A stray memory from a long time ago, within the infamous historical district of Yoshiwara...
"Mommy? Mizuki-san, where are you?" what appeared to be a redheaded little boy blubbered, every inch of his body crying out and suffocating from an unreachable hurt he couldn't begin to describe. The sun hadn't come up yet, and the sky was blanketed with a dull gray awning. By this time, his mother would be busy with her work.
He afterwards noticed the large, scraggly, and muscle-bound brute carrying him like a sack of potatoes. "W-What? Who are you? Put me down NOW! Mommy! MOMMY! MIZUKI-SAN! A STRANGER IS TRYING TO KIDNAP ME! HELP, ANYONE! PLEASE!"
"What's wrong with you, kid? That woman you're with is dead now. Don't you remember what happened last night?" the stranger barked in a deep baritone that stopped the young lad's cries right on the spot.
The boy had a better look at the man and espied his heavily bandaged chest with stains of redness, his high ponytail that made his bundled hair appear like a cascading stream of burnt rice paddies, the thick layer of dirt that caked over his yellowing jacket and hakama with black zigzagging trim patterns reminiscent of the Shinsengumi uniform, his bandaged forearms, and most importantly, the unmistakable metallic tang emanating from the drying blood that covered both of their sweaty bodies.
A vision of him vivisected by the monster that carried him took over his mind, every nerve of his body begging him to run away or die fighting against this abomination before every bit and chunk of his person got ripped into shreds by the man who smelled of blood and death.
The kid struggled against the greasy, stomach-churning man's tight grip, saying all sorts of things he couldn't remember later on, punching, screaming, biting, and kicking until he was released. His blood pressure rose upon seeing that meat slab of a man not react, not even flinch, at his assaults while his brain suppressed something that chilled him to the bone and replaced his burning rage with cold sweat. In any case, the muscleman let go of him anyway.
He ran away from the hulking brute as fast as he could, his heaving bosom and his searing lungs near the point of bursting by the time he reached the middle of a dirt road, his arm resting on a nearby tree. He then squeezed his eyes shut as he scrounged his throbbing brain for any clues as to what exactly happened earlier.
He felt as though one of his mother's customers had found him and beat him up for sport. Ronin were particularly abusive to street urchins like himself. Samurais who still had masters to serve didn't even give him a second glance. However, some of them gave him strange looks that made his body feel like it was covered in slime and excrement.
Every time they did, his mother would usher him away and insist to him that somehow, someway, he'd have to leave that district and turn a new leaf of sorts. He shouldn't follow her footsteps, and he must live a new life by the time he turned fourteen years of age. One more year, and he'd have to leave the woman who saved him from certain oblivion: Mizuki Morinaga.
His mother said that he most certainly could become a new person because of his little secret that he must never, ever disclose to anyone, up to the point of barely even thinking about it in his head.
'Mizuki-san also said something about celebrating my coming of age with beans and red-colored rice before I left home, I think. Huh. I thought only samurai families celebrated coming-of-age ceremonies for their children. She can be so weird sometimes...'
He winced as he felt a stinging wetness on his left cheek near his half-lidded eye. He opened both eyes, held that portion of his face with his hand, then looked at the resulting mark: a cross-shaped bloodstain appeared on his palm once his eyes readjusted themselves to the darkness.
"Did that greasy old man do this to me? He's insane! A sadist! A pervert! Why should I believe a hobo like him? I have to go back home! There's no way Mommy's dead! He's just some crazy homeless guy who picked me up and cut me apart... or something. What's important is that Mommy is still alive. That man is either confused or a liar. She's still alive, dammit...!"
The hairs on the back of the boy's neck rose on end as he felt the presence of a wild beast from behind him.
"Are you serious? You don't remember anything about what happened at all, kid?"
"ACK! Are you a ninja? How'd you get here so fast?"
The boy must've leapt back two yards away after hearing the grease ball of a man talk from behind him, his eyebrow raised and his head tilted at him like some sort of deaf-mute person.
"R-Remember what? Who the hell are you? W-Why do you keep following me? What do you want? M-Money? I don't have any! Leave me alone or I'll call the c-cops on you!"
He felt like he'd been running forever, yet in the span of mere minutes, the... stinking, blood-covered stalker or hooligan or assassin or criminal or masterless samurai or homeless person or whoever kept up with him!
The child squeaked and stumbled on his feet several times before he pumped his wobbly legs anew. Alas, the scary beefcake of a stranger had already grabbed hold of his shirt's collar and pulled him back before he could get away.
"Fine. Whatever. Your mom or whoever is dead. I'm not lying. She died yesterday. Look me in the eyes and you'll see that I'm not lying."
The thirteen-year-old kid did what he was told, only to reel back and cringe at what he saw: Bloodshot eyes so red they seemingly glowed, chapped lips that looked like a squashed centipede with a paper-thin body, flaking skin, wizened features that remained at odds with his bear-like bulk, and shrunken irises the size of pebbles.
The man rolled his eyes and pushed the boy aside, his nostrils flaring while he licked his lips moist. "Okay, fine. I'll go out on a limb and escort you back to Yoshiwara to prove to you that your mother is dead. You can check out what happened there. The police will be looking for me... probably... but I need to get back the swords I left behind anyway."
'Enlightened Buddha, this man owns a pair of swords? So he is a ronin! Either that or a bandit! What am I going to do?' The scar on the kid's cheek flared anew as his face and body dribbled bullets of perspiration. Supposing that his mother truly was... in dire straits, was this man responsible for that and his cross-shaped scar too? What happened anyway?
He shook his head and slapped his cheeks, which made him yelp because he accidentally worsened the pain of his recently formed wound. He almost bought the smelly ronin's cock-and-bull story! "Why do you have to go with me? Why do you care so much? What does this have to do with you anyway?"
The red-haired boy saw the curious spectacle of the mountain of muscle deflating and collapsing as though his well-developed body were nothing more than a blimp filled with air.
The tired brute looked at him with irises so clear he could see himself in them: His mouth agape, his indigo eyes unblinking, his right... no, left cheek bearing a pair of intersecting scars, and his skin whiter than winter.
Just as the man was about to open his mouth and speak, he turned away and paced around while keeping his distance from the expectant gaze of the redhead, his movements as stiff as an arthritic old man's. He then scratched his chin and his stubble of sideburns before declaring, "I'm the one who killed your mother."
A Rurouni Kenshin Fan Fiction Continuation by Chester Castañeda
Whose weaknesses are going to get exposed this time around?
Disclaimer: All characters used in this fanfic (save some others) are the rightful property of Nobuhiro Watsuki, Shueisha, Shonen Jump, Viz, Sony Studios, Fuji TV, Studio Gallup, Studio Deen, and ADV. This disclaimer also covers all the other copyrighted material that are far too many to mention here. Don't sue me please, I'm very poor.
Chapter 24: An Easy Fight
Back to the relative present, inside the guestroom of the Akahori Mansion...
As though electrocuted by an offshoot bolt of lightning, the wound-up Yahiko Myojin jumped back after feeling someone touch his shoulder. "Ah! What? Who? Oh... It's you, um, Miss... Rin, right?" He gasped while holding his pounding chest with his left hand, his sakabatou long ago sheathed. "Did you need something?"
"Is there something the matter, Myojin-san? You've been pacing back and forth all this time," Rin noted, her eyes involuntarily moving, the whiteness of her dazzling skin illuminated by the pale moonlight. "If you're worrying about your own safety, then don't fret. Seta-kun will easily defeat the Battousai of Speed."
"Hey! I'm not worrying about my safety at all! And you shouldn't bank on 'Seta-kun' too much either, because he's far from perfect! He had already been defeated before by someone who looks exactly like that redheaded rebel, in fact!" Yahiko protested to the silver-eyed Akahori daughter, his hands on his waist as he challenged her hasty (but not incorrect) conclusions.
"Well, he doesn't stand a chance right now. If he's the Battousai of Speed, then he must not be as skilled or strong as his comrades. He's also not using Battousai's sword style either. Speed is all he has, so there's no way he'd win against someone like Seta-kun when it comes to speed."
"What do you mean by that?" Yahiko couldn't explain the feeling that gripped his heart while staring at the face of the snow-white girl before him, her piercing, ashen eyes darting all over his body and peering through his actions with the all-knowing glare of a magnifying lens.
He averted his eyes and avoided eye contact. "How can you be sure of how strong or skilled he is? Have you seen him fight before?"
"Oh. Don't misunderstand. This is the first time I've ever seen that man fight. I also didn't mean that he completely lacks skill or strength. What I meant was that, according to the Togakudan and the goverment's own secret service, there have been reports of other Battousai Group members like him."
"Uh, so...?" asked Yahiko with a tilted head.
The thin and pasty girl brushed her short, light blonde hair back, bit her lower lip, and blew a strand of her shiny bangs in front of her face while she picked her words carefully, remembering the puzzled look that Soujiro gave her when she tried explaining to him what he needed to do to become a "complete" person back in East Valley near Shinshu.
"Out there exists a Battousai of Strength, a Battousai of Skill, and even a Battousai of Style, otherwise known as Amakusa Shogo. The Battousai Group is called as such because it's composed of different types of Battousai. Thinking that the Battousai of Speed isn't as skilled, strong, or stylistically grounded as other members of his group is a reasonable deduction to make."
"Oh. I see. Yeah, I guess that makes sense." Yahiko remembered that, earlier on, Shogo indeed referred to himself as the Battousai of Style. He then scratched his cheek while watching the twice-humiliated Battousai of Speed get up on his wobbly feet for the second time in the duel.
'I guess even someone who presumably did his homework on Psycho-Kid will still be in shock once the real fight begins. I know how that Kenshin look-alike feels. I've been through the same thing. Psycho-Kid's innate talent in swordsmanship is... scary.'
"My daughter is right. For a Battousai of Speed, he's not any faster than Seta-kun. If Battousai-dono only has speed as his claim to fame, then he will lose against Shishio Makoto's Ten Ken. Coupled with the fact that he recently saw his idol fall against the person he's currently facing, it's plain to see why he's doing so terribly right now," Tetsuo Akahori chimed in before gesturing towards Soujiro Seta and ordering, "Seta-kun. Finish him off."
"People who aren't even involved in this fight should just SHUT UP! You don't know any better!" the Battousai of Speed snarled at Rin, Yahiko, and Tetsuo as he steadied his rickety legs that shook even though his bones didn't actually suffer from rickets at all.
"The Amakusa that the Ten Ken defeated had to go through a veritable gauntlet of enemies before facing him. The Battousai that defeated the Heaven Sword lacked killer instinct and a proper blade. The vagabond version of Himura Kenshin had fought the Okashira of the Oniwabanshu beforehand to boot. I will not be defeated by someone who preys upon weakened opponents," swore the redhead.
Although the second knockdown was more of the Fake Battousai avoiding a deeper wound than an actual instance where he flopped down on the floor because he was separated from his senses, the first knockdown that nearly cut him in half remained a true one that took away the steadiness of his knees, the strength of his strikes, and the accuracy of his attacks. Nevertheless...
The neutral expression on Soujiro's face again transformed into a beam of beatific calmness after he become aware of the fire within the unstable but still-standing Battousai of Speed. "Have I woken up the sleeping dragon within you, Himura-san?" the Heaven Sword asked without realizing his slip of the tongue.
'How nostalgic. Has it already been six years? To me, it seems like it was just yesterday when we fought to a near draw, the strength of your resolve surpassing my speed.'
Soujiro imagined the redhead before him falling into the ever-familiar battoujutsu stance that ultimately defeated him. "Come at me with everything you've got. I want to know how powerful I've become since the last time we fought."
The Fake Battousai put up a brave front even as the entire guestroom became a war zone, the geysers from Soujiro's Shukuchi exploding like simultaneously activated land mines on the ceiling, floor, and walls.
'This is the multidirectional attack he used on Shogo-sama earlier. As usual, he's smiling like a crazy person, and he doesn't have a hint of sword spirit, fighting spirit, or killing spirit in his body. He's like a blank slate.' The Kenshin look-alike snorted and frowned. 'Thankfully, there are other ways of detecting an invisible enemy.'
The Battousai of Speed fell into his defensive Cancer Stance yet again, his fingers trembling in anticipation of the upcoming attack. He recalled spying through the space between the guestroom's ceiling and the second floor of the mansion (as he hid himself from plain sight) how ineffective the Ryu Sou Sen was against Seta's full speed, which prompted him to cut the remaining floorboards around him and use them as shields of sorts to protect him from the blade slashes he couldn't see.
In a dragonfly's wing flap, the upturned floorboards right in front of Amakusa's ward were shredded to little bits and pieces, which allowed him to determine the whereabouts of his invisible opponent and trap his sword or limb with crisscrossed swords, which was otherwise known as his Cancer Stance's Scissor Grip.
However, he stopped himself short of doing the move after he realized that the sliced pieces of the panels ended up far too big for a full-on assault. Soujiro didn't bother completely destroying the boards with his full strength. From the Battousai of Speed's experience, a halfhearted attack meant either a setup or a feint for something even more fatal.
'It's like magic how the Heaven Sword is able to move in multiple routes at once. But no, that's not quite true. He's merely moving so fast that it appears like he's defying physics and moving through two places at the same time. He can do this by traveling in a fast spiral that covers a wide area, from the walls to the floor to the ceiling. Wait, the ceiling...!'
The Fake Battousai looked up in time to see Soujiro reappear right on the ceiling with a sword thrust aimed right between the religious insurgent's eyes. The Battousai doppelganger moved to the side in time to barely avoid instantaneous death, but he still ended up stabbed on the side of his shoulder.
Nonetheless, the Battousai of Speed's open-mouthed teeth gnash somehow resembled a demented smile instead of an anguished jaw clench. After all, he still managed to read his opponent's moves for the first time since the fight began.
His synapses fired up even further to give him yet another important realization. Because the Ten Ken was falling in midair, his hoof-like feet had no leverage to make himself faster. Without any ground to walk on, he was as fast as anyone else inside that room.
"I got you now, Ten Ken! Scorpio Stance: Deathstalker Stab!" the Battousai of Speed hissed as he prepared a counterstrike at the descending Soujiro while shifting to his more aggressive posture.
However, in reaction to the tit-for-tat thrust, Seta pushed the Fake Battousai back with his sword while the counter grazed his chest, set himself upright, pulled the cross-scarred man up by the collar with his katana as though it were a fisherman's rod, grabbed hold of the rebel's undershirt, and threw the redhead into the blocky pit that he and Amakusa made in their previous bout.
The Battousai of Speed fell into the hollow grave with a resounding, debris-filled crash that rocked the room. Aside from the slight stain of blood on his bandaged thigh and a small cut to the chest, the Ten Ken remained none the worse for wear.
The entire shogi-like exchange took no more than mere seconds to happen, but the breaths that everybody else had been holding left them feeling as though they'd recently been saved from drowning. Soujiro gasped for air too, but for different reasons entirely.
'As usual, his sword talent is as divine and god-given as his moniker suggests. Is there nothing Psycho-Kid can't do?' Yahiko surmised after seeing how little offense the blustering Battousai of Speed offered.
He then raised an eyebrow at Soujiro, who if he didn't know any better looked utterly stunned by what he did. 'What's his problem? Don't tell me that he's in awe of his own skill or something. Don't get full of yourself! You make me want to punch you on the nose!'
Although his smile remained on his face, Soujiro's irises shrunk to the size of raisins while the whites of his nigh-bulging eyes had hints of redness. His pallor also nearly matched that of Rin's save for his cheeks, which burned up red, while the trail of sweat on the side of his head remained as cold as ice. The fingers on the hand that grabbed hold of the Fake Battousai twitched every now and then.
"Seta-kun, what's the matter?" the elder Akahori asked, his eyebrows furrowed, which made his sliced nose sting a little. He remembered Soujiro calling the Himura Battousai double "Himura-san", so he had a feeling that the boy might've been affected by his own delusions.
'Is he feeling shock or disappointment over the fact that the Battousai he's fighting isn't the Battousai that defeated him?'
To Seta, Tetsuo commanded, "What are you waiting for? Finish him off now. He hasn't recovered yet from his earlier knockdowns. He's ripe for the taking. Quit toying with him and kill him with one strike!"
"Akahori-san, the Battousai of Speed is...!" Soujiro began.
Many years ago in Yoshiwara...
"W-What?" the redhead managed to sputter as the world spun around him, his heart shattering into a million pieces at hearing the ridiculous things the obviously disturbed and pitiful man was spouting in spite of himself. "N-No. Y-You're lying. You're trying to kidnap me or k-kill me. Or something worse. Get away from me!"
"Don't flatter yourself, kid. Why the hell would I want to kidnap a brat like you?" The odiferous, blood-soaked hobo scratched behind his ears and picked his nose while his tongue pushed his cheek forward from the inside of his mouth, which produced a small bump of sorts. "Your mother's name was Mizuki, right?"
"Oh, don't you dare start with me!" The boy struggled under the weight of two hefty, rock-hard biceps while the stranger cooked up even more tall tales to tell him. "You must've overheard her name from me when I was trying to get away from you! You can't fool me, mister!"
"Ah, but you haven't described to me what she looks like, have you? She's about five feet and four inches in height, she looks like a young teenager for her age of mid-thirty, she has a childlike face but a fully grown woman's body, so there's a mix between innocence and allure..."
The tangerine-haired boy aborted his planned kick to the stranger's shin and groin after he realized the earnestness of the suspicious outsider's words when it came to describing his guardian. "So you were Mom's... customer once upon a time. Of course you'd know what she'd look like."
"I'm not yet finished telling my side of the story. Listen to everything I'm about to say from start to finish, kiddo." The muscular man put his heavy hands on the child's shoulders, which forced the latter to squat as his knees buckled from the weight.
"I had an impromptu grudge match against a group of shogunate assassins while I was serving as one of your mother's regulars, as you said. They cheated and used hidden weapons while ganging up on me. You got beat up bad while protecting your mother and they nearly blinded you with their cane sword slashes, which explains the scar on your left cheek."
Amidst the boy's cries of "It hurts!" and "Let go of me, please!" the well-built human titan shut his eyes and looked the other way.
"During my fight with this one-armed asshole and his friends who must've been as high as kites, she ended up a casualty. The bastard used her as a human shield, and I had no choice but to stab through her with the cane sword I stole from them. You've been knocked out cold by the time that happened."
In the middle of flashing back to a hazy memory of him also saying the words "It hurts!" and "Let go of me, please!" while pinned under the weight of a bigger man, the boy saw red upon realizing his unhinged captor's words: A confirmation of what he feared. A confession of a crime. A deplorable act beyond his control that irreversibly changed his life.
"It happened around yesterday evening. The police should've taken their bodies to the morgue by now. You and I were the only survivors of that massacre. My sincerest apologies for your loss. Don't you have any next of kin I can drop you off to or something?"
"Mizuki-san is the only family I ever had, AND YOU TOOK HER AWAY FROM ME! Give her back! GIVE MY MOMMY BACK TO ME!"
The boy saw images of the youkai turned human tearing him apart like an amalgamated pack of hungry wolves within his mind's eye. Regardless of where or how he attacked, the monster's presence convinced his body, his very nervous system, that it was all an exercise in futility. However, he didn't care and fought anyway, his sense of self-preservation long ago discarded.
The kid swung for the fences with his small fists, streaks of red lightning searing his eyes, his jaw shut and clenched as he hit or attempted to hit everything within striking range of his arms, not at all caring if the ogre before him retaliated.
"I'LL KILL YOU! I SWEAR TO THE HEAVENS, I'LL KILL YOU! EVEN IF I DIE, I'LL HAUNT YOU TILL YOUR DYING DAYS!"
His nostrils flared as he punched, kicked, bit, and scratched at this uncaring, insensitive killer who murdered his beloved Mizuki just to win some stupid brawl. The kid hurled at the scraggly bastard the same salty insults Mizuki's clients shouted at her through paper thin walls that he pretended not to hear.
"I'd say sorry, but that won't bring back your mother."
A punch to the child's temple... he thought it was a punch, though it might as well have been a sledgehammer strike... separated him from his senses as he flopped down to the ground as though his spine had been ripped out from behind him.
"That's some mouth you have there! You got spunk, kid. However, if you want to kill me, you better get in line and reserve your spot. You're not the first or last person who wants me dead."
The boy spat at the masterless samurai's face.
"When you're staring at me with those sharp eyes, you really do remind me of that scary redheaded girly man hitokiri. It's creepy!" The greasy ronin cackled. "Creepy yet interesting."
"What the hell are you talking about?" the red-haired boy demanded, but got no answer in return.
The newly orphaned boy grabbed hold of his head as shadowy creatures from his subconscious swarmed him until he drowned in moisture, flesh, and miscellaneous bodily fluids. Also, for some reason, he kept hearing the name, "Battousai" in his recurring nightmares.
Why was that? What was a Battousai? Why did that word, term, name, or whatever it was made his eyes well up and his stomach churn?
The burly murderer guffawed a little more before stopping his laughter altogether and dressing the wounds that the boy inflicted upon him immediately with the excess bandages spooled across his own forearms. The woozy, red-haired kid then noticed that he himself had been wrapped with the same bandages as well.
"No. This won't do at all. It can't be helped. I have to keep my promise to your caretaker to keep you safe. Live a normal life and go back to Yoshiwara..." The humanoid behemoth grumbled to himself before turning back to the recovering child and stating. "Wait. Your mother wouldn't want that either."
The ronin knelt down beside the sprawled body of the boy, his arms spread open like a bear waiting to crush his prey's every bone with a simple flex of his bulging muscles. "Look. I'm a reasonable man. What happened was my fault, and you're only demanding justice for your loss. That's fine. I completely understand. However, as far as I'm concerned, you have two choices."
To the redhead's alarm, the murderous swordsman grabbed his nauseous head by the fiery tips of his hair and tugged his face forward. "One, you can go back to Yoshiwara and let your mother's killer get away with murder... or maybe manslaughter. Two, you can hang around with me so that I can teach you how to kill me, and someday, if you still have the urge to avenge your mother's death, then you'll have the strength to fight me to the death."
The Fake Battousai stood up, his eyes glassy, his mouth completely shut, his hair billowing from winds produced by his third knockdown, his posture stooped and relaxed, and his swords at either side of him.
He grabbed hold of his body and cheek in remembrance of that fateful night: The night he met his master and was given two strange choices that'd help decide his ultimate destiny.
In the blink of an eye... like with Soujiro's Reduced Earth technique sans the exploding fountains of wreckage on the floor... the Kenshin doppelganger disappeared and reappeared right beside the "happily" flabbergasted Ten Ken.
'What the...? I thought I was imagining things when he first did it earlier, but now I'm sure his blinding speed is real! Does the Battousai of Speed have his own version of Shinsoku or Shukuchi?' Yahiko deliberated while he kept hold of the sakabatou's handle in case worse came to worst.
"I'll make you regret what you did. Die. Scorpio Stance: Swarming Barbs." In tandem, the short sword and the normal-length sword drilled themselves continuously at the general vicinity of the wide-eyed Soujiro without any regard for accuracy or leverage, replacing precision with volume.
This untamed flurry of stabs was one of the Battousai of Speed's two multi-hit techniques that most resembled the wild Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu move known as the Dragon Nest Flash even though it lacked the requirement of accurately hitting the vital points of the body.
A vision filled with puddles of blood took over the lazy-eyed Battousai look-alike's mind: His suppressed memories. His mother's screams, begging for them to stop. Their suffocating weight. Their disgusting stench. Their drooling mouths. Their wet tongues. Their moist stares.
The growing flame in his heart flickered into despair as his nightmare went on and on. Had he believed in a god back then, he would've thought of him as cruel, uncaring, or dead.
His hallucination cleared in time to see Soujiro hightail his way out of the pounding waves of steel in order to avoid getting gored by a hundred alternating stabs from an uchigatana and a wakizashi. Yet again, the Heaven Sword's Shukuchi proved to be a lifesaver and an equalizer all at the same time.
Soujiro swung his blade as he moved back with the Shukuchi. This was a technique he'd been practicing in order to allow him to hit his enemies without getting struck back himself. However, for one reason or another, his blade passed right through the Battousai of Speed as though he were an incorporeal ghost.
'Did I merely misjudge the distance of my strike? Or was this the same technique he used in order to snatch Rin-san away from my grasp back in the East Valley?'
The Ten Ken blinked. "Oh, before I forget, thank you for not harming one hair on Rin-san's head earlier. I was worried you'd kill her to get to me and Akahori-san, but I'm glad that wasn't the case, Battousai-of-Speed-san," Seta expressed his gratitude while his opponent looked as though he could explode at any moment.
"SHUT UP AND FIGHT! Or better yet, I'll shut you up for good!" the redhead answered in kind, his spittle flying everywhere as he attacked the general area where Soujiro stood with his multiple stabs, rendering everything before him into unidentifiable grains and fragments.
'Those Swarming Barbs work just like Usui-san's Boken Bogyoku Hyaka Ryoran. It also sacrifices accuracy for wide-area destruction. Even with this technique alone, it's enough for him to have the power to murder entire police squadrons in an instant. He would've fit in with the Juppon Gatana quite splendidly had Shishio-san ever deemed him worthy enough to join our group.'
Soujiro contemplated charging headlong as soon as the Battousai of Speed overextended himself with his eruption of spearing movements, but that never came to be. Right after hitting nothing but air and the floor where the Ten Ken had stood, the Fake Battousai immediately went back to his defensive Cancer Stance posture, his wakizashi raised over his head and his katana resting near his thigh in a parallel fashion.
The Heaven Sword had to make a wall-scaling detour after his intended counterattack backfired, his blade bouncing off the Battousai of Speed's wakizashi parry as he narrowly avoided a Deathstalker Stab that shifted immediately into another flurry of Swarming Barbs.
"Stop running away and fight me like a man, Ten Ken!" A bloodcurdling scream clawed its way out of the Fake Battousai's throat as he again missed his target by mere hairbreadths.
'The way Battousai-dono is fighting now, it's only a matter of time before Seta-kun triumphs,' the Oyakata assessed. 'He's fighting with anger and desperation. I was a bit worried by that technique of his where he can disappear and reappear at will, but now I'm not so worried. As long as he's leading the attack and chasing after Seta-kun's shadow, I have nothing to fear.'
Soujiro's cheeks grew warm. For one reason or another, his recollections of the androgynous Kamatari Honjo emerging naked from a hot spring bath and the late Yumi Komagata allowing him to rest on her soft lap after his defeat in the hands of Kenshin Himura floated into the surface of his psyche while his hands shivered at the memory of what it touched recently.
Akahori's head bodyguard afterwards replied to his opponent's taunts. "Up until now, you're still unnerved by what I did? Then I apologize. However, if you want to be treated as a man, you better act like one."
While only Soujiro's face went red, the Battousai of Speed's entire body turned completely crimson before blinking in and out of existence. Every time he ended up beside his prey, he unleashed as many Deathstalker Stabs and Swarming Barbs as he could muster. Thanks to the Ten Ken's floor-rending Shukuchi and the Fake Battousai's nonstop offense, the room turned into a veritable battlefield of complete devastation.
'What the hell are they talking about?' Yahiko mused amidst the high speed blurs of both Soujiro and the Battousai double. From behind him, Rin had shut her eyes and let her ears listen to the rhapsody of clashing swords, whizzing missed strikes, and pounding feet.
Before he knew it, the Battousai of Speed espied no boyish swordsman with a smile that never left his face. He instead saw an overpowering tidal wave of flesh and steel.
The familiar smell of metal sharpened his senses like sandstone would a blade. It reminded him of the tangy scent left by the Fake Battousai Group's weapons and, later on, blood as he massacred them back in their East Valley hideout.
"It looks as if you've been through quite a lot. I'd sympathize if I could, but first thing's first," Soujiro supposed while bouncing on the balls of his feet and slashing away at the seemingly impenetrable waves of Swarming Barbs.
In the span of a second, the Ten Ken used his Shukuchi to give himself some running room, sheathed his sword before the Fake Battousai realized that something was amiss, then charged with another leaping battoujutsu strike.
"Cancer Stance: Vise Grip."
The intersecting blades this time around formed a crucifix on Morinaga's side, the katana serving as the vertical base while the wakizashi kept Soujiro's Kikuichi Monji from tearing him in half from the armpit onwards. "You're in my way. Akahori Tetsuo must die. Let our people go."
Nonetheless, the sword that Kaede was supposed to disarm turned out to be a sheathe, which allowed Soujiro to unleash a turning, close-range sword-drawing slash at Amakusa's apprentice while keeping his daisho at bay with the scabbard.
The Battousai of Speed countered immediately with a Deathstalker Stab, but the Ten Ken avoided being impaled by it simply because he never had any intention of fully committing to his attack.
All Soujiro wanted to do was to slice through the fabric of his opponent's upper garments in order to expose something that had been bothering him since he threw the redhead into the manmade ditch and inadvertently groped the rebel's chest.
"Is this what you've been hiding from us, Battousai-of-Speed-san?" asked Seta as the terrorist's kimono unfastened itself and his sarashi (or the bandages covering his chest) were torn open, revealing breasts far too soft and round to belong to a man of the same petite build.
Yahiko's mouth formed a moue of incredulity while the father and daughter on either side of him turned into statues.
"W-Wait. H-He's a she?"
Many years ago in Yoshiwara...
As soon as the cross-scarred redhead heard the man's proposal, he realized he was dealing with a complete lunatic. "Why would you... train me to kill you? Why would you do that? Why me? I'm just the child of one of your countless victims! That... doesn't make any sense! What in Kannon's name are you going to get out of it?"
For the swordsman's part, his ear-to-ear grin while he scratched the growing stubble over his lantern jaw indicated his thoughts on the matter quite clearly. If he had the yogic ability to pat himself on the back, he would've done so.
"Let's not overcomplicate things. I'm not doing this for you, but for me. This should serve as your first life lesson, kid. Life ain't fair, and you have to earn your own keep. Well, that's two lessons, but I suggest you take my offer regardless. I myself think it's a sweet deal."
"You're crazy!" The young boy pushed the large man away at the cost of letting a tuft of his hair remain in his beefy hands. "You killed my mother because she was in the way of your stupid duel! Train me? I don't even want anything to do with you! Why do I need to kill you? Why don't you just curl up in a ball and die?"
"Because I can't die yet. I have some unfinished business to attend to. Even though I did you wrong, I won't commit sepukku because you want me to. You have to earn the right to kill me if you want to avenge your mother's death. Otherwise, you're free to go back to Yoshiwara to follow her footsteps or go ahead and tread your own path without ever having the guts to face your mother's killer when it counted the most."
The kid didn't know what to think as he charged at the talking brick wall before him and punched at him till either his lungs or the knuckles of his hands gave out. Part of him still couldn't believe what the madman told him.
Another shot that the young man couldn't see brought him down on all fours, his amateurish attacks rendered null and void thanks to the ronin's armor-like muscles, from his deltoids to his pectorals. The kid wanted to know the truth. If what this nutty swordsman said were true, then he wanted the chance for vengeance as well.
He trusted the man as far as he could throw him, but he wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. If this demon on earth was deluded or arrogant enough to give him the tools necessary to kill him, then so be it. He would play his game, lie in wait, and learn his ways. If he needed to become a monster himself in order to finish his mother's murderer off, then he was fine with that too.
The boy had a new purpose to fulfill: Kill the man who murdered the woman that provided his life with a happiness he lost in an instant, without him even noticing.
"I like those eyes of yours, punk. You look angry enough to kill me right now. It's about a hundred years too early for you to even think about doing that, but I approve of your attitude. I got to warn you, though. Unless you can surpass the strength I already have, you'll never be able to avenge your mother's death. I have no intention of letting my guard down because some snot-nosed kid thinks he can one-up me."
He rose up, kicked dirt into the demon's eyes, and hit its bandaged chest even as he felt his ribs groan and creak from its counterstrike blow to his side. He fell for the third time, his body twitching from the fire that exploded near his belly.
"Shit. I need to wash my eyes later. Fucking brat. Ah, whatever. I'll teach you how to kill me, and maybe... just maybe... you'll end up as my last great challenge when I'm as wrinkled as a prune and have hair as white as bird shit. Maybe even sooner. Let's get started. It's time for me to go back to Yoshiwara to fetch my swords anyway. You're coming with me, of course."
The fiend who seemed unfamiliar with human ways and social mores picked up the morose and beat-up brat by the scruff of his kimono and dragged him off to Yoshiwara as the dawn of a new day approached.
"Tell me your name, you bastard," the tuckered-out child growled low as his mother's murderer hauled him around like luggage.
"I want to know the name of the man who killed my mother."
"Akatsuki. Akatsuki Doraku. And how about you?"
"Morinaga. Morinaga Kaede. Remember that name. It's going to be the name of your killer."
Alas, the orphan would later discover that his foster mother and several of her customers did pass away in the hands of the amoral monstrosity that took him in after they snuck back to the scene of the crime, overhearing the words of the people who'd gathered there. He then realized that he could never come back to the place he called home.
As they traveled across Japan as a pair composed of a dotanuki-wielding demon seeking strength while serving as a soldier of fortune who provided his services to the highest bidder and the adopted child of a prostitute from the Yoshiwara Red Light District, Morinaga attempted to kill his master by any means necessary, from poisoning his food to attempting to stab him in his sleep, as per their agreement.
Failing that, he served as a thorn to Akatsuki's side, playing pranks on him like cutting the straps of his sandals or putting lice-infested strands of hair on his dandruff-filled mane.
Not once did the ronin complain save for the occasional admonishment of, "You're a hundred years to early to kill me. Train harder, and maybe you'll be able to avenge your mother's death. Don't you love her enough to do so?"
Doraku fed him, clothed him, and taught (more like attacked) him using a dual-wielding sword style that appeared far too technical and defensive to be suited for a gigantic, warmongering oni like him. Morinaga always believed that a more rambunctious, unconventional, and devil-may-care sword school was a better fit for his violent master.
There came a point when Kaede put two and two together and concluded that his master never killed his mother in the first place, even accidentally. For the longest time, he wondered whether this was true or something he wished was true.
Eventually, Morinaga would learn the truth behind his missing memories and Akatsuki's well-meaning lies. He'd then wish they ended up locked away in his mind for the rest of his life, but by then, it was too late. Pandora's Box was already open.
Every hint of noise and sound within the mansion's guestroom died then and there as its occupants stared at the red-faced Battousai of Speed's chest in unison.
Maybe they should've expected the Kenshin look-alike to be a girl. Hell, that was one of the first things that crossed Yahiko's mind when he first met the real Kenshin Himura: Him being female.
'A woman? Seta-kun has been having trouble taking down a mere woman? No, this cannot be.' To Soujiro, Tetsuo declared, "She's just a woman! A mere girl that fell before your might thrice already! Amakusa was desperate enough to use a little girl to help him with his attempt on my life! Finish her off now! She's nothing but a second-rate Battousai imposter!"
'So she's the female version of Battousai. Why? Why would she need to hide her gender? What possible tactical advantage would that provide except maybe surprise her enemy for a couple of minutes?'
As it were, the Battousai of Speed looked so much like Kenshin that everyone automatically assumed she was male. Nothing short of Soujiro's eye-popping revelation by outright slashing her garments would've convinced them otherwise.
Yahiko mused, 'Did she pretend to be a guy to make her eerily identical Kenshin impersonation even more convincing? Because quite frankly, she didn't need to. Kenshin is supposed to be girly.'
On the other hand, her ability to stand her ground against the Heaven Sword aside, the fact of the matter remained that she was but a slightly skilled little girl who was merely pretending to be the infamous Battousai. At best, she was nothing more than a distraction that outlived her usefulness and original purpose.
Rin gasped as she heard her father's revelations, her eyesight too poor to confirm for herself what had happened. However, she saw enough of the Battousai double to conclude, 'The Battousai of Speed doesn't look any older than I am. We may even have the same height and build. How was she able to do so well against Seta-kun?'
"You remind me of one of my Juppon Gatana comrades and the way he acted. I once knew this crossdresser who was in love with the leader of our faction, and the way you overreacted over having your breasts groped is reminiscent of how he overreacts whenever his femininity or his love for Shishio-san was questioned," explained the Ten Ken to his opponent.
Yahiko wondered whether or not Soujiro was intentionally rubbing salt on the rebel's open wound. 'Jeez, Psycho-Kid. Have some tact.'
Without ceremony, the Battousai of Speed covered her exposed chest by closing the open flaps of her kimono. The people before her shuddered as one as she glared at each and every one of them. Even a person who wasn't trained in swordsmanship and ki-reading could feel the Battousai doppelganger's blood boil.
Then again, just as none of them expected the Battousai of Speed to be a woman disguised as a younger version of Battousai, they also didn't expect the following reaction. They didn't even have time to contemplate the implications behind the Fake Battousai's true gender, at that.
"You touched me again. DON'T YOU DARE TOUCH ME, YOU PERVERT!" screeched the livid Battousai of Speed, her hands a blur of surging blade tips that reduced everything in their path to dust.
"Pervert...?" muttered Yahiko.
'She's angry now. I have the chance to end it in one shot while she's still hysterical.' At the back of Soujiro's mind, he idly wondered if he looked exactly how the Fake Battousai did at the moment once he himself suffered from his own mental breakdown in the hands of Kenshin Himura.
He'd defeat her the same way Kenshin defeated him once he lost faith in his absolute truth: The weak was food for the strong, and only the strongest would survive.
The light from the Battousai of Speed's eyes went black as she blasted Soujiro with unrelenting Swarming Barbs.
To Seta, Akahori recommended, "Battousai-dono is getting desperate. Keep your guard up and wait for her to make a mistake. Even if she doesn't, the building pressure will sap her stamina dry. She can't touch you at all while you're using the Shukuchi."
As soon as his words left his lips, Akahori's jaw dropped so low that it nearly made his nasal wound reopen once more. 'What? Seta-kun is trapped at a dead end...?'
Sure enough, without Soujiro noticing, he'd been herded right into a corner of the room, his back driven against two intersecting walls while directly in front of him ran the open-armed, dual-wielding Fake Battousai. "Well played, Battousai-of-Speed-san. Let's see which one of us lands the first strike."
"Battousai this. Battousai that. I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF THAT DAMN NAME!"
Trapped between a wall he couldn't scale because he didn't have enough space to pick up momentum to do so and a rain of pointed steel that would've turned him into a pincushion, Soujiro had no other choice but to move forward. Even with what little breathing room his enemy allowed between them, the Ten Ken accelerated to Shukuchi speed at his first step.
"What's her problem? She doesn't want to be called Battousai, yet she's part of the Battousai Group? She's a girl who intentionally crossdressed to look like Kenshin! She even has the Edo Era outfit, scar, and red hair to go along with the name!" Yahiko asked out loud, shaking his head at how contradictory the rebel's statements were.
The closed-eye and pallid Rin softly responded, "Perhaps she didn't name herself that. Maybe somebody else made her look exactly like Himura Kenshin. It just happened that she looked like him, and there was someone who took advantage of that fact, since she never wanted to be like Battousai in the first place."
As though overhearing Rin and Yahiko's conversation, the undulating Battousai of Speed shared, "I hate that name. I would never proudly call myself that. It's only because of Shogo-sama that I'm pretending to be the man whose own reputation ruined my entire life!"
"How exactly did Himura-san ruin your life?" Soujiro asked as he himself had a flashback of Kenshin also turning his life upside down because of the former rurouni's mere existence.
He added, "I have no idea what you're talking about or what you have against Himura-san, but it's now clear to me that you and he are nothing alike. For one thing, he doesn't even use stabbing techniques this often."
"Shut up and fight!" came the Fake Battousai's retort.
Thanks to the momentum he had gained from rushing to strike first, the Heaven Sword had to contend with the risk of being left wide open for a split second had he missed his strike. 'Then I won't miss.'
Instead of using the Kuzu Ryu Sen... a move created specifically to be countered in an instant... the Ten Ken opted to deploy the flurrying and continuous offensive Shogo used against him earlier.
"Ryu Sou Sen."
"That's another technique you stole from Battousai and Shogo-sama, you originality-bereft copycat thief! I'll make you realize your own folly!"
Strikes were missed, flesh was cut, and blades were crossed. Even with what little space he had in front of him, Soujiro maintained his in-and-out motion, pushing the Battousai of Speed back inch by precious inch while avoiding harm. Conversely, the halting nature of the Heaven Sword's swaying assault within a hard-to-maneuver area allowed the Fake Battousai to land some small hits herself from time to time.
Akahori harrumphed as he berated himself for doubting his bodyguard earlier. 'Calm down, Tetsuo. Most of Battousai-dono's shots aren't landing. She's the one who's wasting precious energy and movement while Seta-kun plays with her like a cat would a mouse. Everything is still going according to plan. Just be patient.'
As if in a daze, the pumped-up Fake Battousai ranted while stabbing at Soujiro in every which way, "During that time, over and over again, he called me Battousai. All because I was cursed with the same eyes, build, face, and hair, he called me Battousai. He even gave me this cross scar to look more like Battousai. I hate that name. I don't even know who that name belonged to at the time, but I hated Battousai too for existing!"
Timing Soujiro as he backed away from a wakizashi thrust, the Battousai of Speed moved forward with the intention of blowing her opponent's guts out with a full-bodied plunge. "There's no escape for you now!"
Alas, Soujiro proved him wrong yet again by reducing the fatal stab into a near-miss pinprick by dodging to the right and escaping from the dead end. He then wound up at the opposite side of the room.
"As much as I'd like to have my rematch against Himura-san, I won't settle for substitutes. Your hypocrisy, insecurities, gender, and lack of skill pretty much confirms how unlike Himura-san you are. You may look like him, but you're nothing like him otherwise. It's unfortunate, but this charade needs to end right now," the scuffed-up but otherwise healthy Seta surmised.
The Battousai of Speed growled and turned, only to freeze as her hands, arms, legs, and entire body shook like a leaf thanks to her previous exertions, her weapons nearly falling out of her fingers' tenuous grip as her half-exposed chest tightened and seemingly crushed her swelling internal organs. She was at her limit.
Although for the first time since the fight began, the Fake Battousai managed to draw blood from Soujiro, it was cold comfort in light of what she had to sacrifice to accomplish that feat. 'Dammit, move. Please Shogo-sama's God, I can't fail Shogo-sama now! Not after everything he's been through!'
Without ceremony, Soujiro kicked the only table left intact from his earlier fight with the godly Amakusa right at the Fake Battousai's face.
The redheaded imposter reacted in kind, slicing the wooden furniture into quarters with the Cancer Stance's Scissor Grip and follow-up Crisscross Claw that slashed outwards in a cross-shaped pattern.
However, the Ten Ken took advantage of the momentary distraction by sheathing his sword while his enemy was sidetracked by the overturned table.
"Yes! Use your battoujutsu against that joke of a 'Battousai' who doesn't even know the first thing about sword-drawing techniques!"
The Oyakata smirked as the spent Battousai imposter stumbled and swayed like a drunk. "Whoever heard of a Battousai that doesn't do battoujutsu? She's like a fish that can't swim or a bomb that can't explode. She's worthless. Your Battousai-like looks won't save you now, harlot!"
While Akahori ranted about name semantics and the trembling Battousai of Speed fell into her offensive stabbing stance once more... specifically when Tetsuo uttered the first syllable of the word "battoujutsu"... Soujiro charged towards the Fake Battousai just short of doing an outright Shukuchi and released his sheathed blade in one swift motion towards his waning foe's skinny neck.
"MORINAGA KAEDE! Stop fooling around! You're better than this!"
A voice from the corner of the room rasped, which woke the mesmerized Rin and Yahiko from the divineness of Soujiro's battoujutsu... a move powerful enough to cleave through Kenshin's first sakabatou... and pierced through the leaden denseness that filled the Battousai of Speed's shivering body.
"AMAKUSA! You're still alive? You should've died along with your foolish dreams," Akahori roared as his instinct beckoned him to reach for a nonexistent gun within his empty holster.
The sting of Tetsuo's sliced face radiated and swelled at the sight of the man who epitomized everything he hated about this superstitious and illogical world. 'I see. The god I tried to kill hasn't died yet. He still has a believer left.'
By barely a millimeter, Soujiro's ever-present smile wavered as his eyelids peeled back at their furthest and goose flesh appeared on his skin. By barely a millisecond, he faltered upon hearing the echoing shout from his employer's bitterest enemy, Shogo Amakusa.
This millimeter of emotion and millisecond of hesitation were all it took for the Fake Battousai to shift stances, cross her blades together, and stop the unsheathed sword's strike from completing its upward arc. The Vise Grip was a shirahadori technique that could rival Yahiko's own Hadome or Hadachi.
As though Death himself simultaneously gripped the spines of everyone else not involved in the duel, the gathered audience within the guestroom shuddered at the sight of Soujiro's self-taught battoujutsu stopped cold by the diminutive Kenshin doppelganger's twin blades.
'So Morinaga is her name,' thought Yahiko belatedly.
"Shogo-sama," Morinaga whispered like the summer breeze while tightening her grip on her dual weapons. For his part, Amakusa remained lying on the floor, the energy it took for him to shout out his words of encouragement rendering him unconscious in a snap.
Soujiro retrieved his blade before Kaede had a chance to disarm him. He then went back to the prowl, his pounding Shukuchi gallop exploding all over the room while the Fake Battousai stood stock-still.
Yahiko himself turned and saw Morinaga engulfed in what appeared to be foot-sized gunfire that turned the already crumbling floor into unevenly tilled soil and debris. The Ten Ken remained nowhere in sight.
'If you won't fall down on a single battoujutsu stroke, then how about this?' Soujiro reckoned before shouting, "Ryu Sou Sen!" and unleashing wild, random strikes that surrounded the Kenshin doppelganger and coincided well with his similarly untamed and unpredictable footwork.
Even without looking at the supine form of Shogo, the Battousai of Speed could still spot him in either corner of her eyes while she recalled his words that saved her life.
Morinaga didn't respond to Shogo's appeal with a "Yes, I will fight seriously this time around," but instead answered with the declaration of "Cancer Stance: Protective Shell," that rung louder to the barely conscious Christian leader's ears than any statement of agreement.
Every last strike Seta unleashed with the Dragon Nest Flash ended up parried, stopped, or otherwise deflected by the barrier-like technique that allowed the Fake Battousai to block from every corner and angle. Cracking open an oyster's shell would've been easier than penetrating through Morinaga's crablike defense.
'What the hell is going on?'
Both Yahiko's and Tetsuo's respective faces became as white as Rin's skin as they espied the spectacle before them. Although the Heaven Sword surrounded his opponent with multiple slashes aimed at the human body's vital points, not one of them could pierce the dense dome of whirling steel that shielded the weakened, rubber-legged assassin from harm.
Rin herself remained pokerfaced throughout the entire exchange, although this might be more because she couldn't discern what was happening right before her eyes thanks to her nearsightedness than actual apathy on her part.
"I don't care how fast you are, Ten Ken. As long as you keep aiming for my vital points, I'll be able to pinpoint your predictable strikes no matter how many or how random they are," Morinaga boasted, her blurry arms acting like rotating windmills amidst the furious air currents of a hurricane.
'What's happening? Only minutes ago, she was firing off all-or-nothing stabs at Seta-kun that missed more often that not. It's as if she's become a different fighter altogether!' Yahiko thought.
To be Continued...
Next: The Ten Ken exposed.
One theme I particularly liked about Rurouni Kenshin is how it doesn't showcase a particular belief or principle as absolutely right or absolutely wrong. For example, even though the author didn't really believe in how "practical" the Sekihoutai's principles were, he still gave them a fair shake.
Taas noo kahit kanino,