Description: "I remember a journey I took across great yellow plains in Northern China in search for a temple near the heart of Zhongyuan... Out there in the untamed wilderness, I had the good fortune of taking shelter in the home of a guru who had removed himself from the world. His home, made from clay, was of a curious design... once the door was closed, it was pitch black inside, for he left no windows or cracks beneath the door. He burned no fire, lit no candle. To sit within his home was to be lost in darkness." - Nakoruru, recalling one of her journeys.
The Coward's Terminus... the living forest. Geographically, the island may be considered to be neatly divided in two, brought together in the center by the bridge over the place called the Pit. On one side, the razor-thin layer of civility. The other side, a mere taste of the savage environs of the greater united realms of Outworld.
To anyone who has dared to tread here among the cursed, corrupted woods, a great case could be made for this being considered the true bridge between the two halves of the island. Due to the mandates of Mortal Kombat going so far as to include where battle shall take place... those chosen to fight for Earthrealm and Outworld, without exception, have had to cross through the perilous paths any number of times.
Even among those who would otherwise be protected by whatever blessing given by the Elder Gods to whatever whims, there is no such thing as a simple, pleasant, leisurely walk through a forest littered in corpses, blood, and the overwhelming scent of death. The very strongest, still, must show as little weakness and vulnerability as possible, lest a predator find an opening to strike and satiate their hunger.
The closest thing to a safe path through is well-paved from countless attempts by foot, or carriage, or what have you. It is, generally speaking, one of the only 'sure' ways through. Almost no one, not even those comfortable and familiar with the ways of any spirits that manifest locales such as these, would deviate from the known paths without incredible cause.
Does human laughter count as one? Roughly a third of the way through the path coming from the side of the Pit, one might have a straight shot at the source of it if they're willing to go through the underbrush... past two sets of skeletal remains that look as though they have been in a long-standing negotiation to trade skulls, maybe as a deal for a set of leg bones that is missing from the site of their eternal rest entirely.
The point is, what's going on, and what's so funny? There is no joy to be found among this slice of nature, unnatural in its continued existence.
Retreating to the highest places of the world to pray to the divine in hopes of an answer is a tradition common to nearly every culture of mankind. But throughout history, it is the events that transpired after the pilgrimage to the peaks that has shaken the world. By way bidding farewell, the swordsman of the shattered blade told her that it was time to come down off the mountain atop which the two had met and conversed concerning the future of the tournament and, therefore, the future of Earth. He was right.
The final rounds would be starting soon. While it was no longer her place to fight in them, she needed to be there, to offer her support. Soon, the champion that is to determine whether Earth continues to exist as a sovereign world would be selected. They would need anything she could provide, be it advice or more importantly, the power she had collected over the course of her own trials.
Thus the maiden in white ventures once more into the forest of despair, sticking to the known path. She had already learned the risks one takes when leaving it. Even the main route through seems to deceive, winding along different turns each time it is traversed, branching occasionally, leaving the traveler to select their fate from paths that seem nearly the same as each other. The only way through is to press forward, driven either by courage, faith, or luck, and as long as one possessed sufficiently one of those attributes, chances are they would make it out on the other side.
To any who knew life, the sounds of the felwood never cease to unease. Disembodied voices in the mist, groans of pain from the wood, the rustle of movement always just out of sight as unfathomable predators stalk the way. But the lone young woman moves with purpose, ever wary but not to the point where paranoia would paralyze her steps or leave her slow to act when necessary. She had tested these woods and in doing so, learned what she could or could not face on her own, and in knowing, had learned to manage her fear.
As long as she did not anger the heart of the forest, she should be safe. As long as she stuck to the path, guided by the occasional far off cry of one who watched from above, she couldn't get lost
Which is why when she first hears the sounds of laughter, she dismisses them as more of the unending symphony of misery and deception taking place all around her. No doubt, lost souls seek to draw her off the path into the forbidden ways, perhaps trick her into offending the Old One that lurks at the center. Shaking her head, the ebony haired warrior continues, her hand twitching with anticipation for the need to reach for the blade behind her waist.
But as she continues and the laughter becomes more distinct, she starts to consider that it may, in fact, not be an illusion of the damned, but rather actual, legitimate, human laughter. There was too much mirth, too much... humanity to the sound for to belong to the dead. Pausing, she glances to the side, eyes focusing on the vector from which the sounds are coming. She waits, debating, glancing toward the West where the last cry from her sentinel above came, then looks back toward the brush.
Reaching back, her fingers close over the hilt of her kodachi before she finally veers off the path, stepping from shadow into darkness, forging her way toward.
Curiosity may not be rewarded here often, but that does not make it any easier to resist.
Laughter. What fills the ears of the legend of centuries past - beyond the scattered ambience that she has since familiarized herself with - may yet be the strangest element to have integrated itself as a part of these cursed forests. It would be an offensive quality to virtually any part of the island. It's not even the laughter of a predatory psychopath gloating over the terrible sealed fate of their latest victim, no, those have a distinctive edge to them that cannot be casually replicated short of being that sort of person, doing that sort of deed.
The brush that Nakoruru passes through gives little resistance. No slithering, serpentine predators lying in wait to inject their fatal venoms against unsuspecting feet, no rusted implements of traps long since set and forgotten. The way leading off the main path is suspiciously ever clearer as the sounds of the laughter.
She would be met by more readily accepted noises as she came nearer. The heart-pounding creaking and bending of large lengths of wood. Leaves violently shaking. The guttural moans of a spirit aggravated. Just a ways past a taller bush that obscures visual confirmation of the origins of this orchestra of misery and fear, quieter sounds of the voice of someone fairly young.
Parting that final visual barrier, she may spy a young teenage boy of Thai descent standing with hands raised up towards their face, dressed in the dirtied remains of what once was most opulent, expensive clothing.
Startled, he jumps to look behind himself. A bruise rests upon his forehead, his nose crooked with dried blood down one nostril. Confirmation of another human face... but he's not the one who is laughing. From the sheer terror on his face, for that split second in which he might meet eyes with the one whose curiosity has been piqued, to ever think this would be worthy of laughter unto itself.
He takes off running, past a crudely-drawn line across the dirt, towards... no, this is a thought that defies reason unto itself, what he's now fleeing towards - one of the large trees that has foregone any sort of subtle mimicry of a scowling, anguished, furious human face. Possessed of no less than seven large branches that bend and turn in ways that would be beyond painful for an actual human being to do themselves, it thrashes about, leaving deep scars in the dirt and bark of other trees for reasons unkn--
Scratch 'unknown,' there's the source of the laughter right there.
Dressed in what appears to be mostly a bright, visible blue from the waistline up - the waist itself decorated with a countless number of tools of curious shapes and material unfamiliar - to nearly bare, hairless, one would daresay anatomically spindly legs terminating in blue open-toe sandals. The coloration of his odd manner of dress does not suggest the same wear and tear that exposure to the foul elements would have inflicted upon anyone else...
This strange figure, top-heavy with flowing black (actually, to what little light filters through, maybe purple? Black seems more likely) hair navigates the swinging arms with something approaching the grace of a trained acrobat, sometimes swung so close towards a wide-open maw that one may expect him to have been swallowed numerous times.
There is no scream of terror in any of these close calls, even as he loses grip and falls down towards one of the lower branches, wrapping both arms around them as he clings ever precariously against a fate worse than death.
His rear now faces the aggravated tree, his eyes now lay upon the startled youth.
"Wanted to join in after all, eh?" He asks, as though a father greeting a son before partaking in some leisure activity, not... what terrible, life- and afterlife-threatening thing is going on in front of all of them!
He doesn't appear to notice the new arrival as he finds himself flung towards another branch in a manner that is unclear as to which of the competing forces in question are actually in control of the situation.
She needn't put too much effort into approaching quietly. The ongoing ruckus is enough to potentially conceal even clumsy movements along the path. But silent are the red moccasin clad footfalls of one who walked with nature all her life. The young woman in white pauses as she rounds the trunk of a large tree to come into view of the commotion that demanded investigation. When standing up straight, her robe falls to her ankles, its borders trimmed with a geometric pattern of crimson and sapphire. Steel-grey eyes flick over the more open clearing, taking in the sight of a youth in distress first.
The sound is enough to get immediate reaction from the tense boy as he turns toward her, startled and exhibiting nothing short of dread terror. Signs of injury immediately catch the eye sensitive to the well being of others, but her mind races at the knowledge that the young one is not responsible for the sound that drew her here.
Wordlessly, she looks up as the youth sprints away, finding curiosity rapidly replaced with abject confusion. Her right hand stays on the hilt of her blade, her left hand, covered by a white glove and affixed conic wrist guard, stretched out after the boy. "Wait-"
It's then that her eyes focus on the wild motion beyond. Clouds of dirt go flying as the fierce branches of one of the forest's ancient killers thrash about. The source of the laughter is finally spotted, a man batted around amongst branches that seem torn between the choice of ripping him to pieces or shoving him into the cracked bark maw of the carnivorous tree. For a few seconds, she watches the manic contest playing out between corrupted nature and the laughing individual that seems entirely oblivious to its attempts to slaughter him.
A few seconds for the bruised youth to rush forward to his inevitable doom. There is no time to discover the explanation of the unexplainable, the only choice is to act. When she moves forward, is as if the wind itself suddenly burst into action, pursuing the boy, her hand no longer on her blade.
The trials of the island have a way of breaking the souls of all but the utterly insane and, given the nature of many of the bodies scattered throughout the island, it is not uncommon for broken people to surrender to the call of the grave and inflict a forced release from the unending torment.
But the swift figure giving chase to the running boy has no intention of letting him rush into the branches of the thrashing tree. She would seek a grip on his arm to halt his forward momentum, but she is not above simply attempting to tackle the boy to the ground if it means keeping him from getting any closer to becoming tree chow!
Sure as the wind, seemingly lighter than air, but as fast as a diving falcon, the boy is clutched with hardly any more effort beyond what little strength can be afforded - proportionally speaking - to his lithe frame.
"L-Let me go," he pleads, his arm jerking upwards to give the sight of warmly glowing mismatched golden beads around a wrist. The coloration, the nearly imperceptible movements of spirits within... this is someone who received a boon from the Elder Gods, which means... this boy is - or was? - chosen to represent the Earthrealm in Mortal Kombat.
Nothing about him suggests to any honed technique, deeply ingrained instinct, or any other mechanism in which one might interpret information to its ultimate deduction, that he would have ever been able to fulfill this in the capacity such a cruel tournament asks for! He is helpless to try and break free of Nakoruru's grasp.
"Oh! Hello," calls the strange fool who finds it in him to stand atop one of the thrashing branches, implausibly maintaining balance upon one leg as the limb tips upwards, threatening to utilize the forces of gravity to try and send him tumbling unto the bone-crunching bark maw.
This instead proves a convenient point for him to grasp one of the higher branches in one of his gloved hands. An identically-shaped bracelet, misshapen and uneven beads and all, much easier to miss given the far dimmer light of sapphire-hued jewels as he now dangles from one hand an increasingly precarious height.
"Don't worry," comes a voice that seems unconcerned about the entire picture beyond ensuring his voice can be heard above the mayhem. The other hand's fingers wiggle as it is thrust up into dead, decaying leaves up above - itself a foolish motion, for what creatures and powers may yet nest within the vestiges of plant life.
There may never have been a man that appeared so sure of himself. His body erect by virtue of dangling, it's not hard to compare some of his physical dimensions to that of the hairless frog, save for the sheer volume of hair coming from the scalp.
"Bear with me, aaaaaaand---"
The other hand lifts up into the void of decayed leaves. One last angered howl by the tree, and the man tumbles clutching some dark, lumpy, awful-looking sphere now tucked in one arm. Impressively, he seems to make the descent with comfort and skill given the rapidly shifting terrain as provided by a thrashing, gnasing horror that does not approve.
...Except for the part where the tree gets wise as any fury-driven mindless horror can, withdrawing the final branch of his route and seeing him tumble down the gentle decline to where young boy and ancient girl stand from a height that few would survive a fall from unscathed. That was not a graceful landing.
Laughter resumes a moment later, the prize held up in one hand as the branches of the beast-tree lash out in vain. The fool just managed to collapse /just/ out of reach of reprisal, or retrieval of the stolen prize for that matter.
...Is he offering it to the newcomer among them?
There was a time, before she answered the call, that she had the freedom for childish pursuits, engaging in sport with the new generation of young Ainu that she grew up in. In feats of short distance sprinting, she had no peer among those who called the great island of Hokkaido their home. Of course, it was known as Yezo back then...
Now, grown more, tested and refined by years of conflict and war, and blessed by the spirits of the wild, the youth running the opposite direction from her has no prayer of escaping. His arm gripped, Nakoruru yanks him back from the reach of the deadly branches as they desperately try crushing the vexingly elusive nimble man playing a game of keep away with his body and befouled ancient of the forest. In the struggle, the boon of the gods on his wrist is noticed.
So. This is the child champion? Rumors of his presence were just one of many curious mysteries she could not claim to understand in this century's struggle for freedom against Outworld. Why, across all the world, was this lean boy without even the slightest iota of fighting potential sent here? What kind of cruel game is this, what mockery of Earth's hopes?
Whatever the key to the mystery, it is not the youth's fault. One need only have taken a look at his panic stricken face for an instant to know full well he never asked to be here. Feet dug in, the snow white warrior wrests him backward, "I won't let you kill yourself," she explains, her voice calm, finding it takes little effort to pull him from his trajectory.
She is acknowledged by the mad man in the tree and looks up, hand securely on the boy's upper arm. Now, no longer rushing to prevent the kid from presumably offing himself to escape the despair of his fate, she has a better opportunity to take in the incredible sight. In every instant, she is torn between considering him the luckiest individual she had ever seen to one of the most dexterous. Could those stumbles, those falls, the split second clinging... are those intentional or is he simply benefitting from a lifetime's worth of patience from the Divine all at once?
He says to not worry and she continues to watch, brow furrowed with no attempt to conceal open confusion in her expression. She shows no inclination to dart into the ongoing battle to scale the tree, to ply her own skill against the old one or try forcing the man who seems hell bent on tormenting the thing until it kills him. Craning her neck, she watches him reach the greater heights of the branches, his arm vanishing into the black ichor laden canopy above.
"What is that man doing?" she asks the youth at her side, her voice incredulous.
At last he falls. With the boy her present priority, the young woman pulls him back to make sure that he isn't going to end up playing crash pad to the lunatic, leaving her unable to try and catch himself - a feat that would be a bit tricky given their stature differences anyway.
She stares at the fallen man then, trying to pull the boy behind her to shield him from what she expects to be a gruesome sight, already wondering if she can possibly heal the kind of life threatening injuries a fall like that would have inflicted.
But then comes the laughter of one who hasn't just broken every important bone in his body, the mirthful noise of someone with an intact skull and jaw to go with it, a functioning, non-shattered ribcage or spine, and Nakoruru's grip on the boy finally loosens, her first-responder instincts giving way to that same confusion as before. She maintains her grip a little longer, as if testing to see if the kid is about to run back toward the voracious plant life like he seemed to be before, but finally she lets him go all together.
The object from the canopy is held up as if in triumph while branches thunder against the dirt in futile effort to reach him now. Good thing it doesn't have legs.
Slowly, Nakoruru steps forward, as if approaching something that might be a threat even if for the life of her she can't identify exactly how.
"W-what's this-" she asks hesitantly after seeing the boy showing no interest in claiming the lumpy sphere for himself. Her hands free now that she is no longer trying to keep the kid from seemingly swan diving into a tree's mouth.
To even look upon this man now, he must be a good ways into his forties? Yet, there he is, monkeying around, having a grand old time navigating certain death for sake of that awful orb of such interest and amusement that one may wonder if he is, in fact, in the same forest as everyone else around him.
"I, I, um," the boy stammers unhelpfully, as though adjusting to the very shock of this sudden new arrival in addition to whatever manic thing he has had the (dis?)pleasure of being witness to. It could be that Nakoruru has found kin this day, to bond over a sight and series of events that seem impossible to a very world where reality has seen it fit to enforce an unromanticized truth upon all whom tread here.
He at least seems to comprehend that the fall might be really bad, a loud gasp with his hands covering his mouth as he murmurs out a word either he is too tired to say, or tired of saying... or maybe simply giving in to new fright as one of nature's greatest champions moves to protect his eyes from something grisly.
"Father," is that word. Maybe they both had the same idea of just how that last bit would play out... he seems rooted to the spot emotionally enough that saying the physical aspect of being rooted to the spot is in lock step.
"Ahhh, don't mind me," his words aren't too pained, given the circumstances, "realized... should've taken off the belt at!" The laughter continues, though he continues to run his mouth as though he were in the company of a familiar friend, and not just someone whose appearance here at a time of great peril should, rightly, be seen as a miracle worthy of thanks to those divine forces of nature that have brought all of them together.
Maybe he's going to get around to answering that question from the stammering champio--
"You've never held one of these?" Oh, thank you for continuing to not answer it!! Sitting up with a modicum of exertion that suggests he did indeed suffer some level of harm, the other hand reaches down against his lower back, past the numerous items on his toolbelt, sighing loudly in relief before transitioning to something one hopes is informative.
"Ah, sorry to make you worry, just... just wanted to show my boy a little something." His boy? The two do not look anything alike! His body language is far, far too relaxed given that if he so much as leans back another fraction of a yard, he could get yanked by his hair towards the angered tree. So, what is it?!
To look upon the outside of the sphere he's holding up, it is no less ghastly to look at than every other twisted, corrupted thing that surrounds them. (Is he wearing gloves specifically for the reason that he wouldn't have to touch this thing's very flesh? It could explain a lot.)
"Landed on my tools. Yep... don't do that..." At least, he can get back up to his feet, breathing a bit less labored, more easy-going as though now further distancing himself mentally and emotionally from the sheer mortal terror that he ought to be feeling! (Or anyone, for that matter!!)
Bringing the awful sphere under his arm and against his... vest-like garment? Kind of like a vest? Like one might a toy ball. "Oh, right, I ought to introduce myself! I'm Howard Rust, Jr.," a name that she might have heard in hushed tones for... things... he's been up to across the island, as if now ignorant of one's desire to know what the hell that ball he's carrying is. Fruit? If it's fruit, it looks rotten. Has to be. There can't be any value to it, but... there's not much of a scent to pick up off of it?
"That's my son, Jao!"
Jao says nothing. No one could blame him. A stranger, a strange situation, and a very strange father. What could anyone say to that?
NOW WHAT ABOUT THE BALL?
Withdrawing a carving knife from the endless array of tools with pinpoint understanding of where one is located upon what appears a mass of items arranged without clear pattern or reason, he plunges it into the fruit.
One would expect some kind of fell-colored ichor, like blood, or at least some kind of fluid to spill out, or at least a waft of some new scent of what prize lies within.
"Wait a moment," as if anyone truly has the luxury to stand and wait around this place, "best if I show you after I--"
That the two are related had, to no surprise, not crossed her mind in the slightest. Champions from all walks of life have been pulled to the island every one hundred years to fight and die because the unknowable divinities seem to have offered that as the planet's only hope to remain free. It wasn't unusual for the Chosen to know each other ahead of time - the number of elites across the globe that should even stand here is small enough that it is common for them to know one another. But it WAS unusual for them to be directly related. And of course, a visual inspection suggests nothing of the sort.
But there is no denying a child's pained, weary murmur, a combination of worry, exasperation, and familiarity that only such close relationships can bear. Just as Nakoruru had no reason to suspect such a link, she has no cause to deny it once the truth becomes clear no matter how unlikely.
A glance is cast back toward the father figure as he continues to prove, little by little, that while he might have felt that fall, he is definitely not in danger of dying from it. There is a strange jovialness, a light presence in a place of such dark, that the young woman continues to look as if she has yet to decide if he's dangerous or not. Did he break the opposite way most do? Psychology is certainly not her area of expertise, but the idea that he simply could no longer handle the stresses - the blue beads on his wrist are noticed - of being a representative for an entire world do cross the young woman's mind.
"I'm afraid I cannot say," she answers with a blink the question posed to her, eyes flicking back and forth between the object of interest and the man of interest. "I trust it was worth the risk you took to retrieve it though," she considers, focus straying toward the irate tree. The noise it's making alone might be enough to draw dangerous attention to this impromptu gathering. What then? She cannot abandon the boy if they should come under attack, but she has seen a hint of the wrath these woods are capable of directing interlopers!
She almost reaches out to pull the kid back toward her as the man gets back to his feet, perhaps forgetting for a moment that they are father and son and still considering the eccentric to be unpredictable and potentially dangerous in spite his carefree demeanor. Watching him stand, she cants her head slightly, studying him further as if to evaluate the falling damage. Is she still expecting a bone to be sticking out somewhere or for a limb to swing the wrong way?
He offers his name and the perplexed swordswoman's eyes widen, a smile coming to her lips as she bows forward at the waist, "Nakoruru. It is a pleasure to meet you." before standing up straight. There is a perpetual patience to her voice that seems contrary to the strange circumstances she finds herself in now.
"As I understand it, you were hosted by the Sorcerer King himself in a special contest. I never did learn of the outcome. Since you are still among us, I trust that it went okay."
He reaches for a carving knife and she tenses slightly. Need she draw her own much longer knife? There is no reason to expect an attack, yet in this land, those who don't anticipate the worst often die early for lack of preparation.
He suggests waiting but she is already starting to glance around. Did that tree to the left move slightly? Wasn't it a little further away? What about those vines entangled around a log, laden with the bones of the long dead? Did they just twitch?
"Now that you have your..." What do you call that thing? "Prize, perhaps it would be better for us to be on our way." The implication is clear - she intends to see the father and son from the forest. How they have not already been lost to it is clearly beyond her at this point.
It's kind of a religion-spawning miracle unto itself that, given the ruckus that tree behind them has been making, anything resembling an audible conversation could even take place among them. That he speaks with such a comfort, even with the non-verbal promise of pain and torment without end if he'd just so kindly take a few steps back so that he could be swept into the giant tree mouth...
"Nakoruru!" He lights up a bit at mention of the name. This is yet another surprise - he is not one of the Ainu population. They've never met, but this name is familiar to him. The index finger from the hand that is currently maneuvering a carving knife into the ball-shaped /thing/ that seemed so important to risk life, limb, and more to collect extends, waggling slightly.
He doesn't get a chance to follow up on that outburst of his own quite yet, nodding along at mention about the Sorcerer King. "Ahh, mostly! Had this contest about breaking things without," without what? It doesn't sound like he intended to append any word past that, yet there's this dissonant tone of voice about the whole experience as though it were something entertaining and fun, "but, the funny thing is--"
"She hurt me." The boy speaks up, rubbing a hand up against the side of his face. 'She?' "Father's friend, she knocked dad out, and then--"
"Jao," he lifts his hand from the carving knife, leaving it embedded within the item of interest, mystery, and a continued lack of convenient explanation as to what the hell it even is, resting that hand upon Jao's shoulder. He doesn't say much of anything else, his head tilted towards the boy's direction, but the shoulder of the older man in question flexed in a way that Nakoruru couldn't quite make out any facial language about the whole ordeal.
So, they are out of the contest, and alive?
"Sure, sure." He seems agreeable enough to the idea of heading along out. "We'll be back through here again soon enough, eh?" He gently massages his son's shoulder, who is wordless, bowing his head in melancholy as his father's arm parts from him.
"You come through here much, Nakoruru?" He asks, as he resumes wrestling knife against... the thing, pressing his lips together tightly when he isn't in the process of wasting precious oxygen. "Some great sights out and about," spoken as though there were something worth witnessing of the trees that wish to consume victims body and soul, that there weren't corpses of the countless unfortunate every which way, or... anything...
There is a brief flash of surprise in her eyes as he responds to the offer of her name. It isn't difficult to imagine that those with whom she has interacted have mentioned her in passing along the way, but the idea that any of them would have chance or reason to converse with this strange man does leave room for curious pondering. The information he provides about his personal challenge before the great and mighty Shang Tsung is, like everything else about the man, seemingly vague and lacking detail. If he is deliberately opaque, she considers, then he is one of the greatest masters of obfuscation she has ever encountered.
The youth chimes in before anything else can be said and the young looking fighter from a bygone time seems to see no reason to pursue the further topic any further, shifting her attention to the boy to look his injuries over further. "Is that how..." she murmurs, hand reaching out hesitantly toward the bruise on his face. "Jao, I believe I have something that will help with the hurt," she offers, withdrawing her hand before ever getting close to actually touching the somewhat twitchy kid. "If it is okay with you and your father," she completes the thought with a soft smile and humble dip of her head.
Almost no one remains within the tournament itself, she considers. That these two were eliminated and live is fortuitous for them, at least. That the boy managed to not die in spite lacking the divine ward against such is almost a miracle in fact. Rust speaks of being back through the forest soon enough and he's given the same confused look he's received throughout much of the exchange. "You are? What... what has you travelling around so much now? Most who participated have taken refuge at the palace ever since..." Since they were eliminated. Provided the survived, even.
He asks her about her own travels and she nods slowly, "My own path has brought me through this place many times-" her voice cuts out as he mentions great sights out and about on the island of damned. That has become almost impossible to reconcile - the idea that anyone from Earth would find the hellscape they're trapped in here full of great sights. The only possible explanation she can think of prompts the uncertain question on her mind.
"Are... are there a lot of sights like this place where you are from?" What has happened to the world if that is the case. And why did no one tell her how bad things had gotten!!
The man's trains of thought seem to jump from one idea to the next with incomplete thoughts and vague sentence fragments of concepts not yet fully explored, in endless pursuit of other incomplete trains of thought. Like an endless, hungry search for novelty that never quite registers as a blip before the next stimuli finds itself with the ill fortune to fall upon his senses...
The boy's reactions are in line with expectations from the short time the three of them have been in one another's company, raising a hand as if to meagerly try and protect his wound from being touched...
"Eh?" The father's head turns, stretching out a leg. It may yet be that - for lack of any exposed bones or other grievous injuries - adrenaline is simply hiding some greater issue beyond merely falling on top of his tools, given his seeming difficulty in speaking and completing sentences as-is. "I don't see the problem!"
So trusting! That's in line with the warmth in which he seems to be giving to a landscape that expects, does not want, and will not return any such to him.
"I... I... okay." Jao, on the other hand, for his lesser age, seems defeated. Even if he said no, could he have resisted Nakoruru's approaches if she decided to force herself onto him? "Um, if you can... please..."
The question is, at last, asked, one that instinctively comes to mind for a lot of people even if they might not yet get it off their tongue out of sheer disbelief... in short... 'why?' (Technically, it starts with 'what,' but...)
"Depends on what you mean," the father says as he returns to carving away at that nasty thing. There's some give, some movement for the knife to follow. Recklessly, he's not cutting away, but toward - a big safety no-no, but that's the least offensive thing about the way he seems to think and carry himself.
"You see... my own dear ol' dad, yep!" The blade slides across the sphere. "Took us all over, growing up. Everywhere. Met a lots of people. Saw lots of places, out and about--"
The spherical lump splits open with a gentle creak, asymmetrical in its imbalanced halves that begin to form - a poor cut, if it were something meant to be sliced into two evenly-sized pieces, as the older of the two tries to pull away the smaller. The gnarled, unsightly surface gives way to equally unappeaing and unappetizing layers... at first.
"Some of 'em, though," he speaks, straining as he tries in vain to stick his fingers into the gaps to force it open. They don't take. His eye contact has long since parted from the Ainu sage, "could get all dark in. Crazy. Scary. Dangerous!"
...Is that acknowledgment that the concept of mortality exists in that mind?! Is he slowly coming to terms with where he actually is?! Jao, wordless, huddles about himself as if to shut out the sounds, the sights, just the very sense of this place.
"The world's huge! Maybe not all of it's meant for us to be there," case in point... here. "But dad told me something - all of us - that he's never been wrong."
A little more carving, with a bit more of a push, and the poorly-cut halves part further. Inside the disgusting outer layer... something of a stark white. Kind of soft and creamy-looking matter, almost liquid, the way it appears to start to spill out the crack! One 'whoops' and a short laugh later, he lifts it up on higher than he's been holding it to minimize the spillage.
"No matter how weird, how deadly, how scary the world is - all of it, every little piece, here and there, even when it seems like there's nothing but misery about," he continues as he slowly lowers the ball-shaped mass, turning it so that the smaller piece rests on top, allowing most of the drainage to go into the bigger piece. A few swishes, and he tilts it at an angle again. He lets it face towards Nakoruru and Jao alike, at which point something may catch Nakoruru's eye.
There is a large seed, an oblong shape of a healthy, vibrant green color. On closer look, to the guardian's senses, a seed that seems... no, is! It is free of the dreadful magic that permeates this very forest. Cleansed of corruption, innocent as a newborn. Underneath the hardened shell that must have been subject to so much rot surrounding it...
"The great, wide world out there's one you got to cherish for simply being, eh?" Is he talking about the contents itself? Is he inviting either of them to come close and take it? "There's beauty in everything! Lots of the time, you don't notice, if you're gonna just be sad and scared about the parts of it you don't know about at..."
There may be nothing that can truly be done for this forest, so stained in evil and sorrow. The past is well-documented, its legacy enduring. The present, all can see standing around them. The history cannot be erased. The trees, they cannot be saved.
"Most importantly," he says as he starts to lift the ball thing, balancing it on one finger as the rest clutch the knife, spinning the cut fruit-seed-shell like an athlete might the ball of their chosen sport to show off their incredible balance and coordination - which is less reassuring given the risk of what might be spilled!!
"Life's something you gotta have fun with, no matter where you end up," he says with a smile that dares to be one, even surrounded by tragedy, fear, and all the negative descriptors one could fish up for this place!
This meager seed could, if kept safe (by which means not allowed to be casually spun and risk dropping onto the forest floor and thus doom it to the same corruption its parent tree has suffered), be one of the few shreds of hope all living things have - a survivor of its own kind that could yet be given an opportunity to grow, flourish, and do whatever it is trees do when they aren't so drenched in awful magic.
That it's been long enough that most might find a concept unfamiliar should be taken as reason enough that this is a seed worth protecting, until some means of escape can yet be secured and fertile soil found for it to reside.
"My son's been through a lot! Might see even more yet," this is said with excitement and optimism and not dread, "but I'm hoping, after all this... he'll come to see a lot the same way."
Assuming, ever optimistically, that Earthrealm can win this decisive contest, so that this opportunity can take root.
It's not clear if Jao is listening or paying much attention to what his own father has to say about any of this, as the creeping tendrils of fear keep him in their vice grip.
With the father's approval and the boy's tentative if reluctant acquiescence, Nakoruru smiles quietly, turning such that her left hand is further away from Jao specifically so that the next swift motion will hopefully do less to startle him - his jumpiness is hard to miss at this point. A flick of her wrist, a snap of her left arm, and a large square of folded pristine fabric is suddenly in her fingers. Another flick of the fabric unfolds it into enough cloth to completely cloak the girl were she to wrap herself in it. Given that it was no where to be scene on her person prior to snapping it out, the demonstration must either be skilled prestidigitation or some kind of magic.
Turning to face the boy, both of her hands put to use in holding up the cloth blanket, she holds it out toward him, gesturing as if to wrap it around his shoulders herself, "Here, wrap yourself in this and see if you don't feel a little bit better." While it seems normal at first touch, being enveloped in the fabric instills an unmistakable warmth and, provided a soul of pure enough compatibility, amelioration for the pain and harm as well. It can be tempting to cocoon up in the blanket and simply rest contentedly. The young woman seems content to leave it on him if he cooperates, backing up to shift her focus back toward the supposed father figure of the duo and his lumpy looking sphere.
There is a slight nod as he mentions visiting places and people throughout the world, eyes blinking slowly, a flicker of appreciation at the idea of being well travelled but his attentive audience is willing to remain quiet as he speaks. Her quiet laconic nature may make her the perfect listener for the winding explanation.
Her attention fluctuates between the man himself and the shell he continues to pry at. Now that it is finally cracked, her curiosity regarding its contents only intensifies, but she is not one to rush the effort or explanation, even with the occasional wary glance she casts about the clearing.
Finally, the core of the sphere is shared and Nakoruru leans in closer to look, eyes focusing on the stark green object, a strong contrast even in the dim light of the forest. Slowly, a quiet smile forms on her lips, a deep appreciation for the discovery reflected in eyes that have seen so much cause for despair. And then he goes to spinning the shell on his finger and while her immediate reaction is one of alarm, she calms a moment later, forced to accept that his control over the whirling seed cover is significantly better than the control he had over his fall from the tree earlier.
She remains quiet, a finger lifting to her right eye, a shimmer of tears flicked away as visions of the potential for this small, pure kernel of life flashing in her mind.
"Mn," she responds softly, eyes finally breaking free of the hypnotic sight of the small life in the corrupted glade. A glance is cast toward Jao as his father mentions his hope for the boy - that his perspective will expand, his ability to appreciate existence itself grow within a mind that has been subjected to so much torment during his weeks on the isle.
A cry from above pierces the canopy as branches rustle and a great, brown feathered raptor dives through a thinner section of leaves. Dead twigs, dust, and brown leaves rain down from the point of entry as the bird of prey wings to the young warrior maiden's extended left arm. Talons find purchase on her conic wrist guard, the purpose of their curious design now far more clear.
Agitated, likely at Nakoruru's delay in getting out of the forest, the hawk screes again, flapping her wings before folding them behind her back, giving the young woman, the boy, and the man a stern look with piercing brown eyes that see far more than they should.
"There there," the girl coos, keeping her left arm lifted, bent such that the bird can observe what is going on in front of her. "Everything is okay. Mamahaha, this is Howard Rust, Jr., and this young man is Jao." A softer, less screeching cry follows from the bird as Nakoruru gestures to each in turn with her right hand. "Rust, Jao, this is Mamahaha, a dear friend of mine. She was helping scout the way to through to the West."
Her right hand lifts to begin petting the back of the bird's head.
"I remember a journey I took across great yellow plains in Northern China in search for a temple near the heart of Zhongyuan... Out there in the untamed wilderness, I had the good fortune of taking shelter in the home of a guru who had removed himself from the world. His home, made from clay, was of a curious design... once the door was closed, it was pitch black inside, for he left no windows or cracks beneath the door. He burned no fire, lit no candle. To sit within his home was to be lost in darkness." she pauses to take a breath, delicate fingers running along the bird's back, scritching beneath soft feathers.
"The only exception to his prohibition on outside light was a tiny pinhole in the ceiling. During the bright of day, it was possible to make it out in the darkness, a single, narrow shaft of light from above."
She shifts her focus back to Rust. "When I asked regarding the nature of his home, he explained that he had designed it to force himself to learn perspective. He said that no matter where you are, if you look for the light..." eyes trace down toward the revealed seed. "You will almost always find it."
She glances down at Jao then back up to Rust, "But, he cautioned, if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see."
A soft smile returns, eyes half closing as she thinks back on memories of another time - of a journey nearly two hundred years in the past. "Your father sounds like a wise man. I thank you for sharing his thoughts, Mister Rust."
For his part, the boy complies with the instructions given with nary more than an uncomfortable shifting of the weight in his legs. A milder reaction may not be indicative of increasing comfort of the situation and the person before him - this may be a simple submission to his continued helplessness no matter the radiances of natural beauty to one side, and the irrepressible free spirit to the other. The young Jao remains an element that feels overwhelmed, even as the healing cloth - a sacred treasure of which he may not grasp the history of, the honor it must be to lay hands upon such a thing! - imparts what warmths and comforts he can bring himself to accept such as it works its magic.
It may say more when the scream of a hawk gets polarizing reactions between the both of them. The young Jao pulls the cloth draped over him tighter, limiting the range of vision one might have in which to look upon his face - maybe it is, instead, a sign of confidence in the comfort it imparts?
The father's head makes a number of sharp movements, one leg raised as the shell finds itself being batted in the air a few times with the one truly free hand before it is secured again, eyes a touch wider as it falls upon the very source of the hawk's cry, which is - surprise - a hawk.
"Whew, not a drop," he mumbles as he clutches the seed-ball close, exhaling loudly with a sigh that does not seem to be one of relief.
Jao's eyes peek out from under the cloth to observe the new arrival. Both hands come together from underneath and greets in a simple, polite bow in place of a verbal greeting.
The father is motionless, aside from eyes sizing up the hawk that has taken perch upon the ancient protector of nature. "Y-Yep! That's me. Hiiii... llo." Going by his eyes, he seems to be taking stock of the local surroundings? This appears to include back over his shoulder, to where that tree is still trying to reach forward and exact whatever sensation that brutally ripping this man apart might fulfill.
It is his turn to remain silent, though it could be that some unforseen, bizarre external circumstance may be holding his commentary hostage as he becomes audience to the oral tradition of Nakoruru's peoples. When her eyes trail back towards the man who bears a miracle, the raised leg comes right back down as he stands erect like one might posing for a painted portrait, a wider smile that seems to try and hide those wary eyes that focus upon the bird at rest. The shell that bears the seed tips forward slightly within its milky home, allowing a view anew of the tiny green hope of a place that only has a future to place it upon.
"He'd... he'd be right! Yep. A smart cookie!" He seems quick to praise the message - and man - involved of the story in question. He pipes up so suddenly as to nearly rudely interrupt its telling, words a touch strained. Who is he fooling, at this point?
"Okay..." Jao's voice trails off weakly. He may not yet be in the place to truly understand what it means. The scars for this child emotionally appear to run deep. It may have taken all of his bravery not to simply curl up, lie down on the ground, and cry surrounded by the encroaching darkness.
"Aw, having him as my dad was the best," strained words glide back ever suspiciously from strained, back to almost boastful, a tone of voice that does not appear to regard the threat of summoning terrible predators looking for the tell-tale signs of prey activity as he nods vigorously a few times, "say, would your friend, ah, Mamahaha, right? Good bird. Very good bird," he slowly extends the hand that bears the shell towards them, decorated in the bracelet that represents the Elder Gods' favor. Very slowly, as if... fearfully? Like giving tribute to a terrible lord that could strike them down at any moment.
"Want to take a sip of it first? Sure she's hungry after all that flying, not finding food out of my-- ce. Mice. Which is what I just said. Mice." He smiles, while Jao seems to be instead taking what little opportunity he has to rest and recover when it feels nowhere is truly safe.
...The offer to drink up, not simply take what's in it?
Does he not know the value of what he has?! Either way, the liquid that surrounds it, if consumed, has a hearty flavor that feels thick without being lumpy, or sticky.
Jao's slightly finger-steepled bow is actually answered by the perched bird who dips her head toward him in turn before her face snaps back to leveling her gaze at more noisy of the two strangers. Surely it's just because he's the one doing all the talking. And the moving. Between the two, he is definitely the one doing the moving.
Or maybe she senses prey.
The nature warden herself gives Rust a suddenly uncertain smile at his praise for the guru of the yellow plains, eyes flicking to the side briefly as if trying to puzzle something out before speaking with a touch of hesitance, "I don't think cookies had much to do with his life as a sage, but..." Her voice picks up in pace, "I suppose I can't rule that out either."
Jao's meager response catches her eye and Nakoruru glances down at the youth, leaning to the side a little as if trying to get a better peek under the hood of the makeshift cloak she's lent him. "Are you feeling any better?" Her free hand lifts to pat her own face in the same location as the boy's bruise.
The father figure mentions the perched hawk and the falconer looks back up toward him. "Hm?"
Mamahaha extends her large wings out to the side to flap them twice as if stretching a little, before folding them back into place and staying focused on the man who draws nearer slowly. "If she would like," the young woman answers, sounding uncertain. She lowers her arm a little to better adjust the raptor's height to accommodate the offer though clearly leaving the decision in the matter to the bird herself. Not entirely sure what the liquid is, the Ainu priestess will have to trust the hawk's survival instincts on the matter.
The bird leans her head to the side, studying Rust curiously, occasionally leaning forward slightly to examine the opened shell. "She won't attack," the lady in white states, an almost quietly bemused look on her face, no doubt picking up on the man's nervousness.
All the while, the tree nearby continues its futile thrashing, its open hostility far from the lazy, passive trees that seem more inclined to wait for someone to hurl themselves into their gaping maw. As Mamahaha finally leans forward and drinks from the shell, careful to not disturb the seed itself with her beak in the process, the young swordswoman glances toward the tree once more, then toward the line that had been drawn in the dirt, and finally looking toward Jao himself before her attention shifts back to Rust.
"Was he hurt by that tree?" she asks directly as her avian companion stands up straight and offers Rust a short, high pitched almost chirp-like sound. It could be an expression of gratitude. Or a warning before a murderous dive from above.
"Perhaps we should be away from here, the noise can only be drawing attention, and it doesn't seem to be doing your son any favors to linger so near any longer than normal."
Her attention flicks to the uncorrupted seed in the shell then glances up toward the heights of the frustrated tree and the pitch black canopy of dead leaves above it, "Ah... How did you know to find that shell up there?"
There is an unspoken understanding of some greater natural order within an obscure ecosystem in which certain lines and relationships are made crystal clear, of which even this man appears to obey for his lack of adherence to other red flags to one's life... willing ignorance, or otherwise.
The query about the well-being of the boy is met, at first, with an impolite silence. The comforts brought upon by the sacred relic that now acts part-time as a security blanket do not seem to completely overwrite what writhes through the young boy's psyche. His eyes snap upwards as Nakoruru mimes the location of his bruise, roused from whatever emotional canyons he allowed his attentions to sink. A clearer view of his forehead - far less discolored, though yet colored by the environmental dust and muck that tends to accumulate upon passengers about these dangerous paths - gives a positive confirmation of the sacred cloth's intact healing properties. His nose even appears straighter than it had when they met. A sniffling from Jao suggests nasal passages cleared further.
"I'm..." He never finishes that sentence. How can anyone truly be 'fine,' even surrounded by a holy mystic on one side, and their unlikely emotional anchor on the other? The disappearance of the bruise may have to serve as language enough.
"That's great!" There's a positive response from the aging man whom finds himself at mercy of Mamahaha's good will, maybe yet in hopes that she will gorge herself on this drink and not have enough room in her stomach for whatever bits of himself that she might yet see fit to tear, a nervous grin as he sees it to make as few sudden moves as possible while one twig-arm maintains swiping, swinging, and swooping far too close for anyone to consider safe.
As the question is asked, the shell is held at the present distance, as though it were of mortal consequence to be certain of the hawk's satisfaction. One leg even lifts up, as to best balance himself to maintain this subservient gesture.
"Oh, no, no," the father shakes his head, neatly slotting the carving knife back into the more-than-fully-stocked toolbelt. "Ahh, that tree's not too bad, was gonna show my son how you'd--"
"Father's friend hurt me," Jao replies to give the definitive answer, conflict between the first two words being spoken next to one another showing the discomfort in him reconciling the idea that someone his father would call a friend - and might still yet do so! - would do such a thing to him.
"I'm sure it-- ahh, I suppose," caught between two conversations at once, the long-haired kind of frog-like Canadian man seems almost disappointed? What Nakoruru observes is reasonable - this is not the place for a child to feel safe, let alone approach with any curiosity or love for whatever beauty or merit there is to a place damned to an eternity of misery, "don't worry, Jao," he re-balances himself with both feet on the ground, drawing the shell back around his arm as he brings his newly free hand to help draw Jao steady onto his feet - and close, "one day, you're going to be glad you saw all this in," he says with one of those knowing fatherly smiles that would mystify fathers the world over as to just how he can muster up such a thing here, of all places!!
He starts to walk in a direction that is assuredly not towards the one known 'safe' path through, which is intself worthy of further questions and also logistical headaches. Mysteriously, there is not a rustle of sound from the toolbelt, not a scrape of metal or a rub of fabric.
"Eh? How?" He rubs the back of his head. "Oh, that's easy enough! One fell on my head just going on through." He laughs. "Lots of things hit my head, yep. What's inside was mighty delish, so, ahh, every time Jao and I go through... I'd check a tree."
This does mean that, if anyone is as brave(ly stupid) as this man, there is another source of food for those who must flee the palace.
"Oh!" He snaps his fingers. "Might wonder how we pass without getting eaten by all the other wildlife, eh?" That is a good question, and the narrative is kind of afraid to hear what his answer i-- "You see, the path is where most walk in, so they expect us to go that way--" The narrative does not like where this is going.
Jao, for his part, looks back over his shoulder to Nakoruru. He seems nonplussed with what his father has to say, as though he himself were at a loss. Who wouldn't?
"Figure, hey, they're not used to humans being out and about, just go on through. Unless it's breeding seaason, figure... hey, might not want to chance the weird walking things being something that eats 'em, yep."
There's really no words for this. This is a place where fools are lucky to be out of the cursed woodlands just being there /once/. Through sheer ignorance...
"Can't say I know what's to come next," he says as he at last breaks eye contact with the hawk, showing his back to his own natural predator as he works up an almost playful shrug, "but I thought we'd enjoy the sights together."
...And so, two of the former champions selected for Earthrealm have, in what may yet be unprecedented among the ten kontests, have taken to exploring the island as mere tourists.
Jao's vague response seems satisfactory enough to her inquiry, leaving Nakoruru to answer with a supportive smile and nod and then leave the boy to his further brooding beneath the cover afforded by the cloak. "I see," she offers once she's standing straight again. "I wish you did not have to go through that." It's any mystery what the Elder Gods were thinking pulling the boy here to take the stand in defense of the beleaguered planet. But being inscrutable is the right and often the nature of the divine. That the boy is too traumatized to really manage speaking coherently has become more than obvious... but giving his surroundings, it isn't all together surprising.
She watches Rust start to walk away from the main thoroughfare through the forest, choosing not to follow immediately as she shares a questioning glance with the hawk on her forearm.
His discovery of the hidden seed pods is... well, an example of some extremely bad or good luck, and she can't decide which it is judging by the blink of her eyes and uncertain stare after the man. He explains his plan for success by avoiding the established routes and hoping the ravenous wildlife gets... too confused to attack?
The young woman frowns slightly, finally taking a few steps forward to follow after the man and his son. "I remember being told the story of a man who, demonstrating no fear of the dark, decided to explore the Singing Moss Cavern of Yezo and leave his torch at the entrance as proof of his courage." She picks up her pace, lifting her arm above her head as Mamahaha beats her wings and takes flight, surging forward and upward, building momentum necessary to break through the canopy into the sky above, broken twigs and leaves raining down from the place she pierced.
"He fell in a crevice and died."
The story ends abruptly enough.
Her stride brings her apace with the man and the son he holds close. "Appreciating the beauty hidden even in the most fallen of places does not protect one from the harm that follows the willfully negligent." she adds, meeting Jao's eyes briefly before shifting her focus to man who eschews all reason for forging his on path through the most dangerous places of an already deadly island.
Nakoruru shakes her head, exhaling softly. "Are you sure wandering this island with nary a concern is really what's best for..." her voice fades, glancing at the boy then toward the back of the man guiding him. Closing her eyes briefly, she shakes her head, clearly deciding to keep them company, as if not convinced they are going to make it thirty feet without getting killed, let alone see the other side of the forest with this reckless disregard for the dangers therein.
But she does shift the topic a little, "I had the opposite problem with my sister... she wouldn't stop getting into trouble. Try as I might to have her stay home, every time I turned around, there she was. The more dangerous my path, the more certain it was she would end up on it. Perhaps there is no one right way."
She falls quiet for a moment, her expression sobering, "Jao," she speaks up, not looking down at the cloak-covered bow, her eyes forward along the path then, "No matter what happened in your fights, the world owes you a debt of gratitude for going through them all the same. The details don't matter. Please go forward knowing that at the very least, I am grateful for your sacrifice and would be honored to repay that debt should you ever need help that I can provide."
What cruelty, or boon, is there in the decisions of the Elder Gods? To render the younger child, Jao, so vulnerable... and yet to give that strange man, far more capable (if unconventional) a representative protection from death, and even his soul from the grasp of the great sorcerer himself? There may not be any greater destiny in play. By their account, they have been eliminated from the tournament, and their role in the kontest concluded with the consolation prize of living a few days longer than the other defeated... at best, at this rate.
"Well, that sounds sieeeeaghbleaguh!!" the departure of the hawk companion sees the older man's forward march come to a halt to look behind himself, partially crouched, one hand up for cover as he watches the avian nature spirit disappear out of view. Any facade of fearlessness fades to the forward flight of Nakoruru's friend.
Jao halts about two steps before this man's moment of caution surfaces, as though theatrically timed to the morals of the story, the concerns of one who has every reason to show concern for anyone among this foul land. Nakoruru speaks as one who has already experienced sadness, loss, and failure in the ninth contest. Neither among them - or among most anyone else here - could comprehend the despair and horror suffered a century ago.
The traumatized youth keeps his back to Nakoruru as she relates to her own problems with her sister... to the heartfelt thanks. His adoptive father has yet to say anything in his own defense to Nakoruru's warnings.
"It's," Jao mumbles, head bowed, as he slowly turns back towards Nakoruru, "almost... almost everyone has been... nice to me."
"Why wouldn't they be?" Oh, now dad's talking again. In an odd reversal of fortune, now he's the one who seems a little less steady on his feet as he rises up, eyes up towards the canopy as his feet come to point back towards his own son - the meek young teenage boy who would once again be the center of attention.
"The people who fight," Jao starts, eyes closed, one fist out the side of the white veil of sacred cloth that currently covers him, "they... they took my first home from me--"
"Aw, Jao, I--"
A hand extended to the son is not met, as the boy turns further away.
"I don't understand!" His voice grows weaker. Sorrow. Hurt. Fear. Familiar emotions. "They... they say I will die! The sorcerer's people! The way they... they would mock me! They would threaten me! That they'd--"
"Jao, hey, hey, J--"
"One of the Kings of Fighters... she wouldn't go for me," and why would Momoko have done so, one of the most gentle souls around? "The... the ice girl who fought for the other side, she... she refused to attack me." That's Erika, whom the father eliminated.
The father seems helpless to try and do much more than gesticulate uselessly with his one free hand.
"When, when I got lost out in the graveyard, there was... there was this woman who helped me find my way..."
"Ah, her, I," the father clears his throat and looks shiftily off to the side. He coughs twice.
"The one with the sword, who woke us up... and.... and the one on the hill, even he," one of them is Kenshi, the other is vague - was there another swordsman, "he wouldn't..."
"Jao. Jao, buddy-- ah, sorry, sorry, father son moment, hard to get in a word with things like this with, one sec," he raises a hand to Nakoruru as he kneels before a boy who has outgrown the need to be knelt down to in order to make eye contact, "ahh, it's not all bad out there, that's why I--"
"And your friend, she just hit me! She didn't kill me, she just... she... what do they want of me, father?!" Jao screams from under the calming blanket. He is managing to scream from under the confines of a relic that invites warmth, healing, and calm. It is for the good of everyone, then, that he has it on.
A quiet passes between the two of them, as the father eyes Nakoruru, his son, the canopy, then the canopy again (back to back, somehow), back over to the tree that gnashes and lashes out from a distance that may now be considered reasonably safe, and to his son again.
"Y'know," the oddball elder of the two prefaces, bringing his free hand to his chin, "you never really got much say so far, eh?"
Jao's outburst, mild as it might have been among outbursts, appears to have drained him as his eyes shut close to the start of a new wave of tears. He successfully fought the calming, nurturing influence the once. Overcoming the artifact like that must have taken it all out of him.
"So, buddy," comes Howard Rust Jr. with a hand upon the boy's cloth-draped shoulder, "let's make the rest of this your trip. Yep! Make you pick what we do."
What are the first and foremost wishes of everyone here? It should be obvious. The bookies won't even take bets. 'I want out of here.' 'I want to live.' 'I want to have this never happen again.' Come on. It has to be one of these. This ordinary, cowardly, helpless boy, with a fortunate fool of a father and only a disparate coalition of unaligned warriors who ultimately chose to see to his well-being instead of salivating at the prize promised of his golden boon...
"Father... Nakoruru..." Jao looks to the both of them, arms crossed about his chest as he pulls the cloth close...
And slowly, neatly, removes the miraculous conduit of life chi, folding it up politely as though he were practiced at folding his own laundry and towels back in a world and home much more suited to him.
"C'mon! I know what we can do," uh, dad, didn't you just say it'd be his pick? "Maybe we could check out the water a--"
"I want to help them." Jao says, staring Nakoruru. It is hard to say it's resolve, when the eyes are glossy, and wet with tears.
"Help 'em?" Dad seems taken aback.
"I... how do I help them... please... I want to know..."
Standing a couple of meters behind the two, the Ainu guardian watches as Rust reacts with another start provoked by the great sentinel's departure back to the skies. There is a flicker of amusement mingled with confusion at the strong reaction from the same individual who gleefully wrestled a murderous tree for minutes straight. Arcing a narrow eyebrow slightly, she folds her arms in front of her, head canted slightly to the right.
"Mamahaha wanted me to let you know that she'd be keeping an eye on you."
With the look on the girl's face and her equivocal tone, it is impossible to to be certain if that was an implied threat or intended to be supportive. In fact, it's possible the young looking falconer isn't even sure herself - perhaps she is merely the conveyer of a message with context understood only by the raptor and the strangely wary man. Whatever the case may be, she offers no clue with which to clarify the ambiguity, attention shifting toward Jao as he comes to a stop and slowly turns around to face her.
Steel-grey eyes that have seen all range of human nature study him, the quizzical look she gave the boy's father completely replaced by a somber mien, arms unfolding to rest against her sides. Watching him wrestle with the truth of his experiences, both now and through the fog of what must be painful memories, she glances toward his father then back to the youth but offers no answer for the questions he struggles with now. A supportive smile is briefly offered toward Rust as he tries to call time out for a father/son moment. But it is quickly replaced by a suddenly distant look in the young woman's eyes before she closes them and starts to turn to the side, shoulders falling ever so slightly as she bows her head.
Quietly, with no hint of impatience, Nakoruru waits, hands clasped in front of her then.
Only when Jao voices her name does the Kamui-sent warrior lift her head, blinking her eyes and turn to face him. She takes a moment to focus, as if in the few moments Rust spent speaking to the boy her thoughts had been far away from this place. In the shadows, her right hand lifts to swipe a finger along the base of her eye before returning to clasp over her left in front of her, the boy now receiving her full attention.
That same cant of her head from before returns as he slowly, reverently removes the ameliorable snow white clock, an artifact from a bygone era now put to the humble use of mending an injured nose and healing a hardly life-threatening bruise. Slowly, she steps forward as he finishes folding it, her hands extending to clasp over both sides of it as he finishes, patiently waiting to hear what he is trying to force to his tongue.
The life warden drops to one knee in the dirt, the lengths of her robe parting over her pants covered leg. Small as she is, kneeling places her lower than Jao himself as she pulls the cloth away, still holding it by pressing her hands toward each other on both sides.
Her eyes flick down to the amber beads on his scrawny arm then focus back on his tear stricken face. For the moment, the father is not given any attention at all.
"The choice of how to lend help to those who fight is yours to make, but there are two things you should know that may help decide your path. The beads on your wrist, the yellow ones you bear specifically, are unable to protect you from death like your father's are." It is a blunt statement, not mitigated in any way to make it a softer message for the tense child. She speaks to him as if he was a young adult. He should know the truth.
"In exchange, however, those stones have been pulling energy from the island, little by little, all the time you have been on it." She glances at the wrist jewelry once more then meets his eyes, lowering herself as much as necessary to do so should he react by lowering his own head.
"With that energy, you possess the power to return life to someone who has died. Alternatively, you could decide to grant the energy stored in your soul stone to another, such as someone still in the tournament, someone still fighting for all of us."
She closes her eyes then, lowering her head, "But you should know of the risk - the power on your arm could be used to protect yourself, or you could give it to your father to help him protect you. Giving it up to give another a second chance, or to support our champions as they approach the final round means surrendering that potential protection."
Nakoruru stands up straight, eyes looking over her folded cloak as if to appreciate the fine job he did in folding it. Finally, she moves her hands to two corners and begins to fold it further, herself, the thickness of the square remaining after each fold impossibly thin, until with one final fold it seems to vanish in her palm all together!
"Those are ways you could help, and should you do so, the unknown debt the world owes you would only grow magnitude. But the choice is yours to make; no one would judge you for keeping the energy to yourself."
The fidgeting, the twitching, all the tells of untamed, untempered youth in their unnatural element of being forced to be still... she has the boy's attention with every word, only blinking as anything close to a transgression as she educates about how one like him could 'help,' when so close to the end.
"Oh, so... so when they attacked father, when he first appeared, in that... that first fight," and so, Jao formally joins 'Team Your Dad Is Stupid Lucky' with the renewed primer about the shard color differences as eye contact nearly breaks while his head turns downward again, "that must be why."
Worryingly, the father is silent. Is he considering testing this hypothesis, or solemnly considering he's only still here because the Elder Gods will it slash think this to be hilarious? (One would think they could go a paragraph out of focus without having to worry about him running off and doing something boneheaded, a feat yet to be seen.)
Raising the glowing golden jewelry up higher as to take another look upon it, the warm light seems to glow ever brighter to the dimming woods. The passage of time, whether sunrise or sunset, have never bode well for anyone's hope of survival should they be caught out in these woods, as talk is made of resurrection. Jao's mouth opens slightly.
"...Ooooooohhh," it would appear that brain cells have found a way to cross the vast expanse of distance between one another for the father, a ways away, but does not appear to say anything further - or at least anything that would be audible over the conversation between one who is willing to learn, and one who is willing to teach, as the father turns his back for the moment. What could have his attention?
The cloth is released from the child's clutches, though it is less 'returned' and more 'held in wait.' So heavily drenched metaphorically in fear and sorrow, even with the stated desire to want to do /something/, what might be seen as one's resolve finally being roused from the reaches of darkness might yet seem challenged to keep afloat, a gaze struggling to stay level.
"Then... then at the graveyard, with... with the woman father tried to protect--"
"Yep!" There's the snap of the father's fingers as he faces the two of them, waggling a finger while turning his head away as he presses his lips together closely. "Ahh, sorry. I don't mean to interrupt, just came to think with. I was apologizing to this young woman... Aya? Aya. Had trouble keeping her sword safe, so... so I brought it back to her."
That's a gross simplification of the wild chase and incredible circumstances that saw them trying to find her again.
"Y'know, with that gem thing and all, figured she could have heard me." He laughs nervously, and he may or may not have realized just how weird it is to try and talk to someone who is dead without any overt ability to communicate back. "Well, uh... brought back someone else who was around her about. Guy named... Fred?"
He must mean Frei, the spirit displaced by time itself... and it would appear this man, somehow, managed the feat of giving one a body that was never born in this world. Once again, another circumstance that can be only chalked up to chicanery and comedy.
"Ahh, sorry, he's my problem, don't mean to interrupt," he waves a hand as he takes several steps off towards a very intriguing bioluminsecent bush with thorns that occasionally terminate in flared-out bell shapes, whispering noises at high pitches too high for most human ears to hear.
Now that the father is done ruining this initimate, intricate moment of a young boy learning what power he truly holds, what he could still yet hold, to be a pivotal force in the end of days for Earthrealm - and everyone and everything they all knew - he nods his head a few times to Nakoruru.
"Th...thank you," he says, "I... that's... that's all the whispers, then," he says, holding up his bangle. "I... I kept hearing them... they kept getting louder..."
Those souls that inhabit these stones... the kind of company everyone keeps appears to vary wildly. Some urged violence. Some attacked weakness. Some praised the noble among them. Some yet decided they wanted nothing to do with any of this (we won't name names).
Jao exhales loudly.
"They told me... to stay near the strong." Vaguely worded advice... that's not otuside of the norm, for divine guidance (or just the undying peanut gallery, either or). "I wanted... I wanted nothing to do with fighters... ever again, but..."
Uh, father, are you getting this? Over there? Are you listening at all, or-- oh, forget about him!
"I-I'll find a way," the boy sniffles one last time. No, his nose is clearer, now, "to help them. I... I promise."
As she explains the small, beaded miracles on both of their wrists, it is impossible to miss the dots being connected. That the boy didn't fully understand what he had is not surprising and largely why she knelt down to speak to him on the matter. Her pace of instruction is controlled, attempting to layer the new ideas on him one at a time rather than overwhelming him with too much at once. One might get the impression that being a teacher, even at her young age, is something core to her experiences from before this place.
But then she starts to realize that the father also seemed to be learning from all this and a look of mild distress crosses her features. Without Kamui Kana around to explain all of the rules of Mortal Kombat to Earth's champions, they were largely left to figure things out on their own, but almost everyone managed to accomplish that much. Did this man... avoid figuring out any of it whatsoever throughout all this time on the island?
"I'm sorry," she states before they begin piecing together their experiences and how the things she explained would account for some of the stranger phenomenon. Lifting her hands to rest them atop each other at the base of her neck, she exhales softly, bowing her head, "I should have been more diligent in making sure that all that stood for our world knew exactly what they were dealing with to the best of my abilities. I apologize that all this information comes at such a late hour. You... should have been informed."
She falls quiet to let them start figuring out the other things that happened. Something at a graveyard, a name of one of the champions who fell in kombat. One she had met so long ago. Her statue recently vanished from the reliquary of legends... Blinking, Nakoruru looks puzzled for a moment at the mention of a Fred. She was always checking on the shrine in the palace, paying attention to the fates of those who fought for either side, certain that every detail would be important somehow. At no point had there been a memorial for a Fred.
But it comes to her finally, a recollection of the man at the graveyard the day Zach battled to retrieve the very same relic that tended to Jao's injuries. The one furious for her use of the psychic swordsman to do potentially do something she would not. There was incredible power in that one. Thoughts drift back further, to a small fire shared beneath a broken wall, of apples eaten and stories told. A soft smile cross her lips. So, now both of them live, apart from each other, and somehow, this man and his son, by apparent happenchance, played a role in allowing two lives to exist where there had been one. If Earth survives the threat of calamity hanging over it, what will it mean for the future, for the man who never lived to go home to a world that does not know him?
Her attention shifts back toward Jao as he speaks of the whispers. Everyone's attunement with their soul shards had played out differently, some to favorable circumstances like her Ainu sister's. Others... to horrible nightmare.
The boy puzzles over the seeming paradox of being told to cling close to those with power, the sorts that took something irreplaceable from him, ruined his right of a peaceful childhood without concern.
"On the island of Hokkaido are many foxes," Nakoruru states thoughtfully. "All are known for their cunning, with cleverness to outsmart even the smartest of people with their tricks, illusions, and half-truths. Most of them are harmless, red foxes that play their tricks for amusement but never go so far as to inflict loss or pain on those that fall prey to their antics. On occasion, their tricks have even been for the good of a village or individual suffering in some way." She pauses, eyes shifting to the side, a distant look to them again. These stories, relics from a time already lost, much like herself.
"But," she continues, "There also exists smaller number of black foxes - furred devils, they will go to any lengths to sow death, destruction, disease, and suffering. It is against them that some of our greatest ancient heroes have battled, to keep the evil of the black foxes from harming people. Yet for the red foxes, villagers will offer prayers and live alongside in peace."
She glances back toward Jao, smile returning, "Please think on this and consider what could be learned by the story I have shared."
The young woman bows forward at the waist, hands still resting at the base of her neck, ebony black hair spilling over one shoulder, "I have faith you will find a way. The intentions of your heart are noble. But also know that I will keep my word as well - if you ever need help from me, I will be thankful to provide it."
For the young boy's part, overwhelmed with the environment's cues... no, 'cue' is too mild, let's say 'blatant tells...' seems to be nodding along and taking in what information there is from the orator, over the ominous all around that would speak their non-verbal words about just how welcome they are to linger here.
Meanwhile, the father appears to be doing something very important? If grabbing one of the open bell-thorns between two gloved fingers and shaking it to vague amusement is important? In the off-chance that it's something that spits poison, acid, or coconut flavoring, he at least appears to have the sense to have it pointed away from his face. He seems thoughtfully amused by whatever strange thing he sees out of this, while his son and his new friend have a heart-to-heart about one's newfound strength, and another's guidance and promise. This may, in its own way, answer that unspoken question (and bring about new ones that may similarly have disappointing or outright horrifying answers).
"It's... it's not your fault," the boy, one whom sought and required so much comfort and reassurance in these trying times, makes the token attempt to return such, "I... when I... appeared," he must have been one of the summoned, given he forms the beginnings of 'came' but decided there was a better word for it, "I didn't see father anywhere, no matter how much I called--"
The boy turns his head away sharply when he realizes he doesn't see him now, only to find him still messing with the odd bush. The father makes back eye contact and waves a hand while a bright green ichor drips from the abused thorn-bulb. Each drop hardens on contact with the ground into a number of strange, fractal patterns, stretched out into unseen and imperceptible moulds that would guide their shape.
"--I, I don't think he could have known," it's impossible to discern if he is reassured at the sight of a grown man who seems to have retained some of the inherent curiosity and joys of a child, the joys of which he himself lost far too soon in the wake of those who would abuse their gifts of power for the sake of conquest and strife, as he faces back towards the Ainu mystic.
As discussion segues over to the likenesses of foxes - of creatures whose natures seem to run counter to humans' own, and yet display such a great disparity of benevelonce versus malevolence among their numbers. The harmless inconveniences to the deadly schemes. The invitation to think and consider how it could be applied...
It must have been nothing short of incredible fortune, then, that the 'foxes' so far have been, in this analogy, red. Even a number of those who would instead have pledged their banners under the black... the boy breathes out deeply as the young woman of a time well before either of their own.
"Th... thank you. Thank you," the boy repeats a second time, as his voice strains with the stress and weight of what his words mean.
"Whoops! That's rude of me!" And then the boy's father trots along back to the boy's side, whose underlying exuberance may undermine the enlightenment given within a time of great need, as the end grows nearer.
"Sorry, thought I'd... I'd offer if you needed a drink," the aging man says as he holds out the shell anew, only once looking over his shoulder and above for any sign of something he might swear up and down isn't that hawk if asked (so perhaps it's best that the obvious is left alone), allowing Nakoruru an opportunity to secure the pure seedling.
"But, really, y'know," really, what does she know? "First time I've ever seen Jao connect with... almost anyone, yep," there's a certain shiftiness evident in the first few words, but what weight that actually has against the rest of the statement is, for the moment, irrelevant, a smile born not of relief but just from simply being happy and content. A rare smile that, for the time being, truly does not belong in these parts. To weary souls that still cling to humanity and mercy, it might be a welcome intrusion. "So, just want to say," which is to say what his boy was already saying before he came by to ruin the moment, "thanks! Ahh, one of these days, Trevor and Natalie'll be ready to see some great things in..."
Wrapping the other arm around Jao's upper back, the hand raises up in a friendly wave... but it seems like the right to disengage from the conversation remains in the boy's control.
For his part, the boy brings his hands together and bows before Nakoruru again in silence, thankful for the help, the advice, the well-wishes, the emotional support, and the circumstances in which the lot of them aren't finding themselves having to yet run for their lives.
There is a subtext of patience with the boy in the way the Ainu teacher speaks to him, her pacing deliberate, her emphasis on the words and points she feels most important for him to take in. It is easy to get the impression that sometime in her life, when she wasn't in circumstances that required the blessed blade at her wait, the instruction and guidance of others was her natural calling. As he tells her that it isn't her fault, the gentle warden smiles, looking as if she understands the sentiment, but perhaps is unable to forgive herself for not seeing to it that every last champion of Earth knew everything possible about the edicts that governed this grotesque kontest.
"It must have been terrifying," she murmurs thoughtfully as he touches on his harrowing arrival and the absence of his father, her voice soft, eyes breaking contact as if taking a moment to imagine it herself - does she have a similar experience to draw upon for reference, from which to build empathy with another's plight? If so, she says nothing, eyes flicking back to him then over beyond his shoulder as she realizes he is looking to make sure his father is still around. The man's curious prodding of what is very likely to be a deadly plant of some kind - anything not deadly has to have been snuffed out by now - begs to be watched for a brief moment. But after seeing his interacting with the whip-like flailing branches of a murderous tree, she is more inclined to trust either in the man's hidden skill or his phenomenal luck to see him through. Jao has her focus once more.
He offers thanks and Nakoruru stands up straight, bowing her head, her arms at her sides. "It is my honor to-" only to be cut off by the abrupt return of his father, the man's unending movement and inexhaustible energy truly a sight to behold. The holds out the shell, offering her a drink of the white liquid contained therein, protected from the thick corruption in the by layers of dependable, durable shell.
Glancing between the man and his offering, the young warrior extends her hands to cup them around the base of the opened pod and accept the naturally grown bowl from him. Holding it in front of her, cradled in her two hands with caution and concern, she gazes down on the green heart of it, the impossible seed, a product of this fel wood yet in and of itself, pure of all contamination.
"Thank you, it seems I have become quite thirsty," she replies, looking up toward Rust while not actually drinking of the liquid. "If it would be okay with you, I will hold onto this." she finishes with an expression of gentle warmth, thoughts for a future potential where from even the worst places, something wonderful can be born.
He speaks of the boy's rare case of opening at all to another and Nakoruru's expression shifts back to concern but her attention shifts to Jao - he is the one she is interested in. "You are strong, Jao. Strong in the face of so much adversity, so much loss. Life will never be easy but I know in your chest beats the heart of a good man... I look forward to seeing the great things your kindness can accomplish."
She glances back toward Rust as he offers his own thanks eventually, and mentions other names - other children? A nod of acknowledgement is given the dad and while the smile persists as he puts his arm around Jao's back, the same distance in her eyes from before returns, her expression slightly more strained. The moment passes, her eyes finding their focus at the waved hand, a gesture she mimics by shifting the shell into her left hand, hugging it against her chest, and waving her right hand in return.
Jao's bow is answered with a bow of her head and closing of her eyes, "Be well, and fare journeys." Lifting her head, she looks to Rust, then to Jao, as she continues. "One day, I hope you will share with me your story so that I may carry it with me forever. The tale of your life is a unique thread that no one else will ever experience in the exact same way. Treasure that, and always remember the path you have walked."
She stays put and it becomes clear that Nakoruru, chosen of the Kamui, warrior priestess of nature, no longer has intentions of following the two off into the forest in the wrong direction. Whatever judgements she may have of the father's survival techniques, she seems to have decided that the boy is in good hands. He already has all the protection he needs.
"You bet!" The father's shell-bearing hand freed, he raises it up open-handed with a wave and a smile. Both of which are born of a man who does not comprehend the improbable miracle that he has handed over, nor of the lack of guarantee that he will ever get his hands on even another shell without loss of life or limb as he straightens out to a stand far too adventurous, far too /ready/, for what both have ultimately suffered throughout.
The boy casts a sidelong look, even slightly recoiling, as though still wanting to cling to the oasis of tranquility and wisdom - some bastion of sanity and clarity! - that Nakoruru provides. That the moment in which some sort of inner strength is finally found, he will have to go back out into the wil--
Correction, continue to be in the wild...
And walk with the knowledge and encouragement blessed upon him, as Nakoruru shares her approval of his resolve, his intent...
"You and me both!" An agreement of great expectations. There is the beginnings of defiant laughter that would be a beacon to whatever darkness awaits, but it is cut off by a sudden crink in his back. It's more an assumption of a crink, anyway, as that's where the free hand goes to gently massage it.
Wordlessly, without anything to say - perhaps throat now swallowing a lump that represents a greater weight that might yet rest on his shoulders that seems improbable to consider ever swallowable, but best to move on before much breath is wasted in making sense of this anology any more than anything else involving at least one of these people - Jao and his father find themselves guided along down a path of continued uncertainty, allowing Nakoruru the last word.
This will be a memory kept. Treasured, to be kept safely in the attic? Hung over an open fire, a readily recalled experience? A locked away event, to only ever be brought back under duress?
Childhood and parenthood remains - even millennia of wisdom down the line! - an ongoing learning process...
"All right, what say you we go down the path with the bushes, eh?" The father suggests. "About the way we came without."
...In which sometimes you get held back a grade.
The further they go, the more and more Nakoruru seems less the living legend among them, and like an immaculately preserved relic kept among the current successors of humanity through unwavering faith and bottomless respect, an appearance that belies the shrinking number of her people. Jao sneaks a look back over his shoulder every so often as if to confirm the reality of what has transpired, before at last setting his sights squarely ahead.
"Oh! I was supposed to ask her about... ahh, I'm sure we'll make it work out, eh?" Whatever it was, let's hope for the best about whoever or whatever it entailed...
"So! What do you want to do...?" The question is asked by the father, voices trailing off to be lost to the fell forest ambience.
To what end, next, will their journey take in the final days of the tenth kontest?
Log created on 00:27:23 12/25/2016 by Rust, and last modified on 02:55:51 01/11/2017.