The dusky hues of twilight fell upon the valley as the sun dipped lower and lower behind the mountainous horizon; a man stumbled along the dirt path, swaying dangerously back and forth as he attempted to propel himself forward. He held his side, his abdomen wrapped in coarse wool strips that did nothing to alleviate the bleeding from his torso.
Trailing behind him were three other travelers, including a man and a woman, who relied on each other to prop themselves up as they attempted to keep up with their friend. Behind them the fourth trailed meekly, his gray, tattered robes matted with dirt and blood. His companions appeared to be just as bad, if not worse, for wear; the monk continued to support his red-headed female companion, who limped along pathetically as every step she took sent a jolt of numbing pain up her broken leg.
Finally, the man leading the pitiful procession managed to reach their destination, a large, circular portal with twin bronze lion statues guarding both sides, leading into a square courtyard from the street, which itself preceded the imposing cast-iron doors of the monastery.
"Siro," the woman called out, wheezing as her head dipped backward from the effort of calling out her friend's name. With barely enough time to react, Kung Lao managed to keep his weakened companion from falling out of his grasp, in turn losing some of the last bit of energy he himself still possessed. Unfortunately, her call went unanswered as the former bodyguard almost tripped his way up the stairs to the door. Upon reaching it, he hung onto one of the enormous brass knockers on the door, and with one final effort lifted it as high as he could. He let the cool metal slip from his grasp, crashing into the door and sending a cacophonous clanging throughout the monastery behind it as he collapsed into a heap at the foot of the entrance.
"Siro!" Kung Lao called out, willing but unable to attend to his friend as he struggled to keep Taja propped up on his shoulder, a battle he seemed about ready to lose. The robed man behind them bounded forward with a burst of unanticipated energy to tend to their fallen comrade on the temple steps. He reached Siro and pulled him back just as the gargantuan doors creaked open. A young monk looked on in bewilderment as he recognized the group of worn and beaten travelers.
"Grandmaster!" the young man called out, running back into the temple to fetch the head of the monastery. Siro's silver-haired companion continued in his efforts to bring the fighter back to his feet, and was still trying to awkwardly yank his friend upright as the younger monk returned with the grandmaster and assistant at his side.
"Thank heavens you have all returned!" the first monk cried out, oblivious to the fact that the group was obviously not as enthused regarding their arrival. "How did you manage to escape Outworld?"
"Sangmu!" the grandmaster's assistant admonished him as he walked past Siro and his helper to approach the pair behind them. "Now is not the time for questions! Can't you see they need medical attention? Help Grandmaster Fa take them in," he directed his junior as he provided support for Kung Lao and Taja.
Slightly ashamed, Sangmu nonetheless sprung into action and went to assist Siro. As soon as the bodyguard stood somewhat back on his feet, the youngest monk of the trio took him off the silver-haired man's hands, directing him slowly back into the warm hall of the temple. The headmaster's assistant likewise guided the champion and his companion to follow suit, leaving the grandmaster with the robed figure. The elder turned to look at the deity, studying the face that was several lifetimes older than his own, but yet seemed at least three decades younger. However, it did seem to have aged a bit from the last time he had encountered the thunder god, and the sallow bags under the latter's eyes, one of which was swollen and dark blue, and the cuts and bruises on his nose and lips hinted at struggles at the hands of Shao Kahn that the eldest monk didn't see fit to address at that point.
"Come, Lord Raiden," Grandmaster Fa urged the protector. "I can see you have been through much in your efforts to bring the champion and his friends back home. You deserve some rest."
The ancient monk began to make his way back into the temple before he noticed that Raiden was not following him. He turned back to look at his old friend, startled to see the dark, sullen countenance now etched into the god of thunder's expression.
"Lord Raiden," he began again. "You may come in."
Still standing right outside the doors, Raiden simply shook his head in response to the monk's invitation and kept his gaze directed at the ground. Although he did not let on, Grandmaster Fa could almost read the memories of torment he heavily suspected Raiden had endured in his time in Outworld. Whatever plan Raiden had managed to concoct and execute in order to save his, Kung Lao's, and their friends' lives had obviously taken its toll.
"Lord Raiden," Fa attempted one more time to grab the protector's attention. Not thinking, he reached out to the god, not anticipating Raiden's jerk one step back from his follower. Surprised and ashamed at provoking the deity, Fa drew his hand back and bowed in apology.
"Forgive me," he asked, standing back up. Raiden was silent, and the grandmaster believed he knew why.
"This is not your fault, my lord," he offered kindly. "You did everything within your power to save your friends. And you succeeded."
Raiden gave no response, instead letting his gaze emptily drift off to a spot somewhere to the elder's side. At this point, Fa couldn't be sure if the god was still listening to his disciple, his mind probably grappling with severe trauma. Regardless, he offered the only advice he could.
"I cannot imagine the adversity you have been forced to overcome since you ventured into Outworld," Fa continued softly. "I understand if you need some time to recuperate."
He didn't seem to be making any kind of impression on his catatonic friend, who simply let his head hang even lower, his tangled silver hair obscuring his face in place of his missing sedge hat. Knowing he was losing a steadily slipping Raiden, the head monk spoke quickly.
"Maybe we cannot serve you here at the present moment," Fa continued, careful not to raise his voice. "But I urge you to find some place or someone to tend to your wounds."
Fa thought he could see his friend's dulled gray eyes flicker up to look back at him, but he couldn't be sure.
"There is a woman living in the Ü-Tsang region, a bikkhuni by the name of Hui Chao," Fa continued while he was hopeful he had Raiden's wavering attention. "She is an old friend of mine. I know she will be able to help you. When you find her, accept her services."
A moment passed before Raiden turned his head ever so slightly in his friend's direction, although their eyes still did not meet. Grandmaster Fa watched the deity dip his head almost unnoticeably in agreement before the latter took a few cautious steps backward down the front steps of the monastery. Once at the base of the stairs, Raiden finally managed to look the elderly monk in the eye.
Even the clap of thunder that accompanied the bolt carrying the deity away sounded paltry and defeated.
A young woman held the reed of sage incense over the flame at the edge of the fire pit until the end was lit, placing the smoldering stick into the small vase at the foot of the gilded statue of a seated bodhisattva. She bowed her head and clasped her hands in prayer, murmuring soundlessly the citation custom for the offering. The orange glow of the pit dimly illuminated the shrine where she kneeled, but while the flame only offered glimpses of the saffron shades of her robe, the idol seemed to catch all of the light that was lost on the young woman, with the flickering flare from the coals bringing out a dormant spirit hiding within the statue, sending light bouncing back into all corners of the wooden and jade enclosure surrounding the shrine.
She heard the wind begin to pick up outside, threatening another blizzard. Upon paying her respects, the woman stood up, gathering her robes away from the flames and walking around to the side to pick up the bronze cauldron filled with water from the pit. She readjusted her robes with her free hand, bracing herself for the biting cold that awaited her outside the shrine.
She looked out to the road just outside the small structure adjacent to her monastery, expecting the light blue hues of early winter snow blanketing the untamed wilderness, but startled to make out the figure of a tall man standing motionlessly in the sea of white. How long he had been there, she couldn't be sure, but the small heaps of snow collecting on his shoulders were some indication of his patience. She was silent for a moment, instead clutching her robes more tightly as she tried to think of what to say to the worn-looking stranger.
"Can I help you?" she called out, wary but concerned for the man's haggard appearance, noticing that he didn't seem to realize or care about his surroundings.
"Is Hui Chao here?" he responded simply, although she wasn't sure she had seen his lips move. She was too focused on the fact that he seemed about ready to collapse. She feared giving him an answer, afraid that it was the only thing he seemed capable of waiting for before he keeled over.
"No," she replied, quickly adding, "But I will retrieve her for you. Come, come with me!"
Pulling some of her robes over her shaved head, the young priestess in training hurried over to the stranger, linking her arm in his and directing him next door to the main building of the monastery complex hurriedly before the cold had a chance to penetrate the little bit of her exposed skin. Although she was carrying quite a heavy pot of water, she struggled more with getting the man, a head and a half clearly taller than herself, to lumber along more quickly, although she took care not to force him any faster than he seemed capable of going. Finally they reached the foyer of the main temple, where the young woman helped him steadily onto his knees once it was clear he could go no farther. She placed the cauldron in front of him, allowing the steam from the water to rise up to his face where it could begin to thaw out the ice crystals that had settled on his eyebrows and nose.
When she saw the first bead of water drip from the tip of his nose, she hurried off to find her mentor. Raiden sat alone in the entrance hall of the temple for several minutes, closing his eyes and dipping his head forward over the basin, basking in the warmth of the steam. The heat slowly and steadily wore through his skin and clothing, drawing melted ice from the tips of the tendrils hanging from his face and darkening his hair and robes as the water began to set in and dampen his appearance.
He didn't know exactly how long it took the woman to return with another by her side, but entranced by the warmth of the cauldron, he initially didn't open his eyes to take a look at either one of them, only hearing the pattering of shuffling feet as one woman approached him quickly.
"Sir? Sir!" the young woman cried out, kneeling down next to their guest and gently shaking his shoulders until he awoke from his stupor. He came out of it gradually, struggling to lift his swollen eyelids, now even heavier with condensed steam. He looked at his attendee out of the corner of his eye, revealing to her irises tinted an empty, stormy grayish-blue.
"See, Master Hui Chao?" she called out to her teacher, still holding her comparatively tiny arms around his broad shoulders in an attempt to help him retain his warmth. "What should we do?"
"Lien Hua!" the older woman reprimanded her, causing the apprentice to sit up straight, her eyes widened. "Calm down. Step back."
Following her elder's orders without question, Lien Hua retracted her arms and stood up, taking a full step back from the stranger as her mentor had commanded. Hui Chao slowly approached the man on the floor, coming to a stop in front of him. Raiden could only see the hem of the older priestess' robe and her rudimentary sandals. She knelt down in front of him, bringing the rest of her into his view; he glanced up to find her scrutinizing him closely.
"Who sent you?" she asked briskly, continuing to observe their guest.
"Grandmaster Fa," Raiden replied meekly, his voice a husky shell of what it once was. He looked back at her, thinking that despite the severe lines set in the drooping skin around her eyes and mouth, she still didn't seem as old as he would have expected someone close to the Grandmaster to be. She, too, was bald like her student. She raised her almost nonexistent brows at his answer.
"Ah," she croaked, not really seeming too surprised by his answer. "It has been a while since he has sent anybody my way. Tell me, how is my old friend doing?"
Lien Hua furrowed her brow at her master, wondering why she was bothering the stranger with small talk when raspy wheezing could be heard coming from his mouth as the steam from the pot began to invade his airway.
"Master?" Lien Hua prodded the elder lightly, hoping to remind her of the situation's urgency. Hui Chao stared at her disciple with her cataract-riddled eyes, her mouth dangling slightly open, revealing more than a few missing teeth. After a moment, she shut her mouth and her eyes closed, dipping her head and returning her attention to the stranger in front of her.
"Come," she directed him bluntly, gesturing for Lien Hua to accompany her. "Let's get you fixed up, now."
She and her student lifted the man off the ground onto his feet, but not before Lien Hua grabbed the handle of the pot. Slowly but surely, they assisted him to and up the staircase.