Chapter 09

Hiei followed Yoko to the plot where demons with swords and whips sparred against each other and held his awe in check as Yoko let out a short, sharp whistle that rose above the clang of weapons. All activity halted and his Solo motioned a small kitsune over to them.

“This,” Yoko said, “is my cousin Marn. He is the only demon in the makai I trust with a whip. His mastery of the weapon is second only to mine.”

Hiei took in the small kitsune and kept his comments to himself. Marn was an inch taller than him, a couple inches thicker, and exuded a nervous energy that contradicted what Yoko was saying. He gave a mental shrug. His Solo had no reason to lie to him. And he himself had benefited on multiple occasions from being underestimated. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder if the little kitsune was really that good.

Marn flashed a nervous grin at Yoko. “This the one?” he asked, voice laden with contempt. It was a weird contrast. “He is too small for you.” Marn eyed Hiei, squelching his nose in distaste. “The whip you wield will cleave him in half.”

Yoko rolled his eyes. “His size is perfect and you know that. Say what you mean.”

Marn faced Hiei fully. “You are an error,” he said, disgust lacing his words. “I don’t wish to teach you these skills.”

Hiei swallowed hard against the sudden anger and resentment that rose up in him at those words. He’d spent decades running away from demons like Marn, the demons who couldn’t see past their contempt for his existence. He hadn’t been prepared to face it here. He’d gotten careless. Chancing a sidelong glance at Yoko told him nothing; there was no clue as to how he was supposed to play this. For all he knew, responding the way he wanted to would warrant punishment. He settled for glaring, smirking when Marn dropped his eyes first.

Yoko chuckled. “You’re going to be great friends, I can tell. Marn, don’t kill him. And you will teach him.”

“Chh. Only because you ask it of me. Not because he is worth teaching.”

“Let him prove that for himself,” Yoko said. “He may surprise you.”

Hiei flushed, the subtle praise making the situation more bearable. He sighed. Two weeks was too long to spend in Marn’s company. But he’d do it-if only to prove to himself and to Yoko that he could.

Marn waited until Yoko left the grounds before he spoke again. “I will be upfront with you. Yoko has had many demons try to partner with him and they have all failed. No one has lasted over a day.”

Hiei blinked at the suddenly chummy tone Marn was using. “Didn’t you just say I was an error?” he asked, unable to stop the words from leaving his lips.

“Oh that?” Marn asked, waving a hand dismissively. “Another of Yoko’s silly tests. He was testing the control you have on your temper. It is a safe bet that you passed. He doesn’t like those who let their emotions rule them.”

Hiei swallowed back a sigh of relief. “Then you don’t have a problem with what I am?” he asked, needing to make sure.

Marn quirked an eyebrow at him. “Of course not. No one but Mist cares about that. Yoko collects weird and interesting things. It is only natural he’d find the only male koorime in the makai intriguing.”

“No one?” Hiei asked, trying to ignore the rush of pleasure that knowing Yoko found him intriguing caused.

“No,” Marn said. “Yoko will not usually take on a close-minded employee. Mist is the one exception because he was a project.”

“A project?” Hiei was beginning to feel dazed. Marn was more talkative than he was accustomed to from other demons. He thought back to the image of Mist sitting in his yard, crying. “He succeeded,” he mumbled.

“Yes,” Marn said. “He usually does. There is a reason for his infamy, you know.”

Hiei grinned. Perhaps spending two weeks with this small fox wouldn’t be that bad, after all. “You said no one has made it past a day?”

“That’s right,” Marn said. “I’m expecting the same from you, honestly. This is where the others made it before they failed.”

“What did they fail at?” Hiei asked.

Marn’s expression twisted into a grimace of distaste. “All of them were eager to learn to fight beside Yoko, as I’m sure you are. But none of them managed more than half a day of training with me?”

“Why?” Hiei asked, curious but wary of the answer.

Marn looked down, refusing to meet Hiei’s eyes for a long moment. Then he looked up, his eyes piercing so deeply into the koorime’s soul he was rooted to the spot. “Because,” Marn said, “they were afraid of the whip.”

Hiei frowned. “Why?” he asked. Whips hurt, but so did every other type of weapon. That didn’t mean they were to be feared. Respected, yes, but not feared. To fear a weapon was to lose to it.

Marn shrugged. “Probably because they all had endured ten punishment lashes from Yoko at some point in the day.”

Hiei swallowed. Yoko’s whipping had hurt. He’d been whipped before-for a longer period of time and a much higher number of strokes than Yoko had delivered-but he’d never felt anything like the kiss of his Solo’s whip. It had taken every ounce of willpower he had in him not to move during that whipping. The pain from that paled only in comparison to what he’d undergone for the Jaganshi title. That didn’t mean he hadn’t appreciated the punishment for what it was. He’d been in the wrong and his Solo had corrected him. That was what was supposed to happen. “Surely they knew that punishment comes with everything else,” he said.

“Sure,” Marn said, shrugging himself. “But few Solos use whipping for minor infractions.”

Hiei nodded. That was true. Very few demons would be able to take the whipping Yoko had handed out for a major infraction, let alone a minor one. But he wasn’t those demons. It was his Solo’s prerogative how he was punished, not his. Besides that… “I’m the Jaganshi,” he said, knowing it would be enough of an explanation.

Marn’s eyes widened. “No wonder Yoko finds you intriguing. The pain tolerance you need for that is…”

“I’m the only one who’s ever successfully managed the complete transformation,” Hiei said, unable to prevent the pride from seeping into his voice. It was the one thing he’d done with his life that he didn’t regret-and the one thing he’d do over again despite the sheer amount of pure pain it involved.

Marn nodded his understanding. “Perhaps, then, you won’t fear the whip. Let’s get started,” he said. “The first lesson is for you to get acquainted with the way a whip sounds snapping beside you and swinging around you. If you’re as fast as I’ve heard, it’s going to take some time to train you not to react to the sound and walk into the path of the whip.”

“In other words,” Hiei said sardonically, “I’m going to take a beating.”

Marn grinned. “Crudely put, yes.”

Hiei shrugged off the shirt he’d replaced after his punishment from Yoko. “No sense in shredding it,” he said to Marn’s questioning look. “What do you want me to do?”

“For the first little bit, I want you to stand in the open air and try not to move. We need to train you to trust the sound of a whip and know through sound tracking if it is going to hit or miss.”

“So,” Hiei said as he got into position, arms hanging by his side. “How did the others fail at this?”

Marn snorted. “Persistent, aren’t you?”

Hiei grimaced. “I just don’t want to make their mistakes.”

“Well,” Marn said. “Like I said, they were afraid of the whips.” He turned and motioned three whip fighters over. “These three are advanced fighters. None of them will hit you. As long as you don’t jump at the sound, you’ll not take a stroke.”

“Where will they be aiming?” Hiei asked, curious.

Marn reached out a hand and placed it half an inch away from Hiei’s elbow. “They will swing straight beside you on either side where even the smallest flinch means you will take a stroke.”

“No pressure, then,” Hiei said.

Marn laughed. “To answer your question, the others took thirty to fifty in a row because they were afraid of the whips. None of them could continue after that.”

Hiei met Marn’s gaze evenly. “I have endured a 500 stroke session from a band of hunters who caught me. They left me for dead.”

Marn whistled. “Five hundred would kill most demons. The pain-

-was nothing in comparison to what I went through for my title,” Hiei said. He had no intention of telling Marn that the hunters in question missed more often than they hit and so he’d only taken a total of about 200 strokes. Nor was he going to tell him that the force behind the blows was some of the weakest he’d ever felt. He just wanted the small demon to stop underestimating his ability to withstand pain. “How did the others forfeit?” he asked.

“Two of them left. One of the others just curled up in a ball until Yoko had him escorted out. Three others left the grounds, found Yoko and screamed at him for his cruel methods.”

Hiei raised an eyebrow. “Screaming at a demon of Yoko’s level is beyond disrespectful,” he said, voice low. Even thinking about it made him feel sick.

Marn smiled tightly.

“I’m ready to start,” Hiei said, pulling himself out of his thoughts. Getting irritated at demons he’d never met was a waste of time.

Hiei knew that whips were going to crack beside him with deadly accuracy, but he still found himself unprepared for the sound as the first stroke fell. He inevitably jumped and his arm and shoulder caught the lash. He winced and stilled. There was no telling how many strokes he’d take before he stopped jumping.

Twenty more fell and he jumped into the path of all of them. He found himself absurdly grateful that these were swings meant to miss and barely even stung in comparison to Yoko’s whipping. He was starting to get a feel for the rhythm the fighters were using. He was also beginning to figure out which direction the whips were coming from by the sound. He took five more hits before he could zero in on the side and made sure that when he flinched, he moved away. Twenty more strokes fell-he avoided all of them-and then Marn called for a halt.

Marn stood in front of Hiei and stared him straight in the eye. “You’re tracking sound.”

Hiei nodded. No use in denying it.

Marn nodded, face unreadable, then motioned a fourth fighter to join them. “One on every side,” he told Hiei. “All at once. I want you to trust the whips, not learn to dodge them.”

Hiei swallowed, but nodded. He was starting to get used to the sound of one whip cracking. Four at a time would be murder on his nerves. But Marn was right. He was fast enough to dodge just one-to do this, avoiding the whips if he moved shouldn’t be possible. Like this-four at a time-if he flinched forward, it would hurt like hell. That was almost enough incentive to stifle his impulse to dodge stuff flying towards his body.

“Be proud,” Marn said. “No one else even managed one.”

Hiei grimaced. “I’ll be proud when I can do what was asked of me.”

Marn quirked an eyebrow. “You really are a different breed of demon.”

Hiei grunted. Whether that had been an insult or compliment, he had no idea. He was going to take it as a compliment. It seemed the wisest recourse.

The four whip fighters took their places and at a nod from Marn, began snapping the whips. One at a time had been loud enough, but four was ridiculous. Hiei jumped, the side whips catching the sides of his legs, the back whip catching his thighs and the forward whip catching his forearms. He whimpered a little at the pain. Four whips hitting at once was a bit intense. He settled back into his original stance without complaint.

Marn had pretty much told him he could stop the session at any point, but every time Hiei got hit, it made him angry that he couldn’t master his own reflexes enough to stay still. Ten more strokes fell, all hitting, so he took forty hits. “Marn,” he said, ignoring the pain that laced his voice as he spoke. “This isn’t working. My reflexes are too strong and the pain doesn’t bother me enough for it to be an incentive not to move.”

Marn frowned. “You’re right. If four whips aren’t deterrent enough, all I can think of is binding you. But to do that, I have to get Yoko’s permission.”

Hiei nodded. “So we’ll keep doing this,” he said. He was determined to win this battle, one way or the other.

Marn arched an eyebrow. “Even though you think it’s futile?”

Hiei shrugged. “It’s the only option,” he said.

Marn hmmed. “Not the only option, no.” He turned to one of the fighters. “Find Yoko. Tell him I need his consent to restrain Hiei.”

“How will this work?” Hiei asked, watching the fighter as he disappeared from the room.

“Assuming permission is granted,” Marn said, “I’ll set up a post meant for this type of training and bind you to it. You won’t be able to move. I’ll start with having them snap four whips at a time, but you’ll start blindfolded.”

Hiei nodded assent. “How long will that last?”

“With you blindfolded?” At Hiei’s nod, Marn said, “Probably the first two days. Then two days with no blindfold, then two with no blindfold or binding. Ninety percent of synching your swordplay with a whip,” he said, “is getting used to the presence of the whip.”

“So mastering this is worth taking half the time I’ve been allotted to learn how to synchronize?”

Marn smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Since you’re a master swordsman, the only thing you’re learning here is how to accept a whip in your immediate vicinity. Everything else-the combination moves only possible when a whip and sword-fighter moving in synchronization-that will be easy to learn.”

“Two weeks,” Hiei said again.

Marn shrugged. “If that’s what Yoko expects of you, he sees potential in you he didn’t in the others.”

Hiei gave him a puzzled look.

“He told everyone else six months.”

Hiei stifled his shock as well as the pleasure that raced through him. If Yoko thought he could master this in two weeks, he’d do it.

Just as he firmed his resolve, the whip fighter Marn had sent to find Yoko returned. “He gave his consent,” the fighter said.

Marn smiled and beckoned Hiei over. “This,” he said, “is going to be fun. By the end of the day, the sound should be so familiar that you won’t even notice one cracking.”

“Isn’t that bad?” Hiei asked. “I mean, what if someone comes after me with a whip?”

Marn raised an eyebrow. “With Yoko Kurama as your Solo the only demon who will ever raise a whip against you after your training will be Yoko himself.”

Hiei swallowed hard at the promised threat in those words. Learning this was a double-edged sword. He was beginning to understand that nothing about Yoko Kurama was surface deep.

Chapter 8     Chapter Index     Chapter 10

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