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Lilian Rook     There's a different nature to this one. Nobody had requisitioned it. There'd been no opportunistic timing to seize on. It serves Lilian's purposes not at all. Nobody involved could possibly know her personally. There couldn't be any real connections to any of her organizations. She won't even get paid for it. She considers herself to even have no business being here. For that reason, she'd made no general call, nor tapped any of her working connections in progress, or even a suitable specialist for the matter. The people who wanted it are barely so fortunate as to get a metaphorical letter in the shoe locker at lunch saying 'meet me at five'.

    Getting to Japan is something she can just do now, thanks to a lot of previous networking and ladder climbing with Elite outsider backing, but there's still practically nothing in the way of even remotely convenient ways to get up Fuji; it'd be that way by design, even if the workings of Multiverse weren't complicit in it. People have to meet at the bottom of the mountain, where old, weather-worn forests rise free of the dark and misty nothingness that surrounds it. They have to show up with at least some preparations to climb the thing, and, according to her, some for talking fast, and potentially getting out of a fight quickly.

    "I understand why, if nothing else, you might be attached in some way to those people you brought up here before. It's unfortunate that their kind turned up as implicated in this. And yes, the possibility of some third party, removed from the clans, trying to steal Muramasas is a big deal, even without being a very real and tangible representation of the whole country's balance of power. And I understand it's caused some inconvenience for a few people "

    This is what Lilian has to say, at an unremarkable staging area that might have been for campers before it was overgrown from disuse. "Yet, still, this is a little bit dangerous. Not the usual sort. The kind where it's best to watch for what you're wearing on your sleeve and to check your feelings for where they're taking you. We don't have an official reason to be here. This fact that this isn't a highly regulated territory is actually a bit of a bad thing for walking into it; it leaves things up to whoever you run into first. We don't know who we're dealing with, if we find them at all, or what they want, or what they think of you or me, or who else they might be working with, since there are already at least three groups involved."

    "Just try not to do something without thinking." This is her conclusion to a group in which two of three people excel at exactly that part. "Though, don't go and get the idea I'm here against my will or something. I'm invested in knowing what the Regional Director was up to in keeping us -- my people, that is -- out of this on purpose." That probably has something to do with her wearing that modernized and abbreviated shrine maiden-esque outfit from a while ago, rather than something official.

    "So, go over it for our benefit." she says to Tamamo and Arthur. "What exactly did you see? Where are you trying to take this?"
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Make this right

    Arthur Lowell is here. This may not serve any of Lilian's purposes, but it serves his. He grits his teeth and actually manages to sigh a little bit. "Look, yeah. I'll try to be careful. I stick to being an idiot 'cause it keeps me connected, but I gotta act on those connections, you know?" He says, speaking with a subtle sort of tension thrumming through his voice. "This isn't right -- and what happened, happened a little bit because of me."

    He pulls up his memories. There is, in fact, a MISSION SELECT screen, one he can scroll back through. "Pendragon, blind eye... Here." He selects "ARSON ON THE SACRED MOUNTAIN", and pulls up the questlog for it. "Near the end of this, I saw a red-masked man with crow-wings. Like the guys *we* delivered the people to in..." He scrolls back through MISSION SELECT. "This one." He brings up MT. FUJI PROCESSION.

    "The courier was about the hand the sword off to him. Couldn't manage the courier, the sword, *and* chase the bastard down, though, had to let him get away. I gotta make this right, own my responsibilities and shit. So whoever it is, the bastards have got, bare minimum, some *links* with the tengu, and that's where I gotta start. Gotta find that red-mask son of a bitch and give him the black eye I owe him."
Xion < "Just try not to do something without thinking.">
"No promises!" Xion announces, grinning from ear to ear.

"Actually, I can promise that I'll be trying my best to do what Tamamo wants me to do, and she thinks about everything, so..."

Xion pulls her phone out of her navy hoodie-pocket, tapping something into an internet search.

"Oh! Right, it's the 'transitive property'." She clicks off her phone by the sleep button and slides it away, holding up her left fist, closed, and her right fist, index extended. "Because if Tamamo is thinking -" She bumps fists together, switching the hand her index finger is raised on. "-and I'm doing what she says, then all of my stuff has been thought about!"

Xion nods, pleased with herself. "That's what being a good party member is all about. Plus, we're helping people!"

Extending her hands to lace her fingers together, before placing her palms behind her head, elbows askew, kicking with a single foot. "If I wanted to be compensated, I could just try out the powers of that golden king again. I could afford so many sweets!"
Tamamo     Tamamo has arrived in 'the usual (formal version),' which looks totally unsuitable to mountain climbing, but will probably be fine even if she cannot, technically, fly. All that cloth would certainly look dramatic if she did.

    She gives Arthur a curious look. "Ah, to 'make this right.' My aim is similar, or perhaps, merely related, yet entirely distinct. I wish to 'divine that which is right," which sounds slightly different from 'discover,' "making the path of the just clear. Yes, it would be far preferable to walk in darkness no longer than is necessary. Too many have done too much to ensure that the path remains clouded."

    She continues, "I shall then think upon what comes to light," with a smile toward Xion, "and yet, until then, judgment must be withheld. Now," she claps, "as to that which I witnessed, it was a group of monks who had forsaken their vows, for what they saw as necessity. It was not thievery, they claimed, for they challenged such claim as others held over the blades. As the ownership has been brought into question, it cannot be stated what did transpire. To resolve this mystery, it would be sufficient to find contact with, first, the blades in question. And, second... the heir. If such a person exists, then their claim must be judged and, perhaps, the matter of their inheritance mediated."
Lilian Rook     "You know what? That's fine." Lilian says to Xion. "That's perfectly okay. You're a smart dumb kid and I appreciate that." There's a breath of something similar to relief mixed in there. "Which I suppose is different from being a dumb smart kid." She just looks at Arthur while saying that, short of really being a Look.

    Though, by the time he's gone through his logs and found the lead he particularly wants to chase, Lilian is already fiddling with a loose strand of hair, visibly thinking about several things at once to the point of distraction. "That's unfortunately nonspecific. Those masks are a . . . well, they're not explicitly to hide their identity per se, but they're largely generic, based on rank and branch. There are a few tengu territories, but obviously I don't know where they are, besides 'high up'. I suspect very few people do, and they prefer it that way."

    "Still." She relinquishes her fussy hold on her hair. "It's better than nothing. We could end up walking straight over the boundaries of somewhere we shouldn't be, on illegitimate business, but I suspect if that one is watching, or his allies, they'll want to make sure they get to us first, before we start talking about them. Hopefully."

    She glances sidelong at Tamamo. "I've heard about the monks, yes." 'Heard about', but nobody else gets to know that. "Who knows what literal mountain monks think about worldly possessions." Her mouth twitches for a moment. "There's an opportunity for some awful crack about 'otherworldly possessions', given who made them, but if anything, that just complicates it even further. Still, it's obviously strange for them to work alongside tengu at all. History is exceptionally back and forth on it, but they've been enemies and opposites more often than not. An heir, though. To Muramasa? I don't know if anything about a marriage or children was ever recorded, but if there were an unbroken line for five centuries, one would wonder how they all exited the family, or how the family never received them, not to mention why none of the clans are interested in them. If it's a more abstract meaning of heir . . . well, then we have nothing to go on, so there's no use thinking about it."
Arthur Lowell >==>

    "Hey, don't you start calling me smart." Arthur insist. "I'm one hundred percent dumb as fuck."

    "So they'll try to cover it up." Arthur says, nodding. "Yeah. Spring the cover-up on us, and we might get more leads. Shit's ironic, but it's kinda the only move you can make when everything's fucking triple-midnight secret. For once I can't blame you for takin' it super slow and cautious, feeling shit out ahead of time." He gestures to Tamamo in an easygoing way.

    "I don't know shit from fuck about inheritance, but a lot of stuff like that isn't lineage. Could be a myth-coded Heir of Blades for all I know. But I guess you'll figure that shit out. Tell us when you do, 'cause I'm sure as hell not figuring that shit out quick." He's sharing Xion's position here in a few key ways. Only a few though, as he has his own positions he won't compromise on.
Tamamo     "The threads are there to be followed, if their nearest ends might be found," Tamamo says. "Of these, any of the blades would serve. If I can find no ties of Fate between it and some living figure, I may still find what ties persist to its creator, and follow these forward... but if the link is so tenuous as this, it would mean little to legitimize an heir. Of that mysterious heir, at least one tengu, and perhaps some other, former monks, may know."
Xion Arthur Lowell says a gamer word. Xion gasps. "Woah! So mature..." She observes innocently.

Things Arthur has probably never heard: that.

Xion taps her chin and considers at the subject of blades and inheritance. "Well, the stuff you have - if it's yours in the way I think you're meaning - " Xion indicates, during the Heir of Blades discussion the rest of the group has on the mind. "Those things have a way of returning to your hand, right? I don't think you can ever be divested of something that's really yours. You are the sum of your you. What you add, is you. What goes missing, is also you. People are a sum." Xion decides, extending that considering hand to 'grasp' the air.

With the sound of a metallic 'shwink!' her Keyblade in brushed silver and blue capped with a star-comb appears. She twirls it around her fingers once, tosses it up into the air, and the blade twinkles once before disappearing. "So, I think we're doing the right thing, no matter what we do. The worst thing is doing nothing and walking away. By messing with it, it'll fall into the place it's supposed to! Like doing that thing with your back in bed, so the mattress will settle better -- or leaning over so your back goes 'pop pop pop'!"

"Shaking up things and seeing how they settle is good."
Lilian Rook     "Perish the thought." Lilian says to Arthur, too much like she's entirely seriously decided that he must be a hundred percent correct about himself. She then gestures so as to walk while talking, though it seems that the former might happen for only a very short period of time. "To be clear, I'm not about to begin kicking in doors over possession rights. There has to be some reason or another that they're broken up as they are, even if it's a very 'unvirtuous' one."

    Following the remnants of an old, leafy trail, partly for the leaves that break up the high summer sun along the way, and partly for the leaves scattered thickly over the forest floor, shed green or close to it, there's enough time wandering back and forth across stone-stepped jacknives to try and consider what Xion is talking about this time.

    "That's an optimistic way of looking at it." Lilian concludes. "Or, 'romantic' I suppose. Still, it doesn't do much to change people's minds when you tell them not to worry, because the thing of theirs that you have is still theirs in spirit'." The very brief look of slight tension that passes over her seems like she is suddenly conscious of a newly instilled urge to do some back popping now that Xion has mentioned in. "Try not to go flinging that . . . thing around, please!" she adds. "Even aside from being dramatic, that's a little 'I can bring this out any time and you can't stop me', don't you think?"

    "Still, if we're looking for tengu, or some kind of recluse, high up is really our only bet." she finally decides on, with a bit of a sigh. "I don't feel like walking all the way up and back down today, since that would most likely outside the bounds of 'today'." That and how's Tamamo going to manage that while wearing her usual. Lilian stops for a strange twenty seconds to consult nothing in particular, and then offers Arthur some coordinates by way of heading and elevation, since trying to use specific spatial coordinates or GPS here is completely useless. "Would you be so kind?" she says. Because if he's going to be the coolkid, he can pull his weight."
Tamamo     "They might return," Tamamo says to Xion, "if not on their own. Such a thing is that for which the former monks wished." Which may be a little different than what she meant.

    To Lilian, following the Keyblade appearance and disappearance, "Is that not usual?" She's taking things out whenever she pleases, too, after all. After the mention of doors, "The clans have yet to ask for my advice, and so, I have less reason to make such forceful suggestions of action. If it proves that their claims are groundless and another is qualified, and I should be in such a position as to see to the maintaining of the right course... well, it would be best to know, yes? And to know at the earliest point, rather than the latest."

    Leaning her head to the other side, she asks Arthur, "And if there were only my own opinion as to the disposition of the blades, and the Oda made a demand in contradiction, in which direction would you be inclined, Mr. Lowell?" Of portals, "I would not say I am especially hurried, but the time that can be spent always has that feeling of limitation, no? A swifter route would be appreciated."
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Be so kind

    "Hell yeah, motherfucker." Arthur says. His arms are already doing the Swoopy Thing, where his hands trace an exotic circle in front of him and twist unknowable knobs and switches in space as a bright green light traces a spirographic portal in front of him. With a shout, he slams both palms into it and shoves it forward, crafting the way through, precisely on those heading and elevation coordinates.

>Arthur: Reply to Xion

    "I get my shit stolen all the time." Arthur says, as he settles the fresh gate into place. "Plus, I did a bunch'a stealing myself. Hell, you know these Gates?" Arthur gestures broadly. "Stole 'em. Not as great as a Thief, but it's still some shit I stole way back. I think this is the legit possession dispute. Gotta admit I don't even really care about who 'deserves' the stuff either, I just gotta make right what *I* did." Not QUITE that mature. But still at least honest.

>Arthur: Reply to Tamamo

    He continues, leading into his response to Tamamo. "I mean... I'm in this to make right some shit I did with the Odas. I'm not here for, like..." He makes a sort of ambiguous motion with both hands. "'Spirit of the blades' kind of reason. I fucked up and I'm taking responsibility, it's not about who's supposed to have the blades or even what blades 'want' to have. I can't just slam headfirst into some shit and then run off while it's half-solved. That'd be some Expired shit, for real."

>Arthur: Enter
Xion Xion laughs. "Maybe the swords are split up because if you get them all together, you get a legendary treasure that can rewrite the world. Everyone seems to want to rewrite the world. I think it's a little dumb to want, but... It's because I don't think people's perspectives are complete. The world can always surprise you, filled with so much stuff to try and see and live in, that--"

They pass through a portal as Xion jabbers and free-associates. Lilian's words get caught on. "Well, if *I* take something, it's mine. Not sure about everyone else! But I'll calm down about throwing my sword around. Sorry!" She holds up her hands apologetically. Tamamo wonders why, but Xion continues holding up her hands, waving them incrementally. "I understand the problem. If we were walking through a building, with people, or around people observing us, them seeing that I can do that with a weapon -- it's dangerous, right? My really smart friend told me that."

She winces. "With... more words. It's sorta-kinda a secret?"

"Anyway, I really respect wanting to make your own actions right. You have to be true to yourself!"

Arthur gets a soft smile. "And I can tell you're really true to yourself."
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Tell a lie

    "Yeah, I'm pretty much true to myself one hundred percent of the time. The raw, real, cool Arthur Lowell for everyone, hell yeah." He declares, with a grin that causes one of those tooth-gleams.
Lilian Rook     Lilian stares good and long at Xion. She has a finger curled up under her chin so it's just oh so daintily resting on it, as if she could possibly need that flimsy of a support. An inscrutable, pleasant, if placid sort of gaze regards her, blinking only a couple of times. "About that." she says. She doesn't bother to finish. The contextual content seems obvious enough.

    "Well, take responsibility all you want." she says to Arthur. "The Japanese are especially fond of that, as far as I'm aware. You'll have to tell me about that stealing gates business later, though." That part doesn't sound dismissive enough to mean 'stop talking'. She has a way of making it abundantly clear, through tone and faintest gesture, that it means 'you're going to tell me later'.

    Making those spatial leaps up the mountain is as it was before. It is probably the least unique thing Arthur has to experience about the whole site. Green spirographs connect smoothly between points of some of the least warped space remaining in the country. The destination point appears at least two kilometers ahead, along the angle it takes to aim up the side. This means that, stepping out on the other side, all of that wild greenery -- so preciously rare and enjoyable these days -- is long, long gone in an instant. It's the stretch that represents why the Japanese tell people 'Fuji-san is for viewing, not for climbing'.

    Having seen a million times from the distance, one would expect some grandiose sight of soaring walls and crevasses of that noble blueish stone, drenched scenically in snow, but if anything, most of it looks like the surface of mars. Up so high, it's certainly cold, and prime for the beginnings of altitude sickness, but barren in a way that looks more like walking the surface of Mars. Everything has a strange, rust-streaked patina to it, jumbled together with extremely dark, sandy dirt, poured over weirdly smooth and settled contours of terrain.

     There's plenty of frost and ice at this altitude, but most of it is invisible from the ground, and has encased most of the ground and exposed rocks, with a glittery, crystalline look, and made it slippery and miserable to walk. "To think some random monk decided to climb all of this on a whim." Lilian mutter-sighs. "I suppose it is a volcano, after all."

    In the midst of looking around for something or other, she makes a noncommittally affirmative noise to Tamamo, saying "It's best to read all the cards before anyone specifically asks for your support, I agree. Past a certain point, looking around for the full picture is a form of dishonesty, and the more you decide to help people, the more difficult it is to do the right thing."

    After a short while, her eyes alight on some particular formation of stones, which she points out with her finger. Looking at them from the right angle, they look like broad, chiseled steps, incidentally exposed to the air by some shifting of red dunes, though it'd take a fanciful imagination to see them as intentionally made by ancient chisels rather than pure accident. There's only about four of them visible.

    "There's a common thing about mountain hermits. That they make their retreats in places that can't be found, unless you walk a very specific path that only they memorized. Finding your way into them is a bit of a miracle, since they use a sort of 'magic' to sequester themselves further from the world by cutting off access as much as possible. That's not something they learned on their own, though. It's very common for this place -- for anyone with means and magic, at least. If an individual human, Enlightened the hard way can do it . . ."
Lilian Rook     Even if it might sound like a bit of myth and superstition, Lilian seems to be abruptly proven correct. It only takes getting halfway to that quaint little random rock formation in the middle of nowhere, before the sunlight flickers like a faulty bulb, and hard motion comes straight down from lightning fast, black shapes above. The rust-coloured dust blows up into a miniature maelstrom with the incredibly quick, yet bizarrely quiet, landing of three separate figures, landing in a triangle formation around the group.

    Though this is the second or third time seeing their ilk, for those assembled, the look of these ones gives off a greater vibe of serious business. Outside of having even bigger wings, fully proportionate to that of a crow, and being even taller themselves (albeit, some of that could be due to standing on some almost ridiculously tall geta, excessively outstripping anything Tamamo puts on by a lot), even their bright red lacquered masks are distinctly more ornate and characterful, each having a unique, wildly exaggerated expression, including huge bushy eyebrows or curled demon teeth. Wrapped in dark layered hakama, the one at the head, notably possessing a fan resembling an enormous maple leaf, has on additional accessories of leaf-patterned formal sashes and scarves.

    Arthur made the portal, so he gets the shit immediately. He is, in fact, suspect number one right now. "The time to be warned of trespass and turned around is already past. You have brazenly pushed far beyond the limits allowed to your kind in one instant. Knowingly, for it has to be, to choose here to arrive at." The one in the lead sounds (despite his physique) *really* old, in that chain-smoking, barrel-chested, war veteran grandpa way. About as equally sternly pissed too.

    "You will not be leaving so simply as you came. Sojobo-sama was made aware of your intrusion the moment you aimed your magic here. Give us your answer, so I may decide whether to send you down the mountain on a gale of wind, or in pieces." The way he talks is so archaic and pseudo-formal that even the honourific has to squeeze itself into the forebrain to make sense.
Xion A summit of Fujisan is far different from the picturesque distant landscape, but it's no less breathtakingly beautiful in its own way.

But stepping through one of Arthur's portals, Xion finds something unexpected: "Huh! I didn't know there was beef up on the mountain." She comments, looking to Arthur as he is meanaced at by Old Tengufather. "Your kind? Well..."

Xion makes an uncomfortable face, drawing out a candy bar to unwrap and chew on. She looks for Tamamo's urgings on this matter, but looks between the other two, processes, and then blurts out around Legally Distinct Chocolate And Caramel With Cookie Bar:

"Oh, sorry, I'm not a god! I can go back, if that helps..." She points down the mountain. "I saw some cool stuff I want to take pictures of for my friend, it's cool."
Tamamo     They climb. The view is different than it is in post cards, but given that it's presently Summer, the absence of snow doesn't seem worthy of comment. Not that it isn't cold. Wearing the full formal wear was clearly a better choice than not, for multiple reasons.

    "Did you ask a question?" Tamamo tilts just one ear. "Ah, not aloud, then? Permit me to guess. Your first question is 'who are you?' Most would ask, then, 'why have you come?' but for you, no, the second question must be 'by what authority have you come?' after all. To this second question, there is a third that may follow it, which is 'will you not turn back?' I shall answer each of these."

    Tamamo's hands are hidden, and her face is partially likewise, past the fan that snaps open, and may well have simply snapped into existence in her hand. It makes it rather easier to notice the luminous gold in her eyes. "I am Tamamo no Mae, here upon my own authority. This being my second visit in as many months, you will make no further, boorish pretense of my return being some great surprise." Her words carry that unmistakable quality past absolute confidence and into certain truth, as if there could be no other possibility than that she is being intentionally hassled, but that she's willing to overlook this much.

    "I grant your master the opportunity to meet me." Not the other way around. Obviously.

    She doesn't mention her companions, because arranging a passport for every member of an entourage just isn't how things were done, back then.
Arthur Lowell >==>

    Arthur progresses through the chill and the cold. His God Hood, the boon of his godhood, soon becomes a furred number that keeps him warm. He stops to consider the spaces, and respects the paths as they need to be taken. And then it's all challenged.

>Arthur: Make this right

    Arthur grits up. Teeth clench and fists ball. "Responsibility." He takes a step forward. "I won't abandon it. One of my kind can't be here. One of your kind took part in the blade theft." He jams a thumb against his chest, and puts up an index finger. "We get one." One what? They get one, apparently, Arthur doesn't elucidate further. "Name's Arthur Lowell, I'm the Mage of Space. I'm here to take responsibility and finish up the feud that happened, and I'd bet it isn't with you. But I know someone with your kinds of wings and your kinds of masks was involved, and he's the only link I got for finishing this out all the way instead of leaving that shit done half, like some kind'a useless bum. So hell yeah I ain't leaving. You tell Sojobo I want names and locations to get my responsibility squared and solved, if they know everything about everyone heading here, and I'm gonna do what it takes to get 'em."

    Does that mean fighting? Does that mean favor-doing or trading? Well, that basically depends on the mood -- which Arthur has only made a cursory reading of.
Lilian Rook     Xion affects the carefully perfected air of a dumbass kid, who actually isn't affecting the air at all. Lilian almost visibly winces at her slowly peeling open a candy bar to eat in present company. She then does, somewhat visibly, hold down a single laugh at the drop that she accidentally invokes. 'Whoops. All gods.' She very, very subtly mouths it, even. Of course, that'd be old by her standards, and thus classic.

    Tamamo, of course, has this in the bag from the first word. A smile quickly spreads across Lilian's lips, only not joyless for having found humour in the misfortune of others. "That is, of course, unless it were a surprise. As if they weren't aware at the time, and weren't notified since. Perhaps they've never seen, nor heard a description, enough to recognize you. Which would be odd, since we heard the tengu from before invoke that same name. So, certainly, any tengu that serve him would know it."

    "Sojobo of Kurama. That mountain is gone now, but he'd still be the chief, wouldn't he? The daitengu? The oldest and strongest and canniest. So what would you three be doing out here, harassing someone his men have already met on good terms, and performed contract and exchange with?"

    It's probably good for the tengu, albeit to little point, that they have masks. Then whatever expression they're wearing has be imagined. One that matches that unnatural, statue-still posture. Arthur causes the unbearably stiff silence to drag out further, no doubt for excruciatingly little in the way of good responses left. "The material possessions of the clans do not concern us. There is no feud. Whatever kind of vengeance you came pursuing, you are mistaken. Whoever your patron is, he should be happy that it should be kept that way."

    His angle has changed considerably. Having swiftly dropped the 'tremble, interlopers' approach, he's suddenly being extremely cagey and unwilling to interact. "You have nothing to say, but to claim that you know 'a tengu' was involved in some way. Invading sacred boundaries as you will, to catch a supposed enemy whom you cannot describe. There are none who would allow something as impetuously absurd."

    Lilian interjects "Then you can do exactly what he asks, and simply relay the information to the daitengu, right? Of course, Tamamo no Mae will be there to do so in person; you couldn't trust this boy with it, right? And she *is*, specifically, a guest of his." That's half-bullshit, but she seems to be *very* confident they don't know that. A little more than she should be. "Sojobo-sama cannot be seen." the leading mask replies, immediately. "Isn't that up to one of his attendants to say? I'm familiar with the basics of how you dress. I don't think you can make that call. Bring one out." Lilian is still pushing them with what the others have. "I especially don't think you have the authority to turn away divinity."
Lilian Rook     "Yet every right to turn away humans, unwelcome, unannounced." he shoots right back. "Regardless of those colours you wear, you are no priestess." Then, Lilian fishes out her black card, and proudly does what seems to be the equivalent of 'declare she is a fed', which by rights should be the opposite of what someone would want to do here.

    "There's a reason we weren't supposed to get involved before, right? Naturally, that would be the way things like this should be handled. Not sanctioning a revenge hit by one of the clans to save face, right? If this were some catspaw effort by a slighted feudal lord and his third party proxies looking to tie up all the loose ends and settle the honour of the matter by punishing the last remaining offender, do you really think this group would be together?"

    The eldest crow youkai takes on a third, more difficult to place tone. "What reason have you to care? There is no Muramasa on this mountain. There is no need of retrieving anything. You have no means of chasing your alleged thief. If you have no sponsorship, and follow no orders, and did not come with announced intent to see the daitengu first, when what possible significance does a petty feud between noble houses have to you?"
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: HE CANNOT TURN AWAY A GOD
>Arthur: I D I O T

    Arthur's teeth clench and he makes a low, stressed noise.

>Arthur: Focus. You have a reason. Explain it!

    "You wanna know why I *care*, it's because in a real rare breach of my coolness, I actually fucked up and let some asshole get away with the sword. And sure, I got it back, sure there's not one more here -- thank fucking christ. But it's not *done* because I cleaned up *one part* of the problem. I took on a *responsibility*, keep some shit safe for the Odas." He stops responding to the third, strides forward, and plants his index finger on the first tengu.

    "If *you'd* been given a chance to do something good for your Sojobo-*sama*, and you'd spilled that shit when someone fucked with you, would you be satisfied just picking the pieces back up? Would *you* let that responsibility go, just 'cause you mostly cleaned up the problem? You gonna lay it on the line here, pal? You gonna tell me that's as far as rep goes for you, that you'd let some shit like that slide forever? If someone like that's telling me I'm supposed to be turning back or not even comin' here, then I'm gonna tell someone like that, you're supposed to be hangin' out in a food court tree to poach un-eaten rice, you six-piece Chicken McHypocrite." He steps back, and crosses his arms. "Or would you clinch the deal and solve it clean, *all the way*, because of *responsibility*? 'Cause then maybe we have a *conversation* to have here."

    Arthur's body trembles with an amorphous, unclear, fragile tension. It seems brittle, like you could smash it against a bar counter and shiv someone with it.
Tamamo     Tamamo chooses a wholly different, and less informational, tact than Arthur's, though it begins with her explanation of why.

    "Though it may serve to give such reasons as part of a message to be left in your absence, Mr. Lowell, the doorman need care little for the depths of the visitor's mission. It is not up to these three to judge the worth of our questions, nor the sincerity of our pursuits."

    As she continues, it's clear enough that she means for the tengu to hear her, even if she's 'not' speaking to them. "It is not for them to judge who qualifies as a priestess, of those bound by divine contract." That only covers Lilian, but the ambiguity is deliberate. "Theirs, unbuoyed by names of personal power, is only to relay to those within our entrance. Particular matters of interest, and the reasons therefor, may be saved for those with such authority as to act. It need be only said that authority to enter is possessed, and that a reason for the visit exists."

    Addressing one of them directly, eyes narrowing, there is, contrary to the mountaintop's colder climate, a haze of heat for just a moment. "Now, go."
Xion Xion, having thumbed at herself and the portal (or, if it bipped out already, just down the mountain), though slows to a stop as Arthur and Tamamo speak - and make themselves clear.

She seems entirely focused on Arthur while he trembles and makes strange noises. What he's letting leak out, like steam from a kettle, and what heats his underneath and brings him to a rolling boil.

Carefully, Xion brings a hand to gingerly rest it on Arthur's shoulders.

"I'm sure you'll make it right." She urges, her eyes glazed with a watery sheen as the corners gather tears.

The Tengu are sufficiently socially attacked by Lilian, Tamamo, and Arthur. Xion, basking in Arthur's boiling heart, simply tries to do Generic Friend Comforting support while getting overwhelmed off the secondhand heat.
Lilian Rook     Arthur pressing on this particular button, for one reason or another, is not met with stoic, gruff dignity, nor anger masked by decorum, or the usual things that might stay the hand of someone important while he gets up in their business. A short time after he goes as far as stabbing his finger into the (apparently incredibly ripped) tengu's chest (which is about as high as he can reach), the man he is aggressing with his angry teen attitude has had enough. He picks up his maple leaf fan, and with a short sweep of his arm, Arthur is outright blasted with a fairly savage gust of wind, equivalent to being punched really hard in both the stomach and chest at the same time.

    He actually reaches for his sword as well, but he somehow isn't as fast as Lilian, who has closed the intervening distance without anyone noticing and grabbed his wrist midway there. Where his muscles tense to their maximum, the air in contact with Lilian's skin momentarily thrums with invisible tension as well. "I advise against that." she says. "I've shown you who I am."

    At this point, now, either the content of what Tamamo is saying, or some intangible quality inherent to it -- unspoken, unexpressed, but somehow unignorably dreadful, and only increasing with gravitas over time -- has gotten through the third stage of unnecessarily difficult uncooperativeness. After being rebuffed three times, with varying levels of caution and aggression, the three finally look between each other. They can't even be exchanging a 'look', wearing those masks, but something shared thought passes between them.

    There is one more -- and probably last -- response, uttered with a sudden sense of detachment. Finality, even. "As you wish. However, you have no one to blame if what awaits you does not suit you. And I will not be responsible for whatever becomes of you, should you choose your friends poorly." The whole of it, compared to her reception from before, smacks of an uncommon degree of distaste for the authority involved in the situation, especially for this country.

    When they step aside, they don't lead the group as a vanguard. The leader heads in, no doubt to relay the fact they're entering at all, and the other two wait outside. That being, outside of the place that those ancient stone steps, only barely exposed by the wind, lead you.

    One second, your feet are about to hit the sandy red dirt at the top of the steps, and the next, they land in fragrant soil that lies thick on the ground. Ahead of you extends the complete staircase, cut into the pale grey rock that lies several inches beneath the surface to either side, and behind you is the backside of a lacquered red gate. Though it'd belong in a shrine under normal circumstances, its distinct lack of any kind of markings or ornament makes it a referential affect at best, easily constructed by any individual with an axe and pestle.

    You're back in a forest again, comparably light and spacious, and certainly not an alpine one, caught in the early stages of a gold, green and red autumn. Leaves litter the ground, but grass grows thick through them. The sound of water is overlaid with that of countless birds, and the occasional splash of fish. The thin air, almost three kilometers up, troubles you no longer.
Lilian Rook     The path winds uphill through several more of those simple, almost purely geometric gates painted red, nine in total, and arrives at a slightly more complex bridge that arcs over slowly flowing water, coming from a calm waterfall that runs down many staggered rock shelves to the right, and gathers into a very large and crystal clear pond to the left. It forms a U-shape around an island between the two features, wide and level, and swept mostly clean, so one can easily see the paths of interlocked stones all around it, and a small, neatly kept sand garden at its center, around what appears to be a gravestone of all things.

    Over the bridge, one of the branching paths leads to some sort of storage house, fine enough to have not been built for weather any worse than light rain. Another leads to a very old-looking workshop building of some size, with the sort of attachment that suggests being lived in, but obviously possessing an open air forge that is both well-loved and well-maintained. The main path, however, leads straight ahead, and up the steps to a broad and flat Japanese mansion, too small to properly house a full extended family with the level of wealth it ostensibly displays, but large enough to exude its importance, positioned where all of the sunlight falls through the trees, shedding petals on its path. A bronze bell hangs from a miniature tori, besides its door.

    There are, curiously, no further tengu to be seen here. There is a woman dressed in robes who is sweeping some of the grounds, a pair of men in heavily concealing garb waiting outside the workshop, with the sound of rattling going on inside, and then the shadows of a few seated people near the periphery of the mansion's west side, where a door could be opened to view a flower garden outside. The whole place exudes a certain amount of magic; it's concentrated quite heavily in each of those points, in ascending order, not just generally coming from the surroundings.
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Take it like a man
>Arthur: Make this right

    Arthur is barraged back. His HEALTH VIAL drains a slice, and he tumbles ass-over-head from a shot he doesn't defend himself against. He shoves himself back up onto his feet and spits, focusing his stare towards the man. Something is BRITTLE. It bends, and... Xion's hand is on his shoulder. Tension comes off him like steam, but he turns to look at her, fundamentally not understanding why she's done what she's done even while it has the intended effect.

>Arthur: Back on those feet, you son of a bitch

    Arthur grabs onto the arm Xion's put near him, pulling himself up. "Yeah, you won't be responsible." He says to the tengu. "But I will. That's the whole point of this. This is *my responsibility*." He turns to look at Xion for a moment, eyes lingering on hers, and gives that arm a quick squeeze before he presses on. On through gates and through Gates. He arrives at the calm waterfall, and by that time his tension has subsided significantly.

>Arthur: Make it up to Lilian, someday

    Enough to talk to Lilian. "Had my back there, Princess. I owe ya." He says. giving a grin that's both a true attempt at a warm smile and also a wincing, forced sort of thing, both at once. "I'da taken that blade for sure, and not in the hands-on kinda way." He works his shoulders to ease the settling of bruises.

>Arthur: Ring bell
Tamamo     Tamamo does not wince when Arthur is hit, but only because she's carefully controlling her expression at the moment. Lilian prevents further escalation. Instead of questioning why Arthur chose to take that harder path when the simpler one had presented itself, she leaves the matter well enough alone until they're on through, and then only asks, "Are you quite alright?"

    He seems to be, for whatever that is worth. Physically, wounds are easily healed, however painful they may be. The heart is another matter.

    They're through. It is remarkably more pleasant, and some of that cold tension eases back out of her. Her eyes move from one side to another. Her fan closes without a sound. She walks near enough the workshop to have a closer look, and to be easily seen, without entirely diverging from the path up to the door with the bell. "We are," she says to Lilian, with little indication, "after all, looking for a smith." Most likely. "And so we are greeted with..." quite unusually little, despite the runner sent ahead, "...the sounds of a smith at work. Might you see anything of interest?" With a slightly unusual emphasis on 'see.'

    If her appearance catches the attention of those two waiting, so much the better. If not, she won't leave Arthur alone for long.
Xion Xion blinks slowly, uncomprehendingly, as Arthur's BIG WORDS with BIG FEELINGS...

Totally fails to affect. In fact, they do the opposite - the Tenguu attacks, blasting Arthur back and away powerfully. The next few heartbeats come slowly to her.

<Lilian is faster on the draw.>
Xion's fist clenches. Her teeth click together, her brow deepening into a pinched furrow. Her tear-dripping eyes narrow while her irises widen. She feels such a powerful--

Her memory tasks back towards Lilian's words. To keep her sword hidden, her abilities a secret. To not do anything too reckless, too stupid.

That she said she would just follow along.

Her hand clasps around Arthur's wrist, pulling him up. They trade looks, Xion putting on her best smile while her fingers grip perhaps a hair too tight.

Doki. Doki. Doki.
For all the surroundings, as they shift, Xion walks in a pace and stance far past sullen, into a full-on seethe that lays around her neck and shoulders like a cloak of tension. The shadow she casts on the mossy stones and beautiful surroundings is gaunt, fists clenched in hoodie-pockets.
Lilian Rook     "You do." Lilian replies to Arthur nonchalantly. "About as much as usual. Many tengu legends feature or focus on a tradition of superhuman swordsmanship. They were often patrons of famous warriors. Not that I couldn't take three of them, but it'd be best not to make that much trouble. They didn't strike me as door guards." She pauses for a moment of real, as opposed to affected, reflection. "Or, rather, I knew from the start that they couldn't be guarding 'the tengu'."

    Inside the sanctuary however, her reply to Tamamo is very different. Her eyes wander into the distance, drifting to the forge, but not staying long, sliding almost magnetically to the mansion. "These things came in order." she says, almost a little dreamily. "First, the place to work, then, the place for increasing needs, and then, the place where they stay. The ones who found it, and settled it again." She shakes her head as if in vexation. "There are swords here. There have to be."

    Tamamo heading towards the workshop -- definitely a smithy -- draws attention, but not as overtly as she may imagine. The people surrounding this little hidden place on the mountain are already eclectic, and it seems like these are probably only a small fraction of them. A transient one. Though the man she sees exiting an indoor tool storage, after rummaging around in it plenty, looks like he must live here in the long term, given his 'woke up and went straight to work without shaving' appearance, still coasting around with hot tea in one hand that he may have forgotten, the two figures waiting outside are dressed in such a way that they could only be either intentionally anonymous, or planning to be very shortly.

    It's hard to leap to conclusions about them, given just how nondescript their near-black-green garb is, outside of the way the wrists and ankles are tied down as a freerunner would, but face cowls aren't exactly casual wear. They regard her from little more than eye slits in them. Patrons, maybe? Or perhaps couriers.

    Up close, she can smell all kinds of unfamiliar oils, and fragrant smoke from burning wood that doesn't give off the universal, acrid scent of carbonization at all. A trough of water is obviously gathered from the pond, though it glitters at the bottom. Slender vats of oil are pitch black on their filled surfaces. The coals faintly visible in the furnace have a silvery sort of ashen hue, glowing a slightly too-yellow colour in the heat.

    "Yeah, yeah, I've got them alright. Take a seat somewhere. I ain't doing a rush job on these. You can have them when I say so. No later than tonight, though; I've got bigger things to do." Such are the words of the unshaven man with the big, muscly arms, loose hair hastily tied into a pseudo topknot and currently trying to put on an apron one-handed. He glances Tamamo's way only after several moments of obliviousness, and then only looks confused. "That's new. What are you here for, miss? I hope you don't mind me saying that you look a little out of the ordinary for the usual clientele." One of the cowled men corrects him, gently. "Associates." "Yeah whatever. You want my work. I know you're using it right, otherwise you wouldn't get it."

    Arthur stepping up and ringing the bell has a very different effect. The sounds of conversation he can just barely hear are terminated on the west end. A shadow on the screen gets up, and eventually he can hear the sound of footsteps approaching the front doors. When an older, barefoot man in a casual blue kimono opens them up though, he is being glared at a little already. "I can only assume that you want something that isn't worth the Lady's time, if you weren't even instructed on how to ring the bell." he says. Arthur can apparently ring a bell wrong.
Tamamo     "They spoke as if they were warding us from some danger, but what do you suppose that might have been, beyond a waste of our admittedly valuable time?" Tamamo asks Lilian as they walk. And then, "There may be other blades that have gone missing. Do you suspect this? It is not as if the clans would admit to it, I suppose."

    Tamamo's demeanor has is rather different by this point, and not just because this place is significantly more easily inhabitable than a mountaintop should be expected to be. Her step is light, though her pace is entirely unhurried. She is relaxed, and friendly enough at being approached by the workshop's worker.

    "I should be more surprised were I to hear that you had met many like myself." She keeps the other two just in her field of vision. "My business is broad-reaching, but there is one matter of which you may, perhaps, be informed. There was a delivery that was to be made, yet was interrupted, some short time past. Might you know of the swordsmith who was to receive it?"
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Sass Lilian

    "Oh, well shit, this is just info-gathering from someone else? What's the connection? Why they gonna know about that mask son of a fuck?" Arthur rambles, trying to get a better bearing on what's here. It's possible that he's forgotten critical things *already*. "Well, whatever, I can improvise and figure it out as we go." Striding on.

>Arthur: Sass old, old man

    He plants his hands on his waist and says, "What, a rhythm minigame? I'm bad at those. Never found rules I was worth the time of, hell yeah. I've got a responsibility that needs doing and I'm here to make shit right. Name's Arthur Lowell! Mage of Space!" He slams a fist against his chest.

    "FIRST! I sassed your doorman and he air-punched me good. Give that motherfucker a raise, because he's *dedicated*, guy was about to straight up stab me for my bants! SECOND! You guys *know* stuff. I'm looking for leads to fulfill some real crucial responsibilities and obligations I've got to solve some stuff that almost ruined a bunch of Oda Clan interests a little bit ago -- plus stop more weird unsanctioned not-okay shit going down in the future. You said I'm not worth time? Got any quests to *be* worth the time here, or are you feelin' like gettin' ahead of the curve on this shit and gettin' this mountain sizzlin' a little less?"
Xion Xion was a bubbling pot, but she had promised to be good.
Really, she was looking for a reason to act out -- but she didn't get one. Tamamo was all chill, Lilian had already told her what to do, and Arthur...

Mostly just talked. Pulling the slightly fist-remoulded candy bar from her pocket, she unwraps a large bite and begins chewing.

"Why's everyone here a villain?" She grumbles - to herself, but audibly.
Lilian Rook     Lilian makes a gesture with her hand to Arthur, not quite looking straight at him. "No, they probably were trying to keep us out, sincerely. This just isn't 'theirs' to keep us out of. It has to be somewhere they know, but it can't be within 'their' territory. Banking on ignorance, to keep it secret, perhap? I had the feeling they weren't really supposed to be here. Or, at least, their big chief certainly doesn't really know they are."

    On Tamamo's end, her particular, slightly baffled point of contact, smiles at her awkwardly, of all things, baring teeth out of the chagrin creasing his tanned face. "I know who was supposed to receive it, yeah." he replies, cautiously. "But there isn't a smith alive that should be tampering with those. Appraise one, maybe, but I wouldn't take a hammer to it if you put another one to my throat." He shrugs, tiredly. "I heard. You can't win 'em all. It was s'posed to be real important to get that one in particular away from those Oda too. Don't ask me why. I'm not a sorcerer or a soothesayer."

    He kind of gestures down at himself, accidentally sloshing tea onto his hand. Though steaming hot, it doesn't seem to do much more than remind him that it's there, prompting him to swig it all in one go, despite being in a rather substantial clay mug. "Wouldn't trick you even to say I was, right? Why? Were you the one looking into it? I don't ask the names of the people who give us the lines on how to get them." The other two are staring into the back of her head, though Tamamo doesn't sense any overtly violent intent. At least not yet, anyways.

    At the door, the old man runs his fingers through a short, silvery beard at Arthur's mouth-running about a door guard, giving off the distinct impression that he's trying to figure out who Arthur is talking about for a good few seconds. The moment he says 'Oda clan interests', though, the old man's face turns into a thoroughly unpleasant scowl. "We have no time to give to lost dogs. Take your sanctions somewhere they might give one any reason to care."

    "Begone, ignorant clan dog." He slams the door in Arthur's face. It is the rudest he has ever seen an old Japanese man be to anyone. There was definitely a red keyword on that conversation tree. Also, there are now two cowled men standing shortly behind him an Xion. They definitely aren't tengu either, but it seems like they'd only just made the slightest of sounds on purpose, to alert him to the fact that they've arrived, or might have been there the whole time he was talking. A slightly stooped man with a tall, box-shaped hat is shuffling out behind them, looked bewildered and annoyed. "What a sad young couple." he says, sounding like he'd just been woken up, though he is fully dressed in a lot of formal layers. "Did someone intend to get rid of you, or was it pure, blind misfortune that brought you looking here? It would be best you listened to him; as a general matter, you would have to look for a very long time to find someone on this mountain who isn't here to stay away from those feuding feudalists."
Tamamo     "Such a request was made of me," says Tamamo, "and yet, the condition for my assistance could not be fulfilled, such was their haste. It was this lack which brought me hither, as it may yet be satisfied, for I am, myself, a soothsayer. Between two claims with contradiction, I am equipped to judge even hidden truths. I need only meet with the blades, or the heir. 'Both' would be yet more convenient, but is not truly necessary. It is their intertwining Fate I seek to read, and one will lead to the other or, if the monks spoke falsely, to nowhere but the grave."

    "Oh, but I have yet to introduce myself, have I not? I am Tamamo no Mae, bunrei of Amaterasu-omikami, She Who Shines in Heaven, also called Ouhirume-no-muchi-no-kami, Most High Goddess of the Sun, and so forth." She makes a dismissive 'et cetera' gesture to both accentuate and terminate the list of titles. "Now, might you have directions to at least one of those I seek?" It's that 'I already know, but your cooperation is appreciated' tone.
Xion Xion smirks, despite the whole situation, a moment and a half after the door slams in Arthur's face.

"Heh... you can come out n-" She smugs, turning--

"Ah!!" She jumps. "Y-you were there already... So fast!" She gasps, the surprised tone of 'hayai...!' dripping from her.

Technically, they are both a couple of sad and youngs*, so she doesn't interrogate that point. Instead, she has a rather pointed question. "Oh, okay. So is everyone here hard of hearing? I don't understand. Is this a weird curse, where other people don't hear what we're -- what he's saying?"
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: YOU ARE WASTING YOUR TIME

    Arthur body sustains the posture equivalent of a sustained over-tuned string being ripped apart by a violin bow. His teeth grind. But then there's an opportunity, and he snaps like the string just broke.

>Arthur: Another lead. Deep breaths, and take it.

    "Huh? Oh, not a couple, that's lethal for guys like me." He swivels fast, crossing his arms and plastering that stupid smile back across his face. "Nah, Odas ain't know shit about me doing this. It's responsibility! I gotta solve this all the way, even if *they're* satisfied. Can't have this shit sitting on my karmic scales. Seriously." He brandishes his KARMIC ANALYTICS SCALE MATRIX, where eight of the twelve available FATEGEM NETWORKS on the STARBOARD side have accumulated excessive ARREARS ENERGIES that can no longer be respec'd and reinvested to balance their COMMITMENT LOAD. "IT'S PRETTY DIRE."

    He puts the game interface away. "I'm trying to track down who had a tengu out doing some sneaky-ass shit during one of my guard jobs. And I can do a *lot* of lookin' if I gotta look a while to find someone, 'cause that responsibility sure as shit ain't gonna go away anytime soon. *You* don't know anyone who'd know, would'ja?"
Lilian Rook     "The monks, huh." The ostensible blacksmith before Tamamo scratches his chin in the way of someone trying to 'be thinking', but who finds they're blanking on anything to really think about, staring into the middle distance with a hint of confusion, then placid acceptance. He swishes the dregs of tea around in the bottom, then suddenly chucks the mug right over Tamamo's shoulder. There's a dull clap, as it is caught by sheer reflex by one of the men behind her, having become uncomfortably close in the interim.

    "Well if you already met them, then there's no helping it. If you didn't, then there'd be no way for you to make it up, unless you really did just see it all in a vision or something. And if you did, then there's nothing I can do about it anyways." he shrugs. He cannot quite hide a flicker of excitement in his eyes. "I don't know about all of that, but you sound like exactly the person we might've been hoping for. At least who she might've been hoping for, even if she didn't say anything. I've been here for forty eight years. You pick up some things from people."

    He then gestures her towards the mansion, where Arthur is currently being given a hard time at the door along with Xion. He's pulling up one of his gloves now, leather creaking as he works his fingertips into the ends. They must be pretty thickly insulated. "Go to the door, ring the bell four times, put a little magic in it, tell them you're here to see the Lady of the House, and see to the Divine Child." He then makes a 'shush your mouth' gesture to both of the men, neither of whom have said anything. Though he looks like a guy who works in his pajamas, he must have some considerable amount of 'rank' in this little enclave. "Oh and probably do something about those two, or they're probably gonna get their memories wiped out for being here."

    Meanwhile, the hat-wearing guy hassling Arthur at a state of very low energy opens his mouth the moment Arthur uses the word 'karma', then doesn't get to say anything when he brings out the scales, just sort of beholding them with his mouth half-open for a minute. "Oh I'm sure he's one of our sympathizers. Even the proud tengu have a few in their ranks who feel strongly about intervening in that clan business. It's a bit of a topic up here, you know." He speaks of it like he's a dentist, chattering away in the minute before the general anasthesia kicks in with a patient who can't pronounce their words correctly.

    "If you plan on seeking him out and punishing him, you may be out of luck. They're notorious for their wall of masks and silence, and doubly so if he were, for how much he would have to lose amongst his peers for revealing himself. I believe the Great Tengu has forbade intervention, for his own reasons."
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Pursue lead

    "Oh, rad as hell." Arthur beams brightly, tilting his head around in a variety of intrigued angles. "I know they sure as hell seemed like they didn't want anything to do with that shit. Can't blame 'em, it's all complex. Out of luck..." Arthur turns the idea over in his head. "Well, I just won't count on lucky breaks then, gotta do shit the hard way."

>Arthur: YOU DON'T

    Quick wince and then he's back on his bullshit. "Because I don't need to find the *one guy*, that's not a problem. I just gotta find the interests they have in this. I know they had a red mask and black wings, which narrows shit down probably not much at all, but if I can find whatever problem with some Heir of Blades they were trying to solve, and then *solve that*, I'm gonna end up fixin' this. I don't even need to beat the shit outta the dude, I just gotta take apart all the motivations to go after that shit. Should be even *better* 'cause then these tengu can be all non-interfering while I get that shit done and whatever asshole did it won't even have to lose face."

    Arthur ponders the idea, as if trying to validate it against some kind of integrity check. "Right?" He says to nobody in particular, kind of rambling out loud.
Tamamo     "Oh, thank you." Tamamo looks over companion-ward. "My apologies, but I believe I should hurry just a bit, or things will only become more confused. Until we meet again." She inclines her head, a gesture almost like a bow, and moves off, this time quickly enough that her geta make a fairly noticeable tapping to herald her arrival.

    Acting as if nobody else is in front of the entrance at all outside of a "please pardon me," she slips past without so much as a catch of her colossal sleeves, and follows the simple instructions she was given. Ring, ring, ring, ring, and a just a smidgeon of warm, Summery magic from the tip of her finger.

    Only /then/ does she turn back around, with what hardly looks like feigned surprise, but certainly has to be. "There is not some sort of trouble, is there? A doorstep seems an odd place for longer conversations. Is it not uncomfortable?" She looks, in particular, to Xion, for whatever reason.
Xion "There is, but, I'm trying to be good about it." Is Xion's response to Tamamo's pointed question. "But I..." She squints, lips pouting. "I don't want to say anything stupid, but this air..."

She tugs at her collar and mouths 'rancid'.

"And there's this really loud voice harassing him over everything else. I'm just feeling all sorts of stale, bad energy."

She looks at the people trying to make nice, startled she blurted it out -- even when prompted.

Mumbling with slumped shoulders, she sideglances at the gong Arthur had rung. "I don't know what to do. So I'm just mad and angry, and I don't get it. Feelings are the worst."
Lilian Rook     When Arthur goes off on that angle, old hat dude goes from glibly unconcerned to visibly surprised. Bushy eyebrows lift almost into the brim of his slightly too-tall cap. Words are swallowed at the last second, in favour of glancing left and right at the mystery agents to each side. "I'm afraid you may have misrepresented yourself then, young man. I'm sure I haven't been the only one wondering how you made it here in the first place, spouting such obscenities as 'Oda Clan interests' and associated 'obligations'." He's slipping something back into his big sleeve. He was totally stage magician palming something out just a second ago.

    Wherever else that was going is interrupted in a timely fashion by Tamamo's grand, tip-tapping swish-swishing arrival, and the 'correct' ringing of that bell. Stepping back from the door, he looks to Xion, and says "I urge you to do your best to abandon those feelings, young lady. They won't suit you well in such an atmosphere." He flashes her a smile that at least appears entirely genuine, rather than a threat. "Excuse me then. I won't interrupt you any further. I wouldn't wish to keep the Lady waiting."

    When he trots off with the two silent types in tow, Lilian stares at him on the way past, catching up to Tamamo. "Now I wish I had a butler like that. Better dressed, though. A proper charming English gentleman. But it must be nice to be surrounded by people like that, no? They have manners down well, here."

    As the last of the bell's ringing fades, the doors slide open again. Rather than someone being behind them, however, they open up of their own accord. Instead of opening into the regular hallway that was visible from behind them before, they open alongside another set behind them, and a third behind that, eventually expanding your view all the way to a long, immaculately kept wooden path through a courtyard that seems slightly too big for the mansion, dominated by a cherry tree that has grown truly massive and convoluted with age, and been bleached ghostly white by some quirk of strange sunlight. Past it is a viewing balcony, and then a set of steps into a reception hall, all its doors open to the air to allow sunlight in, for lacking any other windows.

    Inside the unlit portions of the room, the glow of candles brightens up the back wall, numerous rows of tiny flames illuminating tapestries too far from the front of the building to be appreciated otherwise. A statue of the buddha of considerable size is sat up on a wooden pedestal at the back, ostensibly made of steel rather than any more appropriate material, the pedestal itself encircled by an equally exquisitely carved dragon made of a solid piece of slightly translucent jade, coiling around it. A few low tables in the room are used to hold urns, incense burners, tiny idols, paper sheafs, seemingly random curios between fans and coins, half-attended books and half-written scrolls.

    o either side of the buddha, there is a decorative rack for displaying a sword. On the left is one in a black wooden scabbard, and on the right is one in a white wooden scabbard. Both are tightly bound into their sheaths with braided rope, still drawing the eye in an unnatural way despite the plainest of fixtures available, and having concealed most of the hilt and tsuba under their bonds and wrapped talismans.
Lilian Rook     The only person around at this point is a girl seated on a mat between a table and the statue, looking at an open book slightly to one side while she lightly grinds something in a tiny jade bowl without looking, surrounded by small, fragile-looking bottles of various shades. She is fairly small -- probably no taller than Xion -- but dressed in enough layers of white, red, and black clothing that she has the exaggerated presence of a decorative doll, added to the sheer volume of her hair, which reaches the mat around her, only tied together at the ends into slightly more manageable bunches with gold rings.

    She looks up from reading, her eyes more yellow than naturally brown, corners lined with red, blinking at the group and definitely not sure what to make of them. Deciding on marking her page and folding up her volume, pushing it aside with the rest for the same of company, she gestures at a set of thick cushions by the table, forcing a slightly nervous smile. "Ah, welcome in, new guests. You are an . . . unusual set of new faces. But I'm always happy to meet new friends."

    Her eyes drift to Lilian who is staring at her weirdly in turn. A moment of silence passes.

    "Do I . . . know you from somewhere?"
    "No. I can't imagine you would."
    "Ah, pardon me then."
Tamamo     "A 'loud voice,' is it?" Tamamo glances to Arthur. She does not, audibly, sniff the air. That would be rude. (But she does sniff the air.)

    "Oh, dear." Xion's complaint is at once perfectly understandable, out of place, and impossible to immediately resolve without underhanded means. She considers those, while taking a few steps closer, just to not need to speak over anyone. "I am grateful that you chose to be good about it, but as to 'what to do,' this is a more difficult matter. 'To find an answer' has always been my own quest, yet it is only the more challenging when the question is, itself, in hiding."

    She ponders. "Can you show me what it is you see?" That sounds less crazy than 'can you show me what you feel?' (without any need to mention 'can you feel me what you're feeling?') but is technically identical in substance.

    The immediate trouble seems to be resolved, now that the conversational keywords have switched over. 'Heir of Blades' was clearly the far safer choice. To Lilian, she says, "They are certainly more understandable than were the stranger three, outside. Come to that, I have not yet met a butler. They are something like a steward, yes? Or are they as an attendant?" She's met plenty of maids, but those are obviously quite different.

    There isn't long to talk about that, before they're faced with... someone. "Good day." There's a bit too much sun to say 'good evening.' "The smith suggested the lady of the house would be glad to meet me. I aim to see to the divine child." Whatever, precisely, that should mean. "I am Tamamo no Mae." Nobody today has yet given a name to her, even where it would have helped their case, but that won't stop her from continuing to give hers. Not yet, at least.
Arthur Lowell >Tamamo: Sniff

    There's the faint scent -- or perhaps taste? -- of iron. Whatever the voice is that she investigates, it has something to do with Arthur's magic, but without a dedicated analysis, one can't really pin down anything in particular on scent alone. Oh well, irrelevant things for later or ongoing consideration.

>Arthur: Be welcome, get in

    Arthur's path in is drifting, anti-gravity, and light. The shoes vanish because that's polite and he settles down into something seeming pretty reasonably respectful. "Yo." He says. "What up? Good meeting new friends too. How's it hangin'? I'm up here about settlin' some stuff and stabilizing things, figurin' the responsibilities and all." He glances to Tamamo. "Think my pal's got a better handle on figuring that out when it comes to the Heir of Blades situation. Name's Arthur Lowell, Mage of Space."

>[S] Arthur: Talk it out
Xion 'Can you show me.'

Xion nods, slowly. "It's... cold. Stagnant and black. This sort of feeling..." She clenches her hand against her stomach. "It's something a candy bar doesn't fix. And candy bars should fix everything, right? Something that tastes good, that makes you feel good, you should be better, after. But here, the way it makes my chest tight..."

Xion winces. "It's like icicles in my chest, sandpaper against my skin. Being judged. How can they judge me? How *dare* they judge me?" She swells, her fingers pressing into her shirt noticibly. Her tone has that same disaffected edge and nuanced bite that Tamamo had.

That same growl of the voice in Arthur's head.

"Maybe it's just a leak inside of me I can't plug, this feeling I can't stop, but it feels like this place - the very land, is a cold and closed-off heart."
Lilian Rook     The last moment left for casual words, passing through multiple sets of sliding screen doors inside, arranged a little bit more like gates on a path, is occupied with Lilian replying to Tamamo with "It depends on who is employing them. Usually, a butler ranks above the maids, so attendant would be closer, though in that case, he's more of an attendant to the house than a specific person." She's trying to sound conversational and unconcerned. She mostly succeeds. There shouldn't be any reason for her to have to try.

    There should be no reason for the slight, silent tension that surrounds her when she obligingly takes a seat. Especially not across from a girl four inches shorter who looks like she never leaves the house. But there is, just a little. Despite her best, magnanimous smile, the girl at the raised table smiles back with a hint of well-hidden nervousness.

    She folds her hands into her lap when Tamamo speaks to her, fingertips tapping together where they can't be casually scene. "Those are both me." she replies, not quite practised enough to fully smooth over the sheepishness in her response. "If you wanted to speak to someone who really runs all of the household's practical decisions . . . But you wouldn't, if he sent you." The odd contextual content loaded into her audibly saying the words "Seiji-dono would know who you would look for." is probably only fully parsed by Tamamo -- who has also delivered her name in turn.

    The girl blinks once at her, and then briefly just sort of stares into the distance, thought it feels like that stare is directed aimlessly inward rather than ahead. After a moment of silence, her smile brightens, and she says without explanation "You are, aren't you." The corner of Lilian's eye twitches in a near microscopic squint.

    Given that Arthur introduces himself too, Lilian follows him up with just "Lilian.", in keeping with a perceived masquerade ball atmosphere. The girl quickly turns to silent fretting, responding "Thank you all. Ah, I'm not supposed to use my real name, though. Or, that means my family name. I'm sorry. I hope you can understand." She tips her head. "If you want, you can just call me Sakura." Given that there'd been an extremely unordinary cherry tree on the way here, visible from the table, it could not be any more obvious that this is a pseudonym. She literally glances over her shoulder to see at it.

    She doesn't seem to get 'what's up?' and 'how's it hangin'?' in quite the casual context it's meant, putting her hand on the oversized book open on the table instead, and scooping the tiny jars aside. "Nothing more important than listening to someone who came all the way up here to speak. Do not worry." she reassures him. But she follows with "Heir of . . . ?" She doesn't leave it hanging in that emphatic, intentionally faux-thoughtful way Lilian does to direct the ear. It feels like a polite sort of 'I'll let you finish it' thing, despite sounding kind of eerily similar. The corner of the English girl's mouth twitches. She adds "He's referring to the fact that we're here to see someone who supposedly has a legitimized claim over the heirlooms of Sengo Muramasa. More so than their current holders, in dispute."

    'Sakura' blinks again. "That is . . . also me." she says. "Please, speak your minds." She smiles towards Xion. "I promise I won't close off anything I can help."
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Ask Sakura about blade exchange

    "Alright homeslice, I'mma lay the real shit down on the line early and simple for ya." Arthur says, leaning forward just enough to plant his fingertip on the table. "I respect Heir-class claims and shit, that's the rules. I *do* gotta figure out what's up with what went on in the sword hand-off though.'

    "Dudes abandoning their paths, tengu getting involved in clan biz, all kinds of wild shit. Pot's hella stirred. I promised Odas I was gonna protect shit and even though I'm not working with 'em, that's still something I promised, like a responsibility and stuff. Gotta make this right when I let it get made wrong, y'know?"

    "Were they doing that shit *for* you?"

>Arthur: Ask Sakura about political landscape, battlefield

    "What's the shortest path you're seeing between where we are -- you, me, clans, swords, *all* the pieces on the board -- and a game-end that means moves aren't getting made, dudes aren't abandoning their epic sacred paths, and we're not re-enacting weird snuff for ancient-ass war-ghosts? Some shit kicked off here and I need to figure out how to unkick it if I'm gonna make this right."
Tamamo     There are mysteries, and there are other mysteries. Tamamo minds some of them. She avoids questioning others, padding slowly, softly across the floor to take her seat with all the graceful formality one might expect.

    "As you know," she says to 'Sakura,' "there are many questions. Such is the price of secrecy." She says it like a co-conspirator, or perhaps like one listening to particularly hush-worthy gossip. "Of these, only one, perhaps two, concern myself, in this moment. Perhaps, you have already thought of what I might ask. Perhaps, if others have asked the same of you, you hoped one like myself would be the next to arrive, one whose light reaches through every season of this world. It would save some the need to repeat those same words."

    She doesn't actually ask the question. she doesn't say the words. It isn't necessary, and it's hardly polite, to question a stated identity. But Tamamo isn't here just to make a query. She's here to prove an answer.

    "It would be helpful," she says, "to have one of those weapons at hand. It would make things rather simpler, and require less, ah... 'prying.' Though it is not necessary, if you cannot supply one. I need only ask for your hand, young miss Sakura, and all will be settled within a moment."

    A pause, as she turns one hand palm-up, as if readying to take an offered one. "Ah, however, though I say 'a moment,' it would be best to answer Mr. Lowell's questions first, if you would. *Time* is rather subjective."
Xion Being let in and escorted through hallways and paper-screen doors does wonders for one's focus on the negative - if you don't want to be angry for very long. There's a progression of opening, waiting, resuming walking, pausing, waiting, opening, resuming walking that breaks up the motion of the body.

Which breaks up the motion of a thought. It's hard to stay seething when at least 'being civil' dictates you dedicate a majority of attention to not bowling through the intervening walls like some sort of spaghetti samurai movie thug two minutes before a man in a straw hat with one arm in his clothes cuts you down for spilling his tea.

So, by the time she's sitting down across from 'Sakura', her boiling anger has been replaced with a stewed frustration - lacking the intensity of directed hate.

"Huh? I was told..." her eyes scan to Lilian, Arthur, and Tamamo, before she shutters them and places her fists against her lap.

"Why do people act like villains, if they're not? Those tengu, from before, some of the people in the village. I want to believe they're not bad people... But they act like bad people. Why?"
Lilian Rook     Sakura bites slowly on her bottom lip while Xion talks, evidently realizes she's doing it, and consciously stops. Her hands are used to smooth out the layers of fabric in her lap while Arthur gets into it, swishing and patting motions causing faint jingling sounds to come from her hair ornamentation.

    "I think, that if you are anything like anyone else here, you might be sick of hearing that who is a villain or isn't is a matter of perspective. It is said ofeleven enough that it starts to lack meaning after a time, isn't it? So I would answer instead, that bad people are good at certain things. Like keeping secrets, for example. So, sometimes, good people must act in ways that seem like bad people. Not as a means to an end, but because the thing they have to do looks the same whether it's done for good or for bad. Does that help?"

    She doesn't need any time to put her words together, nor does she select them with any especial care or forethought. She doesn't modulate her tone, or sound as if she's breaking down something more complicated. It's an easy answer. Something to share with the class. It seems like something that 'Sakura' herself might have thought of before. It might even be her own conclusion. Everything about it is just . . . sunny, to Xion. Like the courtyard. Tranquil and bright.

    She says to Arthur "Because of that, some people may have to do things very contrary to their nature. They might have sworn a vow, for instance, that they might later have to act like someone who hadn't, to do something important, that people without vows do." Contrary to everyone outside, she doesn't visibly react to the name of the Oda clan. She just looks slightly put up by the directness of the question. "For me? I wouldn't say so. If you were to say 'because of me', I might not disagree. But everything they do, it's because they believe in it, not because I asked them. That much is true."

    She's back to tapping her fingers together, halfway between keeping her eyes ateleventive to the conversation, and something that isn't here, like someone just now fully processing reality after waking up. "That's a very complicated question . . . But I did say I would try my best to answer. In short, I think that the best path would be if all eleven daimyos were to surrender their Grave Blades publicly and simultaneously, so that no one is disadvantaged, and no one is fooled. No one is hurt, and a worse fate is avoided by everyone."

    She sighs. "But everyone tells me that it'll never happen. And I believe they must be right. The daimyos . . . The possibility that they might be treated unfairly . . . I believe that motivates them most of all. But I've been told that it's hard to give them up for other reasons, by people who know more about them than I do. People whom I trust. In other words, I don't know enough about strategy, or about people, to tell you the best way." She tilts her head forward apologetically.

    "But I know that something has to happen. This isn't the way it's supposed to be. Muramasa's ineleventions are *not* being enacted. This much I can say with absolute confidence. He knew exactly what it was that he was making, and why he needed to make it. Though those answers might be partially lost to us, for his swords to be used as weapons . . ."
Lilian Rook     But Tamamo is the familiar one. The fun one. The one that Sakura is mysteriously happy to see. "I am always hopeful that more people might see the light." she says, in an intentional wordplay on several levels, most in the actual language, perhaps fitting someone classically upper class who spends a lot of time with literature and poetry. "I am even more hopeful that yours might inspire someone to follow that example. Especially because I'm not able to leave this place." Her smile makes an unreadable micro-movement when Tamamo says what she does about time being subjective. "I'm also not meant to let anyone touch either of them, but obviously I think this is a special case."

    She gestures to the two swords at the back of the room, intensely gravitic in attention despite being intentionally drenched in plain fixtures, pointing to the black sword and the white sword. "Hajimari and Owari. The Muramasa of Beginnings and Muramasa of Endings. Please, be careful."
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: SPEAK

    Arthur turns to Xion, and says in a brief burst: "Good and evil aren't really about heroism and villainy. Heroism's a mindset, and it's exhausting. Tires you out fast. Basically impossible to keep up *all* the time, y'know?"

    "I mean, for everyone but me!"

>Arthur: Focus!

    Arthur taps his finger against the table. It's not impatient, it's contemplative; the gesture is trying to jar something in his brain. His thoughts on the matter are complex, and one can hear gears churn, can feel pistons in motion, can sense in some way machinery of the faculties getting up to some high-heat bullshit. "Yeah, I know what'cha mean. People doing stuff on your account, not really tuned in on your needs." He presses his fingers together across his nose, teeth grinding anxiously.

    "We gotta solve this. We gotta figure it."

>Arthur: Take it from the ground up
>Arthur: NO

>Arthur: ENOUGH
>Arthur: OF
>Arthur: THIS
>Arthur: MORTAL


    Arthur winces, sucking air through his teeth in pain like something just bit him. The tapping grows more intense. Any longer doing that motion and he's going to injure his index finger from impacting the nail. "Might..." He starts. "Have an idea...".

>Arthur: Tamamo asked for your help
>Arthur: Hey, eyes on Tamamo's plan, right?

    He shakes his head, as if clearing it. He turns to focus on Tamamo. "You got schemes? Hey, lemme put a look on that shit. I gotta be on this if there's some proper quest angles in whatever you're doing." He shifts to see if there's anything he needs to do to properly observe, and readies to do it.
Xion "Being a hero is really, really difficult. Being a villain is easy." Xion replies, largely to Arthur. Sakura makes a strong case - one that is almost unshakeable. Logic can't really get around it. Of course, an adult would agree, this is the way of the world. This is 'how it is'.

And it can't be helped.

Xion, however, is not an adult.

"I... I think I get it, though. The words you're saying. The way your hearts beat."

"Being a villain is easy. All it takes is accepting a compromise as normal. I heard the most evil thing just walking down the street: 'But it's not *against the rules*, so it's fine.'."

"It's why being a hero all the time is hard! Caring... caring is hard."

Xion glances worriedly at Arthur, before Tamamo asks for her to witness. On the eve of 'whatever it is they're witnessing', Xion gives Arthur another little smile.

"It doesn't hurt to listen. You can make the choice, after. I've got some loud voices too - they're not always right, but they're always loud. Volume doesn't make something more correct."
Tamamo     "Beginnings and Endings, is it? My, how fortuitous. Those were just the subjects of my curiosity. You have my thanks." Tamamo smiles, pleased and relaxed. Having secured the cooperation of Sakura, she then speaks to her fellow guests.

<J-IC-Scene> It would be helpful, I think, were all three of you to join me. To what is revealed, would you mind taking on the role of witness?
<J-IC-Scene> Arthur Lowell says, "Oh, eyes on this? I mean, ain't nobody gonna believe my rambunctious punk ass, but I'm down for it."
<J-IC-Scene> Xion says, "If I can, I will!"
<J-IC-Scene>Tamamo says, "I should like to say that my name is a most trusted one, yet such are the snarls of Fate that few things are so certain. Thank you both."
<J-IC-Scene> Tamamo says, "Lilian, might I ask you to carry the blades here? Carefully, of course, but you walk with my blessing. I would that they and Sakura be both close at hand."
<J-IC-Scene> Lilian Rook says, "Certainly. Is suspect I'm the most qualified to do so here anyways."
<J-IC-Scene> Arthur Lowell says, "Yeah, don't want that shit getting stuck on the bottom of my Sylladex."

    "Let us begin, then, at the beginning... of the threads that bind Hajimari to the one called Sakura." With the blades within reach, she reaches for the black sword. Only the lightest touch is necessary. On her other hand, she holds it out for their host. "For just a few moments of your time."

    To all involved, it looks like nothing, at first. Tracing the threads only she can see, twisting and winding, curving in directions perpendicular to space, disappearing forwards and back, Tamamo is just 'looking,' until she finds it. "There, and then."

    There's no setup of a bounded field. No casting chant. No warning but what she already gave. The table itself, situated within the room, provides all necessary geometric focus. All colors fade but her bright, golden eyes, as time stops, space condenses, twists, and time reverses. Quickly, swiftly, with no attention to spare for what came between, whether it be days or centuries, she brings herself, and those who had agreed--Lilian, Xion, and Arthur--to where these two threads had first wound together, or perhaps, to where they had first come apart. It will only be a moment, for Sakura, or perhaps a few.

    More precisely, these are moments of the past. The beginning of her story, as it pertains to what will be named Hajimari. This is the inside of the oracle's vision, the divination of Tamamo no Mae, bunrei of Amaterasu, a goddess to whom 'time flows in one direction' was more of a suggestion--not that Tamamo plans to be quite so meddlesome. Not at this moment, anyway.
Lilian Rook     Sakura smiles back at Tamamo in an enigmatically empty kind of way. "I'm glad. Though they aren't the first and last of their kind, it's important that they be together." When Lilian is asked by Tamamo, she only glances for a moment at Sakura for a potential objection, while moving to the back wall to retrieve the black scabbard. The girl actually holds her breath as Lilian touches it, subtly clenching the thick clothes on her lap. Lilian herself pauses for a second after her fingers first brush the wood.

    Though, thankfully, nothing happens. Sakura lets her breath out. "I was hoping for that. Even for someone like you, it isn't always . . ." Lilian replies thoughtlessly, as if speaking before mentally composing the words, "I've had practice." She lifts it off her stand, brings it over, and gently lays it out on the table in front of Tamamo, settling in and saying "Whenever you'd like." All set for when Tamamo works her magic.

    And she does.

    And . . .

    The surroundings are that of a forge, darkened and empty for the time of night. For all of the legendary fame of the man it must belong to, nothing stands out about it. In fact, given its size and equipment, it doesn't look at all suitable to be producing swords commercially as a smith does, especially for a time of war.

    Actually, it looks like it hasn't been used in a very long time.

    Moonlight comes through a high window to illuminate a sandy floor bereft of anything flammable, filtering through slats so heavily caked in dust they can't have been adjusted in ages. A set of box bellows sit on an old stand, cobwebs strung between them, across from a fireclay furnace trench with nothing but fine charcoal dust sitting at its bottom. Empty wooden buckets have been colonized by weeds. Clay oil quench trays are filled only with stains. An anvil is coated with as much rust and moss as the hammer on top of it. The wall dividing the bellows from the furnace has started to fall apart with age and disrepair. Even the mat on the central platform within reach of all the fixtures has frayed apart without being knelt on in years. The door is shut. The air is cold. Only the sound of water, crickets, and groaning wood comes from outside.
Lilian Rook     For all that, though, it is still occupied. Not by a single apprentice, forge hand, or even a caretaker, but by a single man, on the older side of middle-aged, short beard only passably groomed, his face lined with the beginnings of age, extremely muscular arms and chest rendered almost hairless for the patterns of what must be a thousand small burn scars across them. He is talking to himself while he works, wrapping cord around the handle of a recently quenched and straightened blade, not yet fitted to its tsuba, propped against his knee and angled down.

    He is seated in an invisible chair to do so. One that was taken away, or fell apart, decades ago.

    It's difficult to make out what he's saying, as it hasn't been said aloud for anyone's benefit. Most of it is just muttering at best; it's a kind of hyperfocused, even manic monologue, tinged with evident frustration. The only intelligible parts he repeats sound something like "Beginning. It has to be. There are only so many things left to cut." and "Can't start without a beginning. The only way to stop it is if it never begins."

    The partially naked blade in his fingers is exactly the opposite colour of the scabbard you'd seen in the modern day, somehow attaining a dazzling, white diamond glow to it in even the faintest moonlight. The wave markings famously attributed to Muramasa's work by sword historians are right there, visible after the steel has just been fully polished, so bright that it's like looking at fresh, unmarked snow. A few inches ahead of where elaborately coiled black rayskin is being pulled around a wooden handle, in place of a smith's signature stamp, the blade is etched with kanji that seems to be the fragment of a sentence. Specifically, it reads '--fear none except one, from the deep trees and the old sun--'.

    There isn't any clear evidence of where he'd even gotten the very tangible materials currently going into the sword's construction, though there is a store room and an attached living quarters, as would be expected of a small, family run forge, in the middle of wherever it is. During a break in his constant vocalizations, the sound of ticking can be heard from the latter, otherwise too faint to be picked out against his voice, the crickets, and water outside the walls all at once.

    The break stretches on for a few more seconds, and then the man resumes speaking at a slower, more clear, more introspective pace, eyes never deviating from his work. "How long will it be before she is born? Will it even be in time? Will she be the youngest? The oldest? I doubt I'll find out. No, I hope I won't. I just need the right blade. The right cut. That's the only way that I can help stop it. There have to be others who know. Who've seen. But this is something only I can do. I hope she will be able to forgive me for what I must do."
Tamamo     They arrive in a place that had been. Tamamo was sitting, and is now standing, assuming that her visual appearance, set here in this seemingly unused forge, is anything to go by. She observes the man fashioning the blade, though he has no way to observe her. She had not been here, after all.

    "The beginning of one's story," she says, after some moments of silence, "oftentimes precedes one's birth. So it is here. There is no possibility of coincidence, and there can be no mistake of identity. The heir he sought is the same as the child to whom we will speak. It is enough to declare her claim legitimate."

    There's more, of course. But walking around the forge, or even into the storage shed, doesn't seem like it will shed much more light on what this man saw, that brought him to this point.
Arthur Lowell >==>

    Arthur forces a smile at Xion. "Huh? I guess. Can't unthink an idea though! That's why I make sure to stay dumb as hell. Can't be accountable for rejecting an idea if I never had it y'know!" Insecurity rises to the top of this emotional centrifuge.


    Arthur is drawn as well, made a witness to the proceedings. "Took you for a Light aspect, not a Time aspect." He whispers idly to Tamamo idly as he watches with a certain sort of awe. Hey, not even getting time-travel sick!
>Arthur: He knew before it happened

    "That sounds right to me." Arthur whisper. "Will it even be in time... In time for the onslaught, maybe? Others... I bet he expected this to be something worldwide and big. Gotta be going for doing something with the onslaught."

>Arthur: DIDN'T HE

    Small wince, but only a smaller one. "I think we need to get his plan done. It'll give me another piece to one of the puzzles here, I think." He says, sounding out the words as if he's reading them off a teleprompter. "But... yeah. Yeah, Heir of Blades for sure." He agrees, his voice for once never really rising past low tones.
Xion Cast into a strange memory, Xion is speechless. Gawking at the surroundings and blinking in disbelief, she brings up her hands to rub at her eyelids, trying to blink away the new 'reality' and failing.

Then, she realizes. Oh! Ohhhh. This is the 'Witness' thing. This is supposed to happen.

And Arthur confirms it -- the 'Heir of Blades'. The person they have to finish the mission for? Is that their quest?

<I'm Lost.> Her mind decides, deciding to not think about difficult things too much when there's no decisions to be made but to be a part of this vision of reality, and be here for the people who asked her to be.


"I think hesitating a little before changing the world... is better than not hesitating at all. If you go through life without hesitating at all, you'll for-sure become the villain."
Tamamo     Tamamo doesn't hear the line to which Xion is responding, but she can respond to this one, all the same.

    "There was a warrior's philosophy in these lands that at once condemned hesitation and impatience both, as it happened. It is not quite so mysterious as the riddles of Zen. To hesitate in doing what one already knows 'must be done' is a sin, and a slowness that benefits no one... or so says the warrior. There is some virtue in the slowness of 'deciding,' I should think, 'what must be done.'"

    Some more looking about the 'unused' workshop. "Already a bodiless spirit when he forged the blades, is it? How peculiar."

    As if remembering, "Oh, where was...? Yes, of course." She continues, "This leads, then, to this present vision. Such caution for which I wished, that I should know the rightness of the heir. And yet, does this mean that his work, his plans, his preparations must be finished?" 'By us,' she doesn't say. But there's the relevant point. Whose business is this? "A most reasonable thought, Mr. Lowell. It would surely shed yet more light upon these matters, and is unlikely to be anything treacherous, to continue his work."

    Tamamo takes a step back from the ghostly forging. "And yet," she repeats, "let us find surety where we may, so long as caution is permissible. These are only moments away from our own time. We will not be made late to our own appointments by viewing the future, after all."

    There was another blade there, wasn't there? Here and now was the Beginning, and there waits the Ending. It's not visible, yet, here in a vision of the past, but that's a momentary issue. Tamamo reaches out to where she knows the blade is, touching first the thread from Hajimari, following it and Muramasa's shadow to its sibling blade, and searching again for that of Sakura's. Each one, she follows forward, finding where these three should again come together. At some moment in time, however distant, it should be there. The presence of the Divine Child. The white blade of Endings, Owari. The machinations of Muramasa. Not his own presence, but the culmination of his long plan.
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: DO WHAT MUST BE DONE

    "We gotta finish it up because it had some... some fundamental connection with the onslaught, don'tcha think?" Arthur says, unseasy with his own words. "I mean, think about it. He knew something about what was coming up. And... we *know* something came up. Look, don'tcha remember, the Odas have one of those needles, and the needles are important to the Antegent. If this swordsmith was trying to fuck up the Antegent, and he knew there'd be one of those needles here in Japan..."


    Arthur winces a bit, considering Xion's opinion. "Yeah, probably. Still, what's that bare minimum pain you go through before it's legit? There never is a good one. Never enough to be *comfortable* about something."


    Arthur continues holding on as he's taken along through plans and ideal paths -- the domain of the Light aspect, after all.
Xion The black-haired Nobody considers this for a few moments. It's hard, the gears visibly turning along her brow. "I think..." Xion begins, her voice declarative.

She quiets, raising a hand over her mouth. The mood is more somber.

More quietly, she continues. "I think that's why being strong is more about getting up and less about withstanding every hit while standing. I'm pretty weird though, so... if it's hard for you, you don't have to force yourself. Trying is as much as other people should ask. Doing things... you do them for yourself."
Lilian Rook     Lilian doesn't make it clear whether she's attempting levity or not when she replies to Tamamo on the subject of a warrior's philosophy, albeit to the open air, with "I'm familiar with it. It goes 'What's the problem? Do you want to live forever?'" She only examines its relevance to the current situation long-passed after saying it. "I suppose he didn't either, though he woudn't have been a warrior in principle. But coming right back from the grave to continue his life's work --no, start a new life's work. That has to be a grave sin against the Buddha, or however that works."

    "I hadn't known anything of Sengo Muramasa to suggest being a fortune teller. When does someone like that see whatever he saw?" Her foot is tapping in thought, in perfect, probably subconscious tempo with the ticking coming from the other room. "And why would a man who lived through 'that time' care anyways? Given that he'd been dead for so long before finishing, someone -- maybe multiple generations of someones -- had to have been bringing him what he needed for this work. And they didn't keep his workshop. Not family. If he had any, I doubt they approved of his work, known for its curse on the shogunate that ruled after him."

    "Maybe an apprentice? Or the descendent of one. Looking to try and glean what they can from the work of a dead master. No, a sponsor at best. I don't know what went into these swords, but it wouldn't be anything a normal person could acquire, and they wouldn't do it unless they wanted the power of the finished piece for whatever reason. It doesn't seem as if he kept them around. 'Failures' as they were to him, supposedly. There's clearly no vault of swords he passed down."

    Somewhat out of nowhere, she adds "Do you think this was his way of getting back up again? After each attempt. Or was it because he forced himself? Because there was something he felt he had to do."

    But there's still one more sword. The black blade of beginnings is followed by the white blade of endings. For all of the change in context, in meaning, and in the years that followed, the surroundings don't change much for the second leap through time. The same dark workshop. The same creeping vines and thorns grown longer. The same dust and sand grown deeper. The same wood embrittled a little more, the same metal a little more rusted. Perhaps twenty or thirty years. Just a different phase of the moon, and tools in different places. Such is the existence of a ghost.

    It's merely the moment in time that they've captured this place that has significantly changed what to look at. No doubt a very similar process has played out at least forty three times before. The muscled, burn-scarred Japanese man is knelt at the center of his traditional work array, where the platform has not yet fully decayed away under the mat. The box bellows work themselves without being touched, creaking and roaring with an uncanny life despite their age, as if by the almost literal hands of a poltergeist. The furnace is caked in dust and filled with nothing but sand and ashes, but it blazes with an eerie white fire all the same, filling the workshop with a haunting radiance that no doubt will be a new tale for some frightened traveler or superstitious villagers by tomorrow. The soaring sparks burn tiny, clean pinprick holes in the stonework.
Lilian Rook     The ghost holds a very tangible length of metal by a pair of tongs that look corroded with age only as far as his grip, after which the fire has burned away the detritus and revealed gleaming silver underneath. Turning it over and over, he withdraws an incandescent straight blade almost three feet long from the fire, seemingly just about complete, slamming out the last touches of geometry along the edge with a hammer whose striking face has been scorched clean to reveal the miniature kanji engraved into a tungsten-hued head, halos of iridescence burnt into it. The amount of muttering and subvocalized self-talk is even more intense this time, unintelligible over the bell-like ringing of mystery metal hitting mystery metal.

    Once the metal starts to lose its glow, he grunts to himself and begins slathering clay over its edge while it's still far too hot for a human being to touch. Or something like clay. Wet and black and somehow uncomfortable to look at. Something men drown in. Transferring it straight to the quench, the trough billows steam the colour of flesh misted by an explosion, filled with some kind of blood as it is. The steel gradually bends backwards as it cool, and when brought out, is a stark, lightless black colour, less 'absorbing' light than 'rejecting' it.

    Only once he's finished that, can you pick up snatches of speech "If the beginning is already fixed, then . . . the end of all things . . . a blade to cut through endings . . . sever the end in two and . . . that must be closest to that power . . . could call it a divine technique, but no god would allow it . . . but it has to be ready for her . . . Fuji. It's always Fuji. Every time I . . ."

    This time, the same ticking comes from within the room. The only item in the whole workshop that looks to be immaculate from care, rather than being some mythical material only superficially soiled by age. A four-sided mechanical of rather extreme intricacy, being a kind that came after Tamamo no Mae's first time on Earth, but of obviously Japanese design to match the non-Western time system. Something that would require a lot of taking apart and putting back together, a lot of cleaning and care, a lot of setting and resetting, to last this long. Its relevance is uncertain to a smith, for whom time should have lost all meaning.

    The most striking part of the whole affair, however, is that the door leading into the living space has been left open, with a loose trail of junk scattered from the door. Plastered all over the opposite wall to the forge, protected by the firebrick fence, are scrolls and papers of a very wide band of ages. Some are so old and yellowed they might disintegrate at any moment, while others still have some life left in them. Some are sheets that have been filled with frantic scribbles of a writing hand belonging to someone who only ever reads their own instructions. A few resemble artworks, made by someone skilled with a brush, taking a certain amount of care, but not an artist by trade at all. They're all composed of frenetic, if measured, slashes and swirls of calligraphy ink, coming out abstract and suggestive, depicting shapes and symbols more than any real scenes, overwhelmingly using the same black for writing, including only the colours red and white otherwise.
Lilian Rook     They are mostly unsettling silhouettes of beings and vistas from nightmares, lingering just long enough to be frantically drawn out after waking before fading from memory. The oldest look more like sleep paralysis than anything, vague and shadowy enough to be informed by the cultural standards of the time, given short horns, splayed fangs, long noses, matted hair, gnarled and clawed fingers. Landscapes of stick-like bodies boiling in lakes and mounted on spikes. Scenes of demons and hell.

    As they become more and more 'modern' however, the improvised 'paintings' take on looks that no medieval man could have the aesthetic basis to depict. They gradually become more specific. More alien. Beings that would look like ink blot tests if they weren't so clearly and deliberately drawn. Spikes gone for floating, shattered stones and crystals, hellfire gone for seething mists, shadows drawn long and strange, lakes of blood become fissures to nowhere. There's little doubt about the fact that some shapes look like towering buildings without their pagoda eaves. Nor is there about the fact that the traditional heaps of slain warriors now all carry hurriedly splashed shapes of the firearms that were introduced during the period of Muramasa's lifetime.

    A few appear to have been drawn over and over again, renewed as the old one faded and cracked, a little clearer each time. Most of them focus on human beings. The same four recurring figures. The one who appears the most is a girl who exists only as a neatly proportioned silhouette of white skin and extremely long black hair, clothed and ornamented in various ways, but always surrounded by blood red cherry petals and white snow. Though her shape becomes overwhelmingly more consistent with each iteration, there's always an attempt to include a sword somewhere, usually in her lap, and the details of it change every time, never clear, never pinned down.

    The other recurring figures are two men and one more woman, drawn in the same way. Perhaps some kind of young prince, given white for hair and red for all his fingers as if burned, usually surrounded in solar rings and crescent moons. A woman who is taller and more defined than the girl, the only one given eyes, always red on the white, always holding a sword, always surrounded with blood, sometimes covered in it, depending on whether she faces the sun or away from it. A man of comparatively tremendous size, the red line of a scar across his face, white splashed across his chest, always depicted in fields of fire and smoke, as if wandering, unburnt.
Lilian Rook     The most disturbing of them is almost a wall length scroll, half-burying many of the others. It's the only place where all elements converge. On the left side, a white sun atop a mountain, above a forest, at the back of buildings, leveled into a fiery plane, heaped with bodies, beyond which the four recurring entities have moved on from towards the right side of the scroll. On the right side, another sun, depicted entirely in bright, scarlet red, surrounded by rings of floating stones circling around it, shaped like mountains and islands, over a field of spires and lights. Dead figures marked with white blood contrast the dead on the left and their red gore, over which march a legion of nightmare shapes, towards the white sun and the mountain on the left. They seem to be arranged in size and definition as they go, the smallest and most grotesque nearest the center, and at the very far right, exaggerated shadows of weird, but consistently humanoid shapes, walking in the back ranks. The tallest looks to be carrying . . . well, one could call them swords and rifles if one felt very conspiratorial.

    The thing is, he doesn't watch the metal as he works. The ghost of Sengo Muramasa even examines the straight of the blade spine by feel, staring at his scrolls as if obsessed. As if those images soaking into his mind would guide his forge much better than relying on his senses, trusting in the mastery of smithing that makes up most of his spiritual core. He must have been on to something if he is, though, if this was the last Grave Blade before he made before his mythical magnum opus.
Tamamo     "Perhaps," Tamamo says to Lilian, "it was a curse that was poured into his blades, as it was a curse that held his spirit to this world. The curse of knowledge, of work unfinished, of knowing that which 'must be done.' The desire to sate and overcome, so said the Buddha, does bring about this suffering for 'not having done enough.' Ah, but as to whether his knowledge was of truth, or of lies... to say that it was *madness* gives no answer."

    Did someone help him? Perhaps. Does it matter? Tamamo gives no answer. At the least, "No human is like to have placed these visions before his eyes, though it cannot be wholly discounted."

    After some length, she gives a small sigh. "The threads do not reach forward, or else, not in any way easily followed. Gone into the mists, yes. The ending he envisioned does not, then, carry this blade beyond this moment. That which this blade should cut," she says it like the weapon holds a moral obligation, "is undecided."

    Tamamo looks over the largest scroll. "An heir, he saw, yet three others. Fuji-san, surrounded by those of red blood, and across from them, the inhuman, the grotesque, those whose blood runs in another color, yet further, beyond, those carry... hm. And what could these be?"

    To Arthur, "An invasion by the alien, if nothing else, we may conclude he predicted. Nay, that he *saw*, and therefore expected, and therefore prepared. Such invasions had happened even before his life, and more than once, but those were planned by men known to bleed."

    In the end, through her examination, Tamamo can only murmur. "Fire and smoke. Onna-bugeisha. The sword. The Sun. They change and change, but is it imitation of the other, or of the original?"
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: When does someone like that see whatever he saw?

    "You see it when you die." Arthur explains -- though perhaps he's entirely wrong, basing all this on his home universe. "Most afterlives aren't built with any connection to chronology. On your way there you wind up with a bunch'a shit around your eyes. 'Time of death' is singular, not plural." The hell's that mean?

>Arthur: Examine room

    "When you lose part of your life, sleep stops being sleep and starts bein' death. You see it enough that you can't stop seein' it." Arthur says, as he looks more and more at the wall-length scroll. Every place, every time, all that shit runs together and you can't pull it apart, but hell, you *can* define it. Shit is... you wish you could define it less. And you can't."

>Arthur: Match faces.

    "'Sakura.'" He gestures to black hair, white skin, ornamentation. "Lilian." Red eyes on white. The other two... He points a finger at the larger one. "Whoever this is, Gerart can point us at them. No question." The fourth? A mystery. But, for a moment, he regards it fondly. He regards it with a kind of awe.

>Arthur: DON'T YOU
>Arthur: Keep Xion close to prevent the worst kind of fuckup

    Arthur whispers, "Quiet." Under his breath, tensely. It is, though. A four-person group. A destruction of the world. A great and horrible threat from another dimension. Magic. Heroes. Monsters. Soldiers. Gods. No, no way to hold back on this anymore. "He knows about the onslaught. He planned something. It didn't happen when he hoped, or..." There's a brief dry swallow. He stares at the tallest figures. "Or maybe the real invasion isn't here yet."

    He turns back. "Either way, we need to get the blades into Sakura's hands and we need to point her at this problem real fuckin' quick." He says, holding onto the one thing that's much more certain right about now.
Xion "I think... calling it a curse is wrong." Xion interjects as Tamamo addresses Lilian. "A curse... maybe for you, Tamamo. For both of you."

Whether she means Lilian or Arthur in this indication, or the divine child they had left, is very unclear.

"People live and work and experience things as unfinished stories. Few people are perfect. Most people come up a little short. Working on that can be difficult. For someone like Muramasa, I think I can feel an echo of his heart here--"

"Dissatisfaction can be a very powerful feeling. Something inside of you screaming in your head 'look at what you could be'. 'Look at what you could do'."

Her tone repeats the words as Arthur's headvoice spoke them earlier.

"That sort of thing is very human, to me. If I were a god... If I were a being like that, Tamamo, I'm sure my godly heart would say 'This is how things are', and 'This is what I am'. Being dissatisfied with how things turn out means that you also desire to change it. Acting on that is progress."

Despite everything, she breaks into a smile. "Or maybe I'm just being silly again. I like saying the words, though. For a while, the world I live in is one in which they're true."

She tracks around the room, reaching to hoverhand the portraits that Muramasa was consumed by. "Do you... get it?" She asks the room, sighing wistfully. "I really don't get art. I want to, though! It seems like something with a lot of heart."

She plants her fists on her hips and nods. "Okay! We should get ice cream to celebrate."
Lilian Rook     "It's hard to argue any other conclusion that he knew about something in advance." Lilian agrees out loud, however hesitantly. "I'd be willing to believe that it came to him after, or as he died. It's the only way I can imagine that happening. If it were so easy to predict -- no, if it were possible at all to predict through normal methods, every competent diviner in the world would have seen something of that magnitude coming. It's not like some traveling sorcerer would have told him. It'd have to be some kind of godly inspiration, or zen transcendence, neither of which would likely come to a Sengoku warsmith."

    "I don't like it." she adds after a moment. The corner of her lips twitches downward at one of the figures being called out as her. "For several reasons, but . . ." There is one she settles on in particular, her tone both grave and vexed. "I didn't fight in the Onslaught. It ended a decade before I was born. 'Sakura' can't be any older than I am." There is a hesitant pause where she clearly struggles to decide whether to say any more, evidently falling on the fact that it's a halfway open secret now.. "And I already don't like the fact that she seemed sort of familiar for a second."

    She seems glad to switch topics to something she can speak on authoritatively. "It's equally obvious that the forty fifth is supposed to be hers, I agree. The preceding number might as well be irrelevant save for the cipher they supposedly make up together. There's no practical *need* to bring them all here at once. That much still very much depends on whether or not they should stay where they are." A pause. "Though, as an aside, I find it hard to imagine that girl swinging a katana with those arms. She looks like a doll. I suppose it really is the case that Muramasa never made a 'weapon' after his death."

    She winces slightly at Xion. It isn't a reflexive one; she's certainly allowed herself to show it, in some display of sympathy. "Embracing the impermanence of things, especially human life, is one way that major successful cultures managed to work their way through these bloody and short-lived periods. I don't think there's any evidence to point to Muramasa being highly Enlightened during his life; he wouldn't have lived more than a hundred twenty years at the most. But it is often the case that you don't realize how you could have spent your time until it's already gone. And nobody gets their time back. It's the one currency nobody can make much more of. You're supposed to spend it for wisdom, but wisdom often ends up showing you how you've spent it poorly in hindsight. 'More time' is something everyone wants. It's the most selfish and unattainable of human desires, because it appeals to the thing everyone wants; to not have any regrets."

    Only after that, Lilian allows herself a thin smile. "I would be fine with ice cream."
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Egress

    "Alright." Arthur mutters, scratching at his cheek. "I think we've got everything validated then, so that's good work. Pull us out." He heaves a sigh like a corpse going into a river. "After that... I guess ice cream. But after that, we need to get to work. If we're going to get any of those swords into her hands without turning this whole damn mountain upside down with clan warfare..."

    "We've got to alchemize more Grave Blades than Muramasa made, and use that curse to start forcing the clans to shuffle. It's the only way I can think of to *make* these people start working on this, and we need it worked on *now*."
Xion "Ice cream!" All the darkness and doubt and pain and angst seem to evaporate from Xion like morning dew when that thin smile emerges.

"As for someone with thin arms..." Xion pumps her bicep, patting the noodly appendage and comical swell-on such an action creates.

"Sure, but if you've got the right blade, weight isn't an issue. That part, I know for a fact."

Arthur encourages flooding the market with plot devices to handle the plot device shortage.

"Yeah! That's awesome. And we can keep the Master Graveblades for ourselves!"

Xion is trained to collect Master X-blades.
Tamamo     "Perhaps so," Tamamo says to Xion. She says it like she really doesn't know, and is at least somewhat curious of the answer.

    They're done here, as Arthur said. As done as they need to be. Tamamo doesn't 'reverse course' so much as she 'lets go,' letting the tension of the pulled threads gradually lessen, the tapestry reweave, all things of the expected structure that is time and space and possibility right itself into the way it wishes to be, in the sense that rain wishes to fall and steam to rise. The path backward isn't straight through either time or space, but along the threads of the Fate that brought the death-white blade of Endings to the one called Sakura, skipping quickly over all those intervening knots to arrive back at...

    The present, a moment after her fingers touched the blade, and now, as they already retreat from it, and the fox-tailed woman slowly rights herself in her seat. She tilts her head.

    "I do know *of* ice cream, but..." That trails off. "Is it traditional?"