The Puppeteer: Part Nine
The majority of pets fighting from the Emperor were from the Capital, but the rest came from all over Shenkuu. They had one goal: to defeat the usurper. But as the war dragged on and Tzu gained the advantage of the Kamikaze many pets changed sides. By the time Tzu made his final push the numbers on either side were almost even. All that was left was for all the fighters to gather in one place.
The next morning the entire camp packed and set off, a thousand pets all trekking through the wilderness of Shenkuu towards the Capital. Kai had spent an uncomfortable night stuck in a tent with two other magicians, one who snored and the other who let occasion bursts of frost forth from her pawtips. Needless to say he hadn't had much sleep.
So far he had encountered three attitudes towards him: fear, dislike and awe. The fear was mostly from the normal soldiers who seemed to regard him as a monstrously powerful figure who was somehow being kept in check by the other magicians and could at any moment go on a massive destructive rampage. They eyed him warily, and he saw a number muttering among themselves before moving their weapons to more easily accessible positions.
The dislike was mostly directed at him from the other magic users, who seemed to see him as a threat, or maybe someone who had cozied up to the general. Certainly when he had offered some exhausted pets if he could help carry some equipment and then floated it behind him in a trail several metres long they had told him that there was no way that he could carry that for the rest of the journey. And as the hours had passed and he kept the equipment airborne their objections slowly faded into angry murmurs. But he found he didn't care all that much about their opinion of him. He knew far too well that magic wasn't just about brute strength, and there were so many different types of it that it was impossible to compare one pet to another.
What did worry him was the awe. A number of pets had looked at him admiringly, the most persistent the young electric Cybunny that had directed him to the tents the night before. Yanh was wide-eyed in his presence, and always eager to offer him help. He supposed he would have tripped over the boy if not for the fact that he didn't possess any legs. Unused to being followed around by a devoted pet, he responded with short responses and a generally surly silence whenever Yanh came near him.
"Well, it looks like you've made some friends," Ajuro said cheerfully as he jogged up behind him.
Kai tilted his head slightly to see him past the mask he was wearing. Despite everyone knowing what he looked like he was still wearing his full costume, even though the effort of carrying so much stuff with magic was making it a bit sweaty and uncomfortable.
"And some enemies," Kai muttered. "If you'd told me magic-users were so competitive as a whole I might not have come."
"Oh, everyone's competitive," Ajuro said. "The soldiers and their posturing, the lords and ladies trying to get favour in the Emperor's court; it's common pet nature. The trick is to just pretend you don't care. We spies have a wonderful ranking system in place: any spy who knows the trade will find out everything they can about the others and defer to those they know have a higher standing in the Emperor's eyes, or the General's eyes, or whoever we might be aiding at the time. There's dozens of different factions."
"That sounds horrible," Kai commented. "What if they're wrong?"
"A good spy is never wrong," Ajuro said wisely. Before Kai could ask how he was supposedly 'ranked' the Zafara continued. "And if you think you've got it bad, just think of poor Shuva."
Kai looked around the line of pets, a dozen abreast, but there were enough of the larger species to make finding even a giant Grarrl impossible. "Where is he?"
"Well the General is taking up the rear in case Tzu tries something, though by all reports he's committed to moving all his troops and not interested in petty squabbles. Shuva is walking next to her in a ring of her personal guard. It's good enough to look like protection for the soldiers, though I think it's more to protect him. The amount of evil eyes I've seen would impress even a malevolent spirit. I've been keeping an ear out and the general consensus is that he's not to be trusted."
"Poor Shuva," Kai said.
"Yes. They've deemed him the bigger threat so thankfully you'll only really have to worry about jealous magicians trying to get the better of you."
"Wonderful," Kai growled under his breath.
The Zafara jogged away, no doubt to eavesdrop on some other group of pets, although Kai did notice that most of the pets were friendly with him. He saw other black-cloaked figures weaving along the line and guessed they were other spies, as he only noticed them because he was trying hard to. For the most part they were unobtrusive-looking.
"Master Puppeteer," said a voice beside him that was far too high-pitched to belong in an army, and he swivelled his neck around. Yanh was back, his blue fur crackling and sending off sparks every time he took a step. Or more like a bound, really. The Cybunny was much too energetic for his own good.
"Yes, Yanh?" Kai responded after a moment. "And I told you to call me just Kai."
"But you're one of Master Ajuro's friends, and the Puppeteer. It would be rude not to call you that." He shot Kai a wide-eyed look not dissimilar to a Naleap's.
Kai sighed. "What did you want?" he asked. Then he winced, realising how cold he had sounded. Here was a pet who wasn't scared of him, and he was giving him reason to be.
"Ahhh... Master Shengai wants everyone to meet at his tent after we've set up camp."
Kai eyed the sky, where the sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon. Sunset was much earlier in the mountains than in the Woods, and though the sun may be behind one mountain it could still peek around the side of the other, making shadows strange and distorted. The idea of meeting with that grey-furred Korbat already made Kai feel like slithering out of the line and back to the Woods. Shengai had an air or power about him, and his age meant that he was greatly experienced, but his arrogance could rival Ajuro's at least a dozen times.
"Thank you for telling me," Kai said through the sour taste in his mouth.
Yanh bounced happily. "Maybe after that you could show me some cool moves. Like that thing you did with the trees." His eyes went glazed and dreamy.
'I'm afraid my particular brand of magic is unusual, so you probably won't be able to do that," Kai said. Then, when Yanh's face fell, he added, "Though you could show me something you've been working on and I might be able to help you out. I've read hundreds of books on magic."
Yanh's eyes widened. "Could you really? That would be fantastic! I can do this trick that can stop a number of pets in their tracks, but it always leaves their fur singed and smoking. Thanks Master Kai!"
He raced off before Kai could say anything else. But at least the Cybunny had used his real name.
Shengai looked irritable as Kai entered the gathering of pets. The orange Korbat was pacing in front of what Kai guessed were the most powerful magic-users in the camp. That number had swelled as they met the other forces marching towards the Capital. Now thousands of pets camped at the edge of a valley, all amassed into one army facing the other mass of pets on the opposite side. Kai hadn't been able to tell it Tzu's force was larger, but it was certainly a match for Atunra's.
There were two dozen pets waiting in front, and perhaps fifty other magic-users gathered behind, although about half were too weak to be much use in a battle. They all turned to him now, some with hostility, some with interest, until Shengai cleared his throat and began to speak, delegating the strongest mages half a dozen pets each to lead the next day. Or perhaps the day after: pets were still trickling in, though night had fallen hours ago.
Finally he came to Kai.
"I've heard of you," he chewed out. "The so-called Puppeteer. And not good things either. As far as I'm concerned you're all smoke and mirrors. I want you somewhere near the back where you won't get in the way. Try and protect as many soldiers as possible from arrows or spells or whatever."
"You don't want to see me prove my abilities?" Kai asked in a cold voice, trying desperately to keep his temper. If Shengai hadn't been an airborne pet he would have seriously considered lifting him into the air by the back of his robes.
Shengai's eyes narrowed. "I don't care about them. So you fought off a few pets with some trees. I know the stories are exaggerated anyway. Like I said: don't get in my way." Kai felt a little shiver as a visible aura of power lit up behind the Korbat. Shengai was indeed quite powerful.
He tried again. "My magic is useless against other spells, unless the spells do something physical like fling a giant boulder. If someone tried a blinding spell I wouldn't be able to counter it."
"And you call yourself a magician," Shengai snorted, turning away.
Kai could imagine the ground ripping apart and ensnaring the other pet, but then a black paw rested on his shoulder.
"Save your strength," Ajuro said in a low voice. "You might be able to best him, but I doubt it. We need you for Chang Tzu."
"And how am I supposed to help when I'm stuck at the back?" Kai growled.
"You sneak to the front. Obviously." Ajuro sounded amused. "It'll all be so confused there won't really be a back anyway."
There was the sound of heavy footfalls behind them and then Shuva strode into view, eyes warily scanning the tents around them, where soldiers were eyeing him, or maybe just his ridiculously large katana. He was no longer trailed by guards.
"General Atunra's been looking at the plans," he rumbled. "She agrees with most of them, but she thinks a surprise attack in the morning may work better."
"I think Tzu will be expecting that. Or he has a surprise of his own planned. But either way if we keep some of the faster pets in reserve we can counter most moves with speed. Anyway, have you heard the news, Kai? Shuva is now a Captain!"
"Really? I can't imagine why the General would do that."
"Well it's the only way to keep the normal soldiers off his back. Give him a rank and they'll have to back off. Of course there are still a few ranking pets who can pick on him, but giving him a higher rank would cause an outrage. I've already seen several red-faced officers storming into her tent since she announced it." Ajuro gave a happy grin.
"I won't be giving any orders, though," Shuva rumbled. "I don't want to push my luck, and they'd be likely not to listen to me anyway."
A few pets walking by made low growling noises as they stalked past, and Kai stiffened, but the Grarrl simply ignored them, except for a slight shift of his claw towards his hilt. Ajuro scanned the pets with narrowed eyes, and Kai had no doubt he had memorised all their faces and probably knew their full names, to boot. The Zafara turned back.
"So Shengai has put you at the back. You could sneak to the front, of course, or you could retreat back up the hill and see what kind of damage you could cause. I saw you move all those pets out of the way back in the Woods. And you won't be committing subordination that way."
"My magic can't touch anything sentient; I just moved their clothes. But I suppose that would make a lot more sense." Kai twisted his tail into knots thoughtfully. "What's your job?"
"I think I'm supposed to stick with the General, but who knows what could happen in the thick of things." Ajuro winked cheerfully. "Shuva will be at the front to scare Tzu's soldiers. It will be disheartening for them to see someone who was on their side fighting on the other, especially the Kamikaze."
Shuva twitched slightly at the name. "I really wish people would stop calling me that," he sighed.
They all turned to watch Yanh bounce up, Ajuro looking supremely amused. The Cybunny skidded to a halt and stared at Shuva with wide eyes, only coming up to about his thigh.
"Ah, sorry, Yanh," Kai murmured. "I forgot about our lesson. I suppose we can do that now if you don't have anything more to say, Ajuro?"
The Zafara shrugged. "That was about it. Shuva, let's go get something to eat."
They two walked away, Ajuro taking two steps for every one of his friend's. Yanh's head swivelled to follow them, his mouth hanging partly open. Then he closed it and gulped.
"He's so scary," he whispered.
Kai felt the insane urge to laugh. If anyone out of the three of them was the most harmless, it would be the gentle giant that was Shuva. It was strange, really. If someone had asked him eight years ago who would have been the most dangerous out of them he would have said Ajuro. And now, here he was, with a reputation of being a monster, and the same with Shuva.
"He's really not scary all. He hates violence. Everything he did was to protect his sister," he told the Cybunny.
Yanh's frightened expression melted into a goofy smile. "That's so brave of him. I never heard that side of the story."
Kai narrowed the skin around his eye sockets, though there would be no visible scowl. "I think everyone should hear that side of the story. But, anyway, what was it that you wanted to show me?"
Yanh finally snapped out of his daze and bounded away, Kai slithering after him. They reached an area empty of trees by the base of one of the four mountains bordering the valley, outside of the ring of sentries. Apparently it was too dangerous to practise magic in the camp, but Kai didn't care. Already he could feel himself relaxing away from all the scrutiny. He even felt safe enough to take off the ridiculous Shenkuu costume he had been wearing all week, and felt much better for it.
Yanh lined up in front of a tree that had snapped in half in some storm. The top half lay some feet away from the jagged stump. He rubbed his paws together, frowning in concentration, then Kai was blinded by a flash of white light that left his vision black afterwards.
"See what I mean?" Yanh said forlornly. "This always happens."
Kai groaned and rubbed at his eyelids. He could still see the flash behind them. "I can't really see anything at all right now, to tell the truth," he growled.
"Oh, sorry Master Kai." Yanh's voice was chagrined, and Kai heard him come closer. A moment later his vision cleared and blinked his eyes open to see the Cybunny with his paws raised in front of his face. "I always forget to tell people to shut their eyes."
"Well that would be a useful spell to use on Tzu's soldier's," Kai began, then cut off as he noticed the stump was now covered in a fine layer of charcoal, and there were a few flames burning.
Yanh followed his gaze and his fur stopped sparking for a few seconds. "It's meant to be a stunning spell, but I can never get it right.
"You're putting too much energy into the blast. How many pets at a time have you tried it on?"
"Ah, three?" Yanh admitted. "No one wants me to try it again."
"The spell is designed for several pets a once, maybe a dozen or more. If you spread the energy to a wider area it should have the desired effect," Kai instructed.
"That makes sense!" The Cybunny was beaming as he bounced up and down on the pads of his paws. "I have another spell too. It's meant to make pets invisible but I can't cast it directly onto a pet. Only other things. See?" He picked up a rock and his fur crackled for a few moments before he handed it to Kai.
Kai reached for it without thinking. Then at the last second he began to panic. Another invisibility spell? What if it didn't work, like what Samih had done to him? He tried to jerk his wing away, but the rock had already fallen into it.
He tensed, then looked down at himself. It was disorienting to find that he could not see himself, but then he realised the spell had worked. Yanh was looking in his general direction and he dropped the stone. Instantly he could see the fine bones of his wing again, and let out a sigh of relief. He hadn't thought he would miss seeing the inside of himself, but he had.
"I don't see a problem with not being able to cast it on pets," Kai said slowly after a moment. "It means that non-magical pets can become invisible when they want. How long does the spell hold in the rock for, exactly?"
A slow smile was spreading over Yanh's face. "two or three hours," he said. "If you don't touch it with bare skin it won't use the spell up, but if you hold it then it will fade eventually."
Kai nodded thoughtfully. Then he looked up at the sky. "It's getting much too dark, Yanh. We should get back to camp while we can still see a metre in front of us." He gathered his discarded costume, wrapping the stone carefully in the fabric. Yanh didn't notice, happy that Kai was happy with his magic. The young mage's sparking fur illuminated their path as they made their way back to camp.
To be continued...