A frozen pall of ashen clouds robbed the world of its colors. A torn pale-grey body marooned amidst dark splashes. Utter stillness. The windless sky left the leaves unstirred.
As she surveyed the small clearing of the cave mouth, the blackened remains of a recent fire, and the ripped corpse… Takeko wondered if they had crossed the river Sanzu and had wandered into the realm of the dead where neither she nor the two living men by her side belonged.
Ingen approached the body and poked it, "Huh, this guy is still alive! Kinda..."
"In that case I shall interrogate him." Teruro said with a frown.
"You do that... While you do, I'm a gonna have myself a look around."
|Japanese flint and striker|
Takeko watched Ingen relight the fire using his hiuchi ishii, grab a brand from the fire and head into the cave. Meanwhile Teruro set about interrogating the body. This much she had already seen. A sad tale quickly coming to its conclusion, one that ultimately had little meaning. It was a brief dispassionate affair, a few short pointed questions, a flashing blade punctuated with a decapitated body.
Before the flash, the last whispered venomous words of the dead man, "Cur of your corrupt Tokugawa masters, at least I die having tried to fix our rotten world."
Teruro's movements were marked with clear respect as he bound the head in the cloth he had brought for that purpose. Though many would qualify the mystic's actions as immoral, Teruro understood the amoral nature of duty, indeed he had lived his entire life walking two overlapping paths, that of duty and that of the blade, neither of which ascribed to a standard definition of morality.
He frowned as he watched Ingen saunter out from the cave, a small weighty-looking cloth bundle tied to his scabbard that was brazenly slung over his shoulder.
Ingen chuckled "Wow, you need not frown so, oldster."
The frown deepened "I see you lost your backwaters accent in that cave."
With a shrug and grin Ingen replied "All things have their time."
"Indeed they do, and now is the time you will answer my questions. Who are you and what is that you are carrying?"
The grin widened "Ohoho, is this an interrogation? I reckon I'll be more fun than your previous subject." He said pointing to the wrapped head that Teruro had carefully put down out of the way.
"Answer the question." Teruro's body had subtly shifted its position and his hands seemed to casually rest near his belt, a subtle but certain threat.
Somehow, Ingen's posture seemed to become even more relaxed, he laughed and pulled the small bundle of the end of his scabbard. He seemed to amuse himself by tossing the bundle up and down in left hand like a child's ball. "Well now... Me? I'm nobody."
He grinned and dropped the bundle in the grass by his feet, "And what was the other question?"
Takeko observed the two men, resignation and weariness stamped across her face. She knew that the events that had passed had all led inevitably to this point in time, she had seen it. She also knew that the outcome was open. She knew that Teruro’s mission was twofold: recover the stolen gold if possible, and the mystic’s head at all costs. Ingen’s motivation however was less clear, overtly he seemed motivated by greed, yet even his greed was ambiguous, seemingly affected. Ultimately, she wondered if he might not merely be in search of entertainment.
Teruro adopted the jodan (ascending/high) stance. His form was flawless. His fighting was that of a veteran craftsman, practiced to the point where it has become more than a second nature, to the point where it has become a part of his true nature. Not a movement wasted, nothing superfluous, an illustration of mastery.
Ingen’s stance, on the other hand, was unlike anything Teruro had seen before. He wouldn’t stand still he kept moving, and it looked almost as if he weren’t ready for combat, as if he just happened to be holding a sword, but for no specific purpose. It seemed sloppy to Teruro.
Although Ingen had taken care never to reveal the true form of his fighting style Takeko had already seen it, she knew that his fighting was instinctive and constantly changing, a reflection of his tremendous innate talent and exceptional physical abilities, his fighting was mercurial and ever shifting, he fought like the sea, unpredictable, wild and beautiful… a counter-point to Teruro’s jodan stance, which was an ideal of formal kenjutsu (sword fighting) made manifest, massive power that is quiescent before exploding into action, the stately power of a volcano with all of eruptive force.
Most duels end in a matter of seconds, but sometimes, when two fighters who have both reached the highest levels meet, the resultant battle is matched only by the superlative reality of epic tales, indeed such battles are the fodder from which such tales are derived.
Back and forth the battle went, the lives of both combatants crystallized in a single blazing point in time, and for them they existed out of time… But finally, both bloodied, battered, and exhausted, they paused. Abruptly the explosive and violent tension between the two men vanished, or perhaps merely transformed into something completely different. Ingen laughed brightly as he sheathed his blade.
“Partner, I gotta hand it to ya, this is everything I was hoping it would be. But I reckon it’s over. You can barely stand anymore.”
“Hmph… Neither can you. Come at me, and let’s finish this.”
“Well, I reckon I could do that… Or…” As he talked he had been positioning himself so that, abruptly his hand flashed down and he grabbed the bundle of gold at his feet. With a quick chuckle he bowed mockingly and made to run away.
But Teruro was ready, he dashed forward and sprang high in the air. His sword flashed and the sound of metal against metal rang in the clearing. Ingen’s blood splashed on the grass. A shiny piece of metal sprang up above them, spinning and catching the first glimmers of sunrise and looking strangely like a star, falling to earth next to Teruro’s feet.
Ingen roared in pain, but escaped nonetheless and vanished into the shade of the trees. Terruro stood alone in the clearing, still holding his now broken sword at the ready. Finally, with obvious difficulty, he picked up the broken piece of his sword and put both halves in his scabbard. Although Teruro was bleeding from several grievous wounds and his face was pale and drawn, he walked slowly and straight backed, to the edge of the clearing where Takeko stood.
“I die as I have lived, yet I cannot die in peace unless...”
Takeko sighed softly and answered the unasked question, “Of course.”
Teruro smiled wearily, “That is good, thank you.”
Finally, he sat down against the trunk of a tree and seemed to just fall asleep.
Years later wild white lilies would grow there, where Takeko buried the old warrior’s at the foot of the tree where he slept the final sleep.