Chapter Forty: The Seventh Master
"Without weakness, strength is gone."
"You will not find me to be such an easy opponent," Dekai said calmly, watching as the master returned to the center of the ring. "I have mastered skills that even my honored ancestors have not accomplished. I am the sum of what they are."
Koshin nodded slightly, "I believe you... But then, they were only a ruse."
Dekai stepped backwards, his eyes betraying Bengaku, "What?"
As he readied himself, the warrior continued, "Osanji was a master of the Leg Moon Strike, and Honkai's Ladder Parry is equally famous among the Empire's bushi…why would the Isawa choose all four opponents to be the well known, Dekai-san?"
"He knew," the Shiba hissed with burning anger. "He knew that you could defeat them, and yet he still chose to dishonor my ancestors' names." The sensei's hands were quivering now, and several of the shugenja drew back at sensation of blazing chi.
To the side, Ujirou drew back silently, his eyes wide at seeing the calmness of the Shiba give way to raw hate.
The word brought the Shiba back. All of the anger, the insult, drained away from the assistant master, bringing his focus back to the man in the center of the sand. Koshin's eyes were hardened, his stance even and relaxed, "I understand your frustration; you will not fight with all your heart for him." The swordsman lowered his voice, so that even Ujirou could not hear.
"But I implore you…fight for me." Koshin's grey eyes were like fire, reflected in the steel of Dekai's blade. "Fight with all the power you have. No matter what brought us here, we are here. Fight me with everything, Dekai-san, and I will return to you with all I have learned."
"Show him that power does not lie in him alone."
"Wow," Ujirou let out slowly, his eyes not daring to blink for fear of losing the pair's lightning-like moves. Koshin and Dekai were moving faster than the young Daidoji could follow, their forms dashing and clashing across the sand. Both threw themselves forward with the fury of tigers, the very air shuddering from the clash of mastered blades.
Dekai isn't attacking, the boy glimpsed through the flash of three swords. How can he win?
Indeed, the Shiba sensei had not attacked once since the beginning of the duel, his katana deftly turning, twisting to parry Koshin's attacks. Like a dancer, the Shiba leapt and twirled, his movements always just faster than the stroke of a Kakita sword.
All around him, the boy could hear the muttering of the Shiba, Dekai's students both present and past. They praised the wisdom and skill of their sensei, the elusiveness that not even the blades of the Ni-Ken no Tsuru could defeat. Ujirou felt his small hands shaking…but whether from anger or fear, he could not tell.
Kakita Koshin was the strongest swordsman that Ujirou had ever known…but was the Shiba an opponent that even he could not defeat?
"I wondered if you would make it here in time, Mori," Bengaku said curtly, his eyes not leaving the match for a moment as the master, clad in a concealing kasa and cloak, drew close to the slender shugenja of the Void. The Isawa did not need the kami to tell him of Mori's cold expression; seeing the power of his student against the ronin was a sight he would not be able to turn from.
The Shiba nodded his head, his voice a stern growl of challenge, "Not all men walk the roads you do, shugenja. Remember that, before you set a match so hastily."
In the field, Koshin's swords whipped past Dekai's calm face, drawing a slender trail of blood as the Shiba leapt away. Bengaku frowned, "Even after several minutes of constant attack, the ronin refuses to slow his assault. He squanders his energy, though he surely has determined Dekai's style by now."
"He has a great deal of strength to lose," Mori replied, his right hand creeping up to rub the rough edges of his chin. The older man's eyes clenched tightly, almost closing, "But my student will not lose to raw, unfocused energy. No power can topple true skill."
Pressed to the edge of the ring, Dekai sprang into the air, seeking the safety of the center once more. Lunging behind him, the warrior's weary arms were too slow to reach him, and again the Phoenix evaded danger, his feet gripping tightly to the center of the stone square.
Bengaku's voice was bored, even morose, as he watched the two gather their strength again, "Dekai seems unfocused."
"Even so, his speed and agility are too much for this man, whom you praised so highly to me." Mori smiled a bit, his stony face wrinkling in the move, "One more pass will finish this."
"You know him so well."
"I know the limits of a body, Bengaku…something you never deigned important enough to know. The ronin's arms are weary. He will never make the cut." The Phoenix did not change his expression or inflection as he explained himself to the Void shugenja...and at that moment the Isawa knew he saw the truth.
Of what Kakita Koshin represented. Of what Shiba Mori had never done.
No one had ever kept up with Dekai for as long as the ronin had, but now even Koshin was beginning to slow. The Shiba shifted his stance, holding his katana parallel with the broken ground. A few feet away, Koshin stood in silence, his arms fairly shivering from the recent test of speed.
Even he must have limits, the samurai told himself.
"You have fought well, Koshin," the bushi almost whispered as he readied his blade, "but you will not win this fight."
The ronin glanced over towards his student, seizing upon the lull to ensure that Ujirou's eyes remained keenly set upon them. Once he was assured, Koshin smiled, "Whether I win or lose, Dekai-san, I have no regrets. Your defense is as keen as I have heard it to be. It is no wonder that Mirumoto Ryomi failed to defeat you at the Battle of Himishi Village."
Dekai blinked and stumbled, the disbelief filling his face with every word. The ronin had known all along about his skills…and yet he had fought under the Shiba's terms. For a moment, the samurai considered that Koshin might be lying…but the look of the swordsman was more than sincere.
So be it, the Shiba told himself, setting his feet for the final lunge. "That was amazing," Dekai said, whirling his katana in one smooth move. "But your arms are exhausted; I am surprised that you can still handle your blades. You are an incredible fighter, Koshin…know your limits and surrender now."
Koshin drew another breath, the sword hanging limply in his hands. Dekai was not lying or trying to intimidate him; each weapon was a lump of iron to his throbbing hands. Those grey eyes rose slowly, "I admire your conviction, Dekai-san…now be quiet and fight me. You might…even learn something, if I am right about this." With that, the ronin charged, and the Shiba matched his move.
"He's a fool," muttered Mori from his place at the shugenja's side. "No matter how he tries, those arms will never match Dekai's move." There was a strange shiver in that voice that the shugenja noticed now, like someone praying to be right.
When the two met in the center, Koshin pivoted, seeming to do nothing but parry Dekai's attack. But, like a flicking motion, the ronin's leg snapped out sideways, striking the attacker hard across his stomach, using his own rush to deprive him of strength and air.
And where Koshin's arms were weak, his legs were still quick and strong.
Normally, one good kick would have been enough to down a charging enemy; but the Phoenix's body and spirit had been steeled by the energy of the fight. Even as he stumbled to regain his focus, Koshin knew that it would take much more to defeat such a man.
Before Dekai's feet could find purchase in the soft sand, the ronin's quick feet slammed into him again, causing the Shiba to quiver in pain. Koshin rushed, his swords still lowered, this time slamming his shoulder into his stumbling opponent, lifting him into the air. The crimson katana clattered to the ground as Dekai scrabbled against Koshin's kimono for purchase, but the ronin kept driving towards the edge of the ring.
Mori shouted out despite himself, his voice shattering the silence with its urgency, "Diving Hip, Dekai! Diving Hip Throw!"
The two froze at the edge of the crowd, and the ronin yielded his strength. Koshin's body was jerked forward, Dekai's iron hands wrapped around his kimono. The observers leapt back to life as the attacker's foot lifted…and then froze again in confusion as it unexpectedly fell back to the ground.
Dekai felt his throw follow through, so lightly…too lightly; he knew that the ronin was not a light man. But his body turned, pivoted by his own motion; ending up with his back to his enemy, holding his kimono in his hands. "You cut away your obi…"
The ronin whirled his blades; even exhausted, they rose faster than the Phoenix could turn. Ukigumo's edge flashed beneath Dekai's throat, and Koshin smiled. "You cost me a good shirt," the winner said with weakened breath, "to say nothing of my arms…"
"I think that I understand your power now," Dekai said, a look of honest good nature covering his face, his anger and shock fading away. "I yield."
The shugenja were clapping; beneath fans, other conversations sprang up. Many of the Shiba warriors hung their heads in shame, but that was dispelled quickly with their sensei's laughter, as he and his now-shirtless conqueror began striding from the ring.
"I am inclined to believe that you do understand my power better than I do," Koshin said with a grin. "You really will have to share that secret with me, Dekai-sama." The ronin was happy, despite his exhaustion; but even such happiness could not hide the weakness he was feeling inside.
Ujirou was instantly beside his master, his face turned to the Shiba students and practically shimmering with pride.
Dekai nodded simply, respect filling his voice. "You are worthy of your legend. You will know soon enough what you are worth."
Koshin froze suddenly as if struck, a look of surprise crossing his face. Dekai paused beside him, and several of the students stepped away in confusion. The Shiba blinked, "Koshin-san?"
Before the ronin could answer, there came from the garden's center a final challenging call. The voice was old, but indomitable and filled with power, "You are not leaving yet, ronin! You have not defeated the true master of the Shiba techniques! Come, and face Shiba Mori!"
"Master?" Dekai said, hardly believing it. "I thought that I only dreamed your words…"
"His words were why you were beaten," Koshin said simply, his weary face turning to look towards the newfound enemy. "If I had not known what was coming, your attack probably would have worked."
Whirling his naginata overhead, the Shiba ignored both men. His eyes were focused deep within Koshin now, though the sudden calm in his voice left nothing to reveal his inner turmoil. "You swore to meet all challengers of my clan, or yield. Are you finally beaten, Koshin, or will you stand and fight?"
Dekai reached out to stop the ronin, but all assembled knew what was to come. Ujirou felt his heart sink, remembering what his sensei had said about the battle to be won.
"I will not yield."
One Challenge Remains…