Mortal Kombat Novels

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Mortal Kombat                                                          (by Jeff Rovin)

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Inside Artwork

The Great Tournament Begins...

“I have decided,” Shang Tsung said, “to, ah – take the year off. I’m no longer young, Kung Lao, and felt it would be best for this year at least to let someone else fight on my behalf.”

The thundering grew louder as a great and hulking shape began to emerge from the darkness. It was vaguely human in form, but stood over eight feet tall and had – it appeared – not the usual complement of limbs, but more.

The bronze-skinned entity roared, the uppermost of its four powerfully muscled arms thumping its great chest, the lower two reaching impatiently toward Kung Lao. The muscles of each of the four forearms strained against the iron wristbands by which it had been kept manacled, and every one of the three thick fingers on the two lower hands curled, aching for combat.

Shang Tsung’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “Kung Lao – I would like to introduce you to my champion. However, if you can speak hereafter, you are free to call him by his given name: Goro.”

Author’s Note

Apart from the characters that appear in the videogame Mortal Kombat, most of the gods, dragons, heroes, alchemists, curs, and folk characters described or mentioned in this novel come from the rich mythology and history of China. Interested readers can learn more by consulting such texts as Great Civilizations: China by Ian Morrison and the wonderful Alchemy, Medicine and Religion in the China of A.D. 320, in particular the James R. Ware translation.

 

The roots of a thing may be well balanced, but its branches may be deviant.

The Nei P’ien of Ko Hung
A.D. 320

Prologue

In the beginning of time, nothing was everywhere and it was everything.

There was no matter and no change. Whether this lasted for the briefest moment or countless eternities is impossible to say, because time did not exist.

And then P’an Ku appeared.

It is said that the deity simply willed himself to exist. True or not, the birth of the god marked the beginning of all things physical, the start of growth and change and decay – the beginning of time. In what may have been an instant or an aeon, P’an Ku himself grew strong and aged and died.

Upon the god’s death, the parts of his body, like patchwork children, came alive. Possessed of wills and spirits of their own, they loosed themselves from the whole. His left eye became the sun, his right eye the moon. Wrapped around his heart, which began to beat anew, his flesh transformed itself into the living earth, the rivers formed from his blood, and his hair became the forests, from the tallest trees to the laziest grasses. P’an Ku’s dying breath encircled the globe of his skin and became the wind; his last, mighty groan became the thunder. His great and noble soul settled in the vault of the heavens, took on form and substance, and became the supreme six-armed, four-legged god T’ien.

Simply by the act of thinking it, T’ien created the other gods, and the gods – a gaggle of mighty and egotistic beings – soon became bored and created beings on the flesh of P’an Ku. Their individual creative powers brought forth all manner of four-legged and winged and seagoing animals, creatures that fought and ate, loved and suffered, lived and died. But before very long the simple routine and desires of the varied beast-races failed to keep the gods entertained, and so they created people.

Some of the gods were merely amused and diverted by the antics of the complex, scurrying new creatures they’d wrought. Others found them compelling, for while their actions were very much like the animals that came before them, many had the will and desire to be different... more spiritual, more like the gods who had created them.

From his place in the heavens, T’ien looked with interest and compassion on the actions of newborn humankind. So with a blast from his nostrils, he sent the winds that moved the clouds that carried the rains that nourished the rice fields that fed the people of Earth. And his human subjects revered him for this. Seeking and finding the origin of the winds – a tale to be told another time – they declared Mt. Ifukube in the region of Guangdong in southeastern China to be his holy mountain.

T’ien was not angry when his home had been discovered, for the gods had made humans curious. But he sent out messages in dreams, and in these visions he bade a select group of wise men and women to come and watch over his mountain, to see that no mortal approached the lower peaks where the lesser gods lived... or tried to find a way past them to his own abode. Should any succeed in such an endeavor, T’ien vowed that to punish the impertinent he would stop the winds that fed the masses.

Fifteen souls heeded the summons, coming from different regions of the land and settling in caves in the foothills of Ifukube. Coming to them again in dreams, the master god made his high priests immortal and gave them laws which they disbursed to lesser priests. And through the centuries, though pilgrims came to adore the mountain and pay homage to the god, and passers-by looked with wonder from a great distance, none dared climb it.

Over time, the cloud-piercing mountain occasionally rumbled with Tien’s displeasure, sometimes glowing red with his anger, now and then blazed with the reflected glow of his contentment. When he was at peace, it anchored the tranquil beauty of a rainbow.

 

Five thousand years ago, the wealthy and grateful Yellow Emperor of the Flowery Kingdom erected the first temple to a god. He did not feel worthy enough to honor T’ien himself, so he erected the Shrine of Shang Ti, God of the Mountains and the Rivers. Soon, other rulers built temples to different gods, though never to T’ien. And it became an unspoken law that, while T’ien’s eight-limbed form could be represented in clay and in ink, his face would never be rendered or even described in words. For how could humans hope to capture and convey the radiance and wisdom and eternal nature of Tien’s eyes and mouth, the carriage of the great head?

Yet artists and holy people debated what T’ien must look like, and a few sought to describe him by rendering the handsome and magical features of the lesser gods, posting these paintings in villages, and allowing everyone from scholars to poets to laborers to write verse beside them, ideas on how individuals might picture T’ien in their mind’s eye, or could contemplate his image by contemplating the many ways in which the god nurtures the world:


Look at these eyes and imagine them deep.
Life comes when they open, death when they weep.

Are there two lips that speak mightier words
On whose wings souls can soar higher than birds?

His nose moves the air that nourishes all,
The seeds in the spring; the frost in the fall.

 

Over centuries, the religion of T’ien grew, and the honoring of him through oblique art and poetry became both a passion and recreation among many people. Most accepted that not only was it forbidden to know the face of T’ien, but that his face was probably unknowable – like the blazing visage of the sun, or the hidden side of the moon.

Most accepted this... but not all.

Further, they wondered about the much older god, whose heart beat at the center of our world.

Priests of the many sects that honored T’ien came to believe that the chambers of the heart radiated auras that were white, black, blue, or red.

The blue chamber was the passage to our world.

The white opened into the realm of T’ien.

The black was the passage to the abode of the dead.

And the red –

The red was the doorway to the Outworld, home of the greatest mysteries of all.

Part One

Chu-jung in the District of

Tan-Yang: A.D. 480

Chapter One

“But why must you do this?” Chen wailed as she clutched her nephew’s arm through the sleeve of his brown robe. “Do you even know?”

Kung Lao’s handsome features twisted unhappily. “I do know, Aunt Chen,” he said. He stopped walked toward the door of their bamboo hut and wormed his arm gently from shoulder to wrist in an effort to dislodge her. “I go to learn.”

“Would you also walk into the lake to learn how to drown?” she asked, holding fast. “Would you hurl yourself from the roof of the temple in Jackichan to discover that you cannot fly?”

Kung Lao frowned. “It isn’t the same thing. I have seen people drown, and I know that I’m not a bird or butterfly. But I have never seen a god.”

“And you won’t!” she screamed. “You’ll die before you reach even the lowest ring of gods.”

“How do you know,” he asked, “if no one has ever tried? The priests didn’t die.”

“The priests don’t try to climb the mountain,” she said, tears spilling from her narrow eyes down her wrinkled, weather-beaten cheeks. “Besides, the holy ones were summoned. You were not. You finished making water deliveries, stopped in the village square, and decided, ‘Ah... it’s time that I, lowly Kung Lao, who carries water from the well to the buckets of my people, go and have a talk with T’ien.’“

“It was more than that,” said that tall, powerfully built youth, his frown deepening.

“Yes,” she said. “Madness the size of Mt. Ifukube!”

“No, my aunt,” Kung Lao replied. He grabbed the long queue of black hair that hung down his back and held it in front of his aunt. “Tell me – what do you see?”

She regarded him strangely. “I see... my mad nephew’s hair.”

“What else?” He wagged the end at her.

“I see a white cloth tied around the end, instead of the black one you usually wear.” She looked into his eyes. “I don’t understand–”

He shook his head. “I can’t explain.”

Chen took the youth’s hands and squeezed them tightly. “Why must you be your father’s son,” she asked, “blessed with curiosity but ungoverned, unwilling to hear reason? I lost him, I lost your uncle. I don’t want to lose you!”

“And you won’t,” he promised. “My father was hasty, I am not. Wasn’t it I who warned him not to mix those powders and set them afire?”

“Yes,” she said. “And after we buried what remained of him, didn’t you return to the hills, collect more of those rocks, grind them together, and burn them?”

“I did,” he admitted. “I learned from Father’s example the correct proportions to use. And now our village has a way of defending itself against invaders. The monks at the temple of the Order of Light no longer have to fear attacks by fanatics and wizards. We have magic of our own! We grow by learning, and we learn by daring.”

Touching the moist cheek of the woman who raised him when his mother died giving birth to his young brother Chan, Kung Lao turned and continued walking toward the door. But the tiny woman held firm, digging the heels of her sandals into the dirt floor, and he dragged her two paces before stopping.”

“Aunt Chen!” he said.

“I won’t lose you!” she yelled, grabbing his shoulder and pulling back roughly, shaking the yellow peacock feather from her plaited gray hair.

Sighing, Kung Lao picked it up and gently replaced it. Then he looked at the slight woman who held him like a coiled serpent. She seemed dwarfed by her haol, a flowing white silk dress that was split at the sides, with long, narrow sleeves. She always wore this, her wedding dress, on the anniversary of the murder of her husband, Paipu, a tax collector who was beaten to death in a town that did not wish to pay their lord prince. The town was destroyed for its impertinence, though that did not bring Paipu back.

Kung Lao had no desire to fight with her, least of all on this day. But what he had read in the village made him realize that the time for fear had come to an end. That it was the dawning of an era for mortals to do more than prostrate themselves at the altars of their gods. That it was time to do more than simply accept the myths and lore the monks at the temple of the Order of Light handed out.

At least talk to me,” his aunt said. “Tell me why you need to go there. Why can’t you start this quest of the shrines of the other gods?”

“If I tell you,” Kung asked, “will you let me go?”

“I’ll try to change your mind,” she admitted, “but if you talk, I promise... I won’t grab you again.”

The young man considered her proposition, then nodded.”

Chen released Kung and he drew back his shoulders, pulling his long, brawny form to its full height. “I am convinced, Aunt Chen, that T’ien is one of the lesser gods.”

The woman’s round face seemed to grow longer, like ink running in the rain. It was several seconds before she could speak. “You... are mad. And if the monks hear you, you will be resting beside your father before nightfall.”

“I don’t think so,” said Kung Lao. “I think I was chosen to know this.” He looked out the open shutter into the bright, late morning sun and smiled, his white teeth appearing the glow amid the rosy hue of his full cheeks, his large, brown eyes smiling as well. “At dawn,” he said softly, almost reverently, “when I had finished my work and went to see if there were any new verses in the square, I saw a clip of cloth that said:


He cannot die yet does not live, ‘tis true.
He is more than all, and all is P’an Ku.”

 

Kung Lao regarded his aunt. “Have you ever heard that name before?”

She shook her head.

“Neither have I,” he said. “But as I walked home, I realized that I would never rest until I knew who or what P’an Ku is.”

“Why?” she asked. “It might by anyone... anything. ‘He cannot die yet does not live.’ That could refer to those stone-like tree limbs people have found. P’an Ku could be the name of the person who discovered them, or the village in which they were found. Perhaps the writer was saying that T’ien is older than such petrified life.”

“You’re clever,” Kung Lao smiled, “but there’s more to the story. Each morning, I meet the egg-girl Li and we sit and talk.”

Chen brightened. “Li is interested in you?”

“We are interested in one another,” Kung Lao said with a trace of impatience, “but that isn’t the point. This morning, after I read that verse, I took her over to show it to her. And she couldn’t see it.”

“Why not?”

“To her, the paper was simply a blank. She thought I was teasing her, so we called over Dr. Chow, who was returning from a call. He, too, saw only a blank slip, and said most emphatically that there was nothing on it.”

“Dr. Chow drinks rice wine, but two people disagreed with you.”

“I didn’t smell any wine,” Kung Lao said, “but that isn’t important. I didn’t imagine the writing. It was there.”

Chen thought for a moment, then started toward the door. “Take me to the square. I want to see this paper.”

“There’s no need,” Kung Lao said. “You’ve already seen it.”

She stopped and looked at him curiously. He dangled his queue in front of her again.

“The band,” she said, and reached for the cloth that held his hair. She tugged it off, looked at one side of the fore-head-sized fabric, then at the other, then at both again. “Li and Dr. Chow are right,” she said. “There’s no writing on it.”

“But there is,” Kung Lao insisted, sweeping his fine, shoulder-length hair behind him, “and I intend to find out what it means... and why no one else can see it.”

He gently removed the cloth from his aunt’s hands and redid his queue. Chen looked at him with sad eyes.

“If you go,” she said, “I’ll never see you again.”

“Of course you will, Mother,” he said, using the honorific that signalled his regard for her. “I’ll be back before the month is through.”

“Your brother will miss you.”

“My brother,” Kung Lao smiled, “will be too busy building more of his bamboo-and-iron bridges across ravines and rivers to notice that I am gone.”

“No. When he returns from the Yellow River, he will grieve.”

“And recover,” Kung Lao said, “when he begins work on the canal at Hangchow.”

Chen began to weep as she ran the backs of her stubby fingers along her nephew’s cheek and chin. “My boy, why must you try to know the gods? Why can’t you enjoy being human? Take time to lie on your back in a field and watch the sun set. Court Li, read, care for seedlings while they grow. You used to love painting–”

Kung Lao moved closer to his aunt. “I would prefer to know how and why the sun moves than to watch it set. As for the others, love fades and trees die. Paintings fade or become quaint relics. Knowledge is all we can truly pass on, all we can build on.”

The young man turned away and pulled a blue robe from a wooden hook by the door, slipping it over the robe he had on. The second robe was shorter than the first, reaching only to his knees. It was embroidered with green-and-yellow dragons and thorny brown vines, and had a red capelet in the back.

Kissing his aunt on the forehead, but avoiding looking into her eyes, Kung Lao bid her farewell. Then he turned and pushed open the bamboo door. It swung open on old leather hinges and he stepped into the bright sunlight.

“You’re wrong,” Chen said, running to the doorway, tears rolling down her cheeks as she watched him go. “Your father has been dead for two years, yet I love him as much as I ever did. Love survives... art inspires... and trees drop seeds to the earth to grow again. You will learn, my son, that I’m right.”

Kung Lao looked back at her and smiled again. “Then that, too, is knowledge, Aunt Chen. One way or another, I will come back a wiser man.”

“If you come back at all,” Chen said.

She turned and shut the door, her sobs muffled as Kung Lao turned slowly from the small hut. Pausing to pull a pair of peaches from their tree, he put them in the deep pockets of his coat, then walked toward the sea, sorry for the grief he was causing but consoled by the fact that what he was about to do would have filled his father with pride.

He was unaware of the eyes that were watching him from behind the Temple of the Order of Light, eyes that were so fair and pale brown as to appear golden...

Chapter Two

The nation is called Chung Kuo, the Central Nation, by its natives; it is also known as China, named after the dynastic family of Ch’in emperors who sought to unify the land and its inhabitants in 221 B.C., succeeding where other leaders had failed, as far back as the Chou dynasty of 1000 B.C. and the Shang dynasty before them.

Following the unification under the Ch’in, China was ruled by the Han dynasty, for whom Kung Lao had little regard. They and their princes had discouraged so many of the advances made by the people under the Ch’in, shutting the nation off from the rest of the world and what was happening there.

China is so vast, their emissaries said, so rich in resources and people, what need have we of others?

They were fools, Kung Lao told himself. But as he walked inland now, toward the west, across a plain spotted with patches of yellow sand deposited by some long-ago flood, he had to admit that the geography of his homeland was as varied as it was vast. He had read accounts of the frozen lands and strange inhabitants of the mountains of Tibet, and he had seen with his own eyes the sweltering marshes of the lands that border the China Sea. When he was a boy, and his parents had moved to Chu-jung, they had traveled by the Szechwan Basin of the Yangtze River and crossed the ranges by the great mountains – including the range of Mt. Ifukube. He remembered the strange and fascinating creatures he had seen here: the long-tailed pheasants, the goatlike antelopes, the flat-nosed monkeys, the giant black-and-white bears munching on bamboo of the Cloud Forest.

He wondered why these glorious animals were found only here, why only the gods were permitted to have them. His father had said, It is because they are gods, my son. They made these animals for their own enjoyment. But that answer had not satisfied Kung Lao.

Why would gods be so selfish? Why would they not want to uplift and educate their other children, the ones to whom they had given minds and souls?

He learned to mix paints using soil and oils, and painted pictures of these beasts and gods... even daring, once, to render the face of T’ien, which he had quickly destroyed. If it had been discovered, his family would have been driven from the village. They were lucky enough to have arrived when the previous water carrier had died, childless; Kung Lao did not want to be responsible for costing his father his livelihood.

And yet, Kung Lao knew that his father often wondered about the gods. He would sit outside at night and contemplate the stars while he smoked his pipe. Once, Kung Lao had even seen his father stand, stretch his arms toward the moon, and say, Why can we not reach you... embrace you? Why do birds not go to you? Why is there only one of you and not many – or are you one of the stars, come close to us to bring light to the dark night?

Sometimes the elder Lao kept company with a beggar, a man in a black, tattered, wool-and-leather cloak. Kung Lao never saw his face or heard his voice, but he would watch from inside the house as the two shared a smoke at night. Or if there were fruit on the trees or vegetables in the ground, the elder Lao would give some to the man. Kung Lao never knew what the two men talked about, nor did he ask: if his father had wanted him to know, he’s have told him.

Kung Lao had never told his aunt the reason he suspected his father had become obsessed with concussive powders. The boy had once seen a drawing his father had tucked away, of boulders, boats, and chairs flying toward the skies on a ball of fire.

The elder Lao wanted to go there. He wanted to find and harness a force that would allow him to soar free of the earth.

You went about it your way, Kung Lao thought as he made his way toward the distant, dreamy foothills of the Ifukube range. I will go about it mine.

Tired, but unwilling to stop as the sun went down and day became night, Kung Lao picked up a branch lying at the base of a dead and solitary tree. He kicked off the brittle twigs with the toe of his sandal, and used the limb as a walking stick as he continued ahead, toward the fast-fading glow in the west.

And as he walked, the near-golden eyes still watched him – not from behind him but from a cliff well ahead.

Chapter Three

Caught in a dark and slashing rain on the night of the fourth day of his travels, Kung Lao leaned against the wet rocks of the hill. He laid his staff against the damp, mossy stone and shielded his eyes with his hands, peering around, looking for a niche or tree or boulder that might provide him with shelter.

But there was nothing on the muddy path in the low foothills, save for the sheer rock face to his left and the sloping, scrub-lined cliff to his right. Nor was there anything to eat. The peaches and a few wriggling grubs had gotten him through the first day, and he managed to capture and cook a pheasant on the second, a molting, ancient thing that seemed to welcome the broken neck he gave it. A few berries were all he had on the third and fourth day, and now his energy was seriously lacking. He was hungry, and didn’t know which was worse: the stomach that crawled and called out to him, or the head that was light and didn’t respond quickly enough when he called it.

He sighed and wrung out his long, black queue.

If only it were just the hunger, he told himself as he tried to focus on his surroundings. His flesh was cold because his woollen blouse and skirt were soaked through from the rain, and his back ached from the walking and now the climbing he had done. Though he was bound by tradition to mourn his father every day for three years, he knew that if he stopped to kneel now and pray, he would never get up again. Asking the elder Lao’s forgiveness, he leaned against the cliff and, as the cold rain slashed against his face, and lightning ripped the sky, he said a few words in his father’s memory.

“It was written by the great philosopher and alchemist Ko Hung,” he said, “‘Not meeting with disaster may be compared with the fate of birds and animals passed over by hunting parties, or of the grasses and trees that remain unburned when a big conflagration has passed their way.’ You were not among the lucky ones, Father – and yet you were luckier than most, for you had a questioning mind and a seeker’s soul. I will love and revere you always.”

Bowing his head to the north, toward his father’s birthplace near Shenyang, Kung Lao stood for a moment in silence, then picked up his staff and decided to try and continue along this crude road.

He wondered, What choice do I have, after all? There was nothing behind him and there was still the promise of something ahead: if not the mysterious caves of the priests, then at least, perhaps, food or a fellow traveler or a hut or a stream. He had been filling his water pouch from the clean, crisp mountain waters since he’d left, and if need be, he could use his robe to try and snare a fish. Certainly a dip in the river couldn’t make his clothing any wetter.

He moved ahead, guided by flashes of lightning, stepping tentatively as he came to a muddy stretch, using his walking stick to feel the way before proceeding. He did not know how far he’d gone or how high he’d climbed when, suddenly, a crackling blast of lightning exploded before him, reverberating in his chest and illuminating a man on a rise ahead.

Or was it a man?

Kung Lao stopped. In the short glimpse he’d had, the figure had seemed larger by a head than any he’d ever seen. And his eyes shone gold beneath the brim of his conical straw hat.

Lightning flashed again and he saw the man more clearly. The figure stood with his arms at his side, his chin held high, his back erect and shoulders proud – the bearing of a nobleman... or a god. The hem of his luminous white tunic and the loose folds of his white leggings rode the wind in gentle waves, and the long blue sash around his waist blew gently beside him, twining in slow motion like weeds in the sea, somehow unaffected by the driving rain.

The traveler wiped his rain-soaked eyes with the tattered sleeve of his blouse. Squinting ahead, he noticed now that the downpour didn’t touch the man at all. The rain seemed to evaporate as it fell near him... either that, or steam was rising somehow from the man himself. Kung Lao couldn’t be sure.

Lightning split the skies again and, leaning on his staff, the traveler bowed slightly. As a peasant, he was accustomed to erring on the side of courtesy: he knew of farmers who had lost their heads for failing to acknowledge a man of rank or nobility. Yet that wasn’t quite why he had bowed to this man. The figure commanded respect, and it was more than just the fine clothing and stature Kung Lao had seen in his brief, flashing glimpses. Even now, in the dark, Kung Lao could literally feel the man’s presence, which was at once compelling, frightening, and strangely familiar.

Kung Lao counted the time in heartbeats, and then in thunderclaps. The magnificent figure did not speak and Kung Lao said nothing; he only stood with his head bowed, waiting as he shivered from the wind that whipped down the mountain path, his feet nearly numb from the cold mud that seeped around the leather straps of his sandals.

Finally, his eyes of the majestic figure turned from gold to a glowing, icy blue, and he spoke.

“Kung Lao,” he said in a voice that was resonant but strangely ethereal, as though it rose from all directions at once. “You will come with me.”

Water washed down the round, red cheeks of the young man as he gazed into the dark. “Sir,” said the youth, “how is it that you know me?”

“I’ve known you for many, many years,” the voice declared. “I’ve watched you since you were a child.”

Lightning exploded behind the figure, and Kung Lao caught a brief glimpse of a shroud that was there and then not there, a black wool cloak and a cowl fringed with leather. Even after all these years Kung Lao recognized it, and he raised a trembling hand, pointing.

“The beggar–”

“Your father was not the chosen one,” he said. “You were. You understood the duality of all things.”

“I did?” said Kung Lao.

The great head nodded, and those bright blue-white eyes seemed to pierce Kung Lao’s soul. “You once put your ear to a tree to try and hear the heartbeat of the earth. Do you remember, Kung Lao?”

“I do,” he said.

“That night, the sky was split by a single streak of lightning, which struck and destroyed the tree. And you were afraid.”

“Yes,” said Kung Lao, “terribly.” He was suddenly aware that the rain was stopping, though the cold darkness remained.

“To calm your fears you began to think about the lightning bolt,” the towering figure said, “and you realized the flash that destroyed also provided light... that there are two sides to everything. Darkness, light. Fear, courage. Life, death,” a smile seemed to flash across the figure’s strong jaw, “beggar, god.”

Kung Lao’s thin eyebrows rose high. “You... you are a... a...”

Even as Kung Lao spoke, the figure began to glow against the pitch sky, and was quickly enveloped by crackling puffs of white fire. The icy light blinded Kung Lao, and he put the backs of his hands against his eyes and watched through his fingers as the balls of light became one, and grew longer and sharper and then hovered, undulating like a gleaming snake, shoulder-height from the ground.

“Come closer.” The figure’s sonorous voice echoed from everywhere.

“I – I can’t!”

“Think, Kung Lao. You saw my message in the village square, and you believed against the testimony of others that it was real. Now you must learn more about us, and about the great P’an Ku. But you must come to me. You must have the strength.”

Still shielding his eyes but utterly unable to move, Kung Lao told himself, There are two sides to everything. Fear of the unknown and the courage to discover. Concentrating on taking a step at a time, he raised one foot from the mud with a slurping pop, put it down in front of him, then lifted the other foot and put it ahead of the first. He approached the light slowly, and as he did he had a fleeting recollection of what it had been like to be a baby learning to walk.

One step and then another and then another, he walked over to the bolt as it twitched and whipped in front of him. He stood less than an arm’s length away, could feel the tingling heat as it rose in waves from the bolt, forced himself to cover the last two steps...

As the young man reached the earthbound lightning, it began to twine around him, under his arms and around his waist and down his legs, swallowing him and lifting him from his feet and then suddenly carrying him into the sky with speed and fury that caused his mind and senses to whirl. And when he finally came to rest after what may have been a moment or a lifetime, he beheld and edifice that beckoned and welcomed and ennobled him...

Chapter Four

Shang Tsung’s long, trying years of work were almost at an end.

He had spent over ten years on the island of Shimura in the East China Seas, in the ruins of an ancient Shaolin temple on the slopes of Mt. Takashi. Years studying scrolls that his agents had stolen from alchemists and magicians worldwide. Years working with minerals and liquids, fire and blood. Years trying to find the incantation and formula that would open doorway between our world, the Mother Realm, and the demon realm, the Outworld.

There were so many tales... so many myths... so much rumor. The fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Joncles had written in one scroll that the mortal world and “dark reaches” were formed when the goddess Gaea died, her body becoming our world and her evil, unborn children being flung into the cold void to create the dark reaches. That would correspond to the legend of P’an Ku – though Shang Tsung had never read that P’an Ku had been responsible for the Outworld.

Could it be so? he thought as he knelt on the dark, dirty marble floor of his laboratory. Shang Tsung continued to sprinkle a pouchful of black powder around him in a circle, a mixture which included the ground-up bones of the dead and phosphorous powder from the walls of the caves of the idiot priests in the foothills of Mt. Ifukube. Could it be, he wondered, that even the first and greatest god was subject to a Yin and Yang? The Yin was that which is negative and dark and feminine; the Yang was that which is positive, bright, and masculine; and the interaction of these qualities was what influenced the destinies of events and creatures, from the tiniest insect to the humans who believed they were more important.

There were so many ideas, philosophies, and religions. The Egyptian scribe Am-ho-tep wrote that he was able to move through the barrier between this world and the “god-world” by feeding on a mold from the walls of tombs and holding hands with the newly dead. The Japanese alchemist Mosura Radon claimed to have reached the “dead place” by drinking a potion which allowed him to remain conscious while dreaming, and go wherever he wished. A scribe for the Syrian king Enkmisha swore that the potentate stood waist-deep in a pool of blood from seven different creatures and summoned by a demon comprised of all those creatures: the body of a horse, the horns of an ox, the wings of an eagle, the feet of a wolf, the tail of a snake, the eyes of a cat, and the voice of a human.

So many theories, Shang Tsung thought. He smiled; coupled with his dark, deep-set eyes and high, hollow cheekbones, the grin made his face seem incongruously skull-like. Within minutes, he hoped to know which of the theories, if any, were true and which of them were false.

After he completed the circle, Shang Tsung stood. Tall and lean, with his shiny black hair that hung straight down his back, the sorcerer studied his handiwork. There were no breaks in the circle. That was a common warning in the writings of all the wizards: Give a demon space to thrust a single hair, an African shaman had cautioned, and he will poke your eye and blind you with it.

No breaks, and the ingredients proportioned correctly according to a consensus among the alchemists he had read. Beside him, within the circle, was a lighted brazier, the coals red beneath the diaphanous flame, the iron poker glowing nearly white-hot. Outside the crumbling temple, the sun was sliding below the horizon and the full moon was already in the sky. The time was right: the two eyes of P’an Ku were above him, looking down.

Everything was in readiness, including Shang Tsung. Years before, he had left his position as a tax collector, feigned his death by killing and disfiguring another man, and changed his name in order to do what his wife’s brother Wing Lao had done: experiment... quest... seek knowledge.

Wing had been lucky. He’d had a job that took up little time, and children who were able to help him, so he was free to spend his nights at home, experimenting. For as long as he could remember, Shang had tried to do the same, driven by his earliest memories, recollections of tormented dreams, of nightmares that told him to get up, to study, to explore, to understand. Visions of what seemed to be previous lives spent inhaling fumes of potions, poring over candlelit writings, digging in graves and killing for fresh souls –

Now and then he had gotten to study ancient scrolls, visit distant temples, or spend time with herbs and minerals and roots, mixing them to see what they did. But when Wing was killed in an explosion, his misfortune was also Shang’s misfortune. Wing’s two sons were now orphans, and instead of turning the children over to the priests of the temple, Shang’s wife insisted that they raise their nosy nephew Kung and his little brother Chan themselves.

Shang Tsung filled with bile as he thought of the bitter arguments they had over the boys. Not about money, for the children were nothing if not industrious, and continued to work as water carriers for the village. They argued about his research. Chen insisted that delving into the affairs of gods and the dead was not only dangerous for him, but was creating an unhealthy environment for the boys. Then, five years ago, just two months after Wing’s death, she waited until her husband was out collecting taxes from the village of Amiko. While he was gone, she sold his tools and jars, powders and scrolls. Upon returning in the small hours of the night, Shang saw what she had done and left – stealing back the scrolls from the library at the temple, placing them in his cart, and riding until he came to the shore of the East China Sea. There, he bought a boat and sailed into an area perpetually concealed in mists. Though the fishermen of Zhanjiang had warned him not to venture into the region, he knew it might hide what he craved: isolation. No responsible sailor would navigate into the mist, and superstition would keep the locals away.

He had set sail late in the morning, and it was late in the afternoon of the next day before hard rowing and mercifully cooperative currents carried Shang into view of his new home. When he reached an almost supernaturally clear eye in the fog, the sun was already behind the central peak of the island, and the jagged mountain’s shadow threw the rest of the island into a deep, deep darkness. As he came ashore on the strange, hot, ruddy sands, Shang experienced a sense of isolation deeper and more disturbing than any he had ever experienced. It wasn’t only that the island seemed uninhabited – no birds circling its shores or insects on its dead tree trunks or fish near the surface – it also had an air of what he could only describe as wrongness. The shadows were not just dark, they seemed to drain the color and health from everything they touched. The air was damp and cold, and at times – a trick of the fog-diffused sunlight? – Shang Tsung could swear that the perspective was non-geometric and at times liquid. Things seemed closer or farther than they actually were, even objects at his feet. Trees that seemed straight from a distance were crooked and gnarled when he stood beside them. Rocks and cliffs that seemed lumpy and jagged from afar were smooth up-close. Only in the ruins of the temple did lines and curves and spaces appear correct and accurate. It was as though the place had been built as a fortress, a spiritual bastion to fight some corruptive influence – though, from the condition of the place and the Chou dynasty style of architecture, the battle had obviously been lost or given up many centuries before.

Shang Tsung took a deep breath. The time for reflection and research had come to an end. At once elated and frightened, he stretched a spindly hand to his right and wrapped his fingers around the ivory handle of the poker. Dropping to his knees, he touched the glowing metal tip of the powder, and as a wall of flame rose around him he uttered phrases that the reliable Am-ho-tep claimed to have used:

 

To the land beyond, beyond, I wish to go.
From the dismal world of this and now.
To the timeless realm where chaos is order,
Where darkness is light and demons dwell.
Open your arms, Lord of the nether-reaches
To embrace your subject. Hear my prayer.

 

The moment the last word had passed from his lips, Shang saw the flames quickly spread from a wall to a sea. They churned with a fury he had never imagined possible as they rolled on and on into the distance, not consuming the temple but erasing it, burning past where the island itself would have ended could he but see land instead of fire. Within moments, the fire stretched not only as far as he could see, but as far as he could possibly imagine.

And then Shang Tsung didn’t just smell a rank, wet odor in his nostrils – he felt it. He felt a presence, looked up, and saw masses of yellow and red, clouds or mountains of it. And in the midst of them, somewhere far off, he saw a pair of white spheres that grew large and then disappeared, leaving only blackness above the flames.

Chapter Five

Another one?

“Yes, Lord.”

Not one we have already seen... not another failure.

“No, Lord.”

You’re sure?

“Yes, Lord.”

A nearly invisible hand reached out and grabbed the little yellow demon by one horn. It lifted the portly, struggling imp in the air, his little feet and sharp-nailed toes kicking out from under his red robe.

Very sure?

“Yes, Lord,” the demon said with all the authority he could muster – which wasn’t much, at the moment. His big, cloud-white eyes opened wider, reflecting the fires that burned on the rocks and waters, in the caves and pits around them. “Lord, I saw him and believe that this is the one. The one you sent... not one of the deluded pretenders.”

The fierce, unthinkably old Shao Kahn, Lord of the Outworld, master of the Furies, and the king of the dark arts, brought the writhing demon nearer. “Ruthay,” he said in a voice that was deep and searingly hot, “the son of my sister, do you know what I will do if you are wrong?

Beads of bloody sweat erupted on the demon’s parchment-thin yellow flesh. He folded his trembling hands together and held them out in supplication. “Yes, Lord. You will... will...”

A blast of white came from the mouth of the dark shape that was the demon lord. The thin, fair cloud touched Ruthay’s long-fingered hands and turned their skin blue. The hands stopped shaking as the icy breath froze them together.

I will freeze you, Regent Ruthay, and then cage you over a slow flame and allow you to melt. When you are a puddle, I will take away the fire and leave you a spineless, immobile mass for all eternity.” Shao Kahn bent close, his black eyes glowing the dullest, deepest red. “I repeat: are you sure?

“He... he... he...” Ruthay swallowed hard. “...He is in the t-temple on Sh-Shimura, L-L-Lord.”

The demon king’s eyes blackened again. There was a hint of pointed, yellow teeth as he breathed hotly on Ruthay’s hands, thawing them – and the trace of a smile as the giant monarch set his regent on the ground. The sound of a massive but unseen cloak rustling filled the titanic valley as the evil lord sat back. Red light from the countless fires dimly lit a throne hewn from the face of the valley wall.

Get out of the way,” Shao Kahn commanded.

Ruthay nodded vigorously and bowed as he stepped back. Red perspiration ran in long, raining rivers as he watched the hard, cracked ground in front of him. The king of darkness stirred, raising an arm that was silhouetted against the red flame behind it and was fully thrice the size of Ruthay’s body. A powerful finger was extended, and a tongue of flame flew from the long, hooked nail. It struck the ground and a pool of flame appeared, the size of Ruthay’s fat, terrified face.

In the midst of the flame was a tiny, kneeling figure, dark dust of a man whom Ruthay could barely see. The regent looked from the mote to the demonic ruler, whose dark eyes were once more reddening. Ruthay’s robe was drenched with sweat and twice as heavy as before. If Shao Kahn didn’t speak soon, the regent would be a puddle even if he were right, even if this were the mortal form of the demon who had been sent through the rift five centuries before. That breach had been created by some fool named Am-ho-tep, who stumbled upon the right words but not quite the right formula after a lifetime of trying.

Mummy dust instead of bone powder, Ruthay thought with a shake of his round head, the bulging red muscle of which was visible beneath his tight flesh. The foolishness of humans.

The sleek, blue-black lips of the devil king pulled into what was now most definitely a smile. “Shang,” he said. “I wondered what became of you. You were sent away ten human lifetimes ago.

Though the tiny figure spoke in an even smaller voice, Ruthay turned a small, knoblike ear toward the ground and was able to hear his answer.

“I – I remember nothing–”

You remembered,” Shao Kahn rumbled at the still-kneeling bug-man. “In dreams. Each time your mortal form died, you took some of what you he had learned with you. This learning came to you while you slept, as I planned.

“You... planned,” Shang said. “Am I–” He paused, as though he couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. “Am I in the Outworld... Lord... Kahn?”

Ruthay smiled, partly because the little being was so pathetic, but more because the creature had remembered the master’s name. He was the one; the Lord wouldn’t punish him. Ruthay had already been contemplating what eternity would be like on the bottom of a cage.

Shao Kahn’s dark eyes reddened. “You are at the foot of the throne of Outworld,” Kahn boomed, “before the Master of Death and the Shokan regions of magic. You were my regent, Shang, a bold and trusted figure sent on a mission.

“Yes,” said Shang. “A mission to open a portal between the realms. To enable you to send the demon hordes through and... conquer the Mother Realm.”

That is correct,” Shao Kahn said, his smile widening, the sharp teeth glistening with bloody spittle. “P’an Ku never intended for things to be thus, for there to be two realms. His body formed the one, and the death that left his body formed another – our realm. Life and death must be joined so that all dualities may end. There must only be one way in the cosmos. There must only be my way.

“I remember everything now, Lord,” said Shang. “But I have failed you. This portal,” he spread his arms wide, “is not large enough. I – I made it for this miserable human form I inhabit.”

A laugh bubbled from somewhere deep inside the titan. “You haven’t failed me,” Shao Kahn replied. “Using your small human mind and form, you have made a beginning. A late one,” he said, “but a good one.

“What must I do?” Shang asked.

Shao Kahn bent closer. “You must collect souls. They are remnants of P’an Ku’s spirit, divided and weakened but reparable. You must find a way to gather them on the island, use them to enlarge the portal.

The demon king’s eyes were a swirling mass of black and red as they shifted and fell on his regent. The chubby demon bowed again and quivered.

Come here,” Shao Kahn commanded.

“Yes, Lord.”

The smaller demon moved on flat, thick feet toward his master. As he neared, great, unseen hands grabbed him around the waist and held him above the small circle.

Shang,” said Shao Kahn, “I will send Ruthay through the opening you have made, to show you how to use the souls you collect. He will dwell inside the circle you have drawn at your feet, and will be able to help you in other matters as well.

The giant released the demon, who fell into the flames and roared with agony as he became one with them. Then, the dark lord opened his hand and passed it over the sea of fire that blazed around Shang Tsung. The flames writhed and died and the smoke rolled away from the demon in mortal form.

Five centuries ago,” said Shao Kahn, “I sent you that island in a sea of fire, and it has been shrouded in fog ever since. Now the mists are thick again. Let them hide what you do there... hide it from the eyes of the children of the Mother Realm.” The ends of the devil king’s mouth turned down. “I will always be watching, but you will not be able to see me. However long you take, there will be those who try to stop you. The monks and priests of the Order of Light will oppose you, as they did me when they constructed that temple. The god-spawn of T’ien, my brother, will try to stop you. And one there is, a mere mortal, who has been taken in by the Thunder God to spread lies about the dignity of worms and humans... and to oppose you.” Shao Kahn’s eyes burned fully red as he gazed down at his servant. “If you fail me... if you allow them to stop you, my retribution will be as bitter as it will be everlasting. Do you understand, Shang Tsung?

“I understand, Lord Kahn, and I am determined to succeed. Not to preserve myself, but to serve you.”

The giant’s mouth smiled once more. “I did right to select you, my onetime regent. Do what I have asked and your reward will be a princedom – rule over the Shokan regions and all the magic thereof.” And then Shao Kahn frowned again. “Remember, though, that to keep the portal between the realms open, as I command you must, it will cost human souls. If they are not souls you have won, then a piece of your own soul must be sacrificed to keep it from closing. Time has very little meaning to me, and I will be patient with you – but not forever. You have only until this mortal form dies to succeed.

With that, the hand passed once more over Shang Tsung, and the giant sat back, a still but living shadow in a world of flame.

Chapter Six

How strange it was, Kung Lao thought as he finished his morning prayers and sat cross-legged on the cliff, savoring the cold air of predawn, his hands pressed together under his chin, thumbs up, his eyes shut. To have been brought here because of my mind and spirit, yet to be renowned for fifteen years because of my strength and martial arts skills.

There it was, as always: the duality of things. Though in every way, this one had turned out stranger than most.

It didn’t seem as though it had been a decade and a half since he had first set eyes on Rayden – or, at least, the seven-foot-tall human shape the fearsome thunder god assumed when he descended from the clouds around Mt. Ifukube to move among mortals. Kung Lao used to wonder what Rayden must look like in his normal form, whether it was the single great lightning bolt that had first carried him past the caves of the priests to the realm of the gods, or whether it was all lightning, everywhere. Now it didn’t seem to matter. What was important was not how Rayden appeared but how noble his spirit was – the character and strength that showed itself each year at this time, when he came as flesh and blood to fight.

And fight he did, Kung Lao thought, with his famed Lightning Throws, his airborne Torpedo Attack, and the ability to teleport – the same talent that had enabled him to come and go, and watch over Kung Lao for all those years back in Chu-jung.

Opening his eyes just moments before the red orb of the sun rose over the distant horizon, the Order of Light monk, the most honored priest of them all, rose smoothly from the ground without using hands or knees but just the strength of his legs. His pure white robe stirring in the gentle breeze, he held his arms toward the rising sun as it shaded from bright orange to golden to yellow. He remembered the gold of Rayden’s eyes the first time he’d seen them, how there had been warmth and then icy fire in them: the sun and the moon in one being.

The duality.

In this case, though, they were the legacy of P’an Ku, the god whose body became the earth, sun, and moon. Alone among the gods, Rayden carried the memory of the parent-god; even T’ien did not have the knowledge that Rayden did.

And then Rayden passed it on to him. At the spot just behind him, the Temple of the Thunder God on the eastern peaks of Mt. Ifukube. For nearly a year, beneath ceilings of frozen lightning, they sat on chairs of solid gold, behind pillars carved from the mountain face by ancient monks, and the god had passed on all that he knew about P’an Ku. In the event that anything ever happened to him, the Thunder God wanted the origin of the world to be known to someone. Someone who would grasp the magnitude of the tale and who would teach it to others. Someone who would elevate the monks and priests who heard it, and inspire them to carry the tale to others.

If anything ever happened to Rayden, Kung Lao mused. It was possible, wasn’t it? Especially now that the horror was upon them. The horror of evil that had to exist wherever there was good.

When the sun was fully up, it warmed the head from which Kung Lao had long ago shaved his youthful queue. It warmed the cheeks that still felt his aunt’s touch, despite the years they had been apart – years during which he’d yearned to go to her but knew he could not, for his old life was dead. She would only have wanted for him to stay, and that he could not do.

But most of all, the sun warmed the amulet Kung Lao wore around his neck, a smooth white orb set in a gleaming, ever-changing golden shape suspended from a simple leather necklace. The amulet had been forged by Rayden ages before and given to him by the high priests of the Order of Light, who told him that it was a piece of the sun and a piece of the moon, the two dichotomous parts of P’an Ku. The high priests had presented Kung Lao with the amulet when they brought him to their caves and took over his training when Rayden was through. He spent his second year on the mountain among them, subsisting on broth and bread in the fire-warmed caves and learning that these holy men were not like their brethren in villages like Chu-jung. They were genuinely spiritual, interested in study and knowledge, not in controlling the populace through fear and ritual.

That second year was devoted to Kung Lao’s indoctrination into the ways of the Order of Light, his first exposure to the collected writings of scholars and holy figures from different eras and from around the world, and his introduction to the daunting, exhilarating, mystical ordeal of Mortal Kombat – the great tournament held in the Shaolin Temple on the slopes of Mt. Takashi on the island of Shimura in the East China Seas.

At the beginning of his third year, Kung Lao had come back here to the Temple of the Thunder God to ponder one by one the writings of philosophers and martial artists collected by the high priests; to reflect on and write about the saga of P’an Ku; and to record his own thoughts on scrolls. Through the priests, he disbursed these writings to the pilgrims who came to worship, advising them on everything from spirituality to medicine to art. They, in turn, brought them to the temples that had become corrupted by local politics and petty disagreements, that had lost sight of the goals of the Order of Light.

There was also another task Kung Lao would have, one which Rayden had mentioned but never explained, and Kung Lao knew better than to press him. When the Thunder God was ready to tell him about it, then would he know...

Only once a year did Kung Lao venture from here, and that was to pit his increasingly formidable physical skills against fighters from around the world. And that time was now.

Kung Lao breathed deeply. Each year, before every battle, he thought about defeat but never about death. The amulet gave him strength and protected him from destruction, and advantage only he and the immortal Rayden had. But this year was different. This year, it might not be possible to hold on to the title of Grand Champion. This year there was a new competitor; and from all that Kung Lao had seen and heard he knew that this year it was possible he might lose.

Kung Lao turned and faced the temple. It would bother him to be beaten, but it would trouble him more deeply if the amulet were to fall into the hands of someone evil. He wished he could return the amulet to Rayden, but he knew that wasn’t possible: what a god has given to mortals can never be returned, for it is no longer deistic. Even to touch it would make the god no longer a god, but a mortal.

There was no choice, even though his decision might well result in losing more than just the tournament. What Kung Lao was about to do might well cost him his life. And with his death, the age of enlightenment that Rayden hoped for might also come to an end.

Walking across the ledge to the cliffside adjoining the entrance to the temple, Kung Lao cocked his elbows at his sides, faced the rock, collected his thoughts, and with a flashing burst, sent the knuckles of his left fist and then his right fist driving against the gray stone. Shards of rock went flying in all directions as Kung Lao’s expression remained unchanged, the flesh of his hands unbloodied. He cocked his elbows again and once more his fists flew out, blasting away more pieces of stone.

A third series of blows completed the task. When Kung Lao was finished, he gently removed the amulet from around his neck, lay it in the niche had had opened, picked up the pieces of rock, and carefully replaced them so that the precious talisman was completely hidden. He looked at the rock for a long moment, said a silent prayer, and then slowly – very slowly – he walked to the temple.

Feeling as though an essential piece of him had died, but knowing that he had done the right thing, Kung Lao began to gather his few belongings for the week-long journey to Mt. Takashi.

Chapter Seven

Shimura Island was a strange place, hidden behind fog that seemed to keep bright sunlight, seabirds, and even the turbulent waters at bay. A forbidding mass in a glass-smooth sea, Shimura was lit by the hazy sun and seemed always to be cold. At least, that was how it appeared to Kung Lao. He never bothered to ask what the other participants thought, since it was a bad idea to talk to them at all. These were people he had to fight. Getting to know them as individuals would only make it more difficult to attack them as opponents. When he had to strike someone’s wrist, possibly breaking it, he didn’t want to know that that was the hand the person used to earn his living as a tailor or to create beauty as a painter. People came here to compete in the greatest tournament in the world, to pit their skills against worthy opponents, and that was all Kung Lao needed to know.

During the tournament, the master of the island, the curious Shang Tsung, sent paddle-driven junks to shore to collect the participants. The boats came twice each day for the two days prior to the beginning of the matches, and temporary huts were erected with food and drink for the combatants’ use while they waited, as well as a stable for horses and mules.

Kung Lao arrived on foot the night before Mortal Kombat was to begin. He had made the journey thirteen times, and knew the roads well – though he found it more tiring this time to keep up the pace. He knew why: it wasn’t that he was older, for the victor of Mortal Kombat did not age for the intervening year, and Kung Lao had not aged for a dozen years plus one. He experienced this unusual fatigue because he had left his amulet behind. That did not bode well for the contest ahead, though Kung Lao resolved to fight harder than ever against mostly familiar adversaries, all of whom were older than ever.

But this year it was the unfamiliar adversaries that worried him. In his spectacular but curiously veiled way, Rayden had come to Kung Lao just two days before. Appearing in a burst of lightning that shot from a clear sky, the Thunder God had said only, “An image of T’ien will be present on Takashi, and not as a friend.”

Since the only images of T’ien showed multi-limbed creatures, Kung Lao wondered if more than the usual black magic would be afoot – if the mysterious Shang Tsung had something new in store at his sprawling and resplendent temple. It wouldn’t surprise him. For thirteen years, Shang Tsung had faced Kung Lao in the final round of the Mortal Kombat, and Kung Lao had won each time. After losing, Shang Tsung would present the winner with the Shaolin benediction of victory, and then leave without another word. And each year that Kung Lao returned, their host seemed considerably older – leaner and much more wrinkled, his eyes less lustrous and his hair whiter.

Kung Lao sat on the shore, first under the setting sun and later beneath the stars, and waited for the boat. He looked at the white band he’d tied around his wrist – the cloth he had found in the village square so many years ago. If he couldn’t have his amulet, he wanted this token, the invisible message that had sent him on his journey to Mt. Ifukube.

He looked out at the moonlit fog, rolling and gleaming on the sea. It had never bothered Kung Lao that he won the Kombat with the help of the amulet. So many of the participants came armed with magic, some in the form of talismans, others in the form of blows powered by otherworldly strength, that the amulet was necessary just to stay even with them. Shang Tsung himself had reserves of energy that were formidable and not of this world, with flame and fog at his command. Without the lightning and blinding sunshine of Rayden stored in the amulet, Kung Lao could never have defeated Shang Tsung once, let alone thirteen times.

You mustn’t think like that, he warned himself. Though he would be participating without magic for the first time, Kung Lao still had his skills and his own inner resources. And that had always accounted for a great deal. If he couldn’t tire Shang Tsung, or outlast his blasts of fire and blinding mist, he would have to defeat him quickly, before those powers could be brought to bear.

The prow of the junk with its distinctive dragon head eased through the fog and came toward the shore like a sea serpent. It bucked and bobbed on the waves, the sea seeming to hiss each time the sharp stem of the vessel sent it spraying upward, the foam rising up past the nose of the dragon, like wisps of smoke.

Kung Lao rose and collected his leather suitcase, neither acknowledging nor looking at the two other combatants who had moved from the huts to the shore. When the boat neared the shore, it turned starboard side in and a pair of black-cloaked figures lowered a plank to the sand. Their faces hidden beneath hoods, the figures worked quickly while seeming to move slowly – as though they were outside our time frame, yet somehow inhabiting it.

Though he was closest to the plank, Kung Lao permitted the other two men to board first – a courtesy he had never been able to shake. As soon as they had boarded, and even before the plank was raised, the vessel started back toward the island. The tournament was nothing if not efficient, from the moment the first guest arrived at shore to the instant the last one had departed.

After six days of travel, it felt good to sit and be carried. Kung Lao sat on a mat on the heaving deck, enjoying the motion as the junk approached and was swallowed up by the fog, then quickly settled down and sailed swiftly and evenly on the calm seas when it emerged. The vessel eased into a semicircular wharf that, when seen from the top of the temple, suggested the dragon-head motif on the bow. Or maybe it was a trick of the light from the lanterns that lined the dock. Kung Lao had discovered that the island was full of illusions like that, though he was at a loss to explain them.

Upon reaching the shore, the crews of the ships didn’t disembark, though they appeared to vanish. The new arrivals were met by young men in white cloaks, who carried their bags up the long, winding mountain road to the temple. The combatants rode mules in front of them, and noted that the road didn’t seem to wind quite so much in the ascent as it appeared to from the shore. The animals knew the way and didn’t need to be prodded – something that always amazed Kung Lao, for mules weren’t especially clever or cooperative. He suspected enchantment here as well, for one year he had asked Rayden to send a lightning bolt during the climb and he’d seen, in the flash, not the head of a mule, but the likeness of a dragon.

The recurrence of the image didn’t surprise Kung Lao. The nation honored many kinds of lung, or dragons. There were imperial dragons, which symbolized the Emperor and were the only ones which were allowed to have five talons on each paw; the rest had four. The celestial dragons stood guard over the abode of the gods, the spiritual dragons helped T’ien and his deities tend to the winds and rains, the earth dragons looked after the soil, the rivers, and the seas, and the ferocious treasure dragons guarded the wealth that belonged to gods and demons. The dragon of Shimura Island, with its horse-like head and sharp frills that curled up from its long neck and head, was a treasure dragon.

As the temple and palace came into view, perched on the edge of a low cliff of the mountain, moonlight gave it a ghostly cast and Kung Lao felt a chill.

Something was different this time, and it wasn’t just the absence of his amulet. He felt an ominous presence that he had never felt before – a new combatant, perhaps. He looked toward the two tall pagodas that were the palace living quarters, his eyes searching the open windows and looking for shadows on the drawn shades. But he found nothing out of the ordinary. His gaze shifted to the imposing marble-and-gold palace between them, with its torchlit crowds of life-sized jade princesses and ivory treasure dragons, its alabaster bowmen and giant onyx steeds and war chariots, and then to the older, darker, low-lying temple in front.

Nowhere did Kung Lao see anything, but something was most definitely there. Something powerful and something dangerous.

Something not of this world.

Chapter Eight

Outwardly, Shang Tsung was calm as ever as he uttered the words that kept the door to his laboratory locked. Inwardly, however, he was in agony.

His long, dry, white hair hung in a sheet down his back, and his skin, once as smooth as the seas that surrounded his island, was a mesh of fine lines and fragile creases. Though his posture was still ramrod straight and his eyes were as clear as ever, it was obvious that he lived under a great weight.

“I am to be admitted,” he said in the gentlest whisper. “Open, open, open.”

A row of bolts clacked open on the inside of the door, and the massive stone slab moved inward, slowly, on hinges the size of Shang Tsung’s forearms.

Shang slid inside, turned, and said, “I am inside. Shut, shut, shut.”

At that, the door stopped opening and began to move in the other direction. When it was shut, the row of seven thick bolts slapped shut by themselves, one after the other.

Shang Tsung turned and faced the brazier that burned without burning in the midst of the old circle he’d created on the floor in the center of the room. In there, in the portal between the Mother Realm and the Outworld, time stood still. The flame was frozen, like a red frond, still providing illumination though no fuel was consumed. The powdery circle was also where he’d made it, though it was covered with a crawling, greasy, and dull amber film, the essence of the poor demon that Shao Kahn had sent there thirteen years before.

Shang Tsung approached the circle, and as soon as he came near enough for his body heat to activate the powder, time there resumed. The flame crackled anew, motes of dust that had been suspended in the air began to move... and the room was filled with a moan that was both miserable and mad.

“Shaaaaaang!”

“Good evening, Ruthay.”

“Whennn? Wheeennnnn?”

“Today, Ruthay,” the wizard said as he reached the circle. “Thanks to you... today.”

“Toooodayyyy,” the voice sighed, then cackled, then sobbed. “I can... go baaaack... today?”

“I hope so,” Shang Tsung said solemnly as he stepped inside the sacred portal. “I do hope so.”

For thirteen years it had been a matter of the most stubborn pride. After remembering who he was and vowing to serve Shao Kahn, Shang Tsung had gone to the mainland, used a bamboo splinter to slit the throats of lone travelers, and with a magic spell provided by Ruthay, snared their departing souls and brought them to the island to begin enlarging the rift between the worlds. But much to his surprise and disappointment, the breach could not be widened.

In this time before isolation, imprisonment, and homesickness had driven him quite mad, Ruthay had told him that not every soul could be used to open the doorway sufficiently to accommodate Shao Kahn and his hordes of demons and furies. Only some of them would work.

Why wasn’t I told this before? Shang Tsung remembered snarling at the demon.

Because only experience teaches some lessons, Ruthay had replied.

The fool of a demon wasn’t right about many things, but he’d been right about that. Even Ruthay hadn’t known that only selected souls could be used. Not until Shang Tsung went ashore, waited months to find and kill a warrior, a teacher, and a holy man, and sent their souls through the doorway, did he and Ruthay know that only the souls of great fighters could be used to expand the portal.

Alas, he realized that finding them would take time. Using an explosive powder, Shang Tsung destroyed a floating kitchen that had been making its way along the coast, and captured the souls of the seven drowning cooks. Cloaking them and making them his slaves, he put the supernatural entities to work rebuilding the ancient Shaolin Temple on the island and then enlarging it to include a palace and the twin pagodas.

While they worked, using magic to excavate, cut, and place the stones, Shang concentrated on finding a means to bring the world’s boldest fighters to him, to get them to Shimura Island, where their souls could be hurried, still fresh, to the temple and used to weaken beyond repair the barrier between the dimensions.

He came up with the idea for Mortal Kombat, and it should have worked.

Through dreams, Shang contacted warriors in lands both known and unknown – summoned them, guided them to the East China Sea, and pit them one against the other to find the strongest souls in the Mother Realm. The idea was that he would win and, in winning, take the life and soul of the warrior who had survived the other matches and emerged victor, the second most powerful, second only to him.

But then he met and faced the accursed Order of Light high priest Kung Lao, just as Shao Kahn intimated he would.

Just thinking the name, as he had now, was enough to make his heart fill with rage, his ravaged and incomplete soul to burn.

Their first match had been their fiercest. Of course it had been, Shang Tsung thought back. Kung Lao had not known of Shang’s special powers, his ability to throw spears of flame and coils of smoke, and Shang was also younger then – thirteen years younger – and more powerful. Kung Lao had struggled his way through ten increasingly more violent and difficult matches before finally facing his host.

Shang Tsung could still vividly see the bruised but almost insufferably proud Kung Lao standing there, with his left foot facing left for support, his right foot pointed ahead, ready to strike out, his right hand fisted and cocked at his side, his left forearm angled in front of him, hand rigid.

And Shang remembered how the fight evolved in the splendid Hall of Champions, in the newly finished palace. He remembered every move and every nuance.

Kung Lao had taken a step forward, and as he did so Shang had spun and clapped his hands together. Blinding white light had exploded between the men, sizzling in the air for several long seconds.

Shang shut his eyes. Even today, thirteen years later, he could still feel the wonderful heat of the burst, the glow that was going to light his way to the championship –

Kung Lao had jump-kicked blindly, and Shang did a standing flip to the left, out of the way, his hands still smoking from the fireball. Still unable to see, Kung Lao had crossed his forearms defensively, in front of his face, but Shang had leapt above them and driven a heel into his opponent’s temple. Kung Lao then fell on his back, and Shang had landed with a knee on Kung Lao’s chest.

You can’t block what you can’t see! he remembered laughing, confident of victory. Before his foe could recover, Shang had crooked the fingers of his right hand and drove his palm into the base of Kung’s nose. The young warrior’s eyes had rolled up as his precious, holy man’s blood splashed onto the hard marble floor. And as he watched it spray in all directions, Shang could feel Kung Lao’s soul coming free of its moorings.

Shang had risen then, glaring down at Kung Lao as he tried to raise his back from the ground. With a sneer, Shang then stomped once on his foe’s belly, knocking the wind from him.

Don’t move again, Shang had said. Savor the blindness so that you don’t have to watch as I take your misbegotten life.

Then, as Shang had come toward him, Kung Lao reached out suddenly, grabbed his adversary’s left leg behind the shin, and thrust his left palm hard into Shang’s right knee. The attacker’s leg had buckled and he went down, Kung Lao simultaneously rolling to one side, throwing both legs into the air, and catching Shang in a scissor-lock as he fell. Kung Lao then hooked his feet together and squeezed as Shang hit the ground and tried to pry him loose.

Shang Tsung winced as he relived the pain –

The faces of both men turned red as they lay there, locked together.

Shang Tsung shuddered, now, as he recalled the words Kung Lao had uttered. Some men with sight are still blind, he’d said, crushing them tighter. There are always things one doesn’t anticipate.

Kung Lao was a little goldfish who enjoyed swimming in the pool of his own piety and righteousness, but he hadn’t been wrong about that. After what Shang had thought would be a quick victory, he lost as that amulet – the damned moon-sun trinket – sapped his strength while he lay trapped in that hold. And it was a quick victory... though not for Shang.

Kung Lao and Shang Tsung had met in each of the succeeding twelve tournaments. Shang Tsung would sit on his throne in the Hall of Champions, watching each match as Kung Lao progressed to the inevitable showdown. And then, fresh from not having to participate, Shang Tsung would face his tired foe. Each year, Shang Tsung was confident of victory, for he had used herbs and roots to make his magic stronger, had worked hard to toughen his flesh and sinew, had given himself a reason to win by assuring Shao Kahn that this year, at long last, the great soul of Kung Lao would be used to widen the breach.

But each year, Kung Lao defeated him. Sometimes swiftly, as he had in their first match; sometimes in battles that lasted fully a day and night, plucking victory from what seemed like certain defeat. The amulet helped, of course, yet Shang Tsung knew it was more than that. Though both had the will to win, Kung Lao had the heart of a god. Shang was on a mission for one, which wasn’t the same thing.

Clearly, it was not.

Though for thirteen years it had been a matter of pride, it wasn’t any longer. This year, with his soul in remarkable disrepair, his body weaker than ever, Shang Tsung had decided not to fight. This year, someone – more properly, something – would fight for him, and defeat the accursed Kung Lao. And with their champion beaten, Rayden and even T’ien himself would have to partake in the tournament. And when they fell, their souls would –

But you get ahead of yourself, incautious dog! Shang Tsung chastised himself.

He felt tired as he stood here for the first time since the last Mortal Kombat one year before. Each time he lost, Shang Tsung had come to this very spot and surrendered a portion of his soul to keep the portal from closing.

It had occurred to him, of course, to disobey Shao Kahn’s command – to allow the portal to shut and then reopen it when he had collected enough souls. But in a panic that had started him on the road to insanity, Ruthay had pointed out that if the rift were to shut while Ruthay was still on this side, the Mother Realm would be destroyed, along with everyone in it – including them.

How can that be? Shang Tsung had asked.

It is in the nature of matter, Ruthay had said, that the demon can leave the egg, or the soul the human, but neither the shell nor the flesh can cross over. If they do, and the spiritual root of the home world is severed, then the particles that comprise all matter will be torn asunder and obliterate all.

While he was here, trapped atop the circle, Ruthay was still rooted in the Outworld. But if the doorway were shut, he would be nothing more than an unctuous smear. Only if a god were to cross from one realm to the other, redefine the nature of the life and matter there, could the two worlds be mixed.

So Shang Tsung would stand there while a wind from the other side of the rift pulled at him, drawing him down like a whirlpool. He would resist the pull, and only when he felt a sharp snap or a slow rip or long, twisting agony – for it was different every time – did he know that he had given part of himself in order for the doorway to stay open, and that he was free to go... until the next loss.

The matter of pride had been that he be the one to defeat Kung Lao, to claim the high priest’s singularly mighty soul and use it to enlarge the rift between the worlds. But that was not to be, so with Ruthay’s help he had come up with an alternate plan and had presented that to their sovereign lord. And as he knelt with his spread palms to the floor, and prepared to face Shao Kahn once more, Shang Tsung was confident that what they were going to do was the right thing. Shao Kahn didn’t care about means so much as he cared about results.

“Great Lord,” Shang said as he felt but could not see a hot, oppressive shadow fall over him.

What is it, mouse?” Shao Kahn said.

The word stung, but Shang said, “Revered Emperor, I’ve come to assure you that this will be the year of Kung Lao’s defeat.”

You have promised this before.

“I have, Great One, it is true,” Shang said. “But this year, I have renewed hope. Not only will I permit your other servant to take on the Order of Light high priest and crush him utterly, for all time, the servant who is strong where I am weak–”

You are weak in most ways, Shang–

“I deserve the rebuke, Master,” Shang lied. “But after this day, you will be proud of what we have done. For not only will the Prince fight for you, but Kung Lao has come without the source of his greatest power, the enchanted amulet given to him by–”

Your prattle bores me, rabbit. Mastery of the Mother Realm is all that matters.

“And you shall have it,” Shang promised. “Soon.”

Go,” Shao Kahn said, “You have very little soul left, Shang, and I should hate to have to claim it. If I do, he bellowed, “you will hate it as well, for your eternity will be spent not as the ruler of Shokan provinces, but as a sore on the tongue of my dragon Twi’glet, one that causes her to belch fire over you for each moment of forever.

“I understand, Most High,” Shang kowtowed. “I will not fail you.”

Be very certain of that,” Shao Kahn said. “The Prince I have sent through the rift was not happy to go.

“I know,” Shang Tsung said, bending so low that his lips touched the floor. “I had thought, sire, the souls I sent in exchange–”

Briefly contented me. The pirates are now floating on a fiery sea while flaming swords slice hot wounds that are instantly cauterized. How the wretches scream when the blades are yanked from their burnt flesh. But these souls did not help the Prince. They widened the portal barely enough to accommodate his form. I had to force him–

“My lowest apologies, lord.”

As Ruthay will tell you when the poor fiend is lucid enough to speak, that is a most unpleasant experience.

“I understand, Your Highness,” Shang Tsung said, “but I assure you, I have the Prince under control.”

Control?” Shao Kahn chuckled. “One does not control the Prince. Once simply finds him a more appealing adversary and then gets out of his way. Had I been able to control him fully, he would have gone through long ago, instead of you.

And as the shadow presence of the great lord vanished, and Shang Tsung rose, he felt that he was certain of that. For, through a spy-hole, had had watched Kung Lao when he arrived at his room in the northern pagoda, had seen that the thirteen-time champion had come without his amulet, and had about him the chill of fear – the look of a man who was about to lose his first Mortal Kombat and suffer dumb and helpless while his soul was torn from his broken body and used as the first cobblestone in a demonic road...

Chapter Nine

On the morning of every Mortal Kombat, Kung Lao had a ritual.

The champion would rise well before the sun, pray until after dawn, and then strip to the waist and slowly drag a thorn branch over his body, a sprig torn from the shrubs in the foothills of Mt. Ifukube. The thin, superficial wounds did not weaken him, but Kung Lao knew that if his flesh were sore he would react that much quicker to protect himself from being hurt.

Adorned with this webwork of blood, Kung Lao ate none of the fruit and meat that had been left at his door, drank none of the nectars from their silver goblets. As he sat on the terrace of his spacious champion’s rooms on the bottom floor, and composed his spirit as cool sea winds washed over him, he ate two humble rice cakes that had been made for him by the Order of Light monks of Ifukube. It was good to feel the claws of hunger scratching at him during the tournament. It helped to keep him alert – right there, living in the moment.

When he was finished eating, he continued to sit there, contemplating the deity in whose name he fought... and, on this day, wondering about the awful presence he had felt in the rooms somewhere above him when he’d arrived, and continued to feel in his sleep, during his deepest prayers, and even now.

And then, when the huge bell sounded in the courtyard outside the place, the site of the initial bouts, he went to the tournament dressed in his slippers, loose skirt, leggings, and the mien of a champion.

Only around his neck, and on his chest, did Kung Lao feel naked...

Chapter Ten

The courtyard of the palace was a giant oblong, made of stone with a huge black-ivory inlay of Shang’s dragon. It was said that the ivory was not dyed but had been made from the horns of the dragon itself, a beast that resided in some other realm.

The stone stands reached two hundred hands high and surrounded the courtyard on three sides. They quickly filled with the dozens of participants who awaited their turn to fight, and with the mysterious retainers of Shang Tsung, who never raised their hoods to watch and who never showed any emotion or hostility, even when their own master was defeated. Stone dragons lined the wall behind the uppermost row of the grandstand, their mouths spouting fire at night so that the tournament could continue in the dark; yellow-orange banners bearing the silhouette of the black dragon hung limply from poles stuck in the back of each stone figure. Behind the dragons on the long western wall were the flared red columns of the temple, with its roof of thick green tiles and a repetition of the dragon motif in black tile.

On the fourth side of the courtyard, above the great gate through which the combatants passed, was Shang’s throne. The chair was made of iron forged in the shape of human bones, cushioned with the mystically preserved blubber of a whale and covered with a thick throw of fur from one of the sacred pandas – fur only one such as Shang would dare to take. A canopy of unknown material, supported by a column constructed of shark teeth, protected him from the hazy sun. Some said the material was human flesh, but few thought that even the vicious Shang could be capable of such a vile and corrupt display. Kung Lao was not one of the few.

The champion did not arrive with ceremony, though it was his to request, nor did he sit in the special seat that was reserved for him in the center of the lowest row of the grandstand. He preferred to come and go as any participant: he believed that honor had to be won anew each year, not carried over from the previous tournament. However, he was not required to fight until all but the three best martial artists had been eliminated.

The early contests were always interesting and exciting, as an eclectic mix of veterans and newcomers fought in a series of eliminations in three separate areas. Both losers and victors returned to the stands when they were through, the former to watch and learn, the latter to await the next series of bouts.

By nightfall, the trio who would fight in the final rounds had been selected. Kung Lao was required to battle each one in turn. Despite their prowess, and the fact that two of the three were newcomers to Mortal Kombat, Kung Lao made quick work of them all. One of them, a brawny thing who called himself Ulfila the Ostrogoth, did not use the martial arts but attacked violently with a spiked club and shield and tired quickly. Another, Kung Lao’s old adversary Mahada, a Mauryan who recited the Vedic “Hymn of Creation” as he fought, put up a noble struggle but lost several teeth during the match – and, with them, his ability to utter the hymn, and his confidence. The third foe, a Roman wrestler named Toisarus, gave Kung Lao some trouble when he pinned him to the ground, but the pain of the champion’s self-inflicted lacerations was the added boost he needed to throw the challenger off. In the past, Kung Lao ruminated, the power of the amulet would have ensured that he not find himself in that position in the first place.

All through the long day Kung Lao had continued to feel the presence of something formidable, though as yet he had neither seen, heard, nor smelled anyone that could have been the cause of his unrest.

After beating Toisarus with a shoulder-throw that knocked the air from his lungs and the fight from his limbs, Kung Lao turned to his host, bowed, spread his legs, cocked his arms at his side, and waited. A long moment later Shang Tsung smiled – the first time Kung Lao had ever seen him do so.

“Your victory is impressive,” said the host. “The more so because we notice that for the first time you participated without the aid of magic.”

“Religion is not magic,” Kung Lao said.

“A debatable point for some other time,” Shang Tsung said as he continued to smile. “What has earned our attention and respect is that you have won without your amulet.” The eyes of the prematurely aged wizard narrowed, and his bushy white brows dipped in the center. “Won – to this point. There is one more battle yet to fight.”

“As you can see,” Kung Lao said, “I await you.”

Shang Tsung looked at him for a moment, then crooked a finger at a hooded figure who stood to his right. “Fan,” he said. The figure reached into his robe and removed a folding fan made of rice paper. He moved it from side to side; though his motions were slow and unforceful, banners on the distant wall stirred.

Shang Tsung’s smile broadened. The humorless, unnatural grin on that skull-like face made Kung Lao uneasy.

“Did you know,” Shang Tsung asked, “that I decided not to fight this year?”

“I am truly sorry to hear that.”

“I believe you,” Shang Tsung replied. “Do you wish to come forward and accept the benediction of victory?”

Kung Lao remained locked in his combative pose. “You know that goes against the rules of Mortal Kombat. There must be a battle between the champion and his host – or, if the host is debilitated, between the champion and the host’s champion.”

“Of course,” said Shang Tsung. “Otherwise, the winner does not win the ultimate prize: the precious gift of not aging until the next Mortal Kombat.”

Kung Lao shook his head. “That isn’t why I fight, and I submit that isn’t why most of these people are here. They fight for honor, no other reward.” He felt the presence more strongly than ever now. Whatever was going to happen, whoever was going to appear would do so soon.

“You’re probably right,” Shang Tsung admitted. The smile wavered and collapsed. “What good is anything in life if we do not have honor... if we don’t control our own souls.”

Shang Tsung waved away his servant, then continued to stare at Kung Lao has he clapped his hands once. There was a groaning outside the courtyard, as of a cart being wheeled beneath a staggering weight, and then a clanking and rattling as though chains were being pulled and then dropped. These were followed by the thunderous sound of footfalls in the dark beyond the dragon flames.

“I have decided,” Shang Tsung said, “to, ah – take the year off. I’m no longer young, Kung Lao, and felt it would be best for this year at least to let someone else fight on my behalf.”

The thundering grew louder as a great and hulking shape began to emerge from the darkness. It was vaguely human in form, but stood over eight feet tall and had – it appeared – not the usual complement of limbs, but more.

As the being approached, Kung Lao felt the sinister presence grow stronger and stronger, as though a great evil had been dropped in their midst. More evil even that Shang Tsung, who, after all, was still human.

This new thing was not. As it bent its titanic head to get under the gate, then stood in the fire-lit courtyard, its red eyes scanned the stands. There were cries of fear from many of the great heroes who had gathered here, and more when the bronze-skinned entity roared, the uppermost of its four powerfully muscled arms thumping its great chest, the lower two reaching impatiently toward Kung Lao. The muscles of each of the four forearms strained against the iron wristbands by which it had been kept manacled, and every one of the three thick fingers on the two lower hands curled, aching for combat. The newcomer’s sharp ears twitched with obvious delight as it listened to the fear of the beaten warriors.

When Kung Lao didn’t flinch, the creature shook its great head defiantly. Its long, black queue of hair swung pendulously behind it, and its nearly lipless mouth opened wide, exposing white teeth and two sharp fangs glistening with spittle.

The giant shifted impatiently from leg to leg, its clearly defined abdominal muscles straining behind a red leather belt with a Yin and Yang symbol on the buckle, its elephantine leg muscles bulging beneath the blue loincloth it wore.

The monster – for such was the only word that came to Kung Lao’s mind – had two powerful claws on each foot, and the one dewclaw behind, and all six of them scratched angrily on the floor of the arena. The gray leggings it wore on its shins seemed about ready to pop from the pressure of the sinew beneath them.

Shang Tsung’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “Kung Lao – I would like to introduce you to my champion, the son of King Gorbak and Queen Mai, the Prince of Kuatan and Ruler Supreme of the Armies of the Kingdoms of Shokan.”

Kung Lao watched as the brute’s evil mouth tightened with rage.

“However,” said Shang Tsung, “if you can speak hereafter, you are free to call him by his given name: Goro.”

Chapter Eleven

If.

A thousand ifs flitted through Kung Lao’s brain as the behemoth began to move. If he had been confident enough to have brought his amulet, he would have stood a better chance against the challenger. If he had accepted the championship without the benediction, as the rules did permit, his honor and perhaps his life would not be at stake. If he had insisted on fighting Shang Tsung, as was his right, then he surely would have won, for the one-time martial arts master had grown frail.

If.

With a roar that shook the flames from the stone dragon’s mouths, and thumping footfalls that rattled the courtyard itself, Goro charged his foe. As befitted a warrior-priest of the Order of Light, and a champion of Mortal Kombat, Kung Lao did not stand and wait to receive his attack. He ran at his overbearing challenger, with a piercing cry that came from somewhere deep inside. The shout was so startling, so feral, that even Goro’s brutish face registered surprise. But it didn’t stop him. The two warriors continued to thunder toward each other.

As much dragon in appearance as human, the beast was not as fleet as Kung Lao, and the champion felt that would be his only advantage. The instant Goro was within reach, Kung Lao turned, dropped to his hands and one knee, and stretched the other leg behind him in an effort to sweep-kick the giant off his feet. Instead, Goro bent and met the attack with his lower right forearm. His stiff limb blocked the kick while his other three arms reached for his quarry.

Taking a quick look behind him, Kung Lao caught one of Goro’s hands with a crouch-kick, then tucked himself into a ball and did a backward somersault between the giant’s wide legs. Rising quickly behind him, the champion executed a high jump-kick and planted it in the small of Goro’s back. The crowd cheered as the titan’s arms flew up and his head flew back.

But the blow seemed to simply enrage the leviathan rather than harm him; as Kung Lao jumped to try and land a second quick kick, Goro planted himself firmly on one stout leg and kicked the other behind him, catching Kung Lao on the way up. The kick knocked the champion backward, though he was able to roll with it, somersault again, and land crouching on the stones of the courtyard.

Turning, Goro charged again; this time, Kung Lao waited, then dropped flat on his back, elbows bent up, palms flat on the ground beside his head. Pushing off with his hands, he kicked out with his stiff legs, driving them hard into Goro’s abdomen.

A small puff of breath escaped the Prince’s gash of a mouth – but Kung Lao knew, from the mass of muscle he’d struck, that Goro hadn’t been hurt by the blow. Worse, before he was able to retract his legs, four massive hands closed around them from either side. Lifting Kung Lao into the air, his back toward him, Goro kicked the martial arts master hard between the shoulder blades.

The blow knocked the wind out of him, and Kung Lao knew he couldn’t take another. When Goro kicked out again, Kung Lao felt the rush of air and quickly arched forward, grabbed his own ankles, and – still hanging from Goro’s hands – pulled himself up and over the outstretched foot. Seizing Goro’s momentary imbalance, Kung Lao yanked his feet down hard, freeing himself from the giant’s grip and coming down hard on the Prince’s still-extended leg.

Goro howled with pain, the crowd roared with approval, as Kung Lao landed; the Order of Light priest simultaneously used the leg as a springboard to jump up and away from Goro. He landed beside his foe, a bit battered but with his arms crossed in front of him, still ready to fight.

The Prince turned toward him, but Kung Lao was quick and drove the bottom of his foot into Goro’s right knee. The giant buckled – but again, there was the advantage of those four powerful arms and extraordinary reach. Even as he fell, Goro was able to grab Kung Lao’s arms. Goro drew the champion down with him, leaving Kung Lao no offensive maneuver other than to throw a scissor-lock around Goro’s neck. The Outworld denizen released Kung Lao’s arms and easily pried his legs away – and kept pulling, as though his victim were a dried tree branch.

Shrieking pain shot through Kung Lao’s inner thighs, and managing to get his arms under himself, he pushed off with one, twisting himself around like a corkscrew and managing to worm himself from Goro’s grasp.

The angry giant pounded the ground with all four fists, in succession, then reached for Kung Lao, who by this time was struggling to stand on legs that felt as sturdy as marsh reeds.

But stand he did, and when Goro came at him, head bowed and charging like an animal, Kung Lao backflipped away – then stopped while he was still standing on his hands and suddenly flung himself feet-first toward the titan. His feet landed on the back of Goro’s neck, driving his chin into the hard tile of the dragon symbol and drawing greenish blood.

Goro stood, the red eyes coal-hot and wide, and Kung Lao knew that hurting his foe without being able to deliver a final blow had been a mistake.

Swinging his head around furiously, Goro whipped his queue around so fast that, if it connected, Kung Lao suspected it would break his back. Jumping back repeatedly, Kung Lao found himself backed against the lowest row of seats on the southern side of the arena. While the onlookers scurried, and Kung Lao tried to avoid the whirling hair, Goro drove all four fists ahead of him. Three connected with the stone, cracking it; the fourth caught Kung Lao in the left shoulder while he jumped to the side to avoid the other three.

The champion moaned as the hard flesh and harder bone pinned him to the stone. Holding Kung Lao there, Goro brought his other three fists around and pounded him mercilessly. Though Kung Lao was able to move his face out of the way of some blows, and was able to deflect others with the strong side of his hand, many found their targets on the torso, abdomen, legs, and shoulders.

Aching everywhere, Kung Lao found his reflexes slowing, his senses numb. More blows landed, but he only felt the thudding, not the pain. Through blood-soaked eyes, he saw Shang Tsung standing in front of his throne, watching his servant pummel Kung Lao, his own hands balled into fists, as he apparently wished that it were he instead of Goro who was administering the punishment.

“Kill him!” Kung Lao heard someone shout. Was it Shang Tsung? “His heart...,” he heard. “Give me his heart!

Suddenly the pummeling stopped.

Kung Lao staggered forward, and with superhuman effort managed to keep his feet under him.

Don’t be a dog, he told himself. He stood there, his body weaving above the knees, his arms raised in a futile defense, his bleary eyes watching, throbbing ears listening for Goro to move in again.

Kung Lao could only vaguely make out the giant bronze shape in front of him, and the red eyes were lost entirely in the blood and sweat through which Kung Lao gazed.

He saw Goro’s mouth open wide, saw the blurry mass of cruel white teeth.

White on gold, Kung Lao thought as Goro’s shape shifted and oozed due to the perspiration and blood in Kung Lao’s own eyes. Just like the amulet.

The strange, enduring duality of all things was the last thought no Kung Lao’s mind as three of Goro’s mighty hands grabbed him and the fourth came toward his chest, fingers outstretched, ready to claim their prize – not the benediction from Shang Tsung, but the great and noble heart of the High Priest of the Order of Light....

 

Nearly six hundred miles away, in a hut by a construction bridge that was rapidly nearing completion, a strong young woman watched as his wife gave birth to their baby son.

Covered with blood, the boy wailed when the elderly midwife smacked him on his bottom and scooped the remnants of afterbirth from his mouth.

She laid the baby in a soft blanket and folded it around him, then handed the child to his mother. The elderly woman smiled at the young woman, then scowled at the baby’s father.

“You should be smacked yourself for having brought her here in this condition,” she said.

Chan Lao smiled. “I – smacked? It was my wife who insisted on coming with me while I work on this bridge. I asked her to stay behind.”

“Asked,” huffed the old woman. “What is it with young women today?” She wagged a finger at Chan Lao. “You should tell her what to do, and she should do as she is told.”

“That is not the way in our family,” Mie Lao said softly. She kissed her baby on his damp ear and brushed back his head of black hair. “We have always respected one another equally.” Her eyes found those of her husband. “Didn’t you always say your elder brother treated you as his equal, despite the difference in your years?”

“In work as well as in play,” Chan Lao remarked, “there was none fairer than Kung Lao.”

As the midwife finished cleaning up, the young man walked over to his wife. He embraced Mie and their son.

Mie smiled. “I was right and you were wrong,” she said. “We have a son, Chan. My father is still alive – can we name him Wing Lao, after your father?”

Chan looked down at the new life he had helped to create. Despite the excitement at seeing his firstborn cuddled in the arms of his wife, Chan felt a sudden, inexplicable chill.

“Would you mind, Mie, if we saved that name for our second son?”

“Second?” Mie laughed. “Must you always be the engineer, looking ahead to the next project?”

“It isn’t that,” Chan said. “But I suddenly feel – compelled for some reason to name the boy after my brother.”

Mie’s features darkened. “But you haven’t seen him for fifteen years. He ran off to find – what was it again?”

“A god,” Chan said dryly. “At least, that’s what my poor aunt said. She never recovered from losing him and died a year after his departure.”

“A god,” Mie said. “You want to name your son after someone who was mad enough to go looking for a god.”

Chan nodded. “Yes. I don’t know why, but I do.”

“If that is what you want,” she said, “then I agree. We will name our son Kung Lao.”

When she spoke the name, the baby quieted.

And somewhere in the distance, thunder rolled.

Part Two

 

The Tianjin District, China: The

Present

Chapter Twelve

It was one of the most idiotic stories Kano had ever heard. Maybe that’s why the damn thing made no sense, and why after another long day of walking, after four long days of walking, they were lost in a place so remote it made nowhere look like somewhere.

Mercenary, extortionist, bully-for-hire, and member of the dreaded Black Dragon gang, the Japanese-born American shook his head as he and his small band of hired thugs made their way through the dark woods and thick underbrush in a chilly, mountainous region of China – woods he was sure that nothing with two legs had crossed since Confucius was in diapers. Especially not the loon who’d given him this map when he hired Kano.

A map drawn by a baby. Puh-lease. Maybe it was dictated by a dog who heard about it from a pigeon.

It was stupid, all right, but then Kano had heard some peaches during his thirty-five years, thirty of which had been devoted to crime. As his team grumbled behind him, he entertained himself by thinking back to some of the stories. Like the time he’d been sent to collect some overdue loans from a macho TV star who’d fallen on hard times.

The prop department took my money instead of the fake money we were using in the scene, the actor had said as Kano held him by the lapels of his jacket. Just give me till tomorrow, I’ll have it!

Kano gave him three seconds to fall on more than hard times has he dropped him from the top of Coldwater Canyon onto a roof about two hundred feet below. And wouldn’t you know it? The hero-sized dude landed in such a way that the house, one of those stilt jobbers, fell down the rest of the cliff, swallowing the actor in a big cloud of debris and smoke. The next day, the papers were all full of “Actor Brings Down House” and “Star Dies; Hairpiece Survives.”

Then there was the political candidate who borrowed a bundle to get elected. When Kano came to collect, the lady said Kano’s employer would have to wait; she’d spent it on a voodoo priestess to ensure prosperity for her district. Kano let her live because she was a lady, but he took the James McNeill Whistler painting that hung in her office. His boss liked the portrait of somebody’s dog Cerberus, and everyone was happy – except the lady, who was accused of stealing and got booted out of office. Funny thing was, her district ended up real prosperous.

But this story... this one took the Nutburger of the Year award. Fifteen hundred years ago, a baby who can barely say two words sticks his finger in a bowl full of ink his father’s using to draw a dam or whatever the hell this thing under the map is. The kid draws away, and when the father returns from going to the bathroom or whatever he was off doing, he sees the map all finished... on this very piece of goatskin. And then it really got weird. The father was convinced the map was dictated to the baby by a dead guy, and the whole family goes off searching for whatever was marked with a little fingerprint high upon this stinking mountain. No one knows what happened to them, or how the map got into the hands of the guy who hired Kano. But the old dude, Shang Tsung, paid him two million American up front, so who was he to say, “Nah... yer story’s right outta ‘The X Files’.”

Kano scowled as one of the four men and one woman behind him began complaining that he’d stepped in some kind of goat patty.

“Hey!” Kano said, turning his grizzled face toward the man. “Cut it out! I hate to hear yammerin’ when I’m thinkin’.”

“Like your thinkin’ is doin’ us any good?” the short, long-haired young man shot back.

Kano’s muscles tensed beneath his white windbreaker. “What d’ya mean by that?”

“I mean, Chief,” said Moriarty, “could we be more lost than we are?”

The sentence was not quite out of the man’s mouth when Kano spun and, with a cry, swung a roundhouse kick at his jaw. Moriarty barely avoided it by arching back, his arms pinwheeling as he tried desperately to keep his balance on the sharply inclined slope. Kano landed and simply glared at him as he struggled. The boss’s left eye, the normal brown one, was angry, but his right eye, the infrared-vision artificial eye that was held in place by a metal faceplate, glowed with fury.

One of Moriarty’s companions, Michael Schneider, finally reached out a hairy paw, grabbed him by the front of his sweaty and foodstain-covered Jet Li sweatshirt, and pulled him back.

“Thanks, Schnides,” Moriarty said, glancing back at the drop. Had he fallen, he would have slid through about two hundred yards of woods and then dropped off a cliff into the river below.

“Don’t mention it,” said the bespectacled Schneider, balding save for a short, gray ponytail. “Just remember that you owe me, is all.”

“I won’t forget,” Moriarty said. “Unlike some jokers, I know the lay of the land.”

Kano was still giving his man the hot-eye. His hands were tight fists, and even his brown buzzcut and two-day-old stubble seemed to bristle. “If that was meant to be a parting dig,” Kano said, “I spit on it. An’ the next time ya try and tell me what to do, Moriarty, I’ll knock yer flat head into the next Columbus Day. Got that?”

“Yeah, sure,” Moriarty mumbled. The M44 carbine had slipped from his shoulder to his elbow. After hitching it back, and checking the Sterling MK4 submachine gun slung around the other, he glowered back at Kano. “But ya didn’t have to do that, ya freakin’ cyclops. I wasn’t lyin’. We are lost, ain’t we?”

“You bet,” Kano agreed, “but it’s this crummy map’s fault, not mine. I didn’t see anybody here beef when I said we come this way. You all looked at this rag.” He shook the map. “It didn’t make sense to any o’ you either. An’ no, bonehead – I didn’t need to take a swipe atcha. I did it ‘cause I wanted to. I liked seein’ ya do yer little aerobics thing.”

“Yeah?” Moriarty said. He took a few steps forward and looking into Kano’s human eye. “Well, we may be Black Dragon brothers and all that, but if ya try puttin’ yer foot on me again, ya better make it count. Otherwise, I’m comin’ at you.”

“Are ya, tough guy?” Kano yelled. He stuffed the map into the belt of his jeans. “Come at me, then. Hands or blades, whatever you want. Let’s see if you’re Black Dragon enough to take on yer leader.”

Before Moriarty had a chance to move, the red-eyed killer threw a high, savage air-kick to the right shoulder – well aware that Moriarty was a lefty and not wanting to hurt his trigger hand. This place was so far from any kind of civilization that Kano figured he’d have to find a Yeti to replace Moriarty.

Unlike the earlier kick, this one caught Moriarty, who hit the ground and slid down the slope for several yards on his backpack.

“You stinkin’ son of a louse!” he snarled, scrambling to try and reach the MK4 that was beneath him.

“Don’t!” Kano yelled as he leapt down the slope and landed with his leg bent at the knee, his toe pointed under the mercenary’s jaw. “Not unless ya want me practicin’ field goals with yer noggin.”

Kano felt a prick against the back of his neck. “If you try,” a woman’s voice said, “we’ll have the kickoff with your head.”

Kano rolled his eyes toward Gilda Stahl. The statuesque, blond-haired ex-ballet dancer from the U.S. had the tip of her nine-inch hunting knife pressed to his flesh. He had heard, from the man who recommended her for this job, that she could deliver on her promise: the guy said he’d seen her once decapitate an enemy with a single stroke of this very same blade, and kick his still-bleeding head a remarkable seventy yards.

“Back off, Gilly,” Kano said warily. “This ain’t yer business.”

“You’re right,” she said, her voice firm, her large brown eyes disapproving. “But finding that amulet, getting you to the island, and collecting the payoff is my business, and you and your playmate are holding up the works.”

“I’m defendin’ my honor.”

Gilda snorted. “Your honor’s in the same file folder with your good looks and your Ph.D. brain – the one marked ‘Wishful thinking’.”

“Watch it, ladykins. Now you’re messing with my honor–”

“Ooooo,” she cooed, “how dare I? So why don’t you exculpate it? Or better yet, why don’t you try spelling exculpate?” She turned the blade so it rested lengthwise against the nape of his neck, then leaned closer until her full lips were right beside his ear. He could feel her breath hot in his flesh as she said, “Admit it, you big, bad boy.... You just like to fight.”

“Yeah,” he hissed. “I like to fight.” His brows lowered sternly, narrowing the glow from the artificial eye. The mixture of natural light and infrared light pouring into his brain made him feel like a tiger-man, and his claws itched to lash out. “I like it a lot.”

“Then take some advice,” Gilda whispered, her lips nearer to his ear now, the knife moving along his jaw and around to his throat. “Do it on your own time, when we’re not working. Remember, Kano – ladies don’t like guys who aren’t gentlemen... and professionals.”

Kano swallowed hard, felt the edge of the knife pressing against his Adam’s apple. He looked down at Moriarty. The metal tip of Kano’s boot still pointed at soft flesh under the thug’s chin.

“Awright,” he said, reluctantly putting his foot down. “Get up, custard brain.”

Kano turned away, and after offering the fallen man her hand and helping him up, Gilda rejoined the group.

“Gilly!” Kano called after her.

She stopped, and turned her had back halfway. Her sleek green tights glistened in the setting sun, a dramatic contrast to her weather-beaten leather flight jacket.

“Don’t think that just ‘cause you’re a lady, I won’t take you on,” Kano warned. “Ya pulled a knife on me. I won’t forget that.”

“Good,” Gilda said, and continued walking. “That means I won’t have to do it again.”

Smart-mouthed huss! Kano thought, determined to teach her a lesson – though not here, and not now. He already had Moriarty and Schneider ready to turn on him, and he didn’t want to press his luck. Senny and Woo might get it in their thick heads to do the math and throw in with them to take his lion’s share cut.

Pulling the map from his belt, Kano continued up the slope, wondering how he had gotten himself into this situation. Controlling members of the deadly Black Dragon gang was difficult enough under normal circumstances, but keeping on top of this mix of Black Dragon and melon-minds – this was nearly impossible. The most reliable of the Asia-based members of the gang hadn’t wanted to join Kano, feeling that the story was probably a bunch of hooey and that not only would he never find the amulet, but he probably wouldn’t live to collect the dough that Shang Tsung had promised on delivery of the gem. Of course, none of them knew that the amount was three million bucks, or they might’ve thought differently.

But Kano had believed Tsung’s emissary, the giant who had come to him at his apartment in Hong Kong. Not even Kano had the guys to tell a trench-coated guy who stood over eight feet tall and looked like an iguana that he was full of baloney – what with his blather about the hidden sun and moon, about the boatmen who would be waiting at this village on the East China Sea, about the island covered with fog and some master who didn’t like to be disappointed.

Besides, Kano was only staying in Hong Kong because he didn’t have the money to go anywhere else. He had been deported from both Japan and the United States, and was wanted in thirty-five other countries. At this point, if he’d been invited by Martians to help them conquer Venus, he’d have gone – as long as they paid him cash dollars.

Still, he wished he could have come here with some of the regulars he’d been used to working with. Fei-Hung, the Drunken Master from Korea. Connor, the swordsman from Scotland. Those were pros. Schneider and Moriarty were newcomers, small-time operators who were friends with one of the leaders of the Black Dragon Society. They got in without having to prove themselves on a big solo job, and this was their first assignment. Kano was beginning to think they were big-time losers.

The other two men in the group were seasoned pros, though Kano felt that Jim Woo was a bit too seasoned for his taste. A former bodyguard from Beijing who used to work for Mao Zedong and drifted from job to job after the leader’s death, Woo was now past retirement age. Though his enthusiasm was surprisingly high, his reflexes were halfway into the Dumpster. If it weren’t for his accuracy with throwing stars and his ability to roll a newspaper so tight it made a passable knife – plus the fact that no one had been rushing to join Kano on his little adventure – Woo wouldn’t have been there.

Senmenjo-ni was a different kettle of tea, a guy with no field experience and no physical skills. A former banker, a big-time desk-jockey, “Senny” had made the mistake of joining the gold rush when greed became the operative word in the 1980s. He got seriously burned with insider trading and was only able to stay out of jail by agreeing to become an accountant for the Black Dragons. All he brought to this particular party was an ability to speak about twenty bajillion languages, eyeballs that were as sharp as shark’s teeth, and the fact that he was willing to carry more than his share of the supplies they needed. Otherwise, he was Mr. Useless.

And then there was Gilly.

Kano had found her through a double agent, a Hong Kong cop who was on the payroll of the Chinese branch of the Black Dragon Society. The lawdude said she was way cool, and he was right – though Kano had had serious reservations about taking her on. He’d worked with a woman once before, which was one time too many. After he and Libby “Liberator” Hall had kidnapped a Bolivian newspaperman who was hounding some big-time money launderers in La Paz, Kano had tried to give her forty percent of the payday and keep sixty percent for himself. Sort of like what he was doing now, only more generous because he liked the cute blonde. Hell, he’d figured, she was a twenty-two-year-old kid who was just starting out, and he was a veteran.

When he tried to stiff her for the ten percent difference, he almost lost the use of his remaining original eye. He swore he’d never work with a lady again, ‘cause they didn’t reason with you when you had a disagreement: they just stuck a long-nailed thumb in your eye. On the other hand, he had to admit that Libby had been one of the most trustworthy partners he’d ever had, and he had a feeling that Gilly, here, was the same.

Kano certainly trusted her more than he trusted what the big lug had told him. Chu-jung village... Mt. Ifukube. Names that hadn’t been used in ten centuries, and only that eight-foot-tall guy’s interpretations of other landmarks to guide them. Why didn’t that stinkin’ baby put some useful landmarks down here?

Part of Kano thought he should’ve followed his initial instincts: taken the two million bucks and bought himself an island somewhere. But while the tall guy hadn’t said as much, Kano knew that one day ole lizard-ears would’ve come wading out of the surf and tried to snap him like a wishbone. Better to do what he was paid to do, collect five million, pay each of the other Black Dragons two hundred thou, and use the four mil that was left to buy a bigger island.

He couldn’t help but wonder what Gilly would do if she ever found out what he was really being paid. Not that it mattered. She wouldn’t... and even if she did, he could always go back to that Doc Rotwang in Munich and get a new ear or hand or whatever. He could still buy a nice island for three million –

“Boss!”

Senny had hurried up behind Kano and tapped him on the shoulder. Kano’s hands shot to the twin pearl-handled daggers he carried in sheaths on his belt; in the space of a heartbeat, the killer had turned and crossed them under the chin of the short, round-faced ex-banker.

“No, no!” Senmenjo-ni cried. “Don’t hurt me. I see something.” He pointed a trembling finger toward the top of the rise. “Up there!”

Kano twirled the knives and dropped them back into the sheaths as he turned. Squinting ahead into the setting sun, he saw something that made him smile... if the twisted, chipped-tooth expression on the lower half of his face could be called a smile.

“C’mon,” he said, hurrying ahead. “I smell good news.”

Chapter Thirteen

“Goro,” Shang Tsung said as he glided across the floor of the palace dining room. “Has the boatman had any word from your man Kano?”

“No,” said the giant, his voice rumbling like a fortissimo bottom A on the piano. “And Kano was not my man, Master Shang. He was a man... the only man.”

“This troubles me,” said Shang Tsung as a hooded figure pulled out his ornate gold-and-ivory chair. The master of Mortal Kombat sat, his thin head shaking slowly from side to side. “It has been five days.”

“I expected it to take at least that long for them to find Kung Lao’s ancestral village,” Goro said, “if in fact it still exists. He said he would send a messenger when he knew, for certain, that he had found it.”

“The Sherpa said the village exists,” Shang Tsung pointed out, “though it now goes by some other name.”

“The Sherpa,” said Goro, “would have said anything to save himself.”

“I believed him,” Shang Tsung said. “The man was too stupid to lie.” He rested his bony hands on the arms of the chair, the sleeves of his richly embroidered green-and-gold robe reaching nearly to the floor. “At least five days to find the village,” Shang Tsung sighed, “and then more days, perhaps weeks of searching to find the mountain. After fifteen hundred years of searching and wondering, Goro, why are these last days so interminable?”

“Because the prize is so near,” Goro replied in his bull fiddle voice. He fell into a large iron chair at the end of the long burl table. “It is always the way. In battle in the Outworld, I never lamented the foe who escaped me by days, only the ones who eluded me by minutes. In love, I always missed my females more when I was about to see them than when I left them.”

“You may be right,” Shang Tsung said. “Tell me again why Kano was the best man for this job – why we couldn’t get the man I wanted.”

Goro reached into the smaller of two bamboo cages set before him, pulled out a small struggling horny toad, and put its head in his mouth. He bit down. “Because the man you wanted, Sub-Zero of the Lin Kuei ninjas, was not available.”

“I know that,” Shang Tsung said, his reedy voice impatient. “Why wasn’t he available?”

Goro used a thick finger to push the rest of the horny toad into his mouth, and after shaking the cage to see what else was in there, he dug through a wriggling layer of garter snakes to pull out a newt. “Because he killed an assassin by the name of Scorpion, and went into hiding. No one knows where in China he is, not even other members of the Lin Kuei.”

Shang Tsung shook his head. “But you are sure of this other man’s pedigree, this Kano?”

Goro ate one of the snakes and nodded. “When I couldn’t find Sub-Zero, I learned that both the U.S. Special Forces and the benevolent White Lotus Society were looking for him. He needed the money – but, more importantly, he needed the challenge. He reminded me of Kintaro, a leader in my army in the Outworld. He would like to fight for pay, but if no pay is available he likes to fight just the same.” Goro’s forked tongue played over his thin lips. “These imported snakes are good.”

“And this society to which he belongs,” said Shang Tsung, “the Black Dragon?”

Goro popped a second snake into his mouth, slurping in the long, green creature. Pushing away the cage of appetizers with his upper arms, he pulled over the larger cage of entrées with his lower two limbs and threw back the lid. His red eyes went wide with anticipation as he studied the contents. His eyes settled on a Mexican beaded lizard, and he put his top right hand into the cage.

“They are a group that formed in Tokyo after what is called the Second World War,” Goro said. “Kano was only five years old when they found him, an orphan stealing from American soldiers and natives alike. He had the good fortune to steal from one of the members, who admired his skills and they took him in.”

“And they say it’s a cruel world,” Shang Tsung said. He gazed toward the portico and at the hills that rolled toward the beach of his island.

The view looked no different than it had fifteen centuries before, when he and Goro had come here to toast the death of Kung Lao. Nor did he and Goro look any different. Instead of being held every year, the Mortal Kombat tournaments were now held once every generation, in keeping with the different time frame that existed in the Outworld. Goro’s unbroken string of triumphs had made it possible for the two of them to remain the same age they were the day that Kung Lao’s heart and soul had been ripped from his body and sent through the portal to Shao Kahn.

If only there were some way to reclaim the lost fragments of my own soul, Shang Tsung thought. But he tried not to think like that. What had been lost was irretrievably lost – though the amulet would compensate a great deal for that, if it could be located.

“But we will make it a better world, Goro,” Shang Tsung said. “With the souls you’ve collected through the years of victories in Mortal Kombat, we have nearly enough to open the Outworld and enable Shao Kahn to cross over.” He gazed at the giant Shokanite as he feasted on a live reptile. Though the venomous creature bit Goro before the giant managed to pull it in half, the Outworlder was immune to its poison. “Once the Lord of Darkness has come here with his hordes of demons and furies, he will remake this sorry place. And when he does, we will assert ourselves as well. You with the help of Kintaro and your army of Salinas... I with the amulet.” Shang Tsung’s dark eyes narrowed. “Assuming that this fool can find it.”

“He’ll find it,” Goro said around a Gila monster he’d stuffed whole into his wide mouth. “He knows that if he fails, there will be no hiding. Unlike the humans who seek him, I will find him.”

Shang Tsung raised the metal lid from his own plate, lifted his ivory chopsticks, and began picking at the chunks of broiled goat floating in a stew. He selected a small piece and chewed slowly while he thought back to the Sherpa who had found the map in the mountains and had sold it to one of the combatants in the most recent Mortal Kombat – an American who thought it would fetch a handsome price back in the United States and had refused to sell it to his host. The American’s remains still lay in the three spots on the beach where they landed when Goro flung them from here; they lay right beside the limbless torso of the Sherpa, who was found, brought here, and couldn’t remember where he had discovered the map.

The old yak, Shang Tsung thought. Too much time spent smoking herbs and not enough paying attention to what was going on around him. That kind of lifestyle would change when Shao Kahn ruled, with Shang Tsung and Goro at his side. There would be no lazing.... People would be forced to build and study and serve. And if they didn’t, they would be flayed alive and roasted.

Shang Tsung had no appetite, but he forced himself to eat as he contemplated the future and waited for the boat that would bring Kano and the amulet to him....

Chapter Fourteen

As soon as he saw them, the shepherd left his herd and ran toward the village, his legs churning madly, arms flailing, voice shrill.

“Master Lao!” Chin Chin wheezed. “Master Lao, come quickly!”

Most of the villagers were in their homes, having a quiet dinner, and so they heard the boy who was always late bringing in his sheep – this night, unhappily so. For if he hadn’t been standing on the rise, the path of the travelers never would have crossed his, and the cruel-looking five men and one woman wouldn’t have been on their way up the hill, toward the village, right now.

“Master Lao! Please come!”

The young boy half-ran, half-stumbled over the long hem of his pigskin coat as he made his way past the huts, some of them wood, some of them straw, a few made of brick, toward the temple near the village square.

As he reached the great bronze door of the ancient edifice, a powerfully built man with a long queue of black hair and a thin white robe stepped out. Though he wore an expression of concern, the man did not seem anxious. His light brown eyes didn’t look as though they could ever show panic, or fear, or anything but the supernatural calm that was in them as faced the boy.

“What is it, young Chin?” the man asked, his voice soft but firm.

Breathless and wide-eyed, the boy waved a stiff arm behind him. “Strangers are coming, Priest Kung Lao! Evil-looking strangers are coming up our hill!”

“It isn’t our hill, my son,” the priest said. “It belongs to whoever uses it. And looks can be misleading,” he said, patting the youth on his shoulder. “But come. Let us go and greet the visitors – and find your flock before they stray again.”

Shutting the door of the Temple of the Order of Light and motioning for people to return to their homes, the tall, barefoot priest followed the boy in the fast-fading light of dusk down the dirt road to the small village.

Nearly a quarter of mile of scrub and boulders lay between the edge of the village and the lip of the rise. Kung Lao and the boy met the newcomers halfway across it, the priest bowing as Kano lumbered over.

“Welcome,” said the high priest, bowing low. “My name is Kung Lao.”

Kano looked the man up and down. “Ain’t you cold?” he asked as he swatted himself with his arm. “I’m freezin’, and I got clothes under this jacket.”

“There is a fire in the hearth at the temple,” Kung Lao said, stretching a hand behind him, “and warm broth in the cauldron. You are all invited to share both.”

“A cauldron,” muttered Moriarty. “I thought only witches had those.”

“Shaddup,” Kano said from the side of his mouth. “Where’s yer manners?”

“Same place as your sense of direction,” Moriarty grumbled.

“What’d you say?” Kano fired a look at him. He saw Gilda standing between them, her hand on the hilt of her blade, and his look softened.

“Priest,” Gilda said, “we accept your offer, and thank you for your hospitality. If you’d lead the way–”

“With pleasure,” said Kung Lao. “It’s rare that we get visitors here, and I’m anxious to hear of the outside world.”

“‘Rare’ is probably an understatement,” said Kano, motioning his team forward as the priest turned and started toward the village. The leader of the gang snarled at Chin Chin, who yipped and rejoined Kung Lao, after having been transfixed by Kano’s red eye.

As they crossed the barren field, Senmenjo-ni hurried to catch up to Kung Lao.

“Sir,” said the hound-faced forty-year-old with thinning red hair, “you just spoke English to the group.”

“Yes,” said Kung Lao. “In addition to religion, I teach languages to the people of my village. It enables them to dip into the lore and cultures of many races. You all speak it, don’t you?”

“We do,” Senny said, “but it’s unusual to hear it spoken in the provinces here. Usually, one hears of dialects of Cantonese or Mandarin–”

“I speak those as well, of course,” said Kung Lao. “Languages are a passion of mine.”

“Mine, too!” said the former accountant.

“Not mine,” said Kano, inserting himself between the two men. “Senny, go to the back of the line before you start cluckin’ in Tibetan or Mongolian or some crap like that. I want to talk to the father, here.”

His expression dour, Senmenjo-ni fell back. After blowing his cold hands, Kano turned his scruffy countenance toward their host.

“So,” said Kano. “What’s the name of this little town of yours, anyway?”

“The current name is Wuhu,” Kung Lao said.

“Very many,” said the priest, “depending upon who was ruling the country at the time. When Mao was alive, we were Dzedungu. Before he came to power, our village was known as Tekkamaki.”

“Didja ever hear of a place called Chu-jung?” Kano asked.

“I have,” Kung Lao smiled. “That was the name our village went by back when it was first founded, back in A.D. 300.”

Kano’s sour face looked as though it had been splashed with sunshine. “Yer kiddin’.”

“No,” said Kung Lao.

“Jeez,” Kano said, looking back at his team and giving them two thumbs-up. “We came here hopin’ t’get directions to Chu-jung... not to actually find the place!”

“Well,” Kung Lao said as they entered the village, “you have actually found it. Might I ask why you were so interested in coming here?”

“You might,” Kano said. He yanked the map from his belt, handed it to Kung Lao. “It’s got to do with this cockamamie kind-of-a-map–”

“I’m sorry,” said Kung Lao, squinting at the goatskin, “but it’s rather dark out here.”

“Oh, yeah.” Kano snapped his fingers behind him. “Torch, Senny. I forgot, Kung-fu, that not everybody’s got an infrared peeper.”

Senmenjo-ni ran over with a small flashlight and Kano flicked it on. He turned the cone of yellow light toward the map.

“See,” said Kano, pointing with his pinky finger, “this little splotch here is Chu-jung. So that’s us. Now over here,” his grimy nail traced a course to a faded ink fingerprint, “is where we’re supposed to find a trinket of some kind. That’s what the guy who hired me wants. What I need to know is exactly where this fingerprint is. Which mountain, I mean. Or maybe it’s a cave. Who the hell knows, is what I’m sayin’–”

Kung Lao shook his head. “It’s a mystery to me. The range is large. There are many mountains and many more caves.”

“But Master Lao,” said the shepherd, looking on, “it says that this is Mt. Ifukube.”

“You know it?” Kano asked.

The shepherd looked from the map to Kano to Kung Lao. The master’s face, usually soft and kind, was uncharacteristically grim. Chin Chin’s lower lip began to tremble.

“Uh... no,” the shepherd said, taking several steps back. “No, sir, I do not.”

Kano’s red eye bored into the shepherd’s frightened green ones. “Yer gettin’ all hot in the cheeks and forehead,” he said. “Why is that?”

“I’m sick,” the boy said. “A fever–”

“I think yer lyin’.”

“No!” the shepherd said. “I was mistaken–”

“He isn’t lying,” Kung Lao interrupted. “Your map does say that this is Mt. Ifukube. But no one knows which mountain that is. Its identity has been swallowed up by the sands of time.”

“Very poetic,” Kano said. He snapped his fingers again. “Moriarty! Front-and-center.”

The thug stumbled over in the growing darkness. “Yeah?”

“Your choice – take one of your two guns, put the barrel up the shepherd’s nose, and send him into the village brains-first.”

“Sure thing,” Moriarty said as he swung the M44 carbine from his shoulder.

Gilda stepped forward. “Kano, think about what you’re doing. We don’t need them. We can find it ourselves.”

“Put the blood back in your heart, lady,” Kano said. “Thus guy comes on like a big Joel Grey Willkommen kinda guy, then rolls up the red carpet. I want to know why.”

“Because you’ve got a gun at the boy’s head!” Gilda said.

“Nah,” Kano said. “It’s more than that. Anyway, whose side’re you on?” Kano’s eyes shifted to Kung Lao. “Well, Kung-fu? Is that map startin’ to look just an eensy-bit familiar?”

The priest looked at Chin Chin, whose eyes were little moon, big and glowing, as he stood statue-still.

“You have no concept at all of what you’re doing,” the priest said, his voice grave.

“Sure I do, ya windbag,” he said. “We’re about to decrease China’s population by one sheep boy, unless you start makin’ like Rand McNally.”

Kung Lao’s expression was grave. “You’ve been sent by Shang Tsung, haven’t you?”

“That’s privileged information,” Kano said. “Now, how about it, mister? You gonna help us, or do we paint the town red?”

Kung Lao looked from one to the other of the thugs. “I’ll help you,” he said, “but I assure you – whatever you expect to get from Shang Tsung and his monster Goro, you’ll be disappointed.”

Kano took the map from Kung Lao and folded it back under his belt. “I’ll worry about all that jazz. You just worry about findin’ some directions and packin’ us all some grub: you got some tour-guidin’ to do.”

Chapter Fifteen

The towering skyscrapers glowed in the sunset.

Office windows were still lighted, and in the streets below traffic crawled and horns squawked as some workers left the great city. To the sides, businesspeople and tourists, shoppers and street vendors, the homeless and the prosperous, all moved in a writhing, fractal-like mass.

And then a single bolt of lightning tore through the cloudy sky, faster and larger and longer-lived than any the people had ever seen. An instant later, thunder rolled through the deep stone and steel valleys of the city, reaching even to the basements and subways of the great metropolis.

People were still for a moment, and because they were also silent they heard the other roar. It came from the sea, the ground-shaking rumble of an ocean pouring in on itself, over and over, accompanied by the roar of the wind. Those nearest the harbor saw it first, the waves nearly touching the clouds, the fierce winds tearing sheets of spray from their crests, freighters and tankers, yachts and tugboats, oceanliners and sailboats tossed and spun, one against the other as the flood moved inexorably forward.

The waters along the shoreline vanished as they were sucked into the onrushing wave, and then it smashed down on the city, turning brick to dust, steel girders to Twizzlers, people to corpses, extinguishing a city and its suburbs and the lives of over ten million people–

Liu Kang woke with a jolt. He was breathing heavily and perspiring, and he looked around to get his bearings, his dark eyes moist with tears.

Another dream, he thought. Won’t there ever be an end?

At least he hadn’t cried out. He looked at the other two members of the White Lotus Society who were sharing his tent. They were still asleep, soundly so. He did not envy Guy Lai or Wilson Tong much in this life – did not envy anyone, for that matter – but he wished, like them, that he could get through one night without these dreams of Armageddon. He drew a throwing star from his belt and played with it in one hand as though it were a coin. That always calmed him.

Yet, it was through dreams that he learned whether he was needed, and if so where. They were the means through which the gods spoke to him.

If only they would deign to speak every other night, Liu Kang thought.

He ran a towel across his brow, one that he kept beside his bedroll for just this purpose. After rubbing it along the sweaty ends of his brown hair, Liu pressed a button his watch and the small light went on: ten-thirty. He’d only been asleep for an hour. Not only were the dreams more frequent, they were coming earlier in the night.

With a yawn, he lay back down. Holding his wrist directly above his face, he pressed a second button. The 2 began to glow, and he smiled. It was fitting that that was the direction his ally had gone. For they were a team – perhaps one of the most unusual and daring duos in the history of crime fighting.

He pushed the button to shut off the number, then turned on his side, still smiling. When he was born in China twenty-four years before, the son of poor Lee and Lin Kang, Liu was never expected to be anything more than a carpenter, like his father. But as a boy, he became fascinated with the Order of Light, and under the tutelage of a patient and caring priest named Kung Lao, he studied the ancient texts and learned the ways of good and righteousness.

And then there was that beggar who took him under his wing. Liu Kang had never told his parents about him, for surely they would not have approved. But this beggar came to the temple each day and, in the hidden inner courtyard, taught him the ways of the martial arts.

Kung Lao had always hoped that Liu would stay and become a priest, but the young man had other ideas. In dreams – and in the graphic sketches he worked on for his own pleasure – he saw the villains and societies that made an agony of people’s lives, and began to wonder if there might be something he could do to help them. Armed with his learning and skills, he worked his way across the sea to the United States, where he joined the White Lotus Society, a band of reformed criminals, Chinese expatriates, and moonlighting men and women from every walk of life. Their goal was to work within the law, but outside the courts, to catch criminals red-handed and see that justice was done. And though publicly Kung Lao expressed his displeasure at Liu’s taking his knowledge from Chu-jung, Liu always felt the master was secretly pleased that he was trying to make the world a better place.

Now Liu was back in China, on the trail of not one but two of the most notorious villains in the world. One was Kano, who had finally slithered out of hiding and might finally be caught committing a criminal act of some kind. To stop that man and members of the Black Dragon Society would be a triumph indeed. The other villain&–

Shang Tsung was a different matter altogether. The mysterious figure lived on an island in the East China Sea, where he was known to host a secret tournament known as Mortal Kombat. There was nothing illegal about that, though it was rumored that people died during the contest. But in dreams, in vague images, Liu had been warned that Shang Tsung was the one behind Kano’s latest venture. What they were planning was of considerable important to both the White Lotus Society and the U.S. Special Forces, a covert team of highly trained operatives. Liu had discovered the whereabouts of Kano, but was unable to plant an agent on his team of cutthroats.

There was an agent who was at two o’clock on the watch dial, an agent whose job was to make sure that no one died... unless it was one of the Black Dragons. That agent was a U.S. operative by the name of Sonya Blade.

Chapter Sixteen

It had been a close one, but Sonya had been prepared to act. Though her orders were that she let Kano lead her to Shang Tsung, she would’ve taken him and Moriarty out before she’d have let the shepherd die.

Fortunately, Kung Lao had capitulated and the crisis had been averted. She would be able to keep on playing the role she had created for herself, that of master criminal Gilda Stahl.

She’d looked at the frightened faces of villagers peering from dark windows as they walked through Wuhu, saw how they feared for the well-being of Kung Lao, saw how important he was to them. She wondered if there were a greater feeling one could have than affecting so many lives in such a positive way.

Kung Lao had taken the band to the temple, where he had shown them to a great library in the center of the centuries-old structure. There, Kano had tied a leather strap around the shepherd’s neck and then attached it to Moriarty’s neck, with instructions to waste the boy if Kung Lao did anything shady.

“If this operation goes smooth,” Kano had said to the priest, “everyone lives. If not, then the flockmeister buys it toot sweet and some other villager gets to wear the leash. We got a radio here so I can stay in touch with whoever I leave behind. Kapish?”

Kung Lao said that he understood, and promised Kano that there would be no trouble – though he urged him again to consider carefully what he was proposing to do.

“What you plan,” said the priest, “will help to make Shang Tsung the most powerful mortal on earth. Worse than that, I fear it will help to pave the way for the coming of one of the most powerful immortals off the earth–the foul Shao Kahn and his demonic hordes.”

“Ya drivel too much,” Kano answered, with his usual keen insight. “Clam up and tell me about Mt. Ifukube.”

And then Kung Lao had taken a lantern and gone up a spiral stairwell to the balcony of scrolls that surrounded it. While he looked through the manuscripts in plain view of the gang leader, the rest of them sat on a mat in the center of the floor, getting ready to eat a meal that was brought in by monks.

Before eating the broth that had been served to him, Kano had made Chin Chin try it. The boy raised the bowl to his lips and sipped.

“How d’ya feel?” Kano said, eyeing the lad as he put the bowl down.

“Warmer,” the boy admitted. “The broth is very hot.”

“I don’t mean that, ya rube. I mean is it poisoned?”

“No, sir,” the boy said.

Nodding, Kano took the plain, white, glazed ceramic bowl and drank heartily.

“Unless,” Chin Chin said, “the cook used the slow-acting toireh root, in which case we will not know until morning.”

Kano’s red eye fastened on the boy like a laser beam. He stopped drinking. “Are you joking?”

“No, sir,” said the boy, genuinely frightened. “I-I am merely answering your question.”

Kano twisted toward Kung Lao. “Hey, preacher man,” he said. “Would any of your guys be stupid enough to try ‘n’ poison me?”

Kung Lao said, “We teach here that however corrupt the individual, murder is wrong. Within these walls, you needn’t fear any danger. Not from any of us, certainly.”

The priest’s eyes seemed to linger on Sonya, though she wondered if she only imagined it. He couldn’t possibly know who she was or why she was here. Only Liu Kang and her superior at the Special Forces, Col. David George, knew her mission.

Kano considered what Kung Lao had said, then nodded. “That’s a good rule. Keeps the scrolls from getting perforated with the bullets that miss the cook. I was all set to go out and make myself hurl – not that this soup doesn’t taste like it’s poisoned. What’s it seasoned with – yak fur?”

“Pheasant bill,” said Kung Lao. “When we are forced to kill life to sustain our own, we see to it that nothing goes to waste. We use the feathers to stuff our pillows, the talons to make writing imple–”

“Hey, that’s great,” Kano said. “Real interestin’. Now, how about that map of the road to Ifukube?”

“It’s coming,” Kung Lao said.

Schneider snorted into his broth. “Sounds like a Bob Hope movie,” he said. “One of the ones he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour.”

“Zip it, Schnides,” Kano hissed. “Let the holy moley concentrate on doin’ his job.”

“I wasn’t talkin’ to him–”

“I don’t care who you was talkin’ to, Schnides. It’s distractin’.”

“How about you both shut up,” Moriarty said, yelling to be heard over the sounds of the Walkman plugged in his ears. “I can’t hear my damn tunes!”

Kano fired eye-daggers at him, and then at Schneider, but both men fell silent as the leader brought the soup bowl to his lips.

While the men had argued, Sonya had suddenly become aware that the priest was staring at her. And as he did, she could feel something pass between them, something intangible; whatever it was, she felt as if he were inside her brain, searching for something. And when he seemed to find it, his eyes smiled and he returned at his scroll.

“Here it is,” Kung Lao said as he started down the steps. “The map you requested. Mt. Ifukube is now known as Mt. Angilas, named after the archaeologist who did many of the excavations of the caves at the turn of this century.”

“Thanks for the history lesson,” Kano said. “Why don’t you go get yerself some shoes while we finish eating? I want to go as soon as we’re done.”

“But this is not a path to be traveled in the dark,” Kung Lao said. “There are many dangers–”

“Don’t worry,” Kano said. “We’ve got flashlights and many guns. We’ll be fine.”

Kung Lao said, “The dangers I speak of are not all of this world. You are venturing into the realm of the gods.”

“Now it sounds like a Steve Reeves movie,” Schneider said. “Or Jason and the Argonauts. Ever see that?”

“Yeah,” Kano said, “and for once, I agree with you. Let’s get a move-on.” Finishing his broth and rising, he said, “Moriarty–give Schnides the MK. You’ll stay here with Senny, one uplink yakker, the carbine, and a whole lotta shells. Anything happens to us, you guys turn Wuhu into a used people lot.”

“Gotcha,” Moriarty said, giving the weapon to Schneider and taking the satellite-linked telephone from Jim Woo.

Kano took a deep breath and looked at Kung Lao. “Nobody’s gettin’ any younger, monk-master. How about we move it out?”

Kung Lao rang a bell, and when one of the monks appeared, the priest asked him for his hat and a pouch for the scroll. When the monk brought the items, Kung Lao carefully placed the rolled map inside the ox-skin pouch and slung it over his shoulder. He donned the pointed cap, smiled benignly at Chin Chin, then walked, still barefoot and wearing only his robe, into the cool night.

Behind him, in a row, were Kano, with his knife drawn; Schneider, with the M44 tucked under his arm; Jim Woo, with a backpack containing the rest of their food and the second the telephones – and Sonya Blade, who had her hand on the knife with the electronic bug in its hilt, and her eyes on the priest, who was far more than he seemed to be.

Chapter Seventeen

“Are you sure?” Shang Tsung howled. “Are you very sure, Ruthay?”

The tortured voice of the demonic regent rose from the circular streak on the floor. “I... am... certain. An ancient enemy has reached out to a new ally... in dreams. In dreams, Shang Tsung!”

“Who is this ancient enemy?” Shang Tsung asked, even though he knew what the answer would be.

The long-imprisoned devil wailed, “Our foe... is the obscene Thunder Lord Rayden... who... like our great Lord Shao Kahn... is a child of the original being!”

“It cannot be,” Shang Tsung snarled. “Why has Rayden returned after all these years?”

“I fear, Shang Tsung... that he never left! It was he... who tutored Kung Lao the first... maker of the amulet you seek. I sense... that he has always been among us... manipulating events... in secret.”

“Why? To protect the amulet?”

“In part... yes!”

“Why didn’t he just destroy it?”

“He cannot,” Ruthay said. “What was forged by god... and given to mortal... cannot be retrieved....”

The wizard’s fingers curled into a tight ball, and he rattled it at the circle of ooze-covered powder on the floor of the shrine. “I haven’t come this far to be stopped by a mortal... even a mortal who is aided by a deity!”

“Then you must act... against Liu.”

Shang Tsung nodded. He would love to find a way to act against Rayden himself, but he dared not step into the circle to consult with Shao Kahn. He didn’t want to face the god’s ire now that they knew the blundering idiot Kano was being followed – and by three members of the White Lotus Society no less – men, women, and even children who were masters of the martial and ninja arts. Even if he were to send Goro out to intercept them, that was no guarantee of victory. The giant Shokanite might have no trouble stopping one of the White Lotus members, but three? For that, Shang Tsung would need special assistance. Help that was sly and moved like the hornet, quietly and unseen.

“Where is he, Ruthay? Where is the only one who can help me?”

There was a long pause. “I... am looking.” Then, the disembodied voice said, “I see him... Shang Tsung. He is hiding.”

“Where?”

“In a cave... in a cliff... north of Wenzhou.”

“That’s just like him,” Shang Tsung said. “With the fees he charges, he could live in splendor. Yet he chooses a life of hardship and study.”

“And death!” Ruthay said.

“Yes, death,” Shang Tsung admitted. “Don’t be too harsh on him, Ruthay. Some people deserve to die. I will summon him–”

“Wait! Be warned, Shang Tsung. He is cursed!”

“Cursed? By whom?”

Ruthay wailed, “By the immortal Yu.”

Shang Tsung felt cold spiders crawl up his spine. “The demigod Yu?”

“Yes... he who is said to dwell in the underground caverns of Horse Ear Mountain... which is sacred to the goddess Kuan Lin. He who protects the canals... and the tunnels... and looks after all who use them, human and animal.”

“What did our brash friend do to Yu?”

“He... killed a man,” said Ruthay.

“What man?”

“A toll-taker... one who had given up a life of crime... one who had been a partner of the man... you... seek.”

“And how did that crime come to the attention of the spirit of Yu?” Shang Tsung asked.

“The man was killed... slowly disemboweled with a sword... while accomplices forced his wife and his son to look on! After his murder... the man’s remains... were dumped into a canal!”

Shang Tsung raised an eyebrow. “Is that all? I was expecting something truly terrible!”

“It was!” Ruthay shrieked. “When he disposed of the body... in that way ... he profaned one of the sacred waterways... of Yu!”

Shang Tsung smiled now. “Then he is definitely the man I want,” he said. “Anyone who is impudent enough to insult a demigod won’t be afraid to attack a member of the White Lotus Society, or the gods who watch after them. I will send Hamachi, Ruthay. When he nears his goal, see through his eyes and guide him!”

“Yes... Shang Tsung....”

Turning and leaving the room, his green-and-gold robe swirling around him, Shang Tsung went up the stone staircase to the highest room of the southern pagoda. Though anger was still hot on his features, at least he saw a way to protect Kano without having to give Shao Kahn another portion of his soul.

Opening the door, the wizard pushed past the two hooded souls that were attending to the many birds in the palace aviary. The bulk of the collection of birds from around the world, and their ornate cages of balsa and steel, of bamboo and ivory, of twigs and even string, was for Shang Tsung’s own enjoyment. He luxuriated in the specimens, which ranged from the common nightingale to the imposing pine grosbeak, from the rufous-sided towhee to the glorious yellow warbler, from the black vulture to the red-tailed hawk.

But some of the birds were kept more for practical purposes. His falcons were trained to fly to the mainland and kill with claws of poison, while his beautiful white pigeons were trained to carry messages to spots all across eastern China.

Going to a small writing table tucked in a corner of the stone chamber, Shang Tsung lit a candle, dipped a fountain pen in red ink, and wrote in small, tight characters on a slip of rice paper:

 

LIU KANG AND TWO OTHER MEMBERS OF THE WHITE LOTUS SOCIETY ARE CAMPED TO THE WEST OF WUHU, HEADED EAST TO INTERCEPT A BAND OF BLACK DRAGONS. THESE INTERLOPERS MUST BE STOPPED. YOU ARE MY LAST HOPE. RETURN THE BIRD WITH A TOKEN SO I WILL KNOW THAT YOU HAVE GONE AFTER THEM.

SHANG TSUNG

 

After finishing the message, the sorcerer went over to one of the cages, carefully removed a pigeon, rolled the paper around its right leg, and fixed it there with a length of red string. Holding the bird in both hands, he made his way under and around the many cages to the window. The black shutters of the window were closed, and one of the hooded servants scuttled over, released the catch, and threw it open.

Shang Tsung bent close to the bird and said softly, “I know you won’t fail me as my fellow humans have, devoted Hamachi. Fly true and take my urgent message to the region you know so well. Ruthay will see through your eyes and guide you from there. Then return to me, my delicate servant. Come back safely and soon, and I will offer up a human sacrifice to you.”

With a last look into the black-pearl eyes of his precious messenger, Shang Tsung threw the pigeon out the window and watched the bird bat its white wings until it was swallowed by the starlit sky.

“Fly, my precious. Fly! You who do not need the waterways, the tunnels, or the favor of the arrogant Yu to accomplish your mission!”

When the bird was gone, the magician turned slowly, walked across the black tiles of the corridor to his private chamber, dismissed the hooded attendant who offered him food and drink, and lay on his thick satin pillows to await the dawn.

As he stretched out and shut his tired eyes, tried to stop his exhausted mind from reviewing the long day’s events, Ruthay’s voice sounded inside his head.

Shang Tsung – you must come quickly!

“What is it?” the wizard said tiredly.

I see him... He awaits them!

“Who does? Who is trying to interfere with me now?”

“Ruthay’s voice screamed in his brain. “Rayden! Rayden waits!

Shang Tsung was on his feet in an instant, racing toward the shrine. Though he was exhausted from the long day of plotting and counterplotting, he would not – dared not – allow the god to stop him... even if it meant entering the circle and tapping the power of Shao Kahn himself.

Chapter Eighteen

He dwelt in a cave two hundred feet up the face of a cliff by the sea. The mouth of his home was barely wide enough to accommodate a slender adult, and was accessible only by climbing the sheer wall of rock, a feat that was impossible for most adults and daunting even to the few arachnids and marsupials that tried it.

Maybe some of them were even sent by Yu, he thought with a smirk, little assassins who would chastise me for having spilled blood in his precious canal. The smirk faded as he thought back to the murder. The blood of a traitor... one who took the oath and then turned his back on us. One it had taken two decades to find.

The traitor Yong Park had committed the ultimate crime: even if Yu himself crawled into the cave, he would find the killer unrepentant and willing to kill the former ninja again.

The cave was located two hundred miles south of Shimura Island, though it was still hours before dawn when the pigeon reached it. Landing in the narrow mouth, the bird cooed once then stood still, as it had been trained to do.

The ninja was awake and beside it in an instant, crouched beneath a ceiling that didn’t allow for him to stand. Dressed only in a white loincloth, despite the cold floor and chill air in the cave. He was reading the message by moonlight a moment later.

A smile crossed his lips, lips so pale and claylike that they appeared dead. His small, very narrow eyes looked from the message to the bird to the moonlight that lit just the entrance of his dark abode.

He ran the back of an index finger up and down the bird’s breast. “Good Hamachi. Return to your master so he will know that I have received his message and am on my way to do his bidding. For a price, of course,” he said. He glanced at the several pyramid-shaped stacks of scrolls in the rear of his cave. His fee was another manuscript from Shang Tsung’s library, one of the many scrolls that were centuries old, dating back to the dawn of the days of the first ninjitsu and containing arcane secrets of the league of assassins to which he belonged, the widely-feared Lin Kuei.

He tingled with pride – and burned with fresh hatred for Yong Park – as he thought of the rich history of the breed to which he belonged. Formed in A.D. 1200, the ninjitsu were entrusted with the protection of the shoguns in ancient Japan. The Lin Kuei was a breed of ninja that moved from Japan to China in 1310. They would kidnap children when they were five or six and raise them in secret caves or woods to become superb athletes, great scholars, and unparalleled fighters, able to use all weapons and to improvise arms from common objects such as paper rolled to a knife-point or sand packed into a sock. They would train the children, boys and girls both, to be masters of many trades: carpenters, fishermen, priests, and even beggars, so they could blend in and make themselves useful in different towns as they traveled on missions for their lords.

Many young people died during training: some could not hold their breath for five minutes and drowned, others weren’t fast enough to avoid the weapons of the masters, some starved or froze or dehydrated when they were stranded, naked, in deserts or on mountaintops and told to make their way home. But those who survived were the Lin Kuei.

Removing the string from a scroll Shang Tsung had long ago given him in payment, the ninja placed it in the bird’s beak, gently turned the white pigeon around, and coaxed it into the night. Then the ninja crept toward a chest in a far corner of the cave, a chest that he had carried up here on his back; a chest containing all of his worldly belongings, the tools of his trade.

He opened the chest and began removing what he would need for his mission. He pulled on the black tights and cowl that would keep him warm and enable him to move in shadow. He donned the silver mask that covered his face and throat and protected them from harm. He put on the white belt and billowing vest that enabled him to glide, if necessary, for short distances. He donned shoes that had pockets of air which, when inflated, temporarily enabled him to walk on water, and he strapped on armor that covered his forearms and the backs of his hand – silver plates that allowed him to reach deep into his dead soul and generate waves of cold that temporarily froze his opponents.

Inside his belt, in specially sewn pockets, he concealed a pair of kyoketsu shogs, knives attached each to a length of nylon cord; smoke bombs and vials of poison; a breathing tube for travelling underwater; and firecrackers to create distractions. Around his wrists he donned hooks which could be used to impale enemies or climb sheer rock, and across his back he slung a length of chain and a long staff, in the hollow end of which was a knife.

Despite his many accoutrements, the ninja was able to move with ease and secrecy. Slipping back toward the mouth of the cave, the feared and enigmatic Sub-Zero crept out and made his way quickly down the face of the cliff to the beach below.

As he reached the shore, still standing in the deepest shadows by the cave, he experienced something he had never felt before: a sense of dread. It didn’t come from the job he’d been asked to do, or the place that was serving as his temporary home. It came from something out there... something he couldn’t quite see or hear, but something he could feel.

But part of his ninja training since early childhood had been the overcoming of fear through rational sublimation. He took a moment to remind himself that the worst thing that could happen was not to die but to die with dishonor. That would never happen, and since it would not, there was nothing for him to fear.

Able to push the dread to a place where it didn’t bother him, wouldn’t interfere with his performance, the agile Sub-Zero ran along the silvery, moonlit sands to the path that leads to the woods and hills below Wuhu.

Chapter Nineteen

Yong Park was drifting in utter blackness, comfortable and dreamy... and dead. He wasn’t sure whether he was facedown or upright; in the dark there was no direction, only a sense that he was moving somewhere. Whatever he was made of, whether corporeal spirit, he couldn’t see it; he felt as though he were part of the blackness in which he moved.

The toll-taker tried to collect his thoughts. The memory of the pain came back quickly and easily: the searing, unbearable torment of the pole with its knife as it cut... cut slowly from inside his thigh upward. Up to his belly, then to his ribs before it stopped.

Why hadn’t he died then, right away?

Yong Park had always had time to think as he sat in his little booth by the centuries-old canal. He couldn’t read, and there was nothing else to do as he raised and lowered the pike and collected tolls from merchants and fisherman and travelers using the waterway, monies which he turned over to the local government in exchange for his modest wage of five yuan a week. It wasn’t an exciting or especially rewarding life, but that was exactly what he wanted. He had turned his back on the ways of the ninja so that he could take a wife and have a family.

Now and then, his thoughts were about death. When he was a young ninja, full of vigor and trained to think only of honor, he never contemplated dying. But later, who wouldn’t think of it as he approached thirty, past middle age in a land where very few people lived to be sixty?

Park had always imagined that death would come quicker when one’s blood was spilled, that a wounded man would lose consciousness and feel very little. Even as a ninja, he was told that the body went into a shocked state when it suffered a serious wound, a state that prevented it from feeling the full extent of the pain.

That was wrong, he had to admit. Very, very, very wrong.

As the knife had scored the flesh inside his thigh, and the blood had begun to flow, and he’d heard the screams of his family, Park had realized that nothing kept one from dying like intense pain. To the contrary, it brought one to life – from the burning agony of the wound itself, to the raw insides of one’s screaming throat, to the hate in one’s hart for the one who was doing the killing.

Sub-Zero. That was what the man who held him down on the floor of the tollbooth had been called. That was the name of the monster who had dragged his wife and son from their hut nearby to watch his flesh ravaged and his blood spilled, to see his intestines and stomach exposed, still alive, as he squirmed and shrieked and died....

And now he was drifting.

He knew he had died, because he had stopped breathing. He had felt the pain envelop him and squeeze him and then leave him, though that wasn’t what had killed him: he had been thrown facedown in the canal and he’d drowned. It was almost comical, as he thought about it now: to be cut nearly in half with a sword, his flesh and muscles shredded, his blood and viscera spilling everywhere, yet to actually die by drowning.

If he had been alive, he’d have laughed. That – and if he hadn’t thought of his poor wife and teenaged son, screaming and crying as they watched. At least they were still alive, but how this would scar them for the rest of their lives! Especially his sweet and wonderful son Tsui, an artist who was so sensitive... so loving.

Suddenly Yong Park stopped drifting. He felt weightless, unable to feel even his own self, and then suddenly he was no longer alone. The blackness was still everywhere, but in his mind he saw a creature unlike any he’d ever seen or dreamed of. It had the muscular torso of a man, the head of a wolf, the lower body of a mountain cat, the shell of a beetle, the forelegs of a frog, the hindlegs of a bear, and the tail of a scorpion.

And he heard a voice.

Yong Park.

Yes?” he said.

I am Yu, god of the waterways and tunnels.

I – I know of you, Yu! My grandmother used to tell me stories. But you are a myth!

Behind every myth there is some truth, and behind every truth there is more myth. I am real, Yong Park.

Why are you here?” Yong asked. “Why am I here?

You are in the limbo between life and death,” said the demigod. “But it is not yet time for you to pass over. There is work you must do.

What work?

Yu’s canine eyes grew angry, and his maw pulled back to expose long, white teeth. “The man who took your life defiled the canal. Not just with your death, Yong Park, but in the manner of it. He tore away parts of the souls of your wife and son, left them to wander my waterway forever. They will not know peace until we have been avenged.

Upon hearing those words, Yong Park’s spirit – for he realized now that that was what he was – felt some of his old ninja fire return.

I want you to go back,” Yu said. “I want you to return and bring me the soul of the man who slew you.

How will I do that?” Park asked. “My body was destroyed.

The demigod leaned forward. “You have a son.

I do,” said Park, “but he... he is an artist! He has no training in these matters, no skills!

He is young and strong and has the will to avenge you. With your spirit inside of him, he will be able to move through space in a moment. His weapons will be the hooks and barbs of those who live on the waterways. With our help he will become an artist... of death!

No!” Park said. “Tsui and my wife have suffered enough. If he leaves, she will have no one–

She will not have no one,” the demigod said as he evaporated into the darkness. “She will have you both.

And then Yong Park felt himself drifting again. Slowly at first, and then faster as he was sent from limbo back to the world of the living, to a place he knew well–

Chapter Twenty

He watched from the top of a tree, waiting for the moment to reveal himself to them....

A low fog began crawling along the grasses of the field as Kano, Schneider, Senny and Sonya “Gilly” Blade followed the glow of Kung Lao’s flashlight.

“Don’t get too far ahead!” Kano yelled. “Y’hear me, sky pilot?”

“Say, Chief,” Schneider said, “Don’t you think you ought to show the man some respect? I mean, he is a high priest and all.”

“A priest o’ what?” Kano snickered. “The Order of Light? Whazzat, like religion lite – don’t fill ya up?” He jogged up to Kung Lao and poked him in the side with his knife. “Tell me, King Kung. Exactly what is the Order of Light?”

“Are you asking to mock me, or because you wish to learn?”

“What’s it to you?” Kano said. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll radio back an’ have Moriarty turn Chin’s head cheese into Swiss cheese.”

Kung Lao shook his head. “The strong always persecute the faithful... and always lose, in the end. But I’ll tell you, Kano. The Order of Light is a faith some twenty centuries old.”

“That’s two thousand years!” Schneider shouted.

“Thanks, Einstein,” Kano shouted back.

Kung Lao continued, “We believe that the basic lights are knowledge, love, and art, and that there are many lesser lights, including experience, sacrifice, charity, labor, and denial. We teach that these lights contribute to a good and holy soul, and that such a soul can withstand all evil.”

“So yer sayin’,” said Kano, that if Schnides, here, put a gun to your back and pulled the trigger, bullets’ll turn yer heart to paste but you won’t die?”

“Of course I’ll die,” Kung Lao said. “But death does not change the quality of the life that has ended, nor the legacy I will have left behind.”

“But you’d still be deader than Abe Lincoln.”

“Yes,” Kung Lao agreed. “But the Order of Light is not so much concerned with the individual life. Rather, we are interested in the stream of lives, the great parade of human souls that are part of the vast soul of the god P’an Ku. We believe that if these souls are all made virtuous, perhaps humanity as a whole can approach the greatness that was manifested in this seminal god.”

“Jeez,” said Kano. “I’m sorry I asked.”

“And I am sorry you didn’t hear,” Kung Lao said.

Kano fell back and walked beside Schneider. “Did that guy just dis me?”

“I think you dissed yourself,” Schneider said, “but what do I know?” He tapped the side of his head with an index finger. “Everything in this temple I learned from watching movies. If Charlton Heston or Victor Mature didn’t say it, I don’t know it.”

Kano shook his head and dropped farther back. “I don’t believe this, Gilly,” he said, walking beside the woman and Jim Woo. “I’m startin’ t’think I’m the only sane one here.”

“That is scary,” she said, picking up speed so that she didn’t lose sight of Kung Lao as he entered a glen where the fog was shoulder-high and thicker than before. Dense clouds rolled in front of the gibbous moon.

The crackling of dried twigs and crisp foliage underfoot was amplified by the fog and darkness.

“Hey, Lao!” Kano yelled as the light became a hazy blur in the thickening fog. “Just remember – lose us, and you lose Chin.”

“I have promised to lead you to the mountain, “Kung Lao said, “and I will keep my word... for as long as I’m able.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kano asked. “You’ll be able to lead for as long as I–”

Kano swallowed the rest of his words as sheet lightning exploded above them. The fog rolled away like smoke caught by a brisk wind, the sky was festive with stars – and the Thunder God Rayden stood on the thick limb of a tree, gazing down at the travelers.

You will not take another step!” he roared.

Kano and the others looked up.

“Holy manifestations,” Schneider said, his lower jaw hanging loosely.

Kano reached over to his dumbstruck aide and tore the carbine from around his arm. He raised the barrel toward Rayden and fired: each bullet was met by a flash of lightning from the tip of the Thunder God’s finger, and vanished in an explosive burst.

Throwing the M44 down in disgust, Kano whipped out his knife and threw it with deadly accuracy; Rayden caught it in front of his chest and it vanished in a magnesium-bright flare.

Enough,” Rayden said, his eyes icy-white beneath the brim of his pyramid-shaped straw hat. There was another flash of lightning and then the Thunder God was standing beside Kano. His fists were at his side, tiny bursts of electricity crackling around each of his fingers. “You have come where you are not welcome,” Rayden said. “You will leave your weapons here and go.

There was another flash then, though it was not like the previous ones. This burst was a deep, deep red, and it didn’t so much rip through the sky as push the darkness aside in a fat, jagged shape, and hold it that way for a long moment. Two figures stepped from within, one tall and slender, the other much taller and more powerful.

The Thunder God turned to face them, and a smile played about the big mouth of the larger figure.

“Rayden!” boomed the tremor-deep voice of Goro. “I have long wanted to meet you!”

Beside Goro, Shang Tsung smiled as he looked at the figure holding the flashlight.

“Kung Lao, I presume,” he said. “How much you look like your ancestor. And how fitting – since, in just a very few moments, the two of you will be reunited.”

Chapter Twenty-One

Tsui Park was lying on his straw-filled cot, staring through tears at the thatched ceiling of the hut. From the corner of his eye, he saw the lights of the village through the open window. All around, people were relaxing after dinner. Those with televisions were watching them, others were playing checkers or chess, still others were talking under the stars and smoking pipes or drinking tea. A few close friends and brave souls had come to pay their respects, but not all; the rumors of who had done it, and how, had kept the fearful at bay. Tsui had been forced to fish his father’s body from the water alone, for no one had been brave enough to help.

His mother had finally gone to sleep after crying for a day, and now that he no longer had her to look after Tsui was able to tend to his own needs, look after his own profound sense of loss.

Why had they done this? he asked himself.

He was not unschooled in the ways of the ninja. His father had told him about his own past, and about the displeasure of his masters when he turned his back on the life of the shadow warriors. But that was twenty years before. Why had they come for him now?

Because they couldn’t find me.

Tsui sat up. “Who’s there?”

The blackness in the room seemed to shift; light from the outside was reflected form the washing basin and radio, from a metal lamp and looking glass... save where a black cloud seemed to move. There, it was only darkness.

Don’t be afraid, Tsui,” the voice said. “It is your father.

The young man shook his head. His long, lean jaw went slack, and his clear brown eyes seemed to be swallowed in white.

“It isn’t possible. This is more of their work – a trick.”

It is no trick.

The voice came closer, and as the shadow also grew larger, Tsui realized that the one was coming from the other. He backed against the brick wall of the hut.

I have come to ask your help,” the specter of Yong Park said. “The demigod Yu has sent me to avenge my death... through you.

“No,” Tsui said. “I’m hallucinating from grief.”

A dark limb reached toward him, and though Tsui did not feel what looked like fingers, he felt an icy chill on his forearm.

I am no illusion,” said Yong, coming closer. “I am the eternal soul of Yong Park – immortal yet helpless, for I cannot touch. I cannot hold.” The ethereal voice was right beside him now. “I cannot kill. For that, my son, I need your body.

“You... want my body – how?”

To inhabit it, for a time. So that my spirit, my skills, can become yours, while your mind and heart remain as they are, virtuous and clean.

“Forever?” Tsui asked. “Will you stay with me forever?”

We will become one,Yong Park whispered, “but only until the task is completed. And then I will go to my rest, and you will return to your life here, with your mother.

“Mother,” Tsui said, sliding from the bottom of the bed. “I must wake her and tell her.”

A chilly hand came up in front of Tsui, stopping him. “No, my son!

“Why not? Mother will want to know that you are – what you are. Still alive, in some way.”

Not alive,” Yong said, “nor will she be able to see and hear me. Every soul has its own plane, and Yu has placed me on the plane inhabited by your spirit only. No one else will know that I’m with you.

Tsui shook his head again. “This can’t be happening. Shock has cost me my mind.”

It is happening,” said Yong.

As Tsui looked on, the shadow began to change. While the legs and chest and the head remained black, gold began to rematerialize where the arms and shoulders would be, across the mouth and cheeks, while flesh appeared on the forehead and around the dark eyes. The fingers took shape and turned gold and reached out toward the young man.

Yu has given me the power of one of his creatures,” said the spirit as he entered his son’s body. “In addition to the skills I bequeath you, my immortal benefactor has given me something special with which to avenge myself.

Tsui grew cold and numb as his father’s ghostly form merged with his own, as his bare hands took on the shape of golden gloves, his head was shrouded in a dark cowl and golden mask, and his legs and torso were covered with a black bodysuit.

A sting,” Yong said.

The coldness left Tsui, and he no longer felt afraid. He rose from the bed and looked down at his hands. “Yes,” he said, running his fingers across the backs of the gauntlets. “I feel it in here.” He swung toward the window, quickly crouched, and aimed his fist toward a tree. Simply by wishing it, he sent a short, barbed shaft flying from the back of his wrist. It whistled through the air, hit the tree, passed through it, and hit an ice bucket on the other side.

Tsui stood tall. “I am ready, Father,” he said. “Ready to let those who wronged you feel my wrath... the wrath of Scorpion!”

After writing a note telling his mother not to worry about him, Tsui left by the window and was swallowed by the night.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Ready and wary, Rayden watched Goro as the giant’s four enormous hands opened and shut slowly, menacingly. Several of the fingers scratched at the air.

“Do not move yet, Thunder God!” Goro said, his voice rumbling, pointed ears turned slightly forward, fierce red eyes aglow with anticipation.

“Yes,” Shang Tsung said to the Thunder God, “let’s savor this moment, why don’t we? Our meeting has been a long time coming – though frankly, I wish it could have been postponed a little longer.”

I’m sorry to disappoint you,” Rayden said.

“You misunderstand,” Shang Tsung said. “I’m not disappointed at all. It’s just that not all of us can simply up and flash here and there as you can. Shao Kahn was annoyed to learn what has happened, and most put out to have to teleport us here. As you can imagine, it drains the Lord’s energy whenever he has to send his magic through the dimensional barrier.”

“He is not the Lord,” Kung Lao protested.

“Perhaps not yours, not yet,” Shang Tsung said as he came a few steps closer to the Thunder God. The light from Rayden’s glowing eyes revealed skin that was more wrinkled than ever, eyes that were a bit duller, posture slightly more stooped beneath the weight of his robe. Shang Tsung had about him the look and smell of death. “It cost me a piece of my soul to enable Shao Kahn to send his power over,” the wizard rasped. “But the good news, Rayden, is that when Goro defeats you and we send your godly soul to the Outworld, not only will my soul be entirely restored to me, but Shao Kahn will have enough souls to be able to come through to our realm. Although,” his gaze turned flatly from face to face, “I’m not entirely sure why he wants this plane of existence. Quality control seems to have slipped somewhat in fifteen hundred years.”

Kung Lao came forward. “Shang, this confrontation need not be. Evil is not the answer. Join with us.”

“Join the Order of Light?” Shang snickered. “You’ve been too long in isolation, priest. Besides, I’m keen to reacquire my soul.”

“You can do that through us,” Kung Lao insisted. “Shao Kahn doesn’t own it. He merely holds it. We can help you get it back.”

Shang Tsung bowed slightly at the waist. “Thank you, high priest, but I’d much rather have my soul and help Shao Kahn rule the world. Even you can see, I think, where that would hold some appeal.”

Shao Kahn will destroy you,” Rayden said.

“Sour grapes,” Shang Tsung said through pursed lips. “But speaking of destroying – Goro, you have work to do.”

“Yes!” the Shokanite bellowed, as he bent his head like a charging bull and ran toward Rayden.

The Thunder God vanished in a flash of light and reappeared in a burst on the treetop as Goro ran past.

Kung Lao is correct, Shang Tsung!” Rayden said. “Joining him is the only way to save yourself!

“I wouldn’t worry about saving me, just now,” Shang Tsung said.

As the sorcerer spoke, Goro’s mighty legs stopped him in his tracks. The brute turned toward Rayden, cocked back his lower right arm, and drove his fist into the mighty tree; the night filled with the crackling sound of the impact, along with shards of bark and trunk exploding in all directions. Rayden leapt down, landing on Goro’s shoulders and vaulting off again, somersaulting to the top of another tree. With an angry roar, Goro turned, charged the tree, and ran into a lightning bolt that Rayden discharged toward the ground.

Yeawwww-owww!” Goro yelled as he was bounced back, smoke rising from where his bronze flesh had touched the sizzling bolt. There were burned, black patches on his loincloth and red belt.

“That was not sporting,” Shang Tsung remarked. “Had you used a special move from high ground in Mortal Kombat, you would have been disqualified.”

Rayden somersaulted from the tree, landed between Goro and Shang Tsung, and held up both hands. “I will stand and fight,” he said, “but you must let the mortals go.

“But of course!” Shang Tsung exclaimed. “That’s why I’m here. Had you left them alone, all of this would have been unnecessary.”

No,” Rayden said. “They must return to the village, not go to the holy mountain.

Shang Tsung took a step toward him. “Kung Lao may return to the village. The rest go forward.”

No!” Rayden yelled.

“Too much talk!” Goro snarled.

Leaping at Rayden, the savage Outworlder managed to wrap all four arms around him before the Thunder God was able to act. Rayden pulled his arms forward and drove his elbows back hard, into the giant’s side, but Goro didn’t seem to feel it. He shifted his lower arms to Rayden’s wrists and enclosed the Thunder God’s hands within his massive paws.

“Try firing bolts now!” the brute laughed as he squeezed Rayden’s fists into tiny balls, then executed his rib-crushing chest-thump on the Thunder God.

As the two otherworldly beings fought, Shang Tsung faced Kung Lao. The wizard held his hands at his sides, palms up, and smoke began to curl from them.

“Now, priest – continue on your way. East... toward the mountain.”

“I will not,” Kung Lao said.

Beside them, Rayden hooked his feet behind Goro’s legs, leaned forward, then drove his head back hard while simultaneously pulling his feet toward him. Goro’s head flew back while his legs went forward, dropping him flat on his back. The fall knocked the wind from him, and the unevenness of the terrain caused him to lose his grip on Rayden. The Thunder God was on his feet in an instant and backing away.

“You retreat, coward!” Goro said as he scrambled back to his feet.

Not retreating–” Rayden said

As soon as Goro was standing, Rayden jumped forward, facedown, arms extended before him, legs stretched straight behind him. His fists struck Goro hard in the midsection; the giant bent in half and flew back. Instead of letting him get up, Rayden stood close to his attacker and grabbed him by two of his arms. Grimacing from the weight of the beast, Rayden distributed the load by putting a bended leg in front, another behind, lifting the snarling Goro above his head, and throwing him.

Just using a Torpedo and Throw combination,” the Thunder God said.

Goro hit the ground with a crash, sending up a cloud of earth and foliage. But as he fell, his massive right hands landed on one of the fallen trees; hidden in the swirl of soil of leaves, he lifted the shattered tree and swung it outward, catching Rayden in the side and sending him flying.

“That, too, wasn’t sporting,” Shang Tsung observed, “but you deserved it, Thunder God.”

Goro was on his feet before Rayden. Charging him, the Shokanite ducked the head-blow Rayden tried to throw from his back and pinned him with three hands while he tried to pummel him with the fourth. With lightning speed Rayden ducked and bobbed his head from side to side. Managing to curl his feet under the giant, the Thunder God threw him over his head, causing Kano and Schneider to scatter as the bronze beast landed in their midst.

“I still can’t believe it,” Kano said as he and his cohort ran behind a boulder. “That’s the guy who came into my room. He’s got four damn arms!”

Rayden and Goro both scrambled to their feet and faced each other. Rayden held his right hand edge out, at face level, his left arm fisted and cocked at his side. Goro stood with all four arms moving slowly, like a wrestler poised to attack.

“I imagine that this will take quite some time to complete,” Shang Tsung said to Kung Lao, “time you don’t have.” By now, the columns of smoke rising from his palms were thick and gray. “Will you take Kano to the amulet?”

Kung Lao raised his chin. “I will not, Shang Tsung. What my ancestor hid to keep from evil, I will not unearth for evil.”

The sorcerer smiled as the smoke began to coalesce and assume human form. “Oh yes you will,” Shang Tsung said. “The only question is, will you do so willingly?”

When he saw the smoke begin to take shape, Rayden coiled his mighty legs to charge. But watchful Goro dove at the Thunder God, catching the head-smaller figure about the waist, spilling him to the ground and holding him there in a tangle of powerful, flailing limbs.

“Well done, Goro,” Shang Tsung said as he continued to hold his open palms upright. He extended one toward Kung Lao and the other toward Kano: in each there now stood a tiny figure of smoke, one that resembled each man. “Before the eyes of Shao Kahn,” he said, “there must be no knee unbended, no will but his. Against the might of Shao Kahn,” he continued, bringing his hands nearer, “there can be no resistance.”

No!” Rayden shouted a the figures of smoke neareed. Though Goro’s quartet of arms made it difficult to move, the Thunder God managed to free his left arm, stretch out his splayed hand, and fire a bolt at Shang Tsung.

The lightning struck the wizard’s hands and sent him tripping back against the boulder where Kano and Schneider had taken refuge. As he fell, he shouted words in Fengah, an arcane form of Cantonese.

Even before the flash and explosive rumble had faded, Shang Tsung’s laughter could be heard echoing through the plain. “Great and powerful Rayden,” the wizard practically shrieked with delight, “most heroic deity – a god among gods, one who is truly immortal in body and spirit, though sadly wanting in mind. Cretin! That is precisely what I expected you to do. I needed your lightning... needed it to complete my spell!”

As the darkness returned, and an eerie silence fell over the plain, Rayden’s eyes went from white to gold as they beheld in the glow of Kung Lao’s fallen flashlight what Shang Tsung’s magic had wrought.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Kung Lao,” Rayden said as he looked at the vague shape standing before him.

“No,” said Shang Tsung, with more than a trace of satisfaction, “it is not exactly Kung Lao. What you see would more accurately be called Kano Lao.”

The smoky, humanoid shape looked at its hands. The being had one flame red eye and one normal one; despite its rippling, gray countenance, the face was definitely Kano’s, while the wispy, robed form was clearly more Kung Lao than the criminal.

“What’dya do?” Schneider asked, frozen behind the boulder, mouth agape.

“Why,” said Shang Tsung, “I simply did some basic mathematics. One mind of Kano – if I may use that term to describe what’s in his head – plus one mind of Kung Lao equals one devoted follower of Shang Tsung with the knowledge of how to find the amulet.” The mage looked at Rayden. “Are you pleased with what you’ve helped to create, my impetuous Thunder God?”

Rayden looked on, his eyes pale gold, expression dolorous.

“But wait,” Shang Tsung hissed. “There’s more. They are smoke, you see... held together by my will. If you try and interfere with them, Rayden, I will allow the smoke to dissipate. When it does, Kano’s soul will go straight to the Outworld, dragging Kung Lao’s with it. Do you know what means?” Shang Tsung grinned. “It means that Shao Kahn will have enough souls to cross over.”

You will let him have them anyway.

“Not necessarily,” Shang Tsung said. He motioned for Goro to rise, and the brute rose, releasing Rayden. “To tell you the truth, Thunder God, there’s a great deal I wish to do before Shao Kahn arrives. You see, I have no illusions about my standing with the Lord. When he crosses over, I’ll be just another humble servant in his army of slavish servants.” He shrugged. “Oh, I’ll be better off than the rest of you, who will roast and toast in eternal flame. But I don’t want to by anyone’s lackey... not even Shao Kahn’s. And you stand to benefit as well, Rayden. Do you know how?”

Rayden stood. Some of the glow was beginning to return to his eyes as he regarded the sorcerer.

“I won’t be so overbearing as to demand that you get the amulet for me. I know that coming into contact with it will rob you of your godhood, the touch of mere humans having made it impure and all that. And you can take comfort from the fact that by your forbearance, both of the men will be restored when I’m through with them, little worse for having been joined.” The sorcerer’s bushy white brows arched. “But if you interfere, Rayden, my Kano-Kung creation will die, their souls will go to Shao Kahn, and this world will become one with the Outworld. At least this way, I get to carve out my own little kingdom... and you have time to figure out where to hide the monks and priests of the Order of Light before the Lord arrives and orders their eternal damnation.” Shang Tsung came closer and looked up into the eyes of the imposing Thunder God. “Yes, I’ll allow you to do that. Because one never knows, Rayden. There may come a time when Shao Kahn turns on me and I’ll need allies.”

Rayden continued to stare at the sorcerer. “I appear to have no choice.

“That is correct,” said Shang Tsung.

If I do not leave here, do you give me your promise that no harm will come to the monks or priests?

“No harm will befall them,” said Shang Tsung, “nor will I or any of my agents move against your temples or your books and scrolls.”

The god turned his eyes toward the ghostly gray figure that was once two different men. “Kung Lao – can you hear me?

Shang Tsung said to the shifting figure, “Kano, let him speak.”

Kano’s mouth opened wide, then wider, and Kung Lao’s head appeared inside of it. Like a newborn baby, the priest appeared head-first, shedding Kano’s startled visage like a hood.

“I hear you, Rayden,” said Kung Lao, his voice unheard yet heard, like the sound of reading.

Go with Kano,” said Rayden. “Take him to the amulet.

“I will do it,” Kung Lao said.

As soon as the priest had spoken, Kano’s tortured features once again swallowed up those of the priest. While the god and wizard, Outworlder and humans watched, the wraithlike being began to drift across the dark plain, its legs moving but not touching the ground, wide eyes looking ahead but not settling on anything in particular.

When the figure was swallowed up by the night, Shang Tsung said, “There is one thing, though, Rayden. You did dare to oppose me. Such impertinence cannot go unpunished.”

The Thunder God fired a bright white look at the sorcerer. “Does the word of Shang Tsung mean nothing to him?

“Actually, it doesn’t,” the wizard admitted, “though I want to retain your good will so I’ll stick by the letter of what I promised. That doesn’t mean there will not be retribution outside the letter. Mr. Woo?”

At the start of the battle between Rayden and Goro, Jim Woo and Sonya Blade had dropped to their bellies in a gully. They were still lying there when Shang Tsung called.

“Sir?” Woo said, poking his head over the lip of the ditch.

“My demon servant told me you have a radio.”

“It’s a TAC-SAT telephone, sir, which enables us to communicate via–”

“Don’t trouble me with your gibberish,” Shang Tsung said. “Take it out.”

Jim Woo slid off his backpack and removed the telephone, which was the size of a fat hardback book. He raised a cylinder and pushed a button on the side; a satellite dish unfolded from inside. Woo punched coordinates on a keypad, the dish turned and locked on the satellite, and he scooped up the telephone.

“Ready, sir,” he said.

Shang Tsung’s eyes burned. “You have someone on the other end.”

“Moriarty, sir.”

“He has someone with him.”

Under cover of darkness, Sonya snaked her hand toward the jack that connected the receiver to the dish.

“A shepherd, sir.”

Shang Tsung regarded Sonya. “My dear woman – if you move another inch, I will have Goro step on you.”

Sonya stopped moving. She looked at the implacable Rayden, her own eyes imploring.

The wizard snickered as he followed her gaze. “And Rayden,” the wizard said to the god, “if you are brash enough to try and leave us, Goro will follow you back to the village, whose destruction, I assure you, will be absolute. You must learn, Thunder God, that defiance cannot go entirely unpunished.”

Shang Tsung’s eyes shifted to Woo. “Mr. Woo – raise your accomplice on the other end.”

Woo put the telephone to his mouth. “Moriarty, it’s Jim Woo. Are you there?”

The voice on the other end answered affirmative.

“He’s raised,” said Woo.

Shang Tsung smiled. “Very good. Tell him to turn his gun on the boy and return his modest little soul to T’ien.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

When he was a child, growing up in the Honan Province of China, Liu Kang used to play a game with his year-older brother, Chow. One of them would sneak up on the other and pounce when he least expected it. The only time and place this was forbidden was when they were mending their father Lee’s fishing nets. Everything else was fair game: when one of them was asleep, when one was courting, even when one was using the chamber pot.

To make it more interesting, the brothers kept score: each surprise and take-down was worth two points for the attacker; each surprise followed by a take-down by the defender was worth three points for the defender, none for the attacker. The boys recorded the score in a notebook, and at the end of ten years, when Liu left home to visit the United States, the score was 18,250 for Liu, 18,283 for Chow.

Liu had insisted that the decade’s worth of scores be retotalled, and for all he knew Chow had done it. But shortly after he reached the United States, his parents died in a plague and his brother disappeared – to where, why, and how he never learned, though one day he vowed he would.

As he approached the village of Wuhu, Liu had experienced feelings like those of long ago when he used to sneak up on Chow. It was the middle of the night, so he had expected most of the lanterns in the village to be off. But usually there was some movement, even at this hour: farmers delivering eggs, water carriers filling jars from the well, someone staggering home or sleeping in the street after a night of merriment.

There was none of that here, which was why Liu and his two White Lotus companions had decided to sneak into the village, sticking to the shadows behind and beside the huts and few public buildings, removing their sandals so the stones and dirt of the street didn’t crunch beneath their feet. Dressed entirely in black, they weren’t seen or heard.

Lights were burning in the Temple of the Order of Light, and Liu had decided to go there. Perhaps one of the monks could tell him why it was so quiet – why he had this uneasy feeling inside that something was amiss.

As they approached the bronze door of the great circular building, Liu Kang motioned for his companions to remain hidden behind the trees near the temple while he took a look inside. Creeping up to one of the open windows that looked in on the great library, Liu heard voices.

“Yeah, Jim. Yeah–”

Sitting with his back to the wall, Liu pulled a throwing star from his belt and lifted it above the sill. He angled it so he could see the room reflected in its highly polished surface.

What he saw got his attention.

Two men were sitting on a mat. One of them, a young boy, had one end of a noose around his beck and a submachine gun pointed in his direction. The man to whose neck the other end of the noose was attached was speaking into a telephone.

“Yeah,” he said, “I understand. Yup, I gotcha. Bye.”

The man put the phone back in its flat, boxlike cradle, and the boy strained against the leash. The bigger man gave a hard tug and the youth fell forward. Senmenjo-ni walked to the boy’s side to make sure he stayed down.

“Sorry,” said Moriarty, “but something’ must’ve happened out there. I’ve got orders to frag ya. But I’ll make it quick and painless, I promise.”

As Senmenjo-ni stepped aside and Moriarty raised the gun to the boy’s head, Liu Kang stood, drew back his arm, and prepared to fling the throwing star at the killer’s hand.

Instead, Liu found himself with the wind knocked out of him as he flew sideways. And then there was a terrible blast from inside the temple.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Though Jim Woo’s TAC-SAT phone was hung up, the receiver bounced, riding two spikes of electricity – one from the mouthpiece, the other from the earpiece.

Woo looked at Schneider and then at Shang Tsung, and quickly scooped up the receiver.

“Hello?”

He waited: all he heard was static.

Nada,” he said, checking the connection, listening, then replacing the receiver. “The line is very dead, but not from this end. It’s like it got–”

Woo’s eyes fell on Rayden.

“Got what?” Shang Tsung demanded.

Woo said, “Like it got fried from Tim’s side. By a bolt of electricity of some kind.”

“Or lightning,” Shang Tsung said. A guttural sound rolled from the wizard’s throat as he faced the Thunder God. “Is this your doing, Rayden?”

Unlike you,” the Thunder God said, “I keep my word. But I only promised not to leave here. I said nothing about sending lightning.

Shang Tsung considered what Rayden had said, then nodded. “That’s true, Rayden. But while you may have saved the shepherd at the expense of my man, I promise you’ll pay for that life tenfold, starting with your own. Goro,” he said, “it’s time for our surprise.”

Drawing himself up to his full height, Goro smiled wickedly as Shang Tsung’s hands began to smoke anew, and a second red bolt split the sky.

Chapter Twenty-Six

When the bolt of lightning erupted from somewhere above his head and struck Tim Moriarty and Senmenjo-ni, Chin Chin felt his ears ring like the temple bell, and the noose go slack. When he saw the leather strap burned in the middle, and Moriarty nowhere to be seen, he dove for cover beneath a heavy wooden table near the entrance of the room.

And when the echo of the thunder died in his ears, he heard the sounds of struggle from without.

Crawling through the library, which was thick with dark smoke that used to be Tim Moriarty and Senmenjo-ni, Chin Chin reached the window, put his fingers on the edge, rose to his knees, and looked out – ducking again just in time to avoid the wavy blast of ice rushing at his head.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

For all his years of sneaking around and being snuck up on, Liu Kang hadn’t seen the pole coming. But his reflexes were still sharp, and the instant he felt the blow on his side, he rolled away, got to his feet, and backflipped to buy himself some distance to meet a second attack – only to be caught in the fiery aura of whatever had exploded in the library. He’d managed to protect his face with his hands, but the explosion knocked him down again. And when his foe, who was crouching and was untouched by the blast, fired a projectile of his own, a sheet of ice that flew from his mask into the library window, Liu Kang knew whom he was facing.

The White Lotus warrior reached into his belt for his throwing star, only to find that it must have fallen out; without taking his eyes off the dark shadow that was his enemy, he used peripheral vision to try and find something with which to defend himself. Without a weapon of some kind he knew he was doomed: without a weapon, he would never be able to withstand an assault from Sub-Zero.

The infamous ninja was not someone any mortal warrior wanted to face. While it was presumed by the few who had encountered him and lived – the very, very few – that he himself was mortal, his ninja skills bordered on the supernatural. Coupled with his mysterious ability to radiate waves of cold, and to move with the speed of a blizzard, they made him a force with which to be reckoned. Moreover, when Liu Kang’s friends Guy Lai and Wilson Tong did not run to help him, he suspected that the ninja had already dispatched them. That too was a trademark of Sub-Zero and the Lin Kuei band: divide and conquer. Victory, not honor, was all that mattered to them.

But Liu Kang was too busy to mourn his friends. Whatever had caused that blast in the library had blown out the twisted remains of a submachine gun. Having hooked his foot beneath it and thrown it up into his hands, Liu Kang was able to use the broken weapon to parry a renewed attack from Sub-Zero’s pole.

High, low, low, jab, high, jab.

The slender wooden weapon seemed like a propeller in Sub-Zero’s hands as he whirled it this way and that, trying to strike his opponent. Liu Kang was able to block it with the twisted barrel of the gun, then with the stock, then the barrel again. If only the gun hadn’t been twisted into an otherwise useless mass in that explosion! Even a ninja was not immune to bullets.

Then the stakes got higher as Sub-Zero flipped off the tip of the pole and exposed a seven-inch serrated knife.

Jab, jab, slice, jab, slice.

Liu Kang wasn’t able to see Sub-Zero’s face beneath his mask, couldn’t tell whether he was trying to kill him or just playing prior to a serious attack. Then the ninja managed to slide the bottom of the pole into the trigger guard of the gun, and wrested the broken weapon away. Liu Kang was once again weaponless – though in that same moment, he began to wonder if he were defenseless.

In the time it took Sub-Zero to rip the gun from his hands, Liu Kang noticed a faint golden glow coming from his hands. He remembered having used them to protect his face and realized that the explosion might have done something to them. This wasn’t the time to wonder what, how, and why, but when Sub-Zero swung the pole at him again, from above, Liu Kang didn’t jump out of the way. Instead, he dropped to one knee, reached up, and grabbed the pole: as soon as the wood touched his palms, he thought about the fire and the pole erupted into flames.

If Sub-Zero was surprised, he didn’t show it. Tossing the flaming pole aside, he breathed another icy blast at Liu Kang, who held his palms toward his enemy, once again thought of the strange glow, and sent a sheet of fire racing out to meet the ice. The two waves met between the adversaries, raising a wall of steam between them and giving Liu Kang a chance to dive to his left, through the open window of the library.

Somersaulting as his shoulder struck the door, Liu Kang was on his feet in an instant and facing the window. There, breathing hard amid the dull orange glow of the lanterns, Liu felt he stood a chance against the ninja, who relied on darkness to work his deviltry.

Time was measured by the rapid beating of his heart, and the attack never came. Instead of relaxing his guard, Liu continued to stand with one hand raised in front of his face, the other angled in front of his chest, his left foot resting only on its toes, prepared to deliver a roundhouse kick if necessary.

When he’d leapt through the window, Liu had seen the boy cowering under the table, and asked, “What happened here?”

“I–I’m not sure,” said Chin Chin. “I was about to be shot when white fire exploded over my head and shot through the window.”

“It originated in here?” Liu asked.

“Yes. One moment the room was as you see it, the next moment there was heat and thunder everywhere. And then it was quiet again.”

Liu said, “Whoever sent that fireball saved us both.”

“But who could have done it?” the boy asked. “Kung Lao has forbidden the practice of magic, and we have been taught that the gods no longer interfere with the lives of mortals.”

“Perhaps these are more than mortals we are facing,” Liu said. For though it was true the priests taught that the time of the gods had passed, the Thunder God Rayden was still the patron deity of the Order of Light. And the flame that had been sent here was designed to save the boy without destroying the scrolls and the books. That was the reason it had been discharged through the window: Liu’s having been struck and empowered with the ability to radiate flame was probably just a very lucky consequence of Rayden’s efforts to save this boy.

Unless you believe in fate, Liu Kang told himself, in which case perhaps I was supposed to be there. But it was difficult to believe in fate, and in the benevolent protection of the gods, when he thought of his loyal friends probably lying dead outside. Why save him and not them? If anything, they were younger and more innocent.

But this was not the time to ponder philosophical matters. There was a town to secure, and when that was done he still had his mission. He glanced at his watch and thought of the lighted ‘2’ – of the other lives that were still at stake.

Walking on the tips of his feet, Liu made his way to the window. Standing several yards back, he fired a burst of flame into the night, then quickly looked to the right and then to the left. Sub-Zero was nowhere to be seen – though in the fast-fading glow, Liu saw the bodies of his comrades, their dead eyes open, thin red ribbons of blood around their necks. They’d been garroted with a thin cord that ninjas carried – caught from behind, unable to cry out as the wire or nylon was slipped around their throats and pulled tight.

Sad and angry, Liu knew better than to run into the night, the ninja’s element, seeking revenge. Someday he would face Sub-Zero again and things would turn out differently. In the meantime, somewhere out there was Sonya Blade, and he must get to her side as soon as possible....

Chapter Twenty-Eight

When Shang Tsung’s hands began smoking again and the red flash exploded, Rayden’s white eyes narrowed. He peered unflinching into the evil lightning, watched without fear for himself as it struck the earth between Goro and the wizard, and saw a tall shape begin to coalesce amid the ruby glow... a shape that was dimly human in form but clearly not in nature.

Shang Tsung said, “It occurred to our all-knowing Lord Shao Kahn that perhaps I underestimated the Order of Light.” The magician sighed. “Well, perhaps that’s so. No one likes to admit his weaknesses, but I’m only human after all. Just like Mr. Woo and Mr. Schneider and this would-be pull-plugger of a woman who I am compelled to believe was never my ally at all.” The wizard cast her a knowing sideward look. “Is that not so?”

She rose from the trench and said proudly, “I’m Sonya Blade, agent of the U.S. Special Forces.”

Shang Tsung reacted with surprise. “With so much on its mind, your mighty government has targeted me? I should be honored.”

They’ve targeted you at the request of the British government in Hong Kong,” said the woman. “As for me, I came here to get Kano.”

“He’s wronged you?”

“Three years ago he killed my fiancé, Cliff LoDolce.”

“The martial arts sensei?” asked Shang Tsung. “Kano was responsible for that?”

Sonya nodded once.

“Then Kano must have attacked him from behind,” Shang Tsung said, “or in the dark. LoDolce was said to have been a supreme martial arts master. Kano would never have dared to fight him.”

“It was from behind and in the dark,” Sonya said, rage in her voice. “When Cliff refused to use his skills to fight for the Black Dragon Society, Kano shot him with six slugs from a .45.”

“That’s Kano,” said Shang Tsung, “a living overstatement. And you vowed to find him. How almost unbearably touching.”

While they were speaking, the red bolt had faded and the new arrival stood in the darkness. Rayden could see clearly what the others could not: that the being had a normally proportioned human body and head, though the lower half of the face was covered by a green mask with a series of horizontal slashes on either side. Liquid dripped freely from the openings; where the saliva struck the ground, puffs of smoke arose.

Acid, thought the god. There was only one Outworld creature who was like that.

Kano is a crude and heartless fellow,” Shang Tsung admitted, “but in my defense, he’s not entirely without value. He is extremely greedy, and coupled with his physical prowess and ruthlessness, that makes him effective. Although I must admit,” Shang Tsung said as he stole a glance at the new arrival, “had I all of it to do again, I would never have hired Kano or any mortal to do a god’s work. Try to save a piece of your soul and look what happens.”

Shang Tsung grinned with delight as he looked at Rayden. The Thunder God remained unflappable.

“Now then,” Shang Tsung continued, “though I am leaving you, Rayden, my colleagues Goro and his Outworld associate Reptile will be remaining behind. Reptile is the personal bodyguard of Lord Shao Kahn, so I expect you’ll have your hands full.” Shang Tsung regarded the god for a long moment. “Unless, of course, realizing the hopelessness of your position, you’d care to throw in your lot with us?”

Rayden said nothing. After a moment, Shang Tsung shook his head.

“Too bad,” said the wizard as smoke began to rise from his hands again, “though I’m not sure you would have enjoyed our little band. By the way, Mr. Woo and Mr. Schneider: you are hereby terminated, though I do have one final use for you.”

Before the two of them could protest, they were swallowed in a burst of red and vanished.

“As for you, Ms. Blade,” Shang Tsung extended an arm toward her, palm out, “you may have lost a fiancé and your quarry, but you’ve gained a very special honor.”

Red lightning flashed again, and when it faded, Shang Tsung and Sonya were gone, and Goro and Reptile were moving to the left and right of Rayden, Goro gurgling with delight and Reptile drooling acid on the grasses beneath his bare feet.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Goro reached out a massive arm and pointed a finger at Rayden.

“You cannot die, Thunder God,” said the Outworlder, “but even immortals can be killed. And we’re going to be the ones to kill you.”

Rayden continued to look straight ahead, watching his opponents from the sides of his eyes. The cold glow of those eyes and the stony set of his jaw revealed nothing of what he may have been thinking or feeling.

Goro’s red eyes moved like little machines as he stopped closer from the left. On the right, Reptile’s sharply down-slanted green eyes and sinister green face mask were unflappable. Dressed in a skintight black cowl, green leggings, black slippers, and a black bodysuit with green trim, he moved with a fluid grace that was lacking in his burlier companion.

“You talk too much, Goro,” said Reptile, his sibilant voice sounding hollow behind the mask.

“It keeps my energy level up,” said the brute, moments before he ran at Rayden.

Instead of meeting the charge, Rayden vanished and Goro found himself running directly toward Reptile. But the serpentine Outworlder avoided the collision by leaping out of the way. He grabbed a low-hanging tree branch and swung up into it, moments before a lightning bolt fired by Rayden from a higher branch sliced through it and sent Reptile crashing to earth.

Reptile was on his feet in an instant, hissing loudly, his fingers curled like claws. Goro dug a massive foot into the ground to stop his forward momentum, then turned toward Rayden.

“Fight, coward!” Goro bellowed.

“Dolt!” Reptile said to Goro. “He uses his brain, which is the most effective fighting tool of them all!”

Drawing back his head, Reptile spit acid at the base of the tree. The bark crackled and popped beneath the steady stream of vile green fluid, but Rayden had already somersaulted off the tree and landed behind Reptile before it fell. He air-kicked the Outworlder from behind, and as Reptile stumbled forward, Rayden leapt onto his back, simultaneously knocking him ahead and using him as a springboard. He landed on the serpent-man’s back with a jump-kick, causing Reptile’s arms and legs to splay out. Rayden had already vaulted off his foe and was standing, facing Goro, when the four-armed giant charged.

This time, Goro lunged the last few feet and managed to catch the leaping Rayden about the thighs. Goro wrapped all four arms around the Thunder God, tackling him and landing with his left shoulder in Rayden’s midsection. He quickly put two hands on the wrists of the dazed Thunder God, pinning them so he would be unable to aim his fire.

“I’ll still take muscle over mind every time!” Goro said as he peered down at his captive.

“Hit him!” Reptile yelled as he climbed to his feet, shaken by his run-in. “He can still–”

Even before the words were out, Rayden had vanished in a flash of light and Goro fell forward on the bare earth.

“Damn!” said the Outworlder. “I forgot–”

“Behind you!”

Goro spun as Reptile yelled, but he was too late to avoid the Thunder God’s roundhouse kick. His foot caught Goro in the side of the jaw and literally spun him around so that he landed on his back. Rayden swung his arms around and pointed them at his foe, but before he could fire his lightning Reptile leapt at him – vanishing in the midst of an air-kick.

Rayden had begun to get out of the way, checked himself when Reptile disappeared, then went flying backward as the Outworlder’s foot struck him high in the chest.

“You may be able to teleport,” the fighter said in an eerie, aspirating voice, “but can you make yourself invisible?”

Rayden had the air knocked out of him as a knee came down hard in his belly. He managed to fire a lightning bolt ahead of him, saw the silhouette of Reptile fly backward in the blast, then lost him again as the glow disappeared – replaced by the charging Goro.

The giant was snarling with anger and moving faster than before. His top two hands reached for Rayden’s neck, but the Thunder God dropped down, extended his legs straight before him, placed the bottoms of his feet against Goro’s belly, and used the giant’s own momentum to lift him up and flip him over. But though he had been caught off-guard, Goro managed to stretch an arm behind him. With his monstrously long reach, he latched onto Rayden’s left foot, and as the Thunder God was being pulled over, Reptile air-kicked him in the exposed, vulnerable small of his back.

Rayden glowed dully, trying to teleport, but was unable to muster the strength.

“He’s done for!” Goro said, scampering from all sixes to his feet, raising a leg, and bringing his foot down hard between the Thunder God’s shoulder blades. “We’ve beaten Rayden!”

“Move aside!” Reptile hissed. “I want to dissolve this relationship.”

Goro lumbered several paces to the side as his companion drew back his head. Rayden managed to get his right hand beneath him, raised himself to his left side, and looked at his enemy. He was trying to muster his strength, intending to push away at the last possible second before Reptile spit his acid. His arm was trembling, and he wasn’t sure he could do it–

Suddenly Reptile went flying to the left, propelled by the feet of a figure in black. The figure’s legs were stretched before him, his back facing down; while his feet were still in contact with Reptile, the newcomer did a pirouette so that he was facing down, and as Reptile flew in one direction the figure in black landed on his hands, did a handstand that became a handspring, landed facing Goro, and pummeled him with a deadening series of uppercuts.

The startled giant took several swipes at the figure, who ducked, punched him in the lower belly, and jump-kicked under the chin. The bronze-skinned brute staggered back and fell against a tree, which shook and dropped twigs all around him.

Those precious seconds were all the time Rayden needed to get to his feet.

“My name is Liu Kang,” the figure in black said to the Thunder God as the two stood back-to-back, awaiting a renewed charge.

Reptile was on one knee, his arms cocked at his side; Goro was rubbing his jaw as he stepped away from the tree.

Thank you, Liu Kang,” said Rayden. “Leave now – this fight is not yours.

“I’ve heard of this four-armed goon,” he said, “and if you’re fighting Kano and Shang Tsung, this is my fight.”

Reptile came forward, chuckling incongruously as he brushed leaves and grass from his tights. “I, too, thank you, Liu Kang,” he said. “Now Rayden has someone to worry about – he cannot simply teleport away.”

“I can take care of myself,” Liu Kang said.

Goro renewed his attack with a roar, and the White Lotus warrior met it with a roundhouse kick to the top of his left arm. But Goro blocked the kick, wrapped his upper left hand around the mortal’s shin, and twisted hard.

“You Mother Realmers amuse me,” Goro laughed, though as he spun Liu Kang around, the young man stiffened his other leg, which, cartwheeling toward the giant, caught him in the cheek as it came around.

Goro dropped the smaller mortal, who landed catlike as a lightning bolt flashed over his head. The explosion caught Goro in the middle and doubled him over, after which the renewed Rayden spun to meet Reptile’s charge with a second burst. Reptile air-kicked, rising above the bolt and landing beside Rayden, on the Thunder God’s right. While the two exchanged a series of punches, interspersed with blocks and kicks, Liu Kang ducked and weaved to stay out of reach of the enraged Goro, catching the giant with occasional sweeps and crouch-kicks.

And then both Rayden and Liu Kang froze as icy clouds covered each of them.

Goro and Reptile stood back and gazed into the brightening skies of the east, whence the sheets of ice had come. A figure was walking toward them from the rising sun, a man dressed in blue and black, with a metallic mask over his mouth and a black hood pulled over his eyes.

“You know,” he said, “it’s rather refreshing to make an entrance like that, rather than sneak and skulk as I am wont to do.”

“Who are you?” Reptile asked as he looked from the stranger to Rayden, who was covered in a layer of ice several inches thick.

“I am working for Shang Tsung,” he said, “as I gather you are. I was hired to dispatch the White Lotus blossom on the right. As for the one of the left,” he said as he reached the Outworlders, “consider him a gift from Sub-Zero.”

Chapter Thirty

He moved with speed far greater than human.

Shortly after sunrise, the nimbosity that was Kano and Kung Lao reached the foothills of Mt. Angilas, the long-ago Mt. Ifukube, and drifted swiftly past the ancient caves of the monks of the Order of Light, along the cliff faces themselves to the heights where the gods dwelt in their temples.

The gray, living fog poured up toward the Temple of Rayden, whose columns and facade were as radiant as they had been fifteen centuries before... cared for by the monks, kept fresh by the crisp mountain air, and preserved by the very purity of the soul of the god the temple honored.

As Kano-Kung neared, a dullness seemed to fall over the blue-white alabaster and brilliant gold that symbolized the moon and the sun – the shadow of corruption that the unholy hybrid brought with it.

Guided by Kung’s knowledge, which he was unable to suppress, the Kano side of the creature moved toward the rock where, long ago, Kung Lao the First had entombed the sacred amulet of Rayden.

The humanoid smoke stopped in front of the stone, which bore the scars of the battering Kung Lao had given it – still looking fresh as the day they were made. With something that looked like a smile on his distorted face, Kano moved closer, his thick fingers thinning and becoming tenuous, snaking behind the rocks and through the cracks, feeling their way with phantomlike delicacy–

And then the smile became fixed and wide as he found what he was looking for. Willing the fingers to become more material once again, Kano pulled the stones forward. They fell around and through him, and then there it was before him, glowing white and gold in the sunlight. He slipped his airy fingers through the stiff, ratty leather strap, pulled the amulet to him, then turned and glided down the mountain.

Behind him, the full luster of the temple did not return as its heart was carried away by the adulterated child of wickedness...

Chapter Thirty-One

 

Sub-Zero surveyed his handiwork as he slipped the knife-tipped pole from his back.

“The effects of the cold will wear off shortly,” he said. “When they do, you’ll want to be prepared to dispatch your friend. He’s conscious inside there, can hear everything we say, see everything we do. I imagine that he’ll be rather annoyed with us all.”

Goro agreed. Lumbering behind the ice containing Rayden, he wrapped his arms around the block and lowered it to the ground.

“Think you can hit him this time?” Goro asked.

Reptile approached with a slow, slithering gait. “I was struck from the side by a new assailant, Goro. However, you had no excuse for that first charge when we disappeared.”

“My excuse was that he disappeared!” Goro said. “I knew about his lightning, but I didn’t know Rayden could teleport!”

Sub-Zero’s ears perked. “Rayden? I’ve defeated a god?”

“You had help,” Reptile said, bending over the head of the frozen deity. He let the acid run through his mask, and the ice began to evaporate in billowing, sizzling sounds.

“Did I?” Sub-Zero said, tapping his chin through his mask. “When I arrived, he appeared to have the two of you at a disadvantage. Perhaps we should let him up again and see how you would fare–”

“In a fair fight?” a voice rang out from the direction of the sun.

The three henchbeings looked over, squinting red, green, and human eyes into the light. They saw no one, then leapt aside as a pair of short-stemmed harpoons screamed toward them. The barbs snagged the frozen heroes in the ice between their feet, and as the servants of Shang Tsung watched, the blocks were quickly drawn away from them. An instant later, the air between them wriggled and darkened and a figure materialized in their midst, a man clad in black and gold, his face all but hidden behind a gold mask.

The newcomer faced Sub-Zero. “You defeated a god with the help of two others, fiend – the same number it took to help you beat an unarmed man.”

Sub-Zero moved so that his face was flush and close to that of the newcomer. “Don’t come to my battlefield and lecture me, pup. Don’t you dare.”

“Stop me,” said the youth.

“In time,” Sub-Zero replied.

“I’ll stop you,” Goro grunted. He ground his upper left fist into his bottom right palm, and upper right into the bottom left. “I’ll rip your living heart out. I don’t like braggarts.”

“Calm yourself, Goro,” said Sub-Zero. “What is your name, boy?”

“I am Scorpion,” said the youth.

Sub-Zero snickered. “I’ve eaten Scorpion, and had scorpion soup. I can’t say I cared for either. Now, tarantula stew–”

“You murdered a toll-taker,” Scorpion cut in. “He was a gracious and blameless man, a gentle husband and caring father.”

“Ah,” said Sub-Zero. “You are... the son?”

“Enough talk,” Scorpion said. “It’s time to answer for your crimes.”

“Will you make all of us answer?” Reptile sneered. A crocodilian glint in his eyes, he spit acid at the costumed figure.

The acid passed harmlessly through Scorpion as he faded and rematerialized several paces behind the group. The trio turned as one.

“I’ll fight anyone who tries to help this fiend,” Scorpion vowed.

From behind the three villains, a familiar voice said, “And we will help him, cowards!”

Reptile, Sub-Zero, and Goro spun again.

“Liu Kang!” Goro blared.

“And Rayden,” Reptile croaked as his green eyes settled on the blue-and-white figure standing beside Liu Kang.

Scorpion seemed to stand a little taller. “I said it was time, Sub-Zero. Turn and face me.”

The ninja’s head turned round, and the rest of his body followed a moment later. He casually hooked his thumbs inside his black sash belt, then slipped his index fingers in beside them.

“I’ve turned,” he said. “I’m facing you.”

Scorpion’s arms were stiff at his sides. He bent them at the elbow so that the flats of his forearms were facing at Sub-Zero. He barely blinked as he watched the ninja, waited for him to make a move.

“Will you shoot me?” Sub-Zero asked as he began circling his opponent. “Once in the leg to slow me, once in the side to bring me down, once in the belly so that I bleed to death slowly, painfully.”

Scorpion turned as Sub-Zero did. He wasn’t frightened, but his heart – beating for two, himself and his father – was thumping madly.

“I will fight fairly,” Scorpion told him, “which is more than you’ve ever done.”

“True,” said Sub-Zero. He removed his fingers from his belt, then quickly folded them into fists. “So I ask you, young avenger – why should I start now?”

Sub-Zero dropped to the ground, and as he did so black smoke erupted everywhere, billowing from the ground on all sides.

Scorpion held his breath and leapt feet first into the smoke where he’d last seen Sub-Zero. He felt the earth shake, and though he groped wildly, the killer was nowhere to be found. Within moments Scorpion began to gag from the choking, greasy smoke and willed himself out and away: he passed through the black limbo of Yu and, still coughing, reappeared several hundred yards beyond the smoke, near Liu Kang. The White Lotus fighter had started running toward him when the smoke first appeared.

“Are you okay?” Liu Kang said, putting an arm around Scorpion’s shoulder and looking into his eyes.

Scorpion nodded vigorously as his eyes swept the grimy, dark air above the field. “Did – did you see where he went?”

“He didn’t move until the smokescreen was up,” Liu Kang said. “Typical Lin Kuei trick. That was a ninja smokebomb – oil and tear gas. They’re small, under high pressure, and activated by puncturing them with a nail. They have no honor, those devils. Won’t fight when they can run.”

“My father had honor,” Scorpion said. He was still peering ahead, trying to catch sight of his foe. “That was why he left the Lin Kuei. That was why they killed him.”

“I’m sorry, friend. I know how you feel.” Liu Kang pressed the button on the side of his watch. None of the numbers lit up, which meant that Sonya was beyond the one-hundred-mile range of the signal in her knife handle. “Sub-Zero murdered two of my comrades in the dark, and I fear for the safety of a third.”

“Goro and Reptile may be big and strong, but they’re not stupid,” Liu Kang said. “They ran off with Sub-Zero. Three against two aren’t odds they favor.”

“But how did they get away so fast?”

“Perhaps Sub-Zero didn’t,” said Liu Kang. “A ninja with his experience can dig a ditch in seconds and pull the soil in over him. You could search for hours and never see the breathing tube. As for the other two, did you feel the ground rumble? That had to be Goro stomping off on those brontosaurus legs of his. He probably had Reptile under one of his arms.” Liu Kang watched as the smoke began to dissipate. “Or maybe the rumbling was some of Shang Tsung’s red lightning, sent to collect his lackeys. It’s said the wizard can see all.”

Scorpion took a deep breath and shrugged off Liu Kang’s arm. “I’ve got to go after them.”

No!

The voice rumbled from directly behind him, and Scorpion turned to see Rayden standing there, his eyes a flat gold, his expression grim.

We will get them later. Right now, we have another task.

You have another task,” Scorpion said. “I won’t let Sub-Zero escape–”

He already has escaped,” Rayden said. “I have just been to Shang Tsung’s island.

“He gets around,” Liu Kang said to Scorpion, “sort of like you do.”

Liu Kang was correct,” Rayden continued. “Sub-Zero and the Outworlders fled, and Shang Tsung collected them with his red lightning.” He looked at Liu Kang. “Sonya Blade is with them, and Kano is on the way.

“He’s whole again?”

Yes.

“Did he get the amulet?”

Rayden nodded.

Liu Kang said, “Then you don’t dare go there, Rayden. All they have to do is touch you with it and we’ll be taking out ads for a new Thunder God.”

Scorpion said, “What was the other task you spoke of, Rayden?”

The Thunder God replied, “We must go to my temple on the peaks of Mt. Angilas and find Kung Lao. Only the priest can tap the power of the amulet, and we will need that if we are to defeat Shang Tsung and his killers.

Liu Kang said, “Rayden doesn’t get emotional about the things that upset us humans, Scorp – comes with being a god. But as much as I want to get to the island now, he’s got a point. We’re going to Shang Tsung’s home turf: if we don’t go prepared, we’ll get creamed.”

Scorpion looked from Liu Kang down to his open hands. “All of this power, and what have I been able to do with it? I let my prey escape.”

“What have you been able to do?” Liu Kang asked. “Friend, if you hadn’t pulled us to safety, Rayden and I would both be masquerading as basic protoplasm. Your powers and courage have earned a friend and ally for life,” Liu Kang said, “and if there’s a world beyond this one, you can count on me there as well.”

Scorpion looked at Liu Kang, and his eyes grew moist. “There is such a life,” he said. “A part of me has seen it.” He looked at Rayden. “Show us the way, Thunder God. It’s a sight I want my enemies – our enemies – to see.”

Bruised, dirty, and a bit ragged, the trio set out for the temple, Liu Kang apologizing for holding his companions back, muttering that he’d make his own way if they wanted to teleport ahead, complaining that it was tough enough just holding his own among gods and dead people and monsters from the Outworld....

Chapter Thirty-Two

As the dragon-powered boat approached the fog surrounding Shimura Island, Kano felt a chill. There were times in his life when he’d felt like he was in a fog, but just a few hours before, he’d looked like that.

He lifted his arm and let the amulet dangle before him. All this fuss and bother for a fancy stone in a weird, liquidy-gold setting and a brittle leather strap. He could have lifted one with emeralds and diamonds worth twice as much from any jewelry store.

Of course, it wouldn’t have had magic powers. And this one seemed to, though Kano wasn’t sure. After he’d picked it up, he’d begun to tingle uncomfortably, like the time he’d never forget when he was a kid and stuck a wet goldfish into an electric outlet to try and cook it. The juice went right through the struggling fish into his hand.

As he’d floated down the mountainside, his whole body had tingled painfully, just like his leg did when it woke up after being asleep. Then he’d hurt so bad he couldn’t move at all, and finally, he’d felt a knifing cold pain, as though he were being cut into salami-sized slices. A moment later all the agony had left him, though he felt like someone had parked a Buick on his shoulders. The weight nearly dropped him to his knees, and he’d suddenly realized that he was whole again. He looked to the right, then the left, and saw Kung Lao lying on the ground, the amulet in his hand.

“Tryin’ to split with the goods,” he’d said, snatching it back and kicking Kung Lao in the ribs for good measure. “Nice try, but between the two of us you’re Lao man on the totem.”

And then Kano had headed down the mountain, though he hadn’t gone far when a flash of red smashed into him from he had no idea where, giving him a serious headache and causing every hair on his body to stand up and do the Dance of Sugarplum Fairies. A second later he was on a beach with a dragon-headed ship bobbing a couple hundred yards away. He’d walked over and boarded, and here he was, rollin’ on into a fog.

Kano figured that Shang Tsung had been watching him in a crystal ball or something and had sent the red light after Kung Lao had taken Kano to the amulet. But now, as he looked at the little trinket, he wondered if another triple million was enough for it. Shang Tsung must want it real bad to have gone through all this trouble.

And something else occurred to him. Why would the wizard send a laser beam all that way, then drop him on the beach? Why not bring him right to the palace?

Kano rubbed the stubble on his cheek, surprised at heavy his arm still felt. Maybe – just maybe, he thought – Shang Tsung was running out of juice. And if he was, maybe this bauble was the key to saving his butt. And if it was, it was worth a lot more than three mill.

As Kano looked at the hypnotic, opalescent gem in the center of the amulet, he began to wonder if he should give the thing to Shang Tsung at all.

Maybe I should hold it for him, he thought, make him tell me how to work it. Or maybe I should tell him a few things. Like I want to share what he’s got goin’, fifty-fifty.

With the possibilities beginning to delight his imagination, Kano watched the play of blue-and-red light continue in the center of the amulet even as the boat entered the fog. And then, a wicked smile turning up the corners of his mouth, he slipped the leather strap over his head, felt the warmth of the golden setting against his chest, and decided that fifty-fifty was much too generous. Kano had done all the heavy lifting on this, was the one who had been turned into a fog-man and saddled with some of the losingest accomplices in caper history, and ninety-ten was starting to smell pretty fair to him.

Chapter Thirty-Three

When Rayden, Scorpion, and Liu Kang arrived at the temple, they found Kung Lao half-kneeling, half-leaning against the altar. He had managed to crawl in from the ledge, light a fire in the coal brazier, and pray to Rayden while attempting to collect his strength.

As the trio entered, passing under the scintillating ceiling of frozen lightning, Kung Lao tried to bow toward the Thunder God.

“Lord Rayden,” he said, falling forward onto the white tile floor.

Liu Kang and Scorpion ran forward while Rayden stopped in the center of the temple. The two mortals lifted Kung Lao and carried him to one of the two golden chairs on either side of the temple.

“No,” Kung Lao protested, trying to get back to the floor, “a priest must kneel in the presence of the Lord Rayden.”

It is true.” Rayden strode to Kung Lao’s side, put his strong hands on the priest’s arms, and raised him to his feet. “But I know what is in your heart, Kung Lao. You need not kneel to show me your devotion.

There were tears in Kung Lao’s eyes. “Thank you, Lord, but I’ve failed you. The amulet – I was unable to stop myself. I brought Kano right to it.”

We will deal with Kano and Shang Tsung presently.” The god sat Kung Lao in the chair, then faced Scorpion. “I sense the presence of two souls.

“I am son and I am father,” said Scorpion. “We are under the protection of the demigod Yu.”

Do you know the location of Shimura Island in the East China Sea?

Scorpion nodded.

Rayden turned to Liu Kang. “I require your assistance, warrior of the White Lotus.

“Anything, Rayden,” Liu Kang said eagerly.

Scorpion and I must go to Shang Tsung’s palace at once. You will follow with Kung Lao.

Liu Kang’s face collapsed. “You want us to walk while you teleport there?”

Rayden and Scorpion vanished, the god in a flash of lightning, Scorpion in a blackening wave.

“I guess so,” Liu Kang said as he looked at the space that the two figures had occupied a moment before. “Why couldn’t they take us with them?”

“Because our bodies would not survive the journey through limbo,” Kung Lao said. “It is a place for gods and the immortal soul, not for the likes of us.” He rose, gripping Liu Kang’s arm to steady himself. “But though Shimura Island is far, we can get there today – soon.”

“How? Is there magic you can use?”

Kung Lao said, “There is. It’s a weapon that Shang Tsung gave us without realizing it.” So saying, the priest hobbled toward the altar and once again knelt beside it. “Join me,” he said to Liu Kang.

The warrior walked over and dropped to his knees. He watched as the priest shut his eyes, crossed his hands in front of his chest, began rocking back and forth slowly, and recited passages from the sacred Scrolls of Light.

“‘It is said that those who believe in the divinity of Rayden will exhale the breath of seven colors, all the humors of which humans are capable–’“

“Forgive me, holy one,” Liu Kang said quietly, “but do you really think that’s going to help us now?”

“‘That while sitting still, they can see into all eight points of the world and even to things under the ground. That in a dark room, or on the blackest night, they are their own light.’“

Kung Lao bowed his head lower. Scrunching his mouth with disgust, Liu Kang did likewise.

“I still don’t get this,” he said. “Rayden left without us, to protect you from harm. Why would he help now – and how?”

The skies began to grumble, and Liu Kang’s eyes shifted from side to side.

“It comes,” said Kung Lao.

“What does?”

“The key.”

Liu Kang said impatiently, “The key to what?”

“The transformation,” Kung Lao said as the altar and then the walls began to shake, the floor began to crawl, and finally the frozen lightning of the temple ceiling began to sparkle and pop before exploding, drowning out the words in Fengah spoken by Kung Lao....

Chapter Thirty-Four

Upon arriving at the palace with Shang Tsung, Sonya found herself gripped tightly by countless pairs of hands. Some of the hands were pale, some of them monstrous, but all of them were strong, and they’d lifted her from the ground before she was able to defend herself. Though she made no sound, neither screamed nor swore, hands were clapped on her mouth, piled four thick so that she couldn’t even move her head.

The owners of the hands all wore hoods, and she noticed that the ones who had the ivory-white human hands had black cloaks and seemed to move in slow motion without actually moving slowly, while the hands in white cloaks moved normally though their flesh was amber and cracked, like the floor of the driest basin in the hottest desert. Whichever type they were, the hands squeezed so tightly they hurt, and the reek of the bodies was overpowering – some smelling like damp earth, some like spoiled milk, none of them any good.

She heard Shang Tsung say, “Take her to the altar of Shao Kahn,” and then the crowd of mysterious beings pressed in so close around her that all she could hear after that was the rustle of their cloaks and limbs and the thudding of her own heart.

But Sonya couldn’t get away. As the vile horde carried her through the palace toward a wide doorway in the back, she was still too weak even to struggle, drained and disoriented by her journey through the red aura that separated the Outworld from the Mother Realm, the barrier that had to be breached to move from one world to the other. By simply casting a spell and passing inside of it, one could cover great distances in either realm in a heartbeat – though the trip itself was as bludgeoning as a fast ride up a long waterfall.

After a quick passage through the cool morning air, which provided a short but welcome respite from the stench of the creatures that held her, Sonya saw that she was being carried into a towering pagoda. Once through its golden doors, she was taken through an archway that was shaped in the outline of what looked like a horned, somewhat human head – the likeness of Shao Kahn, she imagined.

From the corner of her eyes, Sony saw a line of cloaked and hooded beings on either side, all of them holding lanterns. Behind them, barely illuminated by the light, were delicately painted murals, all in red, showing forests of flame and frenzied figures, some of them human, some of them bizarre hybrids – men with reptilian heads, women with the heads of fox and deer, children with bat wings.

And then she saw the bodies of her former traveling companions, Michael Schneider and Jim Woo. They were lying faceup and shirtless on stone slabs. There were ragged holes in their chests, above their hearts; hooded figures were standing beside them, with sticks poked into the openings. And as Sonya watched them remove the sticks and turn to an unfinished mural, she was sickened as she realized the truth: the sticks were brushes and the murals weren’t rendered in red paint. They were drawn in blood.

Sonya had no intention of dying for anyone’s art, and as she neared a crowd of figures gathered around an empty stone slab at the front of the shrine, she began to wriggle and kick with a fresh sense of purpose. But the hands held her too tightly, and she could do nothing but watch as they bore her toward a figure in a red robe.

The creature did not wear a hood, and as she neared and saw its face, she couldn’t help but wonder why not. It was ugly, this bald thing, with pointed ears, slanted white eyes beneath devilish eyebrows, small diagonal slits for nostrils, and a mouth that was filled with long, sharp, widely spaced metal spikes for teeth. The mouth comprised the entire lower half of the creature’s face, and followed the jawline in such a way that the thing appeared to have a perpetual grin. But there was no laughter in that nasty mouth or in the evil slope of the eyes.

The otherwise human figure looked up and raised its arms. As the sleeves of its robe slid back along its thickly muscled arms, Sonya noticed that the creature’s amber flesh was like that of her white-robed captors – though this being had long, thin steel blades that seemed to grow from the back of its forearms. The figure crossed the blades, which touched with a delicate ping, and then he looked at Sonya.

“Bring him forth,” he said in a gurgling voice that sounded like it came from a Walkman she’d once dropped in a pool.

“Yes, Priest Baraka,” said another gurgling voice in a white hood.

Bring who forth? Sonya wondered as there was movement among the lantern holders to the right and she prayed that Liu Kang or one of the others hadn’t been captured.

She didn’t know what to think when she saw what two of the white-hooded figures were carrying between them. It was a cage made of delicately carved bone, with jade hinges on the door and a jade handle. There were brushes tucked in the belts of the figures carrying the cage.

“The master has decreed a sacrifice,” said Baraka, “and we who have come from the Outworld to prepare the way for Shao Kahn in the Mother Realm are honored to comply.”

The cage was held near the foot of the slab, and Sonya saw a beautiful white pigeon inside. Sonya had volunteered to take intensive training in modern and ancient cults when she joined the U.S. Special Forces, and she knew that certain groups of seventeenth-century New England witches and modern-day voodoo priests sacrificed pigeons in their ceremonies. She wondered if the ancient cult of Shao Kahn was the source of these other forms of black arts.

“Bring her to me!” Baraka said.

Momentarily distracted by her reverie, Sonya was startled when she was suddenly thrown onto the slab. She landed hard and had the breath knocked out of her, and was unable to resist as the waves of hands once again pinned her, holding down her arms and pushing down on her waist.

Baraka stepped closer. He looked down at Sonya.

“You are fortunate,” he said. “So few people get to see their own hearts before they die, but my blades work quickly.”

My own heart – she thought. What happened to the bird?

Baraka raised his arms so the swords pointed straight up. “Oh, noble Hamachi,” he burbled as the cage was raised higher, “great and devoted messenger to our master. We make this sacrifice that your likeness may be drawn on the walls of this shrine. In your name, noble bird, do we draw blood.”

Slowly, the priest turned his wrists and pointed the blades toward Sonya’s chest. And then, in a flash, they plunged down.

Chapter Thirty-Five

The casting of the transport spells was an enormous drain on Shang Tsung, and now he had no energy left for magic... or very much else.

Upon returning to the palace from the fields by Mt. Angilas, he was a little more bent than before, his skin hanging more loosely on his once-powerful frame. As Sonya was carted away, Shang Tsung had walked with halting steps toward his own personal shrine to the deity. He had learned in his long association with Rayden and Kung Lao not to be optimistic, but he believed that after several miscalculations things were finally going to go his way. The enraged Shao Kahn had allowed Reptile to come to this plane, and the bodyguard and Goro had cornered Rayden. Shang Tsung would finally be able to give Shao Kahn good news.

When he’d reached the room, Shang Tsung shuffled through the orange-tinged darkness toward the glow of the brazier within the enchanted circle.

“Ruthay,” he’d said, “tell me. Has Kano found the amulet?”

“He... has!”

More good news! Shang Tsung had thought.

Closing his eyes and projecting what little remained of his soul into the Aura, Shang Tsung saw Kano and used that last, desiccated fragment of spirit to send a bolt of red to bring him to the palace. But the wizard’s soul had run out, and the bolt had dissipated shortly before Kano arrived. And now Shang Tsung lay on the floor of the shrine and awaited Kano’s arrival, praying that the amulet would enable him to finish the job he had started so very, very long ago.

He didn’t know how much time had passed until he heard heavy footfalls in the corridor, then in the shrine, and finally that welcome voice.

“Takin’ a power nap, Shang?”

Kano,” said the wizard, craning his head around. “You – you made it.”

“Yup,” Kano said. “An’ I got yer necklace. Right here,” he pointed with both index fingers, “around my neck.”

“Good... work,” Shang Tsung said, struggling to reach out his hand. “May I have it, please?”

“Sure thing,” said Kano, kneeling and slipping it off his neck. He held it toward the sorcerer’s hand, then suddenly snatched it back. “Uh... in a minute, I mean. After we do some major renegotiating of my contract.”

“I... don’t understand.”

Kano stood again. “Let me paint a picture. Yer lyin’ there on yer belly without the strength t’blink. If I blew pepper up yer nose, ya’d sneeze and fall apart. Here I am, tight and firm as a new wallet, and holdin’ this amulet that I’d really like to learn how to use. An’ when I do learn, I’m thinkin’ that out of gratitude to the guy who’s gonna teach me – which is you – I’m gonna give you ten... no, make it fifteen percent of everything I get, money, women, countries, other worlds, you name it.”

Shang Tsung shut his eyes. “You... idiot,” he wheezed. “You don’t know... what you’re doing.”

“Didn’t I just say that, Shang-a-lang? That’s why I need you! We’ll be a team, like Nelson.”

“To use any talisman,” the wizard said, “one must have faith. One must... believe.”

“I do. I believe that I’ll make a great world ruler.” He bent and grabbed Shang Tsung under the arms. “Now, let’s sit you up somewhere, start you talkin’ about the amulet, an’–”

The room was suddenly brilliant with red, and a moment later Shang Tsung was once again lying flat on the floor. Nearly two feet above him, Kano’s feet were kicking wildly.

“You dare touch the master?” Goro snarled, squeezing Kano’s arms tightly before throwing him back-first against a stone wall. “You dare?!”

“A most timely and fortuitous arrival,” Shang Tsung said as Reptile helped him up.

“Timely perhaps,” said the lizardlike Outworlder, “but not fortuitous. We failed, Shang Tsung.”

“Failed... how?”

“Rayden was joined by two others – a member of the White Lotus Society and a creature who could teleport through a black aura.”

“Through the world of the dead?” Shang Tsung asked.

“Yes. Though we were aided by the ninja you sent, Sub-Zero, we were unable to prevail.”

“Where is Sub-Zero now?”

“We do not know,” said Goro as he picked the dazed Kano up by the back of his neck, like a cat, removed the amulet, and dropped him to the floor. “He fled and hid.”

Shang Tsung held on to Reptile’s arm. “He may yet attack the others, but we cannot count on it. They will surely be coming here.”

Goro handed Shang Tsung the amulet. “We have the advantage of knowing the battleground... and there are the souls and Salinas.”

“That is true, Goro. And we have this,” he said, holding the talisman before him and gazing into the milky rainbow set in a shifting pillow of gold. “Go and make ready to defend the palace while I consult with the Lord Master. And Goro – see to it that the body of Sonya Blade is disposed of before they arrive. They may divide to search for her, making it easier to defeat them.”

His energies slightly renewed by the arrival of his aides, even in retreat, Shang Tsung was able to stand and walk at a halting, funereal pace toward the mystic circle.

“Did you hear... Ruthay?”

“I... did!” the demon screeched. “Your victory... and my freedom – oh, sweet freedom! – may be at hand!”

“Not may be,” Shang Tsung smiled as he stepped over the circle and slipped the amulet around his neck. “Are at hand. Rayden and his companions may inadvertently help us, my pet. In just a few minutes, I will use the power of the amulet to draw the souls from the living bodies, send them through the Aura to Shao Kahn – and at long last, the barrier between the realms will be wide enough for him to pass through.”

Shang Tsung’s heart filled with hope and concentrated evil as he stood beside the brazier, invoked the name of the Dark Lord, and waited for fifteen centuries of waiting to come to an end.

And then he heard a crash outside.

“Shang Tsung,” said Ruthay, “they come – they come!”

The wizard did not ask Ruthay to elaborate; there was no need.

Reluctantly leaving the circle, he called for Goro and Reptile, ordered the recovering Kano to accompany him if he ever hoped to get off the island, and made his way from the shrine to the palace gate.

Chapter Thirty-Six

During her three years of training to become a Special Forces agent, Sonya Blade had been taught, and had mastered, karate, kung fu, and tae kwon do. She was an expert with martial arts weapons such as nunchucks, sais, and katanas, and had mastered all the traditional Western weapons, including the knife, all forms of firearms, the bow and arrow, and explosives, ranging from sophisticated motion detectors attached to C-4s to makeshift hand grenades made with coffee tins, brads, and gunpowder. She had been taught Japanese, German, Russian, and Spanish in addition to the French and Finnish she already knew, and had studied the basics of medicine so she could treat herself or any of her comrades if they were wounded in battle.

But right here and right now, she was on her own. None of those geniuses back at the Special Forces Academy had ever told her what to do if she were about to be sacrificed to a pigeon.

As soon as Baraka raised his blades, Sonya knew she had just moments to act – and she had to do this precisely or she was going to be shish kebabbed without having succeeded in her mission.

When the knives pointed down, Sonya struggled so that the attention of all her captors would be on holding her torso steady for the cut. As they did so, she tensed her thighs, pointed her feet, and as the knives descended, made her move. Hooking her feet around the cage in a scissor grab, she swung her legs up at the waist. Her move caught everyone by surprise, most of all the two figures holding the cage, as it flew from their hands. Guided along on its side by Sonya’s feet, the cage intercepted the swords a heartbeat before they struck her chest. The pigeon was skewered, spraying blood and feathers into Sonya’s hair, and the cage continued over her head, dragging the priest with it. Bringing her legs back so they were directly above her, Sonya did a split and clubbed the two hooded figures standing beneath them on either side of her. Startled, the other beings who were holding her relaxed their grip just enough so that the Special Forces operative was able to wrench free.

Leaping from the top of the stone slab, Sonya landed on Baraka, scissor-locking him around the chest, then bending her thumbs and driving the knuckles into the soft flesh of his temples. He howled with pain and then passed out, Sonya having squeezed his rib cage so tightly he couldn’t breathe. He fell unconscious just as the enraged horde fell on her. Literally lifting the priest by the back of his robe, she slid her left hand around his waist, gripped his right forearm with her free hand, and used his sword to slash and fight her way through the crowd of hooded attendants.

“Sorry to cut out on you like this,” she sneered, “but I’ve got a hot date.” She ran one of the somber black-hooded figures through. “Get my point, laughing boy?”

Upon reaching the door of the temple, Sonya turned the priest toward them, put her foot against the small of his back, and pushed him inside. Then, plucking feathers from her hair, she ran off to find Kano and give him his long-overdue desserts.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

The circle of fog outside the palace glowed with the reflected light of Rayden’s lightning as the god materialized on the beach. Scorpion’s form darkened the air and took shape beside him, and in backstep, the two strode up the woody hill, along the dirt road, toward the palace.

There is no one in the trees,” Rayden said after making a sweep of the branches. “Either we are not expected, or they have marshaled their forces inside.

The road curved toward the north, and the majestic palace came into view, nestled between the twin pagodas. Behind them, Scorpion could see the ancient Shaolin temple hewn from the rock of the mountain. It was a pity, he thought, the so magnificent an edifice was used in the service of evil.

And then, in a day that had been full of surprises, Scorpion was caught off-guard when he heard a voice inside his head.

Use caution, my son, said the warm, reassuring voice of Yong Park. They do expect you and there is evil in every corner.

Scorpion smiled behind his mask. I will be careful, Father, he assured him.

The iron gates were closed, the gold dragons facing each other from either side. Rayden threw a bolt at the lock in the center; flame seemed to shoot from the mouths of the dragons as one side of the gate rocketed back and the other flew off its hinges, bouncing end-over-end into the courtyard. God and man entered without missing a step.

As they walked in, two wedges of hooded figures ran at them from either side, barring the exit and the way ahead. Rayden stopped, and Scorpion stopped a step later as the figures just stood there.

Let us take what is ours,” said the god, “and you will not be harmed.

There was no answer, save for robes stirred by the wind as it swept through the courtyard. And then, from behind the multitude, a voice rang out.

“While I’m feeling charitable, you may take your lives from here, but that is all. Oh – and in the future, ring the gong. Those gates are costly.”

Several of the robed figures moved aside to reveal the wizard, with the amulet around his neck, standing as tall as he was able. He was flanked by Goro on the right and Reptile on the left; behind him, barely visible in the dark, was Kano.

The amulet you wear was stolen from my temple,” said Rayden. “Return it, and Sonya Blade, and we will go.

“The amulet was recovered from the side of a mountain,” Shang Tsung replied. “You have no claim on it. As for Ms. Blade, I have enabled her to be reunited with her fiancé. You’ve wasted your time coming here, Rayden. Don’t waste my time by staying.”

I will ask you one more time, wizard. Return to us what is ours.

Shang Tsung seemed revitalized by the challenge. His eyes had some of their old fire as he said, “Return it... or what? You are two and we are five hundred.”

Scorpion shouted, “What you do is against the laws of nature! Were you five hundred times five hundred, we would not leave.”

Shang Tsung put his fingertips on the center stone of the amulet and shut his eyes. “It’s an interesting proposition, my friend. Do you think you can back it up?”

Beside him, Goro began to chuckle.

“With this amulet and just one soul, I can open the portal wide enough to bring twenty-five thousand warriors from the Outworld.”

Scorpion felt a flash of weakness until his father spoke. He cannot hurt you, Tsui. Trust in your power... and his weakness. The costumed warrior lifted his wrists so they were facing Shang Tsung. “You talk too much, sorcerer. Let’s see your army.”

Shang Tsung’s pale cheeks flushed, and his fingers, which were still on the amulet, began to tremble. “You, arrogant little godlet, will provide the soul that brings them here!”

The wizard’s hands began to smoke, and his eyes fell expectantly to the amulet. The splendid talisman vibrated and shook against his chest, but it was only due to his quaking touch and not because he had tapped its power. The seconds took an eternity to pass as all eyes were upon him and the promised soul-rending did not take place.

Then the quavering ceased, Shang Tsung’s spindly fingers having fallen still.

The wizard’s hands stopped smoking.

His wizened features lost what little life had returned to them.

And under the uncomprehending eyes of Goro and Reptile, and the blank stares of the devoted denizens of the palace, Shang Tsung, Dark Lord of Shimura Island, Master of the Hooded Hosts, Wizard-Chancellor of Shao Kahn, raised his lusterless eyes from the amulet.

“It does not work,” Shang Tsung said to Rayden.

Scorpion said, “We all saw.”

“Tell me why, Rayden,” Shang Tsung said. “I demand to know why!”

Suddenly what appeared to be a small, dark, and unusually thick cloud separated from the fog around the island and crawled up the hill. It passed over the courtyard, heads turning as it drifted toward the finial spire of the pagoda and settled on the sloping pent roof below. There, the foggy mass separated into two sections, one of which began to take human form and remained on the roof, while the other rushed toward the ground.

The shape on the roof solidified, the lumpy gray contours giving way to smooth flesh and a white robe.

“It didn’t work because you are a fiend who serves an even greater fiend,” shouted Kung Lao, his robe blowing in the wind.

“The priest!” Goro shouted. “How is it possible?”

“Dualities,” Kung Lao said. He pointed to Shang Tsung. “His magic showed me how. Fengah mysticism provided the ingredients, and lightning torn from the ceiling at the Temple of Rayden gave me the means to mix them.”

Landing on the ground and reconforming behind Shang Tsung, Liu Kang said, “We recreated what you did, magician, though not for evil.”

The White Lotus warrior leapt up to jump-punch the startled sorcerer, but Goro stepped between them. He blocked the blow with one of his thick arms and, swinging his giant form into a roundhouse kick, caught Liu Kang in the leg. The mortal dropped to the ground, rolled away, and got to his feet before the giant could stomp on him.

Above them, Kung Lao lowered himself onto the balcony below the roof and swung feet-first through an open window of the pagoda, while Scorpion ran through the break in the ranks of Shang Tsung’s hooded hordes. As Scorpion executed a high leaping split to avoid it, then continued running toward his comrade.

With an oath, Shang Tsung ordered his minions to attack Rayden. Then the wizard turned and, with another oath, pulled Kano with him and ran toward the shrine.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

“Ruthay!” Shang Tsung was screaming as he hobbled through the twisting corridors to the shrine of Shao Kahn.

Hooded monks from the temple milled around aimlessly, and Baraka was nowhere to be seen. But the wizard couldn’t worry about that now. No doubt his loyal priest had been drawn outside by the commotion.

“Ruthay!” the sorcerer cried, after uttering the chant to unbolt the doors. “Something has gone very wrong!”

“I’ll say,” Kano muttered as Shang Tsung gripped his arm for support. “I got a feelin’ I’ll be lucky to get the rest of my dough, let alone a chance to disembowel that fat lug who threw me against the wall.”

The wizard ignored him as he moved through the darkness with desperate haste, crying for Shao Kahn’s regent, hoping that the demon could help where, inexplicably, his own magic had failed.

Shang Tsung entered the chamber. “Ruthay, I need your help,” he said, hurrying toward the circle so his dwindling body heat could animate the flame and the demon. “I’m too weak, my spirit drained. You must add your power to mine so that the amulet can be activated.”

The brazier flared dully, sparkles of burning coal dust filling the air above it. The orange glow grew, and as it did the wizard stopped. Though his eyes were not yet adjusted to the dim light, he sensed at once that something was wrong. There was a strange agitation coming from the area around the brazier, a disquiet that caused the air itself to ripple with a curious mixture of heat and cold.

Shang Tsung’s gaze went from the flame in the iron dish to the powdery circle on the floor, and he saw at once what was wrong.

There was a break in the circle, a slash no wider than a human foot. But that would have been enough to jeopardize the spell, not only weakening Shang Tsung’s contact with the Outworlder but endangering all the other-realm beings on this plane. If any more of it were destroyed–

Shang Tsung’s eyes wandered round the circle and settled on a sight that caused his heart to ache. Ruthay was no longer a mad, amber ring floating above the circle; the rift in the circle had caused the once-portly, parchment-skinned demon-regent to coalesce into a mockery of his natural form.

Lying in the dark at the foot of the brazier was a creature whose skin was white with brown patches, who was stretched and malformed from having spent fifteen centuries as a prisoner of the ring. He now had a narrow, lengthened torso, a muzzle-like elongation where his face had been, and legs and arms that were of nearly equal length and ended in pawlike appendages rather than hands and feet. His once-white eyes were a seep, sad brown, and his red robe was in tatters and hung from him like a tail.

Shang Tsung lurched forward. “Ruthay!”

“Sh-Shang,” barked the demon. “I could do nothing. I... tried to... call you....”

“Who has done this?” the sorcerer gasped, stepping over the circle and bending beside the strange and pitiful sight. “Tell me!”

“Master... Shang,” the demon whimpered as Shang Tsung stroked his sloping forehead, “it... it....”

“It was me,” said a figure standing in the shadows. “Me and my left foot.”

Shang Tsung fired a look toward the corner and strained to see in the darkness. “I know that voice,” he said through his teeth, his voice quivering with anger. “Come out and face me, witch!”

Sonya Blade swaggered from the darkness and smiled. The underlighting accentuated her expression, making it seem almost demonic.

“Did I upset your plan, guys?” she asked.

“Only delayed them,” Shang Tsung said defiantly.

“Maybe,” Sonya said, “but one thing’s for certain.” She held out her right fist, opened it palm up, and blew. “You need a new mascot,” she said as feathers floated to the ground.

“Hamachi!” Shang Tsung screamed. His mouth and eyes wide with horror, he hissed, “Sonya Blade – I will see you pulled apart by wild Kuatanese Troopyns, your remains fed to my other birds.”

“No ya won’t,” Kano snarled. “She ain’t gonna live that long.”

His hands slashing violent uppercuts at the air, Kano knee-kicked several times before rushing at Sonya, a war cry on his twisted lips and death in his eyes.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Kung Lao found the pagoda deserted, all the servants of darkness having been summoned to the courtyard or, he saw as he exited the tower, to what looked like an interrupted ceremony in the temple.

Not that it mattered. He would have fought them all to reach his goal.

But the cloaked and hooded things ignored him as he pushed through, heading to where he sensed he’d find his ancestor’s amulet. The crowd thinned as he picked his way through the twisting hallway, where corners that had seemed from a distance to have angles were smooth curves when he arrived, and floors that seemed to slope down actually sloped up.

This place is like a nightmare made real, Kung Lao thought, the sick geometry reflecting the corruption of its master.

The corridor grew darker and darker, and then Kung Lao saw a faint light through an open door up ahead. He approached slowly, listening to what sounded like a low, desperate panting among the grunts and blows of combat.

Peeking in, Kung Lao first saw the kneeling wizard looking at a small, impish monster whose head was in his lap. Beyond them, the Order of Light priest saw Kano fighting with the woman who had been part of his band of cutthroats. The young woman was attacking with a ferocity that surprised Kung Lao, and apparently Kano as well: the criminal had been backed against a wall and was on the defensive as she battered him with high punch, uppercut, and jumping knee combinations that kept him completely off-balance. Kung Lao couldn’t imagine what would have turned her against her leader, but Kano’s desperation was evident in the absence of the glib talk that was characteristic of the man.

Kung Lao’s gaze turned back to Shang Tsung as he stepped into the doorway.

Shang Tsung glanced over. “Now my day is complete,” he said, his nose crinkling, tone bitter. “I expected you, Kung Lao, to come and profane this room with your sanctity. You stink of it.”

“I only want the amulet, Shang Tsung,” he said.

“Is that all?”

“You’ve been defeated,” said the priest. “I have no desire to destroy you.”

“No desire?” Shang Tsung snickered. “Rubbish. It’s just buried beneath gooey layers of piety. Well, I won’t surrender the amulet, Kung Lao. If you want it, you’ll have to come and take it.” Wicked life still flickered in his eyes. “Let’s see if you’re as charitable as you pretend to be.”

“Don’t go near him!” Sonya Blade yelled. “The door between the worlds is still open and that demon’s still breathing! Shang’s not out of it yet!”

The priest approached slowly. “What is wrong with the creature?”

“Despite Ms. Blade’s optimistic proclamation,” Shang Tsung said, “the demon is dying. That woman, that stupid American agent with her big American feet, breached the enchanted circle and broke the lifeline between Ruthay and the Outworld. I haven’t the strength to restore it.”

“I’m sorry,” Kung Lao said.

“We’re touched,” Shang Tsung replied.

“I don’t like to see any life end,” said the priest, “even a life that has been devoted to evil. There is always a chance for redemption.”

Shang Tsung snickered as he watched Kano try vainly to regain the offensive. But after Sonya Blade parried two of Kano’s desperate high kicks, she moved in with a sweep that threw the criminal back against the wall. She followed it with an air-kick to the jaw that sent teeth and blood flying.

“If it pains you so much,” Shang Tsung said, “why not help him? Use the amulet to reopen the lifeline.”

Kung Lao stopped outside the circle. “All right,” he said.

Don’t!” Sonya cried. She redoubled her efforts to defeat Kano, throwing a scissor-lock around his waist and bringing him down. While she drove the side of her hand repeatedly against his nose, she screamed, “If you reopen the portal, who knows what’ll come out!”

“She’s an alarmist,” Shang Tsung said, his brows dipping. “Don’t taunt me, priest. If you can help, do so quickly. Ruthay will not cling to life much longer.”

No!” Sonya yelled. She left Kano still conscious and raced toward the circle. “You don’t know what you’re doing! Shao Kahn needs just one more soul–”

“I am aware of Shao Kahn’s needs,” said the priest. He held up one hand toward Sonya, and held out another toward the wizard. “Give me the amulet and I’ll send the demon back,” Kung Lao said to Shang Tsung. “You have my word.”

Sonya ran into the circle, breaking more of it and sending a tremor through Ruthay.

Masssssterrrr...” The dying regent shuddered.

Kung Lao glared at Sonya. “Come no further,” he said. “If you’re on the side of good, you have nothing to fear.”

“Bull!” she said. “My fiancé was on the side of good, and now he’s on the inside of a brass box.”

“Only his body,” said Kung Lao, “not his soul.” He looked back at Shang Tsung. “The amulet?”

The wizard bowed his head toward the priest, though his eyes never left him.

“Priest,” said Sonya, drawing out her knives and approaching, “this is a really, truly idiotic thing to–”

A flying kick knocked her into the brazier, which rattled but didn’t fall. Kano followed it with a crouch-kick to her chin.

“I really hate the sounda yer voice,” he said through bloody lips.

When Sonya tried to rise, Kano tucked his arms and head into his chest and leapt at her, pulling in his legs for a savage cannonball blow. The two of them went flying across the room, where they grappled in the dark.

Kung Lao looked back down at the wizard, then reached for the strap. He removed the amulet from Shang Tsung’s neck and put it around his own.

“I can only reach into the white Aura of the Order of Light,” said Kung Lao. “The black Aura of Death and the red Aura of the Outworld are not known to me. What are the words you use?”

“Before I tell you, you must repair the circle,” Shang Tsung said.

Walking to the breaks, Kung Lao bent beside them in turn. “It is done,” he said.

Shang Tsung didn’t even bother to suppress a smile as he said, “The words you must use are:”

To the land beyond, beyond, I wish to go,
From the dismal world of this and now.
To the timeless realm where chaos is order,
Where darkness is light and demons dwell.
Open your arms, Lord of the nether-reaches
To embrace your subject. Hear my prayer.”

 

Accustomed to study and repetition, Kung Lao shut his eyes, bowed his head, folded his hands above the amulet, and made his silent recitation.

When he was finished, flames erupted from the brazier, rising high and crawling outward like the cap of a mushroom.

“The sea of fire, Ruthay!” Shang Tsung cried as the fire spread overhead. “The fool has done it! Kano, finish the woman off! Let hers be the soul that brings forth Shao Kahn!”

But as the wizard dropped Ruthay’s head to the floor and climbed to his feet, the flames changed... and so did his expression.

Chapter Forty

In the courtyard, chaos flourished as a god and Outworld demons, ghosts, the shells of the dead, Salinas – mutant-ape foot soldiers – and mortals battled for control of the day.

While Liu Kang and Scorpion concentrated on Reptile and Goro, Rayden flung lightning at the countless retainers of the palace and temple, creatures who had no soul and had to be blasted to still-throbbing chunks of dead but moving flesh, or Salinas whose capacity for punishment was both awesome and brutal. The white-and-black-garbed creatures kept charging Rayden, despite the loss of limbs and large slabs of sinew, and the Thunder God would regularly teleport to a different spot in the courtyard or on the pagodas to resume his assault.

And then all the monsters of the Outworld, as well as Shang Tsung’s dead servants from this world, stopped fighting. As one, they turned in the direction of the shrine.

“What’s happening?” Liu Kang asked Scorpion as the seemingly unstoppable Goro and Reptile stopped fighting and looked toward the palace.

“I don’t know,” Scorpion said.

“Maybe someone’s coming–” Liu Kang suggested.

“–or going. Do you feel that?”

Liu Kang stood still for a moment. “You mean, like a pulling sensation?”

“Yes,” said Scorpion.

A moment later, the smallest of the Salinas began sliding toward the palace, as though the courtyard had tilted and they were being spilled in that direction. They yowled as they clutched their long desperately at trees and at their larger neighbors, their long toenails clawing frantically at the ground. Something was definitely pulling them... and, a few moments later, their larger companions began scudding toward the palace as well.

Even Reptile and Goro felt the tug.

“Something has happened to the portal,” Goro said as a Salina skidded past him. The poor creature picked up speed and slammed into the wall of the palace, followed by other creatures who landed on top of him or crashed through windows and were swallowed by the darkness inside. Soon the wall itself gave way, and the Outworlders piled upon it sailed inward.

Goro turned so he was facing the palace and then leaned back, pushed his elephantine heels into the tiles of the courtyard. Despite his weight leaning in the opposite direction, and the strength in his heels, he, too, was drawn toward the strange force that affected all but Liu Kang, Scorpion, and Rayden.

As Reptile was pulled off his feet and dragged toward the gaping hole in the palace wall, Liu Kang shielded his eyes from the sun and looked for Rayden.

“Thunder God!” he shouted when he saw the deity standing by the gate, creatures flying away from him. “What is happening?”

The Thunder God’s eyes were changing from white to gold. “Something has turned Shang Tsung’s magic against him,” he said. “The portal is closing, and taking its evil spawn with it.

“What could have caused that?” Liu Kang asked just as one of Goro’s massive hands latched on to his leg, flipped him on his face, and began dragging him faster and faster toward the break in the wall.

Chapter Forty-One

As soon as the flames in the brazier had reached the ceiling, with its decorations of demented constellations seen in the skies over the Outworld, the column poured back in on itself with a deafening rush, snuffing the fire. The embers in the air around the brazier imploded as the air itself poured inward, as though drawn into the mouth of a huge funnel. Soon the entire circle was alive with tumult as the air spun round and round.

Kung Lao stepped from the circle and stood by the doorway. Kano and Sonya Blade stopped fighting and Shang Tsung also left the circle, all four watching as Ruthay wiggled, began inching across the floor on his back, and finally was sucked into the vortex so quickly that he left a brown-and-white trail in the air behind him.

Shang Tsung asked the priest, “What have you done?” The wizard listened to the shrieks from the courtyard and the sickening thud of bodies slamming against the wall. Then he noticed that Kung Lao hadn’t repaired the breaks in the circle, and even as he watched, particles of powder were already rising high and then spinning downward in a glittering whirlpool.

“What have you done?” Shang Tsung screamed.

“No less than I promised,” Kung Lao said. “I sent Ruthay back to the Outworld, where he will revive.”

“What else!” the sorcerer demanded.

“Since I was already opening the doorway, I decided to send the rest of your servants back as well.”

“But you lied!” Shang Tsung growled. “A priest of the Order of Light went back on his word!”

“I did no such thing.”

“You said you didn’t know the words to enter the red aura!”

“And I didn’t,” said Kung Lao. “But I am well versed in Shaolin mysticism, Shang Tsung. I knew that you are a being of deceit and trickery, and that the prayer you gave me would enable you to send a soul to Shao Kahn and open the doorway to our world.”

There were several heavy splats against the outside wall of the shrine. The wall began to bulge inward.

“I simply spoke the prayer backward,” Kung Lao said, “which is the common way to reverse an occult process. By keeping the circle unclosed, I have enable all of your guests to return home.”

“No... not all!” Shang Tsung said desperately as he looked toward the wall, which was beginning to crack now. “Goro! Reptile!”

As he watched, small pieces of the wall fell off, then hunks, and then blocks flew in all directions as a sea of Salinas tumbled in, along with the animated flesh of the dead that was about to be rejoined with its multitude of souls and free them to journey to the black realm of death rather than damnation.

Shang Tsung!

The roar was heard even over the din of the vortex, as Goro’s huge shape came into view, his shoulder plowing through intervening walls, overturning chairs and tables, pulling down columns as he sought to stop his forward flight. Behind him came the struggling Liu Kang, who was still in his grasp, and Reptile.

“Shang Tsung – help us!”

The wizard brightened when he saw the captive member of the White Lotus Society.

“Goro, I’m here!” the wizard cried. “Hold on to Liu Kang! If you take him through, Shao Kahn will have his soul and return with all of you!”

As the giant was drawn into the shrine, Rayden and Scorpion both materialized in the room, facing Goro, their loins girded.

“No!” Shang Tsung cried. “You won’t stop him!”

With the last of his strength, the wizard stepped back into the screaming whirlwind. His long, white hair and rich robe were whipped round him as he stood there.

“Lord Kahn! Take the last of my soul to send these two elsewhere! Let my failure be your triumph! Send the red lightning to–”

Suddenly Goro and Reptile stopped moving.

Shang Tsung’s hair and robe settled around him in peaceful disarray.

The winds stopped and the dust of the circle settled to the floor like fine snow.

And Kung Lao took his fingers off the amulet, which glowed with cool fire.

“Shang Tsung,” said the priest, “there will be no more souls sent to Shao Kahn... not even yours. The door to the Outworld is closed.”

There was a moment of thick silence. It was broken when Kano stood.

“In that case, I’m outta here,” he said, vaulting through what used to be a wall and disappearing into the sunlight.

Chapter Forty-Two

Despite her painful wounds and bloodied jaw, Sonya Blade got to her feet and ran after him.

Rayden and Scorpion faced the dazed Goro and Reptile, while Liu Kang managed to free himself from the loosened grip of the Outworlder and join his comrades.

“It’s over, wizard,” Kung Lao said to Shang Tsung.

Shang Tsung managed to put a little smirk on his long, shriveled face. “For now.”

“No!” said Kung Lao. “You have killed–”

“This is my island,” said the wizard. “My laws. I’ve broken none.”

“There are other laws,” said Liu Kang. “Laws of honor and decency.”

“I have lived for over one thousand and five hundred years, my White Lotus sprig. Don’t dare lecture me about honor and decency. I have seen them take many forms, be interpreted in many ways. Some people say that the decent are merely those who have accepted what is, while the indecent are those who try to change it.” Shang Tsung looked at Rayden. “Others say that decency is worshiping one god, while indecency is the worshiping of another. Who is to say what’s right?”

“The winner,” said Scorpion. “And from where I’m standing, that looks like us.”

“Does it?” asked Shang Tsung. “Have you accomplished what you set out to do? Have you destroyed Sub-Zero? Show me his heart!”

Scorpion said nothing.

“Has Sonya Blade captured Kano? Does Shao Kahn still wield supreme power in the Outworld?” Shang Tsung smiled. “You have won nothing, little man. You’ve merely delayed me. I have time and I have resources, and I will find a way to get what I want.”

Liu Kang sidled up to the Thunder God. “Rayden! Will you permit this villain to go free?”

The deity said, “We have no choice.

Liu Kang said, “But they’re weak! We can beat them – all of them!”

Were we to take their lives or break Shang Tsung’s law,” said Rayden, “we would be no better than they are.

“I can live with that,” said the White Lotus warrior, “as long as they’re out of circulation!”

Rayden said knowingly, “We have not come this far, or fought so hard, to remake the world to our taste, but to stop them from doing the same.

Liu Kang kicked a chunk of rubble on the ground. “But the man is crazy, Rayden! He’ll only try this again!”

“You’re wrong again, lad,” said Shang Tsung. “I will not try this again.” His eyes went from one hero to the next. “I’ve learned a great deal about my enemies, and I will most definitely not try this again. The next time we meet, all of us, it will be in a more traditional way.”

Liu Kang threw a series of high punches and uppercuts at the air in front of Shang Tsung, causing the wizard to step back.

“Mortal Kombat,” said the White Lotus warrior with a smug grin. “I look forward to that, warlock!”

“As do I,” said Shang Tsung.

With great effort, the exhausted wizard held his arms toward the break in the outer wall.

“In keeping with this exhilarating new spirit of détente,” he said, “I offer you the use of my vessel to return to shore. As for me, I’m tired and would very much like to take a long rest. Goro, Reptile – attend me.”

Turning, Shang Tsung left the battered shrine, followed by Goro and Reptile. The still-disoriented Outworlders stumbled through the wreckage, snarling and hissing at the Thunder God and his party as they passed.

When they were gone, Sonya Blade stormed through the shattered wall.

“I’ve lost him,” she huffed, burning off some of her surface rage by jump-kicking loose bricks from the gaping hole. “This island – it’s impossible to make sense of it.”

“This island?” said Liu Kang. “Hell, right now even the good guys don’t make sense to me!”

“I saw Kano go around the pagoda,” Sonya said, “and I chased him there. But when I arrived, he was behind me. And then he was gone, without a trace.”

“This place is strange,” said Kung Lao, “and one is forced to wonder whether it was the soul of the man that warped the island, or whether Shimura itself was evil and infected his soul.”

“I don’t worry about things like that,” said Sonya, still livid but under control. She watched Shang Tsung and his demons round a corner in the oddly curved corridor. “But I have a feeling Liu Kang is right. We’ll all be returning to this island before long.”

Scorpion said, “Not unless Sub-Zero is here. I’ll not rest until I’ve found him.”

“Hey may find you,” Liu Kang said. “He belongs to an evil ninja clan that doesn’t believe in waiting for enemies to come to them. Every one of those assassins is worse than the next.”

Scorpion’s eyes grew moist. “Not every one of them,” he said. “There was, once, a noble member of the Lin Kuei. A man who paid for that nobility with his life.”

But who lives still in his son,” Rayden said, uncharacteristic compassion in the golden eyes.

Sonya gave one last roundhouse kick to a brick dangling from the top of the breach in the wall, then climbed back through.

“Right now,” Kung Lao said, “as much as I hate to say it, I agree with Shang Tsung.”

You agree with the wizard?” Liu Kang said.

“Yes,” said the priest with a smile. “In one day, I have been a priest, a guide, a living fog, and a warrior. It is most definitely time to go home and take a nap.”

Rayden regarded the holy man. “There will be time enough for rest,” he said, “the long sleep to which all mortals eventually go. Before you close your eyes, there is one thing I wish for you to do.

Chapter Forty-Three

The village of Wuhu welcomed the return of their priest with an impromptu celebration, the inhabitants rushing into the streets and, after having raided their compost heaps, tossing fistfuls of animal bones at him.

Sonya and Liu Kang were walking behind him, with Scorpion trailing them both.

The Special Forces agent seemed bemused by the outpouring.

“Back in the States, we throw confetti,” she said, artfully employing a high block to knock away a pheasant breastbone headed toward her sore jawbone. “There’s less chance of getting hurt.”

“It also has no significance beyond the act of the throwing,” said Liu Kang. “This is the traditional Chinese way of saying that the people hope he will stay forever, that his own bones will be interred in the soil of Wuhu. Be glad that that is the custom in this village,” he grinned. “In some places, they throw the skin and viscera.”

“Yummy,” said Sonya.

She watched as the young and old ran and hobbled from the doors of their huts, all of them wearing big smiles, some crying with happiness, all of them joining the throng. And as she saw their joy, she felt that although she hadn’t been able to catch up with Kano, the day – the entire adventure – had not been wasted.

They had stopped Shang Tsung, she told herself, and she’d helped return Kung Lao to the bosom of the people who needed him. She actually felt a little jealous.

“The last time I went home to Austin, Texas,” she said, “a whole two people came over to talk to me when I was filling up the gas tank. One was a boyfriend I’d hoped to avoid, and another was a girlfriend whose George Strait CD I’d borrowed.”

“How would a hero’s welcome have made you feel?” Liu Kang asked.

“Self-conscious,” Sonya admitted. “Though part of me would probably like it.” She high-kicked a tossed drumstick over her head. “I guess it can only happen in places like this, though.”

Liu Kang nodded. “A small village where it’s the wisdom of the local priest that is held in high regard... not a global village where we hang on every word of radio commentators and television talk show hosts.”

As the quartet reached the Temple of the Order of Light, Kung Lao turned and faced his people, Sonya, Liu Kang, and Scorpion lined up behind him. The priest was still barefoot, still wearing just the robe in which he had set out, though now he also wore the amulet of the Thunder God around his neck.

Kung Lao smiled broadly when he saw Chin Chin make his way to the front of the small crowd, then raised his arms and spoke.

“The holy Chu-chi once wrote, ‘I felt obligated to go afar and ascend a famous mountain. Forsaking my family’s village and leaving disinterestedness behind, I undertook to cultivate thickets and to grow calluses on my hands and feet. They consider me mad. The divine process, however, does not flourish in the midst of the familiar.’“

Kung Lao smiled.

“Beloved people of Wuhu, my friends and I are humbled by your welcome. We have seen the unfamiliar, and have cultivated thickets of righteousness in a field of abomination. But with faith, we have triumphed.”

Sonya expected the people to cheer, but there was only reverent silence. She felt neither strange nor uncomfortable, though she tried to imagine an American politician delivering a tagline like that and being greeted with nothing more than the affection and continued attention of the people.

“When we faced the forces of the Outworld,” said Kung Lao, “we were blessed to have at our side the most sacred Thunder God. And before he left us to return to his holy mountain, Rayden charged me to do one thing for him”

Kung Lao paused, his sage eyes passing over the eager and loving faces of the villagers. His gaze settled upon Chin Chin.

“The Thunder God asked me to select an acolyte,” he said, “one whom I will personally train to become a priest in the Order of Light. A person who, in time, I will send forth to found a new temple. I ask that you, Chin Chin, be that new disciple.”

The youth looked as though he’d just seen one of his sheep climb a tree.

“M-master – are you sure you want me?” Chin Chin asked.

“It was Rayden himself asked for you,” said the priest. “He saw the courage with which you faced Kano’s men, and knows you will prove worthy of the task.”

“I would be honored,” Chin Chin said. “But I am an orphan, and without siblings. Who will tend my flock?”

“I will!”

Kung Lao peered into the crowd as Chin Chin and several other villagers turned.

All eyes settled upon a young man standing in their midst. He was slender but muscular, and carried a long pole on his shoulder; from the end of it hung a bulging black cloth. The young man had extremely sharp and angular features, thin black eyebrows, black hair pulled into a pair of ponytails, and black eyes that shifted and gleamed like small pools of oil.

When Kung Lao turned toward him, the young man held up a hand, palm out, to protect his eyes from the reflected sunlight of the amulet.

“I don’t know you, sir,” Kung Lao said.

“No, most reverend priest. My name is Samo Heung. I have only just arrived in Wuhu from Qiqihar, in the Great Khingan Range. I was a shepherd there until my village was destroyed by an avalanche. I have come south to make a new life for myself, away from the sad memories in the north, and I would like to be able to do that here – and also to find peace by worshiping at your temple.”

Kung Lao smiled. “You are most welcome, Samo Heung. We would be honored if you were to take Chin Chin’s flock.”

“For a price,” Chin Chin said. “A reasonable one,” he added under Kung Lao’s reproachful gaze.

“But of course.” Samo Heung bowed. Though his head was bent, his black eyes pierced the crowd, found Scorpion, and caught and held the fighter’s eyes.

Sonya simultaneously noticed the connection between them and felt a strange chill.

“Scorpion, do you know that man?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “But I feel as though I’ve met him somewhere.”

“He must feel it, too,” Liu Kang remarked, “the way he’s looking at you.”

The priest told the villagers to go back to their homes, and as they quietly disbursed, Scorpion hurried among them to talk to the dark-haired stranger.

Though it was just a short walk from the temple to where the man from the north had been standing, he was gone by the time Scorpion arrived. Moreover, no one had seen where he went.

“Pretty strange,” Liu Kang said as he reached Scorpion’s side. “You’d’ve thought he’d want to talk to you.”

Maybe he recognized Scorpion,” Sonya said as she arrived, “and didn’t want to see him.” She regarded her masked companion. “Do you have any enemies?”

“Only one,” he said gravely. “A ninja with hate in his eyes, the power to come and go unseen... and the kind of courage that would never permit a direct confrontation.”

Sonya said, “It sounds like Wuhu just hired a ninja to be their new shepherd.”

“It may very well be,” said Scorpion. “Perhaps I’ll stay awhile to find out more about him.”

After bidding his two friends good-bye, Scorpion headed toward the brick building that served as Wuhu’s inn and post office.

When he had gone inside, Sonya turned to Liu Kang. “And I thought we were serious.”

“We are,” Liu Kang said. “You were pretty serious back at the island, kicking bricks and timber all over. And you didn’t exactly duck those bird bones that came your way.”

“I try to let my anger out,” she said. “If you keep it inside, like Scorpion does, you can make yourself sick.”

“And do you think you’ve gotten rid of your anger?” Liu Kang asked. “Or is it like Reptile’s venom – the more you spit, the more you make?”

Sonya looked pained. “Ask the priest,” she said. “He’s the one who sees into our souls. All I know is, Scorpion probably won’t get a good night’s sleep until Sub-Zero is dead. At least I’ll be well rested when I find that scum Kano.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Liu Kang said, “but Rayden was right: the big sleep comes soon enough. Maybe Scorpion knows what he’s doing.”

“Speaking of doing,” Sonya said, “what will you do now? Return to Hong Kong?”

Liu Kang nodded. “I have to find new recruits to replace the two men I lost here. I also want to check up on some people who fought in the last Mortal Kombat. See if any of them are still around, if they can tell me anything about it. Rayden may think we won this showdown, but the next time I meet Shang Tsung and his group, I don’t want them to be able to walk away. What about you?” he asked. “Will you stay here and look for Kano?”

“No,” Sonya said. “I’ve got to return to the U.S. and brief my boss about what happened here. Jackson Briggs doesn’t like to be kept in the dark, and besides – Kano is like a rotten log. He may duck under the surface for a while, but eventually he’d bob back up. And when he does, I’ll be there.”

“With me right beside you,” Liu Kang said. “What do you say we get ourselves some McPheasants and fries and go and start our long walk to the train station?”

Sonya put an arm around his shoulder. “Your treat?”

“My treat.”

“Let’s go,” she said, as they started toward the inn.

 

Behind them, Chin Chin stood alone outside the temple, watching from a distance as Kung Lao was welcomed by his monks.

After a few moments, he became aware of a tall figure standing beside him.

“Did you hear?” the youth said to the stranger, a beggar who was dressed in a black wool robe, his face hidden in the shadow of a leather-fringed cowl. “I am to become a priest.”

“I heard,” said the stranger in a soothing, mellifluous voice. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir,” Chin Chin’s face was radiant. “Do you think that my training will include–?” He hesitated. “No. What a fool! I dare not even think it.”

But he did think it.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he said a moment later, “if Kung Lao were to teach me how to use his secret amulet? Think of it, sir. I would use its magic to help so many people in need.”

The stranger asked, “Would you?”

“Yes! Yes indeed!”

“Then heed well your first lesson, Chin Chin.”

The boy looked at him, “First lesson? In what, sir?”

“In where strength truly lies.”

The sunlight struck the perfectly formed mouth of the beggar beneath the leather edge of the hood. The flesh of his cheek and chin appeared unnaturally smooth, like glass, almost radiant.

“I’m sorry,” Chin Chin said. “I don’t understand.”

The stranger took a step toward the boy. “The amulet you covet has no power,” he said.

Chin Chin’s enthusiasm seemed to collapse. “What do you mean, sir? Of course it has power!”

“No,” said the stranger, moving a strong finger back and forth. “The power of the amulet is only as great as the power of the user.” The stranger reached over and thumped his finger on Chin Chin’s chest. “The power of the amulet comes from in here.”

“From inside of me?” the youth asked.

“The talisman simply helps the user to believe,” said the stranger.

“Believe in what? In T’ien? In magic?”

“In himself,” the stranger said patiently. “Like the smile of a child or a glorious sunrise, it helps the wearer suppress the evil side we all have. Like a cooling rain, it cleanses and refreshes the spirit, brings to the surface the strength and noble ambitions which are already inside.”

Chin Chin didn’t know whether to be delighted or disappointed by the revelation, or whether to believe it at all. Yet something about the stranger made him believe, and for what may have been a moment or an hour, he stood peering into the compelling eyes of the stranger.

“Would it be rude to ask, sir, how you know so much about Kung Lao’s amulet?” Chin Chin said. “Are you a priest of pilgrim of the Order of Light?”

“No,” said the stranger. “I am neither. I am an explorer, much as you will become.”

“I?” said the youth. “But you’re wrong, sir. I won’t become an explorer. I’ve just been asked to serve in the temple.”

“And so you shall,” the beggar said, holding out his hand. Pinched between his thumb and index finger was a white cloth that fluttered in the breeze. “Can you read this?” he asked.

Chin Chin took the fabric and looked at the black characters painted on one side. “‘He cannot die yet does not live, ‘tis true. He is more than all, and all is P’an Ku.’“ The shepherd regarded the stranger. “I don’t understand. Who is P’an Ku?”

“He is the one for whom I search... for whom you will search. To understand P’an Ku is to understand the nature of all creation. To understand him is to find the source of mortals and immortals, of good and evil, to comprehend the dual nature of the universe.”

Chin Chin looked at the paper again, then went to hand it back to the stranger.

“It’s yours,” the beggar said, holding up a hand. “Keep it always to remind you that the quest never ends.”

His golden eyes flashing beneath his cowl as he turned away, the stranger left Chin Chin more confused than before – but determined to work hard and find answers to the myriad questions that now raced through his mind.

As he watched him go, Chin Chin muttered, “I wonder who that–”

And then lightning flashed and the beggar was gone, and as he ran into the temple Chin Chin knew to whom he had just been speaking....

Chapter Forty-Four

Another one?

“No, Lord. No.”

The darkness grew and then receded as Shao Kahn shifted on his throne.

These mortals bore me with their arrogance and petty requests.

“I don’t blame you at all, sire,” Ruthay said. “It is not another wizard or witch, sire.”

Then what is it?

The portly, parchment-skinned Ruthay kicked the hem of his red robe behind him, and bowing low, his forehead nearly touching his toes, he approached the nearly invisible presence of Shao Kahn.

“Lord Shao,” the little demon said – as always commanding only a fraction of the authority he wanted or needed – “I have had a message from... from your servant in the Mother Realm.”

Ruthay leaned into a sigh that sounded and felt like a blast from the furnaces that flamed the pits of the Outworld palace.

What does the pathetic mortal say?

“Lord Master, Shang Tsung says that you will have the last remaining soul you require very soon, and will be able to cross over.”

I tire of his promises.

“He... he says he is sure of it.”

He was certain the last time.

“Sire, he... admits he was distracted. He sought the amulet of Rayden to s-serve you, Majesty.”

Blind Ruthay,” Shao Kahn said. “He sought the amulet to oppose me, imp!

“No!” Ruthay said. “Shang Tsung... would not have dared to oppose you, Great One! He knows that were he to try, he could not succeed.”

That is why he failed, small one. I cannot be thwarted. Not by him... and not by Rayden.

“Y-yes, Most High,” Ruthay said fawningly. “I will communicate that to his unlofty deceitfulness.”

Do so,” Shao Kahn rumbled. “And tell him one thing more, flamelet.

“Anything, Radiance.”

Tell Shang Tsung that if he fails me again, if he fails to obtain a soul for me in the next Mortal Kombat, I will find a way to enter the contest and take the soul I need – perhaps his, little regent. Or if you tarry another moment, perhaps what is left of yours.

Ruthay backed away from the throne, still bowing. “A most... reasonable and sane course of action, Your Godliness,” he said. “Though I must confess, Mighty Ruler of the Outworld, I would look forward to such a contest.”

Shao Kahn’s ferocious teeth were visible as his mouth pulled into a smile.

Ruthay,” he said, “I look forward to such a Mortal Kombat... too.

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