Chapter Forty-Nine: The Perfect Sword
"The perfect death is an excellence all its own."
I heard this story once from my uncle when I was a small child. It was the story of a master swordmaker who pursued perfection in the creation of his swords. He sought with all his skill and all his power to create the most perfect, most pure sword there could be.
In his pursuit, however, he lost sight of the truth. A sword is a weapon. It is created to kill. The goal of the perfect sword is to create the perfect death. To live the life of a samurai is to embrace death, for the sword is the soul of the samurai. It must become a part of you, and it must live and breathe the honor of an honorable soul. This is because the sword is the expression of the will of the samurai.
There is much I could say about the nature of the sword, but it is not
important to the tale. This swordmaker continued to work to create the perfect
sword. As restlessly as he pursued perfection, he always felt doubt. Would this
blade kill faster than the last? Soon, he reached the first limit of his art. He
could do no more until he had observed his swords kill. He sought out duelists
to lend them his swords, seeking to watch their
battles and learn.
But soon that was not enough. The duelists he watched were not skilled or wise enough to truly master their swords. So he sought the most skilled and wisest in the land to lend them his swords, but they would not kill in front of him. Therefore, he provoked duels between them, forcing them to slay each other in his sight so he might learn from their technique.
His hands red with blood, he returned to his forge, and made more swords.
Soon he had created swords that even the lowliest eta could use to slay a samurai, hardly moving at all. So he gave his swords to the most unskilled to see if it was possible, to see if his blades worked. He sent the poor heimen against each other, and against samurai, to see if it was true.
More blood fell upon his spirit.
But this was not enough. He realized that the only way to truly find
perfection was to create a sword that killed as soon as it was drawn from the
saya, no matter the user. But to test it, he had first heimen, then
samurai, brought to him, and slew them with his weapons, without taking a step.
But, he felt, there must be more. So he forged, and prayed, and bent the steel.
Then one day, he created a sword of such keenness that as soon as he quenched the blade and drew it from the water, he died. And there were none left to mourn him when he was gone.
He had created a sword that would kill you just by looking upon it.
It is an old story.
But, like most old stories, it has a grain of truth.
The lands of the Crab Clan were dark and quiet, the weight of nearby darkness stifling even nature's cries. In the shadows of the great mountains, a tiny village seemed to huddle around a great ancestral hall, the insides strangely empty, the fine walls somewhat bare.
For the evil of the Shadowlands left few treasures of great heroes, stripping the corpses and tales of their enemies, leaving the great hall of Koten silent and unfilled.
Thus, when the shadow fell to the ground in the blackness, only the silent statues returning its probing gaze.
The sword of Kaiu Taikyo slept in the darkness of a lonely corner, a slender sheath of unmarked wood veiling its flawless blade.
Taikyo had lived more than seven centuries earlier, forging masterful weapons, the legendary Kaiu blades. From Kakita and Kaiu parents, the swordsmith had known fully the taste and challenge of skill and excellence, passing on his wisdom in the curve of finest folded steel. Every Kakita artisan appreciated his mastery, and every Kaiu swordsmith exhaled his works, if not his name.
Yet for every sword that still served his people, it was for Saishuuheiki that Taikyo would forever be remembered, his name spoken in whispers though their archives no longer held his name. It was a parable among the sensei and their pupils, but the Champion of the Crab Clan always knew the truth. This sword, known only as a gift to Hida Tadaka, was the same Saishuuheiki that the swordsmith had bought with his blood and his soul.
Saishuuheiki, the ultimate weapon.
Saishuuheiki, the blade that no man could survive.
With a single deft motion, Hitokan's hand revealed the long curve of the silent sword. Beneath his black mask, the Goju could not help but allow himself a smile, his hands feeling the unflawed curves that hid the most deadly piece of blackened steel. Saishuuheiki was lifted, its blade turned upward, lest it fall and cleave the sheath in two.
"So this is the final sword of Kaiu Taikyo…" Hitokan whispered, his voice growing heavy as he settled on a nearby statue carved from solid stone. It was an old, well worked creation given to the Crab by their Crane neighbors, built to survive the rigors of the southern provinces. Built to survive a war.
"Now, we will see what legends are true."
In the morning, when the servants returned to the temple at Koten, not one of them could explain what their eyes saw. The great statues of their ancient heroes lay broken and shattered as if by some tremendous power, and the Kuni that were summoned sensed the death of the great stones' kami. It was as if their very spirits had been severed, slashed through cleanly by the most terrible of blades.
The sword Saishuuheiki was never recovered, and the Crab did not speak of it again.
"Even the perfect weapon is only a weapon, Bukichi. It is capable of nothing on its own, but lives through skillful handling."
The shadows hung low over the small woodcutter's hut in the southern Bayushi provinces, a lonely candle offering little light to the single room. Goju Hitokan sat with the sword laid out before him, his mask removed to reveal the severe angles of his handsome face, "It will take a while to master this weapon; this is hardly the sword for a fool."
Outside, in the cold night air, the other figure was barely visible, his body wrapped in dark robes. "I know that you will master Saishuuheiki in no time, Master Hitokan," the ninja answered with a rasping voice, the road below the tiny hovel constantly watched by his clouded eyes. "And when you do, our revenge will be assured."
Hitokan laughed once, his eyes wholly focused on Kaiu Taikyo's final blade. "Revenge is a motive for cowards and samurai, Bukichi; I will not waste my time with it. Saishuuheiki is a risk, even to me; I would not use it without good cause…"
The big ninja shifted his stance slightly, and then Bukichi offered his sensei a small bow. "Then you do not plan to take revenge for Kentetsu."
"Not at all."
Outside, the big ninja shifted once more, "And the ronin?"
Hitokan's slender fingers slid down the edge of the weapon's grey handle, his fingernails digging into the silk, idly pushing it away. "It is your mission to keep an eye on him, Bukichi. Watch and do not interfere. When I have mastered this weapon, I will seek you out…and we will finish what he began."
"Sensei…why does this one man trouble you so?"
The Goju stopped his smiled, sweeping a hand through his short hair. "I have had one dream in all my life, Bukichi; and Kakita Koshin is a part of that dream. I will know when I fight him, exactly what these visions mean…"
For a moment, there existed a silence between them, as Hitokan contemplated the meaning behind his words. In the light of the half-hidden moonlight, a shadow crept forward from below. Bukichi's massive form seemed to rise up like a cat's hackles, his voice rising in intensity as he moved, "And the Scorpion, Master Hitokan? They have been tracking us for weeks now…"
The Goju could not help but smile, his hand seizing hold of the deadly sword. Hitokan stepped to the edge of the empty window, letting his gaze fall on the hidden bushi below. "They are ninja trained by Shosuro Yudoka…excellent killers and better spies."
Bukichi nodded, "Shall I see to them then, sensei?"
"You have your mission to deal with, Bukichi…and I must train."
"Some people pass through our lives too quickly to matter," Hitokan said aloud to the silent corpses, their bodies sliced cleanly through. The Scorpion had been members of the Hidden Guard, and had fought like cornered tigers, but none of that had mattered in the end. Even samurai were meat, before Taikyo's blade, "But not all men are the same."
"Some men linger," the ninja finished, his gaze resting heavily on the dead stare of a Shosuro girl. "Some men are burned into our bodies, buried so deeply that they leave something in their soul."
With a delicate hand, Hitokan ran his papers over the edge of Saishuuheiki, his eyes raising as the very touch sliced through the just from nearing the edge of the blade. Even after the battle, the black silk sword seemed to shake a quiver, its energy exited by the opening of blood and bone.
This will take longer than I expected, the warrior considered as blood dripped from his open thumb. Even extended the sword from its saya was a danger; like a raging viper Saishuuheiki struck against all offenders, its mere reflection its own fatal blade.
Hitokan let his body attend to the wounded finger, turning his gaze to the cold and distant stars.
To the ninja corrupted by the Shadow, there was nothing more fearful than to die. As an extension of the Darkness, they had lived forever; a sliver of selfish identity that found a home in eternity's core. When the power of their master ended, these creatures reached out for something to define them…
…Something to give them life.
Hitokan did not know what part of the dream Koshin played for him; he could never remember the dream. It was haunting, elusive…it had haunted him all the years since that day. Every strike, every death was an act of definition, of becoming what he now was.
"One day soon, I will ask you to show me, Koshin," the ninja whispered as he walked away.
"We will show one another who we are."
The Night Goes On…