Ash woke up slowly, wearing a grey, woolen blanket over her half naked body. The room was cold and her body shivered despite the thick layers of blankets covering her body. Her eyes jolted awake in realization - the last thing she remembered was being attacked by the yeti. She moved up but winced in pain, lowering the blankets to see her bandaged torso. Her right half had a numb burn to it.
The room she was in was low lit by torchlight that produced a strange, blue flame. Old tapestries depicting ancient Chinese symbols on them adorned the walls that seemed to be made of a dark red, almost black stone. The floor was tiled marble, likely freezing cold if the room’s temperature was anything to go by. Judging by how she was in the wastes of Arctika, stranded from her people, she could understand why it was so cold.
She was wearing only a bandages on her torso, a bandeau that covered her large chest, and some grey women’s trunks. A small, ornamental bell rested on a wooden nightstand next to her bed. Curious, she rang the bell a little, producing a soft chime that echoed across the room. Nearby was a wooden door, and outside of it Ash could hear footsteps shift towards it.
The door jumbled a bit as it was unlocked and opened, with a small asian girl poking her head in. She had short, dark hair and pale skin with a light, blue robe adorning a strange, upside down triangular symbol. She smiled at Ash and greeted “Good morning. You had quite an injury, Miss Fields.”
Ash gave her a cautious look “How do you know my name?”
The girl approached her and began examining her wounded side “One of our patrols found you a few miles outside of our temple. It was good that we found you. Yetis are ferocious hunters, but seldom travel alone. How do you feel?”
Ash watched her undo her bandaging and winced as the girl peeled it off her stitched up wound “I’ve had better days. Who are you?”
She smiled up at her “I’m Inka, of the Lin Kuei clan.”
Raising her eyebrows, Ash breathed out “The Lin Kuei…?! You’re the guys I was warned about…”
Inka chuckled at the awed response and asked “Do you think you would still be alive if you had anything to fear from us, Miss Fields? Trust me, the last thing the Grandmaster wants is to be on the Special Forces’ radar. He and Mrs. Blade have a… bit of history together.”
Ash blinked “The Grandmaster? You mean Sub-Zero?”
Inka shrugged “To an outsider, probably. We all just call him the Grandmaster, or Master Liang.”
Master Liang…? Ash wondered what Sub-Zero wanted with her. She was just a Special Forces private, sent to escort a detail to Arctika to treat with the Mangu clan. They were warned not to cross into the Lin Kuei’s land, however, knowing just how territorial the group was. Now here she was, being hosted in their halls. Talk about a mission awry.
“And what does Master Liang want with me?” she asked, wincing a bit as this Inka girl applied a healing ointment to the wound before wrapping it up in bandaging. She felt like a mummy with all this archaic healing.
Inka looked up at her and offered “That is between you and the Grandmaster. All he wanted was for me to heal you and reassure you we mean no harm. The other students are preparing your food and will be delivering it shortly.”
Ash sighed as the girl finished, cutting the bandage off and tying it closed “Thank god, I’m starving.”
Inka chuckled “I am sure. I’ll be back with your food momentarily.”
Nodding, Ash reclined back into the bed and closed her eyes. The air had the faint smell of incense and it gave a relaxing feeling to the wounded soldier. Before long, she found herself dozing off again.
Awakening later to the sound of the door unlocking and being opened, Ash leaned up to find Inka bringing in a wooden tray loaded with two wooden bowls and a wooden cup which had steam coming off the top. Tea, she guessed.
Accompanying her was an armored ninja with a deep blue armor color and an intricate mask covering his jaw and nose. His eyes were asian in appearance and bore a sharp and cunning look to them. A pair of swords rested in sheaths at his right hip.
Inka brought the tray over to the nightstand and offered “We have soup, rice, and tea, Miss Fields. Eat them in any order you like.”
Even from a glance, Ash could tell the “soup” was just flavorless broth. The rice was white and likely just as bland, and the tea was a murky green in color. Smiling weakly up at her, she nodded “Thanks.”
She dug into the rice first, which was surprisingly good for just being plain rice. It was gooey almost from clumping well, though eating it with chopsticks was proving challenging to an American girl.
Inka departed, though the ninja stayed, folding his arms as he watched her eat. Looking up at him, she asked “Can I… help you?”
The ninja asked “What are you doing here?”
She looked around before swallowing a bit of rice and answering plainly “I was wounded out in the wastes. You guys saved me.”
The ninja’s arms unfolded as he clarified “What are you doing here in Arctika ? Your Special Forces agreed to the terms of the Concordance: the Lin Kuei have jurisdiction here.”
Ash sighed “And Article Seventeen permits Special Forces to deploy in any sovereign border or province. I’m not here to argue with you, mister…?”
The ninja replied “Cobalt.”
Raising an incredulous brow, Ash remarked “Seriously?”
The ninja broke the humor of the situation with a sharp bark “Silence!”
This jolted Ash a bit. She instinctively reached at her thigh where her handgun usually was, only to feel the cloth of her trunks instead. She says nervously “Alright, calm down… Cobalt … I’m just here to meet with… Arashi Mangu.”
Cobalt retorted “Arashi Mangu is dead.”
Dead…? Ash’s face paled a bit as she stared at the man in silence. “He’s… dead?”
Nodding, Cobalt explained “The Mangu clan has been eradicated mysteriously without a trace. Our Grandmaster is currently investigating the matter.”
Ash needed more intel. Gulping, she asked “Was there… Did anyone else…”
Cobalt stood still as a statue, replying coldly “You were the only survivor.” After a moment of her taking all of this in, the blue ninja turned to leave, commanding “Eat, Miss Fields. The Grandmaster will have questions for you.”
Struggling still with her chopsticks, Ash set them down hard on the nightstand in frustration and opted to use the soup spoon instead, contemplating the loss of her friends’ lives. Joey… Patrick… Dave… Sadir…
Ash awoke with a low groan. Her neck hurt from being stiffly placed on her pillow for an entire day and a half. She needed to move, needed to get out of this bed. Turning and climbing out, she let her bare feet touch the cold tile floor, wincing as a chill traveled up her spine. These ninjas were practically living in the 18th century, she doubted they had any heating aside from the torches that barely seemed to produce any warmth.
Stepping towards the wooden door, she grabbed the latch and turned, hearing a click of it opening. Unlocked! Either her guards were slipping up, which was unlikely, or she was being given free reign to travel.
Opening the door, she was greeted by a hallway dimly lit by the same blue flame torches that lit her room. Carved onto the walls were depictions of great, fantastical dragons and armored warriors. Like something someone would find in a castle in some video game.
Her feet adjusted to the cold floor but slowly, as she walked her toes burned with how cold they were. First thing to demand: socks.She moved down the hall and to the right, into a larger hallway with different halls intersecting into it. It was cold… cold and quiet, with only the howling of the winter air outside to be heard. She pressed her ear to the stone and could faintly hear the chantings of trainees outside.
She moved quietly down the hall, keeping an ear out for any sound that would give hint to someone she could speak to. She needed warmth, better food… but most of all, she needed transportation. Only the Grandmaster could help her.
“You should be more careful.” whispered a female voice behind her. Ash reflexively turned on her heel and aimed a sharp elbow at whatever was behind her, only to find nothing. The torches in the hall danced and flickered, and Ash looked around for whatever the source of the voice was. Was she going crazy?
“Who goes there?” she asked aloud, moving her arms up in a defensive stance. A low chuckle could be heard around her, and she began to panic. Was she in danger?!
Nearby, a black-clad ninja emerged from a shadow - not like a normal person, but actually peeling herself from the shadows themselves. She wore a garb similar to Cobalt’s but black, with a more sleek and lineer mask that had some discolored splotches on it, as if something had been spilled upon it. Ash could barely notice beneath the girls hood some white hair poking through. “Your stance offers many opportunities for death. Whoever your master was, he did not train you well enough.” assessed the girl. A small tanto sword rested at her hip.
“What the hell…?” asked Ash, her eyes wide as she watched the girl emerge from the shadows as if exiting a bath.
The ninja greeted “Shroud. I am one of the Grandmaster’s students. I watch over the sanctum, and guard its secrets. I was told you should be resting.”
She stepped toward Ash, her shadow moving kicks against Ash’s legs. She could feel it as if she was actually being kicked, her legs moving back as they felt the light impacts of the woman’s legs. “Agh! Watch it- Hey!”
The ninja kept walking towards her, her shadow making light jabs at the girl’s joints though took care not to hit her wound or strike with enough force to actually hurt. She gave a small huff of amusement before commanding “You should rest. The Grandmaster will summon you when he is ready.”
Ash barked back “I’m read- Agh! Stop! I can’t keep resting in that room! I’m cold, I’m hungry, and I have to pee!”
The ninja girl folded her arms as her shadow had her hands at her hips, remarking “Your body lies to you. It makes you think you are cold and hungry. The bathroom visit is likely legitimate, however, you did just eat. I will show you where the bathroom is, then you will return to your room.”
Ash huffed “And do what? I’ve been sitting in there all day, at least give me a book to read or something.”
Shroud passed a glance to her shadow and it returned the favor, as if it were a projection on a film, before the two returned their gaze to her. “Ever the American, in need of entertainment. Come, the lavatory is this way.” She turned and showed the girl down the hall, her shadow dissipating in with the darkness of the less lit hallway.