Hichan fidgeted. "I guess I should be the one to tell you," she said, awkwardly, after a moment of reflection. "I was more involved with everything."
"Just start at the beginning," her father prompted, gently, making her feel as though she was only eight-years old again, trying to explain her side of the story before Raiko got a chance to.
"Well," Hichan began, slowly, uncomfortable, "the whole mess really started when Raiko got Earthrealm."
"When who got Earthrealm?" Rayden inquired, understandably suspicious.
"When Raiko, Goddess of Thunder and my little sister, got Earthrealm," Hichan expanded, continuing onwards without commenting on the god's surprised expression. She couldn't explain everything to him; just the bare basics. "Now... well, let's just say that Raiko was pretty self-sure to begin with, but getting her own Realm, especially one as prestigious as Earth-"
"Blew her ego into Omniversal proportions," Jikan Tai finished, slyly.
"Guardian!" the goddess snapped, the use of his title showing just how irritated she was. After making sure he wasn't going to make any more snide remarks, she shifted back into the story. "Now, we'd all grown up listening to Uncle Liu and Uncle Johnny and you, of course, Daddy. We all knew the stories of the Tournaments and Shao Khan off by heart. We thought that it was Earth that was invincible, that it didn't have anything to do with us, especially Raiko, you know how she gets these ideas-" Hichan faltered, losing her train of thought. She tried to pick it up again, but she couldn't.
Jikan Tai touched her elbow, gently, and then started in on the narration himself. "Soon after Raiko came into possession of the Realm, it was challenged, by the God of Ice. Ice had already set up his own Realm and was looking into expanding it. He figured Raiko would be an easy mark." The Guardian paused, and Rayden recognized the look in his eyes; he had seen it too many times.
"He was right, wasn't he," the god concluded, quietly. "Raiko lost."
The pair nodded, Hichan's eyes misting with tears. "It gets worse, Daddy. When Raiko accepted the challenge, she said... she said-"
"'We accept, in the Name of the Creator, Raiko, Goddess of Thunder, and her family'," Jikan Tai finished, letting the sentence hang in the air. Rayden was horrified.
"You mean-her children-"
Hichan nodded, distraught. "Their lives were forfeit too. When Ice claimed Earthrealm, Raiko was as good as dead-and so were Rahne and Tài."
Rayden was still overcoming the horror of what Raiko-his future daughter--would commit. Not only had she let her overconfidence end her life, but she had sacrificed her two children as well. And then it hit him who those two children were. "Rahne? Rahne-and Tài? Black Robes? Black Robes is Rahne's brother? And they're my-I mean, they-what?"
Hichan nearly smiling, wiping her tears on the hem of her red sleeve. "They're your grandchildren, Daddy."
Rayden just sat and blinked, clearly not taking any of this in.
"Raiko married Lachdannan," Jikan Tai began. "He already exists, doesn't he?"
Rayden nodded. This was something he did understand. "He's the God of Skies, the son of Dealeanach and Lugnasath. He's about Hi-" He stopped himself from saying "He's about Hichan's age" because of the obvious errors in the sentence; and he didn't want to bring them up, now.
"Their first child was Tài. Their second was Rahne." Jikan Tai took a deep breath. "I know, Lord Rayden, that this must seem strange-"
"Really," the god remarked, drily.
"-but it's going to get a lot worse," the Guardian finished. "That's only the first half."
Rahne stood, looking around her. He was gone, but she had to make sure; he could very well just be hiding around the corner. She stretched out with her time-powers. They were becoming harder to use, she couldn't tell why. Perhaps the effects of Tài's meddling were limiting her abilities. She hoped not; she needed them, to save everyone.
She sighed, and looked down at her hands, at the new robes she wore, the silver sleeves. Finally, she had lost the sensation that she was walking around in someone else's skin. She knew who she was, now. She was Rahne, Goddess of Lightning, daughter of Raiko and Lachdannan. She felt more relaxed and calmer than she had ever been.
She looked up and caught sight of the Temple, and immediately thought of Hichan. She had cared for nothing but protecting the little girl, her own aunt-and yet, as she had learned more about herself, she had moved farther and farther away. Protecting Hichan had become her secondary task: her first had been tracking down Tài.
A wave of regret washed over her. She knew that Hichan would wake up from the effects of the time-stream and wonder where Rahne was, and would realize, as time went on, that Rahne wasn't coming back. Hichan would be heartbroken, but Rahne couldn't see any other alternatives: either she defeated Tài and went home, victorious, or she didn't, and Hichan never woke up.
Wise Lady, I hope you aren't overestimating me, she thought, silently. She didn't want to let her down. Then she remembered that the Wise Lady was Hichan, and so she would be let down no matter what, either as a child or an adult-
Rahne shook her head. This sort of thinking made her head hurt: she wasn't designed to understand temporal mechanics. "It's time to be going," she said, out loud this time, taking another deep breath. She sought out Tài, tracking him through the waves and eddies that he was stirring up: then she had him. She created a portal, lined with lightning, and leapt through.
"When I learned what had happened, I made my way to Earthrealm as soon as I could," Hichan said, quietly, her hands twisting the fabric of her robe together as she forced herself to relive the terror and anxiety of that day. "I found Lachdannan in the Temple, tracking down Tài. As usual, that boy had run off without telling any one and his father was frantic. Rahne was okay, she was sticking with him. He gave Rahne to Yellow to take care of-" Hichan paused to take a deep breath. "-and I tried to find Raiko, and help her."
"I soon realised that Hichan was in danger as well," Jikan Tai continued for her. "Ice wasn't going to let her go, just because she wasn't technically part of the challenge; he saw her as a threat as well. I told Rahne to stay put, and tore after Hichan."
"Raiko and I were managing to hold him off," Hichan added, somewhat ashamed. "Raiko didn't even realise the danger she had put her family in. Rahne was already losing her grip on the Realm, and the Creator only knew where Tài was, and if he was okay." Hichan paused, looking away, into the depths of the forest. Rayden could see that her eyes were misted and she was doing her best not to cry in front of him. "Raiko was-fighting harder than I've ever seen her... her do anything. She seemed to know that her time was up, even if she didn't realise the full implications. She was wearing herself down to the bone, instead of trying to hold on as long as possible. Lachdannan was fighting as well, but his powers weren't very strong, offensively; he was struck by one of Ice's frozen beams and fell. When she saw that, Raiko went nuts. I think it really hit home that she and her family were... about to die."
Now Hichan turned back, looking her father right in the eyes. "She pulled together everything she had, she nearly ripped the Realm itself apart, trying to get at Ice, trying to fight back. But... it wasn't any good. She was losing her powers; he was gaining his. She really didn't have a chance."
"That's when I stepped in," Jikan Tai interrupted, modestly, although Rayden could see a proud glint in his eyes. "I thought quickly, and then opened a time portal to the Middle Ages, around the Fifth Meeting of the Elders, and teleported Lachdannan through. Raiko was-deranged is the only word I have for it. She was so far gone that she was fighting Hichan even as we tried to drag her through the portal. But we got her in, and Lachdannan, and then went after the children."
"Tài had found Rahne, and the two of them were running-I don't know where they thought they were running to..." Hichan started to trail off and then shook her head. "Poor Rahnie's energy was so low-Tài's was as well, but he was older and knew how to conserve it better. He had tried to teleport to his parents, and when that didn't work-I found them, and brought them through Yellow's portal, back to the past."
She stopped here, looking at Rayden expectantly. He didn't disappoint her; he had a question ready.
"How would going back in time save them? If they didn't have a Realm to draw strength from..." he asked, curious. Jikan Tai smiled, briefly.
"That... was the stroke of genius that Yellow came up with," Hichan said, proudly. "They did have a Realm-Earth."
Rayden leaned back, thinking and trying to remember his history. Earth had, from the Fourth to the Sixth Meetings, been uninhabited; the Creator had declared it off-limits, for whatever reason, presumably to make it ready for the first God of Thunder, born in the Sixth Meeting. Strangely enough, he did remember the age-old mystery of a family from "away" that had taken up residence there-
He sat bolt-upright as the truth hit him. Hichan smiled.
"Auntie Meimei will be so pleased when she finally figures it out on her own, a few years from now," she giggled. "She started yelling and waving scrolls one Festival-Uncle Tai Hou could barely calm her down. He and Tian practically had to sit on her to keep her from disrupting the Ceremonies..."
"Tian?" Rayden raised an eyebrow. Hichan and Jikan Tai exchanged looks.
"Your niece," the mortal filled in. "She's about the same age as Raiko-oof!" Hichan had elbowed him solidly in the ribs.
"Hush," she told him, firmly. He glared at her, rubbing the sore spot, but didn't say anything further. She turned back to her father. "Ready for the next chapter?"
"There's more?" he asked, surprised. "I guess there would have to be-to explain how Tài grew up to be Black Robes."
Again they exchanged glances. "That isn't exactly how I would put it," Hichan said, mildly.
The Great Hall was deserted, save for one or two mortals-from Thryhyrne-- cleaning it up. Black Robes scowled, clearly displeased; but he was also a little frightened. He had overestimated his jump, and had missed the time. He hadn't done that since-he couldn't remember ever doing that. He realised, finally, that the disruption in the time-stream caused by his reckless actions would effect him, as well. He hadn't thought of it that way before.
He created a portal, to leave, when he suddenly felt her presence. The goddess who wouldn't leave him alone, who seemed so familiar-who tormented him with the memories of what he couldn't have. "You!"
"You didn't think I'd just let you get away, did you?" Rahne asked, jumping down through her portal, landing on her feet, ready to fight.
"Why can you leave me alone!" he roared, angry and frustrated, lashing out with his powers, that crackled and roared around her. She jumped, dodging one ribbon and then another, but she couldn't hold out for long; one caught her and she screamed, losing her balance, falling to the floor.
She clutched her leg. It had gone numb. She looked up to see him smiling, slightly, and raising his arms again. Gritting her teeth, Rahne lashed out with her own powers, the lightning crackling into existence before him. She had missed by a long shot-but the surprise itself bought her enough time to get to her feet, standing shakily. The feeling was coming back to her, uncomfortable pins and needles; she prepared to grin and bear it. Or at least bear it. She didn't feel much like smiling.
"Why can't you leave me alone?" he repeated, pausing in his attack to glare at her.
She looked at him strangely. He didn't know. He didn't remember her, or their parents or their home. He had no idea what he was doing. In that moment, she felt an overwhelming sense of sympathy; she had been in exactly his situation...
That moment of distraction was all he needed to lash out at her, leaping forward, arms outstretched, grabbing her by the throat and throwing her to the ground. She countered, trying to kick him away; her breath was squeezed out of her, and she began to black out.
"No!" she wheezed, as loudly as she could, closing her eyes and generating the biggest lightning bolt she could, under the circumstances. Tài yelped, leaping off her, staggering backwards. The bolts continued to leap around her, crackling and weaving around her as she got to her feet. Tài had backed up, the fear in his eyes apparent; he had his back against the wall. She had him now.
As she let her powers build, ready for the final blow, the strike that would end the threat of the Storm and let everyone return to normal-she found herself wavering.
He was her brother. She remembered long ago, wrapping her arms around his waist and telling him that she would always be there to play with him, even when they were grown-ups. She remembered trying to make him feel better when he anger at having to leave became more and more apparent. She remembered clearly that feeling of wanting him to be happy. And now she was going to...? She let her arm drop, her lightning dissipating into the air. "Tài-we can't go on like this-"
He didn't hear her. The moment that she let her guard down, he took the opportunity to create a portal and leap through. Just like that, he was gone.
She stared at the empty space for a few moments, dazed. She had been ready to end the whole conflict, to bring him home and he had... run away. She was stunned. Did he really remember nothing about her, not even the slightest inkling-the ground under her feet started to rumble and shake.
Confused, she stared around her in amazement as another one of the time eddies swirled around her. She grabbed the locket, just to be on the safe side; so far she had managed to weather them all right-suddenly she felt as though she was being struck hard, on all sides. The pressure inside the stream had intensified, abruptly, and a myriad of images and memories began to fill inside her head. She screamed, clutching her temples, understanding that this was no "normal" eddy: this was his fault, he was doing it to her, trying to kill her by using his time powers. She tried to erect shields, as quickly as she could; but every movement was sluggish, as though she had to wade through mud. She could barely breath, and again, her vision began to tunnel and blacken as she lost consciousness...
He watched her collapse on the floor of the Great Hall, and smiled to himself. Why didn't he think of using the time-stream sooner? It was a fantastic idea. He wondered if it could be used against others, as well. Such as Hichan.
A plan formed in his mind; he teleported away, to another time.
Rahne tried to open her eyes, they felt as though they were made of lead. She couldn't do it; she didn't want to; she wanted to go to sleep until all of this went away and she was free to return to her home.
"When you grow up, Rahne, there will be no force in the Omniverse who can stop you-"
Aunt Hichan's voice swirled inside her head, barely louder than the other voices and sounds. But somehow it was a beacon, leading Rahne upwards towards consciousness. She grabbed at it, chased it, until she remembered the peaceful feeling she used to get from knowing that the Wise Lady was there, helping her, guiding her, waiting for her to return home. The warm feeling flooded in, helping Rahne to brush aside the other voices and images. She struggled, swimming up, until finally she burst through the surface and awoke, with a start.
She was lying on the Great Hall floor, staring up at the ceiling, which had been decorated like a starscape, gold stars on a dark blue background. Legend had it that it was Stella herself that had done the ceiling.
Where did I get that from? She wondered, blankly. She then remembered her first Festival, craning her neck to look at everything, her daddy smiling down at her and telling her about the Hall and everything inside. Tài wasn't there, he had gone off with Grandma-
Everything came back to her with a rush, and she took a moment to get her bearings properly before she got to her feet. She was flushed with embarrassment; she had let him get away! She had had him-and she let him get away. Well, she wouldn't this time. This time she'd get him, and end this mess properly. She closed her eyes to track him, and was surprised to find he'd only gone a few hours into the past.
But at that time there would have been one of the festivals going on, she thought, judging by the mess left behind. Then it hit her-didn't she remember Kerlan saying something about a god in black robes nearly killing Hichan at the Festival? Horrified, she opened her portal and darted through.
"Tell me about Tài," Rayden said, abruptly, leaning forward, to hear everything his grown daughter said. "I want to know about him."
"Tài is..." Hichan fumbled for words. "He is a energetic boy. He gets excited very easily-whether it's happiness or anger depends on the situation. And he can be very stubborn. But he's very loyal, and protecting. I saw him stand up to both Jih and Yueh to take care of Rahne-"
"Jih and Yueh?" Rayden exclaimed.
"Horrendous bullies," Jikan Tai commented. "They definitely take after their maternal grandfather."
"I didn't realise-" Rayden couldn't think of anything else to say.
"They're not that bad," Hichan continued, exasperated. "They're just... rambunctious."
"That's what used to be said about Raimei and me," Rayden observed, dryly. "I think I see what you mean."
"Anyway," Hichan said, firmly, "Tài has a very strong sense of what's right and wrong, and he'll do anything to fix something if he thinks it's been done improperly. He's like his mother, that way. Raiko, once she gets an idea, never drops it. I remember this one time-" She started to chuckle, lost in memories, until Jikan Tai touched her elbow again. She looked at him, startled, then shook her head. "Sorry. Where was I?"
"Tài," Rayden answered, quietly.
"Right. Tài." She cleared her throat. "When we brought them all to Earth of the Middle Ages, they were all... a little distraught. Raiko especially. Lachdannan just tried to grin and bear everything. Rahne was too young to really understand. But Tài- he seemed to take it personally, that I had done it myself, stolen his home and sentenced him to live in the middle of nowhere. He grew angry, and bitter. No matter how many times we tried to explain to him what had happened, he still seemed to think it was my fault: if I had come to help Raiko sooner, if I had stopped her from accepting the challenge in the first place, if I had helped train the mortals better... he fixed me as the cause of all his problems."
"That sounds very familiar," Rayden remarked, quietly. "Shao Khan used to do the same thing."
She smiled, wanly. "It's funny what runs in a family, isn't it?" There was a long pause and it looked like she wouldn't continue. Jikan Tai touched her elbow and she shook her head. He sighed and picked up the narrative again.
"We used to visit on a regular basis. I did, anyway. Hichan and Hi-" he paused, looking at Hichan; she shook her head, and he continued: "Hichan was busy winning Earthrealm back. So I brought news to Raiko and Lachdannan on a regular basis. Tài got more and more upset with each visit; he would beg me to take them back, to their home. I had to tell him no, time after time. Eventually he stopped asking. I should have realised what that meant, with Tài; instead I assumed he had gotten used to their new home."
Something distracted the Guardian, and he looked over his shoulder. "He's waking up, Hichan."
Hichan's eyes grew wide. "What should we do?"
"I'll take care of it," Jikan Tai answered, closing his eyes and concentrating. Rayden sat in puzzlement, not understanding what was going on. Was there someone else in the Wood with them? "That should take care of things for a little while."
"Oh, Yellow, we can't just keep-"
"We'll have to," he finished, abruptly. He turned back to Rayden. "Where was I?"
"You thought Tài had dropped the issue..." the god trailed off, staring at Hichan, hoping she would fill him in; she diverted her gaze to stare at the grassy ground.
"Right. I thought he'd given up pleading. Actually, I was right, he had given up pleading. But he hadn't given up altogether. When I was leaving, one visit, he snuck behind me, and as I was about to step into my portal, he ducked through." He let this sink in, and then continued. "He assumed that I would be going back to Earthrealm, but I wasn't. I was going here. And to get to the Wood isn't the same as going to another point in the Omniverse, or even another point in time. I am the only person, apparently, with that ability. Simply put, if I don't lead you here by the hand, you can't get through."
"Then what happened to Tài? If he didn't end up here..." Rayden couldn't finish the sentence; he had no idea where a portal of Jikan Tai's would or could lead. An idea struck him. "Another Omniverse?"
"Not quite. Because he didn't have any way to control the portal he-" Jikan Tai fumbled for words, not sure how to explain a concept that was like breathing to him. Hichan came to his rescue.
"Tài was lost in the time-stream. He couldn't control the portal; he couldn't form a way out. So he was lost, drifting." She shook her head. "Jikan Tai couldn't even pin-point his location-it was too hard."
"By the Creator..." Rayden whispered, horrified. "What... what happened to him?"
"Do you remember, Lord Rayden, when I was still being trained by Samantha? When I... fell into the river?" the mortal asked, sombrely, flicking his bangs out of his eyes.
Rayden nodded, after a moment. "I think I do, yes."
"It was that sudden immersion that gave me full access to my powers," the Guardian explained. "And it did the same thing for Tài-it gave him control over the time stream."
"How is that possible?" blurted the god.
The mortal shrugged. "I don't know."
"We're not sure about the mechanics of it," Hichan explained. "But what happened with Tài wasn't exactly the same thing. It did give him control over the stream-but not full control. It gave him the illusion of power. And it... it confused him. Terribly."
"Being immersed in the time stream means experiencing every moment that ever existed, to anyone," Jikan Tai added. "No mortal can handle it. I doubt very much if most deities could, either. But Tài had one thing to focus on, that kept him going: Hichan. Somehow, his mind latched onto the thought that if he stopped Hichan, he'd be able to save himself."
"And that's why he wants to kill her," Rayden finished.
"He's not thinking clearly." Hichan seemed distraught, and determined to defend her nephew. "He's so addled that... that nothing makes sense to him any more. That's why we can't reason with him; there's almost nothing left to reason with. In defence against the onslaught of the stream, his mind has buried almost everything but that one reason for being: to kill me. "
He watched her swerving through the crowds. She was so small that she had to push aside the party-goers at the knees; something which most found either amusing or irritating. One god tried to stop her, but she ducked away. He smiled. She was resourceful, even as a child. And so determined. But then-so was he.
He used his powers on the deities at the Festival, the way he used them on the mortals, back on Earth. He made them look the other way, and then stepped back into reality.
Hichan, not noticing him until it was too late, plowed into his knees. She stumbled backwards, rubbing her nose, and then looked up. And up. He enjoyed the look of terror he inspired on her face, savouring it before he bent down to pick her up. She squealed in response and started to run. Or tried to; there was not much room in the crowed Hall. Furious, he froze her where she stood, and then reached down to haul her into the air by her collar. She dangled only a few inches from him, squirming, but helpless.
"Come on," he said, with a faint smile. "Show me some of your famous fire."
Hichan whimpered, frightened, and disgusted with her lack of response, he shook her, fiercely. This caused her to cry out, her aura springing around her, lightning crackling. "Impressive, Lady, very impressive," he joked with her. It wasn't strong enough to harm him, although it looked spectacular. And familiar. That goddess-
"Hichan!" called a goddess from the crowd. Startled, Hichan tried to alert her; but his spell prevented the goddess-with two young boys in tow-from noticing him or his captive. There was nothing that could stop him now-
"Put her down."
Black Robes whirled, astounded by the gravelly voice that was addressing him. It was an older deity, dressed in white and gray, his white hair speckled with black. "What?" he blurted, confused, tightening his grip on Hichan.
"Your mind tricks do not work on someone as skilled as me," the god snarled, his powers leaping around him, the powers of Thunder.
Black Robes took a hesitant step backwards. This wasn't right. This couldn't be. He was the Storm, no one could undo his spells...
"Put her down. Now." The god meant business.
Surely he couldn't-but what if- suddenly he remembered who he was, versus who he was dealing with. He was the Storm, he was more powerful than this god. "This has nothing to do with you!" Black Robes retorted, fiercely.
"It does now," the god replied, dryly. "Drop her!" Suddenly, Black Robes' vision filled with bright light, and the rumble of thunder echoed in his ears. He cried out, losing control over his grip on Hichan, and she tumbled to the floor, shrieking. Forcing down the pain, he created a shield, blocking the attack, and then reached out with one of his own, bending the time stream towards the strange god. It should have knocked him out completely. But it didn't. The deity stumbled; that was all.
"That's enough of that!" cried a now-familiar voice as she popped into existence over Black Robes throwing them both to the ground. Black Robes lost the last little control he had over his spells; they became visible. But he didn't care. He tried to throw the goddess off him, and when that didn't work he tried to throttle her instead. They rolled for several moments, neither able to get a firm grip on the other. Finally he had enough and seized an opportunity to roll away from her. She shouldn't be here. He'd used the time stream against her!
"Dammit!" he spat at her. "Don't you ever die?"
They were both on their feet, facing each other down. She was in a defensive position, ready to fight hand to hand if need be. He knew that he would be out-numbered and out-matched. Better to pick the time and the place on his own. He teleported away.
Rahne watched Tài disappear, and sighed. She hadn't realised how tense she was-she saw Hichan looking at her, confused and frightened. She smiled at the child, knowing that this could be the very last time that they saw each other. She crouched beside the girl, patting her head, smoothing down the hair. She knew that calmed Hichan down when she was upset.
"There, small Lady," she said, happy to see the child again. "I told you I'd save you." She straightened up, the look in Hichan's eyes affirming what she already knew: that she had to stop Tài. For good. She found him within the time stream and disappeared in a silver flash.
"We didn't want it to come to this," Hichan said, quietly, shaking her head. "I never thought that-I didn't realise-"
Jikan Tai took her hand. He looked to Rayden. "You know the prophecy." It wasn't a question, but Rayden felt obliged to answer it nonetheless.
"'And a storm shall break and the walls shall fall; a flood in the stream shall threaten all'," the god replied, softly.
The Guardian nodded. "It became crystal clear that the prophecy meant Tài-especially once he began to use his powers. They disrupted the pool, causing ripples and bubbles, disturbing the flow of Time. We had to stop him. I tried. But-" He sighed.
"Only the Goddess of Lightning could do that," Rayden realised. Then he caught the implications. "Rahne is-the Goddess of Lightning? Of course. And Raiko is Thunder-"
Hichan nodded. "We still don't know why the powers leapt like that, why Rahne is Goddess of Lightning, and-" she caught herself in time. "Never mind that. The point is, we figured that Rahne was the only one who could stop him. But Rahne was only six! She wouldn't be able to understand what was going on, never mind defeat a grown god."
Rayden held up a hand. "Hold it. I thought Tài and Rahne were only a few years apart-they were both children when the Tournament was fought-"
Neither the goddess nor the Guardian replied. Rayden glared at them both. They didn't reply. They didn't even make eye contact. Just when the deity was ready to give in, Jikan Tai flicked the bangs out of his eyes.
Aha, the god thought smugly. Jikan Tai was ready to crack: playing with his hair usually meant the mortal was uneasy about something. "Jikan Tai, what happened to Tài?"
The Guardian looked stricken. "I can't-I can't tell you."
"Why not?" Rayden leaned in. He had him now. "Why can't you tell me?"
Hichan had gone pale white. Jikan Tai was looking from her to the god and back again. "If I do, it might impact the future!"
"The future's already been impacted, so just tell me!" Rayden snapped.
"I can't! I promised I wouldn't!"
What? "Who did you promise?"
"I can't tell you that either!"
Rayden looked to his daughter. "Hichan...?"
"I promised as well," Hichan murmured, upset. "I promised that I wouldn't tell you, please don't ask us!"
Rayden's eyes narrowed. "Who made you promise?" It had to be someone that they were both afraid of angering. "Was it...?" Before he could finish, Jikan Tai ducked his head, avoiding making eye contact. That gave Rayden a bit of an idea-after all, the mortal was afraid the god would just pick the answer out of the Guardian's mind-
"But I don't want you telling Rayden about this," Hiko told him, firmly. "Especially not if you end up meeting up with him in the past!"
"Mom," Hichan sighed. "I told you, we're not going to meet with anybody-"
Hiko harumphed. "Promise me, you two, that you won't tell him anything. Just promise me. Especially you, Guardian, he knows what you're like. Promise."
"I promise, Lady Hiko," Jikan Tai replied, solemnly. "I swear on the Creator that I won't tell him about your idea to-
"Daddy!" Hichan grabbed his arm, shaking him, breaking his link with the Guardian. "Don't! Stop it!"
He gasped at the sudden break, and then shook his head. Jikan Tai was clutching his temples. "I promised I wouldn't tell!" the Guardian cried. "I told her that I wouldn't!"
Rayden felt a little ashamed; he knew how much promises were worth, to the mortal. But on the other hand, he had to know. He needed to know as much as possible, if he was going to help stop Tài.
Hichan was furious. "I suppose you think we should tell you now, since you know most of it anyway!"
"I was thinking that, yes," he agreed, noticing how much she resembled Hiko, especially when she was using that tone of voice.
"Well we won't! I promised Mom, and I'll keep it. You don't need to know anything any more anyway." Hichan got to her feet, angry. "You shouldn't have done that."
"What was I supposed to do?" Rayden demanded, temper snapping. "I'm just supposed to sit here meekly, leaving the fate of everyone I love in the hands of a goddess who doesn't remember anything past her childhood, who is supposed to be the only hope-"
Wheels were turning. Something was starting to piece itself together. Why would Hiko be so adamant that he not be told? Not be told about a plan that she came up with-
He saw his wife, furious that he refused to take Hichan from the Temple. He saw Hichan, looking like a three year old at her first Festival. He remembered how much older Yellow Chrysanthemum looked after travelling through the time stream.
"The time stream aged Tài," the god realised, with a sharp intake of breath. "It made him grow up too quickly. That's why he acts the way he does. And Hiko's plan was to age Rahne just as rapidly."
Hichan sat down, defeated, and upset. "I didn't tell," she said, sulkily. "But yes, that was the plan."
"Why-" Rayden thought for a moment. "Is... is what you did to Rahne responsible for making her act the way she does? With no memories- so confused-" He paused, and looked at Hichan. "Did it do that to you, too?"
Hichan blinked, bewildered for a moment. Then she saw what he was going for, and she gasped. "No, no! Oh, that's why Mom-no, Daddy, it didn't happen like that at all!"
She turned to Jikan Tai, who was left as the only confused one. "Daddy and Mom had a huge fight about how I was aging too fast. Mom wanted to take me away from mortals, but Daddy argued that I should stay."
"Was I wrong?" Rayden said, quietly. "Should we go live in Maresium?"
Hichan took his hand. "No. No, you were right! We grew up fine. The same thing happened to Raiko, too, but once we hit Ceremonial age, we stopped aging, like normal. Our powers developed like normal. Nothing happened."
Jikan Tai was nodding. "I see. And Lady Hiko thought that if we told you-"
"I'd reconsider my position, take Hichan to Maresium, and screw up the time-line," Rayden finished, shaking his head. "This paradox business is nuts."
Jikan Tai nodded solemnly. "Now you know why I look so confused all the time."
Rayden laughed, suddenly. "It does explain a lot, yes."
"Daddy," Hichan chided.
"He started it."
"Hichan," Jikan Tai interrupted. "The story."
Hichan grumbled, rearranging her robes as she sat herself back down. "Right. Where were we? Right. Rahne. We got her from Earthrealm, brought her here, and used the Staff to age her, so that she would have access to her powers. Only..." Hichan sighed. "Only it had the same effect on Rahne that it had on Tài. She had to focus on something to keep her from going insane-we made that something protecting Hichan-me."
Rayden shook his head again. "This is sounds so crazy. Tài and Rahne are from the future, as well as from the past-and they're only children. But aged, and given time powers. If I didn't trust you so much, I'd think you had screws loose."
Jikan Tai cleared his throat. "Hichan, I've got an idea."
"Oh?" she turned to look at him, and at some unspoken signal, she dipped her head towards him, so that his mouth was close to her ear. He whispered something, and she nodded. She got to her feet. "Daddy, stand up."
"What?" Rayden blurted. "What's going on?"
"Please, Daddy, this is the easiest thing to do," she told him. The staff appeared in Jikan Tai's hand, as he was getting to his feet.
Rayden had a sudden sense of foreboding. "Oh, no, not this again-"
The jewel flashed bright red, and then everything swirled black.
They appeared in virtually the same position. At least Rayden thought that it was the same position. It looked the same. But all of the Woods looked the same.
He could see Jikan Tai and Hichan a few meters distant. Startled, he looked to his side; his daughter and the Guardian were standing next to him, as well.
"What-?" he began, but Hichan put a finger to her lips and pointed. It was then that he realised he could, if he strained, make out what the others were saying...
"I don't know about this," Hichan said, sighing. "I know that the scries said-and it should work-and Mom knows, but-"
Jikan Tai grumbled. "Have faith, Hichan. Are you ready?"
The goddess nodded. The Guardian closed his eyes, and raised his staff. The jewel began to glow bright red, pulsing with energy. A wind picked up in the death-still Woods, causing his cape to flutter around him. Hichan closed her eyes as well, clutching her fists at her side. Then a portal opened, and she stepped through it. It blinked shut around her, and then opened again, almost as soon as it had disappeared. Hichan stepped out, carrying a small girl, whom she immediately put down.
"Rahne," Hichan said, kneeling beside the frightened six year old, "don't worry about anything."
"I don't like it here, Aunty Hichan," Rahne whispered, her blue eyes misting with tears, her lips trembling. "Where's Mommy?"
"She'll be coming soon," Hichan replied, with a look to Jikan Tai. "Rahne, I need you to be brave."
"I am brave," the girl replied, wiping her eyes.
"I know you are, sweetheart." Hichan brushed Rahne's brown hair back from around her face. "Uncle Yellow is going to use some magic on you. You're going to help us find Tài."
"I am?" Rahne looked into her aunt's face, searching for something she could understand. "But I don't know where he is!"
"You will," Hichan replied, getting back to her feet. "Are you ready-"
Suddenly, the ground began to shake under their feet. "What-" Hichan screamed, as Rahne began to wail. The girl latched on to her, wrapping her arms around the goddess' waist.
"What's happening, Aunty Hichan?" Rahne cried, hysterical.
"It's the effects of the Storm," Jikan Tai replied, his eyes still closed, gritting his teeth. "I didn't realise the effects-! I'll try to shield us-"
The shaking noticeably lessened, but the tranquillity of the Woods had been broken. They seemed too quiet now-the calm before the storm hits.
"We have to do it now, Hichan." Jikan Tai's eyes opened; there was a spark of blue in his irises, a side effect from handling too much power. "Rahne, take my hand."
He held it out, and the girl hesitated. She'd known Uncle Yellow all her life, but something told her not to trust him now. She whimpered and buried her face in Hichan's middle.
"Guardian..." Hichan began to say, but he cut her off, reaching forward and grabbing Rahne by the shoulder. He meant only to pull her away; but when he made contact, she screamed, hysterically. He jerked his hand away, startled. "Rahne!" Hichan cried, as Rahne suddenly stopped crying and fell. Her aunt managed to catch her before she hit the grassy floor, but then she let go, gasping.
"What-" Jikan Tai began, but then he saw for himself: Rahne was beginning to glow, the colour of the jewel. Within a moment the shine was as strong as the gem itself. The Guardian took a deep breath. "It's time."
He gestured with the staff, and the body of Rahne began to hover off the ground, lifting itself upright. It was a horrible sight to see; poor Rahne was still unconscious, her head lolled to one side, her feet dangling off the ground. Jikan Tai closed his eyes. The glow spread down the staff, and then began to change to a bright yellow.
Around Rahne, the light changed as well. It began to change her, and she began to age in front of their eyes. She was ten, twelve, fifteen, eighteen-twenty-her robes changed from their bright silver to a glossy black, lengthening as her limbs did. Her hair darkened, until it matched her new clothes. The glow then began to fade, shifting to a golden shine. It receded as well, until it was only around Rahne and the gem.
"By the Creator," Hichan breathed, reaching out, hesitantly, towards her niece, but backing off at the last moment, uncertain. "She's-"
"Hichan," Jikan Tai whispered, his voice strained. "You remember what Meimei told you to do?"
Hichan nodded, nervous. She stepped forward, and took Rahne's head in both hands, resting their foreheads together. "I'm setting up the link-by the Creator, it's-so confusing-I can't-" She took a deep breath. "I'm... I'm setting up the Ancient Receiver, now. But I don't know if it will work."
Jikan Tai didn't reply; he was too busy staring in horror at his companion. Like Rahne, she was now surrounded by the golden light-and it was changing her, too. Her robes shifted to the black, her hair turned to the opposite of its normal snow-white-Hichan was oblivious to the changes.
"There. I think that's done it." Hichan pulled away, catching sight of her black sleeves. "By the Name...?"
"I think it must be the link. Can't be helped," Jikan Tai replied. As soon as Hichan had stepped away from Rahne, he lowered back down to the ground with the staff.
"I activated what I think was the Ancient Receiver, just like Aunty Meimei said, but I don't know if it will work or not," Hichan said, in a rush. "Oh, Yellow, it was so awful in there-there were so many jagged pieces, it was like I was drowning."
Jikan Tai frowned. "We hadn't counted on that- will she be okay?"
Hichan shrugged. "I'm going to try and give her a command through the Receiver." The goddess closed her eyes. "I think-"
Rahne's eyes blinked open, and she began to scream. Loudly, shrilly, forcefully she screamed, her eyes open and staring at nothing. Hichan gasped and closed her eyes again; Rahne abruptly stopped screaming, knocked back into oblivion.
"It was the shock..." Hichan was shaking. "I'm going to repress her memory-I think it's the only thing to keep her from feeling the shock."
Jikan Tai looked worried. "But-without her memory, how will she know what to do?"
"We'll just have to give her instructions every step of the way, until she learns to cope with the stress," Hichan said, sternly. "It's the only way."
Jikan Tai nodded, solemnly. "Then do it."
"I am-it's harder than I thought. There are so many paths and bridges-I'm going to have to block everything, so that she can start fresh."
Jikan Jai stepped over to support Hichan by the arm. She was shaking from the exertion, her powers crackling around her, black lightning. He started to say something when suddenly he started to bend over in pain, gritting his teeth. The pool near them began to bubble. "The storm's started, Hichan! She's got to go, now!"
"I'm not finished!" Hichan cried. Jikan Tai let go of her, and she collapsed, sinking to the grass. He dropped the staff and picked Rahne up. She whimpered, but didn't wake up. He staggered to the pool and dropped her in. She disappeared in a black flash before she hit the surface.
He sank to his knees as the waves of pain receded. The bubbles died down, and the Wood was still, except for Hichan, who was still shaking.
"Yellow?" she whispered. "Are you okay?"
He was still kneeling, his arms holding him up, his head bent. "The time stream-I can't-filter out the-" He collapsed.
"Yellow!" she cried, crawling to his side, rolling him onto his back and away from the pool. "Yellow-are you-" She stopped, a stunned expression on her face. Then she grinned. "Yellow-I can hear her, I can hear Rahne inside my head! The link's working!" The Guardian failed to respond. "Yellow? Rahne needs my help. I have to-Yellow?"
Hichan was obviously torn. Rahne needed help-but so did the Guardian. And Hichan wasn't in any position to help either of them-or was she? She looked at the staff, still lying where the Guardian had dropped it. Making a snap decision, she grabbed it. It began to glow with a bright golden light.
Rayden looked to Hichan. "So that's how it happened."
Hichan nodded. Jikan Tai raised his staff again, and they found themselves back where they started. "That's why Rahne was so single-minded at the beginning. Gradually, as she began to assimilate the changes, the walls I placed crumbled away. Now she can truly remember who she is-or almost. But Tài-" Hichan shook her white-haired head. "But Tài hasn't tried to regain his memory. He's fighting to keep the blocks, that's why we can't reach him-"
The pool at their feet suddenly began to bubble furiously. Jikan Tai went pale, and started to sway, his eyelids fluttering. Both Hichan and Rayden grabbed him by the arms before his knees gave out. "I can't... protect us from it..." the Guardian murmured. "It's too strong-the walls are finally breaking down-"
"By the Name-" Rayden gasped. He could see a faint outline of the Guardian, the younger Guardian, kneeling by the pond with someone very familiar-Nova. There was the Guardian again, even younger, looking around in astonishment.
"It's too late," Jikan Tai whispered, nearly unconscious. "Hichan... go into another pool. Nothing more can be done..." He passed out completely, his head lolling to one side, the staff dropping to the ground.
Neither of the gods bothered to speak. They were both too busy trying to fight off the wave of images and sounds that was assaulting them from all sides. A crash of thunder could be heard in the distance. A streak of lightning could be seen.
"No," Hichan sobbed, letting go of the mortal to pick up the staff. Rayden tried to maintain the load, but he could barely stand under the onslaught of the ruptured time stream. He couldn't hold on any more; he fainted, both him and Jikan Tai tumbled to the ground. Hichan was on her knees, clutching the staff tightly. Rahne must have failed. She must have died-if only Hichan could do something for her-
The voice came from behind her. She turned, startled; but it was so hard to concentrate that the simple movement seemed to take forever. "Jikan Tai!"
The First Meeting Guardian stood, barely able to keep his stance. "Wise Lady, give me the staff."
"There's nothing that can be done-" she tried to protest, even as she handed the staff to him. Visions swirled in her mind, screams echoed in her brain. She couldn't keep it out, she couldn't hold on any more... she fell to the soft, cool grass, a roaring of a river in her ears. Raiko, I'm so sorry...
Jikan Tai held up the staff and whispered a fevered prayer to the Creator. There was a flash of golden light, and then all was still.
Rayden woke up, the room spinning around him, the ceiling whirling-he blinked, and everything stabilised.
The ceiling. He was in his own room.
He sat up, too quickly, and got a blood rush. Holding a hand to his temple, he looked to his side. He was on the bed. Next to him were Hiko, and Hichan, curled up by her mother. They were still asleep, but seemed fine. Shaking his head to clear it from the last effects of the vertigo, he got to his feet, and looked out the window. It was broad daylight. There were monks practising sparring on the hill. It seemed as though everything was fine.
"Hmm... Rayden?" Hiko murmured, starting to wake up. He sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at her. "What happened...?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. But I do think that everything has happened for the best."
"Rahne?" Hiko struggled to sit up, but he forced her back down.
"I think Rahne did it. I think she defeated Black Robes," he told her, quietly. "Can't you feel the calm in the air? He's gone. For good."
Hiko paused, her head tilted, straining to hear something. "You're right."
"Just go back to sleep," Rayden replied, with a smile, standing up. "When you're ready, I can make you something to eat."
Hiko nodded, snuggling back down, an arm around Hichan. Her husband tiptoed from the room, but before he reached the door, she tried to sit up again, a thought occurring to her. "Rayden."
"Yes?" He turned to look at her.
"I want to say... I'm sorry," she said, quietly. "For everything that's happened. I shouldn't have acted the way I did." He didn't say anything. She cleared her throat and continued: "I just don't want to endanger Hichan."
He nodded. "Neither do I. Trust me, it works out for the best." His phrasing confused her; she looked at him bewildered. He smiled. "I'll tell you all about it later."
Meimei woke up, startled by something, and then became embarrassed, as she realised she had fallen asleep on the Chronicle of the Guardians, a very important and extremely historic document that thankfully didn't have any drool on it. "By the Name, I'm so sorry-" she started to say to Sonya and Tai Hou until she realised that they, too, were asleep. Sonya was draped over the table, missing Treatise On The Air Deities by millimeters; Tai Hou was leaning heavily on the chair, his head tilted back and his mouth open. He was snoring. Quite loudly.
Still embarrassed but now also indignant, Meimei poked her husband. He grumbled, but didn't wake up. She finally pulled him forward, so that his head was resting on the table. She didn't want him to choke on his own tongue.
Once Tai Hou was decoratively arranged, she turned on Sonya, poking the goddess with a random scroll. The pokes did not serve any purpose, so Meimei instead whacked her over the head with it.
Sonya gasped, rearing upright; the sudden movement tilted her chair and she spilled out onto the floor in a flurry of arms and legs as she tried to check her fall. "What the hell?!"
"Sorry," Meimei said, standing up and peering over the lip of the table top. "I didn't mean to startle you. It's just that you wouldn't wake up..."
"I was asleep?" Sonya asked, needlessly, yawning. "I don't remember falling asleep."
"Neither do I," Meimei agreed. She shrugged. "But..."
Sonya shook her head. "Oh well. I guess it doesn't matter. What were we talking about?"
"I don't quite remember-" Meimei squinted, trying to recall. "Black Robes. Rahne. You said something about Nova-"
"That's right," Sonya nodded, getting her chair back upright and sitting down. She paused, gathering her recollection. "I was just thinking, Nova is the only one besides Hichan who fits the criteria, 'lightning born of thunder'. Nova displayed lightning powers towards the end-what? What are you looking at me like that for?"
Meimei shook her head. "It's just that-Nova isn't the only one who fits the criteria, besides Hichan."
"What are you talking about?" Sonya grumbled. "They don't have any other children-" Suddenly, out of nowhere, she recalled Hiko's strange moodiness, her irrational mood swings, and the strange feeling that Sonya could pick up from her, one that she couldn't explain... "Hiko's pregnant, isn't she!"
Meimei nodded, proudly, a hand going to her own stomach. "She is. I-by the Creator!" She suddenly leapt to her feet. "I forgot to tell her! I meant to, at the Festival-but the Rahne, and everything else-"
Sonya grabbed Meimei by the wrist. "Meimei, sit down. You heard Lindara, Hiko needs to rest. Give her some time."
The Goddess of Change sighed, and sat back down. "I guess so," she agreed, glumly. "But don't let me forget again."
"I won't." Sonya let her grip go. "Let's just take this one step at a time. Perhaps the Goddess of Lightning is Rayden and Hiko's third child-but then Hichan--" Sonya paused. That wouldn't work, she thought glumly.
"Or," Meimei said, thoughtfully, fanning herself with the scroll she still held in her hand, "maybe the new baby is the Goddess of Thunder. Then her child would be-no, wait, that wouldn't work. The power would go to Hichan's children, if she has any." She sighed, resting her chin in her hand, her elbow on the table. "This is so confusing. It would be almost interesting to research, if we didn't have anything hanging over our heads, but the pressure-"
"Is gone," Sonya interrupted, suddenly, breathless with the shock of realisation. "Meimei-can't you feel it? That weird energy. The weird feeling that started when Black Robes first showed up. "It's... it's gone. He's gone."
Meimei closed her eyes, and her aura shimmered around her for a moment, bright and multi-hued. "You're right. It's so... peaceful now. Quiet. Oh, I wonder if Rahne beat him, at last." She sighed, happily, and opened her eyes. "I guess that's one mystery down."
"That's not true. It's one more to ask-'what happened'?" Sonya grumbled.
"I prefer to look at it as the crisis is over," Meimei replied firmly. "Now, if we could only find out what was happening to Celebria, then everything would have a happy ending."
"Roger that," Sonya mumbled, leaning on the table with a heavy sigh.
"Oh-sorry. Mortal talk."
Meimei's eyebrows furrowed. "What's it mean? What's Roger got to do with anything?"
Sonya almost smiled. "It's radio code. It means that I understand, that I agree with you. See, you can't say 'yes' over bad radios, too much static, but-what?"
Meimei was sitting bolt upright, comprehension dawning on her face. "Radios! Static!"
"Yes, radios," Sonya repeated, bewildered.
"Those... oh, those are things that let mortals talk to each other, right? They broadcast and receive-like our mind powers?" Meimei asked, excitedly.
"I guess you could compare them to mind links, maybe..." Sonya sat, bewildered, while Meimei began searching through the piles, avoiding the still-snoring body of her husband.
"By the Name, where is that scroll-I came across a very interesting essay, written by Kenubi, Kerlan's father. He was God of Communication, you know, and he was interested on how mortals communicate. I think it was Celebria's mortals who first invented the radio, that's why he was drawn to it... where is that scroll!"
"Meimei, does this have a point?" Sonya asked politely.
Furious, Meimei started waving the ever-present whacking-scroll at the goddess. "Of course it does! Receivers!"
"Yes, okay," Sonya said, humouring her. "But, really, what are you talking about?"
"Celebria's receiver!" Meimei cried, so loudly that Tai Hou began to grumble in his sleep. "That's where the-Creator Almighty, where is that scroll?!"
Sonya snatched the waving scroll from her hand. "This one?"
"Is it about 'Ancient Receivers'?" Meimei asked, quietly.
Sonya checked. "Yes."
"That's the one." Meimei snatched it back, hurriedly reading down the page. "Ah-this is what I remember from Naturalis' History lessons... it's funny how the mind works, isn't it?"
"Especially yours," Sonya agreed. "Can you fill me in, yet?"
Meimei was too busy reading. "Yes... of course, that's what I thought." Suddenly she looked up. "Sonya, when you were in the mind link with Rahne... you were contacted by the Wise Lady, right?"
The Goddess of Space nodded.
Meimei smiled. "Did it seem like she had a very strong presence?"
"Unusually so," Sonya agreed. "Kerlan commented on that too."
Meimei grinned, and stood up. "I've got all the pieces. Now I just need your help and Celebria's. Coming?"
"What?" Sonya blurted, as a portal opened up, ringing with all the colours of the rainbow. "Meimei!"
"Huh?" Tai Hou muttered, starting to come around. Meimei rolled her eyes at him and stepped through the portal. Sonya, wanting an answer to everything, had no choice but to follow.
She found herself in a room, lit up by many windows, overlooking the sea from a cliff-side. Confused, she looked around herself: the decor was in shades of red and pink; most of the furniture was velvet or wool or satin; pillows littered every available space. "Don't tell me. Veritas."
"Yes," Meimei replied, absent-mindedly, knocking on a door at the far end of the room. "I wonder-Kerlan? Is that-Oh! Medicalis! I didn't realise-is this a bad time?"
"No," Medi said, sighing. He looked very tired, very worn. "No. Celebria's just waking up now."
"I need to talk to her. And so does Sonya... is that okay?" Meimei asked. Medi nodded, and the goddess waved Sonya over. "We won't be long."
Sonya stepped through the door into an equally ornate bedroom. Celebria lay propped up on several of the larger pillows; Kerlan was sitting on the bed next to her.
"Hello," Meimei said, shyly. "Ummm... we were doing research, and I think that I may have found out what was causing Celebria's visions."
"Really?" Both Kerlan and Medi perked up. Celebria just watched silently, a sure sign that she wasn't feeling well.
Meimei nodded, suddenly bashful, and uncertain. "Well... I think I have, anyway. I might be wrong. I don't think I am, but-"
"Meimei," Sonya hissed. "Get on with it."
Meimei nodded, and then held out the scroll.
Kerlan squinted. "That looks like Dad's handwriting."
Medi sniffed. "It always looked like he wrote with his foot."
"What's ancient telepathy got to do with Cel, anyway?" Kerlan looked from the scroll to Meimei.
"Receivers!" the goddess blurted. "Celebria's a receiver!"
"Celebria doesn't have-" Kerlan started to say, but then Celebria herself interrupted him. Her voice sounded husky, and worn, but it wasn't weak.
"That's not right, Meimei, I can't receive, only in certain occasions. I mostly project." She struggled to get upright, and Kerlan helped her.
"No, see, you've got the Ancient Receiver, and we don't. But Rahne does. So you were getting messages meant for Rahne," Meimei said in a rush, now doubly embarrassed and starting to doubt herself.
"Wait a second," Sonya interrupted the tired goddess. "I think I get what Meimei's going for. Just let me ask a question: did the ancient gods have a different mode of telepathy than... uh... modern gods?"
Medi looked blank; Kerlan nodded. It was his field of expertise, after all. "They did. It was rudimentary; they couldn't do very complex messages-just feelings and images. They couldn't have a conversation, the way we do. But they had stronger projection. I think, anyway. The records from then are sketchy. But around the Third Meeting there was a sudden shift in mind powers and how they could be used-what has this got to do with Cel? She's been tested. She doesn't have..." He trailed off, lost in thought, but for once, unable to articulate what he was thinking.
But Sonya could. "It's like radio."
"Radio?" Medi repeated, still looking blank.
The goddess nodded. "There are two types of radio signals: AM, and FM. Bear with me. The Ancient Receiver is AM, and the modern version is FM. Okay?"
Kerlan and Meimei nodded. Medi looked back. Celebria seemed to be trying to grasp something on her own.
"Now," Sonya began, trying to explain it so that Medi could follow, "we all talk using FM. But the Ancients used AM. If one of them was here today, they wouldn't be able to... to receive us, because they're on a different frequency."
"I get it," Celebria breathed, a grin slowly spreading over her face. "I have the AM receiver, but the FM broadcaster."
"Exactly!" both Sonya and Meimei cried.
"I still don't get it," Medicalis grumbled.
"It's simple-Celebria can receive, but not general messages. She can receive messages from me, for example," Kerlan elaborated. "But that's only because we're so close, and I think it overrides the AM problem."
"And," Sonya began, growing more confident as the pieces flew into place, "and, when you're planning a covert operation, it's imperative to use a frequency that people won't be listening to."
The deities were silent.
"Now you've lost me," Kerlan remarked. Meimei and Celebria nodded in agreement. Medi sat down with his head in his hands.
Sonya sighed, running a hand over her hair. "Okay-what I think happened is this: the Wise Lady needed to keep in contact with Rahne constantly. But she didn't want any of us picking up on the link-we'd break it, and that would ruin something-whatever her plans were. She had another problem as well: she needed to talk to Rahne while outside of the Omniverse-bear with me, Medi, I'll explain later."
"Don't bother," the god sighed. "I just give up. Skip to the medical bits."
"Don't you dare skip!" Meimei exclaimed, hanging on Sonya's every word.
Kerlan nodded. "I think I'm just starting to get it, too. Go on, Sonya."
The former Army lieutenant took a deep breath. 'The Wise Lady needed to have a powerful link to keep in contact. But the more powerful the link, the more of a chance that we'd detect it. So what she did was set the link-and Rahne-to the AM frequency-the one no one uses any more. She thought that no one would be able to pick it up. And she was right; none of us here even noticed anything, except through Rahne. But the Wise Lady didn't count on Celebria's faulty receiver."
"It's not faulty!" Medicalis interjected. "Just... different."
Celebria smiled. "Thanks, Medi."
Kerlan nodded, thoughtfully. "Medi, you remember when the Wise Lady came here? She was upset, she said she wanted to make amends. And then she did something that stopped Cel's visions."
"What?" both Meimei and Sonya exclaimed.
Kerlan nodded. "She showed up with Jikan Tai. She did something, and the visions stopped, and haven't come back. Then she left."
"She broke the link," Sonya muttered. "That's what she did. She broke the link, so Cel stopped receiving Rahne's visions."
"We've got to tell Lindara that the Guardian is back," Meimei interrupted. "I came to stop the visions-that's what I wanted you to do, Sonya-break the AM link. What does AM stand for, anyway?"
"Uh... I'm not sure," Sonya admitted.
The gods shrugged.
"I suppose it doesn't matter anyway," Celebria said, shrugging slightly. "I think we can just stop worrying about that now-and I can get back to the Hall-"
"I don't think so," Medi declared, jumping to his feet, back in his element. "You need more rest."
Celebria started to say something, but Kerlan held up his hand. "He's right, Cel. You sit and recuperate. The Hall isn't going any where."
"I am," Meimei announced. "I need to talk to Lindara. She's still in Earthrealm, so I can talk to Hiko, too-"
"What's the matter with Hiko?" Celebria asked, looking interested.
"Never mind," Sonya said, firmly, taking Meimei by the elbow and pulling her towards the door. "Let's get going, Meimei. We've got work to do."
Confused, Meimei waved good-bye over her shoulder, until Sonya pushed her through the door, closing it behind them.
"That was a little odd," Kerlan observed. "Then again, for them, it was normal."
Medicalis sighed, too tired for jokes. "I suppose I should be going as well. I've been away from the Hospital for too long-"
"Wasn't there something you wanted to tell me, earlier?" Celebria asked, looking at him curiously.
Medi paled, considerably. He looked to Kerlan, to see the god staring at him, almost daring him. "Ummm..."
"You know, I should check on the Bar," Kerlan announced, leaning over to give Celebria a peck on the cheek. "I'll see you later, sis." He disappeared, leaving the two deities alone.
Celebria blinked in confusion. "I don't understand. Why did he leave like that? What is it that you have to tell me?" She sat in her pile of pillows, looking bewildered.
Medi looked at her, for a moment, all the courage draining out of him, and pooling around his feet. "Honestly, Celebria...?"
She looked up at him with her big brown eyes, waiting expectantly.
"...I can't remember," he finished. "Sorry."
She looked at him for a moment longer, squinting; then she sighed, and shrugged. "Oh well," she said, sounding disappointed. "I guess it can't be helped."
Lindara, expectant and afraid at the same time, burst in through the front door of her villa. She hadn't even bothered to disguise herself in mortal clothing. "Yellow? Yellow?" Her eyes fell on the lone character slouching in the doorway of the bedroom. "Yellow!" She flew to him, her feet barely touching the ground, as she wrapped her arms around him, tightly. "You're home at last. I was so frightened..." She trailed off, her eyes squeezed shut, to keep from crying. "I was so worried."
"I know, and I'm sorry," Yellow whispered, tiredly, resting his cheek against her black hair. He sighed. It felt good to be back home. The final battle had taken so much out of him. He just wanted to sleep, for days. "I'll make it up to you, promise."
She pulled back to look at him. "Just don't leave like that again."
He looked into her green eyes, trying to block out the memory of sparkling blue ones. "I promise. I won't leave."
"Hiko!" Meimei cried, bursting into the kitchen. "Hiko! Where-oh. There you are."
"Here I am," Hiko confirmed. She was sitting at the table, feeding Hichan, who was on her lap. Rayden was sitting across from them, cutting slices of apple for his wife to give to their daughter. All three were staring at the new arrival intently.
Sonya poked her head around the door a moment later. "Hello. Everyone okay?"
"Fine," Rayden replied, easily, as though the topic was of no interest at all. "We're all doing fine. What's the matter, Meimei?"
Meimei blinked, brought back to the moment; she started patting and rearranging her hair. "Um. Well."
Sonya sighed, a hand going to rub the bridge of her nose. Not this again. "Spit it out, Meimei."
"I can't!" the goddess protested. "You need a mood-an occasion. Not while we're just sitting around-"
"What are you two talking about?" Hiko interrupted, looking confused. Suddenly something occured to her. "Have you heard from Rahne?"
"Rahne, Rahne," Hichan chorused, clapping her hands, until her mother gave her another apple slice, which required almost all of her concentration.
"No," Sonya replied, surprised at the question. "Actually, I was going to ask if you knew where she'd gone. I haven't seen her since..." She trailed off, her hands falling to her sides.
"I have no idea," Rayden replied, with a sigh, looking sombre. He paused for a moment, debating something in his mind. He reached a decision. "But... I did spend time with the Wise Lady. She... assures me that everything's worked out for the best."
The only sound in the kitchen was the sound of oblivious Hichan munching on her apple slice. Meimei looked stunned. Sonya's mouth nearly hit the floor. Hiko glared, then snapped:
"Why didn't you tell us? When did this happen?"
"I was going to tell you," Rayden protested, to his wife. "I was. I was just going to wait until H-I-C-H-A-N was asleep."
Hichan looked up. She couldn't spell, but knew that spelling involved her somehow. Talking about sleep definitely did, at any rate. "No! No sleep!"
"What?" Meimei cried, holding her head. "I don't understand!"
Rayden sighed, looking to Hiko. She nodded, and stood. Hichan, sensing a ruse, started to struggle, but the goddess teleported a moment later. "I was.. paid a visit by the Wise Lady. I can't tell you everything, but I learned why Rahne was sent here: to stop Black Robes from destroying the flow of time."
"We know that already," Sonya reminded him.
He glared. "And she's done it. Rahne, I mean. She's stopped him-that's why the strange feeling is gone, why we're all okay. And she's gone back home."
"Where is her home?" asked Hiko, suddenly popping back into existence, sans Hichan.
Rayden became uneasy. "I can't tell you that."
"Why not?" Sonya asked, bluntly, but he simply shook his head.
"I can't tell you that, either. I'm sorry, but this is the way it's got to be. I made a promise."
Hiko sighed, running a hand through her hair. She took her seat again. "This has been a crazy few days. From the Festival, to the Council, Rahne, Black Robes... I'm glad everything's just going to settle down again. No more surprises."
Meimei made a gargled noise. Hiko and Rayden looked up at her, questions on their lips; Sonya gave her an elbow in the ribs. "Tell them!"
"I can't!" Meimei wailed. "Not now-maybe in a bit-"
"Tell them," Sonya hissed.
"Tell them what?" Rayden inquired, as he and Hiko exchanged glances. "You know you can tell us anything, Meimei."
"Especially this," Sonya agreed. "Do it, Meimei. Or I will."
"Sonya!" Meimei wailed, wringing her hands. "It's just not the right time-"
"Hiko's pregnant." Sonya crossed her arms over her chest, her threat carried out.
The silence that descended on the room was thick enough to be stifling. Meimei looked daggers at Sonya; apparently she thought the goddess had been bluffing. Hiko looked surprised, her eyes widened; Rayden broke into a knowing grin.
"So that's what he meant," the god murmured, to himself, before getting up to give his wife a tight hug. Hiko just remained seated, looking stunned and squeezed.
"What? Now? What?" she blurted, blinking. "Meimei-how long have you know about this?"
Meimei smiled sheepishly. "Since before the Festival. But I was waiting for the right time-"
Sonya rolled her eyes. "Congratulations, Hiko."
"Uh, thank you," Hiko replied, still bewildered. She looked up at Rayden, who took her hands. It started to sink in. "You know-that makes a lot of sense. Explains a lot of things..." She started to laugh, happily.
"More than you realise," Rayden replied, still grinning. He pulled her to her feet, to give her another, proper, hug, one that she joyfully returned.
Meimei grinned, happy that the cat was out of the bag at last. Sonya was starting to grow uncomfortable. She tugged on Meimei's arm. "I think we ought to get going, Meimei."
Hiko pulled away from Rayden, although he kept his arm around her. "You don't need to go."
Sonya shook her head. "Yeah, we should. We've still got lots of research to do."
"Sonya," Rayden began, slowly, looking for the right way to say something, "I don't think that's necessary. Rahne's not coming back. Neither is Black Robes. They're gone, and they won't bother us again." He gave Hiko a squeeze. "Not for a while, anyway."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Hiko puzzled. "You're going to have to fill us in."
"Maybe," he conceded. "But for now, let's just enjoy the happy ending."
Rahne appeared, dropping down through her portal, landing in a crouch, tense, and waiting. She looked around. It was the Temple, at Earthrealm, the Earth of the future, after Ice had already taken over. Was it Ice? She wasn't sure. Ice made her think of winter sports, and cocoa with her grandfather, not her terrible memories, her flight for her life. The ruination of her home.
The Temple stood on the hill, jagged, destroyed. The sky overhead was deep black, no stars, no moon. She was glad she could see in the dark, but knew that her silver robes-the colour of Lightning-made her stick out like a sore thumb. She needed to find shelter, a hiding place, before Tài realised she'd come through after him.
She got to her feet, still keeping her eyes and ears sharp, still tense. She didn't want to be trapped like the last time. She started moving, remembering the halls with two sets of memories: from her life as a small girl, running down the corridors, shrieking with laughter; and as a young woman, protecting Hichan, lost, and confused. The memories overlapped, jarring with each other.
She paused, hearing a noise behind her. But when she stopped, the noise stopped. She started again, trying to hear anything beyond the click of her heels on the stone. But there was nothing. A chill ran down her back, as a gust of wind picked up, whistling down the ruined corridor. Overhead, the cloudless sky rumbled. Thunder? A storm picking up.
Rahne broke into a run. She didn't know where she was headed, but she had to find some where, somewhere to be, out of the elements. Shelter. She could still remember that feeling, from long ago... running, trying to hide, trying to make everything go away...
She forced herself to calm down, to take a deep breath, and block the panic from her mind. Fear would not help her win the fight with Tài. She needed to be calm. She made a turn, and realised that she had forgotten where she was. Or when, exactly. She had expected to turn the corner to the kitchen; instead, she reached a rocky crater.
Aunty Hichan, bending down, giving her a cookie from the jar. Grandma Hiko pointing at something outside, out the window; the Earth sun on her face, streaming in...
Rahne blinked, startled, stumbling to a halt before she fell over the lip of the crater.
"By the Name," she whispered, blinking back tears. "No, how could he do this...?"
"Because he had to," snapped a voice, from behind her. She whirled, but couldn't see anything in the darkness. "Because he was driven. As I am."
Instinct kicked in, and Rahne threw herself to the side, just in time to avoid being struck by Tài's powers. She rolled, smacking into the wall in the process. The collision hurt, but she was back on her feet in moments. She couldn't afford to waste time, now.
Tài was gone. She knew it, the same way she knew he was going to fire at her. She started running, her arm throbbing. It had been her elbow that had made contact with the stone wall; she tried to heal it, but wasn't very successful.
Where to now? She didn't know what part of the Temple was still standing, what part was safe. Tài had the run, and no doubt the knowledge of the new lay-out. She needed to be somewhere open, with a lot of room to manoeuver. Then it hit her. She started running faster, the pain in her arm forgotten as she headed towards the courtyard.
It had been very beautiful, once upon a time. Her mother liked to sit under the cherry tree, on her bench, and enjoy the sunshine. There used to be mortals, back in the old days, when her mother was young; but there weren't any, not any more. Rahne used to sit by her mother, at her feet, just looking around her. Her mother was very beautiful, she knew; thick black hair, and the family blue eyes, passed down from her grandfather. She was very graceful, too, and elegant. She had a fan, a gorgeous white silk fan, that she used to wave gently, her eyes half-closed, as she soaked up the sunlight. Sometimes Tài would sit with them, but not often; he didn't like to sit for long. Rahne could have sat for hours, just looking. Sometimes she fell asleep, to the scent of cherries, the warmth of the sun, and the gentle sound of her mother's fan.
Now the courtyard was a mess. The cherry tree was dead, half up-rooted by someone's struggles. The bench was gone, splintered. There was no sun, and a smell of rot filled the air. But the courtyard was open. It was level. There was nowhere to hide, but Rahne didn't want to hide any more. She wanted to fight, and end the war. End the fighting, so that she could return home.
He appeared, coalescing out of darkness, a scowl on his face. With his black robes, and dark hair and eyes, he seemed to be formed out of the shadows themselves; she remembered a time before that. She remembered her brother, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a smile.
"This has gone on far enough," Tài said, his voice a growl.
She tensed, settling into a defensive posture. "You're right. It has gone on far enough."
There was a moment's pause, as both summed each other up, and gathered their courage. Then they both leapt, auras crackling around them.
Rahne jumped, twisting up and around to kick out, her foot connecting with Tài's head, the force and momentum pulling her downwards. Tài yelped, and was thrown sideways; but he somehow managed to keep his balance, and stayed upright. Power was crackling around him, and he gathered it together in his hands. He threw them out towards her, and the energy leapt from them; Rahne threw herself to the side, creating her own blast of energy. The lightning bolts streaked down, from the sky, but Tài's shield snapped into existence, protecting him.
Rahne got to her feet, ready to start again. Tài was striding forward, fury in his eyes. He charged forward, punching; she caught his fist, and deflected it, but he was already striking out with his other. She deflected that one as well, when he twisted, bringing his knee up, catching her in the middle. She doubled over, and he grabbed her head and shoved hard, throwing her backwards. She connected solidly with the wall, crunching, and then sank to her knees, stars dancing in front of her eyes.
He stood over her, waiting.
She got to her feet, shaky, but ready to continue.
There was a rumbling in the ground, a shaking beneath her feet. The locket, which she still wore around her neck, was growing warmer, until it was red hot; she gasped, ripping it from its cord, and tossed it aside. There was a moment, where it glowed golden; then it exploded into dust, sparkling down to the barren ground.
She looked over to Tài, trying to keep her balance as the earth was shifting. Without the locket's protection, the time stream whirlpools were starting to effect her; everything was dancing before her eyes.
Her brother just stood, his hands clenched in fists at his side. His eyes were misted with tears of rage, and frustration. "Do... you... see?" he said, his voice tight. "This is what I have been trying to avoid. It's her fault. If you had let me kill her-!"
"Kill her? Tài-" she began, incredulous. She was going to finish, 'she is your own family', but he didn't let her.
"Don't call me that!" he screamed, throwing his arms wide. Light exploded around her, a roar of water, as he tried to use the time stream against her, as he had in the past; only now, the barriers had degraded too far, he couldn't control them. Instead of being directed solely at Rahne, the stream burst outwards, freed from its limits and constraints. For a moment, Rahne had the feeling that there was someone crying her name-she looked up, drawn to the sky. There, she could see a ripple, a hole-like a pond, but over her head. She sank to her knees, the power overwhelming her, and yet-she kept looking up, seeing the water in the air, far above her, the Temple, the ground-it must be huge, to be so far away, and yet she could still see it clearly--she could make out a face. It was Hichan, the Wise Lady; then Hichan disappeared, and another moved into view. She knew him at once. Uncle Yellow. He looked like he was reaching out.
Her head was swimming. Everything was rushing around her, swirling into a blur, and yet Yellow's hand reached out, it seemed almost to her...
As hard as it was, she brought up her own hand, and stretched outwards. For a moment, their fingertips met. Then the light exploded outwards.
It was a glorious feeling, as the stream was hurled backwards, drawn back into its normal path, its course. The rush faded from her head, the swirls reversed themselves, the blur sharpened, settling into reality. The roar faded to a murmur, then disappeared.
Rahne got to her feet, shaking. The strange vision of the pond had disappeared; the sky was the same black it had always been-at this point in time, anyway.
Tài was sitting, cowering, against the wall, his back pressed hard against it, as he fought down his terror. "What was that?" he managed to ask, shaking.
Rahne started slowly towards him. "The stream is back to normal. Time is restored-"
"Don't come any closer," he warned her, still shaking, still terrified. "It's not normal. Nothing's the same. Don't come near me. Stay away!"
She knelt down beside him, near tears herself. Couldn't he see? Didn't he remember who she was? She could help him, she knew it. She didn't have to kill him, she just need to get him to remember. Then he would be all right.
She remembered how he reacted to her, before, when they touched, and brought some of the memories to the surface. Perhaps that could work again. She reached her hand out, gingerly. Tài flinched away from her, digging his fingers into the dark soil as though bracing himself against something. Her fingertips brushed his face...
"Don't worry about it, Tài," she said, looking up at him. "You can play with me."
Tài was sulking, mad that his cousins wouldn't play with him any more. Jih and Yueh had grown tired of the young boy in their midst, and banned him from tagging along after them. He had come out to the courtyard to sulk. Rahne had followed him.
He looked at her. "But I wanted other people to play with."
Rahne tried not to show her hurt, and wrapped her arms around him. "Don't worry, Tài. You'll find other boys. But you'll always have me to play with, even when you're big. I'll still be here."
Rahne jerked back as Tài yelled out, shoving her way with one hand. She realised, in slow motion, that his other hand held a rock. It was heading towards her-
Something hard connected with her temple and her vision tunnelled for a moment, as she fell to the ground, stopping her fall with her palms. Blood splashed, and then dripped down into the cold soil.
Tài wasn't finished, and the rock connected with her crown this time. She screamed, trying to block it with her hands; she fell to the ground, getting mouthful of dirt, but at least protecting her head. He was on his feet, and he kicked her, hard, in the stomach. She curled up, spitting dirt, trying to keep from crying; her head was swimming with the pain, and blood was running into her eyes.
There seemed to be a reprieve. Tài had backed up; he was shifting from foot to foot, unsure. His fists were still clenched; he had dropped the rock. Rahne, gasping, tried to get to her feet. She couldn't quite make it; she couldn't get her balance. Her hands, on their own, pushed back the hair from her face, and came away sticky.
He was still debating something. She decided to take another chance. "Tài."
"Don't call me that."
"Tài, you must listen to me, you've got to remember-"
"I don't want to!" His screamed cut through the eternal night. "Why don't you understand? Why do you torment me like this? Why won't you leave me alone?"
"I won't," she replied, her voice breaking from the strain. She tried again to get to her feet, tried to lever herself up. Her palms were cut from small stones in the soil; they were stinging, caked in dirt and blood. Her arms didn't have the strength in them to support her. "I won't leave you. Remember, please..."
"No!" he screamed again. He darted towards her. She tried to back up, but couldn't make it; he collided with her, shoving her hard, backwards, scraping her along the stones. She tried to get up, but he held her down with one hand. She could barely see from the pain.
"Stop calling me that! That's not my name! I am the Storm, I am the Storm!" he cried, over and over, hysterical. "I know I can't go back! Stop doing this to me! Leave me alone, all of you! I know I can't go home, it's all gone, it's all gone-!" His voice broke, wavering, on the last cry. Rahne struggled again, but he was too heavy, he was leaning down on the one arm, pining her firmly. "I have to stop you," he whispered, his voice hoarse. "I have to stop you. Then I can go home. Then I can go home-"
She was dimly aware that he had something in his hand again. It wasn't the rock-he had dropped that-no, he had pulled this from his robes. It flashed silver, as he raised it over his head, and then flashed again as he brought it down.
There was a burning pain in her chest. He had stabbed her, Tài had stabbed her-she stared at him, eyes wide, in shock and confusion. He held the knife over his head, ready to strike again, but he was staring at her, wide-eyed as well. Then his hand began to shake; it opened, the knife dropped the ground, flashing a final time as it fell.
He got up, stepping away from her, trembling. She could barely see. The pain was fire in his chest, spreading. He was backing away from her.
"You're still... alive," he whispered. She thought at first it was because he thought he killed her; but then something told her otherwise. He was starting to remember. He thought his family was dead. He was so close- tears slid down her face as she struggled to get to her feet. She just had to help him remember. If he did, then everything would be okay, it would be all right-they could go home.
"You were dead," he whispered again. "I thought... no, this isn't right!" He gathered his strength together. He was still determined to fight her.
Rahne paused, looking at him, even as she struggled to get to her feet, waves of pain clouding her vision. "Tài," she whispered, "Tài, I remember you."
He growled at her, gathering his energy together for his final attack. It grew in an arc around him, crackling. She knew that she wouldn't be able to fight him off, not in her condition. He knew that too. But she also knew that he was so close...
"I remember you," she said, her voice still in a hush. She couldn't speak any louder, it hurt to much; but she knew he was hearing every word she said. "It's me, Tài, it's Rahne."
He blinked, confused, then angered. "Why won't you leave me alone!" he cried, his head tilted back. She knew, from experience, that he was seeing the same visions she had, as his memory was beginning to assert itself. But she had wanted to remember; he didn't. He was still frightened.
She wavered, holding her ribs, the blood trickling through her already sticky fingers. "Tài," she repeated, almost sobbing. "Please, just let them come. They'll help you."
"They won't! They can't!" he roared, the energy leaping out and embracing her. She screamed, arching her back, as the blast ripped through her. She sank to her knees, one hand on the ground, the other pressed against her side, trying to hold back the pain. The blood dripped down, she watched it with a fascination she had never known before. She was going to die. And her brother wasn't going to remember.
"Tài," she said, one last time, almost inaudible.
His fingers were twitching. He was managing to keep the rest of him from shaking too much. She was almost dead, she was almost gone from his path, removed forever. With her gone, the visions would stop, it would all stop. It would all be over. He just had to use his powers one last time. That's all it would take.
Something was stopping him.
It was a vague tickling in the back of his head. And then he thought he heard it, a whisper of a girl's voice.
Tài! I'm glad you're back--I missed you!
I'm glad to be back, Rahnie, I missed you too.
He remembered saying those words, back several life-times ago, back before everything was ruined. Back when he was happy, with his family. Back before Hichan, back before this silver goddess.
Don't worry, Tài, I'll play with you, even when you're grown-up!
His little sister had smiled up at him as she said that, trying to make him feel better, knowing that he would always love her, that they would still be together even when they were adults, and leading adult lives.
"Shut up!" he roared, almost cried, clutching his ears. Why wouldn't it go away? The memories crowded closer together now, he couldn't stop them. He wanted the peace he had first known when he had come here, the oblivion that comes with complete concentration. But the longer he lived, the more the visions tormented him. He didn't want this now, he didn't want to be reminded of all that he had left behind. Of all the things he could never see again. Of the people he loved. They were dead, they were dead, all of them! Mom, Dad, Rahne-they were dead!
Tài, I'm scared.
Don't worry, Rahnie, I'll look after you.
He looked to the goddess before him. She had her head down, her brown hair hiding her face. She had been trying to stand up, but she couldn't make it, she was resting on her hands, watching the blood trickle from her face. She looked completely calm. "Why are you doing this to me?" he cried, in anger and in pain. "Why won't you leave me alone?" His emotions all welled to the surface, bubbling forth as another blast of energy that enveloped the goddess.
She screamed once more, and collapsed, sinking to the ground, exhausted from fighting, from the pain. She tried, for a moment, to struggle upright; but she couldn't. She lay still.
He stood, breathing heavily from the exertion, gasping, trying not to cry.
The goddess was dead--or would be. He would be free from this pain. He would be left alone, no longer tormented what he could not have. The visions swirled again, in front of his eyes.
Don't worry, Rahnie, I'll look after you.
She couldn't be Rahne. Rahne was dead. Even if Rahne wasn't dead-and she was, but even if she wasn't--Rahne was back with Mom and Dad, back before Earth existed, back in the Middle Ages. Not here.
The goddess was barely breathing.
Tài, I'm scared.
So was he. He sank to his knees, his heart hammering in his chest. She couldn't be. She couldn't be. Oh Creator, she couldn't be...
"Rahne?" he asked, softly, his voice the only sound in the darkness, a wavering whisper. Half a sob. "Rahne?"
She stirred, faintly, and tried to tilt her head towards him. "Tài," she murmured, her voice so quiet that he couldn't hear her, but he could see her lips form his name. His name. That was who he was. It was his name, wasn't it?
I am the Storm.
Tài, don't leave me.
"Rahnie," he repeated, crawling forward, terrified that he was right, or that he was wrong. He wanted his sister to be alive. He didn't want her to be the goddess lying dying in front of him. "Rahnie, I didn't know it was you, I didn't know--" She was silent as he approached her, she didn't reply as he reached out an unsteady hand towards her, tears running down his cheeks. "Rahnie," he whispered, again, afraid to breathe, as he touched her cheek, slick with tears and blood. "Rahnie, I am so sorry, I am so sorry--"
He took her head, cradling it gently. He knew it was her, he knew, and what had he done-her eyes were closed, but she was still breathing; she was still alive. There was still hope. Wasn't there? He bent his head down and kissed her on the temple, resting his face against hers, careful not to touch her wounds. "Rahnie," he cried, gently. "Rahnie, I don't know what to do any more..."
She stirred, slightly, and he lifted his face away, to let her move freely. She opened her eyes, to look up at him. "Be yourself," she breathed, her voice faint. He strained to hear her. "Remember who you are, and then let everything else go."
"But..." he began, his voice broken. "I can't go back, not any more. Not after what I've done."
"You can," said a new voice, above and behind him. He turned, twisting his torso around, to see who it was, even though he knew the voice the way he knew his own. Hichan stood, with the staff in her hands, looking at him. She looked weary, but triumphant.
"I can't go back," he repeated, looking back down at his sister. "Not after all that I've done. I can't. I can't, Aunty Hichan."
"It doesn't make a difference," Hichan said, softly, her eyes misting. "It doesn't matter any more. Tài, come here."
He stroked his sister's cheek, still holding her head. He didn't want to let her go. She opened her eyes. "Go," she whispered, her breath faint. "Go."
He nodded, wiping his face with the back of his hand. He very gently slid Rahne's head back to the ground, and got to his feet, turning to face his aunt. His fists were clenched. He was shaking.
Hichan gestured, very calmly, for him to come closer. She was holding her hand out, her other hand holding the staff, which glowed so brightly. He had thought it was the way to return home. Maybe he had been right?
He closed his eyes tightly, and stepped forward, taking a deep breath. He couldn't imagine what she would do to him. But it was what he deserved. He had so much to pay for. All that he had done--
He felt a soft touch on his cheek, and he blinked, startled, to see the tears in the elder goddess' eyes, as she held her hand against his face, warm and gentle, like he remembered. "You've been gone too long," she told him, with a faint smile, a sad one. "We all miss you."
He couldn't think of anything to say; he just stood, trembling.
"Who are you?" she asked him, the jewel in the staff glowing to a brighter red, still ringed in gold.
"I am the storm," he replied, instantly, not understanding.
"Who are you?" she repeated, firmly this time. She looked as though she wanted to tell him something, to guide him to the right answer; instead, her gaze drifted past him.
He paused, and for a moment, he looked over his shoulder to where his sister lay. His resolve strengthened. He turned back, to return Hichan's gaze. "I am Tài," he whispered, feeling something start to build inside him.
"Louder," she commanded, a smiling growing.
Somewhere deep within, a dam burst, releasing the feelings he had been hiding for all that time, forcing down, buried where he thought he could never find them again. Everything that he had forgotten, and tried so hard to put behind him. "I am Tàirneache, son of Raiko and Lachdannan, God of Storms!"
I am me again, he added, inside his head.
Hichan laughed, and stepped away.
He gasped, startled and afraid, as something began to burn within him. He couldn't begin to describe the sensation that flowed along his arms and legs, that ran up his spine, that bubbled inside his head. But he knew how he felt because of it. He felt lighter, and clearer, and happier.
He laughed, throwing his arms into the air, as the Storm was burned away, leaving only the core, the center, the boy called Tài.
Rahne watched, as best she could, as her brother stepped away from her, and towards their aunt. She could tell he was terrified, awaiting judgement. Though she could barely spare it, she tried to send him a ribbon of healing energy, to help him through it. She wanted him to come home. She wanted him to be himself, again.
"Who are you?" Hichan asked of him.
"I am the storm," he replied, without thinking, without pause.
"Who are you?" she asked again.
This time he replied something, and Rahne couldn't hear it, nor could she read his lips with his back to her.
"Louder," Hichan urged, her voice expectant, waiting to here something.
"I am Tàirneache, son of Raiko and Lachdannan, God of Storms!" he proclaimed, loudly, defiantly, proudly, throwing back his chin.
Rahne let her head drop back down to the ground, smiling tiredly. A vision of light surrounded her brother, a cloud that rushed around him, swirling, and lifting away to reveal her true brother, a ten-year-old boy, dressed in robes of dark-gray blue, the colour of a overcast sky. He laughed suddenly and threw his arms into the air with the sheer joy of finally being released.
Hichan smiled again, broadly, and hugged him, which he returned fiercely and tightly.
"I want to go home," he murmured, his eyes tightly shut.
She nodded, her own eyes scrunched together, and Tài began to fade away, vanishing into the air, covered in the golden light.
Rahne gritted her teeth, and tried to get up. The pain was intense, she didn't think she could make it. She made it as far as sitting upright before Hichan stopped her, crouching beside her, the staff lying in the cold earth.
"Don't," was all her aunt said. It was enough; Rahne stopped struggling.
"I want to go home too," Rahne whispered, with all the strength she could muster. "Let me go home too."
Hichan nodded, slowly, and leaned over, to kiss Rahne gently on the top of her head.
There was a flash of golden light from behind her eyes, and Rahne sighed with relief as her pain faded, washed away by happiness and comfort. Hichan got to her feet, and held out her hand.
Rahne placed her own hand in her aunt's, her six-year-old fingers small in comparison with the elder goddess'. Hichan pulled, and Rahne got to her feet. She looked around herself in amazement. Everything seemed the right size again. She smiled. Hichan squeezed her niece's hand comfortingly, and then everything around Rahne spun into darkness.
"Mommy?" she blurted, waking up, scared and startled. She looked around her, terrified that she was alone, but she wasn't. Her mother was perched by the side of her bed, she could see her outlined in the moonlight.
"It's just a bad dream, Rahnie," Raiko said, gently, stroking her head. "It's just a nightmare. Tài had one too, but it's all right, it's over now. Daddy and me are both here. It's all right."
Rahne snuggled back into the warm covers, taking her bear, and sighing. She was so tired, and worn out from the dream, but so happy to know that everything was all right. She turned her head to see Tài's bed, with her brother fast asleep.
"Go to sleep, sweetheart," Raiko murmured. "And I'll see you in the morning."
Rahne smiled, closing her eyes.
Rayden blinked, suddenly awake. He looked over at Hiko, but she was still fast asleep, curled up on her side, breathing deeply. It was the middle of the night. He put his head down, back on the pillow, fully intending to go back to sleep, but he couldn't.
Something was telling him to get up, to go outside. Even trying as hard as he could, he simply couldn't ignore the feeling, so, feeling exasperated, he got up.
He padded his way to the courtyard, feeling utterly ridiculous. Why couldn't he sleep? What was urging him outside? He had no idea, but knew enough by now to trust his feelings implicitly. The cold air of the courtyard made him shiver and cross his arms over his chest, as he looked out across the moonlight yard, eerily lit, the shadows sharp and strange.
He heard a crackle behind him, and he whirled, startled.
It was Hichan, the adult Hichan, another visit from the future. This time she didn't have her golden glow, but she still had the transparency that meant she was in the Wood. "Daddy," she said, quietly, smiling at him slyly. "I see you got up."
"Hichan," he murmured, smiling. It was good to see her again, to know that she was all right. Jikan Tai had returned from the Wood as well, but wouldn't say anything about it, not even to Rayden. "What are you doing here? Is Rahne okay, is she with you? We haven't heard anything, and we don't know what happened--"
Hichan shook her head slightly. "It's all right, Daddy. It's all the way it's supposed to be."
The image blurred for a moment, then re-formed. Hichan stood with her arms around a small girl standing in front of her, a young brown haired girl who grinned at the god. She was missing her two front teeth, but still grinned broadly, the unabashed grin of a child.
"Rahne," he realised, grinning back, happy to see her, her true self.
The image blurred again, and this time there was a young boy as well, standing next to Rahne, Hichan's arms around them both. He waved, a little too embarrassed to grin like Rahne.
"This is Tàirneache." Hichan introduced him. She paused. "I don't think you ever learned his full name."
Rayden couldn't think of anything to say. He just opened his mouth, and the closed it again with a snap. Tài looked up to Hichan, and she nodded. The image flickered again, and this time re-appeared to show the trio plus another young woman, her thick black hair done up in an elaborate bun, dressed in white robes. The two children had moved in front of her.
"Hi, Daddy," she said, shyly.
He blinked, and his two daughters laughed.
"It all worked out in the end," Hichan said, quietly, still smiling. "I just wanted to tell you that we won Raiko's Realm back. She's safe again, in Earthrealm."
He shook his head, grinning, but still at a loss for words. He hadn't told Hiko anything about their future family, even with the baby due soon; and he wished he had, so that he could share the feeling he was experiencing now.
"It's okay," she acknowledged. "You don't have to say anything. We just wanted to tell you, just to let you know how it all works out."
"Thank you," he replied, grateful and meaning it. He smiled again, as the image disappeared, leaving no trace to show that it was ever there.
Rayden, God of Thunder, Lord of Earth, stood for a moment, deep in reflection, and then he turned and walked back silently to his home, where his family was waiting for him.