Chapter Sixty-Four: Final Words
"Those with pure purpose have the strength to never
- The Tao of Shinsei
Hitokan had placed his left hand to one side of the ready saya, his fingers not closing around the steel as he pivoted for the charge and the strike. Koshin set himself even and removed the sheathed Ukigumo from his obi; he held the weapon in his right hand loosely, lowered to his side halfway between the meeting of scabbard and blade.
They raised their eyes even as the observers began their sudden commotion, but all other things fell away from the combatants, as a pair of knifelike grins was matched with dead-men's eyes.
"Ready?" Koshin asked calmly.
A smile was answer enough.
Then, in an instant, both men sprang to life and motion, tearing distance to nothing as the final strike began. It was strange, but in that moment, the swordsman seemed to find eternity, the long path of blood and battles slowly unfurling before his eyes. As he closed upon his prey and predator, the ronin could see the lines of men and women that he had defeated, looking on upon his battle with cold, unflinching eyes.
In those eyes and lessons the Kakita found an answer, his left hand seizing hold of the katana even as Hitokan revealed the truth.
Hearing the sound as Saishuuheiki sheared through the steel and cord of the saya, Koshin fell forward, his whole form slamming to one knee, tearing his hakama wide open, biting into the soft flesh beneath. The dark sword slashed the air half a heartbeat behind him, its edge shearing through the wanderer's trailing topknot, cutting it cleanly from the base of Koshin's head.
The stroke was pure, and the silent audience saw Hitokan turn from stoic to smile, but even as he pivoted, his target beneath him moved.
Ukigumo flashed out to Koshin's left hand, its edge striking his opponent across the stomach, opening his body, sending dark blood splattering across the ground. Silk and flesh shredded in the trail of the katana, carrying deeper into its target as the swordsman continued forward with his descending slide.
White-hot fire coalesced into the ninja, surging through his whole body, rising up from his stomach like a wave. Blood splattered the ground between them like a deft snap from a paintbrush, its edges scattering over Koshin's hakama, painting fresh ruination over his knees.
Stumbling backwards in shock and pain, Hitokan's free hand seized hold of his sword's fleeing handle, meeting his attacker's eyes was rawest fury, still determined on bringing the blade back toward his enemy with all the power left in his wounded form.
His opponent was screaming, Koshin realized from the pounding that filled his ears. As the swordmaster looked upon his challenger, he joined in the roar of battle, a clear and driven shout drilling the frozen morning air.
The shouts were broken by the sound of the dropped saya striking the ground, as Koshin seized hold of his mother's katana, rising and striking with the long edge of the inverted sword.
All the world was frozen anew as Keiteki sheared through stomach, chest, arm and neck in one perfect vertical motion, carving through the Goju warrior like he was paper and it a racing flame. In the end, it was his own momentum that doomed him, driving the blade deeper inside through cloth and flesh and bone.
Saishuuheiki struck the ground with a sharp ringing, like distant thunder, its edge carving deeply into the mountain, slaying only the stones that littered the ground.
Thrown backwards by the force of the attack, Hitokan struck one of the remaining standing stones as his sword and left forearm struck the earth in a cloud of bloody flecks and gritty scatter, his twice-struck body now sustained by courage, held together by will alone.
Blood splattered from his mouth in a painful motion, but it was the words of his murderer that drew his attention, as Hitokan lay slumped against the stone…
"Your fight has ended, Hitokan," the fallen Crane said with as he cleaned his blades without frown or smile. He looked at his enemy, and showed pity…pity that hurt more than the blows that had fallen from those swords. "Die better than you have lived."
"Your fight…" the dying man spat, half-mournful, half-hateful, "…will never end. You are as much a…monster as I am. No," his voice was venom, "you are something…worse t-than I…"
"I am w-what I am," that crimson-stained mouth finished. "You chose this bloody road."
With that, the darkness came upon him, and Goju Hitokan fell down and died.
The moment that Koshin's opponent struck the ground Ujirou was upon his sensei, seizing hold of him as the bushi slumped over with a smile, his strength fleeing the moment he retired his swords. The Daidoji felt his eyes filling up with tears as he laughed and smiled, catching the glance of his teacher, as the ronin continued to grin.
Off to one side, the Crane samurai-ko bowed her head with a smile, turning away from the boy and his sensei, walking back towards the edge of the mountain path. As she did, the Mirumoto turned his head to follow her, "Not staying for the celebrations, I see? He will be disappointed…"
Kenshuko bowed her head, fighting to maintain an even tone against loving tears. "I have a long journey ahead of me, Nikkan-sensei. I…just wanted to see this to the end." Her hands fidgeted with the wakizashi tucked into her obi, fighting to maintain some semblance of control.
"You are a good daughter, Kenshuko-san," the monk said, taking a seat on one of the small stones with a groan and another small smile. "I hope that we can see each other again soon."
"I know that we will, sensei," she said, offering one last look towards the image of student and master.
No sooner had the Kakita girl vanished down the mountainside than Kutsu rose from his place in silence, his face more ashen and harsh than it had been during the fight. As he strode forward, the old monk turned to match him, "What will you do now?"
The sohei did not turn to face him, "What I always intended to do. This changes nothing."
Nikkan interposed himself between the man of Shinsei and his target, a smile playing over his face, one hand resting in the crook of his blades. "I never thought that I would see a man like you reduced to a coward, Kutsu."
Eyes turned to hatred even before the Mirumoto had finished, leveled on the Dragon's small form, "You could never understand. Of course it does not matter…to a man like you."
Nikkan stopped smiling, a deadly silence replacing the emotion in his bearing. "No matter what you think of me, I know a coward when one crosses my path. You wish to challenge him, exhausted and wounded…what else but cowardice could that be?" His hand touched something hidden in his obi, a slight motion that made his opponent match him, eye to eye.
"You think that you can defeat me, Dragon?"
"I do not even need to consider it," Nikkan answered evenly. "Your defeat is already done."
The small object flew through the air with a whirl, and Kutsu seized it without moving, the bag hardly heavy in the grip of his large hands. Eyeing the Mirumoto with suspicion, the monk uncoiled the band that held together the silk wrapping, staring in muted confusion as he considered a bag of stones.
A bag of stones, and nothing more.
"'All things, from mortal to kami, can die. That is the path to enlightenment.'" Nikkan intoned with that same detached evenness, "Your words, Kutsu-san, not mine. And though you were correct in the fact that all things change, your casual use of 'destruction' proves there is still much that you have failed, or perhaps refused, to understand."
"With that stone you chose as your demonstration, you destroyed nothing. The universe is a place of rebirth and changes," the Dragon sensei said softly, watching the monk with each of his words. "You are capable of the same thing that all creatures are, Kutsu. Change, and nothing more."
The stones slipped to the ground from between the warrior's fingers, abandoning him as Kutsu squeezed his hand about the silk wrap. Each one struck the mountain with a sound that seemed to him like the rumbling of a volcano, dragging his dreams down with them, stealing every belief he had ever known.
He closed his eyes in silence, letting a deep breath go.
Letting everything that he had believed in go.
Stepping past the monk with his head hung low, Kutsu continued towards Koshin in silence, leaving the gaze of the Dragon far behind…
"It does not hurt so much now, Ujirou," Koshin said with a smile, taking a seat on one of the hewn boulders, sliced cleanly through during the course of the recent duel. Though his face was filled with sweat, the ronin seemed happy and unburdened as he allowed his wounds to be bound in silence, silently considering the growing radiance of early morning's light.
The Daidoji boy rose, "Do you believe…what that man said, Koshin-sensei?" The boy glanced to their side as he finished, looking upon the ruined body, resting in its pool of blood. "I mean, about you and him…"
Koshin smiled, though his student sensed a deep sadness in those grey eyes. "I thought that I taught you better than that, Ujirou-san." With a grunt, the ronin pulled himself to his feet, "No matter what Hitokan thought of me, of himself, a man must live by his own heart. His words cannot change that, unless I let them."
"We are…what we are, I suppose."
The boy smiled, but that smile dissolved as his teacher turned to towards the sound of approaching footsteps, his look of relaxation changing back to those dead yet fiery eyes. Ujirou turned, to be met with the stare of the towering monastic warrior, his dull eyes shining as he considered both master and student as one. A smile died on his face, as the student heard the warrior's words.
"I wish to challenge you, here and now, Kakita Koshin," Kutsu said coldly, his gaze passing over the Daidoji, meeting the ronin eye to eye. "No more wasting time."
Rising from his place slowly and painfully the swordmaster nodded to his opponent, moving forward to find a place cleared of stones and rubble for their duel. As he moved, Ujirou rushed, worried, to his side, not daring to meet Kutsu's eyes as he did.
"You can't fight him now, Koshin-sensei," the boy begged of his master, the wounds telling as the bushi shifted his posture to better view this latest challenger. "You are hurt…"
Stopping and letting the monk pass them by the ronin knelt beside his small student, placing one hand on the boy's shoulder. Turning to look at the waiting challenge, Koshin smiled again, "I have no choice but to finish this duel; since the day I met Kutsu, I have known that I could not avoid this fight. You do not need to worry about me, Ujirou-san."
The Daidoji shook his head, "How can he do this? How can a man so strong have no honor?" His eyes were tearing up with emotion now, angry and hurt at the feeling of Kutsu's 'betrayal.'
Koshin looked at the boy and closed his eyes, "Ujirou, no matter what happens, remember that a courageous heart has no place for regrets or revenge. Asahina said that, and I know it to be true."
"Hai, Koshin-sensei," the little boy said with teary stoicism.
The swordsman smiled, thrusting one hand into his kimono to rest its aching muscles as the young warrior ran to the sidelines of the duel. Once Ujirou was clear of the two of them, Koshin moved to stand, face to face with his opponent, but in truth it was the Dragon that filled his warrior's mind…
Someone has already defeated him, Ujirou, the master's mind whispered as he lowered his eyes to prepare himself.
Someone stronger than I have ever been.
Dawn Has Come…