Chapter Forty-One: Unbeatable
"You need only to know you cannot be defeated."
- The Tao of Shinsei
The Shiba were in a state of shock; everywhere Dekai turned, their expressions ranging from disappointed to amazed. The ronin's honor was understandable, and Koshin was as stubborn a bushi as the sensei had ever met. But to see his master challenge a wounded, exhausted opponent…what would drive such an enlightened soul so far? The master was in his right to champion their style…but that right extended only so far.
The two men stood again in the center of the sand ring, its smooth surface now pitted and scarred by the first two desperate combats. Koshin's body slumped slightly as he waited; his arms were too tense, and they surely gave him some pain. In contrast, Mori stood collected and refreshed in the sunlight, his ancient naginata extended towards his foe.
"This is wrong," Dekai hissed beneath his breath, moving away from little Ujirou to press towards Bengaku's form. Scribes and samurai parted before the angry Shiba master, knowing better than to interfere with the bushi's iron gaze.
"You must stop it," he snapped as the shugenja met his searing eyes.
Bengaku laughed once, a cold, vicious sound. "Even if I wanted to, your sensei has seen to much to leave this fight now. The same strength that I seek in this man is what Mori fears…what he himself has never been able to achieve. And what he cannot have, he will destroy."
"I do not care what his reasons are," Dekai answered. "If you do not stop it, I will."
As the bushi started forward, however, Bengaku was there beside him once more, and barred the samurai's passage with a turn of his slender arm. The Shiba buckled, nearly seizing hold of the Void shugenja despite the oath of his family's ancient founder. "You must stop it, Bengaku," he said fiercely. "This is not right. Even you know that."
But the empty eyes of the student of emptiness merely lingered on the ronin, as he, wearily, prepared his stance between painful breaths. Bengaku's face was unreadable, "Do not concern yourself, Dekai-san. Either the ronin is capable of what I think he is, or he dies with honor."
"No," Dekai snarled, the fires of his protest still full and strong. "There is no honor in this kind of fight. This is murder, Bengaku-sama…"
"Be silent, or be silenced." The shugenja suddenly hissed, not even bothering to tear his eyes from the pair. After another moment, Bengaku smiled and stepped aside, giving the sensei free motion to do what he would. "If you can not trust in me, Shiba, then trust in him. Trust him not to fail. If you cannot do that…then do as you will."
Shiba Dekai remained where he stood as if frozen, ignoring the wounds of his honor and his body, praying to the Fortunes that the Isawa was right.
"You are courageous and powerful," Mori said evenly, setting his stance to better accept the Riddle of Fire. "It seems a shame that your potential must end here…but if I am to truly master my path, then I must defeat you, here and now. Only one of us may walk this road."
Koshin said nothing, offering one glance towards the small boy almost hidden in the crowd. Ujirou's small hands were calm and his eyes silent, but only the Void shugenja bore the true aura of calm. The ronin felt it too, more keenly than he had in the moment of the spirit's defeat. Turning his head back to face the Phoenix master, he allowed himself to grow calm once more, "You cannot win."
Mori's eyes tensed at the simple challenge, a single moment of fears clouding his gaze. "Your body is wracked with injuries…one strike and our duel will be through."
"What makes you think," the swordmaster asked, his voice even and calm, "that I will let you strike me?"
"Fool!" The Shiba lunged through the air, pouring all of his power into the strike. The naginata's blade flashed in the afternoon light, easily the match for any move that might be made by the ronin. The crowd cringed, and all was silent.
Mori looked up with a grim smile, but that quickly fell into a state of shock and bewilderment. All around the pair, the courtiers and shugenja gasped and whispered in amazement, their wide eyes locked upon the edge of the master's blade.
"I understand," he whispered to the Void.
Koshin stood, his swords still sheathed and untouched, with the naginata resting calmly over his shoulder. The henshin was certain that he had followed the cut; and yet here he stood with a dry blade. The ronin's eyes were fiercer now, and the sand seemed to almost ripple in the presence of the Void.
"That is impossible," Dekai gasped in amazement, his skin prickling at the touch of chi in the air.
"Sayo-no-Unchi," Bengaku said triumphantly. "I knew it."
"What is this?" the Phoenix asked as he recoiled, his eyes focusing on the heavy blade, searching the edge of the Hida steel for even a single drop of blood. "There is no technique like this…"
Koshin said nothing; his body drooped lower now, but the ronin's eyes had seized hold of some clarity deeper than his bones. Slowly, triumphantly, he strode forward, settling himself again within the arc of the deadly master, his long hair drooping to hang just above its upturned edge. "You wished to fight with me, Mori-dono…"
One piece of hair was sliced cleanly, falling silently to the sandy ground… It rippled, almost like water…a meaningless piece of Self, adrift in the world of Void.
In the center of the ring, Mori attacked again with a blazing shout, slashing at Koshin from left to right. Again, the attack seemed to pass unhindered…and yet it hung frozen, a breath's length from splitting the ronin in two. "Yield," the ronin said softly, below the ears of the court could hear.
Mori stepped back several places, holding his naginata straight up before his eyes. A mixture of rage and shame filled the Shiba…how could such an untrained youngster understand what he had always been denied? All the hours of meditation, all the puzzles of the Final Mystery…they all seemed hollow, as the ronin shown with the light of pure Void.
All of the effort, the trials, and the failure reflected back upon the Shiba, tearing away at Mori's every accomplishment, leaving his eyes burning with tears of pride.
"Stopping two attacks is no sign of true mastery," Mori snapped into the reflection of Koshin's cool eyes, concentrating his energies and calming his burning rage. "I do not understand how you are protecting yourself, but the power of emptiness is hardly yours alone. Your strength will not stop the Heaven's Wing."
Even among the Phoenix, few people understood the master's words. Dekai strained against himself again now, almost daring to leap between the two to stop them. But again, Bengaku's gaze froze him solid, holding him rooted as if he himself was carved from stone.
The Isawa was smiling.
Koshin felt the power of the Void as it filled Mori; he had heard many times of the legend that was the mysterious Heaven's Wing. It was rumored that no technique could fully defend against it, and that the power of each motion was the strength of emptiness. The ronin smiled…
This is a real challenge.
He waited, and it came. Even Koshin's eyes could not follow the furious motions as the master assailed him; the old man's technique moved with a desperately fueled abandon. Sweeping high, low, and at every angle, Mori poured every piece of his strength and skill into the motions, in the span of a heartbeat striking seven separate times.
Seven cuts…and not a drop of blood fell.
"Sensei!" Ujirou cried out it triumph, his youthful spirit overwhelming his long-restraining calm. Bengaku was upon the edge of the sand in an instant, his pale hand flashing forward even as Mori's naginata clattered to the ground.
"The match is finished," the Phoenix proclaimed with a clap of his hands, the strength of his voice more than enough to hold back the pair of exhausted men. "Kakita Koshin is the winner. The Phoenix shall concede."
Koshin smiled a weary smile towards his student, as the ancient Shiba turned away…
The seppuku ceremony of Shiba Mori, son of Shiba Toki, was a quiet thing, done without the traditions that the Phoenix held so dear. It was attended by his first student, Shiba Dekai, and by Kakita Koshin and his pupil, Daidoji Ujirou, son of Daidoji Gisei. Dekai himself made the final cut.
The next morning, Koshin made arrangements with the Shiba, to be once more free and on his way. As the cool summer breeze filled the Phoenix provinces, the wanderer and his small pupil stepped into the sunlit courtyard, empty except for the heimen on their morning duties.
"Are you ready to go, Ujirou-san?" Koshin did not seem tired now; one night of meditation and rest had done more than restore what was lost. His grey eyes shone as he considered his student, looking hard for something that the Daidoji was uncertain was there to see. "I think that it is time for your training to begin in earnest…if you agree."
Before the student could answer, the doors of the shiro swung open, causing both to turn.
Isawa Bengaku was dressed in robes trimmed white for mourning, and tucking into his kimono was a crimson courtier's fan. Beside the shugenja, Dekai walked slowly, his slender face again formed into his smile, "I warned you not to leave so soon."
Koshin turned his eyes from the shugenja, "There were some people that I did not wish to see again, Dekai-san." He then faced Bengaku fully, the same gleam of challenge filling his voice as in yesterday's fight, "Was it worth it, shugenja-sama? The dishonor of you clan's noble shiryo? The death of one of your most enlightened and skilled?"
Bengaku only smiled. "I have been seeking the Sayo-no-Unchi for as many years, Koshin-san. More years than Master Mori knew its name." His eyes became distant, as if he saw some great image shining in the morning sky, "Think of the lives that could be spared with this knowledge, ronin…of the students that may master this feat."
The Phoenix met Koshin's stare once more. "That knowledge was worth the price."
"Knowledge that could have been earned another way, Isawa-sama." Dekai's voice drew the others' eyes towards him, "Knowledge that could have drawn my students and yours together… We could have achieved everything that Koshin-dono has done, if only you and I had tried."
The ronin smiled, "You will achieve it, Dekai. I know you will."
Making a fist with his sword hand, the Shiba returned the expression, "I have a strong master to live up to. Mori-sama would never forgive me if I allowed my students, allowed myself, to fail just because the Sayo-no-Unchi was something he never achieved." Seeing Bengaku's wrinkled frown, the samurai grinned broader. "Together, we will succeed."
"I believe you."
"War is coming, Koshin," Bengaku said sharply, tearing through the calm. The shugenja's face was livid now, his unearthly calm torn away and driving both bushi to silence. "And it will not be a war that your ideals can win…a war against real evil, that will tear this fracturing Empire apart. These are no longer peaceful times, swordmaster…your honor cannot defend our clan. Or any other."
Koshin lowered his head sadly, gently turning Ujirou away. As he and his
pupil started off into the gentle hills of the Shiba provinces, the ronin's
voice rose to reach them. "Ideals and honor are always what make the
difference, Bengaku. Without them, there is nothing for you to defend."
Another Path is Chosen…