THE COMING OF WINTER
written by Victar, e-mail email@example.com
part three of four
Victar's Archive: http://www.victarfanfics.com
Ultratech's headquarters was in the midst of a decadent
metropolis. The air carried a foul taste and nauseating smell. Smoke's coughing fits became more
pronounced. His Power should have shielded him, just as mine protects me from frostbite, but
perhaps there were trace amounts of artificial poisons in the smog.
The city's buildings were badly in need of repair. Its streets
were filthy. The alleys were worse, littered with rotting garbage, metal needles embedded in
plastic cylinders, and fecal matter. Insects crawled freely amidst festering pieces of discarded
food. Changes in the slight cross-breeze brought the stench of urine. Loud metal boxes on wheels
clogged the paved roads, belching black soot as they rolled past. People huddled together,
crowding the sidewalks like a herd of cattle. Their body heat combined with the high summer
temperature bore down on me.
This place was a sewer.
"It's not too late to call Ultratech and ask them to send
back their limousine," Smoke remarked. "Then we wouldn't have to walk through this mess."
I was sure I hadn't spoken that last thought aloud. "If you
are referring to that squat black mechanical beast-"
"With luxury seats and air conditioning."
"-then no, I shall not have anything to do with it. I've
endured being swallowed by a vile artifact once. No more!"
"It was only a thought."
After three hours of travel on foot, we reached Ultratech's
address at the intersection of Dickerson and Main streets. Curiously, both the traffic and the
shied from the entire block, making the area appear deserted except for the background noise.
Sirens, yelling, and nasal commands voiced several decibels louder than what a human being
should be capable of blared in the distance, peppered with echos of rattling gunfire.
Ultratech's residence was an extremely long rectangle
stood on end, lined with neat, horizontal rows of square-shaped windows. The tower stood apart
from its grungy surroundings in that it was sparkling clean, every centimeter polished, every
window perfectly clear. Instead of reeking garbage, the place smelled of unnatural chemicals.
Looking up the rectangle's incredible length strained my neck, and I nearly walked into a metal
beast placed haphazardly next to the road's raised yellow border. Two of the thing's wheels were
missing, replaced by brick piles. Wire tips poked out of the smashed wreck of its eyes. Nailed to
its mouth was a metal plate with the raised English letters "COMBO." I stepped gingerly around
the wounded beast.
"Smoke," I said, "bide a moment. Are you sure you wish to
enter dressed as you are?"
"Do you know, I was recently thinking the same about
you? While the ceremonial Lin Kuei uniform is appropriate for intimidating peasants, you do
rather stand out in an urban district."
"What I meant was, why aren't you wearing your
"It makes no difference any longer. I haven't worn it in
months." A strong sense of finality accompanied his tone, like the thump of closing a
"If Ultratech knows what you look like, it may use that
information to persecute you and your family."
"The Lin Kuei are my family."
"Of course, they are the family of every clan member. I was
referring to your biological relatives."
He folded his arms, fixing his eyes on Ultratech's spotless
tower. "My... 'biological relatives' were casualties in a protection war between the Lin Kuei and
the Black Dragons. The Lin Kuei would have executed me as well if not for your grandfather. It
was his decree that I should be Tested first. He thought he sensed something in me. Killing
innocent bystanders was nothing new to him, but to accidentally destroy a potential wielder of the
Power would be, in his words, 'a waste.' I passed the Test, earning the right to survive as one of
"So you see, when I say that the Lin Kuei are my family, I
am being quite literal." He coughed several times and cleared his throat. "Shall we go
He had changed in more than just appearance. The Smoke
I remembered never talked about himself. The person standing next to me had become notably
more loquacious and amiable. Lin Kuei do not consider either trait a virtue.
Perhaps his disease was unhinging his mind.
It didn't matter; now was not the time to think about such
things. I approached the entrance to Ultratech's great tower. Their front gate was no common
portal. A balanced array of four doors positioned at cross angles to each other rested in the center
of a transparent glass wall. Strange. The rectangular doors were made of thick glass, framed with
metal borders; heavy rubber lined their top and bottom edges. A long black handle ran
horizontally across their breadth, positioned slightly above waist level. Through the glass, I could
see the carpeted interior of Ultratech's front hall. Two security guards stood at attention near the
clover-leaf doors. In back, a muscular black man with a pair of boxing gloves dangling from his
belt was speaking to a willowy, bored-looking receptionist. The boxer was clearly agitated about
something, for he banged the desk's surface with his hand.
I pressed on the handle. The door gave a surprising amount
of resistance, due no doubt to its heavy weight and that absurd rubber padding dragging against
its bottom. Leaning forward, I pushed with both hands. Once I got it moving, it rapidly picked up
speed, curving away and to the left.
"Sub-Zero, wait one moment," Smoke suddenly called.
"Perhaps I ought to demonstrate-" something abruptly silenced him. I turned around to see what it
was, letting the door swing outward. Another of the four clover-leaf doors was barreling toward
me. Attempting to evade it, I found myself confined within a wedge-shaped cubicle. The heavy
object picked up speed. When I shoved against its momentum, the door I'd opened also slowed,
well short of opening into the room beyond. Glass and metal boxed me in on all sides.
It was a trap!
My pulse pounded. Reflexively, I kicked out at the third
wall of my artificial prison, a curving pane of glass between the doors. Vibrations of shock
traveled up my leg. My heel hurt from the impact. The wall was not an ordinary glass pane; it was
many times thicker and stronger, while retaining deceptive clarity. But I was no ordinary prisoner.
I sent the Power into the material, chilling it to such an extreme that my next kick shattered it.
Splinters of frozen glass dug against the thick cloth of my uniform without cutting through it. The
security guard directly in front of me was not so fortunate. Shards sank into his face and arms. He
staggered back, groping for his weapon but unable to draw it because of the transparent wedges
lodged in his hands.
"Freeze!" yelled the second guard, leveling his firearm at
point-blank range. I obliged, casting a stream of the Power into him. He was so close that he
didn't have time to pull the trigger before the Ice took hold. I hit him with an open hand chop to
the side of the neck. He collapsed, the pistol slipping out of his fingers. Wasting no time, I turned
and drove a third wave of the Power into the glass wall. Weakened, it easily fragmented in
response to a backwards thrust kick, clearing a path for my escape.
"Where do you think you're going, terrorist?" snarled a
breathy female voice. It was the receptionist. She vaulted over her desk like a gymnast and
sprinted toward me, carrying two short sticks tipped with yellow, one in each hand. When I
hurled a stream of the Power at her, she evaded it with a forward flip. I turned an instant before
the spike of her high-heel boots could plow into my ribs; instead, it pierced my shoulder. The
force spun me halfway around. I flowed with it rather than fight it, turning the flight back into a
series of handsprings.
"You're not getting away that easily!" The receptionist
covered the ground between us in a handful of long-legged strides. She was slightly faster than
me. In order to elude Ultratech's trap, I'd have to take her out. Smoke yelled something, but I
couldn't afford to distract myself listening to him.
I waited until she was nearly upon me before dropping low
and driving my fist into her midsection. She tried to jump above the attack like before, but was so
close and running so hard that she never had time to leave the ground. My attack was doubly
strong because she had thrown herself into it. The receptionist folded in half, pressing both
forearms tightly against where I'd hit her. I swung the back of my fist at her temple. She fell to her
hands and knees with a shuddering groan.
I'd have to end this quickly. Stepping forward, I curled my
second and third fingers of my right hand into a cat's claw and jabbed at her throat. She moved to
deflect it with one of her sticks, but was too disoriented to maneuver it properly - or so I thought
until a brilliant beam of golden light shot from its lemon-tipped end. The light beam burned my
fingers like a torch. If not for the guards I wore, my hand would have been split in half. My breath
hissed through my teeth.
"Did that hurt, lover?" she sneered. "C'mon, you can tell
me. Don't be shy!" As I jerked the injured member away, she reached forward and made a grab
for my face. Her fingertips merely grazed the surface of my mask. She swung her light-blade on
line with my neck. I bent over backwards in a kickflip, evading her strike and whipping the insteps
of both feet at her wrist. She spat a curse as the weapon flew from her hand and activated her
second light-sword. The girl advanced, this time keeping the side of her body turned. She'd
learned better than to charge me with a full-forward run.
The girl made a wide swing at the edge of her light-sword's
range. I dropped underneath its arc, and transformed a backward somersault toward her into an
upward kick, pushing off from the ground. My heels struck the wrist holding her second
light-sword. This time she did not have the opportunity to curse before I snapped to my feet and
drove my stiffened knuckles of my left hand toward her neck.
"Stop it, both of you!" Smoke exclaimed, deflecting my
strike with a chop of his forearm and interposing himself between us. "This is a
The receptionist glared around him, at me. "I see your
friend is covering for you, terrorist. Are you afraid to finish what you started?"
"Girl," I growled, invoking a frigid blue nimbus of Power
around my good hand, "you talk too much."
"I said STOP!" Smoke shouted, extending his flexed palms
to physically push the girl and me apart. To her, "We are the Lin Kuei delegation. Ultratech
invited us. We have a four o'clock appointment. Our card." From his vest, he withdrew a scrip of
rectangular paper with the written words "Lin Kuei" and the clan's abstract sigil.
She glanced at the card briefly, but did not move to take it.
"Your friend is a psychopath. He destroyed the front door and attacked two of our guards."
"That 'front door' is a trap!" I spat. "I expected Ultratech to
try an ambush, and I am not going to submit!"
She looked curiously at me, then back to Smoke. "He is
also completely delusional. Is he a hallucinogen addict?" My eyes narrowed.
"Can we at least agree on a truce?" Smoke pressed,
glancing from me to her.
"If you'll keep your pet psycho on a leash," she
"From this moment on, I am sending you into the traps
first," I warned him.
"Sub-Zero, that door isn't-"
The boxer I'd seen earlier suddenly shoved Smoke aside.
"Hey, outta my way you clowns!" He turned to the receptionist and demanded, "What're you
gonna do about dis permit? I'm signin' up for da Killer bash 'cause I need da money, not t'
some damn hundred dollar registration fee, you bitch!"
"'Clowns'?" I repeated, softly.
"'Bitch'?" she repeated, even more softly.
"You heard me. So, what're you gonna do about it?"
She smashed the hilt of her remaining sword into his jaw at
the same time as I threw the Power into him. While he was paralyzed, I hit him with an overhead
slam to the crown of his skull. She kneed him in the groin. He collapsed.
"At least you agree on something," Smoke
"I don' need dis shit. I really don'," boxer grunted, first
crawling, then limping painfully to the trapped set of doors. They should have swallowed him up,
but he merely pushed on one and kept pushing until it rotated halfway around, letting him
He made it look so easy.
Smoke asked, "Truce?"
"Truce," I muttered, staring at the outlandish doors as they
slowed to a stop.
"Truce," the girl agreed. "Hey guys, you can lower your
weapons. The situation is well in hand." I turned my head. She had addressed half a dozen
additional armed security guards, all pointing their firearms at me. They must have come in
response to the commotion. The guards holstered their guns. Two of them approached their
injured comrades, while the remaining four kept uneasy watch on us. "You're still breathing only
because they didn't want to risk hitting me or your civilian friend, Zero," the girl smirked.
"I am called Smoke," said the teacher, bowing. "And you,
fair maiden, are...?"
"Orchid. Flattery will get you everywhere." She smiled
broadly, revealing a perfectly even set of gleaming white teeth. Her expression changed to one of
puzzlement as she noticed the smoke trails rising from his collar. "Are you on fire?"
"Only in the metaphorical sense. Your beauty is quite
incendiary." Her smile returned. I turned away in disgust.
"That smoke isn't toxic, is it?"
"Short-term exposure shouldn't be a problem. Um, there
aren't any children or pregnant women in the area, are there?"
"Oh, no, but if you stay here you might set off the-" A
loud, continuous wail assaulted my ears. I shifted into guard stance, but in place of an attack a
steady indoor rain streamed down from the ceiling.
"-fire alarm," Orchid finished, shielding her eyes from the
downpour. "Damn. Of all the days to forget my mascara."
"Can we continue this someplace else?" I sighed.
A distant exclamation from the boxer carried through the
jagged holes in Ultratech's glass wall. "Aw, no! My CAR!"
I smelled Blood River's source before I could see it.
Human bones floated in sanguine red pools dotting the side
of the paved stone path. The blood steamed and gave off heat, though not as much as the river
itself had. The bubbling pools became more frequent the closer I approached the trail to Leucrotta
Castle's front door. Fresh surges of liquid red pouring out large circular openings of mortared
stone constantly fed their depths, yet the pools never overflowed. Golems carved from the
surrounding rock watched over the sometimes trickling, sometimes gushing streams. I envisioned
the liquid seeping down through vents in the rock, to the bed of Blood River itself.
A great deal of clutter lay strewn about the intersection
between stone pathway and castle trail. Among the piles of junk were rust-covered weapons,
moldering finery, and an open coffin with an elegant black chandelier resting on top. The arch I
had glimpsed earlier was surprisingly humble; merely a set of smooth grey stones, cemented into
an arc about twice as tall as I was. Bats fluttered and roosted on rock formations nearby; some
even flapped their way across the gulf to the castle, though they avoided flying too close to the
Except for the flying mammals, my surroundings were
deserted. Neither sentries nor stone golems watched over the archway. Beyond, Leucrotta Castle
itself had no gatekeeper, no soldiers manning the turrets, nothing save more bats. Hadn't the
sphinx said the castle was "heavily guarded?"
Following my suspicions, I gently lobbed a pebble into the
arch. The instant it flew under the curving structure, a brilliant red flare engulfed it. I dove to the
ground and covered my head as an explosion shattered it into countless pieces. Discharge of a
Power at least equal to Pyre's accompanied the burst.
Stepping to the side, I tossed a second pebble around the
arch, toward the pathway beyond. Another red flare surrounded it as soon as it reached the space
above the castle's front road. As I took shelter, I glimpsed the crackling red sheet of force
enclosing the path, like a tube.
Though I could not be sure how much time had passed
since I arrived within Limbo, I felt like I'd been awake for days. Warnings against sleeping in
Limbo remained fresh in my mind. I had to find a way into Leucrotta Castle, and soon. The wards
guarding the castle's front were too powerful to deactivate quickly, and the gulf's sides were too
steep to scale.
Wait. How could liquid be constantly flowing out of the
sewer openings? This was a high elevation. Where was the fresh blood coming from?
I navigated around the edge of a blood pool and pressed
closer to the largest drain opening. Inside, I saw a tunnel that angled sharply to the right. With a
short run, I gathered enough speed to clear the pool and leap into the opening's mouth. Its
pouring red contents reached up to my knees. Wading around the bend, I saw a rusted iron gate.
The arm of a floating body poked through it. A few more rotting corpses jammed against the
grate's lower teeth, forming a limited dam. Like the remains piled upon the dragongods'
battlefield, none of the bodies gave off the smell of corruption. There was only the warm tang of
I studied the rusting iron grate. The crisscross holes in the
barrier were big enough to let through bones or skulls worked free from the various corpses, yet a
shade too small for me to navigate. No matter; a little Ice would fix that. I curled my hands
around one narrow middle segment that had almost completely rusted, and called to the Power.
Once frozen, the already weakened iron bar became so brittle I destroyed it with a single punch.
Stepping through the opening, I waded upstream.
More corpses blocked my path. One, headless cadaver was
special. It was dressed in a black, full-length bodysuit. The fabric was tough, resisting decay, and
supplanted with long rectangular guards on the hands, shins, and knees.
This unfortunate had been one of the Lin Kuei.
Deep within the Lin Kuei complex, from my throne of Ice,
I examined Ultratech's bill. It listed medical expenses, including reconstructive surgery to the
hands of one guard and therapy for chronic neck pain in the other. Also present were costs
incurred in hiring the sentries' temporary replacements, new "shatterproof" glass doors and
windows, plus water damage to the front office. The total was a number five figures long.
I set the bill aside and, for the thirtieth time, flipped
through a copy of the file Orchid had given us. Ultratech wanted the Lin Kuei to perform an
assassination. They hadn't said why. The target's name was Shang Tsung. Apart from that, very
little was known about him. His home was purported to be an island not on any map. A
black-and-white sketch of a wizened old man with a long mandarin's mustache and beard was the
closest thing they had to a picture. His true physical dimensions were strictly speculative.
Corroborated reports suggested that he could change his shape into the forms of other humans or
beasts at will. Rumor had it he'd lived for over a thousand years. He was reputed to have
supernatural powers; conflicting accounts called him a blood-drinking vampire, a bone-rending
lycanthrope, or a demon nourished by human souls.
Shang Tsung was a recluse, who according to legend
permitted visitors to his isolated domain only once a generation, to hold a blood-sport
Tournament open to warriors all over the world. Losers forfeited their lives and, if the stories
were to be believed, their souls. Shang Tsung was the Tournament's overseer and one-time grand
champion. The next Tournament would take place within two weeks.
Only one thing was known for certain about Shang Tsung.
None of the agents Ultratech sent to eliminate him ever returned. Alive, that is. Charbroiled pieces
of their last crack squadron had been elegantly gift-wrapped and delivered with thank-you notes
to the entire executive staff.
I was intrigued.
Ultratech and the Lin Kuei were rivals at best, mortal
enemies at worst. Ultratech's business empire was vast, and its tendrils extended far beyond their
towering city beacons, reaching into the ugly side of city life. Their specialties were advanced
weaponry and the sale of addictive synthetic drugs. They supported smaller gangs with
arrangements of plausible denial. The Lin Kuei had skirmished with Ultratech's minions in the
past, and unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate the cartel more than once. So why would Ultratech want
to hire the clan, especially for the phenomenal reward of...
"Smoke, I am not entirely familiar with foreign currency.
How much is 10,000,000,000 pounds worth?"
"Taking into account all the Lin Kuei assets I'm aware of,
the clan as a whole is worth approximately one-third of that," the teacher replied, weakly.
"Ultratech must be desperate."
"Perhaps they do not intend to pay. Their offered contract
specifically demands hard proof of Shang Tsung's death. They want his remains, which must be
positively identified as his through DNA testing - they managed to isolate a few skin cells from a
note accompanying one of Shang Tsung's 'gifts,' and they want to run a parity check on the
"So they want his head," I interrupted, cutting short
Smoke's stream of incomprehensible babbling. "Go on."
"Once they've got it, why should they pay the fee? What
could we do to them if they didn't?" The teacher's voice continued its progressive decrescendo,
until he was nearly whispering. "Ultratech is many times wealthier than the clan, and more
established. If it came to a flat-out conflict, the Lin Kuei could hurt them, perhaps badly, but we'd
lose in the end. That's why the clan has done little more than skirmish with their pawns in the
I looked up from the file. If anything, Smoke appeared
worse than he had before our trip. His skin had turned a shade more pale. He leaned unsteadily
against my chamber's Ice-coated wall, arms tightly folded, and his eyes were half-closed.
"Is something causing you discomfort?"
"Well, since you bring it up, this chamber is a bit
In truth, I kept the chamber no colder than a typical winter
night. Smoke used to train students outdoors under similar conditions. It occurred to me that his
ailment, whatever it was, could have weakened his resistance to temperature extremes. I released
the hold my frame of mind had on the surroundings. While I could not warm the chamber, I could
at least cease to chill it.
"Is this acceptable?"
"Very well. There is another matter I need to speak to you
"You're thinking of volunteering to carry out the contract,
aren't you. Even though Shang Tsung has destroyed dozens of would-be assassins, and the gods
only know how many others."
"That is what makes him the ultimate quarry. The ultimate
"I can understand the temptation."
"My question is this: has the Triumvirate already selected
another clan member to carry out this assignment?"
He pondered for several seconds before replying. "I have
not had the privilege of being in their presence for some time, yet I suspect they would grant your
desire. After all, they did send you to Ultratech in the first place."
"And that is something else on my mind. Why was I
selected to be the clan's ambassador to Ultratech?"
"Because of your innate business sense, complete
familiarity with the terrain, and sterling diplomatic skills?" he returned, smiling a little.
"You may dispense with the sarcasm. My point is that
serving as an ambassador entailed risks, which any lesser member could have taken. I am curious
why they considered me suitably expendable, even though I am the clan's only Ice master."
Smoke's eyes flickered, changing to a lighter shade of grey.
One of the plumes wafting from his collar drifted at an oblique angle from the rest. There could be
no mistaking that reaction. I'd seen it all too plainly, two years before. My good hand curled
tightly around the arm of my Ice throne.
"You are concealing something. Tell me." He looked away,
uncomfortably, and was about to speak when he broke into another of his episodic coughing fits.
This one was longer and more severe than usual. At one point, he put his hand around his neck, as
if to protect it from a constricting noose.
"This chamber definitely does not agree with you," I
observed. "We should continue this elsewhere."
Smoke shook his head. "No," he wheezed, clearing his
throat, "this is one of the few places that is safe from prying ears. Pyre saw to that."
"Does it matter whether anyone overhears you?"
"I? It wouldn't matter if I told the Triumvirate to jump in a
bottomless pit. It is your reaction that should not be overheard."
"Yes. You are no longer the clan's only Ice master. An
initiate has recently earned his place as a clan member in full standing. His raw talent for Ice has
the potential to exceed even yours."
"Interesting. I did not know this."
"You've isolated yourself in this freezer for the past two
years. A dragon could devour the sun and you wouldn't know it." For one moment, a hint of the
caustic-tongued mentor I remembered showed through.
"If you expected this information to provoke me, then you
are deluding yourself. I have long since lost the ability to feel envy, or anything else."
"Eh? Do you really believe that?"
"You are not worth lying to."
"Then you're the one with illusions. You might not envy
another's Power, but you're no automaton. If anything, you're ruled by the very emotions whose
existence you deny. You care deeply about your brother; the one and only time you've exercised
your authority as a Hierarchy member was for his sake. You hate modern technology, and become
claustrophobic when surrounded by it; hell, you go into a thinly concealed panic at the thought of
riding in an automobile. And-"
"That will be enough."
"-whenever confronted with an idea that cuts you to the
quick, your immediate reaction is to shut it out, as if ignoring the cause of your worries will make
them go away. Go ahead, order me to be silent all you please; it won't change a thing." I couldn't
tell whether he was deliberately baiting me, or merely caught up in his newfound tendency to
ramble. Either way, I was not going to let his wild theories distract me.
"My only 'worry' is that you are concealing something
important about the clan's new Ice master. Are you?"
He shrugged. "I'm duty bound to answer you
"Who is he, then?"
"He hasn't selected a use-name for himself yet."
"I did not ask for a use-name; I want to know who he
"It isn't my place to keep biographies of all my
"Perhaps not, but I think you know about this one." The
inside of my mouth suddenly felt very dry. I stepped down from my Ice throne. "Who. Is.
"He is your brother."
Smoke winced and rubbed his ears. "He passed the Test;
you know what that means."
"My brother was not supposed to be Tested! The Lin Kuei
does not force the Test upon more than one offspring per family!"
"Usually yes, but-"
"Whoever administered his Test is a dead man," I seethed.
"I am going to kill him."
"Are you. Are you really," chuckled the teacher.
Something fierce kindled inside of me. I seized his collar
with my left hand and yanked him close. My right hand was still maimed from Orchid's gash, but it
functioned well enough to bring forth a concentrated aura of Power. "The man who gave that
Test is dead where he stands. Even if he is one of the Triumvirate. Even if he is you. Now tell me
WHO TESTED MY BROTHER!"
The Power I'd called slipped from between my fingers. My
uninjured hand fell away from the teacher's collar. "What...?"
"Two years ago, you destroyed your brother's laboratory
and all its contents."
"But he wasn't burned..."
"The Test consists of trauma. It does not necessarily have
to be physical trauma, though that is what the Lin Kuei usually inflict. Your brother stumbled
onto his Power that night, after fleeing the burning lab, when his own tears changed to Ice. Two
days later, he came to us. To me, in fact. I tried to talk him out of joining the clan, but he's as
stubborn as you are, and had nowhere else to go. You'd forbidden him to leave the village. The
only way he could study the science he loved was to get around your ban. He thought that being a
clan member might give him some leverage to use against you. He requested that I not inform you
of his new affiliation. I promised him the next best thing, that I would tell you only if asked."
I have been scorched with flame. I have been stabbed with
steel blades. No physical injury could compare to the bitter shock of knowing what I'd done, and
to whom I'd done it.
"Leave me," I commanded, wearily. The teacher raised an
eyebrow. "I said begone!" He bowed and departed without further protest.
Alone in my chamber of Ice, I clawed at my mask and
hood, awkwardly tugging them off. With a lagging, unsteady gait, I approached one of the
chamber's walls. Its swirling curlicues of frost encircled an inset, silver-backed mirror. The
mirror's shiny surface reflected the image of a stranger, clad in ceremonial blue and sable. He was
taller than average, with short black hair and narrow, sienna eyes. His complexion was atypically
pale, for a native Chinese. The left half of his face was a mass of blistered fire-scars from the
I used to have a certain tolerance for the stranger in the
mirror. When the fisherman was murdered, I disliked him. Now that I knew he'd damned my
brother to serve the Lin Kuei for life, I was filled with contempt for him. My left hand instantly
closed in a fist, chambered, and snapped out at the image. The mirror cracked in a spiderweb
pattern, dividing the stranger's effigy into discrete, triangle-shaped pieces. One of the shards cut
into my extended knuckle. A thin trickle of blood slid down from where I'd hit the mirror. It
crawled a few centimeters before it froze, a gossamer fragment of red against a background of
blue and white.
The decapitated Lin Kuei was merely an ordinary clan
member; had he possessed the Power, it would have consumed his remains over the course of
time, gradually transmuting them into the appropriate element. Examining the body, I found a
small notebook wrapped in rose petals and a gossamer handkerchief, stowed directly over his
heart. Half the volume's pages were crammed with haphazard brush strokes; the second half was
blank. Blood from the sewer pipe had seeped through the binding, smearing over most of the
journal's contents. Only bits and pieces remained legible. They were... poetry? I peered
Milady, you are beauty given flesh
Apparently, he had.
Your laugh is the peal of songbirds
Your face is a vision of wonder
Your every motion is elegance
It is an honor to bask in your presence
My heart and soul are yours eternal
I will be your protector
I will defend you to my last breath
Something was wrong. Lin Kuei do not court wives; they
annex them. Nothing short of self-destructive madness could lead a Lin Kuei to turn his back on
the clan, instead devoting himself as a bodyguard to one person. I sincerely doubted this wretch
had been of sound mind when he perished. Scanning the other bodies, I noted that they were all
male. Many were clothed in some type of warrior's uniform, from samurai armor to camouflage
fatigues. A suspicion crept in the back of my mind.
I tossed the verses over my shoulder and continued deeper
into the sewer, pushing aside or climbing over various remains. The mess I sloshed through ran
parallel to the abyss' edge, until I reached a walled-up dead end with a wide drain hole in the
ceiling. Fresh blood poured down from it; the continual flow hid whatever lay beyond. While I
could have sworn I'd seen nothing above this level from the outside, the hole had to lead
somewhere. The drain tingled with a light, breezy sort of Power. It didn't feel like a ward, or
anything harmful. When I hurled a pebble up through the flow of blood, nothing happened.
Taking a deep breath, I jumped and seized hold of the
hole's edge. I pulled against the downward suction of the falling blood and swung my legs over
the drain's lip, crawling into whatever lay beyond.
I examined my latest Ice sculpture, a book the size of an
atlas. It had taken me ten hours to forge its leaf-thin pages and graft them to the binding. The
finished product was worth the effort. I flipped the blank pages back and forth, basking in their
faint emanations of applied Power. An ordinary person's hands would have melted them or broken
them apart, but not mine. As a test, I closed my eyes and thought of a single sentence. When next
I looked down upon the Ice tome, the words had etched themselves onto its title page.
A clogged cough sounded behind me.
"I hear you've released your brother from your edict,"
Smoke rasped, once he could speak. The fact that I hadn't noticed his arrival indicated how deeply
involved I'd been in my work. I closed the book and started to trace a handful of stylized lines
around the border of its cover.
"You are not supposed to approach me unless
"No, I'm not. What are you going to do about it?"
"Nothing. It is nearly time for me to leave. There is a boat I
I handed him an envelope from within my tunic. His brows
lifted slightly when he took it; most likely, he could feel its faint wisps of necromantic Power.
Someone singularly lethal had impressed its dragon-shaped wax seal. Smoke opened the envelope
and scanned the card inside. Penned with sparkling gold ink, the invitation told of a freestyle
martial arts Tournament and personally solicited my participation. Shang Tsung, the Tournament's
host, had signed it with sweeping brush strokes.
"Where did you get this?" Smoke asked, putting the
invitation away and giving the envelope back.
"It was resting on my sleeping mat last evening."
"Have you decided to enter this Tournament?"
"If Shang Tsung knows enough to send this to you, then he
is undoubtedly aware of your true intent."
"I must find Shang Tsung before I can slay him. I am
gambling that if I accept his invitation, I will be brought directly to his doorstep."
"The whole thing sounds like a trap."
"It is a trap. Of that much I am certain."
"Then take this with you." I glanced over my shoulder at
him. He held out a stoppered vial. A thick mass of cloudy grey sloshed and swirled against its
clear glass walls. "It's-"
"I know what it is," I interrupted, accepting the object and
stowing it away.
"Be careful. It can incapacitate one for hours. Your brother
created the formula, with a little help from me. I've been participating in quite a few of his
experiments, lately." He shrugged, coughing a few more times. "It isn't as if I have anything to
"Did you come simply to give me the vial?"
"No. I came because I have regrets."
I took a closer look at him. It was hard to discern whether
he was in worse condition than yesterday, but he definitely did not appear any better. "That is
your sickness talking. Lin Kuei do not have regrets."
"This one does."
I returned to tracing an abstract design into the Ice
"Have you ever wondered why you were Tested?" Smoke
"Because I was the eldest son."
"If the Lin Kuei Tested every family's firstborn son, they
wouldn't have time to do anything else."
"I was known to have an affinity for winter."
"So? Many people like winter."
"My grandfather was a clan member gifted with the
Power," I growled, tiring of this guessing game.
"True, but only one surviving Lin Kuei knew who he was -
who his family was."
"Get to the point."
The teacher did not say anything at first. When he did
speak, his voice was a croaking whisper. "Your grandfather was a cruel person. I hated him. I
hated him so much I thought I'd die. Did I ever mention that?"
"He and his underlings murdered my family, as an example
of what would happen to anyone else who purchased 'protection' from the Black Dragons. I'll
never forget watching him stiffen my sister into a brittle statue of Ice, and casually dismember her
into pieces of thawing blood and meat.
"I tried to kill him once, and failed. In retaliation, he had
me tortured. After holding out for thirty days, I swore an oath of fealty to him. Anything to stop
the pain. He treated me like refuse. I never had the courage to challenge him before he died.
"He left behind a grandson whose pale countenance
resembled his, and who shared his relish for the cold months - you. When you were old enough, I
took a lifetime's worth of revenge on you. I had you Tested."
"Is that all? I thought it might be something
"There is one more matter. You asked why I'd come. I am
here to apologize."
"What is wrong with you?" I demanded, whirling
"I beg your forgiveness." And he really did seem to be
begging, if I gauged that tone of his voice correctly. I'd never heard him use it before.
"WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU!?" I
shouted, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him in a frenzy. "Lin Kuei do not apologize!
Your behavior has become thoroughly bizarre of late! What is this disease that is driving you
"Eh? Oh, that. It has to do with my Power."
"Is your Talent so weak that you can no longer call upon
it?" I probed, letting him go.
"Quite the opposite. I have too much Talent. It's all I can
do every waking moment to keep my element in check, and even then..." he gestured loosely to
the ashen plumes drifting from his collar. "The problem is, my respiratory system is quite
"Doesn't your Power shield you?"
"My Power is killing me. When I call upon it, yes, it will
protect me in the short term; however, the detrimental side effects worsen as soon as I let it go.
The masks I once wore had specially designed filters, to make breathing easier. I used to think
that would be enough, but the masks don't make a difference anymore. I've a few months left.
"No, I don't think you do. You have a maximum of nine
years left before your entrails start to Ice over. Your grandfather died at age fifty, but you use the
Power much more frequently than he did. Every time you summon your element, you accelerate
the rate at which it wears upon you. Keep it up, and you won't see your fourth decade."
Gently, I whisked away the last Ice shavings from the
book's cover. "I've long suspected that the Power had a price. Power always does."
"Be careful to whom you repeat that. It is one of the clan's
most closely guarded secrets. The Triumvirate worries that if clan members were to learn the
consequences of their Power, they might become inhibited. You know that few Lin Kuei perish of
old age. Those who do survive long enough to fall ill are quickly disposed of. There was an attempt
on my life yesterday evening." He closed his eyes for a moment. "I trained that kid for five years.
Tried to teach him everything I knew, yet even in this weakened state I killed him without taking a
single wound. I'm not as good a teacher as I thought."
"You were good enough." I placed the volume inside an
insulated compartment within my throne and headed for the chamber's double doors.
"Are you going to see your brother before you leave?"
"There will be time enough for that when I return."
"And if you don't return?"
"Then he will inherit this room and all its contents,
Smoke muttered, "I'll see you in Hell too," as I left the
cavern that had been my home for two years. I did not look back.
The hole led into a dungeon cell. Grey-bricked walls
surrounded a cement floor in the shape of a shallow funnel. Many smaller pipes, some no wider
than my arm, stuck out of the walls near the level of the sloping floor. Fresh blood streamed
through them and poured down the central drain. There were no living prisoners in the cell,
though a few bodies with cut throats rested along the edges, their inertia too great for the red
liquid's flow to push them down the drain. A pair of tattered skeletons hung in iron chains affixed
to the cells' walls. One was shackled by its wrists; the other was held upside down, by its ankles.
Both were suspended above the floor.
This was either Leucrotta Castle, or an invisible dungeon
sitting on top of the ravine's edge. I suspected the former. The Power I'd sensed coming from the
drain felt akin to teleportation magic. It must be very convenient to instantly transport one's
garbage to a dumping site far away.
At the far lip of the floor-funnel, above blood level's
highest mark, was the cell's sole door. It was made of solid iron except for a small, rectangular
opening near eye level. Peering through the opening, I saw an empty hallway with similar doors
dispersed along it. This particular door was locked, and when I tapped on it, the deep echo told
me that it was much thicker than the grate I'd broken through. Hardly any rust marred the door's
hinges. Attempting to freeze and force my way through it would have taken at least an hour. This
called for a little finesse.
I poked my fingers through the vent and summoned the
Power. Sending the mystic energy along the door's far surface, into its keyhole, I strained to
vicariously feel the locking mechanism inside. Because of my training, I was quite familiar with
commonplace tumbler latches such as this one. I'd used this skill to noiselessly break into a
target's home more than once. Working from touch, or rather, what the Power told me it touched,
I shaped a key of ice inside the lock and willed it to turn. The lock resisted at first, then gave way
with a crink sound. Before opening the door, I covered its hinges with blood scooped
from the ground, in order to keep them from squeaking.
The adjoining cells held nothing but more corpses and
funnel-shaped blood pools. No one patrolled the dungeon, perhaps because there were no living
prisoners inside it. I found the stairs up with little trouble. They led to a carpeted expanse, dimly
lit with glittering chandeliers hung from the spacious ceiling at far intervals. Huge paintings
adorned the walls, depicting grim specters, demons, and monsters. One had a savage cross
between a horse and a hellhound mauling a human infant. Another showed a fiery being
incinerating an entire village. The third depicted a tribe of ghouls feasting on what they'd snatched
from an open grave. Whoever ornamented these walls had an artistic taste that could at best be
A servant advanced from further down the hallway. He
wore the formal livery of a butler, yet there were rips and stained patches where the fabric
covered his elbows and knees. His gait was jerky, unnatural. I hid in the shadow of the dungeon
entrance's door jamb and observed him. When he came closer, I caught the smell of pus festering
in an open wound. The skin of his hands and gaunt face was dull gray, stiff, and peeling. Chunks
of his lower lip were missing, baring tarnished teeth and blackened gums. He stared ahead
vacantly. Tiny insects crawled in his oily, disheveled hair. An incision cut underneath his chin,
across the jugular; stains of blood long since bled discolored his neck. The air tingled with
necromantic Power in his wake.
He was no more alive than any of the prisoners I'd left
Once the zombie was gone, I slipped into the hallway.
Compared to blindly feeling my way through the Maze, navigating Leucrotta Castle was relatively
simple. Some type of Power permeated the castle's center, where I'd glimpsed the golden
staircase, and I let my sensitivity to it be my guide. Occasionally, I ran into more zombie
attendants, but none of them noticed me. Their empty eyes were always fixed straight ahead,
never wandering, and their other senses were long since decayed. I worked my way past marble
balconies, through arches ornamented with precious jewels, along more halls decorated with
horrid paintings, and up a great many staircases.
Constantly on edge, I anticipated running into the castle's
guards or residents, yet none appeared. Where were they? If Leucrotta Castle was "heavily
guarded" then I was a pyromaniac. My unease only increased when I reached the wooden double
doors leading into the topmost crown of the castle's tallest tower. Etched into the doors were
countless, intricate carvings of death and suffering, forming a tortured mosaic. No sounds came
through the gateway.
Pushing the doors open, I beheld a deserted room. Plush,
royal purple carpeting covered the floor; ruby-studded tapestries draped upon the smooth stone
walls. There was little furnishing, except for the object of my search: a winding stairway that
gleamed as though it were coated with purest gold. Its steps were paper-thin metal sheets, and its
banister was a strip of curling wire more narrow than my finger, ornamented with inset pearls.
The stairs appeared too fragile to bear the weight of a mouse, let alone a man, yet judging from
their aura of Power I suspected their strength had been enhanced by mystical means. The stairs
curled in a spiral, stretching up through a hole in the raised ceiling. A pinprick crevice of sunlight
glinted far above.
Separating me from the escape route was a fully visible,
sea-green ward, wrapped in a cylinder around the staircase. It stretched about thirty meters up
from the floor, until it met the domed ceiling. This barrier had a less destructive feel than the red
one I'd seen earlier. Perhaps my Power could counteract its effects long enough for me to pass
through. I called a nimbus of blue-white haze to my hand and delicately probed the shimmering
ward, brushing against it with the furthest trace of vorpal radiance coating my extended
A violent electrical jolt ran through me. I felt myself falling
backward; my skull hit the floor with a dull thud. My limbs wouldn't respond to my
commands. Forcing my way through the ward was definitely not an option.
Rippling peals of feminine laughter came from the side.
"What do we have here, Balthazaar? Someone trying to break through the blockade?" I'd
recovered enough self-control to recall the Power, yet when I tried to move it was all I could
manage to turn my head and watch the speaker materialize. First there came a deep yellow glow
of pulsing energy, with prominent curves near the hips and chest. The curves filled out with
unblemished alabaster skin, clothed in scant ribbons of jet. A face emerged, with alluring eyes and
green hair shining like sunlight scattered on ocean waves. She could have passed for human if not
for the long, black bat-wings sprouting from her shoulders. Another, smaller pair of wings formed
elaborate barrettes resting on her head. Her skin-tight leotard split into a pair of tapering strips as
it ran over her bosom and shoulders, revealing more of her figure than it hid. Netted stocking with
bat-like shadows clung tightly to her supple legs and dainty feet. Her spike-heeled shoes rested
just a trace above the ground.
She was a little too perfect. It wasn't just her unearthly
beauty, sterling and immaculate beyond description. A real woman's tresses do not fan and sway
in still air. A real woman's breasts sag from gravity, unless supported by something stronger than
a string of silk. Magnifying the seductive influence were the subtle ripples of Power streaming
from her exquisite figure. Her aura was like and yet unlike the sphinx's mesmerizing gaze. Where
the sphinx's Power controlled the body, hers ensorcelled the mind. There could be no doubt who
the lovesick Lin Kuei had been writing about, in his last poem.
A dusky grey creature took form by her side. It was an
exotic hybrid between lupine and reptile; the light fur coat on its lithe wolf body gave way to
patches of inky scales on its tail, underbelly, and feet. Its eyes were deep red, the color of setting
sun, and burned almost as fiercely. Ribbed wings longer than its body folded against its shoulders;
the hairless skin between each wingbone rippled as it flexed the appendages. A pair of small claws
projected from the wings' mid-joints. The wolf-drake was easily four times as large as a true
"You look strong. I like that," purred the demoness,
flashing a dazzling smile. Her teeth were sea-foam white, every bit as flawless as the rest of her,
though her canines had unusually prominent points.
Shang Tsung's lackeys concealed their faces underneath
hood-masks in the vague shape of a wolf's head. The masks were colored black on one half, white
on the other, with eye slits were tinted deep red. When I showed the hooded drones my invitation,
they allowed me to board Shang Tsung's vessel "Dragon Wing." "Dragon Toothpick" would have
been a more accurate designation. Its planks creaked raucously. The mast leaned so far to the
right it threatened to break off, and the sails were covered with holes and threadbare patches.
Water seeped into the below decks, which the crew had to bail out twice a day. The wood was
decaying, the rivets were loose, and the ropes were badly frayed. If Shang Tsung truly was a
thousand years old, he must have acquired this boat when he was eighteen.
Dragon Wing would have been rotting at the bottom of the
sea if not for the web of necromantic Power that kept it bound together. Afterimages of spent life
force pulsed beneath the surface of every splinter. Shang Tsung had invested a great deal of
mystic energy in this boat, much more than what any mortal could expend from his own psyche.
There was only one way the sorcerer could have gotten it - large scale human sacrifice. Perhaps
animal sacrifice as well, but the life force of animals is not as adaptable to sorcerous manipulation.
Dragon Wing was an artifact of pure evil, christened in slaughter and mortared with
One of the Lin Kuei's few redeeming points is that they no
longer engage in necromancy. Once, clan members with the Power hunted whole villages of
victims to fuel their supernatural might. Other gangs and warlords soon recognized the threat, and
united against it. The resulting catastrophe was nearly the Lin Kuei's end. Only a fifth of the clan
survived. The bloodlines with Power over Stone and Light were completely wiped out, and for a
time it seemed the Ice bloodlines had been. Clan law handed down since that time forbids using
necromancy to augment one's Power, on pain of immediate death. The queasy feel of
blood-sacrifice Power is so strong, so unique that one cannot hide it from a Lin Kuei. No clan
member has broken the law in centuries and lived to tell of it.
The sun was sinking below the horizon when Dragon Wing
reached Hong Kong, its final port before the trip to Shang Tsung's island home. A crowd of
warriors boarded, bringing the total number of passengers to approximately fifty. I might have to
duel with any of them in the upcoming Tournament, so I carefully watched them from atop the
upper decks, unnoticed.
Two of the new entrants stood out from all the rest. One
was a Chinese man, relatively nondescript except for his age. He could not have been over
twenty-five, possibly making him the youngest person on the boat. Most of the warriors on
Dragon Wing were in their thirties or close to it. The young fighter carried himself with the
relaxed grace of a professional. His clear brown eyes were instantly perceptive. When his gaze
swept past where I crouched, he gave no sign of seeing me, but I think he did. What surprised me
the most was his Power. The essence of Fire existed within him, yet it had a different texture than
Ember's rapacious burning, or Sektor's angry sputtering. His Fire was cleaner somehow, and
brighter, even though its raw magnitude would have been dwarfed by Pyre's sheer might.
The other passenger of note was Caucasian. Every once in
a while, he'd take a hand-held comb and run it through his brown hair. His light blue suit with
matching tie and pink shirt seemed outlandish compared to the loose clothing all the other fighters
wore. He kept his mirror-like dark glasses on well past sunset. Though not out of shape, he
appeared scrawny compared to some. I knew better than to trust appearances. Traces of
unfamiliar Power clung to him, leaving faint echoes in his wake.
Commotion occurred as Dragon Wing launched that
evening. A white-dressed man carrying a two-handed firearm sprinted down the dock, pursued by
two others in dull green. He fired his weapon into a pair of barrels, igniting their contents. They
exploded in a burst of violence, distracting his pursuers and buying him time. Dropping his
weapon, he hurled himself off the end of the dock. Dragon Wing was over ten meters away, and
its crew seemed disinclined to turn back. Judging by the arc of his leap, he was going to fall short;
until, with a minor burst of Power, he tucked himself into a ball and somersaulted end over end.
Whatever Talent he'd unlocked supported him well past when he should have plunged into the
water. It gave out quickly, leaving him less than a quarter second to unroll and seize Dragon
Wing's rim. He winced as his body slammed into the boat's side, and pulled himself aboard.
"Dude, was that real?" asked the man in sunglasses,
astonished. He spoke in English, with a strong American accent.
"No, it's an illusion..." sneered the new arrival. Then he did
a double take. "Hey, you're Johnny Cage! Can I have your autograph?"
Now the newcomer was close enough for me to get a good
look at him. His short, scruffy black hair was thinning at the edges, and swept into a prominent
widow's peak on his forehead. Several days' worth of unshaved stubble covered his face. Layers
of unwashed grime darkened his skin. The breeze that ruffled Dragon Wing's sails also carried
evidence of his poor hygiene. His left eye was brown. His right was a glowing red lens, set into a
metal implant covering a quarter of his face. There could be no mistake. This was Kano, current
overlord of the Black Dragons. He was widely credited with turning what was once a fading,
broken-down set of loosely affiliated gangs into an international organized crime cartel, and one
of the Lin Kuei's stiffest competitors.
Perhaps I'd have the chance to kill him, once Shang Tsung
was disposed of.
"C'mon, Cage, say it! 'I'll be back!'" The crack of
Kano's fist hitting Cage's jaw brought me out of my musings. Cage's sunglasses fell to the ground,
uncovering his sky-blue eyes.
"That wasn't my movie!" the actor retorted, shading his
eyes with one hand.
"Get up Cage! You got no stunt men to take hits for ya
"I do my own stunts!"
A pair of gangsters accompanied Kano. With vicious leers
on their faces, all three hoods advanced upon the fallen actor. The one on the right smacked his
fist into his hand, sniggering.
"I'd say the movie star is unfairly outnumbered," came a
new voice. It was the Fire-tinged young man I'd noted earlier.
"Who the fuck are you?" Kano snapped.
"My friends call me Liu Kang. You are not a friend."
By then, Cage's vision had adjusted to the loss of his
sunglasses. He took advantage of the distraction to recover his footing. His Power flared,
propelling him forward with a lunging kick to Kano's head. Caught by surprise, the outlaw had no
time to defend himself. Before Kano's two friends could step forward to help him, Liu Kang
soared into them with a swiftness surpassing anything I'd ever seen. He flew through the air,
driving his extended heel into the chest of one gangster. When the second gangster made a grab
for Liu Kang's neck, he ducked and snapped a kick at the man's ankles. As the gangster toppled
over, Liu Kang accelerated his attack into a spin, whipping fully around and hooking his extended
leg so that it dug into the falling man's side.
Kano and his friends were all stretched upon the ground, in
varying degrees of consciousness. The altercation was over as quickly as it had begun. I made a
note to be wary of Liu Kang's speed and Cage's timing.
I'd been so engrossed in the struggle below that I wasn't
aware of what crept upon me until too late. A hard, bony hand grasped my throat. My assailant
was - another Lin Kuei? No. While his outfit and mask exactly matched the cut of the clan's
ceremonial uniform, it was ochre-yellow and black. No Lin Kuei wears those colors. His garb was
a mockery of mine.
*Look into my
eyes!* The voice was hollow, yet compelling. I had no choice save to obey. At
first his eyes were featureless expanses of white; then they came to life with a rupture of blinding
A puppy was barking. I saw my own silhouette through the
eyes of stranger, and felt a black dagger slice into my throat. My mouth worked of its own
accord, saying "What do you want? I have little, but if you want to steal something take it! Just
don't hurt my wife and child!" The silhouette silently thrust his weapon between my ribs, into my
heart. "Why...?" Sinking back and down, I heard a woman's screams, a child's wailing, and the
yipe of a dog being kicked.
The scene slipped away. Once again, I was staring into the
eyes of a man who held me by the neck - no, not a man. Not anymore. He had no breath and no
pulse. His Power was fueled with pure rage. Hatred burned inside him, so fiercely that its heat
made me flinch.
"No!" I gasped. "It can't be... I... I..."
*Yesss... you murdered
me exactly two years ago this day. But my demons have allowed me to return and avenge my
death! You have already cheated me of vengeance on Pyre. Your demise will be all the more
agonizing for it!* He raised me off the ship's
floor. Dangling in his steel grip, I was too shocked to fight back as his hand tightened upon my
throat. *I could kill you at this moment, but I am not a
murderer. We will meet at the tournament, and then, Lin Kuei, you will pay for your
He let go of my neck. I collapsed, clutching my throat with
my uninjured hand. The specter remained in front of me, a blazing pillar of malice.
"You are - choke - a fool for sparing my life."
*That has yet to be
"I see you had to come through our sewers. Messy, aren't
they?" laughed the demoness, eyeing the stains of gore covering my tattered uniform. "Things
have been a teeny bit rough around here, lately. Lots of folks just disappeared. You're trying to
make your way out, aren't you? Well, I wish I could help you, but I won't."
I concentrated on keeping the Power close at hand and
tried to get up. My legs were weak, and not solely because of the electrical shock I'd just
experienced. Dizziness briefly forced me to take my eyes off the vision of loveliness, and stare at
the floor instead.
"Don't turn away like that," she pouted. "I've other matters
to attend to. It isn't as if I owe you anything... or do I?" She leaned back. Her wings dissolved into
a cloud of bats, which darted underneath her. Their silent fluttering suspended her as if she were
seated in an invisible throne. She crossed her legs and held out one hand. A shimmer of light
appeared upon her palm; it quickly resolved itself into an elegant booklet. Her slender fingers
flipped through its pages for an instant; then she closed the booklet, and it promptly vanished in a
tiny shower of sparks.
"Of course, you don't have to try to go back." The
demoness slipped off her chair of hovering bats and advanced toward me, with a fervid look in her
sea-green eyes. "You could always stay down here, with me." She tossed her vivid tresses, the
color of which blended with the radiant ward nearby. "Who knows? You might even come to like
"I cannot stay. There is a contract I must carry out," I told
her, quietly, keeping the Power ready. It was draining, to summon and merely hold the Power, but
I needed to stall for more time before I could take action. I took a half-dragging step to the side,
not yet able to walk normally. The ward was directly behind me now, and the demoness in
"Forget about that. Forget about everything." She'd come
so close I could feel the soft whisper of her breath on my face. She smelled of jasmine and long
summer nights. "Come. You can be my Champion. I crave a new protector. Someone to keep me
safe from all harm. You'll be excellent."
"You already have a wolf-drake bodyguard."
"Balthazaar? Oh, he's a dear, but he's one of the Overlord's
minions. The Overlord and his entourage are due back from their latest battle any moment now.
He's so cranky whenever he comes back from his silly war. Sometimes he takes it out on me. You
wouldn't want that to happen, would you?" Her lower lip trembled. She reached for my shoulder;
before she could touch it, I took her finely manicured hands in my own. If she felt the chill coating
my palms, she gave no sign. "You're not worried about falling asleep in Limbo, are you? Don't be.
I have ways of keeping men awake for a very long time." Her comeliness was matched only by her
"There is something I must ask of you, huntress," I
whispered, clasping her hands a shade more securely.
I pushed on her shoulder, spinning her around until her
limbs were forced behind her back and holding her in a stiff armlock. At the same time, I wrapped
my free right arm around her neck. "Deactivate the ward or I will kill you!"
Balthazaar sprang toward us with a howl, even though I
was using his demon mistress as a living shield. Without letting go of her neck, I twisted my right
wrist so that the fingers were pointing at him, and sent forth some of the Power I'd been storing.
The Ice immobilized him in mid-leap, his slavering jaws fixed hardly a decimeter away from my
"Let me go! You're under my spell! I COMMAND
TO-" screamed the demoness, as I dragged her to the side. The Ice's effect on Balthazaar wore
off, but by then we were no longer in his path. He hurtled into the ward that had been behind me.
It erupted in a furious discharge of lightning, which drowned out the demoness' piercing shrieks.
When it subsided, Balthazaar lay on the ground. His jaws were slack and his fur was singed. A
whimper escaped his lips. His paws twitched, jerkily.
"Your enchantments don't work on me," I warned. "With
my Power in effect, I can be as cold as necessary in more ways than one." She uttered a wordless
cry of wrath and dug the spike of her high heel into my foot. Her bats dived at my eyes and
attempted to claw or bite through the fabric of my uniform. I didn't flinch. Though the attacks
hurt, I've withstood worse before. Much worse.
"Cease that or you die this instant!" I commanded. To let
her know I was serious, I constricted the hold on her throat and wrenched her head back,
stopping short of breaking her neck. "I repeat, deactivate the ward or I shall kill you."
"You'll never get away with this! The Overlord will destroy
"Perhaps, but you will still be dead."
Her bats stopped their attempts to tear out my eyes. Trails
of familiar wetness crisscross-crossed my forehead and eyelids. The demoness was quaking, not
from fear, but with rage. "I'm going to have you flayed alive-"
"This is the last time I shall say it: deactivate the ward
around the golden stairs or die."
"No! You plan to kill me as soon as I'm no longer of use to
How perceptive of her. "Do as I say, and I shall show you
"Not good enough. I can imagine what your idea of 'mercy'
"I will release you unharmed. You have my word."
"How do I know I can trust you?"
She vacillated. Her chiropteran companions fluttered every
which way in confusion, making faint squeaks. Balthazaar whined and flopped onto his belly.
"Kaa naama kaa lajeraama," the demoness seethed, through
gritted teeth. The ward blinked off. "I've kept my half of the bargain. Now keep yours!"
"In a moment." I pushed her ahead of me, through where
the ward had been; when no jolt of electricity resulted, I stepped onto the staircase. Despite its
frail appearance, it held my weight as sturdily as cast iron. "Kaa naama kaa lajeraama!" I intoned,
matching the vocal pitch she had used a moment earlier. The ward instantly reappeared.
She convulsed frantically, perhaps guessing my intentions.
One of her arms worked free and she was about to elbow me in the stomach when I shoved her
away, unharmed. She crashed into the ward and screeched when its electricity streamed through
her body. I hadn't made any promises about what she might run into after I released her.
The demoness collapsed on the ward's far side. Her bats
hovered over their prone mistress, almost appearing anxious for her well being. Balthazaar
growled. He'd managed to push himself up on his front legs, though his hind legs were still limp
and unresponsive. I could have deactivated the ward again and killed the succubus while she lay
helpless, but I doubted Balthazaar would stand idly by while I did so. Though weakened, he posed
enough of a threat that I'd have to destroy him before I could kill her, and I had no desire to hurt
In any case, my purpose was to slay Shang Tsung, not
waste time on other stray demons. The decision made, I turned around and raced up the stairs two
at time, following their spiral toward the exit overhead and all it represented: escape, freedom,
and most importantly, another chance to kill Shang Tsung.
I continued at a steady sprint through and beyond
Leucrotta Castle's topmost tower, unmindful of the fatigue accruing in my legs as the minutes
ticked by. There could be no stopping to rest until I was free of this realm. I fixed my eyes on the
crevice of light at the stairs' distant summit. The closer it came, the harder it was for me to see;
soon I was navigating the stairs by feel, blinded by the intense sunlight. When oppressive warmth
streamed on my skin, I knew I'd reached the surface of Limbo. Shading my eyes with one hand, I
tried to distinguish the shapes in front of them.
One of the shapes hissed.
A creaking raawk and an unnatural, high-pitched
whistle joined this hiss. All three sounds were familiar. They came from three darkened shadows
ahead, silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight. A fourth shadow stepped in front of them, putting
himself between my eyes and the orange orb in the sky. The first three shadows resolved
themselves into a gold-furred rakshasa, a reptilian horror, and a metal devil. The fourth shadow
remained a featureless mass of inky blackness.
"Hello, Subby," sneered
the rouge Lin Kuei known as Saibot. "Did you miss us?"
At sunrise, another dozen ships joined Dragon Wing
outside the docks of Shang Tsung's island fortress. Something had changed during the night.
Though the weather was mild, the air tingled with static charge. The sea breeze carried a putrid
odor that contaminated its usual salty tang.
Shang Tsung's fortress reeked of necromantic
blood-sacrifice. When most of the warriors on Dragon Wing gazed on it, they saw an ancient
temple, decked gaily in anticipation of the coming Tournament. I saw a pit pulsing with corrupted
life-force and thousands of enslaved souls. Liu Kang may have also felt it, judging from his stern
frown and sudden tension.
There was a day of practice and training. We were watched
the entire time, and not just by the rows of hooded guards. I felt the presence of astral eyes
observing, analyzing, comparing from deep within the fortress. Whoever scried us carried so
much necromantic Power that traces of it leaked from him, like plumes of smoke from my former
The next morning, Shang Tsung made a personal
appearance. All the Tournament's entrants gathered in his spacious courtyard to hear him. He
addressed us from an elevated platform, with a ribbed green roof to keep out the sun's rays. Rows
of hooded guards flanked him, but his most impressive defender was a massive beast-man by his
left hand. The beast-man stood over two and a half meters tall. Four massive arms studded his
torso. Each of his hands had two fingers and one thumb. His skin was the color of dulled bronze,
with misshapen greenish splotches on the arms. His eyes were solid red, without pupils, and his
long black hair was swept up in a plume. He wore little save a loincloth and a red cape with a
golden clasp. Ultratech's file had referred to him as "Goro," the two-thousand year old alien
prince and reigning champion of Shang Tsung's Tournament. According to legend, no one had
beaten him in five hundred years. I believed the legend.
Compared to the mammoth Goro, Shang Tsung was a
feeble old wretch. Long, finely tailed robes with gold trim hung loosely on his willowy frame. His
features were gaunt, wrinkled and hollowed by the toll of advancing years. It would be difficult to
believe he was the Tournament's grand champion, if not for his Power.
I'd felt the death magic in his ship. I'd felt the necromancy
permeating his dwelling. Shang Tsung was the arcane web's nexus, a living lynchpin for the
thousands of slayings that had taken place here, on unholy ground. He did not command the vast
resources of Power as much as support and guide them. The sorcerer had direct access to only a
trickle of the flood of desecrated life essence, though even that trickle was still a formidable
amount. I wondered what he was hoarding all the necromantic energy for.
"Welcome, warriors, to the greatest of all martial arts
Tournaments." Shang Tsung's sibilant voice projected with unnatural fervor, resonating across the
fighters' gathered ranks. "You have all traveled great distances to be here. I hope it proves well
worth it. Now, let me introduce the newest entry into our contest: Lieutenant Sonya Blade." He
stretched out one hand, palm up, to a pair of hooded guards. They held a female prisoner, dressed
in a form-fitting olive uniform. Despite her raven's color headband, her brown hair fell in front of
her face, partially hiding it. "We found her following one of my ships to this sacred island. Like all
of you, her life depends on her performance in the Tournament. But so do the lives of her
With an unnaturally wide grin, Shang Tsung beckoned
toward another set of guards. They restrained two more olive-clad men. Sonya lifted her head.
Her mouth was set in a stern expression, contrasting the concern in her eyes as she gazed upon
her subordinates. Something about her captured my attention - not sorcery, but an internal
strength of will and determination. She was more than just a fighter. She was a leader, bound by
duty and honor to protect her followers.
There had to be some way I could turn this to my
BEGIN!" Goro roared, thrusting a clenched fist the size of a human head in the
I sprang away from the golden staircase, turning in an
aerial somersault and landing on dry earth. My surroundings were undeniably Limbo, composed
of rocks, dirt, and bones baking underneath a merciless sun. Ahead, the ground sloped gently
upward several hundred meters until its incline suddenly became steep. Behind, the slope rolled
gradually downward. The golden staircase's summit poked out of a rent in the stone
"You look like you've been
through Hell," Saibot commented. "I'm shocked you made it
this far. How many obstacles have you blundered your way past? Five? Six?"
"It depends upon whether I count you and your creatures
as an obstacle. I don't."
"Oh? When we parted
company, you were running away from us at full tilt. Right, kitty?" he asked of Shandra,
affectionately rubbing her neck. The fiery cat grimaced and made a low, angry sound.
"That was before." I began to gather the Power, preparing
for the likely possibility of conflict. "Before I crossed the battlefield of dragongods, killed
Ultratech's ogre, and looked Death itself in the eye. Compared to everything this fey land has
thrown at me, your mangy pack of killers is nothing."
Shandra uttered a shrill cry. "Easy, kitty," Saibot soothed. "Good
kitty. Nice kitty." She only became angrier. Her ears swiveled back and pressed flat
against her head; her tail whipped about furiously. The snake demon also made an agitated noise.
It restlessly dragged its claws along the ground. The metal devil's eyes flashed a touch more
crimson than usual.
"You may think you've made it,
but you haven't," the living shadow warned. "You need us to
get you out of here alive. The trap where only that which you have loved can save you lies ahead.
You can't survive it, because Lin Kuei do not love. They hate. I should know. They taught me
how to hate. I hate all of them. I hate you, you obdurate jackass; I hate everything you stand for, I
hate your precious Power, and I hate those freakish clan rags you're wearing!"
"Then why try to 'help' me?"
"It's what Ultratech
"Why should you care what Ultratech wants?" He did not
answer. His featureless black outline quivered for an instant, then held itself very still, like a fox
about to pounce. "I have no quarrel with you, Saibot, but I must honor the contract on Shang
Tsung and I won't let you get in my way."
"Shang Tsung is
"Then consider the contract on
him terminated," he hissed, tensely. "Ultratech wants to put
you to better use. As much as I'd like to let Limbo devour your soul, it's my job to take you home
with us safe and sound - or failing that, alive and not too badly mangled. You can come quietly, or
you can be bludgeoned unconscious. Well?"
He snapped his jet black fingers. His three creatures
charged me as one.
Shang Tsung's 'Tournament' was a bloodbath.
All matches were to the death. If the winner did not kill his
opponent, Shang Tsung's guards slew the loser with a quick thrust of their spears. In either case,
the devil necromancer absorbed the wretch's soul, adding it to the abominable mystic network that
encompassed his domain. Whatever the magic web's purpose was, it was very close to being
The Tournament's duels were not randomly determined.
Shang Tsung deliberately matched the strongest opponents against the weakest, and reveled in the
subsequent slaughter. People lost their lives like wheat falling from its chaff. A share of them died
at my hands - or rather, left hand. Orchid had permanently crippled my right hand, despite the best
attentions of the Lin Kuei's healers. I could still strike with its edge, or use it to bring forth the
Power, but I couldn't make the fingers curl or grasp anything. The handicap was not obvious, and
had only a minimal effect on my performance in the duels. I would have preferred not to
participate at all. My purpose was to eliminate Shang Tsung, not play his games.
I tried to approach the necromancer several times, but he
was too heavily guarded. Shang Tsung never left his quarters without a detachment of his legions,
Goro never strayed too far from his side, and something else was constantly hovering near him.
The lurker possessed a Power that deliberately cloaked itself. Its exact location weaved faster
than I could track. I'd never have noticed it if not for its dissimilarity matched against the foul
haze of Shang Tsung's black sorcery.
According to the Tournament's rules, a contestant who
proved himself against mortals and defeated the reigning champion would earn the right to
challenge the grand champion Shang Tsung. This would be my recourse of last resort, though it
wasn't what I had in mind when I accepted the contract. Given Shang Tsung's Power, I'd much
prefer to attack from behind, and murder him before he was aware of my presence.
When I wasn't fighting, I observed the other matches
carefully, learning all I could about the victors. Days passed, until less than a dozen survivors
remained from thirteen boats filled with people. One of the survivors was not a human being at
I knew he was supernatural the moment I lay eyes upon
him. Shining forks of Power rippled across his garments, which were stark white except for a
black sash tied at the hip and a similarly colored triangle pointing down his chest. In the shadow
of his wide-brimmed, conical peasant's hat, his eyes glowed with pure energy. These signs only
hinted at his vast aura of Power, many times greater than Shang Tsung's. Yet something cut him
off from the overwhelming majority of his elemental strength, restricting him to the appearance of
Bound or no, he was lethal. He summoned electricity at
will, and surrounded himself with winds so forceful they buffeted his opponent, a female
kickboxer clad in pink and grey, against the courtyard's hard walls. The inhuman warrior shrieked
wordless cries of triumph, holding his hands skyward and calling down slender, purple threads of
scintillating energy. Shang Tsung laughed and gave the command to finish the match. The
inhuman warrior stepped forward and sent wave after wave of crackling Power into his battered
sacrifice. Electrical energy jerked her body about like a poorly controlled marionette. The Power
came to a focus upon her head, shining brighter until the pressure was so great it burst open her
skull, flinging pieces of bone and brain in a wide radius. Warm, steaming blood gushed from the
headless corpse as it toppled over. Yet somehow, not a single smear of human remains stained the
One of Shang Tsung's guards approached me. The words
"You're next, Lin Kuei," resonated quietly from within his black-and-white hood. He pronounced
it "Lin Coo-ay," instead of "Lin Cue," so he must have had written instructions, for whatever that
~I tire of these mortal
playthings,~ proclaimed the inhuman
warrior, standing over his beheaded kill. ~How many insects must I crush
before I am faced with
a true challenge?~ Lifting his arms and eyes to the heavens, he roared, ~I AM RAIDEN, GOD OF
THUNDER! Destruction and ruin mark my storms. The Earth itself weeps in the presence of my
fury! I THIRST FOR THE GLORY OF BATTLE AGAINST OTHER GODS! WHERE IS AN
OPPONENT WORTHY OF MY DEPREDATIONS?~
"Right behind you," Shang Tsung answered.
Raiden had not completely turned around when the
necromancer signaled the duel's beginning. Before he was aware of my silent rush toward him, I
leaped and drove my flexed heel into the side of his chin. Whiplash snapped his head around. The
chin-strap holding his wide-brimmed hat came loose; his headgear flew off his scalp, uncovering
tightly pressed ebony hair. He tumbled backward, coming to rest on paved ground near the corpse
of his last opponent. I crouched and drove my fist into his face. He convulsed and flailed from the
impact, but before I could hit him again his body disappeared in a flash of white light. The breezy
static of his Power tingled as he reappeared a dozen meters away, in a similar light flash. A stream
of red dribbled from his upper lip.
God or no, he was not invincible. He could bleed.
~Your - trickery - is in vain against
a god!~ he declared,
haltingly. Spreading his arms wide, he called forth storm winds. I immediately dropped and lay flat
against the ground, letting the gale stream over me. Raiden shrieked an unintelligible battle cry
and used the hurricane to propel himself, arms outstretched, speeding low to the ground on a
collision course with me.
I summoned the Power.
The hurricane blew too strongly for me to rise very high,
but I was steady enough to cast the Ice directly in his path. Raiden's own volume blocked some of
the wind that might have otherwise scattered the Ice. He never had a chance to avoid it. As soon
as it touched him, the gale ceased. The Ice held him suspended above the ground, frozen in form
and time. I dashed behind and underneath him, crouched, and drove the whole of my strength into
an upward punch with my left hand.
The impact undid the Ice's effects. Raiden's gale returned,
and I was careful to drop low and avoid it, but the god had been too disoriented by my attack to
control the hurricane. No longer riding the wind, he spun out of control in its grip until he
slammed into the same wall he'd used on his last victim, and had intended to use on me. His
storm winds faded once more.
Instead of climbing to his feet, the thunder god used his
Power to dissolve and reform in a standing position. Sprinting to close the distance between us, I
could tell he was hurting from the unsteady way in which he leaned against the wall.
~No,~ he gasped, realizing
that I would reach him before
he could recall his storm winds. ~Stay back!~ He flung his arms
forward. Electricity streamed
from his fingertips. I dipped low to avoid it, angling one leg forward and bracing it with my good
left hand, while supporting the bulk of my weight on my back leg. Invoking the Power's resistance
to friction, I skidded on the stone as if it were the surface of a frozen lake. Raiden's burst of
electrical Power sailed harmlessly over my head. Calling the lightning had required so much effort
that Raiden was defenseless as I slid directly into him, crushing his ankles. He collapsed yet
This time I would not let him teleport away. Seizing his
ebony hair, I smashed his head into the wall before he could regain the necessary composure to
use his Power. I repeated the action until his face was a ruined wreck. He screamed and flailed,
but was too far gone to escape my grasp. At last his body went limp. Shock had set in, rendering
~I curse your name,~ he
wheezed through split lips and
broken teeth. ~You are dead. May the death eating away inside you
consume your body and soul! You are dead, damn you! Damn you! YOU ARE
Calling the Power, I crossed my hands and inserted the
index fingers into the corners of his mouth. Then I ripped outward, using the Ice to brace my
injured right hand. The rubbery flesh of his cheeks tore under the pressure, all the way up to his
ears. I took hold of them and ripped them off, retracting and uncrossing my hands. He would
soon bleed to death.
"Excellent," Shang Tsung praised, clapping his
long-fingered hands. Many of the guards also applauded. The other Tournament entrants stayed
silent. Kano yawned. Johnny Cage was visibly shaken. Liu Kang looked at Raiden's broken body
with pity. Sonya Blade was unreadable. The yellow-dressed specter lurked behind them all, staring
at me with undiluted hatred.
*It is good the
thunder god did not kill
you,* rumbled the
specter's tortured voice in my mind. *That privilege is
reserved for Scorpion
The rakshasa was the fastest of Saibot's creatures. I
charged her as she charged me. She sprang in a final pounce, but I was already airborne, tucking
myself into a ball to reduce air resistance. I flew over her head. As I landed, I heard the impact of
metal on skin, a deep-throated wail, and a feline scream of furor. Looking back, I saw the metal
devil flat on its face, while the rakshasa favored her left hind leg. She hissed furiously at the
snake-demon. Her back arched and her fur stood on end.
Saibot's creatures were unused to working as a team. They
had all run into one another.
The snake demon fixed its beady eyes on me and ambled
forward, more cautious than last time. Allowing the Power to shine on my hands, I bended on one
knee and stretched out my arms as if to cast it. The snake-demon surged forward with a great
leap, astoundingly fast and far despite its spindly hind legs. My feint had worked a little too well;
though it had taken the bait, I didn't quite have enough time to properly counterattack. Distended
serpentine jaws clamped on my arms. The snake-demon's heavy body thudded to earth, pulling
mine with it. Burning drool splashed from its mouth, sizzling on my uniform and eating the skin
off my arms. If I were to paralyze the beast, I would still be trapped underneath its weight.
Don't you know what happens when acid and water
My brother's reprimand flashed in my mind as I channeled
the Power, directing it not to freeze, but rather to create. Ice and cold water filled the
snake-demon's gullet. It wailed a high-pitched screech, reared, and tried to spit out the Ice. Its
mouth sizzled with bubbles from a powerful chemical reaction. Its belly distended wide. I clasped
both hands into a hammer lock and slammed them into the snake-demon's head. The beast fell
over, moaning and writhing.
From behind, I heard a series of explosions. I dropped flat
and rolled to the side. Three bursts of blue-purple energy-claws whizzed over where I'd been.
They'd come from the metal devil, which had regained its footing and pointed its glowing claws at
me. Seeing that I'd dodged its attack, it slid forward, propelled by tiny red flames sprouting from
its heels. It held the twin blades of one claw outstretched.
I flipped backwards in a series of handsprings, keeping
ahead of it until I was next to the crevice through which the golden staircase lay. It continued its
high-speed pursuit. Crouching, I waited until the metal demon and its glowing claws were less
then two meters away before projecting another surge of the Power. This cumbersome metal devil
was not as agile as its snake-demon counterpart; it raced directly into the Ice's depths and
stopped, frozen in a timeless moment. I slipped behind it and spun around, whipping my leg in a
circular motion that connected with the small of its back.
The metal devil returned to its position in time and space,
save that my kick made it tip forward. It never had a chance to stop its headlong plunge into the
crevice. Its high-pitched wail continued for some time after it fell, gradually growing fainter and
deeper with distance.
I glared at the rakshasa. She was running her
rough-textured tongue over her injured hind leg. The golden tigress looked up at me, lifted her
lips in a snarl, and returned to her grooming. Over to one side, the snake-demon twitched and
"Not an obstacle," I told Saibot, shaking my head. "Not
'Scorpion,' he called himself.
The fisherman I'd murdered had taken a use-name of his
own. It suited him. I learned just how appropriate it was when I watched his duel against
This was one battle I dared not miss. Sooner or later,
Scorpion's desire for vengeance would lead him into conflict with me, and when that time came I
had to know what the specter's strengths and weaknesses were. There could be no better way to
learn than to watch him fight.
Shang Tsung had slated the match to take place within his
palace. All the Tournament's survivors so far were invited inside, to watch the spectacle. The
necromancer's domain was covered with the colors of red and gold. Maroon carpeting with
shining trim lay on the flat stone floor. Plush velvet covered the walls. Spaced evenly among the
wall trimming were sheets of gold shaped into the Tournament's symbol, the fork-tongued
dragon's head, against an abstract background design.
In between the dragons hung silken scrolls of traditional
Chinese paintings. I recognized a smattering of the fine art: Shih-t'ao's Eight Views of
Huang-shan, in which a mortal observed the resplendence of a waterfall formed more of the
presence of space and imagination than from mere brush strokes. Five-colored Parakeet,
thoughtful, rigid study of a colorful bird perched upon flowering branches, a work accredited to
the decadent emperor Hui-tsung. Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers, which captured a
school so gracefully they seemed ready to swim off the silk. Shang Tsung's gallery was the only
source of beauty on his entire island.
There was little time to admire the hanging scrolls,
however, because the armed guards escorting us through the palace prodded any who lagged
behind with the sharp points of their spears. The guards outnumbered the handful of Tournament
spectators five to one. They surrounded us as they led the way through the palace's red-and-gold
decked arches, to Shang Tsung's throne room. A long red carpet stretched in front of us, forming
a border of sorts between the spectators and Shang Tsung. The necromancer sat atop a slightly
elevated throne, with plush velvet cushions and gleaming gold backing. I held back an expression
of surprise when I saw that he was unattended-
No. He was not alone. Neither Goro nor his legions were
at his side, yet the presence I'd sensed earlier was. Though I could neither see nor hear the
presence, I was certain that it would block any attack upon Shang Tsung. Even so, I might have
tried to kill the necromancer if not for the guards that encircled us all. They were constantly alert.
At least eight of them had their eyes and spears fixed on me. If Shang Tsung knew that I'd come
to slay him, then he probably instructed his lackeys to be excessively careful where I was
concerned. I couldn't assassinate Shang Tsung under these circumstances.
Scorpion stepped onto the length of red carpet. His blank
white, pupilless eyes swept across the crowd of onlookers, stopping momentarily on me. His
loathing was a dripping vat of psychic bile. *This is only a
diversion. We will face one another in the arena. Soon. Observe, and learn what will
happen to you!*
Kano followed. The outlaw's loose-fitting shirt and top,
once white, had become grey with accrued grime, and touched with spatters of blood and vomit.
Slung over his left shoulder was a belt with a string of ammunition casings. He carried himself at
ease, thoroughly relaxed.
"Hey, you," Kano drawled to the specter. "I gotta question
for you. What the fuck is wrong with your eyes? You got a pair of ping-pong balls stuck in your
sockets or what?"
Scorpion did not answer.
"Playin' it strong and silent, huh? Think you're too good to
talk to scum like me?" He grimaced and withdrew a heavy fighter's knife from within his tunic.
"I'm gonna rip your heart out, and then I'm gonna carve those eyes outta your skull and use 'em
for table tennis!"
*If my eyes fascinate you
so much, Black Dragon, then LOOK INTO THEM.*
Kano's sneer faded. His muscles tensed. His knife hand
thrust at empty air. He sucked in his breath, and twitched his head as if trying to pull it away. The
outlaw shrank back as far as he could without moving his feet, which remained rooted to the
ground. He covered his throat with his free hand, attempting to protect it from something only he
*You are a thief and a
murderer, Black Dragon. It is time you paid for your crimes!*
Scorpion blinked, deliberately ending his hold over the
outlaw. Kano reeled for a moment, then recovered his defiance and spat, "Save the acid trip for
someone who cares!" But the tone of his voice had changed from confident to disturbed.
"Prepare yourselves," Shang Tsung chuckled. Kano
adjusted his hold on the hilt of his knife. Scorpion raised one arm perpendicular to his shoulders,
bending his elbow and curling his fingers.
Scorpion vanished the instant Shang Tsung signaled the
duel's commencement. Kano's eyebrows went down in confusion. "What the f-"
The specter allotted him just enough time to turn around
before descending from the space above, driving his fist down into the outlaw's jaw. Kano
staggered backward and fell to his knees, spitting up blood. Scorpion pressed his advantage,
kicking the outlaw in the abdominal cavity before he could right himself. Kano snarled, baring his
teeth. Springing up, he thrust the knife at Scorpion's throat. The specter saw it coming and
sidestepped, at the same time shoving the heel of one hand into the side of Kano's head.
Scorpion may have been a simple fisherman once, but no
longer. He'd learned how to fight during his stay in the infernal depths.
"You fuckin'-!" Kano swung his knife at Scorpion's waist.
The specter deflected it with his empty hand, but didn't keep his palm exactly parallel to the flat of
the blade. The knife's edge drew a long gash in his arm. He did not bleed so much as leak reddish
wisps of Power with a hissing, crackling sound. Scorpion disappeared again.
"Oh, no you don't!" This time Kano was ready for the
specter's reappearance. The outlaw withdrew a second, sleeker knife from his tunic and hurled it.
It spun through the air, tumbling hilt over blade over hilt, and lodged in Scorpion's high upper
chest, above where the lungs would be in a living man. The specter gave with the impact, letting it
flow through him like a coursing river. Kano stepped forward, presenting only the side of his
body. He used his free arm to shield his neck and heart.
Instead of going for the such targets, the specter dropped
low and kicked out at the outlaw's ankle. Kano had made the critical mistake of placing the bulk
of his weight on his front leg. He stumbled. Scorpion seized the opportunity to take hold of the
outlaw's tunic and rock backwards, kicking up with one foot to propel Kano over his head. The
outlaw landed with an audible smack. The thin carpet offered his head scant protection
from the hard stone floor's brutality. His fighting knife fell out of his grasp.
"Dammit!" Kano moved to get up again, but the beating
he'd taken had left him disoriented. His artificial eye blinked on and off. He pressed both hands
against the concussion to his forehead.
Scorpion summoned his Power.
The air shimmered about the arm he'd held cocked. Forces
gathered and compressed themselves into a triangular blade on a short shaft, surrounded by
backward-pointing barbs. Scorpion cast his sting at the outlaw. A long tendril of mystic energy
tethered the spear's shaft to his hand. The tether flapped, spanning several meters before its
barbed blade impaled itself in Kano's abdominal cavity. Kano made a sound halfway between a
choke and a shout.
The specter pulled. His spear's barbs remained hooked in
the outlaw's flesh. Scorpion used both physical and mystical strength to drag his prey close. Then
he let the outlaw drop, placed one foot on his chest and ripped his spear out. Its quills scooped
out chunks of flesh, intestines, and torn cloth. Kano's limbs jerked; the fighter's knife fell out of his
hand. Scorpion's sting faded into nothingness, its task done.
Scorpion grasped the handle of the knife Kano had thrown
in his chest and wrenched it out. Its edges were so sharp they left hardly any exit wound. The
specter rammed the blade into the crippled outlaw's torso, consciously avoiding the heart. He did
not want Kano to die just yet.
The outlaw's face broke into a sweat. Though shock should
have paralyzed him, he still fought to sit up, mumbling "...you just made your worst enemy..."
Somehow, he managed to brace himself on one elbow and fumble to draw another knife from his
Scorpion removed his mask.
His hood fell back at the same time, baring an expanse of
white bone. With the mask on, he'd possessed a semblance of humanity, save for his blank white
eyes. Now the illusion had been stripped away. A skull rested on his shoulders, its empty eye
sockets and teeth frozen in the humorless grin of the dead. The skull's mandible dropped. Inferno
poured from the cavity within. Kano had time for only one, short scream before the conflagration
boiled the flesh off his bones. It was over in an instant. All that remained of the outlaw were
ashes, and a charred skeleton with a handful of knives lying upon its hollow ribcage.
It was a shame, really. I'd almost been looking forward to
the chance to kill him.
Scorpion fixed his empty eye sockets on me.
*Do you see,
assassin?* his sepulchral voice pounded in my mind. *This is what I will do to YOU! You will SUFFER and DIE for
An illogical desire to reply possessed me, but what could I
have said? Sorry I killed you? That wouldn't have the dubious value of being true. I'd lost the
ability to repent a long time ago. I felt vexation for breaking my code of honor, but that is not the
-I shook my head, bewildered by the strange thoughts
going through it. I'd been in this cursed place for so long that it had to be warping my mind. Lin
Kuei do not have regrets. Lin Kuei do not apologize. Not if they are sane.
living shadow cried out as if he'd been the one to fall into the crevice. "You - you - do you have any IDEA what you've done?!?
There are NATIONS worth less than that Fulgore prototype!"
"If you want it back so badly, you are welcome to descend
the stairs in search of it. Do watch out for the demoness at the bottom."
"I'm ruined," he
whispered, ignoring me. "Ruined. I can't go back to Ultratech now -
I'd have to work off this debt for the next five centuries...!"
I walked past Saibot. The bluff ahead was not truly sheer;
it tilted at an angle, and there were plenty of potential handholds in its rough-hewn surface. The
summit wasn't more than a quarter-mile above. Climbing it ought to be feasible.
"Exactly where do you think
you're going?" Saibot's voice abruptly shifted timbre from plaintive to spiteful.
"I've already demonstrated my skill against your minions.
Must it come to this?" I sighed. "Though it is not my desire to harm you, rest assured that I will
not hold back. You, however, are hindered by the need to capture me alive."
"Not anymore, fool. You've
wrecked everything. All my toil! Twenty years of degradation, constantly at their beck and call, all
WASTED because of YOU!"
"What are you babbling abou-"
"ULTRATECH WAS GOING
TO CURE ME!" he screamed. Shandra flinched from the decibel level and swiveled her
ears tight against her skull. "In exchange for a million pounds' worth
of service! Capturing you would have been worth the last fifty thousand!" His seamless
hands rounded into fists. "Look at me! Do you think I want to be
like this? A miserable blob of spilled black paint, forever walking the twilight like one of the
undead? Look at me!"
I looked at him. A spastic, unfamiliar clutching bubbled
within my diaphragm. I could neither stave off nor understand the alien sensation, which rocked
me with the need discharge short, staccato bursts of sound.
I never guessed I was still capable of this.
Saibot stiffened. "What's so
"Heh. You are." The sensation subsided, and I didn't know
whether I was relieved or sorry to let it go. "You've freed yourself from the clan, your Power and
stealth give you the potential to become one of the greatest warriors in history, yet you complain
about your appearance? If it is sympathy you seek, you are addressing the wrong person. Take
your self-pity elsewhere."
"This is about revenge, not
pity! It was a mistake to sign on with Ultratech when I had an unfinished vendetta against your
clan; I realize that now." His outline wavered, blurring from the Power he called into his
swirling black form. "It's time to fix that. First you. Then every other
Lin Kuei in existence."
Shang Tsung's guards prevented me from getting a clear
shot at the necromancer. His legions were far too numerous to confront directly.
I needed a distraction.
With that thought in mind, I studied Sonya Blade's
underlings. Shang Tsung mocked Sonya by displaying her two comrades openly, in a hollowed set
of interconnecting chasms. One of the sorcerer's many thrones sparkled a scarce distance away,
for Shang Tsung liked to use this gulf as a Tournament battle arena. High above, the stone walls
parted before open sky, but during the daytime a foul fog of mystical jet blocked out the sun. The
resulting shadows made it easy for me to remain unnoticed.
One of the prisoners was Caucasian with sunny yellow hair.
The other had tawny skin and graceful features reminiscent of the Americas' native tribes. A red
headband tied in a double knot may have once kept his dark bangs away from his eyes, but it had
become so sweat-soaked it slipped over his eyebrows. Heavy manacles on the soldiers' feet and
hands suspended them from the dungeon's slate-grey stone walls. Moldering skeletons of former
prisoners hung from nearby walls, keeping the captives company. Seven hooded guards watched
the captives at all times; worse, this dungeon also doubled as Prince Goro's personal domain.
Sonya would never be able to free her men on her own.
They were not holding up well. Their faces and arms were
covered with bruises from many beatings. Underneath the wrinkles of their olive uniforms, which
stank from their own filth, I suspected they had broken bones. They were starved and
dehydrated. Shang Tsung gave them no food and only the barest minimum of water to keep them
alive. The blond one was delirious; he mumbled meaningless things under his breath. His associate
stared directly ahead, eyes unfocused, body slack. Their odds of surviving the next few days were
bleak. If I were to use them in my scheme, I'd have to make my move soon.
I faded back into the shadows from which I'd come.
end part three of four