Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin or any of its characters. All I own is the freedom to imagine things related to them.
Chapter I: Reminiscence under the stars
A/N: This fic contains a flashback within a flashback. I've used an X------X marker to indicate the beginning and end of the first flashback and an XXX------XXX marker for the second one.
"The sky is clear today."
Said Hiko Seijuro XIII, as he calmly observed the sun sinking over the distant horizon.
Sipping sake by the lake shore and gazing at the sunset in the cool evenings had become his favourite pastime in the summer.
He contemplated the scenery unfolding before his eyes as the last rays of the closing sunset dyed the landscape in a reddish-amber hue. As they receded, he looked up at the darkening sky to see millions of stars twinkling down at him. Without any clouds to obstruct them, all the celestial constellations were visible in their full splendour.
For Hiko, this moment felt oddly nostalgic. He could remember a similar evening, many years ago, when he savoured his first taste of sake under the starlight.
He had been a different person then; a proud, haughty and arrogant young man in the springtime of his youth. Though if his baka deshi were to be believed he still retained many of the same qualities...
He spotted the crescent moon glowing among the stars. "Times change. People change. The only thing that doesn't change is the moon." he mused, taking in its familiar radiance.
Ten years... has it really been so long ...Shishou?
The red sun descended over the horizon, bathing the landscape in its dimming light. As the long summer day drew to a close, all seemed calm, save for a lone mountaintop where two robed figures clashed.
One was a man of normal height, dressed in robes vaguely reminiscent of a priest's garb. The other was a muscled giant, clad in a plain gi and hakama. The battle-cries of the two combatants and the clashing of their swords drowned out the noises of the chirping birds and insects all around them. Their blades took on a crimson glow in the light of the setting sun.
"RYU TSUI SEN!"
The robed man leaped high into the air and flipped over, positioning his sword above his opponent's head for a downward strike.
"RYU SHOU SEN!"
The giant leaped upwards to face his opponent's attack, raising his sword horizontally, edge-up, with his free hand supporting the blade near its tip.
The smaller man smiled briefly as he descended. He had noticed a flaw in his opponent's grip. Instead of clashing swords head on and meeting strength with strength, he swung his katana downwards in a wide arc, knocking the large man's weapon out of his hands.
Taking advantage of the giant's surprise, he landed both feet on his chest and placed a hand over his shoulder for balance. As they both descended, he raised his sword for a second strike. But before he could attack the large man lashed out in a forceful uppercut to his assailant's side. The robed man leaped off his opponent, rolling with the punch, and both men landed gracefully on their feet.
For a few moments, the two swordsmen sized each other up, panting with exhaustion.
"You seem tired, Shishou." The larger man said finally, his long brown hair drenched with sweat. "Maybe we should call it a day?"
"Don't get cocky with me, young man." The other one warned, not in the least intimidated by the fact that his opponent was nearly twice his size. "You're the one who'll be asking for a reprieve soon." He adjusted his glasses and gazed at his opponent analytically, as if seeking out an opening for his next attack. Seeing his hesitation, the large man went on the offensive.
"RYU SOU SEN!"
He lunged at his master with a series of successive swings aimed all over his body.
In a spilt second, the latter switched to a defensive stance, betraying no signs of surprise. He avoided the first two blows, pulled his sheathed wakizashi from his obi to parry the third, then leapt forward and struck the young man squarely in the collar bone with the hilt of his katana. "RYU SOU SEN - GARAMI!" Just as he struck, he felt the flat of his victim's nodachi descending upon his shoulder with an audible thump. Both fighters fell to the ground.
"A tie. Not bad, Kyouta." The middle-aged man said, smiling through clenched teeth as he rubbed his shoulder.
"Yeah, I'm incredible, aren't I?" Kyouta grinned weakly. "But I was holding back. Otherwise I'd have beaten you, Shishou!"
Hiko Seijuro XII rose first, shaking his head fondly at his boastful pupil. "You are indeed incredible...incredibly vain that is." Then he stared up at the sky. "It appears that there will be a clear sky tonight."
Kyouta followed his master's gaze. Surely enough, he couldn't see a single cloud in the summer sky. Though the sun was still visible behind the distant hills, the sky had darkened enough for the glimmer of stars to become visible.
"It is time for a respite. Come." Kyouta followed his master to the stone bench in the courtyard of the abandoned Shinto shrine that they called home.
Hiko retrieved his white cape from the bench and pulled out a leather jug and two large cups from its folds. When they were seated, he filled a cup and handed it to Kyouta.
Kyouta stared at the contents. "Shishou, this is..."
"Sake." His master finished. "And no ordinary sake either. It is a special vintage that is available only once in five years."
"But Shishou, I thought you disapproved of such..er, vices?" With some consternation he remembered the number of times his master had beaten him up for trying to sneak some into the shrine.
Hiko burst out laughing, something Kyouta found disconcerting given his normally stoic nature. He removed his sweaty glasses and wiped them against his robe, shaking his head. "Kyouta, what gave you that idea? I may read scriptures and recite prayers, but I am by no means a monk. Sake consumed in moderation will do you no harm. Drink up."
Kyouta looked down at his cup and slowly took a sip. "It tastes nice."
Hiko took a sip from his own cup. "Spring brings cherry blossoms to comfort you; the summer, stars; the harvest moon in fall, and the powdered snow in winter. All of these things, and the promise of them, is what makes sake taste delicious." he mused.
He turned to Kyouta. "Of course, I'm not sitting here having this drink with you solely to introduce you to the virtues of sake. Today is an important day for both of us."
Kyouta gave his master a questioning glance. What was so important about this day? They had just sparred as usual.
Hiko stroked his beard thoughtfully. When he spoke, it seemed as though he was measuring every word. "Kyouta, you are seventeen years old now. By Western reckoning, you have become a man, though by our standards you already achieved genpuku two years ago. Nevertheless I had originally planned on waiting another year before making this decision..."
Kyouta tensed. Could his master be saying what he thought he was?
Hiko appeared to have read his thoughts. "Yes. Today, or rather tonight, I am going to pass the succession technique of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū to you." He paused to let the surprise register on his pupil's face, then continued. "And should you master it, you truly will have become the greatest swordsman in Japan, instead of merely boasting about it."
Kyouta felt a mixture of apprehension and excitement. "Tonight? Meaning... now?"
"Yes. Now." Hiko stood up and walked back to the grassy compound where they had trained earlier. Kyouta followed, still caught in surprise.
"First, a brief review of kenjutsu." Hiko began. "You know about the nine vital points of the human body. In all the schools of kenjutsu there is no killing technique that does not aim for one of those points. Naturally the defensive stances were developed to correspond to these same nine points." Slowly, he drew his katana. "In the Hiten Mitsurugi school there is even a technique named the Ryu Sou Sen that targets all nine points randomly."
Hiko knew the technique well. It was his favourite.
"But as you know from experience, the Ryu Sou Sen is only effective against opponents who are slow to react. This is because it does not target all the points simultaneously. So with sufficient skill or speed, it can be parried." Hiko raised his sword in the middle stance.
"Stand still." he instructed Kyouta. "Even the slightest movement could cost you your life."
The next moment, he vanished from Kyouta's sight and he felt his body being touched several times in very rapid succession.
Hiko halted behind him, and Kyouta looked down to see nine small cuts at various points on his body.
"If you move with the Hiten Mitsurugi Godspeed and strike all nine points simultaneously there is no possibility of defence." his master explained. "This is the Kuzu Ryu Sen."
Kyouta's mouth hung open in awe, then quickly closed when he realised how stupid it made him look. Now he felt a rising sense of annoyance at his vulnerability. Even with his superhuman speed and strength, he could have done nothing to stop that attack. This was the Hiten Mitsurugi succession technique?
"Now it's your turn." Hiko smiled. "I showed you how it is done. Now try it yourself. Let's test your Kuzu Ryu Sen against mine."
Kyouta tried to recall his memory of his master's attack. He had always been skilled at analysing things, and soon he had all the movements mapped out in his head.
"KUZU RYU SEN!"
The two cries rang out in unison as master and student charged at each other faster than the untrained eye could see. As the two forces met, there was a flurry of clashing blades.
It ended with Kyouta knocked down to his knees. His master stood before him, panting. Hunched over, his head was barely higher than that of his tall pupil.
"It wasn't executed perfectly." he explained, seeing the surprise on his pupil's face. "You weren't concentrating hard enough. Consequently, the nine strikes were not performed instantaneously. That's why my strikes were able to parry yours and get through to you." Noting the disappointment in Kyouta's eyes, he added, "But it's all right. I didn't expect you to get it right on the first try. Do not waste time thinking about getting all the strikes right. Just do it. Any time gap between two successive strikes greater than a tenth of a second will result in failure."
Once again, they prepared themselves. This time Kyouta's eyes were narrowed in concentration. I've waited six years for this. I will master the technique now. Don't think...do.
"KUZU RYU SEN!"
This time Hiko was knocked off his feet. He landed several feet away with a loud crash.
"Shishou!" Kyouta cried out, his momentary exhilaration turned to fear. He had not considered that the duel would have such an outcome, considering that they had both used the same technique. He should have suppressed his strength.
Gingerly, Hiko picked himself up. Though the pain was evident on his face, he gave his pupil his usual gentle smile. "I'm all right. Just bruised." He sheathed his sword and picked up his glasses, which had been knocked off during the exchange.
But Kyouta's shock at his victory still remained. "But how-"
"Even with the same Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū and the same technique, if the fighters differ the force will be different too. In random attack techniques, it's your upper body strength that counts, and in charging techniques it's your weight." Hiko explained. "In both respects, you are overwhelmingly my superior. So my Kuzu Ryu Sen cannot beat yours head on. Well done, Kyouta. You've surpassed me."
Kyouta's concern turned to relief, soon replaced by joy and pride. He had mastered the succession technique. His training was complete. Now I'm a master too. He drew himself up, posing for no one in particular. He imagined wearing a long cape and strutting through town, addressed with respect by everyone. Master Kyouta. I like the sound of that.
Hiko observed his pupil's pretentious actions with a bemused grin. "Not so fast." he said. "You can't call yourself 'Master anything' yet. There's still one more technique left."
Kyouta frowned, annoyed at the interruption. What more could there possibly be?
"The greatest secret of the Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū," his master continued in a low voice. "The succession technique, the Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki."
As these words registered, Kyouta felt his face reddening in embarrassment. "You mean the Kuzu Ryu Sen isn't the succession technique?" Then all that pride and jubilation and magnificent posing was for nothing?
Hiko's eyes twinkled. "Is that what you thought? I never said anything of the sort."
It was infuriating how a boy...well, man of Kyouta's stature, talent and charisma was continually humbled by this comparatively plain and diminutive old man.
Hiko went on. "The Kuzu Ryu Sen wasn't originally created for real combat or training. It was conceived as a step in passing down the succession techniques, as a test. To learn the succession technique, first you begin with the Kuzu Ryu Sen. If you can beat the Kuzu Ryu Sen of the previous master using the succession technique, your mastery in the secrets of the school is complete."
Kyouta was puzzled. "What can possibly surpass a technique that attacks all nine vital points simultaneously?" Apart from another Kuzu Ryu Sen...
Hiko only smiled in reply. "You've learned from me well enough to find the answer yourself."
Kyouta carefully analysed the possibilities. The Kuzu Ryu Sen offers no chance for defence or escape. So the only way is to strike down the user before he has a chance to perform it.
So the answer was...."Battojutsu." he thought aloud, pleased with his genius.
"That is correct." said Hiko plainly. "Only a lightning fast battojutsu could strike quickly enough to defeat the Kuzu Ryu Sen before it even began. However," he added, "the Kuzu Ryu Sen is a Godspeed technique. In order to counter it, the battojutsu must also be performed at Godspeed. That is the true nature of the Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki."
Kyouta's face resumed its confused expression. "But Shishou, battojutsu can't be used with Godspeed. We both know that." he said matter-of-factly. The Hiten Mitsurugi Godspeed is based on the principle of instinctively reading your opponent's ki and body language and moving on your feet to counter them before they act. But as battojutsu is performed from a stationary position, this cannot be done except by altering the speed and direction of the blade.
Hiko shook his head. "What we know, Kyouta, is subjective and changes with time. I've told you enough. The answer lies in your mind. When your mind is ready, your body will be as well. The Hiten Mitsurugi succession technique is not something that is taught but something that the student must realise for himself in a test against his master."
He drew his sword. "Shall we begin?"
Then suddenly, the katana fell from his grip. With an exclamation, he clutched his wrist and hunched over in pain.
"Shishou!" All thoughts of mastering the Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū vanished from Kyouta's mind. "Are you all right?" Perhaps his Kuzu Ryu Sen had hurt his master worse than it had seemed. He felt a pang of guilt. I should have held back...
"Don't blame yourself." said Hiko, wincing painfully. "It's just that the strain of using the Kuzu Ryu Sen three times in a row, on top of everything else we did today, has cramped my muscles somewhat." He looked at Kyouta apologetically. "I'm afraid we'll have to put off the succession technique till tomorrow morning." Slowly, he bent down to pick up his sword and limped back to the stone bench where his cape lay folded.
The succession technique was far from the surface of Kyouta's mind. He was not convinced by Hiko's explanation. He had not seen his master in such a bad state for a long time. Although he had seemed weaker and more prone to tiredness in recent months...
"Shishou," He began apprehensively. "You're not well, are you?"
Hiko turned to face him as he re-adjusted his cape around his shoulders. "I suppose there is no point in hiding it from you any more." He smiled ruefully. "The reason I decided not to wait another year before teaching you the succession techniques is because I wasn't sure I would still be able to perform them by then."
Kyouta's eyes widened. "Why not?" What could be wrong with his master's health?
"The Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū," Hiko began wearily, "is by its very nature a superhuman sword art. It causes tremendous strain on the bodies of those who wield it. As such it is ideally suited to those who possess a perfect physical constitution," he gestured towards Kyouta. "a wide, muscular frame. Like yours."
He sighed wistfully. "Unfortunately, I was not so well endowed. My physique was a little above average at best. That did not stop me from learning and applying the techniques. However, a lifetime of practising the Hiten Mitsurugi gradually took its toll on my health. Add to that the many injuries I have accumulated over the years," he unconsciously rubbed his left shoulder, where Kyouta knew lay a massive scar. "some of which never fully healed, and it was only natural that my body would eventually reach its breaking point. Muscles atrophying, joints weakening..."
Kyouta gaped at his master, shocked by the confession.
Kyouta had always been unnaturally large for his age. As such it was no surprise that within a few years into his apprenticeship he had dwarfed his master in both size and strength. That made it all the more embarrassing how easily the comparatively diminutive master of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū could trounce him in a fight. For the arrogant, brash and (according to his master) narcissistic Kyouta, training under Hiko Seijuro XII was a humbling experience.
But in the past year, things had changed. More and more of their sparring matches ended in draws or even in victories for Kyouta. It seemed to him that his master was struggling harder to win as time passed. He had earlier vainly attributed that to his own growing physique and skill. Now he knew that wasn't all.
"Shishou, couldn't something be-"
"No." Hiko cut him off. "Although I do not have any regrets about it, it is too late to do anything. I am 43 years old now. In another three years, maybe four, I will no longer be able to use the Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū. I must fulfil my duty to you as your master before that happens."
Hiko stared at him in shock and concern. "Shishou-"
"In any case," Hiko continued, "I know now that you are ready for the technique. I was only worried about your mental preparedness. As a swordsman, you trail behind me only in skill and experience, and those will come with time. Physically you have already surpassed me in every way imaginable-"
"But I haven't." Kyouta interrupted. He loved being praised, but as humble as Hiko was, hearing his master belittle himself thus was painful. "You still tie or beat me all the time-"
"Only because of those 16 kan training weights you always wear underneath your clothes." Hiko reminded him. "I, on the other hand, have to take off my cape in order to fight you. How embarrassing..." He shook his head. "This weighted cape was worn by all those who bore the name of Hiko Seijuro in order to control the power of Hiten Mitsurugi in times of peace. It was taken off only during wartime. And here I am shedding it for routine sparring..."
He stood up and started walking back towards the main shrine building. "Night has fallen. I will prepare supper."
He paused briefly and turned back see Kyouta still standing there, lost in doubt. "Use the night to search your mind and see if you are ready. Know this: the course of your life shall be determined by tomorrow's test. If you fail, it will be forfeit." With this final warning he continued towards the building, showing no trace of his earlier limp.
Kyouta turned his attention to the stone bench and saw that his master had left the sake jug behind. He made his way to it and poured himself a cup. It tasted sweet. He sat down, cup in hand.
For a long time, Kyouta sat beneath the stars, taking an occasional sip of sake, lost in thought. He didn't bother going back for supper. Food was the farthest thing from his mind, and in his present state he wouldn't be able to work up an appetite even if he tried. For now, the sake was enough.
Was he ready? For six years, Kyouta had eagerly awaited a day like this, a day when his training would come to fruition. But now that it had arrived, he felt less sure. He gazed upwards, as if seeking his answers from the starry sky. He idly picked out the various constellations. OoGuma, KoGuma, Sasori, Katakana...
He sighed. This was getting him nowhere. Search my mind... well, Shishou always says that when searching for something, it's best to start at the beginning...
As the night wore on and the moon rose higher, Kyouta's mind drifted to the past, back to the day he began his life as a swordsman. Come to think of it, it was a clear sky that night as well...
Baka deshi: Idiotic pupil.
Gi and hakama: Traditional upper and lower body garments worn by Japanese men.
Katana: Most commonly known type of nihontō(Japanese sword), with a blade length of 70-73cm.
Wakizashi: A 'side sword', usually worn alongside the katana. Has a similar design but a shorter blade length of 30-60cm. Together with the katana, it formed the daishō of a samurai, representing his status and personal honour.
Nodachi: A two-handed great sword with a blade length greater than 90cm, usually worn on the back. Hiko Seijuro XIII/Kyouta's sword is never described in the manga and anime, but is most likely a nodachi from its length. However, thanks to his own size, he wears and wields it like a regular katana.
Shishou: A respectful way of addressing one's teacher. Equivalent to 'Master'.
Genpuku: Traditional coming-of-age for Japanese boys. In medieval Japan, a swordsman was said to attain genpuku at the age of 15.
Kan: A traditional Japanese measure of weight. 1 kan = 3.75kg(approx.)
OoGuma: The Japanese name for Ursa Major/Great Bear.
KoGuma: The Japanese name for Ursa Minor/Little Bear.
Sasori: The Japanese name for Scorpius.
Katakana: The Japanese name for Andromeda. Not sure if these same names were used back in mid-19th century Japan, though.
Author's note: I've actually been plotting this fic for over a month. The anime and manga say absolutely nothing about Hiko Seijuro's past, and the idea of a backstory for Kenshin's master has always intrigued me. What kind of man was Hiko Seijuro XIII? I originally intended this as a flashback chapter in my other fic "The Birth of a Swordheart" that details Kenshin's days with Hiko and had already written about two-thirds of it, but seeing the incredible length it had reached while typing, along with the fact that Kenshin only makes a cameo appearance, I decided to save it for a separate fic later. Due to various reasons I have not found the time or the will to finish it in the past month. Now I'm finally close ot completing it. Due to the length and the fact that it's still incomplete I'm releasing it in multiple chapters. Hopefully I'll have the remaining ones out by the end of the week.
For those who are interested in such things, I'll be including a complete character description for both young Hiko and his master in a separate 'chapter' at the end of this fic. Creating them and their story was a detailed process that took months of thinking and reasoning. It's long enough to fill an entire chapter, so I can't include it all here. For now, I'll reveal two things. One, that Hiko's original name 'Kyouta' was created by combining the word 'Kyou', which means 'strength', with the suffix 'ta', which adds the adjective 'great'. It probably doesn't sound very authentic, but I have very little knowledge of Japanese and just wanted to come up with a nice sounding name that meant 'great strength'. Credit goes to raberbagirl and Scarred swordheart for helping me come up with the name. The second thing is that I wanted Hiko's master to contrast him in the same way as he contrasted Kenshin.
EDIT: I lengthened the opening fight scene between Hiko XII and Kyouta to illustrate the differences in their fighting styles. I like to think that each of the 13 Hikos had their own personal variations of the Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū. I envisioned Hiko XII as the kind of fighter who would use his opponent's own strength against them and take advantage of flaws in their technique, similar to the principles of Ai-kiken. On the other hand Hiko XIII seemed to me to be the kind of guy who'd make more use of brute force(being superhumanly strong) and incorporate unarmed combat, to some extent, into his style(like the kick he gave Kenshin when they sparred). I haven't been able to emphasise these differences as much as I'd like, though. I also gave Hiko XII a pair of glasses. I thought it would suit his more gentle and thoughful(as intended by me anyway) nature.
PS: Please Review.