By Biku

"Get out of my way, Rayden," Shao Khan said with a snarl. Rayden acquiesced, and Shao Khan shoved past him. He went to stand next to their father, Thunder.

Thunder stood glaring at his eldest son. Rayden attempted to glare back, but ended up diverting his gaze first. The elder god smiled.

"I see you still have respect for your Elder," Thunder boomed in the empty hall, smiling proudly, and with just a hint of a sneer. "Good. Now you will give Shao Khan what he deserves, as my true son. Give up your title!"

Rayden glanced up briefly. "No," he said in reply. Thunder tensed in indignation. He brought himself up to his full height, straightening his shoulders in anger. Beside him, Shao Khan snarled.

"You will do as I say, boy!" Thunder roared, finding his voice. Rayden said nothing, but turned and walked out of the hall, disappearing as he left.

"I will never get it!" Shao Khan fumed. "He will not give it to me! It is my right!"

"No, it isn't," Thunder snapped back. "But there are other ways of getting what you want."

Rayden sighed as he materialised inside the hallway. His step-father had built a small alcove by the front door for the purpose of shoes and coats, as he was a meticulously tidy person and didn't want dirt cluttering the house up.

Methodically Rayden took off his outer robe, and shoes, placing them in a small corner, hanging the robe up. "I'm home," he called out half-heartedly.

His sister poked her head around the door. "Hi, Rayden!" she squealed, jumping into his arms. He gasped at the sudden load. After a quick but firm hug, he set her down again.

"I think you're getting a bit to big for that, Sparky," he replied, putting on a pair of house slippers. Another family rule. His sister frowned at the nickname, wrinkling her nose, but it lasted only a moment.

"How did it go?" she asked, trying not to sound too curious.

"Not so bad," Rayden said with a half-smile. "Look, no char marks."

His sister grinned, showing off a gap in the front of her mouth where her two front teeth should be. Rayden smiled again, and ruffled her short white hair. She grumbled, then ran off into the interior of the house, Rayden following soon behind.

"Mama!" she yelled. "Rayden's home!" She ran into to the kitchen where Suyuan was fussing with Rayden's newest baby sister, Lindara. "And he called me Sparky again!"

Rayden rolled his eyes as he gave his mother a quick peck on the cheek. "Try not to tease your sister, Rayden," she chided in a half-meaningful way. "You know it upsets her."

"Sorry, Meimei," he said, quickly ruffling the curly white hair of her head. She hugged him around the middle before running out of the kitchen, insults apparently forgotten. "Ah, to be six again."

"It would certainly make life easier," Suyuan said with a grin. "Here, can you take Lin? She's being fussy again."

"Sure," Rayden answered as his mother gave the baby to him. Once Lin was in Rayden's arms, she began cooing softly. He smiled, and Suyuan shook her head.

"I don't know what it is, Rayden," his mother called over his shoulder as she started to set the table.

"What is?" asked Naturalis as he walked into the kitchen, Meimei holding on to his hand, and skipping in place. He too gave Suyuan a cursory kiss on the cheek.

"Rayden's way with children," his wife answered, chopping some more vegetables.

"Ah, that." Naturalis nodded, and took a piece of celery from the plate Suyuan had set out. "I have been meaning to talk to you about that, my dear."

"I didn't know you cared," Rayden answered with a grin, rocking Lindara gently.

"I meant your mother," Naturalis said, with a quick frown. He didn't quite get the joke, and was annoyed because of it. He turned to Suyuan to make sure that there was no mistake this time. "We need to discuss Rayden's betrothal."

"No we don't," Rayden said quickly.

"Yes we do. You're old enough now, you're getting your own Realm pretty soon. I think it's something that needs to be sorted out," Naturalis finished.

"Well, not at the dinner table," Suyuan replied firmly.

"Oh--that's what I wanted to talk to you about," Naturalis remembered, crunching celery. "I've got a rather special experiment going on, and I won't be eating dinner just yet."

Suyuan sighed and rolled her eyes. She picked up the plate from the table and set it back in the kitchen. "I guess Rayden and I can use the time to discuss--"

"Uh--" Rayden interrupted, "I'm on my way out, again. I said I would meet Kerlan at the Hall today."

"When?" Suyuan had her hands on her hips.

", actually."

"Fine," Suyuan snapped. She set the other dish back on the shelf with a clatter. Rayden winced.

"I'll take Lindara with me," he offered.

"Fine." His mother now had her back turned to him, so he couldn't see her expression. He, and Naturalis slowly backed out of the kitchen. Meimei stayed behind, standing next to Suyuan, poking at the celery, frowning. She had never been to fond of it.

"Way to go. You know how temperamental your mother is." Naturalis muttered under his breath as soon as he and Rayden were out of range. Rayden sighed, and shifted Lindara to a better position. He started to retort to his step-father, but the elder beat him to it. "Don't be out too late. We still need to have our discussion," the God of Nature continued, wagging a finger at his step-son.

Rayden nodded, and teleported to the Omniversal Hall.

The huge wooden doors swung open easily, even when Rayden had only one free hand. Shifting Lindara for what seemed like the millionth time, Rayden started up the curving staircase to the single door, marked "Omniversal Bar".

Inside, the familiar smells of the bar came wafting over like a breeze, smacking him in the face the minute he stepped in. He coughed, and Lin whimpered. Rayden patted her back consolingly, and started to look around for Kerlan. It wasn't long before he spotted him, on the far side of the bar.

"Rayden!" his friend yelled, waving. Rayden nodded, and walked over to Kerlan, who was sitting on a barstool. He pulled one out.

"Got the kid again, huh?" Kerlan asked, smiling his dazzling smile. Rayden shrugged, non-committal.

"I don't mind having her around," he said. Kerlan stepped around the end of the bar as Rayden was talking, fetching a glass. "She's pretty quiet--are you sure you're allowed back there?"

Kerlan laughed as he topped the glasses with some nectar and ambrosia. "'Course I am-- oh, right. That's what I forgot to tell you." He slid the glass over to his white-haired friend. Rayden caught the glass easily, his eyebrows raised in expectation.

"I'm the new partner in the Bar," Kerlan announced, arms spread wide.

"Congratulations!" Rayden raised his drink in salute, and clinked it with Kerlan's outstretched glass. Lin smiled and clapped her hands. "How did you manage to pull that off?"

"Oh, it's useful having an uncle for an owner." Kerlan replied, sitting back down.

"I'd forgotten about that." Rayden admitted, taking a sip of his drink.

"Well," Kerlan said finally, swirling his drink around inside the glass. "You might be able to experience my family connections up close."

"What?" Rayden frowned. He was instantly suspicious, as Kerlan was always a direct sort of person, not one for chasing around the bush. Kerlan merely tilted his head towards something behind Rayden.

Rayden turned. He groaned.

"Hi, Rayden," Celebria breathed as she slid onto the stool next to him. "Busy?"

"As a matter of fact," Rayden said, leaning backwards to put some distance between them, "Kerlan and I--"

"Oops, my shift is starting," Kerlan said jauntily, standing up. "Gotta go, Rayden. See ya around, sis." he said to Celebria.

Rayden shot daggers out of his eyes as the bartender left, but Celebria didn't even notice him.

"I haven't seen you in ages, Rayden," Celebria continued, blissfully unaware of Rayden's discomfort. She very discreetly put her hand on Rayden's thigh. "We have so much to catch up on."

Shao Khan was not in a very good mood when he entered the Bar, but the moment he spotted his brother in the corner with the gorgeous Goddess of Truth he felt ten times as worse. True, Rayden didn't seem to be enjoying himself at all, but that did very little to improve Shao Khan's disposition.

"Why should he get everything?" the tall deity asked no one in particular. Sitting himself down at a seat so that he wouldn't have to watch his brother, he waved the bartender over to get a drink.

Just then, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

"Excuse me, you're in my seat," a voice said from behind him. He turned and looked up at an unfamiliar woman.

"I am? Too bad." Khan snarled back, turned away. Suddenly someone grabbed him by the shoulder and whisked him around.

"Pardon me?" the woman replied angrily. Khan stood up, taking his time, and he looked the woman up and down. He smiled. "I'm sorry," he said with a small toothy grin. "My mistake. Care to have a drink with me?"

"No," the woman replied sharply. "Get out of my way." Khan glared at her. She wasn't a particularly tall woman, only coming up to his shoulder, but that didn't count for much in the Omniverse, at least among the deities. She was dressed in a common pant-and-robes suit in various shades of red and orange, with copper-red short hair. She stared at Khan defiantly, flipping her head slightly to get the bangs out of her eyes.

"I don't think you know who you're dealing with," Khan growled. He took a step forward.

Rayden was trying frantically to get away from Celebria's none-too-subtle advances when he saw a perfect opportunity. "Here," he said suddenly, handing her Lindara, who seemed to be extremely unsure of her new handler.

"What?" Celebria blurted, unsure herself on how exactly to hold an infant. Rayden quickly corrected the baby's posture--right-side up was good--and started over to where his brother was starting a fight.

He needn't have bothered. Khan was down on the ground before Rayden had taken a few steps. The deity, a young goddess around Rayden's age, stood over the fallen god with her hands clenched. An aura of fire surrounded her hands, and she glared at those patrons staring at her.

"Problem?" she asked slowly. All the occupants of the Bar shook their heads, and went back to their drinks and conversations. She turned, and stepped over Shao Khan to settle herself in her seat, her drink in her hand.

Khan pulled himself to his feet, and dragged himself to the nearest booth. His head was ringing, and stars leapt about in front of him. He wasn't sure what happened, but when his vision cleared, the first thing he saw was his brother, chatting up the deity who had just wiped the floor with him.

"Excuse me?" Rayden asked. The woman turned, looked him up and down, and turned back to the Bar. Rayden was non-plussed. "Excuse..."

"You're excused," she snapped, facing him again. Sparks seemed to jump about in her hair, giving the illusion that it was aflame. Rayden just stood, waiting patiently, and she sighed, flipping her bangs out of her eyes with her fingers. "What is it?"

"You're Hiko, aren't you?" Rayden asked, quietly, taking the stool next to her.

"Big secret," she retorted. "You're Rayden, Thunder's boy."

"Right," he replied pleasantly. "I just wanted to thank you."

"Thank me?" Hiko blurted, taken off guard. "For what?"

"For knocking my brother around. It doesn't happen very often." Rayden smiled, waved slightly, and got off the stool. He started back to the opposite end of the Bar, where Lindara was beginning to squall, apparently having reached the end of her patience.

Celebria looked up from the fussing baby as Rayden approached, and gasped. She gestured with one hand, and Rayden whirled, just in time to connect his face with Shao Khan's fist. The goddess of Truth leapt to her feet, sheltering Lin, but it didn't matter. Shao Khan was only interested in his brother, not his half-sister.

Khan gripped a dazed Rayden by the collar, and hauled him to his feet. Kerlan was by their side in an instant. "No fighting in here!" he roared. "You both know that!"

"Fine." Khan shrugged, and teleported them both from the room.

Rayden was just starting to become lucid when his brother teleported them outside. The abruptness of the portalling, and the suddenly cold air was like a kick to the chest, and Rayden was sure he didn't need any help in that area.

Khan dropped the deity, allowing Rayden to roll out of the way and get to his feet. "You don't know when to quit," he snarled, taking a step forward. "You never get it."

"Get what?" Rayden snapped. "Nothing I ever do is right for you, or Father. I'm sick of your complaining, okay? I'm the heir, get over it!"

In an instant, Khan charged, throwing his sibling to the ground. They rolled before Rayden managed to scramble away. "That's it," he snarled, "I'm tired of playing fair."

"What are you talking about?" Khan got to his feet, wiping blood from a split lip away.

"I'll show you," Rayden growled. Overhead, thunder pealed, and his power grew around him, snapping and crackling like lightning. His eyes glowed bright blue as he jumped at his brother, fist at the ready. It slammed into Shao Khan's jaw with a crack and burst of energy. Khan was thrown backward, but recovered while on his feet and lashed out with his foot. Rayden caught it and twisted it over, but the younger used the move against the elder and Khan smashed his other foot into the back of Rayden's head.

They both collapsed. Shao Khan was on his feet first, but Rayden didn't need to be standing to attack; a bolt of energy wrapped around Shao Khan and he roared, before the energy dissipated.

"Is that the best you can do?" Khan was breathing heavily. "Is that your best attack? A bolt of lightning does not do much against Thunder's true son."

Rayden leapt to his feet, favouring one foot. He raised his arms above his head, and the aura of power around him increased. He paused, absorbing the energy, while Khan paced like a caged beast, waiting for an opening.

The opening never came. Rayden teleported to behind Khan, and attacked before his brother could even turn. But even through the flurry of kicks and punches, Khan slowly began to gain the upper hand. His brother was not as used to hand fighting. And was nowhere near as sneaky.

A hand withdrew the slim knife without attracting Rayden's immediate attention; it was only when he saw the light glinting off the blade did he realise what Khan intended to do. The elder managed to jump out of the way before the knife was between his ribs; the weapon scored his arm instead.

"I should have realised it," Khan said with a snarl, "That it would have been easier to kill you outright at the beginning. Then I wouldn't have to watch you strut around."

"Strut? Who's strutting?" Rayden darted out of reach, clutching his wound. Blood was already starting to flow, and quite steadily.

"I won't make the same mistake again." Khan smiled, and manoeuvred his brother into a corner from which there was no escaping. Rayden was too weak to teleport, and they both knew it. "I may be slow, but I catch on."

"Yeah, but it's not fast enough," called a voice, before Khan was suddenly struck by a blast of flame. He roared, and turned on his attacker, but was caught off-guard as Hiko's leg slammed into the side of his head. He staggered, and another blast of fire urged him to his knees.

"This is not your fight," Khan growled at the goddess.

"I'm making it my fight," Hiko retorted, winding up for another blow when Rayden caught her arm.

"He's right," the god said, pulling her aside. Startled, she made no move to resist. Khan smiled smugly, but the smile was short lived; Rayden had recovered much of his powers and the punch to Khan's temple erupted in a shower of sparks and a crackle of thunder. The deity dropped, out cold, and disappeared in a gray mist.

"Thunder," Rayden said ruefully, staring at the spot where his brother had been. He shook his head, and turned to Hiko. She was gone.

"Rayden!" Suyuan was at his side in an instant. "There you are! We've been worried sick!"

"I'm okay, mother," he said with a tired sigh, leaning into her embrace. She stifled a cry when her hand came away coated with blood.

Naturalis came running into the small alcove. "What? What happened--by the Creator!"

"What? What?" Meimei yelled, pushing and trying to squeeze into the space left, but her step-father grabbed her by the shoulders and steered her away, so that Suyuan could tend to her eldest boy.

He walked slowly into the kitchen, with his mother gathering together a cloth to wash his wounds and bandages to wrap it with, and sat with a sigh at the table.

Celebria came out of the shadows, and gave him a start. She was holding Lin, who was still fussing. That made sense--no wonder he couldn't find her when he'd gone back into the Bar. They'd come back here.

"Rayden," Suyuan started, gesturing at his robes. He nodded, and pulled his shirt off. Being his mother, the Goddess of Wind didn't make a fuss, but Celebria's eyes widened and she excused herself from the kitchen with a slight grin. Rayden rolled his eyes.

"What cut you?" Suyuan asked, dabbing the clean cloth around the edges. "I heard you were fighting, but--"

"It was Shao Khan," Rayden confirmed grimly. His mother's lips thinned.

"I wish he wouldn't use that absurd name," she murmured, shaking her head. "This is getting to be too much."

"Tell me about it," Rayden replied sarcastically.

Naturalis came in from the herbarium, bearing a sachet of dried herbs. "These will make a good poultice, to stop infection," he said to his wife. "I'll boil the water."

"Good, and then get Lin to bed, will you?" Suyuan patted the healthy part of Rayden's arm. "This is going to sting, dear." She pressed the cloth to the wound, to clear it of dirt, and Rayden bit his lip at the sharp pain.

"Do I get a treat for being good?" he asked, when she pulled the cloth away. She laughed.

"I ought to send you to bed without supper for fighting."

"He started it." Rayden looked over his mother's handiwork. The wound was clean, and as it was not particularly deep, would heal quickly.

Naturalis brought the poultice over and handed it to Suyuan, who pressed it against her son's arm. He jumped at the sudden sting.

"Sorry, dear," she said, wrapping the poultice with the bandage to hold it in place so she could clean her hands.

"What happened, exactly?" asked Rayden's step-father. "Celebria told us that Shao--"

"His name is Raimei," Suyuan snapped, "I don't know why he gave it up, it's a perfectly good name."

"He wants to be called Shao Khan, and he's old enough to choose," Naturalis reminded her. Rayden wisely kept his thoughts on the matter to himself. Suyuan sighed, and let her husband continue.

"Now, Celebria said that he attacked someone, and then attacked you. She was very vague, she was preoccupied with your sister at the time."

"Shao Khan," Rayden began, ignoring the look from his mother, "attacked Hiko--"

"Hisan's daughter?" Naturalis blurted, eyebrows raised. "That wasn't very smart."

"No, it wasn't. I remarked on that fact, and he went for me. Kerlan forced us outside, and I tried to end it as quickly as possible, Mother, I really did, but he--"

"Decided not to play fair," Suyuan finished grimly.

"No," Rayden agreed, uncomfortable at her choice of words.

She shook her head sadly. "I wish you two could get along peacefully."

"I try, Mother--"

"I know you do, sweetheart. I know." Suyuan removed the poultice, and bandaged his arm up all the way. "I know."

"Rayden?" Meimei was at the door of the kitchen, peering in. "What happened?"

"You're supposed to be in bed," Suyuan chided, but her daughter ignored her and ran straight for the patient.

"Rayden?" Meimei looked up at him, wide-eyed. "Was it Rai?" He nodded. She started to cry. He picked her up, ignoring the pain in his arm, and set her on his lap. "You're not supposed to hurt each other," she whimpered.

"I know," he said softly.

"Then don't." She looked up at him, perfectly serious. "Just stop."

"I wish it was that easy, Meimei," he replied, resting his chin on the crown of her head. "But it isn't."

"It should be."

"Now, now, Meimei, you really should be in bed," Naturalis said, taking her from Rayden's arms and carrying her off down the hall.

"I think I should get some rest, too--" Rayden began, starting to get up, but his mother held him back.

"There's something we need to have a talk about first," she said quietly. Naturalis padded into the room.

"Lin's asleep," he said in a whisper. He gestured towards the herbarium, and he and Suyuan crept in, Rayden reluctantly following, slipping on his robe for warmth. His step-father shut the door and latched it.

Out in the herbarium, which was technically not part of the house at all, the air was frosty cold, and Rayden shivered. "I don't think we'll be long," Naturalis said stiffly, rubbing his hands together briskly. "I know it's cold in here, but I don't want to wake up the girls."

"It's fine," Rayden replied. "What is it you wanted to talk about?"

"Well, you see, your mother and I have been talking, and--" There was a sudden creak, from inside the house, but Naturalis ignored it and continued, "your mother and I have been talking about--"

"You think I should get married." Rayden cut him off. "I'm moving over to my Realm in a few weeks, I won't be a bother any more. You might as well come out and say it."

"You're not a bother!" Suyuan exclaimed. "Not at all. But we just think that you should settle down. What's the point of having an empty Realm?"

"I plan on having mortals," Rayden replied.

"Mortals!" Naturalis exclaimed. "You may want mortals, but they're not a substitute for a real family."

"I know that. And I do want a family, eventually. I like children. But I don't think I'm ready yet." Rayden rubbed his arms, careful not to touch the bandaged area.

"Celebria is a nice girl," Suyuan said suddenly.

"Celebria! Don't get me started on Celebria. For one, she's a terrible gossip." Rayden snorted.


"So? Do I want everything I do spread throughout the Omniverse? No. I know where you are going with all of this..."

"She's compatible," Naturalis mused, "There wouldn't be any harmful offspring--"

"Is that all I am to you?" Rayden roared, growing frustrated. "A walking title deed?"

"Rayden, calm down," Suyuan snapped. "We're just trying to find what's best for you."

"I am perfectly capable of finding what's best for me," Rayden retorted, undoing the latch and throwing open the door. "And first things first, I am going to get some sleep."

Suyuan started after him, and then stopped. "He'll come around," she said quietly. "He's just tired."

"Quite right, m'dear," Naturalis replied. "After all, we're being perfectly logical and reasonable. He's bound to come around."

Meimei lay awake, staring at the ceiling of her room. Naturalis had decorated it with tiny stars that glowed in the dark. He made them from one of his plants. She wasn't sure which. One of the glowing ones, she guessed.

She heard the door being shut for the big room that Naturalis kept his plants in. They needed a whole room, they were so big. She liked playing in there, it smelled good.

Right now, though, she had other stuff on her mind. She threw back the covers, and got out of bed. Lin was in a crib in the corner of the room, sleeping. Meimei made sure she was all tucked in, and then opened the door to the hallway.

It was deserted. She started out, before darting back in and grabbing her bear. It was a fuzzy animal that Daddy had in his Realm, their old home, and he had made it for her. Holding the bear tightly, she crept out to the alcove. While she was passing the plant room, the floorboards creaked very loudly, and nearly told them that she was sneaking out.

"Bad floor," she said, shaking Bear at it, before creeping the rest of the way to the door. Slipping on her outside shoes, she took hold of the handle. It was very heavy, and she wasn't supposed to leave with out telling any one, but she had to. For a secret.

Thinking very hard of Daddy, and of her old home, Meimei opened the door, and in doing so opened a portal that whisked her from Naturalis' Realm to one entirely different.

"Daddy?" she called out, down the empty halls. She didn't remember the castle being so dark and scary. "Daddy?"

"Who's there?" boomed Daddy, very loud and angrily.

"It's me, Daddy!" she called back, starting to run.

"Meimei!" Thunder exclaimed, scooping his youngest child into his arms and grinning proudly. "What are you doing here? Are you in your pyjamas?"

"Uh huh," she admitted. "I came here on a secret."

"A secret?" Thunder smiled, carrying over to his throne and sitting with her on his lap. "You can tell me."

She shook her head. "No, I came on a secret."

"What?" Thunder was puzzled, and then he understood, and laughed. "You mean you came here in secret."

She nodded. "I want to talk to Rai."

"Oh." Thunder seemed a little crestfallen that his daughter didn't come to see him, but he didn't mind too much. "He's Shao Khan now."

"That's a dumb name," Meimei argued. She held up her toy. "Bear thinks so too."

"And what Bear thinks must be right," Thunder laughed. "Shao Khan! Come out here!"

Skulking out of the shadows, Meimei's other older brother approached Thunder's throne. "What is it?"

"Your sister wants to talk to you." Thunder lifted Meimei off his lap and onto the ground. She stood, hesitant, before the scowling visage of her brother. "Go on, Meimei."

Clutching Bear very hard, she said: "I want you to stop hurting Rayden."

The silence in the Realm Hall was so profound that Meimei started to cry from the sheer tension. Thunder picked her up again, frowning. Shao Khan rolled his eyes.

"Shao Khan has done nothing but defend himself," Thunder explained patiently. "Rayden attacked him."

"Uh-uh," Meimei argued. "And Rayden didn't hurt Rai with a knife, neither."

"Either," Thunder said patiently while his son roared in indignation:

"Shao Khan!"

Meimei burst into tears again, and Thunder cuddled her for a moment, glaring at Shao Khan for frightening her.

"I know you get upset, little one," her father began slowly, "but there's nothing we can do about it. They must work through it themselves."

"That's what Mama and Naturalis keep saying," Meimei sniffled. "I think they're dumb."


"Rayden and Rai," she said pointedly. She glared at her older brother, safe within her father's arms. "No fighting!"

Shao Khan laughed. "Stay out of things that don't concern you," he sneered.

"Stop fighting!" she retorted. "Stop being bad!"

"Meimei," Thunder said with a sigh, "I think it's time for you to be going back home. Mama must know you're missing by now, she'll be worried."

He set her back on the ground, and she glared up at Shao Khan before running off down the hallway. As soon as he was sure she was out of earshot, he turned on his son. "See what you've done!"

"Who cares what she thinks? She's just a little girl," Khan yawned. His father slapped him across the jaw, managing to hit the bruise left by Rayden, no doubt intentionally.

"Exactly. If Meimei, who is usually happily off in her own world, is this upset, Suyuan is going to be beating down my door! And what did you think you were doing, picking a fight in the Bar, in full view of everyone? In front of Celebria, for the Creator's sake? It'll be all over the Omniverse by morning!" Thunder got up and started pacing.

"I wasn't thinking," Khan snapped. "I was--"

"Of course you weren't thinking! That was never in doubt!" Thunder sighed. "We need to come up with a better idea to give you Earthrealm."

"What if I just take it?" Shao Khan said suddenly. His father stopped, and stared at him.

"Invade it?" he asked, incredulous. His son nodded. "It's never been done!"

"So? No one will suspect it," Khan replied with a grin. "In fact, I have a better idea."

"Better?" Thunder paused. "How do you mean?"

"If no one is suspecting us--the first Realm we take could be a powerful one. I could take it by surprise, and then use its power against Rayden." Khan grinned.

"That is a better idea," Thunder agreed. "If done right, you could take over a strong Realm... but it will have to be soon--the longer we wait, the more entrenched Rayden will be in Earth. And the harder to get out."

"I have the perfect place to start," Khan said. "Maresium. Once I take it, the Omniverse won't stand a chance."

"What?" The colour drained from Thunder's face.

"Why stop at Earth, when I can have the Omniverse? Earth is the key, of course, but it's not the only Realm worth having."

"Maresium is Hisan's Realm," Thunder breathed, the colour slowly returning as the scope of his son's plan came into focus. "Hisan is one of the Elementals!"

"It's better to go after something large while we still have the power of a surprise attack," Khan told him. "It's the perfect place to start."

Thunder paused, considering the entirety of his son's plan. Such a thing had never been dared, never been thought of, in the history of the Omniverse, since the First Realm! But the power Shao Khan would have if he succeeded. The power Thunder himself would have...

"We can marry you off to Hiko, as well," Thunder said suddenly, beginning to pace again, this time in thought. "I can no doubt convince Hisan to the arrangement, she is a fellow Elder. As long as she doesn't suspect my involvement, she will trust my advice. That will give you a legal claim, in case of failure."

A large grin split Khan's face. "This is getting better and better. It would serve him right."

"What would?" Thunder stopped, confused.

"Nothing. Continue, Father. This is going to be brilliant." He drove his fist into his palm. "They'll never know what hit them."

Meimei ran past Shao Khan, staring up at him in anger. She dashed down the creepy hallway, wanting to get back to home as soon as possible.

While she was running, however, Bear slipped from her grasp and tumbled to the floor. She stopped to pick him up. "It's okay," she said, rocking him, "you'll be okay. Just a little bruise."

She was ready to open the door to go home when she heard her father start talking. For a minute, she thought that he was talking to her. Confused, she waited.

Once she heard what he was talking about, she gasped, and started for the door. She stopped herself. As much as it hurt for her to hear her father and brother plotting against Rayden, she knew she had to the hear the whole plan.

By the time Shao Khan got to the part about Maresium, she was horrified. Everyone knew about Hisan, even little girls. Clutching Bear tightly, she ran for the door.


The door to his bedroom creaked open, and he propped himself up on an elbow. "Meimei?"

"Can I come lie with you for a bit?" she asked, hesitantly.

"Sure." He flipped back the covers so she could crawl in. Bear, her stuffed toy, came with her. She huddled next to him, and he wrapped the end of the blanket around her. "You're freezing," he said, surprised. She was far too cold for her to have been in bed all this time. "Where have you been?"

"I don't like seeing you get hurted," she said quietly, snuggling.

"I know, but--"

"Mama won't do anything, and Naturalis spends too much time in his herarium--"

"Herbarium," he corrected, with a laugh.

"The herarium," she repeated, unable to get around all the syllables. "He doesn't do anything."

"Meimei," Rayden began, starting to see where this was going, "Where were you?"

"I went to yell at Rai," she said, burying her head in his shoulder. Rayden felt a chill. She started to cry. "But he's Shaokan now, and was yelling at me, and then Daddy said--"

"He let Shao Khan yell at you?" Rayden exclaimed. That wasn't like his father, who doted on his daughter.

"No," she sniffled. "He yelled at Rai too. And then, after I left, and Bear fell down, they started talking." She paused to sniff. "Bad talking."

"What do you mean, bad talking?"

"They were making bad ideas, Rayden. Bad plans. They're going to hurt Hisan," she finished.

He laughed. "They can't hurt Hisan. She's too powerful."

"No, they're going to surprise her." Meimei corrected.

"Surprise her? With what?" Rayden was growing more and more confused, but something she was saying was turning wheels in the back of his mind, and they weren't pleasant wheels.

"They're going to surprise her, and take Maresium," she explained, stumbling over the word. "I don't know how. But they said it was going to be soon, and then they're going to surprise you, too."

Rayden nearly stopped breathing with the full implications. Shao Khan was going to invade Maresium, something that had never been done in the history of the Omniverse, and then he was going to invade Earth. Something had to be done.

Meimei was watching him intently, growing more upset as he grew more tense. So he squeezed her tight, and tucked the blanket around her more, willing himself to calm down. Whatever Shao Khan was planning, it wouldn't happen overnight. There was time for Rayden to warn Hisan in the morning.

"Go to sleep, Sparky," he said, closing his own eyes in example. He could feel her face wrinkle at the nickname, but after a while, her breathing slowed, and soon she was asleep. He considered getting up, but realised he should follow his own advice. He closed his eyes again and fell asleep himself.

"Rayden? Is that you?" Suyuan came out of the kitchen, her sleeping robes still on, bleary- eyed from just waking up. "I was just making some tea. Would you like some? Where are you going?"

Rayden was paused with his hand on the door handle. "I, uh--no, I don't want any tea, thanks. I've got to to someone."

"Talk with someone."

"Uh huh."

Suyuan sighed, and pushed her bed-head back from out of her eyes. "Rayden, come with me to the kitchen."


"Rayden, come with me to the kitchen." Suyuan's tone did not leave room for disobedience, so he followed her to the table, and sat down. She sighed. "Rayden, I know that you've got your own life, and your own friends, and I'm all right with that. I also know there's a point in everyone's lives where they stop telling their mother everything--but I want you to tell me one thing."

"Uh huh..." Rayden waited, nervous. He wasn't sure he wanted to tell her about Shao Khan's plan; she would not take it very well, and he wanted to spare her any worry. On the other hand, he couldn't outright lie to her...

"Do you have a girlfriend?" she asked.

"What?" he blurted.

"You've been so mysterious lately, and you're so opposed to the whole idea of betrothal--I was wondering if that's because you already have someone in mind." Suyuan watched his face intently, but all she saw was surprise. She wasn't sure if it was surprise of being caught out or surprise at the question itself, so she pressed on. "It's not that I don't approve of you having...female friends, it's just that, you know, with the Law of Powers, it could get complicated, and I don't want you getting into any trouble. The last thing I need is both of my sons in trouble."

Rayden laughed, the relaxed laugh of someone finally catching on. "So that's what this is all about? No, Mother, I don't have a girlfriend on the side. I don't have anyone on the side. I don't have any sides, period. The reason I get so touchy is...well, you and Naturalis seem to treat me like a walking heirloom. I get enough of flack about my powers and control of my Realm from Father and...Rai. That's all. I'll come to a decision in my own time."

"Hmmm." Suyuan considered that. "I suppose I have to live with that. We just want you to be happy, that's all."

"I am happy," Rayden insisted. There was a pause. "Okay, I could be happier, if Rai was out of my face, but all in all, I'm pretty content with how my life turned out."

"That's good to hear." Suyuan took her son's hand, and gave it a squeeze. "Do you want some breakfast?"

He laughed. "No. I've got to meet someone, but I should be back soon. Okay?"

"Okay," she replied, and he got up from the table, and headed to the alcove.

He put his hand on the door handle, and opened it a crack, whisking himself away.

He was on a deserted beach. The sun was beginning to rise over the horizon, the sky spread with pinks and oranges, reflected in the line of the ocean. Behind him stood a thick, dense forest. A breeze brought the smell of fruits and flowers out to him, and he looked in vain for a trail, or some sort of marker.

This was where visitors were supposed to enter, as it was the easiest spot in Maresium to access through a portal; so why wasn't there a guide to Hisan's estate?

Rayden started forward. The beach was small, and he realised that he was on an island. He kept walking and came to the conclusion it was a very small island.

"Might as well just start in through the jungle," he said to himself. He walked up the sandy beach, hearing splashing noises behind him, but when he turned, he saw nothing but a glimpse of silver in the water.

To say the jungle was dense was an understatement. Rayden wasn't used to having to struggle through bushes, under hanging branches and vines and over fallen trees. On his own Realm, he could teleport anywhere he wanted without effort. In Naturalis' Realm, Officina, there was a predominance of deciduous trees, in a mountainous landscape. Rayden really hadn't hacked his way through a tropical jungle before, and he was bad at it.

One thing that did bother him was a lack of animals in the trees. It took him a moment to realise just because he would design his own Realm to be bursting with life didn't mean that other Realms were. It was a hard adjustment to make, but he finally accepted the notion he might be the only moving thing in the jungle.

No sooner did he come to that conclusion than there was a snapping of a branch ahead of him--or was that behind him?

Startled, he paused, and tried to take his bearings. He couldn't see the sky overhead, through the canopy, not that would have helped him anyway.

Rayden wasn't claustrophobic by nature, but he was starting to get the feeling he was penned. And being hunted.

There were no more sounds, and cautiously, he started forward again.

Suddenly he heard a plant rustling, and then something launched itself at him. He tried to duck, but it--it was a person--slammed into him from the back. He fell to the ground with considerable force, before the person got up and let Rayden get his face out of the dirt, spitting out mouthfuls as he did.

"You!" he exclaimed. Hiko grabbed him by the collar and hauled him to his feet. Her hand was clenched, and as she brought it towards his face, he could see she was making a knife out of her fire powers.

She held it against his throat. "What are you doing here?"

He gasped as he felt the pressure and the extreme heat of the fire blade. "I...I came to warn you!"

"Warn me?" Hiko sneered. She held the knife against him harder and he resisted the urge to use his own powers to blast her away. Shooting the mistress of the Realm would not help his case anyway.

"I came to warn you about Shao Khan--he's plotting to overthrow your Realm," he replied, gasping. The blade withdrew slightly, and Hiko stared at him in the eye.

"If you're making this up..." she trailed off, and he shook his head, as much as he could.

"I'm not. I came to talk with Hisan," he continued. Hiko glared at him.

"Are you sure you want to?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied. Without any warning, she dropped her fire knife, and slammed her unpowered fist into his head. He blacked out.

He woke up to the freshness of a cool ocean breeze. He was swaying with the breeze, and could smell fruit punch.

Rayden started to sit up, but the violent tipping of the hammock as well as his own pounding headache persuaded him to sit back down again.

"I see you're awake," someone replied, from behind him, coming closer. He twisted around to see Hiko coming out of a small building, made out of bamboo, thatched with dried palm leaves. Through a gap in the trees, he could see a trail leading to the beach beyond.

Hiko was dressed in a brightly coloured cotton sundress, with a headband to keep her hair out of her eyes. The pattern of red, orange and yellow flowers on her dress didn't help his headache any and he found himself staring at her face for relief. She held out a glass of punch, complete with a slice of fruit jabbed on the rim.

"Nice place you've got here," he said dryly, accepting the glass. "Can't say I care for the reception, though."

Hiko didn't reply, but her eyes narrowed. They were a sort of blue-green, a shade which changed depending on the colours surrounding her, as they looked much bluer than Rayden remembered from the Bar.

"Hiko," called someone from inside the beach house. A woman emerged, and Rayden scrambled to get out of the hammock and on to his knees as quickly and respectfully as he could.

"Lady Hisan," he said, his head bowed. Hisan was the oldest, and most venerable of the Immortals. She was chief of the Elders, and the legend had it that she had been the first Fire Elemental, one of the First deities born of the Creator. No one was sure. No one could remember, her colleagues being long-dead, and no one had the nerve to ask. As well, she kept all information about herself strictly to herself. Even Thunder, a fellow Elder (although several generations younger than Hisan, admittedly) knew very little about her, or her daughter.

Hiko was another mystery. She was born to the Lady Hisan very, very late in the Goddess' life; and no one was sure who her father was. It was another closely guarded Fire secret.

"Rayden, son of the Lord Thunder," Hisan said very quietly, although her voice carried. She held on to a staff, but kept herself upright and straight. "I see you have punch."

Taken off-guard, Rayden looked upright; he looked down quickly enough to be polite, but not before he'd looked the Goddess in the eye. She chuckled. "Daughter, bring him something to eat. He is not a threat."

There was the sound of the footsteps as Hiko left the sandy ground of the clearing for the wood floors of the beach house. Rayden felt a gentle tap on his shoulder from the staff. "Rayden, son of Thunder, stand up. I do not believe in formalities, here, in my own Realm."

He got to his feet slowly, and not willing to meet her gaze; habits of a life-time were hard to break.

"Sit," she continued. He sat on the hammock, nearly tipping backwards before he gained his balance. There was chuckle, and he got smacked on the top of the head with the staff.

Startled, he looked up at her, and she smiled. "That's better. I will not have subservient behaviour in my Realm; I get too much of it from the Elders. Treat me as you would your mother, boy, and I will be happy."

Rayden bit back the response As you wish, Lady, and tried to keep his head upright and his gaze off the ground.

Hiko emerged out of the house with a platter of fruit. "Splendid," Hisan said, clapping her hands. "Now, bring out the wicker chairs and the table."

Hiko glared at the chore, but didn't say anything. She held the tray out to Rayden, which he accepted, and then stormed back into the house, her dress swishing around her legs.

"Lovely stuff, this," Hisan said, taking a piece of fruit. "Go on, eat up. Plenty more where this came from." Rayden smiled; it wasn't hard to think of her like his mother. She sat down on the hammock next to him, with a sigh. "Rayden, don't you think this is a beautiful day?"

"Yes," he agreed. It was sunny, and very warm, although the breeze kept it from being too hot or too humid. "Very pleasant."

"It is," she said, nodding. "Now, don't go and ruin it by bringing me bad news."

Before he could managed to say anything, Hiko emerged with a wicker chair, setting it on the ground by the hammock, glaring at Rayden, and then returning inside.

Hisan shifted over to the wicker chair which was padded by a floral pillow, and sighed again. "Don't looked so surprised," she said over Hiko's head as the deity set the wicker table down. Rayden placed the tray on the table and Hiko shot him another look.

"It's not my fault," he blurted, growing annoyed with the irritated looks everytime he looked in her direction.

"Of course it is," she snapped. "You're here, aren't you?"

She stomped back inside, and Rayden looked to Hisan in shock, to find her calmly unpeeling a banana. "She's right, you know," the Goddess said patiently, "it is your fault. Your agitation, your very presence, is disturbing the atmosphere of this place. I don't hold it against you, but Hiko is more temperamental than I am." She chucked. "You could say I've mellowed over the years, but that's not quite the case."

"I don't mean--"

"I know you don't, dear one, and that's why you're still in one piece." She leaned back in her chair, the threat unnegated by the image she had as an elderly woman in a pink sundress calmly eating a banana. Rayden knew what she was capable of. Or had a vague idea, at least.

Hiko brought out the second chair and sat herself down; apparently Rayden was to remain in the hammock. The daughter took a slice of fruit and eat it while watching Rayden through narrowed eyes. "So why have you come?" she asked, but her mother held up a hand.

"All in good time," Hisan said, finishing the banana. When she was done, a puff of flame disintegrated the peel and she brushed her hands together. Rayden felt faint. "Do have some fruit, dear. It works wonders for the constitution."

He took a slice of fruit, he wasn't sure what it was, but had a cautious bite and decided it was acceptable. In the sense of extremely tasty. "I--"

"Dear, fetch us a pitcher of punch," Hisan interrupted, talking to Hiko, who sighed and got up again, this time disappearing only for a moment before reappearing with another tray, carrying a glass pitcher and two tumblers. Rayden still had his own drink.

As Hiko poured the drinks for her mother and herself, Hisan settled in and said: "Now. Begin."

"I came here to warn you," Rayden started, glad to get the reason at last, "of Shao Khan."

"What's he done now?" Hisan mused. "Is he planning some sort of prank?"

"Yes...and no," Rayden answered. "He's planning to invade your Realm."

There was a pause while mother and daughter looked to each other. They both laughed. "Very funny, boy, very funny," Hisan chuckled, while Hiko wiped tears from her eyes. "I can see you've got a good sense of humour. Must have gotten that from your mother."

"I'm serious. I know it doesn't sound like a threat--" Rayden was cut off by Hisan waving her hand dismissively.

"It doesn't because it isn't. I can hold off anything that brother of yours can throw at me." She sighed, half-chuckling at the thought. "Good one."

Rayden sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. How could he convince them...maybe they were right. Maybe Shao Khan simply wasn't a threat. And yet...

"Do you want to take that chance?" Rayden asked them. "I know he's serious--who knows what could happen."

This statement seemed to have an effect on Hiko, who wasn't as unshakable as her mother. She stopped laughing to consider, for the first time, the serious implications. "Mother..."

"Don't worry about it, dear." Hisan took a sip of her drink. "Even if Shao Khan is foolhardy enough to try something, we will be ready, and I am more than up to the task."


"That's the end of this discussion," Hisan said sharply, and both Rayden and Hiko recoiled. The Goddess of Fire set her glass down on the edge of the table. "Rayden, are you not thirsty?"

"Uh, no," he said, setting down his glass as well. "I--well, I guess that's all I have to say."

"Oh. No other news? That little joke was hardly worth getting a scar for, you know," Hisan remarked casually. Startled, he felt his neck, and could feel the raised line from where Hiko's fire knife had touched him. It didn't hurt at all, but he wondered what it looked like. And how he was going to explain it to his mother.

He shot a look at Hiko, but she pretended to be looking at something in the trees. "No, that's it."

"Oh." Hisan seemed disappointed.

"I guess I should be going," he began, disengaging himself from the hammock without falling over. "I'm sorry to have troubled you."

"It is of no importance," she said civilly. "You are welcome to drop in again, should you feel the need."

"And you're welcome to let me know if anything does happen," he said. Hiko looked up at him, then, and although Hisan gave him another of her dismissive waves, her daughter nodded, almost imperceptively.

"Thank you for the punch," he said politely, before portalling back to Officina.

Hiko sat for a moment, thinking, while her mother moved over to the hammock and stretched out. "Mother--"

"I said not to worry about it," Hisan said, her eyes closed. "And I mean that. It is of no concern."


"We can deal with it, I am sure of it. Think about something else, dear, and it'll go away, I'm sure of it."

Hiko sat in silence, not touching the food or the drink.

"He's quite a nice boy, you know," Hiko said suddenly. "Honest and reliable. A touch too concerned, perhaps, but that's hardly a fault."

"What are you talking about?" Hiko asked, puzzled.

"Oh, nothing, dear. Nothing at all."

The doors blew open with a bang, and Suyuan, Goddess of the Wind and the ex-wife of the Realm stormed in. "Thor!"

Thunder scowled, and got out of his throne. "Suyuan. What a pleasure."

"I am not here for pleasantries," she snapped. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Pardon?" Thunder paled. Had she found out about their plan? Could Shao Khan have told her? The idiot...

"You know what I'm talking about. I thought you were going to stop these insane fights!"

She was talking about Rayden and Shao Khan. That was better. "I stopped them."

"Then explain why Rayden has knife wounds. You know Rai--Shao Khan--is one of the few deities to use a weapon," she fumed.

He snorted. "He wouldn't need a weapon if he had powers!"

"That has nothing to do with it and you know it!" Suyuan took a step forward, and he found himself taking a step back. "You said you stopped the fights!"

"I did," he snapped. "I can't help it if they want to fight on their own time. They're grown deities, Suyuan, I can't be held responsible."

"You can, and I do hold you personally responsible. If you didn't keep encouraging Raimei--"

"He's Shao Khan now," Thunder interrupted her.

"I don't care if he's Twinkletoes! You're the one looking after him, you keep him in line!" Suyuan turned on her heel and started out, but Thunder wasn't going to give her the satisfaction.

"You're his mother, why aren't you taking care of him!" he called out after her. She stopped in her tracks, and whirled to face him.

"You know he doesn't listen to me any more! He barely even talks to me any more, and some how he's frightened Meimei terribly. He bears absolutely no resemblance to my son, the boy I raised as Raimei. That is why I am telling you--keep him away from Rayden." Thunder was about to reply, but she didn't give him the chance. She strode up to him, and stood a mere few inches from him, glaring him down. "And don't give me any lines about not controlling him. I know as well as you do that's a lie. I want him to stay out of Rayden's way, or I will take it before the Elders."

"I'm one of them, do you honestly think--?" Thunder began, growing angrier by the moment.

"Do I honestly think that the other Elders know exactly what you're like? You bet I do. So that's my final warning, Thor," she snapped, before turning and leaving the Realm.

"You were never good with names," he mumbled to himself, furious. "Shao Khan!"

"Yes?" his son stepped out of the shadows.

"Do you see what I mean, now? Do you see? You can't keep picking fights. I will not allow it. There's too much at stake now for you to get reprimanded by the Elders. Do you understand me?" There was a pause, and Thunder felt ready to explode. "Do you understand me?"

"Yes," Shao Khan replied, as though he was spitting it out. "I do."

"Good. See that you remember this little discussion," Thunder finished, storming off to finish his own business that his former wife had so rudely interrupted.

Rayden took a deep breath of the fresh air. He stood on top of a hill, that overlooked a beautiful river valley. "It's perfect," he said out loud, although there was, as yet, very little in the Realm to hear him. But he didn't mind that. All it meant was that he could go about making Earth exactly the way he wanted it.

Thunder had left it as the bare landscape, with only a few different animals on the continent, for variety. There wasn't even a diversity of plants. (As an Elder, Thunder lived on that common Realm, and so had never had any use for Earth, except as a retreat, much as Hisan used Maresium.)

Rayden couldn't wait to get started. But first things first. He needed a place to live, and he decided that this spot, this little corner of the Realm, would be it. Would be his, even if (hopefully) mortals overran the place.

"Rayden?" Meimei came running, after climbing some trees that grew in sparse clumps on the top of the hill. He had invited her to come, to take her off Suyuan's hands for a while, and so far, Sparky was nearly enjoying herself too much. "Look! Look what I can do!" She did a neat cartwheel, and as soon as she was standing, yelled: "You weren't looking!"

"I was, I was," Rayden assured her. "Very good."

"You do one," she suggested, doing another of her own.

He laughed. "I think I'll pass."

She shrugged, and did another cartwheel. This one wasn't as successful and she tumbled to the ground, none the worse for wear. "Are you going to fix it?" she asked, getting to her feet and running over.

"Fix what?" he asked, returning her fierce hug.

"Everything. It's too..." she paused, looking out over the valley. "Too bare."

"It is too bare, you're right," he laughed. "I'm going to have lots of plants and animals."

"Bears?" she asked hopefully.

"Lots of different kinds," he assured her.

"White ones?"

"White ones?" he stopped to consider. "Why would I need white ones?"

"Looks better," she told him.

"Then I'll make some just for you." Rayden took another deep breath. "I can't believe it's all mine."

"I want a Realm," Meimei pouted. "Like this one."

He gave her a reassuring hug. "You can visit mine any time you like."

"Can I make things?"

"Like what?"

Meimei paused, then shrugged. "Don't know yet."

"Well, when you think of something, let me know, okay?" Rayden gave her a little shove. "Now, go finish playing, I think I'm going to take you home soon." She started to whine, but stopped when he gave her a stern look, and ran off.

He started from the top of the hill, wondering what to do first, when he felt a funny tickling in the back of his head. He scratched it, but it was inside his head, and most certainly did not feel right. He looked over to Meimei, and she was stopped, looking around in confusion. She felt it too.


He started towards Meimei, until he realised it wasn't her that had called him. Someone was trying to call him through his mind.


It was Hiko. Yes...? he thought, but she interrupted with a frantic cry.

He's attacking! We-- There was an abrupt stop in the conversation.

"Meimei," he called, trying to stay calm. "Come here, I'm taking you home, right now."

To her credit, she didn't argue or debate the urgency. She could sense it too. "It's Shaokan, isn't it?" she said tearfully as he opened a portal. He nodded.

Rayden tried to teleport in as soon as he dropped off Meimei, but something was blocking him. Then he realised with a start that Hiko and Hisan had erected a shield, a guard against invaders. There was no way to help them!

Hiko! he called to her, mentally. You've got to let me in! I can help!

Her voice was weak, and strained. Can't...

Just for a split second, I can help you drive him out--but not from the outside--

There was a mental sigh, and suddenly the shield dropped. He wasted no time, but leapt in, hoping they closed the shield around him.

The island was burning. Hiko and Hisan stood in the center of the sand, holding hands, with their eyes closed. A dome of fire surrounded them, and Shao Khan and an army--an army of mortals--surrounded the dome.

Rayden was confused, at first, to why there was mortals; mortals could never kill a deity, no matter from what Realm. But it became clear as more mortals began appearing; Shao Khan was using them to weaken the defenses before he could move in.

"Shao Khan!" Rayden yelled, gathering his powers together. His first impulse was to help Hiko and Hisan, but decided they would be better served if he could take out his brother.

With a start, the invader realised there was a new arrival, and he scowled. "Get him!" he roared at his followers, gesturing with his sword. The armies charged, and Rayden created a blast of lightning that knocked the first wave off their feet. The second wave hesitated. Clearly, they weren't used to fighting gods. But a furious command from Khan spurred them on, and they ran at Rayden, swords drawn.

He took a deep, calming breath and closed his eyes, summoning all his powers. He had never tried anything like this before, and he wasn't sure if it would work. He called a silent prayer to the Creator, and unleashed his powers, without holding anything back. He opened his eyes as a peal of thunder crashed overhead and the full force of his powers fell down upon the marauding enemy.

With screams and painful cries, the entire army was electrocuted, at once. They dropped like puppets with their strings cut, as did Rayden. The all-or-nothing attack took most of his strength, and he tried to get to his feet, so defend himself from Shao Khan, who definitely had experience fighting deities.

Luckily, he wasn't the only one in the fight, any more. Without having to hold the mortals at bay, Hisan and Hiko were now able to continue the fight. And Hisan was up to the challenge.

Shao Khan trembled as he faced the full fury of Lady Hisan of the Elementals. Like Rayden, he too had grown up with an awe where the Goddess of Fire was concerned; his confidence was draining with every step she took towards him.

As she walked across the charred landscape of her former home, she seemed to grow in size and power as an aura of fire expanded around her. "Shao Khan," she said, her voice cutting through the shimmering air, "You--"

There was a sudden gray mist that formed in front of the enraged Goddess. Where the mist and the fire touched, flickers of lightning formed.

Hiko was helping Rayden to his feet. "That's Thunder," Rayden said, raggedly. "He must be coming to help Shao Khan."

"You're kidding," Hiko breathed. "After what Khan's done--"

"Lady Hiko," boomed Thunder, materialising in front of his son and braving the blazing fire. "I beg mercy!"

"Your son has destroyed my home," she replied. Her voice was quieter than Thunder's and yet carried a far greater impact.

"I will make it up to you, and see that he is punished severely for his impudence, oh Great Lady," Thunder fell to one knee. "I beg you, spare my son."

Rayden was stunned to see his father humbled so; it was not something he ever expected to see.

Hisan paused, thinking. "You have another son, one more suited to your attention."

At that, Thunder seemed to look across the devastation straight to Rayden. "I know," he said, his voice even, but his eyes betrayed him. They told his fury even to Rayden, who was several meters away.

"You will rebuild my home, and Shao Khan is forbidden to enter my Realm, as he will no doubt be forbidden by others. As well, he is never to be seen in my presence again." Hisan said, after a moment. Khan started to protest, but wisely held his tongue. "I will not look upon a traitor such as him. You may take him, now."

She turned, and walked toward her daughter and their ally, her fire shell shrinking, but not dispelling completely. Thunder bowed deeply, and grabbed Shao Khan's wrist. They disappeared in the gray mist.

Hisan waited until they left, and then held her arms widespread. Hiko gasped and suddenly wrapped her arms around Rayden. He was just as surprised, but returned what he thought was a hug. It wasn't until the blast of searing heat hit him that he realised what it truly was; protection from a firestorm that Hisan conjured up to clean the island.

When it died down and he opened his eyes, he saw that the island wasn't just cleaned; it was scoured. The firestorm had been so intense that everything on the ground--trees, bodies--was reduced to a thin layer of white ash, which was already sifting away in the breeze.

If it hadn't been for Hiko...

"Thank you," he said weakly, but Hiko wasn't listening. She let go of him and ran to Hisan.

"Mother!" she cried, catching the Goddess before she fell. "Mother?"

"I will be all right," Hisan said in a whisper. "I need to rest, that's all, I will rest in Subaquaritum. Take care of Rayden, he is our ally, and our friend, and we owe him dearly."

She disappeared in a flicker of fire, and Hiko slowly got to her feet. She turned to face the god, who was still standing, although wobbly. She walked towards him, and held out her hand.

Unsure, he took it, and they disappeared.

"We're on Earth?" he asked, looking around him. Hiko nodded, and let go of his hand. She stumbled forward, weakened by the teleport, whereas he was growing stronger, supported by his Realm. "Here, let me help you."

He tried to put her arm around his shoulders, but she resisted. "I'm fine," she insisted, weakly. Sighing, he retried to put her arm around his shoulder, and with a sigh of her own, she acquiesced.

"You're not fine, but you will be," Rayden assured her. He paused, then added: "You don't have to keep up the act around me."

"What act?" she asked, innocently, but she didn't seem very convincing.

"The `I am Fire, hear me roar' routine." Rayden started walking. She'd brought him in very near the hill where he was going to set up home, and he had recently set up a shelter along the river-side.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she mumbled, head resting against the crook of his neck. He smiled, and led her to the small hut built in between a clump of trees.

It was no more than a roof and four walls with a small pallet for a bed, but it would do for the moment, as he laid her down. "Just have a rest," he said. "I can go get something for you to eat."

She was trying to get up, but he held her down. "Rest," he said, as sternly as he could muster. She stared up at him, and their gaze met for a moment, and then she nodded, and lay down, closing her eyes.

Hiko awoke to a delicious smell in the air. She struggled to sit up, when Rayden entered the small shelter. "Dinner, m'lady," he said with exaggerated care, but it was in jest, not in sarcasm.

"What--?" she began, but he put down a small tray before her, filled with skewers of roast vegetables.

"I did some scrounging," he said, sitting down next to her, cross-legged. "I thought some vegetables would be best. I tried to fish--"

"Oh, no, I never eat fish," she blurted.

"Well, that's good because I didn't catch any. Fishing wasn't a big priority on Thunder's list, I guess. I personally don't eat meat, any more." Rayden picked up a skewer and started eating.

Hiko picked up one as well. It was a variety of vegetables, all stuck on a simple bamboo stick, and she marvelled at it. He laughed. "Don't cook much?"

"No, never," Hiko replied, taking a careful bite while Rayden watched her carefully.

"Never?" he asked. "Never ever?"

She giggled suddenly, nearly upsetting the food in her mouth. She chewed, swallowed and then said: "No, never. I never learned how, and I guess I never thought there was a need."

"Oh," was all Rayden could come up with. "I like to cook, myself. Kind of a hobby."

"My only hobby," she said sadly, "is trying to find something to do. The Realm is self- sufficient, and anyway, Mother's on top of everything; I don't like politics very much, so that's a no; and I don't have any friends."

"None?" Rayden had a hard time believing that, and said so.

"No, none. People are a little frightened by me and my mother," Hiko explained sadly. "They're always on edge."

"Is that why you go to the Bar to pick fights?" Rayden asked quietly. She shrugged again, and concentrated on her eating. "Because it's not helping improve the image."

Hiko laughed again.

"That's better, keep doing that," he said, chewing on his own dinner. "Just don't choke."

"You're the only person I know who isn't like that," she said after a moment. "I mean, you were around my mother, but you're not around me."

"I know what it's like to be judged just for my powers, not for myself," Rayden replied. "As for your mother--you have to admit, she inspires that sort of thing."

"I guess so." Hiko sighed, and put down her skewer. "I hope as I get older, that will get easier to deal with."

"That's something that doesn't change on its own," Rayden said mystically, between bites. "But I'm sure everything will work out, anyway."

She looked up at him. "Think so?"

"Sure. We beat Shao Khan, right? We won, right? What's there to be worried about?"

"You don't think he'll attack again?" Hiko picked at the vegetables. "He's seems stubborn."

Now it was Rayden's turn to laugh. "Stubborn, as in stupid. I suppose there always is the chance he'll attack again, but we'll be ready. We beat him once."

"Thanks to you," she replied.

He smiled. "All in a day's work."

"My mother and I are very thankful," Hiko persisted.

"I know you are," Rayden answered. He was concentrating on his vegetables and didn't notice Hiko's slight shaking of her head. "Do you feel any better?"

"I feel a lot better, thank you." She picked up her skewer and started to eat, again. "I should probably return to Maresium soon, and check on my mother."

There was a long pause while Rayden tried to articulate something that he wasn't sure he was feeling. "You don't have to go so soon," he said at last. She looked up sharply, a little puzzled, and he noticed a tinge of colour creeping along her cheeks.

"Why are you blushing?" he asked her, startled.

"I really should be going," she announced, setting down the skewer, jumping to her feet and nearly bolting from the house. Rayden managed to catch her by her wrist.

"What's the matter?" he asked, confused, but she pulled away and disappeared in a spurt of flame.

He leaned against the doorframe, deep in thought, before heading back inside to finish off the remains of their dinner.

Thunder didn't say anything. He stood in front of his throne, his head bowed in thought, while Shao Khan paced endlessly, waiting for the axe to drop.

Khan knew he had failed miserably, and humiliated his father beyond comprehension. He knew that. What he didn't know was why Thunder was so quiet. Thoughtful. Calm.

"Father?" he asked suddenly, not being able to stand it any longer. "What are you going to do?"

"Do?" Thunder intoned solemnly. "I haven't decided yet." He began to pace himself, his steps long, measured and purposeful as opposed to the younger's panicked gait. "But first things must come first."

Khan stopped, confused. Thunder ignored that, and continued. "Rayden is the greatest threat to our conquest," he said slowly. "Therefore, we must remove his presence before we continue."

"We're...continuing? But we failed!" Khan blurted, cringing when his father turned on him.

"Of course we're continuing! This has been a minor set back, at most. But I cannot be seen as involved in it. I have too high a status, and have too far to fall. You can be blamed away as young and stubborn; I cannot. Is that clear? Nothing of my involvement is to leave your lips. Is that understood?" Thunder growled the question, and his son nodded hastily.

"Of course, you know nothing of what I'm doing," Khan repeated faithfully. "What of-- ?"

"I will inform them myself. The same rule will apply." Thunder smiled. "You know, Rayden does not officially have control of Earthrealm yet."

"So?" Khan scowled.

"So...who can blame me for anything I do in my own Realm?" Thunder laughed and clapped his hands together. "I have the perfect idea for getting Rayden out of our way."

"You'll love it, I promise you," Rayden said with a grin, picking Meimei up and out of the way. Suyuan seemed dubious and Naturalis was concerned with Lindara, who was fussing. Her teeth were starting to come in, and she was making her discomfort known to all in the family.

"Don't you think that this can wait?" his mother asked. "The Ceremony is in a few weeks, we can see it then--"

"No, no, I want you to see it now. I've got it just the way I want it, Mother, I really do. You'll love it." Rayden held the door open.

"I love it!" Meimei chorused loudly. "I love it too!"

"Then that's enough for me," Suyuan said with a smile, stepping through the portal. No sooner than she vanished than they all heard a startled scream.

"Suyuan!" Naturalis cried, bolting through the portal, Rayden and Meimei hot on his heels. They stumbled out of the portal in the midst of a steaming jungle.

Suyuan lay prone in the sand, and Naturalis gave Lin to Rayden while he rushed to check his wife's pulse. "She's okay," he said with a sigh, "Just unconscious. What do you think frightened her?"

"I don't sense anyone else here," Rayden said, trying to calm Lindara, who was crying. Meimei, who was on her feet the minute her mother yelled out was holding on to his arm and staring around her wide-eyed.

"This doesn't look like I remember it," she said, confused.

"No, it's quite different. I don't understand this at all," Rayden answered.

Naturalis scowled, and cradled Suyuan, who was coming around. "I don't care what's different about the shrubbery. I want to know what scared Suyuan!"

"Maybe that did," Meimei said, pointing.

A Tyrannosaurus Rex stared at them through a tall bank of Cretaceous foliage. It sniffed the air, then roared, an ear-shattering bellow that bent the tops of the trees.

"I'd say that's a good guess, yes," Rayden agreed, grabbing Meimei's hand, yanking her behind him. He gave her Lindara, who was too entranced by the dinosaur to scream any longer. He wasn't keen on giving the baby to a six-year-old, but Rayden needed his hands free. Meanwhile, Naturalis slapped Suyuan's face, trying to bring her around faster.

The Tyrannosaur roared again, and made a swoop towards Rayden, who was standing guard over his two baby sisters. A blast of lightning aimed at the behemoth's nose caused the dinosaur to rear up in pain and fury.

"Get them out of here!" Rayden yelled to Naturalis, who was getting a groggy Suyuan to her feet. "I can hold him off, but I can't do that and open a portal at the same time!"

Naturalis nodded, a useless action as Rayden's back was to him, and started to open a portal while the T-Rex decided to try its luck again. Another blast of lightning missed the dinosaur, and Rayden narrowly missed being ripped in half. "Meimei! Come here!" Naturalis yelled, after pushing Suyuan through the portal. Meimei, holding onto Lindara, staggered over, gave her baby sister to her stepfather, and then ran to Rayden's side.

"Meimei!" Naturalis yelled, but was hesitant to follow while holding the baby; he ducked through the portal.

"I can help!" Meimei yelled as she ran by Rayden. Startled, he nearly missed grabbing her by the scruff of her collar; but he did catch a hold and yanked her back.

"What are you doing?!"

"I can help!" Meimei insisted, squirming to free herself of her brother's grip.

In response, he picked her up. The T-Rex was thrashing through the trees, and Rayden decided now was the time to make a get-away.

His river that he had been so proud of was now a thick swamp, the mountains reduced to rolling hills. His shelter, of course, was gone completely. Furious, he looked for somewhere he could hide, and create a portal to send Meimei home.

Carrying a squirming child greatly reduces how fast one can run, even an Immortal, especially over very soggy territory. He sighed heavily, and swung Meimei down. "Don't run away, and do exactly as I tell you," he told her, before grabbing her hand and nearly pulling her along as they ran.

"Look!" Meimei shouted, and Rayden turned. The T-Rex, while infuriated at the god, was beginning to think that perhaps it was too much to effort to avenge its pride when there was easier, and more predictable, prey about. And there was; a herd of Hadrosaurs, or Duck-Bills, was wading through the shallows of the swamp on the far side from the Rex.

It stopped, weighing the alternatives, then charged through the swamp after an easier meal. While the water towards the center was relatively deep, it was nothing that could slow down the forty-foot-plus tyrannosaur.

Rayden stopped to sigh with relief and catch his breath. Meimei did the same, although she squealed with terror as the T-Rex nearly succeeded in catching one of the older Hadrosaurs. "We've got to stop it," she cried. He picked her up, and gave her a hug, before setting her down again and taking her hand.

"We can't do anything right now, we've got to get you home," he said.

"I want to stay," she sniffled. "Help the littler ones."

"I know you do, Meimei, but you can't. I'll help them, I promise. Now, come on." He was tempted to start a portal right there, in the center of the clearing; but it would take a few moments of concentration and he couldn't rely on Meimei to watch his back. "It's too bad you're too young to do portals," he muttered.

"I can!" she exclaimed. "I can, watch me!"

"We've got no time," Rayden snapped. "We've got to go to shelter. That clump of trees-- that'll do."

He led her towards a clump of primitive trees, which were nothing more than very large ferns with a trunk. In between the five trees was a small circle, and he set Meimei down before beginning his preparations. Somehow, his influence in this Realm, which had been growing the more time he spent in it, was severely weakened, and he needed intense concentration to focus well enough on Officina to teleport through.

Meimei watched him intently, but her vision was soon diverted to a movement in the bushes that rimmed the outside of the thicket. She crept around her brother, who had his eyes closed. The rustling stopped when she moved, but started after she paused.

She parted the bushes very carefully and found herself staring into a reptilian eye. She screamed and darted backwards, but the Deinonychus--a small and agile theropod with a razor-sharp sickle shaped claw on each foot--was quick to react as well, and leapt out at her, while its comrades also leapt from the bushes.

In response to her startled yell, Rayden lost all concentration, and the budding portal faded abruptly; he turned and managed to shoot one blast of lightning at the creature before another jumped him from behind.

Meimei screamed as her brother fell, and tried to pull the theropod off him while he scrabbled to regain his balance, but another one bit into her foot to drag her back to the bushes and a certain death. Meimei screamed again, and a rumble echoed in the sky overhead. Startled for a moment, Deinonychus dropped her, and she scrambled out to the relative safety of the clearing.

There was another rumble, and a third. Rayden threw the creature off his back, and stumbled out after Meimei. One of the theropods leapt at him, sickle claw ready for the kill, but he managed to dodge the blow, the claw only raking his side instead of disembowelling him.

"Go away!" screamed Meimei, and a blast of lightning caught the dinosaur full in the chest. It dropped to the ground twitching. One of its comrades sniffed the corpse, and then howled. And then turned on Meimei with a murderous gleam in its eye.

She stood straight, and the peal of thunder around her seemed to shake the ground. Lightning exploded around all the creatures, and they seemed to leap frenzied into the air, although it was really only the electricity playing havoc with their nervous systems. At last the charge faded, and Meimei collapsed, exhausted.

Rayden picked her up, gently, and cradled her while creating a portal. There was now a storm building up, and he did not want to get soaked on top of everything else. The Deinonychus lay in a semi-circle around him, not moving except for the occasional twitch of a tail or a leg.

This time, nothing bothered him, and he created a portal, safely journeying through it to his mother's and step-father's Realm.

Suyuan was almost ready to go back herself when Rayden stepped through, dazed and bleeding, carrying Meimei in his arms.

"What happened?" she cried, taking her little girl. "Why didn't she come through with Naturalis?"

"I don't know," Rayden admitted, holding himself up against the doorway. "I honestly don't know. But she saved us. She saved herself, and me."

"What are you talking about? You're both bleeding! We've got to get you to the Hospital, at once!" Suyuan took Rayden by the arm, and began to open her own portal. He couldn't argue with her, and didn't want to, in any case.

"You're saying that she created a thunder storm?" Medicalis, brother of Naturalis and God of Doctors, checked over Rayden's wounds while Suyuan hovered in the distance. "That's impossible."

"That's what happened," Rayden insisted. He was feeling slightly dazed, thanks to the healing spell for the pain. Things were becoming fuzzy around the edges but he still knew what he was talking about. "There's proof, back in Earth. The little lizards, they're dead. She blasted them, then fainted."

"She's suffering from exhaustion and minor injuries, and should be fine in the morning," Medicalis concurred, ignoring Rayden's previous statement for the time being. "You might take a little longer."

"I'll survive," Rayden retorted.

"Of course you will. I haven't lost a young patient yet. Of course, you're my first deity who insists on getting himself beaten up at every opportunity, but I'm willing to ignore that for now." Medicalis looked at a chart, made a few humming noises, then nodded. "You can lie down now, son. Try to stay in one piece while I'm gone, hmm?" With a nod to his sister-in-law, he left the two alone while Rayden awkwardly lay down, favouring his bad side.

"He's got a point," Suyuan said tiredly. "You do seem determined to get yourself killed."

"I don't want to argue, Mother," Rayden replied, closing his eyes so he didn't have to see the ceiling swimming above his head.

"What really happened?" she asked, in a hush voice. "Why can't you tell me the truth?"

"That is the truth, Mother," Rayden retorted. "She--"

"She doesn't have any powers! She was tested as powerless! You know that, you were there! Ten days after she was born, we took her before the Elders, and they declared her powerless. Like your brother. She can't have caused any lightning bolts!" Suyuan seemed at the end of her rope. First, there was her faint, caused by a sudden appearance of a T- Rex; then her children were nearly killed, and finally her eldest was lying to her, covering up something.

Rayden struggled to sit up. "Mother, I'm not lying to you! I know she was confirmed powerless, but they must have been wrong."

"The Elders are not wrong," Suyuan insisted, tight-lipped.

He sighed, and lay back down again. He didn't want to argue with someone who couldn't see reason. When it was clear he had nothing else to say, she sighed, and got up, closing the door behind her quietly.

He tried to relax, and to sleep. The spell was making that easier, but something was bugging him. Something did not seem right, out of order--Shao Khan. Shao Khan was out in the hallway, outside Rayden's room.

He pulled himself up, ignoring the pounding in his head and the throbbing pain of his side.

Thunder paled visibly. "Is she all right?" he asked in a pained whisper. Suyuan nodded slightly, and Thunder sighed with relief. "Thank the Creator," he said. "When I heard her scream--"

"I know, I was beside myself," Suyuan admitted. "And then Rayden brought her back. She was unconscious, he was badly wounded. By tiny lizards. I don't know what he was playing at, creating those horrible things."

Behind his father, Shao Khan snickered, and Thunder turned on him with such fury that it was all he could do not to run away. "Sorry, Father."

"Not as sorry as I am," someone declared from behind them. Thunder looked up, and then scowled.

"Rayden. Still alive, I see?" Khan snapped.

"No thanks to you. I know you changed my Realm," Rayden replied, one hand against the wall for support.

"It is not your Realm yet, boy. I can still do whatever I want with it," Thunder snapped. "I thought I'd give you a Ceremony gift in advance."

"Thanks, it was appreciated. Forgive me if I don't send a card," Rayden retorted, starting to take a step forward but stopping from the wooziness.

Thunder was about to say something in return when he felt an enormous build-up of energy behind him. That's when he realised his fatal error, and he turned around slowly to face a furious Suyuan.

"You--!" she spluttered. "You did that! Created those things that mauled Meimei and Rayden! You!"

"I--" Thunder began, before a gust of gale-force wind struck him and he fell to the ground. Before Suyuan could follow through, Naturalis and Medicalis had her by the arms, holding her back. Shao Khan helped his father to his feet.

Thunder was, appropriately enough, winded from the attack. He couldn't say anything but teleported away in a gray mist, followed by Shao Khan a moment or two later.

Suyuan started to cry, and Naturalis led her away to calm down, while Medicalis helped Rayden back to his room. "Try and get some rest, Rayden. If anything else happens, we'll sort it out."

Rayden nodded while he lay down, and Medicalis left, turning someone away as he closed the door. The deity closed his eyes and within moments was in a deep sleep.

"Hey," remarked a soft voice, "joining us in the land of the living?"

Rayden blinked for a moment, the bright light hurting his head. Someone brushed the bangs from his eyes, and as he focused, he realised Hiko was sitting next to him. "What...?"

"You've been asleep for about thirteen hours," Hiko said, leaning over to pick up a glass of water. "Medicalis said you would be out for a while. Would you like something to drink?"

He nodded, and pulled himself up to a sitting position. The pain in his side had receded to a dull ache, and Hiko rearranged his pillows for him, to make his bed more comfortable. He took the glass of water and had a few sips before handing it back.

"I heard about what happened," Hiko said after a moment of silence. "The entire Omniverse is talking about it."

"I have no doubt," Rayden replied dryly. "Gossip travels fast."

"Especially gossip of this kind," Hiko agreed. "Thunder is maintaining it was simply a sort of, joke or something, he's being pretty vague, but he says it was definitely not meant to harm any one."

"Not harm Meimei or Suyuan," Rayden corrected. "I know that much is true. But you can bet those things were intended for me."

"Suyuan told us what they were like, Thunder's lizards," Hiko added. "They'd frighten anyone. Meimei doesn't remember anything about what happened, but Suyuan and Naturalis remember quite a bit. And I'm assuming you do, too."

"Pretty much," Rayden replied, rubbing his head. The events of the previous evening were hazy, but definite. "Is Meimei okay?"

"She's fine. Shaken, but fine. Children recover quickly." Hiko got up, and stretched. "I suppose I should go tell Medicalis that you're awake."

"You don't have to," Rayden said quickly. "I'd rather you didn't--otherwise he'll be in here, and so will other people, asking questions, and so on, and it'll just be a circus."

"No problem," Hiko agreed, sitting back down. "Oh, Hisan sends her wishes." Rayden nodded in response, and the goddess continued. "She also says you're welcome to come visit us in Subaquaritum, while you recuperate, if you want."

"I'd like to," Rayden admitted, "But I've got a lot of work to do. My Ceremony is in a few weeks, and I've got to completely overhaul my Realm to get back to the way I had it. To the way I liked it. Thunder ruined everything."

"But if he did it quickly--"

"To begin with, it's his Realm. It reacts better to him, for the time being. And two, he's much stronger than I am, it's easier. He could change everything in a matter of hours, and I don't know if I'll have it right in time." Rayden sighed, frustrated. "I don't know why he went and did such a thing. He knows how much that Realm means to me."

"Exactly," Hiko replied softly. "He knows how much that Realm means to you. He couldn't do anything openly to get you back, so he's going to be sneaky. Where do you think your brother got it from?"

Rayden smiled, and she grinned back at him. "I can help you, if you want, to rebuild," she added.

"Thanks, but I think I'd better do it myself. I know exactly what I want. Thanks anyway, it was a nice thought," he answered.

"Well, my help is available, if you need it," she replied. "And any time you want a break, you can come to Subaquaritum."

"I'll keep that in mind," he agreed.

"You were supposed to tell me if he woke up!" Medicalis fumed.

Hiko shrugged. "He wanted to keep things quiet."

"I'll have you know I am very quiet," the Doctor deity replied with a sneer. "And who is he to be making the decisions? He's only the patient! I know what's best for him, not him!" He started towards the door, but Hiko grabbed his sleeve.

"He's asleep again, Doctor," she told him briskly. "And you said yourself he needs sleep."

Medicalis drew himself up to his full height, which towered over the goddess, and said sharply: "Miss, you may be Hisan's daughter, but that means absolutely nothing here. If you do not wished to be kicked out of the Hospital permanently--something you would no doubt regret if you hang around Rayden long enough--then I suggest you start following orders. My orders. Is that clear?"

Hiko scowled, but nodded. "It makes no difference to me, Doctor, I was just concerned for Rayden."

"And why would that be? Last time I checked, you were hardly very social." Medicalis gave her a look. "Or are we in a search of a husband?"

Hiko felt her cheeks redden, but she said nothing and kept her face impassive. Medicalis sniffed, and headed towards the door. He knocked on it a few times, but there was no answer. He swung the door open, and found the bed empty. Furious, he wheeled on his heels, but Hiko was gone as well, and only a slight odour of charcoal in the air suggested the goddess was ever there at all.

"You're going to get in big trouble for this," Hiko said as she materialised in the clearing. Rayden was walking around, surveying the landscape. He had his outer-robes on, loosely, and she could still see the bandages covering his side and ribs.

"I'm already in trouble," he replied. He whistled to himself, sadly. "This is going to take forever. I have to clear all this plant life, get rid of all the reptiles, age the landscape a few million Earth years--it's going to take forever."

"I can help clear it," Hiko said with a sly grin. He laughed.

"I don't think you can do the entire planet," he replied. She stared at him, open-mouthed, and he nodded. "That's right. He did the whole planet. All of it. Even the oceans--although I suppose I could leave much of the oceans the way they are."

"I'm sorry" was all she could manage to say. "I didn't realise it was this extensive."

"Yeah, well..." Rayden trailed off, and looked around him. The swamp was full of peacefully grazing hadrosaurs, and smaller lizards and proto-mammals scurried about. A pterosaur soared overhead. The god sighed.

Hiko walked up to him, and linked her arm around his. "You can do it," she said. "I'll help. And we can cut corners."

"Cut corners?" he asked, dubious, but enjoying her closeness.

"Sure. Why does all of it have to be the same? You can put some deserts in, some tundras, steppes, that sort of thing. Easy terrains to do, and you don't even need to fill them. Give it a few million and the animals will adapt, they always do."

"I was going to have it all mountainous, with lots of rivers and glaciers," Rayden replied, quietly, deep in thought and memories. "Like it first was, when we lived here, before Thunder was an Elder and we were happy."

"You still can," Hiko said. "Concentrate on that one little corner that you like, make it as perfect as it can be, and you won't need to worry. You only need a small area for the Ceremony, anyway. The rest you can do after the Realm is entirely yours."

Rayden chuckled. "You're full of bright ideas."

"Hey, I'm the Goddess of Fire, not Lamps," Hiko chided.

"Isn't Arnie a relative of yours?" Rayden asked.

She wrinkled her nose. "No. Isn't he some distant cousin of yours?"

"I hope not."

She laughed. "Poor Arn. Tossed around 'cause nobody wants him."

"If he wasn't such a whiner, he'd be okay to be around," Rayden replied. "He was terrible as a kid. Would cry at the first sign of anything. Not that I can blame him, Rai used to tease the stuffing out of him--"

"Who?" Hiko asked suddenly.

"Shao Khan," Rayden replied.

"That's not what you said, you said 'Rai'." Hiko looked at him curiously.

"What? Oh. Rai. Raimei, that's Shao Khan's real name, his given name. He changed it when he went off with Thunder. Mother's never forgiven him for that." Rayden chuckled at some memory.

"Was he different, as a kid?" she asked him.

He thought for a moment. "No, I guess not. He was prone to bullying then, too--but I always figured it was a sibling rivalry thing, or at least a family thing."

"Aha! So Arnie is a cousin!" Hiko looked smug. He held up his free arm in mock surrender.

"Okay, you got me. He's a cousin. I give up." Rayden laughed. "I wonder where Arnie's now, I haven't heard from him in a while."

"He's romancing Juanita, the Goddess of Heat," Hiko replied. "I heard that from Kerlan. Well, I overheard it while Kerlan was telling someone else."

"Juanita!" Rayden exclaimed, and then did a wolf whistle. "Good luck, Arn."

Hiko poked him in his good side in mock-irritation.

"What?" he looked at her askew. "Juanita's a knock-out. I'm free to believe that."

"Hmm," Hiko grumbled.

"What...I'm not free to believe that?" Rayden gave her a grin, which she pretended to ignore while she half-turned away.

"I didn't say anything of the sort," the goddess replied. "You're free to think what ever you want."

"As it happens," Rayden admitted nonchalantly, "I don't think Juanita's the only knock-out. In fact, offhand, I can think of a Goddess who's much more attractive."

"Oh?" Hiko still acted disinterested, and was turned away slightly, but kept her eyes trained on Rayden and a slight smile on her face.

"You might know her," he continued. "She's about my age, a little older, in fact, red hair, blue-green eyes...sound familiar?"

"It might," she admitted. "But I'm afraid she's already spoken for."

"She is?" Rayden exclaimed. "You're joking."

"No," Hiko replied seriously. "It turns out she's fallen in love with a white-haired god who's constantly getting in trouble."

"Sounds like a real jerk," Rayden answered. "Probably doesn't realise what he's got."

"That's her feelings on the matter, too," Hiko said with a grin.

"Ouch," Rayden replied.

"Still hurts? Want me to kiss it better?' she asked playfully.

"That might help," he agreed, and they kissed for the first time, Hiko wrapping her arms around his neck as he slipped an arm around her waist. Rayden paused, his heart in his throat. "Hiko?"

"Ummhhmm," she replied, nuzzling his neck.

"You're really hurting my ribs." She laughed and drew apart, and then kissed her fingers. She pressed them to his lips and he kissed them back. "Sorry."

"It's my fault, I forgot you're still technically an in-patient," she said with a grin.

"I do feel a lot better," he admitted. That caused another laugh, and she leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek.

"I've got to be going, anyway. I didn't expect to be this long, and I have stuff to do in Maresium. Come see me, I'll be at Subaquaritum. You will come and see me, right?" She backed up a few steps, to give herself room to teleport.

"I will definitely do that," he said, waving as she disappeared in an orange flicker. He looked over and found one of the Duck-Bills was watching him strangely. He sighed. "I definitely will do that."

Thunder stood by a window, looking out over the peaceful night vista that made up the Elder Realm, the place where all the Elders lived, with the exception of Hisan. He sighed, and flicked his fingers. A tiny lightning bolt illuminated the room, revealing his son, sulking in the shadows. "What are you doing here."

"I came to see you," Khan said, scowling. "Why do you think?"

"Don't talk back to me, boy," Thunder snapped, not even turning from the window. "Spit it out."

"When are we going to act?" Khan demanded. "It's been a month. Rayden's Ceremony is in two days. He'll have control of the Realm by then!"

"I know," Thunder replied. "That is part of the plan."

"What--?" Khan shook his head. "Why can't you just tell me what you're up to?"

"Because if I do that, it will no doubt be all over the Omniverse by tomorrow morning. No, I'll plan this myself; you just the let the others know when they are needed." Thunder started tapping his fingers on the windowsill. "Two days."


"I was talking to myself, boy. Two days, and Rayden will be the God of Thunder, Lord of Earthrealm." He shook his head. "This was not how it was supposed to be."

"No kidding," Khan snapped, making his way from the room.

Outside, someone was waiting for him.

"Has he explained any more?" Roma asked, leaning against the hall wall.

"No," Khan scowled. "He refuses to tell me."

"Too bad," Roma commiserated, leaning over and sliding an arm around his neck. "That just means we'll have to act on our own."

He chuckled, and leaned forward to kiss her. "I think I'm going to miss you," he said, pulling away, but leaving her arms around his neck.

"What? When? When you're the Lord of Earthrealm and too good for me?" Roma snickered.

"No, when I marry Hiko," Khan replied matter-of-factly. "Thunder's going to arrange it, give me legal access to Maresium, if our plan doesn't work," Khan explained, wrinkling his nose at the word "our". "That's plan B."

Roma withdrew, furious. "You never told me that!" she snapped.

"Why should I?" Khan pulled her over to him. "It's not as though it changes anything with us."

"It's against the Rules to cheat on your wife," Roma said, "so that will change a lot."

"Rules," Khan sneered, "when I am Lord of the Omniverse, I will make my own Rules."

"Lord," Roma sniffed, tracing her finger along his exposed collarbone, "that doesn't sound right. Not important enough."

"You have a better idea?" he asked, sarcastically. She nodded, grinning.

"Emperor," she breathed in his ear. "Emperor Shao Khan, of the Omniverse."

"Emperor," he replied, a smile growing on his face. "I like the sound of that. I like the sound of that, a lot."

"That's what I'm here for." Roma laughed.

"That's not all you're here for," he said with a savage grin. She laughed.

"You know," she said, after she kissed him fiercely, "you talk too much."

"One of my worst qualities," he agreed.

Rayden straightened his robes. His mother sighed. "By the Creator, Rayden, you look fine."

"I feel...wrinkly," he said, tugging on his top shirt.

"You're just nervous. Believe me, the Ceremony, once it starts, will be over before you know it. And then we can all relax." Suyuan checked her hair, to make sure it was still in its topknot. It was. "At least we don't have to worry about any of Thunder's lizards poking their heads in. Do we?"

Rayden sighed. "For the last time, there are none of them left. I've spent the last month clearing out my Realm. I am absolutely certain that there are no more--"

"Mama! Mama!" Meimei burst into the tent, waving her hands.

"What is it?" Suyuan exclaimed, startled.

"Lin ate a bug!" Meimei shrieked.

"A bug!" Suyuan sighed. "What kind of bug?"

"A crawly one," Meimei informed her.

"That narrows it down," Rayden observed. His mother shook her head.

"Rayden, I've got to go take care of this," she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek, for luck. "I'll see you later. It will be fine," she called over her shoulder as she allowed Meimei to drag her from the tent.

The deity sighed, and turned back to the small mirror he had set up in the corner of the tent. He had been so busy cleaning up the mess his father made of the Realm that he hadn't had time to create any permanent buildings. But that would change after today. After today, he would be the Lord of Earthrealm, and able to do what he wanted with the place, with a thought.

"Looking good," a voice called out, as Hiko poked her head into the tent. "Especially that stain down the front of your robes."

"What!" Rayden exclaimed, quickly checking for the stain he missed. His eyes narrowed; there wasn't one. He was still immaculate. "Very funny."

"I thought so," Hiko agreed, standing behind him, arms around his waist. She stood on her tip-toes to see over his shoulder. "You look great. One would almost think you're getting betrothed, not just moving out."

Rayden frowned. "This is a big day for me."

"I know," Hiko reminded him. "I'm not completely clueless and self-absorbed. Only mostly."

He laughed, despite himself.

"There, that's better, keep doing that," she said with a grin, stepping off to the side. "I've got to go. I promised Mother I would only be gone a few moments."

"When are you going to tell her?" Rayden asked suddenly, taking the Goddess by the hand. "That we're...together?"

"Why does she need to know?" Hiko pulled her hand away, and headed out, pausing to poke her head back in. "If we got around announcing everything, it'll just become one big tidbit for Celebria to dish up to everybody with ears. You said yourself that it's better off kept to ourselves."

"I know, but I've been...thinking," Rayden said slowly, and before he could finish, she frowned, hands on her hips.

"You know I hate it when you do that," she said seriously, before bursting into laughter. "Look, Rayden--I've got to go. I'll see you after the Ceremony. Good luck." She blew a kiss, and then ducked out of the tent. He started after her, but was stopped, by his mother coming back in.

"Rayden, it's time," she said, with a proud smile. He nodded, and tugged on his robes one more time before heading out.

"We are here in the name of the Creator," intoned Hisan, Goddess of Fire, Eldest among the Elders. "Let us always remember that in the name of the Creator, all is right, all is good."

"In the name of the Creator," replied the audience, a group of thirty or so assorted deities, mostly Rayden's extending family and close friends. "In the Name."

Hisan motioned with her staff to Thunder, who stepped forward, and bowed deeply towards her. "Announce yourself," she said to him.

"I am Thor, son of Sturm and Lilith, God of Thunder, Lord of Earth, and Elder among the deities," he replied solemnly, his face betraying no emotion.

Hisan nodded. She turned, and from the opposite direction, Rayden stepped forward.

"Announce yourself," she said.

He took a calming breath. "I am Rayden, son of Thor and Suyuan."

She nodded, and turned back to Thunder. "In all things, there is an ending. Today is the ending of your reign as God of Thunder, Lord of Earth. Do you accept this truth?"

"I do accept this truth, in the name of the Creator," Thunder replied.

Hisan nodded, and clapped her hands together. The two deities moved forward until they were merely a foot apart, Hisan standing behind them. "Rayden, do you accept the responsibilities, the duties involved? Do you vow to uphold the Laws and the Rules that the Creator has sanctioned for all deities to uphold?"

"I do accept," Rayden replied calmly, his nervousness starting to ebb away as he realised that this was it, the moment where nothing will ever be the same, ever again.

"He accepts." Hisan proclaimed this to the crowd, and they cheered. She put a hand on each of the deities' shoulder, and bowed her head.

"Creator, we beseech thee. Let the powers flow between father and son, and let the cycle start anew. In thy Name."

"In the name of the Creator," the assembly answered, also bowing their heads.

Rayden felt he should close his eyes, but he didn't want to. He didn't want to miss anything that happened. By chance, he saw that Thunder's eyes were also open, and that he was gazing at his son intently. Rayden startled, seeing the fury in his father's gaze. He almost backed up when he felt a tingling in his legs.

It was as though something was creeping up through his bones. He gasped, and tried to step backwards from the shock, but Hisan clamped her hand down on his shoulder and her grip was surprisingly fierce.

Overhead, a horrendous storm built up, rushing into being, and the assembly began to grow nervous as thunder pealed directly over them. With a crackle and a roar, the lightning exploded directly overhead.

Rayden opened his eyes, and looked up into the kindly face of Hisan. She was smiling down at him. He was lying on the ground. Why was he lying on the ground?

"Up," she said simply, holding out her staff. He pulled himself up by it. He felt... confused. No, not confused. He... he shook his head, and saw Thunder looking at him sadly.

Thunder looked different. Smaller, perhaps. Less luminescent. Rayden looked down at his own hands, and an aura surrounded them, a crackle of blue energy. He smiled.

"Rayden, we must continue," Hisan prompted. "While it is rare for a new God to faint, it is not unusual for a transfer. We must carry on."

"Yes, Lady Hisan," he replied. He looked at his father now, not as a young deity looks to an Elder, but as a God, powerful in his own right, with his own Realm.

"Announce yourself, your new self, for you have the choice of a new name, should you wish it," she said, calmly, resting on her staff.

"I am Rayden, son of Thor and Suyuan, God of Thunder, Lord of Earth."

She smiled, and turned to his father. "You, too, may take a new name if you wish it. Announce yourself."

"I am Thunder, son of Sturm and Lilith," Thunder replied measuredly.

Hisan held up her arms. "In the name of the Creator, the transfer was true. In all things, there is a beginning, and let us now celebrate our newest deity, Rayden, God of Thunder!"

The assembled gods and goddesses took to their feet, cheering and clapping.

Meimei was the first to get to the new God, running through the crowd. "Rayden! Rayden!" she cheered, jumping at him. He caught her, and swung her up. "Are you all right?" she asked breathlessly. "Lin was all worried."

Rayden smiled. Considering Lin was all of eight months old, it was unlikely she was worried. "You can tell Lin that I'm fine."

"That's what I said," Meimei agreed, giving him a hug. "Happy birthday!"

"What?" he blurted. His mother filled that one in, as she and Naturalis joined the happy throng around him.

"We told her it was a special birthday for you," she said, smiling. "She didn't understand the transfers."

"Oh." Understanding, Rayden let Meimei swing back down to the ground, where she immediately ran to the main pavilion, where refreshments had been set up.

"She doesn't waste any time," Naturalis observed.

"Did you, at Medicalis' Ceremony?" Suyuan teased.

"That was completely different. I was a teenager, I was having a growth spurt."

"Uh huh."

Rayden laughed, and started with the crowd toward the pavilion when he felt a gentle tug on his sleeve. "Lady Hisan!"

"Lord Rayden," she said with a nod and a knowing smile. "Very nice performance."

"Uh..." he trailed off, uncertain as what to say.

Hisan's daughter laughed, coming from behind him. "You did make quite a spectacle of yourself."

"Hiko!" he exclaimed. He wanted to kiss her, in celebration, but couldn't, not in front of her mother. And his mother. For a moment, he was worried she would make a careless move, but she was acting as a good friend would.

"Yes, Lord Rayden?" she teased. "And what will your first official act as God of Thunder be?"

"To find out what happened," he admitted. "I have no clue."

Hisan chuckled. "I am sure that Hiko can fill you in, boy. I just wanted to congratulate you. A Ceremony is a special day. I've seen many a young deity startle, as you did; in fact, your father did the exact same thing at his Ceremony. So I wouldn't be worried about that."

Rayden had to admit he had been wondering. "I guess it is a little shocking, don't you think?"

"I wouldn't know," Hisan said dryly. "I never did have a Ceremony, myself."

She walked off without another word, leaving Rayden and her daughter behind, the new Thunder God open-mouthed.

Hiko shut it for him. "Don't look so surprised," she said, linking her arm through his. "Let's go get cake."

"First, tell me what happened," he said, when his wits returned.

" were standing there, looking like a rabbit about to bolt, when the thunderstorm started, and then the lightning hit you," Hiko answered nonchalantly.

"The what did what?" He stopped and stared at her, not sure if she was poking fun at him.

"The bolt of lightning hit you. I was worried myself, and Meimei went hysterical, but apparently your mother and Naturalis were expecting it. Happens all the time with Thunder transfers. Family tradition. You got hit, then you fainted dead away, and we waited a few moments, and then Hisan woke you up." Hiko's voice dropped to a whisper. "Thunder looked ready to kill you."

"This was supposed to be Shao Khan's big day," Rayden replied sadly. "The fact that I have the powers means that now he'll have to kill me to get them."

"That's a cheerful thought," Hiko muttered. He smiled reassuringly.

"Now that I'm the Thunder God properly, we don't have to worry about him any more," he told her. "We won't have to worry about anything."

"A life of carefree bliss, huh?" She laughed. "Sounds good. Sign me up."

They were nearly at the pavilion when Rayden stopped her, and pulled her around, to look her right in the eyes. "Hiko, I want to talk to you about something."

"Talk away," she said, curious.

"I was thinking about--"

"Rayden!" Meimei yelled, wrapping her sticky cake-smeared arms around his waist. "You have to try this food!"

"Thanks, Sparky," he sighed, untangling her and trying, in vain, to wipe the smears of crumbs and icing from his good robes, while Hiko tried, in vain, to hide her smile.

"Rayden! There you are!" Suyuan came out of the tent, took one look at the scene and rolled her eyes skyward. "Meimei--what did I tell you?"

Meimei paused to remember, obviously not coming up with anything off the top of her head. Her mother took her by the arm, and led her in. "Come on, Rayden--you're the one we're celebrating! And you, Hiko--you shouldn't monopolise him like that!"

Hiko grinned. "The last thing I would want is a monopoly," she agreed, sauntering in, Rayden sighing and following after, still trying to brush the cake from his robes.

While he was stepping in, Thunder jostled him on his way out. He stopped to glare at his son, before leaving the tent behind. "Thor!" Suyuan called, jogging after him. "Where are you going?"

"I am leaving," the god replied icily. "My role here has finished."

Suyuan glared. "Don't you think you have something to say to Rayden, first?"

Thunder looked up from his ex-wife to cast a glare in Rayden's direction. "No. I do not." He turned, and teleported out of the Realm, leaving a very irate goddess behind.

"Well!" she exclaimed, mostly to herself. "Well!"

"Suyuan, you knew he was going to kick up a fuss." Naturalis tried to pacify her, eventually calming her down. "At least he didn't make too large of a scene."

"Bad manners," she muttered. "It comes down to lack of bad manners, I think. Honestly-- " Her husband led her back into the tent, and this time Rayden stepped out of the entrance to let them pass, so he wouldn't get jostled again.

"What was that all about?" Hiko asked, sotto voce.

Rayden sighed and shook his head. "The same old thing."

"I'm glad he's gone, personally," Hiko replied. "He was putting a dampener on everything."

"He's good at that," Rayden admitted. "Now, I think I'm ready for some cake--" He stopped, confused by something. "What's that?"

"What's what?" Hiko asked, concerned.

"I can sense something unusual--" Rayden was interrupted by a large explosion that happened just outside the pavilion. The guests, all alarmed, filed out to see what happened. Another explosion rocked the ground from the opposite side, and Rayden had to fight to keep his balance.

"What is going on here?" Hisan exclaimed, stepping through the crowd to the front. "Rayden? Do you know?"

"Yes," he replied bitterly. "Shao Khan."

His brother was standing there, suddenly, in the flesh, his sword drawn. "I came with a Ceremony treat," he snarled with a grin, "I hope you like it. One size fits all."

"Get out of here," Rayden snapped. "I'm not going to fight you."

"Oh, you will," Shao Khan replied smugly, stepping towards him, the sword twirling. "Or I will kill you where you stand. It's fine with me."

"Raimei!" Suyuan roared, the winds picking up and adding to her agitation, "You quit this nonsense immediately!"

"It's not nonsense," Shao Khan retorted, angry at being told off like a small child. "It's about justice! I should have been here, today! This should have been my Ceremony!"

"Well, it's not, so get over it," Rayden took a step forward as well, his new powers building up around him in a crackling display.

Khan glared at him, and raised the sword, but before he could make any other move with it, a sudden ring of fire sprouted around him, sealing him off from all the others. "What?" he shouted, panicked, as the fire closed in, creating a circle around him with only a few inches leeway.

Rayden turned, and saw Lady Hisan leaning on her staff heavily, her eyes betraying the concentration she was using. She waved her hands, and Shao Khan collapsed to the ground, and disappeared in a burst of flame. "I have transported him to my citadel on the Elder Realm," she said tiredly. "Something must be done about this problem. And the Elders will do it, with or without his father's approval."

The assembly cheered. Suyuan simply looked downcast, and Naturalis wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and said a few comforting things to her that Rayden didn't catch. What he did catch was Hiko's gaze. She looked towards Hisan for a moment, and then shook her head. He nodded slightly in response.

"Mother, perhaps we should be going," she said, taking her mother's hand. "It's been a long day."

"It has," Hisan replied, glad for her daughter's support. "Rayden, I am sorry for leaving so soon."

"It's no problem, I'm sorry about--" Rayden trailed off again, his hands falling limply to his sides.

"It is no longer your concern, Lord of Earth." She smiled at him. "It will be dealt with."

"Thank you, Lady Hisan," he said with a bow.

She and her daughter disappeared through an orange-red portal.

Several other of the guests were murmuring that perhaps, they too should be getting along. Shao Khan's reckless attacks had killed any of the party mood left and Rayden knew it. He thanked the guests for coming, and accepted their congratulations, and said goodbye as they left.

Soon it was only him, and Meimei, and his parents.

"Don't worry about it," Suyuan said, rocking Lindara to sleep. "I'm sure what the Elders decide will be fair."

"I'm just wondering how they're going to enforce it," Rayden mumbled. "Shao Khan's not one for accepting his punishments gracefully."

"No," Suyuan admitted. "But I'm sure they will take that into account."

"Uh, Rayden," Naturalis began suddenly, "I was wondering about the living arrangements, from now on."

"I was thinking about staying here. I know I haven't got anything permanent set up, but I've got a tent," Rayden told him. Meimei tugged on his sleeve.

"You're not coming home?" she asked, worried. He ruffled her hair. She didn't protest at all, which he took to be a sign of just how worried she was.

"No, I live in my own Realm now," he told her, picking her up. "But you can come and stay with me, whenever you want."

"Tonight?" she exclaimed.

Naturalis laughed. "No, not tonight. Let your brother get settled in first."

Meimei frowned as Rayden set her down. "Soon, though."

"Very soon," Rayden agreed.

Accepting that, she waved goodbye as Suyuan created a portal, and she stepped through. The portal closed behind them, and Rayden was left, for the first time, in his own Realm.

He couldn't believe how long he'd waited for exactly this moment. But now that it was here, he wasn't so sure he wanted it like this. It was far too...empty.

He set about clearing the mess made by Shao Khan's explosions. They weren't as deep as he first thought, and just left hollows in the ground when he created some grasses to fill them. The pavilion he also cleared away, leaving only a flattened area where it stood, and the left-over cake.

He finally had a piece, sitting overlooking the river valley, while the sun set. It was a beautiful picture. It was also great cake.

When he finished, Rayden lay back and looked up at the stars that spread out through the sky. Thunder hadn't bothered putting in stars, he considered it a waste of time and energy. Rayden couldn't see how to have it any other way. Eventually, he decided, he'd make other planets, around the stars, so that he could let his mortals travel to them. That would be interesting.

Penny for your thoughts, drifted through his brain. Oh wait, I know them already.

Rayden chuckled. You don't know them all, Hiko.

Hiko went into a mental huff. I can sense them well enough, Mr. I Happen To Be Gifted In That Area.

That's not what I meant. Rayden spotted a shooting star. He congratulated himself on the decision to make an asteroid belt; it was definitely worth it.

You're going to have to show me these shooting stars of yours, Hiko said softly.

I should, he admitted. How about tomorrow? You had to leave so early, you didn't get a proper meal.

I had some of your mother's cake, she replied. Very good.

It is, but you have to have some of my specialities, he thought to her. I'll make you a picnic.

A picnic! Hiko squealed with delight. You're on!

Good, he replied with a smile. Then it's a date.

Shao Khan roared, and through himself against the door of his room. It shook and he thought he heard a cracking noise, but it remained intact. Furious, he wound up for another run when the door opened.

He went flying through it, colliding with Thunder, both of them landing in a heap on the stone floor of Hisan's citadel. Hisan herself stood over them, watching through veiled eyes. Thunder got to his feet, pulling his son up with him. "You had better not have been trying to escape, boy," he snarled. "I've had enough of your antics."

"And I've had enough of your 'advice'," Khan growled back. Thunder shoved him through the door, back into the room.

"We've come to discuss your meeting with the Elders," Thunder told him. "It is to be held in a few days in the Great Hall, and will be shown to all in the Omniverse. Is that clear?"

"Perfectly," Khan snapped. "I'm going to be on display for all to see."

"I'm glad you've got it," his father replied. "I will be back to discuss this with you in a few hours." The door slammed shut, and Khan smiled to himself.

"I know, I can't believe it," Rayden replied, tossing back the free drink that Kerlan offered (on behalf of the Ceremony, which he couldn't attend). "Shao Khan out of my hair for good. It's really hard to grasp."

"I wouldn't put too much faith in it," Kerlan advised him. "You know Khan's tendency's to pop back up better than anybody."

"I know, but this is the genius of it," Rayden answered. "The entire Omniverse will be watching this. There's no way he can get around it, without everyone knowing, and everyone ready to turn him in. It's brilliant."

Kerlan shrugged. "If you say so." He set another glass in front of his friend.

"I do say so. Don't you go ruining my mood, Kerlan. The Divine Plan is starting to unfold. Khan's going to have the Elders watching him for the rest of his life, and I have got a date with Hiko this afternoon." Rayden set the glass down with a satisfying clink on the hardwood counter-top, tossing back the other drink.

"Hiko?" Kerlan exclaimed, an eyebrow raised, and Rayden started to choke as he realised his mistake.

"You--can't tell anybody," he blurted, between coughs. The drink had definitely gone down the wrong way. "Hisan doesn't even know. You have to keep it secret."

"I will," Kerlan replied.

"No, I really mean that," Rayden repeated. Kerlan looked hurt.

"I never pass along information that's not free news," Kerlan informed him. "You must be thinking of someone else."

"I thought it might run in the family," the god admitted.

"Speaking of that, Celebria will be devastated when she finds out. If she finds out," Kerlan corrected himself quickly. "She was hoping to get engaged."

"I'm sure she was," Rayden said darkly. "Engaged in what, that's what I was worried about."

Kerlan laughed. "That brings up another point--"

"Don't go there," Rayden advised him. "The fact that Hiko and I have a date for this afternoon is all I'm saying. Period."

Kerlan looked downcast. "I swear I won't tell--"




"You're really mean, Rayden," the barkeeper finally sighed.

"I know. That's what they pay me for." Rayden got up, setting the other glass down.

"Speaking of paying, only the first one was free," Kerlan reminded him innocently.

"You don't have to do this," Hiko said, with a sigh.

"I said I would treat you to a picnic and a surprise, and I will keep my promise." Rayden began to undo the blindfold.

"I know that, I meant blindfold me," she corrected. He chuckled.

"All adds to the effect," he replied, removing the blindfold, and stepped backwards.

Hiko burst out in laughter as she saw the picnic spread out before her. There was a blanket spread on the grass, and several baskets covered with cloths to keep the bugs out. Rayden sat down, and gestured for her to join him. "Come here," he said, impatiently, when she didn't make a move towards the picnic. "Nothing's going to bite. I've worked really hard to make sure you'd like everything."

"You didn't work that hard for lunch, did you?" she asked, looking at the spread of food.

He nodded. "And if you're really good, I'll make you supper, too."

She perked up. "Like what we had the other night?"

He smiled, and gestured for her to sit. Now she was torn, but finally reached a decision. Hiko sighed, and sat down. "I really don't have time for this, you know."

"What do you have to rush off to do? Pour punch? Or drink it?" Rayden's eyes betrayed his humour. She gave him a playful shove and he grabbed her around the waist, pulling her into his lap. "Now, we are going to have a good lunch," he said, seriously. "I've been gathering food from all over my new Realm. Some I even made up, just for you."

"How sweet," she murmured, putting an arm around his neck for balance. "but nothing can be as good as that cake your mother made for the Ceremony."

"Hmmm, we'll see," he replied suspiciously. He whipped the covering off one of the baskets. Small, red, triangular shaped berries sat in a pile. "I was going to save these for after but maybe we can have some of the nibbly things before. You've just got to got to try these. They're strawberries."

"Strawberries," she repeated. He picked one out and fed it to her. She chewed it dutifully, licking her lips. "Not bad. A little tart."

"Don't like tart, huh?" He looked around to another basket. This contained a mixture of grains and dried fruit, but he couldn't even explain what it was before she turned it down.

"Oh, no," she pouted. "Not cereal. I want something sweet."

"Sweet." He gave her a look. "I'll have you know that--" She pouted a little more and traced her finger along his chin and he sighed. "Okay. Sweet it is."

He hunted around for a small wooden bowl with a tightly shut lid that he snapped open. "This little delicacy is made from a bean--"

"Bean?" Hiko exclaimed. "I don't want to eat beans!"

"Let me finish. You'll like this bean. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. I made it from a bean, and the bean is mashed up and then you add stuff, like milk and a bit of sugar--I discovered this quite by accident but both my mother and sisters seem to adore it. I think you will, too." He took a tiny wooden spoon, and dipped it in the thick, brown paste, and held it out to her. She seemed dubious, but took a tiny lick. Her eyes widened, and she finished off the rest on the spoon. Rayden smiled. "I thought you'd like it."

"I do," she agreed, leaning over and dipping her finger into it. "What do you call it?"

"I haven't decided yet." Rayden frowned as he saw her ready to dip back into the bowl, and he moved it out of reach. She frowned as well. "Now, the next thing is a nut that I found. Really, it's better than the other stuff. I can't get enough of them." He pulled over another basket, this piled with shelled nuts, round and light-brown in colour. "These ones are roasted; I find those are the best."

Hiko tried a couple, not timid in the slightest; however, she seemed disappointed. "They're not as good as the beans," she admitted.

"Oh." Rayden was a little confused by that. Personally, he didn't find the bean paste all that great. Good, yes, but not a patch on the nuts.

"Try dipping the nuts in the beans," Hiko suggested. "Ooh, or those berries! I have to try that." She tried to lean over, nearly elbowing him in the face, before he pulled her back upright.

"Okay, okay, that's enough of that," Rayden said, irritatedly. "I went to the whole trouble of making you lunch, I don't want to see you ruin your appetite with beans."

She rolled her eyes. "Fine," she sighed. "But I'm having it for dessert."

"Go right ahead. But you have to eat your greens, first. I scoured the planet and I think I have come up with the best salad ever created." Rayden showed her the bowl. She tried to look impressed. "You're not impressed," he observed.

"It's a salad," she explained. He stared at her.

"It's the best salad ever created," he replied.

"I'm sure it's a very good salad--"

"You're not grasping the concept of ‘best ever'," he told her.

She sighed, and rested her head in the crook of his shoulder. "I just can't get that worked up over salads."

"That's what's wrong with the Omniverse today, no one takes the time to appreciate the simple things," he replied, solemnly. "It's a sad state of affairs that the daughter of the most esteemed goddess ever cannot recognise the best salad ever."

Hiko glared at him. "Do you have to bring that up?"

"Bring what up? Bring--?" Rayden didn't have time to finish the sentence before Hiko got up off his lap and walked off the blanket. He followed her. "What's the matter?"

She didn't answer at first, and he repeated his question. She rubbed her eyes, tiredly. "It's my mother. She's never really been the same since the battle. I think she's taken a turn for the worst."

"I'm sorry to hear that," he replied, honestly.

"The worst part is, I think I'm frightened more for me," Hiko admitted. "My mother has lived a long, long time. She's ready to rejoin the Creator. But I'm worried that I can't fill her shoes, that when I'm Goddess of Fire, no one will listen to me."

"That won't happen," he assured her, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her under her ear. "No can replace your mother, true, but no one is expecting that. You don't need to worry." He ignored a flicker of thought in the back of his head that was disturbed by the way she worded her concerns.

"I'm trying not to," she said, leaning her head against his cheek. "But I--I get the feeling that Mother is expecting something from me. That she wants me to hurry up and do what ever it is I'm supposed to do in this life, before she leaves."

"I'm sure that's not the case," he answered.

"I'm not sure," she countered. She then paused. "I'm just worried, that's all. That I'm going to let her down somehow. I know she expects something of me, she keeps dropping weird hints and making cryptic remarks, usually about you, and I can't follow any of it."

Now it was Rayden's turn to be silent for a moment. "Lady Hisan is very perceptive," he said at last.

"What?" Hiko blurted, trying to look up at him. He stepped backwards from her, and she turned around to face him. "What are you talking about, Rayden?"

"I have something to show you," he replied quietly. "But first you have to close your eyes."

"Not another surprise," she said exasperatedly.

"Yes, another surprise. Close your eyes."

Sighing theatrically, Hiko made a large show of closing her eyes. He took her by the hand, and teleported her away.

"You can open your eyes now," he said, smiling. Hiko sighed, and opened them, gasping as she took in the startling vista.

"It's beautiful," she said, breathless. They were atop a plateau, overlooking a river valley. The mountains that towered around them were a deep jade green, and mist hung over their edges. The river, far below them, was a blue and sliver ribbon weaving through the jungle. "I can't believe this used to be a swamp."

Rayden laughed. "That's not quite the effect I was going for, but oh well. I've worked hard to make it look like this."

"I can tell," Hiko agreed, trying to look every where at once. "It really is beautiful, Rayden. I could stay here forever."

He took her hand. "Then do," he said, softly. She looked up at him, startled. "Stay here," he continued, "with me. Live here. I made this for you, I wanted you to like it. We can have a house here, raise a family. Or just watch the mortals. I don't care, as long as you're here with me."

"Oh, Rayden..." she paused, unsure of what to say, or how to phrase it. "I...don't know."

He nodded, and looked away from her to the valley. She touched her hand to his cheek. "That's not what I mean," she murmured. "Of course I want to stay here with you. But it's Hisan-- I don't know how she will react."

"It doesn't matter!" Rayden replied fiercely, taking the hand she held against his face. "You can make your own decisions, choose your own life!"

"No, I can't," she answered, slowly. "I haven't had my Ceremony, yet. Hisan still has power over me."

Rayden went blank. "What are you talking about? You're older than I am--"

Hiko shook her head. "That doesn't make any difference. I should have had a Ceremony by now; but Mother insists that she will be joining the Creator soon, and I might as well wait." She trailed off, and then looked up at him. "I never saw a reason to disagree with her."

He laced his fingers through hers. "We can ask her. She might approve."

"I'm sure she will," Hiko said, with a slight smile. "She does like you. I'm just worried...that she might think you're trying to take me away from her. I'm all she has." Rayden nodded, but the goddess wasn't finished. "And then there is the question of what powers our children--if we have any--will have. Thunder and Fire...they might be ruled too powerful."

"I'm willing to take that risk," Rayden replied. "Not all marriages are about children, passing on the powers. Take Suyuan and Naturalis."

"Take Suyuan and Thunder," Hiko retorted. "That was a conventional marriage if ever there was one."

Rayden went silent. "I think they loved each other at the beginning," he said quietly.

"They didn't know each other at all in the beginning!" Hiko sighed, frustrated. "Rayden--I know it hurts to think about your family that way, but I'm just trying to show that it's a big step. Just because most people--"

"Most people marry based purely on the basis of their powers!" Rayden exploded, furious. "This is an entirely different situation!"

"I don't see how!" Hiko snapped.

"I'm not trying to marry you for the good of the Omniverse!" Rayden exclaimed. "I have entirely my own, personal, selfish reasons for it."

"Oh? And what's that?" Hiko demanded, irritatedly.

"Because I love you!" he shouted.

There was a long silence while Hiko regarded him with wide eyes. "Oh."

"There, can't you see?" he said exasperatedly. "It's a completely different situation than my parents."

"I would have to say so, yes," Hiko concurred, a blush rapidly forming across her nose and cheeks. There seemed nothing more they could say to each other, and they lapsed into an awkward silence. Finally, Rayden just couldn't stand it any longer.


"Yes," she blurted suddenly, reaching over and kissing him soundly. "Yes, I will."

"What? What--oh," he replied, sheepishly. "I forgot."

She laughed, and kissed him again. "I'll talk to my mother as soon as possible."

"Hiko," he said, very close to her ear, "it can wait."

She giggled, his breath on her neck tickling her, and he smiled as she wrapped her arms around his neck. "I suppose so," she replied, stopping to kiss him again. "I hope you're still planning on making me dinner."

"Even better," he grinned slyly, "I'll make you breakfast."

"They are pretty," Hiko murmured, looking up at the stars. "Maresium doesn't have any shooting stars." Rayden mumbled something sleepily in response, his face buried in the nape of her neck. "Pardon?" she asked.

"I said," he sighed, shifting around and resting propped up on his arm, "that it's a shame."

"I suppose so," she replied, still looking up. "You need a few nebulas."

"Nebulas," he yawned.

"A bit of colour," she explained. "or maybe a few more stars--like a band of them, right over there." She traced the line in the heavens, squinting, with her arm held up. Rayden nodded, and shifted around again so that he was lying down properly. "Pardon?" she asked again, after he mumbled something else.

"I said I'll think about it in the morning," he said, closing his eyes and sighing. He draped an arm over her waist.

"I'm wide awake," Hiko informed him. He didn't answer, and she looked over. His eyes were closed and he was breathing very deeply. She gave him a poke with her elbow. Blinking, he opened his eyes slowly.

"What?" he asked.

"I'm wide awake," she repeated.

"I'm not," he replied with another yawn. "Go to sleep."

"I can't."


Irritated, she turned over on her side, but all this meant was Rayden snuggled up to her, spoon-like. She sighed, and rolled her eyes. She was getting a bit cold, too. Rayden, pressed behind her, was very warm, but her front was getting cold. She sat up, ignoring the grumbles of protest, and fumbled around for one of the blankets. She pulled it up over her, and over Rayden too, and curled it under her chin.

"Better?" he mumbled.

"Yes," she replied.

"Good. Then go to sleep."

She chuckled to herself, closing her eyes.

The first thing Hiko noticed when she opened her eyes was the sun on them. Blinking, she tried to roll over.

"Ow," Rayden grumbled, waking up. She'd accidentally caught him in the ribs with her elbow.


He replied something incomprehensible and rolled over as well, taking most of the blanket with him. Suddenly chilly, she yanked on it back. "Stop that," she told him.

He mumbled again, and rolled back over, cuddling up to her side. He obviously had no problems going back to sleep. She sighed, and tried to fall asleep herself, but she couldn't, not now that it was so bright. Maybe it would be best if she just got up.

She tried to sit up, but Rayden pinned her down with an arm draped over her stomach. "Don't do that," he said, his eyes still closed.

"Why not?" she demanded, lying back down again.

"You're comfy."

She chuckled. "I'm going to get up eventually."

"Eventually. Not right now." He opened his eyes, finally, and looked at her. "Wow."

"Wow what?" She tilted her face towards him.

"You don't have bedhead," he replied. He took a tendril of hair between his fingertips. Like his own, it was short, although hers was longer, to roughly to her jawline.

"My hair behaves itself," she informed him. "I see yours does not."

He smiled. "You should grow your hair longer. It's so pretty--it would look gorgeous down to your waist."

"That's easy for you to say, you wouldn't have to take care of it." She grinned at him. "I think you'd look better with long hair too."

"What? Me?" He wrinkled his nose at her.

"I'm serious. White hair is very distinctive. Only runs in your family, as far as I know." She swept the bangs from his eyes. "It would look...distinguished."

"It would look stupid, more like it."

"I'll grow my hair long, if you do," she said with an impish smile. He looked at her, judging how serious she was.

"You're on." Apparently he decided that she was serious enough. He kissed the tip of her nose to seal the deal. She laughed.

"That tickles."

"Really?" He kissed the tip of her nose again, just to hear her laugh. He moved a bit lower and started kissing her in earnest when he stopped, and looked up.

She stared at him, confused. "What's the matter?"

"I don't know," he answered, looking around him. "I just thought I heard someone say something."

"There's nobody here but us," she reminded him.

"I know." He still seemed uneasy. "Maybe it was just my imagination."

"It probably was," she agreed. "Don't worry about it."

He kissed her again, and then stopped. She was a little annoyed by this. "What's the matter?"

"Just thinking," he said slowly, looking out over the valley.

"About...?" She propped herself up on her elbows and looked with him.

"About us being all alone here. We really need some mortals." He turned slightly, to see her reaction. It wasn't a good one.

"Mortals? Why are you going so gooey about mortals?" she asked, slightly annoyed. "They're not really good for anything."

"I don't think so," he replied. "I think they're really fascinating. I'm going to make millions."

"Millions!" she exclaimed. "They'll over-run the place!"

"Okay, maybe not millions," he conceded. "But lots. And I'm going to make them just like us."

"Like us." She seemed dubious. "What do you mean, like us?" she asked suddenly, suspicious.

"Like normal people," he replied, not picking up on her tone. "Like deities. I mean, I'll change stuff to make them fit in here on Earth, but I want them to look like us, and act like us--no powers, of course--but they'll have lives like us."

"Now I know you're being silly," Hiko replied, turning onto her side and tucking the blanket under her chin. "Mortals aren't like people. They're mortals."

"Mortals are just like us, only with shorter lives and no powers," he insisted.

She paused, deep in thought. "How strange."

"Strange?" he asked, curious.

"I've never really thought about it like that. But their lives are so do they manage to fit everything in? Like having families and making friends and falling in love? There simply isn't time in a mortal lifespan." Hiko sighed. "Poor mortals."

"I'm sure they get by. Doesn't Maresium have mortals?" He rolled over so that he was facing her.

"Yes. Maresians. I like them a lot, they're a wonderful set of mortals, but...I don't know. I just can't get worked up over them," she replied.

"You can't get worked up about a lot of things. Mortals, truly great salads..." Rayden trailed off.

"That reminds me, you promised me breakfast," she said with a smile. "And dinner, too, come to think of it."

"I can make you breakfast still," he replied, "but dinner's a little late."

"Well, then, you'll have to make it up to me," she answered with an sly grin.

"I'll do my best," he responded.

It was easily mid-day before Rayden strolled into the Omniversal Bar, looking very happy with himself.

"I take it the date went well?" Kerlan asked, waving him over and keeping his voice low.

"Very well," Rayden replied, smoothly. "Very well indeed."

Kerlan gave him a sideways glance. "You didn't do anything stupid, did you?"

"Stupid? What do you mean by stupid?" Rayden accepted the drink--nectar--that Kerlan poured for him.

"You know what I mean. You could get in serious trouble for that." Kerlan shook his head. "Serious trouble."

"I didn't do anything stupid," Rayden assured him. "I simply had the most wonderful evening in the entire history of my life."

"Evening?" Kerlan exclaimed loudly, drawing attention from other patrons. He quickly lowered his voice. "I thought you said it was for the afternoon."

"It was," Rayden admitted.

"Then you did do something stupid," Kerlan finished.

"No. I did not do anything that I regret in the slightest," the Thunder God replied.

"Why do I get the feeling you're going to be wishing you hadn't said that?" Kerlan mused, pouring himself a drink. "Rayden, Rayden. If you get in trouble with the Elders for fooling around when you're not betrothed, you can't come running to me for help."

"Who says I'm coming to you to bail me out?" Rayden retorted. "And who says we're not betrothed?"

This statement caused Kerlan to nearly drop his glass, attracting even more stares from other customers. "What?!"

"I asked her to marry me," Rayden answered smoothly, as though it was a simple answer to a simple question that one was asked every day. "She said yes."

"I thought you said H--her mother didn't know."

"She doesn't."


"Obviously, she's going to ask, first," Rayden supplied.


"I'll say, oh. Watch it, you're going to overflow," Rayden told him. Kerlan snapped back into reality and stopped pouring his drink. He slid it over to his friend.

"Here. This one's on the house," he said, beaming.

"What about this one?" Rayden asked, innocently, holding up the glass he was already drinking from.

"Okay, that one's on me, too," Kerlan agreed. "By the Creator. If you keep this up, you're going to drink me out of the Bar."

"Or under it," Rayden agreed. "Cheers." they clinked glasses in a silent toast to Rayden's good fortune.

"I take it that with all the excitement last night, that you didn't hear the news," Kerlan said, after his drink.

"News?" Rayden asked. Kerlan laughed.

"I guess that mean's no. Well, according to one of the Elders who was in earlier, the Scroll has been broken." The barkeeper leaned over. "Smashed."

Rayden was horrified. The Scroll was a proclamation of The Rules and Laws, as set down by the Creator, which all deities must follow. It was written on a piece of gold leaf, which was encased in glass to keep it safe, and it was hung in the Great Hall.

"Smashed?" Rayden repeated, finding his voice.

Kerlan nodded. "It happened sometime last night. No one knows who--or what--did it. And that's not all of it, either. Everyone's been reporting strange events. I came in this morning to find all of my glasses smashed. I had to create an entirely new set."

"I heard voices last night," Rayden acknowledged.

"I'm sure you did," Kerlan replied, giving him a look, which he ignored.

"Hiko didn't hear them, though," he finished. "I thought it was just my imagination."

"Maybe it wasn't," his friend agreed. "There's something strange going around. Bad energy. I'm not sure what it is, but it's got me worried."

"I wonder if I should check in at home--at Officina," Rayden corrected, deep in thought. "See if anything is going on."

"That's a good idea. I'll check with Celebria, she can probably fill in some of the blanks," Kerlan mused.

"Or she'll make them up for you," Rayden muttered.

"I heard that. You know she's dependable in an emergency. Mostly." Kerlan laughed. "You've even got me thinking like that."

Rayden got up, leaving the glass behind. "I'll be going, then. I check in later, okay?"

"Don't forget your brother's trial is in a few days," Kerlan replied. "Maybe that has something to do with it."

Rayden laughed. "I doubt it. A mystery isn't like Khan's style--petty thug work is. I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation in all of this."

"The Creator knows." Kerlan rolled his eyes skyward. "The trick is getting the Creator to 'fess up."

Rayden laughed, shook his head, and teleported to Officina.

Officina was deserted. Lindara sat in her highchair, at the kitchen table, crying, by herself. Rayden picked her up, and she started to calm down.

"Naturalis?" he called, rocking her gently. "Mother?"

"Rayden!" Meimei yelled, running into the kitchen. "There you are! There you are!"

"Whoa, Meimei, what's all the fuss?" he asked, concerned.

She launched into a monologue. "Well first we all woke up and Mama said she was going to make breakfast and we all came into the kitchen and then Naturalis went into the herarium-- "

"Herbarium," Rayden corrected absentmindly. Meimei scowled at him.

"--the herarium which is what I said and then he started yelling and it turns out the plants were all dead and Mama said take care of your sister and then she went into the herarium and they started fighting and then Naturalis hit his head on something and they had to go to the Hospital and they said Meimei take care of Lin we'll be back soon," Meimei finished, drawing a breath.

Rayden rubbed his eyes with his spare hand, trying to take it all in. "So something killed all of Naturalis' plants and he hit his head--"

"And it was bleeding," Meimei interrupted. "Bleeding bleeding bleeding all over the place and I had to wipe it up which was yucky--"

"Meimei, calm down," Rayden snapped, growing irritated. "Mother's gone to the Hospital? Right?"

"Right," she replied, not sure why her brother was getting so angry at her.

"Okay, then." Rayden looked around. Sure enough, a bloody towel lay in the sink, evidence that Meimei had had to clean it up, and wasn't sure where to put the mess afterwards. And it must have been serious if they were willing to leave a six-year-old in charge of an infant.

Still rocking Lindara, who had by this time calmed down significantly and was merely gurgling in displeasure, Rayden opened the door to the herbarium. The smell of rot was nearly over-powering; it was heating up in the sunshine and the dead plants were decaying very quickly. Several of the pots were broken, shattered on the floor. One of the large metal shelves that Naturalis had stocked his seedlings on was tipped over. Blood was splashed around the edges; Rayden guessed what had happened.

Furious about the loss of his beloved plants, Naturalis had thrown some to the floor, argued with Suyuan about it, and then somehow collided with the corner of the shelves. The massive amount of blood wasn't as serious as it first seemed; Rayden knew head wounds tended to bleed profusely.

The only question remained as to how, exactly, Naturalis had connected with the shelves, but that was a question his mother could answer.

"Rayden?" Meimei called into the herbarium, not wanting to step on the shard-strewn floor.

"Yes?" he called over his shoulder.

"Did you hear somebody calling you, last night?" she asked, timidly. He whirled around, shocked.

"Did you?" he asked, coming over to her. She nodded, tearfully.

"It woke me up. I thought it was Mama, but she was asleep." She sniffled. "I didn't like it."

"No, I didn't either," he said, drawing her into a hug. "Now, come on, I'll tell you what: I'll make you breakfast. Are you hungry?"

She nodded, still sniffling.

"Good. Then I'll make you--"

"Rayden?" she interrupted.

"Yes?" he asked.

"No ketchup on mine, please."

He sighed, and ruffled her hair. "Sure thing. Let's get the kitchen cleaned up first."

It was about half-an-hour later when Suyuan came flying in the door, her long black hair loose and in tangles. "Meimei!" she called, skidding to a halt as she came in the kitchen. "Rayden! There you are."

"Here I am," he agreed, setting down the spoon that he had been feeding Lindara with. Meimei was also sitting down, enjoying a bowl of hot cereal. "What's happened? Is Naturalis all right?"

"He's fine, he'll be fine," she corrected. "He's got a nasty head wound but Medicalis says it's nothing a good spell won't cure."

"What happened, exactly?" Rayden asked. "I saw the mess in the herbarium."

Suyuan sat down with a long, drawn out sigh. "You've heard about the Scroll?" When he nodded, she continued. "There's been all sorts of weird things happening, all over the Omniverse. And when Naturalis went into feed and water his garden, after we all woke up, he found all his plants were dead. Every single one of them, even the cactus! We couldn't kill that one off even when we tried to! Remember, we were afraid Lin or Meimei would get into it?" Rayden nodded again, and she tried to pull back her hair, to get it out of her face, but that didn't work.

"So, Naturalis wakes up, finds them all dead, flips out completely. I went in, trying to find out what the matter was, and he's flinging pots on the ground, simply furious. I've never seen him that made in all his life. Well, it just got worse; he accidentally banged into one of the shelves in his anger and it knocked into another one that whacked him on the side of the head. There was blood everywhere. I was so frightened, I didn't know what to do. I put Lin in the highchair and told Meimei to look after her, and then took him off to Medicalis. I thought I could just drop him off at the Hospital, and come back for the girls, but it was packed, Rayden, just packed. So many people with injuries. Most of them weren't serious; a couple had broken legs. Another had slipped and had a concussion." Suyuan shook her head. "It was a madhouse. The entire Omniverse is in a panic, today."

"I know, I was in the Bar, earlier. It was packed, although I didn't know why at the time," Rayden replied. Lin was fussing, so he fed her another mouthful. That shut her up for a moment before she spit most of it back up and cheered at her achievement. Rayden sighed and dutifully wiped her chin clean.

"There's something not right," Suyuan murmured, staring off into space. She regained her focus and set her sights on Rayden. "I have a feeling this has something to do with your brother."

"You're the second person to tell me that," Rayden told her. "And I don't see how this could be anything to do with Shao Khan at all."

"Just a feeling," Suyuan answered, shivering slightly. "Just a feeling. How's Hiko?"

Rayden started coughing suddenly. "What?" he asked, his voice strained.

"Hiko. You've been getting so friendly with her, lately, I thought that maybe you had talked to her today. But I guess you're not that sort of friend, yet. Are you okay?" She looked at him, concerned, and he nodded.

"I'm fine. Really." He paused, "And we're not really those sort of friends, no."

"Oh. That's too bad. She's seems nice. A little too aggressive from what I've heard, but nice."

Lin started clapping her hands, and giggling. Rayden threw her a look and fed her another spoonful, which she managed to keep down.

"Mama?" Meimei peeped up, finishing the last little bit of her cereal, "Is Naturalis still bleeding?"

"Goodness, no, dear," her mother replied. "He's fine."

"That's good." Meimei scraped the bowl clean. "'Cause I don't want to clean it up any more." She put her bowl and spoon in the sink and ran off to play, leaving Rayden and Suyuan exchanging looks.

"Please tell me I was never like that," Rayden said slowly.

"You had your moments," Suyuan admitted.

Hiko appeared in the center of Insula Tropicus, realising with a start that it was still ruined from the attack. She had learned, since that day, to teleport to Laetitiae Paeninsula, her mother's new residence, but something had been distracting her.

She chuckled to herself. She definitely had her mind on other things...Rayden. She had to find her mother and ask permission.

There was a splash behind her, and a Maresian rose half from the waves and saluted her with a jaunty wave. "Lady Hiko," he called. "What brings you here?"

She looked around the remains of her home. "I had my mind on other things, Loligula," she admitted. "Have you seen my mother?"

"I have not see the Lady Hisan in many days. She has been living in her other home, away from the Realm?"

The Elder Realm? Dammit. "Thanks, Loligula," she called. "I'll go find her."

"Is something bothering the good Lady?" The Maresian hovered along the edge of the surf, his tail no doubt anchoring him to the sandy shoal.

"I--" Hiko began to tell him, but stopped. He was only a mortal, after all. What did they know.

"Is it women's business?" he laughed, flicking spray up with his hands. "I know. I will get my wife to talk to you. She is good for that."

Before Hiko could tell him not to, Loligula jumped up and then dove under, no doubt to find his wife, and have her talk with the good Lady. The goddess sighed, and sat down on the edge of the beach, letting her toes dabble in the waves. It would be nice to have someone to talk to, she admitted to herself. I don't have any female friends.

The Maresian soon returned, his wife by his side. They were nattering to each other quickly, and stopped a few meters from shore. "I am Delphiniella," the woman said, bowing slightly, above the waves. "My husband says you would like to talk to me?"

Hiko laughed, and patted the sand beside her. "Have you got a few hours?"

Delphiniella seemed very unsure, but Loligula gave her a push and then swam away, jumping up out of the waves every so meters. "Go on!" he yelled, with a broad grin. "Don't worry, I'm leaving!"

Hiko laughed again. She knew her mortals well, and yet, she had never bothered to have a close look at them. Rayden's remarks came back to her, and she realised that mortals really werelike deities. In a way.

Delphiniella was unsure about the entire meeting, but she dutifully came up the beach, pulling her long blue-green sparkling tail through the sand bar. Hiko rolled up her robes and came farther into the water so that the Maresian wasn't totally on land.

The two sat for a while, neither sure where to start. "This was your husband's idea," Hiko said, finally. Delphiniella chuckled.

"I guessed as much. 'Hurry up! The goddess wants to talk to you!' seemed a little..."

"Fishy?" Hiko supplied without thinking. She caught on to her remark, and they both laughed, the Maresian's tail flicking water over them as it curled in delight. The laugh broke the awkward silence, but the goddess still didn't know where to begin. "I don't really have any girl friends," she admitted, at last.

"You can tell me anything, and it will go no further," Delphiniella told her. "Sometimes it's nice just to talk with women. I love my Loligula, I do, but there are things that he just doesn't understand."

At the mention of the word love Hiko brought her head up sharply. "Ah," the Maresian said knowingly.

"It's not what you think," Hiko blurted.

"Oh?" Delphiniella's blue lips turned up in a smile and she tossed her seaweed-woven hair, scattering droplets on her shoulders.

"Okay, maybe it is," Hiko said resignedly. "He's asked me to marry him."

Delphiniella squealed delightedly. "Who, Lady Hiko? Who? Is it Rayden?"

"How could you tell?" she asked the mortal.

"He is the one who helped save our Realm," the Maresian shrugged. "It was just a guess."

"Well, you're right on the money." Hiko sighed, and set her head down on her knees.

"On the what?" Delphiniella's blue-ish nose wrinkled daintily.

"Never mind. The problem is--Delphinium?"

"Delphiniella, M'Lady. You can call me Delphie, if you like," the Maresian replied.

Hiko smiled. "Thank you. And you can call me Hiko, if you want."

"Oh no," she replied, tossing her head more violently. "I could never do that."

Hiko didn't know how to respond. "I'd like you to," she said, quietly. She looked out over the blue of the horizon. "But not if it makes you uncomfortable."

"I will...try," Delphiniella answered, at last.

The goddess nodded. "That's all anyone can really ask."

There was a long silence. "Have you turned him down?" the mortal blurted. "You never told me whether you said yes or not."

"Oh, I said yes!" Hiko exclaimed with a laugh, but the moment of gaiety was short-lived. "But I'm not sure how my mother will take it."

"The Lady Hisan is very wise," Delphiniella said solemnly. "She will know what to do. But is that your only concern?"

"What do you mean?" Hiko asked her. She noticed, that whenever she looked the mortal in the eye, the woman looked down.

"There seems to be something else troubling you," the Maresian replied. "I just have a feeling."

"I have lots of feelings, and they're all conflicting with one another," Hiko said glumly.

"Perhaps you can find solace at the temple," Delphiniella consoled. "I like to go there, for the peace."

"In Formosa, you mean?" The goddess shook her head. "I don't think so. But maybe, the Great Temple--it's very peaceful there, too."

"I think," Delphiniella began, "that peaceful is necessary for temples."

Hiko smiled. "The Creator will show me the way," she said, looking again to the horizon. "I will go to the Temple. Thank you for the idea, Delphie."

"You are most welcome...Hiko," Delphiniella replied with a solemn nod.

The light was filtering in, broad beams of sunshine that fell every so feet along the aisle. Hiko walked solemnly through the Temple. It was empty, although someone had been there recently; a lingering smell of incense drifted through the air.

She knelt in front of a table, filled with candles. She closed her eyes, brushing her hair out of her face, and tried to calm down her inner emotions.

Oh, Creator, she thought, I don't know what to do.

Hiko wasn't expecting an answer to come out of the blue, and she wasn't expecting to be instantly calm and tranquil. She didn't know what she was expecting, that was part of the problem. Finally she got up, to stretch. "I can't kneel any more," she said out loud, her voice having a strange effect in the surroundings. She took off her outer robe and bundled it up, going to sit in a corner of the Temple. She put her robes on the floor as a cushion, and sat down, her back to the corner. She titled her head up, and closed her eyes.

She could see a flicker of light--the candles. A sweet smell of scent and a gentle breeze. Hiko looked down at the baby in her arms, and smiled. She touched her finger to the baby's hands, and the tiny fist curled around it. She was so happy, and yet a tremendous sadness weighed down on her, pressing down on all sides. The baby looked at her with wide blue eyes, then closed them and fell asleep.

Hiko awoke with a start. It was dark now; the beams of light were gone, and the candles had died down and gone out. There was no longer a smell of incense, only of stale air and charred wax. Her heart was pounding, and she stood up, feeling trapped and closed in. It took a great deal of effort, but she managed to calm down, and ease the feelings of panic. But she couldn't do anything about the cold hand that clutched her insides. Her heart...

She touched a hand to her stomach gently and felt so weak that she had to sit back down, again. It can't be true...please don't let it be true. In front of her, she could see the table, still covered with candles.

An idea came to her. She jumped up, ignoring the wave of vertigo, and grabbed two of the candles. She set them on the floor in front of her. "I need to know, oh Creator. I need to know," she whispered. She lit the first candle with a spark from her fingertip. "Let this be the 'yes' candle, and let the other be the 'no' candle, oh great Creator. Please, show me the answer."

The second candle, which was shorter than the first, was having problems lighting. Spark after spark fizzled and died without ever touching the wax. Hiko began to feel panicked again, especially when she saw the 'yes' candle burning brightly, with a tall, steady flame. " I pregnant? Am I going to have a baby? Please, let me know, I need to know," she whispered tightly.

The 'yes' candle seemed to dance in front of her. The 'no' candle wasn't lighting at all, while its partner's flame grew higher and higher. She let her hand drop, and everything in the room seemed to narrow down to the candle, focusing on its flame.

Hiko felt a gentle shake on her shoulder. "Rayden?" she murmured, blinking. It was still night, but it was not Rayden who had woken her.

It was a small child, a small, blond child that looked barely old enough to walk. It was holding a bouquet of flowers. Hiko slowly sat up. She felt cramped and stiff after lying on the cold damp floor of the Temple. "Who are you?" she asked, confused.

The child looked at her sadly. "It doesn't matter," it said with a soft voice. "None of us are who we seem."

Hiko began to realise who she was talking to, and felt faint. The child reached out and touched her shoulder, and immediately, she felt calmer, more at peace. "You asked, and I answered," the child said, holding a few leaves and a large white flower out to her. "That's fennel and cedar, for strength. That's magnolia, for perseverance. And this--" the child brought out a small white flower from behind its back. "That's a snowdrop, for hope."

Hiko took them, cradling them in her hands, unsure of what to say. The child touched her cheek. "Dear Hiko," it said gently, "Remember that without adversity, there is no true happiness. I give you my promise: that you will live a long and happy life with the ones you love."

"I don't know what to do," she whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks.

"When the time comes, you will know," the child replied. At once, she felt sleepy, and closed her eyes. She opened them again to find that the Temple was again empty. Both candles had burned out, long ago.

Wiping her eyes, she got to her feet, and gathered up her robes. She tucked the bouquet she had been given into her pocket, for safe-keeping. Sudden footsteps sounded from the back of the Temple, and she looked up, startled.

"I'm sorry," the stranger said, a tall, dark deity. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

"You didn't," Hiko was quick to say. "I...uh, fell asleep."

The deity smiled. She wasn't sure she liked the way he looked at her. She nodded once, and brushed past him, eager to leave.

Naturalis looked up from his bowl of soup. "Ah. Rayden. Nostalgic already?"

"Actually," Rayden admitted, "I came to see you. See how you're doing."

"My brother is a genius," Naturalis said, touching a finger to his temple, which bore no mark. "Not the easiest person to live with, but a genius. I feel fine."

"That's good to know," Rayden answered. "I also came around to see if Meimei wanted to come to Earth for the day."

"Oh." Naturalis stirred his soup, carefully, not looking at his step-son. "Well."

Rayden waited for him to spit it out; the god of Nature would, eventually.

"Today's the big trial," Naturalis said, slowly. "All scries in the Omniverse will be able to pick it up."

"I know," Rayden said, wishing the elder would just get to the point.

"We're going to keep Meimei in, today, away from anything that might bother her. You know how she is where Shao Khan and Thunder are concerned." Naturalis finished quickly, then dove into his soup.

"Ah." Rayden started to get up. "No problem, I understand."

"Good, good. It was your mother's idea--Rayden? Is something the matter?"

Rayden was staring off into the distance, and then he nodded to himself. "What? Sorry--I was distracted."

"Oh, it's nothing," Naturalis admitted. "Maybe she can come visit tomorrow."

"I'll come by, then," Rayden agreed, and headed for the door.

"No problem, I understand," Rayden said to his step-father, as he got up from his chair. Naturalis started to say something in response, but he was interrupted.


Hiko, he thought back. What's the matter? You feel upset.

Please, just come to Maresium. I really need to talk to you.

Dimly, Rayden was aware that Naturalis was still talking. As soon as Hiko broke the link, he turned back to the god.

"What? I'm sorry, I was distracted," he said.

"Oh, it's nothing," Naturalis replied. "Maybe she can visit tomorrow."

"I'll come by, then," Rayden agreed, making his way to the door. Whatever was the matter, it sounded urgent.

Maresium was not exactly as he remembered it. Inside of a white beach and palm trees, this was a wide rocky shale beach, rimmed with cliffs and topped with cedar trees. It was just as warm, and the sea just as tropical; the ocean and landscape clashed terribly, in Rayden's opinion.

"Lord Rayden!" called a voice. The god turned to see a merman half out of the waves, beckoning. "Lord Rayden!"

"Yes?" Rayden replied, confused.

"I am Loligula," the merman yelled. "I am...advisor to Lady Hiko. She asked me to guide you to Subaquaritum, that she would meet you there."

Rayden stood on the shore, watching as the merman dived under, and resurfaced several meters farther out. "Excuse me, Lord Rayden!" the Maresian called. "Please follow me!" He dove again.

Rayden took a few steps into the surf, very confused and a little annoyed at Hiko. She knew that he wasn't fond of swimming. He could, yes, but not for great periods of time. And definitely not in an ocean.

"Lord Rayden--" Loligula began, but the god interrupted him. "I have a better idea," Rayden told him. "You swim to Subaquaritum, and when you get there, I'll teleport in. Okay?"

The merman seemed confused for a moment. "Surely it would be easier--"

"No, trust me, this is easier," Rayden replied firmly.

The merman shrugged and dove again. He didn't surface, and Rayden tracked him through the water. At last, Loligula reached what he knew as Subaquaritum; and Rayden took a deep breath (just in case) and teleported in.

The city was a marvel. It was built on the ocean floor, shallow enough that sunlight still filtered in. It was encased in a great dome that allowed the air-breathers to stay happy, while a cris-crossing system of shallow canals--like sidewalks--kept the water dwellers happy.

"Do you like it?" Loligula called, as Rayden appeared. "My forefathers helped design it."

"It's amazing," Rayden replied honestly, looking around him. "I--"

"Rayden!" Hiko cried, appearing out of nowhere and throwing her arms around him in a fierce hug.

"Hiko!" he exclaimed. "What's the matter?"

"Not here," she said, leaning against him. "I need to talk to you in private."

"Okay," he agreed, bewildered.

"Lady Hiko! Lord Rayden!" another voice called. This was a merwoman, calling from one of the canals. "The trial is about to begin!"

"We've got to watch this," Rayden said, disengaging from the tight embrace. "Do you have a house here?"

"Yes," Hiko agreed. She seemed dismayed, and very agitated. She suddenly shook her head, as if she was noticing reality for the first time. "Yes. Of course. We have to watch the proceedings."

She took him by the hand, leading him through a maze of canals, bridges and buildings. There was a natural hill that the city was built around, and on top of the hill, out of the reach of the water-dwelling Maresians, was a house, a villa, made of white brick and whitewash.

"This is where we stay when we're here," Hiko pointed. "Mother and me," she explained, suddenly. "I--"

She stopped, a confused expression on her face.

"What's the matter?" Rayden asked. She started to gasp, and bent over, clutching her chest. "Hiko!"

"Squeezing--can't breathe--" She was beginning to turn red. Around them there were screams from the inhabitants. Rayden couldn't understand why, and he was too worried about Hiko to care; but he chanced to look up, and instantly understood.

The seas were boiling.

Whether they were actually boiling hot or simply frothing, he didn't know, and frankly, it didn't make a difference to him at the moment. "Hiko," he said, trying to lift her up, "we've got to get you to the house."

"Can't--" she gasped, her lips starting to turn blue. Panicking, Rayden did the first thing that came into his mind--he started a weak transfer, helping her energy with his own. That seemed to work; she began to breath again, and her colour returned to normal.

"It's the Realm," she whispered, her voice drawn. "Someone's attacking the Realm."

The Elders stood in a semi-circle around Shao Khan. Around his wrists were chains of energy, to keep him still. Kerlan, the God of Communication, stood to one side, watching everything. It was his job to "broadcast" what happened, so that everyone who could scry--or all adults--could see the events and the final determination.

"Shao Khan," Hisan intoned solemnly. "Son of Thunder and Suyuan. You are before the Elders so that we may discuss what should be done with you. You are a disruptive and dangerous presence, and you must be controlled."

"I have no intention of following any of your commands," Khan snapped suddenly. All of the Elders--his father included--were shocked by this statement. "You'll have to kill me. And I don't think you're capable of doing that."

"Shao Khan," Hisan said very quietly, the knuckles clutching her staff turning white under the strain, "you are trying our patience. You will behave yourself."

"Or what?" he sneered. "Threats. Empty threats, all of it. I have the real power now, power over you, and that's why you're so frightened of me. Admit it."

Hisan began to laugh, until the laughter faded into a cough. She was clutching her chest. "What--"

"Lady Hisan!" Thunder was the first to leap to her help. "Lady, what is the matter?"

"I cannot breathe--" Hisan murmured, her breath consisting of shallow gasps. "I cannot-- "

"What can we do?" asked Mizuno, Goddess of Water. "Can we help, Lady Hisan?"

"I think she just need some time to herself," Thunder said. The Elder leaned on him.

"Yes, yes," she gasped. "I need a break. We will adjourn."

The other Elders nodded, and stepped off, leaving to their own private chambers. "I will help you," Thunder offered.

"Thank you," she said gratefully. "Leave Khan here. Kerlan, you may leave as well."

"Thank you, Lady," Kerlan said with a bow, "but someone must watch him. I volunteer."

"Thank you," Thunder said, casting a contemptuous glare at his son. "That is appreciated. Lady Hisan, let us go."

They started from the Hall, and Khan began to laugh. Very loudly, and to himself. Kerlan sat down, and settled in for a long wait.

Celebria shook her head sadly. "Poor Rayden. Having to grow up with Khan. No wonder Rayden's so jumpy whenever I see him. I would be, too."

Amai, the Goddess of Justice scoffed. "I don't think that's the only reason Rayden's jumpy."

"Whatever can you mean?" Celebria started, but just then, the scrying pool went blank. "What? Kerlan's stopped sending the visions!"

Amai frowned. "There's no point in showing Khan being a maniac. I don't think I'd want to watch that, anyway."

"Hmm." Celebria didn't seem convinced. "I wonder why they didn't invite Rayden to the trial? He should have been there."

"It's just for Elders, Celeb. You know that." Amai shook her head. "It's all nonsense, anyway."

"Thunder could've invited Rayden," Celebria continued. "We must have had a good reason not to."

"There you go, making up stuff that you have no idea about, and reading too much into everything," Amai countered. "You've really got to stop that."

"Someone's attacking the Realm..." Rayden trailed off, still looking at the "ceiling" of the great, clear dome. "But Shao Khan is in the custody of the Elders! He couldn't possibly..."

"I don't care how's he's doing it!" Hiko cried, watching the inhabitants of her Realm fleeing in terror. "We've got to stop him."

"I will," Rayden said fiercely. "It's time somebody ended this once and for all. If the Elders can't--then I will." He closed his eyes, ready to teleport away. Nothing happened. "Something's blocking me. I can't get out." He tried again, with a similar lack of effect.

"He's surrounding it," Hiko answered, her eyes growing glassy as she stretched out with her powers to the utmost, trying to figure out what was going on. "He's dampening it."

"How? He doesn't have any powers!" Rayden exclaimed angrily. He was beginning to pace. He couldn't just stand around--but he was trapped in the city.

"What's happening?" cried one of the merpeople. "Lady Hiko?"

Hiko turned, confused and angry. "I don't know! I don't know--" she stopped herself, mid- sentence. She drew herself up to her full height, and took a deep, calming breath. "Delphie," she began to the merwoman, "Send as many cetas as possible out to the depths. Tell everyone to get to land--if they can--and if not, to meet in the city. We'll try and provide shelter here."

"Aye, Lady," Delphie said, splashing away.

"The cetaceans will carry the message quickly," Hiko told Rayden. "We can try and fortify the city, to protect it." He nodded.

The seas were frothing over their heads, the waves slamming into the domes, huge tsunamis that roared high enough to expose the dome to air. The city shuddered, and frightened mortals poured in, congregating at the base of the hill, as close to their goddess' temple as possible.

And Hiko was losing her powers by the second. "I can barely feel anything around me," she wailed, shaking her hands. "I can barely even sense you and you're right in front of me! How can I hope to protect them?"

"It'll be all right," Rayden tried to console her. "The Elders must be rallying support. Hisan would never let this happen, you know that."

"Hisan," Hiko muttered, teeth clenching in fury. "Why isn't she here? To help us?"

Something sparked inside Rayden's head. Figuratively speaking. "That's it," he said, with a sharp intake of breath. "That's what he's doing. Shao Khan. He's somehow made a shield around Maresium. We can't get out, Hisan can't get in. And without your mother's support, your powers are fading."

Hiko stopped, mid-pace, a shocked expression firmly in place. "That's...brilliant. How do we get around it?"

"We'll find a way," Rayden said confidently. "It's Shao Khan. He's bound to have over- looked something."

There were sudden screams from outside, that cut off Hiko's remark. Both deities rushed outside the shelter to see a beam of purple light surrounding the domed city. The light seemed to push back the water on all sides.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Rayden said slowly.

Thunder helped Hisan lie down on her couch, the one she had brought in, specially, from Maresium. It seemed to bring her a little joy and comfort. Its legs were encrusted with seashells, and the leather--although luxurious--smelled faintly of fish.

She coughed. "You know, Thunder, I am too old for this."

"Lady Hisan--" he began, but she waved him silent.

"I have been here since the Beginning," she said with a sigh. "It is high time that I rejoin the Creator, at long last." She looked at him with her clear blue-green eyes. "Do you know how long I have waited for this moment?"

"How long?" Thunder asked, politely. He was growing more confident by the moment, but did not show it.

Hisan waved him closer, and he bent down. "Since...the beginning," she whispered. "I have been waiting all my life."

He was a little taken back by the comment. No one had known how old Hisan was; she always had seemed the same, a stately older woman, for as long as any one could remember. "One thing troubles you, though, I can tell," he said, finding his voice again. "I can sense it."

She looked at him curiously, her skin very pale, and her breath, shallow. "Oh?"

"You are worried for your daughter," Thunder continued. "As a parent, I can understand this."

"Oh," Hisan replied, settling back on the couch. "I trust Hiko."

"To do what, my lady?" he asked, suddenly. He stood up from his crouch and began pacing the room. "Hiko is a little... unruly."

"She is very obedient," Hisan corrected.

"To you, of course. But to the rest of the Omniverse--she picks fights, she argues, she has no friends, and quite frankly, disturbs me."

"What are you saying?" Hisan whispered, another cough racking her chest.

"I know what it is like, having an unruly child. I was one myself, you know," Thunder said, with a smile at some memory he did not care to share with the goddess. "And I know the one thing that can settle a deity down."

Hisan regarded him with a questioning look. He knew that she trusted him. He knew that she valued his counsel, and his advice.

"She needs to be betrothed," Thunder finished, in a low voice. "That will really...settle her down. And she will be provided for."

Hisan closed her eyes. "I had hoped Hiko would marry before I journey on. I had hoped-- " she coughed again, and tilted her head to face Thunder. Her blue eyes bore right into him, but he remained stoic and refused to let her know what he was truly thinking about. "You would not suggest this, if you did not have some one in mind." She said it bluntly, and he smiled.

"You know me very well, Lady," he replied. "Indeed, I know of a perfect match. Their powers are compatible, and I have known this young man a long time. He is very trustworthy, loyal and practical. The perfect thing for a flighty young fire goddess."

Hisan chuckled. "She would never agree."

Thunder frowned. This wasn't supposed to happen...but he would find a way around it. The longer this took, the more chance there was of Hisan dying before he could seal the deal. "Lady Hisan, will all respect possible, it isn't necessarily her decision."

Hisan stared sharply at him. "What?" she croaked. "Are you saying that I betroth her, without her consent?"

He sighed, as one deeply hurt by the truth he was about to utter. "Yes. You know as well as I do that she will not settle down on her own."

Hisan was obviously confused by this. "I...don't know," she whispered. "I..."

Thunder drove in the last point. "It is the last thing that you can do to show her that you love her," he said, playing the concerned colleague and friend to the utmost. "The best thing you can do is assure that she is set, for life."

"Look!" screamed one of the assembled mortals. "There's people out there!" It was true. Mortals--two legged air-breathing mortals--were appearing overtop the dome. They immediately began hammering away at the protective wall with swords and axes.

"They're going to break through," Hiko breathed, startled. "They're going to attack us from the inside!"

"They're going to attack us?" exclaimed Delphie, horrified. She looked to her husband, and they began murmuring to each other in a series of clicks and whistles. Other merpeople joined in excitedly, the conversation growing until it included almost all of the crowd gathering around the deities.

"Lady Hiko," Loligula said suddenly, "We wish to help."

"Thank you, Loligula, but there's nothing that you can do. I can't do anything!" she replied, furious with herself.

"We can help, Lady," he said fiercely. "We can attack the mortals ourselves. We are not defenceless. This is our home, and we will defend it. Who's with me?" His voice rose and was drowned out by the full crowd cheering at the top of their lungs.

"No--I can't ask you to--" Hiko stuttered, overwhelmed. Loligula gave her a blue grin.

"You didn't, and you don't have to," he replied. He turned and began issuing instructions in Maresian, and the crowd began to disperse.

Rayden watched the entire event with contemplation. Hiko turned to him, wearily, but with a new thread of hope. "If they keep the mortals out of our hair," she said, "defeating Shao Khan is the only thing we have to worry about."

"Not exactly," he said slowly. He shook his head. "I can't believe I've been so blind."

"What? What are you talking about?" Hiko exclaimed.

"This isn't Shao Khan," he said simply. "We've been going at this the wrong way, and more importantly, we've been overlooking the obvious."

"The obvious what?" Hiko snapped, her temper starting to fray.

"Shao Khan doesn't have mortals," Rayden replied. "He doesn't have a Realm to support them."

Hiko felt her knees go weak. "Then who...?"

Rayden was deep in thought. "If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say he's in league with Roma. He must be collaborating with someone; Roma's the closest to him, outside of Thunder. Thunder." Rayden's voice dropped in anger. "No doubt he knew about all of this from the beginning."

"That can't be right," Hiko replied, her thoughts starting to gather together. "Roma doesn't have shielding powers. She's a third-rate goddess, with more ego than ability."

"Then there's something we're still overlooking," Rayden agreed. "But at least we're on the right track."

The mortals were swarming around the surface of the dome, furiously hacking at it with what ever they held as weapons, when several gates opened towards the bottom.

"What's going on?" yelled a captain, noticing a movement of the Maresians down below.

"They're--they're attacking!" yelled one of the younger flunkies. Several of the merpeople with legs were crawling up the sides of the domes, armed with vicious tridents, as well as giant squids that used their tentacles as grappling hooks, catching a hold on the slick surface, as well as several of the invading mortals.

"Get them!" the leaders yelled, leading the charge.

"They can't win!" Hiko exclaimed, watching them with horror. "They're no match for trained killers!"

"That's not the worst of it," Rayden agreed. "Without water, most of your fighting force is useless."

"I should never have agreed to this," Hiko whispered, shaking her head. "It's a doomed battle."

"It's not doomed," Rayden said fiercely. "We just have to find a way to--Hiko?"

Hiko went pale white. "Mother..." she whispered. Her legs gave way and Rayden barely had enough time to catch her. "Mother..." she sobbed, tears streaming down her face. "You can't die..."

Rayden cradled her, confused, until Hiko whispered "You can't die..." and then he realised with a start the fatal mistake. Cutting Hisan off from her Realm could very well kill her. As cold as the thought was, he realised that they could turn that to their advantage.

"Delphie!" he roared, catching the attention of the merwoman, who couldn't leave the water, and so was unable to fight. "Call your people off! Now!"

"What?" she stuttered, but she reacted very quickly to his tone and more importantly, to the expression on his face. She began signalling her messengers, and the orders spread throughout the city, and then out to defending Maresians.

Hisan was very quiet, and very pale. Thunder watched as the life was ebbing out of her, but still she had not given him an answer.

"Lady," he prompted. She turned to look at him, her eyes glazing over.

"I love my daughter," she whispered, her voice barely audible and strained. "I want her to be happy." He saw the look on her face. Her eyes were beginning to cloud over, and he knew that he had her in the palm of his hand.

"This will assure she is happy," he told her. "She will be well looked after, by one that help her to calm down."

Hisan was watching him, making up her mind. "I want your daughter to be happy as well," Thunder said gently, taking her hand. "Believe me, I do."

"I believe..." she murmured. "In the name of the Creator..."

"In the name of the Creator," Thunder breathed.

"I betroth my daughter, Hiko, to..." Hisan paused.

"Cosmos, God of Space," Thunder supplied.

She nodded faintly. "He is a good choice," she muttered. "I know of him, and I have never heard a complaint. I trust you implicitly, Thunder. You vouch for him?"

"I do," Thunder nodded.

"Then I betroth my daughter, Hiko, to Cosmos, God of Space. This I do in the name of the Creator. May their marriage be fruitful."

"May it be fruitful. In the Name," Thunder replied, ecstatic, but remaining expressionless. "It is done."

"It is done." Hisan sighed, her head tilted back onto the couch. "As am I."

"Retreat!" yelled one of the leaders of the defenders. "Retreat, now!"

Like a receding tide, one-half of the battle suddenly turned and fled, reaching the safety of the city before the invaders could give chase.

"What happens now?" asked one, Tructa, by name. "What do we do?"

"I want the Maresians capable of being on land to gather over there," Rayden pointed, assuming leadership, while Hiko lay in the arms of Delphie. "The rest of you are to assemble around the parameter of the dome. Is it possible to relay messages to those not in the city?"

"Yes," Loligula replied. "The cetas and the squids are standing by, as are the Tiburians and the metas. Do you want me to tell them something, Lord Rayden?"

"Tell them to stay alert," he said, after a moment. "They should able to recognise the sign to attack when they see it."

"Sign, sir?" asked Tructa. "How will we notice the sign?"

Rayden looked to Hiko, who was half-conscious and muttering. "You'll recognise it," he promised. "Now, here are the rest of the instructions for you all..."

"How's she doing?" Rayden asked, kneeling down.

"She's growing hotter by the moment," Delphiniella replied, in the process of draping damp seaweed on the goddess' forehead in an attempt to cool her down. The seaweed was sizzling from the sheer heat.

"Right on time," Rayden murmured. He put a hand on Delphiniella's shoulder. "I'm transporting the others to the ruined island--"

"Insula Tropicus," the merwoman supplied. "I heard the instructions, Lord Rayden. Would you like me to tell the Lady when she wakes up?"

"If I'm on the money, you shouldn't have to," he answered, getting up and leaving to address his new troops.

"That's the second time someone's said that to me, and I still don't know what it means," Delphiniella muttered.

Cosmos cast a withering glare towards his ally, Roma. She returned the look with malice.

"You are not in charge here," she said with a snarl. "This is Thunder's plan."

"I know that." Cosmos spoke with a deadly certainty. "I have been in on it since the beginning."

"What?" Roma exclaimed. "That's a lie. He didn't even tell Shao Khan until before Rayden's Ceremony."

Cosmos was silent, and she grew more agitated. Finally, he replied, in an even, dispassionate tone. "Thunder knows his son is too impatient to follow through with an attack such as this. That's why he was not informed. I on the other hand, can wait for my turn patiently."

"You and Thunder deserve each other," Roma snarled, although she didn't elaborate on the remark. "Hey--what's that?" The scry that they were using was a elegant mirror that hung on the wall before them. "Rayden's calling the troops off! We've won!"

"He's regrouping," Cosmos corrected contemptuously. "He won't surrender."

Roma rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "And what makes you so sure?"

"I know," Cosmos said, with absolute certainly. "I've been watching Rayden over the years, and he never gives up without a fight. Ah, see, he's dividing the troops up. He plans to attack on two fronts."

"What?" Roma scowled, and pushed her way in front. "No he's not. He's teleporting some of the troops of the city! They'll be defenceless."

"Perhaps," Cosmos agreed. "Perhaps not. I am concerned about where Hiko is, during all of this. Scry, show me Hiko." The picture changed, to show Hiko lying half-submerged in one of the canals, while merpeople tended to her. "Interesting."

"Good, so Hiko's out of the picture as well," Roma said. "That only leaves us Rayden. And the longer he's cut off from his Realm, the better our chances grow."

"Hmm," Cosmos murmured, neither an agree nor a dissent. "I wonder."

"I don't," Roma sneered. "I act."

"Therein lies the difference between us," Cosmos said coldly, and the tone of voice implied in no uncertain terms to let the matter lie. Roma was impatient, and egotistical and had massive inferiority complexes, but she wasn't stupid. She wisely said nothing in response.

Hisan sighed. "I want you to know, Thunder, that I appreciate all that you have done for me."

"I want you to know that I have appreciated having your counsel," Thunder replied smoothly, confident in his victory.

The goddess smiled at something. "My daughter," she began, her voice starting to crack with the strain, "has a saying. That Immortals never die..."

"They only fade away," Hiko muttered, her eyes rolling underneath her lids. Delphiniella sighed, and tried to wet her lady's head. But the heat from the goddess was intensifying; it almost hurt to approach her.

"I hope that what ever Lord Rayden is planning, it happens soon," the merwoman said to one of the gathered crowd.

"Don't worry, Delphie," her friend replied. "The gods know. They will provide."

Delphiniella looked over head, to the invading mortals that still hammered, trying to break their way in. "I do hope you're right, Cyprinia."

"Lord Rayden?" one of the mermen asked him, "What are we waiting for?"

"I'm not sure--" Rayden replied honestly, until he spotted something on the horizon. "Correct that. We're not waiting any more. Take your positions, everyone."

The crowd of Maresians formed themselves into rows and spread themselves out along the beach. There was a underlying current of determination--they may die, but they were going to save their Realm.

Within a few moments, even the most myopic of merman could see what was approaching--a ship, full of armed mortals, ready to attack. Obviously, Roma had fallen for Rayden's scheme--she was diverting her troops away from the city, and towards something that she hoped would be more successful.

"Loligula," Rayden whispered, while using his mental powers towards the mortal, "it's time."

Scyther of the Realm of Usirapi watched as the island seem to approach rapidly. His Lord had told them to take care of Rayden's band of poorly armed provinicials, before they could do any harm. Scyther smiled to himself, and raised his sword. He always did like fishing.

They were nearly on the beach when the boat was suddenly slammed, against the side. "What the hell--" Scyther roared, whirling, demanding an explanation. He got it, in the form of a giant tentacle that was wrapping itself around the hull of the boat.

Horrified, he ordered his men to start hacking at it. No sooner had they freed themselves than another fleshy arm wrapped itself around the bow, and began to squeeze, hard.

The hull was cracking; they could all feel it, under their feet. "Get off the ship!" he yelled, making a run for the railings. They were in shallow enough water, they could make it to the beach, if they avoiding the giant squid.

What Scyther didn't count on was that the squid was not alone.

Giant sharks, their mouths filled with rows and rows of jagged teeth fell upon his men, ripping them to shreds, or simply swallowing them whole. Scyther killed one shark, but the effort was wearing him down. He couldn't keep himself above water. He slipped under, and was lost.

"Good," Rayden muttered. "It's working." He turned to the assembled crowd. "Make sure that any that survive that--that ambush don't make it past the beach."

The Maresians raised their tridents in assent. "Good," he muttered again. "Roma's done her bit. Now it's time to do mine."

He closed his eyes, and cleared his mind as best as he could, under the circumstances. Within his meditative state, he could feel the shield around Subaquaritum; it was being generated by someone with strong powers in the area. But Rayden was positive that no matter who was creating the block, they wouldn't have prepared to have their own plan thrown against them.

They were blocking Hiko and Hisan's access to their Realm; if Rayden could create a similar spell around the shield, it would, theoretically cancel it out. Giving the mortals in the city a fighting chance, as well as giving Hiko her full powers. It was hard work.

There were screams and cries of fury and fear all around him; the energy was agitated, and he had to work hard to focus it. But slowly, and steadily, he managed to weave the spell together, and created it around the shield. There was a moment when both shields were inexistance simaultaneously; and then with a slight pop that Rayden felt rather than heard, the original block fell away.

The water roared back around and over the city with a vengence. The invading mortals were taken completely by surprise, but fought their way to the surface. They thought they were safe. They were wrong.

By the dozens, mermen and women gave flooding out of the city. Safe in their own element, they now had the advantage. They carried tridents, spears and harpoons. They came from below, and the invaders had almost no chance against them.

They fought, to be sure, ferociously, and with all the strength they possessed, but no person created for life on dry land can survive in the water for very long. For each invader that the merpeople dragged down the depths and certain doom, another slipped under of their own weariness.

Within moments, there were very few of the invading mortals left. However, before the Maresians could finish them off, boats began appearing in the water, armed with harpoons and similar weapons. The mortals began to fire into the water, and it seemed as though the tides were changing yet again.

"What the hell is that noise?" remarked one of the mortals from Usirapi. "It sounds like whistling." He threw a spear and it caught a Maresian who floundered for a moment before sinking to the depths.

"I dunno," the other remarked. "Omanyte! Release the nets! That'll hold them!"

"You think so?" asked the first. "They're fish."

"They're also air-breathers. You watch, we'll catch us a good haul before long. Cosmos assured me," the second remarked proudly.

"Cosmos?" the first breathed. "He gave orders to you?"

The second nodded.

"Sir!" cried the underling named Omanyte. "Sir--something's approaching from the southwest!"

"Something?" he barked. "Give me specifics!"

"It's a group of large, fast moving objects, approximately fifty feet in length, each." Omanyte paled visibly under his scales. "It's a group of whales, sir."

"Whales," his superior sniffed. "We can take 'em."

"They'll be under us in a few seconds--" Omanyte grew paler and paler. "They're here!"

His cry was punctuated by a sudden and tremendous blow to the ship. The deck suddenly pitched port, and the mortal sailors were sent flying. One of the whales breached, heaving most of its enormous mass clear of the waves, and slammed down onto the bow. The entire vessel tipped up in the air; crashing down again into the water, cracking in half with the force.

The sailors found themselves suddenly in the water, faced with giantic creatures that could swallow dozens whole, with an single gulp.

"Cosmos!" screamed the unfortunate Omanyte, before he left for a watery grave. "Help us--"

Cosmos flung the mirror against the floor. The scry shattered into a dozen pieces, one of which slid to a stop by Roma's foot. She picked it up.

"It's not over yet," she told him.

He scowled. "Our forces are in ruins. Rayden is able to block my shields. How do you propose..."

"We do it ourselves," Roma said with a snarl. "I'm sick of being backstage to all the action. I'm going in."

She created a portal, and stepped through.

Hiko mumbled, tossing her head back and forth, while her aura of fire grew by the second. Frightened and concerned, Delphiniella and the others withdrew to farther down the canal; they couldn't bear to be within a few meters of the blazing goddess.

It was Cyprinia who first noticed the intruder. She clicked frantically, alerting the others; but they were all overwhelmed by a blast of energy, and scattered in terror.

Roma strode through the city, her knife drawn. She could barely wait to use it; it was a gift from Shao Khan, and she thought that Hiko would make a fine first test subject for it. The goddess lay, almost unconcious, half immersed in a stream. She was glowing with the power of Fire, but Roma knew that the powers were not yet hers to control. She knelt next to the goddess, braving the extreme heat.

She grabbed Hiko by the hair, yanking her head up, and leaving her neck exposed and vunerable. Roma took the knife out from its sheath.

"I only wish..." Hisan breathed, "That I could have made Hiko happier..."

She sighed again, and her head drooped against the leather of the couch. She began to fade, until she disappeared completely.

Thunder finally allowed himself to smile in triumph.

Hiko's eyes suddenly opened. Startled, Roma nearly lost her grip, but she stayed firm. She brought the knife down, but a hand grabbed her by the wrist, holding the knife tip above Hiko's neck.

Slowly the Goddess of Fire forced the knife back, while the fire aura grew in intensity around her by the moment. Roma gasped, the flames beginning to envelope her as well. She dropped the knife and it clattered to the ground. She teleported away.

Rayden opened his eyes. The merpeople were now holding their own with the help of the cetas and the sharks were already on the way, as well as the giant squid. It would all be over, soon.

Loligula jumped out of the waves in joy, several of his comrades following suit. "We've won, we've won," he repeated over, and over. "We have won! Maresium is safe once again!"

"Don't be sure--" Rayden began, when all of a sudden he felt as though someone had punched him in the chest. He doubled over in pain, and managed to look up as a sudden plume of fire enveloped the sky.

Hiko-- he thought out, automatically. The flame was coming from Subaquaritum, he knew, which was several dozen miles away--for it to be seen at the Insula--he didn't even want to know what it would be like at ground zero.

The earth was shaking, under him.

"Tsunami!" one of the Maresians screamed. They all took up the cry and immediately, all began to run inland. They obviously knew what they were talking about, Rayden did not. He called to Loligula for help, but all the water dwellers were gone. To deep water, he realised.

There was a roar in the air that he couldn't place, until he saw the line across the horizon. It took him a second before he realised what it was: a giant wave. A wave miles high, and gaining speed and force with every second.

He turned to the land dwellers, fighting to remain calm. "Gather together!" he called. "I'll try and protect you!" Frantically, he wove a shield around them, trying to create something that would protect them against something so powerful. The water line at the beach was drawing away, it was so far out now that he could barely see it any longer. But he could see the wave. He took a deep breath, concentrating his power. The mortals were convinced they were dead. He tried to send out a mental reassurance, but it didn't help. The Maresians had seen the power of a tsunami, and appearently, none of them had ever witnessed one so big.

The wave was nearly upon them. Rayden closed his eyes, determined to keep the mortals safe, when suddenly, he felt a warm presence, one that strengthened and reinforced his shield.

The wave struck and even protected, Rayden felt overwhelmed. But the shield held, and while the water crashed down, the mortals never felt the pressure. They saw the wave, and heard it, but they were protected under an dome of energy that crackled and rumbled like thunder.

At last the wave subsided. The island was totally awash; no land remained any more. But there were mortals gathering around the shield; water dwellers, returning now that the danger was over. Rayden let his shield fall. Immediately he slipped under water; he fought furiously to surface.

A pair of strong arms lifted him and he broke through to the air. "Thank you, Lord Rayden," Loligula said with a grin. "It appears Maresium owes you once again.

"Rayden!" Hiko cried, leaping to her feet the moment he teleported into the city. "Rayden--"

"Hiko," he murmured, falling to one leg, weary beyond imagining. "You're all right."

She smiled at him, and he noticed how much brighter she seemed. "I am," she replied, taking one of his hands. Her smile faded. "Mother's...gone."

"I know," he answered. He tried to get up, and she put his arm around her shoulder. When he protested, she smiled again.

"Now, don't go giving me that 'I am Thunder hear me roar' routine," she said with a sly grin. He shook his head slowly. And then sneezed. She started to lead him towards her new house, her own house.

"We'll get you dry in no time," she said, giving him a gentle squeeze around the ribs. "Oh, I'm so happy, Rayden. When Mother died, I was shocked, and frightened, but then--I don't really know what happened. I woke up, and it was as though I had woken up from a dream; that all my life before was a dream. I don't remember what happened, exactly, but for whatever reason, the attackers are gone. We beat Shao Khan. Again."

"I've got to fill you in," Rayden muttered with a sigh. "I think there are some things you need to know."

Her smile faltered. "I have some things I need to talk to you about, as well, Rayden--"

"Lady Hiko?" boomed a loud voice. Both dieties looked up to see Thunder, with a tall, thin man in tow.

"Thunder," Rayden growled, his energy returning quickly. "You have some nerve--"

"I came to talk to Hiko, alone," Thunder snapped. "That means without you."

"About what?" Hiko demanded. "I don't have anything that needs to be said to you."

"I am the bearer of some interesting news," Thunder replied slyly, casting a glance at his companion. "But you will wish to hear it alone."

"Oh, I will, will I?" Hiko snapped, her fire power begin to show itself.

"Hiko," Rayden murmured, "it's not worth it. Go talk with them. I'll stay right here."

She turned to him. "Are you sure?"

He nodded. She kissed him, as a goodbye, and didn't feel like pulling away, but she did, and walked towards Thunder, gesturing to her house on the hill. They teleported away.

Shao Khan glared at Kerlan with distaste. The Communications God sat in the corner, glaring back. There was a sudden crackle as a diety teleported in unexpectedly.

Kerlan leapt to his feet, ready to sound the alarm when Roma lashed out with a high kick, catching him on the side of the head. He wasn't a fighter; he collapsed instantly.

"I love you," Khan said with a smile. "What's--" he trailed off, scowling. "You lost, didn't you!"

"It couldn't be helped. Your daddy's little scheme worked too well. Hisan died, and the second she did, Hiko went on the warpath. I barely got out intact." She rubbed the exposed skin of her arms. He noticed then that she was a lot more red than normal; she looked as though she had been out in the sun for far too long. "We don't have much time."

"Time for what?" Khan growled, but she ignored him and gestured towards his hands. He held them out and with a few whispered words, she broke the spell. The chains vanished.

"We can still get a Realm," Roma told him. "I know of a perfect oppurtunity. You were right to aim high--just not so high."

"What do you mean?" he asked her, rubbing his wrists. "What are you talking about?"

"Outworld," she breathed. "Its ruler is an insignificant god. It's rich, and peaceful, and completely unprepared. All this intrigue failed Cosmos and Thunder; let's show them how to do it."

Khan smiled. "Lead on."

Thunder immediately made himself feel more at home, and sat down upon one of the leather sofas, as thought he owned the place. Hiko decided to ignore the smug behaviour for the moment, while she took her own seat, a simple wooden chair.

The tall, thin, dark-haired deity, whom she recognised after a time as Cosmos, the quiet and unusual God of Space, remained standing, stiff and formal.

"Get this over with," she said with an irritated sigh.

"Such hostility," Thunder purred. "You'd think you'd be more grateful."

"Grateful? Grateful?" Hiko stared at him as though he'd grown another head. "Why should I be grateful that you tried to overtake my Realm?"

Cosmos paled. Thunder, ever the diplomat, kept his expression neutral. "What are you talking about?" he asked, politely.

Hiko bristled. "I'm not going to play games with you," she snapped. "I know that you and Shao Khan were behind it all."

Thunder laughed. "Hiko, I can assure you, and I swear in the Name, for this, that Shao Khan and I were both in the Elder Realm while you were being attacked."

Hiko narrowed her eyes. There was no way that he could have said what he just said, and not be telling the truth.

"But you are right, in a way," he continued, non-chalantly. "We shouldn't be playing games with each other."

He reached inside his outer robes and pulled out a scroll. It was the kind that were used for official documents. He unfurled it.

"A marriage certificate?" Hiko blurted, bewildered. "What has that got to do with me?"

"Please read it," Thunder said, giving it to her. She snatched it away, and looked over it. Almost at once she paled, visibly, and got ot her feet, shakily.

"This...this is impossible--" she whispered, her heart seemingly stopping inside her chest. "This--"

"Is perfectly legal, I assure you," Thunder replied with a grin usually resevered for reptiles and other-cold bloods. "It was made shortly before your mother, the respected Lady Hisan, who will be missed by all, journeyed on."

"This is impossible!" Hiko cried suddenly. "It has no bearing, any longer! I have power over myself, now!"

"Yes, you do," Thunder admitted. "However, this was created before your mother died, in effect, when she still had control over you. Therefore, it still stands. It is still valid."

Hiko turned on Cosmos, livid. Her fire powers sparked into being, and he took a cautious step backwards.

"I wouldn't react so negatively," Thunder continued, smugly. "These sort of marriages happen every day. They are the norm. They are what keeps the Omniverse going."

"I refuse!" Hiko screamed, outraged. "I refused to be bound by this!"

"You have no choice," Thunder retorted, his composition starting to slip a little in the face of her fury. "You are bound by Law."

"I will fight it," she snarled. "I will take it before the Elders!"

"That is your right," Thunder said, in a low voice. "But remember, they will look upon it as I do: as a meeting between to of the most powerful dieties in the Omniverse. You and Cosmos are perfectly suited, power-wise. Completely compatible."

"I...don'!" Hiko fumed. "I will fight this with every ounce of strength that I have!"

Thunder stood to his feet. "You, young lady, have a lot to learn about submitting to tradition. Arranged marriages have always been done, since the beginning!"

"So have murders," Hiko growled, taking a step towards him. "Your point?"

He refused to be bullied, and showed it. "I do not have to argue it with you. You are to be married, and that is final. You can scream about it all you want to, it won't make an ounce of difference." He suddenly tilted his head to one side, as if he was listening to something. "I am being called to the Elder Realm. There is nothing more that I have to say to you, Hiko. Accept your destiny."

"Destinies are chosen," she said slowly. "It is fate that is final."

He glared at her, and teleported away.

Cosmos watched as Hiko and Thunder started in on each other, each trying to bully the other into submission. Hiko seemed so antagonistic, so sharp and willing to fight that he began to wonder whether or not he should have suggested this to Thunder. Thunder's first choice had been Shao Khan; but Hisan would never have agreed to that, and all three of them knew it. Cosmos, a longtime ally of Thunder, had been a natural second choice.

Her fire aura blazed around her, and he took a step back. His own powers focussed on shielding and negative space; but perhaps he could train himself to create offensive powers, as well. She looked so magnificent, from where he stood. He wondered what it would be like to control that much power, to wield so much with so little effort.

Without realising it, he was reaching out to her, trying to make a mental connection. It wasn't until after Thunder left that she realised it and turned on him.

"What are you trying do?" she yelled, furious at the intrusion into her mind. She created a fireball that blasted out at him. He weathered it well, but he staggered under the force.

He got to his feet, slowly. "You're over-reacting."

"Over-reacting?" she blurted, stunned at the statement. "Over-reacting? To the fact that my life has just been signed away? Over-reacting?"

Cosmos scowled. He wasn't used to dealing with such contempt. The animostiy between him and Roma was nothing compared with the scorn coming off Hiko in waves.

He reached out again, this time more subtly. "I'm sure it's not that bad."

"I have a plan for my life, thank you," she snapped. "And it's better than anything you could ever offer."

"That hurts," he replied sarcastically. He reached out, almost there...

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said contritely. "Did I hurt your feelings? How terribly rude of me."

He could she her topmost thoughts now. Not surprisingly, they were of him, and Thunder. And Rayden. He had seen the two of them kiss only moments before, but he didn't realise that they were so close. She still wasn't aware of his efforts. He reached in deeper.

"Stop that!" she roared, very suddenly aware. A wave of fire swept him off his feet, but not before he had seen what she kept secret.

"You're--" he stuttered, stunned, falling to one knee. Such a condition was very, very rare, for the punishment was very steep. "You're pregnant!"

She stopped suddenly, a horrified expression on her face. She couldn't seem to breathe, but staggered backwards, gasping, her face dead white. Cosmos slowly got up, a grin spreading over his face. "They'll kill you," he began. "You, the child and the father. The worst crime you can commit in the Omniverse is have an unsanctioned child, you know that. Everyone knows that."

"It's not true," she whispered, collapsing in a chair. "That must be a rumour."

"A rumour?" He laughed, taking a great pleasure in seeing the once so confident reduced to shock and panic. "It's no rumour. It's engraved on the scroll, itself. I've seen it, read it. The Laws state that only sanctioned couples are allowed to have children; to protect the Omniverse from spontaneous powers."

She was shaking. "I--"

"I bet I know who it is, too," Cosmos drove in the final stake. The figurative--and possibly literal--final nail into her coffin. "Rayden."

Hiko looked up, aghast.

"Won't Thunder be pleased to find out," Cosmos continued, almost with glee. "Two of his enemies wiped with a single moment of passion. How ironic. Together you stand, together you fall."

"No," Hiko whispered, "No, nothing can happen to him..."

"Oh, it will happen," Cosmos assured her. Unless...."

"Unless?" She looked up at him, pleading in her eyes.

"Unless you agree to the marriage. That you say it was your choice and that you obey me fully," Cosmos snarled, glaring down at her. "If you agree to that, I will agree not to reveal your secret. I will even raise the child as my own. But you must swear to go along with everything, or the deal is off!"

Hiko's world shattered around her. In one moment, with her only secret revealed, all hope that she had of a happy life with Rayden crumbled around her like ashes. Like a sandcastle washed away by the sea. Cosmos wanted her to marry him, and he promised to keep her secret safe. It was the only way that she could keep Rayden from harm. Their child from harm.

She looked up at him, tears welling in her eyes. "I...agree," she said slowly.

Rayden looked up as Hiko came towards him. She was pale, extremely so, and Cosmos hovered at her elbow.

"Hiko," Rayden exclaimed, starting towards her, but she backed away, not meeting his gaze. "What's the matter?"

"Can you please return to your Realm?" she asked, slowly. "Please. I need some time to myself."

"I don't understand," he said, bewildered, and hurt. "What's--"

"Please, Rayden," she cried, the emotion thick in her voice. "Do as I ask. Please."

He nodded, trying to get her to look at him, but she would not meet his eyes. He closed them, and teleported from her Realm.

"What have I done?" she whispered to herself.

Cosmos smiled. "You've made the best decision that you could, under the circumstances."

She looked at him, a flash of comprehension lighting her eyes. "`When the time comes, you will know what to do'," she murmurmed, to herself. "Perseverance, strength and hope."

"What are you talking about?" he sneered in return, but she didn't answer him.

He opened the door and walked in, heading towards his normal place at the end of the Bar. As he did so, he checked the face of every patron he passed.

"Looking for someone?" Kerlan asked.

Rayden nodded. "I haven't seen Hiko in three days," he said sadly. "I can't even get in touch with her."

"Oh." Kerlan looked bewildered. "But--"

"I know, it's confusing me too," Rayden admitted.

"I meant, why would she not see you with the marriage only three days away?" Kerlan finished.

Rayden's head snapped up. "What?"

"Hiko announced the engagement, while she was at the Hall, yesterday," Kerlan replied. "I--thought you knew."

"I haven't said a word to her in three days--I didn't..." Rayden trailed off, a horrible realisation starting to dawn on him. His heart nearly stopped. "She's not marrying me."

"What?" Now it was Kerlan's turn to look at the other in confusion. "But I thought you said that you two were--"

"We were," Rayden finished grimly. "Thunder. This must have something to do with what Thunder told her. Must have. I've got to find him." He leapt off his seat, and teleported away. Kerlan watched him go, just shaking his head sadly.

"Thunder!" Rayden roared, his powers crackling around him. "Where are you?"

"I'm right here," his father replied, stepping out of the shadows of his room. "What's the fuss? And I didn't realise we were on a first name basis." His voice was tinged with hidden threats, but Rayden was not in the mood to notice, or care.

"What did you tell Hiko?" Rayden said, very slowly and dangerously. "I know it's you behind all of this."

Thunder sighed, as if it was all too much for him. "You know, I think you're right. I think it's time to come clean." He smiled. "Hiko and Cosmos are getting married, and I was the one who got Hisan to accept."

Rayden's face drained of all colour. "You did this to get at me," he said, in a whisper. "It was all to get back at me."

"Partly," Thunder admitted, with the easy honesty of one who has washed his hands of the entire affair. "Mostly to set Cosmos up as a possible ruler of Maresium. It wasn't easy, convincing Hisan it was for the best; but in the end she agreed. Convincing Hiko was another matter entirely. I'm not sure how Cosmos did it at all. He refuses to tell me."

"You can't make her," Rayden answered in a strained voice. "She can't be forced!"

"Again, you're partly correct. You see, she can be forced to marry, if her guardian wishes it; but on the other hand, she could fight it, and eventually the marriage would be dissolved. A lengthy and tiring process for all involved, I can say from experience. But that wasn't necesary in this case." Thunder's smile deepened, enjoying the expression on his son's face, and he decided now was the time to drop the final bombshell. "You see, she's agreed willingly."

The effect was not what Thunder was expecting. Rayden laughed. "You're insane," he said bluntly. "She'd never agree to that."

"Why don't you ask her yourself," Thunder snapped, his smile fading. He snapped his fingers.

Cosmos and Hiko suddenly appeared. He was holding on to her elbow, as though to keep her from running off. Rayden was stunned, speechless.

"Rayden," she murmured, an expression of panic creeping into her voice, "It's not what it looks like."

"Then explain what it is," he said slowly, the hurt thick in his voice.

"I--" Hiko started to say someting, but Cosmos squeezed her arm tightly and she looked over to him, the courage draining right out of her. She stopped, and shook her head, unable to say anything.

"Now, my dear, tell my errant son exactly what is happening in three days time," Thunder said to her, in a very patronising voice.

Without raising her head, unable to look Rayden in the eye, she answered. "I am marrying Cosmos, out of my own free will; my own choice."

Rayden took a step backwards, incapable of understanding what she was saying. "This is a joke, it has to be."

"It's not a joke, Rayden," she replied, her voice thick and her eyes welling with tears. "I wish it was."

"Now, now," Cosmos said, jerking on her arm, savagely. Rayden glared at him furiously, but the diety did not release her. "Don't worry about it, Rayden," the god continued, in a thoroughly infuriating smug tone of voice, "after all, you can still continue to see her. Be friends with her, as long as you have the proper supervision, of course. Wouldn't want any games being played, in my own Realm, after all."

Rayden looked to Hiko, silently begging her to change her mind. To say something, anything, that would change all of this, set things back to the way they were supposed to be. She did not. She wouldn't meet his gaze, and keep her eyes firmly on the floor.

After a moment, he sighed, resigned. He turned, and started to leave.

"Rayden!" she cried, darting forward, before Cosmos yanked her back. "Rayden, please, don't hate me for this--I have to tell you something--"

"That's enough of that," Cosmos growled savagely. He and she teleported away in a flash of purple light.

Rayden looked to Thunder. The Elder diety stood by, watching everything with a small, secret smile of triumph. He did not say anything, and neither did his son, who left without any further comment.

"Silence!" Mizuno roared. Instantly, the murmurs of the crowd died down. She cleared her throat. "This is an official meeting of the Elders. We have very important matters to discuss." She turned to her fellows. "Thunder, you may begin."

Thunder bowed slightly, and stepped up to the podium. "My friends," he began, "fellow deities, I would like to first extend my warm wishes to the newly wed Hiko, Goddess of Fire, and Cosmos, God of Space. Both are Elementals, and may their union be fruitful." The crowd cheered in congratulations. Thunder cleared his throat, and the cheering died down. "However, the second piece of news is not happy. Dahren, of the Realm of Outworld, has been killed."

A gasp shot through the assembly. Thunder continued. "He was murdered by my son, Shao Khan, who has replaced him as the Lord of the Realm." He shook his head in sorrow. "It is a sad day for the Thunder family, let me assure you. He is officially banned from all Omniversal gatherings, with the exception of the Feast of the Creator, which, by Law, no one can be exempted from." He turned to Mizuno. "Your turn, Lady."

Mizuno nodded, and stepped back up the podium. "Both of these pieces of information, while momentous, pale in comparison to my announcement." She paused, letting the tension build. "The Scroll has been returned to us."

The Hall was dead silent. "But it was destroyed!" called someone. "How could it have been returned?"

"By the grace of the Creator," Mizuno replied readily. "I was the one who found the Scroll, when I entered the Hall yesterday morning. It is not the same Scroll, however; it has been modified."

"Modified?" called another voice, possibly the same one. "How?"

"There have been new Laws added," Mizuno replied, and instantly the crowd began talking amongst themselves. She raised her arms for quiet. "I will paraphrase for you; the entire reading of the Scroll would take several hours. Suffice it to say, there have been three main changes to Omniversal Law. The first, is that no diety can cross to another's Realm without losing their powers, to the point where they are entirely defenseless; the second is that the Elders are no longer to be the seat of legislation."

There was shock and consternation from among the crowd. Mizuno continued. "A Council is to be set up, whose members are to be elected. All will have at least one term as a Council member; those who wish it can have more than one term. A Leader of the Council will be chosen from those elected. The Elders will remain, as a source of guidence; but the true power will belong to the Council."

"You said there were three things," the voice yelled.

"I'm getting to that, Voco, I was just about to mention the third." She took a deep breath. "The Creator has created a plan of defense against hostile take-over of Realms. Do to the sudden and frequent occurance of such events, such a contingency plan was needed. The plan was created taking into account the valient effort of the mortals of Maresium to defend their Realm from attack; the new Laws are as follows. Should an Immortal wish to take control of a Realm from another Immortal, that deity will first have to declare his or her intentions, and then a tournament will be set up, using the mortals from the two Realms, as a way of deciding the victor."

"We have to leave our Realms to the defense of mortals?" exclaimed someone, not Voco this time.

"As you may recall, dieties will not be allowed to cross over into another's Realm without permission, without becoming vunerable, and so sneak attacks are useless gestures. This idea of tournaments is the work of the Creator; therefore they must function adequately for the task."

Mizuno continued to talk, outlining the various new reforms and details of the new policies that the Scroll outlined, but Rayden wasn't listening. He was at the back of the Hall, barely paying attention. He could see her, with her new husband, several rows from the front.


He jumped at the sound, and turned to see Kerlan. "Oh. It's you."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Kerlan remarked, but Rayden didn't pick up it. "Don't look so glum."

Rayden turned and gave him a look before turning back.

"Okay, look glum. But you can't stay like this forever, you know." Kerlan sighed, and leaned against the wall himself. "Do you think these tournament thingies will work?"

"I trust the Creator," Rayden replied, his voice flat, his mind preoccupied.

"Uh huh. Did you know your hair is on fire?" Kerlan asked innocently.

Rayden turned, confused, his hand going to his head.

"Okay, so you are paying attention," Kerlan conceeded. "I wasn't sure."

Rayden smiled, a little, at the joke. "You never catch me with that one."

"One of these days I will," Kerlan assured him. "And then I'll never let you forget it." He trailed off, sighing. "You really do have to move on, you know."

"I will, I guess, eventually," Rayden replied. He flicked his bangs out of his eyes. They were getting long and Kerlan wondered why he didn't get them trimmed. "I suppose I'd better set up my system of mortals, soon. I don't think that Shao Khan is going to wait very long before trying out the new rules."

"Or breaking them," Kerlan added.

Rayden shrugged. "There is that aspect."

Kerlan followed his friend's gaze to the couple. "I wonder why she did it."

Rayden scowled. "I'd prefer not to think about it."

"Come on," Kerlan replied, "You know she loves you."

"Do I?" Rayden muttered, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Of course you do--don't you?"

"She never told me," Rayden admitted. "I am pretty sure--but then this happened...and now I just don't know."

Kerlan didn't have anything to say. It seemed as thought Mizuno was wrapping it up; she said something and the crowd laughed. The diety was distracted momentarily, wanting to know what the humourous remark was; but when he turned to ask Rayden if the god had picked up on it, he was gone.

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. 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."

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.

The End