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"ALLIES"

by Ernie Whiting

Part 7

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

A cold but gentle breeze drifted in from the northwest. The sun was just beginning to come up in the eastern horizon, and its golden rays peered between the branches of the tall redwoods to bring a soft glow to the outlines of the distant mountains. In the distance, a cry of a single egret broke the silence of the new dawn to accompany the gentle rushing sounds of the river, and the soft whispering of the forest.

A fire was burning in the fireplace, and Valerie and Keller sat before it on the low sofa, close together. With her arms folded across her chest, she gazed into the fire; but the fire in the grate was nothing compared to that which burned in her eyes and drew closer to the end of her fuse.

"Oscar's got one more call out, and a meet is all set up. It dawned on me yesterday that the reason why I've been having so damn much trouble finding replacement parts is because I was thinking about Chrysler parts, and that's a split 327 Chevy engine in there. If I'd remembered, I would've had it fixed and we could have gotten out of here."

She scratched slowly at an itch on her upper arm through her wool sweater. "I'm not running away again," she said softly. "I'm going to kill that bastard."

Keller turned to face her more easily, and rested an arm across the top of the sofa. "No one's talking about running away," he said. "Call it a temporary tactical retreat. Hell, even the best generals know when to fall back and regroup."

"I am not going to abandon this house," she said with a soft snarl. "If they kill me, then I'll see to it that I take some of them with me."

"And what good will that do you?"

"At least I can face my gods knowing that I kept my promise. I am not going to just stand by or cower, or run off like some damn pacifist." While she sincerely believed that peaceful means to settle conflicts were always far more preferable, she no longer believed in or even respected the concept of peace above all else. Not after what she had been through. "And I'll be damned if I let those storm troopers in here again without a fight."

Keller sighed. At one time he had been brash and aggressive and impetuous, and as filled with rage as Valerie was now. But all of that changed after... Even though he had killed in self-defense, that first death still had affected him deeply. He had learned his lessons the hard way; and it seemed that Valerie was going to have to learn her own lessons. He just didn't want her to have to share his experiences.

She's angry and tired, he thought, and I can't blame her a bit.

"Look," he said. "I'm going to meet with this guy, but I want you to promise me that we'll talk later. Okay?"

"I've made up my mind, Garrett."

"I'm not going to try to make you change your mind," he said. "Just promise me we'll talk, that's all I ask."

She watched him for a moment as she wondered what he might be up to, and then slowly nodded. "Okay."

***

The small gift shop was nestled comfortably in the foothills, surrounded by tall redwoods and firs on three sides, and shaded from the midday sun. Inside the rustic shop, it was cool and dark, and the air was scented with the vapors of various oils, perfumes, candles and incenses. Dust motes floated lazily on the soft currents of air, and were illuminated momentarily by the shafts of sunlight that fell through the windows and disappeared again in the shadows. Trinkets and bric-a-brac rested quietly in display cases constructed of old wood on the bottom and glass on the front, back and top, showing potential customers what was available.

It was quiet in the gift shop. Nineteen-year-old Jasmine Tanaka sat behind one of the low display cases facing the door, resting an elbow on the thick glass top as she supported her head in her hand, palm against chin, and drummed the fingers of her other hand gently against the counter-top. Man, she thought as her almond eyes gazed on nothing in particular, days like this are not going to get me a raise. She puffed out her cheeks slightly as she sighed heavily.

She thought back to when she had first moved to the mainland, some eight months ago after escaping from Hawaii, and she sometimes wondered if she might have been better off if she had stayed there and been shot to death with the rest of her family. On many nights, she lay awake in bed with the tears spilling from her eyes, feeling as though she had been cast adrift on a turbulent sea of life, without family or friends. She felt lost and abandoned, and very much alone.

A state of emergency had been declared after the outbreak of the Plagues, and it had never been rescinded. Many of the military personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor had been called back to the mainland, and for a long time there had been no indication that they would ever return. Since there were so few people left on the islands, Hawaii had been left with a reduced military force; no one had been overly worried about an enemy attack here in those days because the enemy itself was being devastated by the Plagues. The people of Hawaii had begun to revert to their own ways, returning to their own culture and religion. Paganism and fertility rites had once again become widespread, and strict capitalism--as had been practiced mostly by the mainlander immigrants that the native islanders called haoles--was being replaced with a form of cooperative anarchy. Hawaii had almost returned completely to its old ways when the government troops returned--only now the uniforms were all different. Gone were the olive-green and the camouflage fatigues, replaced with black fatigues and black helmets. Gone were the shoulder insignia that designated various military units, replaced with the American flag with the superimposed crucifix. They were all one unit now, and they called themselves the Holy Guardians.

The first action undertaken by the FLM's new government was to outlaw the old ways by declaring them to be pornographic and inspired by the Devil. The Islanders thought it was some kind of a joke, so they continued with their ways. After all, who were these white people to come from so far away and to start telling the natives what they could and could not do in their own homeland?

The authorities responded by smashing their temples and shrines, and on top of that came the surveillance, secret and electronic. Taps were placed in the phone companies; it was easy enough to do, since the Foundation had already seized control of all communications, and conversations were recorded and used as evidence. Telephone company records were used to hunt down suspected subversives to their homes; soldiers arrived en masse in midnight raids to break down doors, search for incriminating evidence and smash religious shrines, and the people found there were arrested for possessing subversive materials, pagan idols, and for practicing idolatry. What the hell was this? Many wondered. Idolatry? They can't be serious... But after a long, unending series of examples, they realized that a fanatical and iron-fisted religious body had seized power, and they had made it abundantly clear that there would be no tolerance whatsoever of any Devil-inspired pagan practices. Those who didn't like it could rot in jail, die by execution for sedition and witchcraft, or keep their goddamn mouths shut.

Jasmine's family--her parents and only sister--had been killed before they could even try to escape. Jasmine had not been there at the time; she had been on her way home from the Big Island after visiting several friends when she had heard the gunshots. She stayed low for a few minutes, then cautiously approached a neighbor to find out what had happened. It was there she had learned that a former mainlander, trying to prove how loyal and patriotic she was, had turned in her family for being involved with a pagan group that was highly critical of the Foundation's government. Jasmine hid in her neighbor's attic until the next night, and then managed to sneak back into her home.

All around the house was the yellow plastic tape on which was stenciled "Police Line--Do Not Cross." Then she saw, taped to the battered remains of the front door, an official notice of asset forfeiture and seizure. Angrily, she ripped it down and went inside.

There were no bodies in the house, but there was blood everywhere. She rushed from room to room, and her anger transformed itself into an ever-growing horror that gnawed at her heart as she searched for signs of life--any signs--and found none. There was blood in the living room and all over the sofa, and in the girls' bedroom one of the beds was soaked with blood. A paperback book rested like a tent on the floor nearby. Denise had been shot while she laid reading in bed.

Jasmine sank to her knees, buried her face in her hands, and cried.

She couldn't stay here. The soldiers might come back, maybe looking for her and maybe not, and she couldn't take that chance. Come on, said a voice inside her head, get up and move. Now! She got to her feet and went to her closet where she found her sister's beige Alpine backpack, and began stuffing clothes into it. From the shelf above, she pulled down a tightly rolled sleeping bag and tied it to the bottom of the pack's aluminum frame. From there she went to the kitchen. She found several packages of granola bars and crackers, dried nuts and a few cans of beans and mixed vegetables, and several bags of freeze-dried fruits, and stuffed them all into the pack, then slung it over her shoulder and went into her parents' bedroom. Inside the closet, hidden safely above the door, was her father's dai-katana--a traditional Samurai's sword--and this she tied to the side of the pack. Then she went quietly to the back door and peered carefully into the yard to be certain that there was no one there. She went to the edge of the woods and left her pack on the ground behind a tree, and then tied her hair back with a thin leather lace before heading back toward the house. She returned to the house and went into the garage.

She saw the power mower first. She remembered the day her father bought it. She had begged and pleaded with him not to use it because its exhaust fumes were bad for the environment; his smiling reply had been, "Push-mowers are bad for my back." She smiled in fond memory at this exchange, and then she remembered that he was dead--brutally wrenched from her loving embrace by a fanatically religious government and a soldier's bullets--and the jarring memory reminded her of why she had come to the garage.

Sitting next to the power mower she found the gas can. It was still full. She picked it up and carried it into the house. She poured gasoline all over the sofa and the carpet, and trailed it through the kitchen and bedrooms. She took the can back to the garage (I will not litter the house with gardening stuff, she thought, combining past and present, and not realizing just how much her grief was affecting her thinking) and returned to the living room. Here she struck a wooden match with her thumbnail, and let it flare to life. God damned Foundation pigs, she thought as she was suddenly consumed by cold, black rage. They're not going to seize this home!

She tossed the match. Bright flames enveloped the sofa with a soft whoosh! and started for the wood-paneled wall behind it. She turned quickly and went out through the back door.

She retrieved her backpack, grabbing it in one fist by both shoulder straps, and slung it over her shoulder. She started into the woods…then paused and turned to look at what used to be her home. The flickering orange light of the growing flames danced against her, illuminating her tanned face in the dark, and fresh tears glistened on her cheeks. "Good bye," she said to the memories of her family and home. "I love you." She turned once more toward the woods, and disappeared into the night.

***

She managed to sneak aboard a ship that was bound for the mainland that same night, and eventually she wound up in San Francisco. Cold and sore from sleeping under the canvas cover of a lifeboat for so many nights, she went in desperate search of a job. She didn't have any formal identification on her--no driver's license or National Tax Identification card (a long time ago, she had heard, they used to call it a Social Security card), so the only work she could get was house-cleaning in a couple of cheap motels she had found, and some part-time work in one of the few remaining nude bars as a dancer and waitress. The pay was next to nothing, but she got good tips from many of the customers, which helped her to pay the rent on her one-room apartment and keep her fed. At least, until one of the customers offered her fifty dollars for a blowjob.

"I don't do that kind of thing," she said coldly.

"Aw, come on," he said with a cold, alligator's smile. "It's an easy fifty. What do you say?"

"I said no." She turned to leave, determined to go on to the next table.

The man's hand lashed out like a whip, and caught her around her upper arm--and it was about the biggest mistake of his life.

She turned and twisted out of his grip. Her hand grabbed his wrist and pulled hard, yanking his arm out straight and twisting it inward. She threw her pent-up rage into the blow as her other hand came up and then down, smashing against the now exposed outside of his elbow as she pulled up on his wrist. The crack of a snapping bone sounded like a small caliber gunshot, and the man screamed. With her right side facing him, her own elbow quickly came forward and then slammed back, smashing his nose. He staggered backward, with one arm dangling uselessly at his side while his other hand clutched at his face as blood gushed from his nose and between his fingers, dripping onto the floor and staining the front of his expensive white silk shirt with large streaking droplets of red. Then her foot lashed out twice; the first blow caught him in the abdomen, and the second hit him in the groin. Then she leapt into the air, spun in a 360 degree arc to add more force to the blow, and lashed out with her foot once more in a reverse roundhouse-kick that caught him across one shoulder (she had been aiming for his head, but missed), and knocked him clean off his feet.

A couple of dancers would have applauded and cheered, had it not meant losing their desperately needed jobs.

The gathering crowd suddenly parted to let the club's owner through. He was a large man with greasy red hair, a severe weight problem, and even worse skin. "What the fuck's goin' on here?" he bellowed. Then he looked at the fallen customer, who was sitting on the floor, groaning and sobbing in agony, and not knowing whether to cradle his broken arm or try to staunch the flow of blood from his nose. His jaw dropped and his eyes bulged in speechless, dumfounded shock.

He turned on Jasmine. "What the fuck did you DO to him?! "

"The son of a bitch propositioned me!" she shouted back. "He tried to buy me, like I was some cheap whore, and then he grabbed me!"

"Ya shoulda let him do it! You're fired! I got no need for a bitch who beats up on my customers!"

She was stunned into silence by rage and the injustice of this treatment. She wanted to kill him so much that she almost gave in to the urge. Instead, she took a deep breath and said, "If I'm fired, then pay me for the week you owe me."

The club's owner stepped closer to her. His sour, moist breath wafted into her face as he said, "That little stunt you pulled just cost you that week's pay."

Jasmine stared at him in trembling, mute fury.

"Now get your gear and get the fuck outta my club."

Blazing rage burned within her, but there was nothing she could do. With a muttered oath, she turned and headed for the dressing rooms.

"Awright, awright, show's over," he said to the crowd. "Let's have some music and some dancin', okay?" He made his way to the bar and settled on one of the stools. "Next round's on Jasmine!" he declared with a mocking laugh. The music started again, and a pair of women reluctantly came out on stage for the next dance. They were good friends of Jasmine's, and they were certainly in no mood to dance after what had just happened, but what could they do?

Conversations picked up again, most of them concerning what had just happened, as a pair of the club's bouncers carried the man out. There was much joking and laughing, and the clinking of glasses accompanied the music. But some five minutes later it became very quiet again, as though someone had turned the volume down with the slow twist of a control knob. The club owner turned from the bar to find out what was going on, and he suddenly found the razor edge of something cold and silver lying gently against his throat..

"You owe me a week's pay," said Jasmine's quiet, determined voice.

The club owner's eyes bulged as they fell on the gleaming and gently curving blade of the katana. They flicked to Jasmine's cold, determined eyes, and then they returned to the sword. Very slowly and carefully, not daring to make any sudden movements, he reached for his back pocket. "Okay, Jasmine, just take it easy," he whispered in a thin, terrified voice, as though any more volume might accidentally startle her. And if he startled her she might flinch, and if she flinched she might cut!...

He found his wallet. He took it out very carefully and, very slowly, handed it to her.

"I don't want it all; just the hundred you owe me. Put it on the bar." She shifted the sword to a one-handed grip and took the money with the other, and stuffed it into a back pocket. Then, once again using both hands to point the sword at him, she slowly backed her way toward the door and out. Once she was outside, she dashed down the sidewalk to retrieve her pack, which she had stashed behind a couple of trash cans, and then ran like hell.

From San Francisco she walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, then managed to hitch a ride to San Rafael, and from there to Santa Rosa. She spent the night there, sleeping in an abandoned warehouse, then in the morning she headed on foot for Highway 116 and made for the coast. Alternately walking and hitching rides along Highway 1, she passed through Jenner, Gualala, and Point Arena, and finally wound up in Mendocino, where she found this small gift shop. Vernon, the owner, took her in and gave her a place to stay above the shop, letting her stay there as long as she worked for him. She had been on the road for nearly two weeks; she was tired, in desperate need of a good meal, and covered with dirt and mud from the road. And smelling, as Vernon had put it, very ripe.

She started her job by doing minor repairs here and there. Display cases were popping at the corners of their wooden frames, and some had cracked glass, while others just needed some sanding and a new coat of varnish.

Then she began making jewelry. She worked mostly with silver; she made rings and bracelets and chains, all in complex, swirling patterns, and decorated with turquoise, amber, amethyst, onyx and obsidian, and put them all on display on black velvet under fluorescent lights. Word had gotten around, and the jewelry sold quickly; but after a while business tapered off again, and now it was about ready to die altogether. Now she didn't have enough money to fix her recently-acquired bike--a stripped-down Triumph 650 motorcycle. She was able to fix it herself; she liked tinkering around with engines. This one had thrown a rod, and since she couldn't afford the needed parts it now sat around back, covered with a dusty gray canvas tarp.

Right now there was nothing to do. She was sitting on a stool behind one of the counters, gazing disinterestedly at the home-made jewelry that decorated her tanned, slim and well-manicured fingers, and thinking about nothing in particular as she minded the shop in case someone should happen to come in. Then she studied the silver ring on her left-hand ring finger; it was a wide band, made of a group of thin silver strands braided together with a swirling pattern, with a large, oval piece of buffed turquoise in the center. The ring on her left pinkie was similar in style, but smaller, and with a small, round chunk of shiny black obsidian. The rings on the same fingers of her other hand were of different patterns in the silver, but with similar stones.

She looked out the window. She sighed again, and her right hand came from under her chin to finger the black rawhide laces that hung around her neck. From beneath her olive-green tank top she pulled a silver pentacle on one lace and the small, dark wooden figure of a woman with her arms raised and outstretched in invocation on the other. She gazed at them for a long moment without thinking about anything in particular, and then tucked them back under the tank top again.

The small bell tinkled merrily above the door, announcing the arrival of a customer. Jasmine's eyes snapped toward it, and her heart suddenly raced like a high-powered engine as she recognized the woman who came in. The white jeans and blue sweatshirt had been replaced with faded blue denim and a red blouse and dark brown moccasins, but she was easily recognizable by her glossy, brown/black hair and her pale amber eyes. "Well, hi!" she said with a warm smile.

For a moment, Valerie just wanted to melt into a puddle of mush and right through the floor. I don't be-lieve it! she thought. She stared at her in stunned and pleasant surprise for a moment or two before she finally found her voice. "The concert!"

"Right!"

"Yeah, you got me out on stage after I made a fool of myself." She approached the counter where Jasmine was sitting. Seeing her again reminded her of how delightfully soft and warm her hand had felt on her arm.

"What are you, kidding? You didn't make a fool of yourself. You got those people to chase the clouds away, didn't you?"

Valerie shrugged shyly. "Yeah, well... I'm not so sure that flashing the audience was such a good idea..."

Jasmine's smile widened into a dazzling grin as she remembered. "Hey, whatever works," she said with a chuckle. She reached a hand across the glass-topped counter and introduced herself. "I'm Jasmine Tanaka."

Dear Goddess, she has beautiful eyes! she thought. They were almond-shaped, denoting her roots in what Valerie liked to call the "exotic Far East," but instead of the usual brown they sparkled a deep, captivating shade of pure, emerald green. For a moment, she found herself struck absolutely speechless.

"Va--" she croaked, and then she cleared her throat and tried again. "Valerie Ryan," she finally managed to say. She took her hand and shook it. It was as soft and warm as she remembered; and suddenly she had a flash of those erupting volcanoes that sent a thrill of delight through her. And then she realized that, with no drum set between them this time, Jasmine seemed to be in no more of a hurry than she to break the contact.

"So what can I do for you?"

All kinds of things, was Valerie's first thought as she continued to gaze into those incredibly beautiful eyes.

And then she thought the question could be interpreted on two levels. On the one hand, it seemed both friendly and business-like; yet there might also have been something cautiously sly and suggestive in it, as though the Asian woman might be testing the waters. What she finally said was, "I'm not sure." Even as she spoke, she realized while drawing her hand back and digging into her blouse pocket, that even her own vague response could be interpreted on two levels. "I was told that there was a custom jewelry shop around here, and I was wondering if there was some way that this could be rigged up as an earring." She handed her the wolf's tooth.

Jasmine studied it for a moment with a professional eye. "Sure, no problem at all," she replied at last. "You want a clip or a pierce?"

"Oh, pierce me, please," Valerie thought with a lascivious, inward grin.

"'Scuse me?" Jasmine asked, uncertain if she had heard right.

Valerie suddenly realized that she had just spoken out loud. "Piercing!" she was quick to amend. "I mean, a piercing. I..." She floundered slightly as she fought to conceal her embarrassment. "I lose clips..."

Jasmine struggled to control her own urge to smile. "I know the feeling," she said quite honestly, while hoping that she didn't sound too sly or suggestive; she could feel her own thighs beginning to quiver a little. "I tend to lose clips, too. Silver okay?"

"Silver would be perfect," she said. "Um...how much will this cost?"

"It shouldn't run you too much. Twenty-five bucks?"

Valerie grinned. "Deal."

Jasmine grinned, too. "Terrific!" she said brightly. "Let me close up; business has been pretty slow today, and I don't think anyone'll mind or even notice if I leave early." She stepped from behind the counter to reveal the smooth, tanned legs of a dancer below a pair of faded cut-off jeans from which she had been trimming the constantly growing white fringe. There wasn't too much of the jeans left. She went to the door to lock up and draw the blind, on which a sign read "Closed--Please Come Again." Valerie turned to watch her with a smile, and once again she thought, Gods, she's so cute! Before Jasmine turned back, she flipped her hair back over one shoulder with a slight toss of her head, and with a sudden urge to gently brush her lips and tongue over that absolutely gorgeous ass and slowly make her way up her spine to the back of her neck, her hand came up under its own will to quickly unbutton a couple of buttons on her blouse. She had never, in her entire life, felt this way about another woman before, nor did she know why these feelings were suddenly coming over her; but she decided right then that she wasn't going to try to suppress them, or even waste any more time analyzing them. She was going to just go with the flow.

Nor did she know that Jasmine was surreptitiously watching her reflection in the glass, and also smiling as she slowly drew the shade down.

"Come on in back," she suggested. "I've got a workshop there." She led the way through a gently rattling curtain of multi-colored plastic beads that separated the main shop from the workshop.

Valerie looked around in pleasant surprise. "Wow! Look at all this stuff! How neat!" She approached a display case and leaned forward with her hands on her knees to peer in through the glass front. In the case were all kinds of silver jewelry; bracelets with mystical markings and earrings, rings and crystals and pentacles, all laid out on black velvet, gleaming and sparkling brilliantly under fluorescent lighting.

"I sometimes get a little worried about displaying that," she heard Jasmine say as the latter went over to her workbench, and suddenly she could almost feel her eyes roaming over her. Had she been talking about the jewelry? Or was she making a comment about the way Valerie was subtly displaying herself as she bent at the waist to look into the glass case? Ever since she had come into this shop, she felt that both actions and words seemed to subtly shift back and forth from one level to another. It made her feel both self-conscious and a little excited.

"Every once in a while someone will come looking for it, but mostly I get a bad feeling and I tell them they're out of luck. I don't know if they're informers or not, but I prefer not to take any chances." She sat on an adjustable stool and dropped the wolf's tooth into a paper cup, and glanced around her bench for a moment as she muttered to herself, "Now, where the hell did...ah." She reached for and uncapped a brown plastic bottle, and poured some hydrogen peroxide into the paper cup. The peroxide began to fizz, removing the traces of blood and tissue on the tooth, and then she went hunting through a drawer for some extra silver.

"That's a shame," Valerie said as she slowly straightened and folded her arms. "Sweet Lady, this stuff is beautiful. Where'd you get it all?"

Jasmine grinned appreciatively and replied, "I made it."

She looked at her, clearly impressed. "No kidding?"

"Nope."

She went back to admiring the jewelry. "Wow... So, you're into the Craft too, huh?"

"Yeah." She pulled a long leather lace from a back pocket and tied her long, satiny, and jet-black hair back with it, then went to sit at the other side of the counter where Valerie stood. She brushed her bangs away from her forehead, and then pulled the two charms from under her tank top as she rested her elbows on the glass counter. She leaned forward to give Valerie a better view of not only the talismans. "I made this pentacle," she said, fingering it delicately. "And this little figure"--she indicated the small wooden charm--"is Pele, the Goddess of Fire and Volcanoes."

Feeling as though she might have just found her own volcano goddess--and then suddenly wondering if those visions of volcanoes by the river yesterday had been some kind of a premonition--she reached forward and let the talismans rest gently against her fingertips so she could admire them a moment longer. "You're from Hawaii?" she asked, her voice almost hopeful.

"Born and raised," Jasmine replied as she laced her fingers together and rested her hands on the glass counter top.

She mentally grabbed a fistful of air and pulled it in. Kismet! she thought. Yes!!

Smiling a little bit, and perfectly happy to let Valerie take all the time she wanted to admire her...jewelry...the Asian woman said, "Paganism used to be pretty popular back home before the Foundation moved in."

"Yeah, they're pretty good at screwing up a nice way of life." She moved to lay the jewelry back against Jasmine's breast, and with her fingers less than an inch from her skin she slipped them from beneath the talismans to let them drop back against her. Reluctantly, she pulled her gaze away from Jasmine's charms, then knelt in front of the counter to admire the jewelry inside the case. Luckily for her, she could also see through it to admire the Hawaiian's legs.

"See anything you like?"

She thought that one over for a second or two with a sly, inward smile. "Oh, yeah," she said quite audibly, still pretending to admire the jewelry. Then she shifted her eyes over to a leather headband that lay nearby. On it, made of pure sparkling silver, were the three phases of the moon: waxing on the left, full in the center, and waning on the right. There was no price tag on it. "How much are you asking for this headband?"

"Which, the Triple Moon?" She slid the case open and took it out. "Well, let's see now," she said. She stepped from behind the counter. "Here, turn around." She tied the band into place, then guided her to a mirror. "Let's see how it looks." She rested her hands on Valerie's shoulders and, looking at her in the mirror at almost eye level--Valerie was two or three inches taller than the Hawaiian's five-foot-six--she said, "Beautiful. That looks so good on you I'd feel guilty about charging you for it. It's yours."

"Hey, no," she said with a look of surprise as she began to turn. "I can't just take this, I--"

"Sure you can; call it a free bonus gift for a new customer. I insist."

She grinned appreciatively. "Well, thank you! That's really nice of you!"

Jasmine waved her off. "Not at all. Excuse me--I have to go check on your tooth." For a moment, she sounded a little like Valerie's dentist as she turned and went back to her bench.

The peroxide had stopped fizzing, and she poured it carefully out and held the cup under running water. She swirled it around and poured it and the tooth into her hand. "Perfect," she said to herself. She dried it on a worn hand towel, then set it down on a foam rubber pad. "Let's let that air dry for a few minutes." Looking up at her she continued, "You know, that was a pretty impressive demonstration at the concert." She went back to rummaging around for some spare silver in the open drawer of her bench.

"Yeah, I guess it was. But they changed the weather, not me."

"You helped."

"I just showed 'em how to do it; they did the rest."

She found a good-sized chunk of silver and began cleaning it. "You and I know that," she said, and she continued speaking as she worked. "But the people who were there will never believe it. A lot of people never seem to want to take credit for themselves in anything; they'd rather believe a Witch changed the weather rather than themselves. Then on the other side you've got the Christers and the God Squad types who say that God did such-and-such when things go right for them, and the Devil did such-and-such when things go wrong. When what it all boils down to is the fact that people are responsible for their own actions, and not some evil or benevolent deity. It's a shame that they'd rather believe in something else than in themselves." She paused and looked up at her. "Sorry," she said with an apologetic smile. "I didn't mean to rattle on like that."

"Don't worry about it. Besides, I agree with you. A lot of people don't want that kind of responsibility. That way, whenever they fuck up, they've always got someone else to blame.

"Not to change the subject, but...how long have you been on the mainland?"

"Ooh, about eight months, I guess." She put the silver down and proceeded to light a small torch, similar to the kind used by people who made small glass figurines. She turned on the gas, clicked the igniter a couple of times, and the flame caught. "My mom's family came from a long line of healers and ritual magicians," she went on as she adjusted the flame, and then donned a pair of dark goggles. "My dad's family is from Japan, and has always been into warfare and martial arts, so I guess they sort of naturally attracted each other to balance out. My dad's great-great..." She paused in her work as she thought for a moment. "...great-great grandfather..." She began working again. "....was supposed to have been a Samurai, and he passed the training down from one male descendant to the next. I never had a brother, and I had shown a lot of interest in karate and kendo, so my dad taught me."

"Kendo?" She'd never heard the word before.

"Same thing as Samurai sword fighting, only with sticks. It's for practice. That way the students don't wind up dismembering each other. I got into ritual magic at the same time, and when I came here I found a book on neo-paganism and Witchcraft; and it's damn near identical to what I've been brought up to believe! The names are all different, of course, but many of the rituals are quite similar; the Spirits of the Four Directions are each represented by the same elements--east for air, south for fire, west for water and north for earth--and even the casting of a Circle is just about the same. It's pretty amazing when you think about it. Europeans didn't bother with Hawaii until about the...what, about the eighteenth century? And long before then, we and the pagans of Europe, Asia and the Middle East were worshiping the same ancient gods and goddesses, and in the same ways, without ever having met before." She pulled the goggles down to hang around her neck.

"Except that in North America we don't have volcano goddesses."

Jasmine turned from her work to look at her with a little bit of a smile. "So who do you think set off Mount St. Helens back in the eighties?"

Valerie laughed. "Good point!"

She worked in silence for a few minutes as she melted the silver once more, making certain that the root of the tooth was securely enveloped, then leaned back. "There! Done." She pulled the goggles off over her head and shut off the torch.

Valerie approached her and looked at the earring. It was still hot to the touch, so she held it at eye-level with the small pair of forceps that Jasmine had been using. "Jasmine, you're amazing," she said approvingly. "I love it."

"Thank you. Listen, my piercing gear is upstairs; why don't I put some tea on, we'll let this cool for a bit, and then we'll poke a hole through your ear while we compare notes. Okay?"

"Poke a hole through my ear? Sounds barbaric."

Jasmine grinned and shrugged.

Valerie grinned back. "Let's do it."

***

"...so whenever you feel like it, just stop on by. I'd love the company," Jasmine was saying. She stood next to the horse, gently scratching its neck.

Valerie untied the reins from the weathered wooden rail and slipped a foot into a stirrup. "And the same goes for you, too. The door's always open." She hoisted herself into the saddle, and the new earring, hanging from a tiny gold hoop that now pierced her right ear lobe, bounced against the corner of her jaw. Sunlight sparkled brilliantly from the gleaming silver and polished white enamel. "Listen, why not come on over right now? I've got some books on the Craft that I think you'll like."

"Sure. You got room for one more up there? My bike's out of commission."

"Sure."

"Great! I'll be right back." She dashed inside, and Valerie smiled as she wondered what she must look like as she pedaled around on her bicycle, with her tanned legs pumping at the pedals and her round, cute derriere swinging back and forth. Naw, I don't think she's a bicycle-type person, she suddenly thought. She pictured her straddling a Harley Davidson or something instead.

She reappeared a moment later. She locked the front door, pocketed the keys, and went to the horse. She reached for the hand Valerie offered, jumped, and swung a leg over. She wasn't quite certain of what to do with her hands, though; should she just rest them on her thighs, or hold Valerie's waist? She didn't want to seem too forward or anything. She still couldn't be certain as to how Valerie might react. The problem was solved for her when Valerie snapped the reins and jabbed her heels into the horse's ribs, and the horse took off at a gallop. To avoid falling from behind, she threw her arms around Valerie's waist and held tight.

Valerie was grinning as the horse raced down the dirt path. Ever since her return home and her self-initiation ritual, she just didn't feel like the old Valerie St. James from Colorado anymore. She felt new, and rather than wanting to suppress new feelings and experiences she now wanted to open herself to them. And the more she spoke with this woman and enjoyed her company, the more she found herself wanting to find out what she would be like in bed. She finally gave up on wondering what was coming over her and simply accepted it. Sure, she had admired attractive women before, in an objective way, but the feelings she had now were much different. Jasmine's face was almost girlish in its youth and apparent innocence, especially when she smiled; but her body--Gods, what a body!--was built like that of a bikini model in a fitness magazine. Not only did Valerie think this woman was hot, exotic and drop-dead gorgeous, but for the first time in her entire life she was actually getting turned on by another woman. She didn't need to be running the horse this fast, with the trees and low-hanging branches whipping by them; she just wanted to know what it would be like to have Jasmine's arms around her waist and her breasts pressed firmly against her back--and she liked the feeling. A lot.

Jasmine watched the trees and low branches, too. Nervously. "We're not gonna crash, are we?" she asked over the thundering of the horse's hooves.

She slowed the horse. "Naw, of course not. I know these woods like...well, actually, it's been a good while since I've been here..." She felt her arms relax, and then slowly--perhaps reluctantly--remove themselves. "I think you'd better hang on," she said with a slight smile. "If you're not used to horseback riding, or if the horse suddenly gets spooked, you might accidentally slip off. Even at this slow pace." And with an inward smile, she felt Jasmine's arms slip almost eagerly around her once more.

That sounds like a pretty good excuse, the Hawaiian woman thought with her own sly and inward smile, as she laced her fingers together. "Hey, I've got a question for you," she said.

"Okay."

"You're the first person I've met on this continent who's into the Craft, and I've been dying to talk to someone about all this. Anyway, it has to do with personal responsibility for one's own actions versus the Wiccan belief in a deity. I mean, it's easy for us to expose the self-contradictions that the Bible-thumpers believe in, right? But how do we as Witches justify our belief in a deity, whether male or female?"

"Hmm..." Valerie thought that one over for a moment or two. "In response, I can only speak for myself, and not for the whole religion." She thought it over some more. "I kind of like the idea of a female deity. As to whether or not there really is a Goddess, well...I like to think so. And I have reason to believe there's someone or something out there who actually responded to my appeal to a Goddess; I base that belief on an experience I had during my self-initiation. Call it a personal revelation or whatever. The point is, I don't feel any need to prove it to any outsider; it's just something that I accept.

"But I also have faith in myself," she went on. "I like to think that when I cast a Circle or work a spell, the Goddess is watching and maybe even guiding me to help me accomplish a goal, and not just doing it for me. On the other hand, when a spell goes wrong and it blows up in my face, maybe I'm doing something I shouldn't be doing, or maybe She's reminding me of something that I did to someone and it's payback time. I guess that's where Karma comes in. Is there a God or Goddess of Justice? And if so, is He or She out there somewhere?" She motioned with a hand to indicate all of creation. "Or in here?" She tapped her chest. "Inside of each of us? All I can say is that I'll live my life the best I can, and do the best I can to help others and to protect this planet we call Home, and hope for the best when my time comes to move on out of this life. What happened to me one time was I got sent back, or came back, because of a promise I made.

"But I can see your point. The Christians have their beliefs, and they're convinced that theirs is the only true way. We have ours. There are some Christians out there who are good people, but the down side is that there are a lot of wacko Christians running loose who are not only crazy and self-destructive, but are perfectly willing and even happy to drag the rest of us with them, kicking and screaming, down the road to global suicide--in war or in environmental destruction--in the name of Jesus."

"On the flip side, when was the last time you ever saw a Witch proselytizing?" Jasmine said. "I mean, we don't go running around metaphorically twisting everyone's arms and telling them that they have to believe our way or suffer eternal punishment and damnation--and we sure as hell never tortured or burned anyone at the stake for not following the Pagan way. I mean, I never felt so insecure in my faith that I had to try and actually force it through threats and coercion onto someone else, just so I could tell myself that I was right."

"That's because you're spiritually stronger than they are," Valerie said.

Jasmine smiled warmly at the compliment. With a sigh she said, "Yeah, I think I'd have to agree with you there," and she could hear Valerie's soft chuckle. "But it would be kind of funny to see Witches going door-to-door, with their Books of Shadows in one hand and broomsticks in the other, trying to tell people all about the Goddess and Her Consort, and trying to convert them."

Valerie laughed. "Hecate's Witnesses!"

Jasmine also laughed. "Pagans For Pele! Care to join 'Pagans For Pele?' Just sign here and make a biiiig donation!"

While they rode, laughed and talked, Jasmine studied the trail and the trees, and made mental notes of the route they took so she could come back out here by herself. She took a deep breath to enjoy the scent of pines, firs, redwoods, and the faint scent of sandalwood in Valerie's hair. A warm, dry breeze rustled the trees and shrubs and caressed her bare skin, and the sun warmed the land into the high 70s. It made her feel warm and sensuous, and she wanted to give her a gentle squeeze and nuzzle her face in her hair--but what she did instead was ask, "Do you think it's okay to kill in self-defense? I mean, the Rede says, 'An ye harm none, do as ye will,' but when someone's trying to kill you..."

Valerie replied with a slight shrug. "Hey, you gotta defend yourself. I think that if I had no other choice I'd do it, and face the consequences of my own actions."

"If you had no other choice, you wouldn't be able to act otherwise," Jasmine said. "I know what you mean, though. I threatened to kill someone once, but it was a bluff."

"What happened?"

"He was a shmuck I worked for when I lived in San Francisco. He tried to stiff me for a week's pay, and I threatened to take his head off with my sword."

"What'd he do?"

"He paid me."

"Smart man," Valerie said with a wry grin.

Jasmine grinned, too. "Yeah, I relied on his common sense to see the error of his ways. I wouldn't really have killed him over something as trivial as money; I just wanted him to believe I would."

"And he didn't turn you in?"

She shrugged. "He couldn't. He managed this nudie joint I was working in, back in San Francisco's old Tenderloin district. In the eyes of the FLM, topless bars are no different from brothels, so if he turned me in he'd be cutting his own throat by getting himself busted for pimping. On the other hand, I couldn't turn him in, either, because being a nude dancer would have gotten me busted on a prostitution charge."

Valerie couldn't help grinning a wry and delighted grin. "You were a nude dancer?"

"Yeah. I was the best one there, too, by golly, judging by the tips I got. I mean, money would come raining on the stage. I really liked it, too, for the most part; I've always had an exhibitionist's streak inside of me. But every once in a while there's some jerk who comes along..." She let the thought go unfinished.

She could imagine what Jasmine must have looked like; up there on stage, and dressed in nothing but a pair of glittering red high-heels, and shimmering with perspiration under the hot lights as she gyrated in a slow, sensuous rhythm around a pole to the pounding beat of heavy metal music in front of dozens of outrageously horny men who so desperately wanted her but couldn't have her.

She could feel herself breaking out into a sweat of her own.

"Just me and my glittering red high heels," Jasmine said with a sigh as she fondly thought back. "But anyway, to take a life in self-defense...to actually kill someone... I don't know. The whole idea gives me the willies. I just hope I never get into a situation where I have to make that kind of decision."

"Well, I sure as hell won't let myself get caught and killed again."

Jasmine gave her a puzzled look. "Again?"

"I was burned at the stake in a previous life."

Her eyes widened. "No shit?" Based on her own admittedly limited reading, she had no reason to doubt the theory of reincarnation. She would like to have read more about it, but nearly all of those books had been burned. Whether they jabbered from their pulpits about the pits of Hell or dragged people off to the execution stake, or burned books they didn't like, there was something about Christian zealots and fire that always seemed to go hand in hand.

The horse came around a bend in the path, and through the thinning trees the two riders could see the house. "Here we are," Valerie said. "Home sweet home."

"Whoa--big place! You live here all alone?"

"For the most part, yeah. A friend of mine stays here off and on, and has been helping me fix the place up. His name's Garrett Keller--you'll like him."

"Oh, yeah?" she asked as she gently forced a smile. "You two have a thing going?"

"No, he's just a good friend of mine. Actually, a little more than that--he saved my life. If it hadn't been for him I'd be lying dead in Colorado, so yeah, I'd call him more than must a good friend. We're not lovers or anything like that, though; the only time I thought about making it with him he fell asleep on the sofa, so I guess it wasn't meant to be. Besides, we've got nothing in common; I'm a Witch who doesn't believe in sexism, and he's a sexist who doesn't believe in Witchcraft."

They slid from the horse and Valerie removed the saddle, pad and bridle, and let the horse wander free in the corral. They went inside through the kitchen and into the living room.

"Wow!" Jasmine exclaimed as her eyes widened when she saw the wall that was lined with books. "What a fantastic library! Where'd you get all these?"

"I inherited them. This used to be my uncle's place until my family was killed."

The combined looks of shock, compassion and pain in Jasmine's eyes asked the question without her having to speak.

"Yeah," Valerie said softly. "Foundation goons."

Jasmine chilled with contempt and disgust at the mention of the FLM forces. "I should have known," she said. "Those bastards have been busy little shits, haven't they? I'm surprised they didn't get these books."

"So am I. Maybe they were on a tight schedule or something, and had other people to shoot. Listen, you make yourself at home--I'm going to go get those books." She went up the stairs and left Jasmine free to examine the library.

Wow, she thought, look at these... "Fahrenheit 451," by Ray Bradbury; "Common Sense" and "The Age of Reason," by Thomas Paine; "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee," by Dee Brown; "In The Spirit of Crazy Horse," by Peter Matthiessen; "Black Elk Speaks," by John G. Neihardt; "Of Utmost Good Faith" and "Custer Died For Your Sins," by Vine Deloria, Jr.; "A World of Ideas" and "The Secret Government," by Bill Moyers; "Kent State," by James Michner; "Steal This Book" and "Revolution For The Hell Of It," by Abbie Hoffman; "One Life At A Time, Please," by Edward Abbey... In the fiction section there were other titles by Abbey: "Fire On The Mountain," "The Monkey Wrench Gang," and "Hayduke Lives!"... There were titles by Dean Koontz and Stephen King... She took down "Age of Reason" and settled into the sofa.

Up in her bedroom, Valerie quickly got out of her clothes and slipped into her skimpy cut-off jeans and a black knit sport top, and then went bare-footed up to the attic to get her mother's Craft books.. She piled one on the other, then lifted the stack and balanced it against her chest as she made her way downstairs. "I think you're gonna find these interesting," she said as she came into the living room.

Jasmine looked up from the book she was reading and saw with a pleasant tingle inside that Valerie, while still wearing the headband, had changed into clothes that were much more casual and a lot more revealing. While maintaining her outward cool, inside her desire was growing stronger moment by moment.

She set the books down on the coffee table and sat next to her. "My mom left me these books," she said as Jasmine took the top one. "Until recently, I didn't even know that she'd been a Witch."

"She never told you?"

Valerie shrugged. "I don't know why, she just never did. Maybe she wanted me to find my own way to the Craft and didn't want to influence me. Maybe it was for security reasons; I don't know. I wish I had known... Listen, you want some wine?"

"Sure, I'd love it. Want to share a joint?"

"Sure. I'll be right back." She got up and headed for the kitchen. She reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a green, 750-ml bottle of red wine, then turned and blew the dust from the bottoms of a pair of wine glasses that she removed from a cupboard. She returned to the living room, casually swinging the glasses by their stems in one hand and the bottle by its neck in the other. She found Jasmine still reading Thomas Paine.

"This guy was a genius, y'know? We could sure use a few hundred people like him nowadays."

"I've only read a little of his stuff," Valerie confessed as she again sat next to her and set the glasses on the table. "Back in Colorado"--she pulled the cork--"none of his works were available." She began pouring. "And I haven't really had the time here to get into them because I've been trying to get caught up on all this Craft material. But what little I have read about him has got me convinced that if he were alive today, he'd get a bullet in the back of his head, compliments of the FLM."

"Which," Jasmine said as she accepted a glass, "in a strange way, would be a kind of a compliment." She noticed her puzzled look and went on to say, "I mean, if there's anything that the Foundation is afraid of, it's anything that opposes their weird little mind set. They would consider him to be dangerous enough to warrant a hit on him because they would be afraid of him, and they would fear him because they would know that he's right."

"True enough," Valerie agreed. She raised her glass is a toast. "To Thomas Paine."

Jasmine raised her own glass. "To Citizen Paine."

They clinked their glasses and sipped.

"Mm. Good wine," Jasmine said. She set her glass down and began to dig into a front pocket. She pulled out a small wooden box in which she kept a couple of joints, some wooden matches, and a resin-stained alligator clip.

"It's imported," Valerie said, almost apologetically. "California used to make the best wine in the world--in my own humble opinion--until the Idiots In Power went and sprayed herbicides all over the vineyards. The damn stuff still isn't safe to drink." While she was speaking, Jasmine was lighting the joint and fixing the clip to it. She handed it to Valerie for the first hit. She accepted and took a long, deep hit, expanding her chest to take in as much smoke as she could, and Jasmine couldn't help but notice the way her shoulders went back and how her breasts rose beneath the tank top, and how her nipples strained against the material. She tried not to be too conspicuous while she enjoyed the show.

"Wow! It tastes like lemons!" Valerie said, constricting her throat as she spoke so she could keep the smoke in. "How'd you do that?"

"I just keep a little piece of lemon peel in the stash. Good, huh?" She accepted the joint and hit big on it. The end was slightly damp with Valerie's saliva, and with an inward smile she gently brushed it against her lips and licked them.

Valerie slowly exhaled smoke and sipped at her wine. "Yeah," she said at last. "The first thing that came to mind was gene-splicing and cross-breeding pot with lemon trees. Just a chunk of lemon peel, huh?"

Jasmine grinned and nodded. She passed the joint back to Valerie and exhaled twin streams of smoke.

Valerie took another hit and asked, "So what brought you out to California?" The grass was already beginning to creep up on her, and she gave herself over to the mellow buzz. She studied the way the light fell on Jasmine, and how it shined from her long and straight black hair. She studied her green, almond eyes and deep, bronzed tan, and listened to the rich quality of her voice. She kept expecting to hear a trace of an accent, perhaps Japanese or Chinese, but her voice was thoroughly west coast American. Gods, she's so lovely, she kept thinking, over and over again, until the phrase echoed through her mind. With a little concentration, she turned it into a reverse-echo. Neat, she thought. Good weed.

"Those damned Feds. They didn't approve of the way we were living--we had pretty much gone back to our own religion, and they kinda frowned on that. Who were we hurting?" She shrugged and hit on the joint again, and passed it back. "We hadn't heard a thing about the new regime and what they were into," she said, trying not to lose too much of the smoke, "and we thought they were just a bunch of wackos." She finally exhaled and continued. "Until they started smashing our temples. When we tried to stop them, they started swinging their clubs and even fired a few shots." She paused for a moment as she sipped her wine, and its flavor exploded pleasantly in her mouth. "Then we made the mistake of taking our protests out into the streets and made a big public demonstration. We hadn't heard that martial law had been invoked on account of the bio-war, and that the Constitution had been suspended. Hmph...I keep saying 'we.' I wasn't even there; I was off visiting a friend of mine at the time. But they're my people. They jailed a whole bunch of them for 'idolatry' and with 'charges pending.' Can you believe that? Some weren't even charged with anything, they just held them in jail! The rest of my people decided they weren't going to take it; after all, this is America, right? Not Nazi Germany. Dear Lady, how little we knew..." She set her wine glass on the table, rested her elbows on her knees, and laced her fingers together. "I was told they held a huge ritual, after which they were going to bust our people out," she went on, and here her voice took on a somber quality. "And that was when the shooting started." She took a deep, shuddering breath and let it out, fighting for control while staring at the table. There was a soft tremor in her quiet voice as she went on. "When I got to my neighborhood, I saw that the front door of my house had been kicked in, and there were soldiers all over the place. I ducked down behind some hedges and went to a neighbor's house down the road to find out what had happened. They told me my family had been turned in by an informant for practicing paganism, as defined by Foundation law, and shit like 'idolatry' and 'black magic.' They never even had anything to do with the demonstrations; the informant turned out to be a pissed-off neighbor who didn't care for my dad's political beliefs. We Tanakas have never thought very highly of the authorities--" She lowered her face and made a sound that Valerie thought might have been a short chuckle, but when the Asian woman looked up at her there were tears streaming down a tanned and beautiful face that was twisted in agony. "They shot my family, Valerie!" she said, her voice choked. "They shot them!" And then she lost it, and she broke down and cried.

Valerie set her own glass next to Jasmine's and put an arm around her shoulders. Jasmine came up and her arms went around her, and she sobbed against her chest. "God damn bastards!" she cried. "God damn their fucking bastard souls to Hell! " She gasped and sobbed again, completely out of control.

Not knowing what else to do, Valerie held her close as her own chest tightened with emotion. She knew how Jasmine felt, and the feelings that she thought she had held so tightly under control were now coming back to the surface. "I'm sorry, Jasmine," she said as tears rose in her own eyes. "I'm so sorry..." She held her for a long time, gently stroking her long black hair and rocking her gently back and forth.

"Hold me..."

"It's okay, babe, I've got you...I've got you," she whispered, and her own voice was tight. She kissed her forehead and then her cheek. "I wish I could make the pain go away..."

"Just hold me...please..." Her voice was quiet but still strained.

They sat quietly together for nearly twenty minutes, just holding each other and sharing their pain. And in that time they formed a bond that, no matter what came their way, would never be broken.

***

"I really am sorry for falling apart like that," she said later as she wiped at her eyes with a tissue from a box that Valerie had found. "God, I feel like such a wuss..."

"There's nothing to be sorry for," Valerie replied as she dabbed at her own eyes. "I know how it feels to lose so many people that you love; that goddamn Foundation killed my folks, too. It really does help to have a shoulder to cry on."

Jasmine sniffled once and forced herself to smile through her tears. "I hope it doesn't put you off too much in case it happens again." She reached for her wine glass and took a healthy gulp to steady herself, and set it down again.

Valerie took her hand and squeezed it comfortingly. "Not at all. As a matter of fact, I want you to stop by here any time you feel like it." She gave her hand a little shake. "Okay?"

She took a deep breath as she regained control of her emotions, and let it out quickly. "Okay," she said, and this smile was sincere. "I hope you don't mind frequent visits; things are so slow at the shop, I'm probably going to get laid off. My room over the shop is part of my pay, and if Vernon's place goes under...well...so will mine."

"Okay, so move in here with me. I've got plenty of room, and I'd love the company."

She gave her a surprised look of controlled elation. "You really mean that?"

Valerie grinned at her reaction. "Of course I do! We can do rituals and cast spells, and have all kinds of fun. After all, we sisters in the Craft do have to stick together. Right?"

Jasmine grinned right back at her. "Right." She suddenly threw her arms around her neck and hugged her warmly, and Valerie was only too happy to reciprocate.

They sat closely for a moment, just looking at each other. Then Valerie kissed her cheek and said, "You know what? You need to be cheered up. And I know just the place that'll do it." She took her hand again as she stood. "Come with me." She led her outside. At the back door she pointed at the two cables that led from the roof and into the trees. "See those wires? All you have to do is follow them. Come on." Still holding her hand, she led her through the woods, and a few minuets later they stood at the river's shore. "Well? What do you think?"

Jasmine grinned like a child with a new puppy. "Holy sweet Pele! It's just like my private lagoon back home!"

Now it was Valerie's turn to look surprised. "You had your own lagoon? What are you, rich or something?"

"I always called it 'my' lagoon because I never saw anyone else around there, day or night, and I could go skinny-dipping whenever I wanted." She surveyed the area again, taking in the scenery with a sigh of longing. "Yeah, just like back home. Except for the redwoods, of course."

Valerie gestured toward the river with one hand and a wide grin. "Hey, go for it." With a sudden desire to show herself off, and with her heart pounding in excitement, she pulled her sport top off over her head.

Jasmine grinned as she slipped out of her sandals and pulled off her own top. They left their clothes piled together on the stone slab and carefully made their way over the wet, slippery stones to the waterfall. Jasmine stuck a hand under it. "Yow, shit! That's cold! "

Valerie grinned. "It only takes a second or so to get used to it; come on, don't be a chicken." She went ahead of her and slid into the water.

Bracing herself against an outcropping of stones, Jasmine stepped carefully into the pool until she was waist-deep, and then leapt away from the shore. "This is great!" she called out as she slowly turned over to backstroke. "But what if someone comes by?"

"Don't worry about it!" Valerie called back over the roaring of the waterfall. "I've only had one set of visitors since I moved in, and they're too scared to come back. And if anyone else does come by..." She thought it over for a moment, and then finished with a cheerful, "then I guess they'll get an eyeful!"

Time had no meaning as they swam and played, splashing cold water at each other and playing tag and hide 'n' seek. At one point Jasmine was "it" and had to face the rocks with her hands over her eyes while Valerie went off to hide. Counting by fives, she went to a hundred, calling out the numbers. At last she said, "Ready or not, here I come!" She turned quickly away from the stones and looked around.

Valerie was nowhere to be seen.

"Okay," she said softly to herself as she cautiously stepped a few feet away from the shore, "now where're you hiding at?" She shaded her eyes with one hand as she carefully scanned the woods and the shore, wondering if she might be hiding behind a tree or some of the rocks that lined the shore, struggling to suppress the giggle that threatened to give her away. I don't think she made it that far, she concluded. She'd have to be damned fast. Hmm... I'll bet she's... With a slight smile, she folded her arms beneath her tanned breasts and waited patiently, humming softly to herself. Then she began to examine her fingernails. She ran a thumb across them as she inspected them, and then nibbled at a tiny, slightly ragged corner.

The water behind her suddenly exploded as a pair of arms wrapped themselves tightly around her hips and lifted her half way out of the pool. The explosion was accompanied by a wild, shrieking laugh that was joined by Jasmine's as the two women fell back into the water. They surfaced together, laughing hysterically.

"I almost drowned under there! You were just standing here while I was turning blue!"

"Patience always pays off," Jasmine said, also laughing.

Valerie threw her arms around her again. "I oughtta pull you under again," she said, breathing heavily to get her wind back.

Jasmine's hands rested on her shoulders. "How about I just push you under?" she asked, grinning impishly.

Their breathing slowed a little as they stood watching each other. She was still pretty buzzed from the weed, and for a long moment all she did was just stand there with her arms around her as she gazed into those captivating emerald eyes, and watched the way the sun shined on her wet, black hair; how the light was refracted into all the colors of the spectrum as it shined through the tiny droplets on her dark eye lashes. Her sun-bronzed skin felt so soft, and so smooth...so sleek and wet as the drops clung so lovingly to her and sparkled as they trickled down her face, arms, shoulders and breasts. Sweet lady, she thought, you are so beautiful. Valerie suddenly wanted so very much to kiss her, and her heart began to pound hard with excitement at the idea. Should I? she asked herself. Or maybe I shouldn't... Gods, I don't know...

And Jasmine was watching her with her hands still on her shoulders and her lips slightly parted. She was still pretty stoned herself; and she was acutely aware of the crossroads at which they suddenly found themselves standing. Or maybe because of the weed it just seemed like they were gazing at each other for such a long time. She wondered apprehensively what was going to happen next. It would be too embarrassing to suddenly turn away, after the closeness they had already shared; she couldn't just turn away, because then everything would be ruined. She didn't know what to do, but for God's sakes she knew she had to do something. And the more she thought about it, the more those incredible amber eyes held her spellbound...

"So...are you gonna kiss me, or what?" one of them suddenly found herself asking. She hadn't really meant to, but...

Valerie gently pulled her close as Jasmine's arms slid around her neck, and as their high, round breasts mashed together their lips met in a soft kiss. It lasted only two or three seconds, and when they parted their eyes met again in pleasant surprise. It was like those sensations that Valerie had felt yesterday; that feeling of absorbing all of that life-energy from the forest to be suddenly released through her climax. Those same sensations were back, only now she seemed to be absorbing that increasing energy from Jasmine. And at the same time, she could feel Jasmine absorbing her own expanding energy, in a sweet exchange and sharing of pure sexual vitality. With boldly growing smiles and the sudden dawning of new understanding, they gently and firmly melded their wet bodies together again to prolong and deepen that exchange, and kissed a second time.

So soft, Valerie thought again as she felt Jasmine's nipples stiffen and burn against her own. Oh, sweet Goddess, she's so soft... She could feel Jasmine's lips part against her own, and the warm, moist tip of her tongue came out and gently caressed her upper lip. Oh, yes, Valerie thought with a soft moan as her own lips parted. Oh, sweet Goddess, yes... Jasmine's tongue slipped gently between them and sensuously caressed the inside of her lip; Valerie's own lips parted even farther and, as another soft moan escaped her, her own tongue slipped out to caress the underside of Jasmine's. After perhaps fifteen seconds--or was it an hour?--their lips parted with a soft sound, and the kiss left them both feeling a little breathless and light-headed, and quivering with delight.

"Wow."

"Yeah."

They grinned at each other and then kissed again, this time more urgently. Valerie gently broke it off a moment later, and gazed into those exotic emerald eyes. "I want you," she whispered, her breathy voice shuddering with lust.

Jasmine indicated the large stone slab with a sideways nod of her head. "Let's go topside."

They swam together toward the shore and climbed up onto the slab. They lay together in a tangle of arms and legs, kissing and stroking and caressing. Compared to her solo flight yesterday, and even to her self-initiation into the Craft, this was the most exquisite sensation of sheer bliss that Valerie had ever felt. Jasmine's smooth skin and soft warmth were so deliciously arousing that after maybe only a minute she found herself approaching an orgasm that promised to make those incredibly forceful peaks of ecstasy the day before absolutely pale by comparison.

"Ready...or not..." she gasped, already on the brink.

And Jasmine finished for her, "...here...I come!" And their desperate gasps and unrestrained, screaming cries of passion merged with the roaring of the waterfall. The combination of the sweat from their skin and the pulsating heat of the stone beneath them and the sun above that matched the rhythms of their hearts, and the roaring of the waterfall and the breeze that breathed across them with gentle, feathery touches, and the surrounding, pristine essence of all of Nature thoroughly swirled together in a vortex of pure life-energy to bring on the wettest and most powerful series of orgasms that either woman had ever known. With each climax more intense than the last, they kept on gasping and cresting higher and higher as each absorbed the other's energy, and then would cry out in sheer, shuddering ecstasy as she plunged deeper and deeper as she released that energy back into her partner once more in one surging, roller-coaster wave after another as these two women completely and unhesitatingly gave themselves to each other.

"I'm yours, baby," one of them said to her new lover, gasping and groaning between rippling waves of ecstasy. It was impossible to tell who had spoken. Or perhaps it was a shared and unspoken psychic pledge to each other as their bodies, minds and souls all melded into one glowing, transcendent spirit. "I am completely and totally all yours."

Neither of them knew how long they had lain on the stone and in each other's embrace when they arose from their final, downhill plunge. Sweating and exhausted, and panting together with their legs entwined and their bodies pressed together, it took them a moment or two to realize that they had both passed out from their throes of passion.

"Dear Goddess, that was sweet," Valerie said softly as her heartbeat and her breathing began to slowly return to normal. "I've never..."

"...come like that before," Jasmine finished, hardly hearing her. With her eyes slightly glazed and her lips smiling dreamily, she sighed with the deepest satisfaction she had ever known.

They squirmed slowly and gently together, caressing each other with their entire bodies, until Jasmine finally laid back and stretched alluringly, inviting Valerie's conspicuous gaze. "I've never felt anything like that in my entire life!" she panted softly.

"Me neither." She was quiet for a few moments, contemplating this new discovery as she draped one leg over Jasmine's, and let her eyes wander over her to take in every rich, glistening, tanned and naked detail. Letting her gaze slide farther down, she finally settled it on the tattoo that lay high inside her left thigh near her crotch. It was a green Chinese dragon, some ten centimeters long and the same shade of emerald as the Asian woman's eyes, with ferociously glaring red eyes, bared fangs, and extended claws. She gently traced an index finger over it to send a rippling wave of delight through Jasmine's thigh. "What a neat tattoo! Is this supposed to be some kind of a warning or something?"

Jasmine glanced down at it and grinned. "My sister and I got stoned one night, and we started tattooing each other. She did the dragon on me as a good luck charm, and I gave her a black panther. She had a thing for jungle cats."

"Cool." She regarded her with a hopeful, questioning smile. "You think you could do a dragon on me?"

Jasmine smiled back. "I'd love to, whenever you want."

Her smile widened. "All right!" she said. She looked into her eyes for a long moment and then asked, "You want to spend the night with me?"

Jasmine looked around uncertainly. "Out here?"

Valerie giggled. "No, silly, at my place."

"I know," she said with an impish smile as she moved in a little closer. "I'd love to."

They were quiet again for another long moment, just enjoying each other's gaze and touch.

"See anything you like?" Valerie asked with a sly grin.

"Oh, yeah..." Jasmine replied with a grin of her own, imitating Valerie's response when they had been checking each other out at the jewelry shop.

"Well, come on," Valerie said at last as she began to rise. She'd had quite enough sun over the last couple of days, and she didn't want to burn. "Let's go on inside."

Jasmine forced a very pretty frown. "But it's so beautiful out here," she said.

"Yeah, but I'm burnin' out here. Besides," she added with a smile, "there's a nice big, comfy bed at home."

Jasmine grinned. "You talked me into it."

***

Crickets chirruped! in the darkness, and the soft sounds of the rushing river could be heard in the distance. The silvery stars shone clear and sharp in the black night sky, and far away there was the howl of a single wolf.

A comforting fire was crackling in the fireplace in Valerie's bedroom, casting flickering orange light and dancing shadows on the walls and on the two glistening women as they made love. With the covers kicked away to the foot of the wide bed, Valerie was lying comfortably between Jasmine's spread legs, resting her full weight on top of her and melding their heaving and sweating bodies together, pinning Jasmine to the mattress while the Asian woman's arms encircled her, firmly yet gently trying to pull her deeper into her very being. Drenched in sweat and panting softly against each other's lips, they gasped and groaned and shuddered together as each woman strove to drive the other on to new heights of ecstasy; and when they finally did come down from another shared and unbridled climax, still they slowly squirmed together while they panted for breath as the sweat glistened on their bronzed skin and ran in rivulets down their bodies.

Valerie wore another wide, satisfied grin. "Wow," she panted softly, and then gently kissed her lips, her cheeks and her throat, letting her lips nibble gently and her tongue lick softly and wetly against the salty, tanned skin. She gazed once more into those exotic, almond-shaped, emerald eyes of her volcano goddess. "You are wild!"

Panting and perspiring as she lay against the pillows, and with her arms gently encircling her as she spread her warm thighs open a little more, Jasmine regarded her with a wanton grin of her own as she sensuously ground herself against her a couple more times. "You're pretty wild yourself, wolf girl," she said breathlessly. She licked and kissed her again with a soft moan. "You're an animal, y'know that?"

"You bring out the beast in me," she said with a husky voice and a lazy grin. As she gazed into her sparkling emerald eyes, she suddenly thought about how those poor shmucks at the nudie joint where Jasmine used to work had no idea of what they were missing. Tough shit, guys, she thought with another grin of delight, she's all mine! She squirmed deliciously against her with a soft moan, savoring the feel of their naked, sweat-dampened skin as they slid together. She wanted more of Jasmine's deliciously soft skin against her own; she wanted her high, proud breasts against her own, her soft and smooth belly against her own, she wanted her glistening, warm and wet sex against her own...the two of them fit together perfectly, as though they had been created exclusively for each other by a lusty pagan goddess.

Rolling slowly and moving together as one, Jasmine gently worked her way between Valerie's legs, and Valerie spread them wide and raised her knees slightly to welcome her. She gently pinned Valerie's wrists to the soft mattress above her head as she settled her weight on top of her, flattening her breasts against hers as she began to slowly grind herself against her some more; and suddenly, Valerie found herself wishing she had pilfered that two-headed snake from Matthew Gordon's van. "You know, I could get used to this very easily," she said. She raised her head from the pillow and savored the salty taste of her lover's sweat as she began to kiss Jasmine's perspiring breasts.

"So could I," Jasmine replied as she watched her with a grin. She gasped suddenly, softly, and moaned gently as one turgid nipple was gently captured between a pair of soft, moist lips, and as her breathing quickened she happily surrendered again to her new lover. For the first time, since the deaths of her family had plunged her into that turbulent, bitter sea of life, Jasmine felt as though she had finally reached the shore and safety.

Finally relaxing and lying warmly and cozily between Valerie's legs and against her breasts, she softly kissed her lips. "Thank you, Valerie," she whispered.

She gazed into those seductive, feline emerald eyes with a faintly puzzled expression. "For what?"

"For making the pain go away. I was so afraid I'd be alone..."

With her eyes suddenly stinging with tears, she gently stroked the side of her face as she softly kissed her again. "You'll never be alone again, babe," she promised. With a sigh and a moan, they sank together a little more deeply into the soft mattress and pillows, with Jasmine's head on her breast as they held each other close. She kissed the top of her head and gently stroked her satiny, black hair, and sighed softly as they settled down to sleep. "Never again."

***

They went back to Jasmine's place the next day, barefoot and dressed again in tank tops and shorts. Jasmine was keeping her arms around Valerie's waist all during the slow, casual ride as Valerie told her about what had brought her back to northern California.

"Why can't they just leave us alone?" Jasmine asked. "Why do they always think they have to wield some kind of power over us?"

"Fear," Valerie replied. "Fear that even more people will prove them wrong, and a fear of anything different. They want everything to be all nice and neat, and under their domination. It's the same old story: what they don't understand they fear, and what they fear they destroy. And just like the Nazis of Germany, they absolutely refuse to tolerate anyone different from themselves. One thing that they're really afraid of nowadays is the fact that we might all get fed up with them one of these days and throw the bastards out at gunpoint." She sighed. "Yeah, fear is a great motivator; the more they fear us, the more they clamp down on us. You remember 'manifest destiny'--the excuse the government used in order to wipe out hundreds of thousands of American Indians so they could steal their land? It's back."

"Good old manifest destiny," Jasmine said. "They weren't satisfied with slaughtering the Indians, the European pagans and all the Islanders. Now they want to kill the whole planet because their lord is due back any time now, and they've still got all these natural resources to waste." She sighed wearily. "And I'm afraid it looks as though the fuckers are winning."

"They've got to be stopped," Valerie said. "We've got to stop them. The sooner, the better."

"That's going to be kind of tough to do, though, since they've got all the guns."

"Not all of them, babe. Most of them, but not all."

They arrived at the gift shop. Jasmine went to unlock the door as Valerie tied the reins to the rail, and they went inside and up to Jasmine's room. Near the wide window that faced west, there was a wide, traditional futon bed, black with a single Japanese character printed in white; the lone top sheet was a pale shade of blue, and the cover was an old sleeping bag, deep brown and fully unzipped; at the head, there were two pillows covered in velvet of burnt orange. Across the small room was a short dresser with a low coffee table next to it that Jasmine used as an altar, and next to the bed was a low table with a single small oil lamp and a notepad and pen. Hanging above the bed was Jasmine's katana, it's scabbard covered in bright blue velvet with intricate silver designs. A faint scent of jasmine incense hung in the air.

"Is that thing real?"

"Sure, it's real," Jasmine replied. "That's the sword I was telling you about." She went and took it down. "It's one of the few objects that I have left from my family; I took it the night they were killed. Denise did my tattoo and gave me my Pele talisman, and all I have from my mom is the knowledge of healing and herbalism that she taught me. I guess I treasure that the most; objects can be lost or destroyed, or taken away from you. But not knowledge."

"It's a beauty," Valerie said as Jasmine handed it to her, using both hands. The weapon felt surprisingly light in her hands; she drew it part way from its scabbard, and sunlight glinted from the razor-sharp, gently curving stainless steel blade. She slid the blade back home and handed it back with both hands, holding it like the treasured object that it was.

"Yeah. And they made things to last back then, too." She hung it back on the wall. Then she turned to Valerie and smiled That Smile again as she said, "This time, I want you in my bed."

She put her hands on her hips, and looked at her with a wry grin on her lips and a mock challenge in her eyes. "Come on and take me," she said, and offered no resistance whatsoever as Jasmine's hands slipped up inside the back of her top and down inside the back of her shorts.

***

Careful not to awaken her, Valerie gently peeled back the sleeping bag, drew up her leg, and grinned again as she checked out the ten-centimeter-long snarling red dragon that was now permanently inked high inside her left thigh. She had expected the green Chinese dragon, like Jasmine's, but the Hawaiian had decided to surprise her with a different style and color. She found that she liked this one even more because it was her own personal tattoo rather than just a copy of her new lover's. Distinctly more reptilian, and crouching dangerously with glaring yellow eyes and sharp fangs and claws, it was ready to spring into swift and deadly action as it "guarded her treasure," as Jasmine had explained with a sly grin. It didn't even sting anymore ("Yeouch! You didn't tell me it was gonna hurt that much!" she had declared as she lay naked before her with her legs spread wide. "Don't be such a baby," Jasmine had replied, also naked and with a patient grin, as she lay between her legs and continued to work, "I'm almost done..."), not after Jasmine had taken the pain away. "Lie back and relax," she had said as she placed her warm, soft hand over the tattoo. "Close your eyes, and visualize the pain. What does it look like?"

"A big flaming red ball."

"Okay, concentrate on that and make it get smaller. Watch it shrink until it's gone." She did as Jasmine instructed, acutely aware of the warmth radiating from her soft hand (That feels nice, she thought), and after about five minutes or so she said, "Okay the ball's gone."

"How's the leg feel?"

Valerie paused for a second, then grinned. "The pain's gone, too! That's a pretty neat trick--I'll have to remember that one!"

"It needs one last finishing touch, though," Jasmine had told her, "before I can let you go."

Valerie smiled with curiosity and anticipation. "Yeah? What's that?"

With a thoroughly carnal look in her eyes, Jasmine had gently spread Valerie's legs even further apart, and with a thoroughly lascivious grin and a wide, flat tongue, she had given the tattoo a slow, sensuous lick and a soft, gentle, yet firmly smacking kiss. "To complete it," she had explained, her voice a breathy whisper. But the kisses had not stopped there...

She reached for the pad and pen on the nearby table, and began to write a note.

Darling Jasmine,

I'm sorry I couldn't stay to see you wake up, but there are important things that I must do, things that may be dangerous, and I cannot allow you to be placed in any danger. My invitation for you to come live with me is still open, if things work out the way I hope. Again, I'm sorry I didn't stay until you woke up, and I pray to the Goddess that we see each other again soon.

Love, Valerie

She left the notepad where she would find it, then slowly dressed. She knelt next to the bed and kissed her again, then quietly left the room.

We have so much in common, she thought as she rode home. They both had their families destroyed by the Foundation, and had been left as orphans. They were both into ritual and magic, and they had a particularly strong interest in the Craft--and they both needed comforting at a time when everything seemed to be falling apart. She was madly, passionately in love with Jasmine, and there was no doubt in her mind that Jasmine felt the same way about her. She wanted Jasmine not only as a friend and ally, but also as a lover and partner for life. She had never thought of herself as a lesbian before; and upon further reflection, she wasn't even all that certain if it really was a question of being a lesbian, or even bisexual. All she did know was that it was Jasmine Tanaka who had awakened a flaming passion within her that she had never felt before.

Maybe it's a soul mate thing, she thought, with gender being completely irrelevant. And then, with a rakish grin, she squirmed deliciously against the saddle as she mentally replayed their activities of yesterday, last night and this morning. Then again, maybe it is a bi- thing after all, she thought, because that hot and juicy girl had felt really, really good against her... She found herself fantasizing about the day when Jasmine finally moved in with her.

And as these warm and comforting thoughts floated tranquilly through her mind like soft white clouds on a summer day, she suddenly gasped in terror as Warren's icy hand reached out, like cold demonic, claws from the black depths of Hell, to clutch hatefully at her heart.

To Be Continued


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