Chapter Forty-Five: The Dark One's Honor
"All shadows have their souls."
All of the bushi's body burned and tingled; needles lanced at Koshin, plucking the strength from his body, driving him towards the eventual fall. Before his eyes, Kentetsu's form seemed to thrash and waver; his footsteps echoed strangely, as the ninja prepared to strike.
He would have only one chance to end this; the Goju was fast, skilled and wholly ruthless, and Ujirou was far too green with his swords. Letting his body slump forward, Koshin focused himself on the sounds of his opponent, knowing better than to trust his weakened, watering eyes. Kentetsu was laughing lightly, an action meant more to hinder his enemy's composure than to announce any sense of mirth or joy.
"My master warned me that you would be an impressive opponent," said the voice from somewhere to Koshin's right. "Even so, you will die knowing that you have failed. For after I kill you, I will kill this child, Kakita…and so this time you will fail and not return."
Koshin stood ready, his hand hovering just next to his waiting sword. He had only one strike left in him…he could not waste energy and focus by expending empty words.
"He does not fail," said a voice from behind him, and the swordsman heard the rustle of clothes, as Kentetsu froze in mid-motion and Ujirou turned. "He can not fail. Not to a man like you, ninja," the last word was spat, striking the air as if it were a curse.
The samurai's weapon slumped, "Kutsu…"
"Save your strength, Koshin-san. You will need it when I am done."
The boy did not know what to make of the man that now stood before him; he radiated terrible strength and an almost palpable fear. Ujirou noticed that blood stained the robes of the order of Shinsei, and yet this man stood alone between the assassin and his prey.
As if Kutsu's arrival signaled a release to his struggle, Koshin's head fell suddenly to the ground. Ujirou cried out as he rushed to steady his sensei, his free hand seizing Ukigumo when the blade teetered, holding man and blade tightly, his small body almost buckling under the weight.
"Do not concern yourself with him, child," the monk said from over his shoulder. "Your master has chosen to free his stored energy; I shall consider it permission to continue this little fight."
Kentetsu was no longer smiling, his dark eyes seeming to fill with shadow like milky pools. "You are a fool to interfere in this, little Shinsei…"
"I find it strange that you would say that, ninja…seeing that it was most likely one of your allies, who set me on this road." Kutsu took one step forward, tightening his armband with one twist of its strings. "I can see that you do not understand what I mean…so you are only a little river that leads to the sea."
"Those words are your last!" The Goju sprang forward, whipping his left blade horizontally, angling the deadly sword to slice the monk's head in two. Ujirou cringed at the speed of the motion, but the stalwart defender only raised his hands…
It was bliss.
The instant the Goju had attacked him, Kutsu had found a vessel for all his rage. All of the training, the waiting, and the preparation…none of it could have released him as did the feeling that he found against these poisoned blades. With each slash, Kentetsu came closer and closer to striking him, but always, Kutsu was one more lunge away.
One throw finally lashed closer than expected, slashing through Kutsu's tattered kimono before the monk could leap away. The ninja and his enemy watched as the shirt slipped down around the fighter's hakama, both men feeling their energy begin to flow.
"This fight is more to my liking," Kentetsu snarled fiercely, tossing his chains away. "The Kakita had no conviction to kill…but I know better than to expect the same from you." The ninja smashed his hands together, his gauntlets ringing together as he struck.
"You are wrong to underestimate him, you fool. Even so, you are right about one thing," Kutsu said darkly, removing his ruined kimono with one hand, "I will kill you. Quickly."
"So you say!" Kentetsu hissed while charging, one hand extended, and the other held low. As Ujirou cringed on the sidelines, Kutsu managed a single smile, twisting his body and throwing the tattered cloth across his opponent's eyes.
It took the ninja less than a second, his hands surging forward, tearing the ruined garment aside. But in that moment, the monk was beside him, his huge knee rising, smashing through Kentetsu's guard, hammering tissue and ribs beneath. Kentetsu's body bent forward, as the big warrior's right arm rose.
Like a knife, Kutsu's hand smashed into the back of his enemy's neck, driving him like a stake into the soft ground. The ninja's thin body bounced and twisted from the impact, rolling and rolling before it smashed into the tree.
"You seem human enough, ninja," the big man said as he lowered his blood soaked hand.
Ujirou took one step forward, studying the broken form with wide set eyes. It seemed impossible, but with the sound of gruesome popping, the Goju's head had started to rise. The Daidoji felt his stomach turn at the sight of the misshapen creature, but Kutsu let out a low grunt of approval, as the ninja's hands sprang into a mass of claws and spines.
"I was mistaken," he remarked idly, considering the thing as it started to rise. Kentetsu's face was still somewhat visible, staring into his attacker with burning, rage-maddened eyes. From somewhere within him, Ujirou could feel, rather than hear, the ninja's laughter; it bubbled up into their minds, roaring like the anger of the Doji Cliffs against an enraged sea.
Laughter that continued, never stopping, until Kutsu spoke again.
"So this is the power of the Lying Darkness, the great techniques that controls the physical and corrupts the soul?" His eyes were cold, more focused…even the monk's voice had dropped slightly lower, the sound of determination filling it now. "How sad…I expected more for such a price. To have traded real strength for tricks and false power…men like you are most deserving of being destroyed!"
Lunging forward, Kutsu dodged back and forth with fleeting motions, just ahead of the twisted tendrils that seemed to shine like hardened steel. Seizing hold of his enemy with a very human ferocity, the monk tore one weapon from its unnatural socket, causing the Goju to panic, leaping backwards with eyes welling up with fear and surprise.
Goju Kentetsu was a being of Shadow, but Kutsu knew that even shadows could be destroyed. Flinging aside the twitching limb as it dissolved to stinking flesh and bleeding darkness, the monk stepped towards his inhuman opponent, a vicious smile filling his harsh face.
"I had hoped to save this technique to finish my rival, but I think that the satisfaction of your death with be reward enough."
Goju Kentetsu did not see the strike, but he felt his corrupted body shudder, and heard his final scream…
"He is dying," Ujirou choked out through tears, holding his sensei's sword. The monk came forward slowly, unconcerned, his face and shoulders a mass of splattered blood. "He is going cold; please help him!"
Kutsu shoved the boy aside, sending the unsteady student crashing to the ground. Ujirou yelped in surprise, but silenced himself immediately as the dark man lowered himself on his knees beside Koshin's unmoving body, running a bloody hand over the length of the deep wound.
"He will not die," the monk said at length, his voice somewhere between disgust and relief. "The ninja thought to kill him on his own…this poison lacks the strength to kill even you, boy. It will keep him unconscious a while, but I know methods to heal such wounds."
With that, Kutsu shouldered Ujirou's master without effort, taking care to keep the warrior's injury from rubbing against his form. Starting north against the failing light, the big man walked without looking back to the Daidoji, who had to hurry and collect himself enough to dash along.
They walked for an hour in silence, Kutsu moving slowly so to not disturb his wounded parcel. As night was falling, Ujirou became more and more nervous, realizing that his situation had not improved.
True, the monk had fought and defeated the ninja, but there was an evil nature within this man that Ujirou could not deny. Whether it was the final attack against his opponent or the simple lingering feeling of his shove, the Daidoji felt better staying closer to the big man, his small hands resting near his swords.
He might not be able to beat a man on the level of Kutsu, but the little warrior had already resolved to try.
"You do not trust easily," the voice said, breaking Ujirou's reverie. Kutsu's fierce eyes were visible, even in the near darkness, and they too lay lightly on the swords. In the student's hand, Ukigumo grew suddenly heavier as the dark eyes froze the boy, draining his strength away.
"No," the samurai said, drawing himself up and at last meeting the gaze of the giant, "I do not trust you."
Kutsu smiled, "Your honesty is refreshing." His eyes looked down the road, settling on a lonely, battered and abandoned hovel, resting beside a long finger of a large copse of trees. "Just the same, I would advise you to reconsider your trust. I am the best chance for your sensei to live; you could not even see him through the night alone."
Ujirou felt his face flush in embarrassment; the truth hurt, and it reminded him that he had failed. Koshin would never have been wounded and poisoned, if he had been more mindful of what he had learned. Kouryo-no-Ken had taught him many things already about the nature of strength and protection…but in the moment of danger, many of those lessons had failed.
He had failed.
Watching as the monk laid his sensei down and began working, the little samurai swore that he would not fail again…
Kentetsu's body twitched in the darkness; the final futile movements of a body that did not accept being dead. The figure watched through the veil of shadows without hindrance, his eyes drifting to the north, wondering where the two men had gone.
Following them would not have been difficult; but searching them out later would work just as well.
The monk's arrival said a great deal for his willpower and stamina; it was possible, even likely, that Kutsu was even stronger than Koshin himself. The ninja knelt beside the body of its fallen comrade, idly considering what true motivation the man had in their struggle, and what kind of technique it had been that had delivered the final wound.
"You are a dangerous man, monk," Goju Hitokan whispered to the night with a smile, his voice echoing strangely against the moonless sky…
"I will not forget that."
The Plan has Changed…