Description: The Empress has been away for a time, to the consternation of the ghost in the white haori.
The Shinkansen "bullet train" network connects most of the major cities of Japan, providing transit at upwards of 150mph through the use of specially elevated tracks, and hardened against vibration and seismic activity. Trips on the bullet train end up costing about as much as an equivalent plane ride, but the smoother ride and the near-complete lack of hassle make it the preferred choice of Japanese businesspeople.
After a two-week delay, the criminal "Empress" of eastern Japan is back to touring the country, and one point of interest is Omiya Station. It's cold, so the Empress has been doubling up with a large black overcloak, over top of a cream white longcoat. A fluffy white ushanka is pulled down over her ears, casting shadow onto eyes framed by dark purple sunglasses. She's accompanied by six gentlemen in black jackets and sunglasses as she walks up the escalator, her eyes passing carefully over every detail -- the cameras and security measures may be enough to discourage the casual Saitama delinquent, but her personal security has been violated once this week -- she's keeping an eye on the train lines just in case.
One of her six companions fetches a can of oolong tea from the vending machine, and brings it over to her like a dutiful puppy. There's no need for words in this exchange; the Empress pops open the can as if it were completely routine, and takes a casual sip.
It is, of course, routine for her messages to be delivered on an inaudible wavelength. There is much on her mind, and too much at stake for her to be sharing even the simplest plans with the public.
Her entourage heads to the far end of the platform, not wishing to be bothered by the riff-raff. They've secured the most forward seats available; no interruptions, none of that dining car nonsense, and plenty of privacy.
He has never relied overmuch on transportation.
He entered the train station only a few moments earlier, and there are those that, even looking on the cameras, would swear to the fact that he simply walked out a door that led to nowhere. Such is the nature of belief for those that do not watch the skies. Tracking down the Empress again wasn't an easy task--she deliberately made a habit of obfuscating her travels and business dealings, but Ryouhara has his own methods and sciences where tongues will not be loosened so easily.
It seems warmer in the time before he arrives.
Even in the iciest corners of the train station a certain stuffiness grows clear. Slowly, even a train station's busiest platform will clear out. A person excuses themselves to grab a drink. Someone else goes to the other side of the platform to find a good stiff breeze. Overdressed for the occasion suddenly, others will feel faint and begin to make their way to the restrooms for a moment. A ray of sunshine on a frigid day will do that. A single ember trails through the air slowly.
This is why people will barely notice the young man making his way onto the platform, ghost white haori drifting in the wind. They will not notice the fact that a motorcyclist has seemingly chosen not to remove his helmet before coming into the station. It's a peculiar mannerism, one that will be noted by security services. At least, it would be.
From the opposite end of the platform, he utters quiet words, hands slowly clasping together.
"Katon: Tsurugi no Mekura."
In the security room, where multiple monitors all feed into the same area, series of the Ryouhara three-leaf symbol glow bright in every feed in the immediate vicinity, before shortly exploding into static. While some shinobi would resort to clandestine tricks to stealth and appear clever by trying to appear in the Empress' midst outside of her notice, his method is to graciously wipe the tables clean before he ever arrives. His jutsu, Shinrou Kiritsu already repels the weak of heart, and Tsurugi no Mekura removes the eyes of those who would interfere in a simple meeting. The Empress, if she keeps an eye over every detail, will notice that, one almost inaudible pop later, none of the cameras in her area seem to have lenses anymore.
Only then does the young man in white approach from the far end of a suddenly rather desolate station.
The demands upon the Empress dictate that, no matter how much she'd -like- to arrive the very instant a train arrives upon the platform, it's practically infeasible. Something always comes up.
Like this. For a psychic with the experience of surfing through the tumultuous tides of emotion, the swell of something of this degree does not escape her notice. One person experiencing discomfort is one thing. A dozen, something entirely different. A swarm of people suddenly about to miss a train they paid good money for... that's worth notice.
The Empress can feel the tug, on her own hirelings, the strong undercurrent threatening to drag them out from under her as well. It's a goddamn trick, she tells them, you're stronger than this, anchoring her entourage into the sand, steeling themselves against the riptide.
The Empress is not, herself, immune to the rising temperature, the stifling presence of heat -- she pulls off her hat, short-needled hairsticks now plain to see, along with her static-addled black hair. She unbuttons her overcloak, worming her way out of it and handing to the man immediately left of her.
They want to run, but they cannot, lured by the contrasting song of the woman who'd brought them here to begin with, heading into the currents rather than swept away like the others heading into the subsurface passageways interconnecting each of the train platforms.
Whereas the ghost in the haori works upon the body, the Empress works within the mind. She hadn't noticed the pop, but it's not unexpected. This is no funhouse, no long-abandoned ryokan, but this remarkably open platform is now just as much a prison -- and she's walking straight to the jailer, the six men trailing behind in her wake.
"It has been quite a long while, my friend," she announces, a subtle smile creeping across her lips. Not a confident one but, daresay, a friendly one. "We have much to discuss. But I'll kindly ask for some more hospitable conditions."
Her men -- Japanese, from appearances -- are expressionless but focused. But they will keep their distance, even if they are -- similarly to the Empress -- loosening their outerwear to deal with the heat. They are wearing white shirts, and they are undeniably armed -- a necessary precaution for dealing with those of lesser talent.
The shinobi remains at a respectable distance. As prior, he is not a normal shinobi, the assassin's kiss that slips as close as possible to the very end. He is the flame, the coruscating and cleansing. In the end, even in a head that swims with questions, he has come to understand only one thing about the abilities he knows without knowing. A toolset is suited to the task--a hammer is a hammer, and a knife is a knife. Ninja steal, spy on and assassinate from people, human beings, which is why they behave as they do.
It takes an entirely different set of mannerisms and skill to assassinate an entire age.
He can tell who is with the Empress not only by their positioning, and they way they behave, but simply by the fact of it that they are the only ones capable of withstanding his 'Shinrou Kiritsu.' An inexperienced infant to their ways would sooner pass out than stand their ground or run. While some fighters would do this through pure intention alone, he was not at that power level. Still, the effect was one that was simple enough to replicate purposefully--the amount of ambient chi in the air strangles the senses and cuts off the air. It was powerful enough to send glowing embers through the air in his suffocation zone.
An ember that cools as the Empress passes it.
The shinobi is expressionless--neccessarily, for the helmet he wears--as the young Ainu approaches him, a black visor showing nothing of his face but her own smile. He is vastly different from the days long ago in that abandoned ryokan. He is no longer a wild and uncontrolled spirit, but a knight. Other shinobi have tried to crack through the zettai defense of his helmet to no use and no avail, tried to pierce the layers of silken armor he wore to no use, tried to break through his shield with no purchase gained in the climb...
It is only when Miko approaches him that he willfully disengages the clasps at the edge of his helm and slips off the headgear. Concurrently, the air loses its great volume and weight, the cool of the open air finding its way in rogue traces to the skin. Of course, that inhospitable technique has lifted the crushing veil from their reach, but it is still extremely warm near Ryouhara, and his eyes still have the cut of a blade fresh from the fires of the forge.
It would take quite a bit to extinguish those flames in particular.
"Kobayashi-san," he says calmly. His words do not have the cadence of a greeting, and he doesn't seem like the sort to overdeal with show. "I have heard a troubling thing, so I returned from these bloody crusades..." Impossibly dark eyes flit over her skin, inspecting it for even the slightest pallor. In the moments that follow, it would be easy to mistake what he asks for the abundance of discretion with which he states it. It would be prudent to hold back and to measure out his response. Were he not keen on skipping the lot.
"...Are you well?" he asks, simply.
The exact mechanics of the Ryouhara arts elude her. A strategist does not need the ability to best a tactician in the area of their expertise -- but rather the ability to recognize and direct their talents appropriately. Likewise... one very key lesson she'd learned from dealing with Seishirou was not that she -be- confident, but rather, -project- confidence -- to acknowledge the imminent threat, and walk past it.
She notes with some pleasure that the threat of incineration seems to have passed. Sensing the heat die down as she approaches is even more welcome to her -- a sign that this conversation will not be tainted with the unpleasant escalation that preceded the last.
As she approaches, two of her men stay behind, leaving four within beck and call. Door guards, to discourage anyone else who may have missed the brief surge in temperature.
With her hat curled in one arm as a soft and cuddly counterpart to Seishirou's helmet, she smiles and nods appreciatively. "I had a case of the chills," she says with no trace of irony, and no trace of the discoloration that would tend to be associated with the shock she was likely diagnosed with. "But I got better." Indeed, her skin is a normal hue; its unusual state is only due to being cooled, then warmed, then superheated, and then once more brought into a state of cool from the surrounding air. In other words, a bit more clammy than she'd prefer. "Thank you so much for asking, Ryouhara-san."
What sort of idea could cause him to ask if she's well, she ponders. "You speak of troubling things, though. Let's clear the air, then..." she states, the Empress' brow knitting with cautious concern.
Her guards remain a few yards away. They could be at her side in three heartbeats or less. Against Seishirou, that's 2.9 heartbeats too long -- at which point, drawing them closer is scarcely worth putting his mind at unease.
"Any trouble of yours is trouble to me as well," she states, with a calm smile as punctuation.
The sleek helmet that gives him the look of a bird of prey lowers to his waist, held between two open hands. It lingers there a moment before finally being folded under an arm at his hip, the fingertips of his other hand disappearing beneath the sweep of his haori's sleeve. She stands at the edge of the blade, confident as always. Unbeknownst to him, everything she does is calculated down to the smallest detail, and the kid gloves with which she elects to handle him he is aware of only in the fact that not all of her group seems to follow her as she moves.
In the end, he has no such side men with him, no such support network, no matter the dreams and visions that plague him nightly. He only has that intentioned stare that meets Kobayashi's endlessly accomodating gaze. It is even, and sharp to the finest point, to the extent where if she imagined hard enough, she might hear him counting the seconds before the people start regaining their stomachs, the guards in the entire terminal, the kilograms each of her associates have in weight. There is a clockwork about him..
But despite staring down the edge of the sword, Kobayashi doesn't blink.
It's the only thing Ryouhara will acknowledge amongst roudoushakaikyuu.
"The chills," he echoes quietly, blandly. There is a flat edge in his voice, a distracted absence of awareness that is the evidence that something is amiss. He continues, sideways. "Details cannot escape my notice so easily, Kobayashi-san." He takes care with the exact selection of his words, the kind of care that he wouldn't otherwise if he were planning on some grave form of violence, but there is a slight impatience in his tone, no matter how sweetly she accomodates a guest in her presence. "If you are injured to such an extent, I will notice," he says simply, as if the absolute truth was above question, and that his own attention is much broader than 'the details of those he ventures to capture,' the subjects of those shadow crusades he has embarked upon.
"Is it your intention to hide the truth from me...Kobayashi-san?"
In time, the impatience recedes. There is truthfully no aggression in his voice at all, and despite the knife-look of his eyes, he seems no more willing to fight at that exact moment that he would be during any other. Ryouhara's words cut through the air as simply as anything else. "I've spent many long nights out in the world since I awoke... countless shinobi have attempted to kill me. Countless shinobi have attempted to escape me. Only one has succeeded. But if it becomes known to me that my benefactor is ... in a certain way," he says, as level as he might be contrite, "... it is only expected that I return."
"Against everything that threatens those of my idealism, it would be only natural to burn it to the ground," the slim boy explains without pretense at all.
Ryouhara is meticulous and well-connected. He knows that Miko Kobayashi is afflicted -- in ways that she has not yet been able to herself quantify. Her bluff, as it is, has been called. But she will not let his challenge go unmet.
A hand flutters to her chest, the cold air billowing into puffs of fog at her breath. "If you were any less precise, or less thorough, I doubt we would be speaking now, considering the caliber of the opponents you were up against. But rest assured... I -feel- magnificent."
She draws in her breath, brow furrowing just a moment; he's not the only impatient one here. "If I remain reticent about my condition, rest assured that it's taking conscious effort to remain on-point here, and talking at length about maladies of the soul will necessarily derail the conversation from matters of true import." Her directness has not been congruent with her previous conversational tone. Perhaps he can see the scars upon her aura that she cannot -- and perhaps he's still able to sense the subtle mists that caused her such a grievous wound -- but she's got to be sure other business is dealt with first.
Her impatience, too, fades as he speaks about the shinobi which have been troubling him. The threat to the roudoushakaikyuu is noted. Is that a threat to her, as well? She does not acknowledge this one head-on, rather redirecting it to her own aims. "Indeed... there are certain elements obstructing our shared goals, but these can be cut away with a deft and accurate blade. The overarching strategy is difficult to understand when one looks only at the pieces on the board, as you well know."
She tilts her head to the side, peering more intently at the young shinobi's eyes. She had been abrupt, thinking herself derailed by the shinobi's line of questioning -- but perhaps she'd misread the young man. "That said... There is a clear and present threat to my well-being. Is that the primary concern drawing you here, today?"
He seems insensible to the detail of his own crusading when it's brought before him. Just another detail of a grisly business, as far as the shinobi is concerned. War is seldom pretty, seldom requiring the exchange of flowers over shuriken. The opponents he fought were hard. There were harder yet still on the horizon. The idea that his ability could have ever been anything more than sufficient is discarded by him. There was no option but to succeed in the gravest of tasks. Any setbacks had no choice but to be minor.
Everything about him is a threat to the world, and any trepidation the Empress feels about it will draw no pleasure from him, nor concern. He speaks as though he is the train--a thing that goes in one direction without shift. He's not interested in terrorizing, or intimidating, or that sort of primal response in any stretch. After all. What use does the fire have for nerves? There are those who burn and those who do not burn. As for the moment, Seishirou is convinced that Kobayashi is of those who will not burn away once his flame passes over.
However, determining what direction his flames will pass over ...
She says that she feels magnificent, and this is enough for the young man to shift unreasoned where he stands. If her eyes are fast enough, one might catch a blade of discomfort in his field, only for one moment and one moment alone, before he sighs quietly, anxious tension slipping the steel from his shoulders. But his ear is just as quick to acknowledge as the eye. "Maladies of the soul," he repeats, as if to add weight to the words that she speaks, but he bears no question over it. The nature of an attack can take many forms... and if they are those she does not wish to speak on..
The idea of a clear and present threat to her well being is one that draws his attention away from the idea of strategies and tactics, the details of the map losing focus in his heart to a section entirely iced over. He nods, once, the gesture nigh imperceptible. The step he takes towards her, one single step, is less so, his attentive glance coming up at once, an unsheathed katana. "There isn't any other reason," says the young man, "for a ghost to make contact with the queen."
Something will burn.
Miko frowns, placing the hat back atop her head and tucking a few loose hairs back under the ear-flaps. The subtle shift of his demeanor seemed to be... troubling. Perhaps the mere mention of her -not- being in a terrible mood was contrary to information he'd possessed by some other means.
In fact, she's almost sure of it.
"... Well, then, my apologies, Ryouhara-san... I appear to have misunderstood." She's so used to people considering their own self-worth as the most precious item of all, that encountering someone who values her own worth over his own is... sobering, to say the least.
She is concerned about her identity. As far as the public knows, Honoka Kawamoto of the Twilight Circus was attacked by the Butcher. Miko Kobayashi was not publicly identified as a victim. It takes Miko a moment of silence, a moment spent looking uncomfortably at Seishirou's haori, before she decides to place the rest of her figurative hand upon the table.
Steeling herself, she rests one hand upon her longcoated hip, articulating with calm gestures of her hand. "The thorn in my side is known as the 'Butcher,' a predator of unusual and precise skill, and peculiarly untouchable by me. He moves like the mist, strikes with the intensity of a nest of vipers. Some have called him a 'darkstalker,' one of the supernatural beings making their presence known as of late. He moves like a foul mist, unpredictable and untouchable when he chooses to be. I would not say he is as -fast- as you, my ghostly friend, but he possesses the ability to transform, to become mist as easily as I would raise my hand. And he also possesses the ability to transform his body, to make teeth appear in the midst of his arm, or body, to multiply his form. Simple knowledge of anatomy is of... little value, when fighting him."
"But the true danger in this... predator lies within his hunger." She rests both hands now upon her sternum. "He attacked me from the soul." She slowly lifts both hands into the space before her, as if they were butterflies caught along in a wind current. But then her hands split, diverge -- one hand stays motionless, while the other flies free. "And he kept one part for himself."
The other, frozen hand curls into a claw, as she slowly draws it back to herself. "What remained was twisted, malformed."
She returns one hand to her hip. "I could have left well enough alone... could have turned away from my duty. But I felt that stopping him was something I had to try. For the good of our people."
Inhaling deeply, she looks down, shaking her head slowly. "But no. It cannot be done alone. He twists words, twists thoughts... he relies on manipulating one mind, shaping it by terror."
She looks up once more, her eyes hollow. "I was lost, Ryouhara. Lost for a week... maybe more. It took the work of a powerful shaman to undo what was done, to unscar my soul, to unseat the seed left within me... and return me to the state of being you see now."
A bitter smile crosses her features. "So when I speak of feeling magnificent, you see, it's only in degrees. For I fear, your intelligence, such as it is... was correct: in comparison to -that- sense of ennui, simply speaking to you here is magnificent indeed."
She looks back at Seishirou, gauging his expression. She expects little change. But she can't help but look into those eyes anyway, to see if perhaps that vision he'd seen in the glass reflection comes to light once more -- the memory of a future past, an alternate history which may continue to impose its will upon the young shinobi.
Ryouhara is an obsessive mentality, one who endlessly researches everything that he comes into contact with. The idea that Honoka Kawamoto and Miko Kobayashi were both attacked by the same entity conspicuously is a detail that may have reached him through his interests in Kobayashi, and his interrogations of countless shinobi. It is one of many possible means. But for him.. the simple interruption of a routine is enough to merit his attention. That attention trails and traces everything. Coincidence alone could be enough, the coincidence of his passing a particularly worried lieutenant in her employ. That would be enough to gain his attention. A third path. And his sensory techniques are not one that would miss the fresh new scars plain, left behind on his benefactor's spirit body.
Still, if he knows she is Honoka Kawamoto, he doesn't show it.
She tells him the tale of a Butcher. A thing that haunts and hunts by ripping away pieces of you. One she almost died to, a creature of power and unpredictability. The malady of her soul is laid bare before his eyes, underlined with slim, practiced hands as she illustrates to him just exactly what happened to her in the only way she seems to understand it. She seems so like a storyteller at that moment, her gestures not unlike the performance to him.
His expression remains unshaken by her accounting, harboring with it much of that determination that he'd always had. But of the Butcher, there is no reflection of recollection. His is a searching expression. The one dead-set of finding the root of everything. Every word, every detail of hers is noted for the future. But there is nothing that agrees with what he has seen before. Nothing that would reveal anything to her of this previous life of his, or anything that would betray to her that he has somehow dealt with these matters before. No, when his eyes lift to Miko at the end of her tale, his words and his eyes touch on something else entirely.
"Aa. Miko-san," he vocalizes soothingly. Despite the steel edge in his eyes, his voice is nothing but polite. "It is as I'd expected. It is good to see my concerns do not come on a cloudless day. I have heard of these things called 'Darkstalkers,' the agonized whispers of crippled men and women eager to tell all of that which they belive I need to know. I've not paid it much heed before now. The fever dreams of shinobi can be twisted things. But . . ." he trails off for a moment, before opening the flat of his hand. A mote of energy crackles and dances in his palm, before catching fire.
"... in the old times, such things were burned at the stake as monsters and demons. Whatever that thing is.... it will take more than mist to quench the flame. Like every shinobi that has crossed my path before this moment.. I will find these darkstalkers. I will see what snakes like to eat most of all..."
He clenches his fist, extinguishing the flame.
"... and then it will be no great thing to choke them on it."
The intelligence gathering capabilities of a network of powerful shinobi clearly cannot be underestimated. Miko watches the insightful ninkougakusha's eyes as he readily accepts all the information she provides -- accepting it without any apparent emotional response, as if accepting a mission briefing from another of his kind.
It can be a bit unsettling, to one such as Miko, who puts so much of her emotion into the act of storytelling -- a tradition she picked up while participating in rituals as a youth in an Ainu fishing village. But, the Empress reminds herself, the ghostlike shinobi is shisam, and beyond that, he's far from the norm.
When he speaks of burning darkstalkers at the stake, she allows herself a small smile in response. He's called himself a soldier before, a willing servant to her wishes. She has hirelings and enforcers from whom she expects obedience -- and many would sacrifice their lives for the Empress. But there are also many people who Miko considers an equal to her -- people who have proven themselves as legitimate threats to her well-being. There are two wholly distinct groups of people, and Miko has had trouble putting Seishirou into both -- it doesn't seat well for him to be an equal, showing such signs of impatience and impertinence, and yet presenting himself as a completely doting servant. He is far from the norm -- difficult to quantify.
So she has been keeping him at arm's length -- providing him the information she thinks he needs. He's correctly identified this tendency as hiding the truth from him. Her associates at the circus might simply consider it 'managing the talent.'
It is with heavy heart that she provides one more piece of information to the ninkougakusha -- one more element that could be used against her.
Because if she does not, she may be slain anyway.
Raising one finger, she stresses, "If I might ask one favor? If you find this beast... summon me. I may be recovered... but he still has something of mine. And I have a dire need to personally reclaim it from him upon his dying breath."
As the sound of a train can be heard rolling into the station, Miko bows her head. "If you could grant me this boon, the Empress would be in your debt."
The direction of his glance remains level, shield-and-sword ideals burning bright behind his eyes.
It would be too much to talk of 'devotion,' of at least what the young shinobi feels and is towards his benefactor. By his belief, she is the wretched thing whom life has cast aside, building some sort of empire from the refuse and leavings of the gutter. By all accounts and all of the understanding he has left in this reasonless world, these were those he was inteded to carry on into the new world. It was not devotion that bound him and her together, but intention. For all he knows, it could have been his intention all along for her to find him alone in that dark space. His machinations before were a source of constant consternation. How much of his reactions are free will, and how much are merely what he has predicted of himself, well before he ever woke?
Who is Ryouhara Seishirou?
A difficult thing to quantify. For now, he is only a soldier, obeying an unseen and unheard word. His eyes drift for a moment as the Empress makes her winsome request of him, the air underneath his sleeves stirring with the last vestiges of the waning heat from both conjured flame and oppressive air suffusing him. The drift causes the silks of his haori to wander at his hips. For a moment, it seems as if she's stricken him with a moment's hesitation--a mountain of an achievement for a young man who sets entire buildings ablaze at a whim.
"To let it touch you again would be inconceivable," Ryouhara admits plainly, his trepidation known in only a moment. He does not meet her eyes just at that moment. He treats her as he might a beloved sister, for whom the idea of sullying her hands with any bloody matter seems anathema, no matter how bloody her hands may already be. Such is the formation of an ideal, and the root of everything. Her own image escapes her in his mind, runaway train that it is. The point of the spear rises. Intention--that boy represents nothing but intention, and limitless amounts of it. Everything he says, every move he makes--it is all towards some great action. "Cutting it into pieces first would be safer."
"It is a dangerous thing... one that might pose significant risks to this body of mine," Ryouhara notes coldly, before his tone softens. "... but my path has already been preconceived long ago. Until that path splits, I have no choice but to fulfill the expectations of Kobayashi-san, whenever and wherever she makes her request."
"I will contact you again."
At that moment, the shinobi slips his hands free of his sleeves, dropping to one knee quickly. Those hands move as fast as they ever have, knitting out the somatic components of his esoteric art, ninjutsu. He slams the palms of both of his hands into the ground, and black fire slips out from between his fingers. It jumps out around him in great tongues and embers, slowly forming into shapes. The hiss and crack of flame slowly break into the cackling of birds, and crows stylized from black fire briefly enshroud the shinobi, engulfing his form.
By the time the fire burns itself out, he is gone.
Log created on 16:21:40 02/15/2015 by Honoka, and last modified on 06:42:20 02/24/2015.