The Swordmaster
A Test of Stone

"All things can be severed, in time." - Roshungi

The road was cold in the early light of morning, despite the fact that summer was not yet done. His breath showing slightly in the cool air, the swordsman adjusted his stance for the seventh time, his determination cleanly visible on his pale, harsh face. At his side, a fine sword wrapped in blue silk rested in silent readiness, a few callused fingers running across its edge.

Before him the statue of Jizo waited in silence, a look of peace and contentment filled the small figure's smiling face. The small statue was almost concealed in the thick underbrush that marked this ill-used road leading north, to the lands of the Tonbo; it would not have been visible too less keen a pair of eyes.

Focusing on the statue, the samurai pivoted to prepare his blade. With a sardonic grin towards the Fortune of Mercy, the bushi focused on his target; a tiny bit of worship, tooled from a piece of stone.

Then, just as the strike was ready, there came a single voice from the southern horizon, spoiling the moment with one loud group of words.

"Koshin-sensei! I think that I can see the border markers to Dragonfly Lands!"

The man's eyes pinched shut in quiet annoyance, as he lowered his hand to his side. He was not a believer in a lot of big words about focus and purity, but he knew better than to waste his breath with such shrillness in the air. He large, lanky form turned to the south with an empty gaze, looking almost too bored to be considering what was to come.

A pair of figures appeared with the rising sunlight, with one walking fast, and the other loping behind. The first was little more than a boy dressed in faded silks, but the moment that he came upon the swordsman, a familiar readiness slipped into his innocent eyes.

Behind him, the tall samurai bore himself with a similar gaze, though the way he carried himself was entirely different. With a quick gaze the newcomers analyzed the silent bushi, and then the tall man bowed with a motion of wispy hair, "Kakita Koshin, Kouryo no Ken."

"I didn't ask," the man replied indifferently, holding his eyes even with the ronin for a long, silent stare.

"Even so," the wanderer said amiably, "I feel that we owe an apology. My student must have disturbed your training." Beside him, the little boy bowed his head in silence, his face flushing slightly as his sensei stepped forward to consider the stone Jizo with a smile.

"I know how difficult it can be to find inner peace."

The big man shrugged, "My name is Sagatsu, but this is not necessary. I have heard you name on many tongues, swordmaster…I know that you have better things to do with your time."

Koshin shrugged slightly, his eyes drifting over to consider both the Jizo and the sword. "Would you mind if we watched you for a while, Sagatsu-san?"

Again, the big man simply shrugged, his voice neither joyous nor annoyed, "I suppose that you can see."

* * *

Sagatsu had never been someone that found any kind of enlightenment in the path of the sword. He had heard that some duelists preformed tests like this to prove their blade or their style…for them it revolved around some invisible notion of the purity of the strike.

For a ronin, and a mercenary, there was no need for such ideals or goals. The strike and the drag of steel through stone, the strength of his arm when tested by bearing his blade against the stone. These were the kind of enlightened moments that a man who believed in money and loyalty searched for.

This was the understanding that would bring him to the next dawn.

All these thoughts passed through Koshin's mind as he settled down beside Ujirou, enjoying the early morning silence as the ronin prepared his sword. "If this man is the Sagatsu that I have heard of, Ujirou," the sensei said softly, "then his standing fast-draw is famous for its power and speed."

Ujirou was focused intently on the bushi as Sagatsu pivoted for his draw, "I cannot place his style, Koshin-sensei…it looks like a Daidoji stance, but the hand placement…"

Koshin had stopped smiling, his eyes hard and focused on the stone. "I do not believe that this man is all that interested in stances, Ujirou-san." His tone and motions froze the young Daidoji, as Ujirou fully realized the power his sensei was waiting to see.

He was looking at something within Sagatsu…something that normal eyes did not, or would not see.

The sword roared from its sheath without sound or hesitation, tearing through the stone Fortune with an effortless turn. As the blade continued, Sagatsu adjusted to press his free hand against the blade's base without stopping, aiding the katana in reaching freedom at the far end. The sound of steel through stone tore at the silence as he whirled the end of his stroke into a low side stance, his dark eyes not even considering the still-standing stone.

The Daidoji boy blinked in surprise, but his sensei's hand froze him from moving. Koshin's voice was cold and prepared. "Wait."

As if his word provided the final catalyst, the statue finally tore into two pieces, the head and shoulders of Jizo smashing to the earth a few feet away. Grass and dirt was torn up as the rock twisted and tumbled, and before it had ceased its motion, Koshin was on his feet and approaching the ronin, a calm smile on his pale face.

"Third Level Ikiai; I have never seen the technique before." Koshin stepped forward, examining the cut, "You start in sayabiki with extended legs, then strike with a pivot, using the weighted edge of your sword while turning…the move speeds up the blade."

Sagatsu smiled crookedly, "I just use whatever helps me to win. Call it whatever you want."

Behind the swordsman, his student had risen, but Koshin paid the boy no mind. His eyes narrowed, and Sagatsu met them without care, "You are an interesting man, Sagatsu-san…such skill, and yet you seem disinterested in going farther than the next dawn."

"What I have seen of this world has been misery and emptiness," the man replied as he sheathed his katana without moving, "I do not see any need to search for the same feelings in a sword. My loyalties are bought with gold and food, Koshin…not by some ideology that I have no need to know."

"You are an empty man," the wanderer said sadly. "I thought as much. From the moment that we crossed paths, I wondered what I saw that made me beware of you. As you prepared, as you readied your stance, I was watching you, Sagatsu-san…I have never, ever seen someone with your detachment, with your kind of effortless strength."

"It was something I have often wanted, but never had the skill to receive."

For a moment, just a moment, Ujirou felt a twinge of power between the two of them, as it seemed the two were both prepared to draw.

Then, slowly, Koshin turned away from his opponent, lowering his body to face the broken stone before his blade. The ronin's voice was focused now; totally different from a breath before, "But I was wrong…emptiness alone is not enough."

Sagatsu's eyes bulged in stark surprise as the wanderer's chi rose and fell in the span of an instant, one of his swords slashing through the air. The wind seemed to catch upon the move, and froze as Ukigumo returned to its sheath in silence, as Koshin turned casually to face the dour warrior again.

A second later, the wind rose to life again, brushing away a fresh dusting of grey powder from the top of the statue, the only thing that marked the path of the ancient blade.

"Emptiness in the strike is something that we all strive for, Sagatsu-san," the ronin said with that same, cold voice. "Something that few ever achieve. But even as I watched your power, I know that emptiness alone is not enough to survive in this world," he said, offering a glance towards his waiting pupil, "Sooner or later, you will need something more."

Sagatsu's face did not change as the ronin turned and replaced the broken Fortune, his young student aiding him in settling the stone. Then, having seen that done, the two warriors started down the road once more, the master's face filled with quiet contemplation, as he looked back at the swordsman watching them from the edge of the dusty road.

Ujirou offered a glance back at the lonely warrior, "Koshin-sensei?"

"It is amazing how much one moment can teach you, Ujirou," the man said with a smile, returning his gaze to the road. "I hope that our path with cross his again. There is much that we have yet to learn from one another…someday, we will make the time."

The sun rose high into the heavens, as the day raced unhindered on…

Another Time…