Puppeteer

By Allanasha Ke Kiri

Chapter 1 –

A Puppeteer

Orion ran a hand over his forehead, wiping away the sweat before it could run into his eyes, and pushing back his blond hair. Ahead, he could see their destination. Just a few more minutes and they'd be in the village proper. He squinted towards the sky, raising a hand to block most of the sun. It was almost midday. At least they'd be out of the sun's path during the hottest part of the day. Or most of it.

"Damn this heat," one of his guards muttered.

Orion smiled. It sounded like Janar. He was famous for his dislike of warmer weather.

"We'll be out of the sun soon enough," he called back, nudging his chestnut mare into a trot. "It's not as if we have to question them outside."

Two men chuckled, though he could sense their relief. None of them really wanted to be here in the first place, but his father had gotten word of several disappearances in the area, and had sent him out to investigate. They both believed it to be nothing, but it would put the locals at ease to see that something was being done about it.

As they entered the village, Orion frowned. Something wasn't right …

"It's too quiet," Cristof said, his voice at a whisper. "Did they disappear too?"

"An entire village?" Janar scoffed. "Impossible."

"He's right," Orion interrupted. "Look, there's someone now."

He spurred his mare forward, quickly approaching the woman. Behind him, he guards hurried to catch up to him. The woman turned to stare at him as he pulled to a stop.

"Hello," he said, smiling charmingly.

The woman didn't reply, simply continued to stare at him, eyes blank. Orion cleared his throat.

"I'm Prince Orion. My father sent me here to see about the disappearances in the area. Where are the other villagers?"

Still nothing.

"You should answer the prince when he speaks to you," Christof told her, voice sharp.

The woman turned her gaze to him for a moment, then turned away, seemingly dismissing them.

Orion frowned, dismounting. "Now see here," he said, reaching forward to take hold of her arm.

She turned back to him, eyes still blank, and still not saying a word. Her brown eyes glanced down at the hand holding her arm. Orion swallowed and found himself retracting his hand from her person.

"I've a few questions to ask you, and I'd like you to answer them."

She blinked.

"How long have people been disappearing from here?" he asked sharply, his annoyance slowly rising.

The woman didn't answer. Instead, she glanced over his shoulder. Orion frowned, glancing back. There stood a man and two children, all three with the same blank look that the woman had.

"Something isn't right," Janar muttered, quickly dismounting. "Sire, I think we should get out of here."

"There's more behind us," Mical said suddenly, causing Orion to look back at the way they'd come. Indeed, there were five more bodies, each staring at them with that same blank look. As he watched, another three joined them, still just staring. Orion just stared at them a moment, confused. They each looked as though strings were holding them up.

Like puppets.

"There's more than one way out of a village," Janar told him, sharply, as he took hold of Orion's arm, pulling him back to his mare.

He shook his head, hoping to clear it, but didn't argue as he remounted. He even let Mical take the lead. It allowed him to keep an eye on the villagers. As they went, more and more appeared, all eying them with them with blank eyes. Orion could feel his worry rise. Something really wasn't right here. What had happened? And why were they just standing there, staring?

Mical's horse came to a sudden stop, causing everyone behind him to do the same, lest they collide.

"Why'd you stop?" Janar demanded angrily from the back.

Mical just nodded ahead, where the street was blocked. Orion glanced behind him. They'd closed in there as well, and the two side streets were both blocked by bodies too.

"We've been herded," Christof said at a whisper.

As one, the villagers began approaching them, each of their steps in sync with the others. They still looked as though strings held them up, but who was manipulating the strings?

Janar was the first to draw his sword, the metal ringing as it cleared it sheath, but the others soon followed. Orion was the last. Something was definitely not right, but he didn't feel comfortable with harming his people. What if they weren't in charge of their actions? He'd heard of a wizard in the Far East that had that ability; taking over people and making them obey his commands.

Still, he didn't exactly have a choice but to defend himself.

"Stop!"

Orion jumped, his head jerking towards the sound. It was the first voice (that wasn't theirs) that he'd heard since entering the village.

A young man pushed himself through the villagers, though they didn't put up much of a fight. Every eye turned to him, and at last the blank looks disappeared, turning into ones of adoration. The young man frowned at them as he pushed his black hair back out of his face before resting his hands on his narrow hips. He wasn't very impressive, Orion noted, too thin, too short, obviously not strong enough to hold himself in any real confrontation.

So why do they listen to him?

"This is not how you treat guests," he said, voice admonishing them.

Orion then saw the villagers look ashamed. Behind the young man, several of them reached forward, grabbing hold of his tunic.

"Of course I'm not angry at you," he cooed after a moment of glaring, turning to run a hand over an old man's cheek. It reminded Orion of something a mother would do. "Disappointed, though. I taught you better than that."

He giggled suddenly, turning to Orion's party. His eyes were wide, and glowed with a child's curiosity as he took them in. They stopped on Orion for several moments.

"Please excuse my children," he said, still looking at Orion. "We've not had company for several months. I'm afraid they've forgotten how to behave with someone not family."

Orion blinked. Children? … Family?

"Children?" Christof asked, unknowingly echoing Orion's thoughts.

The young man nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, my children. Now come. It's hot out here." He whined out the word hot, then whirled away from them.

"Ana! Be a dove and take care of their horses?"

A young woman, probably about 16 stepped out from amongst the other villagers and approached the young man. She wore a simple dress in a pale blue, and wore her hair up; out of the way. Her head was tilted in a curious manner.

"Of course not, I do want them alive," he said. "Its not exactly polite to kill someone's horse you know."

The girl gave a small smile and nodded, beginning to approached Orion.

"I think we'd rather take care of our own," he said, eying the girl warily. He wasn't exactly sure he trusted her. No, he knew he didn't trust her.

"Nonsense," the young man said, sending him a disapproving frown. "I told her not to hurt them, and she won't. Now come on. I have so many questions. There hasn't been a visitor here in … months. And I do so want to hear of the outside world.

He bounced on the balls of his feet, excitement practically pouring out.

The girl, Ana was close enough that she took the reigns of the chestnut. The horse shied away, but seemed to calm when she placed a hand on her neck. Orion barely resisted the urge to jerk the reigns from her hands. Somehow, he didn't think the young man would like that. And at the moment, he seemed to be the one in charge.

"Ana's brilliant with horses," the young man said, beaming at her proudly. "They love her, see? Now, come on!"

His voice said that he was getting impatient, and though Orion would rather not leave his mare, he also didn't want to upset the man. He glanced back at Janar and Christof and nodded, then sent one to Mical, when he looked back as well.

As one, they dismounted, each hesitant to let Ana take the reigns from them. For a moment, they watched Ana lead the horses into a side building, then turned to warily follow the young man. The villagers parted for them, allowing them through, though they looked at the small party with a happy … and hungry gleam. Orion felt a shiver run down his spine, suddenly wishing his father had just decreed this area forbidden and left it at that.

When they entered, the young man was already seated at a table with five chairs. He waved them over.

"Are you thirsty?" Nico asked as they sat. "We've got some milk if you'd like."

Orion shook his head. "We're fine," he said, answering for all of them, then, as an after thought. "Thank you."

Nico shrugged, waving to someone. Orion glanced over to see a villager, male, head into a back room. Orion glanced around the room then, catching sight of another three villagers, each one standing in the shadows out of the way. This didn't help his confidence any.

"Who are you?" the young man asked, his voice curious.

They all hesitated a moment, looking at each other.

"I," Orion said, finally, "am Prince Orion. These are my guards: Janal, Christof, and Mical."

The young man's eyes widened with a gasp. "A prince? The pretty one's a prince?"

Orion blinked. Pretty one? That was … new. He'd heard several references about his looks, but 'pretty' had never been once of them. It was much too feminine an adjective.

"I am a prince," he said, instead of protesting. "Might I ask who you are?"

"Oh! I'm Nico."

"Do you mind if we ask you some questions, Nico?" Orion asked, careful to keep his voice even to not betray how wary they all were.

Nico shook his head, setting his hands on the table. He looked the picture of helpfulness.

"There have been some reports of people going missing, do you know anything about that?"

Nico frowned thoughtfully a moment before shaking his head. "No."

"Are you sure?" Janar asked. "They happened around here. Merchants and travelers that passed through here and never reached their other destination."

Nico frowned again. He was silent for a minute. "Oh, them!" Nico exclaimed suddenly. "They didn't disappear, they're here."

"Here?" Christof asked, his voice betraying his nerves.

Nico nodded, once again reminding Orion of a child. "Yes, here. They didn't want to leave," he explained, grinning.

"Why not?"

Another frown, this one perplexed. "Because they're my children. None of my children want to leave."

There it was again. Children. Something about it was tugging at Orion's memory, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what it was.

"Perhaps you could send them back?" Mical asked. "Their families miss them terribly."

Nico frowned at Mical, obviously not happy at the thought. "Send them back? Why? They have no other family but me. They are my children."

"Several of them have children of their own," Orion told him, softly.

The young man's brow furrowed. "They do not," he said. "Their family is me. They have and need no other."

Orion put up a hand to keep the others from saying anything. "I meant no harm," he said, calmly, hoping to calm the young man. "You say they are your children?"

Nico eyed him a moment, then nodded, with something rather like a pout.

"What do you mean by that?"

His expression slowly morphed into one of astonishment. As if he couldn't believe Orion didn't know. "They're my children. I created them, didn't I? And a father creates his children. They were mine from the moment I woke up. Always here, never leaving, and I wont betray them. Never," he growled that word. "They are mine … You'll be mine too."

Though the last was said thoughtfully, all four of them jumped to their feet.

"What?"

"My children," Nico told them, growing excited once more. "You'll love it, I promise," he said. "We'll have so much fun together."

"I'm afraid, we've got things we need to do," Janar said, gruffly, though his voice was tinged with worry.

"You want to leave?" Nico looked absolutely devastated. "But, you can't … none of my children want to leave."

"Well, we're not your children," Christof reminded him.

Nico frowned again, then brightened. "But you will be. Then you'll never want to leave us. You'll love being part of my family. I'm very good to all of my children, you'll see."

Children … Quite suddenly, realization dawned on the prince.

"You're a puppeteer," Orion breathed, horror filling his voice as everything finally fell into place.

The heads of his three guards shot towards him.

"What?" Mical demanded.

"You're a puppeteer," Orion said, his eyes on Nico.

The young man tilted his head, looking puzzled. "What's a … oh, I remember now. Kera used to tell us of the Puppeteer. But I can't be," he giggled. "I'm male, and they were only ever female."

"It is the only explanation," Orion said.

Still in his seat, Nico frowned. Off to the side, a door opened, but Orion didn't take his eyes off the young man before him. He left that for his guards. Not that there was anything much to worry about. It was just the man returning with a single glass of milk. Of course, that was one more puppet to worry about. He put it down in front of Nico, and seemed to glow when the young man thanked him.

"Jon," he said, suddenly, staring up at the man. "Am I a puppeteer?"

No reply. Not even a blink.

"True," Nico continued, as if he had heard something. "They do say that … but I'm male … Yes, I suppose that's true. Thank you, Jon."

The man nodded and retreated once more. Orion was now more than convinced that this young man was a puppeteer, but that didn't help his heart calm down any.

"Well, I suppose I am," Nico said, turning his attention back to them, then shrugged. "Oh well. Now sit, I've some questions I want to ask you."

"I think we'd prefer standing," Janar grunted, eyes narrowed at Nico.

The young man pouted, looking much too innocent to have been the one who slaughtered the village and raised them again. The pout went away when none of the men sat down, and he sighed instead.

"It's not going to help you, you know. You wont be able to get away at all."

They didn't respond to him, preferring to keep quiet until he'd asked his questions.

Each question was asked with a near child-like curiosity. Nico wanted to know everything; how things were at the capital, what they thought the summer would bring, and all the latest knews. Each hesitantly given answer was received with the same innocent amazement.

Is this the insanity? Orion wondered, staring at Nico in silent wonder. This childlike mindset? But why are they repressed to this?

"How old are you, Nico?" Orion asked, suddenly, interrupting him from asking another question.

Nico blinked at him, then tilted his head as he thought. "19," he said. "Why?"

"You seem much too …" Orion hesitated, casting around for a suitable answer that wouldn't offend their host, "innocent for the age."

Nico blinked again, then tilted his head to gaze up at them. "We have to be," he said, his voice sounding childishly sad at the prospect.

"Why?" It was Christof who asked, ever the curious.

Nico shrugged. "Because of what we are," he replied, as though it were obvious. "We can hear them, you know, when it happens. When they die." His eyes became unfocused, as if he were falling into a trance, a light longing entering his voice. "We hear it when their souls scream as they're torn away from their anchor and locked away. We feel it too. We feel every mark as we bring them back to us."

For a moment, none of them said anything, to horrified by his description. Orion shuddered. He'd hate to feel something like that, but …

"Then why do you do it?" Orion asked.

"I have to," Nico said, turning fearful eyes up to them. He stood, biting his lip as he moved over to the window. "These ones, the first ones, I didn't have control over it. I couldn't control it. It just … went. And I took them up. The others were gotten before I could stop them. The number isn't right yet, they say. It needs to be higher for my sanity."

"You can have sanity?" Janar scoffed.

Nico turned back to them with a frown, "Yes. Their numbers give me sanity." Then, his eyes became much more sane then they'd seen them yet, and his chin quivered slightly. "But I can deal with insanity. I don't want …"

Gone was the childlike innocence he'd had before. Instead was an emotion torn young man, and Orion could only blink at the sudden change. The young man wrapped his arms around himself and shivered.

"I'm keeping them here," he said. "It cuts back the amount of people the can take."

"Why not just order them not to?"

Nico shook his head. "That'll only work if I'm not there to change them."

"So leave." Janar told him, harshly.

"Can't. Someone else tried that. Ended up destroying another village because of it. Our instincts are only suppressed if we're surrounded by them." Nico turned back to the window, placing a hand on the glass. "But why would I ever want to leave?" Nico asked, his childlike tone returning once more.

Orion shared a look with his men. There was more to this then they knew. Nico returned to the table.

"And neither will you," he said. "You'll like being my children. I'll even tell them to make it not hurt. I don't want to hear anymore screams." He was frowning now, as if he found the idea distasteful.

All four of them drew their swords as the puppets surrounding the room started to approach; each looking at them with the same blank stare.

"That wont work," Nico said, with a giggle as he looked on, his eyes lighting up. "They can't be hurt by your weapons. Amari proved that, didn't she?"

That didn't stop them from trying. They each put up a valiant fight against the puppet that came at them, but soon enough all four of them were inescapably caught. Across the room, Nico clapped excitedly.

"Yes," he cried happily. "Yes, yes! You'll join us. I'll love you dearly, you'll see."

None of them stopped struggling against their puppets, even as an object (that looked suspiciously like a knife) gleamed before them.

"You can't kill us," Orion said desperately, suddenly stopping his struggles against his puppet.

Nico frowned at him, but held up a hand. Each of the puppets froze, their knives suspended in the air. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Janar continue struggling to no avail.

"Why no?" Nico asked, pouting again.

"Because, if you kill me, my father will send others, and they will kill you."

"Restor would betray us, just like Seleen?" Nico demanded, eyes blazing.

Betray?

"It would not be betrayal if they were acting in revenge of their prince," Orion told him.

Nico frowned. "They would be sent anyway," he said, with a shrug. "My children can handle them. Mother has made us strong, stronger than Father could ever have hoped."

Mother? Father? What? Orion was now hopelessly confused.

"Has Restor ever betrayed you?" Mical asked. "Have they given you any reason to believe they would?"

Nico frowned thoughtfully, then shook his head. "Never. They've never been given the chance. Unlike Restor, time and time again." The last was spat out angrily.

"Then why condemn us when we've not earned it?'' Mical asked, sounding very reasonable. "You and your children, you just want to be safe, don't you?"

Nico was silently a moment longer, but finally he nodded once, looking very interested in Mical's words.

"The king can guarantee that, but he wont give it to you if you kill his son."

Another pout began to form on Nico's lips. "But I want my pretty one," he whined, even adding in a little foot stomp. The action made him seem much younger.

Orion winced at being called the 'pretty one' once again. "Must you have me as a child?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.

"You'll leave. Leave and never come back, and my pretty prince will be lost."

"You don't know that," Orion said, hoping his voice was as persuasive as Mical's had been. "Trust us, Nico."

Nico's frown remained, but his head was tilted, as though he were listening to something. "No," he said, causing panic to rise in Orion. "I said NO!" He frowned at the puppet holding Janar.

"I make the decisions," he said, beratingly. "Release them."

As one, they were released, though the one holding Janar seemed to take a half second longer before complying.

**

Don't expect updates to be this quick normally, I just don't like leaving just a prologue up for an entire week lol. Anyway, enjoy~