Chapter Fifty-Four: Styles
"Do not allow your enemy to rule your mind: rule
- Kakita's The Sword
"You know something Ujirou…you are very lucky to be short."
The boy shot an angry glare at his sensei as Koshin dabbed fresh water on his collar and shoulder wounds, trying to ignore the effects of the bouncing wagon on his cuts. Bukichi's weapon had left holes that had gone straight through the young bushi and out his back, creating a long pair of parallel wounds.
His first real scars…and they looked quite ugly. "I am not short, Koshin-sensei…I won because I was better." Ujirou's mind seemed to tense up immediately, realizing too late the prideful ring of his words.
Smacking the boy lightly, the ronin stood up long enough to see how far it was to the edge of the mountain passes. After a moment, he lowered himself to where Ujirou lay again, his voice taking on a critical tone. "You won," he said curtly, "because your small body was too low to strike cleanly with that weapon, Ujirou. You did win, but you did not win very well."
"Simply winning is not enough."
The Daidoji's face was a filled with shock and confusion; how could his sensei belittle his first victory so? He had faced one of the remnants of the Living Darkness…and he had won! Even at the Academies such a fight would have been haled as a mighty victory, Ujirou was certain; but there was no sense of victory in his teacher's words.
"I would hate to hear what you would say if I had lost," the boy muttered to himself angrily, turning over to allow his teacher to examine the gouge in his thigh. He had not meant for the sound to reach his sensei, but immediately, the injury received a well-aimed and potent jab.
"Ouch!" Ujirou's shout was loud enough to draw the attention of the peasant driver, but Koshin waved the old man away, explaining things with a knowing grin. The peasant returned to his driving in silence, but Ujirou was fairly certain that the wind brought him a soft laugh.
Continuing to clean the wound as best he could, the ronin grew serious again. "I expect you to improve with each battle, Ujirou-san…there will be many more before you are done with your duties to the Empire. You did win, and I am proud of you. But do not let go of the lessons that ninja taught you, simply because you won. You really could have done better, you know."
Ujirou lowered his eyes in defeat. "Hai, Koshin-sensei," he said with a weak and unenthusiastic voice.
The swordsman nodded, "My first duel was against a man called Fumikiru; he was a much better swordsman from the Lion Clan. I was lucky too, Ujirou…though in my case, it was because I was too tall for him to make a fatal cut. Luck has a part to play in swordsmanship…which is probably why so many swordsmen are pious men."
"Your mother is, doubtless, proud of your victory. You conducted yourself with courage and honor in a real duel; that is something many men never do." Koshin smiled slightly, staring at his student form the corner of his eyes, "I am proud of you…if only a little bit."
The Daidoji smirked a little, happy to see his sensei attempt to mend his injured pride.
"Now about that double sword side stroke that you used against the ninja," the wanderer said as he rewrapped the bandage, "I would like for you to explain that move again, because somewhere you got it totally backwards…"
His breath came in rapid spurts as if he had been running for hours, but Hitokan knew that his emotions were from nothing as trivial as the last few days of exhaustion and pain. The ninja moved to drink from a nearby pool of water, idly setting Saishuuheiki aside. The sword seemed like more of a weight than a weapon, its power continuing to rest just beyond his control.
In the days since his duel with Kakita Koshin Hitokan had found a new awareness; a new drive to master the power of his sword. After drinking from the water hungrily for a moment the ninja stopped and considered his reflection, watching as it shuddered back and forth in the rippling pool.
The man's face was pale, with dark eyes that matched his midnight hair perfectly, forming a handsome image with thin eyebrows and high, Crane cheeks. Hitokan had never considered the form to be particularly unusual or important, but now that gaze haunted his mind.
His eyes were the same shape as the eyes of his enemy, filled with the same passion and fury despite the color that set them apart. Hitokan knew how to recognize the kind of strength that came from hunger deeper than any physical need could bury itself; like most strength mortal man could muster, it was easily recognized in the eyes.
He had never considered that those eyes were so like his own.
Bukichi's death did not really matter to his sensei; Hitokan had watched and waited for this time for too long to think of such things now. The ninja knew now that a part of his soul was forever bound to the Kakita ronin; Koshin was one piece of his identity, torn from him in a desperate moment as part of that final battle to survive.
It was not revenge that drove all of the remaining Goju and Ninube, as Kentetsu and the rest of the Empire had always chosen to believe. The naming of the Shadow was a birthplace of identity; of a life that none of them had known. Not one of the elder Goju had been able to understand or predict how such a thing would affect their shapeless legions, but a few of them had found the importance of a purpose and a name.
But a name needed a birthplace to become a true identity; a tiny stone upon which consciousness could grow. No Goju that Hitokan had spoken with could say where they had found their scrap of being in the emptiness of Nothing, but now the swordmaster knew who had sparked his awakening. The strength that had brought him to this path.
Life was worth fighting for, Hitokan had realized in the long years that had come and gone since that day. He had not needed Kakita Koshin to tell him that was true.
And killing was more than worthwhile, the ninja told himself as he reached for his weapon, if it meant that he could be complete. The Goju did not care about words like "perfection" or "mastery;" it was enough that his sacrifices would bring wholeness to his soul. A soul was not something that could be shared between two people…
…All men were jealous, when it came to their soul.
"We are almost to the pass, samurai-sama," the farmer called back to Koshin loudly, holding his battered hat on with one hand, fighting the wind's attempts to tear it from his head. Before the small wagon rose the winding pass that would lead the two warriors into the mountains of the Dragon Clan; unguarded it wound like a snake into the north, vanishing into the lands beyond.
The ronin hopped down with a smile, checking the bandage that bound his right forearm, "Thanks you very much, Ekiyu-san. I appreciate you taking some time to bring us this far." The ronin knew that the farmer was bound for market in nearby village; even so, the trip had been out of his way. "I will return the favor if I can someday."
Ekiyu bowed, his thin, wrinkled face working itself into a smile, "Hai, sama. I hope that the rest of your journey goes well."
Ujirou stumbled as he stepped down from the wagon, noticing the sad rattling sound made by a broken sword. The Daidoji drew himself up, steeling himself to fight the urge to stumble at the movement of his wounds.
With the fabled mountains of the Dragon rumbling above him like a slumbering monster, it was a fairly easy thing to do.
"Why is this pass so empty and unguarded, Koshin-sensei? There are not even any Akodo troops here," the boy said after watching the slow departure of their peasant ride. Indeed the pass was even quieter than the mountains above them; it was a place that begged investigation like an ancient castle or a cave.
Koshin smiled, "Thirty years ago, Ujirou-san, this small pass was named Tonbogiri; during the Clan Wars, a group of undead tried to penetrate the Dragon Lands through this area, thinking the same thing that you do now. The result was a blackened sky of arrows…though who knows whether it is still guarded, given the state of the Dragonfly lands."
"Never underestimate the Dragon in their mountains, Ujirou; remember that even the Akodo failed to win on these fields."
Starting forward the two bushi crossed the last few feet of open territory, starting up the narrow mountain road. Daidoji Ujirou felt a strange sensation as he crossed the boundary into the shadowed mountains that the most mysterious clan called home. Beside him the boy heard Koshin take a long breath, enjoying the embrace of his mother's family's home.
"I hope that you are a quick healer, Ujirou…because I am sure that the Dragon will be ready to fight."
"B-but I cannot fight them now, Koshin-sensei!" Ujirou found himself protesting loudly, his words resounding from the beginnings of the steep hillsides, "My sword is broken; it will need to be repaired." The boy felt a deep sadness as he once more considered the rattling…for the samurai, the katana, even a mere training blade given to him for this mission, was much more than a simple sword.
"Your soul will be rekindled, Ujirou," the ronin said as he started to climb up the small mountain road. "I have broken many katana in the past; some of them mine, some of them other samurai's swords. Broken steel is no proof of a loss of a warrior's honor; the sword that you should be concerned about is deep within you."
The Daidoji nodded, "I understand, Koshin-sensei, but I cannot fight with just that 'sword.'"
Leaping gently to the next ledge, the ronin smiled back at his student's cleverness, "When you understand what I am trying to teach you, Ujirou-san, then that one will be the only sword you will need."
Accepting humanity was a death sentence; to be human was to be mortal, and to be mortal was to one day die. In the name of the immortality promised by the Darkness and later by the Shadowlands, many of those that had remained had done so in eternity's name. The loss of identity was the promise of forever…
It had never meant so little as it did now.
The black silk of the sword turned to one side in utter silence, no shiver or waver left in the blade. It moved with the grace and purpose that filled the swords of the Empire's true masters, resting in stillness as the tsuba was brushed by the thumb of a slender, focused hand.
Compared to this feeling, immortality was nothing at all.
Like the awakening of an ancient dragon, Saishuuheiki roared to life, its vicious edge slashing through the air. Hitokan's weapon slashed through the empty space between the ninja and his target, striking dead the spirits between them, parting the essence of the kami. The ancient tree had no chance to shift or groan before its trunk was shattered, torn to pieces by one motion of the sword.
It was action, not immortality, that changed the world…the actions of men and women had surpassed the powers of Togashi and Fu Leng for more than a thousand years. It was strange that so many had not considered the power of pure action, bringing themselves by their own acceptance to an eternity of stagnation and doom.
Goju Hitokan lowered the weapon in silence, his eyes always wary of the direction of the killing edge. Sheathing the katana the ninja allowed himself one smile.
What was immortality, compared to one perfect strike of the blade?
One Man Stands Ready…