KOF 2019 - Quarterfinal 4 - Team Aesop vs Team Kaka

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Description: The fourth quarterfinal match for KOF 2019 sets the stage for an awkward set of reunions in Southtown's Heritage Museum. Clio's Kaka Clan disguise has held up until now, but will it pass the scrutiny of Hazama, a former superior officer of hers? And whatever will Corporal Kaneko do when one of the Librarium's most wanted criminals is right there within reach?

The Wheel of Fate is Turning.

A mercenary with a crude hand-drawn picture of a green haired man in a hat. "Re-evaluate your loyalties" he tells the girl in the oversized NOL coat. "What matters is who and what you serve." Off-hand responses from the girl. She knows the problems of power, but she could shrug them off then. "I know what it's like to be fooled into working on the side of monsters."

Lieutenant Clio St. Jeanne looks at the exhibits on hand at the NOL's efforts to endear itself. She doesn't know what tightens the knot in her belly more; the smiling display of faux-benevolence, or that she would have been proud and happy for this at one point. Part of her longs to just see all of this, to poke at it and to test what properties they might have. Just to see if any might explode or prove interesting. It's a memory of a few short years ago, when she'd be with her friends from the academy, and yet it feels a lifetime removed.

'Which would give you the most satisfaction? A world without monsters, or a world where the monsters are unable to hide from justice?' A cat in chinatown asks an officer an obvious question. Shared food. A crowded place that felt, for a moment, just for two. A figure to replace a hole the officer never knew she had. 'I do hope this won't be the last of our friendly meetings. . .'

Obscured, her sweatshirt is overlarge for her frame. The hood has a pair of leather caps in the shape of cat-like ears. Over her face is a mask not unlike the Kaka Clan's. Her chain, long and heavy as it is, wraps about her waist in a way to let the excess length hang behind her in a facsimile of a tail. But the magic of the witch is strong, and it's burning off of her, barely held in check by her own self-control. Rage and pain hang on her like a pall. Even the bright light of day's usual spell of sleepiness isn't present on Clio St. Jeanne. And the flames that hint and spark at the etchings on her chain bare a distinct blue-ish tone.

'The chain man was me' Captain, or Colonel, Hazama admits things in the dead of night. 'You have your own band of justice, do you not?' A chain unlike hers, one of the Nox Nyctores. Not the first signs of hypocrisy. Not the last. The man who fought Heidern, the man who attacked Relius Clover, the man who hurt Noel. A dangerous man. Far, far more than he'd admit. But she knows some lengths and she suspects some depths. And now he was going to be fighting here. Fighting her. Behind her mask, Clio closes her eyes. She breathes deep. Does what she can to calm and control herself.

'They've brought Konoe back to me, Clio'. Necromantic "gifts". Titans clashing. Woods burning. The first time in a life feeling and seeing that there were simply things too great for any amount of determination. And that what you cleave to can be poison. Bitter betrayals, bitter tears, crimes committed against those accused with no clear reason other than the grab more power.

Clio looks around. She knows the NOL abounds here. She knows she's here with a known wanted figure. She knows she's only afforded a small modicum of protection given by false identities and a nice mask. She looks out for who will be backing up Captain Colonel Hazama. Will it be Makoto? Will it be Mai? Noel? Tsubaki? Which one of her friends could they have come up with to drag against her. Who will she have to stand against?

In another time, with different decisions, she would have been standing near Hazama, or maybe Kagura, or even with her friends. She would be in the blue and white again. She would be a soldier. She would relish the chance to again, and knowledge is a bitter medicine. Still, when she looks around, knowing Jubei is there as well, she knows she's made the right decisions.

Heidern once told her she would have to find the right cause and pursue it alone if necessary. She felt her cause was near at hand now, but she knew that she wouldn't have to go it alone. As she steps forward, the chain around her waist flares with a life near its own. Even as she winds and winds its length up her arm, it seems to almost move to meet her. A heavy weight hanging from her half closed fist, the other end a sharpened spike. The length sparking with arcane formula carved into the metal itself.

"Dispatched in Mankind's darkest hour, we are knights of the blue flame!" Words whispered, spoken for the self hidden behind the mask, she finds resolution in the motto. And she will find the will to fight the ones that have twisted the brightness of those words from her.

What, exactly, is a monster?

The Heritage Museum is as much an overture as it is a statement. It shares with the world a small sliver of the wonders the NOL can provide it -- while delivering a firm if subtle message: that these wonders belong to the Librarium. And they are their sole purveyor.

It is an undeniable tribute to the NOL's domination over the world of the magical and mystical, and a clarion call to rely upon them to reign in this wild and poorly understood world. And now -- now, it serves, if nothing else, as the second of as many set pieces for the famous and ever-so-slightly infamous. One might think it coincidence, if they were being generous. Or perhaps the Wheel of Fate at work. Or perhaps, just perhaps, someone else, someone sharp, someone clever, might see the beginnings of a pattern emerging.

"Huh. What a funny coincidence!"

Or, perhaps not.

The voice is cheerful, and carries cleanly through the superb acoustics of the museum despite the lightness of its tone. The clap of shoes on marble floors carry that voice ever-closer through the overabundance of cameras set up here today. Every step bringing Clio that much closer to her fated encounter. Her cause.

A cause that greets her with a most friendly smile beneath the brim of a well-maintained fedora as Acting Colonel Hazama of the NOL takes the proverbial and literal center stage. His stance is perennially slouched but his clothes impeccable. One hand tucks into the pocket of his pants, the other dangling limply at his side. He is every inch the image of the lazy procrastinator the rank and file of the NOL portray him as.

But Clio, perhaps, knows better.

Squint-shut eyes fall on the obscured form of Clio. Behind the brim of his hat, thin green brows lift in a rough simulation of surprise. His lips purse.

And he whistles a befuddled whistle.

"Ugh," grouses the Librarium officer, fingerless gloved hand lifting to rub at the back of his neck. He sniffs once, almost like a sympathetic response to the threat of allergy. "Who ever thought I'd find a Kaka all the way out in a situation like this? I'm not really much of a cat person." As if he didn't know. As if he wasn't painstakingly aware of every person involved in this tournament. The smile he tilts Clio's way is perfectly perfunctory in its apology. "You're a bit far from... err... sorry, I really can't recall where you all hole up these days. Certainly not here!"

A laugh. It sounds a bit hollow, somehow.

"Sorry, sorry!"

What is a monster?

"Let's both try to have fun."

Someone with a smile sharper than any knife.

Did... someone say 'Kaka?' From atop a tall display cabinet, a small rustling sound can be heard. A rugged blanket falls away from a black and white cat, wearing an orange hood and an eyepatch over his right eye. The feline samurai bares his teeth in a silent yawn. And sitting upright -- his perch positioned some two meters higher than the tallest person in the room -- he blinks blearily as he passes a perfunctory scan across the room.

The One-Eyed Twin Lotus wasn't sleeping. He was meditating.

He'd gotten here nice and early, of course. The fact that he was on camera the whole time didn't bother him -- what, exactly, is an -automated- system going to do against one of the Legendary Heroes, capable of turning the staunchest automaton into ribbon cables? It's not like his arrival wasn't both meticulously planned out and heavily advertised to the public.

But why so early? It's because he had to, er... meditate, of course. And it's a shame to travel -after- meditating.

His whiskers twitch. His nose wrinkles -- as if registering a distateful smell, not dissimilar from Hazama's own mild disgust. A hind paw lifts up, scratching at the scruff of his neck.

Rising to his full height, he leaps down from the cabinet, landing on his hind paws not far from Clio. He doesn't pay much mind to the peanut gallery audience -- he's only concerned with three of the 'people' in the room. And one of them just can't let an old credo die the death it needs to. Not that he's going to remind her of such.

"Yeah. 'Fun' is a good plan." Jubei's tails dip down at a sharp angle, their respective tips lifting fractionally. His feline mouth curls into a grin. "Give 'im what for, partner."


It is fun, Clio silently admits. She enjoys this as much as she fears it. She knows it'll hurt, but she knows she'll get to hurt. That she isn't much different from some of the things she's fought. That, though she won't accuse anyone here, she knows that everyone involved in this fight are similar in very key ways. Except perhaps Taokaka, but Clio doesn't even know where that one got off to if it wasn't the food court. She knows the thrill of the fight, and she lives in it.

She can't give up the credo because without an anchor then the soldier is just a killer. But the credo has to have teeth. It has to be iron. It has to have fire.

Her mask covered face turns toward Hazama's arrival. She does nod. She sees the smile, right now, nothing can put her off more than she has been. She isn't fearless, just knowledgeable. And she knows what's going to come.

Jubei's presence does a lot to allay the fear. She nods to him. "Be ready," she warns softly. "I'll do what I can." But she knows there's only so much she has.

% She pulls the chain taught. From weight to spike the length of metal courses in arcane flame, coiling up her own arm without causing so much as a burn, and yet when she begins to whirl the spike about, the tip catches and mars the floor of the Heritage museum.

COMBATSYS: Clio has started a fight here.

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Clio             0/-------/-------|

"Two cats. Oh, boy. How great."

Scratching the side of his cheek, Hazama looks between his two opponents with scrunched brows. One would imagine, given who -- //what// -- is supposedly riding in this thing's hollowed heart, that his recognition of Jubei might be more immediate and visceral. Instead...

"Huh. There's something a bit familiar about you."

... instead, there is only mild confusion as the Acting Colonel of NOL Intelligence scratches at his cheek before ultimately giving up with the ambivalent shrug of his shoulders. "Oh well!" he declares. "I'm sure I'll figure it out eventually."

It's hard to say whether it's just a trick or if there's something else going on here. Regardless, it hardly makes the green-haired man any less of a present and immediate danger as those squinted eyes turn their attention back towards the disguised Clio as she brandishes that flaming chain. He sniffs once, with the deliberate flare of his nostrils. Twice.

"... Hm, hm, hm."

And that thin, friendly crocodile's smile returns.

"Scary, scary! I just can't catch a break today!"

He doesn't brandish any weapon of his own, though. Not obviously, at least. He just stands there, one hand tucked into his pocket, the other dangling loose with gloved fingers twitching just slightly as cants his head to the left. His expresion hapless.

"And here I told the Corporal I didn't want to take lead. Ah, well. I guess we should just get this over with, eh?"

Hardly looking like a fighter. But...

... Clio ought to know better.

COMBATSYS: Hazama has joined the fight here.

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Hazama           0/-------/-======|-------\-------\0             Clio

Clio knows better. She knows who Hazama has fought, and who he has hurt, and who he has walked away from. She knows he's capable of a great deal, and that Jubei is the most likely the only one really able to handle the green-haired acting colonel.

Behind her mask, Clio does what she can to avoid thinking about Cody and the subway. She doesn't do a good job of it.

But her chain is already whirling, swinging and sparking eldritch fire off the ground with each pass of the spike. And each pass of the spike sees the burst of violet flame spark higher and higher.

No words from the disguised Kaka. She doesn't really respond much thanks to her mask. Even if she's afraid, furious, and for a moment, just a little thrilled at the prospect of this fight.

She may not say any words, but she does offer a slightly playful, slightly muffled 'nya?" before the chain sparks up a torrent of flame that jets toward Hazama. The fire coils and closes, a stream, then a shape; a visage with snapping arcane jaws. A bestial head of fire and magic that lashes for the Captain with wild abandon.

COMBATSYS: Hazama dodges Clio's Jaws of Ammut.

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Hazama           0/-------/-======|-------\-------\0             Clio

'Nya?' replies the would-be Kaka. Hazama's face scrunches up mildly.

"Not much of a conversationalist," he notes, dismayed in a way that never really reaches his expression, and feels hollow in his tone in some hard-to-place way. It always does. "Here I was hoping I might be able to talk my way out of this. So much for negotiating your surrender!" A long-suffering (?) sigh follows. The smile remains.

"This is why I hate cats."

He is watching, though. Watching the flames lick off the edge of that chain in a torrent of violet fire. Chains. His head cants curiously to the right at the sight of it. His right hand twitches, as the left rises to secure the hat on top of his head. Lips purse. And in the seconds before that flame is expunged --

"Uh oh~."

Hazama whistles into the open air, almost sing-song in its lament.

Out roars that phantasmal maw of flame and fury. Hazama's right heel digs inward. He waits. And within half a second of its destined collision, the acting colonel -pivots- sharply on his heel, letting the snap of eldritch jaws blaze just -barely- past his neck tie with a declaration of, "Oof, frightening!" The maneuver looks like half a dance step, half a stagger. The result is an almost bizarrely fluid and fluke-ishly graceful evasion that sends him all but pirouetting past the disguised Clio's assault...

... and just as quickly coming to a sudden stop within striking range of her, legs spread, body crouched, hand still affixed to his hat.

The other's fingers, twitching along a metallic gleam of a knife.

He waits, exactly one second to sniff the air once more with the twist of his brows. And then --

"Ahhh, what a bother."

He is -leaping- backwards away from Clio, the flurrying sweep of his right hand a smudge of a black sleeve and the edge of a dangerously sharp balisong knife that seeks to bite into her sharply as he goes.

COMBATSYS: Hazama successfully hits Clio with Evasive Strike.

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Hazama           1/-------/=======|====---\-------\0             Clio

Not much of a conversationalist. Clio knows she's against something, someone, she cannot beat. It's just a matter of hopefully buying time and energy for Jubei. She can only do that if she expunges every bit of taunting commentary from the smug Colonel. Just keep moving, just keep striking. Just keep alive.

He's fast, she knows that, faster than she. He did a number on Noel, and no amount of passion or fury will help her here. The knife, so quick, so sharp. It gaffs through her shirt. Striking hard, blood flowing. It hits a deep nerve and Clio sinks to a knee.

She growls. A pained yowl in her throat. Biting as the streaks of her eyeblack start to run down her cheeks. The cut doesn't hurt as much as her pride. As much as knowing the reality of all this.

Still. She has to move on. Futility or not. The pain reminds her how much it matters. That she fears means she has something to lose. And something to lose means something to fight for. She doesn't even know who Hazama has in the wings, she's hoping it isn't Tsubaki.

With nothing to do but press on, Clio swings a sharp cutting swipe of her own. A spinning, backhanding stab of her spike as she tries to keep one step ahead of her partner in this dance.

COMBATSYS: Hazama full-parries Clio's Evasive Strike!!

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Hazama           1/-----==/=======|====---\-------\0             Clio

For all the world, the acting Colonel of the NOL's Intelligence branch seems to be taking this encounter with a whimsical sort of reluctance. The man is nothing but grousing and complaints, his stumbling movements making it look to the unpracticed eye like he was just barely managing to put forth enough effort to evade his opponent's attacks. Like it was a fluke.

But perhaps the truly frustrating thing is what the trained eye can see in how Hazama moves; how those spins and staggers have a certain, subtle grace to them that make it seem more like he is simply dancing out of the way. And coupled with that perpetual, damnable smile that never quite leaves his lips, it feels almost as if he is treating the entire exchange as a joke as he flitters back an appreciable distance from Clio, brandished blade flicking fluidly back into its hilt and disappearing into his sleeve. And beyond that...

"Hm, hm."

... it's difficult to say just what this man is truly thinking or feeling.

Soles of his shoes skidding across the ground, Hazama adopts a nonchalantly wider stance as Clio begins her reprisal. That spike flies. A sliver of amber can be seen as Hazama's right eye cracks open, hardly even enough to be considered open at all. His legs tense --

And Clio might feel a distinct and brief presence of weight on her arm as something lands spritely atop it.


And there, for half a second, is Hszama, having sprung up and landed in a handstand for a sliver of a moment on Clio's arm. He smiles.

"Very aggressive!"

And then -pushes- off to launch himself into the air and destabilize his opponent in the same breadth, twisting about in the cool air. His right leg extends as he starts to drop in an axe-kick towards Clio's shoulder.

And that might be when she might notice --


The point hidden blade jutting dangerously from his heel, snapping into place seconds before he seeks to pierce her defenses.

COMBATSYS: Hazama successfully hits Clio with Shadow Serpent EX.

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Hazama           1/-======/=======|=======\==-----\1             Clio

The insulting, smug nonchalance explains plenty of what Hazama thinks. This is nothing for him. It was nothing for him to hospitalize Noel. Or injure Relius. Or take on a presence like Heidern of the Ikari. The threat was clear, and the valley of skill between the two present in how easily Hazama can avoid Clio's assault and strike her himself.

And this time is no different. A sharp heel. A very sharp heel. Twisting, turning, caught. Clio spins to the floor with a violent grunt. The kaka clan mask spins away, sliding along the ground.

There, Clio takes a breath. She flips her hood back and looks toward Hazama. Slowly, she gets to her feet and there she starts to whirl up her chain again. "Captain," she says with open, sneering derision. But that's all she says as she's busy letting the chain drop, the weight falling down and just before it hits the ground, Clio's heel kicks the weight back and high arcing through the air. The flames along the chain roll and build toward the meteoric head of the chain as it whips up and over in the air, streaking down to crash at Hazama with an explosive torrent of pyrelight.

COMBATSYS: Hazama blocks Clio's Malleus Maleficarum.

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Hazama           1/-======/=======|==-----\-------\0             Clio


It's smooth, the way Hazama lands on his feet with much the same grace one might expect from his presumably feline opponent. Left hand tucking into the pocket of his slacks as he rises, his brows are already lifted in some approximation of surprise as that squint-shut stare falls upon the demasked Clio. That utterance slips into the air in a bemused fashion, and for a moment, the Librarium officer stands there, scratching his cheek with his free hand.

"Well," he begins, eloquently. "I guess that explains that." And here, he taps his nose with his index finger. "The nose knows, you know. Allergies, and all." That smile returns as that chain winds up with the weight of Clio's disdain.

"I guess you don't make much of a cat, Lieutenant. Err -- ex-Lieutenant, of course, of course, it's very hard to remember who's turning traitor these days--oops."

And this would be the whistled lament Hazama exhales as his words are interrupted by the arc of that heavy weight. Lips pursed, he watches the flames reach their fever pitch above before crashing -down- like a comet of streaking chi-flame. He can practically feel it broil at his skin. Or at least... he should.

Seconds to react. Seconds to deal with that assault. And unlike before, Hazama does not try to get out of the way this time. Instead, he meets it head on, green seithr searing at his forearms in defensive arrays as he reaches palms-out to -intercept- that brutal chain's blow. The impact -rings- out with an expulsion of flame as the ground beneath Hazama concaves, fracturing in spiderline patterns of marble as he strains against the blow. He holds out until the bitter end, as if somehow, bizarrely, hoping it might break through his guard. But when it doesn't --

"This is such a bother."

He -pushes-.

The head of the chain soars through the air, before Hazama -kicks- it to very violently return it back to sender. It goes wide, however, intentionally so -- just enough so that the NOL's acting Intelligence Colonel can attempt to capitalize on the distraction by -sweeping- into Clio's defenses, left arm whipping about just in front of her...

... and summoning a churning mass of magic in the form of a dark green and black serpent's head to cleave into her midsection.

"I wonder if the King of Fighters committee knows they're harboring dangerous fugitives here?" Who is he kidding?

Of course they do. It's King of Fighters.

COMBATSYS: Hazama successfully hits Clio with Vengeful Viper.

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Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|=======\-------\0             Clio

The burst of energy sunders Clio's defenses and sends the woman hurtling through displays. She lay there, among debris and artifact. Among things that she'd love the chance to sit and study and understand, but now serve as a bed of broken realities.

The Wheel Turns. She's sitting on a bed. The Academy. She takes a letter and walks away. Leaves it all. She stands in a Sacred Order uniform. A knight and not just a soldier. She sees her friends on the other side. She sees them in the NOL blue and white. Makoto, Noel, Tsubaki, Mai. . .

Clio sits up in the ruins. She looks over to Hazama. She stretches. She hurts. "I'm not dangerous," she says with a broken laugh, "I mean, unless you're planning on breaking out your Nox Nyctores. The chain. Chainman." She pushes up and winces. "Going to do to me what you did to Noellers?" she asks. She shrugs. "Go ahead. Make me your monster. That's what you do, after all, to anyone that doesn't give you everything you want."

The Wheel Turns. Clio St. Jeanne isn't there to talk to Makoto. Isn't there to warn her about what she's learned. To distrust Captain Hazama and others. She doesn't know if they'd find out, if they'd be as aware as they were already. She hurts, but she hurt so that they could be aware, they could know, they could be strong. In another turn of the wheel, she might have had to fight them. And that would hurt even more than she did right now.

"You don't want to keep people safe, you just want an excuse to steal power from others. And I'm from Metro, I know a thug when I see one." She spits and wipes her eye, smearing tear streaked make up.

"Shit, 'Captain', even I said the oath and I died to run." She points her spike at Hazama. "You didn't. Well, here's a reminder what it really means to be a Knight of the Azure Flame."

Clio tightens her chains around her arm. The runes and sigils line up and burst into light. She rips the spike of chain through the air. Where it strikes the ground raises a cascade of azure fire. And as it washes over the ground and toward Hazama, Clio herself comes hurling through the fire and flames with a two heeled kick.

COMBATSYS: Clio blitzes into action and acts again!

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Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|=======\-------\0             Clio

COMBATSYS: Hazama eludes Clio's Whipflash.

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Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|=======\-------\0             Clio

COMBATSYS: Hazama intercepts Strong Kick from Clio with Rising Fang.

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Hazama           1/-<<<<<</<<<<<<<|=======\=====--\1             Clio

COMBATSYS: Clio can no longer fight.

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Hazama           1/-<<<<<</<<<<<<<|

"The chain?"

It almost sounds puzzled, the way Hazama says it. As he comes to a stop, as he stretches his lanky body out, the Intelligence agent rubs at the back of his neck, watching Clio with a sense of unreadable curiosity. The question is no doubt just an affectation for the camera crew. But...

"Ah! You must be thinking of someone else."

... he sounds no less sincere.

"Oh, but you -are- dangerous! I'm shivering in my shoes right now!" He hardly looks it, with how ambivalently he shakes his head; yet it does not stop him from putting a hand securely to his hat, and tipping the brim over his eyes, until only that knife of a smile remains. "Defectors are very, very dangerous. If only you stayed 'dead,' then this could have stayed simple! But now I'm going to have to do something about this, aren't I?"

Presumably, Hazama does not mean here. Here, she's protected, one would assume. And yet the danger exuding from him seems very real. Very cold. Like a snake lurking in the tall grass.

His smile widens a fraction.

"You, and that slippery squirrel. What to do, what to do..."

The implication is clear. But his musings come to an abrupt end as Clio boldly calls the green-haired man out for what he is. Brows lift, and Hazama seems to visibly pause as she spits out those words.

'... you just want an excuse to steal power from others.'

And for a moment, Hazama looks... genuinely perplexed. Brows knit. And that smile is replaced with a rare, quiet frown.

"... is that what I want...?"

In those moments before Clio attacks, it'd almost seem like a mockery. And yet, it seems to arrest the man in thought for a while longer yet as Clio conjures sigils of attack in a brimming deluge of flame. His brows lift, as the light draws his attention back to the real world.

"Eh? --Oh! Right! The oath!" He snaps his fingers here. "How did that go again??"

Now this -- this is absolutely mockery.

"Dispatched in someone's darkest something--"

Clio hurtles forward in a wash of flame and defiance, even in these seemingly insurmountable odds. It's commendable. It's brave. An absolute risk that she faces boldly.

And in turn, Hazama's eyes crack open for one, brief moment to view it. And in those amber depths, there's not mockery, or hatred, or sadistic glee. There's...

... nothing.

It lasts all of a second before the man -leaps- from his position -towards- Clio, circumventing that initial rush of azure fire. His right leg extends into a snapping kick, trailing green magic in a serpentine formation that enshrouds it.

Jade meets azure in an exchange of blows.

And the resultant explosion is blinding in its brilliance as it sends Hazama hurtling backwards, hitting ground shoulder first and rebounding exactly once before he lands in a crouch, one fingerless gloved hand on the ground, the other on his hat, body smoking. Eyes once more shut. Smile once more in place. Like someone fixing a max.

"What I want..."

But he does not sound happy, as he rises.

"... You're as annoying as ever, aren't you? Definitely going to have to do something about you."

COMBATSYS: Hazama awaits the next challenger.

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Hazama           1/-======/=======|

With every lash of the chain, the T-Rex skeleton shudders. With every harsh, sudden movement, the ancient skeleton shudders. It's consistent and regular enough that one could simply assume it was causation -- the wind from the fast movements, or the clashing auras of the combatants' attacks. But it'd be hard to notice in light of the dramatic action taking place.

But Clio, Hazama, and their weapons are not the only things moving quickly. Jubei's twin tails are swishing back and forth with rapid, hook-shaped swipes. His iris is opened wide to take in every detail of the dim reliquary, every slight muscle movement from the Captain and the former Lieutenant.

And when every brilliant moment of insight from his protege is met with an response from the Intelligence commander... a growl emanates from the back of Jubei's throat. For it isn't that Hazama is able to stay ahead of the nimble fighter that bothers him -- but rather, the method which he goes about it.

The T-rex skeleton creaks, as an explosion fires off. It doesn't seem any different than any of the other slight noises it's made -- save for the fact that the creak continues, changing in pitch. The fossilized dinosaur's forelimb is starting to descend.

*ka-CHHHHHHUNG!* Bone and metal crash into the floor separating Clio St. Jeanne from Hazama. A dazzling array of circular sigils erupts into existence across the floor, demonstrating how the facility's defensive matrices are quite extensive, but... apparently less so for the prized skeleton itself.

Two eyes glisten in the darkness, along with a surprised mouth opening in aghast dismay. Oversized gloves -- paws, really, from a Kaka clan garment -- are raised in a much-delayed (and hardly credible) expression of innocence. "S-s-sorrrrryyyyyy...!"

The eldest cat coughs loudly into a raised paw. A distraction, to take the heat off Taokaka above. His head rocks to one side, then the other, as he cracks his neck.

"Yer one to talk about 'annoying.'" The cat's bright orange hood shudders as he shakes his head from side to side -- otherwise oriented towards Hazama. His tails flick backward and forth, even though he remains more or less stock-still otherwise, the claws of his oversized paws resting calmly on the floor.

"What happened, Hazama? Did she strike a nerve? I actually saw a hint'a somethin' there." He smirks, the ear of his hood flicking as he takes another few steps to enter the 'arena' of combat, as it were. "Let's get this over with, yeah? I got a nap callin' my name."

As Jubei steps forward, his paws lift up, curling around one another. It looks like the old codger is tripping -- but in actuality, he's gathering a rather large mass of chi. And in that same supposedly 'accidental' motion, he hurls the mass forward -- a blue-white orb about the size of his own body, with the vague outline of a cat body whirling about inside it. The orb flies forward quickly and deliberately -- if it hits his opponent, it'd be sure to pack an explosive punch as it bursts open!

COMBATSYS: Jubei has wandered into the fight here.

[  \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  //////////////////////////////]
Hazama           1/-======/=======|-------\-------\0            Jubei

COMBATSYS: Hazama blocks Jubei's Rising Justice.

[    \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////////////// ]
Hazama           1/-======/=======|-------\-------\0            Jubei

As Hazama rises crisply to his feet, he takes a moment to adjust his hat, ensuring it is securely in place. He dusts off his coat, inspects his shoes and, satisfied, turns his attention back towards the former lieutenant of the Library.

"What to do..."

He takes a single step forward.

And then astutely takes note of the fact that the shadow cast over him is growing rapidly.


Down crashes the huge chunk of ancient, fossilized bone. Instincts and reflexes, perhaps the only thing the acting colonel can truly say to have, inspire a backwards hop from that descending bone of an extinct king seconds before it makes its raucous impact. Hand on his hat, Hazama hits ground in a dancing backstep, looking at the large fossil now serving as a partition between himself and Clio. That hat tugs a bit more securely over the brim of his eyes.

"A little bit on the nose! I -- a-CHOO!"

Whatever Hazama might have to say by way of witty follow-up is tabled in the wake of the violent sneeze that overtakes him; followed by another. And another. That just seem to get worse the very closer his new opponent gets. The One-Eyed Lotus. A legend from another world, in another time.

One of the most wanted people alive. And...

"Agh, the worst part!"

... notorious cat.

Hazama's nose is red, his expression thoroughly soured, by the time Jubei actually addresses him; it's a rare sight indeed, and it's hard to say how much is real or affectation for the hollow man. Regardless, he just makes such a -face- at the swordsman as he speaks, befuddled and defeated in equal turns. "I don't know what you're talking about," he insists, pasts the stuffy sniffle his allergies are lending to his voice. The man rubs his nose, shoulders going slack... and then he smiles.

"A nerve? ... maybe. Actually... she got me thinking about something."

His right hand falls limply to his side. Squinted eyes roll up towards Jubei in the distance.

"How do you know when you've lost something, or you've never even had it?"

Jubei 'trips' forward; Hazama's brows lift. But he can feel the generation of chi in the air -- and the second that bluish-white mass of accumulated energy -rips- forward, he slides his right leg backwards.

"This one might be a bit rough," he notes to himself. And somehow, he sounds vaguely hopeful.

Rather than evade, Hazama -lashes- out; the edge of a balisong knife meets that ball, cutting into it, dispersing a sizeable chunk of it. The rest -crashes- into the colonel, sending him sliding several feet backwards across the ground with the skidding sound of rubber on marble. A rough impact of back against wall ends it, forearms smoking as he lowers his hands from in front of his face. And his fingers snap.

"Ah! Maybe you can give me the answer!"

And within the next second, Hazama is -springing- forward with a reckless lack of care despite the distance Jubei has gained with his maneuver, looking to close the gap between them with a broad stroke of that balisong towards the smaller fighter's left shoulder joint.

"Do you have any experience with losing something--?"

COMBATSYS: Jubei dodges Hazama's Medium Strike.

[    \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////////////// ]
Hazama           1/-======/=======|-------\-------\0            Jubei

As he falls into a steady stance after lobbing his orb towards Hazama, Jubei's one-eyed gaze passes briefly over to Taokaka. His tails flick upwards for a moment -- and then jerk sharply in the direction of Clio.


Jubei grits his teeth and repeats the gesture for Taokaka. She understands the repeated hint, acquiescing by leaping over to assist Clio. Without the Kaka defender's assistance, Jubei's winded protege would likely make a fine prize for the NOL agents already encircling to take advantage of the circumstances of the fight.

But that's the extent of Jubei's momentary diversion -- he can't spend more than a moment looking away from the acting colonel before his chi construct is severed in twain. A white paw slips out of the orange jacket, stroking along the samurai's cheek as he contemplates Hazama's question. He'd noticed the sneeze -- but chose not to comment on it for the moment. "It sounds t'me that's where 'memory' would come into play." The itinerant warrior had gone for a long time without the memories of his past -- and it was only a short while ago that another encounter with the green-haired agent had managed to restore them. So his statement isn't exactly uttered with warmth.

There's not much longer to consider that thought, though, before Hazama steps forward with a sharp-edged greeting. The contemplative samurai sidesteps, dropping his paw and twisting sharply to the side with a ruffle of jacket and fur. The balisong plunges past him, narrowly missing his shoulder -- and narrowly missing a feline smile. But the motion also serves to loose a tuft of black-and-white fur from the samurai's cheek -- a tuft that catches the breeze of the strike, the fluffy strands drawn into the vacuum left behind from the blade's passing.

Jubei continues taking two steps sideways as his paw settles back into its metal mitten. His twin tails curve around the lower of his two Dream Blades.

"Yeah, losin' sleep. Thought I mentioned that."

Almost as quickly as lightning, Jubei plunges forward. His left claws swing down in a fierce slash at Hazama's chest. He whips around into a midair whirl -- his tails unsheathing one of the Dream Blades and scything it around in a followup strike, aided by the speed of the twisting. The blade is swift, catching the light as it paints a brilliant arc through the museum's dim light. His whirling momentum follows through with a final, backhanded smash from his right mitten -- a hard impact to follow the preceding slashes.

COMBATSYS: Jubei successfully hits Hazama with Power Strike.

[         \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////////////// ]
Hazama           1/-======/=======|==-----\-------\0            Jubei

"See, this is why I just can't understand why people love cats so much. They're no help to anyone!"

This complaint is formally lodged the second the edge of Hazama's knife finds nothing more than a tinge of fur and empty air besides save for cloth and flesh. His expression is a helpless one, punctuated by a congested and contemptuous sniffle, as his arm snaps backward in a flurry of cloth.

"Tt," exhales Hazama in the aftermath, balisong snapping back into its handle and disappearing once more down his sleeve. He looks frustrated -- but this close, for someone as observant on so many levels like Jubei, it's easy to see -- he's just trying to look frustrated. Like someone putting on a suit that doesn't fit.

Subtly strange, and just slightly off. Wrong. Because imitation only goes so far before one enters the uncanny valley.

Not that there's much time to contemplate such things, in those spaces between punctuations of violence. Hazama is already wheeling backwards by the time Jubei plunges forward, but it simply isn't fast enough; claws formally introduce themselves to the broad side of the green-haired Intelligence operative's chest. They lacerate through vest and shirt beneath, scoring several bloodied gauges across flesh and muscle beneath. Scarlet paints the ground beneath Hazama's feet -- and it is followed soon enough by a new companion of splattered red as the edge of the Dream Blade bites Hazama clean across the opposite side of his chest, an ugly mark that unsettles his footing just enough -

"Ah, damn."

-- for that backhand to knock him clean off his feet.

And off flies Hazama, like a ragdoll. He hits ground on his shoulder once with a sickening crunch and a ricochet that sends him flipping into a final stop, crouched low to the ground. His shoulders are uneven -- dislocated. A thoughtful frown crosses his lips as he grips that injured joint tight.

"... well, that stings," he says, and then with an affected grimace, -shoves- that joint back into place. There is a wordless hiss that would suggest pain for anyone else... but also, a subtle note of disappointment, easily missed in the sudden fit of sneezes that follow.

"Ugh! They couldn't have picked ANYONE else?? ... anyway," he continues only slightly exasperated as he rises. "Memory's not all that reliable, you know! We remember things they way we want to. The truth can be easily altered. Whole histories forgotten. Why, someone could turn out an entirely different person, all thanks to the fickle nature of memories!"

He rolls his shoulder.

"... or so people tell me. I can't even imagine how horrible that'd be, losing yourself!"

He moves. It's surprisingly swift, like a snake springing from the tall grass, how he -dashes- forward -- and then -past- Jubei, rubber soles skidding across ground as he abruptly halts that momentum. pivots on his heel, turns to face Jubei's back--

-- and plunges his right hand forward, open-palmed, towards the cat's back.

His assault coming in the form of a churning mass of green and black mana, resembling a serpent's gaping maw, ready to bite.

COMBATSYS: Hazama successfully hits Jubei with Vengeful Viper.

[         \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  /////////////////////////     ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|=====--\-------\0            Jubei

The master samurai's loose jacket ruffles in the wake of his succession of attacks, a faint sound that might be missed beneath the sound of Hazama's litany of complaints. The nekomata's twin tails guide the Dream Blade back into its sheath, as the cat slinks forward into an unassuming stance -- neck craned up, crimson iris focused intently on its green-haired prey.

Jubei's dealt with Hazama for long enough to know that his words are little more than a distraction, clouding his true intentions. The only thing Jubei needs to know is that the NOL agent is definitely trying to get under his skin. And while he could easily take that trip down Memory Lane... he wards off the implication with a grin.

"Memories are just there to keep you from makin' the same ol' mistakes."

The roll of the shoulder is a wind-up, to be sure. Casually, Jubei repeats the gesture with his right shoulder -- though in his case, it's to shrug the shoulder strap of the scabbard closer. And when Hazama plunges forward, the ancient samurai is ready, the scabbard swing forward with lightning accuracy, perfectly poised to deflect the attack off to the side.

It's just that Hazama didn't -attack- from that vector. And with the scabbard out of the way, Jubei gets a rather painful adminition in the form of a mana-forged serpent's fangs raking across his back. Twin arcs of scarlet paint the orange of his coat as the cat staggers forward, eye and nose scrunched in agony as he chokes back a cry of pain. He catches himself on the floor with his mitten.

His stumble lasts but a moment, as battle-hardened nerves beat the drums of battle. He transitions, using his paw as a pivot while he whirls around to face Hazama once more, tails and scabbard strap fluttering around in the process. And as soon as his hind paws scrape across the floor again...

Pain had served to plunge the cat into a deep battle trance. There are no thinly veiled barbs for Hazama -- just highly focused fury. The cat's hind claws dig into the floor, taking root. The One-Eyed Twin Lotus thunders forward. One trio of thick metal claws reaves in a downward diagonal at Hazama. An instant later, his left mitten brings a second trio of claws to bear. He swings again with the right in an upward stroke -- and again with the left, in a lateral stroke. Twelve furrowing strikes in rapid succession, aimed at destroying any sort of pretense that Jubei might be toying around in this fight.

COMBATSYS: Jubei successfully hits Hazama with Fissuring Slash.
Glancing Blow

[            \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ////////////////////////      ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|======-\-------\0            Jubei

"They must not be working very well, then! After all..."

A swipe. Mana, crackling, dissipates in slithering patterns across Hazama's forearm. Despite the occasional sniffle, his smile has returned, trading in one mask for another.

"... we're both here, again."

And in that moment, the flow of the battle shifts in a way almost imperceptible. Jubei stumbles, Hazama's legs tense. One drags backwards, in preparation for movement. Jubei is swift -- perhaps even faster than Hazama himself. It is dangerous, to stay this close.

Yet it's almost something trying to approximate anticipation that seizes up the Librarium officer, in those moments before Jubei strikes.

And strike he does, far more ferociously and quickly than even Hazama can react to. He's already lunging backwards by the time the one-eyed beastkin is lashing out with those claws; the first two carve up through his midsection, decorating his torso with yet more ugly lacerations that would send anyone reeling in pain. It's swifter than an eyeblink, those blows scored. It punctuates a difference in skill between the old samurai and even someone like the man -- the thing -- he faces.

But Hazama is still moving like a man possessed, a whistle singing through the air as he stuffs a hand into his coat pocket mid-lunge. The follow up blows hit air as he skirts just barely past their radius, clipping through the whipping lapels of his coat. And joining those mighty mittens in their airborne dance --

Is several, sharp throwing knives, flung from the serpentine would-be soldier's right hand, aimed for shoulders, knees, elbows -- any joints they can bite with their exceptionally sharp kiss, as Hazama hits ground with a stumble, a wet cough, and a put-upon grimace.

But still staying far too dangerously in striking range of someone who is unquestioningly his better.

COMBATSYS: Hazama successfully hits Jubei with Serpent's Kiss.

[           \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ////////////////////          ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|=======\-------\1            Jubei

We're both here, again. The wheel of fate sure is turning now, isn't it? The One-Eyed Twin Lotus had certainly considered -why- to continue this fight. There was nothing to be -gained- from defeating the Librarium here within one of the own sanctums.

Or was there? The samurai cat certainly felt like he had something to prove -- that all of his personal training must surely count for something. If the vessel carrying his most despised foe can enter a tournament, then why should the cat simply turn away from the challenge?

The cat responds with a one-eyed glare. "Old habits die hard, I reckon."

Mere seconds later, Jubei's criss-crossing strikes are gaining purchase, crimson splashes painting his jacket. And then the claws whistle harmlessly through the air, giving the swift feline pause. His arms whip forward as he draws backwards, legs folding in preparation for a forward vault. For an instant, the nimble feline seems like he's ready to chase; twin tails flick back and forth, gauging balance among other things.

And then the air is perforated by a fan of blades. Jubei, coiled, finds himself without an avenue of escape. His left sleeve is clipped by a blade, the knife impaling itself into his shoulder. His right sleeve is jerked aside by the second blade, leaving a path for following blades to pierce his elbow, his knee. As pins marking the point of impact, each bubbling with feline blood.

The ancient cat's growl does manage to eke its way past teeth clenched into a very, -very- slight grin.

Old habits do die hard. And as he casts his cyclopean gaze back at the acting colonel, he slides one hind paw backwards, rooting himself further to the floor. The claws collapse into their sheathes, as limbs tense up. Muscles grow taut -- taut enough to unseat metal blades. A series of clangs can be heard as ejected knives hit the scarred floor.

And then a veritable storm of chi begins to roil outward from the feline samurai. Black and white chi, wafting up in a visible manifestation of the warrior's connection. His orange hood falls away, as his fur slicks back, caught in the grip of a growing static charge.

Tails flick back and forth with intensity, as Jubei lapses fully into the focus of the Empty Mind.

It's true that the King of Fighters rules protect some -during- the fight. But -after- the fight, are all bets off? That's not a chance that the itinerant samurai can allow...

COMBATSYS: Jubei gathers his will.

[           \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  /////////////////////         ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|=======\=====--\1            Jubei

A bloody smear paints the ground from where red has started to paint the once-polished hide of Hazama's shoe as it slides bracingly across the museum floor. He looks like he's preparing for something. Anticipating. Like a coiled serpent, ready to strike at a moment's notice. He hears the growl. His smile broadens in a way more like a learned behavior than emotional response.

... and it's the same way when a frown wipes away his smile as no assault is pressed. Instead --

-- instead, he hears the clatter of metal as blades bounce on marble. Squinted eyes twitch like an approximation of a blink as Hazama's head tilts up from his semi-crouched stance to take in the sight of Jubei, not pressing an offensive -- but preparing, himself. He sees -- /feels/ -- the well of chi burgeon out into a maelstrom of it with the old warrior as the eye of the storm. Monochrome hues fill his field of vision as his brows bunch together. His nose wrinkles with an indignant sniffle; his expression curdles like spoiled milk.

"Ugh," he exhales, a sigh of exasperation as he slowly straightens up once more. "/Cats./ They never do what you want them to!" Heedless of the hypocrisy of this statement, hands are thrown up into the air in a hapless gesture as Hazama shakes his head.

"I'm starting to see why he can't stand you!"

But Jubei is right, to prepare. To give this everything. He and his partners might be safe now, but what of after the match? What about if they lose? There's no guarantee Hazama won't come after them when the smoke settles. Or...

"You know, I'm getting the impression that crazed terrorists like you and the ex-lieutenant are way outside my paygrade."

... someone worse.

As he speaks in those tones of faux-frustration, Hazama presses a hand to his wounds, applying pressure in a way that would stoke pain in anyone. The Library agent frowns, a grimace that -could- be pain, before he looks back toward Jubei. An indignant sniffle follows. A single eye cracks open, a sliver of empty amber staring at Jubei's own sole, visible eye. The only real sign of life in it is the way it waters just a bit thanks to the physiological bane of allergies.

"Oh well~."

And, hand on his hat, Hazama lunges. His feet leave the ground, little droplets of red trailing in his wake like a glittering stream of scarlet. He twists, clockwise through the air, building momentum. It's dangerous. Reckless.

But Hazama seems to brazenly tempt fate as he descends into that wild storm of chi in a powerful axe-kick for Jubei's already injured shoulder, punctuated by the snap of a sharp blade freshly jutting from his heel.

COMBATSYS: Hazama successfully hits Jubei with Shadow Serpent.

[            \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ////////////////              ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|>>>>>>>\>>>>>>>\2            Jubei

Fur flutters and fabric ruffles, cast about by a wind of Jubei's summoning. Through it all, a crimson eye in the center of the storm remains relatively motionless, fixed intently on Hazama. To earn the ire of a samurai is no small feat, and yet Hazama is one of the few on the planet who could warrant the Legendary Hero's full attention.

Hazama takes flight.
The cat's head tilts at the neck.
The crimson gaze follows.

It isn't hard for the feline warrior to track the man in the curious black hat, even through the dim lighting -- the attack is almost insultingly simple and straightforward after all. But the true insiduous nature though, is in the vector of approach -- a factor that wouldn't be a problem if the samurai weren't already injured. A factor well-known by the calculating Hazama. For as the kick scythes down, the One-Eyed Twin Lotus shrugs sideways, beginning to bring the scabbard of Musashi to bear. The intent would be to interpose the scabbard into the path of the strike, and shrug it off.

Wounds both fresh and ancient are an inevitable consequence of a life of battle. The smooth, practiced motion gives way to an unanticipated catch, a jolt of pain that jars his injured shoulder, deterring it from the course.

Jubei folds under the pressure, collapsing like a folding knife under the blade of a falling heel. There is no restraint, nothing which can stop the feral yowl of the feline as he's pinned beneath the blow, no sound which can hide the sound of metal punching its way into marble tile floor, nor the telltale fissures which erupt beneath.

The cat is stuck.
For a moment.
And then a sudden, gale-force shockwave of black and white chi ripples outward.

Both Jubei -and- Hazama are blasted upward into the air with one concussive shock. As Jubei flips away from Hazama, he wrenches himself free of the blade; a brilliant sanguine plume erupts from the vicious wound. And as Jubei -- still biting back a whimper of pain -- rights himself, one thing becomes clear: his left arm is pretty much limp. His jacket ruffles as he windmills about, legs and tails sprawled for precision tuning of his flight, black and white chi clinging to his limbs like streamers.

The Librarium officer has tested his limits. But even amidst the turmoil, even with a critical injury to his left arm... the walking arsenal still has four more ways to hold fast upon a legendary blade. Dim light glistens against seithr-forged metal as the upper of the two Musashi blades is unsheathed, a metallic whine piercing the room. With his right arm guides the hilt of the blade to his jaw, Jubei twists about in midair. Streams of chi double against one another. And then, impossibly, he pushes against the streams of chi...

And leaps -downward- with enough speed to split the sound barrier asunder. With one Musashi clutched in his teeth, and his tails curled around a second, the feline warrior thunders downward with speed and force ferocious enough to cleave a normal person in half! The feat is only made even -more- improbable by the sudden, zig-zagging changes in direction, the cat's passing noted by dense black swaths of ebony chi. Small comfort for Hazama, perhaps -- but there are still audience members who haven't fled from the veritable forces of nature here, yes?

COMBATSYS: Jubei successfully hits Hazama with Twin Guardians - Mourning Shore EX.
- Power hit! -

[                   \\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ////////////////              ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|>>>>>>>\>>>----\1            Jubei

The Musashi blades. Noct Nyctores. They do not hold the history in this world that they rightly should, but it does not makes their fabled ability to cut anything - literally anything - in this entire world any less real. A more direct and dangerous counterpoint to the chains of Ouroboros Hazama has so steadfastly refused to use in front of these camera crews throughout the tournament. One would have to be a fool to try to court their master's fury.

And yet Hazama seems all too eager to goad that old samurai into baring his fangs.

He makes contact, heel sinking into shoulder. For a single moment, his descent is disrupted by the meaty impact of metal and rubber against flesh and bone. Black and green seithr seethes across his body, down his arms in winding, serpentine patterns in preparations for a follow up. For a moment, time seems to stand still.

For a moment.

And in the next, that shockwave -launches- the emptied vessel of a thing straight into the air as if he weighed little more than a feather.

Twining trails of white and black whistle past Hazama, his bloodstained clothes rippling wildly within the tempest of the One-Eyed Lotus' making. He has no control here, no influence: his leg snaps backwards so violently when Jubei yanks himself free that it feels, in that numb way that Hazama could be said to feel anything, like it may well have dislocated at the hip. Unlike his feline foe, he is like a leaf caught in a whirlwind. But he can still see it.

A flash of steel. A hiss of metal.

In the shining blade of that single Musashi, Hazama's widening, yellow eyes can be seen perfectly.

The expression he wears in the moments between contact are indescribable. After all -- how do you describe the actions of a puppet moving without its strings?


The ripple of a sound barrier being punctured ripples through Hazama a good five or more seconds after Jubei has already blasted past him in a violent swath of onyx violence. For a time, he remains suspended in mid-air, even after Jubei cuts past. And then that rush of kinetic force ripples past him as if to violently remind him of the existence of physics, -knocking- him backwards as a deep, ugly cut lances -straight- through his midsection.

And he falls, so very far for what is ultimately a sad sound of limp impact in the aftermath.

His black hat, brim chipped and crinkled, floating lazily after him, unseated from its steadfast spot on his scalp.

He lies there, motionless, a pool of blood forming beneath him. The hat lands a foot or so out the first time his fingers twitch with life. A wet, burbling sound escapes from chapped lips as trembling fingers reach out.

"... in... kh... interesting..."

Gloved fingers pinch the brim of that precious hat unsteadily as Hazama drags himself up off onto his feet. He's sustained an ungodly amount of abuse -- and yet still, the green-haired colonel stands, his white shirt stained a vibrant red through and through, his coat a design of tattered ruin. He stumbles almost drunkenly as he stands before forcing himself upright. And slowly...

... he, very calmly, affixes that hat back on his head.

"... ahhhh, much -- hk -- too dangerous for me..."

His voice is a slick gurgle as lurches forward, head bowed, eyes once more squeezed shut. A balisong knife falls limp into his left hand.

"... but it's okay."

Once more, Hazama rushes forward. Once more, it is direct. Once more, it is with subtle purpose. He feels his leg protesting. He doesn't care.

Because, swinging low to the ground, he tries to get -right- into Jubei's defenses.

Just close enough.
So he can hear a whisper meant only for his ears:
"I'm sure the Phantom will take good care of you~."

Before -lunging- that blade down for Jubei's injured knee, swathed in seething green seithr.

Going for the petty, low blow.

COMBATSYS: Jubei fails to counter Devouring Fang from Hazama with Immovable Object.

[                 \\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ////////////                  ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|=======\=====--\1            Jubei

The One-Eyed Twin Lotus has spent decades as a wanderer. He has had plenty of time to think to himself, to cleanse himself of negative emotions. He understands, as do many samurai, that his existence is flawed by definition. One cannot learn, or grow as an individual without making mistakes. When he says that he is without regret, it is not that he has avoided taking regretful decisions, but rather that he has understood them to be mistakes and has taken steps to avoid them in the future.

Regretful memories threaten to unravel the complex tapestries of one's personality. The battle-trance of the Empty Mind is a construct, a set of behaviors, which set aside painful memories. Which allows a singular focus on the paces and rhythms of battle, putting all other thoughts aside. Only one objective is allowed in the Empty Mind -- victory. And in this case, victory lies only in martial success against the green-haired opponent -- a man no different than any other, save for his known duplicity.

The feline warrior wrinkles his nose as he brings the sword down. His keen sense of smell registers the familiar scent. But combat is not over, not as long as the hollow vessel can continue to speak, to pinch the brim of a hat. Jubei allows his left arm to fall limp -- not much different than his typical unassuming stance -- while his right paw and tails re-sheath the Musashi.

Words do not faze him in the slightest. The claws of his right paw are unfurled as he prepares for the next assault -- for there most assuredly -will- be one. Ebony and ivory chi continue to roil around the samurai master as he keeps his distance, ribcage heaving and falling with exertion.

His preparation is rewarded as the knife slips into Hazama's hand. The short-statured samurai draws back, forcing Hazama to extend further. The cats' iris stays fixed upon him, knowing full well the limitations of Hazama's lanky stature. He'd have to be off-balance to strike lower...

And then the iris opens wide with alarm at a shared whisper. A moment of hesitation -- a fracture in the hallowed sanctum of the Empty Mind.

And whilst a right paw swings harmlessly out from his core, an unaddressed balisong blade sinks into his knee. A consequence of failing to account for -all- of the Librarium officer's dishonorable tricks.

Jubei's maw gapes wide as he curls forward, a wordless gasp escaping. He lists sideways, unwilling to concede as green seithr seethes outward, threatening to swallow his furred leg whole. Black and white chi surge around him, even as his leg gives way. Right palm slams into the ground -- and a wave of force ripples across the floor, pushing him away from his opponent.

The beastkin is wary now, brought far too close to defeat for his liking. His one, now-bloodshot eye darts to Hazama. And for a flicker of a moment -- it flicks towards the spot he'd last seen Clio St. Jeanne.

The cat draws in his breath. Whatever the result -- he knows the time for judgment is closing in.


The sing-song quality of Hazama's usually, subtly taunting tone has been replaced by something else, something harder to place. Past the broken crackle of his fatigued-strained voice is something sharper than a knife. One could call it sadistic, but it wouldn't quite fit.

Goading, towards purpose, perhaps.

Regardless of however chipper his voice may be, though, the fight has clearly taken its toll on the man in ways that show most especially in a body's physical limitations, even one as unusual and inhuman as his: he stumbles backwards in a drunken lurch as he releases his blade, retreating as that shuddering wave of force and chi encourages it. As the two gain distance on each other, Hazama sways unevenly until his shoulder smacks limply into a nearby pillar. He takes in a slow breath -- and exhales it in a shuddering motion within the next second, his cold serpent's smile finding its place on his bloodied lips once more as he looks into the lone, strained eye of Jubei.

This would be the moment he would doubtlessly capitalize on weakness. Where the chains would come out, where Ouroboros would ensnare attempt to ensnare its prey and make use of the foul seithr that composes it to Hazama's torturous specifications.

But it never comes. There is not even the disruptive flicker of electronics that heralded Relius' end previously. Which might just be the oddest thing of all; whether he's still simply toying with his opponent to the bitter end, or he has some reason to hide it, or perhaps is simply playing a longer game -- the portals that house Ouroboros in their interdimensional stitch in space never blossom into being as Jubei looks towards where the former lieutenant once was. Perhaps the suspicious abundance of recording devices now might have something to do with it, but regardless...

... for good or for ill, the Musashis' kin never comes. Instead -- a wet cough. And then:


Straightening, Hazama is pointing a fingergun at Jubei, head cocked with an owl's curious cant. He steps backwards.


And staggers, just slightly, as his leg threatens to give out, forcing it in place as he mimes pulling the trigger. It causes a second's delay --

--before a serpentine maw of burning green is /fired/ from that index finger, screaming a swift, angry path towards its mark with violent intent.

COMBATSYS: Jubei full-parries Hazama's Venom Sword!!

[                 \\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ////////////                  ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|>>>>>>>\>>>>>>-\1            Jubei

Nostrils flare. The cat offers up a wet cough of his own. Surely the introduction of a hairball might put Hazama further off his game, but it's only blood that he distractedly wipes onto a sleeve this time.

The One-Eyed Twin Lotus takes in the signs of exhaustion with a grain of salt. For as long as Hazama is able to stand, he'll be able to deceive -- and after their last exchange, Jubei has been wary enough to put as much distance between himself and Hazama as possible.

In the back of Jubei's mind, he's cognizant of the darkness lurking within Hazama. He knows the acting colonel is only using a fraction of his powers -- but Jubei has already demonstrated the lengths to which he can wield the Dream Blades in a non-fatal capacity. There is only one secret -- and only his teammate and the aforementioned Phantom have borne witness to -that-. Recently, anyway.

For now, though -- the Empty Mind does not countenance conjectures. The opponent is before him -- and the opponent appears to be content with unleashing serpentine apparitions. The word is spoken -- and -this- time, Jubei's response is not hampered by the need to respond like with like.

Light gleams against a sword. Seithr scrapes against seithr-forged metal. And the image of an blood-spattered, orange-frocked cat parrying aside a phantasmal serpent practically as large as himself is momentarily flashed into the retinas of those present. There is no joy on his face, no rush of adrenaline -- for this, contrary to the previous engagements, is the expected product of decades of training. In one smooth motion, Jubei turns with the blade as he brushes past the serpent, all while his gaze casts its view to points -past- Hazama.

And then in almost the same motion, the cat slips the blade into his teeth and vaults forward. His feet are placed onto a step which hadn't been there before -- a hexagonal shape, etched into the air in ebony chi, beringed in ivory, and inlaid with the sign of a cat's paw.

In the next blink of an eye, Jubei is on the opposite side of where Hazama was standing. It would take time to register that the blade would necessarily have gone -through- the officer-shaped vessel for this to happen. And in that same span of time...?

It would happen again -- as Jubei suddenly reverses direction, slashing a second time to what would have been Hazama's -left-.

And it would happen a third time -- with Jubei reaching a point just beyond Hazama's right shoulder -- blood-flecked teeth clamped down tightly upon the hilt of the Dream Sword.

COMBATSYS: Hazama endures Jubei's Shiranui Steel - Zephyr EX.

[                         \\\\\  < >  ////////////                  ]
Hazama           2/<<<<<<</<<<<<<<|>>>>>--\-------\0            Jubei

He saw it in the flash of steel before Jubei nearly cut him down. Potential. Danger. -Power-. He's seen it before, has 'memories' of it from the entity that once used his body like the puppet it was built to be. The power that Jubei can bring to bear with those Nox Nyctores, under the right circumstances.

It was interesting, in a way he finds hard to quantify yet desperately wants to. Instinct and experience tells him he hasn't seen all of it, and so it remains that: a curiosity.

But for him, curiosity alone is a marvel he has yet to fathom. And he wants to see it again.

He wants to see it all.

And so the acting colonel acts. He goads. He lets that duplicitous second nature that has been so thoroughly imprinted upon him by his former host's unrivaled cruelty do what it does best. And with the pulling of that metaphorical trigger --

-- Hazama waits with baited breath to reap what he has tried to sow.

The Intelligence officer is mid-stumbling recovery as he sees the flash of a steel beyond steel being brandished. His injured leg draws backward as Jubei bats aside his assault with a graceful, /masterful/ flourish of that impossible weapon. Hazama's eyes crack open into tiny, serpentine slits, uncaring as his mana crashes with a violent explosion -behind- Jubei instead of -through- him like it was -supposed- to. His fingers twitch with the anticipation of a gunslinger waiting for the calling shot of a duel.

In one motion, Jubei is neutralizing his offensive. And in the very same, he is -charging- forward in a speed that is nigh impossible to react to in a timely manner. Almost too fast to move.

And so, he doesn't.

Slit eyes blink. When they open, Jubei is behind, an the kiss of a blade's edge so sharp it can cut concepts can scarcely even be felt piercing through him. There is a spurt of blood.

A second eyeblink. Another cut across his left flank. He staggers against a force unseen by mortal eyes, as if he was being batted about by an angry wind. His lips pull into a tight line.

A third eyeblink --

It is the space between the shutting and opening of onlookers' eyes -- what few dare to remain -- that they meet. Jubei, blade brandished. Hazama, gripping his hat and lashing out with his injured leg in such a powerful, straight-vertical kick that the sickeningly sound of his leg fully dislocating can be heard all too clear.

The Dream Sword cuts clean every time just as a geyser of ravenous green EXPLODES through the air in the wake of that powerful kick, lasting barely a flash of a second in which it attempts to consume the passing Jubei.

In the end, Hazama's leg drops, heel smacking hard into marble. It defies logic, how he manages to stay standing there, unmoving, in the aftermath of Jubei's peerless assault. Blood spills from the corners of his frowning lips as his wounds all open, one by one, like a topple of dominoes.

"... you didn't use it all, did you...?"

The question sounds almost like an accusation -- or it would, if it didn't feel so hollow. He looks up as he wobbles, hand still on his hat like it was his lone life raft.

"... What a waste~. and people... wonder..."

He stumbles. The wounds deepen. Wounds from a sword that could cut through anything. He almost felt it. It was so close--

"... why... i hate cats--"


And this time, when Hazama's leg gives out from under him in an unceremonious fall, he does not rise again.

COMBATSYS: Hazama can no longer fight.

[                  \\\\\\\\\\\\  <
Jubei            0/-------/--<<<<<|

COMBATSYS: Hazama successfully hits Jubei with Serpent's Infernal Rapture.
Grazing Hit

[                     \\\\\\\\\  <
Jubei            0/-------/<<<<<<<|

Once committed to the Shiranui Steel technique, there is little room for adjustment. And so it is, when Jubei comes around on his third pass, that he -senses- the shift in the tides of chi. Teeth bite down harder into the grip of his sword, as he strains against his committed course. A viridian plume surges upward, serpentine jaws threatening to slam into his body. In that mere eyeblink of time, all he can manage to do is twist, interposing a limp arm into the path of the snapping jaws...

It has an effect. Just not a -full- one, as the limb is bitten into, another fountain of blood erupting outward as the feline missile hurls forward, a spin imparted onto the beastkin in mid-flight. He doesn't land on his hexagonal landing pad as intended, instead skidding off of it, scraping his already-injured knee with a feral grunt. He tumbles in flight -- glancing off the pillar in disconcertingly similar fashion to Hazama's body-checking encounter mere moments earlier. But as he tumbles in mid-flight, he reorients himself to the ground...

And even then, he manages not so much a landing as a controlled crash. His right mitten flattens against the floor, his right knee splaying across it. Disabled leg and disabled arm falter, providing only nominal support -- or at least, it would -seem- that way. ... Doesn't mean they aren't limp, and dripping blood all over the place, oh no. He's only 'standing' right there because his tails are pressing downwards, in an 'L' shape against the floor, that Jubei can be considered mostly upright. And maybe the swirling maelstrom of chi surrounding him is helping in some fashion.

His ribcage heaves. The hollow prison of the Empty Mind stares back at Hazama through a sole, half-lidded eye, assessing him even for the pregnant pause that ensues -- one punctuated only by breath hissing through clenched teeth.

After a moment -- after he's -sure- the taunt is nothing more than an empty one -- he rises, heavily favoring his right side. He draws his sword from his teeth -- for up until now it had been kept perfectly parallel with the floor -- and returns it to its scabbard. But he keeps his paw close, all the same.

Somewhere, somehow, the King of Fighters announcer creeps out from behind the upturned table he was hiding behind. "KAAAAY --- OHHH!"

And only then does Jubei relent, with an expulsion of breath. And only then, does the maelstrom of chi collapse, ebony and ivory tides splashing down onto the floor before fading into nothingness.

Jubei draws in his breath, steeling himself for the next, and final, round of combat. The final stand -- all the proof he needs for himself and for his teammates.

One breath... two... then three. "... If I ain't learned nothin' else... I've learned that life's too short for blind hatred." He forges a faint smile, and bows his head towards Hazama -- before casting his crimson gaze towards his closest teammate.

If it weren't for cameras... well. Maybe that exchange would've gone differently.

COMBATSYS: Jubei awaits the next challenger.

[              \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  <
Jubei            0/-------/=======|

From the sidelines, Corporal Renka Kaneko has stood witness to a pageant of violence, verbal provocation, and unexpected surprises. Sharp ears had picked up hints that the masked opponent the Colonel faced was no member of the kaka clan - a whispered oath, its words etched on her own heart, had her looking with keen interest toward the female chainwielder. The revelation that she was someone who once was numbered among the Librarium's finest officers comes slightly less as a surprise to the attentive fox-eared soldier in blue waiting for her turn to participate in the match.

Yet anticipating the revelation didn't make it cut any less sharp when it becomes clear that while Lieutenant Clio of the NOL was lost in the battles surrounding Illyria, but not lost in the way most were caused to believe. Ears pitching forward, white-gloved hand clenching tightly, Renka bristles? Why would she do this? How did she reach the point of betraying the very oath she whispered at the start of the match? There would be a bounty now. Renka holds her breath, jaw set. She was getting notoriously good at tracking down NOL targets of interest... the match in progress might be a demonstration of what she could face herself in the near future.

But then there was the second round. That the Colonel and the old cat had history was telegraphed clearly with every move they made, as if their words alone weren't enough. Very little spoken is missed by the fox dressed in a blue, knee-length skirt, white blouse, and blue military jacket common to the NOL soldiers in attendance. Green eyes flick between the Serpent and the Tiger as the two engage in a battle that tests her ability to even keep up with the visual spectacle on display this match.

The room is filled with fervid energy, negative feelings washing over the venue, a curious blend of antipathy for the swordscat but also, she discovers, trepidation for the suit-clad Colonel she is temporarily reporting to. But then there is the brilliant corona of energy surging around Jubei himself. Fighting spirit, breath of life, the essence of being - whatever one might want to consider the stuff that living spark is made of - the old warrior has it in profound abundance. Enough, even, to prevent her from being suspicious at the lack of matching anima from her own teammate. After all, how can she be expected to sense anything in the presence of such an overwhelming manifestation as ripples invisibly around the cat?

What isn't so easily missed, however, is the way Hazama moves. It isn't just weird, or slightly different from norm. He moves as one animated by another, an unnatural thing, and Renka has never seen any creature, Darkstalker or otherwise, seem so entirely 'off'. She can't begin to imagine what the NOL commanding officer's true nature is... that he isn't the human he presents himself as is abundantly clear.

The two clash one final time in an exchange that would certainly be terminal to beings any less durable than either and it looks for a moment as if they both will fall. Hazama drops, a broken figure, body wounded in ways that would challenge gifted medics were he just human, but Jubei stays upright.

Renka takes in a breath, reaching for her side to grab a simple looking long spear in her left hand. She doesn't stride to the open floor so much as leap, landing in a forward crouch, her shin-high dark boots thudding, twin fox tails whipping into place behind her back. After what she saw, she knew she could never take on the samurai cat alone. But wounded as he is now, with the stab to his knee, with the viridian energy that clipped him, with the knife wounds here and there... maybe she can take him on.

In unison, nine blue spheres, all the size of softballs but for one larger orb three times as big as the others, swirl up around and behind the NOL soldier.

"I'll show you what it means," Renka declares, already starting to move forward, forcing the announcer to stammer out the transition of the match in a desperate effort to keep up with the change in momentum.

She races forward, her spear igniting with blue flame the same azure hue as the orbs that rush in after her. She levels it off with her right hand gripping the forward end of the shaft mid-stride, aiming to deliver what seems to be a direct stabbing lunge.

"To face a knight of the blue flame!"

But when she launches herself forward from six feet out, it isn't to spear him with the metal bladed tip, but to rake her right arm out, fingers extended like claws in a swift swipe through the air.

The old cat will need to be on his guard, however, because while Renka's hand will never pass close enough to quite make contact, the swath of foxfire blue that combusts into the space behind her sweeping hand will rush clean over the space he currently occupies while Renka attempts to spin to a stop behind his back!

COMBATSYS: Renka has joined the fight here.

[              \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  //////////////////////////////]
Jubei            0/-------/=======|=------\-------\0            Renka

COMBATSYS: Jubei instinctively dodges Renka's Mistaken Mercies EX.

[              \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ///////////////////////////// ]
Jubei            0/-------/=======|-------\-------\0            Renka

Saving the world from the Black Beast had marked the cat as one to be feared. But continuing to act in the world's best interests is what's kept him on the Librarium's radar. He would not wish the path he walks upon anyone -- and yet, an officer with similar mindset to his own has chosen to walk alongside him.

The one-eyed cat draws in a ragged breath. He speaks at length about his lack of regrets, about how -experience- prevents him from making mistakes again. He'd made a suggestion -- not expecting it to be seized upon. And now, that one suggestion has put himself and Clio St. Jeanne right back in the Librarium searchlight, in full view of one of their foremost Intelligence officer and one of the most successful capture operatives.

Saving the world from the Black Beast had marked the cat as one to be feared. But continuing to act in the world's best interests is what's kept him on the Librarium's radar. He would not wish the path he walks upon anyone -- and yet, an officer with similar mindset to his own has chosen to walk alongside him.

The one-eyed cat draws in a ragged breath. He speaks at length about his lack of regrets, about how -experience- prevents him from making mistakes again. He'd made a suggestion -- not expecting it to be seized upon. And now, that one suggestion has put himself and Clio St. Jeanne right back in the Librarium searchlight, in full view of one of their foremost Intelligence officer and one of the most successful capture operatives. Both imperilled by the same shadowy organization that has placed a nearly-million-dollar bounty on his head. The feline's teeth grind against one another. All for what? A shiny medal? The quest for self-improvement? -Justice?-

The grizzled old cat focuses his one good eye on the bright-eyed foxgirl standing before him. Another agent of the Librarium, her eyes lit with enthusiasm. He wonders -- might this be -another- of the NOL's soldier to join an old fool willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good? He stares sidelong at her, subconsciously pushing aside the pain of the wounds wracking his body. The old cat will have plenty of time to nurse his wounds -- whether free in the streets, or imprisoned in a cell.

His eyes shine with the ring light of eight identical blue orbs and one larger. But none shine to the veteran as brightly as the exuberant corporal's fighting spirit as she leaps into the fray.

A bold declaration is made.
And the One-Eyed Twin Lotus bows his head in respectful acknowledgement.

A spear plunges forward. And the old cat, surely wounded as he was before, flutters into motion with ripples of flapping fabric. The cat flies upward over the thrust, his billowy sleeves windmilling in the process, guiding his flight.

The cat's voice calls out, tinted with the streetwise twang of ancient Japan. "No offense, lil' lady, but you aren't the first to make that claim. Sorry."

In the midst of his flying spin, though, two distinct sliding sounds can be heard. As Renka enters the fray with a fearfully sharp weapon, Jubei has much less hesitation on unsheathing his own. His left arm may be nigh disabled, but the frightful feline has a right arm and two prehensile tails. Which may mean that the storm of sword slashes erupting from the spinning ball of feline fury might be a little... chaotic. Or perhaps unpredictable. But two things are sure: the samurai master is clearly -not- moving without rhyme or reason. And those blades could definitely leave a mark!

COMBATSYS: Jubei successfully hits Renka with Form Three - Wild Lion.

[             \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  //////////////////////        ]
Jubei            1/-----==/=======|=====--\-------\0            Renka

Time and time again, the vulpine NOL soldier had proven herself fearless in battle, placing herself in harm's way to protect allies from killers. It was unyielding mettle born not of confidence in her supernatural durability but because she had resolved that she had no other choice but to be bold in the face of overwhelming danger for her dreams required it of her. The cause that fueled her tenacity in battle would never be accomplished with half-measures. The battlefield was something she had grown accustomed to, it was something she understood, and therefore, a place she could throw her all into.

Perhaps it was this steel-hardened dedication that directed her response to facing a warrior transcended beyond anything she had ever encountered before. Charging him directly, closing distance, getting in range to attack while exposing herself to his own blades was not the course of one weighed down by second thoughts.

Whipping around as she passes under the airborne cat, her feet brace against the floor, teeth grit, hands gripped tight as she immediately stabs upward into her evasive target with no efforts made to protect herself. She can't run him down, but she can anticipate moments where the veteran warrior will be committed to a course of action, moments where, by way of sacrifice, she might land a deciding blow.

This ends up not being one of those moments, thrusting the long spear into the whirlwind of blades, cloth, and fur proving no more affective than jamming a reed into a Cuisinart set to 'puree'. The polearm is annihilated, sliced to shrapnel in an instant upon contact with the legendary blades utilized by one of the Librarium's most hated opponents. That she doesn't get her arm ground up similarly can be credited to instincts responding in an instant, Renka switching to disengaging from the storm of blades. Even then, her survival is decided by one of the foxfire spheres whirling down amid the chaotic exchange of attacks, intercepting the last spinning slash, providing surprisingly tangible resistance to it just long enough for Renka to narrowly escape a more decisive slash to her chest.

She slides to a stop four feet back, a soft gasp escaping her lips, her left shoulder turned forward, right arm held slightly behind her, left hand clenched over the small section of what was once the shaft of her spear. Blood - red as any human's - splatters the floor at her feet, the left side of her body painting a clear picture of who fared better in that violent trade, countless small cuts and more moderate slashes visible through the tattered remains of her jacket coat and shredded sleeve stained crimson.

The largest of the foxfire spheres seems to react to the trauma as several ephemeral tendrils of barely visible sapphire stretch forth to make contact with the open bleeding wounds, pouring energy into administering regenerative aid to the damaged darkstalker.

Even in the face of such threat, Renka doesn't hesitate for an instant, growling as her right hand snaps to the left side of her waist, fingers closing over the grip of a long, sheathed sword. As the blade comes forth, another one of the azure orbs darts into the pommel of the sword and the blade itself is already burning bright with a rich blue flame as it comes forth.

Attempting to catch Jubei as he lands, she leaps back at him, managing to grip her sword with both hands as the restorative soul energy dulls the agony of her left arm, twisting hard into a flying, overhead slash. She would follow through with a twist to the right, attempting to stagger him with a reverse slam of the sword's blunt pommel, before twisting back to the left to lean in hard into a fully committed two handed slash.

Unlike most of her battles, this fight may not be for the sake of protecting her fellow NOL soldiers, but in the moment, facing a threat the NOL databases are no shy in damning, she fights as if it is. Another swath of foxfire blue follows in the final slash of her combination, as body, blade, and soul are poured into the attack!

COMBATSYS: Jubei blocks Renka's Ashen Hearth ES.

[               \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  //////////////////////        ]
Jubei            1/----===/=======|======-\-------\0            Renka

It wasn't so long ago that the fugitive cat had walked alone into a ramen shop, only to walk out with a new friend and promises of future stargazing. At one point, that future rendezvous may have been little more than a ruse -- but the conversations nonetheless unfolded into a fruitful partnership.

As the one-eyed cat twists through the air, one crimson bloom after another flowers from his willow-limbed opponent. Jubei holds his breath as his gaze follows the blooms as they splash down upon the museum floor, lower jaw grinding against upper. The samurai cat can certainly appreciate the dedication that led the vulpine corporal to risk such a bold strike -- though he harbors questions as to how someone with eyes so wide could stand in the shadow of Colonel Hazama without so much as a peep. The chances of turning a -second- NOL officer away from the bounty on his head grow slimmer by the moment -- but such is the forward march of time, he considers.

Twin tails coil around the handle of one sword, mechanical mittens around the other. And in perfect time, blades are flicked clean of blood, then seated back within their respective scabbards, all in the thin slice of time allotted for the cat's tacit observation.

It's in the following instant in which Corporal Renka charges forward.
Jubei's eye widens in alarm.
For very few indeed would be able to meet him before he could hit the ground -- and fewer still to make contact with him. If it were not for the oversized paw clasped around the hilt of the sword, he wouldn't have been able to react.

Lacquered wood clacks as it rises up to meet the sword, followed immediately by toe claws scraping across the surface of the museum floor. Given the time, a one-handed parry was all he could muster against such a ferocious strike -- indeed, the warrior's arm sags from the awkwardness of the angle.

But by that point, he's able to regain his footing to some extent. Releasing the scabbard, the One-Eyed Twin Lotus is able to half-step backwards in time to meet the pommel with an open palm. The force itself is enough to slingshot the scabbard back onto his back; the force of his will is enough to shock his fluffy mane of fur out in all directions.

Blue orbs reflect in his crimson eye as he draws in his breath, occupying the one moment allowed for such. A half-step pivot to his right brings his right arm forward. He breaks gaze with Renka, focusing instead on the blade swung at his middle. Sparks fly, as the honed edge scrapes across the tripled claws of his right paw. This time, the warrior's sub-optimal defense results in the sacrifice of diamond-shaped shred of fabric from the warrior's sleeve -- a slice far too close to his injured left arm for comfort. And an instant afterward, Jubei's nose wrinkles as foxfire-blessed flame billows into the newly-parted rent in his sleeve.

Jubei exhales sharply, unable to keep the slight growl out of his breath. It should be appropriate, though, for a fox's wiles to keep the fight so close to the feline master used to evasive tactics. Perhaps... with nimbleness clearly on her side, the warrior would be content to remain grounded for the rest of the fight.

When he draws in breath, he simultaneously whirls around in a quick one-eighty. The Musashi blades slide out of their scabbards once more -- a nod to the sheer -power- of iaijutsu coming from the motion of the draw. The lower of the two blades whistles past in a lateral slash, brought to bear by the cat's right paw. A split second later, the slash is shadowed by an upraised slash, ferried by his twin tails. Two potent strikes by a master skilled enough to injure without slaying, in the blink of an eye -- honed by decades of disciplined practice. After all -- Jubei can tell that he is in good company in that regard.

COMBATSYS: Jubei successfully hits Renka with Form One - Shadow Wolf.
- Power hit! -

[               \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\  < >  ////////////////              ]
Jubei            1/--=====/=======|=======\===----\1            Renka

The clack of her sword against his scabbard is no reason to hesitate - if anything, that moment of contact is cause to move even aggressively. It's proof she isn't fighting a ghost. And it offers the glimmer of hope that while his full potential speed is leagues beyond her own, the injuries sustained in the previous bloody bout have possibly left him just barely within reach.

She steps into the follow up attempt to destabilize him with the slam from the blunt end of the sword before turning into the full, leaning two handed strike to deal a more decisive blow. The Corporal feels, for an instant, the bite of her blade connecting with something - perhaps it will be an injury that turns the tide of this match at last! She follows through with the slash even as it scrapes off his defense, feet twisting on the floor to convert the full-committal momentum into a spin that brings her back around in an attempt to have her guard ready by the time he retaliates.

Against most sword wielding opponents, her plan for defense might have had the chance to succeed, announced by the inevitable clang of metal. But it's mid turn that Renka remembers the unfortunate fate of her spear when it ran afoul of the Dream Blades. She can't afford to sacrifice her sword in a vain attempt at deflecting an edge that can cut through anything!

The fox-eared soldier tries to correct for it, attempting to counter her own whirling momentum, to turn against it and retreat back out of range rather than attempt to clash against the anticipated counterstrike. One of her azure swarm flies back down into her as she turns, and as it vanishes against her back, she begins to move with greater speed than before. The way the creature kicks off from her right foot, leaning forward as if to pivot into a horizontal spin through the air looks smooth enough to suggest that it was the nimble creature's plan all along rather than an act of last second desperation, but the creature is caught in the attempt all the same, the horizontal slash gouging deeply through her right shoulder right before the upswinging second strike slices a much shallower if wider gash between the shoulderblades of the spinning kitsune.

The cuts, damaging as they may be, are delivered with an edge so keen that they don't apply enough force to disrupt the evasive move, allowing Renka to land on her feet six feet to the right of where she had been standing when she last attacked, sliding to a stop along with her accompanying swarm of remaining foxfire spheres, a gasp of breath escaping her lips. She comes to rest leaning forward, left hand pressed against the floor, right hand gripping her burning sword at her side.

The burn on her back is slow to register, recognized more for the blood rolling around her side from behind than realization of the damage caused. The shoulder pain is more evident to her, head turning to take in the open wound cut cleaning through jacket and shirt into the flesh above her collar bone.

A blink, then Corporal Kaneko's expression shifts, eyes closing for a moment as she rises out of her low crouch into a forward leaning stance, left shoulder forward, both hands clasping the grip of her blade. Her preparation is swift, but her movements more deliberate now, less recklessly aggressive. Her breath is held, chest no longer moving with the normal cycle of inhaling and exhaling the strain of combat would inflict in most. Green eyes lock on Jubei as she transitions to another state of mind - a calmer, more controlled place, every thought, every idea, every sensation focused on the execution of her most practiced attack. If she can catch him it might just be enough -

She bursts forward, her swarm of spheres rushing in behind her to keep up, dashing straight for Jubei now. No tricks, no deception, no feints or misdirection. Every iota of her supernatural strength, speed, and endurance is devoted to moving into a singular, two handed slash at mid-height as she tries to pass Jubei on his right, a new swath of azure trailing her blade.

There is no battle cry, no shout or loud kiai, the kitsune silent but for the sound of her steps, rustle of her clothing, or whipping of her twin tails as she tries to strike a legend with the fastest attack she can muster!

COMBATSYS: Renka successfully hits Jubei with The Lonesome Road.

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Jubei            1/=======/=======|=======\===----\1            Renka

Looks can be deceiving. And foxes doubly so. So, really, Jubei has absolutely no idea how old Renka -really- is. She could be as young as she appears; there's an equal chance that she could be ten times his age. On some level, the samurai cat knows not to make assumptions in that regard.

Really, the only metrics upon which he can rely are the ones meted out through battle. And in his brief time battling Renka, he's been able to get a rough estimate of her speed and capabilities. With a slight adjustment here, and a shift of weight there, the old cat's been able to focus quick, decisive strikes to the kitsune, denying her opportunities to strike at his disabled left arm. And for the most part... it had worked so far.

%Jubei adjusts his footing, pivoting so that he once more faces Renka with an iai stance -- right arm crossing his body, primed to draw the sword for a strike. For he fully expects her to stab once more for his left side -- and he plans to intercept her in the process.

But that is where her experience pays off.
She chooses instead to stop the nimble-footed dancing.
She grows serious.

Jubei's ears fold back, eye narrowing.
For he recognizes this stance.
The mark of the Empty Mind, cleared of all interruptions.

Jubei realizes his error almost immediately -- that by turning his right side to Renka, he's denied her access to the left, but he's also presented a new opportunity to his right. Whiskers twitch, and he grunts with the realization. With a pivot to his right, he shifts his grip and begins to bring the scabbard up. An attack to his left, he was prepared for -- an attack to his right, less so. But here, too, his expectations fall short, as he hadn't expected the more -serious- Renka to be even -faster-.

A crimson crescent erupts from his right abdomen, proving that his motion was an eyeblink away from success. Jubei lists hard to his left, stumbling to such a degree that he finds himself leaning on the scabbarded sword as if it were a cane. The freshly cut wound continues to gush outward, staining his jacket and painting the floor as he clambers sideways for balance.

The cat bares his teeth -- not in anger, but self-directed disappointment. His body has held up until this point in the battle -- but the combination of Hazama and Renka is definitely taking its toll.

He plants his left foot. And sharply drops his right elbow, standing free of his swords' support. The scarlet flow from his right abdomen turns dark, the flow shifting first to black, then intermingling with ribbons of white. The feline warrior's nostrils flare, as he steadies his gaze. He may have shown weakness, in that moment -- but now he seems hellbent on matching Renka's level of gravity.

Victory or unconsciousness will be the only allowable outcomes of the Empty Mind. Jubei leans forward, as ebony and ivory flows of chi swirl around him. He squints his gaze at Renka, then at a spot directly behind her. Then to the floor. Then above her -- then back to the floor. Black voids appear in each spot he'd sighted -- and then the ebon voids fill with milky white. Hexagons, inlaid with circles to suggest cat paws.

And in the next instant, he thunders forward -- three black trails etched into the air in the wake of his sundering claws. The One-Eyed Twin Lotus aims to barrel right -through- Renka with his tumultuous speed, knocking her into the floor. And from there, a second barrage of strikes would shift upwards -- and a third shift would zig-zag right back downward. If the kitsune is too intent on meeting the attack head-on, she might not be able to avoid getting carried along for the ride...!

COMBATSYS: Renka fails to counter Shiranui Steel - Lightning from Jubei with Recorded in Blood EX.

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Jubei            0/-------/-======|

COMBATSYS: Renka can no longer fight.

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Jubei            0/-------/-======|

The transition from reckless, self-sacrificing aggression to the intensely focused creature he faces now is something easily observed even by the viewing audience. Frantic, lunging slashes replaced by a silent, breathless preparation to strike the feline swordsmaster. Even in the well illuminated venue, her dwindling swarm of foxfire spheres cast shadows about her as they swirl in anxious readiness for the attack to come.

But as the haze of aggression melts, she finally has a chance to study the wounded warrior she faces. One by one, her thoughts fade away, as her mind narrows its focus on the attack she must execute without flaw in order to match the one-eyed beast's injury-impaired abilities. Her mouth pressed to a thin line, senses tuning out every distraction, the audience, the lights, the noise, the pressure of obligation, of expectation, of the pain of her own wounds painted across her by the master's brush.

Nothing exists but for her and Jubei.
Even her sword is but an extension of herself as Renka launches herself into the attack.

She slides to a stop several feet beyond, legs bending, feet angling so that she pivots to a rest once more facing her opponent, tails swirling about her legs, body tightly wound, sword at her side. The assessment is instant - the attack was a success. But it fell just shy of being decisive. It would take more. She still had not fully taken the measure of her opponent. Wounded as he was, limited in options compared to when he first faced the venomous Colonel, he was still dangerous.

The kitsune's largest foxfire sphere continues to channel rejuvenating energy into her, knitting wounds, placing lost blood with a surplus of soul power, but even now it is beginning to diminish in size. She would need to defeat the cat in their next exchange. She could not withstand another attack.

It is in the calmness of her present state that sharper thoughts manage to find their way into her consciousness, slipping through doubting cracks to challenge her perception. Across the way, she was fighting a creature branded an enemy of humanity by the organization she served within. The files indicated he was just like the others - monsters with legacies that birthed the unending war between mankind and the rest of sentient life.

But in facing his blade, in fighting the one-eyed master, in breathing in his presence, there was no trace of that antipathy for life, that blood lust she had expected to find. Emerald eyes narrow as Renka leans forward, both hands tightening on the grip of her long, curved sword. He had seen much of her skill, had seen many of her techniques, but he had not, as of yet, seen every trick in the fox's arsenal.

But she couldn't shake the thought as Jubei steadies his own, singular-eyed gaze back in her direction. She was facing kin - his features might be different, his stature that of another species, but in his steady eye she saw the truth of it. Humanity called him a darkstalker, just like they did her. They were others, outcasts, forced to walk the lonesome road their choices took them down.

She sensed the impending deciding moment rushing in on her, a pressure that would be suffocating had she need to breath at all. The database defined her opponent as a monster, it spelled out in explicit detail the magnitude of his crimes, and spared no words in establishing a characterization that was in stark contrast to what she found herself facing.

It wasn't the first time she had encountered such a contradiction - the Ikari Warriors had been described as lowlife thugs, unskilled, disloyal brutes that needed to be taken down. Yet she had faced two of them, had seen the bonds of family forged not by birth but by life. They too were outcasts, strengthened by their bonds with one another, and not the savages she had expected to find.

She had assumed the records infallible, but her senses, her instincts were starting to scream otherwise.

Perhaps what the Librarium needed was not one more hunter - what it needed was an auditor, someone who could make sure the information on record was accurate, that the real threats were plainly known, and the misunderstood absolved. She blinks once as Jubei visualizes his path, projecting by strength of mind the points through which he will navigate with speed that would leave lightning wanting.

What did the future hold for her? She felt it waiting, her life passing through a moment of transition, waiting for a moment of revelation, of answers to the questions she didn't realize she had. What was she fighting this battle for? It wasn't for the Colonel, her obedience to him was driven by fear rather than respect. It wasn't to protect anyone near or dear to her - in this specific situation, the old cat didn't pose a direct threat to anyone. Those who had seen her put her life on the line in battle would never deny that in her heart burned a furnace of fighting spirit. But it was a fire fueled not by competition but by duty, kindled by an impossible dream. Why did she need to put her all into this moment, exactly?

Teeth grit, eyes opening in the split second it took for Jubei to complete his preparation for their final exchange. He will test her most devious of tricks, the limits of her speed, the extents of her strength. A dozen additional foxfire spheres spring into existence around Renka as she commits the remainder of her strength to the next instant. Many opponents might be lost by the light show, distracted in their way by the dancing fire, but not the old cat.

The kitsune's form shimmers, becoming unstable, almost ephemeral to his eye, while an almost transparent echo visible only to Forgotten Hero appears at her side, just as readied, just as prepared to attack. Against almost any other opponent, her illusion would have held, the fox-tailed spirit leaving a false target behind, leaving her target vulnerable as they strike at the lingering energy manifestation. She couldn't have known she was facing one in possession of Sekigan, one capable of dispelling illusions or aligning perception with unmitigated, undiluted truth. Against such, her illusions would hold no sway.

The gap in her knowledge becomes clear as Jubei's slashing charge connects solidly with the invisible fox-eared soldier, slamming her bodily against the hard floor, the illusory copy scattered like liquid fire.

Struck, Renka slashes back as she falls, her flaming sword missing the divinely fast cat as he rebounds into a blur of clawed slashes augmented by ebony energy. A second, reverse slash is attempted in desperation as the maelstrom of slashes dives back into her, shredding blue and white cloth and carving countless crimson lines across his opponent, the trailing swath of foxfire narrowly missing him a second time.

Renka Kaneko slams against the ground, bouncing once before coming to rest on her back amid a brief shower of raining droplets of blood. The old cat's claws didn't cut lethally deep, but they knew how to sap the vitality of even the durable darkstalker soldier.

Arms out at her sides, she finally takes in a deep breath, vision blurred as she gazes at the whirling blue lights of her lingering foxfire spheres. A longer blink follows, her supernatural durability spent in the violent bloodloss that would keep her from being able to move again soon even though the fingers of her right hand remain white-knuckle tight on her bloody sword, its azure flame going out.

As her consciousness waned, Renka wasn't sure what she would do with those sparks of epiphany discovered in combat. She wasn't sure what shape her future would take. Or where it would take her.

A long, slow exhale follows, as each of her drifting foxfire spheres winks out, one by one and the kitsune closes her eyes.

Of her future, Renka Kaneko knew only two things for certain - it would always be born in pain, and it would always be recorded in blood.

The samurai cat has long found solace in the heat of combat. For there, only the battle-auras of the combatants hold any meaning -- those who have not dedicated their hearts to the battle lack a voice in the proceedings. All that remains is the clarity of victory to determine which ideals will prove triumphant.

In battle is honesty. Words can be misinterpreted, misjudged. But the sincerity driving an edge sharp enough to decapitate or dismember can not be questioned. Ignoble intentions become manifest. Heroism moreso. For if a warrior like Jubei, wielding swords like the twin Musashi, were to bear ill will... would there be any left to question him?

But no -- the warrior's intentions are pure. His motions, honed by decades of discipline, are rendered without passion or malice. For he truly -admires- Renka's dedication to the art, and is grateful to have experienced someone who can fight as he does -- singularly dedicated to the same goals.

He knows full well that the corporal's determination speaks to a higher purpose -- the pursuit of justice. The path of righteousness. The honesty of battle clarifies a great many things -- and he understands now that the clarion call of the Azure Flame is one borne in a firmly-held belief -- but not necessarily a corrupt one.

His orange jacket ruffles in flight, fluttering as he lands back onto his weathered paws. His swords clack in their scabbards as he whirls back around to face Renka, right paw raising in a tentative guard. His body aches, every limb on fire. His body, as stubborn as he, refuses to quit despite the numerous trophies of battle. Only discipline can allow him to remain at the ready -- for the old cat would be more than happy to just... curl up on the floor if the situation would allow.

As the foxfire spheres begin to wink out, one by one, the tunnel-vision of the Empty Mind begins to fade away. Distantly, he can make out the sounds of the KOF announcers declaring an end to the match. His periphery becomes clearer -- the felled skeleton of a T-Rex at his left, a clear passageway to his right.

He flashes a weary smile back at Renka.
"Keep followin' yer heart, Corporal. That way, y'won't ever be led astray."
His voice is light and airy in spirit -- friendly, even.

More of the periphery becomes clear to him -- heartbeats yearning for battle. NOL soldiers on standby -- would-be combatants hoping to intrude on the noble battlefield. All waiting on one order -- to capture the criminal bounties. Here are two highly wanted criminals, enemies of the people. On paper, they're protected by KOF regulations. But here, within an NOL sanctum... is not possession four-fifths of the law?

His tails flick back and forth. His whiskers twitch; his ears fold down in frustration.

And then he hears a different sound, dim at first -- causing his ears to cup towards the sound. The sound of ungreased wheels turning, intermingling with the heavy footfalls of a small someone pulling a load larger than themself. Squeak, clomp-clomp, squeak, clomp-clomp, in repetition.

Jubei reaches back, pulling the hood over his furry mane. He grows smaller, though his voluminous, blood-stained jacket makes it unclear whether he's resting or coiling up for something more.

"Was an honor to fight you, Corporal. We should meet again. Over tea."

Again, to face a knight of the blue flame. The tongues of flame themselves are pure. The -symbol- is one of incorruptible flame. But it's long been the view of the One-Eyed Twin Lotus that the torch is held aloft by those of unspeakable evil. He's here solely because someone tore the flame away from its torch. Because Clio St Jeanne was able to harness the purifying flame for good, rather than in the service of a fel God of Destruction. He can hope that Renka is able to follow a similar path away from the darkness.

The sounds grow louder, urgent, deafening.
Soldiers await an order that never comes.
Squeak clomp-clomp squeak clomp-clomp squeak clomp-clomp squeak!

A rickshaw thunders past -- a cart pulled by a young woman with a tan Kaka hood, obscuring all but dangerous red-slitted eyes and a row of sharp, pointy teeth. And in the passenger seat, Jubei's protege and battle partner.

A weary Jubei suddenly uncoils, leaping into the air.
The cart rushes past.
And the orange-frocked cat lands upon the cart's seatback, perfectly balanced.
The rickshaw groans under the additional weight.
The pace ebbs, only slightly.

And with that, Team Kaka barrels out the front door, with none the wiser.

Log created on 10:47:37 08/01/2019 by Clio, and last modified on 09:23:18 09/15/2019.