The Puppeteer: Part Ten
Chapter Five: Battle
...And then it began...
The next morning was heralded by one of Tzu's soldiers walking into camp, holding a white flag. Kai watched with interest as the silver Draik strolled past the hostile gazes of the other pets, the wooden pole casually leaning over her shoulder. Then he recognised her as Captain Rosh. Her face seemed to be relaxed, but Kai could see the tense muscles and the alertness of her eyes as they took in the surroundings.
General Atunra was waiting to meet her a hundred metres from the boundary, surrounded by an array of guards. The Eyrie was looking much more alert, and she stood proud and straight, her entire body encased in enamelled red-and-gold armour. Normally a flying pet would have light mail, but she was too valuable to risk in the skies.
"Rosh," Atunra said, her voice cold. She looked every bit the General as she stared down the other pet.
"Atunra," Rosh replied blandly. Atunra's guards shifted at the disrespect, but Kai had the feeling that the two knew each other well.
Ajuro appeared suddenly beside him, and he twisted around. Once more he was wearing the restricting traditional costume, although he knew it would be impractical in the fight. He didn't like the other pets staring at him.
"Atunra and Rosh trained together in the Emperor's army," Ajuro whispered. "But Atunra was promoted much higher and faster than Rosh. That's why Rosh defected to Tzu. To her she was never given the respect she is due."
How on Neopia did Ajuro know these kinds of things?
"You're much too nosy for your own good," he murmured while the General and Rosh stared each other off. Ajuro smirked as Rosh began to speak.
"I have come here on behalf on the General Chang Tzu to put forth his rightful claim to the Throne of Shenkuu." Growls drowned out her next words so Rosh stopped speaking and waited for it to die down. "If any wish to support him they may do so at any point as he is just and wise and caring to all his subjects. He will welcome all with open arms."
"Get on with it," General Atunra snapped, her face impassive.
"If you do not surrender to him then we shall join battle in the valley below. No tricks. Two hours before noon we shall be assembled to fight you in a fair battle. The ancestors will allow the rightful claimant to win. Be ready then."
She stopped and placed the butt of the flagpole on the ground, leaning against it lazily, but shooting Atunra a challenging glare. The General's feathers and fur stood on end, but her face remained calm.
"The rightful leader of Shenkuu is the Emperor. Tzu is nothing more than a pet with ambitions too large to control." Her voice was angry, but then she gave an alarming smile and stepped closer to Rosh. "It's a shame you won't be able to fight."
The Draik's mouth flattened into a hard line, and she turned around and stalked away, her demeanour no longer nonchalant. There were hisses as she passed, but no pet would dare harm the bearer of a white flag. She cut a lonely figure as she crossed the expanse of the valley to join her own army, which was moving on the mountain slopes.
"Right," Atunra began, and every pet in earshot snapped to attention, including Kai, although he hadn't imagined he would have. "We have a battle to prepare for." She narrowed her eyes. "I'm not sure if Tzu was telling the truth about no tricks, but I suppose if he tries anything dirty he knows he will risk losing the loyalty of his pets. We'll have to prepare for surprises during the battle. Officers, report!"
Kai watched as the pets burst into action; the appointed time was only a few hours away. Weapons were picked up and polished, tents were tidied, and armour was tied on. Then the waiting began.
He slithered over to one of the cook fires and was handed a bowl of noodles, which he ate while lying in the shade of a large boulder. His wings twitched slightly as he whorled patterns in the stone with magic, the grey rock bubbling like boiling water. Then he coiled around himself and slept.
He awoke to the sound of war drums beating. The army was on the march. He uncoiled himself and was startled by a streak of white which bounded up to him. Chiroki somehow managed to look excited and grim at the same time, but she gave him a smile as she helped him up. Two long knives were hanging off her belt, and a number of well-armed pets trailed after her.
"You can't run without us, Miss Chiroki," one of them complained. "We're meant to work together, which means sticking together."
"In a second, Ido," the Kacheek said. She raised an eyebrow at Kai. "Shuva may think I don't know what he's doing, but I do." She scowled, but it didn't really fit on her kind face. "I can look after myself."
"He's just worried," Kai told her, draping his wing over her shoulder. "Besides, Ido was right.: You'll do much better if you have others watching your back. It's just as much your job to protect them as it is theirs to protect you."
She slowly began to smile. "Trust you to make me feel guilty about complaining. Anyway, I came to say good luck! Though I heard you'll be at the back, so I don't suppose you'll need it that much."
Kai smiled at her. "You too." She pulled him into a quick hug before jogging away with her entourage.
"You'd better get into position," Ajuro said as he sauntered up, not a weapon in sight. He no longer wore his billowing cloak, as it would hamper his movements too much. "It'll take a quarter of an hour to reach the centre of the valley." He tilted his head and cocked his ear. "I do believe they are playing their drums as well, which means they'll be on the move. I still don't understand what Tzu is up to, meeting in the centre like that without the higher ground."
"Maybe he's trying to be honourable?" Kai suggest.
Ajuro snorted. "See you later!" He sauntered away again with a wink, and Kai waited for the rest of the army to pass him. Master Shengai flapped past, sending him a scornful look. He ignored it, his mask as expressionless as his face appeared to be. Shuva thumped by as well, claw on the hilt of his Katana and a wary space two metres wide around him. He was the largest pet Kai could see, but many others came up to his shoulders.
As the army marched the drums began to beat louder, a staccato pattern of notes that relentlessly assaulted his mind. Although it was supposed to scare the other side and encourage their own troops, it was just leaving him with a massive headache.
At last the drums stopped. The two armies stood across from each other on the valley floor, thousands of pets lined up facing one another a kilometre apart. Kai had read in Samih's books of wars in other lands, where it was all about positioning and holding ground: If you lost you retreated and waited for another chance. But in Shenkuu it was done differently. Once a final battle had been decided there were no more feints. It was a commitment to uphold one's honour. And it seemed such an awful waste.
As the sun soared towards its zenith, the battle began.
Shuva swept another pet aside, the mace he had been holding flinging several metres away to hit another in the side. Immediately the pet dived behind his armed companions, and Shuva turned to fight another. There was shouting all around him, and metal sparked as it made contact with other metal. But he waded through the pets, fighting his way to where he could see Tzu's blue and gold flag waving in the centre.
He could see the fear on his opponents faces as they recognised who he was, and several turned away to fight others before he could reach them. Mostly he let them go, too preoccupied with getting to Tzu. To his right, in the very centre of the army, General Atunra flashed her katana around, disarming twice as many pets as her guards did. Most disappeared back into the mass of pets, but a few threw up their hands in surrender. If a pet surrendered on the spot they would be allowed to leave the battlefield under the law of tarsha, but it was chaotic enough that they could probably pick up a weapon elsewhere and fight again if they felt like it.
He was concentrating so intensely on the battle that he almost the missed the blue mist that soared over his head and into the ranks of Tzu's army. Then he heard shouts of alarm and saw that pets were stopping in their tracks where the mist touched, paralysed by whatever magic it contained. The Emperor's soldiers cheered and pressed forward, and Shuva glanced behind his shoulder to see the source of the mist.
An orange Korbat was suspended a few metres above the normal troops, his fur streaked with grey and his face a mask of concentration as he directed his magic. Ajuro had told him that the head of magic was called Shengai, and this must be him. He was incredibly powerful, calling up a wave of wind to force Tzu's troops back.
Then as he watched a streak of white crossed his vision, leaving him blinking in confusion. He managed to blink away enough of the blindness to see Shengai fall out of the air, onto several pets waiting below. They managed to catch him and lower him to the ground, where he lay unmoving.
Some instinct him caused him to spin, bringing his katana around in a sweep that deflected another blade. The pet he was facing was much smaller, and quickly backed away when he saw that his surprise attack hadn't worked. However, there was no shortage of other pets, and Shuva settled into a rhythm as Ajuro forced his way through towards him.
It was, quite frankly, astonishing to watch. Pets would head towards the Zafara, seeing that he was unarmed, an easy target. And Ajuro would weave gracefully around whatever attack they threw at him, take a few steps towards them, and with an efficient flurry of paws they would be disarmed. Most of them backed off, clutching their chest or arms or tail, but he also knocked a fair few unconscious. When he arrived by Shuva's side his clothing was immaculate, although his fur was a different story.
"They've been taking out all the magicians," Ajuro shouted, as his mouth was still quite a distance from Shuva's ear. "Tzu's instructed them not to use magic on the soldiers until there are no magical defenders left. And it's working. It's almost a dozen to one."
"And?" Shuva shouted back.
"I just thought I'd warn you to be wary of any magic." Ajuro patted him on the back. "General Atunra is fighting furiously to get to Tzu, and she's doing a good job. I'd better go find her again."
He jogged off, once more effortlessly forcing a path. Shuva shook his head, then froze as the ground began to rumble. A hundred metres away a huge Grarrl made entirely of rock burst out of the valley floor, sending pets flying. Shuva did a double take and realised it was a fair copy of himself, katana included. He turned, desperately searching, and saw Kai standing on the slope of the valley, behind the army, wings waving as he controlled the giant Puppet, which was larger than Shuva by several times. The Hissi was still wearing the bright traditional clothes, and Shuva cursed under his breath; it made him an easy target.
As he thought this another streak of lighting flew overhead, and he ducked to shield his eyes. The next moment the red figure on the slope crumpled and slowly rolled down into the valley, out of Shuva's sight. The rock puppet stopped moving, frozen in the act of sweeping its tail into Tzu's soldiers. And Shuva let out an angry roar that made all the pets around him flinch and cower away.
Still roaring, he located where the streak of lightning had come from and marched towards it. Pets dived out of his way as he headed towards Tzu's banner, but then an urgent tug at his arm forced him to stop, growling.
The culprit was a young Lupe nursing a variety of bruises and cuts. He shied away from Shuva's expression, but still managed to stutter something out.
"Ah... Captain, sir. We need your help on the right flank. There's a group of pets that we can't stop, and they're making a press for the General. We need your help."
Shuva was momentarily taken aback by the title. Then he thought about what the soldier was saying. If he tried to get to the magicians most likely they would just shoot a spell at him. He would do better to protect the General from harm, as much as he wanted to avenge Kai. He nodded to himself. Kai would understand.
To be continued...