Description: In the dark of the night, somewhere in the rustic woodlands of Illyria, Clio St. Jeanne looks to the stars. There she is joined by one of the people most important to turning her life's Wheel of Fortune, the One Eyed Twin Lotus. Some time ago, their chances to look at the night sky were dashed by revelations and conflict. This time, purposes and duties are different. And in the night, friendships are forged between wanderers new and old.
Illyria is not a terribly large nation, neither physically nor by population. But what it lacks for in those regards, it makes up for in verticality, nooks and crannies. From vistas that glow with the light of each sunrise, to narrow coves bathed in dark and cold. Deep forest and sharp mountain abound. And among those places the old and long abandoned villages of a nation long left to slumber.
Since the arrival of Mai Natsume to the Castle Illyria, Clio has spent more and more time away from that place to avoid the NOL agent. Clio trusts her friend, she knows that, other than Makoto Nanaya there are few she could trust more in her old allegiances. But Clio cannot bring herself to put the burden of a question of loyalty on her friend's head. So she has left and taken to exploring a natural setting as opposed to the urban sprawls she has spent much of her life used to.
And Clio has found something about a place as remote as Illyria; the star fields are fascinating and full. Something normally lost to the lights of a city, even the wooded spots she used to go to in Southtown hold nothing to the band of light splashed across a night sky in the dark forests of Europe.
It's under those stars that Clio has found herself again. Alone and at rest, she looks up to the stars through a break in the boughs. She smiles, and plays with a spike in hand. The last remaining part of her chain left broken. Though, what happened to it after Illyria fell into the Order's Hands, Clio doesn't know. She hadn't looked for the pieces. All she had was the spare spike plumb.
But even as she makes the sigils burst with eldritch light, she watches the much brighter stars above. And she finds a bit of peace for herself and for her decisions. And she is content.
The One-Eyed Twin Lotus shares a number of similarities with Clio, though his own rationales are, predictably, different. Even beastmen who can speak and walk like humans are generally a poor fit for the prejudices of human society at large.
No, 'society' is not the place for the wandering samurai. Persons can accept him for who he is. -People- will just as likely band together for a shot at a million-dollar bounty -- more of an inconvenience to the experienced warrior than anything else. Besides, even if a simple rendezvous with the lone NOL liaison were higher on his list of priorities than 'dead last.' cats prize their solitude.
Which is why Jubei has found a number of places within the safe haven of Illyria. In the mornings, he likes heading down to the mountain stream to catch himself an early snack. In the afternoon, he often suns himself on a tall stone parapet on the upper reaches of the Castle.
But now, in the late of night, he has a favorite set of shrubs not far from the small clearing Clio has chosen. The branches of three separate plants have arrayed themselves in such a manner as to provide an enveloping boundary, sized perfectly for a larger-than-average cat such as himself. The branches themselves, brushing against his fur, allow him to sense his surroundings to a larger degree, providing both short-range security, as well as a soothing, natural rhythm that sets his feline heart at ease.
His whiskers twitch first, at the familiar scent. And then his twin tails begin to swish into motion, rustling the leaves of the surrounding foliage. The leaves and branches rustle...
It might not be clear, really, just -when- the bicolor predator made his way to Clio's vicinity. Cats are good at stealth, and wily old cats even moreso. But when the eldritch light flares, the azure light is close enough to bring a twinkle to the cat's lone eye. Like Clio, he's looking at the stars above. But unlike Clio, he's perched on a tree about six feet above the ground.
She'd probably hear him once he starts licking his own forepaw, though. Or maybe when he starts rubbing that paw into his groggy snout.
If he's noticed, he wouldn't say anything, not at first. He'd just wave his kitty paw at the young woman with the spike plumb, as if he was wary towards breaking the shared peace.
A peaceful night. Stars above. But there is the ever-present unease that rolls under the surface. Something that causes Clio's mind to wander and dance from subject to subject. She rolls the spike in her hand, whispers to it, turning it upright. A floating lantern in the dark.
And then the light snuffs to darkness.
Clio flips the spike into a downward position in her hand. She looks out into the forest, up to the tree line. Eyes narrow. And there, up above her eyeline, waving at her.
The peace leaves and returns with a breath. She clips the spike at her waist and looks back up to the cat. "You made it out of the castle," she happily notes, "Good."
She looks down, away, smiling to herself. "You missed a hell of a fight, though. Could've used you against a faerie queen."
Twin tails swish merrily from side to side as the one-eyed cat smiles down at Clio. There will be no toothy grin here, though -- because that might be a bit creepy from a feline Jubei's age. He nods back, seeming to be in full agreement.
But it'd be awkward to carry out conversation with that much of a height differential. He drops from the branch, triangle-jumping off the trunk of the tree as a means of slowing his fall. His charcoal-gray frock is tugged tautly against his frame as he lands -- and he ambles over close to Clio, closing to a more personable distance.
"I'd wanted ta go," drawls the cat, "but all hell was breakin' loose outside. Figgered y'all could use less of a headache with the Queen."
He flashes an amiable grin. It's not that he wants to brag about his role in the battle; Jubei decided a long time ago that he didn't want to be an old fart who just rambles on endlessly about long-past battles.
"I really think this is the best of the things 'at coulda happened. The right people, right where they all needed t'be."
The old cat's crimson eye twinkles as he looks up to Clio -- though, after a moment, he gestures an oversized paw up to the stars.
"And we even got a nice place for stargazin' outta the deal, how 'bout that."
It's possible that good cheer is contagious.
Maybe from an old man of Jubei's vintage a big toothy grin would be a bit off, but sometimes a big doofy grin is just needed. But this time, a simple smile will do.
Clio runs a finger along the spike at her hip, the glow that rises is enough to cast faint shadow, if not enough to truly see very well by. She's quiet, watching, crossing her arms and nodding when the twin-tailed lotus drops down to approach her.
"I don't blame you," she says, speaking quietly for the respect of the night's sanctuary. "There was a lot going on. Dragons. Fae armies. I know. We had it. They barely touched me."
She looks up at the night sky, the band of white and silver. "You really think so?" Clio asks, not looking to her companion. "Right where we're needed?" she has a bit of doubt in her voice. Lingering thoughts, fears, concerns are inside of her. Peaceful or not, she knows she has so far to go in learning what she needs to help or even stay ahead of her former allies.
But now, in this place, Jubei is correct. It's a nice place for stargazing. Clio points out and slightly up, toward the big band of stars in the night sky. "Hydra's over there. Big long constellation. Felis is right there, too. Cat star.
Jubei's eye glances towards the spike -- but only so long as Clio gives it any mind at all. As soon as she's stopped, the wise old cat rightly keeps his attention focused squarely on the speaker. He smiles placidly, eager to hear her view of the momentous battle, but not exactly -pushing- for her to relive the moment should she choose not to.
But when Clio asks if he really thinks so, he's not shy about explaining the rationale behind his convictions. "I -know- so. Y'see, Mab? She's of th' old world. It's th' height of arrogance to presume that perfection's somethin y'can only get by following your own plan. And when the world's ruled by the old, the bitter, the weary, y'get a cynical world that only its rulers can enjoy."
Jubei raises a paw to scratch at the back of his hooded head. "Way I see it, the world really belongs to the young -- people who think with their -hearts-, without bein' all weighed down by bad experiences."
Jubei's tails slide languidly from side to side, as he lowers his paws, bringing them together before his chest. "You're guided by your heart, your will. So yeah, Clio -- I know so."
Jubei's head cranes back up to the stars. Though, in the process, his hood gets in the way -- an obstacle he addresses first by sweeping the hood away from his head, allowing his ears to pop up and his furry black-and-white mane to poof out behind him.
"Cat star, huh?" He chuckles quietly. "Hadn't even known that was a thing. Tell me whatcha know 'bout it, how a cat earned its place alongside kings and queens, hunters and giant snakes."
But as he looks up -- it still doesn't feel right, apparently. For the cat decides to flop down onto his back, with both oversized paws landing behind his head like a pillow, just a couple centimeters from Clio's foot. One hind foot crosses over the other's knee in repose. A stance the predatory animal would only enter from a position of complete trust.
Clio laughs, quietly, inwardly, bitterly. She looks away. "I don't really have anything," she says. "I'm not NOL anymore. You're doing a lot trying to make me feel better about doing this."
She smiles, thankful for the dark to hide the red in her cheeks and ears. "Thanks. Maybe I need it. I've got a lot of shit ahead of me. A lot of fight. But I like a fight." she smiles to herself and nods. "Okay, yeah, pep talk not needed. But thanks." She looks down at Jubei, and sees the mane. She restrains, terribly restrains, holds back with every fiber of her being the urge to scratch the ears of the big cat. She resigns to a sigh and putting her hands on her hips.
"The magic there. It was, it was something unreal. It was so easy, I felt it move all around me. I've always found it easy, it's a snap, but that had so much going there that I honestly don't know what I could've done with more time," she explains. "We fought her, in, I guess inside of her own head. She had a really nice dress. But besides that, I."
Clio sighs and shakes her head. "I have so much to learn and now I can barely take time to study the complex. I'll-" Clio stops and looks down, the cat at her feet, not far from the spikes of her boots. She blinks down at him. "Oh, shit, yeah, it's not that good of a story, about Felis."
She sits, right there, behind Jubei, curled up with her arms on her knees. She scoots her foot closer, the tip of the spiked toe just barely touching the old cat. "Some guy thought it wasn't fair to have a dog star and not a cat star. So he made one up."
The old cat doesn't seem to be particularly fazed by Clio's attempt to weasel out of a pep talk. The feline flashes a wily smirk: "Pfft, who said I was tryin' to convince you of anythin'?" But the expression softens, with a mild shrug -- about as tacit an admission he could give that the former NOL officer was right on the money.
The cat's hearing is excellent, even -with- the sound-dampening hood on his head, so of course he'd heard the sigh. He just doesn't act on it right at the moment.
He listens, as Clio explains aspects of the grand event he was unable to experience with his own sharp senses. He nods back slowly -- giving a light, amused snort as fighting inside one's consciousness is granted the same priority as a pretty dress. "... That's a good sign, Clio. If you ever jump into somethin' knowin' exactly what you want out of it, I kinda think you might be the one who needs to be stopped. Everyone I ever considered a 'hero' is damn -anxious- about what the future holds."
From his vantage point on the ground, he frowns slightly as the story is dismissed -- but lightens up as soon as he can sense the young woman's boot on his scalp. Indeed, he angles towards it without any reservation whatsoever, as if she just happened to find a spot in need of scratching. Scraping his scalp against her boot, he comments, "An' you said it wasn't that good of a story."
He seems satisfied after a moment, turning himself back up to the stars. "S'as good a story as any, really. Loved the ending. Dogs get all the good press."
But as his gaze wanders across the starry sky, a thought occurs to him. Particularly, that sigh.
"D'you ever have a cat, Clio?"
His tails pause in their motion, reversing direction with reduced pace.
"We ain't like humans. Most of us don't see a whole lotta point in hidin' our feelings from each other. Life's too short to keep that kinda stuff bottled up."
There was a lot to focus on in that fight in the Telluric Complex. It was just difficult to explain, and Clio didn't want to really bore Jubei with talk of metaphysical arcana and the mnemonic form of her lost chains that came to bear when called upon to perform a degree of magic that Clio herself wasn't certain she was capable of outside of the energy flooded complex.
"Whose gonna be the one to stop me?" she asks the cat, looking up to the sky to hide the growing grin at feeling the feline scratch his own scalp against the nails prodding out from her boots. "I've never had a cat, no pets at all. Not really. I liked the strays. Cats and dogs and I guess the rats and pigeons never really bothered me. Whatever would hang out when I wasn't doing something fun." Brief thoughts to a time with a smaller Clio, a bike chain, and the wild sparks of an untamed talent threatening to burn herself up. It reminded her that the NOL did serve one purpose. It made her a little more what she is today.
Clio leans back, hands propping herself up. "That's why I like you, Jubei," she admits, "I don't always like doing it, but sometimes you have to keep quiet on things." Her mind drifts to a date. One soured by suspicion, worry, and a concern that will never see baring fruit. "I hope she's okay. . ."
"Well, me, of course. ... Or some younger punks. Tch." It's a tough line to walk, between sassing the youngsters in their own dialect and acting the part of a grown-up. Most aren't successful at it, but that isn't to say that Jubei isn't trying.
"Ah. Well, yeah, that makes sense," agrees Jubei. "You moved around a lot, didn'tcha? And goin' to school with the Librarium and all..." The One-Eyed Twin Lotus finds his attention wavering -- even with his full attention directed towards the expansive starscape above, they're really just points of light to him. "... Strays are spendin' too much time lookin' for their next meal to ever put names to the stars. Most of the times -I- ever found m'self lookin' at the sky, I ended up findin' a firefly t'chase instead."
He falls pensive, for a moment... and, while pressed against Clio's boot, he turns his eye up towards the young woman.
"Well, I hope y'don't expect -me- t'stay quiet. Who's on yer mind, Clio?"
It might be tough to see the gentle, friendly smirk on his face, considering the angle he's rested at.
"I'm going to have to train then," Clio says, still looking to the starfield in the velvet night sky. "I'm good. Don't get me wrong, but I can't hold a candle to a lot of the people in the NOL. Even if I still think I could've won that skeevy bathing suit tournament if it weren't for that pervy last round." Clio shudders at the swimsuit water gun memory. But the fight after was fun, and she still thinks she should probably get some motorcycle leathers in a nice purple like that sentai suit.
"The magic here, that I felt in the complex. That I can see. It's big time compared to even what the NOL taught me. If I had my chain, I could probably tell you a hundred ways the sigils and formula for containing my craft was weak or limited."
Clio holds up a hand and reaches out for the stars, feeling like she could dip her hand in the river of light. "I was moved to Metro when I was little, then boarded in the Librarium Military Academy. So I guess I did move a few times. It's not like none of it felt like home. It actually all felt like home. Maybe because I could always look up and see things like the stars."
She looks down again, sitting up, looking to Jubei. "Honestly? One thing that I learned facing down Mab and her pretty boy cronies is that I need to get a chain in my hands again. Use what I seen in the Complex. The things I know now. I can't just go out there unarmed. I'm not that kind of soldier. I need a weapon."
Jubei had been trying to look stern at moments, but the fact remains that he's had plenty of time to relax. Really, he's been in a great mood. But when Clio brings up the tournament, the cat's eye turns back to the treeline, and his expression turns into a pensive frown. "... I hope you don't think less'a me for not watchin' those fights, Clio. Smelled bad from the start." Then again, there was the World Warrior kicking off at roughly the same time -- a fact which he keeps to himself for now.
Still, he feels that the bare-faced judgment may have come across a bit more raw than he'd have liked. "... Glad it all worked out for you though. Did you ever find what happened to that Kintoku Aho guy?"
Still -- there's more interesting things to turn his attention towards. Like magic -- as much as it eludes him, the fact remains that he was -- is, kinda -- married to one of the most powerful magicians who has ever walked the earth. And some things are bound to rub off from osmosis.
"That's a sign of growth. It wasn't meant to be harnessed by mortals. Doesn't mean it can't be, just... it's a lot of raw energy. Like the Azure itself."
A tongue slides its way across scarred teeth, as the feline reminisces about his wanderings into the infinite blue. Multiple journeys -- assaulting him from every direction. Perhaps it didn't bombard his worldly senses with as much wondrous potential as it might have for someone trained like Clio, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it was... intense.
"... Most people that brush that close to power... drives 'em sheer insane. So count y'self lucky, there."
Jubei draws in his breath, eye shutting as he kneads his scalp into Clio's boot once more. It seems like he's just letting the sensation dictate his movements, for a few seconds, before the old soul in him wakes up again, and rationality takes over. Finding himself resting on one shoulder, he turns his eye up to Clio.
It'd be hard to see the recumbent cat as a samurai. And he doesn't really care at the moment.
"Well, I'm just a simple cat. I don't know much about Ars Magus, but I know if I were t'lose the Dream Blades, I wouldn't go two days 'fore pickin' up some sticks to tide me over. If not a pair of swords, o'course." An oversized paw snakes back around, stroking at his chin with surprising delicacy. "So you might wanna get a length of chain, gussy it up with your spellwork or whatnot. But then we can see about gettin' you somethin' stronger made. Somethin' usin' all your current skills. Where..." His crimson eye glances down for a moment, before a shake of his head. "Nah, wrong question. -What- is the question: What would you want it to do?"
"You have no idea how happy I am to hear that you did not watch those fights," Clio assure Jubei with the kind of sigh of relief that can only come from a particular wariness of an old cat watching you in a swimsuit fight your cutest friend until you both collapse.
She shakes her head. "'Fraid not. Investigation never seemed to be a thing after all. The stuff got put on the market. Then all this happened out here and I had too many other things to think about," she admits with a shrug.
But the comment on growth, the Azure, the Boundary, it gets her to rise to a proper sit. "Loads of energy. All of it there, to /do/ with. It's amazing," she admits, "It's like feeling alive, or like being on a roller coaster, only you can /feel/ what the ride is feeling." She blinks and stares ahead a moment. "And that makes no sense at all."
She looks to the resting samurai. She finally pushes herself to her feet when he stops rubbing against her toe spikes. "I'll let you in on a secret, my chain wasn't quite like what a lot of the infantry had. A chunk of those guys couldn't do squat without their Ars Magus." Clio draws a circle in the air. She exhales, a lattice work in the shape of a ring sparks to an eldritch glow ahead of Clio's open palms and fingertips. "They boost people up. Like a battery or a power cell. I gave my energy to the chain. It was more like a puppet."
Clio claps her hands and the arcane barrier bursts. "But I think I could do something more if I had the chance to design my own thing. Make it with my own knowledge and not just be handed something they think is best for me." Clio starts to pace, her fingers worry the air, tense and relax. "I would need it to work with me. I can flood it, I just need it to handle it. To listen to what I can coax out of it. And I need it to be heavy. I miss that weight on my arm, around my shoulder. It felt like armor, but I think I could coax it to do a lot more than that."
The cat doesn't know what he expected Clio to think about him watching. But, knowing what she -did- think, he can't help but be pleased. "... Some day, then. Wheels of fate and all that stuff, he'll turn up somewhere. And you'll be ready."
A raspy purr manages to escape the reclining samurai's throat as his designated scritcher rises to her feet. His facial expression doesn't shift, but his tails puff out with muted frustration, before mellowing back out into their languid side-to-side rhythm. Really, the subconscious expression was just secondary, as the bulk of his attention is focused upon the Azure, and its all-powerful might. "... Similar, yes." He understands that it has to feel different to a true magician than someone as admittedly bound to bricks and mortar as he. That what he sensed as -potential- reality might feel... innervating, instead. "It doesn't have to make sense to -me-, Clio. I'm perfectly content to hit things with sharp things till they fall apart. But I'm happy for us to bounce ideas off each other till we figger this out."
With a smile, he pushes himself to a seated position -- well, like a plain ol' housecat might sit -- and looks up as Clio summons a ring into existence. His crimson eye dances back and forth along the features of the ring, his jaw slackening in a look of wonder. Not that it's the first time he's seen such a display -- but more that he hasn't seen one in a long, long time.
And then a thought occurs to him.
And a length of chain.
His expression darkens, his eye half-lids, and his mouth draws shut, as he makes a connection to a man he'd rather -not- have thought about.
"...Heavy's good," he concedes. "Ensures it obeys your controls, and not others'." But more importantly, binding it to a -physical- chain keeps it from being too much like the weapon of that self-styled God of Destruction he detests so much.
He folds both his hands together, his expression growing more thoughtful. "... You need materials, then. And a place to work. And maybe someone to help you." The cat's paws rub lightly against one another, his tails darting back and forth with interest. "Have you come across anyone who... might know about designing things, outside the Librarium?"
Wheels of Fate are turning. The Golden Angel Tournament is an afterthought compared to Clio's current existence, but the changes and effects those days had will ripple out continuously. The fights there showed Clio things about her, about who she worked for, that have brought her here to a forest in Europe and talking with Jubei once more.
Making up for lost time. Fire and magic were there, as well, though in different context. The reality of that is not lost on Clio.
"I need to work on getting the barrier up faster. I think if I do that, I can work out how to shift momentum in my favor," Clio explains, going off on a though even while Jubei seems to go toward darker connections. "I could, in theory, etch the beginnings of a circle into the links of the chain, so that when it aligns on my arm, boom, barrier."
Clio paces as she talks. She stops, she sees Jubei. She considers. "Hazama and Ouroboros," she says quietly. "He told me. He showed me. That he had one of the Nox Nyctores, and used it, but somehow you having yours was a crime, that taught me a lot Jubei. It showed me a lot about who pulls the strings."
"But that's why I need to push myself. As much as I like here, this place, these people. Being able to look up at the stars at night and scratch the ears of big cats, I need to keep moving and fighting. Or at least getting better."
She shakes her head. "But no, I don't know anyone off the top of my head that can do that kind of metal work. And I'd need someone skilled to help me hone it again. It takes time to get used to a weapon bigger than yourself."
Jubei nods in approval. He may not know much about the arcane workings of whatever magic Clio is bringing to bear, but faster, better... these are concepts he can work with. He might have mentioned them, but... well, dark thoughts.
He flashes a mirthless smile at Clio, as she effectively reads the thought on his mind. "Criminalizing weapon ownership's a classic, time-tested strategy," he notes with a twitch of his whiskers.
Tails whish slowly back and forth as the young woman states the need to keep moving. She's not wrong, of course -- but it'd be easy to tell that Jubei's content to substitute a tight-lipped smile in exchange for a tired lecture about the need to take care of one's own body. She's a smart girl; why repeat what she already knows?
Instead, the cat listens, peacefully. Whatever dark place he'd gone to is wiped out in the wave of Clio, talking herself through her own problems. He provides fatherlike affirmation with a nod after each key point. Up until his questions are answered.
"... Everyone needs downtime, to pause and reflect, to put together a plan of action. This place... it's restful now. But that doesn't mean you can't be pushed right here and now."
The cat rolls his shoulder -- making a point of demonstrating the hilt of the Dream Blade protruding just past his left shoulder. A weapon that, like the one Clio speaks of, is larger than himself.
"This land is not just a respite from a world gone mad. It's home to a number of warriors, of weaponsmiths, of people who can help you. I don't know much about Leo, for instance, but he'd be a good person to ask."
The tails flick upwards -- then begin darting rapidly from side to side, as if in preparation for a strike. It's true that his body posture itself hasn't changed, but the 'tell' is there for anyone familiar with feline combat. Especially when he bares his teeth in a grin.
"When it comes to improving your response time, though... there's no substitute for practice, practice, practice."
Clio is a decent reader of people, cat-people included. Jubei's history, the clear hatred between the NOL brass and the Twin-Tailed Lotus, and the revelation that Hazama is a conniving person that also uses a Nox Nyctores that happens to be in the same family of weaponry as Clio's personal choice. . .
The book practically read itself.
Clio nods along. "The NOL is in Illyria. A friend of mine is the liaison, I can't spend time in the Telluric Complex and risk her seeing me." She runs her hand through her hair, leaving it with a flipping cowlick. "Not that I think she'd betray me, but I can't let her keep that secret. And I've felt first hand what the Phantom can do to up here." She taps her forehead, drops her hands to her hips and sucks in a breath.
The words about the support she has are helpful, she just knows she needs to be cunning about her movements. Though, this is far from the first time she's ever had to skulk around under cover of darkness and acrobatically be kept sight unseen from authority figures.
"Come to think of it, this does feel a lot like a home," Clio notes, pacing still, but stopping and looking toward Jubei.
She returns his grin, eyes glimmer with the moonlight. She turns and takes her half bent unarmed fighting standard. Bobbing back and forth on the balls of her feet, fingers twitching.
Jubei seems... surprised at the news that Clio is friends with the NOL liaison. And yet, that makes sense -- people of the same age cohort tend to know one another. "Mm... well, I s'pose it's a good thing that you know someone who can run interference for ya, if y'need a day to take care of business. Or I could just scare up Leo and pass messages along and whatnot. No sense in letting somethin' as simple as that gettin' in yer way."
Sure -- that'd mean Jubei would be placing himself in harm's way. He knows that -- and from the confident expression, he doesn't seem the least bit concerned. "Just because I'm a cat doesn't mean I don't know how to play the part of the mouse."
His tails dart back and forth, perfect mirror reflections of one another as he narrows his eye towards Clio. A smirk plays at his feline features, as one oversized paw strokes at his chin. "Now, Clio, why would you drop into that stance? It's not like I'm--"
Jubei lunges forward without any additional warning, his second paw lashing out towards Clio's belt. No claws are bared; it would just be a tap on the waist to test Clio's reactions, nothing more.
"-- gonna -fight- or anything..." he continues. If Clio happens to move as he expects, he'd be willing to take another three or four jabs at various heights. Nothing -too- fast, nothing too strong -- simple warm-ups.
"Practice, practice, practice," Clio says, turning the toe of her boot into the dirt. She waits, she pauses. And all the time to get ready and be jumpy does lend a moment of advantage to Clio's reaction time. She twists to the side, narrowly avoiding the testing paw bap. Her boots scrape on the ground, sliding along the ground. She remains close to the ground, having just enough time to keep backing up with each darting paw swipes.
Even training, the difference in experience is clear. Small sparks of arcane energy burst with each paw that's is tap-batted away to keep from jabbing at her.
Jubei has Clio on the defensive, moving her back to keep a step away. She knows she can't stay fighting like that, and that it's far from her style. So she changes it up. The last jab that comes in, Clio presents a barrier. She swings it down, to glance against the paw as if Jubei's own strike is a spring board for Clio's better positioning. To send her up into the sky, backed by a river of starlight.
Jubei wasn't sure whether Clio was ready; his concern is put to rest with her quick reaction. He hops forward with each feigned strike, hoping to keep up the spacing and pressure that he might in a real fight -- without baring the claws or the Nox Nyctores, of course. Each follow-up strike meets with a crackle that transmits a satisfying charge down the length of the Kaka clan weapons; enough to keep the elder from giving -too- much leeway with the former NOL officer.
The last clash of his paw, though, earns an appreciative chuckle from the elder feline. Innovation, borne in the heart of battle. "'Practice makes perfect' is a tired turn o' phrase..." he comments, his eye lazily glancing off to Clio's left, and then to her right, as she sails upwards. "... But damn if it ain't true more times 'n not..."
Black chi erupts outward from four distinct points in Clio's periphery. Each blossom starts as a splotch of black paint, before resolving into a hexagonal shape. Jubei leaps from his spot on the ground toward one of the hexagons, and in a heartbeat, he completes the jump as easily as if it were a mere three feet away. He bounds from one hexagon to the next in a matter of instants -- leaping off the last to extend a jabbing paw towards Clio. He seems more than eager to test her determination and flexibility. Even this high up, can there be any real escape from the smiling One-Eyed Twin Lotus?
Perfect? No. Clio was far, far from perfect. She was still a neophyte compared to the shear force brought on by so many of the people that she has come across since leaving Metro City. Both allies and enemies, people with intense power that Clio St. Jeanne could only hope to close in on matching some day.
And it shows in the simple display of power that Jubei showcases. Each inky blossom of chi forms and shapes in the darkness. They carry Jubei up toward her even as she is starting the downward descent of her arc. She falls, twists, tries to stay out from Jubei's extended jabbing paw.
She calls up the barrier, but this time it's not in time. The paw taps against her. Clio takes the brunt of the practice blow, turns with the strike and starts a heavy rotating spiral down to the ground.
She lands on her hands and feet, splaying out, indigo flame bursting in a ring around her. Safe, but tagged, Clio rolls around to her back and looks up at Jubei. A roil of shadowy chi slithers around her arm, not dissimilar from her familiar old chair. She curls her arm and calls up the powers within. A turning, fiery shade of chi lashes up and at Jubei. Briefly taking the vague form of a set of jaws snapping for the samurai.
The purpose of training is not to show the differences between a master and a neophyte, but rather to ensure that both parties attain a more complete mastery of the skills. There is ample opportunity, even for masters who have studied the art of combat for decades, to learn new patterns of thinking and new ways of reacting. So while Jubei may have succeeded in the sense of landing his paw onto Clio, with his jabbed paw retracting a mere instant before the delayed barrier springs into existence -- it's what happens next that proves to be most enlightening to him.
He notes that Clio has full control over her flight - rotating herself into a spiral despite what he -believed- to be a potentially dangerous descent. Breathing a sigh of relief, he somersaults about in midair, slowing his fall with outstretched sleeves so that he can land on his second hexagonal seal.
And it's then that he realizes the change in the tides of chi -- the shadowy simulacrum coiled around his friend's arm. He forges a smile, reaching up to his shoulder, and lets gravity pull himself down.
His scabbard clatters, as it collides with the fiery jaws. The clash allows him to slow his fall and spring into a backflip -- though he maintains one paw's grip on the scabbard as he twists about.
One moment later, as he falls back to the cold earth, he drops low and thrusts the hilt of his sword forward -- aiming to sneak right beneath the summoned energy to rap lightly against Clio's thigh.
He seems... cheerful, to say the least.
A call to arms, and a call without arms. A measured practice. Learned from depriving herself of her weapon, to use her craft as a tool beyond simply enhancing her weapon. The strike is still slow, sloppy, unpracticed and imprecise. But it can do what it needs to to keep Jubei back and to give Clio breathing room.
And maybe, seeing she had learned something from the shadow spears The Phantom threw would show Jubei that she does learn from the problems she's been forced into. Without a trainer, or a figure like Jubei in her life, she's quickly cleaved toward wanting to see what he can show her about a world of much more potent power and skill.
She watches him land and twist and sneak out the hilt of his sword. She rears back, still on the ground, and kicks herself up into the air, corkscrewing as she goes up and coming back down to her feet a short distance away.
Remaining in a crouch, she splays her fingertips out against the earth. The air around Clio glints with motes of starlight and flickers of flame. Energy building. Arcana rising. Clio in the center of a circle with eyes bright and a predatory, if gleeful, grin.
There are no points given for form, or follow-through. If Clio asks, Jubei would be sure to give an exhaustive list of all the possible areas he felt would be up for improvement. But then he'd turn the magnifying glass onto his own form and his shortcomings as a teacher.
Which is part of the problem, really. As he rises to his full bipedal height, allowing the scabbard to fall back into its rest position, he allows himself a moment to meet the young woman's predatory and gleeful grin with a suitable half-smirk.
"Not bad, Clio. Finding yourself without a weapon ain't the end of the world, as you're provin'."
The cat presses both his paws together, inclining his head in a more formal address. "So lemme ask ya this. You've seen me fight serious. How serious a workout are you wantin' today?"
Form and precision are useful in their moments, but Clio was never a professional. She was never one that learned for the points of judges and for the opinions of people with systems and measurements. The NOL taught her focus and effectiveness. To hone her strength into something less wild and more direct. But she never felt she would win any awards for her methods.
Clio crouches within her circle. She digs the toe of her spiked boots into the dirt. She watches him and his own behavior. "It's not the end of the world. But that don't mean I want to keep going without a chain. Practiced against a soldier with metal arms once. I don't want to punch that kind of thing if I can get away with it."
She lowers her head and laughs, then raises it to look the cat sharply in his remainin eye. "I'll take whatever you got, Jubei," she says. "I don't mind the hurt." If anything, she looks like she's relishing the opportunity.
Ideally, one should maintain discipline and proper form at all times. But not everyone really -wants- to live the life of an itinerant samurai like Jubei does. Perhaps Clio will decide to follow in his footsteps -- or perhaps not. But an old cat like Jubei knows that change has to be a voluntary process. Pushing too hard for discipline and order -- particularly with someone who just -left- a regimented paramilitary organization -- is not going to be received well.
And that is why a choice was offered. Jubei nods back, still a fair distance away from Clio. He seems satisfied with the choice. It's the right answer, of course -- there are no wrong ones.
"Alright, Clio. I'll hold ya to that."
He smiles for a brief moment.
And then the smile fades.
"I'll be with ya in just five seconds, starting... now."
The One-Eyed Twin Lotus closes his eye, clasping his paws together before him.
He takes a deep, centering breath.
His forepaws fall limply to either side.
His right paw pivots forward, claws plowing into the forest floor. The claws of his left foot scrape across the fallen leaves.
And after the span of one second, the one-eyed samurai explodes forward. The distance is crossed in less than the blink of an eye. And if Clio had spent her five seconds well, she'd be able to deal with Jubei's foot extended at her face -- sparing the claws, but holding back none of the tenacity. If not, well, she gets to deal with the smell of freshly-ground forest floor.
And it wouldn't stop there -- for the flying feline is only starting his combination attack. Gyroscoping around, he'll seek to ram one of the hilts of his sword into Clio's chest, before whirling about in the opposite direction to deliver a raking paw diagonally down and across her body. Upright again, he'd follow up by planting his feet into the soil, and ramming forward with his shoulder and back.
Clio wouldn't call herself itinerant. At least she'd use something more romantic sounding, like vagabond. She's been a vigilante. And as she didn't use Jubei's style of swordsmanship, she was certainly not a samurai. Also, Clio might be short, but Jubei has tinier legs and paws that make footstep following a lot harder. But the spirit is there, and Clio is not one to avoid rising to an occasion when the occasion calls the right tune.
She nods when Jubei promises to hold her to her word. And shew knows in that moment what comes will hurt and hurt a lot.
One. The fires around Clio flicker out, the shades of ethereal flame dance at her arms and shoulders.
Two. Her stance shifts from a plant to a pounce to a crouch. Back, but her weight resting on her front boot.
Three. She looks upwards to the night sky and knows that what pain will come she brought on herself.
Jubei rushes. Clio rises. She has one advantage that she can see and that is her reach even without a chain. She kicks upward, flipping backward, her heel cutting a crescent into the air. Just enough to strike, and to move.
She's rotating back when the first blow strikes her, sending a bolt of pain through her spine and expelling the air from her lungs.
She curls. She calls up a quick barrier. It blocks the blow but shatters, sending sparks of arcane energy glittering away and falling like fireflies. As she falls, the raking strikes continue. She does what she can to deflect, to control her fall, and while she's good, she's simply not on par with the One-Eyed Twin Tail Lotus.
She lands, rolls, and comes to rest near the trunk of a tree.
Contact was made. It's true that Jubei was already reversing direction when the kick grazed his thigh -- but for an evasion to also result in a counterattack is a testament to just how much speed Clio is capable of.
The exchange is noted, catalogued -- but while it does jar him sideways, it does not halt the feline's momentum. The hilt strike lands true. The young woman's barrier deflects his raking paw with a shower of sparks. And the shoulder slam plunges through the remains of a hastily-formed barrier.
Jubei draws in his breath, as oversized paws sink back, his lackadaisical stance suggesting they might be as steel weights. His hood remains down, as before -- his mane of black and white glittering in the starlight.
"Ain't half bad," he compliments. "Pretty -good-, actually," he adds, raising the leg she'd grazed, and flexing it at the knee. "Quick on that barrier, an' it was plenty tough too."
The aged samurai continues walking towards Clio, rolling his shoulder in his socket. "Just be sure to holler 'when' for a break. I can get kinda dense, when I'm fightin'."
He raises a paw -- and almost immediately, it begins to flare with a blue-white glow. He swings his arm in a wide circle, and the glow takes on a life of its own, smearing around into a rough sphere about the size of a normal-sized housecat. It also -looks- like a normal-sized housecat in a cocoon of cerulean chi-flame, as it continues sailing in an arc towards Clio. And right after the cat-shaped orb is planned to impact Clio, Jubei would be right behind it -- swinging his paw in an overhead, backhand strike aimed to give her barriers another field test!
He's fast. So terribly fast. So terribly precise. It is, in an obvious word, inhuman. Skill and time and capability beyond where Clio is. And it shows. She is easily handled, despite her attempts and her tries. But she is surviving.
And she is fighting.
Clio remains on the ground for a moment longer, listening to the patter of little paws coming toward her. "So can I," Clio says, exhaling like a weight is being lifted off her and flopping up to support herself on her hands. "Which means this is either going to work out great, or be really shitty for me come the morning."
The newest strike comes. Chi. A great ball of it. A great ball coalescing into the shape of a cat.
Okay, Clio thinks, that's just cool.
But she can't focus on it for long. It's a threat. And a strong one. She shoves herself up. Calls up the warding spell, a barrier sparks to life! And she moves forward.
The chi clashes with a great flare of color and light splashing upwards in a font of energy. Clio spins through it, momentum building. She has her spike in hand. She flings it quickly toward Jubei. To cut off his momentum, to force his paw from a direct hit or to simply plough on through the metal shard.
In a fight for life-or-death, Jubei would have let himself fall into the trance of the Empty Mind, allowing him to prioritize a solid and unquestioned victory over more trivial concerns. The denseness of that mindset, though, would be massive overkill for such a simple training battle as is taking place now. Accordingly, Jubei is free to converse a bit more than he might have otherwise...
"That's the spirit!" Clio's contagious enthusiasm earns her a nod from the feline samurai. And not only that -- his own inspired spin on the 'fireball' trope. His pacing between slow and fast attacks is intended to bolster Clio's barrier reactions -- and even in the short span of combat thus far, it seems to be helping! He's quite pleased with the prismatic dispersal, a smile across his features as he whips into that backhand...
That smile falters as the cat feels his knuckles get smashed by Clio's spike -- a surprise, considering the enshrouding sleeve usually keeps him safe from most such injuries. Trained reflexes allow the cat to bend with the strike, abruptly reversing his spin. Both his tails whip out in rapid-fire slaps at Clio's shoulders, before he completes the revolution with a kick to the belt.
But even after that, he finds cause to hop back, shaking the aggrieved hand with an amused -- if slightly pained -- grin. "Caught me with my guard down, heh!"
A fight for life-and-death. Clio would've leaned on that being the case more often than not. Her time at the Golden Angel showed her otherwise. And while she is more comfortable with combat being all or nothing, with putting everything on the line for the sake of the rush and the sake of survival, she knows that training is something to hold back on.
And in the moments that Jubei really starts to show what he is, and what he is capable of, Clio is entirely happy with him holding back. It means she can put Jubei off his pattern. But the momentum isn't something she's fully ready to counteract against.
The tail whaps come around and clap her shoulder. She curls with it, and one more bursting circle of magic comes up to glance against Jubei's clawed foot.
The circle breaks with a shimmering light. Clio falls back and rolls against the ground, ending up on her knees and hands, breathing deeply. "Okay, okay, that one hurt," she says with a raised hand of defeat.
What Jubei lacks in reach, he more than makes up for with speed and flexibility. And when he's up close and personal, the feline can be quite devastating if he sets his mind to it. Right now, though -- he is paying close mind to Clio's battle state. The old cat knows about the flow of chi, if not magic per se. And he can tell that she -- like many people -- grows stronger when pressured. The mark of a true fighter.
He seems genuinely impressed as he hangs back, clearly favoring one side. Apparently his brush with Clio's barrier left his foot feeling a bit numb. The cat's mouth splits into a wide, toothy grin as he raises his dark grey hood back into place. He accepts the call of 'when' with an appreciative nod, lowering his paws so that his heartbeat doesn't need to pump quite so fast. "Then, yeah, let's chat for a few. I got my thoughts, but... you tell me yours. Ain't no right or wrong answer, just put 'em in words. Longer you wait, easier it is to forget the lessons."
Like pig iron in a crucible, heat and pressure brings out the impurities. But Clio is spent even by Jubei holding back. She turns and flops back on her rear, leaning back and finally falling to look up at the band of stars in the night sky.
"Chatting's good. I can chat," she says, chest rising and falling with each heavy breath. She closes her eyes and catches her breath. "I can't use it to hold off a lot of direct force," Clio says. "But I can use it to hold things off, or use it to put myself in a better position."
She pats her tummy, right at her belt line. "I also need to get my chain back. I can fight without it. I'm still damn good without it, but I need it. I'm used to having it. I can't just take it on the shoulder."
The cat ambles over, seating himself a fair distance from Clio. The mechanical paws are allowed to rest on the forest floor, as his real paws emerge from the slits in his robe. One paw rubs tenderly over the other as he listens without comment -- not wanting to rush the young woman. She's earned it!
His crimson-irised gaze casts down to Clio's abdomen, his smile fading with recollection. It... was a bit of a hit. "Right. You react quick, and having anythin' that's not as flexible as you are can slow you down." He nods appraisingly, working the digits of his injured paws. "Does it... wear you out real fast if you're usin' barriers all the time?"
Clio rests her hands on her belly, watching the stars. She doesn't look for Jubei. She can hear him sit and the sound of his mechanical paws hit the ground. She's comfortable there on the dirt of the forest floor. She looks at the sparkling constellations above. She considers the shapes and whorls of the band of stars. Visually making patterns of arcane circles and sigils in her mind.
"Not exactly," she admits. "It's more like focusing on too many things at once. I have to know the patterns, the designs, and call it forward. It burns a bit, and a lot when you really hit it there at the end." Clio pinches her nose and slides her hand upward, through her hair.
"But that was just a quick fight. I don't think I would've been able to do it that fast if you were really going all out on me," she admits. "And when it does break, it's like getting hit in the head. Everything goes for a bit."
With Clio's attention keeping her eyes directed skyward, Jubei decides he may as well join her. The mechanical paws carve a faint trench through scattered debris as he scoots over. With his feet pointed in the opposite direction of Clio's, he lies onto his back, propping his hooded head up with folded paws.
"... Yeah. S'what I was concerned about. Now, I don't know much about how the Librarium teaches kids these days, but ... in my experience, best way around that is gonna be drills."
His eye twinkles with reflected starlight as he reminisces about the past. His former students, and one white-haired punk in particular, who would likely take personal offense at his kindness and consideration in doling out training advice to the NOL deserter.
"Pain brings two things to mind. Either yer doin' it wrong, or you just ain't used to it yet. And the solution to both o' those is practice. Y'shouldn't be hurtin' -yourself- in a fight, that's the other guy's job."
The feline's twin tails lash about lazily; hard to do much else with the limited range of motion.
"Pain's a good sign yer form ain't perfect. So we gotta wipe that out first -- let's just call that Stage One. Endurance and durability... That has to come later, yeah?"
Clio shifts position to watch Jubei come closer. She doesn't look toward him for long. Just making certain of his mood and if any potential threat may have wandered in on the noise made by the brief sparring.
She smiles. "I may not like who leads them. And I may think that that poisons everything good they could stand for, but the things I learned there took me a long, long way to being what I am now," Clio defends her old academy. "I wouldn't be able to do that barrier at all if it weren't for the things I learned there. And yeah, it was drills. At least, when it came to combat."
The academy was a strange place, an almost wonderful place to the reality outside of it. It felt so, so terribly long ago that it almost hurt if Clio thought too much on it. Dashed hopes and shattered dreams hurt so much more than any bruise or claw or blade.
"Pain," Clio says, and she laughs, it's not entirely steady of a laugh. "Yeah, yeah, it's not perfect form. I've got a long way to go. Just as much as I got to getting a new chain."
She lifts herself up to a sit, curls her knees to her chest. "But unless this is you leading up to sticking around, I should probably be having this kind of talk with the Sacred Order."
Jubei knows that the NOL means a lot to Clio -- 'means' in the present tense, not past. It's no mistake that he's been trying to minimize his own personal biases when speaking of the self-proclaimed defenders of humanity. He does, after all, have respect for the people there, and some of their methods of training.
His eye closes. Not that the starlight bothers him -- more that he's trying to allow himself to put himself into Clio's shoes for a moment, to imagine what it would be like learning magic instead of swordsmanship.
His lip curls with remorse, as his thoughts drift once again towards the memory of Nine in her crisp, clean Academy uniform. ... And then his eye abruptly shoots open again, for the followup was -not- the thought process he wanted to delve into just then.
"... Sacred Order could use some help, so I was considerin' it. S'pose I could join, too. Leo already told me my faith ain't gonna be a stumblin' block."
The cat's crimson-irised gaze passes back over to Clio. "But yeah. It'd be good to talk with 'em. They got plenty of resources, 'specially when it comes to gettin' yer new chain. When you're done, though..."
Jubei sits up partway, propping himself up on his elbows. Which, admittedly, aren't that long. The cat flashes a wily smile.
"... Well, I wouldn't mind training you, if it comes to that."
'Dispatched in mankind's darkest hour. We are knights of the blue flame.'
The words still burn in Clio St. Jeanne's chest. She stills feels and believes in them. Their meaning. The purpose and potential of the Librarium is still paramount to her and the pain she feels for leaving them is something swallowed and bitter and still remnant.
It's why she cleaves to Jubei. To Leo Whitefang. To Illyria. They allow her to keep herself. And in these moments where she can see the stars, and can sublimate the pain of her self imposed severance with the pain of training and strengthening herself.
She learned to hone her combat skill, and the bring forth the arcane potential she was brimming with. But most importantly she learned there could be others to walk with. To be with. And it was because of friends like Makoto, Noel, Tsubaki and Mai that she is who she is today.
For all that it means that 'here' is a newborn sovereign state and as a living ghost in the eyes of her people.
"I asked that, too," Clio admits. "I'm not really the kind of person a lot of churchy types might like. Even if they invited me once already, but I turned them down."
Quiet reflection on the way the wheel of fate turns. But that is the thing Clio is seeing about the wheel. It turns, it's always turning. And if the turn is bad, it could just keep turning to something good as time goes on.
Jubei smiles, nodding. "Yer welcome, of course."
Of course, the cat has had his own tumultuous life changes. It wasn't long after meeting Terumi again, and regaining the bulk of his memories thanks to Rachel Alucard, that he had met Clio.
And the young woman of the Azure Flame has been a crucial confidante in the time since: a witness to his trials, an outlet for his dysphoria. It's true that the samurai's numerous life experiences had hardened his heart -- but meeting someone new like Clio, someone who could see him as he -is- rather than who he -was-... It's affected him.
His eye glimmers for a moment. Tails swish side-to-side... and then start to droop.
"You helped me a lot, Clio. Helped me make sense of... everything. You were there for me, when I was all set to walk off into the sunset alone."
His tails perk up a bit, before resuming their earlier sideways swishing.
"Might have to make a trip here directly, but I'll be back soon. But if there's anythin' you need from me, Clio -- don't be afraid to ask."
Quiet. Quiet for a long time there in the dark of the night under the splash of stars splashed across the sky. For a time, it's just the pure, dark, sacred night feeling in the air that makes a world of pain and danger seem so terribly far away.
It's why Clio always has preferred the night to the day. The world can sleep now, she'll be up to take it all in.
"Really?" Clio asks, and she laughs. It's not derisive, but it is disbelieving. She reaches up to scratch at her ear, and to quash the laughter from continuing. "Pretty funny when I've got no damn clue what I'm doing."
She puts her hands behind her head. And she frowns. "No," she corrects. Voice quiet, but steady. A knowing tone that is far more resolute in intent than its softness implies. "No. I do know. I shouldn't tell myself that I don't. I know everything I'm doing and why I'm doing it and what I'm doing it for."
Her eyes look for Jubei, can't see him from where Clio lays, but she is looking. "Don't get into trouble, Jubei. Or do. Could be fun trying to bail you out and the night's still young."
She smiles in the night, raises a hand up to the stars as though she could dip her hand into their light. "Carpe noctem," she says.
Log created on 12:18:53 08/04/2018 by Clio, and last modified on 10:53:58 08/10/2018.