Chapter Twenty-Five: Ruthless
"Evil cannot be targeted like an arrow -
sometimes it destroys its master as well as its victim."
The temple would have been beautiful in the daylight; it was the blue of the morning sky, and had been trimmed with silver light. On either side stood ten stone lanterns, and statues of heroes and Fortunes rested serenely in the shadows beyond the moon's light.
Now, there was only darkness, as the ronin reached the end of the road.
The old memories were fresher now; names like Tsanu, Airei, and Miyu became faces; images that held as much permanence as anything the swordsman had ever known. People that he had loved. People that had loved him in return.
Pushing those sad, haunting thoughts away, Koshin turned to look over the empty fields. He had no time for the pain of the past; the time was now, and he could not waste his remaining strength. Here, upon this field, which he had fought a hundred times here was where he would meet his challenger.
Koshin did not know what had drawn him back here. He did not want to die; it was a fool who believed that life was worth nothing. Makuto was strong, and he had three assassins serving him even so, the ronin was not reserved to die.
He would fight here, and he would win.
Everything else came second.
He was standing among the stone jizo when Makuto came, the cold wind of night stirring his loose hair. From the temple road, the Lion strode forward with a toothy grin, drawing his katana slowly in order to catch the half moon's light. The subtle illumination fell slowly onto his enemy, revealing loose bandages soaked with dew and blood.
"At last," he hissed, and three shadows moved. "Draw your sword."
Standing in the tall grass, the Kakita shook his head, "Not yet. This is your last chance to atone. All of this," he said, motioning around the quiet plain, "means nothing. I shall atone for your master's death in my own way. You cannot force such a thing upon me."
"You atone in your way, then," Makuto snarled, his form soaked in darkness, "As shall I."
Glancing over his shoulder, the ronin's eyes blazed azure in the moonlight. He could only sense two of the shadows; the third hid his essence by some trick he could not explain. Taking a stance in the grass, Koshin held his blade parallel to the ground, "You leave me no choice."
When the attack came, it was straight on again, as Makuto flung forward with his whole form. This time, Koshin did not parry, but instead the slender man attacked, sliding his katana along the attacking blade. As the rusted sword sparked against the samurai's tsuba, Koshin whirled his sword, tearing the weapon from Makuto's hands as the swordsman slammed his foot into his barrel chest.
As the Ikoma hit the ground, he grunted more in surprise than in pain. "Kill him!" he roared as he tumbled desperately to where his katana had thrust itself into the ground. "Kill him now!"
Arrows flashed, but Koshin was the wind, slipping away from his attacker and into the half sunken statues of the open plain. Each shot rang against the stone, throwing broken chips in all directions. The ronin jumped, his form silhouetted against the slivered moon.
Kentetsu's face was veiled with darkness, a second before the stroke opened his chest.
Two more arrows sliced through the shadows, and Koshin melted again. The statue of Bishamon rang dully from two shots, and then Makuto was on him again, attacking with renewed fury. The ronin faded and twisted, using his own knowledge of the Kakita techniques to ensnarl the Ikoma in his own assumptions, stumbling his feet over the broken terrain.
Roaring a battle cry, Makuto cut hard to the right, attacking the ronin's weakest side. Koshin parried, stumbling backwards, his body passing Benten's statue, a smile crossing his face. The katana bit stone and bound tightly to it.
The Kakita leapt again, and again knocked Makuto aside.
"Shoot him now!"
Two more arrows, but the Ikoma was too close, his jerking form spoiling one shot even as the ronin chopped the other from the air. Koshin sprung forward, and Oramono receded quickly, dropping his yumi in favor of the wakizashi to one side.
The samurai made three cuts as he passed, cutting the Tsuruchi down with less sound than a sigh.
His blade free, Makuto attacked once more, and this time the samurai was not fast enough. Screaming as he struck, the Ikoma's blade opened Koshin's stomach, splattering hot blood across the grassy ground. The ronin stumbled, twisting as he retreated, a tiny sliver of metal wrapped tightly in his right hand.
"Die!" Makuto shrieked, stabbing forward as the Kakita moved. Again Koshin sprang up, but this time, he moved straight into the night, his foot snapping out and striking Makuto's face fully. As the Ikoma hit dirt again, the last bowman shot, hit arrow striking home even as Koshin's uchi-ne traced the arrow's path, striking its target with a solid thump.
Inokichi grimaced, feeling the blade buried deeply in his throat. The old sensei smiled grimly, a last motion before he died.
Drawing himself up as best he could, Koshin looked towards Makuto with weary eyes. The arrow had struck him just below his heart. The Kakita snapped the shaft free, tossing it to the ground before seizing hold of his weapon with two bloodied hands.
"Three more lives ruined," he hissed with shining eyes. "Three more for nothing, Makuto!"
Standing firmly, the Lion laughed like a hissing snake, "The Tsuruchi were never men of consequence. They had no samurai heart; no soul or spirit worth saving. They were weapons; useful tools and nothing more." The Lion motioned towards the bushi's injury-wracked form. "They served their purpose."
"No more innocent victims," Koshin muttered, wiping his blade and sliding it away. "No more words; no more tricks or lies. No more time to hide behind your virtue while other men die. J-just the two of u-us. Just what you wanted."
Makuto nodded, sheathing his own blade. "All of your running, for nothing. All this," he motioned about the field of the slain, "useless. It had to come down to just us, in the end. I knew that from the moment I bought their lives. Everything else was nothing but a prelude the sounds of thunder before the storm. My master can only be avenged by the edge of this blade."
The ronin said nothing, binding his right hand to the saya with his sageo. The Lion laughed darkly, "Time to test that famous Kakita style again. Will you use the Rising Wheel Cut, which killed the first Wasp? Or maybe the Falling Wind Strike, which ended the second one's life "
"You want to k-know?" Koshin asked with a cold gaze. "I will use the Gliding Wing Draw."
Makuto spat as much as he spoke the words, "The most basic of moves! Even your novices know that stroke you're no fool. Neither am I. You will use the Fading Four-Side Cut; I've seen you do so once before. After all, only a true warrior like you could perform that move."
Koshin gritted his teeth, fighting the urge to let his knees give way, focusing his strength to hold his voice tightly, "Gliding Wing Draw. That is the technique; it is the only one that I will need." He saw Makuto sneer at his words, felt the great hatred that the man had drawn inside.
The Lion narrowed his eyes, turning his body in preparation of the strike, "You will not have another."
The words had no sooner left Makuto's throat that Koshin drew, barely waiting for the Lion to thumb his blade. The rusted sword flicked like liquid moonlight, cutting down in an arcing loop in the style of a falling bird. The Ikoma's eyes tensed, and his sword rose to meet it.
His parry was unflawed, but the steel of the katana shuddered, and the ronin's strike continued, unimpeded by a broken blade. Flesh opened in the moonlight with a soft, parting sigh, and dark blood was again scattered across the tall grasses of the plain, scattering in tiny drops amidst the broken remnants of Makuto's sword.
Koshin remained where the cut had borne him, his left arm extended and low to the earth. Makuto stood, disbelieving, as he staring at his shattered steel, and the crimson tracing opened in his body, straight from one shoulder to the opposite thigh.
"A bitter blade cannot withstand the force of honor," Koshin said quietly, quoting the first Akodo that all samurai knew. "Pass on in peace, Makuto."
Makuto's hand shivered, letting the broken sword fall. As his chest opened wider, the Lion felt the strength drain from him, stumbling backwards with a fast-fading will. His dark eyes focused, a last snarl working onto his face, "H-how can this b-be?"
The ronin did not answer, calmly wiping and sheathing his blade. Makuto's eyes bulged, and the dying man fell hard to the earth, staring up past Koshin, into the moon's pale light.
"Isaido-sama," he whispered fearfully, the dusk finally creeping into his vision for the last time.
Koshin remained in the field for a long time, staring down at the bodies of the dead. With the battle ended, the wounds that filled him swelled and burned like fire, but still the ronin did not move. He did not owe Makuto the prayers that he offered; such words were likely wasted on such a man.
Even so, Kakita Koshin could understand obsession.
Passion's price was always paid.
The night was cold; colder than it had been, when the blood and the challenge had ignited his spirit. It was the kind of chill that crept into the samurai's bones, robbing him swiftly of what little strength remained. Koshin stood, silent, before the sealed doors of his ancient home.
"I have failed," he whispered to the spirits at his side. "I do n-not understand."
His body struck the ground hard, sending the katana clattering down the temple's stone steps. The sound echoed deeply in Koshin's ears; all sensation became distant, as if he observed it rather than experienced. As exhaustion drew his eyes shut, the bushi's mouth worked itself into a tiny smile.
At last, he had come home.
"He is strong he is stronger than before "
The whisper road across the field of the slain, barely audible over the rising wind. Slowly, jerkily, the body of Tsuruchi Kentetsu rose, blood dripping from wounds even as his face ran faded into a pit of darkness. The Goju formed a smile, reforming his face into a traveler corrupted long ago, "But not so strong not strong enough "
With that, the ninja vanished, leaving only laughter to
comfort dead eyes.
The Echoes Return