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Alice's first morning with a new perspective began somewhat worse than her last had with the old. "Wakey, wakey!" Alice's eyes shot open to the shaking blue nylon of the tent, which had snapped down and into her face. For a moment, she did not know who or where she was. Then, in a rush, her life reassembled itself... into the relationship with Margaret...and then out of it... She lay on the bare floor of the tent. She wore the wrong clothes for camping, which were filthy...and then another flood of memories swept over her. Margaret ...the garage ... Xena and Gabrielle!! She lunged for the collapsing door, and got her hand on the zipper.
The warrior and the bard watched the white-blond hair poke through the mosquito netting, a mess of spikes and cowlicks. Alice's tear and dirt smudged face emerged next as she stood up, the tent working down over her shoulders like a blue, billowing shroud. The children had gathered round Tla'a, and watched the "ghost" come out, staring sleepily, their noses running.
The smell hit Alice first, a combination of wood fire and something sweet that might have been food. Then it was the way a shaft of light looked through the smoky haze inside the temple, the lush greens, the quiet talking of soft language nearby. Alice blinked stupidly into the gorgeous face of the Warrior Princess. Her shining black hair was haloed in a shaft of the sun, and a loose tent pole was still in her fist. Gabrielle lurked behind her, a hint of laughter in her green eyes ...there they are...it wasn't a dream... There was the armor, the sword pommel over the right shoulder, the chakram on a hook. There was the brown kilt and the staff. There was the bilious green sports bra. There they were.
All Alice could come up with was she had fallen into a fantasy of her own making and was mad ... but they are such dead-ringers... She wondered idly if there was a family connection... she tried the obvious question, just so she could get on with the day.
"Do you know who Lucy and Renee are?"
Xena looked almost caught off guard, as if she was about to say something, then stopped. Her mouth gaped slightly.
Gabrielle's bright face had darkened into an expression of obvious concern for Alice's well-being.
But Alice felt fine, just fine. "Never mind. Not important!" She chirped, trying out a smile. Her lips were a little out of practice, but they pulled it off beautifully. She realized she was in a very good mood, and wondered how long it had been since she had been in a good mood...
But that was all interrupted by the sudden arrival of the she-serpent, back from a night out dining. The gigantic viper nosed through the whispering thick grasses and headed straight for its burrow in the depths of the temple. It passed right over the edge of the blue circle of fabric, it's middle swollen tellingly. Frozen stiff, only Alice's eyes moved, once again watching the procession of AAAAAA's and rethinking any ideas of waiting in the temple until the mission's return.
Xena did not give Alice much time with her new thoughts. "We're off! Catch up if you can, sleepyhead!" she announced, when the snake's head had disappeared into the burrow. She turned and walked smartly through the curtain of vines and off into the forest, a curl of the wood smoke spiraling behind her.
Gabrielle leaned on her staff a moment longer, eyebrows raised above twinkling green eyes and then she spun and walked out also, the honey hair flipping behind her. The children still stared, gathered around Tla'a, who waited with a machete and a small string bag, all the essentials she needed for a long hike in the jungle.
Alice did not say a word to the sorceress. She picked the little tent up by the poles, yanked them apart still in the sleeves, and gathered the sections together. She started walking when she had it all in a bundle and shoved it into its bag as she went, hanging it from her shoulder by its drawstring. Thrashed by wet vegetation, she walked with long strides along the forest path, astonished with her own behavior, and elated with the freedom of spontaneous action.
The truth is, Alice had always known how to pretend she was not confused or fearful. During the night, something in her had shifted only slightly, and what had once been fearful denial had been alchemically transformed... into bravery.
Behind her on smaller, bare feet walked Tla'a, her beautiful eyes shining brightly, and a small smile brightening her delicate face. Smiling was just not done in front of strangers where she came from, but Tla'a was having a hard time hiding it.
The group followed a path much more thickly hedged than the more open trail to the bathing stream. The hissing sound of the life that teemed around them intensified as the sun rose, but it was still cool and the morning walk was pleasant. Exotic birds and calls echoed beneath the steaming verdant canopy.
A loud click came out of a bush near Xena's leg, and bending down, she found an enormous cricket. There were birds whose wings whistled like Pan pipes as they flew, their mud nests hung high like teardrops from tall, graceful trees with bark the color of deep, mahogany skin.
Gabrielle found herself wishing she had studied up more on plant and animal life. Every flower she found was a beauty to look at, but rancid and foul of scent, or oozing with a clear glue, or occupied by exceptionally large insects. All around them grew what appeared to be a single vine that consumed whole trees, buried beneath green domes of the massing tendrils. Nervously she noticed the grass move frequently near the narrow, slippery path as Xena passed by ahead of her. Placing her feet with caution, she kept up a pace close behind the warrior's long stride, her staff held ready.
They came to a stop as Xena, her a face full of wonder, stared down at a caravan of ants crossing the bare earth of the path, each carrying a segment of green leaf as big as her thumbnail. She let out a low whistle when as she beheld a nearly denuded sapling just off the trail, its bare branches covered with a green shimmering of the tiny assassins, cutting and carrying away snippets of the doomed tree's foliage.
Tla'a passed them by, unconcerned about the ants, and took the lead in the little group, angling into a more eastern route, and departing from the relative open space of the footpath.
Xena was still profoundly impressed with the insect life of the rain forest, and checked the strap that held the hammock securely over her shoulder. She fully intended to sleep in it that night, sex or no sex ...This is no place to be sleeping on the ground!...she thought firmly, as she stood up and stepped over the ant trail. She had to hurry to catch up to the sorceress, who was already out of sight behind a green wall of palms and grass.
The spectacle of the ants eluded both Gabrielle and Alice, as they had been sharing gulps from the water bag.
Gabrielle winked at Alice, handed her a piece of bread from her ill fated market trip the day before, a dry piece of jerky, and stepped back onto the path.
Taking the food with a blush, Alice wondered what two thousand year old jerky might taste like, as she hurried herself to catch up with the bard's fast walking pace. Soon she was working too hard to wonder about much of anything.
The little group made the best time it could without much conversation for most of the morning and well into the afternoon. The goal was to cover as much distance as possible before the evening rains. Through the suffocating heat of the day they walked, up and down small, slippery hills, stopping occasionally to dunk their heads into the frequent brooks and streams they crossed. Except for Tla'a, they had a lot to learn about making one's way through a rain forest, and the hike itself took most of their concentration. Xena began using her sword to clear a broader path, as it seemed the smaller body of Tla'a could slip through impossibly small holes. Gabrielle followed behind, just out of the sword's reach, breaking and beating the greenery back farther with her staff, so that by the time Alice came along there was a rough and treacherous trail.
Unnoticed by the others, Alice was having the time of her life at the rear of the struggling, sweaty line of hikers. Finally aware of the spell that had been cast over her heart, she had begun to shake free of it. She even shucked off some of the weakness the spell had been built upon, her life-long fear of the unknown, of pain and death. She felt light and free, like the innocent child she had been once, dreaming of adventures in The Jungle Book. She grunted almost gleefully as she wrestled with stubborn canes and vines, slapped at the mosquitoes with deadly accuracy. Alice had nothing to loose and everything to gain. Alice was on top of the world.
The terrain had begun to rise, though they could only tell by the slope of the land and the angle of the trees. There was little visibility through the jungle, beyond ten or twenty paces. They slipped and slid down into a wooded gorge with a tiny brook hidden in the bottom of a channel deeply carved into the red clay. After the first three crossed, on the mossy back of a downed tree, they watched Alice curiously, as she seemed to dance across, the bundled tent banging against her thigh.
"Balance beam, district champion in middle school," Alice offered matter-of-factly, as she joined the other three on the far side. "Mother said it was either that or tap dance. Then I got too tall for anything."
Their faces reflected their incomprehension in her words, but all three saw something else quite clearly. Alice was changing. She looked more colorful somehow, her clothing mottled with green plant juices, blending in with the forest around her. Her arms were bare, the white skin tattooed with dark tree sap and red clay. Her remaining sleeve had been ripped off long ago and converted to a sweatband. Even her slender body seemed more weighty and substantial. Gabrielle caught Tla'a sizing up the woman with almost appreciation and gave a private glance to Xena, who winked back. Alice looked fantastic when she was messy.
On the other side of the ravine, they climbed out and found themselves on a steep hillside in a small clearing. As they came out from cover, a flock of birds erupted noisily from the crown of a tree on the slope below. As they flew, the sunlight reflected off their backs, and Gabrielle realized with delight that all the birds were green.
From the opening in the trees, they looked out, over a flat and thickly forested plain. In the nearer distance, they could see the near end of a long band of stripped earth, smoke rising from places along it's length. The air above the strip crawled with helicopters, some of them flying with whole trees dangling beneath them.
Gabrielle brought out the looking-glass, a gift from their acolyte friend, Clytemnestra. She fidgeted with it for a moment, then handed it to Xena with a pale face, having glimpsed a waking nightmare.
Xena squinted into the lens at the end of the tube, one eye closed, and saw what had alarmed her gentle companion so badly. The smoke rose from pyres of brush and branches that burned in a dozen places across a wasteland of stumps and mud. The ground crawled with yellow and gold dragons. Setting her jaw, Xena watched the tops of the trees along the edge of the line shake and fall, one after another, after another. She dropped the device from her eye, having seen enough, and her face fell into a deadly expression.
She turned to Tla'a. "How long will it take to get down there through that undergrowth?" she said, pointing at the advancing line of the distant army.
"Less than half a day." Tla'a whispered, the despair plain for an instant on her face. Her private joy with her newly recovered youth had been severely tempered by shock, seeing the tree eaters penetrate like a spear into the heart of her world. It was her first look at the threat personally; as an old woman she had been unable to walk this far to see for herself. It was a glimpse of her own extinction, and it shook the old soul of the sorceress down to her bones.
Through the looking-glass, Alice could barely get the primitive magnification to work long enough to see what was going on, but she could see they were clear-cutting a wide swath of rain forest. "Oh, my...they're doing more than harvesting lumber...they're putting in a rail line, and a road!" She was a modern woman, familiar with freeway construction. She knew what she saw. She clenched her teeth as she handed the looking glass back Gabrielle. "They are putting in a really big road."
"Come," Tla'a said quietly, "There is a place where we can shelter. The rains will begin soon."
Looking up, they saw the truth in her words, as puffy clouds raced over the tree tops, low in the sky. They filed silently out of the clearing behind her, even Alice's chipper mood muted by the tears in the little sorceress' eyes.
If a being gifted with true sight had looked down from above, perhaps they might have been pleased to find the deep blues and greens of natural magics, ancient and thick as the trees. Perhaps their joy might have evaporated with the shock of seeing the diseased cut across such a magical realm, glowing the sickly yellow of death and decay. Perhaps such a being might have wept for the loss, for the teeming DNA that had stopped it's playful adapting, for the extinction of the rare plants and animals that held great secrets of health and long life. But no such being flew above the jungle weeping for these losses..
Only The Goddess of Chaos hovered far above, delighted in the progress her new Company had made toward the destruction of one of the last strongholds of natural magic in the modern world. She had managed to purchase the Company through a series of intermediaries without making a single personal appearance. Apparently that had been enough to keep her from violating the divine rule against direct intervention, because no one from Olympus had said a word about it. From the moment she had control over it, the Company had shifted it's vast resources to the building of a "transcontinental freeway."
She hovered above the ancient temple that was still warded against her, as it had always been, then she whirl-winded up to taste the earth's ward, the ozone layer. In many places around the earth, especially over the cities, she had found it had a weak flavor, but it was thick and strong over the jungles of the southern continents, and over this temple in particular. Velasca knew that when the layer got thin enough in this key place, the band of magic around the world would weaken fatally, and devolution of the planet would finally quicken ... "And then I will be free of this planet and this time!" She cried, her whirlwind stirring up a small squall, "And I will be free to come back for YOU Gabrielle! You and your fool champion, Xena! I'll come back for you again and again!!"
Her face dropped, twitching as it fell. There was no sign of the woman, the catalyst. She had caught a distinct whiff of this stinking place as she followed her trail, but now every trace of her was gone. Stooping back to earth, Velasca glared suspiciously at the temple below, hidden in the plants and vines. She did not like the notion that Alice had been somehow transported to that temple, it reeked of a conspiracy. As the sun rose, Velasca began to wonder it something had gone wrong, and got a sudden sense of an old enemy... She flew north again in a rush, suddenly wondering if she should check the headquarters of the Xena: Warrior Princess television show in Burbank. Her ire peaked over the San Diego Airport, and she redirected all the baggage from a Phoenix short hopper onto a transpacific red-eye to Tokyo.
The place mentioned by Tla'a turned out to be an earthen hollow, under a layer of eroded shale that angled out from the canyon wall. It was a way station of her people; they found two men there of Tla'a's band, waiting for them in the shadows inside. They greeted the sorceress excitedly in their language of soft percussions, obviously surprised at her youthful appearance. A small fire already burned clean and strong, a spit was prepared for roasting, and in leafy packets something savory steamed in the coals around the fire's edge.
Tla'a introduced the men as her great nephews, Mas and Lusu'Be, explaining they were stationed as watchers. She did not add that the day Dragons crossed the ravine, they would return to the hidden temple, where that night they would join all the families in the preparation and drinking of a sacred draught. Then, they would all lay themselves down peacefully upon their mats, in the quiet of the sleeping forest and never awaken for the dawn's approach of the dragon army...
Gabrielle and Alice nodded at the men wordlessly, and Xena offered a friendly grin, startling the men who were unused to smiles from a stranger. Tla'a spoke quickly and reassuringly to them.
"The wind always comes before the afternoon rains, doesn't it?" Gabrielle asked Tla'a, sniffing the air about her.
"Yes." Tla'a answered, turning back from her nephews.
"Then we are just in time," she lifted her face into a breeze, just a moment or two before it actually stirred in her hair.
The first drops, as big as Gabrielle's thumb, landed like watery bombs on the foliage.
Tla'a regarded appreciatively the fine weather talent she saw in the young woman. Then, more serious, she gestured at the freshly carved gully below them. "The rivers are flooding too soon."
"Global warming..." Alice said softly, watching the rain drops smash the leaves of a plant nearby.
"What's that?" Xena asked.
What might once have been Alice's longest political diatribe of Green Peace rhetoric, came out only as a brief but horrible statement of fact. "It's the climate of the planet. We have so many machines...they all throw off smoke, and it build's up in the air, and it breaks it down...and then the weather changes..." Alice trailed off, nearly gagged by the truth of her own words and the condition of her own world.
Gabrielle and Xena stared, horrified, for a moment, then the bard asked timidly, "You are kidding...?" She turned to Xena and seemed to ask her lover for the truth of the thing. "She's kidding, right?"
Xena opened her mouth, but it was Gaea who spoke with Tla'a's mouth. "She's not kidding. Modern technology has done this, but it is the goddess Velasca that pushes it to the level of planetary destruction."
Alice saw the change come over the face of the exotic sorceress, and placed the voice as the one she had heard at the fire the night before. It was deeper, almost rasping...
For some reason, at that moment it struck Alice that she was hiding in a cave. Hiding in a cave in a foreign jungle with no plane ticket, no visa or passport. Hiding in the company of an exotically beautiful but disturbed sorceress, her nephews, and a couple of misplaced ancient Greek adventurers that bore a striking and inexplicable resemblance to a couple of contemporary actresses. She realized that she may have somehow completely lost her mind, but everything felt so real, more than her real life had ever been...
Most of all, she realized she was part of a desperate struggle against a goddess. Alice began to remember all the many things she had believed in, or thought she believed in, and found she did not know what to believe anymore. Her breath came shorter, her heart beat like cymbals crashing, and the blood drained out of her head.
Tla'a saw long before the goddess did that Alice had bottomed out. The small woman moved to her side, the dark mane of her hair just reaching Alice's shoulder. Taking her hand and tugged at it, Tla'a pulled her down near the fire.
Alice suddenly realized it had been a long, hot day, and felt as if she needed to sit. She sank down gratefully, just as another breeze swept the air clean in the hollow, and the afternoon deluge truly began. Fuzzily, she worked on the tangled drawstring of the tent bag. In her simplified state, she noticed that the huge leaves of the plants outside were shaped like giant green hearts, trembling as they were lashed with rain.
"Can I ask you a question, Tla'a?"
The small dark head nodded, once.
"Who is Gaea?"
Tla'a froze for a moment, then realized the woman was serious, that she did not know. "She is the mother goddess, the Birther of the world." Tla'a nearly launched into an old chant about the goddess giving birth to the turtle of the world, then stopped herself. Tla'a just wasn't buying the turtle thing any more.
"Always, we sorceresses have come to her with the aid of the she-serpent. But now Gaea has forbidden this, and she comes to my people in our time of need through... me."
Alice just stared dumbly into the exquisite face of the sorceress as something changed, and she heard another voice speak to her.
"It's true, Alice," the voice rasped, but don't make a big deal about it, okay? I'd rather just be one of the girls, if you know what I mean."
Sometimes, when you are on the edge of sanity, you make interesting adaptations. Right about then is when Alice noticed that Tla'a's breasts were perfect. They were small and firm, with perky dark nipples. Alice blushed and covered her embarrassment with a question. "What do I call you?"
"Whatever, dear." The smaller woman moved away then, leaving Alice to her thoughts, which were at best, foggy.
Tla'a edged over to stand beside Xena and spoke up to her with a tilt of her head. "The sick one will sleep soon. Her spirit has shaken off Velasca's spell, and has celebrated it's freedom. Now, her heart must struggle with the truth."
Xena made her mouth into a thin flat line and nodded, her eyes bleak. The reformed warlord knew that drill. She actually felt a little sympathy for the strange woman. She wondered if more modern women were like Alice, born to greatness but with no way to match up with their destinies in a huge and complex world...Xena shivered, and felt a longing for her own time.
Later, the rain fell in torrents and a warm mist rose from the endless pounding. The water scoured the sides of the ravine, pushing debris ahead of it down into the creek. Xena sat beside a table-shaped rock, resting her chin on her arm and watching the creek rise far below. Her armor and leathers rested in a pile behind her, and she was clothed in only her cotton shift and breeches. As she mouthed a stalk of grass, her attention was caught by a small movement that drew her focus in close.
About an arm's length from the warrior, an enormous beetle crawled out onto the stone she rested her head and arm upon. Her exquisite face stilled but for a slow widening of her eyes, once again impressed with the formidability of the old forest's insects. The thing was as big as her fist, and armored with what looked like a hooked battering ram on it's head. It strutted across the rocky surface, parading it's fancy defenses and daring her to attack.
She had decided to forfeit the challenge, and was going to withdraw from the field, when another behemoth beetle stepped up onto the stone and challenged the first. A slow smile prowled across her face, and with delight she settled in to watch the battle.
On the level of a bug, it was the clash of the titans. They waddled up to one another, locked horns and began to push, their bodies clacking together. Spindly legs grappled for purchase and spiky feet gripped the stone. They lunged and reared, each trying to tip the other, Xena rooting enthusiastically for first the defender and then finally for the challenger. After a protracted and entertaining bout, the challenger managed to get a hook up under the other's shell, flipping it. The winner reared up high, it's front legs stretched up on tiptoe, and then it dropped to the ground and swaggered off, inadvertently falling off the edge of the rock. Xena stared at the wiggling looser, fascinated. An idea had come to her, and she turned the stranded beetle over carefully, setting it away from the edge, pointed into the bushes. It lumbered off, oblivious of the twist of fate that had saved it from a slow starvation.
And Xena had a plan, or a start of one. She rose excitedly, walked over to Tla'a's hammock and sat down on the ground next to it. "Can we make some darts tipped with something to make a man sleep?" she asked.
"Yes," she nodded, thoughtfully braiding some grass. Tla'a's hands were seldom unoccupied. "We already have plenty of darts and pipes stored here in this way station, and I can make a powerful stun potion."
"Good." The warrior watched Tla'a's hands and started to lay her plans. "I'll need Mas and Lusu'Be working on a project for me here. Is that's all right with you?" Her dark eyebrows arched in twin question marks.
Tla'a nodded affirmative, as she gazed fondly at her two precious nephews. It was an odd moment, as Tla'a was now physically younger than they. Her next question belied her reservations; looking down again to the warrior, her face held a look of desperation. "Xena, how can we six prevail against the might of the dragon army?"
Xena's contemplated the extraordinary woman before her for a long moment. She fought seemingly impossible odds against a superior invader, with the extinction of her ancient people the price of her failure. Her body was frequently occupied by a harried and demanding goddess, and if Xena understood matters, a much older sorceress had been transformed into the youthful beauty now before her, down in the snake burrow. To top it all off, she was bound to travel with Xena, Gabrielle and Alice; difficult company on an obscure mission, at best. Tla'a had to be exhausted and desperate, yet there she sat placidly in her hammock, absently making a string bag as the firelight brushed her skin with its golden light, her magical eyes hooded and still. Compassion and respect for the beleaguered sorceress surged up into the warrior's eyes.
"Tla'a, we share the same battle. I fight for my home and you fight for yours. And I have been know to fight very hard for my home."
But the sorceress did not look reassured.
Xena reached out and took the priestess' hands in her own. Can you look into some of Gaea's memories?"
Tla'a nodded her head once. It was not something she like to do, touch the foreign memories.
"Reach back, to the time when I was alive, and use her memories to see the kind of warrior I was..."
Suddenly, the look on Tla'a's face deadened. Xena knew then she remembered it all... "Ok, so you remember I was a warlord...then you should also remember how I changed. Remember?"
After an long moment to consider, a single nod of the head was all the forest woman gave away.
Xena tucked her chin in and looked coyly up at the sorceress in her hammock. "Feeling more confident in my skills?"
Around the beautiful eyes, ringed in their long dark lashes, Xena could have sworn she saw the hint of a smile.
Xena allowed her own mouth to angle up into a broad and saucy grin. "Good, we understand each other. Now, lets talk about the bugs around here..."
As Xena laid plans with Tla'a, Gabrielle settled down for another evening's search for entertainment. Alice worked sleepily to free the tent from it's tangle, but that was not quite as much fun to watch as it had been the night before. She caught a whiff of something wonderful from the fire and scooted over to Mas and Lusu'Be as the men fished the leafy packets out of the coals with sticks. As they gingerly picked open the hot packages, the steam that rose up from the food made the bard's mouth water and she eagerly watched, as one of the men fished out a steaming piece, juggled it in his hands as it cooled and popped it into his mouth happily.
She reached into the packet and felt around cautiously. Away from the fire she could not see what she brought up out of the dark, but it was very hot, and it smelled like meat. She tasted it and smiled, then popped the whole thing into her mouth and munched the hot morsel happily. "Mmmm. That's gooood!" She started to reach in again, but Mas just handed her the whole packet, and she dug in hungrily. "It's perfect!" She announced. "Just needs a little salt!" Gabrielle smiled at the men as they watched her eat, and they nodded back in friendly acknowledgment. Mas came forward again very respectfully, with a gourd full of what looked like a mead drink, but smelled like something else to Gabrielle, who had a sensitive nose when it came to food.
"Chicha!" Mas explained, handing one to Alice as well.
"Ahh! Thank you! Thank you for this fine cup of chicha!" Gabrielle intoned with a smile that was so big the men scooted back a bit, just to be on the safe side. Then, still smiling, she looked down into the cup, and saw things floating in the drink. Still believing in the necessity of accepting the gesture of hospitality, she held her breath and took a sip. She found it tasted better than it smelled, and took another sip. Then she drained it, just to show her good will, tipping it all the way back and finishing it off, smacking her lips heartily. She handed back the empty gourd, unaware it was a gesture that meant "Please refill my cup."
With only a slight hesitation, Mas refilled and returned it to her, his face like a stone. Then he handed another cupful to Alice, who gamely toasted the bard, held her breath and gulped it down, following her lead. Gabrielle chugged hers off and sighed happily, holding the empty gourd in her hand, began to examine it with fascination
...Meanwhile, over by Tla'a's hammock, Xena was finishing up the beginnings of a battle plan with the sorceress. "It'll have to be all hide and strike after dark, guerrilla tactics. We can hide better than they can, and move faster. We will have to disable the...what do you call them?"
"Bulldozers!" Tla'a said, still inexplicably loving the way the word sounded.
"...disable the bulldozers and the helicopters somehow. I haven't figured it all out yet."
Xena had Mas and Lusu'Be join them, and gave them some instructions that surprised them. Privately, in their own ancient language, Tla'a endorsed the warrior's plan, and instructed them to return to the village and bring as many as possible back to help them with the scheme.
Just before leaving, Mas whispered something to Tla'a, gesturing at Gabrielle. As she listened, Tla'a's face radically changed it's expression and the dignified woman cursed like a fish monger.
"Pegasus' shit! Xena, will you look at this?" Gaea jumped out of her hammock and walked over to the bard, who was holding a cup in her hand and staring stupidly off into the distance.
"Can't trust an empath to know her limits, can you?" Gaea took the cup from her hands. "How many cups of this did you drink?"
"Jus thish, Ga'laaa... um... T'la la" Gabrielle held up two fingers, thought about it, and added a thumb.
Gaea cursed heartily again. "Mas thought they were asking for refills! This stuff is hallucinogenic, there's no telling how it will effect an empath!"
Even Xena was a little shocked at what time had done to the goddess' demeanor. "Where did you learn to talk like that, Gaea? You never used to talk like that!" Xena challenged testily, staring hopelessly down at her besotted beloved.
Gabrielle could not understand what the problem was. She was perfectly fine ...Tla'a is the one talking to herself... She got gracefully to her feet, walked over to their hammock. She was going to get in, when she discovered she was still sitting on the ground. She posed from where she was, a hand on her hip, leaning back on her other arm, her head tilting back a little too far. "I'm... I'm fine, XXXeeennnns" Her eyes wobbled in her head. "Yoour sssss...stwwwo hoo-hooo....." She leaned back against the rock she was propped against, but the rock wasn't there any more, and so she lay all the way back onto the ground, which was okay ... maybe I should get a blanket... She imagined herself getting up and fetching a blanket... but before she could realize she was still laying on the ground, she was fast asleep.
From her place on the other side of the fire, Alice suddenly erupted into sobs. The chicha had done it's mysterious work on her as well, and her dome tent had become a sad tangle of poles and blue nylon. Either Tla'a or Gaea (it's hard to say which because they both had a peculiar interest and affection for Alice) abandoned her hammock and came to Alice's side. She took a grimy white hand into her own clean brown ones. Once again she gave the hand a thorough examination, including the many small cuts from grass blades, bug bites, and punctures. The strong little fingers squeezed the muscles bunched at the base of Alice's thumb and manipulated the bones through the cup of her palm.
Xena dropped a blanket over Gabrielle and stood over the fire, stirring it back into flames. "She's looped too, isn't she?"
Tla'a, or what Xena thought might be Tla'a looked back at her, nodded and said, "Yes. But she is better. She is gaining some color, see?"
Xena had no idea of what Tla’a was talking about. "Give her our hammock. Gabrielle's out, and I'm not moving her in this condition!" Xena said, resigned to another night on the ground.
Tla'a helped a very wobbly Alice to rise and stumble over to the hammock. After settling her into it, the sorceress returned to her own.
Xena sat down next to Gabrielle, picked up the packet of steamed food she had been eating, and examined a piece by the firelight. "Wonder if she'll ever know she just ate steamed and spiced grubs?" She shrugged and popped one in her mouth. "Hmm. Not bad." Licking her long fingers, she stretched out her legs so that her thighs touched Gabrielle's back, curled away from the firelight.
From deep inside Tla'a's hammock, the unmistakable voice of Gaea announced, "She's all yours, Xena. Tla'a still has the sensibility of an old woman and is not for staying up late. And I'm going to leave her alone for a little while. This has been a difficult adjustment for her. Her whole world will never be the same, you know. Just like Alice! Goodnight Xena! And good luck tomorrow."
"Goodnight, Gaea. Night Tla'a."
The goodnights triggered some awareness within the chicha haze of their companions.
"'...night, Lucy...." Alice mumbled, the warrior didn't bother with a reply.
Already dreaming deeply, Gabrielle moved her head onto her lover's lap.
Xena settled in for a long night with the drunken bard, certain she was likely to urp with no warning. Sighing, she couldn't help but think about the lover's hut in the Amazon village that had been reserved just for the two of them...and the special bedchamber that looked out over the sunset...and how their six-moons anniversary had gotten so fouled up...
There was no reason for Xena to suspect anything might happen other than what already had, other than a bit of urping. But she was in the company of women with potent abilities, and two of them were full of chicha.
As Alice dreamed, suspended in the hammock of sleep, she suddenly became aware. The gentle sounds of musical fountains filled her ears, seeming to trickle down her neck, chest, belly, dripping across her sex. She found herself deeply pillowed in a fragrant haze, and noticed her legs had fallen apart in the invisible, undulating cushion she lay upon. Beneath her hips a swelling arched her pelvis upward, as she found she was completely unable to move a single part of her body.
Then up from between her legs erupted the golden face of Gabrielle. Her eyes burned with an emerald fire, tongues of mist lapped about her face, her lips moist and opening. Alice moaned silently in the dream as she watched the pale thatch of her sex bob and dance before the enchanted face.
Then light gave way to dark, as the honey hair tinted midnight and the green eyes washed blue. The bard's fair face blurred and reformed into the inexorable visage of the Warrior Princess. Dark lips almost cruel, her big fighter's hands grasped the sides of Alice's sex and pulled her apart ruthlessly, and as she bent her dark head down, her crystal gaze locked and narrowed upon her own.
Almost in agony, Alice closed her eyes for a moment, her head lolling back in languid rapture. The rolling mist thrust her hips upward, as a heat closed in upon her sex, building till she thought she might be burned. Jerking up her head to see again, she found the solemn face of Tla'a latched onto her, softly sucking, a dark cloud of hair spilled across her pale thighs. Alice writhed and groaned, but could not escape the erotic charge that shot through her womb and into her heart. Then the magical eyes of the sorceress opened, incandescent with divine light, and Alice looked into the infinite gaze of what she knew was a goddess incarnate.
She, who had existed in the very center of her world, felt a suspension of the sense of Alice, felt a blending of Alice with other essences... For the first time in her life, a wave of the most sacred ecstasy swept through her, cleansing and freeing her. At the peak of her climb, she felt the tickle of laughter bubble up from within her and her catalyst talent awakened completely...
...Xena held Gabrielle tightly as she sighed again, a sigh that descended and softened into an animal purr. The ever aroused bard was having an erotic dream, and it was building noisily. Xena found she was unable to resist intruding into the bard's dream, and fishing under the kilt until she found her lover's wet core, she plunged her hand gently into it. It was impossibly erotic to be inside the sleeping woman, enhancing her dream with the reality of her hand.
Gabrielle moaned deeply, and to Xena's distant surprise, so did Tla'a and Alice from their separate hammocks. She thrust again, and the same thing happened. But she was inside her lover, had eyes for only her lover, and she would not stop. She beat softly up against the drum of Gabrielle's womb, massaged and stretched the soft fleshy tunnel. She felt a throbbing around her fingers, and then the echoing sensation burned in her own sex.
Alice tossed and moaned in her hammock, her long legs fallen out one on either side, her feet on the ground.
Tla'a curled more quietly in her own bower, but her dreams were not quiet in the least. Inside Tla'a's sleepy visions, the goddess was nowhere to be seen. Only the impossibly tall woman, with the awakening heart...Alice.
Xena tossed her head and hissed in her excitement, rising up higher, her lover in her arms. She would never became accustomed to the shared physical sensations of sex with her empathic lover. Distantly, she became aware that she pumped into Gabrielle, into herself...and into others...? Her body suddenly bucked, as Gabrielle's stretched across her lap, moaning in high desperate cries.
Then the universe shattered and fell in pieces to the earth, and they all perished in the cataclysm.
Actually, the world didn't end, of course, but all four women shared an ethereal climax that even raised Aphrodite's brow, where she was posing as a receptionist at the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research.
As the whole titanic event finally wound down, and breathing steadied among the women, Xena withdrew from Gabrielle, her head full of questions, and her belly swimming in warmth. Easing her beloved down to a blanket, she lay down also, spooning tightly into her. Finally, burying her face in the amber hair, the warrior slept.
Everyone awoke a little embarrassed after the strange night, but these looks went largely unseen as they got up in the dark and prepared to walk again. The rain still fell, a steady drone, but less than the pounding of the last afternoon's gale.
Tla'a in particular could not explain the erotic visions that had dominated her sleep, but she was beginning to have more than a proper interest in Alice. She was also aware, down to the inner depths of her being, that she was in a state of transformation from her association with the goddess. But she kept her thoughts to herself as she bundled up a set of blow pipes for carrying. She also knew she could be dead by the end of the day.
Breakfast wasn't very appealing. Even Gabrielle had no taste for cold root mash. Both she and Alice had rather strong hangovers. But they all did sample a hand full of little medicinal green sprouts offered her by the sorceress, snapped off a tree that sheltered an exposed side of the overhang. And each carried several odd yellow fruit inside a thick peel.
"Bananas...ba-na-na-," Gabrielle sounded out the new word as they walked.
Without cooking breakfast, in no time at all the little group was ready to go. Tla'a handed each of them a giant heart-shaped leaf to use as an umbrella, as they stepped out into the morning rain. As Alice took hers their hands touched, and her body flushed hot with the contact.
The earliest light of the misty morning found the little line of walkers threading it's way through the trees, quickly descending down onto the plain of the flat seaboard, making as straight a line as possible to meet the advance of the dragon army. Tla'a led and Xena brought up the rear of the line, listening. From time to time, she was sure she had heard a soft rustle, and a dragging sound. But she could not catch it very often, so she spent a lot of time lingering behind the group, her head cocked to the side, listening.
As they marched, more and more they were forced to hide from the thunderous approach of helicopters overhead, waiting until they were well away before moving on. It wasn't hard to find ways to hide in the lush undergrowth of the multi-leveled forest, but Tla'a knew the flying dragons had ways of seeing through the flimsy screens of vegetation. She worried for the group's concealment.
When they began to hear the distant sounds of what Alice told them was machinery, Tla'a stopped to locate a hiding place for resting. Concerned the fairer women of their group stood out like torches blazing in the shady forest, Tla'a made Alice a round cap out of a rubbery leaf and fit it snugly over her head. It hid her white-blond crop of hair very well. Tla'a could not stop from feeling the texture of Alice's fine hair between her fingers as she fit it on the tall woman's head.
For Gabrielle, she gathered the long tresses gently together in her hands and bound them in a dark strip of bark, tied with braided grass. She gave the bard another leaf cap, then she led them all to an embankment where there was a deposit of black clay. With the sticky dark earth, she smeared their faces and arms.
Xena applied some to her lover's back and stomach. They shared a look as Gabrielle smeared some more over the warrior's shiny breastplate, that took Alice's breath away. She often found herself watching the couple now, fascinated with the intensity between them.
Tla'a eyes watched Alice watching the others, and she scolded herself with a private admonishment, as she left on an errand designed to keep her busy.
Also in need of a distraction, Alice dropped to the ground and tugged her shoes off. "Can I borrow your breast dagger, Xena?" she asked politely.
As Gabrielle switched to worked on her back plates, the warrior removed her dagger, wondering how the woman had known she had one, and handed it to her. Alice used it to punch holes through the sides of her loafers. The shoes had developed a habit of slipping off in the wet, sticky clay in the most inconvenient times. Turning with more than a little modesty away from her companions, she unbuttoned and removed her vest and the remnants of her white silk shirt, which she tore into strips. These she looped through the new holes in her shoes, tying them on tightly. She donned only the vest once again, buttoning it tightly across her breasts, both of whom were astonished and delighted at the new clothing choices Alice was making. The breasts realized they were on an adventure, and they posed heroically, just above the V in the vest's front. She stood with a grim face, though both her breasts grinned broadly, and handed Xena back the dagger.
Xena eyed the other woman speculatively, as Gabrielle finished with her armor. "One more thing, I think..." Xena took the dagger, bent down to Alice's legs, and quickly cut the legs off her jeans, a little above the knees. Then standing up again Xena stunned her with her most glamorous smile, and slipped the breast dagger right into Alice's inviting cleavage. "You might need it ...and you've got a good place to keep it!" She gave the exposed hilt a little pat and stepped back to see her handiwork.
Alice looked down into her cleavage, felt the cold steel against her chest, and found she liked being armed.
Gabrielle snickered and bent down to smear mud on Alice's legs, which nearly screamed with pallor. "You don't get out much, do you?" The bard chatted. "I'll bet you live in giant globes of glass, globes that float any where you want them to...and I'll bet you have gardens, and fountains...all inside glass. And you never actually saw the sun before you came here? Something like that? Huh?" She fanned herself with a small palm leaf. Gabrielle was very hot and thirsty.
Alice didn't know what to think, looked down at her hands... and then with a start she really looked at her hands. Not even when she put in the garden had her hands looked like they did then ...After only three days in this jungle... she thought, three days since she had eaten anything that didn't taste like Elmer's glue pudding.
"No, the world really isn't quite like that, Gabrielle. You're right though, I don't get out much."
Just then, Tla'a reappeared, laden with large green fruits she had harvested from a short palm a little ways off the path. Using her small machete, she lopped of one side of each globe, revealing they were thick hollow shells, filled with a sloshing liquid. Tla'a passed out one to each and then took her own and drank deeply, which Xena did as well, sipping from the deep green cup's fibrous lip and finding the liquid cool and sweet. She smiled, which was all the encouragement Gabrielle and Alice needed.
Gabrielle got the sweet juice down her chin as she drank, and nearly fell backwards as she tilted her head back with the heavy cup balanced over her mouth. "What are these things we are drinking?" She gestured at the now empty shell she held, her entire face and neck wet with the clear juice.
"They are called pipas, by the Outsiders. Outsiders say that if you are smart and magical, you are 'muy pipa.' You call them... water coconuts?" She looked at them, not quite trusting the goddess' language spell to get things right.
To everyone's surprise, Alice laughed out loud and jokingly added "Tla'a! Eres muy pipa!" In response to their looks, she sobered just a little and added, "I studied a little Spanish once."
"Are you a scholar where you are from?" Gabrielle asked, deciding once and for all she liked the quirky woman from the future. Especially when she laughed. "You certainly seem to know a lot of things!"
Alice thought about the question seriously. Then, with only the smallest of hesitations she said, "No, I wasn't much of anything where I am from. I would sample knowledge, but I never committed to actually learning anything. And lately..." She shook her head, for the moment desolated by the choices she had made in the last few months...Margaret! Forgive me!... and by the poverty of her terrified and privileged life. "I have never been really knowledgeable. And lately... I have become a fraud."
The empath-bard felt Alice's pain with her all her senses. In a move that was purely from her soul, she took a hand in hers, ignoring the blush that crept across the smudged face of the taller woman.
Tla'a, took Alice's other hand and added, very softly, "Eres muy pipa tambien, Alicia."
An instant later all sentimental moments were forgotten as the sound of a helicopter loomed suddenly close, very close. Xena cried out "Hide! Over here!" and pulled them into a pile of fallen trees and snags. Gabrielle and Alice burrowed into the thicket of timber as Xena lingered just outside the entrance. Tla'a had remained behind to hide the chopped up remnants of the pipas, then she came too at a dead run, somehow blending into the shadows as she ran lightly through the brush. Xena slipped behind the screen of deadwood just ahead of Tla'a, who squeezed in beside her. Then the thunderous machine came into view above the trees of the clearing.
Tla'a pushed Xena back further, until they were directly under the thickest trunks of the pile. "They cannot see through wood or stone," she shouted into Xena's ear, "but they can see if you are hiding behind leaves and bush."
As the airship passed overhead, Xena wanted to get a better look at it. Peeking out, she was startled to see a gaping door in it's side, with people sitting in it, legs dangling off the sides. They held what were clearly weapons. She sat back and asked Tla'a, "What are those weapons they hold?" With her arms she pretended to be holding one. "What do they do?"
Tla'a's face seemed to show her true age for a fleeting moment. She looked Xena straight in the eye and said "They shoot small pellets that blow holes through a body. They fire many pellets at a time..."
"Guns," Alice amended the conversation bluntly. "In my language they are called guns. And they are everything she says they are ..."
"A coward's weapon." Xena concluded with venom in her voice. "But very effective."
The topic of guns focused Alice's attention away from where it had been, in the dark curls at Tla'a's temples. "Xena. I have been thinking about this trek we are on here, and I've got a couple of questions."
Xena drew herself up as far as she could in their close quarters, and crossed her arms. "One question, Alice."
"All right, one question. Is there some kind of plan we are following here?"
Gabrielle snickered behind her hand and scraped some mud off her boots. Usually it was she who nagged Xena about a plan. But, lately Gabrielle's focus had shifted more to simply keeping up with the warrior, and less on what they were actually doing. It got like that now and then since...since other things about the Warrior Princess had captured her interest. As they all gathered close around Xena to hear the plan. Gabrielle's listened with only half an ear, cozying up to her lover in the tight space ...I love it when she gets all warriory... She fanned herself with a leaf and listened, as for Alice's benefit, Xena laid out her typically brilliant, but obscure strategy. With a beatific smile, Gabrielle wondered how many things about the plan Xena wasn't telling them this time...
In the Company camp, there was a shed, mounted on a rail car, pulled on tracks laid down over gravel and mud. It moved with the camp as the construction reached further into the wilderness. The shed was run by the Company, and it sold rum and Cokes to the local contracted labor. The terrible rum was distilled right in the shed, from raw sugar harvested by the Company in a nearby country, one also with the misfortune of having it's politicians on the Company payroll. During the day the shed's operator, a Company employee, filled discarded bottles with the second-rate rum and put them back on the shelves for sale. Under a moldy canvass tarp strung out from the shed, some of the laborers gathered in the light of a single bulb, to give too much of their pay back to the Company. They stood in the mud, as the gas generator rattled and banged nearby.
The North American crew bosses, the Jefes, as well as the heavy equipment operators lived much differently in a separate part of the camp, farther down the tracks. They watched their stock options rise in value and collected bonus pay for the hardship of a foreign assignment. The Jefes wore clean pressed clothes, and little khaki vests with pockets. They wore Company baseball hats, with the Company logo, carried cell phones, keys and clipboards. They drove Jeeps, and slept in air-conditioned travel trailers mounted on the flat cars of the supply train. The Chief of Operations had his office on a half a railcar, the other half outfitted with a fully equipped tavern that offered quality Baccardi and aged bourbon to the Company's gringo employees, free.
Hidden in the bushes behind the rum shed, the four women huddled and whispered. With Alice and Tla'a at her side, Xena was keeping them busy answering her many questions. Gabrielle stood behind the trio and listened to every answer, adjusting her leaf cap to keep her bright hair covered.
Only gradually, did Gabrielle grasp the meaning of what was so harshly illuminated in the glare of the floodlights. The forest...and then even the land below it had been methodically destroyed. It was now a graveyard of stumps, and piles of smoking ruin. Corpses of trees stacked higher than the those that had once stood, looming in the distant shadows like ghastly mountains. Some machinery still pushed and graded huge swaths the barren earth, flattening it neatly.
It was a lot to take in, even for the jaded warrior, but it was completely beyond the scope of the gentle bard. Her eyes shown white, darting worriedly back and forth, from her companions to the evil vision before her, and she moved very near to Xena. She had not seen the earth stripped and flayed before, scorched and barren perhaps, and once shrouded in ash. Compared to those things, what was being done to the earth with these machines was an abomination. Her empathic senses assaulted her with the radiant pain she felt from the earth beneath them.
"Listen!" Xena hissed.
"I don't hear anything!" Gabrielle gasped.
"Right, no bugs, no owls, no bats, but there is one sound..."
They all heard a hissing, then a little way off, they heard another.
"She-serpents.." Tla'a spoke reverently. "They gather."
Xena stared at the sorceress in wonder. "You can communicate with them, can't you?"
It was certainly no secret among Tla'a's people. "Yes, with most things I can."
"Would they be willing to give us a hand?"
A ghost of a smile crossed Tla'a's paradoxical face. "They gather for that reason."
Xena nodded respectfully and turned to her lover. "So the...what do they call those, again?" Xena gestured at the heavy equipment.
Gabrielle shrugged and looked at Alice.
But it was Tla'a again who spoke, "Bulldozers!" The young face out into a radiant smile, one of her first. Alice suddenly realized how very beautiful the sorceress actually was.
Xena went on. "So the... bulldozers are machines, like the helicopters, that I understand. But what makes them go?" The warrior directed her question to Alice.
Alice wasn't ready for the question. "It's a type of fuel..." She tried to imagine an ancient Greek person understanding the concept of "fuel," and tried again. The are tanks in the machines with a liquid that burns, the burning causes the machine to move."
Xena nodded, that almost made sense. She understood about burning liquids better than most. "Is there a way we can torch them?"
Alice's eyes got big and round, as she imagined throwing a lit match into the gas tank of a bulldozer. "No! Not that I know how to, not without blowing ourselves up, as well!"
But Xena was just beginning to make a plan. "Well what about something else? Can't we put something in the tank? Water?"
Alice thought hard, letting her gaze wander over to the shuddering and banging of the generator, absently noticing some bags piled against the back wall of the shed, and the word painted in white on the sack. She even mouthed the word before she realized what she was saying, "Azucar."
"Sugar!" Alice's eyes and smile shone brightly through the darkness. "We can use sugar! Those bags are full of it!" Suddenly, Alice was ready to be part of the fun. "We need to get some of those bags, Xena."
That is how a catalyst talent works. You could miss the whole thing, if you didn't know what you were looking for.
Xena studied a bulldozer parked nearby, considered it's complexity, and then looked at Alice for what seemed like a very long time, measuring her. "Can you find the tanks?"
"I think so, but I'm not sure. I know I can find them on many of the smaller machines. A few handfuls of sugar in each should ruin them."
"How about the flying bulldozers?" Xena asked.
"Helicopters!" Gabrielle corrected gleefully.
"Well, I'll just have to take a look, I guess..." Alice did not know any more about air craft than she did about heavy equipment.
"Well, do you know what in Hades that thing is?" Xena jerked her thumb at the pounding generator.
"It's a little engine like the bigger ones, it runs to make power to the lights..." she pointed at the various floodlights, then almost laughed at the look on Xena's face staring directly into the glare, eyes wide with comprehension.
Thunderstruck at the incalculable technology arrayed before her, the warrior decided any advantage was worth using. She motioned for them to stay put, and ran warily past the hammering generator. Leaping up onto the flat of the rail car, she braced her body against the shed's back wall. Just on the other side of the thin, wood wall, she could hear the tavern keeper in loud conversation with someone, both men shouting over the noise of the machine. Quickly, she scooped up four sugar sacks as if they were firewood, and was back in the bushes with her steal before Gabrielle had even considered following her.
Stashing the sugar in the forest, Xena led them down the rail line, cloaked by the deep shadows thrown by floodlights on the other side of the empty boxcars. As they hurried along through the mud, three out of the four gawked at the intricate machinery of the wheels of the train cars. They passed what looked like several little houses on flat bed cars, with no lights in the windows. Finally, they reached the end of the line and hid themselves around a pile of uprooted brush.
Before them was a large boxcar, it's interior brightly lit and booming with music, several men gathered at one end. Talking loudly, they climbed up some stairs and went in, lights and loud music pouring briefly out the door.
"These would be the ones in charge." Xena growled, remembering the different scene at the shed with the local laborers. She stared at the sign painted proudly on the side of the boxcar, noting the vague resemblance to Greek. "What does that say, Alice?"
"Velasca Co." Alice read out loud, startled at further evidence of the divine struggle she found herself in.
Gabrielle turned, her eyes begging Xena wordlessly.
Xena brought her hand up to the smudged cheek of her lover, "I know, love." She gave Gabrielle a soft, quick kiss on the cheek.
Then she turned to Tla'a, and said evenly, "Tla'a, station yourself so that you can shoot darts into anyone trying to leave the big boxcar for the next three or four hundred heartbeats. Then make your way back to the hiding place in the deadwood stand."
Tla'a nodded and added, "By dawn, I will return to the place." She thought there were a few more things she could do before she made her way back to their rendezvous. She was pleased for a chance to strike at the heart of the beast, but she couldn't help but rest her hand for an instant on Alice's shoulder, as she left.
She darted out from the cover and, tucked her small body under the wheels of the train itself. There, with a good view of the door, she carefully laid out her set of blowpipes, from the bundle she had been carrying. Into the smallest, she fit a tiny quill, it's base wrapped in dark cotton, the whole thing no bigger than the last joint of her smallest finger. These little darts were her pride and joy, and she made them with all the skill of her long life. Well aimed and blown, they felt just like the sting of an insect.
An armed guard strolled casually by, and Tla'a helped him to end his patrol early, dragging him beneath the train, and removing the dart from his hand.
With Tla'a obviously in control of the situation, Xena led the other two back down the line, to the first and finest of the little houses, up on it's wheeled platform. "Ok, you stay put." Xena glared at Alice, whose eyes were wide as saucers. "Don't move. Don't do anything but stay here. We'll be right back. Gabrielle, you got the packets?"
"I sure do, Xena!" Gabrielle sang back softly. "And the sooner I'm free of them, the better!" She held a string bag up gingerly.
The warrior smiled, more than a hint of mischief in her face. "Well then." Her face became feral, almost greedy. "Let's just go put these where they belong!"
Together, Gabrielle and Xena stole out of the bush and across a small stretch of bare ground, shaded from the flood lights. They climbed some spindly metal stairs, fumbled with the door's strange handle, and slipped silently inside the little house.
Gabrielle and Xena found themselves alone, inside a luxuriously designed travel trailer, complete with pop-out living room. It had been shipped in from the United states on a freighter and mounted on the flatcar, and it was the living quarters of the Chief of Operations, Butch Whittman.
But the two women from an ancient civilization knew none of that. Gabrielle spied an illuminated switch sticking out from the wall, and flipped it impulsively.
"Wait!" Xena hissed, too late.
Suddenly, almost painfully, the room was brightly illuminated. And for a moment, all the women knew was the amazement of having stepped through a door into the future of their surprising race.
Gabrielle gasped with wonder, her voice exalted. "Xena! Will you look at this? Look at this!" She sat primly at the little table, her hands flat on the cool, smooth surface, and beamed up at the warrior. "Isn't this a nice place to eat?"
Xena was still absorbing the experience of the light coming on so violently. She reached out, flipped the switch again, and dropped the little room back into darkness.
Only to be lit once again as Gabrielle opened the refrigerator door, and to her delight found what she instantly recognized as food. "And this!" She fumbled with the packaging, gave up, and stuffed it and a few of the more interesting items into her goat bag. "Thank you Gaea! I was getting hungry!" She recognized a chicken leg and bit into it tentatively, then smiled brightly. "Mmm! It's so good, Xena! Want a bite?"
"Have it your way, then..." Leaving the door of the refrigerator open, she skipped off down a hallway. A light came on at the end, and the bard's voice called back happily. "By the gods! And most especially, this!!"
Shutting the door of the refrigerator, Xena hid her grin with her hand and followed along. She knew Gabrielle had been deeply shaken by the grievous harm that had been done to the earth and the forest, and was more than a little relieved to see her spirits rise again.
Xena found Gabrielle in a plush bedroom with a wide and inviting bed. She spun around to the warrior, her eyes aflame with wonder. "Xena." she said, her hands on her hips. "We have got to get one of these!"
Xena pulled back a step, knowing that tone. "Gabrielle, stay focused! We're here for a reason!"
Shrugging, Gabrielle got on with her mission, picked out a leaf packet with just a finger and thumb, and tucking it under the sheets, down by the foot of the bed. Then, holding the chicken leg in her mouth, she grasped the packet through the sheets and broke it open.
"There you go Xena, several hundred baby ticks hungrily await their first meal!"
From Tla'a, Xena had learned that in certain kinds of clearings, on particular types of plants, one could find tick hatches. Born by the hundreds onto a single leaf, they waited to swarm onto the body of any hot blooded animal that might brush by. Even after they had been dislodged, the bites were notorious for driving people crazy with the weeks of itching afterward.
After hearing these attributes, these ticks had been Xena's first recruits from among the jungle's diverse denizens. She and Gabrielle had snipped off the little nests, folded them carefully in multiple layers of rubber leaves, and tied them tightly shut with braided grass. Gabrielle had just ended the captivity of one full nest of the baby bloodsuckers in the silk sheeted bed of Butch Whitman, Chief of Operations Executive of the Company's branch of Foreign development.
Gabrielle shuddered, took the chicken leg out of her mouth and said, "It's a shame to do this, you know, it's such a beautiful bed...and we haven't been getting much private time lately..."
Xena could not have agreed more. She suspected that most of their quiet intimacy had been far from private, but she said nothing.
The bard stood up from her task and looked around the little room with admiration. "This wagon's a wonder! Xena, I really mean it. I want us to have something like this when we get back home."
"You've got to be kidding..?" Xena found a light switch, and very slowly turned it off. Clowning a little, she flung an arm around Gabrielle's neck, and pulled the reluctant bard back down the hall with her.
"Well," Gabrielle's tone dripped with honey, and determination. "Maybe not something this fancy, of course, but still, I think a little wagon would do. We could get a couple of draft horses, and Argo could walk alongside, and you and I could sit on the bench together, and..."
"Gabrielle, no." She opened the door cautiously and looked outside.
"Oh, please Xena?" She turned her eyes, green and mournful, up to the warrior's steely blues and used her ultimate weapon, saved for such a moment. "Not even for our six-moons anniversary?"
Xena was well caught, but knew they would be caught for real if they lingered. Gabrielle got chatty at the oddest moments lately. She seemed completely unconcerned about the danger.
"When we get back to Greece, we'll talk about it, okay?" Xena hoped the ploy worked.
"Good, I knew you'd agree!" Gabrielle chirped happily, taking another bite of chicken and talking as she chewed. "Okay, I'll sit on the bench and you ride Argo. It will be so nice to have a little place to go, don't you think? Xena, does it ever feel to you like millions of people are watching us?"
The warrior took the bard by the shoulders, just as she was starting to elaborate. "Can we talk about this later? Really, I promise! Later! Just not now, okay?"
"Sorry, I got carried away. Let's go!"
"How many more packets have you got?" She climbed down the spindly stairs and held out her hand to Gabrielle.
"Nineteen." She tossed the chicken bone away, took the warrior's hand. Holding the string bag and it's contents away from her body with the other, she descended the stairs with royal grace.
Once reunited with Alice, they sneaked through the boxcars, and were able to slip the rest of their tick bombs into many other beds reserved for the Company elite. Then cautiously, staying in the shadows, they returned their sugar stash behind hut. Each took up a sack, except Xena who carried two, and they walked a long way in the mud and shadows, until they approached a bulldozer poised to push down a slender sapling in the morning. Waiting for Alice to find the entrance to the gas tank, Gabrielle climbed up into the little glass cage and sat in the operator's seat there, scowling down at the beast's controls. She was surprised to find instructions drawn on a metal plaque, and studied them with some interest in the bright moonlight.
Eventually, Alice found what she was looking for and unscrewed a cap, sniffing, she looked back with a grin that stood out white against her darkened face. "This is it!"
Xena stepped up to help heft up a bag of sugar, and Alice punched a hole through the burlap with the breast dagger. The crystals jingled almost musically into the foul smelling opening. After a moment, Alice capped the tank again, and they backed away.
"So, that's it?" Gabrielle asked Alice.
"Yep!" She answered, delighted. Destroying a bulldozer that was about to kill a tree in a virgin rain forest was just a bonus of this adventure. She felt strong, and sure of herself. "Sugar will do it, when they start the engine tomorrow, it'll turn into glue and shut the down."
...This is too easy! And not a guard in sight!!... Xena crowed to herself. Then out loud she barked, "Let's go get the rest of them!" and pulled Gabrielle away from the sack of sugar, where she had dipped a wet finger into the sweet powder.
The little group moved stealthily from machine to machine, pouring sugar into gas tanks, or into any hole that they could find on the bizarre contraptions. Gabrielle, Alice and Xena worked as a team, one always watching for trouble.
A short time later, Xena was skulking around a new machine, one with one long arm and a bucket for scooping. She looked for the proper hole to pour her sugar into, when she realized that Gabrielle wasn't behind her any more. She set the sacks down next to a giant rubber tire and nearly jumped six feet straight up into the air when the machine coughed and sputtered to life. Looking up, she found the bard grinning impishly down at her from the driver's seat.
"Gabrielle! What are you doing?" She shouted, looking around for Alice.
From her examinations of the instruction plates in several vehicles, the bard had become convinced that she could operate one, figuring the noise from the machines still operating in the camp would cover the noise, and she might be able to do some damage to something important. Actually, the bard was just unable to resist a chance with one of the awesome machines of the future.
She squinted at the instruction plate and pulled a lever. The tractor's grumbling rose to a whine and it rolled forward, bumping so severely, the little bard was nearly thrown from her seat. Her leaf cap slipped down over one eye, she took her hand off the lever to set it straight, and the whole thing swerved away from Xena and toward a small shed.
Xena jogged beside the lumbering bulldozer, shouting up at her bedeviled beloved. "Gabrielle! Have you lost your mind! Get out of there!"
Gabrielle waved back, taking her hand from a lever momentarily again, causing the machine to stop and spin, nearly flattening Xena, who leapt out of the way with a curse. "By Zeus' flabby ass, if you don't get down from there I'll..."
But Gabrielle smiled beatifically and pushed the contraption into a lurching forward motion, and clenched her teeth in a feral grin as the toothy bucket on the arm punched through the corrugated metal and snapped the wood frame inside, lifting the whole structure off the ground.
"Whooo Hooo!" she cheered. She let it keep growling along, until it had rolled over the whole thing and squashed it into the mud. Laughing a little too hard, Gabrielle, pulled back on the lever and the big machine ground to a stop. Though neither woman knew, Gabrielle had just wiped out all the camp's chain saws.
Gabrielle just couldn't stop laughing, even when Xena yanked her out of the machine before she could even think about getting down.
"Hey!" The bard's tone was serious. "I don't feel I should have to remind you that we have an agreement that you won't use overwhelming physical strength on me without my express consent, remember?"
Xena paused, remembered the rule and released Gabrielle, sheepishly. "Sorry, Gabby. I forgot."
"Well, you just watch it, Warlord! No more pushing me out of the way, elbowing me, especially hitting me. That was the agreement, right?"
"Right." Xena shifted to another foot. "But..." she looked up craftily, "It didn't have anything about pulling you out of a dangerous machine that could have killed you! Right?" They picked up their sacks of sugar.
"Right, but that's not-"
"And you don't get to do any of that stuff to me either, right?" Her voice boomed in the abrupt silence, as the engine of the dozer finally stopped dieseling, and died.
Then they both heard the sounds of a scuffle.
The sounds came from the other side of a nearby machine. There they found Alice in a desperate struggling in the mud with a large man. Even as they watched, he pulled out what Xena recognized as a small gun and tried to bring it around to aim at Alice beneath him. Before Xena could react, Alice slammed the heel of her up hand into his face, and the gun fired wildly astray.
He never got a second chance to fire, because the gun was kicked out of his hand by a booted foot, and he was hauled to his feet by a ravishingly beautiful but fully armed and armored ancient Warrior Princess. To say he lost track of what was going on just then would have been an understatement. Later, when he was interviewed about his memories of the events that night, no one bothered to take notes.
They left him tied to a bulldozer's front blade.
"That was a nice blow to his face." Xena said conversationally to Alice, as she tied the man up with his own belt. "My complements."
"Thanks. I took a few courses in women's self-defense. It finally paid off, I guess." Alice commented, as she poured some sugar into the man's pants, just in case some nearby ants might need a meal.
By the time they were done, all the machines they could find had been tainted. They were also able to get sugar into various tanks of some of the helicopters. And after each generator was finally shut off in the earliest hours of morning, a handful of sugar found it's way into each one's little gas tank. When the moon was low and the gray light of dawn was quickly stealing over the forest, the little group of saboteurs withdrew into the forest for a rest, back to the old pile of deadwood. They were just in time to miss the next rainstorm.
Long after moonrise in the camp, some Company employees slept more soundly than others, having nodded off with the help of Tla'a's invisible darts. Many more had helpfully anesthetized themselves by drinking too much and simply collapsing on the ground. Beneath the steel carriage of the train, Tla'a rolled her pipes and darts back into a bundle, knowing her companions would be finishing soon with their tasks and returning to the hiding place under the deadfall. She knew they would be expecting her, but Tla'a had a few more things she wanted to do. The venerable sorceress had finally seen the enemy of her people, and she knew in her heart the juggernaut could be stopped.
She also knew that the hollow walls of the office boxcar were infested with cockroaches; she could hear their foul chattering clearly with her sorcery. Fortunately... she thought with uncharacteristic irony ...my people have a very effective way of cleaning cockroaches out of our dwellings... Smiling again, she left her hiding place beneath the steel wheels and melted into the overgrowth.
Deep in the shadows, Tla'a found what she was looking for, not far from the edge of the clearing. Unlike the many stationary ant societies in the forest, this particular nation lived without a burrow or nest, moving continuously in search of food. They were always around where the earth had been disturbed, feasting on the fleeing creatures that had been stirred out of hiding. Her sharp eyes found the thick mass of dark ants glistening on the back of a log, and she called out in greeting to their collective soul, to the Queen of the tiny vagabond nation. She told them of the great treasure nearby, a nest of cockroaches, and was pleased to find the Queen receptive to sending out a brigade of harvesters.
Snapping a long twig off a tree, Tla'a delicately inserted it into the seething mass and waited while the Queen covered it's tip with the royal juices that said, "Follow me!" Then, with the brush strokes of an artist, she dragged the tip over the surface of the log, and along the ground behind her, leaving a trail of spoor that would summon the ants to where ever she went with it. Pausing to watch, she saw the teeming nest suddenly sprout a tendril, following the trail she had laid for them. Stealthily, though no one in the camp was awake to mark her strange behavior, the tiny sorceress dragged the stick all the way to the stair of the office box car. Then she pushed the scent up under the door, and left the stick leaning against the stairs for them to climb up on. She left the rest to the ants.
Tla'a had one more task before her, a monumental event was about to take place, and the honor fell upon her to unleash it. She found a good tree on the edge of the forest, and by the bright light of the moon and flood lights, she climbed it high enough to see over a broad stretch of the construction site.
Then the sorceress steeled herself for the thing that was going to happen. She anchored herself solidly in the tree, her knees bent tightly in a crouch, and wrapped her strong arms around some branches. Then, chanting softly, she gathered her magics about her, and called out to the she-serpents that she knew had gathered all around the camp.
With only a feather touch, she became aware of the presence of Gaea within her. The two then called with one voice, together giving forth a powerful but silent summons that chimed for leagues out into the echoing dark. Her face, soft with the trance, lifted upward into the moonlight, her long dark hair falling down her back, as in an enchanted voice she whispered the call. With infinite slowness, the snake tattoo began to crawl around her upturned face, and Tla'a smiled. One of the benefits of sorcery was the intense physical pleasure of using magic. For long, long moments, the twined consciousness of the goddess and the sorceress waited for the miracle to become visible.
The serpents had been waiting for the call, and answered with a sigh and a hiss, and with a liquid friction of movement through the leaves and the grass. At first it was not apparent, there was just a sense of a presence. Then, down below Tla'a's perch in the tree, there seemed to be a ripple of movement all across the forest floor.
The first one emerged into the clear, a giant even among these great serpents, the hide gleaming as it swept across the gravel beneath the rails, rasping. This one was followed by a phalanx of others, and more followed each before, until there were a hundred tercio pelos, roaming freely up and down the rail line of the sleeping camp. They found the men that had passed out on the ground from dart or drink, and curled around them tightly. Many doors had been left open, and they pushed through the screens. They left the poor local workers alone, even those passed out by the rum shack, but many of the Company's elite woke up in the embrace of an unexpected bed partner. A few, men who had distinguished themselves with cruelty to the forest's creatures, never woke up at all. One man, an engineer who enjoyed running bulldozers over slow moving sloths, was granted a lingering moment of terror, before the fangs delivered his death.
And so it was that the local workers awoke the next morning, unaware of what had taken place in the night. They were never able provide the Company Management a satisfactory explanation for why the entire contingent of US employees went completely insane the next morning and walked off their jobs. And no one ever did learn what became of Butch Whitman, Chief of Operations...
Velasca roared out of the clouds and landed in the churned up mud near the Company's office car, sinking in to the tops of her boots. Dressed for the woods in all her old Amazon trappings, she squirmed. The bodice had always been too damn tight. But her clothing wasn't the only thing about Velasca that was cinched up in a knot. Something had happened to her precious project, her attack upon the old temple had stopped dead in it's tracks...
Looking down at her feet in disgust, she pulled one out of the clinging mud, a sucking sound resonating in the silence. That was just too much for her fragile temperament, and she gathered a bolt of angry fusion to fling...somewhere....
"Aha ah ah aaaah!" A high pitched voice twinkled around her head, and pink sparkles sizzled in her ears.
Velasca swatted the sparkles and dropped her bolt into the mud. "I'm the goddess of Chaos," she groaned, "I'm not supposed to have bad luck!"
Aphrodite shimmered into being, afloat in the air before her, perched on a stool in front of a mirrored vanity. Her hair was in a pink beehive, with silver Chinese lanterns pinned to the sides. She wore vintage cat eye sunglasses with matching pin and chain, and a gleaming white spandex "Elvis for Her" body suit. Her nails were three pink inches long and encrusted with diamonds. Tightly crossing her long legs, she leaned provocatively on the vanity and beamed down at the bogged down goddess.
Velasca growled and said nothing. She always lost the battles of words with this one.
"Careful, dearie!" Aphrodite chirped. "You know the ground rules! No thunderbolts, or you don't get to be here, messing with the mortals! It's in the new inter-deity treaty, and Zeus means for all of Olympus to follow it. I happen to agree with anything that helps the gods and goddesses get along. Some of those new gods are to die for!"
Glowering, Velasca crossed her arms across her chest, adding to the rather painful situation created there by her overly tight bodice lacings. "And I'll just bet you'll be reporting back to Zeus, won't you?"
"That is entirely up to you, oh Goddess of Untidiness. Entirely up to you..." Her voice sunk into a sultry purr and she wiggled in her seat. "I am amenable to a certain form of bribery..."
"Forget it, Aphrodite! You disgust me, Whore Goddess! You always have and you always will! I would rather lay with a beast!"
The goddess of love pouted, then a single pink eyebrow arched. "Well, Velasca. I'm sure that can be arranged if that is what you prefer..."
Velasca yanked her other foot out of the mud, stalking out of the conversation, to find out what had happened to her fancy and expensive international development team of construction experts. There wasn't a thing moving, not an engine smoking, not a dozer, not a chain saw...
~~Continued in Part Four~~