Two weary figures slowly made their way along a twisting mountain road. One of them was on horseback, the other on foot. The one sitting on a horse carried the two swords of a samurai, the other figure looked like a wandering priest or perhaps a masseur.
The two subsequently arrived at a small secluded temple situated further up the road. The samurai unmounted and approached the two warrior monks standing guard at the gate.
"My companion and I seek shelter for the night," the warrior stated plainly. The guards looked up in surprise when they heard they were being addressed by a female. Then one of the guards nodded and disappeared inside. Shortly after an elderly man with a shaved head appeared in the doorway.
"I am the abbot of the Chrysanthemum Temple. My brother tells me you wish to spend the night. May I ask who you are?"
"I am Bushika Taimatsu and this is my companion Aniko," answered the female warrior and gestured towards her tall companion.
You are welcome to stay with us... As long as you leave your weapons outside," the abbot stated.
"Do you wish to lose your head?" snapped Bushika. "I'm not surrendering my dai-sho, Never!"
"I will not have you draw blades inside my monastery!" the abbot retorted. Bushika put one hand on the hilt of her katana. The nearest guard shifted nervously.
"Then make sure the blade cannot be drawn, as they do in the Imperial city," Aniko suddenly interrupted. She put her hand on the arm of her fiery companion trying to calm her. Bushika let go of her sword.
"Very well," muttered the abbot. "But the other weapons stay outside."
Aniko reluctantly handed over the bow and arrows hanging from the saddle bags to one of the guard while Bushika's swords were secured in their scabbards using thin copper wires with their ends joined together with a wax seal. That way, neither sword could be drawn without breaking the seals or cutting the wires. One guard made an attempt to take Aniko's walking staff but the abbot stopped him.
"A simple staff is permitted. You shouldn't rob a wanderer of her support, brother." He turned to Bushika. "You may sleep in the east wing of the monastery." Bushika nodded a 'thank you'. As the to women turned to step inside, the abbot stopped them.
"One more thing. You two must bathe separately. The brothers would find the sight of a naked woman distracting. Remember, they have sworn to live in celibacy."
"Understood," answered Aniko.
Bushika removed the saddle bags containing their few personal belongings and led her horse to the stables. After seeing to her horse's needs she turned to Aniko.
"I will enjoy getting a night under a roof for a change." Aniko raised an eyebrow.
"We are in a monastery. I believe the cells are quite Spartan."
"I think we will manage. Come, let's get something to eat."
The two women turned a few heads as they entered the dining hall. They sat down in a corner and began eating the simple fare of rice and vegetables the monks offered. They ate in silence. The abbot whispered something and gestured towards them. The monks visibly relaxed and started ignoring their visitors.
After dinner they were showed to their room. It was indeed Spartan. Two straw futons, a small table and a few candles. That was all. Bushika slumped down on one of the futons.
"I don't like the idea of not being able of using my katana," Bushika muttered. "It worries me."
"Maybe this will ease you mind," offered Aniko. She grasped the top of her staff. A small click was heard and Aniko revealed a short blade hidden inside the staff.
"Good thinking," smiled Bushika. "Now, shall we have a bath? I think we could both use one."
Aniko nodded and put the blade back inside the staff.
The bath house appeared empty. They added more fuel to the fire heating the water and went inside. After undressing, Aniko went ahead into the bath room to see if everything was ready. As she leaned down to check the temperature of the bath she heard a large splash behind her, as if someone had dropped a bucket full of water. Aniko turned her head and looked behind her to see a monk cleaning some clothes.
"What in Buddha's name happened to you?" the monk asked in horror after seeing the markings on the tall blonde's body. A huge dragon spreading its claws adored the woman's entire back, along with a small star situated just above the buttocks. However, there were also long white scars slashing across the same back and shoulders, telling a more brutal story.
"It's a long story..." Aniko began, not turning around.
"And it's of no concern to you!" barked Bushika as she marched in carrying a bucket and a wash cloth. "Scram! The abbot said we should bathe alone." The monk bowed quickly and took his leave. He almost forgot to take the clean clothes with him.
Bushika filled a bucket of water and poured it over Aniko followed by another over herself. After cleaning each other thoroughly they rinsed the lather of and slipped into the large wooden bath tub. Aniko took the opportunity of giving her warrior a slight shoulder massage. After soaking in the hot water for quite some time they got out, put on some clean clothes and left.
Upon returning to their room, they shared a cup of tea before going to bed. Bushika thanked for the bath massage by giving a little massage of her own. She never grew tired of exploring the beautiful blonde's body, despite the horrors imprinted on it. Things escalated and Aniko let out a muffled scram as Bushika brought her over the edge.
"B-Bushika-chan," panted Aniko as the after-shocks washed over her. "We have to restrain ourselves! We're in a monastery. A place of celibacy."
"I don't care," growled Bushika as she traced Aniko's belly button with her index finger. "I'm a warrior, not a monk!"
Bushika woke up with an unfamiliar feeling. She was alone. Looking around in the small room she found a small parchment with her lover's beautiful calligraphy on it.
"Good morning my love. I took the liberty of visiting the dojo for some light morning exercise. You may join me if you wish when you wake up."
Aniko strode into the dojo. She was dressed in the same sand-colored outfit as the rest of the monks practicing in the dojo. A short-sleeved jacket with loose-fitting pants. She began limbering up and started performing a kata in a corner of the hall. When she was done one of the monks strode up to her. He was almost as tall as Aniko and had a muscular build. Aniko saw one of his front teeth was missing when he spoke up.
"I see you possess some knowledge of the Way of unarmed combat. Would you like to test your skills? I would be more than pleased to help you."
"Are you challenging me to a fight?" queried Aniko skeptically.
"If you see it that way," answered the monk.
"Then my answer is no!" snapped the blonde. The monk allowed himself a small sneer.
"Why? Do you distrust you own style?" The monk's sneer became a smile. Aniko's calm complexion suddenly changed and became a mask of determination.
"I do not. I also believe humility is important to a monk. I can help YOU in this task." She made her way to the middle of the dojo as the other monks gathered around to watch the upcoming fight. One of the other monks who had led the exercises earlier drew up the rules of the fight.
"Listen. There will be no biting or clawing. Eyes and genitals may not be attacked. We may have sworn to celibacy but we still value our eyesight. All other attacks are permitted. The match is over when one of you surrenders or is unable to continue. Do you understand?"
Both of the fighters nodded.
The two combatants began to circle around each other. The monk threw a couple of jabs to test his opponent out. He stood in a relaxed stance directly facing Aniko. He held his fists up at chest level and kept his feet at shoulder width. Aniko stood with one foot ahead of the other turning her shoulder towards her opponent. She held her left hand open at shoulder level while her right was closed in a fist held in front of her body. Aniko easily blocked the to attacks with her left hand as if sweeping away branches in the forest.
After seeing that his usual feints didn't fool this woman the monk tried the direct approach. He began a heavy barrage of punches and kicks, using his strength and size to maximum advantage. Aniko blocked and ducked the relentless attacks but didn't budge to the astonishment of everyone watching. Her counter attack was even more impressive. A left-right combination to her opponent's chest caused him to stagger backwards. However, he quickly regained his composure and began circling his opponent again. She hadn't taken advantage of his brief
indisposition, for some strange reason.
The fight dragged on like this. Both fighters gave as good as they got but neither seemed to gain an advantage. Nobody seemed to notice as Bushika stepped into the room. Nobody except Aniko. Her brief lapse of attention was proved costly, however. The huge fist of her opponent landed straight in her face. Stars danced in front of her eyes and she heard the crowd cheer. She staggered backwards but remained standing. She dodged his follow-up kick and rolled away out of her opponent's reach before he could get close enough.
"Are you ready for your lesson in humility?" Aniko asked, raising her guard. The other monks roared in laughter as her opponent lunged for her.
His attack was stopped cold as Aniko answered by a flying kick to his face. The monk fell to the floor with a large 'thud'. The crowd gasped in surprise and horror as Aniko dove over her fallen opponent, catching him in a strangle-hold.
"Do you yield?" asked Aniko as the eyes of her opponent rolled back in his head. He was moments from unconsciousness when Aniko felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Enough. You have won." The voice belonged to the monk who had laid out the rules of the fight.
Aniko let go and stood up. Her opponent drew a ragged breath and was helped to his feet by two other monks. He looked at Aniko with a mixture of admiration and respect. He bowed deeply.
"I thank you honorable warrior for teaching me humility."
"I enjoyed the exercise," answered Aniko with a slight smirk, as a drop of blood from her broken lip fell to the floor.
Her former opponent smiled warmly.
"My name is Guzen. I have never met anyone who could take my blows and remain standing, not to mention beat me. What is your name?"
"Aniko," answered the blonde shortly.
"From this day we will call you Aniko Tetsu-ken, a name fitting your skill. If you permit it, of course."
"If you wish," answered Aniko.
"My brothers and I would be honored if you would exercise with us next morning and share your skills. Will you teach us?" Guzen's question was a respectable plea.
"Perhaps I will..." answered Aniko. She made her way towards Bushika, who had been standing near the entrance. Bushika quickly closed the distance and ran her fingers across the blonde's bruised lips.
"Is this your idea of a 'light morning exercise'?" teased Bushika as she pulled the blonde close. She felt the eyes of the monks upon them so she restrained herself from tightening the embrace.
"I was momentarily distracted," whispered Aniko into Bushika's ear.
"You could have told me, 'Iron fist'," Bushika answered.
Suddenly a monk burst into the dojo with a horrified look on his face.
"A brother has been murdered! There is a murderer loose in the Chrysanthemum Temple!"
Bushika and Aniko followed the monks out of the dojo to learn more of the disturbing news.
The murdered monk was laying face down on the ground of the main temple yard. The abbot soon arrived with the rest of the monks. He turned the body over to make a shocking discovery.
The monk's chest had been slashed open from the right collar bone diagonally down to the left side of the abdomen. The fatal blow seemed to have been delivered with some kind of bladed weapon. The abbot fixed Bushika with a deadly stare.
"Show me your dai-sho, samurai!"
Bushika pulled her swords from her obi and presented them to the abbot. The wires and seals were still in place. The abbot merely nodded.
"You must understand everyone is a suspect at this point. Especially strangers." Bushika just frowned and put her swords back in her obi.
Aniko kneeled down beside the body and began examining the wounds with her hands.
"This man have not been slain with a sword," stated Aniko as she wiped the blood from her hands on her pant-legs. "His sternum have been crushed and parts of it have been driven into his heart. This requires considerable force. My guess is that the murder weapon is some kind of axe or hatchet. Furthermore, judging from the unusual slant of the cut, I believe the murderer is left-handed. This, along with the other evidence, rules out my companion as a suspect."
"That still leaves you," replied the abbot coldly.
"I can vouch for her," barked Bushika. "She shared my pillow last night and I swear on my honor that she never left my arms." The abbot flinched at the warrior's outburst and bowed deeply.
"You seem very observant. You also seem to be familiar with violence and death. This, along with the fact that you are outsiders, makes you two ideal candidates in investigating this mystery. I therefore ask you, on behalf of the Chrysanthemum Temple, to aid us in solving this mystery and help us catch the perpetrator of this gruesome deed."
"Acceptable," answered Aniko. Bushika just nodded in response.
The abbot turned to the others.
"I expect the rest of you to give these two you full cooperation. Do you understand?" The monks bowed in unison.
"Your first task will be to answer a question," Bushika stated. "Whom, besides myself, carries weapons of any kind in this temple?"
"None," answered the abbot. "The only ones armed are the temple guards, and they stay outside the main temple grounds in the guard hut by the outer wall.
"We'll visit them then," replied Bushika as the two women took their leave.
The two guards standing watch looked in horror at Aniko's bloodied clothing.
"One of the monk's has been murdered," stated Aniko flatly. "I've examined the body. The abbot have asked us to investigate his death." The two guards relaxed slightly when hearing this but remained visibly shocked by the news.
"Did anything unusual happen last night?" queried Bushika.
"No," answered on of the guards. "The night was uneventful."
"Are these weapons your personal belongings?" asked Aniko as she examined the battle axes in detail. The weapons didn't seem to have been used or cleaned recently.
"No," answered the other guard. "The weapons belong to the temple and are kept in the guard hut when not in use. Why?"
"The murder weapon appears to be an axe. May we visit the guard hut and see these weapons?" The guard nodded.
"Come this way."
The two guards who had been on duty yesterday jumped to their feet as Bushika burst into the hut, followed by Aniko. These two guards also appeared shocked upon hearing the news but quickly regained their composure and showed the two women the weapon's rack.
Two battle axes, similar to the ones used by the guards outside, hanged on the rack, along with the bow and arrows Aniko had surrendered to the guards yesterday.
Aniko examined the weapons. The weapons were in good condition but didn't appear to have been used or cleaned recently.
"Get outside, and bring your weapons," barked Bushika. The two guards hesitated momentarily but complied.
"What are we supposed to do?" asked the chief guard, the one who had fetched the abbot when Bushika and Aniko had arrived.
"Demonstrate a few moves for me," answered Bushika.
"Just perform something that feels natural."
The four guards each executed a simple combination move. A sweep followed by a vertical blow.
"Thank you," replied Bushika. "That will be all." The four guards just looked at each other dumbfounded.
"Make sure your weapons are safe" added Bushika as she turned to leave.
"Along with our bow," remarked Aniko.
"Of course," replied the chief guard, still wondering what the strange demonstration was all about.
"None of the guards did it," stated Bushika as the two women walked back towards the temple.
"I concur," answered Aniko. "No one of the guards were left-handed."
"That means one of the temple monks did it," concluded Bushika with a snarl.
"Yes, but whom? Or, more importantly, why?"
"I don't know. However, I do know there is more to this temple than meets the eye. We have to suspect everyone, even the abbot himself! Now, I suggest we get you out of those bloody rags and cleaned up. Also, your bruises from this mornings 'exercise' needs to be taken care of. Would you like a hot bath and a massage?"
"Yes," answered Aniko. "Very much."
Bushika and Aniko ran into Guzen outside the bath house. He acknowledged them with a bow and a smile. Bushika spoke up.
"I'd like to give Aniko a bath and a massage. Could you please fetch us some clean clothes and keep watch outside? The abbot have asked us to bathe in private, for your sake."
"Certainly," answered Guzen and left to complete his given task.
He returned a few moments later with a basket containing clean clothes. He handed Aniko the basket and posted himself in front of the entrance. Aniko stepped inside followed by Bushika.
"My love, does this remind you of something?" asked Bushika as she was rubbing Aniko's thighs. Bushika was straddling the small of the blonde's back who was lying beneath her on the massage table.
"Yes," answered Aniko, with her hands tucked under her chin. "Last time you arrived in the bath house, soiled in blood. I cleaned you up and gave you a massage."
"Followed by me giving you one," continued Bushika.
"Yes, and borrowing my clothes..." remarked Aniko with a small smirk.
"That's it!" barked Bushika and gave the shapely buttocks below her a hard slap.
"What?" snapped Aniko in an annoyed voice.
"How did the murderer get rid of the blood on his clothing?" Aniko lifted he head and opened her mouth to speak as they heard Guzen's voice from outside.
"Bushika-tonno, Tetsu-ken, come quick!"
Bushika bolted from the massage table with Aniko in hot pursuit. They got dressed in a hurry and rushed outside.
Guzen gestured them to follow and they quickly discovered the cause of the alarm. Another monk had been murdered. Bushika let out a small curse as she identified the latest victim. The murdered monk was the one they had met yesterday, in the bath house washing clothes. Now he was lying beside the main pagoda with his neck broken. The body was still warm so the murder must have been committed very recently.
Aniko's face turned ghostly pale as she pieced together the final moments of the monk's life in her head. The monk had been hanged by someone slipping a noose around his neck from above as he turned the corner. The markings on his neck was a clear sign of this. The murderer must had been sitting on the lower roof of the pagoda.
Bushika noticed the sudden change in the blonde's expression and pulled the terrified woman aside.
"What is it?" whispered Bushika when they where out of earshot. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I have," answered Aniko, swallowing hard.
"Tell me," begged Bushika.
"One of the monks is an assassin. This was the work of the clan."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm positive. My former teachers would have been proud. The poor monk never knew what happened. Even I would have done it that way."
"If one of the monks is an assassin..."
Bushika was interrupted by the arrival of the abbot.
"More death! Only this time we have a suspect!" Aniko quickly collected herself and the two women approached the abbot to hear more of his sudden statement.
To everyones surprise the abbot pointed towards Guzen.
"Seize him." Four monks grabbed hold of the powerful monks arms.
"No," cried the giant monk in protest, struggling to break free.
"You were the last one seen leaving the clothes storage. Tell us, why did you murder two of your fellow brothers?" The abbot's voice was sharp.
"I haven't killed anyone," yelped Guzen. "Buddha says you should not take life!"
"You're not worthy of uttering his name," the abbot retorted. "You will be confined to your cell until a punishment fitting your crimes have been found. Take him away!" Guzen's shoulders fell when he heard this and he let himself be taken away.
"Guzen is not guilty of what you accuse him of," Bushika stated.
"Why is that?" asked the abbot, somewhat surprised.
"I asked him to keep watch while Aniko and I bathed," answered Bushika.
"Did you see him stand watch?" queried the abbot.
"No, he was outside," replied Bushika through her teeth.
"I'm afraid that isn't enough," answered the abbot triumphantly. "This time I need more than your word to make me abandon my suspicions."
"Understood," muttered Bushika and glanced towards Aniko. The blonde's face was blank and she said nothing. The abbot bowed slightly and left. The other monks picked the body and left as well.
"Why didn't you tell him?" Bushika queried.
"That would have revealed my identity," answered Aniko coldly. "The clan would have found out I'm still alive and sent assassins after me. That would not have helped Guzen. We must find out who the real murderer is and why he's in this monastery. Then, we must stop him and kill him!"
Bushika just nodded.
That evening the dining hall mood was subdued. Everyone ate in silence and tried to comprehend what had happened in the past two days. Aniko and Bushika retreated to their room and shared a cup of tea.
"Things doesn't add up," Bushika muttered.
"No," answered Aniko. "We're missing something."
"For example, why was the first monk killed? His death seems unrelated to the other." Aniko nodded.
"Yes... The last victim might have discovered the bloody clothing and the assassin had to silence him quickly to keep his cover."
"But why the other one? The abbot tells me the other was a librarian."
"A librarian?" Aniko raised an eyebrow.
"Yes. And there is also the riddle of the missing murder weapon... You said the man had been killed with an axe of some sort."
"But we haven't found it," remarked Aniko.
"No. And the abbot insists that there are no weapons in the monastery."
"At least not any weapons he knows of," Aniko added.
"Do you think the assassin have hidden his weapons?"
"Perhaps. But there are also things which can be used as a weapon. Tools for example."
"Tools?" repeated Bushika skeptically. The she realized what Aniko was referring to. "A wood-cutter's axe!"
"Come! We have a murder weapon to find!" The two women quickly left their room.
They began by searching the clothes storage. They found the bloody clothing Aniko had been using that morning but nothing else besides dirty clothes. The murderer seemed to have had time to remove or destroy the evidence.
Next they went looking for the library. When they found it, the door was locked. A note on the door said the library had been closed for the time being.
"Can you pick the lock?" Bushika whispered.
"No," answered Aniko. "The door has been bolted shut from the inside. It can't be opened from here!"
The two women returned to their room down-hearted.
"I think we need you to deploy your skills in the shadowy arts," Bushika finally stated after long silence.
"I would prefer not to," answered Aniko. "They are a part of my past I'm not exactly proud of."
"Please, Aniko-chan. We need to get into that library."
"I understand... I'll do it."
Aniko went over and picked up their saddle bags. Opening a hidden compartment, she pulled out a black bundle of clothing. Then she let her clothing fall and began dressing for the task at hand.
Even though Bushika had seen her beloved Aniko like this before the image still frightened her. She placed a kiss on the blonde's lips before they were covered with black cloth and whispered in the shadowy figure's ear.
"Be careful. The other one might be out there." The dark figure just nodded and disappeared from the room without a sound.
Aniko inspected the walls of the small pagoda containing the library. She spotted a small window on the second floor. She would be able to get in through there.
Aniko fixed nekode to her hands and feet and began climbing. The window shutters were closed from the inside with a simple metal catch. Aniko easily slipped a blade into the small gap between the shutters and flicked the catch open. The shutters swung open and Aniko climbed inside.
She found herself on the upper floor of the library. Numerous dusty scrolls were stacked on the shelves covering the walls. Aniko removed her nekode and started quietly looking around for something unusual. A half-open scroll lying on small reading table on the lower floor caught her attention.
She carefully made her way down the narrow staircase and knelt down by the table. She took a small risk by lighting a small candle and began reading. The scroll were titled something like "Signs and symbols of lesser known clans and families". Eyeing through the descriptions one small drawing made her skin crawl. The drawing depicted a single character written over a black star. She knew the symbol well. She even carried it on her body.
This was the symbol of the clan. The description beside it was short and rather vague. "Symbol used by several families from the remote province of Iga. The meaning of the character is unclear." The librarian must have seen the symbol somehow on the body of the assassin and deduced it's meaning. This knowledge had cost the librarian his life. This information could also reveal her own identity. However, right now it was evidence. Aniko tucked the scroll inside her jacket and put out the candle.
She made her way back up the stairs and back to the window. She closed the window shutters and started looking for another way out. There had to be one, since the main door had been closed from the inside.
A long search finally revealed hidden door behind one of the wall panels. A narrow passage finally ended in the main temple shrine.
"Efficient," muttered Aniko and she made sure the hall was empty before making her way back to her room.
Bushika awoke hearing a small sound. She reached for Aniko's staff with the hidden blade as she saw someone entering the room. Recognizing the dark figure she put the staff away and leaned back onto the futon. Bushika heard the rustling of clothing as the dark figure undressed and she let out a sigh of relief as she felt Aniko lift the covers and lie down beside her on the futon.
"Did you find anything interesting?" whispered Bushika.
"Yes. Several things," answered Aniko. "Now go to sleep." With these words Aniko wrapped her arms around Bushika's waist and drifted off to sleep.
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Bushika Taimatsu Warrior-woman Torch
Aniko Japanese for "Annika"
-chan A suffix denoting endearment.
futon A mattress.
nekode "Cat-claws." Metal spikes used to climb trees, beams and such.