A deep, loathing groan of annoyance escaped Shao Kahn's scowling lips as his deposed men came limping into his throne room; four of them carrying in more dead members of their squadron, all piled on top of each other, on a crude stretcher. The Dark Emperor massaged his spiked, broad brows frustratingly.
"How many more times must I be bothered with this?" he grumbled. He then glared over the incompetent peons with deathly red eyes. All of them flinched. His eyes came to rest on the man at the forefront of the gathering, thinning as they did and adding an even more terrifying glint to them. "Come forward Captain Nozuka."
The squadron's leader, a sniveling, coward of a man, tremulously came before the throne and bowed low to the floor.
"Explain yourselves…" the Emperor commanded nonchalantly.
"F-Forgive us, my lord…" Nozuka stammered. "W-We were usurped by Gorbak's troops. Th-They intercepted our communication w-with General Reiko, and met u-us when we tried to move th-through Koganeiro-Ryu* Pass, an-"
"And why," the Emperor barked, causing Nozuka to flinch, "would you take the pass? It is but a narrow squeeze between two high cliffs where you can be easily trapped on both sides by the Shokan armies."
"F-Forgive m-m-me Master, but… but it leads directly into the h-heart of the Sh-Shokan's base camp near the Beetle Lair. I-I thought it b-best i-if…"
"You thought it would be best to walk directly into enemy territory like a predictable FOOL!" Kahn yelled, standing up from his throne. He proceeded down from the dais and advanced upon the failure of a captain, and his eyes widened with utter terror as the Emperor's immense form hovered over him.
"You have sorely tried my patience with your failures Nozuka." Kahn growled. "I have entrusted you to get rid of this problem for well over two months now, and you have yet to do so." He reached down clapped his bear-like hand around the smaller man's neck with ease, and he gasped and coughed as he was raised high in the air. The other men watched with equal fear, some almost falling to their knees in the malevolent warlord's menacing presence. Kahn met his glowing crimson, disdainful gaze up at the annoyance suspended in his grip, clenching his hand tighter.
"You know well the penalty for failure, Nozuka." Kahn lowly said.
"Phh…Puh-lease…" Nozuka strangled, his eyes so wide now they looked as though they would fall out of his sockets completely in moments. "… Sphh… spare me…"
Kahn scoffed, disgusted by the little whelp. "You are no longer of any use to me."
And with no effort, Kahn severed the man's neck in his mighty clasp. It gave a loud crackle, and blood sprayed from the poor soul's ears and mouth, before his head fell limply back, his eyes rolling up into his skull. The men shuddered at the gruesome sight.
Behind them all, the Emperor's young 'daughter,' Princess Kitana, stood by her father's throne. She watched the scene with total impassiveness, her arms folded and eyes observing blankly. It would be purely disturbing to any average person to see someone so young be able to watch something so horrendous without so much as batting an eyelash. But in her years, a few decades over five-thousand in total, Kitana had seen her father execute men, women, even children like herself and even younger, more times than she could count; and in far more violent ways.
And most disturbingly, she not only was desensitized to it, but was relieved by it. She thought Nozuka to be a bumbling fool; useless trash in need of taking out.
"Let this," Kahn asserted to the other men, giving Nozuka's limp form a shake for emphasis, "be a reminder to all of you of what happens when you fail me." He then tossed him into the hard floor before them, turned his back and waved his hand dismissively. "Now, be gone from my sight." A few of the remaining men scurried over and lifted the body, carrying over and heaping it onto the others, then quickly departed.
This had been the same pattern for the past two months. Ever since the day Shao Kahn officially allied himself to the Centaurian kingdom, the Shokan, their sworn enemies and longtime servants of the Emperor, have been rebelling against him. They had been rioting several villages to join their cause, destroying several important outposts and facilities and being a general nuisance for the Emperor. For two months now, Kahn sent his warriors to target the key members of the Kuatan Rebellion, and for two months their broken and dead bodies were sent back to him in humiliating defeat.
Kahn eased himself back into his seat, giving a gravelly sigh. Again massaging his brow, he gazed over to his daughter, who just shook her head.
"I grow tired of these bumbling idiots…" Kahn murmured.
"I had attempted to warn you that Nozuka would fail you, Father." Kitana said. Her nose crinkled in an ugly expression of disgust, or as ugly as it could become on her lovely face. "The man was an incompetent fool. He was a pathetic excuse warrior, a poor strategist and even worse leader."
The Emperor chuckled at her passionate disdain. "I agree with you fully my daughter. Now a plan must be made for our next course of action."
"I could easily eliminate the Shokan generals for you Father." Kitana stated, quickly circling around in front of him and kneeling. "I will infiltrate their base of operations and take each one of them without fail. I will lay their heads at your feet."
Kahn laughed aloud this time, proud of Kitana's passion. Leaning forward in his chair, he reached out with the same large hand he used to crush Nozuka's spine a moment before and caressed the top of her head with surprising gentleness.
"I can appreciate your enthusiasm, my dear, but this matter is far beneath your talents." Kahn assured.
"All the more reason why I could end this quickly." Kitana continued. "This will be no trouble for me. If I could slay the generals, the leaderless Shokan troops would be thrown into disaray, and therefore be easily taken down by our own. Please, just trust me Father. I can put an end to all of this, and serve to remind those insolent beasts who it is commands them."
Kahn straightened himself in his throne, gazing off slightly as he pondered his daughter's words. At the mere Earthrealm equivalent of her early teenage years, Kitana was already a proficient killer. She had been trained by Kahn's finest, occasionally tested by him herself, and in the hundred years that she had been serving him, she had brought down all she was assigned to eliminate with the ease of someone far older and more experienced.
But like any child, she was also prone to impatience, overconfidence. With every kill Kitana made, her brazenness and bravado increased more and more. Uncharacteristically, the Emperor worried that her ego and short temper could one day land her in serious trouble, as it nearly had on few, but notable occasions. This business he had with the Kuatan Rebellion was a delicate situation that needed to be handled by someone who had tight control over their emotions; something Kitana had yet to fully master. Blowing a breath outwards, Kahn regarded an eagerly expectant Kitana with a smirk and a slight shake of his head.
"Forgive me, my dear, but I am afraid I must trust this matter with another." he finally replied. Kitana immediately looked crestfallen, unready to take no for an answer.
"But Father please, reconsider…" she pled insistently.
"Do not argue with your Emperor." Kahn answered quickly, the tone in his voice much more patient than what anyone other than her would receive, but still threateningly stern enough to silence her immediately. Reluctantly resigned, Kitana bowed her head.
"Yes Father." she murmured quietly, trying to keep the indignation out of her voice.
"That's my girl…" Kahn affirmed. "I will call upon you when I have a new assignment."
"Yes Father." she replied again, rising from her knees and taking her leave. As she departed, she dimly heard the Emperor send for another warrior, likely the one he would assign the mission to next.
Once well away from the throne room, Kitana gave a disenfranchised huff. Yet again, she was cast aside; denied another chance to truly test herself as an assassin, to bring down an especially bothersome enemy to her father's rule, and would likely be assigned instead to take down some bumbling dignitary or merchant, or other useless peon who had missed a monthly tribute or something like that.
Kitana knew well that she was one of, if not the strongest warriors serving under her father. She was young, and not nearly as experienced as others, this was true; but what she lacked in her years and trials she more than made up for in proficiency and dogged commitment.
No one trained harder than her, practiced day in and out, driving their mind and body to its absolute limit like she did. No one else had broken themselves to condition their body like her, suffered through broken ribs and dislocated shoulders one day, then was up running through every kata, every stretch and exercise, the very next. No one else had mastered some sixteen fighting styles, and been proficient in at least twelve more, by their tenth birthday. No one else was as singularly driven to please the Emperor out of pure, unwavering love and devotion like she was. In spite of how indifferent and even outright dismissive as he was to her most times, Kitana adored her father, idolized him, and wanted so badly to see his will carried out… by her capable hands.
Kitana's somewhat rambling thoughts came to an abrupt halt when she suddenly noticed a group of figures coming down the same corridor. She immediately recognized who they were by their heavily studded armor in varying blacks, greys and crimsons; they were the Yokai* Soldiers.
Ironically enough, most of them were in fact humans, biologically anyhow; but their mercilessness and brutality in battle was easily on par with the bloodthirsty creatures of their namesake. They were among the few of Kahn's many scores of warriors that Kitana found to be impressive in their own right. Hand selected right from infancy based on certain desirable traits, the warriors who constituted their ranks were subjected to the most extreme of physical and psychological conditioning; turning them into the most remorseless and brutal killers. Even the Tarkata would go silent when their name was mentioned.
Of course Kitana still thought them inferior to herself.
Straightening herself, and slipping into an heir of regal authority, the Princess continued directly into the throng of six warriors of various ranks. As expected, upon seeing her, they divided evenly into two lines on each side of the hall, bowing their heads as she passed through them; mutters of "Evening, Princess…" following her path. Once Kitana had gotten a quite a few paces forward, and the soldiers continued on their way, she suddenly froze mid-step and whirled about. It dawned upon her right then that they were the ones her father had summoned for right as she was being dismissed. Would they be the ones he would send to fight against the revolt? Once they were well down the corridor, she discreetly began to follow them, and surely enough they were headed fore the throne room. Standing stick-still behind a pillar well away from Kahn's throne, Kitana listened attentively as the men bowed before him.
"You six are among the strongest, most capable fighters who serve me." Kahn began, leaning back in his seat and steepling his fingers together. "Consider this assignment I am about to give you to be the truest test of your worth. I have sent many before you to complete this task: All have failed. Should you follow suit, your death at my hands shall be a miserable one."
"Yes Master." all six voices answered simultaneously.
"The Rebellion has gotten far out of hand. Recently, Supreme General Hotoro and his ranks have overrun and seized control of the Beetle Lair, which as you all know, contains valuable information that they can use against me." the Emperor paused, gazing over each bowed head of his subjects before continuing, "Your assignment is to annihilate the small regiment of warriors he has left to keep guard over it. They are being lead by Feng, a skillful Shokan soldier whom I understand is General Hotoro's right hand. I… want… his… head."
Excitement clutched at Kitana's stomach. Now that was a worthwhile mission, and one she could surely complete on her own. She had faced more than ten Shokan all at once quite regularly before her training was complete, and still did at times to maintain her skill. Rebellious, exhilarated thoughts formulated in her mind instantaneously: She was going to head to the Beetle Lair long before the Yokai Soldiers, slay the battalion and finally prove her true worth to her father. A devious smirk curled at her delicate pink lips, and she had to keep back her laughter as she imagined the way the men would gape when they arrived at the lair to find their targets already lying dead in her wake. It would be too priceless.
Not wanting to waste another moment, Kitana quickly and silently crept out of the throne room to her chamber. She needed to move now.
"I don't know Tsui… I hear a lot of men have been dying in this scrimmage. Maybe you should just send the others into battle while you direct them."
"Not a chance Spitfire. I have been directly called upon to serve my emperor. I cannot just sit back on the edge of the battlefront."
The young girl watched with wary verdant eyes as her master, and in many ways her second father, strapped into his armor. Leader of the Yokai Soldiers or not, she did not like the idea of him being sent away to fight in a battle that recently most men were returning from broken… if at all.
"Alright, then take me with you." she insisted. The older man only glared golden eyes at her blankly a moment before snorting a dismissive laugh and continuing his task. Her brows furrowed. "I'm serious Tsui! Let me go with you!"
"Absolutely not Jade." the Captain firmly said, his gaze now stern. Immediately the girl's stomach sank: He only called her by her name when he meant business, and once he made up his mind, that was it. "You are not a member of the Yokai."
"Whatever! You know that I can fight just as well as any of you. You trained me yourself!"
"You are but a child."
"Oh don't pull that 'fatherly protective' shit on me now." Jade drawled, rolling her eyes. "You were anything but when you were handing my ass to me all those centuries…"
"Such language…" Tsui chided, clucking his teeth. "A young lady shouldn't swear so much."
"I'm not a delicate little maiden. I'm a warrior, just as good as any of you! I can't help that I was born with my gonads on the inside." Her vulgarity drove the point home, and the middle-aged assassin found himself sputtering with laughter at it.
It was true, his former servant was definitely not a lady. Just beginning to crest into adolescence, Jade was just as rough, profane, and quick to fight as any boy. And she was quite a capable fighter, far more cool-headed and calculating than most her age, yet alone most adults. In the millennia she had trained under him, she had developed a level of skill that was very close to par of any of the Youkai, but traditionally the unit would not include women within their ranks; a fact that incensed her. It was a pity, but Tsui knew that the proficient young girl would one day acquire her own position of importance very soon. But wanted her to live to see that opportunity come; and there was a high chance she wouldn't if she came with him, even with her skill. Tsui could not allow that, nor bear to imagine it.
"Your time is coming, Spitfire." he assured, "but not this time."
"Come on Tsui!" Jade insisted. "Let me come with you. Let me watch your back."
"Ah, so this is out of worry for my well being?"
"Damned right it is."
"And what makes you think I need you to protect me?"the older man semi-teased. Jade's worried countenance faded into a wry smirk.
"Well… you are getting a bit old you know. Not as nimble and quick…" she jabbed.
"Brat." Tsui grumbled.
"Geezer." Jade shot back. Again, he chuckled.
"You are truly something else Spitfire." Tsui murmured, securing his shin guard before stretching to his full height. He approached the girl, tall for her age but still a bit more than a foot beneath him, and set a large hand gently on her shoulder. She smiled, although her brows were still somewhat knotted in annoyance.
"Just make sure you come back in one piece." Jade softly said, in a rare display of vulnerability. "I already lost my first old man. Don't make me lose my other one."
Tsui smiled, tussling her black hair. "Don't you worry about me."
Kitana yelped when the slick rock she tried to gain purchase with slipped from beneath her foot. But her grip on the ledge above her held fast, and she managed to pull herself up onto it, heaving a sigh as she gazed blearily down the steep drop to the jagged rocks below.
"Shit." she hissed, realizing just how close she had come to falling to her death. She shook it off quickly, gripping the stone behind her and pulling up to her feet.
Thanks to Koganeiro-Ryu Pass being overrun with Shokan rebels, she had been forced to find another path to the Beetle Lair. She knew that the old temple worshiping some warrior demigod lay somewhere in the heart of these steep slopes of the Lei Chen Mountains, and she knew that she was close; but the ancient temple's exact location was lost upon her. The young assassin knew it was roughly thirty miles from the bustling city named after this craggy range, and having passed it hours ago, she figured she'd come across it sooner or later.
Carefully shifting sideways along the thin ledge, Kitana turned her gaze ahead and saw where her path widened between a squeeze in the rocks. She maneuvered her way to it, gracefully slipping between the boulders. On the other side she found the mouth of a cave, two tall and lit torches on either side of it. More incriminating still, she gazed upwards and saw the carving of a beetle above the entrance. 'I knew I'd find it,' she thought triumphantly, a smirk playing behind the dark blue satin covering her face. Reaching behind her into the small pack strapped to her body, she removed a lightstone* and set into the blackness of the cavern.
The tunnel was relatively large and heavily modified, with more beetle carvings and other inscriptions going across the walls. The ground beneath her feet had also been reshaped and smooth, which made for easy traversing for her. It was like the gods themselves were allowing for her to take this mission, if she had any faith in them. She served the only 'god' worth acknowledging directly. Suddenly Kitana froze, honing her senses. She could just dimly hear them… footsteps, far ahead of her. When the beginnings of torchlight began to glow before her, she shoved her lightstone into her satchel and quickly hid herself behind a large stalagmite near the cave wall. Drawing one tessen from her boot holster, she crouched down and waited.
'Two voices… both men, relatively young…,' the Princess noted.
Surely enough, to men clad head to toe in armor emerged from down the tunnel, both chatting with each other amicably about meaningless things in their personal lives. She could tell by the red plumes standing up from the center of their helmets that they were part of the Lei Chen guard. Her father had told her that the city was among the firsts to side with the Kuatan Rebellion in exchange for protection from his rule. These foolish men would pay for their betrayal.
Both came to an abrupt halt, yelping as a gust of air whipped in front of them, temporarily cutting through the flames of their torches. Both drew from their scabbards and took a defensive stance, gazing about the seemingly empty tunnel warily.
"What in the world was that?" one asked.
"I don't know." the other tensely replied. "I have a feeling we are being watched. Be on your gua-"
Before he could finish, both men felt their backs being penetrated by thin, cool metal. Behind them, Kitana stood holding her closed fans in each of their spines. Sputtering in pain, they gazed back at her over their shoulders.
"Th… The Tessen…" one choked.
"You've heard of me. I'm flattered." Kitana said in a saccharine voice. The two men attempted to struggle. "Uh, uh, uh… I wouldn't do that. You'll paralyze yourselves." Gently she coaxed the men onto their knees, still keeping her blades impaled within their flesh.
"Do you know why I was given the name Tessen? Not just because they are my preferred weapons, but because I am the most skilled and precise user of them in the entire land." Kitana continued nonchalantly. "I am so skilled that I can slide these blades right in between the vertebra of a person's spine, and take them right back out without causing any significant damage." She paused, crouching down and leaning in between the two men, glancing back and forth between them with wicked glee in her sapphire eyes. Tauntingly, she whispered, "Or… I can twist them, paralyzing you completely and leave you here to suffocate to death. Or maybe I'll push them deeper and pierce your internal organs… What course of action I take depends upon you."
"Wh… What do… you want from us?" one guard sputtered gripped by both pain and sheer terror.
"How much further is it to the Beetle Lair?" Kitana demanded.
"J-J-Just another ten miles th-through the tunnel. It is r-right through the exit on th-th-the other side…" the other guard quickly answered, clearly more gripped by terror than his companion.
"How many Shokan are there at present?"
"Only a battalion of thirty… led by Lieutenant General Feng."
"What of General Hotoro?" Kitana further pressed.
"H-He had returned to Kuatan three days a-ago."
"And are other soldiers like yourselves with any of them?"
"N-No… only the Shokan are left at th-the lair. W-We are from the city… We had returned from… d-delivering th-their protection money for O-Overlord Zeffero."
"I see…" Kitana murmured thoughtfully. "Well, you two have been rather helpful today. Even though it is not usually how I do things, I suppose I shall spare your lives."
The guards yelped when they felt the thin blades be suddenly pulled free from their backs, surprised to find that they indeed still had full control and movement in their limbs. The gazed upon her like frightened animals as she casually stood, flicking their blood from her fans and sliding them into her holsters again.
"Now I want the two of you to return to Lei Chen. Tell Zeffero that that your city is to cut ties with this feeble rebellion immediately. And if I should learn that the two of you have misled me, or your involvement with the Shokan continues, every citizen within the city walls will be slain. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes Princess." both men replied, bowing low before her.
"Good boys. Now go." she praised condescendingly, taking her lightstone out again and turning back down the tunnel. "And I'd hurry before those wounds of yours bleed out. You should have just enough time to get back."
Without preamble, the two terrified guards scrambled to their feet, taking up the torches they'd dropped before scurrying away.
*Koganeiro-Ryu - "Golden Dragon"
*Yokai - apparition, demon, specter etc.
*lightstone - a totally bullcrapped rock I invented that glows. I think I briefly made mention of it somewhere in The Aftermath.
This is just the set up chapter, so sorry if it's kinda boring. It won't be long before out two future friends end up meeting face-to-face. Let me know what you think so far!