part four of four

written by Victar, e-mail
Victar's Archive:

         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 completely.
         "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 woman.
         "'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 been.
         "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 year."
         "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 Kuei's headquarters?"
         "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 operating table."
         "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."
         "I see."
         "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."
         "That's 'Sub-Zero.'"
         "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 exhalations.

         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 joints.
         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 your mind.
         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 of bones...
         Oh, no.
         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 there.
         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 books.
         Look at this, big brother, he'd said, holding up a long 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 ends together. Doesn't appear much different from an ordinary loop, does it?
         Not particularly.
         But it is. He picked up a brush and started drawing a line 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.
         *At last,* 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.
         *Go ahead,* 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.
         *You are alive,* rumbled Scorpion's echoing, hate-filled voice. *Good. Your life is mine to take, and mine alone!*
         "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 footsteps.
         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 became unfocused. 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 stature.
         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," Reptile 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 Rasssce."
         "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 prompted.
         "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 trust?
         "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, interlocking canines 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 fail."
         "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 last sentence.
         "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 anchorsss."
         "How long would that take?"
         "Posssibly half an hour."
         "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 them."
         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 enough.
         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 neck; 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 caution.
         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 high-pitched voice.

         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 ears.
         "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 are?"
         "I MADE 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."
         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 attack.
         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 ground.
         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 satiation.
         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 prey.
         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 him."
         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 appraised, objectively.
         "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 vest.
         "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 matters.
         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 way-
         "Let me GOOOOOOO!" he screeched, throwing his 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 of Power.

          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 armor.
         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 master.
         "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 enemy, 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 easier.
         *GET OVER HERE!*
         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!*
         "He won't."
         *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 had started.
         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, Massster."
         "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. I 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 MINEzzz!%
         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 BEGGINGGGGGGGzzz!% He 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 not escape.

         Scorpion's delay had cost me my opportunity to kill Shang Tsung.
         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.
         *You murdering 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 still!*
         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 move.
         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.
         His mistake.
         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.
         My mistake.
         *You - come - HERE!*
         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 twice,* 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.
         %zzzWHO DARESzzz!?%
         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 perfectly suspended.
         %zzzSTUPID 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 wounded side.
         "No!" I shouted, involuntarily. I limped toward where she had fallen.
         %zzzSEE, BEAzzzST? 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 his head.
         %zzzENOUGH 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 words 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.
         %zzzWHAT ISzzz THISzzz? zzzAWAY, PEzzzST! zzzI'LL DISzzzMEMBER YOU zzzSOON ENOUGHzzz!% He lashed his tail until it slipped 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.
         %zzzNOOO, IT'Szzz NOT FAIR! TWO AGAINzzzST ONE! IT'Szzz NOT FAAAAIR! IT'Szzz NOT-% A final, grinding cut stifled the fireworm's wails, 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 within.
         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.
         #Choose your destiny.#
         "-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 intermediaries."
         "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 answers."
         "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 stopped."
         "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 strenuous activity; I won't hear any more protests."
         "Yes Master," Smoke drawled, a little too obsequiously.
         "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 to-"
         "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.
         "AWAKEN, 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-"
         "NO NEED." 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 his teeth.
         "I-I didn't mean-"
         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.
         "OH, AND 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 red.
         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 fire.
         *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, or extract 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 me!*
         *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 listless.
         *...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 did.
         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.
         Predisposition to kill. The 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 message."
         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 voice belonged:
         It would have been an act of mercy to kill him when I had the chance.
         "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 repeat them.

         Damn you.
         To use your own words, you didn't have the right! Why 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 affliction 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.
         Come back!

end part four of four