The Beginning of the End
Much had changed in Tsai Bīng's life in the last fifty years. The passage of time had been relatively kind to his body, thanks to his natural gifts and sheer perseverance, but not to his psyche. While his three children were fully grown with families of their own, Tsai Bīng had outlived his wife. It was the price he had to pay for changing his allegiance decades ago.
In the here and now, Nuo's violent death was a distant memory that he suppressed with due diligence. Shang Tsung's island was no place to relive the past.
The sun had risen an hour ago, signifying the start of the third day of the Mortal Kombat tournament. Spectators from different realms had gathered around a courtyard. Shang Tsung's seat was empty, but his monks had arrived and were seated in four rows in front of his throne. Four of Shang Tsung's royal guardsmen stood at the four corners of the kombat arena, armed with fearsome naginata which were uncharacteristically planted into the ground.
Though Tsai Bīng's home realm was no longer in a position of immediate annexation, it had not fared well in the initial rounds of this tournament. Only two out of five kombatants from his realm remained, including himself. His compatriot stood beside him, his face as unreadable as Tsai's own. But Tsai wore a mask over his kombat outfit and had registered for this deadly tournament using an old alias.
His compatriot's face had not changed in fifty years, even though everything else about him had evolved. Kung Lao might not have been a monk anymore, but he had shaved his head according to Shaolin tradition. He wore a red bandana, traditional Kung Fu pants and tabi boots. The only lethal-looking weapons he seemed to have were a pair of spiked wristbands, but Kung Lao's true weapons were his martial arts and mental fortitude. Tsai knew Lao only as an acquaintance and eventual ally, but both men shared a similar fate of slow ageing and agelessness respectively.
Next to Kung Lao stood Raiden, Earthrealm's immortal Protector. As always, Raiden's godhood prevented him from competing in the tournament. Tsai Bīng had a simple philosophy with respect to the gods: he wanted nothing to do with them personally. What he did care about, however, was the safety of his progeny; and Shao Kahn was an even greater threat than his former employers.
In a sudden burst of flame which served to silence any chatter amongst the sparse audience, the arch-sorcerer Shang Tsung materialised in front of his gilded, ornate throne. He put up slightly uncharacteristic display of grandiosity – or perhaps it was feigned exhaustion, because for all his sorcery and finery, he looked like a frail old man – as he sat upon his throne before beginning his speech.
"Kombatants! Welcome to the third day of this generation's Mortal Kombat tournament." Shang Tsung might have borne the countenance of a weak old man, but his voice still retained its strength and malice. "Much blood has been spilled so far, and only two Earthrealmers remain to fight for their destiny! One of them shall step on the battlefield today. Will he prevail ... or will he die? We will see it soon enough.
"The next match is Qali ..." A dark-skinned woman wearing a rather immodest maroon outfit whose hood was lowered stepped into the arena, wielding a metallic bō staff.
"... versus Sub-Zero!"
The ancient sorcerer watched impassively as the Edenian renegade and the ageing Cryomancer took their positions. The tournament had provided Shang Tsung with a fresh supply of souls, and this match would be no exception. Even if the former Lin Kuei warrior won – which Shang Tsung thought to be an unlikely possibility - the assassin would not be magnanimous enough to spare Qali's life.
No sooner than Shang Tsung spoke the word, "Fight!" did Qali spring into action, performing a pole vault in an attempt to kick Sub-Zero in the face, while dodging the ice ball he had thrown. Sub-Zero grabbed her leg with both hands and tried to freeze her, even as the loss of momentum caused her to drop her staff and fall to the floor, her leg still in Sub-Zero's icy grip.
Visibly shuddering from the cold and wincing as her back struck her own bō, Qali recovered quickly, kicking Sub-Zero in the face. A split second later, she recovered her bō and swept Sub-Zero's legs out from under him, causing him to fall to the ground. He almost fell on top of her, but she rolled away just in time.
Age had dulled the Cryomancer's recovery time, while Qali's almost frozen leg had affected her too. Still, she pulled herself up before Sub-Zero could, and just as the latter was getting to his feet, the Edenian raised her staff up, preparing to deliver the crippling blow.
However, Sub-Zero was not quite out of tricks yet. Creating an icy dagger out of thin air, he kept the staff at bay with one hand while reaching out to freeze it with the other.
Qali escaped the frigid trap a second time, but was forced to drop her bō in the process. It was her turn to fall to the ground as the kneeling Sub-Zero used her weapon against her, mimicking her earlier sweeping action.
Without getting up, Sub-Zero threw a successful punch at the supine Qali, and prepared to end the match by freezing her. However, she grabbed his bare wrists, disregarding their unnatural coldness to ensure her own victory.
What followed next greatly amused the soul snatcher, for the sacred tournament of Mortal Kombat had turned into a grappling contest. One moment, the Edenian was trapped below the Cryomancer, attempting her hardest to throw him off her, but in the next moment, she was above him, trying to dominate him by breaking his offense. She kept his wrists at bay using her left forearm and tried to choke him with her spare hand.
But Sub-Zero would not yield so swiftly. Using the last of his strength, he pushed the Edenian traitor high into the air, and for one fleeting moment, Shang Tsung thought that Sub-Zero would win because Qali flew from the battle arena; the excitement compelling the sorcerer to stand. Her landing, however, was more spectacular than he had expected.
Qali had landed straight on the naginata of the royal guard closest to Shang Tsung, her still-beating heart jutting out of her blood-soaked body. The applause of the monks and the cheers of the few spectators were but dim noises to Shang Tsung, as the powerless green soul of Qali leapt into his outstretched arms.
As quickly as it had come, the rush of power subsided. In the meantime, the thoroughly exhausted ninja had removed his mask and risen to his feet, and was making his way towards the Champion and the Thunder God, breathing hard from the physical exertion.
"Sub-Zero wins!" Shang Tsung exclaimed. "Fatality!"
The Edenian's defeat did not matter in the long run. He would have other opportunities to seize this Cryomancer's soul, and if this one were to evade him, there would surely be others in the centuries to come.
Earthrealm might have won this battle, but they would most certainly lose the war. And the soul he desired the most – the soul of the Great Kung Lao – would finally be his.
As his own match was ending, it was crystal clear to Kung Lao that he would not be leaving Shang Tsung's island alive. Tsai Bīng - Sub-Zero - would be the one mortal Earthrealmer walking away from this place, bearing grim tidings to Kung Lao's progeny and the widowed Taja. A violent death was an ever-present certainty in the long life of any Mortal Kombat champion; a fact that took him many years to acknowledge.
The cowardly old sorcerer looked on from above as the Shokan monstrosity known as Goro strutted confidently towards the broken, utterly defeated form of Kung Lao, who was in excruciating pain.
Even as he was struggling to get to his feet, slipping in his own blood, he knew he would not yield, he could not yield; he was far too proud to do so. Shang Tsung would not have his soul while he still drew breath.
A part of him was glad that Siro was no longer among the living. He was better off dead than drowning his sorrows in rice wine.
Somewhere in the distance, a hated voice called out, "Finish him!" even as the Outworlders' calls for blood grew more fervent.
The utterly defeated former Champion did not – could not - offer any resistance as the Shokan Prince held him aloft with his lower set of arms. However, in one last act of pointless defiance, he did not scream in pain or terror. It did not matter – no non-living soul could resist Shang Tsung's pull, and a stubborn ex-monk would be no exception.
Goro gripped Kung Lao's head in his upper palms and squashed it almost effortlessly. Throwing the decapitated body to the ground, the Shokan roared in delight, raising all four arms in an exclamation of victory, displaying his bloodied fists for the whole world to see. Shang Tsung paid no heed to the celebration as he summoned and absorbed the soul of his old adversary.
It was unfortunate that no matter how many souls he absorbed, the curse of his old age would not lift – unless Shao Kahn wanted it to. For all his services to the overlord of Outworld, Shang Tsung would not get this little obstacle out of the way until five centuries later.
Five hundred years had passed since The Great Kung Lao had died at the hands of Goro. Eight more Mortal Kombat tournaments had come and gone, and many good Earthrealmers had perished in their course. None of the Earthrealm's Chosen who participated in the subsequent contests ever reached Kung Lao's legendary status. But the new Champion of the White Lotus – Liu Kang – held great power within him, and a lot of promise.
It was the night of the tenth – and if Outworld's forces had their way, the final – Mortal Kombat tournament since Kung Lao's death. The full moon adorned a clear, sparkling night sky above Shang Tsung's open air courtyard. Many Earthrealm, Outworld and Netherrealm warriors had gathered around the arena, facing the vacant stands and Shang Tsung's empty throne. Raiden felt a sense of destiny around each kombatant gathered in the arena. One of the perks – or pitfalls, depending on who you asked - of being a god was that almost no one – mortal or immortal – was truly a stranger. While Raiden was not omniscient by any means, only powerful beings could hide their identity from him.
The monk Liu Kang and the shaman Nightwolf stood on either side of Raiden. They were the sole Earthrealm-allied Champions who were aware of the gravity of the situation, and were thus outwardly impassive.
Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade stood to Raiden's far left. While the man once known as John Carlton had a good heart, it was eclipsed by his ego. He had come here seeking adventure and fame, but as the fates would have it, the actor's martial prowess would be useful in a way beyond his own petty goals. Sonya Blade, on the other hand, was an unwilling participant. To her, this tournament was a farce – a path to Earthly justice for the bandit Kano, and a means to save her superior in the US Special Forces, Jackson Briggs.
Quan Chi's participation, however, was unprecedented to Raiden, and rather ominous. The Thunder God was rather suspicious about the false Amulet on the pale sorcerer belt's that the latter displayed without hesitation. Raiden inwardly cursed the limitations of his godhood, and not for the first time; he could do absolutely nothing to confront, or even question Quan Chi in the duration of this tournament.
While Raiden was certainly not the only person in this gathering who suspected Quan Chi, it seemed that only Shao Kahn had taken overt measures in that regard. Kahn's personal assassin, the red-haired Skarlet, was standing to Liu Kang's left, distant enough not to be an immediate threat to the monk.
Quan Chi had brought the newly-resurrected Scorpion along with him, but the vengeful wraith once known as Hanzo Hasashi had his own reason to be here: to kill Sub-Zero in the one event where he could do so without repercussions.
Sub-Zero, Cyrax and Sektor were also participating in this tournament, and in the traitorous fashion of the Lin Kuei, these Earthrealm-based fighters were on Shang Tsung's side. If Raiden were a wrathful god - like many Earthly legends painted him to be – he would have annihilated the Lin Kuei centuries ago for their ways of constant betrayal that endangered the Free Realms. His respect for the rules of the Elder Gods, however, prevented him from giving more than a momentary thought to such wanton interference in mortal affairs.
But good souls dwelled even in the darkest of places. Sub-Zero, Cyrax, Tundra and Smoke were some of the good men in a corrupt and depraved secret society. Having dealt with Bi-Han personally, however, Raiden was most disappointed by his current allegiance. After being so thoroughly manipulated by Quan Chi not too long ago, why would he trust another sorcerer so easily? A mortal's confrontation of righteous gods carried consequences beyond the physical body. Even if Bi-Han had redeemed himself by retrieving Shinnok's Amulet from its former bearer, his soul was still tainted enough to be destined to the Netherrealm.
Perhaps Bi-Han wished to protect Kuai Liang from the cruel experiments of the Lin Kuei? Raiden had no direct way of knowing a mortal's innermost thoughts, unless the mortal in question consented to it. It was a consequence of free will, which was something even the Elder Gods respected.
Before he could further dwell on Bi-Han's motivations, everything in Shang Tsung's courtyard vanished abruptly. He could no longer see, hear or smell his surroundings. Flashes of images and noises – of triumph, despair, treachery and destruction – assaulted him constantly before he recognised them as visions of the future. He had a sense of uncharacteristic panic, for his visions had never been so nonsensical or numerous in his aeons of existence.
When his awareness returned, he was clutching his forehead. Apparently, Liu Kang was the only one who noticed Raiden's disorientation, for he asked, "Lord Raiden! What is wrong?"
"Strange visions ..." he replied automatically. He suspected that he had viewed the events of a catastrophic possible future.
To add to Raiden's dismay, he heard a distinct crackling sound that was most certainly not lightning. Reflexively, he checked his amulet. The sapphire jewel within it had begun to crack.
Armageddon is imminent, were the only thoughts that ran through his head.
Liu Kang had noticed it too. "Your amulet ..."
"It is nothing, Liu Kang." Raiden did not wish to trouble the young monk with a god's burden. It was up to him to succeed when Argus and Delia had apparently failed. At any rate, Raiden's attention was needed in the present, for the monks were taking their places, and Shang Tsung himself was walking towards his throne. "The tournament begins."
To be concluded.
Disclaimer: All recognisable dialogues are from Mortal Kombat 9. They're not mine in any way, shape or form.
Author's notes: I'm sorry for the insane amount of delay, but writer's blocks don't go away so easily for me. It's a relief to mark this story as "complete" in FFN's menu. I realise that it's an abrupt ending, but I'm not quite willing to do a novelisation of MK9.
I'd like to thank Poe's Daughter for proof-reading most of this chapter and helping me out with the fight scene. Her writing has positively influenced my own, and I wouldn't have found the drive to be done with this if she hadn't inspired me to. I'd also like to thank sickoftakenpennames for proof-reading the first two chapters, and for suggesting part of MKC-era Sub-Zero's real name.
Thanks for reading this story!