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This follows Beginning and is my speculation about how Hiko might have become an apprentice to the Hiten Mitsurugi style. Warning - there's a bit of violence here. Note: I used Hiko's alias from the manga for his real name. Just sort of an "executive decision" on my part.

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The old man smelled the smoke long before he saw the heat ripples in the air, and the scent borne on the wind made him turn aside from the road and cross between the fields toward the source. He knew those smells, the stench of burning wood and burning flesh. It could, perhaps, be a poor man's funeral pyre, but in these troubled times, he doubted it.

He picked his way easily along the rough, narrow path between the rice paddies, agile and straight for a man whose hair, worn loose and long, was snow-white and whose face was a study in the wrinkles and lines carved by a long life of many experiences. Even more white than his hair was the voluminous cape he wore, with a red collar like pointed wings obscuring much of his face from the side. Under the cape, his figure was hard to determine, but he was evidently broad-shouldered, and at his side was a sheathed sword with a noticeably plain hilt. He walked with the long sure strides of a much younger man toward what he was sure would be danger - even hoped would be danger, because if the burning meant what he believed, he hoped the villains were still within his grasp.

His hopes were realized. As the path rejoined another, smaller road, he could hear the fire ahead, crackling viciously, but not more viciously than the laughter of the men who had set it. Once he turned the next corner, he saw his prey. An isolated farm house was burning, almost consumed now, the flames roaring through the roof. Under the collapsed and burning lintel was the body of an adult, too badly burned to recognize as man or woman. The bodies of two men and of a boy about 12 years old were scattered in the yard, one man looking as if he'd been cut down trying to flee, the boy and the other man still holding the farm implements, a pitchfork and a woodchopper's axe, with which they'd tried to defend their home. The bandits who had killed them were still there, playfully pushing back and forth between them the farm's only survivor, a young woman weeping in terror, trying blindly to clutch her torn kimono over her breasts.

The villains numbered nine, six men and three boys, the boys all younger, even, than the dead child. Five of the grown men were playing with the girl while the sixth watched, their comments lewd and dangerous; two of the boys were watching them, laughing, while the third boy fastidiously cleaned his knife on the kimono of one of the slain farmers. The old man's mouth twitched in what almost became a sneer; then his face lost all trace of expression. He unfastened and tossed aside the white cloak, then stepped forward and waited, feet braced apart, to be noticed.

The fastidious boy noticed him first, but said nothing, simply leaned against the fence around the pigsty and waited, looking bored. Then another boy saw the old man, and shouted, tugging at the kimono of one of the bandits. In less than a second, he was the cynosure of all living eyes there, save the girl, who had fallen to the ground and covered her head with her arms.

One man stepped forward, a big bandit, built like a granite block. "Ah, Munoto, why are you shouting, you baby? I thought an army was here, and it's just some old man."

The old man ignored him. The big bandit was not the leader of this group. The leader stood behind the others, the watcher, now the only one there with wary eyes, and he carried a katana. A wandering, masterless samurai, then. There were few things more dangerous in all of Japan. If this troubled the old man, however, his face did not show it, nor did his blank dark stare.

Another of the bandits stepped forward, a man with a face like a toad's. "What the fuck are you doing here, old man?"

The old man's arms were folded before him, his sword still in its sheath, but he said with flat and unmistakable menace, "I am too late to accomplish my purpose, which was to save these people from murderers. However, I am not too late to avenge them."

This brought a wave of hilarity from the first five men and two of the boys. The third boy still looked bored, and the samurai's eyes had narrowed to slits. The five drew their swords, and the toadlike one said, "Is that so? All by yourself? And how do you plan to do that?"

"My plan won't matter to you," the old man said, and moved.

None of the five ever saw the sword drawn which killed them. The old man took a step forward, there was a flash of reflected sunlight, and the two men closest to him fell, blood spurting from their chests and bellies. He took another step and a half turn, and the man nearest him lost first his sword, with the arm still holding it, and then his head. At what seemed to be the exact same moment, the other two men fell in four pieces to the ground, their bodies cut neatly in half just at the waist.

Even as the boys nearest him realized what they'd seen and screamed, the singing of steel and a rush of air announced the furious ex-samurai's entrance into the fray. The old man found him a little tougher to kill. The man was a good fighter. It took him three attacks to finish the job.

He cleaned his sword on the kimono of his last victim. The two boys who had screamed were running away now, their bare feet kicking up puffs of dust in the road, one still screaming, the other saving his breath for more speed. The old man stared after them a moment, but decided to let them live, hoping they'd learned a lesson. Then he turned to the third boy, who was still leaning against the pigsty, still with that bored, faintly contemptuous expression on his thin face. The old man reached out, grabbed the boy's shirt, and lifted him from the ground as if he weighed no more than a leaf. "Aren't you afraid of me, little cur?"

The black eyes met his, fierce, direct, still contemptuous. "Of course I am. I'm not stupid."

"Then why are you still here, instead of running like your friends?"

"I want to understand how you did that."

"How I did what, brat?"

The boy gestured to the pieces of his former companions scattered about in the farm yard. "That. It happened so fast, I couldn't see how."

He dropped the boy, then slid the long, plain-hilted sword back into its sheath and turned away, walking toward the huddled shape of the young woman. "It takes a trained eye to see the movements of a Hiten Mitsurugi attack. You will never be able to do so."

"I will if I see it often enough," the boy's voice said firmly from directly behind him.

"And how do you propose to see it often enough?"

"I'll follow you wherever you go, and watch you."

"If you follow me two steps from this yard, I will kill you, as I killed your friends." He bent to touch the woman. She shuddered and drew back, an instinctive reaction. Then, through the matted tendrils of her hair, she saw his expression and reached out to him. He took her hand and drew her to her knees. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed so hard that her entire body shook. The old man told her, "You are unharmed, woman. And your family is avenged." After a few minutes her sobs lessened, and he lifted her to her feet. "Come with me to the village. Someone will care for you there." He glanced back at the boy, who was still staring at him, watchful and wary, but without any sign of real fear. Or of any remorse, either, even in the face of the girl's sorrow. The old man considered seriously whether to kill him or not; the boy read that in his face and suppressed a flinch, shifting his feet only once before becoming still again and lifting his chin, as if offering a target. The old man said, "Help me with her."

He didn't expect any help, but the boy stepped forward at once and took the woman's hand in both of his. "This way," he said, to the old man. "There's a temple. It's much closer than the village, and they will take care of her." He then led the woman, glancing back occasionally to be sure the old man was still with them, determined not to let him out of his sight.

The temple was less than two miles away, and the priests took the young woman into their care with sympathetic murmurs and tenderness. They told the old man the name of the group he had just wiped out, something to do with tigers, but it was lost in the vast number of such deeds he'd done in his life, and besides was a matter of little interest to him. Satisfied that the bereaved girl was in good hands, he left the temple compound and turned back in the direction from which he'd just come. The boy came right behind him. The old man whirled, so quickly the boy was startled into taking a step back. "I told you I'd kill you."

"You haven't yet. Are you going back? To bury them?"


"I'll help."

"Why do you want to do that?"

"You know why."

"Tell me anyway."

"I want to please you so that you will teach me to do what you just did."

"The principles of Hiten Mitsurugi are not for murderers and thieves."

"I'm not a murderer or a thief any more."

The old man's brows went up a fraction of an inch, and he stared at the boy for a long time. The boy's black eyes never dropped and never wavered. Finally the old man said, "What is your name?"

"Kakunoshin Niitsu."

"I am Seijuro Hiko, the twelfth of that name, Master of the Hiten Mitsurugi style. If you wish to learn it, you must give up a great deal more than murdering and thieving."

The boy nodded once, then said, "There is a shovel in that shed over there, but since you want me to give up thieving, we had better ask the priests for permission to use it."

"I think you should be silent unless I request that you speak," snapped the old man. "If you will go with me, your name is no longer Niitsu, it is baka deishi, and your mouth is the least worthy thing about you. So shut up." Then he turned back to the temple gates and asked the porter for the use of the shovel.

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