[...] for she had entered the room just as Melquíades had carelessly broken a flask of bichloride of mercury.“It’s the smell of the devil,” she said.“Not at all,” Melquíades corrected her. “It has been proven that the devil has sulphuric properties and this is just a little corrosive sublimate.”
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
To most others it’s the smell of rotten eggshells and deterioration, but to me sulfur was always the sweet stink of model rocket engines. It was the airy odor wafting from the hollow fuselage my brother and I raced to find in the corn fields; the smell that preceded the “atta girl” from my father lounging in a blue camp chair, a beer in one hand and the cheap electronic launch controller in the other. Proust wrote that a madeleine stirred up his long-forgotten childhood memories, but I had the reeking yellow fumes of expended inertia; combusted fuel that had granted a little lump of plastic and metal brief skyward conveyance, struggling hard to escape the downward pull of nine-point-eight meters per-second-per-second.
When we entered the freshly blasted hole into the long-blocked cavern, it was clear by the way she wrinkled her nose that Lauren did not share my appreciation for the malodorous sixteenth element. To her it was undoubtedly representative of decay and danger, and not of the sublime wonder one experiences when watching a simple tube propelled spaceward by pressurized gasses. That's why she was our team leader and I could never be; she was capable of being sensible and alert whereas I was prone to daydreaming and tangents.
Capable is perhaps the wrong word, as I was generally able to function as well as I needed to in order to do my job. Even in this case my fractaling thought patterns racing through history and fact to bring beauty and meaning to a moment most other would find repulsive wouldn't give me more than a few seconds pause. Most of the time it felt like a gift, the ability to order the universe around me into relational facts, into ontologies of order, and recall everything relevant to a thing or situation in rapid-fire streams of information. I think it's part of the reason I was hired onto our small archaeology team, having a person with a ton of general-knowledge who can advance oddball theories based on relations most other people wouldn't think of can be fairly handy. The only times it truly became burdensome was when, under stress or heightened anxiety, my mind would begin summoning facts, recalling poetry, and running calculations that were completely unhelpful to the matter at hand; leaving me stalled and frozen as I tried to clear away the noise of my inner world to the detriment of dealing with the external one.
“Get the air pumps and fans set up,” Lauren barked back towards us, “If we move quick we can get a first round of surveying done before nightfall.”
The pedants of the world love to trot out the fun fact that natural gas lacks the smell of sulfur, that it’s added artificially as a way to detect gas leaks. And in the general use of the term “natural gas” they are correct as the pedant, unfortunately, often is: methane and the other flammable gases that accompany it through pipes and tubes to light bunsen burners and house heaters are, in fact, odorless. However, if I were to be even more pedantic and claim the term “natural gas” not as a specific mixture of methane, butane, ethane, and propane but as naturally produced gasses in general, to stretch the language from societally connotated meaning to one purely detonated by the actual meaning of its constituent words; then of course the assertion falls apart immediately.
Hydrogen Sulfide, known to the miners of yore as “stinkdamp”, is a naturally occurring gas formed by the long-term decomposition of organics in oxygen-starved atmospheres; the cave system we just blasted open being a perfect example. Like methane it is colorless and highly flammable and unlike methane it has the courtesy of announcing its presence through its sulfuric scent. Of course to balance out the courtesy it is also extremely toxic. In the wild it binds to iron and over years and years it creates fools gold; in the body it interrupts the conversion of atmospheric oxygen and hydrogen ions into energy, among a number of other nasty effects, in mere minutes. In high concentrations a brief whiff of the sulfuric gas may mean you have only seconds before tumbling to the ground unconscious as your lungs involuntarily pump more of the poison into your respiratory system. Whatever kindly memories of the past the smell stirred within me, Lauren was right to be cautious.
Our small crew donned their respirators as we hauled the equipment in, pumping oxygen in and ventilating out whatever gasses had formed in the long-forgotten chambers. A few hundred feet through a small craggy passage gave us our first reassurance that Dahlia's mapping of ancient transcriptions to a geological location was correct. The stony walls opened wide to either side, revealing an antechamber lined with grooved shelves and buttressed by beams of petrified wood and rude-wrought iron. Ceramics and glassware sat perched on the carved shelves, undisturbed for a millennia, watching us flash devices their creators could barely dream of through the gloom. There were two more halls leading off into the darkness. Dahlia began looking down the leftmost one, prodding back the ever-present darkness with her flashlight.
“See anything?” I shouted over to her, the sound muffling and reverberating within my mask.
“Looks like it goes on for a-ways,” she replied, head craning and flashlight bobbing, “What’s down the other one?”
I took a few steps back and swung my flashlight to point down the passage. White light ran along the wall until it hit a pile of rubble. With a nudge to the right, some of the light found its way further inwards through a small hole.
“Looks like a partial cave in. There’s a gap that may be large enough to squeeze through if we can’t clear it, although we’d definitely want to reinforce the opening first.”
“Alright, let’s get some ventilation down the non-collapsed shaft first,” Lauren butted in, “We can leave the blocked passage for after we’ve mapped out everything else.”
My headlamp panned over towards her, light glinting off the metal filters of her mask. There was something beautiful about her in that moment: hair pulled back in a ponytail, coveralls only slightly smudged with dust and grime, fierce green eyes squinting through the brightness. Most of all it was the mask, the partial depersonalization of her form, that I found strangely appealing. There was just something so arousing about being able to see both her eyes, the windows to the soul, glaring back at me while just below them the artificially sleek device of rubber, plastic, and metal that provided her fresh air through filters and tubes made her something half-inhuman.
“Beth can you get that fucking light out of my face?” she shouted, hand flying up to shield her eyes. I obliged. “You act like we haven’t done this a hundred times…”
“Sorry just…” I shrugged. I figured telling her I was fetishizing her gasmask wasn’t going to make things any better. I adjusted my headlamp to angle a bit further downwards as my mind stitched together recurring fantasies I had of Lauren with the image of her glaring at me over black rubber and metal. It was best to just let these sorts of thoughts run their course, if I just let them play out in the moment they generally petered out after only a few seconds; waiting until a lonely night to reoccur.
I could hear a snort of acknowledgement bellow out through her filters. She turned back towards the tunnel towards the outside and began the work of dragging more equipment in. Dahlia waggled an eyebrow at me as Lauren left, undoubtedly smirking beneath her mask. I rolled my eyes in response and began doing a quick artifact inventory of the items in the wall recesses and on the stony shelves, grateful that no one could see the flush of red flooding my cheeks under my mask.
By my count there were sixty-three ceramic vessels, fourteen cloudy glass bowls, and three small metal chests stashed around the room at various heights along the wall. I jotted down the information on my phone, leaving the more detailed cataloging for later. I moved to examine one of the short beams that supported the various bits of shelving that weren’t directly hewn into the rock. At some point in the distant past it had been wood which ancient people had carved a message into, something perhaps Dahlia could decipher in the coming days. Fascinatingly it had petrified in this cave, a process that normally takes millions of years and most commonly requires the wood to be buried in water and sediment; its plant cells flooding with mineral-rich fluids that crystalize within them over aeons until the wood has been replaced entirely with stone. Much of the rocky wood had a yellow tinge to it, broken only by the occasional seam of gleaming pyrite. I marveled at its existence, my brain reeling to explain how anything human-made could be old enough to have fully undergone this process.
A crash from behind me jerked me out of my transfixion. Shards of pottery radiated outwards from a puff of sallow smoke lazily floating on the floor. Lauren was glaring down at the destroyed pottery, mentally assigning blame to the ceramic shards for being in the way of the fan she had just knocked into it. I updated my notes: there were now sixty-two ceramic vessels and eighteen pieces of another vessel large enough to warrant recovery. With a silencing look, Lauren continued hauling the equipment down the leftmost hall as I watched the yellow fog roll slowly towards the right passage. Like everything heavier than air it was bound by the laws of gravity, inexorably pulled downwards by its weight. Following its movements with my headlamp, I could almost see the slight slope of the floor dictating its inevitable path towards the lowest point it could find. It seeped through the rubble down the hall and was gone, off to find a resting place among the quiet hollows of the deep earth.
A bobbing light approached me, Lauren’s muscly figure underneath it. She grabbed a device off her hip and thrust it into my hands.
“If you’re just going to stand around, check the air quality from the outside through to this chamber,” she grumbled, “And once it’s clear, tell Selene to get her ass in here and determine if-and-how-long it’ll take to make the right passage passable again.”
“Sure thing,” I chirped out, hoping she didn’t detect my eyes tracing the seam where her mask met her face. I shifted in place as my upper thigh muscles contracted and then slowly loosened again. Before I took this job, I would never have thought that a workplace safety item would sexually arouse me to this extent. But then again it wasn’t just the mask, Lauren’s gruffness tickled me in an inappropriate and thoroughly unprofessional way as well. Frequently, when I was alone enough to indulge in hedonistic self-love, I had erotic fantasies of her imposing and dominating figure overpowering me. At first it had just been her as she was normally, a cold and exacting boss who would use me in any way she wanted; but my mind wasn't satisfied with stopping there.
I turned the device on and began walking around the room with it held out in front of me, checking for any pockets of hazardous gasses as well as the average oxygen content of the chamber. The air wasn’t quite at normal outdoor atmospheric levels, but well within the breathable threshold. I made my way out of the cavern, continuing to check the levels as I walked; getting the same readings the whole way. You had to hand it to her, Lauren knew how breathe life back into ancient places. A romantic notion wasted on the world’s gruffest stickler.
Slipping out of the recently-caused crevice I turned my mind from the mysteries of the far-flung past to one of the here-and-now: where the hell had Selene wandered off to? I slid my respirator off my face, fingers absentmindedly rubbing the rubber, as I tramped towards the jeeps. Peeking through the windows I saw only empty seats and boxes of equipment. Turning towards the surrounding hills I spotted the plume and puff of smoke announcing Selene’s whereabouts, her form obscured from direct vision by the crest of a small dirt mound and a smattering of rocks.
“’Sup Beth?” She asked me as I approached, her jovial eyes watching the clouds, “Lauren want something?”
A lithe figure overbrimming with wanton boldness, Selene sat with one knee bent on the side of the hill. The sleeves of her coveralls were rolled back to the elbow, showing off a small sampling of her many tattoos. If I recalled correctly she got one after each excavation, picking some symbol or image, something that made sense only to her, in order to immortalize it on her flesh. Her short undercut still carried the dark-green tips of last year’s decisions, playfully defiant of Lauren’s demands for regulation hair lengths for the whole team. It was hard to believe the two of them were sisters. Strike that, Lauren hated it when someone said they were sisters; they were half-sisters.
“How’d you guess?”
“Because she never wants to ask me to do things herself. She’s always afraid I’ll undermine her authority and that she’ll be too flustered to do anything about it.” Selene took a drag off her cigarette, the end glowing brightly for a few seconds before hazy tobacco-death curled in dual streams out of her nose. “Which is fair, I do like to antagonize her from time to time.”
“And you,” she tipped the end of the little white cylinder towards me, lopsided grin lighting up her face, “want to do anything to get on her good graces, hoping that some day she’ll ask you out to dinner.” I flushed and looked down at my boots, trying to think of a comeback that didn’t sound too defensive. Selene was only half-right: I didn't want dinner out of Lauren, I wanted something much less polite; something borne of needy lust and overactive imagination. My mind began to flail, dredging up my nightmare fantasies and everything related to them: a frieze we discovered in a sepulcher last year of vampiric creatures subjugating a naked woman, a dreamed image of Lauren imbued by demonic forces breaking my pitiful web of facts and order as I spasmed with enjoyment, a misquoted piece of poetry unnecessary and unuseful. Look to your plan a league away, it went, where midnight terror stays.
Selene took ample advantage of my inability to respond, not letting up in the slightest: “It’s cute in it’s own doomed-to-fail way. As big and tough as she likes to pretend to be, the thing she is most of all is risk-averse. Ever since we were kids in every tough situation she was off plotting the perfect time to make a power-move while I was charging in head-first and rolling with the punches. She's never going to make the first move, and from what I can see you won't either.”
Selene pulled another glob of smoke inwards as she rolled backwards slightly and then popped herself forward onto her feet, expelling a noxious cloud through the air as she ascended. The smoke that cloaks the deep aboil, my mind recited as if half-remembered poems could ward off Selene's ugly truths. It was followed by the mental image of myself begging her half-sister, possessing this time the sinister tail of a snake and four sinewy arms, to let me be her shadow consort; pleading with the fantastically terrible creature feeling infinitely easier than resolving to ask the person it was based on for a coffee date.
“Of course if you ever want my company on a lonely night or a drink once we’re back in town, I’m always available.” She winked, seeming to enjoy the surprise rising to my eyes. “Mom blessed me with the fun half of the genes; unlike Lauren I wouldn’t pass up a few nights of fun with a pretty girl like yourself.”
My jaw gaped open as she puffed on her cigarette again, gleefully watching me squirm at her proposition. She'd managed to curtail my previous floundering over Lauren by sparking off a brand new panic through me. Although most of my mind was paralyzed in shock, the rest of it was running Punnett square calculations to determine if she really did get the fun half of the genes. Two fathers, one mother: assuming all heterozygous traits then offspring would have a genetic probability of matching any single trait pairing of another of about sixty-seven-percent. However that assumed that all traits are independent of each other and that they are heterozygous and that they are all from the same parent stock, so taking that into account —
“What did Lauren tell you to tell me?” Selene asked, amused at my long silence. My brain refocused enough to allow me to close my mouth as I cleared away the fractaling charts in my head in order to remember why I’d hunted Selene down. I attempted to straighten my posture and regain some dignity.
“She wants you to take a look at a hole,” I started, my composure annihilated by a snort of laughter from Selene. I pushed on despite the reddening in my cheeks, “I mean, there’s a partially collapsed passageway and she wanted to get your estimate for how long it would take to repair it enough to get someone through it.”
“Sound mysterious; even a little foreboding.” She arched her eyebrows at the last word, simultaneously dropping her voice into a hushed tone. A split-second later she was chuckling at her own melodrama. She pulled on her cigarette again before continuing.
“Tell her I’ve almost finished patching the leak in my respirator and I’ll be in in five.”
“Actually,” I tried to stop my voice, tried to not continue a sentence that began with the smug pedant’s ‘actually’. I failed, repeating the word to make it even worse, “Actually the ventilation has rendered the oxygen up to that point breathable without a respirator.”
Another snort of stifled laughter, an inhale and exhale of smoke.
“Tell her it’ll still be five minutes,” Selene chuckled as she pointed to the cigarette, embarrassment creeping over my face for the thousandth time since this conversation began.
“Aw Beth, you’re so damn cute when you’re blushing,” she teased, “As I said, if you ever want to get drinks together or need some company…”
She let the offer hang in the air as I scurried back to the cavern, retreating to the safety of the dark.
Ten minutes later Selene brushed past me towards the collapsed passageway, swagger overstuffed in her small form. I had been examining the ceramic vessels that had been waiting patiently on the walls and ledges for someone to find them once more. All of the intact ones (thirteen of the fifteen I had examined so far, not counting the one Lauren smashed) were stoppered at the top with a petrified plug that I could only guess was once some amount of mud and clay and straw. Of the other two: one had chipped down the side, top to bottom, revealing its hollow interior; the other had only lost a piece off its lip, right below the seal. I shone my headlamp into its cracked carapace and saw the same yellow fog from before lazily swirling in the vessel’s hollow belly.
Gently I lowered the ceramic pot off of the spot it had rested for an unknowably many years, holding it before me. The smoke within rested heavily on the vessel’s bottom, too heavy to delay its fall long enough to escape out the chip at the top. My eyes traced its swirling patterns and soon it was as if I could hear gentle, airy sounds emanating from the cracked vase. An odd thought came across my mind, borne on whispers just beyond my hearing, and I turned the vessel slowly rolling it onto its side. I watched as the gaseous cloud of light-but-sickly yellow poured heavily onto the ground. Baffled as to why I had done this, I once more watched the fog crawl across the floor and down the blocked passageway; helpless but to descend under its own weight until it found a basin to bare it.
“Anything interesting?” Dahlia’s voice called from my left, echoing slightly through the chamber. I blinked away a feeling of hazy detachment, snapped out of a daydream trance by Dahlia's words.
“I’m not sure,” I replied, head shaking side-to-side as I mused aloud, “I think all these pots have some sort of gas sealed inside them. Maybe this was some sort of storage room?”
“Could be, although the Lūteus Divinium listed this as a sacred site of some sort. A place to commune with their god.” She shrugged, “Hopefully we’ll have a better idea once I’ve taken a look at all these inscriptions.”
She began to turn away, before facing toward me again.
“Oh, and did Selene come through yet? We might need her help down the left passage.”
“Yeah, she went that way maybe five minutes ago,” I pointed down the blocked passageway, “Anything I can help with?”
“You might want to clear out actually, maybe start setting up camp,” Dahlia leaned in closer, hushing her voice, “There’s a few dead bodies in a chamber down that way and something in this cave air did not let them decay gracefully.”
I felt my stomach churn as a shiver ran down my spine. I loved the remnants and detritus of ancient people’s lives, the things they made and left behind for us to puzzle over hundreds of years later. But finding the remnants of the people themselves was always unsettling to me. Even finding their bones was enough to make me squirm although I could generally push through it. What Dahlia was suggesting though was partial decay, bodies sitting in an environment that didn’t support the fastidious little microbes that would clean away the grosser bits. A grisly nightmare I’d rather avoid.
“The dooms of men…” I muttered, the words sliding along the chamber’s walls.
“What’s that?” She squinted at me as if it would help her decipher the non sequitur.
“Oh.” I blinked away the grotesque images filling my mind and returned my focus to Dahlia. “Something my uncle used to say. The dooms of men are in god’s hidden place.”
“Ominous,” she replied with a wry chuckle.
“It was just a line he pulled out of some old poem,” I explained; certain that through explanation I could rob the phrase of its power, “Just a phrase he’d use to ascribe preternatural importance to mundane moments.”
I sighed as the memories flitted through my mind: various accidents and bad luck mostly, but sometimes something a bit more pleasant. A smile grew on my face.
“One time he used it to excuse himself form having to reach beneath the couch at my mother’s house to retrieve a chip he dropped on the floor. As if when he reached under the couch for it that some terrible monstrosity would latch onto him and drag him under there as well. He overused the hell out of that phrase.”
Dahlia giggled politely, “He sounds like a real character. You’ll have to tell me more about him one of these days.”
She glanced back at the passage behind her.
“I’d better get back before Lauren chews me out. See you back at camp.”
I nodded my head and made for the exit, leaving the rest of the team to catalog the bodies and their position before removing them for sanitary purposes. I took a steadying breath of clean air as I made my way back out into the light and began the process of setting up camp for the night.
We sat huddled around the campfire, orange light flickering on our faces, forks stabbing at the meat and vegetables in our mess kits. There is something pleasing to the human psyche about concentric circles; a need for stratification and boundary setting, a desire to establish zones radiating outward from a binding core. This impulse had guided me to set our camp up in two rings around the central foci of the fire. Outermost the four tents stood their silent watch against the nocturnal rolling plains; nylon, aluminum, and elastic lit with electrical lanterns, testaments to mankind’s progress and ascendancy. In the center sat the fire, the manifest symbol of our rise to consciousness, the Promethean gift that started it all; a primal reaction of heat and carbon that gave us the tools to explore the dark, survive the cold, and smith the earth to our whims.
Strung between that primal center and the outermost ring were us four, backs turned on the circle of technological accomplishment and human ingenuity in order to tell tales of past events: personal, historical, imagined, and theorized; our faces half-sinister in shadow. It was a tradition we were all familiar with, something Lauren had encouraged for the purposes of “team building”, that we had all taken to with a gleeful reverence. It served partially as our version of the the watercooler chats of office workers, but there was also something more to it, or at least there was to me. A connection to some integral part of being human, a shared experience with every person over multiple millennia who huddled themselves in with a group, perhaps family, perhaps friends, perhaps total strangers; they gathered in darkness around a shared light and exchanged stories, their words mingling with the smoky air, fueling it as wood fueled the fire. I imagined a magical transmutation across the entirety of human history, heat and carbon and oxygen losing their mystical properties over time, becoming understandable as a mere chemical process; but the conjunction of smoke and story still maintaining its mystical nature. The words that bound the speaker and listener together in starlit camaraderie wreathing low around them in grey plumes as other pieces weightlessly ascended above the group, spirits of pallid distortion, dispersing in the atmosphere to become part of the very world that we all inhabit etching parts of us indelibly into every campfire yet to be.
Or, at least, that’s how I justified participation in the ritual to myself. As the last drop of magic in a world I had rationalized into order. This was where we could summon the shadows of myth and legend and even of just lesser speculation to flit just beyond my ability to understand them, just beyond the reach of mind's web of facts and figures that wished to pin them down and scrutinize them until they were merely another extension of natural phenomena.
“If it had been an earthquake, I’d expect more damage in the storage room that Beth was cataloging,” Dahlia mused, pausing to chew a chunk of potato, “And for the bodies to not be quite so perfectly lined up to be struck by a single falling shelf. I still think it was some sort of foul play.”
“But why?” Selene chimed in, “Four people is a few too many for it to be a personal grudge, at least I would think so.”
“Could have been a schism in the cult,” I suggested, “The bodies we found may have been higher-ranking members killed during a power play. Or perhaps it was ritualistic sacrifice…”
“Awful lot of easier ways to go about that than dropping a shelf on someone’s head,” Dahlia said, her eyes glowing a reflective orange, “The method definitely implies pre-planned sabotage. As to the idea of a schism, it is possible but the few texts we have on the cult of Luteubula have never mentioned one. I’m hoping we can find out a bit more once we have a chance to study the inscriptions they left behind.”
We sat in silence for a few seconds, no one having any more to add. Fire-licked wood crackled and a dark plume of smoke sputtered into the sky. I remembered something.
“Hey Lauren, do you remember the piece of pottery you broke earlier? And the smoke that poured out of it?”
“Yeah,” she grunted, almost defensively, “Damned inconvenient place to stash something so fragile. Anyone walking along could have knocked it over.”
“Right, right. But I was looking at another one of the pots in the same room, one that had chipped up toward the top, and I found that same smoke in it.”
Lauren scratched her head, “So what? Do you think it’s some sort of chemical reaction or decomposition of whatever was in those jars?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, watching her handsome face twist and distort through the haze of the fire, “Maybe they were storing the smoke itself in them, it seems to be heavier than air.”
“Interesting…” Dahlia’s voice hummed through the night air, “Luteubula was supposed to have been a deity of life-giving mists. Maybe they managed to capture some sort of strange localized phenomenon and kept it as relics.” I could see a glint of the smile on her face and hear excitement creeping into her voice, “If the inscriptions on the pottery are related in any way, we could be uncovering more about this cult than anyone has in a century!”
“Let’s not get our hopes up just yet,” Lauren cautioned, “I want to get the collapsed passage opened and whatever lies beyond it mapped first. Then we’ll have a better idea of what this site was and what all the artifacts in it were used for.”
“Lucky you then sis,” Selene interjected, grinning broadly at the glare Lauren shot her for that last word, “I got most of the rubble cleared out and the support braces set up right before you said to retire for the night. Right now it’s still a bit of a squeeze to get through, but it should only take another hour at most to get it open enough for equipment to pass through.”
“Alright,” Lauren nodded, an uncharacteristic smile creeping onto her face, “Then let’s be ready first thing tomorrow to start exploring down that side. We can stage the equipment in the room with the pots while Selene finishes clearing the hall, that way we waste no time in getting the area ventilated and lit.”
The wind whipped up, stirring smoke and ash and flame into the air. We all turned from the fire to face the outer darkness, shielding our eyes from the particles stirred by the sudden onslaught. When we turned back to face the fire pit, we realized in tandem that the tongues of flame had slowly dissipated as we ate and talked, leaving us in a darkness dimly lit by soft-glowing coals. We each sat in silence for a few minutes longer, transfixed by the fading fire’s gentle orange pulses. Predictably it was Lauren who broke the silence to issue an order phrased as a suggestion.
“Well the fire’s almost out and we have a busy day tomorrow. Set your alarms for O-six-hundred hours and get a good night’s rest. Dismissed.”
I watched her shadowy form hoist itself out of her seat, the hot air between us making her brawny figure swim and shimmer; tantalizing my lustful thoughts with the fantasy of her beckoning me to follow into her tent behind her. Not as my boss and team leader, but as something sinister out of legends and campfire stories; supernaturally powerful and dominating. Someone humanly powerful enough to pin me and ravish me crossed with something powerfully inhuman enough to destroy all the erudite orderings of an obsessively scientific mind.
I shuddered in my camp chair and stifled a sigh, rolling it into a soft slow exhale of breath. I glanced towards Dahlia and Selene, grateful that neither seemed to have seen my leer looks at our boss. Steadying myself, I mumbled a soft goodnight to my coworkers and headed towards my tent.
As I unzipped the flap of my tent I stared out into the surrounding darkness, the area that existed beyond the concentric circles I had established. For all our progress as a species it still wound around us, interminable darkness and eternal unknown. Our camp was so paltry in comparison, the full representation of mankind from crackling fire to tent nylon just a tiny island in a pitch-black ocean. Something moved out there, its motion just barely registering to my fire-blind eyes. It skulked from shadow to shadow and then the void was still again, or at least it had stilled as far as my eyes could see; my vision had adjusted so long to our light that it could not longer see into the unfathomable realm of secrets slithering just beyond our comprehension.
The dooms of men are in god’s hidden place
I couldn’t have been asleep for more than two hours when I heard the snapping of twigs outside my tent. Actually I probably was only asleep for one hour, as for over forty minutes my mind oscillated between images of Lauren, possessed of varying monstrous qualities, fucking my cowering, docile form and bevies of facts and trivia trying to keep the horny half of my brain in check. Erotica and erudition, the ever-warring duality of Beth.
“Hello?” I meekly and sleepily called out, hoping it was one of our group. The crunching sound continued, getting softer as it headed past my tent. I scooched myself over to the back of my tent and unzipped the small window, hoping to see what terrible creature of the night was stalking by. In the dim light of the waning moon I could just barely make out the lithe figure, the brash undercut, the flash of symbols inked into skin.
She was shuffling her way back towards the excavation in the middle of the night, her steps slow and purposeful. I watched her for a short time longer as I tried to puzzle out why she would sneak back to the site after we were all asleep. The only thought that made any sense was so she could steal something, but even that struck me as wrong. Defiant as she could be, Selene had previously had plenty of opportunity for stealing things during other excavations and had never done so.
I rummaged through my backpack for a small flashlight and pulled on my clothes. Stepping gingerly into the cold night air I followed her at a distance, worried that direct confrontation might cause her to deflect from her true purpose. That, and I was terrified of direct confrontation in general.
When we got to the cavern I stuck to the tactic of waiting back at the entrance to each section as I watched her light get further and further away and then carefully tracing her steps through the room afterwards; slowly and quietly creeping after her in the darkness. She headed down the passage she had spent the day unblocking, squeezing herself deftly through the opening she had made. I took a little longer to make it through, having to wiggle and twist my way between the wall and a large rock until I came out on the other side. Her light had already disappeared from my vision, so I had to briefly chance a flash of my own.
The floor sloped downwards, first gently and then more steeply as it neared a curve in the tunnel. I placed my hand against the wall and followed the path downwards, picking up my pace from before. Rounding the corner I flashed my light again, seeing the path switch back on itself as it led even deeper into the earth. I repeated this process for two more sets of switchbacks before I spotted Selene’s light again and slowed down enough so she wouldn’t see me. I followed her for what was certainly only five or ten minutes but felt like hours to my overactive mind, questions forming and smashing into each other in my head.
Finally the switchbacks ended as I peered around the corner to see Selene only a few feet away at the top of a ramp in an enormous circular cavern. She ran her light along the arching ceiling and then down the slick walls to the pit in front of her, obscured from my vision by the ledges of rock surrounding it. Then she walked forward again, down the stony ramp into the pit before her.
I waited longer this time than before, some part of me screaming internally to turn back now. I tried to reason out why this pit filled me with primal fear, arguing with myself that I’d seen deeper pits, more treacherous paths, more dangerous environments than this one plenty of times before but never had I felt this fear. The exercise was useful only in eliminating what the fear wasn’t: it wasn’t fear of something that existed in the rational and scientific worlds. It was fear of that which lies beyond, the sempiternal haze of the unknown that I as a scientist claimed to be working to eliminate from the world by day, so sure of my methods and tools; but here in its domain so far from civilization, so far beneath the ancient earth, it made me want to flee back to the fire, back to our little isle of light in the dread sea of existence.
By the time I had a handle on myself, I could only barely make out Selene’s light down the ramp. She seemed so far away, a spec in the total darkness of the cave, and yet it seemed like the downwards pit continued a hundred times further than that. I didn’t dare turn on my light, afraid it would bounce down the straightaway and give away my position. Carefully I shuffled my feet down the gradated walkway, probing the invisible ground before me for hazards. Surprisingly, I found none. I never even came close to tripping or stumbling. The path was distressingly smooth, upsettingly easy to walk and to follow. It was so simple to just allow oneself to be borne down almost automatically by gravity's pull.
Selene’s figure was getting larger again; apparently she had stopped. I continued to approach her, hoping to close some distance between us before she resumed her nocturnal stroll. As I neared her I noticed something off about her light, something that irked me for a few yards more. It was the smell that finally brought the right data to mind, the smell that seeped out of model rockets after they finished their futile journey.
Selene’s light was shining through and refracting off of an enormous cloud of yellow smoke.
I scrabbled for my flashlight and clicked it on, wondering how far into the danger I had already wandered. Finally able to see my surroundings, I recognized that I was at the precipice of this monstrous cloud of sickly yellow. Selene had ventured perhaps fifty yards further downwards, standing idly just before the place where the smoke gathered thick enough to become completely opaque.
Two alarms sounded in my mind, the first warning me of all the common dangerous of cave exploration: suffocation and poisonous gasses. That one I understood, my mind calculating exposure-to-survivability ratios based on similarities to other cave gasses. The other alarm though, that second alarm recoiled from the ghastly fog in pure and blind fear; it saw in that sallow haze a terribleness that it needed to flee from. It saw something that it thought it had forgotten aeons ago, something from a time before history that it had wiped from our collective memory in the hopes that being forgotten, the thing would no longer exist. Yet here it was, this macabre cloud fitting perfectly into the contours the forgotten fear had left behind; shrieking at me to run and to forget it again, needing to unknow this horror in the deep hollows of the earth.
And Selene was walking further inwards.
“Selene!” I screamed, my voice echoing through the cavern, “What the hell are you doing?! You could suffocate down there!”
She finished her step forward before her head cocked to the side, her reaction grossly out of sync with my warning. She stumbled in a half turn back towards me, her vacant gaze hard to make out through the haze. Stupidly I stumbled towards her, one hand reached out towards her the other covering my mouth with the top of my shirt; mostly useless protection but at least an attempt at it.
Selene’s unfocused eyes considered me a moment longer before she turned back towards the downward path, ignoring my rescue to shamble deeper into the pit. I jerked to stop and began to turn away, began to give in to that part of me that wanted nothing more than to leave this place and forget everything that happened this night. I began to turn away and that’s when I heard the whispers, that’s when I felt the smoke’s tendrils in me. That’s when I realized it was already too late.
They were calling me downwards, calling me further into the pit. They had waited so long for more vessels to come along and free them from the tyranny of gravity. They had waited so long since that day that one of their vessels had betrayed them, had collapsed their passage and killed their priests. They had waited so long for someone to find them and convey them upwards again, to let them spread over the earth once more.
I fought against their ruinous pull, struggled to put one foot before the other in escaping ascent. Somehow I managed, the steps becoming easier as I left the fog behind, my momentum propelling me out of that horrible chamber. I climbed the switchbacks, desperate to reach the surface again where I could beg the others to seal off this accursed site and leave forever. Of course that plan would never work: Lauren wouldn’t leave without her sister and Dahlia would never leave without examining everything.
And as for me, I was still hearing their wispy voices even though I had left the lake of smoke behind.
They kept telling me to turn around; sometimes pleading, sometimes commanding, but always gaining a little more of my attention. I could feel my legs getting heavier as I climbed. I kept trying to tell myself that it was just fatigue, but I could feel the smokey spirits sink down into my calves. By the time I reached the place where the passage had previously collapsed my legs were like anchors.
I struggled my way through the hole Selene had made, stopping occasionally as the world unfocused around me. Time became a series of discrete and disparate events, with no recollection in my mind of how long I had paused in a give spot and occasionally finding myself in positions I was certain I hadn’t intended to be in. Many times I found myself turned around, shambling back towards the the downward path; disoriented by the sudden change in navigation.
I finally stumbled into the chamber that housed all the clay vessels, breathing heavily. I dragged myself towards the exit, surrounded on all sides by fragments of the vile gas waiting patiently to be let out of their clay homes. Perhaps it was due to some collective power in the presence of all these discorporated pieces of the eldritch horror or perhaps the bits of it I had breathed in had finally managed to overcome me, but five feet from the threshold of that loathsome chamber my legs finally gave out for good. I reeled forward, spinning, and fell on my ass in front of one of the petrified supports, the pain of the fall occluded by my panic over the presence creeping through my body.
They sensed that I was weak now, and I could feel them swirling through me. I mentally reached out for my comforting facts and figures, for some way to understand this entity and how to escape it; but every effort to think was curtailed by plumes of yellow fog. I sat there in an agitated stupor, my arms twitching as I fought to maintain control of them, my lips babbling out whatever thoughts I managed to find and soon degrading into strings of unconnected words punctuated by sheer gibberish.
And then Selene returned.
She moved stiffly and awkwardly, following the light of my fallen flashlight towards me. Her eyes were jaundiced and vacant as she approached, squatting down beside me. I watched in terror as the fumes roll out of her mouth as she spoke.
“We’ve waited so long Beth,” she rasped as she leaned in close, “Waited so long for this.”
One of her arms snaked around me, her hand holding my head still from behind as her soft lips pressed against mine. My stupefied mind went wild, a flurry of longing and lust and shame, trying to make sense of what was happening. I had always wanted Lauren; I had always wanted her because she was so unobtainable, an impossibility I could chase forever. And when I’d got to know her a bit better, when she was no longer the impossible, I had given her impossible characteristics in my fantasies: some nights vampiric fangs with mesmerizing eyes, some nights with alien limbs that could constrict me as she had her way with me. But now as I felt her sister exhale ancient air into me, I knew that this was the culmination of everything I had wanted.
My thighs were tingling beneath their induced stupor as Selene broke off the kiss. My jaw hung slack, wisps of the possessing gas rolling out of it as I gurgled out a plea for more. I tried to move my body forward to make her kiss me again, but everything below my neck refused to listen to me. Selene’s eyes swirled with yellow malice as her face broke into an amused grin, her hand stroking under my ear and along my cheek. I nodded my head weakly, mouthing a needy ‘yes’.
“We’re so thankful for what you’ve done for us,” she hissed, “We reward our best vessels.”
“Whaaaaaaaaa?” I managed to drone out, my jaw not wanting to close enough to make the ’t’ sound to properly end the word.
“You are confused,” the force possessing Selene said: half as a question, half as an assertion. She gave a dry chuckle, each pulse of the laugh unsettlingly inhuman, “Let us give you a reminder.”
This time the kiss was more forceful, my lips moving almost of their own accord in mindless bliss to caress hers. Underneath the physical sensation I could feel more of the fog push its way into me, its whispers percolating into my mind. Teasing and prodding at various memories it conjured up one from earlier in the day, playing it unbidden like a movie projector against a grainy yellow haze. I watched as I tipped the smoke out of the clay vessel with the crack near the top and then as the small cloud rolled down the passage.
The memory replay suddenly cut to something indescribable and disorienting: a feeling like sight but without eyes, visuals blurred and from every direction in gradients of yellow, green, and grey. I could feel the cold cave floor beneath me as I rolled and splayed over it, dissipating slightly and then recondensing as I struggled to guide my movement any way I could against the ever-present pull downwards. Through some other sense I had no human analog for I sensed one of the servant vessels nearby. I flexed some gaseous organ, a thing that existed more conceptually than corporeally, hoping it would be enough to position the vessel as I needed her. I slowed myself as much as I could, unsure if after all my years separated from the Luteubula that my influence would be enough. I felt relief as the servant vessel knelt down to inspect a chunk of the collapsed passage, low enough for me to reach her.
Again the memory replay jumped, this time back to something more familiar. I was knelt on the ground trying to excavate a rock from the blocked passage. For whatever reason it had only just occurred to me that removing this hunk of earth would give me an easier time at widening the hole. It seemed so obvious now that I couldn’t believe I had missed it before. I watched as Selene’s tattooed hands jiggled a small rock and then smelled sulfur pour through her nose. There was a wash of confusion through her memory as a bevy of whispers told her to lean down closer and then closer still to the ground. I could feel her head shake side-to-side as it lowered down in obedience, her resistance allowed only where it wouldn’t matter. They whispered again telling her to take deep breaths, the sulfuric scent stronger now, overpowering her sense of smell as much as it was overpowering her mind.
“Sleep and forget,” they hissed in Selene’s memory, her eyes closing as she crumpled the rest of the way to the floor, “Forget until we summon you.”
The real world shimmered back into existence as Selene’s memory was shrouded by darkness and whispering. I blinked a few times trying to clear my head enough to put everything together. Through the fog blanketing my brain I just barely managed to find my way to the conclusion I was grasping for: this situation was all my fault. I had released this eldritch creature of sulfuric mist onto Selene, and now I was at their mercy.
Selene shuffled back towards me, only half-lit by the fallen flashlight. One of the clay containers was cradled in her arm.
“Sawwwy,” I slurred out, my brain forgetting how to move my mouth to make the right sounds for an apology. “See... lean… I sorraaaaaaaa…” My jaw hung open as my mind went yellow-blank for a moment, elongated syllables and sallow smoke pouring from my mouth until I could think enough to shut it again.
“There is no need to apologize servant vessel, you have done well.” Selene’s hand wrenched the stopper from the ceramic jar, “Now we will finish filling you so you may continue to serve well.”
I already knew what was coming, I knew that she was going to tip another bundle of the sinister vapors into my mouth. I knew that and I wasn’t scared of it; I even tipped my head back to aid the process. That I would soon be possessed by some ancient creature of pallid mists was a forgone conclusion at this point, and fear of the inevitable is logically pointless. No, what I feared in that moment was how much I wanted it; how much I wanted this incomprehensible and impossible being to quash every fact and truth, every well-reasoned law and tidy taxonomy, out of me. I wanted it to destroy the Beth who eliminated the wonder in the world through cold calculation, who thought so far ahead about everything that nothing could surprise her anymore. I wanted it to restore the sinister splendor of the unknown, of the time before reason.
The fog rolled into me, spreading through my body in ways a simple gas shouldn’t be able to. My thighs tensed and clenched in self-destructive rapture, my breathing quickened in excitement. I could feel the old-Beth becoming shrouded in mists, all those distracting facts and figures hidden in a sheet of soft, yellow words. No longer was I trying to figure out what chemical compound this gas consisted of or calculate the total volume of the larger fog downstairs based on other calculations and estimations for the pit’s circumference and depth, the chamber’s ambient temperature, and the gas’s molarity. I could finally just enjoy being, just enjoy existing.
My body slid down onto the ground, my ecstatic eyes flickering over the beautiful figure of Selene. She was so sexy, so hot in her headstrong way, and I had continually rejected the idea of being with her for my obsessive and weird fantasies of Lauren. Fuck, earlier today she had just suggested we get drinks together and my brain started calculating Punnett squares. No wonder old-Beth was so miserable. I closed my eyes briefly as I felt a warm tingle run through my body, the gaseous whispers telling me I would always feel this good from now on.
My opening eyes flicked over to the petrified support beam and the last thought from old-Beth gasped through the fog before she was engulfed forever. It was predictably poetic and pleasantly acquiescent. She thought about the processes of wood petrification: the absorption of mineral-rich waters into the plant cells, the crystallization of the minerals over time. She thought of how the crystallizing minerals use the plant cell as a template and slowly replace the plant matter, replacing it bit by bit over years and years until everything the plant once was is replaced by crystal and rock; maintaining its form by coopting it. I shuddered with pleasure at her thoughts, at the thought that that’s what was happening to me.
I spasmed and shuddered on the floor for some time longer before I could move my body again, a servant vessel of Luteubula. I sat up and grinned as I stretched my arms out before me, wiggling my fingers as if they were new to me. I pushed myself back up onto my feet and grabbed Selene, her wiry form cuddling in towards me. This time I initiated the kiss, my arms pulling her tight against me.
The word rolled simply through my mind, an odd feeling of movement rippling through my body followed by an extreme horniness. When my eyes rolled back down in their sockets I could see Selene was feeling it too, a sudden lust for her fellow servant vessel. Hands that were no longer fully our own ripped articles of clothing from each other’s bodies, leaving us kissing and caressing nakedly in the stony chamber.
I thought of Selene pushing me down to the ground, mingling her smokey breath with mine as she fingered my clit. The clouds whirled in my brain. I watched as Selene’s eyes rolled upward and her head tilted back, her body trembling, before they snapped back to attention with a purposeful gleam. A hand marked with inky sigils pushed me slowly down to the cave floor and then onto my back. Her other hand glided between my legs, rubbing lightly over my clit. I moaned in pleasure as her mouth met mine, swallowing the sound and the accompanying smoke. My hips shook and bucked against her hand, my mouth working hard to meet her lips at every possible angle, when the fog engulfed my consciousness. It whispered suggestions and commands to me as it encompassed me, my whole world becoming nothing but its will and the physical pleasure coursing through my nerves. When it receded I gleefully followed its instructions.
My left arm snaked over towards Selene, running up her parting thighs to begin pleasuring her. My right hand cupped her roughly behind the neck, applying the slightest bit of resistance when she tried to move. She broke the seal on our locked mouths to let out a sound part gasp and part moan before I firmly guided her head back down towards mine. Both of us went into overdrive, becoming more and more frantic, more and more excited in being controlled to fuck one another.
We were both trembling perceptibly, our bodies and cunts slick with love and lust, when the smoke rolled through our minds simultaneously. For a second our bodies froze as the entity shifted within us, asserting its control over us at this crucial moment.
“Good vessels. Obedient vessels. Receive ecstasy.”
At its command we unfroze, our shaking bodies driving each other to climax. I could feel the fog twining through every moment of pleasure; associating itself with the heights of orgasm as well as replacing bits and piece of me while I was helpless to resist. In the afterglow I could feel it rummaging around where old-Beth was, knowing I would be too focused on the blissful feelings to worry about why. I cradled Selene against my naked body, her skin so soft and her warmth so wonderful.
Five minutes passed before the fog returned to the forefront of my mind, five wonderful minutes with my new love and sister-vessel. The whispers had developed a plan cobbled together from what old-Beth and old-Selene had known. They commanded us to rise and begin walking towards the trucks. Hand in hand we stood and began our journey through the early morning darkness towards the vehicles, happy carriers of the accursed.
I wanted to touch myself as I watched Dahlia wake up, confusion blinking through her eyes. Panic raced them a moment later, although at which aspect of her waking world I don’t know for sure. Certainly awakening to one’s naked teammates is a cause for shock, as is those teammates pinning your arms and legs to the ground as you come to. Personally though, I think it was the yellow smoke pouring through the respirator we had strapped to her face.
We had almost had to abandon the plan when we saw the portable compressor didn’t have its own power source, that we’d have to lug a generator down into the depths for everything to work out as our master wanted. Selene though, through some sort of probably illegal past experience, was able to extract one of the truck batteries and hook it up to that. An hour later we had made the trip down to Luteubula and back to the surface with four canisters packed full of its vaporous essence.
“Hey what’ssssssss…” Dahlia started, her voice descending into a hiss as the fumes filled her lungs. Her eyes went vacant above the rubber mask, her body forced to breathe in the sinister gas. I stifled a moan watching her succumb; face half-depersonalized by the mask and the other half becoming blank and mindless as the possessing horror took her over. The idea was so wonderful, so beautiful, that by forcing her to inhale nothing but our ancient ruler we could make her a perfect vessel almost instantaneously.
She moaned through the muffling rubber and hiss of the gas, her body shook slightly under our grasp. As one we let go, knowing that at this point she was beyond helping herself. Her appendages were stuck spread-eagled as more groans poured from her throat. Her eyes fluttered closed as Selene and I grinned across her stilling body, excitedly waiting for our new sister-vessel to awaken. We were both surprised when her eyes popped open in panic, her voice weak but desperate.
“Dooms… the dooms…” she rasped, looking directly at me. Something in her eyes flickered, wild and pleading, trying to reach old-Beth in the futile hope that she’d put a stop to this. Her words meant nothing to me though, their connotations lost in a shroud of sulfur, “Dooms… hidden place…”
She gave one last willful glance at me before the defiance dulled in her eyes, her lungs sucking in another burst of enlightening poison. I ran my hand down her cheek, savoring the transition from flesh to rubber as I stroked down the mask. She shuddered under my touch and I, in turn, shuddered at the ecstasy of preparing another vessel for Luteubula. Selene traced a line with two fingers from Dahlia’s breasts down over her belly-button and down further to the thatch of hair and nerves between her legs.
For ten minutes we teased her wriggling body, rewarding her body for drawing in deep breaths of the yellow smoke. She moaned unintelligibly as Selene stroked and rubbed between her legs, her mind utterly lost in a haze of possessing pleasure. I provided gentle touches across her face, neck, and breasts; light flourishes of feeling to accompany the hard-driving sexual stimulation my sister-vessel was inflicting on her. In ten minutes time we had hollowed her out completely; a sister-vessel for whom obedience was as automatic as breathing and for whom breathing would only deepen her enslavement.
“Sit up,” Selene commanded her. I watched as her eyelids fluttered over her vacant stare, wisps of our shared tether licking her pupils. With determined effort she shifted her torso upward, spine perfectly perpendicular to the ground. I hooked her harness around her body, four clicks to secure the straps and a short spurt of fiddling necessary to adjust it to fit tight to her skin instead of over coveralls. Another two clicks locked the metal tank in place on her back, a continuing flow of conversion streaming from it into her lungs.
That only left Lauren.
We had left her for last, knowing we’d need all the help we could get in case things went wrong. She was physically stronger than any of the rest of us, and given recent developments I would bet mentally stronger than any of us as well. We slunk our way out of Dahlia’s tent and stood by the dying fire, its last coals fading to ash-black as the ever-advancing hours of the night and its unrelenting chill dampered away its glow. Together we felt the word, originating from no tongue and from so deep below the ground:
As quietly as I could I moved the double-zipper in opposite directions, watching and listening for any sign of movement from within the tent. Half-open, I could see Lauren’s slumbering form beside her travel pack, wrapped tightly in her sleeping bag. A grin spread over my face as smoke tickled my thoughts. She let out a grunt in her sleep and I ripped the zippers the rest of the way open. Her eyes snapped open as I lunged forward, trying to focus on the three forms pouring into her tent.
From the moment I saw the sleeping bag she was in, I knew we had her. Perhaps it was to counter the coldness of her personality that she chose a mummy bag to sleep in, it certainly seemed like overkill for the fairly mild climate we were in, but whatever the reason it served our purposes well. Grabbing the drawstrings near the head opening I yanked them hard, criss-crossing them in front of myself, and watching as the hood of the bag cinched around her head and neck.
“What the fuck are you doing, Beth?” She growled at me, her body wriggling fruitlessly to escape the sleeping bag, “I swear to god if Selene put you up to this—”
Her eyes shot over to her adversarial half-sister, anger flaring across her face. She shrugged her shoulders multiple times, trying to contort herself enough to get an arm out through the hood of her nylon-and-down prison. I wove the drawstrings in front of me in patterns I hoped would make a decent knot, perhaps only succeeding due to whispered suggestions of eldritch origin. Once the knot, messy but serviceable, constrained Lauren to her sleeping bag, I motioned Dahlia forward. Small breasts bouncing ever-so-slightly above the harness strap, she stepped towards me and kneeled; proffering Lauren’s respirator as if it were a holy artifact. Taking it from the shell-of-a-person who had once been my coworker and fellow academic, I considered the thought. Perhaps “holy” was a bit of a stretch, but with our introduction of modern methods of gas transference to Luteubula it was almost certainly now an artifact of our new religion.
Lauren must have seen Dahlia’s face, half-covered by the rubber respirator, and pieced together that something more malevolent than a prank was about to happen to her.
“Dahlia?” She gasped in concern, panic creeping into her voice and countenance, “What the fuck did…”
As a premature answer I clamped the mask over her face, Dahlia twisting the knob to start the smoke flowing through the tubing. Lauren tried to kick against the ground and roll herself away, but Selene and Dahlia grabbed her through the bag and pinned her down against the floor of the tent. Old-Beth would have spent the following moments distancing herself from the whole ordeal by calculating gas pressure and rate of flow into the mask; however I was enjoying holding the respirator in place against Lauren’s struggling form in this reversal of my old fantasy. Never had I thought I’d find a pleasure greater than those recurring dreams of a monstrous Lauren hunting me down and having her way with me; but getting to be the puppet of eldritch powers corrupting the strongest among us was sending me into an overdrive of arousal. Of course this spiking pleasure could have just been part of the control, making me enjoy what the sallow, slender fingers of vapor manipulated my mind into doing, changing me to desire the subjugation of others in the way I had already been subjugated, transmuting me from person to vessel, changing my body, mind, and spirit to crave and obey the commands of the chthonic cloud; but these thoughts only made my muscles clench even harder, only made my cunt wetter.
She continued to fight for a while, kicking and grunting and flailing in her warm cocoon. We three servant-vessels held her tightly, continuing to hold her as steady as we could, patiently waiting as her struggles slowed and weakened. I watched as her eyelids again and again drifted closed only for her to snap them open in terror, some part of her psyche still trying to resist the inevitable long after the rest of her body had given out. At first I didn’t dare let go of her mask, afraid that as soon as my fingers left the soft rubber that Lauren would break free of us in a sudden fit of strength, but when she started repeating soft, trembling “no”s into the mask I knew she was at the end of her ability to resist. Lauren had always approached things from a position of strength, never in the time I’d known her had she cowered from anyone or begged them for anything. This was the first time I’d ever seen her plead, a thing marvelous and pitiful to behold. Marvelous and pitiful and futile: even if she could summon old-Beth from the depths of the fog, I knew that we’d been altered so much already that she’d enjoy doing this just as much as I would, that without Luteubula to help pilot her she’d be too pleasure-addled to stop the other two from finishing the task.
I leaned down, my lips pressed against her ear as I began to whisper. I whispered how wonderful it was to become a servant-vessel, how wonderful it was to let go of all ones problems knowing they never had to worry about them again. Yellow, hazy tendrils poured out of my mouth and circled around her ear, nuzzling their way inside as I continued. I told her so many things: that she would be our leader, that Selene would never be able to undermine her again, that she could finally rest easy, that she could finally be vulnerable, that she could finally be loved; truths and half-truths and lies and half-lies, swirling through her ears and wrapping her mind in annihilating bliss.
I felt when she was finally ready, or rather, Luteubula knew when she was ready and commanded us to move to the next step. I felt the words form in my mind, given to me to say as part of my continuing reward.
I said it in a commanding tone, relishing the feeling of controlling Lauren. Her body sat up, still stuck in the sleeping bag as Dahlia rustled through Lauren’s pack. A moment later a pocket knife was placed into my hand, my fingers curling around its cold enamel shell. With a flick of the blade and a deft slice I slashed through the drawstring, my other hand pulling the freed sleeping bag down over Lauren’s still form. I could feel my nostrils flare in excitement at her near-naked form, her powerful muscles made to move by my command a moment before. Selene passed me the harness, which I let dangle from my hands as I thought about how much I wanted to do to my mindless boss.
“Put it on,” I heard myself command her, an electric tingle of faux-authority running through my veins. Vacantly she took the harness from me and clipped it around herself. I ran a trembling hand from her temple to her breast, enjoying the flow from her soft face to the rubbery mask to her smooth, flowing neck and then finally onto her plump breasts. I resisted the urge to kiss her initially, but the foggy whispers urged me onwards. They wanted to reward me, they wanted me to enjoy my servitude, they wanted to destroy everything that old-Beth had been by making me do everything she wouldn’t. My lips kissed the mask first, its sleek texture feeling so artificial but erotic against them. Then I moved on to her neck, the touch of flesh on flesh eliciting an unbidden moan from my throat. From there I continued without thought or pattern: to her forehead, to her cheek, to her breast, to her stomach, to the mask again. With one hand I tore away the sleeping bag from her lower half, my arousal rising, its course directed by whispers and vapors.
“Lean back,” I hissed, my voice sounding so alien to my ears. A puff of yellow twisted downwards with my command. Lauren’s body obeyed as I moved between her legs, removing her wet, gray panties. I slid a hand along her thick thighs as my lips and tongue went to work between them. I’d dreamt being in a similar position so many times, but always dreamt it as a position of subservience. In the current moment I knew I was the one with more power: I decided how fast to flick my tongue over her eager clit, how slowly to swirl its dexterous point over every aching nerve. The only control I lacked was over every part of my mind that didn’t want to become a hollow thrall to an eldritch power, but given that Lauren was being controlled in a similar way that didn’t count against me. I took my time teasing her to the brink and back; enjoying the taste of her juices, enjoying the quivering of her body, enjoying the mindless moaning from her throat.
“Finish,” the voice commanded, cutting through my focus on rhythmic tease and denial. I knew the voice was right, it was time to finally break Lauren with one final surge of stimulation. I put everything I had into making her cum; my hands clutching and caressing every handful of flesh they could manage, my mouth and tongue dancing frantically across her spasming pussy. I felt her cum before I heard her: sweet, sticky fluid dribbling over my lips and into my mouth, muscles between her legs contracting for one long beat before going wild in time with her breathing. Then the scream of ecstasy filled the tent.
I continued unrelentingly, her body trying to suck in air again and again and finding only smoke as the pleasure continued lighting up her nerves. She went silent and almost still as she built up to another orgasm, trembling just enough that I could feel it as her thighs vibrated against my cheeks. Then she came again, her scream crossing into a bellow. Four more times I brought her to orgasm. Each time after the third I felt her body’s reaction get weaker, her screams and moans of pleasure descending into exhausted whimpers. When the wisping voices told me to stop, I could see how well I’d broken her and an ecstatic feeling jolted through my being.
I felt the whirling of mists in my head take control as my panting body stood up and stepped back from the prone, worn-out body of my former employer. My head swiveled to look at Selene, unsure of whether I had done so of my own volition or due to the puppeting of the sentient smoke, and felt a rush of excitement at being unsure. I took the harness from her hand and gleefully strapped myself in, ready to carry more of Luteubula within me. I pressed the mask to my face and savored the brimstone-rich scent of the essence that now commanded me. Once Selene had secured the canister to my harness I took another step back in the tent, allowing her access to her half-sister.
Whereas I had fucked Lauren through cruel teasing followed by an unrelenting drive to break her as much for Luteubula as for myself; Selene was gentle with her, stroking sweetly down her chest and lightly twirling her vacant half-sister’s hair. She kissed her sweetly on the forehead and on her rubber cheek, she swung an arm around to hug and cuddle her; the raw and undoubtedly overstimulated bundle of nerves between Lauren’s legs she largely left alone. I watched them wordlessly, back perfectly straight as my mind grew foggier and foggier; my part in this ritual was over. Selene whispered into Lauren’s ear, things I could almost hear but couldn’t retain; their approximate meanings drifting through the smoke and mist: apologies, love, anger that dissipated into understanding. I felt these things more than I heard them through senses not fully my own; Luteubula granting me glimpses of this strange rite even though I was no longer required in it. I also felt the shadows and mists move within me to allow peeks at my old thoughts and self, guiding me towards some revelation.
With a soft touch and a gentle kiss on her breast, Selene reached between Lauren’s legs and gently brought her to orgasm again. It didn’t take long. Lauren’s moan was barely present, a sigh of exhaustion, gentleness, and relief. As Selene pushed herself up off the floor I scooped up the harness by my feet, the command to do so feeling like a natural thought of my own. I wasted no time in putting it on her, the beautiful new uniform of servitude that we had innovated together just hours before. She accepted the mask with uncharacteristic grace and her pretty eyes fluttered blissfully as I turned on the gas. She lined up beside me as we turned in unison to face Dahlia, all four of us now breathing nothing but the controlling gas. Mere puppets performing acts of debauchery on each other for a reason I could almost understand; the facts slotting together with Luteubula’s aid.
Dahlia stood over Lauren’s still form, her vacant eyes filling with something darker as she stared down at her. She took two deliberate steps forward and then dropped to straddle Lauren, one hand flying to Lauren’s short hair and the other to her right breast. Viciously Dahlia yanked Lauren’s head upward as her other hand clamped down on her nipple and twisted it. Muffled, pained grunts left Lauren’s throat in short succession, her face remaining placid presumably only due to Luteubula’s control. Dahlia’s legs squeezed against Lauren’s torso, her hand taking a short break from tormenting her nipples to scrape her nails against Lauren’s flesh. As I watched her acts of petty violence, the shrouded reason for all this emerged from the smothering smoke so I could finally understand.
Each of our acts was meant to break both ourselves and Lauren, a shattering of our egos to make us ready to be reformed. For me it was the reversal of my fantasies, the meek erudite woman who craved Lauren's sexual domination driving her to orgasm after orgasm against her vanishing will. For Selene it was something more tender, the bond they wished they could have shared as sisters that had been sabotaged by either, or both, time and time again through the years. The sexual touch at the end existed as simply another violated taboo to destroy them. And as for Dahlia, Dahlia was the closest thing Lauren had ever had to a friend: loyal without being sycophantic, intelligent without being alienating, potentially the most normal of us all despite her passion for obscure occult texts. And now she was being piloted to sexually violate her leader and friend, forced to scratch and pull and twist on Lauren’s helpless body as yellow fog assured her that this was the correct thing to do, sending pulses of pleasure coursing through what was left of her consciousness. And of course Lauren had to endure it all helplessly from the floor, the formerly indomitable being dominated by each one of her subordinates in turn and being made to love every minute of it. Each of us were being shattered apart internally so Luteubula could recondition us into perfect servant-vessels.
Dahlia’s turn with Lauren ended in a series of pained yelps, some distant part of me wincing as it was annihilated by the converging fog. Then in an instant the fury dropped away and she stood almost mechanically. She took two steps backward as Selene and I moved to flank her; all of us facing Lauren, Lauren staring blankly through misty eyes at the tent’s spacious ceiling.
“Stand.” Dahlia commanded, speaking straight ahead into the space above Lauren’s body instead of down to her. Lauren stood slowly, her torso pivoting upwards first before pushing her bulk upwards with her strong legs. Selene picked up her canister and together we secured it to Lauren’s harness. Stepping back again, we all faced each other and waited in the silent night; nothing to hear anymore but our deep breaths of terrible, new purpose. Then I saw Dahlia shudder, followed by Selene. A moment later I felt it too, a burst of new commands and instructions for us to follow. One-by-one we exited the tent, walking single file past the dead fire and towards the excavated sanctum.
We walked in the last hours of the night under the waning moon towards the doom hidden in one of earth’s forgotten hollows. Tonight we would descend, borne unavoidably downward like Luteubula itself, into darkness and sulfur. We would remain there until we were perfected, our minds and physiologies morphing into vessels more capable of carrying out the sentient cloud’s purpose. Soon though we would reascend, pushing skyward against nine-point-eight-meters-per-second-per-second of restraining force; vessels ready and willing to spread vapors of brimstone and sulfur throughout the world.