Chapter Fifty-Six: Heaven's Path
"No one lives without a purpose in life…creation,
domination, justice or revenge. Koshin's purpose, in the end, was the sword.
Nothing more, and nothing less."
- Mirumoto Nikkan, A Final Duel
The morning air was damp and cold to the touch, even so near to the rumbling Wrath of the Kami. Inside the house, there were only the subtle breaths of the sleeping guests and servants; a peaceful setting disturbed only by whispered words.
"Ujirou will need a new sword to continue his training…or better, two."
Nikkan's eyes did not follow the ronin as he donned his swords and new, grey kimono one at a time. The monk was looking towards the western mountain, which rose even higher into the sky. "A pair of swords will not be difficult to prepare for such a warrior, Koshin. But what will I tell him, when he finds that you have gone?"
The bushi's face a freshly washed now, and his smile reminded the Dragon of the charming samurai that he had been. All pretenses of that Koshin vanished with a bitter grin, however, as he listened to the words, "Tenryuu and I do not share our fight with anyone, Nikkan…not him…not even you."
"I suppose that Ujirou will learn to understand that selfishness then…despite what he could learn."
Koshin did not face his friend as he strode towards the west and away from the early sunlight, but his voice carried everything his eyes could say, "Our duel is not about learning, Nikkan…it is not about teaching, or enlightenment, or mastery."
"It is only about the fight."
With that, the ronin turned away from his friend one more time, taking his final step away from the warmth and comfort and back into the chill morning air. Behind him, Nikkan watched until even his Kitsuki-trained eyes could no longer follow the predatory gait of his lonely once-companion.
The boy would be waking up soon, the monk knew as he slid the door shut softly. Koshin always had a habit of leaving things in his hands whenever possible…and it wasn't the first instance of being the temporary tutor of such a young Crane charge…
Some Dragon with a sense of humor had named the mountain Osanago; Koshin failed to see anything funny about the 'little child' as the sun fell upon him for the third hour of following the winding, narrow road. The heat of the morning was heavy despite the altitude, and the ronin was becoming acutely aware of the thinness of the air.
But neither weakness nor fatigue entered into the mind of the warrior as he continued his climb.
"I can hardly believe that anyone could live up here," he said to himself as the sun reached its zenith, battering down with the full fury of nature. The land was so barren and desolate, with only the toughest, stunted trees clinging to the edges of the mountain road.
I guess that he can appreciate all of this, Koshin told himself as he knelt beside one of the strongest of the tiny plants. One thing more that I have yet to learn…
Above him, so far in the sky that it seemed itself a piece of heaven, the plateau of Osanago greeted the ronin's weary eyes. Slowly and carefully Koshin started up the steep cliff with his swords tucked safely behind him as he moved towards this truest of tests.
As he climbed, the wanderer felt his mind wander to the days long ago, to the ninja and to Tenryuu…to the only duel where he had been defeated, and the only swordsman that he had ever considered his equal. His challenge, and no others.
"Are we finished here, Koshin-san? To strike again, both of us would die…"
Every movement, every breath, welled up with the old feelings, the old challenge…like the will to live itself, the thoughts of the past and the future drove Koshin higher, his heart soaring on thoughts of the challenge and the sword.
He breathed of the moment, as the inches and feet and years all fell away…
"What is death to us, Tenryuu? I might live many years more if I walk away…but they will be empty, unless we see this to the end."
Koshin had come all this way to again prove himself invincible, and in the process had learned how to understand his weakness and his strength. He had fought and fought your blade and mind, sacrificed blood and love and triumphs…all of this, only for the need to know.
To know where a true man of the sword would stand in the order of the universe.
A few more moments and he would know. The ronin could feel the pinpricks of excitement and fear cascading over his body in constant motion, the sensations stronger than he could ever remember feeling, even in his most challenging duels.
His hand touched the top of the wind-swept plateau.
Pulling himself to the top of the high mountain with a weary smile, the swordsman was immediately aware of his opponent; like a whirlstorm the air seemed to hiss and roar. Tenryuu's presence was as ancient and indomitable as the place that he had come to meditate; a pillar of silence against the growing rumbling of the nearby mountain stones.
And then, there he sat, his eyes turned west, staring away from the ronin and into the setting sun. All around the swordmaster danced the dying embers of once-proud candles, and beside him rested an ancient pair of blackened swords. With a smooth reverence, the Dragon rose from his place and tucked his swords away. As he turned, Koshin felt the past seize hold once more…
Though a few years had found him, as a whole the Dragon seemed timeless with his dark hair framing his thin, noble face. The warrior's topknot bobbed in the high winds as his black eyes focused on the challenger that had come. His long, tawny arms and the thin, faded scar across his cheek…it was almost like a dream or a specter, glimpsed from the past. A wispy mustache and small beard ringed the thin lips of the tawny samurai; lips that hung frozen, without action, neither alarmed nor surprised.
He made no motion, said no word. Tenryuu strode towards Koshin in eerie, fluid silence, his whole body prepared at any moment to test his swords.
When he reached the wanderer, the samurai bowed their heads as if one. There came no words, there arose no gestures, no challenges or even a prayer. As the two samurai seized hold of their weapons the world seemed to tighten around them, and Koshin knew that his greatest challenge had come…
His challenger was not the same as he had been in that one, perfect moment, Koshin realized…he was something less, and somehow everything more.
He was Tenryuu, son of Mirumoto. His challenge of death was still waiting…
This time, Koshin would win…or he would die.
"What was the question, Ujirou-san?"
The Daidoji rocked back and forth on his heels in agitated annoyance…even after Nikkan's riddles and morning exercises, nervous energy filled up the boy. He knew that his sensei was up to something important, and he had only one name to follow the suspicions through.
"I said, 'who is Tenryuu,' Nikkan-sensei?"
Turning from his place on the high balcony, the monk smiled a now-familiar smile, "With a skilled Tamori craftsman preparing new weapons for you, Ujirou-san, I would think that you would have found better things to do than fanaticize about idly-mentioned names."
Ujirou wrinkled his face; the Tamori was just inside the main room, chanting and working at the boy's replacements; weapon worked from "the very steel and spirit of your sword." Even so, magical blades were nothing compared to the boy's concern for his missing sensei, whose mind even now filled up with ninja and assassins along a lonely road.
"Tenryuu is an old friend of your sensei," Nikkan said, drawing the boy's attention, "but many things have happened, that Koshin could not have known." The monk's warm voice immediately drew the boy to him, and as he settled down on one of the stone benches, the Mirumoto adjusted his battered hat.
"Could not have known," the monk said wryly, "and was too eager to think to ask."
"Mirumoto Tenryuu was a swordmaster during Koshin and my time together as warriors, Ujirou; he is the greatest duelist our generation has seen in the Niten style, even surpassed Uso-sama's skills." The monk's eyes had grown distant now, as if looking at Ujirou and seeing something the boy doubted was there. "Koshin and Tenryuu fought a duel in the Valley of the Two Generals…your sensei's sword was broken, and the Dragon carried the day."
"That is the extent of what Koshin knows."
The Daidoji was rapt with attention, his white hair catching the air as the monk moved to rub his aching leg. "But in the years since then, many thins have happened; Tenryuu is a Togashi now, and that is the smallest change. He has already burned the body of one child, Ujirou, and has lost one of the two that remain to her loyalties to the Phoenix Clan."
"He is harder and more pained than the Tenryuu that Koshin remembers, Ujirou," Nikkan finished with a sad sigh. "Time has made him less of a hero, and more of a man."
"Can my sensei defeat Tenryuu, Nikkan-sensei?"
"An interesting question indeed," the monk muttered. A breath later, however, Nikkan returned his smile and turned to face the house, "I believe that the steel is ready for purification, Ujirou…the Tamori will need your presence now. It is a special person whom the Tamori will agree to make such weapons for, Daidoji-san…hurry before they change their minds."
The boy bowed and turned from the Mirumoto, but the monk knew better than to think the conversation was truly done. Clamping down on his kasa to fight the growing wind, Nikkan's eyes rose to look into the mountains, almost into the light of the setting sun.
"In the duel," Nikkan whispered to the empty sky, "You see yourself as you truly are."
Tenryuu had started the road of the swordmaster; had awakened Koshin to the
answers that he truly wished to find. But the road of the true master was not
one that even a Dragon could guess at, that Nikkan could pretend to understand.
When Koshin came to stare at the man who had started his journeys, who could say
what the warrior would see?
The Duel Begins…