THE COMING OF WINTER
part three of four

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.com
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 pedestrians 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 mask?"
         "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 musty book.
         "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 the clan.
         "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 inside?"
         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 misunderstanding!"
         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 sniffed.
         "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' pay 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 commented.
         "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 out.
         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.
         "That's 'Sub-Zero.'"
         "Zero."
         "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 arch.
         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 fresh blood.
         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 chromosomes of-"
         "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 past."
         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 cold."
         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?"
         "I'll manage."
         "Very well. There is another matter I need to speak to you about."
         "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 challenge."
         "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."
         "My reaction?"
         "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 truthfully."
         "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 is."
         "It isn't my place to keep biographies of all my students."
         "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."
         "He is your brother."
         "WHAT!?"
         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!"
         "You did."
         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 cheek downward.
         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 closer:

         Milady, you are beauty given flesh
         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
          Apparently, he had.
         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 summoned."
         "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 must catch."
         "A boat?"
         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?"
         "Yes."
         "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 lose."
         "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 volume's cover.
         "Have you ever wondered why you were Tested?" Smoke inquired, hesitantly.
         "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?"
         "Hmph."
         "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 important."
         "There is one more matter. You asked why I'd come. I am here to apologize."
         "What is wrong with you?" I demanded, whirling around.
         "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 mad!?"
         "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 mortal."
         "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. Possibly less."
         "I see."
         "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, including you."
         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 called morbid.
         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 behind.
         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 fingertip.
         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 wolf.
         "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 lifeblood.
         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 here!"
         "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.
         *Lin Kuei...*
         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 energy...
         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 crimes.*
         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 seen.*



         "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 it here."
         "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 front.
         "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 vulnerability.
         "There is something I must ask of you, huntress," I whispered, clasping her hands a shade more securely.
         "Yes?"
         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 face.
         "Let me go! You're under my spell! I COMMAND YOU 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 you!"
         "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 you."
         How perceptive of her. "Do as I say, and I shall show you mercy."
         "Not good enough. I can imagine what your idea of 'mercy' is."
         "I will release you unharmed. You have my word."
         "How do I know I can trust you?"
         "You don't."
         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 the animal.
         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 teacher.
         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 companions."
         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 advantage.
         "Let the Tournament BEGIN!" Goro roared, thrusting a clenched fist the size of a human head in the air.



         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 landscape.
         "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 wants."
         "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 dead."
         "No longer."
         "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?"
         "Never."
         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 fulfilled.
         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 all.
         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 a mortal.
         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 white-dressed one.
         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 was worth.
         ~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. "FIGHT!"
         ~What?~
         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 again.
         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 him helpless.
         ~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 DE-~
         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 alone!*



         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 mix?
         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 whined piteously.
         "Not an obstacle," I told Saibot, shaking my head. "Not even close."



         '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 Kano.
         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, the 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 pond 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 could see.
         *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.
         "FIGHT!"
         Scorpion vanished the instant Shang Tsung signaled the duel's commencement. Kano's eyebrows went down in confusion. "What the f-"
         *Over here!*
         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.
         *C'MERE!*
         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 bloody tunic.
         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 MURDERING ME!*
         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 same thing-
         -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.



         "AAAAAAAH!" The 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.
         Laughter.
         I never guessed I was still capable of this.
         Saibot stiffened. "What's so bloody amusing?!"
         "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