THE COMING OF WINTER
part one of four

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



   No matter how subtle the wizard, a knife between the shoulder blades will seriously cramp his style.
       -S. K. Z. Brust, Jhereg


         It was too damn hot.
         A layer of sweat coated my skin beneath the blue and black cloth of my ceremonial uniform. The mask covering my nose, mouth, and lower face was smothering me. Something heavy pressed upon me, holding my arms spread-eagled on dry earth.
         I opened my eyes and saw a demon.
         Its front claws weighed upon my arms and its rear claws dug into my chest. Its great mass, three times that of a man, threatened to fracture my ribs. Long, sickle-shaped talons curled all the way around the circumference of my limbs. A thin crease of bright blood traced where those sharp hooks pressed upon my bare arms. The demon could have eviscerated me with less than a thought, but it was holding back for some reason.
         The demon's snakelike head loomed mere centimeters away, framed by the blazing overhead sun. Bumps and ridges covered its dry, reddish-orange skin. Its watery ochre eyes had slitted pupils, like a cat's. They faced just shy of full forward, giving it depth perception and an extended visual range to either side of its head. A forked tongue flicked out of its mouth, lightly touching my forehead. Venom in its saliva seared my nerves and ate away at my skin. The creature's jaws parted, and I could see that their similarity to a snake's was more than incidental. This beast could unhinge and distend its maw wide enough to swallow a man whole.
         Two long, shiny metal cuffs encircled its forearms. Etched on the right cuff's inner circumference were the tiny letters "UT."
         Ultratech was paying me a wake-up call.



         I used to eagerly anticipate the coming of winter, back when I had the capability to enjoy it. In summer I was quiet, withdrawn, secretly chafing from the daily heat that so many others found cheerful and comforting. I relished the sight of colorful autumn leaves falling from their branches, for it was a sign that my favorite time of year fast approached. During the coldest winter nights, when other children huddled near the fire or curled up in a nest of blankets, I would creep past the village's limits and enjoy winter's breathtaking beauty. I liked to sled down white-covered hills or skate upon frozen rivers, building up speed until I out-paced the wind, but most of all I loved to mold snow and ice into wonders. My creations ranged from a water lily I could hold in my hand - another child's hand would have melted it, but not mine - to a majestic dragon so real that I left her eyes unfinished. I feared that if I sculpted her pupils, she would come to life and fly away. She was so beautiful that I did not want her to leave me. She was lost to me regardless, when the seasons changed and the pitiless sun reduced her to slush and muddy water.
         I hated spring for many years thereafter.



         I was trapped, but not helpless. Channeling strength through my neck and shoulders, I smashed my forehead against the snake-demon's nose. The creature convulsed and voiced an inhuman screech of pain. Its tail uncoiled from around my legs and snapped straight up. I jackknifed my lower body, crossing my ankles underneath its trunk, and pushed with my hips and thighs. I forced it back far enough to pull its short arms off my body and wrest my hands out of its grasp, at which moment I jabbed at the demon's eyes. It closed its armored eyelids just in time; otherwise, I might have blinded it permanently. The jabs did enough damage that the snake-demon cried another piercing, animal wail and reared back. Taking advantage of its sudden action, I pushed forward with my entire body, overbalancing the beast and shoving it off me. I rolled away and sprang to my feet at the same time as the snake-demon clumsily flopped into a four-legged stance.
         I summoned the Power.
         There are as many ways of calling forth the Power as there are facets of the Power itself. The Power is neither heat nor cold, light nor darkness, earthly nor spiritual. It embodies all these traits, and every other trait in existence; which trait it manifests depends upon the skill and natural inclinations of the caller. The Power encompasses all there is, and is therefore everything. It is a rare mortal indeed who has the potential to channel a single grain of the Power. Those who can usually do so by finding and reinforcing an affinity for one particular element. I do not speak of the meaningless "elements" that scientists like my younger brother blather about, but the true elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and the many derivatives thereof, such as Stone, Wind, Light... or Ice.
         That is my particular proclivity, if you have not already guessed.
         Facing the demon, I stretched my arms forward and flexed my palms perpendicular to my wrists, stepping back with one leg in preparation for the Power's recoil. This is not the only stance one may use to focus the Power, but it is the classical posture. One does not summon the Power by means of force, but rather by calling it, inviting it. A welcome coolness surged through me, causing my forearms to tingle. The Power poured forth from my palms, coalescing into a large, teardrop-shaped missile that sped toward my reptilian foe.
         The snake-demon stood fully upright upon its hind legs and opened its jaws. With a hoarse coughing sound, it vomited a ball of flaming bile that violently clashed with my Ice. The two elements, mortal enemies of one another, annihilated themselves in a bright shower of golden sparks. Lowering its head, the beast distended its mouth further still and belched a long tongue of flame. I dashed at a right angle the demon's line of sight; the flaming breath brushed my leg close enough to burn my garb and singe my skin.
         I have never liked Fire.



         When I reached a certain stage in life, pleasant remembrances gave way to harsh reality. After that point I stopped keeping track, letting my recollections blur and fade, as if that would make the next day any better. One memory, the worst of them all, never goes away. It is of when I was Tested.
         Previous to then, I had many dreams about my future, just like any other adolescent. At first I wanted to be a mountaineer, or an arctic explorer. I finally set my heart on being an artist, painting the glory of frozen waterfalls and sculpting endless miracles from ice and snow. One day, during a mild spring frost, I confessed my dearest hopes to my father and asked him whether he thought I could make them come true.
         "No," he replied, a little too firmly.
         "B-but why-?"
         "Your career has already been decided. Do not speak of such things again," he commanded. Because I was a dutiful son, I didn't. Not to his face, that is. Behind his back I continued to nurture my dreams.
         Until they came for me.
         It was a small village, and we all knew who most everyone was. They were the exception. They wore masks to cover their faces and black suits to conceal their bodies. Sometimes they would dress in more colorful, ceremonial attire, but never without a mask. We didn't see them often; only when they wanted to be seen, just to remind us that they were there. They were our "protectors." I have been a member of their ranks for nearly twenty years, and yet there are things I'll never know about them. What I have learned is how they operate. In return for the village's "defense," every family sacrificed a third of their wealth, and their eldest son.
         My parents had two sons. I was the eldest.
         I didn't know any of this when they came for me, of course. One of their strictest rules was never to speak of their presence. We did not talk about the rations of food, goods, and money that we left upon our doorsteps once a week. We did not ask why so many of the men in our village had scars, a limp, or some other physical deformity. No one knew when our "protectors" might be listening from the shadows, or through the ears of anyone around us. To openly talk about them was one of the few things that could make them angry enough to slay both the offender and his entire family. Normally, they punished disobedience first with a warning, say a cleanly broken bone and numerous bruises. A second offense brought permanent injury - the loss of a hand, say, or the agonizing extraction of one eye and one ear. To defy them a third time meant death. Anyone offering sanctuary to their target received the same sentence. No one could resist them. They were an invisible army that ambushed swiftly, silently, when their victims least expected an attack. There was no escape. Pieces of those who attempted to leave the village without their permission were scattered in the market square.
         They called themselves "Lin Kuei." Some speak of them as "ninja," comparing them to long-extinct Japanese societies of highly trained spies and killers. We addressed them as "Lord," or "Master."
         "Master?" I timidly questioned the brooding apparition in front of me. All I could see of him were the grey and black of his leggings, for I was folded before him in the posture of abasement.
         I didn't know why he had come, only that my parents had rousted me in the dead of night and told me to go with him. So I submitted to the blindfold he wrapped around my eyes and the thick cotton wads he stuffed into my ears. He took me outdoors and spun me around like a top, completely disabling my sense of direction, then effortlessly carried me to I knew not where. His handling was not gentle. I was forced to my knees, my forehead banging against a hard floor coated with a slick, greasy substance. Heavy chains snapped around my ankles, though my hands were left free. The blindfold and cotton were removed. At first I was in complete darkness; then one by one, six white candles set in a hexagram about me caught fire and burned with a faint light. Behind the candles kneeled six black-clad men. Shadows danced on the walls of an enclosed room with no visible entrance or exit. My head stayed respectfully bowed, of course, but that didn't keep me from noticing something about my host's lower limbs that I'd missed before, in the midnight darkness. He constantly emitted tiny puffs of swirling smoke. His clothing was not afire; instead, the vapors seeped through the pores of his garments and escaped into the surrounding air, which was thick with soot and nearly made me cough.
         "It is said that you have a fondness for winter. It's possible that you possess Talent," he growled, pronouncing the capital letter. His voice was clogged, raspy, like that of a veteran coal miner. "Your maternal grandfather had some small proficiency. I'm betting that you take after him. I don't like to lose my bets."
         My ears perked when I heard my grandfather mentioned. He had supposedly died a couple years after I was born, but that was all I knew. My family never spoke of him, and kept no pictures or mementos.
         "The Test begins now. Summon your chosen element!"
         I had no idea what he was talking about. True, I was quite at home in the coldest months of winter, and I loved to craft snow and ice into beautiful shapes, but how did he expect me to summon a season? If I'd had the audacity or the ability to do such a thing, I would have done it long since. My mouth worked as I tried to explain the thousands of times I'd stared out the window and prayed for snow to come, but my vocal chords would not respond.
         "I said now!" he snapped, kicking the side of my face. He was so swift that I never saw him move; one moment I kneeled, the next I flopped on my side and blood dripped out of my mouth. In hindsight, I know that he must have held back on the strike, or else my jaw would not have remained intact.
         "L-lord?" I gasped. Speaking was difficult, and not just because of my injury. The intimidating figure before me represented power and authority in the extreme. Picture a storm dragon commanding a caterpillar to fly.
         "Summon it forth, quickly! I will not ask again!" he snapped, with another kick. A sigh of relief escaped my cut lips. All I wanted was for him not to ask again. The purpose of this entire ordeal was completely beyond me. I longed to have it be over, to go home, sleep soundly in my own bed, and erase this night from my mind. Erase it forever.
         "Very well. Proceed," growled my interrogator. From the echo of his voice, I could tell he was addressing someone other than me.
         Proceed with what? I wondered.
         And the jaws of Hell devoured me.
         Fire erupted upon the ground. There was no time to see where it came from. The leaping flames immediately engulfed me, feeding hungrily upon the oily film that covered the stone floor. Sparks set my clothing and hair alight. The intense heat vaporized my tears, seared my skin, and dissolved my flesh, inflicting the excruciating pain of being burned alive. When I opened my mouth to scream, thick puffs of black smoke rushed in, choking me. I thrashed violently, unable to escape because of the short length of chain clasped to my legs. I don't know for how long it went on. Eternity, it seemed. Perhaps five seconds.
         Deep within me, something gave.
         Past the suffering and the horrible fear of imminent death, walls that I'd never known about cracked and crumbled. A cool, salving river surged from beyond them, and with it flowed surcease from the pain. I felt it course through me and willed it to spread further, through my arms and outstretched hands. Numbness engulfed my being and froze it fast, stopping my tears and obstructing the ducts from which they came.
         The surge within me slowed to a rush, then a trickle, then ran dry. I was as exhausted as if I'd been running from sunup to sundown, stretched prone, unable to move or even keep my eyes open. Before they closed, I got one last look at my surroundings. The flames on the ground were gone, and the candles were long since melted into blobs of wax, but one of the black-clad men lifted a small lantern. Its light sparkled upon a layer of ice covering the entire floor.
         "Not bad," murmured the man dressed in grey and black. In the years to come, I would learn to call him by the use-name Smoke.
         I was thirteen.



         The burn upon my leg was not severe. In a way, the memories it brought forth were more painful than the injury itself. I released sufficient Power to extinguish my smoldering trousers, while scanning the immediate area for shelter from the snake-demon's venom. A quick look to the left and behind revealed the edge of a precipice overlooking an enormous natural canyon. Some four paces away, its reddish stone buckled in a concave drop that ranged from steep to perfectly sheer. Roiling clouds obscured everything that lay past a certain point, but it was clearly a long way down. The effulgent orange sun hovered above the canyon's other side, which was so distant that the land beyond merged with the horizon.
         To my right I saw a level expanse of rocky plain. Dry, fleshless bones cast long shadows upon landscape. Both animal and human skeletons were haplessly strewn about. Some were splintered, as if a large beast had crushed them to suck their marrow. Scraps of fabric and tarnished weapons ornamented some of the remains. A rusty saber had been snapped in two, its halves lying next to a piecemeal array of bones.
         I still didn't know where I was, but I had a good guess. More than one victim has used his dying breath to suggest that I come here.
         There was no time to study the landscape further, because two more enemies flanked me. One was a devil completely encased in metal armor, which had specialized joints of some black, flexible material. A radiant pair of tapering aqua prongs extruded from its either forearm. The demon's plumed helmet had two translucent lenses, through which shone a ruby glow. I've seen a gangster with one eye like that, but at least the rest of him was human. This devil looked more like a thing than a living creature.
         Completing the trap was a golden rakshasa. It strongly resembled an ordinary tiger, only thinner and about half the size, but its brilliantly glowing coat and intelligent eyes belied its supernatural nature. The sinuous cat leaned forward on its front paws and forearms, adjusting its tightly wound hindquarters. According to legend, rakshasa have a fondness for human flesh.
         The demons surrounded me on three sides, and behind me was the edge of the cliff. I couldn't outrun their trap. Even if I got past them, I wouldn't last twenty paces on that barren plain before the rakshasa dragged me down. That meant I'd have to fight the three of them, on their turf, and on their terms. Not good.
         "Hold!" snapped a voice, stopping the creatures. The command echoed across the gorge, repeating itself several times before it faded past my ability to hear. It hadn't come from any of the demons.
         "Who speaks?" I demanded. Another scan of the area revealed nothing new.
         "Allow me to apologize for the rude behavior of my companions, Sub-Zero. Be at ease." The demons all relaxed a bit. I remained on edge. "Now, instead of wasting time on my trivial identity, let's talk about you. Your head must be spinning with confusion. I'm feeling generous just now, so I'll answer any three of your questions."
         I remained silent.
         "Come on, ask me. You know you want to. Go ahead, say it: 'Am I dead?' 'What is this place?' 'How do I get out?'"
         "Show yourself," I growled, "or leave me alone."
         The voice made condescending tsk sounds.
         "Well, if it gives you any pleasure..." The shadows cast from the demons, myself, and the bones all detached and pooled together, like rainwater flowing into a ditch. Swirling currents rippled across the inky black patch, which huddled in on itself, then stretched upward. The dark matter molded itself into a manlike visage. "Ta daa. Happy now?"
         "Shade!" I gasped. I have lost the capacity to feel many things, but I remain quite susceptible to being startled.



         The Hierarchy does not tolerate existence of the Power outside of the Lin Kuei's close-knit ranks. Should they suspect a mortal of having Talent, they get ahold of him, kidnapping him if necessary. Then they subject him to the Test. Through torture, they force him to reveal his abilities, or prod his dormant talents to the surface.
         The Test is effective, but also brutal and with a high mortality rate. Better for the outcome to be a dead subject than a survivor possessing an undetected Power, or so the Hierarchy of the Lin Kuei believes. Not everyone who fails the Test dies, although permanent injury is common. All others who join the Lin Kuei must also endure the Test, to ensure that no applicant is keeping his Power concealed. Untested mortals might be slaves, puppets, or temporary allies of the Lin Kuei, but never actual members.
         The Test's exact nature differs depending upon the subject, yet it always drawn upon their worst fears and elemental attacks. On the day of Smoke's Test, he nearly drowned in the flows of a winter river. In my case, I suffered burns on large patches of my skin, and might have been crippled if not for the expert ministrations of the Lin Kuei healers. Yes, healers. Even a clan of thieves and murderers needs someone to lick their wounds. Despite their care, I retain patches of scar tissue. To this day, I have more than one incentive to hide my face behind a mask.
         Those who fail the Test are sometimes, thanks to the "supreme generosity" of the Hierarchy, permitted to return to their miserable lives. But once a man has passed the Test, there are only two possible courses for his future. One is to become a Lin Kuei assassin. The other is much more brutal and efficient than any Test could ever be. Escape is impossible.
         Or so we are expected to believe.
         There have been stories about the terrible consequences of a Test that went so far, it changed a man into something no longer human. He used to be a Lin Kuei member, a nocturnal recluse who seldom ventured outside the grounds. For his Test, he'd endured repeated electric shocks. His heart stopped at one point, but the healers resuscitated him and the Hierarchy was satisfied that he had no Powers. He took the use-name Shade, and for years he was an expert teacher specializing in the art of nocturnal concealment. No one thought it odd that he never ventured out of doors during the daytime.
         Then one of the Hierarchy became suspicious. His identity is unimportant; all that matters is that he noticed how the night's darkness seemed to palpably thicken whenever Shade was nearby, and how Shade always avoided sunlight. Accusations were made and denied. Shade demanded the right to avenge his honor through ritual combat. The Hierarchy member could not refuse, yet he had the privilege of choosing a time and a place, and the place he chose was the top of the tallest hill at high noon.
         Shade panicked and tried to retract the challenge, but it was too late. He attempted to flee, and was imprisoned. So frantic was he, it took six Lin Kuei to drag him outdoors at the appointed time. By the time he they carried him to the hilltop, he was clearly in no shape to challenge anyone. Though the sunlight didn't exactly burn him, judging from his gasps, winces, and tremors, it clearly inflicted terrible anguish.
         "So," sneered the Hierarchy member, "you did lie to us. You do have supernatural Power! We merely Tested you with the wrong element - a mistake that we will now remedy. Consider this to be your true Test!"
         Shade writhed like an insect speared by a pin. He begged for mercy, then for a quick death, but was granted neither. His seven tormentors observed the spectacle in silence, except for the Hierarchy member, who threw his head back and laughed. At last Shade's Power manifested, after a fashion. His own shadow thickened and grew into a solid web of blackness, enveloping his entire body. At first he screamed louder. Just before the murky shroud covered his face, he ceased his outcries and smiled. It was not a friendly smile. The oily, formless mound that had once been a man sank into the ground, vanishing completely after a few seconds. The seven Lin Kuei assumed that Shade had perished.
         Until the next morning, when one of them was missing.
         No trace of him could be found, no signs of a struggle, nothing. Sentries confirmed that he had entered his private quarters and never exited. No one had heard or seen anything unusual. The subsequent dawn, another of the seven had disappeared. The following four days were the same - each of Shade's tormentors vanished during the dead of midnight, despite their attempts to hide, or be on their guard. Some of them asked for help in fighting whatever was stealing their lives, but were completely shunned. No one knows what happens to a doomed man's allies better than the Lin Kuei.
         The Hierarchy member who had accused Shade was the last to be taken. It is said that spirit-winds carried his dying wail into the dreams of every Lin Kuei in the world.
         Another day and night passed, this time without incident, to the extreme relief of the surviving Hierarchy. They declared a new rule: from then on, no Hierarchy member would ever administrate or be present for a Test. In the future, such tasks would fall to lesser Lin Kuei members and teachers, such as Smoke. More nights passed without trouble. Eventually, most everyone assumed that Shade's angry spirit had limited his vengeance to the seven Lin Kuei who killed him.
         Too bad.



         "DON'T CALL ME THAT!" shouted the shadow who had once been a man. He made a slashing gesture with his hands; the snake-demon and the armored devil responded with a dual attack. The blunt side of two radiant blue claws crushed hard against my abdomen. A different set of sharper claws dug into my back, slicing through the thick fabric of my uniform as effortlessly as they pierced my skin, yet purposefully stopping short of puncturing my vital organs. The living shadow made another gesture, as if grasping an invisible object, and his creatures moved to restrain me. They each held one of my arms spread apart, low enough to force me to my knees.
         "Don't EVER call me that again!" snapped the living shadow, whipping a backhand strike to my face. I became limp, allowing the stinging impact to flow through me. "I'll let you off easy once, but say that again and orders be damned I'll KILL you!" He lashed out again with his other hand. One of my teeth came loose. A detached part of myself marveled at how a single word could provoke so much rage. The human shadow's breathing was intensely labored, and a growling animal quiver underscored his voice. "My name is Noob Saibot. Remember it."
         "'Noob Saibot'...?"
         "Don't ask. Don't even think of asking."
         "Less than a minute ago you were advocating the opposite. You said you would answer three questions, so here they are: Are you a ghost? Were you once a Lin Kuei? Are the stories about you true?"
         The rakshasa's ears flicked forward. Saibot's solid black head lacked facial expressions, yet I could tell from his posture that he was taken aback. "What difference does it make?"
         "Because if you are a rogue Lin Kuei, then you're the first who has lived to tell about it."
         "Oh, I see. You think you can restore your clan's honor by assassinating me, is that it?"
         "No."
         He stared at me, if his featureless visage had eyes to stare with. "Never mind. Start over. I'm in charge here, and I'm going to answer what you should have asked, you blithering idiot.
         "Welcome to Limbo, Sub-Zero. No, you're not dead yet, but just you wait.
         "Limbo is the infinitely recurring no man's land sifting within the great void between worlds. It is a vast Möbius strip, eternally twisting upon itself."
The strange phrases he used nagged at me; they kindled a memory that darted beyond my conscious grasp. "You're trapped here, forever. Your soul can't leave without a living body to carry it, and nothing mortal survives here for long. If you perish in Limbo... well, I'll let you guess what happens to your soul. Don't say I didn't warn you."
         Saibot casually unearthed a human skull from the sands and dusted it off. "For every path into Limbo there is a way out; however, some roads are more accessible than others. My friends and I can leave anytime we want, and if you don't come with us, there's only one other route: you'd have to climb down the canyon, cross Blood River, and scale the other side.
         "Of course, you could take the quick way down."
Saibot gracefully pitched the skull over the edge of the precipice. I never heard it strike anything solid. "Trouble is, once you get there you're not in any shape to climb back up. Anything else you'd like to know?"
         "How can you withstand the sunlight?"
         "Haven't you listened to a word I've said?" snapped the living shadow. "This is Limbo! You are inconceivably distant from your home, and the precious Sun it orbits! Shandra, rip some sense into this imbecile." The rakshasa lunged forward. There was no warning growl, only the slash of claws carving deep welts across my cheek and lips. The attack came so fast that I did not feel it until it was over. At least now I could breathe freely, through the rents in my mask. The rakshasa placidly licked my blood off its paw.
         "Good kitty-girl. Nice kitty," Saibot praised, rubbing the cat's neck. Her ears swiveled back, and her tail lashed from side to side. "Shandra is one of the best. She's all fury! I couldn't ask for a better escort.
         "Now, back to business. You need to get home. We'd like to help you."

         "This is what you consider 'help'?" I spat through bleeding lips.
         "Shandra!" The rakshasa's claws dug three shallow gashes on my right shoulder. "I shouldn't have to waste my time on threats, Subby, but there ought to be something in you worth salvaging. You are supposed to be one of the Lin Kuei's finest," he sneered, inflecting a heavy dose of sarcasm in the words. "Even though you failed Ultratech."
         "Shang Tsung is dead."
         "You didn't kill him, did you?"
         "A technicality."
         For a moment, he appeared ready to sic the rakshasa on me once more. Then his stance shifted a little, the only visible evidence of his change in mood. "Fine. Cling to your silly misconceptions. See if I care. It's all beside the point, anyway. Without us you're doomed. You can't escape on your own. Do you think crossing Limbo is some pleasant nature walk? Death waits for you in that canyon! Seven obstacles bar your path. Even if you could get past the first six, the seventh is always an inescapable trap where only that which you have loved can save you. So tell me, Subby, how's your love life?"
         There was no point in providing him with an answer.
         "I thought so. That's why you should join us. We can get you out. Ultratech will have a place for you. You'll learn to like us. We're all one big, happy family." I heard a faint hissing sound; it was drool from the snake-demon, dripping on the fabric of my uniform and slowly eating it away.
         "I reject your offer," I said, and let loose all the Power that I'd been gathering during the last minute.
         The Ice coursed through my blood and out of my hands, enveloping the two demons that held me and freezing them fast. They would remain paralyzed for a few seconds before their natural warmth dispelled the effect, but for the moment they were like statues. I used their hold on my arms as a gymnast's grip upon parallel bars, bracing my weight for a full forward kick with both feet. Despite Saibot's insubstantial appearance, my strike connected with a very solid jawbone. He went down. I refocused the power to coat my own wrists with a slippery film of cool water, at the same time working the thumbs' metacarpal bones underneath the palms. My hands slid free.
         "Sha- Shandra!" Saibot choked, still flat on the ground. With a high-pitched scream, the golden rakshasa charged directly into another blast of Power. The Ice temporarily nullified her momentum, immobilizing her in mid-spring. It wouldn't hold her for long, though. To make matters worse, the other two demons were returning to life, and Saibot was clambering back to his feet. I dashed past all of them, sprinting along the precipice.
         "Fool!" yelled Saibot. "Do you really think you can run from us?" A high-pitched, mechanical whine and a heavy, lumbering tread dogged my heels. My inhuman pursuers were gaining on me. I looked directly ahead and saw nothing but flatland and bones. Beyond the precipice's edge was a sharp, nearly vertical slope of layered rock. There was only one option.
         I leaped over the side.



         There was no way I could have avoided the path that the Lin Kuei chose for me. Resistance, even suicide brings their wrath down upon one's friends and family. I didn't have much in the way of friends, and I cared nothing for the parents and uncles who treated me like an oblation, but I did have a little brother, born scarcely a year before my Test. It wasn't his fault that his home village was the property of killers. It is unfortunate that I wasn't present for most of his childhood, though that was because I didn't want my proximity to endanger him.
         He was a strange one, and still is.
         Blessed with a genius intellect, he could fix anything. Figuring out the inner workings of a mechanism and correcting its flaws was simplicity itself to him. Furthermore, he loved to design "experiments" and carry them out. He ran errands for farmers, assayers, tailors, and others in return for old pieces of metal or glass. What he couldn't barter, he scrounged from garbage cans, recycled junk, and his own inventiveness.
         I remember the first time I entered his makeshift "laboratory." I'd heard about him being absent for long periods of time; when asked about it, he'd make excuses or say that he was "just playing," though none of the children his age reported having seen him. It's probably just a stage he's going through, I thought, but to quiet my lingering doubts, I tailed him unseen. His trail led far from the village, to a rotting, abandoned old shed once used to shelter livestock during the cold months.
         Inside, cloth-covered cinder blocks supported rows of glass bottles. Several decanters held cooking ingredients or other chemicals. A collection of pressed leaves decorated one wall; a cryptic chart of boxes filled with English letters and Arabic numerals hung on the other. In the corner was a haphazard pile of thick textbooks. One such book lay flat open, to a page covered with English writing and diagrams filled with small crosses and hyphens. The sentences were indecipherable. I knew most of the words, yet they were peppered with unintelligible phrases like "pH balance," "litmus test," or "free-floating ion." Little brother was completely absorbed in measuring a dense, colorless liquid with the consistency of heavy syrup. A protective shell of thick plastic was strapped over his eyes. He peered closely at the open book's pages for a moment, then filled his container to the brim, completely oblivious to my presence. It was rare for villagers to be more than semi-literate in any foreign language - yet here my brother was, reading Hell knows what in textbooks from Hell knows where, carrying out its cryptic instructions because Hell knows why.
         "So this is where you've been disappearing. What on earth are you doing?" I demanded, taking away his vial. "This is oil of vitriol! Do you realize how dangerous it is?" I dumped the vitriol into a rusty bucket nearby. "Does our family know-"
         "Aaah!" he shouted, turning away as the bucket erupted in fury. I moved to interpose myself between the stinging wave of liquid and my sibling. The thick cloth of my uniform shielded me from the worst of it, except for my bare arms, which suffered minor acid burns while protecting my eyes.
         Little brother snatched a clean cloth from atop a pile of cinder blocks and applied it to my arms, carefully padding off the corrosive droplets. "Never do that again!" he admonished, severely. "That was a rinse bucket, big brother. Don't you know what happens when acid and water mix?"
         Only twelve years old, and he chastised me like a schoolteacher.



         The whistle of the wind quickly drowned out Saibot's expletives.
         My only chance was to insulate myself against the upcoming impact. Huddling in a fetal position, I willed the Ice to completely encase me in a sphere, save for one small airhole near my face. Through that hole, I sent layer after layer of the Ice to reinforce the exterior of my cushion. The Power obeyed my mental commands as a paintbrush obeys its artist. I deliberately made the orb soft, more like packed snow than true Ice, though I'd never attempted anything like this before. All I could do was focus the Power and hope.
         The sphere landed upon a mid-level slope and cracked into chunks. The violent jolt bounced me away and further down. I involuntarily skidded across loose stones, increasing momentum as the drop suddenly became steeper. To slow my fall, I dug my hands into the hillside and hung on, even though the skin on my fingers was being scraped away. At last, the land leveled somewhat and my battered body came to rest. I rolled onto my back, dizzy, in pain, and exhausted from summoning so much Power in such a short time.
         A bolt of lightning cleaved the sky in two. Thunder roared in its wake.
         I must have fallen through the low-flying clouds I'd seen earlier, for they covered a sky that had changed hue from orange to deep turquoise. The thickening clouds swirled in a tremendous spiral pattern, like foam on an ocean whirlpool. Droplets of fresh rain splashed on my face, washing away my blood. The gentle shower increased to a torrential downpour in a matter of seconds. More lightning flashed, coloring everything blinding white for a split-second. The whiteness gradually faded except for one small area, blurred by the water that splashed freely upon my eyes.
         Squinting, I made out a floating figure dressed in white, ornamented with patches of blue and gold. His wide, cone-shaped farmer's hat cast a broad shadow over his face, pierced by the electric shine of his unearthly eyes. He appeared to be a mortal man, but even a dullard could have felt the crackling aura of his Power.
         Through my Talent, reinforced with nearly two decades of practice and discipline, I can summon and control fragments of the Power. He was Power, pure cosmic energy assuming physical form solely for the sake of convenience. Some people would call him the god of thunder. I consider him an uncontrollable force with an affection for rainstorms, which may well be the same thing. Given what he was, I shouldn't have been surprised that he survived Shang Tsung's Tournament.
         ~Raiden would speak with you, mortal.~
         His words impressed themselves with perfect clarity, despite the hiss of falling rain and the rumble of background thunder. It was a level of communication far more direct and unambiguous than common speech.
         "I am listening." My own voice was so torpid I could barely hear myself. It didn't matter; Raiden understood. He lowered his levitation until his feet hovered a few centimeters from the muddy earth, while I inched into a sitting position and examined my wounds.
         ~A dark time comes upon us, Sub-Zero. You played a significant role in the setback of Shang Tsung's evil schemes; now, you are one of the few mortals who can thwart his current plans.~
         "Shang Tsung is dead."
         ~No longer.~
         "I saw him die less than half an hour ago." The cuts on my hands were superficial, and the claw marks on my face and shoulder were shallow. The greatest danger they posed was the risk of becoming infected, which is especially high when one deals with animal scratches. I used the cloth of my uniform to staunch the bleeding while I gathered more Power, psychically drawing upon the plentiful rainfall. The Power is not itself water, but my Talent is such that I need to use water as a medium. I can usually extract what I need from humidity in the surrounding atmosphere, though it requires more effort in dry climates. Rain or any other nearby water source makes matters easier.
         ~Time flows at constantly varying rates amidst the dimensions. Minutes here can be hours, days, or weeks in worlds such as the Mother Realm, the land you call home. As for Shang Tsung's death, you saw a great many warriors die in his blasphemous Tournament, did you not? You yourself died. Yet his unnatural thatamurgy brought a you and a handful of others back from the grey kingdom. Has it not occurred to you that he must have learned that spell from someone else, someone who could resurrect him in turn?~
         As a matter of fact, no, it hadn't.
         ~Shang Tsung is merely the servant that goes before his master, Emperor Shao Kahn. Shao Kahn is the supreme ruler of another world, the Outworld, and he wishes to conquer the Mother Realm as well. He has invoked the ancient rite of challenge. Preparations for another Tournament have begun. You are needed. You are one of the few mortals with a prayer of winning Shao Kahn's Tournament.~
         "I never pray." Carefully, I willed the Power to coalesce upon my scratches, cleaning them and coating them with a thin film of Ice. Maintaining the elemental bandages would be a slight drain on my psyche; however, it would be much worse to let the wounds bleed, or become gangrenous.
         ~If you accept Shao Kahn's challenge, I can bring you out of Limbo. Once his Tournament is ended, I shall return you to the Mother Realm. You have my word.~
         "And if I'm not interested?"
         ~Then I cannot help you. Limbo is ruled its own gods, inhuman primal forces whose existence predates your kind by millions of years. The Divine Sanctions forbid me to interfere with the interior affairs of another god's world. If you are unwilling to become a champion of the Mother Realm, then your fate is a matter internal to Limbo. This meeting between us strains the boundaries of the Sanctions. I may ask your aid only once; refuse, and you will never have the opportunity to recant. The fate of the entire Mother Realm is at stake.~
         I finished dressing my wounds and turned toward him. "Why should you care what happens to my world?"
         His face and eyes were empty, expressionless.
         "Do you think I've forgotten the Tournament in which we so recently participated? I remember you, Raiden. You weren't interested in the fate of the world. You didn't give a damn about anyone or anything but your own glory. Your opponents were like toys to you, playthings to abuse and destroy for the fun of it. At the start of our match, I heard you shout to the heavens that you were bored with mortal competition, and thirsted for battle against other gods. Then I killed you. Moments before you died, you cursed my name.
         "No, I don't think you intend to help me escape Limbo. All you want is to have me in your clutches, so that you can exact revenge. Your story sounds like a pack of lies."
         ~I cannot lie. It is not within my power.~ No emotion of any kind colored his speech. Here was an immortal being who controlled the heavens, yet claimed to be incapable of something the lowliest street pickpocket could do.
         "Convince me, then." I unsteadily teetered to my feet. Though Raiden hovered close to the earth, his tall frame towered above my head. My neck was starting to hurt from looking up. "Tell me the truth: why are you so eager to save my world?"
         ~If the Mother Realm falls under Shao Kahn's control, he will wreak genocide upon it. The suffering will be pandemic. He will absorb the souls of all living things and use them to propel himself into more conquests, and more, until he has sucked the universe dry, for the thirst within him can never be quenched.~
         "And you pretend that you can't tell lies," I sneered.
         ~Shao Kahn's threat is quite real.~
         "Even if it is, why should you care?"
         ~My concern for the Mother Realm and its inhabitants is genuine.~
         "Is that truly your only motivation?"
         When I received no answer, I turned away and began to descend along the canyon's slope. Before my fifth step, a jagged streak of lightning shot down from the sky and pierced the ground in front of me, causing it to erupt in a shower of dirty water and mud.
         ~Do you think to walk away from a god?~ An arrogant crackle of the Raiden I remembered tinged the reprimand.
         "Yes, I do, and you cannot stop me - unless your speech about 'Divine Sanctions' was indeed a lie." I resumed my downward trek.
         ~Come back here at once!~
         I did not slow down.
         ~Wait.~
         I did not look back.
         ~Please.~
         The word sounded so bizarre, coming as it did from the mouth of a god, that I stopped in place.
         ~There is another reason for my personal involvement.~ The flashes of lightning ceased, as did the pervasive echo of thunder. Only the hiss of falling rain remained, and even that lessened to a modest shower. ~I am afraid.~
         "You? Afraid?"
         ~Yes.~
         "Why?"
         ~When Shang Tsung invited me to participate in his Tournament, I feared nothing. I agreed to enter his domain and fight under his rules, without fully understanding what that meant. It meant accepting the weaknesses of a mortal, vulnerability, and death. Now that I know what it is like to suffer, I do not care to repeat the experience, though I may have little choice in the matter. I am a god of the Mother Realm. Its fate is my fate. The Mother Realm's inhabitants are as much a part of it as the earth, sea, and sky, and so they are a part of me as well. There was a time when I did not know that.~
         Beneath layers of hardened skepticism, past thick walls of distrust, a small part of me rebelled against my cynical tendencies and gave him the benefit of the doubt.
         "Seek out Smoke, of the Lin Kuei clan. Ask his help. Tell him that I sent you; he owes me. Mention the name Pyre, and he will understand."
         ~As you suggest. Will you come and fight for the Mother Realm?~
         "No. What has the Mother Realm ever done for me?"
         ~Do you prefer to perish, body and soul, in Limbo?~
         "It is not that simple. In my line of work, survival is a credit to one's skill, and I have vowed not to share that credit with another. That is why I shall never accept your offer. I shall find the way out of Limbo on my own, or not at all. No one, no one shall trade me rescue for a piece of my honor. I will not allow it."
         ~Shang Tsung resurrected you. You owe your continued survival to him.~
         "Shang Tsung has no honor," I admonished, allowing a hint of warning to enter my voice. "He had his own reasons for reviving me, none of which had anything to do with concern for my welfare. I owe him nothing."
         ~He has not forgotten the role you and the Tournament's other survivors played in his downfall. Heed my warning: Shao Kahn has granted the sorcerer more power than ever, which he may use to track you down. Even if he does not, you cannot survive here for long. You will eventually tire, and those who fall asleep in Limbo do not awaken as living beings. Death resides upon these inhospitable grounds.~
         "Perhaps."
         ~Farewell, Sub-Zero. I would wish you luck, if the wishes of a god had any meaning upon another god's world.~ His luminous form became brighter, uniformly white, until its sparkling outline diffused into nothingness. The shower had lessened to a drizzle. Soon that was also gone. The swirling wheel of clouds remained in the sky, blotting out the sun.



         Smoke began my Lin Kuei training as soon as my burns healed. Through hard work and experience, I learned many things: how to strengthen my muscles and stretch my endurance, how to move unobserved, how to utilize my body as a perfectly controlled weapon, and how to kill.
         Killing wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.
         Physical exercises are tedious. No-quarter sparring can be dangerous. Moving silently is not as easy as it looks. Invisibility is a subtle art, requiring a different approach in the context of a thousand changing circumstances. But the actual killing? It's little more than a motion with a knife, or a firm twist of another's head. I don't know why I thought it would be so difficult. Perhaps I expected to feel something, the first time I assassinated a man. I didn't. I've never had any true "feelings" since my Test. Despite the reputation I have earned, I take no pride or satisfaction in my work. There is no one whom I care about. I have a familial obligation to my younger brother, but that is not the same thing.
         Just once, I would like to laugh. I'm almost certain that I used to. I wish I could remember what it was like. Even if joy and passion are forever denied to me, I would settle for knowing pain. I do not mean ordinary physical pain, of course, but rather what it is to be lonely, or sad. Isolation has been my way of life for so long, I cannot recall any other state. Though I can project rivulets of super-chilled water from my hands, my eyes have been dry for as long as I've been what I am. Whatever the experience of heartbreak may be, it cannot be worse than to have one's heart frozen stiff and still, forever.



         Limbo is a grotesque place.
         The canyon's side flattened into a mesa, though I estimated that I was still a good distance away from its bottom. There was no wind, yet the cloud vortex above moved fast enough that my eyes could track its counterclockwise spiral. The sky seemed to become a darker shade of blue with every passing second. Matching the decrease in light from above was an eerie crimson radiance from the ground. Most of the land was a dusty or gravelly reddish-brown, riddled with bright maroon cracks and patches. Heat as well as light escaped the many crevices, evaporating the rainwater from my clothing. These rifts were quite narrow, so that the greatest threat they posed was that of tripping over them, yet they made me uneasy.
         Surrounding me was a wide, barren stretch of flatland. A thin line of mounds formed a landmark at the mesa's far edge. Quickening my pace to a steady jog, I fixed my attention upon the gap between two of the tallest hills and set a straight course for it.
         Halfway there, I felt the ground tremble beneath my feet. Something massive lay ahead. The closer I approached, the heavier the tremors became. By the time I reached the mounds, inhuman screams and roars filled the air. The shrill outcries were loud enough to make my head hurt. Creating a pair of Ice earplugs helped a little.
         Now I was close enough to see that the mounds were not formed of earth or rock, as I'd previously assumed. They were huge stacks of dead carcasses. Here and there I spotted what might have been human remains, but most of the bodies belonged to large animals. Many of them were relatively fleshless. Forked sticks emerged from the two mounds in front of me, propping up two long-skulled, quadruped skeletons the size of elephants. From what I could tell, the sticks were in turn supported by the tremendous piles of bone and tattered flesh that lay heaped around their base. A handful of small fires crackled here and there on the mounds, sputtering and giving off slight plumes of smoke. There were no carrion feeders present to feast upon the macabre spectacle. Even more strangely, none of it gave off any stench of decay. Perhaps I should have been grateful for that, but it only made me apprehensive.
         Climbing over those mounds might not be wise. I couldn't trust them to hold my weight. If my footing were to give way, and I fell within one of those enormous piles... Shaking my head, I stepped up to the only clear passage through the grisly heaps, and beheld what was making the earth quiver.
         Two great dragons clashed, biting and tearing at one another in the gully framed by the monstrous graveyard. Both were covered with gaping tooth and claw wounds. No quarter was asked or given. The air about their struggle rushed like the whistle of a hurricane.
         They were colossal. A man would have to stand on tiptoe to touch their ankles. The flesh of twenty oxen could have been their breakfast. Both dragons were wingless, walking upon their crooked hind legs and balanced by their lengthy tails. One dragon, colored dull ochre with splashes of royal purple, had diminutive forelegs and a head half the size of his body. Its sharp-toothed jaws could have crushed a house. The other dragon's scales were a patchwork of cyan and aqua, while its wide, flat head and folding fangs resembled those of a poisonous viper. As the long-jawed dragon lunged forward, the viper-dragon turned its head aside, flaring a hood with white markings resembling a stylized skull. Superimposed upon both dragons' physical presence was an overwhelming concentration of Power. Even Raiden's daunting manifestation paled in comparison. These beasts were more than monsters. They were gods in their own right.
         The long-jawed dragon lost ground to its opponent, and the clash shifted to one side of where I waited. Beyond the warring creatures, more corpse-piles formed a sloppy far wall with a wider opening. Past that, the ground sloped downward and changed texture from rocky to sandy. Before I could study the view further, the viper-dragon staggered back into my line of sight, its hips bleeding from fresh injuries. The long-jawed dragon swung its great tail like a bludgeon, scoring a low rent along the far wall before it struck the viper-dragon. In retaliation, the viper-dragon's own tail snapped forward; a keen-edged keratin blade shot out from its tip, drawing a gash across the other beast's thigh. The long-jawed dragon bellowed a confused cry as it tipped over, crashing heavily upon the ground. Shockwaves from the collision unbalanced me as well. By the time I recovered my footing, so had the dragon.
         I considered traveling along the outer wall of corpse-mounds, in search of another opening that wouldn't put me in peril of being crushed like an insect... but I hadn't seen any other gaps when I'd approached. They'd have to be very far away, if they existed at all.
         ~You will eventually tire, and those who fall asleep in Limbo do not awaken as living beings.~
         Raiden's warning remained fresh in my mind. No, I didn't have time to look for an alternate route. I'd have to get past the beasts somehow. Judging from how quickly the dragongods moved, how much territory I'd have to cover to safely clear of them, and my fastest running speed, I estimated my chances of avoiding them if I were to sprint across their battleground. The odds I arrived upon were in my disfavor. There had to be a better way.
         A plan formed in my mind. It would test my command of the Power further than ever before, but I'd learn much in the process. If I survived, of course.



         When I accepted my fate as a hunter, I decided to practice the art of killing in its highest form. In nature, there are animals that consume plants, predators that consume the plant-eaters, and supreme predators that consume other meat-eaters. This last, smallest group is said to be at the top of the food chain. So, too, was I determined to be at the top of whatever bonds cement serfs, landowners, and warriors in one great pyramid.
         I hunted other hunters.
         My specialty was seeking and destroying other assassins. There is no prey more challenging than a trained killer, and nothing less was worthy of my attention. I could afford to be discriminating because the Lin Kuei have so many enemies from which to choose. The clan is often at war and constantly in competition with other criminal organizations. My self-appointed task was to make rivals disappear.
         There used to be a few who questioned my selectiveness, or even my loyalty to the Lin Kuei. As soon as I caught wind of such stray whispers, I'd announce that my honor had been slighted, challenge the rumormonger to ritual combat, and kill him. After a half-dozen such instances, most everyone kept their opinions about me to themselves. I maintained my position at the summit of the pyramid until two years ago, when Pyre ruined everything.


         
         Placing my hands flat on the earth, I directed the Power to form a narrow ribbon of Ice in a straight path through the dragongods' battlefield. It was not easy to do, considering the heat that worked against me. The further the slick reached, the more exertion it cost to maintain. At times the dragongods would step on the Ice slick, cracking it and compelling me to spend more precious energy repairing the damage. My heart pounded by the time the Ice slick stretched all the way across the dragongods' territory. There was no time to rest, though; I had to implement the second step of my plan before the sweltering temperature rendered the Ice slick useless.
         Keeping my right hand on the beginning of the slick, I directed the Power to create skates of Ice about my feet. My hands were trembling from the strain. Just as I concentrated a final burst of Power into finishing the second skate's blade, the long-jawed dragon started an offensive that caused the viper-dragon to leap away. The viper-dragon was clearly the lighter of the two, for when it landed the ground only trembled enough to make me sway. I kept my eyes on them until the cobra dragon ceased its retreat, then launched myself onto the Ice slick.
         I hadn't skated upon ice since before my Test, yet my muscles recalled things my memory had forgotten. Hunching over to present the least resistance to the air, I propelled myself across the ground much more swiftly than I could have run. Off to my right, the cobra-dragon hissed furiously; there was a slapping sound, followed by a confused cry from the long-jawed dragon. Recognizing what it meant, I pushed off the Icy trail into a midair somersault, at the same time as the gargantuan beast slammed into the gully's floor. The earth and everything on it shuddered; parts of the trail cracked, but enough remained for me to land on it and speed toward safety.
         The dragongods' tread came closer. I fixed my eyes on the gap in the far wall and poured everything I had into increasing my velocity further still. A few more seconds and-
         -my skates lodged on something in the earth and broke into pieces. The heat had melted the far end of the ice slick into water, as I would have seen if I'd payed more attention to my path and less to my goal. I turned my fall into a flip, which became a spring, then a frantic dash. A three-clawed shadow darkened the earth around me. Diving onto the mud headfirst, I slid into the groove between the shadow's inner and middle toes an instant before the foot that cast it plunged into the soil. Mud displaced by the dragon's tread splashed on my back.
         A serrated vise clamped on my head and shoulders, and I felt the giddy sensation of being lifted high and fast. Venomous liquid burned my hands. The atmosphere tasted bitterly foul. All I could see at first were pinkish folds of flesh, but then I glimpsed the forked tongue and hollow fangs near the flat corners of the receded incisors that held me. The viper-dragon had picked me up with its maw, and meant to swallow me whole.
         I folded myself in half and brought my legs under and up against the viper-dragon's flat, low row of bottom incisors. The beast's head was tilted nearly vertical now; a last-second burst of desperation pulled me around and forward enough to grasp the rough scales of its lower lip. That lent me enough purchase to bring my legs in front of the incisors and push off from them. The slippery rope of its tongue touched me as I glimpsed the ground far below. To fall from this height would probably kill me, since I was too drained to cushion the impact with the Power; yet that was a better fate than being guzzled like noodles.
         The other dragongod stepped into my line of sight, announcing its renewed fury with an earsplitting roar; it clamped its jaws on the viper-dragon's neck and shook its rival back and forth. I was flung into the base of a far heap of corpses. A dead horse's distended belly softened the landing. The horse's grinning, half-stripped skull dangled in front of my eyes. Winded but relatively unhurt, I crawled down from the grisly pile and darted through the gap between it and another heap ornamented with the skeleton some great, antlered beast. I did not slow my pace until the dragongods' outcries faded to a background murmur.
         Only then did I allow myself to rest for a moment. My breath poured out from my lungs in a slow wheeze. My exposed skin was raw and itching from the viper-dragon's toxic saliva. I cleaned the foul stuff off as best I could, and comforted myself with the relieved thought that at least my hide was intact.
         It didn't stay that way.



         Of all the things I practice to hone my assassination skills, I dislike forms the least.
         They are my favored means to rehearse balance and control of the body. Some are reenactments of past or classical struggles; others express the course of battles that might have been. When I go through each movement, I see the enemies before me, all their attacks that must be avoided or countered, and the shock of defeat in their eyes when they fall.
         The form I currently practiced was a short one of my own design, based upon an encounter with three of the Ivory Claw organization's finest, known collectively as the Triple Razors because they never ate, slept, or traveled apart. No one knew where to find them. To draw them out, I'd threatened an extremely influential underground bookkeeper colloquially known as Sharkskin, who had strong ties to the Ivory Claw. As I'd hoped, the Triple Razors were assigned to protect him.
         Cast powder and spring forward, palm strike. The primary advantage I'd had over the Triple Razors was surprise. I pressed that advantage with flash and smoke powder. If the momentarily dazzling light of the flash didn't blind them, the smoke powder would. It was a special formula designed to painfully irritate a person's eyes, unless they were protected by special lenses such as the ones I wore. Grasping a lungful of air, I plunged into the haze and drove the heel of my hand into a Razor's larynx. Nearby, Sharkskin coughed violently and fell to his knees.
         Turn, drop, snap heel out. A disturbance in smoky fog warned me of the other two Razors' approach; I dived underneath a strike forceful enough to break bones, judging from the disturbance in the vapors. Calculating from where the attack had come, I kicked and felt my heel drive into the second Razor's ankle, knocking it from underneath him. The third Razor threw something in my direction.
         Roll, spring, cast the Power. I evaded the missiles with a smooth backward somersault. The smoke was beginning to thin enough for me to glimpse the objects as I flowed into a standing position; they were a scattering of palm-sized razor blades, probably poison-coated. Make that definitely poison-coated, for one of them had cut the face of the second Razor at the fog's thinning edge, and he was quivering and shuddering like a fish in a net. The third Razor should have known better than to cast them blind. The effects of the smoke were wearing off, so before it completely dissipated I stretched forward my hands and sent the Power back along the blades' flight trajectory. He never saw it coming. While the Power kept the third Razor paralyzed, I approached and dealt a hammer swing to the back of his head. He slumped forward and collapsed, unconscious.
         Finish it. Lin Kuei tradition has it that a form ends when all the illusory enemies are vanquished, yet in my mind there was one last, conclusive step. I used one of the Triple Razors' own poisoned blades to cut their throats. Two of them were already dying if not dead, but I take no chances. "Please," Sharkskin had gasped, watching me, "please, I'll give you anything you want, anything, just don't hurt me, please, I'm begging you!"
         Someone else was in the practice hall. His position was the same as Sharkskin's had once been. He had approached silently; only the slight wafting of warm air betrayed his movements. Suspicious, I pivoted in place and cast the Power at the intruder. He leaped over the Ice, flipping forward and thrusting his legs in an aerial double kick that snapped my chin back and knocked me flat on the wooden floor. The tip of his spear pressed against my exposed throat. Small puffs of ashen vapor spontaneously drifted from various parts of his dull grey uniform.
         "You have developed keen senses, but you are slow to adapt and rely on the Power too much," Smoke lectured. "You were fortunate that Sharkskin was nothing more than a bookkeeper. If he had half a quarter of a warrior's instincts, he might have assaulted you when your back was turned to him. It never occurred to you that his pleas might have been a distraction."
         "Sharkskin was exactly what he appeared to be. I checked him out thoroughly before I used him as bait," I mumbled, my speech a little slurred from the trauma to my jaw. There was no point in asking Smoke how he'd learned the details of my fight with the Triple Razors, or that my current form was a reenaction of it. If he intended to tell me, he would have already done so.
         "A man's life is a complex thing. All the checking in the world will not uncover every detail. You were fortunate," Smoke reiterated, taking the spear away from my neck. I rocked back and sprang onto my feet with a quick kippup. "Have you heard anything about Sharkskin, recently?"
         "No. Should I have?"
         "He has disappeared. My sources tell me that the Ivory Claw executed him, on suspicion of having set up the Triple Razors. Which he did, though not with conscious intent."
         "Of course. People make better pawns if they never realize they are on someone else's chessboard."
         A minute change flicked across Smoke's slate-grey eyes, accompanied by an alteration in the corkscrew course of the smoke plumes that wafted from his form. I waited for him to speak again, because I knew he had not come solely to tell me about Sharkskin. Smoke and I did not habitually exchange remarks as if we were friends. Lin Kuei do not have friends. Smoke was my mentor, and one of the few people in whom I placed a certain amount of trust, but the word "friend" does not apply.
         "Lord Pyre wants to see you," Smoke said at last, quietly. "A messenger will soon come. I am here to warn you. Do you know what Lord Pyre has done to all who faced him in single combat?"



         The slope of the path had become so steep that I had to proceed with care. I followed a trail covered with stone, shale, dust, sand, and glowing reddish crevices like the ones I'd seen earlier. My surroundings seemed to get hotter and drier with every step I took. The wind was stronger here, blustering from an unseen source. The gusts played with the loose earth so energetically my own footprints disappeared seconds after I made them. Some dust got into my eyes, making them itch and sting.
         Time passed.
         An ache started to spread through my muscles. I stopped for ten minutes of stretching exercises, knowing that if I were to pause any longer I might not be able to continue.
         More sand covered the path the further I made my way down; eventually a layer of it spread a thick blanket over everything. Occasional dips and protrusions from the bedrock underneath slowed my progress a little, though I tried to keep my pace consistent. The slope's grade was in the process of flattening. I wasn't sure whether this was a good sign until the wind shifted once more, coming from directly ahead, and I felt a welcome sensation within the breeze.
         Moisture!
         I held out my hands to the dampness and silently called to it. Water is the essence of Ice, and Ice is the key to my Power. At last I had the chance to regenerate my depleted reserves. There was a tainted, sickly smell to the atmosphere in addition to its increased humidity, but I didn't care. Blood River had to be nearby. My journey was almost halfway over. I quickened into a jog, expecting to see the river as soon as I passed the next dip in the plateau-
         My right leg plunged into the sand, and kept on going. I tried to draw it out, only to realize that my left leg was also sinking, and swiftly.
         I'd run straight into a bed of quicksand. The dank, clammy morass reached up to my chin before I could curse my own stupidity.



         Pyre's use-name refers to his talent: pyrokenisis, the summoning and manipulation of elemental Fire. The deep crimson color of his ceremonial uniform symbolizes the searing bonfires he can create at will. Pyre's exalted position within the Hierarchy meant that theoretically, lesser Lin Kuei could challenge him for his rank at any time. In practice, only one such duel had taken place in the past five years. I'd had the privilege of being a witness.
         Pyre never had to touch his opponent.
         As soon as the duelmaster signaled for the fight to begin, Pyre unleashed the full brunt of his Talent. His mastery of the Power was unheard-of in centuries of Lin Kuei history. He didn't need to channel it through his hands; he simply focused his gaze, and the entire arena burned. Livid orange flames ate Pyre's victim inside and out, pouring from his mouth, ears, and eyes while his clothing and skin blackened. He staggered toward Pyre, but didn't last two steps. The heat was so intense that some of the witness' clothing caught afire, and I had to help put it out. When it was over, there was nothing recognizable left of Pyre's contender. The inferno had reduced his bones to ash.
         "Yes, I know what Pyre has done to his challengers," I assured Smoke. "Why do you ask? I do not want to be part of the Hierarchy. I'm not going to challenge Pyre, and he has no reason to challenge me."
         "Trust your instincts, not Lord Pyre. Do not speak to him unless spoken to. Age has made him devious, paranoid, and easy to offend. He may take the most innocent remark or gesture as a threat to his authority. Be wary, and tell no one of this meeting." Smoke brought his palms together in front of himself, fingers pointed upward. Light, breezy wisps of Power flickered from his fingertips. The ashen plumes surrounding his body immediately thickened into a single swath that encompassed him and dispersed, leaving behind no trace of his presence.
         Fifteen seconds later, Pyre's messenger approached me with a personal summons.



         There was barely enough time to gasp a lungful of air before the ooze covered my head. Quicksand is only sand saturated with water, I thought to myself. I can control it. I will control it. Focus was critical. The ache in my muscles, the sensation of being sucked down like grime into a sewer, and the shortness of breath in my lungs had to be ignored. Ice was all that mattered - the immediate creation of a large chunk of pure Ice, with a narrowed middle section so that my arms could more easily grasp it. Even as I seized the piece, I channeled still more Ice through my hands to increase its volume. Suspended underneath the amorphous mixture of sand and water, with my eyes blighted by countless particles, I was too deprived of my senses to know whether my plan was working or merely slowing my descent. My supply of air was running out, and my consciousness with it. I didn't dare pour any more energy into the Ice float, for now it took all the strength in my body and psyche just to maintain my hold upon it.
         I was on the verge of blacking out when I felt a cool breeze waft across my fingers. Committing my waning stamina to one last heave, I dragged my head out of the depths. My ragged breathing was hampered because I clutched the Ice float so tightly that it put pressure upon my diaphragm.
         I'd bought myself some time, but the heat of the sun's rays on my face reminded me that the Ice float would not last long. Did enough Power remain within me to freeze the quicksand bed? Creating the one float had been hard enough. If I were to overestimate the limits of my psyche, I might black out from the exertion, and that would prove my doom. Was it worth the risk? Would freezing only part of the quicksand bed be more effective?
         You have developed keen senses, but you are slow to adapt and rely on the Power too much.
         And why the hell was I thinking of Smoke at a time like this?



         Smoke's warning echoed in my mind as I entered Pyre's uncomfortably warm reception chamber. Almost everything within was made of polished black stone: walls, floor, sparse furnishings. Ornately chiseled patterns of vines, birds, dragons, and men adorned the walls. A string of small glass jars rested on a stone ledge. Each jar contained liquid and a blobby, flaccid thing compressed inside.
         Pyre's rank far outstripped mine, so I kneeled and touched my forehead to the floor. I had no idea why he wanted to speak to directly me, instead of using an intermediary. My memory recalled a picture of him standing aloof while his burning victim writhed like a tortured snake. Pyre's uniform had concealed his face, hair and body; all I'd seen of him was his eyes, which constantly changed color in the unsteady firelight. They appeared bored, as if he'd done this hundreds of times before. For all I knew, he probably had.
         "You may rise," Pyre said, graciously. As I did so, I noticed two Lin Kuei retainers flanking his either side. Both were clad in matching ceremonial uniforms tinted a lighter shade of crimson than the highlights of Pyre's outfit. "Sub-Zero, isn't it? Yes, it must be. Smoke has told me about you. You're still learning to control your Power, but I have faith in your abilities."
         What?
         I'd trained to harness my Power for years. My teaching had progressed from straining to lower the temperature of a small room, to preserving a melting ice cube during the hottest summer months, then finally mastering the creation of true Ice at will. I'd graduated from Smoke's tutoring when I paralyzed him with a freezing blast of the Power. Did Smoke truly consider me a novice? Had I failed to earn my teacher's respect?
         Enough of this. Pyre was speaking, and it was my duty to pay attention. I dismissed the questions from my mind and focused upon my superior. An uneasy feeling remained, and continued to worry me long after I'd forgotten the queries that caused it.
         "Before I explain your presence here, there's something I'd like to show you. It's so extraordinary - are you still looking at the floor? Really, there is no need for displays of formality. Come on, head up. It's all right."
         I did not want to disobey, yet my years among the Lin Kuei had ingrained the knowledge that lesser clansmen do not make eye contact with the Hierarchy. I'd once known a fellow initiate who made that mistake. For his impertinence, he lost his eyes and tongue, had his tendons severed, and was pressed into the ranks of the Lin Kuei's slaves. The clan prefers its bondsmen blind, mute, and lame because this make them easier to control; in addition, it has the advantage of discouraging infiltration. All slaves must never wear any covering over their scarred calves or eye sockets, and must open their mouths for inspection at least once a day, to ensure that no unmutilated spy lurks among them. The Lin Kuei have many rivals, but few enemies would voluntarily cripple themselves on the distant hope of blending with the slaves.
         "Still feeling reticent? Do I have to spell it out for you, then? This audience is private. Only my grandsons are watching, and they can be trusted. I give you my word that for the length of this meeting, I will take nothing that you say or do as an offense. Of course, you had better observe the forms outside these walls, or I'll have Ember here drain the vitreous humor from your eyeballs and use it to preserve your severed tongue." The warning was quite amiable, as if he were admonishing a child not to sit too close to the fireplace.
         "Now, look at me." To resist further might have incited Pyre's displeasure, so I did as he requested.
         The person in front of me differed greatly from the specter I'd once observed in ritual combat. Pyre was a small man, slightly stooped from age. For some reason, he'd chosen to forego his mask, exposing a wizened face creased with lines from every possible facial expression. His stiff, grey moustache was perfectly trimmed. He beamed with warmth and good will. Was this the irascible, easily provoked overlord Smoke had warned me about? What had happened to the basilisk-man that could cremate a person with a single glance?
         Only one detail hinted that Pyre was more deadly than he appeared. His solid black bodysuit retained sleeves and gloves that fully covered his hands. All other clansmen with the Talent, including Smoke and myself, must have our arms and hands free to project our Power. Decorating Pyre's bodysuit was the Lin Kuei ceremonial cloth overlay, including the divided vest, frontscloth tied with a sash, and guards on the forearms, hands, and shins, all colored deep crimson.
         "That's better," Pyre affirmed. "Now where was I... ah, yes." He indicated the black stone wall behind us. Ember stepped forward, tucking a stray wisp of reddish hair underneath his hood, and raised his hands. Rivulets of Fire flowed from his fingertips, splashing against the stone. When Ember ceased his outburst, the wall began to move with a dull, rumbling noise.
         "Takes a minimum of five hundred degrees Kelvin to make it budge," Pyre explained with a wink. "This way, quickly, before it cools." He strode through the scorched stone opening, which pulsed with enough heat to make me ill. His grandsons followed. I held my breath and hurried through the gaping stone rent moments before it slid back into place, cutting off light from the chamber.
         Pyre's second grandson rubbed his fingers together, bringing to life a small flame in his cupped right hand. He fanned it a little, gradually coaxing its glow brighter. His hand trembled from the stress of calling the Power. That and the wavering light of his tiny beacon were enough to make it clear that he was only a student of the Power, even if I hadn't sensed the relative weakness of his aura. Studying his smaller stature and the smooth skin at the corners of his eyes, I estimated him to be about the age of my younger brother. He was clearly no match for Ember, or me, for that matter. I wondered why Pyre chose to have such an unskilled attendant, even if he was family. Was there no one else in the entire Lin Kuei that Pyre could trust? And if Pyre truly was that suspicious, then why was he taking me into his confidence?
         The tiny flame's light was just bright enough for the three of us to find our way through the tunnel and down the stone steps to which it led. At last Pyre stopped before a square iron door. Something was very wrong about that door. I felt a little queasy, looking upon it. It was riveted, with a tiny eye-level slit too small for someone on this side to peer through, but its most ominous feature was the metal box attached to the latch. A ring of faint bulbs illuminated the box, revealing a pad of Arabic numbers underneath the recessed outline of a human hand. It appeared to be a locking device, but I'd never seen anything like it before.
         "You are about to encounter something amazing," Pyre addressed me, resting his hand on the door's riveted surface. "Few of our clan know this project exists. There are some who might be uncomfortable with the concept, so it is better if they don't learn of it just yet. The repercussions would be very severe. Do you understand my meaning?"
         "Yes, Lord Pyre." If I were to tell anyone what I was about to see, I'd be tortured to death.
         "Excellent." He precisely fitted his hand into the recessed outline. Lights flashed; a thin chime sounded. A voice too monotone and flat to be human said, Identification verified. Access granted, Lord Pyre. The door opened of its own accord, sliding to the side and disappearing within a slot embedded in its frame. At first, dim reddish lights only half-illuminated the room beyond, which had no other exits or entrances. Then Pyre stepped through, and an unseen generator hummed as ceiling lamps turned themselves on.
         The chamber was a laboratory, and a very messy one at that. Mechanical parts and wires covered virtually every surface. Some were just scattered aimlessly, but most were formed into pieces resembling human body parts - torsos, legs, arms, or helmeted heads. The "skin" of such prototype members was a transparent plastic, covering inner gears, grease, and colored wire strands. A unique box hummed quietly in the corner. Its near side glowed with light, showing a constantly changing pattern of green wires bent into grids resembling three-dimensional objects. A large container with an insulated lid rested against the back wall. My sensitivity to temperature told me that it was a freezer - and the reddish stains on the floor next to it plus my sense of smell offered a clue as to what was frozen inside. To the freezer's left was a nightmare that has troubled my sleep ever since.
         It was an artificial thing constructed in the rough shape of a man, with plastic skin, a skeleton of metal, and innards of pumps and tubes. Wires ran along its limbs in the place of nerves. Black, oily liquid greased its mechanisms instead of blood. The thing was only partly finished, lacking an arm and a leg. The forehead of its metal skull had been cut away; inside I saw empty space, save for the frayed tips of wires leading out from its neck.
         "Behold," Pyre proudly exclaimed, "unit LK-4D4! It's not done yet, of course. You don't know how much it has cost to get this far. This prototype was born from the resources of entire corporations under the Lin Kuei's control. We are close to making the perfect - no, the ultimate warrior! Envision, if you will, a Lin Kuei soldier that doesn't need food or sleep, that can see a gnat flying in pitch blackness, that cannot be stopped by blades or guns, that has the strength of ten men!" Eagerness flavored his voice. "The only problem is the central processing unit. We can't make one with the capability to function in every contingency, not just yet. We've tried, but the program invariably crashes within twenty-four hours of installation. Then I gave the matter some thought and realized that I already had the perfect 'computer' - it was inside my head all along!"
         No. He couldn't mean-
         "Just imagine it!" Lord Pyre hissed, stepping in front of the empty shell, which exactly matched his frame and build. "A tireless, ageless body superior to ordinary flesh in every way! We have the secret of immortality in our hands, Sub-Zero. Eternal life for the entire Lin Kuei clan! Our numbers have been steadily decreasing over the past centuries, but now we can preserve them forever! What do you think of that?"
         I thought he was a madman.



         My arms were tiring. Droplets of water trickled down the side of my ice float, making it so slick that I had to lock my hands together to maintain my hold. Beads of sweat ran down my forehead and mingled with the melted ice, seeping toward the rest of the quicksand bed. Instead of dissolving instantly, though, the moisture pooled upon the quicksand's surface, separated from the denser mixture below by a light film of surface tension.
         My intuition made the leap.
         The quicksand truly was nothing but sand mixed with ordinary water. I didn't have to freeze it when, buoyed by the float, I ought to be able to swim through it. The "shore," where my sandy footprints gave way to a deceptively smooth surface, was only a couple meters away.
         I rolled on my side and pulled my knees in slightly, bringing my heels toward my hips, then vigorously extended them apart and brought them together again. I repeated the scissor kick over and over; each motion brought me precious centimeters closer to safety. The viscous quicksand sucked at my calves with a shlorp sound whenever they broke the surface. My slow progress could have been sped up if I'd used one arm, but I didn't dare compromise my precarious hold on the melting chunk of ice. The quicksand's sucking pull on me was far greater than ordinary water, and I doubted I could stay afloat solely on my own efforts.
         The tousled remnant of the nearest footprint was close enough to touch when the narrowed midsection of my ice float broke apart. Resisting the urge to thrash, I dug my fingers into the shore. Underneath a couple centimeters of sand, I felt a rough, rocky surface and gripped it with my fingertips. I was sinking quickly despite efforts to keep my body horizontal, and to struggle would only have made me submerge all the faster. With what little purchase I had, I dragged my upper body forward and reached for another handhold.
         All Lin Kuei warriors are expected to keep themselves in optimum physical condition. I regularly practice using my arms alone to scale nylon thread no thicker than twenty strands of hair, and the strength I've developed from such exercises serves me well. Fatigue and injury made hauling myself out of the quicksand pit more difficult, but my determination to survive carried me through. Fortunately, the ice bandages had stayed in place over my claw wounds, though the sharp pain in my shoulder blade warned me against trying another stunt like that.
         My uniform was a mess, covered with the gritty morass. Now that I was out of danger, I felt the strength drain out of my limbs and my psyche, leaving me shaken and unable to conjure a single crystal. Yet I had to press on, and hope that the passage of time would help me recover. Before continuing my journey, I searched underneath the sand for loose rocks and pebbles. With every few steps, I'd toss a stone on the ground in front of me. When it appeared to sink too far into the sand, then I was very cautious indeed, and slowed my progress to a crawl until I found another, safer stretch to cross.



         If it had been winter, I'd have retreated to the deepest snow-covered valley I could find. But it was spring, and the nearest source of snow was a mountaintop over two hundred kilometers away, so I had to be content with prowling the woods. I was restless, and needed to do something while I thought over Pyre's assignment.
         Sometimes I practice the art of mundane invisibility through a more traditional form of hunting. Animal senses are far keener than those of men. Any fool can creep up behind a commoner, but only the quietest prowler can approach a hare unnoticed. It took a great deal of practice before I could come close enough to touch the hare's white tail with the tip of my finger - which is what I did. I kill people, not animals.
         Pyre had told me to kill one more person, a member of a rival clan, within the next seven days. I should have immediately set out for the target's dwelling, yet something bothered me and I didn't understand what it was. Misgivings? This target was no different from any of the others. He was just another killer, and therefore my rightful prey. Wasting even a little time here was dangerously close to disobeying Pyre's wishes.
         The wishes of a madman.
         That had to be what bothered me. Memory of that thing in Pyre's laboratory made me nauseous. He actually planed to create zombies of metal and grease; worse, he planned to turn himself, and possibly others into those unliving, soulless objects. He had to be senile. Though he had appeared healthy when I met him, he was indeed an old man who couldn't have had too many years remaining. Perhaps he was desperate to try anything, no matter how blasphemous, to prolong his waning lifespan. Sometimes I forget how tightly other people cling to this world.
         There was one other, acerbating circumstance. Pyre's second grandson had been tailing me ever since I left the clan's residence. He tried to be subtle about it, and showed some skill, but not enough to fool the game that ran away long before I could close in. He could probably use a quick lesson.
         I made my way to a brook with small black fish that darted just underneath the water's surface. Having chosen my optimum territory, I settled down and started to craft an Ice mirror from the stream's cool water. It took a little time, during which I listened intently for any movement from behind. None came. He was either unaware of what I intended, or better than I thought.
         I gazed upon the finished mirror. By shifting its angle, I could peer around the trees he was hidden behind. My right hand casually reached to scratch the back of my neck, then angled toward him and directed the Power. He was far enough away that he could have dodged the attack, had he anticipated it, but apparently following me for several hours had whittled away at his vigilance. I approached him and waited for the Power's effects to fade.
         "Next time you trail someone, be careful to stay downwind or at least crosswind of them," I lectured, when he was no longer paralyzed. "The scent of a human being is very hard to conceal when you are upwind. And do not wear your ceremonial colors. By the clan's honor, what do you think you are doing? That shade of red is bright enough for a blind man to see! Now, what do you want with me?" He turned his head to the side and did not speak. "Consider this: I could have killed you, yet I did not."
         "If you had, you would have paid with your blood!" he snapped, glaring at me.
         "Perhaps, but you would still be dead."
         He looked at me, strangely, and with apprehension.
         "I do not have time for this charade," I sighed, shaking my head. "There is a task to carry out. Pyre cannot have charged you with monitoring me until I completed it; you are too inexperienced to be an effective observer, and too weak to be an effective enforcer. You probably thought up the idea on your own. Your time would be better spent practicing your disciplines. You have much to learn."
         "I won't let you hurt him," he snarled.
         "The target?" I enquired, genuinely curious.
         "No! Grandfather Pyre. I don't know why he trusts you - something about wanting to forge an alliance between opposite elements, he said - but I don't! You'd better not try to harm him!"
         "For your sake, I did not hear that. My loyalty to the clan is not to be questioned, and even if it were, Lord Pyre is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Do not speak of him in such a disrespectful manner or you'll pay the price, grandson or not."
         "No. It's a trap, it's too convenient!"
         "What are you babbling about?"
         "Sub-Zero, the Lin Kuei's only living Ice master, just happens to be taken into confidence on the most perilous secret in the entire clan? It can't be a coincidence that he summoned you immediately after the Grand Council was in session. It's a Hierarchy trick! He doesn't realize how much they already know! You are their weapon. I've tried to warn him, and now I'm warning you: don't turn against him."
         "Or?"
         "Or I'll destroy you, your family, and anyone associated with you."
         Brave words, from a novice who posed no serious threat to my well-being. I could have told him that an intelligent hunter does not warn his quarry before making the kill, and does not make a challenge unless he has the strength to back it up. I could have broken both his arms to emphasize the point.
         Instead, I asked "What do you call yourself?"
         "Sektor. Why?"
         "I like to know the names of people who threaten me. It makes them easier to track down, later."



         A shift of the wind brought more than moisture to my attention. It also carried a raw odor, warm and quaking with a salty tang. I recognized that smell. As I reached the top of a vantage point overlooking its source, my eyes confirmed the suspicions of my nose.
         "Blood River," Saibot had called it. The name was no accident.
         Coursing vigorously through the ravine's bottom was a scarlet river of real blood. The syrupy red liquid bubbled and churned, occasionally erupting into bright red geysers. It stretched for kilometers to the left, and curved around a bend to the right. Steam constantly drifted from its restless surface, masking its other side. Questions spun through my head. How did all this blood get here? Was it from humans, animals, or both? Why was it so smooth? Blood has a tendency to coagulate and decay, but the river's contents were as fresh as if they'd spilled out of a giant aorta.
         The closer I came to the river, the more it throbbed with scalding heat. I could not swim across it. Though the river's grisly composition did not deter me, the prospect of boiling like meat in a cookpot did. By the time I reached its shore, my eyes stung from the steam; however, no tears formed. I have not shed tears since discovering my Power.
         A shadow appeared within the river-mist.
         As it gradually drifted closer, the shape resolved into a low, flat-bottomed object with pointed tips, hosting a man-sized visage. A long, thin streak extended from the figure, plunging underneath Blood River's turbulent surface and stirring it. It was a boat, guided by a single poleman. I suppose I'd expected the craft to be made from bones and strung with sinew, yet I was pleasantly surprised to see merely an ordinary wooden boat, joined with common iron and painted deep red from stem to stern. The being within wore a long-sleeved, floor-length sable robe with a heavy hood drawn down, leaving only his hands visible. To my relief those hands appeared human, though strung with discolored veins and quivering from moment to moment. The poleman had to be very old. He gripped his staff so tightly that his knuckles had bled white. His pole was a little unusual, I noted, for it was gnarled and covered with twisting, brownish leaf stems. It looked as if it had been wrested from the bough of a tree.
         The boatman halted about five meters from shore. His voice drifted amidst the steam, soft and rattling with the rasp of one who had overused his throat the day before.
         "Fare?" He nodded vacantly toward a small bronze bowl tucked close to the boat's starboard rim. I couldn't see the bowl's contents, but I could guess that he wanted gold, or silver, neither of which were in my possession. I had nothing to offer him save the quicksand-caked rags of my uniform. Perhaps I could overpower him, and steal his vessel. If he came closer, I might be able to jump across the distance separating us, but at the moment he was so far away that the impact of my weight would risk overturning the boat.
         "My deepest apologies, sir, for I cannot hear you," I lied. "Would you please approach a little nearer and say that again?"
         A chuckle dry as dust, gritty as sandpaper glided on the warm breeze. "No fare? Is okay. I still take you." Ripples spread out from the end of his staff as he withdrew it and plunged it anew into Blood River's tumultuous surface. With unusual strength for one so ancient, he used the tool to pull his boat's prow close to land. "All you do is take pole, yes? I tired." He extended the head of his long wooden staff to me. Drops of river-blood trailed down its length and dripped on the rocky shore, joining pools of sanguine spray.



         The target lived in a common fishing village, which took five days of brisk travel to reach. I was familiar with Lin Kuei records about all known rival clans and cartels, none of which had direct ties to this remote town. Most black market organizations recruit from their home territory first, but it is not unheard of for a cartel member to "retire" in such a quiet, out-of-the-way location, provided that his superiors approve. Lin Kuei forbid any such practice outright. To join them is to live in their domain for the rest of one's life.
         I wondered why Pyre had chosen to me to carry out this elimination. The target was only a lowly Tong hit-man. Retirement must have dulled the target's senses, for I never had the slightest difficulty staying unnoticed as I observed his daily routine. This was no test of my abilities - but then, Pyre had been under the impression that I was still an apprentice.
         The target worked sunup to sundown mending nets, casting them out, bringing back his catch, preparing it for the market, and so forth. A woman with a small boy came out to meet him when he dragged his boat home. She wore a plain traditional dress, narrowly bound, and her hair was tied firmly in a bun held with long pins. The child was about five years old and a little shy, peeking behind his mother's dress until he recognized his father, and only then running up to greet him. They matched photographs of the target's wife and son, in the file I had memorized before setting out to perform my mission.
         I moved outside the village's perimeter and waited until well after sunset, then moonset, until the darkest hours when no common working man can afford to be awake. Then I waited some more. Every time I resolved to set forth, it seemed as though an animal cried out or voices muttered, and I halted. The sky began to grow lighter before I'd passed the first hut. I retreated, knowing that I had foolishly squandered my window of opportunity, and for what? Wondering about that distracted me for the next day, evening, and night, until the darkest hour descended once more.
         My mandate had been clear: the target was not to greet tomorrow's dawn. Hierarchy orders are not to be questioned; only obeyed. Every worry that had buzzed in my head up to this point was dangerously close to treason. I certainly wasn't about to march all the way back and tell Lord Pyre that, due to my incompetence, someone else would have to assassinate the Tong.
         The darkness had thickened to its deepest point. Memory told me that a humble fishing boat and net rested near the target's door, but shadows crowded them so densely I could no longer see them for what they truly were. I silently approached his modest dwelling, relying on the sense of touch to guide my movements.



         I was about to take the staff when my eyes spotted a tiny motion. Little brown tendrils, which I'd taken to be leaf stems, connected the pole to the boatman's hand, burrowing underneath the skin into his bulging veins. They wriggled and pulsed ever so slightly, like the motion of a centipede's legs, as if to get a better purchase. A few of them had detached and waved toward my fingers. Instinctively, I focused a burst of Power through my hand, paralyzing the vile things before they could touch me.
         "What wrong?" crooned the boatman, his shrill voice rapidly increasing in volume and pitch. "Afraid to work? Maybe I no give pole, because I very attached to it!" He cackled loudly and held up his face. His head was a fleshless skull yellowed with age. Independent eyeballs hung suspended in the skull's recessed eye sockets. The boatman lifted the staff and his sleeves gathered near his elbows, exposing radius and ulna bones. Only his hands had anything remotely like skin attached to them, and that was clearly a side effect of the writhing pole-thing they carried.
         "Sure you no step on board?" cawed the skeleton. "Yes, job is hard and food terrible, but tenure last forever! Aahhahahahahahaha!" He was still cackling when a sudden geyser of blood erupted from the river's surface, forcing me to move away and shield my eyes. "You better cross quickly. Death wait for you on other side!" When the geyser subsided, the boatman was gone, though he could have been anywhere in the dense mist above the river's surface.
         There had to be another way across. I followed Blood River's bank to the right, around the curve and into unknown territory.

end part one of four