Chapter Thirty-Nine: Rules to the Game
"You cannot be courageous before first learning
Isawa Bengaku was the first to call upon the assistant swordmaster after Koshin had been shown to his quarters to rest himself, as if the ishiken knew the very moment the bushi was alone. Dekai sensed the shugenja almost immediately, and rose from his meditation with a weak smile, "I am pleased that you made it so far this quickly, Bengaku-sama; it is a long ride from Shiro Asako."
The shugenja smiled slightly, as if the Shiba had said something funny. Then, that too-pleasant face resumed its thin stoicism after a moment, as the ishiken bid the Air spirits draw the dojo closed.
"You student Touji tells me that the ronin master arrived today, with a student," Bengaku said simply, the Void seeming to dance in his dark eyes just beyond the weary wrinkles. "And already I find that the match has been arranged. You do our clan a great service, and so quickly."
Dekai bowed. "I do not understand this need for deception, Bengaku-sama. The ronin…"
Bengaku waved his question away with one lazy stroke of a robed hand, striking the protest from the air. "You do not need to concern yourself with matters of the Isawa, Shiba Dekai," he said, emphasizing the samurai's family name. "That you serve and fight with honor and conviction when called upon, will be enough."
"For you perhaps," Dekai answered evenly, making no attempt to mask his displeasure, even in the face of a superior. For a warrior like the Shiba, a duel with another worthy soul was the highest of honors; to a priest of the kami, it was nothing more than a pitiful battle between two ungifted souls.
The Isawa did not understand the fight.
Bengaku ignored the samurai's disobedient comment; indeed, the ishiken was not paying attention to the Shiba at all. His eyes started into the distance, focusing on nothing, or what lay between. "I think that it will be an interesting day, Dekai-san. Have the tensai assembled in the main garden; I will see that it will not rain."
With that, the shugenja stepped through the door quietly, leaving the bushi to wonder whether it had ever been closed at all…
When Koshin had been called for, he had sensed it in Touji's eyes.
When the ronin had stepped into the wide, open courtyard of Shiro Shiba, he had felt it on the breath of the assembled shugenja and scribes of the Great Clan. Even Ujirou could feel it in the air, and the boy glanced about in awed silence, searching for the source from all sides.
The source of all this was here.
And now, as the great cuts of black stone were brought forward and lain before Dekai, Koshin could feel it still. There was an air of anticipation about the Phoenix, but it was a sense far removed from the exhilaration of a challenge. The observers watched and bristled despite their best efforts; even the Shiba sensei seemed ill at ease as he prepared. This was no exhibition, Koshin realized with a suddenness that surprised even him.
This is a test.
Koshin cast a long, low gaze about the crowd; somewhere there was someone that was causing this flow. Samurai did not show their emotions so openly without reason, and the focus of a Shiba warrior was almost impossible to break.
Then, as if drawn there, the ronin's eyes settled on the thin figure of a smiling Isawa, his crimson robes trimmed with black edges, and a great depth seeming to pour from the edges of his quiet eyes.
So you are the source of this, Koshin thought with a smile.
The Isawa smiled back, I thought that this was for you.
He did not jump in surprise, but from the widening grin, Koshin's shock was obvious. The shugenja turned his head, just slightly, but it was enough to draw the ronin's gaze away from the mind-reading Phoenix. Ujirou had taken his dutiful place at the edge of the crowd, his young eyes hard with focus as the Shiba began to speak…
"These stones," Dekai intoned, "mark the edges of the test." The students had assembled the stones to make a twenty-foot square in the garden's sand. "If you step beyond it, you will fail."
Koshin nodded, striding to the center to face the Shiba. To his surprise, Dekai stepped immediately beyond the ring of the stones, lingering only long enough to offer the ronin a second sword. On each side, and at each corner, a Phoenix shugenja stepped forward, with the smirking mind reader taking the place just before the samurai's eyes.
"This is a challenge from the Phoenix Clan, Koshin-san," the shugenja intoned with his low, threatening voice. "We will choose the challengers that you face, and we will fight until we have been satisfied. Do you accept these terms, or will you yield?"
Koshin lowered his eyes, taking a moment to study the crowd. Dekai was worried…the shugenja were likewise unfocused and almost confused. Only the Daidoji boy reflected the calm and poise of a swordsman; with silent reverence he waited at the Shiba sensei's side. "I am ready."
Bengaku smiled, "I hope that you are."
Immediately, the shugenja began chanting in unison, their voices rising high into the sky to dangle in the open air. Dekai had a look of apprehension about him, but Koshin had little time to notice anymore as the kami's light began to shine. From Bengaku's palm, the energy arose in the gleaming sphere; the brilliance was so dazzling, that Koshin was forced to close his eyes.
Dekai's voice called out to him through the swirling power, "Do not fight this, Koshin! This is only a part of the test!" Koshin gritted his teeth, and the kami of the light seized hold of his essence, but he trusted the Shiba, and did not draw his blade.
Ujirou raised his hand against the brightness, straining to find Koshin at the center of the celestial storm. Though Dekai's gentle hand rested on his shoulder, restraining him, the Daidoji made no effort to struggle, to pull away and enter the test.
Your duty is to learn, Koshin had said to him in the moments before the match.
Mine is to fight.
Shiba Honkai had been one of the most feared of all his generation; his mastery of the yari had heralded many of the current techniques. In life, the man had been small and thinly built, the very likeness of his weapon, with narrow set eyes and a short, well-trimmed beard.
Now, in the land beyond the realm of the dead, he seemed much the same, his form enveloped in a golden glow. Besides the Shiba stood three more phantom warriors, each of them legends of the proud Phoenix School. Shiba Miketa, Shiba Osanji, and Shiba Santou were all men that Koshin recognized…warriors of glory from the mists of the past.
All four of them wore stone faces of control and poise, as the spirits readied their weapons, and Bengaku spoke again, "This is the challenge of the Phoenix, Koshin-san. These will be our champions." Then there was a dark smile, turning from the master to the pupil. "Prove your strength against the greatest of our past."
Koshin took a low, wide stance immediately, sliding the sheathed Shiba katana away. There was no word, no motion, but Ujirou could feel the emotion charge the air. On his shoulder, Dekai's hand still rested, a calm grapple restraining his spirit.
The Shiba was focusing now, the Daidoji saw when he glanced away. Dekai's face, once so calm and carefree, was determined not to miss anything, as his honored ancestors took their places. To summon the spirits of the ancestors was more magic than Ujirou had ever experienced…and now that horrible power had been turned against his new teacher.
Behind the veil of windswept hair, Koshin simply raised his eyes.
Like a shining tsunami wave, the Phoenix spirits were upon him, attacking with the fluid strikes and effortless might that only their school knew. Koshin leapt backwards, retreating before them, his leaping form just a few inches from the Shiba blades. Instantly, the tide was against him, as even the swordsman could barely escape the spirit blades.
"Shiba Osanji will attack first," Dekai said softly, his voice reaching only the boy. Ujirou stood, transfixed, as the glowing warrior charged to the forefront, holding his blade horizontal with the earth, "His famed technique was the Leg Moon Cut; it can sever the leg and then kill with a rising strike."
Before Ujirou's concern could register, the samurai struck towards his teacher. Thrusting low, Osanji aimed at Koshin's leg, his spirit sword driving to open him cleanly. As the bushi parried, the Phoenix turned the katana, its blade rushing up towards Koshin's exposed throat…
"But the Leg Moon is useless against a daisho defense," the Shiba samurai finished as Koshin's second sword sliced through the attacker like an ethereal cloud. Osanji's katana clattered to the ground for an instant, but then it, like it's owner, was gone. "We have seen that many times recently…"
The death of Osanji only made the remaining spirits more deadly, however; more knowledgeable of their enemy and more aware. As the fight drew on, Dekai noticed Ujirou's small hands were shuddering, and the calmness in his eyes had given way to anger.
He cares greatly for his sensei. And his strength will only continue to grow.
Dekai could appreciate his concerns; Bengaku's use of a spirit champion was his right as a shugenja, but to use so many dishonored both the skills of the Shiba Ryu and that of the ancestors themselves. As Koshin's blade sliced through Honkai's yari, parting his head with a clean stroke, the Shiba himself felt a sad shudder…
His ancestors were going to fail.
In the end, there stood a ronin, and a bushi sheathed in gold.
Of all the ancient ones, Miketa had been the one that Koshin had worried about; his techniques had formed much of the core to the Shiba bushi, and time had not lessened his perfect stance. The spirit's face was calm, but a single bead of sweat slipped past it, causing Miketa to narrow his eyes. The bushi was much shorter than Koshin; that would make things more difficult for them both. To win, Miketa would have to risk the ronin's reach…and force a dangerous, killing blow.
Sheathing his blades for the duel, the Kakita nodded to his enemy. "Kakita Koshin," the samurai intoned, falling with a sliding grace into the stance of an iaijutsu master. "Kakita Ryu, Mirumoto Ryu."
Miketa bowed in return, his shining form reaching down to prepare his spirit blade for the coming strike.
In that moment, Koshin became…aware. As it had never been before, the ronin sensed the power; it flowed through him, through his opponent. Their energy was the same; the boundaries of life and death did nothing to change Shiba Miketa's spirit. They were the same…and what one warrior's chi could create, another could control.
In that moment, Isawa Bengaku finally smiled, as Miketa's control suddenly faltered and died.
"The strike will be a formality," Dekai breathed to the boy, barely daring to move. "Your sensei has won."
Daidoji Ujirou would never forget that moment, and would carry its lesson with him for the rest of his life. Standing there, against all of the power of the ancient Shiba, Kakita Koshin waited, his eyes holding the spirit, a face of respect and reverence revealed clearly in the mystical light.
The spirit, who in his life had been victorious in more duels than the histories knew to remember, bowed to his conqueror in steely silence, and then vanished into the morning sun.
Koshin did not look towards the Isawa, as he strode to the edge of the stones. There, Ujirou waited in silence, his face flushed with excitement. As the ronin neared, Dekai fell away from them, passing the bushi on his way into the center of the ring.
"You are very strong, Koshin-sensei," the Daidoji said softly, knowing better than to embarrass his teacher with prideful words. "The battle looked hard to win."
"That was no battle, Ujirou…that was only the beginning of their test," Koshin said, turning his head to face the Shiba that had taken his place in the middle of the garden of churned sand, "And I have not yet won."
Shiba Dekai held his katana in both hands, his spirit prepared for the battle
The Spirit Calls…