THE DRAGON'S JAWS

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.com
Victar's Archive:
http://www.victarfanfics.com



   "It is really hard to conceive of just how big a dragon is. I can tell you that it could eat me, perhaps without the need for a second bite... I could let you know that, at the shoulders, it was around eighteen feet high and much, much longer than that. But, until you've seen one up close, you just can't really imagine it."
       -S. K. Z. Brust, Taltos


         I have just come from a long and costly war to determine the fate of our entire world, and all who live within it. It is my duty to write this record of the internecine events as best I may, for the knowledge of forthcoming generations.
         The roots of the conflict reach back to over five hundred years ago. The Shaolin Tournament for Martial Arts itself is much older than that, at least two millennia older, perhaps nine times that, perhaps more ancient still. Some believe that the Tournament, in cruder form, predates the founding of the White Lotus Society of the Shaolin Order, of which I am a humble member. For many, many centuries, the Tournament was an open contest meant to bring honor and glory to all who sought to test themselves by competing within it.
         Then came the shape-shifter.
         His name was Shang Tsung; his intentions, wholly foul. Cursed by the gods, hated by men, he artificially prolonged his own life by using his unholy sorceries to steal the lives and souls of others. He wrested the Tournament from its Shaolin patrons and sought to pervert it to his evil ends. A virtuous and noble Shaolin monk named Kung Lao did reclaim the Tournament, but only for a short span of years. Then Shang Tsung overpowered and murdered him, with the aid of a monstrous protégé called Goro. The Tournament has remained in Shang Tsung's immortal and corrupt hands ever since, until barely this year, when I took it back from him.
         I did not succeed wholly by myself. I had the aid of six other warriors, some of whom had motivations more worthy of esteem than others. I do not know how many of them survived the chaos that ignited and ran rampant the instant I vanquished Shang Tsung. Before his withered frame fell all the way to the floor from the spine-crushing impact of my last and most critical kick, his decadent palace began to quake and crumble, as though his sickly vitality had been holding it together all these centuries, instead of mere brick and mortar. I barely escaped alive. The only other person I saw leave the disaster was John Carlton, who has since done me the kindness of providing me with transportation back to the Honan Province. I am currently on the last leg of the return journey to my home, the Shaolin Temple, where I shall be able to rest, return to the simple life of a fisherman, and devote myself to properly rewriting a more detailed chronicle of all that has happened.
         Shang Tsung himself is dead. He must be. When I defeated him in single combat, I also broke his mystical power, so that he could no longer protect his already enfeebled body from the ravages of time and decay. That surely must have killed him, even if his island fortress had not caved in on itself like a dying horse that can no longer carry its master. Goro is also dead. I disliked instigating their slaughter, but it was necessary; Shang Tsung had been planning to unbalance the cosmic Furies and summon forces that would have remade the world's surface into a demon-ruled pit of eternal darkness. He had to be stopped. I derive no satisfaction from his eradication; if anything, all I feel is a wash of relief that at long last, the nightmare is over.

         [signature, Liu Kang]
         [date]



         The nightmare is not over.
         I received a warning today. The first sign that something was amiss came when a stratospheric mass of dark, roiling clouds engulfed what had previously been a clear sky. Day passed into night within the space of half a dozen heartbeats, and yet the hour of the clock had barely waned into early afternoon. I did not need any training in weather-lore to know that there was something unnatural about the impending storm. A single flash of lightning sparked so brilliantly as to mimic the brightest sunlight, forcing me to shield my eyes, and a sudden, unbroken stream of heavy rain drenched me instantaneously. (I was very glad that I carry this scroll within its own waterproof case, because the slightest exposure to the surging elemental forces would surely have destroyed it.) Thunder reverberated and echoed from all sides. There was a second flash of lightning, and then a god materialized before me.
         So, Raiden had also survived the Tournament.
         He appeared in the form of a mortal man, though his blazing white, pupilless eyes and the occasional snakelike trickle of electricity skittering about his seven-foot body marked him as something significantly more powerful... and more menacing. Despite the thunder that never completely quieted while he spoke to me, I could hear his sharp, alternately crescendo and diminuendo "voice" burn itself into my brain with perfect lucidity. I am not certain that he "spoke" to me entirely by means of ordinary sound alone.
         He departed without preamble, and so, too, departed the storm. If not for my sopping wet clothing and the smell of fresh rain in the air, I might have mistaken the entire experience for a bizarre waking dream. I remember the general content, if not the precise phrasing of the warning: Shang Tsung is alive. He has the support of a powerful patron. And he wishes to lure his enemies into a second Tournament set in the Outworld, a place that exists beyond the space and time within which ordinary mortals dwell. Worse still, Shang Tsung has not abandoned his previous scheme to unbalance the Furies and doom humankind to eternal darkness. I, personally, am in great danger.
         I do not want to believe any of it. I am too weary to consider entering a second Tournament; how long has it been since I endured the horrors of the last one? It feels like barely the extent of a few short days, even though I know better. Sometimes, when I close my eyes at night, I can still smell the scent of fresh blood and hear the screams of men and women dying in agony...
         Could Raiden be lying? I have never trusted him. When he participated in the first Tournament, he came across as arrogant and uncaring about the well-being of "lesser" living creatures. On the other hand, could competing in mortal form and experiencing the emptiness of death have given him a sobering lesson in humility? Why would he want to lie to me, in any case? What would he have to gain? I cannot know for certain whether he was telling the truth. Psychological analysis is all but useless upon a god.
         I carry an ill feeling within me. The storm is gone, but an ominous wisp of dusky cloud cover remains visible, just above the far horizon of the pathway home.



         Home has become the gateway to Hell.
         A horrible thing has happened to the people who have been like members of my family to me, ever since my parents died and my elder brother disappeared to parts unknown. I know how the tragedy came to pass, but I still have difficulty accepting what has taken place. The last time I saw them all, I had just sworn to enter Shang Tsung's Tournament and defeat him. The last time I spoke to Master Wu, I said to him: "I will not fail... that is my promise!"
         I wonder what his severed head thinks of my promises now.
         I...

[illegible]

         I must start again.
         The morning after Raiden delivered his warning, I hastened up the pathway to the Shaolin Temple at a much swifter pace. Ordinarily, I would have needed two more days of travel to reach it, but I was so uneasy that I had resolved to arrive by sunset. At one point, I caught a glimpse of a tiny corner of the Temple's roof. It looked normal enough at first glance; then, I noticed that there were an unusual number of birds circling the vicinity. I could not tell what precise avian species they were, but their large, wide wingspread set them well apart from ordinary songbirds or migrating seabirds. They appeared to be hawks, or else...
         I suddenly did not want to continue my speculations. Instead, I redoubled my pace yet again. I was sprinting so briskly that I nearly crashed into the first living human being I had seen since bidding farewell to John Carlton.
         "Out of my way!" I snapped, simultaneously attempting to step around the person who impeded my progress.
         "Wait," he said, interposing himself directly in my path. I tried to brush him aside, but he was fully prepared for the attempt and had braced himself to block me. One of his hands clasped my shoulder, and he fixed me with a direct glare. Only then did I recognize him. My eyes narrowed slightly.
         "You," I growled.
         "Is that any way to greet your old friend Kung Lao?" he rasped in reply.



         There are many phrases I could use to describe the last living descendant of the Great Kung Lao: younger Shaolin brother, yes; fellow scholar of the White Lotus Society, most certainly; rival student of martial arts, of course; but... "old friend"? Well, I suppose that is not truly inaccurate, all past animosities aside. We have long been on more or less friendly terms, although we have had our differences. Our last meeting in particular had not gone smoothly. I remember it well. It took place a short time after I had announced my intentions to defeat Shang Tsung and reclaim the Shaolin Tournament from his evil grip.
         "I was the first to ask permission to compete in Shang Tsung's Tournament! Why did Master Wu grant your petition when he denied mine?" he had demanded of me, with his usual bluntness. Kung Lao never was one to mince words.
         "Who am I to fully comprehend the wisdom of the Master?" I told him, bringing my palms together and bowing my head in the traditional manner.
         "Don't give me that. You've always 'comprehended the wisdom of the Master' better than I ever have, so stop acting so damn holy and tell me!"
         "'The admission of one's own shortcomings, is a first step to transcending the limitations of the self,'" I quoted, or perhaps paraphrased, from our mutual teachers' lessons.
         "Gods curse you, Liu Kang, you know I deserve a straight answer!"
         "I would like to suggest that you might venture to ask me with the proper politeness. Perhaps that will bring you more success than invoking the wrath of a thousand gods."
         With very slight amusement, I contemplated what a curious spectacle it was to watch him endeavor to control his temper. It took him ten whole seconds to regain enough self-composure to grit his teeth and say, "Elder Shaolin brother, please enlighten me upon this matter." It was not the politest phrasing, nor was it spoken in the most courteous manner, but it was probably the best I could have hoped from him, at the time. Besides, he did have some cause. He most likely would not have behaved so rudely to me (or any other Shaolin brother, for that matter) under ordinary circumstances, but Master Wu's decision to permit only myself to enter the Tournament had doubtless come as a severe blow to him. Here was the one chance to avenge his great ancestors, and he had to watch it pass him by.
         "First, you know full well that I am the elder and more advanced in my studies of the martial arts. Given that the Master is unwilling to risk more than one Shaolin brother's life in the forthcoming Tournament, I am the logical choice. Second, I am more expendable than you. Should the worst come to pass, I have an elder brother who could carry on my family's name-"
         "-not that you or anyone else knows where he is-" Kung Lao hissed.
         "-whereas you are the last of your line. Someone must preserve the legacy of the Great Kung Lao; who will do so if you die?"
         "And if I continue to live here, cowering within safe walls while my ancestors' murderers roam at large and wreak havoc, then how could I possibly be worthy of bearing the hundred thousandth fragment of any legacy at all?"
         "You have heard once why you must remain here. I will not repeat myself."
         "You haven't answered my question."
         "If you were to leave the temple and follow me to the secret location of the Tournament, then there would be little I or anyone else could do stop you." I wonder, in retrospect, what caused me to point that out? I can no longer remember. Was it that I understood his agitation and sympathized with his predicament, or was it simply that I was losing my patience with him and no longer cared?
         "No, elder brother; I cannot hound your trail like an honorless thief. I shall enter the Tournament either by your side, or not at all."
         "So be it, then," and with those parting words I left him for the road that would carry me to my destiny. I could feel his eyes fixed upon my back until the Temple itself became hidden behind the summer vegetation and highland peaks. For all I knew, he might have remained standing in that very spot, looking at where he was last able to see my dwindling form, for the rest of day and the length of the night. I suppose he was waiting for me to turn around, come back, and tell him that I would welcome his entrance beside mine into the Tournament, after all. Ridiculous. If more than one of us had entered the Tournament, we might have been forced to fight or even kill one another, and what benefit could have come from that?
         He would have just slowed me down anyway.



         "Leave me be!" I snarled to Kung Lao, although my sudden hostility was more the product of pent-up worry rather than any actual resentment of his desire to restrain me. He now had a surprisingly strong grip upon my right wrist. I could have escaped it in an instant, and concurrently incapacitated him with a severe strike to his temple or his exposed floating rib, but it is against the code for one Shaolin brother to needlessly instigate physical conflict with another. "I must check upon the welfare of our brothers!"
         "There is nothing you can do for them, Liu Kang," he said, without slackening his grasp in the slightest. "Please. You must listen to me." His voice carried a slight quiver to it.
         "Speak quickly, then!"
         "You may wish to sit down for this. You see-" he paused, licking his lips. It took me a moment to realize that Kung Lao, always so direct and uncompromisingly straightforward with his words, was for once trying to break his message gently.
         "Do not hesitate upon formalities. Tell me, or let me go. Now."
         "A terrible thing has happened. There is nothing you can do to change it now. And I have overheard that Shang Tsung has laid a trap for you within the Temple; if you go in there, he will be able to sense your presence and-"
         "What 'terrible thing'? What are you talking about? Shang Tsung is dead! I killed him myself!"
         His attempt to speak faltered.
         "Damn you! What must I do to make you-" I abruptly stopped speaking when I noticed his eyes. They were unusually red, and puffy. The last dying rays of sunlight sparkled upon two thin, all but invisible trails from the inside corner of each eye down across his either cheek. He had very recently been... crying?
         "I'm sorry," I whispered. "Please forgive me." His head inclined somewhat, and he raggedly took in a shuddering breath. He voiced his next sentence flatly, dully, without looking at me or showing of any trace of emotion.
         "I am the only survivor."
         Panic engulfed me. Acting upon years of conditioned reflex, I rotated my ensnared wrist so that its inner edge lay against the weak point of his clasp, where his thumb and index finger touched. Then I freed my hand with an ungraceful wrench and bolted in the direction of the Temple.
         "Wait!" Kung Lao called, but I paid no attention to him. I had completely forgotten his earlier warning about a trap, and I had to know whether his harrowing words were true.
         They were.
         The Temple was in ruins. Parts of it were still burning, although the fires were in the process of receding to embers and ashes. The "hawks" I had spotted earlier were actually carrion feeders, which had flocked to the Temple in great numbers. No wonder, that; there was plenty of fresh carrion strewn about for them to gorge themselves corpulent upon. Death was everywhere. The gutted, impaled, and decapitated corpses of my brothers surrounded me. A few bodies bore marks of being burned or tortured to death. The familiar smells of blood and decomposition pervaded the air. Also present were the odors of urine and defecation, stemming from the involuntary relaxation of the body's bladder and sphincter muscles once life has fled. Some of my brothers had been cut down with weapons in their hands; still others had apparently been taken completely by surprise. None had been spared, not the lowliest acolytes through priests of high rank...
         "Master Wu," I mouthed silently, and dashed inside. More blood and death stained the Temple's entry corridors. The Master still sat upon his elevated dais in the Great Hall, flanked on either side by ceremonial watch-fires... or rather, most of him did. His neatly severed head rested in the middle of the left fire. It made poor fuel, at best; the flames had died to the point where they barely engulfed it. For a moment, I almost thought that his charred face wore a serene expression, but then again my mind could have been playing tricks upon itself. At least he had not suffered.
         Cruel, scornful laughter sounded from behind me. I whirled to confront Shang Tsung himself. He appeared in a new, much more youthful incarnation than before, but there could be no mistaking his features, his soulless eyes, or his malicious voice. Two others were at his either side. One was a green-dressed ninja, whom I recognized as Shang Tsung's personal bodyguard (how had either of them survived the last Tournament?); the other was an unfamiliar mockery of a human being, with long spikes for teeth and pieces of metal embedded in his arms.
         "I was wondering when you would show up," Shang Tsung remarked, with a grin that was more sneer than smile.
         "MURDERER!!!" I screamed, and flew at him with the most powerful kick I could summon. It did not connect, even though my aim was perfectly true. I passed right through the seemingly corporeal image of the wizard and painfully collided with the stone column just behind him. I was fortunate not to break any bones.
         "Did I mention that you cannot harm this astral projection of myself and my comrades?" he mused, his countenance dripping with false benevolence and charm. I slowly endeavored to stagger to a standing position, aching from my failed attack. "Unfortunately for you, the reverse is not the case. Please do allow me to demonstrate." He snapped the fingers of his right hand, and the green ninja leaned forward, lowered his mask, and spat at me with the eerie, hissing sound of acid mixing with water. Even if I had fully recovered from my impact into the column, it would have been difficult to dodge the vile, olive mass of inhuman saliva; I am fast, but so was the green ninja, and his projected image was very close. I could not even raise my hands into a proper guard position swiftly enough. The spittle landed upon my chest, where it hissed and itched and seared like a brand. I could not suppress a brief cry of pain.
         During the fleeting instant in which I glimpsed the green ninja's face, I believe that I saw it alter to resemble the guise of a Reptile, with blood-red cat's eyes. But then he replaced his mask as swiftly as he had lowered it, and the unmasked half of his countenance once again seemed to be that of an ordinary man.
         "I could kill you right now, if I wanted to, and there would be nothing you could do to stop me," Shang Tsung remarked, pleasantly. He might as well have been discussing the weather. "Or would you like Baraka to present you with another 'demonstration'?" He gestured with one hand, indicating his other companion as he said the name "Baraka." The grinning humanoid flexed his hands, causing the high-pitched sound of metal upon metal as the keen blades of two long swords extended from the implants in his either arm. He crossed the blades in front of his chest and stared at me in sadistic anticipation. I ignored Baraka, who was clearly nothing more than just another killer in Shang Tsung's employ, and directed the sharpest taunt I could think of to the sorcerer himself.
         "So, are you afraid to fight me on equal terms? Fearful that I'll crush you a second time?"
         He laughed again. "Oh, I do so enjoy your sense of humor. In fact, I was just going to invite you to participate in a new Tournament. I shall be in it too, naturally, and if you do well enough then you just might have the chance for a rematch with me." He said that as if to imply that he had defeated me during the last Tournament, and not the other way around. "You will come, of course?"
         "You bastard! Make yourself solid, and I'll fight both you and your hirelings right now!"
         "Hardly."
         "Coward!"
         "No," and his false veneer of friendship slipped a little. "You shan't goad me into giving you an unearned chance at me. Your opinion of me means nothing when I know better. Now be quiet and listen. I arranged the destruction of your pitiful temple in order to prove to you that there is no place you can hide. If you refuse to enter my tournament or try to run from me, then no matter where you seek to lose yourself, I shall find you and again send Baraka and his legions to slaughter everyone around you."
         "The only one of us who seeks to run and hide is y-"
         "BE STILL!" he shrieked. I seemed to have touched a nerve. "I shall come for you by the shore of lake Kioh Lung, to transport you to the Outworld, in precisely one week! Be there or suffer the consequences!" There was a flash of light and a puff of smoke, and then Shang Tsung and his two associates were gone.
         "Liu Kang, my elder brother, you are an idiot," came Kung Lao's even and measured voice from behind me. "Did you not wonder why all the bodies were those of our brothers, and only our brothers? We attempted to mount a defense when the attack came. We could not touch a single one of them, any more than you could touch Shang Tsung!"
         "Then you were listening to our entire conversation?"
         "Yes."
         "In hiding?"
         "What is your point?"
         A dark thought occurred to me. "How did you escape? How is it that you are still alive, when everyone else is dead?"
         "I hid. And if any of the others had been smart enough to hide with me, more of us would have surviv-"
         Before he could finish speaking the insult to the valor of our martyred brothers, I dealt him a backfist strike squarely to the right side of his face. He had not been expecting it. Perhaps I'd put a little more force into the blow than I had first intended, because his head whipped sharply to the left, and he crumpled backwards to one knee, twisting the ankle of his other leg underneath him. A sanguine trickle of red dripped from the right corner of his mouth, where his own teeth had cut into the soft flesh of his inside cheek. From deep within me, something cried no, this is wrong, you shouldn't be quarreling with one another at a time like this, but I ignored it.
         "You," wheezed Kung Lao, "are still in shock." Then he limped away, without making any effort to wipe the slowly oozing drops of blood off his face. I did not move from the spot upon which I stood for a very long time.
         I suppose I shall have to apologize to him later.



         A week. I have only a week to prepare. Less than that, really, since transporting our brothers' remains to the crypt beneath the Temple took Kung Lao and myself an entire day. We would have preferred to cremate them first, but I did not have the time and neither of us had the resources to build up and properly control a great enough fire. It has also taken precious time for me to write down what has happened. I suppose that I could have delegated that task to Kung Lao, but not just yet. I will eventually, though. He will have to stay behind and take care of this scroll anyway.
         A short time ago, I greeted the thought of a second Tournament with horror, but now I think I do not fear the idea so much. Anything that gives me the opportunity for revenge upon Shang Tsung cannot be all bad. I must use the intervening time to prepare, to condition myself, to hone my skills and perhaps even learn a few new ones for the struggle ahead. I no longer feel the least bit tired. I've been going without sleep for the past couple of nights.
         Kung Lao tried to talk to me tonight, about some matter or another. I think he was urging me to rest for a little while, or something. I had no time to listen to him. When he tried to get me to pay attention to whatever he was saying by touching my shoulder, I bent his arm into a painful lock and flung him to the stone floor, causing a bruise over his left scapula. He left me alone after that, although I can sense that he continues to watchfully observe my self-directed training. Doesn't he have anything better to do?



         The need to train drives me. I practice, I study, I've stopped eating food and drink save for a few flasks of water each waking day. I do not sleep unless I collapse in the middle of my techniques or my patterns, and even then I simply begin where I had left off as soon as I resume consciousness. I pray for the spirits of my ancestors to possess me and show me the way, and perhaps they do. Skills and capacities that would have daunted me only days before flow cleanly through me now. And they are all so simple...!
         It is not enough.
         I have not learned enough to ensure the success of my quest for vengeance upon Shang Tsung and his ilk. I need more power. I need an edge. There are only three more days...
         Kung Lao tried to persuade me to break my fast today. I didn't hit him, but I did tell him in graphic detail what I would do to him if he did not leave me alone at once, and take his turgidly-prepared, vomit-inducing "offering" with him. I am busy meditating on a problem, and the problem is my lack of power. I cannot afford any more of his infuriating disruptions.



         Only two more days. In desperation, this evening, I have been tearing through the wreckage of the Temple, looking for anything that might possibly be of use to me. My path crossed Kung Lao's once; he was trying to scrub our brothers' bloodstains from the entry corridors. As if anything could ever restore these ruins to the merest semblance of their former glory. I honestly don't know why he bothers to remain here at all. He darted out of sight before I could order him to get his carcass out of my way, which was good.
         No aspect of the Temple is too mundane for my search. I have lifted floorboards and looked under them, I have ripped apart closets full of garments, I have taken every clay vessel from out of the Temple's modest food-preparation facilities, shattered them, and examined the shards. I don't know precisely what I am searching for, only that it must be somewhere within the Temple's blackened walls. I must find it. I must. It-

[illegible]

         Temple library. Of course. Why didn't I think of it before? I don't know, I just stumbled into the passage leading toward the library by chance, after systematically incinerating every inch of the carpeting in the Great Hall.
         I have to find them. The records. The forbidden keys. Now I know what I have been looking for: the secrets that Master Wu himself refused to teach me... well, not me personally, he refused to teach them to anyone who would not swear, on pain of death, never to use them. Doesn't that sound ludicrous? I've never questioned his wisdom before, but I see its flaws and follies clearly now. What is the point of learning something if one is never going to use it? I know the secrets are written down somewhere, and I shall shred to tatters every book and scroll in the library until-
         -no. It isn't right to needlessly destroy volumes of knowledge. Articles of luxury are one thing, but records of historical significance are another. I may as well rip up this very scroll. No, no, no, I don't know what possessed me to write that.
         Yes, I do. Vengeance. I have to find the Forbidden Scrolls; I need them to avenge myself and my brothers upon Shang Tsung!
         The matter could be moot. The way to the library is barricaded. Probably at Master Wu's orders, to preserve the library's contents from falling into the hands of Shang Tsung and his pet vermin. It doesn't matter. All that matters is getting around the barrier. By any means I have to use. I have attempted to kick the heavy barricade, or shatter the closed doors with my fists. The gateway remains immovable, and I think my left hand is bleeding. Damn! There must be some way to get through. I can't use fire; the risk is too great that the flames would spread to the Forbidden Scrolls. I have to think!



         I finally took a 400-year-old a sword from the Temple armory and used it like an ax to chop my way through. It took much longer than I thought it would have. I feel weakened... I suppose that is because I have been driving myself into a frenzy of activity with no food, very little water, and very little sleep. It can't be helped; I have no time to rest now. I've finally found them. The Forbidden Scrolls, the ones that neither I nor any member of the White Lotus Society other than Master Wu himself had access to before, are now mine to study.
         They make no sense at all.
         The writing is shaky, draft script, looking as if it were dashed off in very great haste. That makes them hard enough to read. What I fear even more is that my mind is simply unable to grasp the ideas of which the Forbidden Scrolls speak. A great deal is written in them of "transformation," "metamorphosis," and power, so much power... and I cannot comprehend it! Out of desperation, I am striving to memorize them word for word, in the hope that their true meaning will reveal itself to me even if I become separated from them. One more day. I have only one more day.
         Kung Lao appeared from out of nowhere as I sought to memorize the twenty-fourth line of text. He started talking to me. I couldn't make out what he was saying. Something about Shang Tsung. His tones were garbled, I couldn't hear. And I didn't have time to listen. I stood up, approached him purposefully, raised my right arm-
         "Liu Kang, my elder brother," he began quietly, and the sudden change in his speech from murky to transparently clear struck me so greatly that I halted in mid-motion. "I have forgiven the first injury upon me because I know you are driven mad with grief for our lost brothers. I have forgiven the second because you are my elder, and the first to defeat Shang Tsung since my own ancestor did so, five hundred years past."
         He shifted position, presenting me with only the guarded edge of his body. "Do not attempt to physically harm me a third time."
         There was something very different about his bearing. His apparel reflected and intensified the distinction. He was no longer dressed in the traditional robes of our order; his new vestments included a gathered pair of slacks, their cuffs tucked well into a pair of tight black, nearly knee-high boots, and a loose, sleeveless vest covered by a second, sable vest upon his torso. All together, they offered him the same, streamlined freedom of movement that my own apparel gives to me. Both his forearms were tightly bandaged. His eyes were hidden beneath the shadow of a wide-brimmed black hat that he wore slanted, and held in place with a chin strap. There was something odd about the silvery edge of that hat's brim, but the scarlet character traced upon his sable vest distracted my attention. The character clearly represented military force.
         In short, he wore the livery of a warrior.
         I demanded to know what he was doing in that ridiculous getup. He dismissed my question with a terse shake of his head and softly asked why I was studying the Forbidden Scrolls. I was too exasperated and fatigued to explain the matter to him, so all I said was that if he had come for the Scrolls, he would have to reclaim them from my dead body.
         "Never, elder brother," he whispered, and departed. Just like that. I wonder what the hell is wrong with him, anyway.



         I fell asleep while studying the Scrolls by candlelight, and my dreams showed me things that my waking mind could never have grasped. I awoke in the middle of the night, enlightened and mysteriously anxious. Something had roused me, something other than my usual determination to remain awake so long as I do not collapse in place from exhaustion. I left the library and strained to hear what it was: Sounds. Voices. I crept outside, around the back of the Temple, to investigate.
         Looters!
         They were so scruffily dressed, haggard, and mired in poverty, that what else could they have been? Here was the chance to test myself, to learn once and for all whether I had truly prepared enough to enter the upcoming Tournament. I tried to keep my center balanced in a state of emotionless calm when I presented myself to the four of them, but I could not shake a newfound streak of anticipation from coloring my thoughts. For the first time I could remember in a long while, a smile curled my lips.
         "You may not enter here. This is a holy place, and I shall not let you defile it," I told them, still smiling. "Leave, or else I shall have to make an example of you," I continued, abruptly realizing how greatly I would relish the opportunity do so.
         I heard some muttered whispers among the group of them; all I caught of it were the phrases "He's deranged!" and "No, let's go." Then the tallest one (presumably their leader) turned away from the group and asked, "Who are you?"
         There was a day and age when I would have said aloud my name in response to such a question, but no longer. The veil had been lifted from my eyes; for the first time, I could clearly see that scum like him did not deserve to know. "Your death," I told him, warmly, "if you do not depart. Now."
         "Kill him," the leader said. His followers didn't seem to want to obey his orders, though; the three of them were all carefully backing away. I heard the rustle of vegetation and the muted cry of some animal behind me. The leader cursed and withdrew a long knife from his threadbare coat.
         This was the moment I had been waiting for.
         Before he could point his useless weapon at my body, I summoned the Power, the Transformation, the Metamorphosis, call it what you will; it is known by many, many names. I could see the delicious terror in his face as futilely tried to defend himself with the knife. The attempt did him no good. I destroyed him.
         It felt wonderful. It was so... gratifying.
         Is this the Power that poor Master Wu was afraid of? Is this something that the Great Kung Lao demanded to be stricken from the syllabus of his followers five hundred years ago? Is this that which is supposed to be so terribly deleterious to practice? How silly. I finally have the edge I need. I'm not any different for having used it, or for being ready to use it again. I am writing this next to the shore of lake Kioh Lung, and whenever I pause to look into the water, I see the same reflection as always.
         I am waiting for evening to come. Shang Tsung will appear to transport me to the Outworld any minute now. And then I'll kill him, no matter who or what tries to get in my way. Even if it's an entire damn Tournament. I'm looking forward to fighting my way up through the Tournament ranks, to that promised rematch with Shang Tsung and his allies. I yearn to experience the thrill of mortal combat once more. And I hunger so greatly for vengeance upon my enemies... upon all my enemies...!
         I am ready for the next Tournament, now.



         I guess I'd better finish this.
         The moment I first spotted Liu Kang dashing up the path back to our home, I could tell that he carried scars. Not ordinary physical scars, I mean; despite his lightning quick pace he moved like a man carrying a great burden. I do not know what horrors he had to endure during the earlier Tournament, but they must have been terrible indeed. And of course, the shock of our brothers' murder has hurt him greatly. I would be a fool not to expect that. My fear is that his pain is so great, so overpowering, that it is changing him into someone I cannot recognize. His self-induced starvation, sleep deprivation, and general physical abuse of his own body make me uneasy enough, but it is more than that. Much more. The Liu Kang I used to know never would have gone upon such a destructive rampage throughout what is left of our beautiful Temple, breaking pots, shredding artwork and clothing, and generally destroying everything in his path without even knowing why. The Liu Kang I used to know never would have so much as threatened me in the least manner, let alone actively breaking the Shaolin code against interpersonal violence. And the Liu Kang I used to know never would have disobeyed the ancient and express prohibition against any of the White Lotus Society using the power of the Forbidden Scrolls, never.
         Damn him. I don't think he fully understands what the Forbidden Scrolls are. I tried to explain their sinister nature to him; it was like attempting to illuminate the finer subtleties of Han Dynasty poetry to a rock. The Scrolls are the written embodiment of the Transformation of one's own quintessence, and the literal Metamorphosis of one's form and physical abilities. They are the secrets that form the core of Shang Tsung's power... Shang Tsung, the shape-shifter, who can put on the body, skills, and identity of another as easily as I might put the hat of my ancestors upon my head.
         Does that not seem so terrible, at first? Think. If one no longer possesses a single identity, but rather many; if one can warp one's being to become any of a thousand creatures, be they benevolent or malefic, be they of godlike intelligence or entirely mindless; then, what becomes of one's self? What happens to a single ego when it is suddenly a multitude? What ingot of the mind and soul can long endure the strain of being artificially forced into the molds of countless other minds and souls? The Forbidden Scrolls have remained forbidden for so long because of what they do to anyone insane enough to tap into their blasphemous power. Shang Tsung was not the first to become corrupted by the secrets of the Scrolls. There have been others before him, other misguided fools who brought the curse of the gods upon their own heads, because they dared to tamper with the Laws that restrict us to be nothing more than what we are.
         Those Scrolls are evil things. I have never understood why Master Wu suffered their continued existence. When I beseeched him to obliterate those damnable Scrolls, he tried to tell me that "knowledge is neither good nor evil in and of itself," and that "it is only the manner in which knowledge is used that brings benevolence or suffering." I disagree. There are some types of knowledge that are purely evil, if only because they always bring suffering regardless of how they are used. Liu Kang left those profane Scrolls behind when he departed the Temple, so that I've finally been able to incinerate them, and disseminate their ashes from the edge of a rocky outcropping for good measure. But the damage has already been done. Liu Kang knows their secrets.
         I worry, I fret, and I have been doing a great deal of thinking this past week. A query, or three: if Shang Tsung could have "astrally projected" a legion of killers to destroy our Temple all this time, then why hadn't he done so long since? Why doesn't he just continue eradicating all his enemies (for I know that he has many more enemies than just Liu Kang and I) in the same manner? For that matter, why spare Liu Kang's life?
         It must not be that simple. I think Shang Tsung was lying when he implied that he had arranged the massacre solely to prove that Liu Kang could not run from him. Liu Kang has never been one to run from his duty, or his destiny, and Shang Tsung knows it. No, I can feel the workings of a deeper plan, a Machiavellian plan that supersedes mere retaliation or hatred. It may not even be Shang Tsung's plan that I sense... what I mean to say, is that I fear that Liu Kang is being manipulated into using Shang Tsung's own Secrets, in a fruitless effort to fight fire with fire.
         There is more. I am convinced that it is not as easy as Shang Tsung pretends to create "astral projections." How much energy must it require to contort our world's Laws of physical interaction in such an anomalous manner, even momentarily? The cost has to be high. Very high. I doubt that he is the one, or the only one, who works the tenebrous crafts that allow him to do it at all. Liu Kang has written of a "warning" about Shang Tsung's "powerful patron." That can only mean that some greater evil presence is backing that soulless bastard's plans... or, more likely yet, using Shang Tsung as a pawn in its own diabolic ambitions.
         I am frightened. Barely twelve hours ago... and perhaps, also, a lifetime ago... something happened that burned into my mind that this was all no frivolous matter. The event, in its own way, was more ghastly than the mass murder of my comrades. I awakened during the early morning, rousted by apprehensive instincts and frightful nightmares, and I could hear the faint sound of voices outside. Did the voices belong to "looters"? Perhaps. Or perhaps they were merely travelers. Our temple is fairly remote, but it is not completely isolated from the surrounding world.
         As I silently drew close to them, careful to hide my presence and keep to the shadows in between the pale rays of predawn light, I saw Liu Kang approach four of them openly. No one spotted me. I watched, and waited... and saw that Liu Kang was unaware of a fifth traveler, circling in on him from behind. When the leader of the group gave the order for the fifth traveler to kill my elder brother, I interceded by casting my hat at the throat of Liu Kang's would-be assassin. Its brim lodged firmly in his trachea and he went down, sputtering and choking; perhaps I'll tell you about my hat sometime. Liu Kang never noticed that I'd saved his life.
         Then darkness descended across my eyes, and I saw the true horror.
         Liu Kang, my friend, my elder Shaolin brother and, since the massacre, the last living person I could liken to family... changed. He must have used the Secrets of Shang Tsung; nothing else could explain his hideous metamorphosis. His body warped and spasmed in the space of less than a single breath; scales grew over flesh, and bones elongated into sinuous curves; until there stood not a man, not anything remotely resembling a man, but a gigantic horned dragon with eyes of yellow fire and teeth of jagged obsidian. The beast... I cannot bear to think of it as my elder brother... the beast lowered its crested, crocodile's head toward the screaming leader of the travelers. The doomed man tried to defend himself by waving a knife at the monster's imperviously armored underbelly, a pathetic effort that was too little, too late. The dragon's jaws snapped shut, and its victim's head, arms, and torso disappeared within them, though the bloody stumps of his legs continued to stand, mysteriously balanced in place. Then the dragon's form shifted and shrank back to... to the appearance of someone I used to know.
         I could not for the life of me shake the demented thought that at least Liu Kang was finally breaking his fast.
         I don't know what to do. No, that is not true; I do know what to do, and what is more, I am doing it. I have followed Liu Kang into the Outworld. It was not difficult to sneak unnoticed through the dimensional gateway that Shang Tsung left behind after he met Liu Kang at the shores of lake Kioh Lung; as I may have mentioned before, I am more practiced than most Shaolin in certain arts of concealment and invisibility.
         When I stepped through the Portal to the Outworld, this very scroll lay at my feet. It rested upon a paper-thin stone square flecked with traces of dried blood (the blood of what creature, and what became of it?), where it had been carelessly dropped by a man who once treasured written words nearly as much as he treasured human life. I am saddened. And scared. And angry, furious at Shang Tsung for what he has done to my elder brother, and to all my brothers. I am more furious at him than I have ever been over the murder of my ancestors.
         Perhaps that is the difference between myself and Liu Kang, and why I have remained immune to the temptation of the Forbidden Scrolls while he has not. I grew up with anger and rage. I had to learn how to control my emotions the hard way. I had to learn to live with the acrimonious knowledge that Shang Tsung had brutally murdered my ancestors, and that there was precious little I could do about it. Liu Kang, on the other hand, has never before had to endure the searing bite of blood hatred eating away at his heart. He was always a little too pure, too strong in his noble convictions, too serenely beyond such petty failings, and there used to be a time when I envied him for it. But now, he is confronted with genuine, unrestrained grief and rage, and he has not had enough past experience in learning how to deal with emotions of such raw potency. That, I think, is why his thirst for vengeance drives him to the breaking point and beyond, whereas I do not and never shall allow my own thirst for vengeance to rule who I am.
         There is little more I can add. I would keep this scroll on my person if I could, and write down future events as they take place, but the risk is too great that I might die and its knowledge would be lost forever. So, I shall seal it once more within its element-proof container, and hurl it back through the Portal. With luck, someone will eventually find it and preserve it. I dearly hope that Liu Kang and I will make the contents of this scroll redundant by returning alive to tell our respective stories in person, but I must necessarily be realistic about my expectations.
         I go now to enter Shang Tsung's loathsome new Tournament, to avenge the death of my great ancestors, and perhaps... just perhaps... to try to save the soul of a friend. The way shall be perilous. I fear that I may have to do battle with supernatural creatures of terrifying power and hideously malevolent intent, be they gods or monsters, demons or devils, Shang Tsung or his cryptic patron...
         Or worse.
         I may have to fight against Liu Kang himself.
         May the spirits of my ancestors guide me.

[signature, Kung Lao]
[date]

end of The Dragon's Jaws