Description: "Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"
Let's say you've been summoned to a remote island in the middle of nowhere. That island is situated on the dimensional border between the human world, and a hostile, alien world that seeks to conquer it. It's a place that's both familiar, and monstrously strange at the same time... and once you're there, you aren't going to leave. Not, at the least, while Mortal Kombat -- the tournament which decides the fate of the human world -- is underway. Now let's say that the sorcerer-king who 'hosts' the tournament -- a duplicitous, power-hungry, cunning man -- has decided that he either wants to 1.) talk to you or 2.) have you killed, and sends eight masked mooks to make that a reality.
Now let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're in a very vulnerable emotional place when those mooks find you and the sudden need to fight them off is only a temporary reprieve from dealing with that emotional state. More to the point, staying in an open wasteland with little cover where more servants can come and try to find you for a second go-round doesn't seem particularly smart either.
Luckily for you, there's a nearby dense, dark forest where you can sit down and think this out.
Absolutely nothing bad could happen.
This hypothetical situation is, for Frei, not particularly hypothetical anymore since all of this, from top to bottom, has literally happened to him so far. When he first walked through these woods, his mind was so intensely elsewhere that it didn't register. Now, with his running nose, eyes red from crying, and body aching from a sudden absence of adrenaline, the enormity of the situation hits him. All of Shang Tsung's island is 'wrong,' but this forest is a whole new level of 'wrong' to his senses. The disturbed flow of life through this place isn't just off-kilter, it's the spiritual equivalent of a heavy metal concert.
Which presents a bit of a problem, as the red-haired wanderer finds a large rock near the path and has a seat on it, pushing his hands through his hair and letting his unfocused gaze fix on the path. He's trying to figure out not just what to DO next, but what to FEEL next, which is especially hard with the background 'noise' of the forest's tainted flow pounding in his head, like the dull, bass thump of his own heartbeat.
If that weren't the case, he might notice the subtle movement of vines near him, the slithering crawl of them sussurating through the undergrowth. As it is, trying to 'hear' (or, more accurately, sense) that is like trying to identify a single electric guitar in a death metal song.
Frustration. It appeared that Kenshi somehow got it into his head that the Dahlia would be an ideal choice to carry his sword into battle. But the sword-toting visitor seemed hellbent on badgering the Ainu woman with a condescending holier-than-thou attitude. Coming from anyone else, the attitude would be intolerable enough, but delivered by a Japanese man, the Dahlia's tolerance of the complete stranger was at a record low. Why did he even bother booking the meeting, if he was just going to sling barbs at her?
The only worse outcome would be if Daniel Little had sent him.
The Ainu woman has had some time to wrap up loose ends since then, but the frustration is still foremost in her mind. After counseling with the seven warriors from the eighth Mortal Kombat -- resuscitated shortly after their battle with Nakoruru -- she deigned to set out for the Living Forest.
Not for fresh air, but foul. The agile Dahlia knows that the field of possible competitors was narrowing -- and the chances of her being placed against a being of indomitable power were rising exponentially. She would need to master the use of her kindred spirits, quickly.
Unlike the other times in which she had visited the fel forest, the tusukur feels relatively at home. As much as a 'home' filled with murderous spirits, deadly fauna, and even deadlier flora can be. The seven spectral soldiers, garbed in Ainu armor from two centuries prior, are made visible to the naked eye -- gleaming in translucent blue, their forms outlined in golden threads. For the majority of their voyage through the barely navigable path, they had remained at rest. But on the occasions that danger presented itself, a raised hand from the spectral general was treated as a marching order -- two of the soldiers would rush towards the threat, and with a flashing arc of golden light, the threat would be dispatched, dismembered, or destroyed as appropriate.
The red-haired man, though, was different. The hue may be slightly different from that of her scarlet cheongsam, but the appearance of brilliant red in the midst of sickly green is a welcome sight indeed. She raises a hand to him in greeting -- though it might be easy to miss for someone not exactly looking her way.
A moment later, though, the psion takes note of a presence moving about. Well-acclimated to the fel presences in the forest, she is able to notice the slithering vines. Eyes narrow as she understands the intention.
Fingers extend like knifepoints as she indicates the target.
With barely a moment's hesitation, two Ainu soldiers streak forward, their spectral swords cleaving a path through the offending vines.
The Dahlia strides forward through the cleared path, her hand retracting to sift through the raven locks covering her right eye.
"You should know," she begins with the hint of a smirk, "that there are better places to 'get away from it all.'"
If there is any recognition, she does not show it -- she has spent more time near this forest than near any particular person on the island, after all.
For a moment, the soul of an Ainu soldier, given cerulean form, streaks past Frei... just close enough so that movement, sound, the other things that trip survival instincts regardless of how deep one's forebrain is at work, make him turn. Time slows to a crawl as the pupils of his green eyes widen, taking in the form before him. He recognizes it in an instant; how could one forget? The blade cuts a glistening path through the air and dumbfounded, all Frei can do is stare in mute shock.
In his mind's eye, the sword belongs to someone else, and this warrior -- among others -- closes ranks around it, shielding their chosen master.
In the blink of an eye, it's over, and for a moment all Frei can do is trace the origin of the vines with his gaze, seeing them twitch faintly and then lie still once they've been severed. This, at least, accounts for why, when the Dahlia speaks to him, he isn't actually looking at her at first. But eventually his head slowly turns toward her, genuine shock giving way to its less intense cousin, mere surprise. But he IS surprised; one needn't be psychic to know this. Surprised, and... agitated.
What is he supposed to SAY in this situation, exactly?
The silence this indecision causes is long and awkward, but eventually, Frei seems to come to his senses, the somewhat glassy look disappearing from his gaze. He gives a rueful, embarassed smile. "Yeah, so I'm finding out when it comes to this island," he says. "Thank you."
The cerulean soldiers retake their positions in a ring around their Ainu general -- seven points of an octagon, with the forward eighth point left vacant. The golden eyes of those soldiers in front stare back at Frei, their mouths wordless and silent. If someone were to make a rash move towards the Dahlia, one can rest assured that the men would be able to intercept it. But now... they follow the lead of their matriarch.
One single eyebrow arches as she studies the man before her. In some ways he seems... familiar? But in others, he does not.
Indecision is not a state in which the Dahlia likes to linger.
"You are quite welcome. It pleases me to find a friendly face here -- even one I cannot place to a name on the tournament roster."
The raven-tressed woman bows her head, presenting her best attempt at a curtsy to the red-maned Frei.
"You may call me Dahlia. It is a pleasure to meet you."
She hesitates for a moment, picking up on the mild agitation.
She glances aside, her smirk transitioning into a warmer and more sincere smile. "Though if you would rather be left alone, believe me, that is a sentiment I can appreciate and accept."
There's that name, the one she gave Aya... one more brief, painful reminder in what feels like days' worth of them. But this time, there is no gape-maw'd shock, no awkward silence; instead, the redhead tilts his head to the side a bit, giving a wan smile. "A flower associated with strong bonds," he says carefully, finding it impossible NOT to turn and give a brief glance at the glittering blue honor guard flanking the tusukur but not lingering on it for long. "It's nice to see a friendly face. My name is, ah..." He pauses, not actually entirely prepared for this situation. What name should he give her?
He feels his actual name line itself up on his tongue to be said and, in an instant, realizes the answer he needs to give. "It's Rei," he says, finishing the sentence after what is ideally not TOO suspicious a pause. He sketches the faintest of bows, but it's a distinctive bow: closed fist in open palm, bending at the waist... the sort of bow used in traditional Chinese martial arts schools. It's incongruous given his appearance, and it would be easy to think he meant to say his name is 'Ray,' as in short for Raymond... or would, had he not nailed the difference between 'Ray' and 'Rei,' with that just-noticable second vowel sound, the 'e' and 'i' of 'Rei' being distinct.
A spirit. Why not?
At the suggestion that he might be pleased to be left alone, however, the redhaired man becomes quite animated. "No! No, please," he says, jumping to his feet. "You're not interrupting anyth--"
And then he cuts off, mid-sentence, whirling. It is not a motion that is likely to put the Dahlia or her guards at ease, but he is quite clearly facing AWAY from them at the end of the movement. In fact, what he's facing is another vine, one that had been hiding behind the rock he was sitting on... and which was about to spear through the air at him.
Emphasis: 'was.' With considerably more confidence and self-possession than he showed at Honoka's arrival, Frei makes a pair of swirling, spiral-like gestures with both hands, staring at the vine. Before it can get much farther than the rock, the errant fell plant suddenly stops, seemingly held suspended by the ongoing motions the man is making. Suspended, and then retreating, slowly, with each whorl and turn of Frei's hands. "That's enough of that, thanks," he bites out, his terseness and a bead or two of sweat on his forehead the only outward sign of the effort he's expending.
"Yes," she agrees -- strong bonds, indeed. The woman is reminded that other people place differing levels of significance upon the name -- some see it is as pleasing, whereas others seek to ascribe a deeper meaning than its original intent. But that is one of the inherent curiosities of human nature that intrigue the psion so.
It's... Rei, he says. Names are not supposed to be difficult to offer, though the momentary panic and confusion can easily be attributed to the situation more than to the insecurity of offering a two-mora name. The term itself holds some significance considering the seven spirits -- 'rei' -- arrayed beside her.
While the pause gives her some food for thought, she could feast for hours upon the reaction 'Rei' gives to the encroaching vines. To not only recognize their advance -- which he seemed incapable of mere moments prior -- but to react in such a fashion as to hold them at bay without even touching them.
Moreover, the only response she receives of such treatment is the stunned response of the living vines -- the effect, rather than the cause.
If 'Rei' means 'spirit', then she is not entirely sure what to make of that.
"The forest feeds upon fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The ability to strike back and the will to actually do so are a potent balm against the noxious nature of this place."
The words spill out, unfettered -- and the Dahlia actually bows her head at that. "Forgive me. I am sure you knew that already. It is... it -has- been a long day.
Curiosity finally gets the better of her.
"... If you don't mind my asking, is that 'rei' as in 'zero', or 'rei' as in 'spirit?'"
An attempt to lighten the mood.
There is -something- she cannot shake about the man, though. Something...
"... You feel familiar for some reason, though there is... no way I would have forgotten your face."
Her eyebrow arches in mild confusion -- as she expects she need not say any further words.
As the Dahlia speaks, the redhead's concentration remains largely on his unseen battle with the vine. Well... perhaps 'battle' is overblown; as long as the man's hands continue moving in their slow, interweaving, spiralling pattern -- as if he were shaping some sort of invisible clay in midair -- the vine dares not, indeed *cannot*, come closer. The Ainu woman says that the forest feeds on negative emotions, and with a faint 'heh' of agreement, Frei seems to agree. "I believe it," he says, voice quiet as he appears to be controlling his breath very carefully. It really IS a totally distinct person from the oblivious victim Honoka happened on moments ago. Perhaps the threat on his life was enough of a wake up call that he snapped out of it?
The spirals stop. There are three quick motions, in succession, each having considerably more direction and force than the gentle, wave-like gestures before: both hands raised upward, palms up, then outward, palms out, and finally pushed to the side, as if opening a shutter or curtain. The vine jerkily follows the movements of the first two, and on the third slumps lifelessly to the forest floor.
Half-turning to the Dahlia, wiping a hand across his brow, Frei gives the woman an easy, if tired, smile. "To be honest, wasn't sure I could actually do that. I'm learning all sorts of new things, lately." Not the least of which is: apparently his trip through the veil had more ramifications than he thought.
Finishing his turn, the redhead stands to totally face the other person now. Despite being close in height, the two could not look more different if they tried. In his head, Frei wonders if the woman in front of him has connected the name 'Rei' to his (difficult to discern) Japanese ancestry, even more so when she asks about the *meaning* of the hastily-selected pseudonym.
He can't help but laugh at the tiny joke, though. "Well..."
"Dad," asked the young man, staring out over the lake, feet dipping into the water on the pier. "Can I change my name?"
The man standing behind him, also enjoying the view, is clearly the child's father, the resemblence uncannily close: the same red hair, freckled face, green eyes. "Well, maybe. Depending on what your mother says." The boy makes a face at that, but the father continues. "Why do you ask?"
There's silence, a moment, and then the boy looks down, not willing to face his parent. "At school. Kids make fun. At least Thren can use his middle name, that's Japanese! They don't bother him so much."
The pier creaks as the father comes and sits down next to his son, looking not at him, but out over the lake. "You know, I wanted you to be named after your grandad Tsukitomi, your mom's father," he says. "But you know who objected? Your mom."
The young child turns to his father, definitely shocked. "What? Why?"
"You might not believe this," the boy's father says, turning to look down at his child's face with a reassuring smile. "You won't believe me, but it's because she wanted you to be your own person. Plus, it's not as if her name is particularly Japanese, and she turned out alright." A brief pause, and then he turns to look back up at the sky. "You know, in German, your name means 'free'."
The child looks back at his father, thinking carefully about what he was just told. Thinking of the mother who already is showing annoyance at his resistance to succeed her as master of the family style.
Tasting the word 'free' in his mind.
"Maybe a bit of both," Frei says, with complete honesty.
But the question about his name is not the important part. At the suggestion that she recognizes him, at least, he has an easy -- if unpleasant -- answer. "A relative of mine was on the island," he says, voice tight. "Aya Hazuki. We do seem a bit alike, if you've ever met her."
The Dahlia can most certainly appreciate the expenditure of focus devoted to keeping the vines at bay. Even if she can not truly sense the elemental energies at play, their effect upon the vines is clear.
The motions, though... she spends a moment wondering if they are necessary. Are they part of the show? A requirement for the impact? Or are they simply a calming measure to allow the terrified, would-be victim to reassert his will on the less-animate world? A faint smile teases across her lips for an instant, while his back is turned -- a smile that would be effaced by the time he half-turns to face her.
"While I am glad for your sake, I'm afraid I'm at a loss for your style. It bears some similarity to... the bagua? But I am certain that the greatest practitioners of such an art would be hard-pressed to master such things at the drop of a hat."
In addition to making wild leaps of intution, the Dahlia has also spent a good deal of time researching the 'soft' arts of Chinese kung-fu -- which would be apparent to anyone watching her own acrobatic style, and its marked variance from the style of the trifold sanjiegun at her hip.
Her prying question is rewarded with the answer that the name could mean both 'zero' and 'spirit'. The Dahlia bears a brief, polite smile for a moment -- tacit acknowledgement that there could be more to that, based sheerly on the emotional reaction.
The smile fades, as the name of a fallen warrior is mentioned.
"Forgive me. It was... not long ago, hrn."
The moment is enough for her to place the spiritual signature into proper context, however. She -does- remember Aya -- and the uncomfortable manner in which she was brought here. And... something -more-.
"Perhaps in... spirit, yes. We spoke not long after she arrived upon the island."
The Dahlia takes a slight step backwards, giving the redhead a bit more breathing room. "... Brilliant swordswoman. I regret that I did not have the opportunity to speak with her more."
She exhales slowly. And offers a slight smile. "You seemed troubled when I arrived. Was it about Miss Hazuki?"
"You and me both," Frei mutters, at the Dahlia's saying she wishes she'd had more of an opportunity to speak with Aya. It's a fleeting moment, barely audible, but it undeniably happens. However, by the time he's said it, the redhead's composure is... well, maybe not back to customary levels of equilibrium, but certainly enough to engage in conversation with someone else. Brushing his hands down on the half-length changshan he's wearing, Frei clears his throat. "Aya's death weighs on me, yes," he says carefully. "But let's just say my life has been pretty... complicated lately." The meaningful pause is hopefully disarmed by the genuine embarassed smile he offers.
For a second, he closes his eyes. This seems like a tremendously stupid idea, given not just the killer vines, but also that Honoka's eight cerulean spirit guards are still in evidence and that their blades can quite clearly affect the physical world. But Frei finds it easier to extend his... other senses more fully with some of his earthly senses dulled. The forest is *reacting*. In the distance, like a sleeping animal that has heard a distant noise, and some instinct kicks in. Whether it's reacting to him -- feeding on his negative emotions, as the Dahlia suggested -- or to the woman herself, that's a hard question.
That moment of meditative sensing is over as quickly as it started. "It's a personal style. Though if you have some experience with Wudang or Shaolin styles, there's bits of Yang tai chi and Hung Ga in what I was using. I used to use the sword, like Aya does, but my life took a... different route." Which is, again, the truth... in fact it's like 150% of the truth, the almost-a-lie by overadmission.
Frei takes the time during this story to study the woman in front of him, unable to stop himself from thinking of the last time he encountered her... if this even IS her. Like Rust, like Zach, this COULD be someone else entirely. Still, the Ainu influence is unmistakable. He's not immersed enough to know the language or the nuances, but he can tell from context cues alone. The spirit warriors are unmistakable, even if the Dahlia is more ambiguous. His gaze is curiously penetrative, more shrewd than his demeanor might suggest he's capable of.
And like all the other such moments so far, in the blink of an eye it's over. He links his fingers and, making an arc of his arms, stretches them wide above his head. The motion, unintentionally, pulls his hand and neck back, and his shirt both up, then down as he relaxes. Something around his neck on a black cord rises with the shirt, and falls down out of his collar in front of him as he relaxed.
A comma-shaped magatama, of a deep cyan blue.
"You seem kind of young," Frei says offhandedly, tilting his head up somewhat, seemingly oblivious of the shard being revealed, "to have such a formal way of talking, Dahlia-san."
Complicated? The Dahlia does not miss a beat in replying, "... No, few things on this island are simple, I am finding."
As has occured often, a brief and polite smile is offered by way of punctuation.
When Frei closes his eyes, the Dahlia takes a hesitant half-step backwards. If he had intended violence, he would not have gotten far against the psion -- but again, her lack of perception in the sphere of earthly energies hampers her attempt at rationalizing what is -actually- going on. Her eyelids begin to shut as well, to make the most of her conversational partner's silence...
Only to find that Frei is speaking again. He might be fast enough to catch her eyes half-lidded in that one moment.
"... A curious and eclectic mix of styles. To bring such disparate elements into harmony is the mark of a true artist. To be able to sense the ebb and flow of battle, pacing oneself to harness the proper form at the proper time..."
The Dahlia smiles much more openly, at this point. "And to think of it being combined with battoujutsu... It must be invigorating to watch you in the heart of battle, as a practitioner of all of the arts."
Coming from some, her compliments might smack of insincerity -- mocking. But a psychic like herself would be able to attest that, at least in this moment of time, she is someone who shares a kindred knowledge of the Chinese martial arts -- sharing in her cheongsam, if not her non-Chinese, non-Japanese features.
If anything, the woman -does- seem much more regal and alluring than her age might suggest. Even if her words are in keeping, Frei's point does not go unnoticed -- that she does seem a little young. "... Circumstances forced me to grow up quickly. Which is, of course, why I now find myself in the position of defending the Ainu way of life, despite knowing so dreadfully little about it."
For a fleeting moment, the Ainu woman had considered invoking Aya's formal manner of speaking -- but decided against it.
The cyan magatama does, for a moment, draw her attention to the cerulean soldiers at her side. And for a moment, she turns her head -- in the direction that Frei would have felt the fauna-like presence. Seven syllables are spoken -- and the first two fingers of her left hand are thrust in the indicated direction.
Instantly, two soldiers vanish from her side, a chill breeze wafting up in the wake of their rapid flight.
"As you can probably gather..." She returns her gaze to Frei, resuming. "... I cannot exactly let my guard down here."
The spectral soldiers redistribute themselves equidistantly around her.
"The forces of Earthrealm dwindle ... and I am expecting Outworld to have a number of 'dirty tricks' to employ. My fear is that 'acting my age' would be a sure way to get myself killed. And that..."
She shakes her head at the memory.
"I won't let my people down like that. Not until I'm off this damn island. You, though..."
Her blue contacts glisten for a moment, as she stares deep into the jade wells of Frei's eyes. Something... Something =else= is here.
An air of mischievousness lifts her lips into a grin, lightening her features. "Maybe I'm reaching out on a limb here, but bear with me. Let's... assume there's something you're =dying= to ask me, but you're afraid it will sound utterly ridiculous. What would you ask of me?"
Again with the calculated guesses. But =something= needs be said, and she's not sure -what- yet.
Frei is not a psychic. Though, curiously, the talent runs in his family: both of his brothers possessed it, though Frei clearly does not. After his run-in with one of said brothers, who used his talents to wreak havoc in Frei's life and the lives of his friends, Frei seemed to understand that it runs on his *mother's* side of the family. The twins, who grew up quite like her, possessed it. Frei, who took after his father, did not. Quite the opposite. But there are times when he wonders if *his* gifts do not, if you trace it far back enough, come from the same source even if they reach different ends.
Regardless, he cannot 'read' the Dahlia. Even if he were psychic, the woman's will must be formidable indeed, given the spiritual soldiers under what is obviously her command, the almost masterfully magic spell-like way in which she dismisses a few of them a testament to that. "Curious and ecclectic," Frei says, reflectively, as if he's taking the words out for a test drive, but the smile he gives certainly suggests he liked what he heard. "That is a pretty apt description, and I'm choosing to take it as a compliment." Whatever it was that was bothering him, the chance to talk to another human being appears to have... not shelved it. There is still the ghost of *something* behind those green eyes. But it's suppressed, sleeping. Distracted, perhaps.
Good enough for government work.
"I've just learned a lot of different things. I keep what's good, and I leave what's bad behind. I'm older than I look," he says, tapping a finger to his cheek just below his eye. "Trust me. So I've seen a lot."
The Dahlia speaks of some heavy things: the slow erosion of Earthrealm's defending forces, the considerable possibility that Outrealm is stacking the deck with what are almost certainly bend-but-not-break-the-rules tricks. Of the death of the Ainu people. Of needing to grow up too fast. It's hard not to think of the girl wandering off into the afterlife with her newly-found parents. And all she had to do was die to find that peace.
"You don't belong here," the jade green-clad warrior had said. "Too soft."
"I like to think of myself more like the bamboo reed: bends, but never breaks. When something's TOO hard, it can get brittle and shatter," Frei had said back. "Sometimes being soft is how you survive."
"If you don't mind some unsolicited advice?" Frei says, tilting his head to the side with a curious expression, but continuing on regardless. "These kinds of things work themselves out. You probably don't believe me, but it's true. World-ending crises, despots and villains and apocalyptic scenarios... they honest and truly have a way of coming out alright. You just have to be the bamboo that weathers the monsoon: flexible." He pauses and laughs, unable to stop himself from adding: "I bet if Nakoruru were here, she'd have a parable about the kamui of storms, maybe."
That was an unwise statement, and he KNOWS it, and it shows on his face for a moment. Because she gave him the opening he *could* take, if he wanted to. He could jam a crowbar into that space and pry it wide open, if he *wanted* to. He could ask everything that's on his mind.
Frei is silent for a long moment, and he can't bring himself to look at Honoka when he asks the question. Instead, he stares up at the forest canopy, trying to somehow see the sky beyond, the sun, the clouds. Conjure up the belief that the world is still the same even if everything's different.
"Dying to ask you, huh..." he murmurs, falling silent a little more.
He doesn't turn back to her just yet.
"Are you... happy? With your life, I mean. Maybe not with *this* messed up situation, obviously, but like, in general. Are you fulfilled?"
He chooses to take it as a compliment -- and she chooses to accept that as a mild rebuke of how her sincere gushing over a verbal description of a fighting style might seem a bit out of place for someone insisting on the formal diction of a court advisor. She holds up her hands, openly, by way of apology. "I have nothing but admiration for the multitude of fighting styles I've seen in this tournament thus far -- I'm positive that yours is no exception."
A simple incline of her head towards the pacified vines is enough to suggest -why- she's come to such an understanding.
As the redhead explains his rationale for the various fighting styles, the Dahlia settles back into polite and reserved mannerisms. The explanation seems to placate her, though the slight bob of her head in agreement slows when he makes a comment that he is 'older than he looks'.
Actually, Frei might be able to notice her jaw tense up, ever so slightly.
That tenseness remains, all throughout the unsolicited advice. These... kinds of things work themselves out? They have a way of coming out alright?
Yeah, he'd notice her expression growing -significantly- more hardened in response, there.
Invoking Nakoruru, though -- that's when her eyes regain that half-lidded look. It was not necessarily appreciated, no. The Kamui -- of storms, particularly -- brings to mind a particularly painful time in the life of the Dahlia. One which, only relatively recently, had she found herself an unwitting party to.
"... Am I -happy?-" she asks, as if the words were of a foreign tongue. "... Happy." She glances off in the direction where her loyal ancestors had charged some moments ago.
"Happy in the sense that I have a plan for moving forward, and am making measurable progress towards my goals, yes."
The woman casts her gaze sideways, a bittersweet smile crossing her lips. "There have been some bumps in the road. But never has the future been more clear to me than it is right now."
She takes another step back, raising her hand to brush the raven locks away from her right eye. "But I feel I must caution you about... your unsolicited advice in the current context. Hopes and optimism will not win this war."
Her eyes droop, remorse creeping up. Indeed, even though Frei may not be -psychic-, he will undoubtedly be able to hear the tremor in her voice. Not of fear -- but the tone of someone speaking of matters of grave import.
"Those who forget their history, Rei, are doomed to repeat it. Nine hundred years of human complacency in the face of their Outworld aggressors have placed us in this state. One single victory would be enough to free us from the contract of tyranny which is sure to doom our world."
The soldiers sweep to her right side, their motion opening up a gap on her left.
"You... say that you have seen a lot."
Despite her deeper voice, the left side of her lips pull into a faint smirk.
The two soldiers spring back to her side, their swordpoints and spearpoints glistening in the light.
"Two hundred years ago, something similar was told. That evil cannot triumph over a pure heart. That with these swords, with these spears, with the blessings, the Kamui would see these men through to victory."
The Dahlia shakes her head, that smirk fading into a bitter frown. "The Kamui are forbidden from interfering. And for a people so rooted in religion, so accustomed to 'things just working out', these men found themselves lost. Naked, unarmed, at the mercy of a raging boar with jaws the length of six armbones who bore no such ties to an absent deity. They fought with honor and valor."
The Dahlia expels a sigh. A smile would be disingenuous -- she allows her face to remain at neutral rest.
"I am exhausted, Rei. I seek the end of this battle. I do intend to be that bamboo reed. But I will not be complacent -- I will not ignore the past. We will win this battle, for there is no one else to put a stop to the despots, villains, or harbingers of the apocalypse."
The Ainu woman bows her head, closing her eyes. Like Frei's demonstration of trust, earlier, she puts herself at great risk -- even -with- the aforementioned soldiers at her side.
"No one but us."
She lifts her head, after a moment -- eyes slowly opening a moment later. "... Perhaps that was a bit too grim, too dark. But it is my heartfelt belief. And Earthrealm needs its strongest."
The Dahlia stares back at Frei, once again meeting his verdant irises with her own faux-blue wells. "... The name Vega means something to you, yes?"
Is she happy? She has goals. She's working toward them. She's making *progress*. And in that, she can feel happy. But yet... everything she just said, everything she just expressed. Frei specifically set aside the current circumstances, bracketing them, hoping perhaps that the Dahlia would speak past them, much as he looked up into the sky to try and see a better, brighter sun... a sky he is *still looking toward* as she gives her answer. When last these two met, they barely knew each other. Acquaintances, at best. And yet of all the people she could have met at the end, it was him. Right now, Frei wonders: was that on purpose, somehow?
Nakoruru had said, of him and Aya, that perhaps they would need each other to survive this. She's dead, he's alive -- unexpectedly -- so how's that working out?
When the woman speaks of history and being doomed to repeat it, the redhead finally looks away from the sky, watching the Dahlia intently. Despite her professed exhaustion, there is a fervor to her that is, in its own way, mesmerizing. She speaks of the history of the Ainu warriors at her side, and there's enough context cues for Frei to piece together what she's not saying: that they were chosen to defend Earth the last time this situation rolled around, and lost. That Earth is perhaps in more trouble than Frei's imperfect understanding of Mortal Kombat -- almost all of which was told to him in parable form by Nakoruru -- might have first suggested. She describes her recounting of the story as 'too grim' but they both know that's a lie. She left out the darkest details, the most grim context. To protect him, herself, or most likely both.
'Earthrealm needs its strongest.'
"I would... never tell you not to fight," Frei says quietly, looking at the Ainu woman with a surprisingly tired expression himself, though it's a weary smile rather than her resigned sigh. "But hope and optimism... they're the only things that are going to get you through. Because there's always an *after*, you know? There's always a 'now what'."
He turns and looks up toward Shang Tsung's palace. He probably can't see it, but his gaze is unerring. He can *feel* it up there, like the mystical version of magnetic north. It's almost hard *not* to look at it. "Let's say Outworld wins. I mean... to hear you talk, it sounds pretty possible. Any sports team would take 9 losses in a 10-game season to be the worst imaginable record. But if you don't believe there's a 'then what', you might as well lay down and die right now," he finishes, his mild tone entirely at odds with the seeming harshness of his words.
He turns and looks at the spirit guardians, and really *looks* at them. Not as projections or spirits or part of the environment, but as if they were the people they had been in life. In truth, the more he thinks about it, the more he looks for it, the more sure he is that there still IS life in them yet.
"Think about what you said. That if you ignore history, you're doomed to repeat it. But doesn't that sword cut both ways? You look at these, your ancestors maybe, and their fate. And the other losses, and the sorrows, and the pain. Doesn't that describe an unwinnable situation to you?" He turns to Honoka, expression serious. "Doesn't it say, 'our chances are low so we're ready to die'?" He pauses, shakes his head. "Sorry. It must sound like I'm belittling their sacrifice. I'm not, or I don't mean to, anyway. But learning from the past is a complicated beast. It can be a shackle as often as a teacher. Hope is what lets you move forward. Hope is what says: 'if they win, now what do we do'?"
He pauses, falling silent. What he really wants to say is: I've seen the end of the world, and it's not as big a deal as you think. But given what he just said about history as a shackle, he keeps his peace instead.
The mention of Vega, however, throws him for a bit of a loop, obvious surprise registering on his face. His memories of Vega are not many -- they met in person only a handful of times -- but are connected to stronger, more intense memories.
Almost automatically, a hand comes up and brushes his bangs, as if he expects to find them white again any second.
"Possibly," he says, in a wary tone. "Very powerful, very dangerous, almost certainly a sociopath, leader of... Shadaloo?"
For a moment he almost hopes that Shadaloo's not a thing, but she mentioned Vega, so that's not likely.
The Dahlia can be difficult to talk to at times. Place a constraint on her, and she ignores it -- slip up just once, and she will never forget it.
She may seem dense, really.
It is difficult for an Ainu to -not- class a fiery redhead like Frei alongside the other shisam who have told her how to act, what to think, and why, all throughout the years. She would not be here now if not for a Japanese man doing the exact same thing a few hours ago, threatening her with fire and brimstone and then expecting her to act as a paragon of might and virtue.
Is she not, in effect, doing the same? To cast doom and gloom in the path of someone as bright as a rainbow itself?
In truth -- the Dahlia has a great wealth of knowledge about the current tournament, much of it provided to her by Nakoruru and her 'parables'. And there is a truth, unspoken, lying within Frei that she is yearning to discover. One that he might be concealing -- willingly or otherwise. In all truth -- she knows nearly nothing of the man, save for the familiar-seeming memories lying so very close to the surface. It is not so much her speaking as someone older, but him speaking as someone younger.
The Dahlia's neutral expression persists as she devotes her full attention to Frei's response. The soldiers, for their part, are silent and unyielding, like statues. They do not waver in their outward glances, even as Frei studies them. He, too, is tired -- is this something she's caused directly, due to her own accursed blood, or merely a sympathetic response to her words?
"The -then what- is that Earthrealm is thrust into a bloody war, to be fought by civilians whose idea of injustice is to endure lag in an online game, or the preempting of their favorite variety show by a talking head in a suit. A war which, while not unwinnable, will leave the world's rivers flowing black with corpses for decades on end." The words flowing from the lips of the Akatsuki Advisor like a practiced and rehearsed manifesto... and yet, she takes a breath, shaking her head.
"The point of a martial art is to -inspire-. To give hope to your soldiers -- to demoralize your opponents. Cognizance of the consequences of battle does not impact the necessity -- it drives the spur into the beast, gives meaning to the act. It is the act of a -leader- of men to take this burdensome knowledge, to drive it home -- and to divulge only that which is necessary to the subordinates."
The Dahlia looks away -- though, in truth, she is looking towards the peak of the tower, opposite from the palace itself.
"I mention Vega, because as a leader of men, as a sociopath who denies the =value= of the human condition, who denies the =value= of hope -- has fallen. Of all humanity, even he who is most like those of Outworld... has collapsed."
She falls silent for a moment.
And then she asks, arching a curious eyebrow.
"What is Shadaloo?"
It is not, after all, an organization which seeks to make itself known in the world.
The Dahlia's words are hard for Frei to listen to, and it shows on his face. Not in a melodramatic way, of course, but he hardly has a poker face. Discussion of what will happen when Earthrealm loses -- the destruction of many innocent lives -- hits him with appropriate gravity, because he has seen such results before, elsewhere. Perhaps not on this scale, but it says something that *this* woman is answering his questions about the very real cost of war... and that her previous incarnation was someone Frei met for the first time in Hiroshima. Still, he has no reason to doubt her, especially since all of what Frei knows ALSO came from Nakoruru, and after their fight, Frei can tell the two Ainu clearly have some sort of bond.
She says the point of a martial art is to inspire, to wage a morale war, and indeed flanked by her spirit guards, Honoka does have the mien and fire of a general, marshalling the troops for battle. It is not per se wrong, though Frei obviously resists adding commentary as she says it. A sword is a sword is a sword. In his head, he can hear Aya's voice saying so. 'A sword is a tool for killing with. If you pick it up and can't understand that, then you had best set it down and leave it alone until you do.' His eyes become heavy-lidded as she speaks of only giving the soldiers what they need to do their jobs. And again, this is not wrong... and yet...
Frei's eyes turn skyward again. "I give a nice speech about hope," he says quietly, hands going into the pockets of his jeans, "but I had hopes for what life might be like, here and now. For me... for you." He pauses, realizes the gravity of what was just said, and adds, "for everyone, really. That maybe -- MAYBE -- after one lifetime of conflict, another wouldn't be needed, you know?" He brings his head down and smiles at Honoka, but it's an effort, one belied by wetness at the corner of his eyes. "It was a silly dream, really. 'What if I could have my old life back, but without all the struggle'? Logically, I knew it was never going to happen. But... I could dream about it anyway."
A brief pause, and Frei's head tilts to the side somewhat, his gaze moving off to the side. "I'm sorry that you have to fight. I'm sorry that it sounds like I'm trying to tell you the ideal way to be, or to live. That's not my goal. There is no ideal way to live." His eyes shut. "The only path available to anyone is to be themselves. As hard as they can, as long as they can. So do that. But... please believe that good are things are possible. Even at times like these." He pauses, then opens his eyes again, looking at Honoka directly. "*Especially* at times like these."
After saying all that, he inhales sharply, holds it, exhales slowly. Eyes close, again. Hands shift restlessly in his pockets. And a question gets asked that he had hoped wouldn't present itself, and yet... there it is.
"Shadaloo... is dangerous. Your life will be longer, happier, and safer if you steer clear of it entirely." He seems unwilling to say more on the matter.
Tearing her gaze away from the far-off tower, the Dahlia can tell that Frei is visibly affected by her accounting of what -could- be in the event of failure. It isn't comfortable for the psion to admit, but rigid control of her emotions has been something she's been forced to learn over time -- if she'd played poker professionally, she'd probably be pretty good at it.
In recognition of his need to have one set of eyes to focus upon rather than eight, her hands flatten, and then press outwards slightly. A few syllables of Ainu speech are interpreted as a signal to disperse.
With almost no hesitation, the soldiers stride outwards, allowing the Dahlia and Frei a radius of about ten meters within which to conduct their business.
Talks of hope are met with a chastened half-smile -- a mild apology for continuing to keep the conversation mired in the depths of a swamp of negative emotion. She seems somewhat affected by one phrase in particular -- hopes for me. Hopes for you.
A common device used by public speakers is to attempt a deep and personal connection with each member of a crowd at least once throughout a speech. Through eye contact, through reassuring words, one can reach out and forge a connection that a television cannot. Personal connections can be a multiplier for the effect of a message.
The question in her mind, then, is simple -- is Frei a public speaker?
She listens, with lips curled in a faint smile as she nods her head. He is holding his position physically, but his rhetorical position is a withdrawal, a concession of space.
And why should it not be, in a friendly conversation?
The Dahlia's hands lower to her sides, neutrally, as she nods her head in full assent.
"You're absolutely right, of course. Practice, skill, and determination give us the ability to forge ourselves into weapons. Inner strength is what allows us to put the weapons to use.
She is withdrawing her ill mien, as well.
"I get the sense that Shadaloo is kind of a big deal... but aside from one run-in with a... 'Doll,' I can't say I've ever heard the term used by anyone directly. In fact... "
The Dahlia reaches up to the bun of hair on the back of her head. Slender fingers wrap about the two sticks used to fasten her hair in place -- still matted with a few grains of sand from the condemned shore. And the sticks are withdrawn.
Moments later, once gravity asserts itself, curled raven locks tumble to her neck. And moments after that, the curls themselves fall loose, the fine strands of hair descending to just below her shoulders.
A distinctly Ainu look.
"The 'big deal' seemed to have happened in another plane of existence -- one in which the madman has lain siege to countries, and brought empires to heel."
The Ainu woman's enigmatic half-smile remains intact.
A mild shrug is given.
"I appreciate the warning, and the honesty with which it is delivered. But Shadaloo has already made contact with me -- as a direct result of such warnings. So with that in mind..."
Fingers lace through the tendrils of her hair, raking them backwards and freeing the rest of the strands from their slight curling. Her hair falls back like a curtain, straightened.
Her smile fades away. "You have me at a disadvantage. So if you can spare the time: Please tell me how we know each other... Rei."
The word 'Doll' -- with its all-too-discernible capital 'D' -- seals it. He had hoped that maybe, just MAYBE, Shadaloo was a myth here, or didn't exist yet. But hope isn't racking up a particularly high score in the game, tonight, so this is yet another swing-and-a-miss. But what comes after... well.
Frei genuinely seems to consider this, for a moment. He really has to think it through. Because now... now it's not an abstract question anymore. Clearly, she knows *something*, though this is not a shock. Every familiar face, going all the way back to his dim awareness as part of Aya's consciousness -- Alma, Ayame, Rust, Zach -- have all known *something*. Some fragment, some piece. In some different way. The Dahlia knows something. But she doesn't know what she knows, it would seem. He could... tell her. He could share everything with her, from top to bottom. It occurs to him, thinking back on a conversation with someone else, that Zach may already have. But Zach... he doesn't know everything. Not in the sense of what Frei could tell her.
He comes to a decision.
The word is delivered without rancor, without harshness. But atypically for Frei, he doesn't look apologetic either. He is resolute. No... this is a new world, a new way. And even if things are somewhat the same here, then the relics of that old world must be swept away, kept hidden, guarded. Freedom comes in all kinds of forms.
Freedom means choosing. But choosing means consequences. And so the wheel turns on.
"Some knowledge is a burden. In this case, the burden is mine, and I'm choosing to carry it. Hate me all you want for it, but that's the situation." He pauses, then shakes his head, looking down and to Honoka's left, gaze seemingly fixed on the ground, but in his mind's eye, he could be looking... well, anywhere.
Freedom, choice, consequence. The terrible burden of sentience, of free will.
"I imagine right now you're thinking: there are ways you could get the information from me. And that's potentially true. Most of the easy ones aren't going to work, though, I'll warn you in advance. But that is a choice you can make, if that's your heart's desire. I don't have an honor guard of dead, resolute ancestors, for starters. But..."
Frei spreads his arms wide. The wind blows through the trees of this twisted, unnatural space, sending them rustling, the sound like the crashing of small waves on some distant shore. The place is *resonating*.
"I'll keep my burden. If you want to know what I know -- and I know rather a lot -- you'll have to take it from me."
There is a fire in the red-rimmed green eyes. He is unafraid to meet the Dahlia's gaze.
"So, make your choice... Honoka."
No. The simplest, shortest way to deny a request -- and possibly the most frustrating to a young woman used to getting her way.
And yet, she has learned something in her time as the Akatsuki Advisor: Everyone handles pressure differently. Some can deal with pressure by redirecting it elsewhere, as in the methods of Tai Chi and Ba Gua Zhang. Some deal with pressure by facing it head on, as in the styles of the Shao Lin and Hung Gar.
And then there are those like the downward-glancing Frei, slipping between the methods as rapidly and effortlessly, utilizing the method that best suits the opportunity. Coursing like water, then flying free as the air, and now -- as unyielding and indomitable as a rock, even as the gaze averts.
Drawing in her breath, she holds her ground silently. When Frei looks back up with his fiery determination, he will find her staring back at him -- for indeed, she had not looked away again. And her ambiguous expression has not gained even an iota of clarity.
For the moment, she is unwilling to draw out the flames any further.
The Dahlia remains silent as Frei defines the circumstances for the combat he is clearly anticipating.
And then he says the name. Honoka. The name has been used before on this island -- and every time, it is like a slap to the face -- if it weren't for her specifically calling him out, she might have flinched as such. Honoka, 'harmonious flower,' similar to the blossoms of the dahlia she has chosen for her new identity.
He knows -- there is no doubt of that. Her public ties to the Twilight Star Circus are kept under wraps, but her continued involvement with Zach Glenn may have complicated efforts entirely. But Frei... he knows things he could not have known. He is no public speaker -- there is little reason to believe he would have singled her out as someone he cared about.
"So it is true, then."
She cracks a smile, as the reasons for his resistance become clear.
"I live a life without regrets, Rei. I would -regret- attacking you now, as it does nothing but divide us. But I would certainly have regretted not -asking- you first, for it's obvious you have my best interests in mind."
She breaks the gaze, glancing over to one of her soldiers, squinting her eyes at him for a moment before receiving a small confirmation that appears to set her mind at ease.
"But I already know some of the circumstances of that woman's death. There are discrete elements which I've been warned against."
Her eyelids close with the memory of that one conversation, concern pressing itself into her lips as she turns back towards Frei.
Her eyes open again.
Her smile grows just a bit more.
"Was she the type to attack you, though? You got -scary- all of a sudden."
'I know some of the circumstances of that woman's death.'
Thank god you don't know *all* of them.
"I save it up," Frei says, voice thick, "until I need it."
It's a lot to deal with, and while it's not clear whether or not he expected the Dahlia to attack him, it is eminently clear that he was *prepared* for that to happen. When it doesn't, the adrenaline pooling for that fight or flight response starts to drain from his body, and with it some of the rigid intensity of his stance.
Breathing out a long, slow breath, Frei closes his eyes. As much a sign of trust as of exhaustion, for sure. "Regret's a funny thing. We're used to thinking of it like... ah, like Sisyphus's boulder. Big heavy weight, roll it up a hill only for it to roll back over us eventually. In reality regret is more like... to be honest, it's like the weather change of a nuclear winter. The sky gets more and more grey, and you don't realize that it's choking the life out of you until it's been weeks without seeing the sun. It's a subtle beast." It's not clear if he's implying the Dahlia's claim to a regret-free life might not be as true as she hopes, or if Frei is imagining his own experiences with regret. In truth, likely a little of both.
With a step or two, Frei returns to the rock he was sitting on when the Dahlia arrived and settles himself onto it again, looking up at the sky. "She was. The second time we ever met, she took a swing at me. I don't know why. She was just a kid, really." He falls silent, overcome by the mental image of spirit Honoka walking off into the next life with her family, hand in hand. "And I was dead at the time and a little lacking in a physical body in the strictest sense so, no skin off my nose, as it were."
A brief pause. Before, the wind rustled through the cursed forest's leaves, seemingly in resonance with the tense moment. But even with Frei sitting down, more relaxed, it continues. Maybe there's something else at work, here?
"You're your own person, though. Which is good. I saw your fight with Nakoruru," he adds, tilting his head up to look at the Dahlia, reading her expression. "I don't speak Ainu but I'm pretty good at reading context cues. She was testing you. She seems..." A brief pause. He thinks back on his anger at the Ainu guardian, and her manipulation of Zach to recover her sacred cloth, short-lived though it was. "...the type, but it looks like you passed."
He shrugs. "Meanwhile, someone attempted to bring Aya back to life. I'm the result. She's still gone, and I... have nothing, now, except a body, which is nice but surprisingly not as nice as it could be." He gives the Dahlia a tired, sheepish smile. "We're a little different. You don't actually have many memories of the 'old' world, do you? You might not have any at all. But for me, I remember all of it, to the finest detail. Up to and including all the friends, all the people I knew, who are strangers to me now. All that's left of that life is a memory," he finishes, pointing a finger at his red-haired skull.
It's been observed that the Scarlet Dahlia wears a number of metaphorical masks, shifting between them in order to achieve the desired results, in both conversation and battle. Now -- with her hair down, with her dreadfully imperious mien having been shunted aside for the moment, Frei might be able to see her as the young woman he remembers. Surely, the hair is longer, and the clothing is undoubtedly different, but at least her appearance more closely resembles her less formal mode of speech.
To that end, she can flash a smile that is, at once, less predatory and more sincere.
The signs of preparedness for a fight did not go unnoticed -- indeed, that was the very reason for her intentional shift of moods. While she would not be specifically -opposed- to a fight, there is the matter that she knows so dreadfully little about Frei, and he seems to know a great deal more about her.
So for the time, she listens. He speaks metaphorically of regret...
And... there it is. The same 'I know something you don't' tone that clued her in to Ayame's venomous words. The same ascerbic tone that Kenshi Takahashi had employed to try and badger her into a higher purpose.
Just a kid.
And yet, by the time she reins in that feeling of rebellion, quiets the tremors of inadequacy that stir her fingers into motion, he is already giving voice the answer she might even have shouted back: that she is her own person.
Mollified, she nods her head slowly, dropping her left hand while the fingers of her right stroke through her hair. 'Passed.' A curious word -- the antonym of failure, the very word that struck her to the core, forcing her to leave the palace for a time. Thus alluded to, the word resounds again like a bell in her mind, evincing a light twitch in her left eyebrow. "... As it seems, yes." Yes, she passed -- one test, if not another.
"If it weren't for the blessing of the Kamui, I might not be so sure of myself now."
The soldiers make a small murmur. The Dahlia speaks a syllable in response, nodding her head to the soldier on her right.
Does she remember anything at all? A mild shrug is given in response -- the substance of said memories not being worth quantifying in any greater capacity.
As she is given a sheepish smile, so too shall she respond with one. "Memories are useful for reminding you what not to do, I guess. Really -- that's all I've ever been hoping for. You -- or I guess I can say 'we' now -- have been given a second chance. I hope that we won't need a third or a fourth to make a difference."
The winds continue unabated. And as the Dahlia raises her hands, the gesture she makes is not one directed to Frei, but to her soldiers, who flock back to her side.
"We should probably move along, though -- the Heart of the Forest tends to get a bit cranky when people start treating his home as a coffee shop." An apologetic smile is offered -- a rare moment of lowered guard, shared to a select few on this macabre island of terror.
The smile does, however, fade to some degree, as her intention becomes clear: she will need some time to process what she's learned. "... For what it's worth, it was nice 'meeting' you again."
The fingertips of her left hand drift back towards the sanjiegun resting upon her hip. All this time, she has been able to resist the compulsion to toy with the weapon that might set her mind at ease ... but with the spirits that she can sense closing in, that urge may become overpowering soon.
Frei feels a comment rise up in his throat when she talks about the blessing of the kamui, and immediately swallows it. Who's to say if the gods are real or not, and if their blessing is really fueling the Dahlia's success, or if it's more the woman's own talent and perseverance that are responsbile. Perhaps the important thing is: right now it's the result that matters, not the ontology.
But he's still Frei, so he can't resist. "Memories are all any of us are, if you sieve it down far enough. The you of you and the me of me." A shrug. "For many years, that's all I was, anyway. A second set of memories, or thoughts or feelings. And yet, here we are." He holds out his hands, palm up. "Take as much or as little comfort in that as you like."
He doesn't move to get up, however; if anything, he looks like he's going to stay right where he is. But he does bid Honoka farewell. "May your faith sustain you, then. And if it can't, well... maybe a reminder that even the literal end of the world had a second chance attached to it will buoy you in the days to come."
She didn't ask for his help in the conflict, and so he does not offer it. Perhaps this is her fight to the very end.
"As for me, maybe this forest and I need to have a little chat." Considering not even Nakoruru could cleanse this place, that seems suicidally stupid.
Then again, once you've walked out of the afterlife in one piece, what barriers are left to you?
Log created on 21:37:50 11/23/2016 by Frei, and last modified on 02:21:47 11/27/2016.