troops who battled within the Valley of Plenty. You turned the most fertile savannah in the Outworld into the fetid Quagmire of Sinking Death, haunted by the lost ghosts of ten thousand warriors!
         "At the close of the Great War, you agreed with the rest of the gods to desert the land you had battered into near-lifelessness. You are a member of the godly congregation who proposed the Divine Sanctions, hoping that if you ignored us, we would fade into extinction!
         "After the Great War, you could no longer blight the Outworld with your senseless brawls. So you entered Shang Tsung's Tournament, and strived to take control of the competition. You planned to use the Tournament as a pretext to challenge other gods with your endless wargames, to turn the Mother Realm into another ravaged celestial playfield! You have always been blind to the sufferings of your victims, and deaf to their tearful pleas! How many have you murdered, god of thunder? How many innocent men and women have been broken, drowned, electrocuted, or starved by the chaos you embrace? How many lost their homes to your callous indifference? How many have sickened and perished from the plagues left in the wake of your floods? You pretend to be a champion of the light, but your actions belie your true nature. Who are you, who are you, WHO ARE YOU to accuse me of siding with darkness!"
         The wyvern continued to whine, faintly, while I awaited his answer.
         ~Even gods can change,~ he said at last, softly. ~Not that it matters. My past has no bearing upon what you and your Master have done, nor what you plan to do. You are an agent of his darkness, Kitana, whether you realize it or not.~
         "Believe what you like about me, god-"
         ~No,~ he interrupted, a shade more forcefully, ~it is you who believes, who clings desperately to the myths Shao Kahn has told you. You have persuaded yourself to accept all his little lies, until their cumulative distortion assumes the shape of one great Lie, a Lie that engulfs your life and soul. You, little assassin, are just as blind, deaf, and callous as I once was.~
         "THAT IS NOT TRUE!" I screeched, the last ebb of my self-restraint giving way. In less time than it takes to draw breath, I palmed one of my nightshade-tipped darts and hurled it at the false god's lying throat. Just before its point touched his skin, his outline diffused into so much white light, vanishing into nothingness. Then the entire world dissolved, turning similarly white, and I felt myself dissolve with it. I tried to scream my defiance, but I had no lungs, no throat, and no tongue with which to speak.
         ~No, Kitana,~ came the stern reprimand of the god from everywhere and nowhere, ~this audience is not yet finished. I have patiently listened to you denounce my crimes. Now, it is my turn.~ I felt my body restored by degrees, although it remained numb and unresponsive, as if someone or something else were controlling its movements. My eyes were closed. When they opened, entirely of their own accord, I was in the Master's Arena.
         The Arena was different from when I had last seen it. The most obvious disparity was the absence of the prisoners from the Mother Realm, but that was not all. The stone blocks were not quite as chipped and weathered, and the metal chains on the empty concrete pedestals shined so brightly that I had to blink and look away from their glint.
         Master Kahn sat in the Arena's throne, holding the spear that serves the double function of weapon and scepter of office. Throngs of spectators crowded row upon row of the surrounding bleachers. Across from me was small man with glassy, fishlike eyes. His gaze nervously darted from point to point.
         This is the past! I tried to say, but couldn't. Instead, my body kneeled before the Master.
         ~Yes, this is the past.~ The words of the thunder god reverberated within my head. ~These are your memories, Kitana - the memories of your most evil deeds.~
         "FIGHT!" commanded the Master.
         My body moved irresistibly into the combat, approaching my enemy just as I remembered I had. I could not change my actions; I was only an observer in a scene that played out as it had once before, in the course of my life. If I had been more than an observer, I would not have foolishly rushed in on the smaller man, who grasped hold of my silken garb and rolled back, tossing me over his head. If I had been more than an observer, I would have turned in midair to land gracefully on my feet, not clumsily on my side. And I would not have wasted precious time struggling to draw my fans just as he closed in on me and dealt a stunning blow to my head.
         Convulsions wracked my arms. I lost my grip on both weapons. I tried to get up and foundered. "All right, lassie, let's see what you really look like," growled my enemy, as he swiftly wrenched my silken face mask off.
         Then he dropped the mask, an expression of absolute shock plastered upon his features.
         "Princess!" he gasped, as I painfully steadied myself and climbed to one knee. "I- I thought you were dead! I grieved for you, my Princess. I rejoice to know that you live-"
         A strike to his solar plexus interrupted his stream of chatter. "You should have killed me when you had the chance," I hissed, pressing my advantage.
         "No! I was loyal to you," he wheezed, backing away. "I couldn't stop Shao Kahn from killing your parents, so I tried to save you and your sister. But I couldn't carry both of you-"
         "My sister is just fine, no thanks to rebel scum like you!" I spat, hitting him again. If I had known then what I do now, I would not have wasted energy talking to him, but I had been young and unlearned. "What's wrong?" I taunted, when he failed to rise again. "You were so eager to fight a few seconds ago!"
         "You are the Princess. I cannot hurt you, I-"
         "FINISH HIM!" I obeyed the Master's unforgiving command, constricting the breath from my enemy's throat before he could utter another word.
         ~He spared your life, and you repaid him with death.~
         He was a criminal! my mind cried out. My eyes remained locked on the face of the dying man. Two slight tears trickled from the corners of his eyes as his skin swiftly changed color from pink to deathly blue. He did not struggle.
         ~His only 'crime' was that he escaped with your twin sister minutes before Shao Kahn's forces completely overran the former rulers' palace.~
         Mileena? But she-
         ~Not Mileena.~
         The Master has always owned the Palace-
         ~Since the blood-drenched day of his coup d'etat.~
         I'm not a 'Princess,' I was an orphan Master Kahn adopted after the Great War!
         ~Shao Kahn was the one who personally orphaned you.~
         None of what that convict said could be true! He was just telling lies to trick me into letting him go!
         ~If self-preservation were his sole motive, you would not be alive today.~
         The surroundings blurred and lost their focus... then resolidified into the bleak, gravelly landscape of the Wasteland. The dirt was an unnatural, purple-black color, a permanent side effect of some terrible spell or godly struggle during the Great War. Screams, shouts, and battle cries echoed on every side. I observed the maelstrom, seeing Master Kahn's elite foot soldiers and wyvern cavalry press upon the sorely outnumbered members of the Black Moon mutant clan. If the clan had not been ambushed, they might have put up a better fight; but before the onset of the attack, I had cut the throats of their five sentries. Most of the mutants were extremely thin and weak. Over half of them were women and children who lacked the strength or the will to put up much of a struggle. Many tried to flee, but the Master's troops ringed them on all sides and above. There was nowhere for them to escape.
         "YOU!" The ragged cry was my only warning. Cursing myself for not being more attentive, I ducked and rolled. The trajectory of a scythe-like blade missed me by scarcely an inch. "You lead them here! You come, you offer to bring food; you bring death instead!"
         My response was to throw one of my bladed fans at the mutant, who I recognized as the leader of the Black Moon tribe. He deflected the fan by shielding himself with one of his sickle-blade hands. He lunged for me again, but this time I was fully prepared. I leaped high into the air, up and over him. As I was just above his head, I touched it with my index finger, adding an iota of extra momentum to his missed charge. Incorporating a half-turn into my midair somersault, I landed on my feet facing my overbalanced enemy, who fell forward. Before he could get up and threaten me again, I stepped closer and decapitated him with a single swipe of my fan.
         I heard a peculiar thunk from behind and turned around. Another mutant writhed in agony. The tips of two swordblades peeked through his gaunt chest. At first his upraised right hand gripped a knife; then the blades in him twisted, and he dropped his weapon. A slash with my fan swiftly put him out of his misery. The swordblades lowered, allowing the headless corpse to slide off them and sink to the ground.
         I looked into the solid red, pupilless eyes of the blades' owner. He was clearly one of the strongest members of the Black Moon tribe; certainly, he appeared better fed than most of the others. His ragged clothing was spattered with bloodstains, as were his forearms and the sharp blades extending from within them, like aberrantly long talons. A single twitch of his fingers made the dripping blades retract into whatever sheaths lay embedded in his flesh.
         "Baraka watch your back. Baraka on your side," growled the mutant.
         By then, the last fighters of the Black Moon tribe had fallen. Of the original clan of fifty, only fifteen prisoners remained alive. They were mostly women and children who had surrendered, except for Baraka. The Master's elite army forced the survivors to kneel with their hands behind their heads. One mutant boy reached for a knife lying on the ground; the militiaman watching him drove a spear into his back. He shrieked twice before a second guard put another spear through his neck, silencing his cries.
         Three more militiamen pointed their spears at Baraka. I held up my hand to stay them and addressed the squad leader.
         "Four of our infantrymen are dead, six seriously wounded, a dozen more with minor wounds. We lost three of the ten wyverns and their riders. Seven of ours to thirty-five of theirs; that's not bad. Not as good as the Master might have liked, but not bad."
         "I see."
         "What about him?" the squad leader asked, jerking a thumb at Baraka.
         "He wants to join us."
         "Doesn't everybody. How do we know we can trust him?"
         That was a good question. How could I be sure that Baraka wasn't secretly planning to exact revenge for the death of his kin? I briefly contemplated his long-toothed, sickly grinning face, then the similarly deformed faces of the row of cringing prisoners.
         "You," I said to Baraka, "kill all the rest of your tribe, and we'll find a place for you." He acknowledged my offer with a grunt and set to his bloody task at once, under the watchful eyes of the troops.
         "Seven to thirty-five? No, I'd say seven to forty-nine," I told the squad leader, with a confident smile underneath my mask. "The Master will be pleased."
         The Black Moon started screaming.
         ~You bear responsibility for the murder of all these people.~
         Not people. Mutants.
         ~They speak, they think, they feel, they suffer. They are people.~
         They brought it on themselves! They raided the Master's tax convoy!
         ~They were starving to death. They were desperate for food, or anything they could trade for food.~
         They could have sustained themselves upon the Master's aura, like everyone else.
         ~The Black Moon were locked in a blood feud with the Clan of the Severed Finger, and losing. If they had stayed within Shao Kahn's nourishing aura, the Severed Finger would have destroyed them.~
         They could have appealed to the Master-
         ~Shao Kahn would have pit them against the Severed Finger one-on-one in his vile Arena, for sport, until the last of them fell.~
         I had to carry out the Master's orders!
         ~What type of 'Master' gives such orders, and what type of servant carries them out?~
         The scene about me darkened, fading to jet black.
         ...and brightened again, this time in the Shokan Chamber of Worship. Red carpeting crisscrossed the floor of carved stone squares. A large, smoothly chiseled open pattern marked the far wall. Bright blue sky and fluffy cumulus clouds swirled beyond the aperture, for the Chamber of Worship is the topmost floor of a Shokan tower so high that it pierces through the Outworld's atmospheric layer of orange-grey haze. The tower's height had once embodied humanity's supplication to the gods in heavens. But after the Great War there were no gods left; only Master Kahn. And so the Chamber of Worship became a place for his servants to express their reverence.
         At the chamber's apex, a woman in a white robe with gold trim stood behind a plain wooden pulpit. That in itself showed that something was amiss; Master Kahn's pastorate always lead his praises from behind a pulpit of gold studded with precious jewels. I crouched amidst the congregation of worshipers. I wore the plain white garb of a pilgrim, with a white scarf masking my face, so that I could blend in with the crowd. The disguise worked; no one gave me a second glace or suspected the nature of my mission. Before I acted, though, I wanted to be absolutely certain about the priestess' intentions, so I waited and listened to her sermon.
         "Shao Kahn tells you that rebels started the Great War. Shao Kahn tells you that the gods blighted the land," said the priestess. I studied her carefully, noting her fluffy blond curls, her plain features, and her mismatched eyes, one blue and one green. Yes, she was definitely the one. "Shao Kahn LIES to you! Most of you are old enough to remember the truth; the rest know some friend or relative who can recall. This Outworld realm was once a place of beauty, and plenty. The palace housed a benevolent King and Queen. We were self-sufficient, industrious, and reverent of the gods. No, it was not an utopia, but it was a free land, and we were free to choose our own destiny!
         "Then came the serpent. Shao Kahn was only a petty lord at first, who disguised his true nature with spells and false charm. Men and women flocked to his imperialistic banner, lured by his promises of conquest and power. He had come to conquer, make no error - he had come to conquer US! His army supported itself first with paltry raids, then wholesale campaigns of terror! Shao Kahn was not satisfied with the fearful loyalty of the neighboring tracts and fiefs; he wanted everything. He is the one who started the Great War. He initiated the siege upon the land's rightful King and Queen, against the will of the gods!
         "Shao Kahn waged a war of scorched earth. While his armies soaked the plains in blood, he wove spells to befoul the air, acidify the water, and poison the land! He murdered the King and Queen! The gods tried to stop him, but they lacked the faith and the support of the people. We deserted the gods before they deserted us!
         "Today, the only ones who can survive the toxic wastes of the Outworld are a hideously mutated strain of humanoids. And even they are as dependent as everyone else upon Shao Kahn for nourishment, because Shao Kahn's shadow blackens the land! He can only support so many people, so he constantly culls us down to smaller and smaller numbers, through death-matches in his odious Arena! He forces us to murder our neighbors and our kindred for his amusement!
         "But hope is not lost. The land is not dead; only dormant, and it may yet be restored. The shadow priests prophesy a day when the gods shall return and Shao Kahn shall fall. That day can come - that day will come - only if you believe! You must hope, you must strive, you must have faith in the gods' return. And you must be ready to throw off the yoke that Shao Kahn has placed on your neck, to strike out for freedom and dare to act in the name of the Light!"
         She had flung her arms wide with that last exclamation. Suddenly she stiffened, bringing one of her finely manicured hands toward her blue right eye. It delicately fingered the poison dart embedded deep within her eyeball, as if testing whether it were really there. Then she sagged, first leaning against the base of the stone opening behind her, then pitching backward through it, never to be seen again. Cries of panic sounded throughout the crowd. Everyone's eyes had been on the priestess; no one had noticed me bring my blowpipe down from my lips, reposition my scarf, and stealthily thread a path to the exit. The liquidation had proceeded without a flaw, although I decided I'd spent entirely too much time listening to the prophetess before I killed her.
         ~Her crime was that she told the truth. Her sentence, death.~
         You cursed the land, not the Master!
         ~If we gods were the primary cause of the devastation, then wouldn't the land's scars have begun to heal by now? How much power can the curse of a god have if the god is not present to carry it out?~
         She was instigating rebellion-
         ~Shao Kahn was the first to 'instigate rebellion.' Why do you only see what you want to see?~
         The scene faded, just like the others. ~And now, I shall show you a possible fate of the Mother Realm. If Shao Kahn is not stopped, he shall drain it as dry and bleak as the Outworld, plunging it into eternal darkness and slaughter. And he will seek gates to more worlds, and more, and more, for the void within him can never be filled.~
         I saw chaos, madness, and carnage, heard screams and sobs, and smelled the revolting odor of burning human flesh.
         This is not real.
         ~Not yet, but it will become real if Shao Kahn has his way.~
         This is not real.
         ~Now do you understand? Now will you ally with us?~
         This is not real.
         ~Little assassin, are you paying attention?~
         THIS IS NOT REAL! I shut my eyes to the specious vision and withdrew one of my fans - but this time, instead of assaulting the intangible deity, I lashed out at myself. I drew the fan's edge along my left shoulder and upper arm, stopping just above the hem of my elbow-length satin glove. The pain was a concrete, palpable thing within a construction of phantasms. Gripping the wound with my right hand, I focused on its sting, and blocked out the god's presence with my will.
         "THIS IS NOT REAL!"
         I sat up, next to my whickering wyvern, near the edge of the cliff face opposite the Portal and its faceless shadow priest guardians. The sky had the light-reddish hue of morning in the Outworld, and the ground was muddy with night rain and morning dew. Of the thunder god, there was no sign. The only evidence of the entire nightmarish encounter was the self-inflicted wound on my left arm. I was still holding it closed with my right hand. Small drops of blood had trickled down my forearm, pooling upon my left palm. The blood seeped through the porous weave of my satin gloves; both my hands felt wet, and sticky.

         I bandaged my wound tightly, careful not to touch the cut with my hands, which felt unusually soiled and contaminated. My attempts to wipe them on my cloak did little to alleviate the sensation. I longed to wash them clean. Unfortunately, fresh water is virtually nonexistent in the Outworld; most of its rivers and pools are filled with a sickly-green sludge so acidic, it will melt the flesh off one's bones. I'd already used half of my sole flask of water to clean my wound. Prudence dictated that I save the second half for emergencies only. I didn't need to drink, since I was still within the boundary of the Master's sustaining aura, but there was no guarantee that my quest wouldn't take me beyond its reach.
         Tracking down Liu Kang was not as difficult as I'd feared it would be. Roughly a quarter-mile away from the Portal, I found the place where the monk must have turned upon Shang Tsung. There were no footprints leading up the site. I guessed that Shang Tsung had been using a levitation spell to swiftly transport himself and his passenger to the city of Shokan. Liu Kang had probably refrained from attacking until the sorcerer was concentrating fully on the spell. Perhaps I should have tried to grill Shang Tsung more thoroughly about his struggle against Liu Kang. On the other hand, I doubted that the sorcerer would have cooperated. He stood to lose face if I were to succeed in my mission.
         The chaotic scrabblings in the dirt and gravel of the battle site were too disorganized to sort clearly, and last night's brief rainstorm hadn't improved their visibility. Cursing Raiden under my breath, I dropped to one knee next to a large patch of scorched ground. I knew that Shang Tsung liked to summon waves of hellfire as a weapon in personal combat, so I figured the blackened area might be the residue of one such attack. The battle site also carried the deep imprints of a very massive animal... or was that two very massive animals? Shang Tsung had likely assumed the shape of a great beast, maybe more than one type of great beast, during the fight. I silently vowed that when I met Liu Kang, I would treat him with respect - I'd bring him down as quickly as possible, preferably with my throwing darts and the advantage of surprise.
         The prints from the oddly stylized soles of Liu Kang's shoes led away from the site. At first they were in a straight path, relatively deep and far between; after about a mile, they grew closer and shallower. Reconstructing the scenario in my head, I surmised that Shang Tsung had either used his levitation spell to escape without leaving tracks, or assumed the shape of a bird and flown away. Liu Kang attempted pursuit, but the sorcerer outdistanced him. After Shang Tsung dropped out of sight, Liu Kang slowed to a walk, never once thinking to hide his trail.
         Liu Kang's path unsteadily wound its way along the rocky, slightly hilly Wasteland of gravel and grime. The trail skirted the nearby border to the Living Forest. I could guess why Liu Kang didn't go into the forest; even at this distance, I faintly heard the screams, groans, sighs, and shouts of the fell trees that grow there. It is a place that can literally drive a weakened mortal mad.
         The Living Forest, like so much else of the Outworld, was not always a malign place. Once, the trees did not have contorted outlines resembling faces superimposed upon their bark, nor shrill voices with which to cry, scream, or sob endless laments. That was a long, long time ago, ages before the Great War, a time when the forest was called the Huntsman's Woods. Then an ambitious young Fire Mage contested the sway of the gods. He took the name of "Inferno," and blighted realm after realm with his pyric reign of terror. At last one the gods responded; the spirit-beast Enkidu accepted Inferno's challenge to ritual single combat, and won. Inferno's punishment was eternal quarantine within the borders of the Huntsman's Woods. This did not sit well with the arrogant mageling; he ignited blaze after blaze in a mad attempt to burn his prison down. Enkidu appealed to the rest of the gods, and they pooled their divine resources to put a curse upon Inferno: in hopes of assuaging his thirst for power, they transformed him into a tree. Legend has it that Inferno's hatred ran so deep it infected the rest of the trees, turning them against all living things... especially other Fire Mages.
         Fallout from the Great War further corrupted the forest. The plant life became so virulently poisonous that it killed off nine-tenths of the fauna and twisted the remaining tenth into misshapen, mutated parodies of their former selves. That the woods still stand at all is testimony to the endurance of what few life forms, animal or vegetable, survive within its bounds. Worse, there are rumors and fragments of legends that hint at an evil, fecund presence in the forest's heart... a thing that is not a god, but the progenitive member of a primeval race of cosmic foulness that precedes the gods, and that will endure long after the gods and all who worship them are dust.
         I was glad Liu Kang hadn't entered the Living Forest. Its treetops are so dense that I would not have been able to see his spoor while flying wyvernback. Out in the open, the monk's trail was so clear I could follow it a-wing, guaranteeing that I would catch up with my quarry before the end of the day.
         The disadvantage was that there was no way for me to sneak up on him. The minimal dips and surges in the landscape were too flat to completely conceal a person, let alone a wyvern. I would have liked to approach him while he slept, but I couldn't hang back and wait for him to collapse from exhaustion. He was still within the boundaries of mutant territory, and if any of the Outworld's mutant tribes crossed his path, I could forget about bringing him back "alive and unhurt."
         When I first espied Liu Kang, I tried to quietly glide in on him from behind. Perhaps I could guide the wyvern down for a quick pass just above him, and fell him with a sleeping-sap dart before he could react.
         At first, it seemed as though my plan was going to work. Liu Kang plodded in a wavering path, his eyes fixed rigidly in front of him. His shoulders slumped wearily and his feet dragged, both signs that he had gone without sleep for a while, very likely at least a day and a half. He wore a red and black pair of slacks, and nothing on his upper body except for a matching red headband. Drawing one of my sleeping-sap darts, I decided to target the small of his back. Even if my aim were off, the dart would still take full effect provided that it broke his skin.
         The gap between myself and my quarry narrowed. I nudged the wyvern into a smooth glide fifteen feet above the ground, more than low enough for my purposes. Peering down over the shoulder of my mount, and holding the dart ready, I calculated the compensations I'd make for the slight breeze, my velocity, and the horizontal component of the distance to my prey. Liu Kang did not turn around, pause, or give any sign that he suspected my ambush. If he'd remain oblivious just a little longer, I would have him... right... about...
         "You!" shrieked the monk, "YOU ARE SHANG TSUNG'S MINION!" Even as he screamed the vituperation, he turned around and leaped high into the air, extending his arms and pointing his hands toward me at the peak of his jump. A lightning-quick bolt of thin fire shot from his outstretched hands. It hit the wyvern in the chest. The beast squawked, more from panic than pain, and back-pedaled with its wings. Its sudden lurch interrupted my throw, and my dart went wide.
         The cur of a monk was faster than me!
         "DIE!" screeched Liu Kang, jumping a second time and sending another spirit-fire blast in my direction. I had no time to speculate how a common Mother Realm mortal could have acquired such mystic power, because the shot hit my wyvern in the right wing. It squealed, tucked in the burned member, and dropped like a stone. Had we been higher up, I might have been able to coax it back into a glide before it crashed. I might also have crashed with it and dashed my brains out. At the time, though, I knew that it was too late to save the wyvern. I swung my right leg over its shoulder and used its neck as a springboard to leap away. The wyvern buckled again at the moment of my attempt. Suddenly deprived of a surface from which to push off, I barely made it clear of the beast before it crashed. I pulled myself into a tuck, attempting to flip and land in a crouch, but my momentum was lacking and I couldn't to rotate fully about. I hit the ground on my back.
         Part of my training to serve the Master included the art of acrobatics, and one of the first things an acrobat learns is how to fall. I have practiced and practiced, so many times that my body reflexively knew some of the right things to do long before my mind could have puzzled it out. Tucking my chin in tight to protect my head, I maximized my body's surface area to lessen the risk of damage to any single part. My arms slapped back, soaking up some of the shock into my chest muscles; my feet slammed down so that my lower limbs would absorb some of the rest; and my back arched a trifle so that my spine would bend instead of snap. I kept my muscles tense for no longer than the very first instant of impact, then relaxed them to soften the collision.
         It still hurt.
         A lot.
         The wyvern's keening wail abruptly ended in mid-screech, as the ground vibrated from its crash-landing. My body ached. At least none of my bones were broken. Of course, I still had Liu Kang to contend with. By letting my head fall to one side, I could glimpse his strangely-textured shoes approaching me. Well, I'd deal with him in a moment. Just as soon as the world stopped spinning.
         "You," snarled Liu Kang, glaring down at me with vengeful rancor in his coal-black eyes, "you are Shang Tsung's minion." Nothing could be further from the truth, but he was clearly in no state to be reasoned with. "Die!"
         I didn't see how he intended to kill me, because I was too busy summoning the strength I needed to survive. Curling my arms back and placing my palms on the ground just behind my head, I tucked in my body and rolled back for a modified kippup. I had been lying limp on a small hill, with my head at the lower part of its slope, so that my backward half-roll had a little help from gravity. I dearly hoped that my hands wouldn't lose their purchase on the rough gravel and dirt, and pushed off from them. Now I was fighting the pull of gravity to arch my back, extend both legs, and strike out with my flexed heels where I estimated Liu Kang to be. I was rewarded with a solid crack sound; as I half-twisted with the recoil of the move, I tried to land on my feet and almost succeeded, stumbling to my knees instead. The world's spinning had slowed somewhat, enough for me to keep my balance. Now, if only I could choke back the urge to vomit...
         Liu Kang also seemed to have some trouble standing up. I saw blood trickling from the corner of his mouth; my attack must have struck him in the face and upset his equilibrium. Determined to press my limited advantage, I withdrew my second sleeping-sap dart. Liu Kang was barely five feet away from me, and still recuperating from my last attack; surely, there was no way he could evade my sting this time! With practiced competence, I let the dart fly. It sped through the air, perfectly on target with the monk's unprotected stomach-
         -and bounced off his skin.
         ...which was turning deep green and resolving into a diamond-shape pattern of overlapping, reptilian scales. Liu Kang's frame stretched, unnaturally contorting into a streamlined, serpentine figure that grew taller and taller. Soon it abandoned the appearance of anything manlike, resolving itself into the supple outline of a gargantuan beast with the body of a serpent, the horns of a goat, the legs of a mongoose, and the head of a crocodile. Its only remotely human aspect was the acute hatred in its incandescent yellow eyes. Its jaws parted, revealing craggy teeth as long as my fingers.
         Oh, shit.
         The dragon's sonorous roar was so forceful that the ground quaked beneath my feet. Once again, my instincts and reflexes reacted more swiftly than my thoughts, and I sprang away in a haphazard backward flip. I heard the whoosh of superheated air as a cone of livid flame missed me, scarring a portion of the ground instead. I immediately followed the flip with a back handspring, turned in midair to land facing away from the beast, and sprinted out of range of its fiery breath.
         "YOU WILL BURN."
         Fortunately for me, the dragon could not advance very quickly. It was wingless, and its legs were diminutive in proportion to its body. It nearly tripped over itself when it tried to shamble in my direction. I deduced that Liu Kang must be unfamiliar with the dynamics of his draconic form. He seemed to be a fast learner, though; the dragon soon abandoned trying to walk like a common quadruped, and instead started to alternately shift its front and hind legs in tandem, wriggling forward like a colossal inchworm. Anticipating its assault, I drew one of my fans and crouched.
         When it was close enough to breathe its searing flames upon me, I took two steps and vaulted toward it at the same moment as it reared back on its hind legs. The instant it unhinged its cavernous jaws, I hurled one of my fans sideways into its mouth. The rotating, bladed edges of my fan lodged firmly just short of the dragon's upper throat, cutting into the unarmored flesh of its inner mouth. The dragon emitted a shrill cry oddly reminiscent of my wyvern's last squeal and jerked its head back and forth, spitting and flaming. Drops of blood flew from its maw and spattered on the desolate ground, where they hissed and smoked.
         Charging toward it again, I followed up my initial attack with a flying kick to its lighter-green snake's belly, just below where I expected its rib cage to be. It nearly doubled in half from the impact, but did not fall over backward. I had underestimated the flexibility of its sinuous body.
         Tumbling to the ground, I didn't realize the seriousness of my miscalculation until I started to get up and the dragon snapped its tail at my feet. The attack came so fast that I wasn't aware of it until after I crashed again, this time falling on my injured left shoulder. Too late, I comprehended that the beast was only slow when it had to travel a sizeable distance; at close quarters, it had the speed of a venomous snake. Before I could execute another kippup, it pinned me down with its forelegs, immobilizing my arms. I tried to kick it; it didn't even notice. My fan was still in its mouth. It crunched its jaws together, shredding the fan's paper and grinding the metal. Then it spat the crushed remnants of my weapon to the side. One of the droplets of dark red blood dripping from its mouth landed on my collar, where it itched and burned and seared like a brand.
         "YOU... YOU HURT ME..."
         I felt its claws dig into my right side, lacerating my skin. Even if the dragon's curving talons didn't pin my arms, even if I could have pulled a dart out of my cloak, even if I had the strength to throw it, it would have bounced off the beast's scaly hide just like the last time. The dragon glared down at me, and I saw my eradication in its glowing yellow eyes.
         I had died before. This was different. After the dragon killed me, it would either ingest my remains or leave them to rot at the edge of the Wasteland, where no one would ever find them. Master Kahn would not be able to bring me back. I faced my permanent annihilation. And do you know what bothered me the most? My hands still felt gritty and sticky. I'd never had the opportunity to clean them. Now, I never would. I didn't understand why I felt such bitter vexation over so trivial a matter, yet the emotion was very real. I wish I could say that I stared defiantly up at the dragon, ready to go to oblivion like a steadfast warrior; the truth was, I shut my eyes closed and wished desperately for a second chance to get the damn blood off. The swish of displaced air and the warm puff of the dragon's respiration brushed against my face, as it brought its jaws down toward my head.
         Then I felt the warm touch of someone else's hand in mine, clasping it firmly. I opened my eyes and saw the world invert itself. Sky, sun, rocks, dirt, dragon, and orange-grey clouds whirled a full three hundred and sixty degrees, whipping by as I felt a corresponding pull in my gut. The strain upon my arm was so tremendous that I almost let go, but whoever or whatever held my hand squeezed it even tighter. At the periphery of my vision, I caught a fleeting glimpse of black streaked with red, and a face swathed in the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat. The swirling landscape halted; the grip on my hand loosened; and I wasn't sure whether I was collapsing on solid ground or leaning against a vertical wall.
         I threw up.
         "You're welcome," said my rescuer, pleasantly. He spoke the common tongue with a faint hint of Mandarin accent, and his voice was so smoothly lyrical that it made me want to hear him sing.
         I was wondering that myself, but before I could get a good look at him, he pointed to the border of the Living Forest and urged, "Run! I'll hold him off. It's all right; he probably won't kill me."
         "I said go, go, GO!" he shouted, with an ungentle shove in the indicated direction. At a loss for anything better to do, I staggered forward. Behind me, I heard him strike up a bizarre banter with the monstrosity.
         "Is that any way to greet your old friend Kung Lao?" Acidic irony laced the question, lending it a keenly whetted edge.
         "GET OUT OF MY WAY. NOW."
         "For shame! Didn't your mother tell you not to go around eating princesses? They're dangerously addictive. It starts with just one. Then another, and another, until you just can't stop and then you're a disgrace to society and they have to dispatch knights in shining armor to deal with you-"
         "-and there's a grand battle that some talented fellow will turn into a poem with ten thousand lines, but the upshot is you're lying dead with a magic sword through your heart-"
         "-and some quick-thinking Hollywood agent turns the whole thing into a fantastic home video and merchandising bonanza, except that unfortunately you're no longer around to cash in on the royalties. Honestly, Liu Kang, don't you know any better?"
         I stumbled to my knees, holding my bleeding right side, and turned around in time to see the dragon disgorge another fiery gout. The air tingled with the charge of sorcery; Kung Lao's outline wavered, ascended, and disappeared, reappearing near the beast's left flank. The dragon's firestorm breath blasted a patch of ground close to where he had previously been standing, though I noted that the beast's aim was off. I ducked behind a small upheaval of sedimentary rock, then peered around its edge at the strangely compelling struggle between dragon and man.
         Who was this Kung Lao, and what in all the Astral Planes was he trying to do? Get himself killed?
         "Bzzzt! Sorry, wrong answer, but don't worry, you still get to take home our fabulous consolation prize!" Kung Lao removed his hat and hurled it like a discus. The hat's rotating brim sparkled with reflected light. I realized that the brim must be edged with a shiny substance, probably metal. The twirling hat made the air whistle as it curved sharply upward, clipped the dragon across the chin, and arced swiftly out of sight. Yet when I returned my gaze to Kung Lao, I saw either the same hat or an identical copy on his head. More magic.
         The blow hadn't really injured the dragon, merely annoyed it. Its lips peeled back in an irate snarl, and it gnashed its obsidian teeth. Kung Lao worked his teleportation spell again, reappearing on the beast's right side, although this time it was ready for him. As soon as he resolidified, the dragon lashed its tail at his feet, tripping him just like it had felled me only moments before.
         "That didn't hurt," Kung Lao commented buoyantly, transforming his fall into a graceful reverse somersault. The dragon raised its head in preparation to strike. Kung Lao started to stand up, saying, "And now, for my next trick-"
         The dragon's triangular head descended.
         Kung Lao spun.
         From one knee, he pushed with his free leg, turning on the pivot of the other leg's joint at first, then extending his arms and bringing them in as he rose. His rotation rapidly picked up speed. Again, the air crackled with occult power, only this time it carried quadruple the strength. Visible ripples of frosty white energy swirled around him, pushing outward with such force that I felt a whisper of their pressure even from my distant vantage point. The dragon may have tried to reverse its downward momentum, but it did not have enough time. A small explosion popped the air as the beast collided with Kung Lao's barrier. The dragon's head snapped back, its spine curling into an inverted curve; yet its hind claws remained firmly anchored, and it did not lose its balance.
         The dragon whipped its head forward. Its abdomen flexed wide, a telltale signal that it was about to spew fire once more. Kung Lao slowed his spin, but the dragon opened its jaws before he came to a stop, and I knew he would not be able to dodge in time. The roaring, rushing sound of the dragon's blast completely drowned out my useless cry of warning. I could do nothing but watch-
         -as the dragonfire again fell short of where Kung Lao stood.
         In addition to singing his garments and blistering his skin, the inferno's backlash knocked Kung Lao off his feet. He sailed several yards through the air before half-crashing, half-skidding to earth just opposite of my hiding place. I saw him use the same techniques that I have practiced to help cushion his fall.
         "...okay, that did hurt," he remarked, much more weakly than before. He rolled to his side, wincing, and slowly climbed to his knees. Then he saw me and hesitated. "You're still here? Kitana, I told you to ru-"
         "Behind you!" I gasped.
         Kung Lao pivoted in place; perhaps he attempted to summon his occult shield, but before he could make even one complete revolution the dragon's front claws slammed him back on the ground. The beast's great weight pinned his torso and both his arms, trapping him just as I had been trapped. I cowered behind the rock, desperately trying to come up with some plan of action. My hands itched, and my side felt like there was an iron spike in it; pain and discomfort chipped away at my ability to reason. I knew that among all my weapons, only my drugged darts had a prayer of felling the beast before I slipped into shock. Or maybe I was already in shock. That would explain why I'd been crouching here like a stupefied animal, instead of doing something to increase my odds of survival.
         The border of the Living Forest was barely a hundred yards away, yet it might as well have been a hundred miles. The dragon was too close for me to sprint the rest of the distance; if I were to try, it would see me and probably burn me before I crossed the halfway mark. I could have gambled that its flames would miss, just as they had missed Kung Lao; but I knew too little about the variables to estimate my chances. And that was given that I could run more than few steps. At the rate I was bleeding, I would be lucky to stand up.
         At long last, my brain began to work properly. I cut a strip of fabric off my cloak and used the cloth to bandage the wound in my side. My injury ached more than ever, but at least the action distracted me from the irritating itch on my stained hands. It took a little time to do; fortunately, the dragon's attention was fixed entirely upon the man it had ensnared.
         "I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR ANTICS," it bellowed, pausing to inflect every word, "AND MORE THAN ENOUGH OF YOU. YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN TO QUIT, DO YOU?"
         "All right, you got me." Kung Lao sounded unusually calm for someone at the mercy of a fire-breathing behemoth. "So, what's next, Liu Kang? Are you going to bite my head off? Crush my thoracic cavity into so much paste? Am I hors d'oeuvres? Entree flambé, perchance?"
         "DON'T TEMPT ME." The breath rushed out of Kung Lao's lungs. The dragon must have increased the pressure of its hold, I thought, as I tied a sloppy knot on a pathetic bandage that probably wouldn't do me any good at all. Why did I bother, anyway? The dragon would eventually shift its attention back to me and kill me. There was nothing I could do about it, because none of my weapons could scratch its hide, and - wait one moment.
         It had taken me long enough, but I finally had an idea.
         I stood and shouted, "Liu Kang! Dragon! Understand this - I am not Shang Tsung's minion!" The dragon's head swivelled in my direction. It seemed unwilling to release its prisoner, just as I had hoped. And I was out of range of its bite, so that it would probably try to...
         "YOU! YOU WILL BURN," the beast rumbled, noisily drawing breath.
         "Liu Kang, no!" Kung Lao cried.
         I dashed toward the dragon, then poured all that was left of my strength into a final leap, timed to coincide with the moment the beast cocked its head back. The dragon opened its jaws, ready to spew forth a torrent of flame, and I threw an envenomed dart into its mouth.
         The sleeping-sap I use on my darts is extremely potent. The original, instantly lethal toxin is harvested from the Trees of Muffled Death, near the heart of the Living Forest. No small amount of complex sorcery goes into the refinement process, which can only be performed on the anniversary eve of the Great War's first battle. When injected into any portion of the bloodstream, the refined substance nigh-instantaneously slows all bodily functions down to the bare minimum necessary to sustain life. Once my sleeping-sap darts prick someone or something, he, she, or it is as good as dead if that's what I want. Unfortunately, the toxin's collection and distillation are so fraught with peril that I never have more than four or five darts at my disposal for the length of a year. Otherwise, my job would be a great deal easier.
         The dragon's exhalation turned into a strained wheeze. Instead of fire, only a few sparks and small plumes of smoke escaped its mouth. It rocked back on its hind claws, releasing Kung Lao, and voicing a wordless cry that ended in a whimper. Its eyes fluttered closed and it flopped on the ground like so much coiled rope. The monstrosity's outline lost clarity and resolution, dimming, shrinking, fading... until there remained only the half-naked body of an insensate monk.
         "I sincerely hope you haven't killed him," Kung Lao cautioned, gravely. All traces of his lighthearted former banter had evaporated. He approached Liu Kang's still form and lightly rested his fingers on the monk's neck, feeling for a pulse. I tried to comprehend Kung Lao's insane concern for the man-beast that nearly destroyed him, and failed. I looked for my wyvern; when I saw its unmoving, broken-necked body, I tried to think of a safe way to transport Liu Kang to Shokan, and failed. Lastly, I tried to halt my own, creeping descent into unconsciousness, and failed in that as well.

         My dreaming mind recalled clues that had slipped past my waking notice.
         I remembered the legend of Kung Lao, often called "the Great," a Shaolin warrior who had once defeated Shang Tsung in single combat. Kung Lao spared Shang Tsung's life and banished him from Shaolin lands. A few years later, Shang Tsung returned to the Shaolin martial arts Tournament with the Outworld prince Goro. Goro ruined Kung Lao's body and Shang Tsung took the Shaolin warrior's soul, in addition to the souls of his family and friends. The Tournament remained in Shang Tsung's hands for five hundred years, until... well, you already know the rest. But if the Great Kung Lao and all his kindred were gone, then who had sorcerously distorted space to pull me out from under the dragon's claws? The unanswered question slipped out of my mental grasp, deteriorating into entropy before I could examine it any further. Everything grew darker, fading first into grey, then night, then inky blackness.
         I felt a loathsome itch on my hands.
         It consumed every square inch of their skin, even underneath my fingernails. In an effort to relieve the consuming burn, I wiped my hands on my clothing, and wrung them so strenuously as to risk damaging my fingers. The detestable sensation only intensified, flaring into a rash I could not withstand and could not assuage. It spread, slowly, maddeningly, to engulf my wrists and forearms.
         A small, concentrated pool of furiously bright light manifested close to me. It coalesced into the face of a blond woman, who might have been considered attractive if not for the fletched poison dart lodged firmly in her right eye. The light dimly showed her arm and hand, which were pointed straight at me.
         You killed me, she intoned, in a reedy, hollow parody of her sermon voice. I tried to back away, and ran into a solid wall of warm, concentrated blackness. Make that hot, concentrated blackness... scalding hot...
         Go away, I snapped to the apparition. She did not leave. The sickly-purple, distorted face of a man appeared next to her.
         My Princess, you killed me, he rasped, in a mournful whisper. Both figures took a step forward. The heat intensified.
         Leave me alone!
         More faces and figures appeared, shambling and calling out to me, each frozen in the moment of death. Men, women, and children, humans and mutants, young and old enclosed me in a tightening ring. There was no escape. My heart pounded; I pressed up against the wall; and my hands felt like they were being seared in a bonfire.
         You kill us all, hissed the sharp-toothed, grinning head of an Outworld mutant, with a black quarter-moon tattoo upon its cheek. A pair of arms bearing sickle-shaped blades carried the head, arms attached to a decapitated body.
         Yes, yes I did! I shouted back at them, curling my agonized hands into fists. And there's nothing you can do about it! You're dead, you're all dead, dead and gone forever!
         And you're not? sneered a young mutant boy with the point of a spear protruding through his neck. He reached for my face with his clawed fingers.
         I fumbled for my darts, for my fans, for any weapon at all; but the affliction on my hands had increased to the point where it destroyed their dexterity. I forced my hands up into a defensive stance, despite their crippling pain. What little light there was reflected on them, revealing flowing rivulets of dark blood, grotesque scraps of torn flesh, and shards of reddish-white bone. A creeping rot burrowed through them, withering and peeling away skin, muscle, and leathery tendons. Worse, it was spreading; I could feel it delving further down my arms, working its corruptive decay inward. When I tried to speak again, black bile gushed from my mouth and spattered the front of my body. It felt like acid - no, not like acid, like a hundred thousand tiny insects digging in to eat me alive. An approving murmur circulated through the gathering of walking corpses.
         I screamed.
         ...and screamed, and screamed; even when I woke up from the nightmare, a part of my mind continued screaming, while the rest of me huddled in a fetal position and wished for it all to go away.
         "Shh, easy. You're safe here. You're going to be fine. We were worried for a while, but you've pulled through the worst of it."
         Who...? No, wait. I recognized that voice.
         "You - you're supposed to be dead too..." I whispered to Kung Lao. I kept my dirty hands pressed tightly over my eyes, for fear of seeing him as horribly mutilated as all the others.
         "The rumors have been greatly exaggerated, I promise you." His comment was dry, but not unfriendly. "Are you all right? Can I get you anything?"
         "Water," I croaked.
         "Coming right up." He handed me a small leather flask, then made a puzzled sound when I poured its contents on my hands and rubbed them vigorously. The cool wetness helped a little, but didn't completely remove the sense of dirt, staining, and foulness. If I peered closely, I thought I could still see tiny flakes of dried blood embedded in their skin, and underneath my fingernails. I dug the cuticles of my right hand deep into the back of my left, trying to scratch away the offending filth.
         "Um... what are you doing?" Kung Lao asked, hesitantly.
         "I need soap. And a washcloth."
         "Huh? Hey, hey-" he grasped my wrists and pulled them apart. "What on earth are you doing to yourself? Are you sure you're okay?"
         I looked down at my hands, which I'd nearly scratched raw. They still didn't feel right, but I'd have to deal with them later. "I'm... fine." He nodded and let go.
         "You sounded like you had a nightmare. I heard you cry out."
         "It is nothing."
         "Are you sure?"
         I arduously tore my gaze away from my unfit hands, and looked up at him.
         His apparel was eccentric, at best. The loose, sleeveless black vest draped over his chest had an emblazoned scarlet character that immediately summoned my attention. The character, which looked as if it had been painted by a large brush, was the symbol and word for force of arms. Beneath the vest, he wore a sea-blue jumpsuit. A pair of ebony shin guards, each with twin straps encircling his calves, held the jumpsuit's leg cuffs in place just above his white socks and flat black shoes. Layers of thick bandages wound about both his forearms. He still wore his atypical hat which, I noticed, was held snugly in place with a chin strap. It had a slight upward tilt, exposing his face.
         His features were smooth and softly rounded. He might have appeared similar to Liu Kang, at first glance; a closer inspection revealed subtle differences. Kung Lao's skin had a lighter, more olive tint, and his short, dark hair was wavy instead of straight. His brownish-black eyes didn't have quite as sharp a slant, either. I suspected that, unlike Liu Kang, Kung Lao was not purely of Middle Kingdom blood. He also seemed shorter than I might have expected. Wasn't the Great Kung Lao supposed to have been taller, and more muscular...?
         "I think I'll let that slide," he said wryly, leaning back in the wicker chair opposite my bedside. I hadn't been aware of speaking that last thought out loud - an inadvisable habit for anyone in my line of work. "Anyway, I assume you're curious about what happened. Well, you weren't in very good shape, so I put a few more bindings around that hole in your side and carried you here. 'More muscular,' indeed... oh, wait," he quickly continued, lifting his left hand and displaying its palm, "I said I was going to let that slide."
         "Liu Kang?"
         "He's also here."
         "Where is 'here'?"
         "The Living Forest. We're inside Jade's home. You'll have the chance to meet her soon. She brought Liu Kang here while I brought you; then she and I took turns applying a damp cloth to your forehead, and fanning you to keep you cool, until your fever broke. That gash in your side had become infected, you see. Fortunately, Jade knows a few things about healing and medicine, and you, Kitana, are about as tough as they come. You've been out of it for only two days. The rate at which you've been healing is simply astonishing."
         "You are not native to the Outworld, are you?"
         "You get a cookie!" His spoke the peculiar exclamation with such smooth, congenial zeal that it took me a moment to figure out what he meant.
         "We are at the edge of Master Kahn's aura. That is what supplies the needs of the body, and speeds its natural recovery." Did I see him flinch a little when I referred to the Master?
         "Yes, yes, I've heard about that. Must wreak havoc on the fast-food chains."
         "Have you also heard that Master Kahn can recall us from death, if he so chooses?"
         There was no mistaking that response - shock mixed with horror. "Did you say - from death?"
         "So that is how Shang Tsung returned to plague the living," he reflected, shuddering. I found his superstitious attitude toward a common fact of Outworld life very strange indeed. "I wonder what it must be like..."
         "To be brought back from the dead?"
         "Er... on second thought, never mind. Is there any limit to... um, to this power he has?"
         "It is impossible to recall someone without a portion of the cadaver, and virtually impossible to recall one who has been deceased for more than three days. Master Kahn might be able to do it, if the soul of the departed individual had a strong enough will, but the energy cost would be prohibitively high - it increases more sharply with each passing hour."
         I studied his reaction to my mention of the Master more carefully, this time, and decided I didn't like it. Normally, I would not have so freely given information to a possible enemy, but this situation was definitely not normal, and I hadn't told him anything that wasn't common knowledge. Intent on learning more about this unorthodox warrior, I leaned forward and inquired, "Who are you?"
         "Don't remember?" He stood up and bowed. "Kung Lao, at your service."
         "Kung Lao died five hundred years ago."
         "In Western terms, I suppose I'd be Kung Lao XIX."
         "Kung Lao's entire family also died five hundred years ago."
         He cleared his throat and raised his curled right hand just below his chin, as if holding an invisible object. In an enthusiastically affected tone, he said, "And now it's time for everybody's favorite game show, Family Relations!" Switching back to his normal badinage, he continued, "The Great Kung Lao's eldest son once, well, it's a long story. The short version is, Kung Lao Junior (to use another Western appellation) was banished from Shaolin lands shortly after Shang Tsung's historic defeat. Junior's alleged crime was so terrible that the Great Kung Lao publicly absolved all blood ties; Junior was, for all practical purposes, no longer 'part of the family.' The Great Kung Lao also had all records of his wayward offspring destroyed or changed. Which turned out to be quite lucky for the young fellow, as Shang Tsung never learned of his existence, and Junior had the chance to live a long life in exile. Well, he had the chance, but he ended up dead in a Portugal bar brawl, leaving behind his ladyfriend and her soon-to-be-born illegitimate son. A century or two after that, the latest Kung Lao of the ragged family line got tired of being spat upon as a part-Chinese mongrel; so, he decided to return to the Middle Kingdom, where he could be spat upon as a part-Iberian mongrel instead. He found acceptance, or at least a lack of expectoration, in one of the Honan province's more remote Shaolin temples. I am the last of that line. And... the second to last of that Temple."
         For one moment, his veneer of cheerful banter cracked. Looking at his face, I saw sorrow, grim resignation, and anguish. I cast my gaze down to the wooden floor because, strange as it may seem to you who have listened to me so tolerantly and for so long, I truly don't like pain.
         "And that's... the story. I think I'll check on Liu Kang now, if you don't mind." Summoning his former whimsy, he added, "I don't know what you gave him, but he's been out like a light for as long as you have."
         "Why do you have such concern for him?"
         "He is my Shaolin brother."
         "Didn't he try to kill you?"
         "No, he did not," Kung Lao corrected, more soberly. "Twice, he could have; but he didn't. There is still a part of him that remembers. It is not too late for him - not yet."
         I pondered this information after he left. If it were true... which it probably was... then Kung Lao had saved my life, but I had not saved his when I brought the were-dragon down. Which meant that I owed him a lifedebt. The more I thought about that, the less I liked it.
         Feeling somewhat dizzy but not insurmountably so, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. I was wearing a loose robe; a folded change of clean clothes lay on a small table in the room's far corner. They were... an identical copy of my standard uniform? Intrigued, I examined them - a one-piece, black-belted leotard with matching elbow-length gloves and knee-high leggings, headband, and mask, all made of smooth satin. The only difference between them and my old garb was their color: light, silvery-grey instead of deep blue. There was even a brand-new sable cloak; I knew that it was not my own because it still had the stiffness of a garment not softened by years of wear, and because no strips had been cut off of it. It had pockets for concealing the array of weaponry that I usually carry, although they were mostly empty... except for a few which held what were either my fans, or ones just like them. I stowed the half-used flask of water in another of the cloak's folds.
         Did this raiment belong to the one Kung Lao referred to as "Jade?"
         My head swam with many other unanswered questions; I pushed them all back. Despite the madness of recent events, I had not forgotten my mission: to present the warrior Liu Kang, alive and unhurt, before the Master. Duty called. If I were to move quickly, perhaps I could subdue Kung Lao and depart with my prisoner before Jade returned. I would have preferred to search the dwelling for my possessions first, especially my darts and the unbreakable cord, but that would have taken too much time. Whoever Jade was, if she dressed like I did and used razor-edged fans like I did, then I did not want to risk confronting her. I didn't really need the cord to restrain Liu Kang because the sleeping-sap would keep him dormant for another five days. That gave me time enough to complete the return journey to Master Kahn's castle. As for my darts and other weapons, well, I'd just have to cope without them. At least I still had the unexpected bonus of my fans.
         I stepped out of the bedroom. There were no windows in the small dwelling, only a short hallway with another two doors, a cramped central room, and a tightly shut exit. The entire building was composed of wood - fresh, young wood, which must have been thick enough to be soundproof, if Jade's home were truly within the clamorous Living Forest.
         Careful not to make a sound, I approached the door next to mine and lowered my eye to its keyhole. Through it, I saw Liu Kang stretched out on a bed that was almost too small for his lanky frame. The unconscious monk's head had been carefully positioned to one side, a standard precaution to keep him from drowning in his own saliva or choking on his own tongue. Kung Lao kneeled nearby, his hands clasped and his head bowed, as though in prayer.
         Easy pickings, I thought. Sneak in, hit him from behind, and abscond with Liu Kang. I knew that I probably ought to kill Kung Lao, who was almost certainly an enemy of the Master, and yet... Master Kahn hadn't instructed me to assassinate anyone while on my mission, not even by implication. The outlandish warrior had rescued me from certain destruction. Leaving him alive would be the least I could do. I moistened the door's hinges with water from the flask, preparing to silently swing it open just far enough for me to slip in.
         A soft chant interrupted my task. Its rhythm gradually blossomed into a richly textured tenor, projected with inner strength. Kung Lao - it had to be - intoned each note with flawless pitch, inflecting the melody with a wistful, mourning theme. I tried to make out his words, with only partial success. They seemed to be in a Middle Kingdom dialect that felt close to Mandarin, although I could be wrong. I am familiar with several foreign languages, including Mandarin, but not particularly fluent in any of them. I thought I detected the gist of the song's meaning, though, partly through what few lyrics I could understand, and partly through the sheer emotion of the music. It was beyond doubt a dirge... a lament of regret, and misery... or mayhap a plea that the lost souls of those closest to one might find peace, in the grey kingdom beyond the furthest borders of the Astral Planes.
         It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.
         My hand slipped away from the doorknob. Very slowly, I turned around and returned to my room. Something blurred my vision slightly as I climbed into the bed; I touched my index finger to my right eye and lifted away a single tear, the first I'd ever shed since... since the day Mileena killed me, I suppose. Unwilling to spend any further thought on what it might or might not mean, I let my head rest against the soft pillows and drifted into thankfully dreamless slumber.

end part one of two