A Story of the Kouryo-no-Ken
"The nature of the swordmaster is a Way that is
never-ending, with each horizon revealing a greater peak."
- The Kouryo no Ken
He stood at the edge of earth and heaven, the wind tearing at him, daring him to fall. It rose up beneath him, as if the whole world reached out to seize hold of his body, threatening to drag him down. Though he had faced danger many times, it had never felt like this. How could it be that the world itself could turn such palpable fury towards him? Or was it not the world that he sensed, but in fact the mortality buried deep within his fragile form?
Beneath him, the mountain shifted. He staggered towards oblivion. Oblivion reached out towards him.
Then, at the cornerstone of death and life their came another; a sound slow and measured, scraping along the ancient mountain's stones. Amidst the roar of the abyss and oblivion the sound was merely distant thunder…but like thunder, its approach could be neither ignored nor denied.
"Are you afraid, Ujirou?" Kakita Koshin asked his student quietly, looking over the abyss with his own steel-grey eyes. He did not approach the edge of the mountain; his mere presence drew the young student's gaze to him, stronger than the abyss and its siren song with his the cold and waiting words.
The small Daidoji boy turned to face his master, who faced him evenly, his hand above his swords.
"Fight me, Ujirou," the Swordmaster demanded.
There was one strike.
Daidoji Koshindou jerked up from his sleep with a sudden gasp, his right hand lancing out to seize hold of one of his nearby swords. The hand had no sooner closed about smooth wooden saya than he froze, taking a sharp, ragged breath amidst a long tangle of long white hair.
"Just a dream," the young samurai told himself as he looked over at the katana still clenched tightly in his fingers. "Just a dream," he repeated, but the hand did not move.
Slowly, consciously, Koshindou willed himself to let go.
He could tell from the sounds that it was still well before morning; he roused himself and stepped out onto the house's open walkway. For once, he left his Dragon-gift swords behind him; for a moment, the boy wanted nothing to do with swordmastery or his sensei's words. For a moment, Daidoji Koshindou wanted simply to be a normal boy.
Fate, it seemed, had other plans.
"You couldn't sleep again, huh?" Yotsu Taishu asked from her place leaning against one of the walkway's slender wooden pillars, watching the samurai as he looked up into the late night sky. Since the duel against Goseki Gesshin the samurai-ko had lingered near Koshindou; she asked and took nothing, but seemed to always remain nearby. He did not know what she was looking for, and he had not asked.
When Koshindou did not answer, the ronin just turned to consider the moon as he did, as if she was looking for something that only Koshindou could see.
But he saw only the moon and its vastness, and then closed his eyes with a sigh. "I have not dreamed about that duel for a long time now," he said to her, turning the dream over in his mind. "It has been a year now and I have grown much stronger…but when I think of him…of his strength, I shudder…"
Taishu had faced Kakita Koshin once; her hands slid to two great scars hidden beneath her dirty brown kimono, marks of that single moment in time. "You are talking about him."
"What was it like for you, Taishu? Fighting him?"
The ronin wrapped her hands about herself in silence, letting her gaze fall to the wood of the walkway, allowing the shadows of her face to hide her eyes. "If you really fought him, even once, the you already know what that moment felt like."
Her words challenged Koshindou to press the matter further, but he said nothing more. Closing his eyes, the young warrior started down the walkway toward his mother's dojo.
It was time to train.
The first attack would have killed Ujirou if he had not reacted; leaping backwards, the Daidoji was swept down the mountainside, his left hand seizing his obi next to his swords. Falling, Ujirou righted himself and struck the ground clumsily; he rolled with the impact, sliding to the cliff's edge.
Breath came in staggered stabs as he realized what had happened, but that realization was quickly forgotten as a shadow veiled his form. Ujirou pitched and rolled, flipping up as he had been trained to even as the mountain divided from the stroke of an ancient Kakita sword.
Koshin rose from his crouch to face his student, ignoring the soft groan as a slender edge of the cliff clove cleanly from his sword's last strike. He faced his student quietly, his grey eyes clearly visible beneath long strands of dark brown hair.
"Fight me Ujirou," he demanded. "Or die by my hand."
Ujirou wanted to refuse, to laugh, to dismiss what his sensei was saying to him, but he found only silence, looking into those pure, merciless eyes. Here, as the gaze of his teacher, the small Daidoji had but a single reply…
Koshindou drew his swords.
All at once, the young swordsman was moving, whirling about in one blade low and inverted and the other sweeping and high. The blades moved in a long gliding cut, slashing through targets, sending the sound of clattering bamboo echoing through the silence of the large, empty room. Through the open doors, Taishu watched one of the severed pieces roll to the edge of the wide walkway.
"Not good enough," Koshindou chastised himself calmly, seeing from a small cylinder of bamboo only two inches thick that his final target had been clipped high and wide. The Daidoji retired his weapons, then collected the broken bamboo and returning them to their proper places.
When he had started this session an hour ago the bamboo had been two feet from the base of its wooden holders, but now every one had been cut to always four inches, with the first and last pieces both being only half that length. Koshindou returned to his stance in silence, focusing on the remaining targets before he moved.
He would only have a few more times before the session ended.
This one time, Koshindou swore it would be a perfect strike.
Ujirou had watched his sensei's battle for many months now; he had learned to sense the chi of murder, and Kakita Koshin embraced in with all he was. There were no words as the two considered one another; Ujirou's thoughts focused upon the inevitable, and Koshin's were his own. As they watched one another the wind dwindled and died between them, leaving only silence to echo between the Swordmaster's words.
"If you do not fight with the intent to kill, you will die instantly. Life will end quickly," Koshin told his pupil. "There will be no pain."
"Are you afraid to die, Ujirou?"
There was no time to answer, but Kakita Koshin needed no words…
"He was stronger than any opponent that I ever fought," Taishu said that evening as she and Koshindou shared a brief dinner looking out into the nearby fields. "But I have faced such strength before. It was not his strength that I remember…"
Koshindou glanced up at her with an unasked question, but the boy waited until she was ready to go on. Taking another bite of his rice he simply watched the fields in silence, mulling over his daily practice and wondering what was about to come.
"It was the inevitability of it all."
"I have lost fights before," Taishu told him, drawing more attention to the scars that criss-crossed her tanned forearms. "I know what it means to face strength, and feel helpless against it. But what I remember about him was that one moment, when I was certain of it. I knew it was coming; that he would win, and that I was going to die."
The ronin clenched her eyes shut tightly. "There was no doubt, no hesitation. I have never fought anyone…anything with that kind of ruthless, unyielding mind." She looked over at Koshindou, who waited attentively on every word.
"That is what you have been dreaming about, isn't it, Koshindou? Not the fear of death," she said spitefully, as if denying she had ever felt it, "but the inevitability of standing against those swords. It was not a question of whether you would die…"
"It was the abyss," Koshindou admitted softly, "in mortal form."
When dealing with an inferior opponent most samurai were slow and contemplative, using their skills to anticipate familiar actions and capitalize upon the mistakes the inexperienced would not know. But Kakita Koshin charged Ujirou immediately, his second katana drawn and riding the wind. Thrusting low, Ujirou parried a sliding slash and leapt up and backwards, trying nothing but to escape that deadly sword.
Koshin leapt higher and faster than his pupil could have; whirling both blades into a fatal double strike. As Ujirou struck earth once more his attacker was less than a breath behind him; there was no room to parry, no hope to dodge.
He could only counter the killing blow.
The two collided in a flash of steel and sunlight, their bodies freezing as they landed, blood flicked deftly across the ground. Ujirou stared in muted amazement at his master's swords; both Ukigumo and Keiteki rested gently upon his slender collar, not one drop of blood marring their steel.
Within Kakita Koshin's chest rested one of Ujirou's weapons, driven cleanly through his form. The Swordmaster looked into his student's eyes quietly, only calm and control upon his face. "So this is how you look, when you are truly alive."
He had nearly died by the hands of his own student, Koshindou remembered. A student that he could have killed without hesitation or worry, had he not chosen to look for something within Ujirou's swords. When he had asked his sensei about his purpose Koshin had said one thing that still lingered.
"If I hadn't, I would not be worthy of being called a master."
It was there that Koshindou understood the great fear that had welled up within himself during that dream; the challenge of Kakita Koshin was so terrifying, shocking in a way that only a world without limitations could be. His sensei had asked Ujirou for something that Koshindou still dreaded.
To surpass any limit.
Even the Swordmaster himself.
It was that challenge that forced another sleepless night upon Daidoji Koshindou, and drove him to journey to the sea cliffs for the first light of the sun. Glancing down, he sensed the infinite, as if something truly worthwhile stood beyond his view. All he had to do was let go of…everything.
Everything that he had.
Everything that he was.
The fear that gripped Koshindou was exceeded by only one thing: the regret, was he to step away. For a moment, the Daidoji samurai vanished: there was only a young boy, facing the crashing waves of the sea. He drew a single breath, long and lingering.
The boy let go.
Yotsu Taishu was sitting on the beach when Koshindou emerged from the water, resting herself upon a bundle of pale blue clothes. At her side rested a pair of small zori and three polished weapons; he glanced at each in turn as he stepped from the ocean, then accepted his kimono with a nod.
"I thought that you were mad when I saw you jump, Koshindou."
He paused for a moment; he did not remember the moment of the fall. "I am sorry if I worried you, Taishu-san. Honestly, I did not know that you were so considerate towards others. Thank you."
Taishu sniffed at the suggestion, as if genuinely insulted by his words. "I do not think that the Crane Clan has ever looked kindly upon ronin, Koshindou…my concerns were for my own safety, nothing more." She turned away while the little Daidoji dressed himself and added, "After all, it is no concern of mine how you live and how you die."
Koshindou smiled and nodded. "Of course."
"What was it like?" she asked him after a moment, starting back towards the road that led to Daidoji Gisei's home. "Did you find what you were looking for, Koshindou?"
The boy just smiled and walked away.