“We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.”
– Alan Watts
Lenore lay on the couch like a catatonic, staring at the ceiling – but Kirsty knew she was seeing something very different through her unblinking eyes. Feeling sick, she watched Joey inspecting the bathroom door. The lock Kirsty had broken would have to be replaced.
“How did you know she’d found it?” the reporter asked.
“Call it instincts.” The cold triumphant laughter in my head, what else? “I can practically smell a box being opened by now.”
“It wasn’t, thank God.”
“And why is that? It doesn’t take much to open them. At least it never did for me and she’s got insider help. He must have had a reason for not dropping in on us tonight.”
“What did she say again? It sounded like a name.”
“Latin. I’ll look it up.” Joey went to the kitchen table and opened her laptop.
Kirsty sat on the coffee table and brushed golden strands of hair out of Lenore’s face. “You’re not tempted to map Hell for a Pulitzer?”
“You know no one believes it – except charmers like Channard. White straps don’t go with my complexion. My motives are pure revenge: for Terri, Doc … and Elliott, too.”
Motives? Survival. Kirsty thought of his pronouncement, that she had won his suit. Repressing a shudder, she tried to avoid thinking at all.
“Here it is – ‘Vessel of Iniquity’, or basically, vessel of sin … immoral vessel? Pick one. That’s not a name. It sounds like a title.”
“Or a compliment.” Kirsty sighed. “Evil rarely sees itself as evil, so ‘vessel of sin’ makes no sense. They don’t think what they do is wrong, and they aren’t … tormented with guilt over it.” Avoiding Joey’s stare, Kirsty looked back down at Lenore. “I bet she knows his name. The Prince of Hell…” She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. “So you’ll meet Tom again?”
“Yes, we’re going to try to see what’s up with the tattoo and the original drawing. I need to speak to Bobbi, too. I’m hoping she can remember something useful John Merchant might have said about his device.”
Kirsty looked up at her. “Are you going to try to break it to them? I don’t recommend it.”
“Bobbi might be able to grasp it – she saw them herself. Tom won’t want to know. He thinks he does – but the truth of what happened to Renée might be more than he could take.”
~ ~ ~
The edge of the coffee table bit into her back across her shoulder blades. Kirsty didn’t notice it as the dream unfolded, washing her caution away with a strange, unnatural pleasure. Yet her fear was with her, pacing beside her as she explored new paths.
Straps bound her; they were stiff and slick – with sweat or blood? She was blind under the face shield that had descended over her head. Memories of gynecological exams intruded, though nothing had touched her naked sex between her raised and spread knees.
Someone had put her in this hellish contraption – someone she trusted – but it was only a vague impression. The dream had begun with this dark bondage, with nothing but chilled air and fear between her legs. What had he said before she laid her body down?
To understand control, you must know submission. Did you not realize it is the slave who is truly in command of the game? It is all connected – the one who dominates longing to obey, the obedient controlling the pace, and the content, of what is shared.
She was at the mercy of anyone, or anything, that entered the room. Where am I?
Deprived of sight and movement, her other senses sharpened. Had someone passed through the doorway? Imagination tortured her. Again and again she twitched, tricked by her mind that something had brushed against her soft shaved flesh.
Yet slowly, her perception began to change, becoming alien but arresting – and she realized she ached for something to happen. Did helpless equal guiltless? Whatever happened, she was powerless to stop it.
There is a curious freedom in bondage. A peculiar dichotomy, is it not? The tighter the straps, the greater the release – to experience anything, without guilt, yes.
Who are you?
You know the answer.
There was a subtle movement of air against her skin, but the near complete sensory deprivation had gone on too long to identify her companion for certain. Even the voice in her mind seemed slightly distorted, as if it rang like a deep bell. The vibrations of it increased her heart rate.
So hungry for sensation – such a needful thing, incomplete … unfinished.
In the instant that the tolling of the dark bell ceased, the terror of where dreams had led her lanced in to shatter her unnatural calm.
You are … a Cenobite. Any one of them or … him?
An interesting distinction. I would never allow another to instruct you.
Kirsty wanted to scream for Elliott. She had searched for him and found … this. You weren’t here before – I wouldn’t have allowed…
Yet with grace and trust you laid down your flesh, in payment of a debt incurred. Did you think his desires were commonplace?
Elliott was searching for a way to feel, to reclaim his humanity, not to feed a sick fetish – like Frank, or you.
Such comfort you find in these pronouncements. Flesh … does not care. Your flesh shudders to be violated and what a parade of suitors I could provide – all with different gifts … and tastes … for you to experience. Shall I invite them?
Wake up, you damn fool, she cursed. This is no dream!
Do you fear injury, or pain? You witnessed the judgment on Frank and found it abhorrent, though the things he would have sought to subject your body to, had you known, might have made you ask us to do more to him.
No! Elliott, please, come back…
Child, you know we are one. Which do you fear?
Pain … because you can make it last.
Yet you enjoyed it not so long ago, in the ministrations of my acolyte. Naïveté does not suit you. I can make the wound as eternal as the pain – this you know. All that is left is to teach you the true path of suffering.
You’ve deceived people for ages but it’s pleasure they want – not pain, not mutilation!
Is it? Do you want human pleasure? Is that what your flesh hungers for? Shall we see?
Fear constricted her heart. Wake up, damn you, Wake up!
Fingers, slender and cold, entered her body. The partial glove of the hand, covering the thumb and pinkie, settled on either side of her slick opening. Teeth clenched, she tried not to scream.
A warmth slid inside her, emanating from the trio of fingers – and then it bloomed into a pleasure so intense it burned her. Nerve-endings on fire, she found she couldn’t scream, as a need for it to continue and a frantic wish to make it stop warred in her.
When it did stop, her mind reeled. Panting, she felt numb. Where was the Cenobite? Did he still touch her? She couldn’t feel anything.
Our pleasures sweep all others to nothing. You have already felt the old craving die, the wish for ‘normal’ couplings, and seek the forbidden to feel again. Are you surprised to find your purpose so nearly matches that of others who fell? Ask yourself why you seek out one you suspect to be under my sway. Is it not the threat that makes your blood sing?
Threat can be a game, too – but pain that kills can’t be pleasure.
Ah, but if you cannot die…
Kirsty did scream when he filled her flesh with pain. Yet as it fired her nerves to life again, her back arched, her limbs straining against the straps. She tried to open herself more, not caring if she injured herself to do it, writhing shamelessly in heat.
A sharp point pricked into the wet flesh of the inner wall of her sex. The pleasure of it drove her beyond the borders of her mind. Darkness waited there, a yawning pit that reeked of putrifying flesh and rang with the endless beat of a heart of ice and malice. The closer she drifted, the less her burden became.
What is it? she whispered, but then she knew that was not the right question. Who are you?
The sound of its voice was the clatter of bones thrown onto blighted stone but the words flowed broken, as if underwater.
Fingertips touched her lips and her tongue slipped out to taste them. They were copper and ash – and sweet as vanilla.
Yes, my lost one, the Cenobite intoned as if in prayer. This soul is worthy. Why must you deny me for so long? Take this flesh, my dark angel, and come to me…
Snapping awake – had she screamed out loud? Her eyes rose to the loft bedroom, but Joey did not appear. With a start, she realized Lenore’s eyes watched her. The girl had shed her clothes and waited while Kirsty dreamed. Gleaming and full of secrets, she offered herself.
With an urgency that bordered on madness, she mounted the girl’s body. They tore and sucked at each other until their strength was spent, but the chilling laughter still rang in Kirsty’s mind.
~ ~ ~
The morning sun warmed her as she sat looking out over the city, but her thoughts were numb. Lenore watched her from the other end of the couch, her eyes half-lidded – almost predatory.
For such a short time, she had been a sweet and soft thing of bemused innocence. Now, Kirsty was tempted to rename her to make the changes easier to bear.
They had showered separately, and she had wondered if the girl was as covered with welts, scratches, and bruises as she had been. Yet the most disturbing thing was the soreness between her legs.
Stupid bitch, she cursed herself. Offer yourself to one and expect the other one to keep out of it? It’s a two-person ménage á trois, idiot. She faced the silent stare of her ‘forbidden’ lover. “It can never be what I want it to between us – he made sure of that. You’re still a mystery, though, and you won’t tell me anything about it, will you? Least of all how to destroy him.”
“He can’t be destroyed.”
“Don’t believe everything he tells you.” Kirsty got up to escape the stare. She had heard Joey waking, and went into the kitchen before the other woman came downstairs. Making breakfast didn’t require thought.
Joey seemed to feel the tension in the room immediately, but Kirsty shook her head at her and they both waited to speak until Lenore had disappeared into the guest bedroom.
“Tell me again about your time dodging the Cenobite,” Kirsty asked. “We need to figure out his plans but we have to be missing something.”
“Well, I think that situation was created by Channard, technically. Setting the Cenobite loose on Earth, unbound by the rules of the puzzle box, he seemed to want to set up shop here and make a new Hell. That’ll be different now, if he’s playing by the Labyrinth’s rules again.”
“All we know about that is our own experiences and what Channard collected, but even the information from Lemarchand himself doesn’t tell us why the Labyrinth wants to bother with Earth.”
“Beyond the usual expansion, power-mongering, conquering nation approach? Elliott said the plan was to break barriers between the Labyrinth and Earth. I guess the Cenobite thinks he needs the Merchant heir for that.”
“Conquering nation sounds better than sexual philanthropist studies.”
Joey’s expression showed her struggle to be concerned and wary at once. “Did something happen?”
Kirsty looked away from the eyes that searched hers, desperate for assurances and the truth – but no one really wanted the truth, did they?
“He shows up in my dreams, I told you that.” She reached for her coffee cup. It was empty. “Don’t worry, I can fight him off. What are we going to do with Lenore?”
“I thought you had that covered,” Joey said, trying not to frown.
“Not for long. She’s a brand new puzzle now, convinced she’s supposed to learn about pleasure. I don’t think shacking up and monogamy are on the syllabus.”
“She could bring him here.”
“The box isn’t in the house anymore. We’ll watch her.”
“Maybe the Elysium Configuration could be activated with the improvements to the design. Tom said he’d bring anything Bobbi found for him on it. What if the Cenobites could be destroyed? Kirsty?”
The dark heart of her dream intruded, a plague that sickened her thoughts. It couldn’t be real – a foul abyss that seemed to feed off of her guilt, shame, and the horror of the blood on her hands – eating it, relieving the horrid burden of her soul.
Shaking her head, she smiled at Joey’s worried look and launched into the first distraction that came to mind.
“Do I detect an interest in this one or is it just curiosity?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Sure you do. He’s handsome and strapping – seems to be a decent guy. Hell, who am I to judge? Have fun.”
“He’s also married.”
Joey tried to look irritated and dismissive, but Kirsty seemed to have hit a nerve. It had only been a lucky shot in the dark to deter questions about her dreams, yet the prospect perversely amused her.
“Mrs. Ramsay might drink herself to death before she can be tossed in a padded room. Either way, he’s probably lonely.” Look at her – offended for his sake. God save me from an honest and fair reporter.
“I’d have thought you of all people could respect what she’s gone through.”
“Why should I? She’s weak. People like that aren’t going to help in your crusade against evil. She had one night dealing with that monster and never recovered.”
“She watched him kill her husband and drive her son insane! Then she lost both of her children. I admire her ability to keep going at all!”
“My therapist would tell you that’s guilt talking. You defend her because you feel bad about wanting to fuck her husband. This is war and survival of the fittest. I lost everything to those demons, and every one, over and over. You lost friends and had your life turned upside down. We’re strong – we keep living, keep fighting. That woman probably gave up before John Merchant’s head hit the floor.”
Joey rose from the table. “You can’t judge others that way. She has every right to our respect. To belittle what she went through – it’s wrong, and … cruel.”
Kirsty laughed. “Maybe I should be the one battling the Cenobites. You got paraded through a house of horrors and chased down a street. I admire your ability to rise above that, but don’t tell me I’m cruel for belittling some housewife’s trauma. When your pedophile uncle tries to rape you while wearing your father’s skin, you can talk to me about who is worthy of respect and who isn’t.”