|by Van ©2014|
|OUR STORY CONTINUES
Island of Ancient Mysteries.
3 days down increasingly primitive roads...
7 more days following ever-fainter trails...
9 more days hacking through lush tropical wilderness...
The expedition entered a small clearing in the dense rainforest and decided to take a pause, for various reasons. They wore jungle boots and knee socks, shorts, tank-tops, cotton shirts, and broad-brimmed hats or pith helmets in a mix of khaki, brown, olive-drab, desert-tan, and jungle-green colors. Copious amounts of sweat dripped down their exposed skin and soaked their clothing. All were burdened by heavy rucksacks, canteens, and other personal equipment, including machetes and holstered pistols. The machetes were necessary tools, and as for the sidearms, one couldn't be too careful in the jungles of Dariabar.
The leader of the expedition was Dr. Cynthia Webbel, Professor of Archaeology and Ancient Cultures at Lewis & Clark University. The 5' 2", forty-something professor had reddish-brown hair cropped pixie short, brown eyes, button nose, and bow lips. She was undeniably cute, a description few aired within the range of her hearing without instant regret. Cynthia Webbel took enough grief from academic rivals for her "rough and tumble ways." She wasn't going to put up with sniping about her appearance.
Cynthia's younger and taller second in command was Dr. Janice Bell, Assistant Professor of Oriental Studies at Carnegie-Mellon. The dark-skinned beauty was renowned for the precision of her site documentation. If Cynthia was a first-wave explorer, Janice was the one that came behind and filled in the map. She was also Cynthia's good friend.
Next was Dr. Rachel Haines, a Fellow of New York's Saudelli Museum. This was her first field expedition, but she'd had plenty of experience at established digs under primitive conditions. Her hair was long and brown, her eyes gray-green, and her high-cheeked features and perfect figure were often described as classic, and had earned her the undergraduate nickname "Aphrodite"—although Rachel's personal favorite among the Greco-Roman gods was Artemis.
The junior academic was J-Lou Goodwin, Dr. Webbel's graduate student. She was a promising youngster, but truth be told, J-Lou was on the expedition because her father, Lord Goodwin, Earl of Crumpingham, was footing more than half the bill. 5' 2", like Cynthia, J-Lou had a hot little bod, also like their leader, as well as a generous helping of cuteness, with killer dimples and big brown eyes. Her brown hair was wavy and long, when it wasn't dirty and limp in the humid jungle heat.
Last came Kiera McFadden, although she might take issue with that characterization. Despite her youth, Kiera had years of experience tramping and hacking her way through the deserts and jungles of three continents. The others all had field experience (with the exception of J-Lou), but Kiera was the acknowledged "grizzled veteran" and the expedition's guide. Also, it was Kiera who had found the artifact that sparked Cynthia's interest and led to the expedition. The blue-green eyed, freckled redhead was fit and athletic, and in terms of beauty, none could deny she was the academics' peer.
Cynthia and Janice stepped to the middle of the clearing and looked up at the small patch of blue sky overhead. Unseen jungle birds hooted, cawed, and cackled like demented old women in the surrounding rainforest. During daylight hours, the damn things never seemed to shut up, but one got used to them. And when they did stop, one reached for one's pistol. Silence meant a predator of some sort was about. Cynthia and Janice shrugged off their packs and eased them to the grass. The others took that as their cue and did the same.
J-Lou was standing next to Kiera and Rachel, a few paces from their fearless leaders. "Are you sure the natives won't bother us?" she asked the redhead, for the third time in as many days. J-Lou's companions exchanged an amused glance. J-Lou noticed and favored Rachel with her best wounded pout. "Don't be like that," she huffed. "You're just as worried as I am."
"Not really," Rachel chuckled. "I'm more concerned about the giant snakes, basketball-sized spiders, vampire bats, and yard-long centipedes."
"Pooh," J-Lou scoffed. "As long as you keep your wits about you, they're not a problem."
"In answer to your question concerning the locals," Kiera drawled, "as I've already explained, several times, the Yabbas stopped hunting in this valley long ago, and the Dabbadoos never come this far west."
"Long ago," J-Lou quoted. "What does that mean?"
"Well," Kiera smiled, "in Yabba, it means 'before the time of the eldest living chief.'" She winked at Rachel. "Or, it means 'before the last good hunt that wasn't in that direction.' Either one."
J-Lou turned to Kiera and stuck her tongue out, then lifted her pack and trudged towards Cynthia and Janice.
Rachel smiled and nudged Kiera in the ribs with her elbow as they watched J-Lou depart. "Leave her alone. She's a good kid."
Kiera smiled back. "Of course she is, but teasing the tenderfoot is the natural order of the universe. Wouldn't want our little Brit to feel left out."
Meanwhile, J-Lou was within earshot of Cynthia and Janice.
"I still say we should already be there," Cynthia sighed. In her hand was a plastic-coated copy of the singed parchment Kiera had found in a Yimbuck bazaar, among the clutter of stone and fired-clay rubble a swarthy merchant was hawking to tourists as "ancient artifacts." His wares were indeed ancient, but Kiera could tell at a glance they were unimportant. Then she saw the parchment. It couldn't be very old, unless it had been sealed in an airtight container, but it was interesting, very interesting. Kiera bargained the merchant down to a reasonable price, then mailed the parchment to Cynthia.
"You're assuming, of course, that our translation of the distances is correct," Janice chuckled, "or that the cartographer actually knew the correct distances to begin with." It was an old argument, and not really an argument. They both knew they wouldn't know the accuracy of Kiera's map until they tried to follow it. In any case, it was worth the effort. The glyphs that dominated the map's center, especially the symbol that might be translated as the "Temple of the Salamander of the Sun," were intriguing. The fabled temple in question was the supposed abode of the supreme goddess of the "Lost Clan."
The Lost Clan was the stuff of legend. Some sources said they were a Phoenician colony cut off from home. Others insisted they were Egyptian, Arab, Persian, etc. There were many opinions but little evidence. All references predated Herodotus, and most modern scholars agreed the Lost Clan was myth, as real as Eldorado, the Great Southern Continent, or Plato's Atlantis.
"Uh, excuse me," J-Lou said respectfully.
Cynthia continued studying the map, but Janice smiled at J-Lou. "Question?"
J-Lou pointed at the patch of grass under their feet. "Why is this here?" she asked.
Cynthia managed not to roll her eyes. She was composing a pithy remark that wouldn't wound the young scholar too badly—then her eyes widened and she shared an astonished smile with Janice. "Why didn't I think of that?" she gasped.
Clearings appear in this sort of tropical forest either due to human effort or when one of the forest giants succumbs to the elements and crashes to the ground. In this case, the former was unlikely, and if it was the later, where was the fallen tree? It would rot with time, and much more rapidly than in a temperate forest, but long before it was gone altogether, seeds would have sprouted and saplings would be shooting upwards, competing for the precious patch of open sky overhead.
There was no newly fallen tree, no rotting log, no explosion of secondary growth, and no tangle of saplings. Hence, J-Lou's question.
"From the mouths of babes," Janice chuckled.
"Hey, watch it!" J-Lou objected in mock outrage.
Cynthia knelt in the grass, pulled a knife from her right boot-top, and began digging in the soil. She didn't get very far before striking stone. "Maybe it's just a buried boulder, or..."
"Maybe we are here," Janice agreed.
"Or very close," Kiera said as she joined the group, with Rachel right was on her heels. The redhead lifted a freckled arm and pointed into the jungle, between the buttressed trunks of a pair of especially giant trees. Several yards beyond they could see sunlight shining on ropes of bare vines covering what might be either a rocky outcrop or an ancient stone wall.
"Super!" J-Lou beamed.
The vines were, indeed, covering the ruins of a stone wall, and in the course of the next hour they discovered more clearings and more jumbles of stone. But it was J-Lou that hit the jackpot.
"Over here! Over here!" the excited little Brit shouted, literally jumping up and down with glee.
The others joined her—and gasped!
A stone structure draped in huge vines bearded with moss stood in the middle of an open stretch of forest. In terms of size it was unimpressive, no bigger than the average two story suburban home. The timber and thatch communal lodges found in Yabba villages were much larger. However, the structure was comprised of huge blocks of weathered granite. Five low steps led up to a gaping, cave-like entrance, and carved into the granite wall above the entrance was the image of a bare-breasted female figure in a knee-length, pleated skirt. She held a snake or possibly a lizard in her left hand and the disc of the sun floated above her open right palm. Her hair was shoulder length, but with a pair of long ringlet curls bound with cord or ribbons that framed her face and dropped down to brush the sides of her conical breasts.
"Minoan," Cynthia said, gazing up at the vine-draped relief.
"Phoenician," Janice suggested.
"With Scythian influences," Rachel added indicating the decorative border.
"Pretty," was L-Lou's opinion.
"Dark," said Kiera, pointing at the black void below the image.
The entrance was, indeed, dark. The expedition mounted the steps and beyond the threshold they could see a large room.
Cynthia pulled a flashlight from a side pocket of her pack and the others did the same, except for Janice. She pulled out a digital camera, then stepped back down the stairs and took several shots of the structure, the carving, and the entrance. Cynthia waited patiently for Janice to return, then led the way through the entrance.
The room was devoid of carvings, the walls smooth and weathered by time. A scattering of brown leaves had blown in from the jungle, and the dust and detritus on the floor approached the level of a veneer of soil. Moss clung to the walls and carpeted the floor, but only in the area of the threshold. As the light waned, the green growth gave way to fungi, but otherwise, the room was bare... almost. In the back wall was a narrow door flanked on either side by identical round openings about a meter in diameter. Stairs descended beyond the door, continuing beyond the beam of Cynthia's light.
"It's getting late," Kiera noted. It was still about an hour until sunset, but the light under the forest canopy was already fading and growing uniformly diffuse. It would be a moonless night, and even in this relatively open area, Stygian darkness would soon descend. "We can't camp here," the redhead stated.
"Why?" J-Lou asked.
Kiera pointed to the round openings. "Bats."
J-Lou stepped closer and noted a scattering of tiny droppings. "Guano," she stated. The openings slanted downward, at the same angle as the stairs. She shone her flashlight down the left opening and the beam revealed nothing but a uniform shaft, for as far as the light could reach. "But there isn't much guano," she noted, wrinkling her button nose.
"I'd be willing to bet that if you decided to slide down either shaft," Kiera drawled, "you'd find a lot more bat shit, probably enough to drown in."
J-Lou smiled. "Let's not do that," she suggested.
"Odd," Cyntha said. She was shining her light down the steps of the central passage. "There's no guano on the stairs."
"That is odd," Kiera agreed.
"We should make camp and investigate tomorrow," Janice said.
"You're right," Cynthia sighed.
"Can't we at least take a peek down the stairs?" J-Lou objected.
Cynthia smiled. "Patience, my Padawan learner," she said. "It will all be here in the morning."
J-Lou heaved a theatrical sigh. "Yes, Master Yoda."
"That's Master Obi-Wan to you, Jar-Jar Junior," Cynthia purred. The others laughed, including J-Lou.
They made camp in a clearing about two-hundred yards from the structure, and Kiera was entirely correct about the bats. At twilight the expedition gathered near the structure and watched as bats poured from the entrance by the thousands in a swirling cloud, then disappeared into the gathering darkness. If the expedition had been in the entrance chamber at the time, it would have been... interesting.
The expedition slept in feather-light hammock/tents incorporating mosquito nets and rain tarps that rolled up into surprisingly small bundles for easy packing. A small cooking fire and the five hanging hammocks comprised their simple camp. They took turns standing watch during the night. Encounters with jungle predators were rare, as big cats of all varieties tended to leave human encampments alone, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
Cynthia took her turn tending the fire and staring into the dark. When the end of her watch arrived, she woke Rachel, undressed to panties and tank-top, then climbed into her hammock. Cynthia was excited, toddler-on-Christmas-eve excited, and looking forward to tomorrow's explorations, but she was also quite tired. She drifted off to sleep—
—then jerked awake! She'd been grabbed, jerked from her hammock, and was on the ground! The camp was a riot of flailing limbs and shouting voices, and flickering torchlight revealed a host of nearly naked female warriors! Some held spears, sickle-swords, or drawn bows, while others grappled with the members of the expedition.
The warriors were all tall and muscular, with lithe, athletic physiques. Sandals with thongs laced up to their knees clad their feet, and their only clothing were short pleated skirts dyed in jungle colors. Their hair was long and pulled back into ponytails, except for pairs of narrow braids that framed their beautiful but scowling faces. Bead necklaces dangled around their necks, bronze armlets dimpled their biceps, leather bracers were laced around their forearms and wrists, and bronze and leather headbands graced their foreheads and further restrained their hair.
Perhaps the attacking host's most remarkable feature was the diversity of hair colors and skin tones. Every race of humanity was represented in their beautiful, barbaric, Bronze Age ranks!
How can this be? Cynthia wondered, but further thought and observation took a backseat to winning her losing battle with the pair of amazons pulling her hands and feet together and holding them tight while a third amazon bound her wrists and ankles with long, ribbon-like leather thongs. "Stop!" Cynthia gasped. "We come in peace! M'mmpfh!" A soft, burlap-like cloth had been stuffed in her mouth and a narrow bandage was being tied between her teeth as a cleave-gag. She grunted as the gag was cinched and knotted, tight enough to make her cheeks bulge. Then, Cynthia was lifted to her bare feet.
All of the expedition members had removed their boots, socks, and outer clothing before retiring. The exception was Rachel, as she'd been on watch when the attack began and was fully clothed. All five were bound hand and foot and gagged in the same manner as Cynthia. Kiera was angry and struggling furiously, nonstop, and one of her handlers was nursing a sore jaw. Janice and Rachel were in control, but Cynthia could tell they were frightened, as was Cynthia herself. Poor little J-Lou was terrified, her eyes wide and her head turning from face to face as she stared up at her towering captors. Cynthia knew there was nothing she could do for her companions at the moment, so she took the opportunity to make further observations.
Their amazon captors were all over six feet in height and quite muscular, but they moved with the grace of dancers, or elite athletes, not musclebound weightlifters. They handled their weapons with the confidence of total familiarity, and their kilts were not costumes. The simple but well made garments allowed freedom of motion and a few showed signs of wear. Their captors were warriors in the field. The warriors' beads were jade, turquoise, tourmaline, and lapis-lazuli. All of the metal elements of their accessories were worked and finished with great skill. Like their hair and costumes, their weapons confirmed Cynthia's Bronze Age impression. However, she noted that their spear-points and the blades of their sickle-swords were shining steel.
Orders were barked in a language none of the scholars recognized. Long poles were brought forward, the captives were lifted off their feet and a pole passed through their bound wrists and ankles. The ends of the poles were then hoisted onto the shoulders of pairs of amazons, leaving the prisoners dangling like slung cargo, and a torchlit parade began. Cynthia craned her neck and looked back. Several warriors had remained behind and were bundling the expedition's hammocks, clothing, packs, and other gear.
Cynthia was the last captive in line, and was being carried feet-first, like the others. As she watched, Kiera continued struggling and mewling through her gag, but the others were saving their strength, wisely, in Cynthia's opinion. The journey through the jungle was brief and their destination was the stone structure. Somehow, Cynthia wasn't surprised. They passed through the trees, up the steps, crossed the threshold and the entry room, then started down the stairs.
A dozen steps became a hundred, then two hundred, and still they descended. The thongs binding Cynthia's wrists and ankles had been expertly applied, uniformly tight wrappings with the knots placed out of reach. She had to concede that she was comfortable, within the limits of her swaying, hanging pose.
Finally, the stairs ended and they found themselves being carried down a long, straight corridor of the same dimensions as the staircase. The many torches carried by their captors gave Cynthia every opportunity to examine the floor, ceiling, and walls of the passageway with a professional eye; but unfortunately, there was nothing for her to see but smooth granite. There were no carvings or painted frescoes, no decoration of any kind.
Up ahead, a stone slab rumbled aside, and the parade entered a large chamber with a high ceiling. Again, the walls were smooth and plain, but near the far wall stood a pair of massive stone columns flanked by bronze cauldrons blazing with flickering green flames. From her position at the end of the line, Cynthia watched with growing amazement and concern as the captives and their captors stepped between the columns—and disappeared! Each time, the flames flared, a shimmering curtain of green light formed between the columns, and those passing through the curtain vanished into thin air!
Kiera was first... then Rachel... J-Lou... Janice... and now it was Cynthia's turn! "Nrrrf!"
There was a green flash and the sensation of falling—a sensation that passed as quickly as it had come—and Cynthia found herself in an even larger circular chamber. Dozens of columns and cauldrons marched in a stately circle around the entire periphery, and all the colors of the rainbow were represented in the cauldrons' flames, a different color for every pair. The parade had emerged from what Cynthia could only think of as a "portal" marked by green flames, and was crossing the chamber towards a pair of cauldrons with ruby-red flames.
Their amazon captors were following the directions of a dozen women in long gowns of white linen in the Minoan style, meaning the necklines were as low as was physically possible. In short, they were fully clothed but bare-breasted. The women were as tall, athletic, beautiful, and racially diverse as the amazons and their hair was styled in the same manner, but precious stones glimmered and gleamed among the many beads of their jewelry and were set in their headbands. The guides lined the parade's arcing path, standing like silent statues and eying the passing captives with cool reserve.
A journey of nearly a hundred paces was required to cross the chamber and pass through the red portal. As before, the world shimmered and dropped, and Cynthia found herself in a magnificent circular courtyard, nearly as large as the subterranean portal chamber they had just left. But this time, they were under a brilliant blue sky with towering banks of fluffy white clouds. Craggy, dagger-like peaks and small mesas cloaked with tropical foliage loomed between the columns on all sides, but they were dwarfed by the mass of a magnificent step-pyramid immediately before them. Its base emerged from the face of a large mesa, but the upper tiers and the summit itself soared into the air like a mountain peak. The building style was Minoan, but on the scale of the ancient Egyptians or Aztecs.
Cynthia realized the circular arrival courtyard was atop a small mesa and was connected to the pyramid by a narrow stone bridge. The parade crossed the bridge, then each amazon pair carrying a captive lifted their burdens, spun on their heels, swapped positions in line, then settled the poles back on their shoulders. The prisoners were now being carried headfirst as the parade continued, mounting the grand staircase running up the face of the towering structure.
The long, monotonous climb gave Cynthia a chance to study the surrounding landscape. Snow-capped mountains defined the horizon, blue and hazy in the distance. The tropical hills and mesas she had seen before were punctuated by grassy meadows and parks, and streams and magnificent waterfalls fed a large lake connected to a distant, even larger lake, or possibly a bay or inlet of some unknown sea. Sailboats with lanteen sails, large and small, floated on the shimmering water, and a brightly painted galley, a trireme, was moored to a stone pier.
Brilliantly colored parrots flew between the trees and crossed the nearest meadows. And far overhead, Cynthia could see three hawks flying in a V formation. As she watched, the lead hawk banked and dropped towards the pyramid. The others banked and gracefully followed in single file.
Cynthia's eyes popped wide in astonishment. She could now see the hawks were eagles, giant eagles, and each eagle had an amazon rider! They rode saddles harnessed to the eagles' bodies, and unlike the warriors that had attacked the camp, they wore bronze breastplates, greaves, and bracers, as well as helmets in the Greek style, with feathers fluttering from their crests. Bow-cases, quivers of arrows, and sheathed sickle-swords were strapped to the sides of their saddles.
The eagles and their riders swooped low over the parade, and the amazons lifted their spears and shouted in salute.
Cynthia watched the eagles spiral upwards several thousand feet, riding a thermal rising off the pyramid. Then, with practiced precision, they reformed into a V and soared away.
Well, Cynthia decided, we aren't in Kansas.
At the summit of the pyramid was a large garden bisected by a broad path, a continuation of the stairs, and at the end of the path loomed a magnificent Minoan palace, larger than any structure ever excavated at Knossos.
Planting beds held hundreds of different species of plants, all in full bloom, as well as flowering shrubs and mature trees draped with flowering vines. Water shimmered and splashed in fountains and fishponds. Clouds of colorful butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds with long, tapered tails fluttered, buzzed, and hovered, sampling the nectar of the countless flowers. A heady perfume scented the air.
More of the amazons in long, bare-breasted gowns strolled along side paths or sat on stone benches in small galleries of vine-draped statuary. They turned to watch the parade pass. Curtains of even more flowering vines drooped from stone planters incorporated in the balconies and terraces of the palace, and more of the gowned women stood at the stone rails and watched the dangling captives and their trudging amazon captors.
They entered the palace and trooped down a long, broad hallway lined with more of the ubiquitous columns. Between the columns were painted scenes of amazons in victorious combat with men wearing the armor of many ancient cultures. Other murals showed naked amazons wrestling and vaulting over the backs of bulls with widespread horns. Yet others showed scenes of nature, dolphins jumping through foaming waves, birds flying above a marsh of cattails and flowering waterlilies, antelope racing across a grassy plain with a pair of lions in pursuit, etc. The renderings were all in the Minoan style, and in the deep pastel earth-tones of natural mineral and vegetable pigments.
The palace was beautiful. The gardens were beautiful. The bare-breasted gowned women were beautiful. Everything was beautiful, a very nice place to visit... if one didn't happen to be a bound and gagged prisoner being carried to an unknown fate by fierce, well-armed, semi-naked amazons.
Music echoed through the hall, growing louder as they approached a towering entryway. Diatonic scale, possibly Dorian, Cynthia decided. Lyres, flutes, drums, and cymbals were at work, and the sound of quiet conversation joined the concert as the parade crossed the threshold and began crossing a vast chamber with a high ceiling.
More of the gowned women stood in small groups. Some were young, possibly even teenagers, and some old, with streaks of gray in their hair. Their voices stilled as the warriors and their captives crossed the chamber towards a raised dais with a magnificent throne, and behind the throne rose a colossal statue Cynthia instantly recognized as the goddess Salamandras. The regal figure was of solid gold, with hair of electrum, and wore a Minoan gown of shimmering, silver chain-mail. Her golden visage was beautiful—No, it defined beauty!—with electrum lips and eyes set with hundreds of precious stones in all the colors of the rainbow. Her bare, golden breasts and electrum nipples were magnificent.
And seated on the throne before the statue was the living goddess, herself!
The amazons and gowned courtiers were all over six feet in height, but even seated, Cynthia could tell that Salamandras was taller, more than seven feet. And her beauty eclipsed both the statue and her subjects. She was an eagle among hawks, a lioness among cats, and Cynthia was awed in her presence.
The music stopped, as did the parade, several paces from the dais and the foot of the throne, and the amazons went down on one knee in perfect unison. Those with weapons tapped their spear points, blades, and bows on the mosaic floor, one time, then shouted in salute, "Salamandras!"
The goddess slowly rose to her sandal-clad feet and smiled at the warriors and their captives. Her gown was silver-white, her dark hair in long curls with side-braids, in the style of her followers, and her headband and jewelry were of gleaming white-gold, with no precious stones or engraving. Such enhancements weren't needed or wanted. Nothing could compete with the goddess' beauty.
"We shall speak English," Salamandras stated in her alto, melodic voice, "as a courtesy to our guests from Dariabar."
The amazons had drawn the poles from between the captive's wrists and ankles, untied their ankles, and pulled them to their feet. A pair of warriors held each prisoner by the arms while the others took a few steps back, formed an arc, and stood at ease.
The goddess took several slow, regal steps forward and walked down the line, smiling and inspecting the captives, one by one.
Her first stop was Janice. She met the dark-skinned captive's gagged, bravely defiant gaze. "Excellent," Salamandras sighed. "An exceptional mind and body."
Next in line was Kiera. The freckled redhead had stopped struggling, but the anger burning in her blue-green eyes was crystal clear. "This one will need training," the goddess chuckled, "but she'll learn her place."
She stepped before J-Lou and smiled down at the comparatively tiny prisoner. "So beautiful," Salamandras smiled, "and more dangerous than she appears. This one will take careful watching. Otherwise, she'll wiggle free and sneak about the palace, causing mischief like a naked little mouse." The amazons and watching courtiers chuckled in appreciation.
Rachel was next. "A huntress," Salamandras decided. "A huntress, a scholar, and a most welcome addition to our domain."
And then she was standing before Cynthia. For a moment, for the very briefest of moments—the goddess' eyes widened and her smile froze—then her regal demeanor returned. She made an imperious gesture. "Bathe them, and afterwards—" She pointed to Cynthia. "Bring that one to me."
"I still think you're a chicken," Rachel chuckled, teasing her red-haired companion.
"I don't want to be chased by robots," Kiera huffed, pretending to take offense.
"But you don't mind being diddled by robots?" Rachel continued with a coy smile. Kiera didn't answer. "Anyway, they aren't Cylons or T-1000s or anything scary. They're more like overgrown Rumbas with retractable arms."
"Maybe next time," Kiera drawled.
Both women were wearing cotton robes (with nothing underneath) and were walking down a long, featureless corridor on the fifth floor of the SIAS building. The walls, ceiling, and floor were polished metal and their way was lit by scores of tiny LEDs set in the ceiling. Their distorted, infinitely regressing reflections in the walls and the diffuse, blue-white light made for a somewhat eerie setting. The smooth metal under their bare feet was cool, but the still air was comfortably warm.
Suddenly, only a few feet behind them, a panel of steel whisked across the corridor, sealing off their retreat.
"Hey!" Kiera gasped in surprise.
"That's only Sally being dramatic," Rachel explained with a grin. "It's also the point of no return. Now, we can either scream and pound on that door 'til morning, or we can continue."
"In for a penny," Kiera muttered under her breath.
Before Rachel could reply, tall, narrow panels slid open, one on the left and one on the right, revealing a pair of alcoves the size and shape of gym lockers. Each alcove had an empty coat hook and five niches, four holding a black leather wrist or ankle suspension cuff, and a larger niche with a harness-gag. The restraints were the same models as the cuffs and "Hellraiser-III Special" Kiera had used to bind and gag Rachel the previous evening; however, these gags incorporated both panel-gags and ball-gags. No stuffed panties would be required to thoroughly silence their wearers, which was a good thing, as neither soon-to-be-damsel-in-distress was wearing panties.
Kiera watched as Rachel buckled a cuff around her right wrist, then her left, then knelt to cuff her ankles.
"Make them nice and tight," Rachel instructed. "They're designed to be more comfortable that way."
Kiera scrambled to catch up, closing a cuff around her right wrist and securing the buckle. The short, dangling tongue of the strap disappeared into a slot in the cuff and the buckle recessed into the padding with a metallic click. "This isn't my first rodeo," Kiera muttered as she buckled on her remaining cuffs.
"But it's your first robot rodeo," Rachel noted. She picked up her gag. "Help me with this, then I'll help you." Without waiting for a reply, she took the ball of the gag-harness into her mouth, gathered her hair and held it atop her head, then turned her back.
"Uh, that's probably a good idea," Kiera said, then set about the mildly complex task of securing the harness' buckles. She left the straps that would tighten and secure the compound gag 'til last. "Is that tight enough?" she asked as she threaded the ball-gag strap.
"Mrrf," Rachel answered.
"I'll take that as a yes," Kiera chuckled; however (and with a mischievous grin), she tightened the strap an additional hole before securing the buckle.
"Urr," Rachel complained, then winced as Kiera pulled the gag's mouth panel equally tight. She wasn't really upset. Like the cuffs, the gag was "better" when the fit was tight. And besides, now it was her turn.
Kiera's eyes widened as Rachel buckled her gag in place. The ball was big, about three inches, but half was low-density foam. The solid core was only about an inch and a half in diameter. In any case, the harness squeezed her head in a comfortable but uniform grip, including the mouth panel. Anyway, it was too late for adjustments. Like the cuffs, once the gags' buckles were secured and snapped into their recessed cavities, it took a radio signal from Sally to release them.
Rachel opened the sash of her robe, shrugged out of the simple garment, and hung it from the coat hook in her locker.
Kiera sighed through her gag, then removed her robe and hung it on the hook in her locker. As soon as she withdrew her hand, the locker door slid closed and locked with a metallic snap, leaving only a nearly invisible rectangular seam. More drama from Sally, she realized, gazing at her cuffed, gagged, and naked reflection. She turned and found that Rachel's locker had also closed and disappeared—and found herself the object of Rachel's attention.
Kiera blushed—either that or her cheeks were flushed from the pressure of the gag-panel—and a thrill rippled between her legs and up her spine. She's beautiful, Kiera thought. Rachel's body was perfection personified, and Kiera felt privileged beyond words to be her friend (and playmate).
Rachel gazed back at Kiera's fair, freckled body, and while it would probably have surprised her red-haired fellow scientist, her thoughts were the same. She took Kiera's hand, and they slowly walked down the corridor. The LEDs winked out as they passed, leaving darkness in their wake.
When they reached the end of the corridor a steel door whisked open, revealing a large circular room, in the center of which were a pair of low, circular pedestals, each about two feet across and ten inches in height. A pair of footprints glowed on each pedestal and the words "ARMS RAISED" glowed in ten-inch letters on the wall before them.
The damsels exchanged a glance, then Kiera stepped up onto the left pedestal and Rachel onto the right. They placed their feet over the glowing footprints, raised their arms over their heads, and three things happened very quickly. (1) The door slid closed behind them. (2) Small panels opened in the ceiling and floor. Robot arms emerged and attached steel cables to the rings set in the sides of their wrist and ankle cuffs. The arms retracted as quickly as they'd appeared, the panels closed, and the cables snapped taut. (3) The glowing message and footprints winked out.
There was a pause—more drama from Sally—then the pedestals slowly lowered until their surfaces were flush with the floor. The result was both damsels in full suspension with their wrists and ankles each about a foot apart and six inches of air under their dangling toes.
Kiera tugged on her bonds, or tried to, anyway. She couldn't do much of anything, thanks to gravity and the rigid, taut ankle cables. Her body swayed and twisted a little as she struggled, but that was it. Glad I took Rachel's advice about the cuffs, she thought, although their design hadn't left her much choice. They were either snug or the buckles wouldn't close at all. In any case, she was helpless and more or less comfortable... for now. Of course, if Sally was cruel enough to leave them hanging for any length of time, it would be a different story. For now, she was okay... and increasingly horny.
Sally left them hanging, but she didn't make them wait. The lights dimmed and an image appeared on the curved wall in front of their hanging bodies and gagged faces. It was a metal corridor, like the one behind the closed panel at their backs. An unmistakably female figure came into view at the far end of the corridor, first in silhouette. Then, as she approached, more detail became apparent—and they realized it was Janice!
Kiera and Rachel shared a stunned glance, then returned their gaze to the image of their older colleague. Sally had promised them a surprise, and she'd definitely delivered. The very idea of a virtual reality version of Janice Bell as the "Mistress of Ceremonies" of their little drama was naughty... and deliciously kinky.
"Janice" was dressed in an outrageous dominatrix outfit: skintight, black leather thigh-boots with four-inch spike heels—black fishnet pantyhose—a black leather bottom that was more thong than bikini-bottom—a black leather corset laced punishingly tight—tight, black leather opera gloves that nearly reached her armpits—a black leather collar with steel spikes—and a truly evil smile. Her firm, brown, delectable breasts were bare, her long, black curls loose about her bare shoulders, and she held a riding crop in her right hand.
Kiera wanted to shout Genius!—then hide under a rock. She could do neither.
The virtual Janice reached the end of the virtual corridor, there was the illusion of a pair of glass doors opening, the image flashed into three-dimensional ultra-high resolution, and Janice stepped into the room.
Kiera and Rachel exchanged another startled glance. Either Sally had made a spectacular and revolutionary breakthrough in holographic projection, or...
Janice reached out and rested the gloved palm of her left hand on Kiera's flat stomach, removing all doubt.
It was Janice! The real Janice! The real Janice dressed as a Cruel Mistress, and she was smiling at a pair of naked, bound, gagged, and suspended damsels who were completely at her mercy!
"You wicked girls," Janice purred. "Imagine, playing your silly games and not inviting me to participate. Girls as wicked as that deserve to be punished, don't you agree?"
Kiera's heart was hammering and she could tell Rachel was equally stressed.
Suddenly, a panel slid open to the side, revealing another alcove and a neat array of whips, canes, paddles, and floggers, as well as several vibrators of various design, all snapped into wall-mounted recharging units. Janice strolled to the collection, her hips swinging seductively and her heels tapping on the metal floor, and exchanged her riding crop for a flogger with twenty or more long tails of ribbon-thin, pliant leather.
"I'm going to whip you both until you're very sorry," Janice announced. "Then, I'll take one of you upstairs, to bed. Sally gets the one remaining behind. Or rather, Sally's diddle-serpent and tickle-spider robots get the one remaining behind. I haven't yet made my selection." She gave the flogger a shake, and both damsels flinched, imagining how the tails would feel, striking their naked flesh. "From now on," Janice continued, "you girls will play when and how I tell you to play, and with whom. Do you understand?"
Kiera and Rachel exchanged another wide-eyed glance, then nodded. Maybe Janice was kidding, and maybe not. They'd sort out who was or wasn't a simpering slave and who was or wasn't a cruel dominatrix when they weren't naked, helpless, gagged, and vulnerable and Janice wasn't waving around a flogger. For the moment, playing along was their only option.
"Good girls," Janice chuckled. "Let's not tell Cynthia or J-Lou about this new arrangement of ours, okay? It'll be our little secret." She rolled her shoulders and flexed her arms, then strolled behind the suspended captives. "Now, on with the punishment. Since you're being so cooperative, I'll only whip you a little, but you really are wicked, selfish girls."
Kiera squeezed her eyes closed and whined through her gag. Which of us will 'Mistress Janice' choose? She meant for the first blow and the trip upstairs. Kiera heard the tails of the flogger rattle, again... there was a swoosh—"NRRRM!"—and her left butt-cheek exploded with pain!