"Hello!" she cried, mournfully, to the empty house. "Me in here! In kitchen! Hello?"
No one answered. She started to whimper again and climbed to her feet, holding onto the chair back. "Hello? Me scared, Daddy, come back!"
But nobody answered. Feeling very fearful now--what if they had all left her forever?--she started to cry in earnest, and leaned against the chair back. Startled, she screamed as it began to tip forward, sending her towards the kitchen floor--
The goddess caught it, setting the chair and Hichan back upright. The child stared at her with wide eyes. She didn't know who the strange woman was, and yet the woman didn't seem that strange at all.
"Don't worry, Hichan," the woman said, setting her staff to lean against the counter so that she could pick the child up. Hichan didn't reply, but just looked at her, in awe and confusion.
"Who you?" she asked, in a whisper, fingering the goddess's black hair.
"I'm someone you know very well," the goddess replied, with a smile. "I've come to keep you company."
"Thank you," Hichan replied, meaning it. Normally, she was very shy around strangers; but she seemed to know the woman already.
"It is no problem," the woman said, sitting down at the table, looking around the kitchen. "It's a long time since I've been here, Hichan."
"You never leave," the girl replied, abruptly, her eyes sparkling with sudden wisdom, and goddess smiled.
"Guessed the truth, have you? I knew you were a smart one," the woman laughed, as did Hichan, and they squeezed each other tightly.
"Rahne? But how?" Medicalis repeated, still bewildered.
Kerlan shrugged. "I don't know, Medi. I don't even know why she'd want to send these visions to Celebria, or--"
"Or even why to me in the first place," the goddess finished, shaking her head. "We've got to find Rahne and ask her, find out why--maybe then we can stop the visions?" This was asked in a hopeful voice, and Kerlan was forced to shrug.
"I'd say we'd have to find Rahne in any case..." He took a deep breath, reaching out with his mind, but after a moment he gave up. "I can't find her. She's not in Earthrealm... and I don't know where to begin looking for her."
"You couldn't just sense her?" Medicalis asked, curious. Kerlan shook his head.
"That's Rayden's little trick. Mine is mindlinks. Hmmm. Mindlinks." He was looking down at Celebria.
"What?" she blurted.
"Cel... maybe I could use you to track down Rahne--a residual link trace ought to let me pin-point her." He kneeled down by her chair. She squirmed. "It won't hurt, Cel, I promise."
"I'm not a receiver," she said, suddenly. "I can't do that."
"Anyone can, don't worry about it," he repeated. "Please? We need the answers, and we can't afford to wait for Rahne to just show up again--not with Black Robes out there."
She took a deep breath and looked up at Medicalis. He seemed worried for her--but also worried that the visions would keep continuing, striking her without warning. She sighed. Then nodded.
Kerlan nodded back, and touched Celebria's temples and closed his eyes. She followed suit, shaking a little; she didn't know what he was trying to do. It had been so long assumed that she couldn't pick up more than the barest of messages; she had never tested her abilities, or had them used in any way.
"It's all right," her brother told her, quietly, searching for something. She felt as though she should be aware of something, anything in her head, but she didn't feel any different at all.
"Rahne's in Maresium," Kerlan reported after a moment. He smiled. "I don't think she knows that I'm trying to make a link with her, or that there's even a link with you, Celebria."
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" she asked, worried.
"I'm not sure. Hmm. I think we're going to have to talk to Rahne face to face to see what the problem is; I can't make any headway from here." Kerlan's hands dropped away from her face, and she sighed, shivering. "What's the matter? Something wrong?"
She shook her head, rubbing her arms. She just felt a chill. "No, nothing. I guess... I'm not used to people rooting around in my head," she admitted.
Kerlan and Medi looked at each other; they couldn't even begin to imagine what she was talking about, mindlinks were common-place to them.
"It's nothing," she assured them. "I'll be fine. Can we get Rahne?"
Kerlan nodded. "I think for this we'd better call in the professionals, though. I have a feeling Rahne isn't going to come quietly." He closed his eyes for a moment, in communicado; then a portal began to form in the room, black and purple. Sonya stepped out.
"Reporting for duty," she said, sharply saluting. She looked to Celebria. "You all right?" The goddess nodded. "Good. Let's get this show on the road. Meimei thinks she might be on to something else, I'd like to get back as soon as possible," Sonya continued.
"Don't worry. If I'm at all right, we'll have lots of new information for Meimei to look up," Kerlan said, confidently. He tried to open a portal, but failed. "By the Creator... Hiko has a shield up!"
The other deities looked at him in confusion. "Why would she do that?" Celebria blurted, her mental gears already turning. Rayden and Hiko showing up separately. Rayden and Rahne together. And now Hiko blockaded Maresium off... "By the Name! They've split up!" she exclaimed, getting to her feet.
"What?" both Sonya and Kerlan blurted.
"Don't go saying things like that, Cel," Kerlan chided her, although he still looked worried. "It's Rayden and Hiko. They wouldn't break up."
"Then you explain it!" Celebria retorted. Kerlan was ready to reply when Sonya held up her hand.
"Just a second... the shield's fallen. It must have been temporary..." She snapped out of the reverie. "I have a bad feeling about this. Let's get going."
Kerlan nodded and created another portal, this one shimmering into existence normally and without a problem. He stepped through, Sonya following behind him.
Rayden stepped out of the portal, already searching, but he staggered as though struck; he was now smack-dab in the middle of a hostile Realm. And hostile it certainly was: the air seemed to waver, with the heat building all around.
Oh, Hiko, I'm sorry that I ever did this to you...
Rahne staggered as well, clutching onto his arm for support. He didn't feel as though he could provide much, but he hoped to help anyway. He patted her arm, and she looked up at him, forlornly. "This is worse than before," she whimpered.
"I can well imagine," he answered with a sigh. "Hiko must be furious." He took a deep breath of the dry, scorched air, and as he let it out slowly he cast his thoughts out, searching. She would know of his attempts. But then, she surely knew he was here, at any rate.
He found her in moments. She wasn't hard to pinpoint. Hiko? It's me.
There was no answer, only the silence of indifference. He sighed again, concentrating harder, to make sure that she was, indeed, listening to him. Or able to hear him, at least. Hiko, please. This has all just been a misunderstanding...
Still no reply.
Rayden looked to Rahne, thoughtful. "I'm going to teleport to her. I think you should stay here and--"
"No," Rahne replied, fiercely. The god blinked in surprise. "This is my fault, I should be the one to explain."
He looked at her for a long moment, then nodded, slightly. She nodded back, still determined, and she created a portal. They stepped through.
She was standing on the beach, overlooking the wide blue ocean, almost indistinguishable from the bowl of sky overhead, save for the clouds. She didn't turn as the portal opened; she made no sign she was aware of it at all.
Rayden stared at her for a few moments, at her hair that had slipped out from underneath her scarf. He sighed, then started forward, Rahne holding him back. He frowned, and then she realized what he intended to do, so she caught up with him, stepping forward.
"Go away," Hiko snapped suddenly, her hands clenching at her sides. "I already know what's going on with you two, you don't need to rub it in my face."
Rayden, in response, whipped his arm out from Rahne; the sudden movement and shift in balance caused her to stumble. He caught her, but then let her go, stepping forward, until he was close enough to Hiko to reach out and touch her...
"Go away," she repeated, her voice flat.
"Listen, Hiko--" he began.
Something touched a nerve, and she whirled on him. "No, I will not listen! I have nothing to say to you and I can't imagine what you--you two--could have to say to me!"
"Hiko--!" He had tried earlier to think of what he would say to her, but anything he had prepared flew out of his head, leaving him stuttering futilely.
"Go away," she repeated, fiercely, as strong as ever, with only the slight tremble in her voice betraying anything at all. Rayden gently touched her on the shoulder. She flinched away, shaking her head, and he saw the tears building up in them. "Leave me alone!"
"No," he said, simply. "I won't. I can't. I'm not leaving until I've sorted this out. There's no point in my going back alone anyway." He paused. "Just listen to what I have to say, and if you still don't want to see me, then I'll go, and never enter Maresium again."
She looked up at him, her eyes narrowed, as she tried to understand what he meant. But then her gaze shifted slightly, down and over, and fell on Rahne. At once her mask snapped back in place, her anger like armor. "What is there to sort out, exactly?" Her voice became louder as she brought Rahne into the conversation. "You told me yourself what happened. Don't tell me you're sorry about it now, or have you just remembered that it's not right to sleep with a married god?"
"By the Creator, Hiko!" Rayden snapped, losing his temper. "How is anyone supposed to explain when you don't let them get a word in edgewise?"
Her lips thinned and she folded her arms over her chest. "Fine. I'm listening."
"Great Lady Hiko--" Rahne began, but Rayden held up a hand to silence her.
"I'll do this. Hiko, Rahne told you that she and I had--slept together."
"Which you did," Hiko answered.
"Which--yeah, we did," Rayden finished off. Hiko was shocked; her eyes widened. For all her posturing, it was clear she had expected Rayden to deny it all. He continued, quickly, so as not to overwhelm her. "Slept, Hiko. It's not a euphemism. Rahne was... frightened, and said she couldn't sleep, and before I knew it, she'd curled up in bed beside me. The way Hichan sometimes does, if she's had a bad dream. That's all."
"Hichan," Hiko repeated.
"Yes, by the Creator! You can see yourself that Rahne's like a little girl sometimes, I don't think she even had any idea what she was doing." He looked over his shoulder, following Hiko's line of vision. Rahne was nodding along with his argument, agreeing.
"I was scared, Lady Hiko. I was frightened."
Hiko flicked her gaze back to her husband. "And you never thought that I would misinterpret anything."
Rayden finally looked sheepish. "I wasn't thinking, I admit that. I did have a lot on my mind."
She sighed, and unfolded her arms from across her chest, which was a good sign. But she also took a step back, out of reach. Bad sign. "You mean to tell me--let me get this straight exactly--that you had a attractive woman sleeping next to you and I'm supposed to believe it was because she had a bad dream?"
"When you put it that way, it does seem far-fetched--I'm kidding, Hiko, kidding! That's the way it happened. I swear on the Creator's Name." Rayden reached out and took her hands, looking into her eyes. "I swear."
She gazed back. Good sign. "That was a nasty joke."
"I can't always help myself."
For a moment, everything seemed back to normal, and Rayden nearly smiled in victory, but then Hiko shook her head sadly. "I can't--" she began, having problems finding the right word. "I can't trust--you," she finished, awkwardly, breaking off eye contact. Worse sign. "You swore on the Creator, so I know that it's true, but--but that doesn't help how I feel--"
"Hiko," he said, softly, taking one hand away so that he could lift her face back up, away from the ground, towards his own. "I love you. I would never love anyone else. I don't think I could. I would never, ever, ever--" Part of him was aware he was babbling, but he could barely notice. He couldn't stop.
Hiko smiled, for a moment, her eyes misting again. "Rayden?" she said, quietly.
She kissed him, wrapping her arms around his neck, holding tightly. It seemed the only answer she could give. But it was also the best one.
The woman looked up, at something that only she could see. "I have to go, Hichan."
"No. No, please? No go." Hichan tugged at the goddess' black robes. "Please stay?"
"I need to go," the woman insisted, setting Hichan back down on her chair. "But your parents will be back soon, I promise." Hichan started to cry, and the goddess kneeled down, so that she was eye to eye with the child. "Hichan, I know how hard it's been for you. But you have to be strong, to make it through this. And you will make it through this, I promise. You'll be happy again."
"What if they not come back?" Hichan whispered, through her tears.
The goddess wiped them gently from the little girl's cheeks. "They will. I have to go now, Hichan."
"No!" Hichan wailed, but the goddess stood up, and fetched her staff. The red jewel began to glow fiercely, and the goddess disappeared.
They both appeared on the beach, over-looking the ocean, their backs to the palm-fringed interior. Kerlan turned to the left, to scout their position; he saw Rayden and Hiko, together, kissing. Apparently they'd made up. Sonya looked to the right, and saw Rahne, who had been trying to make herself look inconspicuous, lounging under one of the trees.
Rahne, as they stepped through their portal, looked startled, and leapt to her feet. She wasn't the only one with that reaction, either. As Rayden and Hiko broke off their embrace, and became marginally aware of the outside world, both were surprised to find that Kerlan and Sonya were on the beach as well, watching them. Hiko was doubly surprised: she hadn't been aware that she had lowered her shield.
The three parties stood, uncertain of what to say, all staring at each other awkwardly. "Umm," Kerlan said, succinctly.
As usual, it was Sonya who cut through the delay. "We're here for Rahne."
Rahne took a step backwards. "Why? What's the matter?" A look of horror crossed her face. She had been keeping tabs on Hichan, the entire time she had been away; the girl was lonely, but fine. But what if he had found a way to trick her... Terrified, she reached out again, and was reassured by Hichan's simple replies, and the relief the girl felt at being contacted. There was no way he could fake that. But if Hichan was all right, then why were Kerlan and Sonya so anxious?
"We need to take you to the Hall," Sonya was saying. Rahne didn't like the sound of that. They had claimed to be done all the tests they were going to do. Something inside her head warned her that the pair were not as they seemed; they were up to something. The fact that they didn't come right out and say what they were after unnerved her. She backed away further.
"Rahne, don't fight us." Kerlan responded to her reaction with a soothing voice. "We just need to get to the bottom of a few things..."
"No," Rahne said, loudly, clearly, clenching her fists. She could feel the build up of power within her. If need be, she would fight them; she wasn't going to be held anywhere against her will. A small voice inside urged her to flee, before it was too late.
"Rahne," Sonya warned, "We just need to--"
"No," she repeated. "Leave me alone."
"We want to help--"
"I don't need any help!" she shouted, growing panicked. They really sounded as though they would try and force her to leave.
Rayden stepped forward, away from Hiko, unable to stand by, watching, any more. "What do you need her for?" he asked Kerlan.
The god hesitated before replying. The way Rahne was acting now was not entirely rational; the last thing he wanted to do is accuse her of something bluntly and cause her to snap all together. This was a situation that had to be handled delicately. "We need to do a mind-link," he said, at last.
"I don't want one," Rahne retorted, before Rayden could speak up. "Leave me alone."
"Rahne, calm down," Rayden told her, placating, hoping that the goddess didn't become too unhinged. He wasn't sure what she was thinking, that was making her act this way, but he knew she had a tendency of lashing out when she became emotional. "Kerlan--you're not telling us something."
The god did not reply. Again, it was Sonya who cut through the awkwardness. "Rahne is the one responsible for hurting Celebria," she announced, bluntly, staring at the goddess. Rahne paled, but didn't stand down.
"Celebria's hurt?" Hiko inquired, stepping forward, to stand beside Rayden. "We haven't heard anything about that..."
"If you hadn't been holed up inside your Realm, I'm sure you would have," Sonya snapped, growing impatient with the tip-toeing around the issue. Her powers were beginning to manifest around her, a sign of her rising anger. "We need to block the link from Rahne to Celebria."
"I'm not doing anything!" Rahne wailed. She wasn't sure what they were talking about, but she knew she wasn't linked to any one, besides maybe Hichan. This had to be wrong.
"I haven't been 'holed up'," Hiko roared, simultaneously, very insulted. She took a step forward, but Rayden grabbed her by the arm and held her back. She glared at him. He shook his head. For a moment, it looked as though she would challenge him; but then she backed down.
"I'm not doing anything!" Rahne repeated.
"We'll be the judges of that," Sonya told her, firmly. "You can do this the easy way or--"
Suddenly Rayden, Hiko and Rahne all paused, listening to something. "Hichan!" Rahne exclaimed, "she's so upset--" She started to create a portal, but Sonya recognized this and darted forward, grabbing the goddess by the arm and holding on to it tightly, preventing her from leaving. Rahne objected to this very strongly. "Let me go!" she screamed, her powers arcing around her.
Sonya gritted her teeth and held firm, enduring the energy snapping around her.
"Rahne, stop this," Rayden commanded.
"I'll get Hichan," Hiko added, trying to calm Rahne down. "I'm sure she's fine, just upset that we've been gone so long."
"Let me go!" Rahne screamed again, struggling.
Rayden and Hiko exchanged a look, and the goddess disappeared in an orange flicker.
The goddess was gone. Hichan was alone, again, in the kitchen. She sat down, defeatedly, on the chair, and started to cry, but no one came to her rescue. Eventually, she stopped, having run out of steam, and just waited instead, drumming her heels forlornly against the leg of the chair.
It was only a few moments later when a portal opened, fire coloured, and Hichan gasped in joy as Mama stepped through.
"Hichan!" she cried, excited to see her. Hichan crowed with delight, and hugged her mother tightly. "Oh, Hichan, were you frightened? My poor baby!"
"No," Hichan replied, after a moment, "Me not very frightened." She closed her eyes and could see, in the faintest impression on her eyelids, the red glow of the goddess' staff. She opened them again to look into her mother's eyes, which were very green at the moment and brimming with tears. "Me not frightened, Mama, promise."
"I know, sweetheart, I know," Hiko whispered, wiping her tears with the back of her hand. "I need to take you back to Maresium, to calm down Rahne."
"We all come back?" Hichan asked, quickly, worried. Hiko nodded. "Then okay. We get Rahne and Daddy, and we come back."
"Let me go!" Rahne screamed a final time, wrenching her arm free, pulling back sharply from Sonya's grasp. "You're not taking me!"
Sonya glared, and suddenly Rahne found herself trapped within a fence of purple energy; she struggled against it, in vain.
"Sonya, let her go," Rayden demanded, furious. Even Kerlan was upset with her, but she didn't relax her hold on the goddess.
"Kerlan, do your spell now, while she's immobile," she told him, firmly. "We're not going to get another chance."
"Let me go!" Rahne wailed, her voice rising in frustration as she struggled.
"Dammit, Sonya!" Rayden was furious, and they could all tell by his body language and the rolls of thunder overhead. "She's not an enemy, she's--"
"She's what, Rayden?" Sonya crossed her arms over her chest, waiting for him to explain, although she didn't give him a chance. "She's a stranger, with no past, no present beyond Hichan, no relatives, nothing. We don't know what her powers are, we don't know who's controlling her, we don't know how or why she's sending visions to Celebria. We don't know how she's involved exactly with Black Robes. In short, Rayden, she is a big walking question mark, and I, for one, am tired of not having any answers. Kerlan, do the mind link."
Kerlan shook his head.
"What do you mean?" the goddess demanded, fuming. "It's about time we knew what was going on!"
He remained where he was. "This isn't right."
"It's war, Kerlan, everything's right," she snapped.
"Who declared it a war?" Rayden inquired, hotly, as the clouds began to gather over their heads.
Sonya glared at him. "I can't believe you're asking that. This guy is going after your child, and Rahne is the only one with any answers, and you're just going to let it slide by?"
"I'm not letting it slide by, I just want to know how we ended up in a war!"
"It was a war from the beginning," she replied, coldly, and for a second the god could see the old Sonya Blade, the Army lieutenant who cared for one thing alone: revenge and retribution. "If you're not willing to do what's necessary, then fine." She turned her backs to them and stepped up to Rahne, looking the trapped goddess straight in the eye. Rahne didn't hold the gaze, but averted her head.
Sonya took Rahne's head between her hands, forcing the deity to stare at her directly.
"Sonya..." Kerlan said, unsure of what she was trying to accomplish. Hiko chose that moment to reappear, carrying Hichan.
"Rahne?" the girl whispered, confused. She looked to her mother, then her father. "What happening?"
"I'm not sure," Rayden answered, grimly.
Rahne shivered, and tried to pull her head away, but Sonya's grasp remained firm. She settled on closing her eyes, but that didn't stop the barrage of images from her memory.
She started to shake as the Goddess of Space forced herself in, dislodging and disturbing the fragments that were all that remained of her past life.
Mommy, make him stop!
--the woman smiled from behind the fan--
The clouds overhead were building, they were thick and dark...
Don't leave me! she screamed, terrified, as they were running, hoping that they would remember to take her, petrified that they wouldn't...
"Stop," she wailed, out loud, but Sonya didn't stop rummaging, searching for something that Rahne wasn't even sure existed.
Rahne, I'll protect you, don't worry, just stay with me--
"Stop it!" she howled, her eyes squeezed shut, trying to block the half-formed images that were coming to life, again, for her. "Stop it!"
"Sonya, that's enough," Kerlan demanded, trying to pull her away, but she was resisting, too far deep into the link to really hear him. "Sonya, you're hurting her! Let go!"
"Rahne!" Hichan howled, distraught. "Mama, Daddy, do something!"
Rayden was helping to pull Sonya away. Between the two gods, she wasn't a match, and they drew her away. But even as the physical distance lengthened, the link grew tighter, deeper. Sonya's eyes were closed as well, she was still concentrating and keeping the search going.
"Can you break it?" Rayden asked, worriedly, over Rahne's screams and Hichan's wails.
Kerlan shrugged, his eye still on Rahne. "I don't have much to lose by trying--"
Rahne screamed again, reliving the terror over and over again, as she and the family she didn't know fled from the storms, fled from whomever was chasing them, fled to parts unknown from parts unknown.
Stop this! she cried at Sonya, but Sonya, unfortunately, had gone too far in for her to be able to surface properly; she was experiencing rapture of the deeps. The closer that she and Rahne became, the more of an incredible event it was becoming. Wise Lady, you can help me, you must help me, please--
Rahne was beginning to be aware of a third person in the mental connection: Kerlan. He was trying to break the link, but was not being very successful. She tried to help him, tried to force Sonya back out; she wasn't sure how to go about doing that, but she was trying her hardest.
And then, ever so slightly, a fourth person was entering on the fringes. A familiar presence, one that filled Rahne with warmth and hope. The Wise Lady.
Rahne's mental walls suddenly snapped back up, guided by someone with far more experience and objectivity. Sonya was shut out, and just as quickly as the Wise Lady had appeared, she had turned off the link, and quieted the memories within Rahne's mind.
Outside, standing on the Maresium beach, Rahne sighed with relief, her head drooping. She was unconscious, the strain too great.
Sonya, standing between Rayden and Kerlan suddenly cried out and fainted, the bonds holding Rahne up disappearing as she did so. Both goddesses collapsed; or rather, Sonya would have if her friends hadn't been holding on to her. They lowered her down to the sand.
Hichan was just as relieved as everyone else, but she expressed it more loudly, with a huge sigh. She tugged on Hiko's sleeve and indicated that she wanted down. Her mother obliged.
"The Wise Lady did it," Kerlan said, quietly, checking to see if Rahne was all right; she was. "She put Rahne's mental blocks up. She's the one behind it all."
"Indeed I am," came a soft voice, from behind them. All four deities whirled, startled; Hichan was the only one who started forward, not worried at all.
The goddess was dressed in a simple black dress, with black robes over top; her straight black hair was loose and fell over her shoulders. She carried the Time Staff in one hand, the other hanging by her side.
"The Wise Lady," Kerlan murmured, curious and surprised. "Well, well, well."
She dipped her head. "I thought it was perhaps time that I shed some light on the situation," she said.
"I would have liked some of that a long time ago," Rayden remarked. He squinted, then gasped. "You're not here!"
"What?" both Hiko and Kerlan exclaimed. Then they, too, had a closer look at the strange goddess, and they realised that there was a faint image of the landscape behind her. She was transparent.
"An image," Rayden realised. "A mental projection."
The goddess dipped her head again. "It would be too dangerous for me to be there, in person--plus too straining."
"Where are you?" Hiko asked, curious. "If you're not here."
"The Wood," she replied, simply. The name meant nothing to Hiko or to Kerlan; it sent shivers down Rayden's spine. "I'm with Jikan Tai; but it's too dangerous for him here, either."
"Because of Black Robes," Kerlan finished.
The goddess tilted her head, puzzled. "Who? Do you mean Tài?"
"Tey?" they all repeated, in unison.
"The Storm," she clarified. "The one after Hichan."
"Hichan!" the girl crowed. Hiko hurried forward, and scooped her up, then rushed back to Rayden's side.
"I wouldn't hurt her," the goddess replied sadly.
"Who are you?" Rayden asked, ignoring her previous statement. "Where do you come from?"
The goddess shook her head. "I can't tell you that, it would endanger too much, and too many people." She looked to her side, suddenly, to someone who was by her side in the Wood. She was listening. She nodded, and then turned, her image fading away, a sad, regretful smile on her face.
"No, wait--" Rayden yelled, but she was gone, back to the Wood, the one place where no one could find her. "Dammit." He kicked at the sand in frustration. Hichan, misinterpreting the action and missing out on the mood in general, squirmed to get down, so that she too could start flinging sand around. She was surprisingly cheerful; the strange goddess' arrival had only served to calm her down and brighten her mood, even as it worried and frustrated her elders.
"We were so close," Kerlan grouched. "She could have told us everything."
"She's told us a lot," Hiko corrected. "The Storm has time-travelling capabilities, like Rahne's. But he can't step too far out of time, otherwise he'd be able to find Jikan Tai--"
"The Wood is a separate thing from time entirely," Rayden said quietly, calming Hichan down, crouching by her. She snuggled against him. He shook his head. "We need to get Rahne and Sonya back to the Temple, to help them restore their energy."
"And maybe find out a way to block Rahne's link to Celebria," Kerlan added. "I'll teleport them." He kneeled between the two unconscious goddesses, taking each one by the hand. Then he winked out, back to Earth Realm.
Hiko and Rayden were left alone on the Maresian beach, Hichan still clinging to her father, watching them closely. She tugged on his shirt. "Go home now," she whispered, just above the sound of the breeze. Rayden nodded, creating a portal.
Rahne grumbled as someone shook her, gently, on the shoulder. "No," she murmured, "I want to sleep--"
"Time to wake up," the voice repeated, gaily, cheerfully.
Suddenly Rahne recognised the voice; it was her mother's! She flipped her eyes open, over-joyed to be at home, at long last--
She was in the Temple.
She wasn't at home at all.
And she was alone.
Her head was ringing, and she rubbed it, brushing her straight black hair out of her face. She combed it as well as she could with her fingers, back into its simple page-cut style. For a moment, the thought occurred to her that her hair wasn't right. Not the right colour, not the right length. She looked down at the black robes she was wearing. They were wrong too. It was all wrong, and she couldn't figure out how.
Chafing now under the clothing that now felt so disturbing--as though she was wearing someone else's skin--she got up from the bed. She knew where she was, her room at the Temple. The last thing she could remember--she snorted at the phrase and the irony--was being on the beach, at Maresium. Hiko and Rayden had made up. Sonya and Kerlan had appeared--
She squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating at the task at hand, not letting anything else clutter up her mind. Sonya attacked me. But the Wise Lady saved me.
She had fainted, she remembered that; she remembered her vision tunnelling, narrowing, just before she hit the warm sand. And then she was asleep, dreaming of her mother, of the goddess she couldn't remember.
She shivered, not cold, but uneasy. She crossed the room to the door and opened it, stepping through into the hallway. She could hear hushed voices, murmurs, from the direction of the kitchen, so she headed there.
Hichan frowned at the hot bowl of soup, unsure, but if Daddy was eating it, then it must be good. She assumed. She lifted the spoon gingerly, staring at the lump of potato. Daddy liked to put potato in soups. He said it made it... she couldn't remember the word. But it wasn't "better"; she was fairly sure of that. She looked up to her father, sitting next to her, smiling slightly.
"There's a sandwich if you don't want soup," he said, amused.
She grumbled. This wasn't at all funny. She shook her head, and blew at the spoonful to cool it down. The unexpected effect was that she also blew off the thin layer of actual soup; now all that was left was the lump of potato. She grimaced.
"I don't see how she can't like potatoes," Sonya remarked, enjoying her own broth. "It seems very weird."
Hiko smirked. "That's because you were brought up in Western culture. You were brought up to enjoy potatoes. Hichan doesn't really have any biases with food."
"I don't have any biases with food either," Sonya replied, haughtily.
"Seaweed soup," Hiko announced. Sonya's nose wrinkled, ever so slightly; the point had been made, so the goddesses both graciously dropped it, turning their attentions to their respective lunches.
Rayden leaned over and poked his own spoon into Hichan's bowl. "There's a carrot, Hichan, you like those."
Nodding in agreement, Hichan stirred her potato back in and scooped up the carrot. She blew on the soup gently, and took a sip. Then ate the chunk of carrot. Then set her spoon down and looked at her father remorsefully.
He chuckled, and moved her soup bowl away, bringing over half a sandwich, setting down in front of her, on a plate. She sniffed it, making sure it was peanut butter. It was.
Hichan whimpered and looked back up at him.
"What's the matter?" Hiko asked.
Hichan just stared forlornly at the peanut butter. The smell made her anxious. She looked up at her parents, and then down at the sandwich; she took a small, sample bite.
She looked up again. Everyone was still there, no one had left her; she took another tiny bite.
All the adults were watching her with curiosity. Normally she bolted her food down as fast as possible. This was a new experience. But they were still there. Hichan decided to double check.
"If me eat, you stay here?" she inquired of her father. He frowned at her, confused.
"I'm not going anywhere," he replied. "At least, not until you're done eating."
That was good enough for her; she set in on the sandwich with gusto. Her mother and father exchanged looks at each other; Sonya decided just to sit out the conversation.
Hiko was about to say something when they all heard the footsteps outside in the corridor. They paused, and even Hichan set down her sandwich for the time being.
Rahne poked her head around the door. "Hello--oh."
Sonya stiffened, but Rayden put a hand on her arm and shook his head slightly. "Are you hungry, Rahne?"
She had been, but she wasn't any more. "No, thank you."
"Rahne!" Hichan cried, happily, throwing her arms in invitation, but Rahne remained hovering at the door. "Rahne?"
The goddess shifted from one foot to the other. "I wanted to know if I should leave," she said, suddenly, blurting it out. "If you don't want me in the Temple any more."
Rayden blinked, clearly confused. Hiko looked down, avoiding the issue. Sonya focussed on her food.
"Rahne?" Hichan repeated, sadly. She got down off her chair, gingerly, and then ran to the deity, wrapping her little arms around Rahne's knees. "Rahne, be happy. We all back. We happy."
Rahne knelt down, hugging the girl tightly. "I wish it was that simple for me as well," she whispered, her eyes thick with tears. She wiped them away with the back of her hand and stood up, resting Hichan on her hip. Hichan rested her head on Rahne's shoulder.
"Rahne--" Rayden began, somewhat awkwardly. He stopped and looked right at Hiko, his eyes glazing over. Hers glazed in response, and then she nodded. He turned back to Rahne. "You're welcome to stay. As long as you want."
Rahne smiled, or tried to; she was finding it hard, and was starting to cry. "Don't cry, Rahne, don't cry!" Hichan wailed, distraught.
Sonya snorted, suddenly, disgusted by the display. "I'm going to check on Kerlan," she announced, without preamble, and then to Rahne: "Don't go anywhere. I'll be back for you." She teleported away before anyone could say anything to the contrary.
Hiko growled. "Sometimes she has no manners at all."
"What do you mean sometimes?" Rayden said over his shoulder as he got to his feet. "Here, come and sit down. You're tired, hungry, been under a lot of strain--" He took his daughter from Rahne, and then handed Hichan over to Hiko.
"Thank you," Rahne whispered, between sobs, sitting down at the table while Hichan decided to settle into her mother's lap, worried about her protector. "I--" She faltered. "I--"
"You--" Rayden prompted, but then he noticed the expression on her face. "What's the matter?"
"It's him," she whispered, jumping to her feet. "He's here, somewhere... we have to find him. We have to stop him!"
"The bad man?" Hichan wailed, understanding; Hiko hugged her securely.
"He won't get you, don't worry, we're all here."
"The bad man," Hichan whimpered, clutching tightly at her mother's robes. "The bad man, Rahne!"
"I will protect you, small Lady," Rahne replied, fiercely, her aura springing up around her as she clenched her fists. She got up, determined, and headed out to the hall, her black aura springing up around her. "Stay here."
"Wait a second--" Rayden began, but she held out her hand, all trace of sadness gone.
"I will take care of him," she insisted, fiercely. She turned and stalked out of the kitchen. Suddenly there was a muffled thump. Rayden and Hiko looked to each other; Hichan began to wail even louder, screaming, while Hiko hugged her tighter, growing anxious herself..
"I'll go check that out," Rayden said, starting towards the door when Hichan abruptly stopped howling. Startled, both of her parents stared at her; she went very stiff, and then limp, and then disappeared in a crackle of black energy.
"Hichan," Hiko whispered, in shock. She leapt to her feet. "Hichan!"
"She's in the hall," her husband replied, after a mental check. Hiko started forward, but he caught her by the arm. "I'm worried about this, about Rahne--and why would he only teleport her out to the hall?"
The goddess stared at him, suddenly furious, but he seemed to know what she was going to say a head of time and shook his head. "I'm not being insensitive," he added, tersely. "It's a trap."
"Then we'll be careful," Hiko replied, her aura springing up around her, crackling fire.
They stepped out into the hall, together, both prepared.
But not for what they found.
Rahne was lying, unconscious, close by the door. Rayden crouched down and check her energy levels. "She'll be okay, she'll wake up in a few moments, I think."
"Pity," crowed a voice from out of the shadows. Both deities whirled, Rayden straightening, Hiko creating more light, to see who it was. They were both sure, but it was nice to be able to see.
"You," the goddess growled. "What have you done with Hichan?"
Black Robes smiled, slightly. "Nothing... yet. But the storm has broken; I've won."
He stepped aside to reveal Hichan sitting on the ground, beside him. She was bound with ribbons of black energy, although not tightly; she could squirm, and struggle. He laughed. Hichan whimpered, and reached out her arms, as best as she could. Black Robes kicked her with the side of his boot and she cried out, trying not to tip over with the force of the blow.
"Hichan," Rayden whispered, going white.
"Hichan!" Hiko cried, trying to teleport her daughter to her, but that failed. Startled, she reached out, towards Black Robes, but he disappeared in a flicker. He left Hichan alone.
Hiko and Rayden glanced each other again, and the goddess, who was closest, darted forward, to snatch the girl up. But only a few feet from the imprisoned goddess there was suddenly an energy net, a web, that snapped around her, hissing and shocking, and she screamed, unable to break free.
"Hiko!" Rayden roared, his powers exploding around him, a roll of thunder outside, or was it in the corridor itself? Rahne couldn't tell. She got to her feet, woozy from Black Robes' unexpected blow. She should have known he'd have been waiting in the corridor for her. She saw the Thunder God charge forward, to save his wife, but he stopped, suddenly, as the web dissipated and Hiko dropped to the floor, unconscious. Hichan was watching them, gasping for breath, exhausted from screaming for help. She sat on the floor, bound by the ribbons of black energy.
Black Robes was here somewhere, waiting to catch Rayden as he had caught Rahne and Hiko. And Rayden obviously knew that. He stood, waiting, searching, while the thunder boomed outside, nearly shaking the foundations.
Rahne got to her feet, her own powers crackling around her. Rayden couldn't sense him, she could tell that from the expression on the god's face. But that's because he was outside reality, she was sure of it. She concentrated, shifting her mental focus, as she had done many a time, to shift through time; and the world around her suddenly whirled, reforming as a nexus, with different time-lines colliding. She couldn't hold the view for more than a second, it hurt too much; but she had found him. He was standing over Hiko's prone body, gloating, smug and secure.
Rahne let her focus shift back to objective reality, and caught Rayden's eye. He stared at her, then nodded. She nodded back, and took a deep breath. She wasn't sure if she could do this, but she believed that she could; if he could do it, so could she.
Rahne stepped side-ways through time, to where he was hiding himself. She was careful to stand perfectly still, so that he didn't realise she had changed.
He snickered, and kicked Hiko, an action which did not actually occur; he was outside of time, and had no bearing on those within. "You think that you're high-and-mighty, that you can defeat the Storm, don't you? But I have Hichan now, and when I kill her, everything will go back to the way it should be, the way it's supposed to be."
"Who are you talking to, exactly?" Rahne snapped, as she leapt at him, hands outstretched, catching him by the throat. He was startled stupid by her movement; he thought she was frozen, the same as Hichan, Rayden and Hiko. They crashed to the floor, and Rahne used her powers to send them both back into reality.
"Rahne!" Rayden cried, surprised, but she ignored him, concentrating on Black Robes alone. He was the only one who concerned her.
He was fighting against her, struggling, and he was stronger than she was; he was forcing her back. Rahne was holding her own until suddenly his powers exploded in front of her eyes; waves of pain crashed down. She screamed, going limp for a moment; he shoved her away and scrambled to his feet.
She groaned, setting up belated shields; the pain ebbed and she got to her feet on her own. Rayden had dragged Hiko out of the way, but he still couldn't reach Hichan, whom the Storm hovered around protectively.
"I am the Storm," he proclaimed, defiant. "You can't defeat me, or ruin my mission!"
"You're--" Rahne began. She had meant to say "You're awfully cocky", but something happened to her in the middle of the sentence. Her time powers were spontaneously generating; she saw moments of alternate lines, scattered, coalescing with reality. Then she realised that her powers weren't causing it at all; she heard Rayden's startled gasp and Hichan's wail. They saw the fragments as well.
He stumbled, suddenly in pain. He ducked his black-haired head, grimacing, and the shadow-times faded away. But even more mysteriously, Rahne recognised something in his movement. That shocked her more than his powers: for a second, a split moment, she knew him. Knew him intimately. And then the feeling was gone, and he was the same dangerous stranger that he always had been.
"What are you doing to me?" he groaned, sinking to one knee, a hand out to steady himself.
"I'm not doing anything!" Rahne retorted.
"Not you!" he yelled savagely. "Her! She's behind this, behind all of it!"
"Who? The Wise Lady?" Rahne blurted, off-guard.
He scowled again, regaining his strength. "You idiot. Hichan's behind it all, she won't leave me alone, she won't let me go home! It's all her fault, and I won't let her torment me any more!"
He gestured towards her, enveloping the girl in a crackle of energy. She screamed, and her horrendous high-pitch cry clawed through Rahne's head.
"Hichan!" Rayden yelled, just as distressed as his daughter, charging forward; but he too was caught in the web that Black Robes had strung across the corridor. But where it had caught Hiko by surprise, Rayden had been expecting it; he was forcing his way through, using his powers as a defence, stretching everything to their limits. But it was too much. He gave a strangled gasp and collapsed to the floor with a thud.
Black Robes grinned maliciously, enjoying his victory, savouring it.
There was a sudden crackle of thunder.
He looked up, so startled that the energy around Hichan wisped away; she was unconscious, but still alive. "What?"
Rahne stood in the centre of the corridor, her powers blazing around her, crackling through the air, lighting up the darkened interior. Her powers were no longer black, like his; now they were bright white. Lightning.
She reached out her hands and the lightning struck Black Robes with a roll of thunder and a blaze of light.
"I won't let you hurt Hichan," she cried, concentrating on him alone. "I won't let you hurt any one, any more!"
He screamed, trying futilely to block the powers with his shields, but he couldn't focus clearly enough to do anything but run. He stepped side-ways, trying to travel through time, it was the only thing he could do, and yet as he tried, the world around him spun in circles, the colours running together, no, it was reality blending--
He collapsed, and the effect vanished. As it did so, his body disappeared, his powers reasserting themselves instinctually.
Rahne let her hands drop and her powers disappeared, plunging the corridor into darkness. She fell to her knees, exhausted.
"Hichan," she murmured. She had to help Hichan. She tried to crawl her way across the stone floor, warm now from the energy and the heat that she had created. She crawled past Rayden, even as her sparks danced in front of her eyes. She knew she was going to pass out any moment, but she had to--
she had to reach Hichan--
Rahne collapsed, inches away from the unconscious goddess.
She stared down at the pool, at the waves, at the ripples and bubbles. It was frothing, boiling; he was destroying everything from the inside.
Jikan Tai sighed, and shook his head, the green-black bangs falling down in front of his face. She wiped them back for him, and he looked so startled at the movement that he blinked. "You haven't done that for a while."
"I'm feeling nostalgic," she replied, sadly. "So many memories--"
"It will work out," he said, firmly.
"If it doesn't?"
"Then we're trapped here, forever!" Jikan Tai had freed himself from the gag, and spat the words at her feet. He was still bound and tied to one of the trees.
"Shut up," the other Jikan Tai replied. "You don't know what you're talking about!"
"And you do?"
"Stop it, both of you," she replied, gesturing slightly. A gag reappeared in Jikan Tai's mouth and he shook his head fiercely, but it refused to budge. He scowled at her. She ignored him, and turned to her comrade. "I think--maybe it's time she knows."
"You know it doesn't work that way," Jikan Tai argued.
"She can't do it on her own," she argued, reaching out with a hand to touch his arm. "I'll be fine, don't worry. I won't tell her everything--just what she needs to know."
He sighed, deeply, defeated. He nodded, briefly, then added: "Try and clear up this Celebria mess, too."
She nodded back, the jewel in her staff lighting up, as she stepped into the pool which was only now starting to calm down.
Jikan Tai sighed, again, and glanced down at his other self. "What are you looking at?"
Jikan Tai growled something in response, the words garbled, but the message clear.
The voice was so familiar, the goddess could almost picture the woman's face. It wasn't her mother, but it was someone almost as close, someone who loved Rahne almost as much...
The voice was changing, becoming higher, younger, more insistent.
It was Hichan. Rahne blinked her eyes open, realising she couldn't see even with her eyes open, it was too dark--no, no, now she was adjusted to the dim light of hall. She was lying down, she was on her stomach, her arm stretched out towards something--towards what?--and Hichan sat next to her, patting her shoulder, her tiny face streaked and swollen with tears.
"Rahne," she whispered again, "they won't get up!"
Rahne struggled to lift her head, feeling as though her neck wouldn't bend without breaking. She gritted her teeth and sat upright, looking behind her. Rayden and Hiko were both on the ground, as well, unconscious.
The fight came rushing back to her, and Rahne felt a flood of new anger towards him. "Rahne?" Hichan whimpered, as Rahne pushed herself up. "No go, Rahne, no go!"
"I'm not going," Rahne assured her, drawing the little girl into her lap, wrapping her arms around her. "Don't worry, I won't go."
"No go," Hichan sobbed, burying her face in Rahne's chest. "No more."
"I know how you feel," Rahne replied. She closed her eyes and thought, Medicalis? Can you hear me? There was no reply, and she sighed. Kerlan? Can you hear me?
No, but I can.
It was Sonya Blade's voice, unexpectedly, in her head.
Sonya? What? How?
I don't know. What's the matter? You feel upset.
It's Rayden and Hiko--Rahne broke off, looking at them, hard, hoping that Sonya could pick that up.
Read you loud and clear, the goddess replied, after a shocked second. I'll get Medicalis--he's busy with Celebria, but--under the circumstances--and Cel's not going anywhere...
The mindlink broke off, and Rahne squeezed Hichan tightly. "I talked to Lady Sonya," Rahne told her, quietly. "Lord Medicalis will come and help Lord Rayden and Lady Hiko."
"Help Mama? Help Daddy? Help wake up?" Hichan repeated, hopeful, rubbing her hand against her nose. Rahne nodded, and the little girl sighed, dropping her head back down against the goddess' chest. "I hope he never come back, Rahne."
"I'm going to try and make sure he doesn't," Rahne promised. She would track him down, instead of waiting for him to attack her. She would get him, and stop this once and for all.
He took a deep breath, shuddering with the pain in his chest, as he struggled for air. Sparkles were dancing in front of his eyes.
This is all her fault! he thought, furiously, collapsing on the cold stone of the temple grounds. He was back outside time, again, he was safe, but oh, how he wished he could just be at home, back where he belonged, before she wrecked everything.
What's going on? What's happening? Mom? Mom, where are you!
It was Hichan's fault, all of it. She was the reason he had tried to change time, tried to set things back to the way they were, when everyone was happy, when it was just him and his family--
I'm scared, Tài--!
He blinked his eyes, trying to rid himself of the flashbacks to that horrible time that he couldn't quite think of, clearly. Snatches and glimpses, wisps and hints floated before him, no matter how hard he tried to block them out, and forced him to remember. It was always worse after he was around Hichan. She brought the memories back, the way she did everything else...
"I just want to go home," he sobbed, his voice surprising him of the silence around him. "I don't want to be here, any more!"
But for the life of him--and he would give anything--he couldn't remember his home, his family, what he life was like. Only that it had been happy until Hichan ruined it.
He tried to stop shaking, to stop crying. He was the storm, he was The Storm, he didn't cry like a little girl! Like a baby! Like... Hichan. He was better than this.
"I'll do it," he said, with iron resolve. "I'll kill her, and then I will go home. I will, I swear it."
Only he couldn't remember who he was swearing it by.
Medicalis teleported in, Sonya on his heels. He made a beeline straight for Rayden, the closer of the two prone Immortals. "Sonya, check Hiko's energy level, will you?"
Sonya crouched beside the goddess, touching her gently on the arm. "I'm not sure, but I think it's rising."
"That's good. So's Rayden's. They should be fine, soon enough." Medi cleared his throat, and his eyes unfocussed for a minute. Then Lindara popped into existence, looking flustered and afraid.
"Here I am, Uncle Medi--Oh!" she exclaimed, startled. "Rayden--! Hiko--!"
"Do Hiko, please, I'm already starting with Rayden," Medi advised her, curtly. The plant goddess nodded, and knelt down beside Sonya, taking Hiko's hand. "What did this to them?"
"He did," Rahne replied, her voice loud. The deities all whirled, they had not noticed that she was there; she sat cross-legged on the floor, Hichan on her lap, and watched them intently. "The Storm."
"That horrible man!" Lindara exclaimed, indignant. "First he attacks me, and then Rayden and Hiko, and I think he's even--" Her voice faltered, and she stopped.
"Lindara...?" Sonya prompted. "What's happened?"
The goddess shook her head, her lips held tightly together. She concentrated on Hiko, clutching her hand tighter.
"Lindara..." Sonya sighed. "Why can't you tell us?"
She looked worried. "I don't want to say anything, I might jinx it."
"Lindara," Medicalis boomed, rolling Rayden over onto his back. "Stop this nonsense immediately and tell us what happened."
"Yes, Uncle Medi," Lindara replied, instantly, her eyes lowered. "It's just that... Jikan Tai hasn't come back yet."
"Should he have?" Sonya inquired.
"Sonya!" Lindara burst out, horrified, her hands immediately flying to her chest in indignation, taking poor Hiko's hand with them. "Of course he should have!"
"We all know that he's not one for following schedules," Sonya reminded her.
"Still..." Lindara trailed off. She couldn't argue, but she couldn't agree, either. "I just hope nothing has happened to him."
"He's very capable, for a mortal." Medicalis added his two cents. "Looks like Rayden will be fine. Hiko?"
"She's not awake yet," Lindara replied, confused.
Her uncle sighed, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I meant, how is Hiko?"
Lindara blinked. "Oh. Of course. Well, her energy is rising very well, I think she should be fine, too."
"Good." Medicalis got to his feet. "I'm going to check on Celebria, see if there's any change." He created a portal with a gesture, and stepped through.
"That's hardly necessary," Lindara chided, to Sonya. "He could just ask Kerlan."
"I think he wants to check for himself," Sonya replied, dryly. She glanced over her shoulder at Rahne. "Just to fill you in, Celebria's fallen into a coma."
Rahne went pale. Hichan, nestled against her, with her thumb in her mouth, looked up at Rahne's face, then settled back down, unsure. "Why--?"
"We don't know. All we do know is that right before it happened, she had yet another one of her mind busting visions. This one was about a 'dark' man being struck by lightning. Any ideas?"
"No... should I have?" Rahne retorted.
"I don't know. It just seems very coincidental that while you're fighting a tall, dark stranger, Celebria has a vision about something very similar." Sonya got to her feet.
"What are you saying?" Lindara stared at her in confusion, then down at Rahne. "Rahne couldn't possibly do that!"
"We don't know that--" Sonya began, but Lindara continued blithely.
"I mean, Rahne doesn't have lightning powers, and Hichan is hardly in the position to--"
"Goddammit, Lindara!" Sonya roared. The expression and ferocity caused Lindara to blanche and flinch. "We are not talking about powers, here! Get a clue!" She stomped away from the cowed goddess, towards Rahne, who was sheltering a frightened Hichan protectively. "And you--don't go anywhere, not until we get this sorted out, all right? If Black Robes can blank out your memories, what's to stop him from doing anything else? Just stay put."
With a crackle of power and a flash of purple light, Sonya was gone.
Rahne was shaking. Hichan started to wail, and so the goddess tried to calm herself, if only for Hichan's sake; but she couldn't do it. She couldn't be calm any more, everything was slipping out of what little control she had...
"Hichan?" Rayden murmured, starting to wake up on his own.
"Daddy!" Hichan cried, excitedly, while both Rahne and Lindara exclaimed:
Hichan squirmed and fought to get away from Rahne, finally slipping out and rushing to her father. "Daddy daddy daddy daddy--"
"Hi, Sparky," Rayden mumbled, obviously woozy. "You're okay."
"Me okay, you okay," Hichan sang, patting his arm in lieu of the hug she obviously wanted to give him. Suddenly she sobered. "But Mama--"
"Hiko?" Rayden exclaimed, bolting upright, nearly knocking his daughter over, but she scuttled out of the way just in time. "Hiko!"
"She'll be fine," Lindara soothed, dropping Hiko's hand as the goddess began to come around. "She'll be fine. I'm just going to teleport her to--"
"Mama fine?" Hichan interrupted, climbing into Rayden's lap, now that he was sitting up. "She be fine?"
"She'll be fine," he repeated, hugging her tightly, and staring at Hiko. His tone was not lost on Lindara.
"I'm telling you, she'll be fine," she repeated. "Perfectly peachy. Now, I'm going to teleport her to your room, let her get some sleep if she needs it--"
Rayden nodded. "Need any help?"
His baby sister shook her head. "No, you need to save your strength anyway. Okay, Hiko, here we go." Lindara took the goddess' hand again, and disappeared in a green twinkle.
Rayden sighed, with relief, and squeezed Hichan tightly, and she sighed with relief as well. "Come on, Sparky, let's go check on Mama."
"Okay," she replied, quickly. "But Rahne--" she turned to look. "Rahne?"
Rayden twisted slightly, but the hall was empty.
"Rahne!" Hichan squealed, frightened. "You said, no go! Rahne!" She burst into tears, and clung to Rayden, terrified, as he tried to get to his feet.
"I'm just standing up, Hichan, it's all right," he told her, setting her down on the ground so that he could stand. She wailed, louder, holding out her arms, wanting to be picked up again. He sighed, once he was vertical, and stooped to pick her up. She stopped crying, but still sniffled, obviously distressed. He rocked her a little bit. "Come on, Hichan, let's go check on Mama."
"Rahne," she sniffled, burying her head in his shoulder. "Rahne said no go!"
He sighed, making his way slowly along the corridor. His head was still spinning. "We'll go check on your mother and then I'll go find Rahne."
"Really?" Hichan picked up her head. "You find her, bring her back?"
"I'll do my best," Rayden promised, squeezing his eyes shut as a wave of vertigo washed down over him. "I-" He decided to just teleport, he couldn't walk any more. Hichan was growing heavier by the moment. "Hold on, Sparky."
They appeared in the bedroom. Lindara was just tucking Hiko in; the goddess was half-awake, tossing and turning. "You look terrible!" Lindara exclaimed, as her brother portalled in. "I thought Uncle Medi-"
"I don't know," Rayden admitted, letting Hichan down onto the bed, and sitting on the edge himself. The girl immediately crawled over to her mother and curled up against her. "I- have to go find Rahne-"
"You can't, in that condition," Lindara interrupted, primly. "Your energy is terrible."
"Somebody has to look for her," Rayden insisted. "Are you volunteering?"
The goddess looked shocked. "I wouldn't know where to start!"
"Then it will have to be me," Rayden concluded. "Don't worry, I'll be fine, I just need a moment to clear my head."
Lindara grumbled, then held out her hand. The god was confused for a moment, then recognised the gesture; he took her head and immediately felt the energy flowing in to him. He took a deep breath, the sparkles clearing. "Thanks, Lin."
She grumbled again. "Don't mention it. But don't be long, either. You should still rest. You're not as young as you used to be, you know."
Rayden shot her a dirty look and teleported from the room.
Rahne paused, drawing deeper and deeper breaths as she fell to her knees, sparkles in front of her eyes. She looked around her as she panted; she had run all t he way to the forest that separated the Temple grounds from those of the nearby town. The trees towered overhead, waving their branches at her, long arms in the dead of night, hands grasping, trying to carry her off. She started to cry, ashamed, even as she did so. She was too big to cry, and anyway, what was the point of crying if there was no one to hear her?
We hear you, the trees whispered, waving above. We hear you.
She covered her head with her hands, keeping them out, keeping them away from her, still sobbing. The harder she tried to stop, the faster the tears sprang. What was the point of crying, if she didn't remember why?
I remember, whispered a voice, not the shush of the trees, but a single person, inside the wood, near. Rahne looked up, startled, as the goddess took form amid the blackness of night, her robes camouflage; the red jewelled staff alone illuminated her. As she spoke, a glow grew around her, pale yellow and flickering. I remember why, Rahne.
"Wise Lady-" Rahne's voice was hoarse, choked with tears, blocked by frustration, fear and sorrow. She tried again, but couldn't say what she wanted to. The Wise Lady knelt down, dropping the staff and enveloping Rahne in a radiant hug, as the bright glow enfolded the goddess like sunshine.
Rahne cried openly, now, no longer ashamed, but comforted by the Wise Lady's familiar presence. "I don't know what to do," she whispered, raspy, drawing away to wipe her tear-stained cheeks. "I don't know what to do. He attacks again and again, and I can never defeat him!"
"And I hope you never do," the Wise Lady counselled, smiling gently at Rahne's look of horror. "You don't remember him, do you." It was not a question, but a sigh of regret.
"I don't remember anything," Rahne replied, distraught, drawing away, confused by this sudden betrayal. "I can't remember anything at all past my childhood."
For once it was the Wise Lady that looked startled; she was mystified by Rahne's response. She tried to smile again, to regain her cool, cryptic composure; but she couldn't manage it well enough to fool Rahne.
"You didn't do it, did you!" Rahne realised, drawing even further away. The world seemed to be spinning around her. "I thought you did, but you didn't, it was him, wasn't it!"
"Rahne!" the goddess exclaimed, and half a moment later, her exclamation was echoed. Startled, both deities paused, straining to hear against the rustling of the forest.
"-ahne-" It came again. Then louder, closer. "Rahne!"
"Rayden!" Rahne leapt to her feet, ashamed of her behaviour, her appearance, how she must seem to him. Like a childish little girl, no better than Hichan, running away in tears.
The Wise Lady also got to her feet, bringing the staff up with her. "He is alone."
"So?" Rahne looked to her for further explanation.
The Wise Lady blinked at the question. "He can be trusted."
"Any change, Kerlan?" Medi asked, as he stepped into the room. They were on Veritas, hoping that Celebria's Realm would help heal her. The goddess lay on her bed, still asleep.
"No," Kerlan admitted, not meeting the healer's gaze. "How's Rayden?"
"Better," Medi replied, with a sigh. Kerlan was sitting to the right of the bed, holding his sister's hand; he was perched on a pile of the velvet pillows that she had scattered around the room. Medicalis wrinkled his nose slightly. If it was anybody else's room, the explosion of velvet, tassels, embroidery, clutter and frills would be gaudy, at the very least; but Celebria seemed at home in it, and picturing her room any other way seemed unnatural.
"She always did have a thing for pillows," Kerlan said, suddenly, his voice low. "Pull up a few."
The sudden intimate nature of the setting struck Medi soundly, and most unwelcomely. "Oh, no," he blurted, taking a step backwards. "I really should be-I mean that-well-I-"
"Medi," Kerlan sighed, "sit down. I think you deserve to be here as much as I do." It was then that he looked up and Medicalis thought with horror: he knows. The God of Communication shook his head, grinning slightly. "We've got to get you over this fear of people."
Medicalis drew himself to his full height. "I do not have a fear of people."
"Then why aren't you sitting down?"
"I-" He paused, unsure of what to say. "I do not have a fear of people." Kerlan just looked at him, and he grumbled. A fear of people, that was absurd. He was perfectly comfortable around people-as long as they were unconscious, of course....
He sat down.
"Have you got anything yet?" Sonya asked, without any preamble, as she stepped through the portal. Meimei and her husband Tai Hou, both engrossed in reading their scrolls, didn't even noticed that she had entered the Library; as such, they missed her question. She was forced to repeat herself. Sonya hated repeating herself. "I said, have you got anything yet?"
Meimei jumped about a foot and a half in the air, her aura springing around her, shimmering and multi-coloured. "Don't do that!" she gasped, a hand flying to her chest in horror. She looked for agreement with her husband, but Tai Hou still hadn't noticed; he was still reading. She elbowed him in the ribs. He grunted and looked up.
"Oh, hello, Sonya."
The goddess sighed, and sat down, scattering scrolls as she did so. The mountains had reappeared; Meimei didn't look as though she was attempting to clean up after herself, or even organise the scrolls into piles.
"Sorry, Sonya," Meimei sighed. "I got really excited when I thought I found a lead about the Storm-but it just turned out to be information about the Guardians, and then I got side-tracked-did you know that all Guardians have been mortals? There's never been a God or Goddess of Time. Isn't that interesting?"
"Not really-unless it explains-" Sonya stopped, mid-sentence, a look of dawning growing on her face. "Meimei, you're a genius."
"Oh," she exclaimed. Then she paused. "Why?"
"What? What's going on?" asked Tai Hou, looking up from his scroll.
"Meimei hit something major," Sonya exclaimed, nearly smiling with delight. "Don't you see-if only the Guardians can have time powers, and only mortals can be Guardians-then-"
"Then only mortals can have time powers?" Meimei finished, not sure if it was the right answer or not.
"Exactly! Don't you know what this means, Meimei? The Storm and Rahne both have time powers, therefore they must be mortals!" She stood in triumph, scattering yet more scrolls onto the floor.
Meimei blinked in surprise. "But I thought-but I thought-you checked them, or Rahne at least, and she was a goddess!"
"You're right," Sonya admitted, sitting back down with a thump. "I guess they couldn't be mortals then."
Tai Hou glanced up again. "Unless they're in disguise. Or they're not really mortals or deities-but a mix."
Both goddesses looked over to him, and he shrugged. "It seems obvious to me. I mean, it explains why Rahne's so weird-she's not a proper goddess at all. Uh, no offense, Sonya."
"None taken," she grumbled. But wheels were turning, and she couldn't stay off the track for long.
Meimei was feeling the same way. "I've been thinking," she said, as though it wasn't perfectly obvious, "about how much that Storm looked like Lindara."
"I was thinking that myself," Tai Hou agreed, still reading.
Meimei continued as though she hadn't heard him. "Now, Black Robes is obviously some sort of mix-he's a god, but has access to powers of the Guardian. Could it be that he's related to him in some way?"
Sonya looked at her in surprise. "Are you saying the Storm is... is Lindara's child with Jikan Tai?"
Meimei nodded, very slowly. "That seems to be what everything is pointing to."
"But... I didn't know that mortals and Immortals could have children together-" Sonya began.
Tai Hou set down his scroll. "They can't."
"Are you sure?" Sonya asked. He nodded.
"Perfectly. It's one of the Rules set down by the Creator. No mixed breeds." He paused, looking thoughtful. "But then... the Guardian is a sort of Immortal, isn't he? He's got powers, a Role, he doesn't age like a mortal... I wonder if the rules might be bent for him. Hmmm." Humming to himself, he picked the scroll back up.
Sonya and Meimei exchanged glances. "I wonder what Lindara would have to say about this," the Goddess of Change mused. She closed her eyes for a moment, calling her sister. Something must have happened in the mental conversation that she didn't like; she frowned and grumbled, looking more determined. Then a green portal opened and Lindara stepped out.
"Now, what is all this nonsense?" she demanded. "I've got Hiko and Hichan to take care of, and Creator knows where Rayden is, and-"
"Have you and Jikan Tai considered having children together?" Sonya inquired.
The silence was thick.
"Excuse me?" Lindara demanded, confused and somewhat insulted.
"Have you considered having children with Jikan Tai?" Sonya repeated, slowly, as though Lindara needed it spelling out.
"No! I-well-no! I mean... no!" She was getting flustered and tongue-tied. "He keeps talking about having children, but I've told him that I don't want any, and anyway, he's a mortal, and then he gets all touchy which I don't understand because he is just a mortal and-"
"Lindara, slow down," Meimei urged. "So you would not, under any circumstances, have any children with Jikan Tai? This is important."
"I wouldn't," Lindara repeated, firmly. "I don't like children-not in large doses, anyway-and, well, no. No I wouldn't."
Meimei nodded. "There you go, Sonya. That settles that."
"Settles what?" Lindara demanded.
"It doesn't," Sonya argued. "What about in case of accidents?"
"Accidents!" Meimei repeated, indignant. "You can hardly call them accidents!"
"What are accidents?" Lindara cried.
"I can, and I will," Sonya insisted. "They can happen. They have happened. Nova."
Again, a thick silence fell down over the deities.
"I suppose you're right," Meimei acknowledged, somewhat sadly. "I guess that's true, she was an accident, of sorts..."
"Can somebody please tell me what's going on?" Lindara pleaded, desperate.
"Sonya and Meimei are thinking that the Storm is actually your child by Jikan Tai," Tai Hou filled in, succinctly, while reaching for another scroll. "Which would explain a lot of things."
"But not everything," Meimei disagreed, "it was just a working theory, you know, a brainstorm-Lin?"
Lindara had gone pale white and she seemed to be wavering. "Meimei-his powers are black."
"We know," Sonya replied, as Meimei helped her sister sit, before she tipped over. "What's your point?"
"Jikan Tai's are black, too," she whispered. "Black and green. And he's a mortal with powers, and he's... he wants children, what if...?"
"Lindara's right," Tai Hou blurted, looking up from the new scroll, comprehension dawning on his face. "She's right. She's got to be. Look at all the parallels between the Storm, Rahne and Jikan Tai."
"Not necessarily," Meimei argued, mostly for her sister, who was growing more distraught by the moment. "Sonya's powers are black too, black and purple, and she is-was-a mortal-and-" Something seemed to occur to her which caused her mouth to shut with a snap.
"If I were to have any children-and that's a big if, Meimei-they certainly wouldn't be by Jikan Tai. That's a dead end." Sonya leaned back, her arms over her chest, the picture of determination.
Meimei nodded, patting Lindara's back. "But we must be on to something. They must be related to Jikan Tai somehow-what other explanation can there be?"
"We're forgetting something," Sonya added, suddenly, a lightbulb going off. "Lindara can't be Rahne's mother at least-she doesn't have the power of Thunder."
"That's right," Lindara agreed, nodding her head, thankful to have one question answered. "And neither can Sonya."
"But what about the Storm?" Meimei persisted. "He's not born of Thunder."
They fell silent again.
"Oh, I wish Yellow was here," Lindara whimpered, wringing her hands. "He'd know what to do, or at least, what not to do. He's very good with that, you know."
"Who?" Sonya and Tai Hou asked, but Meimei only nodded.
"He still hasn't come back yet?" she asked.
Lindara shook her head. "I'm really starting to worry, Meimei. He's never been this long before! What if something's happened to him? What if... what if Black Robes got him?"
"I'm sure Jikan Tai will be fine," Meimei replied, sternly. She took a deep breath. "I think maybe you should go back and check on Hiko and Hichan. See how they're doing. We'll sit and puzzle things over a bit more."
"Are you sure?" Lindara was still wringing her hands; clearly she preferred to be with her patient and her niece, where she had some control over the situation.
"Perfectly." Sonya said this, sternly, still with her arms crossed over her chest. She looked as though Turan himself wouldn't be able to move her. Lindara sighed, and then nodded, and teleported away.
"Poor Lin." Meimei shook her head. "She's always such a nervous wreck."
Tai Hou slammed the scroll down suddenly, startling the two goddesses. "We need to get organised."
"Organised for what?" his wife blurted, startled.
"We need to sort everything out. What we know, for certain, and what we can extrapolate. Making all these theories and brainstorming isn't going to help us."
"I'm with Tai Hou," Sonya agreed, leaning her elbows on the table. "We need to start acting, not discussing."
Clearly, Meimei would have preferred to discuss it a little longer. "Well. What we know for certain is: Black Robes and Rahne both have time powers."
"Neither of them have a Role," Tai Hou added. "They have no colours."
"Right," Meimei continued. "We also know that Rahne has no memories beyond her childhood, that somehow, she's sending visions to Celebria, and that Black Robes is trying to kill Hichan."
"We also know that only 'lightning born of thunder' can stop Black Robes," Sonya finished. "That, and that only mortals can have access to time powers."
Meimei looked puzzled. "It seemed a lot clearer when we were just brainstorming."
"No, Meimei, look, it's simple," Tai Hou began, gently. "Rahne must be the goddess of lightning-"
"Why do you say that?" Sonya interrupted, suddenly.
He was startled, and confused. "Because she's been sent here to stop Black Robes."
"But Black Robes is trying to kill Hichan, when she's a baby. And she is lightning born of thunder. It maybe that the reason he picked now is because she won't be able to defend herself," the goddess argued. "What if the prophecy was wrong, and it isn't referring to two goddesses?"
Meimei snorted. "If you want to argue that the prophecy is wrong, we might as well throw it out all together!"
"But it makes sense if Hichan is the only one who can stop him," Sonya continued. "Otherwise, why would he go after her now? Because she's helpless! And that's why Rahne was sent to defend her."
Tai Hou and Meimei grumbled.
"It does make sense," Tai Hou agreed, finally. "And besides, there isn't anyone else for Rayden to pass the Thunder powers to-it must be Hichan."
At this Meimei looked up, startled. "What did you say?"
"Hichan's their only child-" Tai Hou began again, but Sonya interrupted him with a wave.
"No she's not," she said, suddenly. "There's Nova."
The Wise Lady stood, her staff glowing red in the twilight, her own golden aura adding to the illumination. Rahne, bewildered, got to her feet as well. Rayden could be heard, still off in the distance, calling her name.
"He can be trusted," the Wise Lady murmured again. "Of course, why didn't I think of it before?"
"Think of what?" Rahne asked, worried. The Lady didn't respond. She simply held her staff higher, so that it shone out through the trees.
"Rahne!" came Rayden's voice again, louder, closer. "Rahne!" Now she could hear him, pushing through the foliage, branches snapping in his wake.
"Rayden!" she called back. "I'm over here!"
She saw him a split moment later; the white was unmistakable in the darkness. He emerged into the small clearing. "Rahne, there you are-and-" He was looking at the Wise Lady. "And you," he finished, quietly.
Rahne looked to the Wise Lady, and was astonished to see her nervous. The Wise Lady shouldn't be nervous in front of Rayden-what reason did she have to fear him?
"Rayden," she whispered, almost... embarrassed.
The two elder deities stood staring at each other for a long moment, unable to say anything, unable to break the silence. It was the Wise Lady that averted her gaze first.
"I know you," Rayden said, quietly. "I know how you are... but I can't quite remember."
The Wise Lady's head snapped up, and her dark eyes were filled with tears. "I was hoping you would," she whispered. "I was hoping that-you-would know me, for who I am."
"You are the Wise Lady," Rahne repeated, stubbornly.
The Lady turned, and took Rahne's hand, squeezing it tightly. "Rahne-this is what I mean, when I told you that you must remember who you are. I am not who I seem to be, either."
"You are the Wise Lady!" Rahne cried, snatching her hand away, terrified that the one pillar in her life-the one person she could rely on-would turn out to be a liar as well. "You are the Wise Lady!"
"I am-but that's not all," the goddess replied, almost sadly, at Rahne's hysterical outburst.
"I know who you are," Rayden said, suddenly, stepping up towards her. He was eye-level with the Wise Lady; she was towering, for a goddess. She diverted her gaze again, tilting her head away from him. "I know you."
Rahne shrunk away, trying not to believe any of this. She didn't want any more earth-shattering news, her world was shattered enough as it was.
"You're Hichan," was all the god said.
Hiko lifted her head, tired, and looked over to where her daughter was perched on the end of the bed, looking out one of the windows, out towards the forest. "Hichan? What's the matter?"
"Nothing," Hichan replied, almost smiling. She crawled back and snuggled next to her mother. "Nothing, mama. Just thinking."
Hiko sighed, and wrapped her arms around the girl, falling back to sleep.
Celebria twitched, and started shaking her head. "No, no!" she was crying, mouthing the words. "No, no-!"
"Cel," Kerlan whispered, distraught, holding down one of her hands, frightened she would hurt herself. Medicalis was holding down the other, his aura around him as he sent healing energy to her, to calm her down.
"No," Celebria said, hoarse. "No, that-"
"-that can't be right!" Rahne screamed, terrified, backing away. "No, I refuse to believe that!"
The Wise Lady was still looking at Rayden. Then they both smiled, and turned to face Rahne. "Don't be frightened," the goddess said, gently.
"You can't be Hichan," Rahne whispered, shaking. "That's... that just can't be right-how can you be her?"
"That's what I would like to know," Rayden agreed.
The Wise Lady just smiled, mystically, and stamped the staff firmly into the dirt, straightening herself, tilting her head up, closing her eyes. The golden glow intensified and then became white and red. It began to spread from her head down, and as it did, she shifted along with it.
The long, straight black hair became wavy and white. Her brown eyes changed to blue, and the features shifted just slightly, back to their original state. Her robes changed to white, with a long red coat over top. She was now even several inches shorter, although no less imposing.
Rayden smiled back, stunned by the sudden shift. Rahne seemed more bewildered now than before.
"Don't you see?" Hichan asked her, gently. "We've had to change, to fit in here, in this time and world. I had to, you had to-Tài had to. But we can't change back until we realise who we are."
"Or when we realise who you are," Rayden added.
She nodded. "Exactly. Do you see, yet, Rahne?"
"No!" she screamed, the transformation, the cryptics, too much for her. "No, I don't understand this at all-why did you do this to me? Why can't you undo it?"
"I didn't do this to you-well-" the Wise Lady paused, at a loss for words. "I did do this to you-partly. The transformation couldn't be helped."
"Change me back," Rahne demanded, fiercely, her hands clenching into fists. "I want to be changed back!"
"I can't!" Hichan cried, exasperated. "Not until you yourself know who you are. That's what caused the change in the first place, Rahne, you've forgotten your place and your Role!"
"Then tell me!"
"I can't!" Hichan seemed as much at the end of her rope as Rahne was. "It won't mean anything! You've got to remember, it's all up to you!"
Rahne was nearly in tears, and Rayden stepped closer to her, putting an arm around her shoulders. She resisted at first, but then let herself be drawn into the embrace. "I don't understand," she sobbed. "I don't understand, I can't remember!"
Hichan seemed crestfallen. "I'm doing this all wrong."
Rayden patted Rahne's back. "Can you at least explain why you had to change Rahne?"
Hichan nodded. "It was to fulfill the prophecy."
Rayden looked blank. "What prophecy?"
Hichan blinked her blue eyes, startled by the question. "Uh..."
There was a snort of laughter from behind her. She stepped away, surprised, as Jikan Tai appeared. He too had the aura around him. "You're doing a great job."
"I don't know where to start," she admitted, sheepishly. "It doesn't make a lot of sense, when I try to explain."
"Start at the beginning, that's usually the best place," Jikan Tai remarked, his green eyes twinkling.
"You're not really Jikan Tai, are you?" Rayden demanded.
The Guardian looked shocked. "What? Of course I am."
"But you're not our Guardian," Rayden persisted. Rahne lifted her head enough to peek at the stranger disguised as Jikan Tai. She could see now, as Rayden could, the thin outline of a scar running along the Guardian's jawbone. It was a minor detail, but it showed the difference glaringly.
"Yes-oh, I see. You're right. I'm Jikan Tai-Guardian of Time-from Hichan's time."
"My time," the Wise Lady clarified. "Not your Hichan."
"This is getting too confusing," Rayden muttered. "We need a point of reference."
"We're from the Second Meeting of the Council," Hichan blurted, with dawning comprehension. "Your Hichan, your Jikan Tai-are from the First Meeting. That's the distinction."
Rayden nodded, starting to understand. "And the First Meeting Jikan Tai...?"
"Is enjoying a vacation at the moment," the Second Meeting Jikan Tai replied, exchanging a glance with Hichan. "He's... in danger if he tries to stay here, in the Omniverse."
"In danger of...?" Rayden prompted.
"I know," Rahne suddenly interrupted, sniffling. "Black Robes."
Hichan and the Guardian nodded. "Tài is disturbing the balance of the timestream. That's why we can't be here in person, either. It's too dangerous."
"He's the Storm," Hichan added. "He's the reason Rahne was sent back here."
Rayden shook his head. "Maybe he's right. Maybe you should start at the beginning."
Hichan started to open her mouth, to begin, but Jikan Tai touched her arm, above the elbow. She looked at him, and he shook his head. She closed her mouth.
"We'll be back," he said, to Rayden and Rahne. "But there's something we need to take care of, first."
Hichan nodded, and the pair disappeared, fading away and leaving Rayden and Rahne alone in the woods.
"Should we stay here?" Rahne asked, quietly. Rayden shook his head.
"We'll go back to the Temple," he replied. "They'll be able to find us. I want to check on Hiko, too."
"And our Hichan," Rahne added.
"And our Hichan," he finished.
Medicalis sat, defeated, by the edge of Celebria's bed. She had stopped her screaming, but he knew it wasn't because of anything that he had done. It had stopped, simply on its own, and that knowledge frightened him. Very rarely was he not able to help people; when he couldn't-such in the case of the death of Lilith, his first loss of a patient, everyone agreed that it was the Creator's will; that the Creator missed her too much. It satisfied her family and the community at large. It didn't satisfy him.
Kerlan sighed, on the other side of the bed, weary and worn out with worry. For a moment, the two gods met eye contact; then Medicalis ducked his head, ashamed. Ashamed that he couldn't help her.
"I-" he began, but he was interrupted by a flash of light from the back of the room. The Guardian had appeared, as well as an unfamiliar goddess; she held the Guardian's staff. "Who are you?" he demanded, getting over the initial shock quickly. "Guardian, what's going on?" Something didn't seem right. No, something wasn't right; Jikan Tai and his new companion shone, they shimmered with a strange golden aura that Medicalis had never seen before, and didn't like the look of. "What is the meaning of this? Who are you?"
"That's the Wise Lady," Kerlan said, in a hushed voice. The goddess dipped her black-haired head in agreement.
"We've come to help," she said, casting a glance at the Guardian, who didn't reply.
They stepped forward, towards the unconscious Celebria, but Medicalis got to his feet.
"Wait just a moment," he blurted. "You can't-"
Kerlan pulled him to the side, suddenly, savagely. "Shut up," he hissed, in the Medicalis' ear. "If anybody can help, it's the Wise Lady!" He pulled Medi farther out of the way, and let the Wise Lady and the Guardian pass.
"I didn't realise the link would do this," the goddess was whispering.
"Neither did I. Neither did anyone, really."
"Meimei knew. She tried to tell me."
Jikan Tai smirked. "We all thought she was rambling again. None of us paid any attention; it's not your fault."
The goddess frowned, worried. "It is. I implemented the link-therefore it's my fault. I have to make amends. What about-?"
He shook his head, cutting her off. "Too risky. Who knows what effects that could have-besides, she remembers this happening."
"Oh, right." The Wise Lady seemed shaken, but still trying to help. "Then I should just-?"
He nodded. She sighed, gripped the staff tighter, and closed her eyes.
The red jewel, a familiar sight to all the occupants of the room, began to glow, and then pulse with a strange, yellow light, the same that covered Jikan Tai and the goddess. Medicalis started to say something, but Kerlan stopped him, held him back.
The goddess opened her eyes, and touched the tip of the staff to Celebria's foot.
There was a bright flash of light, blinding; when it cleared, the Guardian and the Wise Lady were gone. And Celebria was awake, blinking in confusion.
"Kerlan?" she blurted. "Medicalis? What happened?"
"Hiko?" Rayden murmured, perched on the side of the bed. "Are you awake?"
There was no answer. He couldn't see her clearly, it was too dark in the room; so he assumed she was still sleeping. He could see, faintly, the outline of Hichan, snuggled up by her mother's side, on top of the blankets. He got one of the coverlets from Hiko's chair and wrapped it around the tiny girl, and then crept out of the room.
"Still sleeping?" Lindara asked. She was waiting for him outside, in the corridor. She was keeping her voice low. He nodded. "And Hichan?"
"She's sleeping too, I thought it best not to wake them up," he replied. He started walking, towards the kitchen and something to drink.
"I don't think that Hiko was hurt that badly," Lindara was musing, out loud, something which he normally tuned out. "Certainly not to sleep for so long, after a healing session. But then I could sense something really odd about her-"
"Odd? What do you mean by odd?" he asked, suddenly snapping back in the conversation.
Lindara was slightly startled. She was used to people tuning her out as well. "It's just that-that-well, for one thing, the stress levels of that poor woman are sky high, Creator only knows how she hasn't managed to fall apart yet!"
Rayden stopped in his tracks. "We've all been under a lot of stress," he reminded her, somewhat annoyed.
"Yes, I know that, but there's something else too. Her energy is just not right, somehow. I really can't explain it. It makes me think of Meimei, really, though I don't know why." Lindara shrugged. To her, the question was simply one of many, and not a very important question at that; it was a curiosity, nothing more.
Rayden looked at her, very hard, for a moment; then continued on his way to the kitchen.
"How's Rahne?" Lindara asked, hurrying to catch up with him, not understanding his behaviour. "She looked terrible."
"Rahne, like everyone else in Earthrealm, is under a lot of stress. She is also sleeping; I thought it would do her some good." Rayden went to the cupboard where the nectar was kept. "Drink, Lin?"
"No-well, yes, I think I will," Lindara amended. She sat down at the kitchen table while he poured one for her. "You're not the only ones... under a lot of stress, you know."
"He hasn't come back yet?"
She shook her head. "I'm starting to really worry, Rayden," she whispered, her eyes welling with tears. "I know he can take care of himself, better than I can, really, but he is just a mortal, and I-and I-" She paused, to take better control of her voice; it was starting to tremble. She took a gulp of nectar, quickly, so that she could keep from finishing her sentence.
Rayden sat down next to her, a glass in his own hand. "I'm sure he'll be fine, Lin. If it's one thing that he is good at, it's taking care of himself."
She nodded, looking glum. She set her glass down on the table top, staring at it as though it might reveal something.
"I mean, it has been a long time, but... Lin?" Rayden prompted.
She didn't reply, but continued to stare at her glass.
"Lin?" he repeated, tapping her on the shoulder. She looked up, suddenly, frowning at him.
"Who are you?" she asked, bluntly, her mouth turning into a snarl. "What are you doing her? Get out of my house!"
"What?" he blurted, jumping up, knocking over his chair. He didn't understand what was going on. Lin had changed, somehow, until he barely recognised her, and yet somehow she remained Lindara. She remained the same... and yet she was so different... He couldn't put his finger on the sensation, but he knew it felt very familiar. He had encountered it before, but in a different form, he was sure of it. He took a step backwards, shaking his head, trying to clear it, as versions of Lindara began to appear, all at once, stretching out, away from the table, the kitchen. Some were standing in the doorway; some were cooking. Most were sitting at the table, looking at him. With fear, horror, anger and surprise. It varied.
"What in the Name is going on?" he breathed. A thought struck him-Black Robes was behind this-and the first thing that made him think of next was Hichan and Hiko. They could be in danger. They could be-he teleported out of the kitchen, to his room, to his family, to make sure they were okay.
The portalling was different. For one thing, it was harder, as though he was wading through mud, or something equally thick. For another thing, the portal hurt him, it stabbed at him with thousands of knives, all at once. He collapsed on the other side, gasping for breath; the feeling disappeared. He stood up, horrified, as he became aware of the scene around him.
Hiko was lying on the bed, Hichan next to her. But she was also standing in front of her mirror, or by the window, or curled up in her chair. And she was not alone. Hichan was there, and even Celebria-what was Celebria doing in his bedroom?-and there, standing by her mother's wardrobe, was Nova. She was trying on dresses in front of the mirror, holding them up to her, playfully, although she looked only ten, and the dresses were still too large.
But the oddest thing that Rayden noticed, in the entire display, was the reflection in Nova's mirror.
It showed herself, nothing more.
No one else in the room, Rayden included, was reflected back. It was as though she was alone, as though none of these other spectres existed.
He took a step backwards, his head reeling. This had to do something with Jikan Tai. It had to. Rayden had been to another world once before-where he and Hiko lived peacefully with their two daughters. This had to be something like that-it was the Guardian's fault, which meant that he had to be somewhere around here-
Rayden felt a hand on his shoulder. He whirled, thunder crackling around him, to see the Guardian, in the flesh. But it wasn't his Guardian, it was the Guardian from the Second Meeting, that much was obvious. The golden glow, the scar running along his jawbone.
"Rayden," Jikan Tai said, carefully, measured, his voice sounding echoed. "You have to help us. Where's Rahne?"
"She's sleeping, in Hichan's room," the god replied, startled by the question, although he let himself relax a little, his aura dying back down. "What's happening here? Why are all these people-?"
"It's the time-stream," the Guardian replied. "Tài-Black Robes-his meddling has frayed the strands. They're intertwining. You're the one of the few people who don't seem to be affected, I think because of your experience in the Wood."
"There's others who can see this?" Rayden demanded.
The Guardian nodded. "Jax and Kitana, which is why I drew the connection I did. No one else can see the versions-"
"Why?" Rayden interrupted, still not understanding. "Why can't they?"
"Because," Jikan Tai said with a heavy, deep sigh, "they're all unconscious. Once the timelines started to merge, the pressure knocked everyone out. And I mean that. All over the Omniverse. Mortals, deities, everyone. I have to find Rahne. She's the only one who can stop the Storm now."
Rayden blinked, trying to digest all this information, trying to understand the scope of what the Guardian was saying.
"I have to find Rahne," the Guardian repeated. "I have to tell her about her mission. It's becoming too complicated now to leave to chance. As for you-you can stay in the Wood with us-or-"
"Or?" Rayden prompted.
"Or not. You'll be left here with the versions, on your own. We can't protect you and guide Rahne as well, not with all this going on." His hands fell limply to his sides as he surveyed the room, the replicas of Hiko, Hichan, Celebria and Nova going about their business. "Neither of those options are any good, I'm afraid, but there's nowhere safer-" Jikan Tai stopped, his head tilted, listening to something far away. "He said what? No, no, that wouldn't work in this case. Pardon? Don't listen to him! Then tell him to shut up, he doesn't know what he's talking about." The Guardian's eyes refocused, he was back to reality and he had a hint of a smile. "Was I always so short-sighted?" he asked.
Rayden was taken off-guard by the non-sequitur. "You had that tendency, yes."
The Guardian chuckled, his green-black bangs falling into his eyes as he shook his head slightly. "No wonder I don't like looking back, it's so embarrassing." He paused, and looked up. "I think, Lord Rayden, that there's really only one option for you, that's the best for all involved."
"Oh? What's that?" Rayden had a sudden feeling of foreboding.
Jikan Tai clasped the god's shoulder once again, tightly. "This one."
Everything spun around, and then Rayden's world went black.
You're our only hope, Rahne.
He had woken her up, he had shaken her awake, roughly, calling her name, urging her to get up. At first, as she started to emerge from her featureless dreams, she thought she recognised the voice: a name floated to her-Yellow-and then a word, Uncle.
"Uncle Yellow?" she repeated, groggy.
"Rahne, get up," was his only reply. She blinked her eyes open. There he was, her Uncle Yellow, dressed in his black uniform, his cape draped around him as he leaned over her, his hands on her shoulders, as he shook her, again, gently, but firmly. She blinked again, confused, and transfixed on the cape. She remembered hiding behind it, playing with someone-the memory slipped out of her grasp.
"What's the matter?" she mumbled, as he helped her sit up.
"You have to get up now, the time has come." He stepped away from her, getting to his feet. She saw the strange golden glow around him, like around the Wise Lady.
"The time for what?" she asked, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. The urgency in his voice was strange, and it worried her. Uncle Yellow did not become upset easily.
"The Storm's finally broken, Rahne. You're our only hope; you have to find him and-" his voice trailed off. "Stop him."
Kill him, her mind translated. That's what she had been sent here to do. That, and-
"Hichan-" Rahne began, but he waved her silent.
"She's all right, she's being taken care of. You have to get going, finish this as quickly as you can." He fished something out of his pocket. It was a tiny locket, on a golden chain; he handed it to her. The locket was a tiny gilt clock. "You can use that to stabilise yourself within the stream."
"The what?" she blurted, confused, looking up at his familiar face, and down at the strange present he had given her.
Now his tone was impatient, and he kept looking over his shoulder. "You're our only hope, Rahne-" Suddenly he looked startled, and was flung sideways as though someone struck him; then he disappeared.
"Uncle Yellow!" she cried, clutching the locket. "What happened? Where are you?"
There was no answer. Now, fully awake, she was aware of tingles running all over her, of bad energy in the air, of the sense that everything was not as it should be.
She got to her feet, uncertain. She had to find him, but she had no idea where to begin looking. Maybe Rayden had some ideas-
It was Uncle Yellow's voice inside her head, weak and tired, in pain.
You have to go now. Just follow your instincts-
The voice cut off suddenly, sharply, and Rahne knew it was because something horrible had happened to him. She could tell that. She wanted to cry, she was confused and frightened, but Uncle Yellow told her to hurry. So she had to hurry.
She cleared her mind, and tried to focus on him, on where/when he was. The tiny locket grew hot between her clenched hands. It was hard to focus; the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams, she couldn't make heads or tails of the strange images that flashed before her eyes. She held her eyes tightly shut, tried to narrow on him, but all these other images were getting in the way.
It occurred to her, with a flash of insight, that if he was causing all this confusion, then perhaps, by concentrating on the confusion, on its source...
There he was. He was in Earthrealm, but a long, long time ago. She opened her eyes and created a portal, jumping through.
Jikan Tai gritted his teeth, as well as he could through the gag, and tried, again, to wriggle his hands free. He squirmed, trying different angles, the bark of the tree chafing his back, rubbing it raw. He knew by now that his shirt was ripped on the rough surface of the tree; he had heard the fabric tear.
She was standing in front of him, the woman who had stolen his staff, looking down into the pool, into his Omniverse. His alter ego was there as well, but the older Jikan Tai was bathed in a yellow glow. The Guardian knew, by now, that the golden glow meant that his captors were communicating to people in the Omniverse; transmitting their presences and words. At first they had simply entered the pool and communicated directly; apparently his alter ego had spoken with Lindara, claiming to be him. This infuriated Jikan Tai, but he couldn't see how to do anything about it. After the future Guardian had visited the Plant Goddess, he had informed his partner that it was now too dangerous for them, inside the Omniverse. They'd have to stick to the transmitting themselves.
The goddess, the one who had bound him to the tree, turned to look at him. Her glow was gone; she was solidly back in the Wood, her attention focussed there. "Jikan Tai?" she said, softly.
Was it to him that she was speaking, or her partner? He didn't know. He narrowed his eyes at her. She was looking at him.
"I'm sorry about this," she said, very softly. "But it needs to be done."
"You don't need to gag me," he grumbled, though she couldn't understand him.
She tilted her head, the black hair slipping down over her shoulder. The gesture seemed very familiar to him, but he couldn't place from where. "If... if I undo the gag, will you promise not to yell at me?"
It seemed a very odd request. She was the one in control, she had been from the moment he had appeared in the Wood and she had ambushed him, then called forth her partner, his doppelganger.
On the other hand, doing without the gag would make his job easier...
She crouched down, kneeling beside him, and gently removed the gag. She left it tied-the easier to reapply it if he broke his promise-and then sat back, looking at him, in a way he didn't really enjoy.
"What are you doing this for?" he demanded, careful to keep his voice low.
"I told you. The Storm is breaking down the barriers between timelines," she replied, earnestly. She really did believe she was protecting him.
"That's impossible," he told her, frankly. "No one can do that." She fidgeted, and cast a look towards her partner. "Ah. He told you that."
"He's you," she said, as though it explained everything.
"If it's not possible now, it's not possible period," Jikan Tai replied with great conviction. "If Black Robes is capably of screwing up time lines, you have to let me fix them, not keep me chained up and hostage."
"You're not a hostage!" she blurted. "We're doing this to protect you!"
He didn't say anything; the look on his face spoke volumes.
"We are!" she repeated.
Suddenly, the golden glow faded from around her partner. He looked at her, solemnly. "I can't find him."
She got to her feet. "Maybe he's-"
There was a sudden popping noise. All three people were startled; the silence of the Wood made any noise seem far louder than it was. "It's started," she whispered, in horror, a hand rising to point at the pool, which was beginning to bubble. One or two bubbles at first, and then a furious boiling.
"What are you doing?" Jikan Tai demanded, furiously, trying once more to wrench his way from his bonds. He wanted to appear as firmly bound as possible.
"It's not us!" the goddess cried, horrified. "Oh, Yellow-what must be going on down there...?"
"I'll find out," the older Jikan Tai said, with supreme conviction. She grabbed his arm.
"Be careful. If you get drawn in, I don't think I can draw you out again," she told him, lowly, afraid. "I mean, I would do my best, but-"
"What she means is, she doesn't have the knowledge, the skills or the experience," Jikan Tai snapped. "Let me go from here, and I can help you."
"You can't!" the older version repeated, furious. "How many times do we have to tell you? If you and I cross paths... who knows what could happen? It could-it would-- be disastrous!"
"So you keep saying," Jikan Tai replied, dangerously, darkly.
The goddess glared at him; obviously she considered this a breach of their agreement.
"I have to go, but I won't get too close," the other Guardian told her, firmly. The golden glow began to grow around him, he began to fade, becoming translucent, the outline of the tree visible through him.
"Oh, be careful," she whispered. She bent her head down over the pond, watching.
"Tell me what's going on," Jikan Tai demanded. He couldn't see from his vantage point. She didn't reply; he tried a different tact. "Please-tell me what's going on. I'm just as worried as you are."
She glanced up at him, looking over her shoulder, and then she nodded. "Tài's meddling has caused a breakdown. Timelines are beginning to merge-paradoxes are starting to be created-oh! Oh no, no... the stress is too great, people are collapsing from the strain-Lindara! Meimei! Oh, no, what about Rayden-wait, he's still awake, he can see what's happening around him-and... who's that? What?" Now she was listening to something, to the voice of her Jikan Tai inside her head. "Oh, it's Jax and Kitana. I think I remember them, yes--they're awake too."
This, Jikan Tai was surprised about; what separated Rayden, Jax and Kitana from the rest of the Omniverse? What made them special-then it hit him. They had all been to the Wood. They were the only ones who had.
"I know," the goddess was saying, "that makes sense, Yellow, but are you sure it's the only thing that sets them apart?"
So his counterpart had noticed the similarity as well.
Now she was concentrating on the pool, again. "The visions are getting harder to see," she told Jikan Tai. "I can't make everything out, there's too much distortion. My Yellow is talking to Rayden, now. He's not sure what to do, to save him from the destruction of the timelines-"
"Take him outside the stream," Jikan Tai told her, urgently, a sense of foreboding settling over him. Maybe they weren't exaggerating after all, and something dreadful was happening. In that case, he was needed, he had to help, some how. "Tell-my other self-to take him out of the time stream, he'll be safe there! Outside, like when I saved him from being an Elder god!"
The goddess blinked, whether at the strange reference or at being ordered, he couldn't tell; then her eyes unfocussed; she was incommunicado with her partner. Then she blinked again, the link broken. "He says that wouldn't work."
"Of course it would work!" Jikan Tai yelled, frustrated, before he realised what he'd done. But the goddess barely noticed, she had started concentrating on the pool again. He stopped, for a moment, thinking. If she was too busy concentrating to hear him yelling, then she certainly wouldn't hear him talking under his breath. It was now or never.
"I declare a mystic calm," he murmured, not sure if the invocation worked outside the Omniversal walls or not. He knew that he, himself, was impervious to the command; he was betting his future version was as well. He was also betting that the goddess was just as vulnerable as any other. That was the only thing he needed.
As he uttered the sacred words, the energy bands that held him in place, bound to the tree, disappeared. He was free.
"By the Name...?" the goddess trailed off, confused. All of a sudden she had lost control of her visions. She looked up to see Jikan Tai straightening himself up, dusting himself off. "What? How did you-" He strode to her, grabbing her by the collar and hauled her up, snatching the staff away while she was too shocked to respond. "What are you doing?!"
"Taking back what's rightfully mine," he informed her, enjoying the feeling of his staff back in hand. "Now, tell me exactly what's going on."
"What? Why?" she blurted, her wits finally coming together; she began to struggle, trying to set herself free. But her powers were leaving her, and she was losing her strength; whereas he was in the peak of energy. The Wood always did revitalise him, as it drained others.
"So I can fix this mess," he replied. She realised that she wasn't going to win by brute force; her eyes began to unfocus. "Oh no you don't!" he snapped, suddenly, shaking her roughly, breaking her concentration and the link. He realised he couldn't take any chances, not any more; it was all up to him, now. He used his powers on her, channelling the visions towards her; she screamed, and fainted. No one could withstand the strain; he barely could himself, once upon a time. He dumped her on the ground, and realised that his alternate self was watching him, slowly filtering back to the Wood and out of the Omniverse.
Jikan Tai took a deep breath, and sprung; he caught his doppelganger around the middle, shunting him fully into the Wood with a gasp.
"Stop it-" his future version managed to croak out, before they landed in a tumble in the long grass. "You don't have any idea what you're doing, you idiot!"
"And I suppose you do?" Jikan Tai sneered.
"Of course I do! I was you, I know exactly what you're going to do next!" The elder Guardian managed to roll away, neatly missing falling into another of the infinite puddles. "I-" He paused, suddenly short of breath.
Jikan Tai felt it too; a searing sensation that crawled through him. He gasped, and leaned over, knowing it made him vulnerable, but not caring. It hurt too much.
"Don't you see?" the other Guardian croaked, his voice hoarse. "It was power that kept us both here, separate and alive, but now... the damage is too extensive-"
Jikan Tai realised what was happening. They were a paradox: two unique identical beings, existing at the same time. It couldn't happen; it shouldn't; it wouldn't. The mistake would be corrected. He fell to his knees, sparkles clearing out his vision.
"Rahne is the only one who can help us," the elder groaned. "But I can't guide her-it has to be Hichan, it has to be-" he faltered, collapsing, unable to finish his sentence. But it didn't really matter; his younger self couldn't hear him anyway.
She appeared, dropping through her portal, onto a great plain. There was a thick, dark sky roiling overhead; that was all. There was no stars, no sun, no moon; the ground had no features. She was in a place that had not yet been formed.
He was standing there, in front of her. She remained in her crouch, her heart hammering against her ribs, the locket dangling from her neck. She took a breath, unsure of what to do next, and he seemed to hear her. He turned.
He glared at her. "It's you," he snarled, redundantly. "Why can't you leave me alone?"
"You know I won't ever do that," she replied, suddenly. As soon as she heard herself saying it, she was as surprised as he was. There was something about her phrasing that seemed so familiar.
"I thought that no one would ever find me here," he whined, abruptly turned away from her. "I'm tired of running, I want to go home."
"We all want to go home," she replied, "but that doesn't mean-" She stopped, mid-sentence, staring at the sky overhead. It seemed so...
"...familiar," he whispered, gazing up as well.
She was running, she was worried that they'd leave her; the thunder roared around her, booming in her ears. She couldn't help it, she began to cry. She tripped, tumbling to the wet, shaking ground. Now they would never find her, she'd be lost forever. A pair of hands gripped her, pulling her up.
"Don't worry, Rahnie, I wouldn't leave you-"
She screamed as the bolt of energy struck her, unexpectedly. She staggered backwards, gasping for breath, trying to regain her bearings.
"Stop it!" he screamed, although she could barely hear him, over the sudden roar of wind. "Stop doing this to me!"
There was another explosion of light, and heat, and Rahne hastily created a shield around herself, to block most of it out. She succeeded in weathering the blast. As Black Robe gathered his energy together for another volley, the world began to shake, and reality began to twist again, as it had in the corridor. Rahne screamed, knocked off balance. She clutched the locket Uncle Yellow had given her, and it seemed to help; everything stopped spinning. The locket, however, did nothing to stop the effect itself, and now she could see the damage that he was wreaking in the fabric of time.
The Realm, Earth, began to shimmer, and earlier and later versions began to pile on top of each other, overlapping and enveloping each other. Rahne was entranced; safe from the effects and disorientation, she was free to watch a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
"Stop it!" came a hysterical scream, high-pitched and frantic; it sounded like the scream of a terrified child. And then he threw himself at her. She hadn't seen him, she'd been too distracted.
As he collided with her, the world seemed to spark yet again; but this time, instead of splintering as before and overlapping, it seemed to coalesce into a single place and moment.
"Mommy?" Rahne poked her head around the corner of the hallway. Mommy wasn't down here, either. "Mommy? Daddy? Where are you?"
"Rahne," her father called, startling her; he was emerging from one of the rooms. "There you are, I've been looking for you. Where's your brother?"
"I don't know," Rahne replied, honestly. She ran to her father and hugged him, tightly, around the middle; he hugged her back, distracted.
"I want you to go with your aunt and uncle," he told her, all the while looking down the corridor. Rahne thought she could hear thunder booming overhead. But that was silly-why would Mommy be so mad?
"Why?" she asked, looking up at her father, concern showing on her young face.
"Just for a visit," he assured her, hugging her again, and then crouching down so that they were eye-to-eye. He smiled at her, and then ruffled her brown hair; it was so like his own, and so unlike her mother's. "Don't worry. There's a bit of trouble-" Thunder boomed again and she jumped, frightened, but reassured by her father's presence. "But Mommy and I will take care of it, okay?"
"I'll find your brother, and then-" He was cut off by the sound of a tremendous explosion, as the top of the roof was blown away. Rahne screamed, terrified; he shielded her, and then picked her up, and started to run. She couldn't help herself, she started to cry. "Don't cry, Rahne. Don't cry. Be brave. We'll be all right, you'll see-"
Uncle Yellow had appeared, and Daddy skidded to a halt. Rahne's Uncle held his arms out, and she was handed over like a parcel, with nary a word said between the two men. Daddy turned and bounded away, out into the open; she could see the sky, it was purple and black, like a bruise. Then it began to turn blood red. She started to cry, again, but forced herself to stop. She wanted to show Daddy she was a brave girl, even if he wasn't here to see her.
"Where's your brother?" Uncle Yellow asked, holding his cape around her, sheltering her from the wind. He smelled slightly spicy, and different; the odour made her uneasy. She wanted her father back.
"I don't know," she sniffled. "I don't know-"
"Yellow!" came a frightened shriek. Yellow stopped, and Rahne peeped out from beneath the cape. It was her aunt, running down the corridor. "Yellow-where are the children? We've got to save them-she included them in the challenge, the idiot, and now-"
"Calm down, Hichan," Uncle Yellow murmured. "The challenge couldn't possibly extend to them-"
"Find him, find Tài," Hichan urged, her face pale white. "I've got to find Raiko, she won't last much longer, she never trained herself properly-!"
Uncle Yellow nodded. "I'll find-"
Rahne screamed, suddenly, unable to bear it. "Something's poking me!" she wailed. Tiny needles were poking her all over, everywhere, she started to wail and squirm. Yellow knelt down, letting her stand, his hand on her forehead. He looked up at Hichan, the blood draining from his features.
"Her energy..." he whispered. It was all he needed to say.
Again, a crash of thunder broke overhead, so loud that it hurt Rahne's ears even more than the needles, which now started to burn as well as prickle. She began to cry, for her mother or her father.
"Raiko!" Hichan yelled, into the surrounding furor of the storm. "Raiko!" She charged off, nearly tripping over Yellow in the process.
"Hichan, wait-" he called after her, but she couldn't hear him over the din. He could barely hear himself. He looked down to Rahne. "Rahne, you must wait here. Don't move. Do you understand me? Do not move from this spot."
Rahne nodded, the tears running down her face. She shuddered as more of the walls began to collapse in on themselves. Uncle Yellow leapt to his feet, and charged after Aunt Hichan; he was out of sight in moments. It was now that Rahne truly understood the terror that had seized her aunt; the child was alone, as her world was falling to pieces around her, and the pain which started as needles grew worse and worse.
And then she realised that they might not come back for her. If the thing out there-that was hurting her mother, causing the storm-was this bad, her parents might not be able to come for her. She might be left alone.
A fear so great it caused sparkles in front of her eyes washed over her and she began to scream, as she started to run, the direction that Daddy had taken, and Aunt Hichan, and Uncle Yellow. She started to run, screaming for them, screaming for anyone, to come and find her and help her.
She was outside the Manor now, she was outside, and the rain pelted her. She slipped on the grass, she fell to her knees, scraping her hands. She cried openly now, she didn't care who saw her. As long as somebody did. As long as somebody could come and rescue her. She didn't want to be left alone in the chaos-
A pair of hands gripped her underneath her armpits and hefted her up, harshly, but she didn't care. It was her brother, her saviour. "I don't want to be left behind!" she sobbed, hugging him tightly.
"Don't worry, Rahnie, I wouldn't leave you behind. C'mon, we've got to find Mommy-"
There was a crash of thunder and suddenly they were knocked off their feet. Rahne tried to keep a hold on her brother, grasping his hand, but the force of the earthquake was too great. Her fingers slipped away and she lost him into the fearful darkness. "Tài!" she screamed, hysterical. "Tài!"
Rahne awoke, with a gasp, in the present. She was lying, stomach down, on the great plain that was Primordial Earth. The sky overhead had reverted to its original inky blackness. He was gone.
Her heart was hammering against her ribs, as she struggled to sit up, her arms and legs feeling as though she had been running for hours. Perhaps she had; perhaps the vision was a reality-but she knew that to be wrong. She knew the vision was a memory, the one that had beaconed to her in her dreams, that had tormented her. It was a memory, and now she could recall it, and the afternoon that preceded it, and the years before then... the glorious years spent with her family. It was all there. Her family-
She looked up, startled by the now available knowledge: she knew who Black Robes was. The familiarity that had haunted her was just that: familiarity.
He was her brother.
The time-line exploded around him, as he leapt from Ancient Earth to the present one. His Earth, cracked, and torn. The sky red; the earth dark russet-brown, the colour of dried blood. He stifled a sob at seeing his home reduced to rubble and ashes. This was all her fault, and he cursed Hichan every way he knew how; which was not many, he admitted, but it would have to do. Seeing his home only served to stir the fires of his anger, the raw rage, at being ripped from his home so traumatically.
The god who had settled in their former home was not here; no doubt he had been knocked out by the waves that were rippling through the entire timestream. Knowing that he was the cause of such destruction caused him to smile faintly; no one could ever doubt the power of the Storm. Yet, at the same time... a feeling of dread lurked in the shadows of his mind. After all, he didn't know how, exactly, he was causing this; and he didn't know how to stop it.
Hichan opened her eyes, groaning, as the after-effects of whatever Jikan Tai used against her started to fade away. She blinked in the soft hazy sunlight of the Wood; for a moment, she didn't know where she was. She thought at first she was in Earthrealm, with Raiko; but then she remembered where she was, and all that had happened. She groaned again, pushing herself up by her arms, which were shaking. There was something on the tip of her mind which she couldn't recall, but it seemed urgent. Then Yellow's voice came back to her-
"-he'll try and make a run for it. If he does, he'll overpower me, and break my protection seal. I can't watch him. Just make sure he doesn't say anything-"
Yellow had been worried that Jikan Tai would attempt a spell. He couldn't remember what kind, it had happened so long ago, and thought it better to gag him. Hichan had thought that she would hear the Guardian reciting a spell, so it was all right. But she had been wrong and now-and now-
She looked around, seized with sudden terror. "Yellow!" she cried, looking for him. "Yellow-!"
There he was-there they were, lying on the grass, sparkles rising up and glittering into the air.
She got to her feet and dashed over, grabbing the jewelled staff that lay on the grass. She had to shove Jikan Tai away, for he had fallen on it; he was barely corporeal any longer... she couldn't think of it. Holding the staff, her eyes closed, she began to focus on the pair, weaving the spell that Yellow had taught her, in case of emergency. It was hard for the goddess, she wasn't a Guardian and had only limited control. So she added a silent plea to the Creator to help her bring Yellow back, and stop whatever was happening.
It happened so slowly, at first, that she didn't notice: the sparkles were receding, coalescing back into the two Guardians. Then it began to happen faster and faster, until they were whole, and alive, and safe.
Hichan sank to her knees, happy and exhausted, as both Jikan Tai and Yellow drew shuddering breaths as they started to come around. She checked the pulse of her Guardian, and found it steady, which meant he would soon be awake. In the meantime...
She got up and checked the pool. It was still bubbling furiously, more so than ever. Panicked, she tired to reach out to Rahne; but she couldn't sense her any more, since the link had been severed. Hichan wished she could set it back up, but doing so would only harm Celebria; there was no guarantee that Rahne would respond at all. The Creator only knew where Rahne was now. Hopefully she was faring all right against Tài.
Hichan kept her head bent over the pool, staring down into its now murky shallows, wishing that she could see something, anything, that might give her hope. But the only visions that came to her were of Earthrealm, as she had last seen it, torn and ruined. She closed her eyes, quickly, but not swift enough to stop one tear from dropping, silently, into the pool.
There was a flicker of light that swam in the water, like a tiny minnow; then the pool cleared, for a moment, and she saw her father, still at the Temple, unconscious, where Yellow had left him. She gasped, and without thinking, tried to open a portal, to bring Rayden through, to the Wood. Yellow had said not to, Rayden wouldn't enjoy it, but surely-
"Surely he'll be safer here," she said, out loud, determined. She made another effort, this time, concentrated, and managed to grab hold of her father, even through the chaos that the Storm was wreaking. Pulling him through proved to be another matter; it was harder even than pulling Yellow back from the brink. But the harder it became, the more Hichan wanted to see her family again, and that gave her more strength and determination. Hiko had always said that Hichan was her father's daughter: if she wanted something, she was going to get it, no matter how long she had to wait or how hard she had to fight for it.
There was a flash in the air, and Rayden appeared, still unconscious, at the grass, by the pool. Hichan bent over him, happy enough to start sniffling: he was all right, the trip hadn't hurt him. She started to give him healing energy, and realised that he was growing panicked as he woke up, when suddenly he sat bolt upright, his eyes wide with terror. "Where-" he blurted, grabbing her wrist as she had held it out.
"Ow!" she cried, trying to wrench it away. "Stop it, Daddy, you're hurting me!"
He blinked, and let her wrist drop. "Hichan?"
She nodded, rubbing her sore arm, gingerly.
"Where am I-the Wood," he realised, with a snarl. He looked to her, curious, but still upset. "I thought Jikan Tai-"
"I brought you through," she answered, not understanding why he was so upset. "Yellow's unconscious."
Rayden blinked again, not understanding, and now he was worried, as well.
"Don't," she said, suddenly, as she saw him trying to stand. "Yellow will be fine-both of them. I brought you through-I don't know why I brought you through, it just..."
"Seemed like the right thing to do?" Rayden finished, ruefully. He was staring at her, he hadn't got the chance to really look at her, when they had met up in the forest outside the Temple. There he had been worried about Rahne, and besides, it was dark; here it was day, and there were no other distractions. He was surprised by how much Hichan had grown to look like her mother; she had Rayden's colouring and bright blue eyes, but the way she held herself, and the curve of her face, was all Hiko's.
His future daughter grew too uncomfortable with the gaze and looked away, over his shoulder. "Oh!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet and darting off. He started to get up, to follow her, but the wave of vertigo told him that getting up wasn't a great idea, and so he decided just to keep an eye on her, instead.
She had stopped in a small clearing. She was bending down over someone-ah. It was the Guardian, who was rubbing his head and looking angry. Then the mortal caught sight of Rayden, and he actually started yelling.
"I told you not to bring him here!" he yelled at her, furious.
"It's safer for him here than anywhere else!" Hichan retorted, just as angry.
"Do you think I need to worry about any more paradoxes?" he snapped, still struggling to get up, brushing away her help. "Don't we have enough to worry about?"
"There's nothing else we can do to help, you know that. Besides, he wasn't affected by the waves, anyway. There's no difference." Hichan had started back towards her father, Jikan Tai limping behind her.
"Hichan, wait!" he called, unable to keep up. She turned and said something that Rayden didn't catch, and he couldn't see the Guardian any more, who was behind a tree. Then Hichan turned and started towards her father, again.
"Hichan-" the Guardian called, once more, almost piteously. "My ankle-I think I sprained it when I fell-"
She stopped, and slowly, looked over her shoulder. He was leaning against a tree, Rayden could see him now, and the Guardian's face was pale, and his lips were pulled back in pain. He said something, too low for the god to hear, but Hichan could. She went to him, and helped him hobble onwards, his arm around her shoulders, as he tried to walk and keep his weight off his injured foot.
"You're a better healer than I am, Daddy," she said, helping the Guardian to sit down.
Rayden realised that this was the Second Meeting Guardian, not the first, not his own. "I don't know if I can," he admitted. "I fell so..." His hands fell limply to his sides. He couldn't explain the disorientation that the Wood seemed to give him.
Jikan Tai nodded. "It's the Wood. Hichan, block out his abilities."
"What?" both deities blurted.
Jikan Tai grumbled, shifting around to help his leg. "Hichan, if you block Rayden's telepathy, he'll feel better."
Rayden got to his feet, the very suggestion disturbing him. That, and the fact that Hichan knew how to dampen his abilities; he could tell that from the way she looked up at him, ready to help. "Don't."
"It won't hurt," she replied, getting to her feet, as well. Her eyes were becoming glassy, as she focussed on something he couldn't see. "I've done it many times."
"I don't want it done," Rayden snapped.
"It will cure the disorientation," Jikan Tai told him, exasperated. "The feeling comes from being cut off from the Omniverse."
"No," Rayden repeated, backing away. He had a feeling he was only a few inches from one of the many pools. "Hichan, don't."
She stopped, looking hurt, and went to sit next to Jikan Tai, kneeling by his side. "If you really don't want me to... but what about Yellow's leg?"
"I can still try to help him," Rayden replied, relaxing somewhat. "But..."
"But?" both the future versions asked him, at once.
"But you have to tell me what is going on," Rayden finished. "The whole story, from beginning to end."
They exchanged a glance between each other. "I don't see," Hichan said, with a sigh, "that it should be a problem. As long as you swear not to tell. Anyone. Not even Mom-not even Hiko. Do you swear?"
"I swear on the Creator that I will never tell anyone," Rayden repeated, faithfully. He knelt down on Jikan Tai's other side and placed a hand on the mortal's ankle. He wasn't nearly the healer that Lindara was, but he should be able to do enough.
The Guardian sighed with relief, closing his eyes, as the healing energy helped restore his ankle. "Thank you."
"No problem," Rayden replied, automatically. "Now... the story?"
Rahne waited, for a long while, just crouched, thinking, in the sands of her home. She could see it spread out in her minds' eye as the grand Temple where she had grown up. The fields, the forest, it was all gone now, decimated.
She was hoping that somehow, the memories would keep surfacing, but after that terrible night when Earthrealm was conquered, her recollection hit a firm wall. She couldn't remember anything more.
The Wise Lady-Aunt Hichan-had told her that the key to her success was remembering who she was. Rahne was so close now, so, so close, but no answers were forthcoming. She remembered Earth as a five-year old, and so she knew next to nothing beyond its limits. Who her parents were, who they had been fighting-she couldn't say. They were simply Mommy and Daddy, and something horrible had happened to wreck her home; the five year old Rahne knew nothing more.
She stood, looking out over the desolate plain. He had been here, she had tracked him, but now she didn't know where he'd gone. She wondered why her family was so desperate for her to kill her brother; but she knew the answer the moment another jolt struck the time-line, scattering versions and uprooting reality. Tài had to be stopped; that was for certain. She clutched the locket for stability and traced him. He was growing easier to find; the temporal footprints stood out clearly in her mind. She opened her portal, and was astonished to find it ringed now with a sparkling silver. She had no idea what that meant. She'd figure it out later. Now, she had a mission to carry out. She took a running start and threw herself through the portal.
She collided with him a moment later, striking him from behind with the full force of her momentum. He cried out and fell; she rolled with the impact, managing to get back to her feet.
"You!" he snarled, spitting dirt out of his feet. They were in Earthrealm, the Realm of Rayden; she could see monks in the distance, doing their chores. Within an instant she realised what he was here to do.
"You're still trying to kill Hichan," she breathed, horrified. Didn't he understand the consequences?
A blast of black energy leapt out from his outstretched hands, the answer to her question. "I will kill Hichan, and end this!" he cried, getting to his feet as Rahne leapt out of the way of the shot. "She's behind all of this!"
"No she's not!" Rahne snapped, settling into a defensive position. "You are."
He scowled at her, his features so familiar to her now, although she could still only see him as a little boy. "Lies. She's told them to you!" He paused, and channelled his powers into the ground; it started shaking and threw Rahne off her feet. A black portal opened next to him, and he stepped through.
Disgusted with her inability to keep up, Rahne immediately started to trace him. But she found him a lot sooner than she thought was possible, when he stepped back out of his portal, shoving her roughly to the ground. She landed face-down in the dirt.
Rage was building around her, her aura crackling into existence as it did for all full-grown deities. She got to her feet, feeling the rush of power.
He was staring at her, wide-eyed. "But-where are your normal powers?" he blurted.
She didn't even blink, but reached out, the lightning leaping from her hands to envelope him. He yelped, then tried to step side-ways; she blocked him, forcing him back into normal reality.
He scowled, his own temper shot; he raised his hands and threw them out towards her in a swoop. The black energy exploded around her; but she used her shields to block most of it. However, the shields were very draining; she had to drop them after a moment. She knew that he was probably as exhausted as she was, so she decided to use a physical attack, to catch him off-guard.
She leapt and kicked, her foot catching him in the side of the head. She spun around, to land roughly on her feet; he was thrown side-ways and tumbled into the dirt. He rolled out of reach, and tried to get to his feet, rubbing his jaw and spitting blood. Now his own aura was crackling around him, black and malevolent. He leapt forward, trying to punch her; she caught his fist in her hand and twisted it around.
Or she intended to. But as her skin touched his, another vision blinded her; she gasped and let go, staggering backwards. She was vaguely aware that Tài was clutching his head in pain.
This was not a specific memory or vision. Instead it was a whirl of images and sensations, of pain so bad that Rahne cried out, hoping it would end, she didn't care how. She was trapped, alone, no, with her brother, and they were going to die-then she appeared, offering her hand. Rahne reached out and took it, holding tightly. Then light wrapped around them, and they awoke, alive and none the worse for wear.
That's how she remembered it, now. She remembered the new land, she remembered seeing her mother and father, and her tears of joy when she realised that they were all right, and her sadness at realising that they would never go home...
"Stop it!" Tài wailed, striking out with his fist. The back of his hand caught Rahne in the temple; it jarred her out of her memory. "Stop doing this to me! Stop it!"
His terror was causing him to lash out, blindly; his powers were catching her, and she couldn't concentrate hard enough to block them. She dropped to her knees, her hands digging into the soil, while she tried to shield herself.
It was too difficult, she would never be able to-
"Don't say never," Aunt Hichan told her, once. "Nothing is impossible. Anything can be done, by the Creator."
"Yeah, but the Creator is the Creator," Rahne sniffled, frustrated and upset. "I'm just a little girl."
Hichan had knelt down, looking her niece in the eyes. "Rahne, you and I are the two most powerful deities there are. Did you know that? Hasn't your mother told you? When you grow up, Rahne, there will be no force in the Omniverse who can stop you-except of course for the Creator. But if you give up, then you've stopped yourself."
Her fingers dug into the soil. They were counting on her; they believed she was their only hope. Could she let them down, now, when they needed her most? No. She wouldn't.
"Rahne, you and I are the two most powerful deities there are..."
She gritted her teeth, and forced herself upwards, through the cascading energy that Tài was showering down on her. Bright flashes of light snapped in front of her eyes; her silver-white aura crackled around her. Thunder roared in her ears.
"Why don't you just give up?" he snarled, frightened by her resistence. "I'm the Storm, nothing can defeat me!"
"I can," she replied, almost smiling, as she felt a surge of power around her. "I can. I am Lightning."
He gasped as she stood, as the cursed goddess actually stood, bearing the pain and the pressure of his attack. Her aura crackled around her, the white-silver energy that seemed so familiar, although he couldn't place from where. He was used to that sensation.
"Why don't you just give up?" he demanded, hoping to bluff her. She couldn't possibly defeat him-could she? He'd given her the slip so far. He could do it again, and again, as long as he needed, before he killed Hichan and set everything right. "I'm the Storm, nothing can defeat me!"
Now she was smiling-smiling!-and her shields flipped into existence as easily if he hadn't been there. "I can." She was smirking, energy sparking in her eyes. "I can," she repeated. "I am Lightning."
At that moment, there was a burst of light; it centred over Rahne's head and moved towards, changing her as it slipped by. Her black robes disappeared; they were replaced by a shirt and trousers of silver, with a long silver robe that billowed in her wake. Her hair was different now as well; it was a ash-brown, setting off her blue eyes.
For a moment, he was speechless; she reminded him of someone he had known, once, long ago, but as soon as the memories tried to reassert themselves, he forced them down. He created a portal, and leapt through. He had to rethink his entire game plan. This goddess was more powerful than he ever suspected, and she could very easily-he saw that clearly now-upset his entire mission. He had to act fast.
On To Part Four