Mortal Kombat Novels

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Mortal Kombat: Annihilation                                   (By Jerome Preisler)

Cover

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation

A Novel By
Jerome Preisler
 
Based on a Story by:
Lawrence Kasanoff
& Joshua Wexler
& John Tobias
 
and the screenplay by:
Brent V. Friedman
& Bryce Zabel

“Somebody’s gotta remind this windbag, cheaters never prosper,” Johnny said, stepping forward and flexing for battle.

Shao Kahn, however, was one cheater who had come prepared.

With a horrible ripping sound, the sky above the devastated landscape opened like a slit paper bag, the edges of the newly opened Portal actually peeling back before Johnny’s awed, disbelieving eyes. He watched in amazement as dozens of humanoid forms began to rain from the widening tear in the chrono-spacial fabric, hooded Outworld warriors armed with hand and foot spikes, hooked chains, throwing stars, nunchaku, bo staffs, and other hand-to-hand combat weapons he’d never seen before – weapons that had not been devised by any earthly intelligence.

The Extermination Squad spilled from the impossible hole in the sky, landing on their feet after executing a perfectly coordinated sequence of tae-soo flips, fanning out around Rayden’s small group of champions in a half circle.

Outnumbered, caught by surprise, Johnny Cage turned back to his fellows, his bravado suddenly failing.

“Uh, guys,” he said, “any volunteers?”

Chapter One

It isn’t supposed to be like this, he thought.

Cloud-shadows gathering under the sun, blotting out the daylight... Dead birds, whole flocks of them, dropping from the sky, the feathers plucked from their carcasses, swirling like confetti in some madly festive slaughter... The wind howling like ten thousand demons, sweeping across the darkened landscape in violent gusts, uprooting bushes, tearing limbs off trees, flinging the trees themselves through the air as if they were weightless splinters... The ground heaving with agonized convulsions, fissures spreading across the crust of the world like jagged wounds, opening wide to suck down entire lakes and streams, leaving behind a dry, barren emptiness...

No, not like this, Rayden thought again, standing there in the angry throat of the wind, his senses reeling from the inexplicable destruction that seemed to have gripped all of existence.

Then, in the sunless sky above him:

An eddy of deeper darkness spun off from the very clouds and descended to a bare stone overhang above Rayden. Growing, coalescing, taking on substance.

Rayden felt a cold dread seep into his bones as he watched the apparition assume a distinctly human shape.

It – he – flipped through the air in a brazen display of physical prowess, landed on his feet, and stood gazing down from the ledge, a looming figure in a hideous mask and black exoskeletal battle armor.

Evil seemed to radiate from him in tangible waves.

Rayden stood there watching, his eyes filled with the terrible certainty that he was looking at the malign ruler of Outworld.

“Shao Kahn,” he muttered. “I should have known.”

“The earth was created in six days!” the warlord declared as if on cue, stepping forward to the edge of the outcropping. His voice echoed in Rayden’s ears like apocalyptic thunder. “So too shall it be destroyed! And on the seventh day, mankind will rest... in peace!”

Rayden’s eyes narrowed. More figures were materializing behind Shao Kahn, a royal entourage that might have been drawn from the world’s collective nightmares.

“Please welcome my generals,” Shao Kahn roared with a flourish of his arms, clearly savoring the moment. He swept a gloved hand toward one of them like a ringmaster at some demonic carnival.

The woman stepped forward, clad in leather, her grin a twisted line on a grotesquely distorted face – a face made all the more awful by the ghost of spoiled beauty that seemed to linger over its features. She seemed amused by the recognition in Rayden’s gaze.

Once, he knew, she had been Shao Kahn’s reluctant queen, Sindel.

He saw no reluctance in her now.

Sheeva!” Shao Kahn boomed, his arms still raised.

The towering, four-armed woman beside Sindel nodded at Rayden. Why, he wondered, had the sorcerer called out her name and not Sindel’s?

Motaro!

Rayden heard the clatter of hooves, and instantly recognized the horned, half-human creature rearing up before him as a Centauran warrior from the highlands of Outworld.

Baraka!

The bald, powerfully built mutant staring down at Rayden peeled back his lips to expose rows of meshing, razor-sharp teeth. Gleaming blades of living, organic metal simultaneously sprang from his arms like the claws of some monstrous jungle cat.

Ermac!

The last member of the group was the only one of them who did not seem to be enjoying his master’s haughty performance. Perfectly still and unblinking, he listened to Shao Kahn announce his name without any discernable reaction. Though red rather than black, his clothes were otherwise identical to the traditional garb of the ninja: a hood drawn over his head, the lower part of his face masked with a wide strip of cloth, his lightweight boots split at the toe to aid in stealthy movement.

“This is not good,” a man’s voice said from Rayden’s left.

Rayden looked over at him. Johnny Cage, who had once made a career of fighting Hollywood villains in the movies, and been accustomed to having his battles end with a director yelling “Cut!”, had learned the meaning of true courage during his recent adventures on Outworld... and it showed in his hard, determined eyes.

“I thought our victory in Mortal Kombat closed that... ‘door’... for the next thousand years,” Liu Kang said.

Portal,” the woman called Kitana corrected.

Both young warriors stood to the right of Rayden – Liu, a lean, whiplash-quick martial arts fighter of Chinese descent, Kitana, a dark beauty whose own royal lineage reached back through time and extradimensional space to Outworld itself.

“What closes can also open again,” Rayden said cryptically.

“What does that mean?”

This from Sonya Blade, an American Special Forces lieutenant who had joined the others to defend her world in the supernatural tournament called Mortal Kombat. Tall and athletic, she had arctic-blue eyes, wintry-blond hair and an icy-cold attitude to match.

“Somebody’s gotta remind this windbag, cheaters never prosper,” Johnny said, stepping forward and flexing for battle.

Shao Kahn, however, was one cheater who had come prepared.

With a horrible ripping sound, the sky above the devastated landscape opened like a slit paper bag, the edges of the newly opened Portal actually peeling back before Johnny’s awed, disbelieving eyes. He watched in amazement as dozens of humanoid forms began to rain from the widening tear in the chrono-spacial fabric, hooded Outworld warriors armed with hand and foot spikes, hooked chains, throwing stars, nunchaku, bo staffs, and other hand-to-hand combat weapons he’d never seen before – weapons that had not been devised by any earthly intelligence.

The Extermination Squad spilled from the impossible hole in the sky, landing on their feet after executing a perfectly coordinated sequence of tae-soo flips, fanning out around Rayden’s small group of champions in a half circle.

Outnumbered, caught by surprise, Johnny Cage turned back to his fellows, his bravado suddenly failing.

“Uh, guys,” he said, “any volunteers?”

Chapter Two

“There are many of them, but they do not think for themselves,” Rayden was saying. “That is your advantage.”

Just a bunch of poor, mentally-challenged assassins who’ll cut out your heart and eat it at their master’s whim, Johnny thought, looking around at the deadly horde of Outworlders.

Before he even realized what he was doing, he reached out for Sonya’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

To his complete surprise and disbelief, she didn’t pull away.

“I will handle Kahn,” Rayden said.

Though they stood only a few feet apart, Rayden’s words hardly registered with Johnny. It was crazy, absolutely nuts, but he found the fact that Sonya had left her hand where it was more astonishing than bad guys spilling out of some trapdoor in the sky, and the world transforming into a place that would make a nice vacation getaway for Sauron from Lord of the Rings.

Now he saw three of the Outworlders closing in on him and reluctantly separated himself from Sonya, shifting into a Koroo Seh free-fighting stance: bobbing, waving, making himself a tough target to hit. Peripherally he could see that Liu, Kitana, and Sonya were also being surrounded by groups of Kahn’s minions. Then a spiked length of chain whipped out at him and he ducked below its whistling arc, prying his attention away from the others, knowing he’d need all his wits to survive the attack.

Over to his right, a pair of the warrior drones – both armed with knife-tipped bo staffs – had converged on Liu and driven him toward the same conclusion. Moving with wildcat speed, he grabbed one of his attackers’ staffs in mid-thrust, then pivoted on the ball of his right foot, wrenching the staff from the Outworlder’s fingers and delivering a flurry of vicious snap kicks to his chest.

Even as the drone crumpled – his ribs shattered – the second warrior lunged forward, swinging his bo at Liu’s head. Using both hands, Liu brought up the seized weapon, blocked what would have been a skull-shattering blow, then jabbed its bladed end out like a spear point, driving it into the assassin’s stomach. The warrior stumbled and fell, the staff jutting from his body.

Two other drones, meanwhile, had launched a nearly identical strike against Kitana, driving her backward, their long staffs whirling like airplane propellers.

Eager to put some space between herself and the mindless killers, needing some room to maneuver, Kitana turned–

And froze in her tracks, blinking incredulously.

The leather-clad woman that had appeared with Kahn was standing perhaps fifty feet away from her.

Staring coldly at her.

Just staring.

Their eyes met, and suddenly Kitana knew, by the Elder Gods she knew...

“Mother,” she said, still not moving, her body held in a vise of fear, horror and confusion. “You... you’re...”

Before she could complete the sentence, a ferocious blow to her head knocked the breath, and the words, right out of Kitana. She stumbled, nearly spilled to the ground, and caught herself just in time to see the red ninja called Ermac hurtling through the air at her, following up on his surprise attack with a flying front kick – one that was certain to be crippling if it connected.

 

Glimpsing what had happened to Kitana, Rayden started toward her, trying to cut through the throng of Outworlders between them.

Shao Kahn had no intention of letting him reach her, however. He leaped off the fingerlike precipice from which he had watched the battle until now, flipping twice through the air, his feet touching ground directly in front of Rayden.

They stood face-to-face, mere inches apart.

“As long as I have the power, Kahn, you will never rule this world,” Rayden said, not backing off a single step.

“As long as the Portal remains open,” he countered, “your powers grow less every second. And my Extermination Squads will have safe passage to this realm.”

The two immortals began to circle each other, Kahn swinging his arm as if it were a sledgehammer. Rayden shifted from side to side, avoiding the deadly blows, his paqua defensive technique frustrating Kahn as he kept trying to connect.

Finally, his anger flaring, Kahn clashed his wrist guards together, ejecting sharp, needlelike spikes.

Poised, focused, Rayden readied himself for the sorcerer’s next move.

 

A heartbeat after she and Johnny split up, Sonya had whirled to see the brutish half-metal half-human warrior called Baraka pounding toward her, murder in his eyes, his clawblades gleaming.

Sonya lashed out with a spinning crescent kick, but Baraka reacted far more quickly than seemed possible for someone his size, slipped underneath it, and swung his blades back at her. She jumped high to elude the strike, knowing full well those claws were capable of slicing her to the bone. Once again moving with unexpected swiftness, however, Baraka brought his foot up in a kick that knocked her legs out from under her and sent her crashing to the ground.

Flashing his sharklike smile, he lunged forward to deliver his killing blow.

 

“Why do I always get the ugly ones?” Johnny said.

No sooner had he taken out one of the red ninjas than the Centauran – Kahn had said his name was Motaro – literally came hoofing toward him, his tail whipping in anticipation.

Johnny had always wanted to own a horse, but he was telling himself this was way, way too ridiculous.

That was his final thought before Motaro closed in and elbow-smashed him to the ground. Quickly recovering, Johnny handspringed up and went at Motaro with a shadow kick, but Motaro blocked it with a slablike arm and sent him reeling, his senses going into a dizzying tailspin.

Snorting hot gusts of air out his nostrils, hooves beating the cracked and dusty ground, Motaro charged at him.

 

Liu glanced to the left, glanced to the right, saw three or four Outworlders rushing him from either side, and decided not to try bucking the odds. He launched himself into the air, flipped, flipped again, and came down easily on his knees and elbows several feet away from them.

Unfortunately there was precious little time for a breather. An inhuman shadow had fallen over him the instant he landed, eclipsing any relief he felt with sudden dread.

He craned his beck up, up, up the long length of Sheeva’s body to a hideous face that promised only pain.

Springing to his feet, Liu took the offensive, trying to land a rapid series of kicks, knowing he’d be torn apart in seconds if he allowed himself to get too close to her.

Sheeva’s four arms became a blur of motion, repelling his attack. Liu’s first kick, a roundhouse to the face, was blocked by an upper arm. A reverse kick to her stomach was blocked by a lower arm. His next try at connecting, a jump snap kick, was blocked by three of her arms – and then a fourth arm darted out and he felt a hand lock around his ankle.

With a laugh like the grating of broken glass, Sheeva effortlessly flung him into the air.

Then, still rattling out laughter, she waited for him to fall back into her multilimbed grasp.

Waited to finish him off.

 

Kitana had seen Ermac coming in time to dodge his leaping kick, but he had twisted his nimble body in midair and fallen upon her like a spider descending from a web strand, entangling her in his arms and legs, defying all her efforts to break free.

The struggle went on and on with neither gaining the advantage for more than an eyeblink – but Kitana could feel herself beginning to tire. Ermac seemed able to anticipate her every move, slipping them without difficulty, countering with fluid moves of his own, virtually coiling himself around her. Even her jujitsu proved ineffective against his incredible fighting skills as he turned her holds and attempted take-downs back at her, finally throwing her to the ground, bringing up his right hand for a lethal strike...

“Enough!”

The word echoed over the ravaged battlefield, stopping the combatants in their tracks. Tense, expectant, their attention caught by the sound of the forceful voice, all of them turned their eyes toward its source.

Toward Rayden.

His own gaze, however, remained fixed on Shao Kahn.

“Only we can win or lose this battle, Kahn! We both know that. But do you have the courage?” Rayden said. While his confidence in the heroic band of mortals remained undiminished, there was too much risk in letting the combat go on under conditions set by the enemy.

Far too much, considering what he believed was at stake.

Kahn scowled, his expression contemptuous... but underneath that mask of scorn and arrogance, Rayden could see his clever challenge working on the sorcerer, hooking into his imperious pride.

He kept staring at Kahn, eyes unblinking.

Finally Shao Kahn raised his hands over his head, taking the bait, signaling his generals and warriors to back away from their opponents.

Slowly, hesitantly, they obeyed.

Silence hung over the tableau like some immense weight that was about to come crashing heavily downward.

And then Kahn struck at Rayden, rushing in with a shoulder charge, staggering him back into a polished marble column that had once supported the Temple of Light. The pillar broke apart from the collision, jagged chunks of it hurtling in every direction.

Seeing Rayden stunned, Kahn thrust out his hand, his extended fingertips glowing with a blue-white light that throbbed and brightened and was released as a pulsing corpuscle of energy. It went shooting out toward Rayden, sizzling the air into its molecular components and raising the acrid stench of ozone.

Rayden avoided it at the last possible instant, performing a double-somersault that brought him out of harm’s way just as the photon projectile struck a section of the temple wall, blasting it into stony debris. His feet still off the ground, Rayden untucked and struck Kahn with a two-fisted flying punch that knocked him to his knees.

Groaning in pain, Kahn fired off plasma blasts in wild, scattershot volleys, demolishing entire buildings, turning the few trees that had survived the violent environmental upheavals into scorched, smoking tinder.

Rayden pressed his attack, catapulting himself toward his opponent through streams of deadly energy pulses, assailing him with a barrage of shock-punches and gravitiless quadruple flip-kicks.

“Awesome,” Liu muttered, watching from the sidelines.

Johnny heard him and managed a wan smile.

“The shoes,” he said. “It’s gotta be the shoes.”

Overwhelmed by Rayden’s ferocious onslaught, Kahn was clawing across the broken ground, scrambling to escape defeat. In a move of desperation, he snatched the ship from the hand of a sprawled Outworld warrior and lashed out at Sonya, lassoing her around the legs, yanking her violently away from her friends.

“This ends now!” he shouted, and slowly rose to his feet.

Rayden halted. “You hide behind a human?”

“Why not, ‘Lord’ Rayden?” Kahn mocked. “You have hidden your entire, pathetic life behind them!”

Johnny could not simply stand by and watch. He circled behind Kahn and leaped through the air, using a shadow kick to attack him, trying to free Sonya from his clutches.

No, Johnny!” she screamed.

Too late.

Moving with preternatural speed, Kahn released his foothold on Sonya, turned toward Johnny, and pummeled him with a whirlwind of savage blows. No match for the ancient sorcerer, Johnny fought back as best he could, but was overcome in seconds. Battered senseless, he stood for a moment before his legs gave out and then collapsed in an unconscious heap.

Laughing, Kahn hoisted Johnny’s pummeled body above his head and held it there like a trophy – one he would be all-too-willing to smash into a thousand unrecognizable pieces.

Chapter Three

“Surrender, Rayden, or this one dies!” Kahn roared, shaking Johnny’s limp body in the air.

Standing with Liu and Kitana, Rayden held up a hand. Arcane energy crackled from his palm.

“Then I will take your generals,” he said. “Earth does not bend to the will of tyrants.”

He pointed at Motaro, Sheeva, Sindel, and Baraka and a crackling bolt of current leaped from his fingertip, then sketched a circle in the air around them.

Kahn and Rayden exchanged defiant stares. Sonya breathlessly watched their contest of wills, her fists clenched at her sides.

“You would never let one of your precious humans die,” Kahn said.

“Trade me for Johnny Cage,” Rayden challenged.

Kahn lowered Johnny a little as if he were considering the offer.

“Come to me and kneel, Rayden,” he said. “Throw yourself at my mercy!”

Rayden’s eyes grazed those of Liu, Sonya, and Kitana.

“I have no choice,” he said, answering their unspoken appeals.

He released his mystic hold on the generals, the blue-white ring of energy around them vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared.

“You fool!” Kahn said, and with a hateful scream flung Johnny downward.

Johnny bounced off the ground, striking it hard enough to leave an impression in the dry, dusty soil. Then he rolled onto his back and lay very still, a low groan of pain escaping his lips, his limbs twisted at impossible angles.

Johnny!” Sonya cried out.

She rushed over to him, her combat-trained eyes recognizing that he was gravely wounded even before she reached his side. As she knelt to lift his head off the ground, Kahn’s scornful laughter filled with a hatred that was almost sickening in its intensity.

Shocked, Rayden started toward them, but had barely taken his first step when Kahn released an energy blast that knocked him backward through the air.

“Johnny,” Sonya said, crouching over his limp, battered form. She smoothed a snarl of hair from his forehead, realized it was soaked with blood, and found herself looking at him through a blur of tears. “Johnny, I just want you to know... I mean, what you did...”

“I know,” Johnny said in a choked voice. He groped for her hand, found it, held it tightly. “Me... too...”

He struggled for air, the sound of his labored breaths piercing Sonya’s heart with inexpressible grief. She felt his grip loosen and knew he was fading.

And then, all at once, Kahn was looming over them.

“His soul is mine,” he said, and reached down with long, tapering fingers.

No!” Sonya screamed, raising her arms defensively.

But it was no use. In her grief and horror, she was unprepared for what came next. Kahn swung his booted foot savagely into her ribs, knocking her onto her side, and then slowly closed his hand above Johnny’s body. Seized with convulsions, Johnny arched off the ground, his eyes rolling back into his head, the veins in his temples bulging, his arms and legs twitching spasmodically.

Something went out of him, then. Vaporous, intangible, it fled his lips like vapor, trembled in the air, and after a brief moment was drawn into Kahn’s fist, where it flittered between his bony knuckles like a trapped moth.

“Let this be a warning!” Kahn said. “All those stupid enough to be a ‘hero’ shall bow to me!”

He raised his clenched fist to his mouth and inhaled deeply, savoring the breath as if it carried the scent of some heady perfume.

Watching with stunned eyes, Sonya knew instinctively what was happening.

Knew he was consuming Johnny’s soul.

Imbued with impossible strength, that look of obscene relish still on his face, Kahn flipped back up onto the outcropping.

“It has begun!” he said, and leaped into the Portal a split-second before it irised shut.

The sound of his disembodied laughter lingered behind him like a curse, growing louder until the ground shook from its rumbling vibrations. Slowly, a grotesque stone gargoyle from Outworld ruptured the earth’s crust underneath Johnny, thrusting upward, raising him in its massive arms, forcing Sonya and the others to step back.

“Do we just stand here and take this?” Liu said, struggling to keep his balance.

Rayden looked around at his young champions. The Extermination Squad had remained on their side of the Portal, and was advancing in a deadly semicircle.

“This is not a fight we can win. They outnumber us by a dozen to one,” he said. “We must go.”

He pointed toward a nearby cave and they ran for it, chased by the Outworld warriors.

Chapter Four

Rayden lead the small band of heroes through the mouth of the cave, urging them forward as the Extermination Squad drew nearer.

“All of you move back!” he shouted, and waved them into the darkness beyond the opening. “Hurry!”

They ran for the shadows, then turned back toward Rayden, expecting to see him confront the Outworlders. Instead, he loosed a powerful energy beam at the ceiling of the cave, bringing down a mound of boulders that blocked the entrance, leaving their pursuers outside... and leaving them in utter blackness.

“We are safe,” the immortal said, standing in the cloud of dust raised by his miniature avalanche. “For now.”

He noticed the dried remains of a tree limb at his feet, snatched it up, and sent a charge of current into it from his fingertips, causing it to catch fire.

His companions looked frightened and tense in the glow of the makeshift torch.

“I don’t know if I call being trapped in a cave ‘safe’,” Liu said.

Rayden’s eyes moved across their faces.

“Kahn has opened the Portal,” he said. “Your planet and Outworld have begun to merge into one realm.”

Kitana was shaking her head as if to banish an unwanted thought. “My mother... resurrected... is it possible?”

“If I am correct, your mother Sindel is the key to all this,” Rayden said. “And as the two realms merge, I will lose my powers here on Earth. Each of you must therefore grow stronger. Together we are the hope.”

“Together we couldn’t even save Johnny,” Sonya said bitterly.

Ignoring her comment, Rayden turned, extended his free hand, and sent a dazzling energy bolt into the tarry darkness. Chunks of the cave wall fell away in another controlled rock slide, revealing a narrow passageway up ahead. Its bare stones gave off a greenish light of their own.

“Follow me,” Rayden said.

And raising his torch, strode toward the eerie glow.

 

“What is this place?” Liu asked.

“During the ice age, your ancestors fled below ground,” Rayden said. “As you will see, the great wonders of your planet are not all on the surface.”

Sonya and Liu let their eyes roam the cavern. Its vaulting roof was hidden in layers of shadow, and though they couldn’t begin to guess its full dimensions, neither had any doubt about its immensity.

“You will find these caverns wherever you travel on Earth,” Rayden said with a sweeping gesture. “Any cave above ground will lead to one.”

“So?” Sonya asked, trying hard to sound unimpressed.

Liu, meanwhile, had been quietly considering Rayden’s words.

“Are we splitting up?” he said after a pause.

“We have no choice,” Rayden said. “There is too much to do and very little time.”

“What happened to your ‘all for one, one for all’ pitch?” Sonya said harshly.

“This can’t be!” Liu said at the same time. “We won the tournament. The rules say the Earth is safe for another generation–”

“Kahn has obviously cheated and broken the rules.”

“How could the Elder Gods possibly allow this?” Kitana said.

“I do not know,” Rayden said. “But Kahn must be stopped or your world will perish. We have only six days until annihilation.”

“I beat Shang Tsung,” Liu said. “I can beat Kahn.”

“Yes, you beat a great sorcerer to win the tournament,” Rayden said in a sobering tone. “But you are no match for Kahn.”

Liu opened his mouth as if to speak, then snapped it shut, shaking his head in frustration. Kitana moved closer to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I share your anger,” she said levelly. “Kahn killed my father and stole my mother. He took the family I loved from me. I want him destroyed, but I won’t lose you to Kahn.”

“If anyone’s going to kill Kahn, it’ll be me,” Sonya said. It was hard to tell whether the cold sparks in her eyes reflected the light of Rayden’s torch, or had been struck by her inner fury.

“No,” Kitana said. “Shao Kahn has lived for eons. His power is immeasurable.”

Sonya gave her a headstrong look.

“Listen to her,” Rayden said. “If we do this right, no one should have to fight Kahn. To save the earth... we must close the Portal.”

“So close it!” Sonya snapped. “You opened the last one, didn’t you?”

“It is not that simple. Kahn was clever. He buried the body of his bride on Earth. Resurrecting her gave him access to this realm.”

The silence that followed bore down on Kitana with a weight that was almost physical.

“My mother,” she said. “Kahn used my mother.”

“And so will we,” Rayden said. “By reuniting you with her, Kahn’s spell will be broken. Your mother’s soul will be at peace. And the Portal closed.”

“Listen to yourself!” Liu said, his voice full of disbelief. “This is insane!”

“I’m with Liu,” Sonya said. “I don’t buy any of this. I say we just take our best shot with those zombies outside.”

“Rayden, we can beat them–”

Enough!” Rayden interrupted, his voice loud enough to make them flinch. “You feel your hearts racing. Adrenalin clouds your senses. You think you are ready for what comes next. But believe me, you are far from it.”

Silence again. This time it was crushing. Liu and Sonya deflated perceptibly, their eyes drooping, their shoulders sagging.

Rayden observed their reaction and went on in a softer tone. “I am telling you this for your own good. I have no powers in Outworld. We will all meet again in two days at the top of Mount Gaia. Hopefully by then we will be prepared for everything that lies ahead.”

“And what exactly is that?” Sonya asked.

“To get to Sindel we will have to go through Kahn’s generals. His warriors will fight to their deaths... or ours.”

“What’s so important about Mount Gaia?” Liu asked.

“If we are in trouble, we can call on some old friends there.” Rayden’s eyes traveled over the faces of the others again. “You will face unimaginable odds, formidable foes. Face it, we’re screwed.”

Their jaws dropped as one.

Rayden suddenly broke into an impish grin.

“Only a joke, relax,” he said. “You can’t go into battle without a sense of humor.”

Liu sighed and turned to examine the cave walls. While Rayden had spoken, he’d noticed that they were covered with odd markings resembling Egyptian hieroglyphics, accompanied by arrows pointing off at various angles, and what almost might have been an intricate track grid – the equivalent of a subway map, if subways had existed in whatever forgotten age they were etched into the bare rock.

“Are these supposed to be directions?” he asked. “Because if they are, I can’t read them.”

“Kitana will guide you,” Rayden said. “And I will guide Sonya. We both have used the velospheres many centuries before.”

Sonya raised her eyebrows. “What’s a velo–”

Rayden forestalled her question with a wave of his hand, gesturing toward the back of the cavern.

Squinting into the green-tinged gloom, she saw spheres of different sized – some up to fifteen feet in diameter – in a hangar that had been carved out of the earth itself. All were parked on stone pedestals along a tunnel that whooshed with rushing wind. Something almost like train track ran through the tunnel, which in turn lead to a maze of other connecting tunnels, each with its own track.

Liu once again found himself comparing what he saw to a subway station – only one that operated on some unremembered, and perhaps unimaginable technology.

“What do these things do?” he asked.

“Once inside, you can travel anywhere on Earth in mere hours. The inner winds propel you,” Kitana said.

To illustrate this, Rayden walked up to the main track and dropped his torch into the tunnel. Its flame was instantly extinguished as it was sucked out of his hand by the windstream and carried off into the labyrinth.

Sonya did not seem persuaded by his demonstration.

“You can count me out,” she said.

Rayden placed a hand on each of her shoulders. “We need help, Sonya. I will take you to find your Special Forces partner, Jax.”

“Forget it,” she said. “If I die, that’s fine. But I’m not losing anybody else.”

“Alone, you are vulnerable,” Rayden replied. He kept his eyes steady on her. “But if you work as a team you two can overcome much. The sooner you learn this, the more valuable you are to the rest of us.”

She looked at him another moment, and finally nodded.

“We have to take action, too,” Liu said, motioning toward himself and Kitana.

Rayden looked at him. “You two will travel to the Hopi Mesa.”

Liu’s eyes were question marks. He was having enough trouble comprehending why their group had to split up without Rayden adding this latest wrinkle to the situation. What purpose could there be in traveling to some godforsaken place in New Mexico?

As usual, Rayden seemed able to read his thoughts as quickly as they occurred to him.

“You did great last time, but you will need help for what we’re about to face,” he said. “Seek out the counsel of one called Nightwolf. I will find the Elder Gods and demand answers for what Shao Kahn has done.”

Chapter Five

Soaring nearly a mile into the dark Outworld sky, its base surrounded by the ruined, scattered monuments of vanquished worlds, the tower stood as a hideous testimonial to Shao Kahn’s power. Built not of rock but the skeletons and carcasses of warriors who had fallen in combat against the sorcerer’s forces, it had risen to its vast height stage-by-stage over many centuries; crushed by the weight of the upper levels, the bone piles of its foundations had long ago been ground to ash. Within its thick, asymmetrical walls, captive souls seemed to voice their torment from beams and columns composed of their own mortal remains. Each structural groan, each rasp and creak that tore the silence, seemed a mournful plea for release, and every now and then a ghostly howl would leap into the distance from the ramparts, chilling the blood of man and beast alike.

Kahn’s grand hall was located within the uppermost turret of the citadel and, like some perverse game hunter, he had taken pains to surround himself with grisly mementos of past triumphs. On the curved walls of the chamber, flames burned in sconces made of human skulls. The throne from which he malevolently eyes his courtesans had been recast from the armor of those killed by his own hand. Its coverings, and the banners and curtains that hung from the ceiling, had been sewn from their flayed skins.

Seated on his throne now, Kahn leaned over the armrest and dropped a long, segmented Outworld worm into a glass tank at his side, then waited for it to be torn apart by the pair of vulko crabs that scuttled toward it in a feeding frenzy. Though he enjoyed watching them attack the worm in what he chose to call his battle pit, the real entertainment would come when they began to fight over their still-twitching food and savagely lopped off bits and pieces of each other. Before long, the tank would be filled with pulped innards, severed limbs, torn, mutilated eyestalks and other sensory organs...

“You think this is a game?” a voice said behind Kahn, causing him to turn from his voracious little pets with a start.

The tall, cloaked figure of a man had glided up beside the throne, his shadow stretching to the hidden rafters, his black eyes gleaming like slivers of polished onyx from a face that was otherwise concealed by a draping hood. Though the room was without the slightest whisper of a breeze, flames danced and flickered in their skull brackets as he moved silently past them.

“Father, where have you been?” Kahn said. His mouth twisted into a smile. “The Portal is open. Earth is under attack. It is glorious.”

Those bright eyes remained inscrutable within the folds of the hood. “Tell me, did you make Rayden beg for his life before destroying him?”

“Rayden is of no concern to us,” Kahn replied, his smile shrinking around the edges. “As long as–”

Before Kahn could finish his sentence, a powerful hand shot out from underneath the figure’s cloak and grabbed hold of his breast guard, lifting him partway off the throne.

“You let him live?”

Kahn struggled vainly to free himself, but the iron grip just tightened on his battle leather. “Father – Lord Shinnock – he could not be stopped...”

I have no use for excuses!” Shinnock roared, and flung Kahn across the room as effortlessly as if he were a child’s rag doll.

Kahn crashed against a wall in a tangled heap, gasping as the air went out of him.

“We have broken the sacred rules to open the Portal!” Shinnock hissed. “If the Elder Gods learn of our plot, we shall both suffer the consequences.”

“I do not understand.” Kahn gathered himself up off the floor, his face still contorted with pain. “How can you fear the Elder Gods?”

“Until the sixth day has passed, we can take no chances with Rayden and his mortals. Do not underestimate the power of the human spirit. Do you understand?”

Kahn nodded slowly. “I will not fail you, Father. I have another plan for Rayden and his champions. A plan that will lead them straight to their destruction.”

Shinnock watched him from beside the throne.

He stood there regarding his son another moment, and then slipped back into the shifting shadows from which he’d materialized.

Kahn waited until he was sure he’d departed, then turned back to the battle pit, his attention snared by the moist squishing noises coming from inside – sounds curiously unlike the busy clicking and grinding of the mouth parts belonging to his hungry pets.

His eyes widened.

Both vulko crabs were lying upside down on the bottom the tank, clearly dead, the worm that had been their intended meal dripping slime over their motionless carapaces.

Within moments, its acidic secretions having softened their exoskeletons to a kind of soupy, semidigested mush, the worm consumed them whole, sucking them through a yawning orifice in its head.

Again there was silence in the chamber.

Kahn stared into the tank, hardly able to credit his eyes.

Could what he’d just witnessed hold some meaning he didn’t understand? Some ominous significance that related to his father’s warnings? He shook his head in vehement denial. It was a curious reversal, certainly... a fluke. But he was no believer in portents. Why take it as any kind of sign?

Still, nothing like it had ever happened before, nothing...

After a very long time, he pried his gaze away from the tank and strode out of the great hall, heading for the stairs that lead down to his war room.

 

Several levels down, Kahn’s ruling council had assembled at a long table in the war room, a circular hall lined with crude tile mosaics depicting scenes of battle and carnage. All around them, guards in bionic armor stood at stiff attention, their staves and plasma lances upright, their eyes never shifting from the center of the room, alert for any command from their superiors.

“My squads have already claimed thousands of innocent souls on Earth,” the masked general at the head of the table boasted, pointing to an ancient map of the Earth.

“I would have claimed millions,” Motaro said.

Sheeva gave the Centauran a disdainful look. “By now, you would be behind bars, on display in a zoo.”

“If the bars could keep you away, I would welcome it,” Motaro replied.

Her temper pricked, Sheeva sprang at him, grabbing him around the neck with all four hands.

“Why Kahn tolerates you two wretched mongrels I cannot fathom, but I will advise him to have you put to death as quickly as possible,” Queen Sindel said, watching them in disgust.

Oblivious to her comments, their struggle intensified with grunts and growls. They were still grappling minutes later, when Kahn entered the room.

“Silence!” he said, his angry tone of voice finally getting their attention. As they subsided, he strode to the head of the war table and faced the general. “What is your report?”

“Two of Earth’s best warriors have already been taken,” the general said with open pride. “Kabal and Stryker.”

“And did you make them beg for their lives before you destroyed them?”

The general shrank a little under his burning gaze.

“Well?” Kahn said.

More of the general’s confidence had drained away. “But master, I thought if I let them live that we could–”

Kahn’s features suddenly clenched with rage, his eyes becoming fiery and inhuman.

“I have no use for excuses!” he bellowed, and without warning lifted his war mallet off the table and slammed it into the general’s midsection. Folding in half, the general went flying across the room, hit the wall, and slid to the floor in a lifeless slump.

The others at the table looked at him, stunned by his murderous outburst.

“It does appear I am in need of a new Extermination General,” he said. His voice had dropped in volume, becoming superficially calmer, but they could sense the fury just beneath the surface, threatening to erupt like a geyser of steam through a thin layer of topsoil.

Motaro and Sheeva exchanged uncertain glances. The dubious benefits of leadership aside, they had ample evidence of the risks lying in a broken heap in front of them.

“To die in duty, or here at my hand. Let the decision be yours,” Kahn said.

The venomous look in Kahn’s eyes was enough to make Motaro think the better of his reluctance.

“Centaurans are known for their hunting prowess,” he said hesitantly. “As your general, I will hunt down every single human soul and spare no one.”

“Motaro can’t be trusted,” Sheeva said. Motaro having stepped forward, she did not want her loyalty to look weak by comparison. “Long ago I proved myself as the personal protector of Queen Sindel. Your orders are mine to follow.”

“Was it not under Sheeva’s watchful eye that the Queen killed herself?” Motaro said, his words dripping with sarcasm.

Kahn looked between them, stroking his beard, clearly enjoying the conflict.

At last he said, “No. You are both too impetuous for such important work. Sindel will be my new general.” He grinned meaningfully at Sheeva and Motaro. “Unless you have another point of view?”

Their eyes turned to the inert body of the Extermination General, but they remained silent.

His point of view being one that neither of them was at all anxious to share.

Chapter Six

Entering the velosphere with Rayden, Sonya was surprised to notice there were neither controls nor seats – and that feeling only intensified when the immortal began fastening leather straps around her wrists.

“You will be moving so fast... it will be as though you are not moving at all,” he said.

She cocked an eyebrow. “That’s comforting.”

Rayden turned so they were standing back-to-back and strapped himself in. On the platform outside the sphere, Liu was trying not to seem worried – with only partial success.

He inched closer to the contraption and grabbed hold of its frame. “What if Kitana and I don’t make it to Mount Gaia on time?”

“We will wait,” Rayden said. “Without Kitana, we cannot close the Portal.”

“Are you sure there’s no other way?” Kitana asked from where she stood beside Liu.

“If there is, only the Elder Gods will know,” Rayden said. He looked at Sonya, impatient to get underway. “Roll to your left!”

She shifted her weight, adding it to Rayden’s, and with virtually no further effort the velosphere rolled off its pedestal. Sonya realized the globe was spinning rapidly although they were not, and assumed they were being stabilized by some sort of concealed gyroscopic mechanism.

His concerns unallayed, Liu was still holding onto the vehicle as it teetered on the lip of the funnel track.

“Wait!” he said. “What if you are not at Mount Gaia, Rayden?”

“Follow your instincts, but trust no one. For you will be the target of all Kahn’s fighters,” Rayden said above the noisy swell of the wind. “Remember there are no rules this time.” He tiled his head toward Sonya again. “Once more, to the left!”

A moment later the velosphere dropped down into the track. Their clothes flapping around them in a tremendous wash of wind, Liu and Kitana stepped back and watched it rocket away into the darkness of a tunnel.

“They are faster than I remember,” Kitana said, half to herself. She turned to Liu. “I’m glad I am not alone.”

Liu took her hand in his and gave her a smile that he hoped look reassuring.

Then, together in silence, they started toward their own velosphere.

 

Their backs pressed against each other, Liu and Kitana grasped their handles as the velosphere abruptly stopped gimbaling in the windstream.

“What’s going on?” Liu said. “Where are we?”

Kitana was peering out at an oncoming wall of tunnel vents. Above each opening was an iridescent hieroglyph.

“The interchange!” she said urgently, scanning the ancient symbols. “Roll to your right! Hard!”

Liu did as she’d told him and the velosphere changed trajectory, angling right and down and then popping into a lower tunnel vent, veering into its entrance so sharply it clipped the wall and shed a trail of rock fragments.

The jolt caused one of Kitana’s handles to break, hurling her into Liu’s arms.

“Liu!” she said, clinging to him for balance.

Keeping one hand securely strapped, he tore his other arm free and wrapped it around her, pulling her against him.

Her sudden closeness made Liu flush and sent wildcat tingles up and down his body.

“Hold on,” he said.

And she did, tightly, as they were swept along by the dark subterranean wind.

 

Boooosh!

The velosphere carrying Sonya and Rayden shot from the mouth of a tunnel, soared over a bubbling river of magma, then zipped into another tunnel opening and spun off in a new direction.

After a long, dizzyingly high-speed ride, they reached a chamber much like the one in which they had entered the sphere – the most notable difference being that they had been carried halfway around the world.

Though it was a short hike to the surface, Sonya found herself getting increasingly winded as they made their ascent... which struck her as more than a little odd, since the incline wasn’t especially steep, and it had seemed reasonable to expect that the uppermost stretch of the passage would be filled with air from above. The temperature also seemed to rise with each step she took, and by the time they reached the end of their climb she was covered with perspiration.

Pausing beside Rayden in the mouth of the cave, Sonya was no longer merely breathing hard but actually gasping – one look at the shimmering horizon told her why.

As far as she could see, the terrain was a primordial, steaming hell, devoid of life, criss-crossed with rivers of molten rock and blanketed by a haze of volcanic ash and smoke. In the distance, a series of low metal buildings sent up darts of reflected sunlight.

“You will take the same track back, and turn where I showed you,” Rayden said.

“I’ll figure it out,” Sonya said, clapping her hand over her mouth. The sulfurous stench in the air was overwhelming. “Is it like this everywhere?”

“With each hour that the merger grows closer, more of Earth will die.”

Sonya stood without response, squinting across the blasted flatlands. Then she started toward the faraway steel structures – knowing they housed the military complex where she would find Jax, scarcely able to believe that just days ago they had been surrounded by lush green fields of grass.

“Sonya!”

She spared a glance back at Rayden.

“I’m very sorry about Johnny,” he said. “But it wasn’t your fault. You need to remember that.”

She nodded silently, turned, and resumed walking.

 

The square metal plate was hot from the unremitting sunlight, and Sonya felt her palm sizzle painfully as she brushed a film of sand off it, then began prying it open. It lifted easily, black tar spurting up around its sides, revealing a thick grating underneath. She flung aside the plate and went to work on the grating, hooking her fingers through the bars and heaving upward with all her strength.

Within seconds it came loose, and Sonya was peering down into the entrance to a ventilation duct – one that was darker than any of the underground tunnels Rayden had led her through earlier.

As far as she’d been able to tell from a quick inspection of the area, it was the only way into the otherwise perfectly sealed compound.

She squatted on her haunches, catching her breath. To her immediate right, the windowless military dome gleamed radiantly in the super-heated air, its familiar appearance only emphasizing the transformation that had occurred everywhere else she looked. All around her lava moved across the terrain in burning, runny tributaries. Here and there she could see jets of steam erupting hundreds of feet in the air, spitting off glowy particles of ash and dust.

Sonya’s lips tightened into a resolute line. She couldn’t afford to stay out in the open much longer. Not unless she wanted to be spotted. And besides, it couldn’t be any worse inside the base than where she was right now.

Right, an inner voice said. Sure thing, girl.

Without further hesitation, she slid down into the narrow shaft.

 

The earsplitting blare of Klaxons greeted Sonya as she slid down the shaft to the facility’s basement level, then dropped quietly from the ceiling to the floor, going into a smooth tuck-and-roll to break her fall.

Springing up from a crouch, she scanned her surroundings with cautious eyes. The alarms were at full volume down here, and though they’d been installed for the purpose of alerting security personnel, that wasn’t her concern right now. In fact, she would have found the sight of American soldiers more than welcome, given the evidence of a lethal struggle everywhere around her.

Fires burned in a nearby hallway and filled it with a spew of choking gray smoke. Doors hung off their hinges. The walls were scorched and gouged from explosions. Charred, battered steel desks lay toppled on their sides, the contents of their drawers scattered across the floor in random heaps. Whatever its source, the wave of violence that had rolled through the facility had left very little untouched.

Sonya moved down the deserted hallway on the balls of her feet, looking left and right, her trained senses keyed for any sign of enemy forces. The siren whooped with steady shrillness. She slipped around a corner, turned another, then cut into a third corridor. Now she could hear hurried footsteps and the crump of small explosions. Close, very close.

She edged along the wall, peered around another bend, and glimpsed an Extermination Patrol continuing their sweep of the base, throwing over shelves, kicking open doors, firing plasma bursts from their otherworldly weapons into the rooms beyond. Her heart racing, she waited until the group had disappeared down a T-junction and moved further into the hallway.

The sound of a mechanical voice coming from one of the rooms stopped her in her tracks. Hugging the wall again, she approached it and peered warily through the entrance.

A breath hissed out between her teeth. Inside the room, some sort of bizarre robotic ninja was hovering over a man in U.S. combat fatigues – a man who had been caught in a pulsing green energy net, the line of which was being held in the ninja’s hand. Clearly the product of state-of-the-art cybernetic wizardry, the robot’s slitted, inhuman eyes gave off the distinctive ruby red glow of optical sensors. Wearing a hooded red gi, it looked as if it were designed to be the perfect martial arts warrior. Emotionless, tireless, without the limitations of flesh and blood.

“I seek Major Jackson Briggs,” it said, tightening the net with a hard jerk.

Sonya watched with growing dismay. So the monstrosity was after Jax. It damn well figured, didn’t it?

The soldier produced a ragged groan of pain, but his expression remained defiant. “I am Sergeant Joseph C. Taylor of the United States Army,” he said. “My serial number is three, two, two–”

“You now cease to exist,” the cyborg said flatly, yanking the net again.

Then, as the net began to brighten and hum before her eyes, Sonya realized that the cyborg’s repeated jerks weren’t merely tightening it, but somehow activating it. Whatever advanced nanotechnology had been applied to its creation went to work then, its fibers tearing through the soldier’s clothes, heading straight for his flesh, buzzing louder and louder over the sound of his agonized screams...

Sonya suppressed a rise of nausea and raced down the hall. There was nothing else she could do for the sergeant. But if she hurried and found Jax before the cyborg did, maybe she could spare him from enduring a similar fate.

She sprinted from door to door, slamming open one after another, shouting Jax’s name. At an abandoned nurse’s station she rifled through the scattered paperwork, searching for documents that might reveal his whereabouts within the facility. Nothing. She flipped through a register book and tossed it aside. Still nothing. She rummaged through a stack of papers in a desk drawer, scooping them out by the handful. Zip, zilch, nada. Then something caught her eye. Over to her left. A file cabinet with alphabetized tabs on the drawers. She sprang over to it, pulled open the drawer for the letters A-G, flipped through the manila folders it contained... and found one labeled “Briggs, Jackson.” Inside was an admission form with the room number he’d been assigned.

Room 34, Sublevel 1.

“Bingo,” she murmured, and went flying down the corridor.

There were two engraved metal plates on the door to Room 34. One said BIOTECH LAB. The other had a circle with a diagonal line going through it over the words AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Sonya pushed on through.

Jax, a tall, muscular African-American with skin the color of strong Ethiopian coffee, lay unconscious on a chrome operating table under muted fluorescent tubes. He was bare-chested above the waistband of his green uniform pants, revealing lightweight cybernetic sheaths around his arms from wrist to shoulder. Banks of sophisticated computer consoles lined the walls, their flat-screen displays flashing through preprogrammed numeric sequences.

Sonya moved quickly into the room and began working at his constraints.

He stirred, and opened a bleary eye.

“Sonya,” he said groggily, moistening his lips. “Would... would you believe I was just dreamin’ about you?”

“I’m not sure I want to hear about it,” she said, and nodded toward his metal-encased arms. “What the hell have you done to yourself this time?”

“Cybernetic strength enhancers,” Jax said, his eyes slowly clearing. “Takes what you got and quadruples the muscle capacity.”

Sonya frowned. “You’ve got a real confidence problem, you know that?”

He let that ride. “What’s going on? What are you doing here?”

“The whole facility’s been trashed by an Extermination Squad. They’ll be here any second.”

“Extermination Squad?”

“All you need to know is they’re trying to kill me. And you.”

“Me? What the hell’ve I done? And where have you been, anyway?”

This time it was Sonya’s turn to ignore his comment. His questions could wait, the important thing now was to get on the move. Yet no matter how hard she strained against his metal bonds, they weren’t budging.

“Dammit! I can’t get you free, Jax!”

“Okay, stand back,” he said. “Let’s see what I’m made of...”

She stepped away from the table and watched the strength-amplifying sleeves ripple and flex almost like natural skin, their microthin circuitry interactive with Jax’s own muscles and creating tremendous ergonomic gain.

A moment later, the restraints burst apart before her unbelieving eyes.

Jax sat up and grinned, striking a hammy Charles Atlas pose. “Wish I had these in high school.”

Sonya didn’t smile back. Instead, her mind flashed on what had happened to the sergeant down the hall.

“Let’s go,” she said.

Jax slid off the examining table and they ran for the door, but halted suddenly when they heard the sound of an explosion out in the corridor. Sonya motioned for Jax to hang back and peered around the entry wall.

She instantly cursed herself for leaving Jax’s file on the nurse’s station.

That same manila folder in hand, the cyborg was striding toward her along the hallway, trailed by a substantial contingent of Exterminators. As it advanced, dozens of round, golfball-sized seeker bomblets dropped from its abdominal launch cavity, rolled across the smooth linoleum floor to the doors on either side, and detonated on contact, their plastique charges blowing in the doors with powerful, concentrated explosions. With each penetration, several of the Outworld warriors went rushing through the doorway in tight search formation.

Sonya ducked her head back inside the lab.

“Look for another way out!” she said, her eyes ranging around the room. “That thing–”

“Death is the only exit,” a synthetic voice said behind her.

Her stomach tensing, Sonya whirled and saw the cyborg and a cluster of Outworlders surge into the doorway.

“Major Jackson Briggs and Sonya Blade,” it said, its hellfire eyes glowing. “Shao Kahn will be pleased.”

“What the hell is that?” Jax blurted.

“I am an LK-4D4 Cyber-ninja prototype,” the robotic stalker said. “Codename Cyrax.”

Sonya was sure she wasn’t imagining its boastful tone, and for a moment wondered if that arrogance had been deliberately programmed into it. She took a deep breath, willing away her fear. She had noticed a glass supply cabinet over to her right. Noticed a chain inside the cabinet. It wouldn’t be much of a weapon against the inhuman horror in the doorway – but it beat what she was holding right now – nothing.

In one fluid motion, she backspringed over to the cabinet and smashed the glass panel with a precise snapping kick. Then she snatched the chain off a shelf, wrapped one end around her forearm, and assumed a catlike defensive stance.

The Outworlders converged around her in a closing circle. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Cyrax advancing toward Jax, knocking over the furniture and electronic equipment between them with easy sweeps of its arms.

His eyes wide as saucers, Jax watched it tear a heavy steel counter off the bolts fastening it to the floor, then hurl it aside as though it were weightless.

“Excuse me for askin’, bro,” he said, “but do I take it this ain’t something we can talk about?”

Chapter Seven

Jax got out of the way barely in the nick of time.

His question had no sooner left his mouth than Cyrax leaped at him with a flawless two-footed kick that sent him flipping over the operating table in retreat, astonished by the cyborg’s speed and agility. Springing to his feet, Jax backed against the wall, shot a glance over each shoulder, and decided there was no room to run – not fast enough anyway.

Meaning he’d have to take the direct approach.

Jax lunged at his attacker, but was knocked out of the air by a rapid-fire sequence of martial arts moves as Cyrax landed an axe kick, a front kick, and a palm strike to his chest. The cyborg followed with more punches and kicks, scoring repeated hits to Jax’s body and face. Jax tried to counterstrike, but his blows were ineffective, his unfamiliarity with the arm enhancers throwing off his aim and timing. A windmilling mallet blow intended for Cyrax’s shoulder went wild, crunching the operating table in half with a sound like a car wreck. His next punch also strayed dangerously from its target, ramming a hole in the wall... and worse than that, getting his hand stuck inside the hole.

As he struggled extricate himself, Sonya was making good use of her close-quarters fight training at the other end of the lab, using athletic backspring kicks and split kicks to cut through the small group of Outworld warriors. Out of the corner of her right eye she saw Jax trying to pry his fist free of the wall, saw Cyrax raise his hand for a slicing, palm-edge blow to Jax’s throat, and without concern for herself flipped between them to block the attack.

Cyrax’s response to her intervention was lightning-quick. Ejected from a concealed wrist-pod, the cyborg’s energy net fired through the air and unfurled over her head, but she eluded his trap by jumping up and grabbing hold of an exposed ceiling pipe, then swinging like a pendulum to deliver a smashing kick to the top of Cyrax’s head. Driven by her own momentum, Sonya leaped onto a lab counter, then jumped off and skillfully executed a handstand onto Cyrax’s shoulders. That move flowing seamlessly into a midair turn, she swung downward, and executed a front kick into the cyborg’s back that sent him flying across the room.

“Get rid of those stupid toys, Jax!” she shouted, landing beside him. The taste of adrenaline was like an aluminum strip across the back of her tongue. “You’re gonna get us killed.”

Jax frowned and pulled his arm backward with a grunt of effort, finally tearing it free of the wall in a shower of plaster and lathing.

The cyborg, meanwhile, had gathered itself up off the floor and was coming at them again. Having dropped her chain in combat with the Outworlders, Sonya looked around anxiously for a weapon, her gaze sliding along the counters and cabinets, roving over all four corners of the room...

Suddenly she noticed a gluey chemical spill on the floor of the lab, noticed the incendiary phosphorescent glow being generated as the contents of two shattered flasks intermingled, noticed a flaming Bunsen burner on a counter just to the left of the puddle, and decided to take a desperate chance. Her heart bucking, nervous sweat beading on her forehead, she reached for the Bunsen burner, then waited for Cyrax to get closer, closer, closer. At the last possible second she scooped up a handful of the chemical mixture, turned the Bunsen burner onto it, and silently prayed it would ignite.

In this case her prayers were answered. With a combustive flash and oxygen-devouring floomp! the sticky glop burst into flame, clinging to Cyrax like tar, enveloping the cyborg in a fiery cocoon. A moment later it reeled backward to the floor, shedding brilliant orange firedrops and blobs of steel-blue smoke.

Jax stared down at the charred, shoring-out monstrosity, his mouth agape, his nostrils twitching from the acrid odor of fused metal, synthetic skin, and wiring.

“I’ve never seen anything like this... it’s a goddamn robot,” he said.

Her hand clapped over her mouth, Sonya knelt over the cyborg’s smoking remains, examining a strange tattoo in its body: some sort of mythological-looking creature, half bird and half lizard.

“Check this out,” she said, pointing to the mark. “Wonder why it’s not scorched from...”

Whatever else she was going to say was forgotten as the tattoo inexplicably came to life, lashing out at Sonya, then biting its own tail and consuming itself.

“Son of a bitch!” Jax said, and with dawning horror realized he had just witnessed the initiation of a self-destruct sequence.

The crystalline red optics behind Cyrax’s face mask had suddenly begun to blink. Then, its internal machinery whirring and clicking, small hydraulic levers unlocked on the cyber-ninja’s arms and legs as they detached from its torso, shooting out into different parts of the room. Clearly cybernetic bombs, these limbs had rotating metal rings that turned and twisted, revealing banks of LEDs. They flashed green for several seconds and then went red, blinking rapidly.

Then a harsh simulated voice issued from the cyborg’s unmoving lips: “Three minutes and counting...”

Jax and Sonya glanced edgily around the room. The cyber-bombs were now embedded in the walls around them.

“I think we better go now,” Jax said.

The two of them dashed out of the room without another word, pelting through outer corridors until they reached the ventilation duct through which Sonya had entered the complex. They scrambled into it, clawing their way upward, and had come to within a few feet from the surface when the sides of the shaft began to heave and shudder with violent rocking tremors. Urgency pressing at them, they pulled themselves out of the vent opening and ran as if hell were at their heels, plunging behind a boulder for cover. Then there was a terrific roar as the cyber-bombs detonated all at once, blasting thousands of tons of concrete and structural steel to rubble, consuming the facility in a huge toadstool of flame.

The very ground bulging beneath them, the sky ruptured with thermal flashes, Sonya and Jax huddled together in the raging heart of the destruction, hoping they wouldn’t be claimed as well.

Chapter Eight

The velosphere careened out of a dark-walled switchback, whirling wildly as it came to a stop at a dead end in the track. Seconds later, Liu and Kitana stepped out of the globe to find themselves in yet another enormous chamber beneath the earth.

“How do we get to the Hopi Mesa from here?” Liu said.

She gestured toward an arched stone bridge crossing a small, silently flowing subterranean stream. Several rock outcroppings jutted from the water under the far side of the bridge.

“We must cross that overpass,” she said.

He nodded and they started forward. All around them calcite deposits draped the stone walls in elaborate formations. High overhead, pink-eyed albino bats squealed and churned among the conical stalactites hanging from the cavern’s ceiling.

At the foot of the bridge Kitana paused and faced Liu for a long moment.

“Liu, if anything happens to me...”

“I’m not going to lose you, Kitana,” he interrupted.

Touched by his valor, Kitana smiled softly, and was about to say something in answer when she heard the loud, hurried pounding of feet. Startled, they looked across the bridge to see a large Extermination Squad surge from a passage on the opposite side, blocking the exit out of the cavern.

Within seconds the Outworld warriors had poured across the bridge and surrounded them.

Acting on instinct, Liu and Kitana assumed combat stances. The fighting was savage. A whirl of motion, Liu slammed his foes with a blurry combination of twisting side kicks, reverse wheel kicks and leg sweeps. But for every warrior that went down, another took his place. Kitana also found herself badly outnumbered. She blocked, ducked, and kicked with amazing skill, whipping razor-edged metal fans from her boots as she was attacked by a warrior armed with a chigiriki war staff. Moving with the grace of a dancer, slashing blurry figure-eight patterns in the air, Kitana rotated the fans around her body to hold him off, then did an evasive backward somersault onto a stone overhang. But two more Outworlders were waiting for her there – and both bore high-tech plasma lances.

Suddenly an ice pole shot down from the cavern’s roof and struck the fiercest of her opponents, knocking him off the ledge. Kitana glanced upward, her eyes widening with shock and recognition. Sliding down the pole was Sub-Zero, a blue-clad ninja she recognized from the Mortal Kombat tournament. An elemental with the power of cold, and loyal warrior of the Outworld wizard Shang Tsung, she had believed him dead, killed before her very eyes by Liu Kang.

Silent as an arctic night, Sub-Zero landed on the overhang and broke apart his ice pole with a series of sharp, focused kicks, hurling the spear-like sections at the Outworlders. They froze solid as they were struck.

Below the overhang, Liu watched Sub-Zero with a mixture of astonishment, confusion, and relief, barely able to credit his eyes. It was beyond him how Sub-Zero’s resurrection was possible, but he had no doubt at all that his appearance had turned the tide of battle. No doubt at all that the Outworlders were suddenly afraid.

Fighting with renewed confidence, he quickly overcame his opponents and leaped onto the rock shelf to join Kitana.

“Go, there will be others,” Sub-Zero said to them.

Liu eyed him warily. “I killed you in the Mortal Kombat tournament.”

“You killed my older brother,” Sub-Zero replied.

Liu was confused. “And still you help us?”

“No, I helped her.” Sub-Zero cocked his head toward Kitana. “Kahn believes she’s the key to stopping his plot.”

“You’ve been following us,” Kitana said. “Why?”

Sub-Zero was looking past her toward the bridge.

“You don’t have time to ask questions, Princess,” he said. “We–”

He looked around in dismay, his mouth abruptly snapping shut. Without warning, the earth had begun to rumble with seismic tremors. They spread and intensified with sickening rapidity, almost jolting Liu and his companions off their feet. Jagged cracks appeared in the cave walls. Large chunks of stone shook free of the ceiling and came spilling onto the overhang in a deadly hail. Before Liu’s horrified eyes, a long section of the bridge crumbled away and splashed into the spring. Then a crevice split the churning waters and a massive Outworld statue pushed up from below, surrounded by a pool of flaming lava.

Liu reeled as another spasm tore through the earth, steadying himself within a hair of the overhang’s dropoff. He backed toward the wall, breathing hard, the sound of his heartbeat swelling in his ears until it seemed louder than the tremors around him. Whether the quake had been caused by vibrations from the underground combat, the continued, violent merging of worlds, or both, he was certain of one thing – the chamber was about to come down around their heads.

“How do we get to Nightwolf now?” he said, staring at the partially collapsed bridge.

Kitana turned to Sub-Zero.

“You must use your powers!” she said. “We have a common enemy. But we cannot stop Kahn without your help.”

Sub-Zero considered her request in silence, his eyes unreadable. At last he nodded.

Moving up to the edge of the shattered overpass, he extended his hands in front of him, concentrating, his fingers quivering slightly as the ambient moisture around them drew into little clouds of condensation, hardened into frosty crystals, and then began coalescing into a wide, flat sheet of ice that arced out to close the broken span.

All this happened in a split-second, making it appear to Liu and Kitana as if the ice bridge had flowed, solid and fully formed from his hands.

Now he stepped off the ledge, motioning for Liu and Kitana to follow him, leading the way to the far side of the stream.

They were nearly across when a thin, leathery rope hissed up from the flaming gorge below them and coiled around the bridge. An instant later a ninja in yellow-and-black flipped onto the span, using the rope to pull himself up from below.

Liu’s eyes grew large as he realized that the rope was snapping at his feet with the fanged, wedge-shaped head of a serpent. That it was, in fact, a monstrous living thing... and that the man at the end of it was the Outworld warrior named Scorpion, yet another of the adversaries he’d supposed destroyed in Mortal Kombat.

Unless, of course, everyone on Outworld had an identical older brother, he thought.

“Scorpion!” he shouted, his voice full of astonishment. “What do you want with us?”

Scorpion’s only response was to shoot another snake rope from his palm. It whipped out at Kitana and wrapped around her waist. She pulled against it, putting her entire body into the effort, but the footing was too slippery, and she went skidding helplessly over the ice bridge, unable to regain her traction. Before Liu could do anything to stop him, Scorpion yanked Kitana toward him and teleported away, taking her along as he faded into thin air.

No!” Liu screamed, reaching out for her. “Kitana!

But he was too late. It was like trying to hold onto the afterimage one sees after flicking off a television in a darkened room.

Both were already gone.

Liu looked at Sub-Zero with a kind of impotent dread, massive chunks of stone crashing down around him, the bridge under his feet beginning to melt and weaken from the heat of the rising lava.

“I’ve got to find Kitana,” he said. “Where could he have taken her?”

“Kahn wants you to go after her,” Sub-Zero said. “Don’t.”

“But without Kitana it’s over. We’ve lost. And there’s no way to–”

“You were on your way to find help,” Sub-Zero interrupted, perfectly calm despite the inferno raging around him. “Stay your path.”

“How do I know I can trust you?” Liu said.

“You don’t,” Sub-Zero replied cryptically, and backed across the bridge.

And then he vanished as mysteriously as he’d appeared, the shadows of the cavern seeming to rearrange themselves around him.

Scared and confused, terribly alone, Liu hurried toward the passage leading to the surface.

Chapter Nine

Telos roma ula-yar inhotis...”

Nestled in the Himalayan foothills, its entrance flanked by columns that had been cut into the base of a soar, cloud-soaked mountain, the Temple had been ancient when those majestic slopes were young – as had the man who knelt within it, his head bowed in reverence, his lips whispering a prayer in a language that had not been spoken on Earth for millennium.

Akhatis torem margatal loronu meklos...”

As Rayden completed his invocation, the hundreds of glowing candles around him bent and flickered in the soft breeze fluttering through the shrine. He rose then, moving deeper into the mountain, the breeze growing into a fierce, gusting wind that rushed over the flames and made them undulate like tiny dancers, whipping them together until the temple was washed with incandescent brightness.

Suddenly the shrine transformed, became something other, as if whole layers of reality had vaporized in the firelight, revealing a fantastic dreamlike perspective underneath.

Water seeped from the walls and pooled around Rayden’s feet, then began to fall impossibly upward from the floor, wetting neither Rayden nor the candles. Before his eyes, the mythic wall carvings of three Elder Gods – icons that Rayden knew represented faith, courage, and love – seemed to momentarily become animate, then recede into the moss-covered stone. The ceiling above blossomed open to reveal a magnificent celestial infinity that swirled with brilliant, delicately interwoven ribbons of light.

Rayden stood surrounded by three towering walls of crystalline blue water falling into the shimmering heavens. From each of the water walls emerged an ethereal, larger-than-life face. All were identical in their vaguely human, asexual appearance. Their eyes were as forceful and dazzlingly radiant as the sun.

Though this was hardly Rayden’s first visit here, his awe was that of a fresh-faced youth. The Eternal Palace was not the sort of place that ever lots its enchantment – not even for one who had seen the centuries roll by much as days on a calendar for ordinary men.

“I have come to the Eternal Palace because your sacred rules have been broken,” he said, addressing all three deities at once. “Shao Kahn has invaded Earth.”

“As always, Lord Rayden, you are granted but three questions,” one of them replied in a sonorous voice.

Rayden nodded. “Then let me begin by asking why this treachery was ever allowed?”

“We three do not control the destiny of man,” the second Elder God said.

“Everyone possesses the ability to change his fate,” the third member of the triumvirate said.

Rayden bristled. Whether coming from man or god, condescension was easy enough to recognize. He struggled to remain his respectful composure.

“So you will just stand by and watch the ruination of Earth?”

“You were correct in believing Kitana is the key to closing the Portal,” the first Elder God said.

“But if I reunite her with Sindel, how can I be certain the Portal will stay closed until the next tournament?”

“Only when Shao Kahn is destroyed will the future be safe,” the second Elder God intoned.

“Then Kahn can be defeated?”

The third countenance let its burning gaze fall upon him.

“You have no more questions, Lord Rayden. But we three have questions for you.”

His expression determined, almost challenging, Rayden simply nodded.

“After living among the humans, do you truly believe them worth saving?”

“More than anything I know.”

“Do you love them enough to sacrifice your own immortality?” the second Elder God said.”

“If that is what it takes, yes,” he replied, his voice unfaltering.

The third Elder God asked the final question. “Are you ready to fight and die for them?”

Once again, Rayden answered without hesitation.

 

His eyes narrowed, the warrior stood poised on the highest precipice of the vertical stone formation, watching a large red hawk ride a wind current far below, its outspread wings skimming the edge of a raftering cloud. Its cry spliced up to him, fierce, dauntless, conspicuously independent. He nodded with something more than admiration... empathy, perhaps.

Moving closer to the edge of the cliff, the warrior closed his eyes in silent meditation, focusing his concentration inward, gathering his strength. His hair was cut to his scalp. He wore a dark, tight-fitting leather tunic and pants, black cross straps, high laced boots: a battle outfit. In his hands, flapping and billowing in the wind, were the priestly robes he had so recently shed.

With a final brief prayer, Rayden opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and dove off the rarefied summit, flipping from one descending ledge to another, his body as graceful as that of the hawk he had been observing.

Three thousand feet down, his feet touched the ground at the base of the mountain.

He slapped the dust off his sleeves and smiled with the nearest hint of immodesty.

“I’m ready,” he said.

 

Sonya opened her eyes a crack, realized she was moving. What’s wrong with this picture? she thought muzzily. Then it came to her. She was moving, yes, but her legs weren’t, and her angle with the ground was all wrong.

Someone was carrying her.

Her eyes snapped the rest of the way open and she looked down at the metal-sheathed arm hooked around her waist.

“Jax, put me down...” she rasped, coughing dryly.

He dropped to his knees, lowering her to the earth with a gentleness one wouldn’t have expected from a man his size. She scrabbled resistantly free of his grasp and rose to her feet.”

“Chill out, girl,” he said. “Your head got in the way of a flyin’ rock, but you’re safe now.”

“I can take care of myself, in case you haven’t noticed,” she grumbled.

He knew her well enough to leave that comment alone.

Sonya took a hurried inventory of herself, running her hand over her head, wincing painfully as her fingers skimmed over a nasty bump. Her clothes were singed and torn, and one of her legs was throbbing from a bruisy cut on the knee, but that seemed the extent of the damage. She looked around, saw that they were just inside the mouth of a cave. Fissured, contorted volcanic ground spread out beyond it. In the far distance, black smoke brewed into the sky from an immense crown of flame.

“That’s the base?” she asked, pointing to the conflagration.

“Yeah. Left it back there maybe an hour, hour and a half ago. Been carrying you the whole way.”

“That was stupid. You’d have traveled faster alone.”

“What, you want me to leave my partner out there as vulture bait? With some kind of hit squad on our ass?”

Now it was her turn to ignore him. Limping slightly form her sore knee, Sonya went over the cave entrance for a better look outside.

She didn’t like what she saw. A mile away, close to a dozen surviving members of the Extermination Squad were heading toward them across the flatlands, their imposing figures silhouetted by the burning remains of the Army installation. The fire itself was spreading in an unchecked tide, igniting the tar and lava bleeding up from the cracked earth.

“All right, forget compassion,” Jax said, still unaware of the gaining posse of Outworlders. “I want some answers from you before you go and get yourself wasted. Like, for instance, where you disappeared to. I mean, we were in the middle of an operation, and you left me high and dry.”

Sonya sighed. As members of a special warfare team, they had been in China stalking an Asian crime boss when she was plucked away by Rayden to fight in the Mortal Kombat tournament. But she would need hours to explain that – and from the look of things outside, they didn’t even have minutes.

“We’ve got bigger problems than our past,” she said, turning from the cave entrance. “We’ve got to keep moving.”

Trying not to show how much trouble her leg was giving her, she moved hurriedly past Jax toward the shadowy back exit of the cave.

“This is what really gets me about you,” Jax complained. He took a quick peek outside, then caught up with Sonya and stepped in front of her, holding out his palm in a “stop” gesture. “You’re gonna have to go through me unless you come clean.”

They faced each other a moment in tense silence.

“Have it your way,” she said at last, and shrugged extravagantly. “The world’s being invaded by Shao Kahn. Happy now?”

“Shao Kahn? What the hell country is that?”

Sonya expelled a long breath, grabbed both of Jax’s enhanced arms, and looked straight into his eyes.

“Jax, those guys out there are warriors. From another place or another time, I’m not sure which. But all you really need to know is that their job is to kill us.”

The only word Sonya could think of to describe Jax’s expression was one her grandmother had used way back when: flabbergasted.

“Goddamn, girl, what’ve you gotten us into this time?”

“Look,” she said. “It gets a little complicated, but basically me and some friends kicked Shao Kahn’s ass. And let’s just say he’s a real sore loser.”

As Jax stood there shaking his head, Sonya pushed past him into the darkness.

“We have to go now.”

“Into a dead end cave?” Jax said, stalking after her. “I’m sorry, but I don’t got a death wish like you!”

She paused several yards ahead of him, letting her eyes adjust to the deeper darkness.

“Jax,” she said, “some things you just gotta see for yourself.”

 

“Is this for real?” Jax asked, looking around at the arcane machinery of the velosphere’s hangar. His mouth was a perfect gaping O.

“Why don’t you ask them?” she said, and nodded toward the mouth of the cave, where the war cries of the approaching Outworlders were echoing loudly in the gloom.

Jax hopped into the waiting velosphere without another word. Sparing a glance over her shoulder before she followed him, Sonya saw that the warriors were already through the cave entrance and racing in their direction, their faces warped and ghastly in the pale green glow coming from the walls.

“I take it Amtrak’s out of the question,” Jax said, strapping himself in.

Sonya peered out through the globe’s entry port. Now the Outworlders had split into two groups – one of them pouring into the wind tunnel track and rushing for the velosphere, the other circling around to the hangar. They were about to be surrounded.

“Just do what I say! Lean hard to the right! Now!”

Jax didn’t put up an argument.

A moment later there was a rush of air, and they were swept down the track to safety.

Chapter Ten

Liu stood under a seamless night sky that stretched toward the horizon like a velvet cloth, the torch in his hand spilling daubs of feeble light over his features but doing little to push back the darkness.

“Go deep into the night,” the medicine man had advised him. “You will not find the Nightwolf. He will find out.”

That had been many hours ago, when there still was some light left to the day. After leaving the cave, Liu had found himself in a barren, wind-scoured desert marked only by humpbacked ranks of sand dunes trooping off into the distance, and, an eternity away, the three graduating, hornlike spires of what he believed was the Hopi Mesa. The dry air searing his skin, using the far-off mesa to guide his bearings, he had trudged through that sunbaked emptiness for a long time, his limbs growing heavier with each step he took.

An American Indian with long white hair and skin like old rawhide, the medicine man had appeared out of nowhere. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He had, in fact, stepped from behind a clump of scrubby mesquite while Liu was resting in its pitiful shade.

“Who... how did you...?” Liu had said, snapping to his feet.

And, answering neither his spoken nor unspoken questions, the medicine man had told him about going into the night and being found by Nightwolf. And here he was.

Now he held out his torch and slowly moved it around himself in a circle, listening. He had heard something howl, some kind of animal. The sound cut through the silence like a stiletto – a high-pitched, baying cry unlike any Liu had heard before. It had seemed to come from nearby, and that made him uneasy.

He stopped, listened some more. There it was again. Closer now. Much closer. Soaring high above the dunes, lonely and passionate and savage. Liu’s muscles tensed, the hairs at the back of his neck standing out in stiff little points.

Suddenly he heard a soft rustling noise behind him, and whirled to see a huge white wolf leap from the syrupy darkness. There was the low whistle of air being cleaved by a hurtling body. Then, its monstrous jaws snapping, it landed inches away from him, reared onto its hind legs, and pounced, throwing him backward to the ground.

Liu thrashed underneath it, but his efforts to struggle free were in vain. The creature was too heavy, too powerful. He was pinned down, unable to move, certain it would sink its fangs into his flesh at any moment.

Then the impossible happened. With its snout inches away from his throat, the wolf began to waver before his eyes, its shape shifting, melting into another form – that of a young, Native American man.

“Pretty cool, huh?” he said, smiling. His face was so close their noses almost touched.

He hopped off Liu and pulled him to his feet.

Liu was stunned. “Who are you? How did you do that?”

“Ha! Wouldn’t you like to know?” the stranger said. About the same weight and height as Liu, with a shock of gleaming black hair, he wore a traditional patchwork vest over a Stone Temple Pilots T-shirt, bluejeans, and lizard skin cowboy boots. A tomahawk hung from a loop on his belt, and a pair of iridescent Oakley sunglasses hung from the collar of his tee by one of the stems.

Liu gave him an appraising look. There was something in his dark brown, almost black eyes, an unmistakable depth and strength...

“You’re Nightwolf, aren’t you? The one Rayden sent me to find?”

The mysterious young man neither confirmed nor denied this. He circled Liu, sizing him up much as Liu had just done to him.

“So you’re Rayden’s prodigy?” he said. “I’ve seen better.”

Liu blinked, indignant.

“Don’t sweat it,” the stranger said. “I’ve also seen worse.”

“If you really are Nightwolf, you know that I won the last tournament,” Liu said in a defensive tone.

The man shrugged, amusement flashing in his eyes. “The tournament had rules. This time anything goes.”

Liu frowned, tired of his flip, ambiguous replies.

“You’re no older than I am. What can you possibly teach me?”

The stranger’s face suddenly turned serious.

“The body before you may have low mileage, but my soul has been handed down through generations, dating back to the time before the Ancient tribe split,” he said.

“What does all this have to do with stopping Shao Kahn?”

“After the ice melted and the Ancient Tribe of One spread out across the globe, each people was given a battle secret to keep the playing field even, as they say. The keeper of this secret forever lives on sacred land... which is where you now stand.”

Liu remained skeptical. “You’re telling me you are the keeper of your people’s secret?”

“Something like that,” Nightwolf said. He unfastened his tomahawk from its belt loop and twirled it from hand to hand, obviously trying to impress Liu – and doing a fair job.

“Look, I don’t have time for these stupid games,” Liu said, starting away. “It was a mistake even coming here.”

“You think you’re ready, Liu Kang. But if you were, would Kitana have been caught?”

That struck a nerve. Liu spun around him, his fists clenched at his sides.

“Can you help me get her back?”

The mischief had returned to the stranger’s eyes. “Maybe. But first you gotta put yourself in a dream state.”

“And just how am I supposed to do that?”

Nightwolf was still manipulating his tomahawk like an expert baton twirler.

“Well,” he said, “there’s a slow way, and there’s a fast way.”

Liu’s fists trembled. “We don’t have time for the slow way!”

A smirk touched the corner of the stranger’s lips. “That’s what I thought you’d say,” he said.

Liu started to launch into an angry response, but he had scarcely gotten a word out of his mouth when the young man flipped the tomahawk at him so that its blunt end crunched against his forehead.

Sparks exploded between his eyes, rapidly turned cinder-gray, then blackened.

The young Indian’s grin slanted further up his face as he watched Liu crumple to the ground, unconscious.

“Sweet dreams, champ,” he said. “See you when you wake up.”

Chapter Eleven

They plunged through the jungle wilderness, moving as quickly as they could, Jax’s strength-amplified arms sweeping out in front of him to clear a path through the dense clutter of vegetation. Behind him, Sonya tried not to let her bad leg slow her down as she struggled to negotiate an obstacle course of vines, stumps, root tangles, and sucking marl. A single misstep would throw her flat on her face, and with the Outworlders sticking close at their heels, even a brief setback could be calamitous.

All around them, gray streamers of mist were creeping up from the ground and killing the leaves on their branches, turning them from vibrant green to sickly yellow, wilting them before their eyes. Sonya was sure this was another thing that could be charged in full to Shao Kahn’s account – the poisonous atmosphere of Outworld was infiltrating their own like some deadly herbicide.

As if to confirm her thoughts, a coarse Outworld idol suddenly became visible through the screen of foliage ahead of them, its gruesome visage frozen in a stone-carved growl.

“This is the sixth one of these damn things,” Jax said breathlessly. “And each one gets uglier.”

“It’s the merger of the realms,” Sonya said.

Jax frowned in annoyance. “You keep saying that, Sonya. And it doesn’t mean squat to me.”

“I told you,” she said, pushing ahead past the idol. “It’s the end of the world.”

Jax suddenly grabbed her from behind by the arm.

“Goddamnit!” he grunted. “You’re talking to me like I’m some kind of idiot! Take a minute to think about how I feel, would you?”

She looked at him, nodding to indicate she was listening.

“You drag me out of the hospital with some lunatic killers on our ass, put me in a spinning ball, and take me halfway around the world,” he went on. “If I’m gonna die today, at least tell me why!”

“Nobody told me why Johnny had to die. Shit happens, Jax. You’re a big boy. Deal with it.”

Jax searched her face, but her stony expression revealed nothing. “Who the hell’s Johnny?

She turned away, leaving him more confused and exasperated than ever.

“I’m your partner, girl,” he said. “If you can’t trust me, who can you–?”

Lightning streaked across the sky, followed by a sudden, violent blast of thunder. Jax felt something sting his face and slapped at it.

“Ahh, damn, what was that?”

They both looked around in growing horror and dismay. Noxious purplish-black raindrops were drizzling from the sky, causing the undergrowth to wither and rot on contact, collecting in oily, steaming pools at their feet.

“Nature’s dying,” Sonya said in a barely audible voice.

“Maybe this is the end of the world,” Jax said.

When Sonya turned to him, he saw that her lower lip was trembling.

“Time’s running out, Jax,” she said. “It could all be over in a few days.”

They looked at each other for a moment, their faces somber and heavy. Then, from the very near distance, the sound of brush being thrashed and trampled reached their ears.

“We gonna keep running, or do you want to go out swinging?” Jax asked.

Sonya started to answer, but then something made her change her mind. She put a finger to her lips and cocked her head.

“You hear that?” she whispered.

Jax listened. “Relax, it’s nothing. The posse’s still a ways behind.”

“I’m not talking about the Extermination Squads,” she said. “Whatever I heard was right here with us.”

Sonya’s eyes shifted to a patch of quivering foliage. She tapped Jax on the arm and gestured, but before he could see what she was trying to show him, a split-kick tore through the brush and caught them both in their faces.

Stunned, Sonya and Jax had just enough time to catch a glimpse of their attacked before he faded back into the ground-mist. They looked around in frustration, searching for any sign of him, but it was no good. He was either gone or perfectly camouflaged, and Sonya was betting on the latter.

She cut her gaze this way and that, her eyes trying to penetrate the gauzy fog, and was turning to investigate another hint of movement in the brush when an arm snaked around her throat from behind, roughly yanking her backward.

Gagging and sputtering, Sonya desperately grabbed hold of a tree limb above her head, leveraged herself off the ground, and backflipped up and over her attacked – an angular, exotic-looking woman with eyes like burning coals, and a body as tautly well-conditioned as her smile was vicious.

Sliding her hands between the woman’s limbs, Sonya landed and put her in a headlock, flipping her back into the mist, which poured around her in a churning brew, concealing her from sight.

There was a brief silence. Sonya and Jax exchanged alarmed, wary glances, tension humming between them like voltage.

Then, all at once, the mist in front of Jax coalesced into the shape of the first attacker, who struck out with a rapid succession of blows that snapped his head back like a speed bag. Jax reeled dazedly, bringing up his new arms for a retaliatory combination of punches – but his commands to them were still getting scrambled somewhere en route from his brain. His blows went wild, missing his elusive attacker by several inches, giving him the opening he needed to fade into the mist.

As Jax looked down at his mutinous fists with disgust, cursing them under his breath, the red-eyed woman cartwheeled through the mist and landed with her legs wrapped in a scissor-grip around Sonya’s neck. Screeching with delight, her powerful thigh muscles squeezing Sonya’s windpipe, she repeatedly boxed her ears with the heel of her hands.

Sonya rocked and staggered, gasping for air, but somehow gathered the energy to flip her opponent off her. In the brief pause before the woman recovered, Sonya got her first good look at her – and almost froze in shock.

“Kitana...?” she said.

The woman cackled.

“Name’s Mileena, and I don’t appreciate being confused with my virtuous half-sister,” she said. “Just for that, me and my pal Smoke are going to make your deaths extra painful.”

“You wish,” Sonya said.

Mileena ripped out another peal of insane laughter and sprang at her. Unwilling to be put on the defensive again, Sonya drove forward, but Mileena was a hair faster. She caught Sonya in midair with a ferocious spin kick, then went flipping back into the mist, her evil laughter echoing through the jungle.

Smoke simultaneously took form out of the rippling curtain of fog, almost as if their moves had been choreographed. He stepped into plain view and assumed a fighting stance, a three-prong spear snapping from a metal panel in his chest and shooting out at Jax’s ribcage.

Another cyborg, just like the one back at the lab, Jax thought, which explains how he can turn himself into, well, smoke.

He raised his arm across his chest, parrying aside the spear a moment before it would have impaled him.

Although his arms had finally done what he wanted them to, Jax wasn’t all that certain they wouldn’t go haywire again. Before they could act up, he grabbed hold of Smoke’s spear and, with a tremendous show of strength, pulled the cyborg toward him and connected with an uppercut that sent Smoke sailing across the thicket.

But the mechanical combatant was far from down for the count. Landing on his feet, he cannonballed up from the mist on rocket-powered boot-thrusters, his head smashing Jax backward into the mist, which closed around him like a heavy curtain.

Smoke scrambled after him, raking his eyes left and right, trying to seek him out amid the thick, concealing billows of vapor – and was greeted by a full-on metal first to the face.

His head lashing back, Smoke released harsh, grating sound that might have been a groan in a human throat. Then he collapsed.

“Gotcha,” Jax said. “Gotcha one good.”

Sonya and Mileena, meanwhile, remained locked in a death struggle, barreling on the ground after a fierce exchange of kicks and blows. Rolling on top of Sonya with a snakelike hiss, Mileena whipped a sai from a concealed harness and thrust it down at Sonya’s face. Sonya bucked and reared underneath her, mercifully slipping the attack and knocking Mileena off her perch. As Mileena tumbled to the ground on her back, Sonya grabbed the sai out of her hand and then brought the short-staff down across her windpipe, pressing down with all her strength until her arms and legs stopped flailing and went limp.

She was still bearing down on the lifeless body when a hand suddenly fell on her shoulder.

“Hey, relax,” Jax said. He nodded toward the pulverized snarl of metal, synthetic flesh and circuitry that had been his opponent. “It’s over, Sonya. We beat them.”

She whipped her head around, looking straight at him, something almost feral in her expression. For a moment, he could have sworn she didn’t have the slightest idea who he was. Then her eyes came back from some faraway place – a place Jax really didn’t think anybody in his right mind would want to go with her – and filled with recognition.

She slowly released her grip on the staff.

“You and those stupid arms,” she said, gasping. “I thought I was gonna have to save you again.”

“Again? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Forget it.”

Sonya glanced back down at Mileena’s corpse.

“She was a pretty good replica of a human being, but it looks like we got another cyborg here,” she said, and pointed to the griffon-like tattoo on her shoulder. “That’s exactly the same as the mark we on Cyrax.”

“It’s like a goddamned nightmare,” Jax said, watching the tattoo start to move, its wings flapping as it became three dimensional. “I don’t know how much longer I can take this shit. These suckers–”

He stopped talking.

He looked at Sonya.

She looked back at him.

They both had heard the Extermination Squad pushing through the wooded tangle behind them, and from the sound of things they were coming much too close for comfort.

“We better roll,” Sonya said. “Pronto.”

Jax nodded, and a moment later they were dashing off into the mist.

Chapter Twelve

For Liu it began the same way it would eventually end – with the sense that he was dreaming or hallucinating, helpless to control the surreal flow of events into which he had been swept like a leaf in a gale.

His eyes flickering open, he tried to move, discovered that he couldn’t, and then realized that he was buried in sand up to his neck.

This can’t be real, he thought with a surge of claustrophobic panic. Can’t be.

He tilted his chin up off the desert floor. Night was still with him. So was Nightwolf. The young Native American was a few feet away, circling him with a torch.

“Glad you could join us,” he said. “We’ve got a ton of work to do.”

Liu squirmed and felt sand trickle down the back of his shirt, a sensation that heightened his terror to a degree that was almost overwhelming.

Let me out!” he shouted. “I don’t have time for this!

Nightwolf’s scoffing grin made an unwanted comeback.

“Really?” He stood over Liu with his feet planted apart and his arms folded across his chest. “Well, I don’t have time for your ignorance. So if you’ve got a problem, why don’t you do something about it, tough guy?”

“I can’t fight you. I can’t even move.”

“Excellent, some signs of intelligence,” Nightwolf said, his slantwise smile creeping higher up his face. He knelt close to Liu. “You’ve gotta learn to fight with inner strength, dude. Your moves are important, but even the best warrior can be killed. It’s the fire inside you, your everlasting faith in yourself, that can never be defeated.”

Liu’s eyes never left Nightwolf as he walked over to a ten-foot high prickly pear cactus and knocked in half with a forceful kick.

“I know this sounds like a bunch of psychobabble, but it really does work. If your soul is pure,” he said.

He lowered his torch to the ground and revealed an army of dark, furry spiders swarming from the broken cactus.

Liu’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”

“Here’s the deal,” Nightwolf said. “You’ve got three tests to pass before you’re ready for what lies ahead.” He knelt, filling the pouch with spiders until it bulged and jerked from the inside. Then he smiled his crooked smile. “Now the first thing we’re gonna test is your courage... this part should blow your mind.”

Liu moistened his lips. “Why does it have to be spiders?”

“Because you’re scared of them.”

Standing over Liu again, Nightwolf turned the pouch upside down and emptied the spiders onto his head.

Cringing with revulsion as they skittered over his scalp and face, Liu tried to shake them off and yelped in sudden pain.

“The trick here is to overcome your fear.”

Nightwolf watched him like a scientist studying a new lab specimen. “Every time you move, the spiders bite.”

“I know! I can feel it!”

“Relax,” Nightwolf said, attenuating the a sound. “Their poison won’t kill you, just expand your mind beyond your current boundaries.”

“If you’re so damn smart and brave, why don’t you fight Shao Kahn?” Liu asked furiously.

Nightwolf’s face become serious, the fathoms-deep look Liu had seen before returning to his eyes. “If Kahn dares to attack our sacred land, I will be here to protect my people... as I have for the last two hundred years.”

He stood over Liu for another minute, then began walking away with the torch.

Night poured over Liu like thick molasses.

“Wait!” Liu shouted after him. “Where are you going? You can’t just leave me here like this.”

The words that came back at him from the enveloping darkness were laced with mockery.

“Wanna bet?”

His face pale, his skin beaded with sweat, Liu felt his eyelids grow heavy as the spider venom took hold.

Finally, they dropped shut.

 

When Liu came to again, he was standing against a field of what he initially believed were stars, thousands of them, twinkling against the night sky like carelessly scattered diamonds. But as his head cleared, he realized to his horror that they were, in fact, tiny, brightly blinking eyes... malevolent, jack-o’-lantern eyes that flashed from white to emerald green before his own enraptured gaze.

Then he heard Nightwolf’s voice. Heard it coming from inside his own head.

“Face your fears, Liu,” it said. “Through them you will find your primal power. Your animal rage.”

“I won Mortal Kombat!” Liu protested in a voice that seemed oddly detached from him. “What do I have to fear?”

“You hide your fears with attitude. But here you cannot hide.”

Demonic faces emerged from the darkness, their outlines shifting and phantasmal except for those gemlike green eyes. Liu heard overlapping whoops of frenzied laughter and instinctively assumed a fighting stance.

“You let your brother die,” a voice said from everywhere and nowhere at once.

“You cannot beat Shao Kahn!” whooped another with monstrous elation.

More voices joined in the taunting chorus.

“You are a worthless man!”

“You cannot save the world!”

“You will fail!”

Liu punched and kicked at the wraithlike creatures, but his blows went right through them. They whirled and capered around him, untouchable, their strident, overlapping voices tearing at his composure.

Then, drowning them out in a soundless roar, Nightwolf’s voice pushed back into Liu’s head.

“The past cannot hurt you, Liu,” he said. “Believe in your destiny. Every man has the power to change the future. Find that power within.”

Liu clenched his fists without even knowing he had done so. Then he closed his eyes and stood perfectly still.

“Yes,” he said. “I can feel it.”

Incredibly, greenish-black reptilian scales began to sprout from his arms. Smoke gusted from his nose. His eyes peeled open, glowing like red lightbulbs, their pupils horizontal slits.

The Dragon, an inner voice that was his, yet not his, shouted. Loose the Dragon!

His anger rising within him in a scalding fountain, Liu belched out a gout of flame that torched several of the demons and sent them scattering like meteors in some stellar cataclysm. The others flew off as well, their jeering howls of laughter curdling to fearful, defeated shrieks that soon dwindled out of earshot.

Liu teetered between a giddy exhilaration over the newfound power throbbing within him like a chrysalis trying to shed its cocoon, and fear of what would become of him if that happened. For a moment he was tempted to find out, to let that terrifying yet seductive force burst free of restraint and take over completely... but the urge was quickly suppressed. He was terrified that if he did that, if the transformation were to complete itself, there might be no reversing it.

Closing his eyes again, he wrestled down his anger, willing it back into whatever fiery chamber of his soul it had sprung from. Slowly his features grew calm, the plated scales on his arms smoothing and softening as they reverted to human flesh.

Within minutes, a kind of thick, gluey lassitude settled over him and everything went black.

 

This time when Liu regained his senses, it was after feeling his eyelids flecked by something wet and stingingly cold. He opened his eyes to find it was daylight, and that he was no longer buried in sand, but lying face up in a large ditch. Light snow was falling. Scorched black, the ground around him was already half hidden under a powdery accumulation.

“Nightwolf?” he said, rising on his elbows. “Nightwolf?”

But there was no sign of him, and Liu’s calls were quickly snatched away in a rush of harsh, bitterly cold wind. He got to his feet and surveyed his predicament, shivering violent.

Covered by a skim of snow, the procession of sand dunes surrounding him now resembled immense polar drifts. Snow rippled and swirled in the air, dissolving the world into soft focus.

Where was he? Which way was he supposed to go? The maddening truth was he didn’t have a clue. One direction seemed as good as another.

Miserable and despondent, hugging himself for warmth, Liu started out through the blowing snow.

 

Liu had walked a great distance since first awakening in the storm but gotten no closer to any sign of life. His strength was fading. Every step he took left him shin-deep in the mounting white drifts. His hair crusted with ice, his face bluing from the cold, he fell to his knees and began to crawl, his fingers clawing at the frozen ground.

Liu was almost unconscious when he noticed the orange gleam of firelight playing across the snow up ahead. The muscles of his neck creaking softly, he raised his head... and blinked. Then blinked again. And again, certain he was looking at another hallucination.

“I am Jade,” the woman standing in front of him said. In her hand was a long wooden staff, the end of which had been dipping in burning pitch to create torchlight. “I have searched the mesa for you, Liu Kang. Nightwolf feared for your life.”

Liu kept looking up at her, momentarily dumbstruck. Whether flesh-and-blood or a figment of his imagination, she was absolutely, stunningly beautiful. Her face was angular and fine-featured with high cheekbones and dark brown eyes that slanted up a little at the corners. Somehow, the bulky animal skins in which she was wrapped only seemed to accentuate the long, seductive, length of her body.

She knelt beside him, her breechcloth riding up over her bare knee. Then she planted the staff in the snow and touched her hands to his shaking chest, sliding them under his shirt, sharing her warmth.

“This snow,” she said, “it falls from desert skies. Do you know why?”

“Yes,” he said. “There’s not much time left – the end of the world is near.”

She nodded. Her fingers were very soft moving over him.

“Of all the horrors darkness holds, to die alone, that it my worst fear,” she said.

One hand withdrew from him, went to a cord fastener on her jacket, opened it. She pulled him into its folds, pressed herself against him.

“With you, Liu Kang,” she said. “I am not afraid.”

He felt his heart racing. His throat was suddenly tight.

Her hands moved over him.

“I don’t even know who you are,” he said huskily.

“All you need to know is that I am here to help you,” she said. She stroked his hair, her breath moist and feathery against his neck. “Take my warmth. Let it give you strength for your battle.”

“You’re almost too good to be true,” he said, letting himself be drawn closer to her.

She moved against him, her lips parting.

“The same could be said about you,” she said, and tilted her head forward, and brushed her mouth against his own. “We can defy the darkness by creating the light of new life.”

His head swimming, Liu started to return her kiss, but suddenly hesitated.

“No,” he rasped. “I... I can’t.”

“Don’t say that.” She snaked her arms around his waist, moving, moving, pressing closer to him. “Together we could melt the snow, Liu Kang.”

Liu pushed away. “Stop–”

“Together we could live our final days–”

“No,” Liu said, struggling against her. Against himself. “My heart belongs to another.”

Her eyes lowered as he drew back from her.

Gently, he cupped her chin in his hand, raised her face until their eyes met.

“If you’re really here for me, Jade, help us defeat Shao Kahn.”

She looked at him a while, then smiled and kissed him again – but this time it was a quick, chaste peck on the cheek.

“You are even more pure and faithful than I heard,” she said. “You have passed the test, Liu Kang.”

He looked at her in bewilderment.

“A test? This was all just another of Nightwolf’s tests?”

She took hold of his hand.

“An enjoyable one for me,” she said. “And under different circumstances, I would not have wanted it to end just yet. But we must get to Mount Gaia. The others will be waiting.”

He shook his head. “No. If this was a test, it was only the second. I’m not ready.”

“Not ready to save Kitana? Because I can take you to the prison where she’s kept.”

He looked at her. “You’ve seen her? She’s alive?”

“For now, yes.” Jade fell momentarily silent. The sound of battle horns blared in the distance. “Kahn is near. We must go.”

Liu glanced in the general direction of the clamor, took a deep breath, then rose slowly to his feet and began following her across the icy tundra.

 

From his vantage atop a high, snowy precipice, Nightwolf watched Liu and Jade begin their journey across the storm-swept mesa and gazed toward the heavens.

“I tried, Rayden, but he’s not ready. He still doubts himself.”

His face troubled, he waited for some kind of response. But all that came was the senseless shrieking of the wind.

Chapter Thirteen

On Outworld, cobalt, a brittle metallic element essential to the production of plasma weapons, was a commodity valued above all else under the twin moons. Discoveries of natural deposits were claimed as personal property by the sovereign ruler, and anyone outside his government caught hoarding or black-marketing the mineral was shuttled off to one of the hellish cobalt mines across the land.

There, punishment and slave labor came together in unholy union as prisoners toiled under the watchful gaze of elite Shokan guards, mutant nomads with organic metal endoskeletons, and hundreds of rank-and-file Outworld warriors, all under the command of General Baraka. Insectile eight-legged grots, their shaggy thoraxes as long as five grown men standing in line, hauled cards full of raw ore up to the storage silos in a constantly moving train. Day and night without any lull, the underground mine shaft rang with the clamor of pick axes breaking sound, the moans of sick, starved, and exhausted inmates, and occasionally the screams of women who had been pulled from the work details to provide unspeakable amusements to their keepers.

Now Baraka leaned over the rail of an observation platform above the yard, his flat, batrachian eyes watching with interest as a prisoner trying to unload his heavy bushel of cobalt into a cart collapsed from weariness, his legs giving out underneath him.

Baring his sharklike teeth in a perverse approximation of a grin, the general descended from the platform and approached the man.

“Work harder, or you will pay for your laziness!” he said.

“I have paid all a man can,” the prisoner can.

Baraka studied him closely. His eyes were drab and recessed in their sockets. His legs were bowed. His skin hung from his face in pale, saggy wattles. He looked like a sack of loose bones.

“As long as you breathe, pain is the price I will exact,” he barked, and then backhanded the prisoner, who went down with a sound that was something between a wheeze and a moan.

His grin never fading, Baraka kicked him in the face, arms and chest, kicked him repeatedly and automatically until he went tumbling into the forsaken depths of the prison.

“You all work for the glory of His Magnificence Shao Kahn, World-Conqueror, Master of War,” Baraka announced to the prisoners around him, basking in their cowed attention and making sure his voice projected into a chamber at the back of the mine, where Kahn himself had trotted atop his winged black steed after arriving scant moments earlier. Those in the royal bloodline enjoyed having their egos massaged as much as anyone – more so, in fact, perhaps due to the expectations they felt obliged to live up to – and Baraka had not attained his high position without knowing how to curry favor with them.

This time, however, Kahn was oblivious to his general’s flattery. Though the massive doors of the chamber were still flung open behind him, allowing sounds from the mine to echo into its sweltering gloom, his attention was fixed on one of the many crude wooden cages hanging from supports high above.

Inside the cage, Kitana faced him in utter silence, her eyes showing no trace of fear or intimidation.

“All your past betrayals, I can forgive,” he said, holding out a ladle of water. “For you are my daughter, Kitana.”

She reached between the bars, took the offered ladle from his hand, and drank. When she passed it back to him, it was empty.

A grin started forming on Kahn’s lips... and froze there as she spat out the water, expelling it in a stream that hit him full in the face.

“You sorely test my patience,” he said, and wiped his cheek with his sleeve. His grin had become a rictus of suppressed anger.

“You destroyed my family,” Kitana said. Her voice was flat, without emotional content. “You drove my mother to kill herself. I am your enemy forever. So kill me now if you dare.”

Kahn chuckled. “Foolish child. A struggling worm on the hook lands a bigger catch than the dead one.”

He tugged sharply on his reins and the black mount reared underneath him, then turned in a half circle, its ribbed, featherless wings rippling and flapping.

“Kitana does not need water, so let us honor her wishes!” he said, dipping the ladle in the water bucket again, then showing it to the other prisoners in the containment chamber.

There were thirsty grunts and smacking lips. Hands thrust out of the pens, their dirty, scabrous fingers groping.

Kahn displayed the ladle for another moment, letting the prisoners work themselves into a frenzy, savoring the power he held over them. Then he tipped it over and let the water splash to the ground.

“Today,” he said, “no one drinks.”

Hoarse moans of agony rising around him, Kahn flicked a look of cruel satisfaction over his shoulder at Kitana, then spurred his horse away without another word.

 

Sonya and Jax stood at the base of a high granite ridge, the darkness behind them roaring with the savage cries of an Extermination Squad in full pursuit.

“You know your plan about how our superior fitness and training would wear these guys out?” Jax said, glancing back over his shoulder.

“Yeah.”

“It ain’t working.”

“Then I guess you’d better push harder, my friend,” she said, squeezing his shoulder.

They scrambled up the escarpment, clawing for purchase, dirt and pebbles skittering away under their hands and feet, their muscles aching from exertion. After a while they paused to rest on a rocky prominence and snatched a quick look down into the depression far below.

What they saw stole their breath away.

Hauntingly beautiful, the vestiges of a lost civilization stretched off into the moon-washed distance. Masonry buildings, wide paved courts, and temples decorated with massive colonnades, statues, and reliefs lined both sides of the valley. Below them a staircase that had been carved right out of the mountainside made a winding descent into the ruins.

“This the Mount Gaia you been talking about?” Jax asked.

“I’ve got a feeling it is,” Sonya said.

“Well, the scenery aside, I hope comin’ here was worth it.” He examined his fingertips and frowned disapprovingly. They were badly skinned from the climb. “It’s–”

The strident braying of battle horns abruptly cut him off. They turned in unison, looked back from where they come, and saw Shao Kahn at the head of a roiling black cloud, the flanks of his winged mount encased in armor, Sindel beside him on her own airborne war horse. Trailing them both on the ground were legions of Centaurs and Extermination Squads.

“They’re about twenty minutes behind us,” Sonya said. “Let’s pray Rayden has a good plan.”

Jax had no argument with that.

Without wasting another minute, they started down the crumbling stone stairs.

 

“What is this place?” Jax asked, half rhetorically. “I don’t see no mailboxes tellin’ us which temple belongs to the Elder Gods.”

Sonya glanced from side to side. Majestic architectural remnants vaulted into the sky all around them. Up ahead was a structure made of perfectly square stone blocks, its archway guarded by statues that looked like helmeted gladiators.

Jax stepped up to one of the life-sized effigies, studying the hieroglyphs chiseled into its base.

“I’d bet anything this is some kinda memorial,” he said.

Sonya came over to take a look, but before she could respond they were both jumped by fighters leaping stealthily down from an outcropping above their heads.

Struggling to recover from their surprise, they traded a flurry of kicks and punches with the shadowy assailants. In the uncertain moonlight, it was hard to discern who was doing what to whom.

Then Sonya pulled one of their opponents toward her and her eyes suddenly widened in shock.

“Liu?” she said.

“Sonya?”

Jax halted in confusion. “You know this dude?”

While he was looking at them, a full on kick to his chin knocked Jax onto his bottom.

Liu regarded him as if nothing of the sort had happened. “Is that Jax?”

“Yeah,” she said. She tipped her chin at the woman who had kayoed Jax. “Who’s she?”

“Sonya, Jade. Jade, Sonya,” Liu said. “Sorry about the ambush. We thought you were Kahn’s advance team.”

“Major Jackson Briggs,” he said, a slightly dazed grin of admiration on his face. “You’ve got an incredible set of legs. For kicking, I mean.”

Sonya was in no frame of mind to watch a schoolboy crush in the making.

“Where’s Kitana?” she asked Liu.

He hesitated.

“Well...?”

“She was kidnapped. By Scorpion.”

“You lost Kitana? And then picked up some stranger?”

“Jade helped me to get here,” Liu said. “We can trust her.”

“You ask me, your judgement sucks.”

Liu looked at her, stung. As far as he was concerned, Sonya was the one who was judgement-impaired, and the war horns on the slopes behind them were all the proof anybody needed.

“Thanks to you we’ve got Kahn’s Extermination Squads on our tail,” he said.

Jax stepped closer to them. “Can I make a suggestion here? Let’s put this petty crap aside and worry about bigger things. Like stayin’ alive.”

Sonya was still looking directly at Liu. “Where’s Rayden? He’s the guy with the plan–”

“We looked,” Liu said. “He’s not here yet.”

“So we’re just gonna sit here and wait for this mook to show?”

Liu was shaking his head. “Sonya’s right. Without Rayden it’s hopeless.”

Never give up hope–” said a voice from somewhere overhead.

Startled, they all looked up at once to see Rayden flip down from a cliffside temple and land right in the middle of their inner circle.

“–at least not so early in the game,” Rayden said, finishing the sentence he’d started on the ledge.

They gaped at him in stunned bewilderment. He had changed since they’d last seen him. Changed tremendously. His long hair had been shaved off, and his robes were gone, replaced by rugged leather battle gear.

He caught their wondering glances and shrugged.

“It’s a new look, courtesy of the Elder Gods, with whom I’ve recently met,” he said, and then thrust his chin at Jade. “Who’s the babe?”

Liu told him.

“Well, I hope she can scrap as good as she looks,” Rayden said. “Because I was expecting a team of fighters. Instead, I hear fighters at war with each other.”

“Give us a break,” Sonya said. “We’ve been through hell...”

“Compared to what lies ahead, you’ve been through nothing,” he broke in. “Where’s Kitana?”

There was an uneasy silence. All eyes shifted to Liu.

“Kahn took her,” he said, crestfallen. “It’s my fault.”

Rayden’s face was impassive as he digested the bad news.

“This is not about blame,” he said finally. “We are together in this. Each of us must help and support the others. Like a family.” He glanced briefly at Jax. “What’s the deal with your arms?”

Jax’s brow creased. “I’ve known you exactly one minute and already you’re dissin’ me?”

“I watched you fight back there,” Rayden said. “You have the skills, but your arms are not your strength. They are your weakness.”

Jax frowned. “Thanks for the tip, but these things are state-of-the-art.”

“Faith in yourself is all you need,” Rayden said, shaking his head. “And I say that to all of you, not just Jax.”

“Look, faith is fine but we’ve got to get Kitana back,” Liu said impatiently. “Without her we can’t close the Portal.”

“Liu is right,” Jade said. “If Kahn has her in Outworld, we must go there now.”

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Sonya said.

“Follow me and you’ll see,” Rayden said.

And then he started down the chasm road, motioning for the others to fall in behind him, leading them between the grand stone structures.

Close outside the gates of the city, very close, the warlike shrieks of Kahn’s gathered forces leaped fiercely into the night.

 

They stood in a circular courtyard surrounded by stone colossi, figures of men and women with powerful, idealized proportions and looks of bold determination on their sculpted faces.

“These are the likenesses of champions who fell in Mortal Kombat in ages past,” Rayden said pointing to the sentinels. “They are also the friends I spoke of back when this all started.”

He walked to the center of the plaza, spread his arms out, and tilted his head toward the heavens.

“Who does this guy think he is?” Jax whispered. “Moses partin’ the Red Sea?”

Sonya watched Rayden without saying anything, her lips pressed together with trepidation. She knew his powers were leaving him. Knew their time was short.

The small band heard the martial blare of trumpets behind them, and turned toward the sound. Shao Kahn and his army were charging into the chasm.

Sonya glanced back at Rayden. His hands were still raised, tongues of current snaking around their outspread fingers.

“Whenever you’re ready, Rayden,” she said, one eye on the legions thundering toward them.

Rayden stole a glance at the advancing enemy and redoubled his efforts. The crackles of energy around his hand brightened, began throbbing with light, then suddenly concentrated into laserlike beams that shot out toward the statuary at the circumference of the plaza, connecting each figure to Rayden like spokes in an enormous wheel. The energy beams rapidly multiplies in number, crisscrossing, forming a dazzling blue-white web that linked Rayden to the statues and the statues to each other. Within seconds, the spaces between the strands had closed, surrounding Rayden and his companions in a swirling dome of power.

Less than a mile away, Shao Kahn pulled his horse to stop and looked over at Sindel.

“Use your death shriek!” he commanded. “Destroy everything!”

She was all too happy to oblige.

Climbing off her mount, she walked to the front ranks of the army, took a deep breath, and emitted an earsplitting wail that seemed to fill the night, a high-frequency bombardment that made the sides of the canyon shake and rumble.

Her scream swept through the chasm like sonic wildfire, racing closer to Rayden’s newly opened Portal as the mountain walls literally started exploding, the shockwave tearing them apart at a molecular level. Boulders dislodged from their perches and rolled downward. Geysers of rock and soil shot into the air. Across the floor of the valley, architecture that had withstood thousands of years of weather and natural disaster were stressed beyond all endurance. Cracks wove through the ruins in destructive patterns, causing them to founder and sag.

Rayden mouthed a silent prayer. Everywhere around him, columns were crumbling, buildings were disintegrating, and heroic statues were toppling into heaps of rubble.

Time had run out.

Now!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, then grabbed hold of Sonya’s hand and leaped into the dimensional rift. She in turn reached out for the others, all of them linking hands in a human chain.

One after the other they were pulled into the Portal, which closed behind them with a brilliant flash of light just as the howling, cursing Outworlders reached it, left behind on Earth.

“That was fun,” Sindel said, standing amid the carnage she had raised.

She looked anything but defeated.

Kahn reined his horse in beside her, a cunning smile on his lips.

“They have fallen into our trap,” he said. “Proceed as planned. I will await your arrival in Outworld.”

With a silent nod, Sindel watched as Kahn dug his spurs into the muscular ribcage of his stallion, prodding it to take wing.

Then he soared off into the lowering gray sky, a black ribbon of laughter trailing behind him.

Chapter Fourteen

In what seemed the blink of an eye, the heroic band spilled into Outworld from the Portal, which irised shut behind them a final crack of energy.

Jax stared at his hand, watching it phase from a discorporated state to its normal mass and solidity.

“My skin is burning up, but I’m freezing inside,” he said. “Feel like I got microwaved or something’.”

“Passage between the realms requires that our physical forms deconstitute in transit,” Rayden said, dusting himself off. “You never get used to it.”

“I don’t want to get used to it,” Jax said. “And that goes for everything about this place.”

He scanned his surroundings in horror. The wide thoroughfare stretching off ahead of them was pocked and ravaged, bordered with decaying moss-covered structures and ditches filled with stagnant drainage. Not far from where they stood, the twisted wreckage of a commuter train thrust up from the middle of the road, its ride having dead-ended somewhere between Earth and Outworld. Perched on it like scavenger birds were hundreds of winged Shokans, tearing at the remains of its passengers with covetous hunger.

“My God,” Liu muttered. “All those people...”

“It’s the merger of the realms,” Rayden said. “Time is our enemy. Pulled between dimensions without protection, they never knew what happened.”

Jax was shaking his head. “It’s like a nightmare.”

“We have to stop this,” Sonya said.

“I can take us to the prison where Kitana’s being held,” Jade said.

Rayden studied her features closely. “And where is that?”

“Over that ridge,” she said, and pointed to a spine of land running across the horizon like the humped back of a dinosaur. “There are thousands captured. The best fighters of Earth.”

Rayden seemed more than a little suspicious. “You’ve been there?”

Liu looked at him, annoyed by his reluctance.

“Listen, if it weren’t for Jade, I wouldn’t be here,” he said vehemently. “And besides, she’s all we’ve got right now.”

The others exchanged uncertain glances, waiting for Rayden’s decision.

At last he nodded.

“We will go with Jade,” he said.

 

Liu stumbled across it entirely by chance while following Jade along the royal road. Half covered in mud beside a collapsed wall, it was an intricate mosaic depicting King Jerrod, Queen Sindel, and young Kitana, Edenia’s former ruling family, standing amid the faded splendor of their castle topiary.

His face lined with sorrow and guilt, he crouched over the tile, brushing a gritty layer of soil off the likeness of Kitana.

Liu was still staring at the mosaic in reflective silence when he noticed a batch of shadows falling over it, and looked up to see that the others had gathered around him.

“You okay, bro?” Jax asked.

Before he could answer, all five of them heard an inhuman battle cry from somewhere nearby, whipped their heads around, and were overtaken by a sudden wave of shock and dismay.

Sheeva was poised like a Hindu goddess atop a temple across the road, her multiple arms raised around her body, fists beating the air with naked aggression. As they stood there gaping at her, she sprang down from the roof and landed in a cloud of dust.

“What in God’s name is that?” Jax said.

“C’mon, partner,” Sonya said. “I thought you liked big women.”

The sound of booted feet hustling up behind Rayden’s group brought their heads quickly around again. Sindel and a team of Outworld warriors had appeared from inside one of the decayed buildings along the highway, ready to block any retreat.

“It’s a beautiful day for a massacre!” Sindel said, cackling.

Rayden’s eyes snapped to Jade. “They knew we were coming.”

“Obviously,” she said, “they followed us.”

“Perhaps,” Rayden said. His tone fell just short of outright disbelief. “But it may be a blessing in disguise. We need Sindel to close the Portal forever.”

“You get the queen,” Liu told him. He gestured at Sheeva. “I’ll get the freak.”

Rayden nodded his accord. Then they broke in separate directions, Rayden charging Sindel at a full-tilt run, Liu launching himself at Sheeva with a bicycle kick that sent the multiarmed horror crashing back through the temple wall to her rear.

Landing smoothly on the balls of his feet, he took off after her without hesitation.

By the time he’d leaped through the gaping hole Sheeva was on her feet again, lunging at him, her arms doing their agile death dance around her body, hitting him with a storm of kicks and punches, each blow faster and more deadly accurate than the last. He blocked, shifted, feinted, but her fists came from all sides at once, making it impossible for him to protect himself. As he cocked his elbows to ward off a double palm-heel strike by both of her upper hands, her lower hands swept up and bent his arms out of the way, prying them apart, opening him up to the full brunt of her attack. Before he could recover, she hook-kicked him in the gut, knocking the wind out of him, dropping him to one knee.

Dazed, coughing, clutching his middle, he barely recovered in time to avoid Sheeva’s body stomp, tumbling out of the way as she came down flatfooted on the temple floor, shattering its tiles in the very spot where he’d been kneeling. An instant later she launched into the air again, following him, both feet descending with piledriver force. Somehow he managed to stay one step ahead of her, putting spring into superbly developed leg muscles, somersaulting as if on a trampoline.

But Sheeva was seemingly tireless. Relentless. She pressed in at Liu with incredible speed as he came out of a roll, landing a monstrous uppercut to his chin that lifted him off the ground. He sailed through the air like a rag doll, smashed through the temple’s ceiling, thudded onto an outside terrace, and was still trying to collect himself when Sheeva came climbing up from the hole, the muscles of her upper back and shoulders a corded mass.

As she came scrabbling onto the terrace, Liu sprang to his feet, cocked his right leg, and delivered a roundhouse kick to her middle, the leg traveling parallel to the floor, his hip and supporting foot rotating slightly, the ball of his foot connecting with shocking impact as the kick reached the end of its arc. She grunted and staggered drunkenly, doubled over, her arms folding around her middle.

Liu moved in for his follow up, moved in close...

By the time he realized he’d been tricked it was too late. Her mouth widened in a bellow of rage, Sheeva pulled herself up straight and lashed out with a windmill kick that knocked him onto his back with obliterating force.

She stood over him a moment, her face a mask of brute, unthinking rage. Then she vaulted high into the air and came hurtling back downward directly above Liu, her knees together, her heels coming straight at his skull.

Before she could complete her trajectory, however, a kick flashed speedily from behind her, thrusting up and out in a continuous and linear unit of motion, knocking her clear across the balcony.

“Sorry kids,” Rayden said. He slapped his palms together theatrically, looking more like a cook who’d just fixed a complicated dish than someone who had performed a life-or-death rescue. “Date’s over.”

From his dazed position on the floor, Liu watched Rayden rush in at Sheeva and pound her with a swift volley of blows. Far from out of the game, she countered with her own offensive, clutching his head with two of her hands while smashing him repeatedly with the other pair.

Though stunned by her onslaught, he somehow managed to get his legs up to her chest and, using it as a spring board, backflipped out of her grasp.

“Could it be true?” Sheeva chortled, her eyes madly alight. “The great Rayden on the defensive? Powerless on Outworld?”

“Knowledge is power,” Rayden said. “And I know I can still beat a bitch like you.”

“If you truly believe that, then you know nothing,” she said, then cartwheeled over to Rayden and wheel-kicked him into a nearby pile of rubble.

Rayden grabbed a big chunk of masonry and held it out to protect himself, but a single blow from Sheeva smashed it to little pieces. Taking a great swoop of air, he flipped back to his feet and pounded her in the face with a combination of front kicks, knuckle-punches, and palm-heel strikes.

The two warriors battled from one end of the balcony to another, mercilessly throwing, kicking and flipping one another. For every punch Rayden threw, Sheeva countered with four of her own, making it impossible for him to gain the upper hand... and he could feel himself beginning to tire.

Then he noticed several ragged tapestries hanging by a rope on the wall and formulated a hasty, desperate plan – knocking that if it failed, he would only be enraging his monstrous opponent.

Moving quickly, he grabbed the rope, yanked it down, and stepped in on Sheeva, whipping the rope around her fists like a lasso, getting them fouled in its long, twisty length.

She roared and thrashed in anger, but Rayden had bought the opening he needed. Without giving her a chance to disentangle herself, he executed a superb quadruple flip that brought his heels into devastating collision with her middle and sent her plunging down off the balcony.

An instant later, she crashed to the temple courtyard below with a sickening, fleshy thud.

Rayden leaned over the balcony’s stone rail, saw her writhe and buck in a spreading pool of blood. Then her back arched up off the ground and her eyes rolled up and she rattled out her dying breath, her arms twitching in their final, spastic throes.

Gasping, every part of him aching like a bad tooth, Rayden turned to see how Liu was doing.

 

“Guess something went right for a change,” Jax said, watching Rayden and Liu exit the temple.

They looked a little banged up, but all things considered seemed in decent shape... which was pretty much the way he felt about himself after his own fracas with Sindel and the Exterminators.

Sindel and the Exterminators, huh? he thought. Good one. Sounds like the name of a rock group from hell.

Dragging the unconscious Outworlder over to his companions by her neckband, he let her drop roughly to the ground.

“Who finished her off?” Rayden said, nodding down at Sindel.

“I saw you leave to help Liu, and surprised her from behind,” Jade said.

Liu slung his arm around her shoulders.

“I told you she’d come in handy,” he said, a vindicated smile on his face.

Rayden said nothing to show he was convinced. With his boot he rolled Sindel over onto her back. Her chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly.

“All right,” he said. “We must stay strong. We have in Sindel what we need to close the Portal...”

“But you don’t have Kitana,” Jade said.

He looked at her.

“No,” he said. “We don’t.”

“This Shokan prison,” Sonya said. “Can you show us a way inside?”

Jade nodded, then knelt and drew a shape in the dirt with her finger, filling in the details of the prison.

“There is a secret passage,” she said. “The one I used to escape...”

They crouched around her diagram and listened carefully.

Chapter Fifteen

Many hours and even more miles later, Rayden’s band found themselves standing at the top of a black, ragged cliff that was without soil or vegetation, looking down at the Shokan prison in the gulch below. They had taken turns carrying Sindel in pairs, and her bound, unconscious body lay in a bundle at their feet.

Jade reached into her waist-pack for a heavy coil of rope, tied one end around a boulder to anchor it, and hurled the slack over the side of the cliff.

“Even at night, the prisoners are made to work in the prison yard,” Jade said, watching the line unspool. “Kitana will be alone.”

“I’ll go first,” Liu said.

He took hold of the rope and began his descent, shimmying hand-over-hand into the ravine.

After about ten minutes, he reached bottom and moved silently toward the guard station at the yard’s outer perimeter. Springing up from a crouch, he surprised the sentry with a palm-heel slam to the back of the head, knocking him out cold. Then he glanced back over his shoulder and signaled to his friends. All of them except for Rayden – who had been elected to keep watch over Sindel – scaled down the cliffside after him.

“Everybody clear on the plan?” he whispered when they had joined him. They were crouched out of sight behind a crude mining machine.

“Yeah,” Jax said. “We get the guards, you get the girl.”

Without replying, Liu dashed off ahead of the others.

 

The passage to the containment chamber was right where Jade had indicated it would be... something Liu promised himself he’d mention to Rayden the first chance he got.

He emerged from the tunnel onto a rock shelf, crawled to its ledge, and leaned his head down for a hurried recon. Kitana was in one of the small cages hanging from cables that reached to the chamber’s ceiling, looking helplessly out between the wooden bars.

Liu took a deep breath. Jax and company had already dealt with a great many of the guards out in the yard, stealing up on them, taking them out with quick, silent blows. Now it was his turn.

Okay, he thought. First things first. How do I get down to the floor without breaking my neck?

He slid further over the edge of his stony perch. One of the guy wires running up from Kitana’s cage was almost directly in front of him. If he could only reach it, he might be able to climb down...

He inched forward until the upper half of his body was sticking out off the ledge, then extended his hands as far as he could, his fingers trembling from the strain. For a moment he thought he wouldn’t make it, thought he would lose his balance and teeter over into space... but finally, with a surge of relief, he grabbed hold of the cable, getting his right hand, then his left, firmly around it.

Filling his lungs with air again, gripping the cable with all his strength, he pushed himself off the ledge and monkeyed down to the bottom of the chamber.

No sooner had his feet touched the floor than he darted toward Kitana’s cage, craning his head back to look up at it, trying to figure out a way to free her.

Their eyes made contact.

Liu!” she said in a loud whisper, an expression of surprise and relief spreading over her face. “There’s a crank of the wall! It lowers the cage!

He frantically looked around for the crank and was still searching for it when Baraka stepped out of a shadowy recess behind the cage, his lips stretched across his metal teeth in a forbidding smile.

“Hello, little man,” he said, moving further into the light. His eyes gleamed with anticipation above his flowing black warden’s robe. “Nobody escapes my prison.”

There was the deadly snick-snick-snick of steel claws springing from sheaths on his knuckles. Then Baraka dove in at Liu.

Liu ducked, narrowly missing a swipe from one of the mutant’s clawblades, responding with a sharp uppercut to the chin that staggered him sideways against an empty cage.

Recovering his balance, Baraka emitted a bestial snarl and lunged back at him, both clawed fists aimed at the center of his chest. But Liu shifted aside an instant before he would have been skewered and, his body a blur of motion, thrust out at Baraka with a crescent kick, knocking him to the floor.

Now!” the warden shouted up at the chamber ceiling. Ropes of bloody spittle flew off his gnashing teeth, “What are you fools waiting for?”

His skin prickling with alarm, Liu shot a glance upward.

High above the chamber floor – higher, even, than the ledge from which Liu had himself descended – two masked nomad guards were hanging upside down from the rafters like enormous bats. Even as he spotted them, they dropped from the ceiling in precipitous nosedives, their calf-blades shearing the air, forearm swords stabbing out at Liu.

Caught between the two attacking warriors, he assumed a tightly-coiled bent-knee stance, jumped into the air, and split-kicked them in their faces... only to find that their helmets absorbed most of the impact, robbing his blows of any noticeable effect.

Inside her cage, Kitana scanned the area for more hidden ambushers and glimpsed another nomad guard swooping down at Liu.

“Liu, there!” she shouted, gesturing urgently between the wooden bars.

As Liu spun around in the direction she was pointing, the nomad clashed its swords together, sparking off an energy beam that zipped downward in a humming red-orange shaft. He leaped out of the way and saw it go skimming harmlessly past him, blowing the ground at his feet to smithereens.

Liu considered scrambling for cover, decided there was nowhere to run that would offer any protection, and rapidly moved into the offensive. He ran toward the diving nomad and flipped high, striking it in midflight, slamming it right out the air.

The guard hit the ground with a loud crash of armor, dropping one of its forearm swords.

Scooping up the sword, Liu plunged into battle against the original pair of guards. One of them flew straight at him, slicing out with its own blade, but Liu sidestepped and quickly kicked the sword from its hand, breaking it in half with the concentrated force of his strike. As the other nomad swept in for its assault, Liu leaped at it with his legs outstretched and his knees close together, landing a kick that spun it wildly off at an angle, hurtling toward a collision with the chamber wall.

Liu wasn’t foolish enough to think that would give him any room for a breather. There was still Baraka, and the nomad he’d disarmed a moment ago.

He looked around, saw them coming at him from different sides – Baraka to his left, the guard to the right – and braced for their attack.

Baraka charged first, but something about the way he moved, a slight hesitation in his stride, made Liu realize that the mutant was only distracting him. He pivoted toward the nomad just as the creature rushed forward and, using the two halves of the energy sword for leverage, rammed them into the wall, swung around them, and delivered a smashing kick to the guard’s face.

There was an audible snap! as the nomad’s neck vertebrae broke apart. Then it folded to the floor in a twitching heap.

One to go, Liu thought, stealing a quick glance up at Kitana to see if she was okay.

His eyes opened wide. The nomad he’d sent flying across the room had recovered, and was now climbing up the side of Kitana’s cage, clinging to it like some huge, armored beetle.

Kill her!” Baraka shouted at the guard, and then sprang at Liu with his clawblades extended, his robe flapping back from his body.

“I don’t think so,” Liu said.

Readying himself for certain pain, Liu deflected Baraka’s jabbing blades with his bare hands, feeling their razor edges bite into his palms and fingers. Then he launched himself toward the wall with a series of handsprings, yanked out the energy-blade fragments he’d shoved into it, and began to scale the wall toward the cage, the notches cut by the blades service as improvised handholds.

Blood streamed from the cuts in his hands, sliming his knuckles, running down his arms to his shirtsleeve. Liu ignored the wounds scrambled upward, his eyes locked on Kitana. She’d been holding off the nomad with a cyclonic barrage of spin kicks, but it had hung onto the cage, and was now prying apart the bars in an attempt to get inside.

Summoning all his strength, Liu pushed back from the wall with both hands and feet, leap-frogging onto the roof of the cage. For a long moment he did nothing but try to steady himself on his legs. Then he reached down, grabbed the nomad by its epauletted shoulders, and hauled it up onto the top of the cage with him.

They went at each other with an exchange of kicks and blows that were so fast they seemed to blur together, battling from one side of the cage to the next, their movement causing it to sway precariously at the end of its guy line.

Shifting and ducking in an evasive pattern, trying to pace himself, Liu glanced down to get a fix on Baraka, spotted his grotesque upturned face below him... and suddenly registered that he hadn’t seen something else that he most definitely should have.

Hadn’t seen Kitana inside the cage.

She’s gone! his mind screamed. Gone!

He felt a soaring, heartstopping panic that momentarily wiped out all rational thought, and opened him up to a blow from the nomad that rocked him back toward the edge of the cage roof.

As Liu struggled for balance, the nomad stepped in front of him, then pulled it arms in against its sides with a jerk, ejecting two small, arrow-shaped knife blades from its elbows. They fired out at Liu, barely missing him, then returned to their launch pods like boomerangs.

Still teetering at the edge of the room, trying to distribute his weight so the cage would stop rocking, Liu knew he wouldn’t be able to avoid another direct shot from those things... and judging by the smile on its face, the nomad knew it, too. It was toying with him like a cat having some fun with a mouse that wasn’t long for the world.

Finish him! Finish them both!” Baraka was screaming below him.

Liu felt his heart jolt with hope and excitement. What was that the warden had said?

Both?

The nomad raised its arms, preparing to release the blades again...

Just at that moment, Kitana flipped onto the cage roof behind it, slamming it in the back with a two-footed flying kick. The nomad stumbled off its feet, its elbow knives firing off and straying from their intended target. One of them took a whistling course past Liu’s shoulder. The other sprang out and grazed the guy line, partially severing it, throwing the cage into a crazy, dizzying tilt. Then they both swung back toward the nomad, stabbing him in the chest as he swayed helplessly off balance. He fell screaming to the ground.

Liu started toward Kitana. The cable frayed some more, its wire strands pulling apart from the strain of the weight they were supporting, and the cage slipped almost a foot closer to the ground. Kitana staggered, almost fell over the side, but somehow was able to retain her footing.

The rope came apart a little more...

And a little more...

Realizing it was certain to break at any moment, Liu jumped straight up, grabbed its upper half with one hand, and hooked his other one around Kitana’s waist. His sudden movement hastened along the inevitable, completely snapping the cable just below the point where he’d caught hold of it.

His scream tearing up from the chamber floor, Baraka tried to scramble out from under the falling cage. But it plummeted to the chamber floor before he could get clear, smashing down on top of him, crushing him underneath it.

Holding Kitana tightly against his body, Liu swung onto the relative safety of a nearby ledge, and then looked down at the shattered remains of the cage. Thick tentacles of blood were spreading around it, creeping slowly over the rough stone floor.

“Baraka died in service to his lord and master, Shao Kahn,” Kitana muttered. “I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting end for him.”

Liu nodded grimly, both arms embracing her now.

“I told you I wouldn’t lose you,” he said, and pulled her closer.

She tilted her face up at him, her smile full of promise.

“I was beginning to wonder,” she said.

Liu hesitated only a moment, then leaned down to kiss her... but before he could, they heard a loud, shrill warning horn from the prison yard.

“We’d better get out of here,” he said, and nodded toward the crawlspace through which he’d rich the chamber. “Our time will come later.”

“Yes,” she said, her eyes gleaming. “And when it does, I assure you it will be worth the wait.”

Chapter Sixteen

Kahn stood beside Shinnock in his war room, looking out a large, pentagonal window at the corrupt grandeur of his kingdom.

He gestured past a cluster of jutting spires in the near distance. “Behold the seeds of destruction flowering before us!”

This almost seemed a signal for the violent paroxysm that shook the earth a moment afterward. Behind the spires of the city, the Great Pyramid of Giza thrust suddenly into view, its monumental form rising hundreds of feet into the air from a molten chasm, chunks of limestone tumbling from its sides as it breached the realms.

“One more night,” Kahn said, turning from the window. “Nothing can stop us now!”

“Nothing except your supreme idiocy.” Shinnock glared disparagingly at his son. “How could you believe that the ruination of the Elders’ city – their temple – would not put our plan in jeopardy?”

“It was necessary, Father,” Kahn said. “To convince the mortals that their only escape was through the Portal Rayden created.”

“Had Sindel captured Rayden and his mortals in your trap, she would be here now, gloating at your feet.”

Kahn gave him a shrewd look. “I swear to you, Father, on my soul, all our millennia of planning will soon be rewarded. You will be proud, and legends will be spun of our–”

Both men looked sharply around as the massive double doors of the chamber burst open, and one of the nomad guards from the Shokan prison staggered in. Though they could not have known it, this was the nomad who had fought Liu atop Kitana’s cage. Blood gushed from the creature’s breastplate where it had been pierced by its own elbow swords.

“The princess...escaped,” it sputtered. “Rayden lives!”

Kahn’s eyes glowed red as coins in a blazing furnace. His features convulsed with rage, knotting and twisting until there was nothing remotely human about them. Then he lunged at the wounded nomad, striking out with a ferocious blow that slammed the guard back into a display of battle armaments. The trophies fell from their stands and wall mounts in a clattery welter.

“Enough,” Shinnock said from behind Kahn. “Leave him be.”

“Father, this worthless mutant was supposed to–”

Shinnock waved his hand in the air to silence him.

“Know this,” he said, cold menace in his voice. “You pledged me your soul in the event of failure... and in return, I now promise you that it is a pledge I will never forget. Do you understand?”

Kahn looked into Shinnock’s threatening glare and felt something akin to dread slither through his bowels.

“Yes, Father,” he said. “I most certainly do.”

 

Liu lead Kitana into the decaying, long-abandoned temple with the others following at their rear. There was no roof atop the barren structure. Its stone walls were crumbled and full of holes. Here and there, faded murals – some of them defaced with graffiti – gave testament to Edenia’s former glory... and present shame, Liu thought, his eyes moving over the vulgar scribblings.

Sindel lay stretched out on an altar at the rear of the temple, Jade standing watch beside her.

Kitana gasped in shock. Her eyes leaped from her mother to Jade.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

Liu was bewildered by the overt hostility in her tone. “She helped us rescue you.”

Kitana opened her mouth to say something, then snapped it shut, at a loss for words.

“You can end this, Kitana,” Rayden said, stepping up to her. “Only your love can reunite Sindel’s body and soul to break the hold Kahn has over her... and close his Portal to Earth.”

She looked at him for a long moment, then nodded.

Liu guided her to her mother’s side. Forcing back emotion, Jade threw her arms around Kitana.

“I want it to be like it was,” she whispered, her lips brushing against Kitana’s cheek. “For you, for us... for Edenia.”

Liu stepped back with the others, easing Jade away from Kitana, wanting to give her some room.

Kitana just stared at Sindel, her features etched with disbelief and a sort of reluctant hope. slowly, cautiously, she reached her hand down to push the tousled hair from Sindel’s face, then ran her fingers across her cheeks, tracing its planes and angles almost like a little girl.

Minutes passed. No one spoke. No one moved. Finally Kitana knelt beside the altar, and with genuine reverence tenderly kissed her mother’s cold, pale hand.

Behind her, the rest of the band watched in breathless anticipation. Liu glanced anxiously at Rayden, who nodded his encouragement, then gestured back to the reunited mother and daughter.

Sindel’s eyes had flickered open. First wide with fear, they quickly focused on Kitana... the fear subsiding, giving way to recognition and a heartfelt smile.

“Kitana?” she said. “Is that you?”

Overwhelmed, Kitana literally forgot to breathe. She gasped a little, her hand fluttering to the hollow of her throat.

“Mother... I have prayed for the day when our love would bring us together again,” she said.

Liu felt a lump growing in his own throat and swallowed it down. Rayden looked over at him, put a hand on his shoulder.

“The Elder Gods have served us well,” he said, coming out of his silence at last. “We can–”

“Wait,” Sonya said suddenly. Tense with surprise, she pointed a trembling finger at the altar. “Sweet heaven, Rayden, look!”

Something horrible was happening to Sindel. Her face had grown sharp and avid, her eyes becoming cruel black points, her maternal smile mutating to a screeching cackle.

“Love?” she said, and abruptly rose to a sitting position. “I never loved you!”

Kitana withdrew in disbelief, drifting backward almost like a sleepwalker.

Sindel sat up straighter, her shrill, witchy laughter brewing to the heights of the temple.

“With such a pathetic child as you, what reason was there to live?” she said.

Kitana’s features hardened. “I should have expected this.”

“No!” Rayden shouted. He moved forward, shaking his head in denial. “It cannot be!”

“But it can, it is, and you are powerless, my so-called Thunder God,” Sindel said.

She released another burst of gleefully malevolent laughter, then snapped her waist-length black hair out at Rayden. Whiplike, it caught him right below his shoulder blade, ripping through his leather tunic.

He dropped to the ground with a terrible scream of pain, clutching his arm. Sonya and Jax rushed over to where he’d fallen, and were hauling him to his feet when they heard Jade’s voice behind them.

Her tone was as chilling as the words that came with it.

“It’s all over, you fools,” she said. “You’ve lost, been tricked, wasted your precious time on a wild good chase. Now the merger is nearly complete.”

His face aghast, Liu stared at Jade as her betrayal sank in with him. “How could you do this to us?”

Jade smiled.

“It was so easy,” she said. “That’s what made it fun.”

Sindel cackled again, her long tresses standing on end, winding into braids that writhed and twisted like serpents on a medusa.

And then she began to levitate. Snaps of electricity dancing around her body, her eyes bright and wild, she rose up off the altar... up through the collapsed temple ceiling... up and up into the air above the temple, where she released a keening, earsplitting war cry that cut across the pitted Outworld landscape, signaling her troops to arms.

Liu was staring at Jade. “You will die for this!” he shouted.

She gave no answer. The treacherous, wickedly beautiful smile still on her face, she turned and ran from the temple, fleeing through a broken section of its rear wall.

He started after her, but Rayden’s hand clamped around his arm, halting him in his tracks.

“Let her go, Liu,” he said. “Now is not the time.”

Liu looked at him silently, his mouth trembling, his eyes wounded and outraged.

“She told me she would help,” he said. “I trusted her.”

Breaking free of Rayden’s grip, Liu went tearing after her in hot pursuit – only to stop short again when he reached the gaping hole in the wall.

He stood there, his eyes fixed on whatever was outside.

Rayden followed him to the opening. A moment later his normally imperturbable features clouded over with distress.

Out on the royal road, marching toward the temple in a line that stretched to the limit of visibility, were hundreds of Shokan and Centauran warriors reinforced with rank-and-file Extermination Squads.

“It’s an ambush,” Liu said to Rayden.

Kitana had come up behind Liu and was looking out over his shoulder.

“If we go our separate ways, maybe one of us will make it to Kahn,” she said.

“Forget it,” Sonya said bitterly as she and Jax joined them. “We lost. It’s over. Rayden’s plan didn’t work–”

Jax shot an accusatory look at Rayden. “We trusted you, man, and what happens? You take us on a goddamned wild good chase!”

“I don’t understand,” Liu added, also facing him now. His tone was grave and direct, but far less harsh than Jax’s. “You were advised by the Elder Gods.”

Rayden’s throat worked soundlessly. He licked his lips, wrestling with the words he wanted to get out.

“The gods must have lied to me,” he said at last, humbled.

Kitana was incredulous. “How could that be?”

“My faith was blind,” he said flatly. “I have failed you all.”

Jax snorted in disgust. “Hey, forget your gods. And immortals, and all that crap! I say the only ones we can trust from here on out are humans. Nobody else.” His glaze held pointedly on Rayden. “Not even him.”

Kitana shook her head once. “By leading us here Rayden has become mortal, just like you,” she said. “All his powers have been sacrificed.”

“You ask me, that’s even worse,” Sonya said. “How do we stop Kahn now?”

There was a long pause. All of them were looking at Rayden.

“There is more to this than Kahn,” he said. “If Sindel was not the key to the Portal, Kahn must have had someone else open it for him.”

“Well, that’s nice to know,” Jax said, and glanced out at the advancing troops. “While you’re at it, here’s another news flash from the front – we’ve got about five minutes before we’re history.”

Rayden exhaled heavily. As he turned to get another look for himself, Sonya noticed something on his shoulder, some sort of colorful mark under the torn sleeve of his shirt. She leaned in for a closer examination, then tapped Jax on the elbow and pointed it out to him, her eyes large with astonishment.

“That tattoo,” she said. “I’ve seen it before. On a robot. And a woman. Both tried to kill me...”

“And both of them worked for Kahn,” Jax said bluntly, finishing her thought.

Liu shook his head, unbelieving. He looked as if he’d been slapped hard across the face. “First Jade... and now you, Rayden?”

Rayden simply stared at his tattoo for a few seconds, then turned to the others, knowledge flooding into his eyes.

“It is true,” he said. “I led you into this trap. But I did so unwittingly.” He rubbed his chin, all the pieces of a confounding puzzle finally coming together for him. “This tattoo is a family crest, endowed by my father to my brother me. It alone allows safe passage between realms for the bearer and his charges.”

The thought lines on Sonya’s forehead deepened and lengthened. Maybe Rayden had seen the light, but she was even more terribly confused than before.

“If it’s your family’s, how can Kahn’s side have them, too?”

“Because my father is one of the Elder Gods, and only they can bestow such a marking,” he replied, seemingly excited by his own powers of deduction.

“Your dad’s an Elder God? Funny you failed to mention that before.”

Preoccupied, Rayden ignored Sonya’s comment. Things were continuing to fall into place for him, and it wouldn’t do to be distracted. “Don’t you see? It must have been my father who lied to me... who opened the Portal himself. He knew I would trust the gods.”

“Wait a minute,” Jax said. “If you and your brother were the only ones to actually get these crests...”

The rest of the sentence hung in the air with a gravity that bore down upon the entire group.

“You’ve come to the right conclusion,” Rayden said after what seemed like a very long time. His voice was slow and halting as he read their expressions. “Shao Kahn... is my brother.”

Liu could hardly believe his ears. “Why would your father betray you and choose Kahn?”

“Because, Liu, power is the most important thing to my father. But he always wanted to keep it in the family... and he knew I wouldn’t join him.” He paused a beat. “Years ago, he decreed that his heir to the family throne must be strong enough to kill his own brother in battle if necessary. I beat him, but I could not kill him. And for what was deemed my weakness, I was banished to the realm of Earth.”

“For not killing your brother?”

“Back then, my father believed Earth was a pitiful and inferior world,” Rayden said. “Whatever became of my brother, I did not know... until now.”

Jax ran a hand over his nap of black hair.

“Man,” he said, “you got one dysfunctional family.”

Kitana’s eyes returned to the gap in the temple wall. She had heard battle cries vaulting upward in the near distance.

“Our time is almost up,” she said.

Rayden nodded.

“Kitana’s right,” he said. “And only one thing is certain... Kahn must die.”

“This time you’re going to kill him?” Liu asked.

Rayden looked closely at him.

“I could not murder my brother then, and I cannot now,” he said, expelling a deep sigh. “I can do no more for you.”

Stunned, the others watched him turn away, then gaze out at their approaching enemy through the broken wall.

“So what do we do?” Liu demanded.

Rayden kept his back to them.

“You will do your best,” he said. “That is all that can be expected.”

There was another seemingly endless silence. Peering outside, Sonya saw a splinter group of Extermination Squad warriors clambering toward them across the rubble of the city... close enough for her to hear the gritty crunch of their boots stamping down on scattered, tumbled, debris.

“They’re almost here,” she said.

Jax frowned with utter despondency. “We’re screwed Totally screwed.”

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Liu said. “After everything we’ve been through–”

“Listen to me, all of you!” Kitana cut in. Her eyes were stern and fairly reproachful. “Liu, not Rayden, is our best hope!”

Liu retreated visibly from her insistent gaze.

“I want to fight Kahn,” he said. “But I... I don’t know if I’m ready.”

She stepped forward, the dark pools of her eyes holding steady on his own, seeming to reach deep inside him – reach into his secret heart.

“If you believe in yourself, Liu,” she said, her voice softening, “then I believe in you too.”

He considered her words.

Hesitated.

Considered them some more, looking around at his friends.

They were all nodding.

Finally, he nodded back.

“Together, we can do this,” he said.

“Yes,” Kitana said, and took firm hold of his hand. “Together.”

Chapter Seventeen

Crouched behind a toppled pillar at the side of the highway, Rayden watched Liu and the others leave the temple and go racing away from the Outworld forces, sprinting from one place of concealment to another. Their disappointment in him was troubling, but far more was at stake than his image... or their injured feelings.

At any rate, he mused, it was ridiculous to be worrying about that now. The game was well in play, why not have some fun with it?

He waited until the little group was out of sight, then leaped onto the pillar, waving his arms at the Outworlders.

“Who wants a piece of the Thunder God?” he shouted. And took off running.

 

Sprawled on the floor of Kahn’s war room, Jade touched her fingers to her mouth where the sorcerer had just struck her, and winced in pain. When she brought her hand back down it was covered with fresh blood.

“It was not my fault,” she said, glaring hatefully at Kahn. “I did everything you ordered.”

He walked around the council table where Queen Sindel, Motaro, and Ermac were seated.

“Your job was to lure them to an ambush,” he said. “If they have escaped, then you have indeed failed me.”

Jade rose onto her knees.

“Your men were too slow,” she said, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice. “We never could have stopped them alone.”

“Listen to her,” Sindel chimed in. “She speaks the truth. We would have died trying.”

Kahn’s face quivered with rage. “You, Sindel, are already dead. And you–” He thrust a finger at Jade and lowered his voice an octave, imposing an icy calmness that made it all the more monstrous, “–you will be soon.”

With a powerful hand, he grabbed her by the neck and lifted her off the floor. A scream tore from her lips, but it was instantly cut short, becoming a choked, incoherent gurgle as he continued to shake and strangle her, his fingers pressing into her windpipe, squeezing, crushing...

Her eyes bulged. Veins popped out in her temples, her face shading from red to blue a dark oxygen-starved purple. Still Kahn dug his fingers into her throat, feeling flesh and muscle tissue give way underneath them.

When he was sure she had reached the brink of death, he flung her at a stained glass window depicting a hideous, toadlike creature with pale yellow eyes and stubby, membraneous flippers instead of legs – a creature which suddenly assumed three-dimensional life, its pink, wet tongue shooting from its mouth, wrapping around Jade’s body, and pulling her into its gullet.

A moment later the head withdrew from the room and became a flat, inanimate image again, the glass of the window unbroken.

His fit of rage at a momentary ebb, Kahn turned to face his other lieutenants... paying special attention to Sindel.

“You will mount a defense around my newest temple,” he said. “Prepare for Rayden to make one last attack.”

She arched an eyebrow. “You said Rayden was no longer to be feared–”

Her dissent stoked his temper again. Snarling, he smashed his fist down against the massive table. Cracks splintered across the dragon emblem on its surface and unaccountably filled with a seep of blood-red lava.

I am to be feared!” he shouted. “For if you fail me now, I will feed your rotting corpse to the worms.”

With that, he turned, stalked over to his throne, and slumped down into it, contemplatively propping his chin on his knuckles.

At the table, Motaro trotted over to Sindel’s side.

“Your hallowed position atop the wormpile appears most tenuous,” he said, his voice full of mockery. “Now your future will be our opportunity.”

Ermac snickered in his chair.

Get out! All of you!” Kahn roared from his throne, angrily silencing them.

The lieutenants took one look at his violently trembling face and melted away from him, moving quickly toward the enormous double doors, leaving him alone with his dark thoughts.

Or so he thought, anyway.

“You had me believing your plan would actually work, but you underestimated Rayden and his humans yet again...”

Kahn rose as his father glided out among the room’s hectic jumble of shadows, skirting their edges, but never quite leaving their embrace.

“Everything is under control,” Kahn protested. “I have ordered Sindel–”

“Never mind her. If you think yourself to be the ruler of all realms, you must be the one who stops them.”

Kahn’s voice was almost beseeching. “You are an Elder God! Sway the balance in our favor.”

“You fool!” Shinnock hissed. “Destroying their temple has them searching for answers. All along I have warned you that we cannot risk their involvement.”

Kahn stared at him uncertainly. “What does this mean?”

“It means our destiny now lies in your hands alone,” Shinnock said. “I can do no more with the Elders.”

There was silence. Kahn looked at his father, his features tightening as he realized that his options had been reduced to one, and only one of the many he had thought would be open to him...

And then, finally, he nodded.

“You chose me, father,” he said slowly. “Trust me now, I will not disappoint you.”

Watching him from the shadows, Shinnock was hardly encouraged.

Chapter Eighteen

The deeper they went into Outworld, the more bits and pieces of earth they had seen jumbled into it, like chunks of broken glass in some careless amalgam.

They had passed the cracked marble minarets and spoiled garden walks of the Taj Mahal.

They had passed the sagging curves and blackened, leaning columns of the Parthenon.

They had passed the wreckage of the Golden Gate bridge, its span littered with the bloody, mutilated bodies of motorists who had been caught by surprise when it ruptured the resistant skin of time and space.

And now they had come to the Temple of the Order of Light.

Liu’s home.

On Earth, it had been a place of subdued, meditative beauty, its walled gardens adorned with gently flowing fountains and gleaming marble walkways.

Not it was a crumbling, sooty ruin, its ceiling draped with cobwebs, its shrines leaning crookedly out of the ground.

Flanked by his inhuman cohort, Shao Kahn sat at the far end of the decay, sensing the final battle was close at hand. Behind its ebony throne, Shinnock stood bundled in shadows, his head cocked to the side like some nocturnal predator that had picked up the scent of its next meal.

He bent closer to Kahn, whispered something in his ear.

Kahn nodded and rose to his feet.

“My army is coming, herding the mortals to their doom,” he said, and then turned to Sindel. “Prepare to welcome them, O Queen.”

 

Liu and his friends made their way up the broad steps leading to the temple, their eyes determined and unblinking. They could see Kahn and his lieutenants across the long courtyard.

“Get ready,” Liu said. “If we die here... we will die in battle.”

They were within a dozen yards of their enemies when a familiar voice called out across the courtyard, shouting a single word in an unmistakable tone of challenge:

Kahn!

Both groups turned in the direction of the voice, and were astounded to see Rayden stagger into the temple through a side entrance near Kahn’s throne.

He had been badly beaten. His clothes were shredded. His short-cropped hair was slick with sweat. There were ugly lacerations on his face, his lower lip was split and bleeding, and his right eye was swollen shut.

He took three wobbly steps toward the throne, and then sagged to his knees as though all the strength had leaked out of him.

“Where is my Extermination Squad?” Kahn snarled with lunatic anger.

Rayden squinted at him with his one good eye and managed a painful grin.

“What... Extermination Squad?” he croaked.

At the head of the stairs, Liu turned to the others, the look on his face both proud and heartbreakingly sad.

“Rayden didn’t abandon us!” he said. “He lead the Outworlders away from us... saved us.”

Now Shinnock slid from his island of shadows and studied him coldly, his glowing eyes visible under his hood.

“So good of you to join us, son,” he said. His voice was like a hollow wind blowing up from some dry, dead forest. “In less than one hour, the merger of realms will be complete.”

Rayden looked up at him. “Father, this does not have to happen. You alone have the power now to end this–”

“Stop!” Shinnock exclaimed. “I do not want to remember you this weak.”

Rayden shook his head sorrowfully. “It is not weak to value life.”

Shinnock came closer to him, the loose fabric of his robes moving around his body like ripples of black water.

“I offer you one final chance to return to my side,” he said. “To rule all the realms with your family.”

Rayden was very still for a moment. Then he swung out his arm, pointing back at his band of human champions.

That is my family,” he said, the words coming out clearly and forcefully through his ruined lips.

“Then you shall die with the rest of your pathetic human race!” Shinnock growled. He whirled toward Kahn, gesturing furiously down at Rayden, his eyes blazing like tiny novas. “Finish him!

Kahn quickly approached his brother, gazing down at him with immeasurable contempt. “You should have killed me while you had the chance,” he said.

Rayden met his eyes squarely with his own.

“My brother is already dead,” he said. “His soul, anyway.”

Kahn’s growl of anger was more bestial than human. Stretching out his hands in front of him, he discharged an energy blast that hurled Rayden across the courtyard. He trembled limply toward his friends in a hail of dust and debris, coming to rest a few feet from where they stood.

Rayden!” Liu screamed.

Overcome with anguish, he rushed toward his mentor and lifted his head in his arms.

“You have passed your final test, Liu,” Rayden said, and coughed up some saliva. Liu could see large spots of red in it. “You are ready now.”

“But I was wrong about Jade. I failed the second test...”

Rayden weakly motioned him into silence.

“No,” he said. “You remained loyal to Kitana in spite of Jade. And now you have found faith in yourself... by stepping forward to face Kahn.”

Rayden’s chest heaved as he struggled for air.

Liu pulled him in closer. “You cannot die!”

Rayden once again mustered a smile.

“I am proud to die... a mortal... like you,” he said.

A shudder ran through him, and he took three little gasping breaths, and then stopped breathing altogether.

Liu remained with him a moment, then set his head lightly back on the ground and strode toward the Outworlders.

“Kahn!” he shouted, his eyes looking straight ahead. “Kahn!

Pleased by the course of events, the warlord had settled back on his throne.

“Today is the beginning of the end!” he said, with a flourish of hands. He turned to Motaro, Sindel, and Ermac. “Show these young fools the way to oblivion!”

“Mr. Ed is mine,” Jax muttered to Sonya, nodding his chin at Motaro.

“I will take my mother,” Kitana said.

Sonya eyed Ermac and shrugged.

“Leftovers again,” she said.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, the three mortals ran into battle...

 

Motaro charged at Jax, galloping over the flagstones, his hooves beating up little clouds of dust.

Jax ducked, but he was too close, the Centauran’s deadly tail whipped out and struck him in the chest, smashing him aside. Angered, Jax pounded the ground with a single fist, his cybernetically enhanced strength rocking the entire temple.

Shaken off balance, Motaro was desperately trying to recover when Jax attacked him with a furious volley of kicks and punches. But once again he had gotten too close. Reaching out with both arms, the Centauran snatched Jax up and flung him into a column with such force that one of his metallic arm enhancers cracked into a dozen pieces.

Jax felt a surge of panic.

“You are afraid,” Motaro sneered, sensing his weakness. “For you only have yourself now, not that mechanical toy!”

The Centauran advanced, backing him against a wall.

“Without your weapons, you are no match for Motaro!” he gloated, coming still closer.

Jax stood looking at the creature for a moment that seemed to go on forever, fighting back his fear and self-doubt. Then, his eyes suddenly lighting up with newfound confidence, he ripped off his remaining enhancer and tossed it away.

“Hey, I got everything I need to take you down right here,” he said. “Time to put your ass out to pasture.”

Clenching his bare hands into fists, Jax launched himself at Motaro.

 

On the uneven marble steps, Kitana and Sindel were flipping over each other and trading vicious martial-arts blows, employing combined foot-hand techniques rooted in Outworld’s distant past... a past both remembered firsthand.

Seeing a momentary lapse in her mother’s defenses, Kitana stepped forward, faked a palm-heel thrust with her right hand, but then quickly shifted, cocked her left arm, and caught Sindel with an upward strike to the forehead.

Sindel reeled backward, stunned.

“Is this any way to treat your mother?” she said, adjusting her stance.

Kitana felt a hot flash of anger at her mocking tone, and took a deep breath to restore her mental control and focus.

Her lean body coiled for Sindel’s next move.

“My mother is dead!” she said.

“And soon will be her daughter!”

Sindel lunged at Kitana with a brutal high-heeled swing kick, then another, but Kitana bobbed underneath it and then sprang up for a counterstrike. Before she could connect, though, she felt the air vibrate with ambient electricity, saw sparks begin dervishing around Sindel’s body, saw her hair rise off her head in a dark corona, and watched in horror and wonder as Sindel levitated off the ground, just as she had done on the royal highway.

Then her booted foot kicked out from midair and smashed into Kitana’s face.

Kitana swayed on rubbery legs, barely clinging to consciousness.

 

Sonya, meanwhile, was having serious problems with Ermac. After a blindingly fast contest that had shifted back and forth from the temple stairs to the courtyard, she had rolled into position for a seamless upward bicycle kick that caught him squarely in the abdomen and sent him swerving across uppermost step.

But before she could get too pleased with herself, the impossible happened.

The flesh around his eyes puckering with concentration, the red ninja had magically split into two separate fighters – Ermac and Noob Saibot, an identical warrior, only dressed in black.

Closing in swiftly, they hit her with a blitz of kicks and punches that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Blood spurted from her mouth. She felt something buckle in her ribcage. Then a crisp jab to her stomach knocked the wind out of her and she slumped dizzily against a column, stars wheeling in her vision.

“Jax,” she called out, and then mustered all her strength to force one more word from her throat... a word she had never before used in her life.

“Help!”

 

Hearing Sonya’s desperate cry, Jax knew he’d have to stop prancing around with Motaro and take the offensive.

“C’mon horse breath,” he shouted, hoping the Centauran would take the bait, “let’s see who’s got the thicker skull.”

Motaro snorted with rage, hooves pawing the ground, the muscles of his short, thick neck humping up, his tail lifting and sweeping back and forth. Then he fixed his eye on Jax and charged, his head lowered, horns outthrust to gore him.

Which was exactly how Jax had wanted him to react.

With a deep breath he went straight in at Motaro, meeting his charge, looking as if he was literally planning to butt heads. But then, an instant before they would have collided, he pivoted and changed direction, grabbed one of Motaro’s horns, and swung up onto his back like a rodeo cowboy.

Ride ’em!” he hollered, and then scissored his thighs around the Centauran’s neck while pounding him with his fists.

Motaro’s hooves clattered wildly on the ground. He bucked hard, his face registering surprise and confusion. His hands clawed at Jax’s ankles, his calves, his thighs, trying to pry them apart and free his neck.

Jax clamped his legs harder, harder, harder, exerting crushing, viselike pressure on his opponent’s windpipe.

“Let me go! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe...” Motaro’s voice was choked and whistling. Foam flecked the corners of his mouth. His eyes were frenzied. “Le-let-me–”

Jax tightened his leg-lock.

Motaro bucked and reared some more, thrashing his neck to try and get his horns into Jax’s belly, but Jax could tell most of his phenomenal strength had been squeezed out of him. It was all over.

Finally his eyes blinked shut as if some internal circuit breaker had been thrown and he went limp, collapsing underneath Jax with a final snort of pain.

Jax did not waste an instant savoring his victory. Rushing down the steps to aid Sonya, he surprised Noob Saibot with a triple kick, and quickly knocked him out with a bone-jostling shoulder slam.

“C’mon, do it!” he yelled to Sonya. “Finish Ermac!”

Gathering up her strength, she did just that, tagging him with a brutal uppercut that had enough force behind it to make him drop to the flagstones like a heap of wet rags.

“You okay, girl?” Jax asked.

Sonya gave him a crooked smile. “Well, I didn’t really need your help...”

“But you asked,” Jax said. “And that means we’re partners. For real now.”

Sonya’s smile grew.

“So you ready to help Kitana... partner?”

Jax nodded. “Now you’re talkin’.”

 

“Looks like she doesn’t need our help after all,” Sonya said.

She was right.

As they ran up to the shrine where mother and daughter had been facing off, Kitana caught Sindel with an adroitly executed leg-whip combination that brought Sindel to her knees. Kitana swiftly pushed her face to the floor, holding her in submission with a wrestler’s takedown.

“Whatever you are, you will live to see the end of Kahn,” she said. “To give my mother’s soul peace.”

Jax looked over at Sonya and grinned.

“Right on,” he said.

 

Liu stared at Kahn, his eyes narrowed with the unparalleled fury that had boiled the grief and sadness out of him.

Behind his dark-brown irises, something glowed red as fire.

“It’s down to just you and me, Kahn,” he said.

Kahn stood in front of his throne and grinned an imperious grin. “Know this. Your death will be slow. For I want you to see the ruination of all you cherish.”

He moved in and launched a spin kick at Liu, knocking him down, but Liu snapped back to his feet and returned the move with even greater force and accuracy.

Kahn’s temper flared. Adjusting his stance, he cocked his leg for a kick to the front of Liu’s body, but Liu not only eluded the attack, but employed Rayden’s acrobatic flip-kick to land another punishing two-footed blow to Kahn’s face.

Venting his fury with an inarticulate bellow, Kahn drove in at Liu, slipping under his guard and unleashing a ferocious torrent of blows that sent him staggering backward.

Kahn’s grin was back on his face.

“Pathetic and weak,” he said. “Rayden has clearly molded you in his image.”

Hurt badly, his body soaked with sweat and blood, his breath coming in rapid gasps, Liu tried to bring up his hands. But Kahn’s experience and feverish rage gave him an advantage that he pressed to the fullest, smashing his fists repeatedly into Liu’s nose and mouth and cheekbones.

Liu sank to his knees, his head drooping.

“Face it, Liu Kang,” Kahn sneered. “You will fail.”

Liu’s heart hammered. There was a rhythmic surging in his head that had nothing to do with the pounding he he’d taken. You will fail. He had heard those words before. Where? When? Then it came to him. The demons. The demons in the vision he’d had near the Hopi Mesa.

But there had been another voice, hadn’t there? One that had given him the confidence to dispel the wraiths.

Nightwolf’s.

What was it he’d said?

Liu closed his eyes and summoned up the words from memory:

Everybody has the power to change the future. Find that power within.

Liu’s eyes glowed red.

Fire red.

“I can feel it,” he muttered to himself, raising his head. “I can.”

And with a focused burst of will, he loosed the dragon.

In the space between seconds, sharp armored scales appeared on his arms and then raced inward to cover his entire body. His muscles expanded, increasing in mass even as his flesh and bones flowed and stretched like soft putty. He began to grow then, grow quickly, shooting up to a height of fifteen feet. Teeth the size of steak knives sprang from his gums.

“Impressive,” Kahn said. “You come prepared – but not well enough.”

Laughing demonically, he threw back his head, clenched his hands into fists, and began to tremble all over and change, calling up his own avatar, morphing into a towering six-headed hydra that was nearly twice as tall as the dragon. Each of his fanged, three-eyed heads hovered on a neck that was as long as a tree trunk.

Standing with Sonya nearby, Jax could only goggle in awe.

“Now I’ve seen everything,” he muttered under his breath.

The combat between the two behemoths was brief and savage. They closed with each other, snarling, clawing, biting, lashing their tails. Their tangled forms thrashed back and forth. Finally, the dragon boldly lunged at the hydra, biting hard and severing one of its serpentine necks. In turn, the other five hydra heads bit into the dragon’s torso.

The two beasts staggered apart, bellowing in agony, shifting back to their human forms in an eyeblink.

Deep gashes crisscrossing his chest, Liu stepped over to Kahn and looked down at him.

The Warlord was on his knees, trying to stanch the bleeding from his neck wound with the palm of his hand.

“Your blood flows, Kahn,” Liu said. “Just like the blood of a mortal.”

Kahn rose unsteadily, teetering, blood still pouring from his neck. Slowly, he turned toward his empty throne.

Shinnock stood behind it in his everpresent cloak of shadows, arms crossed over his chest, standing so still he was almost inert.

“Father,” Kahn gasped, staggering a little closer to him. “How can this be?”

Shinnock’s anger was as deceptively calm as quicksand. “I warned you there would be consequences for breaking the sacred rules.”

“But... but how can I win now?” Kahn said, a high, whiny edge in his voice. His face had twisted into an expression that might have been comical under other circumstances. To Sonya, it looked like the face of a spoiled and peevish child.

“Are you so pathetic you can’t even beat a worthless human?”

“Not this one,” Liu said, stepping forward.

“Then I suppose I must do it for him,” Shinnock said.

Pushing out of the shadows, he swept out his arms for an energy blast.

Liu prepared for the attack, assuming a cat stance, carefully watching Shinnock’s hands to see which direction the deadly bolts would come from. But then, suddenly his eyes jerked away from them, looked behind Shinnock to the watery, ethereal visages that had appeared in the air near the throne.

Liu’s heart races as a cubical blue plasma barrier formed around Shinnock, instantly encaging him.

“Tell me if I’m wrong, bro,” Jax muttered to him, “but I think we’re lookin’ at the Elder Gods in action.”

Liu could only nod marvelingly. He was staring at the shimmery blue apparitions with near-total absorption.

One off the Elder Gods said, “For abusing your power, Shinnock, and breaking your sacred oath, you are banished to the Nether realm–”

“–where you shall spend eternity imprisoned with the soulless dregs of existence,” the second Elder God said.

Shinnock released a sharp cry of protest, but it was muffled by the energy barrier, which rapidly folded in on itself, dwindling in size until it winked out of existence with a pop of air rushing in to fill the vacuum.

The two glowing faces turned to Liu.

“Now the fate of the universe will be decided as it should be,” one of them said.

“In Mortal Kombat,” said the other.

Desperate to avoid his father’s fate, Kahn got to his feet and wobbled toward Liu, raising his fists, trying to snag hit him with a combination of blows. But there was nothing behind them, nothing left of his power. Liu slipped most of the feeble punches, blocked the others, and then finished Kahn with a devastating uppercut that sent him high in the air.

Kahn crunched to the ground with a moan of pain and abject defeat, tried to push himself up again, but then slumped back down.

Then, almost at once: the sky itself seemed to creak and groan with the turning of invisible gears as the realms of Earth and Outworld began to separate, and the temple floor underneath Kahn’s body began rippling like liquid instead of stone. Whimpering, Kahn tried to scramble toward solid ground, but he could not move fast enough.

An instant later, he was sucked into the shifting, aqueous vortex with a tortured scream – a scream that went tearing across both rapidly unmerging realms for what seemed a long, long time before finally fading away into space.

 

Breathing hard, Liu felt a soft hand on his shoulder and realized it was Kitana. Their eyes met, and she smiled, and gave him a tender kiss... one that might have been far more lasting had it not been for the woman’s voice they suddenly heard behind them.

“Kitana?” it said, sounding disoriented and groggy. “Kitana, darling?”

She turned abruptly, her jaw dropping.

Propped on her elbows, Queen Sindel was looking up at her from the ground where she’d lain, the ashen pallor gone from her cheeks, replaced by healthy pink color.

“Kitana?” she repeated. She shook her head dreamily. “Where...?”

Before she could say any more Kitana was running over to embrace her, her eyes bright with tears.

“Finally I am freed of Kahn’s hold,” Queen Sindel said, sitting up in her daughter’s arms. She nodded toward Liu Kang. “Thanks to your brave friend.”

Kitana reached her hand out to Liu. As he approached to take it, both Kitana and her mother draped their arms around him.

“For your heroism, I pledge my kingdom,” Queen Sindel said.

He felt an embarrassed blush creep into his cheeks. But there was also intense pride in his expression.

Pride in himself, and in his friends.

Watching, Jax nudged Sonya with his elbow.

“Guess I know who’s gettin’ some tonight,”

“Yeah, well, I hate to interrupt all this bonding, but check out what’s happening in the courtyard,” she said.

They all turned in the direction she was pointing. Surrounded by their bright blue aura, the two Elder Gods had knelt over Rayden’s body, their heads bent, their lips moving in a muttered chant.

“Anybody wanna tell me what those Day-Glo dudes are up to now?” Jax asked.

Shhh,” Sonya said, putting a hand on his back. “Watch.”

As she spoke, Rayden’s body began to glow with the same celestial radiance as the two otherworldly visitors. Then, miraculously, his eyes fluttered open and he sat up, blinking like someone who had awakened from a catnap.

He rose to his feet. “Was I... dead?”

“Yes,” one of the Elder Gods said in a voice like the roar of a distant tide.

“But I sacrificed my immortality,” he said. “And mortals cannot be reborn.”

“No,” said the second entity. “But Elder Gods can.”

“Elder Gods...?”

The first Elder God nodded, hypnotic flecks of light dancing around his head. “After all you have done to restore the integrity of the realms, it is only right that Shinnock’s son be allowed to replace him in the Eternal Palace.”

“Now,” said the second Elder God, “you become one of us.”

Rayden turned to his mortal champions and approached them, already surrounded by a blue nimbus that seemed to be saturating his body, becoming part of him.

Jax blinked. After everything that had happened to him recently, he had about gotten to the point where he was ready to drop the word “impossible” from his vocabulary... and this was the clincher. It was almost as if he could see through Rayden. Not only that, the priest’s feet didn’t seem to be touching the ground, but rather gliding above it. He was like some sort of living hologram.

“I gotta tell you, this was the longest – and the weirdest – week of my life,” he said to Sonya.

She nodded, but was only half paying attention to him. Her eyes were fixed on Rayden, who was now standing over by Liu.

“You have done well,” Rayden said to him. “I feel like a proud father.”

Liu swallowed thickly, overwhelmed with emotion.

“You can’t stay with us, can you?” he asked, his eyes moistening.

“No, I cannot. But I will be watching you. Watching you all,” Rayden said. “Stay out of trouble. And stick together. You’re a family now.”

His eyes were pools of starlight, he regarded them a while longer and then turned to rejoin the two Elder Gods.

Then, the glow around the triumvirate brightening until it dazzled the eye, they streaked skyward like heaven bound comets.

There was silence for a long time afterward.

“You know,” Sonya said finally. “I think we’ve all earned some time off.”

“Where should we go?” Kitana said. “By now things should be getting back to normal on Earth. Will you stay here with me, Liu? Or will you return there?”

He looked at her a moment.

“Hmmm, tough call. I mean, you’d think I could do better than a ten thousand-year-old princess,” he said with a wry wink.

And for the first time in eons, the sound of mirthful laughter soared high into the Outworld sky.

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