Chapter Twenty-One: The Fourth Master
"This is death."
It is never the same, Koshin told himself. His body ached from head to toe; it begged for sleep, for death for any release or forgiveness that could be given. But even now, as he half lay, half crouched over the bodies of the fallen berserkers, the ronin's mind would now grant him any solace. It bombarded him with thoughts, and not all of them, his own.
Koshin had been there, at the fore of battle, when the Hida charged. The Kakita were ready for them, but that did not dissuade the Crab in the least. Perhaps it had even encouraged them. It truly was never the same watching a man die. Watching a thousand men die.
It might have gone on for days, for all Koshin knew; he had lost himself in the struggle the challenge of it all! The samurai hated himself now gauging his skill against the blood of honorable men! The Hida had been skilled, been strong .
But they had not been swift. The Kakita swordsmen had used this against them, and so had their ronin brother.
Rising like a sea of broken trees, the shattered banners rose from the backs of dead men, Crane and Crab alike. Koshin had no heart to search the field for Kenshuko's standard she had chosen to ride with her kin. Though he was her yojimbo, he was not Crane in their eyes; and so he was denied. Doji's Fan was no place for a wave man; that honor was only for Crane.
He might have sat there for hours, amidst the groans of the dying but at that moment, there arose from somewhere else, somewhere to the west. It was a cold, unnatural sound; like the tearing of cloth, or the slow scrape of steel upon stone.
Koshin rose slowly, his legs already rebelling against the intention. Stumbling, the ronin moved past his heaped pile of ruined lives, to see what thing stirred the remnants of the dead.
Dressed in dark, bloodstained rags, the beast was hunched low, its back rippling with tensed muscles. It turned slowly, deliberately, conserving strength and motion. A head of black hair hung damp upon large shoulders, and framed a cold, uncaring face. A face Koshin knew, though he had never seen it before.
The ronin's breath caught. "Satsukiru."
Those thin eyes, clenched almost shut, as if they feared the evening sun, widened slightly, but that silent expression was unmoved. The Crab wore no armor, held no weapon beyond a huge, nicked sword. His voice came from the depths of his being, barely moving his grim visage as the words touched Koshin's soul.
"Now you see the Path we walk."
Hiding his weariness instantly, Koshin drew himself up, but even his tall stature was several inches below the stooped Hiruma. "I knew it was you even on this place of death, I can feel the essence of your soul."
That face remained unchanged, "Only you could understand our hearts."
The battle was over there would have been no disgrace, no dishonor in withdraw. Both men were weak, wounded; it would have served their masters better, to fight another day.
None of that mattered, as Koshin drew his blades. "I am Kakita Koshin Satsukiru of Hiruma, I challenge you!" The ancient blade flashed dully in the setting light, and both swords were stained red by the veil that Yakamo now spread across the world.
Satsukiru laughed, only once. It was an unnatural sound that did not suit him, rattling too long in his throat like a dying man's cry. "Your hunger is great, Koshin of Kakita. Perhaps even greater than my own." With that, the warrior lifted his great Kaiu no-dachi, the globlets of flesh falling from it with each tiny movement. "It will not destroy you so I must."
"I don't want your life," Koshin hissed, harnessing his chi for the battle to come. "I never did."
Satsukiru might have been a statue, for all that he moved. His unflinching gaze, like the stare of Koshin's old sensei, challenged his words. The ronin stood ready, waiting for the strike. "Ever since that day, Satsukiru it was all that I could think of. Not of defeating you "
"Of becoming you."
The silence of the dead hung all around them now, and Koshin could almost feel the surging aura that rose form his enemy's soul. The swordsman continued, gripping the Void, "But I am no dog, and none of your words can change that! I am not afraid of my path; it is more than a road of blood and dead men! And I will walk it," the samurai finished softly, "and succeed where you have failed."
That gravely voice came again, but the Hiruma's form never changed, never moved. "Do not presume that you know your destiny, simply because you know of your path. It will never end, for you. Always more blood, always more pain always the promise of another empty dawn."
Koshin laughed, harshly, feeling his anger rise beneath the words. "I came here to learn from your skill, Satsukiru," The Hiruma smiled, a strange look upon his face, "Now you can show me your truth."
The two of them stood, darkness and light, surrounded by the silence of shattered dreams. Koshin's hands tingled, their edges sliding slowly over the roughness of the silk.
Satsukiru remained immobile and silent, his blade extended low to the ground. Unlike his brethren, the master did not lose control of his fury; the samurai could feel it rising within him, churning and spiraling deep into his core. Both men remained frozen, their weary forms drawing in all their power from the universe that watched beyond.
Finally, the ronin charged, ducking beneath the first attack from the Crab's blade. The sakaba came down hard, but the berserker's huge form twisted with ease, and that notched sword met strike with strike, the very strength of the parry nearly throwing the Kakita to the ground. Koshin's arm shuddered, but he continued his attacks, each blow echoing hollowly through Satsukiru's blade.
Wrapping their blades about one another, the two combatants circled and turned, each fighting for supremacy with every ounce of strength that remained. Koshin gritted his teeth, leveled blows with elbows and legs, using every technique he had learned, striking again and again at the enemy's unyielding frame.
Through the storm of blows, Satsukiru remained unchanged, his hands gripped tightly to the blade. As the ronin strained, he resisted, and slowly, ever so slowly, the Crab began winning, suddenly yanking Koshin to his knees.
"Why ?" The Hiruma hissed, his hands gripping tightly to the sword's handle. "Why did you not dodge? Why challenge my strength, when you have your speed? You are not so foolish "
Even as the no-dachi began to bite slowly into his right shoulder, the ronin raised his face, already marred with fresh sweat from the struggle. His voice was somehow different, somehow harder than before, "I will not be weaker! Not than you! Not than anyone!!!"
With quivering legs, the ronin forced himself to stand, pressing the bigger man backwards by an indomitable force of will. Satsukiru's dark eyes tensed as they saw Koshin's inner fire, and his huge muscles bulged, matching the ronin, nearly shattering both men. For a long time, they stood, bound together, the only sound the keen of suffering steel.
Then, in an instant, they had torn themselves from one another, both men whirling their weapons, their aching muscles tensed for the next attack. Koshin felt his whole body, begging for release; the sakaba in his right hand had shattered somewhere during the struggle. Pieces of the folded steel littered the ground, shining in the last remnants of the setting sun.
"Have you learned anything?" the big Hiruma asked softly, no hint of sarcasm or insult showing in the words. Koshin met the gaze, his eyes the gray of stone. "Have you found your truth?"
Koshin answered with a singing blade.
When the swords met again, their edges sparked and screeched, the dalliance even more brutal than before. Satsukiru had thought that he could outlast the slender swordsman, but now, the berserker threw down with all his spirit, striking hard blows with his weapon that even Koshin's form could not ignore.
Working his remaining sword hard and parrying with the remains of Tamasou's blade, the ronin fought to survive the onslaught, his mind shouting to return the blows. Satsukiru was fighting to kill, every strike aimed at his death his weapons called for retaliation, but the swordsman held his hand. It was a dying effort, and his strength was failing to hold.
You cannot outlast this one, his mind whispered mockingly. You cannot wait for the moment of truth.
It was too soon. Satsukiru was too skilled, too sure of himself, of the techniques that he so effortlessly knew. Now, the Hiruma took a side stance, his huge legs spread even and wide. Holding the huge blade close to the ground, the warrior prepared for the final blow. The Kaiu blade scraped the open ground, sparking as it pitted broken mail and stone.
He will beat you, the spirits said. Because you were immature. Because you were weak.
Both arms ached badly, their muscles still strained from the previous embrace. Holding the rusty sword had become like gripping a quivering, living thing; even now it leapt about, almost immune to Koshin's control.
Satsukiru's eyes said his every thought. Only now do you understand, what it means to fight as I do.
"This is the price," the Hiruma said softly, "that you pay for your truth."
Koshin nodded, sheathing the rusty blade with a weak, aching hand. The samurai's pale face was shining with sweat, and he fought against the pain as he readied himself for the strike, binding his right hand to the saya with its faded cord. He smiled, "I am ready."
When the Hiruma attacked, the blow was hard, from the left side. It was a simple stroke, and the master wasted no strength or time. Koshin moved, stepping backwards as he drew the rusted blade. The ronin's eyes flashed angrily, his voice ringing out as the katana kissed Satsukiru's blade.
Through muscle and bone the rusted tip passed with ease, slicing through the berserker's right arm just below the shoulder's edge. The simple tsuba bound tightly with the no-dachi's own guard, and it took all of Koshin's strength just to stop the driven blade. His body shuddered, but the sword bit only into his side slightly, denied its fatal energy by the tip of an ancient blade.
For a long moment, the two remained silent; frozen, it seemed, with their strength drained by the final strike. Then, slowly, like two waking sleepers, the fighters pulled apart from one another, the sound of steel and flesh parting accompanying each blade.
Taking hold of his sword in his left hand, Satsukiru barely acknowledged the limpness to his right. The berserker attacked, but his technique was weaker now; Koshin twisted and turned with ease, "It is over!" The swordsman whirled his blade, stepping backwards to put some distance between himself and the Hiruma's flailing blade as he modified Mirumoto's fourth stance. "You are defeated! Our fight is done."
Satsukiru's face, which had remained so impassive, rose suddenly, his great eyes awash with anger and hate. "You understand nothing!" Raising up his wounded arm, the master seized hold of his blade with both arms, holding it high over his head for a final strike. "You call yourself a warrior on the path, yet you know nothing of what the fight means! Only the strongest have the right to survive!"
Koshin stood silent, blood running down his side, staining the ground and his white kimono. His hair hung low, stuck to his face in places by sweat and blood. The samurai said nothing, his chest heaving with each breath as the joy of his victory slowly drained away.
This is death, Koshin told himself in an inner whisper, a deep sadness in his soul.
It was not a death of the body it was the death of the soul.
What was the body to a samurai; it was temporary, flawed. There was nothing in the strength of the body that could not be had through the power of the soul. But Satsukiru had forgotten forgotten, or simply refused to understand.
There was more to the sword than fighting; something hidden, just beyond the technique and the blade. That was the soul of a warrior, the power of a person that could not be defeated. To cultivate that spirit, and control it that was worth more than even the powers of death.
When you fight each day, only to survive, it was a simple thing to forget the true secret of the blade and the life it protected. Living each day, just to see the next dawn such an existence could not be called life.
And so the ronin waited, until the eta bore the great body from the field. No Hida denied the ronin his right, or challenged his honor, as he watched Satsukiru's pyre burn. Koshin wept, unabashed, as he saw the Hiruma's body into the Void.
"We never could have understood one another," he whispered to the man's spirit, as it was freed forever of that broken shell. "You knew the path but I walk it."
Then he turned, and was gone.
The War Rages On