I. The Mission
The stars sparkled as Anagi Minamoto made his way to the little house that Onaginura Matao called home near the beach. As he walked, he tried to remember the first time he’d seen his old mentor’s home. No mattered how hard he tried, he could not. It was as if he’d been coming to the little house on the beach since he was a child, though he had not. Still, the urge to think it as such seemed so natural.
As he looked down the empty street, he could remember where he first met the diminuitive teacher. It was as if it had been yesterday. They had crossed swords at a nearby teahouse. He’d been sent to kill Matao’s master, Aginagi Onaga, a great samurai. Though he’d wounded the great samurai, he had failed his mission. But Matao had refused him the honor of ritual suicide. Instead, he convinced Onaga to retain Minamoto’s services indefinitely.
He got the feeling that Matao had done so for more than one reason, though. The greatest of these was to keep him from making a second attempt uponOnaga’s life. The second, it seemed, was to prevent him from doing the honorable thing and killing himself. But there seemed to be more than just that.
He couldn’t place his finger on what Matao’s purposes were, though. The more he tried, the fewer answers he came up with. Fewer answers, but even more questions. The more questions he found, the harder he found it to understand.
He emerged from his thoughts as he reached Matao’s door. He rapped on the light-framed door, then entered…sliding the door open upon command. Once inside, he slid it back shut and knelt to remove his shoes. Rising, he bowed to his mentor in respect.
“Come, my boy,” Matao motioned, “let us be seated.”
Bowing again, Minamoto went to the short table and sat at the end, upon the floor. Matao did likewise at the opposite end. As if summoned, a young lady entered with the tea. She glanced at him as she poured the tea into the tea bowls upon the table. All the same, she did not raise her head and her eyes did not meet his. Still, he could see her stealing glances.
When she was done, she left the room as if dismissed. A second girl entered bearing their meals. She, too, glanced at him in the same manner as the first. And, when she was done, she also left as if dismissed.
After drinking, Matao poured the second bowl of tea. Again they drank, then they ate. After the meal, they relaxed. The ceremony and meal had ended.
As if summoned, a maiden entered the room. Though tall and slender, she was well-built and full-figured. At Matao’s gesture, she bowed to Minamoto. Matao made a second gesture and she let her outer robe fall free. Beneath, a thinner, more tightly wrapped robe allowed him to see every aspect and contour of her body.
“Do you like her, Minamoto?” Matao asked, “Do you like what your eyes now behold?”
“Yes,” Minamoto answered, “I love what my eyes now see.”
“Then you must do something,” Matao replied, “to win her trust in you, assassin. Understand?”
“Yes,” Minamoto replied, “Just tell me what I must do.”
“You must go,” Matao answered, “Into the Hall Of Five
“But no one has—-” the ninja started.
“I know,” Matao cut him off, “that no one has come out of the
Hall alive! But you must! You must break the cycle! For her!” “But what must I get from within? Minamoto inquired.
“The rings that are guarded within,” Matao replied, You must bring them to her.”
“Then I shall,” the assassin replied, “but should I fail, I will come for you.”
“Why?” Asked the diminuitive teacher.
“Because,” Minamoto stated, “You would have both deceived me and betrayed my friendship.”
“Do not worry,” the shorter warrior replied, “It is not my intent to do either.”
Rising, Minamoto bowed curtly to his wizened mentor. Matao returned the respect and honor. Minamoto knelt and put his shoes back on, then left the old man’s home. He had a task to prepare for. Tomorrow, he would face the unknown that resided within the Hall of Five Rings.
II. Into the Hall
Morning found Minamoto awake and ready for battle. Unlike the samurai, his light armor was literally unnoticeable. It was more like the under-robes, those worn under the armor-but over the inner-robes, that the samurai wore. This made it easier to move stealthily.
Slipping from shadow to shadow, he made his way toward the Hall. He had a task to accomplish. He had a woman’s heart to capture. As he drew near to it’s great doors, he saw Matao waiting for him. Why had the old man come?
“What is it, old man?” He asked, slipping from the shadows, “Are you afraid I will fail?”
“No,” came the simple reply, “Nor would I send you in without being present to give you something that would help you within.”
“Then, you won’t be with me?” Minamoto inquired.
“No,” came the reply, “not in person. But, should you need help, look into this.”
The small man placed a small brass mirror into the assassin’s hand.
“Look into it and speak my name, “the old man continued, “then you shall see and be able to speak to me. Take care that it does not fall into the hands of those within.” “Yes?” Minamoto pried.
“I can aid you,” the smaller warrior continued, “through advising you. But, should you encounter Him, you can also use the mirror to summon me…and it will draw me to it.”
“Now go!” Matao exclaimed, “May the gods smile on you.”
The diminuitive samurai bowed and disappeared into the shadows. Minamoto looked at the small mirror the old man had given him, then placed it within his robes. Stepping back, he looked once more at the grand view of the Hall of Five Rings. It seemed to be the grandest view he’d ever seen. But within, it held the greatest of all evils.
To compare the Hall to any of the numerous temples that dotted the mountainsides upon the isles would be to diminish the beauty of the building. It’s red lacquered pillars shimmered brilliantly in the morning sun. The doors, lacquered red, was accented with black and gold. Designs, painted on, hid the true nature of the building.
As he opened the massive doors, a young samurai tumbled out. A knife protruded from the young man’s back. He bled from a score more wounds, his sword still held loosely in his hand.
“They knew of my coming,” the young warrior whispered,
“they knew of my purpose.”
“Rest well, warrior,” Minamoto whispered back.
“Assassin,” the young man whispered, “bring honor back to my father’s house. Restore my sister’s virtue. Let all do honor
unto the house of Nagasiami Moto.”
“Rest assured,” Minamoto replied, “I shall avenge and restore.”
“May the gods bless you, assassin,” the young samurai gasped, then died.
The deep crimson hue of the Hall’s interior was as dazzling as the exterior. Great chains, strung through great rings in the ceiling, supported massive chandeliers that held lamps which blazed hot. These lamps hung from the chandelier bracings by much smaller chains so that one could easily pass from chain to bracing and from bracing to bracing as they passed from one chandelier to another. Minamoto smiled. This had offered him an advantage.
From his concealment in the shadows near the door, he noted that the guards seemed to watch only the floor level…not the great chains, nor the ceiling. This made his chosen route clearly the best. Once up near the ceiling, he would have to take care of the guards on the balcony, then cross to it and venture through the doors they guarded. Beyond, he would have to see what path to take.
So, up the chain he went. Stealthily, he made his way along the immense hanging causeway it formed far above the floor. Those below seemed not to see him. So far, so good.
Midway, he stopped and strung his bow. Pulling two arrows from his quiver. He drew back the string, sighted, then let the first arrow fly. A split second later, the second had been released. The two guards on the balcony fell silently to the floor, dead. Quietly, Minamoto continued on, after unstringing and putting away his bow.
Once on the balcony, he slid into the shadows. From shadow to shadow, he made his way deeper into the Hall. He knew that his quarry could only be found in the very heart of the building. So it was there that he headed.
III. The Master of the Hall
Minamoto drew both of his swords as he crept deeper into the heart of the Hall. He knew he’d have to fight sooner or later, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. He preferred not to even be here to doing the task he’d been sent on. But he knew he had to do it, so he continued on his mission.
With no balcony on this level, and smaller chandeliers, he had no choice but to go through the door he saw just ahead. But he had a small problem. There were two samurai guarding it. He had no choice but to take them out of action.
Returning one of his swords to it’s scabbard on his back, he drew a dagger and threw it. As the first guard fell to the floor, he gave up on stealth and charged…redrawing his other sword in mid-stride. He made quick work of the second guard with astounding speed. So astounding that there was no time for his opponent to raise the alarm. He flung the doors open and rushed into the room beyond.
The figure in the center of the room wheeled about to face the intruder. He drew his sword as he did so, anticipating an attack.
Minamoto stopped short.
“What have you come for, ninja?” the samurai demanded.
“The five rings,” Minamoto replied, “Do you have them?”
“They are here, ninja, do not fear about that,” the samurai replied, “but you must fight me. Fight!”
The samurai slashed wildly at Minamoto, who calmly countered each blow and brushed them aside.
“You fight well, ninja,” the samurai stated with a tinge of surprise, “I thought assassins always struck from the shadows, unseen by their foes.”
“You have much to learn, samurai,” Minamoto shrugged in reply, “We, too are warriors.”
With a keen blade, Minamoto struck expert blows. But the duel was short, and within forty-five minutes, the samurai dropped his sword…falling to his knees wounded.
“The rings are yours, ninja,” the samurai whispered, as Minamoto bent to receive his yeild, “You have won. But do not let Him know of your victory, or we all shall be doomed.” “And who is He?” Minamoto inquired.
“He is master of the Oni,” the samurai replied, “and Master of this Hall.”
Moving past the fallen warrior, Minamoto retrieved the rings from the shrine and secreted them beneath his armor. Turning, he saw another figure enter the room. This one was taller than he, but never did the shadows leave its form. The only light he could see came from the eyes.
“Very good, shadow warrior,” it stated, “you successfully reached the rings without the alarm being sounded. Four dead, one badly wounded…not bad at all.”
“You must be ‘Him’,” Minamoto surmised, secretly removing the brass mirror from its place and dropping it where he stood. Then, he stepped forward. “”Matao! Come!”
Matao appeared within the room, where the mirror had fallen, his sword drawn.
“So. We meet again,” the figure replied, “Matao.”
“Get the samurai out of the Hall, Minamoto,” Matao replied without looking away from the figure, “get them to safety.”
“You forget,” the figure spoke, “I, and my Oni, block the door. I command the shadows, samurai. Your assassin can not
leave this room. You, both, must fight.”
The shadows began to close in around them. Yet, they would not carry the fight alone. Though wounded, the samurai that had fought Minamoto hailed his fellows by raising the alarm. The samurai, rushing into the room, saw their comrade and two other warriors in distress.
Minamoto hacked his way through living shadows, making his way to a window at the far end. As he reached it, he slashed through the cords that held the tapestry over it. As it dropped to the floor, light flooded the room and obliterated the Oni. A roar of anger escaped the master of the Hall when he realized his army had been destroyed.
But the light had weakened him as well. With a well calculated slash, Matao cut his foe down. When the master of the Oni was gone, the great Hall shuddered. The samurai glanced at Matao and Minamoto with panicked expectation. The ninja rushed to his friend’s side.
“Get them out of here,” Matao commanded, “don’t worry about me, just get them out of here.”
Minamoto nodded, then commanded the samurai warriors of the Hall to evacuate. Picking up the wounded samurai, he began to do likewise. Turning, he saw Matao stoop and pick up the mirror. He heard his old friend say something. Glancing back again, he noticed that the old man had vanished. He turned back toward the door and made good his own escape.
Once beyond the steps of the fabled Hall of Five Rings, Minamoto and the group of samurai turned to gaze upon it. As they did so, it crumbled—falling in a great cloud of dust. The dark magic that had sustained its existence had ceased to be. The Hall was no more.
Putting the wounded samurai down, Minamoto began to examine his wounds and bind them.
“You were brave,” the samurai said, breaking the silence, “but you also know that kindness conquers all. This day, you have both conquered a foe and made an ally. I am proud to call you friend.”
“But I cut you with my blade,” Minamoto responded, “As a knight of darkness and shadows. Doesn’t that offend you?”
“No,” the samurai replied, “I lied to you. I tricked you into fighting. There was no need to fight, but you felt trapped. Refusal to fight also conquers a foe. But though I tricked you, my trickery failed me this once.”
With those words, the group fell silent. Minamoto finished binding the samurai’s wounds, helped him to his feet, and-bracing him-he made his way back Matao’s little house…followed by the small band of samurai that had escaped the collapsing Hall. The mission was almost complete. He now had to give the rings to his betrothed.
- Matao Explains the Truth of the Hall of Five Rings
The young woman answered the knock upon Matao’s door. Before her stood Minamoto and a small band of samurai.
“Why do you bring a great army, ninja?” she asked, her voice quivering in fear.
“I saved them from Master Death,” Minamoto replied, “and they saved me from the Oni.”
“Why did they save you, and you-them?” She asked.
“We have made a pact,” Minamoto replied, “we are now allies.” Suddenly, he changed the subject. “Is Matao here?”
“Yes,” she stated, “Master Matao is here.”
“Please let him know that I have returned,” he commanded.
“As you wish,” she replied, “Please do come in and wait.”
He watched as she shuffled off to retreive her master. The samurai sat and made themselves as comfortable as possible. Of the twenty-four, only three had accompanied him into Matao’s home. Of these, one was the wounded warrior.
Matao, his wounds bound, entered the room and bowed to his guests. The samurai arose, and with Minamoto, returned the honor.
“You wish to know,” Matao began, “the secret of the five rings.”
“Yes,” Minamoto replied.
“You also want to know the truth of the samurai you fought, then saved when the Hall fell into ruin,” Matao continued.
“Yes,” Minamoto responded.
“All is so simple,” Matao replied, “When Almakagi, the king of the Oni, came to this city, he built the Hall. Once it had been built, he called all the clans and families together in a meeting promising a grand feast. When all had assembled, he proposed that they all become his allies. His purpose was to cause much mischief and to win many slaves.
“But many present saw through his illusion. They recognized all to be a trick to enslave all the people of the city, even the warriors. They could see that his ultimate plan was to enslave all who reside on the four islands.
“Rejecting Almakagi and his grand illusion, all left the Hall…never to set foot in it again. All, that is, but five lords. Those five were fooled by Almakagi’s generosity and thus, they fell under his control.”
“But the samurai,” Minamoto interrupted, impatiently, “were they of the five?”
“Patience, my boy,” Matao corrected gently, “I will get to the samurai, but not until a while later.
“Anyway, foe these five lords Almakagi made five rings. These five rings gave unto them unnatural power. Horrible power which they still wield…or, at least, their descendants do. The original five died long ago.
“To counter these, the gods forged seven rings and gave them to seven faithful lords, wisest and most just of the land. But five of those houses fell in battle to Almakagi’s legions, and their rings fell into His hands. Two houses, my own and that of Nagasiami Moto, remained. We, two, remain allies to this day—but we are also lieges to Aginagi Onaga.
“Master Aginagi has been at war with the five since he rose to power. I had married into one of the other five houses that the gods had picked and a daughter had been born to me. My brother, Amato, married into the second house of the seven and to him a son was born. The young Nagasiami was married into the third house, and his brothers into the fourth and fifth. To them sons have been born and shall carry on the bloodlines of their mothers’ ancestors.
“For these reasons did I send you, an assassin, into the Hall to retreive the rings. It had been your clan, and its allies, who had wisely declined Almakagi’s invitation and remained in your mountain fortresses. For this reason, you were not under His power and—though He stated that you were—were not captive. But you chose to stand and fight, believing His lie and were the one who brought his ruin.
“The samurai you fought against, then saved, were all of the fallen houses of the seven. They had, like the younger Nagasiami, went in to retrieve the rings and their masters’ honors.”
“Which they could not do,” Minamoto cut in, “because they are neither lords nor great warriors.”
“Precisely,” Matao replied, “Though they are great warriors in their own right, they were not of the leading houses. Once in the Hall, they were ensnared in the trap He had laid for them.”
With the five rings divided among their future owners, one of which remained in Minamoto’s posession, fate had finally played out. Almakagi had been sent back to His dark underworld kingdom, with His Oni, in defeat. The five houses had been reestablished and the seven would watch over Ipon. No more would evil have an upper hand in the fate of Ipon.
The samurai warriors he’d saved were now his. Minamoto was now their lord. Four had been picked to carry the messages bearing the rings and had gone on their missions. He sent the remainder to the home of his clan, bearing a message written by his own hand. The wounded would survive.
“Ah,” Matao stated, turning to Minamoto, “you want the girl, no?”
“I do,: the ninja replied.
“Then you shall have her,” Matao stated, “Rie! Come!”
The young woman shuffled into the room. Minamoto rose and went to her. Untying the sash about her waist, he watched the outer robes fall open and reveal her slender naked body. A grin of satisfaction formed upon his lips.
“She pleases you, I see,” the diminuitive teacher observed.
“Yes,” Minamoto returned, “very much so.”
“Then take her and go,” Matao commanded, “and bother me no more this night.”
Minamoto waited long enough for his bride to retie her sash, closing her robes, then bowed in respectful farewell to the old man. She did likewise, then hurried out before her new husband. Minamoto exited Matao’s house, closed the door, then left the city with his wife. It had all come full circle. His debt had been paid in full.
It was dark as the couple left the city. The moon sat yellow in the sky, surrounded by the sparkling stars that dotted the sky faintly. It was a fine night. A fine night, indeed.
As they made their way to Minamoto’s clan, and the fortress he called home, he anticipated the prize of his heart. That prize walked beside him in the form of his maiden—wife. She would bear him many sons. She would make a fitting queen for his clan.