Aunt Phoebe's Masturbatorium Ch. 04byfmcchris©
"Wake up! Wake up!" I heard a voice say.
I struggled to open my eyes but the intensity of the glow forced me to keep them shut.
"Holly, wake up! We're in danger!"
Suddenly I felt someone grab me hard by my arm. The brilliant light wavered then flickered out.
"Get up you idiot!"
"What? What?" I muttered, as I felt my aching body react with resistance toward the intrusion.
Again the light fell upon my face, but this time not so harshly, and I could see another face on the opposite side illuminated by its gentle glow.
"Angelique!" I cried as I lifted myself out of the bed of leaves. "What are you doing here? How did you find me?"
I was so excited at seeing her that I nearly fell into her arms, driving her backwards onto her heels.
"Take it easy for Christ's sake!" she said, as the lantern fell from her hands.
Not far off stood Antares, who whinnied loudly at the commotion.
As I helped her to her feet she looked at me and shook her head. I now saw that she was shouldering a rifle.
"We've had people searching for you all night," she said impatiently. "What were you thinking?"
"I don't know," I said feebly. "I lost track of time and before you know it, the sun was going down. It was foolish of me, I know."
"I heard the shots. Did you see anything?"
"I saw two poachers. But some other guys came along and shot them with something...arrows I think. I was scared to death."
"You were told not to go this far into the forest. Serves you right. You're lucky I found you."
"I'm so thirsty," I said, realizing that I had had nothing to drink in many hours.
My cousin pulled a canteen from her saddle and handed it to me. She watched me drink down the liquid with a disapproving grin.
"We have to get out of here. There might be other poachers around."
"Let's go," I said, eager to return home, and thankful that I had been found.
She mounted Antares first and then helped me into the saddle behind her. The first hint of dawn began to show itself in the eastern horizon and Angelique goaded the horse into a steady gallop, keeping close to the forest's edge and avoiding the open countryside.
"There's an secret entrance into the Masturbatorium only a few miles away," my cousin said. "It's our best bet."
The first faint rays of sunlight were beginning to pierce through the trees to our left, and I was grateful to see the welcoming light. I knew that there was still a chance of encountering vagabonds and other assorted riffraff along the way, and knew Angelique was only being prudent by suggesting we use the secret entrance. We soon came upon a series of hillocks, one of which appeared to contain an open fissure leading down into a tunnel-like opening. We dismounted and led Antares toward the mouth of the cave.
Despite the nascent sun's warming glow, this place seemed to me a very dismal one, with fog steadily rising from the surface of the ground, permeating the air with a foul stench of sulfur. The air was fetid and heavy, forcing me to draw my gloved hand over my mouth.
"What is this place?" I asked coughing into my hand. "The odor is terrible!"
"Just keep moving," Angelique replied, heedless of the stench.
As we approached the entrance to the cave, the fog had grown so dense that I could no longer see where I was going. I turned toward my cousin but she seemed to have vanished into the fog.
"Angelique," I said uneasily. "Are you there?"
"Are you there?" I repeated more urgently.
Nothing. Not a sound.
I felt as if I were enshrouded in a dense wall of mist, afraid to step in any direction lest I tumble and fall into oblivion.
"Angelique!" I shouted. "Where are you?"
I knew my cousin well enough to know that when faced with an emergency she was not one to fold under pressure. Although she had seemed to be as frightened as I was, she had a resolute nature and would not have purposely left me alone to face the unknown. We must have separated from each other much earlier on, and that distance—and the muffling effect of the fog—was serving to prevent us from hearing each other.
After several more unsuccessful efforts to locate her, I decided that I had no choice but to begin moving again and hope that I could find my way out of the pervasive fog. I took tiny steps at first, afraid that, like a blind woman without a cane, I might fall flat on my face. But soon my anxiety grew to the point where I started to walk haphazardly, without too much concern for where I was placing my feet, so panicked with fear had I become.
With both my arms outstretched before me, plodding along like a somnambulist in someone's demented dream, I waded through the thick mist, fearing that at any moment my life might come to an abrupt end at the slightest misstep. I called out to my cousin several times more, but to no avail. All I could hope for was that I was headed in the right direction and would meet up with her inside the underground tunnel leading to the Masturbatorium.
For what seemed like an eternity I walked and walked, the earth beneath my feet growing progressively muddier and warm. The smell of sulfur had somewhat diminished, but the air continued to hang heavily about me, the sun's rays hardly permeating the wall of fog. Thankfully, I managed to make my way without once falling or encountering any obstruction. And, as if in reward for my perseverance, the blanket of mist began to slowly fade away until I found myself at the mouth of a cave, though unsure if it was the same one that my cousin had led us to. The air was cooler here, and the ground was flat and strewn with boulders and loose rock. I could see the sun now, its crescent rising up slowly above the trees, helping to dispel the thin tendrils of mist that stubbornly continued to languor over the forest floor.
Now that my vision had improved somewhat, I clambered up toward the small incline leading into the cave and saw that someone was standing there as if waiting for me. It was very dark inside, and at first I could not tell if it was Angelique or some other member of the Sisterhood who stood guard at the entrance. I took a few more cautious steps toward the person, but whoever it was seemed not to notice me, even though I was standing directly in the line of sight.
"Angelique, is that you?" I said with a sinking feeling in my stomach, knowing that my cousin would not react in this way if she had known it was I.
The person gave no answer.
"Angelique, don't play games with me!" I said angrily. "This is not funny!"
Again the figure remained mute, unmoving.
I boldly made a quick ascent up the last few yards of the rock-strewn entrance, putting all fear behind me, ready to give my mischievous cousin a piece of my mind. But as I reached the summit of the incline, the figure suddenly walked toward me and out of the shadows. I stopped dead in my tracks, as a woman, dressed in nothing more than a simple black robe and slippers, extended her hand to me as if to help me in my effort. The first faint rays of sunlight revealed a lovely face belonging to a woman in her late twenties, and her gentle smile, yet confident demeanor, helped to allay some of my fear.
"You have a courageous spirit," she said to me as she took my hand firmly in hers and helped me to gain a foothold.
"Thank you," I said, holding on to her hand. "I'm Holly, Angelique's cousin. She was supposed to take me back to the castle. Have you seen her?"
"No, I haven't seen her," the woman replied. "But I will be happy to guide you the rest of the way."
"She was with me just a short time ago," I said, perplexed. "Why would she lead me here and then disappear?"
"I do not know," she answered softly. "But this is not her journey, it is yours."
I looked at her as if I had misunderstood. "My journey? What do you mean?"
The woman looked at me carefully, smiling faintly.
"Who are you anyway?" I asked.
"My name is Yvette. I am a distant relation of the Anjou family dating back to the time of Philippe of Lyon, who was once a nobleman who served under the tyrant king of France whose name we do not speak. I am a visionary, and one who wields the power of the ancient Sybil. I will show you many wonders both terrible and sublime, and the world and what it shall become in the days ahead should you shirk your duty to the Sisterhood."
I shook my head and laughed.
"If this is some kind of joke," I said, stepping away from her, "I'm not amused."
"This is not a jest," she replied sternly. "I know that what I am saying must sound incredible to you, but I am here for your welfare."
"Just tell me where my cousin is. I'm very tired and cold and I want to return to the castle."
"I cannot, for I do not know where she is."
She then reached into her pocket and withdrew what appeared to be a pomegranate. Taking a small knife from her belt, she cut into the fruit and gave half of it to me.
"Eat this," she said passing the fruit to me. "It will give you strength for the journey."
I was so hungry by this time that the pomegranate looked to me like nothing short of a three-course meal. Without another word to her, I tore into the fruit and ate ravenously. She seemed pleased to watch me eat in silence for a few minutes, smiling at me like some bemused benefactress.
"It will get warmer the further we go down into the tunnels," she resumed, as she, too, made short work of the succulent fruit.
By now my hands were wet with the juice of the pomegranate and although I did feel much stronger, I was still cold.
"Can we go now?" I asked her. "My hands are freezing."
Yvette withdrew a small piece of cloth from her pocket and handed it to me. "Dry your hands off and then give it to me."
I did as she asked, and after I was finished wiping my hands I gave the cloth back to her.
"Do you feel better?" she asked me as she wiped off the last remnants of the sticky, red juice from her hands.
"Yes, thank you," I replied, sticking my hands into my pockets.
She looked at me straight in the eyes and laughed. "You look much more alive now. Follow me."
She turned abruptly around and began walking at a brisk pace.
"Keep up," she warned. "Don't dawdle."
It was a good thing she had given me that pomegranate to eat, otherwise I doubt I would have been able to keep up with her in my exhausted state for very long. The shaft continued straight on for about 30 yards, illumined every 10 feet with torches that had been fixed in place on either side of the cave wall. As we reached the end of the tunnel a huge oak door, seemingly unused for a millennia, stood before us like a foreboding gateway into the unknown. She halted before it, raising her hand as if to knock, but instead pressed her finger hard onto several raised, metallic glyphs that were inset on the door just above the knob.
"Stay close to me at all times and touch nothing," she said in a somber tone as the door slowly creaked open upon its ancient hinges.
"Just take me to the castle," I said, unwilling to humor her strange affectation any longer.
"You will see it soon enough," came the cryptic reply.
As the door opened there was revealed to us an immense, dimly lit hall that reminded me upon first glance of the Pantheon in Rome—a circular vista adorned with a series of evenly spaced alcoves along its perimeter, containing statues of saints from ages past. The huge rotunda contained a small, circular hole in its roof from which emitted a few weak rays of sunlight, which provided our only illumination. In the center of the room was a square opening in the floor, and attached to it was a railing that formed the top level of a long set of twisting stairs leading to what I believed were the floors underneath. The entire room reeked of dankness and decay, and I immediately felt oppressed by the heavy stillness of the tepid air that seemed to harbor the unwholesomeness of putrefaction.
"It smells like a slaughterhouse in here," I protested, as I put my hand to my nose to obviate the stench. "What is this place and where is the elevator?"
"There is no elevator in this section of the Masturbatorium. We must take the stairs."
"My aunt Phoebe never told me about this place," I said, as I followed Yvette to the landing.
"There is much you don't understand, Holly," Yvette answered. "But you will."
She reached out her hand and took mine in hers. With her other hand she grabbed onto the railing and we began to make our descent. The spiral staircase was rickety, and some of the metal steps were actually corroded through with rust, but we made our way carefully, gingerly stepping this way and that to avoid the more damaged parts of the staircase.
The first thing I noticed was that Yvette was right: the air had grown considerably warmer as we descended, so much so that I had to abandon my woolen coat and hat. She assured me that these items would not be needed from this point on and that they would be retrieved later. At intervals I felt the onrush of wind that seemed to swell up from the bowels of the earth and push its way relentlessly up the stairway—a stale breath of air that reminded me of something not wholly objectionable, but impossible to define.
We continued our downward journey for several minutes and I soon began to grow dismayed that we had not yet reached the next landing.
"How much further down do these stairs go?" I asked.
"We are almost there now. Be patient."
I felt as if I was being reprimanded by a school headmistress and resented her tone.
"I want you to take me to my aunt—now!" I demanded, as I almost lost my footing on a decayed step.
Yvette turned to me and for the first time I saw a look of something like disappointment on her face. She said nothing but held my hand even more firmly than before as we made our way down the metal stairs, our footfalls resonating softly upon the cold steel beneath us.
We traveled for another minute or so until at last the steps came to an abrupt end, the metal railing trailing off into a black void. Yvette stopped dead in her tracks and pushed me backward, realizing that we would have to jump down in order to arrive at the platform beneath us. The walls on the next floor down were festooned with torches that provided an ample amount of light for us to detect that the distance to the floor below was only that of a few feet and that there was nothing to obstruct our passage. She seemed mystified upon encountering the missing part of the stairway, but said nothing.
She made the jump first and then I followed.
"This is a dirt floor," I remarked in my crouched position, as my hands swept the area around me. "And the walls...we're still in the cave!"
"No," Yvette answered. "We are at the first level of the Masturbatorium. Come. Follow me. There is much to see."
"This can't be right," I insisted. "The first level is modern, with fluorescent lighting and wall to wall carpeting and air conditioning and..."
"No, Holly," she said shaking her head. "That is your aunt Phoebe's Masturbatorium as it exists now. What I am going to show you is what it will be like in the future, many years hence."
"Are you telling me that you have the power to reveal the future to me?" I asked, nervously forcing out the words. "Does such power exist?"
"I assure you it does," she replied calmly. "This is only one possible future, and it is not a pleasant one. However, it can be altered. You are the key."
"The key to what?" I demanded. "What are you talking about?"
She drew herself up just then to her full height, towering a full head above me. "If nothing is done to change the course of current events, then what I am about to show you will become reality. It must not happen. You are the only one who can stop it."
I felt myself taken aback by her presumption.
"I can't believe this," I said. "On whose authority are you doing this anyway?"
"Come with me and you will understand," she said, motioning me to follow her.
"No," I replied. "I want to know where we are going."
"Into the Inferno," she said solemnly.
"Into the what?"
"Come with me and you will understand," she repeated.
Not far from where we stood was another set of stairs, and wafting up from the hole in the floor I began to hear the cries of what sounded like many people in pain. It was a most disturbing sound: distant, eerie, and sometimes not quite human.
"What is that horrible noise?" I asked my guide. "Please don't tell me we're going down there."
"I promise that no harm will come to you," she said extending her hand to me. "Do not let your heart falter."
She seemed unaffected by the din coming from below, but she must have seen the hesitation in my face and let her hand fall to her side.
My fortitude was wavering. In the dim ambiance of the torch-lit room I could barely see the lines of her face, but I could almost feel her frowning, such was the implication of regret in her voice.
"I don't want to go down there," I said firmly. "You can't force me."
"If you wish to return to the surface you are free to do so," Yvette said. "But I will take you no farther than where we first met."
I stood looking into her sad, downcast eyes, deciding what course of action I should take. I didn't want to go any further, but I felt somehow that I must. It wasn't a rational impulse, but one driven by an overwhelming feeling that if I didn't go, then I would be committing some terrible crime. After a time she met my gaze, and in those few moments I felt as though some part of her was trying to reach into my soul, to assure me that my fears, though genuine, must not stop me from making that descent into the subterranean world lying beneath our feet.
"Do you hear that?" I said to her. "Those people sound like they're in agony."
"Some of them are," she replied. "The innocent are made to suffer with the guilty."
"Guilty?" I asked. "Of what?"
"Of betraying the Sisterhood."
"But why do the innocent suffer?"
"For the same reason they have always suffered: to serve the needs of the Beast."
I stared at her in disbelief.
"What Beast?" I cried. "You don't make any sense!"
"The Beast takes many forms. Come with me and you will understand," she said yet again, but with much more urgency in her voice.
"I must be dreaming. This can't be real!" I exclaimed, feeling like someone beset by an ugly nightmare in that period of mental twilight when the mind struggles toward consciousness as it seeks to throw off the burden of sleep.
"It is not a dream," she assured me. "It is a vision of what might be. Such gifts are afforded to only a very few."
"I don't want to know what the future holds," I protested, sensing an imminent confrontation with the unknown. "I just want to see my aunt again!"
Yvette's features seemed to soften as she saw the look of exasperation in my face, and she addressed me in a gentle, motherly tone, as if she were talking to a distressed child.
"No one can predict the future, Holly. Even I can only glimpse the tiniest fraction of any given moment in time. And even then such moments are the most fleeting of shadows, ephemeral and constantly shifting in time and space. All I ask is that you accompany me now. Our time together grows short."
"I want you to take me to my aunt! Why won't you help me?"
She raised her hand to my face and with one gentle motion wiped away a tear that had fallen onto my cheek. For some strange reason I could not comprehend, her caress seemed to put my mind at ease, and I felt myself slowly beginning to regain my emotional equilibrium.
"What did you do?" I asked her, as I raised my hand to the spot on my cheek where she had touched me. "I...I don't feel so...afraid anymore."
"That is because there is nothing to be afraid of. I promised you safe passage and so it shall be." She took my hand in hers and led me to the stairwell. "I put my blessing upon you, Holly. For what you shall now see will test the limits of your mind's dimensions. But do not fear. The specters you see cannot harm you."