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

   "He's a necromancer. He works with souls. When he needs one, he takes it, and does what he will. Do you understand what I'm saying? Does that mean anything to you? Would you like it if your life was snuffed out one day, with no warning, and for no crime, just because someone needed your soul, the way you might need a yard of cloth? What sort of person does that...?"
       -S. K. Z. Brust, Athyra

[date, 15th century]

         They call me "immoral," but I'm not. Not really. And even if I were, I'd be no more "immoral" than they are, the sanctimonious hypocrites. They are lacking in perspective. My one goal is quite modest; my methods, no more unscrupulous than anyone else who considers the end to justify the means.
         All I want is to go on living.
         Well, I would like to get out of this confining Earth Realm, and back to the outer planes; but beyond that, nothing else. I've no interest in glory, riches, fame, or power; which is to say, outside of the power I need to remain alive. Is it such a terrible thing to want to live? Everyone wants to live! The whole lot of them want to live at least as badly as I do! They all look down upon me, with their lofty scorn and their self-righteous indignation, but I know that they secretly envy me, every last one of them. They resent me because I've succeeded where they have failed. I've kept my youth for over half a millennium, whereas the toughest of them withers away a trifle more with each passing sunrise. Any one of them would sacrifice a hundred thousand human souls to be in my place! They have no business passing judgment upon me!
         The way they carry on, one would think that no one has ever died in their precious Shaolin Tournament before. So what if I always take the life and soul of any fool who challenges me to mortal combat? Why do they think it's called "mortal" combat, anyway? I may derive some minor enjoyment from the satisfaction of a little necromancy well-wrought, but I practice the magic itself only because it is necessary. I need my victims' vital and soul energies to appease the gods who grant me my "conditional" protection from death. It is nothing personal.
         I did enter their Tournament fairly, by means of its longstanding open invitation to warriors around the world. I earned the title of Grand Champion entirely on my own merit. It isn't as if the Tournament's laws forbid the use of sorcery in single combat! Its laws don't mention sorcery at all. They are honor-bound to let me serve in the place of the Grandmaster I killed. They have no grounds for complaint and no right to protest!
         Nor can they compel me to leave. I do like the thought of settling down here, as a Grandmaster. Never does too much time pass before once again, some brash idiot decides that my existence offends him, challenges me to single combat, loses, and pays the price. It is much easier to wait for the sheep come to me, oblivious of their impending slaughter, than to exhaust myself preying upon wild flocks. My existence is so effortless that at times I miss the earlier days, when hunting down souls posed more of a challenge.

         I'll kill him.
         Kung Lao, that cretin, that son of whores, that disease-carrying excrement, I swear I am going to KILL HIM!!! He will pay with his soul, the souls of his family, the souls of his friends, the souls of his animals! I didn't lose to him; he tricked me!
         When first I saw him in the battle arena, his attire was so bizarre that I could barely bring myself to take his challenge seriously. His outlandish hat with a serrated strip of metal sewn into its wide brim and his sleeveless ebony vest decorated with the character for military strength were particularly comical. Both his forearms bulged with layer upon layer of thick, clumsily applied bandages. He didn't even know how to tape his arms properly. I smiled at his incompetence.
         "The rules of this Tournament forbid the use of weapons or armor," I pointed out, resisting the desire to throw back my head and laugh out loud. The "weapon" that I referred to was his hat, of course; despite its ludicrous appearance, I suspected that its edge could slice and cut as surely as the edge of a knife. As for "armor," well... his vest appeared to be nothing more than ordinary cloth, but who could say what he might be wearing beneath it?
         "Do they?" he asked, softly. His gaze flickered to where the Tournament's two other Grandmasters sat, although I noticed that he was still watching me out of the corner of his eye. At first they only stared back. Then I glowered at them, wordlessly letting them know what I'd do to them if they did not back me up. The Grandmaster in the rightmost seat nodded, almost imperceptibly. The other Grandmaster shook his head in refutation. I felt a surge of loathing directed toward the renegade who had unexpectedly defied my will, and I silently vowed to deal with him later. As for the present, my rendition of the rules stood firmly by majority vote, two against one.
         Kung Lao's eyebrows darted upward as he noted the outcome of the impromptu poll. "Hm..." he mused, returning the whole of his attention to me. "And you," he continued, projecting his voice with more vigor, "you, Grandmaster Shang Tsung, who uses sorcery to systematically murder every fallen competitor; you, who perverts this once great Tournament into a wretched excuse for brutality... do you profess that you have never reinterpreted any of its rules?"
         The tone of his voice was not mocking, as mine had been; it was quite straightforward and pensive. My smile reversed itself into an irate frown. "Perhaps I shall consider relaxing the rules against armor and weapons, after your painful demise."
         "Very well. I do not need either to deal with the likes of you," Kung Lao said, unperturbed. He set aside his hat, revealing a dull brown headband tied onto his shaved head with a double knot. Then he discarded his sable vest, and the blue vest he wore underneath that. He never took his eyes off me for a quarter-second longer than he had to.
         "Now, Grandmaster, are you satisfied?" he inquired, dryly.
         "Indeed," I sneered.
         As he stood there, defensively presenting only the guarded right edge of his body, I reflected upon how much he resembled any one of my last dozen challengers. He was nothing more than just another Shaolin monk, perhaps a bit taller and sturdier than average, but otherwise unremarkable. His feeble grasp of the classical protective stance was almost jocular. Oh, he might have been considered reasonably proficient, even a minor master in his own, diminutive circles, but compared to me he was an inept amateur. No mortal can surpass my skill in the classical forms; after all, I've literally been practicing them for centuries.
         As soon as we heard the command to begin, he started moving toward me; not running, not rushing, just a steady, determined approach. He didn't hesitate, feint, or attempt any subtle maneuvers; he merely advanced, with a purpose so single-minded as to give the outward appearance of stupidity.
         He was a fool who didn't realize what he was up against... or so I thought.
         My lips curled back into a smile. I faced him full forward and extended both my arms, flexing the palms of my hands perpendicular, the left hand pointed skyward, the right angled down toward the earth. From that arcane position, I channeled a single fragment of the fires and screaming souls of Hell, to fly directly into his path.
         Kung Lao crossed his arms in front of his head and torso, and continued walking.
         My eyes widened in sudden perplexity. This was impossible! The searing flames should have blasted him backwards; the piercing wails of the tortured souls should have rendered him witless! At the very least, he should have been forced to dodge, or else stand in place and brace himself against the brunt of my sorcery. I doubled my efforts, then doubled them again, sending wave after wave of unearthly holocaust toward him until I could no longer view his outline through the cascading inferno. I heard the crackling sizzle of combustion, and brought down my arms, certain that he'd been scorched into a quivering mass of cooked flesh-
         -and then, more swiftly than should have been possible, Kung Lao thrust his right hand through the blazing curtain and locked his thumb and fingers in a choke-hold upon my throat. The bandages upon both his forearms had been completely incinerated, exposing a pair of black, metal-studded wrist guards. Only at this close range could I feel the items' benign aura of protective enchantment. Too late, I realized that he had tricked me. The hat, the vest, he had used it all as a distraction, a decoy for me to find while his greatest advantage remained concealed from my sight! And because I had openly agreed that I was "satisfied" with his attire, I could not denounce his odious, cheating treachery!
         For that matter, I couldn't say anything at all. His choke-hold completely cut off my supply of air. Nothing could undo the smothering grip of his right hand around my neck! I clutched at his right arm and endeavored to pry away his clenched fingers; they would not loosen. I tried to gouge out both his eyes, and clawed at naught save empty air; for he held me too far out to the side, and high enough so that I could not touch the ground. I kicked at him, aiming for his right kidney, but I had no purchase from which to brace the strike, and my strength was rapidly deserting me. Desperately, I summoned the transformative aspect of my powers and strived to shape-change into something, anything else; his magic-resistant wrist guards interfered with the attempt, and the slow, lethal embrace of suffocation intruded upon my ability to concentrate. He was gradually strangling me to death with the constricting noose of his fingers, and there was not one thing I could do about it...!
         I knew I was dead. I was going to asphyxiate, and then my soul would be damned to eternal slavery in the hell-pits of those foul gods with whom I'd made my pact, all those centuries ago. Though it did me no good at all, fear and outrage and the harrowing knowledge of my ultimate fate caused me to continue flailing. I thrashed in vain, like a fish clumsily flapping about when the fisherman draws it out of the water, until I blacked out.
         Then I reawakened... panting like an overheated dog, mute from the shock of my defeat, and astonished that I was still alive. My throat hurt, my body felt sluggish and unresponsive, and an obscure haze clouded my mind. The only emotion I could feel was bemused puzzlement. When I tried to look upon the face of my antagonist, the sharp light of the midday sun behind him forced me to blink and avert my eyes. All I'd glimpsed was an unfocused silhouette. My vision wavered somewhat even when I squinted down at the dirt.
         Kung Lao spoke. His voice was horridly clear, and his words have immutably seared themselves into my permanent memory: "If our places were reversed, you would destroy me without a thought; but I am not a murderer like you. Now, go!"
         I went. I had to crawl several paces before my dizziness receded enough for me to stand and stagger away. My perceptions were too far gone for me to discern in which direction I was moving.
         I'm not just going to kill him; I intend to torture him first. I want to hear him scream before he dies.

         Times have been hard.
         The Shaolin have banished me from their lands. I can no longer simply take the souls I need; too many people know who I am and what I can do, and they band together to oppose me. Even my sorcerous powers are insufficient defense against an angry mob of twenty strong men or more. All too often, I must flee deeper within uncivilized lands, and subsist upon the rudimentary souls of what few animals I catch. My failure to capture human souls has taken a high toll upon me. In the space of a few months, I have... aged. When I look upon my reflection in the water, I become ill at the sight of my own decay. My hair is barely a finger's width longer than it used to be, but it has turned grey-white as a sign of my gods' anger.
         Oh, how I hate them.
         "Gods" indeed, they are neither omnipotent, omniscient, nor any more godlike than I am. The only difference between us is that I am under their control, and they are not under mine. Yet. They shall never learn of my secret insubordination until it is too late, for I use a powerful grand phantasmagoria to mystically blank the pages of this journal. Its contents cannot be read without the use of a unique counterspell known only to me. The thoughts I write here shall in time become reality. One day, I shall overthrow my so-called "gods" and claim their godhood for myself.
         But only because it is necessary.
         Even beings such as I do not live forever, but gods can.

         The more I age, the weaker I become. The weaker I become, the fewer souls I can take. The fewer souls I take, the more I age. It is the vicious, destructive cycle of the serpent devouring its own tail. I need to think of a plan, quickly, before I run out of time. At this rate, I shall never kill Kung Lao in the excruciating manner he deserves. I'd go back and murder him right now if I weren't so revoltingly infirm. There must be some way to overpower him!
         I am currently seeking refuge from the human-inhabited areas of the Earth Realm in the dark recesses of the Green Hell. While using navigational sorcery and the stars of the heavens to divine the lay of the land, I descried a huddle of emanations suggesting... consciousness? Self-awareness? Something with intelligence is lurking in the hot, wet depths ahead. It cannot be an outpost of humans; its feel is too ascetic and somber. It lacks the characteristic passions of ordinary men and women. I am intrigued. I had thought that humans were the only remaining sentients native to the Earth Realm; it seems as though I may be wrong. Whoever or whatever they are, they cannot have heard of my unfortunately tarnished reputation. Might there be some way for me to turn this situation to my advantage? Tomorrow, I intend to find out.

         Very interesting.
         I have made first contact with the beings I sensed before. There was a bit of mutual unease at first, when they misinterpreted my smile as a sign of hostility (which I suppose it sometimes is, but there is no way they could have known that). They don't use facial expressions in the same manner that humans do. To them, drawing one's lips back to openly expose one's teeth is an inimical gesture, in preparation to biting. So, whenever I do find myself inclined to smile around them, I am careful to keep my lips pursed together.
         After casting a few spells to facilitate communication, I asked them the name of their species. They insist upon calling themselves a hissing, clicking word that roughly translates to "We," "the Race," or some such droll redundancy. They are a community of sentient, bipedal reptiles, descended from relatives of the colossal dinosaurs that used to dominate the Earth Realm. I hypothesize that the equatorial latitude of their sweltering jungle home shielded them from the worst of the Long Winter that rendered their ancestors' cousins extinct. There are only a few hundred of them left, and I infer that they are the last colony of their kind. Their lair lies hidden in the heart of the Green Hell, upon an island surrounded by a small sea. Swirling undertows, vicious ichthyoid predators and other perils infest the sea, but I easily bypassed the natural barrier with a simple levitation spell. When I reached the shores of the other side, I encountered a small crowd of the creatures regarding me with sheer awe. Mayhap I appear as fantastic to them as they do to me.
         I could take advantage of the lizards' naive trust in me, and confiscate their alien souls for my own purposes; however, I am reluctant to exterminate them just yet. If I study them first, I might learn something that will aid me in my quest for immortality. They are so long-lived that they number their life span in millennia; by their standards, I am barely a young adult! So far, I have appeared to them in the guise of a friend. I even perform the occasional parlor trick of rainbow lights to entertain their children.
         It is a shameful, degrading state that I am reduced to. I console myself with the thought that I shall not stay here indefinitely. I know that I must take some action soon, but sometimes I feel so tired that it is hard to think clearly. Perhaps... I will rest here just a little longer...

         One of the creatures in particular has become voraciously curious about me. The rest of his race seem to have appointed him to learn more about myself and the strange outside world from which I come. He is the strongest and probably the most intelligent of the saurians; unlike the majority of his kin, he has absorbed the gist of my language and is learning how to speak it at an astounding rate. Sometimes I can see him skimming through what few books and scrolls I carry, as if he were actually attempting to read them. (Of course, I am careful to keep this journal out of his sight.) He has even offered to serve me, in return for the chance to learn more.
         A more precise rendition of his pledge would be, "We promissse to honor, protect, and obey thee unto death." He, like all the other reptiles, has the curious habit of thinking of himself in the plural. I don't know why; most of them aren't innately telepathic, nor do they have a group hive-mind consciousness. I ought to tutor him in the use singular pronouns.
         I did teach him a few of the more trivial illusion spells, as an idle experiment. He is remarkably adept and grasps the concepts of sorcery quickly. I am not surprised. One of my more competent former pupils, Goro, is himself partly of reptilian herit-
         Now there is an idea!
         I have become too weak to overcome Kung Lao wholly on my own, but Goro would demolish him! How could I have forgotten the four-armed, eight-foot tall, half-human and half-dragon supreme ruler of the Kahn's armies? Goro's speed and strength transcend the highest superlatives. He would be the perfect tool to grind Kung Lao into so much battered raw meat! There is only one obstacle: how am I going to contact Goro? He is the prince of Kuatan, the fourth astral plane of the Outworld, and I am impounded within this miserable Earth Realm! I cannot communicate with him directly...
         ...but perhaps I can reach him indirectly!
         I think I may have a job for my inquisitive new associate after all.

         The Reptile (he responds to no other name) successfully delivered my message. He stoically accepted the dimension-traveling incantation that I cast upon him, and traversed the rift between worlds both ways without incident. I couldn't tell whether his resolve came from courage, fatalism, or ignorance. He and his species are virtually emotionless by human standards, and tremendously difficult to read even with the assistance of telepathy spells. It is good that he did not encounter a Dimensional Shambler or other transcosmic predator during his journey, and not only because I was depending upon him to reach Goro. I think I've become a little... fond of him. I have never had a pet before.
         Goro answered my summons; or perhaps I should say, my "invitation." One cannot "summon" beings such as he; one can only invite them and hope that they deign to respond. After quite a bit of negotiation, we finally hammered out an acceptable deal. Of course, the entire discussion took place in absolute privacy. I do not think it wise to allow anyone, including my new pet, to learn of my quiescent plans.
         Goro will help me regain control of the Tournament, exact vengeance upon Kung Lao, and pursue my dream of everlasting life... for a price. In return for Goro's aid, I have pledged to abet our mutual overlord, Shao Kahn. The Kahn wants me to create an indestructible bridge between the dimensions, so that he can march his demon armies into the Earth Realm and conquer it. Fabricating such a gateway will not be easy. Protecting the gateway once it is made shall be harder still. As long as the Earth Realm has its idealists, healers, teachers, and heroes, there will be too many rays of hope piercing and unraveling the dark corridor I seek to weave. To shield it, I shall have to overturn the physical manifestation of the otherwise intangible balance between good and evil, colloquially known as the cosmic Furies.
         I will have to amass a tremendous amount of life and soul energy to accomplish my task. It will probably take centuries to accumulate the vast quantity of power needed to surmount the Furies' immense inertia. In the meantime, I have agreed not to personally siphon off more of the energy stockpile than I need to survive, not even enough to rejuvenate myself. I am frustrated and sickened by the thought of remaining elderly, debilitated, nine-tenths dead for up to five hundred years...!
         On the positive side, I don't really have anything better to do, just now.
         It is almost a pity that I am conspiring to obliterate Earth Realm, which is not without its own manner of vivacious beauty. And yet, my hand is forced; without Goro's help, I would not survive the decade. If that is "evil," then it is only the most necessary evil. It is not my fault; all I want is to go on living.

         Kung Lao put up a fiercer fight than I expected, but the outcome of his battle with Goro was never in doubt. I watched him succumb beneath the burning brilliance of the afternoon sun. When at last Goro raised two of his mighty arms in triumph, Kung Lao was unable to rise from the courtyard dirt, so Goro seized his headband and used it to jerk him to his knees. I smiled, and signaled for Goro to continue. Goro fractured both his arms above and below the elbow, and both his legs above and below the kneecap. Then I approached to personally take the soul of my ruined adversary. My sole regret is that I never heard Kung Lao scream. How dissatisfying. I had been so looking forward to relishing his cries of pain. At least I recovered his magic-resistant wrist guards, which had done him no good against Goro's physical might. Goro has pounded them into so much scrap metal. I would have shredded Kung Lao's odd hat and vest as well, but he did not bring them to the site of his final battle. No one seems to know where he has hidden them.
         I am once again foremost among the Tournament's Grandmasters. The Tournament's previous head Grandmaster, who had once imprudently cast his vote against my will, "mysteriously" died well before Kung Lao's last stand. "Mysterious," hah! The other two know precisely who arranged his assassination, and have learned from his mistake. When I suggested that we allow edged weapons or cloth armor in future Tournaments, why, I did not hear a word of complaint from either of them. Should I terminate their brief lives now, or simply wait until the mayflies shrivel on their own? On the one hand, I can always use more souls; on the other, their constant fear of me is quite delectable (in purely aesthetic terms, that is). Decisions, decisions, decisions. Perhaps I'll wait ten years, and then kill them.
         I have also hired agents to kidnap Kung Lao's wife and family, his friends, and the crickets his children used to keep in cages, so that I may collect their souls. He has quite a large extended family, too; I may have to invest a good deal of effort into ensuring the eradication of every last member. But that entire arrangement is truthfully more for the sake of necessity than revenge. I need to set a clear example as to what happens to all associated with anyone who defies me. Besides, what real difference does it make if the swarm of insects expires now or a mere half-century from now?
         After securing my position here, I opened an interspacial shortcut to Reptile's home. Now I can travel there and back within minutes. Goro likes to relax in the caves of Reptile's island when he is not busy crushing yet another recklessly suicidal challenger. My pet, on the other hand, has taken the opportunity to return to my side. I asked him why he doesn't want live with the rest of his kind; he said that he had taken an oath to protect me from harm, and that his race keeps its promises to the letter. Well, I have grown accustomed to his presence. While I do not particularly need a bodyguard, I don't see how it could hurt. If he ever shows the slightest hint of treason, I'll simply consume his soul on the spot.

[date, 20th century]

         Times have been good.
         The day when I shall fulfill my pact with Shao Kahn fast approaches. Goro occasionally returns to the Outworld, to report to the Kahn and then visit his seven wives. Shao Kahn sends him back to me with news of the Outworld. Since Goro has too many Earth Realm duties to lead Shao Kahn's Outworld troops, the Kahn has promoted a new adjutant general to take Goro's place. Goro is not happy with the situation, but the Kahn has assured him that he will again be supreme commander once I open the dimensional gateway. Moreover, Adj. General Kintaro is one of the few beings in the Outworld who is Goro's equal in physical prowess. Goro will probably not rush to challenge him to ritual combat for the post.
         Kintaro has been a competent, if unexceptional general. Under his direction, 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, and expunged all its records, so that I do not even know what their names were. He has also slaughtered most of the region's indigenous population. But the cost of the victory was very dear. Shao Kahn sacrificed no less than two-thirds of his followers' lives. He cannot resurrect them all without expending more energy than it would take to open half a dozen trans-dimensional conduits; so, 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, but he says that he sees too much potential within her. Kitana's parents were far superior to average mortals in terms of strength, reflexes, stamina, cunning, and other traits that the Kahn highly values. Shao Kahn asserts that Kitana will be raised loyal to him, and ignorant of her true lineage. If all else fails, she can always be used as breeding stock, or so he claims. I think he is taking an unnecessary risk, but the matter is out of my hands.
         The Kahn has also requested that I investigate the possible "construction" of new soldiers to serve him. He has sent me samples of Kitana's blood from which to work. The experiment that he describes sounds intriguing enough. If the process is successful, then mayhap I shall eventually use it to grow my own set of steadfast warriors. That is a thought for another time, however.
         In any case, my devoted pet is already one of the finest warriors I could ever ask for. I have lost count of the number of times he has exterminated those who seek to do me harm. In addition to the fools who challenge my authority openly, by entering the annual Tournament, there are always plenty who aspire to strike me down in secret. I probably could have taken care of them without Reptile's assistance; then again, there have been so many attacks that it is reassuring to be under his protection.
         Reptile likes to keep a low profile. He has learned to move in silence. He uses illusion spells woven into the fabric of his stylized green and black uniform to camouflage his true nature. Whenever his hood is up and his mask conceals his lower face, he seems to be nothing more than a common man. The magical cloth even disguises the inhuman, hissing sibilance of his voice. He has also customized two spells for his own use; one renders him temporarily invisible to the unaided eye, and the other channels his own bio-kinetic energies as an offensive weapon. He usually finds it more effective to rely upon his natural talents in a conflict, though. I have seen him blind my would-be assassins by spitting into their eyes. His own saliva is many times more acidic than that of a human being, and caustic enough to burn.
         He has become so adept in magic that I have decided to take his instruction to the next level. I am teaching him how to use the one true Power, the power of Transformation and Metamorphosis. He seems a bit distrustful of it, despite its limitless potential. I have suggested that he start by assuming the abilities of someone or something close to himself in form (which admittedly still leaves him with a minor dilemma). The Power is great, but also dangerous, especially to neophytes; a beginner can all too easily become lost in the thoughts and mind of whatever being into which he Transforms. And if a novice in the Power's use carelessly Transforms into something without a mind... well, the consequences can be harsh. I intend to guide Reptile carefully through his experiments with the Power. It would be a shame if he were to accidentally drive himself insane; I'd be hard pressed to find another pet as useful as he is.

         My experiments to grow new warriors for Shao Kahn are not going well at all. Most of the things I've produced die instantly; barely one in a hundred endures longer than two minutes after I remove it from the vat of nutrient solution which simulates a human womb. I've requested fresh samples of Kitana's blood from the Kahn several times. Might my experiments have more success if I were to use blood from someone other than Kitana? Shao Kahn will not let me find out. He has declared that if the warriors I grow aren't at least of Kitana's physiological potential, then he may as well have them bred in the common manner. Using samples of, say, Goro's blood is out of the question. I don't want to create a battalion of warriors who are too strong; the problem with extremely powerful weapons is that they sometimes turn upon their wielder. The Kahn will be displeased to learn of my failure, but probably not dangerously so. I hear that his efforts to recruit new soldiers are going well. He is ready to attack the Earth Realm as soon as the way is open.
         Incidentally, I am convinced that one of the reasons why he wants the Earth Realm in the first place is because it is teeming with exploitable life and resources. The Outworld has become a barren, despoiled place under Shao Kahn's rule. It is no longer capable of physically supporting its population, and the Kahn has to expend a great deal of energy to mystically sustain his troops in the absence of edible food or drinkable water. Once he has access to the Earth Realm, he'll have the assets to make himself all but invincible, a virtual living god. I have to admit, it's a pretty good plan.
         So good, in fact, that I wish I'd thought of it first.

         Amid all my malfunctioning attempts, I have had one, fluke success in my quest to grow new warriors for the Kahn. I'm not sure why this one endures while so many others have perished; perhaps her will to survive is stronger. I haven't been able to duplicate the effect, and I think I shall give up my experiments for the time being.
         The sole surviving test subject has the outward physical appearance of a typical female newborn, save for her grotesquely distorted jaw. She also has a full set of teeth. I damn near lost a finger examining them. She has no molars and no incisors, just two rows of singularly long and pointed canines. Her tooth enamel is not colored white, but rather dirty grey. Overall, her maladaptive dentistry is curiously reminiscent of certain nomadic bands of Outworld mutants.
         Shao Kahn was quite interested in acquiring the child, since her potential is probably equal to Kitana's, if not greater. I agreed to turn the infant over to him... for a price. After all, our original bargain never specified anything about giving him children. (What does he think I am, his wife? By the Bloated Avatar of Nyarlathotep!)
         In exchange for the babe, I demanded and got the Kahn's permission to enslave Reptile's race. To Shao Kahn, the ownership of a few hundred reptilian slaves is nothing compared to the billions of human vassals that he'll subjugate once his armies overrun the Earth Realm. I still think I have the better half of the deal. If Reptile's diligent service is any indication, then his race shall be more useful to me than a thousand human slaves... or a thousand clones, for that matter.

         The hour of Doom draws nigh.
         Nearly half a millennium since the fateful day when Goro crushed Kung Lao, I am almost ready to create an irresistible force to use upon the immovable Furies. I need only harvest the souls of one, last Tournament, plus a little something more. Ordinary mortals do not possess the extra spark to their life energies that I require. I need something... special, something from individuals of distinctive worth and particular puissance. I refer to exceptional beings of potentially superior charisma, whose life force resonates with so much latent potency that they stand out from the throngs of nondescript mortal cattle. These are the people who, given the right times and circumstances, could shape history. Kung Lao was one, although I did not perceive it when first we met. Genghis Khan would have been another. There are never more than a few thousand such alive within the entire Earth Realm, not even amid the population explosion of this modern age. Alas, quantity does not always guarantee quality.
         The overwhelming majority of such especial individuals are too wise or cautious to participate in my Tournament, but I have isolated a few who most likely will. At least one seeks to assassinate me, I believe; I can sense a second who hunts the professional killer as intensely as the killer stalks me. There is a gangster I shall entice to come out of greed, and a soldier I shall entrap when she comes after the gangster. A movie star and a god might each enlist to gratify their respective egos, provided that I properly word the solicitation.
         And I have sent an invitation to one of the last Shaolin warriors of Kung Lao's former Temple. I've also heard rumors about another Shaolin monk, who reputedly traces his lineage back to Kung Lao himself, but such gossip does not trouble me. If this descendent of Kung Lao exists, then either he will find his way to my Tournament or he won't. The souls of the other seven, in addition to those of the usual mortal bovines, ought to be more than enough.
         I have asked my pet whether he wants to join the Tournament as well. He is uncertain. He has regarded my annual Tournaments with some distaste for as far back as I can remember, though I would not presume to know why. He cannot have any objections to killing; he has dispatched and occasionally eaten countless many of my would-be executioners. He did accede to my suggestion that he observe the spectacle invisibly, however, and he will be practicing his limited skills in the use of the Metamorphosis. Perhaps he will spar with one or two of the combatants after all. He seemed intrigued when I told him about the Seven.

         Everything goes according to plan. The Seven have all come to the Tournament. I did have a little difficulty persuading the soldier to fight, but she has acquiesced because I hold the lives and souls of her military underlings hostage.
         Most of the mortal livestock who accompanied the especial Seven have been ignobly butchered by now. Soon, only the Seven shall remain; I am sure of it. I intend to repeatedly pit them against one another, perhaps even resurrect some of them a few times, until I know which one of them is the finest. Then I shall sap their energies one by one, and the final sacrifice of the greatest warrior will tie the metaphorical knot upon the final stitch in my sorcerous tapestry. The next time I write an entry within this journal, Shao Kahn shall rule the Earth Realm... and I shall be that much closer to the immortality I so greatly desire!

         I'll murder him.
         Liu Kang, that imbecile, that misbegotten whelp, that plague-ridden leper, I vow I am going to MURDER HIM!!! I didn't forfeit to him; he cheated! He shall surrender his soul, the souls of his family, the souls of his-
         Damn. I've been here before, haven't I?
         I should have known better. I cannot escape self-recrimination; I never should have tempted Fate by inviting another Shaolin monk into my territory. And on the eve of my scheme's fruition, no less! By the black gulf of N'Kai, I detest admitting it, but I have made my greatest mistake since I underestimated an accursed dolt dressed in the most preposterous hat and vest imaginable.
         If only I had been more wary of Liu Kang after he entered my domain! His incredible speed set him apart from even the rest of the Seven. His classical techniques were so fluid they might have held a candle to my own in my prime. So phenomenal was he, that Reptile challenged him to single combat... and lost! The entire battle took place amid the spikes at the bottom of the death-pits that used to ring my castle's walls. I was too far away to hear the sounds of the struggle, but I saw everything from my elevated perch. My pet adroitly used his growing mastery of the Power to gain the abilities of two of the Seven, to no avail. Liu Kang trounced him. Oddly enough, he spared Reptile's life at the end of the contest, even though he must have known that my minion would continue to guard me against all harm.
         The Tournament's battles were chaotic at first, but soon Liu Kang rose above all the other warriors. He even outwitted "his own reflection," a sorcerously animated doppleganger which mirrored his every talent. Unfortunately, I did not entertain any serious misgivings until he earned the right to challenge Goro. Only then, as I peered down into Goro's bleak subterranean lair, did I notice something amiss. I could see the tell-tale glint of eyes in the dark recesses of the background tunnels. The tiniest twitch of disquiet skittered across my face. I leaned closer, careful of the sheer drop, since there was no rail or banister near my precariously high seat to keep the uncoordinated from accidentally plunging to their doom. After a few moments of scrutiny, I concluded that the eyes belonged to members of Reptile's race. Now that I think about it, I believe they were there all along, silently watching whenever any two combatants fought among the decaying bones that littered Goro's residence. Had the saurians somehow sensed this Tournament's monumental importance? I had no time to mull the matter over, because one of my hooded guards suddenly distracted me.
         "Master, the prisoners have escaped! When I showed up to begin my shift, the other sentries were missing their heads and the men-in-green were gone!"
         He was of course referring to the soldier's comrades-in-arms. They were not of any great concern to me at the time, but I dislike negligence.
         "You have failed me," I accused.
         "Master, I wasn't late for my shift-"
         "No excuses!"
         "I am ashamed, Master. Please forgive me," he pleaded, kneeling submissively.
         "I forgive you," I said, with a benevolent smile. Then I took his soul.
         ...and by the time the wretch had relinquished the last of his warm vitality, I heard a persistent, ringing timbre that gradually resolved itself into barbed words. It took a moment for me to disconnect from the nebulous gratification of the killing and pay attention to their meaning:
         "Where is he? Where is that cringing coward, Shang Tsung? You can no longer hide behind Goro; I have defeated him!"
         What? Impossible!
         "Shang Tsung, you aging relic, answer me! You fading mockery of a man! You pitiable monster in the shape of an elderly wreck! I have passed ALL your tests; now come down and face me like the warrior you PRETEND to be!"
         That damn noisy bastard...! He derisively bit off each taunt. His inflection was so rancorous as to rival my own vocalized contempt of ordinary mortal cattle. No man had ever dared to address me with such insolence before, not even Kung Lao, may his shade writhe in endless torment! I dropped the watchman's heavy corpse and whirled about, fury in my heart-
         -the ledge on which I stood unexpectedly crumbled, just a little-
         -my foot slipped; I wavered only the slightest bit off balance-
         -"Reptile!" I called out with both my voice and my mind, anxiously expecting him to reappear by my side and steady me, but for the fist time I could ever recall, my faithful pet failed to respond-
         I fell.
         Quickly, I strived to offset the sudden effects of gravity with a levitation spell. My attempt was only partially successful because I was still groggy from the essences I had recently drained. The shock of the impact knocked the wind out of me. My head hurt. Dimly, I realized that I must have hit it, and in retrospect it was a wonder that no blood trickled down my temple. I made it to a standing position somehow, barely able to hover in place and maintain my equilibrium. My beguiled vision lurched and swam. All I could see of my enemy was an indistinct blur, dimly outlined with faint light from the moon and stars of the nighttime sky...
         Why can't I remember the rest of the battle?
         I know that I must have put up a fight to make the gods take interest; my body may have been wizened, but I had the Power to assume the form and abilities of any of the Seven, or even Goro. Nor had my sorceries deserted me. Liu Kang could never have beaten me easily. If not for his cheating trick, if not for my sudden fall, I would have vanquished him, I am certain of it!
         Why can't I remember...?
         The only thing I recollect is the shattering pain of that last kick with which he flew at me. Its awful crush upon my internal organs twisted my spine. Numbness engulfed my lower body. I toppled to the ground, and all my powers, all my labors and energies and efforts over the past five hundred years began to unknot. My setback had disrupted the ultimately fragile web of mystic threads that had held everything together for so long. The dark weaving frayed and warped into a swirling negative vortex, which coiled spitefully inward. Its massive pull caused my palace to shudder, heave, and torpidly collapse in on itself. Liu Kang disappeared. Would that the disintegrating walls of my dying manor had pulverized him, but I know he lives. I can feel it.
         "Reptile..." I coughed. The tremendous din of my entire world shattering around me swallowed up the faint call, but this time my bodyguard materialized. He crouched next to me, oblivious of the chaos that surrounded us, and gently supported my upper body, since I could not sit up by myself. His mask was down, strangely enough, and he looked upon me with his true face. The most distant tang of remorse tinged his normally emotionless composure. When he spoke, softly aspirating his words, I didn't hear them so much as I felt them with my mind.
         "I am sssorry, Massster."
         "You should be," I snapped.
         He shifted his gaze upward. I followed his line of sight just in time to observe the small patches of mossy growth upon the plummeting stone blocks that killed us.

         Adj. General Kintaro must have recovered my corpse. Who else would have had the muscle to dig through several tons of rubble?
         I had meant to return to the Outworld, but not like this; not in disgrace and humiliation, not by being killed, resurrected, and then dragged, helpless, to the feet of my incensed superior. Or was he genuinely angry at all? While Shao Kahn is not as inscrutable as Reptile, he does conceal his face beneath a hideously contorted steel mask. Even the eye cavities of that guise were little more than indented slits, through which blazed twin pinpoints of red fire. I could not look very closely, however, since his guards coerced me kowtow before him. They forced me down so roughly that my face rubbed the ground, and I tasted contaminated Outworld dust and dirt.
         I shall have my revenge upon the Kahn, and soon.
         "YOU HAVE FAILED ME," Shao Kahn intoned. His deep, booming and intensely reverberant voice resonated with the echoes of despair and the threat of unthinkable anguish. "THE FURIES REMAIN BALANCED, AND GORO IS DEAD. YOU SHALL PAY DEARLY FOR YOUR INADEQUACY! YOU DO NOT DESERVE THE LUXURY OF CONTINUED EXISTENCE!"
         Oh? Then why had he bothered to revivify me at all? I knew better than to call his game, though. Bitterness flared within me as I constrained myself to grovel in the obsequious manner he expected. Clasping the palms of my hands together in supplication, I cried "Master Kahn, I beg you, please hear your unworthy vassal out!"
         "Most great and mighty Master Kahn, I have dedicated myself to your service for five hundred years; my soul is yours, to do with as you will-"
         Shao Kahn abruptly burst into tremendous spasms of earthshaking laughter. That had not hardly been my intent...!
         "YOUR SOUL? YOUR SOUL? YOU FANCY THAT YOUR SOUL IS WORTH ANYTHING TO ME?" More laughter. "HAVE YOU LOOKED AT IT LATELY?" He bent down to my level, his gargoyle visage leering twelve inches from my face. "DISGUSTING!"
         Who is he to talk!?!
         I seethed inwardly, laboring to keep my abhorrence of him from showing through my countenance. "Master Shao Kahn, the catastrophe was an accident. I can salvage it. Most of the energies I stored ought to saturate the ruins of my palace. I can recover them, and then gather the rest of what I need to finish my task! Let me lure our enemies into your trap. Please, permit me to hold just one more Tournament!"
         And, to my complete lack of surprise, he has.
         He has also restored my youth. At last! How can I describe it? To no longer have to conceal my frailty beneath layers of stiflingly hot robes...! To enjoy the benefits of dexterity, stamina, and renewed strength without continually exercising the Power to hold my form in another being's shape...! I am not yet quite accustomed to being young again; it feels so exotic and wonderful! I still despise the Kahn, and I still crave blood vengeance for the indignities he has heaped upon me, but for this I shall do him the kindness of killing him quickly.
         Shao Kahn must be blissfully unaware of my rebellious desires, or else he would not have recently granted me access to some of his power. I can now do things that would have been inconceivable before, such as revive the dead when I do not have the entire corpse. After enlisting Kintaro's help to recover most of Reptile's remains, I've used this new ability to bring back my pet, with the initial intention of making him suffer for his failure. Well, I had to displace my rage against the Kahn upon someone, and I couldn't have done so upon any of his minions. Nor would there have been any point in resurrecting Goro, who is not so easily pushed around, and whose revivification would have required a much greater expenditure of power anyway.
         I had at first been looking forward to torturing Reptile, but I must be getting soft in my young age. He tried to excuse his delinquency by alleging that his shape-shifting magic had confused him. I had called for "Reptile" to stabilize me, during that one, critical instant; but he had been trapped in another persona, and unable to respond to the word "Reptile" as if it were his name. I suppose that he has a point. Shape-shifting magic does involve the risk of multiple identity crises, particularly when practiced by an unseasoned apprentice. I relented after making only a few marks upon his chest with a red-hot iron brand.
         I have put his training in the Power of Metamorphosis on indefinite hold. He is currently honing his natural talents and his less powerful sorceries instead. He is getting better at projecting his intrinsic energies as an offensive weapon, and his expertise in magical invisibility is unrivalled. I recently tested him in a duel against one of the Kahn's finest warriors, Major General Baraka. My pet is no longer as fast as he once was, since he has abandoned the Power that used to give him the acceleration of a hummingbird; still, he acquitted himself nicely. It pleases me that he has agreed to participate and look out for my interests in the upcoming Tournament.
         In light of his usefulness, I suppose that I can overlook his failure... once.

         Shao Kahn, that moronic, decrepit excuse for a pretend warlord, he won't let me KILL Liu Kang!
         Apparently, he wants a warrior of Liu Kang's fortitude in his armies. He maintains that anyone can be corrupted and cowed into allegiance, given the right circumstances. In this case, the circumstances were to start with annihilating all the inhabitants of the Shaolin Temple that was Liu Kang's home. Then, when Liu Kang returned, I was to taunt him and lure him into the Outworld.
         Madness. The Kahn must have mortgaged an enormous amount of power to project a fraction of his troops into the Earth Realm, and for what? The extinguishment of a few dozen meager mortals? Not to imply that I mind getting revenge upon Liu Kang's former friends; it simply burns that I cannot kill him as well! The plan did seem to work without any complications, though. Baraka efficiently led the raid, while I watched. I invited Reptile to take part as well, but he declined; I had to order him to get him to come and help me during my brief reunion with my archenemy. That also seemed to go well; I reveled in Liu Kang's blinding grief for his lost comrades, and I fiercely enjoyed his ineffective attempts to harm me. The only difficulty lay in restraining my desire to kill him. I dearly wanted to do so, but I know better than to frivolously invite the Kahn's displeasure.
         I did keep an eye out for that rumored last descendent of Kung Lao, but didn't see anyone who particularly resembled my former nemesis. No matter. If he existed within that temple at all, then he is surely dead by now. None of the Shaolin survived our attack.

         Will Shao Kahn never learn?
         First Kitana, then Liu Kang, and now I understand he's captured two of the last Tournament's Seven. They are each shackled to platforms on either side of the Kahn's throne in the Arena. His intention is to hold them prisoner until the Outworld supposedly corrupts them, and then add them to his legions. Moreover, he seems convinced that their presence will lure more participants of exceptional worth into the Tournament. He ought to just let me drain them and be done with it!
         I cannot do any lasting harm to the prisoners - it would be against Shao Kahn's orders - but they don't know that, so I have taken some idle delight in torturing them with words. Well, I have to do something to pass the time until the next Tournament commences. The man made for the most enjoyable sport. When I approached him, I could smell his fear and see him shrink away, bristling like the cornered rat he was.
         "What do you want," he growled, unable to keep an unsteady quiver entirely out of his voice.
         "Guess," I hissed, fixing him with empty white eyes. I could see beads of sweat break out upon his face and neck, despite the cool temperature of the outdoor arena.
         He breathed raggedly, once in, once out, and matched my stare for nearly ten seconds before his left eye twitched and he looked away. "If you're after my soul... why don't you go ahead and fucking take it already!"
         "Because this isn't the appropriate time," I told him, lightly. "Don't worry. I will soon, I assure you..." I deliberately trailed off, paused briefly for dramatic effect, then continued "...unless..." A flicker of hope dashed across his mien, followed by a surge self-resentment for daring to hope. "You must have led quite a colorful life, to date. Perhaps you could write down a few things about it for me."
         "Drop dead," he spat, as if saying it would actually make it happen.
         "I am serious."
         "Go to hell."
         "If I find it suitably amusing to read, I might consider leaving your pathetic soul inside your miserable body."
         "Yeah, right."
         "I give you my most sincere promise."
         "You lie!" he snarled, baring his teeth.
         "Yes, I do," I returned smoothly, without specifying whether I lied in general or in reference to that particular guarantee.
         He glared at me, furiously, but also fearfully. I reached into his cesspool of a mind, the surface of which whirled with anxiety, desperation, and an eclectic variety of unprintably crude suppositions. Beneath that lay the gate to his recent memories, beyond that more distant remembrances; further still, there rested locked doors sealing off dusky corridors brimming with the white-hot coals of hidden pain. I reached for one particularly tantalizing buried nightmare about... some woman... screaming?
         "STOP IT! Get the fuck OUT of my HEAD!" he frantically shrieked, falling to his knees, and jerking back exactly as Reptile had shied away from the press of blistering iron. Amazing. I haven't experienced such a deliciously agonized reaction to a forced mind-probe in the longest time.
         "Really, now. If you will not give me what I want, then of course I am going to take it. What did you expect?" He turned his head to the left, so that only the side of his face with the cybernetic implant and the infrared eye remained in my line of sight. "Well?"
         He mumbled something indistinct.
         "I cannot hear you. Do speak up."
         "I said you fucking win, okay?" he rasped, hoarsely. "I'll write whatever you want. Crap, I'll write the fucking Great American Novel if you want. Just leave me alone, all right?" He kept his head twisted to the left, refusing to meet my gaze, as if he thought that would hide his weakness from me. I did not have to look to know what coalesced within the inside corner of his organic eye. I savored his breakdown for a time, then left him with the tools that he might use to compose something for my eventual entertainment.
         After that thoroughly enjoyable undertaking, I had the highest expectations for my encounter with the woman, but she proved to be a disappointment. She wouldn't speak. She only gave me a blank stare when I threatened her and told her lies about the gruesome deaths of her former comrades. When I tried to pry into her mind, all I could read in the form of intelligible thought was, "Name: Sonya Blade. Rank: Lieutenant." That phrase followed me wherever I searched, ceaselessly repeating itself. I delved deeper, through a cold, unbroken swath of opaque grey, looking for her most hurtful memories. There was nothing to be found save more grey and that one phrase, involuntarily replicated over and over, rhythmically pounding with greater intensity each passing moment. The continually increasing magnitude built up to a blaring clamor, so intolerably loud that it forced me to snap out of my cerebral trance.
         Then, I saw her smile. It was not the bright, cheerful grin with which she had once celebrated her petty Tournament victories, but rather a chilling, predatory sneer that felt so different, so much darker and more ominous...
         Damn it! I am the one with power; she is the one who is helpless! There is no reason for me to be apprehensive of her!
         I wonder what she thinks is so funny.

         The hour of Doom once again draws nigh.
         I've lured more entrants of exceptional worth to this Tournament than ever before. Shao Kahn expects most of them to die horribly. He plans use the lives and souls of the fallen in conjunction with my sorceries to expand his conquests and attain godhood.
         Shao Kahn is a fool. I have a better plan. He made his worst mistake when he gave me youth and power; I'm finally ready to dethrone him. If I can only overcome Kintaro and the Kahn, I'll become the new supreme commander of their armies. Then, I'll use the Outworld's demon legions to acquire the might of a deity and immunity to death for all time. I'll most likely have to upset the Furies and destroy the Earth Realm in the process.
         But only because it is necessary.
         It is not my fault.
         All I want is to go on living.

         Is Shao Kahn truly a "fool"? If so, then he is not the only one with flaws. Ah, my "Master," always so secure in thy belief that only thou knowest the spell to render thy journal legible, didst thou never think to wonder who might be looking over thy shoulder whilst thou cast it? Hast thou forgotten that we have mastered the supernatural craft of becoming unseen to the eye, in addition to the mundane craft of being unheard by the ear? Compared to the shape-shifting magic in which we once dabbled, the sorcery to decrypt thy handwritten pages was simplicity itself to assimilate. We had only to observe thee, and learn.
         When first thou didst come to us, thou didst dissemble, and feign to be our friend. We made the terrible mistake of swearing an unbreakable, lifetime oath of loyalty to thee. Even when we learned of thy plans to enslave the few remaining members of our all but extinct race, we could not do anything about it... directly. But we had to take some action! Even though thou expects us to speak in singular pronouns, we think of ourselves in the plural because the bond between ourselves and our peaceful kindred is tighter than thou couldst ever imagine. We had to hinder thy terrible ambitions any way that we could.
         We started by seizing the opportunity to warn the warrior Liu Kang of thy schemes to unsteady the Furies and bring havoc to the Earth Realm. We purposefully challenged him in the depths of thy spiked pit, so that thou couldst not hear our words from thy seat on high. Thou didst not see our lips move beneath our mask. All thou didst behold was the fight between ourselves and he. Then, we freed what few of thy captives we could, and sent them through the tunnels beneath thy keep, so that the rest of our kind might guide them to safety. When we accompanied thee during thy confrontation with thy most hated enemy since the Great Kung Lao, we didst smell the nearby presence another living mortal; but we did not give him away, for whatever that is worth. And now, even as we appear to heed thy orders and remain thy humble "pet," we shall spread about a carefully chosen selection of the evil thoughts thou hast transcribed within thy journal. We have made arrangements that shall ensure the distribution of its copied contents regardless of what becomes of ourselves.
         Perhaps it is a fortunate blessing that thou hast never yet suspected us, that thou wert always convinced of our utter fidelity. Indeed, we have been faithful; and if the warp of thy malefic magic had not truly confused us with the identities of others, who knows how the last Tournament might have ended?
         Now, however, the situation has changed. Yes, it is true that we did promise, once, to "honor, protect, and obey thee unto death." Then, we died. Not even the gods can be sure of what shall happen next. Most likely, we shall have to destroy thee to save ourselves, our home, and our kindred.
         But only because it is necessary.
         It is not our fault.
         All the Race wants is to go on living.

   " isn't wrong to want to live?"
   "No. But when we crave power over life - endless wealth, unassailable safety, immortality - then desire becomes greed. And if knowledge allies itself to that greed, then comes evil. Then the balance of the world is swayed, and ruin weighs heavy in the scale."

       -Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore

end of The Most Necessary Evil