The Doom That Came to Yamatai

By Travis King

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Beneath the summer sun, sweat beaded on Kazuai’s forehead as he marched along the earthen path leading to Empress Himiko’s audience chamber. He wiped the moisture away with the sleeve of his hempen tunic and reminded himself that he would not be required to endure the woman’s dreadful presence for long. He would report on the success of his troops and then be dismissed. The Empress, as usual, would not ask for details, leaving that to her younger brother, Prince Ojin, who, as her vice-regent, attended to the everyday affairs of the realm of Yamatai.

With great deliberation, Kazuai ascended the steps to the veranda. He rapped twice on the door. Within seconds, the door slid open, and Kazuai stepped inside. Nothing had changed since the last time he had been there.

Although there were no torches or oil lamps, the chamber was nevertheless brightly lit. The source of this illumination was a fist-sized ball, an artifact of Empress Himiko’s magic, which hovered above, inches from the ceiling. It cast its rays equally throughout the room, highlighting the ornate tatami that covered the floor, as well as the many decorations mounted on the walls: the silken tapestries that stretched around the walls at eye level; the bronze shields, with their grotesque etchings, that hung on either side of the room; and the skulls, both animal and human, strung together and suspended on ropes or, in the case of the large totemic rams’ heads, mounted directly on the walls.

To Kazuai’s right stood the girl who had opened the door. She was one of the Thousand Young – the cadre of maidens who served the empress. Despite her beauty, she was unremarkable, for no maiden who was not beautiful was chosen as a servant of the Empress. With her short black hair and monotonous buff gown of unadorned silk, she was indistinguishable from any other of the Thousand Young. Kazuai barely gave the girl a glance out of the corner of his eye, focusing instead on the two members of royalty at the other end of the room.

Prince Ojin stood tall, his hair cut short, his beard neatly trimmed. He wore a tunic and trousers of silk, that material allowed only to members of royalty and their retainers. Unlike the servant girl’s, his attire was a beautiful violet colour and elaborately brocaded. Kazuai’s heart skipped a beat as he beheld the Prince in all his majesty, but he did not allow his eyes to linger. He settled his gaze directly ahead to the dais behind Prince Ojin and to Empress Himiko, seated there on her sturdy oaken throne.

She was covered from neck to toe in flowing black robes made of a fabric that had the reflective luster of silk but could not be silk, for at the same time, it seemed to suck in all light around it. It was an assault on the senses and only one of the reasons Kazuai did not enjoy being around the Empress.

Her hair matched her garments and, once it spilled past her shoulders, it was impossible to separate one from the other. Contained within the blackness was a pale face, which, like those of her servants, was beautiful. She was said to be nearly one hundred years old, but she had not the lines to show it. Her skin was as smooth as any maiden’s, but none would mistake her for one, for there was age apparent in her visage – in the way she held her lips tightly together, and in her arsenic-coloured eyes, which were cold and sinister, like a sword that had seen many battles.

“Come closer,” the Empress commanded, her voice an audible manifestation of the aspect contained within her eyes.

Kazuai removed his bear-fur shoes and complied. Had Himiko not been the Empress – indeed, had she been the lowliest of peasants – still, he would have heeded the command. Her power was great and tinged the air with a palpable energy, a static charge like that felt during a lightning storm – that is, if the lightning were formed not of fire but of ice.

As he stepped forward, the young servant slid closed the door behind him. He approached the Empress with the grace of a Tsushima cat and, when he stood within ten paces of the dais, he offered her a deep, formal bow and gave the required greeting: “Your Imperial Majesty, I am greatly honoured to appear in your presence.” When he rose from the bow, he made certain not to establish eye contact, for it was considered disrespectful.

The Empress did not respond, merely focused her gaze upon him. Even though his own gaze was focused at the empress’s feet and he was not watching her eyes, Kazuai could feel them upon him, scrutinizing, penetrating through his thick clothing and his taut, muscled skin, deep inside to where his spirit resided. His body tingled – not pleasantly but not painfully either – as the empress used her magical powers to read his thoughts. It was a revolting feeling, this invasion of his privacy and integrity, and yet another reason he preferred to avoid the Empress. Many said she wielded the powers of a shaman – but no other shaman he had encountered had such abilities and he sometimes wondered about the woman’s true nature. Her magic, he was certain, came not from the gods but demons.

“Your opinion of me matters not,” the Empress suddenly said in response to his thoughts and Kazuai berated himself for allowing them to rise to the surface. “What matters is that you serve and you have served me well. I have delved into your experience of the recent military campaigns to the north and I commend your success. I expect the same in the future. Soon, this entire island will be under the dominion of the Yamatai Empire. All kings and queens, all clan chieftains, all shamans will bow before my might.

“I have no further need of you at this time. You are dismissed. You may accompany the Prince to his chambers to discuss in detail these martial affairs and to…enjoy his company, as I know you do. You have been long without companionship on the battlefield.”

With these words, the Empress rose from her throne and descended the stairs at the rear of the dais, disappearing from sight.

Kazuai breathed a sigh of relief. He realized his forehead was again covered in sweat and again, he wiped it with his sleeve. Then, with a buoyant spring, he covered the few paces that separated him and Prince Ojin.

The Prince took Kazuai’s right hand between both of his own and said, “I have missed you. Let us do as the Empress directed. Come with me to my chambers.”

Kazuai nodded and, with a small, droll smile, he said, “Of course, my prince. As you command, so shall it be.”

Ojin chuckled. “I have missed your humour, Kazuai. It is rare in this place.” He let go of Kazuai’s hand and headed for the door. Kazuai followed half a pace behind.

He maintained that distance through the palace grounds, displaying the proper deference for the sake of any who might see them. Only once they had reached the Prince’s chambers did he relinquish decorum, as Ojin did the same.

They embraced each other tightly, and Ojin brought his lips to Kazuai’s, planting a passionate kiss upon them as they parted. Within seconds, their tongues were engaged in a sensual dance, like those performed by participants in the spring fertility rites. Ojin’s soft beard tickled the smooth skin of Kazuai’s face and Kazuai reveled in the familiar sensation for which he had yearned during his months on the fields of battle.

Lost in the pleasure of the moment, Kazuai did not notice Ojin leading him into the next room and to the mattress that lay on the floor therein, so he was surprised when lucidity struck and he found himself not only on the mattress, but with his clothing half-removed. He hurriedly finished the task the Prince had begun and then unfastened the Prince’s robes and peeled through the layers to reveal the man’s body.

Kazuai dusted Ojin’s chest with kisses and worked his way down Ojin’s belly. The lower Kazuai progressed, the more pleasure the Prince derived. The gasps, moans, and tremors made this quite clear to Kazuai – as did more tangible manifestations of the Prince’s arousal. Kazuai found himself aroused, finding his own pleasure in his lover’s, and his physical state soon matched Ojin’s. For the next few hours, they made love, both fast and hard, and slow and tender, giving in to all the emotions and desires that had built up over their months apart. When they were both finally spent, they simply lay together on the mattress, embracing and caressing in silence.

Ojin finally broke that silence. “You are so beautiful, Kazuai. Your face has lost some of the youthful roundness it had when first we met, but you remain otherwise unchanged.”

Kazuai’s eyes darkened; his smile faded. In a somber tone, he said, “It will not always be so. I am twenty years younger than you, true, but I will not always be young. Will you still find me beautiful then?”

“Always,” Ojin said. “Until death parts us.”

A tense silence followed.

“It troubles you, my prince, that death shall have the final word over our love? All the more reason to enjoy it while we live. Death comes to us all.”

Ojin waited a beat and then said, “No. It does not, I’m afraid.”

Kazuai shot Ojin a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”

The Prince closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them again. “If only I could tell you, my dear Kazuai, but…to do so would invite dire consequences.”

“I’m afraid I don’t under – ”

Kazuai was cut off abruptly by the clamour of gongs and drums from outside, the alarm signaling that the town – perhaps even the palace itself – was under attack. Obeying his martial training without thought or hesitation, he jumped to his feet and dressed quickly, all the time hoping he would have time to run to his quarters and retrieve his armour.

“What’s happening?” wondered Prince Ojin as he, too, slipped into his clothes. “There have been no reports of an army on the march.”

“Assassins, perhaps. Or a small assault force. I know not. As you said, there have been no reports. Even if an army were traveling through the countryside and avoiding settled regions, sentries would have seen signs of their passing and sent messengers.”

“We must protect the Empress from whatever is out there,” Ojin said, sternly. “The palace guard will be assembling. There is none better to organize the defense than you. Hurry, Kazuai. I will meet you outside shortly, and I will make sure the palace troops know to obey your command.”

“Yes, my prince.”

Kazuai rushed from the Prince’s chambers onto the palace grounds and encountered a commotion, but he noted that it was orderly commotion, that everyone was responding to the alarm as trained, and he continued to his quarters to don his armour and retrieve his weapons.

A short time later, he was outside again, ready for battle. He saw that the palace guard stood in rank and file at the gates, pikes in hand, awaiting orders. The Prince must have spread the word already that Kazuai would be leading them. Before he could do so, however, he had to know what his warriors would be up against. He climbed the ladder of the guard tower and gazed out at the town of Narashita that spread beyond the gate. He thanked the gods for good fortune as he noticed that the enemy troops had not yet reached the town – though he could see they were within an hour of doing so. The alarm must have been raised in response to a message of their approach and not an attack, as he had feared. Kazuai could not see the banners of the approaching army and, as he descended the ladder, he considered who might wish to attack. His mind raced with possibilities.

It could not be an army from the north, seeking vengeance. Those kingdoms’ armies had been thoroughly routed. The kingdoms themselves were occupied by the Empress’s forces. Besides, he and his own troops had returned only a day before; they would have noticed had such a large host been following that closely behind them.

Perhaps the army had come from the great nation of Izumo to the northwest. They had borne a grudge against Yamatai since that great battle years ago. Moreover, their leaders consorted with demons and, like Empress Himiko, had use of magic; they easily could have employed such powers to send an army as far as Narashita without detection. However, Izumo had seemed satisfied merely to stave off the army of Yamatai and, in the intervening years, had never sought revenge; indeed, spies within the kingdom of Izumo had made it clear that the people of Izumo were uninterested in expanding their borders. Unless something had suddenly changed, it was unlikely the army was from there.

That left Ito, a powerful kingdom to the south. They were one of the dozens of kingdoms that made up the Yamatai Empire and, until recently, they had been loyal to Empress Himiko. Over the last few years, however, the newly-enthroned king of Ito, an impetuous youth named Kenzo, had challenged Himiko’s authority, claiming that she was not a legitimate heir to the throne. Although he was not a blood heir to the previous emperor either, he claimed to have just as much right to rule – and, despite the fact that Himiko had expanded the empire greatly, he claimed also to be better suited to the task. It was entirely possible King Kenzo had sent this army in an attempt to wrest power from the Empress. It was also possible – just barely – that an army from the south could have traveled this far without being detected.

As soon as Kazuai’s feet hit the ground, he spun and said to the men gathered before him, “They are King Kenzo’s troops. They must be.”

“Indeed they are,” said a familiar voice. Startled, Kazuai looked to his right and saw that Ojin stood only a few paces away. “So says the man who raised the alarm,” the man continued, as he closed the distance between himself and Kazuai.

Kazuai bowed. It was no secret that he and Ojin were more than merely master and vassal – their romantic relationship was an accepted fact – but it was still necessary to display such deference in public. “My prince,” he said.

“I have spoken with an attendant who brought word from the farmer who first caught sight of the army. The upstarts have finally made their move against the Empress. They will not succeed. The palace guard will march out immediately. Your troops have not yet disassembled since returning from the northern campaigns. They have been ordered to prepare for battle. They wait at the edge of the town, where you will add them to our forces and command the entire army. We will also raise the citizenry of the town and send to nearby settlements for all able-bodied men and women. We are outnumbered at the moment, but we will soon have an army just as mighty as that which attacks. In addition, we fight for the Empress, and because of that alone, we will prevail!”

Prince Ojin’s last sentences were directed at the entirety of the troops assembled and, as soon as he stopped speaking, the troops cheered.

“We will prevail,” said Kazuai, accepting it as an order not to be defied. Then, raising his voice above the din of cheers, he barked, “Open the gates!”

Half an hour later, the army was in the midst of the fray and, although he was the greatest warrior in the kingdom, even Kazuai was susceptible to a spear, such as the one that struck him in the back as he fought and caused him to collapse to the ground in blackness.

***

As he regained consciousness, Kazuai could hear the voices of a man and a woman. He could not make out most of the words though, in his groggy state, and caught only the end of the conversation – the woman’s voice saying, “Remember, though, that you took an oath those many years ago and I rewarded you handsomely in return. Would you lose your gifts and my protection over the love of a single mortal?”

A door closed, and Kazuai brooded over these words, but he found no meaning in them. When he opened his eyes a moment later, he saw Ojin’s bearded face hovering above his own as the elder man knelt beside him. Dismissing the conversation as, perhaps, the last segment of a fading dream, he smiled, and Ojin responded in kind.

“Thank the gods you have awakened. The healers were not sure you would. But I held out hope and have prayed that it might be so, and I have been nursing you here in my chambers waiting for this moment.”

“I am a high-ranking warrior of Yamatai,” Kazuai stated. “It would be unwise for me not to live to see another battle.” He chuckled. His laugh quickly turned into a fit of coughing and, when he regained his breath, he continued, “Despite the fact that I feel as though I am dying.”

Ojin’s smile turned to a frown. “The healers say you are dying, Kazuai. A spear pierced just above your heart, grazing it and, although they removed the weapon and were able to clean and close the wound, a splinter remains lodged within the organ. Blood seeps out with every beat.”

It was Kazuai’s turn to frown. He held the expression for a moment and then relaxed his visage and changed the subject. “How long has it been since I was wounded? How did my soldiers fare in battle?”

“It has been two days,” Ojin replied. “The men and women of Yamatai fought bravely and we have sent Kenzo’s troops into retreat, carrying with them a message of warning that should they attack again, the Empress will not take it so lightly and will spare no mercy for the kingdom of Ito and its people. She will wipe it from the land.”

Kazuai chuckled again and managed not to cough. “Our might is strong, our warriors brave, but I doubt we could raze the entire kingdom to the ground.”

“No, we could not – but the Empress’ might is greater than that of every man, woman, and child in Yamatai.”

“Her magic, you mean.”

“That…and more.”

Kazuai looked blankly at Ojin.

Ojin continued, a pained look on his face. “I have been sworn to secrecy regarding the Empress’ true nature and the extent of her powers. If I were to tell you – ”

“You would lose your gifts and her protection,” said Kazuai. In response to Ojin’s befuddled stare, he added, “I heard the Empress speaking to you as I awoke.”

Ojin nodded.

“I always felt there was much more to the Empress than meets the eye,” Kazuai said. “I have wondered many times if she might be in league with demons such as those with which the leaders of Izumo are in league.”

Ojin shook his head. “The powers of the gods and demons of this realm pale in comparison to Empress Himiko and her kind.”

“Her kind?” Kazuai wondered.

Ojin pursed his lips and Kazuai could see that he was pondering whether or not to reveal more.

“You need not tell me, Ojin. I know not what gifts you would lose; I know not what protection your sister, the Empress, would – ”

“You don’t understand, Kazuai,” Ojin interrupted as he leapt to his feet and gesticulated wildly. “Lies, pretense – that is all this is! Himiko is not my sister and I am no prince!”

“I – I don’t understand,” said Kazuai. He shifted his position slightly, tried to prop himself up on his elbow, but he collapsed and a cry of pain escaped his lips. He clutched his heart.

Ojin knelt once more beside his lover. “Kazuai!” he said and he stroked the young man’s cheek.

“I…am fine. What did you mean when you said you are no prince?”

Again, Ojin hesitated. His eyes begged Kazuai to give him a way out, to tell him once more that he need not speak on the subject. But Kazuai was too curious by now; he would do no such thing and his intense, questioning gaze made that clear.

Ojin sighed heavily. “Very well,” he began. “The gods and demons and spirits we know – the kami of this Earth, of the High Plain of Heaven, and of the Dark Land – they are young and weak compared to the little-known Outer Gods who roam the vastness of eternity beyond our comprehension. Scores of these gods dwell amongst the stars and have descended to our world throughout its history. Some dwell here now.”

“And Empress Himiko draws her power from these…Outer Gods?”

“No, Kazuai,” Ojin said. Then, lowering his voice to a whisper, he continued, “Empress Himiko is a god.”

“I – I don’t understand.”

“She is no woman, Kazuai. She has assumed the shape of one, but she is, in truth, an ethereal being – a god.”

Kazuai was taken aback at Ojin’s assertion. It was inconceivable, yet the older man’s intensity made it clear he believed it to be true.

“And…you?” asked Kazuai.

“As I said, I am no prince; I am no brother to the Empress. I act the role, for I am her priest. I was once an apprentice to a powerful shaman and, when he died, I took his place. He taught me the lore of the Outer Gods, and showed me how to summon their minions. He was not powerful enough to summon the gods themselves, but in that I was successful. I gave earthly form to the goddess Shabu-Niguratsu, contained her essence within the body of a young maiden and, for the last one hundred years, I have been her servant.”

“One hundred years?” Kazuai was incredulous.

Ojin nodded. “Immortality,” he said, “was one of the gifts Shabu-Niguratsu bestowed upon me after I summoned her to this realm. She seeks dominion over this world, beginning with Yamatai, and then the entire island of Wa. In her ethereal form, such dominion would be impossible, and in her corporeal form, her powers are diminished. Therefore, it has befallen me to aid her endeavor and, to that end, she has endowed me with immunity to death.”

Kazuai tried once again to shift his position and once more, he fell into a fit of coughing and pain. “If only…she had endowed me…with such a gift…or would, at least, heal this wound.”

Ojin’s visage seemed to grow even more melancholy. “She could quite easily heal you,” he said. “She is a demanding mistress, though. She has chosen to look upon this as a test of my loyalty. I can either remain her priest and co-ruler for eternity without you or ask her to restore your health and lose all that she has given me.”

“She would have you choose between your love for me and your oath to her?”

Ojin nodded.

“That is cruel,” said Kazuai, “but it is a matter of honour. You cannot choose me, Ojin. Let me die.”

A wry smile twisted Ojin’s mouth. “I have chosen already, Kazuai. I have told you her secret.”

“But I am dying. Surely, there is no danger in revealing it to me.”

“It does not matter. I have broken the oath.”

“She need not know.”

“Ha! There is no way to keep it from her. Surely, you have felt that penetrating stare of hers – that taint she leaves upon the spirit as she gazes into it and takes from you your thoughts. It is likely she knows already. She keeps a part of her mind close to mine at all times.”

Kazuai nodded. “Yes, I understand. What will you do, then?”

“He will be released,” said the Empress, sliding open the door violently, “from his service – and from his life!”

Ojin and Kazuai both looked upon her imposing form as she entered, their eyes riveted on her every slight movement as she drew near to them.

“How dare you defy me!” she said to Ojin. “I am your mistress!” She raised an arm quickly, gracefully, and with fluid movement grabbed Ojin by the neck and raised him off the ground.

Kazuai stared. His heart picked up its pace in response to fear and distress as Ojin rasped and choked, his flow of air cut off by the woman’s – goddess’, Kazuai reminded himself – violent grip.

“Weak fools, you humans are. Subject to the whims of this emotion you call ‘love’. It makes you work against your own better interests, even to the point of choosing death over eternal life and power. You could have been a prince of the world, Ojin.” She relaxed her hand to allow her servant to respond, though she still held him above the ground.

His throat only slightly less constricted than it had been, Ojin struggled to form his words, yet he managed not only to form them but to release them with a vitriolic tone. “Kazuai is my better interest. I would rather have death than eternal life without him. Had I to do it over again, I would never have summoned you here; I would never have become your priest.”

Shabu-Niguratsu, in the guise of Himiko, smiled gruesomely. “But you did, Ojin. You brought me here, gave me this form, devoted your life to me. Now, you have betrayed your oath, shown me where you true devotion lies.” She gestured at Kazuai. “With that pathetic mortal over there. You have chosen this path. Your deeds are done. Your life is finished. I am here because of you, but I can endure without you.”

Ojin managed a humourless laugh and told her, “No. You will not.”

Shabu-Niguratsu was taken aback by the comment and a perplexed expression passed over her face.

“My former master – the shaman who taught me all I know of magic – instilled in me a great sense of safety and responsibility,” Ojin explained. “The second rule of spirit-summoning is to avoid inviting what you cannot also banish.”

“You cannot,” said Shabu-Niguratsu, “and you would not. Not after serving me for a century.”

“I can and I would.” Ojin’s steely gaze invited no doubt. He murmured something unintelligible and the woman dropped him as she collapsed to her knees in pain.

Shabu-Niguratsu writhed, her human body filled with agony. “You will die, also,” she said, her eyes pleading for mercy. “Without my magic, the years you have lived without paying the toll will demand the life energy you owe.”

Ojin continued his incantation.

“You are not my only servant. The Thousand Young – they are spirits as well, spirits I have placed in human bodies. They will find another with power like yours to summon me to this realm once more.”

Ojin ignored the woman, certain she was simply trying to distract him. He turned his head slightly and looked directly at Kazuai. Though Ojin’s brown eyes had assumed a golden hue, a sign of the power coursing through him as he banished the dark goddess from the earth, Kazuai could see the intensity of Ojin’s love. He was saying goodbye.

“I love you, Ojin. Our spirits shall meet in the world beyond.”

Ojin smiled and returned his gaze to his former mistress.

Iâ!” he yelled. “Iâ! Shabu-Niguratsu!” Then a string of unintelligible syllables escaped his lips.

Kazuai saw a blue light shimmering around the goddess. It radiated outward, growing larger, as the body she inhabited shriveled and died. Within seconds, the glow encompassed the whole room. It was almost blinding. He closed his eyes, but the light still penetrated through his lids. It lasted only a moment longer, though, and when darkness returned, he blinked and looked toward the bodies on the floor before him.

“Ojin,” he said, mustering as loud a voice as he could and clutching his heart as a reaction to the pain he felt from doing so.

Ojin did not stir. He was dead, as Shabu-Niguratsu had said he would be. And she was dead, too – or, at least, the woman who had housed her spirit was dead. Surprisingly, Kazuai found he cared nothing for his former empress, the woman to whom he had sworn fealty, nor to Yamatai, which would be plunged into chaos without a clear successor to the throne. All he could focus upon was the death of his lover. Tears formed in his eyes as he remembered he, too, was dying and that he would be spending his remaining time without the company of the one person in the world whom he truly loved.

He wiped the tears from his eyes and lay still. He wanted nothing more than to die immediately. He had been trained to regulate every facet of his body, including what, for most people, were involuntary functions; success in battle often required such control. He forced his heart to slow and, over the next few minutes, he became light-headed and short of breath. He could feel himself dying.

He closed his eyes and smiled, remembering the words he had spoken to Ojin just before he had banished Shabu-Niguratsu. The two would meet again as spirits, he was sure.

This thought comforted him as his life seeped away, but in the last seconds of his fading life, it was replaced as the darkness of death was replaced by an intense, shimmering, blue light and he heard a voice – the distinct voice of the woman he had for so long known as Empress Himiko.

“I shall return,” it said. “I – shall – return!”

THE END

Travis King is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist from the Pacific Northwest, where he resides with his family while studying at Portland State University. More of his works can be found online at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/travisking).