THE COMING OF WINTER
written by Victar, e-mail email@example.com
part four of four
Victar's Archive: http://www.victarfanfics.com
The living shadow extended both hands, bringing them
together and turning his palms sideways. Elongated, ropy tentacles of Power stretched from his
fingertips. I dodged to the side, at the same time reaching within the bloodstained folds of my
uniform. The black ropes curved, homing in on me. They wrapped around my waist and chest,
lifting me off the ground and raising me high above Saibot's head.
"I'll rip you in half!" he
shrieked. The tentacles pulled in opposite directions. My skin and muscles protested the strain.
Both my arms were pinned tightly to my chest; I wouldn't be able to work them free in time.
"You are pathetic, Shade!" I yelled, attacking him with
words for want of a better weapon.
"Don't call me that!" he
cried. A note of hysteria was creeping into his voice. The pull of his tentacles lessened.
"It is what you are, Shade! You should be thankful for your
name. Your Power has given you the one thing no other Lin Kuei can have: freedom! You could
have used your Talent to live as you please, Shade, but instead you sell yourself into slavery and
whine about your misery!"
"Stop calling me that! Shade
does not exist; I am Noob Saibot!" The tentacles shuddered and stopped pulling
"No, you are merely a Shade, a formless spot of darkness
lying in the wake of tangible objects. You do not deserve a real name, because Shade is all you
will ever be!"
"Stop it! STOP IT! STOP
IT!" Frantic rage disrupted his concentration, and with it, his Power. His tentacles
abruptly let go of me and melted away, as his limbs returned to normal. I flipped forward, landing
on my feet.
"STOP CALLING ME
THAT NAME!" He barreled toward me like a berserker, both hands reaching for my
throat. When he was almost upon me, I withdrew a glittering object from within my uniform and
thrust it into his chest. It flared bright as noon upon my silent command.
"Wha-?" Saibot ceased
moving. His arms drooped. Beads of blackness dripped from his outline, splashing and vanishing
on the ground. The darkness forming his body was collapsing in on itself. He sank, gradually
dissolving into an inky pool. "A
Sunstone!? Where - did - youuuuu... eeeeeeerrAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"
His last scream seemed to go on and on. I could still hear it
resonating in my head well after the last trace of blackness vanished from the dry earth, leaving
behind the dull, empty husk of what had once been a Sunstone. Its light and Saibot's darkness had
canceled each other out.
The rakshasa was sitting in front of me. Her lips parted,
uncovering needle-sharp teeth. "Nice kitty," I soothed, mimicking Saibot's tone of voice.
Shandra's fur lost its golden brilliance. Flickers of Power
surrounded her. Her limbs grew longer and slimmer; the joints realigned themselves. Her chest
bulged out and her face flattened. Cropped dark hair sprouted from her head. In the instant it
takes to draw breath, she changed form from beast to human woman. And not just any
"'Nice kitty' my ass," Orchid sniffed, running her fingers
through her bangs. "Is he dead?" she inquired, with an offhand gesture to where Saibot had
"Does it matter?"
"Probably not. He said he wouldn't return to Ultratech, and
that's what's important. You've done me quite a favor, getting rid of him and the others." She
smiled, if anything appearing even more voracious than she had in feline form. "I see your hand is
all better. Hope those scratches I gave you earlier didn't hurt too much."
"False sympathy does not become you, Orchid... or should
I say, 'Shandra'?"
"Oh, I have many names. One for every day of the
"Tell me something."
"Why should I?"
"You said I've done you a favor. Why did Ultratech want
Shang Tsung dead?"
"Isn't it obvious? Shang Tsung was horning in on
Ultratech's racket - he wanted to take over the world. There was evidence he could do it, too;
Ultratech has been watching his home territory through their satellites. When Shang Tsung's
palace imploded, they assumed he was dead. Since the Lin Kuei never turned in a body, Ultratech
never bothered paying the assassination fee. They were still interested in you, though."
"How did Saibot track me into Limbo?"
"Oh, that was my doing," she purred. "I planted a microdot
relay transmitter on your mask. Don't you remember?"
"And you've used this device to monitor my whereabouts
ever since I left Ultratech?"
"Well, not me personally..."
"So Ultratech now knows the secret location of the Lin
"Oh, they've known for a while. They have their eye on
your precious clan. There's talk of staging a takeover. Look, as much as I enjoy bantering
classified information with blood-drenched psychopaths, I can't stay much longer. The technology
that projects me here has its limits."
"How will you return to Earth?"
"This is the ticket." She tapped her right wrist; against her
pale skin was a thin wire ringlet. It had been invisible underneath her tiger-form's golden fur.
"Trust me, you do not want to come with. This takes one into the impregnable heart of
Ultratech's foremost research facility. Several dozen thugs with trank guns are waiting for your
arrival. If you'd accepted Saibot's offer, you would have been subdued and strapped to an
"For what purpose?"
"The security cameras caught your little Winter
Wonderland show. Your talents are very similar to - ah, it's a long story, but the quick version is
half the Board of Directors thinks you're an alien, the other half thinks you're cybernetically
enhanced, and all of them want to know how the heck you make that ice. They'd like to open you
up and learn what makes you tick. Literally."
"The only way out is the one you know," she continued, a
little more softly. Her gloved hand pointed to the summit of the rocky cliffside ahead. "I couldn't
help you even if I wanted to. Saibot was telling the truth about Limbo's final test; it is a trap
where only that which you have loved can save you, and you've never loved me." Her feline smile
stretched wider. "You wouldn't survive the experience."
"Will the snake-demon accompany you home?" I queried,
ignoring her taunt.
"Riptor?" She glanced at the listless reptile. "No."
"Take the creature with you."
"I kill people, not animals, and leaving him in Limbo is
worse than cutting his throat."
She snorted. "That 'animal' is Ultratech's genetically
engineered weapon, combining reptilian DNA with human intelli-"
"Are you going to repay your debt or aren't you?"
Her eyes narrowed. "All right, psycho. If that's the way you
want it. But this makes us even. Got it?"
Orchid crossed to the snake-demon in a few brisk strides
and lay her right hand on his head, while adjusting the wire wristlet with the other. "Good luck,
Zero. You'll need it."
"Zero." An instantaneous flash of whiteness engulfed them
both. When it faded, they faded with it.
I reached behind my head and drew back the black hood of
my uniform. The hair underneath was matted with sweat and sewer-blood. Attempting to shake it
free merely caused it to separate into thick pieces. I pulled off my torn mask and whatever
invisible device Orchid had planted on it. A stray breeze whisked the tattered scrap of fabric from
my hand. The mask came to rest upon the Sunstone husk. Turning away from the site of Saibot's
destruction, I took a deep breath of air that wasn't polluted with the warmth of my own
My last match of the evening was against Liu Kang.
We faced one another upon one of the narrow stone
bridges that spanned the chasm between the inner palace and the outlying area. Carved stone lions
marked both ends of the bridge. The bridge was less than a meter wide, too narrow to safely
sidestep another person. A stiff wind complicated the already worrisome task of keeping one's
balance. Scattered clouds and shadows drifted across the rising full moon, sometimes muffling its
light, sometimes letting it illuminate the horror below.
Sharpened iron spikes thick as women's arms poked up
from the floor of the chasm underneath. More deadly thorns jutted out from the three concrete
pillars that supported the bridge. Many of the Tournament's battles had already been fought on
this overpass, and the remains of the losers filled the pit. Pierced torsos, severed heads and
impaled limbs littered the gruesome expanse; congealing pools of blood resembled ink blots in the
dispassionate moonlight. This was no ordinary arena. It was a vast iron maiden, and before the
night ended either Liu Kang or I would join the others in her embrace.
Liu Kang did not look down. If not for the slight gleam of
sweat on his bare torso, one couldn't have guessed he'd been continuously fighting for his life
during the past several days. His lithe frame was wrapped with firm muscle, without being bulky.
Facing forward, he put his hands together and bowed. His lips moved, as if in prayer. He was the
essence of serenity: calm, measured, accepting of his fate.
The self-righteous hypocrite.
He thought he was better than the rest of us. Blessed by the
gods, morally superior, holier-than-thou; whatever one calls it, it is one of the few traits I resent.
He was as much a killer as the rest of us, by virtue of his participation in Shang Tsung's
Tournament. He'd entered the bloodbath freely, and all the pretensions in the world could not
wash clean its stains.
A chuckle came from high above. Shang Tsung was
watching us; his soulless white eyes glowed dimly in the surrounded blackness. The necromancer's
mouth twisted into a tight-lipped smile. That nameless other presence was there as well.
"FIGHT!" Shang Tsung commanded.
Liu Kang cautiously advanced on me. We would have
circled one another if the bridge had not confined us to a single line. I feinted an eye jab with my
injured hand; when he deflected my fingers with the outer edge of his forearm, I responded with
the real attack: a low punch to his solar plexus.
I didn't touch him.
He started turning well before my left arm could extend its
full length, took hold of it, and pulled me over his head. The muscles in my arm tore from the
strain. If Liu Kang had been thinking properly he would have pitched me over the side, but the
arrogant young warrior threw me in line with the bridge. Attempting to flip and land in a crouch, I
hit the ground on my knees instead. I tried to stand, struggling against the numb shock in my
My left arm was hurting. It would not bend more than a
little. Liu Kang approached quickly; he would be upon me before I could get up. Shifting tactics, I
summoned the Power through my right arm and cast it at the young warrior.
It never touched him.
He was somersaulting above it before it left my hands.
Upon landing, he smashed his elbow into my face, then fluidly transformed the attack into a
channel. His Power coursed through his arms and exploded from his hands, a living tooth of Fire
that bit into my neck and chest.
I was fighting defensively now, dodging when I could,
blocking when I had to, and buying time with a steady retreat. It wasn't just that Liu Kang was
fast. Though his speed was remarkable, unquestionably transcending mine, I have held my own
against fleet enemies before. It was his impeccable ability to read my movements and instantly
react. One would think he was reading my mind, but that couldn't be. In the heat of combat,
thought coincides with action; it would take far too long for even a master sorcerer to delve into
his opponent's mind, extract his intentions, and formulate a defense. No, Liu Kang had to be
reading my body. A twitch of an eye, a turn of the wrist, the shift of an ankle - I don't know what
was giving my every action away, but whatever it was left me open to one swift, sure attack after
another. No matter how I countered, I could not touch him. I accelerated my withdrawal into a
rapid series of back handsprings. The gymnastics were somewhat awkward, on account of my
strained left arm.
I never saw Liu Kang's leap, only felt the crushing surge of
his Power as his foot drove into my stomach. His preternatural flying kick propelled him faster
than a dead run. The stone wall set at the bridge's far side connected with my back and skull.
Spots flew in front of my eyes. I collapsed and vomited up blood. Shang Tsung's laughter echoed
in my ears.
Liu Kang could have finished me off then and there, but he
hung back. What was keeping him? Disdain? False apprehension? His eyebrows were pressed
down, and his brow was furrowed. Sadness colored his face.
He was looking at me with pity.
Suddenly, the crippling pain in my midsection no longer
mattered. The dizziness, the way one of my legs shuddered when I put more than a little weight
on it, nothing was more important than taking that damnable bastard down. Power surrounded
me, though I couldn't remember calling it; its quintessence numbed pain and fooled torn muscles
into working. Liu Kang took a step back. Goose bumps rose on his arm from contact with the
cold surrounding me. I charged him full-on, intending to collide with him and force him off the
bridge, even it meant falling off myself.
I couldn't touch him.
He sprang forward, taking hold of my shoulders and
flipping over my head before I could make contact. Be it strength, speed, or Power, his
momentum surpassed mine; as he landed, he used his grasp to throw me up and over his head. If
he'd matched the angle at which I'd rushed him, I would have been cast off the overpass, but
instead he shifted it so that I slammed face-first against hard stone. The impact broke two of my
lower teeth and made the others cut deep into my lip. My vision blurred. My ears were ringing.
The frost I'd gathered about myself deadened my ability to feel.
"FINISH HIM!" Shang Tsung commanded of Liu Kang,
but the young warrior hesitated. I tried to push myself up with my hands, favoring my right arm.
Too late, I realized there was nothing supporting it. I hadn't been aware of landing so close to the
bridge's edge, or much of anything else for that matter. My balance was lost, and I was too
stunned to regain it. Slipping over the side, I floundered for a handhold. The fingers of my right
hand still wouldn't bend properly, and they skidded off the stone. I swung, clinging to the bridge
with my left hand. It was gradually slipping. If I weren't in such battered condition, if my right
hand weren't crippled, if my left arm had not been strained, I might have been able to pull myself
back up. As it was, I'd lose my hold and fall in a matter of seconds.
The wind wailed. Liu Kang's silhouette blocked out the
moonlight. A flick of his finger would send me to my doom, just as the sorcerer had bidden him to
do. His hand darted out-
-and locked around my wrist.
"I've got you," he reassured, bracing himself against my
weight. The smoothness of the stone bridge complicated his effort to drag me to safety.
I had been wrong about the young warrior. He wasn't
arrogant. He was utterly deranged.
"Why are you doing this?" I rasped.
"There has been too much death already."
"I will not owe my life to the likes of you!"
"Of course not. Life is too precious to be owed or traded
like a sack of rice."
I rejected his flights of fantasy. Life is not precious; it is
commonplace, and multiplies uncontrollably until war, famine and pestilence must keep it in
check. Life is a worthless thing of straw, easily destroyed, and soon forgotten by the billions of
new stalks sprouting over where the old stalks have fallen. It has no value. Only honor has value.
The scraps and remnants of honor I had left could not be exchanged for rescue.
I am an assassin. I've never shown clemency to any of my
victims. I never intended to have mercy on Liu Kang. To accept his charity for myself would be
unbridled hypocrisy, absolute dishonor. Liu Kang would not have understood that, though. He
was not a hunter. His heart was too kind, his soul too pure. The only way to make him perceive
was to drive the edge of my right hand into the side of his throat.
At least, that is what I tried to do. He automatically
stepped back, so that my strike whished across empty air. The sudden change doubled the
pressure on his right hand. My wrist, already slick with sweat, slipped from between his thumb
and fingers. His halcyon expression became one of alarm. He made another grab for me, but for
once he was not fast enough.
Even with my last breath, I couldn't touch him.
Falling, I saw Liu Kang swing his legs over the bridge's
side and begin to pursue me down, using the spikes that protruded from one of the concrete
pillars as a ladder. An explosion of agony disrupted the image. Dragon teeth burst from my body
cavities, their fluid-streaked tips pointing at the unforgiving moon. The last thing I felt was the
backlash of an outraged scream, coming from everywhere and nowhere, directed at the
clambering warrior above.
*NO! How dare you?
The Lin Kuei is MINE!*
Have you ever stayed awake for days on end?
After the first sixteen, hours, you tire. Then your internal
workings adapt, and you continue functioning at close to normal. How long you can keep this up
depends on your constitution. Fatigue gradually returns to tear at you. You can push it away, but
it always comes back, at shorter and shorter intervals, each time more insistent than before.
Eventually you reach the stage where visions and unbidden ponderings drift like dreams through
Climbing the uneven incline, I couldn't stop thinking about
Saibot and the Lin Kuei. I'd killed more people than I can remember, all for the good of the clan,
and never cared. Why should Noob Saibot's apparent death bother me so much?
Near the summit, the slope made another upturn, becoming
fully vertical. To my left I glimpsed a thin fissure cutting down its length. I edged across the
slope's breadth, working my way to the fissure, and squeezed inside it. It was narrow enough so
that I could brace myself against its sides and worm my way higher.
I couldn't blame Saibot for hating the Lin Kuei. He had
good cause. Had I been in his place, I might have shared his rancor. Yet as a hunter and enemy of
the clan, he was by definition no different from the countless others whose lives I'd dispassionately
claimed. For all I knew, the rest of my victims could have had equally strong reasons to hate the
Lin Kuei. The clan is many things, but 'well-liked' is not one of them.
I certainly didn't like the Lin Kuei. They were a cartel of
tyrants, using their strength to terrorize the weak. They'd wronged me when they forced me to
become one of them, and when Pyre tricked me into breaking my own code. Thanks to me, my
brother was one of them, and he was most likely no happier among their ranks than I was. Yet he
couldn't leave. No one turned their back on the Lin Kuei and lived to tell of it, not anymore. I'd
just destroyed the only surviving rogue, fulfilling my duty as a loyal Lin Kuei killer.
Bile churned in my mouth. My eyes narrowed, and my
chest tightened. A newfound tension in my muscles made it difficult to keep my ascension steady.
A strange sensation, unfamiliar for so long, gripped my being. At first I did not recognize it, until
memories of a similar tightness in the eyes of so many others came streaming back to me.
I hated the Lin Kuei. I hated them for what they were, and
hated myself for being one of them. It would please me if Ultratech ruined them. The desire for
their destruction was so overwhelming that I had to halt my climb and hang in the space between
rocky walls, gathering the self-control I'd need to continue. Was this how Scorpion felt?
A meter above my head, the cliff leveled off. Pushing
against the crevice's walls, I edged higher still and grasped protrusions of the rocky surface
beyond, using them as anchors while I hauled myself upon the summit. The terrain atop this bluff
was not unlike the landscape below, except for the dry human and animal bones scattered about.
The glaring sun stretched their shadows several times their original length. Some of the remains
were in splinters. A rusty saber had been snapped in two, its halves lying next to a piecemeal array
I knew this place. It was where I'd first arrived in Limbo.
Every detail matched. Even the faint marks of where I'd struggled against Saibot's creatures were
A memory detached itself from the morass in my mind. I
recalled my little brother, only eight years old, showing me a trick he'd learned from his beloved
Look at this, big brother, he'd said, holding up a
white strip. Just a plain length of paper, wouldn't you agree?
Very plain, I responded, humoring him.
Watch. He gave the strip a half-twist and joined its
together. Doesn't appear much different from an ordinary loop, does it?
But it is. He picked up a brush and started drawing
along the loop's outer side. Look, my brush never leaves the surface! His line stretched
around the loop's exterior and around the twist, continuing on the loop's interior until it reached
its starting point. No part of the loop had been left untouched. See? It looks like it has two
sides, but it really has just one. You can traverse its entire surface and wind up exactly where you
started from. They call this a 'Möbius strip.'
I was nothing but the tip of a brush, blazing a trail across a
gulf that I thought had two sides, but in truth had only one. All I'd done was travel in a great loop.
Despair overwhelmed me. I sagged to my knees and slumped over, realizing that Saibot had
earned the last laugh.
The crushing pressure of a choke hold jolted me out of my
reverie. It had arisen out of nowhere, a stiff hand wrapping itself around my neck and lifting me
off my feet.
surged Scorpion's sepulchral voice, *your soul
belongs to ME!* His eerie laughter filled my ears. His grip on my throat
left enough slack for me to gasp a sliver of breath. He wanted to strangle me slowly. I did not
intend to let him, yet
when I drove my elbow into where his head should have been, it encountered no resistance. My
flailing kicks encountered nothing solid. It was like battling a vapor.
the specter jeered. *Struggle. Try to fight back. It makes my
victory all the sweeter. I've
waited longer than you know for this!* He tightened his choke hold, completely
cutting off my air supply. I'd already summoned the Power
to my aid, but I couldn't use it on something that could not be touched. Even his bony fingers
around my throat were not tangible save by their crushing pressure on my windpipe.
Something was very wrong. If I weren't on the verge of
blacking out, I might have been quicker to deduce what it was.
I don't remember being dead.
There was no sense of the passage of time. One moment a
bed of spikes pierced my heart liver, and kidneys; the next, I tried to sit upright on a stone bench
and received a splitting headache for the effort. All I could see was a wash of red spots, and my
sense of balance felt like I was at sea during a typhoon.
alive,* rumbled Scorpion's echoing, hate-filled
voice. *Good. Your life is mine to take, and mine
"Normally, I don't do requests, but this is a special case."
Shang Tsung's sneer came from maddeningly nearby. "His abhorrence of you is absolutely
delectable. It's too bad you don't share the same loathing for him."
This was the closest I'd been to the necromancer since
arriving on his desecrated island. The pulsing vibrations of his unclean aura were directly in front
of me. Ignoring the protests of my spinning head, I rolled off the bench and lurched to my feet.
My legs promptly caved in beneath me. I collapsed in a disorganized heap
"You and Scorpion will do battle in three hours, after Goro
crushes that gadfly monk who killed you," Shang Tsung continued, a little too gleefully. "That
should give you more than enough time to recover from the stress of being resurrected." He left,
his fine silk robes making a faint whisper as they glided across the floor. I did not hear any
Moving carefully, I latched ahold of the stone bench with
both hands, and pulled myself into a sitting position. I realized with a start that my right hand was
fully healed, as functional as it had been before Orchid nearly slashed it in half. The teeth I'd lost
were back in my mouth, undamaged. Even my uniform was restored; there remained no trace of
the holes that had been torn in it, or the blood that had stained it. My vision was clearing by
degrees, enough to perceive Scorpion's empty eyes glaring down at me.
*When next we meet,
you will DIE!* A light, breezy
aspect of his Power engulfed him. His physical form disappeared, yet the smothering press of his
malevolence remained, disrupting my attempt to concentrate on a plan of action.
I recklessly turned the Power on myself, coating my neck
with the slickest sheen of Ice I could create. At the same time I swung both legs forward, using
my own momentum combined with the frictionless Ice to slide free of my captor's grip. He had
been holding me with only one hand, after all. Limbo's dry, desert air never tasted so sweet.
The apparition next to me cast his unearthly tethered spear.
Rolling to the side, I avoided it by centimeters. It buried itself in Limbo's sand, subsequently
dissolving into the Power that composed it and being reabsorbed into the specter's aura. My
respiration came in staggered gasps, and red spots darted in front of my eyes. I needed time to
recover, and I'd just realized how to buy it.
"Your disguise is useless, Shang Tsung!" I shouted,
between intervals of panting. "I know who you are!"
*What!?* The specter's stark outline
His deep ochre-and-black mockery of a Lin Kuei uniform changed texture and composition; its
colors rearranged themselves into a different outfit, with tight black pants, leather skullcap, and
divided canary-yellow vest. The humanoid within the clothes became more compact and wiry. His
mask dissolved, showing a long face with a dark, thin mustache and pointed goatee beard. Only
the eyes remained the same, two blank windows into an empty white void. He was most definitely
Shang Tsung, though younger, more vigorous, and a decimeter shorter than I remembered. He
must have elevated his height through levitation before, letting his overly long robes hide his true
Raiden had warned me that the necromancer might track
me down, yet I had not dared to hope that finding him would be so easy. Killing him, however,
would not be so simple. His filthy aura thrummed with freely coursing Power. Before, he'd only
been able to harness a small portion of it for his own needs, yet now the barriers had been lifted.
His raw potency far exceeded anything human, approaching the status of a greater devil. The
question was, if he had so much Power at his disposal, then why wasn't he using it? Assuming
Scorpion's guise was a card trick compared to what he was capable of doing.
"How did you know?" Shang Tsung shrilled. "How could
you know!? I've perfected the art of shape-shifting! There could be no distinctions!"
"You can match Scorpion's appearance and voice, even his
Power, but you don't have his honor. His code required him to face his enemies in battle before
killing them. And neither he nor your shape-shifting pet ever wanted my soul." To stall a little
longer, I asked "Why did you go to the trouble of seeking me out, necromancer?"
"Don't play innocent. I know you had a hand in my
'accident.' Reptile told me all about it, strapped to my rack. The Kahn won't let me KILL Liu
Kang, so for the time being I'll have to console myself with your tarnished soul!" He extended his
arms, pointing one hand to the heavens and the other hand to the earth. A tsunami of Fire
surrounding the screaming skulls of tortured souls poured forth. The time for talk was ended.
Sonya Blade gazed through a curtained window of Shang
Tsung's palace. Her hair, brown with streaks of flaxen, spilled on her shoulders and drooped
over one of her sapphire eyes. Her bangs had long since worked loose of the raven headband that
once held them back. She leaned upon the window ledge, her folded arms resting on the sill. Rays
from the dying sun reflected off the metal bracelets around her wrists, and combined with
shadows from the curtains to silhouette the curves of her trim figure. Neither expression nor
emotion affected her refined features. I hadn't noticed before, but she was not without her own
manner of beauty.
"Take one step closer and you're dogmeat," she warned,
without removing her eyes from the sunset. Her voice was hoarse, deadened from endless hours
of battle cries.
"I mean you no harm."
"I'll be the judge of that." Brushing her bangs away from
her forehead, she turned and glanced at me. "I saw you kill Raiden. You're an assassin, the one
they call Sub-Zero."
"That is correct."
"What do you want?"
"To help you free your subordinates."
"Do not concern yourself with that."
Her thin eyebrows descended, two taut, critical lines
overlooking her stern face. "Shang Tsung keeps Sparky and Catsclaw chained in Goro's lair. I
don't know where Shang Tsung stores the keys to their shackles. Goro has promised to rip them
limb from limb at the slightest provocation. Seven armed guards watch them at all times. That
bastard magician has promised me that he'll 'free' them if I defeat him in one-on-one combat.
Every instinct I've got says that he's lying. The only thing he intends to 'free' them from is their
lives. You use the same words he did, assassin. How do I know you're not one of his servants?"
I've killed people over lesser insults, but this was neither the time nor the place.
A flicker of supernatural essence seized my attention. I'd
been certain that no one was watching us a moment ago, yet traces of a third presence left slight
eddies in the open air. There was a faint whiff of an odor like concentrated vinegar.
"I asked you a question, mister," Sonya barked; I held up a
hand to stay her. Scanning the area, I detected the slightest irregularity against the haze of
blood-sacrifice Power lingering in Shang Tsung's unholy castle. I wouldn't have been able to
distinguish it from the background ambience if I hadn't encountered it before, reflected upon the
necromancer's own veil of death and destruction.
"Someone else is here," I cautioned.
The atmosphere in front of us rippled like concentric circles
spreading from where a stone is dropped into water. A living creature stepped out of the
distortion. It, too, was swathed in a Lin Kuei ceremonial uniform; the color highlights were
brilliant emerald, similar to but a shade brighter than Toxin's verdant garments. That would imply
a Power over Acid, if he were a Lin Kuei. He was not. He wasn't even human. Though his arms
and hands seemed ordinary enough, his face was that of an iguana, with green scales and a
protruding snout. His eyes were crimson, with vertically slit pupils. In addition to scaled upper
and lower eyelids, he had a third inner eyelid, a sheet of membranous white. It flicked sideways,
from his eyes' inner corners to the outer, and back again. The vinegar scent of his breath was
stronger, now that he was no longer using his Power to conceal his presence.
"Reptile comesss in
peassce," hissed the creature.
"If you want to see one of Shang Tsung's servants, look no
further," I observed.
"It isss true,"
assented. "I have taken an oath to honor, protect, and obey the
sssorsscerer unto death. That wasss before I learned of hisss plansss to enssslave the
"The Race? You mean, lizards like you?" Reptile's
immediate response to my query was the mix of a viper's hiss and a housecat's angry croon. With
conscious effort, he controlled his hissing and changed it into words.
"SsssSSS! 'Sssauriansss.' Thy
tongue isss a meter too
ssshort to call usss what we call ourssselvesss, but if thou mussst label mine brethren with thy
petty classsificassshtionsss, call usss 'sssauriansss.' 'Lissszardsss' are unintelligent, sssplay-legged
beassstsss, more dissstant from usss than thou art from apesss!"
"You were saying something about an oath?" Sonya
"Yesss. Dessspite mine
regretsss, a vow sssworn cannot be
unsssworn. Ssstill, it would pleassse me to know that one of the sssorsscerer'sss ambissshtionsss,
no matter how inconsssequenssshtial, hasss been foiled. I offer thee mine aid."
Sonya nodded. Incredulous, I turned to her and said, "You
cannot be serious. The thing has admitted that it is Shang Tsung's vassal!"
"And you've admitted to being a hired killer. At least
Reptile's told me why he wants to help, which is more than I can say about you," she rebuffed.
Her naiveté was baffling. Were a few smooth words and a scaly hide all it took to win her
"You have convinced me of nothing," I cautioned Reptile.
"If you wish to demonstrate your good intentions, you may start by telling me what in all
damnation Shang Tsung is amassing his cesspool of blood-sacrifice Power for."
"Dossst thou not know? Thou
wert presssent when I
exsssplained the sssorssscerer'sss massschinassshtionsss to Liu Kang. Of courssse, thou wert
rather dead at the time," Reptile remarked, baring overlapping rows of sharp,
in a hideous parody of a human smile. The smallest of his teeth were as long as the last two joints
of my index finger. His grimace felt more like a threat than an expression of mirth.
"Ssshang Tsssung plotsss to
open a ssstable gateway
between our world and the Outworld, a nether realm ruled by the dessspot Ssshao Kahn. Onsssce
that isss accomplissshed, the Kahn'sss legionsss will conquer the Earth, ssstripping it dry of life.
Creating the gateway requiresss tremendousss power, and many enssslaved sssoulsss of the
highessst caliber. The sssorssscerer hasss usssed thisss Tournament to amasss the nessscesssary
life forsssce for five hundred yearsss. Ssshould Goro dessstroy Liu Kang, Ssshang Tsssung will
have all he needsss to complete hisss vortexsss. Thou had bessst pray that Liu Kang doesss not
"I never pray." Liu Kang was a superb fighter, but Goro's
sheer strength was unearthly. Rather than pin reckless hopes on the young Samaritan, I had a
better plan: kill Shang Tsung, and his plots would die with him. He wasn't just the epicenter of the
necromantic web; he was its keystone. Once he was gone, the nightmare tied into him would
fragment and fold in on itself. I was not about to speak that thought aloud to Shang Tsung's
sworn protector, though.
"Be warned, asssasssin. I
sssaw thee obssserving the
captivesss. At timesss thou hassst been aware of mine presssensssce; more often, thou hassst
not." I returned his glass-eyed stare until he blinked, his third eyelids covering and
uncovering his feline orbs.
"Enough fairy tales," Sonya cut in, curtly. "How do the
two of you intend to help my men?"
Fixing his cat's eyes on her, Reptile answered, "There are
pathsss mine brethren can take to where thy men are held prisssoner. The Rasssce can essscort
them to sssafety, and tend their injuriesss until they are ready to return to thy
ssscivilissszassshtion. The bessst opportunity to ssstrike will be one hour from now, while Goro
isss preoccupied with hisss duel againssst Liu Kang. I ssshall sssupply sssome asssissstansssce in
sssubduing the guardsss." It took him a full eight seconds to hiss his way through the
"What about the chains?"
"The keysss to their locksss
were dessstroyed long ago.
Ssshang Tsssung opensss and closssesss the latchesss by meansss of hisss sssorssscery. I do not
know the pressscissse ssspell. Mine brethren mussst ussse their venom to russst through the
"How long would that take?"
"Posssibly half an
"Not good enough."
"Or they could amputate the
captivesss' handsss and feet."
"Definitely not good enough!"
"Leave the chains to me," I interjected. "I will unlock
Sonya's sapphire eyes narrowed. "So you say."
"I give you my word."
"You still haven't said why you want to help."
"Nor shall I."
Shang Tsung's fiery wave carved a triangular swath of
destruction, from a point at the tip of his hands that rapidly widened the further it progressed. It
flooded the earth from ground level to three times my height, and when it reached me it stretched
for meters to my right and left. I withdrew in a series of back handsprings. My retreat was not fast
The jaws of Hell returned to claim their own.
I drowned in a sea of horror. My entire being was awash
with blazing fiery torment. The afflicted outcries of a hundred thousand slain victims howled in
my mind. Automatically, I called to the Power, but the Ice vaporized instantly amid the sorcerer's
overwhelming holocaust. Old blister-scars from the day of my Test erupted in a shower of boiling
blood. I saw the flesh melt from my arms before my eyes melted as well. The agony did not
lessen. Its endless searing kiss continued long after I had skin to feel it...
"That is for conspiring behind my back!" Shang Tsung's
heel slammed into my stomach and snapped me out of the nightmare. His ocean of hellfire had
been a psychic attack. Though not physically burned, I was stunned, shaking, and spent from the
Power I'd wasted. My arms and face tingled with the memory of torture past. Shang Tsung
stamped again, fracturing the end of my sternum and adding a little more present suffering into the
mix. "And that is for abetting my victims' escape!"
The bastard was toying with me.
My newfound ability to hate flared, shutting down the pain,
blotting out apprehension, overriding all desires save the need to kill this odious filth that walked
like man. I wrapped one arm around his thigh and drove the edge of my hand into his knee.
Instead the expected crack of his breaking joint, I heard the swish of air as my
strike passed harmlessly through him. Confused, I sent a burst of the Power into his body; the Ice
sailed through his form and into the gulf beyond. I'd thought that his prior intangibility was a
Power he'd borrowed from Scorpion. I was wrong.
"Surprise!" Shang Tsung shouted, his face contorted in a
repellent expression of glee. "It doesn't work!" His elbow collided with the side of my
whiplash turned my head around, and suddenly Limbo's dusty soil itched in my eyes. The dull
throbbing in my temple told me that I'd hit the ground hard. "You can't harm this astral projection
of me, but I can enjoy my revenge on you!" He threw his head back and laughed; the wind's hot
breath resounded with echoes of his mania. While he was distracted, I rolled away. Pushing myself
into a standing position, I called the Power once more; yet what could I do with it? It had no
effect on him.
"Now, where was I?" mused the mad sorcerer. I threw the
Power to the ground in front of him, creating a barricade of Ice in an attempt to buy more time.
"Ah, yes. Absolute INCINERATION!" His gushing sea of hellfire immolated the barrier and me.
Agony returned, worse than before. Much worse. I weakly resisted the impulse to squander more
Ice fighting against his psychic assault.
There are ways for a warrior to deny pain, and ways to
struggle against it. In a lifetime filled with brutality I have learned that it is better to let the hurt
be. Acknowledge its presence, heed its warning of imminent bodily damage, but do not let it
interfere with what must be done. Masters of this discipline can endure being slowly skinned alive
without a change in their composure. I am merely a student.
"Are you going to stay down this time?" Shang Tsung's
sneer broke through the shock that had taken hold of my mind. Crawling to my knees was an
ordeal. Standing up was a challenge. "No? Oh, this is going to be fun!"
I was in no shape to withstand a third hellfire blast. The
sensory overload would render me helpless, and once I finished writhing for Shang Tsung's
amusement he would claim my soul. He was rubbing his hands a mere two meters away, yet there
was nothing I could do. The Power couldn't touch him.
But he could touch me!
I had an idea that was one-tenth inspiration, nine-tenths
desperation. Once more, I called the Power, yet instead of projecting it I deliberately kept its
chilling essence locked within. My plan depended on applying it in a uniquely subtle way. That,
and staying alive for the next few moments.
"Still clinging to your precious ice?" Shang Tsung snubbed.
"When are you going to learn how useless your pitiful conjurings are compared to mine?" He
stretched forth his arms. As he threw wide the floodgates of his hellfire, I vaulted up and over the
conflagration, landing behind him.
"Where do you think you're going!?" He turned and shot a
quicker jet of hellfire from one hand. I dodged around him, further than he could twist.
At a distance, I was defenseless against his widening blasts, but at close range they were narrow
enough for me to avoid.
"Stop moving around so much!" He turned his spin into a
whirling kick; I
easily eluded his short legs. All the time I was concentrating on gathering more Power, making it
course through my veins and underneath my skin.
Shang Tsung's pupilless eyes flashed. "Stand still!" he
demanded, swinging at my head. I ducked. Though the sorcerer had a young man's body, he was
not fully re-accustomed to it. His physical attacks were a hair too slow and clumsy, and the set of
his shoulders gave away his intent before he acted. For too many years, he'd depended on Goro to
fight his battles for him.
"Stop squirming!" I flipped to the side, executing a
cartwheel without touching my hands to earth. A hellfire wave came closer than the rest, but not
quite close enough. The screams of tortured souls drowned out Shang Tsung's curses. He lunged
forward with a punch; when I sidestepped, his face contorted and he shouted something in an
obscure Cantonese dialect. I recognized the word for "offal."
Outside, I'd goaded the sorcerer into a frustrated rage.
Inside, I'd built up as concentrated a field of the Power as possible, given the circumstances.
There could not be a better time.
I stumbled, skidding on one knee.
"Finally!" cackled the sorcerer, wrapping his clawlike
fingers around my neck. "Your soul is MI-"
An unexpected force arrested his voice. The Power
coursing through me had lowered the temperature of my skin well below freezing, past the
threshold where common flesh withers and dies. Once contact was made, the essence of Ice
sucked the warmth from his limb and yearned for more, absorbing his tepid vitality through his
arm. Shang Tsung wrenched his hand away. His teeth chattered. He staggered. His entire body
shivered uncontrollably. If not for his vast supply of Power, he would have been completely
paralyzed. A shuddering gasp escaped his lips. "Ss-sso c-c-c-cold..."
Holding the Power within for so long had strained me
above and beyond the stress of battle. Now that it had served its purpose, I let it return to whence
it came, simultaneously making a tiger claw strike to the sorcerer's larynx. This time, my hand
contacted soft skin instead of empty air. Shang Tsung's jugular crumpled underneath the impact,
as did his trachea. I'd crushed his throat in a single blow.
That should have killed him.
Somehow, he continued to breathe despite the wreck I'd
made of his windpipe. When I tried again, he awkwardly brought his crossed wrists against mine,
partially deflecting the attempt with an X-block. Though I'd broken the spell that had made him
intangible, the bountiful wellspring of Power within him was repairing the damage almost as
quickly as I'd inflicted it. What would it take to kill him? Would he die if I tore off his head?
"I know what you're thinking!" he shrieked hysterically,
unleashing another hellfire wave. I sprinted at a right angle to its flow, narrowly evading its
embrace. The necromancer started to back away. I maintained the distance between us with
Shang Tsung snarled, "You're not going to lay another
finger on me. I watched you in the Tournament, and I remember who defeated you!" His Power
shimmered. His clothing changed pattern; his skin darkened to a more burnished hue; and he
grew. When the warping effects of his sorcery faded, Liu Kang's likeness stood before me.
"You're MINE now!" he crowed in the young warrior's
Reptile cloaked us with his Power of Invisibility. Sonya and
I could still see one another, but no one could perceive us through the creature's projected aura.
Though Reptile himself was unseen to my eyes, telltale scraps of mystic runoff betrayed his
approximate location. He was behind me. The three of us silently crept through Goro's dank lair.
Liu Kang's fight with the four-armed Prince of Shokan would take place any second now, in a
shadowy cavern a scant distance away. Echoes of the young warrior's taunts drifted to our
"The Shokan were once a proud and noble race. Now look
at you - fallen to the level of a hired thug!"
"rrrrrrRRRRR," Goro growled.
Sparky and Catsclaw hung slack on their chains,
unconscious. Seven hooded guards surrounded them in a half-circle. Reptile, Sonya, and I
arranged ourselves as planned. Sonya would handle the two guards furthest to the right, Reptile
the two at farthest left, while the middle three were mine. I'd volunteered to deal with them,
explaining that I, too, am capable of affecting more than one target with my Power - provided that
I have enough time in advance to gather the required amount. To prepare for three targets, I'd
spent the previous ten minutes in meditation, and I had to discharge the Ice soon or it would fade
from my grasp.
"You are a Prince, Goro! The Shokan's nobility used to be
champions and defenders. When did you sell your souls to a monster less human than you
YOUR ANCESTOR SUFFER BEFORE HE DIED. YOU WILL ENDURE THE SAME
FATE!" All three guards in front of me flinched from Goro's vehemence.
"Careful, Goro." Shang Tsung's command came from
above as well as afar. He had to be seated atop his throne on the lip of this honeycombed ravine.
"Do not toy with this one. Kill him without delay."
NEEDS NO ADVICE FROM A WEAKLING LIKE YOU!"
Shang Tsung sucked in his breath. Though I could not see
him, I could almost feel ripples of his outrage. "Do as you will, then," he spat, barely in control of
his temper. "FIGHT!"
The sorcerer's command was our agreed-upon signal to
I channeled a wide surge of the Power into the three
guards before me. Sonya seized the heads of her two guards and smashed them together. A
hissing sound came from my left as I stepped forward and crushed the throats of two of my
guards. They collapsed, sputtering, trying vainly to breathe. The third had begun to shake off the
Ice's effects by the time I got to him, but he still couldn't see me. He attempted to call out and
raise his spear. Taking hold of the weapon's shaft, I rammed its far end into its wielder's
diaphragm. His cry became the whistle of deflating lungs. I curled one arm tight around his throat.
He struggled for a short while, then fell slack. I let his limp body fall face down on the
Blood gushed from the headless neck stump of one of
Reptile's guards. The other had one hand clasped over his eyes. Caustic green spittle dripped from
between his fingers. His remaining hand made a thrust with the spear it held, wide of where
Reptile stood. For an instant the saurian's scaled face became visible, hovering within the nebulous
aura of leaking Power trails. Reptile's tongue shot out. It stretched like a frog's, spanning the
meter between his mouth and the guard's face. The pink member wrapped itself around hooded
sentry's head, muzzling his startled cry. The vinegar stink of Reptile's caustic saliva mixed with the
odors of his victim's fear and sizzling skin. Knifelike fragments of bone poked out of Reptile's
tongue. They drove deep into the guard's neck, slicing through skin, muscle, and vertebrae. The
sentry's muffled shriek abruptly ceased as the tongue retracted, pulling the severed head off its
torso. Reptile's jaws unhinged, distending impossibly wide, and the head wrapped in tongue
vanished down them. A bulge briefly appeared in his neck, but soon vanished. Noticing me, he
returned my stare and rubbed his stomach with one hand, mimicking the human gesture for
By this time, both of Sonya's guards were also stretched
flat on the cold stone. Reptile's gaze flicked briefly upon them and the bodies of the sentries I'd
brought down, yet he made no move to eat them. Perhaps he preferred to dine upon live
I glanced at Sonya. Streaks of blood streamed from a deep
gash in her left shoulder. She clasped her right hand tightly around the wound.
"What the hell are you staring at?" she whispered,
virulently. "Unlock Sparky's and Catsclaw's chains, now!" In the distance, Goro roared
while Liu Kang shrieked a wailing battle cry. There was the thump sound of something
large and heavy colliding with a solid surface.
I set to work on the locks around the blond captive's
ankles, sending the Power inside and molding it into the proper shape to trigger the release
mechanism. It took less than twenty seconds for me to undo all the iron shackles, except for one
stubborn lock on the swarthy captive's wrist. That one I had to break apart by allowing the
Power's essence to freeze and expand within the iron band's joints. The tread of padded feet
surrounded me while I worked. Reptile's kin had arrived on schedule.
A soft groan escaped the swarthy captive's lips as he fell
onto the supportive hands of Reptile's associates. Two of them draped his arms around
themselves and propped him up. His eyes fluttered open.
"Lieutenant...?" he murmured.
"It's all right, Catsclaw," she softly responded. "They're
friends. We're going to get both of you out of this."
"I had the strangest dream. The old man made you fight
Kano to the death in front of us, thirty-six times."
"Oh. Must've lost count after the twentieth time you killed
I turned my back on them all and approached the guard I'd
choked with a stranglehold. He did not appear to be breathing. Rolling him on his back, I
removed his hood. His face was a hideous human parody with sickly yellow skin, slitted eyes of
crimson, and the jaws of a shark. His mouth was frozen in an abnormally wide grin, neatly
splitting his face nearly from cheekbone to cheekbone, and filled with compressed rows of
metallic grey canines. Shang Tsung's servants were monsters not of this world.
This particular monster's chest rose and fell in slight
increments. Good. I hadn't misgauged the duration of my hold after all. Wrapping my arm around
his neck once more, I sprinkled a whisper of the Power of his face. When a layer of fine frost
coated his features, he started to revive.
"...rrrgh... gackh... huh?"
"Your comrades are dead. Soon you will join them," I
"YAAAAAAH! INTRUDERS! ALERT! MASTER, HELP
ME!" he screamed, writhing. Commotion stirred on the ridges above us, in the wake of his cries.
At least another dozen guards streamed toward us, drawn by his shrieks. I ended his noise with a
deft snap of his neck.
A buzzing cavalcade of pink energy whistled and flashed
over my head. It had come from the crackling metal bracelet around Sonya's wrist. She reeled a
step back; her aim had been off because her one good arm wasn't enough to properly brace herself
against the blast's recoil. Her face was twisted in an expression of outrage. I reached inside my
"You planned to betray us all along!" she accused.
Of course. I needed to distract Shang Tsung's guards. This
jailbreak was the perfect diversion. Though I'd promised to release her underlings from their
chains, I'd made no express or implied guarantees about what might happen afterward. But with
Shang Tsung's legion bearing down on us, I had neither the time nor the inclination to explain
The approaching guards were only meters away when,
taking a deep breath, I withdrew a stoppered glass vial and smashed it on the stone between them
and Sonya. Sounds of choking and vomiting dogged my heels as I sprinted under cover of the
thick, billowing vapor, which rapidly spread to engulf the entire chamber. Perhaps Sonya and her
underlings would escape in the confusion; perhaps they would not. I did not care either way. They
had chosen their fate when they dared to pursue Shang Tsung's vessel, just as the slain ranks of
the Tournament's competitors had chosen theirs.
Liu-Tsung charged me, smoothly transforming his run into
a leaping kick like an arrow let fly. He moved with the speed, precision, and grace of the young
warrior, but the true Liu Kang would not have been so reckless. Liu-Tsung had initiated the
attack from so far away that I had more than sufficient time to see him coming and react. I waited
until he'd left the ground before I threw the full brunt of my Power at him, to ensure that he would
not dodge it with his lightning speed. His flight came to a halt in midair, suspended in space and
time by the Ice.
It would not hold him for long. Running toward
Liu-Tsung, I vaulted above his motionless body, grasping hold of his shoulders and using them as
a brace to support me while I flipped. When I landed, I used my spiraling momentum to heave him
over my head and smash him face down into the dusty earth. He was moving to cushion the
impact even as I completed the throw, bringing in his arms and legs to absorb the shock.
Liu-Tsung's crossed forearms protected his head from a blow that could have cracked his skull.
He instantly sprang back up, a little dazed but far from beaten.
Using my hands and one knee as a stable tripod, I crouched
and made a ducking kick to his ankles. He left the ground a fraction of a second before I finished
the attack, leaping up impossibly high and spreading his legs wide. I angled a second kick upward,
nailing him in the groin.
His back was to the canyon's edge as he fell, shrieking a
pained wail that lowered pitch from Liu Kang's piercing howl to Shang Tsung's deeper squawk.
His body melted back into its shorter, yellow-dressed shape. The necromancer had thought to
gain the upper hand by borrowing Liu Kang's body, but the young warrior hadn't defeated me
simply with his speed and Power. He'd bested me with his intelligence, especially his uncanny
ability to read my moves and counter. Shang Tsung's mind just wasn't up to the challenge,
particularly after five hundred years of inactivity.
"Get AWAY!" he cried, his voice cracking. He threw a
swath of hellfire, which I avoided by stepping in line with him, along the canyon's edge. I took
hold of his right arm, the one closest to me, and twisted it behind his back, forcing the bent
forearm up until his shoulder dislocated with a soft sound. His free arm flailed; Power dripped
from his fingertips as he attempted to unleash more hellfire. I forced his free arm behind his back
while his dislocated arm hung limply. The dislodged limb was already healing, but it couldn't
function unless he set it back in its socket, and I would not give him the opportunity.
My free hand grasped the small knot of dark hair at the
base of his scalp and wrenched his head back. "No, NOOOO! Let me go! Let me GO!" he raved.
One of his black shoes stomped blindly, landing by sheer luck on my outer foot. I didn't slacken
my hold, but the attack destabilized me, and Shang Tsung's accursed neck was so tough it resisted
the pressure I put on it well after a mortal neck would have snapped. Still, it was gradually giving
"Let me GOOOOOOO!" he screeched, throwing
weight over the lip of the cliff. That was the one maneuver I had not foreseen. Gravel skidded
underneath my smarting outer foot. I was falling over the side with the necromancer. Releasing
him, I twisted and gained a hold on the cliff's edge with both hands. My body smacked against the
ravine's side. I nearly let go when a jutting portion of rock poked at my fractured sternum. The
last echoes of Shang Tsung's descending wail still haunted the air after I'd pulled myself back on
the canyon's lip. I peered over the edge, seeing swirling clouds and nothing more.
If I could survive a plunge into this gulf, so could he. It
was a long way down, long enough to give him the time he needed to focus his Power and levitate
to a safe landing. Now that there was a break in the excitement, I felt very tired. Days of sleepless
weariness weighed heavily upon my shoulders.
Hot wind suddenly gushed from the ravine's depths, forcing
me to take several steps back and shield my eyes from its press. Earthshaking screams
accompanied it. A series of ululating howls that could come from no natural beast rent the air.
Something was coming. Something big.
A writhing atrocity rose from the void. Its huge mass
blotted out the burning sun, replacing its orange beams with deep crimson light pulsing from the
cracks in its segmented body. For a face, it had a single plating of hard bone with
sideways-curving pincers framing the mouth; neither skin nor scales covered the exoskeleton. Its
multifaceted compound eyes blazed with white heat. Segments resembling insect legs jutted out of
its bony face, constantly bending and waving along their many joints. The abomination's body was
covered with thick, overlapping armor plates, which ran in rectangular segments along its snake's
belly. Sharp parallel ridges extruded from the sides of each segment. It had a great many black
legs, branching off in clumps along its length. Each leg ended in feet covered with razor-edged
blades the length of my forearm. Pairs of thin insect wings ran down its spine; the air hummed
from their continual beating. They churned so quickly that their exact shape blurred and was lost.
Surrounding the flying horror was a squalid, immediately familiar aura of black sorcery.
Shang Tsung had finally tapped into his immense reserves
My plan was working better than I'd expected. All Shang
Tsung's guards had left him, save one. The lone sentry's head was bowed and his shoulders
slumped, while the necromancer's finely arched eyebrows descended in scorn. Though the guard's
words were too high-pitched to discern against Liu Kang's and Goro's clamorous battle cries,
Shang Tsung's accusatory reply was firm and clear.
"You have failed me." The necromancer's attention was
entirely fixed upon his underling. Neither party detected my stealthy approach. The Power
hovered upon my hands. I was within range to cast it, yet caution held me back. The Ice I create
cannot kill across a distance; it merely stuns, and only for a short time. Worse, the concentration
required to project it across open space would leave me momentarily vulnerable. Shang Tsung
was so deadly, so Powerful that it would be better to kill him in a single action. I crept close
enough to hear the guard's reply.
"Master, I wasn't late for my shift-"
"No excuses!" snapped the sorcerer.
"I am ashamed, Master. Please forgive me." Shang Tsung's
lackey fell to his knees, prostrating himself like a whimpering dog.
"I forgive you."
Whispers of clearer eddies reflected off Shang Tsung's
churning aura and scattered across open space. They were my only warning a split-second before
a noose of flesh, reeking of vinegar and dripping caustic slime, curled around my neck. Shards of
bone poked through its flaccid length, digging into my skin. Placing both hands on the fleshy
member, I drove the Power into it. The Ice made it brittle as wafer; I snapped the tendril into
pieces, ripping them off my throat and casting them away.
Spinning around, I confronted a very distressed Reptile.
His elongated tongue spilled out of his mouth and onto the floor, ending in an open wound that
spilled brackish-maroon blood. He tried to say something, perhaps a warning to his master, but all
that came out was a weak lisp. The scream of a mortal being drained of his soul filled my ears as I
firmly stepped on Reptile's bleeding tongue. I'd pinned him in place for a two-handed gouge to his
feline eyes, yet when he shut his eyelids, my fingers couldn't penetrate their unusually heavy
Reptile's tongue shrank, disappearing from underneath my
foot until all that could be seen of it were spurts of its blood trickling down his jaw. His skin
changed color to pale dusk. Blisters appeared on his face. Slit-pupiled, crimson eyes softened into
round pupils surrounded by sienna iris. Fully transformed, he summoned a spiraling wheel of my
own Ice and cast it toward me.
The lizard was a blasted shape-changer, just like his
"Where is he? Where is that cringing coward, Shang
Tsung?" Liu Kang's shouted insults drowned out the scarce noise of the struggle with my own
reflection. I dived underneath the glittering path of his stolen Power, tackling SubZero-Reptile
about the knees.
"You can no longer hide behind Goro; I have defeated
him!" Reptile's form was in the process of changing again when I cocked and drove my fist into
his throat. The skin on his mirror-image face melted, dripping away from a stark white skull. My
knuckles met a hard ridge of bone. Reptile, now remade in Scorpion's image, used his newly
gained Power to disappear in a faint puff of breezy Power.
"Shang Tsung, you aging relic, answer me! You fading
mockery of a man! You pitiable monster in the shape of an elderly wreck!" Scorpion-Reptile
reformed to my left. He drove the heel of his right hand toward my nose. Keeping my left arm
bent perpendicular, I used the inner edge of its forearm to deflect his strike at a cross-angle. He
moved to retract his arm, but wasn't quite fast enough. I took hold of the bony limb. Shifting
position to squarely face his right side, I whipped his arm in a clockwise circle, while keeping the
radius and ulna bones of his forearm in constant alignment. Though Scorpion-Reptile's adopted
form had neither skin nor muscle, his joints obeyed the same laws as any mortal's. His body
followed the twist of his arm, spinning forward and awkwardly flopping on his back.
Scorpion-Reptile's skull blurred, again shifting into the mirror image of my fire-scarred face.
"I have passed ALL your tests; now come down and face
me like the warrior you PRETEND to be!" As I chambered another crushing blow to his trachea,
SubZero-Reptile's good arm lashed out. Its fingers brushed lightly against my wrist-
The touch of my own paralysis used against me was like
seeing the world reflected in the shine of a frozen waterfall. Listening to the drifting snow. Feeling
the beat of an owl's wings on the winter wind.
"Reptile!" Shang Tsung's frantic shriek jolted me out of
that motionless other world. Only seconds had passed, though it did not feel that way. The
necromancer was in front of me. To his left lay the dried remains of a dead guard. Crumbling
mortar skittered underneath Shang Tsung's feet; he teetered on the topmost edge of Goro's lair,
about to fall in. SubZero-Reptile was behind him and to his right, just outside his visual range.
SubZero-Reptile tentatively reached to steady his master - and stopped short.
In retrospect, I think I know what made him hesitate.
Once, a select few of the Lin Kuei used to study the Power of shape-shifting. They soon learned
its penultimate danger: losing one's identity to that of the borrowed form. Some became beasts
that forgot how to be human. Others changed into the bodies of members of rival clans, to assist
operations of infiltration and espionage. Their schemes backfired when they became the
selling out and turning against the Lin Kuei in a murderous rampage. Eventually shape-shifting,
like necromancy, was also forbidden of all clan members on pain of death.
When Reptile assumed my form, he also acquired my desire
to kill Shang Tsung. That desire had to be at war with his true self, which had sworn an oath to
protect Shang Tsung. While he was trapped in the steel claws of indecision, the necromancer
plummeted over the edge, landing with a dull thud on the floor of Goro's Lair. Shocked,
SubZero-Reptile stared down into the gulf. As his borrowed form reverted to dull green scales, I
formed a stiletto of Ice in my hand. I planted the weapon in Reptile's back, between his scapulae
and to the left. He toppled over the side as well.
Looking over the edge, I saw Shang Tsung stagger to his
feet. Liu Kang approached him swiftly, yet also cautiously. I sprinted around and down a sloping
ramp built into the wall's far edge. The necromancer cried out in pain when I touched the floor of
Goro's lair. Liu Kang was keeping him quite distracted. That would make my job all the
One moment there was a clear path to the beleaguered
Shang Tsung; the next, Scorpion's forbidding visage barred my way. This had to be the true
Scorpion, not Reptile in disguise; for like me, Shang Tsung's servant preferred ambush to open
combat. The specter's unearthly spear tore through the empty space between us, seeking my heart.
I flipped forward, tucking into a ball and clearing the barb's lethal course. The basalt sole of
Scorpion's boot slammed against my chest while I was in the process of landing. In the distance,
Liu Kang voiced his wordless battle cry.
*Have you forgotten?
This is the appointed hour of retribution!* Stunned and off-balance, I threw up
my arms to deflect Scorpion's chambered
punch, but his jab had been a feint - the true attack came from his other hand, and lower. His bony
knuckles drove into my diaphragm. I doubled over.
He was good. At least my equal in speed and strength.
*Yesss, my demons have
prepared me well for this day. Two years to you has been an eternity of training and hatred for
me! Did you think you could run from my vengeance, assassin!?* Rage suddenly
overtook him. Abandoning subtlety, he thrust a
straight punch, which I caught in my palm. He tried to claw my face with the skeletal fingers of
his free arm; I seized its wrist and grappled with him. We remained locked in a balanced test of
might. The modicum of effort required to call the Power would have been more than I could
afford to sacrifice, so instead I tried to stave off the specter with words.
"I do not have time for this! I must kill Shang Tsung. After
I have assassinated him, I shall accept your challenge!" If he truly could see into my mind, then he
knew that I always keep my agreements to the letter.
*No! Shang Tsung could
kill you, and deprive me of my revenge!*
*I will not take that risk!
Your life is MINE to destroy, and MINE alone!*
While we argued, Liu Kang sang a final, piercing wail of
pure fury. A dull crack sound accompanied it. The combined effect set off a chain reaction
in the necromantic aura that permeated Shang Tsung's palace. Stone cracked. Lightning flashed.
Wooden supports creaked and groaned. The air crackled with unraveling Power. There could be
only one explanation: Shang Tsung had lost to Liu Kang, and the failure was tearing apart his
delicate web of sorcery. Judging from the terrible grinding sounds, it would seem that his palace
was crumbling as well. Perhaps it, too, was like Dragon Wing - a structure so shoddy that only
black magic stalled its disintegration.
"Reptile..." the necromancer coughed. His faint cry was
hardly audible over the din of his decaying palace. I should have known Liu Kang would not have
the ruthlessness to kill him directly. If I moved quickly, I could still finish what the young warrior
I ceased pushing against Scorpion's strength and rocked
backwards. Unprepared for the sudden lack of resistance, the specter pitched toward me. With an
upward kick to boost his momentum, I sent him over my head, yet kept the grip on his arms so
that his supine body smacked into the stone floor behind me. I completed my roll, arriving with
my knees on his shoulders, and drove the Power into the base of his neck. There was no more
time to waste on him, not when Shang Tsung could already be fleeing. Icy paralysis would keep
Scorpion out of my hair for long enough. Chunks of loosening mortar and stone tumbled from
above as I sprinted in the direction of the necromancer's voice.
My fear that he might escape had been unfounded.
Liu Kang had broken Shang Tsung's spine. The
necromancer's arms and legs hung completely slack. Reptile was there, supporting his upper body.
The lizard was almost as bad off as his master. One of the scaly creature's legs had been twisted
by his fall; he tried to stay balanced on one knee. A deep gash cut into the right side of his saurian
head. Rivulets of dull reddish blood, trickling from both the head and the mouth, dampened his
face and uniform. The stiletto of Ice was still in his back. I'd aimed it to pierce his heart, but
perhaps lizard organs are not arranged in the same manner as those of men. Shang Tsung's sworn
protector was in no condition to oppose me.
A man-sized block of masonry barreled toward my
head, forcing me to dodge. The block missed me by such a close margin that it pinned down the
frontscloth of my ceremonial uniform. As I tore the damn thing free, I heard Reptile's whisper
carry underneath the surrounding cacophony.
"I am sssorry,
"You should be," Shang Tsung snapped.
I closed in on the sorcerer and his slave just in time to see a
gigantic pile of mossy cinder blocks pulverize their bones.
The thing Shang Tsung had become opened its rigid jaws
and vomited an expanding cone of fire - real fire, not a psychic attack that merely stunned.
threw myself almost but not quite entirely out of its path. Part of my uniform was ablaze when I
landed. To smother the flames, I rolled lengthwise on Limbo's dust.
The fireworm's wingbeats combined with the vibration of
his segmented armor plates to create a buzzing, chattering sound that vaguely resembled words.
%zzzNOW YOU zzzSEE THE TRUE EXzzzTENT OF MY
POWERzzz! zzzBEG FOR
MERzzzCY, FLESHLING, AND I MAY GRANT YOU A FAzzzST DEATH INSTEAD
OF A TORTUROUSzzz ONEzzz - zzzBUT EITHER WAY, YOUR zzzSOUL ISzzz
I had absolutely no idea what to do.
Assassinating a man is one thing, but how in all damnation
was I to kill a flying horror fifty times my size? What little Power I could call forth was flickering
unevenly on my left hand. It wasn't enough to immobilize a single one of the gigantic fireworm's
insect legs. Though my uniform was extinguished, my right arm and leg sported long burns on
their exposed skin. Blocking out the distress chipped away at my concentration. Exhaustion
sapped my strength. When I tried to move, the best I could manage was a halting limp.
%zzzI DON'T HEAR
swooped down. Three pairs of his insect legs plucked me off the ground, easily anticipating my
weak attempt to dodge. The fireworm's armor-plated skin seared like superheated metal. My
struggles had no effect. My feeble burst of Power sizzled and evaporated off his bony exterior.
His snakelike neck curled in a loop, bringing his white-hot, compound eyes on line with my own.
His bony maw opened and shut with hard clack sounds. %zzzFIRzzzST YOUR
ARMSzzz, THEN YOUR LEGSzzz, THEN LAzzzST OF ALL YOUR HEADzzz!%
Saibot had been right all along. This was one trap I could
Scorpion's delay had cost me my opportunity to kill Shang
Indescribable acrimony engulfed me as I dashed for the
shelter of the side tunnels leading from Goro's lair. The pressing, maddening astringency was a
dangerous distraction from the life-threatening chaos of Shang Tsung's dying palace. Pieces of
falling masonry came close to killing me when I dived into the closest tunnel opening. I skidded
into another pile of rubble. This tunnel's interior had caved in, turning it into a cul-de-sac. More
plummeting debris accumulated in front of the tunnel's entrance, reducing the already poor
visibility within to nearly zero - except for the illumination of two milk-white eyes, glowing eerily
in the darkness. The faint outline of an unmasked skull framed their soft radiance.
I was not surprised to find Scorpion waiting for me. If
anything, I was glad.
"You cost me my kill," I growled.
*We must leave this
place. Come with me.* He held out a skeletal hand.
I launched forward in a catlike pounce, tackling him. His
empty eyes grew a shade wider when he hit the ground. Chambering my fist close to my ribs, I
pounded him with a straight punch that knocked several teeth out of his maxilla and mandible.
Scorpion's body suddenly reverted from solid to ghostly; my follow-up punch passed through his
dissipating form, and I bloodied my knuckles on the hard rock underneath.
fool!* he snapped as he reformed to my left. *I
only want to kill you. But there are horrors that even the dead fear, as you will find out if
the vortex born of Shang Tsung's destruction ensnares your soul! I can transport us both to a
place where we may finish this without outside interference, if you will only stand
No. No deals. No delays. He'd sacrificed that option when
he cost me my kill. While he wasted his breath on useless explanations, I summoned a minimal
amount Power and cast it at his flickering image. He brought up his skeletal arms in a king's X,
warding off the sprinkling of Ice, but the Power had been merely a feint. Recovering quickly from
the weak burst of Ice, I'd begun my charge as soon as it left my hands, and left the ground when
crystals scattered across his guard. I extended my lead leg, keeping it straight and flexing the heel,
the better to drive my full weight into his torso.
Scorpion tried to dodge by turning sideways; I hooked my
knee in a midair kick that scored a glancing blow to his chest. One of his ribs fractured with a
faint snap sound. The enclosed chamber's wall was rushing toward me; as I landed from
the flying kick, I stumbled into the rough stone, bruising my shin and shoulder.
The specter was already upon me, tethered spear in hand. I
knew he would hurl it toward my heart before he moved to do so; that anticipation saved my life.
My palm pushed upon the spear's shaft perpendicular to its forward thrust, deflecting its course.
Its lethal tip scored a gash on the stone wall behind me, creating a small shower of sparks.
Undaunted, Scorpion lifted his knee and rammed the ball of his foot into my stomach. The
distance between us softened the kick more than my training to absorb impacts with a minimum of
damage. Even so, it was good that I had not eaten recently.
I doubled over, folding my arms and pressing them under
my ribcage. The specter advanced. Eager to press his advantage, he didn't realize my deceit until I
snapped out of the pose and gripped his shoulders. I hopped like a jumping songbird, planting my
feet where my hands had been and pushing off him as if he were a springboard. He tumbled
backwards while I flipped through the air and landed in a full-forward stance, waiting for his next
Scorpion recovered quickly from his fall. The fiery nimbus
of his Power surrounded him, concentrated most fiercely upon his head and eyes. He took one
look at the distance between us and hurled his mystic spear across the expanse.
He should have known better than to try the same
maneuver on me twice. I propelled myself into a forward flip. As the spear hurtled underneath me,
I reached and plucked it out of the air with both hands, using my forward spin to redirect its
momentum. Scorpion was frozen in that timeless instant of helplessness forced upon one who
projects more than the slightest effort into his Power. I pushed the weapon into his upper body,
angling its tip slightly upward between the fourth and fifth ribs of his left breast.
The point of Scorpion's own sting protruded out through
his back. He bled, if the brackish, watery substance seeping from the puncture could be called
blood. His legs shivered and refused to support his weight. He leaned against the wall and
slumped, in an eerie replay of that fatal night two years ago.
Outside the cul-de-sac, crackling bursts of lightning and
thunder split the air. A monstrous typhoon whipped stone blocks like a summer wind stirs dry
leaves. Oppressive waves of unimaginable Power run wild washed over everything. Leaving
Scorpion's still form behind, I approached the tunnel's mouth and glimpsed the cacophony's
source: a steadily growing bubble of pure black. The vortex sucked rubble off the floor.
Disappearing chunks of dirt and stone changed color, flashing through the visible spectrum from
violet to deep red before they were lost within the amorphous black mass. Its jet surface was
already pressing against the half-covered opening of this recess. The convex sable wall steadily
absorbed the pile of fallen stone across the cul-de-sac's entrance and began to push inside. Loose
cloth upon my ceremonial uniform flapped from the dark matter's hurricane pull, which threatened
to sweep me off my feet. I backed up to the niche's far wall.
*You - come -
An ageless hand closed around my throat, cutting off my
breath. I called the Power to my defense, but another limb, dry and sturdy as an ancient tree
branch, struck the back of my head. My focus was lost; my thoughts were stunned. No amount of
struggling could resist the hands that lifted me lengthwise. Lack of air caused spots to flash before
my eyes, yet I had a momentary downward glimpse of Scorpion holding me high, his eyes afire
with bloodlust. His own spear still protruded through his ribcage.
I should have realized our battle was still in progress. He
hadn't stayed dead the first time I killed him, after all; but I'm too accustomed to enemies who stay
put once their heart has stopped. The specter had surprised me with the stealth and ruthlessness
worthy of a Lin Kuei.
*You dare to murder me
he spat, nearly choking on his own hatred. *For that, you will
die twice! And your second death will be annihilation of the SOUL!* The
specter carried me forward and flung me into the rippling sable surface.
A universe of blackness imploded, constricting me in a
slowly tightening vise. Ghostly, prying talons curled around the central focus of my being and rent
it asunder. Scorpion's maniacal cry of triumph followed me into the depths of perdition... until I
came to my senses, spread-eagled on the dry soil of a place that was too damn hot.
I opened my eyes and saw a demon.
The fireworm's slavering jaws were about to clamp down
on my arm when a frigid gust of wind blew, upsetting his aerial balance. He rolled over, twisting
and straining his wings to regain lift. A broad shadow fell upon his segmented body.
Keening, musical cries sounded. They were the ringing of
fine crystal, delicate and graceful, yet projected with so much strength they drowned out the
fireworm's buzzing. Hovering above the evil monster was something almost as large. Its partly
translucent body refracted the sun's rays into a dazzling prism. The fireworm's compound eyes
flickered from white to deep red to violet, adjusting to the intense brilliance. Squinting, I traced
the graceful pattern of light in the form of a slender neck, four elegantly clawed legs, a coachwhip
tail, and a vast pair of wings spread wide.
She was an ice dragon.
My ice dragon.
She was a gleaming shard of Paradise come to life. Her
aura was a clear beacon of lost innocence, unsullied by mortal greed or evil. She was as beautiful
as she had been the day I'd crafted her.
Circling above the fireworm, she lowered her head and
opened her triangular mouth. What poured out was not the flaming, noxious stink of lesser
creatures. Pure hoarfrost sparkled in the wake of her respiration, coating the fireworm's scales,
stopping four pairs of his wings, dusting the insect legs that held me and soothing my burns. The
fireworm sank lower, hovering only a few meters above the ground. Invigorated by the sudden
temperature plunge, I forced my arms apart, shattering the worm's restraining limbs. Ice had made
the insect legs so brittle they snapped into pieces, broken off at frozen stumps. My scorched leg
buckled underneath me when I landed.
Overhead, the battle raged on. The ice dragon exhaled
another cone of hoarfrost breath, but something was wrong - it missed the fireworm, which
twisted and curled around the deadly vapor, his remaining multitude of wings keeping him
BEAzzzST! YOU CANNOT zzzSTOP
THE LIVING AVATAR OF POWERzzz!% He retaliated with his own breath weapon,
which shot forward and cut into her side. One of her magnificent wings simply vanished,
vaporized by the fiery torrent. A deep, hollowed gash in her body marked where it had been.
There was no blood, only dripping ice water. Unable to stay aloft, she crashed heavily on her
"No!" I shouted, involuntarily. I limped toward where she
zzzYOU'RE ASzzz WEAK ASzzz THE FLESHLING YOU TRY TO PROTECTzzz!%
taunted the fireworm, darting low. The ice
dragon's serpentine neck darted upward; she tried to bite her enemy's throat. Again, the attack
missed. Her glittering icicle teeth chipped upon one of the bony frills extending from the back of
THISzzz! zzzDIEzzz!% The worm
breathed his fiery wrath upon the grounded dragon. She countered with her hoarfrost exhalation.
Fire met Ice as I reached her side; the two elements reacted violently with one another, throwing
off wide jets of hot steam.
"Shang Tsung! Leave her alone!" I yelled, but my
were swallowed up in the hissing pandemonium of their struggle. Desperately, I threw myself at
the only part of the fireworm close enough for me to reach - the tip of his dangling tail. A slight
coating of Power on my hands only partly protected them from his scalding armor plates.
THISzzz? zzzAWAY, PEzzzST!
zzzI'LL DISzzzMEMBER YOU zzzSOON ENOUGHzzz!% He lashed his tail until it
from of my burned fingers. I hurtled through the air, rolling as I hit the ground in a haphazard
attempt to soften my fall. %zzzSTUPID FLESHLING, YOU
CANNOT OPPOzzzSE ME! zzzI
AM SHANG zzzTSUNG! I AM INVINzzzCIBLE! I AMzzzZZZZZZZZAAAAH-%
Wrapped up in his boasts, Shang Tsung did not react to my
ice dragon's lunge until too late. She reared up on the tripod of her hind legs and tail, locking her
icicle teeth and front claws upon the creases in the fireworm's neck plates, behind the frill
shielding his head. His cord-like body thrashed wildly, yet his remaining wings were not strong
enough to lift both himself and her. Bit by bit, she dragged him down to earth.
%zzzNO, NOOO! LET
ME GO, LET ME GO, LET ME GOOOOOzzz!% The fireworm spat his breath weapon,
but was unable to turn his head toward
his captor. His flames blasted empty space. Screaming, he called upon his turbulent reserves of
Power. His segmented body burst into reddish-yellow gouts of Fire, which carved melting,
steaming rents in the ice dragon's ethereal body. One of her front legs dissolved completely. Still,
she did not release him.
The Power was already on my hands as I limped toward
them, desperate to destroy the monstrous thing that was killing my ice dragon. Heedless of her
own injuries, she pinned his head down, exposing the underside of his throat. Limbo's dusty earth
smothered some of his surrounding flames.
I knew exactly what to do.
I reached past my spent psyche, beyond reserves of inner
strength long since sacrificed, into the wellspring that powered my own survival, and from that
pool forged a sword of glittering Ice diamonds. Its sharpness and strength were tied into the
endurance of my own heart and lungs. Its edge was serrated, paper-thin yet reinforced with pure
Power. Ignoring the worm's oppressive fire and calamitous struggles, I swung the executioner's
blade down upon the slight gap between the armor plates on his throat. The weapon slipped
through, chopping part-way into the soft flesh beneath. I used the sword as a saw, wearing
through the exoskeleton edges on either side of his neck.
NOT FAIR! TWO AGAINzzzST
ONE! IT'Szzz NOT FAAAAIR! IT'Szzz NOT-% A final, grinding cut stifled the
as his head rolled free of his squirming body. Black blood gushed from the cut. The flames
engulfing his body died down, yet continued to smoulder. I allowed the sword to dissipate.
Something twisted in my insides.
I slumped upon the ground. A spike of coldness pierced my
gut - coldness as ordinary mortals must feel it, attacking with an intensity that caused me to shiver
uncontrollably. It was unreal. My Power should have protected me; it always protects me from
cold, even when I am not calling upon it, but I could not deny the sinking, piercing sensation
Smoke had warned me about this.
What had he said...? Something about my having a
maximum of nine years left. He never did mention the minimum. Since then, I could not begin to
recall how many times I'd summoned the Power - nay, tested the boundaries of what it could do.
Creating the sword had been the final straw. At long last, the Power was exacting its price.
The ice dragon's long, elegant neck dipped down. She
nuzzled me gently. Looking at her face, I saw what had hindered her aim during the battle. A
smooth expanse of unbroken ice stretched where her eyes should have been. She was blind.
It took unimaginable effort to lift one arm and extend my
hand toward her face. I tried to call forth the tiny modicum of Power needed to give her eyes.
None came. I'd pushed my limits too far. The daggers inside me twisted. My outstretched hand
flopped on the earth.
"I'm sorry," I gasped. "I can't..."
The ice dragon bumped her head against mine a little more
urgently. She sang a soft, anxious warble. Her teeth delicately closed on the shoulder padding of
my frayed uniform and used it to drag me away from the fireworm's smoking corpse. She pulled
her battered frame forward on three legs, too badly injured to lift herself fully off the ground, and
arranged herself in a semicircle between me and the dead worm. Her remaining wing extended
over my head. I tried to pull myself into a sitting position and only succeeded in rolling onto my
back. The ice dragon trilled, an exquisite high note accompanied by a worried counter tone.
"What is it, girl? What is wrong?"
She never had a chance to answer. A cataclysmic explosion
erupted from the dead fireworm, spilling its monumental expense of Power in a blaze of heat and
light. Immense gushes of Power were cast off, only to be absorbed and lost in Limbo's endless
wastes. My ice dragon was shadowed for an instant in the infernal backlash before she broke
apart, each fragment instantly transmuting to vapor or water droplets.
I lay still for a long time. The explosion could have killed
me, easily, yet I was untouched. At last I regained enough strength to painfully sit up. A blasted,
blackened patch of earth marked where the fireworm had been. I looked down at all that remained
of my ice dragon: a shallow pool of water, inert and very cold. The fire-scarred face of a stranger
stared back at me.
She was gone.
The only thing I'd ever loved... gone.
"No. You didn't have to do that," I whispered. She didn't
have to throw away her life to protect my worthless soul. She had no right to make that decision.
I'd rather Shang Tsung had killed me. I'd rather anything but this.
Damn it all. She didn't have the right.
Warm bitterness welled within the inside corners of my
eyes, in sharp contrast to the chill lacing my intestines. The still pool of water reflected an
impossibility - twin droplets of moisture gradually trickling down the stranger's cheeks. They hung
from either side of his chin for a moment, then fell free. A pair of expanding concentric ripples
sprouted upon the pool's surface, breaking up the reflection.
The shimmering ripples changed color to gold.
Bubbles floated and burst upon the now gilded pool. It
boiled without sound or heat, emitting bright beams of piercing light instead. From everywhere
and nowhere came a sibilant, familiar whisper, quiet as silt, soft as soapstone.
#For every path into Limbo,
there is a way out.#
The pond's roughly circular border glowed with golden
radiance, while the center flickered with a multitude of different colors, shapes and patterns.
"-any new information?" I jerked bolt upright, recognizing
my brother's voice.
An image of my Lin Kuei quarters molded in the pool's
center, with vibrance and texture far more substantial than any mere reflection. Frost coated the
surrounding walls. A throne of carved ice lay in the background. Looking into the hub, I saw my
young brother putting on the last few vestments of Lin Kuei ceremonial garb. His uniform was
colored black with deep blue highlights, as befits an Ice master. Smoke was there too. He was
wearing his mask. The scene in the pool was so clear, so real it looked like I could step into it -
and suddenly, without being told, I knew I could do exactly that. If I so chose.
"I received a message," Smoke rasped, "from a being who
called himself Raiden." He shook his head. "I stopped believing in gods and devils a long time
ago, but if Raiden is not a god then I haven't a clue what-"
"Will you get to the point?"
"The message was about a blood debt that I owe your
brother. I was reluctant to believe it earlier, but I'm beginning to think he really is dead. If he were
still around, he would have demanded repayment in person. He never did like relying on
"That is far from empirical proof."
"In any case, it seems that a second Tournament
approaches. I'm going to be there."
"No, you are not. I am," the young Ice master corrected,
drawing the uniform's sable hood over his head. "I can think of no better place to start looking for
"There might be one. The last time I saw your brother, he
had just crafted a book of Ice. It carried a dormant enchantment."
"Yes, I felt its presence within the throne the moment I
entered this chamber. The first page has a single sentence: 'Only an Ice master can read this.' The
rest is blank."
"Not very helpful. Hm. I thought that your finding the
book might activate its Power, but something else must be the trigger. Still, are you sure you want
to risk your life on the off-chance you might learn what happened to-"
"This isn't solely about my brother," he interrupted,
slipping on his pair of fingerless gloves and pulling them taut. "Shang Tsung's patron must be
"How would you know about Shang Tsung's patron?"
"Because Raiden also appeared to me. He told me about
this second Tournament, and the threat it poses to our world. I'm one of the few mortals with a
chance of turning back that threat."
"And your instructor is not?"
"That isn't the issue. You should not engage in
activity; I won't hear any more protests."
"Yes Master," Smoke drawled, a little too
"I told you not to call me that," my brother sighed, slightly
vexed. "You are a free man now. Get used to it."
"Indeed? Then you cannot forbid me to play a role in this
Tournament. Not in any meaningful sense."
"What? Smoke, don't fool yourself, you aren't ready
"I am always ready," he interrupted, quietly. "Your concern
is touching, but should be saved for yourself. I know my limits better than you think."
"Hmph. Ninja make the worst patients."
"Oh, and what am I supposed to call you while we're there?
You haven't selected a use-name for yourself yet."
"Then I choose one now." He adjusted the deep blue mask
so that it covered his entire face except for his eyes. His build was a little shorter and slighter than
mine, but the uniform concealed the disparity. Only someone who knew both of us extremely well
could have distinguished the difference. "I will be Sub-Zero. If my brother objects to that, he can
come to me and complain. In fact, I hope he does."
The dull knife of creeping coldness within twisted when I
heard that name. A series of uncontrollable shivers wracked me. I had been on the verge of
reaching for the pool's sparkling surface; yet now I remembered that the last time I interfered with
my brother's destiny, I'd wronged him greatly.
"No. Not there," I replied, shaking my head. "It is for the
best. Show me someplace else."
The image in the pool faded, replaced by a flat obsidian
expanse marked with a pentagram. Burned-out, melted remains of white candles rested on its five
points. A desiccated corpse lay in the center. Though the face was too pinched and mummified to
recognize, the yellow-and-black clothing on the remains precisely matched what Shang Tsung had
been wearing when I confronted him in his youthful form. A shadow fell over the husk.
"SO, IT IS
TRUE," boomed a deep, insidious voice. While
I could not see the speaker, the fringe of his loathsome aura infested the edge of my perspective.
So much corrupted Power flowed through him that he was close to the threshold of godhood. He
could be none other than Shang Tsung's patron, Emperor Shao Kahn. "HOW IN ALL THE
WORLDS WERE YOU KILLED WHILE IN A STATE OF ASTRAL PROJECTION? I MUST
KNOW. I SHALL KNOW!"
A streak of green electricity jolted Shang Tsung's body. His
limbs twitched wildly, and his back arched off the floor. Dry, shriveled skin became softer and
smoother. In a matter of seconds, the husk transmuted into flesh and blood. The electricity
vanished. Shang Tsung started to breathe.
SLAVE!" Another jolt of viridescent
electricity hit him, but its purpose this time was to hurt, not to heal. Shang Tsung screamed in
pain, involuntarily writhing from the affliction. The Kahn chuckled, and continued the torture for
a full thirty seconds after the necromancer's milk-white, pupilless eyes opened.
"-fair!" gasped the necromancer. His face rapidly cycled
through a series of expressions - fear, shock, anger, frustration, hatred, and back to fear.
"M-master! I can explain-"
Shang Tsung screeched and clutched his
head. "I ADVISE YOU TO BE STILL. THE MORE
YOU FIGHT THE MIND PROBE, THE LONGER IT WILL TAKE." The
necromancer stifled his cries, though an expression of agony remained on his face.
"SO THAT IS
HOW IT WAS DONE," mused the Kahn,
after an interminable interlude. Shang Tsung let go of his head and sprawled on the floor, heaving
and shuddering. "YOU ARE FORTUNATE YOU DID
NOT HAVE THE COURAGE TO FACE THIS MORTAL IN PERSON, OR YOU WOULD
HAVE LOST YOUR SOUL TO LIMBO!" The fell emperor's pronouncement
gave way to mocking laughter.
"I'm quite aware of that," Shang Tsung muttered, gritting
ARE YOU AWARE HOW MUCH OF MY POWER YOU WASTED, LOST FOREVER
TO THAT INSATIABLE DESERT?"
"I-I didn't mean-"
"SILENCE!" One more flash of emerald electricity
engulfed the necromancer; to his credit, he bit back the urge to cry out. "YOU ARE DOUBLY
FORTUNATE THAT I AM IN A MERCIFUL MOOD, SLAVE. SINCE I HAVE ALREADY
EXPENDED THE EFFORT TO REANIMATE YOU, YOU MAY AS WELL STAY ALIVE,
SO LONG AS YOU REMAIN USEFUL - BUT DO NOT EXPECT TO BORROW POWER
FROM ME AGAIN! FROM THIS MOMENT HEREON YOU ARE FORBIDDEN TO USE
ASTRAL PROJECTION, OR ANY OTHER TECHNIQUE BEYOND YOUR OWN
Shang Tsung nervously licked his lips. "Y-yes, Master.
Thank you, Master." Though the sorcerer mouthed words of gratitude, poorly restrained fury
raged in his eyes.
SLAVE... TRY NOT TO GET KILLED AGAIN, UNLESS IT IS IN A SUITABLY AMUSING
MANNER." Shao Kahn bellowed in laughter while the necromancer's ears burned
I'd killed Shang Tsung once, and drained a significant
portion of his master's Power, yet it was a Pyrrhic victory. When I accepted the final contract, I
had known that my life and soul could be forfeit; such are the hazards of being an assassin. The
ultimate price had been higher than that. Infinitely higher.
Damn her. She never had the right...
"No," I whispered, pressing one arm against the cold spike
in my gut. "It is time for the others to carry on the fight against Shang Tsung and his patron.
Show me something else."
The image in the pool metamorphosed into steaming pools
of lava, flowing amidst tracks of scorched earth. Rising out of the superheated depths were
columns of human skulls, randomly fused with muted yellow-and-brown mortar. Scorpion
crouched atop the highest skull column, oblivious to his surroundings. His mask and hood were
down, baring the fleshless skull that formed his head. His right hand was held out, palm upturned.
A small bonfire burned upon the skeletal hand. The wavering form of a woman appeared in the
*Mei. I would give
anything to see you again, to talk to you,* the specter intoned, sorrowfully.
*You were always the practical one. You could make
sense out of anything, no matter how insane.*
*I was allowed to return
and avenge my death, Mei, but I can never again know you or our son. Existing in this cursed
form, I can only observe, and I have seen something I do not understand. You believe the money
that supports your wages and sends our boy to a private school comes from your relatives. It
doesn't. They are merely intermediaries for an anonymous benefactor. I have discovered the
sponsor's identity. He is none other than the assassin who murdered me. The fund he set up
continues to sustain you, even though I have killed him.*
Scorpion's free hand closed into a tightly drawn fist.
*It has to be a trap. Killing me wasn't enough; he wanted to
gain leverage over you as well. I've exhausted myself in a search to learn more about his evil plan.
Do you know what I found?*
*If he plotted to assassinate you, or enslave you,
a price in exchange for the donations, the scheme died with him. His own clan of killers does not
know where he funneled his blood money. It doesn't make sense. Why did the fiend arrange this
act of generosity? Did he think it would appease my wrath? If so, he was in
error.* Scorpion drew his clenched fist close to where his heart once was. *I showed him no more mercy than he showed
*I wish you could advise
me, Mei. I would come back to
you if I could. If there were any way. There is none. So I have devoted myself to the one thing I
have left: revenge. I was trained, reforged, reborn in the fires of Hell for a single purpose: to
destroy my murderer! And I succeeded. At long last, vengeance is
mine...!* As he voiced the
proclamation, Scorpion, rose to his feet, lifting his fist in triumph. His head tilted back, raising his
hollow eye sockets to whatever passes for a sky in Hell.
Then gradually, his undead gaze fell until it came to rest on
the picture once more. His legs wobbled, folding back into a crouch. The fire-picture in his right
hand died. He slumped, lowering his free arm. Its bony fist unclenched; the fingers hung limp and
*...and I don't know
what to do.*
"No," I responded, succumbing to another episode of
shivering. I killed Scorpion. He had as good as killed me. Our score was settled.
The scene in the pool changed to a lavish set of Lin Kuei
personal quarters, decorated entirely in black. Hurricane and Toxin were each on one knee,
respectfully addressing the shrouded Unknown.
"We don't mean to contest your wisdom," Hurricane
muttered, glancing alternately at the Unknown's folded arms and the floor's scarlet carpeting. "It is
only that Ultratech has held no love for us in the past. Are you sure that-" The Unknown's back
was turned to me, so that I could not see what he signed, but whatever it was silenced Hurricane.
The blue-and-white clad ninja swallowed, hanging his head.
"The Lin Kuei has survived without technology for over a
millennium!" Toxin burst out, daring to lift her eyes to the Unknown's masked face. "We have no
need of this alliance!" Standing up, the Unknown made a series of curt gestures that whipped the
draping sleeves of his robe about.
"No, Lord. I-I do not challenge your authority," she
stammered, looking away. The Unknown turned in my direction, moving one hand in a slashing
line from up to down. Both his counsel obeyed the dismissal.
The Unknown took off his ebony gloves. As he moved to
set them aside, I saw that he wore a second set of gloves underneath; only this pair was of a
rubbery material instead of cloth, and had sections of metal grafted onto the back of the hand and
finger joints. He extended a short length of wire from the metal backing over his right hand. A
sound akin to waves breaking on the seashore came from the extension, followed by neutral voice
speaking flatly in English.
"Contact made. Please state passcode." The Unknown
removed his one-way kuroko mask.
If it were possible for my blood to run any colder, it
Behind the mask was a monstrous visage of grey metal. A
slotted red grate fitted over the mouth. Two lengths of corrugated tubing wound around the back
of his head, touching either cheek. Instead of eyes, the vaguely manlike construct sported soulless,
oblong openings filled with darkness. I'd seen a head like that once before - atop the yellow
abomination in Pyre's laboratory.
voice from the slotted grate
carried an alien, vibrating modulation, but its general tone stirred my memory.
"Level one passcode accepted. Please state designation and
Designation: Unit LK-9T9.
Message: internal discontent over stage one of Operation: Mass Reprogram noted. This unit
recommends accelerating the timetable.
"Designation and message recorded. End contact." The
Unknown compressed the wire back inside his glove. That was when I remembered to whom his
It would have been an act of mercy to kill him when I had
"No. Nothing I could do to him would be worse than what
he has done to himself." The pool's image dissolved into a tangled blend of hypnotic colors.
This could continue without end. I'd earned the right to
leave Limbo, yet there was nowhere I wanted to go. The worlds shown in the pool no longer had
any hold upon me. Whatever ties there once had been died with my beautiful ice dragon. All that
remained was bottomless grief.
I was wrong. There are worse things than to have one's
heart frozen stiff and still.
"Show me..." I had to stop and cough for a moment.
"Show me a place where I can find peace."
The pool obliged. Its colors faded, yielding to a serene grey
haze. Nothing intruded upon the misty expanse. Its quiescence was soothing to behold. I looked
at the calm grey domain, basking in the reflection of its tranquility. This was a land without joy,
but also without sorrow.
"Yes. There," I aspirated, no longer able to voice the
words. "I shall go there."
It is the coming of winter for me. This tome of Ice is your
legacy, little brother. The Power I applied to its pages will now transcribe all that has happened,
so that you know the truth; and it will record all the mistakes I have made, so that you do not
To use your own words, you didn't have the right!
didn't you come back when you had the chance? I've read these last paragraphs over and over,
trying to understand, and I don't. I never will. We've had our differences, I know, but that is the
poorest, rottenest justification I have ever - why didn't you come back?
Didn't you realize? I've found a cure for the
that plagues Lin Kuei with the Talent! Smoke agreed to subject himself to my tests. Through
work, systematic elimination, and a miraculous streak of luck, I tracked the cause of his ailment to
a defective gene common to Lin Kuei bloodlines. Most Lin Kuei with the Power come from eight
ancestral families, all of which can be traced to a single province. The gene only creates a finite
amount of antigen proteins essential to maintaining the metabolic balance between organic and
hypergeometic bodily functions. Eventual deficiency of these antigens has disastrous
consequences, but their role can be supplanted by-
-oh, even if you can hear this, you'd just shake your head
and tune it out, like you always did. What's important is that the treatment worked on Smoke. I
couldn't stop him from seeking out Shao Kahn's Tournament before he'd fully recovered, but the
preternatural decay in his lungs stopped, even repaired itself to some degree. I would have tested
the remedy on more clan members if I'd had the opportunity. I've treated myself as well. Unless
my research is seriously mistaken, the Power's final curse will never fall upon me.
More has happened since then. Much more. I escaped from
Shao Kahn's Tournament, but he has since found a way to reach our world and wreak
unspeakable havoc. The Kahn has sent his Outworld legions to destroy what few mortals whose
souls he cannot dominate, including me. The Lin Kuei clan as you know it is no more. Most of its
members have been willingly or unwillingly turned into cyborg slaves, thanks to Sektor and his
alliance with Ultratech. Smoke and I were ignorant of their decline when we returned to warn
them. I barely got away with this book and my life. Smoke was not so lucky. I'm on my own.
The Lin Kuei have sent their automated killers after me.
Sektor leads the hunt, no longer constrained to hide his visage now that the clan has fallen. To
this day, he burns with rage over the deaths of his brother and grandfather. He never dared to act
openly when you were alive, but with you out of the way he intends to have revenge on me.
Everyone thinks you are dead. I refuse to believe it. Brother, wherever you are, please come
back! The world needs you. I need you.
end part four of four