Frei - Clarity of Purpose

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Description: "Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime / and, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time. / Footprints that perhaps another, sailing o'er life's solemn main, / a forlorn and shipwrecked brother, seeing, shall take heart again. / Let us, then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate; / still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait." -- Longfellow, "A Psalm of Life"

Hokkaido, in northern Japan, is the homeland of the indigenous Ainu, and sometimes called the 'land where the gods walk the earth'. From a sociologist's perspective, the name might have something to do with the animist nature of Ainu religion, the belief that spirits and divinity can be, and are, in everything around us: trees, rocks, water, mountains. From a more everyday perspective, there is... a grandeur to the mountains and lakes of Hokkaido. The pale blue sky feels like you could climb one of the peaks and literally walk right onto another world in the clouds. Volcanic lakes of water so clear it's like a mirror into some rippling faerie world.

Something about the series of encounters he had in California told Rei Hazuki it was time to leave the United States. Not that he needed that much prompting; even without vague memories of disquiet about it, Sunshine City scraped across his nerves like a rusty file, and given his substantial reserves of patience and forbearance, that says quite a lot. The resurfacing of a blog post he wrote however long ago -- ironically, as a way to explain things to his 'cousin' Aya, a practically-minded person to a fault -- had given him much to think about, as had the questions that both Ichika and Cpl. Panesh had asked him. 'After all, it could be everything I've just said is completely wrong,' Rei had said to Ichika, and meant it. We can never know how much we don't know.

When he returned to Japan, he flew into Southtown, stopping home long enough to put together some clothes and suchlike before heading out again. The question was: where to go? What to seek out? Rei was confronted with the enormity of what he didn't know, which -- despite all his accrued knowledge and wisdom -- felt like quite a lot. So he did what any reasonable xian would do in his situation.

He bought a motorcycle.

The license wasn't a problem; he'd learned how to ride a long time ago, back in another life, living in China, a country far larger than Japan where he'd wandered for many years. And as the saying goes, it IS 'like riding a bike,' after all. But what he really did was trust his instincts. Reach out and try to let his awareness or his interest pull him somewhere. Trusting the process. It was a journey without a destination... until, after almost a week of heading across the back roads of northern Japan, he ended up in Otaru, up in Hokkaido.

That was when he heard it... felt it. Deep underground. At his hotel that night, he got a map of Japan and traced his route with a red pen, looking at it, and cross-checking with something on Google.

The next morning, he knew where he was going.

Which led him to now: a balmy, but still cool summer dusk, on Yaitai Island, a tiny spit of land in the corner of Lake Akan, a tourist destination famous for its nearby Ainu village. On the island itself is the Hakuryu Shrine -- a tiny Shinto altar, dedicated to 'the white dragon king'.

Standing under one of the small torii leading up to the shrine itself, Rei stands, eyes closed. Just... listening, in multiple senses of the word.

One worry that never made it to the list of Kamuy's Chosen's worries was where she should go next. Whether blessing or curse, she knew she would always be found where she needed to be. It was a strange life - time sometimes seeming to flow normally along with others while other times it flitted forward - days, weeks, even longer - with no awareness of anything in-between.

Likewise the places she found herself changed - whether she found herself defending an ancient artifact in South American jungle, helping a lost traveler find their way off the frozen peaks of Mount Cho Oyu, or hunting a demon in the depths of Ahun Ru Paro, she had come to trust that wherever she found herself was where she needed to be.

It never felt disorienting or confusing, even if she couldn't always place why she found herself in a new location at a given time. There was always a sense of confidence that her purpose there would become clear in time.

Now standing on an embankment overlooking the southern shore of Yaitai Island, her eyes linger south across the lake to a landmark that is still recognizable to her, even if just so. It had always been there, as far as her own history could cite, even if the version she had grown up knowing only bore some passing similarities to the more modernized village of Akanko Ainu Kotan, with its electric lights and paved roads.

In the past, it had been a destination where one could find some of the most talented crafters among the Ainu of her era. Now the crafts created there were generally for tourists and many who called the village their home would leave its borders by day for 'modern' work elsewhere.

Still, it was nice to see even that lingering haven of her people's culture. She had come to know how rare that truly was in this era through her travels, reading, and learning from others.

From this island, she couldn't make it out in detail, but the lights coming on with the encroaching dusk made it easy to spot its location all the same. As to why she was here, she could only wonder, at ease with the idea that it would become clear eventually. For now, she was content to enjoy the quiet lapping of water against the shore and the whispering zephyrs in the small island's trees. Her right hand lifts, fingers combing some of her hair back behind her right ear before coming to rest against her cheek.

Even a cursory glance would leave one feeling that the raven-haired girl didn't quite belong even though everything about her serene presence seems compatible with the tranquility of the island. There was a certain timelessness about her, and while her clothing was similar to the fashion demonstrated in the nearby village, even it seemed different in ways that would be hard to identify - a bit too course, as if made of more rugged materials, and more muted in its colors and patterns as if not designed to draw attention to herself. The broad-cuffed fingerless gloves over her hands also stand out as not being something one would find in the settlement to the south. And instead of the more traditional Ainu patterned headbands one would see in the village, a simple red ribbon tied into a large bow adorns her hair.

And of course, with regards a certain wandering xian - he had seen met her before.

Nakoruru moves her hand from the side of her head lifts it aloft in time with the sound of beating feathered wings and the violent but precise landing of a large hawk, its talons digging into the thick cuff over her right arm.

"Mamahaha," the young woman murmurs, lowering her arm to hold the bird closer to the level of her head. "It feels like late Spring... maybe early Summer, yes?"

The bird chirps, whether in affirmation or to voice a contesting view point. Either way, the light, brief giggle she offers in response suggests she found it amusing.

"Yes, well, it is hard to tell just from this island."

In Japanese, they're called ryumaku -- 'dragon veins'.

In Feng Shui, dragon veins are paths through which the energy of the world flows freely and easily, occasionally pooling and concentrating in various spots. In the west, dragon veins would probably be called 'leylines.' Though the two concepts developed an entire world apart, they were functionally the same deep down: conceptually mapping a fundamental thing about human existence -- our circulcatory system and the network of veins and arteries that bring lifeblood to every piece of us -- onto the world we lived in.

They just, you know, happened to be true.

Rei felt it as soon as he put foot on the island, what it was that drew him here and what he was following, instinctively, all the way from Honshu: Hakuryu Shrine, on this itty bitty island, is a knot where dragon veins gather. What he was 'listening' to was, in fact, following that network of dragon veins as far as he could sense them... and realizing that compared to other parts of the country, or indeed the world, Hokkaido was suffused with a great number of them, considerably more than expected.

Rei himself doesn't have this ability, but there are others out there who 'hear' the flow of energy as a kind of music. If the redhead DID have that ability, he would probably hear... hmm. Not a discordant sound, at the arrival of Nakoruru. Rather, as if a simple melody had suddenly had another instrument added to it; as if a simple series of harp arpeggios suddenly had a layer of chiming bells on top. Harmonious, but distinct and discernible. As it is, he has to make do with less satisfying metaphors and rely on good old fashioned human intuition: the vague feeling that there's a presence around you.

When he opens his eyes and turns toward wherever his instinct leads him, the green eyes widen in genuine surprise for a moment, before Rei rubs the back of his head with a sheepish grin. "Alright, I suppose being *surprised* at seeing you here is a little stupid of me..."

The way Nakoruru slowly turns toward the sound of his voice suggests a lack of surprise at being greeted even if she hadn't already noticed the solitary soul with which she shared the island this evening. Two pairs of eyes study the traveler for a few seconds before a flicker of recognition settles into the young woman's gaze. The mixture of emotions that blend into her features at that moment are complex, visible in the way her eyes narrow briefly then soften, or the lips of her mouth pull into a thin smile at first that warms a heartbeat later.

The great hawk on her right arm snaps her head left and right, seeming to study Rei from different angles in considering how to react to him. She extends her wings after a moment, flapping them and opening her sharp beak to cry out while her talons maintain their grip on the white cuff that serves as her perch.

"It's okay, Mamahaha," Nakoruru speaks up, left hand raising to run down the hawk's feathered back in a soothing gesture. "We have met before. I trust him."

Her words and gesture seem to be enough to at least convince the raptor to settle down, the bird's wings folding behind her back as she continues to peer at the man with a critical unblinking stare.

Nakoruru continues, eyes returning to the spiritual wanderer. "She is a bit protective." she explains away her companion's reaction as her right hand fishes into a small leather pouch against her hip and withdraws with a small chunk of dried meat between her fingers which she deftly delivers to the bird's beak with the ease of being a routine process.

"Circumstances were quite different when last we met, yes? And on far less hallowed ground."

She seems lost in thought for a moment before adding, "But it seems things did work out in the end after all."

A glance is cast around the island and then her head bows, eyes taking in the shrine briefly then wandering back to Rei.

"I wouldn't be so hard on yourself. I never know where I might be needed next. Perhaps... you can relate?"

'I trust him'? Well, considering the Ainu woman said this to what is, by all external appearances, a *giant killer hawk*, that's probably a good thing, in the final reckoning. It's not as if Rei had any sense of impending doom or anything -- of course, when we're talking about an attacking hawk, would there be one? -- but, still, the reassurance is nice. If anything, the redhead's body language suggests that he doesn't 100% know what to do with himself.

In advance of dusk, lamps are lit around the shrine; there are no caretakers, the expectation being that various candles and such will burn themselves out in time. In truth, neither of the people on Yaitai Island are 'supposed' to be here right now at all... not that this likely matters to either of them.

"I seem to recall the last time we met that I was... pretty upset," Rei says, choosing his words carefully. "Now... I think, at the TIME, I was going through some things that would be exceptionally difficult to explain without the aid of an expensive multimedia slide deck. HOWEVER, that doesn't really excuse my behavior at the time." Despite his European looks, this IS a boy born and raised in Japan, and so he folds his hands in front of him and bows at the waist. "I never really expected to see you again in this life, so I will take the rare opportunity to apologize, either way." At least he didn't drop into dogeza; that would probably be overselling it just a little bit.

At the suggestion that he and Nakoruru share the experience of just sort of... finding themselves where they're supposed to be, Rei gives a faint little laugh, especially given his probability-defying chance meetings, of late. "They have a saying in America: 'wherever you go, there you are'. Kinda sounds like tautological nonsense to me, but the spirit of the quote is that changing where you are doesn't change WHO you are. I try to look it that way."

"Yes," the raven-haired woman replies with regards to his admission of being heated at their previous encounter. There is no tension to her answer, no recrimination, merely an acknowledgment that the statement is true. Her expression looks patient however as he continues, even if there is a hint of bewilderment and slight shake of her head at mention of a 'multimedia slide deck', a series of words that sound like complete nonsense to the time lost swordswoman.

She glances to the side as he apologizes, looking lost in thought, only to be brought back to the moment as he shares the American idiom. "There is certain comfort in self-evident sayings, I think. What was it I heard a girl utter years ago... ah!" She raises her free hand, finger pointing upward as she declares. "Long cat is long." Just uttering line brings a brief glow and accompanying grin to her features that lingers for a handful of seconds before fading, her arm lowering to her side.

"But no, no apology is necessary. That was a difficult time for all involved... A time with unfortunate decisions and no easy answers." Her shoulders fall a little, thoughts taken back to the harrowing ordeals of another island in another time.

"And the stakes..." her voice fades before she shakes her head. "I make no excuse for my actions then, but I also believe it is right that decent souls recoiled at the choices I made. In the end, it did work out. But I take no credit nor find any absolution for the final outcome either."

A soft sigh as she moves the bird closer to herself, lowering and bending her arm to keep it there. As if empathizing with thoughts of darker times, Mamahaha unfurls a soft wing to rest on the white-clad fighter's shoulder in a gesture of comfort that seems uncannily human.

"Your story must be a fascinating one," Nakoruru continues after a moment. "Even if it takes sliding decks to share. You were less... corporeal the last time we met."

The hawk? The appearing from nowhere? The background hum of dragon veins? Rei took all of that in stride, but Nakoruru of all people somewhat sententiously and solemnly invoking an old internet meme almost, ALMOST makes him break character. There is definitely a brief but discernible moment of obvious facial muscle control on his part, before the redhead calmly adds, "I think those kind of statements reassure us that the world around us is knowable by grounding us in the known," the newbie xian quips, as is the wont of the type. "If the long cat is indeed long, then we can trust the information of our senses, and that's reassuring in a world of constant change."

A brief pause. You can almost hear the inner gears turning and Rei's own voice muttering, in internal monologue, 'she did it on purpose she did it on PURPOSE there is no way that was as innocent as it sounded'.

"Personally I just think a very long cat is so funny that higher-order language processes give out."

There is no talking around the elephant, no eating around the proverbial cookie, of where these two last met: Mortal Kombat, on Shang Tsung's accursed, dimensionally-ambiguous island where the difference between heaven and hell is as thin as a piano wire. In his own way, even IF an ancient Ainu guardian quoting memes was on purpose, Rei is glad for the break in the tension. After all, there's very few ways to respond to someone saying 'last time we met you were a ghost' that don't sound utterly insane even in NORMAL conversational contexts, let alone this one.

"I, ah... well," he says at last, at a bit of a loss. "You know how it goes. One day you're a free-floating soul, the next you're reincarnated in a body 20 years younger than you were. So it goes." The funny thing is, she probably DOES know 'how it goes' on that one. "Plus it wasn't my first go-round on being dead. I had some practice at it first." If he's lying, there's definitely no external indication of it, even to the eyes of a metaphorical (or, since there's one handy, literal) hawk.

As Nakoruru explains herself, somewhat, on the actions she took during Mortal Kombat, however, Rei extends both hands, palms out, and shakes his head. "You don't owe me any explanations, at any rate. You did what you felt needed doing, and that's that." Thinking of Mortal Kombat makes Rei think briefly of Howard Rust Jr., and he smiles faintly at the idea that this is the kind of statement Rust would approve of. "I'm hardly qualified to be anyone's final moral arbiter."

Nakoruru takes his comments about being reincarnated in stride. That the barrier between life and death was beyond porous on that island battleground was obvious enough to her. Ghosts walked among the champions and whispers of experiences from other lives seemed to penetrate the thoughts of some. Those who died were found alive again when the blight of Shang Tsung's island ceased to stain the Earth... It isn't so strange that one wandering soul found itself tethered once more to flesh and blood. Well, in context anyway.

She does raise her eyebrows slightly at mention that it wasn't his first time experiencing death. That isn't... USUALLY something someone has practice at. She doesn't pry, as intriguing as the mystery is though.

She listens as he acknowledges that she acted as she felt she needed to during those events, maintaining steady eye contact the entire time. As he finishes, a certain tension seems to bleed from her shoulders as she inhales then exhales slowly, a soft release of some pent up thought triggered by memories of darker times.

"Thank you," Nakoruru breaks her silence at last. "I hope that hasn't troubled your thoughts all this time. At the very least, may it concern you no further." There is a slight hesitation as she references the passage of time, fully aware that she couldn't accurately say how long it had been since their encounter in the fight for Earth's independence from Outworld.

Her free hand occupies itself with feeding Mamahaha another morsel of dried meat before she cants her head, appearing curious.

"This island isn't on the way to anything. Did you find what you were looking for?" Another glance is cast to the shrine itself, studying it for a long moment, expression neutral, before her eyes flick back to Rei.

'Did you find what you were looking for?'

That should be an easy question, but in truth, Rei looks pensive once it's put to him. He pauses, then starts walking over toward one of the short torii gates that line the path to the shrine itself, settling himself on the ground at its base, one leg extended, the other with knee in a ^-like arc. The redhead looks up at the sky, then back at the Ainu guardian. "That's a surprisingly hard question," he admits, though his hesitation assuredly presaged him saying so.

He puts a hand down on the ground, palm flat; an idle gesture, but as he does so, he realizes he can vaguely feel the distant thrum of the dragon vein under the shrine... true to the name, a bit like pressing your fingers to an extremity and feeling a faint pulse. "Partly because I don't know what I was looking for. I was just... going with the flow." If she knows long cat, she knows 'go with the flow', though it's gonna be really funny if she doesn't.

"This is going to sound like bragging, but everything that happened on Shang Tsung's island... oh, lord. This will take some explaining. I'm going to summarize." A pause. "I know you met my 'cousin' Aya, because she mentioned you. Well, and because I was a passenger in her body the first time WE met. Before that... arrangement, I had a lifetime of learning and study behind me."

A pause, and then a shrug. "I guess you could say I was chasing enlightenment, of a sort. Learning qigong and spiritualism was just my path into it. Which led to learning to fight... and knowing how to fight, and being presented with an unjust world, meant getting involved, all the time." A faint, rueful smile at Nakoruru on this admission. "Sometimes more than I wanted to. But I think you more than anyone might understand that if you have the power to act in the service of what's right, then you should act."

Rei takes his palm-down hand and grabs some dirt, letting it slip through his fingers like someone taking a handful of sand from a beach, watching it fall as he continues. "That was how I ended up in those circumstances. And my journey on that island was... hmm. It was like doing a 100 piece puzzle and only realizing you had 99 pieces when the 100th one shows up unexpectedly in a different room." Now there's a metaphor and a half, and the sheepish look on the young xian's face shows that he knows that fact.

"So here I am. I haven't... well the phrase 'reached enlightenment' is silly, because that's a process, not a state of being, and it never really ends. But I opened a door and stepped into an entirely new way of existing and understanding the world."

One final pause, and then a shrug. "The question I am left with is: what now?"

As the young man moves over to the sturdy post of the torii, Nakoruru stays put for a moment, shifting her raised arm to exchange looks with her feathered friend. An unspoken communication seems to transpire in an instant as without any obvious external prompting, the great hawk stretches her wings and with a strong beat, launches herself into a low glide from her perch on Nakoruru's arm over to land on a rocky outcropping that gives her a view of the surrounding lake. With the sentinel's back now to the only two people on the island, it seems that the bird has deemed trusted to the point that she no longer need keep a constant watch on him.

Some progress, perhaps.

Turning her eyes away from the hawk, Nakoruru takes a few steps closer to the wandering sage, dropping down to her knees across from his relaxed posture against the torii, her hands resting clasped in her lap, giving him her full attention.

The slight nod offered at going with the flow suggests that she is familiar enough with the idiom. The next reaction is another nod that starts out hesitant in response to his mention of his 'cousin' Aya and having been a passenger during the time she had met the young woman to share a story or two. But after a half nod of uncertainty, a glimmer of understanding flickers in her eyes and she nods a second time with more certainty.

She is otherwise still until the question weighing on his mind is forced out into the open. What follows between the two of them then is silence but for the lake breeze whispering through trees and the lapping of water against the island's shore. Steel-blue eyes study the youthful appearing xian for several seconds.

"That is a very personal question," she finally answers. "It cuts to the core of what it means to live - what your purpose is." The smile that works its way into her features is one part supportive and one part wistful. "But I can speak to my own answers."

Her right hand lifts, fingers resting lightly just below the base of her throat.

"It wasn't that long ago... to me at least, that I had to answer that question. In this land, the era I was born into bore many similarities to the world of today. The decades of openly warring daimyo was a thing of the past and no longer did regions constantly seek to conquer each other in large scale battles. But just because the land was peaceful in the eyes of the government did not mean an end to shadows. Charismatic leaders formed secret rebellions while others vying for power took their chances with the denizens of makai. Just as I have observed in this era, the only hope people have is that those strong enough are willing to fight for them. Refusing to take up the sword... or firearm... does not keep one from dying to either."

She lowers her eyes as they lose their focus, the young woman inhaling then exhaling softly.

"As my father before me, I took it upon myself to be a protector. Fighting alongside others who were willing to risk their lives for the sake of others, even my youthful years were interrupted by harrowing sights and violent conflicts. I was glad to be able to help my friends and protect villages and people in need... but after a few years of that life, I won't deny I found myself yearning for a more peaceful existence. My home village here in Hokkaido was far from the conflicts to which I found myself drawn. I thought... maybe I could put down my sword and leave the rest of the world to its problems."

Nakoruru looks back up to the red-headed young man.

"But when the Kamuy put the choice to me - to try and claim that peaceful life I dreamed of... or to accept their promise that I could lend my strength to the protection of others on a scale grander than I could imagine... I considered if not me, then who?"

She turns her head to the side, looking out across the lake.

"I cannot say that I no longer ever wonder 'what now?'. But it is a question I find easier to answer than I once did. There is no end to the people in need of help."

She glances back at Frei, half smile at her lips.

"Would you mind sharing this new understanding that you found through the door? I would love to learn more."

What a choice to be offered, is the only thought in Rei's head, after that story. Go to your eternal rest, or be drafted as a soldier into a war of indefinite length where any semblance of a 'normal' life becomes, functionally, a distant memory. There's a very quiet moment while he digests the enormity of that statement, and its implications, before saying, more quietly than he intends, "I've done my share of For The Cause-ing, but that's... a lot."

The redhead pauses, as if surprised at the words that come out of his mouth -- which is, frankly, probably the truth -- and then turns his gaze to Nakoruru with a sheepish look, clearing his throat (and only just now observing that the avian companion is elsewhere). "Sorry. That might have sounded like I was belittling the choice you made, which wasn't my intent," he ventures, with a halting manner evocative of someone working their way out of a dark tunnel by feeling the texture of the wall and the temperature of the air. "It hasn't been on... THAT scale, but I've made my share of similar choices over the years. It's hard to say 'no', isn't it?" the xian asks, suddenly, with a faint smile, feeling more secure of himself for a moment.

"I forget what author said so, but the cost of not doing the right thing that people never think about, is that you will remember to the end of your days that you could have and didn't," Rei paraphrases. "I imagine you probably felt the way any of us who decide to stand up in defense of others do: that it's not really a question at all. You'd know forever that the peace you had was bought with the theoretical suffering of the people you could have helped."

Brushing his hands off on his jeans, Rei gets to his feet, deciding to stand and lean on the worn red shrine gates instead of sitting against them. Hopefully the local kami (this IS a Shinto shrine, after all) will overlook this in light of services rendered. But Nakoruru's question swings for the fences more or less instantly, and there's a brief cough as he tries to figure out how to answer this question. "I, uh..." In truth, though, the Ainu guardian's presence is the clue he needs to start thinking of how to do that.

In his mind's eye, he thinks back to Shang Tsung's island, at the very end of Mortal Kombat. Of Alexis and Bolivar in thrall to some insane dark sorcery. Of Rust holding them off, supremely confident that the young xian had some way to help them... which he did. A realization that only someplace LIKE Shang Tsung's island -- the most liminal of liminal spaces, the boundary to end all boundaries, where everything is in flux -- could have engendered:

'Ice cold enough burns like fire. Wind powerful enough has the solidity of earth. Everything is everything else. So maybe the body is the soul, and the soul is the body.'

"I told you I've died before, right?" It was in this conversation, so that's not exactly a difficult ask in terms of recall. "When it happened, I... hmm. It's hard to explain, but it's how I learned that the World--" And the capital W on 'World' is audible, "--remembers us, remembers everything we do. That when we die we can return to it, and that life comes from it. But the question I had no answer to was, what form does that memory take? How does that become 'this'?" At the end of the sentence, he gestures to himself with both hands.

A pause, a deep breath. "Mortal Kombat had the answer, and I doubt I could have learned it anywhere else but there: the distinction between the body and the soul is a false binary. The body IS the soul, and the soul is the body. Fundamentally, everything that exists is made up of little bits of everything else. Modern science tells us that, to the extent that the law of conservation of matter can be used to explain ANYTHING so murky as spiritual existence..."

A pause, and then a shake of the head. "If ice gets cold enough, it burns like flame. If light is bright enough, it blinds as much as darkness does. Somewhere at the center of that wheel of opposition is the energy that binds everything together. I just... learned to look past the wheel into the center."

"Nn," comes the answer to Rei's first comment, the sound providing little more than acknowledgement of the statement without being defensive or openly agreeing. When his own focus returns to her, he'll find a distant look in her eyes, lending question as to whether she had actually heard him to begin with. It would be easy to imagine that speaking of her life before might easily her thoughts back over two hundred years in an instant.

But as he continues, her gaze sharpens, eyes finding their focus on the red-head, a thoughtful expression warming a little.

"That does not surprise me," she replies as he shares having to make similar choices over the course of his life. "Anyone who would question my actions as you did when last we spoke - in spite the darkness that pervaded that island - is in possession of a good soul. I could tell."

To the rest of his thoughts regarding the choice that changed the nature of her existence, Nakoruru nods once slowly. "It is as you say. I sensed you would understand. But even still, the poem I once read resonates with me - 'That for all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.'"

When he shifts to standing, she does likewise, pausing halfway to rising to brush dust from the knees of her white pants with two quick sweeps of her hands. She is patient as he gives thought to how to answer her question, no doubt understanding that it was no small ask. There is a slight nod as he mentions having died before, looking as if she's perfectly ready to accept that statement as fact as ridiculous as it might sound in most contexts. He was somewhere in-between life and death when she saw him before, and her own existence does not mirror life as most people consider it, so perhaps it doesn't seem so implausible.

But as he continues to speak, his audience of one on this lonely island looks captivated. Her interest in what he had to share was clearly no idle curiosity. It might be easy to imagine that one who has spoken with literal divine beings and lives as their sword would hardly need to look to others for enlightened understanding. But the the young woman's eyes are fixed on him with a burning need to know and it is easy to tell that his vocalized thoughts are not going to waste.

As he concluded by mentioning a wheel of opposition, she lifts her hands in front of her and places them forefinger to forefinger, thumb to thumb, forming an approximation of a circle. Lifting her hands higher, she looks toward the xian through the circle with one eye for a couple seconds.

"And what have you found at the center? Or... rather, how has that knowledge changed you?"

Nakoruru lowers her hands and clasps them behind her back.

"Or is that... the long version of what you meant by 'what now?'" she adds a second later, amusement in her tone.

The snippet of poem gets a faint look and raised eyebrow of surprise, though reflecting on it later, Rei knows that he shouldn't have been. The line itself, though, has a very specific ring, one that the more-well-read-than-he-looks Rei vaguely recognizes, or so he thinks. "American poet, right? Longfellow, maybe?" The guess is wrong, as Nakoruru herself must know and as Rei himself seems to also know. "Sorry. The last time I talked seriously about poets was with my father, and that was..."

An entire lifetime ago, pretty literally. His voice trails off as he lets that drop.

Nakoruru's interest DOES puzzle him, a little bit; the Ainu guardian just has the kind of aura that suggests she is well inculcated in the Mysteries of Creation, and even if she didn't, the Ainu are widely regarded as a deeply spiritual people with a strong oral tradition, meaning that any wisdom her ancestors -- or maybe descendants, now? -- knew, almost certainly lives on in her.

But she asked was a pretty good question: is it what he found in his moment of enlightenment that has him feeling as directionless as he does? Is it, as she says, the longform of 'what now'?

"There are some practical benefits," the redhead says slowly, knitting his brow a bit, as if listing off these mundane things gives him time to really answer the philosophical thrust of the queston. "I'm not particularly afraid of death or aging, anymore, for starters. I've sharpened that sixth spiritual sense considerably... like you saw, with your shroud, for example." Rei sounds unconcerned, as if these aren't really a big deal, and perhaps the fact that he doesn't necessarily think of them that way says something about how he reached the point he's at to begin with.

There's a long pause before he speaks again, and when he does, his eyes cast downward toward the ground... body language associated in many cultures with shame or regret. "For most of my adult life, I've either indulged what whims fueled me... and eventually, I embraced fully the need to protect the weak from people who would hurt or prey on them."

His green eyes come up to meet Nakoruru's. "And maybe I'll keep doing that, when the opportunity arises, because it's the right thing to do. But it's not my *purpose*. I'm not a superhero. I think that's what I lack, now. I'm not sure what my... purpose is. Or if it's even necessary to HAVE one."

A pause, and a faint smile. "Legends about sennin, xian, and zhenren often involve them, once they reach their enlightened state, retiring from mortal life entirely. Claiming some remote mountain valley as a home and staying there, forever, meditating. Maybe there's a reason for that?"

He does not sound like he finds this possibility interesting.

"I'm afraid I wouldn't know," Nakoruru responds as Frei begins to reminisce when he last spoke to his father, her voice soft, her expression a blend of apologetic melancholy. The rest of her answer comes hesitantly.

"The engraving was not credited... it was an epitaph... on a tombstone."

As the young man mentions that death and aging have lost their sting for him, she nods with the quiet comprehension of one who likely shares in such benefits. That she stands before him now, displaced from the year of her birth by literal centuries, is proof enough that the ever ticking clock that haunts most that walk the earth is not a concern for the Ainu guardian.

She lets him work his way through his thoughts, through the struggle that weighs on his mind, that deep and fundamental desire for purpose. When he looks back up to meet her eyes, he'll find the young woman's focus and interest has not waned. Only when he speaks of how the journey of many sages of legend ends in isolation does she break eye contact, her steel-blue eyes flicking to the side toward the surrounding lake in thought.

"It feels... like a waste," she finally replies, her smile soft. "To withdraw from others after arriving at such a state of understanding. It pains me," her eyes return to the wandering xian's, "To think of the stories that go untold, the perspective unshared, and history unknown."

There is a slow exhale before Nakoruru leans her head back, eyes searching the dimming sky above for insight.

"I wonder... Hm..."

She tilts her head forward after a moment, eyes finding Rei once more before she continues.

"I believe enlightenment is a personal journey, a unique route to each soul that has decided to walk that path. But the landmarks along the way, the obstacles that must be overcome along that profoundly lonely pilgrimage, those might not be so unique"

She cants her head to the right slightly, clearly thinking through her words carefully as she speaks unhurriedly.

"I wonder - just because one must personally cross the chasms that separate them from their quest's end, is it so wrong if another has left them the occasional bridge to make easier the way?"

A slight shrug in her left shoulder conveys that she is open to opposing thoughts on the matter.

"I find myself blessed with the teachings of my people, passed on to me by verse and song. But since that time, I have also sought insight from the written word whenever I can. And often... more importantly... I have taken counsel from others along the way, whether it be across a campfire shared, or... standing on a quiet island at dusk."

She unclasps her hands from behind her back, folding her arms across her stomach.

"Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach." she states with the steadiness of one reciting a line from memory.

Her eyes search him then, "You have given me something to think about, built a bridge along the way, and if it is purpose you're after, it can't hurt to consider the selfless act of doing the same for others on the path."

She dips her head slightly.

"You have my thanks either way."

'It feels like a waste.'

That sentence brings a smile to Rei's face, and it definitely seems as if the Ainu guardian read his mood right, if that was intentional on her part. "It does, doesn't it?" the redhead says with a helpless little laugh, shaking his head. He affects an attempt at a gruff old man voice, "Hello, I'm a Taoist immortal, and I have seen into the heart of creation. I am now going to go live on the slopes of the Himalayas so I never have to talk to another human being about enlightenment again." A faint grin before returning to his normal voice. "No thank you. For starters, I bet your Grubhub options in Sukhavati are garbage."

You're mixing your Buddhism and your Taoism there, kiddo.

The Ainu guardian talks at length about the nature of enlightenment, and it's hard for Rei to disagree with her on any of it, so he nods along amiably. "I've always wondered about that," he says, distractedly, at the pointed and perfectly relevant question of 'is help along the way acceptable?'. Crossing his arms over his chest, the newbie xian looks up at the stars for a moment. "I think everyone would agree that reaching enlightenment is a personal journey. A lot of writing seems to take that to mean that only you can ultimately be responsible for it, but that's hardly the same thing as never receiving help. And what is 'help', anyway?" he asks, suddenly warming to the subject more than he'd anticipated, turning to look back at Nakoruru with... well. There's some animation on his face, now, compared to the highly contemplative expression he's been wearing, as if puzzling something out like this is what makes him 'come alive', for lack of better phrasing.

"If I'm inspired by... oh, I don't know, the way honeybees congregate. Are the bees 'helping' me? I certainly wouldn't have been inspired without them, but it's not as if they're..."

A brief pause, and another helpless laugh. "Do the Ainu have a word for 'nerd'?" he asks, only halfway kidding. "Sorry."

Paying it forward, helping others... thinking about, though, Rei's eyes darken again, a little bit. "Alright, we're past the stage of being coy, so..." He levels his gaze at Nakoruru. "I'm not even from this world. Not really, anyway. I was brought here when my world ended. And... in THAT world, I did a lot of that. Teaching the young, helping them. I tried a little bit of it here, too, now that I... exist here," he adds, thinking about the Young Fighters' Initiative. "But I stopped, and I think it's because I realized that I wasn't acting out of a real desire to commit. I was..." He's haunted for a moment of visions of Alma, Rust, Jiro, and so many others from the YFCC, and takes a steadying breath to push away that feeling of grief. "I was trying to bring that world back, and I think we both know, that's not how it works. All of that is gone and trying to recreate it... I think it gets in the way of experiencing what NOW is, you know?"

He brightens, suddenly, thinking of his conversation with Brandon. "Did you know MAGIC is real?" the xian suddenly asks, all smiles. "My world didn't have 'magic' but someone literally just came up to me on the street in the US and said he was a wizard detective! That's BONKERS. I mean..."

For a second he recalls Nakoruru referring to him as 'Flame Weaver' and, unable to resist, holds out a palm, a little dancing flame popping into existence, like the hitodama of a particularly jubilant soul. "I THINK it's really just this, but with a different name, and all. But maybe not. Maybe that's worth exploring."

The flame winks out, and Rei stops, taking a breath again. Emotionally he's a bit like a sine wave in this conversation; up one minute, down the next. There is some tiredness in the smile he gives Nakoruru after the pause, but it is a genuine smile. "Perhaps that's my 'purpose', right there. To keep looking for the things I don't know... but no reason I can't stay here while I do it, instead of heading off to be away from humanity."

He thinks of Ichika Kasumoto's day trip to Catalina to find him.

"In case I'm needed, I mean."

Rei's old man voice seems to bring a spark of amusement to his conversational companion, the sparkle in Nakoruru's eyes mirrored by her lopsided grin. Even if the time-lost warrior can only guess at what a Grubhub is, the sentiment of the humor seems easily communicated just the same.

As the youthful sage responds to her thoughts with his own analysis, she nods along on occasion, clearly following him on the journey of thought that her questions sparked for the both of them. When asked if her native language possesses a term for nerd, she responds with a light giggle, right hand lifting to her mouth as if to stifle the outburst for a couple of seconds. Moving her hand from her mouth, she holds up her index finger, leaning toward him slightly as if to share a secret.

"Orampeshbare-guru," she speaks, enunciating the word with deliberate slowness and wagging her finger a little in clear effort to make it easier to hear the individual syllables. She straightens back up.

"It means one who thinks or speaks about something with strong emotions. But when said with the right tone... well, 'nerd'." she finishes as she lowers her hand to return to join her left arm in folding across her stomach along with a quick lift of a shrug in her shoulders and laughter in her eyes.

She's quiet as he shares openly the story too impossible to be believed - of the idea of other worlds, of the death of a universe and the arrival in a new one. Her expression sobers as he touches ever so lightly on the life he lived once before, while his face speaks of the others that influenced that life that no longer existed. There is no expression of disbelief in the look she gives him, no skepticism or wariness. Only empathy. It is as if the unique journey each took to reach this point has brought them beyond such doubts. She might know something of memory's burden.

He seems to change the topic suddenly, shifting away from the melancholy of a life once lived to excitement over the vast unknown that exists in the world around them.

"Yes," she replies regarding the idea that the vague concept of 'magic' is not just a figment of fiction in this world but a real, actually provable tenant of reality. He demonstrates his own control over that primal force of heat in the palm of his hand and Nakoruru nods, "I don't claim to understand it. But I do know that for myself, there are no shortage of mysteries to discover throughout the world. Like what, exactly, a Grubhub is." she finishes, amused grin having worked its way back into her features.

She nods in quiet agreement as the xian considers out loud a purpose that he can grasp hold of, one that might be better focused on experiencing the now rather than chasing threads of a bygone world.

"I'm glad," the Ainu guardian's voice is earnest, "That you are not removing yourself from the world. I believe someone like you will always be needed. And-" A hint of teasing returning to her tone. "There are only so many private mountain valleys in the world, and all of them might already be occupied by old sages, so..."

Her voice trails off, her expression becoming serious once more, "Is it hard? To carry all those memories from another life? If ever you should want to share accounts of your life there, of the people you knew, I would be honored to carry those memories as well, that their story might live on in the heart of more than one."

She unfolds her arms then, right hand lifting to brush strands of raven-black hair back behind her ear.

"I'm happy to have had this chance to speak once again. I hope that it is far from the last."

"Oh... orahm... haha. It sounds a lot better coming from you than it would from me," Rei says, giving up on pronouncing 'orampeshbare' in any meaningful way. Of course, he's Japanese, even if he doesn't LOOK it, but Ainu is a language with its own nuances and subtleties and it wasn't exactly a language option in high school. "With all respect to the language of your people, I'm going to stick with 'nerd'," the redhead adds. "English is an insane thing to learn but they DO have some really good slang."

He does not expound on the cultural baggage of 'otaku', the rough Japanese equivalent. Sometimes it's best to just let those go.

The guardian's complete lack of perturbation at the nature of Rei's own history, so casually thrown out, ironically tells him all he needs to know about her own. Not that Nakoruru herself is from some alternate, pruned timeline, but rather that her existence in this world is one of a series of structured improbabilities, brought about by... well. Surprisingly atheist by nature, Rei nevertheless recognizes that even if the idea of an all-powerful creator god doesn't fit in his universe, there are certainly beings of mystical power and origin that may as well be called 'gods' even before taking into account the animist nature of Ainu belief, and if there's anything the xian understands thoroughly to be true now, it's that belief is a power all its own.

When the young woman in the sacred cloak wink-and-a-nod suggests that the various hermitages of the world might be full up in 2023, Rei can't help but laugh in an almost embarassingly sudden, sharp way. "That is true. I guess that's the problem with functional immortality: nobody ever dies and opens up a nice spot." Shaking his head, he folds his arms over his chest and gets the little chaser giggles following him under control. "Truly, the housing crisis is more dire than we imagined."

Whatever daylight was left is now thoroughly departed, but it means very little -- the lamps on the path to the shrine give off a warm light like liquid gold that pours into every shadow, and overhead, far from light pollution, the night sky is a billion points of luminous grace, dancers at a ball presided over by the fullness of the silvery moon. Realizing how late it is, the red-haired xian decides that it is probably time he head back to the mainland. He takes a step, is about to say something -- some trivial word of farewell -- before his brain takes in his field of vision: a short pier into a lake in rural Japan, in Ainu territory.

In his mind's eye, a young woman standing on the pier turns back to look at him. 'I'm home, Frei,' she says, as she's embraced by the arms of her long-gone parents. 'Thank you for showing me the way.'

Rei stops walking, in an almost concerningly abrupt motion; there's a heaviness to the final footfall, as if his step were an anchor that has been suddenly and unceremoniously dropped onto the ground, pinning him there. He truly, TRULY had never, ever expected to remember that exact moment again. In fact, despite his otherwise quite clear recollections of his former life, that bit was always a little hazy, a little dream-like. It always made him wonder if that entire thing was just some illusion... maybe even, in their own way, some kind of kami deciding to put him to use, much as they have Nakoruru.

He's facing away from the guardian when he next speaks, and there is a thickness in his voice when he does, the sound of someone keeping something under tight control. "One... one other thing." A breath. It's taking some time to get this out.

Rei half turns his head to the woman behind him; enough to acknowledge her, but not enough to turn and fully face her, because he's not sure he COULD right this second. "Thank you for believing in Honoka. I think..." Another pause. "I think she's maybe had a shortfall of people who do, in her... life," he says at last.

Why the HELL would he bring her up, of all things? To anyone else that might be a mystery that turns into more conversation, but some internal clockwork is telling Rei that Nakoruru is bright enough to know what he means. And if she somehow doesn't intuit it, that's... well. A discussion for another day.

Having said all that, and finally acquiring some mastery over himself, the redhead turns to her with a genuine, but extremely tired smile. "Thank you for giving this trip unexpected purpose. I feel like if I say, 'I hope we meet again', that might be bad... since it would probably involve some sort of world-ending calamity. So maybe instead I'll say: journey well, servant of the gods."

And with that, he steps across the pier to the tiny boat that brought him here, and from there, out into the obsidian glass of the lake, and the city beyond.

Behind the xian, Nakoruru unfolds her arms, letting them rest against her sides, her expression contemplative, eyes no longer focused on the young man, as if already mentally slipping into a state of meditative quiet. She isn't sure where or when she will be needed next... but what's the rush? There's certain comfort to be found in trusting her path to the kamui, even if it means never knowing whether her next encounter will require sharpness of wit or blade.

But he stops, a certain heaviness to his step, and with a blink, her eyes return to watch the wanderer. As before, there is nothing but patience to be found in her waiting for him to continue, though this time it is accompanied by a slight raising of eyebrows, a glimmer of concern in her face, easily detecting the signs that he was about to touch on something poignant.

When he resumes speaking, there is only silence behind him. Were it not for his own keen senses, it would almost be easy to wonder if his companion this evening had already slipped away the moment his back was turned.

When he turns in full, he'll confirm what his instincts told him, finding the young woman standing there. The glow from the shrine lamps betrays the tears glistening at the corners of her eyes, her expression neutral at first before at last a smile gradually works its way back into her features. She dips her head slightly as he expresses his thanks, her hands clasping in front of her. A couple blinks of her eyes drive a single tear down each cheek as she keeps her focus on the Life Scholar.

"Journey well, True One," she answers back as he turns away.

The Guardian Ainu would remain put then as Rei began the journey back across the lake under the cover of night. After only a short way from the island, a cry of a hawk is heard in the dark. A stray glance back would verify the lonely island was now as empty as when he first arrived.

Log created on 20:13:45 07/08/2023 by Frei, and last modified on 02:38:39 08/10/2023.