Chapter Six: Blood and Stone
"Truth is in the killing."
High upon the mountaintop, Nikkan reclined himself. The old samurai was silent, almost to the point of sleep, and yet his mind was aware. The Dragon sensed the cold air, the harshness of the stones, and the Void that surrounded it all.
It was, therefore, a simple thing to note the easy footfalls upon the stones.
"Who has come to interrupt me?" His voice was powerful, not forced, yet stronger than a stormy calm.
The response was a savagery, bound tightly with respect. "A simple visitor from the temples of the Tao, Master Nikkan. If I have disturbed you, then I am truly sorry." The voice was tight, even in apology, and Nikkan caught already the smell of long-dried blood.
"You are a warrior?"
Again, there was that tightness to the answer, as if there was a blade boring into the Dragon's back. "I am a man of enlightenment."
The bald man rose from his place with a nod, turning to face his visitor at last. "Some stains of this world still remain, my friend." Once he had turned, the monk remained silent, looking upon the man before him with ready, unworried eyes.
Standing before him was a tall, wiry man, dressed in the trappings of the order of Shinsei. His face was neither young nor old, but from his shaven head to his black, angry eyes, the man's whole aura was pain and hate. He bowed low before the aged Dragon, his strong, tough hands clasped together in a greeting. He was a man Nikkan had known, once.
The monk raised his head, his sharp, angular face unchanged. "Have you found enlightenment, Master Nikkan?" Each time the wandering monk came to the lands of the Dragon, he asked the same question. Each time, Nikkan gave the same reply.
"Given the proper freedom, I am sure that I shall."
Kutsu did not smile, but instead the man's black eyes narrowed. He was different this time, so very much changed from the young acolyte Nikkan had first spoken with years ago. "Will you ever find it, like this?" It was not a mere question; it was a challenge.
Nikkan smiled, walking past the bigger man, his leg aching badly from so much time alone. "If I did not believe that I could find it, I would not be spending my time sitting upon cold stones."
"You will never reach enlightenment, old one."
The Kitsuki sensei turned to face the monk in a single, smooth motion, his old face for once cold and hard. "The path to enlightenment is chosen by the traveler, Kutsu. Your way is not my way…"
"Then your way is wrong."
Standing upon the mountainside, with the whole of the Empire whirling about them, the two stood silent. After a moment, Kutsu smiled slightly, his harsh voice now touched with earnest pity. "Enlightenment is the quest for perfection…to be one with the universe…"
Nikkan stood silent, his golden kimono snatching at the idle winds. Kutsu continued, his big hand reaching down to grip a large, unturned stone. Lifting it, the monk stared at it, "But how can one be at one with creation? How can I know the oneness of this simple stone? It cannot tell me, and I cannot hear it."
"You could," the Dragon said with a sad smile, "but you are unwilling to listen…"
"And so I reflected," Kutsu surged onward, still holding the stone, "what is there that all creation, heaven and earth, can share?"
Nikkan remained silent, keeping his answer, the true answer, within.
"Destruction." The monk crushed the stone, breaking it into pieces. "All things, from mortal to kami, can die. That is the path to enlightenment." He waited, seemingly basking in his own words, and watching as the old man before him prepared himself.
"And so you will find your perfection in death?"
The old man stood strong, barely relying on his cane for support. "Am I to be your first example, the beginning of your New Way?" His swords shone brightly in their saya, ready to defend their owner with all the Dragon's fury.
"An enlightened man does not kill for revenge, or for honor, or even for simple pleasure." Kutsu moved down the road a way to stand beneath the pale gold arch of the ancestors, his hand rubbing the fine wooden grains. "He kills only to perfect himself."
"And of those who must die for you?" asked the Dragon, his eyes still hard.
Kutsu's deadly face grew calm, if only for a moment. "The path of Enlightenment is a harsh one."
"It is indeed," Nikkan said with a frown. "But it is a road that you will never know."
Within the simple house, the light was alive, and the fair scents of tea filled the air. The few servants had retired for the evening, leaving the couple alone at last, their eyes both watching the world beyond their mountain home.
"You were gone many hours today husband," said the wife, her dark hair shimmering in the moonlight.
The other voice was soft and soothing, as if spoken from a dream. "It could not be helped, my wife. There was much to do."
"Of course…Lord Togashi has sent a messenger this day…"
Nikkan nodded again, "And what does he ask of an old man and his family?"
Miyu smiled, her face still almost as youthful as it had been ten years ago, "You know that I have no business in the affairs of our lord." She was teasing him, of course…Miyu had lived among the Doji and the Seppun, and knew more of the courts than the samurai ever would.
"There will be war," Nikkan said to his wife softly. "They fight the Phoenix, even now. And Toturi's children have not the power to stop it, even if they wished…"
Setting her tea down, the Crane's hand touched her husband's own, each of them feeling the wrinkles that the years had brought them. "You worry for our sons…"
"I worry for all sons and brothers," Nikkan said softly, "who must walk the world alone."
Another man walked Koshin's path now, Nikkan could see, a stalking wolf with ravenous jaws. Kutsu was not a man not seeking the truth of self-perfection, but instead he sought the emptiness of the grave. The road of revenge was a long and painful one…and Kutsu's war was against life itself.
"Have I told you the tale of Daidoji Asai, who braved the Shadowlands alone many years ago, with only a little girl at his side?" Her voice was bright again, a nightingale just beginning to sing.
Nikkan smiled, "Indeed you have, my wife…but I never grow tired of heroes' tales."
The darkness was a living, breathing thing in the chamber, the remnants of shadows that had been charged with the theft of a soul. The beings of the Living Darkness were powerless against the monk as he stepped down the hallway towards the crystal chamber; they had been given the power to destroy only one thing, and nothing more.
Only the sound of dripping blood disturbed Kutsu as he looked upon the empty, open chamber. The bushi assigned to guard the crystal room had been skilled; they had aided him briefly in reaching towards enlightenment.
Surely the Dragon would have been happy to know that.
They whispered to him from the darkness; spirits of the Shadow, trapped by their dying Master for their failure. Kutsu could hear the words, even now. They used the words of his long-dead family, as if such a transparent act would influence him in any way.
"Shosuro's chamber…" the monk mused. "And now she is beyond you."
"Not Shosuro," the whispers replied, the voices of a thousand loves and idle meetings, "The other."
"The other?" Kutsu asked the darkness, his eyes idly looking down to the blood that covered his hands.
"The one that killed the genin, spoiled the revenge…he is why we suffer…"
Kutsu smiled, "He is powerful."
"Kill him," pleaded the bound Goju. "Kill him and gain your prize."
"I do not kill for you, ninja."
"For yourself," begged the shadow, radiating a feeling as close as it could make to fear. "Kill him, kill him, kill and learn what he knows…he knows…he knows…" The words trailed off like a fading echo, dipping deeper into the thick blanket of eternal night, leaving Kutsu in silence, if only for a moment.
The monk frowned, his tight features prepared for action. "I cannot trust you, ninja."
"Kill the samurai," repeated the voice. "He defeated the genin…defeated the Shadow…killed the venom within…kill him and learn, monk…"
Kutsu shut his eyes tightly, reaching out his hands, grabbing hold of the darkness, causing the Shadow to shriek. "You have no power over me…I shall seek out this warrior, ninja…" The Shadow radiated contentment, and the monk smiled once more.
"But it shall be on my own terms."
The shadow understood in a moment, and then it died.
Seconds later, the monk walked from the chamber, the dead eyes of the two Mirumoto the only witnesses to his leaving. In the room of crystal, there lay the twisted, charred remains of the Shadow's servant; torn from its place by the visitor's power, then dispatched and broken within the chamber of pain.
The Goju would agree that it was a small price to pay.
The Shadow Moves…