Two men clutched their wool blanket to their bodies and caressed them with their frigid hands to bring warmth back into unfeeling motions. They hid beneath the bridge just where the putrefying arc departed the ground and soared above the water. They only had themselves and their cloths to fuel their endeavor of survival, as there was no fire allowed under the great punctures of the bridge and the heavens poured water in rejection. Beside their person were their blades, a blank white sheet covering them both in security from the rain. The taller of the two, Mitsuhide, ensconced himself in his blanket, attempting to obscure himself from the indifference of the world around him and escape into his mind. His shivering could clearly speak on behalf of his condition and his svelte face stretched thin with frost andhunger. Darkness clouded his soft eyes like the billowing masses above blotted the sunlight and his mind roared with a tempest of his own, apparent in the stare he gave the field piercing well into the dirt.
The other man, a stockier and older individual, turned tohis young retainer. His eyes burrowed into his mind: a tunnel of dark transparency that echoed with every thought of a veteran made public to the observant.His silver hair was shaved about the front in a sphere and then followed by a topknot, and the water glided down his coarse bristle and onto his straw raincoat, hugging tightly to his shoulders and flowing down his backside like a cape. “Yes, Mitsuhide?” The voice ambled from his mouth as much an elder is expected to move, but the presence was a soft dominance of the air that subdued even the roar of thunder.
“How much longer must we wait here? I know not how much longer I may keep Makoso impatient for me.” Mitsuhide had a discernible worry in his voice, but it wasn’t from the chill or the reverberation of hunger’s quakes, instead a more outplaced concern that rattled his mind. He glanced into Nobuhide’s eyes, knowing quite well what his answer would be and so retreatedhis glance and glazed his sight with a distant focus on Nobuhide’s stringent beard.
“Do you believe merely that I haven’t someone to return to that I do not understand your anguish?” Mitsuhide, repentant for his misinterpreted intention, fired off a quick denial. It was too apologetic, but he admired Nobuhide. The man sat before him here as he had in countless assignments and battles; more so than a guardian angel, but almost a father tothe once wayward youth. Nobuhide chuckled, “You needn’t worry, Mitsuhide, about how your concern reflects my person. You are a noble youth. I understand your responsibilities to your family. I once embraced them close to my heart as well. Too close.”
Mitsuhide looked back out into the haze of a thousand barbs forming layers of distorting walls and mirrors. His eyes twitched when he glanced back at Nobuhide, not even the least bit pensive on resurrecting the unholy memories that ravaged his mind. This was the only moment where his eyes broke their transparency and became maelstroms of absent emotion, convoluted and tortured. It was difficult to tell whether he had just become good at withholding torment or if it had departed from his mind. They held themselvesin the anesthetic silence of the downpour, letting the unease be washed from their conscious. Seldom is true silence the harbinger of peace, for that creature of stillness instills itself into twisted minds and bends them further and lets wild thoughts consume themselves. “Blasted rain. How are we to know when he arrives?”
“Oh? I rather enjoy the fleeting showers of the gods. It is their gift to us. You do not want him to find us in broad daylight, nor do you want him to approach in darkness. Either way he is a dangerous foe. In the rain, we uphold an advantage in stealth. He will make himself known. Delay your temper, Mitsuhide.”
“I think I may be inflicted with a fever.” Mitsuhide pushed aside the charcoal strands of silk cascading down his head and cupped his forehead in his palm. “Yes. A fever.” He discarded his blanket and untied his straw raincoat, his kappa, disrobing himself of it. He laid his head intimate to Nobuhide’s legs, withering tributes to strength, and placed the kappa above his body and then did the same with the blanket. Nobuhide’s stare strayed onto Mitsuhide and an intuition jolted his arm into the nearby knapsack and pulled out a circular bowl and a wooden jug of sake. He poured some of the bitter fluid into the bowl and gently dripped it into Mitsuhide’s mouth, the dark drink forming tributaries around his emaciated lips and trickled calmly into his hair beneath him.
“It will keep you warm.” Nobuhide placed the jug backinto the knapsack and proceeded to ramble, but in the consideration of easing Mitsuhide’s imagination that festered itself with apparitions appearing in thestorm. In the distance, a Sawara tree surrendered itself to the torrent andcollapsed, jarring Mitsuhide into a sudden leap from his supine sojourn.
“These trees have been bared witness to so much, ‘tis no wonder that their death be as tumultuous as their troubled psyche. I remember the day I fought above this bridge. Daimyo Ujimasa Hojo had sent me to lead a small battalion against an Ikko-Ikki band. They were plundering our retainers and trade supplies on the roads, and we had just recently discovered their whereabouts. North of this bridge was a small encampment. But they held us here for days, surrounding us and every time we unshackled ourselves from their entrapment they would ensnare us nonetheless in warring straits, one direction and it was exploding with crimson. Our swords were pens, and every word we wrote was merciless vengeance and we signed it ‘the damned’. I was one of the few unluckyto reach the encampment of three days of tireless battle, and we had no choicebut to butcher the children and women of Buddhist sects. The river runs murkywith ambiguous morals.”
Therewas a moment where the downpour ceased into light sprinkle, quelled in shock,and nary a single person moved to shape their lips to this horror. This was thehorror spelled in the flux of Nobuhide’s eyes. “Is this what occupies yourmind? What of your family? You can’t rock me into peace with words ofserenity?”
“No. I skewered one boy in particular who looked so similar to my Hideki. I wept for days; something if I were to try all I could produce was dust. The rain has stopped, Mitsuhide.” He beckoned his companion up, wary of the deluge of sunlight suddenly crashing waves across the field. He unfurled the cloth around his katana blade, a delicately crafted fatality, like a poisonous flower. Mitsuhide was insolent, pressing forth about Nobuhide’s family with irrelevant questions; about his son, his wife, their knowledge of this, of his loyalty to Lord Hojo, and as to why for a single moment he would decry the immaculate virtue of a bushi’s loyalty to his daimyo. “Why do you hasten our death with indolence? Daitengu knows we are here!”
There was an interminable essence to those words, for even though his mind began racing, Mitsuhide stumbled into interpreting into a definite thought as to what they meant. Panic afflicted his backside, clasped clammily his shoulders and pulled them back in the revulsion of catatonic rheumatism, and he lingered. His mind scrambled the thousand possibilities available in such a phrase, but knew there was only one, and his heart emptied itself, through the hairs on his skin, and into the air around him. Daitengu was approaching them. Their wait had ended at right this moment, and Nobuhide drew his blade to embrace it.
Mitsuhide,consumed in the nebulous darkness of fear, whipped his head and shot his arm for the hilt of his more modest blade, unsheathing the radiance of a newborn blade. Nobuhide’s blade had a great curvature, unlike Mitsuhide’s upright metal, and the dents and scratches tainted the great steel as it glared ominously in the direction of a looming figure. He wafted carelessly in the settling mist of the broken meadow, his feet hidden in the soft misdirection of light and he floated eerily across the verdigris, across the hallowed lands perturbed by phantasms. His gaunt arms hung lifeless to his sides as they swung with his languorous pace and his sword, a towering monstrosity in its own right, was ensconced in his black cloth belt. His countenance, rumored to contain a fatal glare within itself, was shielded by a sapphire encrusted jingasa that dangled a silk curtain from before his visage. His chest, visible in the open haori, was sunken and riddled with countless scars: the tales of a thousand battles and the drawn blood of a thousand victims.
Mitsuhide had never beheld the magnificence of renowned killers before, and so his body panicked with sudden paroxysms of anxiety where sweat led exodus from his freezing flesh and the atmosphere assaulted his muscle with aching tremors.Nobuhide said calmly, “Now, we are in the presence of the man who took the head of Tadakatsu of Mikawa. He laid waste to the army of the Minamoto clan. He beckons the mountains themselves to lurch forward in despair.”
“Why are we not armed with an army to fight him?” Mitsuhide could hardly slip the words from lips that clasped shut in rigor mortis, jaw clenched like chained bars.
“Because I have dishonored Lord Hojo, and so because I refused to take my own life he has sent me to dispel of this phantasm. This shinigami.” Nobuhide held the primeval blade before his face, clenched tightly with both hands and the conviction of death itself. “I felt it more appropriate that my body die where my soul had been left to rot. Besides, I have been hunting Daitengu for some time.”
Mitsuhide,slowly absorbing the courage of his guardian, clutched his blade in directopposition to Daitengu himself. “So are we both to die with honor, then?”
“Honor is what already killed me. I am but the hollow phantom of Honor, a soul without bearing and doomed forever with burden. Swallow your pride, hard and coarse as stones, but I brought you here that they may be stones of that river. Go to Makaso.”
A spirit of engulfed Mitsuhide as he roared with thunder at Nobuhide, “I demand that you let me fight beside you, Nobuhide. You are the closest thing I have ever had to a father since that day you saved my life at Edo. It is the bushido code to fight with conviction and a sense of virtue.” He rushed Daitengu, quietly still in the pasture as he slowly tilted his head up towards the boorish man charging him. He unlatched the clasp on his hilt and slowly drew the endless blade, drawing his eulogy forged in fire for the passionate, for they are always the first to run head first to damnation. He held the blade alongside his legs, an extension of his bony arms, and simply waited, in piercing silence juxtaposing the dynamic yelling of Mitsuhide inching closer to the cold metal waiting to be pressed into his epidermal coffin.
However,from behind, Nobuhide pounced and snatched Mitsuhide from his muted haori, pulling with him with all his force onto the ground. He rolled forward, ducking the lightning slash of Daitengu, and parried his following strike downward. The clash of the two blades was near ear-shattering and so the battle of titans began, with flashes of silver flying their music throughout the air and into the gentle winds, slicing through unease with excited dynamism. Nobuhide was keen and his mind so whetted as to strike with utmost precision both with his blade and his swift kicks. Daitengu’s attacks were more focused on impact and range, wrathfully throwing the weight of his towering blade around and each blow still taking its toll on Nobuhide. Mitsuhide watched in astonishment as the earth and sky around them was torn and reconstructed by the nimble fingers of steel finesse into a kabuki theater set,each movement orchestrating a visceral art of puppetry of the grass or the wisp of wind whistling around the rush of swords.
However,all performance must end. They often do so with tragedy, and the dance of the great samurai was no exception to that. Nobuhide missed the cue to leap after a quick side roll, and so Daitengu’s blade gorily cleaved through Nobuhide’s right leg. He collapsed, clutching the outpour of blood rushing around his fingers,and screamed human agony into reverberations that shot into the heavensthemselves. Mitsuhide was overtaken with the petrification of disbelief, the singular moment where comprehension becomes a fallacy and his mind simply refused to ascribe words to what he was seeing, absorbing and implanting deep into the crevices of a traumatized mind. His muscles reacted with timelessness, stuck in the interminable moment of indecision, and yet it was simultaneously ephemeral.
Finally, “Nobuhide! Nobuhide! No!” He rushed to his side, grasping his upper body in his arms. Daitengu looked upon the two, upon Mitsuhide, and turned back. “Come back here, Daitengu. I still need to fight you. I need to kill you!”
“You will not survive.”
Mitsuhide,upon hearing his guardian’s broken voice, turned to him, further injuring him in the process. “Then what must I do? Tell me what I must do, Nobuhide. Tell me you are not going to die.” His soul was unable to project tears for it was still in that state of shock, where the novelty of desperation had completely overridden top priority of his whole emotional state and everything he did was brash and unfiltered. “You are Saito Nobuhide, the ‘Iron Clubbed Oni’. You have crawled away from death so many times. When you saved me in Edo from those samurai, they gutted you, but you still fought back. Why here?”
“I have fought for so long, been beaten and stabbed and sliced across the wholecountry, and yet not one person has been able to carry me from my certain tomb,pulling me forth from despair. It has always been my lifeless endeavor to continue. I realized that you would end up like me if you continued down this predilection of nonsense about honor, for it shall chain you to burden and melancholy. I am freeing you.”
Mitsuhide looked about, the specter disappeared, and the historic ground where Nobuhide once massacred innocents, the price of honor in loyalty. He looked again into the abyss of his gaze and saw the souls trapped within, the bloody walls of his pupils sinking deep into the darkness of a man no longer possessed with love,but bloody memories. The less the sun shined on them, their fading paindissipating like the mist, the more shallow they became until the eyelids had slammed down and sealed him from the suffering of the material world. “Damn you, old man.”
He looked down the path where Death had tread, then again at the carcass of Honor’s tortured vassal, and he walked towards the river, staring deep into its murky depths. Unable to bury him properly, he dismantled a piece of the bridge with his blade into driftwood, placed his master on the solid vessel, and pushed him forth into the distance, down the river that drowned his soul as children dragged it down to their demise many years ago. He decided it wise to leave the hunt for Daitengu to possessed men, lured by the killer’s enigmatic temptation, and headed home. Never would he have to find solace in the chaos of great storms.