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In the muffled darkness, Tla'a heard the hissing passage of scales against the dry earth, and knew what came. The snake was called tercio pelo in the strange tongue of the Outsiders, named for it's velvety scales. It's reputation caused hunters, even those who went for the meat of anything they could find, to avoid the giant serpents at all costs. Many believed the venom built up behind it's fangs, until it was forced to bite. Outsiders said that it could stalk and chase a human being, and that even the fastest runner could not outdistance the huge serpent when it whipped at full speed through the trees. As if that wasn't enough, the venom of the tercio pelo was known to dissolve her victims, muscle and bone, their bodies reduced down to skin bags of dark jelly. No few Outsiders had died in this terrible way, as they cut and chewed their way deeper into the verdant realm of the great living totems.
But for those called los Adentros, and to Tla'a in particular, the venom of the she-serpent did something else altogether.
The soft, velvety skin brushed dryly against Tla'a's naked hide, who sat very still, with her lean arms around her knees. Stilling her soft chant, she surrendered to the cold embrace, and waited. She felt the hard nose bump her, as huge loops of the powerful body circled around her body, and the soft armored skin slithered over her own. Finally, completely enveloped and with a racing heart, she felt the tiny whips of the forked tongue lash across the faded tattoo on her cheek.
There was a sting as the enormous fangs slipped gently into her neck, and then a river of ice coursed through her blood. Very quickly, Tla'a felt the warmth of life stealing away from her aged body, first her aching feet and hands, then her legs, until the coldness reached her heart... and old Tla'a, venerable sorceress of her people and priestess to Gaea, simply stopped being alive.
With no idea how she got there, Tla'a abruptly found herself at the feet of the goddess, who wore a mask to hide her face.
From behind the mask, an old woman's voice spoke sternly. "Tla'a. You really have got to let me show you a different way to travel!"
Tla'a suddenly found herself on her feet, but was careful to keep her head lower than the goddess'. She was shocked at the informal tone of the divine words being uttered. It occurred to her that the masked deity might be addressing someone else, and she looked around. But the sorceress was alone with the goddess, in an empty, misty world of faded moonlight.
A finger of the divine hand pushed her chin up a little higher. The black eyes behind the mask were calm, almost gentle. "You would know better than to affect reverence with me, if you had visited more often..." The mask shook at the sorceress, vaguely menacing. Tla'a noticed that the mask was not made very well, pieces of it were even falling off. ...that is strange... She stood up straighter, hiding her curiosity so as not to seem rude, and found her head was level with the entity before her.
"That's better." Gaea said, "Now, shall we talk about why you are here?"
Tla'a found her voice, found that she was able to talk freely, as if speaking a magical language she suddenly understood. "We are being annihilated by Outsiders and their dragons, who are eating the world. What few of us that are still free, hide in the ruins above, in your ancient sanctuary." Tla'a broke from her recitation, and sighed. "I know I should have visited more. We have not come to the lair of the she-serpent since I was a girl."
"That's all right, dear." A dark skinned hand reached out and patted Tla'a on the side of her arm, in a greeting familiar to the women of her people. "I know you've had your reasons for wanting to keep the temple location a secret until now. If you didn't have to die, you would probably have dropped by much more than you have! It's all right, Tla'a, I just miss your people sometimes. They are one of my best kept secrets, did you know that?"
Tla'a pursed her lips and looked down.
"Didn't think so. Well, your people are keepers of an ancient secret."
"Yes, Goddess." Tla'a hesitated, then ventured out, "If a simple one might ask, what ancient secret do we possess?"
The mask shook silently for a moment, and Tla'a was startled to overhear a vivid snort. "It's Gaea. Well, it is a very old secret, and difficult to explain."
The old woman's head went down. "I meant no disrespect, Goddess," she nearly whispered.
"Ooops, sorry. I didn't mean to get goddessy. It's just that some things are hard to explain. Let's just say that your people play a very important role simply by being alive. Now, then." A thin hand squeezed her own. "Lighten up, okay? You're giving me a complex. Let's talk some strategy."
"Yes, Goddess." Tla'a tried to look relaxed, and failed. This was how she remembered the goddess, from a brief encounter during her initiation rites. The goddess clearly did not come from her people, who would have treated this conversation with grave formality. Gaea talked about the destiny of Tla'a's people as if she were discussing what she had planned for dinner. She decided she would have to ponder these things later, the goddess was talking again. The goddess seemed to be talkative.
"...Tla'a, you have been a good leader of your people, you have kept them deep Inside, away from the roads and the bulldozers...but you have no place left to take them. Now you must fight back."
In the deepest of silences that followed these remarkable words, Tla'a did not speak, though she wanted to say the word out loud.... Bulldozer.
Finally, the goddess said something to the sorceress that shattered her world and reformed it again, brand new. "Outside, Tla'a, the world has begun to lean in a direction not of my preference." It was a shock, that the goddess would concern herself with the affairs of Outsiders. Tla'a gaped and listened for all she was worth. In the oral tradition of her people, she memorized every word the goddess spoke, for recitation later. If she ever saw her people again.
"...and so I realized that something has gone wrong with the alignment of all human-kind, and I cannot seem to get things straightened out again with my usual hands-off, wait-and-see, everything-in-its-own-time approach." The aged voice cracked with strain and the proud mask seemed to sag. The eyes lost their gleam behind the mask, and they did not notice the surprise on Tla'a's face, who had never contemplated the possibility that a goddess might have limitations.
"Normally, I don't involve myself with these things." the goddess mused, "And I always expected some few mortals would develop the capacity for atrocity." Then the mask raised somewhat, lifting it's chin. "But I thought the counter-balance would be the great strength of mortals: the drive to enlighten themselves. Or so I thought. But in the last few decades, the atrocities heap higher while enlightenment seems to have become just another commodity that only the very rich can afford. It was a completely unexpected development. Then, I figured out what was happening. A lesser-goddess has been conducting some very naughty experiments. "
Tla'a found herself unable to misunderstand the goddess' words, due to the clarity of the magical language between them. But the meanings were so terrifying and profound that she was getting a headache, which also surprised her, since she was dead.
"Everything's all screwed up, Tla'a. Nothing seems to work right anymore. They looked so promising with all the invention and the technology, and then it all just started to go bad! And there aren't any more heroes. There used to be quite a few, but they just stopped being born, for some reason." Gaea took a deep breath and let it out. After heartbeat or two she continued, calm again. "I sure appreciate you being such a good listener. There are so few left that can carry on a decent conversation...the Olympians are all debauching themselves with synthetic ambrosia and mortal sex clubs..."
The sorceress was beginning to realize the old goddess just needed to talk things through with someone, and that she didn't have to listen quite as hard. She chose her words carefully, almost conversationally, trying to comfort the troubled divinity. "We had heroes once, ones who were great fighters... and who had strong hearts."
"Where are your fighters now, Tla'a?" The goddess tone was soft.
"Killed by the dragons, the bulldozers, crushed beneath their long feet, or shot. Now we keep the fighters for hunting only, and we do not attack."
The goddess snapped her fingers, which Tla'a noticed had some arthritis in the joints, just like her own. "Exactly! You demonstrate my point!" then Gaea uttered an oath that shocked Tla'a down to the soles of her toughened feet. "I could have kept the heroes from dying out if I had seen to it that two in particular had become immortal. Those two of mine could make a scoundrel into a hero, a tyrant into a saint! They did it everywhere they went! By now they'd have made thousands! Do you know Tla'a, Outside they believe in murderers more than heroes! More than goddesses! Can you believe it?"
At that moment, Tla'a didn't really know what to believe about anything in the world, which she was beginning to suspect may not be on the back of a turtle shell, after all. She discovered a little trick of canceling out the goddess' voice by carrying on a chant just below the level of hearing. It muted and softened the images that flowed out of the goddess' words. Tla'a sighed and took a breath to steady herself.
Gaea had taken note of Tla'a's struggle for composure. "Sorry. I forget. I'll try to be more gentle."
"Divine One," The sorceress spoke through a haze, still sorting out her comprehension of the predicament... "Can you not bring them back, your two heroes?"
The goddess seemed to catch her breath and she said, "Not as immortals, as I wish I had once done. And, Devoted One, it would be you who brings them."
"I?" The old woman gaped directly into the eye apertures of the silly mask.
"Yes, dear Tla'a. You can open a gate, and I can show you how. But we will have to catch them when they are not on a mission. They were always on a mission, even well into their old age."
The goddess seemed to think for a moment, then nodded and proclaimed, "I know just the right time! Once, while in an extreme state of arousal, the magical one had an unfortunate allergy attack and sneezed across several dozen timelines, causing a few of them to shake out a little kinky. The wavy lines endure into this present time, and they are a way to snag a remnant of the empath and her warrior companion. Our gate to them is through a place where the lines cross themselves, as they wobble along."
Tla'a was fascinated as well as a little nauseated. "You will bring her here? Has she been initiated?"
"No, and that won't be necessary any more. Please do not let my reptilian messenger bite or birth anyone else! She can go visit the logging camps."
"Yes, goddess." That was clear enough, Tla'a thought.
"You know, I think meeting the warrior in particular will be very good for you, Tla'a. She can take irreverence to a whole new level."
"Yes goddess." Tla'a's face cracked a tiny smile. "How will the people find you if we do not use the she-serpent?"
"If you are up for it, I will just come right through you, Tla'a."
"Yes, goddess. Right through me."
"No, Tla'a. That's not what I mean. Consider the feeling you will have as another shares your mind and body...and then decide. I will not accept your compliance, only you're thoughtful denial or acceptance. You must be able to retain who you are, while I am within you."
Tla'a thought about her choices. "If you are to come through me, then I will be returned to the living?"
"Yes, you will return to life once again, whatever you decide. And Tla'a, I will arm you with your old youth, strength and beauty. You may have to fight in unexpected ways ill-suited for an old woman."
That got the old sorceress' attention. Her hands had begun to give her pain even when at rest, and she couldn't carry as many roots from the digging as she used...a young strong woman would help her people survive...
"I will be strong again? Like I once was?"
"Yes, loyal one. You will need all your strength to save your people. And you will need the strongest heart to survive the shock that my awareness will bring you."
Tla'a knew the goddess awaited her answer. It really wasn't a question of getting back her youth, Tla'a wasn't sure she wanted to live a whole new life. It was a question of saving her people from extinction. "You are welcome to live within me, goddess. You honor me. Is it always my choice?"
"Absolutely, Tla'a, but once you have the knowledge I will bring you, you will never be the same. Fortunately, I will leave you alone, most of the time. You will have a lot of work to do and I will need to get out of your way. Are you sure now?"
"Yes, I am sure, goddess." Tla'a suddenly noticed the face painted on the mask was smiling. She frowned, thinking it was a very gaudy and undignified mask. She would have to make a new one, because she would never put such a thing on her own face, and it might come to that the way things were looking...
"Where did you get that mask?" she asked.
"Disneyland," was Gaea's reply, the single word setting off a landslide of staggering images and animated scenes.
"I'm going to have to learn how to stop asking so many questions," she commented, her headache throbbing, "but I will make you a new mask."
"Now you're learning!" was the goddess reply, "Thank you, Tla'a. But the mask won't be necessary...you see..." And she swept the mask back, revealing her face. Tla'a had never looked into a mirror in all her long life, but she knew she gazed into her own eyes.
"You won't be sorry." And to the uttermost astonishment of the venerable sorceress Gaea, wearing her own face, leaned forward and kissed her full on the mouth... and Tla'a knew no more.
For an ageless moment, all Xena knew was the closeness of Gabrielle's body, as they drifted through the starry night. Then gradually, as the stars dimmed and winked out, she felt the solid earth form beneath her, and the soft flesh of Gabrielle press in on her from above. As the last star's light was extinguished, there was a soft rasping that passed by very close, then there was only the sounds of breathing.
Someone was laying on top of them. This was a bad thing for Xena, who was on the bottom of the heap with a broken rib, not to mention a few other sore spots that awakened along with her consciousness.
Groping in the dark, she found a second set of arms, and one embarrassed hand found a full and heavy breast that was definitely not Gabrielle's. She levered the load off by raising a hip, and holding onto Gabrielle. The other woman rolled off limply, all arms and legs from the feel of it, and noisily smacked against something hard in the darkness.
Trying to move carefully, she sat up with Gabrielle still in her arms. The pain in her ribs was sharp, and in the dark she found and activated a pressure point, suddenly able to breath much easier. She leaned down, guessing, and in the dark her mouth found her beloved's easily.
Gabrielle had a way of waking up when kissed. "Xena?" A small hand reached up and found the bracer on her arm. "Xena. Hmmm...." She purred, both hands began a more thorough search of the warrior's body.
"You okay?" Xena asked, her voice gruff as if from a long sleep.
"Okay...." One of the hands found her face and cupped the warrior's cheek. "Is there any water...?" Gabrielle croaked.
"Sure, hang on." Xena found the water bag, still tied to Gabrielle's body, and brought it around to her thirsty mouth. When her fingers felt the lips part for the water, she gave the bag a gentle squeeze, filling Gabrielle's mouth before raising it up again. "That's it...roll it around in your mouth..." the long fingers still explored Gabrielle's face, "That's right."
Gabrielle held the water in her mouth a moment longer before swallowing it in several delicious gulps, and closed her eyes. It made the darkness seem more natural, and Xena's fingers on her face made her remember how once, on a sunny lawn in a beautiful Athenian garden, Xena had held her in her lap, stroked her face with one hand and loved her gently and thoroughly with the other. She snuggled her face into Xena's chest, and thought about going back to sleep with that on her mind...
They heard the other woman stir nearby. First, they heard a couple of odd sounds that were half grunt, half scream, some soft scrabbling sounds, and then a high-pitched moan that trailed on without ending.
Like a sick animal, the woman keened.
Gabrielle sat bolt upright and wide awake in Xena's arms at the sound, as if called by a Siren, and felt her way over to the woman's side.
Keeping in touch with Gabrielle in the dark, Xena crouched behind, her fingers around the bard's waistband. She reached above her head as far as it would go, and felt nothing. Daring to stand, but keeping her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, she rose to a crouch, then felt something brush against her back. Reaching up she found a lacy tree root and above that she dislodged some dirt, which fell directly into her cleavage.
"Gah!" the warrior cursed, during a lull in the noise the woman was making. "We're underground! There has to be a tunnel or something!" Shaking the dirt out of her hair, she hissed down at Gabrielle, who stroked the unseen hand and tried to figure out if the woman was injured. "Have you got the flint?"
"Yes, hang on, I'll get it...it's in my goat bag..." And so Xena, rolling her eyes under the cover of darkness, was treated to the familiar clinking and clunking sounds of Gabrielle going through her treasured goat bag. The warrior's keen hearing picked up on the clang of the calf bell (Gabrielle tied it to the fishing pole, so she could write poetry somewhere else, and leave it to Xena to actually catch the fish), the jingle of spoons, the sections of her staff clacking together, the muffled chink of the Amazon accessories rolled up in her royal clothes, some pan pipes (audible only because Gabrielle couldn't resist one little toot) , the fish hooks, "Ouch!"... the clunk of the fry pan... The prized bag was made from the entire skin of an unfortunate goat, it's legs made into straps, it's butt hole sewn up tight. Since the day she bought it in some forgotten marketplace, Gabrielle had loved that bag and everything that went into it ...which seems like just about everything, lately...the warrior thought, wryly.
The animal-like keening had reduced down to a strangled whimper. When she awoke, from a most profound sleep, Alice had found herself not in her bed, or in any bed at all. It was to an absolute pitch black she opened her eyes, and it was dirt she lay upon.
"Here it is!" Gabrielle struck a big spark off the flint-stone into the box of tender, the small flame just barely lighting her face, as she nursed it skillfully. As the tiny flame grew, the space around them became vaguely illuminated, and they could make out dim shapes on the floor.
The warrior almost whistled, looking down at the woman stretched out nearby. "She's... she's really..." she faltered and cleared her throat.
"Wow," said Gabrielle, finishing Xena's thought for her, "She's beautiful!"
And beautiful Alice was, a white and cold beauty, even in that moment of her most vivid terror. But she was wearing the damnedest clothing they had ever seen. And she wasn't listening to a word they were saying. Her pale eyes looked around frantically, and found nothing more than a bag of something from Margaret's gear in the garage. She clutched it to her body greedily.
"Who is she?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena shrugged and was about to say something, but the words were driven from her mind when the woman emitted an earsplitting shriek.
...Alice, was sure she was experiencing side effects from the prescription drugs she had taken to calm down...just before she went... into the garage-
"The garage!!" she shrieked.
Gabrielle pulled back from the woman, as over her shoulder Xena appeared, bending down to get a closer look at the woman. Lighting the little oil lamp they always traveled with, the bard held it up.
"Something happened in the garage!" Her voice ended in a squeak, as she held her hands up, imploring them. Then, half to herself she said, "I was going to lock the garage door, then I was going to take a nap...am I taking a nap now...? No, I never got to the bedroom..." She looked squarely into their faces, as if proving a point, and said, "Something happened in the-!"
Suddenly her hand violently slapped over her mouth, as Alice got a good look at the strawberry blond she was talking to. Then she saw the warrior's distinctive features in the shadows beyond. Her pupils constricted down to pinpoints, and the ash-blond hair seemed to suddenly spring like lightening from her head. She scuttled backwards on all fours and nearly backed right up the wall of the little den.
"Lucy and Renee look-alikes, right? Right? Not ...not Xena...?" Alice's voice ended in a squeak.
Xena was used to reactions like that, but Gabrielle would never be. As she had with many of the warlord's victim's, the empath bard attended to the woman's shock and fear as if suddenly appointed her personal nurse. "She's Xena all right, the one and only. But she's changed. I know her, and I would trust her with my very life. One of my favorite stories about her is about the time she found this baby goat and she didn't know how to feed it, and -"
"Gabrielle!" Xena warned.
"Oh my God!" Alice cried up into the root laced ceiling, then cringed at the dangling network of spider webs and tree roots. "This isn't real....this can't be real!"
"Oh no, it's very real," the bard's cast her most soothing story-telling voice "You see, I'm Gabrielle and I've been her companion in the epic travels to redeem her soul. It was I who was there when she..."
"Oh my God!" Alice whimpered hopelessly.
The warrior stepped away from the story, she'd heard it before. She took the little travel lamp and opened all the tiny shutters. Dangling roots cast striped shadows that leaped out from the burrow's darkness. That is when Xena saw a small, naked form, itself nearly the rich brown color of the earthen floor. Moving closer with care not to disturb the webs above them, Xena moved closer to see that she was a small but fully grown woman, curled tightly into a ball near the opening of a small, narrow passageway.
"Gabrielle, there's another woman over here!" she called back softly.
She knelt down beside the woman and observed the details, finding her very finely muscled, with sweet pouting lips, long dark lashes, and a snake freshly tattooed on her cheek. Her hair was a thick, mass of long black curls. She wore no clothing at all, but for a thin string supporting a small jade pendant of an ornately carved snake swallowing it’s own tail. She was wet, covered with a viscous, clear fluid. The warrior supported the small head with one of her big hands, while another felt her neck, finding a strong pulse. She cleared some of the thick fluid away from the nose, mouth and eyes with her fingers, then took the small body fully in her arms as she felt movement. In fact, her touch seemed to awaken the woman, who stirred and opened her eyes, her hands coming up to her face. Xena reached down for the lamp and checked the woman's eyes, but when she saw the left eye was black and the right a clear blue, she nearly dropped the lamp in surprise.
Coming in close again, she stared directly into the exotic face of the strange woman, and saw a warm and familiar awareness dawn in the magical eyes. In this stranger's face, Xena saw the tender love and recognition of an old friend.
"Xena...it's been a long time, my heroic warrior..." The voice cracked with the effort of speaking.
A long moment passed as a grin drifted and played upon the warrior's sublime face. "Gaea?" Xena asked softly, her dark eyebrows arching high, "Are you in there?"
"Yes, dear." The voice was gaining strength. "It's me again. And this is Tla'a, a great sorceress to her people. Could you get me some water?" An eyebrow crooked up at her.
Xena lay her back, took the tiny brown hands in her own and kissed the palms. Crouching over to Gabrielle to get the water bag, she found the bard deeply entangled with the terrified woman, trying hard to console her. "Do we know who she is?" Xena asked, freeing the water bag from Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Get back!" the ash-blond beauty warned, as she clutched the bag of Margaret's gear. "I insist that you let me out of here!"
Alice was convinced that that she was somehow experiencing the effects of a misguided publicity tactic by the Xena TV show, probably as a result of her new web page. Or, she had been involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and was being pumped full of experimental medications. Alice was not coping well with the situation, mostly because she refused to grasp what the situation actually was.
"Her name is Alice. That much I know." Gabrielle said aside to her partner. "Who's the other woman?"
Xena took the water bag from Gabrielle. "Her name is Tla'a. The way out is through that little tunnel near her. We'll have to wiggle along. You up for it?"
Gabrielle looked less than optimistic. "Well, sure. I can do it, I suppose, but what about her?" She jerked her chin towards Alice, cowering against the wall of the burrow.
"Well, we will have to help her, then."
"If she lets us." she snorted. "Tla'a." The bard sounded the name out slowly on her tongue, making the air stop in her throat when she pronounced it, the way Xena had done. "What a strange name... where is she from?"
"I don't know where we are much less where Tla'a is from, but I can tell you she's got Gaea in there with her." Xena smiled as Gabrielle's ears jumped back in surprise. She loved it when Gabrielle's ears jumped. "I'll tell you the rest later...first we've got to get out of here." Carefully, so as not to bump anything, she turned around and brought the water bag to Tla'a.
Gabrielle turned, smiled sweetly at Alice, and began trying to persuade her that her nightmare would go much more pleasantly if she actually was outside the cave...
Across the room, Xena smiled down at Tla'a. "You know," she said, as she poured water into Tla'a's mouth, "This is the best one yet."
The sorceress pulled herself up to a sitting position with the help of the warrior's strong arms, and took the water bag. A look of shock and then pleasure passed across her face as she saw her hands, young, smooth and free of the swelling in the joints..."The best one what, Xena?"
"The best entrance."
"Really?" Gaea spoke as Tla'a wrung her hands till her knuckles popped, an rare smile raced across her dark face.
"Yep." Xena nodded, handing her a cloth to wipe herself with. "In a subtle way, better than the mountain top."
"You think the volcano entrance wasn't better? I mean, morphing Sibyl out of the wall like that ...never mind, you were in no condition to notice." She lifted her legs out of a small pool of the fluid that clung to her body,
"Oh!" Tla'a exclaimed in joy when she got a good look at her feet, young and perfect..
Xena looked upon the woman, who seemed to be just getting used to the presence of a goddess inside her. "You know, it's only been a few months since we left Sibyl's. You must miss us awful bad to find a whole new priestess, and to open a gate... and summon us, all for a few laughs...?"
Tla'a found she was keeping up with this conversation remarkably well, as long as the goddess was within her to explain things. She liked the enormous warrior woman, and insisted that the goddess choose her next words very carefully.
Gaea had not been so careful about her choice of words in any language for the last few decades, and Tla'a's reproach reminded the goddess of more gracious days.
"Xena," She spoke with care. "You and Gabrielle have traveled forward in time. It's been over two thousand years since I've seen you."
Xena's face darkened. "So... we're dead? What are you up to?" She looked around the burrow, puzzled. This wasn't Tartarus, the Elysian fields, the underworld, the netherworld, the otherworld... she didn't recognize any landmarks. "Where are we?"
"You're not dead. Not yet. But if we don't get out of this burrow we may end up that way. This is someone else's home, and that someone is a tad grumpy."
"Oh? Who lives here?" The warrior's mind filled with possibilities.
"A she-serpent, our protector, and emissary to the goddess." Xena identified Tla'a measured voice.
The warrior decided that getting out of there made perfect sense, if nothing else did, and without the best of manners got the little group gathered at the entrance of the passage.
The unlikely group of women lined up in the order they would crawl through the tunnel. First went Tla'a, and her expert wiggling took her feet quickly out of sight, up into the gloom of the dark tunnel.
Next went Gabrielle, who grimaced a little as she thrust her body up into the hole, her butt wiggling a bit more than Xena thought was necessary. A muffled protest came back, as the bard also disappeared. "I want a good bath after this...!"
Then Alice was alone in the burrow with Xena and it was her turn. She had propped her bag by the tunnel entrance, as if she expected a porter to pop out of the hole and carry it up for her.
Leaning in, without getting too close, Xena said as tactfully as she could, "You'll have to push it up the tunnel ahead of you."
Sulking a little, Alice dipped her face into the darkness of the opening, then withdrew in disgust. "I don't think you understand how big this lawsuit is going to be if you make me crawl up that tunnel." She said, smiling at the warrior.
"Here," Xena ordered, not impressed, "take the lantern, I'll push your bag out for you." Taking the bundle, she handed Alice the travel lamp, who took it carefully in flinching fingers.
Sniffing slightly, thinking she would play along for just a moment more, she held the light into the opening, and could just see Gabrielle's boots disappear from view.
"In you go!" Xena grasped the woman's bottom in both hands and gave a well aimed shove.
Alice would eventually learn that to hesitate around Xena when she was in a hurry was always a bad idea. Suddenly, she was wedged headfirst up into the hole, barely keeping the lamp upright ahead of her. Her chin bumped into the dirt, but she couldn't get her other arm up from alongside her body to brush it off.
It was, she thought, the worst day of her life.
She had to worm her way along, on the points of her toes, knees, and hips. Her neatly buttoned shirt and vest protected her chest well, but her jeans scooped earth by the shovel full as she slithered along. Finally, she got into a little space where she could sit up a bit, but the next hole was even smaller...
Then, her bag popped out through the passageway, followed by the smudged and irritated face of the warrior woman, torn roots dragging from the edges of her armor. Alice couldn't bring herself to call her Xena...
"Go, Alice! We've got to get out of here!" Xena was sure she had overheard the soft whisper of scales against earth, just as she had entered the passage.
"I'm moving, I'm moving! I think I'm doing very well, under the circumstances!" Alice decided it was time to set a limit with something tangible, and resolved to take her own good time.
Xena glared dangerously at the icy woman before her, then her quick fingers reached up and stiffened on Alice's elbow in an excruciatingly painful grip. "Alice. This burrow we are in belongs to a really big snake, and it's in this tunnel behind me, right now. Now, how much longer are you going to make me wait with a big, big snake at my heels?" The warrior's grip on her elbow tightened.
Alice gasped "All right!", her resolve a distant memory, and wedged her long frame up into the next tunnel, no more than the narrowest of cracks between stones. This time she held both arms in front of her and worked her way up and out only inch by painful inch. Every now and then she heard a muffled yell and felt the bag push against her feet. All she could think was she would make someone pay for her indignities. As it always had, her anger kept her going, in spite of the fear.
After what seemed like an eternity, she glimpsed light and movement, and knew her ordeal was almost over. She wondered, might the press be waiting outside? She started preparing a statement of her outrage and contempt for shallow and dangerous publicity stunts and inched closer and closer to the light.
Tla'a's people were still waiting at the burrow's entrance, having held vigil there through the night, listening for any sound of her return. The choice to permit their sorceress to risk herself had been brought on by only the utmost need. Many of those who waited were close kin and elders, who knew that if Tla'a was lost, so were they all.
They all heard the muffled sounds coming from the passage and gathered closer to see. Their soft murmurs rose into excited yelps and calls to others to come quickly.
But, their voices fell to a hush, and they backed away, as Tla'a wriggled up out of the gloom wearing the long forgotten face of her girlhood. Covered with earth and the afterbirth of her return, she stood tall among her people and let them look full upon her body. After a moment of quiet silence, the eldest of her people cried out in triumph, leading the people in a victory chant.
But with a small gesture Tla'a silenced them all, and tried to prepare them for who came next. Gaea had for the moment abandoned her with this task, and she did not really know how to explain. She simply said, "More come to help us." And gestured as Gabrielle's face appeared, wide eyed, in the opening.
After skinning her knee on a jagged stone right at the entrance, Gabrielle found herself surrounded by a crowd of smaller, dark people like Tla'a, talking in a soft language of clicks and puffs of air. They crowded in close, touching the fabric of her kilt, her hair. She stayed still and looked over their heads, surprised she was taller than so many other people, and found her in an overgrown old ruin, under a broad stone ceiling. Outside, through the curtain of vines, she saw the sunlight filtering through a huge, old forest. Gabrielle realized fully then she wasn't in Greece, anymore.
Alice came next, looking through the collected people as if she was expecting someone else.
"One who's destiny is yet to be known!" Tla'a announced, feeling this would have to do. The looks on the faces of her people were not to be forgotten, as they watched the impossibly tall, pale woman extract herself from the burrow.
But the biggest surprise of the moment belonged to Alice, who finally took in one or two true glimpses of her surroundings, and who sidled in beside Gabrielle with eyes like moons, shaking the dirt out of her jeans.
Gabrielle looked up at Alice and commented, "You're a tall drink of water, aren't you?"
Alice looked down at Gabrielle and blinked at the familiar, if impossible face.
Quiet murmurings formed into a single word, repeated by many soft voices, "Ghost!", and they chattered and laughed about the pale spirit, who pretended not to hear or see them.
Tla'a laughed along, but her mood had become somber as she looked upon her gentle people with the brilliant clarity of her new knowledge. She could not share their joy with the magical events taking place. She could only wonder about the desperate battle that they must wage to save themselves.
Suddenly, Tla'a was sent an urgent warning from Gaea. She cried out the words even as she heard them, "Back! Get Back!" She pushed at Alice, who was slow to react.
The ground around the hole seemed to swell rapidly then collapse down again. Alice's bag flew out of the hole, and then Xena's arm reached out and tried to grab onto a rock, but it dropped back down into the darkness as if it had been yanked.
There was another long silence, and Gabrielle edged closer to the burrow, quickly assembling her staff.
Then, with a tearing sound Xena was propelled out of the hole, earth and stones exploding around her, and held high above their heads by an enormous serpent that had swallowed the warrior up to her hips. It tossed her as it tried to gulp down another stretch of her body. But Xena's progress down the viper's gullet stopped; her scabbard had hung up on the edge of the gaping white mouth.
"Xena! Hang on!" Gabrielle cried, and whacked the snake on the head with her staff.
"Ow!" Xena's face loomed close, "Gabrielle! I'm inside the snake, do you mind?" and she was pulled away again, drawing her sword.
The brave bard wound up to deliver a lower blow when in a blur, the staff was snatched from her hands, and Gaea barked, "Just hold it right there, hotshot!"
Gabrielle winced, thinking the words were meant for her.
Alice winced, mostly because she was in the habit of wincing.
Tla'a winced because the irreverent words coming out of her own mouth referred to the demigod serpent, but since it was the goddess herself speaking, Tla'a had to assume it was all right. It was a tricky moment for the woman of the forest.
The snake stopped in her track, refusing to wince. With her mouth full of Xena, the she-serpent turned to the sorceress and stared innocently, if a snake can be said to stare innocently.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" Gaea demanded of the errant serpent.
Everyone there listened in whatever language they understood, and heard nothing but Gaea talking. But clearly, a conversation was going on between the snake and the sorceress.
The snake shook it's head furiously, and Xena’s body waggled.
"I'm sorry, but that's my final word on the subject!"
Looking closely up at the snake, Gabrielle saw it loosen it's hold on her lover somewhat.
Xena gripped the sides of the huge white mouth and began to pull herself out, gingerly avoiding the fangs, which were thankfully folded back. As she worked to free herself, the snake lowered her to the ground and in one messy convulsion, she was expelled. After taking a moment to get it's jaws lined up right again, the serpent moved, sweeping it's head back and forth, through the parted crowed and out into the jungle.
All Alice could think of, as the enormous serpent practically slid across her filthy loafers was that it's markings looked just like the capitol letter A repeated along the beast's flanks.... "AAAAAAAAAAAAAA..." it screamed silently.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out, rushing to her beloved and throwing her arms around her waist. "I was getting worried!" She had actually been terrified, of course.
The warrior's arm found it's way around the bard and squeezed her tightly, keeping a dark eye on Alice.
"...Xena...you're..." Gabrielle wriggled, realizing her lover was covered with a clear slime.
But Xena wasn't letting go. "You aren't much of a clean squeeze yourself, m'love!" the warrior grinned saucily, tightening her hold on the bard. In a sultry voice just for Gabrielle's ear, "Besides, as you pointed out back in that root cellar...I'm a little into bondage and domination today..."
"Tell that to the snake." Gabrielle deadpanned back, and smiled as Tla'a approached them, wearing one of Gaea's expressions.
"I am so sorry about that Xena!" Gaea said, "She just got into a snit when she found out I didn't need her to bite or birth any more sorceresses."
"You keep such interesting pets, Gaea." Xena commented dryly, deciding to save any questions about the biting and birthing of sorceresses. She looked around and said, "Why don't you let Tla'a finish with the introductions so she can tell us where we can get a bath?"
On the footpath to the water they walked, still in the order of their departure from the burrow: Tla'a, Gabrielle, Alice, and Xena. Behind them, life in the ruined temple folded back into the routines of life. Not that Tla'a's people weren't impressed with what had just happened, but they were more accustomed to miracles than Outsiders. And they still had to make a living.
The sounds of insects buzzed all around them as they walked. The warrior watching the haughty woman ahead of her, noticing the details of how she carried herself, and the strange clothing she wore.
Alice walked carefully, avoiding the touch of vegetation along the narrow way, and waving at gnats that hovered persistently in a cloud around her high head.
"Not used to this sort of thing, are you?" The warrior queried in a sugary tone, the smile on her face aimed directly at a spot of dirt between Alice's shoulder blades. "Tunnels and snakes, I meant. Not baths."
Alice had been noticing how hot and sticky she was, away from the deeper shade of the temple stones, and how much dirt was still in her underwear. The willowy blond spun around and confronted the powerful warrior, who stepped back and raise her eyebrows virtuously, her lips pursed. "Listen Lucy, or Xena, or whatever you want to call yourself!" Alice spat, " Just leave me out of your plans. Soon as I can find someone with a car or a lawyer, I'm out of here!" and she spun on her heel and stalked up the trail, leaving Xena behind trying hard not to laugh.
The bathing area turned out to be a shallow creek, with a few spots just deep enough to sit in. Alice stood rooted to the ground in horror; she had expected at least a Port-a-Potty... Tla'a continued up stream, while Xena and Gabrielle quickly chose a small pool, and began taking their boots off.
She watched the women begin to undress each other, and found herself unable to tear her gaze away from the tender ritual. Gabrielle talking softly, as her nimble fingers worked the buckles of the armor, and Xena waiting patiently.
As if on a signal, they turned as one and looked at Alice, Gabrielle's expression neutral and Xena's hostile.
She backed into the vegetation, and followed the thin footpath that Tla'a had just taken. But a short way upstream she stopped, alone for the first time since she had fallen into the hole in her garage. Sitting on a boulder beside the little brook, Alice watched a tiny turtle pull itself up out of a pool and finally started thinking.
As she thought, she held a cupped hand of water to her nose and sniffed suspiciously. Deciding her chances of catching a disease were much higher if she didn't wash her hands, she dipped them both into the cool stream and began to scrub. She thought about the warrior and the bard and picked clay out from under her nails. She thought about the warrior and the bard as she eased her loafers off. She thought about the warrior and the bard as she rinsed out her thin gray socks.
She realized with no comfort that she thought of them as the warrior and the bard, not as actresses, or look-alikes ...great, now I believe in my own hallucinations...
Risking the embarrassment of being seen undressed, she stripped off her jeans, now more camouflage than blue. After a quick glance around, she also removed her panties, and found they were too filthy to wear again. These she rinsed, wrung out, folded and tucked discretely into a back pocket. By that time, she realized, it hardly mattered if she opened up her vest and unbuttoned her shirt. She rolled the sleeves up to her elbows and knelt in the stream to clean herself, discretely.
Alice was just beginning to comprehend the possibility that she might be stranded in a trackless jungle full of action figures come to life, a remote tribe of native people, and a gigantic hungry snake.
"...So, according to Gaea, this is a bit more than two thousand years into future." The warrior spoke softly as Gabrielle worked on her armor, catching the bard up on the story line while there was a chance to.
Gabrielle thoughtfully looked up and down the stream, as she worked loose Xena's leathers, which seemed extra tight, and mused, "It's not quite what I would have expected in the future. Sibyl made it sound like it would be so much more...well, futuristic. Well, it sure is hot and sticky! The water is going to feel great!"
She turned the battered warrior around and gently eased the leather bodice and her slip down around her hips. With the concern evident on her sweet face, she examined a deep purple bruise concentrated over Xena's ribs. "So, is this from the snake?" She glanced up at Xena through her bangs.
Xena smiled down at her, "No, that would be..." the clothes slipped down to her legs, revealing two more large red marks just forming a bruised ring around her hips. "...that would be these."
Gabrielle knelt and kissed the marks as she guided Xena's feet out of the leather garment.
"And so, where did this first one come from?" She reached up and touched the edge of the dark stain on Xena's ribcage.
"Back in the root cellar. When Datis kicked me."
"The bastard! It's nasty looking."
"It's a cracked rib. It'll be fine in a few days."
"Well, I don't care how fast you heal, tonight you are going to be one stiff hero. She urged the warrior to sit in the water to take the swelling down, shucked her own clothing and waded in after, with a chunk of soap root from the goat bag.
Over their heads the trees echoed with long, haunting bird songs and the deep throated calls of what Tla'a said were harmless "old monkey men." A constant humming-hiss overlay everything, the chatter of the countless insect denizens of the lush green world. Gabrielle tried to pick out individual sounds from the collective whisper, and failed to find more than one or two.
Using clean sand from the bottom of the pool, Xena scrubbed the snake's slime from her legs. She took her turn with the soap-root, washing and rinsing out what she could. Finally, with a deep sigh she lay back, half her bruised body in the cool water, half in Gabrielle's lap, closing her eyes as her lover's hand gently stroked her hair back from her brow.
For the warrior, these moments with her bard were priceless reference points for her dangerous life. There had been times where these very memories had called her back from unspeakable places. All the homelessness, the poverty, the danger, and the sacrifice; every test of her heart or their love; everything seemed to be worthwhile. Xena knew she would fight an army with her bare hands just to earn the right for another lazy interlude with Gabrielle.
The sunny young woman studied the tired, darkly beautiful face in her lap and thought about the woman, beneath the tough exterior of the Warrior Princess. Hooking her hair behind her ears she bent down and pressed her mouth into the dark, parted lips of the Warrior Princess. Her kiss curved into a smile, as she felt a tongue slide softly into her mouth. Gabrielle sucked on it gently.
The warrior found she was in a bit of a hurry as she recalled the bard's naughty behavior in the slaver's root cellar, and she suddenly pivoted around onto Gabrielle's body, pinning her into a soft carpet of fragrant herbage and grass. Reaching down, she grasped the smaller hands, and with some force she brought them up above her head and pinned them there. Then, covering the smaller body with her own, she forced the soft legs apart and pushed her sex up into Gabrielle's.
Gabrielle felt every part of her body tingle and ache where it touched the skin of the warrior. The water lapped against her bottom playfully. They lay this way, their body's pressed and quiescent for many strong heartbeats.
Only then did Xena speak, her voice low and bestial, "So. We are interested in bondage? Is that what we said back there?"
Gabrielle was a bit breathless, what with the weight of a warlord on her and all. She managed to gasp, "Yes, but-"
"And we have an agreement, do we not? That I cannot use overwhelming physical force over you without your consent, am I right?"
Gabrielle thought about the agreement, not actually intended for sex play ...but it does have possibilities... She gazed into the crystals of Xena's eyes, and realized she was exactly where she wanted to be.
"Here's a new rule," the warrior organized. "The absence of any form of objection by you so far is interpreted by me as consent. Henceforth," she dropped her face down beside Gabrielle's and breathed, "Only if you utter the word "Joxer", will it be interpreted by me as objection."
In response, Gabrielle twisted sinuously beneath her.
"Don't move." The warrior demanded, and she waited a bit longer to see if Gabrielle would comply.
Xena, keeping her face a breath away from Gabrielle's cheek, dropped one hand down and pivoted her hips aside, just enough to slip her long fingers inside the slick opening between her lover's legs. Then she dropped her weight back down onto her hand, embedding herself deeper.
With her desire building, Gabrielle found herself well pinned, but nothing more happened for long moments, except the gurgle of water and the buzz of insects. Xena's lips softly tickled the tiny hairs along the edge of Gabrielle's ear.
By reflex only, she squirmed.
The hand retreated from her body. "I said, don't move," the swords-woman growled.
Frozen, Gabrielle groaned and pleaded, and the hand slipped back into it's warm nest.
Finally, agonizingly, Xena began to pump, her hips driving the thrusts, still holding the bard's hands down with one hand. Immobilized and impaled, Gabrielle could only think of her fortune to be so loved by the once so illusive beauty. She groaned with passion, in an agony of desire to return the caresses. In her turn, Gabrielle was in a bit of a hurry as well, having learned at any moment the peace could shatter completely.
Which is exactly what it did, just about then. To her deep dismay, Gabrielle climaxed unexpectedly, with a heart stopping convulsion. "Xena!" she cried out loud, "It's too soon! Oh... oh..."
But Gabrielle's premature orgasm was not what shattered the lover's peace, which was unfortunate, as Xena felt obliged to help Gabrielle reach for a second, more leisurely crisis.
The first sign that something was about to happen, was the tiny line that formed between Xena's eyebrows as she picked up a distant sound. Then hoots and calls from the old monkeys ceased.
Sighing with resignation, Gabrielle knew better than to try and stop her when the powerful woman sat up straight in the water, withdrawing carefully but quickly from her. Then she heard it, too. It was a sound she'd never hear the like of, a whump-whump-whump, like a huge drum. It was moving, each whump sounding closer than the last.
Sending a fan of water splashing around them, Xena leapt to her feet, and Gabrielle was suddenly aware that it was moving towards them, very fast.
They dressed quickly, if not completely. Gabrielle commented wryly as she struggled to get her body into her still wet clothing. "You know this is what I was talking to you about. Before that whole thing happened with the slavers?" She wriggled into her kilt. "The problem with the life of adventure is no privacy, no privacy, no privacy!" She yanked on her boots, as the whumping sound grew into a steady crashing.
Realizing it moved through the air, Xena pulled Gabrielle and their gear into a nook between the buttressed roots of an enormous tree. From their hiding place, they could just glimpse the movement of a dark, insectile form that prowled just over the tree tops, the sound of it's flight a ceaseless and deafening crash.
Looking up, Xena saw the wind of it's flight bent the tree tops ...it doesn't move like a living thing... She observed the blur above it to be a spinning wing. Then she saw what could only be a rack of weapons prickling beneath a pair of glassy windows. Her teeth bared white in a snarl...it's a warship!!...
All at once Alice came crashing through the bushes crying out, holding her clothes together with one hand and waving the other. Her ash white hair and skin blazed like a beacon through the dark forest, and her long legs carried her quickly toward a small clearing in the trees. At some distance, Tla'a ran to intercept her, but she was too far behind.
Gabrielle gawked as Xena dropped armor into her arms and shouted "Stay put!" She raced in pursuit of Alice through the trees at full speed, vaulting and tumbling over downed tree trunks and dense vegetation.
Not staying put, as she was prone to do, Gabrielle ran hard behind, laden by the gear, snarling in the vegetation and belly-flopping over the slimy tree trunks. She was quickly passed by the nimble Tla'a, who's little feet and light body seemed to need no more than small tufts of grass to step on, in the boggy ground they ran over.
The great race came abruptly to an end as the thunderous warship discharged something that exploded with an enormous ball of fire in the clearing ahead. The detonation flung Alice to the ground, and the other three dove for cover as a heated blast blew over them, whipping them with vegetation.
Lying still for a terrible moment, they all heard the cataclysmic sound of the flying machine diminish and then return. It prowled overhead, and seemed to be coming around for another pass, when Tla'a stood up. She raised her hands to the sky in an obvious evocation and a cool blast of wind swept through the forest, carrying with it a wet and earthy scent.
With her weather sense, Gabrielle felt as if the clouds above were stirred by an unseen finger, and then she knew it was about to rain like Poseidon himself had come to reclaim the earth.
The flying warship wheeled abruptly away and made a straight line east, just as the first huge drops began to fall.
Xena got up, rather stiffly, and made her way through the bush to Alice, finding her dazed and uncomprehending. Holding the woman in her arms, Xena pulled her to her feet.
"Why did they shoot at me?" Alice asked numbly, "Why would they want to shoot me?" She hung onto the warrior's armor, trying to find her footing, just noticing one of the sleeves of her white Land's End shirt had been singed off her arm.
Tla'a, who had just arrived, gazed at Alice with something like pity in her eyes, but not quite. She answered the question from hard experience. "They are dragons, like the bulldozers that eat the forest. They hunt us in their assault upon the world."
Alice got it. Her mouth dropped open. "You mean... logging companies? They did this?"
Tla'a nodded silently, only just familiar with the concept of logging companies herself.
Squinting through the water that now cascaded down her face, Xena concentrated, trying to follow the conversation. Like it or not, Alice might know important information about the futuristic world that Gaea had dumped them into.
The pale face got paler, and Alice asked the sorceress, "Do you know the name of the country we are in?"
Tla'a pronounced the unfamiliar word with some hesitation.
Suddenly, Alice's beautiful face became animated. "Oh my God!" She turned to Xena and grabbed her leathers by the shoulder straps. "We've got to get out of here! I know about this place! I volunteered on the National Task Force Against US Imperialism! This government has been in cahoots with US business interests all along! They'll have no problem wiping out a little band of people to get a big pay off from a US logging company! That's probably a government chopper!" Xena pried her hands carefully from the leathers, and she gestured wildly toward the sound of the departing noise. "They'll kill us all!"
As Alice spoke, Tla'a moved quietly forward, caught the flying hands and began examining them as if she had done it every day of Alice's life. As if they were not standing in the rain among the charred remains of blasted vegetation in a tropical rain forest. As if Alice had not just been nearly incinerated. The little brown fingers worked each knuckle and traced each line in an intense scrutiny that was mesmerizing. Finally, she looked up at Alice with a serious face and said. "You are too white. Something has drained you're heart's strength, and you are nearly dead from it."
Alice had no idea of what to say to this woman. She didn't understand why she could communicate with the mysterious woman at all, who obviously knew little Spanish, and less English. And Alice still couldn't understand why the woman seemed to speak in two different voices.
"Well, my blood pressure is high, but my cholesterol is very good!" She withdrew her hands with as much tact as possible.
The beautiful little sorceress from the rain forest said nothing, but couldn't help but notice the tingle in her hands, where they had touched the other woman's.
"Come on, let's get back to the temple." Xena gave Alice a little push that got her walking up the trail.
"Not till I get another bath!" Gabrielle announced, showing up covered with unspeakable things, some of them moving. She picked a giant green katydid out of her hair, and held it out on a flat palm so it could fly away unharmed. "This is not how I'm going to bed tonight! Monster or no monster!"
Tla'a's face broke into an expression that could only be one of Gaea's. "It's called a helicopter, Gabrielle, and it could wipe out Poteidaia in a heartbeat!" She looked up the trail to make sure Alice was out of earshot, then said in a conspiratorial tone, "You want a bath? I give you a bath..."
Gabrielle felt something happen again in the leaky rain cloud above them, as if a seam had torn in a tight fitting garment. And with that, the sky opened with a deluge of rain the like of which even the locals had rarely seen. Rain pummeled the ground with it's watery fists, turning into a heavy mist. There was no place to take shelter, and in moments they were drenched to the bone, except Tla'a, who was basically naked.
"Ready to go now?" Gaea stepped ahead and looked back expectantly.
"Yes ma'am, and thank you for the bath," Gabrielle, quipped, fishing the soap-root out of her drenched goat bag and lathering herself as she walked. "What's got her so cranky, anyway?" she said aside to Xena.
Xena was making a show of hurrying Gabrielle along as they walked. "Remember it's been over two thousand years since we've seen her. A lot could happen in two thousand years! Now walk quietly, I'm trying to listen for the warship."
"It's a helicopter!" Gabrielle teased, rubbing the root up and down and arm.
As they walked, Xena pulled an enormous ant off of the back of Gabrielle's kilt. She held it up to get a closer look, and found it had latched onto her fingernail with a vise-like force. She dropped it to the ground, stepped on it, removed her foot, and found the ant was gone. Then she found it digging into the leather sole of her boot, making tiny lacerations with it's razor sharp pinchers. Finally, and with great respect, she flicked it into the bushes. As she jogged to catch up, Xena resolved that night she and Gabrielle would sleep above the ground, in a hammock.
Alice was having a hard time trying to keep up a pace in the lead, her Nordstrom's loafers encased in red sticky clay kept trying to slip off, and the smooth leather soles slipped treacherously on the smallest of inclines. As the ground got boggier, she tried to use Tla'a's technique of stepping onto clumps of grass, but the clay on her feet slid against anything she placed her foot on. She ended up the last to make the shelter of the temple, though she hesitated before stepping through the curtain of vines that encased the old stones ...this is no home of mine...
It was a strange and mixed gathering that night, around the low flames of a fire banked and shielded from view outside the ancient temple. Beyond the vine-draped overhang, the rain came down in the darkness with the sound of an ocean falling. All across the broad floor, family groups clustered around the fires, working on projects and chanting stories for the children. The burrow was empty; the she-serpent hunted by night and cared nothing about the rain.
They had made their own hearth on the dry stone floor, Xena, Gabrielle and Alice, three soggy siblings in an awkward family circle. Tla'a's people had brought them food, a white root mash and strips of roasted meat in clever leafy cups. Tla'a herself had gone to confer with the other leaders of her people.
With great determination, Xena concentrated on the finishing touches of a knotted hammock she had just hung, modeled on those she had seen the forest people using.
Gabrielle, squeaky clean once again, waited for her hair to dry. She finished cleaning Xena's armor, and began taking an inventory of the items in her soaked goat bag, drying each item and placing it on a scarf. It was a project destined to kill time.
Actually, both Xena and Gabrielle were trying very hard to ignore Alice, who was engaged in a mysterious project. After several small children gathered to watch and giggle behind their hands, they both gave up and watched her openly, along with the rest.
Inside the bundle Xena had hauled up the snake tunnel, Alice had been pleased beyond words to find Margaret's dome tent. After a lengthy session of reading the directions she found crumbled up in the bottom of the bag, she assembled and pushed the poles through the sleeves of the tent's bright blue fabric, and bent the ends into grommets on the sides. To a chorus of delighted noises from the gathered children, the tent sprang into being, a blue anomalous igloo in the ancient temple of Gaea.
Ignoring the children and the astonished faces of Xena and Gabrielle, she took her leaf cup of cold root mash, opened the tent's door and crawled in, gratefully zipping the mosquitoes outside behind her. The sounds of the zipping caused peals of laughter among the children, who eventually wandered back to their own fires when Alice did not come out again.
Inside, by the dim blue light, Alice found, of all things, a white plastic fork nestled into a seam, left behind from an earlier outing during happier times. With shaking hands, she wiped off the fork and fed herself a starchy bite of root mash, which she actually managed to swallow. Taking up a second load on the delicate modern utensil, she gasped when a prong broke off and fell into the bowl, blending in with the rest of the contents of her dinner.
Thought she did not know it yet, Alice carried the ancient catalyst talent, and as such could cause or experience change with the smallest of events. As she tried to pick the plastic prong out of her root mash, suddenly, or one could say finally, Alice started to cry.
A short time later, Tla'a joined them, as Gaea. After consulting with the leaders of her band, Tla'a had for most purposes retired for the night, leaving her body to the goddess. Tla'a had no regrets about the decision to carry the goddess within her, but the experience was exhausting. She had signed off, admonishing the goddess not to stay up too late, that they had a busy morning and needed their rest.
Gaea settled down next to Gabrielle who was sharpening a quill. Gabrielle smiled shyly at her in greeting, still a little awed to be in the almost constant company of a goddess ...these are grand times.... she thought ...traveling with legends... For a long moment, they watched the flames in silence, the bard was reminded eerily of many long nights in front of fires with Xena and Sibyl ....only a few short months ago... She raised her eyes, clear in the warm firelight, and asked the goddess an irresistible question.
"Gaea...if we've been dead all this time, do you know how our lives ended? Did we die well?"
The beautiful, magical eyes glittered, deep inside long lashes, and the snake tattoo on her cheek seemed to move, as the young sorceress answered with the ageless wisdom of an immortal, "You both died well, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle turned to her lover then, and they shared a glance between them, but it was interrupted by the back-to-business attitude of the modern goddess. "Well, let's not waste any time. There's little enough of that left, as you must know by now."
Xena fetched a glare for the goddess. "You can start by explaining why you, who pride yourself on not interfering, might want to drop Gabrielle and I two thousand years into the future so we can crawl up a wormhole, get eaten by a snake, firebombed by a flying warship, and endure the company of that wretched, sniveling banshee from the future..." she ended the tirade with a jerk of her thumb in the direction of the blue dome tent nearby.
"You should talk, Xena! The last time I saw you it was to drag your senseless hulk out of an erupting volcano! You should be glad I interfere from time to time!"
The sharpening of her quill slowed, as Gabrielle watched the dual, fascinated.
"Well, girls...it's Velasca..." the goddess said flatly.
The feather quill dropped from Gabrielle's fingers and fluttered to the ground, forgotten.
"...There's been no end to the trouble she's caused. Even in this time of the inter-deity treaty unilaterally banning direct intervention with mortal lives, she has found clever ways to get around it."
"As have you, I cannot help but point out." Xena quipped, hoping to get a laugh out of Gabrielle.
The goddess stuck her tongue out at the warrior, which would have appalled Tla'a had she been awake, and went on, "As the goddess of Chaos, she has taken full advantage of the complications of this modern time. In a million infinitesimal ways, she has triggered a chaotic process that is causing the technology the world depends on to break down."
Xena watched Gabrielle with concern, who stared at the fire with a burning intensity. The issue of Velasca had been a heavy burden to Gabrielle and Xena alike, who both felt somewhat responsible for the maniacal amazon's ascension to godhood. Now they confronted the consequences of their own decisions, only more than two thousand years later...
Gaea went on, explaining the sorry state of the modern world. "She works in opposition to natural magics, always through the medium of technology, disrupting it or using it to cause disruption of natural magics. Ultimately, her goal is the devolution of the whole planet, and if she is successful, she could become a goddess of galactic proportions. Then I'll really have a problem on my hands!"
Xena's face was very still as she began to understand just how high the stakes were.
Gabrielle was more remote, thinking of earlier encounters with the goddess of Chaos.
Gaea went on doggedly, " ...But there are things resisting her she had not anticipated or planned for. This small band of forest people is precious, simply because they live as they have for thousands of years. But they also guard a vital secret to the world's continued resistance to the evil of Velasca. In this ancient forest, and in this temple and it's spring, a natural magic still lives free and healthy. It is the magic of the highest order. Velasca knows this magic can completely stop her chaotic processes, and neutralize their power." The goddess sighed sadly. "So she has attacked it, through the medium of a construction company. Girls, the so-called dragon army drives straight for the temple, my temple, guided by the hand of Velasca."
Gabrielle asked softly, but with great intensity, "Is Velasca here?"
"No, child. For the moment, she's busy elsewhere. But she will sense something is happening here and come soon enough. Our advantage is to use the time to prepare for her now."
"Not that I wouldn't die for you, Gaea, but why us?" Xena broke in. "Why not an immortal like Callisto, or Zeus?"
Gaea noticed Gabrielle close by Xena, her face a breath away from the armored arm, her liquid green eyes echoing the warrior's question. The goddess could not recall seeing the two move closer together, they just suddenly seemed to be shoulder to shoulder.
Gaea's one blue eye seemed to gleam unnaturally in the fire light. "This way, I get the two of you back," she sighed, "if only for a short time. But let me tell you the whole of it: If Velasca rises to a new level of her godhood, she will be able to travel in time, as do I on rare occasion, and you can be sure her very first targets will be you two and the Amazon Nation. She's never gotten over the embarrassment of her defeats at your hands, yours especially, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle squinted over to the goddess in the wavering fire light, and asked "But when we're done here you'll send us back to our own time...right?"
Xena added, her voice a warning "I've got to go back, Gaea. Argo's still back there, the slavers took her."
Gaea held her small hands out. "Mercy, girls! As soon as you are done you go right back where and when I found you!"
The bard ventured a summary statement. "So, our mission is... to stop the lumber merchants from destroying these people and the magic they guard in this time, which will stop Velasca from killing us and the Amazons in the other time, which is the same time you'll return us to?"
"Right." Gaea confirmed, nodding. "Close enough."
Gabrielle turned to her lover and looked imploringly up into the stern face. Xena returned the look with a mixed expression of dread and resolve, then she nodded once down to the bard.
When Xena spoke again, her voice carried the deep, level tones of a military officer. "All right. I need some answers. Where are the heli-things coming from?"
Gaea answered from the memories of Tla'a, who did not appreciate being roused to give them. Tla'a still had the sensibilities of an elder, and sleep was important to her. "About two days walk from here, to the east." She pointed.
"They will have to have some kind of camp, and that's where we need to attack them, not here. There will still be someone in charge, and that's who we need to attack. That ought to flush out Velasca. If she's limited in her powers, we may have a chance at beating her. We leave tomorrow. The sooner the better."
"That's one of my favorite things about you, Xena. Short Q and A sessions." She got up and climbed into a hammock.
"By the way, Gaea." The warrior persisted, "How much help from you can I count on?"
"Now, Xena, it's not like you've ever wanted much divine intervention on your missions. And you've already had quite a bit of it on this one. I'll pop in from time to time, and Tla'a can call me if you really want me. But I'm needed elsewhere for awhile. You'll be fine with Tla'a to guide you."
"What about Alice?" Xena hissed the name with contempt.
Gaea allowed one more smile to cross Tla'a's face as her consciousness faded from the sorceress's mind. "Just try to keep her alive, Xena, you might need her. Alice has a way of triggering things. She has he catalyst talent, stronger than your own, warrior. She was being used by Velasca to tear down the city she lives in, and got picked up in my spell instead. I'm not sure yet what her purpose here is, but don't underestimate her! Now, I'm for sleep. G'night!" Then she was gone, and Tla'a was fast asleep.
To Xena, Gabrielle looked as if her head was going to explode, her eyes shifting rapidly as she thought about everything she had just heard, the thunder of the helicopter still echoing in her ears ...Velasca...
Xena quickly striped off her leathers down to her shift. "C'mon, let's get some sleep. Velasca can wait." She worried for the bard, "It's been a long day, we've aged over two thousand years!" Her gentle, callused hands soothed Gabrielle. "C'mon over here..." She wound her arm around the smaller waist and pulled her into her side so that they fit closely together, Gabrielle's head nestled upon her shoulder.
Tucked beneath Xena's chin, Gabrielle whispered, "It's you we should be worried about, beaten and eaten..." Her hand smoothed the shift down over the curve of Xena's hip. "Gods, Xena, that is a really big snake!"
"Shh." Xena brushed her lips through Gabrielle's hair. "It's just a pet."
There was a lovely interlude, as the rain fell and the flames guttered into coals. Xena felt the younger woman stir, smelled her warm scent rising. Lips, softer than a baby's touch grazed Xena's shoulder and tasted her skin, her bosom rising and falling with breaths that caught in her throat. Then with a single motion, Gabrielle pushed her back onto the stone floor, warmed by the fire. "Don't move," she breathed into Xena's neck.
Xena whispered back, "Gabs, we need to get some sleep..."
Xena struggled with Gabrielle's demands, concerned about the real need for rest. Yet she hesitated, not wanting to discourage her young lover's interest in the old lover's game of mastery and surrender... she felt a palm warm the cloth over her abdomen; felt the heat cupping her sex...
In the last six months of exploration, the bard had learned well how to arouse the hard body of the warrior, their fever still high from long years of frustrated desire. Gabrielle remembered every stolen touch, every secret look of longing, every night-time fantasy nurtured as she lay burning in her blankets, so near the remote and aloof Warrior Princess. Her favorite dream had been one in which she simply turned to the other sleeping woman and boldly took her, melting the ice with the fire in her hands...
"I want you, warrior." She whispered musically. Shifting fully over onto the body of the stronger woman, she found her still and expectant...found the blazing blue eyes latched upon hers, desperate with intensity....
Xena sighed, her heart in her throat, and she whispering thickly, "You can have as much of me as you can take, Gabrielle..."
Inside the blue cocoon Alice metamorphosized, struggling with the rebirth of her own soul. A rictus of agony held Alice restrained, arms wrapped tightly around her knees, face frozen in an expression of horror. Her tears fell thickly, with the rain that thundered outside the temple.
But through her silent sobs she began to listen in on the conversation outside the thin screen of blue nylon, and heard the truth of her own folly, of how she had been stalked and nearly taken by a ruthless goddess ...a catalyst talent...? She thought back on the events in her life over the past few months. The loss of her job and her partner... It had all happened since she had gone online, especially since she had taken the anger management workshop. Her eyes widened in understanding, the whites shining in the blue half-light, and she ran long fingers through her short cropped hair ...no...it's been going on longer than that... Inside her most private thoughts, she saw the lifetime of fear that had stalked her far longer than the goddess had.
The more she listened, the more she grew confused over who was talking ...who is Gaea?...She edged herself closer to an air vent above the tent's zippered entrance.
"We leave tomorrow..." she overheard Xena say and the talking trailed off. Looking through the vent, she saw Tla'a climb into a hammock, but no one else besides the warrior and the bard.
She tried to tell her neck and shoulders to relax, and they tried to listen, but there was a sound that made her clench once again, in a very different place.
Through the vent Alice peeked once again, this time at a scene that she couldn't have dreamed of in her own fan fiction stories. But, perhaps that was because none of her tales had ever featured Gabrielle.
She looked out onto a scene darkly lit by the deep reds and burnt oranges of the dying fire. At first, all she could make out was the long curve of a body moving slowly. Gradually, she made out the gleam of light hair, the arch of a back, and the swell of a bottom rising, all outlined in brush strokes of magenta, painted on a canvas of darkness.
The coals shifted in the hearth, and a flame sprang up on chunk of wood, revealing much more of what was taking place beside the fire. It was almost a scene from the television show, the frescos on the temple walls behind them, adorned with old vines and exotic plants, the warrior princess and the bard on their blankets, beside an evening fire.
But, unlike the show, Gabrielle was sprawled across Xena's body, holding her arms down behind her head with one hand, pulling her kilt up from between them with the other. Alice watched their thighs rub slowly together with no thoughts she should look away, with no thoughts at all in her head, really. Ending it's long confinement, the tip of Alice's tongue emerged tentatively, and licked her surprised but grateful lips.
Gabrielle wiggled deliberately, sensuously over the warrior's body as it writhed and arched beneath her. Her sturdy legs grappled with Xena's for a superior position. Alice heard a soft moan as Gabrielle sat up, straddled Xena's hips and pulled off her green top, setting her young breasts free. The warrior's hands came up suddenly, and Gabrielle broke the silence.
"No hands, Xena." ordering her to keep still.
Alice held her breath, as the hands did as they were told, and lay down beside the warrior's body on the temple floor. The beautiful bard continue her assault upon the restrained Warrior Princess, bound by a silent promise.
Alice supposed that if she was hallucinating then this madness couldn't be too bad, but somehow she was unable to ignore that everything seemed so real...as authentic as the hiss of Xena's intaken breath, as genuine as Gabrielle's hand slipping between the long thighs. As real as the soft groans of desire.
As sharp as the warrior's hushed pleas, "Gabrielle...!"
Alice watched the bard's muscular arm slowly push up into the woman beneath her...and she couldn't seem to get the fly of her jeans unbuttoned fast enough. She got it halfway down before giving up and cramming her hand down into her crotch, heedless of the rivets that scraped the back of her hand. Down she reached, into a part of her that had inexplicably shut down months before, had fallen asleep even as Alice had fallen from grace. With the tips of her slender fingers, she fingered her clitoris, felt the stiffening beneath, and rubbed it experimentally, almost hopefully.
Xena had no such hope; she knew she was nearly lost in the passion of her partner. She opened up wide to take the love Gabrielle poured into her, the surrender of her heart and soul as well as of her body.
But Gabrielle wasn't ready to set her beloved free. She pulled out, to the music of Xena's desperate groan, and moved lower down, pulling up the shift and revealing the darkness between the long, strong legs.
In a rush of warmth, Alice's clitoris recovered from it's shock. It sent a tingle up into her lithe, white body, through the barrier around her heart, built with the help of Velasca, and into her untainted soul. On her knees, eyes glued to the scene she viewed through the tent's air vent, she spread her legs apart wide and devoured the spectacle hungrily, as if her life depended on it. Which, as things turned out, it did.
Xena cried out softly as the honey hair nuzzled into her sex, and Alice cried out as if she felt the bard's soft lips on her own center.
Though nothing could have stopped Gabrielle from what she was doing at that very moment, her empathic awareness told her of Alice's participation in their tryst. Nevertheless, she missed not a beat of the rhythm her tongue drummed out on the delicate swirls of skin between Xena's legs, feeling also Alice react to her mouthings....But mostly she could only watch Xena, whose face was exquisite, who made silent cries, who tried so hard not to move while Gabrielle took her to higher and higher levels...and who finally turned soft in the bard's mouth and climaxed rapturously.
Alice would never know when her own orgasm began, or what triggered it. She just remembered a great release that was almost an outpouring of anger, as her uterus clenched and relaxed over and over, birthing a clear and ecstatic new awareness.
Meanwhile...curled tight in her ball, asleep in her hammock, Tla'a smiled... deep within her mystical dreams.
<~~~Continued in Part Three ~~~~>