Chapter Thirty-Five: The Sixth Master
"You cannot speak of the lion's wrath until you have been
beneath it's claws."
The silence of the Shinomen was unnerving; the general quiet serving only to amplify the effects of the occasional shriek or scream. Koshin could sense the dark emanations of the Taint clearly now; he understood why Anukeiko had handed him a sliver of jade. The forests of the Naga had again become a place of danger and vile creatures; and he, being the good-natured fool that he was, had trusted the word of a Scorpion to be led out into it and sat down alone.
Koshin placed his face in one hand and began chuckling. When he saw Nikkan again, he would have to relate this part of the tale in slow detail, making certain to maintain eye contact with the Mirumoto at all times.
Even Nikkan would not be able to keep a straight face then.
Suddenly, the ronin shuddered, shaken by a sense that froze the marrow in his bones. It was like a piece of ice had been pressed tightly against his heart, and his hand moved immediately for the nearby blades. Koshin wanted to believe the best of a Crane, even one fallen as far as Shimekiri…
But, truth be told, he was no fool.
Two seconds later, there came the crunch of grass. The figure remained just beyond the clearing's edge, its form mostly hidden by the shadows. A pair of eyes, like a wolf's gaze in the firelight, burned against the darkness, and Koshin could almost make out a pair of long blades. The voice followed a moment later, waiting only until the ronin had drawn himself up.
"Who are you? A ronin, come to die in a Bayushi's place?" The tone was deeper, hoarser than his memories…but undeniably familiar.
No, not familiar, he amended. The same.
Koshin drew himself to his full height, which now brought him even with those eyes. The swordsman made a point not to meet the gaze directly; there was no way of knowing what power might rest behind that bloody stare, "Not just any ronin, Shimekiri-san. And I have not come to die."
The eyes did not change, nor did the style of speaking, "Who are you, that you know my name?"
"Kakita Koshin," he said clearly, the name resounding through the forest's dank air. The bushi watched as the eyes considered the proclamation, wondering what could be judged from eyes of blood and pain.
The figure was dressed in dark Kakita robes, perfectly cut and tailored; only their bloody edges hinted at the truth. Shimekiri's face was hard, painted white with kabuki paint and highlighted with black lines. At his side, the bushi wore his old daisho, the same as always; perfected polished, each one shined like the sun. If Koshin had not known better, he would have thought the image only piece of some old play.
"Kakita Koshin," the Tainted bushi repeated thoughtfully, "I have not heard that name in a long time…a lifetime, some would say. You have changed."
"So have you," the wanderer responded evenly, slowly tucking his swords away. Shimekiri's body was larger, more powerfully built than Koshin remembered it, yet he still moved with the same Kakita grace. He came forward slowly, seeming to take in the full effect of Koshin, gazing through his body, picking apart his soul.
"You have grown so strong," Shimekiri said with some dark kind of approval, "much stronger than I remember you being…and yet you have come here dressed in the robes of a ronin, and preserved from time well beyond what is possible for a mortal man."
Part of Koshin still remembered Shimekiri as merely an angry kinsman, and that part took a moment to explain, "You know that the Crane would not understand such a thing from me…I will leave it at the mysteries of my mother's people, and hope that you will understand."
Shimekiri nodded, his hand running over his katana hilt in quiet meditation. "It is a difficult burden to bear, is it not?"
"What do you mean?"
The samurai met eyes with his former companion. "Immortality."
Koshin nodded earnestly, "It is."
The two men, tainted and pure, stood silently for a moment, considering one another with duelists' appraising eyes. Then, Shimekiri spoke again, the symbols beneath his exposed hands starting to twist and writhe in dreadful anticipation, "So, why have you sought me out, Koshin? Your testimony is long outdated; the boy did not die."
"This has nothing to do with our past; I owe much to your dishonorable attack. But Bayushi Akijin was a man that I respected…and their faults notwithstanding, the Scorpion are people I respect. They asked me to stop a murderer…and that is what I intend to do." With that, the sound of thunder rocked the Shinomen, turning the endless silence to fury, as the two Crane prepared their swords…
"Despite what you say, I do not believe that you came here in reprisal for Akijin's death." The samurai moved with an unnatural, unbelievable fluidity, his finger unnoticeably edging out the first inch of the Kakita blade, "You always understood what it meant to be a samurai, Koshin. You know that a part of that was death."
Koshin remained silent, taking his stance with his left side ahead. Shimekiri nodded, "And I do not believe for a moment that you came here to avenge a slight on your or our clan's honor…" The samurai's hands flowed smoothly, almost like a rolling wave, until it touched the edge of the cursed sword. "You always believed that honor was each man's choice."
"So, my question is this…what really brought you here?"
"There are people here that still have that choice to make, Shimekiri," the ronin said softly, removing his haori and tossing to the ground. "They deserve the right to choose on their own."
Shimekiri adjusted his stance, embracing the Taint where it flowed like Void. "But they do not choose; they serve, blindly being sent to die. These…people, who you risk yourself to protect…what difference does it make to you how they die? Why waste one enlightened soul to spare a hundred dogs?"
"It would be more merciful to give them a clean blade," the bushi finished. "Better that, than live bound to the disloyal by a code of loyalty, and be trapped by your own honor by the unrighteous and immoral." Shimekiri's voice did not change, but remained frozen; objective and impartial in the face of the truth.
"Honor is the heart of the duel - the breath and the blood of the sword."
Shimekiri nodded; such a challenge could not be denied.
He was a samurai, after all.
What happened during that first moment, only the two samurai could ever know. Hakaitsya and Ukigumo flashed with opposing brilliance, held high in the air by their owner's frozen hands. As wind, the two had struck and slipped past one another, faster even than the ring of the striking blades.
"You too are strong," Koshin said evenly, trying to ignore the feel of hot blood as it slipped down his opened side. Shimekiri hit like a hammer, cut like the wind; it was amazing that Koshin had survived the strike at all. The samurai turned slowly, his eyes shining brightly despite the burning pain.
Shimekiri whirled, a mass of blood and dark cloth, placing the katana evenly in his pale hands. A line of blood had been traced across his arm and shoulder, steam rising where it touched the cold forest floor. "Are you ready to die, Ni-Ken no Tsuru?"
Koshin whirled his swords, the sounds splitting the empty air. He held each blade inverted, one to either side. "If I was not prepared to face death," he said smoothly, "then I would not be here."
"As you wish, Koshin…as you wish."
With that, they drew upon their innermost power, each gripping an energy that was their own. Koshin pulled at the air, the earth and the fire; seized and poured it into his form at a level he had never attempted, never needed before. Before him, Shimekiri wrestled with his own energy, with only his will to shield him from its infernal fury.
Koshin offered a samurai salute, "I trust that you will use all of your power."
Shimekiri's painted face was heavy with concentration. "You will die."
When the two warriors met again, they attacked with more power than either one had ever known. Shimekiri's taint keened loudly all around him, thrusting raw power directly through his veins. Koshin embraced his own newfound fires, matching the powers of his enemy blow for fatal blow.
There were no feints, no delays or parries; there were only deadly motions, and the quickness that stayed the steel. Even their awakened swords keened with anguished fury, the immortal steel bearing the burden of the warriors' fury.
Pulling the taint ever closer, Shimekiri pressed his attack with Hakaitsya's hissing blade. In each technique, each thrust, the dark bushi could hear the roar of eternity, feeding him, strengthening him, throwing each attack of his enemy away. With each moment, the darkness in Shimekiri made him stronger, while Koshin's power continued to ebb and fall.
These were the powers of the fallen, of Shimekiri's Ankoku-butoh - The Dance of Utter Darkness, which brought death that would not be denied. Against such fury, his enemy could not hold himself, retreating slowly with each painful blow.
But then, suddenly, the samurai would retreat no more. Koshin froze his feet against the cold earth and parried fiercely, each twisting attack turning Shimekiri's move. Keeping calm control of his new strength, the ronin matched each blow with whirling speed.
And as he parried, neither giving ground nor taking it, Shimekiri grew angrier…and more reckless. It was not a recklessness of his nature, but the taint with all its power boiled up inside of him, its fury pulsing deeper with each motion of his heart.
At last, the samurai could hold his fury no longer, and Shimekiri's scream split the silence, a veil of bloody mist pouring through the air. Hakaitsya flared brightly, slicing through the steel of Koshin's second sword with an almost effortless motion, striving for the soft flesh beneath the folded iron where it could draw blood and pain.
But even as the black flicker descended, Ukigumo rose. Sweeping high, the katana sliced through Shimekiri's robes, tearing like fire through the pale body beneath. As the sword tore through him, the dark samurai felt himself stagger, his own blood and his enemy's meeting, pouring onto the Shinomen's open ground.
Both men stumbled, and both fell to their knees. Only one found the strength to rise.
The power of the taint, of the Ankoku-butoh roared within Shimekiri…but the pure cut was too deep, and slowly the dark warrior's strength drain away. "I am beaten," he said through bloodied lips, his face still worked into that indomitable stare.
Koshin came forward, breathing heavily, his hands aching and bleeding from holding his swords against the fury of Shimekiri's attacks. "You were magnificent," Koshin said, offering a glance to where the final blow had opened his right arm wide.
"You came here to stop a murderer," Shimekiri said quietly, boring into his enemy with those blood pool eyes. "Finish it."
But instead, the ronin cleaned his blade, grim determination showing now. "I came here to find a murderer, Shimekiri-san," he said, using the term of an equal, "instead I found a master. A master that has taught me something about honor that I might never have known."
"A master that deserves to live," Koshin said quietly, sliding Ukigumo away in a slow, steady motion. "A man that is not beyond redemption. Abandon this place; leave the Scorpion to their hunt and trouble them no more. If you do that, and understand what defeated you, that will be victory enough. It would be sad, if even beyond death you refuse to understand."
Shimekiri rose, looking down at the smaller samurai, an inscrutable look upon that painted visage, "Can you live with that, swordmaster?"
Koshin stared back as he slung his haori over his wounded shoulder, and for
the first time was not afraid, "I can. I hope that you can too." With
that, the samurai bowed to each other, each one starting off on their lonely
A Path is Chosen…