Chapter Sixty-Two: The Last Challenge
"An eternal curse deserves eternal revenge."
The wind was alive between them, as the two warriors again met, eye to eye. Koshin's patched and faded kimono buffeted around his thin figure like a struggling banner, and the same wind seized hold of the ninja's long hair as Hitokan released his sword, moving away from Kutsu with a condescending gaze.
He set his eyes upon Koshin with a bitter fire, the pair of swordsmen considering one another with looks that held nothing the same. The ronin looked upon his enemy with a stare that was both pity and reservation, while Hitokan's hatred was fury undiluted.
"I did not expect this to come to pass so quickly," the ninja said darkly, pivoting his body and assuming a practiced iaijutsu stance. "Draw your swords."
Koshin did not move.
"This is a waste of time for us both, Koshin, but I think that you should finish this battle now." Kutsu walked to the edge of the plateau while rubbing his callused hand across his cheek in an idle motion, folding his legs to take a seat in the lotus-position with closed, uncaring eyes.
"Not concerned, monk?" Hitokan asked from his place in the shadows of the moonlight.
Kutsu glanced at the unmoving wanderer as he stared back at the ninja with unflinching courage, the night air stirring his long hair. "There is only one man in all the world that could kill Kakita Koshin, ninja. No matter what you or your sword is, that man is not you."
Hitokan shrugged, the darkness and his mask hiding everything save his voice and rising silhouette against the cloud-torn sky. "So, here we are, just as I expected…"
"I do not understand this, Hitokan…there is no reason for us to fight; there is no history between us; the Goju were defeated without me…what I want to know is your reason why. Why throw away so many lives in the service of this vendetta? I have tried to use my swords for something more than manslaughter…"
The ronin remained immobile. "Tell me why we must fight."
Hitokan's eyes were visible now, as the clouds opened up, barely the light of Hitomi's full glory. The ninja changed his stance, drawing Saishuuheiki out slowly, holding it towards the heavens so both warriors could see the red sparks that followed the sliding blade.
"Because we are different. Because only one of us can be immortal, that is why we must fight. You cannot know the pains that I have suffered because of you; a man like you could never understand."
Closing his eyes in defeat, Koshin nodded.
Thus the final battle began.
Ujirou's legs were burning from exertion, his small lungs struggling to adjust for the thin, wispy mountain air. As he charged ever upwards, towards the heavens, the Mirumoto's warnings rang out with every footfall that did not seem to bring him any closer, and with every motion the boy heard the ringing of imagined swords…
Finally, the small boy collapsed in a breathless heap on the edge of the plateau, his hands cut and bruised from the journey, his eyes widening as he looked up to see his sensei preparing for the duel.
"If that is the way of things," he said coldly, paying the new arrival no attention, "then this will be a fight to the end. I will tolerate your murder no longer, and am not wise enough to turn your heart to light."
"No, sensei!" Ujirou cried out, lunging forward with Nikkan's words filling up his mind. Even as he charged, however, the distance between them seemed to increase at a rapid pace. The back of the boy's kimono tightened almost instantly, and the Daidoji hit the ground rolling as he was trussed off to one side.
Looking up, the boy blinked in confusion, his eyes falling on a huge and hulking form. "Kutsu-sama? But then who…?"
The big man said nothing, his eyes drifting towards the two men waiting before the moon.
Both men charged, their forms low and thrust forward in the stance of battojutsu, each one pivoting and dodging stone pillars as they roared forward with silent feet. Upon passing the third stone, Hitokan's sword roared and slashed. shattering Koshin's remaining rock even as the swordsman dodged to one side. The monolith flew apart like flimsy paper…but the wanderer's form had already moved forward and on.
Turned to one side in his move, Koshin had no choice but to draw and thrust with only one weapon, as he drove Ukigumo toward the ninja's throat. Hitokan countered, returning Saishuuheiki with a parallel slash…a slash met by a strange ringing of sword against sword.
"Impossible," the dark warrior said, following Ukigumo's blade along to where it had locked up with Saishuuheiki within the perfect blade's simple tsuba…the only place that Kakita steel could bite.
Koshin wasted no time on words, drawing Keiteki in his left hand, slashing hard as his enemy became a blur before his eyes. More stone sparked, but the ninja sprung backwards unhindered, twisting his weapon down to face Koshin, the simple twist slashing through the air.
Turning his head, the wanderer dodged without moving, the cut of unchanging perfection tearing through the rocks to one side. "It will be the same every time," he said coldly, preparing himself to attack once again.
Hitokan raised the katana blade to the heavens, "What do you mean by that?"
"Saishuuheiki is not your strength, Hitokan. It is your weakness." The ronin smiled, "I know how you use it now, and I can beat it every time."
The dark man smiled, and then laughed out loudly, the sound confusing his opponent, causing him to shift his stance to one side. "I expected nothing less. That is why you are my challenger, Koshin. You, and no one else. Only you are worthy of this sword."
It began again, but as he attacked, the ronin realized just how much time Hitokan had been putting in, both in focusing himself and considering the nature of his sword. Whirling the weapon like a staff the ninja raked the ground before him with long, smooth slashes, forcing his opponent to fight him on the run. As they passed, Hitokan attacked overhead with both hands, and again his own tsuba was used as a parry, forcing his weapon back up, almost heaving the ninja into the air.
Hitokan dodged to the left, removing the blade, but as he did Koshin's foot snapped out to meet him, throwing the ninja backwards, toppling over one of the shorn-through stones. As he rolled, Hitokan could feel and hear the sounds as Koshin's weapons followed upon his form, but as he hit his feet the swordsman parried, slicing the ground, forcing his enemy to dodge once again.
Landing a few feet back, Koshin just smiled, "Like I said, I have had plenty of time to prepare, even for you and your sword."
"Even fighting for your life, and you love it," Hitokan said with a snarl. "It disgusts me how you live for nothing but the duel."
Koshin said nothing, merely narrowing his eyes, watching as if searching for some trick that was yet to come. But Hitokan only laughed harshly, sheathing Saishuuheiki and again preparing for a fast-draw strike. "Have you ever wondered why you survived the Shadow, Koshin? Why you were forced to wander and fight, rather than return to the life that you claim to have so loved?"
"Because that is the only part that survived!"
Saishuuheiki howled, and this time Koshin barely evaded it. As the Goju tracked his prey with each pivot, thrust and motion, he was chased by his words as the ninja howled his taunting words.
"You are not Kakita Koshin! We are both merely shadows of that man!" With a final stroke, the roaring warrior hit the ground, his blade buried, Saishuuheiki's cut slaying earth and sky. Looking up, the ninja tore away his mask with his free hand, revealing the handsome angles of the Kakita's hate-filled face.
Koshin eyed the face of his near double without concern, "I have seen better mockeries from other shadows, Hitokan. I did not think that you would resort to such tricks."
"No tricks," the ninja said, lunging.
"Just you and me."
"What we really are."
Kakita Koshin had never been a person whom Ujirou would have claimed to be "normal," part of that was the price of the path that he had chosen, and part of it had been simply his nature alone. But even so, as the two swordsmen slashed and clashed with one another, the young samurai felt a sense of what it was that set him apart from the other, as they rang out and retreated again.
No anger, the boy told himself, in awe of the war being waged before him.
No anger and no hate.
This was why he had survived, where all of the masters had fallen…not because of skill, or power, or speed. As he watched, Ujirou became aware that he was holding on to something, some things, like an anchor.
His sensei had let go of those people, those emotions. He was the only one here without an anchor…
One man, standing alone against the Void.
When it happened, Koshin sensed an opening…a missed strike from Hitokan, too hard in slashing dirt and stone. As he sheathed his blade for a second attack the ronin was upon him, Keiteki thrusting just in front of his chest, opening the front of his deep grey kimono…
But even as his sword bit flesh, the wanderer realized the danger of the feint.
Hitokan's hands did not reach for his katana; instead the ninja's silver obi unfurled, wrapping around the sword and hand of the attacker, the woven steel suddenly quite noticeable as it bound tightly against Koshin's hand.
Jerking it forward to maintain control Hitokan whipped the second band around his enemy's throat, pulling back hard enough to make black spots dart into the ronin's eyes. At his side, a smaller sash still bound the sheath of Saishuuheiki, but rather than try the blade the ninja arched his back and twisted, extending with both hands the lengths of the iron cored material, doing his best the shatter his enemy's neck.
Somewhere, Ujirou cried out desperately, his sensei's name ringing on the frozen air.
"You said yourself that it was a weakness," Hitokan hissed to his ear as he raised his left arm higher. "You should know better than to fear the sword."
With one hand free, the swordsman pulled against the steel in a primal need
to draw breath from the world around him, his grey eyes burning, looking down at
his final, undrawn blade…
The Battle Continues…