Description: Howard Rust Jr. made a promise to a ghost, and it would appear that he takes his promises very seriously indeed. Flush with wealth of all sorts after his triumph in Test Your Might, he makes a trip to the island's lonely graveyard to make good on that promise. What happens next is unexpected indeed, but perhaps Rust has fulfilled that promise, in his own way, after all...
With great spite barely contained by grudging acceptance of the magnitude of might offered by one of the most unique challengers (this is putting it with utmost politeness) to test their might, a father and son duo are allowed to enjoy much of the luxuries offered to them of Outworld's conquests and own unique features.
Fine threads. Immaculate meals above and beyond even the unmatched workmanship of the feasts the other guests have received. Treatments that are the envy of so many other realms. Given a taste of such wealth, few would find the resolve - or logical reason! - to continue to fight for a doomed realm of lesser riches and strength.
At present, the two rest with backs facing upward, after having received incredible massages. Jao, for the first time in a long while, is at calm and peace. His eyes closed, his arms dangling, he sighs.
"Hey, son," speaks up his father, ruining this moment of peace, as he exhales loudly, "how're you doing?"
"I'm fine, father. That... that was incredible." He says. "I could get used to this..."
The father is silent for a minute, as he crosses his arms where he lays, resting his chin atop both of them. His right hand is bandaged, the wrist having received no small amount of trauma in the test that earned them both this level of leisure.
"What's wrong?" Jao asks, knowing silence - however blessed - is not a great sign of things.
"I've really been irresponsible."
"What for?" Jao is perplexed. They're alive, they're living the good life (however brief). What could have gone wrong?
"Ahh, you see," the father says as he rolls onto his back, modesty only kept by a towel, "someone trusted me to hold onto something."
"What is that?"
"A sword," the father continues, tone of voice droning on and on, "belonged to her."
"Oh... that's what that was." Jao did wonder what it was he held onto, when he got up after the diamond skull nearly had its way with him.
"Remembered that while you got me to stop," he laughs, "got me in the back, yep. Still sore within."
"Is it... is it important?"
"You bet!" Rust Jr. says. "But you see... I keep losing it! Every place we go here... eat, rest, listen to music, all of that. One of the servants keep finding it for me!"
"I-Is that really so?"
Jr. points out with his left hand, to one of the sultry masseuses who is now nonchalantly walking off with it. "See? Keep losing it! Nice they found it.... hey!"
Dashing off the table, an awkward exchange happens that is made worse by the fact that the older man is technically naked. Jao cringes and hides his face all the while.
A LITTLE LATER...
Jr.'s already putting back on his old set of clothing, wear and tear and all, suiting up with his father's own beloved (and very ratty) toolbelt. He has at least nicely and politely folded up an expensive, beautiful blue robe typically reserved for nobility. It may be the first thing he's touched this entire kontest that hasn't spontaneously burst into flames, or something, as he suits up with purpose and haste.
"A-Are we really going out again?" Jao asks, who has not discarded his own awarded wealth. (One cannot blame him, for what he had before.) Wearing a white martial arts gi top and matching pants with fine shoes, he has a handful of fresh grapes in one hand.
"Yep! You're coming that," so the father says as he now holds the beautiful - even when blood-stained - saya.
An elite ninja just up and appears behind Jr. as he holds it aloft, snatches it cleanly out of his hand, and disappears. The theft victim never notices. Jao, for his part, stands dumbfounded about it.
"But... but... we're safe here--"
"Ahh, come on, son!" Rust Jr. laughs, continuing to be unaware of even the contents (and now lack there-of) of his left hand as he places a hand at his hip. "That never stopped me ever! When're you going to experience something like this again, eh?"
"...Never... I hope," Jao says in an increasingly smaller voice as the father comes up to him and wraps his left arm around him.
"We're gonna have another adventure!" Beat. "Once I find where I dropped that sword. Ohh. That's not good."
Beat. Beat. Beat. The silent beats continue as Jao is too much of a milquetoast to say anything otherwise.
"Sh-shouldn't you rest your wrist?"
"I'm a lefty! I'll be fine... c'mon. It'll be fun," and such prodding of this ilk comes from the crazy middle-aged man as he guides the both of them further down the hallway.
One of the elite ninja kneels before one of the masters that report directly to the sorceror himself, holding the saya in his hands with open palms and a bowed head. He says something in greeting within the obscure tongues of one of the many conquered realms of Earthrealm, as to try and grab his superior's attention as father and son walk past.
"Oh, thank you for finding that," says Jr. off-handedly as he snatches the saya clean out of the kneeling ninjas hands, "see, Jao?" He laughs. "Can't even trust me with it when it's in my own hands! I still lose that." He shakes his head and continues on his way. Jao only offers a cursory look back, and somewhat more of a disbelieving look to his father, before he joins him in the same gaze towards the bridge.
Behind the duo, the kneeling elite is beheaded for his failure on the spot. The execution is so swift, not a noise is made. The two would be none the wiser. This provides a peculiar issue - how can they klaim this blade from him, when the Edicts largely protect the two of them from anything more direct?
With luck, they'll lose the sword again somehow, and then it will be in Shang Tsung's grasp before long. Trust is placed upon the same incompetence and luck that got the two of them here to begin with.
If it is misplaced, at least one other person's head will roll.
SOME TIME LATER...
One harrowing journey across the pit and the horrifying living forest later - the survival of the latter of which remains a point of interest saved for some other discussion - a boy and his father are caked in sweat, grime, and who knows what else. The fine threads offered and now worn by the boy in place of his previous rags - of great luxury and immense expense unfathomable to their simple, short-lived Earthrealm human minds - are as good as ruined.
Numerous grave markers now bear the brown hills of disturbed soil, of careless disturbance, nominal (but heartfelt?) apologies, and hastier attempts yet at refilling the holes made. The graves all share but one detail in common.
Their rightful occupants all passed on April 14th, 2015. Something that a certain someone might have noticed had they taken a little more time to look at their surroundings before committing to the hiding spot for Aya's body.
Sprawled out on his back next to a blank grave marker that might be up for grabs, the younger Jao takes in labored breaths as he stares blankly into the fiery skies above. He stops short of screaming about wanting to just be back where they were.
The father, for his part, slumps uselessly over a cross-shaped tombstone whose top had since been lopped off as part of a pitched battle, draped over it face-down as he holds an old shovel in his left hand. His right, notably, is covered in bandages, minimizing how much range of motion he has with the respective wrist (which makes it that much more difficult for him to do anything with the shovel, at all). A warm, bright glow of sapphire-like color eminates from the protective bracelet on the injured wrist.
"How many more do you see inside?" Asks Jr., the senior of the two.
"Th-there's... at least thirty," Jao bemoans, "we'll never find her..."
"Ahh... I'll get an idea," and so disaster looms overhead for whenever dad gets yet another stupid thought he'll take too far. Does he ever listen to any tiny voice in his head saying otherwise?
"W-Wait!" Jao sits up, breathlessly, his spirit lifting. "I... I remember!"
"Y-Yes! Father!" Jao stands up. "When... when I was separated from you before, when I was helped--"
"Listening!" He holds up his right hand, without making eye contact.
"I... I saw statues of men on top of all the crypts!" Jao says. "She was buried near one of them! I'd... I'd know if I saw them!"
There's no mausoleums nearby that match this description.
"Oh! That's... that's, uhh," the father's voice trails off, with a few odd changes in pitch as the 'uhh' is stretched further than what seems possible for a set of human lungs to hum them for.
"Father?" Jao gets worried as no further words follow.
"That's... that's good thinking! Yep..." Rust Jr. stands up with a juicy cough. It's not much of a convincing second wind, being forced to use the shovel he's gotten his hands on as something of a crutch.
...Has he forgotten, or... well, that's between him and his son.
Jao, at least, seems far more ready to keep trying again. It's the most hopeful anyone's seen him, as he goes to try and help his father along towards wherever he believes that supposed statue must have been. The father just has a goofy, tired smile as he gently rustles Jao's scalp with his right hand.
It goes without further saying that this idea will prove just as fruitless, lest they find some magical Aya Hazuki Corpse Detector.
Maybe one is hidden in a previously inaccessible part of the island that requires the shovel to get?
In the afterlife, this is a lot different.
As his spectral form sits on the end of a pier, looking out over the rough, stormcloud-grey waves of the seemingly endless sea surrounding Shang Tsung's island, Frei can't help but think about where he ended up in the 'afterlife' back in the old world. It was the memory of a perfect day: a trip his father had taken him on as a child, to the Buddhist temple on Takeishima, an island on Lake Biwa, east of his home in Kyoto.
The sun had been shining; the city of Hikone distant in the east... or rather, where it SHOULD have been. Frei spent what felt like a timeless age in that unchanging, perpetual balmy day, sitting on the edge of the pier, alone. It had been very peaceful... a peace that, at the time, he had sorely underestimated the need for. Now?
Looking back over his shoulder, all he sees are guards: Shang Tsung's seemingly innumerable cadre of armed guards. At first Frei thought they were to keep order during the seemingly almost-ruleless Mortal Kombat tournament.
Now he's convinced they're to keep people from *leaving*.
Turning back, he looks out over the waves and sighs, placing his hands on his knees and letting feet that don't really exist kick gently through water that doesn't acknowledge the intrusion, which feels like nothing.
At least on the other pier, he felt the water and sun. Or, maybe, their memory.
Other than the waves, all is silent. Until suddenly, for no reason, Frei's entire body tenses up. He sneezes.
BACK AT THE GRAVEYARD:
Somehow, Rust Jr.'s search for the inadvisably but effectively hidden grave into which he lay the body of Aya Hazuki to rest has turned the memorial for the damned into something approximating World War 1 trench warfare zones. Dirt mounds, pieces of headstone, and everything else imaginable lie scattered about in disorganized piles. A more religious person might find this sacreligious, if said person were also a fool; a few of these graves don't look like they held LIVING beings that existed on Earth, let alone a living being that believed in anything as abstract as Earth's burial customs.
It's pretty exhausting work digging all these things up. It also requires focus, which might be why every hauling heavy of his upper torso makes certain elements on Rust's toolbelt jostle. Which... isn't particularly all the concerning. Things on toolbelts jostle all the time. Especially stuff meant to be tied to a samurai's obi, and not a Westerner's leather strap tool conveyance.
Halfway across the island, a man's ghost -- inhabiting a body with no actual respiratory system -- sneezes.
At that exact moment, to the picosecond, Aya's family blade, saya and all, tumbles off Rust's toolbelt as he leans onto the shovel to rest.
The resulting Rube Goldberg scenario, in retrospect, defies every possible law of physics AND geometry. The awkward shape of the sheathed blade sends it tipping end over end, the katana staying miraculously inside the saya, bouncing off the ground multiple times. In fact, rather than fall sideways, it actually starts to pick up speed... until the entire affair crashes into one of the more solid headstones, tilted at an angle so that when the wooden saya smacks into it, the blade is thrown free in a flash of silver.
For a glorious moment it spirals up into the air in a seemingly random direction, the world itself running in narratively-mandated slow motion.
It comes down point-first into the earth of a recently-dug grave. The headstone, dated April 14, 2015, reveals no other info.
Shivering, Frei looks around in surprise. "I'd make a joke about someone walking on my grave, but..." He shrugs. "That seems kinda in poor taste, maybe?"
The jostling proves unusual, immediately catching the eye of the tired but somewhat more upbeat boy. Tools normally do jostle and make noise as they move. This man, however strange he may be, has that odd stealthy quality to the way he carries all those tools. They should rock about, making all sorts of noise as they shake and move and scrape against one another. For him, this is usually soundless.
Subconsciously, Jao may have lived with the idea that maybe sound shouldn't come from this, for his time with his father.
As the saya pops right on out of the toolbelt and bounds along its merry away across this massive plot of melancholy memorials, that there's any sound to be made at all sees him jumping up like he heard a gunshot, and a glint of ill light finding a way to reflect off the blood-stained sheath as he shoots an arm and accusatory finger way back the way it's going.
"Eh? Find your statue? I'm sure that--" The dumb dad turns around a lot more slowly to catch sight of the bouncing sheath. It's unmistakably the one that just vacated his toolbelt.
He takes a moment to pat his back a few times, as if he himself were disbelieving of this.
"That's the sword!"
A brief chase follows. Jao, with youth on his side, outpaces his father as he chases after the rogue heirloom. His father starts to gain traction, somehow able to dash the way he does even while wering footwear intended for - and really only good at - leisure.
Jao, less familiar with the footwear he has on, starts to trip. Rather than give chase, the father reaches out with his freer right arm to catch him from tripping over himself down a shallow hill, only the barest grunt of pain for what brunt of pressure it puts on the wrist.
This lets them witness that final, improbable motion. The blade flies free, both look up, and eyeballs follow its motion... where it stabs into one of those very similarly-dated headstones, blade-first.
"Huh." They both say in unison, equally dumb-struck.
It's near one of the maloseums. It doesn't have a statue of a man seen on it, so according to Jao's observations...
"It's... it's not that one," Jao murmurs, "because--"
There goes dad, already running down to pick up the saya and to where the sword rests. Has he gotten the sign?! Dropping the shovel for a moment, he at least sees to its proper re-sheathing. Just because it's already dirtied with blood doesn't mean it should be left to rust in the open air...
"Father? It can't be this one."
"Ahh, what's one more?" Jr. says as he gently places the resheathed katana back down on soft earth, stabbing a spade into the ground with guidance from one foot while his left hand helps drive it. "If it's someone else... well, same as always, we just say 'sorry' and put the dirt back with."
"Aw, you never know! Just give dad a hand!" This is less said with angry, impatient demand and more with cautious, foolish optimism as the two take turns going at the soft earth.
"Any moment now, we see that black tarp," Jr. says as he kneels down when it's his son's turn, "I'll handle it."
"I-If it's there..."
"Well, we don't know yet that it ain't!" A tired laugh comes.
Would this be the moment of truth...?
It barely takes any time at all, really; the person who dug this grave wasn't particularly looking for a more literal interpretation of 'six feet under,' after all. Rust's plan was to eventually come back to this place, to find the body... or, if not find it, then to leave it meant to BE found. It's only a few feet of soft and/or dusty earth. And though one might question the long-term wisdom of wrapping something you want to identify in a featureless black nylon-plastic tarp rather than marking the location with something more distinctive...
Eventually, there is the sound, almost like a zipper being closed, of a metal shovel head scraping against a tarp as it takes off the layer of dirt directly below it.
Statistically, mathematically, that doesn't even seem possible. And who knows, it could be that a bunch of other people have also decided to bury someone in relatively shallow graves in this location, wrapped in a black tarp, and that indication was revealed to them by the sheer stupid luck of a sheathed blade rolling downhill until it flipped into the air and landed in the EXACT MATHEMETICAL CENTER of the grave, point-first, enough that the blade's hilt-heavy weight was supported to keep it vertical.
There is lots of wisdom from this man that people ought to be questioning. (Most of them assuredly have, over the years.)
"There! Stop." Jr. yells out as his son stops and steps back. The son seems surprised by this, unaware about the fallacies of his own logic in terms of where the body must be buried.
What if someone already knew and removed the statues to prevent them from finding it?! What if they moved the body?! All sorts of strange questions going through a young mind not yet fully mature, ready to think of any and every reason that his original idea isn't wrong...
The father, meanwhile, mostly removes some of the surrounding dirt, shallow as it is, by hand to further widen the gap in which that black tarp tells the truth to all gathered - this has to be where the body was placed. This is the borderline-anonymous drop-off point for a rotting corpse and its divine protection.
Jao, understandably, feels a sickness in his stomach upon once again being this close to a dead body. It's... culturally speaking, highly unclean. Relief eventually takes place of disbelief for this being the spot, but...
"Thanks," the father says to the son as he goes about opening the tarp. If it were just meant to house /one body/, it is unfathomably far too large for this purpose... or how he could carry such a thing at all to begin with.
It might be a trade secret of his. Maybe one day Jao will learn the secret.
Some time later, Aya's body is exhumed from within the plastic-like tomb in which she was buried. Jao visibly shakes, as though feeling an existential dread from just /being/ near the tarp. Like... a deep, primal feeling that he prays he never finds himself in there. Even the dead might have some cause to feel afraid of being trapped within the inky black.
Exhausted from the efforts of finding her, digging her up, and unfurling the massive tarp far enough to expose her back to the open air, Jao looks away from it all. A sickness rises in his throat.
"Hey, Jao," says the father, solemnly, as he gestures with his left hand, "sorry... could you get me her sword?"
The son complies, with hesitance. The beloved blade taken in his left, he kneels down before her corpse. His hands are gloved, at least - there is no direct skin contact with the dead. He doesn't flinch before the terrible stench that all dead bodies typically bear.
"Hi, Aya!" He says, as if greeting an old friend. "Ahh, sorry to bother you again. See... I said I'd keep the blade safe, eh?" He holds it up with his left hand. "Still here! Barely. Kept losing it... Shang Tsung's servants were awful kind to keep finding it for me, ahh," he nervously laughs.
"Since we hid you so well at, I got an idea... 'd hide it in! With you." He gently sets the sword down around her body, navigating the stiffness of her decaying form to allow her to gently keep hold of it. "I mean, if we almost couldn't find you, who would now?"
To be fair, a casual observer may note a pattern for which graves have been disturbed. This hiding spot is a ticking time bomb, now.
"Ahh, really, though," he says, as he takes his right hand - the one with the wrapping and the blessing of the Elder Gods in the form of the misshapen bead bracelet - and touches the magatama-shaped jewel around her neck. "Sorry for the trouble. Wish you could see some of this now! Really something."
The sapphire lights glow warmer, to a fever pitch...
WITHIN THE SHARD...
Five souls bound about within their confines. Though the shard encompasses multiple beads, it seems as though they exist in one continuous, shared space. Without features beyond existing in continued torment, they speak.
'What's going on, who are you?'
'When did you join this fool?'
'We're free from the curse of the bandit king...'
'Where are we?'
'Arr! I spend an eternity by the cursed diamond skull, and I suffer mine damnation with peace! This fool be nowhere better! I would sooner rot within the fiery bowels of the furnace that take all us brigands before I suffer another bell!'
To the words of the fifth, the spirits... swirl? Argument? Agreement? A yellow light starts to join with the blue... and whatever way the souls speak, there is mirthful laughter.
'Aye! I give mine last strength just to be free of this fool! Who be with me?!'
'You make a compelling argument.'
'Wait, what about my comrades? Surely, he will try and juggle the skull again, they will come free--'
'I can get out? Oh. Oh! This light...!'
Four of the five, their essences tinged blue to the understanding of mortal perception, rush free from the depths of the warm blue confines into the yellow light, leaping almost imperceptibly themselves beyond a blinding, startling flash that is definitely seen by the mortals in question.
TO THE REALM OF MORTALS...
"Whoa!" The shard-bearing patriarch of the Rust family draws his hand back as though he had just received a nasty static shock. The beads grow dimmer, as dim as they appeared to be when he first received it.
It flashes a few times, a livelier spark pulsing every so often. As though the very light were suddenly... frustrated. Desperate. Defeated, as it sinks back down to its regular, dimmed light level.
"Father, are you all right?!" Jao calls as he rushes down to his father's side...
...But that might not be the most eye-catching thing that happens, in all of this.
Both so long ago that it's outside human memory, and so recently that there's barely been a moment at all since it happened, a world ended.
It was a world not that much unlike ours. In it, people laughed, cried, loved, and lost. They had hopes and dreams, and they fought... sometimes in anger, sometimes in friendship. It was wild and wonderful, scary and fascinating, spinning on in an eternal and beautiful complexity. It was full of the *struggle* of life... the complex, messy, and intricate dance of existence. And with a sweep of the proverbial hand, it all ended.
And with another sweep of the hand, a new world was born.
But the idea that an entire world, an entire universe, can simply be *erased* is ludicrous. Someone, somewhere, will remember. Life itself has a sort of power, a kind of inertia. The world-that-was ended at the hands of someone who wished to rewrite all of creation, to undo hurts he had faced. But the world-that-is came about because of the actions of those who knew that the struggle, the FIGHT... it can never really be erased. People who knew that life is a battle; not a competition, but a fight against a world that is de facto uncaring. That to live is a fight to imprint yourself upon the universe, indelibly.
If there is such a being as a perfect 'God', Frei Renard had reasoned, then their existence must be as someone who sees, and remembers, every such struggle.
A ghost, or shade, or perhaps merely the spirit-formed memory of what he once was... whatever its nature, Frei is looking out over the sea, contemplating, when he suddenly vanishes.
With Earth's very existence on the line, those powerful entities which stand in defense of the world sought out souls with the right quality needed to defend it. But that quality need not be something so nebulous as 'power'. It might be the gentle heart of a loving son, worried about his father. It might be the ambitious soul of a woman determined to create a world free of the suffering her people have endured. It might be the weary soul of an ancient guardian, more suited to guide than to slay in Earth's name. It looked for souls that represent, for good or for ill, the one thing that Outworld has never historically been able to bring to the divine ritual of Mortal Kombat:
That was how Aya Hazuki's body found itself here, on this island. Because it was the host to a soul that met the criteria, even if that soul wasn't technically hers. By her actions, and even her death, she proved that perhaps her own spirit was just as equal to the task.
In the Warrior Shrine, the statue of 'The Atavist' crumbles to dust, leaving only the stone base upon which it stood.
Four wayward souls, rushing free into whatever awaits them, look briefly in understandable confusion at what flies past them, heading the other direction, falling fast, like a rogue comet, rushing into some dark sea head-first.
As the shard's tithe of souls fly free into oblivion, their opposite number opens its eyes and plunges into a dark sea.
The air before Rust and Jao ripples briefly, before a wind blows through; unlike perhaps all the weather one might encounter on Shang Tsung's island, it is gentle, like the fresh breeze on your face during the first real day of spring, the one when it's finally pleasant enough to go outside, shaking off the deathly silence of winter.
Out of seemingly nowhere, that wind brings with it a flurry of lotus petals that swirl about, obscuring vision; when they pass, kneeling on the ground on the opposite side of Aya's grave from them both, is a man. Average build, dressed in a Chinese-style shirt and jeans, his short and messy red hair hanging in front of his eyes.
He slowly straightens, looking down at his hands as if they were new things he had never seen before. And perhaps, most confusingly, his expression is not relief or happiness.
He is horrified.
Awe-struck by a display of otherworldly beauty - a miracle - father and son both rise up and find themselves compelled to give space. The fresh wind rustles their clothes, a peaceful, comforting breeze that puts away the putrid air and fetid moisture that abounds this abhorrent gateway to a simultaneously greater - and lesser - realm.
A few lotus petal shards literally get in the father's eyes. There's a surprised grunt that kills the serenity of the moment, but it also puts the onus of understanding what just transpired onto the boy.
He is not up to the task.
"Wh-who are you?" Asks the boy, startled, taking a few steps back behind his father who has just got done sweeping petals away from their face.
"Who's what where when?" Jr.'s gaze, comically, sweeps around to either side... and behind... before he even thinks of looking back forward to the young man that now stands. "I don't see anyone els--"
Beat. He lowers both hands.
"Hey... you're the one from the place with the statues."
"Who?" The boy asks. "Y-You never mentioned..."
The father raises his right arm up over Jao in brief, pointer finger raised up about as far as it can go within the bandaging, before lowering it down.
Was he about to say something? It doesn't come.
There is nothing quite like having a physical body for really driving home the unassailable reality of a situation. Which might account for why, even as Rust and Jao try to work out exactly what's going on (and in one instance literally address this new and unexpected arrival) he doesn't actually respond at all. In fact, he continues to look stupidly at his empty, palm-up hands for a considerable period of time. Having hands is really not so confusing as to merit the sort of intense examination he appears to be giving them. And if that wasn't confusing enough, after a few moments of tense and anguished silence, he suddenly pitches forward, bursting into tears. Great big wracking sobs. *Grieving* sobs, if either of the people watching this go down have experience with what that sounds like (and they probably do).
Beneath all three parties, still slumbering under the tarp, still lies the lifeless body of Aya Hazuki. Apparently, whatever rules govern these soul shards seem a little flexible in the case of Aya and Frei... though the somewhat uncontrolled way that Rust's payment of the "two copper coins" required to pull this person from the not-exactly-an-underworld may also be involved.
As quickly as they came, the grief sobs come to an abrupt halt. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," the red-haired man says hoarsely, looking down into the grave. "I was... I'd prepared myself to pay the price, you know? Not..." He trails off. It's not even clear that he's talking TO anyone at this point. Apparently, whatever thoughts were in his head just needed to get out.
As he falls silent, Frei pushes himself to his feet, wiping a hand across his eyes and nose, trying very clearly and undisguisedly to force some control over his person... which is not a bad idea, given the situation. It's only once he's done this that he turns and looks, blinking in obvious surprise to see one unfamiliar face and one... well, familiar. In a way.
In considerable contrast to the last few moments, when Frei sees Rust, he actually lets out one of those shocked-sounding, bark-like laugh-sob combinations that the grieving are wont to give. "How did I know," he says, "that it would be you?"
For the time it takes for the mysterious new arrival to work out their feelings, the others among the living keeping a respectable distance for whatever reason it occurs to them - be it the empathy and humanity that has defined a good number of Earthrealm's champions, or whatever other culmination of stimulus and experience has dictated their individual, unmoving positions.
It is sort of odd to have a moment where at least one of the people present here is restraining themselves from babbling incoherently as they are prone to.
Jao is the first one to say or do much of anything, continuing to shrink behind their father out of uncertainty and fear. For his unassuming appearance, Frei's sudden arrival, his burst of emotions... they are overwhelming to bear witness to. Confusion, met with such extremes of feeling - of being - are rarely a steady place to build bridges to understanding.
With Aya's lifeless remains resting between them, the obscurity in what meaning there is for Frei's words, and now a middle-aged man with a strange taste in hairstyles being put on the spot to... say something? Comprehend concepts? Share sadness?
Jao looks up a bit, as though hoping there's some explanation for all this, some idea of what the hell's even going on!
"What'd I do?" Jr. asks, as though confused. "My son and I went looking for where we hid Aya over! It was, uh... an effort... yep..."
He clears his troat. "Wouldn't believe how we found it! Wanted to give her back her sword, 'cause I kept losing it... so, uh, I talk to her for a bit," he gestures with his right hand.
Those dim beads. The close proximity in which that hand and the magatama would've been...
"Reach down, hold her magatama," it may be impressive that he has remembered what the terms is and what it looks like, "make sure she could hear me, then... uh..."
He kneels down and attempts to repeat this same feat once again, gloved-and-bandaged hand going for around her neck, but...
Is her soul shard even still there...?
Oh yes. Said gold, comma-shaped gem indeed remains right where Rust left it, around the woman's neck. Even as he goes to look for it, his explanation makes Frei's eyes -- which had at that point been turned curiously on Jao, the relative stranger in the mix -- follow Rust's movement, looking down at Aya's body as well. 'What did I do?!' An almost plaintive quality, there; looking for an explanation just as much as Frei himself is, right now. A sentence lines itself up in Frei's consciousness, ready to be spoken: 'You're a Rust, alright.'
Wisely, he keeps this thought to himself.
So this was... an accident? Clearly, Rust didn't MEAN to do anything more than reunite the woman with her ancestral blade. But he did everything Frei asked of him. He put Aya somewhere safe, or as safe as anywhere can be on this island, to rest and wait. He kept the sword safe, the weapon's now slightly unkempt but otherwise unblemished form lying on the ground nearby, Frei's green-eyed gaze darting to it briefly. He was just trying to keep a promise. And in the end he apparently did... SOMETHING... that precipitated the return of a soul to a body. A body that actually didn't exist.
"Hey," he says to Rust, suddenly, his voice sounding vaguely... distant, as though Frei were standing much farther away than he actually is. "I'm going to play a hunch. Something weird might happen, as a head's up."
He pauses. "Something weirder than the accidental resurrection of a time-lost stranger," Frei adds, as an afterthought.
He holds out a hand, palm up, and closes his eyes in concentration.
In a flicker of gold, the gem around Aya's neck vanishes, then reappears in Frei's outstretched hand, hovering gently just a fraction of an inch off his actual palm, the black cord dangling off into space.
This should, technically speaking, not be possible.
Frei opens his eyes, giving the magatama he's holding an expression of distracted curiosity. "...huh."
Even with the warning, the ninja(?) handyman seems to be startled as he watches the magatama disappear from Aya's neck - her entire necklace, in fact - disappears and reappears in Frei's hand. In the space just above Frei's hand. Legally speaking, that still counts as in his hand.
Jao, simultaneously, gasps, exposing his own shard again. Very similar in shape to his father's own, in a similar golden hue compared to the father's sapphire. These two are connected, in some way... going by the shape of the shards alone.
"Father," Jao speaks up at last. This may be of curiosity to Frei, as the two do not look alike enough to be thought as related by blood, but the word is spoken with sincerity (and also discomfort), "who is this?"
It might be telling that the fool between them, who seems happy to rattle off the first thought he has in his head, takes a disconcerting amount of time to even do so as he takes a step back towards his (adopted?) son as if to provide some form of solidarity in the whole ordeal.
"A big fan of Cleo from 5 to 7," he explains in a more sedate tone of voice, nodding once as his lips purse together a little tighter, "knew my own dad, too! From before he had a family."
"H-He doesn't look that old," Jao notes the emperor's lack of clothing.
The father looks back down to Aya's corpse, as if expecting the magatama necklace to reappear there within seconds, owing to his own previous brilliant attempts to keep Aya's anchor to the world safe.
...Her former anchor to the world.
"It's a French movie," Frei says distractedly, still looking at the magatama, which stays pretty firmly anchored right where it is rather than snapping back to where it was. "Agnes Varda, Left Bank. Great use of sound." What is even the point of saying any of this to Jao, who -- were he really thinking about the situation -- Frei would almost certainly know is not going to internalize any of this, especially when there's a small but non-zero chance that instead of filmmaking, Agnes Varda's place in French history in this timeline was to make really excellent croissants in a bakery somewhere.
His shock is not unwarranted. He saw what happened when Rust tried to take Aya's soul shard from her body -- her DEAD body -- before: it snapped right back to where it 'belonged'. And yet, a rather longer amount of time has passed here and the shard remains in his possession. Expression still a weird mixture of contemplation and confusion, he takes the thing firmly in hand and ties the cord around his neck, slipping the gem under his shirt, where the soul shard feels unaccountably warm against his chest.
A good sign.
It's only after all of this is done that he turns to Rust and Jao and, wiping his eyes a final time, seems to actually become a PERSON rather than some distant, unreadable landmark, like a floral clock, shifting abstractly through hard-to-read expressions as the sun moves through the stages of the day.
If Jao thought Frei didn't look 'that old' merely from his physical appearance, his demeanor probably doesn't help; as he turns to face the Swiss Family Rust-enson, Frei laces his hands behind his back, making an arc with his arms and pushing it downward toward the ground, stretching. "Looks can be deceiving, you know," he says with a smile. "What would you say if I told you I'm technically immortal?" One of his dark auburn eyebrows raises in a playful challenge, implying that statement is a joke... but when they talked, Frei really DID suggest he knew Rust's father... or in fact, potentially someone even OLDER.
He steps forward a bit, just enough so that he can extend his hand for Jao to shake it, if he wants, but not so close that he's invading the boy's personal space, considering that the nervous energy is palpable even from this distance. "My name's Frei. I was, uh..." He pauses, trying to think of how to phrase this in a way a teen will understand, when even he himself doesn't. "Aya and I are related." Well, that's enough of the truth to not be a lie, but not so much that things get complicated.
He then turns to Rust, whether he gets the handshake or not. "I'm sorry that I kinda freaked out right at the beginning there. I didn't think..." He pauses, looking frustrated, clearly struggling to find the words. "It should have been her that came back, not me. But you did what you could to help her, AND me, and for that you have my thanks, Ru--"
A pause, a sudden stop, one too noticable to hide, but the red-haired man powers through it. "Do you mind if I call you 'Howard'? I know it's a little personal for two people who don't know each other, but..."
It seems odd to put so much emphasis on someone's favorite movie as an introductory statement, isn't it? That was one of the very first things the odd man had asked of the young man whose existence transcends time and space itself. Here they are again, rattling off little trivia about the film in question.
"I-Immortal?!" Jao seems incredulous about the claim. His father, noticeably less. Just, the very idea of a permanent existence - something just about every living being might pine for when scared by the thought of eternal oblivion, but to see and witness it in a world that one may believe does not exist... he grows ever more nervous of his company.
As Jao is approached for a handshake... he puts his hands together as though in prayer and very quickly bows his head. He seems too hesitant to move forward to go through with the traditional western greeting, but there's a bit of side-eye coming from dad. It's hard to tell where any of this fits on the scale of approval and whether it needs 'dis' affixed to it.
"Ahh, don't worry about it," the father waves a hand in the air nonchalantly, "Jao's been through a lot." Well, so has one Howard Rust, Jr. here in regards to this entire tournament, and he on average seems to be in very high spirits! Like Frei, there's an element of him that feels like it doesn't... belong. He hasn't been as emotionally worn down as most of the others summoned. Is it security in his survival, with the hue of his blessing? (Then again, his son is not protected... that would be a stressor for any truly concerned parent, but...)
"Howard's fine! Rust's fine! Junior's okay." Does that mean he likes 'Junior' more or less than the others? He reaches out with his left hand - which is going to be awkward if Frei's right hand is the one extended - to take it in a nice, firm shake in place of his son's own hand. He gives Frei a good look, eye to eye.
He seems pleasant enough. He has those same strangely nondescript eyes his own father does. (Well, his dad had that spark in them in times of duress, at least.)
"Bunch of other names you could call me, too. But, uh. Not in front of any of the kids." He laughs, to whatever end that implies, as he releases his hold of Frei's hand. "So, uh... what're you up to now? How much have you seen? Got plenty of great sights in."
He looks past Frei's shoulder. Is there something he's seeing? If Frei ends up following his gaze, he might find a tombstone that has the death date of 'April 1st, 1995' on it.
Jr.'s left hand then goes up to his chin.
The formation of an idea.
A dangerous thing that Frei may have to look out for, now that he's back in the flesh and blood.
Deftly sliding through the vagaries of an awkward social situation, as soon as it appears that Jao is not in handshake mode, Frei transitions smoothly to balling one hand into a fist, pressing it into his opposing open-palmed hand, and sketching a bow at the waist; a gesture connected with the martial arts schools of China more than anywhere it looks like this person would have studied. This means that when Rust makes a move to shake his head, Frei is able to easily disentangle himself from the awkwardness of the Jao greeting to indulge that handshake. It's... well, Frei is not a vigorous deathgrip handshaker, but it's hardly timid. Surprising the confidence a sense of inner peace can give you.
"Howard it is, then." Too much time spent with Zach Glenn lately... or perhaps more accurately, with 'Zach' and 'Glen', who he's come to understand as two very distinct entities indeed. Every moment he spent with this world's 'Zach' drove that home, and for his own part, Frei decided here and now to make this a reminder for himself about everyone: these are their own people, not the ones he new. This is a new story, a new place. Sometimes memories of the past can be a source of strength, but... sometimes they're a shackle.
Unable to resist the joke, however, he lowers his voice. "I promise not to call you anything embarassing in front of your son, honey."
Letting go of Rust's hand, Frei reaches into his shirt and pulls out the magatama. "I actually have two things to thank you for. One is obviously my life, since I didn't exactly know what was going to happen to someone in my, er..." Here he looks back at Jao, then smiles sheepishly at Rust, "...situation, once this was all over. But the other..."
He stares into the citrine depths of the magatama's smooth, clear surface. "I won't leave Aya here to rot. And I think... you've shown me I CAN bring her back, somehow." He looks up. "I think she and I are both tethered to this thing. That must be why whatever you did brought me back and not her. But I think that means if I can replicate that without dying myself, I can save her."
Unspoken: I NEED to save her. Unspoken... but written all over his face.
"Err!" The father seems taken aback by the playful 'honey.' "That's... that's n-- ahh, forget it." Yes, perhaps there are more urgent things to discuss within this awful hellscape where the chances of Earthrealm to come ahead grow ever, ever thinner a margin.
Jao seems nonplussed. He either doesn't know what his father's been talking about, or is just as curious as to what those names are. Who knows?
Allowing Frei to give his thanks in relative peace, his eyes light up a little more at the idea of going to help out Aya again. It's kind of a marked change, actually. For the most part it's been hard to get significant changes in demeanor up or down in any direction from him, outside of a few curious blips on the radar.
He smiles a little wider, and nods, giving a thumbs up.
"All right! We'll find a way, yep." Frei might be grateful for his assistance thus far, but there's always sort of that feeling about the way this guy carries himself. Something... troublesome. Maybe even dangerous, if not in the typical ways one would earn the descriptor. "So, uhh... if that's the case, we gotta hide her again until we can, and... I was thinking..."
"Do we put her back in, father?" Jao says, not looking the corpse straight-on. Even surrounded by death and destruction, he's not desensitized to what it means to see a truly dead body. For however long these two have avoided death or worse, that's a feat unto itself.
"Ahh, actually, I was thinking... Frei, how 'bout by that one over there?" He points. "Easy to remember date on it, eh? Could find it later about. No problems, this time!"
...There are also numerous other tombstones out there with that exact same date on it. April 1st, 1995. Maybe some other smaller scale kombat happened then.
That said, so far, his idea to hide her /here/ worked...
He is not a cruel man, not by any sort of reasonable reckoning. But Frei would be lying if he said he didn't get a *tiny* bit of amusement out of the sudden flustered look on poor Rust's face. He does his best to hide it, however. Clearing his throat, he hides his smile behind his hand... but he is not entirely prepared for the enthusiasm that Rust shows for continuing to save Aya. In truth, he finds himself constantly comparing Howard to the man he knew as 'Rust', and... to say that the old world's Rust was not exactly prone to bright-eyed enthusiasm would be a fair statement (then again: all those paper cranes, _yikes_).
Still, for a second or two, Frei looks troubled... not by Rust's desire to help, but by how easy it is for him to slip into a mindset of comparison, of wishing things to be 'as they were' in a subtle way. His path has always been acceptance: what's here and now is what it is. To judge Rust, or Zach, or -- despite everything 'Glen' had to say about her -- Honoka by old standards is, well... living in the past.
What Frei largely did in the immediate past is die, so let's say he's not in a hurry to go back there anyway.
He turns and regards the graves that Rust points out, putting a hand to his chin. His head tilts slowly to the side by about 40 degrees once he processes that a LOT of these graves have really similar dates, one of which is April Fool's Day, a fact he is trying to put out of his mind. Yet at the same time... "You know, you might be on to something."
He pauses, bringing his hands together, and then closes his eyes, exhaling a breath. For a moment, Frei is the picture of stillness... and then he suddenly bursts into movement. Hands balled into fists, he takes a heavy step forward, thrusting one hand out. On cue, the ground at the indicated headstone suddenly... well, rises up. It's not a perfect rectangle, but it's surprisingly close, the block of earth floating there curiously before a second step and arm motion sees it tossed aside toward the other messy, unearthed graves.
Turning to Rust, he coughs again, before ducking down toward the ground on the balls of his feet and picking up a rough stone, holding it in his hand. "Do you speak much Japanese?" he asks, conversationally. He holds his hands in front of him, the stone suspended in the space between his palms, miraculously (well, it's not really a miracle, but Rust and Jao may perceive it to be so) not falling.
As he talks, the redhead makes slow, circular motions with his hands around the stone. Bits of it flow and chip off as he reshapes it into... well, something. Sculpture takes time. "Aya's family name, 'Hazuki'... it's the characters for 'leaf' and 'moon'. Basically it's an old word for August, when the leaves start falling from the trees. So..." He finishes with one last gesture, and lets the stone fall into the palm of his hand; it's a very rough shape, since the man's a scholar and not a sculptor, but it's easily recognizable as an autumn leaf. He holds it up for inspection, and by proxy the idea attached to it. "We attach this to the grave somehow, and we'll know which one of the, uh... kind of a lot of graves with the same date is specifically hers."
To watch the power of the elemental sage is worthy of song, or maybe even just 'I want to record this thing happening on a cellphone and post it all over social media!'
Jao has gone to hide himself behind another headstone out of reflex and instinct. Something that the father, here, picks up on about two or three seconds too late. He gently signals to Jao to come back out.
Jao doesn't come back out. This leaves the father half-attentive when Frei asks him an idea to a useful alternative...
"Eh? Japanese? Some, yep." Is that 'I can hold a conversation' Japanese? 'Read some of the newspaper' Japanese? "Mostly what's on cereal boxes."
...For purposes of ability to use it in ordinary contexts, let's say 'no,' and hope that the narrative is not shown up later by him saving Earthrealm via correctly knowing how much fiber is in a serving of some popular Japanese cereal. (Please, no.)
He keeps trying to beckon Jao back over as Frei discusses the meaning behind Aya's name, a way to intelligently put down a marker as to best indicate where her body currently hides. A brilliant, subtle mark that most will not pick up on in the search for her body...
"Yep! I see it. Great idea!" He says, half-distracted, as Jao eventually peeks back out from beyond the headstone. For ultimate proof of just how little he might be comprehending the skills of the man before him - a young man of extraordinary grasp of earth, air, water, fire, and hopefully not things like helium or uranium or neon...
He digs out a chisel from his toolbelt with his left hand, with alarming readiness. How does anyone find any tools in that belt, anyway? There's /so many/.
"So, you need me to start making a space for this, buddy?" He says, looking ever-ready to help! "Shouldn't take more than an hour to put that around..."
This is a man that really wants to feel useful, is the only thing Frei can think of when the chisel makes an appearance. On the one hand, letting him take an hour to do this would be, among a number of other things, a colossal waste of time. But on the other hand... needing to feel useful is maybe one of the most important things to many people. It was certainly a thing he noticed about Ru--
For reasons that must seem utterly inexplicable to both Rust Jr. and Jao, Frei suddenly closes his eyes and takes a long, slow breath in and out. "This," he says aloud, heedless of who hears it or how crazy the non-sequitur is going to make him sound, "is going to be a continual effort, isn't it."
And yet, without hesitation, he hands the freshly-carved stone leaf to Rust. "I'll leave it in your capable hands. I think, ah... I'd like to move the body myself, in the meantime."
He just offered to heave a corpse from one grave to another so you don't have to, kids. This sort of offer doesn't happen every day.
How does he even intend to hammer that chisel, anyway? One of his wrists is not in the best shape for holding onto things, striking things with them... taking the stone by some means regardless, he seems ready to set off to work on affixing it when Frei brings up the idea of moving the body.
"Do you?" Well, Frei did just say that, didn't he? Does he have a meaningful objection to that beyond asking the question? He looks over to the fallen corpse of Aya Hazuki, in her lifeless peacefulness. On what grounds would he have any say about her well-being? Would he ever deny someone who had been with her in spirit for as long as he has, in matters of her respectful relocation...? It's not exactly something one would ask permission for - they're Frei's cousin (of sorts). He's mostly a stranger to her, outside of one strange encounter in Southtown.
"You bet." He says, with a lower tone of voice than the one he's been speaking for most of the conversation. Maybe he's starting to feel a bit winded again from all the misadventure that has led up to this point. "I'll get to work! You can count on me."
...Frei might get the idea that maybe, just maybe, counting on Rust Jr. is truly a sometimes thing...
Jao, for his part, sneaks back out from behind the headstone he's been hiding, wordlessly jogging back over to his father without looking Frei in the eye.
"Not... exactly," Frei says honestly. Do you want to move a dead body -- one you inhabited for a few years, even if mostly silently and under the surface -- that's currently wrapped in a black tarp from one grave to another with your bare freakin' hands so someone can take an hour to mount a stone leaf on a headstone in service of you finding the body again before the end of all creation? No, in fact, he super doesn't.
But he feels the need to do it, and thus adds: "But 'want to' isn't always the part of your heart you should listen to."
Even as he moves to the grave to pick up Aya -- she was surprisingly heavy for her frame, he's realizing -- Frei tries to give Jao a reassuring look and sees only a very scared child in response. This still gets a gentle smile from the redhead anyway, before he sets about his grim task, but as he's actually moving the body, Frei thinks carefully about the implications of Jao being here. He's clearly Rust's son, even if it's not likely by birth. But this is Mortal Kombat. Not even Rust, who seems... sufficiently together but also sort of, you know, scattered... would willingly bring his child here. And *that's* when he notices it: the soul shard. Too wrapped up in his own business before, Frei almost drops Aya's body (and is clearly looking at Jao) when he notices; he doesn't drop her, but he does stumble a bit in his steps.
The expression on his face, as he gingerly lays the body of Aya Hazuki into its new home, is pretty grim, especially since -- as the owner of a yellow shard himself, as it were -- he knows exactly what that means: Jao's life is in danger at every moment he's on the island... and if that boy has any way to defend himself it's so deeply hidden that even Frei can't perceive it, which is pretty freakin' deep.
The green eyes swivel to Rust for a moment, even as Frei's hands come up, making more of those tai chi-like circular movements with his arms; the recently-cleared earth starts to fill in the space where it was just emptied once more. If Frei ever gives up his current career, he should look into landscaping.
Rust, Frei can sense, can handle himself. He's a somewhat off-kilter but understandable choice to defend Earthrealm. But why his lanky, anxiety-ridden kid?
Something's... not... right.
With a final sweep, the grave is filled in and smoothed over, its relatively newness barely noticable. "I, uh... thank you, again, Howard. For everything. And if you need my help," he adds, eyes going directly to Jao, "you only need to ask."
"I get you there," comes the father's reply after yet another poignant pause. There's been a number of them, for the rapid-fire liquid idiocy that can drip freely from the Canadian workman-ninja's maw, as he goes about preparing to create the perfect imprint to put the leaf in. Mercifully, he removes himself from Frei's immediate focus - and also obscuring however it is he intends to make the chisel work without holding a hammer or something.
When things fall upon Jao, those eyes look back to Frei.
Jao's eyes are frightened. Is it anything Frei does? Is it anything about what Frei is? Maybe, after the little moment of happiness and triumph to whatever end, the dread of the island has properly seeped back unto him.
Frei might pick up that there is yet a deeper horror in play. Just, the way he carries himself. It could be that his very father is the one tether here that has emotionally kept him together. It could be a boon, in its own way, that his father will not die before he does on this island. In some sick and twisted fashion.
There are, indeed, no hints to any hidden fighting talents. Nothing about the way he walks, or moves, or talks, or does anything suggests a comfort or ability to enact or engage in violence...
"You got it!" Comes a can-do voice that seems to just shatter the melancholy contemplation that might pass between both, Jao breaking eye contact to look back to his father. They have work to do! (Work to do because Frei is polite about letting them do it.)
Meanwhile, back at the palace... the return of one of the Earthrealm warriors to life - a spiritual presence thought as good as extinguished with the fall of their host - throws a further kink into proceedings. Maybe just a minor inconvenience, at best, but one that will continue to be an annoying itch.
For too long, that idiot and his son have eluded the... proper weeding out. The farce is to end now... and soon, both the true summoned kombatant and his self-appointed guardian will face their next challenge.
Log created on 21:45:53 11/04/2016 by Frei, and last modified on 22:52:01 11/05/2016.