Chapter Nineteen: Hungry Wolves
"There is strength within the waves, and
in the shadows that lie beneath."
- Bayushi Goshiu
The shrine was old; older than the men, the walls that now surrounded it, older even than time that the Crab had claimed this land as their own. Now, the tablets were a testimony to the courage of a different family, with a different vision, but the temple remained the same; silent, unbreakable, and permanent.
Outside, Koshin stepped down from his pale, tired horse, turning to the four Hida that had led him to the lonely plain. The samurai ringed him closely, and remained mounted, holding tightly to their yari. The leader pointed his spear towards the darkened interior to the small shrine. "Deliver your message and be gone, ronin. It is not good to try Satsukiru-dono's patience."
Koshin nodded, then approached the stone steps.
The first steps were like any other, a quiet rustle of sand and stone. Then, a few feet from the temple, the ronin felt his foot pause, his throat catch, and the blood in his body run cold. The sensation of death, of the crystal sleep, came like a rushing wave upon him, poured from the shrine, and it froze the swordsman to the bone. Stepping backwards, Koshin felt his grip on Yusen's saya tighten; the wood groaned slightly, as a voice rose from the darkness within.
It was a voice of subtle threat, of hatred so old that it was now born with each new word. "A true warrior does not fear death. A true warrior does not fear defeat."
Koshin stepped forward at the challenge, each footfall through the aura of death like a stabbing pain. As he moved, the ronin felt a sudden hunger to pass this realm of blood, this place of remorselessness and endless dead eyes; he had to see what waited, at the end of this warriors' road.
But at the base of the steps, the words again stopped him. "The true warrior knows no defeat, no retreat. He knows no victory he knows only challenge." It was as if the samurai within the shrine knew Koshin's thoughts, and they were spoken from experience, from the pain of many years.
"I am Futai, doshin to Kakita Kenshuko." Koshin stepped forward, placing his sandal on the temple's stone step. "Are you Hiruma Satsukiru-dono, cousin to Hida Yusen of Gaijori Mura?"
Koshin drew up Yusen's sword, holding it high in the air, taking care not to touch the handle itself. "Yusen died in honorable combat, Satsukiru-dono. I have brought his weapon, as was his request, to your hand." The death whirled around Koshin now, roaring like a thunderstorm on the Doji Plains.
"If you seek revenge," Koshin said softly, "then I await your request."
"You are the one who killed Yusen?"
"No," Koshin said honestly, still holding the Kaiu blade in ceremonial position, its steel tsuba gleaming just beyond his eyes, "but I will serve in her place, for she is badly wounded." Koshin knew that Kenshuko could not face this demon; he himself could not be sure of the result.
Stealing life from death himself
But there was only silence. The darkness of the temple drew in upon itself, shrouding and drowning the god of death, and yet his voice rose again, moments later, like a whisper of smoke and wind. "To fight and die for another so simply, that is what it means to have loyalty that is what it means to be samurai."
Koshin nodded curtly in response, feeling one bead of sweat as it appeared on his face.
"But you are no samurai," said the god of death with a laugh.
The swordsman's hand caught, for Koshin had nearly seized hold of Yusen's sword and drawn; doing so would have dishonored both the fallen Crab, and himself. The voice waited, continuing only once the ronin had again calmed his soul. "You are no man, born of woman. You are a wolf, a slavering beast born of baser things, knowing only slaughter as life. We are the same, both hungry wolves, trapped in this world of man. Between us, there is no honor."
"There is only the Path of Blood."
Koshin shook his head, gripping Yusen's saya more tightly now, using it as a pillar of order, somewhere in a place of chaos and death. "I swore long ago that my honor would not falter on behalf of my path. The Way means nothing, if you abandon your soul to obtain it! The blade is bitter without honor to temper it."
"Yet you are soaked in the blood of your enemies, be they good or evil is this the way of the samurai, or the way of the beast within you?" The god of death spoke louder now, his voice within the shrine a thundering roar. Then, it grew silent, a mere whisper that the soldiers of Hida could not catch.
A moment later, the ronin swordsman bowed, laid the Kaiu sword on the highest step of the small ancestral shrine, and, unchallenged, was gone. The Hida wondered why the legendary Hiruma Satsukiru had not challenged the murderer of his cousin, his only kin, but none dared approach him, none dared challenge his courage. Moments later, they took their leave of the dark shrine, abandoning it to the sounds of distant thunder, and the lingering stench of death.
Only the ronin knew the truth.
"I will not fight you."
The fire danced fiercely in the winds that raced through Gaijori's empty night. For three days ride back, those words had tormented the ronin; now, as he sat silently before the house where Kenshuko slept, they haunted the swordsman still. Turning a twig over and over in his hands, Koshin sought the emptiness of Void but instead, there were only Satsukiru's words.
"You are no man; you hunger for blood, beyond all words and trappings of honor. And so I will not fight you let the hunger gnaw at your heart and soul. That shall be my revenge, for we are the same, and I know well the pain of such hunger."
Koshin looked into the fire, seeing the darkness that lurked behind the flame. The Hiruma had known him, known the feeling that always came, always tortured the wanderer on his way. "And what of you ? What of your hunger, Satsukiru?"
"I have lived with such hunger so long, it has become a piece of my tainted soul cherish this moment, ronin, for it is your last gaze into the world of man "
Satsukiru was the strongest yet; his might was greater than Yorishi's might, his technique finer than Akijin's draw; even the mere presence of his warrior spirit had proved that without doubt. The calmness in his voice, devoid of emotion, fair or foul; they were the words of a warrior washed clean of morality or remorse, a man to whom only the sword remained. He was no samurai; there was only the life of the blade.
He was the strongest enemy Koshin had ever known.
Already he could feel the gnawing bite; it had driven him when the Scorpion had denied him, and now it was a hundred times worse. The thought of a thousand ends to the challenge echoed in Koshin's mind; it was as if Satsukiru was denying him the right to a piece of his own soul.
Reaching down, Koshin drew out the ancient sword, again turning his hands to withdrawing the tiny pieces of rust and ruination from the flawless blade beneath. Each flake fell, like a leaf from a tree in autumn, and the ronin felt his soul calm, if only a little, with each piece of the white-blue blade.
"How deep is your darkness, Satsukiru?" Koshin asked, wondering idly about the poison of his own heart. Another flake fell, revealing another tiny piece of purity. "Will I ever triumph over your heart of darkness, or will I only give birth to my own?"
Was there a path back, once a warrior fell?
The scraping of the stones, like the hissing of the sea, slid through the uneasy silence. Since he had come to the shrine, Satsukiru had not moved, not returned to the castle of his people or asked why he had been taken from his place upon the Great Wall of the Crab. He ate what the Yasuki brought him, listened to what the Yasuki told him, but the great warrior did not move, did not leave the ancient shrine.
Beyond the shrine, the world was veiled, as always, in the crimson torrent of blood.
Somewhere, the other was preparing. Satsukiru could sense him, feel the warrior's spirit even now. Every skill, every technique that he had ever faced was within his mind; all of them were being considered, for at the core of the blade was death.
The strike of Kakita, seeking not only perfection of the self, but also the imperfection of the opponent.
The blades of the Niten, the Mirumoto two swords of heaven, which balanced the sword in the effortless core of all things.
Sword of the Akodo, the blow of precision. That technique which sought the core of the duel, where the opponent could not defend.
Movement of the Yoritomo Ryu, eight-circle stance of the tessen. Fading draw thrust, reverse hand cut all words to symbolize the art of death, to put it into terms of normal men. Somewhere, Satasukiru knew, the ronin was preparing, trying to comprehend the simplest lesson of all.
In his life, the Hiruma had faced many men, with many forms, and many things to which form was a meaningless expression. Himself, the warrior had never stepped into the dojo of Hida, never learned a simple cut or draw. The blade that Satsukiru practiced had no name, no form and no heart. It was the sword of slaughter, barren of anything but blood.
There was nothing beyond the blood, now.
Once, Satsukiru had been a samurai, a man who held tightly to bushido, a lone stone of order against the sea of the Shadowlands. He fought to hold fast to the lands of his family, to preserve the Empire and honor his ancestors' name.
But it was not enough; true destruction, the only technique that was real, could not be bound within the tenants of man. And so Satsukiru changed. Where there had been heart, he had filled the void with stone. Now the stone had grown, and filled his body with its strength.
That was the strength, which held back the burning desire to tear open the world.
Satsukiru was not a man with time for empty virtues, be it enlightenment or the quest of the blade. For a Crab, the reward was survival, the right to live for just one more day. As the years passed, that drive, to survive, to endure, became the only thing that remained in the warrior's life.
The ideals of bushido, the wish to cleanse Rokugan, to free it from fear all forgotten promises, barren ideals, against the simple human wish to survive.
It was that which had made Satsukiru great. Where loyalty and honor failed, the threat of death never did. Honor and duty were reasons for the weak, for men who did not understand the importance of life. To survive that was the only goal.
"Let him come," the gravely voice whispered to the shadows, wondering idly why they danced without the moon's light. If the hunger did not consume him, if it did not drive him to madness and despair, only then would the warrior be ready to understand the majesty of life.
Idly, through some long-forgotten reaction, the warrior touched his muscled chest, massaging an aching, aged white scar. It was a lesson Satsukiru had never forgotten
Only the strongest had the right to survive.
No More Words