Chapter Fifty-Three: Students and Masters
"It is always a single man's actions that make the
- The Tao of Shinsei
Ujirou did not feel the chill from anywhere outside himself; he knew he was sleeping, the moment it struck him through. The bite of the sensation was so real, so unguarded by cloth or flesh, that the Daidoji awoke with a shudder, snapping open his pale Crane eyes.
The falling blade would have shocked a normal boy to the core of his being, but Ujirou reacted with honed and ready reflexes, letting out a shout as he dove away from the strike of the striking steel.
Behind him steel smote the ground like a hammer, an iron strike tearing the earth away.
Coming up with his daisho in his hands the boy was already on the defensive, knowing nothing of his attacker save his blade. The shadowy figure drew itself up to its full, daunting stature, rising to nearly twice the size of the half-grown boy. Grating laughter echoed from somewhere inside the mask of dark clothes as the thing leveled its curious weapon, a short staff topped with three wicked, curved blades.
"There is an intruder!" Ujirou shouted to the sleeping Tonbo, but even as the words left him, the boy knew that none of them would rise. What he knew of chi told him that the Dragonfly had been murdered, but he did not require that power to see what the moonlight showed of their still-oozing wounds.
He was the last one alive.
"You may call to them again in a moment, child," mocked the heavy voice of the attacker. "You will join them in Jigoku soon."
Ujirou said nothing, taking the moment to adjust and draw his sword. The boy still did not feel comfortable using a second as a weapon, and so he adopted a familiar stance with sword extended from the base of his chest. "I know what you are. You are a ninja…"
The dark figure extended its short staff, the cruel barbs already wet with Tonbo blood. "I am Bukichi," hissed the dark image. "It will be the last name that you ever know."
Taking one breath to say a prayer for the safety of his sensei, Ujirou adjusted his stance again, trying to remember the droning details that Koshin had gone into regarding the rare weapon known as a vajra.
"If I was just a boy I would be dead already," the Daidoji said as calmly and bravely as he could manage, "so come and fight me, Bukichi…Daidoji Ujirou will be the last name for you!"
The attack came upon Koshin with such sudden ferocity that even he barely realized that the enemy was there. Leaping backwards like an acrobat the ronin cleared the limb of the burnt tree, a moment before a long stroke of some unknown weapon clove though both bushi and wood. The great tree groaned as it shattered from the strike, the corrupted Dragonfly's body dividing like fine silk before a blade.
From the moment his feet hit the earth Koshin was diving, his will to survive driving him to move. Amidst the churning dust and mud that the dying limbs created came more of the deadly pieces of nothing, striking ever closer to him, forcing him to dodge or die.
As he soared, the bushi sought the source for these mysterious cuts from a sword that he sensed but did not see, but there was only nothing beyond him; a nothing that he could neither pierce nor know.
After a few moments, the dust and ruination ceased to rumble, and Koshin slid to a stop in the soft earth, sighting his attacker for the first time.
"Kakita Koshin," said the samurai. "Kouryo-no-Ken."
"Goju Hitokan," said the shadow in reply. In the moonlight the newcomer was tall and thinly formed, his body lightly wrapped in a grey kimono and a large basket hat. Hitokan held to his side a single sword, sheathed and ready for iaijutsu, a strange hissing rising from the depths of the black saya. "Are you impressed with my skill, Koshin-dono?"
The ronin turned back to look at the shattered husk, wondering where the dead Tonbo now lay, "You must not think much of it yourself, Hitokan-san, if you felt the need to lure me here with such a trick. I do not think much of someone who would sacrifice an innocent man…"
Hitokan was probably smiling behind the slits of the basket, from the sound that filled his words, "I would have thought that a man like yourself would be pleased at any combat, no matter the conditions that brought his enemy and his sword…"
"I am pleased to disappoint you, Hitokan-san."
Thumbing his sword from one side the ninja swordsman laughed again, "I have come too far for you to disappoint me now."
"Master Hitokan has trained me extensively in the techniques of this weapon, child," Bukichi said coldly, holding out the short staff to allow a better view of the deadly triple blades. The ninja pivoted to extend his weapon towards his small enemy, "Your death will be quick."
Thirty foot oni, Ujirou told himself in stoic silence, running Koshin's weapon analysis through his mind. The vajra was too small to provide the ninja with an adequate reach advantage; the danger of the weapon was in its three pronged blades. The lightning-like curve could seize hold of and snap the blade of his katana…if the Daidoji allowed such a move.
The big ninja lunged, his black form like a ghost as he slashed at the boy with his blades. Ujirou backpedaled desperately, surprised at his enemy's speed at such size. Bukichi twisted the vajra, turning his slash into a thrust with one move…
There was only one answer that Ujirou could give his enemy; with a cry of fury, the katana slashed directly into the oncoming tines. As Bukichi attacked, the boy's blade sheared through the right side of the triple weapon, the Kakita steel shattering iron, biting to bone. The remaining blades of the vajra carried on and slashed deeply into Ujirou's shoulder, tearing his kimono open, splattering his dark blood.
Hitting the ground with a yelp, Ujirou's free hand seized his wounded shoulder, stifling the pain by concentrating his strength on the wound, the impact of his landing tearing open his thigh. Behind him, Bukichi was laughing softly, his voice reaching out to the boy through the pain.
"You don't look it, boy, but you have great potential," the ninja said. "You are the first to have wounded me in a duel."
Ujirou turned to face his enemy with naked fury, pulling himself painfully to his feet. The Daidoji gently gripped his sword with his wounded arm again, grimacing at realization that the blood he smelled was his own.
"That thrusting technique of mine has never been countered," the ninja continued, quietly considering his small, wounded prey, "but with your shoulder so badly injured…can you do it again?" The vajra lowered itself to point towards the boy once more, a dark hatred filling Bukichi's Shadow-filled eyes.
"No," Ujirou said without fear. "I can't."
"Then die!" Bukichi lunged, moving much faster than he had a moment earlier, the very earth stirring at the terrible speed of his body and blade. Ujirou steeled himself for the impact like a samurai, crying out a noble roar as he found the moment where he could die…
In that moment, as all the words of Kouryo-no-Ken suddenly collided, Daidoji Ujirou found that needed grain of truth.
The wind whirled all around him, filling up his scream as the heartbeats coalesced to nothing, all manners of thoughts filling up his young mind. Ujirou remembered the pain of the evil of Kentetsu; he could still feel the smile of the Tonbo men…this was the world that Bukichi fought to destroy.
It was a world that Daidoji Ujirou would always fight for. In that moment, the boy figured out how.
As the vajra struck against the katana, Bukichi found the boy holding it extended to the heavens, meeting his assault with only his wounded arm. Folded steel shattered as the ninja passed through his opponent's weapon and onward, angling downward for the fatal blow…
From his free, strong hand the Daidoji boy uncoiled, drawing his wakizashi in one last, desperate strike. Even as the vajra flung his right arm away, the left slid along the wind of his enemy's thrust, riding the move as he lunged with the strike. Bukichi's dark eyes bulged as he saw his death reflected in the movement, the light of a glaring Crane blade.
As the ninja passed the samurai, the wakizashi slashed through him, striking the head off with flawless, unbreaking form. Bukichi's vajra smashed the earth just a moment before his body, its remaining blades shattering near the edge of the dwindling firelight.
Behind the headless corpse, Ujirou lowered his wakizashi in wide-eyed wonder, for a moment ignorant to the pain of the shoulder and the broken blade. The boy considered his bloody wakizashi in shocked silence, the body of his enemy filling up his eyes.
"I did it," he whispered to the darkness, wondering if the spirits of the Tonbo could find some solace in his strike. "I won."
The two men stood a few feet apart in the darkness, their forms barely visible in the weak light of the waning moon. Koshin and Hitokan did not waste time with trying to gauge or judge the skill of their opponent; both men trusted their senses, and prepared their swords for the worst.
The ronin shifted his stance to iaijutsu, as Koshin prepared himself to attack. Against an enemy that he could neither sense nor gauge the swordsman was forced to make the first motion, risking his safety to cause the ninja's style to show. "Ready?"
Hitokan nodded, mimicking his enemy with his motions and stance.
Koshin sprang from his place like a loosed arrow, concentrating on neither the cut nor the draw. As the Shiba blade slashed out toward the chest of his enemy, the ronin sensed the chi buried to one side of the ninja's nothingness, at the final moment realizing the true power of the sword.
Saishuuheiki howled as it draw, shearing through both saya and steel unimpeded, its peerless blade extending into the empty space beyond the swordsman, slicing through earth and stone, tearing the spirits of the kami from the very ground. Twisting, the ronin hit the ground with a long, sliding motion, a few strands of hair slipping free.
"What do you intend to do now, Koshin?" Hitokan asked as he raised the edge of Saishuuheiki to separate the area between the two. "There is nothing in earth or heaven that can defeat the power of this sword, Saishuuheiki…and even without it, I could defeat you as you are now."
Glancing down at the Shiba sword the ronin watched as its blade divided silently, its edge falling to the ground. The ronin knelt and set the useless hilt to the ground, hoping that the shadows hid the sweat that beaded his face, "For all of your power, Hitokan, you seem to have trouble handling that sword."
Turning Saishuuheiki away from them the ninja focused, shearing through a husk of a simple hut without so much as a move. "You are right…and if you are the man I think you have inside you, Kakita, then you will not lose to me like this."
Koshin attacked as Hitokan swung his blade around to finish him, angling the weapon to remove his nemesis's head. The ronin ducked, his fingers whipping, biting at his enemy's hand with broken steel.
He's even faster than I remember, Hitokan told himself in mid motion, cursing himself for not being able to measure the enemy's true gait. The ninja swordmaster sneered at the sting of the broken blade tip, Saishuuheiki slowing as his free hand went for the steel that buried itself in his wrist, holding back the full power of his sword.
Ukigumo slashed out towards him like a shining sliver of moonlight, cutting the distance to nothing in a second, its edge moving quicker than the ninja could move Taikyo's final blade…
But as he finished, Koshin felt the sudden absence of the ninja and his horrid weapon, and knew that Hitokan was gone. Looking down at his right forearm the ronin let out a low sigh as the wound finally opened, a graze from Saishuuheiki bleeding like a full battle wound.
One more moment and Hitokan's sword would have cost him his hand entirely…two more, and it would have taken his life. As he knelt to bind the long wound with a strip of his kimono Koshin glared at the puddle forming in the earth next to the severed steel of Dekai's gift. The gift of the Phoenix Clan had spared him this time, but the bushi needed no oracle to read the mixture laid out before him in steel and blood.
They would meet again.