Honoka - Solemn Duty

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Description: It's a little known fact that the cast and crew of the Twilight Star Circus go on vacations together. Waterparks, ski parks, tourist traps, you name it. Why travel all around the country if you're not gonna live a little, right? And yet, in all their travels, the Twilight Star Circus had never visited this one secret getaway in eastern Hokkaido. At least Honoka has the ski gear for it though -- because Nakoruru is waiting, and where they're headed, they won't take American Express.

A letter would have arrived a few days ago for Honoka Kawamoto. A simple folded card, white parchment, the address and postage on one side, and a dab of glue keeping it closed. The lettering would be authored in black ink utilizing a precise, fine script, blending katakana and hiragana characters where appropriate. Unfolding the card would reveal a short note, written in the same, neat, clean script. The note describes a place to meet, with landmarks called out. It's a place definitely off the beaten path in Hokkaido. Also included is a date, and a time to meet. On the other side of the inside is a well drawn map of the region in question, showing remarkable accuracy and fine detail of the path to go from the nearest highway. The note is signed in four simple katakana glyphs - Nakoruru.

Well, she has figured out sending mail, at least. Might be a ways to go before Honoka can ever expect to receive a text from the chronologically displaced warrior. Hopefully Makaotari is having an easier time adjusting.

The time to meet is morning, a couple hours after sunrise. This time of year, extreme cold weather gear will be required.

With Japan's reputation for its highly dense population centers, it's easy to forget how unpopulated vast swaths of it really are. Even Hokkaido, long since conquered by the Empire of the Rising Sun, only has a few population centers surrounded by barely inhabited forests, mountains, and valleys. From the highway to the designated place to meet it is about an hour's walk through or above thick snowpack. Snow shoes, cross country skis, or heck, a snow mobile if one wants to get modern about it, are probably required.

The sky is clear and blue, the air cold, the wind coming and going, sometimes barely a breeze, other times blowing powdery white over deep dunes of snow. Not a cloud to be scene in the vast horizon.

As Honoka works her way along the indicated route, she'll come to realize soon enough that it isn't really necessary to follow the landmarks Nakoruru laid out for her. In fact, the path is unmistakably, painfully clear; a trail of sorrow and death, a clear cut path through the mountainside forest of dead trees. Some were hewn down as if by a single slice of a garganutan blade. Others shattered, the splintered ends still sticking up through the snow. Others are but black stumps of charcoal.

It is a path of death and decay Honoka must travel to reach the designated location. Here and there, parts of dead Gears are visible, sticking up from the snow. An arm here, a head there, a half-torso elsewhere. Given the number of indicators visible even through the snowfall of a recent blizzard, it is safe to imagine that beneath the pristine, white terrain, dozens more of the man-made monstrocities are hidden from sight, left to freeze for the winter and to rot come spring.

At the appointed time, at the indicated place, Nakoruru will be found. The Ainu swordswoman is dressed in white and crimson, as usual, a figure almost lost in the sea of white but for the red geometric pattern of her attire and matching red, thickly insulated boots on her feet. Her head is covered by a hooded cloak of white that she has wrapped around her body as well, locks of her obsidian black hair spill out from the front of the hood. Each foot is inserted into a traditional Ainu snowshoe, made with flexible thin wood folded into loops and bound around the base of each boot with simple rope.

The serene looking young woman stands with her back to the wind near where the war-carved path of dead trees begins to climb up the slope of the mountain. Now and then a gust picks up, whipping her cloak about her body and shifting more snow along the ground, but her stance remains sure.

A black HiAce van pulls to a stop on the isolated highway. A nasty scrape down the right side of the van stands as testament to a close encounter with a guardrail on the perilous voyage here.

Inside, the driver turns to look back at Honoka Kawamoto as she winds a long scarf about her head.
Sudo notes, "I'll find a parking spot and follow you right up."

The former star juggler of the Twilight Star Circus weaves the scarf past her anti-fog snow goggles. "No... You'll stay in the van where it's warm and wait for my signal like we discussed. I didn't see your name on the invite."

Sudo grimaces, gripping the wheel tightly as he turns to observe Honoka's reflection in the rear view mirror. He's never happy when the impetuous crime boss ignores his security recommendations, but he's compelled to agree.

"I'm off."
Last words, before the scarf is pulled tightly over her nose and mouth, the loose end tucked into the jacket, which she then zips p securely.

The van's side door slides open, and out hops Honoka in a thoroughly-insulated snow suit, her snow ski bindings clacking noisily upon the asphalt road. The base color of the waterproofed garments is midnight blue, a stark contrast against the snow-spattered canvas. Accent panels of white, lavender, and purple zigzag and criss-cross the jacket and snow pants. Multiple layers of insulation double the thickness of the acrobat's silhouette, keeping her relatively warm and toasty inside.

Thick, padded gloves reach into the van, retrieving a pair of poles and a pair of skis from inside. Two sets of clicks later, her muffled statement is repeated for another edge of finality.
"I'm off."

Hard-packed snow yields to the points of sharpened poles, as the twin hulls of the S.S. Kawamoto carve their path across the landscape. The last time she'd gone cross-country skiing was with her extended circus family -- hence the reason this snow gear was drawn from storage rather than purchased outright. But the snow-covered hills fall into the periphery of her wraparound goggles, the contrasts have never been sharper. Instead of the carefully manicured and patrolled hills of a ski resort, she sees only the path cleaved through the untamed wilderness.

Honoka's snow skis had been traveling quickly at first, but the sight of death and decay gives her some reason to slow down and take more careful note of her surroundings She stops to inspect one hewn-down tree as she approaches, taking careful note of the impossibly precise angle of the cut. A gloved hand reaches out to a second tree, broken in a more peculiar angle. Her nose wrinkles beneath layers of purple and blue wool. How long ago was -this- battle fought?

Further along the journey, she begins to see the more macabre signs of combat. Dismembered limbs, carved clear through by superior skill and speed. At one point she sees a body a bit more complete than the rest, and reaches her hand close...
Again, she frowns beneath her scarf. The brutal reality of the war which was fought in Kamui Kanna's name -- for, far outside the streets of Southtown, the shock troops of the Gear Army have no hesitation. Perhaps the psion would have been able to gain insight into the minds of these simple beasts, but alas, there will be no reaching these souls from beyond the pale, so long after death.

After what feels like an eternity, she approaches the designated destination. Honoka pulls her phone out of its jacket pocket, taking a quick peek at the time -- six minutes past, if her phone's chronometer is to be trusted.
And as her gaze lifts up from her phone's display, it locks upon a familiar red pattern.
Honoka smiles. And drives the poles into the snow, renewing her hastened pace from the start of the journey. A bracing wind slams into her goggles, rustling the many layers of scarf around her nose and mouth. And yet, with her spirits buoyed upwards by the sight of Kamui's Champion, the psion hardly notices the chill any more.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. The snow gives way beneath her skis, much as it ever had. And once Honoka plows through the snow far enough to be heard over the wind, she reaches a gloved hand up to her scarf, loosening it to bare her pale, sun-starved skin to the light.

"I got your letter," she says, as if that weren't readily apparent.
Ainu fashion stands on display beside contemporary snow gear, as the wind whips the loosened scarf about in chaotic manner.
"Sorry I'm a little late."

There is a definite sense of solitude to the windswept landscape as Honoka makes her way to the designated location. No birds to share their song with the sky, no buzz of insects, nature's tiniest laborers. No flowers blooming, or fauna at play. Just a young woman, geared appropriately for the conditions, snow-covered trees, and a trail of destruction to lead the way toward the rendezvous.

It would be all too easy to miss her friend in white amid the snowscape but for the crimson pattern bordering the cloak that covers her from head to ankle, but the reverse is not the case, and as she sets eyes on the warrior straight from the old Yukar, she will find that she is already being watched.

The wind shifts direction with a sudden gust, and a white glove-covered hand slips from beneath Nakoruru's cloak to hold her hood in place. Steel-blue eyes meet Honoka's own, the ebony-haired girl waiting until they are close enough to speak to each other clearly without being drown out by the periodic gusts of wind. At this proximity, the thick fur lining of Kamui's Warrior becomes visible. Bowing her head slightly, she then glances toward the sky, a hint of a smile teasing its way across her lips. "Is that so?" she replies softly to the apology, her eyes losing their focus as she turns her head to the side.

"In Edo stood the tallest tower I had ever seen until awakening in this age, the work of one Hanma of the Yagyu clan, a brilliant architect. A massive construct, within it a complex network of gears, chains, and mechanisms... all dedicated to working the giant timepiece on one face."

She glances back toward Honoka, her quiet smile warming further in spite the frigid weather. "It was upon seeing his mighty work for the first time that I came to understand that the Yamato had learned from foreigners the practice of dividing the hours into sixty minutes. It was a... curious idea - that anything could require holding to so exact a time as to require such precision."

Her eyes lower for a moment of further reflection, before shifting back up to focus on Honoka. "You arrived close enough that I can't tell the difference. The thought that in today's world, the passage of seconds is tracked with such accuracy is a little intimidating, I must admit."

Her smile becomes a grin before fading to a more quiet, neutral expression, eyes reflecting heartfelt sincerity, "Thank you for joining me this cold morning, sister. I know it is no small thing to ask, but my task could not wait for warmer days... and I did not want to perform it alone. A witness - and a companion - will ease, in no small way, the heaviness in my heart."

She turns to look further up the incline, along the path of slain trees that brought Honoka this far. Sticking up from the snow pack are more tree stumps, discarded logs, and pieces of dismembered abominations that had thought to defile the land the Kamui blessed.

She exhales, her breath visible in the air, a plume of condensation. She waits, ready to move forward the moment she won't be journeying alone.

"Will you walk beside me?"

All too often, neophyte thrillseekers would throw caution to the wind, only for the wind to throw them face-first into a snowdrift, necessitating some local authority to throw hundreds of dollars into a county-wide search and rescue mission. That's one reason the most readily-available snow gear is bright, outlandish, and definitely not natural -- so that it stands out vividly against a featureless blanket of snow.

In the modern world, everything has a purpose. The snow goggles obscure their wearer's eyes from others -- which makes it a smidge more difficult to see Honoka's -- all in the name of reducing snow glare.

And the scarf, well ... some things don't really need an update.

"It's kind of amazing what trivial things people focus upon when you take away war and suffering, isn't it?"
Honoka laughs softly, with just the slightest tone of scorn in her voice. She doesn't think it was amazing at all -- after all, society's trivialization of serious matters is what led her to take such an active role on Shang Tsung's island -- and here in the modern world, as well.

So happy she is, to be able to talk so frankly with an equal yet again. A kindred, Kamui-blessed warrior -- not one so softened by sentimentality that they refuse to act when her service is required.

And yet, if Honoka is bitter, it does not show in her warm smile, embattled by the sweeping winds. The wind chaps her skin and lips, whipping around the loosened end of her partially-undone scarf. She bows her head in tacit acceptance -- it should go without saying that Honoka would not have cleared her schedule for just -anyone-.

WIll she walk beside Nakoruru?
"Into the murky bog of Teinei-pokna-moshiri itself," she assents, without hesitation. She gestures in the direction Nakoruru appears to be leading.
"Lead on. I wouldn't miss this for anything," she smiles.

Gathering both poles into one hand, she wraps the scarf securely about her mouth and face again. After all -- it was just to show Nakoruru that the figure within was indeed the Honoka she knew and fought alongside, and not just someone who walks with similar poise and assertiveness.

She has a feeling that this place holds a lot of meaning to Nakoruru. The map was so crisp and accurate -- the lines so precise. It must mean a great deal to her. She has a feeling that things will be shared -- it doesn't take a psychic to guess as much. But even still, idle curiosity gets the better of her, as her skis begin to shuffle through the snow..
"... Did they give you much trouble, back there? Are you injured?"

"Nn," Nakoruru answers the agreement to accompany her with a slight nod of her head. With the snowshoes she has tied to her boots and her light step, she manages to walk over the surface of the drifts rather than risk sinking down to her knees or worse with each step. The snowshoes themselves look fragile enough that a person of larger stature would likely break them, but the petite girl doesn't seem to be applying all that much stress to them.

With that, she seems to be content to walk along in silence, allowing ample time for Honoka to ask her question. The young looking swordswoman pauses at that, glancing to the side, her eyes coming to rest on other body parts only half buried in the snow along the way. "No." she replies, hand slipping from her cloak to clutch at the side of her hood, allowing her to turn to look all the way back without risk of being blown off her head by the wind.

"While they were my enemy, I was not the one to fell them." She hesitates for a moment, then moves perpendicular to the path toward what appears to be the upper torso of a dead Gear, slumped forward so that its face is buried in the snow. The girl in white crouches, one knee pressing into the snow, her gloved hand reaching from beneath her cloak to rest against the back of the corpse's head.

"Another came along the way and decimated their ranks while I focused on the one that was in charge. I... discovered I was wrong about them." She brushes some of the snow from the back of the hairless scalp. "I thought them to be soulless automatons. Grotesque approximations of life at best." Her hooded head bows slightly, her hand withdrawing from the frozen body. "But no... each of these had a soul trapped within. I could hear their tormented cries, I could feel their anguish. These possessed the souls of animals, while the one I fought harbored a human"

The young woman pushes back to standing, turning once again to stare down the path. "When I came across the army and saw the devastation they were causing to the forest, I hated them. Only afterward, when the... zeal of justified battle at last had faded, did my hate turn to pity for these condemned souls... and loathing for the men who did this to them."

She turns to face Honoka directly then, lips pressed tightly together, eyes flashing with a fiery indignation in spite the serenity to her voice. "Those men responsible must face justice. I have no doubt some will be carted out as a show of good faith, punished for their iniquity, but they will simply be the few among many responsible for this unforgivable transgression."

Her thick mitten covered hand reaches out to rest atop Honoka's, though given the thick layers of winter protection between both their hands, perhaps the gesture loses some of its closeness. "I don't know that I can find them, sister." The severity of her expression melts a little, "I am Nature's fang, not her fox or owl. But if someone were to discover those men who elude capture..." She closes her eyes for a moment, head bowing slightly beneath her hood, "I will fall upon them as Okikirmui fell upon the marsh demon." She opens her eyes, looking back at Honoka, "What pieces remain will be burned to ash, and the ash scattered to the winds." She makes the statement calmly, with a deliberateness to her voice that makes it clear that there is no exaggeration to the ruin she intends to bring to amoral monsters that crafted the Gears.

The declaration of war against the defilers delivered, Nakoruru turns to continue along the path, deeper into the gouged forest.

Honoka glances down at the fragile snowshoes -- surely, those fragile things would not hold up to the engineering standards of the day. And yet, Honoka knows that making one's own garments and equipment was something of a rite of passage for the youths of Nakoruru's time.
If your snowshoe was to break -- you fix it.
She passes a glimpse at her carbon-fiber skis and forged bindings -- fancy materials that make on-the-spot repairs pretty much untenable.

Technology advances. Timekeeping, once thought a "nice to have," has not only fostered a technological revolution but also a veritable way of life, giving rise to a number of societies obsessed with punctuality and order. Science is the new magic -- with scientists the alchemists who dare to replicate the feats of the gods, transmuting souls into fearsome chimaerae. The trenches left behind by Honoka's passing break their rigid consistency as she follows Nakoruru off the beaten path to take a closer look at the corpses. Having arrived at the appointed time, the younger Ainu now has the time to examine the Gear's corpse in more detail. Her nose wrinkles in disgust -- even with the cold deadening her sense of smell, the macabre sight is enough to trigger an inborn distaste.

Modern society encourages a push and pull of interaction, to such a degree that understanding a point is considered permission to interrupt the speaker. And yet, Honoka knows that Nakoruru comes from an entirely different time -- one that prizes listening above communicating. She nods, tamping down her own feelings on the matter -- and letting Nakoruru guide the flow of emotion with the mere sound of her voice.

When Nakoruru speaks of hatred, of disgust... Honoka floats along with that rhythm, her heartbeat rising with the thundrous pace of battle.
When Nakoruru speaks of pity, Honoka's face softens, her ears clearing, allowing her to feel the bitter winter in her bones.

The men must face justice.
The men -will- face justice.

The hand placed upon hers is enough to stir Honoka from her reverie. From behind her tinted lenses, she looks up to Nakoruru -- and places her hand atop the mitten, clasping down in parallel manner to the pressure applied to her own glove.

One could be terrified by Nakoruru's bold declaration of intent.
But the shadow manipulator finds strength in it. Clarity of purpose.

"The devils hide among us, in suits and fine clothing. I will do what I can, sister."

With a firm pat to Nakoruru's mittened hand, Honoka rises to follow.

"The truth is... much murkier than anyone wants to admit. These battles take place in boardrooms, in offices. Everyone wants to deflect blame."
Honoka fights the urge to spit when she thinks of that sanctimonious blond -- the one who reminds her so much of Zach before she wove a spell upon him.
"... They think they are walking the path of the righteous -- that -their- gods are the true ones, when ours stand before the world."

She watches Nakoruru's cloak flutter about in the wind before her.

"Some day, our gods will stop giving us second chances."

As Honoka places her other hand over Nakoruru's, the young woman looks into her eyes through the tinted eye protection, listening to the reply offered and answering with a slight nod of her head. "I knew I could rely on you," she replies, a warmth found in her solemn expression, in the color of her voice, in spite the gravity of the subject discussed in the morning's bitter cold.

The two resume the journey into the woods. Nakoruru's steps crunch quietly against the snow, leaving soft impressions, while Honoka's own facilitated gliding leaves shallow twin grooves and barely makes a sound at all. All around them, the forest is quiet. The thought that just weeks before, a battle against an invading army was raged here, seems difficult to fathom but for the visual tell tale signs and the lingering sense of loss.

"You are right. The gods will not care who is to blame... already, we have seen what the end of the Era of Lamentations portends. When the well of patience they have had for their disrespectful creations runs dry..." She exhales softly, her breathe visible before her face for a moment before vanishing.

"I sense that Kamui Kanna's introduction to the world has sparked a change in awareness for all of mankind, but I do not know that it has spurred the majority along toward the reverence the kamui are due. I wish I could say it was a problem unique to this time, but always have the kamui been neglected or mocked by the many, while the few delay the day of their divine wrath with their piety." The young woman glances up, eyes toward the mighty snowcapped peaks that tower visibly above the canopy of trees on either side of the wide path.

"Even the one that aided me in this battle was bitter with blasphemy against Kamui Kanna in spite my warnings, in spite full knowledge of his existence." From behind her hood, her head turns lightly, glancing toward Honoka then. "She was someone you might know..."

Her voice, speaking in perfect Ainu, fades, a shallow furrow of consternation on her brow. "A strange woman... she called herself I-no. She spoke of you? She talked of the future with a certainty that was unexpected... and used many terms unfamiliar to me." Her mouth quirks in into a bit of a sheepish smile, "Chrono Trigger endings?"

Nakoruru looks forward then, placing one foot ahead of the other as she continues along the way. "I could not have succeeded without her, but I couldn't discern her motivation either. I have never had such an inscrutable ally."

The rhythm is constant, unyielding. Poles are plunged into the snow, skis are dragged forward. While she's certainly listening to Nakoruru, the stillness of the forest is enough to give the psion some cause for concern. If an enemy were to attack, the best approach angle would be to strike from their side -- from downwind, where both sound and scent would be masked by the rushing winds. Occasionally the younger of the two will allow her gaze to follow the few strands of loose hair that blow loose from her scarf, genmaicha-colored eyes narrowing as she peers into the forest. In this, she is glad that her senses are attuned to a different wavelength from those of most, present company included -- double the opportunity to detect an unknown enemy before.

When Nakoruru's gaze is cast upwards, though, Honoka finds herself looking up as well. The notion of ignoring a clear warning from their god serves to jog her memory a bit -- but she saves the thought, upon sensing the tide of discourse shifting in a different direction.

She pulls herself even with Nakoruru, casting her gaze sideways to get a glimpse of those cerulean blue orbs that have always served as her inspiration.

Someone she might know? Who on Earth...?
And then the name is spoken.
Honoka breaks into a disbelieving smile, as she gives several nods in reply. The words 'Chrono Trigger endings' are met with a brief shrug.

"Half of the words coming out of her mouth made no sense at all, it's true." She turns back to the path, sparing a glance downwind before continuing.

"It was unusual -- she took me into a land beyond the realm of the living. A place beyond Earth, a place beyond time and space. Not a dream -- but unfamiliar. Terrifying."

She looks down at the pristine snow ahead of them, at her skis carving through it like miniature cruisers.

"And then the next I knew, I was in Southtown. The town was abandoned -- with no one in sight. A moment frozen in time, the buildings recast in ash and dust."

Her eyes flicker closed for a minute as she thinks, pulling the quote from memory as best she can.
"'It's like if you wanna play the hero, you actually gotta overcome some ordeals or something.' Obtuse -- crude. And exactly what I needed to hear -- both from you, and from a perfect stranger in a daringly short skirt."

Honoka's laughter is tossed to the wind, fading away almost as quickly as the breath is released.

"Inscrutable's a good word for her, yeah. I'm glad she... seems to be willing to help us, at any rate."

She strides along for a bit longer, not sure how to mesh that thought with the one she'd saved for later. But she decides to share the anecdote anyway.

"I read a summary of the Christian Bible once. It starts at the Garden of Eden, where the first man was created, and the first woman. There was but one rule -- never consume a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge." She glances towards Nakoruru, a smirk rising upon her face. "And what did they do? Consume a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge -- and find themselves cast out of the Garden of Eden forevermore."

Even as her thumb grips the ski pole, stabbing it one meter further than the last time, she's able to splay her gloved fingers out in demonstration. "And that sets the stage for the rest of the book -- every time an edict would come down from on high, the masses would defy that order. And punishment would be dispensed."

She draws in her breath, pressing her chapped lips together.

"So of the two takeaways I have, then... The first is that in this Age of Lamentations, it falls upon us to step forth and spread the gospel. And the second -- is there any way -other- than promises of worldwide devastation that might be a little easier for the masses to accept?"

"Nn," comes the soft agreement from Nakoruru when Honoka declares the confusing witch's words as nonsensical, but otherwise she is quiet, listening to her companion recount her own experiences with the confounding woman. She glances to the side as she mentions being taken somewhere, an expression of mixed wonder and concern, though she doesn't interrupt. Her focus returns forward as the recollection continues, only to glance aside again as the sound of laughter briefly resounds through the otherwise frozen stillness. Though she doesn't echo the expression, there is a brief flash of bemusement at her lips and eyes, a momentary reprieve from her more somber mood at Honoka's short laugh.

"Such power," she marvels then, facing forward once more. "And willing to help, but holding no reverence for the kamui." She nods slightly, "Inscrutable." she echoes back in explicit agreement that overall, that is the best term for the mysterious stranger. She glances to the side again as Honoka brings up scripture of another faith, head nodding once, eyes reflecting familiarity with the subject as she listens.

"Mn," she nods at the observations made concerning the cycle of warnings and subsequent tribulations accounted for in the old texts and then looks thoughtful at the points annunciated by her friend. "You mean... instead of warning of the inevitable calamities, perhaps people could be helped to understand the benefits of listening to the cautions instead? Perhaps you have already put such things in motion with your work among our people... if the people the kamui loved can be rekindled in their faith, maybe the same awareness could spread from our lands. An education of gratitude, compassion, and peace sounds a lot more palatable than the stern warnings of doom we have mediated upon." she finishes, her expression becoming a faint smile accompanied by a look of melancholy in her eyes.

Meanwhile, the two appear to have reached the end of the clear cut path carved through the woods. As they drew near to this location, the density of fallen Gears has increased, and at times, the two are forced to step over the frozen corpses to continue along the way. It becomes clear that this is the furthest the invaders got before they were at last stopped, hewn down by Nature's Guardian and the Enigma in Red. Though it is somewhat difficult to tell with the way the tress have been felled haphazardly throughout the area, it is easy to get the impression that there was already something of a natural clearing here, deep within the forest.

The sound of gently moving water would be audible within the otherwise silent grove and the source would be readily identified as a pool not far from where the two have entered. A natural spring, apparently, and one that runs warm at the source if the fact that it remains unfrozen is any indicator. A small stream spills from the pool, flowing down a gulf permanently melted in the snow for several meters before it slips beneath a surface of thin, treacherous ice, then passes on out of sight beneath the blanket of white.

Here, the dead have become almost a layer to the terrain themselves. Devastated bodies protruding from the snow or rotting in the warm spring, or half submerged in the brook. Shattered trees lay every which way, with a solid swath of them all cleanly severed at about four feet high as if someone took a goliath weed whacker to them. There is an uneasy atmosphere here, the sense of a hallowed place desecrated by the bloody massacre. The souls sensitive would feel the lingering anguish of sacred soil profaned, of ancient wards broken.

Nakoruru's eyes wander over the ravaged holy place with a certain lack of focus, as if seeing beyond the shambles. "This place is where I would awake, whenever the kamui deemed my presence necessary, and where I would return to rest when I felt my time slipping away. After this..." A hand sweeps out from beneath her cloak to gesture at the bodies, "Violation, I do not know if it will ever serve that purpose again. I find myself wondering if this will be my final outing, my last time called from Kamui Mosir."

She sighs softly, eyes closing for a moment, "And I don't know if I find that thought alarming or comforting." Her eyes blink open again then, before she glances toward Honoka once more, "Forgive my sentimentality." Her smile returns, "We don't have much further to go." Passing through the ruined clearing would take only a minute before the two would find themselves moving among the unspoiled trees with no path to follow but the route Nakoruru seems to have in mind.

Honoka takes a moment to elaborate upon the subject of I-No: "Her words made her difficult to understand, but eventually I saw what she was trying to show me. I had considered her to be a wenkamui at first, tempting me away from the path. There was no doubt in my mind that she had the power to destroy me with barely even a thought, to turn me astray -- abandon me for dead in the 'Backyard' as she called it. And yet she didn't."

She thinks on that for a moment, striding without delay across the snow-covered landscape. "With the power she demonstrated, it's quite possible she does not revere the kamui because she considers herself equal to them. And yet, she echoes their wisdom -- that as Humanity has been granted the gift of the world, and it is up to her Champions to shepherd them through the dark times, into the light."

After her story about Christianity, and after Nakoruru shares her reflections about the calamities and threats, Honoka's brow knits tightly -- though it would be hard to see the change in emotion beneath the tinted lenses. "... Education is a slow process, though. It's... different with our ways being so calm, and passive. So few of the people of the world believe in the power of the kamui, to the point that we defeat the warnings of the kamui -- droughts, famine, and dire weather -- by plundering the earth. Humanity has ignored all the -soft- signs of catastrophe, and when Kamui Kanna struck out..."

Her fists curl tightly around the knurled handles of her ski poles. But her pace does not falter -- her poles slam into the snow no harder than before. She is angered -- but the juggler has performed flawlessly under duress before.

"Forgive me, sister... I am still bitter that -our- people suffered so greatly for the blasphemy committed upon us all. As it is now, the world -distrusts- the Kamui more than ever -- and laughs at our misfortune, at our misdirected prayers. It would have been a better teaching moment had our piety been rewarded rather than punished. Then our job of... education would not be so tangled with disbelief."

Whatever bitterness Honoka feels, though, is calmed as the pair approaches the source of water. She was not ignorant of the increased volume of Gear corpses in this area -- but she has little reason to fear the dead, only the living she -cannot- see. And knowing that this place is still a shrine of sorts -- despite the desecration -- seems to be enough to placate her anger towards the tragic misstep at Biratori.

Shoes imprint, poles prod, and skis slide through the snow as the two sisters from different time periods trek onward along the path. The dry air gains some measure of humidity, as expelled breaths grow denser, fog lingering about for longer than before. Honoka reaches up to loosen her scarf, allowing the fabric to curl beneath her chin, exposing her face once more to the elements.

"Sentimentality is what separates us from the predators, sister -- the ability to live from season to season rather than merely day to day." She shares a smile with Nakoruru, nodding quietly in agreement. She makes a sweeping gesture with one pole on an off stride -- "Perhaps it would be further heresy to bring in trucks to dispose of all these Gears -- but if you wish, I feel it might be okay to accept a little help from machines. I can make it happen, just say the word."

As the path becomes less and less obvious, Honoka quietly allows Nakoruru to take the lead, the paths of snowshoes mingling with the tracks made by her snow skis. Here, too -- she seems to be more appreciative of the unspoiled nature.

"... You... were able to keep them from progressing further, here?"

The anger is not ignored as Honoka puts words to the strong feelings that had surfaced in no small part when last the two had convened with a god in the flesh. This time, the ebony haired young woman does not glance toward the mountain tops, or the heavens beyond the snow-capped peaks. Instead, she bows her head slightly, eyes on the trail ahead, as the words that must be said are spoken in solitude.

"Your bitterness is well justified," Nakoruru murmurs, her voice strained. "I have always known that the kamui operate from a perspective I would never claim to understand, but in the end, when all was settled, I was able to see the wisdom in their designs. This time, I-..."

She lifts her head, brow furrowed as she hesitates with uncertainty. "I wonder if it is too late. Kamui Kanna walks among men at great sacrifice to his own potential power, a price paid for the opportunity to intervene in the affairs of humanity, to help guide us in person rather than from a distance. If even he... will wash away the faithful and innocent in the act of unleashing his wrath, then... I'm afraid that the time in which we could rely on the kamui may be slipping away, perhaps forever."

She avoids looking toward Honoka then, as the two stand at the entrance to the despoiled clearing, "On the island of the damned, you fought against fate to keep the gods of another world from laying claim to ours. I cannot suppress the thought that someday, you will have no choice but to do the same in this world." Her voice is pained, her right hand lifting from beneath her cloak to clutch near the base of her neck. Perhaps she reflects on how dangerously similar her thoughts may be to the mysterious I-no upon reflection. "We cannot take the future for granted, nor can we blindly assume the kamui will act with patience or support for righteous causes going forward. We can hope to appease them, as Kamui Kanna was appeased at the heart of the global storm, but how long is it right to live an existence of simple appeasement? Have not our people suffered that plight for far too long anyway?"

She turns toward Honoka then, her right hand reaching to rest on the young woman's shoulder as the two tarry not far from the steaming hot spring, "Never repeat this conversation, keep these thoughts sealed tightly within your heart. You are right to question, but chose the manner of how you express such concerns carefully."

Of the offer to help with cleanup efforts of the abandoned battlefield, Nakoruru is quiet for a long moment before she answers, "I don't know if it will make a difference, but... it would mean a lot to me for the fallen to be put to rest. As they were alive, in death they deserve the same rites and reverence as any other. It is not an endeavor I could hope to accomplish on my own." After the struggle with the previous topic, her expression has warmed significantly in consideration of the offer.

"Thank you."

She nods slightly in response to the question as she veers to the right, the two heading up a steeper path now than before. "I fought their leader there, while I-no battled the ranks of Gears under the leader's command. The rest fell at about the same time I forced her into retreat. This was as far as they were able to get into our land. I only wish I had cut them off sooner."

The two move through thicker woods now, untamed in any way by even the natives of Hokkaido. There is no visible trail to follow as Nakoruru guides the way up the slope. Gradually, the snow-laden trees begin to thin and ledges of stone can be made out beneath the snow.

Finally, Nakoruru pauses at the edge of a wall of rock that rises up about ten feet above the two. Ascending it would take one further up into the mountain above the forest. "Our way forward lies up from here. But before we continue, I must... warn that it is to the site of a grave we journey. I understand if you would prefer to go no further." The words are spoken with sincerity and respect, mindful of the trepidation the Ainu have concerning ever visiting the last resting place of the deceased. In this modern era, such a thought may seem antiquated, but the offer to remain behind is made all the same.

With that, Nakoruru crouches down to untie her snowshoes, leaving the hand crafted footwear leaning against the base of the ledge. With no clear handholds in the smooth wall of stone, the only way up will be to make a vertical leap onto a potentially slick icy landing above. But for the two experienced acrobats, such a barrier to entry is hardly a concern.

Avoiding one's gaze and keeping one's posture closed are two signs that someone may be withholding the truth. Honoka is mindful of the tells, and she is often able to successfully hide the truth from those who might be in search of it. But in this case, she sees Nakoruru exhibiting these same two signs, looking down at her feet, instead of to the confidante she had summoned for this sacred act which is about to unfold. For what reason could her Ainu companion wish to conceal anything? These are the thoughts going through Honoka's mind.

She watches her Ainu sister out of the corner of her eye as she skis forth. Her breath crystallizes, and just as quickly scatters in the wind. And she comes to understand a possible reason for Nakoruru's discretion -- could it be that her sister is hiding the truth not from her, but from the Kamui themselves? The psion has constantly been on the lookout for attack -- but now she looks for the creatures which would be hardy enough to survive the frigid heights. Would there be a kamui hiding within a fish-owl perched upon the tree? Would a kamui seek refuge in a white-naped crane, blending in flawlessly with the snow? Yukar stories tell of many times in which the Ainu rightfully opposed the will of the Kamui -- but never without cost.

A hand on her shoulder snaps her out of silent reverie with a slight shudder.
Her eyes seek out those of Kamui's Chosen.
And then it becomes clear why Nakoruru had suppressed her emotion -- perhaps it wasn't the thoughts of the robed maiden she was concerned about. Perhaps it was out of a desire to save Honoka from her own blasphemy.

Eyelids close, and Honoka nods with understanding.
"You're right."
A moment passes.
"... Forgive me, sister."

Honoka quietly resolves to remember this pledge -- despite having harbored similar thoughts of conspiracy on her own part, for so long.

The dead number in the hundreds -- possibly thousands. To prepare them all for proper burials, the de facto leader of the Akatsuki-gumi will need to reroute several work crews away from the task of rebuilding a devastated nation. And yet, this is a task she alone is suited for: eluding the oversight of a confused and embattled government to take care of something they wouldn't have done anyway.

"Consider it done," she responds with a slight smile.

"... They were stopped."
She frowns slightly, the escape of the leader bringing to mind how -she- had been forced to let the other Gear commander withdraw as well.
"... The next task, though... they hide amongst human allies. It is one thing to slay a beast in an empty field, or in the woods, but once it has been set loose within the village..." She drifts off, eyes casting through the boughs of the forest in search of enemies.

As Honoka's skis begin to scrape against rock rather than the pliant snow, she crouches to unsling her travel backpack. Trading her bulky snow skis for a pair of fur-lined hiking boots, she resumes travel with minimal delay. The slim performer may look considerably more awkward with her skis tied in an A-frame configuration, but she seems to have little trouble balancing. The cadence of skis carving through the snow is replaced by the crackle of her footfalls crushing ice, rubber treads providing a bit more traction against ice-encrusted stone.

And then -- the wall.
Honoka offers a subdued smile at Nakoruru, once the rock face is presented. "... Thank you. I came this far, though -- I'm not about to call it quits here."

With a passing thought about the whereabouts of Mamahaha -- how simple this feat must seem to one with wings! -- Honoka takes a few steps back, looking up at the sheer rock face.
And then, with both thumbs hooked under the straps of her backpack, she dashes forward.
One long leap sends her flying towards the rock. Her leading foot taps against the wall about 1.5 meters up -- and with a plume of purple flame, the psion gives herself the foothold the rock denied her.

Another step is taken -- this one another meter higher -- and again, Honoka provides herself the additional height she needs with another burst of psionic force.

The final step is considerably taller, and yet as Honoka pitches forward, she can clear the final meter. She teeters, very slightly, at the top of the wall, due to the ice on the ledge. But as she throws her arms out to either side for balance -- she seems to have gained her footing.

"Easy peasy..." she calls down to Nakoruru with a toothy smile.

"There is nothing to forgive," Nakoruru replies gently. "You are not alone in your feelings. I urge only caution in expressing them."

For the promise to devote resources to cleaning the battlefield of the fallen, Honoka is given a smile and slight nod in acknowledgement, before the swordswoman casts one last gaze over her shoulder toward the neglected dead.

"Mn," Nakoruru muses, "For now, my fight is not with those creatures but the monsters that made them. I could see it in her eyes - the commander I fought. She was but a soldier for another's war. If the souls within these Gears seek peace, I have no desire to deny it from. Time will tell."

Following a brief pause to allow her companion the opportunity to anchor her skis, at last the two are at the wall that bars the way forward. Nakoruru waits to watch the gifted acrobat ascend first, only mostly hiding the concern in her eyes, that awareness that the climb is dangerous and the risk of injury, however remote, cannot be ignored entirely.

But her friend makes the climb with ease, the control over her power on display in the process, and when she looks back down to verify her safe arrival at the ledge, she will find the ebony haired wanderer smiling back up at her. Turning, Nakoruru strides away from the wall as well, hands reaching up to lower her hood from off her head.

Turning to face the climb herself, she braces one moccasin-clad foot behind herself, breathes in, then launches herself into a full sprint at the wall. Her own climb is done with several smaller steps, straight up the wall, momentum, and brief moments of contact with it surface being all she has to carry herself up. Even the momentum begins to wane near the top, but by then she is high enough to plant her hand against the lip of the rock and vault up over it, landing on her own feet a good meter past Honoka, her cloak settling back into place around her as she does.

"Easy. Peasy." she replies, glancing over her shoulder with a bit of a sheepish look at her attempt to use the unfamiliar vernacular, her right hand lifting to run her finger through her hair, brushing stray locks of hair behind her left ear first, then her right. The moment has offered Honoka with plenty of opportunity to look about the naturally formed landing on the side of the mountain.

From here, one can turn to look out over the vast, snow blanketed forest all the way back down to the ocean. In the distance, on a clear day such as this, the mainland of Japan itself is visible across the sea. The wind is stronger here, without the obstruction of the trees, and the temperature no less frigid than before as powdered snow gets blown across the ledge from higher up on the peak in a steady, continuous flow.

Turning to face the other way, however, reveals a narrow path against the stone of the mountain, just wide enough for a person to shuffle along it with their back to the mountain. It is toward that cliff-hugging path that Nakoruru moves, pausing at the start of it to glance toward Honoka. "Careful." she states, that sisterly concern once more in her voice, a sincere worry about the well being of her companion. "The way can be treacherous." She pauses to remove her gloves, stowing them somewhere beneath her cloak, leaving her small hands bare against the elements for now.

The truth of it would become clear to Honoka upon drawing nearer. The path along the mountainside is formed of ice, not stone, a narrow outcropping created by the way the wind blows against the peak and drives flakes of snow into place beneath the sunlight on warmer days. Dangling beneath the ice bridge are countless icicles glimmering in the sun. No wonder Nakoruru said this journey could not be postponed. Come Spring's thaw, there would be no way forward from here by foot as the narrow path will simply melt away as it has every year for millennia past.

Nakoruru waits for Honoka to join her, eyes on the young woman at times, or out across the remarkable visit at other moments. Once within range, the young looking explorer presses her back against the side of the cliff and reaches out with her left hand for Honoka's right, "Slow and steady. Easy. Peasy." She seems taken with the phrase.

Once joined, the two young women would work their way around the curve of the mountain. The ice path is angled inward such that it is not trying to betray their footing and send them falling down the mountainside. The further along they go, the more a strange, haunting noise will be noticed on the wind, as if just out of sight, a musician was playing a forlorn song across a massive flute.

The source of the melancholy tune is revealed once the two finally round the last corner and find themselves on one one final ledge, this one smaller than the one they had climbed to. Honoka would recognize them - two hollowed out tree boughs, carved with an opening near the stop. These two have been secured into the ledge itself, no doubt by chipping away deep impressions in the rock. Grave markers. The openings near the top designed to capture and guide wayward spirits, guiding them into the ground at the base.

This ledge faces East, out across the infinite ocean with no sight of land anywhere to be found and no other mountain peaks to obscure the view. The sun is high in its journey through the sky, putting the time closer to noon than the early morning time the two met back down the way. And between the two markers is a fissure into the mountainside and it is toward this that Nakoruru moves now, finally releasing Honoka's hand following the precarious final leg of the journey.

"There are no angry spirits here," she speaks softly. "Only memories."

And then she vanishes into the mountain.

Honoka's true emotions rarely make themselves known as strongly as with those people she really cares about. Apologies for her outbursts would be few -- and indeed, among strangers, she would keep even those outbursts to a minimum.

But to Nakoruru, one of the few people whom she makes no attempt to disguise her identities, every emotion matters. She can be herself in front of the raven-haired swordswoman -- warts and all, as the saying goes.

So when Nakoruru calmly restates her intent to focus on the creators, rather than the Gear commanders, Honoka feels... chastened, yet again. She does not go so far as to yield another needless apology, but she does nod -- it's food for thought.

As Nakoruru practically dashes up the wall, the acrobat stands at the ready to catch her -- though she's relieved that her caution was unnecessary. It's only then, with Nakoruru on the same level as her, that she takes a look around at the scenic winter vista.

"This is how the Kamui must see the world. The trials of men and women seem so meaningless from up here -- it's really no wonder they feel the need to check on us as often as they do."

Her scarf flaps quietly in the wind, chaps at her lips, as she looks around. It ought to be harder to breathe at this altitude, and yet Honoka's spirit is buoyed upward as she looks around.

Nakoruru did not bring her here merely to sightsee, though. And as Kamui's chosen begins to make her way to the path, the juggler realizes this is a trip that will have to be made without the aid of her backpack. Wordlessly, she slips out of her backpack, sliding it to the rocky face and nestling it up against a small concavity, bracing skis against rock to prevent the wind from absconding with her gear.

Satisfied, she turns to follow Nakoruru's path. She, too, withdraws her gloves, tucking them into her jacket. She, too, carefully places her feet along the icy bridge, mindful of the danger inherent. While her right hand wraps closely around Nakoruru's, her left hand flattens against her snow jacket, seeking the comforting reassurance of the disc shaped soulstone, hidden beneath the numerous layers of cloth.

As she sidesteps, in perfect harmony with Nakoruru, she has two obvious foci -- the warm pulse of her Ainu sister, and the placement of her feet. If not for the performer's perfect balance, the bulky snow boots might prove a liability. As it is, she is able to match Nakoruru's pace, her back pressed against the frozen edifice.

The haunting melody is enough to arouse her interest, but not enough to distract her from the icy chill of exposure. She moistens her lips as she steps around -- opting to conserve her warm breath as much as possible.

And then -- finally -- the destination comes into view, garnering a sigh of relief. She recognizes the grave markers for what they are. Grave markers tend to be viewed with apprehension by the Ainu -- the dead are to be left alone, where a wary and anxious spirit cannot be disturbed, or allowed to randomly encounter a loved one. So, almost as if her Ainu sister too were psychic, an answer is given to her unspoken thought -- with no evil spirit to stand on guard against, Honoka presses her unadorned hands together for warmth, taking cautious strides forward.

The imposing mountain fissure yawns ahead -- and Honoka shuts her eyes, allowing her pupils to expand as she steps away from the now-blinding light of the late morning sun.
For her first few steps, she focuses on the subtle sway of Nakoruru's colorful cloak, as the harsh and frigid winds are left outside.
Now inside, though... she can hear nothing but the soft steps of Nakoruru's moccasins and her own boots echoing against the walls of the fissure. And even with the wind cut down considerably -- she feels the cold creaking into her bones.

Still she walks -- silently observing, as she waits for the voice of the yukar-singer to sing the tale of this inner chamber.

The way in is narrow, forcing the two to work their way through the tight gap in the peak one by one rather than side by side as they had walked most of the journey here. Gradually, the sound of wind from out on the ledge dies down and only the increasingly distant low tones of the hollowed out grave markers can be heard, reverberating through the mountainside. Nakoruru makes slow progress, working her way through, using her hands to feel for low hanging rocks that might threaten to clonk the girls in the head, as the late morning sunlight begins to dim, before finally becoming black.

"Careful, it is low here," she cautions before ducking down slightly, using one hand to feel cool ceiling above.

But the moment the last of the sunlight fades, when it might make sense to produce some kind of light to navigate the passage, it becomes possible to see a new light ahead - a soft, dark blue glimmer that seems to be moving somehow, reflecting off the sides of the tunnel. A couple more meters and now Nakoruru's figure is visible as a silhouette against the soothing cerulean light. A new sound is audible ahead as well - a gentle symphony of water droplet from up ahead.

Finally, the way opens into a much larger chamber, giving the two spelunkers room to stretch at last. Here, within the peak of the mountain, the two have entered a cavern of ice. In every direction shine massive crystals of frozen water. Some protrude from the floor, others out of the walls or ceiling, their surfaces glistening as they reflect the ambient blue glow. Water drops from above, some of it splashing almost silently against larger crystals, while other droplets find home within shallow puddles on the frozen floor. With time, one's eyes would adjust to the dim light, finding it possible to see the fine details with ease. Some areas of the cave floor are slick, smooth ice that would be treacherous to step along, but there are plenty of sections where the ice is more course, allowing safe footing.

Nakoruru has stopped just inside after moving to the side to make way for Honoka to enter as well, steel-blue eyes sweeping over the secret place in the mountain, though the focus of her gaze seems far removed from this place. Her hands have lifted from beneath her cloak to rest atop each other over her chest as she seems to pause to collect her breath in spite showing no signs of exertion. Occasionally, a drop spills down onto her shoulder or against her hair, though she seems to take no notice of the eternal underground rainfall.

The source of light becomes clear upon glancing up toward the apex of the cave's dome-like ceiling. There, framed by a network of frozen crystals so tiny as to appear almost like frosted lace, hovers a solid, glowing chunk of ice shaped into a precise, geometric crystalline structure. Like a gentle, glowing star of azure, it turns slowly, causing its light to move gradually across the interior of the chamber. A quiet hum of energy seems to emanate from the levitating shape, a soft, continuous sound amid the more staccato nature of the music of the water droplets.

Eventually, Nakoruru closes her eyes, bowing her head, her shoulders rising then falling with the intake then slow release of a long, quiet sigh. She remains in this posture for well over a minute, her expression a somber, contemplative look, before finally blinking her eyes open. Her right hand moves to her neck, where her cloak clasps closed, and, in one flourish of motion, she whips the long cloak from off her body, the pristine white cloth shimmering as it swirls about her form then vanishes into hundreds of motes of scintillating pink energy. With no wind within the chamber, the temperature feels less bitter here than it had outside, in spite being surrounded on all sides by ice.

At the young woman's slender waist cross two sheaths instead of the one Honoka had always seen her with. Jutting out to the left is the grip of a kodachi with familiar shimmering blue gemstone - the weapon the Ainu tusukur has seen on her ever since they met in the Living Forest of Shang Tsung's island hellscape. The frost covered blade she had drawn when charging the Heart of the Forest, or wielded against Honoka in their fated match in the storm on the beach. The misty blade she had utilized in her King of Fighters bout, or drawn before Kamui Kanna in beseeching a blessing from the God of Thunder. And situated to be drawn with her right hand is what appears to be a twin blade, its only difference the crimson gemstone in the end of its grip.

"When I awoke, I could not find my heirloom blade, Chichiushi. But I knew where I could find one just like it, just as blessed by the kamui as my own, and I made my way to this sacred place."

She reaches behind her back to untie the cord keeping the blue-gemmed kodachi in place before holding it in front of her, gripping its sheath in her left hand, her right hand closing over the grip. "The Yukari the elders sing neglect to speak of my family. It seems... the old icons must exist in a vacuum, as if acknowledging they were bolstered by others robs them of their legendary status. But nothing could be further from the truth."

She pulls the blade partially from its black sheath, a hiss of pressure released, and a thick mist billowing out from around the edge. Overhead, the light-giving crystal above resonates with a soft shift in its humming tune, becoming a notch lighter. "Rimururu was three years younger than I, only twelve when the Kamui called out to me to take up my father's sword and carry on my family's tradition in his stead. I-" Her voice catches then, the young woman falling quiet for a moment before continuing.

"I never wanted that." She says out loud, the words coming a bit more forceful than anything else she had uttered; a truth spoken as if for the very first time. "Mine had been a happy childhood... kicking aside thick snow as I ran through forests in the winter, bathing in the gentle sunlight of the flower-filled spring in full blossom, of hearing the cry of deer one to another in the chill Autumn nights, and fishing out on the ocean's waves without a care in the world. Who would want to leave such a life?" She pauses, swallowing, still staring forward at the ornate tabernacle of ice against the wall. "But the kamui said that if I did not, the burden would fall to my beloved... innocent sister."

The young woman glances toward Honoka briefly then, a tiny shimmer at the inside corner of each eye reflecting the blue light from above. "The Yukar never speak to the motivation in my heart. I suppose the implication is clear - that I fought for the kamui, for the land, for nature herself."

She swallows again, looking back across the way, "There is truth in that, of course. But I fought hardest for her. When oft I nearly succumbed, when my trials seemed more than I could bear, it was for her I preserved, so that Rimururu would not have to suffer what I did. When asked if I would renounce the remainder of my days to be a weapon for the kamui, I did not hesitate to answer yes, through grit teeth and and a throat so tight I could barely gasp out the response."

Her mouth closes entirely then, as she slides the kodachi snugly into its sheath. A tear rolls down alongside her nose even as a bead of water from the ceiling above slips down her cheek, the twin droplets falling to splash against her robe in unison.

"And now... after I slept away the decades, she's gone."

The statement is whispered, spoken as if just realizing the truth of it in the very act of putting the thought to words.

Dark places are dark -- and the psychic has a way of bringing light to the darkness. However, this is not a meeting in which the shadow manipulator wants to show the hand of control -- it may be unbidden, and it may be unwanted. It is crucial to allow the yukar's singer to proceed as they see fit, only offering aid when requested.

As such, Honoka steps along behind Nakoruru into the thickening shadows, content to tether her awareness to Nakoruru's. For if there is something to fear, the swordswoman's emotions will be the first cause for concern. As bidden, she ducks low, raising her hand up to allow fingertips to be a secondary guide into the depths of the cavern.

The shadows become a blessing, allowing the psion's eyes to acclimate to the low nuances of light. As she steps into the dome, she can more fully appreciate the subdued color palette -- and it shows, as her mouth opens wide with amazement.
Right before melting water drops right onto her nose, forcing her to clamp that jaw shut and brush the water off. Unlike Nakoruru, she's not -that- removed from the physical nature of this place; she is not as tightly bound to its otherworldly nature as her Ainu sister. She looks up at the ceiling, wondering if the icy cavern itself will survive the impending seasonal shift...

The humming of a crystalline star answers her question, shushing her into awed silence.

She looks beside herself for guidance. The reverence Nakoruru bears for this place is clear -- but the emotions she is struggling to keep in check are intermingling too much to be made clear. Honoka's face begins to settle back into neutrality as she, too, feels the warming that is taking place -- and as Nakoruru's cloak dissipates into motes of light with dramatic fashion, the performer feels slightly embarassed that the closest approximation she can manage is to unwind her scarf, freeing those raven-black locks of hair from their warm prison.

Her eye catches on the shimmering blue gem of the sword she knows well -- and she questions herself, her memory. Had she -ever- seen the red gemstone before? Again -- almost as quickly as she can form a question, the tusukur receives an answer -- only serving to reinforce her urges to allow the yukar-singer to tell the story at her own pace. "Chichiushi..." she repeats -- even as the cavern itself chooses to echo the words on its own accord. The name has power -- reverence.

And yet, there are many details missed by the yukar tales told by her elders. The unclear emotions subside -- as a few choice emotions in particular rise above the cloudbanks.
The psion allows herself to succumb to the emotions -- to synchronize herself with the heart of the yukar-singer.
And her lips begin to turn into a thin line.

Honoka was twelve when fate saw fit to demonstrate her power in catastrophic fashion.
She does not have to reach far to understand the concerns raised by her distant relation from generations past. It's true -- that she may not have -a- sister. But she can feel Nakoruru's heart -- a sorrowful pulse that beats through the cavern, a steady thrum that distorts the tusukur's senses, louder than the hum of the crystal shining overhead.

In that moment of naked admission, Nakoruru may feel as if she is the only one to carry this burden. The first, to truly come to grips with the full import of the kamui-given mission.
And she may, in fact, be the first.
But a simple request has brought Honoka closer to Nakoruru than perhaps anyone who walks the earth now, save two Ainu struggling similarly with a world transformed by two centuries of technological marvels.

Nakoruru will feel the comfort of an ungloved and upon her left hip. A brief instant later, she will feel the enveloping warmth of Honoka's shoulder pressing against her right. And when Nakoruru inspires breath -- Honoka will do the same, her ribcage heaving in perfect harmony.

And yet -- while Nakoruru has spoken, Honoka will not. For she will not interrupt the yukar-singer, until the appropriate time.

At that time, two hearts beat as one.
At that time, she draws in her breath.
At that time, she has only two words to offer.
"... Is she?"

The comfort afforded by proximity is received wholly. Though Nakoruru remains standing perfectly upright as Honoka draws near, she doesn't pull away, doesn't recoil at the touch, and doesn't suppress the wellspring of emotions swirling about within her heart and mind. Moreso than any other time the spirit-sensitive tusukur has been in the presence of this living legend, Nakoruru feels so very human. The aura of mystery recedes, the cloudy shroud over her thoughts and feelings that make her feel so alien to some, so 'foreign' has melted away.

Honoka's touch has a stabilizing effect on the struggling emotions as little by little, the kernel of despair - of loneliness that spans the ages - that was seizing hold in the young woman's thoughts becomes diminished - the strength of an ally in arms and in peace leaves no room for it now.

The song of mourning in her voice does not go away - there is no undoing the loss her story touches upon in this solemn cave in the peak of a sacred mountain. But with it is another rhythm - one of strength, resolve unbroken.

Her friend's question hangs in the air, the silence punctuated by the gentle drops of water, the soft hum of the shimmering crystal above. Still gripping the azure gemmed kodachi in her hands, Nakoruru breathes in deeply, eyes closing, forcing renewed tears to roll down her cheeks as she bows her head slightly.

"I came to learn, in one of my later calls to action, that Rimururu had lived a full life, growing to eventually become an elder of our people herself." There is a smile at her lips, her eyes blinking open as they settle once more on the formation of shaped ice across the chamber. A thrum of pride beats in her heart.

"I suspect it was she that put to song the stories of my adventures - she that would know them best of all for there were few where she was not close behind, following in my footsteps in spite my admonishments to the contrary." The girl blinks a few times, eyes finding their focus, her smile a tender, fragile thing, threatening to break under pressure at any moment. "That is why her name never made it into the yukar - it would be just like her to make them all about me."

Focus shifts to the sheathed weapon in her hands, "I was told she left behind a large family, able to sing the songs to her grandchildren in her twilight years. I- I suppose," Nakoruru's voice wavers, her brow creasing in thought, "That is the answer to your insightful question. My sister isn't gone... she lives on, in the blood of her descendants, whoever they may be among our people. And in my thoughts."

She finally looks at Honoka then, her face aglow with an inner peace, eyes still damp, "I'm glad you are here. Thank you... There is just one thing I must do, then we will be on our way."

She looks to the weapon then, holding it up horizontally in front of her. "This was my sister's sword, Hahakuru." She slides the frost crusted blade free, mist spilling from the sheath's opening as she holds the kodachi up over her head, her eyes on the crystalline ceiling beyond.

"Konril." The crystal overhead becomes brighter, its melody more pronounced. "I return my sister's blade, as pure as the day you allowed me to borrow it. Just as Rimururu's legacy before me, never once did it take a human life; it remains untainted by death. I am eager to leave it with you... as the path I see before me will not afford me such mercies any longer."

There is a shift in the rhythm from the crystal - a somber, melancholy sound as the older sister inserts the Hahakuru back into its sheath, its blue gemstone shimmering the same hue as the ice star illuminating this chamber.

Finally pulling away from Honoka, she strides across the chamber, feet crunching tiny crystals of ice with each footfall, until she stands adjacent to the frozen altar. Slowly, with controlled purpose, she lowers herself to both knees before reaching her arms out, holding the weapon over it.

The ice responds, moving, shifting, small adjustments at first as little by little, it takes on the form of twin supports atop which Nakoruru rests her sister's blade. As she draws her hands back, the ice grows thicker even still, eventually encompassing the sheathed kodachi all together, sealing it within a tomb of translucent ice, thick, frozen mists spilling down over its surface.

Nakoruru lowers her head then, hands in her lap, eyes closed. And there she sits in silence.

Minutes pass before the young woman stirs, pushing herself to her feet and turning to face Honoka then. Little by little, the vulnerable nature of the time lost warrior begins to fade, replaced with steely purpose. Her hand lifts to wipe at the dampness of her cheeks, but with the periodic drops of water from the ceiling, it is difficult to leave any exposed skin entirely dry for the trying.

Striding forward, Nakoruru places her right hand on Honoka's shoulder. "Take one last look, sister," she encourages, turning her head from side to side to take in the frozen chamber and commit the sight to memory. "Once we leave, mortal eyes will never fall upon this place again." She glances up at the slowly spinning gemstone of ice, "Konril... when we are gone, close the way." She smiles then, "Thank you... for all you did for my dear sister."

The response, as before, is musical, the ice chamber aglow with myriad hues of cerulean light cast by the ice elemental.

One last breath, one long exhale, and then Nakoruru steps back into the fissure leading to the outside.

Honoka can often gauge the measure of a fighter by her difficulty in sensing their emotions. Most of Gedo High, for instance, did not pose a particular threat; those rough-and-tumble students wear their emotions on their sleeves. It would be easy to misjudge Nakoruru by the appearance of her slight frame and young features. But, even amongst a courtyard full of Earthrealm's most mighty and powerful, Honoka was able to single out Nakoruru as a battle-hardened force of nature.

And when that force of nature asked for her, there was only one right answer. Honoka would stand by that Battle-Maiden's side -- lending her strength in a field which there was no luxury to indulge: matters of the heart.

Honoka's hand remains firmly wrapped about Nakoruru's waist. Her warmth is present not just in a physical sense, but also in an emotional one -- a steadfast presence for Nakoruru to rely upon. She remains still -- not to steer the conversation as she often does, but rather to calmly, patiently implore Nakoruru to seek the answers herself. To cheerlead from the sidelines as Kamui's Avatar combats the most sinister and subtle of emotional terrors, the kind that can erode a soul to pieces across years.

In some ways, Honoka regretted her choice of words, for as with many of her questions, each of the words is burdened with twin meanings. She was pleased, however, when Nakoruru took the question in the spirit it was offered -- an invitation to plumb the depths of her own thoughts and realize that no soul can truly be gone until their indelible marks are wiped away. Perhaps that was why Nakoruru was shaken -- that her own tale was passed down, while those of the observer were not. That the many tales of lore were sung about her, rather than the sister following dutifully behind. Nakoruru's legacy shaped lives -- most notably, the life of the woman standing right beside her, sharing in every moment.

Honoka cannot know the full depth of Nakoruru's sorrow.
But as she stares ahead -- and then, when she feels the pull of muscle that suggests such, turns to face Nakoruru -- it would become obvious that the modern-day Ainu is suffering the blurriness of dampened eyes all the same.
"I'm happy to oblige," she returns in a near-whisper, not wanting to interrupt the reverence of the ceremony.

Honoka turns her face forward again as the sword is given focus, her presence radiating an inner warmth to stave away the chill of sorrow. Her eyes widen at the mist spilling from the blade -- an artifact she'd seen many times before, of course, but never in the presence of the ice elemental above.

And the -resonance-...
No, the -resonance- is what makes this moment special.
For this is when the significance of the sound dawns on Honoka -- it was not just a sound, not just a -natural- occurrence, but a living, breathing -presence- unlike any she had encountered before. It has a name: Konril. A -soul- -- but alien, foreign in ways she could not hope to grasp. Her lips part, breath crystallizing instantly in the chill chamber before dissipating into mist.

Honoka realizes she's shaking slightly in the presence -- a fact made more noticeable as Nakoruru steps away, and she is left to draw her breath and her hand back to herself. She watches the ebony locks of Nakoruru as she steps forward -- and as the Battle-Maiden kneels, so too does the Ainu tusukur. For now that she has been witnessed by Konril -- she must obey the rites as presented to her.

Ice crackles upwards to entomb the blade -- a feat that could never be attributed to nature as an unfeeling force, but rather to the embodiment of nature as a vigilant guardian, actively responding to stimuli and ritual. She fights the urge to gawk and stare as a layperson, resolving instead to watch and listen with reverence. How powerful a blade, for it to be held in such esteem? How burdensome must it be, for Nakoruru to leave such a relic behind?

In the ensuing silence, a number of thoughts pass through the tusukur's mind. Questions of Nakoruru, of Rimururu. And a clear understanding of just how strong the family bond is between one sister and another. Honoka will never know that -particular- bond, perhaps through her own doing. But as her emotional warmth radiates outward, having no effect upon the drops of water splashing down onto her shoulders, onto the hands folded upon her knees, or the tears at her cheek... she is left to her thoughts.
And for once, as her eyes glaze, her focus turning within... there is no urge to reach for a yo-yo.

All the while, Honoka's breaths ebb and flow with the same rhythm as Nakoruru's, her heartbeats resonating in time with the cadence of the crystal above. She provides the accompaniment, the presence, with none of the pressure to finish. The tusukur may not be -precisely- fulfilling her ancestral duties as a medium, for who better than the swordswoman herself to commune with the ancient embodiment of ice? And yet, she serves admirably in her role as facilitator, observer, and most of all, companion through the time Nakoruru needs to find closure in observing her sister's memory.

Her irises narrow with focus once more, gaze lifting to meet Nakoruru's. She will rise, but only once Nakoruru takes her first step of approach.

For a brief moment, a slight frown crosses the tusukur's face.
Mortal eyes will never see the chamber -- and, if Konril does his job, mortal fingers will never defile the blade's hilt.
The frown melts away, as Honoka offers a tacit nod of her head. She commits this place -- and the form of its eternal crystalline guardian -- to memory, as she slowly spins to follow the swordswoman's exit. She looks around as she turns -- one last look at the chamber, one last tympanic barrage of drops landing upon her scarf. And as Nakoruru makes her plea of Konril, and begins to step back into the fissure in rock which led them here...

Honoka turns back.
And turns up to Konril with concentration.
Silently, she asks one last question, unbeknownst to Nakoruru.
And the reply, equally unheard, garners another brief frown from the shadow manipulator as she pivots back towards the exit.

Perhaps there will be other swords more suitable to her own nature. Ones guarded not by a vigilant guardian, but by an unappreciative and undeserving sisam.

Honoka is careful to watch her head this time. Before, touching the rock was out of caution; this time, it is out of reverence for the memory that she might never be here again.

In time -- Honoka may ask for Nakoruru's aid in crafting a yukar for the younger sister, no less vital to the dwindling legacy of the Ainu people. But not now, she reassures herself with a faint smile. Time heals all wounds; despite the steel armor entrapping it, Honoka is sure this wound will still take a bit more time to recover.

When the moment is right, Honoka will ask the question she missed the opportunity for earlier.

"No... angry spirits," she echoes quietly, with the slight and delicate intonation of a query. Perhaps this time, with the solemn work behind them, Honoka will have an opportunity to examine the tree boughs in greater detail.

Nearing the opening back onto the ledge, the blue light of Konril grows more faint with each step, replaced soon by the brighter glare of a sun just reaching its apex for the day. The haunting song of the carved out grave markers becomes audible, the quiet thrum of the living crystal behind no longer sensed, even by one as in tune as the gifted tusukur.

Once more, the cold wind blows, spraying fine, powdery snow across the small outcropping before sweeping it clean off the peak into the open abyss that opens beneath it. As Honoka steps into the open, she will find Nakoruru has already covered herself with her fur-lined cloak, though the hood remains down for now. The young woman stands at the edge of the small stone balcony on the sheer side of the mountain, staring off into the bright blue sky. Without a cloud or hint of haze in sight, the view range is unparalleled but for the very tops of the sacred mountains themselves.

The cloak covering Nakoruru whips in the winds as she closes her eyes and slowly lifts her face toward the sunlight above. The sound of the passing wind, the flap of Nakoruru's cloak and Honoka's scarf, and the solemn song of the two hollowed out thick stakes burrowed into the stone are all there is to listen to for the longest while.

Finally, Nakoruru turns away from the edge to face her companion, right hand clutching at the front of her cloak below her neck to keep the warm covering mostly in place against the wind. There is a certain peace about her now, as if a heavy burden has been lifted from her shoulders. She stands tall, the smile at her lips one born of serenity rather than shared suffering.

"Well," she replies softly, corner of her mouth curling up a bit further, "I never said there weren't any spirits at all." She looks up at the bald rock rising up to the peak of the mountain above, "I do not know the circumstances concerning the end of my sister's sojourn in this world. There is much of my family's history unknown to me from the time beyond my rest." Steel blue eyes close as she lowers her head again, taking the few steps necessary to stand next to Honoka again.

"When I awoke this time, Konril found me, lost without a weapon. Konril was my guide to this place a year go, before I found myself once more on that sorcerer's island... and the one that loaned me my sister's blade."

Her attention shifts to the opening of the fissure itself, then settles on one of the grave markers. Roughly a foot in diameter each, there are large holes carved near the top on the side, angled such that the wind passes over the side of them. Toward the ground are smaller holes carved into the hollowed out markers, lending variance to the sounds coming from the old wood. Curiously, the wood shows almost no signs of rot or decay, in spite presumably having been placed here well over a century ago.

There is a shudder felt in the ledge, small pebbles dislodged from higher up the mountain tumbling down to rattle against the landing before continuing their plunge off the side. Ice begins to fill the cave entrance, stretching in from all sides, sounds of loud popping and crackling accompanying the deep rumble of some great work beneath the peak.

Nakoruru's eyes shift to the entrance as the opening shrinks with each passing second, individual spikes and sheets of frozen water merging, gradually creating a solidified wall of translucent crystal. She blinks slowly at the shimmering surface, then reaches out with her hand to rest fingers against the smooth ice now filling the entire cave.

"I don't know what Konril is," Nakoruru admits softly. "Only that it was drawn to my sister, and kept her safe all those years. I thought maybe it was in exchange for my devotion to the kamui... Either way, I will be forever grateful."

There is a disturbance at the edge of the landing, a shadow heralding the arrival of the great hawk, Mamahaha, gliding in against the wind, her wings outstretched, her talons extended as she finds purchase on the lip of the outcropping. Flapping her wings a couple of times as she solidifies her perch, the feathered sentinel finally closes her wings against her side and turns her head to watch the two young women with deep, brown eyes.

The deep rumble in the mountain has subsided now that the cave is sealed, but the ice continues to blossom slowly out of the opening, gradually growing around the bases of the two markers and then twisting its way up them. As each of the smaller, lower holes is covered, the song of the wind changes as one by one, notes are removed from the tune of remembrance.

It won't be long before they, like the sword Nakoruru left behind, are encased in ice. Perhaps that is how they have been preserved all these years on the side of the mountain.

Nakoruru sighs softly, closing her eyes as she faces the sealed fissure, one final slow exhale as she releases the tension that had gripped her heart. When her eyes blink open, she turns her focus back to Honoka, expression radiating gratitude that she doens't put to words. She has already said it enough, perhaps.

When she speaks, however, it is on another, related but different matter. "When I found my own Kamui-granted blade, it was embedded into the eye of a great demon. A demon, I am afraid, I was unable to slay in my battle with it. I also encountered one of our own lost to a devil's spirit." She reaches out for Honoka's hand with her right, and then tries to tug her over to the edge of the outcropping where Mamahaha perches.

"But we should talk of such things back down the mountain. This is no place for such gloomy matters."

She pauses then, looking toward Honoka with a sidelong glance, expression looking rather bemused all of the sudden. "If you... hold onto her legs tightly," Nakoruru states, her voice hesitant, not out of reservation but more from an active effort of holding back the excitement that seems to be building in her aura.

"Mamahaha is eager to take you back down herself. I promise... that it will be an experience unlike any other."

She's grinning then, fighting back a laughter in her voice, "I will collect your pack for you. Shikuruu is waiting for me back across the way."

As if on cue, Mamahaha flaps her wings, taking to the air at the lip of the outcropping. Even with the wind, she manages to hold her position with powerful beats of wings far stronger than any mortal bird could possibly have. A cry from the hawk echoes out against the mountain peak, Nakoruru's hand slipping free of Honoka's.

"Take flight, sister. I will meet you where we met below."

It is a good thing that Honoka's snow gear is waterproof; not a single drop was able to infiltrate below the synthetic fibers.
Her cloak, though, is not. And as she leaves the embrace of the frozen cavern, the shores of the darkened pools in her cloak are transformed into icy crystal caverns of their own. The tuskur hears the haunting melody overtake the gentle thrum from the cavern.

As Nakoruru's hand rises to rein in her fluttering cloak, so too does Honoka's. She may be unable to read the legendary warrior maiden's thoughts through the hardened emotional barrier, but she can plainly see the emotions expressed through subtle body language. And rather than the iron resolve she's accustomed to seeing from the Kamui-Chosen Warrior, she sees the serenity of closure.

Honoka strides past the whistling grave markers, looking past her dear friend to the magificent vista. It's true that she's concerned, as a good listener, it is also important to allow the storyteller to continue at her own pace. So, only when it becomes clear that Nakoruru is ready does she approach. Only then will Honoka allow her hand, still bare to the snow and wind, rest reassuringly upon the swordswoman's waist, as she pulls close for a sideways embrace.

"Someone will know. With as many ripples as she's left in her wake, it should be only a matter of time before we find out."

For a moment, she considers asking the icy spirit. But common sense dictates that, if Konril were a spirit capable of telling Nakoruru, he would have certainly already shared the information. Honoka finds her thoughts drifting for a moment -- did she even feel the spirit now?

Rather than feeling the presence, she instead receives a less subtle answer, as the very shelf shudders from the enveloping grasp of ice, entombing the cavern and the singing grave markers alike. Honoka turns, her grip on Nakoruru releasing so that she can take a better look at a sight she may never live to see again.

Amazing. Simply amazing -- she gasps at the magnificent sight -- like an avalanche in reverse, sped up in almost time-lapse speed. The grave markers she had been led to fear so much in childhood -- that her own people had urged her to avoid -- swallowed whole, sealed up within durable crystal. If there were evil spirits carried within, their voices are swallowed up, their souls sealed away until the next calamity.

With one hand, she tucks the crystal-cloaked cloak to defend her neck and lower face against the snow and wind.
"Is it not a blessing to receive what you need, rather than what you want, though? Perhaps we will find out more, when the time comes."

And yet, there are still more wondrous sights to see. Not only has she been taken to a haven amongst the ice and mountains, and not only has she seen the elements rise up to secret it from view once again... but the massive hawk makes a personal appearance.
It comes as a slight surprise, for whatever she may know of Nakoruru, Mamahaha is a different element entirely. And Honoka is pleasantly amused by the shift in Nakoruru's demeanor -- seeing her not as a warrior now, but as if she were an ebullient teenager, eager to introduce her pet.

The shift is enough to draw a warm smile from Honoka -- a look of genuine relief, to put a bookend to the tale of closure and remorse. To not only touch the bird of prey -- but to ride along with her, to feel the wind beneath her wings.

In the warmth of the moment, the thought of retrieving her backpack had been the furthest from her mind. But as soon as Nakoruru mentions it, she nods quietly.

Mamahaha takes flight -- a magnificent sight, to see a bird not only braving the wind and snow, but practically laughing in the face of it -- show me your worst, world, for I have no fear!

"It means so much, Nakoruru -- that you were willing to share this with me so openly. That I was able to stand by you, to be here with you."

Why is she getting sentimental all of a sudden?
Will the bird sense the darkness in her soul, and allow her to plummet to her doom?
Will the bird be struck by an enemy lurking around the corner?
Honoka looks into the eyes of Mamahaha, as she tightens the cloak about her head, knotting it tightly into place.
And she feels nothing but trust.

"I'll see you there, then."
She wraps her bare hands around the bird's legs, holding on tightly.
Her life -does- depend on it.
And then she is off.

As she flies away with the bird's help, it's hard not to hear the point at which Honoka, too, releases the hold on her emotional resolve.

Is that laughter, as she sails upon the wind?
Or did she just cry out, "Easy peasy!"

Log created on 22:14:46 12/31/2017 by Honoka, and last modified on 20:11:23 01/28/2018.