Chapter Thirty-Two: Prelude to the Fight
"There are no coincidences, only auspicious
The shrine was nothing special, constructed by some unknown truth-seeker to worship the Fortunes of Light. Set on the edge of a small, dirty road on the eastern edge of the Unicorn lands, it was nothing more than a place beyond the darkness. Two small candles guttered low in the bitter winds, but the samurai did not mind.
He had been there for three days since leaving Lord Banriki, refusing politely an offer of fealty as well as the offer of many gifts, including a fine Shinjo steed. Though Koshin knew that he had been defeated, the Unicorn remembered only his technique and honor, and were reluctant to lose their powerful ally, especially on the eve of their newfound wars.
Now, as the samurai knelt in the cold darkness, he had never felt so alone.
The fact that two Utaku warriors waited outside mattered little.
Banriki had ordered the two as an escort; "guides" to take him to the edge of the Unicorn lands. Whether they were truly to ensure that the ronin left, or to ward off retribution from either the Shinjo or Moto bushi that had respected Tesukiko so greatly, remained to be seen.
Either way, Koshin knew that they were wasting their time. The ronin had no intention of leaving the shrine, at least not now…and no Unicorn challengers would change that.
Sometimes, Koshin forgot that the sword was a weapon for killing…in the hands of a skilled user, it seemed only a thing of life and shining light. But now, the weapons seemed so heavy, so encumbering that they seemed even now to tug at his side. It seemed impossible that he had ever thought their edges pure.
Slowly, delicately, the ronin removed both the Kakita sword and Ukigumo and, with the reverence of a master of ritual, laid both blades aside. Atop the two weapons of folded steel, Koshin set his grandfather's wakizashi, for once almost glad to be freed of the ancestral burden.
"Your edge is purest crystal," he told the sword softly. "Whatever darkness there is, it is my own."
"Koshin-sensei?" one of the samurai-ko asked from outside, her large eyes both confused and concerned.
But the ronin did not answer. Drawing himself into the stance of a sutra, Koshin once more buried himself in the the comforting silence of Void. There were answers hidden between the silence, ever elusive. Answers that he needed, now more than before. Enemies and challengers were what the samurai had best experience; against his own doubts, Koshin was weak and alone.
So he remained, until the sixth day.
Utaku Jikunko was sitting quietly when she first noticed the traveler; a single man was unusual along such empty roads. Though the Unicorn provinces were well patrolled, brigands remained a threat as they always were in times of war…few would be so foolish as to walk alone.
Jikunko was not a tall bushi by any standard; even so, she drew herself to her full five feet as the wanderer drew near. Dressed in her purple armor, the samurai-ko stood calmly before the shrine, her great steed Jouban spoiling the effect somewhat as it nuzzled the woman's long black hair.
When the man drew closer, the Utaku saw that her sister had seen him as well; Shukuko was slightly taller, but not quite as wise. The man raised his head, revealing a plain, thick face pinched into an eternal scowl. He was a large man, more than a foot taller than either of the small women.
His robes, though soiled and torn, marked him as a monk.
"What business have you here, samurai-sama?" the man asked, cordially enough, despite the dread that filled his voice.
Jikunko again willed herself to be taller, noting that Jouban's great muscles had become suddenly nervous and tense. "These lands are guarded by my clan. They are my business."
The man nodded, his huge hands opening and closing again and again. "A proper answer, Utaku-sama. I am a wanderer in search of purity," the man said, his dark eyes slanting off towards the small shrine. "I was hoping to spend the night in this place."
Shukuko spoke first, "That is impossible. My apologies, but you must stay elsewhere. A sensei in our guardianship meditates within; we will not allow his meditation to be disturbed." Jikunko smiled at the dedication of her sister, who had only an hour ago suggested abandoning 'the two-bladed fool man.'
Working a kink from his neck, the big monk smirked, a definite change in his tone. "A place of gods and fortunes is no place for one man to usurp for his own ends. Call him, samurai," he hissed, any pretense of respect gone, "I will discuss his decision with him, not his yojimbo."
"You are no monk," Jikunko said as she saw Jouban again shy away from the dark man's robes. He stunk of blood clearly, now that the wind had changed. A killer, without armor or sword, but a killer nonetheless.
"I am a seeker of purity," the monk said, taking a strange stance with his hands twisted into claws, "Allow me to demonstrate." Wrinkles rose around the edges of his plain face, symbols of a rising fury.
There is something wrong with this man, Jikunko realized as her sister began to rise to the challenge. He was calm, almost eager to begin a fight…against two hardened Utaku with terrain on their side. Something in his stance said that he was no fool or liar; rather, he was a warrior, and one far beyond the riders' skill.
It was a spirit so powerful that it was invading; the mere presence encroached on the bushi, rattling Koshin from the Void. The samurai immediately fell partly forward, feeling the weakness of his body for the first time in days. Koshin did not seize hold of his swords, but instantly moved to the door of the small building, blinking in the light as he stepped into the evening sun.
"Koshin-sensei!" one of the Utaku called out in surprise, but it was not at her that the swordsman focused his eyes.
"They said that this sensei of theirs was in deep meditation," the big monk said, his shaven head and plain robes doing little to mask his brutal nature in the eyes of another wandering warrior. He lowered his scarred, massive fists, but the Utaku held tightly to their swords, "I wondered what kind of man he was."
The ronin stepped down into the street, taking a position between the Unicorn bushi and the monk. There was something…sinister that lingered on this man; it was unlike any darkness that the samurai had ever known, "I am Koshin. Who are you, monk-san?"
"A warrior," came the response, "In search of a challenge."
Koshin shook his head, "This is no time for a challenge; my heart is heavy with grief, and I do not have the time. Seek me out later, if you desire a match." Both Utaku were probably giving him a curious glance now; after all, the ronin had proven with Tetsukiko that he did not stand down from a challenge. "Leave me be; if you wish to pray here, then I will go in peace."
With that, the bushi reached down to collect his blades, but at that moment the monk's mouth clicked closed almost mechanically, and again he drew Koshin's eyes.
"You are the man who fought with Yoritomo Yorishi," the man said again, a smile that held no kindness filling his face. "The ronin warrior, who fights with two swords." He was watching Koshin closely now, trying to judge him with his demon eyes, "The man that killed Lord Horii in the Imperial City…the man who fought beside the Dragon, and freed his soul in their crystal room. Even in this state of weakness, I know what you are."
Jikunko glanced up at the ronin in silence, wondering how much the man said was true. Koshin met her gaze evenly, tucking the blades away. "How do you know Yorishi-dono, monk?"
Drawing himself straight, the demon-monk smiled once more. "I was with him when he died."
His tone was innocent, but his eyes betrayed the truth.
"I am Kutsu," the man continued, a slight nod his only bow. "I have followed your path across half of this Empire, Koshin…it is truly inspiring to find you now."
"You killed a man that I respected," Koshin said, feeling his own anger acutely as he instantly knew how the Mantis sensei had died. "Why? Surely Yorishi was no threat to you…master or not, I can sense some of your skills already, and he was past his prime."
Kutsu nodded. "He was not very strong. That was reason enough. Strength is all that matters; the right of destruction is for the most powerful alone. His death was my mercy; surely you can understand." With that, the monk stepped forward, staring down a few inches, into Koshin's grey eyes, "That is why we must fight."
But the ronin's eyes held no more anger, "No."
"Do you fear me so?"
"Why would I fear you?" Koshin asked. "All you can do is make me die. I do not fight for empty revenge; I do not fight to release my own hatred or rage…those fights are my own. I will fight you," the ronin almost snapped, "but not yet. I refuse."
Kutsu said nothing, but the big man did not step back from his fighting stance. Both Utaku stared at the monk warily as Koshin turned, starting to re-enter the shrine. "Besides, Kutsu-san, I have to mourn a friend and a true master; and some duties will not wait for your pride."
The man spoke, loud and clear in the fading light, "I will wait for you then. Seek me out when you are ready; we will settle this challenge then." He turned, his fist snapping out and striking the nearest marking stone. Jikunko yelped in surprise as the marker shattered, crumbling down to a thousand tiny stones. Even Koshin's eyes widened as he sensed for the first time the fury of the dark wanderer's chi.
"Make certain to keep walking until you reach our borders," the little Utaku said forcefully to the monk, eyeing him from beside the shrine. "The enemies of our allies ours as well."
Kutsu smiled, the motion for once genuine. "I will remember that…and return some time."
"I appreciate your courage," Koshin said to the two once the strange warrior was gone.
Both Utaku nodded; it was hardly worth mentioning, for one samurai to complement another's strength. Neither one understood the danger that Kutsu had truly represented…even without fighting, the ronin had sensed the power that he held inside.
One motion each, and he would have killed them.
Jikunko simply smiled. "You are a friend, Koshin-sensei. We would never let you fight alone."
"That is why you must go," he said with a sad smile. "Banriki-sama will need you soon; I know not what he plans, but your courage has greater worth beside him. This fight, I must fight alone."
Both women bowed; for his honor, they could not stay now. Moments later, as the two spurred their sleek, powerful horses down the empty road, Jikunko offered one look back at the shrine, a tiny candle its only fickle light, "Why did he ask us to go, Shukuko?"
Her sister looked back once. "He's a man. Men are stupid."
The girl shook her head sadly, failing to find another reason for Koshin to remain forever alone. Failing that, the Utaku hurried her powerful steed onward, Jouban's wild mane rippling in the wind as his hooves surged over the ground, "Stupid, but at least he is so strong!"
"Strength makes men unmanageable," Shukuko observed from her side. "Stubborn too!"
The night quickly enveloped out the laughter of the Battle Maidens, as the
Unicorn returned to their clan, their lives, and the battles to come. Behind
them, the swordsman laid his blades aside again, searching for answers and
The Quest Goes On…