The sensation of Anya violently shivering beside him woke Kuai Liang from a deep but restless sleep, and he really didn't want to go back to it, even though he heard everyone else snoring at various decibels around him and knew Fujin meant to let them sleep a few hours more. All the aches and pains he thought he'd washed away in his bath several hours ago had returned. His head hurt too. Neither problem shocked him; after the adventure he'd had just in the first leg of his trip through the Bīnglěng Di Dìyù, both were to be expected. With a sigh, he rolled over and propped himself on his elbow, wincing and groaning quietly as he stretched, to look at his wife.
To his surprise, she was still awake and trembling from the cold, even though she had burrowed to her chin in blankets. She twisted her head on the folded blanket – their shared, makeshift pillow – to look at him. Dark shadows shaded her puffy, sleep-deprived eyes. Then she closed them slowly and buried her face into his chest, curling her body against his, while he draped her with his half of the covers. What a time to get stricken with the stomach flu and all the chills, aches and pains, and nausea that accompanied it…The thought pulled his feelings in two separate directions; on the one hand, she couldn't help contracting an illness when they had been trekking through mud, dirty rivers, and frigid snow, and he felt bad for her. On the other hand, he wondered why it was always her, and the thought annoyed him. Maybe she wasn't as strong a person as he'd always believed.
His compassion for her won out, however. "You need to sleep, Ahn," he said quietly so as not to wake the others. "You're sick." He kissed her cold forehead and rubbed her shoulder.
"I'm not sick," she cryptically announced in an equally hushed tone.
He furrowed his eyebrow in skepticism. "Well, if you're not sick, then what's wrong with you?" He suspected she was lying because she didn't want to look weak next to everyone else.
She craned her face up to look at him directly. For a long time, she struggled to say her words, almost as if she wanted to tell him something but decided against it at the last second. "I've already told you," she finally replied. "I can't eat anymore of this Outworld crap. If I so much as look at Kailyn's rat jerky, I'm gonna puke. Again."
Inwardly, Kuai Liang rolled his eyes at the remark. She was far too spoiled and pampered for her own good. He thought she understood that soldiers didn't always dine on the best of food. He sighed and said, "In that case, your stomach's probably eating itself alive. You're probably hungry as hell."
Anya scoffed. "Not as much as you would think," she bitterly said.
"What did you tell me before we went to Massilia?" he asked with a gentle smile, his annoyance with her fading. He tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. "Something about being sure to eat no matter how gross the food is because we need all the protein we can get in a place like this?"
She wrenched her face. "It's not as easy as that," she said.
"Even so, you still need to sleep," he admonished before he kissed her eyelids. "Why aren't you?"
"If you must know, I had – I've been having – bad dreams. About Malphas."
"Then you need to tell Fujin-"
All of a sudden, they heard the Wind God shout, "Look out!" before a gust of wind blew embers from the campfire in their eyes. Then a ball of lava crashed near their gear several feet away and exploded, splattering everything in close proximity with scalding goo, setting every flammable thing on fire.
Anya squealed as magma narrowly missed her face, and Kuai Liang quickly froze a part of his arm armor to put out the flames rising from the spot he got hit. His wife jerked towards him in startled terror a moment before he pounced on her and shoved her into Kenshi's bed roll; a hair later, another lava bomb sailed through the spot her head had just been. On the other side of the campfire, he heard Kailyn cry out, Fujin grunt, and Kabal curse in unison.
"Smoke!" he yelled to his friend. Only Kenshi and Shujinko were visible through the dense cloud of smoke and flames climbing through the air.
"What's going on?" he heard the cyber-ninja yell in groggy confusion at the same time he heard Bo'Rai Cho yelp, "Qué demonios?"
But just as soon as soon as they said it, Kuai Liang caught sight of a white-haired man race towards them in a blur, wielding a naginata, and he didn't even get a chance to shout a warning before he'd hit Shujinko across his back with it, slicing him open with the large blade at the end. As the enemy undoubtedly expected, the elderly man crumpled, rolling to the right with a pained groan.
Sub-Zero looked up at their attacker, who now stood above them like a god. Thick plates of black iron, edged in copper that turned upward at the shoulders to protect his neck, formed an armor that might well have crushed a weaker bearer. Intricate runes and hieroglyphs colored a lighter gray had been embossed into the unyielding metal.
"You're under arrest," came the unrelenting response.
He sighed. "Well, you do have a right to your opinion, even if it's wrong." Sub-Zero's hands, glowing blue and foggy with his powers, suddenly cracked towards the Seidan like a whip, spraying shards of ice at his eyes. But the gesture was instantly met by a horrid screeching sound like metal on metal, booming, harsh, and painful. The ice shards not only shattered before they reached Hotaru, they exploded into harmless powder.
The Cryomancer had no time to ponder it before the ominous cries of a wolf howling broke through the bedlam, stopping the scattering Earthrealm Champions in their tracks. The melancholic melody stirred genuine fright in Sub-Zero's heart – not for himself, but for Anya – and he frantically lifted her to her feet and pushed her towards the exit tunnel on the opposite side of the cavern. He knew all too well what the beast was capable of.
"Run!" he yelled at her, and for once she didn't argue. He raised his eye in puzzlement at this new development. Running was so unlike her, and not arguing even more so.
A moment later, a monstrous wolf, as big as a tiger and every bit as lethal, bolted through the wafting ash. It was immediately followed by Sindel, the one who'd destroyed Sub-Zero's ice shards, and she was followed by Rain, Baraka, and a small horde of Tarkatan warriors. The enemies charged towards the Champions, unimpeded by the churning ash and sudden blistering heat.
Baraka plowed through the center of the Earthrealm warriors, letting Sento clink harmlessly against his armor. He swung his arm blades at Kenshi in broad strokes, but soon found that even his most precise strikes were easily parried. When the blind swordsman saw in his mind's eye his opportunity, he slammed the pommel of his sword into the Tarkatan General's face. Baraka snarled and wailed as he stumbled backwards and soon fell, but he rolled with the momentum and leapt back up with spread arms, a single red ball of energy traveling the length of his arm blade and bursting towards his opponent. Through Sento, Kenshi anticipated the attack and calmly twisted through the air like a butterfly above it, and the pulsating plasma sailed harmlessly into the hot springs nearby.
Beside them, Sindel laughed sadistically as her streaked hair snared Fujin's ankle, yanking his leg up enough to kick him in the groin with her hard-toed boot. The Wind God, nearly invulnerable to injury but not to the sensation of pain, loudly howled when the undead Empress threw her elbow and the full weight of her body onto his knee and then hissed at him like an angry cat. The noise was sufficient to knock him backwards into a stalagmite, disoriented, having forgotten how strong she really was.
Kailyn, who neither knew nor cared, threw up her arms and formed a twisting water spout whipping as fast as any tornado, sending it at a now-levitating Sindel to knock her down. But the more experienced Empress chuckled as she quickly floated aside. The water spout zipped past her and into the cave wall behind her; she never gave it a second thought. Before Kailyn could compensate and attack again, Sindel had already grabbed her with hair coiling around her like a python. The hair yanked the Hydromancer to her and carried her into the air. The undead Queen smirked as she traced her finger around the wriggling Tetrach's face, then spun them both through the air, faster and faster, until she finally let go of her prey and chucked her into a stalagmite. Kailyn groaned as she pressed her palm to her now-bleeding temple.
Sindel admired her handiwork for a moment, studying the dazed and now-injured Falcata, before returning her attention to Fujin, who had…disappeared? Frantically, she looked around for the Wind God. When she looked up, she found him – or more accurately, the bottom of his boots growing larger and larger in her sight until they finally kicked her in the face. Fujin, who'd flown into the air when she was distracted with Kailyn, now hovered over her.
"Two can play at that game," he growled at her. She unexpectedly responded with a barrage of shrieked purple fireballs exploding directly in his chest. He instantly tumbled to the ground.
Closer to the cavern entrance, Rain had predictably joined Hotaru in the fight to arrest Sub-Zero. Kuai Liang couldn't help but notice how terrible his nemesis looked now. It was more than him being road-weary and drained after having traveled through the Bīnglěng Di Dìyù. The angry scars from the corners of his mouth seemed like hot coals, glowing faintly red, the skin around them scorched and blistered. A shadow had fallen across his face, swaddling him in darkness, his sunken lavender eyes flecked with ethereal green darker still. With what might have been a smile or a snarl, he bared his teeth which now, the Cryomancer noticed, appeared almost rotten to the gums.
"Rain, you're looking well," Sub-Zero said sarcastically.
"I have Anya by my side," he chattered with a crazed giggle. "I beat you. Of course I look well."
And with that, the talk ended. Kuai Liang had no idea what the hell the Hydromancer meant by that, and he couldn't ponder it for long. Rain immediately charged towards his enemy with his storm sword drawn, yelling like a madman. The Cryomancer easily sidestepped the attack and used his kori sword to slice a deep cut in his back. Something was wrong, he vaguely mused. Rain was a better swordsman than even Scorpion, yet his attack had been clumsy and erratic, a novice move at best. Not that he'd complain; he didn't know how long he could hold off just the Hydromancer at full capacity in a swordfight, but against him and Hotaru? They'd make short work of him without batting an eyelash.
But Sub-Zero had no time to worry about it. Before the Grandmaster had even cut Rain, Hotaru charged forward and swung his newest naginata at his quarry's head. As soon as the Cryomancer wounded the Hydromancer, his feet had already left the ground, his body weightless, his left leg pulled to his chest, his right leg drawing an arch through the air, yanking him higher. He twisted like a tornado over the naginata's long shaft and landed before Hotaru could stop his weapon's forward momentum and redirect the attack. With a maddened battle cry of his own, Sub-Zero gripped the hilt of his kori sword with both hands and swung as hard as he could at the Seidan's head.
And Rain promptly blocked him. Before Kuai Liang registered his surprise, the Edenian Prince giggled manically at him and shoved him backwards with his now free hand. The Cryomancer stumbled hard into a stalagmite and slipped on a patch of permafrost now slippery from the heat, landing on his butt on the damp floor. Hotaru and Rain were already charging at him again, relentless, the latter cackling like a hyena as he raised his storm sword above his head. Slightly panicked, Sub-Zero directed his cryogenic powers to his feet a moment before he stomped the heel of his boot on the ground. Instantly, jagged penitentes sprang from the ground and gnashed at his enemies like teeth, bursting through the cave floor so quickly that they knocked both warriors backwards while forming a protective barrier around their maker.
On the opposite side of the cavern, the Tarkatan horde attacked Smoke and Bo'Rai Cho, and Smoke, who had already blocked a razor-sharp arm blade with his reinforced cybernetic arm, caught sight of the levitating Sindel using her living hair to dribble Kailyn from the floor to the ceiling like a basketball. It might've been a comical sight had not the Hydromancer Tetrach been bleeding from her head and mouth so badly that he vaguely worried she had massive head trauma. In the split second it took the Enenra to register the data with his mechanical eyes, he had already locked onto the Empress with his internal guidance systems and fired three missiles at her in rapid succession. When they slammed into her, they exploded into small fireballs colored orange and full of black smoke, and she screamed in pain as she and Kailyn both fell to the ground.
Now Smoke returned his attention to his own fight in time to see Bo'Rai Cho crack his short staff into a Tarkatan's face, breaking his skull. One of the cannibalistic beasts swung his arm blade at Smoke's face, but he calmly leaned back to duck the attack, feeling his body fade into burning vapor and smoke, the familiar nothingness of empty air. In confusion, the Tarkatan looked around for his enemy, but the Enenra had already passed through his body and caused a chain reaction that grew exponentially with each microsecond. It happened so fast that the unfortunate Tarkatan could do nothing more than gape in utter astonishment. A fearsome hissing, not unlike the release of geothermal pressure right before a volcanic explosion, squealed through the chamber. Within seconds, he had exploded into sloppy, wet chunks that squelched on the gradually melting floor, the pieces still sizzling as if they were cooking on a frying pan.
Bo'Rai Cho, meanwhile, had already squashed a Tarkatan into a stalagmite with his belly. Another of the horde lunged at the drunken master to attack from behind, but this time a wounded Shujinko was there and had blocked the attack with his swords. Then, summoning his last bit of strength, he yelled and chopped the creature's head off just before a separate Tarkatan bit into his shoulder, ripped out a chunk with fangs like carpenters' nails, and swallowed the bloody flesh with a gulp. Shujinko screamed at first, but his cries dulled to low moans as he dropped his swords and collapsed to the ground.
The Tarkatan, ravenous and blood-thirsty, moved to pounce on him like he was a wounded gazelle, but with two hands and his cybernetic strength, Smoke gripped him beneath his armpits, hoisted him over his shoulders, and threw him into the air. He was airborne for a moment but quickly fell to the ground with a thud, rolling to a stunned stop near the cavern's exit. But Smoke was a ruthless warrior in combat, and he allowed the Tarkatan no rest before he'd already thrown a large smoke bomb at him. The device exploded on impact, blanketing everything with even more black smoke, launching the fearfully wailing creature into the air yet again.
This time, when he landed, the Enenra was already waiting for him, and he lifted the Tarkatan to his feet before he jabbed his fingers into his eyes. Smoke paid no mind to the sticky, squishy textures he felt, the pained wailing, or the frantically flailing arms, and instead concentrated on the steady flow of smoke streaming from his fingertips into the Tarkatan's brain. He watched in almost perverse satisfaction as his victim's face quickly turned from ashen tan to beet red to dark purple to black while he convulsed in place and cooked. Soon, he was dead and Smoke indifferently pushed him to the ground; he almost seemed bored by the whole exchange.
"El Diablo!" Bo'Rai Cho yelled at Smoke. He'd been watching the battle. "Usted es el Diablo!"
Tomas wrinkled his nose and wiped his fingers, still dripping with eyeball goop, on his pants. "Whoa, Alkey Barfly. That's pretty harsh. And I thought we were friends."
"Estoy rodeada de gente loca," the man mumbled to himself as he began to tend to Shujinko.
Tomas laughed at the man, but only allowed himself a moment of it before he returned to warrior-mode and scanned the battlefield with digitally enhanced eyes. Normal eyes probably couldn't see through the building smoke and the haze, but the cyber-ninja had no trouble at all. In half a millisecond, he accounted for everyone except…
"Where's Anya?" he asked his companions.
Bo'Rai Cho shrugged but Shujinko, now pale as a ghost even in the firelight, weakly pointed towards the cavern exit. "I saw her run down there," he croaked. "A Seidan wolf was chasing her."
"And you didn't think you should say something?" he angrily yelled.
Before Shujinko could defend himself, Smoke had already charged towards the exit and the tunnel leading away from the battle. In darkness only faintly illuminated by the light within the ice walls, he switched his visual scanners to infrared and studied the floor as he ran. There were two sets of reddish-orange tracks on the packed snow: one human and one very large wolf. Both were running fast. He knew that Anya was a fast runner, and that just might save her on a straightaway, but if she hit a dead end, she didn't stand a chance. Not without help or weapons of her own. As if reiterating the urgency of the situation, the wolf howled somewhere far ahead, signaling its excitement as it gained on her, and the song was quickly overshadowed by a frantic scream. Tomas instantly pushed his cybernetic legs to run even harder through the winding tunnel.
Back in the cavern, Kailyn, who was dizzy and bleeding profusely from a minor skull fracture, formed a water whip and snapped Sindel with it, slashing open her face, before it slithered around her throat and yanked her onto the Falcata's spear. The trajectory wasn't perfect, though, and it only pierced the Queen's side. In retaliation, Sindel screamed at Kailyn, both in pain and fury, and the power of the noise lifted the Hydromancer into the air and slammed her into a stalactite hanging from the ceiling. The slick rock exploded behind her, and she fell nearly fifteen feet to the floor, gasping and choking for air before passing out entirely.
Before Sindel had a chance to yank out the spear, Fujin had already leapt into the air on a gust of wind. Twin contrails marked his passage, sketching an arch through the hazy air. He grabbed Kailyn's spear and ripped it from the Queen's side. As she squealed in pain, the Wind God spun it once, twice, and then thrust forward, the great spearhead jutting forward like a lance, the battle-notched tip almost gently kissing her chest. Bone and blood exploded inward, but red mist sprayed outward. Sindel, stunned by the suddenness of the attack, recoiled with a scream.
"Hotaru!" she wailed, her voice more of a croak than a shout.
It was enough. The Seidan spun for the briefest of seconds from his fight with Sub-Zero and hurled a bola snare at Fujin. It should never have flown straight, not shaped and weighted as it was, but by now none of the Earthrealm Champions should have expected Hotaru's weapons to behave naturally. The enchanted bola caught the Wind God off guard, wrapping around him tightly, securely fastening him so that he could no longer fight to protect his warriors. With a startled cry, Fujin collapsed into the now-muddy permafrost only a few feet from the gravely-wounded Sindel, and he gazed in worry at Kailyn, who was still stretched and lying face down on the floor. A mop of bloody blond curls concealed her face.
Crouched low at the rear of the cave, Kenshi bolted towards Baraka. He moved fast, incredibly so, his traveling cloak streaming behind him, a banner of war. Again, the Tarkatan, who was still near the hot springs, fired mystical fireballs at him, but for a few precious seconds, he was swift enough to weave through the fusillade.
Kenshi dived forward into a roll, coming up in a crouch directly between Baraka and Hotaru. The Tarkatan hesitated, holding his fire so as not to strike his temporary ally. And that moment of hesitation was all that the blind swordsman required.
With a fearsome cry, he drove Sento point-first into the floor, channeling all his magic through the blade. The cavern rippled for an instant, and then a forest of blades burst from the floor in all directions. The steel blades surrounded Kenshi and was more than enough to launch the Tarkatan into the air towards the ceiling. The Earthrealm Champion caught Baraka in a mental snare his magic had conjured, and snarled as he used it to slam the creature onto the thicket of swords, impaling him like a pin cushion. But Kenshi was not quite done yet; as the Tarkatan let out a cry that quickly devolved into a wet, bubbling gurgle, the blind swordsman violently jerked his body upwards, this time impaling him on a particularly long stalactite high above. Blood lightly sprayed from the wound from front and back, and had completely dissipated before it even came close to reaching the ground. Gravity soon snared Baraka, and the Tarkatan plummeted into the hot springs. But Kenshi had already joined Sub-Zero's side.
Back in the maze of tunnels, the hollow echo of Anya's boots, first on stone and then on packed snow as the caves grew colder, was like the beating of some subterranean, tectonic heart. She seemed oblivious to the corpses frozen into the surrounding walls, the occasional doorways to side passages, even the sounds of combat echoing after her. Only the Seidan wolf, that fearsome hunter chasing her, and escaping it held her attention.
She had no clue where she was going, and she just hoped that the others would be able to find her if they weren't killed in combat…that, and if the wolf left any of her remains for them to find…No! Stop thinking like that. It was no longer just her life she had to take care of now, and morbid thoughts of dying could only serve her as self-fulfilling prophecies. Though her muscles burned and ached with that familiar lactic acid sting, Anya pushed herself to run even harder.
Anya ran into a new chamber nearly as large as the one with the hot springs. But whereas that one had been almost warm, this new room was as cold as a freezer. Almost immediately inside the cavern, she stopped and hesitated, uncertain about how to proceed. The path, she realized, had changed somehow, but precisely how she could not say. In the dimness, she could tell the ice was not packed down, quite unlike how it had been in the other caves and tunnels.
But the wolf afforded her no luxury of time to figure it out. Somewhere behind her, it howled loudly, perhaps telling its master it had picked up its prey's trail and was rapidly closing in. Anya yelped when the resounding echo boomed off the walls around her, quickly overshadowed by the monstrous footfalls coming closer. With heart pounding in her chest, her hands shaking from adrenaline, she darted forward.
A few seconds and several yards later, her boots hit a particularly slippery patch, and the ground tossed her down. When she landed, her hand plunged directly through the surface; instantly, the cold crust crumbled beneath her palm and found frigid water perhaps a couple of inches later. Oh, my God! Anya mentally cried when realization hit her. This was no path. This was a lake. A frozen lake barely covered in ice.
Oh, God! Oh, God! she chattered over and over again in her head, but she soon made herself swallow the curses hovering on her tongue. With deliberately slow motions, the nurse gingerly scooted backwards away from the sloshing hole, wincing in fear every time she heard a new crack cut through the ice and air. Sweat slid down her face, down her back and belly, chilling her at the same time making her feel slick. Her eyes never left the hole in the ice, which was now flexing along the edges as the undercurrents pushed and pulled it from below. Strain stung her eyes just as much as the sweat dripping into them did. Her legs began to tremble with something between exhaustion and fear, but she grit her teeth and fought through it, trying to get out of her predicament with a level head rather than panic.
So naturally, less than fifty feet away through the icy entrance, the white Seidan wolf stopped at the edge of the lake and howled. Anya whipped her head around to face it, feeling the fear return in force. The animal lowered its head and growled at her. The noise began as a dull rumble in its throat, but it quickly evolved into an outright snarl that hummed and reverberated off its sharp fangs. She slowly raised her hand to halt the beast, trembling as it glared at her with electric blue eyes.
"Stay," she drawled, hoping it understood English commands. "Stay, puppy. Sit."
Her commands had no effect on the wolf. Abruptly, it leapt from its spot on the frozen shoreline and onto her a fair distance away, an impossibly strong jump that an Earthrealm wolf could never even dream of making. Anya screamed as the Seidan wolf knocked her onto her belly with its weight, pressing her head and shoulders into the ice. Immediately, the ice began to crack, forking in all directions. Within moments, both she and the animal broke through the crust and slid into the water.
Nothing she did could have braced Anya for the cold that now enveloped her. To her nerves, the pain of it was sharp and so cold it actually felt hot, and she writhed for several long seconds before her limbs started to freeze. The shock of it had paralyzed her, dooming her to drown from inactivity, and she would not have remembered how to move had it not been for the Seidan wolf thrashing in frantic confusion beside her. It stupidly batted its paws at her as if trying to swim upward, but instead it slashed into her chest with its talons, nipping at her with huge teeth as if to retaliate for something that was so clearly her fault.
The jagged pain from her torn flesh jogged her nerve impulses and she immediately began to swim for the surface. There, she punched through a new spot of ice with a triumphant and startled gasp, only to be clawed down by the now-terrified wolf. She struggled to stay afloat, thrashing around, not caring that the creature was biting her arms in fear.
"Anya!" an unexpected voice echoed through the cavern, and she recognized Tomas immediately.
"Tomas!" she yelped before the wolf accidentally dunked her once again.
Instinctively, the Hydromancer healer held up her hands to protect the already raw flesh on her chest, and gripped its paw. She promptly screamed, though underwater, her limbs flailing in uncoordinated sweeps while her brain instantly burned, the pain carrying with it the thoughts of a deeper knowledge, an unparalleled understanding between human and beast.
Her name was Blue. Of course, it was more complicated than that; her name in the wolf-tongue transcended the simplistic conventions of human practices. But the intent was clear in Anya's brain and she knew it was more than that: a shimmering ocean like the bluest sapphires, and the mountains rising from the beach to scrape the midnight sky, a mist creeping towards the heavens, carried by a sharp breeze that promised good hunting. Blue.
The wolf's history was instantly a part of the Hydromancer, and just as soon as she realized it, Anya resolved to save the creature from drowning.
On the shoreline, Tomas saw his friend struggle to stay above water, and it was no easy feat given that the Seidan wolf seemed equally as determined to pull her under. Wasting no time, he fired his kunai spear into a rock to anchor him, and then he dashed onto the ice, throwing his completely outstretched body towards her. Sputtering and coughing, Anya reached for his free hand, but the wolf frantically lifted its torso from the water and landed on her head, pushing her under yet again in a futile attempt to get out. Giant paws easily as big as a lion's scratched the crust of ice and broke it, and now Smoke was in the water as well.
The Enenra almost wished he still wore his protective armor in its entirety because the cold instantly sucked his air from his lungs and attacked his body to the core of his being, the very source of all his warmth. Now the wolf, who was yipping in fright and cold pain, paddled towards him and slashed at him, pushing him below the surface. Stinging fire surged through his cheek and chest as claws dug through his flesh. Fiercely, he shoved the animal away long enough to get his bearings.
Tomas quickly reoriented himself to find Anya, and with the help of his infrared vision, he found the woman glowing in the water, so he swam to her and wrapped his arms around her waist before yanking her to the surface. As they broke through the water, both choked down air and coughed, but then Smoke mentally commanded his kunai blade to retract; since it was still firmly anchored in the rock on shore, however, it actually pulled its bearer and his passenger towards it. He scarcely heard or cared about the terrified whining coming from the Seidan monster.
Anya, however, did. "No! Smoke, we've got to help her! She'll drown!"
"Better her than us," he replied, ignoring the Hydromancer's pleas to stop.
"I'm not leaving her to die!" she stubbornly yelled. To his surprise, she reared back and elbowed him in the gut, forcing him to let go of her. Without another word, she dove under the water and swam to the struggling creature.
Tomas let out a string of Czech swear words, all of them for the headstrong She-Devil, and then dove after her. Underwater, he saw her wrap her arms around the wolf's torso as he had just done to her, but the animal was too heavy, especially now with its fur soaking wet, to lift on her own. Fortunately for her, she was in the presence of a cyber-ninja with superhuman strength. Still mentally cursing at Anya, he joined her and started shoving the beast upward.
The Seidan wolf, however, had no idea that they only meant to help, and instead took it as an attack on a vulnerable animal. It reared back and swiped Tomas with the razor claws on its hind feet before biting Anya's bicep, piercing the flesh on either side. She screeched and frantically lifted harder while the Enenra dove lower in the water and then rocketed upward to gain some momentum. Still, the beast thrashed, but at last, he felt some give as its front claws hooked the ice above. Now the animal could aid in its own rescue, and with another hard shove, it finally pulled itself out. Fearfully, it scampered into the darkness in a different direction.
"Now, you obnoxious She-Devil," Tomas panted as he wrapped his free arm around Anya again, "can we please get out of this lake? I'm starting to rust."
Anya breathlessly nodded but said nothing, so as he had before, he commanded his kunai blade to retract. The mechanisms easily pulled them from the water and deposited them on the shoreline, shivering and exhausted. The nurse's eyes drooped as she rested her head on her outstretched arms, and the cyber-ninja briefly examined his damage before he glared at her in fury.
"Are you crazy?" he yelled at her. "You could've gotten us both killed! One stupid animal's life is not worth one of ours."
"She would've died, though," Anya argued. "And she was innocent!"
"She was trying to eat you for lunch," he hissed.
"No, she wasn't. Hotaru just sent her to bring me to him." She panted and coughed into the snow.
"I'm glad you're thinking so much about this," he said. "But I'm just wondering how much you thought about the little baby in you, or me, or Kuai Liang before you decided to play Rescue 911." Her eyes widened in surprise and then filled with shameful tears, but Smoke didn't care. "You can't afford to be so selfish. Other people's lives depend on you. And you may not care about your life, but when my life is on the line, you're going to be extra careful because I am one of the few things I own outright."
"You're right," she whimpered. "I'm sorry. Thank you for helping me save her. And me."
He inhaled deeply. "All right," he finally acknowledged. "I think you've learned your lesson. But I'm still angry at you, young lady."
Anya started to answer, but several sets of shiny black boots that looked like they were made of rubber crunched on the snow before them and interrupted her. Slowly, both the Enenra and the nurse craned their necks upward as torchlight flickered across their faces. Above them stood fierce men with piercing blue almond-shaped eyes and dark hair cut short. They wore skintight black suits almost like a surfer's wetsuit beneath long, animal hide trench coats trimmed in gray-brown fur, and thick gloves on their hands. Utility belts full of miscellaneous tools like ice picks and ice axes hung from their waists, and those who didn't carry torches carried kori swords, axes, or maces in their hands.
The man at the front of the group looked only slightly older than Smoke, and white hair feathered his temples handsomely. His face bore a striking resemblance to Kuai Liang's – a genetic resemblance, the cyber-ninja's scanners told him. His jaw was set in precisely the same way as the Grandmaster's, but his blue eyes were colder, darker, pitiless. He slowly swiveled his head back and forth to study his catch, and then he knelt on one knee before a trembling Anya and gently lifted her chin up with his finger.
"My, my, my," he said in a deep voice that reverberated off the walls. "A Hydromancer in the Bīnglěng Di Dìyù. Are you lost, little girl?"
Standing between Hotaru and Rain was Sub-Zero, his face a mask of determination. He held a kori sword with both hands, and he had long since shed his traveling cloak. Soot and blood caked his cheeks, but the damage was minor and he was no longer alone. Kenshi stood beside him, Sento floating in the air before him, the very picture of calm even in the heat of battle.
With an enraged scream, Rain hurled himself across the distance, water propelling him forward like a missile. Kenshi turned to face him and knocked his storm sword aside before he ripped it from his hands altogether with his telekinetic powers. At the same time, Hotaru inexorably aimed his naginata at the two Earthrealm Champions and fired a pulsating blast of energy towards them. Both men ducked from the path and it careened harmlessly through them, instead finding the Edenian Prince and knocking him across the burning chamber to Kabal.
While the other three warriors fought in a blurred frenzy of weapons and fists, Rain staggered, half-blinded and rocked by the detonation. In the middle of his chest was a big, smoking hole. He brushed it lightly with his hand as if shooing a fly away in boredom. Then he caught sight of the Earthrealm detective tied tightly to a stalagmite and started cackling madly.
"Well, look at you, you old piece of boot leather," he jeered. "You're moving up in the world. Rat torture has clearly done wonders for you."
"Hey, untie me," Kabal hissed, ignoring the Hydromancer's jokes. "I'll help you capture tall, dark, and gruesome over there."
"And why would you do that for me? I thought these people were your friends!"
"They tied me up," he said in a deadpan voice. "Some friends. Especially him." He nodded to Kuai Liang. "I'll give anything to see Onaga make a lamp shade out of him. He's screwed me over for the last time."
Rain grinned. The scars at the corners of his mouth tugged disgustingly at the rest of his face. "Very well, Kadeem Kabal." Green rays of light danced in his eyes. "But only because we have something in common." He winked at the detective, seeing mirth lines crinkle around the man's ethereal green eyes as he nodded his understanding.
And then the Hydromancer cut Kabal free with his storm sword, and before both joined the fight, he pulled a cobalt collar from inside his tattered purple tunic and shoved it into the human's hands. "Now, be a good boy and put the leash on the doggy," he said, his voice lilting.
Now it was Kabal's turn to laugh. "My pleasure," he said and he took off running.
Sub-Zero and Kenshi, totally preoccupied with deflecting Hotaru's ruthless attacks, didn't see their comrade furiously dash through the fire and hazy smoke to attack them from behind. He shouted triumphantly as he jump-kicked the blind man in the back, and Sento clattered to the ground; now truly blind, Kenshi yelped as he frantically started pawing around to find his weapon.
Before Kenshi hit the floor, Kabal had already focused his attention on his rival. With his supernatural speed, the detective easily fastened the cobalt collar around the Cryomancer's neck and locked it in place before the man even realized Kenshi was down. At that same moment, Hotaru swung his naginata at Sub-Zero's head, and though his kori sword blocked the attack and saved him from harm, it instantly shattered. His powers no longer fed the weapon his strength.
Rain cheered when he saw his nemesis turn ghastly white in an instant, his cryogenic powers held at bay and stifled, then charged directly towards Kenshi and attacked him with his sword. Though blind and weaponless, the swordsman still had remarkable hearing and sensed the attack before it came. Quickly, he swung his body around and Rain missed his shot. Then the Champion did a kip-up and swept the Edenian's feet from beneath him.
As those two began to trade punches and kicks, Hotaru mercilessly gazed at his quarry, who was clearly weaker now, and had fallen to one knee because he lacked the strength to stand. Wasting no time, the Seidan swung the haft of his naginata into the Cryomancer's face before he twirled around and smashed his opponent's nose with its hilt. Blood immediately spurted from the Grandmaster's nose, and he groaned as he covered his face in pain, the gore streaming between his fingers.
Now the Seidan General gripped him by the hair on the nape of his neck and lifted him to his feet. "It would appear that my opinion was not wrong," he couldn't resist mocking. "You are under arrest, Sub-Zero." With that, he threw the severely weakened fugitive at Kabal's feet.
"Oh, my God!" Kabal clapped in delight. "Is today Christmas?" He kicked his old friend in the face and laughed when the man groaned and rolled over. "No, this is better than Christmas!" He kicked Kuai Liang in the ribs now, and the man curled into the fetal position on his side. "This has to be Hanukkah." He started to sing: "Instead of one day of presents, we've got eight crazy nights!" Now he started kicking him over and over at various points on the body.
"Hey!" Rain yelled at the detective. He threw an also sorely weakened Kenshi to the side like a rag doll. "Don't hog all the fun."
"My apologies," Kabal told him as he stepped back. He gestured for the Edenian to take his turn.
Instantly, Rain stomped the squirming, moaning, bleeding Sub-Zero in the gut as hard as he physically could, and the man immediately folded his body in half before vomiting all over the ground. "Hey!" the Hydromancer screamed indignantly. "These are my favorite boots!" And with that, he kicked him in the face, which was covered in clotted blood and vomit and hardly recognizable anymore. A geyser of blood burst from the man's mouth, and he coughed and choked as his enemy kicked him even more.
Unnoticed by him, Kabal, or Hotaru, a strange ice flow like a river of crystals gradually crept from the exit of the cavern towards them. At first, the ice, which moved slowly in one, heaving mass like a river of lava, hardly attracted anyone's attention, but it soon picked up speed and behaved like a sentient creature on the attack. Bo'Rai Cho, who'd been tending to Shujinko's wounds, noticed the phenomenon first, and immediately grabbed his old student beneath his armpits and pulled him backwards, propping him against a stalagmite oddly shaped like a cockeyed chair. Sindel, who now sat against a stalagmite near Fujin, pressing her hands into her stab wound to stop the bleeding, looked up next but was helpless to stop the approaching danger. Fujin saw her panic and then saw why, so he began calling to Kailyn to get her to wake up. She did not move.
"Hotaru!" Sindel yelled to the Seidan to get his attention.
Hotaru, now bored by the fugitive's beating, looked to see what her problem was, and immediately saw. "Stop!" he yelled at Rain and Kabal.
Both obeyed, and when Kabal saw the ice flow, he started to laugh. "They're he-ere!" he announced. And then, from nowhere, a long lance made of solid blue ice flew from the dark tunnel at the exit and plunged into Rain's middle, pinning him to the wall like a butterfly. He struggled and grunted at first as he grasped at the slippery shaft, but then quickly lost consciousness and wilted like a flower, seemingly dead.
The ice, which was as clear and as sharp as glass, clinked loudly now. To Kenshi and Kuai Liang's ears, the noise sounded like a freight train gradually picking up speed as it chugged along. It moved faster now, much faster, and would have completely overwhelmed Sub-Zero had his companion, Kenshi, not grabbed him and weakly lifted him to his feet. Bo'Rai Cho, meanwhile, quickly grabbed Fujin and Kailyn before the ice overtook them as well.
Only when everyone was securely pinned against the wall did the ice flow stop. They all fixed their eyes on the exit, and the darkness that was gradually fading with torchlight, and they saw a band of warriors dressed in primitive animal hide clothes and fur spill into the room. Their leader, the one seemingly controlling the flow of ice, walked towards them with both hands in the air, his palms wreathed in frosty fog, the skin of his fingers glowing blue. Kuai Liang vaguely thought, in spite of his pain, that the man looked like a close cousin. The man lowered his hands with an amused grin on his face, and immediately, two of the others emerged beside him, escorting Anya and Tomas, who were now tightly tied up. Anya, he saw, wore a cobalt collar similar to his own.
The leader stepped forward with a large, derisive smile plastered on his face. "Look at this, men," he began. "And I thought today was going to be boring."