by Talya Firedancer
As they say, a long time ago and far, far away...
The sprawling outskirts of old Edo were edged with forest that stretched for miles, thickets and thorny underbrush that were difficult to penetrate and discouraged travelers. In one particular place, a single path wove through the darkness cast by the tightly intertwined branches of trees that towered high above; just the one path that led to a house deep in the woods.
It was on this path on the outskirts of Edo that the young innocent fledgling, Akazukin Sano, found himself treading one day.
The Akazukin Sano was a brawler, and a damn good one renowned throughout the suburbs of Edo for the mighty strength of his fist. He was still young, though, and not quite wise to some realities of life. For a brawler, and a gambler, he was pretty idealistic from time to time.
Akazukin Sano's nickname came from the red bandana wound around his brow. He had never been seen without it, from the first day he set foot in Edo. Local legend had it, he'd killed a hundred men and his formerly-white headband was stained with the blood from wiping his fingers across his sweaty brow.
Really, it was just a keepsake from his beloved Captain, but Akazukin Sano didn't discourage the rumors. Anything to make him look tougher was a good thing, right?
At any rate, today Akazukin Sano tread the path through the darkness that led through the woods in the outskirts of Edo for a reason. Not that he would tread the path without a reason, mind. Usually the kind of reason motivating Akazukin Sano would be food. Or a chance to fight. Akazukin Sano was a fledgling of simple pleasures.
Today, however, it was to visit an old comrade.
The comrade wasn't sick or anything like that. Akazukin Sano wasn't the type of guy to bring baskets of food to ailing grandmothers. For one thing, he didn't have that kind of money. Or an ailing grandmother. Or the cooking ability, for that matter. No, Akazukin Sano was visiting the home of Katsu, a former mate of his under his beloved Captain's command. A former mate whom he owed a lot of money.
A very LOT of money.
Akazukin Sano trudged up the path, hands buried in his (woefully, obviously) empty pockets. If it were a case of simply saying he still didn't have the money to pay Katsu back, that would be one thing. The shameful truth was, he'd gotten the money to pay him back by doing a little freelance rockbreaking work. Akazukin Sano was a pretty fair hand, er, fist, at breaking rocks and totally pulverizing them to dust.
Now he needed to beg Katsu's forgiveness for losing all of that money on the dicing floors in eastern Edo.
"Sorry, Katsu," Akazukin Sano muttered, practicing the sound of the apology. "No, that's not quite right...more humble...it was a LOT of money..."
"WAHH!" Akazukin Sano started violently, chopping his fists in short punches, then falling into a half-crouch. "Who the hell!?"
A Wolf peered at him with narrowed amber eyes from a nearby patch of brush, then emerged.
More specifically, one of Mibu's Wolves, who looked remarkably human for such a lupine strain. A bit of exposition is called for. Mibu's Wolves weren't just any pack of wolves. They roamed the forest prowling for good things to eat, and amused themselves with their favorite game, 'Aku Soku Zan,' which involved killing people with guilty consciences.
They had plenty to amuse themselves with around Edo.
"Such a fledgling akazukin," the Wolf drawled, narrowing his already narrow slits of eyes. "What are you doing, walking around in a dangerous forest like this?"
"Hey, you!" Akazukin Sano bristled, ready to take umbrage at any possible insult to his manliness. "The hell do you mean by that?"
"I merely ask what your intentions are," the Wolf said politely, eyes closed in an unsettling smile. "I'm interested, you see."
"Ahh...okay," Akazukin Sano said, a bit disturbed but otherwise unwary. He hadn't been stopped in the woods by many niko-nikoing wolves, so he had no basis for comparison. "I'm goin' up the path to my old buddy Katsu's place."
"Is that so?" the Wolf replied, fixing Sano with a direct look now. "Katsu, the Revolutionary-Sympathizer, expert bomb manufacturer who partakes in anti-government literature, that Katsu?"
"Yeah...I guess," Sano said, scratching at his bottlebrush-brown hair. "Uh, why?"
"No particular reason," the Wolf said, smiling in that unsettling way again. "Well, then, if you'll excuse me..."
"Uh, okay..." Sano said, staring as the Wolf melted into the thickness of the brush with barely a flicker. He'd never seen someone move so silently, yet quickly. "Damn, that guy's technique..." It bothered him to admit he was interested, even to himself.
Akazukin Sano continued through the woods, hands behind his head, chewing on a sprig of bamboo he'd nicked from a passing stand of the stuff.
"Gotta hurry up and get to Katsu's..." he mumbled to himself. He had to make it back to Edo before dark. It wasn't so much that he needed to get home; there was nothing at his place to get back to. Nothing, no food, no hot babes in the sack, no opportunity to recoup the amount of money he'd gambled away.
No, he had to get back to Edo before dark 'cause if he didn't, the Missy and her sidekicks would eat hot beef-pots without him, and he hated that. Hated it! He was rightfully entitled to mooching off the Missy whenever possible.
"Ahh, I can't let them eat without me!" Akazukin Sano clenched his fist, stewing for a moment at the very thought, then sped up the path as fast as his legs would take him.
Further along in the dark woods in which the light of day barely penetrated through the thickly-interlaced branches of the trees that towered high above, the Wolf of Mibu schemed. His plans were falling into place.
"Former third division captain of the Shinsen Gumi, Saitou Hajime!" Katsu the Revolutionary-Sympathizer ground out, glaring into the amber eyes of the Wolf.
"Take him away," the Wolf ordered with a wave of his gloved hand. Recall, for such a lupine strain Mibu's wolves looked remarkably human.
"You bastard!" Katsu struggled in his bonds as he was led off by two apologetically insistent policemen. "The press will hear of this!"
"Oh, I doubt it," the Wolf replied. "You'll be released if all goes well, but it's perfectly legal to jail you upon finding these in your household." The Wolf displayed a handful of pineapple bombs with a smirk.
"Damned Wolf of Mibu..." Katsu snarled, then bowed his head as the policemen led him off by the back route, which was strangely enough the faster path from the dark woods to Edo.
"Aku Soku Zan," the Wolf replied, raising a hand to his brow. In reality, he wasn't going to kill Katsu, only toy with him. But it would be a humbling experience to spend a few days in jail. "You really shouldn't be manufacturing illegal weapons in your own hut."
The Wolf cast a glance around the single-room hut. He was hungry. Katsu might have made a tasty mouthful or two, but his real purpose in coming here had been to lay a trap for the fledgling, Akazukin Sano. Despite his idiotic demeanor, he had potential. He'd seen the akazukin breaking rocks the other day, and it didn't seem to be dumb luck. He'd done it three times in a row as the Wolf watched.
"Now, let's see..." His eye fell on the Western-style bed in the corner. Amber eyes gleamed.
Once again meanwhile...
Akazukin Sano came to a halt, planting his fists on his hips. "Made it!" he declared, surprising even himself. Usually it took him hours, even days, to find Katsu's place, even though the path seemingly took a straight line. He was used to seeing landmarks at least three times before he arrived at his destination. It was something he'd resigned himself to.
"Oi, Katsu, you in there?"
"I've been waiting for you," a strangely-pitched voice replied.
Akazukin Sano squinted. It sounded like someone was trying to imitate his good friend Katsu. Eh, well. Maybe there was food inside, he was starved. It might be good to eat before breaking such unlucky news to Katsu. He shrugged and pushed the door open. He blinked in startlement. "Uh, Katsu, you sick?"
"Something like that," 'Katsu' replied, leaning on one elbow as he lounged under the covers of the Western-style bed.
"Katsu...why are your eyes so slanty and narrow?" Akazukin Sano quizzed, suspicion entering his brain like a sliver. Something just didn't seem right.
"These are the eyes I was born with," 'Katsu,' no, the Wolf replied with an evil smile.
"And, Katsu, why is your hair so short...and with those four funny strands in front?" Sano asked, puzzled. His good friend Katsu had worn his hair long since he was eight.
"This is the hair I was born with, and I do what I like," the Wolf told him, eyes narrowing further. This wasn't going exactly as he'd planned. Apparently Akazukin Sano was a bit slow.
"Then, Katsu, why is your mouth so...wide? And why are you grinning like that?" Akazukin Sano asked, backing up a step. He was met with the wall, and could go no further.
"Dumbass," the Wolf declared, throwing back the covers and leaping from the bed. "The better to eat you with, Akazukin Sano! Now, you've made me wait long enough by playing dumb."
'Playing?' was Sano's last thought, and then the Wolf was upon him.
Yet once more meanwhile...
Deep in the woods surrounding the outskirts of Edo, where the darkness cast by the tightly intertwined branches of trees that towered high above, a red-haired Hunter wielded a sword to bring game home to the table. Of course, because the red-haired Hunter wielded not just any sword, but a reverse-blade sword, he brought precious little game home. This was why those of the Kamiya Dojo ate out, having hot beef pots at the Akabeko all the time.
That, and the legendary deadliness of Miss Kamiya Kaoru's cooking.
The red-headed Hunter sighed, resting his reverse-blade sword on his shoulder and staring morosely into the darkness created by the intertwined branches of the wood. "I guess as I thought it's tofu again, that it is," the red-haired Hunter said, dispirited at the thought. That meant he would have to trudge all the way into the heart of Edo to collect the tofu, only to have Miss Kaoru cook it.
"A dreadful prospect indeed, that it is," the red-haired Hunter groaned.
His stomach growled. "I should hurry, that I should," the red-haired Hunter decided, setting off for the most direct path out of the woods...the back route, which led past Katsu the Revolutionary-Sympathizer's place.
"AAAGH! AHH, GOD!"
The red-haired Hunter's head snapped up at the sound of the hoarse cry. "Someone needs help!" He sheathed his sword, breaking into a sprint. Aside from taking his sword into the heart of the dark wood in futile attempts to bring back provender, the red-haired Hunter was an active philanthropist, who was unable to turn aside the cry of any person in need. He didn't even punish the bad guys; his weapon was a reverse-blade sword.
Reaching the domicile of Katsu the Revolutionary-Sympathizer, the red-haired Hunter threw himself against the door.
He bounced off it and landed with an undignified thud on the one path that led to the house deep in the woods.
"I'm really too frail and slender to be cast in such roles, that I am," the red-haired Hunter muttered, picking himself up and dusting his hakama off. With a sigh, he turned the knob to enter the hut. It opened with no trouble. "Ahh, I should have suspected, that I should."
The red-haired Hunter burst through the door, gripping the sheath of his reverse-blade sword, prepared to execute one of his deadly and swift moves once he'd apprised the situation. That is, it would have been a deadly move had he not been using a reverse-blade sword.
"I'm here, that I am!" the red-haired Hunter proclaimed, filling half of the doorway (for he was short of stature) and striking a quick-draw pose, for which he was famous. The quick-draw stance, that is; not for being short of stature.
The red-haired Hunter's eyes widened as he apprised the situation.
"Now that you're here, would you please turn around and leave?" the Wolf requested politely, lifting his head from where he'd been engaged in devouring Akazukin Sano.
"Former third division captain of the Shinsen Gumi...Saitou Hajime," the red-haired Hunter uttered, slipping from his quick-draw stance to a more passive one. His expression was slack with shock.
"You must be the non-killing wanderer I've heard so much about," the Wolf Saitou returned, then narrowed his eyes at the intruder. "Would you please withdraw? As you can see, I'm busy, and you're in no shape to fight me with a sword like that."
"You're a demon," the red-haired Hunter proclaimed, averting his face from the sight of the Wolf and his naked 'meal.' "What have you done with Katsu, the Revolutionary-Sympathizer who lived here?"
"Hey, yeah!" Akazukin Sano interjected, levering himself on one elbow. His brow glistened with sweat but he was nevertheless determined to find out what had happened to his good friend. Now that the thought occurred to him, that is. "What've you done with Katsu, you pointy-eyed bastard?"
"Relax, both of you," the Wolf said with a sigh. "I haven't eaten him. He's relaxing by now in a jail in Edo for the night...he'll be released once I'm done with Akazukin Sano."
Akazukin Sano had relaxed at the proclamation that the Wolf hadn't eaten Katsu, immeasurably and oddly relieved at the thought. "Ah, well, then that's all right," he said, relaxing on the Western bed once more. "He'll get a decent free meal and a night of sleep without the stink of gunpowder in the air."
"Well, then," the Wolf said, raising one eyebrow at the red-headed Hunter. "Will you leave me to my prey?"
"That I will," the red-haired Hunter decided, backing up with both hands in the air. "As he appears to be in full cooperation of your eating him, I will withdraw."
And the red-headed Hunter retreated, slamming the door behind him.
"Hey..." Akazukin Sano half-rose from the Western bed again, one hand reaching out. "So...wait...was this whole thing a ruse? Does that mean you're not really a Wolf? And what about--" His hand formed a fist.
"Dumbass," the Wolf Saitou replied, pinning his fist to the bed...and bent to 'eat' him again.
In conclusion as they say, they lived happily ever after...