Himeji Castle, Japan 1589
His journey had been a long one, but it would soon be over. Ota Okanabe watched the sun sink beyond the horizon as he gazed out the window from the top floor of his castle tower. The view from this height was breathtaking, offering panoramic vistas of the countryside from all sides of the large sitting room. He was proud of this majestic stronghold that he had built on a hilltop and knew it to be the finest in all of Japan.
Fixedly, he turned his gaze back to the low table behind him. His katana, the gently curved sword of the samurai made by the master swordsmith Masamune, lay gleaming upon the table, blade side up. But that was not what attracted his attention. It was the two rings on the table that were uppermost in his thoughts. He could not believe that he had the fire and water rings created by the legendary Master Abe. These rings were pivotal to secure his authority with the other daimyos, the local feudal lords, and to become shogun.
He picked up the rings to admire them and looked at his name that he had his own master swordsmith engrave on the inside of the rings. Perhaps it was pride but he wanted there to be no question of his authority and his desire to be shogun was like a flame burning inside him. He felt it was his destiny.
In a short while he would send for his wife, eldest son and trusted advisors to join him in the sitting room. There would be a small ceremony where he would present the water ring to his son. Tomorrow they would host some of the ruling samurai elite from the surrounding area and Osaka. He and his son would be quite a formidable pair bearing the two powerful rings. He was sure they would make a profound impression upon their guests. Those families that swore their allegiance would be amply rewarded. Those who opposed his claim as shogun would be crushed in battle. Once he had his army ready, he would march to Kyoto and have the emperor endorse the legitimacy of his rule.
Under the cover of disguise, the three shadow walkers entered the outer gate on the southern wall as the sun hung low in the sky returning with the farmers who had been working in the fields and the merchants who hoped to earn a few yen for the wares they peddled. The trio of men entered separately into the village of Himeji, which was the area between the outer perimeter wall where the local farmers and craftsmen had their homes and the inner moat, which encircled the great castle complex that contained not only the homes of the samurai loyal to Okanabe and the garrison of his guards but also many of the noblemen and wealthy merchants.
Yamato Watanabe had been clear when he planned with his brother and cousin that they should conceal themselves and arrive at the chosen meeting place at different times and by different routes. He was masquerading as a Komuso monk, one who practices Zen Buddhism and quite a common site in the surrounding lands. Typical to the practice of the monks, he wore a wicker basket over his head like an oversized helmet, which concealed his face as he played the flute. He stayed for a brief moment near the gate and then began to wind his way through the local people who paid little attention to him. Some of them stopped to chat with friends about their lives and catch up on the day’s events while others headed straight into their homes to be received by their wives and have their evening meal served to them.
Yamato watched as a few men crossed a bridge over the moat. They were stopped by the guards and asked a few questions and then continued onwards. Yamato and his clan had considered accessing the greater castle by the bridge, the most direct route, but had decided against it in favour of stealth. They were strangers and may not have been able to deceive their way past the guards. It was much easier to gain access from this side of the moat and cross over under the cover of nightfall.
Twilight was starting to settle and it would soon be dark as there was no moon rising in the sky. Yamato stopped playing the flute as he walked past a thick clump of yellow bamboo. He was on the edge of a wooded area near the south-west corner. He knew that if he walked through the trees he would eventually come to the moat but he stayed on the road a little longer. There were fewer homes around this area, but he didn’t want anyone to see him leave the road and enter the woods. Looking around, he did a quick check and saw no one near him, then he silently stepped through a swath of green wispy bamboo and into the small forest. He walked for about twenty meters, concentrating on not making any sound as he entered into an area dense with trees. He stopped and took the basket off his head and carried it, but left the monk robes on as they concealed the deadly weapons he had underneath. He continued through the trees focusing on the natural sounds, not wanting to disturb any creatures that may be nearby. Soon he saw the edge of the woods and beyond that the water of the moat. He changed direction so that he followed the course of the water but was still concealed by the overhanging trees.
Concentrating on being quiet, he made his way along the moat for another ten minutes until he saw the faint silhouette of a man fishing along the bank of the water. It was his brother Tenzo. Yamato stood by a large ginkgo tree and took his time scanning the area. He was happy Tenzo didn’t realise he was there watching him but he wondered where his cousin was. Focusing on the details of the landscape, Yamato looked for any irregularities that may indicate a person under concealment. He spent a few more minutes trying to locate him and then gave up. He picked up a small pebble and tossed it at his brother hitting him on the back. Tenzo didn’t flinch. Casually, he set the bamboo fishing rod down beside a rock and then walked into the trees towards Yamato. When they were a few feet apart they still didn’t speak, only nodding their head to each other.
But where was Ren? Yamato wondered.
As if reading his mind his cousin stood up not more than ten feet from where they stood. He had been curled into a ball and concealing himself as a rock. Ren was a true master at blending in with his environment.
The three men walked over to the edge of the trees and stopped just before a large clear area. Diagonally across the moat there was a steep hill that had some dense undergrowth. The western castle outer wall crested the top of the hill. This is where they would enter the castle compound. Once they got over the wall they would still have to make their way through the compound and scale another defensive wall to enter the inner courtyard and then secretly enter the main castle keep.
Luck was on their side as darkness quickly descended and there was little illumination except from a few lanterns shining through windows in the castle. The trio silently took off all their clothes and put them into the basket Yamato had. They also put their various weapons, hooks and rope in and then silently entered the water and began to swim across the moat taking care not to splash. Yamato carried the basket up in front of him keeping their goods dry. He knew it would look odd if anyone looked down at the water to see a basket floating by but was reassured by the cover of darkness.
When they reached the other side, they dried their bodies with the monk’s robe he had been wearing earlier and put on black clothes and hoods that concealed their faces except for their eyes. They put on soft leather padded shoes that were split at the large toe so that they would be more agile on their feet. They wrapped black cloth tape around their ankles to their upper calves to tighten the pants so they wouldn’t flap or snag as they moved. Each of them attached a katana fighting sword to their back and attached a number of shuriken throwing stars to their belt, looping a small rope through a hole in the middle of the stars. They had crafted these flat shuriken stars specifically for this mission using a design of four curved blades, which differed from the more common five bladed shuriken that was typical of their village in the Koga region. It was common for the design of a shuriken to indicate which family clan the star had come from, so they had made a new design to leave no clues for their enemy to discover who they were.
Finally, Yamato attached a large coil of rope to his belt and picked up his kunai, a large spike he used for climbing, and then started to make his way up the slope. It wasn’t long before they reached the base of the wall under the outer battlement, known as the Wa Tower, in the south-west corner of the compound. He wondered again if infiltrating the castle from a point that was farthest from the castle keep, their target, was the wisest choice. But he had chosen this point based on the easy access across the moat and the relatively shorter wall to climb. The walls here were only a little over ten meters tall since they sat on the crest of a hill. Some of the other walls around the castle could be as high as twenty-six meters.
From afar the castle walls looked smooth and daunting but up close the cracks and crevices between each rock became visible. Yamato was an expert climber and it was his job to be the first up and secure the rope for the others to follow. Slowly, he used his hands to feel the surface of the stones. Although he blessed the gods for allowing a moonless evening, the thick nightfall made his job of finding footholds between the stones more difficult. He found a good gap between two stones about two meters up. He got out his kunai and started to gouge a hole between the stones near the gap he had located. After he worked away at it for a short while, he took out a smaller spike and drove it with his hammer into the hole in the seam between the stones. He strung a rope through the eye hole at the end of the spike and tied a strong knot to secure it to the spike. He had just made his first climbing anchor.
Wanting to test the strength of the anchor, he hung on to the rope with all his weight. It didn’t slip and he was satisfied with the result. He grabbed the end of the spike that protruded from the wall with one hand and an adjacent gap in the stones with the other. Using his considerable strength he started to pull himself up. His leather shoes enabled him to use his feet to feel for crevices and gaps to use as toeholds and help bear some of his weight as he climbed the wall. When his legs were about half way to the anchor and well supported he took his left hand off the anchor and reached up to search for a grip to pull himself up. Feeling with his fingers, he found a good grip hold and firmly pulled up his body until he had his feet securely positioned with one balanced on the climbing anchor and the other in a crevice between the giant stones of the wall. He was ready to drive in his next climbing spike. In this way, Yamato expertly climbed up the wall, placing five anchor spikes and securing the rope to the anchors until he had scaled the wall and was at the base of the guard tower.
The guard tower had two levels. The upper section was a raised tower with open windows that would allow guards clear views of the surrounding countryside. The bottom section was much larger and ran along the entire length of the wall. It had small circular, triangular and square holes in it which were perfect for a guard to spot an intruder or shoot off an arrow but way too small for someone to squeeze through. Yamato was awfully tempted to secure a grappling hook to one of the holes and drop a rope down to his kinsmen but knew this was too risky as it would be a dead giveaway to a guard patrolling the corridors inside.
The overhang of the clay roof for the lower level was about three meters above his head. At the corner of the tower the clay roof protruded out and up with a large ornate circular tile of the Okanabe family crest. A nice aesthetic touch Yamato thought, and perfect to loop a rope around and gain access to the upper level. He pulled out a length of rope from his climbing coil and attached a grappling hook. Yamato took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Focusing on the task, he deftly swung it over the corner tile and then pulled the rope carefully back until he felt it tighten as the grappling hook became secure. He tested its strength and felt that it would hold his weight. Within a few seconds he shimmied up the rope and was on the roof of the lower level.
Yamato gave two tugs on the rope. This was followed by three tugs from the bottom. He gave three more tugs indicating it was time for them to climb up and join him. There were two large windows on the upper floor of the tower. Yamato gingerly walked over the clay tiles of the lower floor roof until he was standing outside one of the windows. He wanted to see inside the room to check if any guards were on duty.
Just as he stuck his head inside to have a peek, a guard leaned out the window to have a look. Startled at being face to face with a guard, Yamato reacted with lightning quick reflexes. Before the guard could get a word of alarm out, Yamato clamped a firm hand over his mouth and with his other hand drove the sharp end of his kunai spike deep into the man’s throat. The guard’s eyes bulged out and bubbles of blood escaped from his mouth as Yamato felt the man’s life drain away.
Yamato looked into the room and saw another guard with his back to him. Yamato was surprised the man hadn’t heard him. He needed to act quickly before the guard noticed something was wrong. As quiet as a prowling cat he entered the window, careful not to disturb the dead body that was now hanging partly out the window. Moving softly on the balls of his feet, he started to make his way across the room just as the man began to turn. With cat like speed, Yamato grabbed one of the shuriken from his belt and flung the deadly star with lethal accuracy into the man’s heart. The man stood for a few seconds with a look of utter shock on his face and then dropped to his knees. With two quick strides, Yamato was able to cross the room and catch him before his upper body toppled to the floor. He was happy to see that only two guards were stationed in this upper tower and that the stairs leading down seemed quiet.
Ren and Tenzo silently entered the room. Tenzo raised his eyebrows at Yamato in a ‘what happened’ expression. He gestured back that it couldn’t be avoided and then motioned for them to take the guards out the window and drop them over the wall and down the hillside.
A frown spread across Yamato’s face. He wondered how long they had before someone would come up to the tower to check on the guards. He knew their infiltration plan had to be sped up but they still had a long way to get to the top of the main castle keep and reach the target of their mission. They needed to buy some time. Slowly, a smile formed at the corner of his lips as a new plan started to form in his mind.
Ota Okanabe felt a wave of pride and excitement as he looked at his guests. Joining him at the large low table in his top floor sitting room were his eldest son Toru, his lovely wife Lady Okanabe, his top advisor Daisuke Tanaka and the captain of his guards Sanza. It was a small gathering but he was eager to show the rings and begin a new chapter in the legacy of his samurai family by presenting the water ring to his son.
“Tonight marks a turning point in our lives. I have something to show you all,” said Ota eagerly. And without further ado he revealed the two rings. They reflected blue and red from the candlelight. The party at the table was captivated by the raw beauty of the rings.
“They are beautiful. Where are they from?” asked his wife.
“These rings were made by Master Abe,” replied Ota with a warm smile to his wife.
“He is a great swordsmith. Some say the greatest ever to grace the islands of Nippon,” said Sanza.
“These are the water and fire rings. They are unique, there is nothing like them in all the land. They were made for the rulers of our great country and they have found a home here with our family. Tomorrow, we will host many of the great lords and samurai families and I will reveal to them my plans to become shogun. Our country is tired of the endless fighting between family clans and we need one strong ruler to unify the country. Those who choose to support us will be on the side of victory.” Ota stood up and lifted his sake cup. They all stood to join him.
“Kampai!” Ota said loudly to the group.
They all joined him in saying the familiar cheer and drank down the sake in one fluid movement. Ota motioned for them to sit down again.
“This ring that reflects red will be for me. It is the fire ring.” He took the ring and slipped it on his finger. Ota looked directly at his son.
“This other ring with the blue aura, the water ring, is for you Toru. It indicates that you are my heir and the next in succession for shogun. With these two rings we will fight those who oppose us and find victory. Together we will rule over Nippon.”
Ota presented the ring to his son. Toru marvelled at its beauty before slipping it onto his slender ring finger. It was a little loose.
“Thank you father, I will loyally serve you until the last drop of my blood.” Toru bowed deeply to his father not knowing that his words would soon ring true.
Ota stood and the rest followed.
“Tonight marks the beginning of our family’s legacy. Long may the Okanabes rule Nippon! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!”
They all swung their arms up and down energetically as they echoed the military slogan. Ota felt strong and powerful as he looked at the ring on his finger and at his son’s ring. The ring fit his finger perfectly. He seemed to sense the blood course through his veins. He felt ten years younger. What Ota didn’t know was that the ring was flawed.
As quiet as a cat seeking its prey, the three shadow walkers made their way through the castle compound. After they left the tower they stealthily crept along the wall of the inner compound sticking to areas with thick foliage and trees. A few guards had passed by them at one point but had been completely oblivious to their presence. When they had approached an inner gate, one of the access points to the main castle keep, they split up. Tenzo and Yamato watched as Ren began to scale the west-side wall that would lead him to the innermost courtyard of the castle. They soon lost sight of him. Although they knew he was climbing the wall near them they couldn’t see his profile. Yamato was in awe of his cousin’s superb ability at stealth and concealment.
Tenzo and Yamato silently moved towards the base of the southern wall where the great five-story castle tower stood atop. Yamato placed his hands over the huge cut rocks of limestone as he searched for suitable cracks and crevices to secure the spikes they used for climbing. Although the castle wall was tall here at over twenty meters, he wasn’t concerned about scaling it and knew they could climb it rather quickly. But he also knew their progress would be much slower once they reached the castle building and started to climb its outer walls to the great sitting room at the top. He wondered if their bodies would stand out against the white plastered earthen walls for which the castle was famous. They would have to be extra vigilant to stick to the deep shadows.
Once they scaled the wall and the first story of the tower, it was relatively easy for them to climb to the top due to the design of the tower. The great castle roof included triangular gables which jutted out over some of the windows and swung down low nearly touching the clay roof tiles below them. They were able to climb up the roof and access each level with no difficulty. The best part was the overhanging roof provided great cover of darkness.
They reached the top floor and carefully crawled over the clay tiles. Outside the great sitting room with his body pressed up against the wall, Yamato carefully tilted his head around the window frame to spy the inner room and the position of those inside. He prayed to the gods that he would not meet the gaze of a guard like the last time. It would be harder to recover from such an error at this late stage in their mission. In the brief second he looked into the room he was able to take in the layout and count the half dozen men in the room. More importantly, he was able to see his target. He indicated to Tenzo to position himself by the adjacent window. As he waited before the attack he wondered if he had made the right decision. A crucial part of their plan relied on Ren to make a distraction. He quickly erased any doubt and steadied himself in anticipation of the next move.
Ota Okanabe was pleased with the evening’s proceedings and anticipated a great meeting with the samurai elite the next day. He could see a look of admiration and pride in his son’s eyes and this touched him deeply.
“I want to talk about tomorrow’s meeting with the daimyos,” he began and then suddenly stopped. He sensed something was wrong. His body became rigid, there was a faint smell that aroused alarm deep within him. The others didn’t seem to notice and were all fixedly looking at him. And then he became aware of what the smell was. Something was burning.
“Kaji!” someone yelled from outside reaffirming Ota’s greatest fear.
A guard ran to the western facing window to have a look.
“It’s the Ni gate, my Lord. It’s on fire!”
These were the last words to escape the man’s mouth. His body slumped to the floor and a man dressed in black jumped through the window and into the room. Another man in black jumped into the room from the southern window and quickly dispatched the other guard, leaving the group sitting around the table with looks of shock and horror on their faces.
“Ninja!” yelled out Tanaka.
Sanza, the captain of the guard, reacted quickly and drew his sword to engage one of the attackers. A flurry of action ensued as the captain and the ninja quickly traded blows and their swords clashed one strike after another in a fury of sparks and ringing metal.
Okanabe reached for his Masamune blade on the table but his son grabbed it before he could and charged the other ninja with the blade raised up over his head in front of him. Okanabe knew instantly that this was a fatal mistake. His son was courageous but still lacked the skill and art of sword fighting. The ninja artfully stepped to the side as Toru attacked and with the finesse of a great swordsman the ninja buried his blade deep into his son’s body.
Sanza continued to battle the other ninja with great fury. He saw an opportunity and swivelled to the side and used his right hand to draw his short blade from his belt and with a quick movement buried it into the belly of his attacker. Sanza was surprised the ninja let out no cry of pain when he delivered the fatal blow. What happened next was even a bigger surprise. With quick reflexes the ninja drew a knife from his belt and sliced deeply across Sanza’s throat cutting the main artery and then they both dropped dead.
In a panic, Tanaka yelled for help as he ran towards the stairs which led to the level below. Before he reached the first step, a throwing star caught him in the back of the head and he toppled to the floor. Okanabe eyed his blade that lay too far out of reach. The ninja came up to him and opened his mouth as if to say something and without giving any indication delivered a quick left-right elbow combination to the side of his head that knocked him out before he hit the floor.
Yamato had felt a sharp pain in his heart as he watched his brother fall dead to the floor. The only other person left in the room was the lady and he was surprised to see her slumped over the table. She must have fainted from shock. He took in the grotesque scene that lay around him. It had taken less than a few minutes of quick brutal violence to unfold. Pools of blood were soaking into the tatami floor. He stood over Okanabe with his sword in his hand. He raised his sword above his head and then gazed at the ruined body of the young Toru Okanabe. Enough violence for one day he thought and sheathed his sword. He looked at the beautiful Masamune sword in the boy’s hand but decided against taking it. He quickly collected the two rings and left through the window.
As he made his escape from the castle he placed his hand on the deep hip pocket of his pants to reassure himself the rings were securely with him. He had successfully completed the mission he had undertaken at the urgent request of Master Abe but it had come at a great cost. As Yamato walked along the road that would take him back home he wondered what would come next. He had no idea the rings would become both a blessing and a burden for his family for many generations to come.