part two of two

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

         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, right?"
         "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 harm done."
         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 is-"
         "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 killed.
         "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 Kang-"
         "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 my feet.
         "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.
         "What are...?"
         "Please read them," urged Kung Lao. "Then you may understand."
         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 water..."

         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 pressing 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 mutual goal."
         "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 circumstances whatsoever!"
         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?"
         I tried.
         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 copse-encircled trees.
         Something moved.
         "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 wave.
         ~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 not 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 weight.
         ~Ia! Ia! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!~
         "What do you want!" I demanded, trying to sound defiant.
         ~Ia! Ia! One of you reeks of Fire. Give him to us, and the rest of you may live. Ia! Ia! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!~
         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 him!~
         "No!" shouted Kung Lao, as one of the thing's slimy 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 unconscious monk.
         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...
         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 much 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.
         ~Ia! Ia! Shao Kahn? It cannot be!~
         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 her feet.
         "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 enough.
         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 grumbled.
         "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. See."
         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 the pause.
         "You cannot have Liu Kang."
         "Good guess, but incorrect."
         "Have you come to challenge me?"
         "Do you want to be challenged?"
         "Perhaps another time. Guess again."
         "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."
         "Don't you?"
         "Master Kahn is counting upon me to succeed."
         "Is he?"
         "Will you cease those redundant tag questions?"
         "Will I?"
         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 name?"
         "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 'the Ingrate.'"
         "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 everything.
         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 matter.
         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!"
         "And you."
         "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 would have!"
         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 head?"
         "Try it, and I'll part your head from its shoulders."
         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 Master's mission!"
         "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 words.
         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 corpse.
         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 were 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 backward.
         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 you.
         I don't understand.
         You will, in time. He ran his fingers through my long 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 are.
         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 overcome with 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 completely.
         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.
         I screamed.
         -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 now.
         "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 struck him 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 his mouth.
         "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 damn often..."
         "Raiden didn't tell you everything about me, did he?" I inferred, cautiously.
         "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. Horribly."
         "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 much."
         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 Jade's home.
         "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 obeyed him!"
         "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 counterproductive."
         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 about."
         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 sleeping person?"
         "Oh come now, Kitana, I must have some secrets."

         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 you 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 save hellfire."
         "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 thing?"
         "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 about you."
         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 myself.
         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 you?"
         "He is-"
         "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. You are 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 Liu 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 ago.
         "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 what?"
         "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, sulking.
         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."
         We went.
         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 duty!"
         "Oh? Would you murder anyone, then, if Master Kahn 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 muttered.
         "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 those 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 foot soldiers.
         "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 boyfriend?"
         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 earned this."
         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 by yourself."
         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 beacon-"
         "Distress signal."
         "-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."
         "What are...?"
         "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 why.
         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 just beyond.
         "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 didn't recognize-
         "Shang Tsung!" Liu Kang's high-pitched screech threatened to shatter my eardrums.
         "Sleeping Beauty awakes," the sorcerer drolly observed.
         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 mission."
         "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 tone.
         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 me.
         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 it.
         "Baraka make Kung Lao scream!"
         "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 swordblade.
         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. She 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 on my left wrist.
         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 its mouth.
         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 flesh.
         "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?"
         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 of me.
         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.
         "EXCELLENT! 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 Kahn.
         ~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 much.
         "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 teeth.
         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...
         Kung Lao!
         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 headgear.
         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 hear.
         "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!"
         " 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.
         Understanding blossomed.
         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 entertainment!"
         "YOU DID NOT KNOW?"
         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 difference?
         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 to...
         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. YOU HAVE."
         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 happened..."
         "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 longer."
         "And unofficially?"
         "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 matter?

         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 heat of 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 hands.

end part two of two