"Where are you going?" Suyuan exclaimed. "Why are you getting all dressed up?"
"An emergency's come up, Mother, in Outworld," Meimei mumbled, hairpins in her mouth. "I was just on my way to tell you."
At the mention of her second son's Realm, Suyuan's lips thinned. "Why are you going there?"
"I need to take Johnny and Sonya to see someone there," Meimei replied, taking the pins from her mouth, so she could speak properly. "And I've got some loose ends to tie up. I won't be long."
"You have an emergency here to deal with," her mother reminded her.
"Rayden's got you and Lin, and we're only a thought away," Meimei countered. "We'll only be gone a few hours, at most. It really shouldn't be put off."
"Hmmm," Suyuan grumbled. She couldn't forbid her daughter to leave, but that didn't mean she had to be happy about it. "A few hours?"
"At most," Meimei agreed. "Can you watch the boys? Lin's hopeless with them."
"Of course." Suyuan sighed. "Don't be long. I'm worried about Rayden."
"We all are," Meimei told her. "And I won't be any longer than I absolutely have to be. I'll come rushing back."
"Good. I don't think I can handle Jih and Yueh without back-up for too long," Suyuan said with a hint of a smile. Meimei smiled back; the comment was as close as her mother would get to approving of Meimei's sudden departure.
Sonya and Jax appeared back in the kitchen a few minutes after they left. Jax looked completely awake and refreshed. Johnny wondered how he had done it.
Jax caught the ex-mortal looking at him. "You're wondering how I look so awake."
"Yeah," Johnny admitted simply. "It's not something I could ever pull off."
"You haven't been in the Army since you were eighteen," Jax said with a hint of a smile.
Just then Meimei bustled in, still trying to get her hair right. "I've talked to Suyuan, and Lin. Everything is set." She looked at Sonya. "This won't be too long, will it?"
"Not if I can help it," Sonya replied honestly. "I'm not comfortable with doing this at all."
"I know what you mean," Johnny muttered. They all looked at each other. "Well, then, let's get going," the actor said in frustration. But before he could teleport out, Meimei waved her hands for him to stop.
"Wait. There's something we need to do, first." She took a deep breath. "What are the words? I can't...oh, wait. Okay." She took another deep breath. "I hereby, as Protector, invite you to the Realm of Outworld."
Jax looked at Sonya, then Meimei, then Johnny, then back to Sonya. All three of the deities looked different, somehow. Meimei simply looked expectant, but Sonya and Johnny had a new-found... glow. The mortal shook his head. He wasn't used to dealing with stuff like this. Sonya held out her hand to him, but Meimei shook her head, and with a look of extreme concentration, she opened a crackling gray portal in the center of the kitchen.
Even Sonya seemed impressed. "Hurry up," Meimei said with her voice strained. "I can't hold it open forever."
Sonya and Johnny both nodded, and headed through. Jax took one last look around the kitchen, reminded himself to get breakfast in Outworld, and stepped into the portal.
Jax stood on the open plain of Outworld. "On second thought, I think I will skip breakfast."
Overhead, the sky was a rolling sea of dark blue-purple clouds that boiled and frothed against each other. Ruins of a once-prosperous city had toppled and the stones lay where they fell.
"Okay, I knew there was a flaw in this plan," Johnny said dryly. "And I think it was coming back here."
Even Meimei was off-set by the scene. "It's horrible," she said, shuddering. "How could anyone live here?"
"Very carefully," remarked a dry voice behind them. They all whirled to find someone very familiar watching them in turn.
"Kitana!" Sonya and Johnny both exclaimed.
She bowed to them. "Johnny. Sonya. It is a pleasure to see you again. Lady Meimei. Have you come on an official visit?"
Meimei paled. "Uh...no."
"As you wish." Kitana bowed deeper to Meimei than she had to the others, and then turned to Jax. She was obviously waiting to be introduced.
"Kitana, this is my partner, Jax--" Sonya began, but Kitana waved her silent.
"We have already met," she said with a slight smile, although the smile faltered and she seemed, suddenly, to question her own memory. "At least--I believe we have."
"I know I haven't had the pleasure," Jax piped up. He took her hand and suavely kissed it. Sonya frowned, which Johnny noticed, causing him to frown as well.
Meimei was the only one not frowning. "Regent, could we perhaps go inside?"
"Of course, Lady." Kitana bowed deeply and turned, gesturing for the others to follow her. "I am curious to know why you have paid a visit to Outworld."
Sonya and Johnny exchanged looks. "That's best left for when we're all sitting down."
Kitana tried to scrutinise their faces, but diverted her eyes the moment either made eye contact. That irritated Johnny; it seemed a lot of people were doing that to him lately.
Eventually, Kitana seemed to give up, even though she must have been extremely curious to know what news her visitors brought.
They walked for about five minutes before they reached a cliff side. Looking down, all the newcomers gasped in unison.
Before them lay a valley, as lush and green as anything on Earth. A city was built in the center, made of white stone, towers rising above the tree-lined streets while mortals busied themselves on errands and constitutionals. While the sky overhead was the same bruised atrocity, the city below seemed calm and peaceful and serene.
"That is Xiatian, Outworld's new capital," Kitana said proudly, a hand out, gesturing proudly at the vista. "We have worked hard to restore the city's natural beauty. Come, I will show you to your Temple, Lady."
She led them along a path that wandered parallel to the cliff's edge. A staircase suddenly became apparent, jutting out from the rock, and she walked down it without any hesitation what- so-ever. Meimei followed second, and then Sonya, Jax and Johnny brought up the rear.
Meimei's Temple was actually hewn into the side of the cliff face, sculpted from the raw rock. It was simple, with only a main throne room and a small room to the side for private counsels, but it was beautiful and lovingly made. The walls were so polished that they could all see their reflections in the veined marble.
"This mortal, appointed Regent of your Realm, dedicates this Temple to you, Oh Lady Meimei," Kitana said very formally, once they entered. She got to one knee. Meimei touched her shoulder.
"I accept your dedication," the goddess replied. She looked around. "It really is a gorgeous Temple. It's too small for the boys, though."
"You speak of your two sons?" Kitana asked, without looking up. "The Temple can be enlarged as your Ladyship wishes."
"No, no. This is fine. I don't think I want to move the boys just yet." Meimei did not elaborate, but the reason was as clear as glass to the others: she did not want to raise her children in Outworld, the way Outworld was now.
"As your Ladyship wishes." Kitana stood, the ceremony apparently complete.
Johnny whistled. "When I went to Maresium, they dedicated a Temple to me, too."
"I'm sure that did your ego some good," Sonya snorted.
Johnny ignored the comment. "--But the ceremony wasn't as fancy. Did we do it wrong, or...?"
"We have specialised customs," Kitana explained to him. "Maresians would no doubt have different customs."
"Whew, that's a load off my mind," Johnny said. "The way we did it, I was sure the Creator was going to smite me."
Meimei was staring at him, a mixture of shock and disgust on her face. "I know how mortals disregard the names of their Creator, but deities do not," she said sharply. "You do not know, and so I will let this slip." She turned and started towards one of the windows, to look out on the valley.
Johnny, startled and embarrassed, glanced at Sonya, but the goddess wasn't paying him any attention. He caught Jax's eye, but the mortal only shrugged.
"Kitana?" Sonya asked, suddenly, "There's something we need to talk about. Is there somewhere we can go, to sit down?"
Kitana gestured to a door in the far wall. "There is her Lady's private chamber. Will that do?"
"I suppose so..." Sonya trailed off. She looked to her friends. "Are you two coming?"
"Of course," Johnny replied, solemnly. "This is as much my responsibility as it is yours."
"I think I'll stay out here," Jax blurted, when the deity was through. "I don't think I have anything to contribute to that conversation. I don't think it's my place."
Sonya nodded, regarding him for a moment, and then she headed off. Johnny and Kitana were quick on her heels, with Meimei following sedately after, clearly not relishing the meeting either.
Jax looked out the window at the city below. It seemed like an optimistic view of any Earth city. There were plenty of trees, no garbage that he could see, no cars. It was clean and pleasant and non-polluted. Which, considering the rest of the Realm, was no small feat, he knew.
He looked to the door. He wondered if he should have gone with them. But he would have only been painfully out of place. Yes, he knew Liu Kang; but it was a fleeting, passing acquaintance. He didn't feel qualified to announce the death to Kitana, who had been very close to Liu, as far as Jax could tell.
He definitely didn't like staying, waiting by the window. He preferred to be doing something, anything, and so he rooted around in his pockets to see if he could find the printout of--ah, there it was. The printout of the knife, the knife that used to belong to Shao Khan. This was Shao Khan's former world; perhaps his former tenants could tell Jax something about it.
He started towards the door of the chamber when he heard the muted sounds of someone shouting; he decided that perhaps it would be better if he didn't disturb them. Sonya would know where to find him.
The room was sparsely furnished, no doubt because the mortals were not sure as to Lady Meimei's tastes. There were, however, several chairs, and they each took one, leaving the obvious throne to Meimei herself.
She took it, uncomfortable with what it represented.
"What is this news that you bring?" Kitana asked, without preamble. "But before you tell me, there is one thing I would like to know."
"Ask," Johnny said quietly.
"Where is Liu Kang? Is he busy with Temple work? Why did he not come, to visit?" The Regent looked from one saddened face to another. "What? What has happened?"
"Liu..." Sonya trailed off, trying to find her voice. "Liu is--"
"Lightning," Johnny suddenly blurted. "Did you hear about Lightning?"
"Rumours, pieces of information here and there," Kitana replied, bewildered. "Our holy people detected a vast shift in energy around that time, but that's all we know."
"To make a very, very, long story short," Johnny began, drawing a sharp breath, "Lightning attacked the Omniverse, trying to siphon its energy off to feed herself."
Kitana stared at him, uncomprehending. "I--"
Johnny held up a hand. "We tried to fight her. And for the most part, we succeeded. We killed her, we restored the Omniverse to what it was." He took a deep breath, and looked to Sonya. She nodded, sadly. "But we paid a terrible price for it. For our victory."
Kitana began to understand and she paled visibly. "Liu."
"Liu, Nova and Hiko all died that day," Johnny finished sadly. "It was due to Liu that we were able to defeat Lightning at all. We could have never pulled it off without him."
Kitana had the back of her hand to her mouth, to keep from crying out. "Liu Kang is dead."
Johnny and Sonya both nodded.
For a moment, the Regent just sat, her eyes closed. Then she got to her feet, and walked to the window. She stared out, her arms crossed behind her back. "You said that it was because of Liu that you were able to defeat Lightning."
"Yes," Johnny said, with a nod.
She turned on him, sudden anger written across her face. "Was it the best option?"
"What are you saying?" Sonya leapt to her feet. "It was the only option! We had one chance to defeat Lightning, and we took it!"
"Who are you defending what you did to? Me, or you?" Kitana asked quietly, her voice dangerously low. Sonya went beet red, and the air around her began to shimmer.
"How dare you..." she said through clenched teeth. "We did what we had to do, nothing more."
"Liu sacrificed himself," Kitana began, but stopped when she saw the look that played across Johnny's face. "Ah. I see. Liu did not sacrifice himself. You made that choice for him."
Now it was Johnny's turn to jump to his feet. "We did what had to be done! Liu would have done anything to defeat Lightning, and he could hardly make the decision himself--"
"Why not?" Kitana demanded. "A person has the right to choose!"
"He was possessed by Lightning!" Johnny roared, provoked beyond measure. "He wasn't Liu any more! He was just a walking bunch of cells! It was the only weakness she had, the only chance we had and we took it!" The god of fire stopped, breathing heavily, his eyes misted. "We had to. It was either Lightning, or us."
Sonya sat back down, feeling as thought a great weight was pressing down upon her. She rested her hands on her legs, but her legs were shaking. Her arms were shaking. She was shaking. If she closed her eyes she could see Lightning on the field, back on Earth, cackling with laughter as she blasted them with waves of energy. Sonya could feel the tingle in her arms and legs, the long memory of her senses.
Kitana said nothing, but stared at the deities before her. "Liu is dead. Because of you."
"Because of Lightning," Johnny protested weakly. The argument and all its ramifications and relived memories was taking its toll on him. "Because of her."
Kitana glared at him, no longer bound by convention to avert her eyes from those of a god. For she no longer considered him superior. "Why was I not told when it happened? Lightning's attack occurred months ago."
"One month," Meimei suddenly interrupted. She had kept silent, but could hold her tongue no longer. "It has been one month, and in their defense, they have had a lot on their minds."
Kitana snorted. "You could have sent word--"
"We didn't know where you were!" Sonya exclaimed furiously. "The last time we saw you was about a month after the battle of Shao Khan! You just disappeared, without so much as a forwarding address!"
"I had to serve my people!" Kitana retorted defensively. "I had to come, rebuild my world!"
"You could have told us that. Did you bother to tell Liu?" Sonya's voice lowed to a growl. The air around her shimmer and rippled. "You didn't, did you."
"I did," Kitana ascertained. "I invited him to join me. To come with me to Outworld, but he refused. He said he had work to do for his people. That was the last I have heard of him!"
"And it was the last we heard of you," Sonya maintained.
"Do you believe that cancels it out? That we are even?" Kitana sneered.
"No." Sonya regarded the Regent with coldness in her eyes. "Nothing can make up for what happened. But I want you to see that neither of us can throw the first stone."
"I do not understand the reference," Kitana began, "but I believe I know what you are saying." She took a deep breath, a calming breath, and put a hand against the glass, to steady herself. "I am sorry, for the outburst."
"At least your outbursts don't require interior decorators," Johnny remarked, trying to lighten the mood. They ignored him.
Kitana pulled herself away from the view. "I must return to my work." She looked to Meimei. "Is there anything else you require of me, Lady?"
Meimei shook her head, and the mortal bowed again, deeply, before leaving the room.
"That went well," Johnny remarked.
"Can the quips, Cage," Sonya snapped, her head in her hands. She lifted it up and her eyes were full of tears. "God, this was a bad decision."
"She was right, she deserved to be told," Johnny said softly.
Sonya was shaking her head. "I know. But I don't think we should have been the ones to do it."
"It's better for her to hear it from us--"
"Not better for me! Or for you!" Sonya seemed to explode. "Where does she get off, blaming us like that! She wasn't there, she doesn't know--" She trailed off, determined to pull herself together. Her shoulders were shaking, but she seemed to be succeeding. "I think we should be going home."
"I agree," Meimei said quietly, getting to her feet. "Let's get Jax and go."
They all teleported into the main hall. Kitana was gone already, understandably, but Jax was also gone. Johnny looked out the window, but neither mortal was in sight.
"I don't understand," Sonya began. "Where could he have gone?"
"Don't you know?" exclaimed Meimei, startled. "Can't you just sense him?"
Sonya seemed sheepish. "I forgot about that." She stretched out with her thoughts, searching for those of her partner. Jax, where are you? It took only a fraction of a second. "Got him. He's in the city, talking to a mortal."
"Then let's go get him and get out of here." Johnny glanced out at the rolling indigo sky and shuddered.
Sonya nodded. "I can take you right to him..."
A portal opened, and she jumped through. Meimei sighed and followed, as did Johnny.
Sonya found herself on the main street, Meimei right behind her. "Hey, where's Johnny?"
The goddess looked behind her, but the portal had already closed. "I suppose he must have decided to remain behind."
"Nice of him to tell us," Sonya snapped. "Oh well. Let's get Jax and get going."
"No, see, I'm not one of the rebels," Jax protested with a sigh as the woman scuttled away from him. "I just want to know about--"
"Hey!" exclaimed a man, coming out from one of the shops. "What are you doing?"
"I'm merely trying to get some information," Jax explained, carefully. "I'm not one of the rebels."
The man looked at him dubiously. "What information are you seeking?"
Jax held up the printout. The man paled. "You do not know what you are seeking?"
"No, I don't," Jax replied. "That's why I'm asking people about it."
"That is the Knife of Rodosi," the man quaked, clearly growing more terrified. "That is the knife of Shao Khan!"
His frightened shouts were drawing a crowd. Obviously, the man had memories of Shao Khan's reign that were not especially pleasant.
Jax began to back up, when the first woman he had ask began to howl. "He's one of the rebels! Searching to restore Khan!" Within moments the crowd had grown in size and anger.
"Uh oh," the Earth native murmured. "This is not good." He did not want to get into a fight with these people. He tried backing up again to find he had run into someone. He whirled around, to see Kitana scowling at him.
"Do you bring more disruption into my life?" she asked of him. Before he could answer, she stepped past him and turned to address the crowd. "Friends, he is a not a rebel. I vouch for him."
"He is looking for the Knife of Rodosi," the man yelled. "He is looking for Shao Khan."
"That's not true," Jax protested. "I'm just looking for information."
Kitana shot him a look over her shoulder that he took to mean I'll deal with you later. "Friends, this is one of the warriors that helped to bring Shao Khan down. He is loyal to the cause of peace. He is no rebel."
"Do you trust him, Princess?" asked another of the crowd, while the rest exchanged glances and fervent murmurs.
"I do." Kitana held her head up high, daring any to question her trust. They did not; they knew Kitana and felt she knew best. Slowly, the crowd began to disperse. It was only when they were gone that Kitana turned to face Jax.
"What are you doing?" she snapped, starting down the street. He followed her, partly for a chance to explain himself and partly to show he was thankful for what she did.
"I told them I was looking for information on this knife. It's turned up on Earth and I thought I might find something out from the natives." Jax handed her the picture. She stopped dead in her tracks.
"This is Rodosi," she said to him, her voice low. "It was Shao Khan's, made by Outworld forgers and given power by Shang Tsung himself. For every person that Khan killed with this knife, its powers grew." She looked at him. "That is why my people were so frightened of it. They know of it. Some have even seen it first hand."
"Like I said, it's turned up on Earth--" Jax began, but she cut him off.
"That is impossible. It was destroyed during the Last Battle." Kitana shook her head. "It is gone."
"Then how did I get a picture of it?" Jax pointed at the words typed out along the bottom. "Sonya and I are part of an elite team that investigates... other-worldly happenings around the planet. We were given top access because of our experiences with other Realms, which officially don't exist." He smiled, but Kitana did not find his sentence amusing. He cleared his throat and continued. "This knife is one of several artifacts believed to be recovered from Outworld. When the two Realms merged, several things got traded--"
"I know this," Kitana interrupted.
"Right. Sorry. I'm used to explaining this to our civilian management. Now, as I was saying, this knife has suddenly become very popular among the black magic crowd. I just thought I'd look into it while I was here." Jax took the paper and folded it up, fitting it back in his pocket. "But I guess I touched a nerve, so I'll let it pass. Old-fashioned Earth news will have to do for us."
Kitana shook her head slowly. "No. No, you will have all the information you need. If someone is trying to continue the works of Shao Khan, they must be stopped. I will help you with whatever you need."
"Just the hard facts," Jax replied. "Just what we need to know."
"Very well. Come with me, to the new palace; we have records and archives that may be useful." Kitana started to walk again, briskly, although Jax had no problems keeping up with her, something she was obviously not used to.
They had gone only a few minutes down the block when Jax heard a familiar crackle of a portal opening up. "It must be Sonya," he said, turning.
The figure that stepped through gazed at both of them with a sombre look.
"Jikan Tai," Jax said, surprised. "I thought you were Sonya."
The Guardian did not reply, nor did he respond when Kitana bowed deeply to him. "Jax. Princess Kitana. I need your help."
"Our help?" the mortal blurted. "What for?"
"I cannot tell you here," Jikan Tai said, looking around him as though he expected someone to be watching, overhearing. "You must come quickly."
Overhead, a suspicious rumble echoed through the sky. Kitana looked up, startled. "It is the wrong time of year for thunder," she said, confused. Then she jumped.
Jax knew why; a strange tingle was running up and down his arms. It was a very familiar feeling. "Lightning. This feels like Lightning."
Jikan Tai shuddered and clutched his staff tightly. "You must help me," he said again, his voice on the verge of breaking.
Jax and Kitana exchanged a brief glance, then nodded.
Meimei felt very skittery. She remembered this feeling, vaguely, but couldn't place it. Sonya could, however. She was looking around her in blind terror.
"Lightning," she whispered. "She's come back, some how."
Lindara sighed, and stepped back indoors. Rayden was still outside, looking up down over the valley, as he had been all day. She couldn't get him to come out of the rain, or even to say more than two sentences to her. She rested her head on the door jamb, unsure of what to do, of how to help him.
There was a peal of thunder overhead, and she looked up, startled. Immediately she felt a rash of pins and needles all over her arms. "Rayden?" she called out, worried. She looked to him, and he was standing, staring at her with his mouth wide open.
"Lightning," was all he said, his voice tight.
Jax and Kitana stepped through the portal without hesitation. Jax knew that Lightning must be stopped, at any cost, and so he was willing to serve in any way possible. Kitana did not know as much about the goddess, but she trusted the Guardian, and in an odd way, Jax. She had not met him before, but a strange feeling of deja vu set in.
They stepped out of the portal into a huge forest, filled with towering trees, under each of which lay small pools of crystal clear water.
Jikan Tai rested on his staff. He seemed very weary, as though he was carrying a great weight on his shoulders. The two other mortals looked to him questioningly. He sighed, and flipped his bangs out of his eyes. "I have made a very serious mistake," he said without preamble. "A terrible mistake, and I am at my rope's end."
"You can't fix it?" Jax asked him. Kitana looked confused. "Which mistake does the Guardian speak of?" she asked him. "This mortal does not understand."
Jikan Tai glanced over at Jax, making eye contact for a slight moment, but it was enough. The mortal nodded.
"He's gone back in time," Jax began, carefully, watching the Guardian for any hint, any hope, that he was wrong. Unfortunately, the Guardian made no move to correct him. "To fix things, but you didn't, did you."
Jikan Tai shook his head, his eyes closed in silent agony. His knees suddenly gave way, but he merely slid down his staff, until he knelt on the grass. "I tried so hard to fix everything," he sobbed, "but it's all coming apart and I can't see what to do."
Jax was unsure how to deal with this sudden overflowing of emotion, but Kitana knelt by the Guardian, an arm on his shoulder.
"Guardian, please tell me what has happened, so that I might help fix it," she said softly.
Jikan Tai wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt. "I went back to when Hiko initiated the transfer with Nova. That was the turning point in the entire sequence of events; that made everything that happened, inevitable."
The Princess still did not follow, but Jax did. "So you went back, and stopped Hiko from doing the transfer."
"No, not exactly. I simply helped with the transfer, so that Hiko did not die from exhaustion. I think. My head is so clouded, my memories are jumbled--" He shook his head. "I can't remember what went wrong, what happened, exactly. It's like recalling a dream from days or weeks ago..." He froze up, nearly in tears with the frustration. Kitana stroked his hair comfortingly and he began, slowly, to calm down.
Jikan Tai took a deep breath. "After that, everything... just went wrong. Rayden was killed by Lightning; the plan to kill Liu went through but somehow Lightning switched to Nova before she died. Hiko couldn't kill Nova; and so on, and so forth and endlessly the thread of time unravelled. The sudden change in realities was too great for it to happen simultaneously; and so the Omniverse is slowly shifting to a reality where Lightning won."
His last word seemed to hang in the misty air. He shook his head miserably. "I do not know what to do! As soon as the change began to take place, I felt my powers beginning to weaken. Lightning killed me in that frame of reference, you see. I had to get out. I needed help. I didn't know who to turn to."
"And you came to us?" Kitana murmured. "Why?"
"I can trust you to see the big picture," he said to her. "I know you to be able to see how things fit together. And Jax is the only one who understands my time powers other than myself."
Jax nodded. "I get it, now. But why aren't your powers weakening here?"
"This place, this Wood, is outside the Omniverses." Jikan Tai sniffed, and then pointed to the pools. "Those are the gateways to the different realities. I have visited many hundred since I first discovered this place, when I was young."
Both of the other mortals stared in bewilderment at the pools, which seemed nothing more than clear, water filled indentations in the grassy floor of the forest.
"What's wrong with that one?" Jax asked, suddenly, pointing at one which they were only a few feet from. The water was beginning to boil. It was only a few bubbles that popped at the surface; but already the amount was increasing.
"That is our Omniverse," Jikan Tai said sombrely. "That is why I brought you here. We have one chance, and one chance alone, to defeat Lightning and restore our version of reality."
"I don't understand," Jax blurted, staring in horror at the bubbling pool, as realisation dawned on him. "All we have to do is fix the mistake you made."
"But we must do it without Lightning noticing. She controls Time within that Omniverse as she controls the Omniverse itself. She will notice immediately, and attack, to hold on to her power. And my powers weaken the moment I return." Jikan Tai tried to get to his feet. Kitana helped him up. "That is why I need your help. I need you to complete the change while I distract her."
"You're going to sacrifice yourself?" Kitana asked.
He nodded. "It is the only way."
She shook her head, violently. "It is not. There must be another way. One that you have not thought of."
Jikan Tai looked downcast, almost chastised by her tone and the remark. "I... I cannot think clearly," he admitted. "With everything that has happened--"
"That's what we're here for," Jax said firmly. "I've got an idea. We--Kitana and I--will hold off Lightning. Then you can make the change. We're just two mortals among many--"
"No, that is not right either." Jikan Tai closed his eyes. He was still kneeling, and he began to mumble in a strange language, one which neither Kitana nor Jax knew or even recognised. But the way that the Guardian was speaking, his tone and inflection, brought back memories for the mortals.
"He is praying," Kitana breathed softly. She ducked her own head. "Creator, help us to find an answer. Help us to see the solution."
Jax suddenly felt very tired, himself. To have to defeat Lightning again, and with only Kitana for help, was a scary prospect. He wondered how they could possibly pull it off when the Guardian started his prayers. The sudden sing-song wafted through the heavy, water-laden air, the chanting making Jax feel even sleepier. He closed his eyes for a second when he suddenly heard his alarm clock go off in the back of his mind.
It jolted him awake. Kitana was staring at him. So was Jikan Tai.
"What was that?" Kitana asked. "What startled you?"
Jax suddenly felt sheepish. "I thought I heard my alarm clock go off. How dumb is that?"
Jikan Tai stared at him, wide-eyed. "Of course..."
"Of course?" both mortals cried, waiting expectantly.
The Guardian suddenly fished around the inside of his jacket. He pulled out an elaborate pocket watch, made of a silvery metal similar to the staff he carried. The hands on the watch were set to twelve o'clock.
"This watch will allow you to remain outside of the Timestream. I can distract Lightning, and then you can initiate the change; the watch will teleport you both out, and I can do the same." He shook his head sadly. "I was a fool not to think of it before. Lord Rayden was right."
He handed the watch to Kitana. "I believe you know how to use it, or you will when the time comes." He smiled for a split-second. It was not a wide grin, but a slight smile that was as close as Jikan Tai ever got to beaming. "Do you know what you must do?"
"Stop you from helping Hiko," Jax replied instantly. "But that means--"
"Yes," the Guardian nodded sadly, distraught. "We must let her die. Again. I thought perhaps there was a way around it, but it seems to be necessary in this version." He looked suddenly to Kitana. "Are you ready?"
"I am, Guardian," she replied with a slight bow. He took the watch from her and set it to three-thirty.
"When the hands start to spin, you and Jax must stay in contact with each other, or you may not pull him through with you." He looked to the other mortal, but before he could say anything, Jax held up a hand.
"I understand. Let's get going."
The sky overhead was thick with clouds, but it wasn't raining yet. Jax somehow assumed it would be. The wind was blowing furiously, though.
"Where are we?" shouted Kitana, over the roar of the wind. They were huddled against the remains of a wall, a brick wall that had been blasted by something very powerful, very recently.
Jax looked around him. "I think this the old infirmary--that's right, Nova and Lightning had their battle here. That means--" He poked his head around the corner of the wall. Sure enough, Rayden and Hiko were several meters from them, cradling Nova between them, trying to bring her back from the brink. Jikan Tai stood over them, watching them sadly.
"What is he doing?" Jax muttered. Kitana poked her head around. She had not been present for any of the battle, so this was all new to her. Jax had been in the Hall while this was happening, but he'd been able to fit two and two together.
Jikan Tai was talking to Rayden, although his words were swept away in the wind. "Why doesn't he just attack?" Jax called to Kitana.
She shook her, drawn by something. "Look!"
There was a sudden flash, although the deities themselves did not seem to notice, concerned as they were with Nova. But the mortals saw it quite clearly; Jikan Tai had changed. This was the change.
Now they could see him glowing, adding power to Hiko's transfer. A peal of thunder so loud that it seemed it would crack the earth in two echoed around them. Hiko cried out and fainted; Nova began to stir.
"That's the transfer!" Jax yelled, furiously. "We haven't stopped anything!"
"Then we must stop it now," Kitana said suddenly, breaking into a run.
The deities all looked up as she approached.
"Kitana!" Rayden blurted, holding on to Hiko. "How--what? How?"
"Some very good questions," Kitana admitted. She reached into her boot and withdrew a knife. "Unfortunately, I cannot give you the answers."
"What are you doing?" Rayden exclaimed, as the mortal approached. Jikan Tai watched her in confusion. She realised that being in the same moment in time, twice, was addling the Guardian and that's why he must have made the mistake in the first place.
Kitana held the knife tightly. She was taking slow and measured steps towards Rayden and Hiko. "There is a certain path that our lives must take," she said to him, carefully.
Something in her face must have alerted him immediately. Rayden tried to get to his feet, sheltering his wife. "What are you doing? Kitana! Answer me!"
Kitana did not answer but a reply was forthcoming: "She is trying to change time, Rayden. She is trying, but she will fail."
It was Liu Kang, the shimmery radiance of Lightning surrounding him like a veil. He had appeared on the plain, or rather, floating a few feet above.
"It is a valiant effort, Princess." Liu smiled, enjoying the effect he was having on the mortal. She dropped her knife, staggering backwards as though he had physically struck her.
She looked ready to faint when someone else suddenly appeared and caught on to her. "Jax?" Rayden blurted, now doubly confused, not sure how the mortal would have been able to break though the barrier Lightning had erected around the Realm.
Jax was patting Kitana's side frantically, holding her up. "Jikan Tai!" he yelled. "Get going!"
Jikan Tai seemed to snap out of a trance and aimed his staff, a beam of light slicing through the wind towards the host of Lightning, who shrugged and instantly a shield formed around him, protecting him.
"This little plan of yours will not succeed," Lightning said, nonchalantly, "as well thought out--" this was said with a snicker, "--as you thought it was."
Kitana was starting to come out of her moment of shock. She started to make a fighting pose but Jax stopped her. "Don't be stupid," he said, fiercely. "Jikan Tai! We're leaving."
Jax held something up triumphantly, a small pocket watch. "Time-gate! Get us out of here!"
Lightning roared in fury and blasted out, to catch the mortals before they slipped side- ways away from her. The blast missed them by a second; but it did not hit empty air.
It hit Rayden, who had been trying to protect Hiko the entire time. He was so weakened by the previous fights, and trying to save Nova that the blast killed him instantly; he vanished, faded away completely, before he even hit the ground.
The sky overhead was thick with clouds, but great gashes were slashed through it, as though a giant beast had raked its claws over the sky. Jax squinted up through the pounding rain, expecting to see stars in the great tears, but he only saw inky blackness. It came to him in a jolt that the tears were where the Realm was being absorbed into Lightning; the blackness was, in essence, nothing.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Jax muttered. Kitana was coming back to her senses.
"You must have taken us to the future--our present, I mean--" She shook her head. "You must know what I mean."
"I do," he agreed.
There was a flash, and Jikan Tai appeared. He toppled over, and fell before Jax could catch him.
"We must get to the Wood--" the Guardian rasped. He was deadly pale and having problems breathing. "I can recuperate...I can regain my energy there..."
"Jikan Tai, we can't get there by ourselves." Jax tried to help the Guardian up, but the mortal was having problems even standing. Kitana came to help as well. She looked sheepish, and Jax knew she was feeling ashamed for the way she reacted to Lightning.
A giggle floated over the air. Looking around them, Jax pointed grimly to a spark of light that was coalescing into the shape of a person, a woman, that the mortal knew well.
"Nova," he said, his voice tight.
Nova giggled, an extremely psychotic mock-laughter. "I knew you'd be back. Thank you for helping me." She pointed overhead to the shredded remains of the Realm. "I couldn't have done it without you."
Jikan Tai was standing, now, his arms around both Kitana and Jax, his staff lying on the ground at their feet. His breathing was so laboured that both mortals were afraid he wouldn't make it. "Lightning," he said, rasping. "This has gone on too far."
"Oh no," she retorted. "It hasn't gone on far enough yet." She raised her arms above her head. Jax recognised the gesture and scrambled to get the time-piece. In his hurry he dropped it.
It was in slow motion that Jax watched the time-piece tumble from his hands to the ground, where the face plate cracked, splinters of glass flying off and scattering. It seemed as though everything around him tunnelled, narrowed to that small moment, that patch of ground.
Lightning/Nova laughed out loud, clapping her hands, the build-up of energy around her continuing to grow. "Marvellous! This is much better than I thought!"
Jax heard a sharp intake of breath from Kitana as the watch shattered, and he couldn't blame her. He felt like his heart was about to explode.
They were trapped.
The fate of the Omniverse was signed, sealed and delivered.
Jikan Tai lifted his head, his green eyes glowing. An aura was building around him, a blue-purple field of hazy energy that tickled where it touched Jax and Kitana. Hesitantly, they let him go, but he stayed up-right, growing stronger by the second.
Lightning watched the display with a faint sneer. "I beat you more than once, Guardian. Why do you continue to try when you know you'll fail?"
Jikan Tai's response was a single movement. He held his hand stretched out in front of him.
The energy that had been surrounding him leapt out towards his target, towards Lightning. She created a shield, as a matter of course, but this power was not a wave nor a blast. It was a crackling rope that looped around her shield, tying her in, trapping her within her own defence.
Jikan Tai stood straighter, more confident than he ever had been. "I have been trying to defeat you since I was small," he said, his voice a growl. "I have been trying to protect those I love all my life, and yet you always seem to resist me. But no more. This is the final battle, Lightning; and I will win, this time, when it matters the most."
She watched him, actually afraid; the emotion was written plainly on her face. She trembled within the energy net, trying to break through, to set herself free.
Jikan Tai withdrew his arm, bringing it to a fist that he held tightly to his chest. He closed his eyes, ducking his head. A roar could then be heard. Not a roar of thunder, or of wind, but of water. As though an enormous river was approaching them.
Jax looked around, as did Kitana, but there was no river to be seen, save for the one in the valley, but that was too far away.
"No!" Lightning screamed, her voice a shrill cry. "No!"
"Yes," Jikan Tai remarked simply. He threw out his hand. "Time Stream Release!"
There was an explosion and Jax felt as though he was suddenly being struck on all sides by a powerful jet of water. The force was excruciating, and he blacked out.
Jikan Tai was aware of very little. He held Jax and Kitana within his mental grip, anchoring them down from the effects of the time stream unleashed. He didn't want them to feel what he was feeling. He had controlled his powers for so long he had forgotten what it was like when he couldn't control them: the overload of images and sounds and memories and moments, rushing, cascading over him in a furious deluge that scrubbed him clean and rubbed him raw. A dam had burst and it caught Lightning/Nova within the raging current and the eddies. She screamed, once, a final time, before the undertow dragged her down into the depths.
Meimei felt very skittery. She remembered this feeling, vaguely, but couldn't place it. Sonya could, however. She was looking around her in blind terror.
"Lightning," she whispered. "She's come back, some how."
Meimei felt very skittery. She remembered this feeling, vaguely, but couldn't place it. Sonya could, however. She was looking around her in blind terror for a moment, and then confusion.
"That was odd," she muttered. "For a moment I thought I could feel Lightning's presence." She shook her head, convinced she was crazy. "I thought she had come back, some how. I must be losing it. Let's get Jax and get out of here."
Jax woke up with great difficulty. He felt as though he was trapped in dark cave; that he had to scramble and climb his way to the exit, a tiny hole that a beam of sunlight was falling through. He was almost there... he could feel the sun on his face...
He opened his eyes and found he was looking up at a great conifer. The tree was not that wide around, but it stretched so high up that its top dwindled away to nothing. The branches almost obscured the daylight, but a thin gap let the light through and that was what was shining on his face.
He groaned, wanting to sit up but not having the strength for it. He was lying on a bed of grass, long cool grass that was very comfortable, and very soothing. His whole body hurt; it felt bruised. He looked over to one side and saw Kitana, lying on her stomach, asleep. She seemed unhurt, and she was breathing, so that was good. On his other side was a pool of water.
He closed his eyes. This wood, the Wood, he corrected himself, felt so peaceful that he could have lain there for days without complaint. Something bothered him about it, however; it was the lack of life. There were no birds and no insects. It should have been teeming but it was deadly still.
He caught the scent of pine sap and it tickled his nose. He opened his eyes again and sat up. He could see Kitana, lying beside him, but Jikan Tai was nowhere in sight. Alarmed, Jax got to his feet. He scanned the area around him, and thought he could see something just a few meters away, obscured partly by a tree. He started over.
The guardian lay on his front, spread-eagled, his cape missing and his staff some feet away. Startled and worried, Jax checked the mortal's pulse. It was weak, but steady. Jikan Tai was alive.
Jax sighed with relief, until he noticed the blood. Jikan Tai's nose and ears were caked with it. It had dried--how long were we out? Jax thought--but it didn't seem to be that serious. As far as Jax knew. There were some scratches on the Guardian's neck. Not deep ones, but oddly shaped. After a moment, Jax realised they had been caused by the fasteners to Jikan Tai's cape. They had come loose and scraped along his skin. That's why the cape was missing.
Jikan Tai's eyes fluttered, but didn't quite open.
Jax wasn't sure about his first aid, it was serviceable at best, but he knew it was best not to move or wake the Guardian, so he slowly got to his feet and started back to check on Kitana. He was a few feet away from the Guardian when something occurred to him. He jogged back, past the unconscious mortal, and picked up the staff.
The staff was not that heavy, but it carried a definite weight in the hand. The silvery metal was warm to the touch, even though it had been lying for hours in the grass.
The jewel on the end, a magnificent red gem that seemed the focusing mechanism for the staff, sported a long crack down the side, that nearly split it in two. Jax ran his finger along it. It was smooth; the jewel was cracked from the inside.
The human sighed, and rubbed his eyes. He took the staff back with him, when he went back to Kitana. He had a feeling that he should remember which pond he had woken by, and he marked it by ramming the staff into the ground a few inches from the bank.
Kitana began to stir and she groaned as she lifted her head. Her entire being was aching; she felt as thought she had run into a brick wall at a great speed. The grass that she lay on was warm and soft. It smelled fresh and green and she was so tired that she wanted to lay her head back down and sleep some more. But she refused to.
Jax was leaning against a tree, on the other side than the tree's pool. He was staring off into the distance, but looked over to her as she got up. "Okay?"
She nodded, realising that was a shortened version of "Are you okay?"
"You?" she asked.
He shrugged. "I'll be fine. I'm not so sure about Jikan Tai, though."
Kitana looked around them in horror, but she couldn't see the Guardian anywhere.
"He's over there," Jax replied to her unspoken question, gesturing with a thumb. "He's okay, for the moment, I think, but he might have internal injuries, or something."
"Did he fight Lightning?" Kitana asked, quietly. She did not want to disturb the stillness of the woods. Jax shrugged again.
"I don't know. But we survived, so something must have happened." Jax started to stretch. That's when she noticed the staff that was standing by the edge of one of the ponds.
"Yeah. The jewel is broken; Jikan Tai isn't going to be using it any time soon; I thought I might as well use it as a marker."
"Good thinking. We could very easily become lost here," Kitana agreed. She started to get to her feet. "Where did you say he was? Ah, I see him."
She started off. Jax didn't follow.
Jikan Tai was lying very still, and for a moment, she thought he was dead, until she saw him breathing.
"You are very lucky," she said softly, lowering herself down to her knees. There was blood smeared under his nose, and dried in his ears, as well as in thin lines along his neck, but other than that, he seemed okay. No broken bones; whether anything was sprained, she couldn't tell. He was breathing regularly, although it had the same rasp as the last time she had seen him conscious.
She gently wiped a wisp of bangs from his eyes. His skin was slightly warm, but her touch made him shiver.
She sighed, still kneeling, and looked around her in dismay. They had no way of getting back to Outworld, or even Earth, from here without the Guardian. There was not even anyway of knowing whether Lightning had been defeated.
Kitana shivered herself, although she was not cold. She remembered her first meeting with Lightning, the vicious entity that surrounded Liu Kang. In an instant, she realised that she understood Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade's emotional state completely. Lightning wasevil, and Kitana would do anything herself to see that the malevolent goddess was stopped. For good.
She looked back down at Jikan Tai and noticed, with a start, that he was looking back up at her. His eyes were nearly fully closed, she could barely see his irises beyond the fringe of eyelash. But he was awake, and he was stirring.
She leaned over, to help him up, when he suddenly grabbed her arm. His grip was tight, and panicked. "Guardian, it is all right," she whispered to him, frightened. "You are safe."
"Lightning," he sobbed. "The Guardian, she's dead, and I couldn't help her--or Nova-- couldn't help any of them--"
The babble did not make any sense to the mortal, but she could feel his anxiety. She stroked his head. "You're safe."
Tears were welling in his eyes. He was trying to sit up, but was too woozy, too disorientated to manage it, so Kitana helped him. "I'm safe," he repeated, slowly. He took a deep breath, as deep as he could manage, and wiped his eyes on the cuff of his sleeve. He winced as his arm rubbed his nose, and his eyes widened when he saw the blood.
"You had a nose bleed," Kitana told him, rubbing his shoulder. Despite his powers and the influence he wielded, right now he seemed nothing more than a small boy playing with something he couldn't quite control. He sighed, and took another deep breath.
"Jax?" he asked, finally.
"He's okay. He's got your staff; the jewel is broken."
The Guardian nodded. "I don't need it any more."
He was trying to get to his feet, now, but the princess held him down. "No, give it a moment."
He shook his head. "I want to go home."
That made her pause. "Where is home, Guardian?"
He looked up at her with confusion and horror written all over his face. "I... I don't know." Then his face crumpled and he started to fall backwards before she caught him. "I'm so tired," he whispered, "I'm so tired of all of this..."
"Can we get ourselves home from here?" she asked him, cradling him until she could lower him back to the ground, where he immediately curled into a ball. "Is there a way to get home?"
He nodded. "The pools. Look into the pools and unfocus your mind; you'll see the image of where the pool leads. Then just jump in, if you see what you want."
She nodded. Kitana started to get to her feet. "Are you coming?"
"No," he whispered, softly. "Nowhere to go."
"Like hell," Jax snapped at her. He got to his feet, angrily. "We're not leaving him here."
"He doesn't want to go," Kitana argued. "We can't make him."
"Oh yes we can." Jax started towards the Guardian's position, but Kitana grabbed his arm.
"He doesn't have a home," she argued. "He doesn't have anywhere to go."
Jax laughed sarcastically. "He's human. He's from Earth. That's his home."
She looked at him in astonishment. "He's from Earth?"
"Yep." Jax stared at her. "Didn't you know?"
She shook her head. "No. I did not."
"Oh. Well. That's settled." Jax started off again. "He can come back to Hong Kong with me, if he's got nowhere else. But I'm not leaving him here, god-knows-where."
He was by the Guardian's side in a few moments. "Jikan Tai, come on, get up. We're going home."
"Home?" Jikan Tai's eyes were unfocussed and he was clearly half-asleep. "Where's home?"
"Where the heart is, of course," Jax replied smartly, getting the Guardian's arm around his shoulder and hefting him to his feet. He had to strain; the Guardian was limp, and it was like trying to manoeuvre a six-foot bag of potatoes.
"Nova?" Jikan Tai asked, but Jax wasn't sure what he meant, so he let the comment slip by.
Kitana was by his side in moments, helping to ease the burden. "Let's check the first pond, the pond you woke up by," she suggested.
"Good idea." Once they were by the pond, Jax let Jikan Tai sit down while the two mortals took their seat by the pool. They looked down, and tried to let their mind go.
"I see Outworld!" Kitana exclaimed suddenly.
"I see the Temple of Light..." Jax corrected. "No, wait, I see Outworld. Sonya and Meimei."
He looked up at her, smiling. "I think this means that they're all right."
Jikan Tai, overhearing the comment, nodded. "It's all right," he repeated. "Lightning's gone. For good."
"You defeated her?" Kitana exclaimed. "Did you set the time-line straight?"
Jikan Tai nodded again, sadly. "Everybody is dead who is supposed to be," he replied, wearily. "Rayden was right. I shouldn't have tried it--" His eyes seemed to roll back and he tipped over, towards the pool. Jax reached over to catch him, but had to strain over the water's edge. When he did so, he felt a strange urge pulling him downwards, and he tipped in.
"Jax!" Sonya exclaimed, running to him. "Where did you come from?"
Jax sat up from the pavement. He'd somehow hit it face first. "What? Where am I--I'm back in Outworld!"
"Yeah..." Sonya trailed off. He leapt to his feet and gave her an exuberant hug.
"It's good to see you again," he said with a broad grin. Then he realised who he was, and who she was, and he hastily let go and backed away. "Sir."
Sonya was staring at him, brows furrowed and a blush rapidly spreading up her neck and across her face. "What happened? Where's Kitana? Do you know?"
In answer to her question, Kitana suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. There was no portal, no flash of light; one minute the space was empty and the next it was not. She was supporting someone who was leaning against her heavily. Both goddesses recognised him at once.
"Jikan Tai!" Sonya exclaimed. She looked to Jax and then to Kitana for an answer. Meimei hurried over and lifted up Jikan Tai's head to stare into his eyes.
"He needs a healer," she said, startled. "Here, Kitana, give him to me. I'm going to take him to the Hospital."
"No," Jikan Tai grunted. "No, I want to go home."
"Home?" Meimei exclaimed, while Kitana was in the process of getting him to lean onto the goddess, instead. "Where's that?"
"Earth," Jax filled in, helping her support the weight. "I was going to take him to Hong Kong..."
"He needs a healer," Meimei repeated.
"The Temple has healers," Jax retorted. "Lin's a healer. She could do it. And then he could rest, too."
"And help us figure out what happened to Rayden," Sonya added.
At the mention of the Thunder God's name, Jikan Tai's head snapped up. His breathing was laboured to begin with, but he began to breath faster, as though he was panicked, and as a result he couldn't get enough oxygen, which was causing him to panic more. "Rayden," he croaked, "I didn't mean to--"
"He's delirious," Kitana blurted, concerned. "It's a long story, but he's been though something traumatic--"
"Say no more," Meimei said firmly. She snapped her fingers. Instantly his head drooped, his eyes closing and his breathing returning to its normal, laboured state. "There."
"What did you do?" exclaimed Jax.
She shrugged. "I put him to sleep."
"I thought you didn't have powers!"
"That's not a power!" She shook her head, and shifted Jikan Tai around. "Sonya, can you open the portal? It's too much for me, right now."
The goddess of Space nodded, and a portal opened, black-rimmed and purple, mixing with the sky overhead. Meimei stepped through, half-dragging Jikan Tai after her.
The portal closed.
"Am I going to get the whole story, now?" Sonya asked, politely. As politely as she ever got.
Jax and Kitana exchanged glances.
"Jikan Tai--well, I think maybe he should tell that part," Jax finished.
"What part can you tell me?" his partner asked.
"Uh...the happy ending?"
"That we won. It was a happy ending. Well, unless you count Jikan Tai being unconscious and possibly delirious..." Jax trailed off. Kitana nodded.
"I see." Sonya's tone belied the fact that she did not see at all.
"Where's Johnny?" Jax asked innocently, changing the topic.
The goddess frowned. "I guess he's still back at the Temple."
"That reminds me," Kitana said suddenly, looking very thoughtful. "I wish to apologise. I was wrong for what I said to you. I can understand exactly where you are coming from, now."
"With all due respect," Sonya said icily, "I don't think you can."
Kitana said nothing, but looked down towards the ground, or over at the buildings; anywhere but at Sonya. "If you would like, I could tell Johnny that you are returning to Earth. I must apologise to him as well."
"Fine," Sonya said dismissively, waving a hand. "Jax, let's get going. I want to see how Rayden's doing, anyway."
"Sure," Jax said, distracted. He put a hand on Kitana's shoulder. "Any time you need to, you just pop on over to Hong Kong. It must be stressful leading your people back from the brink of extinction. Tiring, at least."
Kitana smiled slightly. "Thank you, Jax."
She turned and left, starting towards the cliff and the Temple.
"Now you're really going to have to tell me that story," Sonya said firmly.
Meimei appeared in the center of the Temple courtyard.
While the monks were having their daily meditation.
She knew a moment later that Sonya had sent her to that precise location because that's what Sonya thought of, when she thought of "The Temple", and she naturally wouldn't take into account the fact that the goddesses had to keep a low profile.
And teleporting into Quiet Time with a half-dead mortal in her care who obviously wasn't a normal mortal, to judge from the green hair, well, that wasn't exactly low profile.
She kept her head up high, and started towards the door to Rayden's wing. The monks knew what she was, of course. They'd met Hiko before. And they could probably tell who Meimei was thanks to her white hair. But that didn't mean that they were rushing to help her.
"Meimei!" someone exclaimed. It was her mother, rushing out of the door. Suyuan had made herself invisible to the mortals, so they wouldn't notice her. "Meimei, what's happened?!"
"Jikan Tai is hurt," Meimei replied. "We've got to get him to Lindara."
"She's following Rayden around. I'll get her." Suyuan started off, and then stopped. "No. First I'll teleport you out of here. Too many staring mortals spoil the broth, or something. I can't remember the exact quote."
She snapped her fingers and Meimei braced herself for the transport. Almost immediately, she was in one of the spare rooms. She laid Jikan Tai down, making sure he was comfortable. It was only when she was done that she realised her mother was near-hysterical, and Meimei didn't know why.
"Lin!" Suyuan cried. "Lin!"
She came rushing out into the grounds, after teleporting over, and she caught her youngest daughter and her eldest son by surprise.
"What's the matter?" Lindara exclaimed, leaping to her feet. Beside her, Rayden was sitting on the hill, staring out into the river valley. "What's happened? Is it that weird feeling? I can't sense it any more, but--"
"No--Jikan Tai is badly hurt," Suyuan gasped out, tired from running. "Meimei's back from Outworld. Something happened to him."
"Outworld?" Lindara exclaimed. "I didn't know Jikan Tai was going too."
Suyuan grabbed her daughter by the wrist. "We've got to get going. You know how fragile mortals are."
"Fragile," Rayden repeated quietly. He hadn't turned or made any sign at all that he knew his mother was there. She stared at him, and then at Lindara, who shook her head sadly. Lin then went and crouched beside Rayden.
"What's fragile?" she asked her brother, hoping to draw him out for more than a sentence; but he just looked at her blankly and drifted back towards the river valley. Lindara stood again, disappointed, and then she and Suyuan teleported away.
"It sounds bad," Hiko said sadly.
He looked at her. "They can take care of it."
She sighed in agreement and then faded from view.
Jikan Tai opened his eyes.
He looked, blinking, into a large pair of green eyes not more than a few inches away.
"He's awake!" Lindara crowed, getting back to her feet. "I did it."
"We know you would," Meimei said, giving her a pat on the back, but Lindara shook her head, causing her black hair to shimmer in the light.
"Something was wrong; I wasn't sure if I could help him in time," she replied. "It was almost as though he didn't want to wake up."
Jikan Tai looked to the ceiling. He was in the Temple of Light, he realised. Rayden's home. Shifting stiffly, he turned himself on to his side, away from the goddesses.
"What's the matter with him?" Meimei asked, stepping forward. "I don't have a lot of experience with mortals."
"They're tougher than they look," Lindara answered with the smugness of one who has first hand experience. "But normally they want to get better. You can feel them holding on."
"And Jikan Tai wasn't?" Meimei frowned. She kneeled by the bed. "Guardian?"
He didn't answer.
She tapped his shoulder, and grudgingly, he turned half-around, his bangs flipping into his eyes. "Guardian, would you like anything?"
He stared at her, uncomprehending. "Would you like something to eat? Drink?" she continued.
"You would get that for me?" he asked, very quietly.
"Of course. Would you like anything?" She waited expectantly.
"A drink of water, please," he managed at last. He was regarding her with curiosity, as though he had never seen a goddess before, although she knew he had, on many occasions. More times than he'd seen mortals, probably.
"Water. No problem." Meimei got to her feet and padded from the room. Lindara was left, standing at the foot of the bed, looking down on him. He was looking back at her.
She started to say something, but then she couldn't, and she left the room as well.
He watched the door for a minute, and then turned back around and closed his eyes.
Sonya was pacing in the kitchen when Meimei stepped in. "Sonya! You're back!"
The goddess nodded. "How's Jikan Tai?"
"He's recovering, although Lindara says he's acting strangely. Doesn't want to wake up, something like that. It didn't make any sense to me." Meimei got out a glass and poured it full of water. "Did you find Johnny?"
"No, he hasn't come back yet," Sonya replied, still pacing. She stopped in her tracks. "Should I be able to sense him, all the time?"
"What do you mean?" Meimei asked, puzzled.
"I mean, should I be able to sense him whenever I want to?" the ex-mortal repeated.
Meimei frowned. "I don't know," she admitted at last. "The scope of your powers is different from deity to deity. I'm not that great with telepathy myself; that's Rayden's pet trick. Why?"
"I can't sense Johnny at all." Sonya stopped pacing, frustrated. "He's not in Outworld, and he's not here."
"I thought he was at the Temple," Meimei continued. "Didn't Kitana say--?"
Sonya shook her head. "He's not there. I checked with Kitana; he wasn't there. I can't sense him anywhere. Maybe I should go talk to Rayden."
Meimei started to protest, but before she could stop Sonya, the goddess teleported away. Cursing under her breath, Meimei realised there was nothing she could do and she took the water to Jikan Tai. By the time she entered his room, he was back on his side. She wasn't sure if he was sleeping or not, so she left the water by the bed and crept out.
"Rayden?" Sonya appeared outside, standing next to the thunder god. "Rayden? Can I talk to you for a minute?"
He didn't reply, or even look up at her. He was simply sitting, watching the sun set over the mountains that framed the river valley. The goddess had to admit it was a beautiful view.
The mountains were a lush green and sharply contrasted with the silvery ribbon that was the river snaking its way along the floor of the valley. She wondered, briefly, what it must have looked like before there were humans; before the river was tainted brown and the mountain forests showed the signs of clear-cutting.
She sat down next to him. Normally--back when she was a mortal--she hadn't been able to read him at all, and had gotten along fine without the ability. Now, she should have been able to read him perfectly, but couldn't. And that disturbed her.
"I can't find Johnny anywhere," she said without preamble, almost not expecting a reply. Rayden surprised her.
"So?" he asked.
She blinked. "I--I can't sense him, at all. Should I be able to?"
"For what it's worth, yes," he sighed. He hadn't taken his eyes from the sunset.
"What are you talking about, 'for what it's worth'?" Sonya snapped. "This is Johnny we're talking about."
She nearly exploded. "So? How can you say that? He's one of your friends!"
He turned then, and gazed right at her. She was shocked by how hollow his eyes were; how dull they looked. "It doesn't matter. That's why I'm not upset. It doesn't mean anything." He turned away.
Sonya paled. "How can you say that it doesn't matter? Of course it matters."
"Not in the great scheme of things," he sighed. "Life, death, mortals, deities--nothing matters. It doesn't make a difference."
"This is about Hiko, isn't it," Sonya said, sadly.
He turned sharply. "No."
"Yes it is," she continued. "And I can tell you right now that Hiko's death, and Nova's and Liu's, made a huge difference, one that effected the entire Omniverse. We wouldn't be here right now, if it wasn't for them."
"That's the whole point," Rayden snapped, growing angry. "Even if we weren't here, it wouldn't make a difference!"
"Now you're just talking in circles!" Sonya got to her feet. "You're worrying the daylights out of your family because of this!"
Rayden ignored her.
"Don't turn away when I'm talking to you," Sonya said coldly. He looked up at her, scowling.
"Don't take that tone of voice with me," he snapped.
"I'll use whatever tone I want to. You aren't the one in charge here, Rayden. You need to snap out of it and take a good, hard, long look at what you're doing to those around you."
One of his eyebrows arched up. "At what I'm doing."
"Yes." She crossed her arms.
He laughed scornfully. "I'm tired of being the one trying to make everything better. Do you know what I've learned, Sonya? That no matter what I do, it's not going to make a difference. That's what Jikan Tai showed me. We scurry around, trying to make everything as good as we can make it, when it doesn't really have any point at all." He got to his feet and promptly vanished.
Sonya scowled and swore. "Dammit."
"Sonya?" Lindara stepped out of the door, her eyes wide. "What in the Creator's name was that all about? What did you think you were doing?"
"Someone had to talk some sense into him," Sonya snapped. Already, though, she was starting to feel a little guilty; not that she would ever admit to it. "He was worrying you and the others sick."
Lindara was staring at her in horror. "You told him off because he's feeling upset? His wife just died!"
"I know that!" Sonya fumed. "I've lost partners before! Admittedly, I haven't lost a spouse or a daughter before, but that doesn't mean he can just throw everybody for a loop!" The Plant goddess was blinking in confusion, but Sonya just plowed on.
"I miss Liu terribly, and I know Johnny does too, but we haven't gone catatonic over it! We've picked up our lives and tried to make a go of it! So what if one of our best friends is dead because of us!" Sonya ended her tirade with a suppressed sob. She stopped, breathing hard, her eyes welling with tears, her hands balled into fists. "I have to go find Johnny."
Lindara waited about two seconds before she did an about face and flew back into the Temple.
Rayden sat on the edge of his bed. Of his and Hiko's bed. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel her presence beside him. It had been a month since the battle. A month to grieve. To try and learn to move on. He should have been able to do it. He'd grieved for others before. So why couldn't he now?
I wish I could hear your thoughts, again, he thought out loud to her. I wish you would ask me what I was thinking. I wish you would ask me to make you dinner. I even wish you would yell at me about disturbing your rose bushes. And then I could make it up to you.
There was only silence in response.
I wish you had told me about Nova before. I wish you had never married Cosmos, even if it was to protect me.
He paused for a moment, looking around the room, a life-time's worth of memories crammed into one tiny space.
I wish you were still here.
He got up, and teleported from the room.
On To Part Three