Jiaga-hagara: Classical dance theatre similar to Noh with the distinction that all characters are played by women. Actors are generally virgins who perform for well-off potential patrons/suitors. Performances replicate traditional tales and folklore through dance and the use of props and costume. The theatre had gained notoriety during Shao Kahn's rule as female assassins would often pose as actresses.

Mingho: Traditional mask, usually made of porcelain or ceramic, stylised in the image of the Lu, i.e. mythical female demons said to disguise themselves as beautiful women to lure people and then devour them.

Oma: A small red dot painted on the forehead meant as a charm of sorts to ward off demonic spirits. Worn solely by women.

Chapter Twenty-One: The Gates of Hell

Another dreamless slumber, just as it always had been. Kitana may have been sleeping for days yet it did not feel like her body was rested, but at least this time she did not suddenly jolt awake, delirious as her mind gradually adjusted to reality. It was difficult to keep her eyes open given her tiredness and the irritating heat but she eventually managed, realising in mild awe that her fleshy raft had not melted away along with her in the lava. Something prodded her temple – likely what had roused her from sleep – and she lazily swatted it away, knuckles scraping across what seemed to be a flimsy pole. It had a texture quite similar to wood though she retained her doubts. Wood could not possibly exist in a world set on fire and she would have considered it an anomaly had she not recalled the flowers she lay in when she first opened her eyes to the Netherrealm.

She breathed through the mouth, nasal passages singed to the extent that it had become painful for air to pass through them. Her tongue, though little protected by quickly drying saliva, could manage against the searing heat. She closed her eyes, a desire to bask in such rare solitude overwhelming her. In that moment she had peace. It was not going to last and likely may have been just an illusion but its elusiveness made it all the more precious to her. Body critically fatigued by the overwhelming use of sorcery and mind partially lost to insanity, this for her had become her sanctuary.

The pole tapped the side of her head again and she lifted her lashes, casting a sideways glance at the owner of the item. A dark figure cloaked in black loomed above her, fleshless hands gripping the other end of the staff. The red glow of the river just barely chased away the shadows cradled by the figure's hood, revealing a set of snow-white teeth lined atop a bleached jaw. She was not afraid. This was the most harmless looking thing she had come across and she could not taste any contempt from him.

It made a gesture with his free hand as a sort of invitation and she lowered her gaze to where he wanted to direct her attention. She realised he was standing in a broken old boat made of wood so decayed that it had gone black. Though he did not emit an imposing aura, she knew that the creature possessed fearful power, so much so that his little craft did not burst into flames and dissolve into ashes the way wood normally does when burnt. It was power beyond reach, power beyond understanding, power that could only be surpassed by that of gods. This was an angel.

The only angels she was knowledgeable of were the ones portrayed in Jiaga-hagara. They were imaged as delicate beings, with petite wings sprouting from their waists and silken robes fluttering behind them in their gait. Those angels were the ones people liked to believe in and though their expectations may not have been far from the truth, they preferred to forget that angels like the one that stood before her existed as well.

The pole he held had long since returned to his side and he tapped the end gently at the rotting rim of the boat before swaying his hand over the unoccupied space again. It was an offer and it served to reinforce the intuition that this was who she had sought all along her journey: the Lost Ferryman. In Jiaga-hagara, the angels' attire were always emblazoned with gold, and although the metal itself was much too precious to be used to decorate clothing, any other material that shone that same bright yellow gleam would suffice. Angels adored gold; that much she had learned.

Kitana reached for the lump held against her stomach by the makeshift sash, content that she had not lost it in the midst of Sonsen's rampage and held it out for the Ferryman. She went stiff momentarily when he rejected the piece with a wave of his skeletal palm and moved it across the emptiness of the boat a third time. She slightly tightened her fingers around the gold in confusion but did not shy away from the offer. Steadying herself on wobbly legs, she gingerly stepped into the vessel all the while fighting the urge to shudder that so often overwhelmed her every time she was forced to travel by boat.

He did not herald any hatred, soul devoid of the sickness that plagued every essence in the Netherrealm though his appearance betrayed the truth. Was this how angels preferred to exist? It was perhaps not within mortal understanding to know why angels chose the forms they did, but for certain they did not mean to harm anyone nor anything out of bitterness, not even sinners. The boat swayed as the Ferryman pushed off using his staff, the two inching along the fiery riverbed at snail's pace – it did not matter so long as her journey was finally coming to a close.

She rested her head against the brim of the vessel and closed her eyes, drifting off to sleep once again.

The river went cold.

Magma gradually transformed into black water the farther it reached out into the distance. She observed the tendrils of burning, molten red earth intertwining with the cool, dark, yet shimmering waters. The absence of steam and the unknown illumination within the rocky walls of the crevice made her truly appreciate the cosmic nature of River Irmii. She cupped the liquid in her hands, wanting dearly to guzzle it down after all these years tasting blood and sweat, but eventually gave in to the doubts that lurked in the back of her mind. She poured the water back into the river and caught glimpse of a pair eyes, not quite her own, staring back at her.

A white hand inched out of the black depths, latching on to the boat to gently heave the body it was attached to into the air. The skin was translucent enough that Kitana could see right through. A plain-looking woman emerged, face devoid of expression but her grey eyes conveying curiosity. The Edenian leaned away from the spirit well out of her reach and away from the edge, a sinking feeling swelling within her chest when she saw more limbs protrude from the surface of the water and gently claw at the boat. In almost an instant the entire river was swarmed by ghostly apparitions, each floating toward the craft and trying to reach inside.

The Angel cracked his staff against the hull and the spirits quickly scuttled away like mice, though their gazes never left the boat. A few would brave near the vessel again and run their nails against the rotting wood but would immediately be shooed away by the boatman. The woman remained in her seat, unable to look away from the blank faces of the white swarm. Their eyes, she noted, did not follow the craft itself but the passenger inside it. She observed their faces quite intently, figuring that the reason why they were so fascinated by her was because they had known her when alive but she very easily realised that she did not remember having seen any of them.

The boat shuddered as it crawled upon a gentle slope of earth that spanned barely a few meters along the craggy wall. She scrunched up her nose in mild insult, confused why the Ferryman had chosen to stop at this small spit of earth. Did he plan on abandoning her? Or did he want to rest? It was not as if he would be able to answer her questions – if he could speak, he would have asked her if she wanted to come with him rather than point at the empty seat. She spared the ghosts a glance, who bobbed upon the surface of the black water, curious as ever but no longer interested in approaching the boat or the woman.

The Ferryman lifted a bony finger, pointing at the wall that sheltered the meagre patch of land and Kitana understood that this truly was her stop. She squinted at the shadows that shrouded the wall and noticed a great, empty darkness growing within the rock: a passage. She was not being abandoned, merely she had been taken to her destination. Pushing herself off her creaking seat, she hopped over the edge and gingerly approached the gaping notch in the rock. The sound of wood cracking against wood fell upon her ears and she turned to look over her shoulder. The Boatman had his hand splayed out before her – he was demanding payment.

Handing him the lump of gold, she silently watched as he pushed his boat off the gentle gradient and ferried himself off into the distance, never taking her eyes off him until he had completely disappeared. In a way she was disappointed that he was no longer there – at least in his presence she felt strangely at ease, as if she did not have anything to worry about so long as she was still in his care. Perhaps an angel's aura was like that to mortals, that even in death they bring content to the heart as the soul is whisked away into the afterlife.

She turned back around but halted her step when she noted a dark pool suddenly bubbling up from the deep underground and oozing across the surface. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as a familiar panic overcame her, fans snapping into her hands despite knowing she could bring no physical harm to the ethereal shadow that lurked within the black substance. The disembodied hand that had first attacked her since her existence within Hell emerged from the murky puddle, pulling out with it what appeared to be a man. She instinctively took a step back, momentarily glancing at the salvation that lay right before her and cursing her fate.

Returning her gaze to the shadowy figure, she felt her innards twist when familiarity washed over her. Though the figure seemed as if he was drenched in darkness, she saw that he wore a uniform and a mask that concealed his maw. She had seen the very same garb years ago when she was alive.

"Sub-Zero?" she called out to the partially revealed man, unsure whether or not this was the same person she thought him to be. It had to be the Earthrealm warrior, she wanted to believe it and yet she felt as if she was mistaken. Was it some sort of shape-shifter? A trick of the eyes? Or perhaps her memories were manifesting themselves in some twisted version of themselves right before her? The man did not respond besides pulling out another limb from the black puddle and reaching out for her.

His palm was open with something small and white resting in it, the item fiercely contrasting against his black skin. Her eyes trained on the thing and felt unsettling discomfort deepen upon recognising what it was.

A flower.

The flower.

The same as the ones she woke up in during the very beginning of her long and arduous journey. What was this supposed to mean? She glimpsed at the opening that so promised her of guiding her to freedom. Was it a ruse? A lie? Had she spent years circling the entire realm only to come back to where she had started? Would she find the same bed of flowers waiting for her, beckoning her to lay amongst them as her final resting place?

A cold, wordless whisper snapped her out of her reverie and she diverted her attention to the source of the sound. The entity held out the solitary bloom for her, its petals firm and splendidly fanning out in a near perfect circle. She paused for what seemed like an eternity, both individuals either trapped in time or forever patient as the moments flew by, never to return. She held her breath as she stared on at the offering, thoughts escaping her mind and leaving it completely empty, barren. Fingers gently stroked his palm as she claimed the blossom from him, shocked at her own actions.

She must have mistaken the gratitude that flashed in his blank eyes as he melted away into the same substance he had risen from, discoloured vapour escaping into the air as the muck disintegrated into nothing. The woman gulped despite a dry throat and staggered in her walk. She did not know what had compelled her to accept the token gift and take the shaken steps toward the shadowy passage even as doubts continued to lurk in her mind.

The tunnel was long though it was linear, allowing the Edenian unprecedented comfort for the duration of her walk. The darkness did not haunt her this time for she had lit a green flame in her hand which she used to illuminate her path. The ground was even and the walls smooth – the passage had been carved purposely. At times she would stay still and convince herself to turn back around but the eventual struggle ended up with her continuing forward. Doubts pressed down upon her, threatening to crush her under their weight and yet she could not stop her gait. Did salvation really lie beyond?

The narrow pathway had led into a room of sorts, large enough to house a hundred men if they stood shoulder to shoulder. In the firelight she saw that the chamber was completely barren save for a small wrought-iron door opposite from her and the occasional cobwebs that draped the corners. It was cool though not enough to cause the woman to shudder, and yet a chill ran up her spine in wake of the sinister presence lurking in the room. She froze before she could take another step toward the door and cautiously lifted her chin, gazing up at whatever it was that had her at her wits end.

She could not describe what it was that looked down upon her with its several black, beady eyes but in that instant she knew who it was. Though she could not discern the form She had assumed, there was no denying the incredible, unearthly aura that radiated off Her. The avatar opened what she assumed to be Her maw and salivated, a disgusting concoction pouring all over the petrified woman's chest and shoulders.

"Friend!" the creature spoke in a rather masculine tone and Her voice shuddered with every word as if there was a blizzard blowing inside the room. She uncurled the slack of Her current body from the stalactite She had embedded needle-like legs in and descended just enough for Her head to be level with Kitana. "Ah...! So nice that you finally came! A bit earlier than what we had decided according to the terms of our agreement, do you not think?"

The woman took a step back rather absentmindedly – an instinctual response of the body to evident danger – and felt the trauma tighten around her heart when the creature plopped to the floor with a slimy thud and collected Her mass before raising Her maw above her head.

"Did you want to go?" the thing rattled, waving the raised part of Her body in the air to mimic a snake's dance. More black ooze burst out of a puckered opening in Her abdomen and sprayed all over the 'friend'. Her mind had already succumbed to distress but her body seemed to be acting on its own when she nodded in response. "Being as generous as I am, of course I shall let you proceed. But in that regard, do you not think it fair to offer Me a gift as a show of your gratitude?"

"M-m-my... my soul...?" Kitana managed, fears spilling out as words against her accord.

"I remember already laying claim to it."

"No..." the Edenian murmured, trying her best to sound defiant in hopes of not giving in to trepidation and fail just when the end of her journey was a few mere steps away. "You never... you never fulfilled–"

"My end of the bargain? But I did!" the creature gleefully exclaimed. "It only seems right for you mortals to assume of being 'deceived' by Gods, forgetful as your kind are. What need do I have to 'deceive' you? Must I recall what exactly you had asked for?"

The festering gash in Her abdomen stretched open as the horrid fluid continued to pour out of it, skin peeling and folding back, turning the creature inside out and letting emerge a woman Kitana had seen one too many times gazing back at her from a mirror. The replica tumbled to Her knees, black garb drenched in the acidic rains she had stood in the midst of that day. An iron mask, shaped in the likeness of an oni, hid the brokenness that twisted the double's face but the raw, hateful screams that tore Her throat raw let up what the mask was meant to hide.

The picture itself, playing out before her as real and tangible as a God would will it, cut, sawed and butchered Kitana's soul. Fear ebbed away and transformed itself into wrath, a fiery maelstrom cracking to life beneath her ribcage and threatening to free itself by tearing her asunder. Her skin reddened, a shade brighter than the old bloodstains that still dirtied her, limbs shivering in wake of the hatred that consumed her.

It was only in Bedegi's nature to play Her foul tricks and yet the Edenian was helpless to fall victim to the God's schemes, the utter humiliation, this loathing Bedegi made Kitana feel of herself proof of the untouchable power She held over mere mortals.

"Tell me!" the doppelganger mimicked the exact sound, the emotion, the breathlessness in the words Kitana had spoken so long ago. It was haunting, harrowing, despairing, but above all it was a true mockery of the vulnerable state of mind she had been in. Her lips peeled back in a feral scowl, blue eyes shrouded in red from the blood that surged through her as the imitation maintained the scene. "Show me all that he knows!"

"And I showed you," the Elder added, the humaneness She had so effortlessly replicated gone. The Edenian seethed, burning in the invisible fires of fury, wanting nothing more than to destroy the Goddess; cleave Her, mutilate Her, decimate Her in every sense of being and make sure She felt all the pains in the world, and yet Kitana's own helplessness would not grant her that simple request. What power had she, a mortal pathetically trying to match a Deity with what petty little illusions she could conjure? She stood before a Goddess and that much alone attested to the woman's worthless existence. And it made Bedegi's mockery that much more searing. "Everything that Shao Kahn had known, even the lies he believed were the truth, I showed them all to you."

Kitana screamed at her own image, fists curled so tightly that her cracked nails dug into flesh and drew blood. Bulging veins crawled up her throat and temple as a torrent of fire sprung from the earth surrounding her, the screech of flames making her cries even more ungodly than they already were. The imitation never moved from Her spot other than simply tilting Her head in fascination of the pure rage She had easily coaxed from the mortal, finding it more amusing the longer she maintained her dreadful howling. The ground cracked at the Edenian's feet, chunks breaking off and disintegrating into bright embers as the power wavered unstably, the blaze unable to withstand its own force and eventually eating itself up. Her unearthly talents abandoning her, she had only unabated fury holding her up against the entertained Goddess.

"You shall humour Me just fine," Bedegi's avatar spoke – the voice was all the same but as Kitana's eyes flew open she saw that the Deity had taken on a new form. The mask had changed shape and substance, a porcelain mingho that had been the only detail to allow people the courtesy to know that this was not Kitana. It was her sister's trademark just as the oni mask was hers. Rage had blinded the Edenian to the point that she could not even recall ever snatching her fans and swinging them at this new, bitter memory.

The faux-Mileena had brought Her sai out to parry the move, matching Kitana in both speed and precision like in every tussle they wound up in much too often, and it infuriated the woman even more. She had brought down her weapon upon an Elder God assuming the shape of the twisted replica that she had, for nearly her entire life, believed to be her sister – Bedegi possessed strength that could not fall within a mortal's puny understanding and yet She insisted on Her games, both perfecting and perverting memories in the unfathomable way only a Harmony would know of.

The lower half of the mingho cracked and crumbled in the midst of the even-sided struggle, despite the fact Kitana had not landed a single scratch on her opponent. Clothes peeled off to reveal a mass of bulging muscles underneath and a frame that steadily grew out of proportion. The mingho took on a completely different texture as it stretched over the cranium, the slits for the eyes hollowing and the upper-half of the mouth taking the distinct shape of outstretched teeth. A giant now hovered above her, the imposing frame of the replicated Shao Kahn drowning the puny woman in his shadow.

Rage vanished and filled her with uncertainty – a back-and-forth between fear and anger that Bedegi was so wonderfully orchestrating, driving the Edenian's mind to the brink of insanity and then pulling her back, just before she went over the edge with such ferocious speed that Kitana realised she could not understand where she stood in the middle of it all. She skidded on her heels as she reeled back and quickly lost balance, falling on her bottom as she stared dumbfounded at the beastly incarnation before her.

"The gift I demand as repayment for My charity upon you..." the replicate Shao Kahn's words boomed, resounding off the walls of the chamber and making the earth slightly rumble beneath her. "... is entertainment..."

Kitana's brows stitched together though her eyes remained wide open.

"A simple game that you must play, should you choose to accept My kind offer... if not, the Hell you so painstakingly left behind still awaits..."

A game...? A 'simple game' was what it took to be able to open that door? Was this humankind's worth to the Elder Gods? Were they nothing more than just playthings that could be manipulated for their amusement? The mockery seared her soul and yet she stayed still in utter disbelief, the knowledge that the Gods thought nothing – absolutely nothing of the very creatures they relied upon to keep the balance of the realms in check keeping her from lashing out. She wanted so dearly to spit in the fake Kahn's face, to denounce the Goddess for being unworthy of mankind's prayers and yet she was numb.

Her eyes wandered to the door. So many emotions clashed within her but only so to give her reason to reject the Deity's terms. What kind of game did She intend to make her play? It did not seem Bedegi was intent on revealing the details without the Edenian accepting the offer, and that only gave fuel to doubts that it was not to be a pleasant game. And what chance did Kitana have to win either way? She would be undoubtedly playing against an Elder God. If not, then she would have to comply to terms beyond the extent of her mortality; capture the sun, lift the oceans. In every way, Kitana would lose.

She had the liberty to decline the offer and walk away unscathed, but what good would that entail? The years she had bled and pushed her body beyond limits she was never aware of in the first place, the suffocating chokehold of insanity that she could only barely loosen, all that she had endured and all she had overcome; what will they all amount to? She bore it all to escape this hellhole, not to grow accustomed to it! How long would she hold out? How long would it take to lose her mind? The only 'haven' the realm offered was the Soul Stone if she fed off the limitless power for the rest of eternity, but what good would that strength be to a lunatic?

Kitana realised that whatever her choice may be, she did not have a prayer of ever escaping the realm. Death awaited her at every corner and to avoid it would be to run into the open arms of madness. She despised Bedegi, the Elder Gods; she despised them for being above humankind. But it was her hatred of her own weakness, the limitations of being mortal, of being born a human that burned with an intensity like never before. She was just a toy and Bedegi would make her dance in silence.

The Edenian's head drooped and a sullen shadow came over her face, fingers tracking deep marks in the dirt as she clenched them into fists.

"I will play," the woman uttered as she ground her teeth in overwhelming shame. 'Shao Kahn' burst into profound laughter and the walls quivered as if in fear of the beast of a man.

"Excellent!" He thundered. "A rather poor choice, if I must say, but it would not have mattered. Whatever your decision, the results would have been the same."

"It is a fairly simple game and should not consume much of your precious time. But once you have accepted, you cannot leave while in the midst of playing..." the imitation continued. "You must ask Me any three questions you have long sought answers for and I shall provide them to you. I will not lie; that is a trait only your lowly kind possesses and I will not stoop so low. Your goal, however, is to challenge My wisdom..."

Kitana's brows stitched together in confusion and she looked back up at the replica of the man staring down at her small form. Something gnawed at her, like a forewarning of sorts echoing in the back of her mind and growing steadily louder and louder as she contemplated the nonsensical rules. Challenge Her wisdom? What was that supposed to mean? In some ways she felt she already knew the answer but her mind was refusing to accept the truth, a wasted precaution as she understood that Bedegi's next words would confirm those harrowing doubts.

In her state of disbelief, she had not even realised that she was already up on her feet and slowly shaking her head in denial. Her powerlessness carved a great hollow inside her chest and allowed it to fill with anger the likes of which a small animal would feel when it knows it has been unjustly cornered and pinned down by a raving, hungry beast.

"You must ask Me that which I can have no answer for, something which exists outside the bounds of My knowledge... And when I cannot give you the answer, when you have successfully discovered the limitations of an Elder God's wisdom, you will have won. Lose... and you will be Mine to play with for as long as eternity may last..."

"Damned witch!" the Edenian bellowed, veins bulging upon her temple as she swore. "This is a game I cannot win! I cannot contest a God's wisdom, it is not within mortal pow-"

She instantly lost her voice when the towering figure lunged at her, His masked face hovering bare centimetres away from her nose. She had much too easily forgotten how fast Shao Kahn could move given his great frame. A lead ball lodged itself in her throat, preventing another breath from escaping as she looked on into the seemingly empty sockets of the skull. Even up this close, Kitana could not see past the thick darkness that substituted where His eyes were meant to be – had it been that, in his later years, the skull had fused and become part of his visage?

Why was she thinking of such trivial things now of all times? She had not noticed that she wore a distraught grimace and that her knees shook under the strain of the sinister aura wafting from the faux-Emperor.

"Ah, but that is what is so amusing about the game!" the manifestation explained, His voice grating like a madness had begun to slowly creep into the Hag - He sounded both overjoyed and angry at the same time. Kitana tried gulping but the heavy sphere would not budge so much as to at least let a whimper escape. A foot slid back as the shadow He cast upon her grew larger and darker, quivering with life as His body heaved with every profound breath. "Countless times have you so confidently deprecated Our Power and claimed to transcend above Us. Countless times have you whispered in your victims' ear to be grateful of My punishment which pales in comparison to yours. Countless times have you cursed and accused Us of cowardice of forcing your kind to destroy Our enemies..."

With each great step He took toward her, she instinctively took several back until she lost her footing and fell upon her back.

"You, who longed to imitate Our power. You, who cannot sate your lust to rise above all else. You, who hungered for Shao Kahn's knowledge and satiated it by devouring his flesh and soul! You, who will never find respite from this hunger for as long as you live! What right do you fool yourself into thinking you have above what the Gods' desire?!"

The mask began to crack and crumble as the walls shook with the mighty boom of the imitation's voice. The same black ooze that dribbled from the insect-like form of the Goddess seeped out from the pores of His skin and bubbled upon the surface, corroding the flesh and armour. Large chunks of flesh and muscle melted and plopped down to the ground, splashing the foul liquid onto the already filthy woman. The frame shrunk until it was about Kitana's own size, the putrid concoction encasing the figure even as Bedegi continue to bellow.

"You are beneath Us! You exist because We will it and you will abide to Our whims so as We please! That is your fate! You have no freedom to choose, no freedom to deny the rules of Our games and you will die knowing this!"

The sludge trickled down to reveal pale skin underneath, a small form compared to the massive bulk of the Emperor but nonetheless toned and built to deadly perfection. The almond-shaped eyes were sunken and gloomy and the curtain of dark hair, draping over this new avatar's neck, wispy. Kitana's eyes nearly bulged from their sockets and her skin drained itself of its colour, leaving the curse's marks that much more prominent on exposed flesh. The epitome of a living nightmare, the Goddess's finest attempt at breaking the woman's soul, the twisted and perverted vision of the man whose form She had taken was none other than the Shaolin monk.

He reached out for her, dirty fingers coating her already soiled cheek in black pus as they trailed down to catch her chin. The touch chilled her insides and made her want to peel off her skin to rid herself of the horrid corruption seeping into her bones. A grimy thumb brushed against her quivering lower lip and she swatted His hand away, bile rushing up her throat. She heaved the little contents of her stomach to the side.

"So then, Kitana..." the Hag pronounced in a perfect mimicry of the monk's voice and Kitana shivered with the sudden cold that surged through her veins. "What will be your first question...?"

The woman wiped her lips with the back of her hand and turned her palm around, staring into it before cradling her head in it. She had not thought of it and understood that anything and everything was in vain – she wanted to cry but no matter how deep her sorrow would bury itself in her heart, it would never be enough to let tears flow. What kind of an existence was this anyway, where sleep came rarely by, dreams ceased to exist altogether and the eyes never shed tears?

Kitana lifted her head and cast a morose, despaired gaze upon the ghostly imitation before stumbling to her feet.

She had heard many legends of heroes and kings, of their arduous adventures in the Underworld when Death had come to claim them and how they came to rise once again owing simply to their strength and wit, both things she had decided she lacked in and could only possess by means of sorcery. But even then, what magic could grant her was not enough to get past an Elder God. It was not enough for any creature, living or dead.

Did any such knowledge exist that was not within the bounds of Bedegi's knowing?

The Edenian had no choice.

"What question do you not know the answer to...?"

The White Lotus monk chuckled and Kitana found herself decaying inside out in presence of the perverse form the Elder had assumed. He was too pure a memory, too righteous a human being to be mocked by the Goddess and yet what a perfect replica She had created, desecrating the Edenian's notion of holiness. She wanted dearly to be able to cry and yet her eyes remained dry, breaking her soul beyond what was already broken.

"There is no such question," the image replied. "I know all."

Kitana never saw the blade-like claw extending out toward her and slicing clean through her abdomen. The pain was absent only in the first instant but her mind had already registered what had happened. Lungs contracted, squeezing the breath out of her and a physical hollowness grew inside her when her innards spilled all over the floor. The top half of her tumbled and she fell face first into the slime-covered floor, blood pouring into the mixture. She let out a mute gasp before more blood and bile gushed out of her mouth. In the little life she had left, she found her gaze travelling toward her disjoint lower half.

Her heart skipped a beat when she realised they were still attached to her. What had happened? Why had it happened? Was this all an illusion? Blood surrounded her. No. This was no trick. She really had been cleaved apart at the waist and then regenerated before she could even understand it.

In shock of the agony and the destruction her body had been victim to, she could not control the confused whimper that escaped her.

"... W-...why...?"

A hand went up to her mouth but it was already too late. She looked at the hideous replica before her pleadingly. That was not a question! It just rolled off her tongue; she was not in her right mind when she uttered those words!

"Ah! I am so forgetful! In all my excitement, I did not remember to explain the most crucial part of the game!" the horrendous rendition of the Shaolin warrior exclaimed, exasperation so thinly veiling His deception. A terrified scream threatened to escape her but her body had already frozen, inside and out, keeping the shrieks from ever surfacing. The woman found herself unable to tear her gaze away from the twisted sneer that tarnished His kind face. "For every loss, I give you a small glimpse of the tortures that await you."

"I... I did not mean... I did not ask...!"

"It was a question, regardless," the grin continued to inch across His face until it stretched from ear to ear, giving him the appearance of a Tarkatan. "And rules are rules..."

A spear tore from the ground she lay upon and skewered her throat. Her mind succumbed to shock once again as more and more spikes erupted from beneath the earth and impaled her already limp body, lifting her to her feet so that she leaned at an angle. Blood gurgled in her mouth as she choked on the spear that had found entry through her mouth and pierced the back of her skull. Eyes heavy as both mind and body gave in to death, a trembling hand went up to the claw-like thing tearing through her windpipe.

It was gone.

Breath escaped her as a cross between a gasp and a sob. Fingers tightened around her unharmed neck protectively and she stumbled back until she was against the uneven walls of the chamber. Life-fluid drenched her worn clothes, its stingy, metallic taste still fresh in her mouth. Twice she had experienced death in the span of mere moments and at the hands of a depraved and distorted version of the only man she thought nothing less than holy. Her soul had shattered at the core and the aftershocks had reached out to her physical and mental form, leaving her a shivering husk.

Hope was truly and utterly lost. It was lost from the very start of her journey but the realisation had not settled in as well as it had now, and this game was nothing but a reminder of the futility of her efforts. It had all become so clear that Kitana winced in its blinding light. All of this, everything and all were the designs of the Elder Gods. Her decision to attempt escape from this realm, to accept the Hag's invitation to the game, to ask the first question that she did and then mistakenly let slip the second one, everything had already been determined by Bedegi. The Edenian was not going to lose because she did not have the right query to make, but because the Deity that reigned over this realm had decided she was going to lose.

The first query would have been to demand what such question the Goddess could not answer. If Bedegi could not reply, Kitana would have won. If She did respond, the second would have been to ask that very question. But the woman had so easily assumed that there existed a sliver of information that the Elders could not understand and that had been the sole reason why hope still shone in her heart. Kitana had just too easily given in to the allure of freedom.

"Your final question?" the Shaolin's manifestation pressed.

It did not matter what her last query would be; she had already lost. She could demand the secrets of the universe and they would do her no good with her trapped in eternal torture. The questions that circled in her mind were too many and she knew each one of them were useless.

Who is the One Being? Why is It so angry at You? Why do you not destroy It if It is such a nuisance?

Who are the hosts of the Kamidogu? How can the One Being be stopped from destroying all worlds? How can mere mortals destroy something as omnipotent as the One Being?

Are we doomed? Why is there no hope for us? Why are we not strong enough?

Why is there disease? Why do people hate? Why is there pain? What is the purpose of living?

Why is my purpose of living? Who are my people? What is my family? Which realm do I belong in?

Why can I not sleep? Why can I not cry? Why can I not dream?

Is there a way to redeem myself? Do I want to redeem myself? What is my fate? Can I escape it?

Can I escape You?

She reached into the collar of her tattered clothes and felt the silky texture of petals underneath her fingertips. Gently grasping it, she pulled out the crumpled bloom and splayed open her palm so that she could take in its white purity. She had not been kind to it. A petal had been plucked from the corona and a few others were torn, and yet the tiny flower gleamed within the darkness like the moon. The questions finally cleared from her mind like a fog until only one remained, and Kitana could not believe how trivial it was, how selfish she was being when she decided that was the only thing she wanted to – needed to ask.

She held out her hand to allow the Goddess to have a good look of the crimpled blossom. Why did she do that? Bedegi undoubtedly could see what it was regardless if it were in the Edenian's hand or tucked within a pocket.

"Why did he give this to me...?" she whispered, watching the smiling imitation's eyes train on the frail thing for a long while before He met her gaze. As His hand inched across the air, the black sludge that coated His fingers gently dissolved and revealed ghostly white palms underneath. His skin was just as cold and calloused as Kitana remembered it as He gently scooped the thing out of her hand, stuffing it into the folds beneath her collar. He suddenly beamed, gently pinching her nose between the thumb and index finger as would an older sibling.

He leaned into her shoulder so that His lips were a hair's breadth away from her ear.

"I do not know," He admitted and unceremoniously pulled away from her.

Kitana blinked her wide eyes in bewilderment as she gaped at the replicated monk. For a moment, it seemed as if the world had stopped and darkness had befallen the lands but the shock quickly subsided and pulled her back into reality. She knew she had heard right but still could not believe it. The image side-stepped and swayed His arm in a grand gesture, leaving the path toward the decrepit old door empty for her. But she remained where she was, her back pressed against the wall and blue pools trained on the Deity's avatar.

She was frozen.

There was no such overwhelming joy that had momentarily seized control of her body. The Edenian was rooted to the spot because she knew she had been cheated.

Moments ago she had surrendered her life to the Elder God of the Netherrealm without any qualms, without any deceptive hopes making it painful. Her resignation to her demise was truthful, whole and complete and when her belief had been so cruelly rejected, it ruined her. She knew quite well what Bedegi's answer to her first question was, that there was nothing that existed outside the bounds of Her knowledge. Then why could She not respond to her last query? Why could She not reply to something so trivial?

The grin on the imitation's face gave away the Hag's ruse. She knew. Bedegi knew the answer but did not want to tell the Edenian. An Elder God who not long ago had assured the woman that it was beneath Her to lie like a mortal.

Kitana lunged at the avatar and caught Him by His locks, pulling His face close to hers as she bellowed in a mix of fury and sorrow. The fake did not even flinch, the smile poised on His lips like some scar. In that moment of grief, she hated everything. She hated Bedegi, hated herself, hated the people she had met, hated the road her life had took. But above all else, above everything in the Six Worlds and the Heavens, she despised the monk the most and she could not understand why. It was absolute confusion – though she knew that this was simply a form the Hag had assumed, something inside ate away sanity and logic, and made her believe that he was real.

"Why?!" she screamed, pulling at His hair like the reins of a steed. But He remained silent, the ugly grin showing no signs of ever disappearing from existence. He took her hands in His own and pried them off His tresses, nonchalant of the broken woman whose eyes pleaded with Him to answer her. He stepped away and continued to widen the distance until His back was against the door. The black liquid bubbled and lifted, climbing up on the iron surface of the gate like mold; He was melting into it, inching through the wood until He finally began to disappear. Kitana chased after the escaping Goddess, wrenching the door open and racing beyond but came to a quick halt when she saw She was no longer there.

The spell of madness had quickly subsided and it was only then that the Edenian had become aware of where she stood. She was on a narrow tongue of rock, seemingly the only bit of land she could walk on in this new place. The ledge hovered over absolute nothingness – even as the woman slightly leaned to the side to catch a glimpse of what was beneath her, her eyes could scrounge nothing beyond the pitch black shadows. But the fact that the chasm was bottomless did not interest her. What had caught her attention was the dense web of iron chains crossing the air and the figure of a man trapped within them.

With each ginger step taken toward the anomaly, she noted that the figure was emitting a dim light. It was not until she stood at the very end of the ledge and her nose was inches away from the entity, that she took in what tortures he had been subject to. His chest had been torn apart, insects filling the void and feeding upon already rancid flesh. Peeled skin hung off his limbs, exposing rotten muscle and tissue underneath. The chains that held him aloft were linked to barbed spears that impaled his motionless body though he did not seem alive to cry out in pain. She would have thought him dead but instinct convinced her otherwise had it not been for his face.

Only... he had no face.

A skull rested atop his shoulders, a barely noticeable flame skittering across the black cranium. Her hand reached out for the grotesque thing, trembling as it did when her fingers grazed the bone, fire dispersing to allow her the touch. She pulled back and observed the wet prints on her fingertips: blood. A memory flashed before her eyes, where she sat atop a man with of the same appearance, dripping the blood she was covered in all over his fleshless skull. Pulling herself free from the trance, Kitana's eyes wandering to his left limb, pausing upon a laceration circling his bicep, stitched together by what seemed to be a living worm weaving into his flesh. Another image from the past, this time of a disjoint limb grasping at her shoulder which she pulled off and tossed aside, flashing her teeth at the agonised man before her.

She held her breath, the doubts finally laid to rest.

"Scorpion...?" she murmured, unable to find her voice but the entity had heard her nonetheless. The skull rose only a little; so minute was the movement that anyone could have been fooled into thinking that the man did not budge at all. His sockets, though empty, seemed to be boring into her, waiting for what she would say next.

"Your salvation..." a female voice spoke to her from everywhere and nowhere. The woman whipped her head around to catch sight of the Goddess but could not find Her. But when she directed her gaze toward the door, she found Her standing upon the middle of the ledge. Expensive robes draped the new avatar's small stature, golds and reds clashing against each other to greatly enhance Her beauty. A golden headdress – a crown – framed the female's scalp, jewelled tassels dangling off the side and pearled string curving across Her brow. The face was absent of paint save for the red oma in the exact centre of Her forehead. Kitana had no misgivings of the identity of Bedegi's new form.

"The Gate?" she demanded, feeling strange to be talking to her own reflection. The only difference here was that she was in tatters and looked no different than a feral bandit while Bedegi had manifested as what she had looked like on her wedding day. And what was more disconcerting was the emptiness in the doppelganger's eyes – was this another stab at her pride or was She miming an emotion Kitana may have unknowingly displayed back then?

"You left it behind so long ago," the reflection offered, gaze low upon the ground as would of a true bride. "The Portal stands in Nekros and you are here, in the lowest Plane of Hell."

Kitana narrowed her eyes in disbelief. In Nekros? The city that had held her prisoner within its Bowels for so long housed the Nexus gateway? She never knew. In the panic of sudden freedom and the Mongers that pursued her, she never thought once to scour the city - no, they had long given up on chasing her the moment she had surfaced from the pits. Her mind had been wrought with the fear of being captured again, traumatised so greatly that it screamed at her to escape the city and never look back. Then all of this only meant that all the years sacrificed to reach this place were all in vain. Everything had been for absolutely nothing.

But, strangely, the rage, hatred and venom she would have expected to blaze inside her were gone. She was empty. She felt nothing; a fool who had forgotten the meaning to laugh.

Had everything truly been for naught?

"Yes," Bedegi answered her question without the woman having the need to speak out loud. "And no. There are several ways to escape the Nether than just seeking out the Portal. He knew..."

The image did not smile even though the amusement was evident in Her voice as She lifted a bony finger in the direction of the ensnared man. Kitana looked over her shoulder, unable to find a reason why she did when she knew he was not going anywhere.

"That was how he won the game."

"He won the game?" Kitana parroted the Goddess's words, head spinning in the midst of the confusion that kept washing over her. Just what was going on and what did She mean by any of this?

"Yes," the bride averted Her gaze to something invisible at Her feet as if not wanting to meet the Edenian's gaze. "He knew that my knowledge could not be challenged, so he tested my capabilities instead."

"He understood that there was nothing he could accomplish given the limitations of his power. Only an Elder God could decide to free him and so he made it sure that I had no choice in the matter than to prove him right. His first question was whether I could free him or not. I told him I could."

"His second question was whether I could prove it to him or not. I told him I could."

"His third question?" Kitana interjected and watched a smile grace the image's face for the first time.

"'How many fingers am I holding up?'"

She was silent for a long time before she had the heart to speak again.

"Then why is he...?" she glanced at the trapped man, wondering by how much the pain he endured in this torture exceeded what she had experienced. It was not that she cared but rather she was moved to consider the price of freedom. In some way, his desperation to escape the Nether overshadowed hers in that he was willing to bear the greatest pains to achieve it. And here, not long ago, Kitana had given up after experiencing that very same punishment as he was suffering now.

"Well, he had to wait before you showed up," Bedegi replied, the beaded tassels chiming with even the slightest movement. "And I could not free him unless he was My captive of course. How else could I have proven it to him?"

"Now then," the image took a swift step back and instantly disintegrated into the air, but Her voice resounded in the emptiness nonetheless. "It is time you finally end this game..."

Kitana closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, trying her best to regain composure and wrap her head around everything that had been revealed to her. Yet, strangely, as hard as she wanted to ponder over this turn of events and the confusion they brought with them, her mind could not climb out of the darkness. She was blank, devoid of thought and, for some unknown reason, it gave her courage against the unknown.

She whipped around to face the Spectre who offered not a single word since their reunion. He had beaten Bedegi, beaten an Elder God which Kitana could not. Every moment of her life she spent cursing them and wanted nothing more than to excel, rise above them, prove to herself and all of creation that the Harmonies were nothing more than the "toothless worms" Shao Kahn had deemed them to be. Had they been righteous, had they fulfilled their duty as Lords of the Worlds, then no one would have to suffer - Kitana would never have suffered. They abandoned her and she wanted to have her just revenge on them and despite all that she had done for the sake of gaining power, she had gained nothing.

But him, this ghostly remainder of the man he used to be, he had done it. He had managed to make the first ripples in the water while the Edenian could not even tread past the bank.

This lowly, dead and forgotten man had not only beaten Bedegi, he had also beaten Kitana and every living soul in the Six Realms.

"Scorpion," she uttered the name she knew him by and although he did not move, she knew she had his undivided attention. "You have surpassed me."

Silence reigned between the two for a long while before the woman spoke up again.

"I cannot forgive you for that," she pulled out the tessen secured at her hip and splayed them open, rusted metal screeching with friction. She swung the blades down upon the heavy iron chains, a ribbon of weak, green energy trailing behind as the steel cut through them. The ensnared ninja swung and bobbed in the air as his web crumbled around him. Her lips peeled back in a fearsome snarl - she loathed being able to see him, despised his existence.

"Your freedom is my choice." Kitana seethed, relentlessly cutting down the chains as rage boiled inside her once again. "I am your God now."

"I decide your fate from here!" she was screaming now, veins crawling upon her temple and skin turning a deep red. The fans twisted diagonally to slice through metal links near his leg. "I will decide whether to leave you rotting here and turn back around to find the Portal!"

She suddenly halted her mad outburst and grasped the lower jaw of the skull, pulling him close so that he could feel her heated breaths.

"What is your decision then?" the woman was fuming, inhaling every breath like it was her last though her voice was low this time. "You want your freedom? Then serve me. Serve me and I will liberate you from this iron web."

She paused with nothing but the sounds of her profound exhales echoing through the emptiness.

"... I..." he spoke for the very first time, the words grating against his throat and escaping as an exhausted whisper. "... will..."

Kitana released her hold on him and swung at the chains a final time, the net finally heaving and releasing the man it had ensnared. He collapsed upon the very edge of the platform, hunched over at the woman's feet who towered above him. The insects that filled the cavity in his chest and abdomen spilled out and scurried about but the Edenian did not offer them any attention. She bent down and caught the dome of his cranium, bringing his skull to face her.

"Get me out of here," she simply spoke and pulled her hand away. The Spectre slowly lifted himself to his legs – a feat seemingly impossible for any mortal as he was missing muscles and one foot still dangled by a mere tendon from his ankle. He nodded in response and reached out for her, grasping her shoulders and pulling her close. She had wanted to object to this absurd behaviour but quickly fell silent when columns of blazing fury erupted from the depths below.

The chains came to life, lifting up and coiling around the pair as the fires gradually transformed into a burning tornado that sucked the breath right out of her chest. The chains circled and then stacked upon each other, encasing them in an iron column whilst hellfire continued to rage, building higher and higher up until she could no longer see where it would stop. The earth underneath her gave way and she found herself falling along with the ninja to the burning depth from which the fires came. She cast a frightened look at the man who had sworn servitude to her, but the skull that replaced his face made it impossible for her to read his thoughts.

She grasped his wrists and squeezed her eyes shut in the inevitable horror, feeling the agonising sting of the flames eating away at her flesh.

The air was alive and cool against her skin. She lifted her lashes and met familiar surroundings. The earth beneath her did not burn and the skies above were a gloomy purple rather than the angry red she remembered them to be. The sound of something marching toward her echoed in the far distance and the taste of sand flitted across her tongue. These smells, these sight and these sounds were all too familiar though the woman could not recall any pleasant memory pertaining to them. And yet she felt relief wash over her, a content in her heart that almost made her want to kiss the earth she stood upon.

She realised she was in someone's grasp and looked up at a pale man garbed in gold, a metallic mask disguising the lower half of his face and white eyes gleaming through the shadow cast upon his visage by his hood. In some strange way, he resembled the dark figure that had crossed paths with her in the Netherrealm and had gifted her the peculiar little flower.

The flower.

The moment the memory surfaced, an urge to see whether the bloom had survived the torrents of hellfire welled inside her. She reached for her collar but stopped short of just touching the fabric. Her body had seized all on its own – she opened her mouth to voice her confusion but was disrupted by the strings of severe coughs that squeezed the air out of her lungs. Her body shook like she had swallowed an earthquake and her throat tightened to prevent saliva from slipping down and calming the burning walls of her respiratory pipe. Her eyes went red from the sudden cut-off of oxygen and vision slowly turned to black as she gave in to unconsciousness.

The tightness inexplicably lifted, allowing the Edenian a great intake of air before she would suffocate to death, but the damage had been done. Skin drained of its colour and eyes rolling into the back of her head, she went limp as she gave in to oblivion, the Spectre catching her before she fell.

He knelt to the ground, cradling her upper body while stretching out her legs in the sand, and looked up to meet the gaze of the bewildered Lin Kuei Grandmaster who approached them from only a little ways away.

A/N: Longest fucking chapter I've done yet and its absolutely worthless. I just wanted to get done with Kitana's stupid story, so I did it in one go. Enjoy "OVER 9,000!" words of useless filler. Uploading it as it is because semester final is tomorrow (already failing so I'm jumping ship to architecture next year) and I am really, awfully tired. I'll weed out mistakes the following week.

Edit: Now slightly over 10,000. Because reasons.

Thanks to SpinoGuy for reviewing. Actually, he's kind of the only one who reviewed the last chapter and he said he could do without Kitana's bit... heh heh... whoops.