The Puppeteer: Part One
Prologue: The Puppeteer
The statue has stood at the edge of the village for a hundred years, or so the child has been told. He has spent many afternoons playing near the plinth with his friends, amongst the wildflowers that spring up during the warmer months. The Hissi coiled in stone has a strange presence, both threatening and peaceable at the same time. He is carved wearing the traditional Shenkuu garb of the Hissi, fake scales and sharp spines along his back. If he were alive the costume would be a vibrant red, but now it is all just grey stone.
But the thing that sets the statue apart from the others around the village is the face. It is slightly skeletal, two sharp fangs chiselled in where normally there would be none showing. And the eyes are pupil-less, staring without direction at the distant mountains.
A noise behind the child makes him start and turn, but it is only the village crone slowly shuffling her way up the slope. Her gnarled claws are careful not to crush any flowers, and she leans heavily against her cane as she comes to join him.
"Would you like to hear a story?" she asks, her voice remarkably clear for her age, and he imagines what she might have been like when she was younger. Someone fierce. The crone stretches out to touch the plaque at the base of the statue, the writing worn down to nothing after years of sitting atop this hill with only the lashing wind for company.
He nods, and she lowers herself down to a sitting position, placing her cane across her lap and laying her hands palm up in the storyteller's pose.
"I will tell you a story that is a hundred years old. Before Shenkuu opened itself up to the world. When Neopia was younger place, and many wonders had yet to be discovered. This is the story of the Puppeteer."
A hundred years before, most of the mountain range that Shenkuu now occupies was unexplored, uninhabited. Many people think all the Shenkuu people live in the city together, but there are, and were, many smaller villages scattered wherever it was convenient to settle. To the west, where the mountains gave way to a hilled valley, there sat a small village. It was mostly isolated from others in Shenkuu, and from the outside world.
In this village there lived three extraordinary pets, and three extraordinary friends. The first was a hulking rainbow Grarrl called Shuva that, when he held a katana in his claws, became as graceful as a Kazeriu. Despite his youth no other pets in the village could best him, as in spite of his bulk he could move with lightning speed.
The second was a blue Zafara called Ajuro. His father had once been a trainer of martial arts back in the Capital of Shenkuu, and only his father could beat him in paw-to-paw combat. He walked with an economy that spoke of a coiled spring waiting to strike, and when he moved with a purpose, he was unstoppable.
The last of the three friends was a spotted Hissi called Kai. He was perhaps the most extraordinary pet of all. With a simple gesture he could move any object that didn't have a will of its own. With another he could mould the object into a new shape, be it rock or wood or metal. He often enjoyed taking stones off the side of the road and shaping them into a likeness of another village pet, then gifting it to them.
The three friends spent most of their free time together when they weren't helping gather food or learning in the schoolhouse. Sometimes Kai would reshape Shuva's katana so that it bent at odd angles, or spiralled into itself, but the Grarrl bore this with great patience, and Kai always changed it back in the end.
Then one day as they were out playing in a low valley a stranger appeared. Ajuro was sparring with Shuva, weaving in and out of the katana's range with glee, while the ever patient Grarrl swung tirelessly. Kai was to one side, entertaining himself by making a nearby tree lift its branches up and down in a strange dance.
There was always a fog in Shenkuu, sometimes obscuring eyesight entirely, other times lying barely a foot above the ground. Today the fog was perhaps waist-height, but Kai was still startled when a Gelert strode out of it, leaving it swirling lost behind him. The Gelert was unlike any other Kai had ever seen. His fur was a mix between grey and blue, and he bore large fangs that jutted out on either side of his jaw. He wore a sweeping black cape that despite its length somehow managed not to trail in the wet grass, and his tail was in the shape of a Korbat.
"Young pet," the Gelert said, his voice rich and deep. "I couldn't help but notice that you have considerable skills in magic."
Kai glanced over at his friends, but they were still sparring. Ajuro had somehow managed to get his much larger opponent into a headlock. He looked back at the Gelert, who was watching him keenly with glinting red eyes.
"I suppose," the Hissi replied, unsure what to do.
"I apologise if I've perhaps scared you," the Gelert said. "My name is Samih, and I also happen to be skilled in magic." He lifted a paw and a bright blue fire ignited in his palm for a full five seconds before winking out of sight. Kai stared at it in awe. He couldn't do anything like that. Sometimes could manipulate the flames of a fire, but he had never been able to create them himself.
"I'm Kai," Kai replied at last, after Samih had been looking at him expectantly for some while.
"Well, young Kai, I have been searching for an apprentice for quite some time, and I think that I have finally reached the end of my journey. I can teach you things that you wouldn't be able to learn in Shenkuu, unless you went to the Capital itself."
Kai looked up at Samih with wide eyes. To learn how to improve his skills would be an amazing opportunity, and one he was unwilling to give up now that it was within his grasp.
Over the next few days Kai prepared to leave with the strange magician. His parents at first had been wary of the unusual colour of the stranger. But when he explained to them that he was a master magician they had been excited and proud, and the whole village was buzzing with the news. The only pets that looked far from happy were his two friends.
"How can we be three best friends if there are only two of us?" Ajuro complained, his face a mix of excitement for his friend and jealously that someone was taking him away.
"We can still be best friends," Kai assured him. "Look, I'll write to you as often as I can. Although it may take a while. Samih says that where is lives is quite far from here, and we will have to go through the mountains to the west."
"And you had better visit us," Shuva rumbled, his face showing his sorrow. "At least every half year, otherwise I might forget your ugly face."
Kai laughed at that. "It couldn't be as ugly as yours, Shuva," he said. The Grarrl responded with a layered toothy grin.
Finally the day came when he had to leave, and he hugged his friends goodbye, first shaping them small talismans of rock in the likeness of the three of them with their arms around each other. Then he and Samih vanished together into the fog.
The journey through the mountains was terrifying, yet Kai always felt safe with his new mentor. When it was too cold to start a fire Samih could make one with a wave of his hand. When a rock fell from the slope above towards them Samih pointed a paw and it exploded into fragments. Kai could only watch in awe.
It was only when they came to the edge of the mountains that he realised they were in a different land. The other lands had been myths to him before, only to be discussed in hushed voices. The Emperor said that the other lands were dangerous and any pets not from Shenkuu were crazy or weak in spirit. But Samih lived in an immense wood at the base of the mountains, the trees larger than any Kai had seen in his homeland yet they looked more old and shrivelled than the stunted mountain growth.
Samih's mansion lay on the outskirts of the woods, an area where they would not be worried by the deeper denizens of the land, whom Samih warned him against. It could be called a mansion because it contained a dozen bathrooms, and so many rooms that if Samih had decided that he didn't want to wash his bedclothes for a year he could have done so by simply changing rooms every few weeks. It lay near a town of apparently friendly pets, who were unlike any he had ever seen before. Some had the vague look of a certain species, but were larger or changed in some way. Others were like Samih, unfamiliar colours but closer to the species than the others.
Here he began his training. It was frustrating, to say the least. Although Samih showed him numerous spells that included creating things from thin air, or spells that affected others such as sleeping spells, the only magic he could do was manipulate things that already existed. Still, with nothing better to do he quickly learnt how to fine-tune this control, and soon he could have a dozen Hissi-shaped blankets floating along behind him as silent ghosts. They kept him company, as Samih often spent his time ensconced in his workroom, working on new spells. It was a very lonely existence, and he soon began to miss his friends.
He had tried to write several letters, but none of the pets in the town wanted to brave the mountains, not when they didn't know what was on the other side. Travelling to other lands was very rare, and only the bravest and strongest pets even dared to try it.
One morning Kai was in the dining room - a huge draughty hall containing a long table that could easily fit fifty pets around it - when the Halloween Gelert appeared, his fur unkempt and his cloak rumpled. The Gelert looked excited, and his eyes were glowing more red than usual as a result.
"I've done it!" he cried, his deep voice echoing around the huge chamber.
Kai looked up from the plate of food he was trying to consume. Every week the townspets would leave a crate of supplies at the beginning of the path that led to the mansion, but the food was very different from that in Shenkuu.
"What is it?" he asked, trying to force some enthusiasm into his voice. Whenever the Gelert came up with a new spell it would always go horribly wrong when he tried it out for other pets.
"I've finally perfected the invisibility spell!" Samih's fangs were bared in a huge grin as he trotted up to Kai's chair and put a paw on his shoulder. "I can show you if you want."
Kai turned around as the Gelert stepped back and muttered a few words, his eyes pulsing menacingly as they always did when using magic. A few seconds later he disappeared.
"It worked!" Kai exclaimed, surprised and wishing he could do the same sort of spell. He gloomily made his fork tie itself into a knot.
"It did indeed," said Samih's disembodied voice. "Let me try it on you."
Kai almost objected, then decided that there was no harm in it if the spell really did work. This thought had barely constructed itself before he looked down at himself and realised something was truly wrong.
His skin had disappeared. Whatever spell had been cast had rendered his scales invisible, so he could see his bones and veins and, most terrifying of all, his heart beating in his chest.
"What have you done?" he cried, searching for his teacher but encountering only an empty room. He stared again at his inner workings, and felt a terrible rage building up inside him. In his anger he lifted his wings, causing all the dust in the dining hall to swirl around the room. In the cloud this created he found the shape of a Gelert halfway to the door, and moved around the table, slithering after it.
With another gesture he pulled a tapestry from the wall, shaping it into a hulking Werelupe, which skimmed over the floor toward Samih. The Gelert's spell was already fading, and he was now visible, but Kai still remained the same.
"I don't know what I did," Samih whispered, shrinking away from the giant Werelupe over him, and Kai slowly made his way over.
"Change me back," Kai growled, his voice low with fury. "Change me back now, and then I'll leave you and never come back."
The Gelert closed his eyes and whispered something, waving his paws, but no matter what he tried, Kai could still see the fine bones in his wings, and his skin remained transparent. Samih's eyes were wide with fear and desperation, as if he knew that Kai's anger could not abate until he was complete again. But soon it became clear that whatever had been done to Kai was now permanent.
"I'm sorry!" Samih said. "I'll look in all my books, I promise that I'll find a way."
Kai stared down at him coldly. "That's not good enough. You never should have done this in the first place. Leave me alone."
"But—" Samih began.
He got no further, because the Werelupe Puppet picked him bodily from the ground by his cloak. Kai waved a wing and the wall behind the Gelert was pushed aside, creating a tunnel to the outside.
"Leave," he said.
The tapestry that was shaped as a Werelupe floated forward, carrying the frightened Gelert with it. As they travelled through the hole the wall sealed up behind them, leaving Kai alone in the hall. He stared down at his transparent self, then burst into tears.
Later, Kai wandered down into the town, a heavy cloak and cowl wrapped around himself, and gloves covering the tips of his wings. He had decided to go home to Shenkuu, where perhaps his friends wouldn't mind his new form. As he travelled through the jumble of buildings he heard a conversation.
"...the magician came bolting through here, shouting something about his apprentice going mad. I've never a seen a pet look so scared in my life. And we live in the Haunted Woods, so that's saying a lot."
Kai tilted his head slightly so he could see the speakers, a shadow Wocky and a Halloween Poogle. They saw him looking and he quickly turned away, drawing his hood further over his face. A mutant Bruce shuffled past, probably only a few years younger than Kai, and squinted under his hood.
"What's wrong with you, sir?" he asked. "You've gone all see-through."
Kai growled at him, and suddenly the Poogle from before was standing next to him, pulling his hood away.
"You're that apprentice!" he cried, and the attention of every pet within earshot was drawn towards them. "The one who went crazy. Well, we don't want any crazy pets here. Out with you!"
The other pets converged angrily, and Kai shrunk back. Then he snarled and lifted both wings, so that his cloak unwrapped and his beating heart could be seen by all. Although strange pets were not uncommon in the Haunted woods, no one in the Woods, or in Neopia for that matter, had seen a transparent pet before. At his gesture the ground erupted, and a massive Skeith formed from rock and dirt towered over the gathered pets. They immediately backed away.
He used the Skeith to carve his way through the crowd, heading back towards the mansion. If he truly was a monster to these pets, even in the Haunted Woods, then he could not go back to Shenkuu. He couldn't face the rejection he would receive there. So he went calmly back towards his new home. A few pets decided to give chase, but he deterred them by whipping off his cloak and sending it back in the form of a Hissi that blocked their way. As he walked up the path the dead trees slowly began to lean towards each other, branches reaching out to interlock, creating an impenetrable wall to seal him away.
He made his home in the mansion that was formerly his teacher's, wandering around the empty rooms with only his Puppets for company. The pets of the town kept their distance, but rumours eventually began to spread, first into the Haunted Woods, then into the rest of Neopia. For many years he stayed and read the Gelert's books, until soon he forgot about the outside world, about Shenkuu, about his old friends. The letters he had begun to write were left untouched, the paper yellowing, and the townspets came up with a new name for him.
They called him the Puppeteer.
To be continued...