Honoka - The Time Has Come

Description: An abandoned ryokan in the port city of Niigata is rumored to house an unspeakable, indescribable horror. The Empress wants to nip this 'ghost' rumor in the bud, as it's interfering with her plans for conquest. But this fearsome spectre proves to be far more than a rumor.

"Ghosts. Really?" The Empress's piercing blue gaze had bored into Kenichi Yamanote's eyes, causing him to cower in fear for his life at such a thoughtless addition.

Niigata City was crucial to Honoka's interests, and as such, it was important for the help that she'd enlisted to feel fully capable and empowered in their responsibilities here. If there were problems... it was her job to fix them. Personally if need be.

Indeed, this is why she was in the middle of Niigata City... dealing with a ghost problem. "Seriously. You people are fucking ridiculous. You've... taken care of every job except this one. There's no one even -living- here these days." In its prime, the building was a ryokan, a bed-and-breakfast, with just over a dozen rooms, a home away from home for out-of-town visitors. The ryokan was comprised of several buildings, interlocked by a rustic wooden floor, with tatami mats for all. It was also surrounded with a large boundary wall -- this was its original design. But the locals have barricaded it up, drilling into the ancient masonry and boarding up the disused entrances with plywood, spraypainted with such rustic sayings as "KEEP OUT!" and "HAUNTED!" ... so that only one entrance remains, a steel gate, secured with heavy chains and massive padlocks. There is no mistaking -- anyone who enters this ancient inn has had plenty of warning.

Warnings that the Empress is forcing her subjects to disregard. She hands a boltcutter to the one who first alerted her of the nature of this building. "Show me these... 'ghosts' you speak of. And I'll show you there's nothing to fear."

Reluctantly, Kenichi Yamanote positions the cutting blades around the chain. His muscles strain at the levers of the cutter; the chain creaks, and groans, and finally gives way with a satisfying snap.

The Empress and her mirror-glassed companion are not impressed. "Well?"

Kenichi removes the chains as well, letting them fall to the ground with a clamor. Quaking with fear, he opens the door, as if to let the Empress enter first.

That'd be great, if she weren't abruptly shoving him inside by the shoulder. "I suppose you'd have me taste poison, as well. Don't forget your role, maggot."

With the Empress and her assistant at his back, it's Kenichi who will be seeing the horrors rumored to be in this ryokan firsthand.

The rumors were palpable, of late.

It's one thing to tell stories of ghosts and goblins, the finales of which are sure to please and entertain even the youngest of children. It's another thing entirely to stimulate the subconscious. It is the maiden of the senses--rarely touched, and when done so, hard to forget. It is, again, one thing to make rumors of a place. A rumor changes to a truth when a man gets sucked into the night sky with no opportunity to do anything more than yelp.

That was the last they'd heard of him for at least two days.

For any sane person, that would be enough. He, that is, the young man who claimed the loudest amongst them of a haunting, was found later in the street near a hospital, bleeding profusely and with no recollection of what had happened to him. Drugged? A toxicology report, if ever run, would not have shown a single sign of it. Regardless and irrespective of it, the only thing that man remembers...
... is blinking once.

The chain snaps, hissing slightly as it slides away from the door, filling the air with the plaintive cry of creaking wood. There is nothing overtly out of place in the mossy, overgrown grass and pathstones, no legion of clay warriors or howling wolves fly out for the throats of the intrepid this early evening. Nothing overt, at any rate. In fact, the area seems in moderately decent repair, for all of the years it's been abandoned.

It's only once one actually enters into the ryokan proper that something falls amiss.

Though the rice paper-and-timber construction of the ryokan still holds great weight to this day, it doesn't let a lot of light into the main rooms of the area--bizarrely so.
What little light floods in from the doorshines on the threadbare and unravelled cords of geta left in long disrepair at the side of the door. Beyond that, darkness. It is the vague impression of a open room--and the room is alive and teeming with energy. The air is filled with the symphonic click and whirr of numerous devices and gears, springs and tension rods discharging their energy absent any other source of power. Without an actual electric light, it is impossible to make out more than the occaisional flash of metal or brass in the light.

Somewhat concerningly, the area is also alive with more than just mechanical energy.
In the eyes of an accomplished sensor, it's like the room is filled with hundreds of cheerfully dying children, meandering and milling about as their life force slowly wanes. It is an image, in fact, so vivid that one doesn't need any special 'eye' to taste the ink on the air and the buzz of toys, quietly operating.

But there are no children here.

The door to the ryokan creaks open -- locks proving only a time-consuming distraction. The inner vestibules of a ryokan are -supposed- to be dark, the better to be sheltered from the light such that guests may sleep till the hour of their choosing, should they but close the doors... but this is unnatural. Foreboding. The ticking and whirring alone is enough to drive one mad, let alone with the horror story passed along to the gang which the Empress has drawn into the fold. But darkness alone does not spook a woman who can, if not literally -see- in the dark, then at the very least probe their depths for the signs of life -- finding minimal signs of that, at best.

Kenichi steps inside. With the creak of each floorboard underfoot, his heart skips a beat. His terror thickens, practically tangible enough for the Empress to taste. It is, to her, a comforting sensation... but all the more reason for her to be cautious, and not give in to her desire to plunge a knife into this simpleton's torso from behind and be rid of his simpering. This is a watchmaker's abode, she's convinced herself, and nothing more.

Ignorance must be bliss. The assistant trailing behind her, Sudo, knows nothing of watchmakers or ghosts... but he rests assured that the Empress knows what she is doing. His confidence is reassuring.

"If you're that scared of the dark," cuts the Empress' icy tone through the darkness, "turn on your light. There's nothing here but your own imagination."

Each step creaks -- Kenichi's, then the Empress', then Sudo's. A rhythmic walk continues, until the Empress silently rests her hand on Kenichi's shoulder.

Kenichi does not panic. Because the Empress had given him a silent command -not- to.

The scent, the sense... of another. Wordlessly the woman, clad in black and white, slips something out of a pouch on her upper sleeve.

Three gummy, sticky sounds can be heard in the darkness.

Again, without words, the Empress gives an order. Kenichi pulls out his portable floodlight, bathing the room in blinding white fluorescence. The Empress watches silently from behind purple-tinted glass. Waiting.

The scene is quite unlike anything seen before in Japan.

When the light floods the ryokan, you will find the area filled with small brass toys. Seiza tables have been set up everywhere, upon which devices clink and click with all of the gravity and energy of any child's toy, except that they seem to have been going all day. Some have even been designed to fight one another; small samurai crash swords into one another's battle armor ineffectually, while small dwarfs meander around miming a dig into the finished wood tabletop. It's even not really something confined just to the tables--small fairies flit about in the air on pre-determined routes, each fluttering by on little gyroscopic mechanisms. The routes they fly in are very set, if you watch them.

However, of less clear-cut intentions are the weapons.

Knives and swords of every shape and disposition are embedded into the walls, in excellent repair and gleaming under the light. Each are sunk into the timbers and boards mounted to the walls at various junctures and angles. Each board drips with ink, impact-splattered onto their surfaces from an unknown source, throwing knifes sunk deep into the wood at their centers. Each one has a specific directive on it written in single kanji. WEST. EAST. UP. DOWN. RELEASE. DESTROY. BLEED. GATHER. ASSASSINATE.
In this display, there is no difference between a sword and a knife--both have been sunk into wood with equal and haphazard spin--as if a person with little skill had struck them there. Or if a person with greater skill had thrown them there. To throw a sword like it was a knife is an interesting talent to have. Of course, the impact-splattered ink has much less viable explanation.

Against the bright xenon light, the area is filled with daylight-grade electronic light, in pure white. However, it comes at a loss of individual details. Light that bright will bleach out colors, and the tone of the ink is lost, leaving them only to be seen as fresh, wet slicks into which knives have been thrown. The interesting fact about most of the little toys and trinkets here is that each seesm to be associated with a tiny amount of chi somewhere at their heart. Even now, the fairies' paths are slightly changing, one slipping into a slightly longer elliptical orbit. Like butterfly's wings, they are touched by the intrusion, and instead of keeping to their tightly programmed orbits, they start to move a little less in lock step, some zooming past and arcing gently over the heads of the gathered, on occasion clashing with glasslike cadences with a passing dragonfly toy.

Additionally, a silver string hangs from the ceiling from an unseen spool, piling on the ground closer to the tables, and gathering in a series of great loops.

Those who can sense life force might take heed that the toys seem agitated by their arrival, their fighting growing a little more tumultuous and apparently dangerous the longer the Empress remains. They are reacting to that presence.
Or, a presence, in general..?

This house reeks of a trap. There are, of course, multiple questions which arise once the Empress can ascertain the nature of these automatons. That they are agitated by their presence is made clear. In which -fashion- they will respond is less clear. Which would be the most dangerous: advancing, remaining still, or withdrawing? Which would be fatal, attacking or leaving well enough alone? And perhaps most crucial of all... is there any -other- presence at work here, or is the occupant out of town entirely?

Further, the Empress recalls the words of the afflicted; that there was but one blink of an eye in which to react. One infinitesimally small moment of time within which to react. Surely, the Empress thinks, her chances will be far improved over those of her underlings.

Or will they?

"The time has come," the Empress says, "to talk of many things." She speaks clearly, no shudders in her voice to betray fear, no doubt or uncertainty. There -is- someone here, and her utter -lack- of fear may be just as much a sign of folly as the next. But inactivity is certain doom.

Silently, the Empress's right hand drops to her side. A long metal rod falls from her sleeve, and then a second. The xenon light reflects off a small blade, extending from the first rod.

{ Duck. } comes the unspoken command, heeded instantly with hair-trigger precision by both Sudo and Kenichi. The xenon light drops low, casting the room into stark relief for one moment before the illumination stabilizes, the intense glare reflecting off the metallic surfaces and the inky blotches along the walls.

The rod lashes out in that same instant, tethered by a thin metal chain to the rod currently in the Empress' hand. The distinctive *SHINK* of metal-on-metal contact can be heard, as her strike scrapes across the silver string.

The result is that the Empress is most interested in. But the room is not filled only with the sounds of automatons -- but also the whip-whip-whip of a yo-yo-sized object from the Empress' left hand.

"Of shoes, of ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings."

Struck by the bladed rod, the wire reacts as if a live snake. Somewhere in the ceiling above, a small snap can be heard, along with the beating of wings, or the pounding of feet on the floor above. No, it is the winding of a reel. The cord clashes with the blade as if it were a sword all its own, the nigh-invisible length of shining cord bucking against the bladed attack at the slightest provocation, causing the entire mass of coils, through some feat of their exact orientation on the floor, to jump into the air. Like glittering nooses, they hang in the air for chance moments exactly where Sudo and Kenichi were just standing, then snap tight and disappear into the harsh shadows cast by the changing light.

Without an exact payload to weigh down the cord, the unseen spinning array above continues winding at what may in fact literally be breakneck speed, causing the cord to spin out along its length. In truth, it will take some dexterity to keep that thin chain from becoming inextricably tangled in the reel. Of course, it might be more preferable than the risk of losing a servant to the thread, which almost certainly would immobilize them, if not worse. Maybe.

At any rate. The trap is sprung.
But this ryokan is not filled with one trap, but hundreds.

Reacting to the surge of intent in the room, the small toys start to jump off of the table, leaping through the intervening space between themselves and the newcomers, some bellowing a war screech created by notched threads winding through narrow holes somewhere deep inside their cases. Though none at much larger than ankle-high, they cling to anything nearby, stabbing and poking with tiny swords and pickaxes. They do little, if any, lasting damage, should they latch on. But the chittering cacophony of toys are quite aggressive in getting into every possible joint and nook of anything they accost. Belt buckles are undone. Pockets are ripped. Buttons are torn off.
All the while, clockwork fairies and dragonflies buzz around the room, passively observing.

But if you stop to think about it a moment, even the winding cord is only just barely dangerous. None of the trinkets present a clear and immediate threat, at least not one that's currently known. They cling, they bite, they stab. But none are actually large enough to hurt a thug, even an untrained one. The chaos and havoc being sewn is ... purely to capture the imagination and cloud the attention. When all is too dark to see and none no longer have the ability to think...

That is when the white ghost arrives.

A whisper of fabric, the scent of silk, and a feeling of incomprehensible heat subsumes the Empress' senses. Though she can sense him, his arrival comes like the hawk's call before the dive. A life force so singular, stark and bright that it would command attention as clearly as the rising moon. It is not louder than a gentle whisper, but it is sharper than any knife you have known. A blade incomprehensibly sharp, it is a mind winnowed away until nothing at all is left but a singular, overriding impulse. It is the cold winter wind to which she spoke only a moment prior. Behind her, the wind answers, quiet and cold.

"And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings..."

If she stops to hear even a single word, it will be too late to escape his grasp.
She has only one blink of the eye to react.

COMBATSYS: Seishirou has started a fight here.

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Seishirou        0/-------/-======|

COMBATSYS: Honoka has joined the fight here.

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Honoka           0/-------/-======|======-\-------\0        Seishirou

- But wait a bit, the oysters cried, before we have our chat. -

The Empress -- a scholar of history, not literature -- never bothered to remember the next verse. But to stand by and watch as the ticking time bombs counted down till inevitable doom was intolerable. Death by inaction is pretty much the worst way to go.

The Empress holds her ground, clinging to her steel rod, and via its chain, the rod and its blade. The numerous toys and creepy-crawlies come out, but her assessment of their risk seems to have borne true -- they are there to intimidate, to pester, to annoy. Certainly, they are fearsome to behold -- what -isn't- creepy about them? But the Empress's will is stronger than that -- and by that, she's able to give her companions strength as well. Some leaders inspire fortitude with words -- but she has no need to.

- For some of us are out of breath, and all of us are fat. -

Sudo snaps out with fury at the toys at his feet. Stomping, smashing... it may be enough to squash their thin metal carapaces, but not without casualty. Kenichi's skills and strength are much less noticeable -- in fact, as the wielder of the xenon lamp, his lack of dexterity is a detriment to the other two. But still... not only are they initially ignorant of the ghost, they are unable to even -see- it.

It's in that moment, however, that the Empress is able to see a flicker of motion in the back of her mind, a presence, masked until this one moment, speaking the very next lines in her barely-remembered poem.

It could have been a distraction. But that was not the Empress' intent for starting the poem: no, it was an opportunity.

She lets go of her rod, allows it to become yanked out of her hand and into the growing spool of cord. Its purpose has been met -- the trap was spung. But instead, as she steps forward, spin-kicking her steel-toed boot into the nearest toy automaton, she's able to bring her yo-yo -- already moving much faster than the blink of an eye -- to bear down upon the cold winter wind.

Would the thin string of a yo-yo hold any real importance against a blade? Unlikely. But now that her target is less ambiguous than the creepy-crawly automatons, she has a target.

Forward, she glares, her mind gaining focus. She aims not with a weapon, but with her aura, reaching out and slamming forth at the cold wintery presence with the subtlety of a leaden weight, projecting an intense wave of raw psychic energy, enough to trigger a nauseating panic in either of her companions. To this undefinable presence, it is a mystery -- one the Empress intends to solve in the coming moments.

Meanwhile, one of the automatons finds the surprise she'd thrown to the floor earlier -- a small explosive with a hair-trigger, adhered to the floor by a gelatinous compound. The explosion causes a small flare of light, almost unnoticeable in the wild, rave-like chaos caused by Kenichi's flailing floodlamp.

COMBATSYS: Seishirou blocks Honoka's Ishirishina.

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Honoka           1/-------/=======|======-\-------\0        Seishirou

In the lightning-fast interchange, all that can really be seen of the young man is his blurred movements, a white streak against the black of the dark and amidst the silver of the blade. Their fight is absolutely silent, when considering the chaos going on in the background.

Amongst the toys, many are trampled into irrelevance beneath the tread of the frenzied servile. But as they are stomped and crushed--it does not take a great much effort--they continue to cling with tiny hands and locking joints. Even though gears and springs fly in every direction, there seems to be no 'unifying' mechanism that causes the trampled components to actually die. It is an unfortunate truism of the ghostly mechanism: Anything that can still move, will.

In the background, the Empress breaks her stance, whirling on him.

The yo-yo's range is enough to break his proximity, forcing him back almost as surely as she is forced back, but his feet hit the ground light as gossamer, taking a quick stance to allow the hair-haired youth--is he truly as young as he appeared in that instant?--to recover. He whirls, catching the yo-yo against a concealed and blurred knife. White silks bloom with the motion, just as the Empress' power breaks against him in a wave. The disorientation, the revulsion is intense. "!?"

But despite the feeling in the pit of his stomach, despite the revulsion and churn of his own mind, he continues to move forward. She can feel his drive--an impulse, to be sure. Wordless, meaningless, endlessly calculated impulse. He attacks like an automata.

At this point, she might realize that the toys are not strictly responding to her invasion, but at his own directions as well. He's attacking all of them at once.

Underneath that mental battle, the anonymous boy bursts forward in an explosion of speed coming straight off of his spinning deflection, a sliding charge that comes just shy of walking on air. He flips forward, driving right into the range of the Empress' whirling implements, right down her centerline. As those toys fight her servants in the background, the white ghost flies right at her, changing forms instantly to snap a kick out at her shoulder with the ball of an outstretched foot.

Almost instinctively, he'll try to catch her with the edge of his foot, and with a single twitch of his hip, try to dislocate her shoulder from the socket with a second blow at the same time as trying to pin her to the ground like a mayfly underneath a senbon.

COMBATSYS: Honoka fails to interrupt Ryouhara Arts from Seishirou with Niwen Horibi.

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Honoka           0/-------/=======|=======\-------\1        Seishirou

Really... this trip has already been educational for the Empress' two companions. She came to prove two points. One, there's no need to fear ghosts, and two, even if you do fear them, the Empress is making you come along anyway. And as Sudo and Kenici swat and stomp at the creatures, they are learning one other very valuable lesson: fighting these things is absolutely the worst. Even worse than ticks, because ticks don't shred your clothing or snip off your buttons. And there is no fire which could actually -stop- these things.

The Empress had a few scant moments to recover her wits, and her yo-yo. She knew her attack landed, felt both the physical and psychic repercussions. She knows she hurt him -- however slightly. And she'd heard him make a sound. "This is meaningless," notes the Empress with a slight trace of irritation in her voice, recovering from her twist to reposition herself. Her stance remains light, as she stays on the balls of her feet. Peripherally, she can sense the movements -- not random, but directed. She can tell that the toys are specifically responding to her movements. Discouraging her from certain courses of action, in subtle and unreadable ways.

The simple recognition of the existence of a pattern... that's all that she's capable of at the moment. Actually -deciphering- the flow, going from knowing nothing to having a full analysis... that will take time. Time she doesn't have, as the white ghost makes his move. Her gut instinct is to ignore the subtle pulls, to fight -against- the subtle machinations of those... things crawling up her black-and-white cloaked form.

But instead, at the critical moment, a bite here, a pinch there, a slice over here... the net effect is an involuntary muscle response, the ticklish sensation that causes her leg to buckle just at the exact moment the ghost's strike connects with her shoulder. When she should have zigged... she's forced to zag, all for her want of trying to catch hold of the white ghost by the front of its... shirt. If there can be such a thing.

And in a heartbeat, she is at his mercy, her left shoulder painfully dislocated from its socket, pinned to the ground. Dislocation itself... it's not an unfamiliar sensation. But for someone as deft with manipulating several completely independent objects to be brought down in such a fashion... insulting.

She bites down, setting her jaw. The pain in her shoulder is excruciating, but she manages to only loose a stifled whimper. Just one more moment is all she would need -- presuming she can take care of the ghost upon her. This... is why she steels herself. If the body is unwilling or unable...

He hits like a car impact.

His body is extraordinarily light, but his blows are mostly velocity and structural force--striking and twisting, the principal part of his attacks are pure leverage. Knocking the Empress off of her feet and splitting her shoulder underneath his weight, his blow is hard enough to him skidding on her frame, skidding the two of them across the floorboards as his speed picks up.

In an instant, his body drops low. Has she ever fought ninjutsu before? She will recognize the form instinctively, if so. Shinobi do not seek to so anything less than completely immobilize an enemy, and in an instant, he will try to fold his knee over her throat tightly, choking off any retorts. If she can't wriggle free, she will see him eye-to-eye for the first time, a youth wearing a lotus white haori. Honoka might recognize the Shinto/onmyoudo style trappings woven into the haori sleeves, the vestment dwarfing his frame by a size, and worn loosely over a dark shinobi shozoku. Dark eyes cut cold, narrowed in a deep unabiding suspicion.

"I don't recognize you. You're not welcome," he states, icy.

She has a lot to struggle against, a lot to take account of in that swirling second. Someone who could not think as fast as the Empress would not even stand the faintest ghost of a chance. At any rate, the immobilization is the greatest problem--if the so-called 'ghost' gets her pinned, choking underneath his knee, she won't be able to do a lot to stop his attack. It takes the form of one touch. The slightest brush of fingers against fabric. It's nigh impossible to notice he attacked. It is vital that she does.
Because in the next second, he'll be gone.

A whisper of silk will fly past her enforcers, finally accompanied by the sound of footsteps across the ceiling (?!). It's hard for someone to pay attention when they're being swarmed by biting, stabbing and pinching little bits of brass and metal, but they will finally actually /see/ the white-clad shinobi as he lands in the midst of the chittering heap, crouching low in front of his tables.

He seems to be making space.

The "Ryuuouin" killing seal is the mark of the Ryouhara, and a vague memory from long past. It is a method of burning through an opposing person's aura. Normally, the seal sinks deep into the flesh, and then detonates somewhere inside the body. In this case, should he have hubris to touch the Empress, his seal will have been placed directly on her cloak, instead of her body. The seal will ignite. It will burn.
Then, only when the entire cloak is a mantle of fire, it will explode.

COMBATSYS: Seishirou successfully hits Honoka with Ryuuouin.

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Honoka           1/-----==/=======|=======\====---\1        Seishirou

The Empress' mental accounting of the situation is grim. Her back: serious abrasion burns from being used as a skateboard across the floorboards. This is nominal. Her shoulder: dislocated. It would only take a few seconds to set -- a few seconds where the white ghost isn't giving her his undivided attention. This is significant. Her throat: constricted. Breathing is harsh, and delivering a dose of her notorious sass is not an option. This is serious. And her options for dealing with the youth in the white haori: limited at best. He's too close for her yo-yo. The foot on her throat prevents deployment of any of the tools in her arsenal. It's pretty much terrible for her.

Against anyone normal, this would be problematic. But against the Empress, there's a lifeline she can use -- a command to forget about the mechanical monstrosities and -strike now-.

And against a ninja like the one she'd fought in Ohsaki, that might have worked. Not so with this youth, and his legion of automatons -- the slightest turn of muscle is harshly punished, pain shooting throughout both Sudo and Kenichi. Pain unmitigated by the control she'd relaxed to issue the order... pain that escapes their throats in tortured yowls, crying out for help.

Cries which would normally excite the Empress, would set her heart beating faster. Cries that... do nothing for the young puppetmaster in her current state, adrenaline already coursing through her, washing over everything.

- I don't recognize you. You're not welcome. - The words were simple. Direct. The Empress can appreciate that. But reaching for her center, the slightest touch... the Empress most certainly does -not- appreciate that. Rage fills her, convulses her frame as she lashes out -- her free, unhindered right arm slamming a fist into what -should- be the young man's ribcage. He can choke her -- she cares not. This is more than just a mere violation of her personal space.

But as soon as she strikes -- the haori is gone. Was she too sluggish? Too slow to live in the fast-paced world of the ninja? As her lungs heave, filling with oxygen... for a moment, she doesn't even care. The pressure is gone, and her mind is still reeling with all that's just happened.

But then her cloak bursts into flame. And not just that... but it feels like her entire -body- bursts into flame, the burning tendrils lured down her throat from rapid, shallow inhalation. Panic... is not exclusive to her underlings, as the Empress flails about, her entire form consumed in a rapidly expanding fireball.

The purifying flame tears through the concealing leather, the wooly lining of her overcloak. The flame consumes all -- and her panicked reaction, to roll like a log, crushing toys and constructs alike to get the flame off -- may be the only thing that saves her life.

The fireworks that follow, though... were not placed by the young man in the haori. Sensitive triggers are, after all, sensitive... and the panicked reaction from the woman who knows no panic is enough to set them off. One, two... -three- firecrackers go off, rocking the Empress first to one side, then the other.

She's -pissed- now. Brow furrowed, she coughs the last bits of flame out from her throat, spitting up a lovely amount of charred phlegm and congealed blood as she lifts herself up to her knees and elbows. The flames have made a regal mess of her imperial cloak -- and as she regains as much of her airflow as her injured lungs can stand, she tears the rest of the cloak away. Singed fabric from her upper blouse comes with it, tatters peeling away with only the faint sound of cinders falling.

Her brutal arsenal is brought to bear -- two more rods, just like the ones she'd sacrified to the pool of silver cord to begin this fight.

Coughing, she rises to her feet amidst the panicked, tortured cries of her compatriots. Her left arm hangs limply at her side. She cannot be bothered to tend to it now.

That's one hell of an introduction.

She cannot speak. But she can still give an order.

Sudo, even in the midst of running around in sheer terror, reaches into a pocket. "DAHLIA!" he barks into it, before throwing the device down.

Music is a powerful weapon in the Empress' arsenal. And it's -necessary- at this point, for her to regain her sync with a situation gone -way- off the rails. The music blares from the small device -- miraculous, then, that the mechanical automatons hadn't reached it yet.

[[ BGM : DAHLIA - X JAPAN - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luqGqrnobeU ]]

But the resynchronization is complete after two measures sound. The Empress narrows her eyes, throwing the useless welding glasses aside, her skin now revealed to be several degrees tanner -- even in the flickering, unsteady light of Kenichi's xenon lamp.

It's enough to paint a star in the air, the pattern remaining transfixed in the air with a transient purple light. A ring is circumscribed around the star. And that ... is all.

For one second. And then the Empress slams her hand into the shape, her palm emitting a furious pillar of light from within. The pain. The terror. The SCREAMING.... all of it is focused, as the Empress exhales slowly, into one riotous, cacophonous blast.

Straight towards the figure in the haori.

COMBATSYS: Honoka successfully hits Seishirou with Nochiu-o Kando.

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Honoka           0/-------/-----==|=======\====---\1        Seishirou

Ryouhara is not one to passively watch.

He'd noticed the small charged detonation earlier--there is nothing Seishirou doesn't--that much was true, and he was eager to rid her of her cloak which may conceal yet more weapons that could be used to counter his ninkougakujutsu. Ryuuouin targetted her cloak first and foremost for that exact reason, to lay bare the true extent of her weapons so that he could devise a counter. The fact that they detonated was only further confirmation that he was facing a tactician type. He doesn't waste time. He would have to move quickly to dispatch her.

From there, with no unifying presence, her enforcers would fall demoralized underneath the weight of his techniques.

Pure impulse and speed drive the shinobi as he whirls over the debris on the ground, moving forward in that crouch in three steps as he gathers up the broken bits of brass and metal not mobile enough to attack, sweeping them up into the wake of his voluminous sleeve. That box--some form of advanced music player--spits out a pulse-driven beat, one the shinobi instinctively counted at 165 to 170 beats per minute. Though he has no skill or talent in aligning his efforts to music, the act of splitting seconds is routine for him.

His actions occur over the course of roughly ten beats.

In the first two, he has swept up the otherwise useless detritus from the battlefield.
In the next three, he has arrayed them into the rough shape they will take on.
In the next beat, he has already completed the hand-seals required to ignite the array.
In two more beats, he lifts a rapidly-cooling alloy yari over his head, which distorts the air ahead of it with stored heat as he aims it right down the queen's middle. He has already prepared to use the emergency defense for the incoming blast. He needs to commit fully to the strike lest his jutsu not have enough force to pierce through the vest the queen of cinders wears. His muscles tense, preparing for a deadly precise finishing throw that will put the Empress into the far wall.

Another beat, and time seems to slow to a standstill...
The tenth beat never comes.

It starts as a vagary of perception, leaves drifting in and out of his view. Eyes that move faster than falcons begin to wander, chasing the turning leaves. The pulse-pounding music begins to dim in his mind, replaced by a haunting aria that only he can hear, bearing few differences from the howl of the wintry breeze through the forest at night. Struggling in that split of a split second, he attempts to focus on the target, the only thing that matters, attempting to focus on the only thing his impulse demands. It was part of the plan. All according to the will of history...

...what was the plan again?

His bangs lift into the air with the speed of his motion, but in that space between seconds, it seems to move all the slower. By the time the young man's eyes can focus again, the light from that conjured star above is almost blinding. He thinks of tactics like water. Knives behind him, shield at his hip, swords at his side, spear in hand and seals underfoot. Strategies unfurl and flutter away like leaves in the breeze. Without knowing, his mind's gates are thrown wide, revealing an endlessly intricate thought process where there was only one overriding will before. Honoka will understand in that instant that they are standing literally on a giant pyre to be, and that every contrivance in the room is designed to kill at the young man's will. Knives flying from their impact points on the boards, entire walls caving in. Throttling cables from the winding device above, and seals below. The work of a person who makes weapons in seconds. He knows, instinctively, that he has only chance instants to attack again, before Ryouhara-dono strikes him down... wait, what?

Amidst the leaves and under the evening star, all Ryouhara can see of the Empress is not the woman scorned and vengeful, but the innocent and harmless image of that anonymous girl from his clan haunting his memories--the only true memory he has of his family.

Ryouhara pauses, if only for an instant.
It's enough.

The energy blast and the force of a hundred screaming marginalized souls hits him like a truck, knocking the ghost-cut young man off of his feet, energetically slamming him into the wall behind. His body strikes the wall hard enough to knock loose a few of the blades lodged there, clattering at his sides as he crashes down and through a table, the sleeves of his haori splayed about him. A lotus with broken petals.
An instant later, the spear that he was about to throw lands in the ground, a perfectly forged work, causing the floorboards it sticks in to smoulder ominously underneath its point. Ryouhara, for the most part, is only barely aware from being caught by the damage well of that violet star, every nerve singing in agony. He seems insensate to it, his gaze empty and far off.

Consciousness is a fleeting thing.

COMBATSYS: Seishirou takes no action.

[                  \\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////           ]
Honoka           0/-------/-----==|=======\====---\1        Seishirou

One last cough clears the air passageway. The Empress... breathes. You underestimate it, you take it for granted, until you're forced to go without. Right now, it's glorious to be able to let your lungs simply... function, like the bellows they were meant to.

Sure... as the music plays on, the vocals of Toshi croon onward over the chittering of the little metal things nipping at the Empress' heels, tearing ever-widening holes into the polyester of her slacks, rending the neoprene coverings of her kevlar body armor into little tatters.

The Empress frowns. She's been burnt to a crisp, her black-and-white blouse in shambles. Four rods hang limply at her waist, two for each hip. A belt of undetonated parcels remains on a badly-torn belt. And her men are still fighting their war against the creepy little toys, unable to see the patterns they follow quite as well as their puppetmaster.

She frowns because she was able to do these menial tasks with impunity. He could have easily thrown the spear, and she would undoubtedly not have been able to dodge it. The proof of his past is clear -- the stains on the wall all make perfect sense. But no, the superheated spear was not launched her way, it was dropped. Discarded.

There is not much time. She advances on Sudo, wasting none further. Smashing a metallic carapace with her good fist, she stands beside him, affixing her glare on Seishirou.

Sudo raises her left arm out to her side, commanded thusly even as critters nip at his kneecaps. One firm pull, one cry of anguish from the Empress, one gratifying pop. The puppetmaster's knees quiver from the sudden onrush of pain, her eyes lolling back in her head... but the moment passes, with another glorious intake of breath.

The vocal section ends. The electric guitar and the bass take center stage once more. The Empress leaps into action, mind over matter. Each step falls in time with the increased tempo.

And two rods are drawn, levelled at the form of the haori-clad youth. He could have killed her. She's acting like the charred flesh, the singed hair, the badly bruised body... like they don't matter at all... all that -does- matter to her, is her act of defiance. Her willingness to show that, right now... after that brief respite, she's still capable of fighting.

And she chooses not to.

Drawing one more luxurious breath of fresh air the Empress raises her voice, icy tone cutting through the cacophony of the Dahlia.

"I hope you don't mind the added ambiance. Your little playthings are charming, but they can't carry a tune -- not one I can dance to."

Another frown.

"You stopped. It's not unwelcome, mind. But I came only to talk."

She'd say more... but for now, she keeps a keen eye on the fallen one, unconscious or no. Though the trap may have sprung, the puppetmaster knows that believing it to be the -only- trap this brilliant engineer has in store is sheer folly.

COMBATSYS: Honoka focuses on her next action.

[                  \\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////           ]
Honoka           0/-------/-----==|=======\====---\1        Seishirou

His breath is long and even as he lay there, a puppet with its strings cut. Though he's taken no specific damage beyond what will likely be a few fractured ribs in the morning, the shinobi does not stir from his resting point, with one leg pitched haphazardly over a table that tilts underneath his weight. His view of the scene is obscured by the shroud of his dark bangs, leaving only the faintest discretion of the dull and directionless eyes, half-lidded and open at all only by extreme effort. One could argue that in the present moment, he truly does not see at all, or if he does, it does not register to him as something he recognizes.

Across the young man's view a glowing parade of leaves dance in the wind rustling through the ryokan. That cool breeze renders all other details irrelevant. The agonizing pain he's in, the ceaseless march of his nerves as they run away with him, singing a dirge not unlike that of the siren song of Dahlia in the background. It is something he reacts as if he's been accustomed to pain all of his life, and in that dreamlike state, holds no more currency with him than the song of the myna bird.

Those toys continue to chew and to nip, but after a few minutes of sustained fighting, several are beginning to lose their luster, with many more being broken up beyond the point where they can attack to a useful extent. Many of those parts were smelted in an instant, going into the forging of that spear which sticks embedded in the floorboards, smouldering long after its initial cooling phase had long passed.

He makes no move to continue the assault. In all truthfulness, he makes no move at all, not paying a whole of attention to his surroundings. His mind is a jumbled mass of ideas and concepts and tactics with no context for which to associate them, driven entirely by a singular overriding impulse, one that, only a few minutes ago, was to be the only thing that anyone could read in him. Now it settles, wheel-less, like a crashed cart on the side of the road.

The only thing that seems to stir the shinobi's attention is the stifled cry of pain from the Empress as she sets her shoulder back from where he dislodged it, a visible flinch appearing in the fingertips left exposed by his haori sleeves. His eyes slowly move, tracking movements that cannot be seen by anyone but him. The direction of his attention lifts slowly, fixating just barely on the tails of the subtly foreboding. They follow that icy dulcet, only barely aware of the weapons and defiance raised against him now. He shifts just so--as if to get more of his weight beneath him. An expression darkens, confused as consciousness slips back to him. He meets her eyes.
In a single, painful flash, he sees a face he cannot make out once again.

"Wh...who are you?"

COMBATSYS: Seishirou takes no action.

[                  \\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////           ]
Honoka           0/-------/-----==|=======\====---\1        Seishirou

Now that the creatures are showing less individual attentiveness, Sudo and Kenichi are able to wind themselves free -- still harried, but less so. The fear in their minds, much diminished. For as far as they can see, this is the work of their Empress.

The Empress stares down at the shinobi, all but motionless in the crucible of his own creation. Leaves flutter past... how did leaves get in here, she wonders, before cold rationality reminds her that tiny automatons didn't just magically appear here either.

As much as she does love the song, as it certainly seems to have -some- effect on the prodigy engineer before her, it makes it difficult to talk. A word is offered... and Sudo finds the device, lowering its volume to a less overpowering volume.

With many -- like Kenichi, who is now able to fix the floodlight on a neutral wall, bouncing the light to illuminate all present without being overly glaring -- the one known as Honoka has had to adopt a shifting facade. But for this... curiously powerful individual, a different approach is required.

She withdraws her raised rods. Intimidation is no longer called for, she senses. "Some know me as the Empress. A silly moniker, perhaps... but I've found some people just need a little more incentive to follow orders."

Brushing loose hairs out of her eyes, the hand that clutches those two rods prods tenderly at her left shoulder. Her breathing becomes a bit more controlled, the longer she stands still. Icy blue eyes meet those of the shinobi.

"But you may call me Miko. Miko Kobayashi."

A deliberate pause follows -- she senses hesitation on his part. There is a need to keep the pace from being too hasty, too overwhelming, for someone just returning to consciousness. She judges his features, looks over his form, before she continues -- after all, he could easily leap right back up and set her ablaze again.

"I won't trifle with you and laud your obvious talent. But nor will I be terribly comfortable until we can... trust one another. I mean you no further harm. I am... an investor of sorts. Just one of scores of people hoping to make the world a better place."

Her lips settle into a tight smile. Anxiety and adrenaline keep her heartbeat strong, but she's making every effort to exude calm instead.

"And what might your name be?"

COMBATSYS: Honoka takes no action.

[                  \\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////           ]
Honoka           0/-------/-----==|=======\====---\1        Seishirou

"Trifle with me...?" the young man continues, as if misunderstanding the meaning of her words. In all truthfulness, she could have claimed to be his sister in that moment and he would have believed it. The gap between consciousness and death is a powerful tool to those willing to command it, but the burned woman's words tease at the end of the ninkougakusha's fledgling awareness, luring him to a sentience that simply did not exist in moments previous.

As they meet eyes, he blinks, several times. Calming, piercing eyes meet a gaze that pools from six individual countenances and wills, distracted and detached from the moment and only slowly gaining reverence for the coming night. It is as if he is staring directly into the sunset, or some loathsome insect was buzzing in his ear, making a nuisance of itself. It would not be hard to imagine a ringing in his ears at that moment.

"Empress Ko .." he starts, trying to wrap his mind around the words, a full moment or two after they're spoken, each word ohers secreted away to memory as an old book might be shelved at the library, only to be referenced in jumbled sequence later on.


It is when he finally notices her enforcers in the room that he comes to.
It is the recognition that he is outnumbered.
Honoka will know to step back.

He recalls something from a moment ago. Something surges deep within the shinobi, a confused glance that suddenly latches onto something real for the first time in minutes, winnowing down to a focus, a glance that becomes a glare. It is as sharp as a knife's edge, and suddenly the shinobi realizes his position. With a hiss of steel and a heeled stomp into the table he's currently positioned on, the shinobi rakes a razor-sharp chokuto free from a scabbard at his back, flipping the table between them upright until it slams into his open palm, the force of it causing black char marks to form into a huge kanji array on the opposite, open side of it. 'HEKI' -- burst, is scrawled across the tabletop in exactly one second following his wielding it as a massive shield. Bracing the huge table between the two of them, Ryouhara looks down and then around the table quickly, his eyes flashing bright from behind the massive dome's shadow.

"I represent the cold and the destitute, those left behind by this world of tyranny, those known as 'roudoushakaikyuu!!'" the young man spits venomously, fast and livid, staring daggers into the hearts of the Empress' two enforcers. His free hand, still holding a blade, raises with the last two fingers outstretched. The motion is martial fast, and what few toys are left spontaneously deactivate, falling off the enforcers and sticking into the floorboards at lethally precise angles.

The gates in his mind slam shut swift and fast, his guard coming up like lightning.

"I am Ryouhara Seishirou, of the Ryouhara clan! I am the hand of history, and the shadow war is mine to command. There is no space inside my skull that recognizes a name like Kobayashi. Speak your business quickly, or be burned down to a merciless nothingness!!!"

COMBATSYS: Seishirou begins idling furiously.

[                  \\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////           ]
Honoka           0/-------/-----==|=======\====---\1        Seishirou

The Empress. Miko Kobayashi. Honoka Kawamoto. She could have given any of those names, or invented more... but she picked the two most likely to evoke the correct response, the most aligned with the thoughts she'd heard voiced. The thoughts she'd felt. She could have completely thrown down. Meddled with his mind. Misdirected further. Taken full advantage of the young man, like she had countless others.

Call it professional courtesy. But don't call it what it is -- fear of the unknown. Rifling through the memories of someone clearly capable of inviting such pain on her as she'd just experienced... well. The risk was not worth it.

Sometimes honesty is the best policy. Honesty, and taking three steps back, mister.

She listens. She does not shrink, or falter -- she knows damn well the man could strike her down where she stands, if he willed to. But then he'd never know the answer to his query -- and, as much as she belives this young man to be a killer, professional courtesy extends both ways.

That's the bet she's taking by drumming the two rods into her left hand. The jarring motion is enough to agitate her shoulder. How much of that does he remember? It doesn't matter. The point is to exude confidence, savvy, and most of all, attentiveness to the young man's statements.

Her azure eyes meet Seishirou's. Excellent... she has a name for him, not just the epithet granted by the hospitalized. "Ryouhara-san, then." She bows at the waist in deference, much though that -particular- action pains her. "I am Ainu. You speak of tyranny. /Our/ culture... no longer exists in any form but a sideshow, mocked by ignorant masses as relics of a time long past, a shadow of the glorious and proud culture it once was. But the Ainu are -far- from the only destitute and cold in this nation. The Ryukyuan, the Burakumin or Eta; common folks... with common aspirations, buried under the merciless steamshovel of 'progress.'"

The Empress bows, in deference, yet again. The young woman had a recent run-in with the ninja clans -- perhaps this one? Or perhaps not. It changes nothing. She draws in her breath, tilting her head to a slight angle... intrigued.

"I would speak more on this, but with raised teacups, not raised weapons."

She lowers her twin rods -- notable decreasing her odds of survival against someone as fast as Ryouhara. But she does not withdraw.

"Perhaps you are interested. Perhaps not."

A faint, almost sleepy smile is offered.

COMBATSYS: Honoka focuses on her next action.

[                  \\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////           ]
Honoka           0/-------/-----==|=======\====---\1        Seishirou

The shinobi stares on, swordsharp eyes peering from the shadows of the explosion shield he devised. She has the bravery of a lion--the memory of the battle just moments ago come washing back to his mind. Knowing what his ninjutsu can do, she has not turned and fled, and he can tell, with every measure of his analytical eye, that her bravery and elegance come at great, great cost to her body.

She mentions the Burakumin, the Ryukyuan. She identifies herself as Ainu.
She knows these names have meaning to him.

He leans out slightly from behind his lethal shield, his blade held cutting-straight at his hip, visible only as a brief and deadly glint under the passing light of the hung lantern. His face is long and drawn, and he looks at her as if her every word were being judged for merit. He gives a lethal glare that is softened only by degree.

"If you are Ainu. And if they say you are Empress... then show me your favor."

Log created on 19:24:50 12/10/2014 by Honoka, and last modified on 08:33:05 12/12/2014.