The Swordmaster
Chapter Twenty-Six: Ghosts

"The truth is never plain and seldom simple."

It was either the hunger…or the pain. Koshin could not really decide which one it was, but one of those told him that he was still alive. His sister had told stories about hungry ghosts, and painful ghosts…but never those that were both.

By that logic, if logic it could be called, he was alive.

There was darkness; his eyes were having trouble adjusting to the soft coolness of the room. Koshin tried to rise, but his body surged with fresh anguish like a thousand pinpricks, and he almost swooned from the simple effort. Pain seemed to help his eyes focus; high rafters came into view, and to one side there stood a closed door painted with silver crane.

"Silver crane…" he whispered to himself, studying the room in muted disbelief.

On the other side was the small figure of a man, his weathered face wrinkled more by a smile. Dressed in fine blue robes, the man nodded his head, "Remain still, Futai-san. Your wounds have been tended to, but the injuries are still too severe for movement. I am Asahina Takeda, and you are safe."

Koshin blinked, seeing the shugenja's shaved pate and jade necklace as it slowly came into view. "How do you know that name?"

Takeda smiled warmly, helping Koshin to ease into a sitting position. "The lady of the house knows you. It was fortunate that Kenshuko-san found you when she did. Had you fallen elsewhere, these wounds would surely have been fatal…"

The silver crane soared behind him, unchanged since he had played in this room as a child. "Lady…Kenshuko's house?" he said in disbelief, staring about the room as if expecting it to disappear. "But how can this…how can…?"

The Asahina nodded, believing the ronin's confusion to be an effect of the wounds. "Lady Kenshuko was wounded in the same battle where you were separated, and she returned to her home to mend her wounds. She has only been back form war a week, when you arrived. She has been most concerned."

Kenshuko's house…my house…

"Oh, I nearly forgot," Takeda said as he rose, "there is another visitor here today; he has been waiting for some time. Do not rise," the man said with sudden sternness, "I will send him in."

Koshin watched the Asahina go, sliding the door shut behind him. Once the man was gone, the ronin collapsed back onto his pallet, grimacing as the sudden movement brought back his pain. "I should have known better that to do that…"

"True," said a pleased voice, like a fed cat would likely sound. "But then, you always have lacked foresight."

"You!" Koshin's hands snapped out, roughly snagging both sides of Nikkan's kimono. The Mirumoto must have just sat down, because his body was not fully settled, and he stumbled. A moment later, when Koshin hit him in the face, he stumbled the opposite direction, hitting the ground with a sound that the samurai found particularly appealing. "Guess I am not the only one that sometimes lacks foresight."

"If you…are quite…done," came the monk's voice from where he lay.

Koshin smiled savagely, clawing his way to his feet, "That's doubtful; I haven't even started to find satisfaction in this." Despite that, the bushi could feel his body slumping already; the effort was a little too much, no matter how fulfilling it was.

Nikkan sat up, wiping a bit of blood from his nose. His eyes were calm despite the attack; after all, he had been a warrior for many years. "What are you so upset about? Few men can claim to have survived what you have…and even more importantly, you have come home to find things both well tended and defended by friends."

"Home," the ronin sneered, plopping back down to sit, an angry gaze all over his friend. "Kenshuko's home, Nikkan!" His body was aching worse now; Takeda had not been lying about the wounds. Even so, the ronin had no intention of giving out now.

It was hard to attack one's best friend from a prone position, after all.

For his part, the monk just smiled. "Did you ever consider that she might be Airei's child, not your own?"

"She is not," Koshin said darkly. "It would not be ironic enough for you. Besides, Airei's children would have inherited her temper, I'm sure of that..."

The monk shrugged, "I suppose so." He was sitting a little farther back than he had been a moment ago, obviously wary of being the recipient of another demonstration of kaze-do. "Would you have believed me, or accepted her, if I had told you then?"

The ronin shook his head. "Sorry I hit you."

"You're lying, of course," Nikkan said with another grin, "but I'll accept it even so."

The monk had tea brought in; Kenshuko was seeing to business of the clan, and would not be back until the end of the day. As the two men sat in silence, Nikkan watched Koshin closely, as the ronin's eyes studied every little thing.

At last, Koshin spoke, breaking the uneasy silence, "There are many ghosts in this room, you know."

Nikkan nodded into his tea, "I know. I am looking at one now. A stubborn one, who refuses to admit that he is not truly dead." The monk's eyes drifted to the swordsman's body, prepared this time for any would-be attack. "Who refuses to accept truth."

Koshin did not respond, merely turning to run a hand over the saya of his sword. When he looked up, his eyes were again steel, "Was that your intent? To keep me here?"

"No, my friend, I have told you that I will never force you into a false existence." Nikkan had sent his tea on the floor, and was now staring at the ronin with great calmness in his eyes, "But you must understand that I believe that you walk the wrong path, and do not see the path ending well."

"I should go," Koshin said, rising and tucking his katana and wakizashi into his fresh obi.

"I thought that a Kakita would have better manners," Nikkan said, rising quickly to stand innocently in front of the door. "You should know that Kenshuko has provided those clothes, not to mention having acquired Master Takeda's expertise on short notice. You should thank her for your life."

For a moment, no longer, the samurai seemed afraid to speak. "No, I… No, Nikkan. No."

The monk seemed very sad, "Very well put; I will show you to the door."

"No thank you," the samurai said with a bitter smile. "I know the way."

As he moved along the narrow hall that led to the door, Koshin felt memories returning, stinging barbs that dug into his soul and remained. There was so many questions that he wanted to ask, so much that he wanted to know…

"The sword is my life, Nikkan. One and the same…to kill one is to kill the other."

Now, as he pushed open the large temple doors, Koshin heard and felt the sound of approaching horses. He stood, frozen in inaction, as three riders came slowly into the glade. The first samurai dismounted and smiled at him, her blue-grey eyes shining with surprise. And her face…

Her mother's face…

"Oh well," Nikkan said softly from where he had come up behind the ronin, "now you have no choice but to be polite, as it seems that Lady Kaori has released Kenshuko sooner than I thought. How unfortunate," the Dragon said with a poorly-hidden grin, "that we stopped to have that tea."


Now that he knew what to look for, Koshin could see himself in his child's eyes. Grey like stone, they were tinged with Taehime's blue, and her face, her high cheekbones and the Kakita sword at her side. The katana was Akuraikaze, which had once belonged to her father; which had been returned and reformed, after his duel with Mirumoto Tenryuu.

She was strong and beautiful, and, though he had never taught her anything of honor or duty, was proud.

And frightened.

Kenshuko came up the steps in a hurry, removing her cloak with an easy flourish despite the sling that held her left arm. The girl smiled warmly, "I am glad to see that you have healed quickly, Futai-san. I had thought that those brigands had finished you."

"I…I am fine, Kenshuko-s-sama," he said, his tongue fumbling as he met her eyes.

Kenshuko glanced over his new kimono with pride, "It looks good on you, though I apologize for the old style. The clothes belonged to my father; they have gone unused in many years." Behind the ronin, the Dragon stifled a giggle, his eyes clenched shut at an irony even he had missed.

"Koshin is still weak and tired," Nikkan said from over his shoulder, "you must forgive him, Kenshuko-san. Both of you must be hungry; let us all sit down and have a meal. There will be plenty of time to talk, after we have all had some tea."

"No…tea…" Koshin hissed, stepping backwards to almost hide behind the smaller man. "No tea for me."

Nikkan nodded absently, placing his hand near Kenshuko and leading the confused samurai-ko into the temple, "An after-effect of the wounds or the medicine, most likely," Nikkan said with a whisper and a smile to his student, "I am certain he will be fine. After all, he has always been somewhat strange."

Kenshuko shrugged her shoulders, "If you say, sensei. Still, he does not seem well at all."

"I have a feeling that he is feeling something," Nikkan said as he looked towards the doorway where Koshin still stood. "We must simply give him the time he needs to understand what he must do with what he feels."


That night, once Kenshuko had gone to bed, Koshin and Nikkan sat out in the temple garden, both men sipping sake. The monk turned to his friend, who sat with slumping shoulders, "I thought that sake made you ill."

"It does," Koshin said with a dark mutter. "But, given the circumstances…"

"I am not asking you to stop your quest, Koshin," Nikkan said simply, placing his cup on the ground. "I think that perhaps you still have a chance of discovering something of true worth, despite your attempts to avoid enlightenment. Stay for a week; I know of men that can tend to your sword."

The samurai rolled his eyes in defeat. "These men had better not be sons of mine, Nikkan."

"No, nothing like that…" the monk trailed off as Koshin rose, "Where are you going now?"

The ronin started up the small hill that led to the shrine at the garden's center. "You told me that Airei died in the attack on Volturnum, and that Taehime…that Taehime died of an illness eight years ago. I have a sister…a sister and a wife to mourn, Nikkan."

Retrieving his cup, the sensei rocked back on his seat with a bow, watching as his friend moved forward on another journey that he could only walk alone.

Autumn Begins…