With Eyes Opened Wide
A Story of the Traveling Sword
"The swordmaster is one who seeks to wield a blade of
both destruction and salvation, forever balanced on the edge of Tengoku and
- The Kouryo-no-Ken
All around the two figures the wilderness rumbled, the air filled with the buzzing of insects and backed by the nearby waterfall's constant roar. As the sun scattered shards of light through the forest, the newcomer regarded the wanderer through narrowed eyes…
"You are the one called the Swordmaster," a woman's voice said darkly, her aura of readiness almost palpable to the man.
"Kakita Koshin," he answered her evenly. "Who are you, to have come so far?"
Her dead eyes focused on his through long strands of black hair. "I am your enemy. That is all you need to know."
He remained unknowable. "Then come."
As they prepared for that moment, the air drew deeply denser; dampness settled upon them, and heat buffeted their motions, as their bodies became wholly aware. Raising her pale sword, the woman regarded her target as if his failure was assured…
Supremely confident, she lunged for the stroke.
In the span of one heartbreak, five actions transpired, each one the echo of the last. A sword descended. A sword rose to defend. A chain uncoiled like a serpent. Two blades raised up into the diffused light. One strike struck true.
The woman's body crashed to the ground in mid-motion, her momentum tossing her, casting her off into the void. As the sound of falling waters filled her world, the samurai thought that she could hear the Swordmaster's cry out from above…for some reason it did not sound like a shout of triumph and elation, but she would never understand.
For then there was only the water, and a cold sensation like death.
Three months later…
Always the abyss.
Daidoji Koshindou was more boy than man in the eyes of most people; despite the adult name and three swords that he bore, the white-haired samurai was still just a child, and most who passed him in the morning assumed he looked down on the sea with a child's eyes.
No one had ever asked him why he came here, staring off into the place in the sea between the great water-stones of the Doji Cliffs, and no one else had ever seen the boundless depths this place kindled in his eyes.
"Not yet," the boy mocked bitterly, stepping back from the edge of the stone. The ocean spread out before him like a great challenge. "I am not there yet, sensei."
With those words, the Daidoji turned away as the sun inflamed the heavens, his white hair catching in the sea breeze, bringing thoughts of the next challenge to his mind…
The boy samurai had not walked more than five minutes when he heard the dull drumming approach of a man riding down the same road. Koshindou looked up, stepping aside without concern as the rider almost passed him, pulling back on the reins and glancing at the Crane with a hurried gaze.
"You there, samurai, where can I find Master Koshindou, of the Kouryo-no-Ken?" The samurai had obviously seen the Daidoji's katana; his face was not old, but was haggard from worries. "I was told that he comes here each morning to train."
Koshindou sighed. "I am Daidoji Koshindou."
The man stopped in disbelief for a moment and then he dismounted, giving the swordsman's eyes ample time to analyze the newcomer. Dressed in greys and browns, the samurai wore his hair in a slightly frayed topknot, and he limped slightly as he came forward and readjusted his swords. Bowing stiffly, the newcomer introduced himself softly.
"My apologies, Koshindou-sama. I am Yotsu Tatsui," he said formally. "I have journeyed a long way to meet with you today."
The Daidoji blinked in surprise. Despite the unofficial title of master that the Crane seemed to have burdened him with, it was impossible to believe that another bushi had sought him out at all. "This is surprising," the boy blurted out.
Tatsui eyes were saddened. "If you have the time, Koshindou-sama, I would speak to you on a matter of honor…"
Koshindou just nodded. Honor was his way.
Shinden Asanagi was a small temple that set the borders between two of the southern Crane provinces; at this hour, there were no visitors, save the two samurai, leaving the monks their time to contemplate the Tao and pray.
Koshindou knelt before the altar to Lady Doji and said a simple prayer while Tatsui waited; when the bushi rose, the two moved out to the rear gardens, where the ronin began his tale.
"I have sought you out on a matter of family, Koshindou-sama," he said, still quite formal. "My sister, Taishu, is the matter that I speak of. She left our family two years ago on a musha shugyo…"
"Yotsu Taishu," Koshindou repeated. "I am familiar with that name."
Tatsui nodded slightly. "That makes this easier. Several months ago, my family lost contact with Taishu; her letters led me to investigate the area north of Beidan Pass…"
"I believe that she faced your sensei there, in a duel."
The silence was stifling between the boy and the Yotsu as Koshindou considered the meaning of the words. He had no illusions; if Taishu had fought Kakita Koshin, and not returned, then she was dead.
"I am sorry for your loss, Tatsui-san," he managed after a while. The words sounded ill chosen and inappropriate; the Daidoji bit his lower lip and turned his eyes away from the ronin. "If you require revenge…"
"I require no such thing." The Yotsu smiled. "I am not a swordsman, Koshindou-san; if half the stories about you are true, you could defeat me without delay. I simply…I wanted to meet the bo--the man who had been trained by the swordsman that killed my sister…"
Tatsui's eyes were heartbroken. "I wanted to see if I could know what kind of man his sensei was."
There was nothing more for Koshindou to say as Tatsui left him; what he had said earlier seemed so far off, as if he had only been going through the motions of mourning and proper respect. He had only killed one person in his life…a shinobi, heartless and consumed with death. The Daidoji had not yet felt the death of an opponent in his heart…
His sensei had once told him that he prayed that always would be so.
Tatsui had not ridden far. The samurai took a seat at a simple roadside shop, and called for some food as he rested on the bench in the sunlight, his dark eyes still pained. The meeting with Koshindou had taken more from the man than he had expected; false sincerity did not come easy to him, and the boy's vision was exceptional for both stances and lies.
"Did you meet with him?" asked another patron, unrecognizable beneath a jingasa pulled low over tangled black hair.
The Yotsu closed his eyes, rubbing his aching leg. "Yes, I did."
"What kind of man is he?" The voice was harsh, grating and labored, as if each word had been forced over rough, broken stones.
"He is not a man." Tatsui accepted his food and chewed it wordlessly for a moment, before continuing. "He is…Koshindou is a child."
There was a long silence, and the samurai glanced over at the figure hidden in the shadow of the shop's wide eve.
"Taishu…" he said softly.
A hand on a sword froze his words before they flew. The figure tucked a katana into her obi wordlessly, and then, without more than a glance through the shadows, started south, down the road to the cliffs where the child always trained. The bushi watched her for a long time with his hands balled up in protest…
But when the figure vanished, he was still where he had stopped, rubbing the wound she had once given him in silence; one weak man along the road.
Each day began and ended with training; Koshindou knew the boundless nature of his sensei's philosophies, and knew better to think that anyone could force such determination onto his heart. This was the reason for the Daidoji's constant diligence…not because it was a part of the Kouryo-no-Ken, but because it was required just to earn a place.
So it was that Daidoji Koshindou came to the high cliffs, and found that he was not alone.
The samurai was dressed in a jingasa and a mino tattered by many long rains. When the Daidoji stopped, the figure simply regarded him, giving him the uncomfortable feeling of being a mouse when a cat feels the need to play. Touching his Dragon swords, the young bushi gazed back at the bushi.
"I am Daidoji Koshindou of Souchong Province. Who are you?"
"Yotsu Taishu," she replied impassively.
Before the shock could fully register, both cloak and hat clattered to the ground. The Crane stood before a woman dressed in brown and grey, just as Tatsui had, though her kimono was stained and matted from the road. A pinched, angry face was framed by long hair in wide tangles, and she wore no wakizashi at her side.
Yotsu Taishu's skin was pale and sallow, and two great scars marked her throat and chest below. She spoke again, obviously labored. "Prepare yourself, Koshindou," she said, speaking his name as if it were a curse.
The Crane drew Natsugusa, its blade flashing in the vanishing streams of the late day sun. His mind was shocked, "Yotsu Taishu. Your brother…"
"My pawn," the samurai corrected, her right hand raising high her sword. "Forget about Tatsui and all other things, boy. Fight me."
He saw that angry face veiled with confusion for an instant; she adjusted her stance, aiming low and wide. "Why? Because that is our Way." Clouds began to overcome them, and to the east there thundered a rising storm.
Koshindou readied himself for the battle that seemed inevitable to come. His right hand extended, the kimono sliding back to reveal the entwined tattoos of the tetsu-truru and the Dragon's sword. "Our Way?"
"The way of the sword, Koshindou!" Taishu's voice shuddered, but her sheer fortitude restrained it from doing so more than once. "I have killed many people, peasant and bushi, cut them down again and again. And in the end, I was cut down too…cut down, but not killed! A mockery of the sword."
The boy said nothing, did nothing, in the face of the philosophy of the Life-Taking Sword. Koshindou stood there, a thousand answers buzzing in his head at that moment…but in the end, he answered as only a true swordmaster would.
His eyes were ready. "Then show me your truth."
"No more of this!"
The voice was familiar to both of them, but neither samurai lowered their sword. Koshindou glanced down the road out of the corner of his eye, seeing Yotsu Tatsui spring from his mount and limped forward as quickly as he could manage, his sword already drawn.
"You must stop this, Taishu!" he cried, surprising Koshindou as he lowered his blade at his sister without hesitation. "Please!"
Her eyes shifted towards him menacingly. "Are you going to betray me, Tatsui?"
He dark eyes tensed. "Betray you? I saved you! I was the one who found you, barely alive, with those terrible wounds!" His blade was shaking; apparently the bushi had not lied about his weakness with a sword.
"And now you think to lose me," Taishu snapped. "To a mere boy?"
Koshindou said nothing, but Tatsui took a place more directly before the Daidoji, his voice more desperate, more determined than before. "Even if you win this duel, I lose you, Taishu! You lose yourself! There is no honor…"
Her voice broke his. "No honor in lying to a samurai?"
The brother turned, looking back at the boy with genuine shame. Koshindou tried to move, tried to cry out, but Taishu's attack was already falling, slashing through her sibling easily, shattering his katana, tearing through his heart.
One breath, one strike, and he was gone.
Daidoji Koshindou could only drop down and seize hold of the dead man as he toppled, his eyes showing shock, but no pain. The Crane rose immediately, not giving his enemy an opening. "Why would you do that? He was no threat to you!"
"This is the true path of a swordmaster, Crane," Taishu spat heavily, striking the blood from her sword. "There are no compromises, when it comes to truth."
Koshindou's sword soared. Natsugusa rang against the Yotsu's dull steel, deflected wide as Taishu retreated, her left hand going behind her body as she moved. The Daidoji drew Mizugetsuei, barely ahead of her, his action parrying the long dagger that whipped out from behind the woman's form.
The long dagger it halted…but not the chain. Attached to the butt of the handle, the weighted device whipped past Koshindou's defense, surprising him; the impact cut his face and stunned him, but did no real harm.
Taishu's blade descended, her cry splitting his ears. Mizugetsuei raised up, a crossing block stopping the bigger samurai. She screamed again, thrusting at his body with her knife…
Koshindou spun away from both blade and chain like a top, his left arm extending as he came to her left side in an instant: Taishu was overextended and stumbling from her thrust, making it impossible to counter or dodge.
The boy was not screaming as he swung his weapon; all his voice, all his power was right behind the coming blow.
Natsugusa slashed her below the arm, across the ribs with its owner's entire strength and conviction; bones divided, blood scattered, all cloven by the strength of the boy. Taishu fell to one knee, losing her weapons as the Crane raised up his second blade to deliver the final stroke.
It was then, for some reason, that old words found him…
"Are you afraid?"
No! Koshindou shouted to his mind, to his sensei as his sword's cold edge stood ready to deliver one last, deserving strike. Tears of anger and hurt burned in him, as he stared down on the student of the Life-Taking Sword. Not now, sensei!
"All men find some fear in the moment before the strike."
I don't care! He tried to tell himself, tried to force himself not to hear. It was almost possible to forget himself, as he prepared to strike down desire and hate…
A true swordmaster respects this fear; it is his reminder…
…his reminder of the importance of life."
The Daidoji stopped cold.
She looked up at him, her old wounds and her new wound both hampering her words with pain, "Finish it."
It was at this moment, as Koshindou stood above Taishu like Heaven's judgement, that for the first time, his eyes were opened wide. Standing there with Mizugetsuei raised, the child-warrior looked down into the eyes of one that the sword had truly mastered…
He saw all of the evil and ugliness, that black potential that had welled up from her soul.
From his soul.
Koshindou lowered his blade. Behind her long strands of hair, the ronin's dark eyes focused, her body frozen in anticipation, even as he cleaned and then sealed the Dragon swords away. She grunted in pain as she shifted, but the Daidoji merely closed his eyes in pain and pity and turned away.
He walked to where Tatsui had fallen, and knelt beside him. Koshindou's eyes welled up with fresh tears of regret and sadness, things he could not fight or slay. Somewhere behind him, his opponent had regained her feet and watched him…
"You really are just a child with a sword," she said with a sneer.
The Daidoji did not respond to her; he rose, not looking back to Taishu, and then slowly walked away.
Her words followed him. "So, this is the Way of the Swordmaster! Just like your sensei, you would defeat me, but you have no stomach for the kill!"
She cursed at the pain. "I will never accept that!"
Koshindou turned around. Taishu stood on the edge of the Doji Cliffs, her slashed kimono fanning out and dying in the rising sea squall as it tore the sea to scattered waves. Her eyes, still defiant, looked into the young Crane with darkness more evil, more human, than any shadow that the Dark God could create.
Taishu stepped back till her sandals scraped the edge of the earth and snarled. "I will never accept that," she said once more against the storm.
Koshindou hated her like he had only hated one other, but still he cried out when he saw what she would do. "Taishu! No!"
And then, wrapping her arms about her body, Taishu toppled. The sea reached up, violent and hungry in its motions, and seized her, stealing the samurai to the depths of the ocean, striking her, breaking her, and stealing life away.
Daidoji Koshindou came and watched the water for a long time. His voice was ashen, as the rain began to fall. Looking down, he remembered the words of his teacher one more time, and saw how close his own abyss had come.
"Not yet. I am not there yet."
Then the Crane, child no more, started back down the road that he had chosen,
walking with eyes opened wide. That night he would burn incense in the memory of
Tatsui and Taishu, and the lesson their lives had shown.
The Path Goes On