Chapter Forty-Two: Letters
"It is the folds of simple paper that can hide the
Kutsu, I can only hope that this letter will find you, wherever your road has led you to.
The blood of the messenger speckled the ground, its bright reflections a strong contrast to the blackness of the mountain's stone…
I will not fight you; even if I was free to do so, I do not wish to see your blood.
The fists flashed, again and again, their bloody edges smiting the empty air…
You are a strong man, but your path will never bring you to what I have found. Return to your meditations.
Fists that could tear flesh, shatter steel, and break bones…
Do not seek me out. I have no time for you and your Way.
Hands that could ruin dreams.
Kutsu lowered his hands, feeling the quivering sensation that came from his newfound rage. The sohei strode back and forth in silent contemplation, his hands leaving a trail of shimmering essence in their wake. All around him, the Dragon Mountains thundered…but the inside of Kutsu's heart had grown as cold as the fallen man's dead flesh.
The fallen man…the messenger, dressed in the colors of the Lion Clan.
"So that is where you have gone to," the monk whispered to the falling darkness, his voice a low rasp from so many days of training and isolation. Stooping, Kutsu shouldered his few remaining possessions, pausing for a moment to consider the ruin that was once a man. "I wonder if he will still be there…when I come to finish what we have begun?"
But of course the dead could not answer him, and Kutsu did not linger long enough to see its features bleed…
Kenshuko's whole body ached; the morning had already grown long, and she was nowhere near the edge of the Ikoma Provinces. These long weeks as a wanderer had made the young woman tougher; even Nikkan would have had difficulty recognizing the sunburned face of the samurai-ko. But while the toil of her quest had suffused her body, none of the masters had been able to end the pains that filled her mind.
Kakita Kenshuko did not know it, but her day was soon to change.
"You there! Crane!"
It was amazing that someone had known her for the truth, Kenshuko realized as she turned. The weeks of dirt and toil had turned her from fine silks to plain, battered clothes, and even her hands were scorched with the marks of Yakamo's light. As the samurai-ko met the newcomer, her eyes widened immediately into shock.
I have learned more than I ever thought possible, here on the lonely road.
The sword of Kenshuko's attacker was almost upon her, even before she completed the turn. Akuraikaze sung from its now-worn saya into the samurai-ko's near hand, smashing the inferior metal like a hammer against a stone. Shards of metal scattered across the trade route, ringing like the bells in the temples of the Crane.
"Who are you?" the woman demanded angrily, lowering her blade in both hands. "You must be a fool to attack me with such a poor weapon."
I have met with those who have called my father a hero, and those that believe him to be an honorless man.
But the attacker simply laughed a haughty, feminine laugh, her face concealed by a wide hat from the sun. The woman's form was heavily wrapped in its kimono and hakama, bound down to the fingers despite the heavy heat of the summer sun.
That voice, so darkly familiar, echoed in the young warrior's ears. "If you want to know why I have come to you, daughter of Koshin, then you must ask me with your father's sword."
"So be it. I am Kakita Kenshuko, of the Kakita Ryu," she snarled, the words of challenge coming so easily to her after the duels of this long, empty road.
I have known challenges the likes of which I had never known existed before these long days. I have felt my father's spirit; I have known the strength of the fight.
Despite her broken weapon, the stranger again made the first move. Like a tiger, she leapt upon her opponent, the broken blade slashing at the samurai-ko in the stomach and arm. Each blow, though deflected, rang through the sword and into Kenshuko's muscles, revealing a strength the woman could not have on her own.
"What magic is this?" the warrior asked, staggering backwards with her still ready sword. Kenshuko shoved her attacked backwards with all her strength, sending the cloaked form sliding several paces across the width of the road. "What are you?" the girl demanded, sheathing her katana for another stroke.
Only now do I understand what has happened to him. Only now have I learned what you always tried to hide.
"Ask your father for the answers, little samurai," the woman hissed, her hidden form again preparing to strike. "Only he can explain the perversion that drives our blood."
Kenshuko attacked without question, trusting the speed of her strike. Akuraikaze sang in the sunlight, its brilliant reflection shining into the shadows that hung beneath the wide brimmed hat. The monster shrieked in pain at the light of the sun…it was all the distraction the Kakita needed to strike.
Akuraikaze was forged many years ago, and it had known the strength of righteousness within her family's hands. The katana bit and sliced as it spun through the air, shearing through the heavy wrappings, boring its way easily to the hard packed ground. As she retreated, blade still ready for combat, Kenshuko's eyes widened at what hit beneath the shattered clothes.
I know that I cannot save him.
The Kakita had never before laid eyes on a servant of the Living Darkness, but she knew it instantly as it shrieked and writhed. Tentacles of shadow smote the empty air in painful defiance, the purity of Yakamo tearing its body away.
Sheathing her sword quietly, Kenshuko remained a safe distance to oversee the death of the monster. Its voice was different now, burnt and mangled by the nameless corruption like the sizzle of food that have been cooked too long…
I can only give him peace.
"We are the remnants of the Shadow, Daughter of Kakita…and while the seeds of Goju lies within your family, our power will never end…" the shadow beast screamed in pain as Akuraikaze was thrust deeply into its heart, the sun-quenched weapon steeling its existence away.
"In the lands…of the Lion…the Osari…border…" it hissed as it died, its failing tendrils burning upon the shimmering sword, "If you dare…to know his fate…"
"To know your own…fate."
Forgive me for this, my sensei. Forgive me for seeking the truth that you tried so long to hide. Know that I will give my father salvation. And then I will commit seppuku, and answer for my blood.
Each name drifted on the wind, written in fine lettering on a mourning paper in a lonely tree. On the edge of the Plains of Osari, the summer wind stirred each leaf and marking, setting their white edges dancing in a sea of undulating green.
"Do you remember them, I wonder? It was a long time ago, another life, another path…but I know that you do not forget them." The voice was proud, and despite its youth, it had some kind of ancientness to its nature. "Kakita said to remember all of them; so that you do not dishonor their lessons or their names. It is all you live for now…the lessons and the names."
A thin, pale hand, callused by long hours holding the sword, caressed the dried paint of Ayamura's memorial, "It was a time much like this…when the Empire was at war. Some things change, but we are always at war…"
"War was where we were born."
To the west, the Tombs of the Kitsu burned with dark plumes, their ancient records destroyed or stolen, torn away by the Tsuno and their quest for secrets and revenge. The figure paused to consider the fires, a cold smile playing on his handsome face.
Nothing ever changes.
There had not been one man worth saving among them, no matter what mon they chose to wear. Hatred, petty greed and aggression…these were the things that made men fight and die. Duty, honor, and compassion were long forgotten memories now, as they were then, their flimsy natures weak and yielding in the face of desire, regret and bitter lies.
It wasn't a matter of vengeance…it had nothing to do with something as simple as hatred or pride. The sword was a single anchor against the maelstrom of deception and despair. To fight was to be able to stand alone against an enemy more tangible than the words and codes of fallen dynasties.
"I have waited a long time for this, Kakita."
The names of the fallen shuddered in the sunlight, as if only they could
truly understand what evil the Empire was soon to know…
The Trap is Set…