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On the morning of the worst day of his life, Butch Whitman woke up early, scratching. The next thing he noticed was the absence of his morning Bloody Mary that should have been waiting for him on his bedside table.
"Hector? HECTOR!" Irritated, Butch bellowed for his house boy, amazed when he didn't instantly hear the sound of Hector's hurrying feet. Cursing sourly, he threw the covers off, got out of his bed and slumped down the narrow hall to the wet bar in the tiny living room. Dumping Tabasco into a glass and scratching himself through his boxers, he pondered the faults of his house boy. The light in the fridge didn’t come on as he retrieved his can of V-8 juice. He noticed most of his food was gone, and he wondered with mounting anger if Hector was stealing from him. He took the bottle and the drink with him back down the hall.
By the time he reached the bathroom, he had finished his drink and started on the bottle. Propping his leg up on the side of the shower stall, he turned on the water, but nothing happened.
Butch was a fairly complex man, he liked the details to be perfect about very particular things. Hector called him detallista, behind his back, of course. But, as his gaze narrowed down to the dozens of tiny red spots that dotted his knee, this detail of the water not coming on became the very last thing on his mind.
Grunting, he rubbed his eyes and looked closer, his red face contorting with the effort. There were black specks within the red spots. He doubled over painfully, releasing an surprising amount of flatulence. With his face only inches from his own knee, he squinted and saw the black spots had legs...
"Ticks!" he yelled, his voice jumping an octave.
Scanning himself, he found the tiny blood suckers had latched on to his feet in droves, both of his legs...he yanked down his boxer's and found them in the worst of all possible places...there must have been fifty alone on his...
Butch screamed uselessly, embarrassingly, for a man of his importance. Jumping from foot to foot, he tried to brush them off him with his hands, pry them off with tweezers, and even to smoke them out with a burnt match head. These attempts yielded nothing but painful and dubious results. Finally, dancing with his growing discomfort as the angry welts began to rise, he got out a company issue first aide manual, and found a remarkable solution to his problem under "Insect Emergencies: Ticks." The manual read: "Ticks: A safe way to dislodge a Tick is to rub Kerosene lightly over the area, then wash. Do not attempt to remove Ticks any other way!"
Gritting his teeth, Butch found a hurricane lamp, poured the kerosene into his empty glass, snatched a sponge from the kitchen sink and returned grimly to the bathroom... to perform upon himself one of the most unspeakable acts he could have ever imagined. But, as it turned out, Butch only lacked imagination.
About a half hour later, he emerged from his quarters, reeking of the kerosene he had been unable to wash off, each and every tick bite on fire. He waddled purposefully along the tracks to his office, a couple of cars down, trying not to think about the itching. He was sure something was wrong, terribly wrong, having finally realized that none of the electrical functions in his quarters were operational.
Walking as fast as he could in the early light of dawn, he ignored the odd, brown patches on the ground that he stepped in. His attention sharpened somewhat when, arriving at the entrance of the office, he found a thick trail of ants swarming up a convenient stick propped up against the stairs. Eyes narrowed with suspicion he spun around, and comprehended the dark patches on the ground were actually millions of ants. They formed an interconnected network of trails and islands where they massed if they found something edible. Transfixed with horror and fascination, he watched the pieces of a giant grasshopper bob by on a little ant river that ran by his foot.
At the exact moment of Butch's comprehension, the various soldiers that had secretly climbed up into his pants, bit him simultaneously, on some silent cue known only to them. For the second time that morning, Butch screamed, as the bites were fiery and painful. He leaped up onto the stairs of the boxcar, whacking his pants violently, irritating his Kerosene-treated tick bites, and sending his general discomfort to a whole new level of agony.
Still batting the ants from his legs, he flung open the box car door and stumbled inside onto a clear patch of floor, where he encountered a scene so surreal that he was drawn stupidly into it, as if dreaming. The walls, floors, and ceiling of his office and the adjacent tavern were boiling with enormous clusters of ants.
"Hector! HECTOR!" Butch yelled into the tavern.
At that moment, Hector was actually kilometers away at his grandmother's house, breathlessly telling her about the magical attack upon the proyecto norteamericano. She was listening sagely and saying things like, "I told you Hector! You never should have taken up with them, not for all the money in the world!"
Things worked out all right in the end for Hector, though the same could not be said of Butch Whitman, who stepped over little throw rugs of ants as he walked with some care to his desk. There he found the tiny army had occupied his fine leather chair, where they were efficiently resectioning an enormous, writhing cockroach nearly as large as one of Butch's big hands.
Stamping his feet to keep his legs clear, he picked up a paperback book and used it to push the ants away from the controls of the Company's ham radio. He found, like everything else electrical that morning, that the radio was dead. There were even ants behind the glass of the radio's dials. Almost frantic with the itching and the pain in his lower extremities, Butch stamped his feet and pulled on his bottle of Vodka, and decided to check the camp's generators.
But Butch was destined to worry for only a short time about the generators. As he tilted his head back to take that long swig of vodka, he opened his eyes.
Ants locate their prey by movement and vibration, and Butch Whitman had made a great deal of that kind of noise as he moved about the boxcar. He had also made the mistake of settling down right below the base camp of the ant Queen, in a light fixture on the ceiling of the boxcar. Most of all, Butch had made no attempt to greet the Queen properly, as had Tla'a, and so was regarded by the Queen's army as a personal threat to Her. Though he would never know, Butch had broken nearly every rule of etiquette known to ants.
They had gathered there protectively around their Queen, as Butch Whitman dithered and stomped around his radio. Directly above the Chief of Operations, the ceiling lamp sank into the expanding mass, the swollen bud of connected bodies hanging pendulously down, like a dark shimmering tear about to fall.
This nightmarish site is what caused Butch to choke and sputter, spraying the ants overhead with his vodka, and inciting them to a violence beyond their offense at his bad manners. From deep inside the nest, the Queen felt the anger and hurt of her legions, and rearing up on her front legs, she gave the order to kill.
Butch began screaming again, but it was for the last time that day, as above him, thousands of tiny legs let go and a huge mass of offended ants landed squarely onto his upturned face. His screams were cut off, saving him from further embarrassment, as he fell to the floor, where he was instantly blanketed with the tiny assassins, who quickly saw to it he forgot about all the details.
By mid morning, the camp was empty. That was how long it took for the men who woke up in the embrace of the affectionate snakes to extract themselves. Not a single piece of heavy equipment was operational, the generators had all caught on fire when they started them, Butch Whitman was nowhere to be seen, and his office was full of army ants. The survivors left, each hosting a happy population of baby ticks, mad with a sudden fear of snakes. They drove away in a caravan of Company Jeeps that had been garaged in boxcars and spared the nocturnal sabotage. Locals left for their holdings, after raiding the cafeteria car, and by noon they were gone, too. It was as if the forest had had staged a coup d'etat, and won. For the time being, the attack upon the forest on the back of the turtle of the world had been halted.
Tla'a almost skipped through the trees and the rain, her smile radiant with joy and relief. There was no sound to be heard but the forest. No engines or machines... She was completely surprised when the warrior dropped from out of nowhere and pounced upon her.
"Talk about the nick of time!" Xena was very agitated. "We've got to get going!"
Tla'a paused, still grinning. "None follow, Xena! The camp is empty!" She felt like singing. She wondered where Alice was.
Xena bent low, looking a little too closely into Tla'a's radiant face. "Yes, but now we face a goddess! She will know soon, she may know already! Remember who Velasca is? Want to know what she’s like? Go ask Alice!"
Tla'a tried to sober up a little, as the warrior spun around and walked ahead, but her mood was still high and the relief of the forest around her was almost palatable.
As they arrived to the deadfall, they found Gabrielle and Alice packed and ready to go, having been roused by Xena earlier, who made it clear she expected them to be ready to go when she got back. They spent the short period of rest time munching on the modern delicacies Gabrielle stole from Butch Whitman's quarters, and napping. Gabrielle had been most impressed with a small plastic bag of gummi bears. She rolled the last little gelatinous jewel around in her mouth as they left, thinking modern advances couldn't have been all bad...
By mid-day, they made it back to the viewpoint near the way-station, and looked back down toward the construction site.
Gabrielle brought out her looking glass and trained it carefully onto the camp. Quickly, she handed it to her lover, commenting, "Nothing's happening that I can see..." As Xena held the glass up to her eye, Gabrielle asked her quietly, "You know, we didn't get all the machines, just the ones up near the trees, if they got some more people to drive them it wouldn't take much to..."
"I know, Gabs." The warrior watched motionlessly as she spoke. "It was just to get her attention..."
"Well, I'm sure it worked, then." The bard replied. She tried to be reassuring though, in her own heart, she dreaded the confrontation with Velasca, and what Xena might try do to stop her. She shivered, though the heat was intense, and found Xena's hand with her own.
Xena squeezed wordlessly, and led her away from the view. They were followed more slowly by Tla'a and Alice, who had taken to hiking as a pair.
At the top of the sharp ridge, the little path dipped into the ravine, and they found a very different place awaiting them. Water filled the canyon. It had risen to a level just below the footpath to the way-station beneath the hollow.
There, as before, they found Mas and Lusu'Be, as well as a number of the more sturdy individuals of Tla'a's band. They were given a sort of hero's welcome, as the successful attack on the dragon army had been observed as they worked on the damming of the little canyon.
Xena seemed very excited as she viewed the higher water level, and thanked them, through Tla'a, "This is so much more water than I expected! It is more than enough to flood the camp!" Her blue eyes darted back and forth, searching for her next idea. "Now, we just have to figure out a way to point it that direction...May I see the dam? And then I'd like to go back to the ridge..."
With some authority, Mas and Lusu'Be stepped crisply forward and escorted Xena back down the path the way they had come. Gabrielle looked at the water, which looked rather inviting, and down at her own body. Then she sighed and trailed along behind her lover, muttering something to herself about six-moons anniversaries.
That left Alice and Tla'a to benefit from the gratitude of Tla'a's people.
They were led by women to the edge of the new shore, behind a discreet screen of vegetation, and were given a cup full of a clear soapy tree sap and a dried, fibrous sponge.
Alice, charmed by the attention of so many women, loomed above them pale and smiling. Tla'a stayed close beside her, coaching her startled sisters, nieces, and cousins in the friendly intentions behind Alice's smiles. She encouraged them to come forward. One by one, she introduced them to Alice, who as graciously as possible returned their greetings. Finding her more receptive to their company than the first time they had seen her, they warmed up to her a little.
"What are they all saying?" she asked, hearing the same phrase repeated over and over among Tla'a's relations.
"Isash-Kenna. It is a greeting we say to one another, when passing on the paths in the forest, or when we step onto the land of another person's garden plot. It is an honorable greeting." She added the last , reserving they had once simply called her ghost, no greeting at all.
Alice tried to imitate the phrase politely, "Isash...isash-kenna... Oh, well...please tell them I am grateful for my honorable greeting. And, if you wouldn't mind apologizing for my behavior earlier in the temple..." The colorless eyes reflected the green of the forest, and begged Tla'a herself for forgiveness.
Tla'a turned and spoke softly to her people. The language was so soft, full of breath, clicks and percussions. It tickled Alice as she listened. "No harm was done, Alice. They are used to strange behavior when people come up out of the she-serpent's lair. I haven't been myself either, since that day."
The women were surprisingly deft with the buttons on what was left of Alice's clothing, removing it and urging her into the water with the soap. Tla'a simply squatted on the edge of a rocky overhang, rinsing her body as she had done all her long life, and watched with no expression.
But when the other women retreated behind the bushes to rinse and wring out Alice's clothing, the expression on the face of the sorceress began to change in subtle ways. She paused in her splashing and gazed at the nude back of Alice, transfixed with the exotic beauty of the pale creature in the shallow pool.
Tla'a had never mated in all her long life, devoting herself instead to the calling of her sorcery. She had given up eating certain animals and plants because of her rapport with them. She had given up all hope of a pairing, knowing she might be called upon at any moment to abandon her life and it's holdings, to die for the she-serpent and the goddess. But that had all changed, very suddenly, with the emergence of the goddess from within the sorceress herself. The divine awareness had flooded her, shifted her, and she had been rebirthed into a new awareness as well as a new body.
Her gaze strayed from the curves of Alice's bottom to the round horizons of her own brown breasts, and she thought about the transformation that had taken place in them as well. Lifting her breast in her fingers, she wondered at the nut brown nipple as it puckered and rose sweetly. Then, with a jolt that shot through her loins she was suddenly aware of her posture and it's revelations, and she looked up and into a pair of reflective eyes.
Alice felt the eyes upon her body. She felt awkward in the watery element, naked as Tla'a, who had always been naked and elemental. She felt so young near the enigmatic sorceress. Very slowly, she dropped and pivoted into the shallow water, and she faced the sorceress on her knees, her arms Xed across her chest. Her sex was not quite hidden beneath the water, but she was surprised to find that Tla'a was far more exposed than she.
Still in her crouch, Alice found the reserved sorceress engaged in a tender examination of her own breast, her chestnut skin gleaming golden in the afternoon sun. A shaft of the purest light slanted through the canopy above and caught the dark thatch of her sex in it's light. Alice watched the sparking water drip slowly from the shining curls and could not draw her eyes away from the dark lips drawn apart around the pink opening.
In a fever of confusion, their eyes finally found one another. The contact strengthened them both, as each saw the other's passion more and more frankly displayed.
Tla'a uncurled and drew herself up to her full height, boldly inviting Alice to examine her body. Among her people, the gesture was unmistakable.
But Alice remained on her knees trembling, as her gaze wandered over the lean bronze body of the forest woman ...so small, so powerful... Her heart pounded and her hands ached to touch. In all her life and many affairs, Alice had never been so inflamed. She sat back on her calves, and dipped her steaming sex into the water to cool it down, but it only created a more intense sensation for her to cope with.
But she didn't suffer alone much longer. Tla'a moved to close the gap between them, heedless of the glances of the women through the bushes. She was on fire, and through Gaea, she knew what the foreign woman needed. Kissing was a new thing to her, but Tla'a fearlessly bent her face down, and pressed her lips softly against Alice's. Their lips opened wide and she felt a shock of erotic energy when the soft tip of Alice's tongue emerged to bathe them both in it's slippery warmth. The wondrous kiss deepened then, and the sorceress felt the long fingered hands slide down to cup her bottom and pull her firmly in. She felt Alice's breasts press into her belly, and she wrapped her hand behind Alice's head and pulled their mouths in tighter.
The contact between their bodies was like continents meeting, after countless millennia of drifting apart. Alice and Tla'a were two gifted but solitary beings who had lived on opposite ends of a certain human continuum. The passion between them was a divine meeting of opposites, a pulling in of the ends to make a circle. Many old and festering wounds in the soul of the world were healed by that one great moment of joining. Though Tla'a and Alice never knew it, in that very instant, a small green frog in Central Africa began secreting a chemical that could cure AIDS. You just never know what love will do.
Alice moaned into the sorceress' sweet mouth, tears springing through her white lashes. Her body betrayed every intimate moment she thought she had ever shared as, for the very first time, Alice truly felt what love was like. Her soul rang with the news.
Tla'a was the first to pull back, shakily stepping out of the embrace, leaving Alice on her knees. She was aware of the flabbergasted expressions on the faces of her nieces, sisters and cousins, who weren't even pretending not to stare through the bushes. It was an awkward moment, but she was prepared to face the consequences. What terrified the sorceress, is what Alice might do.
But Alice did very little. She sat in the water, where Tla'a had left her, devastated the contact had been severed, but grateful for the opportunity to pull herself together. She rinsed her face in the water, and slicked back her pearly hair with her hands. As she rose up out of the water, her puckered nipples addressed themselves to Tla'a's, all of them with many unanswered questions.
Before either woman could utter a word, the bushes parted and Tla'a's sister A'clana approached cautiously. Before Alice she stopped, with a bit of paper cradled in her hands, and she spoke quietly to Tla'a.
The full translation of what she said was not given by the sorceress, who after a fairly long exchange of words only offered, "My sister found this in your clothes."
Alice took the folded paper, surprised to find it had survived the adventure, tucked away in the inner pocket of her vest. It was her mother's traveler check for ten thousand dollars, and it gave Alice a number of interesting ideas. She thanked A'clana as best she could, and tried to ignore what sounded like a heated exchange between the siblings before Tla'a's sister retreated back behind the bushes.
"Your relatives think you've lost your mind?" Alice ventured.
"Something like that." Tla'a almost snorted. "I reminded her I am twelve years older than she. She is having a hard time understanding the new...arrangement with Gaea."
"I'm not sure I understand it myself, but I'd like to. There is so much about you that I don't know."
Tla'a settled down in a patch of sun with her back against a stone and gestured for Alice to join her. The taller woman did, but awkwardly, not daring to look into the sorceress' magical eyes.
Tla'a spoke with wisdom of a long life, the passion of a youth restored, and the knowledge of a goddess, "Though the forest remains untouched, I will be forever changed. Though you may return to your home, you will be forever changed. We no longer know ourselves, but we know that much about one another. Do you believe in Gaea?"
Alice found she did believe in Gaea. She believed in the strange sanity that had overcome her mind. Even more than that, she believed in Tla'a, who had overcome her heart. She leaned into the body of the other, found the small arms were more than long enough to reach all the way around her, and as the sun dried their contrasting skin, she drifted into an exhausted nap. It was a brief, but definitive moment of utter peace in both women's extraordinary lives.
Gabrielle came pelting down the trail at full speed, yelling at the top of her lungs, nearly upsetting a basket of palm hearts that had been left where the path dipped into the hollow. She skidded to a stop, took in a full lung of air and bellowed.
Tla'a's people, who never raised their voices except in grief, scattered like spooked quail.
They came running out from behind some shrubs by the shore of the new lake, Alice as naked as the sorceress. They were trailed by A'clana waving Alice's clothing behind her like a banner.
Gabrielle forgot her rush for a breath-taking instant, with the sight of the nude women, symmetrically opposite, running astride. As they neared, Alice's bobbing breasts tried to explain the whole wonderful story to Gabrielle, but they were unceremoniously stuffed and buttoned up into the damp vest before they could get a word in.
Gabrielle blinked and time picked back up to it's breakneck pace. Her words poured out in a breathless rush. "Something's happening down in the dragon camp! Xena wants everyone to get out of here and back to the temple, now!"
Tla'a already had her machete in her hand, her peaceful moment in the sun a distant memory. She spoke rapidly to the people gathered, explaining. Mas and Lusu'Be looked like they wanted to argue about it.
Suddenly Xena was there, practically throwing off sparks in her agitation. The warrior's energy made the small blond hairs stand up on Gabrielle's arms, and in spite of the danger, she smiled a little wistfully.
With a nod to all gathered, Xena explained in a loud voice, "There is a helicopter in the air near the camp. It's searching for us, and I think I know who is in it." Her expression showed regret for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's face went from mild delight to sour. "Velasca." Her voice flattened to say the name. "How are you so sure?"
"I recognized the search pattern. It was developed by the Amazons to secure sections of forested territory, except she is doing it backwards. Only an amazon would know the pattern, and only she would run it backwards." Xena shifted her feet and went on hurriedly, "The dam was done very well." She smiled appreciatively at the people gathered around, who all stepped back quickly from the agitated warrior. Some decided right then and there to hit the trail back to the temple.
"Will you help me to remember that I've got to remember to stop smiling at these people?" she remarked to Gabrielle. "Anyway, we need to direct the stream so that it floods the construction permanently. And soon! The dam won't take another rain!" Unaware she was doing so, she smiled again, in a feral clenching of her white teeth that nearly cleared the hollow of it's spectators.
"And I just figured out how to do it!"
In the clearing on the other side of the little ridge, Alice struggled with the blue dome tent. Somewhere along the way, she had lost the instructions to it, and it was still badly snarled. She detached a little bag of stakes from the mess and dropped it to the ground with a thud.
Xena and Gabrielle stood nearby, watching the lone helicopter prowl over the treetops, sectioning off an area and beginning a new search pattern. Through the looking glass, she studied the machine, trying to understand how it operated. As she watched, the airship steadied for a moment, and then a smoke trail shot out from the arsenal below the glass windows, exploding in a fireball. The sound of a distant roar echoed back to them.
"I wonder if the aim on that weapon is any good, or if the idea is to just make a big explosion and get the target in the fireball?" Xena mused.
"Would Alice know?" Gabrielle offered helpfully.
Xena shrugged and, handing her the looking glass, walked over to Alice and asked her question.
Alice had the poles more or less laid out on the ground, and was trying to reconnect the sections through the thin nylon. She fully assembled one pole before she looked up. "You know Xena, I drove a Volvo. There's a big difference! I suppose they can be very precise in aiming..." She started on the third pole.
Gabrielle looked back at Xena, shrugged, and peered through the looking glass again.
Xena fretted, watching the tent assembly. "How's it going with that thing? Are you going to be able to get it back up?"
Alice stopped. "Don't you have some kind of preparation you need to do, too? Like digging a pit for Velasca to fall into, or rigging and avalanche...or something?" She got all the poles assembled and sat back in a squat, unconsciously mirroring Tla'a's position of choice. "Now, what do I do next?" she said out loud.
Xena’s eyes narrowed...now, how did she know about that?... she stepped forward impatiently. "Here, gimme that!" she said, picked the tent up by the poles and began wrestled with it.
Alice and Tla'a decided it was a good chance to take a break, so they left Xena with the project and joined Gabrielle. The bard looked back at Xena and spoke confidentially to them both, "She doesn't mean to be rude, she just gets really keyed up before a battle." She sighed a little wistfully, "It's good to give her a little room right now."
They watched the airship, visible below without the looking glass as it switched back and forth on its search pattern. Suddenly, it fired again, and there was a fireball, felling several trees. Alice noticed the trail of smoke that hung in the air was crooked, and an old memory of a Desert Storm documentary sprang up in her mind. She reached over and grabbed the looking glass out of Gabrielle's hand. Holding it up, she watched the chopper closely until it fired again. This time she was sure she could answer Xena's questions.
"They are heat-seekers!" She called back at the warrior. "Or motion-seekers! She's not aiming at all! She is just firing, and the missile does all the aiming for her..." Alice's voice trailed off, and she looked at Xena hopefully.
The warrior's hands had paused in their task as she listened, frowning. Puzzled, she thought out loud, "Then what's she firing at?"
Another explosion a little closer than the last, the echo carrying up to their position.
Suddenly, the tent and the poles worked, and it billowed into being. "C'mon! Let's set a fire!" She ran up the slope, with the tent like a big blue sail behind her.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled up the slope, as they got to her feet. "Why don't you tell us what you are trying to do? She just drives me nuts when she does this!" Gabrielle tried to keep it light, Alice looked like she might unravel.
Alice felt the excitement build in her like nausea, knowing they might be in terrible danger, knowing she may never live to find out what she and Tla'a had together. It was like waiting for a train wreck.
The three of them worked their way up the steep slope. Xena, having planted the tent at the peak of the ridge, was already blowing life into some smoking tender.
As she fed the little flame she glanced up to the other three. "Get as far away as you can, back in the canyon! This tent will draw her fire!"
"Xena, I'm staying with you!" Gabrielle raised her voice to match Xena's.
"No! Go, Gabrielle!" Xena shoved her away as she stood up from the fire, now burning strong. "There's no reason for you to stay!"
"Is that so?" Up went the elbows. "There's no reason for me to stay, huh?" Down went the chin. Gabrielle had enough , she was dirty and very hungry; this adventure had not been memorable for it's cleanliness and it's cuisine. Up came the finger and to Xena it pointed. "Well, I'll give you a reason Warrior Princess! You think you are going to take her on, if you can get her out of the helicopter, don't you? That's your big plan, isn't it? Well, Xena, even if there is this inter-deity treaty, she is still a goddess and you are still a mortal...a very strong and capable mortal mind you...and I think you are going to need some back-up!"
Tla'a and Alice looked back and forth, trying to decide if this was a private conversation or not. Down below, the helicopter was clearly on a course for their position.
"I get the point but-"
"And I'm not done talking yet!"
Xena glared, but she didn't say a word.
"You shoved me again! I hate it when you do that! And according to our agreement, you're not supposed to use your-"
Xena cut in, but her voice was tender and apologetic. "...my overwhelming physical advantage without your explicit consent. Sorry, Gabby." Xena took Gabrielle tightly by the shoulders and planted a firm kiss on her mouth. "Do you consent to this?" She kissed her again.
Gabrielle's face lit up again. "As a matter of fact, I do. Well, that's much better. Now we can get on with the action."
An explosion resonated on the slopes below them. Tla'a suddenly went into a defensive crouch, "The serpents!" she gasped "She's killing them!" She hissed, as Alice rushed to her side. They had only barely got themselves and the agonized sorceress under cover behind the earthen ridge, just above the waterline of the new lake, when another explosion could be felt and heard, very near.
Xena and Gabrielle edged up through the wind-tossed grass as the crashing of the warship's engines deafened them to any other sound. They looked straight across the top of the ridge to the spinning blade, then down a little into the glass canopy of the war machine, suspended above the opposite slope. There they saw Velasca, just as expected, enthroned at the warship's ornate controls.
Alice saw her too, in the icon from the Psychic Buddies, in the 'trust me' face of the anger management workshop facilitator. She knew then it was the face of Velasca, self-proclaimed goddess of Chaos. Terrified, yet with great and heroic bravery, Alice wrapped her arms and legs around Tla'a protectively, tucked her face into the dark hair and closed her eyes, as another explosion rocked them all, nearly burying them with churned-up earth. As the debris pummeled her, Alice knew she had exchanged worlds, leaving the gray protection of one for the verdant glory of another, and she prepared herself to pay the price.
The goddess of Chaos had a talent with aircraft. Velasca operated the helicopter as if she were combat trained and tested, dropping into gaps between the trees and dipping into canyons that rose above the seaboard.
Stealing one of her own helicopters had been disappointingly easy, as the entire camp had been depopulated. The office had been deserted, with no sign of her Chief of Operations, and the first two copters she had tried had been out of commission. Velasca was deeply suspicious that some kind of insidious defense of the ancient temple was being carried out, but she couldn't put a finger on how they had attacked the construction project, and she still couldn't understand why Alice Vander's trail had ended up here, of all places. Then, flying above the trees, she had spotted all the snakes, which had kept her entertained during the boring search pattern.
A maniacal expression seized her face, as she spotted another movement and squeezed off another round. The chopper lurched with the firing slightly, compensated for instantly by the computer's controls.
"And another worm dies!" She laughed heartily.
She tired of the hunt, when she noticed they were all headed in the same direction, and she sent the airship pounding ahead to find what the serpent's destination might be. Ahead, she spotted a speck of blue on a ridge line, and headed for it greedily. She dropped a scope down to view with, and found a fire burning with the heat scanners. The zoom showed her a blue dome tent, set up on the ridge, like a photograph of a campsite on an REI catalogue.
"Alice...I've got you!" The goddess hissed, knowing there had to be a connection to the tent and Alice. "Nobody betrays me!" She laughed melodramatically, and lowered the warship so that it brushed the tops of the waving trees, so that it's nose was level with the little camp.
Then, with almost sexual pleasure, Velasca aimed a heat-seeker point blank at the little tent, billowing innocently in the wind of the rotors. The copter's alarms intoned shrilly, warning against a close range shot, but she squeezed it off with no regard for whiny mortal instruments. A trail of white exhaust whipped out behind the missile, as it flew straight into the little tent, detonating with a tremendous explosion.
It was so tremendous that it breached the ridge, blowing up and scattering tons of earth. Then, with a roar the pent-up water in the canyon flooded out with such force it arched through the air, opening a wider and wider breech, and snagging one of the helicopter's runners, sending the whole thing listing over to the side. Velasca caught the motion of something flying through the air, and then the rotor blades began to shear off, like scimitars spinning through the air.
Xena caught her chakram and flung herself to the ground over Gabrielle as a huge blade whipped by over head.
As the discord of the tilted engines began to shake her teeth and rattle her bones, she covered the bard's body with her own, flattening her into the earth, her armored arms shielding the bard's head. A ball of fire tore violently through the air, then was quenched in a torrent of water. Mud, water and metal pelted them where they lay.
The crashing seemed to go on forever, then gradually it quieted to the watery roar, enough for Xena to shout "Stay put!" so they could all hear it. She edged up to the top of the ridge and peeked over. In a sparkling arch, the water shot out from the ridge and landed crashing on what was left of the warship.
Xena cursed bitterly when she saw the goddess stagger away from the wreckage, just before it was pushed down further by the flood, tumbling it end over end down the forested slope like a crumpled ball of metal scraps.
Fingers of the torrent rushed down into the flat of the seaboard, seeking and finding new paths for the insistent flood. Eventually, they reached the long, excavated trench carved by the Company's road project, and it began to fill. Though it would take some days, and some additional earthworks by the industrious forest people, the construction site was pleasantly destined to become a long shallow swamp, permanently flooded by the redirected runoff from the plateau. Happily, the peculiar conditions left behind by the Company produced the perfect nesting ground for the country's national bird, thought to be extinct. The sensational comeback of the ornate little creature also caused the new swamp to become a favorite stop on the world eco-tourism circuit, creating a whole new problem for Tla'a's people to deal with, but that is another story.
"Alice!" the Goddess' voice boomed, clawing her way back up the hill, her eyes white and flashing. "Alice Vanders! I know you are here! I can smell you!"
Alice's head came up sharply, the white-blond hair seeming to rise out of the earth itself, there was so much debris piled over both she and the sorceress.
Tla'a was still tightly curled, in deep and irreconcilable grief over the loss of many of her serpent allies, for the moment, in a world apart.
Gabrielle, all her own talents fully awake, saw a light come into Alice's eyes then, and as she sat up, the empath-bard felt something give way in the other. Then, to her absolute amazement and alarm, Alice stood up.
Xena curse quietly, but she knew Alice could buy her an advantage if she played it right. "Buy me some time, Gabrielle! I've got to get into a different position!"
Rather suddenly, something reckless had been born in Alice. Actually, as a powerful catalyst, she had always been capable of profound and instantaneous change. It was a transformational ability that even the goddess of Chaos could admire, but all her life, Alice had only tried to contain it. Alice faced Velasca at her full strength, without the rage of deprivation, or the fear of failure, or the blindness of self-preservation. She embodied her power, thought she did not yet know what it was, and stood up tall and proud, filled with the knowledge of her own redemption. Stepping out into view on the ridge, she had even forgotten to arm herself with the breast dagger.
"There you are! You remember me, don't you? Still have that lamp, the one you made in the anger workshop? Is it near your bed? Do you have bad dreams?" She snarled when she saw her taunts were getting no reaction, and it enraged her further. "Who are you working with? Is it Gaea? It's her isn't it? Where is she?" The goddess marched toward her, pulling shards of metal out of her body, the gaping wounds closing immediately. She paused, only steps away, and clenched her fists convulsively. "I can't decide what to do with you, kill you now, or take you back to the city and kill you there, after you've s d my purpose. There's no telling what sort of things the painful death of a well trained catalyst might trigger. Which shall it be?"
"You can kill me now, Velasca, but I will never be yours again!" Alice roared right into her face, just as she saw Gabrielle rise from behind the goddess' shoulder. With expert precision, the bard's quarter-staff came down with a crack across Velasca's skull, flattening her. Then they both backed up, and waited while the immortal jerked to her feet, merely inconvenienced by a blow that would have given any human a concussion.
"Vel-as-ca!" Gabrielle sing-songed, winking at Alice. "You remember me, don't you?"
Velasca turned away from Alice, and beheld her ancient enemy, standing only a few paces away, her nightmare reanimated, a defiant smirk on her face. Had she not been immortal, it is certain that Velasca would have died painfully of an aneurysm at that moment. The veins stood out in her face and neck as she struggled to comprehend the impossible return of the brat bard. Then, only hatred filled her. She faced her nemesis, and it was as if no time at all had passed since the Queen's mask had been taken from her by this woman's trickery... She advance upon the bard with murder in her eyes.
Gabrielle's staff came up in response, the smile gone from her face.
Velasca gathered herself to charge, only to be sent to the ground again, as a small log wielded by Alice came down against her back, breaking it momentarily in several places. She rose, her spine crackling.
Gabrielle and Alice circled Velasca on the uncertain footing of the hillside.
"Did you come to return my right of caste, Gabrielle? You're a little late!" Velasca clenched her fist and gathered an illegal ball of fusion to incinerate her.
Gabrielle backed up a pace or two as she circled, keeping her staff high. "Aren't you even a little interested in how I got here?" Catching another movement nearby, she added "Or who I got here with?"
Then Xena's battle cry trilled out clearly, over the roar of the cascade.
"Xena!!" Velasca screamed, looking around wildly.
It was Xena indeed, and she came flying out of a tree in a dive that landed her onto the shoulders of the goddess, and sent her and the bolt of fusion tangling headlong into the torrent of water, tumbling her down the slope once again.
When she rose, Velasca's face had become a mask of mindless rage. She narrowed her violence down to the threat of the warrior, mocking her from above, and with preternatural speed she raced back up the hill.
"If you want her, you'll have to go through me, Velasca!" Xena taunted.
"You! Warrior Bitch!" Velasca screamed hysterically as she sprang at Xena. They fought brutally on the edge of the flood, each trying to force the other into the violently churning water landing blow after devastating blow. Gabrielle leapt in and delivered a smashing stroke with her staff to the goddess' spine, and was rewarded with a backhanded strike that sent her into the trunk of a tree. Then the swords were drawn, and a classic duel unfolded across the muddy slope.
"Stay back, Gabrielle!" Xena called out to her lover, when she saw her try to rise from the ground where she had crumpled.
"Like Hades I will, Xena!" Gabrielle shot back, looking for her staff.
Alice backed up the slope, thinking to reach Tla'a, when a warm hand slipped into her own, and she found the sorceress was standing calmly beside her once again.
"Look." With her pursed lips, Tla'a pointed, her face unreadable, "They come."
Alice looked and saw the most remarkable thing happen in the foliage behind the sword fight. As if on cue, the bushes stirred, and the heads of a hundred tercio pelo she-serpents seemed to ooze out of the greenery, covering the ground thickly with their beautiful bodies. Some showed the signs of the goddess' attack, and bled from various wounds. To a serpent, they had unmistakably determined expressions on their reptilian faces.
Gabrielle saw what was happening. "Heads up, Xena!" she said in a low voice.
Recovering her balance from a vicious kick to her legs, Xena saw and reacted, unleashing the full measure of her skill. Her assault was furious, and it forced Velasca to pause in her advance. Keeping her swordplay fast and high, she lured the goddess into defending her face and head. Distracted, she didn't notice the liquid movement below, until the twining bodies had looped around her feet and bound her firmly to the ground.
Velasca's face froze and her fighting ceased as she looked at the writhing creatures around her lower legs.
Fickle to even her own ambitions, she decided to abandon the whole ground-visit, and return to the full privilege of deification. She gathered power to blast the brat bard and her companions permanently into atoms ...Zeus and his treaty be damned to Tartarus!... and she tried to launch up into the sky, but neither happened. The snakes held her firmly now, and had enveloped her up to her armpits.
Tla'a stood before her, quietly, and explained the situation for the struggling goddess. "These are the she-serpents, guardians of the sacred spring, and emissaries to Gaea. You have practiced murder upon them and the forest; they will not allow you to continue."
Xena stepped back and out of the way, saluting the serpentine mass with her sword. The mystical creatures had given of their lives to bring the goddess to her doom, it was their right to bestow it.
Velasca's laughter boomed, a note of hysteria ringing through as the collective held her tighter. From within the coiled bodies, she discharged blast after blast, but they seemed to reflect painfully back onto her, and cause no damage at all to the coiling bodies around her.
Velasca began to get nervous, she had never been fond of snakes. She threatened the little woman with Gaea's eyes, "I know you're in there, Gaea! You can't lurk forever, you'll have to account for this! I'll see to it Zeus hears you've interfered, you know! Zeus! ZEUS!"
Zeus heard the cry, but did nothing. He was cloud surfing nearby with the modern deity responsible for leading the treaty negotiations for the New Age, Timothy Leary, god of Macrocosm. They enjoyed the rare, warm surf, high above a tropical typhoon , spun out of El Nino. He knew Velasca had been the worst violator of the Inter-deity Treaty, and a huge embarrassment to most of the Olympic gods and goddesses. He made his final decision. "Velasca can just spend some time with the snakes."
"Far-out!" said Timothy, and together they caught a radical wave, forgetting all about the nasty little scene down in the jungle below.
Quickly, only part of the goddess's face was visible above what had become an enormous ball of serpents twining together in a single, determined purpose. Straining futilely against the magical strength of the serpents, it was Alice's astonished face that Velasca last saw before she was completely swallowed by the writhing mass.
For a short time the hissing ball moved and undulated, but nothing more happened. Then, one by one, the great snakes departed each slipping quietly into the bush. No sign of Velasca emerged, as the cluster got smaller, until the very last two or three serpents untangled themselves and slipped quietly away.
One particularly large snake, perhaps the very one that had tried Xena for lunch a few days before, had an exceptionally large bulge in its middle. Gabrielle cried out loud as they all realized what had happened to the goddess of Chaos.
"It ate her!" She cringed a little, as the hypnotic movement of the huge serpent headed slowly into the bushes with it's heavy load.
Making another face, she considered something horrible. "But she can't be dead, can she? She's an immortal, right? Doesn't that mean she's..." She looked at Xena, eyes wide, imagining being alive inside a snake...
Xena sheathed her sword and sagged against Gabrielle. "She has really got some kind of terrible luck, first lava and now snakes!"
Alice stared at the departing serpent, noticing something strange about its markings. She nearly jumped out of the remains of her loafers when looking more closely, she saw the bold, capitol letters go undulating by, "...A-A-A-A-A-A-L-I-C-E-A-A-A-A-A..."
She turned to Tla'a and asked, "Did you see that?"
Tla'a just smiled, and said, "Yes I did, but the only name they ever used to spell was my own." The magic in her eyes made them glassy and still, as she reached tenderly up to Alice's face, pulled it down, and claimed her in a kiss.
By the next evening, after another long, hot tramp, they were back in the sacred temple, deep in the thickly forested foothills of the plateau. They had been fed generously, if exotically, and A'clana herself had seen to their bathing. The warrior and the bard sat before the evening's fire, as they more or less had for every night of their life together. Gabrielle checked the various cuts and bruises the warrior had acquired lately, dumping the contents of the goat bag out to find the bandages.
Xena craftily hid the pan pipes under the pile, just as Mas and Lusu'Be joined them, tentative smiles on their faces.
Gabrielle had just given Xena a sample of the tale she might weave about Alice and Tla'a, and she sat quietly for a while, musing into the fire. It was a particularly bright fire that night, and idly she watched what seemed to be shapes forming into bodies, twined in the flames.
"I suppose," she said finally, "that Gaea will be sending us home soon, and we'll never see Alice and Tla'a again... I wonder how their tale will end?"
Gabrielle peeled a banana and watched Alice help A'clana carry and stack firewood for a nearby family fire. Alice had not chosen to wear her tattered clothing again, and was nude and barefoot, as were most of the people there, with the exception of the warrior and the bard.
"You know, Xena," she said, pointing with the fruit. "Naked is not a bad way to go through life in places like this." She took a full bite and went on, her mouth full. "I'm really gonna miss these bananas! Don't you think that clothing is just an artificial cover for our deeper feelings?" She tossed the peel in the fire and got back to her bandaging.
"You bet, Gabby." The warrior replied absently, not likely to become a nudist.
Alice walked back to the fire and sat down on a mat, stumbling over the words of a proper greeting to Mas and Lusu'Be.
"What are you going to do now, Alice?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
Alice replied quickly and calmly, without much hesitation. "Start over." She smiled, and the bard was startled again at how it transformed her face. "I'm lucky, you know. I don't think many get a second chance." The smile drifted away, and she stared somberly into the flames. "But I'm going to have to learn everything all over."
"What do you mean?" asked the bard. Tying off a bandage on the warrior's arm, she looked around at Xena's face, and found her lost in her own memories of starting over.
Alice thought a little while longer, then commented more to herself than to her fireside company, "I really mean everything. All my life, I've been so afraid that that something would come out of the blue and... destroy me. So, I got all the flu vaccines, I took the vitamins, I went to all the self-help workshops, I listened to the inspirational tapes, and I minimized liability for my employers."
She had lost Gabrielle and Xena, whose faces looked a little like Mas and Lusu'Be's, polite but uncomprehending.
"...I had lots of lovers, but they all eventually left me because I was so sure they would... I've done things you two would not believe to protect myself! And in spite of all that, the bolt out of the blue happened anyway. I've never been so scared in all my life..." She sobered, then brightened again, "But, here I am! I survived, and it turns out I am stronger than I thought!"
After a pause, she continued. "So, since a complete makeover is scheduled, I think I'll just stay here awhile, and I'll just see what happens. Tla'a wants me to stay ...though I won't be of much use to them at first..." She broke off, remembering something. "Though I may have some skills..." She took her mother's check from it's place in her vest, folded neatly nearby, and gazed at it thoughtfully ...I wonder how much of a bribe it would take to get legal protections for the forest...I'd have to find a phone...and some clothes...
As Alice drifted off into her own thoughts, Gabrielle nodded sagely, deciding the end of the tale would be a good one, a story of the lovers who found each other across a gulf of differences. She got out a quill and scroll and began framing the first sentences of the new story.
Tla'a joined them by the fire then, finding a place quietly by Alice's side, and for the longest time there was silence, but for the crackling fire and the movements in the coals.
The sorceress struggled at her deep most levels with the sudden and irreversible changes of her life. More than all that still, was the burning attraction she felt for the Outsider, healing from her soul's wounds, whose magic grew every day she stayed in the forest. She wondered at the distance she had with her own people, and whether she could ever believe in the same things as they had been.
The quiet deepened, until even the crackling fire burned silently, and Gabrielle and Alice sat up a little, as if sensing something about to happen.
Suddenly, Tla'a cried out, startling all who sheltered in the temple, stirring her people from their hammocks or their handiwork and sending them rushing to the fire to see what had happened. Fearing another unseen injury to Tla'a, Alice was surprised to find she was laughing, her delicate features in an expression of wonder and delight.
The sorceress leapt to her feet, joy ringing in her voice and lighting in her eyes, eager to tell her news. She spoke first in her own language, then to the rest of them. "I have seen it! It has always been true!"
Alice, not sure whether to laugh or be concerned, asked, "What? What have you seen, Tla'a?"
"The Turtle!" Tla'a laughed uproariously, slapping her strong thighs. Her mirth began to catch among her companions, though only Tla'a's people fully understood the meaning of her words. "Gaea took me to see the Great Turtle! It's true, we've known all along!"
Tla'a related to the rapt listeners how, with almost no warning, the playful goddess had simply pulled her consciousness up from the fire, high over the shrinking world. Then the earth had become one of many other worlds, and the farther upwards they traveled, the tighter the worlds massed together. Higher still they rose, traveling unimaginable distances, until all the worlds blended and formed into a solid curved surface, then the upward journey abruptly stopped, and Tla'a found was looking upon the shell of a simple turtle, resting on a rock beside a pool of water. Then once again, with no decent warning at all, Gaea had returned Tla'a to her body, and retreated from her consciousness, giggling.
Alice listened, but all she could focus on was Tla'a's mouth as she spoke. The lips almost pouted no matter what Tla'a was saying, and she could see the pearly teeth flash inside. She licked her lips and wondered how to distract Tla'a away from the fire.
"Gaea took you somewhere?" griped Xena, unimpressed with Gaea's pranks. "Well, tell her she's got some business to finish with us, too!" Xena was thinking about Argo again.
"She means it's time for us to go home," Gabrielle added, smoothing over Xena's harsher tones.
But Gaea had never left, really, she and Tla'a's personality were becoming more and more intermingled, and it was getting harder to tell which was talking . "I know, dear friends. But you have to indulge me one more night in your company. I will miss you again once you go. Besides, you both need your rest. As I recall, you will be returning to quite a mess you left behind in that root cellar!"
"True." Gabrielle pointed out, "They were just coming down the stairs when we jumped through the gate."
Gaea, or Tla'a, it's hard to say which, smiled broadly, as they agreed, and Xena resigned herself to one last night in the jungle. It was, unfortunately, not an easy night for private acts of love, as many of the forest people stayed up in celebration, drinking chicha and telling the new story of the defeat of the Dragon Army, and the much older tale of the Great Turtle of the world.
Tla'a was marched off for a detail re-telling of the story to the elders.
Gabrielle did better than she thought she would with a pantomime of the tale of Velasca's ascent to godhood, and the forest people rewarded her with one, and only one cup of chicha. The light buzz, and the impossibility of a private moment led the bard and the warrior to curl up together in the wee hours, asleep before they were fully covered with their blankets.
No one ever noticed Tla'a and Alice slipping away during Gabrielle's skit, as if avoiding a draft of smoke and embers from the fire.
Tla'a had done more than enough to appease the demands of the elders and kin, having been swept away to give a full accounting of the vision of the turtle. When she finally returned to the fire, all she wanted in the world was to find Alice. It wasn't hard. Though she stood on the very edge of the firelight, Alice shone like the hottest tongue of the most brilliant flame. As she drew near, Tla'a felt the air close in around them, and she knew Alice sensed her presence. Softly, Tla'a dropped her hand down into the shadows and placed her trembling hand on the bottom of the long spine.
Alice turned at the touch and looked down into the upturned face, golden in the firelight. In the darkness, both Tla'a's eyes seemed made of the blackest glass reflecting the flames, and she felt the other's hand slip slowly around her waste and tug her back a step, away from the gathering. Freed by the darkness, Alice's excitement rose and she reached for her, sliding her own hand down the curve of Tla'a's back and around to the small bottom, cupping it in her hand. The darker the shadows became, the more Alice's hands reached for and found the strong, sweet body of the sorceress.
Tla'a knew what was happening with more than the memories of the goddess to instruct her. Human love and passion were not unknown to her who had already lived a long life, but she was ill prepared for the molten passion that heated her body. Shaking and desperate to forget everything but Alice's hands, she quickly pulled them into the only place she could think of, the sacred spring in it's alcove in the back of the temple. It was a small, stone room, with a high window that let the moonlight down to illuminate a basin of bubbling water held up by a thick stone pillar.
As soon as they had stepped into the near darkness of the alcove, Tla'a's grip on Alice loosened and she let her fingers chase lightly up the slender arms, just able to see the darkness of her own hands against the lightness of Alice's skin. At first, the taller woman didn't move, allowing Tla'a's to touch and explore her body, though she quivered with the effort of keeping still. Tla'a sighed deeply, trying to steady herself, and let her fingertips drag down the long neck and float over the flesh of the full breasts. She almost cried out as she felt the erect nipples come into contact with her palms.
From the campfire, the sounds of chanting rose, as another tale began. Alice's gasps became frantic, and she struggled to breathe. "...Tla'a..." Alice spoke the name like a sigh, "How I've wanted you to touch me..." Then Alice felt the skilled hands falter, and somehow she knew that this was the first time for the sorceress. Rocked to her core, she leaned against the stone pillar, grateful she was still on her feet ...maybe there will be a few things I can teach Tla'a after all... and in the darkness she smiled, though Tla'a was too focused on Alice's breasts to notice.
Reaching out, she traced the pliant curves of Tla'a's full lips, and gently slipped a finger into her mouth. When she brought it out, she traced wet circles around her own nipple. The moonlight caught in the moisture and made the nipple gleamed in the darkness. Taking a deep breath, Alice lifted herself so that she sat a little higher. Then, letting her body slide against the other, she lowered her breast gently onto the upturned face of the smaller woman.
Tla'a's mouth opened to accept the soft shape of the nipple in her mouth and she lifted it on her tongue, alarmed with the sensations building inside her body. Tla'a couldn't quite believe what Alice was doing to her. When Alice pressed the whole of the breast, full and warm into her face, Tla'a thought she might die in an agony of passion. Just the feel of a woman's nipple inside her lips sent something almost painful coursing up and down the core of her being, but it was the sensation of Alice feeding it to her so willingly that destroyed the sorceress.
They began to know one another, to move together, their skin rubbing together like silk, as Tla'a nibbled and kissed, and Alice's groans deepened. Their breathing was labored, as if they had just crossed the finish line of a marathon together, though across all the world, no greater contest was won that night.
The chanted story out by the fire sounded familiar, but Tla'a couldn't listen, with Alice's hot breath in her ear. Bracing her feet, she pushed deeply into the space between Alice's parted legs, then it was she who was being pulled in.
Alice worked Tla'a's small, tight bottom in both her hands and reached in for a little more, her fingers just reaching the slickness, "You are a virgin... aren't you...Tla'a?" she asked softly, as she strung a necklace of kisses and mouthings down the sorceress’ delicate neck, tasting her, sucking up mouthfuls of her dark skin.
The chants had been joined by drumming feet, and the rhythms stamped into Tla’a’s heart as she answered. "I was not able to before...but I always wondered..." Tla'a's excitement nearly stopped her words, "...what it was like..."
Electrified by the words, Alice pulled her breast out of Tla'a's mouth, leaned back and, pressing her sex into the softness of the other, pulled the smaller woman up over her long frame.
Tla'a cried out loud in desperation, not able to imagine how she would ever feel relief from the pain she felt. Hopelessly she ground herself into the lush warmth of Alice's body. Then Tla'a felt all urgency of the moment and the longing her life unite, and she was drawn into a powerful and shattering seizure.
Alice felt Tla'a's hips pump against her as she climaxed, and finally knew the truth of loving another, as she felt her own arousal mounting high. Quickly, before Tla'a could react, she dropped her arm down between them and pulled the smaller woman up until she was lifted off the ground, her body still surging with the passionate releases. Her hand prowled the wet folds of Tla'a's sex, and pushed against her entrance.
Alice dropped her mouth down to Tla'a's ear and whispered, "You are ready, Tla'a..."
The sorceress gasped, her body arched, and then her instincts took over. She lowered herself the rest of the way onto the white hot fire of Alice's hand, and burst into tears.
Alice's wept also, as she heard the joyful sounds her efforts produced. As she thrust more deeply, Alice finally left the selfish space her life had been lived within, and for perhaps the first time she felt the boundless joy of loving another, and loving her well.
As the tears streaked down her face, Tla'a came again soundlessly, clamping over and over onto Alice's hand, keeping it there and sobbing like a child.
For long moments Alice held her in her arms, as the crying subsided, and found that she had not begun to give to Tla'a what she had. With infinite kindness, she lifted the small woman in her arms, and standing up, she seated Tla'a on the edge of the spring. Alice knelt down before her, putting her long hands on Tla'a's knees.
"I want to keep loving you."
"But..." Tla'a whispered, her lips barely able to say the words, "I want to touch you also..."
"Not yet, lover. Let me finish... Please. You won't be sorry."
As if in answer, Tla'a tilted her head back and closed her eyes, but they opened wide again, when Alice pulled her knees far apart and dropped her face down between Tla'a's legs. Once again, fingers slid through the folds of her sex, finding her clitoris and flicking it, causing Tla'a an agony of sensation.
"Don't look into the goddess' memories Tla'a," Alice's face was so near Tla'a could feel her hot breath stir in the hair about her sex. "Let me show it all to you..."
Tla'a could only watch, as opening her mind to the flood of memories from the goddess was out of the question, as the fingers worked into her again, opening her. Then Alice's mouth fell onto her sex like a bolt out of the blue. Tla'a groans silenced and her eyes rolled in her head, and she opened her legs as wide as they would go...
It happened again and again that night. Each time she climaxed, Tla'a thought it was finally over, and then it would happen again. It was as if a life time of desire had built up for that night's releasing, and of course, that's exactly what it was.
Alice was transformed once again. Even with Margaret, she had never loved another this way. Each response she hungrily pulled from the little sorceress made make her want more, and she pursued the quest in mounting joy.
In the wee hours of the morning, the magic built too high inside of Alice, cresting with each of her lover's cries. Finally, as Tla'a's shuddered helplessly in her arms, calling out her name, Alice felt the desire explode in her as well and she held Tla'a tightly as, the two of them rode out the climax together. Then they fell into their dreams on the bare stone of the alcove, Alice's moonlit body curled around the dark form of Tla'a, playing yin and yang with their bodies.
Then, from the spring that gurgled in the basin, a shimmering form of an old woman, her face deeply hooded, arose and looked down upon them on the floor.
Gaea's voice rasped softly, "Sleep, my new heroes...a modern day awaits you..."
The morning found them gathered once again at the entrance of the burrow. Gabrielle glared down into it, not at all pleased. "Tla'a, would you mind asking Gaea if this is necessary? Can't she just make something happen in the wall of the temple, a door or something like that?"
"We're both right here, dear." Gaea said. "No, I am sorry, but I have to use existing structures. At least the return won't be as hard as bringing you was. I've been holding you here against the tension in the timelines. When I let go, you should snap back very quickly, and not be nearly as disoriented as you were when you arrived."
"Well, that's good." Gabrielle's staff was assembled; she anticipated a fight against the slavers. "But I just can't believe it. It's been less than a day since I had a bath, and now this again!" She sighed. "I'll just get dirty in the fight anyway, I guess."
"Well, let's say our good byes..." Xena prodded Gabrielle forward.
The bard went from Mas and Lusu'Be to A'clana, stunning them all with body hugs and kisses to their cheeks. When she got to Alice and Tla'a, she wrapped her arms around them both, and kissed them each full on the mouth. "Thanks for some great dreams, you two!" she said, as she stepped back from both blushing women.
Xena followed behind with the standard side-hugs and handclasps. She deliberately tried not to smile, but was thwarted by the broad grins on the faces of the whole assemblage, who were all smiling a little more than they had been.
"Here you go!" Alice said, slipping the breast dagger back where it belonged in Xena's bosom. She looked once more into those eyes, "And thanks, Xena."
The warrior actually blushed and turned to Tla'a. "So...aren't you going to do something with blue light now?" she said, trying valiantly to hide her chaffing in the awkward partings.
She laughed. "Not out here, down in the tunnel! I can't do that out where everyone will see it, they'll never let me hear the end of it! Now get on with you! Down you go, or stay here with me and save the modern world!"
"No thanks, Gaea. Me first!" Xena tied her chakram on tight and pushed down into the burrow, the ground still soft from the explosion she had made coming out of it days earlier. As she wriggled in her voice came back with a muffled threat, "There had better not be a snake down here!"
Gabrielle lingered a moment longer, sad to leave their new friends behind. "I suppose," the bard said quietly, her voice catching just a little, "I suppose we're lucky we ever met at all!"
Alice took Tla’a’s hand in her own, and thanked Gabrielle once more. The beautiful bard gazed at them one last time, then shaking her head in wonder, she turned to join her lover in the tunnel. As Alice watched in some wonder, Tla’a concentrated and a blue light pierced the tunnel’s darkness...
... In the blackness, Gabrielle could only hear Xena struggling ahead in the tight confines, then she felt the gate open. Blue light shot down the tunnel, illuminating her staff in front of her. She saw Xena's booted feet swallowed into the luminescence, and suddenly she lost all sense of her lover's presence, even the tickle in her existence. She realized with a jolt that in that moment, over two thousand years separated them. Gabrielle hurried then, no longer wary of her dirty elbows and knees. Tossing the goat bag and the staff through the blue field she followed them quickly after.
They emerged as expected, in the slaver's root cellar. There they found Datis, still wet in the moldy straw, his fellows in various positions of collapse around him, the stairs overhead thundering with the sounds of many booted feet.
Xena was already on her feet, sword spinning in her hands, and Gabrielle was scrambling to hers, when into the room pounced Solari, second to Queen Ephany of the Amazons. The gate shimmered and vanished in the grate behind them.
Xena swore softly; as the gate faded she could hear the sounds of laughter ...Gaea knew all along it was Solari coming down the stairs!... Xena thought with a start. The sword sagged in her hands, till the tip bit into the earth. She leaned on the pommel and her face could have stopped a bulldozer, but they hadn't been invented yet.
"Solari!" Gabrielle cheered, just relieved she didn't have to fight. "Am I glad to see you! You wouldn't believe where we've been!"
Solari was followed by a squad of heavily armed Amazons. She saluted Gabrielle and Xena, and gave a field report that Ephany had sent them out to search for Gabrielle and Xena, when they hadn't shown up. What Solari didn't say was the whole Amazon Nation had gathered to help celebrate the couple's six-moons anniversary, and it had been very awkward when the stars of the event had turned up missing. Fortunately, the Nation was still assembled. Fortunately, Solari had found them.
"Fortunately," Solari said, more casually, "It isn't hard to tell where you've been at all. You two always leave... an impression behind, where ever you go. They are still trying to get the tavern back into shape, and the marketplace is a disaster."
They climbed the stairs, Gabrielle already chatting up a storm with the Amazons as they walked out of the little house and into the crisp morning air.
"Ah!" She took in a lung full of the chilled air like an extra helping at a buffet. "Mmmm, now that's my kind of air! Now the climate there, Solari, let me tell you it was hot! Hot and sticky..."
Argo waited for them, her halter in the hand of a trusted Amazon captain. Xena took the war-horse’s reins, and after a greeting that Argo thought was a little emotional after a separation of only a few hours, began to check the saddle in preparation to mount.
Just then Solari stepped forward to address them with some formality, as well as some artifice, "After we deliver these slavers into the hands of the authorities, it would be our honor to escort you the rest of the way to the Amazon village."
The idea of more company had no appeal at all to the warrior, who felt that the social complexities of her most recent adventure had been more than enough for her. But she agreed because of the look on Gabrielle's face, and because she knew the lover's hut would be waiting for them once they arrived at the village, which wasn't far...
Of course, much more than the lover's hut waited for them in the village. The entire Amazon nation waited for them, along with a fair contingent of Centaurs and various other invited dignitaries. During the wait, the whole thing became something of an affair of state. After their festive arrival, Gabrielle was bustled away to be cleaned up for an appearance at a hastily scheduled treaty signing, and Xena was left alone to bathe with the soldiers. After a nice soak in the baths, she had to break up a fight, and got a nice black eye for her trouble.
They didn't even hear a rumor of each other, until late that afternoon, just as the sun slanted low. Xena was stabling Argo in the little barn adjacent to the hut. It had taken her an hour to locate the remote Lover's Hut, on the other side of the vast community garden. She had heard the view there of the sunset was beautiful, but she was too tired to notice. She hadn't even looked into the cottage before going to the stable with Argo.
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice came softly from the door.
Xena turned from her grooming, saw her in the doorway, and nearly dropped the curry comb.
Gabrielle stood placidly, framed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun, fully dressed in her Amazon finery, her amber hair a glory of light and fire.
Xena's mouth went dry, but she recovered quickly when Gabrielle, all business, sat down on a fresh bale of hay and crossed her legs primly. Once she had composed herself and her clothing on this throne, she raised her eyes to Xena and addressed her formally.
"There is something we need to talk about."
"Okay." Xena sat down opposite her, on another bale, and put her hands on her knees. "Talk away."
Gabrielle started, when she saw the warrior's black eye, and nearly lost her royal composure. "What happened to your eye?"
Xena shrugged, "I had to break up a fight in the baths."
"Oh." Gabrielle peered at it, unsure. "Are you all right?"
Xena nodded. "I'm fine, what did you want to talk about?"
Gabrielle got back to business. "I just wanted to ask you something. Are you still comfortable with our rule about not using overwhelming physical force?"
"Without your express consent. Yep, I'm comfortable with it. I know I don't always get it right, but I'm better than I used to be...right?"
"Yes, you are." Her tone softened, and she seemed to both whisper and sing, as her gaze settled on the warrior across from her. "You know, Xena, all I want is the very best you can give," she said as, very slowly, she uncrossed her legs.
Xena got the hint, just as the sun went down over their long, long anniversary day. She came to her feet in a heady rush and loomed over the little Amazon Queen. "Gabrielle, have you seen Joxer today?" she asked pointedly.
Gabrielle's face froze and thawed in the space of a lover's heartbeat and, trying to keep from laughing out loud, she whispered, "Why no Xena, I haven't seen a sign of him."
Solari found them in the stable, though she only wanted to make sure Argo had enough to eat.
They had both fallen into an exhausted sleep in the golden straw, sprawled out together on a tattered old blanket. Her honey hair tangled, the Queen’s wrists and ankles were bound with leather harness straps, but the ends were loose in the hay, or tangled around the Warrior-Princess, who's beautiful face and body sported a fine collection of unusual bruises. Most of all, they were naked and oblivious and entwined, glorious in the hazy warm colors of the dying day.
Out of a sense of duty, Solari tore her eyes from the vision, and went out to the lavishly appointed cottage, which was completely undisturbed. She yanked a thick comforter off the beautifully prepared bed and walked back out, snatching up a piece of baklava she found on a platter near the door.
Finding the lovers spooned more tightly in the evening's chill, she covered them reluctantly, tucking the comforter into the hay. Stepping back, she finished the baklava and thought about the story Gabrielle had told her about the couple's strange adventure. How they had gone through a goddess's gate in the slaver's basement, to save a magical future forest in the future from metal dragons, where an exotic sorceress and a rare beauty named Alice had fallen in love... She shook her head in wonder ...I swear, they have all the fun...
Still licking the honey from her fingers, Solari decided it was time to find her own bed-partner, and she turned to go, but as she closed the stable door on the long day, she called back softly to the sleeping lovers...
"Happy anniversary, Gabrielle and Xena."