The Puppeteer: Part Eight
Chapter Four: Preparations
For centuries female warriors were unheard of in Shenkuu. But then two particularly clever and feisty sisters had snuck into the army and won a decisive battle. For the next fifty years more female warriors were trained, and it was soon discovered that they proved, if not stronger warriors, at least better officers. They had the level-headedness to know which battles they could win, and rarely were overtaken by impulsive 'battle rage'.
General Atunra came from a reasonably wealthy noble family, and was completely determined not to become a courtier. Her rise through the ranks was swift and earned, and she was one of the finest fighters and strategists that Shenkuu had to offer. Some say she rivalled General Tzu, but I would have to say for the sake of loyalty that she surpassed him.
The sun was slowly settling behind the mountains, casting long shadows over the camp. Yet despite this it was a flurry of activity. Pets were preparing for a long march, clearing up anything they didn't need to use the next day before they left. A large tent with the gold and red crest of Shenkuu sat in the centre of the camp, surrounded by half a dozen pets, all standing with weapons ready. Inside the tent a royal Eyrie slumped in her chair, her claws tapping on the table as she sluggishly forced her mind to think.
From all the reports she had been receiving from the Emperor's spy network, Tzu was about to make a big push. And a very unexpected one. She had slept a total of five hours in the last three days, sending messengers frantically across the country to call the separate camps together. But still she was unsure if they would reach the rendezvous in two days. Tzu was planning to attack the Capital itself, blast him!
There was a polite cough by the tent flap and she flicked her head around, paw reaching for the hilt of her blade even through the fog drifting in her mind. She could never be too ready.
One of her guards on duty, a red Krawk, had pulled back the flap slightly and was glancing nervously back over his shoulder every few seconds. When he realised he had her attention he gave a quick salute.
"Report," she said.
"General, Master Ajuro is here to see you. He forced his way into camp with three strangers and refuses to say anything useful or have them lower their hoods until he talks to you."
Atunra sighed and went to stand up, but then decided against it and instead spun her chair around to face the entrance. She resisted the urge to yawn, then instructed, "Let them in. But keep the flap open."
She trusted Ajuro, she really did. He had been working for the Emperor for six years, and he was one of the most accomplished spies and hand-to-hand fighters she knew of, but there was just something she didn't like about his attitude.
Her guard pulled the flaps open and made an ushering gesture to someone outside the tent. Another guard, a massive Skeith who always wore a frown, stepped up to the other side of the entrance as Ajuro entered. Behind him came two small cloaked figures, and then a pet larger even than her Skeith guard. This pet had to duck and hunch down to fit inside the tent, but its face was in shadow within the cowl.
"Lady General Atunra," Ajuro said, giving her a perfect bow, palms pressed together. She nodded back, hoping she didn't look as tired as she felt.
"I'm glad you're finally here," she said. "We really did need you these past few days. But first I would like to know just who these pets are."
The shadow Zafara gave a cocky smile and gestured to one of his companions. The pet moved forward and Atunra guessed it was a Hissi even before the hood was removed, just by the way it moved. She was shocked to see that it was wearing a vibrant traditional Shenkuu outfit, but then she noticed the empty eye sockets. If she hadn't been so tired she would have flinched, but she managed to contain it.
"As you know I went looking for my childhood friend, and I found him. I would like you to meet Kai, otherwise known as the Puppeteer," Ajuro said.
The Hissi reached up and removed his mask, revealing the transparent face underneath. Atunra had dealt with ghost pets in the past, but this was something completely different and extremely unnerving. But then the Hissi gave her a polite bow, and she almost thought his expression, if he could show one, would have been grave.
"It is nice to meet you," he said in a slightly hissing voice, and it made her shiver slightly.
"So you're the Puppeteer," she said, finally dredging up the memory of the name. Then she blinked in shock and turned to the desk, shuffling papers around until she found the one she was seeking. Her eyes scanned the pages and she looked up, eyes narrowing.
"The Emperor's spies have heard the stories about how you terrorise the Haunted Woods." She saw him flinch, which surprised her. She hadn't imagined he would have a conscience. "But I have a report here saying that you attacked a small encampment of Tzu's troops and took some very valuable reports."
"Among other things," Ajuro said, looking far too smug for his own good.
"The reports are correct," said the Puppeteer, glancing at Ajuro. "But I think Ajuro would prefer to explain."
"Indeed. General Atunra, I am pleased to inform you that the Puppeteer and I managed to find the location of Shuva's sister and free her. Chiroki..." He turned around and offered his paw to the other small figure, who lowered her hood and beamed at Atunra, sinking into a formal bow. The white Kacheek was quite pretty, and she seemed to have good manners to boot.
"I'm afraid I don't know this Shuva—" Atunra began, but then she glanced again at the towering pet in her tent. "Ajuro," she began slowly, "Surely you don't mean Kamikaze?"
"After we rescued Chiroki we went to Captain Rosh's camp and found Shuva. Captain Rosh can no longer fight this war, as well as two dozen of her soldiers."
Atunra gripped her hilt tightly in one paw as the last pet lowered his hood, revealing the multi-coloured scales and massive jaws of a rainbow Grarrl. There was a collective gasp from the guards outside, but they were frozen in fear, as was she. She had seen him once before in a skirmish and knew she would be hard pressed to fight him. He had fought forty of her pets and forced all of them out of the war by tarsha.
"Ajuro, what are you doing bringing him into our camp?" Her mind was in overdrive, wondering if there could be enough warning to her army to fight this pet. They needed every pet they could get in the days to come, and if the Grarrl managed to defeat even a small number it would create a massive disadvantage when they fought Tzu. They only had a few thousand pets each. But then she realised he was alone, not with Tzu's army, so eventually they could bring him down.
She stood frozen as the Grarrl approached, and even when he drew a Katana that was twice her height from inside his cloak she was still, unable to do anything. It was only when he knelt down and offered her the hilt that she was able to move, tilting her head up to meet his eyes.
"I'm done working for Tzu. He kidnapped my sister." His voice was deep and she could feel the vibrations in the ground through the pads of her paws. "As much as I wish to put down my blade for good, I know I have to help you in this fight until he has been stopped. So I offer you and the rightful Emperor my services until the end of the war."
Atunra released her hilt and reached for his, her paws just managing to close around it. It was much heavier than she thought as she offered it back to him, but she kept her arm from shaking.
"I accept your offer," she said, and he stood again, head brushing the roof.
The guards outside let out a collectively held breath, then looked slightly embarrassed at not having done anything. But she couldn't blame them. She turned to Ajuro.
"I see you've done more good than if you had stayed here. Not only have you taken away one of Tzu's greatest weapons but now we have him on our side." She turned to the Puppeteer. "And what of you? The rumours say you made a forest come alive and eat a hundred pets, though I suppose that was an exaggeration."
"It was only a few trees, and they certainly didn't eat anyone," the Hissi replied. His tone was amused, and it made him slightly less eerie. "I suppose I'll have to join with your magicians in whatever they do. I owe that to my friends."
"I can help too!" the Kacheek piped up. "I know how to fight a bit."
Shuva gave her an intimidating stare which she completely ignored. "You're not fighting," he growled.
She spun around to face him with a scowl. "Yes, I am!" she said.
"Anyone who wants to can fight," Atunra interrupted.
The Grarrl turned on her, but she ignored his glower. He had sworn himself to her, and there was little he could do to counter her orders without losing face.
"We need every pet who is willing and able to fight. As your commander I say that she's old enough. Wenray, show this young lady to Captain Ysi. He'll decide what she should do."
The Krawk escorted Chiroki out of the tent and Atunra turned to Shuva again. "I'll make sure she's with some of our best soldiers so nothing can happen to her," she told him. "I certainly don't want Tzu taking her again and at least this way she can't sneak off, nor will she have the inclination." The Grarrl looked surprised, then pacified as he took in her words. Even Ajuro looked impressed with her scheme.
"Now you should know that there will be many pets who won't trust you, so we'll have to introduce the idea slowly. I think it's best you stay here for now. It's the largest private tent."
Ajuro was fiddling with the notes on her table, which annoyed her despite the fact that they were in no useful order anyway. But she tried to focus her attention on the Puppeteer as she faced him next.
"The magicians are near the eastern side of camp, and they can help you train or tell you anything you need to know there. I—"
She stopped as one of the younger magicians entered the tent, looking out of breath. The electric Cybunny was all gangly limbs and teenage youth. He had only been allowed into the army because he was good at what he did, and because the magicians were stretched thin as it was.
"General Atunra!" he panted, giving a low bow. "I brought those reports on the techniques we've been working on. You said you needed them right away so you could plan the battle."
"Yes, thank you, Yanh." She took the scrolls he was holding and then pointed at the Puppeteer.
"This is Kai, though you may know him as the Puppeteer." Yanh's eyes widened, and the Hissi seemed discomfited. "Can you show him where the magicians stay?"
"O-of course, General," Yanh stuttered. "Um, this way please," he said.
The Puppeteer raised his mask over his face and then slithered after the Cybunny as he bounced away. Atunra finally allowed herself the luxury of a yawn, but at that moment Ajuro looked up and saw it.
"My lady," he said, although she much preferred to be called General. It was something she had accomplished, rather than been born into. "You need to sleep. I gathered some reports in my travels and I'll try and piece everything together for you when you wake up."
As much as she wanted to stay awake, she found her eyelids drooping. She didn't bother trying to make it to her pallet, but instead just slumped onto the table as Ajuro and Shuva began to murmur, looking through the plans. At least something had gone right at last.
To be continued...