Dedicated to Bento and Johinsa, for being the best darn beta readers ever, and to everybody in the MK Fanfiction Club. You know who you are. There, I'm done. And now on with:
"What do you mean, I didn't get the part?" he barked. "They wrote the part for me!"
His agent squirmed. "Sorry, Johnny," he replied, uneasily. "They backed out of it."
"Backed? Backed?" Johnny repeated, sitting forward in his chair. "What are you talking about?"
His agent sighed. "For one, you're not very reliable. You tend to disappear without warning, notice or anything else, and then show up days or even weeks later and refuse to give explanations!"
"They were personal emergencies!" Johnny retorted.
"And then..." The agent trailed off, "There's the old rumours."
The movie star got very quiet, and sat back in his chair. "About my being a fake."
"Exactly. They're just stupid rumours, but nobody in production knows that. So they're using them as an excuse." The agent sighed, and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. "Man, it's getting hot out, today."
Johnny said nothing, but sat very quietly and still, thinking of flames. Large flames that leapt about in front of his eyes. He wished he could show who ever started that ridiculous rumour what Johnny Cage was really made of.
The agent grew serious again. "Johnny, if you want to make a come-back--"
"Come-back?" Johnny inquired, his voice low.
The agent rubbed his eyes. He thought he could see heat waves around the star's body. It wasn't that hot out... "You haven't worked in a long time, too long," the agent finished, shaking his head. "You need to go out and show that you're still the actor you always were. You need to show that nothing's changed."
Johnny felt like laughing. That's a good one. Nothing's changed. "What are you suggesting?"
"There's a couple of scripts I'd like you to check out. Nothing fancy, mind you; but good steady stuff, to get you back on your feet. If you can manage to stay put, for once." The agent handed a stack to Johnny. Notes were written on the top page. The actor stared at them.
"Hold it--" he said, quietly. "You want me to read for the villain?"
"It's a good movie--" the agent began.
Johnny leapt to his feet, and it took all of his control not to burn the agent to a crisp where he sat. "I... do not... play... villains. You know that. The studios know that. Everybody knows that."
"Johnny," the agent began, sweating terrifically now--was the air-conditioning not working, or something?--"Johnny, you need to calm down, and further more, get a grip. We're not talking about the fate of the universe here--"
Johnny rested his palms on the faux wood desktop of his agent, and tiny wisps of smoke curled around his fingers. His agent stared, and rubbed his eyes again. "I do not play villains. End of story."
He turned, grabbed his jacket, and stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him. His agent sighed with relief--why was he so frightened? He didn't know--and gasped when he saw the two perfect scorch marks in the shape of Johnny's hands.
Johnny tried to take deep calming breaths. He felt like a volcano about to blow. Like Krakatoa or Mount St. Helen's. Any second now he was going to lose it, completely.
It had been barely a month since he had become the God of Fire, taking over from Nova, in the final battle against Lightning. Sonya Blade, one of his closest friends, was made a Goddess; she was given the dominion of Space. Both had sworn to keep their powers a secret. At the time, Johnny had thought it would be an easy vow; all he had to do was go back to his regular life, and deal the same way he always had.
What he didn't expect was how the powers constantly simmered under the surface. They were a secret that screamed, constantly, to be told. He was boiling under the pressure. He felt as though he was wearing two thick wool sweaters in the middle of a heat wave.
He had to get out.
He looked around him. He was in the halls outside his agent's office. Down a few steps was a the lobby; there was only one half-awake receptionist. It was at least an hour drive home, possibly more, in the traffic. He couldn't last that long. He couldn't.
Very discreetly, he opened a portal, and stepped through it.
He was home. His house was the same as he'd left it, before he went to China, before Lightning showed up and wrecked everything. And yet something about the comfortable bungalow seemed different; it was smaller, for one thing. The air was always stuffy, no matter how many windows were open. It was hard to breath, and it was very, very warm.
"I can't stay here, either," he muttered, pacing in his own hallway, awards and famous pictures lining the walls on either side of him. For a second, he imagined the walls closing in on him, trapping him forever. He had to get out.
He stopped. His fists were clenched at his sides. "Calm down, Cage," he muttered. "You're letting it go to your head. Calm down."
He had to go somewhere to calm down. He could always go to the Temple, he supposed; but Rayden was having enough troubles of his own, and Johnny didn't want to add to them.
"Where can I go that's some where calm? I have enough cash on me that I can book a flight..."
Flight? He didn't need a flight. He could go anywhere he wanted, in the blink of an eye. He closed his eyes. He wanted to go... home?
He was home. Something in the back of his mind informed him that this house was not home. Home was somewhere far away, where he didn't have to worry about his powers, where he could relax. I want to go there...
He opened his eyes. The cool breeze wafted gently over him, and he could feel the anxiety flowing away as he stared out over the white sandy beach to the clear blue ocean horizon. He took a deep breath. The air was clean and scented with plants and flowers. He turned to see a lush jungle behind him.
"I'm in heaven," Johnny said out loud, smiling. "This is bliss."
It felt so right for him to be there that he wondered why he hadn't come sooner. He sat down, and just let himself relax under the warm tropical sun.
There was a sudden splashing a few meters out to sea, and a head poked itself up out of the water. Johnny stood up, startled. The head wasn't human; it was human shaped, but it was tinted blue, with dark green hair, woven with seaweeds and bits of coral.
"By the Creator!" the voice exclaimed. "You are our new Lord!"
"What?" Johnny blurted, confused. The head looked as though it was ready to leave. "Wait-- stop!"
Instantly, the sea person turned back around. "Yes, Lord?" it asked, humbly.
"Where am I? Who are you? And why do you keep calling me Lord?" Johnny asked, coming to the water's edge. "My name is Johnny Cage. I'm from Earth."
"You are the Lord of Maresium," the person replied. "You are the God of Fire, and ruler of this Realm. We have been wondering where you were, why you did not come to meet us." There was a sob in its voice. "When the good Lady Hiko died, we did not know what would become of us."
"Maresium," Johnny muttered. Memories were surfacing. He'd once met some Maresians, when he was in Agri, Lindara's Realm, fighting with her mortals. The Maresians had been like him, though, although stockier and slightly greenish tinged. Nothing at all like the half-fish swimming in front of him. "This is Maresium?"
"Aye, Lord Johnny Cage." The head bobbed up and down in agreement. "Welcome home."
Rayden, Lord of Thunder, stood out in the grass, looking at the stars. The night skies were lit up with his handiwork, an entire universe of twinkling lights, and now, with satellites, planes--all sorts of human-made contraptions. At any other time he would have felt proud.
Now, though, he just felt lonely.
It was almost a month since the battle with Lightning--a desperate and demented goddess--a battle which had cost the lives of three of the people closest to him.
Liu Kang, a mortal, from Earth. He was one of the god's closest friends, ever since the last Mortal Kombat tournament. He had helped Rayden defeat his brother, Shao Khan.
Nova, a goddess only recently revealed as Rayden's own daughter. She'd grown up without him, and he'd been like an uncle to her. Not even an uncle. Someone who visited occasionally, a friend of the family.
Hiko was the Goddess of Fire, a spectacular Immortal that Rayden had nearly married, before fate and his father stepped in. She'd married Cosmos out of desperation, and for years kept the secret of Nova's parentage. She had died trying to tell him.
He saw a plane moving by, in the distance, a set of lights that moved steadily across the horizon. He had once wanted mortals, in the place of a real family, but as time wore on, fewer and fewer became aware of his existence until he was only known as scattered myths across the globe. He thought he liked it that way. Thought it made it better for the mortals themselves. After all, how could they leap forward, figure everything out for themselves, if they kept believing that it was simply a god 'making it so'?
Penny for your thoughts.
Hiko used to ask that of him on many occasions. She was not very skilled at the two things he excelled at--telepathy and cooking--and he used to tease her endlessly about it.
What would I tell you now, Hiko? he thought to himself, losing his focus in the marvellous view. That I miss you? That doesn't sound right. It doesn't do anybody any justice. I don't know what to say.
"Then don't say anything at all," she replied, over his shoulder. He whirled, startled. He opened his mouth and closed it, several times. She laughed.
She was leaning against the door, watching him, her eyes half-closed in mirth. Her hair was tossed over her shoulder, and she played with her scarf in her hands.
He took a step towards her. "Hiko," he murmured, his voice dry. As he got closer, he realised she was spectral, like a shadow; he could see through her. He stopped, confused thoroughly.
She smiled at him again, but was already fading away.
The door opened suddenly, and a woman stepped out. It was a second before he could see her face clearly, but he knew who she was instantly. Her hair gave her away.
Meimei, his little sister and the only one of his siblings to have the same white hair, stepped out into the cold air. She tip-toed off the cold stones of the Temple path into the grass. "Rayden," she said, tiredly, "what are you doing up?"
"I could ask the same question of you," he replied, turning back to the horizon.
"I couldn't sleep." She was hopping about, her bare feet freezing in the cold, dew-laden grass. "You should be."
"I couldn't sleep either. Just lay awake thinking so I decided to come out here and think," he answered. "Thought I needed some air."
"I just woke up, I guess I had a bad dream," Meimei told him. "I thought that for some reason you might be up, so I came to see." She put an arm around his waist and gave him a hug. "You okay?"
He didn't reply.
She sighed, shivering.
"We should go in," he said, at last. "Do you want something to eat?"
She smiled. "Sure. If it's not any trouble."
He smiled wanly back. "It's never any trouble for me to make you something. You know that."
She shook her head as they headed back indoors. "We're supposed to be helping you," she whispered, her voice low to keep from waking anybody else up. "Not the other way around."
"I like cooking, and I like cooking for other people, so you are helping," he replied. "It's really no bother."
She sighed again. "Okay, but Mother's not going to be very pleased."
"She never is, these days," Rayden muttered, "but she doesn't have to know, at any rate."
Meimei gave him a look. "She'll know."
"Then I'll deal with it," he said, simply. "I'm not an invalid."
"Nobody says you are," Meimei retorted.
"They act like it." Rayden took off his outer robe, and hung it on a peg next to his straw hat. He rubbed a hand through his hair. "Meimei... oh, never mind."
"What?" she asked, taking a chair at the table. He shook his head at her, to drop the subject. But she persisted. "What's the matter? You can tell me. It'll go no further."
"Do you believe in ghosts?" he blurted, stopping to turn and look at her. She was surprised by the question.
"What? What are you talking about? Ghosts are something mortals believe in. You're--" She paled, and her mouth dropped. "You don't mean--spirits of deities, do you? You know that's impossible!"
"When ever someone says the word impossible, I get the urge to smack them," Rayden sighed, irritatedly. "You didn't answer my question."
Meimei paused, deep in thought. "No, I don't," she said firmly. "I don't know about mortals, but I do know that deities rejoin the Creator when they die. There's nothing left behind."
"Oh." He seemed downcast by her answer. She was about to remark something else, but then she stopped.
He turned back to the counter top. It was too awkward a silence; he had to break it. "One egg or two?" he asked, innocently.
Sonya Blade peeked out from behind the crates. She leaned back, resting her back against the warehouse wall. She picked up her walkie-talkie. "Jax. Come in, Jax."
"Sonya?" crackled back at her. "You in position?"
"Yeah," she replied. "You?"
"Roger. I've got three in my sights."
"I've got five. That only leaves two. Any ideas?" Sonya peeked again around the crates. "Hold it. I see someone else."
There were a group of men out on the pier, in a huddle, discussing something of great importance when a car drove up. It was the car of a rich, powerful and clearly out of place person: for one thing it was clean, and that was definitely suspicious out here on the waterfront. Someone got out. A man, well-dressed in a dark suit and tie, carrying a briefcase.
He was talking with the group huddled on the pier, and swung the briefcase over.
"He's exchanging the goods," Sonya hissed through her walkie-talkie. "Go!"
She leapt out of her hiding spot, gun raised. "Freeze!" she yelled, as loudly as she could. Off in the distance, she could hear her partner yelling as well. The men bolted, startled, with the exception of the newcomer. He glared at her, then dove back for the car. His brief-case was left on the pier.
Sonya knew Jax would take care of the pier goons; she went for the guy in the car. A few shots took out the tires; the car was stopped. She strolled up, ready to arrest him, and flung open the door.
The car was empty.
"What the hell?" She frowned, and scanned the area around the vehicle. It was empty as well.
Jax came towards her, coming from behind one of the warehouses. Startled, she pulled her gun at him, but lowered it within a split second. "They're gone," he called at her, breathless. I had them cornered, I turned my back, and then poof! Vanished."
"Same here," Sonya replied, gesturing towards the empty seats. She rolled her eyes. "I hate this job."
"Somebody's got to do it, and you have to admit we're the best qualified," Jax replied with a grin. "'Course, all that really means is that we know what the hell is going on."
"I hate magic, I really do." Sonya holstered her gun, and started off towards the pier. "I wonder what they were trading." The briefcase, when she reached it, was unlocked. It clicked open, revealing nothing but air. "Empty. I wonder how he was going to explain that to his dealers."
"Probably wasn't. If he's able to disappear at will, he can probably convince a few greedy thugs he's got the money," Jax remarked.
"If he can disappear at will, why does he need thugs in the first place?" Sonya sat back on her heels, deep in thought. "It's been my experience that the more powerful a person is, the more reluctant they are to go through someone else."
Jax didn't know what to say, so he refrained from saying anything at all. Sonya stood back up. She dusted her hands off. "I have a funny feeling," she remarked, suddenly, looking up.
"What?" Jax looked behind him, but the piers were still deserted.
"If Johnny were here, he'd say my spider sense is going nuts," Sonya replied, drawing her gun.
"I trust your instincts," Jax said simply, drawing his own gun. "Where?"
"Back at the car," Sonya replied, narrowing her eyes. Sure enough, the car spluttered to life, trying to drive off with four ruined tires. The two instantly gave chase.
"I knew it," Sonya huffed, stopping to fire again through the back windshield. "Illusionist."
The car screeched to a halt, then started backing up. It was coming right for them. They split up, and the car swerved, aiming directly for Jax, who had his back to the wall of the warehouse. He started running, trying to get to the alley where he'd have room, but he wouldn't have enough time. The car was going to hit him.
Sonya stopped in her tracks, paralysed. She could hear her heart hammering in her ears. She reached out towards the car, without thinking.
Directly in its way, the air rippled and shimmered. The car crashed, as though it had struck a wall, and crumpled on impact. Someone stumbled out, dazed, before the car burst into flames. Sonya looked towards him. And then suddenly, she was there.
The man, bewildered already and dazed from the collision panicked as Sonya Blade suddenly materialised from out of nowhere, the butt of her gun slamming into the side of his head. He dropped like a rock, literally not knowing what hit him.
Jax came to her side, breathing hard. He'd been panicked, too. "What the hell was that?" he asked her.
"I created a force-field in the car's path," Sonya answered.
"I know that--why'd you kill him? We need him for questioning!" Jax exclaimed. She glared and poked at the body with the toe of her boot.
"He's still alive. A concussion and some burns, as well as whiplash, but he'll recover," she replied calmly, staring down at him. "He's human."
"And we didn't just assume that because...?" Jax trailed off.
She glared at him again. "He could have been from another Realm. But he's not. He's human, and he's got magic powers. Illusionary ones. Made it seem as though he wasn't in the car, when he was."
"Oh." Jax nodded. "That would explain the empty briefcase."
"It would. Now all we have to do is figure out what he was intending to buy, and if it's connected with Shao Khan, like we think." Sonya pulled out a set of handcuffs from her belt. She knelt down, and did the man's hands.
"Is that necessary?" Jax asked. "It's not as though he's going anywhere."
Sonya didn't bother to answer him this time. She paused, straightening up, looking around her in confusion.
"Spidey sense?" Jax prompted. She nodded. "Hey--" he said suddenly. "I smell barbecue-- "
In horror, both looked down, just in time to see the body spontaneously burst into flames. Within seconds the corpse was consumed from within, leaving only a thin film of ash.
"I thought all you said he had was whiplash!" Jax exclaimed.
Sonya kneeled over the ash, fingering it. "I hate my job," she muttered again. "This is definitely not good."
"Tell that to the Colonel," Jax replied, making a face. "That's not the way I want to go, personally."
"I don't think this guy had a choice," Sonya murmured. "Let's get back, write up the reports. There's nothing else to do today."
Back in the office, Sonya sighed, and saved her report while it was printing out. "There," she said to Jax, who was sitting farther over, at his own desk. "All I have to do is fax it, and we're done for the night."
"I'm not so sure," Jax replied. He was sitting on the edge of the desk, out of uniform, sipping from a mug of coffee. "What if they try again tonight?"
"They won't," Sonya replied, picking up the paper from the "out" end of the printer. She shifted over to the fax machine and set it up.
"How do you know?"
She looked at him.
"I hate it when you do that," he replied bitterly. "Why is it that you got to keep your powers, and I didn't?"
"Would you want to?" she asked him, pressing the "send" button.
"Not really. But that's not the point. You said you were going to keep them under wraps, and instead you're trotting them out every thirty seconds." He took a sip from his mug. "And causing cars to blow up, and teleporting, and all the other stuff you've been doing, is not very low profile."
"I know," she replied, angry; not with him but with herself. She took her hair out of its high ponytail and ran her hands through it. "But's not that easy. If you've trained for a life-time in the martial arts, how can you not use the same battle sense? The same reactions, the same training?"
"It's not the same thing."
"You're right. It's not the same thing at all." She sighed, shaking her head. "I can't even begin to explain it. But these past few weeks, it's like I've gained senses I never knew I had. As though I've been deaf all my life, but suddenly I can hear. Or see. Or touch or taste. It's like I've been in a coma, and now I'm awake. Don't you see? It's like asking someone to sleep for the rest of their lives when they've only just woken up." She rubbed her eyes, tiredly. "I was a fool to even think I could hide them. I must have been insane."
"No, you're just out of your league," Jax said, trying to reassure her. "How were you to know?"
"I should've," she said firmly, reacting negatively to the sympathy in his voice. "And, anyway, I shouldn't be so public with the powers, anyway. You're right."
He didn't say anything, but took another slow sip. "It's been a hard day," he said at last. "Maybe all we need is a hot shower and a good night's sleep."
"Maybe," she agreed, looking thoughtful. "I'm going to wait to see if they've received the report."
"Okay," Jax agreed. He set his empty mug down on his desk. "See you in the morning."
He wandered off towards his room, leaving Sonya alone in the office. Using a touch of telekinesis, she turned off the lights. She sat quietly in the darkened room, moonlight streaming in one of the windows, and let her mind wander.
Almost instantly, she could feel Rayden. He was the Lord of the Realm; he was the most powerful deity in it, so he was the first thing she could feel. Then she noticed his mother, and sisters. And then Johnny.
Sonya? came a tired voice. What's the matter?
It was Rayden. Obviously he could sense her, too.
Oh, nothing, she blurted, embarrassed at the mistake. I was just experimenting.
Oh. The mindlink faded, and Sonya hastily pulled her mind back into place.
There was a sudden beep, that startled her, and then a fax came through the machine. She was tempted to turn on some of the lights, but found she could read just as easily in the dark. Will the surprises never end.
The fax was from HQ. They had received her report. And they had something to add.
An artifact had been recovered. It was a knife, made of a material not found on Earth. They were baffled, but thought Sonya might be able to figure it out.
They were right. She knew instantly about the weapon the moment she saw its picture, sent through the fax. She had seen it before. In Outworld.
On Shao Khan.
She muttered a few chinese curses under her breath learned from Liu, and got up from her chair. Jax was probably asleep by now. That wouldn't do. Jax!
It only took him about thirty seconds before he flew into the office, wide-awake. "What? What's the matter? Sonya? Why are all the lights off?"
She flicked them all on instantly. He started blinking, so she turned half of them off again. "Here. Look at this."
He took the paper. "Yeah? It's a knife. So?"
She glared at him. "Don't you remember it?"
"Why should I?"
She stared at him. "You were--wait, that's not right. You never did come to Outworld with us, did you?"
"No," he replied irritatedly, "and I wish everybody would just stop assuming that."
"Sorry," she admitted quickly, before pressing on. "This is Shao Khan's knife. It was made in Outworld, which means that any number of magic abilities could be attached to it. This is what our guys are after."
"Are you sure?" he yawned. She glared at him. "Sorry. I forgot."
She sighed and took the paper back, starting to pace. "We've got to make sure it doesn't fall in to the wrong hands," she said. "In the possession of someone with powers like Shang Tsung, anything could happen."
"Who?" Jax blurted, but she didn't answer him.
Meimei was walking down the hallway inside the Temple briskly, when she felt a strange presence behind her. She turned, but the corridor was empty. "Rayden?" she called out, confused. She had very limited mind-reading abilities, since she had no powers to speak of.
The air started to shimmer, and ripple, and then someone seemed to step sideways out of nowhere. It was a tall, thin man, dressed in shimmering green and black. He carried a long staff, and a cape swished around his ankles.
"Jikan Tai," Meimei said in relief, giving him a slight nod of respect. "You startled me."
He took a step towards her, and something in his eyes unnerved her. They were a strange shade of green to begin with, but she could almost see something in the pupils, a reflection, a spark. She wasn't sure. Meimei started to back away slowly, wanting to put as much distance between herself and the visitor, but he grabbed her by the arm. "Guardian!" she cried, genuinely frightened, "Let go of me!"
"Where's Rayden?" the Guardian asked her, his grip around her arm tightening. "I must find him!"
"I--" Meimei tried to pull away, but he was too strong. "I don't know where he is! Let me go!"
"He's right here," Rayden said suddenly, appearing in the corridor. "What's so important that you have to frighten my sister, Jikan Tai?"
"Rayden!" The Guardian let his grip on Meimei drop suddenly, as though she'd suddenly became red-hot. "Forgive me."
"I'm not the one you should be asking," Rayden replied, but the mortal continued, nearly breathless.
"I need to talk to you," the Guardian said, excitedly. "I have made a most interesting discovery. I had to tell you."
Rayden sighed. Meimei had backed up to put as much distance between herself and the Guardian, and that included putting Rayden in the middle. He turned to her. "Where's Mother?" he asked.
"She's watching the boys," Meimei answered, keeping an eye on her near-assailant. "Lin's with her."
"Go find her. Tell her that Jikan Tai and I have some things to discuss." Rayden turned back to face the mortal. "Well?"
"You need to come with me," the Guardian said quickly. "I can't tell you--I need to show you, for you to really understand." Rayden paused for a moment, taking his bearings of the young man; finally he made up his mind and nodded.
"Rayden," Meimei said suddenly, tugging on his arm. "Don't go. Something's not right."
Her older brother looked her strangely. "I can't sense anything."
"Look in his eyes," she whispered, urgently. The god did so, seeing nothing but concern in the odd green eyes. He turned back to his sister, confused.
She drew back, shaking her head. "Sorry. I thought I saw--I don't know what I thought I saw."
"It's okay," Rayden put an hand on her shoulder. "I'll be back in a few hours, I assume, and I'll fill you in. Don't let Mother worry about me."
Jikan Tai coughed, and raised his staff as high as he could in the enclosed space. The beam was starting to glow.
"Rayden," Meimei whispered again, a touch of panic creeping in, "I don't trust him."
"It's all right," he replied. "I do."
There was a flash of purple light, and then they were gone.
Rayden did not feel right. There was something very, very wrong with where Jikan Tai had taken them.
It was a forest, an ancient woodland, with trees so high their tops were out of view. Puddles were scattered underneath the immense conifers. The forest stretched out infinitely in all directions.
But it was not the scenery that felt so wrong. It was sudden emptiness, a sudden lack of contact with anything around him that caused Rayden to feel a wave of panic and a surge of anxiety. He willed himself to calm down. There was no reason for such a strong reaction to such an obviously peaceful place.
Jikan Tai was breathing with an air of contentment, as though he had been cooped up in a tiny, stuffy room. "Ah," he said, gesturing wide. "It truly lets you feel alive."
Rayden didn't feel truly alive. He felt very small, and very weak. He realised that he couldn't sense anything around him; he was mentally blind.
The mortal seemed to become aware of the god's discomfort. "Rayden?" he asked, setting his staff down, leaning it against the trunk of a tree. "Are you okay? You look... pale."
Rayden leaned against a tree himself. His head was swimming and pins and needles were creeping along his arms. "This place... where is it?"
"Nowhere," the Guardian replied, with a slight smile. He was unclipping his cape from his shoulders. "In order for a place to be somewhere, there must be somewhere elsefor it to be in relation to."
Rayden stared at him, uncomprehending. Jikan Tai spread his cape on the cool, long grass, and sat down. Rayden sat down as well, feeling some of the blood returning to his head. "Don't worry about it," the mortal added, finally. "It's not important."
"Not important?" The god rubbed his eyes. "Jikan Tai--I have never felt this cut off from everything ever before. Something is wrong. I can't sense anything."
"I know. That's because nothing else exists," Jikan Tai replied casually. "It's hard to explain, and it's taken most of my life to truly grasp it--but this place is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously."
"Now you're losing me."
The Guardian sighed in frustration, and flipped his hand through his bangs. "I didn't come here to debate philosophy with you. I came to tell you my plan."
"Your plan." Now that Rayden was sitting down, he didn't feel as out-of-sorts as before. He still couldn't sense anyone else but Jikan Tai, and he still felt cut off, but the sense of panic was beginning to recede.
Jikan Tai turned, and his eyes were shining. "I've spent a long time meditating, and thinking about the future."
"The future?" Rayden asked, quietly.
"The future... the past--at what point does which become which? When does the present become the past, or become the future?" The Guardian gestured with one gloved hand towards the trees. "They are the answer, Rayden. Under each tree lies a pool, and each pool reveals more answers. I figured it out."
"Figured what out?" Rayden was becoming irritated. Jikan Tai was normally a sensibly, very grounded person, who spoke in carefully measured sentences, not rambling incoherently like this.
The Guardian leaned over, his voice dropping to a whisper. "Never."
"Never?" Rayden repeated.
"They never change. One is the other is the other; they are all the same." The mortal smiled, a slight smile of one who has seen the light. "And if they are all the same, then they can easily be affected. Changed."
"What...?" Rayden stared at the Guardian. "You're talking nonsense."
"No, it's perfect sense. It's impossible--for you--to change the past. Agreed?"
"Agreed," the deity nodded.
"The future is very easy to change, since it hasn't happened yet." Jikan Tai trailed off, and again the God of Thunder nodded. "But... if they are the same, then they must both be subject to change. Correct?"
"You've lost me again." Rayden shook his head. "Jikan Tai, I know you're exposed to much more knowledge about time than I will ever know, but you're not making any sense. I wish you could just get to the point, instead of talking in circles." He shivered. Something was making him uneasy, and he wanted to go back to the Temple.
"Hiko is dead," Jikan Tai said suddenly. That caused the god's head to whip up. He stared at the mortal, but the Guardian was gazing off into the distance, beyond where the trees were gradually obscured by a thick mist. "Nova is dead. Liu Kang is dead. Because of me."
"Jikan Tai," Rayden said patiently, his voice dry, "You know that's not true. You have to stop blaming yourself."
The mortal glared. "There is a saying: 'Mistakes are only mistakes if you do not correct them', true?"
"What has that got to do with anything!" Rayden exploded, getting to his feet. "You've dragged me out here, wherever here is, to ramble on about vague points of time, and remind me that three of the people I care about the most are dead, and wallow in guilt. I want you to tell me what ever you had to tell me, and then let me go back to the Temple."
An odd change came over Jikan Tai. It was as though a shadow, a curtain fell over his face; his expression did not change, but something covered over any emotion he showed. If the eyes are the window of the soul, then the curtains were drawn. "I am sorry, Lord Rayden. I have been on my own for a long period of time, now. I am not used to explaining my thoughts to anyone else."
Rayden instantly felt chagrined by the outburst, but before he could say anything, the Guardian got to his feet, and stood with his back to the deity.
"I can bring them back," he said, finally, his hands held behind his back. He looked as though he was simply studying the landscape. "I figured out how to."
Rayden didn't say anything. He couldn't. The idea was so preposterous...
Jikan Tai seemed to be able to tell what the god was thinking. He looked at the deity over his shoulder. "I can do it."
"I don't think so," Rayden replied, shaking his head. "No one but the Creator can bring the dead back to life."
"I cannot bring them back to life," the mortal admitted. "I can, however, prevent them from dying at all."
This caused Rayden a touch of shock. "Jikan Tai--do you know what you're saying? That's... you would have to change the entire flow of history for the entire Omniverse. Not just Earth. For everyone."
Jikan Tai smiled, slightly. "I know. I have no problem doing that, if it means Nova and the Lady Hiko live again."
Rayden took a deep calming breath. What the Guardian was talking about was ludicrous. It was completely out of the question. And yet, to be able to see Hiko again--to never have lost her in the first place--caused a pang of grief so sharp it cut through to his soul.
Jikan Tai held out a hand, and the staff suddenly appeared in it, its red gem glowing with an internal light. "I am prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, Rayden. I will do it, for Nova, and Hiko."
"The ultimate..." Rayden trailed off, finding his voice at last. "What are you talking about?"
Jikan Tai held up his staff, and there was burst of red light before a vision appeared before them, in the air. Rayden recognised it immediately, and wished he hadn't. It was Hiko, and himself, and the Guardian, gathered around Nova, trying to revive her while she lay dying. They did revive her--the cost being Hiko's life. The vision lacked sound, but the god knew exactly what they were saying.
I can't help her any more, my healing abilities won't do anything more--
--I can transfer--
You can't! It might kill both of you!
It's our only hope...
"Stop that," Rayden said hoarsely. "Why are you doing this?"
Jikan Tai let the visions fade away, and the staff stopped glowing. "This is the point. This is where everything that is, becomes."
"Becomes what?" Rayden snapped. "Stop talking in riddles!"
"This is the point where everything becomes inevitable!" Jikan Tai roared. "This is where everything is set in stone! Here! This moment! When Hiko makes the transfer, she sets all the events in motion. All we have to do is change that one moment in time, Rayden. All we have to do is fix that one mistake, and then everything will change. For the better." There was a glint in the mortal's eyes, and Meimei's warning came back to him.
Rayden stared at the Guardian, fearing for his sanity. He started to back away. "Jikan Tai, you're not thinking straight. You need to calm down, and think about what you're saying."
"I know what I'm talking about," the Guardian growled, objecting to the tone that Rayden was using him. He grabbed the god by the arm and shoved him, hard, to the side.
"What are you--" Rayden began, before his feet touched the edge of one of the pools under the trees. He slipped, and fell in.
Sonya Blade watched him out of the corner of her eye. He was making his way through the crowd to her. She smiled slightly, and made herself a little more comfortable up on the high bar stool.
He was almost four feet away when he came to a dead stop, and started looking around him. Curious, she followed his gaze to one of the men sitting at the tables on the edge the dance floor. It was Jax.
Swearing in her head, Sonya tried to remain composed and detached. She had to act as though she wasn't Jax's partner. Finally, her prospect decided that Jax had nothing to do with Sonya, and started forward again.
"Miss Blade?" he asked, in a thick, Chinese accent. She nodded. "I have an envelope for you. From our... friend." He withdrew it from his jacket. It had a single word--Blade--scrawled across the front. He handed it to her, and then left, making his way through the crowd.
She hopped off her stool, and already Jax was on his way over. "You nearly blew everything," she hissed.
"I wasn't doing anything," he protested.
"You scream "back-up" just sitting down," she retorted, flipping the letter over and opening the back-flap. She drew out a single page, covered in chinese characters written in a heavy hand. "Dammit. Can you read Chinese?"
"Can't even speak it," Jax admitted.
"We'll have to find somebody who does--" She started to say something, but then stopped, her face clouding over.
"What? What's the matter?"
"Nothing. I... I just thought for a second about asking Liu to read this for us. Never mind. It's not important." Sonya stuffed the envelope in the dress bag that she was carrying. "We should get going."
They started for the door, both preoccupied with their thoughts. So they could be forgiven for not noticing the two men that began to follow them.
"We could fax it back to HQ. Wang can read Chinese, can't he?" Jax asked, as they hurried out into the night air.
"Yeah," she admitted. "But I'd rather figure it out without involving HQ."
Jax sighed. "You can't do everything yourself, you know."
"I can try." She stopped suddenly, tensing up.
"What is it?" he asked, his voice dropping.
She shook her head and started walking. "Never mind. Thought I heard--felt something."
They turned the corner and again Sonya felt something in the back of her mind. But this was a different feeling, and a familiar one. There was somebody very hostile behind her. As she walked around the corner, she pulled Jax to the side and against the wall.
"Someone's following us," she hissed. "You've got a gun?"
"Yeah," he replied. "You?"
"No, but that's not going to stop me," she reminded him. Now they could hear footsteps, sounding on the asphalt. She checked around her. The side street was deserted, so she grabbed Jax's hand and teleported them away.
The two hired guns turned the corner, but the sidestreet was completely empty. "Where'd they go?" the first asked. "They weren't that far ahead."
"I don't know," his partner replied. "But Boss said that the woman was tricky. They could be anywhere."
"Americans," grunted the first. "They always have to make everything so difficult."
Someone, a woman, yelled something in English at them. They both turned, to find that the Americans were behind them--how did they manage that?--and the man had his gun drawn. The woman snapped something else at them, but not knowing any English beyond a few meaningless slogans, they could only shake their heads. They recognised what the man told them, however. He gestured with his gun and they raised their hands.
"This is just perfect," Sonya grumbled. "You'd think I'd have picked the language up, by now."
"Maybe you're just not a verbal person," Jax remarked dryly. When she shot him a look, he smiled. "I told you."
She shook her head. "How do we question someone we can't speak to?"
"I don't know," Jax replied honestly. "Maybe we should hire a translator."
"I'm sure HQ would love to have another person on the payroll," Sonya grumbled. The two men were inching away, thinking that their captors were not paying attention; but a single gesture from Jax both proved them wrong and rooted them to the spot.
"Well, we can't keep them here all night," Jax reminded, her, uselessly. "Why can't you just read their minds, or something?"
Sonya paused. "Can... can I do that? To a mortal that I don't know?"
"I don't know!" Jax exclaimed. "Just try it. It's worth a shot, at least."
Sonya closed her eyes and reached out with her mind towards the two men, as if they were Rayden. She'd practised on Rayden before, and it had seem to come naturally...
The two men watched as the Americans bickered with each other. The one holding the gun was keeping an eye on them, so they couldn't try to escape. Finally, the woman shut up and closed her eyes.
"What is she doing?" asked the first man, in a hushed voice.
"I don't know," the other replied. "Magic? I hope not. I hate magic."
"It's a pain in the ass," the other agreed. Nothing seemed to be happening; the woman was just standing there, her eyes closed. Suddenly she gasped and fell to her feet. In an instant, her partner jumped to catch her. The hired men exchanged glances; they ran, each in a different direction.
"Sonya!" Jax exclaimed, holding her up. The two goons ran off, separately. It would be impossible to find out what they wanted. But that's not what Jax was thinking about. "Sonya! What happened?"
"Rayden?" Sonya whispered, her eyes wide, as she started to sit up. "Rayden... something's happened to Rayden...I was trying to..."
She scrunched her eyes closed. "I... something happened--"
"I've gathered that already," Jax muttered. He pulled her up, and let her lean on him. "Come on, let's get you home."
"Something's happened to Rayden," she mumbled again.
"We'll figure it out after we get home. Don't worry about it. He's a big god, he can take care of himself." Jax shifted Sonya around to support her weight. She was disoriented and her knees were loose. Her partner wondered if he would have to carry her. But after a few moments, she seemed to pull herself together and they started back.
There was a storm building overhead. Jax had heard the weather reports on the English- language news, it was supposed to be clear for the rest of the week. He knew that weather reports were almost always wrong, but something told him that this wasn't a normal storm. Call it instinct.
Sonya was half-conscious; she seemed to be weaving in and out. Jax gave up trying to drag her back to their base; he decided just to shell out for the cab. Inside the taxi, she seemed to calm down slightly but she kept rambling about Rayden and something that happened to him.
Jax paid the driver--and no doubt overtipped him, he was in no mood to count change--and pulled Sonya out onto the street. By this time she was completely incomprehensible. He got her up the stairs and into the set of flats that was their base. No sooner than they were up the first flight of stairs did she faint, completely, and he resorted to carrying her. Getting in the apartment was a hassle, and he finally sighed with relief when he dumped her in the bed. She was out cold.
He stumbled back out into the main part of the flat, which was were their office was set up. A fax had come through while they were out.
Artifact stolen, it read, simply. Contact killed. Advise caution.
That's just like Johannson, Jax thought wearily. Give us only the bare essentials and hope we don't screw things up.
While Jax and Sonya were stationed in Hong Kong, the HQ was back in the States, far out of the reach of any danger. It bothered Jax, but there was nothing he could do about it, and being a good soldier, he didn't complain. He crumpled the fax up and tossed it into the waste paper basket.
"Jax?" Sonya was standing in the doorway, rubbing her temples. "What happened? Why are we back here?"
"I carried you home after you fainted," he replied succinctly.
"Oh. We have to go." She shook her head as if to clear it. "We have to go, now."
"Go? Go where?" Jax asked. "You've--"
"I don't matter. We have to get to the Temple, something's happened to Rayden." Sonya grabbed him by the wrist and he realised at once that she meant to teleport him.
"Hold it," he snapped, breaking free of her grip. "We've just got a fax from HQ. The knife's gone; their contact--what's his name--got killed. Something big is going down, and we can't run off like that."
Sonya paused, considering. "The knife was Shao Khan's," she said. "Rayden might be able to tell us about it. But first, we have to help him."
"Help him with what?" Jax exclaimed. "What did he tell you?"
"Nothing," Sonya replied, simply, looking at him. There was something in her eyes that he couldn't recognise. "I was in contact with him for only a brief second, and then there was a shock, and then nothing." She shivered.
Jax stared at her. "You really think it's important?" he asked, quietly. She nodded. He held out his hand. "Then let's go."
When they appeared in front of the Temple of the Order of Light, it was raining. Very, very hard.
Sonya and Jax ran quickly to the main door, shaking off as much water as they could. A young monk was standing sentry at the door. He leapt to his feet and chattered at them in Chinese.
"Oh no," Jax groaned. "Here we go again."
Before either of them could react, another monk, far older than the sentry and very familiar looking, came running. "Sonya!" the monk exclaimed. "And...Jax?"
Sonya bowed. "It's Liu's Grandfather," she said to Jax, who bowed as well.
"You have come because of Rayden?" the monk continued, looking worried. "We are all praying for him. Something terrible has happened, but we don't know what." The monk gestured to the heavy rain. "It was very bright and sunny not more than twenty minutes ago," Liu's Grandfather continued. "And then this--as well, we have seen one of the Goddesses."
"Goddesses?" Sonya asked.
The old monk bowed his head. "When Lord Rayden has visitors, we do not pry. But there are Goddesses living in the Temple, now, as well as small demons. We rarely see them, but they are there. One of the brothers saw a strange woman faint, while he was gardening. She simply appeared, fainted, and then disappeared. That is when the storm started." He looked up at them. "I am sorry to keep you like this. You must come inside, we will dry you, and--"
"I'd rather just see Rayden, please," Sonya interrupted. "We've come a long way, and anyway, rain isn't going to hurt us."
The monk bowed again. "This way." He mumbled something to the sentry, who bowed again. Liu's Grandfather shuffled inside, and they followed him.
He led them through a long tunnel that led to the courtyard. He pointed at the far wall, where there was simple wooden door. "That is the way to Lord Rayden's."
"Thank you." Sonya bowed again, and hurried through the courtyard, ignoring the rain, with Jax right behind her. She reached the door.
"Hey, it's got no doorknob or latch," Jax exclaimed. He looked up, blinking through the raindrops. "And this looks a little small to be the place I remember."
"It's bigger on the inside," Sonya said, as the door swung open of its own accord. "It's the home of a god, remember?"
"How could I forget," Jax mumbled as he stepped in.
They were met at the door by a small person.
"Hello," Jax said slowly, not sure what to make of the small, vaguely-chinese looking child. "Do you speak English?"
The child, who had black silky hair and thin blue eyes, stared up at them, without saying a word.
"It's not a mortal," Sonya whispered.
"Oh," Jax whispered back, more confused. "Then whose child is it?"
"I don't know." Sonya regarded the child with a touch of distaste. "I don't like children."
"I never would have guessed," Jax remarked dryly. He got down to his knees. "Hello there. What's your name?"
"Yueh," the child replied.
"Gesundheit. Now, what's your name?" Jax repeated.
"Yueh!" the boy exclaimed. "My name is Yueh."
"Now we're getting somewhere," Jax began again when another small child appeared from around the corner. He was identical to the other. "Oh, no. Twins."
"My name's Jih!" the boy exclaimed happily. He squinted at Jax. "Are you a mortal?"
"Yes, I am," Jax said slowly. "Who's your mother?"
"Meimei," the boys replied. Sonya and Jax exchanged looks; they had no idea who that was. Yueh looked up at Sonya solemnly. "You're here to see Uncle Rayden."
"Yes, I am," Sonya answered, quietly. "We both are. Where is he?"
"With Mama and Grandma," Jih told her. "We can show you." He started off, walking a few steps and then turning to see if they were following him. When he saw they weren't, he gestured impatiently.
"Uncle Rayden's very sick," Yueh said quietly, before running, past his brother, around the corner.
"Well, that clears that up," Jax muttered, before he and Sonya started to follow their small guides.
It was a small wooden door, not unlike the others of the Temple. Sonya felt a sudden hesitation in entering. True, she had visited Rayden's section of the Temple many times, but she had never gone to his room before.
"For godsakes," Jax snapped, when she hesitated. "I don't think he's going to mind." He stepped in front of her and pushed the door open. Jih and Yueh darted around him, running in first. Sonya looked around her. This room carried the scent of incense, and it was decorated with pictures, from many different cultures and time-periods. Rayden himself lay sleeping, or unconscious, in his bed in the center of the room.
"Mama!" the boys both cried, dashing to one of the seated figures. There was three goddesses, sitting on chairs in the room.
One Sonya recognised as Lindara, Goddess of Plants. She was sitting next to the headboard, pressing a cold cloth to Rayden's forehead. She looked up when she saw the mortal, but didn't say anything.
The one that the boys ran to was sitting across from Lindara, looking woozy. She was very pale, almost green from sickness and had long white hair that was put up in a messy bun. She was being supported by the third goddess, an older deity dressed in a misty white dress, with green ribbons entwined in her still-black hair.
The elder stood, looking at Sonya and Jax imperiously. "I'm Sonya Blade," the former-mortal said, suppressing the urge to announce her rank. "This is my partner, Jax."
"I am Suyuan, Goddess of Winds," the deity replied solemnly. Sonya immediately chided herself; she should have announced her power. Oh well, too late now.
"We came to see Rayden," Jax said, feeling out of place. The three women radiated something that he couldn't put his finger on, and it unnerved him.
"He's unconscious," Lindara said softly, looking at Sonya. "He just appeared, and we haven't been able to get him to wake up."
"I heard him yell," the second goddess murmured. The way the boys hovered around, the two visitors took her to be Meimei. "I was watching one of the monks, and then I heard Rayden, and I fainted. Mother brought me in."
"That's what happened to me," Sonya told them. At once Suyuan got to her feet, after making sure that Meimei could support herself. She strode over and touched Sonya's forehead. Almost at once Sonya could feel the goddess reaching out towards her, in her mind.
"You've got quite strong mental powers," Suyuan said, drawing her hand away. "I can understand why you heard him. I do not understand why Meimei did."
"Didn't you hear him?" Jax asked.
"I did; and so did Lin, but Meimei and Sonya were the only ones who reacted the way they did." Suyuan took her place back by her son's side. "I wish we knew what happened. I can't reach him, at all."
Sonya stood at the foot of the bed. Rayden was barely moving. Even his eyes weren't shifting back and forth. She reached out and touched his foot, but drew her hand away slowly when he failed to respond. "Whatever it was, it scared the hell out of me, and I was getting it second hand."
Meimei looked up at her. "I got a terrible wave of pain, and then I blanked out. Do you think--?"
"There must be a connection," Sonya confirmed. "Where was Rayden before he fainted?"
"He went off with Jikan Tai," Meimei growled. "I knew something wasn't right, I knew it-- "
"Hold it." Jax had been keeping out of the conversation, but at last there was a topic that he knew about. "Jikan Tai wouldn't hurt Rayden."
"Well then, who did?" Meimei began fiercely when her mother touched her elbow, gently.
"Calm down, dear. We'll find out what happened, and who ever is responsible." Suyuan sighed, and rubbed her eyes tiredly. Yueh climbed up onto her lap and she cuddled him.
"Why won't Uncle Rayden wake up?" he asked, settling in.
"Yeah. He's not supposed to sleep in the daytime!" Jih exclaimed. "Only babies do that!"
"Boys," Meimei said sharply, "I want you to go wait outside in the hall. And don't bother the monks. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, Mama," they said reluctantly, Yueh sliding off his grandmother's lap. They both ran to the door and then outside.
"I'm going to see if Tai Hou can't come pick them up," Meimei told her mother. "Get them out of our hair while all this is going on."
"That's probably not necessary, and anyway Tai Hou would have more problems with them in the way than we would." Suyuan got to her feet and started pacing. "The first place we must check is with Jikan Tai."
"If anybody can find him," Jax interrupted. "He could be anywhere."
"If he's alive, we'll be able to sense him," Suyuan replied. "I don't have the range, but Kerlan- -"
"No, he could be out of the Omniverse by now," Jax corrected. "Or out of the timestream. Or even back in time. He could be anywhere."
The dubious looks from the goddesses confirmed that they had no idea what Jikan Tai was capable of.
"You don't find Jikan Tai, he finds you," Sonya summed up the situation. "If he knew anything and could help, he'd be here, right now."
"So what are you saying?" Suyuan asked.
"I'm saying that chances are whatever got Rayden got him too. He may be unable to contact us." Sonya paused, deep in thought. She turned to Jax. "Where do you think he might have taken Rayden? You know his powers the best, out of all of us."
Jax nodded. For a while, Jax had shared the Guardian's powers, and learned more about the nature of Time than he had ever wanted to. But he didn't learn a great deal about the Guardian himself. "I think... well, I'm pretty sure he mustn't have taken Rayden back in time; otherwise Rayden wouldn't have been able to teleport back here. So Jikan Tai must still be in the Omniverse somewhere."
"Of course he's in the Omniverse," Lindara said sharply, looking at him as if for the first time. "There's nowhere else to be."
"Actually--" Jax began, but Sonya shook her head. There was no point in starting thatargument over again.
"None of this is helping Rayden any," Meimei exclaimed suddenly. "We've got to find some way to bring him out!"
"Meimei," Suyuan said soothingly, "you need to calm down. We're doing all that can be done. You know that."
Meimei nodded, looking close to tears.
Sonya, not surprisingly, was starting to feel very uncomfortable.
"Maybe Johnny--" Jax began.
"Johnny!" Sonya blurted, surprised. "Of course! Johnny might have been affected as well! We've got to find him."
"Any ideas...?" Jax trailed off. Sonya nodded, and stretched out with her thoughts again.
Come on, Cage, I know you're out there...
"Got him. He's okay, I think." Sonya stretched out her hand. Jax, knowing the drill, took it. "We'll bring Johnny back here. Let me know if anything happens."
Suyuan, and Meimei nodded. Lindara just sighed and adjusted the cloth on her brother's forehead, not looking anyone in the eye.
"This is the life," Johnny Cage, God of Fire, said as he swung in his hammock. "Hey. I'm out of punch." Tiburius, one of his new mortals, took his glass and replaced it with a filled one, complete with a slice of fruit on the rim. "Thanks, Tibs."
Tiburius nodded. "Anything else, Lord?"
"No, thank you," Johnny replied, lowering his sunglasses down and sighing deeply. "Ah. I was born to be a god, I really was."
Tiburius bowed deeply. "May I return to the sea, Lord? The sun is too hot for me."
"Of course," Johnny waved one hand dismissively. "Don't even bother to ask next time. I'm omnipotent, remember? I can get my own punch."
"It is an honour to serve," Tiburius argued.
"Nonsense. You go home, I'll be fine." Johnny twisted around to make sure that his new mer- friend was following the god's advice. He was. He made his way from the grove to the beach, diving into the waves and swimming away. "That's better."
He settled in, closing his eyes. In the few short days he had spent in Maresium, he'd completely forgotten any trace of stress. Earth itself was starting to slip away, into the realm of bad dreams and over-exaggerations.
He heard footsteps coming through the grove towards him. "Tibs?" he called, not bothering to sit up. "Back already?"
"Just when I thought you couldn't get any lazier--" The familiar voice trailed off as suddenly someone grabbed his hammock and flipped him over. Johnny and his punch went flying. When he managed to get his head out of the sand, he looked up.
"Sonya!" he exclaimed. "And Jax! What are you doing here?"
"Giving you a dose of reality," Sonya snapped. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Enjoying a nap?" Johnny replied, confused.
Jax was looking around in appreciation. "Nice place. St. Martin's?"
"No, Maresium," Johnny answered, getting to his feet and brushing the sand from himself.
"Never heard of it. Remind me to book my next vacation here. I figure I've got about, oh, three months worth of unused vacation time." Jax grinned.
"It's not on Earth," Sonya told him, irritated at Johnny, although the deity hardly knew why. "This is Maresium, Hiko's Realm."
"It's my Realm, now," Johnny corrected her. "Great, isn't it?"
"It's just like you," Sonya snapped. "Rayden's unconscious and Jikan Tai is missing and all you can think about is your tan."
"Woah, wait a second," he said, holding up his hands. "What's happened?"
Sonya looked at him, studying his face. "You don't know, do you?"
"Know what?" The deity looked to Jax for an explanation but the mortal didn't offer one.
"Rayden's been hurt, somehow. He's unconscious, and we can't get him to wake up," Sonya said, her voice quiet and sombre. "I thought--that maybe you'd heard him."
"I haven't seen him since that day at the Temple," Johnny said, seriously. "I haven't talked to anybody except a few Maresians since last week."
"We thought that--" Sonya trailed off, suddenly hesitant.
"She heard Rayden, and fainted," Jax filled in, recognising the embarrassment. "Meimei, Rayden's sister, fainted too. We were wondering if you had."
"I haven't heard anything," Johnny replied honestly. "If I had, I would have gone to see what had happened."
"Can you come to Earth anyway, help us figure out what's gone wrong?" Sonya asked him.
"Of course. No problem." Johnny brushed a final few flecks from his shirt. "Let's-- Sonya?"
Sonya had her head cocked to one side, as though she was listening to someone from far away. "He's awake," she said suddenly. "He just came to." She looked at Johnny and Jax. "Let's get going."
Meimei and Lindara sat on opposite sides of the room. Meimei sat in the overstuffed armchair with her hands in her lap, her eyes closed. She still felt sick to her stomach.
Lindara had stopped placing cool cloths on her brother's forehead. They weren't doing much good, at any rate. Now she perched on a wooden stool, one of Rayden's hands in her own. She sent him healing energy, trying to help him through whatever it was that was happening.
"Meimei?" she asked, her voice a hushed whisper.
"Yes?" Her older sister looked up. She sat forward excitedly. "Is he--"
Lindara shook her head. "No. I didn't mean to get your hopes up. I was just... thinking."
Meimei leaned back into her chair, curling her legs up under her. A blanket, one of Rayden's souvenirs from Creator-knew-where hung over the end and she wrapped it around her legs. "Thinking about what?"
Lindara looked down at the closed eyes of her eldest brother. The only brother she'd known. "I was thinking about Nova. And Lightning."
Meimei didn't reply, but the colour which had been returning to her cheeks drained away. "Lightning," she repeated, trailing off. She struggled to find her voice. "Why?"
"I wish I knew what happened," Lindara replied. "I wish I knew how Nova and Hiko died. Why and how and when. I was in my Realm, cut off from everywhere else when it happened; all I know is that I turned up here and they were dead."
"I don't know what was happening myself," Meimei admitted. "I was in Officina. The boys were hysterical, they couldn't understand what was going on. Mother and I were trying to calm them down. Naturalis was in a flap, he kept rambling about his plants."
"I went to the funeral," Lin continued softly. Her voice was straining. "I could never understand the point before. We don't have funerals, and I never thought about why mortals do. But when I was there, listening to them talk about Liu Kang, and Nova and Hiko, I realised that they were gone."
Meimei looked downcast, but she didn't say anything, just let her sister continue.
"Even now, I keep expecting to see Nova. We weren't great friends, but I used to see her in the Bar a lot. She helped me with my mortals. She gave me the answer. I wanted to tell her that I was thankful, that I couldn't have figured it out without her help. But I can't." Lindara squeezed her eyes together to keep from crying. "And as bad as I feel... Rayden--" she stopped to wipe her oozing tears on the cuff of her elaborate green robe. "Rayden--and Hiko--"
With a slight pop of displacing air, Meimei appeared, standing beside her baby sister. She wrapped the blanket around Lindara's shoulders. "Go sit down for a little while. I'll give Rayden energy. You need a break."
Lin nodded. She got to her feet, stiffly, and started for the door when she felt a tingle along her spine.
"Lin?" Rayden asked groggily, his eyes opening a crack, "Where are you going?"
"Grandma!" Jih called, hopping up and down on one foot. "Can I have a cookie?"
Suyuan sighed. At any other time she would have refused him. But now she simply gave him one from the jar. He took it and started to munch gleefully.
Yueh, the more outwardly-aware of the two twins, sat quietly at the kitchen table. He wasn't sure what was going on, but he knew it was a bad situation and one that didn't require a cookie. Jih, noting the expression on his brother's face, stopped hopping up and down. He didn't stop munching, but now it was more subdued. He climbed up onto one of the chairs. Suyuan sat down as well, sighing heavily and tucking one of her hair wisps behind her ears.
Suddenly Yueh pricked up. "Mama!" he exclaimed. "I can hear Mama!"
Suyuan wasn't paying attention to him, however. She was already up from the table and flying from the room, towards her son.
When Sonya teleported them back, Rayden was awake and sitting up. Johnny started to exclaim something, but stopped mid-breath and simply nodded hello instead.
"He just woke up," Lindara exclaimed, her hand holding her brother's tightly. Both she and Meimei were at his side, the relief emanating from them almost palpably. Suyuan was perched in the armchair, one of the twins on her lap, the other sitting on the foot of the bed.
"Look, Mama!" the one on the bed blurted. "More people!"
Johnny stared at the child in confusion, but no others paid him any heed.
Sonya was studying Rayden carefully. His eyes were half-closed, and he looked terrible. He was very pale--paler than normal, she revised--and seemed...she couldn't put her finger on the exact term.
"My God, Rayden, you look like a zombie!" Johnny exclaimed, the first in the room to find his tongue (with the exception of Jih).
The others glared at him furiously, but Rayden himself did not respond other than a slight, weary shrug of the shoulders.
"He's very tired," Suyuan said, her tone very measured. Clearly, she did not like Johnny nor Johnny's comments. "He's been through a lot. He should probably get some rest--"
"He probably needs something to eat," Meimei added, while Lindara exclaimed:
"We should get him to Medicalis right away!"
Rayden himself simply shook his head. "Mother's right. I just want to get some sleep."
"But--" Sonya started to protest by Jax took her by the elbow and shook his head. Clearly, the mortal agreed with the Goddess of Winds; Rayden needed some rest. She glared at her partner but nodded slightly, and withdrew her comment.
"We'll stay in the Temple," Johnny announced. "Then, when you need us, we'll just be a few steps away."
"I can show you to the guest quarters," Meimei began, but Johnny shook his head.
"After the last little while, I know this place better than I know my home in LA. Sonya, Jax and I'll be fine. Don't worry about it." He looked to Rayden and nodded again before teleporting out. Suyuan frowned and started to say something, but thought better of it.
"Let's go," Jax said to Sonya quietly. "We'll come visit later, Rayden."
The deity didn't respond, even when the Goddess of Space and her mortal partner portalled away.
"Come, boys," Suyuan said, getting to her feet and swinging Yueh to the ground. "Let your uncle rest for a while."
Jih patted Rayden's leg, and jumped off the bed, bounding out the door. Yueh paused to pull on his mother's robes, but Meimei just patted his head.
"Go with Grandma," she said. "I'll be along in a little while."
The child nodded, and darted out, following his brother. Suyuan paused at the doorway. "If you need anything--" she began, before letting the offer go unspoken as she gently closed the door behind her.
Rayden sighed and closed his eyes, sliding down so that he was level again.
Meimei and Lin both started to get up when he opened his eyes again. "You don't have to leave," he said, softly. He shifted over to the middle of the bed.
Lin was perched on the side. "Rayden--"
He patted the pillow. "Please."
Lin sighed, and settled down. She rested her head on the pillow and he brushed her thick black hair out of the way, before snuggling in. Meimei lay down on his other side.
He turned slightly, and gave her a touch on the arm, the next-best thing he could do to a hug. She smiled, and snuggled closer. She giggled. "I don't think the bed will take too much more of this."
Rayden smiled, closing his eyes again.
"When was the last time we were all together?" Lin asked, suddenly. "It must have been your wedding, Meimei."
"That was the last time we were all in one place," her sister agreed. "But the last time we all slept together like this...?" She trailed off. "It must have been--" she cut herself off suddenly, and buried her head in the back of Rayden's neck, instantly regretting saying anything at all.
"It was just after Lin's second birthday, just after Hiko had Nova," Rayden supplied quietly, becoming very tense.
"Oh, Rayden, I didn't mean to--" Meimei sniffled, giving him a squeeze. "I'm sorry."
He didn't reply, but put a hand over hers. He was gradually relaxing, and Meimei realised that he had fallen back asleep. But this sleep was natural. She could sense him clearly. She lifted her head to look at Lindara, but realised that her baby sister was falling asleep as well.
Deciding to just go with the flow, Meimei set her head back down and closed her eyes, breathing deeply and trying not to think of the past.
Jax watched her.
Johnny flopped down onto the bed. "Anybody care to explain things now? Who were those little kids? Why does Rayden look like the walking dead?"
Sonya scowled, her pacing never slowing.
Jax sighed. "Those kids are Jih--he's the loud one, and Yueh-- Meimei's sons and Rayden's nephews."
"Oh. That clears that up." Johnny looked over at the mortal. "Who's the old one? The older goddess?"
Jax stared in confusion. "Which old one? They all look the same age to me."
This caused Sonya to stop and she and Johnny exchanged glances. "She's Suyuan, Goddess of Winds and Rayden's mother," the goddess said. Johnny nodded.
"Okay, and Question Number Three is what happened to Rayden?" Johnny looked to Sonya for the explanation. "He feels mighty weird."
Jax blinked in confusion at the phrasing but neither deity paid him any attention.
"I don't know why his energy is so erratic either. When whatever happened...happened, I got a tremendous shock, and then a wave of pain." Sonya rubbed her temples and both of the others were surprised at this admittance of distress. "Nobody else can figure it out, either. We'll just have to wait until Rayden can tell us himself."
"But what happened?" Johnny persisted. "Was he just sitting out on the porch when he suddenly keeled over? What happened, exactly?"
"Nobody knows," Sonya repeated. "He was last seen with Jikan Tai, who's gone god-knows- where, and like I said, only Rayden knows what happened exactly."
"He didn't look like he was in any great hurry to tell us," Johnny observed, lying down again, keeping his head propped up on his elbow. "He looked like he had seen a ghost."
Soon it was morning. The storm had not abated in the slightest, and Johnny looked out the window with a deep sigh.
"Missing your sunshine?" Sonya asked, as she stepped into the kitchen.
He nodded glumly. "I'd never been there before, but the minute I stepped from the portal, I felt like I had always lived there. It was the best feeling." He turned to look at her. "You been to Usirapi yet?"
"Where?" Sonya pulled some coffee from a shelf. Rayden's kitchen was well stocked.
"Usirapi, Cosmos' Realm," Johnny elaborated, shifting around so that he was facing her. "You been back yet?"
"Why on Earth," Sonya asked of him, looking at him askew, "would I want to go back there?"
Johnny paused. "Well...because it's yours, of course," he finished simply. "Maresium is mine, and Usirapi is yours. Thanks to the powers."
Sonya stood for a moment in stunned silent, one hand poised above the coffee jar, a spoon hovering mid-air. "I--never thought about it, I guess." She shook her head. "It seems wrong to go back, after all that's happened."
"After all what that's happened?" yawned Meimei as she entered, her hair all bushy and her eyes sleepy.
"Nothing," Sonya said quickly, putting the kettle on to boil. "Would either of you like some coffee?"
"I would," Johnny said immediately.
"Oh, no, thank you," Meimei said, fishing an apple out from the basket and sitting down at the table. She started to peel the apple before realising she needed a knife. Sonya smiled and handed her one before the goddess could ask. "Thank you."
Johnny snickered. "Not a morning person?"
"Not normally, no," Meimei agreed. She began to cut the apple into smaller chunks. "But last night was... restless."
"I know what you mean," Johnny agreed. "Bad dreams?"
She nodded slightly. "Nova. I dreamt of Nova, that I was trying to save her from something, I can't think what." She looked downcast. "She and I weren't that close, really."
"We were," Johnny replied quietly, his voice hushed. "I dreamt of her too. That I was trying to pull her from quicksand, but she kept slipping away."
"I dreamt of Liu," Sonya said suddenly, nearly blurting it. She looked uncomfortable, and Johnny knew how hard for her it was to admit, but she seemed determined to anyway. "I dreamt of when we were walking up the road to the Temple, just after we thought Shao Khan was killed, after the tournament in Agri. And that's when he appeared, in the sky; and he grabbed Liu, and was going to kill him." Her voice started to falter and she had her hands around the tin of coffee to keep from shaking. "I couldn't help him."
Johnny got up and put an arm around her shoulder. She tried to resist for a moment, but gave up, and rested her head on his shoulders.
Meimei, meanwhile, sat at the table, eating her apple in silence. She wasn't especially close to Nova; she barely knew Hiko, mostly knew of her, although they had met several times after she and Rayden got married. But Meimei hadn't known Liu Kang at all. In short, she had no one to grieve for but her brother. She could tell that Rayden was not bearing the stress well, but was determined to carry on regardless and that worried her a great deal.
The silence was broken by Jih, who ran into the kitchen, whooping, followed by his brother. "Mama! Mama!" He scurried over to her and climbed on her lap, while Yueh got on the chair next to her.
"Morning, boys," she said, giving Jih a cuddle and a slice of apple. Yueh tugged on her sleeve and received a chunk as well.
Jih stared at Johnny. "Hi!"
"Hello," Johnny replied awkwardly as Sonya pulled away and started to busy herself with the coffee, the mood broken.
"Who are you?" Jih continued.
"Jih!" Meimei exclaimed. "Don't talk to your elders in such a fashion!"
"I'm Johnny Cage," the deity replied. "God of Fire."
Jih's eyes went very wide, as did Yueh's. "Oh."
Meimei chuckled, eating the last bit of her apple and reaching for another one. "I told you to be polite to him."
"Sorry," Jih said, awestruck. Sonya was confused by the reverence but Johnny simply took it in stride.
He would, she snorted.
"Can I have some porridge, Mama?" Yueh piped up, never taking his eyes from the god.
"Sure, that's a good idea, sweetheart," Meimei replied. "Jih, you're going to have to get down."
"I can make it," Sonya said quickly. "I'm up, anyway."
"That's very thoughtful; thank you." The goddess began to cut up the second apple, sharing it between her sons.
Finding where the cereal was kept was no difficulty, but Sonya had a problem figuring out which container of grain was which type of grain. Some were easy to tell, like wheat and corn, but others were frankly foreign and she was stumped.
Luckily, she found that someone had written on all the jars; from the writing Sonya guessed that it was Hiko, rather than Rayden. But that made more sense, anyway. She assumed the god could tell at first glance which canister held the quinoa; but Hiko was food-challenged and another matter.
Finally, she located the oatmeal and measured some out into a saucepan. "Do they like anything special in it?" she asked Meimei, while Johnny looked into the pan dubiously.
"They like some dried fruit," Meimei replied, pointing at one of the shelves. Sonya had to stand on tip-toe, but could barely reach it. Johnny stretched and reached it with ease. He gave it to her without any trace of a smirk so she spared him a scowl.
Soon the porridge was bubbling merrily and she found bowls and spoons.
"They have wooden ones of their own," Meimei said, shaking her head. She pointed to a set on the second shelf. "They tend to be... tough with their utensils."
"What does utensil mean?" Yueh asked.
"Bowls and plates and forks and things," his mother replied, gathering her apple peel together. "Be a dear and put that in the compost for mother."
"Compost? Rayden has a garden?" Johnny replied, smiling despite himself.
"No, but it goes in the Temple compost," the deity replied.
"Rayden was never very interested in plants," Meimei continued. She thought to herself. "I wonder why. Oh well."
"I understand Hiko had a flower garden," Johnny replied, with a grin.
"I don't know about that." Meimei shrugged. Sonya was setting the table so the goddess lifted Jih off her lap and set him down on another chair. He protested but then caught sight of Johnny and hushed immediately. Johnny caught Sonya's eye and smiled, but she didn't return it.
"I guess Mother is still asleep," Meimei said suddenly. "She's probably tired out."
"She has been taking care of the boys," Johnny remarked, pulling up a chair. "At least, I assume she has."
The goddess nodded. "But she normally does that." Jih was already done his breakfast and starting to fuss. She pointed to a cloth lying on the counter and Sonya threw it to her.
Sonya then leaned against the counter, her arms crossed and a questioning look on her face. "She does? Does she live with you and your husband?"
Meimei laughed. "Oh, no. We live with her, and her husband in Officina. That's Naturalis' Realm. Tai Hou--my husband--doesn't have a Realm, you see." She pulled Jih to her and wiped his face. The minute she let him go he flew off, leaving his brother to finish breakfast alone at the table. "Lately, I've been wondering if I shouldn't move to my own Realm. For the boys, I mean. And Mother, too. I'm sure she'd love the calm. Yueh, darling, finish your porridge."
"You can't just get a Realm," Johnny interrupted. "Can you?"
"I already have one," Meimei responded. "Outworld."
The silence when she announced this was profound, but she didn't seem to notice, and continued on. "As Shao Khan's only full-blood relative--with the exception of Rayden, naturally--it is mine by right."
"And you turned it down?" Sonya exclaimed.
"Not really. I didn't want it at the time--I'd just had the twins and I couldn't face it, so full of negative energy like it was. I nearly turned it down, but then one of its previous inhabitants came forward and asked to take care of it, as a Regent of sorts." Meimei stopped to grab Yueh by the collar as he was making a run from the table. She pulled him over, inspected his face, wiped a smudge, and then let him go. She looked up to Sonya, and was startled to see that the Goddess had gone pale. She frowned, and looked to Johnny, but he didn't have an explanation either. Sonya seemed to find her voice.
"Kitana," she said, slowly. "Kitana is the Regent."
Meimei nodded, still confused as to why this would have any significance. Johnny picked up on his friend's inference immediately, and realised why she looked so ill. "Liu. She hasn't been told about Liu."
Rayden stood out on the grass. Overhead, the clouds rumbled, and the rain fell steadily. He could hear it hitting the outside of his straw hat. He watched the water streaming off the rim.
It was Lindara, calling from the doorframe. She obviously didn't want to step outside and risk getting wet.
He could have turned to reply to her. He could have simply called over his shoulder. He did neither.
"Rayden!" she exclaimed, trying to get his attention. Finally she decided that rain or no rain, she was going to talk to him.
She bounded out, the skirt of her dress lifted off the ground so it wouldn't get soaked by the wet grass. She let one side of her hem drop so that she could pull on his shoulder.
"Rayden! You need to get out of this rain," she commanded, shivering. "It's cold and wet and raining so I suppose it would be wet but you'll catch a chill and then Mother will be furious," Lin continued in a single breath. "Rayden, are you listening to me?"
He turned then, and she was relieved by it; he had been so out of sorts since the previous evening. But he didn't reply to her and she realised after a moment that he was staring at something over her shoulder.
She turned, but the doorway was empty. She looked back. "Rayden?"
He looked down at her suddenly as though only now becoming aware of her presence. "Lin. I thought--" He trailed off, staring at the empty door.
"Rayden," she repeated again, tugging more forcefully, letting her skirt drop to the ground entirely, "Come inside."
He stared at her in confusion, as though he couldn't see any reason why he shouldn't be outside. "Rayden," she repeated, letting her worry creep into her voice. "Come inside, right now." She started to pull on his arm, and he followed her meekly.
Lindara came into the kitchen, soaking wet, and found Meimei and Sonya and Johnny talking at the table. Sonya looked far paler than she could remember the mortal--goddess, Lin corrected quickly--looking in the past.
"Lindara," Johnny acknowledged. "You're soaking."
"Where were you?" asked Meimei, getting to her feet.
"Rescuing Rayden. He was just standing outside, in the rain," Lin replied, wringing her long sleeves. "I had to pull him in."
Meimei looked confused. "What? He was sleeping."
"He must have left after you got up. I woke up to find both of you were gone. I had a funny feeling, checked outside and there he was." Lindara took her sister's hands. "I'm really worried for him. He's really out of sorts."
Meimei gave her a quick hug. "I know, Lin. But we'll work through it. Mother's here; you're here--"
"You're here," Lindara replied, confused. "Unless--you're planning on leaving?"
"Something's come up," Meimei agreed, exchanging a look with Johnny and Sonya. "We've got to go to Outworld."
"Outworld!" Lindara exclaimed, a hand flying to her breast. "Why would you want to go there?!"
"Unfinished business," Meimei repeated firmly. "Don't worry, we won't be gone longer than a day or two."
"Tell me why," Lindara insisted. "Please. I won't tell Mother if you want; but just tell me, please."
"We have to go tell Kitana about Liu," Johnny supplied quickly. "She doesn't know he's dead."
"Does it make a difference?" Lindara asked in confusion.
"Lin!" Meimei blurted. "They were very close!"
"Oh." Lindara at least had the sense to be ashamed. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Sonya snapped, perfunctory. "Meimei, can we go soon? I'm not looking forward to this."
"Neither am I," Johnny agreed. "I'd like to get this over with."
Meimei sighed and fussed with her hair, a sure sign to Lindara that she was mulling something over in her head. "What about Rayden?"
"You said yourself that his mother's here, that Lin is here," Sonya reminded her. "If anything comes up, we can come back in a second."
"That's true." Meimei seemed torn. "Then there are the boys--"
"Again," Johnny interrupted, "they'll be in good hands. We shouldn't be gone that long; if we're not back by the evening I'd be really surprised. Outworld is not a place that inspires long visits."
Meimei sighed, then nodded. "I must get changed, first. I am Outworld's Lady; I cannot go in my dressing gown." She started towards the door, then stopped and took Lindara aside. "Lin, I want you to tell Mother, but not Rayden. He's been through enough for the moment, we can tell him later. And for goodness sake don't tell the boys; they're liable to blurt out anything. Just tell them that I've gone home to check on Naturalis, or something like that. Okay?"
"Okay," Lindara agreed readily.
"I'll go wake up Jax," Sonya said, brushing by them. "I let him sleep in."
Johnny started to say something; but hesitated. He sat back at the table, coffee mug in hand. "I'll just wait here," he finished quietly.
Meimei nodded, and left the room.
Lin looked to the new God of Fire. She, very awkwardly, sat down at the table.
"You don't have to be so nervous, I don't bite," Johnny said to her, smiling.
She was shocked by the phrase until she realised it was some sort of mortal joke. "I didn't think that you were going to bite me," she said primly.
"Then why do you look like you'd rather be on the other side of the Temple?" Johnny asked her suddenly. "Look, I'm not one to pull punches. I know you weren't this uncomfortable around me at Agri's Tournament. Is it because I'm now a god? I'm just curious. I want to know."
Lindara sat with her hands in her lap. She was staring at the sodden hem of her green dress. "I don't mean to be rude," she said quietly. "I--" She shook her head, bringing it up to look him in the eye. "I'm sorry. I won't be like that, any more."
"I don't care if you are," Johnny admitted with a shrug. He took a sip of coffee. "Like I said, I was just curious."
She regarded him closely. "You were there. You were there when Nova was killed."
He went very pale. "Yeah," he managed in a choked voice. "Yeah, I was."
She leaned in. "Tell me. Tell me what happened."
Johnny got up suddenly, setting his mug down. "I wonder what's keeping Sonya and Jax? I'd better go check."
He left the room, almost running.
Lin watched him leave, then shook her head and got to her feet. She could hear the rain on the roof overhead, and it was beginning to annoy her. She closed her eyes and stretched out, using her powers to try and drive away the storm; she'd had enough.
It was resistant to her attempts. Sighing heavily, she gave up. She would get Rayden to deal with it when he felt better.
On To Part Two