"From this moment onward, you are no longer Army Rangers. You are no longer infantrymen, grunts, squad leaders, or tech specialists. You are killers. Having survived our extensive training program and behavioral augmentation, you are the best that we can make you.

You are the best young men I have ever trained, but mark my works: You are good at what you have been trained to do, but you will never do anything else ever again."

Chapter 1

Pain. A tight, sharp jolt of pain just below my left shoulder. Whatever it was, the wielder hadn't jabbed hard enough to break my skin, but just so that it hurt enough to wake up. A blade of some sort, sharp and thin. Probably a bayonet or a pike, judging by the momentum behind it.

One of the few things that could have disturbed my slumber.

I heard a man's dull words echo through my ear canal. They sounded distant, almost dreamlike. Definitely a foreign language.

But they were irrevocably harsh and tainted with authority. A military man, or maybe a cop. They know how to talk at somebody real good. Words of warning, maybe? A threat of some sort? If I was trespassing in some way, that was news to me.

I stretched out my arms from under me and rolled over, prepared to get some answers.

The sun blinded me for a brief instant, rays of yellow were a pretty good contrast to the blackness of being facedown in the sand. The sun was directly above me, midday, and was partially covered by light fluffy clouds, which did little to reduce its brightness.

The man above me came into view. At first he looked like a lost trick-or-treater, wearing a flat black mask and some kind of robe that seemed to meld with his creamy trousers. His mask had some kind of design on it, a design that seemed to mimic a human face, only with cat's eyes and no mouth or nose. Sharp, angled frills at the top-most parts finished off the bizarre look The only indication that he was speaking was his head bobbing up and down behind the ridiculous headdress.

I held my hands in front of my face in a defensive position, the glint of a blade flashed in the corner of my right eye.

Sand rained down from in between my fingers, peppering my face with crushed bits of earth. I groaned and tried to sit up, burying my fingers in the sandy ground beside me to get a good grip.

In a moment a long, curved blade was in my face. We both froze, and the blade remained stone-still, less than a centimeter from the tip of my nose.

"Whoa, buddy." I let him see my empty hands, holding them up just above my head. "I don't want any trouble, okay?"

He cocked his head suspiciously, his flat mask hiding his reaction. But that spear stayed right where it was, a quick jab away from ending my life in an instant.

He finally relented, moving the weapon slowly back to his side.

I staggered to my feet, doing an awkward dance to avoid face planting in the dirt in front of him. The muscles in my calves didn't want to cooperate, but I refused to humiliate myself in front of this guy.

My clothes were soggy and cumbersome around my battered body, twice their weight wet. I brushed some of the grains of sand off of my blue dress shirt, which was hardly worthy of such a name now: Unbuttoned and hanging loosely around my shoulders, covered in sand and wrinkled, fabric folding and unnaturally and mimicking the sea that it had just taken a ride through.

My white undershirt hadn't fared much better, but I could live with that.

I looked in the soldier's eyes, or what looked to be eyes on his mask.

He remained in front of me, taking a wide stance with the bladed pike down by his side, hovering just above the sand. He was tense, broad shoulders flexing and firm in that same instant beneath his uniform. He was ready to fight, and that made one of us.

"English? English speak?" I offered. "If you understand me, just nod or something."

He remained unmoving on the beach, waves crashing upon the shore behind him. The cool water lapped at both of our feet, but nothing happened.

I held my hands up, palms out, in front of my face and throat, and began to back away slowly.

"Look, pal," I started.

Step

"I know you can hear me, but since you aren't saying anything and probably can't speak english, I'm just going to walk away."

Step

He said something to me, another harsh, sharp phrase. He spoke so fast I couldn't make out the language, but that might have been the point.

Maybe he wanted to fight.

"Look, I don't understand you. Since you are over there," I pointed over his shoulder at the dense forest behind him. "-And since I'm over here, I'm just going to go that way, and I'll be out of your hair."

There. Now I could leave this enigmatic man and find out where I really was.

I turned and walked the other way, setting a brisk pace for myself in the thick sand.

He yelled something unintelligible behind me, but I kept walking.

The proud and self-centered side of me wanted to turn and fight him, but my logical side kept propelling forward, away from potential conflict. Training I had received was just as prevalent in my mind as my primal instincts most days.

He yelled again, but stood his ground. As long as he was only going to use his words and not that fancy staff, then I had no reason to make any trouble with him. A few insults never killed anybody, but what follows verbal taunting tends to. So I stayed clear and kept going my own way.

Suddenly, I head soft footsteps behind me. A steadily quickening tempo of muffled footfalls. Is this really happening right now?

Getting closer. Almost to a full run.

Aw crap, here we go.

I wheeled around and threw my hands up in front of my face in a defensive position.

The guard quit the subtle tactics as soon as I faced him. He broke into a sprint and held the spear out in front of him, on a collision course with my midsection.

I waited until the gap had almost closed, and then dived left towards the water. I flung my entire body at the sea, tucking and rolling onto my feet as soon as I fell back to earth.

He wasn't phased. He turned left and swung the spear in a wide horizontal arc, barely missing my sternum at the apex of the motion.

I sucked in and stepped backward to avoid the next swish, ankle deep in sea water now. He had the high ground, and was closing the short gap in between us, fast.

Come on pal, take a jab with that pike. I've got your number if you try it.

He hovered at the edge of the water, pausing for an eternity before making his move.

I tried so take a deep breath, steady my breathing, and slow my heart rate down. If I did I would stop shaking and the electricity flowing through me would quit making me shake in front of my opponent.

Sure enough, he adjusted his grip on the weapon, rolled his shoulders, and jabbed straight at my heart.

I quickly sidestepped and closed the distance between us, getting on the 'inside' of his stance.

He reeled and tried to pull back the long weapon, but it was too late. I was thisclose to him, so much so that I could smell the last traces of insets on his jacket from a ritual he must have performed early in the day.

I threw a flat palm into his side, just below his floating rib in the sweet spot where his kidney was sheltered. I felt a soft crunch under my palm as he doubled over in pain. I didn't hesitate, bringing my right elbow up under his jaw, just below his Adam's apple.

He made a wheezing sound before dropping onto his butt in the dirt. He couldn't breath, a sensation I doubt he had felt before. Poor guy, he was probably just doing his job, and he was going to choke on his own windpipe for it.

SWISH

A hot iron had been dragged across my chest, drawing blood as his pike completed its arc. His mask, blank and expressionless, somehow conveyed a little bit of satisfaction of landing his blow from the ground.

I staggered backward, opening my shirt to look at the cut.

Huh, not too bad. No serious bleeding, but I might need a band aid or two.

I looked back up to see the man back on his feet and coming straight for me. His eyes were wild and primitive, hungry for revenge. My elbow strike must now have been that effective after all.

I ducked under his pike and smashed my palm into his mask. If I had used my fist, I might have broken my knuckles because the darn thing was made of thick, well treated wood fibers.

It had no effect, but the next two shots to his ribs did the trick. He staggered and I grabbed his left hand at the wrist and wrapped my arm around it, jerking hard to the left until it popped.

He finally dropped the pike.

He headbutted me with that reinforced mask and sent me reeling backward. I threw up my hands and beat down his right hook as he quickly advanced.

I nearly took a high kick to the ribs in the next instant. But I caught his foot with both of my hands and simply stepped backward.

He fell awkwardly in the sand, and I followed up with a kick to the side of his face, my foot connecting with his head just behind his mask.

He rolled to the side, drawing a wicked dagger as he swung himself back onto his feet to face me. One smooth motion. He was well trained indeed.

I held my hands up in front of my face and throat in a defensive posture, backing up.

He was in pain, serious pain. And his weakened stance showed it.

I took a deep breath. "Look, man. Just-"

The glint of his blade in the sunlight cut me off. He slashed upward, and I stepped back. He thrusted and I backed up and circled around him, pissing him off even more.

He took another jab with the curved blade, but this time I stepped forward.

He was surprised, but not stunned as I grabbed his knife hand at the small gap where the wrist meets the forearm. I wrapped my other arm around his, pressing the outside of my elbow against the inside of his. The figure our arms formed looked exactly like a four for a brief instant as I locked up his arm in the high noon sun.

Then I pulled him forward and pressed down on the base of his hand, my thumb bending his wrist at the fulcrum behind his thumb at a 90 degree angle.

Then I turned the blade against him and stepped forward for a final time.

MKMKMK

The Masked Guard cautiously approached Jade on the elevated platform above the battleground, shaking while he ran. Jade didn't like to be interrupted while having words with Kitana, but this was too important.

Jade turned, her masked face beautiful and intimidating in the same instant. She clutched a short combat staff tightly in her right hand, already upset at something.

He dropped to his knees on the stony ground in front of her. "My lady, there is a matter I must speak to you about."

She sighed. "Proceed. It had better be important."

"Yes," he stammered. "There is… someone else here… on the island."

She put her hands on her hips and sighed. Kitana turned towards them with interest.

"Spit it out, we haven't got all day here."

"Yes, there is a man here on the island. Our men found him on the shore, and he was not one of Shang Tsung's fighters. A guard approached him, but he was overpowered and killed-"

"What?" Kitana demanded, officially joining the conversation. "And why, pray tell, are you not down there now?"

"I am the fastest runner, and there are six men down there. We must hurry. They will kill him if provoked."

Kitana threw up her arms in despair. "Why do we even keep you people around? All you do is stand around watching other people fight, or get killed yourselves when you try to join in."

Jade held up a hand before Kitana could speak. "I'll handle this one, my lady. I'll show him how Edinians handle unwanted guests."

ELSEWHERE

Liu Kang rose from his push up position when he heard footsteps on the layer of stone covering the forest floor.

"Raidan!" he exclaimed before bowing his head to the man with blue eyes in beggar's clothes. "It is good to see you, sir."

"Rise, Liu Kang. I am afraid we do not have the luxury of time today. There is something I must tell you about this tournament."

Liu Kang nodded and rose onto his feet, feeling the familiar strain of the morning PT in his calves and thighs.

Raidan began to walk, and Liu Kang followed obediently.

"Liu Kang, there is something you must know. The coming weeks will be more important to Earthrealm than the past thousand years." He spoke powerfully, with a deep voice. Yet Liu Kang always thought that he was humble. Especially for a god.

"With all due respect, Master Raidan, I know the importance of this tournament."

"Yes, but there is something else you must know. There is an evil loose in this universe. An evil that I do not yet understand."

"Shao Kahn," Liu Kang replied. "It is hard to comprehend one who seeks to possess entire realms, only to turn them into as barren wasteland. You do not have to understand him."

"No," Raidan interrupted. "There is another."

"Who?" Liu Kang asked, stopping and turning towards the thunder god.

"Someone worse. His hate of all things has festered over the ages into something that I cannot comprehend. He has spent years in the depths of hell, planning his rise back to the land of the living. His resentment of the Elder Gods and his fiery ambition are the only things that have kept him alive in the fires of Netherrealm. He resides there, unable to cross over onto our plane."

"Then why is he a problem at all?" Liu Kang demanded. He enjoyed Raidan's company, but the man was way too cryptic sometimes.

"His name is Shinnok, and he will destroy Earthrealm unless we stop him," Raidan said frankly.

"One problem at a time. Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn are dangerous enough as is. Once this tournament is over, if we win, then we can turn our attention to this Shinnok."

Raidan held up a hand and his glowing eyes intensified.

"Liu Kang, I have seen the future, and you will die if we do not change it now. Everyone who dares to take up arms against this evil will be killed, and everything we have fought so hard for will amount to nothing. This has happened once before. I can sense the threads of time wearing thin, like somone from the future is somehow trying to tell me that things should be different... I cannot lose you, Liu Kang. Even now our enemies work against us."

Liu Kang folded his arms across his chest and shook his head impatiently. "You cannot change fate, Raidan. You of all people must know."

Raidan came close to grinning. "I already have. There are new fighters here on the island, several Earthream warriors. A Police officer, a Lin Kuei, a fugitive, and swordsman who will join our cause."

"And what if they die, Raidan? What if they are killed by Shao Kahn's fighters? What will you say then?"

Raidan didn't answer that question. He couldn't.

Finally, he spoke.

"Come, Liu Kang. I sense that one of our guests has already arrived."