October 9, 1862
On a crisp, clear fall day a tall, muscular man and a short, slender boy stood across from each other, each one brandishing a sword before himself. The large man's breathing was steady and rhythmic; the boy's came in gasps and pants.
"Attack me again!" barked the large man.
The boy needed no persuasion as he charged at the large man and leapt upward, hilt gripped in his right hand, blade in the palm of his left. The boy's eyes blazed as he threw all of his strength into the upswing, hoping that this would be the time he would be able to get past his Master's defense and strike a blow.
Hiko Seijuro XIII felt the vicious upswing of Kenshin's Ryu Sho Sen and the force with which the boy's blade met his as he blocked his student. For a moment, master and student were at an impasse, Hiko pushing down and Kenshin pushing up with equal force. Then the moment ended and Hiko was able to bat Kenshin away as always, Kenshin skidding back, but maintaining his footing.
Master and student regarded each other, Hiko's expression neutral, Kenshin's jaw set and violet eyes ablaze.
"Hm. That Ryu Sho Sen was actually worth my attention," the swordmaster smirked. "Maybe training you hasn't been a complete waste of time after all."
Was Kenshin mishearing, or had the Master actually paid him a compliment (albeit a backhanded one)?
"What's the matter, boy? I pay you one compliment and your legs stop working?" Hiko asked.
Immediately, the look of dumbfounded amazement was replaced by a look of determination and Kenshin charged forward with renewed effort. Each time they clashed, Kenshin could see in his Master's eyes that his attacks were beginning to have some significance. Still, he couldn't connect, but there was a growing strength in his sword.
'One day soon, Master, I will land a blow on you,' Kenshin thought as he and Hiko locked blades again and again.
October 10, 1862
It was time once again for Kenshin to go down the mountain and into the village to buy the month's supplies for himself and Hiko. Kenshin was proud to go down to the village alone, which Hiko had started permitting him to do after his 13th new year. One thing that still niggled at him though, was that Hiko always made him leave his katana behind when he left the mountain.
However, yesterday, Hiko had actually acknowledged one of his attacks for the first time. In Kenshin's eyes, this meant that he was ready to carry his katana everywhere, just like Hiko did. His heart swelled with pride at the memory of yesterday.
"And where does my idiot apprentice think he's going?" came Hiko's voice from behind Kenshin just as the boy put his hand on the hikido's handle.
Kenshin flinched in startlement. It frustrated him that Hiko was still able to sneak up on him like this even though he had mastered the ability to detect ki two years ago.
"To the village to get our supplies like you told me to yesterday," Kenshin huffed with a bit of annoyance.
"Not with that at your waist," said Hiko, pointing to Kenshin's katana. "Hand it over."
"Master, please! I'm ready to..."
"You're ready when I say you're ready and not a moment before," said the immovable Hiko, hand outstretched. "Let's have it."
Kenshin raised his eyes and glared at his Master, who glared right back. Kenshin sent out a small burst of ki to try to intimidate Hiko, who immediately answered with a burst strong enough to cause Kenshin to flinch back against the hikido.
"Don't make me take it by force," the swordmaster growled, hand still outstretched.
With a sigh of frustration and defeat, Kenshin lowered his eyes. He knew he couldn't win a physical confrontation with the Master. Eyes burning with outrage and indignation, Kenshin slid the katana from his belt and put it in Hiko's outstretched hand. Fists clenched at his sides, Kenshin turned his back on Hiko and walked stiffly down the mountain to get their supplies.
'Watch how much your ego inflates, boy. I won't hesitate to pop it if I feel the need to,' Hiko thought as he watched Kenshin disappear behind the trees.
November 10, 1862
It was once again time for Kenshin to go down the mountain to get supplies for himself and Hiko from the village. Kenshin slid his katana into his belt and cautiously slid his door open, glancing around the main room of the hut. Hiko was nowhere to be seen. Kenshin quickly made his way through the main room and stepped down into his sandals. Sliding the wooden hikido open, he cautiously surveyed the land before him. All was still with no sign of the Master anywhere. Perfect.
Kenshin stepped outside, turned around and slid the hikido shut, turned to leave and... walked right into Hiko's chest.
"Hand it over..."
With a sigh of defeat, Kenshin slid his katana from his belt and handed it to Hiko, who immediately stepped past him to go indoors.
Kenshin turned and called in the doorway.
"What do I have to do?" Kenshin asked.
"To be allowed to carry my katana freely?" Kenshin elaborated.
Hiko looked over his shoulder at the boy. He had anticipated another argument followed by a day spent silently sulking, as had been the case last month. He hadn't anticipated Kenshin actually thinking to ask him what he could do to earn more freedom. Since Kenshin had shown some maturity, Hiko decided to give the boy a break, sort of.
"When you can land a blow on me in battle, I'll let you carry your sword at will," he answered simply.
Kenshin tensed in frustration. He had been training for over four years and had yet to land a blow on the Master in battle. It seemed like an impossible thing to do, as Hiko was at least four times his size. Yet how could he truly call himself a swordsman when he couldn't even touch his Master? Maybe that was the difference between a true swordsman and a mere apprentice.
"Hurry up and get those supplies!" said Hiko, sharply recalling Kenshin to reality. "When you get back, I have a new move to teach you."
Kenshin's head snapped up and his whole being seemed to glow. If anything could lift Kenshin out of a sullen spell, it was the prospect of learning a new move. With a sharp nod, the boy turned on his heel and dashed off toward the trail to the village.
Hiko smiled and shook his head as he slid the wooden hikido shut.
Accordingly, when Kenshin returned and had put away the supplies (including several jugs of sake), the boy retrieved his katana and followed Hiko to the training ground. Kenshin sat in seiza and awaited the Master's instruction.
"Alright, Kenshin. You've gotten pretty decent with battoujutsu, leaps and thrusts," Hiko began. "Now I will show you one move where you can defeat your opponent without ever touching him with your sword."
"Oro?" went Kenshin.
How was such a thing even possible?
Hiko raised his nihonto over his head and swung its blade down, hitting the ground and sending soil and grass flying up, pelting Kenshin from head to toe.
Kenshin shook his head, wiped the dirt off his face and spat several clods of soil out of his mouth. How had Hiko been able to strike him without touching him with the blade?
"That was Hiten Mitsurugi's Do Ryu Sen," explained Hiko, "a sword strike that channels the wielder's ki through the blade and into the ground, sending rocks, snow, ice or anything else on the ground flying into the air and at their opponent. It is most effective at taking out a large group of enemies surrounding you, or a single enemy at a distance. This is a move of minimum effort and maximum result for a swordsman who has mastered their ki to the high level I have."
Nodding, Kenshin got to his feet and unsheathed his sword. He raised his katana over his head as he had seen Hiko do. Closing his eyes, he focused all his energy, envisioning it flowing from his body, through his blade and into the earth. Kenshin's eyes snapped open and he swung the blade down while forcing his ki through his right arm and into the blade.
"HITEN MITSURUGI RYU - DO RYU SEN!"
"You idiot," sighed Hiko. "Your ki backfired and hit you instead of the ground. Do I have to give you remedial ki lessons?"
"No, Master," said Kenshin, shaking himself off and getting to his feet. "I'll get it this time."
"HITEN MITSURUGI RYU - DO RYU SEN!"
THUD! THUD! THUD! THUD! THUD! THUD! THUD!
"Kami-sama," mumbled Hiko, taking a swig of sake.
Kenshin spent the rest of the day striking the ground with his blade and attempting to channel his ki through it, only to have it either backfire on him or sputter out all together. A few times, he was able to make a pebble roll a few feet, but otherwise, he met with failure.
That night, it was a very quiet and subdued Kenshin who followed an equally quiet Hiko back to the hut. Never before had Kenshin met with such dismal failure when learning a new sword move. It was something that shocked Master and student equally. Not a word was spoken as the two of them ate, cleaned up and turned in for the night.
November, 1862 - February, 1863
Over the last of the fall and through the winter, whenever he had a spare moment, Kenshin would go off by himself and work on the Do Ryu Sen, but it never seemed to improve. At the end of each practice session, Kenshin would have to wash dirt and grime out of his face and hair at the river. Each night, he would return to the hut, face wet and pale, eyes downcast.
By January, even Hiko began to worry. Try as he might, Kenshin just couldn't seem to get the Do Ryu Sen to work. At the rate Kenshin had been progressing up till now, Hiko had hoped to begin instructing him in the secrets some time in the upcoming year. Until the Do Ryu Sen was mastered, Kenshin's training was at an impasse.
Finally, in February, Hiko decided that he would have to do something about his student's inability to master the stubborn sword move.
On a cold, sunny February morning, Hiko waited outside the hikido to Kenshin's room. As soon as the hikido slid open, Hiko caught his apprentice up by the collar of his gi.
"No talk," said Hiko as he carried the confused redhead outside with him.
Kenshin didn't speak or struggle. Instead he remained quiet and wondered what Hiko was doing as the Master carried him out to the training grounds. When they were there, Hiko dropped Kenshin to the ground.
Kenshin landed on his feet and flashed his Master a dirty look.
"Alright, Kenshin. This is getting ridiculous. Every other move I've shown you, you were able to master in a month. I don't see why the Do Ryu Sen should be any different," Hiko began.
"Master..." Kenshin began.
"But obviously, it is," Hiko continued, plowing over his student's words. "So this is what it boils down to: I can't continue your training until you can execute this move. If I can't train you, you're technically not my student..."
Kenshin's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. In the past, Hiko had jokingly threatened to get himself a new pupil sometimes, but this time there was no humor in his voice or ki.
"So since I can't train you, I have no obligation to feed or shelter you," Hiko continued. "Until you can perform the Do Ryu Sen, you're not to set a foot inside my hut."
"Master! That's not fair!" cried Kenshin.
"You're right. It's not fair that I sink four years of my life into teaching swordsmanship to a blockhead like you and then have him fail on one of the final moves," returned Hiko, jabbing a finger at Kenshin. "So if you can't perform it by Spring, don't bother showing your face around here anymore."
Kenshin watched dumbfounded as Hiko turned his back and began walking back to the hut, which had the warm fire crackling in the pit and the miso cooking on it. And here Kenshin was to be consigned to the snowy outdoors, to die of starvation or exposure just because he hadn't been able to perform this damn sword move that he had been busting his ass all winter trying to master!
Kenshin felt rage and indignation toward his arrogant Master boil up in his heart. Before he knew what he was doing, Kenshin yanked the katana from its sheath, raised it over his head and struck the ground for all he was worth.
"DO RYU SEN!"
The ground split, rocks and dirt flying up in a straight line toward Hiko's retreating form.
Hiko felt the spiked ki, heard the cry and could now feel the agitated ki channeling through the ground straight at him. Just as it was about to strike him, Hiko leapt into the air. As Hiko was flying through the air, he felt something strike his left arm, just above his gauntlet. The swordmaster landed on his feet behind Kenshin and immediately looked down at his arm. Embedded in the skin was a small, but decidedly sharp pebble.
'Well, well...' Hiko thought to himself.
Kenshin looked in horror at the torn up ground in front of him and the empty field where the Master had been just a moment before.
'What have I done?' he cried out in his mind, dropping his katana.
"Master... forgive me..."
"What are you babbling about, idiot?" came the strong voice from behind him.
"Oro!" Kenshin yelped and spun around.
Standing behind him, not a hair out of place, was the Master.
"Master!" Kenshin cried happily, running toward him, arms outstretched.
At the last moment, Hiko stepped aside and let Kenshin fall facefirst into the snow.
"I only hug women," Hiko said.
"Sorry, Master," said Kenshin, peeling himself off the ground and wiping the snow from his face. "I thought..."
"You thought you'd killed me? Fat chance, boy," Hiko smirked. "However..."
Hiko held out his left arm with the pebble still embedded in it for the boy to see. Carefully, he pulled the pebble out of the skin, allowing a few drops of blood to trickle from the tiny wound.
Kenshin's eyes widened and his jaw dropped at the sight of the scratch, which to an onlooker, would seem as insignificant as a mosquito bite.
"O... ro? Did I...?"
"It seems you put enough outraged ki in that Do Ryu Sen to send that pebble high enough to strike me in the air. I wouldn't call it perfect, but a strike is a strike and a promise is a promise. From now on, the katana is yours to carry at will," said Hiko, withdrawing his arm back into his cape.
Even though he had seen it, Kenshin still couldn't believe it. He had actually landed a strike on Hiko! This was something that had been a long time coming.
"If I'd known all I had to do was get you mad at me to bring that out of you, I would have kicked you out of the hut a lot sooner," said Hiko.
Kenshin veinpopped. The Master had done this on purpose...
"Master!" he cried indignantly.
"Well, it worked, didn't it?" asked Hiko, turning to leave.
When Kenshin failed to follow, Hiko looked over his shoulder at where the boy rigidly stood, glaring after him.
"Do you plan on freezing your ass off out here, or were you going to eat some breakfast with me?" he asked.
"Yes, Master," sighed Kenshin, picking up his katana, falling in line behind Hiko and following him back to the hut.
"The Do Ryu Sen was the last of Hiten Mitsurugi's regular forms," Hiko continued. "Now that you can perform it, we'll refine your technique with it over the next few weeks and then I'll be able to start training you in the secret moves this summer."
Kenshin's mouth opened in surprise. That was it? His training was all but finished, aside from the secret moves? It seemed like just yesterday, he had been a tiny, frail boy struggling to keep his grip on the heavy sword when he and the Master sparred. Now, he was at the precipice of full mastery of the school he had trained body and soul in for four years.
March 1, 1863
Hiko swung his nihontou down toward Kenshin, only to hit thin air. Quite the next moment, he felt a blade bite into the skin of his right forearm. Immediately, he turned and repulsed the attacker, knocking Kenshin back a good ten feet. The 14-year-old flipped as he flew through the air and landed on his feet, immediately charging forward again.
"Hold on!" Hiko barked.
Kenshin immediately stopped his charge and lowered his katana, wondering why the Master would call a timeout in the middle of a spar. His question was answered when Hiko held up his right arm, which was marred with a barely perceptible scratch.
"Well, Kenshin," the swordmaster began. "Not bad at all. After four years, your blade has finally cut my flesh."
To the diminutive Kenshin, who had always been at the mercy of his Master's much greater stature and power, this was his greatest accomplishment. It had taken four long years of hard training and debasement, but finally he had managed to break past the Master's defenses just enough to land that mark.
"That's enough for today," said Hiko, retracting his arm. "You have the rest of the day free. You've earned it."
"Thank you, Master," said Kenshin with a bow before turning and trotting off lest Hiko change his mind.
Hiko smiled when he saw Kenshin's right fist pump into the air in celebration as the boy ran off for the wide fields beyond the tree line.
'I might make a swordsman out of that runt yet,' Hiko thought as he took a swig of sake.