Masks 12: Part 24

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Masks Twelve: Part Twenty-Four

by

Rodford Edmiston

The figure stopped at the limits of the forest, cupped hands around mouth and let forth with a perfect wolf howl. Long moments passed. There was a subtle shift in the mood of the woods, something the caller definitely noticed. Then, several small figures stepped into view.

"Why so formal?" said Pear, smiling at Tiger.

"I heard you had guests here on important business. Figured it was better to be careful."

"Well, we're still hours from doing anything," said the tribe leader. "Come on and join us. You should find it interesting. You may even be able to help."

Whereas for their previous two guests they had walked sedately on the ground, with Tiger the semi-arboreal Bluegrass elves took to the trees. Climbing and leaping more like a gibbon than a cat, Tiger easily kept up. Only moments later, they all dropped to the ground - a bit breathless - on the edge of the small clearing where Dr. Piano and the elf mystics were preparing for their rather unusual conference call.

"Whoah," said Paula, eyes wide. "I didn't know they could do that. Any of them. I mean, I've seen Tiger move before, but not in trees."

"He likes to come here to play," said Quickstone, absently. He laughed. "Not to mention keep us from getting overconfident."

"Nice to see you again," said Tiger, shaking Paula's hand.

Tiger was not a small man, but he found himself looking up at Paula. He kept looking, for several seconds, with Paula becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

"Yeah," the magical super said, finally, nodding. "That's what I was feeling. Well, one of the things. It's almost like a Gift..."

"We already know something magical is inside me," said Paula, rolling her eyes. "Unless you can tell me what it is..."

"Sorry. Like I implied, it feels familiar, but it's nothing I can actually identify."

They turned and walked towards the focus of all the activity.

"Huh," said Tiger, after staring and frowning for a few minutes. "I thought you'd try for a substantiation, but this looks like an insubstantiation."

"I've never heard it called such," said Dr. Piano, as he took a short break to greet the newcomer, "but that is essentially correct. Paula has been to the Empty Plane before, and what Atana tells her may be personal and private."

"Besides," said Runner, with an impish grin, "this is a lot easier. On everyone."

"Yeah," said Tiger, in a knowing manner. "Creating a full manifestation these days is a huge feat."

"I'm wondering what I'll look like when I leave my body," said Paula, uneasily.

"Astral forms are shaped by many things," said Dr. Piano. He looked thoughtful as he continued. "However, much of identity does come from the physical form."

"I don't find that bit of information reassuring," said Paula, nervously.

"You've been there as a female before."

"Yeah, but the last time was as a male, and I thought my girly days were behind me."

"You're just worried Artemis will be there, ready to flirt with you," said Dr. Piano, with a rare smirk.

"Oh, trust me. She wanted to do far more than flirt."

"You're starting this at dusk, right?" said Tiger, not really listening to the exchange between former teammates.

"Precisely at sunset," said Dr. Piano, with a smile and a pinching gesture. "We'll rehearse several times to get the timing perfect."

"I know the Bluegrass Elves are semi-nocturnal..." said Paula.

"Crepuscular," said Tiger, absently.

"...but why right at sunset?"

"The mystical significance of the passage from day to night," said Piano. "That should ease your passage into the other plane."

"If it doesn't work then, we can try again at dawn," said Runner. "Now, why don't you two run along and let us unworldly types get finished without interruption?"

"Unworldly?" said Tiger, raising an eyebrow. "Wasn't that you at the blubber festival..."

"Go!" said the tiny, furry figure, shooing them away.

* * *

"Wow," said Doro, grinning as she examined her new badge. "I can't believe how fast they're working."

"Well, the Five put a scare into Congress," said Ray. "That, combined with the continuing Shilmek threat, is motivating people - and politicians - to do things in a hurry."

"Yeah, well, I just hope all that hurry doesn't cause them to make too many mistakes," said Doro.

"Congratulations, you two," said Brade, as she closed her own badge holder and tucked it into a pocket. She smirked. "You're now feds."

"Badges one, two and three," said Ray, both impressed and proud, as he nodded at Brade and Doro, then gestured vaguely at himself.

"Envious that I got number two?" said Doro, as she cuddled up to Ray.

"No fraternization," said Brade, tongue in cheek. "At least, not where it can be officially seen."

"Yes, master," said Ray, rolling his eyes.

* * *

Paula looked around the flat, dim, grey plane, and sighed. As before, sounds were muffled, and there seemed to no boundaries. She was, indeed, standing naked and female. There was (probably fortunately) no sign of Artemis. She _could_ see the people and objects in the forest clearing, but indistinctly. Like before, time seemed frozen, but she knew it wasn't. At first she was alone, but she soon sensed a presence.

She turned and, sure enough, there stood Atana.

"It is good to see you again," the goddess said, brushing her hand over the human's hair. Even with Paula's recent increase in height, Atana was still significantly taller. "Though I certainly understand your distress at the circumstances."

"So... What caused this?"

"That is something I will determine very shortly," said Atana, sternly.

She placed her hand on top of Paula's head. As with Dr. Piano's cap, Paula felt a tingle, though it was much stronger this time. She had trouble not squirming from the discomfort.

"This is not my work," said Atana, frowning. "Nor could it be. I released you. There was no remaining connection between us beyond history."

"It did happen!"

"Let me work."

Paula was quiet and the goddess did mysterious things. Things she could sometimes sense, but which mostly left her bored and anxious.

"Yes. I see, now."

"That's good, I hope."

"Not so much good as not bad."

With that bit of confusing information, Atana stepped back and made a beckoning gesture.

"Come forth!"

Somehow, Paula knew the goddess was not talking to her. She stayed still. Only, she felt as if a part of her was being pulled away from the rest. A mist extruded from Paula's body, remaining attached through a tail-like streamer as the main part formed a vaguely female shape.

"Show yourself!"

The form gained detail, and color, to become a very striking blond with distinct freckles and long hair. She was as naked as Paula, so the fact she was naturally colored was obvious. As was the fact that her legs and armpits were unshaven, unlike Paula.

She said something in a respectful tone to Atana in a tongue Paula didn't understand.

"Learn your host's speech," said Atana, sternly.

"As the lady commands," said the strange woman, her words coming more confidently even as she spoke.

"Do you know me?"

"Yes."

"Then who are you?"

"I am Penardwen, of _Cymru_," she said.

"That would be what you know as Wales," said Atana, to Paula. She turned back to the strange woman. "How did you come to be in that keep?"

"I was pursued by Aburidwil, a minor god of the herds," said Penardwen. "When I scorned him he destroyed my physical form and imprisoned my essence. I know not how long I was there."

"Yes, I believe he was in turn killed by Aeries, during the Roman conquest," said Atana, nodding.

"Respectfully, Lady, the Romans will never take _Cymru_!" she stated, defiantly.

"I'm afraid they did. You have been asleep for a very long time, child."

The two of them spoke for what felt like several years, Paula rapidly zoning out. Suddenly she snapped back to attention, as she heard Atana calling to her.

"I'm afraid you will have to put up with her for a while."

"I beg your pardon?" said Paula, startled.

"Penardwen bound herself to you to preserve her essence. She will need time to recover her strength so she can survive without you."

"But..." said Paula, desperately.

She had thought she wasn't possessed, only now she'd just been told that she not only actually was - by a minor, ancient Welsh goddess - but would have to remain so for an indefinite period!

"I truly am sorry," said Penardwen, her expression matching her words. "I would have died without you. I still would."

"Child, I reach the end of my own strength," said Atana. "Remember, I am barely here, reaching into this plane from my distant home. I cannot do more for you now, though perhaps later..."

"So... how long?"

"Penardwen will speak with you in more detail, now that she has awakened. Go."

Paula sat up with a gasp. She began swearing.

"What's wrong?" said Dr. Piano, alarmed.

Paula took a deep breath, and began explaining. She noted that it was now full dark. A glance at her watch showed that more than two hours had passed, by far the longest she had ever spent on that plane.

"Well," said Dr. Piano, when Paula finished. "I... am at a loss. I don't recall any such thing ever happening before."

"I do," said Runner, voice and expression carefully neutral. "Come along, Paula. You need rest. Then we need to have a long talk."

* * *

"Our long-range monitoring of their communications reveal that they are currently united and highly motivated," said the tactical analyst.

The new Emperor of the Shilmek nodded, looking thoughtful.

"Strategy, how long is this likely to last?"

"They do have short attention spans," she replied. "Both individually and collectively. I think... we continue monitoring, for now. Perhaps in a year, as evaluated by our spying, they will have turned their attentions to other things."

"We will convene again in five months," said the Emperor. "I expect all of you to have full updates for the next meeting."

END

This work is Copyright 2010 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it please contact the author at: [email protected]

* * *

That's it for Masks 12. The next story will be over 80k words, so the installments will be twice as long. It involves a change of scene and new characters, with a few familiar folks making an occasional appearance. Come back next time and meet a gal named Vic!



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