THE COMING OF WINTER
part two of four

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




         My retreat from the target's dwelling was anything but silent. Fisherman's blood moistened my hands. I made no effort to conceal my departure. Howls and wailing rose from the hut I left behind.
         A puppy. The bastard had owned a stinking flat-faced puppy, smaller than the fish he netted, but with a bark loud enough to wake the hosts of Hell. He must have acquired it within the past week, or it would have been mentioned in his file. I would have known anyway if he'd let the blasted thing outdoors; gods alone know why he didn't. The damn creature slept outside his bedroom, and its keen nose smelled me before mine could smell him.
         What is it now, Pom-Pom? the fisherman had yawned, shuffling out of his bedroom. His movements weren't right; he was far too careless, not even holding a light or a weapon. I faltered. He followed the little animal's gaze and glimpsed my outline against the window starlight. Who are you?
         It took one last burst of resolve to quell my hesitation and carry out my task. The black-painted dagger was already in my hand; he didn't move as I brought it toward his throat. That threw me off. I'd expected him to flinch away, with automatic reflexes even the lowliest enforcer must develop to survive, and he didn't. Instead of cleanly severing his jugular, I only carved a deep gash on the side of his neck. Sloppy.
         What do you want? he'd cried out, staggering back. I have little, but if you want to steal something take it! Just don't hurt my wife and child! A gangster would have reached for a gun, a knife, anything that could be used as a weapon, but he merely stared at me when I stepped forward and inserted the dagger between his fourth and fifth ribs, angled up.
         Why...? He didn't seem to realize that his heart had stopped, until suddenly his legs bent like reeds. He slid down, and the blade withdrew from his chest cavity with a wet, sucking sound. That was when his wife's screams joined the puppy's barking. A child's cry could also be heard, blending into the cacophony. I dashed for the nearest exit, still holding the dagger. The little dog sank its teeth into my shin. Instead of stabbing it, I merely kicked it away. I kill people, not animals.
         The noise seemed to follow me forever. Sprinting away from the village, I did not slow my pace till dawn. Only then did the truth of what I'd done sink into me, along with the first rays of morning sunlight. I stopped and sank to my knees, not unlike the man I'd killed. Time must have passed, for the sun was at its zenith when someone snickered.
         "Pathetic. Truly pathetic." I'd never heard the voice before, but I recognized the deep aura of fiery Power. Of course Pyre had sent someone to monitor me; it just didn't happen to be Sektor. Ember had been watching all this time. "You're lucky those peasants are too frightened to mount a search party. A blind ox could follow your trail. You are unfit to be called Lin Kuei. I ought to execute you on the spot for your ineptitude. You'd be dead right now if not for your Power. I'd have a hard time telling Lord Pyre that I destroyed the clan's only Ice 'master' in over two decades, without the Hierarchy's approval."
         My legs were numb from hours of kneeling, and protested my slow turn around. "The target was no Tong. He was nothing but a common villager."
         "How long did it take you to figure that out?"
         "Why did Lord Pyre lie to me?" I snapped, stepping forward. "Why did he want that man dead?"
         "Don't question orders from your superior."
         I struck him. He never saw it coming. Neither did I. It wasn't until he choked and spat out one of his teeth that I was aware of taking the action.
         "On second thought, I'm sure Grandfather will understand," Ember growled, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth. The ambience of Power coating his hands intensified, shining like a solar flare.



         Light glinted a kilometer past the bend.
         A bridge stretched across Blood River. For all I could tell, it was the only bridge in the whole of Limbo. Its thick, black posts thrust deep into the river's shores of clay. A second set of posts rose out of the murky blood-waters to support the next section, followed by another pair, and another, the rest of its length hidden in the drifting mist. The posts were composed of no earthly substance - not wood, steel, stone, nor paint of any texture. They were so polished as to reflect what little light found its way into this deep valley, and the ones in the river never lost their shine no matter how often bloody geysers splashed over them. As for the bridge itself, it consisted of planks joined by cables anchored to the posts, all made of tarnished metal. Halfway between sets of the widely spaced posts, the walkway dipped and swayed alternately left and right. There were no ropes or guards to keep one from falling off.
         With my first, tentative step upon the bridge, I felt dizzy. My head hurt. The temperature had soared beyond sweltering. I'd endured the backbreaking desert heat all the way down; now, I had reached its source. I'd had only a short time to rebuild my psychic reserves since escaping the quicksand pit, but I needed to expend a steady output of the Power simply to remain conscious. My heart was pounding to keep up with the strain. My ice bandages melted and dripped away; when I tried to muster the effort to replace them, the thought darted like a confused fish, wriggling from my grasp. One thing was clear: if I didn't cross this devil's river quickly, I would pass out and never wake up.



         Trust your instincts, not Lord Pyre.
         I was only partially aware of the journey back. Each day, I ran until the moon set; only then would I allow myself a few, fitful hours of sleep before jolting awake at dawn. It took three days to return, instead of five.
         Just don't hurt my wife and child!
         When I stormed onto Lin Kuei grounds, a blind slave cleaning the windows was not fast enough to get out of my way. I shoved him on the floor without breaking stride. I sent no notice of my coming as I plowed toward Pyre's audience chamber. He'd be there. He had to be there. If he weren't, I'd take the damn place apart brick by brick until I found him.
         How long did it take you to figure that out?
         "Lord Pyre!" I roared, slamming the unlocked doors to his audience chamber open. He was there, all right. Sektor was to his left; two more black-clad members shadowed his either side. In front of him kneeled a half-dozen lesser Hierarchy members, and Smoke. A twitching irritation curled within me, the closest thing to anger I am capable of feeling. It was directed at Smoke and Pyre, but even more so at myself. I had broken my own code. Instead of stalking a hunter, I'd killed a common fisherman. The balance had to be repaid.
         Now.
         I held out my dagger so that its flat side, tainted with bloodstains, faced the others. "You have insulted me, Lord Pyre, offending my dignity." I bit off each word as an acrid sore. "You have lied to me, offending my trust. You have enjoined me to hunt a common man, offending my honor."
         I turned my right forearm supine and touched the dagger's tip to the brink of my inner elbow, away from the brachial artery, and brought pressure down to bear. Holding the knife rigid, I slowly drew it along the edge the ulna bone down to the wrist. Thick red fluid welled in the blade's wake. Transferring the dagger from left hand to right, I clenched it in my fist and pressed my gashed forearm against my chest so that it crossed diagonally from my side to my opposite clavicle. A moist streak remained on my garments after I'd removed my arm and tossed the dagger before Pyre. It skittered across the polished stone, coming to rest by his feet. He did not glance at it.
         "No," Sektor whispered. His grandfather motioned for him to be silent.
         The old man chuckled. "A challenge? From you? If I wanted to waste my time roasting waterfowl, I'd turn the spits in the kitchen.
         "Ember sent a report of your progress. Piteous. You wasted a whole day; far from being invisible you raised a ruckus that alerted the entire town; neglected to cover your tracks; and most appalling of all, you left living witnesses behind. Perhaps I share some blame for overestimating your capability to carry out a simple task," he sighed, with a brief shrug. "Ember was slated to send another message yesterday. Pray that it speaks more favorably of you when it arrives."
         "It will not arrive." Slowly, without taking my eyes off him, I reached within my uniform's folds and drew out a floppy sack of dark cloth, loosely tied with a sash.
         "Don't play games," Pyre warned, his mood abruptly changing from disdainful to suspicious. "What are you talking about?"
         "Why did you order me to kill the fisherman?"
         "You are rapidly depleting my patience." The air shifted slightly, and I did not have to move my head to know that more of his agents had the drop on me. "It had come to my attention that you were getting into disputes with other clan members, refusing to accept assignments unless they had a certain, shall we say, prestige? A truly loyal clansman must be willing to carry out any elimination, no matter how lowly, even if the target's lifestyle conflicts with what he is told."
         "So it was nothing but a test," I hissed, "a test of my loyalty. For that, I cannot forgive you." I cast the sack next to the dagger. The soft slap of its landing spread the flat sash, like the drawstring belt it was. The sack's dark material flopped open, though its further half remained creased like the flattened hood it was. Inside lay a short length of reddish hair attached to a patch of human scalp.
         Sektor screamed, "Murderer!" and tried to charge me, but two of Pyre's black-clad assistants restrained the furious youth. He fought against them, wresting one arm free. A thin jet of flame streamed from his fingertips; it didn't extend more than a meter before sputtering and dying out.
         "Get him out of here," commanded the old man, calmly. It took another two assistants to coerce Sektor's departure without physically harming him. Smoke closed the black stone doors behind them, cutting off Sektor's outcries and curses.
         In stark contrast, Pyre showed neither outrage nor grief. His air of authority remained firm. He did not address me again, but only stared pointedly, analyzing my every detail. At last he knelt to pick up the dagger lying near his feet, without taking his sharp, bright eyes off me. A couple drops of my blood hung from its tip, joining stains of fisherman's blood and Ember's blood. He grasped its hilt firmly and made a similar incision along the edge of his left ulna, adding his sanguine fluid to the mix, then pressed his cut forearm across his chest.
         In that moment, I think, I came to truly respect him.



         Keep moving.
         The narrow metal underfoot creaked and swayed with each uncertain step. Heat weighed me down like a millstone around my neck. To travel faster than a brisk walk could invite a fall. There were times when I thought the river's blood shaped itself into demons and ghosts from my past. Fool! they called. Hypocrite! Incompetent!
         Keep moving.
         My psychic reserves were gone; to survive, I had to call upon stored energy from within my physical body to feed the Power. The resulting toll was akin to maintaining a dead run, even though I took one, slow step at a time. I could feel the Power's protection ebbing away. My skin, already flushed deep red, began to itch and burn from the scalding steam. I tucked both arms inside my vest for protection.
         Slow to adapt, Smoke criticized.
         Truly pathetic, sneered Ember.
         Piteous, Pyre sniffed.
         Murderer! yelled Sektor.
         Keep moving, into the flame and past the geyser. Ignore the voices, forget the strain, pay no attention to the burns. Keep moving. Nothing matters save to keep moving.
         Was that the shadow of the other side? Probably not, just like the last three times I thought I saw the bridge's end. Yet the shadow seemed to get darker and firmer the closer I approached it...
         "HURR! AN INSECT! DOES IT WANT TO CROSS?"
         A painfully loud, deep bass voice boomed from directly ahead. The sound carried a peculiar dual resonance. Mist and sweat impeded my vision, so that I could not perceive more than a single great mass in front of me. The bridge was too narrow to move around him. His heavy, panting breath came in paired gasps.
         "WELL? DON'T BE RUDE TO US, INSECT! DO YOU WANT TO CROSS OR NOT?"
         "Yes," I answered. Then as an afterthought, "Please."
         "OH? SOMEHOW, WE DON'T THINK SO!"
         That and the whistle of rushing air were my only warnings. Automatically, I turned aside, freeing my arms and stepping back into guard position. A heavy object with wide, dull spikes cracked my torso. Vibrations from the impact reached my head, spinning it. I staggered and turned my momentum into a backward flip before I could lose my balance. My attacker followed, his great weight rocking the bridge from side to side. The mists thinned to reveal an ogre.
         He towered nearly twice my height. Two hideous heads bobbed upon a single body. Each head had a short, conical horn protruding from the skull, a single green-gold eye with elliptical pupils, and a mouth so wide it stretched through the cheeks. Cracked lips drew against double rows of serrated, backward-pointing shark's teeth. His skin gleamed jaundiced yellow-green, the color of vomit mixed with bile. While his torso distantly resembled a man's, his sleek black legs were crooked and had horse hooves instead of feet. His elongated arms were thickly muscled, and each hand bore claws as long as their fingers. The right hand, claws and all, curled about the base of a huge wooden club studded with tetrapod iron spikes. The weapon was roughly the size of a person and must have weighed hundreds of kilograms; he waved it about as if it were a toy.
         "HURR! COME BACK HERE, INSECT! WE'RE NOT FINISHED WITH YOU YET!"
         The hell you say.



         As the challenged party, Pyre had the right of dictating terms for the death-duel. Predictably, he chose a weaponless match. Only attacks with the physical body or the Power would be permitted. The confrontation would take place at midnight tomorrow, in an underground stone chamber reserved exclusively for the purpose.
         Death-duels are not the same as assassinations. Though both have the intent of killing, in an ideal assassination the target dies before he is aware of being attacked. It is not always possible to surprise the target in this manner, but it is preferable. In a Lin Kuei death-duel, the contest must begin on equal terms. Enforcing these rules are a single Overseer and four Watchers, those who have mastered the Power of Invisibility. The Watchers observe, and if either contestant attacks before the Overseer's beckon or uses an unsanctioned weapon, they kill him. While there is no dishonor in losing a duel, an ignominious death at the hands of the Watchers inevitably brings shame and slaughter to the rulebreaker's family.
         I had survived six previous death-duels by adhering to two general tenets. Rule One: Preparation. Study your opponent. Know him well. Internalize his strengths, weaknesses, and how they compare against your own. Rehearse in body and mind tactics to counter those you expect him to use, and be ready to improvise if he uses unexpected tactics. Have some idea of what you will actually do before you are thrust in a closed ring with someone determined to end your life.
         Rule Two: Never forget Rule One.
         I found Smoke at his personal practice grounds, sparring with one of his pupils. The student carried wooden mock-daggers; Smoke was unarmed. The initiate had a solid grasp of the basics, but could not change his tactics quickly enough to keep up with Smoke's constantly shifting attacks. Smoke's velocity inspires awe. When he wants to, he can glide across ground as if carried by wind spirits; yet his movements are not rushed. He masters every turn, thrust, parry and dodge with consummate grace. Sometimes I wonder if his perfectly-controlled acceleration is fueled by his Power.
         At one point Smoke's rhythm skipped a beat. He stopped short and skidded on one knee. To the casual eye, he appeared to have stumbled. I knew better. His stance was too relaxed and alert for someone preoccupied with resuming his equilibrium; furthermore, I'd seen him act that way before, back when I was holding the wooden daggers. Smoke's adversary faced him full forward and covered the distance between them in two long steps. He thrust in the middle of the second step, aiming for the neck. Braced on hands and knees, Smoke kicked his pupil's shin out from under him, before he could put his full weight on it. The student's attack went wide, and he fell on his face.
         "Do not surrender your balance," Smoke instructed, "because with it, you surrender control. Keep your center of your gravity low to the ground at all times, especially when you close in on a seemingly weakened foe." The pupil looked at the floor, shamefaced. "One more thing. Never lower your eyes to an enemy!"
         Smoke's hand seemed barely to graze the student's forehead. The initiate's body sagged and went limp in his arms. He set his unconscious pupil down gently.
         "Tell me about Pyre," I demanded.
         Smoke did not make eye contact. "You and I should not be seen together. Is there no one you can trust to discreetly carry a message?"
         "I did not come to discuss trust. I charge you to tell me all you know about Pyre, right here, right now."
         "And if I decline?" Smoke mused. His face was expressionless, but his body turned to the side, knees slightly bent, at once both at ease and ready to snap into action.
         "Then once I am done with Pyre, I shall challenge you next." He did not appear intimidated. That was to be expected; Lin Kuei do not let fear hinder their countenance.
         The teacher inclined his head and spoke. "Pyre is the direct descendent of one of the Lin Kuei's founding members. He has earned the rank of honored Second Tier veteran, and is the oldest Hierarchy member currently living. In his younger days, his temper matched his name. Time changed that. He is no longer as quick to destroy those who offend him. Some think this means he had grown weak. They are wrong. Pyre crushes his enemies as thoroughly as ever, but age has given him the wisdom to hold back until he is certain he has no other use for them." Smoke went on to describe Pyre's personality, habits, history, and most importantly, his fighting tactics.
         Concentrating upon the information, I listened until he had nothing more to say. Then I bowed, without taking my eyes off him. "I shall see you again, after the duel."
         "Assuming you survive," he returned dryly, with a similar bow.
         "I will."
         "And if you don't?"
         "Then I'll see you in Hell."



         As I retreated, I twisted the guards on the backs of my hands around. The ogre swung his club again; I dodged with a handspring. Thick guard-pads shielded my hands, though my fingertips came in contact with the heated metal bridge. Tiny, searing needles punctured each digit. I turned my next flip into a fully aerial somersault, with a half-twist in the middle to land facing the other way. Touching down in a crouch, I accelerated into a sprint.
         "YOU WON'T GET AWAY THAT EASILY, INSECT!" The bridge whipped with the pounding clip-clop of hooves. He was pursuing me at full tilt. Good. I waited until I could feel the jangling hoof-tremors barely two meters behind my back, flipped forward to expend some of my own momentum, and pivoted about upon landing. If there'd been enough Power left within me to immobilize the ogre, I'd have done so, but my psyche was too exhausted to call more than a trickle. Instead, I thrust my heel out in a full-force side kick.
         It should have worked.
         Lured into high speed pursuit, the ogre should have run straight into an attack strong enough to shatter the joint of his right knee. His horse-legs already looked too frail and crooked to support the hulking mass of his torso. But my foot came into contact with an iron spike instead of skin and bone. Metal tore through the leather of my footwear and punctured my skin. A crackling shock of pain coursed through my leg, pain that had to be ignored. A clammy tingling followed. There was Power in that club; I'd have felt it sooner if I hadn't been so overwhelmed by the heat.
         How could the ogre have reacted so quickly? His inertia was too great; at the speed he'd been moving, he couldn't have come to a dead halt in mid-stride. He appeared far too heavy and ungainly, yet his lengthy arms had swung down the club with instantaneous speed and grace that reminded me of Smoke. Perhaps I should have used a faster, snapping kick instead of going for the raw power of a full turn and thrust.
         The ogre brought his elbow down toward my extended leg. He would have shattered my femur if I hadn't once more thrown myself into a back handspring. I collapsed to my knees when my injured foot touched the bridge, and its heat burned through the rent in my footwear. Some of my blood sizzled on the metal slats and dripped through its cracks, joining the contents of Blood River.
         My enemy rushed forward and swung his deadly weapon before I could stand. The club's iron ribbing loomed before me; for one tiny, timeless moment I saw a close-up of one band embellished with the finely etched letters "UT." Then the weapon crashed into my face, neck, and midsection. Accompanying each hit was the thudding, internal vibrations of something cracking, tearing, or giving way. For the last strike, he held the club in both hands and brought it in an arc from down to up. Its spikes grabbed hold of me and scooped me into the air, hurling me like a flower kicked off its stem. Mist and river and metal bridge flew past my eyes. I landed on the bridge's edge.
         The ogre roared and repeatedly pounded one hoof into the metal bridge, making it bounce violently. I felt my center of gravity roll over the side and flailed to keep from falling off. Agony wracked my frame. It was all I could do to seize hold of the bridge's supporting cables, medium-thick textured wires that ran underneath the metal plates and joined them. The handhold further burned my fingers; if not for my hand guards, I could never have hung on. The ogre's continuous stomping changed into the alternating rhythm of his walk, which still shook the bridge fiercely enough to threaten my grip.
         I strained to lift myself; when the bridge's edge touched upon one of my broken ribs, a crippling jolt of pain ran through them. Slipping back, I seized cables once again and dangled precariously. Heat clouded my head. My hold was gradually sliding out of my sweat-soaked grasp.
         A pair of dark, curved things - hooves, I realized - peeked over the bridge's rim. The rest of the hulking monster was one great shadow except for his eyes, twin green-gold stars nestled within a yawning galaxy of steam. The monster boomed, "IS THIS THE GNAT THAT TEAM ONE FAILED TO RETRIEVE? HA! IT'S NOT WORTH THE EFFORT TO SQUASH IT FLAT! YOU'VE ALREADY FAILED US ONCE, INSECT. YOU DON'T DESERVE A SECOND CHANCE!"
         The swish of displaced air rushed to fill the void left when he raised his club, about to bring it down on my precarious handhold. What little strength remained in my arms would not be enough to withstand a direct hit.



         Pyre's underground duel-chamber had been carved entirely out of a single bed of stone, or so it appeared. Slow-burning fire pits circumscribed the actual battle arena. Their steady blaze combined with the glow from torches set in the walls made the atmosphere sweltering hot.
         I arrived dressed in an unusual manner. Rather than wear colored ceremonial attire such as that which Pyre had donned, I was clad head to toe in black, like a common Lin Kuei. My eyes were shielded with a smoky grey lens strapped to my head. Long gloves completely covered my forearms and hands. Pyre looked at me strangely. He knew that I could not channel blasts of my Power as an offensive weapon, muffled as I was; at the very least, I'd have needed my hands free. The old man raised an eyebrow. I could almost hear him think Overconfident young pup over the crackle of burning torches.
         Spectators crowded around the perimeter of the circle carved into the stone floor, their collective body heat further warming the chamber. Most of them were initiates or lower ranking instructors. Smoke was not among them. Sektor seethed in the far corner, poorly containing his agitation. No Hierarchy members were present, which was unusual considering that one of their own would fight the duel. The Watchers' location was impossible to pinpoint, yet the soft resonance of their combined Power remained, lingering like the barest hint of sea breeze after the wind has changed course from land to waves.
         The Overseer stepped forward. He held a red flag in one hand, and a white flag in the other. He was dressed in nondescript black, like I was, with one difference; a ceramic mask painted to resemble the head of a demon covered his face. The mask's eye indentations were large on the outside, narrowing into thin slits the deeper they went in, effectively making his true eyes invisible.
         "Take your places," the Overseer commanded. Absolute silence enveloped the crowd. Noise came only from the crackle and hiss of fuel being consumed in the fire pits. Pyre and I moved around the arena to its back wall, where a single concrete slab bridged the fiery perimeter. It was the only way in or out of the battlegrounds, unless one walked upon white-hot coals. Pyre stood at the circle's westmost point; I moved to the opposite pole several meters away. The Overseer stayed upon the concrete bridge. Now that we were both in the arena, he would allow only one of us to leave alive.
         Pyre held up his hand, palm toward the Overseer, who bowed and stepped a pace back. The Hierarchy lord spoke, quietly, yet projecting his voice with underlying strength. "Let it be known that I dislike the necessity of this. For the good of the clan, Sub-Zero, you must be destroyed." The outward veneer of sincerity penetrated his voice and face. Perhaps his speech fooled the others, but he'd already lied to me once with that same expression.
         When the Overseer glanced at me, I shook my head. This arena was a place for killing, not talking. The Overseer crossed his arms and raised the flags high. "Ready..." he called, preparing to snap them both down as he signaled the start of the duel. "Begin!"
         With the roaring of an efreeti, the arena became an incinerator. Flame blanketed the circle. It burned, fueled by the strength of Pyre's will, sucking the breath from my lungs, enveloping me in a crematorium a thousand times stronger than what I'd experienced on the day of my Test.



         Where hope failed, desperation clung. I pushed my bleeding muscles to the limit and reached with one hand, wrapping it around the hide and matted fur of the ogre's equine left ankle. His club crashed where my handhold on the wire had been, but now I'd disengaged my left hand from it as well, and held fast to his leg.
         "WHAT? GET OFF!" He couldn't lean forward to club his own legs without falling, so he kicked, awkwardly, trying to shake me off. I dug my fingernails into his skin and called to the Power, sacrificing the last of my inner strength in a final gambit. The ogre voiced a cry of pure rage and jumped back, dragging me with him. My chest scraped the bridge's side. Wedges of splintered bone poked deep into internal injuries. Shock made me let go in midair and collapse, back on the narrow overpass. I couldn't have done it without his help.
         The ogre's jump had carried him a few meters from where I'd fallen, facing at an angle to the bridge's lateral extension. "RRRRRRAAAARGH!" he yelled, smacking his club next to his hooves. "NOW, MOSQUITO, YOU DIE!" He took a step forward, raising his lethal weapon-
         -and his left hoof, made slick by a single sheet of Ice coating its bottom, skidded out from underneath him.
         His top-heavy frame careened back, matching the forward thrust of the slipped hoof, and he pitched over the side. His free hand clamped upon the metal slats of the bridge's edge, but they instantly twisted and slipped out of his fingers. I locked my own arms around one of the slats and clung to it, lurching with every rock and swing, ignoring the hurt of scalding metal, broken bones and bleeding skin.
         Through the grooves between the metal slats, I saw the ogre thrash in Blood River. He'd lost his club. He screamed and stretched his arms toward the bridge, which swayed a scant two meters above his longest extension. The hiss of scalding flesh filled the air. He was not only drowning, he was being boiled alive. His flailing made waves, some of which spattered through the bridge's slats, stinging my face. The steaming river swelled about his torso, making it flush deep red. Then the river's blood climbed to his armpits, necks, and heads. One hand broke the surface for an instant after he'd submerged. It was quickly reabsorbed.
         "Thank you," I spat. The ripples where he'd been remained mute.



         A look of bewilderment crossed Pyre's face when I plunged through the flames and drove two stiffened fingers into his eyes. He'd expected me to be ashes, and I would have been if not for the concentrated layers of Power I'd generated underneath the fireproof suit that covered every square centimeter of my skin. The suit itself had served its purpose in hiding my Power's aura from casual study. It had taken twelve hours of meditation to weave a defensive sheath of the Power strong enough to insulate against Pyre's attack. Even that would have failed after another couple seconds of his inferno, but all the Fire vanished the instant I pierced his eyeballs.
         Are you waiting to hear how I struggled tooth and nail against Pyre, trading blows for hours on end? I'll have to disappoint you, then. It had been decades since Pyre last relied on his martial prowess. The old man was accustomed to instantly incinerating enemies from a distance, not actually fighting them. Blinded, he had no means with which to focus his Power - unless he were to take off the gloves of his ceremonial uniform, something I didn't give him the chance to do. He was defenseless.
         I tore my fingers out of his ruined eyes, formed a fist with my other hand, and invested the full brunt of my strength upon his skull. He sprawled on the floor. The listless manner in which he landed told me that I'd knocked him insensate, or close to it. I'd defeated him as quickly as he'd destroyed so many others, but the duel was not yet finished. I had to make absolutely clear what would happen to any who dared betray my honor as Pyre had.
         Detaching the glove on my right hand and rolling up the sleeve, I bent down to grasp the old man's neck. He twitched and groaned as I called the Power, yet could not coordinate more than weak cuff of resistance. His lips moved to mouth three words, so quietly that only I could hear.
         "So be it." He went limp. There were no screams, curses, or pleas for mercy.
         A couple seconds of concentration was necessary to send the Power down beneath his skin, burrowing through muscles and gristle. It wrapped around his spinal column, severing bone and notochord more precisely than a butcher's knife of the highest quality. I yanked Pyre's his head up while it worked. His frame remained attached for a moment; then it slid down, separating from his head as his spine eased out of its body cavity. Bits of gore streamed down the incision in his neck, dripping from the lower tip of his dangling vertebrae and landing on his lifeless body. Maroon fluids blended into the crimson fabric of his ceremonial uniform. I held Pyre's head and spine up high, for all to see.
         The Overseer dropped both his flags. One of the Watchers flickered into view, too startled to maintain his Power of Invisibility. Most of the crowd was wide-eyed, in stunned silence.
         Sektor went berserk.
         He charged with an animal howl, vaulting over the arena's fiery divide. I flung his grandfather's head in his face. That didn't hurt him, but it did distract him from the burst of Power that followed. The Power paralyzed him in mid-shriek. I took his left arm, holding its palm prone, and wound it past its natural stopping point perpendicular to his back. He regained his voice when his left humerus fractured from the strain. I drove my knee into his solar plexus. While he folded in half, I forced his head further down and repeated the violence on his right arm. Finally, I shoved him to the ground by the arena's fire-border. A corner of his uniform's fabric caught alight. Legs thrashing, he managed to roll over and smother the flame before shock overwhelmed him and he fell into motionless stupor.
         "Well?" I addressed the rest of the onlookers.
         The Overseer fell to his knees. "Lord Sub-Zero," he said, looking at the floor. One by one, the rest of the observers followed suit. Lesser clansmen do not make eye contact with members of the Hierarchy.



         The adrenaline which had flooded my system ebbed away, so that I began to feel how badly hurt I was. I could barely keep my eyes open because some adhesive substance covered them. It was blood, I realized. Streaks of sticky red discolored my uniform. More crimson fluid trickled from my head and torso. A sucking chest wound interrupted my breathing. Steam burns scalded my exposed arms. One leg worked. The other felt stiff and numb, with a puncture in the foot; it wouldn't support my full weight. I couldn't stop to tend the injuries, or the heat from Blood River would kill me. There was no Power left to create Ice bandages, so I held the tears in my side closed with my hands, and limped toward shore.
         Each step weakened me further. Blurring vision informed me that the shore was a scant fifty meters away, just beyond where I'd met the ogre. My throbbing nerves told a different story. Several times, I had to stop and cough up blood. Another spate of coughing made me double over when I touched the other side. I fell to my knees and vomited. There wasn't enough strength in my limbs to stand back up. When I tried, dizziness rocked my head and I fell flat. The jolt pressed my broken rib bones further out of alignment. From where I lay, I could see a dull, maroon trail leading back to the metal bridge and beyond. Remarkable. I didn't think a person could lose that much blood and remain conscious.
         The thought of trying to treat my wounds had receded. Part of me recognized their nature and knew damn well that no improvised bandage was going to stave off the inevitable. The rest of me remained unified on one thought: press on. I was not going to surrender to Limbo. This place would not claim me while I still lived.
         On this side of the bridge, a sheer wall of polished stone rose directly out of the sandy ground. Unlike the relatively gentle slope of the previous side, scaling this vertical expanse would have been impossible without specialized climbing gear, not to mention a healthy body with which to use it. The only place to go was through a huge, cavernous opening directly ahead. A whale could have fit through that aperture, leaving enough room for seagulls to fly overhead.
         Framing the portal were the bleached bones of the most immense dragon yet. Its gracefully honed front limbs, each of which ended in three wickedly recurved talons, were affixed to tapering walls near either side of the entrance. Its backbone merged with the tunnel's ceiling. Two vast, bat-like sets of wing bones were fused with the tunnel's interior. Beyond, I glimpsed the skeleton's clawed hind limbs and spined, sinuous tail with a three-pronged tip. A many-vertebra neck with shorter, more slender barbs rested in an S-curve near the top of the entrance. Cresting the neck was a long, sharp-toothed skull with two smoothly tapered, backward-pointing horns. I couldn't tell what held all the bones together. Some appeared to be fastened to the entrance's walls; others simply hung in place, as if they were all part of a single sculpture.
         Slowly, painfully, I struggled to drag myself toward the yawning hole in the canyon's side. I wriggled like a worm, scrabbling forward with my hands, then pushing with my good leg. At least the heat lessened the further I writhed from Blood River's shores, perhaps to as low as ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. Reaching the gateway seemed to take an age. When it was close enough, I stretched out single hand toward the tantalizing shade within.
         Something hard and flat stopped my fingertips. An invisible barrier blocked my path.
         My hand dropped, and my body followed it, gradually easing into a supine sprawl. I still wasn't giving up; I just needed some time to think about this latest obstruction. Perhaps if I closed my eyes for a moment, I'd be able to concentrate better. The realization that I was slipping deeper into shock fluttered across the back of my mind.
         The skull moved.
         My eyelids blinked open and shut. The dragon's skull was descending, guided smoothly down by that serpentine neck until its empty eye sockets hovered above my own. Something I can only describe as black fire sparkled, where the skull's eyes would once have been. Now that they had come alive, the bones radiated titanic waves of godlike Power. A sibilant whisper, quiet as silt, soft as soapstone, echoed in my mind.
         #They will have told you that I am Death. You, mortal, are at my door.#



         My newly acquired retainers closed the doors behind Smoke as he kneeled before me in the polished stone chamber, once Pyre's, now mine by right of conquest. I sent the servants away with a flick of my wrist before addressing the teacher.
         "You may stand," I said, graciously. He did so, keeping his eyes downcast. "I want to talk to you about - will you stop looking at the damn floor?"
         He turned his head to the side.
         "That is not what I meant, and you know it," I growled, annoyed.
         "Lord Sub-Zero?" he asked, quite humbly.
         "I am the same person I was the day before yesterday. I've killed enough people so that killing one more is not going to change me."
         "My Lord, if I have offended you-"
         "I'll say this once in terms a child could understand. As long as we are alone, I swear you may look directly at me and speak your mind freely without fear of reprisal. Stop treating me like... like..."
         "An esteemed member of the Hierarchy, Lord Sub-Zero?" he finished, calmly meeting my glare.
         "Yes, like an esteemed member of the Hierarchy whom you arranged to be killed in a death-duel."
         "In that case, allow me to observe how much you sound like him." Perhaps I'd been too hasty to grant Smoke freedom of speech, but there was nothing to be done about it now. "It is unfortunate that I could not attend the duel. I trust Pyre did not pose too insurmountable a threat?"
         "He was dangerous, but he relied on the Power too much."
         "I will also take the liberty of inquiring why you did not kill Sektor when you had the opportunity."
         "He is not a hunter. Not yet. When he becomes one, he can challenge me to a duel."
         "And if he decides to take vengeance on your family instead?"
         "He does not know my true identity. I am the only member of my family to join the Lin Kuei. The others are safe from harm."
         "You are making a mistake."
         "That is none of your concern."
         "If you don't want to dirty your own hands with his blood, then there is a small legion of intermediaries at your disposal-"
         "Is something wrong with your hearing?!" He fell silent. "Listen. I am going to tell you things. You are going to confirm or deny them. Do not attempt to deceive me, or-"
         "-you'll drain the vitreous humor from my eyeballs, and use it to preserve my severed tongue?" My gaze involuntarily moved to the set of jars and their fleshy contents resting on the black marble shelf. They would definitely have to go.
         "Stop interrupting and pay attention. I survived Pyre's wrath through the nature of my Power. Protective clothing alone would not have been enough to ward against his Fire. There were those who had tried; you told me that much. Only someone with the Power of an opposite attribute could hope to defeat him. Only Sub-Zero, the clan's sole Ice master, had a chance.
         "Pyre lied, but before that he was lied to. You talked to him about me. You're the one who led him to believe I was a beginner, barely able to control the Power."
         "True; however, nothing I said could have convinced him as thoroughly as the slipshod manner in which you bungled that assassination. That was quite brilliant on your part, leading him to underestimate you through a charade of pretend incompetence."
         Yes, I had definitely been too quick to grant Smoke free speech. "You are the current topic of discussion. Weren't you the one who brought to Pyre's attention that I was 'refusing to accept assignments,' unless they 'had a certain prestige'?"
         "Alas, I cannot claim that honor. However, I did point that detail out to Hurricane and Toxin, as possible bait to lure Pyre and you into conflict. They could have passed the information along to Pyre in any number of ways."
         "Hurricane and Toxin?" I repeated, recognizing two names of the Hierarchy's ruling Triumvirate. "I thought they spoke only to other Hierarchy members."
         "Officially, yes. Unofficially, they do not desire to be sequestered. Knowledge is power, even knowledge gained from lowly unworthies such as this one. I meekly suggest that you share this observation with others strictly at your own risk."
         "They wanted Pyre dead because of that thing in his basement, didn't they? Pyre planned to make himself into... into..."
         "Not just himself; he had the entire Lin Kuei clan in mind."
         I could envision the horror. Pyre's Power was lethal enough. Combined with an artificially strong physique, he would have been unstoppable. Worse, there was no telling how long his lifespan might have been extended, if the frail flesh of his aging body were transformed into cold metal. None could have escaped his will. He would have destroyed the clan one by one, replacing each member with monstrous, mechanical things of grease and wire.
         "Smoke, I understand that Pyre's removal was necessary, and that I had to be the one to remove him. But why trick him into tricking me? Why didn't you just ask me to challenge him?"
         He chuckled slightly, more rueful than mocking. "People make better pawns if they never realize they are on someone else's chessboard."
         The quote hung in silence. After about thirty seconds, Smoke's eyes shifted from misty serenity to charcoal unease. Perhaps he felt the chamber's temperature drop from that of a cool fall day, to hover well below the freezing point of water.
         "There is one other reason I called you here," I told him, quietly. "I wish to make it explicit that you owe me a blood debt for Pyre's destruction. It is a debt that I may claim from you at any time, in any manner I so choose. Is my meaning clear?"
         "Quite."
         "Good. Get out."
         He left.
         There was one last debt to which I had to attend, a debt that I owed. It could not absolve the stain on my honor, no more than Pyre's destruction could, yet it was something that had to be done. The next morning I set out in secret for a small fishing village, five days' travel away.



         #This realm is not for living mortals.#
         The skull hovered above my motionless form. It examined me on a multitude of planes at once: physical, psychic, spiritual. It riffled through my memories as if they were sheets of paper in a notebook. Whatever allowed it to peer into my soul worked both ways. Inside the black fire of its eyes, I sensed a terrible presence old as life itself, utterly ruthless, the eternal nemesis of all that drew breath. The vortex in those eyes pulled at me. I squeezed my eyelids shut; the call remained, tugging at the corners of my mind. What was left of my will vied against it.
         Kill me if you must, but don't expect me to surrender! Even as the thought took shape in my head, I could sense that it was not going to harm me. It didn't have to. All it needed to do was bide its time. It waited for its due from every living thing, with the ageless patience of a force of nature.
         #Why do you resist? What do you have to live for?#
         It shook me to realize what a good question that was.
         Why did I struggle to survive? There was nothing I took pleasure in doing. There was no one I particularly cared about. My brother? He was an adult now, responsible for his own destiny. Aside from a desire to protect him when he was younger, there has never been any true bond between us. Smoke? The closest thing I had to a friend used me like a gaming piece. The Lin Kuei? It is to laugh, or would be if I had the capacity.
         Honor? I'd wanted to stand above all the other predators like me, but I wasn't truly any different. I'd killed a harmless fisherman, an act that made me indistinguishable from a common cutthroat. Power? Glory? Such things didn't matter to me. What did that leave?
         The presence above extracted images and words from my memories, replaying them so vividly it was as if I'd stepped back in time. One scene after another was reviewed and disregarded, until it reached something very recent.
         ...you failed Ultratech.
         Shang Tsung is dead.
         You didn't kill him, did you?
         A technicality.
         Quivers of interest raced through the presence.
         ~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.~
         The dragon skeleton, once dispassionate, had become intrigued.
         YOU'VE ALREADY FAILED US ONCE, INSECT. YOU DON'T DESERVE A SECOND CHANCE!
         #A second chance to do what?#
         To kill Shang Tsung, I answered. Why? What do you care?
         It cared a great deal. Again, the link between the dragon skeleton and myself flowed in the other direction, and I saw the sorcerer Shang Tsung through its inhuman eye sockets. What it knew, I knew.
         Shang Tsung was mortal once; to a certain extent, he still was. There was nothing he craved more than immortality. Thirst for everlasting life had consumed and corrupted him ten centuries past. It shaped his deeds to this day. He made deals with dark gods and demons to prolong his years. The more he dealt with them, the more he became like them. He hunted the souls of common mortals to appease his unholy patrons. They kept him young in exchange for his service. As time passed, they demanded more from him. Five hundred years ago, he took control of a Tournament of cosmic significance. He sought to pervert it and turn the world into the face of Hell, all so that he could go on living.
         If there is one thing Death cannot stand, it is a rebel.
         It hated Shang Tsung for eluding its grasp, long after the sorcerer's time should have come. And it despised his evil plans. Left unchecked, Shang Tsung's schemes would eradicate all life from my world; but without Life, there cannot be Death. Shang Tsung fought to overturn the Cosmic Furies' balance, a balance of which Death was a part.
         That was when I recalled a very good reason to continue my struggle for survival. I'd committed myself to assassinating the most dangerous killer known to walk the face of the earth, more powerful than Pyre, more brutal than the entire Lin Kuei clan. I'd come close, but never touched him. My rightful prey was still alive, and I owed myself the duty to kill him.
         Twin beams of liquid black jet streamed down from the skull's eyes. The onyx substance collected on my chest, gradually spreading until it enveloped my entire body. Its touch was cold, whipping like the blast of an arctic wind against skin soaked from a glacial spring. It felt wonderful.
         The dark matter slid off me and vanished into the gravel. I felt giddy, lightheaded. Gone were the agony of crushed bones grating underneath my skin and the helpless weakness of lifeblood streaming from my veins. Sitting up made me dizzy for a moment. Looking down on myself, I saw new scars underneath my stained, torn uniform, where the gaping rents in my chest and abdomen had been. Incredulous, I placed two fingers on the side of my neck, and felt a solid, regular pulse.
         I was alive. The dragon skeleton had healed me.
         #You may pass.#
         It took a certain amount of effort to stand. Though my physical injuries had been mended, I still felt fatigue from my long journey, and my psyche had barely had the chance to replenish itself.
         "I will not be in your debt."
         #Death does not acknowledge debts incurred or received. My will falls upon all mortals with equal weight. It is my will that you enter, alive. Whether you shall leave is for you to determine. Remember that your soul cannot depart this realm without a living body to carry it, and those who sleep in Limbo do not awaken among the living.# The skull turned away from me, lifted by its lithe neck into the same S-curve position it had taken before. Its nigh-tangible waves of Power waned, while the black motes of fire in its eyes subsided into ordinary shadows crowding the eye sockets.
         I reached toward the cavern entrance. The unyielding, invisible barrier I'd felt before was gone. I strode through, into the darkness beyond. My mind and soul were fixated with new purpose on the desire to escape Limbo, find Shang Tsung, and kill him.



         My first official act as a newly titled member of the Hierarchy was to take a leave of absence. It had been months since I'd last visited my younger brother. His seventeenth birthday was approaching rapidly. I ought to be present for the celebration, or so I kept telling myself. In hindsight, I think I was just looking for something to do that didn't involve treachery or killing.
         It was strange, returning to my former home dressed in peasant garb. The clothing didn't feel right; it was too awkward and restrictive. The long sleeves chafed like a pair of manacles. They partly sealed me off from the Power, a disturbing sensation that bothered me more the longer I endured it. I knew that calling the Power when my face was unmasked would be complete folly, but rolled the sleeves up anyway.
         My younger brother wasn't home. He'd disappeared again, after finishing his schoolwork and chores. Apparently, he was hard at work on some big project, and very excited about it. He'd been salvaging scrap parts from every source imaginable for weeks now, taking them to an unknown place and doing unguessable things with them for hours on end. Little brother had even hinted that his ambitions might help him earn a respectable living sometime soon. He wanted to be a scientist. To that end, he was taking Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Industrial Design, and any other such courses he could cram into his scholastic regimen. His grades were excellent. Perhaps, if he got a scholarship, he could pursue his dream at a university.
         I set out for my brother's makeshift laboratory, taking care not to be seen. I'd kept its location secret for over four years now. Little brother tended to be startled whenever I interrupted him at his work, but I did rather want to visit him. After all, if not for my service in the Lin Kuei, he wouldn't have had the luxury of choosing his own destiny. I wanted to see what he was doing with that luxury.
         Dusk had fallen by the time I reached his secluded lab. Its windows were boarded on the outside, covered on the inside. The rickety shed appeared deserted. I knew from memory that the interior was lit up with electric lights. Little brother had even created a specially hot, blue-white light designed specifically to attract nighttime insects and incinerate them. Wires underneath the device suspended a removable tray filled with crumpled and charred insect bodies.
         Since my brother was almost certainly in the middle of some complex experiment, I decided to enter silently rather than knock and risk disturbing his concentration. Picking the outside lock with a wire in my pocket, I eased the door open... and stepped into abhorrence itself.
         Microscopes, mineral formations, and many of the old beakers or test tubes had been hastily stashed away in boxes and corners. In their place, wires, springs, electronics and metal lay strewn on every available surface. Several were connected. A few had flashing lights, powered by long cords connecting them to a rectangular box with knobs and crosses on a three-legged stool. On the central table, little brother bent over his work. He delicately guided a small, rickety blowtorch along a metal seam, his eyes shielded by a battered welder's mask. When I took a closer look at the thing with the seam, I felt something twist inside, like a knife cutting through my kidney.
         It was an arm.
         An artificial arm.
         Its steel coating housed inner sheaths of tensile rubber. Blue tubes streaked across the underside in place of veins. One end tapered into a hinge-jointed wrist, then spread and split into a set of thin fingers. Soft foam padding was protectively wrapped around each finger joint. Little brother interrupted his welding for a moment and touched something inside the elbow. The hand flexed of its own volition. A surprised hiss whooshed through my teeth.
         "Hm?" Little brother glanced up from his creation. Noticing me, he turned off the blow torch and lifted the welder's mask. "Oh, it's you. Long time no see. Hey, what do you think of my science project? It's worth half the course grade, you know, so I have to get it ready by the deadline tomorrow morning. It- what's wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?"
         When I stared at the thing in his hands, I saw the yellow-black horror in Pyre's basement. This place was a shadowy, low-budget version of that forbidden underground chamber. It was insane. It was an obscenity. Was this what my brother did with his freedom, while I tread the path of the Lin Kuei? Creating mockeries of life? Did he also share Pyre's mad dreams of merging his body with soulless machines?
         "That thing you are making is evil." Revulsion spread through me. I held back the impulse to retch as I took a step closer to my brother and the perversion he cradled like a newborn.
         "This? But it's only an object-"
         "You will destroy it at once!"
         "What?" A dismayed expression spread across his face.
         "I am the elder brother. Do not question me. Get rid of that vile-"
         "Are you kidding? I told you, it's my final project! I'll fail Advanced Electronics if I don't-"
         "Do not worry about the class. You will be withdrawing from it, and any classes like it. And you're not going to attend a university if they fill your head with this filth!"
         "What!?" His grip on the corrupt device tightened
         The disgust that had been building within me came to a peak. Before he could say another word, I lunged forward to snatch the despicable thing, wrenching it from his hands and dashing it against the wall. Its joints fell off their hinges. Fingers separated from the hands, scattering about on the floor. Oil dripped like blood from the broken atrocity.
         Little brother cried out as if one of his flesh-and-blood hands had been shattered. "AAAAH! It took three weeks just to attune the frequency of-"
         "I am not going to let you squander your soul on mechanical atrocities!"
         The shock in his eyes gave way to anger. "Get out. Get out of my lab!"
         "This place, these things you've studied have possessed you. I won't lose my only brother to-"
         "Get OUT!" he shouted, directly in my face. His entire body was had become tense, almost as rigid as his blasphemous metal construct.
         My self-restraint snapped.
         I never should have let him set up this experimental pit. It had defiled him, changed him into someone I could hardly believe was my kin. The mistake had to be remedied. Now.
         Walking straight past him, up to the biggest table covered with the most components, I consolidated my inner strength and brought the edge of my hand down upon the table's center. My blow split the wood into splinters. Spare parts thrown by the recoil clattered against the walls and floor. They did not all come to rest before I attacked the next stand.
         I shattered glass, tore the pages out of textbooks, ripped out wires, and crushed plastic dishes under my heels. Whole notebooks filled with arcane symbols in my brother's handwriting became shredded, their pieces tossed amidst the confusion. He tried to intervene, but I pushed him aside. He tried reasoning with me, then pleading; I paid no attention to his hysteria. I continued the rampage until every breakable thing was destroyed, then smashed the electric lights on the floor, inadvertently starting a fire. It spread quickly, fueled by stray trails of oil, instantly consuming all the books, notes, and paper I'd thrown around. Little brother tried to rescue a sheet filled with grids of numbers. Sternly, I took hold of him and dragged him out of there. He resisted violently, wriggling like a fish on a hook. The fire curled brighter and hotter, suddenly bursting into a huge conflagration that licked every corner of the rundown old shed. Flames consumed everything.
         "NOOOOO!!!" my brother screamed. He curled his left hand into a fist and jabbed his elbow backward, catching me unprepared with a strike to the solar plexus. My grasp weakened enough for him to wrench loose. For an instant I worried that he might try to dash back inside, but he just stood there, staring at the burning shed. Firelight glinted off two trails leading down from the inner corner of each eye.
         "It is for your own good," I told him, gently.
         He turned around and ran, sprinting at top speed into the light woodlands nearby. I decided to let him go, for the time being. He'd been through a lot. Moreover, I had to watch over the fire, to ensure that it destroyed everything without spreading beyond the shed. It would be easier if I could freely use the Power to contain the blaze, in which case I didn't want any witnesses.
         Once that was taken care of, I returned to my former home and settled things with the rest of the family. My brother was to drop out of the science courses at once, and he was not to enroll in any university. None of them objected to my decrees, for I was Lin Kuei. Little brother could not relocate away from the village without my consent.
         The next day, I tried to talk to him again. He stared straight ahead the whole time. Attempting to explain why this was best for him got no response. "Would you at least look at me when I'm speaking to you?" I asked, growing somewhat exasperated.
         His turned his head. Something was different about him. His hands were so tightly clenched that the color drained from his knuckles. There was a new stiffness to his muscles, and a remote, windy look to his sienna eyes. Those eyes glared at me with unmitigated hostility.
         "I hate you," he whispered. It was the only thing he would say.
         I'd originally planned to visit for the rest of the weekend, but somehow there didn't seem to be any point in staying.



         Once I passed the dragon skeleton's tapering tail vertebrae, the passageway's width diminished. Light from the cavern's mouth faded. I advanced cautiously into the darkness, feeling my way along. At times the stone corridor was so narrow that I had to turn sideways. It curved, sometimes rising, sometimes descending, until it came to an end before a blank wall of stone. Examination by touch revealed an open passageway to each side. I chose the one on the right, ripping a shred of cloth off my leg cuffs and setting it down before I entered. The passageway veered, turning back on itself, and finally branched into three different routes. Picking the center one, I pressed ahead into a dead end. After retracing my steps and taking the left corridor, I encountered another nexus, this one with four different options.
         I'd wandered into a damned labyrinth.
         I was dearly in need of a light source. It had never before been my nature to carry flint, matches, or anything else that created Fire, yet now I was forced to reconsider the wisdom of my prejudice. The dragon skeleton's healing and the cavern's relative coolness had given me an opportunity to rebuild my inner storehouse of the Power, but my elemental aspect extinguishes heat or light instead of creating it.
         Something smoother than rock or gravel crunched underfoot. Bone, by the feel of it. It seemed to have come from something human-sized or larger. Tooth marks peppered its surface. Every once in a while I came across another, cleanly picked set of remains. Tiny creatures also scuttled in the darkness - bats, mice, and insects, by their sound. They were the first natural life I'd encountered since arriving in Limbo.
         A tenuous map, maintained through constant concentration, existed in my mind. There was no way of knowing how accurate it was. The slope underneath my feet fluctuated so much that I could be walking directly above or below my last steps. Sometimes I thought I felt a mild breeze from above, blowing down into my face even when I was pressed next to a wall. Attempting to walk into the source of the wind, I encountered one cul-de-sac or hub of passages after another. Moments waned into what felt like hours. Monotony began to set in. The map in my mind became unclear. I was losing track of direction, depth, and time.
         My foot touched something soft and thin. Kneeling down to touch it, I felt flexible, somewhat ragged fabric underneath my fingertips. It was cloth from my own uniform. I'd traveled in a great circle.



         There was something wrong with the rose I had sculpted out of Ice. Its leaves drooped, and the central blossom wouldn't spread properly no matter how many times I retouched it. The more effort I invested in molding the flower, the more listless it became. I'd been trying for hours, unsuccessfully, to recapture the life of my childhood creations. Perhaps distant memory pictured them more vibrant than they actually were. I was in the process of taking the sculpture apart, planning to start again from scratch, when I detected a localized increase in the room's arctic temperature about five paces behind, accompanied by a familiar whiff of charred ash.
         "You should not apply the Power to such trivial pursuits," Smoke advised, disapprovingly. "There are other ways to make ice sculptures. The Power should not be channeled unless you have no other recourse. You still rely upon it too much."
         "Why have you come? I did not summon you," I sighed without turning around. Deciding to try a different flower, I willed a fold of ice to become a violet leaf, heart-shaped with a finely toothed margin.
         "Ignore my warning at your peril."
         "Answer the question!"
         "Unit LK-4D4 has disappeared. It was supposed to be destroyed, but someone had removed it before we could force our way into Pyre's laboratory. I think Sektor may have stolen it."
         "He's still recovering from two broken arms. How could he steal anything?"
         "He could have hidden it before your battle with Pyre."
         "Pyre would not have let him do such a thing. You are attributing a great deal of cunning to a young hothead too witless to properly control his mouth."
         "Perhaps."
         "Don't be so quick to rule out whatever party 'discovered' that the metal atrocity was missing. There could be others in the clan who are sympathetic to Pyre's cause. He revealed his secret to me; who knows how many were aware of it all along?"
         "A point."
         "Is that all?"
         "Not quite. There is also the matter of your brother."
         "What makes you think I have one?" The violet's stem had a kink, as though it had been stepped on.
         "You forget, Sub-Zero, that your grandfather was my instructor, once. He died before you were old enough to remember him, but we knew each other well. I'm the one remaining Lin Kuei who knows who he was under his mask. I know who you are, and who your brother is. It came to my attention that a Hierarchy member has personally forbidden a certain citizen to leave the village. A brief investigation confirmed my suspicions."
         "The matter is none of your concern." Instead of creating each petal individually, I decided this time to shape the entire blossom at once, in hopes of making the whole appear more coordinated.
         "Does it please you to abuse your authority like a tyrant?"
         "No. Nothing has pleased me for many years, since the night we first met." Smoke became quiet for an extended period of time, while I concentrated on honing the violet's stamen to hairlike thinness. When he addressed me again, his gruff, husky voice had lost its caustic edge.
         "You are crushing the dreams of a very intelligent young man."
         "'Dreams'? Nightmares would be more apt! I will not let those foul artifacts of metal and wire possess him!"
         "Technology is not inherently evil. It is a type of Power. Like any other Power, it can be used for woe or weal. Do not confuse Pyre's insanity with your brother's science."
         "I see no difference."
         "You are making a mistake."
         "That will be enough!" The violet shattered into pieces under my fingers. I turned and glared at Smoke. His eyes were darker than usual, like burnt wood instead of grey coals. "Leave, and do not approach me again unless I send for you!"
         He left. It would be the last time I spoke with him for two years.



         There was nothing to be done but plunge back into the maze. This time, I set down a tiny piece of cloth at every intersection. Directing the Power like a knife, I ripped my uniform's leg cuffs off and used them to make a trail. At each branching of tunnels, I always chose the one with the most upward slope; if there were more than one such, I alternated between right and left. After an interminable period of time, the black cloth of my leggings ended in scraps about my knees, and I still had no idea whether I was any closer to the way out.
         Something sparkled.
         Light! It only shined for an instant, just long enough to illuminate the tops of the tall stone walls that boxed me in. It had come from above, far and away down the corridor I currently traveled. I trotted as fast as I dared toward where it had been, soon reaching a juncture of six intersecting tunnels. Which one led toward the light flash?
         Before I could make a choice, two pinpricks of bright red appeared from the leftmost corridor. They were a pair of ruby-colored eyes, gleaming in complete darkness. No ordinary animal's eyes could have shone like that. Animal tapeta reflect existing light, instead of creating their own. The translucent orbs hovered about a meter and a half off the ground. From their radiance, I could discern the small outline of a smooth-skinned, birdlike body supported on slender hind legs, with a long mouth. Sharp, meat-eater teeth were faintly visible along the mouth's front half. Its breath smelled of carrion.
         "Rrowl!" the creature cried. "Rowl, rrowl!"
         "Stay back, little one," I advised. "You are no match for me."
         "Rrrowl!" A second pair of red pinpricks joined the first, synchronizing its call. Then a third stepped out of the adjoining tunnel, followed by fourth...
         "Rowl! Rrowl!" The creatures streamed out of every branch ahead of me, drawn by the clamor of their kindred. A dozen of them pressed together. Combined light from their glowing eyes outlined the feathery crests running along the backs of their necks and their long, stiffly pointed tails. Their claws were shaped like sickles. Especially noticeable was the claw on the second toe of each foot - it was gigantic, held cocked in an upraised position. I've seen carving knives smaller than those claws.
         I took a step back. The pack advanced. They eyed me in a tense, voracious manner. Individually, they were too small to be a danger, but the combined force of their numbers presented a threat. There were so many I couldn't attack them all with the Power, or even a majority of them. If I were to concentrate my energies on paralyzing some, the unaffected pack members would charge me en masse while I was distracted.
         "Rowl! Rrowl!" Their call came from in back of me, now. Another wave of the little predators advanced through the tunnel where I'd just been. My avenue of retreat was cut off. I pressed my back to a flat wall while the hook-clawed beasts converged on every side.



         Tired of what I'd been doing for the past decade, and uninterested in the day-to-day workings of the clan, I did not exercise the influence that I held as a Hierarchy member. The prospect of assassinating other hunters had lost its appeal. I went into semi-retirement, spending most of my time meditating and pursuing arts, especially the art of Ice sculpture. In due time, I became quite accomplished at reproducing still objects, such as Ming dynasty vases and jewelry boxes. But I couldn't accurately sculpt anything that lived. Plants were dull and wilted, animals sick and misshapen. Even when I worked directly from live models, something was wrong. My creations were nothing but crude lumps of frozen water. They lacked the appearance of life. Frustrated, I abandoned the aspiration to re-create my Ice dragon. I did not want to spoil her beautiful memory with some crass, twisted imitation.
         In addition to crafting with the Power, I continued my usual daily regimen of practice in combat skills. Any Lin Kuei member had the right to challenge me for my Hierarchy title at any time, and I was not going to repeat Pyre's mistake of honing my Talent to the exclusion of all else. I half-expected Sektor to seek vengeance upon me, but never heard from him. A young upstart did challenge me once. He was fairly accomplished and showed potential. It was unfortunate that I had to kill him.
         Visits to my family were infrequent. The only member I wanted to see was my brother. Though he did eventually start speaking to me again, he would only discuss pleasantries. His demeanor was cool. We resembled casual acquaintances more than brothers. When I offered to lift his confinement to the village in return for his promise not to study technology, he merely shook his head and walked away.
         My position in the Lin Kuei meant that I could have any woman I chose, yet the only ones who showed interest were looking for wealth, or power. I found such gold-digging repellent, and the thought of marrying an unwilling woman was many times more repulsive. Furthermore, if I were to have children, they might inherit my Power and consequently be forced into the Lin Kuei - a fate that I would not wish upon my worst enemy.
         I had the autonomy to do anything I wanted, yet there was nothing I particularly wanted to do. I'd spend days alone in Pyre's former chamber, on my intricately sculpted throne of Ice, brooding about the paradox. There was no purpose. Nothing mattered.
         So passed two years.



         Rather than attack with the Power, I used it defensively. Bringing my left hand up into guard position, I let my right hand down and sent the Power coursing through it. I'd been practicing shaping things with the Power for so long that I could direct its flow while keeping my attention on the pack of carnivores.
         The foremost creature tried to snap its jaws on my leg. It was twice as large as the others; its burning eyes were in line with my own. I pivoted, chambering and driving my heel into its neck. It flew back with a squeal that was at least an octave deeper than the others' high-pitched cries. The rest of the pack pressed forward, but by then the Ice ramp I'd created was as tall as they and I was on top of it. High ground gave me an advantage, and the ramp's narrow slope forced them to attack one at a time. In between bouts of fending them off, I invested effort into elevating the ramp and making it steeper. They struggled to climb it, skidding on its slick surface while I maintained my balance with ease. After a few minutes most of the pack stopped trying, though they continued to stalk the ramp's base.
         The creature I'd kicked in the neck wasn't giving up that easily. It dug its hooked claws into the ramp's surface, using them to gain purchase. Its muscled hind legs crouched and propelled it toward me; in midair, it twisted to bring the carving knife claws on its feet in line with my stomach. Springing forward to meet it, I snapped one foot after another in a double-hit front kick that connected solidly with its chest. It landed further down the Ice ramp and skidded to the bottom. I flipped backwards, alighting near the ramp's summit. The large creature righted itself and hissed.
         A light source suddenly appeared from behind and above. It shined like daylight - real daylight, not the pounding red-orange haze of the bright circle in Limbo's sky. The glittering illumination revealed the greyish-brown color of the pack's dry skin, crisscrossed by asymmetrical black stripes on their necks, backs and tails. The pack blinked and shied away from the brightness, except for the one who had attacked me twice. He paced close to the ramp. When he turned, I noticed a long scar on his left hip, cutting across his stripes.
         "You've been following the rays from my Sunstone, haven't you," mused a languid male voice with a rumbling cadence, from the same direction as the light. His breath smelled hot and foul. "Need any help, Sub-Zero?"
         "No. How do you know my name?"
         "News of the Tournament you participated in travels fast, even here. By the way, I couldn't help noticing your moves against that raptor. Not bad, but rather weak compared to what I've heard about you. Are you holding back?"
         "I kill people, not animals."
         "How noble." Sarcasm dripped from each word. "Unfortunately for you, the raptors have more flexible ethics. Food is scarce in the Maze, so whenever they find something too big to bring down, they pin it against a corner somewhere until it collapses from exhaustion and thirst. They'll take turns watching you, rotating in shifts for as long as they have to. They're quite intelligent, that way. But they taste simply awful. Too tough and stringy, definitely not worth the effort. See the scar on that alpha male? I put it there, and nearly lost a leg of my own in the process. That was the last time I tried to make a meal out of a healthy adult raptor.
         "So, do you still want to stay down there with your toothy friends?"
         "They are not my friends."
         "Even if you do drive them off, which way would you go? The Maze has thousands of paths; you could search for days and never find Leucrotta Castle. You'd starve to death looking, unless you want to live on rats and cockroaches. Disgusting things. You can barely make a decent snack out of them, let alone a meal."
         "Do you know the way out?"
         "Of course."
         "Tell me."
         "First, would you do me the kindness of a face-to-face conversation? It really isn't very polite, keeping your back turned to someone when they're talking to you."
         Though I was reluctant to take my eyes off the pack below, this Maze was a greater threat than they were. My hearing and sensitivity to air currents would warn me if the scarred creature attacked again, but nothing I'd tried had helped me navigate this seemingly endless network of corridors. I risked a glance over my shoulder, at the speaker.
         A sphinx reclined on top of the stone wall that ran a meter above my head. He resembled a massive lion with the twisted mimicry of a human face. His thick fur was tawny yellow, contrasted against a dusky brown mane and matching tuft on his tail. Retractile claw-tips poked out from his toes. Tan, feathered wings longer than his lion-body folded against his sides. Each wing was attached to his back just below the shoulder joint. His face had distorted proportions; the nose poked far out, like a hawk beak, and the abnormally wide mouth was crammed with double rows of pointed canines. Underneath his neck sparkled a brilliant yellow jewel on an iron chain. I felt the presence of Power within its faceted depths. Someone had used a great deal of mystic energy to turn this gemstone into a solar storehouse.
         My admiration of the gem was cut short when I made the mistake of looking into the sphinx's eyes. They flashed deep green, the color of moss rippling beneath a running stream. There were no corneas, only vertical slit pupils nestled in a sea of shimmering emerald. My limbs stiffened. Command of my muscles seeped away. Like a badly manipulated puppet, the controlling force made me turn fully around. Inside, I struggled furiously against the sphinx's hypnotic Power.
         "Yes, that's better," he drooled. "Now, come on up here, where I can sink my teeth into you. All your fresh meat shouldn't go to waste on the raptors." My legs tensed as if to vault; I fought against the compelling urge. "What's taking so long? You're quite capable of making the leap."
         "Nnngh-no." The strain of defying the sphinx's call sent involuntary shudders through my frame. Though I could speak, I could not look away from his mesmerizing gaze. It took everything I had to simply remain where I was.
         "Don't be modest, I saw you jump an instant ago. You wouldn't be resisting my will, would you? You're not the first to try. Other humanoids have squirmed, cursed, spat in my face, or pleaded right up to the end. Guess what? They were all the more delicious for it." He stared harder. Sweat formed on my brow. Uncontrollable shaking wracked my limbs.
         The sphinx frowned. "You are more stubborn than you look. At this rate, I may have to come down to where you are." The scarred raptor made an angry, squawking sound. "Except that I don't like the way your friend is looking at my leg."
         "C-... coward!"
         "Who, me? Just because I immobilize my prey before killing it? Isn't that what you do?" I could not deny that. "It's a very practical system. Spiders have been using it for millions of years. One more try. Come!"
         I took a step forward, then stopped.
         His mouth split wide in an irritated grimace. "Tell you what. I'll give you a sporting chance. If you can answer a riddle, I'll free you. I'll even show you the way to Leucrotta Castle. If you can't answer the riddle, your meat is mine." He licked his chops, smacking his lips noisily. "Here it is:
         Most precious of treasures
         Sealed in a long white box
         Without lock or key
         No lid to open
         No clasp to close
         What am I?"



         "Ultratech?" I repeated. The sound of the name filled me with disgust.
         "Silence!" Toxin commanded, sharply. The spitting cobra draped around her shoulders flicked its forked tongue in and out, tasting the air. Hurricane folded his arms. The Unknown did not move. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on these three, the Lin Kuei Hierarchy's absolute rulers, of whom I'd heard so much and knew so little.
         Hurricane was a master of Air and Water, one of the few clansmen in Lin Kuei history gifted with Power over more than one element. His Talent was so potent that he could influence weather itself, though affecting an area greater than half a square kilometer strained his limits. Hurricane's uniform had blue highlights a shade lighter than mine; the rest of it was spotless white, as warning of his dual talent. His mood was reputed to be as changeable as the wind and sea, spontaneously transforming from calm to destructive rage.
         Toxin was the most lethal of the three. Female Lin Kuei are rare, as the clan does not accept women into its ranks unless they are gifted with the Power, and does not routinely Test women. She'd joined the clan by seeking a pair of members out and demanding to take the Test. When one of them laughed at her, she raked her nails across the bridge of his nose. He died in a heartbeat. The survivor approved of her demonstration and sponsored her petition. Toxin's Power was that of Poison. She was immune to all types of venom, and distinguished cyanide from arsenic like common mortals separated varieties of wine. A touch of her fingers on bare skin brought illness; on an open cut, death. Her green and black uniform was composed entirely of the finest silk.
         Toxin was also one of the few Hierarchy members who regularly performed assassinations, instead of merely ordering them. Her record was spotless. She could murder with a scratch, a dart, a tasteless substance sprinkled in victuals, or the snakes she cherished like children. Rumor had it that she could slay with her gaze as well, but I doubted that; otherwise, she would have disposed of Pyre herself. Her kill-count was impressively high, for her age. She was a scant twenty-three years old, the youngest Hierarchy member ever.
         The Unknown was a mystery. His Power was a secret, if he had one. His uniform and the hooded robes he wore over it were entirely black, like the cloth of a common clan member, and completely covered his entire body. A bulge under his one-way kuroko mask was all I could see of his face. He never spoke, communicating only through the secret sign language of the Lin Kuei, and only to Hurricane and Toxin. I call him "he," but I do not even know that.
         There has been an Unknown for as long as there have been Lin Kuei; indeed, the Unknown's authority absolutely supersedes that of all other clan members. Hurricane and Toxin's rank merely reflected that they were primary counsel to the Unknown, though for practical purposes they held strong sway in their own right. Though the Unknown can be challenged for his title, the challenge and the battle must be held in secret; should the challenger win, he must forsake identity and voice to become the next Unknown. There was no way to be certain whether the Unknown before me was the same individual who had sat on the central throne a year ago, a week ago, or yesterday. True, a clansman would unexpectedly disappear from time to time, but that hardly implied he had become the Unknown. Few Lin Kuei perish from old age.
         Hurricane, Toxin, and the Unknown: together, these three formed the ruling Triumvirate of the Lin Kuei Hierarchy. Their dominion was vast. Their cunning was immeasurable. They had wanted to see me, so I had not kept them waiting. I don't know what I expected, but it certainly wasn't to be-
         "-the appointed ambassador of our clan. You will represent our interests to Ultratech, and return with the details of their offer." Toxin lifted one arm, allowing her spitting cobra to slither into a more comfortable position. "Transportation has been arranged. You leave at dawn tomorrow. Now, is there something you wish to say?"
         "Why have I been chosen?"
         "Careful," warned Hurricane. "You have not been granted permission to question our decision."
         "Understood, Lords." I had a sinking feeling that this was not going to turn out well. "Lords, I have a boon to ask of you, if I may."
         Hurricane scowled. Toxin's delicate eyebrows rose a trifle. "Speak, then," she said, her olive eyes set in a firm, unreadable expression.
         "I ask for leave to bring Smoke with me."
         "Smoke?" Hurricane snorted. "He's your lackey; why should we care what you do with him?"
         "I was under the impression he belonged to... someone else."
         "Smoke was your grandfather's bond servant," Toxin explained. "Weren't you aware of that? Inheritance naturally falls to you."
         Then why is he your informant? I wondered, but some questions are better left unasked. When I departed, I resisted the urge to turn around for one last look at the Unknown. He had stayed motionless on his cushioned throne for the entire audience. I hadn't so much as seen him breathe.



         The scarred raptor pounced. I sensed his coming, but was helpless to act until he slammed into my back. His razor claws pinned me flat on the Ice ramp, forcing me to break eye contact with the unblinking sphinx. Control of my body returned. Reaching behind my back with one hand, I grasped the scarred raptor's ankle and froze him with the Power an instant before he could rip my side open with his carving knife claws.
         "No! That's MY dinner!" roared the man-lion, leaping down from his perch. His body made a heavy thud when he landed next to the ramp. Other raptors in the background hissed, sounding more fearful than angry.
         "Out of my way, you little bastard!" the sphinx snapped, knocking the paralyzed raptor off me with a swipe of his paw. While he talked, I scrambled to hands and knees. "As for you, mortal meat-" I kicked straight back, into the source of his voice. My heel crunched into soft flesh and bone underneath.
         "AAARRRRR! My node! You broke my node!" I closed my eyes and spun around. The sphinx's Power had no effect on me if I did not look at him, so I was free to interrupt his yells with a glancing punch to his cheek. My Lin Kuei training in blindfighting, the art of combat in complete darkness, served me well.
         The origin of his growl moved higher, above my head; he was rearing. Air swished as his great paw slashed toward my throat. I cartwheeled up the ramp's slope, dodging out of range, and dashed three steps forward. Memory told me exactly where the ramp ended and the stone wall began. Without slowing, I stepped on the wall's cool surface and sprang off it, tucking in my arms and knees, spinning in midair to maximize trajectory. I landed on the sphinx's back, a little off-kilter, but steady enough to seize hold of the iron chain around his neck.
         "What in Haded-" the sphinx's curse stopped abruptly when I pulled the chain tight against his throat.
         "Take me to Leucrotta Castle at once," I commanded.
         "Why thould I- urk!"
         I let him choke for a moment before relaxing the tension. "If you do not, you shall die slowly, in extreme agony. I will asphyxiate you until you are helpless. Then I will put out your eyes, cripple your limbs, and turn you over to the pack. You will awaken in time to feel them rip open your abdomen and feed on your entrails."
         "Hey, you daid you killed people, not animald."
         "You can talk. You're no animal."
         "But I'm not a perdon!"
         "Close enough." I decided it was safe to open my eyes. Should he try to ensnare me with his gaze again, I could immobilize him with the Power before he could twist his head halfway around.
         "If I do ad you day, what happend to me?"
         "Obey me swiftly, without resistance, and I will show you mercy."
         "All right, all right. Judt take it eady on the windpipe, okay?" I wrapped my arms around his neck and gripped his mane. The lion-man crouched and bounded above the heads of the stupefied pack, landing on top of the wall behind them. He jumped from wall top to wall top. His jewel shined more brightly than before, revealing a vast network of crisscrossing walls that he navigated with ease. After several minutes of travel, he slowed.
         "Have to - redt - for a moment," he gasped.
         "Can't you fly?"
         "In thid dead air, with your lead weight on my neck? You have got to be kidding." Scuffling noises spiced with birdlike chirps came from below. The scarred raptor and his pack were trailing us. They must have known their home well; the Maze's twists hadn't delayed them at all.
         "This break is over. Get moving," I demanded.
         "Dlave driver," he muttered, resuming his leonine bounds. The raptors pursued. After ten more such bursts of activity, I could see the faint glitter of soft white light ahead, streaming from a half-circle opening like the one through which I'd entered. Beyond, I glimpsed a distant turret.
         "Okay, I've done what you want."
         "No. You must take me up to the castle."
         "I can't! It'd heavily guarded. To approach it id to die."
         "Very well, then take me outside of the Maze, and I'll continue alone."
         "If you're doe eager to throw away your life, I could eadily- ack!"
         "That will be enough backtalk," I glowered, accenting my words with another pull of the chain. "Go."
         He reached the half-circle opening in one last burst of speed, outdistancing the raptors. Leucrotta Castle rested atop a hill, several kilometers directly ahead.
         "End of the line," panted the sphinx.
         "So I see. One more thing: 'bone marrow.'"
         "Wad it that obvioud?"
         "Yes." He had been constantly talking about food. What else would he consider "most precious of treasures?"
         "Nexdt time I'll remember to eat firdt, adk riddled later. Are you going to keep your promide?"
         "Yes, killer. I will show you the same mercy you bestowed on all the others." I drove a blade of pure Power into his throat, cutting through tissue and bone to cleanly decapitate him.
         The sphinx's body sagged. Dismounting, I slipped his necklace with the brilliant gemstone off the stump of his neck. The gem might come in handy later, I thought, hiding it within my tunic. Its daylight glow dimmed in response to my desire to conceal it.
         "Rrrrrrraaawl!"
         The scarred raptor had arrived, followed by the rest of his pack. Cautiously, I stepped away from the sphinx. The scarred raptor's glowing red eyes flicked from me to the sphinx's fresh carcass and back again.
         "Well?" I said.
         "Rrawl!" He approached the sphinx. His foot whipped across the dead body's chest; an ebbing liquid trail of red marked where the carving knife claw on his second toe had been. He crouched, working his hands into the rent and tugging at something, until he had wrenched free a quivering blob of muscle. The scarred raptor gulped down the sphinx's heart, gurgling.
         "Rowl, rrowl!" Upon hearing the pack leader's cry, the other raptors converged on the body without sparing me any further notice. They tore at the sphinx, their rigid tails sticking straight up like points of a crown. I backed away steadily. Once they were out of sight, I ran until I had left them far behind. Only then did I stop to stretch out. The long, bareback ride had left me quite sore.



         "What the HELL is that?!" I exclaimed, gawking at the giant monster.
         "Our transportation," Smoke answered, casually.
         It was enormous. Its wingspan would dwarf a roc's. The sail of a warship could have made up its tail. It resembled no earthly beast. The thing's gleaming body was a slate-grey cylinder, with no neck and only a rounded off end for a head. One long eye was plastered across the top of its face; many smaller eyes ran in a line across its unbending body. Its tail was a thin triangle with rectangular flaps perched on its far end. The wings stuck out at acute angles to its either side. They carried neither feathers nor webbed bat skin; instead, they were simply a flat expanse of reflective grey.
         "It's... metal," I realized. Closer examination revealed rubber-coated wheels on three sets of wire legs, propping the thing up.
         "Haven't you seen an airplane before?"
         "A what?"
         "I suppose not. It's a flying machine, capable of traveling faster than-"
         "Fly? That thing must weigh tonnes! It doesn't have any joints with which to flap its wings!"
         "I'll give you a lecture on the principle of jet propulsion after we get on."
         "It doesn't have any handholds. How is a person to stay on its back?" Smoke started to answer, but before he could say a word he started coughing violently.
         Two years' passage had changed him. Instead of wearing the ceremonial clan uniform like I was, he'd come to the appointed site dressed in a black formal business suit with a grey shirt and tie. That in itself made him look astoundingly different, yet the slight smoke-plumes constantly escaping from his collar, sleeves, and leg cuffs assured me of his identity. He had left his mask behind. I'd never seen him without it before. His face was unusually pale and gaunt. One long streak of grey ran through his cropped dark hair, accompanied by a host of smaller grey strands. He seemed older than his age of forty-eight years.
         He also sounded a lot worse than before. His voice was fainter, and its gravelly rasp had increased, at times making his words difficult to understand. A pair of dark sunglasses with mirrored outer lenses hid his eyes. He appeared thinner and weaker than I remembered. And there was that cough. It had been infrequently plaguing him all morning.
         "Are you well?" I asked.
         "As well as can be expected," he sighed, clearing his throat. He made a brief chopping motion with one hand, as was his habit when he wanted to dismiss a topic.
         "Perhaps you should not make this journey."
         "I am going with you. I'm curious about Ultratech. The Lin Kuei has tried to infiltrate their ranks before, but none of the agents involved ever returned. Then out of the blue, Ultratech directly invites us to send a representative. They want to talk about something too sensitive to discuss outside their walls. Hopefully, whatever it is does not involve our mysterious disappearance." Smoke removed his sunglasses and rubbed them on his cuff, clearing off the thin film of soot that had accumulated on their lenses. Pronounced trails of red marred the whites of his eyes. "Ah, good. They're positioning the stairs."
         I followed his line of sight. Workers were pushing a long flight of steps over to the metal beast. The carpeted stairs were mounted on wheels, and looked as if some cosmic force had cleanly ripped them out of a tall building. A gaping wound appeared in the flying beast's side. Its metal skin was pushed out, leaving a human-sized hole. The beast's interior was... hollow?
         "Are we expected to climb into that thing's stomach?"
         "You catch on fast."
         "But that's insane!"
         "It doesn't have a digestive system. Trust me."
         "I will have nothing to do with that monster!"
         "Ultratech's corporate base is halfway around the world. We're supposed to be there the day after tomorrow. This is the only way to arrive in time. Anything else would be far too slow."
         "Ultratech can wait! I do not intend to crawl inside that metal thing like a maggot burrowing into a dead-"
         "Are you going to tell the Triumvirate that?" I halted in mid-denial. "Look, Sub-Zero, the worst thing that could possibly happen is that it will kill us, in which case we won't have to worry about what Ultratech will do to us when we get there." Smoke affirmed his logic with a smile. His teeth were sickly yellow, with ugly brown stains. The sight was, in its own way, more ghastly than the prospect of being swallowed by the metal leviathan.
         My higher rank necessitated that I precede him up the flight of cut-away stairs, although my instincts were shouting to either retreat or do battle. The metal beast's cramped interior was filled with carpeting, lights, and rows of cushioned chairs fixed in place. It looked deceptively welcoming, but I remained on edge. Our designated chairs were cushioned and low to the ground, not at all like the Ice throne I was accustomed to sitting upon. When a loud, unnatural whine suddenly tore through the air, I tightened my hold on the soft chair's arms.
         "Sub-Zero, if I may..."
         "What is it," I muttered through clenched teeth.
         "If the temperature inside this space were somehow to drop too low, it might have a deleterious effect on the airplane's ability to fly."
         "What do you think you are implying?"
         "It was just a thought." Another episode of coughing briefly took hold of him.
         A young woman dressed in a blouse and knee-length navy skirt approached us. "Your pardon sirs, but we are about to lift off." She gestured to a small black rectangle mounted near the ceiling. It was decorated with glowing tubes in the shape of a white stick, superimposed by a red circle with a diagonal slash. "As you can see, the sign says 'No...'" She trailed off and stared, open-mouthed, at the charcoal plumes drifting from Smoke's collar.
         Smoke leaned forward and flashed his grisly smile. "Go ahead, miss. Please do finish your sentence."



         The terrain surrounding Leucrotta Castle was only somewhat more open than the Maze. Cold stone stretched in a variety of stalagmites, spires, arcs, hollows, mounds, and depressions. I passed natural carvings endowed with delicate elegance. Enough twilight filtered down from above to reveal the rock formations' dazzling colors, which ranged the spectrum sunset red to flower petal lilac.
         I had no idea Limbo could be so beautiful.
         A narrow strip of ground covered with flat, blue-purple stones crossed my path. It was clearly artificial; while it may have been meant to complement the wild splendor of its surroundings, it was little more than a pedantic ornament. It curled right and left, making a wide detour around the turrets of Leucrotta Castle. Past the strip, the terrain abruptly dropped away in a jagged downward rift.
         Scanning the area, I spotted a taller than average rock formation of reasonable slope, with plenty of grooves to function as handholds, and promptly scaled it. I could see the entire region from the rock's summit. It was an enclosed cavern, roughly in the shape of an indented hemisphere. Surrounding its circumference were dozens of dark openings like the one the sphinx had brought me to; in fact, I could see the man-lion's distant body surrounded by lounging raptor pack. Two raptors played tug of war with a haunch ripped from their fresh meat. From this distance, they might have been baby sparrows tussling over a worm. Aside from the raptors, the only signs of life were the bats fluttering to and fro above my head.
         I suspected that the openings scattered along the perimeter all led back into the Maze; if so, then this cavern was most likely the Maze's heart. The floor of the entire grotto was tilted in the shape of a wide cone: low near the circumference, gradually rising as one progressed inward. Below, the artificial strip of flat stones was part of an interior circle, marking the boundary of an inner gulf. The gulf's depths were cloaked in shadow. I was close enough to the edge to pitch a piece of gravel into the abyss. Though I listened intently for over a minute, I did not hear it hit the bottom.
         Leucrotta Castle was supremely elevated on an isolated upthrust in the center of the chasm. If the ground were a cone, the castle was its point. Further down the paved blue-purple path was an archway; shimmering spots of red flickered on the ground all around it. Through the arch, a trail atop a moderately thin mound threaded across the gulf, resembling the top of a dam more than a bridge. Leucrotta Castle's silver-trimmed front door sparkled at the trail's far end.
         Looking upward, I saw the cavern's domed, stalactite-peppered ceiling curve approximately two kilometers over my head. Cracks and pockmarks in the ceiling allowed willowy beams of light to stream through; these diffusing rays spread to give the cavern its twilight appearance. There was a wider hole in the ceiling's center. Something slender, sparkling, and tinged with Power ran through that hole, winding down in a tight spiral until it touched the tip of Leucrotta Castle's highest tower. It was a golden staircase, the only egress from this self-contained world.

end part two of four