At some time in the past thousand years or so, Mortal Kombat was initiated between Outworld and Earthrealm. It is unknown if it had been initiated beforehand, and it is possible that Shao Kahn has attempted to conquer Earthrealm since his conquest of Edenia, but to no conclusion. In response to the initiation of Mortal Kombat against Earthrealm, Lord Raiden formed the White Lotus Society, composed primarily of his worshippers among the Shaolin monks, to recruit and train the finest warriors from across Earthrealm to participate in the tournament across the generations. Shao Kahn’s chief lieutenant in his conquest of Earthrealm was the sorcerer, Shang Tsung.
Legends give various accounts of the history of Shang Tsung. Some say he was a former Mortal Kombat champion who cheated to attain victory and turned for aid to Shao Kahn when damned to age rapidly by the Elder Gods as punishment, others that he was an honourable champion until his defeat by the Great Kung Lao. What all sources agree upon, however, is that he originally hailed from Earthrealm, and was a formidable combatant and champion of Mortal Kombat. Uniquely, he was driven not by his desire to defend Earthrealm, but by the promise of eternal life should he only remain unbeaten in Mortal Kombat, and he did so for at least several tournaments.
How he came into the service of Shao Kahn is unknown, though most agree that he attempted to cheat to maintain his position as Champion, only for Shao Kahn himself to formally accuse him of treachery and succeed in having him disqualified from the tournament.
Regardless, it is known that Shang Tsung then turned to Shao Kahn and pledged himself to his service, if only Shao Kahn would teach him magic sufficient to sustain his life. Seeing the opportunity to recruit an exceptionally skilled combatant and a being who would be tied to his power, Shao Kahn himself then taught the dark arts to Shang Tsung, particularly the ability to feed on the souls of otherwise to attain eternal life. Shang Tsung took to this tutelage rapidly, becoming the leader of Shao Kahn’s Shadow Priests and reckoned second in sorcery only to the Emperor himself, equal to the arch-sorcerer of the Netherrealm, the necromancer Quan Chi. This came at a price, however: Shang Tsung’s very life would be tied to Shao Kahn’s power and, should he displease the Emperor, Shao Kahn could extinguish his life at a whim.
Shang Tsung was then ordered by Shao Kahn to engineer his victory over Raiden’s warriors. The reigning champion of Mortal Kombat was the legendary Shaolin monk, the Great Kung Lao, who had triumphed as champion following Shang Tsung’s fall from grace. Some say that Shang Tsung had once more become champion of Mortal Kombat, this time on behalf of Outworld as his soul was now the property of the Emperor, before being defeated by the Great Kung Lao. It is unknown how long the Great Kung Lao reigned as champion for, though some say it was only for one generation before he was defeated. Regardless, he is universally acknowledged as the finest warrior Earthrealm had yet produced.
Shang Tsung had searched all of Outworld for a warrior sufficiently skilled and powerful enough to defeat the Shaolin monk before he happened upon his chosen candidate: the Shokan Prince, Goro. Some say that Shang Tsung had been imprisoned by the Emperor in the cobalt mines of Shokan as punishment for his failure to defeat the Great Kung Lao himself and it was there, in his enslavement, that the sorcerer first saw the Prince.
In approximately 1540AD, Goro defeated and slew the Great Kung Lao, with Shang Tsung absorbing the soul of the Great Kung Lao to begin almost ten generations of Goro’s domination of the tournament. Goro himself claimed the Great Kung Lao’s red headband as a trophy of his victory. The Great Kung Lao would continue to be revered as a hero of Earthrealm for centuries and his prowess as a combatant and honour as a man, despite his defeat, is still well remembered in Earthrealm and by Prince Goro himself, who would frequently lament that he feared he would never again battle such a warrior.
When a soul is absorbed, the skills, thoughts and memories of the victim are also absorbed. Thus, when Shang Tsung absorbed the soul of the Great Kung Lao, not only did he obtain the considerable combat skills of the monk, he obtained his memories, including the most sacred secrets of the Shaolin. Most notably, this included the location of a map containing the location of the legendary Temple of Elements, which housed the Amulet of Shinnok.
Around the same time the Great Kung Lao met his death at the hands of Goro, one of the greatest assassins of a secretive order of Chinese warriors infamous for recruiting members with supernatural abilities (abducting them as children if necessary) known as the Lin Kuei returned to his ancestral homeland of Japan. He was named Takeda and, naming the arts taught to him by the Link Kuei, he would christen the style ‘ninjitsu’ and his students and acolytes ‘ninjas’, naming the clan the ‘Shirai Ryu’. This has led the Lin Kuei to react angrily whenever described as such. It would also lead to a Lin Kuei tradition of mercilessly hunting any member who abandoned the clan and executing them, to prevent further defections. Takeda himself would soon met his own death at Lin Kuei hands but no Lin Kuei who faced him in combat lived. Eventually, the Grandmaster of the Lin Kuei eventually invited Takeda to a private meeting between the two to attempt to reach an amicable conclusion to the blood feud. At this meeting, however, the Lin Kuei exploited Takeda’s honour, poisoning the tea they offered him and which he drank deeply from, never suspecting that the Lin Kuei would deviously poison him instead of facing him in combat.
The enmity between the two clans was eternal, however: legend says that the standard garb of the Shirai Ryu was copied from the Lin Kuei, but with all colours (traditionally left to the preference of the individual Lin Kuei) replaced by yellow to insinuate cowardice on the part of the Lin Kuei in the act of poisoning Takeda and to highlight that the Shirai Ryu were so skilled that they could carry out their missions with perfect stealth despite being garbed in bright yellow. Nevertheless, although the Shirai Ryu were so skilled as to appear supernatural and likely had a degree of understanding of the manipulation of chi, they could never quite match the Lin Kuei as the Lin Kuei maintained a monopoly on superhuman abilities for centuries.
During the following nine generations, Shang Tsung himself presided as grandmaster and host of the tournament upon the island Shao Kahn granted him on the mystical border between Earthrealm and Outworld. Tsung absorbed the soul of every defeated warrior in the tournament, growing ever more powerful on the souls of these formidable warriors and enhancing his powers. During these 500 years, Shang Tsung developed unparalleled powers of shapeshifting: no other being has demonstrated his ability to morph into any being whose soul he has merely tasted, not fully absorbed. In addition, his sorcery grew ever more powerful, particularly his pyromancy, flesh-sculpting and alchemy.
Towards the end of this period of domination, a host of exceptionally skilled warriors were born in Earthrealm, sometime between 1950 and 1965. These included Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Jackson Briggs, the great assassins Bi Han, Kuai Liang and Tomas Vrbada and the legendary ninja Hanzo Hashahi, but the two greatest fighters Earthrealm produced during these years were close friends (and, some say, distant cousins): Liu Kang and the final descendant of the Great Kung Lao, Kung Lao.
Meanwhile, another talented young man dreaming of triumphing in Mortal Kombat became ensnared in a malicious deception. It is not known for how long the consciousness of the Dragon King remained active and scheming, nor is it known had he ever attempted to bring his plans to fruition beforehand but it is known that this is when his schemes would take their first step to fulfilment. Using what strength remained to him, he appeared to a promising young Earthrealm warrior, Shujinko.
Informing Shujinko that he was the chosen warrior of the Elder Gods, he imbued him with the power to mimic and absorb the fighting techniques of any warrior he encountered, making Shujinko one of the most potentially powerful beings in all of the realms. He then instructed Shujinko to collect the six Kamidogu, supposedly for the Elder Gods but in truth so that Onaga could return to life and gain ultimate power. Shujinko never suspected ‘Damashi’s’ true purpose or identity. This quest would consume all of Shujinko’s life, including being greatly aged by the Pool of Aging in Chaosrealm, as he trained with numerous great warriors across the realms and dutifully gathered the Kamidogu.
Shang Tsung himself was also active during these years, further enhancing his powers by tracking down sources of souls in Earthrealm, such as the spirits of fabled warrior-kings belonging to the legendary House of Pekara. To consume these souls, encased in the Well of Souls in their family tomb, Shang Tsung tricked the last descendant of their lineage to leading him to and then opening the Well for Shang to devour. The barrage of souls blinded the hoodwinked descendant, Takahashi Kenshi. Kenshi, a proud but immensely skilled warrior, was left to die in the darkness by Shang Tsung but was aided by a magical katana named Sento, imbued with the power of his ancestors. Sento guided Kenshi out of the darkness and granted him telepathic and telekinetic powers to compensate for his lost vision. Kenshi, humbled by this experience, would swear vengeance on Shang Tsung for his own honour and to free the souls of his ancestors.
Returning to Outworld, Shang Tsung then made a pact with Quan Chi: he would reveal the location of the map leading to the Temple of Elements to Quan Chi if Quan Chi would lend his necromancy to a plot that Shang Tsung had concocted to spare him the wrath of Shao Kahn should an Earthrealm warrior best Goro. Shang Tsung was satisfied that, as the Temple of Elements was guarded by Earthrealm Gods, a being of the Netherrealm could not enter it, not even one as masterful in the construction of portals as Quan Chi. Therefore, no harm could come from Quan Chi knowing where the Amulet of Shinnok lay. Quan Chi soon realised this himself, however, and concocted a plan of his own.
Goro took up service with Shao Kahn’s forces, serving him in other conflicts, notably the brutal subjugation and invasion of the proud realm of Osh-Tekk as well as Arnyek, the homeland of the insectoid Kytinn. The ruler of Osh-Tekk, Kotal K’Etz swore allegiance to Shao Kahn to spare the remainder of his people the fate of the Saurians, enraging his son, who also bore the name Kotal. The Arnyek failed to protect themselves, engaged as they were in one of their customary debates and the only known survivor of their race was the cunning D’Vorah, who feigned allegiance to the Emperor to shelter from his wrath. Sometime following this, Shao Kahn’s great general, Reiko, who had served from thousands of years, possibly dating back to the Edenian War, died. Goro was appointed as his replacement as chief general of the armies of Outworld before returning to Shang Tsung’s island for the tournament which could constitute his tenth victory, ensuring Shao Kahn the ability to invade Earthrealm.
Immediately before the beginning of that fateful tournament, two notable events occurred on Earthrealm.
In approximately 1990, the Australian international criminal Kano freed his comrades Tremor, Jarek, Tasia and No Face from a maximum security military prison compound in the United States. These five individuals, along with the absent Kabal, constituted the leadership of the international criminal organization, the Black Dragon Clan. The Black Dragon had begun life as an offshoot of the legendary Red Dragon, but as the Red Dragon retreated into the shadows and became something of an urban legend, the Black Dragon were far more prominent in the baser realms of criminality, including drug shipping and gun running. The Special Forces team tasked to deal with the Black Dragon had been largely successful thanks to the information of a Chinese-Mongolian operative in the Chinese Ministry of Public Security named Hsu Hao who, unbeknownst to the Special Forces, was an undercover agent of the Red Dragon tasked with the eradication of the Black Dragon.
Credit to Esau Murga
Kano himself was an expert in arms dealing and in the nascent black market of cybernetics, as well as being brutally skilled in combat: he had wreaked havoc across the world, leaving a bloody trail behind as he continually evaded capture. States Army Major Jackson Briggs, the man responsible for caving Kano’s skull in with a single punch and forcing him to turn to cybernetics and now seeking to both return the escapees to prison and to wreak vengeance for his murdered compatriots, tracked them one by one from warehouse to sewer, and slew Tremor, Tasia and No Face, though unbeknownst to him Jarek had in fact survived. Ultimately only Kano remained, fleeing to the ancient lost subterranean city Sinkiang, located in what was now China.
He attempted to escape by opening a portal to Outworld using the mysterious gemstone known as the Eye of Chitian but was pursued and defeated by Briggs. This was the first knowledge Earthrealmers had, outside of the White Lotus Society, of the existence of Outworld and the other realms. Briggs returned Kano to imprisonment and attempted to convince his superiors of the mystical power of the Eye and the otherworldly dimension it had briefly transported him and Kano to. He was unsuccessful, though did manage to convince his friend and colleague, Lieutenant Sonya Blade. Briggs was still sceptical of the truth he had uncovered however, as the fact of the realms was virtually unknown on Earthrealm, and even doubted his own experiences.
Kano quickly escaped his imprisonment once more, however, and Briggs and Blade began a pursuit which would eventually lead them to the Tournament. During this pursuit, Kano would kill Blade’s partner, earning her eternal hatred. Unbeknownst to Briggs and Blade, however, a key member of their Special Forces team was in fact a high-ranking member of the Red Dragon, who were using the Special Forces as a catspaw to destroy the Black Dragon: the Mongolian Hsu Hao.
Two years after the Black Dragon’s escape, Quan Chi reached across worlds to contact the grandmaster of the legendary clan of assassins, the Lin Kuei. Meaning ‘forest demons’, this clan was based out of a castle in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia and had earned a reputation for ruthless excellence. Even for the famed warriors of the Lin Kuei, however, their leading assassin of the time was considered superlative: Bi Han. A descendant of the Outworld race of cryomancers, Bi Han’s pseudonym was ‘Sub Zero’. This may have been a family legacy, as it is known that Bi Han (and his younger brother, Kuai Liang’s) father had served the Lin Kuei as an assassin under that mantle: he embarked on a brief affair with the mother of the brothers before abducting them back to China when he discovered both possessed the familial cryomancy.
Bi Han’s prowess in combat became legendary, as was his cold-heartedness, Darwinian ruthlessness and single-minded devotion to the Lin Kuei. The grandmaster tasked him with fulfilling the contract set by Quan Chi: to infiltrate an ancient temple and retrieve a map revealing the location to a mystical Amulet.
Two things remained unknown to the Lin Kuei: firstly, that this Amulet was the Amulet of Shinnok and that its retrieval constituted a significant step in Shinnok’s plot for revenge upon the realms. Secondly, that Quan Chi had implemented a failsafe and set the same contract with the Lin Kuei’s deadly rivals, the Shirai Ryu.
Just as Bi Han’s prowess had become legendary, the reputation and skills of his peer and leading ninja of the Shirai Ryu was equally potent: Hanzo Hasashi. Nicknamed ‘Sasori’ (‘Scorpion’) by his peers for his unmatched skill with his signature kunai dart, Hashashi did not possess Bi Han’s zeal for his work: his true joy in life was in his wife and son. Quan Chi tasked the Shirai Ryu with the same task as he tasked the Lin Kuei: the retrieval of the map and the Shirai Ryu duly dispatched their leading assassin, Hashashi, to complete the task.
Hashashi and Sub Zero encountered each other deep within the temple. Though the battle was vicious and closely fought, Sub Zero eventually triumphed. Hashahi eventually yielded and dropped his weaponry, asking mercy not for himself, but for his young son. Though mercy would traditionally be granted to an opponent who honourably yieldedSub Zero mercilessly slew him in cold blood despite Hashahi being defenceless and retrieved the map.
Upon delivering it to Quan Chi, Sub Zero was tasked with a new mission: following the map to its destination, the Temple of Elements in the Himalayas. Having discovered that the guardians of the Temple precluded his entry, Quan Chi had instead opted to have an Earthrealmer journey into the Temple on his behalf.
Infiltrating the temple, Sub Zero bested each of the Temple guardians one by one, defeating four Gods in combat. He retrieved the Amulet and delivered it to Quan Chi. The necromancer then made good on his bargain with the Grandmaster of the Lin Kuei and annihilated the Shirai Ryu utterly, including the recently deceased Hashashi’s family.
Almost immediately following the completion of the contract, Lord Raiden appeared to Sub Zero and revealed to him what he had done: rendered unto Quan Chi the Amulet Shinnok required to escape the Netherrealm and return to his former dread glory. Raiden tasked Sub Zero with retrieving the Amulet and undoing his mistake for the sake of all Earthrealm. Moreover, he warned him that, should he fail to alter his course, his soul was destined for damnation to the Netherrealm when death finally came for him. Sub Zero journeyed to the Netherrealm but was captured and imprisoned by the Brotherhood of Shadow in the Prison of Souls. Here he was confronted by the newly reincarnated Hanzo Hashashi, reborn in the service of Quan Chi.
The shade of Hashahi had been damned to the Netherrealm for the murders he had carried out in the name of the Shirai Ryu. Quan Chi offered Hashashi a bargain: Quan Chi would use his necromancy to resurrect Hashashi as a spirit of vengeance, who would gain strength from the Netherrealm itself and use Hashashi’s own burning rage to imbue him with infernal power. In return, Hashashi would serve as Quan Chi’s personal assassin and enforcer until he had satisfied his blood debt upon his murderer. Upon this satisfaction, Quan Chi would benevolently release Hashashi’s soul from his service and allow him to rest free from eternal torment.
Hashashi eagerly accepted but with no idea that the true murderer of his family was Quan Chi, to whom he had just sworn himself. Quan Chi’s intent was that Hashashi never discover the truth and thus be eternally sworn to his service and grow ever more vicious and powerful an attack-dog. Thus, Hashashi was reborn in a body resembling that he had possessed in life, complete with the traditional Shirai Ryu garb but with appropriately skeletal aspects. Opening his new eyes, now pure white where they had once been brown, feeling only rage and the thirst for vengeance, Hashashi forswore his previous name. Hanzo Hashashi was dead and gone: all that remained was Scorpion.
Seeking vengeance, he attacked Sub Zero but was repulsed. He departed, swearing vengeance. Sub Zero succeeded in escaping from the Prison of Souls and crossed the Bridge of Immortality to Quan Chi’s Fortress. There, he was accosted by Quan Chi’s personal guards, a trio of demons in the form of alluring human females, Kia, Jataaka and Sareena, whom he defeated. Remembering Raiden’s warning and having witnessed the rebirth of Hanzo Hashashi as Scorpion due to his actions, he spared their lives.
He proceeded into the fortress whereupon he battled Quan Chi himself for the Amulet, with Sareena appearing and turning against her Master to lend him some assistance. Upon the defeat of Quan Chi, Sareena asked Sub Zero to take her back to Earthrealm with him but was blasted away by Shinnok himself, sending Sareena back to the pits of Netherrealm. Sub Zero managed to escape from Shinnok with the Amulet, returning it to Raiden. Raiden commended him for his actions but warned him that he still had a great deal of work to do to remove the taint from his soul.
Unbeknownst to all except Quan Chi himself, the real Amulet of Shinnok was safely hidden away in Quan Chi’s fortress: he had provided Shinnok with an exact duplicate, which Sub Zero had then stolen back. The true Amulet, with all the power it promised, was in the possession of Quan Chi. Having deceived both Shinnok and Raiden, Quan Chi began to study the Amulet, attempting to unlock its secrets so that he, not Shinnok, would become the master of the realms.
Next week, we finally arrive at the story of MK1!
The History of Mortal Kombat, Chapter 5: The Final Prelude