The Sacred Serpent Forestbyjusttheone©
The following was inspired by the art of DeTomasso ...
Her guides wouldn't take her into their stupid sacred forest, unless she took all her clothes off and walked in nude, like both of them.
They considered the place to be the original womb of all life in the world. Thus, they said, it was appropriate for anyone that went in there to be as they had been when they were born. Meaning without any clothes. To do otherwise would supposedly disrespect all the great-and-wise-and-powerful spirits this forest was supposed to house.
Lara wasn't sure the men actually believed this horseshit. She thought they might be conning her, just to get an eyeful of her TaTa's.
Part of her was actually amused. You had to grant, their approach had a certain cleverness to it. They'd done a decent job, making their story sound plausible. They'd put a little thought into it. And one also had to admire their sheer brazen impudence. She was inclined to reward them. She'd give them what they wanted, up to a certain point ... So long as they continued to behave themselves like gentlemen, along the way. She didn't mind showing herself off for them, for a little while, and giving them a bit of a kick. These were simple-minded boys, living a small, sheltered, primitive and rather shabby existence in the middle of a howling jungle wilderness. They'd both been very kind and very helpful to her, since she came to this island, even though doing so along the way had put their lives at some peril, in light of the villains she was competing with to reach the so-called Fanged Crown ... In fairness, the pair probably deserved a decent red-blooded thrill or two, for their trouble. And after all, nobody else would ever know she indulged them this way. It was a small favor to grant, really. Wasn't it? She figured, in the end, what the fuck? Why the Hell not?
And hey, the weather was conducive, and the bugs weren't as bad as they might have been, in this part of the world. She never wore a great deal, anyway, on most of her adventures. If one were perfectly honest, she wouldn't be showing off much more skin than she usually did. True, the bits she kept covered were considered the essentials ... But they were only essential in that way—as in, essential they keep covered—according to one particular value system, the western contemporary standards in which she'd been brought up. If she'd been brought up elsewhere, under different standards—like on this island—she wouldn't feel the same way about them. Hiding those parts wouldn't be important, at least not to the same degree. There were places the women left their breasts exposed all the time, but would die of shame if they let anyone get the slightest glimpse of their ankles. When you tried to take the broadest objective view, it was all pretty arbitrary and silly. In a more logical reality, the only real sensible tangible consideration people should apply to how much clothing they put on was how cold their climate happened to get.
Also, it was possible the two native boys weren't kidding about the rule. Maybe it really was a religious thing for them. They seemed serious about it. Not only would they not accompany her into the forest as guides, if she didn't agree to undress first—they said they couldn't let her go in on her own, either. They said it would cause an earthquake or some other terrible calamity, if the forest spirits were offended.
She tried suggesting the taboo might not apply to her, since she wasn't a member of their tribe and therefore wasn't obligated to serve their gods. They talked this idea over carefully for several minutes, but finally shot it down.
The guides carried spears as tall as themselves, and each also had a machete in a scabbard, hung on a thick leather belt. They didn't consider these belts to count as clothing, nor did their colorful headbands and arm bracelets. They also each were bringing along a large waterskin with a shoulder strap. The shape of the waterskins, hanging at their hips, looked hilariously like fashionable handbags for ladies. But she didn't tell them that.
Lara herself would keep her little backpack on, and of course her gunbelt, the twin holsters strapped securely 'round her bare thighs. As long as she had that belt with her, she wouldn't really feel undressed, even though she had nothing else on—besides her sunglasses, and the fingerless gloves she liked that strengthened her hands for climbing and so forth. The guides wouldn't let her keep her boots. She would have to go barefoot, like them. Lara tried arguing for a good while about that, but they wouldn't relent. That was the toughest part. The only bit that bothered her. In fact it was more difficult and aggravating for her to give up her footwear than her so-called essentials—her top, her shorts, her underthings. The boots served a much greater and more tangible purpose than modesty. They physically protected her feet. She didn't care for the idea of traipsing through the forest without them. Too easy to step on something you shouldn't and injure yourself. A jagged bit of stone or a sharp stick ... On top of that, there would be snakes to worry about. It was called the Sacred Serpent Forest, right?
Once they got going, in among the trees and shadows, it was funny how easy it was to forget she was naked ... or how easy it would have been, except for being barefoot. If she still had her damn boots, she wouldn't have felt any different at all. Only maybe slightly cooler than she would have been otherwise, if she had her top and shorts. (Those items would only have made her sweat more and soon start to itch, in inconvenient places.) Without anybody else around but the two guides, she could just about put the fact out of her mind. Since both the boys were naked too, and acting completely casual about it, like this was an entirely normal thing to walk around outdoors in front of each other with their tackle dangling free, and no reason at all for awkwardness—well, then that was how it was. Nudity isn't an issue if nobody makes an issue of it. She felt no more uncomfortable and embarrassed than she would walking around this way in her bathroom at home. And that was nice.
Except it wasn't quite that easy, not really. Almost but not quite. It would have been, if they just let her keep her fucking boots, but they hadn't—and so just as she feared, that made things more difficult. Because it was a constant nagging niggling physical reminder. Each time she took a step, feeling the rough texture of the forest floor against her unshielded soles. She was always careful and methodical where she put her feet down, because she knew she had to be. Watching out for stones and bugs and serpents. And it was irritating, to have to do that. To be vulnerable in this way. A constant buzz of minor anxiety, making a big production out of every stupid footstep. And there was resentment, on top of that, for having to put herself through this nonsensical inconvenience for the sake of savage superstitions. If she just had her boots, she could slog on ahead without worrying about anything, regardless of her tits swaying loose and her ass hanging out in the open air behind her. But she didn't—so she couldn't. Instead she had to creep and mince along like a goddamn skittish fraidy cat, just so she wouldn't stub her toe on a stupid root or cut herself or get a splinter or get bitten by some wretched venomous critter. Fuck!
Lara frequently had intense dreams in which she relived various adventures ... only without her clothes on. Tombs and temples, labyrinths and lost cities ... always in the dreams it was familiar places she'd already been to, already beaten. She'd have to find her way through them all over again. Traps she'd overcome had reset; monsters she'd slain were restored to life ... She'd now have face all these things again, but for some reason that time she'd have to do it stark naked—except for her guns and, usually, in most of the dreams, her boots.
Her having dreams of that nature wasn't particularly weird, when you thought it through. Everyone from time to time has dreams where they go naked to work or to school. Her dreams were equivalent to those—it was just her ordinary regular working environment was never ordinary or regular.
The oddest aspect of those dreams, in relation to the similar ones other people have, wasn't their exotic settings, but that hers weren't nightmares. She tended to enjoy hers, in general, though that wasn't something she would have felt comfortable admitting to anybody. There was never any sense of strangeness or unfairness in the dreams, while she was dreaming them—she never questioned the fact she was naked. Her dream self was never shocked by it. She never asked herself how it happened or tried to get her clothes back. She never got self-conscious or scared. In the context of those dreams, her being naked like that all the time was just her natural and ideal state—the way she was supposed to be.
It would be nice to feel like that now, in this forest. You might imagine all those vaguely kinky dreams would have better prepared her for this experience. But that wasn't the case. All she kept thinking about was how different this was, from the damn dreams. How easy and fun this would have been for her dream self, while for her real self, it was not. Her dream self never bothered with questions or with worries. Her real self never fucking stopped tormenting herself with all that bullshit. She just couldn't figure out how.
She thought about pulling her guns out and firing a few rounds off into the air, just to relieve a little tension ... but her guides probably wouldn't understand. They might think she'd gone mad or got possessed by some evil spirit. They'd freak out on her and it would turn into another giant pain in the butt to have to sort out.
Her theory about the boys' conning her with a shaggy dog story just to get her naked for their own entertainment was looking more and more wrong, at this point. They didn't seem to be enjoying themselves, at her expense. Not like she'd expected. They didn't get stiffies, like she thought they would. She got no grins or giggles or blushes from them. In fact since they started the journey, both of them had hardly looked at her. And it didn't seem like they were doing that out of shyness or pretending indifference, trying not to give themselves away so she wouldn't catch on to the game and get angry. Instead it seemed like they either genuinely weren't interested in her, which she was ashamed to admit she found rather mortifying, or else they had too much else weighing on their minds. Like they were genuinely and spiritually fearful of what they might find in this forest, or what might find them.
Or maybe they were just really strong, dedicated bullshit artists with real good poker faces.
She was quite disappointed their cocks stayed down. Almost miffed. Of course if it had been the other way, she would have mocked them about it, without mercy. Or maybe she would have pretended to get offended, or flustered. To make them feel guilty. Hard to tell which would have been more amusing—she would have had to play it by ear. But the matter never, um, came up.
When they were ambushed, the men did it like cops. They sprung out from all directions, leaping from behind trees and bushes. And they were all shouting, as loud as they could—like cops do. The same shit you see all the time on TV.
"Freeze! FREEZE! Hands in the air! Hands in the air!"
It's a pretty good tactic, provided they've got the jump on you. It's why cops rely on it. Freaks you out. You can't help it. Makes you feel immediately overwhelmed. Like they've already got you, before they've really got you. And so they get you.
She obeyed. Did it on pure reflex, taken completely by surprise. Stunned into unthinking submission, exactly as was intended. It was a textbook capture. You had to hand it to them. She almost wet herself, too. It was a lucky she'd just emptied her bladder, a few minutes earlier.
A split second later, she was already regretting not trying to fight. She should have gone right for her guns, regardless of the odds. They probably would have blown her away on the spot. But better that than letting herself get taken prisoner. Especially considering the fact she was stark naked.
But now it was too late to try anything. While one man in front of her was bellowing his cop bullshit into her face, another guy behind her snatched both her guns from their holsters, before she even realized the other guy was there. They were well coordinated, these cunts. They had made a neat, tidy job of it. Now she was disarmed—and that meant she was essentially helpless.
Smooth, Lara Croft. Not exactly your finest hour.
Who were these people? They weren't really cops. What the fuck were they doing here? But of course she knew already. There was no question.
She had thought she'd still have more time. She thought she had established a better lead on them.
Shit. And now here was their leader, stepping to the front.
Melony Schrader. Another treasure-hunter, new to the game. The latest in the long line of Lara's rivals. She was no soldier, but today she had dressed herself up like one. Blue and gray camouflage fatigues, big shitkicker boots, and to top the outfit off, one of those silly little sideways berets. She was extremely tall and broad shouldered, with an enormous bust. They were bigger than Lara's, but stood too high and stiff on her chest, so she was sure they were artificial. Lara suspected she got them in direct imitation of her—or rather, in an attempt to outdo hers.
Her face always reminded Lara of the actress Cate Blanchet. Only much younger, and psychotic. Perhaps that wasn't fair, thinking of her as crazy. She never acted irrationally, per se. Also, thinking of her as crazy felt wrong because if that was true, it would be an excuse, wouldn't it? More likely the bitch did the shit she did just because she was wicked. She had cut her hair boyishly short, since the last time they'd met. Part of this tough soldier look she'd chosen to put on. And she seemed to have bleached it, as well. Or maybe sun had done that, naturally.
She had six thugs with her, all in the same matching blue and gray combat gear, though they didn't wear those cute little hats like Melony. Since she was supposed to be the general or whatever, no doubt. They were all armed with machine guns. Lara didn't recognize the type. Those guns were all fairly enormous and futuristic looking, like they'd been ripped off from the set of a space movie. Some snazzy new prototypes, probably.
Lara's guides flung down their spears and put their hands up. But Melony scoffed at that. "You can go ahead and hang on to your sticks, fellahs, if you want. They don't worry us."
Foolish bravado. Lara had seen what they could do with those "sticks." But neither man picked up their weapon or lowered their hands. They couldn't understand what she was saying, of course. Wahu was visibly shaking. Lara felt bad, and there was no way for her to reassure him. She glanced to Daru-Dan. He appeared too pissed off to feel afraid, at least so far. That was both good and bad. The danger was, it might make him try something stupid.
"Well, well, Lara Croft, what have we here?" Melony said, "Caught without your skivvies, with these two fine young men. Tell me, just what in God's name have you been getting up to, today? More than a nature hike, I'm guessing. Must make you feel pretty rotten, crossing paths with us and spoiling your fun. If I were in your shoes right now ... but wait, you're not wearing any shoes, silly me. You're not wearing anything at all! How embarrassing, huh. I bet this is very embarrassing for you. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
"You've far more reason to be ashamed of yourself than I," Lara answered. But still, Melony's taunts were making her blush. She couldn't prevent it. She could feel the heat in her cheeks. And she realized she was covering herself with her hands. That was pointless and wimpy of her, making her feel like a coward, but she must have done it on sheer reflex, when the soldiers surrounded them. She told herself to put her hands down and stand tall and defy them. But she couldn't make herself do it.
"How do you figure that?"
Ridiculous to feel this need to justify herself, yet she kept right on trying to do it, in a lecturing tone: "This forest is sacred, to these people. Nobody is allowed to wear clothing in here. It's their culture, if you have any understanding of that term."
"So you've gone native, so to speak."
Lara shrugged, trying to affect the nonchalance she wished she felt. "When in Rome ..."
"... You debauch the local youngbloods?"
"Very droll, Melony."
"I think another cliché applies better. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. Why don't you just 'fess up? You're whoring yourself out to these boys, so they'll lead you to the temple. How far did you have to go? How much did you have to give them? But then, maybe you haven't paid up your end yet. I'll bet you made them wait until afterward. I'll bet so far you've only been teasing them."
"It's not like that. It's not, dammit!"
Melony's thugs were all laughing at her. Laughing their fucking heads off. Why did it matter? They were just a bunch of no-good brute mercenaries. She shouldn't give a fuck what any men like that thought of her, or Melony either. They'd believe whatever twisted nonsense they wanted to believe; it didn't make any difference what really happened. She knew all this—but it wasn't helping, not even a fucking little, not at ALL!
And Melony kept right on ragging on her ... "You've got your guns. Well, you had them, I mean. Before we took them away. Wouldn't that have been so much simpler? Look I'll show you." She turned to Wahu, leaning close, getting in his face. "See this gun, boys? You know what a gun is, right? Sure you do. Couple men of the world, the pair of you. Sophisticated gentlemen, I can tell. Well then. Here's how things stand. You and your brother or your buddy or whoever he is, you both are gonna take me to the Fanged Crown right now, just like you were doing for Miss Croft, and you're gonna make sure I have the thing in my hands by sundown, or I will cheerfully blow both your fucking heads off. Do we understand each other? Excellent. See how easy that was, Lara? And I don't even speak their chirpy little lingo, but they seemed to follow me just fine, didn't they?"
"You're really something, Melony. A proper explorer. Maintaining the highest standard."
"And you're one to talk? Well, I suppose there's something to be said for the approach you took instead. Your strategy is certainly ... friendlier. But too touchy-feely, for my taste. Personally I'd find it altogether too demeaning. But that's just me, personally. I know a tramp like you isn't bothered by such considerations."
"Sure, sure. If you say so. Let's get moving, shall we? No more farting around. I suppose, Lara, it would be best if I just go ahead and shoot you in the face right here." She lifted her weapon.
She wouldn't, would she? The bitch was just messing with her some more. It wasn't really going to all end like this, was it? She wasn't ready.
Melony lowered the gun. "My boys would mutiny, though, wouldn't they? You'll need to tag along, for later. When we get back to our camp." She beckoned over her shoulder. "One of you men, come over here and tie Lara's hands behind her back. Not too tight, now. I don't want her hands turning black from lack of circulation. I don't think we need to bother with anything like that for our new guides. They won't give us any problems. I can feel it."
Her whole awful crew, inevitably, tried to volunteer for the tying task at once. Laughing at them, Melony made her own selection, at random. "But you be quick now or I'll let somebody else take over."