The Puppeteer: Part Two
Chapter One: Into the Woods
By decree of the Emperor, no foreign pets were allowed into Shenkuu, and no native pets allowed out. Shenkuu had age-old traditions, and the royal family was of a proud and ancient line. But like most pets in power they had an extensive spy network, and those few loyal pets were allowed to venture to the other lands to insure the safety of the kingdom continued...
An eerie silence followed the pet as he weaved through the trees. It was broken only occasionally by the howl of the wind or the rustle of a tree as their branches shuffled closer together. The pet wore a dark cloak and hood that left his face in shadow, but the tip of one black paw could be seen poking out of one sleeve. He didn't seem at all unsettled by the atmosphere, but instead strode along with confidence, his nimble paws sidestepping any obstacles with ease. Almost as if he didn't even need to concentrate on it.
This was the first time Ajuro had been in the Haunted Woods, and the few tales he had heard about it had been adequate preparation. In fact, he was expecting a monster or a tree to jump out in front of him at any moment, but the fact that nothing had yet happened reassured him that the stories were exaggeration.
Through the twisted branches ahead he could see the flickering of light. It was night time, his preferred time to travel, and also the same time that pets in the Haunted Woods woke up and went about their business. It had been awfully convenient in the last two days, as there had been pets awake to question when he ran into them.
He walked closer and the first house came into view. It was more of a dilapidated cottage, a single candle that provided the only illumination sitting on the windowsill. The rest of the town was just as ramshackle, but they were in fact the nicest dwellings he had seen as yet on this trip. Very few in the Woods lived near the mountains that bordered Shenkuu, so most of the towns he found were abandoned.
The first pet he encountered was huddled in on himself, a mutant Kau with a horrid stench and a general air of misery. It took a few moments for the other pet to notice him, shrouded as he was in his cloak in the darkness, but when he did his eyes were wary.
"Who're you?" he asked in an aggressive tone, but there was really no bite to it.
"My name is Ajuro," Ajuro replied, lowering his hood to reveal his Zafara features. "I was wondering if I might ask you some questions.
The Kau's eyes shifted left and right, the eyes of someone cornered. There were no other pets in sight.
"We don't like strangers here," he grunted, shuffling back slightly. "No one comes here anymore, not with him up the choked path."
Ajuro's ears pricked up with interest, and the Kau obviously noticed because he continued slowly, "....just what did you want to ask me?"
"I'm looking for a pet who might have come here about eight years ago. A Hissi."
The Kau gave a yelp of fear and backed away. "Just who are you, mister? No one ever wants to find him. He's mad."
Ajuro stayed silent, taking in these words. When he had received no word of Kai for months he had thought something terrible had happened to him, but then strange stories had begun to filter through the mountains. Despite the Emperor's edict a few pets on the edge of Shenkuu were willing to venture out, though they were usually social outcasts. Ajuro had been ready to dash off immediately and find his friend, but he had no idea where the Woods really were, nor how he would get through the mountains. Then a year later a travelling merchant had graced their village with a visit and told a story of a Hissi sorcerer who had gone mad and kept an entire town under his thrall.
He hadn't wanted to believe it, and Shuva had been too devastated to be of use, so the Zafara had made the long journey to the Capital to find out more. Of course then he had been caught up with other things and it was only now that he had finally had the opportunity and the information to come looking.
"Describe him to me," he said sharply, and the Kau nodded eagerly.
"Well, when he was first here, years ago, he had yellow-spotted scales. Then him and that other magician, a Gelert if I remember correctly, went up to their mansion and left us alone. We didn't see them much, just sent some food up every now and then, you see. But suddenly, this one day the Gelert comes pelting down the path with his tail between his legs. Said his 'prentice had gone crazy. Few hours later the pet comes down and his skin's gone, just like that!
"Anyways, we tried to drive him out of town but suddenly he makes the ground move and pulls a dozen pet-shaped things out of thin air and gets them to attacks us while he slithers away back up the path. Then all the trees begin moving to choke it up so we can't get up to him." The Kau sounded very enthusiastic now, his head bobbing up and down eagerly with every second word.
Ajuro was shaking his head. That didn't sound like Kai at all, and he had known the Hissi for his first sixteen years of life. And what did the Kau mean about his skin being gone?.
"You can see his Puppets moving around above the trees every night. And every now and then one comes into the town and just stares at us, you know?" The Kau gave a shiver. "A week after he secluded himself he sent a note saying we were still to supply food. We refused once and the next night every house was missing something. He sent the Puppets in, he must have. Now we leave a crate by the choked path and it disappears by morning, but no-one knows how. At least he leaves us some gold in return, though.
"Why not leave the town, then?" Ajuro asked, thinking that he wouldn't have taken such treatment.
"Well, it's our town, innit? He can't drive us out." The Kau was indignant by now, so much so that he had attracted a few other pets.
Typical stubborn pets, Ajuro sighed in his head, as a shadow Poogle ventured forth.
"So why are you asking so many questions?" His voice was full of suspicion. "What are you really doing here?"
"I'm here to take the Puppeteer away," Ajuro stated confidently.
His declaration was met with pure stunned silence, then suddenly the pets began to chatter amongst themselves in excitement. The Kau ran up and put a hoof on his back.
"Do you mean it? Do you really mean it?" he asked, voice wavering.
"I do," Ajuro said firmly. He never doubted that he could do it. After all, Kai would remember him.
He spent the rest of the night and day ensconced in the largest cottage in town, trapped with the townspets. There were only about a hundred, and they certainly didn't all fit inside, but instead camped in the Woods around, at least three huge bonfires blazing as they cooked up the finest delicacies for their new hero.
Every pet wanted to talk to him, to see if he was real. After years of fear someone had finally come along and offered to face the pet that had been hovering in the back of their minds. He had to turn down most of the dishes, as Woods food was really quite disgusting, but they didn't seem to care at all. He didn't think that they had had cause for celebration for many years.
The next evening the entire town accompanied him to the beginning of the path that led up to the Puppeteer's mansion. Only there was no visible path anymore, just a forest of trees so crowded that their branches had knitted together.
"It's a few kilometres in that direction, I think," the Kau told him, waving a hoof.
The pets waited in silence, watching to see what he would do. Ajuro pulled his cloak off and tucked it into his pack. Then he studied the trees for a minute. Taking a deep breath he took a run-up and leapt, grasping onto one branch with a paw and swinging his whole body up so he was in the branches. Without a pause he continued to swing himself from branch to branch, as the pets behind him erupted into cheers. Just as he had trained in martial arts, he had also trained in a number of exercises to improve his agility, and he managed it with ease. Soon he had left the town far behind.
It was twenty minutes later that he first spotted the black shingles of what could only have been the mansion. It stood several stories above the tree tops and as he came closer he found that it was situated in a large clearing surrounded by a ring of trees. A path led up to the front steps from the trees he was passing through. He quickly alighted on the ground, bending his knees slightly to absorb the impact, then shrunk back into shadows, glad that it had reached nightfall.
The mansion was enormous. It was about a fifth of the size of the royal Shenkuu palace, but made entirely of a black wood. It looked slightly sinister hulking against the sky, but he was surprised that it was still in good condition. There was no rotting wood, no weeds, not what he would expect after eight years. As this thought entered his mind he noticed movement, and stood stock-still. A Pteri-shaped thing drifted into view, only the wings weren't flapping, and he realised it was a piece of red fabric that had been moulded into a different shape. The sight made him uncomfortable, especially since there was no-one else in sight as the Puppet began to rub at one of the many windows with its wing.
He crept closer, keeping low to the ground, but the Puppet didn't stop its task, and he found that it could not tell he was near. Again, he shivered. Kai had never before been able control puppets unless they were in view. The stairs came closer and he padded up to them, then pulled out the brass knocker, bringing it down with a clang.
The dining room was his favourite place to stay. He had moved anything important into it years ago: a bed, a couch, Samih's books, any notes he had kept. The dining table was pushed into the wall, the chairs sliding neatly underneath so they weren't in his way. Normally he would be content to sit on his couch and read, as the house had thousands of books tucked into it. But today he was restless.
The Puppeteer stood by the window to the dining hall, staring out into the night towards the town. The moon was a thin crescent, but it was marred by many clouds. It was dark in the Woods, but the night before he had seen many lights, and knew that something strange had been going on. After waiting for an hour for something to happen he finally turned away.
A Puppet floated past him and into the hall, holding a much-used feather duster as it made its rounds. Many others would be deeper in the mansion, carrying out other similar tasks. He found he could operate a dozen now without having to see them, as long as he set their task in his mind. The smells of breakfast wafted into the room from the kitchen, and he sighed at the thought of more Woods food. It had been so long, but still he could never enjoy the food in this place, even though he barely remembered what his native food tasted like.
Then something completely unexpected happened. The brass knocker on the front door clanged, and the Puppeteer paused, his head tilted. None of his Puppets would have done that, so that could only mean someone was here. But who? No one had dared to visit him in three years. A brave Eyrie had been the last, and he had been easily chased away. At first visits had been frequent by pets from deeper in the Woods trying to prove their mettle, by they soon learnt not to come.
He slithered down the hallway, adjusting his cloak about his shoulders for the most intimidating effect, reaching the front doors in less than a minute. He waved his wing and they slowly swing open, revealing the shadow Zafara outside.
To be continued...