Chapter Sixty-Three: Life or Death
"If it is time to strike, strike. The moment does not
Across the ruined mountaintop his teacher half-dangled, half-struggled, his sword and breath robbed from him, tangled by the enemy's hidden weapon, slowly but surely flailing his strength away. As Ujirou watched, a drop of blood escaped from his small, clenched fingers, Mizugetsuei and Natsugusa almost begging to lend their blades.
Beside him, Kutsu remained as he was; not changing, not looking or following even one motion; like Togashi himself, the monk sat in silent contemplation, his face and hands as stone.
One foot stepped forward timidly…this time Koshin would not fight alone.
The hand fell upon his shoulder gently, halting the boy rather than shocking him with any sudden surprise. Turning to look up, Ujirou saw Nikkan's face, still flushed with exertion, the cost of his journey not showing as he met the student's angry eyes.
But the Mirumoto did not say anything; his look was voice enough. Without removing his hand, the old man cast his eyes back to look upon his friend as he fought his most dangerous fight. Nikkan's wrinkled face had gained a strange and intimidating focus as he watched his companion battle; it was a gaze that Ujirou could now recognize, of a man who had seen the ends of many lives.
Lowering his small hands, the student clenched his teeth together in silence, hearing the silent call of his ready swords. Mirumoto Nikkan could not truly hold him…
…Daidoji Ujirou was bound fast by fear and hope.
"I understand now what binds us together," hissed the Goju, "for it was I who seized hold of your hate. That was the part of you most vulnerable to both theft and corruption; the 'human' essence which allowed me to escape the Shadow, the spark which ended in a conscious and a name."
"What happens when a person consumes the Shadow? In the thousand years, Kakita…in a thousand years, no one had ever known…" Hitokan adjusted his feet, pulling back with his left hand, squeezing deeper into the swordsman's tender throat. "No one considered it…until that day."
Koshin was not listening; his eyes were straining, tracking his obi and his sword. More blackness had crept into his vision, making the whole thing more difficult as Hitokan tugged harder with his twisted silken cord. "But you are not whole either," came the whisper through the darkness, "as a whole you were weaker and consumable…and so only the strongest piece survived."
"Love is weak."
"Hate was stolen."
"Only the challenge remained." His free hand pulled again, allowing some tiny solace from the breathless dark, if only for a few moments: the sword came clearly into view. "Even now your mind is filled with nothing but how to defeat me… We are both ruined remnants, Koshin…you are only a fragment of the man who once overcame the Shadow…"
It is enough was the wordless reply.
"It is enough!" was the cry a moment later.
Koshin's hand seized hold of Ukigumo with a fierce, diving motion, drawing the sword with an inverted draw. The ninja's grip tightened as the sword whirled and was righted into the hand of his victim, its sharp edge inverted to face both of them, reflecting in it's edge the matching gaze of different eyes.
The blade slashed down on the steel obi like it was merely paper, shearing through Koshin's shoulder and Hitokan's left arm, tearing the two men apart in a fall like a bloody wave. Coughing hard, the swordsman hit the ground with both weapons still extended, while behind him Hitokan focused, his arms surging down to seize Saishuuheiki once again.
His draw was clumsy, weaker, the motion suffocated by the bite of Rensei's ancient blade. As the sword sheared stone, Koshin drove his body to one side and tumbled, knowing that he desperately needed a moment to breath.
A moment that, surprisingly, Hitokan gave him, slashing the earth as he slid his sword away.
"A move of desperation; I should have expected nothing less." Removing his torn kimono, the ninja revealed a body with tight and tawny muscles, a look of enjoyment on his face. "Even a fragment of your true self holds great power; but I wonder how much strength is left to lift those swords."
"I wonder if the survivor among us will find out…"
Sheathing both weapons, Koshin looked at his left arm with a bitter smile, watching as the blood oozed from his new wounds. Despite his outward confidence the ronin's body throbbed and ached with injuries; his neck was bruised and swollen, and his right shoulder bled as he threw the shattered obi to the ground in silence.
"If you think that your hatred and my drive can make a whole person, Hitokan, then you really are a hapless fool." With his endurance weakened, the wanderer could no longer continue to avoid the strikes of Saishuuheiki; Koshin knew that he would have the change the flow of the fight.
"Whatever you say about me, Hitokan, it does not matter…it does not matter what happens after we fight. It does not matter what you say about me, because even if I learned nothing else from my journey, I know who I am, here and now." He lowered his hands to either side and continued, "I am who I choose to be, ninja…and I choose to win this fight."
With that, the ronin charged his adversary, outrunning the draw by the smallest breath of steel…
"He had changed the entire strategy of the battle," Nikkan said, his voice coldly neutral and focused as the observers followed the slashes of the swords. With each attack, Koshin risked more and more of his remaining strength in deadly gambits, his attacks getting closer, but only by the risks of crossing the perfect sword.
As the two men crossed, blood rose from Koshin's thigh like a thin crimson streamer, but the swordsman did not even bother to slow. Ujirou clenched his teeth as his sensei attacked and was again rebuked with a simple motion, his skills strangled by tiny turns of his enemy's blade.
"He is burning up too much strength, Nikkan-sama…he cannot keep up this pace."
The Dragon's eyes narrowed further as Hitokan crouched low, pivoting the sword to a parallel thrust. "Hitokan knows that; those are Shosuro assassin techniques that he has chosen to use." The sensei reached down to crouch his leg in silence, knowing the dangers of such a dangerous move. "Koshin can afford no mistakes now…"
"Stop your prattling, 'sensei,'" Kutsu snapped from his place suddenly, not bothering to open his eyes. "I believe that it is upsetting the girl."
Ujirou turned in confusion, his eyes widening in shock as he saw the samurai-ko beside him, one hand raised in apprehension to her slender throat. Kakita Kenshuko watched the fight with eyes that reflected tears in the moonlight, her other hand squeezing a familiar wakizashi as it rested at her side. She had come back, through the shadows and narrow paths that led to her father…
She had come back, as a final duty of his daughter, to see him win or watch him die.
The boy turned back to the battle with a deeper strength than he had thought possible. Win or lose, his sensei was going to live his life to the code of the warrior…at that moment, Daidoji Ujirou let go. Childish notions of ancient heroes and masters vanished from him, and into that space sprang a more noble form of trust. His sensei was not invincible.
But he was going to win.
With a barely audible sound, Hitokan's hair freed itself of its cord shackle, as the thin strand snapped cleanly from the force behind their continuing clash. Sliding down, the Goju's long black strands uncoiled like a serpent about his shoulders, framing him with darkness despite the gentle light of the night.
"We are evenly matched, despite my significant advantage," Hitokan said through long, drawn out breaths. "I must admit that you are impressive; both you and your Kouryo-no-Ken." Looking down, the ninja smiled as he sheathed his deadly weapon, a smile in his eyes.
"It is almost a shame…"
Ten feet away, the Kakita's shoulders hung low and weary, his chest rising with irregular heaves. Despite all odds, the Goju seemed to have strengthened, as if he had been holding back, relying on the sword all along.
He could no longer match the ninja in terms of speed or power…and so the warrior slipped down, into the most powerful of his techniques to give his answer with his swords. Stepping forward, the swordsman extended his left foot as he sheathed his weapon, taking a single moment to make a glance towards the audience gathered to his side.
Ujirou looked strangely composed and focused, his white hair catching the chill wind as he focused his large, dark eyes. At his side, the boy's swords waited, ready to avenge their master; only the hand of the Mirumoto restrained the courageous boy.
And beside the pair of them stood the statue of his once daughter, a look of worry all over her as she met him, eyes to eyes.
With a small bow of his head, Koshin thanked her, then returned his gaze to the fight.
"We battle as true masters, then," Hitokan observed with an oni's smile, "and end this with one strike."
"Iaijutsu!" Ujirou called out beneath his breath with a smile. Now he knew that Koshin could win. The ninja was a fool to agree to such a challenge with his arm injured; what they had seen of the contest had proven that the ronin was superior in the strike.
It was perhaps his only advantage over the ninja; something that his student was loath to admit.
But when he looked up at Nikkan the Dragon returned no sense of elation; instead his face was sheathed with fear. The boy looked again immediately, knowing that the eyes of the Kitsuki-trained warrior might had caught something that he had not.
"I do not believe that Hitokan intends to end this fight as Koshin expects it, Ujirou," the weathered sensei said from beneath the shadow of his hat, watching as the two men spoke their final words across the field. "It is obvious that this man has studied your sensei's techniques extensively; he knew that would be his answer to this fight."
"At every turn, the ninja made motions to draw and sheath his weapon," the Dragon monk continued, a tightness entering his words, drawing even Kutsu's eyes, "and even solid steel cannot bear the bite of that sword for long. By now, he knows that the saya has been badly weakened; most likely he can remove the attack without the time required for a strike."
Kutsu rose from his seat, almost nervous now, "A coward's trick…"
Nikkan met his blazing eyes with a nod, "But effective."
"Someone stop them," Kenshuko whispered from her place on the
sidelines, but as they looked the two men had sprung from their position like
lurking tigers, and all four knew that it was already too late…
The Battle Concludes