Chapter Sixty-One: Standing Tall
"A wise man knows that the battlefield will not change
for him, and adapts accordingly."
The first thing that Koshin did upon returning was tell Ujirou to go out behind the small inn and practice Drawing the Threads for two hours; that amounted to more than two hundred strikes and draws. As he finished the final move, the Daidoji sheathed his new weapons with a slow and aching move.
He took some small solace in the reflection of his blades in the moonlight, the sweat from his training making the night air particularly sweet. Kneeling to recover his kimono the young samurai strode softly through the back door that opened into the small room that he shared with his sensei, taking every precaution not to make a sound.
He did not know what had occurred between his sensei and Kenshuko, but Ujirou knew that they had spoken for a while, and that he would appreciate the quiet greatly now.
But then, as the moonlight slipped into through the doorway behind him, the boy realized that there was no need. Before him sat the bed materials, neatly arranged and folded, lonely without his master's clothing or his swords.
Still there were the fine clothes that Nikkan had given to them, neatly brushed and folded as if they had never been touched. Ujirou's heart froze.
"Koshin-sensei?" the boy asked of the darkness, but in his heart he already knew no answer would come.
"Nikkan-sama, Nikkan-sama, where are you?"
"Ujirou, be quiet. Normal people tend to sleep through the night, given proper silence…"
"Koshin-sensei is gone!"
"Go and gather all of your weapons, Daidoji. I know where he has gone, and where we must go. I only hope that there is still some time."
As she stood in the shadows across the dirt road Kenshuko stood in her own stunted silence, trying to decide what the conversation could mean. Beside her, Masurao shouldered his own simple pack in reverent silence, paying the assorted commotion no mind.
"Are you ready to go, Kenshuko-san?"
She turned to look at him, suddenly keenly aware of the weight that was carried in Koshin's sword. As the cat shifted in its place in the strange sling the Dragon had invented, Kenshuko bit her lip in apprehension, wondering at what was yet to come.
"Kenshuko-san?" the monk repeated.
You made your choice, the voice inside her told her. Live with it with it if you can.
"I am ready, Masurao-san…let us go."
The words were the hardest that the samurai-ko had ever spoken, and though he said nothing from his place half-buried in the shadows, Kenshuko thought for a second to have seen the Togashi frown. Behind them, the inn was again alive with swift and sudden orders, a place of fire in a world seeped in night.
As Kutsu pivoted to set himself against his new challenger, the monk considered what depth of evil that he could feel within man and sword. Hitokan's slender form and stance did indeed mimic those of the ninja Kutsu had faced, yet some parts of it were different; ingenious and wholly his own.
The ninja's front foot drifted ever so slightly forward, his eyes a mix of joy and murder as he touched the hilt of his strange, hissing sword.
"You seem to know my name, warrior," The big man watched the sword with a kind of apprehension he did not understand, "Who are you?"
"Goju Hitokan," the warrior answered simply, his eyes narrowing in concentration and hate.
Neither of them wasted more words on introductions; Kutsu was not the kind of man to question why he was forced to fight. The ninja had set himself several feet away from his opponent, well beyond the range of sword or fist, his long hair hiding his eyes from further scrutiny as the two of them waited in the cold night air.
Then, like lightning, Kutsu moved. The monk attacked twice, his hands a thrusting strike and then a straining grapple, each one taut and deadly, surging towards Hitokan's slender arms and neck. For a moment, the silk of his enemy's kimono barely brushed him, but each time the move ended with cloth slipping through his hands.
Pivoting into a low stance, the dark monk thrust forward with another fierce motion, which the warrior parried by pulling up his still-sheathed and roaring sword. Saishuuheiki's steel saya rang out loudly as Hitokan slid backwards from the blow.
The warrior raised his eyes without a hint of ready emotion, returning the weapon in silence to its proper place. Kutsu rose up from his place with his hard features sharpened by a vicious smile; even without drawing, his opponent was fast and skillful…the monk relished the idea of the challenge, when he freed that deadly sword.
"Your move, ninja."
Hitokan's mask wrinkled into a smile. "Of course."
Saishuuheiki roared from its place in the black steel saya, its edge hungering for blood and air…
Even as the two of them moved through the brush and the darkness, his companion's injury was readily seen. Mirumoto Nikkan was neither young nor untouched by the marks of battle; even at his fastest, the man could not keep the young boy's pace. As they raced along the hidden trails that led to the peaks west of Heibeisu, the Dragon called the boy back for a moment, his face hidden by his kasa and his breathing labored and drawn.
"Ujirou, run ahead of me and find your master," the sensei said with remarkable clarity, his hands tightening about the edge of his walking staff. "You will find him on the plateau just to our north. Go, now. You must stop this fight!"
"Fight?" Ujirou asked in confusion. "But Nikkan-sama, I thought that Koshin-sensei only wanted to speak with Master Kutsu…"
Nikkan's dark eyes seized hold of the boy suddenly, even in the darkness, and a heavy determination filled him as he spoke through exhausted pain. "I do not know what is about to happen, Ujirou, but I know that Koshin cannot face it alone."
"You must stop him."
Sensing the urgency in his words the Daidoji sprang to motion, his body suddenly alive with fresh strength and conviction, one hand upon his lantern and the other closed about his swords. He was almost around the next corner when the Mirumoto again called to him on the wind…
"Ujirou, if the duel between them has already started, then you must not interfere!"
"I will stop them, Nikkan-sama!" he called out, and then was gone.
To a normal observer, it might have seemed that the two men had reached some early conclusion, their stances tense and high amidst the stone pillars that capped the mountain like jagged teeth, as if the top had been torn away long ago. Neither Hitokan nor Kutsu had made a move since the monk's simple challenge, but inside their powers continued to rise.
As much as he tried, the monk could not find anything to allow him to gauge or measure his opponent; even their first brief struggle had been met with a certain hesitance, a strange failure to use that sword to kill. It was as if he was waiting for something…
Waiting for the monk to make a mistake.
"I thought I told you to make a move, ninja…don't tell me that a few simple punches were enough to make you afraid." Kutsu dropped into a low stance with his hands folded across his chest, hiding their motion, readying himself for either a charge or a dodge. Across the plateau, the ninja thumbed his weapon strangely, sliding it out while keeping his hand to one side of the strangely mirrored blade.
Hitokan did not smile. "A demonstration first."
As the sword was drawn, Kutsu felt a rush of wind pass over him, felt something biting, some small sting that crossed his cheek as it flew. Turning, the monk heard the sound of stone sliding as one of the nearby rock pillars hit the ground suddenly, cloven more neatly than any Kakita Blade.
Touching his shoulder, the monk's large hand came down with a smear of deep red blood. He considered the blood in silence for a moment, feeling the wetness as the shallow stroke continued to bleed down the side of his hardened face.
"I hope that you understand what is going to happen now, monk," Hitokan said, sheathing sword with a smooth motion, causing the steel sheath to spark as it returned to its home. "Understand that I have nothing against you personally, but as the strongest of Kakita Koshin's challengers, your life ends here and now."
Kutsu smiled, "Then kill me if you can."
"He does not want to kill you, Kutsu," said a voice to one side of the two of them. "What he wanted was an example…nothing more."
"I was wondering how long it would take to find you, Hitokan,"
Koshin said as the two men met his grey eyes with surprise and fury. "If it
is all the same to you, ninja, then we will end this now."
The Battle Begins…