THE BLOOD ON MY HANDS
written by Victar, e-mail email@example.com
part two of two
Victar's Archive: http://www.victarfanfics.com
What in the Planes had I been thinking?
I jerked bolt upright and regretted it. The metal edges of
the fans inside my cloak dug into my body, nearly cutting open my skin. I hadn't even removed the
cursed garment before returning here and passing out like some ensorcelled wild beast. Perhaps
I'd been much weaker than I'd felt at the time. That had to be it. How else could I have forgotten
everything I knew about the raid on Liu Kang's Temple? Master Kahn had ordered Shang Tsung
to carry it out, with the assistance of General Baraka and forty handpicked warriors. The raid had
been successful, partly because the Master had used his immense will to temporarily project the
troops' invulnerable avatars into the Mother Realm. All of Liu Kang's brethren perished... or so
Shang Tsung claimed.
It would seem that at least one of Liu Kang's fellow monks
escaped after all. Make that exactly one, provided that what Kung Lao had said was true. If only I
did not owe him my life! Then my next course of action would have been perfectly clear. No
matter. I had my mission to complete and I intended to see it through, regardless of who or what
got in my way.
Once again, I stepped into the cramped hallway of Jade's
home. There was no sign of her. Marveling at my good fortune, I noiselessly retraced my steps to
the room that held Liu Kang. Kung Lao was still there, leaning back in a wicker chair identical to
the one in my room. His hands were clasped over his stomach, and his head had fallen all the way
forward, so that his chin rested on his chest. He appeared to be asleep. I monitored him carefully
for a couple minutes before entering the room, to be certain that his breathing had the slow,
shallow rhythm of one truly in the depths of slumber. It did. My luck seemed to be holding. I
crept in and prepared to hoist the insensate Liu Kang...
"Going somewhere?" Kung Lao inquired, amiably.
Half-expecting him to attack me, I spun around. He stood
in front of the room's only door. His arms were folded across his chest, and his hat was tilted
forward so that the shadow of its brim darkened his face. I dearly missed my last sleeping-sap
dart. If necessary, I might be able to physically overpower the warrior, with or without killing
him. Then again, I might not. After all, I had seen him match his fighting skills against a dragon
and acquit himself remarkably well. He hadn't initiated an assault yet; perhaps I could talk my way
out of this and try again later.
"I don't know what you mean." I lied calmly and evenly, a
skill gained through practice.
"I mean, you're planning to leave and take Liu Kang with
"You are mistaken."
"Don't you want to fulfill Shao Kahn's orders?"
"I don't understand."
"Shao Kahn's orders," he repeated, with a good-natured
smile. When I gave him a blank stare, he coughed and quoted, "KITANA, I CHARGE YOU TO BRING ME THE WARRIOR LIU KANG, ALIVE
AND UNHURT," in an amazingly accurate mimicry of the Master's voice.
That was just too much.
"Who are you!?" I yelled, whipping out my fans and
holding one extended, its cutting edge one foot away from his throat. "How did you know my
name, how do you claim to know so much about me? You do not talk like a simple monk! How
did you conveniently appear just in time to save my life? What do you seek to gain!?"
"Wait," he commanded firmly, although he wasn't quite
looking me directly in the eye. I perceived that he had shifted from a full forward stance into a
defensive position, presenting only the left side of his body. He kept his right arm crooked close
to his chest, shielding his heart and lungs; his left arm was poised near his neck, prepared to block
any attack to the great vein of his throat. Clearly, he was ready to defend himself. What worried
me the most was the speed with which he had made the transition, so swiftly that I almost didn't
see it happen.
I hate fighting people who are faster than me.
I did have one advantage over him - I held
weapons; he did not. True, there was his idiosyncratic hat; but he hadn't reached for it yet. The
moment he did, I could move in and slash him badly, perhaps mortally.
"Kitana, there is no need for threats. I will tell you what
you want to know. Put away the fans." His request sounded stern, but not angry.
"Why shouldn't I kill you right now?" I bluffed.
"You could try. I wouldn't advise it. If you succeed, then I
won't be in any condition to answer your questions. If you fail, then you won't be in any condition
to ask them. Is that really want you want? Or are you just spoiling for a fight? You've recently had
to doubt a great many things that you used to take for granted. It could be that you don't want to
know the answers, because you are afraid of what you might learn."
"Perhaps you should not pretend to know my thoughts." I
slowly lowered my extended weapon. Kung Lao did not relax his stance until I made my fans
vanish within my sable cloak.
As soon as they were no longer in sight, his mood promptly
changed from austere to affable. Looking over my shoulder, he remarked, "It's all right, Jade; no
I whirled in place. Directly in back of me was a masked
woman dressed in green garments tailored in precisely the same manner as mine, and holding
razor-edged fans just like mine. If I had initiated any sort of attack on Kung Lao, she could have
struck from behind and killed me as easily as I've ever killed anyone else.
"Jade, please," Kung Lao insisted, a little more
emphatically, and the other woman performed an identical disappearing act with her fans.
"How...?" I trailed off. The corners of Jade's brown eyes
crinkled a smidgen. I think she was smiling.
Ever since the day a long-toothed, grinning mutant scum
soldier watched my back for me, I've trained intensely to hone my senses. It wasn't just that I
hadn't seen or heard Jade... neither had I felt the presence of her body heat, nor tasted any scent of
her on the air. And I still didn't. She was nonexistent save to my eyes.
"Jade has devoted her entire life to the arts of sensory
invisibility, both mundane and mystical. She has a natural talent for it, and this is her territory.
Here, no one can detect her presence unless she wants to be detected," Kung Lao explained. Jade
did not add anything; she merely regarded me with that mysterious, faintly mocking gaze. "She
"Wait," I interrupted, quieting him with a dismissive
gesture. To Jade, "I want to hear what you have to say for yourself." One of her slender eyebrows
lifted a bit, but she said nothing.
"You heard me," I pressed. Jade nodded and removed her
mask in one, gracefully elegant motion. Her features were balanced and delicate, with the
distinction of a tiny, discolored spot on her left cheek.
My eyes widened in shock.
This was impossible.
Kung Lao stepped forward. "Jade cannot speak. Shao
Kahn's troops tore her tongue out for sport when they were looting the castle of both your
parents, during the aftermath of the Great War. That was just before a man named Marcus
intervened and escaped with her. You have met Marcus. He was the first person you ever
"Jade is your real twin sister."
My legs were weak underneath me; I felt myself sinking
irresistibly back and down into the wicker chair, where Kung Lao had been seated only a moment
before. In disbelief, I stared at the woman before me... the woman with my face.
Kung Lao crossed his arms behind himself and started to
pace back and forth. "Okay, let's take it from the top:
"I am Kung Lao. If you're not willing to accept that at face
value, then never mind. What the hell, you can call me 'Patrick Swayze' if you want...
"I know about you, your background, and your mission
from Raiden, the god of thunder. Soon after I entered your world, he appeared before me,
showed me visions of many things, and left me sopping wet. He cannot use his godly powers to
directly interfere with the Outworld - the Divine Sanctions forbid it - but that does not keep him
from observing events, as only a god can.
"I do not 'talk like a simple monk' (that's another one I'll let
slide) because I honed my fluency in English - what you call the common tongue - outside of the
Shaolin Temple. When my parents were still alive, they sent me to be educated abroad, in
America. It's a province of what you call the 'Mother Realm,' and if you were to go there, it would
doubtless appear as bizarre to you as the Outworld does to me. Ask me to tell you about the
game shows sometime.
"I was there to rescue you because I'd been trailing Liu
"I did not find any evidence of your passage."
"Thank you very much. When I saw you and your wyvern
fly overhead, I suspected the worst and hurried to catch up. Lucky for you I'm reasonably fast on
"Lastly, I seek to fulfill the legacies of my ancestors. And
to do whatever I can to help Liu Kang find his destiny as well. Goodness knows he needs all the
help he can get."
I shook my head. "Even if I were to find this... plausible...
the rest of what you say cannot be true." I looked at the woman who wore my face, searching for
some inkling to disprove the mad conjectures whirling in my head.
Jade presented me with a sheaf of papers.
"Please read them," urged Kung Lao. "Then you may
I quickly skimmed their contents.
"...the Kahn's troops seized control of those Outworld planes which are closest to
being synchronized with the resonations of the Earth Realm. Shao Kahn executed
the former rulers, took over their castle... slaughtered most of the region's
indigenous population... he is intensely recruiting new soldiers.
One such conscript is the infant daughter of
the Outworld's former rulers, whom the Kahn calls 'Kitana.' I warned him that he
ought to kill her at once... Shao Kahn asserts that Kitana will be raised loyal to
him, and ignorant of her true lineage...
The Outworld has become a barren,
despoiled place under Shao Kahn's rule... the Kahn has to expend a great deal of
energy to mystically sustain his troops in the absence of edible food or drinkable
Ten minutes later, I looked up from the papers and
charged, "Do you honestly expect me to believe that this was copied from Shang Tsung's
journal?" Jade shrugged, silently regarding me with a distantly quizzical expression. Kung Lao
sighed, the first indication I'd seen that his patience was not infinite.
"We cannot 'expect you to believe' anything, Kitana. Your
thoughts and beliefs are your own. Only you can shape them."
I absently riffled through the papers. If what they said
about the Master and me were true, then what had I done with my entire life? That question was
too terrible to contemplate. Anyone could have fabricated the entire sheaf; there was no proof
that a word of it had been copied from Shang Tsung's journal. Underneath the satin of my
silvery-grey gloves, I felt an intolerable rash on my hands and curled them tightly, my fingernails
into my palms.
"One more thing," Kung Lao interjected, before I could
voice another denial. "Your mission is to bring Liu Kang to Shao Kahn. We want to help you."
The collection of papers slipped between my afflicted fingers and fluttered every which way,
falling all over the floor. "Shao Kahn wants Liu Kang and as many other warriors as he can find to
fight in his Tournament. It is Liu Kang's destiny to fight in the Tournament. It is my destiny to
fight by his side. We all want him to get there in one piece. We should join forces to achieve a
"Never!" I snapped, standing up, while Jade knelt to collect
the scattered pieces of paper. "Your suggestion is ludicrous. You are insane. No! Not under any
Kung Lao tilted the brim of his broad hat upward, diffusing
the shadow it cast on its face, and flashed his characteristically good-natured, pearly white grin.
"Can you think of a single reason why not?"
Master Kahn forgive me, I tried.
I picked my way along the floor of the Living Forest,
carrying the rear end of a makeshift stretcher, upon which rested the comatose Liu Kang. Kung
Lao supported its front end. Jade scouted ahead, navigating our progress. Ignoring the building
ache of fatigue from a long day's march, I wished for the thousandth time that I could have ridden
the wyvern back. "Why did I ever let you talk me into this..."
"Because I have a charming smile?"
"Be quiet, stop grinning like an idiot, and look where
you're going before you walk into a tree."
"I bet you say that to all the guys."
Jade glanced sharply over her shoulder, quieting our
bickering. Not that anyone or anything more than half a dozen feet away could have heard it, over
the Living Forest's tremendous clamor. Nor had we been chattering much during our journey; I
had little to say, and Kung Lao had been unusually withdrawn all morning and afternoon, ever
since we left Jade's residence.
I did not trust Kung Lao or the mysterious woman who
claimed to be my sister, but the reasons to accept their offer of a temporary alliance had rapidly
accrued. The journey back to Master Kahn's castle would probably take four days under the best
of conditions. Without Kung Lao's aid, the burden of carrying Liu Kang by myself could have
slowed me further. And Jade's assistance was most helpful; she knew the Living Forest well
enough to guide us through it, on a straight path to Shokan. I couldn't have traveled through the
eldritch woodlands without her; I'd have ended up walking in circles. Yes, the benefits of a
compact far outweighed the dubious risks, at least in the short run...
So why did I feel so uneasy?
The more the trees shrilled, the more I spared darting
glances before and behind me, intently searching for danger. Was it my imagination, or was the
forest's eerie howling increasing in volume with every step we took? Sometimes I thought I heard
the screams of my former victims, and I had to concentrate upon blocking them out. I couldn't
shake the feeling that I had overlooked something very important... but what? The abstract fear
curled into a tight ball within me, causing my throat to run dry and my skin to turn clammy with
sweat. Perhaps it was just the relentless barrage of the trees' wailing. I suppose I could have worn
earplugs, but I was reluctant to disable one of my keenest and most informative senses. At least I
had persuaded Kung Lao and Jade to give me back my darts, unbreakable cord, and hidden array
of sharp steel and cold wire. With each step, I felt the implements in my new cloak's pockets slap
against my body, and derived a small measure of comfort from the sensation.
A minimum of light filtered through the dense, leafy canopy
above; still, there was enough illumination for us to perceive reasonably well, and note the
difference when the day waned into grey twilight. The moon peeked from between the treetops,
then was swallowed up by a passing cloud. We pressed on, planning to complete our trek through
the Living Forest before the world became pitch-black. I craned my neck and peered around Kung
Lao's shoulder, trying to glimpse the Wasteland's border between the tall clusters of
"Wait!" I enjoined, just loudly enough for the others to
hear. Jade looked back at us and asked a question with her eyebrows. I couldn't have begun to
answer it. All I knew was that my instincts were screaming in panic. I set down my end of Liu
Kang's stretcher and drew my fans, slowly turning around in a circle. The ground trembled
perhaps the slightest bit more than it usually did from the endless noise. The air tasted thick and
heavy with acrid sap. The leaves of the trees rustled all about us, though I couldn't feel a breeze.
Everything was wrong, and nothing was wrong. Exchanging glances with Kung Lao and Jade, I
knew that they sensed it too.
A ropy tentacle encircled my throat.
I slashed with my fans, severing it. The section around my
neck still adhered, though no longer so tightly as to cut off my breathing. More slimy tendrils
descended from above. There was no time to curse myself for failing to look up, all I could do
was turn, swipe, and dodge, praying that I wasn't headed directly into the path of another
attacker. Jade cried out, a wordless exclamation that rang octaves above the forest's ever-present
moaning. I ducked, rolled, caught a glimpse of Kung Lao cutting at something with his bladed
hat, and struck out at a presence that wriggled threateningly to my left.
The initial attack slackened. Kung Lao, Jade and I
converged about Liu Kang's still form, back to back, scanning the undulating ripples of the
darkened woods for our enigmatic adversaries. I ripped off the thing that clung to my throat and
violently flung it away. It left puckered welts on my sore skin. The segment had felt rubbery and
fibrous, like a vine with sucking cups. The Living Forest's constant outcries changed, permuting
into an urgently emphatic chant that beat and pulsed, washing over us like a smothering
~Ia! Ia! The Black Goat
of the Woods with a Thousand Young!~
It was like the ugly perversion of the voice of a god - or
gods, for the chorus acquired a greater infusion of fresh vocalizations with each successive
repetition. The rhythm pounded mercilessly at us, as the surrounding things tightened their trap
and sent more tentacles questing our way.
I yelled into the dimness, "We are the servants of Master
Shao Kahn! Leave us, or bring his wrath upon yourselves!"
~Ia! Ia! Shao Kahn is
here. You are only weak mortals. Ia! Ia! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand
Young!~ The cloud over the moon lifted,
and we saw the outlines of the shambling horrors.
Ranging in size from seven to twenty feet tall, they were
vaguely like trees in silhouette, but they were not trees. Instead of branches, coils of vine-like
tendrils oozing foul pus studded them, constantly writhing and rustling. Each thing had four main
tentacles as thick as tree trunks near the base, in addition to countless lesser fibrillar appendages.
They had no faces and no eyes, only innumerable wide, toothy mouths pockmarking their bodies.
The mouths salivated acidic goo, which dripped onto the trampled shrubbery and ate away at it
with a hissing sound. Each thing had two, three, or four thick legs, with cloven hooves like a
goat's. They took a step forward, their hoofed feet expanding laterally to support their
~Ia! Ia! The Black Goat
of the Woods with a Thousand Young!~
"What do you want!" I demanded, trying to sound
~Ia! Ia! One of you
of Fire. Give him to us, and the rest of you may live. Ia! Ia! The Black Goat of the Woods with a
Liu Kang! If they had demanded Jade or Kung Lao, I
would have abandoned them for the sake of my mission, but I could not surrender Liu Kang to
the things' untender mercies.
~Ia! Ia! Die with him,
then! Ia! Ia! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!~
The things attacked en masse.
Had there been fewer of them, they might have
overpowered us more quickly; as it was, there were so many that they got in one another's way. I
remember shouting and cutting, the air's discordant shriek as Kung Lao hurled his cabalistic hat,
Jade spitting and yowling like an angry cougar. We fought as a team, watching one another's
backs, yet we could not protect Liu Kang from an assault that descended from above, among the
three of us.
~Ia! Ia! I have
"No!" shouted Kung Lao, as one of the thing's
plant-tentacles curled around Liu Kang's abdomen and lifted him high above us, toward its widest
mouth. He broke formation with us and flipped forward. In a burst of faintly preternatural energy
he changed course in midair, speeding down toward the thing like an arrow let fly. His extended
foot sank into the thing's resilient body, causing it no palpable distress. That didn't matter; his
primary purpose had not been to attack it, but rather to get close enough to grab Liu Kang's
dangling hand and teleport them both away, before the thing's teeth could bite down upon the
Kung Lao's temporary absence left Jade and me that much
more exposed to the onslaught. We each were wrestling with thick tentacles clinging to our legs
when he rematerialized with Liu Kang. One of the things' hooves kicked Jade in the stomach; she
went down to one knee. I was fighting to keep my balance, and losing; once I fell, I knew the
things would either seize me or trample me to death. And then it would be only a matter of
moments before Kung Lao succumbed. We were outnumbered and outmatched. We had no hope
of winning. I had failed the Master...
"Master!" I cried above the things' wailing chant. "Help us,
your loyal servants! Tell them to stop!"
Kung Lao tried to generate his occult shield, but a
snapping appendage tripped him before he could start. One of the things grabbed Liu Kang again.
Another unbalanced me completely; a huge, slimy, writhing tentacle effortlessly hoisted me
skyward. Yet another tentacle slapped both my arms, forcing me to drop my fans. I had only one
more chance before the thing stuffed me into its cavernous maw.
"Master, TELL THEM!" I screeched, forcing as
volume into the desperate plea as I could. At the same time, I snapped one of my throwing
daggers into my hand and hurled it at Kung Lao. Its dull hilt smacked him in the chest. If he didn't
get the hint this time, then we were all doomed.
Kung Lao roared "RELEASE MY SERVANTS NOW!"
in that thunderous, nearly perfect impersonation of Master Kahn's voice.
The things froze in place.
DARE TO DEFY MY WILL? YOU ARE NOTHING! YOU WILL
~Ia! Ia! Shao Kahn? It
"I RULE THIS
WORLD! OBEY ME OR YOU WILL SUFFER!"
The things stepped back. Some of them turned and ran.
The tentacles holding Jade and me fell loose. I landed on my hands and knees, although the
forest's undergrowth cushioned the impact. Jade executed a perfect aerial flip and alighted upon
"I GIVE YOU
ONE WARNING!" The thing next to me
let Liu Kang go; Jade caught him mid-fall and abruptly melted into the forest, carrying him. I
sprinted after her, in what I hoped was the direction of the border. Behind me, I heard Kung Lao
keeping the blind demon-trees at bay with more bellowed threats. A small part of me hoped that
he, too, would get away unscathed, though at the time I couldn't have said why.
After a long and exhausting run, I cleared the forest's
outskirts. A short distance away, I glimpsed Jade. Her uniform appeared as silvery-grey as mine in
the moonlight. I slowed my pace to a fast walk. It was a credit to my physical conditioning that I
felt tired, but not out of breath.
"Have you seen Kung Lao?" I asked, when I was close
Jade shook her head and pointed down at Liu Kang, who
lay by her feet.
"Yes, I'll watch him." She dashed toward the border of the
Living Forest, covering the distance as fleetly as a gazelle. I'd never seen anyone move that swiftly
before, not even Mileena.
"Is everyone in the entire damn Outworld faster than me?"
"I'd say so," someone
else breathed, his words tinged with satire. The long hike and battle with the tree-things must
have drained me more than I realized, for I hadn't detected his approach. I drew another pair of
fans, ready to battle a tribe of mutants if need be...
Ready to battle anyone if need be...
Where was my antagonist?
"I'm right in front of
you," he whispered, as if reading my mind. "Trouble is, I'm not
terribly visible at this time of day. Or rather, night."
Whoever confronted me was at least as good as Jade at
erasing all sign of his presence, if not more so. I smelled nothing. I felt nothing. When I peered
more closely, I could see nothing save shadow. The murky darkness swirled so thickly it
blindfolded the eye.
"Look. Look again.
The moon's gentle light faintly illuminated the dry, dead
earth of the Wasteland, except for one patch directly before me. My eyes traced the outline of
what I couldn't view; it was roughly manlike in shape. A man made solely of shadows...
"What do you want?" I curtly demanded.
The man-shadow chuckled. I stared at him so hard that my
head began to hurt, and I almost thought I could see different shades of black within the void that
composed him. "What do you think I want?" he returned, after
"You cannot have Liu Kang."
"Good guess, but
"Have you come to challenge me?"
"Do you want to be
"Perhaps another time. Guess
"I've had my fill of insanity today. Stop trying to drive me
crazy with your accursed riddles!"
"Darn, you guessed."
The man-shadow leaned upon what might have been the shadow of a staff, or conceivably a spear.
"Kitana, do you know that you are the talk of Shokan? Word has
spread about your mission. We are all placing bets on how far you will get. You should be proud -
the odds of your subduing Liu Kang were five to one against, let alone the odds of bringing him
out of the Living Forest alive."
"Even if what you say is true, how could anyone know I
was in the Living Forest?"
"You shouldn't underestimate
Shao Kahn's power. It isn't wise."
"I don't understand."
"Master Kahn is counting upon me to succeed."
"Will you cease those redundant tag questions?"
I seethed and held my tongue, since I doubted that
interrogating the man-shadow further would do any good.
"Of course," he
continued, "the obstacles ahead are much greater. You may get past
the Wasteland, but once you enter Shokan..." Was he smiling? I couldn't be sure he had a
mouth to smile with. "...let me put it this way: I've wagered that you'll
make it inside Shao Kahn's castle, but fail to reach his audience chamber alive."
"Why are you telling me this?"
The man-shadow dispersed, blending into the shadows of
rocks and hills, pooling and becoming nothing but ordinary night.
"Wait!" I called after him. "Who are you? What is your
"You must have some serious problems with your
long-term memory," came a familiarly jovial response to my right. "I'm Kung Lao, often called
"You be quiet."
"I bet you say that to all the guys."
Jade had chosen to return to her home within the Living
Forest. Kung Lao assured me that she was perfectly safe. Traveling with us had impeded her
talent for total concealment, but when she was by herself then not even the demon-trees
could detect her presence unless she so wished. I felt a little relieved to hear that, although I
couldn't isolate the reason why. Certainly not because I believed all that claptrap about Jade being
my "real twin sister." If Jade were my twin sister, then what would that make Mileena? I'd known
Mileena for many years; Jade, barely twenty-four hours. Which one did they think I'd trust?
The stretcher we'd carried Liu Kang upon was long since
lost. I was ready to shed most of the metal armaments in my cloak and use it like a hammock, but
Kung Lao stayed my hand. He took off his hat and pulled a long, deep blue traveler's wrap out of
it. The rectangular cloth felt as if it were expertly woven from a substance many times softer and
smoother than ordinary wool, but without the sheen of satin or silk. It had one edge decorated
with elaborately patterned gold trim. I examined the item, wondering what enchanted fabric it was
made of, and spotted a tiny white tag with the arcane words "100% polyester, do not bleach." We
wrapped the blanket around Liu Kang.
"That hat of yours must have some potent sorceries cast
upon it," I commented, noting that the cloth was far too voluminous to have been physically
stored inside his headgear all along. "Wherever did you find it?"
"Inheritance," he shrugged, as if that one word explained
Hoisting Liu Kang in the provisional sling, we used it to
take him another two miles away from the Living Forest's border before stopping to rest. I didn't
like the thought of sleeping out in the open Wasteland, but the alternative would have been
staying near the Living Forest and its demon-tree inhabitants. Kung Lao took first watch, since
the initial shift as guard is usually easier than successive shifts, and I suspected I had more
experience than he did in such things. During my turn to stand watch, I learned that I was not the
only one troubled by nightmares. I doubted Kung Lao would want to talk about his dreams any
more than I'd want to talk about mine, though, so when the sun rose I said nothing about the
The day passed without incident, not surprisingly, since
most if not all of the Wasteland's mutant humanoids are nocturnal. We'd be at greatest risk of
encountering them during the night, which was why we stayed in one place and kept a wary eye
out for enemies once darkness fell. The closer we came to Shokan, the more perilous our journey
would be. Packs of mutants sometimes prowl the carcass-strewn area near Master Kahn's city,
seeking to rob the dead. There isn't truly all that much to rob, but some beings never give up
hope. It was early evening during the third day when we approached the irregular rows of bodies
at the battlefield's outlying edge. I wanted to feel encouraged that we were nearing the final leg of
our journey, yet a nameless worry soured my thoughts. I glanced about the stark lines of mangled
corpses, searching for any living enemies that might lurk among the dead, and breathing through
my mouth to reduce my exposure to the foul stench of decay.
Kung Lao threw up.
I'd never thought about it before, but he was probably
rather young. Scarcely past his second decade, say. He most likely hadn't seen enough bloodshed
in his life to become accustomed to it, like I had.
"Are you ready to continue?" I asked, dryly, once he
seemed to have finished.
"How can you stand it?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"This!" He vehemently gestured at the rotting cadavers.
"Don't you realize what this is? What it means? Every one of these people were cruelly murdered,
their remains desecrated. Doesn't that have any effect upon you?"
"They are only criminals."
He lowered the brim of his hat, snarling, "And what do you
suppose constitutes a capital crime in Shokan? Littering? Failure to look both ways before
crossing the street?" I had never seen him like this before - angry, bitterly sarcastic, mayhap on the
verge of forsaking his sanity.
"To oppose the Master is to invite death." I adjusted the
clasp of my cloak, ready to use a poison dart on him if necessary.
"'To oppose the Master'?" he parroted, sneering. "My
Temple housed forty-five men and twelve boys, none of whom ever harmed a living soul. Liu
Kang, only Liu Kang left to 'oppose' Shang Tsung's schemes. And your precious 'Master'
sent his butchers to murder them all! All except for one, who he invites into his
Tournament of fun and games; all except for Liu Kang himself!"
"Wrong. Dead wrong." He started pacing again, tensely,
like a wild beast held captive within too small a cage. "The only reason they didn't get me as well
is that I hid myself and cowered. The sounds followed me, every outcry. I smelled fresh blood,
and listened to the desperate, pitiful pleas of the children as they were tortured to death. I heard
all their screams again in the Living Forest. It is so well imprinted in my mind that I can see the
slaughter as it must have happened; all I have to do is close my eyes!"
"Get to the point."
"Is it that difficult for you to grasp? If your 'Master' had his
way, I would have joined the piles of my order's festering corpses - which means that you,
dear Princess, would now be a stain on the hillside! That is what the 'Master' you serve
I snapped two of my fans into my hands and spread them
part-way open, crossing my arms in front of my chest. "So, you finally realize what a mistake it
was to rescue me from death. Do you wish to rectify your error?"
He stopped pacing, gritted his teeth and clenched his fists.
"You really don't understand, do you? What does it take to get something through your pretty
"Try it, and I'll part your head from its
"I WASN'T SPEAKING LITERALLY!"
The wind howled, scattering the Wasteland's dust and
toying with the hair of a dead woman near my feet. I smelled something on the gust,
something other than the putrilage around us, and felt the tread of living feet upon the earth. Kung
Lao and I turned our heads slowly in the direction of the disturbance, still keeping careful watch
upon one another from the corners of our eyes. A raiding party of approximately twenty mutants
studied us with avid interest, from no more than a hundred yards away.
"Oh, shit," we said in unison.
I scanned them for arrows or throwing spears and saw
none. Good. At least they couldn't cut us down from afar. I hadn't really expected them to carry
any projectiles in the first place; competently crafted missile weapons are a rarity in the Master's
realm. Most mutants keep their projectile weapons within their home tribe at all times, reserving
them for use only against the greatest threats, such as the Master's wyvern cavalry.
"Quickly," I whispered, "can you take two people with you
when you teleport?"
"I don't think so. The magnitude of the required centripetal
force would escalate exponentially."
"That is bad?"
"Your arm would be ripped off."
"That is bad." Six mutants, armed with a variety of edged
weapons both internal and external, detached themselves from the group and quickly approached
us. An excited glow flared in their pupilless crimson eyes. "I'll keep them at bay for as long as I
can. Take Liu Kang and go. Use your teleportation to get away."
"There is no time to argue! One of us must complete the
"You're breaking my heart."
"I would desert you, if our places were reversed!"
"Good thing they aren't, isn't it?"
There was no more time to debate, for the walking death
would soon be upon us.
Kung Lao hurled his bladed hat. I palmed my fans and
scattered my spiked caltrops in their path. That slowed their approach enough for me to carefully
aim and throw my two remaining nightshade darts, striking the mutant closest to me precisely in
the right eye and the one just beside him in the throat. Nightshade does not kill humans or mutants
instantly, even in large doses. It did buy me time, though, as the poisoned mutants stumbled and
their fellows had to step around them. There was the ching sound of metal deflecting
metal; one of the attackers must have blocked Kung Lao's hat. I was tempted to use my last
sleeping-sap dart, yet refrained on account of a deep inner suspicion that I could not put into
A grinning attacker with a long knife shoved his dying
comrade to the side and charged me. When he was nearly upon me, I reached forward and bent
back, underneath his furious swipe at my throat. My hands seized the soft part of his body below
the ribs and above the pelvis bones. Speed, fluidity, and balance were everything. I arched my
back and pushed with the muscles of the legs, bringing him forward without exerting the vast
effort it would have required to raise his center of gravity. He hurtled over me, and I smoothed
my own motion into a quick back handspring.
I recovered from the move just in time to crouch and meet
my next opponent with a kick to his knee. Luck was with me; he had planted his foot in front of a
rock firmly anchored in the ground, and his leg was already in the process of extending. My strike
pushed his knee back while the bulk of his impetus went forward and his foot stayed in place;
something had to give, and it was his joint. His knee hyper-extended, its hinge cracking with a
faint snapping sound; his leg awkwardly contorted in an angle it was never meant to bend. I rolled
to the side as the crippled mutant, no longer capable of standing, pitched forward. His flailing arm
and the blade that extended from it slashed at me, cutting into my left thigh. I held back a curse,
turned, and stepped on the flat of his blade, pinning him face down long enough to draw my fan
across the back of his neck, severing his spine.
Kung Lao's two opponents circled him. Just as I turned to
help him against his attackers, they both lunged for him; one raised her rusty machete high and
chopped down with it, while the other moved to plant a dagger in his back. Kung Lao ducked and
spontaneously vanished an instant before the machete could touch his head. The mutant with the
dagger barely missed the middle of his back, instead scoring a gash across his left scapula. Both
attackers lost their balance and stumbled forward when their strikes didn't encounter the
resistance they expected. The one with the machete could not stop her blade from burying itself in
her colleague's braincase. Before she could extract her weapon from the body, Kung Lao
rematerialized behind her and planted his hands on her hair, grasping it firmly and flipping over
her. As he touched down in front of her, still holding her hair, he used his momentum to propel
her over his head. She lost her grip upon the machete, which remained stuck within her associate's
The poisoned mutants went into their final convulsions;
they had never managed to crawl close enough to provide any serious threat. Kung Lao and I
glared at the two mutant survivors of the fracas. The disarmed female surveyed us for half a
second, then sprinted in the direction from which she had come. Her comrade stared at us for a
little longer. Then he started to back away, finally turning around running. I spread my bloody fan
and displayed it for the scouting party to see. Kung Lao held up his hat, letting the last dying rays
of sunlight reflect brightly upon its jagged metal brim.
The mutants milled around a little, then decided not to
bother with us after all. They shambled away, neither hurrying nor delaying, although some of
them looked over their shoulders and fixed us with their hate-filled, evil red eyes. I saw the
finger-shaped mark tattooed on their foreheads and wondered why I hadn't noticed it before. They
from the Clan of the Severed Finger, one of the tribes that was supposedly loyal to the Master.
They knew damn well who I was and who I worked for, yet they had attacked anyway. I planned
to mention this outrage when I delivered my mission report to Master Kahn.
I checked on Liu Kang. He was uninjured; the Severed
Finger had probably mistaken him for nothing more than another corpse. Kung Lao kept his gaze
firmly fixed upon the Severed Finger until they disappeared from view, behind the grisly pattern of
impaled bodies and a dip in the land.
"Don't get any ideas," I advised him. "They could have
taken us. They could have consumed us like a school of piranha driven into a feeding frenzy. They
just didn't want to pay the price we would have made them pay."
You killed me.
My Princess, you killed me.
You kill us all!
The gathering of walking corpses jeered derisive
accusations. In the center of their ring, I relived the struggle with the six attacking mutants. Only
this time, I was on my own. I took two of the mutants down with my nightshade darts, and a third
with my sleeping-sap dart, but the other three circled me and I was unable to defend against them
all. My hands burned; the slash in my thigh throbbed; and I anticipated the cold caress of a knife in
my back. Determined to take as many of them down with me as I could, I pitched headlong
toward one of the attackers, cutting her down - and heard the muted thud of two more
bodies falling upon the dusty earth.
I turned around and met the sky-blue eyes of my rescuer.
His golden-blond hair shined with light reflected from an unseen source. He was quite tall and
strong; a warrior, most assuredly. Flickering shadows hid his face. I did not have to see it to know
that he was definitely not Kung Lao. He still felt familiar, in a manner I could not describe.
The ring of zombies murmured ill-tempered protests.
Hey, back off! he snarled to them, and surprisingly, they did take a few steps
To me, You really shouldn't let them get to you like
that. They're only a threat if you allow them to be. His voice was also different from Kung
Lao's; it flowed slowly, like thick syrup. He crossed the distance between us in a few strides and
put his hands on my shoulders, affectionately. You know what your problem is? You care too
much. They can't affect you if you don't care. Feel nothing, and nothing can ever hurt
I don't understand.
You will, in time. He ran his fingers through my
black hair. I'll show you. How about it?
I... all right. What must I do?
First, conquer your fears and take off that mask. Why
are you so afraid to show your face? Nearly everyone in the Outworld knows who you
I hesitantly tugged at it. I wear my mask on Master
Kahn's orders. He has warned me never to remove it unless absolutely necessary. He said I should
never be... near anyone else when I removed it. My fingers were trembling; I was all but
nervousness. A small voice within me cried not to do it, not to circumvent the Master's will even
in this one, seemingly harmless way. My itching hands halted in place after I brought the mask
halfway down; the golden-haired man gently put his hands around mine and helped me remove it
Shao Kahn doesn't know what he's talking about. The
only thing your mask hides is a very beautiful face. Why don't you come a little closer? A part
of me dearly wanted to do as he asked. I felt a strong attraction to him. A keen pit of loneliness
gnawed my heart. It had been there all along, I realized; for years and years, its caustic bite had
eaten away at me, shutting my soul within walls of stone. Only now, it receded a little. Perhaps, if
I clung tightly to this strange person, the emptiness would subside, and I would no longer be as
miserable as I knew I had always been. He bent his head down, bringing his lips close to mine, and
I met his kiss passionately.
Something was wrong.
His hands slackened and his arms fell away from me. I
broke off the kiss and stepped back, apprehensive. Before I could ask anything, I saw the nature
of the wrongness - an expanding sphere of pressure pushed outward from the center of his vitals.
His body stretched and distended past the tensile limits of his skin, which rent apart at bloody
seams. He uttered a strangled cry before the growing stress within him ripped him apart, like a
balloon filled with too much air. I threw my hands in front of me, and his blood and organs
spattered upon them, were absorbed by my thirsty silken gloves, and soaked through onto my
skin. The sear upon my fingers and palms raged, so painfully intense that I could not bear it. The
circle of corpses whooped their approval and moved in on me, a voracious light shining in their
glazed, dead eyes.
-or tried to scream, but something pressed tightly against
my mouth, stifling the shriek before it could finish taking shape.
"Easy! It's only me," Kung Lao soothed. "We're still in
mutant territory. You mustn't cry out, or who knows what will hear you. All right?" I managed a
nod. He removed his hand from my mouth.
The dream had been so vivid! As lifelike as the day it... I
started to push the half-formed thought away, then stopped and shook with horror when I saw my
face mask clutched in my hand. I must have pulled it off during the nightmare. Another wave of
shuddering revulsion washed over me; I hunched over and trembled, unable to fight the fear and
loathing off. And my hands were filthy with blood; I could feel the rot eating away at them even
"Take it easy," consoled Kung Lao. "You're safe - er, that
is, about as safe as you can be in a former battlefield full of corpses and roving mutants, which
isn't really all that safe, but there's no danger right now. I think. Just relax..." When I didn't answer
or stop shaking, he shifted position, moving into my line of sight, and leaned forward. His face
was perhaps twelve inches away from mine. "Is there anything I can-"
"Not so close!" I swung my elbow at him and
in the cheek. His head snapped back and he hit the ground. With a slight groan, he rolled to his
knees, holding the injured side of his face. A brackish trickle of liquid showed near the corner of
"My apologies," he muttered, then turned and moved
away, adjusting the front of his hat down and grumbling something sardonic in Mandarin. Most of
it was too low for me to make out, though I thought I discerned the phrase "...this happens too
"Raiden didn't tell you everything about me, did he?" I
"Even the gods do not see 'everything.' Only a God could
do that," he sighed, clearly pronouncing the capital letter in his second sentence.
"I take it that means 'yes.'" Putting my mask back on, I
drew in a long, slow breath and exhaled it, letting my tightly constricted muscles unwind, one by
one. "I am under a... condition of Master Kahn's will. He has warned me never to remove my
mask, or if I did, never to let anyone come too close to me."
"Once, I disregarded the Master's wishes. I let someone
come near me. His name was Lucian." I looked down at my prickling hands. "He died.
"I don't know how much it takes. A kiss was enough to set
it off. Maybe less. Maybe just being in proximity to me when my mask is down."
He should have been accusatory, fearful, or angry, but
strangely even his former vestiges of pique had faded away, replaced by an inexplicable expression
of sympathy. "I appreciate your telling me this. I thought I'd offended you somehow... why are
you looking at me like that?"
"I could have killed you, easily. It wouldn't have taken
He lifted the brim of his hat up a little, enough for the
moonlight to shine upon his face. "What you say is true, but that was not your intent and it is not
your fault you are under a curse. I fail to see your point."
"Don't you care about your own life?"
"Does it matter?" he returned, without missing a beat.
"Yes, I care. When has that ever made a difference?"
I looked back down at my sticky, filthy hands. Unable to
bear the sensation any longer, I tore my gloves off and reached for my spare flask of water.
Splashing its moisture on my hands, I tried to scour them clean with a coarse brush I'd taken from
"There is blood on my hands," I said, without looking up.
"I have to get it off."
"It is not your fault Lucian died."
"Yes, it is. I should have obeyed the Master. If only I'd
"Shao Kahn never flat-out told you that he'd cursed you
with the cliché 'kiss of death,' did he? How were you to know?" A moment later, "Um,
not to intrude, but if you want to clean blood off your hands then what you're doing looks pretty
He was right. My scrubbing had been so harsh that I'd
opened several small cuts in the skin. Pinpricks of fresh blood oozed through them. A heavy pallor
of despair settled upon me, and I let the flask and the brush fall through my blighted fingers. "I- I'll
never get it off..."
"You can't change the past. Only the present."
"What does the past have to do with anything?"
"Maybe nothing. Maybe I have no idea what I'm talking
My eyes fluttered shut.
"Or, maybe there is something you could do that would
help you feel better."
My eyes snapped back open. "Tell me."
He did so. When he finished, I furrowed my brow curiously
and asked, "What makes you think I could or would do this?"
"Perhaps you can't. Perhaps you won't."
"I'll think about it." A glance at the moon confirmed that
my shift at watch wouldn't begin for another hour, yet I sincerely did not want to attempt
sleeping again. "Kung Lao... did Raiden tell you anything about my sister, Mileena?"
"Yes. Would you like to hear what he said?"
I nodded and listened carefully to the things he told me.
They were so strange that I wasn't sure I believed a word of them, but I listened. I thought about
all of it during my entire shift at watch. Kung Lao's claims seemed to explain so much... why I'd
never seen Mileena with her mask down, why her voice felt so wrong, why I had glimpsed her and
Baraka together that one day. But then, there were other plausible explanations, any of which
could be equally valid. Mileena was my sister. She had always been my sister. When dawn finally
came, I told myself softly, "None of it can possibly be true."
"Why not?" asked Kung Lao, startling me.
"Where did you learn to simulate the breathing of a
"Oh come now, Kitana, I must have some
When nighttime descended once more, we could see the
outer gates of Shokan. I told Kung Lao to halt for a spell. "You have said that you want to enter
the Master's Tournament, am I correct?"
"I shall present you to him, along with Liu Kang. This is
my territory. You must do as I say; if you do not, then Shokan's residents might mistake
for a common outsider and turn upon you before you cross the first street."
"So, am I supposed to be an 'uncommon outsider'?"
"In a manner of speaking. You must be an outsider
specifically in my charge, under my protection and therefore under the Master's protection. If you
disagree, if you do not go along with what I say, then I will not be able to intervene when a dozen
of the Master's mercenaries decide to dismember you for sport."
"Charming place, this city of Shokan."
"If anyone accosts you, you may be tempted to fight back.
Don't. Taking any action against a citizen of Shokan, even in self-defense, will void the Master's
protection. You must trust me to enforce that protection. If you don't like that, then I recommend
you return to the Mother Realm." He snorted contemptuously. I'd only said that last bit to annoy
him, anyway. "We must bind Liu Kang with this cord before we proceed," I instructed,
withdrawing the item from my cloak. "It is enchanted. It cannot be cut or damaged by anything
"Is that drug of yours going to wear off soon?"
"No, not for another day. That is not the point. If
Liu Kang is not completely restrained, Adjutant General Kintaro may become suspicious. Kintaro
monitors the flow of traffic to and from Shokan, ever since that outsider with the partly-metal
face tried to escape. We do not want to make Kintaro suspicious." Kung Lao supported
Liu Kang as I tied the unconscious monk's feet together at the ankles, and his hands behind his
back. "You can put that cloth of yours back into your hat. We won't be using it to transport Liu
Kang anymore; you must carry him by yourself."
"May I ask why?"
"Here, yes. Once we are in the city, do not speak unless
spoken to. And the reason why you must carry Liu Kang alone is that it would appear strange if I
were to help you. The higher in rank a servant of the Master is, the less he or she is expected to
assist inferiors. I am the Master's Left Hand; you are an outsider. Your status is absolutely inferior
to that of everyone else. Inferiors are always expected to be completely subservient. If you have
any other questions, now is the time to ask them."
"Yes. Is everyone in Shokan into this bondage-submission
"Don't try to be funny."
"I don't get to do that either, hm?"
"Just follow me, and for the Master's sake, keep your wits
The hooded guards near the outer gate stepped aside to let
us pass. I risked a quick glance behind me, to see how Kung Lao was doing. His hat was down so
low that its shadow reached his chin. He did not look to either side as he plodded forward, with
the unconscious monk slung over his left shoulder. The guards watched him carefully. I noticed
that he'd wrapped his traveler's sash around himself, like a one-piece robe of sorts, hiding the
scarlet character on his garments. Good idea, I thought. The last thing either of us needed was for
his outlandish garb to attract unwanted attention.
I set foot upon the network of long, thin bridges that cross
the chasm between Shokan's gates and the city proper. Faint lights spaced along their edges
illuminated my path, in addition to the glow of the rising moon. I walked slowly and carefully; the
bridges had no safety rails, and to fall off would mean plummeting a few hundred feet to one's
death on the hard stone below. There was a scattering of bodies in the pit beneath the bridge,
evidence of fools who had not been careful enough when they crossed. By the Master's decree,
their corpses lay where they had fallen, as a warning to others who would cross the bridge
without taking due caution.
The network of bridges led to a flat expanse, divided by
Shokan's inner wall. General Kintaro waited before the second gate.
Like the late Goro, Kintaro is one of the four-armed
human-dragon hybrids who dominate Kuatan, the fourth Astral Plane. They tower over mere
mortals. Their lifespans stretch for millennia. Their strength is so great that the weakest of them
can break the neck of an ox with his bare, two-fingered hands. They possess an uncanny
resistance to sorcery; they're capable of shrugging off magical blasts that would disintegrate lesser
beings. If enraged, they can use their massive weight to crush their prey, or spit globules of
searing fire. They acknowledge no overlord save Master Kahn himself. The scions of Kuatan
rarely regard mortals not under the Master's protection as anything other than an annoyance or
food. And Kintaro is arguably Kuatan's mightiest warrior.
Kintaro's unique coloration sets him apart from the rest of
his kind. The front of his body and limbs is pure white; his back is deep orange and patterned with
black stripes. His eyes glow yellow, and have vertically slitted black pupils. Some suspect that
Kintaro looks different from his yellowish-brown skinned, red-eyed kindred because he is part
tiger in ancestry, as well as part human and part dragon. No one has ever asked him directly and
lived to relate his answer, though.
Kintaro uses no weapons, and needs none. His hide is so
tough that he has little use for armor; all he typically wears is a loincloth, spiked shoulder pads,
ridged knee pads, and four studded war bracelets. This is Adjutant General Kintaro - slayer of
dragons, destroyer of cities, and ruler of Shokan's armies. Rumor had it that he would participate
in the Master's Tournament, and that anyone who sought to challenge Master Kahn must first
defeat Kintaro. If so, then Kung Lao and Liu Kang were surely doomed. Not that it mattered to
me one way or the other. All I cared about was the fulfillment of my mission... or so I kept telling
I approached Kintaro and bowed, then snapped my fingers
at Kung Lao. He gently set Liu Kang down and also bowed, very low indeed.
"O General Kintaro, please grant us, the Master's humble
supplicants, your leave to enter Shokan," I beseeched.
"Ah, Kitana. I
have heard of your mission." I shall never
get used to hearing Kintaro's deep bass but otherwise unremarkable speaking voice. He is a being
of supernatural power, yet he sounds like someone I might find repairing shoes in Shokan's
market square. "You were charged with retrieving the
warrior Liu Kang; I see that you have succeeded. Who is this other mortal that accompanies
"Yes, 'sister,'" interrupted another, stepping around great
Kintaro, "do tell us. Who is your new boyfriend?"
She twirled her paired sai and regarded me with disdain.
Her eyes carried an especially cruel glint. "You try my patience," I warned her, as she lazily
strolled past me.
"I try your patience? That is a new one.
always giving me your silly orders. 'Mileena, don't waste time putting out her eyes.' 'Mileena, they
won't make good slaves if their arms are broken.' 'Mileena, if you disembowel him then you'd
better clean up the mess.' You can be so very tedious at times." She kneeled next to where
Kang lay and brushed his hair away from his face, nodding. Then she moved toward Kung Lao.
She stopped directly in front of him, put the tip of one sai underneath his chin, and used it to force
his head upward until she could see his face despite the shadow of his hat. "Mmm. They're both
pretty cute. Can I have them?"
"No!" I snapped. Kung Lao gave Mileena the same blank,
empty stare that I had seen another person use as a psychological defense barely ten days
"Come now, dear 'sister.' You owe me. Didn't I leave those
other two alone, specifically at your request?"
"I am on a mission for Master Kahn. These outsiders are
under his protection."
"Oh, I suppose the one with the headband is, if you want to
be technical." She lasciviously riffled her fingers through Kung Lao's wavy black hair, then drew
them across his cheek and under his chin. "But the Master never said anything about this one."
"He is to enter Master Kahn's Tournament. This is your last
warning - leave him alone!"
"Or I'll make you."
"Perhaps," she sneered, "that's what I want."
I drew my fans and started to take a step forward-
"Halt, both of
you!" Kintaro snarled. Mileena took her sai
away from Kung Lao's throat. I lowered my fans. "I do
not know what rivalry there is between you, and I do not care. Kitana, you will enter
Shokan and present your charges to Shao Kahn. Mileena, you will let her and her
associates pass. Is that clear?"
"I told the old bat it wouldn't work," Mileena pouted,
I put my fans inside my cloak and bowed to Kintaro again.
"Thank you." Kung Lao also bowed, then picked up Liu Kang's motionless body.
Kintaro nodded. "Go. Now."
Mileena conspicuously trailed us into the city. Under any
other circumstances, I might have let her follow me to her heart's content, but I was
contemplating something that could best be done without her interference. I motioned for Kung
Lao to get behind me, drew my fans, and shifted into a defensive stance, preparing for the
inevitable confrontation. Mileena slowly ambled toward me, spinning her sai in an elaborately
continuous motion every step of the way. Her weapons looked like heavy, clumsy objects, yet she
wielded them with frightening dexterity.
When she was close enough, she asked, "I suppose this
means you won't surrender either of your slaves to me?"
"Yes, it does. No, I won't."
"They are only troublemakers. Since when do you care
about the fate of criminals?" I did not answer. "You have changed, Kitana. You have allowed
your eyes to become clouded. Remember what your profession is. Remember how we serve the
Master! Killing people in cold blood is not only our privilege, it is our first and foremost
"Oh? Would you murder anyone, then, if Master
were to order it?" I worked to keep the retort low and even.
"Even your consort, Baraka?"
Mileena's grip on her sai tightened, and her gaze cooled to
an icy glare of pure hostility. "How did you know he is my...?"
"I didn't. Now I do."
"Then you had better forget, and swiftly."
"You are dodging the question." I hate it when she looks at
me like that; I feel as if I am trapped within a glacier, and slowly succumbing to hypothermia.
"You already know what the answer is," she hissed,
horribly. "We are assassins. We cannot allow ourselves to love others. It would
be too painful. Remember that, 'sister!'" She crossed her sai in front of herself and disappeared,
altering her position in space with her own style of teleportational sorcery.
"I think I'll sue her for sexual harassment," Kung Lao
"Perhaps you did not hear me the first time," I barked,
turning upon him. "You will not speak again unless spoken to!"
He adjusted the brim of his hat a shade lower still, and
wisely made no reply.
The Arena lay directly ahead. My inner doubts gnawed
deeper with every step I took. I felt that I should not waste my time here, that I should go directly
to the Master's castle instead.
Come now, dear 'sister.' You owe me. Didn't I leave
other two alone, specifically at your request?
No, I could not put this off. If I were to wait, then Mileena
might wreak her vengeance on the helpless captives in the meantime, just to spite me. It would be
within her character. I entered the Arena, which was fortuitously deserted except for the two
prisoners and their armed guards. I cleared my throat and addressed the Master's black-hooded
"Attention! I request an audience alone with the prisoners.
You will stand outside of the Arena's doors until I call for you to return." They seemed a bit
puzzled, and reluctant to follow the order.
I drew one of my fans and spread it part way open. "I am
Kitana, the Master's Left Hand. To defy me is to defy him." Pointing the fan's edge at them, I
added, "If you falter in you duty to the Master, then you and your families will pay the
price. None shall be spared. He does not tolerate disobedience, and neither shall I. Leave, now, or
face the consequences!"
They filed out, still appearing confused. My eyebrows
descended; it shouldn't have taken that extra threat to compel their obedience. I didn't like it, but
there was no time to brood about the matter. I briskly walked past the male prisoner to where the
female prisoner was shackled.
"Hey, Kitana baby!" the man leered. "Who's your new
Without turning his head, Kung Lao removed his hat and
cast it at the man. The item veered at an angle, so that the flat of its spinning metal brim
connected solidly with the man's forehead. He groaned and collapsed in place.
The female prisoner smiled, a little. The expression
vanished from her face once I was directly across from her, replaced by that vacant, sepulchral
look I had seen her wear before.
"Lieutenant Sonya Blade?" I queried. She made no
response. I proffered a small brass key. "Take this. It will unlock your chains." She stared at the
item as if it were a poisonous serpent. "Go on, try it." Her blue-grey eyes searched my masked
face for a long time.
"Why?" Her question was creaky, uncertain, and very
quiet. It was almost certainly the first thing she'd said in days.
"He tells me that you are a warrior good and true,
dedicated to the light," I explained, gesturing in Kung Lao's direction. "I do not know about that.
What I do know is that you have not only served Master Kahn, you have died doing it. You've
She took the item gingerly, still acting as if she expected it
to bite her. It was somewhat difficult for her to fit the key in the right-hand manacle's lock, since
the short reach of her chains forced her arms to be spread apart. With patience and deftness, she
used one hand to work the key in and turn it. An expression of incredulity appeared upon her face
when her manacle came off with an audible clink. She unlocked her left-hand manacle and
rubbed her sore wrists in amazement.
"Keep the key on your person," I advised her. "You'll have
to put your manacles back on before your guards return. I am sorry, but it is impossible for you to
depart at this time. Since your comrade attempted escape-"
"His name is Kano, and he is not my comrade."
"Since Kano attempted escape, Master Kahn has doubled
the guards around this area, and assigned Adjutant General Kintaro to watch over Shokan's only
exit. Do you know who Kintaro is?" She nodded. "Then you know that you cannot get past him
Her head drooped.
"Don't lose hope," I urged. "Your time will come. Master
Kahn is going to hold a grand Tournament; Kintaro will participate in it. Wait for the proper
moment, when everyone is distracted. You won't necessarily be alone. I am told that someone is
in search of you... what was his name? 'Jack'...?"
"Yes, that sounds right. He has followed your magic
"-he has followed it here to the Outworld. I think he may
enter the Master's Tournament. Watch for him... and above all, be careful. Mileena seems to have
taken a dislike to you."
"You don't say."
"If she tries to mistreat you again, well, at least you'll have
a fighting chance. Incidentally, that skeleton key will also unlock Kano's chains. He has not served
the Master in any way, so I leave his fate up to you. And now I must send your guards back in; if
I leave them waiting outside for too long, they may become suspicious."
"I think they are already suspicious. You have been
generous to me, Kitana. I will warn you - I've heard great deal of gossip about you, these past few
weeks. There have been rumors that you are falling into Shao Kahn's disfavor."
My fan slipped through my fingers and flapped on the stone
slab that supported her concrete pedestal. "That cannot be."
"All I know is what I hear."
"I've toiled to complete one of the toughest missions he has
ever assigned! How can he-"
"Kitana?" She waved her hand in front of my eyes to bring
me out of my reverie. "Here." She held forth a pair of smooth, metallic wristlets. "Put these on. I
suspect you'll need them more than I will."
"I already have my own pair, and Jax will undoubtedly be
wearing his. This is a spare set, which you may keep. Wear them underneath your gloves, so no
one suspects; a light covering of thin fabric won't hamper their properties."
"How do I tap into their sorcery?"
"They're not sorcery, they're the cutting edge of highly
experimental military technology. The left one, project Icarus, induces a self-contained
gravitational field with a maximum acceleration magnitude of twenty meters per second per
second; the right one, project Heracles, can extrude electromagnetic pressure waves with a
cyclical amplitude of fifteen thousand Newtons."
"Sorcery," I agreed.
She sighed, described their magical effects in laymen's
terms, and showed me how to activate them. "I recommend that you not use them unless
absolutely necessary. This particular pair hasn't been field tested. I never had the chance to try
them out, so I'm not completely sure they will work properly. They might backfire. For your sake,
I hope they don't."
I fitted the magic bracelets around my wrists and retrieved
my fan. Sonya refastened her manacles and slipped their key inside her right sock. "Good luck,"
she said, with a slightly broader smile than before.
"The same to you." I transferred my attention to Kung Lao,
who was flipping through a small book next to Kano's pedestal. "What is that?"
"Hm? Oh, just a chronicle, of sorts. Fascinating. I
wondered whose bloodstains those were, near the Portal..."
"Are you ready to leave?"
"At once." He made the book disappear inside his hat, put
the article back on, and picked up Liu Kang. "Next stop, Buckingham Palace."
The Master's castle was not the same.
As I approached the hooded guards at the entrance, I
instructed their chief to notify the Master of my return. He fidgeted a little and said, "Master Kahn
is expecting you." Mildly surprised, I proceeded directly toward the Master's throne room and
audience chamber. Kung Lao followed. We progressed unhindered through rooms carpeted with
plush velvet, up spiraling stairways of gleaming black obsidian, and along marble balconies
garnished with elaborately worked gold rails. I examined my surroundings warily, trying to
pinpoint the dissimilarity that churned my stomach and raised goose flesh on my skin.
I had come home, and I was afraid, and I didn't know
The guards to Master Kahn's anteroom stepped back and
opened the doors. Looking through them, I finally descried what seemed so different - the
Master's sorcerous ceiling lights were dimmer than usual. The open archway at the antechamber's
other end was completely dark. I cast a quick backward glance at Kung Lao and Liu Kang, just to
reassure myself that they were still there, and entered. The click of Kung Lao's shoes
echoed upon the antechamber's white marble floor and walls. The Master's audience chamber lay
"Well, well, Kitana. I am genuinely amazed. The odds that
you would get this far were astronomical. I lost a fair parcel of money betting in your disfavor.
Although I do intend to win it all back."
Directly in front of me was a hooded, mantled figure
dressed almost as strangely as Kung Lao. Underneath the gold-trimmed folds of his blue-black
cloak, the hooded one wore a divided vest colored canary yellow. A thick black stripe ran
vertically along each half of the vest. A matching yellow belt encircled his waist, supporting a
tightly gathered pair of black leather slacks. His yellow socks and wristbands along with a pair of
flat black shoes completed the bizarre ensemble. The overall effect was so distracting that I nearly
"Shang Tsung!" Liu Kang's high-pitched screech
threatened to shatter my eardrums.
"Sleeping Beauty awakes," the sorcerer drolly
I had underestimated the monk. My sleeping-sap would
keep an ordinary person unconscious for a week... but long after the fact it dawned upon
me that Liu Kang was hardly "ordinary," in any sense of the word. The voice of his nemesis must
have roused him from his slumber.
"What's wrong, you cowardly maggot?" Liu Kang taunted.
"Too scared to show your face even when both my arms are tied behind my back?"
Shang Tsung drew back the hood of his sleeveless cloak,
revealing a black skullcap stretched across the top of his head. I sensed the presence of others in
the darkness beyond him. Kung Lao set Liu Kang on his feet and whispered a warning to him in
Mandarin, to the effect that if Liu Kang tried to change shape the unbreakable cord would fatally
constrict him. Liu Kang's reply was unprintable. I tuned both of them out and concentrated on the
sorcerer, who obstructed the relatively narrow entrance to the Master's throne room. "Shang
Tsung, please do me the courtesy of announcing my arrival to Master Kahn. I have completed his
"Oh, Shao Kahn knows you're here," replied the
shape-changing sorcerer. "It is I who finds your visit such an unexpected surprise. May I have just
a brief word with you before you proceed?"
"You are neither unexpectant nor surprised. You may
dispense with the lying; you're much worse at it than I am."
His face contorted into a vitriolic expression. "So much for
pleasantries. Very well, I'll not waste another second of your precious time." He snapped his
fingers, and two beings detached themselves from the shadows to stand at his either side... Baraka
and Mileena. "Hand Liu Kang over to me at once."
"Why don't you come and get me?" smirked the monk.
"Oh, that's right - last time, you couldn't run away fast enough!"
Baraka unsheathed the blades in his arms and crossed them
in front of himself. Mileena readied her paired sai. Shang Tsung rubbed his hands together as he
fixed his attention upon Liu Kang. "You have no idea what tortures I have in store for you. I shall
hear you beg for mercy before I take your soul!"
"Now I know," interjected Kung Lao, in a sadly bittersweet
All eyes focused on him.
"Ever since I was old enough to ask the question, I have
wondered why. Why did my ancestor spare your life? Why didn't he destroy you when he had the
chance? Now I know. He pitied you. I pity you too, you poor, wretched, miserable thing." He
unwrapped his one-piece traveler's cloth and cast it aside, exposing the scarlet character
emblazoned on his attire. "And your mother dresses you funny."
Shang Tsung's neck stiffened. "Who are you to talk?"
"Kung Lao, last of my line."
"Just checking. REPTILE!" shrieked the sorcerer. "Kill
him! KILL HIM THIS INSTANT!"
Kung Lao braced himself for an assault that never came.
"Reptile?" repeated the sorcerer, sounding baffled. He looked over his shoulder, muttering
"...damned invisible lizard is never around when I need him..." I took advantage of Shang
Tsung's distraction to throw a fan at his neck. Baraka chopped with his left blade, slicing the fan
in twain before it touched the sorcerer. Its pieces fluttered to the ground.
I really hate it when my opponents are faster than
Shang Tsung turned back, saw what had happened, and
channeled a blast of sorcerous energy at me. I perceived an effulgent skull surrounded with hellish
flames a split-second before I dodged to the right. Kung Lao sidestepped to the left. Liu Kang did
not move in time to escape the livid surge of necromantic energy. It hit him square-on, knocking
him clean across the room.
"Brother!" Kung Lao called, whirling in Liu Kang's
direction. Shang Tsung's body changed size and color as the shape-shifter assumed the form of the
mortal Kano. Kano-Tsung drew a knife from his tunic and cocked his arm, preparing to heave the
weapon at Kung Lao's unprotected back-
-and let the blade fall through his fingers. It clattered
noisily upon the floor.
I followed his line of sight and caught my breath. I should
have realized that this would happen. Nothing could have damaged the cord that bound Liu Kang,
save hellfire. Liu Kang had been directly in the path of Shang Tsung's hellfire. Which meant...
"FREE!" roared the dragon.
"Oh, shit," gasped Kano-Tsung.
Chaos broke loose.
Kano-Tsung tried to flee through the archway to the
Master's throne room, but a contingent of hooded guards had somehow appeared there, blocking
the exit. Master Kahn's distinctive, booming chuckle resonated about us all. Kano-Tsung flung
open his arms and, in a small explosion of preternatural energy, transformed into the image of
General Kintaro. The dragon advanced upon Kintaro-Tsung, a murderous light blazing in its
yellow eyes. Baraka charged toward Kung Lao.
I am reconstructing all this as best I can from fragmented
memory, because I didn't have time to pay overmuch attention to any of these events when they
happened. I was too preoccupied with Mileena, who used her space-distorting powers to
disappear and then reappear six feet over my head. She kicked down at my collarbone, dislocating
"Baraka make Kung Lao scream!"
"SHANG TSUNG, YOU WILL BURN!"
"You should have given those two to me when you had the
opportunity, 'sister,'" Mileena chastised. "Now I have to kill you again. It's your own fault. You
should have known better." She thrust at me with the sai in her left hand. I barely parried it in time
with my fan. She cut at my throat with her other sai. I blocked it with the outer side of my
upraised left arm; her weapon drew a bloody trail across my skin. Her knee struck me in the solar
plexus and I fought the urge to double over. Instead, I forced myself to spring backward, tucking
my chin in and hugging my knees against my chest, somersaulting in midair.
A vapor of quintessential coldness enveloped me. It coated
my skin, dulling my muscles and sapping my strength. My arms lost their tight lock upon my
knees and my acrobatic discipline faltered. I landed on my back, reinjuring old contusions.
Mileena's sai rematerialized in her hands, still gleaming
faint blue from her icy sorcery. "I don't know why you put up a fight at all. You don't have a
chance. I'm faster than you. I'll always be faster than you." She approached, drawing her gloved
fingertips along the sai that had cut me, wiping my blood off it. "Don't worry, 'sister;' I'll be
merciful. I won't make you suffer." She plunged her weapon downward, aiming for my heart.
I grabbed her descending arm with both hands and
wrenched it toward me, overbalancing her. At the same time I kicked up with both legs, planting
them in the soft cavity beneath her ribs. Ignoring the pain in my arm, collar, and spine, I used all
the strength in my four limbs to send her over my head and into the marble wall behind me.
The dragon roared.
Kintaro-Tsung spat an incendiary globule.
Kung Lao's thrown hat rebounded off Baraka's
Mileena shrieked a wordless outcry of hatred and loathing.
By the time I shakily rolled to my knees, she had completely recovered her footing. "I tried to be
nice, 'sister.' Now it's personal." The temperature of the air dropped a few degrees, and her sai
glowed blue. I crossed my arms in front of me, preparing to guard against her wintry sorcery. She
surprised me by pivoting ninety degrees before casting her icy spell. I followed its path and
trembled in panic when I saw where it was headed. Across from us, Kung Lao was slowly
retreating from Baraka's furious onslaught. His left hand carried the knife that Kano-Tsung had
dropped; he was using the weapon to parry one of Baraka's wild swings to his head.
"Look out!" I cried, but I was not fast enough. I have
never been fast enough.
Kung Lao never saw the frigid blast that hit him in the
back, shoving him with irresistible force toward the grinning mutant. Baraka thrust with the
swordblades in his arms, driving them through Kung Lao's chest. The crimson-tipped points of the
blades protruded through his back. He shuddered and dropped the knife. Baraka viciously twisted
the blades and breathed, "Scream, little man. Scream!"
"You bitch!" I howled, recklessly charging Mileena.
cracked the hilt of her sai across my forehead, knocking me down in mid-lunge. The thump of my
body hitting the floor seemed to come from a long way away.
"I wondered if that mortal meant anything to you," she
mused. "Perhaps I'll keep you alive long enough to watch his dying agonies before I torture and
kill you." My head fell to the side. I wanted to shut my eyes rather than look at the horrible
spectacle in front of them, but couldn't; some morbid compulsion kept them open.
"Why no scream?" Baraka grunted, bringing the swords
down and across Kung Lao's body in a half-circle pattern of evisceration. Kung Lao remained
eerily silent. At last I could squeeze my eyes shut, and when I did I felt a strange moisture in them
that was neither water nor blood.
Baraka's grating, inhuman voice pierced through my
self-imposed blindness. "What must Baraka do to make Kung Lao screEEEAAAAAAGH-!"
"No!" shouted Mileena. It was the first time I'd ever
heard her sound shocked. I didn't look to see what had happened to Baraka; I just seized the
opportunity to sit up, draw one of my daggers, and throw it at her. The ploy almost worked. Her
sai scarcely deflected the dagger before it could pierce her lung, and its edge opened a gash in her
side. She turned her gaze back to me, and it was so full of hatred that I knew the time for talk and
games was over - she cared solely about killing me, now.
I was only up to one knee when she ran toward me and
sprang. She flew through the air gracefully, effortlessly, reminding me of a day long lost, when I
had tried to pull a prank on her in the Armory. That had been the last day we'd ever played as
friends... the last day we'd ever been friends, really. Sometimes, I ruefully wonder whether my
childhood antic triggered her malevolence. Or had that day simply been the first time I noticed or
experienced her cruelty?
The dragon snapped its jaws shut on empty air,
Kintaro-Tsung's fist crashed into the antechamber's wall, and I activated the magic bracelet hidden
I soared like a wyvern.
The wristlet's power encased me, propelling me skyward
faster and higher than Mileena could prepare for. She had no time to react before I gained a
position above her and punched her in the jaw. She screeched and fell, flopping awkwardly on the
ground below. I touched down lightly, next to her.
"Uh, 'sister,' can we finish this later?" she groaned.
She pointed behind me. Not daring to take my eyes
completely off her, I turned just enough to glimpse the end of the internecine struggle between the
dragon and Kintaro-Tsung. The dragon, its teeth locked tightly upon one of Kintaro-Tsung's
arms, whipped the transformed sorcerer back and forth into the antechamber's corner walls, like a
dog worrying its kill, and slammed him on the floor. The series of impacts was so forceful that the
ground quaked, unbalancing both Mileena and me. Kintaro-Tsung's form shrank and blurred,
resolving into the sorcerer's yellow-dressed, humanoid shape. Shang Tsung was still alive, but
clearly disoriented. He tottered to his feet, reeling, on the verge of total collapse.
"BURN!" commanded the dragon. Holocaust poured from
Shang Tsung burned.
And not with ordinary, common flames that could be
smothered or beaten out, but with all-consuming dragonfire. The white-hot conflagration licked at
his body and turned his flesh translucent. A dying wail escaped his lips. His superheated blood
expanded; its tremendous outward pressure ripped apart his body and bones. I drew my cloak
around me for protection, and felt a few spattering stings of his charred remains even so.
"YOU TWO ARE NEXT."
Master Kahn's laughter permeated the antechamber as the
dragon pronounced its judgment upon Mileena and me. Mileena, as always, reacted first,
jackknifing up and sprinting for the antechamber's exit to the hallway. She dived and rolled to
escape one of the dragon's fiery blasts, then swore a foul oath when a half-dozen of the Master's
guards refused to let her out, crossing their weapons in front of the closed doors. Mileena lifted
her right knee and raised her glowing blue sai above her head, clearly preferring to force her way
through the guards rather than face the dragon. But before she could cast her sorcery, the
dragon's head darted down and its teeth crunched upon her left leg. The beast lifted her high,
grinding its jaws while Mileena raved obscenities, then spat her back on the floor, her limb
atrociously shattered above and below the knee. Shards of bone poked through the rents in her
"WILL DEVOUR YOU LATER," growled the dragon to
Mileena. It fixed its vivid yellow eyes on me. "MUST DEAL WITH YOU FIRST."
"I am not Shang Tsung's minion," I told it, trying to keep
my voice from quivering. "Haven't you realized that by now?"
"KUNG LAO IS DEAD BECAUSE YOU BROUGHT
There were no grounds for further discussion. I was ready
to use my last sleeping-sap dart, but the dragon had learned from our previous encounter. It kept
its jaws tightly shut as it approached within the dart's range. The dart wouldn't penetrate its scaled
body. Its eyes were an extremely small target, and for all I knew its eyelids might be as armored as
the rest of it. I didn't have enough time to get out of the corner before the dragon loomed in front
The beast reared on its hind legs. I raised my arms and
activated the magic bracelet hidden on my right wrist.
The dragon started to pounce down upon me, yet
something slowed and stopped it. Faint, pink traces of mystical energy rippled through the air. I
had to step far back with my right leg to fully support myself against the wristlet's recoil.
Whatever force the item produced paralyzed the dragon and lifted it off its feet, slowly carrying it
backward and upward. It thrashed, gnashing its teeth and wriggling like a water moccasin, but it
could not break the sorcery's mysterious pull. Its jaws parted and it sprayed fire back and forth to
either side, unable to point its head down and breathe fire directly upon me. That was my cue.
Just as its flames died down, I used the power of my left wristlet to soar into the air,
and threw my final sleeping-sap dart into its open mouth. The sorcery that had held it suspended
vanished; it flopped listlessly on the marble floor, very close to where Mileena lay.
"NOT... AGAIN...!" It floundered, fighting the dart's
effects, then went limp and metamorphosed back into Liu Kang. I approached, bowing my head
and casting my eyes down. The antechamber's white marble floor was haphazardly littered with
charred bones, ashes, and smears of carnage.
The chaos had ended, and I was the last one standing. I had
won. I had successfully completed Master Kahn's mission, despite all obstacles. Yet I felt as bad
as if I'd failed. Clutching my bleeding arm and enduring the painful throbbing in my back and
collarbone, I gazed down upon the comatose Liu Kang. My heart felt no victory, no joy, and no
pride; only a deep ache of sadness and hurt.
WELL DONE," rumbled the Master,
approvingly. I did not have to turn and look to know that he stood in the archway between the
antechamber and his throne room. After all, he'd been watching the entire goddamn spectacle.
"YOU HAVE DEFEATED THE DRAGON IN
BATTLE. NOW, FINISH IT OFF!"
I let my bladed fan slide into my right hand.
Promise that you'll expunge this dire threat to the
~What type of 'Master' gives
such orders, and what type of servant carries them out?~
I sincerely hope you haven't killed him.
You know what your problem is? You care too
"Damn you, Kitana, what are you waiting for!?" shrilled
Mileena, propping herself up with her hands. "The thing wanted to eat us! Kill it!
Now! KILL IT NOW!"
"Yes," I assented, slashing downward with my fan.
Its edge sliced through Mileena's neck, cleanly decapitating
her before an expression of shock could register upon her brows and eyes. Her severed head
bounced to a stop a couple feet away, face up. I kneeled next to it and indelicately pulled off her
mask. A monstrous, mutant-like visage grinned back at me. Though Mileena's eyes were like
those of a normal human, her lower face and jaw were grotesquely distorted. Her mouth was
permanently frozen into an inhumanly wide rictus smile, with a mouthful of long, pointed metal
She was not my twin sister. She never had been. How
many of the other things I'd learned in the course of my journey were true? How many of the
convictions I'd clung to all my life were lies? If Kung Lao had been right about her all along...
I dashed to where I'd last seen him. I knew he must be
dead, no mortal could endure the punishment he had and survive, but I had to be sure. Soon, I
saw what had made Baraka cry out, earlier. Kung Lao had brought the edge of his hat down upon
Baraka's head, splitting the mutant's skull and brain in half. The hat remained lodged in Baraka's
neck, just above the voicebox. Kung Lao's right hand tightly clutched his gore-drenched
He was still alive.
He leaned against the antechamber's wall with his eyes
closed. The dead mutant's blades ran through him. Bright red blood pooled across his uniform, so
thickly as to obscure the scarlet character; Baraka must have cut open an artery. A few pieces of
his flesh had been torn out, almost enough to reveal his mangled internal organs. His pulse was
extremely rapid, and his skin felt cold and clammy to the touch.
I sheared off a strip of my cloak and used the fabric to
apply direct pressure to his wounds. I didn't try to remove the blades in Kung Lao's chest; that
would only have accelerated his blood loss. It wasn't as if I really knew what I was doing, though.
My area of expertise is killing people, not saving them.
"...Liu Kang...?" he aspirated, so feebly I almost didn't
"He's just sleeping off another dart, that's all. He'll be fine.
Don't try to talk any more, all right?" I cut more strips off my cloak and piled them on the
disorganized dressing, which was gradually becoming soaked.
"...wasting... your time..."
"I told you to be quiet, damn you!"
"...bet... you say that... to all the guys." His left hand
reached for mine, and fell short.
Shao Kahn started laughing. Again.
The last of Kung Lao's lifeblood left fresh stains upon my
gloved hands. I sluggishly turned away from his remains. The air seemed to have thickened into a
viscous mucus, which yielded slowly before my efforts. With a monumental exertion, I stood up,
and blankly looked at the mocking despot.
I'd thought I'd understood before, the day the Kahn had
charged me with my mission, but in reality I'd only seen a tiny facet of the whole truth. This time I
knew. I knew everything.
"It's not just Shang Tsung, is it? We are all your pet
clowns. All of us.
"You've been using your powers to watch over my quest
the whole time, haven't you? You've even condoned a bookmaking operation on my progress.
And when I won past the hazards outside Shokan, you gave the sorcerer and his allies permission
to waylay us in your antechamber. You knew that Kung Lao and I wouldn't surrender Liu Kang
to them without a fight. And what a fight it was - all for your amusement.
"You don't need a Tournament to eliminate your
enemies or gain access to the Mother Realm, do you? Or perhaps you do, but that isn't your
primary motive for holding it. The greatest single reason why you're sponsoring the contest... why
you're going to such lengths to recruit the strongest mortal participants you can find... is because
you want a good show."
I accusingly pointed my sanguinary index finger at him.
"Everything - the blood, the death, the suffering - it's all exclusively for your
"YOU DID NOT
I contemplated ways to kill him.
I longed to slice his head off with my fan. I wanted to see
his metal mask crumpled, broken, rocking on the ground. I yearned to snap his imperial spear into
splintered pieces. Yet no matter what I might try, it probably wouldn't work. If I were to rush
him, he could thrust with his spear and skewer me before I got close enough. My darts would
have been useless, even if I had any left; the power concentrated within his body eradicates toxins
from his system, rendering him immune to most if not all poisons. Throwing a dagger might work,
but I couldn't count upon it killing him, even if it hit. More likely, it would just wound him and he
would quickly heal himself. There was also the factor of at least a dozen guards in the immediate
area. If I were to attack Shao Kahn in any way, even with my magic bracelets, then I would not
leave this room alive. Nor would I be brought back from the dead. If I succeeded, the Kahn
would not be able to resurrect me; if I failed, he would not want to.
None of that seemed very important, though.
Don't you care about your own life?
Does it matter? Yes, I care. When has that ever made a
I set aside my dreams of murdering the Kahn; they
wouldn't do any good, not at this time or place. No, my most practical course of action would be
Would be to...
I crossed my arms in front of my chest. "O 'Master' Shao
Kahn, your humble vassal has served you faithfully. Against overwhelming odds, I have delivered
to you the warrior Liu Kang, alive and unhurt, as you asked. And I have... entertained you greatly
in the process."
"THAT IS TRUE.
I sank to my knees and kowtowed, touching my forehead
to the marble floor. Without moving from my position of self-abasement, I said, "'Master,' I
implore of you - grant your loyal servant a boon."
Kung Lao's eyes snapped open. "What the-?"
"Don't try to sit up just yet," I counselled. "A certain
amount of disorientation is to be expected. It will pass in a few minutes."
He ignored my advice and awkwardly struggled part-way
up, bracing himself on his forearms and elbows. "I remember... pain. Lots of pain. Then..." He
closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment. "...nothing?"
"You once wondered what it is like to return from the grey
kingdom. Now you know."
"But I don't remember anything."
"That is what it is like."
He eased into a sitting position, started to put his head in
his hands, then realized that his right hand still clutched his hat. Putting the article back on, he
glanced down at himself and looked surprised. "My vest! It was stained and nearly shredded; now
it's whole again?"
"So, do you find the repair of your livery more amazing
than the healing of your body?"
"Hm. Not when you put it that way, I guess." He sighed
and aligned the hat's brim perfectly level. "I don't suppose you want to tell me what the hell
"Shao Kahn has resurrected Shang Tsung, Baraka, and
Mileena, because he wants them to participate in his Tournament. He said that without them, it
wouldn't be as - entertaining." The last word left a foul taste in my mouth. "What is it?" I
asked, when I saw Kung Lao's eyebrows go up a little.
"Do you know, that's the first time I've ever heard you call
him just 'Shao Kahn'? It always used to be 'Master' this, or 'Master' that."
I shrugged. "Liu Kang will also be in the Tournament,
when he awakens. I've petitioned to enter it as well. You, too, are slated to take part. Officially,
that is why the Kahn revivified you. He has seen you fight, and he is convinced that you'll be a
worthy contestant. You're pretty lucky; he's been doing a great deal of resurrection, lately. It has
been a serious drain upon his energy reserves. He won't be able to keep it up for much
"You said, 'Officially,' etc. What was the unofficial reason
for my revival?"
I resolved to be more wary in the future; a verbal slip like
that could be perilous in the wrong company. "Unofficially, I requested it."
He pushed the front part of his hat up a couple more inches
and displayed his charming smile. "I didn't know you cared."
"Don't get any impressions," I admonished. "I made the
entreaty solely because I owed you a lifedebt."
Kung Lao did not contradict my assertion. He knew that I
was lying, and I knew that I was lying, so what purpose would there have been in disputing the
Shao Kahn has put forth some new rules for his
Tournament, in order to make it "fair." He has forbidden Liu Kang and Shang Tsung to
shape-shift into anything save the forms of the other human-sized participants, at least during the
battle. He has also forbidden me to use my poisoned darts. That is all right. I don't need my darts
to take back what is mine. I have better weapons. Underneath my gloves, I carry and control a
force powerful enough to subdue a dragon - which means that it can also vanquish General
Kintaro and the Kahn.
I will have to do battle against some or all of the other
entrants, and win, before I earn the right to challenge Shao Kahn. Perhaps I may have to face off
against Liu Kang, Kung Lao, or other warriors of the light. If so, then there can be no holding
back. Should Kintaro or Shao Kahn suspect that I am not fighting in earnest, they will disqualify
me, and I'll never have the chance to bring them down once and for all.
Jade, I want you to read these pages, so that you'll know
what your sister is like - or was like, depending on how the Tournament progresses. I will attempt
everything in my power to overthrow the Kahn, clear our parents' names, and speed the healing of
the land. It is what I must do to make amends for my crimes.
The Outworld was once a realm of beauty. It is not too late
to restore these lands to their former splendor. Only then can I begin to atone for the blood on my
end part two of two