Chapter Forty-Four: Showdown
"Most mortals have only one life to conquer
- Kakita Yoshi
There were two of them, coming up the empty road. The first walked with a long, lazy lope like a hunter on the prowl, his eyes ever focused, his hand upon his swords. He was everything that the observer had prepared for, though perhaps still something less to warrant all the warnings that he had been told.
After all, the second one was little more than a child…and yet he already carried a warrior's gait.
"Are you prepared to deal with them both, Kentetsu?"
Barely moving, the warrior nodded, his sharp, angled face shadowed beneath the long, probing boughs of the tree, "The swordsman will be no problem…I have already seen his techniques firsthand." The ninja's hands crept upwards, beneath his kimono to brush the slender scar. "I can defeat him…you would not have chosen me otherwise."
"His weaknesses have nothing to do with technique, student…I remind you to use them well."
Kentetsu's hands brushed against his long daggers, their edges freshly wetted and shielded from the air. "He failed against us once, sensei. He will not win."
Koshin knew that someone was waiting for him, beneath the long shadows of the lonely tree. He could feel it in the grass and the air, though he could not explain it; it was like a long forgotten sensation, suddenly surging to the fore.
"Listen carefully, Ujirou," the swordsman said, his gaze never lowering from the white talismans that held familiar names. "Whatever waits for us, you must allow me to face it." For the first time, the student could find no room for compromise in the tone of his teacher; there was only the hardness of steel. "I fight alone."
The answer was automatic, "Hai, sensei," but it did nothing to quell the feelings building within. Ujirou had watched his master in the battle against the Shiba; he knew about Koshin's power, and maybe even more about his pride. In his dreams, the student fought beside his master…but in reality, Kakita Koshin was always alone.
Ujirou turned his head, considering the heavy weight of his useless swords.
"I am glad to see that you understand our struggle, Kakita," came a clipped voice, harsh and guarded from the shadows of the tree. "I was not in the mood to explain them."
Koshin stepped out in front of his pupil, offering a final glance to the dead men's names, "I thought that you might now be."
The young samurai had never seen a man dressed like the speaker, as he stepped out from the shadows of the tree. Swathed in black and grey cloth, the man's body was thin and tall, and his face wrapped tightly in a thick black mask. In either hand, the man held a short blade, like a wakizashi, both joined at the butt by a long length of chain.
"What do you want from me, whoever you are? Why have you lured me back to this place?"
Laughing, the figure took a long, low stance, extending each of his blades. "I am Goju Kentetsu, and I seek the only things that the Shadow has ever required of you…your corruption or your defeat."
"Stand back, Ujirou-san," Koshin commanded. "This is not an opponent seeking challenges or honor. This man seeks only my death."
"If your life was all we wanted, we would have taken it long ago."
The Goju would not fight with honor; Koshin knew better than to believe Kentetsu's true weapons were really in his hands. His legs, his arms all moved with a supple, easy motion; their forms almost shifting with each change of stance and hand.
Koshin shifted himself to a side stance, with hand extended, readying his hands for the draw. The presence of the ninja was corrupting, difficult to deal with; it seemed immense, and only continued to expand.
As if he could see the warrior's concern, Kentetsu smiled beneath his mask, a single crease appearing in his midnight veil, "You seem unfocused, Ni-Ken no Tsuru, for someone who has been referred to as a master of the blades…surely you have nothing to fear from me."
Before Koshin could answer, Kentetsu threw his left blade. The shortsword whipped through the air like an uncoiling serpent, slicing through leaves cleanly as it flew. Pivoting to one side, the swordsman dodged with one quick, turning motion, charging down the line of the deadly chain.
Kentetsu smiled, "A child's technique…far too slow."
The ninja gripped the chain tightly in his free hand, giving a tug in one smooth motion…
Koshin's swords flashed from their saya, the sound of steel against steel smashing the empty air. Ukigumo rose high to the heavens, while the Shiba sword slashed forwards, its edge gliding down the chain.
Ujirou cringed as metal slashed metal, his eyes frozen at the sight of such speed.
"Not bad," Koshin said with a smile, his arms held extended to either side. Behind the samurai, Ukigumo's shining blade held back a straining chain and coil, along with the wakizashi that dangled at its edge. In his other hand, Kentetsu's second sword scraped against Koshin's, the idle motion of their hardened muscles birthing sparks from the ninja's iron blade. "Someone trained you well, Kentetsu…someone who knows how I fight…"
The ninja smiled again, maliciousness gleaming in his eyes, "You defeated the reach of my weapon, swordsman…that has never been done before." Twisting his arm, Kentetsu unfurled his tangled chain weapon, catching the second sword and stepping away, "I can see why your defeat is so important to our cause."
"We are only remnants of the Shadow, warrior," Kentetsu hissed angrily as he tightened his chains, "mere ruins of a war finished a generation ago. But as pieces, we shall endure throughout the ages…but only if our enemies forget what they must seek. Forget why they must fight."
Koshin said nothing, narrowing his grey eyes. The Goju laughed darkly, "We learned much from the destruction of the Ikoma Libraries, Kakita. Those who lack knowledge always grasp more desperately at our lies."
"So shall we endure…with your death."
The bushi shifted his stance to offer his left shoulder, "Then there is only one thing left for you to do, Kentetsu. You must make me die."
Kentetsu did not fight with any semblance of recognizable style; his attacks and defense seemed to be mostly inspiration and invention as one. With each attack, the ninja worked to his advantage the length of his chain-bound weapons, forcing Ujirou's sensei to spring forward and to either side.
So far, neither one had managed to strike the other, but the Daidoji could see that it was only a matter of time. With each missed attack, the ninja became angry and overextended; with each parry, Koshin tested the strength and stiffness of his enemy's throw. Sooner or later, the strange fighter would make a mistake…a mistake that would cost him dearly.
That single moment came, as the ninja sprang upon Koshin, hurling his sword with an angry cry. Instead of lunging, the Kakita raised his twin swords in a flourish, suddenly locking the attack, freezing it in midair. Turning his body sharply, the wanderer jerked down upon the chain with his weapons, intent on tearing the Goju from the air.
Kentetsu's weapon unfurled from his hands without hesitation, sailing easily down the slope of the small, rolling hill. The ninja seemed almost to hang, suspended in mid-motion, each hand sprouting small, straight daggers like the unfolding of a fan…
It was a move Koshin had not expected.
Ujirou's eyes barely followed what had happened, as his sensei leapt backwards and into the air. Koshin heard and felt the throwing daggers pass his body, tearing through the wide sleeves of his kimono, and one even binding itself through the thick soles of his sandal as he flew. Kentetsu was laughing as he landed, drawing three fresh daggers from his thick obi.
"You managed to nick me, Goju," Koshin said with a snarl, raising his rent sleeve with an angry glare. "I hope that victory was enough, given the weakness of your aim. "
Kentetsu raised his new weapons, revealing in detail their wide, heavy edge, "Hardly…"
With that, the genin readjusted his focus, hurling all three blades towards the young student to Koshin's side…
The Kitsuki had called the strange weapon a dokujin, though they had admitted to having seldom seen such a heavy, unbalanced blade. When the ninja had thrown it at him, all those years ago, Koshin had thought little of it; even as Ujirou did now. The young swordsman simply reacted, as he had, his small hands seizing hold of his blade.
"No, Ujirou!" the bushi shouted, knowing that the warning would never be fast enough.
But the slender, flexing edge of a katana could not stand against such a heavy weapon; it could shatter even folded steel. As the dokujin flew, the teacher reacted, covering the distance in a heartbeat, almost tasting the poison in the air.
The Daidoji reacted faster than expected, throwing up his sword in a defensive stance. There was a blur of tattered kimono, and three heavy impacts rung Ujirou's ears. The kimono slumped as Koshin dropped to a crouch in pain, the final dagger lodged deeply below his collarbone. The other two hung in the air in pieces, slashed through the middle by a pair of crossing strikes.
"Sensei!" the boy cried out, seizing hold of the foul weapon and tearing it away. Flinging the bloody knife into the grass, Ujirou stepped forward to steady his kneeling sensei, as Koshin's pale face began to flush as his eyes clenched shut in pain. "You coward!"
Kentetsu cocked his head with a smirk, throwing aside another dagger as he knelt to recover his swords, "I admit that it was a terrible thing to do, using the presence of an innocent to my advantage…" his eyes settled on the small warrior.
"My only question is…what will you do?"
Ujirou's sword whirled to the forefront of battle, settling it easily into his hands. The boy's eyes ran one long lash across his shadowed opponent, probing for weakness…and found none. Behind him, there was the sound of his sensei's struggles, and towards them both stalked forward with a victorious air.
"Ujirou…Ujirou…I told-told you…"
Kentetsu stopped, a brief moment of confusion passing over his face. The Daidoji stepped aside in shock, watching as Koshin stepped forward, Ukigumo's sheathed form gripped tightly in his right hand. The sensei's free hand was clamped down on his injury, barely covering the growing patch of black blood. Behind the long strands of hair, the warrior's pale eyes were blazing, "I told you…I fight…alone."
"You can still move…and with such a wound," the Goju said, his
voice filled with a mixture of admiration and surprise. "I am impressed,
Kakita." With that, Kentetsu smiled at his opponents, angling his kodachi
for the final strike…
A Shadow Falls…