PART 7 - WORDS TO THE WISE
As Mrs. Pearl and Miss Early approached the end of the gravel road running along the curving peninsula on South Island, they found their way blocked. Standing in a pool of light cast by the first of the electric lamps marking the end of the boardwalk, a row of five female figures stood as black silhouettes. Their hands were folded in front, the slow, eerily synchronized waving of the long tails of those that had them the only movement besides the gentle fluttering of their grass skirts and capes. Their faces were covered by masks carved in the native style, at once serene and savage, grotesque and beautiful under the stark light and shadow of the lamp. Long strands of kapok hung down behind, knotted at the back of the masks' domed foreheads, adding to the soft rustle of their grass garments. Otherwise, there was no one else to be seen. The path, boardwalk, and beach were completely deserted.
Miss Early's features hardened into a scowl as she peered at the strange delegation standing before them. "Aw whut the hell now?" She drew herself up belligerently, crossing her arms in front of her. "Y'all wanna step aside up thar, or am I gonna haveta 'beat down th' grass' in th' old-school sense o' th' term?"
In response, a wind whipped up around them, an ominous growl in its tone. In contrast, the cloaked figures stood silent, watching.
Miss Early sniffed as she drew her thumb across her nose and took a step forward, but was stopped by a gentle touch on her shoulder. Mrs. Pearl's luminous eyes glittered beneath her veil, her face alert and solemn, as she stepped up to the rabbit doe's side.
"Wait a minute, Miss Early. I think it would be better if I spoke to them. They didn't come alone." With a flick of her wrists, her handguns appeared in her palms. Another whirling blast of wind arose, fluttering at the feline's veil and growling more stridently. It died back down as she spun the pistols in her hands and popped the clips to engage the safeties, then pressed them into the bewildered doe's hands. "Here, hold on to these for me."
With that, she walked forward, staring across at the weird gathering of shapes with straight shoulders and a level gaze. Miss Early shoved the pistols down into her pockets and called out to her cohort. "Now hang on thar, darlin'. Y'all didn't come alone neither. I got yer back!"
The feline kept her eyes trained on the shadowy group ahead of her, her fists down at her sides. "Stay here, Jane. I've got my own backup for this one."
The rabbit stopped in her tracks at the finality of her partner's voice, taking a wary, combat ready stance. "Okay. Y'all know whut yer doin', but if'n them tiki toys pull anythin' funny then I'm a'gonna play lawn mower on their kiesters..."
The feline gave her a reassuring nod and then walked calmly forward, her tail waving sinuously behind her in a rhythm the tan furred doe recognized as evidence of the deep tension her partner was keeping hidden.
Dorothy Pearl came to a stop a couple of yards short of the row of masked figures, standing with her head held high and her hands down at her side. She tried to gaze upon them more deeply, but found that the harder she looked, the more indistinct they became, as if a shimmering of heat off of a hot pavement rippled in the air before her, turning them into hazy mirages.
Unsettled, she steadied herself with a furrowed brow, and kept her voice even as she spoke. "Hello. You all seem to be blocking our way."
The figure in the center of the assembly spoke in an equally controlled female voice. "We would know who and what you are, outlander."
A rustle of grass fronds sounded to her left, as another of the figures spoke in Spontoonie, with much more emotion on her voice. The feline couldn't understand the words, but she could detect a note of seething anger.
The wooden snarl of the mask inclined towards the others. "<This one is a dark priestess, a transgressor and intruder! A user of powers that are forbidden!>"
The figure in the center inclined her head slightly, but kept her mask pointed at Dorothy. "<The powers this one has used are unknown. We must fish in deeper waters to see if they are forbidden.>"
The feline's brow furrowed, deepening the tabby lines on her forehead as her gleaming eyes darted between the anonymous females. "If I am being judged, I'd like to at least know what is being said about me."
The grass on the figure on the left's cloak parted, and an arm of mottled brown and white, shot with grey, sprang forth and pointed an accusing finger. She spoke in harshly inflected Westcommon. "You are not welcome on our soil, outlander witch! You use dark powers and do great harm."
A strong gust of wind roared across the space between the masked figures and Dorothy, rattling the grass skirts and capes as the feline's dark veiled hat was blown off and her jacket flew open, trailing from her shoulders, the satin of her slip rippling against her slender torso.
The tabby's ice blue eyes flared with an unearthly light as she fixed her gaze on the accusing figure. "Is that so? And what harm have I done?"
The pointing finger rolled back into a mottled fist in front of the grimace of the female's grotesque mask as a growl issued forth. The other masked figures turned their heads to regard their furious compatriot. "You placed a curse on my son! Even now, he lies curled nose to tail beneath my clan's longhouse, shaking and crying like a puppy, and will not be beckoned forth."
Dorothy's glittering eyes narrowed. "And yet you're here, instead of under your longhouse at his side."
A faint gust of wind caused a murmur of the grass garments of the others. The accusing figure drew herself up and chopped the air dismissively with her spotted hand. "Bah! How dare you? What would a dead-souled outlander know of such things?"
The tabby's eyes flared, and as she spoke her voice became strained with controlled emotion. "On the day the love of my life died in my arms, my very prim and proper Noreastoner mother, whom I've known to grow faint at the sight of jam spilled on a tablecloth, climbed into a bathtub full of water stained pink by my dead husband's blood -- wearing one of her finest dresses, I might add -- and held me all night while I did nothing but stare into space and scream."
The edge on her voice subsided, and became flat and level again. "That's... that's what I know."
Her brow furrowed angrily as a vortex of wind whirled between her and her accuser, causing her dark tresses to blow loose and wild.
The masked figure took a step forward, her fists clenched, and stamped her bare foot on the ground. "No one may harm a child of mine and escape my wrath!"
Dorothy stood her ground, her eyes coldly glittering. "Your boy was doing more harm to himself than I ever did. Where's your wrath for him?"
The accuser bristled, the angle of her mask in the light making it look as if it were baring its fangs for blood. "You know nothing of what you speak. Laffi is a good boy, as is fitting the son of a Wise One. None would dare question his conduct."
The feline kept her gaze level. "And that's why he'll never learn, and why one day, he'll destroy himself. And you'll have no one to blame but yourself."
At this, an inarticulate scream resounded from the accusing figure's mask, and a whistling, howling gale tore across the planks of the boardwalk and whirled around the brown furred tabby, who squinted her eyes as her dark hair whipped wildly around her face and flattened ears. She stood rigid as the black velvet of her jacket and skirt was ripped to shreds and scattered all around her in the vortex. The whirlwind intensified as the masked figure crouched with bent knees, as if pushing a heavy weight ahead of her, growling loudly at the seeming effort.
The angry figure let out a clipped cry as the leader of the masked delegation suddenly waved a casual hand in her direction, blasting her from the side with another powerful gust that knocked her sideways off of her feet. She fell heavily to the deck as her disheveled grass cape and skirt crumpled around her, her mask flying off and bouncing down the planks of the boardwalk.
A middle aged female dog
with brown and white mottled fur was revealed, grey around the
muzzle, with her white streaked hair in tight braids between her
dangling, gold and cowrie shell festooned ears. She pushed herself up
on one elbow and looked at the one that had knocked her down with a
turmoil of anger, fear, and misery etched on her face.
Her voice sounded a plaintive note as the breeze died down to absolute stillness under the quiet night sky. "<H-honored Sister! Why? Why do you do this?>"
The remaining figures kept their eyes on Dorothy, who stood in the slashed tatters of her lavender slip and patent leather shoes, with the black straps and dull metal of her hideout-rig mechanisms visible on her forearms, and The Eye of the Guardians gleaming on the ragged scarf around her neck. Her ice blue eyes opened, and she stared impassively at the delegation.
The lead figure gave a short toss of her masked head, rattling the trailing kapok in the sudden silence. "<Go home and comfort thy son, Lakea daughter of Lakala. We need Wise Ones in this place, not Prideful Ones.>" Her voice took on a gentler edge. "<We will look in on you both after Morning Song tomorrow.>"
The canine's eyes brimmed with tears. As she opened her mouth to reply, a rustle of wind began to pick up around the boardwalk once more, dying back down as she let out a choked sob and climbed painfully to her feet, stumbling as she ran past the line of shrouded figures and vanished into the night.
Dorothy barely acknowledged her as she kept her gaze fixed on the leader. "That's one down, four more to go..."
The masked figure at the vanguard took a step forward and spoke in Westcommon. "You fight well, and use the truth as a weapon."
The feline's tail waved gently back and forth, with just the slightest bit of bristling at it's root to indicate she was under any stress at all. Her face was expressionless. "The truth doesn't need to hurt. I mean you, your islands, and your people no harm. That is the truth."
A gust of wind rustled the delegation's grass skirts as the leader spoke. "One may mean no harm yet still do harm, as our poor Lakea has done in choosing to walk a guarding circle around her son rather than walk beside him in guidance. What would you do here?"
At this, Dorothy sighed. "I would get some much needed sleep, then get up tomorrow and climb aboard the plane I've chartered, and take it where I'm called to go."
The masked figure inclined her head. "And where are you called, outlander?"
The tabby replied in a
clear, steady voice. "I'm called where justice must be served,
where evil doers go unseen and must be revealed, and where the
innocent suffer in darkness and must be brought to the light. That is
my calling, as it was for my predecessors before me."
As she spoke, several figures materialized faintly in the air around her, all female, all feline. A proud lioness in a toga and cloak, a demure, golden furred neko in priestess robes bearing a nine ringed staff, a white furred, black haired feline in old fashioned high collared dress and bustle, a she cat with long golden braids, wearing a chain mail hauberk over her long skirt and bearing a round shield painted with an eye motif, a black furred female in the simple dress and apron of a medieval goodwife, a graceful clouded leopard clad in a sari, and many more that hovered less distinctly around the brown furred female, each one wearing the eye shaped brooch similar to the one that glittered and gleamed around Dorothy's throat.
One of the other masked figures reared her head back incredulously, rattling the grass of her cape, and spoke Spontoonie in hushed tones. "< Blessing of protection from the gods fall upon us and our hearths. This one wears a spirit shrine about her neck as if it were a tailfast charm. >"
The lead figure nodded in reply. "<It is true, but the strands it is woven from are long indeed. This is an old thing. It is of the time before the scattering of this land. Before the mis-done ritual that unmade many things.>"
The figure who had been standing next to the banished Lakea nervously swished her slightly frizzed tail as she spoke. "<Does this one bring such unmaking in her hands?>"
The leader stared hard through her mask at the luminous eyed tabby standing before her. Presently, she shook her head decisively, and spoke to Dorothy in solemn Westcommon. "The burden you bear is an ancient one, O Sister, as we can see on the faces of those spirits who stand round you. It has wandered across many lands, through times of trouble and times of calm, and shall wander farther. We shall bar your way no longer."
The brown furred tabby bowed her head, as the shades around her nodded in satisfaction and faded into thin air. "T-thank you."
With that the leader of the delegation raised a hand, her fur a rich golden brown, and gave a brief wave. As one, with capes and skirts rustling, the other figures turned and glided into the darkness out of the circle cast by the electric light.
The leader paused as she turned, facing her serene mask toward Dorothy with her head cocked quizzically. "A question, o wayfarer, if I may. What does your mother think of the path that you now tread?"
The feline bit her lip, as a look of sadness crossed her face. As her luminous eyes began to lose their luster, pools of tears forming at their edge, she spoke in a cracking voice. "She... fears for me, and she prays for me. She... she grieves for me, and for the loss of who and what I was before I began my journey. There is much she doesn't know, and can never know lest it drive her mad with greater fear. I can't go back to comfort her, as I must keep moving forward. There are others that need me more."
The figure turned back and crossed the space rapidly, with the barest sound coming from her cape and skirt, until she came to a stop in front of the startled feline. With a golden brown hand she reached up and raised the mask back atop her head, revealing a gently smiling muzzle of white in the shadows beneath the carved wooden face, with the faintest hint of glittering golden eyes above it. The Wise One reached up and ran a hand down her jaw line with the faintest, most delicate touch the feline had felt since she'd last been in Noreaston, now so far away.
The golden eyes gleamed warmly, with a touch of wistfulness flitting across the shadowed features. "Always it is so with children. You may guide them, but you cannot keep them, and one day they run down the path ahead of you, forever out of your reach." The shrouded figure let out a soft sigh. "We too shall pray for you. Go your difficult way, Dorothy Pearl, until you find the blessing of peace once more."
A sob sounded in Dorothy's throat as the mask fell back into place and the grass shrouded figure turned, and in a few steps had vanished into the night with her cohorts.
Dorothy sank slowly to her knees, which shook along with the rest of her limbs as she finally allowed her tail to frizz out like a bottle brush. She felt the gentle touch of a hand on her shoulder, and looked up to see Jane Early standing beside her, looking down at her solicitously. She turned her tear stained face upward with a glazed look in her eyes.
The doe crouched down next to her, proffering her lost hat to her. "Y'all look like y'all could use a rest, darlin'. Lets git on back t' th' hotel. Can y'all walk?"
The feline nodded haltingly and rose to her feet, her slender, brown furred body shivering in the cool of the night under the thin, clinging tatters of her lavender slip. The rabbit placed the hat on her head and threw an arm around her hunched shoulders as she led her down the boardwalk through the still night air.