Description: It might not be the end of the world, but it's certainly the end of Shang Tsung's island, the sorcerer's secluded home returning to the sea in an agonizingly slow death throe. Limping toward any hope of safety, Howard Rust Jr. and his son Jao are accosted by the hungry dead... but a last-minute save by someone who owes them a debt may change the course of their fate.
Shang Tsung's Island is sinking. The dead are walking, looking to recruit yet other able bodies (once disabled) into the revenant hordes for the fell aims of some terrible people on the cusp of succeeding on a brilliant back-up plan. The scopes of ambition far surpass the imaginations of several generations of Earthrealm's humans - there will be no rest in victory.
There's hardly rest in a narrowly avoided fatal end to the proceedings. One Howard Rust, Jr., dressed in the tattered remains of a beige-hued local ninja suit that leaves much of his upper body and one arm bare, struggles to move too quickly with the wounds suffered at the hands of Lotus - and, Munin's, on top of that - which puts into question just how far he was willing to go with his son's plan to inspire and empower the few surviving champions. He may well be pushing the limits of the blue shard's protections (...again).
"Father, where... where do we go," Jao pants, panicked. The two have found temporary dry high ground as they come across a newly-formed shallow lake of muck and death. These monuments surrounding them will soon sink into physical obscurity under the waves, the last existing traces of those who came to a tragic end to soon be forever lost.
"Where she's at," the father responds. The pipe is already long-since drawn anew, though whether he could move and swing with any appreciable strength nor agility is... something that might be beyond even him.
"B-But there's... there's... the dead everywhere," Jao says, "we... we can't stay."
"Ahh, we don't got to where," the father mumbles. For whatever reason, this is worth risking certain death (or to smell like certain death for maybe the next six years).
The laundry list of all the little things, the stupid ideas, the nigh-suicidal actions - raw, unadultered idiocy! - that the Elder Gods must have found nothing short of hilarious to bear witness to is far too long to give specific examples at this juncture. It may, instead, be time to give credit to a simply intrepid, curious nature that has allowed this man a much better read of the sinking island's topography than even some of the unfortunate souls who have been stationed here for, um, a lot longer.
Even giving /that/ much to the experienced adventurer and his hapless adopted son is painful to the intelligent mind - a concession made with narrowed eyes, clenched teeth, and a shuddering hand that would rather sooner attempt to crush the opposing hand currently engaged in the metaphorical congratulatory handshake.
The water level rises, slowly but surely. The earth itself quakes every so often, as sections of land start to collapse into the water soon. How in the hell are they going to get to Aya's grave marker, let alone exhume the body, and safely carry it back with them?
"But... that... that woman," Jao stammers, "if... if she's dead, then, won't she be... like the one that attacked you?"
"Ahh, I'm not... too... worried... yep." The father nods, a little more slowly as sinister shades of shambling shapes illuminate the smoky haze of dirty mists with their red eyes. Little, beady, red dots that pierce the fog.
"...There's... there's a lot of them," so says Jao, who in all the stresses he's suffered, hardly has it in him to scream as he stands ever closer.
"Countin' 'em. One... two... three... four... five... wait, those two just have the one eyes, my mistake, sorry, five... huh, that one doesn't even have a head, uh..."
Jao, for his part, has taken enough of a count to know how the odds look, should they all approach and converge...
And at that moment... a breeze blows through.
It isn't the wailing hurricane one might expect amid the rest of this disaster; rather, it's a gentle breeze, a warm breath, like that first touch of fresh air after leaving the house on a fine spring day that pulls you outside. Completely and utterly incongruously, the scattered petals of a rose blow past Rust and Jao, which -- given the circumstances -- should absolutely not be possible.
The voice comes from atop a pillar, impossibly tall, nearby. Silhouetted against the swirling cascade of grey stormclouds is a figure, a kimono coat worn loosely on their shoulders, fluttering in much more powerful wind that the aforementioned zephyr.
A zombie looms large from the mass, suddenly, blood-red eye wide, slavering mouth hungry for two heroes who have done nothing but their hardest to survive without hurting others on this miserable island that seems to take more than it gives. Hands with nails like claws, poised to strike.
And then Aya Hazuki is just kinda *there*, as if the intervening space didn't exist. In a flash of silver, the katana at her side is drawn with lethal force and speed; the zombie's body is so neatly bisected that for a moment the entire situation is held in tableau, as if nothing had actually happened.
"...should stay dead," she says, sheathing her blade with a definitive metal-on-wood *click!* sound. The zombie, for its part, slowly slides in half before tumbling to the ground... perhaps alive, but now quite useless when it comes to attacking Rust and his son.
Her back to the pair, the battousha crouches into a sword-drawing stance, hand hovering over the hilt. "Don't worry," she says, absently. "I've got this."
The remaining revenant horde, in the moment of stillness, collapses on the now-trio like a tidal wave. But if their purpose is to harvest the bodies -- or likely, souls -- of these humans, then that desire is left decidedly unfulfilled.
There are plenty of hungry dead, but if Rust or Jao try to watch her fend the zombies off, it's literally as if she is *everywhere* simultaneously. Her form is visible only in the barest flickers of movement. One fraction of a second she angles a kick that takes a zombie's head clean off; the next, all that's visible is the parabolic silver arc of her blade leaving the saya, cleaving a bloody arc through a handful of zombies, and returning to its sheath in less than the blink of an eye.
And the rose petals. With each felling of a hungry zombie, there they are. Perhaps nowhere else on earth might this be possible, but in the fading life of an island that sits astride dimensions where anything's possible... here, perhaps, will is more important than physics. Or, perhaps, like their use in pop symbolism, they are merely a trick of the eye, giving shape to the haphazard form of blood as it flies into the air.
And then, in an instant, it's over. The final zombie -- perhaps hoping desperation will give it strength -- circles toward the family Rust, and finds itself subsequently diagonally bisected by a woman who is simply *there*, without warning, as omnipresent as the wind.
Her blade makes a series of rather definite flicking motions, cleaning itself admirably; it slides gently and smoothly back into the scarbbard as Aya regards Howard and Jao. "Just repaying a favor."
Both members of the Rust household perk up and look about, either which way, as the first words of a woman whose voice shouldn't be among the ears of the living by the usual laws of life and death carries through across the gentle breeze that seems to wipe away some of the dirt, the moisture, the overwhelming dread. Neither of them think to look upwards to the pillar of origin.
The lunging zombie draws more immediate concern than the voice. The boy cowers, the man is being approached from his weaker right side, where he only manages a nominal defense with a raised forearm and an open hand faced outwards. (Huh, he might be cowering too, come to think of it?)
The cracks of vision afforded between the fingers are flooded with the soothing, beautiful, agile flight of rose petals that fill the air in timing to the sound of steel cutting through flesh that is working unpaid overtime.
"It's--" Jao tries to point out the obvious as his father lowers their hand to catch visual confirmation - and vocal assurance - of the one, the only...
"I'll be!" One can hear a warmer cheer coming up from the older man. The way he carries himself, the way he speaks, it can be quite the task to discern what things he says /aren't/ in that tone, but the quantity of just how cheerful, that's a different story.
Jao gets dizzy trying to watch her move - simultaneously exist? - to the degree he has to hold onto dear old dad to stop himself from getting nauseous.
The artistry of Aya's swordsmanship is blemished - only atmospherically - to the backdrop of Rust Jr. coughing up one of the rose petals that get lodged in his throat for a moment.
Taking a deep breath, Jao breaks ahead of his father a few steps - a decision that the Jao of a time before this tenth kontest one would believe unthinkable - and bows his head towards the swordswoman in thanks.
"Th... th... thank you," Jao says soon after, relieved as anyone could be for the well-being of a stranger who they never met while alive to begin with. "We were attacked by... by one earlier... like... she was like a cat... with those eyes, sharp teeth, and... and knives--"
"Jao took care of 'em!" The father laughs, having regained control of his lungs as he gets his right hand around the boy's shoulders, leaning forward with a slight, pained hunch. "Don't worry about that one, eh?"
The person that Jao describes... that sounds a lot like who had first taken away Aya's heartbeat, doesn't it?
"So, ahh, yep! Fancy... meeting you again, uhh," the older man's voice starts to trail off - but does he really have anything important to add when this is not the time and circumstances in which to stand around and chat?
There's a brief moment where, in this two-pronged stream of information, Aya tries to put the description given to her -- an unmistakable one, all-told -- and the statement 'Jao took care of her!' togehter.
'You should know, she is dead. The thing you last fought. An Outworld pawn, you have nothing more to fear from her. It seems so far, no one will pay for her return.' Those had been Ayame Ichijo's words, on the subject of Aya's killer.
'If she truly was a pawn," had been Aya's response, 'I suppose I find her more pitiable than anything, now.'
She still looks a little skeptical that a gangly teenager took that person out, and it entirely shows. But the feeling that, in the end, the knife-wielding sociopath was just another tool to be used and thrown away by the forces controlling this tournament... that, in its own weird way, does give Aya a reason to crack the ghost of a smile. "Sounds like she got what she deserved," is her diplomatic response. Who knows; Jao was selected for Kombat, so perhaps some power does sleep underneath the anxious, fearful surface.
For a heartbeat, Aya realizes that thought wasn't just hers; it was Frei's, too.
"I know that the outcome wasn't... entirely what you'd hoped," the swordswoman says to Rust, features softening somewhat in sympathy. "But the truth is, I still wouldn't be standing here if you hadn't taken the actions you did, Mr. Rust. For that, you'll always have my thanks."
There's a pause, and then a crack of thunder from the skies above interrupts the reunion tableau. Looking up at the sky, Aya's mouth sets into a firm line, then a frown, before she turns back to the father/son duo. "To be honest, I've been looking for you. There's a way off the island, but we'll have to hurry if we're going to make it."
Though a second and hopefully final victory may have been achieved over the one who caused so much disarray and death against the Earthrealm forces, the pawn in question may never be truly disposed of. A person who hardly /is/ one as opposed to being some engine of destruction, murder, and misery may yet prove an ample pawn for however many other powers may yet have the ability to stay their removal from the mortal coil... but she is no longer of consequence for as long as it takes for someone to help her out of the maw of the sinking tree.
It might be a little more worrying that dad, over there, might be largely okay with the thought that his innocent, frightened, ill-equipped son may have been forever changed by potentially taking a life (or ending an unlife), assuming that is indeed the end of the nefarious creature Lotus, but...
"Not a problem!" So says the oddball older man, steadying himself up with Jao's help. "As long as he--" The so-called ninja lowers his hand dismissively, perhaps to himself, as he transitions to a brief chortle without finishing his thought, "ahh, that's about as good as any outcome, eh?"
Still, as long as he... what? What was he going to say?
"Th-there's a way off?!" Jao exclaims, life and vigor returning to his eyes. Hope! An escape! Not just staying off certain death! An absolute end to this madness! A return back to... home. What alternative was he thinking? This island is falling apart! Where the hey would they stay? The eerie portal chamber of the tower over yonder which--
--appears to be tipping over. Scratch that thought.
"Please! We... we need to leave," everyone does, but Jao is especially insistent, bringing his hands together as though begging.
Dad, meanwhile, ambles a few steps towards the water for reasons that become clear a moment later - thrusting his right hand into the muck, the ruffling sounds of a wet, black tarp is lifted clean from the dirty water (...that doesn't sound right). It is snapped upward and outward, casting - in a brief moment - a truly unsettling blackened backdrop against a land where the dead are denied eternal rest. It's hard to put a finger why... it's just a black tarp, and yet...
It is neatly and hastily rolled up, the speed of which this is accomplished seeming impossible with its impressive length. Not a single drop of water remains after his right hand swats across it in a singular stroke. Completely dry.
His ungloved right hand bears no discoloration from its time in the pooling water from the rising tide. No, it still looks about as dry as Aya might have witnessed when looking over the two. Dry, irritated-looking skin, maintaining its unsightly shape and consistency...
"Father?" Jao asks. "What's--"
"Don't mind me in," he says with a knowing smile as he looks back towards the two of them with the rolled-up black tarp of disconcerting, indescribable character, waving his left hand weakly, "say, sorry, got to ask you one last favour."
He doesn't even give a break to have Aya or Jao ask what the hell it might be! "Go on and take Jao with. There's one other--"
The tarp. Hopefully Jao's not watching Aya's reaction, because no matter how good her poker face is (and it's pretty good), her instinctive reaction when she sees it is to take a half-step backwards. Her thoughts rather forcibly go to when Ayame brought her back from the... probably not really dead but close enough. The tarp had been laying over her in her impromptu, Rust-dug grave. Her sword had been lying on top of it.
Maybe seeing it now is just an uncomfortable reminder of her own mortality?
At the notion that she should take the kid and go, however, the battousha seems less unsettled; rather the opposite, in fact. "No offense, Mr. Rust, but unless the thing you're looking for is an actual person, I don't think staying is worth it." Now she very deliberately looks at Jao, gauging his response. Aya expects enthusiastic agreement, but can't quite be sure. Regardless, after a moment, she turns back to the hapless handyman.
"I'm not a parent. But I suspect your son would be sad to know you spent eternity at the bottom of the sea for the sake of something replacable." This is cheating, and she knows it; appealing to the dad card isn't fair. But she's gonna do it anyway.
The dad card. The responsible dad card.
"Don't go," Jao says, voice growing weaker at the idea that the two could stand to be separated again - perhaps for good. The warning from the kind stranger in the graveyard from before rings true that... one day, he'll have to stand on his own. If this man is allowed to have his way, it really could be /right now/.
He'd be a true fool to go further into the breach as he is... it was through the intervention of Aya that the two still draw breath with autonomy!
"It's... it's her, isn't it. Alexis," Jao utters. One of the other members of the King of Fighters tournament's Team Canada, who also got swept into the battle for the right of Earthrealm to resist being annexed by the forces of Outworld. He doesn't sound too enthusiastic saying her name - regardless of her means and intents, she did concuss him in a moment of weakness.
"You bet." That's not an exclamation mark. The sound of running water, rumbling earth, and roaming souls provides accompaniment to this statement. "Gotta make sure she knows where to go out," he asides to Aya.
Jao shakes his head a few times. Dear old dad steps up, hand on his shoulder.
"Believe me," words that have most certainly led to disappointment, pain, and/or humor at his expense - if not all three at once - spoken as he brings a hand up against the back of his head, through and against the long unstyled hair, rubbing it gingerly with a grimace like he were nursing a sore wound, "already go through a lot just getting through the day... yep. Wish I could tell ya about some of that, but..."
He winces. Whatever it is, this... this is something he doesn't sound like he'd be happy to discuss. This could be now or never, in the eyes of just about anyone reasonable about staring into the abyss of certain death.
"Then... then don't go! She's... she's strong! She's tough! I'm sure she's, she's," Jao is not actually sure. They didn't see hide nor hair of her for some time since their battle in the tournament. She almost certainly is dead... and in the thrall of one of the two powers of the island whom gambled to make use of the dead should the tenth tournament, unthinkably, not end in their victory.
To this, the aging man raises his right hand again, showing off the blue beads, taking his hand in Jao's. The two misshapen beaded bracelets, of yellow and blue colorations, come together.
"Kept you safe this long!" The older man smiles a little more warmly, as the intensity transfers from Jao's shard into his father's. "Just like I said I would when you'd start calling me 'Father!'"
That the souls transfer at all, something only at the very command of the one who possesses them, is proof enough of this trust without having to say anything or another as the older, tired, frankly more than a little stupid man stands back up and faces over to Aya.
"Sorry, don't mean to leave you out of the loop like that," he says now as he rolls a shoulder, "just, y'know. One of those times!"
One of the more famous gestures are made with his right hand. Pointer and middle finger raised, the others curled, hand straight up. Re-centering himself as best as he's able, he nods his head.
"Just say where! I'll be back sooner than you can blink!"
"Like, uh, nine-hundred and six times. Or so. Yep."
The fact that Rust's seemingly incomprehensible logic doesn't 100% register with Aya makes her blink, definitely putting the lie to the handyman ninja's claims to speed. Only nine-hundred and five to go.
Still, it does put her somewhat at ease when Jao not only makes it clear that what Rust seeks is a person, and more importantly that it's a person that they're at least familiar with even if Jao seems less than enthusiastic at the possibility of trading his father for this 'Alexis' person. Still... Rust's claim that he's got to go back and find her so that he can direct her to the escape route is made somewhat spurious by the fact that so far, Aya hasn't told him any of the details, which would make sharing them pretty freakin' difficult, all told. A part of her -- a remnant of long past association... in multiple ways, actually -- suggests that in the face of a Howard Rust deciding they're going to do something, that little logical snapper is basically irrelevant.
For a moment, though, while Aya's face says she's considering Rust's statement of intent, who she's *watching* is Jao, the helpless son. And to her practiced warrior's eye, he definitely *is* helpless. Not for lack of potential, but lack of will. He didn't ask to be here, and he wasn't prepared for it. That he's survived this long is 50% his father, but 50% sheer stupid luck. "If 'he' were here," Aya murmurs, "I bet he'd make a joke about Discworld genetics."
She's never read a Terry Pratchett novel in her life.
Seeming to come to some conclusion at long last, the battousha turns to Rust, face serious. She watches what she can now easily identify as the transferring of the energy this island insists on calling 'souls' from one pair of beads to another; a combination of being a resident of such a gem for so long, plus seeing Ayame using them in action, has given her considerable insight. "I'd be a bad... friend... if I didn't say that I think you're taking a risk you don't need to take," Aya says to Rust, carefully. Part of her knows that she's not going to argue, and that he's not going to budge, but she can HOPE that maybe, just MAYBE, he might change his mind if she can just say the right thing. "This 'Alexis' may be at the ship right now, waiting for you."
She does not say: 'why would you risk everything to help her?' A part of her knows, it's just this thing he does. And maybe now that she can look at her own experiences over the past few months, she can understand that a little better, too.
She doesn't need to like it, though.
There's a pause, and then a breath. She lays a single hand on the hild of her sword, her posture rather curiously like the straw-biting image of the ronin popular in manga. And when she speaks, it's to Jao. "We've never met. But before I say anything else, I'm going to ask you this: do you -- CAN you -- trust me?"
This is the kind of man whose sentences often seem to bleed with the ending of a completely different sentence, a completely different thought, before ever actually finishing the original spoken statement. Surely, his mind is alight with all sorts of amazing ideas, more than a half dozen of half-formed daydreams that seem to rarely finish development, that somewhere, somehow, it is worth making that one last risk for the sake of someone that might already be long lost... or found.
"Huh, really?" The middle-aged moron looks up, scratching at his chin. "That... that'd make things go better right then and there--"
The universe has itself a record scratch. Miraculously, it seems like her reasoning appears to have come through. A historical event in the making, in which a completely reasonable argument stops someone from doing a reckless and suicidal /thing/.
"It's... it's okay, father." He speaks.
Jao looks to the swordswoman whom now addresses him. They are strangers, as she rightly pointed out. She may even remember his protests for how far his father went for her sake! The way he's fidgeted, faltered, otherwise screamed and scurried about like a bug waiting to be squashed.
For years, he couldn't trust the sight of another fighter save for his father. Yet, so many of them here showed him kindness... when destroying him, absorbing the souls within the bracelet, might have made the goings far easier for them. In the big picture, insignificant. A victim awaiting the chance to become a statistic, another soul lost and consumed...
For all the trouble he caused, the traumatic experiences of his youth that has defined his ability to interact with the greater world that was, is, and shall continue to be defined by the strong and able, that such a question can now be asked...
A little more.
"Yes. I trust you." Devoid of the mistaken takes of hesitation, resignation, and forcefulness, the young teenage boy strings these words together without a beat, raising his head up to look Aya in the eyes.
They are devoid of the fear in which has come to define him.
"Father... he'll make it," he speaks, as though he weren't already there, tightening a hand into a fist... and bringing it up over his chest, loosening it to an open hand. "I'm sure of it."
The father eyes the son... closes his eyes, and nods.
"Yep. Sounds like he's good for it," so they say.
Who knows what this man actually went through when the two were separated before? The lengths he had to go to find him! The torment, humiliation, and uncertainty he braved just to reunite and protect him - are they going to throw away their hard-won bond, just like that? Whatever turmoil he harbors - if any, given he seems to make great strides into sheer obliviousness at the most surprising moments - may as well be washing away with Jao's unambiguous, full consent.
"I get it," the father says, these words not being quite as trustworthy, "no detours, no delaying!" He went into the frostiest regions of a land too cold for mortal humans to survive long off a crazy hunch about what a stone slab was in the company of Alexis - in his crazy mind, finding her in the middle of a small-scale apocalypse is right in the same league. "She's the last on the list, that's for sure with!"
The father waves once and looks away, surveying the sinking landscape for where he might go, to where he might find Alexis, if he can.
Jao says nothing.
...In truth, neither Jao nor father have any further emotional things to say to one another - what is there to say? One of his father's hopes was to one day help convey to his son the ability to truly enjoy and appreciate the world around him, whatever form it might take. Both, implicitly, seem to have an understanding that some things have a chance of ultimately working out - without much time nor space left for doubt.
Worse comes to worse, he's already passing on the message he's wanted to, from his own father.
To the distant memories of a time and people that are no longer the same as they were, there might be, indeed, a glimmer of likeness between this man and his legendary father.
[OOC] Aya says, "he left"
[OOC] Aya says, "without hearing"
[OOC] Aya says, "where the boat is"
As father and son converse, Aya's eyes are on Jao. Watching, carefully. Studying his expressions, weighing his words. It occurs to her that he has *not*, in fact, accepted the possibility that Rust isn't going to come back from this at all. He has not made peace with that fact. Instead he is living in hope, having watched Rust (and himself, by proxy) survive against all odds, against a wide array of potential disasters. All that sustains Jao now, to Aya's estimation, is faith. Hope and faith. The tiny, pragmatic part of her wants to make sure he's making the right decision; to ask him, point-blank, if he understands the enormity of the situation. Of what he's agreeing to.
But she stops herself from doing it. For however long the time was that Frei walked the earth and Aya's 'soul' -- she continues to struggle to call it that -- rode with him, the relationship suddenly inverted, she heard many things... a lot of them exasperatingly silly, to Aya's perception. But there was one specific thing he had said to Honoka, on the Ainu woman's path through the tournament: 'Hope is what lets you move forward.' Hope is just 'will' by another name... the will to believe in a happy, brighter future.
It is the province of youth, and she is loathe to take it away from him.
'I think you'll find these things have a way of working themselves out,' he'd said. Time to put that belief to the test.
As the silent farewell progresses, Aya says nothing. All of her feeling of a 'bond' with Rust, of friendship... it's like a phantom limb, mostly memory and not even her memory at that. She won't presume upon ghosts of a past long buried. But in their silent moment together, the battousha sees that perhaps, in Rust's eyes, lives hope as well. The hope that prepares for the worst. The hope that, even if this goes wrong, life continues.
Hopes for Jao.
Once the handyman ninja is off to the horizon, Aya inclines her head in the direction of the escape ship, and gestures for Jao to follow. "You may be wondering how he plans to tell this Alexis how to escape when he left before I could mention where we're going." Her tone, despite the actually quite serious implications of what she just said, is light, conversational, even curious... but she doesn't wait for an answer, instead choosing to continue.
"I do not know your father well. But I have a... close friend, who knew your grandfather. And now I know a bit about both of them, and you as well. So I'm going to tell you this:" And here, she quirks the ghost of a smile on her all-too-serious face.
"If arriving safely on the escape ship with his friend in tow is the least probable thing you can imagine happening, then I'm relatively certain it's exactly what will happen."
Discworld genetics, indeed.
"Let's go. We've a lot of ground to cover and things are getting worse by the minute. Stay close."
Log created on 16:39:39 03/19/2017 by Aya, and last modified on 00:01:06 03/20/2017.