The Life-Giving Sword
Part One: Crossed Paths

"In times in the life of the swordmaster, he will be forced to take lives even with a sword of honor, and he will be challenged, in body and soul."
- The Kouryo no Ken

At a glance, the monastery was like any other in the Mantis isles; a small, walled structure flanked by dense underbrush cut back to create a simple series of paths. But as the black swordsman drew closer, he knew that his information had been accurate.

Lifting his head, the bushi sensed the presence of blood.

As if in answer to his revelation a storm of arrows leapt from the forest, slicing through the ground where his feet had been a moment before. Striking the ground in a crouch the swordsman smiled, a long line of blood traced across his cheek.

"Leave this place," a voice demanded from the darkness of the foliage. "It is a sanctuary, for her to live in peace for the rest of her days."

"You Mantis should know that seclusion does not bring peace," the samurai responded coldly. "This is Rokugan, and everywhere can know war."

Drawing in long sword the ronin slashed the ground once in a gesture of finality. A second hail of arrows responded from the darkness between the trees…

* *

The garden of Kohouden Monastery was small and well tended, filled to its open ceiling with the strange plants that grew in the reclusive Mantis lands. In the center of it all sat a lonely figure, her body wrapped loosely in the crude kimono that monks wore, and her long, black hair falling down like twisted vines.

Behind her, a scattered group of Yoritomo bushi bled silently, their lifeless eyes gazing up at the black swordsman as he came forward.

She did not turn to meet his voice.

"It has been a long time, has it not? I barely believed it when I heard what had happened to you…I thought that you died long ago."

Still not turning to face the ronin she drew a breath, slow and painfully. "I am dead, Gesshin. There is nothing m-more you can take from me."

"Not at all. There is something that I have, something that the Mantis coveted too."

She finally turned to face him, revealing a face tightly masked with the sallow skin of a person dying more each day. "You wish to know the secrets of the Kouryo-no-Ken?"

Gesshin's severely angled face worked itself into a smile, the slight wind in the garden doing little to his close-cropped hair. "Tell me, Taishu. Tell me how you were defeated by a boy."

"The Mantis did not haul you from the ocean out of honor or compassion," he continued. "You should be used to your existence extending only so far as your use. You've died twice already, Taishu…"

"…No need to walk that path again."

* *

One month later…

The invitation was as much a surprise to Koshindou as it was an honor; he had not known anything about Kakita Kenshuko's engagement, so it surprised him to be called to a wedding so soon.

Arranging the trip with his lord was little issue; but that evening the young samurai found that he had another problem that he had not anticipated…

Such an occasion called for gifts to be given, and Kenshuko was too good a friend to the young Daidoji for him to bring her something coarse or plain. Throughout the Empire, the Crane Clan was known for their skilled and perfect series of favors and offerings…

As he stood looking out on the castle gardens Koshindou suddenly appreciated how difficult such a thing was.

It was not that Koshindou's family was without gifts to be given; his mother was a respected bushi, and her lord had rewarded her efforts with many things. Even the boy had a few treasures from the gifts given during his demonstrations in various dojo, or his days training with his sensei among the Dragon Clan.

But none of those things seemed like more than a cheap gesture; Koshindou sighed audibly and wished his mother had not been sent south to the Yasuki Provinces. She was more experienced in court and its many nuances, and had dealt with the perfectionist desires of the Kakita for years.

She would know how to handle this.

Not that Koshindou didn't know how what Gisei would do. He was a Daidoji, and knew the values that his family held most dear.

So, with obstinance and grim determination Koshindou settled in for the battle to come…

* *

There was blood on the road.

Koshindou had sensed it before he had seen it; a slight trail of red deftly snapped across the well-worn path. The afternoon sun had dried some of it, but there was no mistaking the freshness or the skill of the attack that had created this final trace.

Tightening his grip on the wrapped parcel of gifts and clothing, the young Crane waited for what was to come.

It came.

The boy did not sense the attack so much as the threat it represented; like a primal warning danger welled up from beyond the samurai, sending him darting backwards, away from the sudden roar of a drawn blade.

A whir of black cloth and steel appeared before the Daidoji, its form becoming more human as it slowed its furious stroke.

"Superb evasion," a harsh, cold voice remarked evenly, and Koshindou hissed in surprise as he looked down to see an inch long opening in his right sleeve. "You have earned your name."

Koshindou said nothing; he did not demand an explanation, nor did he waste his time. The attack had been fast enough that he had not been able to react fully…but that did not mean he had not seen it enough to recreate the motion in his mind.

"I know that technique," he said softly. "You are a member of the Yotsu Ryu…"

The ebony-clad samurai's harsh, angled face worked itself into a brief smile, before returning to a stoic sneer. "You will forgive me for the deception, Koshindou-san, but I thought a Yotsu technique fitting, considering your recent opponents…"

"But you are mistaken," he said, starting to move his katana back and forth slowly before him, "if you think that I am a member of that pathetic school. I am Goseki Gesshin. Show me your Kouryo-no-Ken."

The thrust was unlike any technique Koshindou had seen or experienced; it came forward even as Gesshin's shuddering blade grew in fever, blurring the flexing steel into a wave of motion that could neither be judged nor dodged.

And what could not to avoided had to be deflected; the young samurai countered, his left hand rushing to his blade.

Steel smashed steel in one clean motion, movement becoming stillness in one the span of a single perfect tone.

Gesshin's dark eyes followed his sword's blade to its place, lodged again the Dragon-birthed Natsugusa that the Crane had drawn with his single free hand. "A one-handed reverse draw, excellent," he said, a smile sliding onto his face. "And yet…"

The ronin's eyes fell to a single long cut upon the Daidoji's wrist, a stark red against his pale skin. Koshindou ignored the wound, keeping his voice as calm as he could manage. "I cannot fight you now, Gesshin. I have no time."

"What do you mean, boy?"

Still maintaining his even tone Koshindou unbound his weapon from his enemy's sword slowly, sheathing Natsugusa with a single practiced spin. The Daidoji nodded to his right hand, which still held tightly the package that he bore.

"This gift must be delivered; I promised my lord that I would attend this ceremony, and the person in question is my friend. Whatever you want of me…" he waited, but received no explanation, "it can wait for another time."

"White Dove Temple," the ronin replied evenly. "Ten days."

Koshindou knew the place and nodded curtly before turning and walking away. He did not need to turn and look to know that the man's eyes lingered on him like a hawk in sight of its prey. Sharp pain rose up from the gash on the boy's hand, and at last he allowed himself to cringe at the feeling. Blood covered the Daidoji tattoo in a veil of crimson, a dark promise of the true battle yet to come…

To Be Continued…