Description: Darkness floods the world, spiralling from violent epicenters that call to the best and bravest for expurgation. Crisis after crisis must be averted, and no matter the pedigree - no matter the skill - those that repel evil cannot do it alone. Southtown's deadly Mist Stalker, devourer of souls, must be faced... perhaps where East meets West, in the union of knight-errant and guardian miko, the weapon shall be forged.
-Thursday, February 19th-
-Home of Fei Xiaoping-
Tendrils of mist explode through the shadows of the cramped Chinatown apartment, crockery tumbling to an unruly fate upon the dirty wooden boards, pots and pans rebounding noisily off the walls as the Templar dives through the sackcloth separating one home from another. The place is a warren, a cheap bunkhouse for young working men occupied in local restaurants or at the docks... or, as in Fei Xiaoping's case, less steadily-lucrative and far more dangerous endeavours. The man's been an informant for years, inbetween plying his self-proclaimed trade as a 'bounty hunter'.
Such business tends to get a man noticed, sooner or later.
Knight Officer Amy Johnson tumbles into a crouch and comes up in the midst of the unfortunate man's single-room abode, the dismal lamplight filtering in from behind the cloth-covered entrance giving stormy blue eyes little to see by. She's sensing, instead, the Dragon's Breath rapidly flooding the room to explore each and every corner. Something's moving, she knows it. Something small, but deadly.
Her crisply-accented English is a flung dart of force, and she turns as she hurls it, facing the entrance as a black shadow ripples across the filthy, rag-strewn wall. A gauntleted arm rises, the light, fingerless material of the glove yielding to pale digits that burn with a distantly-realized power. The Templar's fingers claw like talons, and three swooping tendrils of the mist slope into a spiralling dive, plunging past and through one another before settling as one upon her target.
This action is enough; the thing has been weakened already, pursued, driven past the limits of its own, native energies. It dies with a pathetic shriek, soon little but a mulch upon the floor, banished from existence by the lady knight's cold, drifting fury. She releases a sigh, and allows herself a sardonic smile. In light of the past few weeks, and now this, sometimes she wonders what her life has come to...
It used to be simpler. It used to be--
Behind her, there's a groan and a loud, high-pitched yawn. Fei Xiaoping pushes aside the long-unwashed covers upon his dusty hammock and sits up, the improvised bed creaking under his scrawny bulk. He's slow in awakening, blinking rheumy eyes at the Templar as she turns toward him and rests a hand upon the hilt of her sword.
"You've been up to your old tricks again," she speaks without offering a greeting, straight to business - and in half-decent Mandarin, too, though she's a thousand miles from fluent, "Care to tell me what's happening around here?"
The Chinese 'warrior' scratches his belly, puffs out his cheeks, and follows the tip of the Templar's raised hand to the mulch of the extinguished creature. Cautiously, he sniffs, his face crinkling in displeasure at the stench of the thing's corpsestain.
"Ahhh, what a bother!" He grumbles, yawning again, then slipping with a certain graceful sloppiness from the hammock, standing at his full height just an inch or so beneath the Templar. "Guess I owe you again, huh? It all started on the docks a couple weeks ago, but I'm not the one to fill you in." He waves a hand dismissively, "You're not the only hunter in on this; if you scratch my back, maybe I could..."
Before he can complete a sickly, suggestive grin, Amy is across the small room, her arm extending to slam him backward and down against the hammock. She keeps going, curbing the wild sway of the broad leather sling by pressing Fei down into it, -hard-.
"Maybe," she suggests, with a smile that doesn't touch her eyes, "You could stop making excuses, and make introductions. I've had a hard week, and I'd hate to make yours any harder."
Raising his hands defensively, and completely uselessly, Fei gives a defeated grin.
-Saturday, February 21st-
-Sleeping Dragon Restaurant-
Early in the evening, business has yet to pick up to full speed in the Sleeping Dragon, and that suits Amy Elizabeth Johnson just fine. The time she has to await this supposed 'fellow hunter' (if only Fei Xiaoping knew) is spent perusing the menu over a plate of prawn crackers, the raven-haired knight splitting them one at a time and nibbling like a lazy squirrel. She doesn't want a full stomach, just in case. Still...
It's a strangely peaceful end to the Templar's recent journey, though any attempt at relaxation is fleeting - she's here to establish further reason to act, discovering another fork in the endlessly-twisting path she must walk. Reports of the murders in Southtown have filtered back to her not through the usual channels, for the obvious reasons, but because the chaos and strife surrounding the Butcher's activities have stirred up yet more. Evil begets evil. Opportunities breed opportunists.
Using a small-time contact in Chinatown - renowned for his bad luck and therefore certain to have stuck his snotty nose in -somewhere- along the line - means she can investigate without drawing overt attention or being forced to make increasingly-complexifying reports. This is something she had to do herself, however. After the experience on Zack Island, hunting a 'mere' Darkstalker is a welcome break.
Where her allies stand in this, she'll decide once she knows more.
Munching a mouthful of lightly-spiced cracker with slow, savouring motions, the Templar allows her thoughts to drift as she waits in her corner table. She's placed opposite the door - in theory, she can vet anyone who walks in, get the jump on them - but she's more tired than she realizes, and her attention is drifting also.
...that menu isn't helping, it's a little vast and far too mouth-watering. How long since she had a proper, hot meal not served up by bikini-clad super models?
For centuries, the Ichijo clan had stood sentinel over the vast Southern reaches of Japan. There had been times when the family name was known as the go to source for aid against supernatural threats when lessor, more affordable options failed. But that was another era. As the nation lunged into the Post War era, blitzing through its Industrial Revolution then straight into the Digital Age without pausing to take a breath, wonders and dangers that could not be replicated in the lab or analyzed by precision algorithms ceased to occupy the public's mind.
Not that the nights had grown any safer - if anything, the danger was more real now than it had ever been. The trouble was that the world was just too large now. Individuals were lost in the tide of humanity swelling vast cities to the breaking point. Concerns of daily life were no longer limited to the small population of hillside villages and remote farming towns, where every attack in the dark, every cursed birth or blessed omen would be spoken about for generations following. Minds were focused on the world now. Wars and rumors of wars, stocks, economies, technological gadgets and distractions, and a mind numbing flood of information from media outlets too vast to number that stayed carefully clear of anything too strange to explain, anything that might incite broad spectrum concerns in the desensitized public.
Who had time to notice that misshapen figure in the dark alley, to mourn the homeless that went missing each night, to question that odd neighbor across the way that was never seen by day? Complacency of the masses was the best gift the creatures of the night could have ever asked for. The legendary Ichijo family line became a historical footnote, the Meian Jinja outside of Southtown a rarely visited sanctuary of peace, and the please for help against the night stopped all together.
That did not mean the endless war had come to an end, however, only more secret, battles conducted in the quiet places, beyond the sight of the common citizen, an entire world of the occult that existed just outside the peripheral vision of most. But once one saw too much, once one knew the truth, there was no going back.
It was only last night that a sandal-clad foot kicked lightly at the mess still left in the squallor of the one-room hovel belonging to Fei Xiaoping. "Tch." It was nearly pitch black - power in the district was always spotty at best. Was it any wonder those who the world forgot often found themselves drawn to this neighborhood? The only glow was from the talisman in the girl's right hand casting a ghostly pale blue over the small abode.
She didn't need to threaten the dock worker with violence nor did he even play with the idea of casting a lascivious remark her way, the irritated expression she bore for him was cause enough to play it safe. "You never learn, do you," the judge in white and crimson exhales. "You should have told me about this sooner. I do not have time enough to check in on dirt like you without good cause. You are lucky the port is of especial interest as of late, and you are my best, most... loyal contact there." The sarcasm in her breath is far from subtle.
She turns to glance over her shoulder, quiet for a moment, lost in thought, or excessive wariness. That the only light outside is from the distant, better lit areas of Southtown is cause enough to be careful. "Tell me, quick, who saved you this time. Do not waste my time or I might forget to renew the seal on that shirikodama that followed you home from the docks last year..." She glances over her shoulder toward the cowering Fei with a smirk, her threat more than enough to get him to spill everything the young huntress wants to know.
The following evening, the Templar from across the seas is waiting to meet Shinta Seimei, a local practitioner of onmyoudou. A reckless, ambitious youth overconfident in his arts, he was eager to make his name in ths business by being the one to put an end to the feeding frenzy taking place in Southtown. With word reaching him from Fei Xiaoping, the thought of aligning himself with another hunter was enticing... if he could convince her to work with him, he could still get his name out there if the two succeeded!
With even a bit of homework, Amy would have discovered Shinta was a boy of seventeen years, that he lived in Southtown all his life, and that his family line had ties to spiritualists in ages past but had not really pursued that path for decades now. Either such gifts will have died out completely, or young Seimei is an exception to the last few generations.
Not that it matters in the end. The door to the Sleeping Dragon opens, a lovely bell heralding the arrival of another customer, only for no one to cross the threshold. Should Amy even glance toward the vacant doorway, that is the moment the seat across from her would be occupied by a young woman instead of the expected boy.
"I am truly sorry, Amy Johnson," she states, her tone suggesting anything but actual regret. "Shinta Seimei got diverted chasing after an akaname; prey more befitting his abject lack of actual talent." A spirit known to haunt untidy bathrooms? Terrifying indeed!
Lifting her arms to prop her elbows on the table, her white, loose sleeves slipping down as she clasps her hands together, sharp brown eyes stay locked on the foreign demon hunter, engaging in unflinching analysis of every detail she can observe.
"I am Ayame Ichijo." Her beribboned tresses rest against her shoulders, her white and crimson kimono top seeming a bit antiquated compared to modern fashions. "I believe we share a common interest in recent violence." She could see this young woman was different than any other she had encountered. The North American shaman had been her only previous experience with hunters from afar. But Amy looks nothing like the Sin Eater.
Mankind stands upon the precipice of destruction, so vastly sprawling upon a platform ill-suited to the task that the very earth cries out in pain and dismay. It's for the stalwart, self-sacrificing few to mount a vanguard against the darkness wrought by man's own hand against himself. It's enough to play sentinel, to mount the watchtower, one must actively pursue - hunt, or be hunted. Kill or be killed.
It's why the raven-haired Templar, the youngest ranking officer of an Order wracked by political machinations - oft too bloated and corpulent to act when it must - is fast becoming a renegade on her own, headstrong terms. Who has time, indeed, for the downtrodden and desperate? Who even to support those already fighting, whose downfall will be equally sad when it comes. Hope is dying. Ideals are unreachable, as things stand. History is next to irrelevant in the face of new orders, foundations build upon the ruin of the past; the latter to be forgotten, perhaps, as the wheel turns.
A novel path must be created, through the union of talent that dares to emerge from the broken vestiges of tradition - or even far from it. It's to this bold end that Amy Johnson is too willing to meet with Shinta Seimei, whatever the boy's pedigree - or lack thereof - might mean. She'd never have believed for an instant the calibre of Mimiru Kasagi or Alma Towazu, two beautiful but hopelessly-lost creatures stuck between youth and adulthood, and any judgement she passed before allowing them to sway her would have been... damning. Regrettably so. There are other she still doubts, but persists in her allegiances - it's a time for changes, a time to change the world.
Enough could not be said of Father Walter Bardsley, and much likely will in time. Suffice to say, Amy learns quickly, and she's learning how wrong she has been. How wrong her teachings, how wrong her masters. Who but the witless would have truly believed that Athena Asamiya might be what she now, to the Templar, appears so -absolutely- to be? Her very faith is in question. If she cannot depend upon the Earth itself, or her steely convictions, she must look elsewhere for absolution of purpose. The restaurant bell rings, and she looks up, stirred from a revery...
Even in the light of so much revelation, so much doubt, it remains rare that Dame Amy is ever surprised so. When the doorway is empty, she feels the Dragon's Breath dance invisibly, stirring within her gut and raising the hairs at the nape of her neck.
Then, her breath catches. She recovers quickly, with a toss of her head, raven tresses bouncing about pale, freckled features. Her lips part faintly as she draws a new breath, banishes astonishment in favour of meeting those piercing eyes with her own, stormy gaze. Like the ocean, so deep and profound, but yielding little truth.
"Diverted, was he?" She utters, brow curving in disbelieving query well below the sumptuous blue of her uniform beret. Their attire is at strange odds, the Templar rooted in the past but aggressively cutting-edge all the same; half errant swordsman, half cyberpunk enforcer. So, too, the attitude. A smile darts across the Templar's lips and she quips, "I'm glad I didn't order his favourite shrimp."
It's a test, of course - she doesn't know the lad any better than she knows this strange, harshly-beautiful young girl before her. Amy is reckless, throwing out her own lack of knowledge in the hope of garnering a reaction.
She's also swift to move on, leaning back and setting down the menu, her fingers entwining upon the tabletop and elbows raised. A relaxed stance - guarded, perhaps, in the social sense, but entirely impractical should she need to defend herself.
"You know my name, but share your own readily. It's a good start, Ichijo-san." Ichijo. It rings with a familiarity she cannot place, and after a moment's thought, lips pursing, she elects not to bluff. "I can't say I know the name offhand, but for all we might have in common..." She tips her head faintly to one side, examining Ayame - but only in the eyes, gazing into the very soul said to be hunted by this ferocious creature they stalk. "Your traditions are not mine. I can only learn so much. You are Shinto, are you not? So young..." A bittersweet smile, now, that does touch her eyes. There's a portion of regret within, sympathy too, and yet is she approving? Or damning?
"But I'm bandying words. Would you care to do business? I'm past the point of arguing religion or the semantics of divergent philosophies. I want to help this place, and you," she's no longer smiling, serious and resolved, as she rather enigmatically finishes, "If that's what's required of me."
Duty, then. But to whom? Perhaps it doesn't matter, any more. To serve this world is enough.
"Tofu, actually," the strawberry blonde speaks up. It's any wonder where in her family's history East laid with West to produce the fairer haired Ichijo, the rest of her features identifying her as likely native to the locale. "He is a vegetarian - by faith more than choice," her mouth curls into a faint smile of bemusement, as if she appreciated the attempt and was willing to move past it without further consideration.
This was her house. They were in her backyard. Amy was an outsider... an outsider that had gotten to Fei one step ahead, had inserted herself into the web of eager hunters on the case... Unlike the locals Ayame knew well - many of whom were mere wannabes or hopefulls well on their way to getting themselves killed the moment they encountered a true darkstalker - this foreigner was a mystery. All the proud priestess had was a name and she laid that card on the table without hestitation. The rest would have to be figured out on the fly.
She sits up a little more straightly as the Westerner admits to not knowing the family name. There might have been the slightest flicker of umbrage, but it is fleeting, her smile from moments prior having already faded. A lot can be discovered with such careful scrutiny - her hair is long, clean, well kept. Her clothing is light on ornamentation but it is definitely there - straying toward the pragmatically fancy rather than crossing over into impractical.
But a study of her eyes surprisingly provides far less than even the most perceptive might expect. It is easy to glean the impression that she is actively refusing to be read in this way, leaving one to only be able to understand her by the spoken word and her outward appearance. Whatever lies beneath the surface of her young, healthy beauty can only be guessed at.
"Traditions... philosophies..." she finally speaks, lowering her hands to press them flat against the table, fingers locked together, letting down any pretense of guard as well. "I am not a believer. I am a realist. It is not myths we hunt, and it is not scripture verses that kill in the cover of darkness." Her expression softens further, copper brown eyes half closing as she lowers her face, the bow at the back of her head bouncing once with the motion.
"You are right though. I fight with the tools that were my birthright - the lore of the Shinto has been my guide and my weapon, but... it has been my experience that while all religions have parcels of truth, none of them have all of the truth. Perhaps you have seen enough yourself to understand."
She unfolds her fingers, right hand sliding across the table, palm down, leaving a small parchment near the center. The intricately painted characters decorating its surface are from a script centuries old, bearing only passing resmeblence to modern kanji. The glyphs begin to swim across the surface, taking on life of their own, the paper itself igniting into cool flame. The girl wipes her left hand across the table and sweeps the talisman out of sight without so much as a blink or flinch as she looks up to focus on Amy once again. "Founded by charlatans plying their parlor tricks no more divine than that little act... or martyrs sacrificing their life's blood for others, any relgion worth meriting as such should be a bastion, not a barrier. Do you agree?"
She lifts her fight hand, the knuckles of her fingers resting against her cheek as she props her elbow against the tabletop again. "Why are you on this path? Is it for the bounties posted for this Mist Stalker?" The recent attack on one Miss Mallone has Interpol rocketed so-called Butcher to the top of the Most Wanted charts, and bounty hunters aplenty are flocking to Southtown.
The youngest of the Ichijo will have nothing to do with any of them.
Her eyes glance up and down the trappings of Johnson's attire, "Is it for a promotion?" The priestess cannot place her affiliation, but it is clear enough that she is not an entirely free agent... there is a disciplined, regimented look about her incompatible with those oft-times unkempt Street Samurai.
"Fame?" she presses, lowering her hand, leaning forward across the table a little. "Do you hope to see your name lauded when the monster is taken down?"
It's always gratifying, to the Templar, to encounter someone who can echo and even outdo her quirks. To be so profoundly-influenced by an archaic tradition, and yet embrace a cutting, incisive and decidely modern attitude... perhaps this Ayame Ichijo is the colder and harsher of the two, but they share a certain 'je ne sais quoi'. She may strive still toward the businesslike, but Amy instinctively warms to the girl.
Cautious in outlook but impulsive in practice, with each passing sentence Amy finds herself biting back an interruption. Perhaps they share in the verbose, too. What little the miko yields through her eyes, she communicates all too clearly in words, her voice clear and words measured. Does she walk alone, wonders the Templar? She would make a fine leader of men, were she so inclined. And her insight...
"Perhaps I have," murmurs the raven-haired woman, as to her understanding of this ever-shifting world, the necessary transcience of the faithful. She'll elaborate no further for the moment, readily falling into the rhythm of the miko as she curbs her own, forthright instincts. She merely smiles, allowing inner turmoil to rest. Though Ayame can probably feel it-- the fire of the Templar, the mist she wields sitting in her gut far more a blaze than a cool fog, ready to explode. Ready to act.
Perhaps it's what motivates that little display. It's regarded with the curve of a brow, a gentle nod and drawing of the mouth phrasing that Johnson is impressed enough, in her way - it's good to know she's not dealing with a blowhard.
But she'd already presumed as much. Ayame presents herself admirably. And there, then, to the point - to the thrust of this. Identifying why a violent, invasive gaijin would have a stake in this matter. Why should Amy care? Does she, even?
"Any warrior who claims not to desire glory," she says quietly, at first, clearing her throat with a brusque out-breath and then looking up from the tabletop where her gaze has fallen. Stormy blues boil with subdued passion. "Is a liar, or an idealistic fool. But no, Miss Ichijo," she's dropped the native honorific. It was a pleasantry; this feels more natural, to her. "I certainly do not seek fame, nor a promotion through the ranks of my Order." Yielding the clue to her origin, she idly sketches a hand toward her breast, as if to subtly indicate the bronze cross emblazoned upon her uniform. She gives no more. "I am in the position I need to be, for now."
She doesn't even address the possibility of financial reward. It's insulting to even consider it - if she is affiliated to any Church, regardless, she will have resources at her disposal. A miko should understand, she presumes.
"Forgive my contradiction, but I consider myself among the faithful, -and- the eminently practical. The things I have seen, the things I have fought, these all convince me that myth is alive and inseparable from our fragile reality. While I admire your sentiment, I must say you seem to be making the same mistake as the zealots who refuse to leave their tired scripture behind." She pouts slightly, thoughtful and bitter, chewing on the inside of her mouth. Freckled cheeks dimple then as she abruptly transitions to a cynical half-smile, "But I do agree. I wasn't raised for the purpose I embody now - once, I was just another teenager who despised the restraints of society."
Was that a subtle dig at Ayame's more tender age? It's honestly hard to tell. The Templar's manner is at once soft and unyielding, genuine and guarded. Spreading her hands, she waves them loosely, as if to say 'and so...'
"Let us say that all barriers are to be broken, that does not relinquish the need for control. To do better for this world, we must exert ourselves, sometimes violently. There are actions to be taken, that most will not. Necessary truths to confront. Lives to be taken and others to be laid down in this service. My religion has a bloody history, I fear, as do so many others... and I'm no bleeding heart, Miss Ichijo."
Drawing her chin upward, there's that flash of prideful confidence again. As though Amy were daring the younger woman to gainsay her, to doubt her professions, as stern and fierce a crusader as any other.
"I've come to your homeland because I'm willing to fight for us -all-. I believe," there's an edge of shining steel to the word, a savage gleam, another dare, "That it's my purpose to do so, and whatever else, it's the purpose I choose. If you'd rather I walk away, allow you to handle this business within your own established walls, then tell me so. I'll not fight you over offering my assistance. Not now, at least."
She smiles alongside the last, stormy blues dark, incisive, and... amused? Is she enjoying this?
There is no immediate reactions to Amy's confirmations to what the shrine maiden must have already suspected. Fame, fortune - Amy's purpose runs far deeper than that, but if Ayame is pleased at the answer, she doesn't show it. Eyes flick to the cross then back to her face. Of course she had noted it before, but it's only polite to acknowledge the gesture. She isn't completely detatched from such concepts of respectful decorum as she might feign to be for those who prove to be more annoying than interesting.
She can work with this one.
"Then that makes two of us."
The statement murmured in consideration of being in the position she needs to be; the comment made without intent to interrupt the flow of thought.
She is quiet as the Templar speaks of belief and zealous disregard for the strength it imparts, head canting to the side, eyebrow raising slightly as the Westerner references her own younger years, one eye narrowing just a little.
"To see is not to believe," she considers thoughtfully. "Once ideas are tested for surety, faith becomes knowledge. But... yes, I suppose even an understanding of truth must begin as a seed of faith." She allows a faint smile, "Perhaps I spoke too hastily. The lines between tested faith and knowledge born by probabilities can blur. Is it faith or knowledge by which we wake each day, certain the sun will rise again? Is it knowledge or faith that we can make a difference that carries us onward? Is it by faith in a greater power that you can put your own life on the line... or knowledge that if you do not, the war will someday be lost? In the end, I am not sure that it matters. Semantics, as they say."
Her smile widens though by no means becomes warm as she continues, "Perhaps when I am older, I will understand better." It passes, expression becoming somber once more.
"I understand the need for order, though I have..." she pauses. She hadn't intended to tread on the concern that had troubled her as of late, as she began to face greater threats beyond her capacity to tackle by herself. "Always stood alone in my vigil. To work with others in dangerous pursuits, there must be some exercise of control or else chaos will become our enemy every bit as deadly as the creatures we face. Have you fought alongside others then?" Not every Watchwoman can be as lonely as she is.
She makes no effort to challenge the Templar's convictions about her ability to do what is done. If she had doubts they were already long since dismissed over the course of this perhaps unanticipated interview.
"Your words have given me cause to realize that there is one place in which faith reigns where knowledge falters... and that is the trust we place in others." She narrows her eyes slightly, that passing judging look she adopts so easily, as if evaluating the worth of any she surveys for long. How many, over the years, had she truly trusted? In this life, perhaps none at all.
"I cannot know that your intentions are just, that you are the right person in the right place to help make a difference against the latest blight on this city. But... I believe that you are."
She releases a soft sigh, as if relieved of some secret worry, "Your assitance would be most welcome. I have read much of the Occidental belief systems but never discussed them with one who carried them in their heart. Now is hardly the time, but..."
Arrogance and humility. They are two concepts the Templar often feels she embodies, when she takes the time to self-examine, to meditate or pray. Can one be both self-effacing and so confident as to inspire acts of hubris? She believes so. Her persistence often borders upon the blasphemous, and as she's already disclosed, her faith is stretched far beyond the constraints found in a priest's sermons. She -knows- things exist that are condemned as heretical delusion in the Bible.
Like everything else, one's beliefs must laid upon an ever-shifting map. Points charted on a graph, a journal always offering fresh pages, and new insight with them. If she's judged a poor Christian, a poor Catholic, then so be it.
Amy Johnson considers herself a fine knight, on her own, unique terms.
What does Ayame Ichijo think of her personage? It's one of the many questions asked by stormy blue introspections, and answers are notable for their absence in the girl's intelligently-woven verse. She might be older than she appears - the Templar would not doubt it, if true - but in any case, her pre-possession is impressive, if likely infuriating to some. They could, Amy considers with a secret smile, argue for days.
"It's not my faith in God that guides my purpose, or rather... that's not the crux of it, it's been but the path opened to me, my -guide- if not my -goal-. If you desire the truth from me, I consider myself a pawn to be sacrificed; for a greater world tomorrow I'll die today, if I must, and for every sacrifice I make and survive, I only take a step closer to the utopia I'd foresee in my heart. I will never reach it. This I believe, though I cannot truly know. My allies, however..."
The raven-haired warrior cants her head, flicking her gaze off toward the entrance. Almost as if she expects someone to enter. It wouldn't set her too vastly aback - her companions have a knack for being in the right, or wrong, place when needed.
She turns back to Ayame with a draw and release of breath, nodding to confirm the answer to that earlier question.
"I fight as much for them, but I fight -with- them, too. Once, I had companions who I failed utterly-- it was their strength that kept me going, knowing that my survival would mean the world to them." Her voice lowers, sadness lacing her tone, creeping into darkened eyes. "It still is, in part." She clenches and unfurls a fist upon the tabletop, then ekes out a smile. "We who fight monsters cannot stand alone; we need others to embody our spirit, to remind us where we err and ail. I place stock in my own power - and I need to be -capable- of fighting alone, don't misjudge me in that. But we're stronger with friends to fight for, to save and be saved in turn."
A frown furrowing her brow, she looks Ayame in the eye, the pause just long enough to become uncomfortable. And then she asks, her voice hardened and lifting noticeably in volume, as if this were the most important thing she has said:
"Why do you fight at all, if not for others?"
Her gaze lowers, tone softening.
"That's the core of our belief system, to me. There are a great many parables, more commandments then needed, stories whose meanings have grown old and redundant. What matters is love, and the union of souls. If you fight for heaven or hell, you are already condemning yourself to the worst, tricked by the carrot to fall into a void. Persisting in this life means finding those in whom to maintain your faith, protecting them and guiding them at any cost. We all need people in our lives, Ayame."
'We all need love.' She doesn't say it, but she does draw back a hand and cross her breast, the gesture almost entirely idle - it's not theatre, it's something she does for herself as much as for the benefit of the girl before her.
"So, then." Back to business as if the disclosure were a mere speedbump in the road, Amy reclasps her hands, the conjoined fist bumping on the table - on the forgotten menu, and not far from the abandoned crackers. Dining was never the point. It merely gave her an excuse, and something to do if the meeting were abandoned. "If you'd trust me, I need to know all that you can share. I've read the public reports, and I've tasted the chaos that spews from the epicentre of this crisis. Beyond this, I know little bar what our mutual friend can say. One thing interests me already," she pauses, looking somewhat askance at Ayame now, gaze keen and alert, wary, "You call our foe a 'Mist Stalker'. Why? I have... personal reasons for asking..."
A grin tugs at her lips briefly, and stormy blues swim. In an echo of Ayame's earlier demonstration, the Dragon's Breath is called forth with the most careful adjustment of the Templar's aura. That which she keeps restrained spills into the air, grayish motes creeping about the older woman's shoulders, until a spray of mist drifts between them. It fades fast, but not before a finger twitches and sends a single tendril whipping toward the strawberry-blonde miko, failing from view just short of her chest.
"I shouldn't like to be implicated as a suspect, and I despise competition."
Throughout the dialogue, Ayame's reactions have been subtle, almost feeling calculated - as if she respond only to the degree she wanted to and no further. Much of the time, she has sat quietly, the occasional blink seemingly not timed with any particular statement, her fidgets slow and deliberate - a move of her hands, a shifting in her seat, her posture sometimes relaxed, other times stiff.
It isn't until the Holy Knight says she considers herself a pawn - a piece in play to be sacrificed by the proverbial greater good - that the miko frowns for the first time, a flash of something in her eyes, a brief glimpse of fiery indignation. But she says nothing and reacts no further but to tighten the way her hands are clenched together in that moment.
She speaks of fighting for allies and the intense yet also dispassionate priestess seems to calm back down. She finally even nods in silent agreement to the premise that fighting alongside friends makes one stronger. It is an ideal she had never espoused. There was a time she might have answered such a statement with bitter disregard - having anyone you cared about made you week, having anyone you depended on simply gave others a means by which to manipulate you. The realization that she no longer felt that way - that the mere fact that she still had her parents' open support, that she had allowed, in her decision to stay home, a vulnerability that could potentially be exploited someday in exchange for their sustaining strength... there is a distant look to her eyes then as Amy carves her way through walls two childhoods in the making. Timing... can make all the difference.
It is in that moment of reflection that Amy strikes with her direct, unambigious question. It seems to have caught the priestess off guard, the girl recoiling a little, as if feeling suddenly defensive. She doesn't answer for the longest while, allowing the Templar to continue in her softened tone about her belief in what it takes to get through the tribulations of this trial called life.
"There is..." she swallows. It is the first time she has hesitated, her capacity for engaging intellectual discourse with unwavering aplomb finally shaken. "...a tremendous debt to be paid."
She offers nothing further, the flicker of a rueful smile at the corner of her lips suggesting that confiding even that small detail was a test of that very trust she had mentioned moments before. It too passes, however, the mask returning, her intensely serene expression returning as she clasps her hands together once again.
Amy speaks of the business at hand anyway - a topic far more accommodating to openness. The girl is content to share what she knows with a trusted hunter. Of the news of the Butcher's attacks. How she has not spoken to the victims themselves as each one has been nursed to health in the secure wing of the hospital, of the deadly link formed between predator and prey, "That is why he lets some live... the strong ones especially... as their souls attempt to mend, they are only empowering him further. The longer this goes on..."
The knight brings up the title Mist Stalker and Ayame nods slightly, not understanding the interest at first. She feels the demonstration before she sees the visible manifestation thereof. Especially sensitive to the ebb and flow of the breath of life in others, that awareness has been part of her ability to read others better than she often even let on. But the tangible form is given rapt attention, the girl leaning back a little, expression neutral as she studies the nature of Amy's gift.
As it collapses, there is that shade of a smile again, the priestess seemingly often amused. "The off record reports indicate that he comes and goes with a mist of pure black. Whether it is merely a concealment technique or something for which he has an especial affinity, I cannot say... But you are missing the fangs to do what he has done. You are an unlikely suspect, though competition...? Hm..." She's playing a little, the moment of light heartedness as ephemeral as many of her other transitory sparks of emotion.
She sits up a little more straight now, hands sliding off the top of the table, fingers resting at the edge of it as her arms hang down. "Whatever need I have for taking a stand, it does not," the emphasis on the last word is strong, "-extend to being a pawn or laying down my life. I will carve out my own destiny, I will make my own way, and I will never let my work, my effort, and my potential go to waste dying for some great cause." She levels an accusing glare at Amy, the strongest disapproval she had demonstrated throughout their exchange. Her right hand lifts, pointing finger pressed against the table to bending.
"And either should you. You live because of the strength of others who fell that you might not. That does not condemn you to a martyr's fate... If you walk into your battles accepting that idea, there are enemies without number who will happily help you fullfill it, and that..." She lifts her finger then thumps it down hard enough to create a soft thump. "That, above all else, makes you a liability to your allies."
Her hand is withdrawn from the table, both of them resting in her lap now. Her tone softens, the sudden flare of strong disapproval waning. She closes her eyes for a moment, breathing in then exhaling. "Forgive me, the idea of fighting alongside one who embraces the sacrifice of their own life upon the altar destiny is a little troubling. I can understand giving up all else - hobbies, time, sweat, and blood. Sometimes, to outlast your enemies one more day, it takes every bit of your being... but to die, to squander all you have labored to become..." She shakes her head slowly.
"Do..." She opens her eyes, genuine curiosity visible in her eyes then. "...do your allies know this about you?" And do they chose to stand by her in the face of life threatening peril all the same?
When young Ichijo touches briefly on her past, the tone seeming almost pleading to the lady knight, it might derail the conversation as a whole. There is empathy in the older woman's eyes, Amy hesitating as if to hold up a hand and halt the discourse. But she's barely met this girl, and it certainly isn't her place, yet, to attack weakness. If they are to be allies, that might come in time. First, she needs to know...
...and the necessities unfold. The Templar listens keenly, not taking notes upon paper but filing away each fact in the recesses of her mind. Much of it is troubling, a great deal no more than her 'day job' so often entails. The nature of the beast is another irony in the pile, calling back to the question of myth and religion.
"A demon by any other name," she notes in a soft, near-whispered lilt, her crisp tones adding only a faintly sharpened edge to the phrase. It's something she still wonders about, how much of the demon and the Devil is rooted in the existence of Darkstalkers. How much might be missed, yet, to presume this covers all eventualities.
It's too easy to generalize, and point the finger in false confidence.
When Ayame toys with mischief, Amy reflects it with a spark of her own, a light in her oceanic gaze as she massages the palm of her right hand, her fingers brushing at the air, trimmed nails pressing like talons against the area's native energies. Against that which her Breath might seize, control in order to manifest. Her smile is one of excitement subdued, of eagerness held in careful reserve. It seems an eventuality they must face, that testing of one another, and she's almost too eager to embrace it.
If only, like Ayame, for a moment. Emotion dances like autumn leaves, falls like rain and blows like the wind, passing easily where allowed. It's resistance that toughens the process-- and Amy lets it go. Other things, she cannot.
"You question my resolve?"
To profess as the Templar does, there must be an acceptance of conflict. She's never shied from that; not considered that others should blindly accept her convictions, nor approve of them. If anything, her youth was spent raging against all forms of approval, determined to be accepted only on terms of her own aggressive forging. As an adult, her faith and purpose discovered, she's conformed to certain ideals and committed to the receipt and execution of orders. To fulfil another's ambitions means abandoning, at least to some extent, one's own identity. Compromise. It's important.
However. Amy becomes less compromising by the day, the week, the month, unable to fall into line where she sees a forming circle. Progress is the desire, a path that leads forward without treading old, familiar ground. A dangerous way to live, and one that contributes to her unrelenting, martyr's stride. Perhaps Ayame is right.
That fiery accusation, the admission of concern, most of all the insinuation that she betrays her friends.
"I can't let that go unanswered, can I?" The question hangs, rhetorical, fierce, yet tempered by a stray amusement on the part of the Templar. Her expression has roamed betwixt a maintenance of stoic attentiveness and darker vibrances to mirror Ayame's own, almost twisting into rage at times. To be challenged by someone your junior, by someone to whom you extend a hand of free allegiance, it's perturbing in the least. But this yields as easily as anything else, when allowed. Besides, she has thought this all through - she's impulsive at times, but she's no tantruming babe. "Some of them, I have told," she admits with a slow shrug, watching Ayame with as little a challenging air as she can manage. "Others it seems unnecessary or cruel. They've all of them experienced firsthand how I approach what we fight, how I treat my goals, and how I present my ambitions. I don't wear a mask to conceal what I am - I..."
She hesitates, breathes a laugh, and shakes her head. Stormy blues lower to the tabletop momentarily, her own fingers thrumming a beat before she looks back to Ayame.
"I've opened a discourse with several of them by making an attempt on their welfare. Strange, how often enemies lead to friends, but we are in the business of creatures that masquerade to play us; whose trickery is designed to undermine and destroy. I never claimed to be anything, Ayame Ichijo, except sincere in my convictions. I make mistakes, and my attitude to life and myself is not one I expect of others."
Suddenly she leans forward, her arms parting to press both hands down upon the table. It creaks beneath her weight-- moreso, beneath her power, the honed muscles of her athlete's physique tensing. Her stare is black fire, and crashing waves.
"But do not -dare- accuse me of throwing myself away for nothing, of seeking to endanger those I love and protect in the process. We've barely spoken as equals and you presume that I share what I share with you, and only you? If I put another in danger, I do so knowing that they're aware of my intent - of how far I will go, of who I am. If you would give your all to outlast your enemies, 'every bit of your being', but you'd hold back from the precipice of death if doing so meant the difference between failure and defeat?" She scoffs, tossing her head and falling back. She does so with quite a thump, drawing glances from across the barely-occupied restaurant. "Then you're a hypocrite and a liar. Don't tell me you're something you're not; that you are what you are is enough, -child-. I'd not ask you to die on -any- account, do not tell me to live at the cost of my very purpose. I know where my faith leads me."
Her expression is hard, but neither pouting nor overcome by emotion. She's projecting all that she needs to, all that she is, and this naturalistically stops before the point of no return. The overt tension has left her body - that part, it seems, certainly was theatrical, for whatever benefit it might have been.
Everything else, is just unashamedly Amy. For better or worse.
"Thank you for the information. Out of respect - and make no mistake, I respect you for what you've shown and told me - I'll tell you what you've been decent enough not to ask. I'm an officer in the Order of Knights Templar, but I've come here not because I've been ordered. As I said, I'm here to protect this place and the world with it. If the depth to which I'm willing to plunge offends you, then I'll lead my own effort. But this is your home, miko," her tone has softened greatly again, and she even smiles, warmth in the expression, "If you will it, I'll follow your lead. In any case..."
Her head tosses just faintly, a mere sketch of the earlier prideful gesture.
"Should I face this abomination, I will do so on its own terms. I would think one in your position knows well enough that the darkness in this world will not back down when pushed; to yield first, to be afraid of your own fate, that's how you lose."
She is quiet at Amy's first question, sitting there across from the Templar, hands in her lap, her back straight, her posture perfect. She doesn't flinch, doesn't recoil, and the priestess's silence provides all the answer Amy needs.
Yes she is.
She has seen the martyr's path, has seen those who throw themselves in harm's way with reckless abandon, relying on their faith or their karmic value to see them through the impossible. Fools. Idiots. They are every bit as dangerous to those they are trying to save as the dangers they claim to fight. Sometimes blind luck saw them through... At times, it did not. The girl, half a decade or more younger than than the battle tested Knight, stares back - there is a challenging air about her, an invitation to answer the gauntlet thrown down. Is it a fight she wants after all that?
Surely she saw those emotions, the fight transpiring in the chambers of the soul of one who's chances of becoming an ally hinge precariously on the next moments. The tension is palpable, the thrum of energy concealed felt. Her fights have started over less.
She leans forward, almost imperceptibly so, as Amy speaks about sharing her resolve with those who stand at her side, as if answering the implied escalation even without being aware herself. As Amy leans forward to press against the table, the miko does likewise though her hands stay in her lap, her expression never wavering, her lips set in a fine thin line, her gaze an autumn's flame.
She finally blinks at being declared a pretender, a child playacting a role she has envisioned for herself, a fantasy of a youth too nervous to go all the way, to see it through to the harsh, bitter end oft times bestowed by reality. Her hands grip the edge of the table tightly. It is the first time she breaks eye contact in a long while, a glance cast to the side, mouth curved into a frown of certain disapproval.
She doesn't look back toward the young woman as she thanks her for the information. If she's listening, there is no indication of such. The Knight reveals her affiliation at last. Ayame might have been able to figure it out eventually - clever to a fault, and resourceful when driven by that unabating voice of curiosity. But still she doesn't look back.
Not until Amy says she will lead her own effort does the priestess finally look up to seek her eyes. Her frown fades slowly, curling into that wistful, faint smile she adopts on rare occasions, a forlorn look in her eyes as if her mind was drawn back to different times, different circumstances - too reflective for a girl who looks to be barely reaching the Winter of her own adolescence.
She shakes her head, eyes closing for a moment as her hands slip back to her lap. An inhale then exhale, the storm has passed. Copper brown eyes take focus on Amy Johnson once again.
"No. I would rather you do not follow my lead... Dame Johnson."
When she first falls quiet, allowing that statement to hang in the air, her lips pursed to the right, she appears torn, conflicted. But drop by drop, the conflict dwindles, the girl's demeanor becoming more serene with each passing moment.
"It would not be right. Not with my faults and, you are justified in pointing out, comperative lack of experience."
Another shake of her head, strawberry blonde tresses shifting about her shoulders. "I find myself convinced of your resolve. I think I understand why your allies trust you. I spoke earlier of it - that faith in another - but then recanted it out of not fully appreciating your conviction. But... no."
The modern shrine maiden's expression becomes the essence of intense, unyielding purpose.
"In this matter, I ask that you do me the honor of leading the way. I will follow."
She pauses for a heartbeat.
Were the Templar to step back from herself, stand and count her flaws with as much an objective viewpoint as possible, she would have to place her more judgemental tendencies at the foremost of that list. Without her ire raised, she'd flinch herself at the ferociously blunt use of the term that so offends Ayame Ichijo: the same she applied to Athena's more fearful, immature young ally, and later retracted following a demonstration of her courage and skill. It still wasn't untrue, but here...
...she's not seen anything beyond the nuances of a conversation between two guardians, not experienced anything beyond a single flash of spiritual energy. 'Child'? The miko may not even have had a chance to be one. What that makes her is something else.
Still. Perhaps there's a callous wisdom to be found in shaming her so.
Amy watches the girl - the younger woman, her fellow hunter - with a gaze relevelled, her heart's pulse slowing from its heightened state as the flood of her passions ebbs. Whatever the conceit displayed, there was nothing in her words that was pre-determined, no script to follow within the play of their discourse. She's considering her own actions as Ayame considers her very identity, no more or less a child than any other rational being yet to grow into their full maturity. Can the Templar claim she's done learning, done growing? Maybe that time will never come. But there is a difference between them, in age and wisdom, in the sum of their life's experiences.
She breathes cool, but deep, chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm as her would-be companion's own judgement hangs in the balance. Of herself, of the Templar, of this dire situation in which they find themselves. The raging battle is evident; the determination and fortitude of the character that wins out truly a marvel. It's a wonder she's not heard of this girl before, by her strength of spirit alone.
When the final outpouring comes, there's a surge of emotion that almost calls forth the mist once more. Amy blinks slowly, a stinging prickle at the edges of stormy blue eyes carried upon a sweeping tide of blood, rushing through her veins, warming the air in her lungs. She can see what it costs, the admission, the swallowing of pride.
She's been there herself. She tries to beat back the laughter that threatens, the weight of the situation and the gratitude, the admiration - the love - she can't help but feel for this 'child' conspiring to an unfortunate gesture. She succeeds with an effort of will, and exudes a sigh instead, bowing her head and lidding her gaze.
"You do not have to beg... Ayame." She uses the name kindly now, with a gentle heat that reflects the respect earned, and the trust with it. So, too, an apology for her harsh behaviour - it is her place to offer that, unconditionally. Looking up, she allows the smile at last, gentle and without a hint of arrogance. A mirror for the serene. "I respect your judgement, and it's I who is bestowed an honour. To safeguard your home, to drive back that which would destroy all you've worked for... that's an honour too, and it's an obligation we share. I'll lead you, my friend."
She draws and releases another breath, and then moves to stand, her chair creaking back.
"But you'll advise me at every step, curtail me if I go too far. I do not treat my allies as peons, Ayame. Leadership is a virtue, for us all, but a good leader knows when to stop and listen. Knows when to compromise. I don't do this for myself."
Taking her hands from the tabletop, she extends one, gloved hand curled for a warrior's grip.
"We'll beat this thing together. My orders, my convictions, your wisdom and support. The strength of your lineage is doubtless greater than mine, and you know this place; beyond here, and now," an enigmatic half-smile, stormy blues growing distant with thoughts that are set aside swiftly, "Perhaps that's a discussion for another time. For now, get some rest. I'll summon the support we need, and we'll progress in the morning. Quickly, though, before this town is consumed by the spreading darkness."
Her eyes narrow, free hand resting with a soft clink on the hilt of her arming sword.
"Before any more innocents are hurt because the strong refuse to act."
The priestess rises along with the knight. She has always worn her own uniform with pride - it heralds to a more simple time in centuries past, but even in this modernized world, it carries with it recognition throughout Japan. A shinto shrine maiden, pure servents at the various jinjas across the nation, there to lead worshippers in prayer, provide tours, and conduct rituals.
Oft forgotten in this more complex time is their long history as battle maidens, warrior priestesses, and guardians of artifacts and sacred ground. But when Ayame stands to extend her hand, gripping Amy's own, it would be easy enough to be reminded of that more violent legacy - here two warriors have met and a new understanding forged.
She never imagined fighting alongside another. She had only done so, in earnest, one other time. She will still him eventualy, her erstwhile ally, his mind seemingly lost between times if the coniving Ainu girl was to be believed.
But in the meantime, this woman, and her cause, is one the girl can attach herself to. She realized, only at the end of their discourse, there was something to be learned from her; something to be discovered by destiny's Saint. She was not going to let this opportunity pass her by.
"Agreed." she murmurs.
Log created on 16:21:16 02/21/2015 by Amy, and last modified on 09:08:47 02/22/2015.