The Puppeteer: Part Four
Ajuro came up to Kai's side and squinted through the glare on the glass. "I do believe you're correct," he said. "But what are they doing storming up your path? I thought they were terrified of you."
"You spoke to them?" Kai asked sharply.
"Yes, I told them I was coming to take you away," the Zafara replied.
Kai tried to keep his sudden flare of temper in check. It happened all too often. "They must have thought I've done away with you. You gave them hope and now it looks like they're coming to get rid me of me themselves." He gave a bitter laugh. "Good luck with that."
Ajuro watched in horrified awe as suddenly all the trees that led to the village moved aside, clearing a path. At the same time a giant Skeith fashioned entirely from boulders leapt out of the ground and stood waiting as the pets approached with flaming torches and ill-fashioned spears of black wood.
"Kai, don't hurt them!" he hissed. "We're leaving anyway."
Kai looked at him, then lowered his wings slowly. The wooden Puppet he had been fashioning melded back into the wall. "What should I do then?" he asked.
"Find anything you want to take with you and let's go. Make sure it's not too heavy—" he cut himself off as a nearby Puppet swooped past and bundled a dozen books together, lifting them without apparent effort. "I mean don't take anything too bulky. Remember how difficult the mountain path is."
Kai had already slithered out of the room, and Ajuro watched as the villagers finally reached the rock Puppet. They hung back warily, but when it did nothing they streamed around it, heading towards the mansion. Ajuro scooped up his pack and quickly ran to intercept them, racing through the hallways easily. He flung open the front doors just as the pets reached the doorstep.
"Stop!" he shouted. He held some authority in Shenkuu, and his voice rang with it. The pets stopped, and the shadow Poogle stared at him suspiciously.
"We thought you were gone," he said. "Where's the Puppeteer?"
"Here," said a voice so cold that Ajuro's fur stood on end. Kai swept out of the doorway and all the pets below took several hasty steps backwards. "The Zafara did not lie. He is here to take me away. So if you would let me pass..."
None of the pets moved, but that didn't really matter, as Kai pulled them out of his way by the backs of their clothes until there was a path in front of him. He slithered through, a pack floating along in his wake, and then Ajuro as he finally followed. They headed back down the path through the village, and it was deathly silent as dawn approached.
Kai only looked back once. In his wing he held the crumpled letter he had written for Shuva all those years ago. If it was the last thing he did he would find a way to deliver it. As the two pets walked into the shadows and disappeared the townsfolk began to cheer.
Chapter Two: The Mountain Path
Before the invention of skyships, the only way to pass the borders of Shenkuu were to brave the winding paths through the mountains. But they were unsafe, many just trails for petpets, not meant to be traversed by pets. There were many dangers, especially in winter: rock falls, avalanches, sudden storms or the rising of the mist that would leave you blind and walking on circles until you collapsed from exhaustion. Sometimes packs of Juma roamed the passes and harassed travellers, stealing food and supplies.
The Puppeteer and his friend travelled at the end of spring, so they did not have to contend with the winter storms, but if you reach high enough in the mountains it does not matter if it is winter or not.
It grew colder as they reached the fringes of the Haunted Woods. A cool air began to blow through the now sparse trees, only adding to Kai's discomfort. He had spent most of the last eight years tucked away in his mansion, and was not used to the outdoors. Now he had to travel while the sun was up, and everything he looked at sent a beam of bright light into his eyes and then spearing painfully into his brain.
Ajuro padded tirelessly ahead. For the most part they didn't talk. Kai had asked a few questions about his parents, and the village, but then realised he had forsaken them for eight years and the guilt had driven him to silence again. The shadow Zafara seemed quite cheerful, especially once the mountains came into view.
The sight of the mountain affected Kai more than he wanted to let on, but he admired the peaks with covert glances. They were not yet tall enough to be snow-packed, but he did remember that further on they became much colder and steeper, so much so that even Shenkuuvians could not spare the effort to try and build on them. These mountains separated Shenkuu from the Haunted Woods, and were filled mostly with wild petpets and ice.
"How long?" he asked, and his voice felt hoarse. He hadn't spoken so much since that last daredevil had visited him, and it felt strange.
Ajuro glanced back and slowed down a bit as he noticed Kai sagging a little. "A week, at best," he said. "There's some wild Juma that like to pester travellers, but unless we encounter something dramatic, like an avalanche, we should be find.
Kai nodded, then yawned hugely. He hadn't slept for twenty hours now, and all he really wanted was to coil up and go to sleep, but there was no way he was going to let that on to Ajuro. Even as kids Ajuro had liked showing off and he didn't want to give him the satisfaction of tiring first.
Their first night was cold and miserable, as there was very little wood. Kai wished Ajuro had told him that, because floating a Woods tree along behind them wouldn't have been that much of an effort. He shivered around the tiny campfire, which threatened to be extinguished by the drifting snow. He fell asleep as soon as he shut his eyes, and slept through the night until Ajuro shook him awake.
"Time to go," the Zafara said cheerfully. "Hey, do you remember when it used to snow at home, and we would go sledding down the hills?"
Kai gave him a suspicious look. "You're not suggesting we try that now, are you?" he asked.
Ajuro never got the chance to reply, as at that moment the ground beneath them began to rumble. They were halfway up a mountain, and both pets looked up to see a wave of snow sweeping towards them.
Ajuro flicked his head this way and that, and finally spotted a boulder nearby. It looked like it might hold, and a maybe was better than nothing against that wall of snow.
"This way!" he shouted, running through the snow with amazing grace that Kai could not hope to match as he slithered after. The avalanche was close now and he knew there was no way to reach shelter by them time it reached them, so he snagged the back of Ajuro's black cloak with his magic and pulled him back.
"Trust me," he said, turning to face the snow as he secretly smiled to himself. After what happened in the mansion he hadn't thought he could be able to use his magic on Ajuro, but it seemed he could.
The shadow Zafara hovered behind him, gaze flickering back to the rock. "Well you did save me from a tongue-lashing a few times, so I hope you know what you're doing now."
Kai did not answer, only swept his wings down vertically. The wave of snow instantly parted down the middle and shot past on either side, a few specks spraying on the two pets as it passed less than a metre away. For several minutes this continued until it was past, and then Kai found Ajuro staring at him with wide eyes.
"We need to get you into Shenkuu," was all he said. Then he sat down heavily. "I really thought it was going to get us," he whispered after some time, while Kai watched the avalanche's journey further down. "Thank you for saving me."
"I guess you're welcome. Although I did save myself as well, so maybe you could have just been... an afterthought."
"Don't ruin it," Ajuro snapped. But Kai found himself smiling properly for the first time in eight years.
They managed to make good time. Ajuro unfailingly chose the safest routes, and they never needed to double back. The times when the way was blocked Kai used his magic to clear the path. There were no more incidents, except for a lone Juma that they found rummaging in Kai's pack, but it was quickly scared away.
On the fourth day they topped a rise and looked down below, where green was beginning to show. The mist had miraculously melted away to give a perfect view of the spindly mountains that made up Shenkuu proper.
"Once we are down this mountain we are officially in Shenkuu," Ajuro announced, speaking for the first time in several hours.
Kai stared down at his belly, pressed flat against a patch of grass. Finally, he was back home. He looked at the mountains ahead, trying to compare them to the mountains of his childhood, but they weren't familiar at all. As if reading his thoughts Ajuro spoke up again.
"In two days we'll reach an outpost for the Emperor's spies. I should probably now tell you that I'm one of them."
Kai's empty eyes stared at him.
"When I went to the capital all those years ago I began to further my training in martial arts and one of the Emperor's spies spoke to me, asking me if I wanted to join. Originally I said yes so I could find more information about you, but then I began to enjoy it. There's so much to know about this kingdom, and the outside lands that the Emperor wants no contact with."
"Now that I begin to think about it, I can very well imagine it,'" Kai finally said. "You were always very good at sneaking around. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I can count on one wing the times you got caught."
Ajuro looked smug as they continued down the mountain.
Two days later when they reached the outpost. Ajuro stopped him a few kilometres away
"I'm going to go up ahead. I know that your colour makes you uncomfortable, so I had some clothes made for you. They're just for Hissi, and they'll blend in, especially in Shenkuu, where most Hissi wear them. I can't do anything about your lack of eyes though. Wait here."
Kai was left by a jumble of rocks, and he amused himself for twenty minutes by swirling patterns onto the surface. The next traveller who ventured past these rocks would be quite confused. He heard a slight sound behind him and spun around. Ajuro looked faintly surprised when legs were seized by clods of dirt.
"I almost snuck up on you,' he lamented. Then he held out a wrapped package. "Here, take this."
Kai unwrapped the paper to reveal the silky fabric beneath. The cloth was the colour of fire: red and yellow and orange all interwoven in swirling patterns, and the garments covered every inch of his scales. It was slightly tight but loose enough to stretch around him when he moved. There was also a mask decorated with strips of fabric and two antlers that covered his face completely. Only his eyes would indicate that there was something unusual about him.
"This is fashion in the Capital at the moment. It's an imitation of the fire spirits, but there are other spirits to choose from. I thought this suited you best." Kai wasn't sure if that was a compliment or not.
"The pets at the outpost also had some very interesting news. It seems that some of Chang Tzu's couriers have been sent back and forth from the main army to a small encampment three day's travel from here. They can't get in too close because there's around fifty armed pets guarding it, but by a stroke of luck someone caught sight of a white Kacheek.
"Chiroki?" Kai said, pricking up instantly.
"It makes sense. They want her to be guarded so if Shuva ever caught wind of it they could keep him away. As soon as Chiroki is free Shuva will leave Tzu for good, and he will be angry into the bargain."
"So we're going up against fifty pets that are meant to deter a master swordsman?" Kai asked.
"Yes, but they won't be expecting a magician. Nor a pet that can sneak in right under their noses. I could probably find Chiroki without anyone spotting me. And if they did, I have some moves of my own."
"True. Let's go."
To be continued...