With his hair waving in the wind, Zan Shin laughed. His beautiful hair was black, flowing in unseen currents that played along the wind like a dancing spirit.
His horse complained of the ride, but trudged on. They had been going all night on these dusty trails – the sound of frogs croaking in the long grass, the hidden moon behind the clouds. It was an evening of white clouds against a black sky, dividing the vast field of stars like enormous ghosts fattening themselves on the dark.
They rode until colors awakened in the far sky, bringing a glow to the horizon. Not until the horse almost collapsed did they break for a rest. He was chasing after someone – who in fact was as tired as he; but every minute counted in this battle of time, and it was only moments before his prey reached the border.
Resting briefly, Zan Shin examined his horse. It could go no further. Perhaps it would die if he pushed it to the next town. But these were times of life and death, nor will avoiding death always merit the life thus bought. So he climbed on his wheezing mare once again and dug his heels into her flanks. She staggered, faint; but then mustered the energy and continued on.
They struggled this way until the town. Surprisingly, his horse did not die, though it would be a long while before she rode again. So he left her, and continued on a young, faster breed at dear cost. It was worth it, however, in light of the goal.
Thus they sped on, the cropped-hair rider above his shimmer of new speed. Legs flashing over the trail, Zan Shin could no longer make out the animals and insects as he passed them by. He could feel in his heart they were gaining now, just as he somehow felt the weariness overcoming his fugitive. The intensity of their ride linked them as surely as night chases the sun. They rode madly, each of them, incarnations of insanity – but with a purpose so intent, it created new destinies.
After several hours Zan Shin caught sight of the other rider just cresting a hill. He was moving slowly, unable to renew his mount at the previous town. He straggled and swayed, but with a strenuous, fighting spirit. It was a display of energy where there was no energy, the fury of purpose ignorant of worldly concessions. They moved impossibly, weaving up and down the grassy hills toward the western borders. But Zan Shin gained; his strength was magnified by the feeling of new muscle beneath him, and he would not be outdone.
Finally the rider ahead sensed Zan Shin’s determination and came to a stop. At least a rest before meeting. He allowed his horse to collapse on the ground, and took a seat in a clearing of grasses. His eyes closed, and he followed Zan Shin’s arrival by the sound of hooves – by their beat upon the ground, and the echoes he felt in his heart.
Zan Shin was then next to him, motionless. They waited: the rider above and his enemy on the ground. They waited and listened to the breathing of the air, the sigh of the wind. The clouds forlornly moved against the sky, the sun showed an infinite patience to climb. For a long while there was nothing but the depth of silence, in which they both took their rest.
With this fulfilled, Zan Shin drew his reins and dismounted. He walked over to the other, who was named Qi Yin, and waited. There needed no words. Everything had been understood by the chase. Qi Yin kept his head level to the ground, his eyes closed. Yet their gazes met in other ways, and they stared at each other long and hard. Too much was understood, too much exchanged. It was awful: the full, blazing clarity of that exchange. Neither could tolerate it, and neither could look away. They endured it as payment for what must come.
As the minutes took on a guise of hours, and each second passed far beyond its natural limit, Zan Shin began to move. He placed his feet beneath the line of his shoulders, and exhaled a breath. He felt his spine linking his pelvis to the heavens. The balls of his feet pierced the Earth – mantle and core – and his breathing became like a bellows that stokes coals in the furnace of the gut. His eyes would have gleamed fire, had they not been close to weeping. So ferocious was the will behind his eyes, in fact, that one expected the wind to begin turning in devotion around his head.
This presence demanded the response of Qi Yin. In admiration, respect, and foreboding, he sank into himself, while lifting his whole body as though pearls straightened upon a string. So lightly, so easily did the crown of his head raise up, that Zan Shin expected he would make his escape by floating into the clouds. He could not allow this, so he clasped his hand on his sword. At this, Qi Yin became hard, and snapped to an attitude of perception. He too played his fingers along the hilt of his weapon.
“Qi Yin,” began Zan Shin – using words, that their battle might take place in worldly ways as well – “you have travelled long and hard. For this I would grant you rest, and a meal, before our contest. But I have little hope you would honor it, given what has happened. So it must be now, both of us too weary to give our best.”
“I understand.” Qi Yin had a look of raw flint, as if drawing his sword might cause a shower of sparks to distract Zan Shin. Careful of this, Zan Shin made himself flow along the lines of the spirit: to see without seeing, to listen to what was not said.
Qi Yin smiled then. His eyes smiled a laughing, easy smile. At this, Zan Shin was assured of his readiness, and the deadliness of the contest. He bowed his head, and when their eyes met again, it began.
There is no way to depict how their swords leapt from the scabbard like two silver tigers; or how their arms wielded them, as two dragons flapping their wings into the sky. The sun’s light burnt more golden, more fiercely, in response to these men. Steel rang against steel, bright notes that pierced the air for miles. The grasses leaned, hoping to avoid the fray; the wind found ways to flow around them. It was neither too cool, nor too warm. The day was early, the ground firm. With reality thus suspended, the two became like a cyclone all of sharpness and edges.
At one point, a drop of ruby essence was flung from the melee. It splattered against a small rock, inches from a waiting grasshopper. Unnoticed, it soaked into the earth and was lost. From whom, could not be said. The two moved with such speed, it defied separating them into this or that combatant. In truth, there was only one soul on that battlefield then: one epic soul locked in struggle with its own essence, pitting all the evil within it against the onslaught of justice. It longed for both outcomes, both results – even as it prayed for a lone victor. The soul cannot hate either part of its nature – -nor cease to long for an end to their striving.
These two that were one played edge against edge, stroke against stroke. But as all things must, at one instant there came a weakening – an act far enough from perfection, it allowed a crack to form. Into that crack wedged a blade of shining steel, and it went deep. It coursed through sinew and bone, dividing the essence of a body as surely as it parted the spirit from flesh. Until at last it found the beating heart it sought, and plunged in thirstily. Then it drew back, slick and oiled with its foe’s life. At that moment what was one became two – and again there was a fighter and the fought: a victor and his vanquished enemy.
Zan Shin drew back, attentive to the choking sounds of Qi Yin as his spirit fought to make its way from this life. They locked eyes one last time, and Zan Shin watched the tortured soul arise from its place of hiding.
“There can be nothing more for you from this life,” he told the spirit. “Be gone now, to where you must.”
Qi Yin gasped, and fell to his knees. In his eyes flickered a dark mystery, something Zan Shin would not grasp until his fated day. Thickened blood welled upon Qi Yin’s tongue, and flowed to either side of his mouth. Speech was taken from him, but his eyes bade a last farewell, and awareness of the mastery Zan Shin had shown him that day. It was a lesson spent upon the earth at a cost of priceless blood, but Qi Yin would take it with him as he departed. He closed his failing eyes against the cool wind, and bowed his head at last, never to rise again.
Zan Shin touched the cold length of blade to his forehead. “And to you too, stealer of lives; and also preserver, in your own way.”
Then he climbed his mount, and turned back toward the sun, high in the east. It was a fine day still, but the magnificence somehow lessened. As it must be, whenever brilliant souls depart the world.