Raiden - Absent Without Fault

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Description: Present Without Excuse

"Do not follow me." Scarlet Dahlia, the Ainu puppetmaster, stands alongside an all-terrain truck, on the edge of a dark forest. She rests her hand on the shoulder of the rank-and-file Shadaloo soldier that drove her there. Her amber-flecked gaze pierces into the soldier's eyes, into his mind. It shouldn't take a mental compulsion from the psychic tusukur to get him to stay in place; she uses one anyway. She recognizes the faint traces of her invisible handiwork; pleased, she continues, "I will return when I'm ready."

That was some minutes ago. Now, she finds her way through the forest. When she was last here, it was her garb that was red -- an unconventional attush robe, scarlet red in color, embroidered with patterns no Ainu had worn before. This time, it is her hair -- an unnaturally bright cherry red, tied up with only two long forelocks sweeping down to frame her face. Short treads of wingtip shoes make only soft sounds upon the vibrant forest floor. She wears not the clothes of a humble Ainu, but those of a Western businesswoman: a long, charcoal grey overcoat with bronze trim highlights. Beneath that, a pinstriped vest is fastened snugly over top of a lighter grey button-down shirt, with an ash grey necktie. Neatly-pressed black slacks swish with each passing step.

As she walks, she patiently attempts to recall the pathway leading to the village. To the temple. To her last conversation with the Thunder God. But the more she thinks on her past, the more of a quote from her memory blocks her path.

~ I serve no one else but you, Lord Vega. Glory to Shadaloo, for now and ever. ~

A troublesome oath, made to a man who would have it no other way. An oath that Scarlet Dahlia has been thinking quite a bit about, these past few days, ever since the question was put in her mind. She'd made the oath to forestall Vega's attack on the Ainu. But what if obeying the Shadaloo Lord /wasn't/ the only way to save her people?

Kain R. Heinlein is in her corner now; far from an insignificant ally. Zach Glenn, and others, might consider helping her, if the fate of the world relied upon it and not just the dwindling Ainu population. It's a pleasant dream, to think of betraying Vega, with the might of the world's champions at her side.

But, Vega has come back from the dead before -- just like everyone else who's given her trouble in life. And no amount of thought has allowed her to break past that dam.

Dahlia stirs out of her reverie.

She looks for the signs of the path, for signs of the village, for anything that would stir her memories.

Finding nothing, she tenses her jaw. Dahlia withdraws a small fountain pen from her sleeve. Spinning it about her finger -- the most obvious sign of the Ainu manipulator's frustration. Could it be that she has lost her way?

A soft carpet of forest loam is crushed beneath the Dahlia's polished shoes, smells of rotting greenery and blossoming life wafting up to tickle her senses. She has been walking for some time now, adrift in a sea of shadow lit intermittently by shafts of golden sunlight that lance down from above, mossy trunks making a maze of themselves in all directions. And yet, there is no path. No bird song, no animal trail. The course she walks is a lonely one, the rustle of clothing her only companion.
That is, until she senses the other. Felt before seen or heard, a deeper patch of dark moves within the woods to her left, the vague outline of a human man keeping pace with her some 30 feet away. A couple of steps in and the rustle of a robe can be heard, the regular thump of a walking staff tapping earth with every other step. A familiar enough figure to Earth's Champion, not as openly charged with power as the being in her thoughts, but distant and unknowable in ways just as frustrating.
A moment of silence stretches between them while they walk, the god seeming content within it. That he met her here, that the path remains obscured. That is enough. A stark sign of how sharply their paths have diverged, that even now they walk separate trails through the darkness. And yet, she is here. Perhaps not on the same path, but still within the forest.
"Each time you come before me you are stronger than the last." Lord Raiden murmurs across the distance. A positive statement? A neutral one? The god's tone is as soft and crackling as ever, the voice of a storm too distant for fear. "I was not certain you would return."

If it were a human who walked nearby, Dahlia would have felt him from much further away. Here, though, the realization that she is no longer alone is evidenced only by a brief pause in her pen-twirling, and a slight dip of her hand to compensate. Her pace, however, remains steady and unaltered -- a testament to her training as a juggler.

She glances over. Her eyes show the glimmer of recognition, even though many things are changed. And from his attitude and demeanor, and of course his words, it's clear that he recognizes her through the numerous wardrobe changes. As expected of a god.

She hadn't expected to encounter him here in the forest. She wasn't sure if she'd see him at all. But she draws in her breath, in preparation to speak she makes a point of savoring the scents of nature blossoming as intended. To remind herself to act less like a petulant child, and more like the mature adult she dresses to reflect.

The stretch of silence comes to an end with the murmur: the calming, puzzling words of a man existing beyond mortality. It wouldn't be hard for him to recognize the scars that came with her increase in strength, the burns that disfigured her face. The scarred flesh of her cheeks and chin that she does not see the need to hide with this persona.

Dahlia bows her head, her pace thrumming to a stop. She draws in her breath with a tremble, as she keeps her attitude in check.

Finally, she admits with a self-effacing smile: "I might not have."

Her eyes look to the figure with hope for a moment. Before darting downward, shyly.

"Am I welcome here?"

Against anyone else, she might have asked, 'Am I not welcome here any longer?' But sometimes a child must demonstrate that she knows her place.

"Do you wish to be?"
There is no sarcasm or challenge in the god's response, only distant curiosity. As her wandering pace comes to a halt so do does he, dark outline settling beneath the bows of a particularly gnarled tree. No details can be made out within that mass of darkness, no eyes nor flashes of teeth. There is something chilling in those lack of features, in the complete lack of response to her glance. A note of inhumanity that Lord Raiden often works to mask.
"The place you seek is one of sanctuary. If that is what you ask, the path will open to you. All are welcome."
Protection. A space to be free of the burdens she has chosen for herself. Peace, and all that is required of her is that she destroy herself. Lay down her ambition, her drive. Put her fate and that of her people in the hands of another.
Leaves rustle softly overhead as a light breeze filters through the forest, branches swaying just enough to set the spears of light to flickering. And yet, in all the chaotic shifting of illumination none approaches where the god stands.
"But that has never been your way. It is a rare soul who becomes Earth's Champion. The burden of immortality is often heavier than those who seek it could understand."

Do you wish to be? Dahlia keeps her eyes low, considering. her lips part, after a moment, but she hesitates further. The Thunder God asks many questions that seem like jests, and yet... are they not -all- tests, of a sort?

He clarifies, during her period of silent consideration, and she looks up again. Sanctuary -- a place of safety. And a place of stasis. That is enough to bring a glimmer of hope at first, as she looks up to him -- followed by a pensive frown, moments later. The leaves echo her discontent with such a sentiment.

"That's true. I... can't rest here. There's so much to do."

The pen orbits around her gloved fingertips one more time, before she catches hold, and tucks it back within the folds of her sleeve.

"Resting here spares me from the need to watch as the world burns away without. You know me well."

She draws in her breath. She could remain quiet. But that, too, is not really her way.

Dahlia's expression becomes a blank slate -- as she is curious as to what the Thunder God might have to say. "I've done... a lot since we last spoke," she starts.

"Hmmmh." Raiden confirms wordlessly, cloth rustling as the shadow seems to shift in upon itself, hinting at motion just beyond the limits of sight. "Many things of which I am aware."
Words soft but sterile, tone empty, the being begins to pull away. Shadow melding with the deeper dark beneath the tree, what little awareness she has of the being gutters, then dies.
"You have made choices that could be condemned."
Words emerging from a shadow some 40 feet to her right, the being emerges back into her awareness, moving slowly through the dark paths between stretches of light. Not stalking so much as pacing, a meandering glide that sees his voice moving toward her flank, then reversing to drift back around toward her front, never visible, occasionally slipping beyond the prickling sense of her mind.
"Others to be praised."
The crackling words trail off, steps halting behind a waist-high bush some 20 feet ahead and to her left. A line of drifting sunlight illuminates the silhouette of a man with his face turned in her direction, conical hat pulled low and heavy robes obscuring much of his frame. In his right hand is a staff, one end planted against the ground as he lingers thoughtfully.
"And yet...Even this would not have phased you. Whether praised or judged, it has always been a single goal that drives you. Has this changed, Scarlet Dahlia, Honoka Kawamoto? What weight of thought has brought you here? This path would not have been your first."
Though distant, the musings do not come without emotion. The constant crackle that hides within his voice is joined by something else, a genuine gravity that acknowledges the link they share. And yet, that sense of understanding is not quite regret. Whether or not that lack of emotion can be forgiven rests in the heart of his visitor, but perhaps now, having lived the life that she has, she begins to understand what it is to stand apart. An experience that, if the god lived himself, must now be far beyond his ability to recollect.

Dahlia starts, as a voice abruptly makes itself known to her right. The psychic is well-versed in dealing with humans who obey physical laws. She may know the ways of the kamuy, but her body must be trained, its responses steeled.

The second time it happens, she's more ready for it -- holding herself still as the figure appears to her left. The radiant light streams into her eye, forcing her eyes to half-lid in response.

He's right, of course. But she came here knowing that. There was a time when she had a knee-jerk revulsion to people speaking uncomfortable truths. But now...

She speaks slowly. With humility. "My path... was certain." She stares not at the eyes of the man, but slightly below them. "My personal mission, to make right the errors of my past."

Her lips purse, as she wrestles with the next words. She starts again, more slowly. "And now -- that goal remains unchanged, though the path is obscured."

Her eyes lift; a soft breeze rustles her artificially colored hair. "It is as you said, Kamuy Kanna. We fight for the survival of all life on Earth." She pauses, looking into the source of light, the radiance that burns away all lies, leaving only truth behind. She finds her strength, and continues.

"-All- life on earth. And when that life is threatened, is it not the work of Earth's Champion to defend, as best she can?" A question, answered with another. But did she answer at all...? Her lips purse again, as a lump forms in her throat.

Shifting her feet uncomfortably, she blurts out the thought, unwilling to let it fester any longer.

"There is a lot riding on me, at the moment. I have a unique opportunity to preserve life. But it will not remain available forever -- and failure is not an option."

A pause -- this time a confident one, for effect alone.

"I need... help."

Where before the figure of Raiden had seemed distant, an unreadable shape just visible within the darkness, Dahlia's words seem to draw him closer. A single step covers half the distance between himself and the red-haired champion, color bleeding in around him as the light that backs him dims. As if demonstrating an optical illusion, the god takes another step and is suddenly there, a white-haired man of indeterminate Asian descent, hat pulled worn low to hide his eyes and loose grey robe worn closed over relaxed white pants and shirt. His bamboo sandals leave no prints in the soft loam of the forest, the butt of a tall metal spear thumping down to rest beside his right foot.
"All life." Lord Raiden agrees quietly, lips pressing themselves into a pensive line. She has seen the god alight with the full majesty of his element, and weary with the weight of immortal choice, but the aspect that stands before her now is neither. Though physically close, he feels distant, the soft crack of his voice conjuring images of dark thunderstorms seen far on the horizon.
There is a lot riding on her. But that has been the case for some time now. The god's head tilts, eyes remaining hidden as he allows her to finish. It is impossible to say how much of her body language the being picks up on. Slanting eyes, shuffling feet. At times he seems frighteningly perceptive, while other times things that should be obvious go unremarked upon. How much of his own appearance is an act? An image crafted entirely for her benefit.
"Speak, and I will listen." comes the simple response to the Dahlia's admission.

Dahlia turns to respect Lord Raiden's new position. Her gaze seeks out his eyes, only to be thwarted by the downward tilt of a hat. This is... not unintentional, Dahlia feels.

Doubt runs through her. Has she spoken too much? Does it sound like a lie, an untruth, tumbling so freely like every other word from her mouth? The child of the Kamuy presses her thumbs to her palms, grounding herself in the moment.

She struggles with a name. Forcing herself to drop an honorific she speaks multiple times, daily.


And once it is cleared, she relaxes her grip. Finds the rest of her words to be easier to speak. "It was he who put together the Shadow Council, to work together in defense of Earthrealm from invading forces. From Outworld, and Makai."

Once more, her thumb brushes against her palm. Anxious -- but only in that her honest admissions might bring about the mood she'd seen from Raiden before. "He has sworn to protect the Ainu." That it might bring about the claim that -all- people should matter, and not just hers. Dahlia expects to be scolded. And she lowers her eyes, at this.

But she continues, speaking from her heart. "I know that if he is hunted, and extinguished from this Earth, he will find a way to return -- and with a heart full of malice and vengeance."

Her eyes rise once more, afterward. "I know, Kamuy, that avoiding problems does not solve them. And that is why I ask for your advice."

Breath released in a short puff, Lord Raiden absorbs Dahlia's concerns with somber neutrality, remaining silent for long seconds after she has finished. Hair caught by the light breeze, the long white strands lift and snake off over his right shoulder, body otherwise very still.
Then, he smiles.
"You speak of this man as if he were a god." he states, something about the notion seeming to have tickled his fancy. The expression does not linger, however, the being's smile dropping away as he turns, pacing a slow line away from the nervous champion.
"Power. Too often it clouds the thoughts of mortals." staff thumping regularly against the soft earth, he wanders a good fifteen feet away, pausing to glance up into the bows of a tree, meeting the dark, curious eyes of a squirrel as it pokes its head tentatively out of hiding. "This man, broken and dying, soul horrendously torn in a wound that he himself refuses to heal, lives within your mind as a titan. If you wish my advice, it begins with this:"
Turning back to face the champion, so young and yet scarred in many ways, he approaches at the same wandering pace, words calm and direct.
"While you are wise not to take him lightly, through his own action he has doomed himself to failure. A soul split can not last. It will always seek to become whole, even against the wishes of the mind."
Stopping before her, the somber god plants his staff between his feet and leans contemplatively against it. Though his eyes remain hidden there is the sense that he is studying her none-the-less, searching her for something only he can find.
"First, you must see him for what he is. His greatest power, his greatest weakness."

When Raiden shows -- is that amusement? -- at the idea of Dahlia speaking of him as a god, Dahlia... finds herself smiling in self-deprecating fashion. "Of that I'm guilty. Here -- I feel safe enough to part the veil." Scarlet Dahlia may have stepped away from nature, but she still confides in it more than mankind. "But in the headquarters, there are many eyes and ears which can sense any fear or mistrust." She lowers her gaze, and shoulders, in apology.

But as she listens, however, her smile fades. Her brow furrows, as Raiden states that Vega lives within her mind. It's... an expression, she's sure. But it brings about other concerns...

And when Raiden faces her, the scarred Champion is looking back at him, her spine stiffening. The advice... is good advice.

But the perplexed expression shows she does not know how to make use of it.

"His soul was split? By... his own choice? I'm not sure I understand."

In that vein, she hopes that the answer could elucidate what he means by Vega's greatest power, and his greatest weakness. She keeps her hands by her sides, patiently, and humbly. For there are very few who can help her here -- and she hopes to avoid invoking the Kamuy's ire.

Cryptic answers to hard questions. This has always been the way of Raiden, though rarely for the reasons mortals assume. Why use two words when one will do, a phrase that holds one meaning now could hold quite another later. Rarely is the god speaking only to the person standing before him. There is also the same person weeks hence, months, decades. A person who might think back on a curious conversation and finally, after all those years, realize that the god wasn't speaking to their younger self, but was instead delivering a message to be held in trust until they were ready to receive it.
That is to say, conversations with Lord Raiden are often not as clear as one might want, but they usually hold the information one needs.
"The creature you know as Vega is less than a man. A fragment of a soul torn free to act without restraint or conscience. Powerful, yes, but limited in scope and insight. What you see as boundless confidence is an illusion. He feels not by choice, but by necessity."
Lifting his staff from the earth, he thumps it once, twice, adding emphasis to words that remain otherwise impartial.
"Life. Death. Laws of nature that are intrinsically linked. You can not truly have one without the other. So, my Champion, your path forward is clear. If you wish Vega to die as a man, you must first make him live as one."
The faintest note of soft satisfaction comes into Lord Raiden's voice at the last, as if he has divulged something truly special.

Scarlet Dahlia is... well, -used- to people not speaking directly. It's a habit some people have. And it can be contagious.

She is also a good listener, though. And perhaps in keeping with Raiden's design, she will be turning his phrases over in her head for days, weeks, months to come -- so she listens well, without interruption or dispute.

The knowledge that Vega is... -less- than a man, is not only blasphemy to her Doll compatriots, but a bit tough to swallow. Enough, in fact, that she parts her lips, that she can draw in more air for such a breathtaking idea. For the very idea that someone so -strong- in the psychic measure is not even at his full strength is a terrifying concept. And yet, Raiden may be a poet of sorts, but he is not generally prone to hyperbole.

The Ainu woman does, though, get some measure of what he is saying when the suggestion is raised. Though. She does task him on his phrasing.

"... Forgive me, Kamuy Kanna: it may seem clear to you, but..." She raises an open hand, her fingers splayed as if grasping a bowling ball of some sort. "His soul is -fragmented-. Torn apart, and he doesn't want it back." Her hand closes softly, as if clutching a flower stem. "But if there's any part of him around, it's not in his facility. It's not -close- to him..."

Dahlia frowns, at a realization, turning aside. She takes a few paces, running through her memories. Reminding herself of a long-dormant fear from her past, from before she became Champion.

The sensation becomes, once more, as vivid as daylight. She looks back towards Raiden. "... Could it be that the remainder of his soul not near him... but trapped within someone else?"

"Trapped?" Raiden queries, tone once again flirting with the idea of amusement. "I would not say so. Diminished, perhaps."
Having settled his staff into place, the god smiles faintly at Dahlia's dawning understanding, a hint of pride visible in his once distant expression. Unseen eyes track her progress as she begins to pace, the gods own form now very still.
"However, even now you equate power with substance." the note of fondness drifts away like so much mist, lost to the winds as he addresses the unspoken concern. Whether read on her face or plucked from her thoughts via his own unknowable methods, the being draws her attention back to the point of perspective. "You feel his might and wonder if this is but a fraction of his power. And yet you comprehend his greed. What you see is not a fraction, but the entirety of his violent potential torn free of other concerns. The deadly half of a single whole. Who you seek is not a greater version of himself, or a lesser. But that which is equal yet opposite."
Pausing for a moment, he studies the red-head's profile, allowing space between topics. A moment to brace before jumping from somber advice, to a request that is both simple, and the furthest thing from.
"That is the information you sought. There are few others who understand the play of souls who are not within reach. At least one you have met has both the resolve to give you aid, and a unique insight into the play of spirits. It is for you to decide whether this threat is dyer enough to call upon those relationships. But in this moment, I would speak with Honoka."

Not trapped, but diminished. Dahlia smiles faintly at that, nodding slowly. Perhaps the pieces line up a bit better than she might have thought.

Raiden circles back on the topic, calling out the confusion that was present on her face. Dahlia draws in her breath -- mindful that not so long ago, she might have gotten tremendously frustrated by such an observation. But she came here in humility, and so she must stay if she is to glean any wisdom from the kamuy she sought out in good faith. His ways -- like those of any kamuy -- are mysterious and unknowable.

"An equal, yet opposite," she repeats, with growing understanding. Not trapped. Diminished, perhaps. "A person, with less of a taste for destruction. I had a feeling about Rose, when I met her." It is less fishing for answers, and more that she is stating what she'd had only a guess about before. "An uncanny... sense that Vega was near. Without knowing -why-."

When Raiden pauses, she takes a step back, raising her thumb and forefinger to cradle her scarred chin. He had framed her request as one for -information-, rather than her general plea for help -- a mercy, to her, which she acknowledges with a faint smile. The idea of... someone who has dealt with souls, though? At first, she thinks he speaks more of Rose. But she listens carefully -- and nods.

And asks for Honoka. She lifts the glasses from her face, folding them in one hand -- and drawing in her breath. "I am listening, Kamuy Kanna."

"As one is the other." Raiden confirms quietly, the weight of his attention settling heavily upon the performer. Expression empty of crease or twitch, he takes her in, weighing the changes that so subtle a shift have wrought.
Lifting his staff, the ancient being lowers his head, forest rustling with unseen life as he turns to walk a slow circle around the Ainu, his posture one of inward reflection more than outward scrutiny.
"First, a warning. I have seen within you the tendency to become that which you fear. This can strengthen you against its influence, but as you have found, there is no change without scars. Those who see this will attempt to change you, to make you as they are. Do not be over confident of your ability to return."
Ending his circle where he started, the god lifts his face, turning toward Honoka with a look of open contemplation. Beneath the shadowed brim of his hat his eyes burn like twin balls of lightning, bolts pulsing and flashing with living power.
"Second, the advice of one who has lived a very long time. As you have realized, your position grants you longevity of your own. A gift, and a burden, that will see your life extended to attend the next Mortal Kombat. A life stretches before you of limitless potential, and you stand at its foundation. The stones you lay now will define how you may proceed in the decades to come. More than preparations of Kombat. Those are paths you have investigated and will walk on of your own will. Already you have tasted their bitter fruits. But thoughts of true legacy. Those you harm now will tell stories, their children will listen. Even if you harm or help but one family a year, you have the potential to make friends or enemies of every person that will ever live. The true price of immortality."

Honoka... relaxes. Even though her hair remains the same unnaturally bright shade of red, her facial scarring, her clothing the same, it becomes abundantly clear that the person standing before Raiden is different. More of herself, less of the person who wants to seem much, much older than she really is.

More vulnerable, and at the same time, more open to ideas. Her face softens, at the warning of her inevitable future. When Raiden underscores his point -- she nods eagerly. "Right," she agrees -- wishing to state her understanding, but not to interrupt the teaching moment overly so.

She was more or less prepared for the first. But the second warning... seems to bring about a more somber expression in the performer. And as he speaks, it becomes a profound sadness.

"And this... this is where it hurts, Kamuy Kanna." The pain becomes more apparent with each syllable. She looks down, at her gloved hands. And starts to grip her left hand with her right.

"And maybe... I just don't understand how to do this -right-, but." The left glove is removed, then the right. Smooth, manicured hands -- nearly the opposite of her ravaged face. "I spent years in the circus. Trying to evoke a -reaction- from people. Appealing to -dreams-, and -hope- and -will- and all those sorts of things. When people are -happy-, they stop trying any harder. For the goal is already right in front of them." She spreads her bare hands. "Right in the palms of their hands. They don't even realize how good they have it."

She lifts a hand. Sweeping red forelocks past her ears. "How will I inspire hope, when I'm in search of it myself?"

"A question of the heart," Raiden murmurs, releasing his spear and reaching forth to take the performer's manicured hands in his own. In contrast to hers the god's hands are weathered, sun darkened and cracked. Callouses roughen their surface, crescents of earth marking the spots beneath his nails as if he had been planting earlier in the day. Paying no attention to the spear that has vanished entirely from existence, he squeezes her fingers warmly, expression remaining somber.
"These are the challenges that we all must face. Questions for which I do not have answers."
Lingering for only a moment, the ancient being releases his champion and steps away, chin dipping once more toward his chest. As he paces slowly off through the trees a shaft of sunlight passes over him, causing his white hair to glow with brief but vivid light.
"But, perhaps, a story."
Stepping up to yet another of the ancient trees, the god reaches out and rests his palm flush against the mossy bark, seeming not to mind the small trail of ants that march there way up onto his hand, crossing his weathered skin only to disembark on the other side.
"Mere centuries ago, there were a people who lived in the area you know as Mexico. Many people, but one who came to rule. These people had a name for me. Tlaloc, god of lightning, rain, and earthquakes. Of the four waters I could bring, but one would nourish their crops and bring life to the land."
Waiting patiently for the last of the ants to cross the mass of his hand, he lifts it away, a flexing brush of his fingers scattering bits of moss and bark across the ground at his feet. He seems, saddened by the memory, tired in a way he hadn't been until now.
"There were many rituals they attempted to gain my favor. Parades to carry sacrificial children up a mountain devoted to my name. If these children were seen to cry, it was taken as a sign of my favor. Upon the summit, these children, some slaves, some the second born of the powerful, were butchered. Their hearts were made in offering to me, while priests of my name flayed the skin from their bodies and wore them as ceremonial garb. They were, a pious people. One who truly understood the pain of sacrifice."
Dropping his hand to his middle, the ancient one clasps both together in a pose of monkish neutrality, the exhaustion melting from his posture as he looks up to observe Honoka in her more vulnerable state.
"Even the gods must face their trials. But tell me, Honoka, Dahlia. What would your choices have been? Were these people deserving of rain?"

Challenges we must all face. Challenges without answers. Honoka nods in reply -- slightly dumbfounded at the notion of the Kamuy, once more, reaching out his calloused, world-worn hands to her. And while the glow of healing was not as the last time they touched, her reaction is no less reverent. A bow of her head, a murmur of appreciation.

She lifts her chin as he steps back, her own aura as aglow as the sight of Raiden in the sunlight. Her lips part slowly -- the words 'thank you' whispered upon them.

Honoka is quick to notice the ants -- her vision plenty sharp enough to not require the glasses her alter-ego had doffed. The ants bring about a moment of distrust in the young woman, though she quickly comes to realize their intent is simply the completion of their job, and not an assertion of their homeland's sovereignty.

She remains quiet as the ants scurry past. As the story is told. The circus star frowns, as she hears the tale of these children. Her face turns pensive, as the fel sacrifices are made. The vain efforts of a pious people to speak with their god.

The questions demand a good deal of thought. But while Dahlia had delayed... Honoka needs but a moment.

"There are two questions here. Please forgive my impertinence in offering judgment, for my vision is limited compared to yours." She holds up one finger -- not to Raiden, which would be rude, but towards the ground. "These... people clearly believed that Tlaloc demanded sacrifice. They did so, believing it was what Tlaloc wished." She purses her lips for a moment, poignantly considering -- for but a second.

"Yes. They were. For carrying out what, in their hearts, they /knew/ to be right."

She then extends a second finger.

"But you asked what -my- choice would have been." She balls her left hand into a raised hand. "And I would have chosen to stop the sacrifices before they began. To make clear -- as with the Ainu -- that token sacrifices were also acceptable. Offerings of one's time, offerings of one's -thoughts-."

She folds her left hand under her right palm, bowing her head. "I admit this, Kamuy Kanna, for it has guided my own life: An -absence- of response can often be misinterpreted as a favorable one. For until I met you, I had felt that Sarak Kamuy and Ebisu of the Water were the patrons marking my path." The Kamuy of River Accidents -- and the God of Good Fortune.

Her face hangs heavy with a sigh, full of remorse. "And I have no way of knowing if I was ever correct in those beliefs."

"Ahh." Lord Raiden murmurs for a second time, breath puffing out in quiet interest. "A bold choice. To appear before them, a being with power enough to darken the sky and set the earth to quaking. To order them to cease these violent, destructive actions. Or, perhaps, approach them as you see me now, tell the priests drenched in blood to their elbows that every child they have killed has been a worthless sacrifice."
A slight, sad smile touches the god's lips at the memories, burning eyes closing to gaze backward through the centuries.
After a moment, Lord Raiden opens his eyes once more, focusing a somber look upon his young champion. Shaking his head just slightly, he allows the sad smile to linger around the corners of his mouth.
"No. The rain did not come. Their sacrifices were not rewarded. But neither did I drive the water away. To give them rain would have taken it from other lands that needed it. To deny them water would cause mass starvation of those who had no slaves, no power. I stood apart, and was not involved. Had I acted, perhaps that land would have flourished, become an Eden of sorts. And yet, it would not have saved them from those who came after."
Unclasping his hands, the ancient immortal begins to turn away, robe rustling as the wind plays fitfully throughout the forest. Their time, it seems, is drawing to a close.
"How often should a hand fall upon the scale? When does a god's favor become a curse? A benefactor become a tyrant? To act upon every wish means that, in time there would not be a people you have not harmed in defense of another. This is why we are so often silent. And yet, even those who know we live, who have stood before us and asked our guidance. Those few who's lives we have touched, do not always have faith."
Final words offered across the stretching darkness, the god begins to walk, shadows reaching as he paces off into the darkness. There is no hurry in his step, no rush. Plenty of time remains for Earth's Champion to speak, but in time the Lord of Thunder will have departed, and the sounds of the forest will return. Birds will sing, insects will hum. The world will have returned to the way it was. But there will be no path for today.

A long time ago, before she'd given herself the name Scarlet Dahlia, before she'd even dubbed herself Honoka Kawamoto, she'd had family. The weekends were her favorite time of all -- for, without schoolwork, she would be free to join her family on the boat, laughing and chatting about the goings-on of the week, sharing and reminiscing as a good family should. Catching fish, cleaning fish, gutting fish, and best of all, eating fish... This was the good life. And the life she'd always wished for since, carefree and enjoyable.

But the rest of little Eskerimrim's week was less fun, as she was stuck with her auntie at home. Sometimes the times without her father and mother would stretch three, four nights in a row. No doubt fishing was good at those times, and in many ways, profitable. But the longer her parents were gone, the greater the chance of a dispute on their return. Little slights grew into major disturbances. Careless words turned into bitter arguments.

And, of course, there was the one dispute that ended all others.

Lord Raiden is not on so regular a schedule. And little Eskerimrim -- not so little any more -- still finds herself bristling at her well-intentioned honesty being twisted out of context.

For, in her mind, the answer was so simple. Just spend more time communicating. Sharing your dreams. Living together, as parents and children.

Her mouth turns into a frown, as Raiden suggests a primal apparition, to frighten his servants. Her mouth opens, the start of a protest against appearing -after- the sacrifices were carried out.

The answer was so simple, in her mind. If she had not given up so much to -be- here now, perhaps she would have said so -- only for the answer to be the same as the last time.

The answer is only simple for someone who believes that a Kamuy's duties are to only one culture, one continent, one world.

Her mouth closes, molars pressing firmly together. By remaining silent, she can hear the answer from the past -- she can see it in his compassionate, thoughtful expression. For it has been many months since her last meeting with Raiden.
For Tlaloc had taken the wisest course of action.
Quiet. And a steady hand.
A just decision; a realistic one.

Honoka closes her eyes, her nostrils flaring as she takes in a deep breath. And another -- as she recognizes what -his- experience would have been, relating it to her own experiences falling out of touch with her past, with her circus, with her juniors at Gedo High, graduating beyond her tutelage -- and subsequently failing to heed her advice, moving beyond it to grow on their own.

She voices no dispute. She nods her head -- listening quietly. And understanding the wisdom as it was offered -- not as damning criticism on her own path, but advice from a wiser, more enlightened point of view.

Her voice is quiet, when she finds it. "I see." She opens her eyes to a view of Raiden's back, to a light wafting breeze, and a familiar emptiness, interspersed with the scents of a vibrant forest teeming with life.

"Thank you, Kamuy Kanna. My path is much clearer now." She speaks with honest truth -- accepting that her -current- understanding of his words is only partially complete. And that while his demeanor may have been less fire and brimstone, his disapproval of her current path is by no means diminished.

Honoka raises the back of her hand to her eyes, dabbing it against her cheeks. With a sober smile, she adds, "I hope that your decisions will be easier in the future, Kamuy."

This is no time for the Champion to rest. The path -- as it is -- was not needed. And just before Raiden's form vanishes from view, Honoka turns aside, putting her gloves back on. For Lord Raiden has his work to do -- and she has hers.

Log created on 12:13:48 08/08/2021 by Raiden, and last modified on 19:12:14 08/11/2021.