Mortal Kombat - Now What

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Description: In the defense of Earthrealm, or perhaps just for the amusement of Shang Tsung, or maybe even because of fate, Aya Hazuki has fallen. But as she might have reason to know more than most, death isn't always the end. Long ago, she met Howard Rust Jr. by chance; now that she's moved beyond the veil, it's time for a more than a few reunions to occur...

And just like that, the girl with the knives was gone.

Perhaps it's because of the statues keeping watch, or because 'Mortal Kombat' is now distributed across the island, or maybe there's no reason at all, but the Warrior Shrine is silent, or as silent as any such place can be. The sounds of water, of air moving, of stone shifting ever so slightly; the acoustics of the place make their erratic and intermittent entry into the quiet an echoing intrusion that comes and goes in a flash. If anything, these interruptions make the peaceful stillness of the place all the more apparent, creating this tide of sound and silence that makes the calm 'noticeable'.

Someone who walked here now might not have believed that not that long ago, a battle for two peoples' very lives -- and the lives of countless others in the realms they represent -- took place here. Careful observation, however, reveals this to have been the case. Blood is splattered everywhere; inevitable, as two weapon fighters with blades would naturally produce. Less obvious is the distribution pattern of stones and pieces of masonry -- some quite large, all things considered -- that have been not just disturbed, but very clearly *hurled*, more than a few lying in shattered chunks at their point of impact. And yet through it all, the statues watch from on high, unmoved, uncaring.

And lying among the stone, enveloped in the sounds, she lies... unmoving, beyond caring.

The body is not askew; the woman clearly fell from her knees, face-down on the floor, the vaguest hint of an object lying beneath her that it almost seems as if she was protecting with the last moments of her life. The stonework around the body is stained with the dark crimson color of dried blood, the shade trending more toward a dark reddish black than the bright scarlet of lifeblood freshly shed. But other than that, there's little indicator of how long this body has lain here, its spirit beyond the veil. After all, it's not as if she would decompose on the spot...

...would she? The rules on Shang Tsung's island seem to be very... flexible when it comes to the passing of mortal bodies. And rigor clearly hasn't set in yet, for despite all the lost blood, despite the lack of breath, a bit of color still remains to this person.

Aya Hazuki lies, dead. But around her, the world is calm. Outside, the battle for Earthrealm's fate rages on elsewhere. Here, though... there is only peace.


Jao was convinced to want to seek food back within the confines of Shang Tsung's castle. It may be because he did not trust the very interesting fruit that his father found and seemed ready to try and eat from the outer edges of the Living Forest. It's a story far too long for a simple recap.
Given a place to rest, however brief, before the next battle is called, their father stands over a young boy at rest... but, from the corner of his eye, he can see two going somewhere.
"Huh. Could that...?" Two young women. One of them kind of reminds him of someone in passing. He lies down crouched in wait, behind cover. Some more time passes...
One, covered in blood, leaves.
He doesn't see the other one. The other one is the one that piqued his interest... normally, given the environs, one could put two and two together.
"She was awful bloody," he surmises, "walking away like that. Bet she was happy to escape a beating like that. Yep." A brilliant deduction. He might even have what it takes to be an extraordinary detective! This intelligent gentleman casts a few more looks about.
Guards are everywhere, of course. It's perfectly safe here. He casts one last look at Jao, who is about as sound asleep as can be...
With a series of incredibly obvious tumbles and movements RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE GUARDS, who do not see it fit to comment, he happens along down towards...


The tranquility of this place is almost never respected for long. Whether a battle before those who fought before, the simple footsteps of one who is curious to see the stone likenesses, or just someone shouting something.
"Hello?" Calls one Howard Rust, Jr., as he walks down the path of stone. He walks almost obliviously past spatters of blood, of indents and breaks from who knows how many conflicts that have happened through here during everyone's stay in the grand kontest.
A ways down, he catches sight... something of a marvel that he can make that out, given how little additional mind seems to be given to the drying blood all about him.
"H-Hey!" Even in her hunched-over, still position, there's vague memories of a time passed over a year or two ago in Southtown. For all the people he's seen and come across, it's a remarkable ability to associate the memory with the bent-over, kneeling body, as he takes off in a short jog towards her.
"I saw the other woman you were fighting, uh, I think," he says, as if encouraging someone he believes still has ears to listen, "all bloodied up. Yep. Looks like you really worked her over, hey--"
He kneels down towards the body, braided hair swinging about his shoulders.
"Can ya hear me?" He goes into nervous laughter. "Real mess out with. Don't worry. I'll help you up," he says, standing up, "just got to tell me when you're ready."

There is definitely no response from the woman on the ground and, once Rust is close enough, the reason is apparent. How could there be? The wounds in her neck would be impossible to survive even by fighter standards. If the woman *leaving* the scene looked bad, the one lying on the ground looks considerable worse: puncture marks everywhere, lines of now-fading red from slashes of all kinds. Being a fighter himself Rust knows that the average martial artist can rebound for damage a normal person would even find fatal... but that takes time, and strength. Do enough damage to a body upfront, in a short enough time, and... well.

If he's waiting for a response, then that wait will be considerable indeed. What at a distance might be misconstrued as a wounded-but-recovering person is, at close range, unmistakably a corpse.

In the pond, a koi flashes a fin, breaking the surface of the water with a distant but, somehow, painfully loud sound of rippling water, before descending back beneath the surface.

A loose pebble, perhaps teetering for hours on the edge of some precarious position, tumbles off its perch with a reverberating clatter.

All is still.

"Sorry to say... she's not going to answer."

The voice comes from behind, and perhaps more importantly, it comes from behind with 0 sensory indicators that someone actually entered the space at all. Even the stealthiest humans will do *something* faintly audible, or their presence will just be FELT by the sensitive; in this case, there just is a person there who wasn't there before. Build, unremarkable; fit enough, but largely average. His clothes are also plain; a changshan cut off at mid-hip, faded blue jeans, sneakers. The standout is the hair, a dark red just a shade lighter than the blood that stained these floors. And against all logic, he's... smiling.

If and when Rust turns to the sound, this person -- who is clearly HERE, though gives the faint but difficult-to-describe impression of NOT being here, in a horror-movie-special-effects kind of way -- waves his fingers in greeting.

"Ey there."

For a man his age, for his implied experience, there is this strange sense of innocence. Optimism? It doesn't seem like it ought to be within a forty-five year-old body, mind, and soul. (This is assuming the soul was born with the body, maybe a very dim animal accidentally slipped into the mix somewhere in reincarnation.)
He waits patiently. Too patiently, for the scent of death, the blood there is... denial? His face is almost unreadable. Who knows what madness lurks behind those eyes of his, that drives him so...
Then, a voice. A rare predictable motion from him, the aging handyman ninja stands up and looks over his shoulder towards the...
His left hand rubs against the back of his head full of hair. He's probably thinking or about to say, 'oh, hey, didn't notice you.' Maybe even 'no, you're wrong, she'll be okay, just watch!' There may even be a 'you killed her, didn't you, I'mma murder your butt,' and...
"Ah... that's how it is, then," he says, tone of voice even in keel as he stands up straight, though now facing away from the mysterious young man that speaks to him. (In)conveniently, it hides its face - for whatever it has to say before his words do.
"That's too bad. Sorry." Sorry... for what? Who's he speaking to? He stands still for a further time. The middle-aged wonder-blunder does not initiate further conversation unsolicited, the hand behind his hair drifting down to his side... and then slipping into a pocket. The other hand does, too, a symmetrical image of a man warming glove-clad hands within what he wears.

'That's too bad', says this familiar-seeming man.

The... we're-not-entirely-sure-what-anymore of Frei looks down at the body of Aya Hazuki, distant relation from a literal different world, and until now his anchor to *this* world. Without the aid of a mirror he's never seen her, never REALLY seen her, from the outside before.

If she had black hair, she'd be the spitting image of...

"Yeah," he says aloud, cutting that thought off before it goes any farther. "You're right. It is too bad."

Astonishingly, this awkward, halting conversation is secretly good, for Frei; big long pauses let him get his thoughts together, which is pretty important since his thoughts might be the only thing that there even IS of him at this point. The man in front of him is... everything about this situation, for lack of a better word, haunts him. The halting way of speaking, the tool belt, even the shape of his body... all familiar, nagging at him. And certainly, if any hero of the old world deserved a second chance, it would be...

A memory -- his own, but his own, an ironic reversal of recent events -- swims past like a silver fish in a dark sea of pondering.

"You've met her before," the redhead says, slowly, as if working this out. "In Southtown. At... oh, wow. That's right. At Mr. Frank's hot dog cart." For whatever reason, his smile returns, and he gives a helpless little chuckle. "I guess that one girl in that video game was right, huh? Constants and variables. Some things are the same no matter where you go." WHAT is he TALKING about?

The man does seem familiar, and yet, in some ways... not. There is a likeness. Many likenesses! Anywhere from a half to maybe two-thirds of a likeness. The possibilities are very few, at this point, as to the nature of this man before him.
"You bet," he confirms, as though reciting something oddly a bit too fond for a simple, throw-away meeting of chance of no further import, nor concern for anyone. That was their only meeting. Did she leave that strong of an impression on him?
...Come on, won't he say what's wrong with this picture?
"Wouldn't believe what a mess there was about that!" He breaks out into laughter. Is this how he consoles himself? Everything, on some level, is strange. Is he in acceptance of the passage of this young woman before him? In denial, retreating into the vaguest memories available to his person...?
Surely, he's coming across what's wrong with this picture now. Any day...
"Though, I gotta say," he speaks after mention of constants and variables. Okay, we're getting somewhere! He's rubbing brain cells! He starts to turn around to look upon the young man that is and isn't physically before him. Come on. Say it. 'You weren't there.' That's what's wrong with this picture!!
"Sorry, don't mean anything by this, but," the smile softens a little, it's almost a smirk. Kind of nervous? "But..."
"Didn't... notice you show up."
...Partial credit for the earlier issue...

"Then?" the red-haired figure asks, still smiling faintly, "or now?"

Either is a valid question.

To continue the confusing duality of the situation, as the spirit walks across the distance between himself and Rust a step or two, the stone actually crunches and shifts under his spectral feet. "But to answer your question, I've technically been here the whole time, before you arrived. I just didn't have a reason to..." He pauses, then furrows his brow, crossing his arms over his chest. What the hell do you even say at a time like this? How do you make conversation over a dead body, especially when you used to INHABIT that dead body, but you were already technically dead, so do it...?

Frei's green eyes close. He takes -- as a symbolic gesture more than anything else -- a deep breath.

"Look, I'm just going to get some of this out of the way right now. I'm a... let's say a 'spirit'. 'Ghost' sends the wrong image. And I was connected to this woman," he adds, turning and gesturing at the body, "whose name is Aya. She was killed in a tournament fight, and I have some theories as to why it is I'm... well let's just say I think there's more to this island, AND this tournament, than people are fully grasping."

He lets that hang in silence for a moment, thinking back to his conversation with Nakoruru, the Ainu storyteller. And then, abruptly, he tilts his head at Rust with an inquisitive raised eyebrow. "Hey, indulge my curiosity... what's your name?"

Someone ought to be frustrated at this - the talk of familiarity to someone who can't seem to know who or what this is, what's going on. The vague answers, all while in the company of a fallen fri-- acquaintance.
Two strange men are in the company of one another. Maybe, for lack of emotional outbursts, they have at last found some kind of kinship in these times...?
He doesn't shrink away from Frei's approach in any fear, like one probably should when beset against the inexplicable appearances of people who seem to be a little too friendly for the situation around them.
He stands there, facing Frei, hands in front pockets from the top half of a repurposed mechanic's jumpsuit that has become something of a vest top, wordless in regards to the query of 'then' or 'no.'
His left hand leaves the safety of a pocket and rubs at the back of his head again, mouthing 'spirit' and tilting his head. Acknowledgment, or confusion? The tilting seems to mirror the direction Frei's own head does, as he mumbles inaudible things in regards to Aya's death, and this tournament...
"My name? I think I said before... aw, heck, I don't mind saying it again!" This seems a little too jovial for the situation, but. "It's Howard Rust--"
That's the name of--
"--Junior. Nice to meet you, er... wait, before then, I know, what I'm gonna ask you is all weird."
The smile fades, a little less passively friendly, a little less conversational. Given his affable demeanor, the tone of voice seems to take a turn almost for the interrogative were it not for his word choice.
"You got any favourite movies you remember? Couldn't play you one now, but... just in case, wouldn't hurt to reminisce over one of those, eh?" Now, why would he ask that? How is that so important to ask, when so much is unknown and in the air about this tournament... and this young woman who lies dead next to him?

Everything seems calm until one word gets uttered:


This situation could not be any stranger. A man finds a dead body, strikes up a conversation with a call-me-a-spirit-not-a-ghost, who seems to know him yet doesn't. Meanwhile a dead body lies, not five feet away, on the floor of a shrine, which is itself located on a forgotten and uncharted island where the dimensional boundary between Earth and some... other... realm is wafer-thin. Rust MAY have just asked the spirit what its favorite movie is.

There's a pause, and then Frei bursts out laughing.

It goes on for a really long time, actually, but it is not constant. It starts with that weird, too-loud, too-abrupt sound of hysterical laughter, before evening out into genuine, more controlled bursts of actual, amused laughter... and then, as the entire affair comes to an end, it's the laughter of a body that is trying to cry and laugh at the same time, broken and interrupted and wet-sounding, sniffley.

When the sound dies down, Frei has moved to somewhere he can sit down, doing so, leaning against a pillar and looking up at the ceiling. "There's a French film that I doubt you've heard of. 'Cleo from 5 to 7'. It's about a French singer who is waiting to hear about a cancer diagnosis. The whole movie is about her coming to grips with mortality, because she doesn't know... is the doctor going to tell her she's incurable, or can it be treated? She meets a man, falls in love, sings a few songs. Great stuff, incredible soundtrack."

There's a pause, and then the redhead leans forward, clasping his hands together, and looks at Rust appraisingly. "At the end of the movie, right as she's finally decided 'okay, I'm mortal, so I need to accept that I might die,' the doctor arrives and tells her it's not terminal. The idea, see, is that fear and anxiety of the future can destroy your life now, but sometimes those kinds of situations can make you appreciate what you have more."

A pause, and then Frei leans back again, back of his head against the stone pillar, chin up but gaze still set on Rust. "Guessing that might have been more complicated an answer than you expected, huh?" A beat. "Howard Rust's kid. Who'd have thought."

Though Frei laughs and mirthfully describes the film, the older man's attention seems oddly captivated on this very obscure plot point. While a young woman's body rots no more than five feet away, while terrible things are happening between fighters locked in a duel to the death all around the island...
His arms cross as the emotional outburst of tears and laughter, subsiding over time to bring those hands back down as they give way to eloquence and education while the dead-but-kind-of-not guy takes a seat. What did he hope to gain out of such knowledge, in such a place?
Some things may be best left unexplained.
"Nope. I hear ya." This isn't a 'nope' of 'oh, he's asking me something, I need to pretend to have understood/followed along' but a 'nope' of 'he's on the same page.' None of the awkward delays...
He takes a short walk around Aya's body, now standing from behind her. Why this vantage point, he doesn't seem to say one way or the other, but there must be a significance if he's simply changing position and not doing anything eartly mortal bodies might do to try and rest and relax like... also sit down, or lean against something...
"Next shot I got, I'll get you a copy to watch, sound good?" He winks. There's a wider smile, in a place that does not deserve wide smiles. It's a friendly smile, a reassuring one, but... it does seem out of place, doesn't it, as it all segues towards the surprise of...
"That hasn't been news for close to... fifty years? About fifty. Take some odd ones off," he says, as if amused, "five of 'em! I'm the middle child of the bunch... but, ah, that ain't important right now, 'cause..."
He takes his hands out. He starts to count fingers. It's clear he's counting /something/, but what? His smile fades, allowing his tongue to poke out the top of his mouth and touch up at his nostril as he seems to be struggling with simple arithmetic.
What would he be checking numbers against? Fifty years for being a father, whatever year the movie came out? Frei didn't say, he couldn't know. He might be too embarrassed to ask, but it ends with a friendly enough shrug.
"You knew him before any of us were born, huh? Must've been about for a while by now..." He says as his eyes start to trail away towards his surroundings. He mouths three words.
Frei can make out 'her' at the end. Single syllable words...

"Before you were born... yeah, I guess you could say that."

He isn't even going to try and explain the entire situation. For starters, it would be meaningless anyway; this is clearly not the Rust he knew, or by now he'd have felt that same thing he feels every time he meets a refugee from the other world: that creeping sense of familiarity, of *outsiderness*, of existing but not belonging. If anything, the comfort in his own skin of the person in front of Frei is proof enough the man is not who he thought he might be.

Standing up, he gives Junior a genuinely pleasant smile. Even if... maybe especially if... things are different than he expected, what he's about to say is all the more necessary. "Your father was a good man. A genuine hero, actually. I don't know what your relationship with him was like. But I hope it was happy."

Fifty years... but in all honesty, why should that shock him? There's no reason for any of this to make any kind of sense, and in that medium place between the world of living and the world of the dead, 'time' was painfully relative, anyway.

A hand comes up, wipes his eyes, dabs at his nose.

"It might be hard to find. But I'll take that in the spirit it was intended." Getting to his feet, the spectral sage walks toward Aya's body as well, so that her height describes a line between herself and Rust. For a long moment, he says nothing, then drops down on bent knees for a moment, looking closer. Rust isn't very good at vocalizing all his thoughts, apparently, but there's enough context cues to get the gist, here. The red-haired man tilts his head to the side. "I have so many theories about what happened but nothing concrete. If you want to know my *conjecture*, however..." he says, quietly, before looking up at Rust.

Specifically, his eyes are drawn to the bead bracelet on Rust's wrist. "Okay this is gonna get complicated, so bear with me. What you might think of as a 'soul,' a person's consciousness, is complicated... but it mostly has to do with memories, and life force."

Briefly, he closes his eyes; in his mind, he hears himself say to an assembled group of friends -- Rust included -- 'The memory of us... it's still out there.'

Clearing his throat, Frei continues, looking back at Aya. "I think those gems, whatever they are, have something to do with what you'd call a 'soul'. Someone I met -- well, that Aya met -- that knows this tournament called them a 'tool' for the battle ahead. I think that gem is... tethering her, somehow. Her spirit, I mean. In fact, there's a chance that SHE wasn't supposed to be here at all."

Jedah stealing 'souls' that called out to Frei. Not Aya... Frei. And then the way she was brought here. Summoned, mystically, through the trigram for 'bind' from the bagua...

Eyes hooded, Frei says quietly, "It might be they were looking for..."

He trails off, then stands up. "Like I said. Long on theory, short on actual facts. I suspect the Ainu girl might know more, if you can find her. But I think -- I THINK -- as long as her body, and that gem, are still on this island... hope isn't entirely gone."

He points; on the ground, around Aya's neck on a black cord, is a magatama: the comma-shaped gems associated with the soul in some Japanese cultures. Made of perfectly smooth, polished citrine, and... somewhere inside that gem's core, a light still burns. Small, and barely visible.

The greatest hint about this man not being the one Frei knew could be seen on his very scalp. The way it moves when his fingers run through it, a terrifying truth is there to behold... completely opposite of his father, that is an incredible full head of it. Even a lot of the women of the world would be jealous to have that! The furthest cry imaginable from the previous generation.
One might have to ask how the dad, himself, feels about that, but this is digressing from more pressing matters.
"Was? Oh, I'm sure he's still out and within." And within? Given the little smile, it sounds like the two had - currently have? - a fine enough relationship. Based on the wear, that length of pipe... he's inherited something of his fighting style, at least. He doesn't seem to react one way or another to the 'hero' thing, as though familiar with it.
It could be that Howard Rust, Sr., was (or still is?) a man of equal caliber to this timeline. If he's still around, alive... he would be ancient by now. Junior over there seems convinced, on some level, he continues to be among the living. (He is also the same man who thought Aya over there was alive.)
As things segue over towards Aya, he steps around to the side to be by Frei's, for whatever reason. He leans forward almost imperceptibly, as Frei picks up on some of his murmurings (did he inherit that too? Senior was a champ at muttering). The way he leans, it's almost like he could be trying to tower over the kneeling spirit. The smile flattens a bit as Frei looks up to him.
Junior's eyes are kind of nondescript too, looking up from that angle. Another likeness to dad.
"Yeah?" He adds as an idle word, somewhere within the breaks of some of Frei's explanations and ideas, taking a good look at his own wrist to have a look at the dim series of beaded /things/ there.
His gaze seems to pass between Frei, and the body of Aya, impeccably timed to when the subject transitions over to her... the very idea that she wasn't supposed to be here.
"You don't say!" That's a loud exclamation that seems almost tinged with amusement as he seems taken aback. Why? That's not funny. That's not funny at all-- "Sorry." Sorry for the interruption, it seems, more than the context of the words in question.
"An Ainu woman, eh? Ainu. Ainu. Ainu. Heard of it, uhhh." He tilts his head down to the side, but Frei might get the sense that one eye never leaves him, even in the middle of contemplation.
He snaps his fingers. "Years ago, whole family - with my dad - to the Kuril Islands... ahh. Been so long," he waxes nostalgic, both eyes closing... but not for long, a sharp head turn as he wakes himself up from a dreamy trip down memory lane.
"We went all over! Hardly stayed in one place, growing up. Just us five kids, mom, and dad, going all about the globe... got to see and do a whooooole lot."
Evidently, seeing a 'whooooole lot' hasn't blunted his sense of wonder, amazement, or ability to accept things out of a worldview that should have long solidified by now into rigid beliefs.

"Ahh," he waves a hand downward, swatting the air, bending his knees to look down upon where Frei points, "sorry. You know... here I am, talking about all the fun I've had, and... right in front of me."
He doesn't need to extend that sentence, as he stands up straighter, at least straight enough to tilt his upper body back and just take a look at the ceiling.
A moment of silence passes, as he seems to be of the idea to start thinking about what to say next, not just blurt out whatever random topic he has in mind. Favorite movies. Why did he think it was an appropriate time to ask? Look at him. No residual shame for that, but yet he catches himself digressing on warm, friendly, wonderful memories in discussion...
"I'm sure I'll think of something." These are words that Frei has not yet learned to dread. Him stating - or having the desire - to have an idea has often led to chaos in his wake. "Yep. Never had any problems coming up with ideas before!"
Optimistic, at least... or just talking to himself to keep his spirits up?

There's a lot going on here, isn't there? If there's another distance -- beside the leonine mane of hair -- that strikes Frei between the Rust he knew and the son from another world standing in front of him, it's that Howard Rust wasn't a sure interlocutor -- Frei had always been certain a degree of anxiety was involved -- but he was easy to follow. This Rust, on the other hand, swerves all of the conversational map. He opens his mouth, about to say *something* about not feeling guilty for focusing on the living in the face of death, but closes it again after a very short moment of reflection.

There's also the vaguely disconcerting 'you don't say!', the most emphatic thing he's said this entire time. And because Frei has no poker face, all of these moments of processing mean that he is looking up at Rust from his still-kneeling position with an undisguised analytical eye, the faint squint and quirk of the corner mouth betraying naked inquisitiveness.

And then he stands up, and shrugs, and sighs. No sense getting too wrapped up in it now.

"Think of something... to do what?" he asks, genuinely curious. If he's anything like his father -- and if Rust's father is anything like his 'father,' or the one that Frei knew -- then he's on this island out of a sense of duty. But what if he's not? What is it he wants to DO? Frei is realizing that he doesn't actually know this person at all, and the scattershot series of occasional non-sequiturs this conversation has contained so far doesn't actually provide much of a clue, now does it?

"If you mean to save Aya, well... that's good of you," he says carefully, eyes on the body. "But I don't think she'd want you to put yourself or anyone else in harm's way. There's..." He pauses, then takes a long breath, turning back to Rust. "She was a swordswoman and that blade -- the one she's lying on -- had a real edge. You can't draw that and not know your life is on the line. I don't think she wanted to die, but I think she accepted the possibility of it, because she had to."

However this mess of strange words, unclear motivations, and confusing appearances is entangled... it does appear, at minimum, they're on the same side in the greater conflict between warring realms. That much - or maybe that little - can be assured, for all that's at stake.
The finer details...
"You knew her that well, eh?" He holds his silence at mention of what it is he was thinking of doing. Maybe he really was at a loss, up until some kind of pivotal point in the conversation as his own eyes track away from Frei and towards the body, standing sideways from the spiritual sage, arms now crossed. As he's not directly facing Frei, it's hard to make out what it is he might be really thinking under those words.
If he's thinking at all.
He kneels down to her, bringing a finger up to his lips. 'Shh?' Why tell a dead body 'shh?' He whispers something inaudible. Unfortunately, he chose the hand that's closer to Frei, so there's no lips to clearly read there.
His right hand - the one with the bracelet - reaches down to touch the golden magatama. The gloves he wears are all that stand between him and the dried blood plus who knows what else about the dead body. The act of touching a dead body is not smiled upon in many cultures, but there at least is some modicum of respectful reservation--
With a flourish, the golden magatama is - before Frei's eyes! - effortlessly removed from the cord, somehow, without even undoing it. The man Frei knew was quite good with his hands - even when accounting for the injury to their primary hand weakening their grip and slowing down their ability to work - but this guy seems a step above.
He holds the magatama up between his thumb and first two fingers, up towards where any source of light might be strongest, with a warm, fatherly smile.
"Take it easy! We'll just take you with, get this all sorted out--"
That seems too easy an idea, doesn't it? Taking another's soul shard with you - surely, there is a great reason why someone didn't think to do this before, like maybe not being as clever as this strange middle-aged man?!
Look at that smile on his face, like he thinks he's got this all figured out...

"Knew her?" he says, tilting his head curiously. "I *was* her, to be honest. For years, now, I've watched from behind her eyes. I saw everything she saw, felt what she felt. Right up to, and including, the moment of her death, which puts me at a grand total of two for 'times inside a body when it died'."

At the end of this little mini-speech, Frei finds his voice rising in pitch and volume, and then stops, clearly surprised at his own emotional reaction, the unexpected tide of... defensiveness? As if Rust's words were not an idle question, but an accusation. Perhaps there's enough guilt to go around in this room, today.

"I had a responsibility to do that. The way her life has gone the past few years... the changes she's endured, the things she's experienced. They're BECAUSE of me. And I couldn't take that back or change it, any more than you could control how you came into this world. But I had a responsibility to her. And now that she's gone, here I am!" He raises both hands into the air, letting out a breath through his nose. "The survivor, again! Useful to the last."

That's when he sees Rust reach down and take the magatama.

If he wanted to -- and there's no real indication of if that's true or not, the spectral sage's face as inscrutably neutral as it could possibly be -- could Frei truly have stopped Rust from taking that soul gem? It's not entirely clear, given his nebulous state between life and death, between the physical and the spiritual worlds. Maybe he could make a difference. Maybe he could stand there, impotently unable to do anything but watch.

Instead, he takes another long, slow breath.

"Take it, if you think you can do something with it," he bites out. "Goodness knows I can't."

Something about Frei's words seem to startle the larger, more lively (more alive-ly?) man as the magatama-bearing hand closes gently, drawing the hand back and holding it closer to himself. Over time, this pearl-clutching ( magatama-clutching) softens, craning the closed hand back to a more relaxed position.
"Ahh. Maybe it's not..." He mumbles aloud, eyes closed, a slightly wider smile. Whatever he's commenting about...
"All right, hear me out!" He speaks, raising his volume but otherwise not having his voice growing any more aggressive. He starts rubbing his fingers against a mass of thin air that strongly resembles the golden magatama that was for certain in his grasp no more than a few moments ago. "Sorry for shouting. I know, bragging's not quite the sort of thing we get up to where I'm from, buuuut, I fancy myself a man of science!" Hold one's laughter until the end of the seminar. "Necessity is the father of innovation, heck of a quote, that!" That's not even being quoted correctly!
Opening his hand, he now rolls a... magatama-shaped mass of thin air between his fingers like one might some exercise balls. It's a very skillful display for there being a lack of anything, at all, to juggle within one's hand.
"Long as we got this," he starts to flip his fingers up and down, like he's playfully juggling a really precious thing that he also no longer has, and based on this gesture this may be a blessing, "I'm sure I'll find a..."
"A... uhh." Now he notices, eyes widening as a manic energy starts being introduced to his movements. Frantic turns of his head, mouth wide open, etc, etc. "Where'd it go?! Uhh. Uh oh!"
He throws himelf down on the floor, pointer finger scratching against the bloodstained ground. "Losing something all shiny, where did it go at-- maybe I threw it all the way over," he wanders over to a statue set up that appears to have a leaking problem, what with greenish acid drops secreting from some kind of reptillian warrior. Maybe we should just nickname the statue 'Reptile' for lack of a better name to go by.
The magatama has reappeared around the cord at the neck of the fallen swordswoman. It's not even terribly subtle about it, as it's the only thing here casting off that shimmering golden light.
"I didn't... did I?" He mutters, as he is now inspecting this very tiny puddle of acidic liquid at the base of the statue. "Oh no... ahh, she's gonna curse me for it," he starts sounding more distressed by every imaginative misconception he can think of.

For a few long, tense moments, Frei looks between Rust and his frantic search, and the citrine jewel that has returned of its own account to the body of its true owner. Back, and forth.

And after a few moments of that, he actually feels some of the stress drain out of him, the tension, and most importantly the self-recrimination. Maybe metaphorically, what Frei's been doing this whole time has been the emotional equivalent of that search, unable to see the simple truth in front of him because the terrible impact of what might happen was dragging his focus elsewhere.

As Rust continues to search, Frei reaches out with a single finger and lets it drift across the surface of the gem, not expecting to be able to interact with it in any meaningful way.

He feels a small, warm charge flow up a fingertip that technically doesn't exist, and blinks a few times, slowly.

"A soul's not a thing that breaks that easily, Mr. Rust," he says, in that too-loud voice one uses to get someone's attention without actually looking at them or touching them. "Trust me on that one. And I appreciate the scientific method, but maybe what we need right now is a little blind faith."

The scientific method (air quotes can be applied to any word, or words, of the reader's choosing) appears to have been going in the direction of him sticking his tongue out to try and catch a drop of the green acid that drips out from the statue of the one codenamed Reptile, turning away at the very last second as Frei brings up the idea about the soul being far less fragile than one may be led to believe.
"Oh. That makes sense, yeeeep." There's some nervous laughter there as he backs away from whatever unfathomably stupid idea just started to go through his head and - were Frei to speak any later - through his tongue. Said laughter seems a little forced, as the dripping acid is left to continue its glacial erosion.
The aging long-haired handyman puts his hands back into pockets again as he turns back towards Frei's appraisal of the aetherial accessory... and then, suddenly, becomes more interested in checking his own pockets and silently counting contents that have no real bearing upon whatever is going on while sandal-clad feet invite themselves - and the body they're attached to - back over to Frei's side.
"I'm all ears! And hands. If you need 'em."

An offer of help. A nice gesture, but where the hell would Frei even start? What exactly is he capable of doing, with or without Rust's help? He taps the gem again with a fingertip, more idle gesture than experimentation of some kind.

A sudden thought, and then he laughs. Rust DID ask about favorite movies. "What are the odds that Billy Crystal and Carol Kane are hiding in a shack somewhere on this island and we can get their help. Maybe she's only mostly dead." He shakes his head, laughing helplessly. "What I wouldn't give for a holocaust cloak."

He gets to his feet, perhaps a little TOO aware that this reference is going to soar right over Rust's head, and even that makes him quirk the ghost of a smile. Sometimes it feels good to say things you know someone's not going to understand, he realizes. It's just a way to bleed off the stress.

"I don't know what to do. I don't want to leave the body here, but..." He turns and shrugs, putting his hands in the air palm up, elbows bent, the internationally-recognized gesture for 'what do you expect me to do'. "The only person I've met so far who seems to know anything about how this affair is run is that Ainu girl... Nakoruru. Maybe if I find her, she'll know more. But... I think she's alive, somewhere," Frei adds, looking at Aya's body. "I guess it's easy to have faith when you yourself have literally transcended death in your own hilarious, sitcom-esque fashion, but..."

He pauses, then turns and glances at the bracelet of ill-chosen beads and baubles on Rust's wrist. Indicating it with a finger, he tilts his head. "May I? Not take it, I mean. Just..." He holds up his index finger, the same one he was using to poke Aya's soul gem.

"Good idea!" He smiles and laughs back. Did he get the joke? Wait... no, that sounded worryingly sincere... "I'm a ninja. I'm good at scouting! Looking without. All of that! If I'm gonna, though," he starts to trail off, voice starting to grow a bit more sullen, but nonetheless he seems like he's ready to commit to the idea as he turns away, looking ready to dash off. One hand's even raised in that famous gesture of focus with his right hand - where the odd beaded blue thing is that represents his divine favor. Two fingers curled in, a thumb over them, two pointed upward and out.
"Her too, then!" ...He's sincere about finding Billy Crystal and Carol Kane. "And with that, I'm on the sc---"
A question is asked of the interesting object in question. The dimly-glowing set of uneven, misshapen beads seem to be a little brighter as they become the focus of interest. A posture that looks ready to charge into the darkness with all the speed, stealth, and skill of his self-proclaimed true profession relaxes, as he stands up straight and seems to regard Frei's request.
"Hmm." There's a real thoughtful pause there. Why would he hesitate? The hand that was raised still is, though the fingers have gone into rest.
"You bet," the two words are kind of snapped out as the wrist is flicked worryingly close to Frei's person, as he seems to see it fit to rub at his upper back with his left. (Does he deal with some of the same pains his dad did? There haven't been any of those joint pops...)

Someday, when this is all over and everyone's laughing over lemonade, Frei's going to ask Howard Rust Jr. about the weird way he uses the word 'without'.

"Thanks." With permission granted, he reaches out and presses a fingertip to one of the beads, ideally one of the *blue* beads. "I'm going to apply some science." There's a moment of tense pause, and then Frei does indeed put his finger down, as promised. Nothing *happens*, at least not externally that is something big and obvious (and thus likely to make Rust panic and/or react without thinking). Instead he just withdraws his not-entirely-in-this-physical-plane hand and says: "Huh."

"That felt the same. And *you're* clearly alive and well. So..." He turns to look at Aya's body, pursing his lips. "If she were really dead, and I mean REALLY beyond saving, wouldn't that gem of hers be... empty? What would be inside it? But if I touch hers, or yours, it's the same: a feeling like... like waving your hand over a candle flame. It's hard to describe."

You'll notice he has not even remotely discussed the fact that Howard Rust Jr. is a self-proclaimed ninja. There's only so much a person can handle on a traumatic day. You've got to ease people into this stuff.

There's a little bit of twitching in his right hand when Frei makes contact with a shard of the shard. Is it painful to touch? There doesn't seem to be any other visible stimulus about that would see anyone do that. Maybe he's a bit more on edge than he's come off as...?
The wrist is held there longer than Frei might really need to, even as he delivers the results of his talisman tapping experiment. In fact, it's still there even as he eloquently puts forth his faith-ence theormon and - no, the dictionary has taken enough abuse. Let's revise that to 'while he reports his findings,' and move on.
Maybe he's inviting Frei to touch some of the other beads, mentally skimming over the professed point of the experiment just for the sake of redundant data? His left hand seems motionless, still behind his back. Holding his back? He doesn't seem to be in much pain either, going by his eyes or his face.
"Could be!" He blurts out, at last drawing his hand back. Both of them, in fact, away from their awkward positions, exhaling loudly as his eyes roll up towards the top of his head. Maybe his mind is about to explode? "Ought to be a thing we can do, eh? Why, we could..."
"Couuuuulddddd... wait wait. I got it. Couuuuld..."
No, he doesn't have it, even if he's making animated shakes of his hand as if to reassure.

That reaction gets a light laugh from Frei. "Take your time," he says, not unkindly. "There's no need to rush."

He SAYS that, but the actual facts of the matter might not support that. In truth, there's a very good chance that time itself is actually quite short. If Aya can be saved, that window might be very small... and depending on how this tournament goes, Earth itself might not have much longer, either. Who can tell? Who knows ANYTHING about ANY of this? Not either of the (aware and alert) people in this room, that's for sure.

He looks down at the body. The body he can't carry out of here. In fact he's not entirely sure he can leave this room at all. Does he need to stay near Aya's corpse? What will happen if her soul finally and truly leaves wherever it is, the gem or otherwise? Too many unanswered questions. Too few avenues to get answers.

He takes a breath, as he has many times since Rust appeared. A purely symbolic gesture. But maybe remembering what it was like to be alive is what he needs to do to keep his head in the game.

"Listen," he says, looking away from Rust, not entirely certain he can meet the ninja's gaze while asking this. "I need... I'm going to look for answers. Or, I'm going to get as far as the door and wink out of existence. I don't actually know which is which. But can you... can you take her? Somewhere, ANYWHERE, but here on some stone floor. She deserves better than that. And if she can be saved, well..."

It won't be here. He needs not say it.

Now, though, he turns to Rust, face full of honest entreaty. "Her sword, too. Keep it with you, will you? For whatever reason the thought of some... random yahoo on this island getting their hands on it upsets me. A lot. But I can't keep it with me, obviously."

Frei's patience is one an outside perspective could truly appreciate. He might want to make sure he holds himself an ample supply, for it may yet run short. Good humor can do wonders for stirring a soul from misery, couldn't it? Stirring even the inert to laughter, when it meets the mark.
"Nope, I got it at," he seems to be trying to persuade Frei to the opposite of being patient, "I'll... we'll... err," why won't he just admit mental defeat? He seems very keen about figuring that out. Why might that yet be... maybe it's not important, as Frei's contemplation is treated to a pleasant ambience of 'errs' and 'ums' and 'oh I know, waits' or what have you. Just add some instrumentation...
It ceases when Frei asks for him to 'listen,' freezing as he gets half-way through a six-syllable word that, going by trends, wasn't any more worthy than a 'nevermind.'
"Take her body, you say... hm," he thinks aloud, turning his head upward as he looks down upon the resolute body of the young woman who would guard the blade she carries with her still body.
"I..." Hesitation. He looks over to Frei... then over to Aya, as he makes a humming noise. Is he going to decline?
"You bet!" He gives a thumb up in brief. "I'm sure my son'll understand with," wait, his son? What about--
"Ahh, to be honest... I saw her go this way with someone else, she didn't come back up! That someone else... so much blood, thought she was a goner!" It appears he completely misinterpreted the nature of all that blood. "Thought she had a little too much pep in her step, come to think of it" no you didn't, Rust, no matter how convincing the scratch of a chin is.
"Don't you worry about it. I got an idea." There it is again. Those words, as he goes towards Aya and kneels before her as if to appraise the most respectful way to lift her. "You go do what you need... I'll get back to my son right quick. Make sure she gets a good resting place... heck. Could hide the sword right in my toolbelt. Somewhere in the back."
If Frei gets a look at his back, his toolbelt is comperehensively stocked. He insists he could find space. It's fair to find this claim highly dubious.
"Nobody'd even know it was there!" Not even a young woman whom personifies the cold, or the steely gazes of hooded priests that silently appraise all they pass. Continuity would be the perfect defense against all improbable odds to conceal such a thing...
Facing away from Frei himself, he gently rests a hand upon Aya's shoulder with his right hand, whispering something as he moves to slowly - very slowly, given his penchant for sudden movements, this seems almost out of established character - help remove the sword from Aya's firm grasp and take it in possession.
There could be some other questions made of what he's said or done, but perhaps now may not be the time.

The spirit watches all of this -- the conversational back and forth Rust appears to be having *with himself*, the picking up of the body, the easily-falsifiable assurance that this will all work out if you just Leave It To Rust™ -- with... well, maybe hope. Because once you have taken everything away, hope is all that's left. The story of Pandora's Box plays out the way it does for a reason.

"...thank you," is all Frei can think of to say in this instance, at least at first. But after a moment of pensive silence, he finds he has something to add after all.

"It might not look it but I'm veteran of these sorts of world-ending disasters. So let me offer you a piece of advice, if you don't mind my being kind of an old man about it." He doesn't actually give Rust time to disagree or object, but he DOES attempt to give a reassuring little smile that this won't be quite as condescending as it sounds. "Don't ever feel bad about choosing life over death, or choosing good memories over sad ones. That's just being human and you know, despite gods and monsters and devils and extradimensional invaders everywhere, there's power in not forgetting your humanity. Not like, incinerate-someone-with-fire power, but something... you know what? I'm rambling."

He pads over to the pillar he was sitting at before, and has a seat, looking up at the ceiling for a moment before fixing his gaze on Rust with a tired smile. "I'm gonna stay here for a bit. Collect my thoughts. Play out some theories. Just... continue being you, as hard as you can. It'll work out."

Wordlessly (thank the elder gods!), Rust Jr. allows Frei to speak of his experiences with other catastrophes. Of grand disasters of this scale... if there's anything in this man's face in regards to it, it doesn't show, with his back turned. Only the small pauses that might be more for accounting the need to remove Aya's precious sword from her cold, dead hands with the due respect and care needed to damage neither dead body nor sheath.
Frei does not know this man. The way he thinks, the way he carries himself. (Who does? He seems to bewilder and fluster almost everyone he comes in contact with.) Is the advice warranted? Would it be heeded? As the weapon and its home are procured and placed somewhere in the back of his toolbelt (huh, he did find a place to hide it after all), he's kneeling down anew to pick up the fallen young woman in both arms. For the bundle of energy that he seems to be at times, there's a solemn air to just the precision he picks her up, slowly turning to Frei as the spirit himself goes to have a seat.
"I get ya," he says succinctly, shrugging his left shoulder as if to reassert his grip upon the fallen Aya. Somehow, he works out a smile even though he is holding the dead, lacerated body of a young woman, among all the other baggage and awful things that come with handling and being around a dead body! Does he get it? He says nothing else as he heads back down to the greater part of the palace.
Just continue being 'him.' Could any hope really be placed upon the shoulders of an oafish, middle-aged man wielding a battered length of pipe, wh--
No. Let's not transcribe that further. Fate is on the watch for temptations to nibble upon. It could be easy to yet fall upon old patterns, to cling onto hope through familiarity with people and times of old...
He is not that man.
Who or what he is, to what measure of importance he might have in the overall picture...
Only uncertainty abounds, beyond the grace of the elder gods and whatever they have decided... or predicted. If any of this, in the end, were in their hands.
His steps pick up a bit more, the further away he gets from Frei.

Log created on 21:24:51 10/06/2016 by Aya, and last modified on 22:56:39 10/08/2016.