Chapter Fifty-Eight: The Moment of Truth
"I do not believe that I can win, I know I will."
- Mirumoto's Niten
As Koshin twisted, all his thoughts collided as one. He spun, a trail of blood following every motion, his drive, his will swallowing up all pain and worries from the fight. Whirling his blades, the swordsman sheathed both swords as he came around to face the falling strokes of his enemy, his eyes rising to meet Tenryuu's with the gaze of a warrior ready to die.
The Mirumoto had gotten even faster; even the Kouryo-no-Ken could never match the speed of such a draw.
Both swords sang, Ukigumo gliding, blade against blade, with Keiteki, the two swords pressed tightly together, their steel forms blurring into one. Tenryuu's swords plummeted like wrathful justice from the heavens, their black edges shining mercilessly in the light.
Neither held anything back; both knew that they would die.
Then, at that final, crucial moment, Koshin lifted the first of his swords. Riding the wind from the speed of Ukigumo, Keiteki rushed forward, covering the last bit of distance in less speed than even the Mirumoto could believe. Steel rang loudly against steel in the darkness, and a black wakizashi smashed the ground as both men leapt aside.
For two breaths, neither man uttered a word as they waited, the only sound their dripping blood.
"Amazing," Tenryuu said weakly, his left hand slashed and bleeding as Koshin dragged himself up for another strike. "You used the speed of your own sword…and yet, you aimed at my hand," he muttered, ignoring the pain as he seized hold of his katana with torn, bloody fingers, lowering it to aim once more at his enemy's waiting blades.
"I am ready, Kakita."
Koshin took one step forward…and then relented. Before him stood a warrior that was so like himself that it scared him; he knew that Tenryuu would fight until he would die. There was…there was a great determination and coldness in the eyes of the man that waited before him. Eyes of a man that had not lived only for this fight.
There had been no epiphany, no sublime moment of knowledge and truth.
"No, Tenryuu," he said quietly, cleaning the blood from his weapons and then sliding them quietly away. As he did, the samurai was fully aware of the weight of the weapons, awakening to the weight he had placed upon his conflict even as his will to battle slipped away. With an anguished voice, the ronin addressed his opponent…
"Enough…It has been enough."
Slowly, painfully, Koshin turned away from the duel. It was as if all strength had been drained from his body; suddenly the air seemed to grow thinner, as the ronin's body shuddered in fatigue. With an unsteady gait, Koshin moved back to the long path that led back down the mountain, until behind him came the voice of his opponent, cutting through the pain and disappointment with the clarity of his words.
"The way of the blade is a harsh one. The fire within drives us to sacrifice much in our short, turbulent lives. It consumes our every desire. At one point, in a moment of clarity, we must choose whether we are an extension of the blade or it an extension of ourselves." The wind seized hold of the rent clothes of the warriors, causing them to dance like banners in a tree.
"Only then can we tame the elements," Tenryuu finished, his voice unguarded and true. "Before today I feared I could not make that choice. Thank you, Koshin."
Turning back, the ronin smiled slightly; a tiny motion, but one that Tenryuu was certain to see. No matter how it had come to be, the Dragon had helped to complete his part of the long road.
Somewhere below them, the abyss roared its siren call…
The Dragon Clan had never clung tightly to tradition and formality, but the naming of their gifts was a strange and powerful thing. As Daidoji Ujirou knelt before the finished blades, untouched by handle or saya, he became aware of a new, yet somehow familiar power within them, rising like heated vapor from the cold, blue-grey steel.
Across the blades the boy met the eyes of Tamori Kumatsu, his shaven head sparkling with exertion, as if his dragon tattoo had suddenly created mystical crystal beads. The young priest's eyes were filled with pride and admiration.
"Now is the time that you must name the swords."
In the darkness of the room, Ujirou considered the blade and reached forward, his hand not touching, but embracing the spirit of the katana blade. As his nimble fingers moved and drifted, the boy felt images begin to crest and swirl in his memories, some magic of the Tamori or the very essence of the steel…
"It takes more than skill or technique to be prepared for the enemy…you must train yourself to recognize what victory means."
Back in the room that served as his mother's private training dojo, there stood one wall that was touched with a poem-scroll, its poise and grace a sure showing of a skilled and graceful hand. It had the image of a field of waving grass, and to one side a cracked and falling wall. In all his life, Ujirou had never stopped to consider it before this moment beneath the eyes of the shugenja, but the haiku echoed to him now.
The summer grass,
Of brave soldiers dreams
With sudden clarity, the samurai boy knew what his first answer would be. "Summer Grass," he said to the Tamori with a smile, his word binding the spirit to the blade.
"Natsugusa," the shugenja repeated. "A strong and appropriate name."
Nodding for a moment, Ujirou turned his eyes immediately towards the challenge of the second katana; this one was different than the first; it flashed like a mirror, even in the darkness, a bright reflection in the middle of the dim room. As he stared at, no, into the steel, the Daidoji was once more standing before in the forest where his sensei had abandoned Ukigumo, but this time, he was met with burning white fire; the reflection from the pool of the moon.
"Mizugetsuei," the boy said with a sudden smile, turning the name "Water Moon" over and over in his mind. Tamori Kumatsu bowed his head in recognition; his voice taking on an ancient quality, surrounded by the mountains and their ageless stones.
"I pass these swords on to you, Daidoji Ujirou; from maker to wielder they must be handed freely. Accept these weapons, Natsugusa and Mizugetsuei." Kumatsu was still smiling, "Accept them as your soul."
The boy pressed his head to the ground, "I am not worthy of them, Kumatsu-sama. Please give them to a warrior more deserving of their strength."
He shook his head, smiling at the game of gifts which the Daidoji already knew so well. "The weapons exist only as an extension of their master; the Dragon pass them on to add to your greatness, Ujirou-san, to add our strength to you."
"I cannot, Tamori-sama."
Reaching the end of tradition, the shugenja looked to the Mirumoto sensei in the corner and smiled. "These swords are more than steel for you, Daidoji; they truly are unbreakable as your soul. We give them to you, with pride and honor." Ujirou could not understand the depth of those words when Tamori Kumatsu spoke them, but one day, the shujenga knew that he would learn.
"We know you will honor our blades."
The wind roared up at him like a hundred angry devils, threatening to seize hold of him, and tear him from the safety of the lonely stone. Somewhere in the darkness, Koshin knew that there was a pool of shining water; his eyes could not penetrate, but he had fallen into a thousand times.
Now, as he laid his swords aside, the ronin smiled.
Now, he would fall again.
Tipping backwards, the samurai let the cliff slip away and the air seize hold of him, feeling the pull of the world, dragging him down towards his triumph or his doom. With deafening roars, the mountain rushed up and all around him; his eyes were closed lightly, as if sleeping, his slender fingers almost brushing the nearby stone.
Thoughtless and fearless Kakita Koshin struck the water with great power, feeling the cold liquid soar up and around him, embracing his body, pouring over opened eyes. As he sank, the ronin turned his body, feeling his long hair scrape the pool's bottom; his heart and a half-motion saved him, rising up and surfacing into the cold night air.
Breath returned to shocked lungs with breaths that were both long and fulfilling; like a champion atop the defeated, Koshin bobbed in the icy water of the pool. He felt neither chill nor the pain of his wounds in the motion, staring out onto the world through the mist of his own cold breath.
I did it, he told himself, feeling pure joy at his accomplishment and its accompanying sensations; the impact had snapped uncoiled his ponytail, leaving a cloak of shining black hair. As he stepped from the water, the swordsman looked down the steep cliff with a tilted smile…
Beside the water, there was only empty air.
Thirty years ago the pool had been a wide, flat plain above the passes of the mountains, but sometime since his parting, the entire hill had fallen on its own side. Where he had once had feet of error, the land had now dropped to a tiny sliver of that margin; it was a realization that set the man's heart on fire, at the wind stirred his dripping hair.
"You have returned," Nikkan said to the man when he appeared a few minutes longer at the house front, spotting both his student and friend in the guttering lantern light. "Wet and wounded, but at last you have returned."
They were words that meant more to the ronin than his student could imagine, but Koshin stifled his smile, setting upon his student with serious, bushi eyes.
Ujirou was dressed in a kimono borrowed from the wardrobe of Nikkan's son; it was the orange of an evening sunset, with white dragons on either side. The boy had dyed his hair again, and brushed it out smooth and fine; he fidgeted slightly under the eyes of his sensei, unsure of what to make of the strange fire emanated from that gaze.
"There is something different about you," the man mused.
The boy's small hands fell down to his new weapons, but Koshin shook his head. The swordsman placed his hand on the boy's small shoulder, "Not the swords, Ujirou…"
"…It's in the eyes."
As he looked up at his sensei, the student was forced to agree.
He Has Returned.