by Zuri Anderson
"The Grandmaster selected Cyrax, Sektor and I for this mission," Bi-Han said, carefully grabbing three incense sticks from the box.
He grunted at the thought of snapping them between his fingers by accident. He didn't want to buy any more.
"I heard from Smoke. That is a wonderful achievement, brother." Kuai Liang swiped the snow from the top of their mother's gravestone. "You received recognition from the Grandmaster."
Sheer white ice clung to the tops of the gravestones from last night's snowfall. The two Lin Kuei brothers were flanked by granite gravestones on both sides.
A circular steel wall shielded the large graveyard from intruders or possible pillagers. Kuai Liang placed meat buns wrapped in sky blue cloth on top of a slim gravestone.
The fabric had a Lin Kuei symbol printed on it in a vertical pattern.
"Chen Guang, honorable mother," it said in Chinese text. Kuai Liang thought of ten other notes to add, but only two lines are allowed on Lin Kuei gravestones: name and descriptive noun.
"This elderly sorcerer Shang Tsung has an enormous bounty on his head.
The old man looks so frail, I could snap him in two easily," Bi-Han gripped the matchstick, the tiny wood splintering between his fingers.
"Brother," Kuai Liang gasped a bit, almost dropping the buns.
"I cannot wait to put an end to his waning life," Bi-Han finished his thought before he glared daggers at Kuai Liang.
"And you would do well to remember that this is our livelihood. We care not for others, only for our kin."
Kuai Liang looked down to avoid his brother's gaze. He knew what came next.
"Your heart is too soft, Kuai."
"I know, brother."
He focused on arranging the food offerings. Yes, the life of a Lin Kuei meant the death of many people. Politicians. Drug lords. Powerful influencers.
Sometimes a civilian or two, if the money is good. If the money is good.
Kuai Liang shook his head some. A memory crept into the forefront of his mind.
The face of a young girl -- no, a daughter - who walked in on him beating her father senselessly before taking his goods. Gems. Golden objects. His silver wedding ring stained with red.
It was a favor for a wealthy merchant who wanted revenge - a petty squabble the father and the merchant had. If the money is good...
"I hate that I have to split it among Cyrax and Sektor, but a job is a job," Bi-Han swatted a match against the box.
The elder brother puts the flame to the incense, and a gentle trail of smoke wavered in the mountain breeze.
"Let us honor mother, Bi-Han," Kuai Liang said. Both brothers placed his palms together in front of their chest and closed their eyes in silence.
The steely smell of the incense snaked into Kuai Liang's nose. The younger brother remembered frequent visits with his mother to their grandfather's grave every week. Bi-Han came along then.
Now Kuai Liang visited their mother's gravestone every week. For blessings of protection. Foresight. Strength. Integrity.
The younger brother had to wrestle with Bi-Han's time and patience for these twenty minutes.
"How long will you be gone?" Kuai Liang asked.
"Two to three weeks. It should not take long," Bi-Han said, standing up. "But don't feel the need to wait for me, Tundra. Remember what I told you moving forward."
The elder brother walked back toward the temple. He left the meditation mat for his brother to collect. Kuai Liang sighed to himself and looked to his mother's gravestone.
The tiny chipped edges. The minute cracks in the granite. The dark splotches from rotted offerings of the past.
"Should I be worried for him, mother? He's been so unruly since you... passed away. More bloodthirsty, greedier. He denies help. He loathes cooperation.
I don't know what's happened to him," Kuai Liang vented to the gravestone.
"Perhaps it is your passing that affected him so deeply. Or, maybe it is something different. I don't know. Ever since our last mission together, where," Kuai Liang paused, biting his lower lip.
"When I was assaulted by this strange creature, Bi-Han lost his mind. Brutalized the thing, in ways I've never seen.
I knew he was trying to save me, but I so desperately wanted to know what was wrong with him."
The incense smoke crawled into the sky, trailing off into invisible ribbons. Kuai Liang watched the smoke disappear. He squeezed his eyes closed and clasped his hands together in another prayer.
The incense's embers dimmed.
"Please bring your son, my brother, salvation, mother."