Prologue: Nine Generations
Previously: Dramatis Personae
There was no point in trying to gauge the day or the hour at Raiden's temple. The light came and left when it willed, and there were often lightning storms for no other reason than it pleased the thunder god.
Liu Kang had no idea the size of the temple, nor how or where one even entered. Some days, he figured there were dozens of stories floating in space, or wherever Raiden's realm lay. Other days, he knew in his heart there were hundreds of floors.
The temple was astoundingly beautiful, currently drawing inspiration from the Japanese Edo period. But instead of tatami mats, the floors were white marble, and instead of paper, the sliding doors were fitted with frosted glass.
The story went that when Raiden built this temple, sometime eons past, he staffed it with a thousand "cloud maidens". They flitted throughout the temple, their footfalls silent, their dresses flowing in silken kimono, hanbok, and hanfu, all the shades of sky and storm.
Gureum was such a cloud maiden; Liu had known her almost all his life. Yet as he aged, she did not, which was his first clue that despite his affections, they had no future. She was such a lovely being, with skin like the palest rays of sunlight and hair as black as midnight.
When Liu first came of age and found himself falling for her, Raiden musingly warned that despite her lovely shape, were Liu to unwrap Gureum's hanbok, he'd be sorely disappointed by what he found--or rather, didn't find--beneath it. For, as it turned out, all of Raiden's cloud maidens were built like dolls beneath their robes.
Life at the temple was the best and worst of things. Every day, Liu endured a grueling training regimen in the courtyard with other warriors, under the god's watchful eye. In exchange, he was granted a rather luxurious lifestyle with spacious quarters, fine dining, and yes, the assistance of Gureum.
It had been a long day of training. Liu Kang was bruised and every bone and muscle in his body hurt. He was a tall, handsome, black-haired warrior who easily charmed all those who met him. With a wave of her hand, Gureum had filled his tub for him with steaming hot water, in which he blissfully submerged while she collected his bloody training clothes.
"You know," he grumbled, eyes closed, "just because you're not speaking, doesn't mean you're being quite. I can still hear your unspoken criticism."
"You left too many openings for your cousin today," she said simply, setting out some towels for him. "The Tournament is coming, and you can't afford such mistakes, not at this stage of your training."
"Kung Lao was in good form today," Liu admitted, opening his eyes and sighing, "while I'm allowed to have an off day, Gureum."
"Actually, you're not," she blinked, turning to face him. Usually, there was a twinkle in her dark eyes, a hint of mischief that he so dearly loved, but today that was gone. Her voice was almost leaden when she spoke again. "Raiden wasn't the only one observing you today. Lord Fujin arrived earlier and observed with him."
Liu sat up in the tub, even as his body screamed for him not to move. "Fujin? Is here?"
Gureum somberly nodded. "As I said, the Tournament is coming."
Raiden's throne room was a large and mostly empty chamber of marble floors and walls. Beyond his throne was a balcony overlooking the vast stretch of his realm. What appeared before him was whatever he willed; if he willed to see mountaintops, there were mountaintops, stony or snowcapped, and shrouded in mist.
If he willed to see nothing but mist, there was mist, and if his mood deemed it, there were storms.
Today, he opted for mist and light rain beneath a bright sky. Fujin joined him on the balcony to sip tea and watch the mists roll this way and that. They were both towering gods with white hair and eyes, dressed in fine robes of blue and gray silk respectively.
"Nine generations," Raiden mused suddenly. His voice was deep and booming, with a slight echoic quality. "For nine generations, I have watched my warriors rise and fall to the whims of Outworld."
Fujin sipped his tea without tasting, before hesitantly announcing, "There's been another casualty, brother." Unlike Raiden, the wind god's voice was as soft and gentle as a supple breeze.
Raiden snorted softly. "Of course there has. How else do you think Shang Tsung won the last nine tournaments?"
Fujin was outraged as he turned to face Raiden. "You knew?"
"It took me some time," Raiden admitted with a nod, "but I eventually figured it out. Shang sends his assassins to track down my champions between tournaments and kill them off."
Fujin frowned in confusion. "But then shouldn't the Elder Gods--"
"It's not against the rules," Raiden shook his head.
Now Fujin's whole body turned towards him. "How is that not against the rules?"
"In order for mortals to shape their own destiny, the gods have to give them the space in which to shape that destiny, brother, " Raiden shrugged. "We can't hold their hands through every tragedy."
"The Tournament is coming," Fujin rasped lowly, even though there was nobody near to hear. "Why will the tenth be any different from the last nine failures?"
"Because the last nine were failures," Raiden mused. "Because even as we speak, potential champions are dying all over Earthrealm. Because to Shang Tsung, it's business as usual."
Fujin's eyes widened. "You're playing along."
"His assassins roam Earthrealm, killing warriors who would've never survived the Tournament anyway," Raiden shrugged. "Meanwhile the descendants of the Great Kung Lao are safely in my keeping...as they have been since they were boys."
Fujin's eyes widened even further as his gasped, "The two cousins from before."
"Lesson the first, brother," Raiden smirked, nodding, "failure is a blessing."
Next: The Sorcerer's Ward