Nakoruru - Yukar #2: Forks in the Path

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Description: A story of lessons, realizations, and destinations.

The commotion and excitement of their time with the King of Fighters tournament has come and gone. The event will continue forward with its bouts of violence, bloodshed, sporting competition, and bitter enemies facing off against one another. But it will do that without the presence of the duo that comprised Team Legacy. Now all that remains is the epilogue of the team before its story is put to rest.

Once the dust, fallen bamboo, and brilliant flashes of power had all settled, there was nothing left but for the two to move onward to whatever next lies in the path of their lives. For now, at least, Kung Lao's journey takes him back to the monastery where this chapter had begun. East, to toward the coast.

When it came to the method of travel, the nature-blessed Nakoruru showed no interest in availing herself of modern conveyance, seeming content to walk the distance now that there was no pressure to maintain the strict schedule required by tournament participation. It would be a journey of one thousand miles or two and a half million steps... roughly four weeks of unhurried but fairly continuous travel aside stops to rest.

And what better landmark to follow on the Eastward journey than the Great Wall of China? Running East to West along the northern border of the vast nation, following the fortifications would eventually bring the hiking duo to the coast from where it would be only a few days journey to finally reach the walls of the academy where the journey began.

Days would be spent walking with nights spent pausing to camp, prepare a meal at a small fire, and gather their strength for the following day. The environments varied - thick forests, grassy plains, and vast stretches of dry desert sands all brush up against the route of the wall. Sometimes Nakoruru would speak of a prior trip to China - one two hundred years in the past.

'I remember this village in the center of a lake. Some of its people had never set foot on dry land, considering it cursed...'
'Once, I encountered a devout monk of powerful conviction journeying in the company of demons for bodyguards...'
'There was this sage who dwelt in a hut of pitch black but for a pinhole in the ceiling to allow in the narrowest beam of light...'

While the Great Wall itself was certainly an imposing, majestic fortification at places common to visitors, much of the legendary stretch of architecture was in a state of ruin and decay. Sandstorms were left to wear down the stonework in stretches of desert and in many places, the wall was nearly overgrown, reclaimed by nature surrounding it.

As dusk settles over the valley the two move through now, the 'Great Wall' is little more than a stretch of packed earth rising up to the level of the middle of the forest trees that surround it on either side. Walking atop it is easy enough, as it is still six feet wide, but one must still watch their step as places are not nearly as sturdy as one might expect.

Though it was not so terribly long ago that Kung Lao first approached his diminutive partner in the grand courtyard of the Wu Shi academy, in a matter of months he has traveled further and seen more than the entire rest of his life combined. He has dug deep into the well of his spirit, given one of the most spectacular fighting performances of his life against the enigmatic Slayer, and yet...
Hidden brown eyes study Nakoruru from behind as the pair of them pick their way carefully across the crumbling top of the broad section of wall, both warriors possessed of enough natural grace that a slip and tumble is more than unlikely. For these passed weeks she has been his guide through the wilderness, charting their course and filling the air with stories while he has contributed comparatively little to the conversation. In fact, though long stretches of silence are by no means out of character for the young monk, since waking in the medical tent after their fight with Honoka he has seemed distracted, gaze more often focused inward than out.
The soft rhythm of his wooden sandals striking dirt slows, Lao glancing off to the side to take in the trees rising up around them, shifting a wooden staff off of one leanly muscled shoulder and swinging it around his body to rest it across the other, the heavy cloth bag hanging from its end swaying with the motion. He has taken it upon himself to carry the majority of their supplies, such as they are, as well as his ceremonial champion's garb. His normal travel clothes are much more subdued, consisting of a long blue vest worn loose and open to reveal the entirety of his lightly tanned front, a pair of travel-stained martial arts pants that once might have been white, and his typical broad-brimmed metal hat worn low to cast the majority of his face into shadow.
Steps slowing yet further, Lao eventually straggles to a halt, turning away from his guide to stare off through the dappled shade of the trees, taking in their rough bark and the gentle sway of their branches as a near undetectable wind tugs at their tops. Bowing his head forward, ponytail trailing heavily down his back he considers the dirt between his feet, searching for the words that belong with the feelings trapped inside him.
"Nakoruru," He begins after a moment, voice emerging with a surprising amount of confidence and conviction for one who has been quiet for so long, "Are you grateful for your immortality? As we have traveled, you have told many stories. Stories of your journey across this land when these trees were young. But what about this life? Are there stories here to be remembered?"

The seemly well-versed nature guide never seems to mind Kung Lao's reticence for conversation. While there are plenty of long periods of time where the two travel in relative silence, nothing but the sounds of the world around them, the winds over sands, the breeze through trees, the song of birds or the rustle of grass to fill the air, she just as readily fills the quiet with her stories; some more fanciful than others though never quite crossing into the realm of incredulity. Whether every encounter she cites is one she actually lived or only created to serve a narrative is left to the listener to determine.

For one dressed mostly in white but for the crimson and azure geometric patterns of her robe, one might expect that the trail they are making across the land would have more than left its mark all over the girl. But in just one more of many reminders that very little about his companion is mundane, each morning she looks as pristine as when their journey started, the small stains of earth or green on her robe or pants gone from sight, the marks of dust on her hands or cheek equally missing. It is as if each morning is the start of a fresh new adventure with little evidence of what came before lingering.

The pace of their travel is nothing that would tax the stamina of either, and it is not unusual to pause occasionally, to admire vast vistas of China's remarkable terrain or to drink from a lake or stream in passing. There are the occasional villages along the way either adjacent to or not too far off from the wall where they can stop for supplies. Some seem to be well traveled locations, whereas at others, the villagers showed wide eyed surprise to see anyone come their way. Still, reception has been friendly, respect particularly paid to the young monk in the metal hat.

When Kung Lao pauses, within a few more steps, Nakoruru does likewise, her red moccasin-clad feet turning on the packed dirt wall to face out in the direction he looks before she notices that his head is bowed, his eyes not basking in any distant beauty but rather distracted with thoughts within. Head canting slightly, she clasps her hands behind her back just above the slender blade sheathed behind her waist.

He poses his question and she is quiet, eyes flicking toward him, then away as he addresses her. After another moment, she turns to the side, her back toward him now, hands unclasping from behind her back, allowing her arms to rest against her sides.

"I remember I was surprised when I first saw it," she speaks up after several seconds. "It had such a reputation. Many spoke of its majestic grandeur, its intimidating height - this wall," she taps her foot on the dirt beneath them. "The Great Wall, hm." She grunts softly, shaking her head, "In some places, it is quite the sight to behold, but once you get out here, away from the places where tourists or diplomats will see, you find that much of it is more like this. Dirt, mud walls from a millennium ago, and not so particularly great."

She turns back around to face Kung Lao, hands clasped in front of her then, eyes on him, "Before I slept... my life was like any other. I remember those years... their memories are fresh... because to me, they were not that long ago. My might have started in what seems like history to you, but I have only been alive for as many years as you."

She turns away, taking a few steps forward, head leaning back to take in the canopy of trees growing over the wall above. "Am I grateful for immortality?" she asks back, hands once more gripped tightly behind her back. Seconds pass.

"I am glad to be alive."

Lowering her face, she turns to face off to the side, the direction he had looked at the start. "We will see how I feel about..." she lifts a hand from behind her back to make a somewhat waving gesture, as if brushing something aside lightly, "Immortality, when I have experienced what it is like. If I see a lifetime or two slip by, if I watch as everyone I know leaves eventually, as the world turns, times change, and seasons become years, and years decades... will I still feel this way?" Her shoulders rise in the slightest of shrugs, "I do not know. I wonder of the kamuy are glad to be alive, or if for them, existence is but a dreary inevitability... can you truly appreciate that which you can never lose?"

She smiles then, glancing toward Kung Lao, her expression warm. "As far as stories go? Of course. I remember praying with a shaman from the Americas over a seedling in a forest of the damned... I remember finding a vast portrait portraying a calamity I survived in the past featuring my friends and enemies from bygone times... I remember a blind swordsman who interceded in a dark hour and of a young woman who accompanied me to my sister's frozen grave."

She turns then, looking forward along the wall. "I remember a father and his son brave in the face of horror." She glances over her shoulder then, eyes never quite making it all the way to Kung Lao. "And I remember a monk who invited me to see more of the world with him, giving me company and excuse to stop wasting away the days in lonely thought." She rests her hands over each other at the base of her neck, "I can tell you of these stories as well. Maybe I shouldn't dwell so much on the past."

The initial response from his time-displaced partner draws Kung Lao's attention up from his sandals, shadowed face turned to watch as she gestures and speaks. There is no twitch of a smile on his lips, expression set in a firm line of contemplation. That is, until the last of her words drift back to him along the path, her idle steps carrying her further east.
"Perhaps not." Lao agrees quietly, chin dipping and some of the tension draining from him in a long, thought-filled sigh. In some ways, speaking to the young woman feels like speaking to one of his masters. Each question eliciting a response that could mean nothing, everything, or perhaps holds only the meaning it is given. A mirror of words built of respect and self-reflection, transforming even an innocent statement into one full of hidden depth.
Even still, the bare chested monk makes no attempt to follow his companion further along the path. Sandals rooted to the spot, he glances from Nakoruru out over the steep shade-dappled slope of the wall, drawing in a deep lung full of fresh air down into his lower lungs and forcing it back out with slow deliberation. There is still reluctance in his posture, but with every second it is fading, slowly being replaced with a growing sense of conviction, as if each breath were firming his resolve, steeling his mind toward the decision he had been working on during their weeks of travel.
"Thank you for agreeing to join me on this journey, and for this return trip. It has been good to have time to, think. To better come to know myself."
Lifting his right hand from the pole braced upon his shoulder, he runs 2 fingers lightly along the razor rim of his hat, the lightest of regretful smiles tweaking his lips up at the corners in a wry little grimace.
"I did not expect our return to come so soon. In fact..." hesitating for a moment, he allows his fingers to rest upon the edge of his bladed headwear, the action absentminded and dangerously close to splitting his skin. "It is unfounded, but I had fully expected us to win. Though I thought Goro was unbeatable, the fact that he was defeated...I had assumed that if only I were to try, gave it my heart and soul, I could be just as unstoppable. My loss has humbled me, and I am shamed to admit that it hurts. And yet, at the end of our travels lies the Wu Shi. Home, and all that I have ever known, returned to me."
Lifting his unsliced fingers away from the razor rim of his hat, he allows it to drop to his side, pushing up a little straighter and glancing over to offer Nakoruru a more genuine grin, though it is not entirely joyful. Confident, reassuring, maybe sympathetic, but missing the true spark of happiness that one looks for in a flash of white teeth.
"I will never struggle with the immortal's burden. But know that for as long as I live, I will not forget the lessons I have learned here. And though you will live on eternally while I grow old and slow, for a time -- hopefully many years -- you will have at least one friend who understands the true weight of expectation."

When she pauses in her speaking, she makes no indication of hurry or impatience in the time it takes Kung Lao to respond. Her attention wanders back off the side of the wall, the same direction his gaze lingers. Her form is still, her robe swaying lightly against her legs, toyed with by a gentle breeze that likewise disturbs her raven-black hair and the ribbon that adorns it. Her left arm falls to her side, while her right hand lifts, resting against the side of her head, brushing back slightly to nudge a loose lock of hair behind her ear.

"Nn." Her response to his expression of thanks for accompanying him on their King of Fighters adventure is little more than a quiet, casual acknowledgment. He mentions not expecting their return to come as soon as it had and the young woman turns her head to glance toward him again, her eyebrows raising slightly as he mentions expectation of victory in the tournament.

At the idea of being unstoppable, her smile warms, head dipping in a slight nod, face turning away to look aside once more. He touches on the future before the both of them, common ground for some years, decades even, before the whims of the Kamuy would force their paths to diverge. Nakoruru lifts her left hand to rest it lightly near the base of her neck once more, turning to face Kung Lao directly then, her eyes conducting an open study of his face, his posture. "I'm glad," she replies, expression shifting into a more relaxed smile, "To have at least one who understands."

Her smile fades then, brow furrowing slightly, arms dropping against her sides. "In Hokkaido, storms are not uncommon, with their heavy rain and gale force winds... But I remember growing up, for five years, the storms did not come... until one night, a fierce maelstrom washed over our land. The next morning, we found all the young trees that had grown tall in the storm-free years were uprooted, scattered as twigs. While the old trees, those who had been tested by storm after storm, stood strong, unbowed."

She turns away then, facing toward the East along the wall-top path. "Better to learn of defeat now than at the hands of one who would see you dead." she states thoughtfully. Not all battles are merely for sport. "To learn that all alone, no one is unstoppable..." She breathes in then exhales, turning to face the young monk directly, steel-blue eyes on him once more. "What will you do now with these lessons you claim to have learned? Goro, mighty as he might have been, was but one threat this world faces..."

It can be a difficult thing to admit to being wrong. It can be even harder to realize how much of your world view is simple delusion. For these passed weeks Kung Lao has wrestled with this problem, worrying not only about his new found place in the world, but what his diminutive travel companion must think of him now. And yet, after finally having gathered the courage to talk about it, to force the words out into the air between them , does he realize just how foolish his fears had been.
Perhaps it is a uniquely male thing, to be ashamed that one can not pull the moon from the sky by reaching just that little bit further...
Anxiety puffing away to nothing at the sight of Nakoruru's smile, the young monk returns it with a genuine one of his own, lips curving up crookedly into something just shy of a smirk. Giving his hatted head a slow shake that sets his ponytail to rustling, he finally turns away from the edge of the path, sandaled feet crunching softly through dirt as he wanders closer to the young woman.
"Now that it has been said, I feel less as if I have learned and more like I have realized the obvious." Kung Lao replies, a faint touch of dry humor tracing the edge of his words. However, as he comes to within a couple of yards of the girl the smile fades from his face, and he drifts once more to a stop.
"What I will do next is, part of what has weighed so heavily upon my thoughts." he admits quietly, shrugging his staff off of his shoulder and planting the butt of it into the dirt, heavy sack angled back and to one side to keep it from hanging down between them while they talk. Leaning his lean weight against it, he folds his bare forearms across the shaft and observes Nakoruru from the shadow of his hat, once more contemplative.
"I do not wish to remain a sapling. I may have learned that I am not invulnerable, but that does not dampen my desire to become so. What we have spoken of, honing skills, testing oneself. I can not do this if I return to the Wu Shi."

"Hmmm," Nakoruru replies thoughtfully as the warrior monk considers that perhaps his experiences outside the walls of the academy have opened his eyes to the obvious. She waits though, looking at him, clearly expectant of an answer to the question she posed. Perhaps there is no point in moving any further along the path until that answer is given.

There is a slight nod offered in response to his initial thoughts, an understanding look in her eyes but not a surprised one. She seems to have expected that this matter had weighed on his mind for some time now.

She breaks eye contact as he continues, turning partially to the side, face lowered some, realizing perhaps the decision he is giving voice to and its implications. To decide not to return to the safety of home, to bask in the demanding but familiar environment he had known all his life... such a choice could not be made lightly. Yet he has come to realize precisely what she had implied he should... and with that knowledge, knowing that to go home is directly at odds with his heartfelt ambition, a choice had to be made.

A choice, between setting aside his desire to grow stronger in favor of the sanctuary of Wu Shi, or taking the harder path, the one that will inevitably force growth through trials beyond those he would experience under his masters' regimens.

She looks back toward Kung Lao then, face turned along her shoulder, eyes tracing over him, scrutinizing the young man for a moment before her gentle smile returns. "Within the walls of the academy, you have developed combat skills that rival the elite fighters in the world... Yet you can't even know that much without testing yourself against them." She nods slowly then, a soft agreement to the realization to which he gave voice.

"You should be grateful for the wealth of experiences your teachers have given you... but I do believe the only academy that can bring you closer to your goal is the university of the world," she continues, right arm lifting, sweeping out to the side, gesturing to the world beyond the wall atop which they travel. She is quiet for a moment, right hand joining her left to clasp in front of her.

"This venture you set out on when we left your home... it is just the beginning. While our paths may part soon, I hope that you take comfort knowing that our combined journey continues from here. We both still have so much to learn, each in our own ways..."

She turns away then, hands clasped behind her back. "Kung Lao," she states, her voice weighed with quiet melancholy, "I knew in my heart when we started this trek that I would not be setting eyes on the courtyard of the Wu Shi again so soon... But let us meet again there one day. In one year's time? It will be a chance to share new stories... ones we can't even imagine today. What do you say to that?" she asks, glancing over her shoulder.

"I have long suspected the breadth of my skill, but it is far beneath one such as I to boast." Kung Lao interjects, the words accompanied by a brief, bright smile full of cocky self-assurance. However, as the mood of the conversation drops slightly, he sobers, pushing up off of his staff and rolling the heavy length of wood off into his left hand. Hefting it, he swings the butt end around to plant just beside his left foot, getting it out of the way for the low bow he offers Nakoruru's back.
"It would be good to have stories of my own to share." the young monk admits, straightening once more with a flick of his braid back over his shoulder and a deep inhalation of breath. "Let it be a year and a day. That is more befitting legends such as ourselves. In a year and a day, I will find you beneath the tree I first met you in."
Hoisting his staff for what must be the final time, he swings it into position over his right shoulder and braces it there, heavy bag swaying behind him. His now free left hand lifts to touch the rim of his hat in a gesture that isn't quite a salute, nudging it down so that it yet further obscures his features.
"I will carry the memories of the stories you have shared with me." the monk promises easily, "But in turn, you must remember that which you have learned from me. The value of a good hat." Again there is a quick flash of teeth from within the shadowed gloom cast by the selfsame headwear, much of the young warrior's spirits seeming to have been restored.
Beginning to turn away then, to step off to the south side of the steeply sloped drop off and the dark woods that lie beyond, Kung Lao pauses a final time to glance back over one lean shoulder. His tone is still light, still edging toward cocky, but the earnest emotion shines through regardless.
"Let us hope that the university of the world is ready to receive me. And though I do not know what trials await you, face them well and with greater wisdom than I would."
That said, Kung Lao seems to decide that the time for their parting is rather sooner than later. Attention breaking away, he makes to step out off the edge of the path and descend down through the trees with sure-footed agility, leaving his wayward companion alone atop the embankment with naught but light wind and birdsong for company.

She turns as the young monk lays out a counter offer to the one she made, quiet smile brightening into a ready grin. "A year and a day then, say you say," she offers in agreement. She studies him as he hefts his staff and bag, adjusting his hat down, that thoughtful look of one seeing something that merits further investigation when time allows.

But when mentions the intrinsic value of good head-wear, he manages to elicit a light giggle from the child of the past and a soft shake of her head, "I fear I am not prepared for any fashion so sharp as that..."

She turns to watch him as he prepares to step down off the weather-worn section of the wall, hands still clasped in front of her. "Hmm," she replies, that some thoughtful contemplation as he calls into question whether the world is ready for one such as he, but her eyes reflect amusement that the sound only hints at. "Let us hope."

There is a dip of her head as he bids his own wish to her as well, a blink, then her eyes glancing to the side as if other thoughts stir in her mind now that their time together has come to an end. "Until then," she states, her voice soft yet carrying easily over the distance.

She watches the monk briefly before lifting her face, to study the skies through the canopy of trees. She turns slowly to the right as if trying to orient herself to something she sees above, corrects slightly to the left, then looks forward again. With a soft exhale, she closes her eyes and bows her head briefly, a moment of silent prayer or reflection.

Then her own journey continues as the sword maiden steps down the north side of the wall, following whatever compass guides Nature's Warrior along her own path. Within several strides, a large wolf, one eye battle-scarred, moves out of the bushes to walk alongside the girl. Nakoruru lowers her hand, resting it on the great beast's back. "See? I knew you would like him," she observes with a grin. The wolf growls, the sound coming across as grumpy acknowledgment, as the two vanish into the trees.

Log created on 14:07:57 01/18/2020 by Nakoruru, and last modified on 19:31:27 01/26/2020.