Moral Konflict
By Biku

Rayden looked around the Omniversal Temple, breathing in a deep sigh of contentment. It had been ages since he'd felt the kind of serenity and peace in a place as he felt right now. Taking off his hat and outer robe, he sat down at next to a table covered in candles.

He closed his eyes, and let his mind wander, reflecting on his life, and the events within. In the back of his mind flitted the memories of the Mortal Kombat tournaments. They were now over, and the Omniverse was free from the threat of invasion, but it took the death of his brother...

Sighing again, he tried to banish the thoughts from his mind. He was trying to relax, not tense himself up. He settled down, and tried to think of a happier memory than the Mortal Kombats.

One particular memory stood out. It came to him almost instantly, and he was glad of it. He was quite younger, by several millienia, and he was on a picnic. He was on Earth, enjoying a beautiful summer's day with--something jarred him out of his reminicing. It was a feeling that he was not alone in the temple, and he opened his eyes in curiousity.

There was a woman standing in the doorway of the temple. She was dressed in a long red robe that wound around her waist-long coppery hair. She seemed not to notice him, in the corner, and instead made her way to another set of candles, kneeling down in front of them.

"Oh Creator," she murmured, "I asked you for help once, and you gave me your counsel. I must ask again for guidence. I must beg you for help. Please, Creator, my husband--whom I was bethrothed to but whom I never loved--I fear he is using my powers for something awful. Something wicked, and I don't know if I can resist him alone." She bowed her head, her voice cracking. "I am afraid, oh most merciful Creator. Afraid for myself, and for my daughter, whom I fear my husband will turn on next."

The candles in the room flickered, as if blown by wind, but the temple was still as a tomb. Rayden watched, and listened to the woman's prayer, his heart in his throat.

"Hiko?" he finally whispered.

The woman whirled around, eyes wide at the sound of his voice. "Rayden?" she mumbled. "Is it really you? Am I dreaming this?"

They both got to their knees slowly, as if afraid to shatter an illusion. "If this is a dream, I hope I never wake up," Rayden replied, softly. He touched her elbows gently and smiled. "It's been too long, Hiko."

"Too, too long." She smiled ruefully. "You know I would not have married him if I had the choice. I always wanted you to know that, but I never had the chance to tell you."

"I--" Rayden began in a hushed whisper. Their heads bent together, as if to kiss, when there was a sudden blast of wind, snuffing out all the candles. Hiko half-screamed, a suppressed yell, when a tall, dark man materialized beside her, yanking her away from Rayden.

"Cosmos," Rayden said with a snarl.

"Rayden, my old friend. I see you still remember me. I also see that you still remember my wife." He yanked Hiko's arm, causing her to yelp.

"Leave her alone," Rayden growled, forming his hands into fists. He took a step forward, but the man--Cosmos--held his hand out to the front of Rayden, and suddenly Rayden's reality abruptly changed. The world spun around him, fading from blinding light to pitch black darkness, and from a searing heat to an icy cold. When Rayden finally snapped out of the spell, the Temple was deserted. Hiko was gone, Cosmos was gone. Rayden stood shakily to his feet--he'd fallen down somehow, during the spell, although he did not remember doing so--and made a vow to the great Creator to set right things he'd long tried to ignore.

Liu Kang sat on the stone wall of the monestary, meditating calmly. He had tried to meditate for an hour or so each day, just as a warm-up, before doing the rest of his exercises. It helped him through the day, letting him reflect on his actions. It was soothing, and centering, and he looked forward to it every morning.

This morning, however, was different. There was something in the air. A certain sense of something brewing. Trouble, most likely.

There was a crash of thunder, and a flash of light, and standing in front of Liu was Rayden, the God of Thunder. They had fought together to defeat Shang Tsung, and Liu honestly didn't expect to see Rayden again. But here he was, and with such a fierce expression that Liu was actually taken aback. He had never been afraid of the god, whom he considered his friend, but even some friends can look frightening.

"Liu, I need your help," Rayden announced in his gravelly voice.

"Of course, what ever you need," Liu replied immediately. "I'd be glad to help."

Rayden nodded in thanks, and clapped his hands together. The two instantly disappeared in an mist, taken by one of Rayden's portals.

Johnny Cage stood outside in the rain. It was pouring, and there seemed to be no taxis in sight. Johnny couldn't explain how there was always three trillion around when you had your own ride, but absolutely none when it was raining buckets and you were late.

He sighed loudly, and tried to take shelter under a store overhang, which was only as wide as a pigeon or two, and as a result, not very useful. He sighed again, and wondered why his day was going so badly when there was a sudden peal of thunder. He looked up at the sky anxiously--lightning was the very last thing he needed right now--but strangely enough, it seemed to be clearing up. The rain stopped, and Johnny again stepped out onto the curb.

"Johnny!" a voice called. "Johnny Cage!"

"Look, I can't sign any autographs right now," Johnny started, turning to see the source of the voice. He trailed off when he found the source was his friend from the Mortal Kombat tournament, Liu Kang.

Standing behind him was the white haired god, Rayden. "Guys!" Johnny exclaimed, spreading his arms wide in greeting. "I can sign autographs for you any time!"

Liu smiled, but Rayden retained his annoyed expression. "I need your help, Johnny," he said. "I need you to come with us to help me defeat someone."

"Defeat someone, you say?" Johnny asked playfully. "Is he demon-like, dastardly and demented?"

Liu played along. "Absolutely. In fact, you might say that this dude is one tough hombre."

"A tough hombre, you say?" Johnny continued. He pretended to flip through an imaginary day-book. "Well, it looks like there's nothing I can't cancel." He mimed slamming the book shut, then dug out his trade-mark sunglasses out from his jacket pocket. He put them on with panache that only he could muster when putting on sunglasses on an overcast day, and waved at Liu and Rayden as if to say "let's go."

Sonya Blade rubbed her hands together, and jumped up to grab onto the chin-up bar. Her feet dangled off the ground, even when she stretched out completely, but the way she felt was that if it wasn't a challenge, it wasn't worth doing. She pulled her chin up to the bar, and counted "one". She let herself drop back down--although not completely down--and pulled herself up again.

She was nearly to her hundredth chin-up when there was a sudden peal of thunder that echoed around the gym. She gasped as a strange mist sudden appeared in the gym, and she let herself drop to the floor. She had no idea what she was up against, but she was prepared none-the-less. She took up a defensive position, ready for anything.

Almost anything. What she wasn't ready for was Johnny Cage suddenly materializing and nearly collapsing on her.

"Jeez, Rayden!" he yelled. "That hurt."

"I thought you would be able to take a little molecular stress," the god replied, dusting off his white-robed sleeves.

"Yeah, well, you should ask before you demolecularize someone," Johnny said, getting up and trying to salvage what was left of his dignity.

"I did ask. You said, quote, 'What the hell'," replied Rayden exasperatedly.

"Sonya!" exclaimed Liu, trying to get Johnny and Rayden to stop bickering.

"Liu," she replied, giving him a hug. "It's good to see you all again. Well, maybe not all of you." She gave Johnny Cage a nasty glare.

"What? What did I do now?" he yelped.

"You never even called, the whole time," she answered icily. Rayden and Liu both stared at Johnny in mock indignation.

"I've been busy!" Johnny howled, angry at his friends for ganging up on him. Sonya just huffed, her arms crossed. Johnny sighed loudly in frustration, holding his arms out as if begging God to tell him what the deal was.

"I suppose this isn't exactly a social call," Sonya mused, addressing Liu and Rayden. They both shook their heads.

"I need your help, Sonya," Rayden replied. "I have to save a... friend of mine."

"Sure." Sonya agreed instantly. She walked over to a bench, and picked up the duffel bag stored under it. She grabbed the bag, and hoisted it over her shoulder. "Let's get going already."

"You sure do travel light," Johnny commented, trying to lighten her mood.

"And what would you know about travelling light?" snapped Sonya, walking by, and pushing past him. Johnny rolled his eyes, and caught Liu grinning at him. Johnny held up his fist and shook it as threateningly as he could, but Liu only laughed harder.

Rayden's portal dissolved, so that the landscape around them faded into view. "This is the Omniversal Hall," Rayden told them, gesturing towards a large stone building in the distance. "I have to look for someone here."

He started forward, but when the others began to follow, he turned and shook his head. "The Hall is not a place for mortals. Too much goes on inside, and I don't know if I'd be able to protect you."

"Protect us from what?" scoffed Sonya. "This place is dead. There's no one around."

At that moment, there was a sudden explosion at the Hall. Huge amounts of energy poured through windows and doors as if a bomb had gone off. Someone staggered out the main doors and collapsed to the ground, disappearing in a haze of white light.

"Oh, no." Rayden groaned. "Juanita must be having another of her tantrums."

"Juanita?" asked Liu, Sonya and Johnny simultaneously. Rayden shrugged.

"She's the Goddess of Heat," Rayden explained, "and she has a fierce temper. I wonder what happened. It looks like she had another tiff with Arnold."

"Arnold?" queried Liu.

"The God of Lamps," Rayden said, rolling his eyes. He waved towards the place where the god had disappeared.

"Hold on--the God of Lamps--" Johnny paused on "lamps" for emphasis, then continued: "--is named Arnold?"

Rayden shrugged. "Arn's a bit of a loser--we all think Juanita married him because she felt sorry for him. Anyway, I've gotta go, stay here."

No one protested the order.

Rayden pushed open the main door, and it swung wide, creaking heavily. He stared around the room, but it was empty. He scowled, and headed for a large curving staircase at the end of the room.

Climbing the stairs, he thought he heard yelling, but it quieted down by the time he reached the second floor. The only door on the landing was marked, by a gold plaque, as the "Omniversal Bar".

He opened the door carefully. He did not want to run into Juanita right now, especially not with the mortals outside. However, he soon noticed her, sitting at one of the tables, sobbing into her glass.

He checked around the room, made sure no one was there, and then quickly walked up to her.

"Juanita?" he asked quietly.

She looked up. "Ah! Rayden!" She wiped away her tears with her hand. She waved at him to sit down with the other. "Eet ees good to see you again, Rayden. Eet has been too long."

"Too long," Rayden answered, nodding his head.

"I suppose... I suppose you saw my leetle fight with Arnie," she said after a moment.

"I think I might have seen something resembling that," Rayden replied drily. Juanita sighed, and took a swig of her drink.

"He ees so deefeecult at times," she said sadly. "I don't know what I saw een him."

"I'm sure you'll patch things up," Rayden assured her, patting her shoulder. "You've been together what, three billion years now?"

"I know, but--" she trailed off again. Suddenly she looked up at him. "What about you, Rayden, don't you have someone?"

Rayden got awkward all of a sudden. "That's why I'm here, to see about talking to Kerlan."

"He ees usually at the bar," Juanita said, looking around the empty bar. "But when I came een, he left."

I wonder why, Rayden thought to himself, but wisely said nothing.

"Maybe I should be going, anyway." Juanita stood up, finishing her drink in a gulp. "I theenk I should be home when Arnie shows up. Maybe you are right, maybe we should try and feex thees whole mess."

Again, Rayden wisely said nothing, but smiled politely, and watched her vanish in a burst of light. As soon as she was gone, there was a huge sigh from several people behind the bar. They all stood up warily.

"Don't worry," Rayden called over to them. "She's gone." The scared off customers sighed again, and got out from behind the bar. They soon picked up from where they had left off, talking and mingling.

One stayed behind the bar, wiping a glass dry. He smiled at Rayden, showing brilliant white teeth against a black face, and waved Rayden over. "First one is on the house. Thanks for cheering her up." He poured a clear liquid into the glass he had been cleaning. Rayden picked it up and sniffed it. "Don't worry," the barkeeper said, still smiling his dazzling smile. "It's just nectar. We're clean in here. You should know that."

Rayden shrugged, and downed the shot glass in one go. He shook his head when Kerlan mimed pouring him another. "The last thing I need is too much nectar," Rayden replied.

"Ah, yes," Kerlan said, mystically, putting the dirty glass away in the sink behind him. "I've heard about your little quest."

Rayden tried not to act surprised. "Really?"

"Yep. It's all over the Omniverse--everyone's glad you've got the guts to go after Cosmos for what he's doing to Hiko and Nova. It takes a lot of courage to go after him."

"Thank you."

"Not a lot of brains, though," Kerlan added, grinning. Rayden shrugged in acceptance. "The whole Omniverse is scared witless when it comes to Cosmos--he destroyed an entire universe when Roma upset him--he could do it again."

"I know that. I was there, remember?" Rayden said ruefully. The fight between Roma and Cosmos had become very public when Cosmos obliterated Roma's Realm after she insulted him during a meeting. "That's why I wanted to talk to you--I thought you might have some inside information on him."

Kerlan shook his head sadly. "I don't really know any dirt--like I said, I'm pretty much clean." He smiled at his own joke. "You might want to try Celebria--"

"Celebria?!" Rayden exclaimed. "She couldn't tell the truth if her life depended on it."

"She is the Goddess of Truth, Rayden."

"She's also the biggest gossip this side of... well, anything. If she doesn't know something, she makes it up." Rayden shook his head. "I wouldn't trust her to tell me the time."

Kerlan shrugged. "I guess I can't help you, Rayden. I don't know much, except--"

"Except?" Rayden stared at Kerlan piercingly. Kerlan leaned in, to whisper.

"They say that Cosmos has somehow increased his power. No one knows how, but some how he's become even stronger than he was before. That's why we're afraid to go after Hiko--he might do something worse than what he did to Roma's Realm." He leaned back out.

"Thank you," Rayden said gratefully. Suddenly Kerlan craned his neck to look out of one the huge bay windows in the room.

"Uh oh," he said. "Looks like your mortal friends have gotten into a bit of trouble."

"I have a bad feeling about this," Johnny remarked. He, Liu and Sonya were back to back, facing out against a gang of muscular thugs.

"Your fighting sense is that precise, is it?" asked Sonya sarcastically. She fished something out of her bag, and Liu realised she'd drawn her gun.

One of the men attacked her, and she calmly fired into his chest. Just before the bullet hit him, however, he seemed to fade, then reappeared whole and healthy, and still charging. Sonya tried to kick him, but he faded again, and her leg passed right through him. He rematerialized and punched her in the stomach. She doubled over, and he punched up onto her chin.

"Sonya!" Johnny yelled. He and Liu pulled her away. The man made no attempt to go after them, but stood there, and grinned.

Suddenly someone else was there. The three humans sensed the tall, dark man before they saw him. They turned to see the figure floating serenely above in front of them, towering over them.

"You can not beat my warriors," the god announced. "They have the ability to dimensionally displace themselves before you ever get near them. No human can even touch them."

"That may be true of a human, but not of a goddess!" replied someone else, a woman's voice. The humans whirled again, just in time to see a woman, dressed in red with a blue robe smack two goons' heads together. They collapsed in a heap, disappearing as they touched the ground. She elbowed an approaching one, then grabbed him by the head as he doubled over, and kneed him in the stomach. He too disappeared. Now two others rushed at her, and so she jumped out of the way--up. She leapt in the air, and actually hovered over their heads. As she jumped, she pulled a bow from off her back. Generating an arrow out of energy, she fired two in quick succession, and vapourized the ones following her.

"Enough!" the god yelled. He clapped his hands together, and a large ball of energy formed around his hands. The woman landed back on the ground, and took up a defensive pose. She just waited for the blast to come when there was a sudden peal of thunder. Rayden appeared right next to her, also in a defensive position.

The god snarled, and fired the volley of energy at Rayden and the woman. They both staggered under the blast, their arms in front of their faces in a vain attempt to ward it off. There was a sudden gun shot, as Sonya fired into the face of their attacker. The god, stunned, broke off his attack, and vanished before Rayden and the woman could go on the offensive.

"What a lovely neighborhood," Johnny said finally, as the dust cleared. "Can I see a listing?"

Rayden ignored him. He turned to the woman. "Nova, are you all right?"

The woman nodded, sighing with relief. "I'm glad you showed up when you did," she admitted. "I was worried about what I might be forced to do." Rayden then turned to face his human friends.

"This is Nova," he introduced her. Sonya and Liu shook her hand, while Johnny suavely kissed it. Nova smiled, while the others rolled their eyes in disbelief.

"What are you goddess of?" asked Sonya curiously, after Johnny was finished. "And what are your arrows made of?"

"I'm the Goddess of Stars," Nova said with a grand bow. "And my speciality is starfire arrows."

"Impressive," Liu agreed. "Rayden, why exactly does that god want to kill us?"

"I think it's time you filled us in a bit," Johnny added. Rayden did neither.

"I talked to Kerlan, and he says that our "little quest", as he put it, is all over the damned Omniverse. Cosmos could well be mounting an even bigger defense," he said to Nova.

"He doesn't need to. He's got all the power he needs by himself," she answered.

"Kerlan also added that Cosmos' power has been growing."

"Extremely. Some now say that he's nearly got the strength of the Creator. I don't believe that, personally, but you know how some people--" Nova trailed off, letting the thought finish itself.

Rayden, for the first time since the others had known him, looked shocked, even frightened. "That's impossible."

"Like I said, I don't know. What's worse is that I think he might have done something to Hiko. I can't feel her any more. I used to be able to sense her in the back of my mind, but I haven't been able to since Cosmos started on this insane power grab of his," Nova told him, her voice showing signs of fear and a touch of panic. Rayden placed a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, and she leaned against him with relief. He gave her a hug, and when she straightened up he started to form a portal.

"It'll be all right," he said determinedly. "We'll stop Cosmos, and rescue Hiko."

"Sure, piece of cake," Johnny muttered. Liu punched him on the shoulder, and together they went through the portal.

The portal disgorged them into a densley wooded area. The humans tumbled out, still unused to portal travel, while Rayden and Nova stepped out serenely.

"Where are we?" asked Liu, staring at the huge trees that towered overhead.

"I don't know," replied Johnny, getting up and dusting dirt off of his jacket.

"I wasn't asking you," snapped Liu. "Rayden?"

"We're in Usirapi," Rayden resonded. "Cosmos' realm."

"One thing," remarked Sonya as she was picking fir needles from out of her mouth, "What's to stop Cosmos from blowing us up here?"

"I never knew you were so optimistic," Johnny commented snidely.

"Being realistic means being prepared," Sonya retorted fiercely.

"The only thing--" Nova started to say, but she was interrupted.

"You know, I've tried to be nice to you--" Johnny began.

"Nice? You tried to be nice to me?" Sonya intoned sarcastically. "I couldn't tell. But then, you were never big on social skills."

Johnny stepped back, pantomiming being wounded. He acted out pulling a knife from his chest, then pretended to faint. Sonya merely stood with her arms crossed and a sour expression on her face.

"People--" Nova tried again. Johnny had recovered from his wounds by now, and stopped her sentance once again.

"You know, it might be easier to get along with you if you weren't so damn frigid," he snapped.

Sonya seemed stung, then quickly recovered with: "My God! Is that the best you can come up with? That tired old excuse? That if a woman doesn't respond to the lame come-ons of a man, she's automatically frigid?"

"Lame come-ons?!" cried Johnny, truly insulted by now. "Lame come-ons?!"

Nova threw up her arms in frustration. Rayden and Liu merely shook their heads.

"They are the lamest I have ever heard, and I have heard plenty. I seem to attract that kind of desparate loser," Sonya added.

"WHAT--!?" Johnny seemed to be too astonished to say anything more, and as Sonya was merely waiting for the response, Nova took the opportunity to get her two cents in.

"Shut up, all of you!" she yelled. Her voice echoed somewhat among the trees, and there was the sound of birds fluttering up from the branches. "Look," she said, exasperated. "The longer we wait here, the more time Cosmos has to plan a defense. Not that he needs to plan, in that he could probably blow us up right where we stand! The only thing we have in our favour is surprise, and the assumption that he won't want to blow up his own Realm. Okay?"

Johnny recovered first. "We should probably get going. If--" he glared at Sonya, "--that's all right with you."

"Perfectly fine," she replied in a huff.

"Hallelujah," Liu muttered under his breath.

Picking up her bag, she stormed out into the trees, in the direction Nova pointed. She was followed by Nova herself, Johnny and finally Liu and Rayden.

Even after walking for a significant amount of time, the terrain had not changed. The ground was still flat; the trees still loomed overhead, the bushes still fluttered in the wind, or moved because of small animals within; the humidity was still uncomfortable. All in all, it wasn't a pleasurable hike through the woods. The constant rustling set everyone's nerves on edge, Nova and Rayden especially. They, out of all of them, knew what Cosmos could do to them, and they worried more as a result.

Liu tried consciously to relax a bit. He knew the consequences of letting your imagination get the better of you in situations like this. He also knew not to let his guard down, however.

"Wait," he said suddenly, stopping beneath a large fir. "Can you hear something?"

"I can hear lots of somethings," Johnny replied. Liu put a finger to his lips. They all strained to hear whatever it was that was out there.

Johnny could hear a bird squawking. Sonya could hear the wind in the trees. Rayden could hear a distant roar, like the sound of rushing water. Nova however, heard something else.

"It's someone breathing," she gasped, unholstering her bow, and standing at the ready. Liu nodded, and started looking around for the source of the breathing sound as all of his friends held their breaths. Suddenly Johnny spotted a movement in the branches of the trees.

"Liu--!" he y elled. The creature leapt, hissing, from its camouflaged perch on the tree branch. It landed on Johnny, clawing and biting. They both collapsed to the ground, Johnny trying to shield himself futilely. It was the size of a large dog, but considerably more dangerous and mobile. It reared up on its hindlegs, obviously bipedal, and lunged in for the kill when Nova's arrow speared it through the throat. It fell over, screeching until it died with a convulsion. Sonya helped Johnny to his feet. He was scratched, but not seriously wounded. Rayden poked the dead creature with his foot. "It looks like the tree," he commented. "Must by a dryad of some sort."

"A dryad?" asked Sonya. "You mean a tree spirit?"

"I'd say an evil one," Rayden replied. "We'd better get going. There maybe more of them."

"There doesn't have to be--look!" Nova cried. The dryad started shaking, and sprouts started growing from its arms and legs and head. Within moments, before the groups horrified eyes, there were five new menaces.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Johnny repeated. They all made defensive movements, and waited for the demons to attack. They didn't have to wait long. The dryads charged. They went after each of the people seperately, and tried to manoever them away from each other.

Johnny struggled with his. It attacking randomly, clawing and scratching. It didn't have any pattern it was following, and it was hard to get more than a punch or two in while trying to keep the creature's claws and teeth away from his neck. He heard the sounds of Liu shouting, but he was concentrating so hard on the demon that the noise was distant. Finally the creature had an opening, and Johnny kicked it whole-heartedly in the stomach. As the creaure doubled over, Johnny grabbed its head and snapped its neck. It dropped to the ground with a dull thud, and Johnny sighed with relief before he realised that this dryad was sprouting its replacements as well. Within a moment, there were five new clawing terrors after him.

Rayden was not doing so well. His powers had an effect on the creatures, true, but he was killing them so fast that all-new ones were sprouting almost constantly. In this Realm he was fighting to keep his powers intact. Fighting so many opponents--his brain told him at least twenty-five--was taking all the concentration he had, and then some. They needed a plan.

Liu was marginally better off. As he took longer to kill his personal demons, he had less of them to worry about than Rayden or Nova, who also seemed to be fighting a rather large amount of the creatures. He was still working at peak capacity to fight them off, however. As he broke the neck of one, another leapt on his back. He yelled in pain, and threw the creature the ground. As he picked it up, it tried to claw his face, and alarmed, he threw it as hard as he could into the tree. It hit the tree and caught on one of the branches. Liu then turned his attention to another one of the demons. As he disposed of that one with a swift chop to the wide-pipe, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that the dryad that he had thrown into the tree had not begun sprouting any offspring. It was when he noticed that the creature wasn't touching the ground that he realised the significance.

"Put the dryads in the trees!" he yelled to his friends, but none of them could hear him. The demons had put so much space between them that it was almost impossible to get their attention. Liu had another insight: the demons were doing it on purpose to keep the humans separate and unable to co-operate. Quickly he hung the corpses of his next victims on the branches of the tree, until none were left attacking them.

His friend closest to him was Sonya Blade, and although she was holding her own, she could use a little help. He started attacking her opponents, and showed her how to throw them on the trees. As long as the demons weren't at all touching the ground, they were safe. "How do we get rid of all of them?" Sonya, kicking one dryad into submission. "There aren't enough trees around, to hold more than a hundred demons."

"Rayden!" Liu said with a snap of his fingers. "Perhaps he can vapourize them." Sonya shook her head.

"He doesn't have enough power. Look," she said, gesturing to the beleagured Thunder God. "But...what about Nova?"

They tried to find Nova in the crowd. She was on the very edge of the group, and not doing very well in Liu's opinion. It looked like she didn't have a whole lot of experience relying on her physical abilities, right now she had one of the creatures at her throat, and she didn't seem to be faring very well. "We've got to get it from off her," Liu said, stepping forward. Sonya held him back with one hand. With her other hand, she drew her gun, took aim, and fired.

The creature dropped to the ground, leaving Nova stunned. She glanced over to the two humans, and they waved frantically at them. She nodded, and did another of her flying leaps, circumventing the crowd of creatures that had surrounded her.

"Why didn't you just do that before?" Sonya asked when Nova landed beside them.

"It wouldn't solve anything. But I take it you two have a plan?" she replied curiously, and winded.

Liu nodded. "Can your powers vapourise them?"

She shook her head no. "Ordinarily I can use my powers like that, but not on this many opponents. Too much energy."

"What about making the arrows solid enough to pin the creatures to trees?" Liu pondered. "If they're off the ground, they won't sprout."

"Sounds like a plan," Nova said, unholstering her bow again. "I think I can make solid arrows. I'm not entirely sure. I've never done it."

Johnny was still fighting when he heard a gunshot. It jolted him back into reality, and he realised that the dryads were pushing him farther and farther away from his friends. He decided to try and come up with a way to beat the things permenently, when the dryad he was fighting shot out of his hands. He looked over in surprise to see that the dryad was pinned to a tree by an arrow like the ones Nova used, but this one remained solid.

More arrows began flying by, and the numbers of demons whittled down considerably. Johnny joined up with Sonya, Liu and Nova, when he realised that all the trees within firing range were covered with the branchy monsters.

"What about the ones surrounding Rayden? We have no space left," Liu pointed out.

"Leave that to me." Nova said. She put back her bow, and placed her hands together. They began to glow with a yellowish energy, and the mortals all took a knowing step back.

Rayden knew that the dryads needed to be placed off the ground, but with Nova covering all the available space, he didn't see how to accomplish it. Suddenly he heard a voice in his head.

Rayden, Nova mentally thought out to him. I will be using my starfire powers on them. You must get out of the way.

All right, Rayden agreed telepathically. He jumped out of the reach of the demon he was fighting, and made a short teleport to the others.

"Why didn't you just do that before?" asked a confused Johnny Cage. Rayden shrugged.

"It wouldn't have helped."

Nova stood, hands together, while she focused her energy. Suddenly she raised her hands abover her head, then dropped them in a swooping gesture.

The energy appeared around each of the dryads, which were now advancing on the group. There were about thirty of them, and they suddenly began to scream. All of them opened their toothy mouths to howl piercingly before they all disappeared completely. Nova let her hands dropped, and nearly collapsed. Johnny and Liu both caught her at the same time. They helped her to the ground, and Rayden kneeled next to her. "She's weak from the energy loss," he said, checking her pulse. "But she should be all right in a moment or two."

"That's good," Liu replied. "Because I have the feeling that those monsters were part of an alarm system."

"And we just tripped it," Sonya finished grimly. Liu nodded.

Nova had recovered enough by now to be able to continue, although their head-way was slowed down due to the fact she wasn't at peak working capacity. They travelled more slowly, despite Nova's protests that they were trying to "baby" her.

Soon the team met up with a rather large obstacle: a giant river. It was very wide, very deep, and they couldn't see any narrower spots even though they explored up and down its banks. Further more, it was obviously the product of a vicious storm or flood. Whole trees floated downstream, their roots showing in the air, when the trunks bobbed down far enough to see the bottom. It was definately a rough river.

"How are we going to cross this?" asked Liu to no one in particular. "It's too deep, and too rough to swim. There are no bridges, and no ships."

"Hmmm," interjected Johnny. "Don't be too sure of that."

"Of what?"

"Ships. I think I see one coming." He said, and he jogged down the banks to where a tree had become lodged in the shallows.

Liu and Sonya stared at him in astonishment. "You can't be serious!" Liu exclaimed.

"Perfectly," Johnny replied with a shrug. Rayden seemed dubious, but Nova was getting more and more excited.

"I think I have an idea!" she said. "I can make an energy rope, and shoot it to the other side with one of my arrows. Then we can pull ourselves across."

Sonya and Liu didn't say anything in response but looked stupified instead.

"We are not crossing the river on a log. Can I stress this enough?" Sonya said.

"We don't have any other options, unless you're a miracle worker," Johnny said, examining the log with Rayden to see if it was strong enough.

"And you are off your medication," Sonya retorted. "I hate crossings in a normal boat but--"

"Oh, so you're hydrophobic," Johnny said, stopping to look up at her.

"I am not. I just, ah--" Sonya became extremely embarrassed. "I, it's just that, I, well, can't swim."

"You can't swim?" asked an incredulous Liu.

"I can swim, just... not very well." Sonya replied. She seemed angry at having to admit this. Nova patted her on the shoulder.

"It'll be fine." she said. "We'll make sure nothing happens."

Sonya bristled, not liking the prospect of having to ask for help. But, as even Liu became convinced that there was no other option, she gave up trying to talk them out of it.

"I hate this. I hate this. I hate this," Sonya repeated the phrase over and over, like a mantra. She was clinging to Johnny, as Nova prepared to fire her arrow and energy rope. Rayden and Liu stood knee-deep in the water, getting ready to launch the "ship". Nova stood at the "bow" of the "ship" and fired her bow. The arrow sailed over the water, anchoring in a tree on the opposite shore. Nova put her bow back on, and sat on the log. She gripped the side of the log with her knees, and held on to the energy rope.

"Ready," she announced.

"One, two, three," Rayden and Liu counted, then pushed against the side of the log. It started to give, then slid out into the deeper water. Rayden and Liu hurridly jumped on, and Nova started to pull them across the rope.

The river was choppy, and all of them had a hard time holding onto the tree trunk, which became slippery as it got wet. Sonya was becoming more and more upset as the tree was tossed about by the waves. Nova kept a firm hold on the energy rope, as well as the tree, so they were still on course, but the waves rocked the tree back and forth violently.

"Rayden!" called Liu. "Can't you do something about this?"

"I'm the thunder god, not a water sprite!" the god replied irritably.

"No, I mean, calm the wind a bit?" Liu called back again. Rayden thought for a minute.

"Not really my realm of expertise, but I could try." He raised his arms up, and immediately the waves seemed a bit calmer. Rayden grinned. "How about that."

Sonya, for one, seemed a bit more relaxed. She even let her hold on Johnny loosen a bit, which reassured Johnny, since he feared she was going to break his ribs. As the wind died down, the journey became more and more peaceful. It wasn't long before the river was completely smooth. Rayden beamed.

"Show-off!" called Nova, playfully, her spirits lifting.

Sonya finally let go of Johnny completely, and managed to stay on the tree by herself without support. Feeling a bit more confident, and less sea-sick, she attempted to twist around to talk to Liu when she suddenly spotted a tree bearing down on them from the side. For even though Rayden had calmed the wind, there was no way he could control the flow of the river, which continued unabated. The tree collided with them, and Nova was knocked from the ship. The shock also disrupted Rayden's concentration, and the winds whipped up, full blast.

"Nova!" Rayden and Johnny both yelled frantically, while Liu tried to grab a hold in the rope. However, even as he made to touch it, the rope disappeared, as Nova was no longer keeping her mental hold on it.

Johnny leapt from the tree the minute he saw a flash of red. He dove into the frigid water, and tried to swim over to Nova, who was plainly floundering. He managed to grab on to her, and pull her to the surface before a huge wave swamped them. He kept his grip on her collar and pulled her up for air when the wave dissipated. He had to keep her above water. She had fainted from being under water too long, and if it wasn't for the fact that she was Immortal, Johnny might have feared the worst.

As it was, he kept his head and hers above water and looked frantically for the others. They were nowhere in sight. The current was too strong for Johnny to fight while carrying Nova, and he knew that the two of them would head downstream faster than the tree carrying the rest of his friends. He also knew that he had to get them ashore fast. Nova's weight was quickly tiring him, and he knew for a fact that he, at least, was mortal.

"Johnny!" Sonya screamed. She was too terrified to jump in after him, and within moments she couldn't spot him at all. A wave nearly washed her over as well, and she clung to the tree, nearly in tears. She had no intention of crying, of course, but that's how far she was driven.

"Rayden!" she heard Liu yell. "You've got to get us out of here!"

"I don't know if I can--hold on to my hand and Sonya's!" Rayden instructed. They did so, and he tried to teleport them to the shore. Unfortunately, he didn't make it all the way to the shore. Fortunately for the panicked Sonya, Liu managed to pull her to dry land. They stumbled onto the beach, followed by Rayden in his sodden robes. He was already staring down the river, trying to spot either Johnny or Nova, but he saw neither.

Johnny heaved Nova up on to the beach. He checked to see if she was breathing, and indeed she was. That was one worry off of Johnny's mind. The next few were a little harder to dispel. The two of them could be anywhere. Johnny had no way of knowing how far they went down river, or even how far the others came down. He didn't even know whether or not they were on the same side of the river. They could be back on the first side for all he knew.

He rubbed the water from his eyes, and carried Nova farther up the beach where they were protected by the trees. He started looking for some firewood, only to realise that he had no matches. He sat down beside the unconscious goddess, and thought about the hard night ahead.

Groggily, Johnny began to wake up. For a moment or two, he thought he was back in his arpartment in LA, his blanket curled under his chin. Then, slowly, he began to remember the events of the last little while. He bolted upright suddenly, staring at his surroundings. The trees soared overhead, and he could hear the rushing of the river only a few meters away. He looked down to see that the "blanket" he had been curled up in was in actuality Nova's outer robe. She wore one that was similar to Rayden's except hers was a bright shade of blue. Johnny hadn't realised it was so comfortable before.

He looked around the area, but Nova was nowhere in sight. Perhaps she'd gone to get some firewood--Johnny remembered that neither of them had any matches. Then, however, he noticed the charred remains of the camp fire at his feet. He had forgotten about Nova's abilities.

There was the sudden crunch of someone walking on leaves, and Johnny turned to see Nova emerge from the underbrush, carrying some sticks and branches.

"Hello," she said pleasantly. She dumped the firewood on the small camp fire, and with a gesture from her finger, the fire roared up, and started blazing cheerfully.

"Uh, hi," Johnny stuttered. He rubbed his eyes, and stretched, while yawning. Nova smiled and sat next to him on the ground.

"I found out where we are," she said, when he was through. "I did some scouting. We're on the right shore at least--but we're a couple miles downstream of where we should be."

"Really?" Johnny asked, yawning again. Nova nodded.

"We should get started soon--it's nearly noon." Johnny tried to find the sun up overhead, but it was concealed by the dense tree leaves. He checked his watch to find the hands had stopped moving due to the moisture build-up. He sighed, unbuckled his watch, and threw it behind his shoulder. Nova watched him carefully, but didn't say anything. Johnny next tried to get to his feet, and groaned as all his muscles, ligaments, and bones protested.

"Not used to sleeping on the ground?" Nova asked playfully. Johnny rolled his eyes in agreement.

"And I never will be," he added. "Hey--here's a thought: how are we going to find Rayden and the others?"

"I can sense Rayden's presence," she replied, picking her robe up, and dusting it off. She held it over her arm and pointed with her other hand. "That way."

"That way."

"Uh huh."

"Good thing you've got a mental compass in your head," Johnny said. "I probably couldn't lead us to the beach."

"But we're on the beach!" Nova half-giggled. She seemed to have missed the joke, but found it funny nonetheless. Johnny grinned at her, and the two made eye contact for a moment. It was strange, but Johnny had never really noticed how blue her eyes were, and how they seemed to crackle with some sort of energy. Johnny started to get a peculiar feeling, but at the last moment broke eye contact. She seemed a bit embarrassed, and turned her attention away from Johnny.

Nova waved her hand over the fire, and it died down. Johnny stomped the charred remains out with his boot. The last thing he wanted was for this world's Smokey the Bear to come after him.

Nova nodded with her head towards the forest. "Shall we go?"

Johnny gallantly offered her his arm. She accepted it with some amusement, and together they set off.

"Rayden, stop looking. There's no point," Sonya said tiredly, wringing out her long sleeved shirt over the flames of the fire. The fire spluttered as the water hit it, but that was the only sound in the glade.

"They're not dead," Rayden said fiercely. He kicked at a branch in frustration. "By the Creator, I wish I had my full powers--"

"It wouldn't help any," Sonya draped her shirt over the log she was sitting on, and rested her head in her hands wearily. "I'm assuming Nova is alive--she is a goddess--but Johnny couldn't have survived. The river was too stong."

"So we should just give up?" retorted Liu. "You said yourself you can't swim very well, perhaps you're underestimating Johnny's ability."

"There is no way to find them. How could we ever begin looking?"

"We can't face Cosmos by ourselves!" Rayden snapped. He sighed, and sat next to Sonya and Liu. "Nova will be able to find us. She still has her full powers, even if I don't. She'll find me."

"And if Johnny isn't with her?" asked Liu.

"Then we go on without him," Rayden sighed. "The fate of the Omniverse could very well rest on us. We can't let Cosmos run around free with his new-found super-powers."

"It seems like we're always saving something-or-other," Liu commented, after a moment. He was poking the ashes with a stick, turning the coals over. "When do we ever get anything out of it?"

The forest seemed to go on forever. Johnny wasn't so sure which direction they were heading, or even if they were heading in a straight line, but Nova seemed sure of where she was going. Johnny followed one or two steps behind, trying to follow the quick pace she was setting. She reminded him almost of a hunting dog, following a trail, although he didn't say that out loud.

Suddenly, off in the distance, Johnny could hear the soft roar of water. For a moment, he panicked that she had actually been leading them back towards the beach, but after listening more carefully, he realised that the sound was subtly different: not the roar of a river, but the crash of a waterfall.

The trees ended suddenly on the edge of a cliff, over-looking a tall waterfall. For some reason there was a kind of natural rock basin in the middle of the forest. The cliffs weren't that steep, but looked easier to go around. Johnny was prepared to turn and keep walking, but Nova started climbing down the cliff, instead.

"It would be easier to go around," he pointed out.

"Yes, I suppose it would," she replied, jumping down to the ground from a rock ledge. Johnny started to climb down after her.

"Are Rayden and the others down here?" he asked, curious.

"No," Nova answered. She walked up to the pool's edge, and sat down, unloading her bow and folded robe that she had been carrying on her back.

Johnny stood next to her, his eyebrows raised to the point of nearly being off his forehead. "Then why are we stopping?"

"I'm thirsty," Nova replied. She took some long drinks from the pool, dipping her hand in the water. "Aren't you?"

"Uh, no thanks," Actually, he was, but frequent camping trips (when he wasn't working) had enforced the notion of not drinking unboiled water. He crouched down beside the goddess, and surveyed the area. The basin was not the same height around; the waterfall was higher up than the land they had been on. For some reason, the basin was almost perfectly round, and there didn't seem to be any exit for the water.

"Where is the river going to?" he asked.

"Hmm?" Nova looked up, a bit confused. "Oh. There's an opening to the cave system right under the fall. The whole Realm is riddled with them."

"How do you know?" asked Johnny. He could see right to the bottom of the pool, it was clear, and he noticed that there was indeed a tunnel leading down.

"I grew up here," Nova said slowly.

"What?" Johnny exclaimed. "But--" He was suddenly interrupted by Nova's eyes going very wide with fear. "What? What's happening?"

"I don't know--" Nova stuttered. She started shaking, then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed, splashing into the water.

"Nova!" Johnny picked her up, and tried to find out what was happening. She still had a good pulse, she was breathing, but she was unconscious. Johnny didn't even know that water bacteria could act so fast, and worse yet, he didn't know what to do about it.

It turned out nothing was needed. Nova was already coming around, and opened her eyes slowly.

"You," she snarled, looking up at Johnny. She rolled out of his arms, and crouched on the sand. "You think you can get away with this?"

"What?" Johnny slowly got up, his hands out in front of him. "Nova, I don't understand what you're talking about."

"Of course you don't!" she snapped. "You were never there to know me--never bothered with me, until you realised you could take my powers."

"What--oof!" Johnny had the wind knocked out of him and Nova charged, throwing him to the ground. She had produced a knife from somewhere, and was attempting to slice his throat. He could barely hold her back. Hating what he was doing, he twisted her onto her back, and when she was distracted by the sudden movement, grabbed the knife away from her. He got up, and backed away, slowly. She stood up, apparently about to attack again.

"Nova, don't do this. I don't want to hurt you--" Johnny started, but Nova, obviously, had no qualms hurting him. She leapt again, but Johnny managed to sidestep her. He tripped in the process over something: her bow. He picked it up just as she charged again, and closing his eyes, whacked her across the head with it. The bow was heavy, and Johnny didn't pull his punch.

Nova fell to her knees, a surprised expression on her face. Blood was streaming from her temples.

"So, I'm not worthy enough for you to kill outright?" she fumed. "I'm just one of your flunkies that you toy with? Is that it?"


"You showed more respect to Roma when you destroyed her Realm, you know. You showed that she was more of a threat, so much so that you had to use your powers. Is that it? Am I not even worth your effort?" she screamed. She was on her feet now, and she looked like she was ready for another go at Johnny.

Johnny, for his part, was even more confused, and even more sure that he did not want to hurt her. He reluctantly got himself into a defensive posture, but Nova made no move to attack him. Instead, she straightened up, and held her hands over her head.

Suddenly, when she dropped her hands to point at him, he understood what she was doing, and ducked, just as the fireball soared over his head. He started to run, and realised the only place to go was underwater. There, at least, he hoped, her fireballs wouldn't be as much of a threat.

He ran and dived into the cool, clear water of pool, careful not to drink any. He wasn't sure how she had become affected like this, but he was damn sure it wasn't going to happen to him. The last thing they both needed was to lose his mind as well. He surfaced in the middle of the pool, only a few meters from the falls, which he could feel churning the water.

Nova stood for a moment, aggravated, watching him tread water, then she ran into the water, diving beneath the surface.

Johnny could still see her, clear as the water was, swimming towards him. He treaded water, waiting for the inevitable moment when she surfaced. She did so a split second later, furious at his continued attempts to run. She clearly expected him to fight, and with super-powers, as well.

She raised her own arms above her head, swimming with her legs, and blasted a fireball to where Johnny had been. Fortunately for him, he manged to dive under the moment he recognised the gesture. The water around him heated instantly, and he knew how strong that fire must be to heat the water that quickly. Taking a chance, he surfaced. He couldn't see Nova anywhere, until something pulled on his leg, and pulled him under. He floundered for a moment, but broke free and struggled to the surface. He just managed to get his head above water before Nova attacked him again, trying to push him back under.

"If you will not finish this the way you should, then I won't waste my powers on you!" she yelled, shoving Johnny's head underwater. His lungs felt like they were going to explode. He hadn't taken a deep enough breath when he was last up top. Suddenly Nova pulled him up by the hair--very painfully--and glared at him.

"I didn't know you were so cowardly at heart," she said disgustedly. She pushed him again, but this time, Johnny was prepared. He took a deep breath just as she dunked him, being more prepared this go 'round. He seized his opportunity and kicked Nova forcibly in the waist. She let go of him in surprise, and he swam furiously out of reach. She did not follow him, but treaded water slowly, watching him curiously, a puzzled expression on her face.

He realised for the first time that Nova thought he was someone else--most likely a god, from the way she kept going on about powers--and Johnny's decidedly non-god-like actions were confusing her.

Time to get this all sorted out, Johnny thought to himself. Step one: "Who do you think I am?" he called out, across the waves.

Nova regarded him suspiciously. "What?"

"Who do you think I am?" he repeated.

"Cosmos, of course," Nova answered, obviously expecting a trick of some sort.

"No. You see, you're under some sort of spell. You think you're seeing Cosmos, but you're not, it's me. Johnny."

"Johnny Cage?"

"The one, the only," he replied, despite himself.

"You're lying," announced Nova, but she didn't sound very confident. In fact, she sounded exactly like someone who was trying to believe in something, despite what their eyes were telling them. Johnny decided to drive the point home.

"Does Cosmos act like I did?" he asked.

"No..." she trailed off. Johnny slowly swam towards her. She watched with a mixture of confusion and suspicion. He started treading water again a mere meter away. "But how can I sure of what you say?" she added.

Johnny thought about that for a moment, then hit upon an idea. He swam in a little bit closer. "How about I do something that Cosmos wouldn't?"

Nova laughed. "If you are Johnny Cage, there is very little that you can do that Cosmos can't."

"Oh, I don't know," Johnny commented drily. Very slowly, very carefully, he moved a bit closer and kissed her softly.

Nova's eyes went wide, and she splashed her way backwards. Her mouth was open, and she was staring in astonishment.

"Well, that's not usually the response I get..." he said with a smile.

"You, you, must be Johnny," she stuttered. "Cosmos couldn't have--is forbidden to--the Rules!" She trailed off, and swam slowly back towards Johnny. Touching his cheek lightly, she kissed him again, and now it was Johnny's turn to act astonished, but he showed it with a slightly dopey grin.

"I guess you are Johnny," commented Nova wryly, shaking her head and rubbing her eyes with a free hand. "It must have been another of his tricks...he plays mind games--I thought I was strong enough to keep a grip on myself."

"Maybe the water is a trigger," he suggested. "It happened right after you had something to drink."

"Possibly," she mused, treading water. "The close contact of the Realm."

"But you're okay now? The experiment a success, huh?" he asked jokingly, not understanding the reference.

"Well, maybe we should attempt to verify the experiment's results," she replied with a sly grin.

"Not now--we are trying to catch up with the others," he said, disappointment in his voice. Nova was a bit disappointed as well, but she chuckled.

"Now I know you're not Johnny Cage," she laughed, splashing a bit of water in his face.

He rolled his eyes as he splashed back. "What? Have Sonya and Liu been telling you tales?"

"Nope," she said with a grin. "Rayden."

Johnny sighed as they began the swim back to shore.

"I suppose we should get going," Liu said suddenly. Sonya and Rayden looked up at him. "It's well past mid-day," he finished. "I think we've wasted enough time here. Our stuff is dry, we can't go on using that as an excuse. Sonya's right. We have to go without them."

Rayden got up, pacing. "All right," he said finally. He turned and started walking off into the forest without any further word.

Sonya and Liu looked at each other, but quickly bundled up their stuff, and bounded after him.

Catching up, Liu asked: "Do you have any idea where the castle actually is? I thought it was Nova who knew."

Rayden stopped suddenly, to glare at Liu. Sonya caught up at this moment, and switched her attention between Liu and Rayden.

"Of course I do," Rayden said icily. "I have been here before. It was a while ago, but I remember."

"You've been here before?" murmured Sonya, but Rayden ignored her, still glaring at Liu. Liu, for his part, bristled.

"What is your problem?" Liu snapped. "All I asked was a simple question, that's all."

"Don't you dare take that tone of voice with me," Rayden snarled, his eyes betraying his powers, diminished though they were.

"Guys!" Sonya stood in between them, hands on each of their chests, holding them apart. "We can't afford to fight amongst ourselves."

"She's right," Liu said, after a long silence.

"I know--" Rayden faltered. "And I'm sorry for snapping at you like that. You have to understand the stress I'm under--"

"I do," replied Liu. "I know what it feels like to have everything depending on you."

"It's not just that. It's... Hiko. I don't think I've told you everything you need to know about her and me." Rayden faltered.

Liu smiled slightly, as did Sonya. "You mean the fact that you two are in love, while she's married to another god?" Liu asked.

"Yes," Rayden stuttered. "How--?"

"It's kinda plain, really." Liu grinned. "Even to us mortals."

Rayden said nothing, but stared at his feet. Liu clapped a hand on his shoulder, as did Sonya.

"There's nothing to be worried about." Sonya said. "We're still helping you, aren't we?"

"Yes. Thank you," Rayden replied slowly.

"We're friends, and that's what friends do," Liu finished firmly. "Now come on. We're wasting time." He started to walk off, in the same direction that Rayden had been leading them, when suddenly the ground gave way beneath his feet. He fell through the hole, landing rather painfully on the solid rock floor beneath him.

"Liu!" Sonya called down. "Are you all right?"

"I'm in one piece," Liu replied, getting up and rubbing his sore back. "I'm in some sort of cave."

"Just a second, I'm coming down." Sonya leapt into the hole, landing perfectly on her feet. The hole was only about six feet down, so Liu would've had no problems getting back, so why Sonya had joined him was a bit of a mystery.

"Sonya? Liu?" Rayden poked his head over the hole, his white bangs falling into his eyes. He batted them out of the way, then sighed, and got up. A second later he landed right next to Liu. "What are you two doing down here?" he asked.

"I'm not sure..." Liu replied, looking to his female companion. Sonya was slowly exploring the rest of the cave. Liu realised it was a lot bigger than just the hole he'd fallen into. A lot bigger. A tunnel, much like a rock hallway, lead from the whole into a dense blackness that Sonya was walking into.

"Hey, you guys," she called behind her. "There's another cave in here." Rayden and Liu jogged the few steps to meet her.

"I can't see anything," Liu complained, trying to squint into the darkness. Sonya fished with something in her bag, and pulled out a flashlight. She turned it on, and the trio gasped.

The cave wasn't made out of rock like the hole they had left behind. It was made almost entirely out of crystal, from the stalacites to the stalagmites and everything in between. The moment Sonya shone her flashlight, the light had reflected and refracted from a thousand different facets of the rock crystal, momentarily blinding the six eyes used to the former dark.

"By the Creator--" Rayden swore under his breath. Liu couldn't even manage to say anything.

Sonya merely stared walking forward, towards another tunnel at the other end of the cave. The two followed her, saying nothing, and staring at their surroundings in silent appreciation.

The tunnel led to another cave, this one not made out of crystal, so the flashlight had only its normal effect on the dark.

That cave had nothing special in it, but Sonya was compelled to explore the next one. Liu, by this time, was beginning to be less appreciative, and more worried about finding their way back.

"Why exactly are we heading deeper and deeper into the caves, Sonya?" He finally asked.

"I don't know--I just feel this urge, that's all. I guess we can go back," she said, stopping in her tracks.

"Of course you don't need to explore any more," said a deep voice behind them. They whirled to see a huge number of creatures blocking the door. "You only went down here because we made you. Mind-control spells are so...useful." The creature waved a limb--the trio couldn't see them very well, even with Sonya's flashlight-- and instantly the cave exploded with light. Hidden torches flared to life, revealing an equally large number of monsters behind the humans and their immortal comrade. The monsters were all approximately human-shaped, but created out of rock, and with a significantly jagged appearence.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Liu said, as he and the others assumed defense positions.

"As well you should, mortal. We will kill you," the lead rock monster announced. "My comrades--destroy them."

"Great, a corny pile of gravel. That's just what we need," intoned Rayden as the creatures approched them. The trio stood back to back, eyeing the demons carefully.

"Ever notice," Sonya said slowly, "that when Johnny isn't here, one of us assumes his role of wise-cracking jackass?"

"I hadn't noticed, no," Rayden replied calmly. "I think I can get us into a better location. I don't have too much energy to spare for a teleport, but take my hands." He held out his hands to the others. Liu and Sonya held on tight, knowing how rough Rayden's teleports were. There was the customary flash of light and mist and they reappeared in a completely black room.

"At least there's no monsters," Sonya said. She snapped on her flashlight, but the beam seemed weak and feeble, and barely cast out any light. "Damn. Batteries must be running low."

Liu started to feel a strange tightness in his chest. He knew he wasn't fond of enclosed, dark places--he was not normally claustrophobic, but this was not a normal circumstance. He imagined the walls closing down on them--who knew how far down they were?--and the dark swallowing them up. He started to breathe faster; he couldn't help it. His brain betrayed him, imagining all the worst possible fates, and worse yet, not accepting any sort of reasoning. Liu was beginning to panic.

Rayden could tell Liu was close to becoming hysterical. Anyone could have, if they bothered to pay attention, however Sonya did not, as she was in Battle Mode, and mentally preparing herself for the fight. Her mental preparations did not include checking out the well-being of her friends. Since she hated the idea of relying on people, she assumed that other people did too. Hence her ability not to notice when people need help. In her book, if people needed help, they would ask.

Rayden grabbed ahold of Liu's wrist. Liu jumped at the sudden motion. His nerves were becoming more and more frayed, and in this condition, Liu couldn't be trusted to walk on a straight line, never mind fight a huge army of nigh-invincible rock monsters.

Of course, this would never have happened if Rayden had been paying more attention and stopped Cosmos' mind spell on Sonya which led them down here in the first place--Rayden shook his head, as if to clear out the useless thoughts. First things first: they had to get out of here, presuming they could figure out where here was, exactly.

Suddenly the cavern was lit up by a sudden, bright light. The three shielded their eyes as the rock demons suddenly filled the area.

"Thought you'd escape us, hmm?" the demon asked sarcastically. "This is our domain. Nothing happens here without our knowledge." It gestured to two of its compatriots. They started to walk forward, their heavy stone feet dragging on the ground.

That gave Sonya an insight: rock is heavy, obviously, meaning that the monsters probably didn't have the mobility of the humans. She came to the conclusion that it was probably their only advantage over the creatures, and she decided to test her theory.

With a blood-curdling yell, she charged towards the lumbering creatures. She jumped up, and manged to kick one square in the chest, knocking it backwards. It flailed its arms wildly in an attempt to regain its balance, but the torque was too much, and it toppled, shattering on the floor. The other swung a punch, but Sonya ducked the clumsy blow rather easly, and lashed out with her leg against the demon's knee. It too fell to the ground noisily, breaking apart.

"Kill her!" screamed the leader furiously, after watching two of its best warrriors bite the dust.

"Bring 'em on," Sonya replied, savagely. She was ready.

The next two ran towards her, trying to panic her or at least take her by surprise, but they moved relatively slowly, and Sonya watched them as if in slow motion. She knew punches and the like would not be very effective against the demons, having no soft tissues to damage, but she figured the technique of breaking bricks with her hand in karate class could be applied here.

Two more monsters cracked apart, falling to pieces at her feet.

"Rayden!" she called over her shoulder. The thunder god was still supporting the panicked form of Liu Kang. "Get Liu out of here! I can handle these guys by myself."

"Are you sure?" Rayden asked, already getting Liu to walk towards one of the rock tunnels.

"Yes. I'll catch up."

She turned her attention to the task at hand and said nothing more. Rayden nodded, almost to himself, and half dragged Liu out of the room towards the tunnel. This tunnel was free from the clichéd villains, so Rayden thanked the Creator for small favours. The tunnel suddenly contracted along the way to only fit one person, and Rayden had to literally shove Liu through. The cave the tunnel led into was huge, larger than any they had seen before, and a huge waterfall poured through some sort of hole in the ceiling, cascading down, creating a huge underground river.

Rayden got Liu to sit down by the bank, and tried to wipe the spell from Liu's mind. Somehow, Cosmos was using Liu's natural fear of being deep underground--quite a normal fear, he wasn't truly claustrophobic--and amplifying it to the point where Liu would mostly likely die of a heart attack. Rayden didn't know if he had the energy to undo the spell, but he had to try.

Meanwhile, Sonya was still busy fighting off animated rock piles. The leader was rather slow--in the mental sense--in that he did not send more than two warriors at a time against Sonya. If they had surrounded her, they could have afflicted considerable damage, but as such, she was completely unharmed.

The ranks of the demons were were being whittled away, it was true, but there were still plenty more where they came from.

Not to mention it's getting hard to walk around here with all the debris, Sonya thought to herself. She decided to run after Rayden and Liu, and see if there was a more defensable postion along the way.

It was when she ran through the tunnel which suddenly narrowed, only to widen after the certain point that she got her idea.

The rock monsters were certainly stupid enough to follow her, charging (in their slow, ponderous way) towards where Sonya waited for them. She made absolutely sure that they could see her at the end of the tunnel. As she predicted, they charged into the tunnel, and were forced to proceed single-file through the narrow part. Sonya smiled to herself.

The leader was almost at the end of the tunnel. He saw Sonya, and stopped in his tracks. The others bumped up against him. Sonya smiled again, and got ready to finish the fight once and for all.

"Are you ready to give up yet, mortal?" the creature demanded.

"Not quite, no," Sonya admitted. She stopped and shook her head. She sounded exactly like Johnny. That was enough of that. She took a few steps backwards, then ran up, leaping into the air as she neared the leader. The creature was stunned, and made no attempt to move--it couldn't, not in the tight fit of the hallway, and with all of its minions behind it. Sonya's foot connected solidly with the chest of the demon, and it toppled backwards. Causing the one behind it to fall. And the one behind that one, and so one. The entire army fell to the ground in a perverse version of dominoes.

Sonya got up from the sand as brushed her pants off. "Piece of cake."

She hadn't said that, and she whirled around to find Johnny Cage and Nova standing the mouth of the cave. Johnny commenced clapping, but Nova rushed to Liu and Rayden.

"What happened to him?" she asked. Rayden looked up at her, surprised to see her again, but she didn't notice. "Hm. Mind control spell."

"That's what I figured."

"Cosmos," Nova said sadly. "He's not above anything."

"That's not a revelation," Rayden commented, frowning. "But worries me is the strength, and complexity of the spell."

"I know. Liu's not the only one--I just fought off an attack myself, a few moments ago. Johnny helped me overcome it; I'm not sure I would have done otherwise." Nova shook her head in dismay. "Cosmos must be growing stronger by the minute if he can attempt this sort of thing, over the long distance and so strongly."

"Hold on a second," interrupted Johnny, kneeling beside the unconcious form of Liu, who had fainted moments before. "You mean that all the gods could do this?"

"Well, not as powerfully as this," Rayden admitted. "But we can give nudges in certain directions that we want your thoughts to go."

"Oh really?" exclaimed Johnny, eyebrows raised. "And when, exactly, Oh Thundering One, have you used this power on us?"

"Why do you think you believed that line about 'it's not about death but life'?" Rayden grinned slyly. "If it wasn't for me, you'd have jumped ship right there."

"True," Johnny admitted. Nova suddenly reached over and gave him a shove. He fell over. "Hey!"

"Johnny, go make yourself useful, and see if you can find any good water," Nova snapped. "We need to help Liu." Johnny opened his mouth to protest something, but wisely shut it, seeing the look in Nova's eyes. He got up, dusted himself off, and went off to talk to Sonya.

"I think I might have enough power to break the spell," Nova said to Rayden. She placed her hands on Liu's temples, resting his head in her lap. She closed her eyes, and breathed out slowly. Liu's eyelids fluttered, but he didn't awaken. Rayden held Liu's wrist.

"Pulse is slowing down, almost back to normal," he reported.

Johnny and Sonya both joined them, the movie star bearing Sonya's canteen.

"How's he doing?" Sonya asked.

"I think I might have broken the spell," Nova said. "But he's not awake yet."

Wordlessly, Johnny opened up Sonya's canteen and poured it over Liu's head. Nova shrieked. Liu bolted upright, spluttering, and wiping the water from his face.

"What did you do that for?" exclaimed an incredulous Sonya. Johnny shrugged.

"I did it in a movie once," he replied.

"You wasted the water!" Nova snapped indignantly, trying to futilely wipe the water from her sodden pants.

"We can get more," Sonya replied, gesturing at the expanse that lay before them. Both Nova and Johnny's eyes widened.

"I think we might want to avoid drinking that water," Johnny said, casting a significant look at Nova, who seemed suddenly intrigued by her toes.

"There are other rivers in the Realm," Rayden interrupted, getting up. "I think we should get out of the cave before more rocky wonders show up."

"We can make our way up through the entrance behind the waterfall," Johnny said, pointing to the tunnel they had come in from. "I wouldn't have even known it was there, but Nova could sense you behind it." Nova nodded in confirmation. They helped Liu to his feet, and made their exit.

They crawled out of the cave into a grotto, with a towering waterfall and deep pool, which Sonya and Liu realised was the underground falls.

Liu bent down to drink some of the pool's water, but both Nova and Johnny pulled him back up again.

"I wouldn't do that," Nova warned. "The effects are quite... debilitating. A little trap Cosmos must have set a while ago."

Liu didn't understand, but neither of the two offered any explanation. Suddenly Rayden stopped in his tracks. "Can any of you feel that?"

"Feel what?" asked Sonya, her hands out as if feeling for rain. But Nova knew what Rayden really meant: a sense of foreboding; of standing on ground zero. They could also sense of a build-up of energy, like before a storm, but much, much stronger. Energy crackled in the air, and ran up and down the spines of the five, even the mortals could sense it now. It was eerie, none of the humans could explain what was behind it.

Rayden could.

"Cosmos," he said slowly, having to raise his voice against the wind which suddenly whipped up, tossing leaves into the air, and the ripples on the pool to become violent waves.

A figure began to appear on the beach. It was a man, tall, with short black hair, and dark eyes. He was dressed in the standard robes, which tossed around his feet with the wind. They were a bright blue, identical to the one that Nova had discarded.

"It seems you are much harder to get rid of than I first thought," Cosmos said, his voice growly and malevolent. "But you are no more a nuisance to me than a stone in my shoe. And you are just as easily dislodged." He raised his arms, then brought them down sharply. The energy wave he created knocked the mortals off their feet, but Rayden and Nova merely staggered as if in a strong wind.

Cosmos stopped the energy wave, and looked at them curiously. "It seems that through sheer will-power you are managing to withstand me. Interesting."

"Withstand this!" Nova cried, gathering her power together, and shooting a fireball at Cosmos. It hit him, and he and it vanished.

"Why do I get the feeling that's not a good thing?" Liu pondered out loud.

"It's not," Rayden confirmed grimly.

The sky abruptly darkened, and Cosmos' face appeared. He looked calm, but there was an undercurrent of rage that was just below the surface.

"My patience had run out with you. I will not stand any interference from anyone, not even my own family." He let this sink in, then continued, an evil smirk on his face. "I think it's about time you see what you're truly up against." His image vanished.

"Family?" asked Liu. "What did he mean? Are you related to him, Rayden?"

"No..." Johnny said suddenly. He stared at Nova. She avoided his look. "It's Nova."

"Nova?!" Sonya and Liu cried together.

She nodded slowly and sadly. "Cosmos is my...."

Just as she was about to reveal her family tree, the wind grew to hurricane proportions, and she couldn't be heard over the noise. Water from the pool was being sprayed, whipping into the faces of the group. Suddenly, there was a large boom, and the ground under their feet shook.

"Get up on higher ground!" Rayden yelled, over the noise of the wind. It was hard work to climb up the cliff, as the ground was constantly tremoring, but they made it up.

"Look!" called Sonya over the din.

Off in the distance, just at the horizon, there was something that resembled a curtain. A curtain of fire, orange, red and yellow, that streaked across the ground. When it got close enough, they could see beyond it, and realised that the curtain was destroying the Realm. It was completely ripping up the planet, and nothing seemed able to withstand it.

"Run!" yelled Rayden, but he didn't need to; no one planned on staying. They tore off into the forest. How they intended to outrun the destructive sheet was beyond anybody. They just followed their instincts, and their instincts told them to get the hell out of there.

Suddenly, as they w ere running, Nova tripped over an exposed branch, and fell over. Johnny slowed, and turned around to run back, without actually stopping. He tried to help her up, but her ankle was hurt from the fall, and she couldn't stand on it. Johnny considered getting help for moment, but dismissed the idea when he heard a sudden roar behind him, which he realised was the energy swiftly catching up. Without any more hesitation, he swooped Nova up in his arms, and tried to run. However, he now couldn't run fast enough to catch up with the others. Suddenly he tripped himself, and fell to his knees. The roar was louder, faster now, and Johnny realised they'd never out run it--

Suddenly out from nowhere two people appeared, one taking Nova, and the other hauling Johnny to his feet by his arms. He had no chance to protest their rough handling before they too, disappeared, leaving the curtain to consume the planet unabated.

They rematerialised a split moment later in a large chamber, in a stone builidng of some sort. Johnny stared around the room. He caught sight of the others, among a crowd of people he had never seen before but before he could say anything, a large burly man forced him to sit down. "What's this I hear about a broken ankle?" he said, examining Johnny's booted foot.

"What? No, that's Nova," he corrected. "My ankle isn't broken--just sprained--"

"Hm. Hair-line fracture. Easy enough to solve," the man wrapped his hands around Johnny's foot, and Johnny could feel the foot begin to relax despite of his suspicion.

"Now," he said, turning to Nova, who was sitting next to Johnny. "What's your foot like?" He did the same routine of examining Nova's foot through the boot. "It's broken," he confirmed. "Hm. Clean break, though. No problem." As the man wrapped his hand around Nova's foot, he pressed his fingers to her forehead. "I'll take care of that residual mind spell too."

"Thanks, Medi," she said, obviously familiar with him. "Are the others okay?"

"Rayden needed a huge energy booster--I didn't know it was possible for him to go so low and yet remain standing!" Medi looked a bit astounded.

"He always continues to amaze me," Johnny pointed out. Medi laughed, and clapped a hand on Johnny's houlder, nearly dislodging a shulder blade. The burly god turned to face Nova.

"You, too, should get some rest. You're awfully low yourself."

"I'll be all right," Nova said, trying to stand. Suddenly she waivered, and looked like she was going to faint. Johnny and the diety both stood up to catch her, and Medi led her to a cot that had been set up. The crowd parted around them, and Johnny had the distictive feeling that all these people were gods.

"Come, mortal," Medi said, gesturing to the other end of the hall. "I'll take you to see your friends."

As Johnny neared where they were, he noticed a black-haired woman standing over Rayden, berating him about something. Medi pushed his way to her.

"How dare you worry Us like that!" the woman cried. Rayden looked extremely embarrassed, and extremely pleased when Medi took her by the arm and told her to make herself useful and to stop bothering his patient. Medi smiled, and shoved Johnny in front of him.

"Here's the last of your little band, Rayden," the deity said. "Nova's recuperating. How are you holding up?"

"Now that my little sister is done telling me off for risking my life like that, I think I might be able to get some sleep," Rayden replied with a grin.

The group woke up to the sound of sirens. "What the hell?" asked Johnny, groggily coming awake.

"I don't know," yawned Liu, stretching.

"But it sounds bad," Sonya finished.

"It's an attack siren," Rayden said, a bit confused. He got up from the cot he was on. "But that's absurd--who can attack the Omniversal Hall? They'd have to get through--by the Creator!" He rushed off, obviously in a panic.

Johnny, Liu and Sonya stared at one another, and got up immediately, following after Rayden.

They caught up with him, despite the crowd of mingling deities--all of whom were a bit panicked by the sirens--until they came to a large, round table, directly in the center of the room. The table had some sort of grid on it, dividing the table into sections, like a pie. Unlike a pie, however, there were millions and millions of pieces. At least, there used to be. Something coded blue was slowly absorbing the seperate sections into one whole.

"Kerlan!" Rayden exclaimed, after finding the barkeeper. "What's happening?"

"It's Cosmos." Kerlan replied with a shake of his head. "This is why he's been so obsessed with power. He's taking over the Omniverse, Rayden. We have to stop him."

"How?" Rayden asked.

Kerlan tapped his finger to the side of his nose, to let Rayden know he was going to pull some strings. "Just watch." He cleared his throat. "Friends!" he yelled. Some how, his voice was loud enough to be heard over all the noise, yet not so loud that it was uncomfortable for those standing next to him. "Friends, deities of all powers, please listen to me."

The entire crowd stopped talking at once, and turned to him. "Thank you," he acknowledged with a mock bow. "Friends, it seems we are under attack. Now, we all know that a frontal assault would be useless--we cannot confront such power like that. However, there are other ways. I propose that a team should be led into Cosmos' citadel itself, and disarm him from there. He can be defeated. He's not that omnipotent."

The crowd chuckled at the joke, but the three mortals didn't get it.

"Who would like to volunteer to lead the team?" asked Kerlan, obviously loving the spotlight. No one, however, answered his question. People shifted awkwardly, exchanging glances. Rayden rolled his eyes.

"I nominate the team we rescued!" called out a voice from the back. The idea was taken up, and soon thousands of voices were calling out that Rayden should lead the operation. Kerlan looked questioningly at Rayden. The thunder god nodded, shaking his head at the cowardice of his fellow deities.

"Does that go for you too?" Kerlan asked as an aside to Johnny, Sonya and Liu. They nodded. "We have our team! Rayden, God of Thunder, Lord of Earth, and three Mortals," he called out, projecting his voce once more.

A great cheer rose up in the throats of Rayden's compatriots. He merely stood impassive. The humans tried to understand what was happening. Suddenly a cry sounded out from within the ranks of the crowd.

"No!" Nova shrieked, pushing her way through. "No! I'm going as well! I was there since the beginning, I deserve to go!"

"Nova," Kerlan took her by the shoulders, but she flinched away from him. "The council told you that your ties to Cosmos could endanger the mission--"

"My ties don't mean anything! I nearly roasted him, remember?" she countered.

"That's true," Kerlan admitted. "But don't forget that he is your father."

"Your what?" yelped Johnny. "I was thinking brother, third cousin, that sort of thing!"

"Johnny," Nova said sadly. "I wish I could have told you earlier--"

"It's a moot point, people," Kerlan reminded them. "Nova, you're not going. Johnny, Liu, Sonya and Rayden are."

He turned to face the crowd again, who had begun to talk amongst themselves. "Friends!" he called for what sounded like the thirtieth time. "We have our team!"

There was another cheer. "However--" the cheer abruptly died, and the crowd waited expectantly. "However, you all know the importance of this mission. The entire Omniverse is at stake. But we can't very well send in a god whose powers halve every time he steps out of his Realm, can we?"

A great "No!" resounded.

"But no one else has volunteered, so, perhaps, we can bend the rules a little?" Kerlan suggested slyly. The crowd cheered again, and Rayden hit Johnny on the shoulder.

"Ow!" Johnny exclaimed, rubbing the sore spot.

"If I didn't know Kerlan was the God of Communication, I wouldn't have believed it. He got them to give me full Omniversal powers!" Rayden said, careful to keep his voice low.

"Is that good?"

Rayden didn't answer, but merely glared in Johnny's direction. Johnny shrugged. "Can't blame a guy for asking," he whispered to Liu.

"Rayden can."

"Don't I know it."

"You guys ready to go?" Kerlan asked them quietly. They were in the Omniversal Bar, which has been shut due to the state of emergency. "How's the power transfer holding up?"

"As well as can be expected." Rayden said. He had changed into a different set of clothes consisting of a dark blue vested tunic over white baggy pants. Johnny had exchanged his suit for a more comfortable pants and long-sleeved shirt. Sonya had her old shorts and tank top on, and Liu was wearing dark trousers and his old white tank-top.

"Where did you get that from?" Johnny asked his friend.

"From home--the same as your clothes."

"No, I meant, shouldn't that tank top have disintegrated by now from all the wear and tear?"

"Oh, shut up."

"I'm setting up the portal now." announced Kerlan in his loud voice. He was just about to cast the spell when the door suddenly opened, and Nova rushed in.

"Nova!" they all exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"I had to say goodbye," she explained. She looked at Kerlan, who nodded.

"Be quick," he advised. She nodded. The first thing she did was hug Rayden tightly around the middle, so hard he thought he heard his ribs crack.

"I wish I could come," she whispered.

"I wish you could, too," he replied, hugging her again. She nodded, and let go, so she could hug both Sonya and Liu.

"Hey, what about me?" mock-protested Johnny. She smiled, and kissed him fiercely. When they finally managed to pull apart, Johnny grinned. "That's way better than a hug, any day."

"It's for luck," Nova explained.

"Where's my luck?" asked Liu. Nova smiled slyly, and went to stand next to Kerlan, who opened the portal in the center of the room, the usual glowing red circle. Johnny was the first to saunter through.

"You don't have to look so self-satisified," Liu commented, close on his heels. Sonya and Rayden made no attempt to move, but stood, arms folded, making disapproving noises. Finally Sonya went through the portal, her face making it clear that she was going to give Mr. Cage a piece of her mind.

Rayden hesitated, looking at Nova, then started to step through. He stopped half-way to lean back out and shake his head at her. Then he leaned forward again, and disappeared, the portal closing behind him.

They exited the portal to step into the hallway of what appeared to be a large, medieval- looking stone castle. Sonya was about to say something to Johnny, but Liu shook his head, and motioned for her to be quiet.

"Listen," he said softly. They all strained their ears to hear what ever Liu did, but only Rayden could hear it.

"It's someone sobbing," he said. A fierce expression came over him. He looked ready to tear down all the walls in the castles with his bare hands.

"Hiko," Liu guessed.

"Who's that?" Johnny asked, but everyone looked at him funny. "What? I've been out of the loop."

"You are a loop," Sonya retorted. Johnny ignored her completely.

"She's--" Rayden tried to pin-point her, but just stared around the hall in confusion. "She's everywhere, I don't get it..."

Suddenly there was a flash of light, and everyone gasped, as their enemies suddenly appeared in the hallway.

"It's the rock monsters!" Sonya yelled.

"It's the dryads!" Liu corrected her.

"It's Cosmos," Rayden said with a growl.

"It's Nova?" Johnny pondered out loud. This couldn't be right. "Guys--we're not seeing anything real."

"What? Don't be stupid, Johnny," Liu retorted. "I know what I'm seeing."

"So do Sonya and Rayden! It's another mind spell. Rayden, you've got to undo the damage," ordered Johnny. Rayden turned to him, confusion in his eyes.

"Who are you?" he asked suspiciously. "Where did you come from?"

"What?" Johnny backed away from the god, who was gearing up for a lightning attack.

"You've been sent by Cosmos, haven't you?" Rayden said, his powers crackling in the air around them. Liu and Sonya didn't seem to notice what was happening, and stared down the hall towards their fictitious opponents. Johnny gulped, and held his hands up in the "I surrender" posture, but Rayden took no notice and kept on advancing. Johnny knew he was no match for the irate thunder god, so he did the only option left to him. He turned and bolted down the corridor.

Rayden's lightening just missed Johnny as he turned the corner. Johnny kept on running, but the god didn't seem to be following him. He slowed to look behind him, and plowed into someone.

He and the other person both were thrown to the floor. On the ground, Johnny looked up into the face of Nova.

"What are you doing here?" he asked. She smiled, got up, and offered him a hand. He took it, and she hauled him to his feet. "Something's happened to the others--"

"I know," Nova replied in a whisper. "They're under a mind spell. But I protected you, even while I was sneaking here to help."

"Why didn't you protect the others?" Johnny asked. Something in the the back of his mind was trying to warn him about something. It was almost like an urgent response to wake up, but Johnny tried to ignore it.

"I tried, but Cosmos is too powerful," Nova said. When she said that, there was a peculiar glint in her eye that Johnny recognised all too well.

"You're not Nova," he said, getting in a defensive pose. The thing posing as Nova laughed, loudly and maliciously, and suddenly began to change. She became taller, her hair longer, and she was dressed entirely in blue robes. She laughed again, stretching out her hands and Johnny felt as though his insides had caught fire. He collapsed on the floor, curling into a ball, as the woman towered overhead, laughing. Johnny gave one last yell--

Johnny Cage rolled into a ball on the floor, shaking. He screamed once, then went completely limp. "Johnny!" Sonya cried. She was frantically trying to get him to wake up, but Rayden gently pulled her to her feet.

"I'm sorry, Sonya," he said gently. "But there's nothing more I can do. The spell was too strong, I couldn't break into the mirage."

"But what actually happened?" Liu asked, crouching beside his friend, who acted as one dead, but was actually alive. He was breathing, and his pulse was regular, but he wouldn't wake up, or move. His eyes weren't even flicking back and forth.

"Cosmos must have created a scenerio where Johnny died," Rayden said softly.

"But he isn't dead!" Sonya wailed.

"No, but his mind thinks he is," Rayden replied. "I know this hurts, Sonya, but we must find Cosmos. He's the only one can reverse this. Any of this," he added.

Liu nodded, and got up slowly. He looked at Rayden for further orders.

"We'll move him into a side room," Rayden said, bending down to pick up the head and shoulders of the unconscious Johnny. Liu took the legs, and together they hefted him into a small empty room just down the corridor. They placed him on the bed, and quietly closed the door as they left the room. "We've got to stick together, so that Cosmos can't get at any more of us. I think I have strong enough shields, but who knows?"

Sonya and Liu nodded, too saddened by what they had witnessed to say anything. Rayden started to lead them down the elaborate stone hallway, until they came to a set of immense doors. The doors were huge, three times as tall as either of the humans, and nearly as wide. Sonya and Liu grabbed one gigantic handle and pulled, while Rayden struggled with the other one. Slowly but surely, the massive doors creaked open. The trio walked carefully into the fantastically large hall. It was decorated with banners, all in blue, and statues of different gods.

"The ones that Cosmos has destroyed when he took over their Realm," Rayden realised. Suddenly, one more appeared to the side of him, and Rayden gasped as he recognised the features of the statue as belonging to Juanita. Her Realm was very close to Earth, but Rayden decided not to mention this to Liu or Sonya, he didn't want to pile too much pressure on them.

"There's so many--!" Sonya exclaimed in a breathless whisper. "We have to hurry!"

"A mortal after my own heart," Rayden whispered back. There was a sudden clapping from the opposite end of the hall.

"Congratulations!" Cosmos called out. They could now see his dark figure sitting on an elaborate throne, clapping. He snapped his fingers, and suddenly the trio found themselves standing directly in front of him, only a few meters away.

"Cosmos," Rayden growled.

"The one, the only," Cosmos said with a laugh, imitating someone the trio knew very well. "How is your dear friend?"

"Johnny! You killed Johnny!" Sonya yelled. She nearly charged Cosmos then and there, but Liu held her back.

"I did not," Cosmos said, pretending to be hurt. "Someone else did that for me." He smiled thinly. "I believe you know my partner, Rayden. She's a good friend of yours."

He waved a hand behind him, and from behind a curtained partition walked a tall, red haired woman, dressed in a tight blue dress with a long flowing cape. She walked up to Cosmos, and sat next to him in a smaller, less ornate throne.

"No--" Rayden's eyes widened. "It's not possible!"

"Oh, but it is," Cosmos said, clearly enjoying the pain written on Rayden's face. He took the hand of the woman, and she smiled with the same evil intention. "Have you met my wife, mortals? No? Then I will let her introduce herself."

"I am Hiko," the woman said, with a deep bow. "I am the Fire Goddess, and Elemental."

Sonya and Liu stood speechless.

"I--" Rayden stuttered, not managing to say anything.

"How else do you think I would have enough power to do what I am doing?" Cosmos said with an expanding gesture. "Hiko is under my control, completely and utterly. She would no more disobey me than kill herself." Cosmos leaned forward. "I think I have let your rag-tag little army live long enough." He leaned back and turned to his wife. "Hiko. Kill them."

"With pleasure, my husband." She smiled. Suddenly, she spread her arms out, and released a terrifying spread of sheer energy. Rayden tried to weather the blast, but he could barely remain upright, even with his full powers. As for Liu and Sonya, they went flying, knocked over and blasted back by the power.

Hiko strode forward a few steps, and fired another, directed this time solely at Rayden. The fireball knocked him to his knees, but he remained conscious. Hiko walked up to him, and yanked his head up by the hair. She stared down into his eyes, and for a moment Rayden thought he noticed something in them, a faint glimmer--but then Cosmos' power over her resumed, and she generated one of her fire knives.

Rayden was well acquainted with the knife, having once been on the receiving end of its sharp, hot blade, and he had never quite forgotten the feel of it against his throat.

"Hiko," he whispered, trying to reach her. "Remember when we ganged up against my brother, who was trying to over take your Realm?"

Hiko said nothing, but a flicker of memory passed through her eyes.

"Remeber how you thought I was my brother's spy, and you tried to kill me?" Rayden continued, trying to bring enough memories of him to the surface, to break through Cosmos' control. Hiko smiled faintly at the memory, and she let go of Rayden's head, as well as the blade nearly coming away from his throat.

"I nearly did," she said softly.

"But you didn't, you stopped yourself in time--" Rayden prompted. Before he could say anything further, or before Hiko could react, Cosmos appeared, and yanked Hiko away from Rayden.

"That's enough of that," he said threateningly. "I think, perhaps, my dear, that I should finish this particular job. Are the humans dead?"

"No, but they are unconscious, and of no threat in any case," Hiko replied.

"Fine. Leave. I will kill this presumptuous idiot myself." Cosmos pulled back on Rayden's hair again, even as Hiko nodded, and took her place at the smaller throne.

Across the room, Liu and Sonya stirred, albeit painfully. "What the hell was that?" Sonya asked half to herself as she dragged herself up off the floor. "I feel like I've been hit by a truck."

"I feel like I've been hit by--Rayden!" Liu exclaimed, looking up just in time to see Cosmos brandish a knife at Rayden's throat.

Cosmos looked over, his eyes narrowing. He waved, and with a gesture, the two humans were suddenly bound by energy chains that tied them to the ground. They could do no more than kneel, and they watched helplessly as Cosmos turned his attention back to his prisoner.

But even as he brandished the knife once more, he seemed to have a thought. An idea came to mind, one that would secure his hold over his wife.

"Hiko!" he called over his shoulder. "Come here." She obediently got up from her throne, and walked over to where Cosmos stood.

"I want you to watch as I kill Rayden," Cosmos said to her. She nodded, her face impassive. He whispered in the thunder god's ear, his voice a hiss: "With you gone, I will sever her link to her past, and anything she might remember. I just wanted you to know that you will help bring down the Omniverse with your death. You do not know how long I have waited for this moment. How long your shadow has hung over me."

He leaned back up, and raised the knife. Rayden, to his credit, did nothing and said nothing, but stared straight ahead.

Liu Kang watched helplessly with Sonya Blade as Rayden was apparently going to be executed before their eyes. With the energy chains around them, they could barely move.

Cosmos called Hiko over to him, to watch Rayden's death up close and personal. As she got up, however, Liu felt the chains around him start to dissipate. He looked over to Sonya; but she seemed to be still chained. For a moment, Hiko caught Liu's eye; she was the one releasing him, allowing him to act. The moment the knife was held over Rayden's head, Liu yelled, and ran across the hall, crashing into Cosmos and pinning him to the ground. Pinning him, at least, until Cosmos disappeared in a blue mist to reassemble by his throne.

"Thanks," Rayden said, rubbing his head. "What took you?"

"It was Hiko," Liu informed him. "She dissolved my chains."

Rayden looked at Hiko, but her back was to them as she faced Cosmos, her former jailer.

"Hiko!" he screamed. "Get over here!"

"No," she replied forcefully. The air around her began to shimmer, like heat wave distortions. "I will not be used any longer!"

"You can't break through my spell!" Cosmos yelled, almost panicked.

"I can break through anything I want to. You thought your hold on me was absolute, and it very nearly was. Until you almost killed Rayden." Her voice darkened, and red and orange energy leapt around her. Her cape was fluttering, and the tiles under Liu's feet started to become hot. "That was your mistake. You thought that by killing the only one I've ever loved you'd separate me from my past. But it acted like a bucket of ice water thrown in my face, dear, dear Cosmos. I think this charade has gone on for long enough!" There was no mistaking the sarcasm or the determination in her voice. The air seemed to catch on fire, as Hiko's power built to a climax. Cosmos seemed powerless to move, much less mount a defense. Hiko raised her arms over her head. They were crossed, and when she opened them, Cosmos screamed in pain.

There was a sudden smell of smoke, and of burning flesh, and then Cosmos vanished, in a vapour that was most certainly not mist.

There was a sudden bang, so loud all three inhabitants of Earth jumped. Hiko seemed preternatually calm, even as the light exploded in the hall, transformed everything it touched back to its normal condition. Sonya fell to the ground, no longer straining against bonds. Johnny Cage stirred and awoke, to find himself in a huge glade.

The castle had disappeared, replaced by a huge grassy plain that had almost no end in sight. And the light still spread outward.

Rayden knew it was changing back the huge, amalgamated Realm into all its former, splinter Realms. The statues that formerly lined the halls in the castle reverted to their animate state, confused at first, but soon congregating around Rayden and the others to pat them on the back and congratulate each other.

Johnny stumbled into the merry throng, a bit confused to as the state of affairs, and also having bed-head. Sonya was so glad to see him again that she kissed him in front of everyone, not caring at all. That seemed to make Johnny less grumpy, at least, but no less confused.

Nova took that moment to appear in a flash of light, hugging her mother--now dressed in her customary red robes--and Rayden in turn. She also had a turn kissing Johnny, which made him, by now, very happy indeed, but still confused. Kerlan and the other, non-aggressive deities also appeared, until the glade was filled with celebrating, joyous Immortals. Rayden and Hiko kept trying to say something to each other over the roar of the crowd, until Rayden caught her eye, and knew exactly what she was thinking. He held out his hand. She took it, and together they disappeared.
They reappeared in the forest that bordered the huge meadow. Hiko led them to a fallen log, and they both sat down. "I've waited so long to be able to see you, like this, alone," she said softly, happiness making her throat feel tight. Rayden just nodded. There seemed nothing he could say that would express anything clearly.

They both seemed a little awkward, unsure of where to begin, and how, until there was a flash of light, and a curious click, and a tall, gangly-looking man popped into existence.

"Rayden!" he exclaimed, after he figured out where he was. "Good job!"

"Thanks, Arn," Rayden said with a sigh. Hiko smothered a smile behind her hand. Arnie looked around, confused.


"That way," Rayden said pointing. Arnie tossed off a jaunty salute, and disappeared again with the same flash and click. Rayden and Hiko just laughed, just glad to be able to enjoy the company of each other at last.

"So, I guess this is goodbye," Johnny said, putting up his suitcase on the ground for the moment. "You didn't have to see me off the airport, you know."

"How could we have not said goodbye?" asked Liu, shocked. He and Johnny hugged.

"What I meant was, how come Rayden couldn't just beam me home?" Johnny cleared up the misunderstanding.

"What do you think I am, a glorified taxi service?" asked Rayden in mock indignation. He and Johnny exchanged hugs as well. When Johnny turned to say goodbye to Rayden's new companion, he felt the awkwardness of not knowing how familiar to get, until Hiko broke the silence and hugged him first.

"I can see what Nova sees in you," she said, with a grin. "If I were only a few billion years younger--"

"Don't even go there," Rayden interrupted, wrapping his arm around her waist. "Now, come on, Johnny and Sonya, you'll be late."

Johnny and Sonya both nodded, and picked up their luggage, and headed off. They were taking the same flight to LA, where Sonya would pick up another flight, and head home. They took their seats, next to each other, naturally, just as the captain came over the intercom.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said in an odd accent. "It appears that a rather large thunderstorm system is currently over head of us." There was a giant crash of thunder as if to illustrate his point. He continued, regardless. "We may have to leave--what?" the intercom clicked off. Then it came on again. "It appears that the aforementioned storm has appearently vanished. We will be leaving on schedule." The pilot then recounted the message in several different languages, including a few forms of Chinese, French, German and something that Johnny couldn't even identify. Sonya caught his eye, and he knew that she was thinking the same thing he was: that Rayden had given them a spectacular send-off to end a rather spectacular adventure.

The End