Chapter One: Those That Stand Alone
"Anything truly worth having is worth fighting for."
Thirty years in the darkness, hidden beneath the mountain's stone. Endless night, amidst a sea of crystal, alone behind the seals and wards of light. A lifetime half awake, half dreaming, adrift in the terrors of the mind. Death would have been gentler, more caring and wiser. In death, no shadow can live within you.
But the man in the shadows would not be defeated. Not by the Shadow, and not by Death.
And so he remained, awash in the shadows, and fought for all his soul.
Meanwhile, the sun rose and fell, and armies marched across the earth. Samurai bled the fields red; palaces burned and were restored. The Empire grew, changed and died, all of this passing without knowledge of the man hidden away beneath the earth's fold.
In the crystal, there was only silence, and the calm embrace of self.
There, drawn away from the Empire, the man found his peace.
There, in the heart of the riddle, the man found his truth.
Koshin stood silent, the edges of his sandals scraping the edge of the precipice. Over the cliff of Mirumoto Mountain waited the abyss, a thousand feet and more of darkness and untouched air. The winds rushed up, stirring the samurai's hair, sending it dancing over his silent face.
From looking at the man, one never would have guessed that he had lived for nearly sixty years. Koshin's face was ageless, and his body muscled and strong. Beneath his faded blue kimono he could feel the Dragon's gift; the rising symbol of the crane. With Hitomi's power filling him, the samurai felt as if he could do anything.
Now, however, as he stood at the brink, the samurai could move no further.
More than thirty years ago, he had seen it, found it as he was training in the art of the sword. That place beneath the climb, where a tiny pool of deep water lay. It had been a test, to step off into the abyss, to fall unhindered…and not to die.
To risk everything, only to prove to himself that he could.
But now, Koshin could not take that step. With the wind rushing up, his body was tense and nervous rather than supple and relaxed, a reminder of the past. A reminder of everything that his body had forgotten sealed away in the darkness, as he fought for his soul.
Physical memories…the ability to sense danger, to react to it…
Every edge was gone.
And yet he remained there, half a step from the test. Half a step, between everything that he had been and everything that he now was. As the cold air brushed against his pale face, the samurai stood in silence, knowing that should he fall, he would die.
Taking a long, ragged breath, the man stepped back.
"Not yet…" he whispered to the darkness below him.
It had taken Koshin years to become the man that he had been. Blood and sweat, pain and anguish; those prices had all been paid, in order to walk the path of the warrior. And now, standing back from the cliff's mocking edge, the samurai knew that his body spoke the truth.
It was all gone.
Once a man steps down from the path, Koshin had been told, there was no return. There were also the memories of the sensei, the prodigies, the masters; remembered not for their skills or their wisdom, but for that one moment of truth, when their skills had failed them, when they fell from the path, and a stronger, younger, purer man came forward to walk the way.
There was no shame in being defeated by time.
There was only shame in denying it.
There was only one way to know the truth, the samurai knew as he moved down the mountain path, and back into the castle walls. Beneath him lay the ashen lands of the Fire Dragon, and beyond that the entire Empire.
At this moment, however, as the man stepped into the empty dojo, he did his best to ignore those sounds, the beckoning call of his home and his family that confounded the back of his mind. Alone before the shrine to Mirumoto was a single sword, slender and delicate in the soft lantern light.
Taking up the sword, Koshin stood for a moment, adjusting his obi, as the saya set at his side. Silence came slowly, and his mind was listless, bored. In his right hand the son of Kakita held gently a single slender twig, no longer than half his forearm.
Finally, silence came. Eyes closed, tense and irritated by the sudden darkness. The branch of the tree flew high, whirling almost lazily through the abandoned air.
The eyes opened. The blade sang.
In the end, the pieces fell to the ground, each parted with clean cuts made with a swift, skilled arm. But even as they did, the samurai knew that it was not enough.
Not enough for a true master.
Sitting in the silence of the dojo, the old monk watched the movements before him. "Have you ever considered," he asked as he sipped at his tea, "That you are fighting in the wrong way?"
Koshin was silent; in three weeks of personal torment, the samurai had been sullen, grueling his body and steeling his soul. Even now, as the monk took his simple midday meal, the man before him was deep in meditative motion, weaving his arms and legs in the delicate mizu-do styles of the Crane. Koshin had always been driven, but now the obsession threatened to consume his soul.
Nikkan frowned slightly, his aged face wrinkling as he did, "More than a month since you have returned, and this is all that you do? Haven't you wondered about what has happened, how the Empire has changed?"
Still in the middle of a deep bend, the samurai spoke. "It doesn't matter."
Sighing softly, the aged Mirumoto continued to drink. "You haven't asked me about your sisters, about Taehime, or anything else? You were never so selfish before, my friend."
The man hesitated for a moment.
"I know that Miyu stills misses you…in thirty years, she has lit a candle at the shrine for you each night, and prayed that you have found your peace."
Koshin had stopped his practice. Standing there before Nikkan, the samurai was silent. Grey eyes stared into the monk's face past wisps of dark hair, and for a moment, just a moment, the man's resolve weakened. There was a battle, deep within his soul.
"I am leaving on a musha shugyo, Nikkan…"
"A warrior's quest for enlightenment," the monk said with a little sigh. "Is your pride so great, my friend, that you cannot see when the path has changed? It is time to say your long-overdue good-byes, and seek enlightenment. You would turn aside everything so quickly, Koshin, simply for your own pride?"
"I will return for my sword," the former Crane continued without a change, "once I am ready."
"And so you will again abandon your sister, who still grows quiet at the mention of your name?"
"I have to," Koshin said. "I am not the man I was."
Nikkan stood stiffly, leaning on his slender cane as he walked forward to stare into the Kakita's eyes, "Not for your clan, whom you swore to serve with your body and mind?"
"I cannot go back now. They would never understand."
The monk nodded, knowing as always that there was truth in the Crane's words. "And what of your daughter?" Nikkan waited, his aged face slightly saddened as he watched Koshin's face grow hard.
"You bastard…how dare you…"
"She has lived without a mother for ten years now, Koshin…she has grown to be a fine woman. A fine samurai." The aged man's eyes grew hard again, and for a moment the other man forgot that Nikkan's days of war were at an end. "Do you think that she has no right to know the truth?"
"One day…" Koshin began, but his friend's quick motion cut him off.
"Life is made in the instant, Koshin…you know this better than I. Now and forever, you must decide now…the sword or life?"
The samurai nodded, walking to the edge of the dojo, lifting his few belongings, and turning to walk away, "The sword is my life, Nikkan. One and the same…to kill one is to kill the other." Looking down with a soft smile at the battered kasa and the traveling writs that the monk handed to him, Koshin nodded.
"Remember how I always told you, Nikkan, that nothing on heaven or earth or beyond would stop me on my path, how I told you that I would be the very best, no matter what it cost me?"
The monk nodded, standing in the light of the doorway. He could have told Koshin; told him that Miyu was at his house, his wife for many years, less than a mile outside the castle walls. He could have, but the sensei already knew that it would make no difference.
The Way of the Sword was to be walked alone.
"Sometimes being right," Koshin said, "is the
greatest wrong of them all."
A Journey Begins…