Mortal Kombat - MK: Quid Pro Quo

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Description: Ayame's plan to selectively return competitors to the land of the living to gather their remaining souls in preparation of the Mortal Kombat endgame continues. This time, however, she makes a trip alone, farther than one might like to go on the wretched island. Ulterior motives aside, the miko made a promise that she intends to keep.

"Well... I suppose this is as sensible a place as any."

The declaration is uttered softly, followed by a soft sigh as a shrine maiden so far from home lowers her right arm to rest at her side. A golden light paints a soothing warm light against the ground around her, emanating from a small lantern of pure yellow gemstone. The light source dangles from a crimson cord that the would be savior has wrapped around her right wrist and fingers. The beacon is burning brighter now than it had during her venture into the forest earlier in the day. As she suspected, the devices glimmered in accordance to the power they harnessed and Lita's contribution to the effort was measureable.

She has paused at the edge of a graveyard, following the promptings of the lantern itself following a process of attunement in the reliquary of hallowed statues on the other side of the island. As she found herself guided further and further East toward the far reaches of the land mass she had begun to wonder if she had even gotten it right. Was it going to just end up pointing her to the ocean itself? And if so, just how should she interpret that? That Aya Hazuki is a lost cause and that she might as well move on to the next name on her list?

But such worries are put to rest now that she stands at the threshold of the most logical place to find a dead body. How did she end up here? Unlike the British operative, who's remains were left to be consumed by the forest of death, did some gnarled caretaker have responsibility for populating the numerous graves, sepulchers, and mausoleums that dot the twisted hills, broken gullies, and dead fields? Well, this is not a logistics research fieldtrip, the Ichijo scion thinks to herself, eschewing idle speculation at the edge of the timeless cemetery.

She is clothed in the uniform of her station, a symbol in and of itself that she dons with pride as well as a stoic respect for the responsibility she feels she carries. A shoulder bag is draped over her left shoulder to rest against her right hip, and her wooden staff is gripped lightly in her left hand.

A furtive glance around is conducted, looking over her shoulder, back along the long, lonesome road, and finally gazing up toward the moon full and clear in the night sky above. There was always something off about the celestial body... it was the right size and coloration, but she couldn't help feel that it was skewed somehow, as if she was viewing it from an angle that was never possible from the ground, its markings generally correct but slightly askew.

It had been late afternoon when she had set off. This job she would be doing alone... While loathe to leave her muscle behind, there was too much risk of the swordswoman saying something that the miko would rather not have the oft exasperating oni overhear. No... the only way to be sure is to handle this alone. Riki would be annoyed that she got left behind, but Ayame can't imagine how that would make her any more intolerable than usual, so it's just as well.

Her cursory glance reveals no followers, and the way across the wastelands had been quiet. Night had fallen by the time she got halfway across and when having to chose between delving back through the felwood alone in the night or pressing on through the open yet dead ruins, it was not a difficult decision to make.

With a flick of her wrist, she pulls the glowing lamp up into the palm of her right hand, gazing at it for a moment. It is warm to the touch, warmer than it had been this morning. With the power she had gathered already, could she protect herself from an unexpected attack? Her plan was to avoid any risky combat until she had collected as much as she could from the fallen, but the additional power that burns within her small golden lamp pulses with the promise that she could handle an ambush just fine. But for now, she is getting the distinct impression that the target of interest will be found somewhere amongst the graves.

As with Lita Luwanda in the morning, she believes that she needs only the body or soul of her intended beneficiary. But as this is only the second time she is in a position to, well, break the chains of death, there is a high amount of uncertainty about the entire process as well. With a soft grunt, she lets the lamp fall back to dangling from its cord and lifts her right arm out in front of her, letting its light and subtle prompting be her guide, descending down a small ridge into a mist filled trench lined with timeworn grave markers.

A proper graveyard looks nothing like this. Manicured, neat rows of headstones on green lawns this most definitely is not. Instead, the graves are haphazard, ad hoc, many so old and decrepit that only a fragmentary chunk of raw stone -- no polished marble -- is all that remains. Impromptu markers of the passing of souls into the next life jut from the ground like so many broken teeth in some colossal corpse's maw. And yet... and yet?

Some of these graves are remarkably well-kept. They are not expensive or fancy -- still hewn from the rough stone of the surrounding area, this fragment of Outworld wasteland stitched to the fabric of Earth by tenuous dimensional and metaphysical bonds. But they are shaped, clear of debris or marks. A number of them, inexplicably, read the same date... perhaps a former Mortal Kombat's completion? How many people could have POSSIBLY died in one day?

Probably rather a lot.

And yet Ayame is armed, like a water witch, with supernatural means of finding what she's looking for, her own ornate soul shard dowsing for its like, a crystal pendulum of a most unique and specific kind. Its tug is subtle, but insistent, despite the fact that the souls that fill these shards cannot have much in common despite their presence on the island. Perhaps it is simply like electromagnetism or ionic charge, the presence of forces interrelated with each other inevitably leaving a distinct mark on the physical world by their mere existence.

And then, suddenly, the swinging of the proverbial dowsing rod stops, holds firm.

The grave itself is like most of those surrounding it: a rectangular block of stone with an elliptical top. There is no name, only a date: April 1st, 1995.

However, a piece of the headstone has been laboriously (and obviously) chiseled away, making a niche or slot into which something, curiously, has been inserted, the only difference between this grave and any other:

A stone oak leaf, as if it had fallen from some autumn tree made of rock. It has clearly been shaped or molded, but there are no marks that indicate any sort of stone-working tools were used. Almost as if someone molded granite like it were clay.

For weeks, hopeful champions of Earth worked out their destiny by way of trials, or found their story's end, a final chapter long before they might have anticipated. And during all this time, Ayame has lurked in the sidelines, enjoying the comforts of the palace and, aside from a few forays into the world to pursue an opportunity, she had otherwise stayed out of sight and mind of those engaged in far grander works. It was a time to spy, to study, to theorize, and ply her silver tongue to the gathering of information.

Over time, one thing became clear - everyone had a different idea bout how anything worked. Was the cold, calculating rule of science to blame? Or was it the more esoteric concept of greater laws, edicts from so called gods that defined the means and constraints by which everything concerning the tournament worked? Or was it, as Ayame had slowly come to give credence to, more a batter of belief, of ideas, and of perspectives. She couldn't explain why the dangling glowing lantern could harness the power of souls, or how fighters could pull from that power to augment their own formidable talents, or why it could help her find another of its kind, or even why she was able to bring back the life of the slain with it. All she knew for now is that these things were true, and whatever mechanism that made it so might never be fully known.

And thus she puts her trust in the tug she feels, certain that it is helping and not leading her into a trap. And in allowing that belief to guide her, she soon finds herself standing at a grave stone of particular interest. At first, in the shadows of night, she doesn't catch it. The marker is much like many others. Bearing no name, no final thought or quote. And for that moment, a look of quiet uncertainty is reflected in her eyes. What now?

But as she lifts her lamp to scrutinize the stonework further, she finds it. There is a pause before she rests her staff against her left shoulder and extends her left hand, fingers tracing along the surface of the molded rock leaf. There is a look of worry in her eyes. In searching for the slain operative, she had found the wandering soul before the body. But this time, it seems that she has been lead to the body. Is there significance in that difference? Aya Hazuki came to the island, two souls in one. And now Ayame knows one of those souls walks free.

The question that has been poking at her thoughts resurfaces - can the two of them exist separately from each other? Is it possible that this blood-stained land could also be the source of life, enabling one more champion of Earth to return home than arrived? The girl grunts at the idea as she drops to one knee next to her satchel. Opening the pack, allowing her lantern to dangle freely from its crimson cord, she reaches in to collect a blanket which she spreads out over the dirt before shifting over to kneel on it. No sense in getting dirty in all this, right?

The next items of curiosity are the set of clothes she lays out on the blanket, taken from the wardrobes of the palace, they consist of a simple long brown tunic and dark brown trousers. While Lita's body had been restored, clothing was not included in the package deal, much to Ayame's consternation. She would be prepared this time for Aya's sake, just in case.

Finally, she looks at the grave market itself and wrestles with the uncomfortable unknown - should she start digging? With Lita, the body had been built anew. But what if there is a body largely in tact that gets revived? It would be regrettable to go through all this only for her her client to suffocate to death right after being revived. And to think of the lost soul power!


If Riki was here, she'd make that giant oaf deal with the dirty work. But she has taken this task upon herself alone. Back on her feet, she breaks off a board from a wooden marker without ceremony or second thoughts, then uses it to begin carving through the soft soil over the grave. She won't exhume the wrapped body - not if she doesn't have to - but she'll clear enough to play it safe just in case she needs to do an emergency excavation to save the woman before she just up and dies again!

Kneeling back on her blanket, sweaty and mildly irritated now, Ayame stares up at the unfamiliar sky again. "Aah... why me?" Well, she consoles herself silently, at least she isn't stuck fighting for her life against the strongest of two worlds.

Breathing in, she settles on her knees, lifting her lantern by its cord to cradle it in the palms of both her hands. "Elder Gods sure are good at not being terribly informative." she mutters softly, the sound of her own voice helping put her mind at ease in spite being out here alone, in what must be the most cursed graveyard in existence, about to participate in a rite most in the world would consider necromancy. What could possibly go wrong?

As she had done with Lita, she focuses on the warm lantern in her hands, forcing the energy out of it, creating a slowly expanding golden dome of light centered on her. If this works, hopefully it will find its sibling shard and begin transferring the energy of life. Exactly how that will play out is a question waiting for an answer.

The ground between the surface and where Aya's body presumably lies is not difficult to penetrate, surprisingly; after all, the method by which it was excavated and then replaced was not particularly... conventional. Perhaps whoever it is that put this body here may have anticipated this outcome? Or maybe it's just sheer, stupid luck.

Inside the grave is, well... a tarp. A black tarp, with an unsettling air about it, if a simple nylon tarp can be said to have an 'unsettling air'. Surprisingly there is no strong smell of decay, though the scent of overturned, wet earth is another thing entirely. Lying on top of the tarp, a sharp contrast indeed, is the exquisite wooden saya of Aya's family blade, as intact as it can be. If this were a video game, then Ayame's relentless searching of the graves in this dungeon woud have paid off in buried treasure.

Unlike the case of Lita Luwanda, the disembodied ghost of Aya Hazuki does not haunt this graveyard. Her vengeful spirit does not stalk it, to be seen only by the sensitive or the guilty, wailing. But her presence was still felt. In a place where the fetid, humid air and its stench of decay was the norm, the area around the leaf-decorated grave was nothing of the sort. Like the soul sleeping beneath the ground, it was beloved of the wind, which swirled gently. Perhaps that zone of peacefulness alone was enough to keep would-be thieves and predators away; after all, in a hellscape, a tiny reminder of heaven might induce as much terror as curiosity. But the soul of Aya Hazuki... it had to be somewhere.

The actions of others on the island have proven that the fuel of these wondrous shards is an actual soul. Some are remnants of Mortal Kombats long past, warriors unlucky enough to meet their end and never escape this place. But some, some have been more recent. Some are operating under a slightly altered set of rules, thanks to... well, thanks to we're not sure what yet.

Across the island, someone sleeps in a cave by the sea, by a fire. Safe and sheltered -- a rarity indeed. On his chest, a blue magatama rises and falls with the rhythm of his breathing... but as Ayame's golden light shines forth, that blue jewel suddenly flares, rising into the air, before falling again, silent, darker.

Underneath the tarp, there is a flash of gold, an answer to Ayame's own.

In the air above the grave, another magatama appears, the comma-shaped jewel associated with souls in Japanese mythology. It hovers, a black cord dangling behind it in midair, and with a flash of light, expels a torrent of wind, visible and obscuring vertical cyclone through which only the gold of the soul shard is visible. For long moments, the tornado spins, its roar deafening.

And then, just as quickly as it came, the wind dissipates. The light of the jewel, now worn around the neck of a young Japanese woman, fades.

Aya Hazuki sets foot upon the ground, and opens her eyes.

Forcing the energy into the open, Ayame extends her senses, looking for a sign that the investment is going to result in anything. She only has so much potential in her little golden lantern, only so many failed attempts at producing what would be, in any other cicumstance, a miracle beyond comprehension. Entire faiths are predicated upon the very act she is attempting to do, yet for the pragmatic miko, the act takes on something more akin to a business transaction - her upfront backing in exchange for a life. She doubts anyone will be writing sacred script about her participation in the process.

Something tells her that it will work. The buried sword, the body beneath, the sense that this small plot of land is somehow separate from the rest of the aura of death that pervades the graveyard... The only mystery that remains in her mind is if in trying to pull Aya back from death that she might be breaking one rule too many, the outcome will simply be a restoration of something lost, but two unique individuals, each with their own bodies, their own potential to chart their lives from this point forward.

Finally, it takes. She can feel the tug, the resonance of her shaped energy as it begins to interact with another focal point. Beneath her golden dome, she only just barely notices the flash in the ground, the first sign that something is happening. Everything worked out with the operative earlier, the walking arsenal seemed lively, healthy, and there were no obvious adverse affects on her psyche from the ordeal. Of course, it's not like Ayame knew here well enough to judge. Maybe the woman she left at the gates of the palace was someone entirely different than the Lita Luwanda others knew before. There's a reason necromancy is a taboo in any sane belief system.

She glances up, eyes finding the golden jewel shimmering with the energy with which it resonates. The dome around the girl diminishes, the power giving it form being drawn into the other shard, a soft, thrumming noise vibrating out from both vessels.

And then it is done, or so it appears. The priestess blinks, her golden shell gone, her lamp burning softer now than it had before, its touch a bit cooler in her hand. An exhale of relief, of release of tension she was only vaguely aware she had, and then she composes herself, the mask of reverent indifference returned. She doesn't take her eyes off Aya now even as she pushes herself to her feet, her left hand securing her staff in the process.

The intensity with which she studies the swordswoman reflects the uncertainty she conceals behind her eyes. There is a reluctance to speak - what if she gets no answer? What if what stands before her is a soulless, reanimated golem of flesh, and not the noble woman who sought her council in the garden months ago? There is an uncomfortable solace in staying silent and simply waiting, but the girl has never been unafraid of being uncomfortable. The only way to know is to try.

"Welcome back, Miss Hazuki."

Even though her lips offer no smile, there is still a faint warmth in the way she raises her eyebrows slightly, reflecting concern, head canting just a little, reflecting curiosity. "How do you... feel?" Is she whole? Wouldn't that mean she was more than whole before? Just what HAS been the price of losing the time lost hitchhiking soul?

If this were Aya's counterpart, he'd probably make a joke here; a confused look, a monotone declaration that he doesn't 'feel' anything. Just enough to make an almost-certainly not Star Trek-conversant Ayame feel briefly nervous. As it is, the woman floating in the air gently touches the ground toes first, and then her whole foot, and then... well, then she pitches forward, hand on her stomach, eyes wide, breathing heavy and irregular and loud. As if she had been underground alive all this time, holding her breath, only to be freed from that confinement by Ayame.

That's not far from the truth, anyway.

An erratic spasm of coughing passes, and then a tense silence, before Aya pulls herself standing. Her green eyes are, to Ayame, clearly out of focus, glassy; there's a concentrated effort on the swordswoman's part to pull herself together, make things clear, that slowly but surely works. When Aya first rose her gaze was the unsettling incomprehension of a coma patient; now, it is the penetrative searching look of someone confused and disoriented but determined to find answers.

"You're... Ichijo," she says at last, as if the words were in some foreign language she needed to sound out before speaking them. "The miko... the exorcist." A pause, and then a faint smile that gives way to a ragged cough. "Ha. Is this allowed? Do you get demerits... for doing your job in reverse?"

If anything, the slightly morbid and entirely acerbic sense of humor persists. A good sign... sort of.

Aya raises her face to the sky and, eyes closed, takes a breath before she answers the questions posed to her. "I am... I don't know how to describe it," she says, after a long pause. "How do I feel? Confused. Hurt. Anxious. Frustrated. Angry."

Another breath comes in, goes out.


The process of recovery is observed without interference, Ayame's eyes a bit wider than she might realize, still entirely not sure what to expect from her second effort to rob the grave its prize. No portals to hell have opened, no demons flocking to dance in the aftermath of the profane ritual of forcing life back into a body, no light from the heavens to affirm that she had done the right thing. For now, it's just an uncertain priestess and a woman who's very existence has been through the ringer over the last several weeks.

With every movement she makes, there is a reaction from Ayame, the girl leaning a bit closer, bending down a little when she crumples forward in a fit of violent coughing, blinking with open concern at the lack of focus in those once sharp, green eyes. Hoping everything worked out while dreading that something has gone horribly wrong, she holds her breath until the voice finally breaks the silence following her question.

At first she offers a slight, hesitant nod of her head. At least there's recognition, but the way she's speaking, the unnatural attenuation of her voice, she remains unsure as to what to make of it. She continues, however, connecting the name with an occupation, recognition and memories blending together, and finally an emotion painted into that barely perceptible smile.

The expression she gets in reply to her bemused question is chagrined, a half-smile that is neither warm nor hostile, merely acknowledging that her client's mind at least seems to be spinning up to speed little by little. "Maybe, maybe not," she offers, eyes closing for a moment as she releases the breath she hadn't realized she had held. "If I keep this up, I am sure I will find out eventually."

Her right shoulder shifts upward in a half shrug, "Besides, breaking the rules seems to be the entire premise of this wretched island. I think there is room for some indiscretion."

A list of emotions are offered by way of explanation and Ayame relaxes even further, swinging her dangling lantern up into her right hand and cupping it there while resting her staff against her left shoulder, no longer so wary. "Well, those strike me as being human enough emotions considering the circumstances. I am feeling confident that you are not a zombie." she states, her tone so matter of fact that it is hard to tell if she is teasing. She continues without clarifying either way. "I... cannot begin to guess at what you know, what you have been through, or even what you are going through now. If there is anything you need to know, I will do my best to fill you in."

As always, the girl is a bit stiff, refusing to relax or let down her guard completely, but she is far from defensive, and her worry seems to be fading fast. Twice now she has done this, and each time, the particulars have been similar yet different. Just how DOES this all work?

"Well," Ayame continues, illuminated by the golden glow of her gemstone, "When I said I would look into your particular situation, I admit I never had anything like this outcome in mind. You and and Frei, you are separate now." A heartbeat of a pause. "At least, I think so."

Having a body... feels strange now, the swordswoman is forced to admit. Often, the jade gaze is looking at Ayame, but only perhaps in the sense that it's trained in her direction; there is something distant and unfocused there still, as if the miko were being looked *through* rather than *at*. As Ayame jokes(?) that Aya doesn't appear to be a flesh-ravening ghoul, the swordswoman has turned briefly away toward the grave, giving a sharp, wet bark of laughter that sounds like it's coming from someone who is still remembering what lungs are and how they work. "You're only saying that," Aya retorts, unsteadily bending her knees, ducking down near the grave she only recently inhabited, "because I haven't tried to eat you yet. Perhaps I'm a quite smart zombie and am simply biding my time."

One not entirely-sure-it's-a-joke deserves another, maybe.

She reaches down, her aim obvious: her sheathed blade. Yet even as one hand closes around the familiar, smooth texture of the wood, her eyes are drawn again to the black tarp. For a moment, her whole body locks up, her expression vacant; it's as if the sword were swimming in a sea of boiling poison more than a simple sheet or black nylon. When she does pick the sword up and finally remove it, the motion is quick, sharp, even desperate, her eyes haunted as she stands and takes an involuntary step AWAY from her former resting place.

It becomes obvious that the body that had been lying under that tarp is now gone, the impromptu black shroud spread haphazardly and thinly across the bottom of the 'grave' pit. This knowledge should be comforting -- an acknowledgement that the person standing here now is indeed Aya Hazuki -- but for whatever reason, it leaves her feeling unsettled instead.

Ayame begins to talk of more serious matters, and to steady her nerves, Aya sets about the intricate task of securing her weapon to her belt. The miko talks of Aya's separation from her spiritual 'passenger' and the latter cannot help but give a rueful smile at the situation. "...yes," she says at last, trying to form the words. "I know you've nothing more than my word for it, but if that word is good, then believe that it's definite."

With a last, probably too-tight tug of the sageo, Aya secures her family's blade at last... and bereft of reasons not to meet Ayame's gaze, is finally forced to do so. But perhaps finding herself armed and whole, the battousha has regained some of the cool composure she's shown in the past. "While I was..." A pause. She can't bring herself to say the word 'dead', weirdly, and so a meaningful pause must take its place. "I was treated to a bit of how he must have felt. I do not know how any of this works, and as you say, the rules are a bit... fast and loose," she adds, lips quirking in the ghost of a grin, "but if what resides in these shards truly are souls, then I believe mine resided in the gem he acquired when his body formed."

A hand comes up, brushing a lock of hair aside, and for a brief second or two, Aya's eyes close as she attempts to center her thoughts and turn seemingly indescribable images into words. "It was like being under the ice on a frozen lake, looking up at what people are doing on the surface. Everything... muted, distorted, but perceptible. And you, of course, unable to do anything but observe."

Another moment, and Aya is silent. She watched as her red-haired counterpart had sat alone on a rock and wept so hard his body shook, desperate with the need not to be left alone.

"When I came to you," she says, breaking the silence, "I was scared and didn't understand anything. And... ha, now I remain scared, and I don't feel as if I really understand much more than I did then."

Her voice lowers, becoming quiet and contemplative. "But I got what I wanted."

Her staff still resting against her shoulder, Ayame's left hand lifts to rest her fingers along the upper end of the shaft. The look in her eyes suggests that she's not actually dismissing the woman's answer as a joke, hand at the ready to seize hold of her trusty signature weapon... /just/ in case, especially as the Aya's attention clearly settles on the sheathed sword. The miko is quiet as the trial of retrieving the weapon is endured, likely understanding the conflicted motions for what they are.

Perhaps it is one of her rare flashes of empathy that has her scoot over to the only partially exhumed grave while the woman secures the heirloom blade to belt and, using her sandal-clad foot, pushes the small dirt piles to the side back over the tarp. With a few sweeps of her leg and the distinct rattle of dirt being piled over the black material, the shallow grave is largely covered once again. The process is conducted without word, glances from the side of her eyes suggesting that she is continuing to keep an eye on Aya while also clearly listening to what she has to say.

The slowly recovering swordswoman's voice catches on the implied word of 'dead' and the miko merely nods slightly - she understands, no need to say it out loud. She listens curiously as Aya describes the way she might have unexpectedly experienced something akin to what the elemental sage endured, even if for a vastly shorter amount of time. More and more, Ayame becomes convinced that the fate of souls on this island is nothing like it is back home. Falling here seems to suggest no rest, no release from mortal concerns. She can't help but lift her right hand slightly to glance at her glowing lantern - just how many personalities swirl within? Are they watching, listening, through foggy mirror and muffled sound, what is going on right now? Do some of them surge with envy that one of the fallen has been released from her crystalline prison to breathe and speak once more?

Slowly, she pulls her attention from it back to Aya as she declares that while it may take some getting used to, she did in fact get what she had hoped for. Her left hand still propping her staff, her right arm goes to her side, the girl bowing forward at the waist, "While none of this came up in my research into your circumstances, it seems that the outcome you desired was accomplished all the same." And she didn't even have to cast Frei's soul into some kind of prison via exorcism, so that's a plus. "I hope you feel that I have kept my promise to assist in this matter to the best of my ability."

She stands up straight out of her bow, eyes blinking once, expression focused but neutral. "In exchange for my service, I need only one thing from you. You see..." She lifts her right arm, her golden lantern dangling from its crimson cord, swaying softly from the motion. "I had to devote a fair measure of the power I have collected to fuel whatever..." It's her turn to struggle with a word. Magic? Magic is a lazy term used to cover things not understood. "...circumstances that have favored you with a second chance. I believe your own shard may possess enough to restore what I spent."

She pauses there, eyes flicking away for a moment of consideration before returning to focus on Aya's own. "A lot of time has gone by since you were lost to us. A lot of others have fallen along the way. I am attempting to restore life to those I can, but I cannot continue with my quest without your contribution."

And there, as some might say, is the catch. As Ayame asks for the power that remains in Aya's shard, the battousha can only give a faint laugh, lips set in a line, head bowed for a moment. Reaching up with one hand, she removes the black cord from around her neck and lets the comma-shaped jewel dangle in front of her, the carved citrine glistening the same gold as Ayame's lantern. Aya tracks it with her gaze as it slowly swings to a stop from the motion of bringing it into place; it's almost as if she were attempting to hypnotize herself with it. She smiles a thin smile. "Reassuring to know that even here, where the rulebook got tossed out the window, there are *some* elements of human nature that seem perceptibly intact."

Her tone is light; if there's any actual rancor felt about Ayame's request for the power left in the shard, Aya's expression doesn't betray it. Her eyes lower somewhat. "I am still not convinced I believe in anything so fragile as a 'soul'," Aya says, quietly. "Yet I've seen all of this with my own eyes. I will say, I don't think the way death works on this island is meant for the benefit of the competitors." She looks up, at Ayame, and then past her to the distant spires of Shang Tsung's palace. "Think about it. The opposition won't be bothered doing what you're doing right now. Yet we Earthlings have soft hearts. We spend precious resources bringing back others for sentimental reasons..." A pause, and she grins faintly at Ayame. "Well, some of us."

With snakebite speed, the lightning reflexes of an iaido fighter, Aya yanks the cord, sending the gold magatama spiralling into the air before snatching it into her closed fist. Stepping forward, she opens her hand, palm up, to Ayame, the gold gem glowing with a sullen light.

"You're welcome to it. What use would I have of it? There's no one I know here on whom I'd bother to spend the power, and..." A pause, then a resigned shrug. "I know by now that it wasn't me that was summoned here. I was a passenger, a bystander. And not a particularly effective one at that. I'm not protected by the 'edicts' any longer, either. What sense is there in antagonizing our hosts?"

She pauses, clearly realizing the bitterness that has crept into her voice, and then gives a helpless laugh. "Forgive me. I've had nothing to do but reflect on things and I have so many unanswered questions. I can tell you that now that I'm... alone... things are different." She looks up at the sky for a moment. "I'm 'aware' of less. But that is not..." A shrug, a pause. "It's a complicated feeling."

As she holds the shard forward, waiting for Ayame to harvest what she came for, the battousha tilts her head to the side. "I know now that you're a survivor of multiple world-ending crises, Ichijo-san," she says, guardedly. "I think your desire to help me is genuine. But I also think that you wouldn't be here without a plan."

Ayame doesn't seem to react to the remark about human nature. She clearly paying attention - even through her exceptionally practiced poker face, a hint of underlying anxiousness seeps through. She breaks eye contact for a moment, as if considering what response to voice in reply to the comment, but whatever menu of options came to mind, she opts to say nothing in the end, either aggressing passively or deciding her own stance on the somewhat mercenary nature of her assistance is not what matters this instant.

But on the next subject, one that touches on thoughts she had been mulling throughout her weeks of observation on the isle, she does speak up promptly, "I believe we use the word death here, because it is the closest approximation to what happens to those who fall in this deadly arena. But I do not think any answers concerning the soul or the afterlife gleaned here are applicable to the similar phenomenon back home."

Noticing Aya's distant look, she steps to the side and turns, looking over her left shoulder into the distance. At mention of the price of bringing back the fallen, and the potentially sentimental reasons for such investment, Ayame's mouth twitches slightly though the nature of her flinch would be difficult to discern with the stoicism she maintains otherwise.

Her attention snaps back, body turning to face the swordswoman as she seizes the glimmering gemstone from the air then holds it out toward her. She doesn't react to it immediately, glancing from the outstretched palm back to Aya's face. She certainly doesn't seem overly eager to take what was offered, but as with all things concerning the Ichijo scion, that could simply be part of the act as well.

"Perhaps." the miko offers equivocally regarding not having been chosen to represent Earth in this final contest. She cannot claim to have better insight into whether the woman was or wasn't chosen, or if she was simply the vessel by which the man she knew as Frei was destined to attend. With his ties to the elements, and the combination of strength and wisdom she knew him to possess, it would stand to reason that he numbered among the chosen to represent an entire world on trial for its very survival. "I think my invitation got lost in the mail." the girl offers, the tug of a smile at her lips and lighter tone only partially masking some kernel of hurt. Considering some of the abject failures and absolute monsters chosen to fight for Earth, how could she have been deemed unfitting for the task?

"I cannot say I know what you are going through," she allows after another moment of thought, her tone right back to resolved somberness. "Whether the feelings you are experiencing are akin to losing a family member or friend. But in you I have seen the strength to carry on. I am sure that you will find your way from here."

Lifting her lantern back to cradle it in her hands, she holds the glowing beacon out, allowing it to pull freely from the proffered power. The two crystals resonate with a similar golden light as motes of energy bloom out of the magatama and then collapse into the small lamp, one by one, Ayame gazing at the gentle, steady process as one grows dimmer and the other brighter in the exchange.

But her eyes shift up to watch Aya's face as she speaks of world ending calamities and the miko's stubborn ability to survive them. She speaks of a plan and Ayame exhales softly before nodding in acknowledgement of the fact.

"I believe in being precise and effective in my commitments to help, and I did tell you I would. But I confess you are not the first I brought back. I... first attempted it on another with whom I had..." The way her mouth contorts briefly and her eyes avert to the side, focusing on nothing in particular, suggests a certain degree of discomfort at confessing to how she felt about the first effort. "... no obligation. In case something went wrong." It wouldn't be screwing up her track record of keeping her word if the effort backfired on someone she had offered no oath to assist, after all.

"I do have a plan. I have no intention of bringing back any fallen that might cost me more than I can hope to gain. You would have been the only exception, if necessary. These-" she hefts her lantern up in her right palm now, "Are the best weapon we have. If only one champion from Earth of us is to fight in the end, I have taken it upon myself to collect as much potential as possible and deliver it to them before the final battle." Her fingers close over the lantern, its glow penetrating between the cracks with ease. "We face a trial of strength, of combat prowess, but also of wits. I hope to secure our victory by collecting every iota of potential to bestow on our champion. If the enemy fails to do come to same conclusion as I..." Now she smiles, allowing a self-assured smug grin for a second or two, eyes back on Aya, "Well, not every world is fortunate enough to have someone like me around."

As Ayame harvests the power gathered within Aya's soul shard, the swordswoman finds herself letting out a long, slow exhalation, almost as if her breath mirrors the outpouring of spiritual power. And then, in what feels like no time at all, it's over. Ayame explains her plan: a sensible plan, a logical plan. In a challenge of raw power, having the most power available to you is the reasonable course of action to take. And yet...

As the transfer finishes, Aya's arm moves in a blur, hurling the shard into the distance, the citrine gem describing a honey-colored arc in the air despite being shorn of its soul-powered glow.

In a flash of gold it reappears in her hand, the battousha looking at it impassively before placing it back around her neck without a further word.

"You don't owe me anything, Ichijo-san," Aya says carefully, watching the priestess's face closely, gauging her reaction. Ayame guards her emotions well, better than most, but Aya has two things going for her. One is the cultivated ability to read a person's body language that any duelist worth their salt develops; the other, however, is whatever lingering knowledge she acquired from sharing a body with someone who knew Ayame well. To Aya's eyes, a nervous energy burns underneath Ayame's polished exterior. Not a fear; that is different. But an anxiety, an tension. This plan is a bet on which everything has been placed. It's not the sort of careful, foolproof strategem that one might find in...

A pause, as in Aya's mind's eye, the sweeping sleeve of a white haori trails the through air, limned with flame.

"Though I am grateful for your consideration regardless," Aya says at last, breathily, composing herself.

The swordswoman's hands go behind her head, brushing her ponytail from her neck; if anything, a displacement gesture, something to do with her hands while she processes the breath and depth of this situation. "I feel like that shard just now," she says at last, shutting her eyes for a moment. "I'd like nothing more than to leave this place and never look back. Before now I didn't fear death. This..." she says, gripping the hilt of her blade with an audible metallic *click!* for emphasis, " a weapon meant to kill. You don't take it up without knowledge of that fact, even if you have no intention of using it to do so yourself. I thought I had accepted it, understood it."

A pause, and then she shakes her head, taking her hand off the hilt and gripping the opposite elbow with it, breathing in and out slowly before speaking again. "You are probably right that this is more purgatory than anything else, that 'dying' here doesn't mean much. And yet now I find myself asking all kinds of difficult questions because of that. It took this place where death is meaningless to make me wonder if I truly understood what death is, if I had really *thought* about it enough, or merely convinced myself that if it happened, it happened."

Her gaze returns to Ayame, heavy-lidded. "You say I have the strength to go on and you are likely right. If I must fight, I will fight. But once this is over, I am less sure. I'm not particularly sure of *anything*, anymore."

The suddenness of the throw catches the grave priestess off guard. There is a split second where she pauses, body tensing, not following the flight of the hurled soul shard, as if even now, she's wary that the unexpected gesture is meant to distract her and leave her flat footed for an instant draw strike from the woman that would have no apparent cause to do just that. The hesitation is there then gone in the blink of an eye, her mind working fast to suppress her ever-present paranoia. Head turned, she watches the shard vanish into the dark.

And then, within the span of a predictable number of heartbeats, it returns. Just like they always do. Any attempt to be done with it seems doomed to failure while on these forsaken shores. By the time the Hazuki heiress slides the cord back around her neck, the miko is facing her once more, her expression still neutral, neither sympathetic nor judgmental at the futile gesture. She doesn't react to being told that she owed the woman nothing but at the expression of gratitude, there is a polite bow of her head, her eyes closing briefly in the process.

"I have not discovered if there is a way to leave." She looks in the direction of the nearby tower, "There is a room with many portals within. I imagine they must lead somewhere, but I cannot recommend trying them at random to find out where."

Her eyes stray to the sword as Aya seizes its hilt before nodding curtly at the assessment of its designed lethality, her left hand shifting its grip on her leaning staff. "Behind each weapon is a wealth of philosophies, but it is the individual owners that bring out their unique personalities." she muses. "Did you," the weight to the word implies a more 'collective you' than just Aya alone, "Ever talk about the sword? He was not all together unfamiliar with it," she offers, her smile fleeting, mysterious, memories of a bladed confrontation a lifetime ago slipping into her mind.

Suddenly, the girl shakes her head, standing up straight, taking hold of her staff on her left so that it is no longer propped against the ground. "You are wrong about one thing, however. I do owe you a debt - the same debt every living soul on earth owes to all who fought for our homes in this abominable tournament. I imagine no one back home will ever know what you and the others did, but I will never forget that when the time came to fight, your very life on the line, you did so. That is more than can be said about some that were called."

The miko bows at the waist, arms at her sides, face lowered, "Please accept my gratitude in this matter. Should you ever require further assistance, I would never turn you away."

"We never... 'talked'," Aya says at last, silent for a long time after Ayame asks her a very specific question indeed. Her hesitation speaks volumes about her discomfort, but despite that, she doesn't seem reticent because of the company. Rather, the furrow of her brow and the distant nature of her gaze imply different reasons for the deliberateness of her speech and response. She tilts her head at Ayame somewhat, nakedly curious. "Have you ever shared a body with what I guess we have to call another 'soul'?" To anyone else, this question might seem ludicrous; to a professional exorcist, however, it's hardly beyond the pale to consider it MAY have happened once. "Outside these circumstances, I mean."

Turning to look off in the distance somewhat, Aya takes a deep breath before continuing. "Yet I know things, yes. I know the sword was complicated for him because of his mother... ha, the woman who would have been my aunt in this world, I believe," she says, unable to keep from smiling a little bit. She half-turns to Ayame. "You know how I said you shouldn't take up the sword without acknowledging that it's a tool for killing? I guess you could say, he acknowledged that fact, but that's also why he didn't use one. But the truth is... you may know him -- Frei, that is -- better than I do in some ways. I know how he felt, how he thought. But you've seen how he *acts*. Those two aren't exactly the same."

For a second, she can only think of Frei's form standing right here, by this grave, the watchful eye of Howard Rust, Jr. and his son Jao observing as the newly-resurrected man dropped to his knees, raggedly proclaiming that it should have been Aya who stood there, not him. How it wasn't supposed to be the way it is. "We don't understand death, human beings. And I think that's why we imagine the ability to defy it is the highest possible good. But I wonder... if coming back from the dead is less a mercy than a punishment in its own way."

A pause, and then Aya shakes her head, eyes closed. "Ignore me. And if that sounds like I am refuting the generosity of what you've done, I'm not. I'm grateful. But..." She pauses, then shrugs. "I suppose that's a discussion for another day."

"I don't know where I'll go now. I think perhaps I will find somewhere out of the way, secluded." In her heart, she knows of the cave on the shore where her 'other half' now rests. She could go there. The question is: SHOULD she? "I imagine the sorcerer and his ilk have little need nor care of me now, especially as I've given all the... 'currency'... I possessed to you. I suppose that's your burden, now." Suddenly, the anxiousness that she can feel burning under Ayame's businesslike outer face makes more sense.

"Regardless, if I'm needed, I will come."

There is a shake of her head about sharing any element of her faculty with another essence in any way, the reaction immediate and unambiguous - not only has it not happened, she clearly finds the concept uncomfortable. The swordswoman gives further insight into the nature of her knowledge of displaced sage but when she points out that the miko's knowledge of him would be based on what she observed rather than his innermost thoughts, she blinks, pauses, then slowly nods, a faint, whimsical smile crossing her lips as she half-closes her eyes. "That I do, yes." The behaviors of that man had always been a curiosity to her. For all the times she had antagonized him, confronted him in some of his darkest times, he didn't seem to hate her, his wrath ever kept in check by what appeared to be a vast ocean of patience.

And in the end, during the last seconds to midnight in the world they once knew, he placed in her and the enigmatic Ryouhara his trust, helping put in motion events that continue to wrinkle the tapestry of this world.

She looks especially attentive when Aya talks about not understanding death and Ayame looks a touch discomforted at the subject. "I had hoped to learn more of its mysteries here, but it does not help when it appears to work completely differently than we know it." She sounds wistful, the subject more than just a passing fancy of hers, but offers nothing further for consideration. "I did not bring you back from the dead, I released you from prison, and that will never be a punishment." the girl adds, her tone firm.

Crouching down, she folds up the blanket she had laid out before, shoving it into the leather satchel sitting on the ground. "Yes." the girl whispers as she goes through the process of packing. It is her burden for now, and every minute she stays in the same place is a higher chance of her being tracked down by someone with Outworld's or their own selfish interests in mind. "It is. I believe you will be left alone, as I was throughout all my time here with nothing worth attacking me for."

She stands, satchel over her left shoulder, resting against her right hip, facing Aya once more. "But that is no longer the case. I must continue." She takes a step back, lifting her staff to rest against her left shoulder. "Until we meet again." A slight bow of her head as she starts to turn away, lifting her right arm as to place her lantern before her once more. Its glow is brighter now, casting a wider sphere of golden warmth all around the priestess.

Only to pause and glance over her shoulder in Aya's direction without looking at her directly. "You should know, she is dead. The thing you last fought. An Outworld pawn, you have nothing more to fear from her. It seems so far, no one will pay for her return." A dip of her head, her voice falling quiet.

"Farewell, Aya Hazuki."

The battousha's head inclines upwards a bit at that piece of information. "Is it strange that I don't necessarily find that information in and of itself comforting?" It would seem perfectly natural to feel hatred to someone who caused you pain, who literally 'killed' you, even if said death ended up being more like high school detention than an actual trip through the veil. "If she truly was a pawn, well... I suppose I find her more pitiable than anything, now. I don't know that I would call us 'friends' as yet," she says, smiling faintly at Ayame, "but there is clearly enough mutual respect to get us to where we are. Ultimately, she doesn't have that. I think more than any sort of revenge I could inflict on her physically, *that* information is considerably more satisfying."

It's difficult to tell if her intentions are cruel or not, but the expression she wears DOES suggest this knowledge brings Aya some degree of comfort.

Aya brings her fist and places it, knuckles-first, into her opposite palm, sketching a bow at the waist as she does so. "Walk in the light, Ayame Ichijo."

Log created on 21:12:14 12/31/2016 by Aya, and last modified on 23:28:08 01/01/2017.