The Life-Giving Sword
Part Three: By Steel Revealed

"A swordmaster is one who lives in the moment; he does not fight beyond or behind the breath of combat, reacting to his enemies in the heartless time between their strike. "
- The Kouryo no Ken

Daidoji Koshindou was the first to arrive in front of White Dove Temple, dressed in a simple kimono and his Dragon-gift swords ready at his side. As the small boy moved to take a place before the main temple he could hear the whispers and rumors; it was impossible to ignore them at first, but the sounds did not linger long.

"He is coming," a final whisper rippled through the gathered courtiers and diplomats, and then there was no sound at all. Looking towards the stairs Koshindou saw a slender figure stepping onto the holy ground calmly, his single long sword ready at his side.

Koshindou sensed murder even before he met Gesshin's eyes; it surprised him, but the emotion did not show. He started forward slowly, walking towards his opponent and almost automatically drawing Natsugusa from its sheath.

Gesshin removed his sheathed katana and strode forward, holding the weapon loosely in his right hand.

Koshindou advanced upon his destiny. It advanced upon him.

There was no bow. There were no words.

The ronin smiled. Koshindou struck.

* *

It all happened faster than the crowd could follow: Koshindou barely tracked the flurry of movement as he slashed one-handed towards Gesshin's mocking face. The ronin tilted his head backwards, just enough that the strike clipped his chin slightly, and at the same time snapping his sheathed sword forward with his left hand.

The butt of the saya struck the boy's stomach soundly, and the breath left him as he felt a sharp blade punch through his skin. Gesshin smirked, forcing his sheath up and forward, almost thrusting his opponent off the ground.

"I expected this to take longer," he snapped wolfishly, "but this will do."

Koshindou's free hand went down to grasp the sheath, stopping its momentum, but at that moment he heard and felt the ronin's sword pulled free. The saya receded, stumbling the young Crane as his blood flecked the stones; Gesshin still smiled, whipping his sword in for a final stroke.

"Pathetic," were the words Koshindou heard from his enemy as he staggered into the weapon's path, "even for a boy."

* *

The impact was a horrible thing to Mirumoto Sosuke, who had seen too many of his kinsmen die on Shiba and Akodo swords. Screams of shock and protest rang out amongst the Crane, but Sosuke's eyes never left the combat, even as the ronin's attack sent Koshindou spinning twice through the empty air. He struck the ground hard, rolling and rolling, but when the Dragon looked to his wife, she showed nothing but a will of steel.

"It is not over yet," she proclaimed, as if demanded that her words became true.

Sosuke closed his eyes in resignation, but it was then that the boy began to stir. Several gasps drew his gaze back to Koshindou, who pulled himself to his feet slowly, a long, slender cut running along his left cheek.

"That is impossible," the Dragon said despite himself. "There is no way the boy could have parried such a powerful blow."

Kenshuko smiled at him as she had never had a doubt in her mind. "You are observing one of my clan's greatest strengths, my husband. Never tell us it cannot be done."

* *

Gesshin watched as Koshindou rose and drew his second weapon, taking a stance that the samurai had never seen before. Blood dripped from the boy's face and midsection, but he ignored it as he came forward once more. It surprised the man that he had been able to survive an attack in such a condition, but as blood painted the Crane's cheek a vivid crimson the ronin felt his confidence return.

Yes, Gesshin thought as he thrust his bladed saya into the ground, this should do nicely for my needs. Perhaps even better than I had hoped.

"You managed to parry my attack by letting your momentum absorb the damage," he announced calmly, wiping the blood from his chin. "It was impressive, but again you are wounded, Daidoji. It seems our way to play this game…"

"You are trying to taunt me, to goad me into making a mistake that will help you," the boy countered. "That will not work."

Gesshin laughed. "Such confidence from a child? Save your oaths for after you make a single stroke."

Koshindou charged.

* *

It was always in battle that Koshindou thought most clearly, and his mind was racing now that he faced Gesshin's sword. Why was the ronin so willing to arrange a duel formally? What made him think that the bladed saya would be ignored once the fight was done?

The last question was the hardest: who would want to see him die?

All those thoughts crashed together as he parried Gesshin's katana with both his weapons and the ronin's foot immediately snapped out to knock Koshindou away. As strange as it seemed, the ronin had recognized his movements before it had begun.

It was then that he saw the danger; Koshindou paused for a moment, slashing Gesshin with a cold stare.

"This is second-hand knowledge," the boy proclaimed loudly, stopping the ronin in mid-step, "And it's not enough to win."

"You are rather stupid for a swordsman," Gesshin responded, ignoring or facing to notice that Koshindou had placed himself with his back to the morning sun. "A true warrior would know that I am not relying on just knowledge, even though I fully know how you fight and kill…"

The sword began to shudder, as if in Gesshin's hand it had become a living thing.

"That same stance…" Koshindou started to say, but just then the true danger of the motion was revealed. The crowd gasped as Gesshin's movements scattered the light from his blade in all directions, dazzling their gaze with its brilliance, sending colors and pain shooting through their eyes.

Gesshin laughed from beyond the echoing prism, his form hidden by the fractured light. "This is the second form of my technique, Ni-Ken no Tsuru. I was saving it for just such a time."

Grimacing, the boy retreated, which was all the invitation his foe would need.

A thousand pins of light came forward, and neither sight nor sound revealed Gesshin's lunging form. The sunlight, the pain of his wounds, the sounds of the observers: it overloaded the senses of the young swordsman, and Koshindou felt the touch of fear and panic, and almost hesitated at the moment of the strike.

But deeper than fear or panic, he felt his hands upon both swords.

Those small hands shifted slightly, just before Gesshin's blade opened living flesh.

* *

There was silence when both combatants froze with blades extended, and for a moment, the watchers wondered who would fall. Koshindou's twin blades were pointed straight ahead, just beyond the ronin's chest, the boy having increased his own reach by grasping by the very bottom of the swords. Gesshin stared past the Daidoji's swords to the tip of his own blade, buried in the small child's chest.

He sneered as Koshindou met his gaze.

One inch more and it would have been fatal, but for his own life Gesshin had spared the light in his enemy's eyes. With a curse he pulled his katana from Koshindou's chest, causing the boy to stagger backwards in pain.

"This duel is over," the ronin murmured. "We will not have karma today."

Koshindou fell down in shock as Gesshin strode away from the grounds of the temple, ignoring the Crane samurai and their promises of revenge. An old Asahina rushed forward to heal him, but despite his injuries, Koshindou's thoughts were fresh and clear in his mind.

Why was the ronin so willing to arrange a duel formally?

"…a meaning hidden behind the sword."

What made him think that the bladed saya would be ignored once the fight was done?

"…considering your recent opponents…"

Who would want to see me die?

"…I full know how you fight and kill…"

…to see me die.

The boy's eyes looked down upon his kimono, stained red with more blood…

To Be Concluded…