Author's Note: I finally earned my brown sash in San Soo. Now, I'm getting into Hun Gar (for all you Avatar: The Last Airbender fans, that would be the Earthbenders' style of Kung Fu). It is really, really badass, and I've been in a much better mood since I started learning it. Yeah, not really relevant to my story, but...Tiger-Crane style, for the win. ;)
What is relevant to the story is Cyrax. I thought it would be a good idea to see what the other groups were up to. So, I'm checking in with Cyrax, Kitana, and Jade in this chapter. I apologize in advance... ;)
From the beginning of their journey to find the Edenian resistance, Cyrax knew the road would be long and tedious, probably uncomfortable and awkward, beginning with Kitana's insistence that she be in charge. The resistance expected it, she said, and nobody in their number knew Outworld as well as her. Jade, naturally, refused to argue, but Cyrax was less than thrilled at the prospect of being commanded by a woman, especially a woman he scarcely knew who came from a simple, barely civilized culture. But she stubbornly set her jaw, and her amber eyes stared at him unblinking.
"I'll take point," she said as they left the eerie forest surrounding Tlachtga, stepping into the open expanse of grassland.
"No," he flatly stated in his automated Tswanan voice. "I am much bigger than you and Jade, I am faster than you, I possess a multitude of sensors, I carry several weapons and even more tools, and I am protected by highly advanced biologic nanoweave armor. I do not expect such primitive people to understand what that statement means, so I shall simplify it to terms you can understand: I am better suited to warding off any possible attack than you. Therefore, I should take point."
"You think you are superior to us?" Jade said sharply.
"That is a silly question," he replied. "Of course I am." Logically speaking, he knew he was correct. It was just a simple fact. He did not understand why the green-clad woman appeared so angry at the statement. "It only makes sense for me to protect you both."
"We are neither stupid nor weak," she hissed.
Kitana then chimed in, "And when you take point and accidentally fall into lightning sand because you do not know what it looks like and how to avoid it, and it shocks you until your highly advanced technology no longer functions, you will be blind and helpless. You will need us to help you."
"Your argument is weak," he countered when she looked like she was going to keep ranting. "My argument is sound. I will acquiesce to your request to be in charge. The resistance recognizes you, and you understand the politics to be our best representative. But on this, I will not budge. I am taking point. And if you refuse, I will put you and Jade in a net and drag you to the resistance."
The Edenian princess gave him a startled look. A moment later, she opened her mouth to argue, but finally just shook her head and sighed. "Very well," she breathed. "Take point."
Behind his heavy faceplate and visor, Cyrax grumbled to himself. He should've accompanied the Grandmaster and Smoke on their mission. Surely, they didn't have to put up with ridiculous female trouble on their journey to meet the Cryomancers. At the thought, he slightly loathed Smoke; though Cyrax had been Sub-Zero's top lieutenant from the moment the latter had claimed the Dragon Medallion, and though the cyber-ninja knew all the comings and goings of the new Lin Kuei, Smoke automatically enjoyed a position of privilege without first having earned it. It must've been nice to be the Grandmaster's best friend and to curry such favor with him. But, Cyrax reasoned, petty jealousy would not change his present situation. His Grandmaster had sent him to accompany the Edenian women, and had tasked him with protecting Jade, and that was that. The time for protesting his lot had come and gone.
There were only small rations of meat and water to begin with, and what little there was ran out by the end of the first day of travel. Cyrax did not worry about sustenance – his nanotechnology would take care of his nourishment for him – but the women could not last long without food, so he set traps and snares along old animal runs as they marched. He had no success. The odds of that, he calculated, were approximately 8,935 to one.
After several days of failure and meals comprised of roasted insects, he decided to use his infrared sensors and his energy nets to try to trap an animal for the women to eat. He had not detected signs of any living creature since they left Tlachtga save for gigantic cockroaches and fat, slimy grubs, but…to his surprise, Cyrax startled a rodent not unlike a rat almost immediately. It burst from a dead bush that grasped for his armor like skeleton fingers and nearly scurried away, but the cyber-ninja calmly punched a button on his gauntlet and fired one of his smaller energy nets at it. Just before it scrambled into a hole, the glowing green fibers snared it, and he easily subdued the creature. Then coldly, he wrenched its tiny head around until the sensors in his fingers registered the sharp vibrations from the spinal vertebrae cracking.
When Cyrax came back to the camp, the animal dangling from his hand by its tail, Kitana and Jade had built a neat pile of broken wood limbs for their fire, and now sat in meditative silence by the flames. "I killed an animal," he announced as he threw the tiny beast between the women's cross-legged forms.
Kitana jumped at the sight of the animal as Jade yelped in surprise, and then she twisted around to stare at his visor. "You startled me," she told him.
"I killed an animal," he repeated, ignoring the princess' declaration. "You two will eat well tonight."
"We cannot eat that," Jade protested. "It is a vermidax."
"Am I supposed to understand what that means?" he replied.
"The meat is poisonous," she explained. "Only the Zaterrans can tolerate the toxins it excretes, and that is only because they have a natural immunity to poison. If we eat it, however, we will begin to hallucinate for three days, and the hallucinations will get increasingly worse over time. After a day, we will start to vomit and secrete watery stools. After two days, the vomit and stools will become blood. On the third day, our organs will have completely liquefied and we will die a painful, disgusting death."
"Perhaps Jade and I should be in charge of the hunting," Kitana delicately suggested, a small smile curving her lips. Cyrax didn't protest.
After that, the women subsisted on coarse wild tubers and insects writhing beneath ancient wood and rocks. With no significant amount of life anywhere, none of it was plentiful. Cyrax suspected none of it was pleasant tasting, either. Neither woman complained, but not a meal passed without one or the other sighing heavily in what was clear longing for decent food.
All three walked with nets or slings ready to fly at the sight of any kind of animal, but the only time anyone hurled something was when frustration set in and the women couldn't stand the profound hunger any longer. The snares they so carefully set each evening yielded nothing by morning, but they had no time to wait another day to see if they could trap something. The resistance was undoubtedly moving around Outworld so as not to be detected, and Onaga almost surely sent someone to track them down. They just couldn't afford to sit still.
According to Cyrax's sensors, their small group made good time, but as they got farther and farther from Tlachtga without seeing anyone or anything, his doubts about this plan grew. Kitana outwardly appeared as confident as she always did since he'd first met her, but he was sure that sooner or later she'd be forced to admit that perhaps it would've been better to go with one of the other groups than it was to wander around lost and looking for people that, in all probability, had been completely exterminated the day the Dragon King was resurrected.
Two weeks from Tlachtga, the flat, barren land changed to rugged, rocky hills, as gripped by lifelessness as everywhere else, and a few days after that the hills softened into a rolling swamp. Toxic, undrinkable water sloshed around the travelers' feet, and the air rushed around them like the blast from a furnace bellows, the wind hot always. Nowhere did they see a road, or houses, or any other sign of civilization – at least, none where people still dwelled.
Shadows filled the air, created by a faint green light. As far as Cyrax could tell, it came from no discernable source, no torch or lamp or lantern. It just was, as if it were a vapor seeping into a purer fog. Enough to see and be seen, but offering no shadows deep enough to hide.
Water dripped in the distance, hollow splashes echoing and reechoing outside the range perceptible to unenhanced ears. There were mossy land bridges and slippery hills everywhere, all sprouting from crumbling, ruined cairns. Mists curled and smoked from dark, greasy pools. Mile upon mile, the swamp stretched up and down and side to side through the murky haze without any noticeable beginning or end. No matter what direction Cyrax looked, his digital eyes, sensors, and scanners only registered the same haunting dimness. But he pressed on with the quiet women in tow, seeking freedom from this oppressive landscape, knowing that everything was an illusion, a hallucination probably caused by the mildly toxic fumes. His internal sensors fed him different information than his automated eyes, and he wasn't entirely sure which – if either – could be trusted.
A flicker of motion caught his eye, and he halted where he was, stopping Kitana and Jade as well, all of them half-crouched against a gnarly, diseased tree. It was not an adequate hiding place, though no others immediately presented themselves. From a thousand different spots, someone could've been watching them. Cyrax's eyes darted around, and his sensors furiously scanned their surroundings for some sign of impending threat.
And then he saw movement again. Quickly, he looked down at a nearby pool, a dark mirror like liquid glass. There, he found its source. Marble white, a stark contrast to the black water around it. A hand. A skeleton's hand gradually pulling a ghastly body – its warrior's clothes wafting like tendrils of smoke around it – to the surface.
Behind him, Jade squealed. He and Kitana both whirled around in time to see that another bony hand had reached from the water and gripped one of her soggy boots, and the skeletal soldier to which it belonged was pulling her slowly backwards across the land bridge. On all sides around them, the murky waters were no longer smooth and calm; now they churned into toxic whitewater as the armored bodies of the Dragon King's skeleton army emerged around them. With sunken eyes full of blazing hellfire, they trudged towards the three Champions like robots, almost as if they were moving slow just to frighten their quarry.
Jade's surprise at her predicament only lasted moments before she remembered herself and started pummeling her aggressor in the face with the end of her staff, and when that didn't work, she skillfully threw her tri-blade boomerang at the creature. It lodged itself into the skeleton's supernatural eye, and the soldier released her, falling backwards into the water with a loud splash. The Edenian quickly scrambled to her feet and rejoined her companions, but by this point, several more of the soldiers were already climbing onto the grassy banks, their bony hands reaching for deadly swords, axes, and knives strapped to their bodies, their blank, fiery eyes leering at them mercilessly.
Cyrax immediately lobbed three of his napalm bombs at the skeletons, and only slightly noticed the way Kitana and Jade protected their ears and eyes from the impending explosions. The ordnance burst in a blinding hot flash of light and sound, and ten of their enemies exploded into shards of bone and dust. A few of those that surrounded the unfortunate victims collapsed to the ground when the shock wave hit them, some of them not noticing or caring that they were on fire. The cyber-ninja was not surprised by this; the last time he'd encountered these creatures, they seemed impervious to pain and…death. In the closest thing to panic that he could feel, he swiveled his head around for signs of the skeletons' reanimation, and found it in the hole he'd just created in their ranks. Large motes of muddy particles swirled in the air like tornadoes, only to redeposit the warriors back in line where they'd just been.
Cyrax immediately launched an energy net at them, and three of them stumbled, tangled in the shimmering green cords, but the others merely stepped over them. Beside the cyber-ninja, Kitana slashed at those who got too close to her with her razor-sharp war fans, and then, in something akin to panic, she skillfully threw one towards the horde and easily decapitated a skeleton. Her effort, like Jade's and Cyrax's efforts only moments ago, did no good. Her undead victim reformed nearby. Moving slowly, not on accident but deliberately so, perhaps as a means to frighten the Champions, the soldiers pressed in on them, unfeeling, their bony hands now grasping for their deadly weapons.
Knowing a losing battle when he saw it, Cyrax deduced that – with odds of victory stacked at 1,577,643 to one – the group's only viable option was to escape. So he quickly yanked the trembling, awestruck women into either arm before he mentally commanded his computer to calculate a destination. In the blink of an eye, he had his results and a course through the space-time continuum plotted for him. With two passengers, he could not teleport far, but it would be enough to escape. Just as the skeletons swung heavy swords or battle axes at them, they disappeared with a loud pop and safely emerged on the other side of enemy lines.
Though devoid of emotion, Onaga's soldiers were not devoid of intelligence, so they immediately figured out where the three had gone. They reoriented themselves right away and gave chase, bolting with impossible grace and agility over the marshy swampland towards the fleeing warriors. The Champions looked like foals learning to walk for the first time as they staggered through the muck, the squelching mud and sucking mire dragging down their feet. Cyrax looked over his shoulder and launched several missiles and grenades at the charging skeleton mob, but the explosions only slowed some of the Dragon King's warriors. The vast majority of the horde raced even faster now, easily closing the gap.
"Run!" Kitana screamed, though quite unnecessarily. The three Champions were already running as fast as they could. Even Cyrax, with all his superior strength and speed, could not overcome the terrain.
Soon, his armor sensors registered cold, bony fingers and sharp blades delicately brushing his back and shoulders. Suddenly, he toppled to the soggy ground when one of the skeletons gripped a handful of wires streaming from his crown and yanked him backwards. Warning alarms blared red across his vision, and the pixelated images on his visor blinked in and out as the optical feed began to malfunction, though not enough to hide the four toothy faces that now loomed over him, reaching for him with fleshless limbs that shouldn't have been able to hold together on their own. For a moment, Cyrax knew he was going to die, and he welcomed it, and the freedom from this automated shell, and he uttered a mental prayer to God to save him when he passed, the thousandth one since the doctors restored his will. But only for a moment.
The soldiers' blazing eyes filled with surprise when the squeal of something metallic shrilly began to hum deep within his chest, and they hesitated. Their eyes were even more surprised when the spring-loaded hatch built into his breastplate exploded open, and a whirring saw burst into their faces. It cut through easily as it rose into the air, getting jammed into a thick branch above them all, leaving behind skulls horizontally cleaved in two. By the time their bodies fell to the ground, Cyrax had already done a kip-up and was catching up to Kitana and Jade.
And then, just as the edge of the swamp finally came into view, the Champions were met by a wall of even more of the Dragon King's minions. It only took Cyrax a moment to determine that the small group was now surrounded on all sides, scan for a possible escape route, and come up empty-handed. But he did not waste time thinking about it. He charged even harder towards the line, veering slightly left and scurrying up a small hill. From a jutting outcrop of swamp-slick stone, he leapt.
He landed hard on the middle three guards, crushing them with his weight and grinding them deep into the muck and water. The impact alone might have been sufficient to temporarily shatter the magic that animated them, but Cyrax was never to know. He'd landed in a crouch, not merely on his feet, but on his left hand – a hand that now clutched an impossibly long-bladed, green pulsating knife that punched through the bones as easily as soft flesh. The runes carved across the skeletons' rib cages flared brightly and died, redepositing the drones elsewhere.
Paying no attention to the falling warriors, Cyrax leaned to the right and swung with his weapon. Once more, it cleanly sliced through bones, this time of the soldiers to the right. With a final flourish, he thrust the energy sword into the last skeleton and twisted it hard, but getting the vile creature stuck to the end. To his other side, more soldiers turned to swarm over him when the cyber-ninja swung his pulse blade overhead, right to left, the undead drone still impaled upon the end. It crashed into his target, slicing bone, and all the surrounding bodies cracked into hundreds of lifeless chunks. Lifeless for the moment, anyway.
To either side of him, the Edenians fought the skeletons as well, but the horde gradually pressed them into Cyrax so that all three were back to back. To the left, Kitana roared and stabbed her closed fan directly into a soldier's burning eye socket, and with a flick of her wrist, she opened it inside of the creature. His skull exploded at eye level, and he fell, only to be trampled on by more of his comrades. To the right, Jade grunted as she thrust the blunt end of her staff into a skeleton's ribs, then following Cyrax's example only moments prior, hooked it on the end, lifted it into the air, and flung it into two others. The cyber-ninja, though running low on bombs, stuffed one of his grenades into a skeleton's ribs before he kicked it into the others. Then he whirled around, gripping the women to his chest to shelter them, and took the brunt of the heat from the blast only a split second later. At least ten of the soldiers disintegrated on the spot.
Wasting no time, Cyrax pulled Kitana and Jade into the narrow corridor that had now formed, trying to fight their way free. A skeleton with a spear charged after the Princess, but Cyrax saw him in time and fired one of his buzz saws at it, chopping it in two at the waist. He followed that with more bombs to his left and right while Jade skillfully swung her staff around and Kitana cut down their enemies with her blue fan, and the crowd actually seemed to be thinning. The end was in sight, and his computers automatically started scanning the battlefield for a means to escape.
Suddenly, the cyber-ninja's computer chirped at him in near excitement, telling him that he could teleport again. Inside, his heart leaped with joy and relief. Quickly, he turned to gather the Edenian women to him once more. And then caught utterly by surprise, Cyrax couldn't begin to counter the spear headed right for him. Twisting as swiftly as he'd ever moved, he managed to take the shot to the far left of his heart as opposed to directly in it, but electricity and chaos surged through his systems as the weapon plunged in. The Champion toppled to awkwardly lie atop the mess of bones and mud; alive, conscious, but for how much longer he couldn't say.
And now, with his computer alarms blaring "WARNING: DESTRUCTION IMMINENT" across his flickering internal screens, bells ringing far too loud in his ears, almost completely muffling the sounds of Kitana and Jade fighting but failing, Cyrax sank deep into the primordial mud. He fought to summon a bomb to at least give them a chance to escape, but the mechanisms stubbornly refused to open, his programs malfunctioning too badly to obey his command.
The sound of his spring mechanisms trying to open but not opening at all was barely audible. Even his armor's sensors had trouble discerning the vibrations.
"Cyrax!" Kitana screamed.
The cyber-ninja had trouble hearing her, absorbing the meaning of her words only several ragged breaths after she yelled them. For years, he'd had so little room in his soul for anything beyond bitter regret and simmering fury, at what had been done to him from the time he was a child, and to…to others. His children. His friends' children. He was accustomed to that and had even found comfort in it, particularly in the nighttime while everyone else slept but guilt and his automated body kept him awake. But now, his memories of his life in the Lin Kuei and his life with the San in Botswana felt smothered in a stifling caul, the world around him tinged by blackness that oozed through the cracks in his soul.
Only the deadweight of the spear through his chest was stable in the center of his wavering vision, the unspeakable agony surging through his chest like lightning real. He mentally grasped for them both, knowing that as long as he did, he was alive. But his sight faded, and with it so too did his will, before his internal screens abruptly went dark.