Flickering blue light cast twisting shadows through the ruined hallway. The dark shape of a fanged beast loomed menacingly over the door.
Scowling, Matsubi Hanako flicked a finger and the will-o-wisp floated to her side, to where it couldn’t blind her nor cast her shadow on the text she was trying to read. This stone gate lay beyond what was once a great temple - before ravagers had sacked the city and razed the wooden structure. Hanako had slipped gracefully between collapsed beams and burnt shelves of unreadable tomes to something her research told her was there: the lost study of Chang Mei.
The foxfire revealed ideographs from a dialect Hanako couldn’t speak - but a library monk of Okuribi Mountain temple could translate anything. She copied characters onto a sheet of paper, ignoring the groaning sound of disturbed, load-bearing beams with what was surely critical damage from the fire. This was a puzzle, set by Chang Mei to keep the unlearned from her door. Hanako needed to focus on her work or she’d never get past this…
Suddenly, a roofing slate fell, nearly landing on her head. Hanako rolled to her left, holding one arm out to keep the still-drying ink from smudging. Rolling halfway knocked the wind out of her, but she had avoided the other four pieces of burnt wood and stone from splitting her skull. From her position on her back, she could see the roof crumbling quickly.
The building was coming down and she didn’t have Sage Chang’s puzzle worked out yet. She was going to have to use brute force. Hanako apologized to the spirit of Sage Chang and, drawing the energy of her body into her core, collected her ki.
Deep, focused breaths. Energy flowed from her lower belly to her limbs, and she controlled the tide. Hanako set herself into a strong stance and struck the door’s latch with a fist harder than iron. The room groaned again but Hanako remained calm, and struck again. Something cracked.
Who bars a door with stone? Hanako brought her feet together and then struck out with her back foot, throwing her hips and her weight into the kick in desperation. The door broke open, and she followed the slab of stone inside, leaping through just as debris began to rain from above.
She tugged the end of her divided skirt free of the dirt. She was through. At least she’d recorded what the sage wrote before she’d demolished it.
“I suppose a seal is no stronger than the door that it binds,” she murmured. It felt odd to speak in a room so heavy with neglect. From the way the stagnant air smelled, even burrowing insects had been unable to penetrate Sage Chang’s ancient chamber.
She paced around. No sign of a journal near the altar… or near the maps… Hanako considered pocketing those. Archaic maps, though often inaccurate, often held clues for later discoveries. Hanako took a risk.
She took one… no, two maps, carefully sliding them out without disrupting anything; only a depraved librarian would ransack a historical site without care. She’d need to catalogue as much as she could.
Then her sensitive nose picked up something strange: a human. She went down on all fours; since the room was untouched even when a city stood around it, there shouldn’t have been any scent at all.
It led her past the stacks of books to the back of the study, making a mental not to investigate them once she reached her goal. There sat the sage’s workdesk, covered in papers and scrolls. An inkpot and candles waited atop the desk, as if the sage had just stepped out for a moment. It had been centuries.
Hanako sniffed around the desk, getting worried. Where was Chang Mei’s journal? It wasn’t on the desk, or in her drawers, or on any of the other tables. According to the records, it wasn’t on her body when she’d been found, nor had it been found or sold in the town before it was sacked.
Hanako slid her bracer up the sleeve of her kimono so she could blot her forehead. She chewed her lip a bit.
“If someone has taken this journal before I could recover it, I will be very upset with them,” she warned nobody in particular. The room remained still. She returned to the desk, and, carefully so as not to destroy anything old and precious, cleared its surface. Inlaid into its surface was the taijitu symbol, with two different woods to represent yin and yang. When she ran her fingers over it, carefully, her nails caught the seam. She tugged, gently, at the gap, hoping to pull it loose.
It wouldn’t move. She tried again, just a bit more forcefully. It felt unnaturally cool to the touch, the harder she tugged. She stuck her fingers into her mouth, but they wouldn’t warm from her breath.
Hanako sat in the sage’s chair, hoping for some of Chang Mei’s wisdom. A symbol of yin and yang that was cold, but not cold? Hanako knew well what it felt like to pull the energy of breath and life from another person, but less how it felt to have it drawn from her own skin. The taijitu symbol pulled ki from her body on touch: a technique not many practitioners could manage.
Realization dawned on her. This was a lock, to be opened by a monk just like her. Counting her breathing, she brought more ki to her fingers to feed into the device. The taijitu glowed, and then was still.
“Ku- I mean… Drat!” Hanako nearly swore aloud. Ever since she was a novice at the monastery, her ki had always been unbalanced. Too much yin; without emotional and spiritual stability, she couldn’t keep the influence of one from overrunning the other.
Hanako folded her warrior monk’s cowl over her face to block out the scent of the human who shouldn’t be there. She folded her legs, moved her prayer beads into her fingers, and focused on balance.
She breathed in… drew everything into the core. She wasn’t in a stagnant stone box, she was in a garden on Okuribi Mountain. She wasn’t upset about a thief or worried about lost knowledge. She was at peace.
She breathed out… Every part of her, from tailtip to the crown of her head, was entirely under her control. The tension released from well-trained muscles, and the turmoil inside of her rushed out of her lips.
Hanako opened her eyes, reset her cowl, and stood. She turned the taijitu over, feeding it her stillness, her focus, and her fierceness. Her ki set the symbol to spinning, and a grinding sound came from the wall behind her.
A hidden stairwell revealed itself: the scent led down it. She took the stairs two at a time, her foxfire wisps trailing behind her to illuminate the hidden passageway. The chamber grew wetter, earthier. This was some sort of culvert or sewer, Hanako realized. The scent was confused, but there was only one way to go: onward. Her answers had to lie at the end of this.
Then she saw the cause of her confusion standing there before her and shrieked: “Saruhashi-san!” Even that little bit of politeness came from gritted teeth.
“It's the Okuribi Temple girl… little Matsuki-chan.” The broad faced, gangly monk balanced a red, bronze-capped staff on her shoulders. It would be bad enough for any monk of the Huaguo Mountain temple to have been in Hanako's way, but Saruhashi was a particular trial.
“Matsubi,” Hanako corrected, even though she knew it was just Saruhashi trying to irk her. The other monk projected smugness like a forge did heat.
“You can't resist corrections, can you, dear Katsubi?” Saruhashi chattered, producing a brush. “Maybe I'll add some misspellings to Sage Chang’s work. It would give you something to do with your time.” She wet the brush’s tip and stuck her tongue out.
Hanako sprung down the culvert in a lunge. Before she could dig her feet into the ground and crack the other monk's chin with her elbow, the brush dropped, and that heavy staff came off Saruhashi’s shoulder to spin wide at Hanako, driving her back.
“Careful, Matsubi-chan, I thought Okuribi temple monks weren’t supposed to get angry,” she chided, familiar and rude as always.
Hanako raised her fists and tried to adopt the same light-hearted impudence as her rival.
“How unwise of me. I will, instead, teach you this lesson with a smile, honored colleague.” She grinned and bounced a bit on the pads of her feet.
Saruhashi sneered, her face twisting in mockery. The staff came around again, wide. “You want this book? Show me you’re ready to die.”
Hanako ducked and slipped as the staff swept across twice at head height. The third swing went for her shins - Hanako anticipated the sweep and leapt over it aggressively.
“You’re finally going to get my heart pumping, Matsubi-chan?” Saruhashi held a stiff arm out to block Hanako’s whipping fist. She twisted bonelessly out of the way of Hanako’s following snap kick and caught her in a clinch, dropping the staff.
“I’ll have that book from you, Saruhashi-san,” Hanako growled. She dug her claws into the other monk’s arms, her breath going short. “No Huaguo monkey… will get away with this!”
“Ooh, you look mad, Matsubi-chan!”
Both monks struggled for position. Hanako stepped through her legs to force Saruhashi over, but Saruhashi stepped around and tried to snap Hanako’s head into the floor with her greater weight. Hanako fell to all fours and received a brutal kick in the side from the cackling Saruhashi.
“That’s all then? Looks like my temple wins again.”
Hanako clutched her ribs, groaning. She looked up to see Saruhashi’s feet surround themselves with swirling clouds, manifestations of her own ki technique.
“Until next time!” Staff in one hand and stolen journal in the other, she made a mighty leap up the stairs, floating away. Her technique allowed her to simply ignore gravity and escape; she even had time to slap her own butt in crude mockery.
Hanako took a breath that wracked her with pain: something was wrong inside her chest. It hurt so much she could barely see, but she hauled herself to feet and kept breathing. She held onto her focus with ragged breath - and a trickle of ki flowed.
She focused on the fleeing enemy, fixing her spirit on pursuit, and took a long step, her hips turning and her back foot snapping forward, twisting the air itself around her.
With a pop, she suddenly was ahead of Saruhashi instead of behind. Her fist turned over, drilling into her rival’s lower belly and driving the wind out. More importantly, she hit the core of Saruhashi’s own ki.
Both women fell, hitting the landing at the top of the stairs. Hanako landed with grace.
“You didn’t expect that, did you, book thief?!” Her ribs set themselves. The ki flowing through her body was filling her with vitality. Saruhashi, on the other hand, was exhausted.
“You stole my energy, Matsubi-chan? I thought you were out of tricks.”
Hanako grinned triumphantly. “Did you think the Huaguo were the only tricksters? Now give me Sage Chang’s journal. You can travel to Okuribi Temple to read it like any other library pilgrim.”
She was doubled over in pain. “You wouldn’t let the likes of me inside,” Saruhashi coughed out. She lashed out, suddenly, spinning into a hook kick right in the middle of her last fake cough.
But Hanako was ready for deception. She wrapped her arm around the kicking leg and swept the other monk off her one remaining foot with a hip check. Saruhashi slammed into the ground, her staff clanging loudly as it fell.
“I read you like I will that journal!” Hanako struggled to match Saruhashi taunt for taunt, but it wasn’t important. Not while she stood over her downed rival.
“I surrender. Let me go, Matsubi… er… san.” She bowed, pressing her head to the ground.
Hanako inclined her own head slightly, with a somewhat malevolent look on her face. “Only if you give me your lunch.”
Saruhashi sulked over both, handing them over with the most begrudging, agonizing slowness. Her lunch was in a red bamboo box with a monkey painted on the top, winking at her. Its self-confidence reminded Hanako of Saruhashi herself. Once the journal and the box were in Hanako’s hands, Saruhashi stood, and, glaring daggers, stalked around Hanako to the top of the stairs. Clouds gathered, much more slowly and thinly than they did before.
“Such a shame you Okuribi monks are so obsessive,” Saruhashi gasped, as a parting shot. She flew, crookedly, up the stairs and out of the underground chamber.
Hanako breathed easy. “Huaguo monks could stand to learn from us.” She walked up to the exit and into the light.
It was sunset when she found herself on a hill overlooking the burnt city. Hanako licked rice off her lips and flopped onto her back in simple pleasure. Now, it would be nice to use the remaining sunlight to look at her prize.
However, to her dismay, the bindings were cut. Half of the pages to Sage Chang Mei’s journal were gone, separated from the tome by clever fingers. Hanako bit back a howl of fury. Now she’d have to pray to the Nine-Tailed Immortal that the Huaguo monk’s trail was still there. She shoved the book back into her bag and the rest of the rice ball into her mouth. A librarian’s work was never done.