Kingdom (from H is for Hell)
Sarah Jane Huntington
Thirty-year-old Holly stared around her, gazing dumbly at the cluster of bodies lying broken. Each one bloodied with twisted limbs and all scattered around her bare feet.
She squeezed her eyes shut and recalled her leader’s words, “false visions are common during the attempted ascent to other realms. Reality shifts, the veil shifts, remember this.” Holly dared to open one single eye, the scene around her dissolved and returned to its usual state. Seven different people lay still, settled in deep concentration. Holly watched their chests rise and fall with every slow breath they took.
Have they left without me? Which worlds are they exploring? Will they wait for me?
Try harder, she ordered herself, I have to try harder.
Holly gripped her straight-edged knife and slid the brutally sharpened blade deeply across her already crisscrossed scarred skin. The release felt immediate, as a flash of pain bloomed into white-hot agony, causing her to gasp aloud. An almost euphoric feeling began inside her, it seeped through her belly and spread its curious warmth along her veins and limbs as she sweated profusely.
Holly tilted her head back and waited for her consciousness to rise and escape her earthly body. She focused every thought on the transcendence of boundaries, of lifting up, and of finally being rid of her worldly and heavy shackles.
The anchor she always felt, the one which weighed her to her mortal life, loosened slightly. The anchor’s chain lengthened and stretched as Holly took a careful single steady breath.
A groan from nearby jolted her and Holly’s eyes flew open.
No! I almost had it! I’m sure I almost had it.
Holly glanced down to see blood pouring from her freshest wound, she traced the line of red all the way to her toes as her tears fell. Overwhelmed with disappointment, she shivered and raised herself off the small single bed. She tiptoed carefully around the others in the room and left.
Holly had been a member of the secretive Kingdom of Pain for three years. Her first year had been spent deep in esoteric books, reading, and studying the works of their leader and charismatic group founder Leo. She’d devoured detailed books of occult workings, concentrated energy points of opening doorways, the collective power of the mind, astrology, ancient spells, ritual and techniques, chakras, auras. An exhaustive list of every way possible that might help her set her mind off wandering other universes. On paper, she had become an expert with her tireless study and knowledge.
Her second year had been spent in deep meditation and fasting, all to ready her body for astral traveling. She’d learned to focus, to breathe correctly, to develop her senses and reflexes to better experience the worlds unseen by most.
Her third year had so far been a failure – she was unable to do the one thing all but the newest initiates could do, invoke an out of body experience via self-inflicted pain and suffering.
The suffering aspect she had no problem with. Holly felt deep unmovable pain and guilt which bore down relentlessly each conscious moment.
Holly tried to walk straight to her shared dormitory room so she could think in peace, she kept her head down and ignored the eyes of the others who watched her, each waiting for their own turn in the transcendence room.
“Holly,” Miriam, Leo’s second in command, stepped briskly forward, “he wants to see you.”
Holly felt her stomach turn cold. “I need to clean my new cuts,” she replied, although she knew it was useless to argue.
Miriam shook her head and gripped her arm. She half pushed and half guided her to the closed office door and knocked.
“In,” Leo announced as Miriam pushed her forward.
“Leo, I…” Holly said.
“Sit,” he snapped as the door swung heavily shut behind her.
Holly crossed the book-lined room, walking with a confidence she didn’t feel across the plush red carpet and sat in a sturdy oak chair.
Holly had once described herself as utterly lost until she’d met Leo. She’d been homeless, with no real place to go. She’d walked into a free talk on metaphysics in the center of an old town she’d wandered into. At the time, she’d only wanted to escape the relentless cold outside and had been drawn in by the ‘Free coffee’ sign. After hearing the talk, she’d been hooked on Leo’s ideas and had dared to approach him. Leo had sensed she was lost… lost, and afraid. He’d found her suffering to be beautiful and something she could use to help propel her to elsewhere. He hadn’t sensed her permanent guilt, the guilt that chased her no matter how far or how quickly she ran.
Holly had only longed for somewhere to feel at home and to find someone who might consider her special. She’d wanted to stop running. Two weeks later, she’d moved into the Kingdom-owned house, an old rambling manor at the end of an even older street of pretty cottages in a tiny rural village.
“You left the room again. Why?” Leo asked, taking a seat across from her. In the last two years, Leo’s hair had turned a vibrant shade of white and his minor wrinkles had deepened to visible ridges. She stared back into the depths of his clever brown eyes and wondered if she should lie. Instead, she pushed the thought aside and felt sure he’d know if she spoke less than truthfully.
“I almost did it, I almost left my body,” she eventually told him. “I’m certain this time. But a noise from…”
“We work as a group here Holly, one unit. You know this,” he interrupted.
“I know, but if I could just try alone, in silence. Just for the first time.”
Leo frowned and closed his eyes. He considered this while Holly held her breath tightly. Her whole body felt far too tense, she knew what she was asking was against every rule she’d been taught so far. Only Leo knew how to traverse the other realms on his own, navigating them, he’d said, all by himself.
“You know my history, Holly. On my first travel, my very first, I was almost trapped in the void, in the endless. An eternal hell, a pit. My own soul, my Ka, everything that makes me who I am was almost lost in the perpetual fire. I was alone in Tibet and luckily, I found my way back.”
Holly nodded along, she’d heard the story a hundred times, “But Miriam, with her being a fetcher, a finder, I wouldn’t be lost for long.”
“Miriam’s skills are limited. She can only find those who haven’t wandered far and it’s at great risk to herself, I should add. Is it a chance you really want to take? We go as a group and look out for one another, so none are lost. Selfish behavior will not be tolerated.”
“But if I can’t achieve it, will I have to leave the house then?” she asked.
“My group is for those of exceptional talent only,” he said. “I’ve spent and dedicated my life to my perfect technique and now I choose to teach others. No use comes from those unable to body separate.”
They’ll kick me out, where will I go? I don’t have anyone on the outside, not anymore, Holly thought and lowered her eyes. She felt shame and tears well up, neither of which were allowed in the Kingdom. Any emotion that didn’t contribute to the transcendence of the body was strictly forbidden.
“Please can I have one more try? Just one,” she pleaded.
“The next travel is in two days. Prepare Holly, prepare, or pack your belongings. There are places of great wonder for those who have the talent and ability to see new worlds without eyes.”
“I want to see them, I do. So much Leo. I long for it. I hate this world,” she spat.
“That’s the wrong attitude to have. We use physical pain to shock and free our souls, emotional pain will prevent any travel. It’s a blockage in fact. Get a better handle on that temper of yours.”
“Okay,” she breathed, “I understand, thank you.”
The pain in Holly’s thigh worked to numb her feelings as she left. She headed upstairs quietly and straight into the showers. She turned the spray onto blue for cold and stood frozen, shivering under the water. When she felt sure no one was around, she crouched down and sobbed loudly, biting into her hands to stifle her forbidden sound of despair.
Holly dreamed a simple dream, the same one she’d had most nights for years. In the dream, her family was still alive, happy, and thriving. Holly and her two small sisters sat at the kitchen table, kicking each other underneath and laughing. Her parents stood cooking and smiling, while her mother hummed a gentle, soft, and familiar lullaby. Her dream was a half-remembered memory of the morning of the accident. The day of her sixteenth birthday, when their family car swerved from an old bridge into treacherous deep water, killing everyone in the car but Holly.
Holly had been the only one without a seatbelt to hold her. She’d escaped, swam to the surface, and was rescued by passers-by. Holly had been shuttled to relative after relative since no one had wanted her to stay with them. She’d been difficult and full of anger and fury. She hadn’t once felt at home in her life or comfortable in her own skin until she met Leo.
She woke and stretched, surprised to find it was still dark in the dorm room she shared. Several other women and two new initiates slept peacefully and silently while waves of dread swept over Holly. She felt a stab of envy at the others, the ones who could invoke astral travel with one deep cut of their skin.
She felt afraid, scared of being a failure, and terrified of being asked or even ordered to leave. I can’t face the real world, I just can’t. So that leaves one option, I can do it, I want to astral travel. I need to do it. Anything beats being here in my body. I know I can do it.
Holly had begun months before to also rely on the pain of cutting herself to escape the hurt she felt permanently etched across her heart. I have to do it, she told herself, and suddenly she knew exactly what to do. Holly had always followed the rules and steps perfectly, the directions written out by Leo, and his instructions that safety must always come first on out of body separation.
As quietly as possible, she crept from her small bed and out of the room.
If anyone sees me, I’ll say I need the bathroom or a drink of water.
Holly tiptoed downstairs, holding her breath the entire time. Ritual knives to use for invoking traveling were kept in the main transcendence room. So Holly sneaked into the kitchen and felt around in the dark for Miriam’s cooking salt and her sharpest chopping knife. Her hand landed on the familiar shapes with relief. She looked around, feeling certain someone was about to appear and catch her, but the house stayed entirely silent. She crept back upstairs with her secrets hidden in the folds of her nightgown. She sneaked along a hallway and entered the far bathroom, the small cold one hardly anyone used.
Harder than ever before, more painful than ever before, and you’ll be free. Holly’s thoughts sent a wave of pleasure through her. She longed to be free and craved it with a bitter passion.
She sat in the corner and took ten calming deep breaths, then ten more as she willed herself to relax. I can do this, I can do this, she chanted, pure belief is the very first step.
She held her knife in her familiar grip and sliced her arm savagely, each cut caused her to gasp out loud as the pain overwhelmed her. More Holly, more. Do it!
She’d been taught the best places to cut without serious harm but as a fire burned in her, she disregarded her lessons. She turned to her thigh and cut deeply. The blood flowed and pooled quickly onto the floor. With a final deep breath, she tipped the salt canister and poured the lot directly into her wound.
The pain flashed and sparked as she stifled a scream. Agony tore through her as she tried to think and remain clear. Her vision swam as she held on, willing her soul to escape if only for a moment. Holly felt a juddering, a spark of something other. Her vision switched to blackness as her heart thudded in her ears. A sensation and feeling of numbness spread as her whole body tingled. Holly felt on the precipice of something greater than herself, greater than anything she had ever imagined. The feeling faded in an instant and she opened her eyes.
Did I lose it again? I was so close!
Moonlight poured in through the small window and illuminated the bathroom to an almost black and white scene.
I’ve failed again, Holly thought, I need to clear this mess up now or I’ll be caught.
As soon as the image of standing popped into her head, she felt herself rise up. Up through the cracked ceiling, up through the highest bedroom where Leo lay asleep in his kingly luxury chamber. Up further and out through the roof, she flew free and light. The world had become several shades of grey with tiny pinpricks of light in a vast and endless sky.
I did it! I did it! I really did it!
Holly felt a wave of ecstasy, the most euphoric feeling she could have ever imagined. She twisted and somersaulted, unseen by human eyes, and amazed at her own ability and dexterity. She yearned to scream in delight and joy but found no sound came from her mouth. In the street below her, a tabby cat hunched itself up and hissed as it sensed her. Holly laughed with silent happiness and gracefully pushed herself along.
A thin, almost silver, translucent cord stretched from her belly and tethered her to her body. To Holly, it seemed as if it could stretch around the entire world twice with room to spare. For the first time in her life, she felt true complete bliss.
Numbers and quotes stood out, all written on the surface of the Kingdom’s roof. A brief memory of Leo’s words flashed across her mind, “for those who achieve out of body, commit the words and numbers on the roof to memory as proof.”
Holly giggled, she found she didn’t care what proof she had. She’d done it and nobody could take that away from her. She wasn’t a failure after all. Holly sped upwards, she felt as if she could touch the stars if she wished. She spiraled and twisted happily. Below her, thick trees stood solemn, lined up like tiny soldiers. A chimney blew a line of smoke up to meet her and Holly glided through the distinctive patterns the trail made. She pressed on and glided towards a small pond at the edge of the village, one she sometimes visited to feed a cluster of ducks. Holly hung still in the air. Across the pond spread a bright flame of blue and white, movement rippling slowly across, unburdened by the flames.
What is that? It’s moving? Is this my world still?
She dived deliberately lower and slammed her feet down as if she’d pressed invisible brakes. White flames flickered on the edge while a fierce blue burned in the center. A large, hunched shape moved back and forth across. With no warning, the shape reared up to stand at least eight feet tall. Weeds hung off it as it roared with its gargoyle-like face and revealed sharp brutal teeth. Shiny white orbs for eyes watched her steadily. Thick muscular arms, each with terrifying long claws moved to snatch her. Holly jolted in fear and sped away, up as far as she could go. Her breath burst out in ragged gasps, What was that? Where am I exactly?
Beside her, grey mist swarmed and swirled.Holly ran her arms through the haze in wonder.
Do I still look like me? I can still think and see, but I have no brain or eyes. I’m still me! I’m cold, how can I be cold with no body to feel with?
Questions tumbled over each other as Holly dashed further up, the cold became unrelenting and almost painful. Instinct made her stop sharply and stare around.
Four shadowy jet black gowned and hooded figures watched her progress, their gowns swayed as if in a gentle breeze only they could feel.
I know what they are! They’re shades, souls of the lost. Leo said they can’t hurt us, they vibrate differently, they can’t see me, she thought. Holly didn’t feel afraid, even as they began to circle her and one began to hum a half-familiar song.
What is that tune? A lullaby? What are they doing? Holly raised her arms in defense as each one took turns to grab at her.
“Stop! You can’t see me!” she tried to shout soundlessly as fear reared up inside of her.
Holly spun around wildly, she felt a sharp pull on the cord which held her as she started to panic blindly. One being held her cord, it pulled itself towards her as she felt the tugs in her stomach. Thick mottled blue hands scraped and clawed as it edged closer.
She willed herself back into her body uselessly as the other three shadows hissed and growled with rage. They began to spin and dance around her.
She pulled on her own cord repeatedly and shook it to loosen the being. It flew off with a snarl to join the others. Holly tried to will herself back to her body. The four shadows froze and began a high-pitched shriek and wail.
She clamped her hands over her ears desperately, her grip lost on her cord as she spiraled and tumbled out of control. She hit the nearest shadow and felt the solid impact, “Murderer,” it screeched before she bounced away.
What? Why is it saying that? How do I get back? I need to get back. I have to get away. I shouldn’t have come. Can I die? Can I die here? I don’t want to die.
“Killer,” a second shadow breathed. Holly felt her hair being brutally pulled, she kicked out and thrashed her arms.
She felt a burst of survival instinct and adrenaline, the powerful will to live. She aimed herself downward and dropped. She plummeted through the atmosphere at speed. The four beings gave chase, they were faster than her and raced down with practiced ease. They veered as one and blocked her path as a solid line. Holly dived to the side and saw blue and red lights shining like a beacon from the grey fog. With a jolt of happiness, she raced towards them.
“Murderer,” the biggest shade hit her full force in the chest. Holly groaned in pain and watched in despair as her cord snapped and twisted away. It fell to the ground in a shower of tiny sparks.
NO, NO, NO! Holly screamed silently. For all her studies, she didn’t know what it could mean. She tried to find the lights she’d seen and spun in circles. To Holly, everything looked like the same heavy grey mist, she couldn’t tell which way was up or down anymore.
There! her mind yelled. Almost swimming through the air, Holly followed the path to a barely-there blinking red light. She hit the roof of the Kingdom without a sound and watched the scene below her play out in horror. The house she’d lived in for three years stood illuminated by the lights of an ambulance and a solitary police car. She watched from up high as her own body was solemnly brought out on a stretcher, her form lay covered in a plain white sheet while Leo and Miriam stood watching from the doorway.
“Suicide,” she heard his muffled voice speak as if she were underwater, “she was a self-harmer, unfortunately.”
“NO! No, it wasn’t, I swear, it was an accident. Help me. Miriam can find me!” she shouted. Miriam shook her head and turned to move back inside, she stopped, took a step back, and assessed the night sky around her.
“I’m here!” Holly screamed, “I’m here!”
Pulled by Leo, Miriam stepped away. The heavy door closed with a resounding thud behind them.
Cold tears began to fall as her own translucent body shook rapidly.
What have I done? Oh my God, what have I done? Will she find me? I’ll wait. Is this hell? Am I in hell?
Four shadow figures set down without a sound behind her.
Holly dropped her head as she sensed them, she turned as the tallest one removed its hood. She didn’t need to see, she already knew who it was, her own father.
Her family stood in front of her, staring down with nothing but fury on their rotting and bloated putrid faces. The smallest one, her dead sister, spat a single stream of water in her direction.
“I’m sorry,” Holly mouthed and held up her hands, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Holly had been running for a long time, running from her own memories of the day her family was killed, of the day she yet again lost her temper in the car and yanked the steering wheel into the lake, fully intent on ending all of their lives.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” they hissed as one. Holly screamed a silent wail of terror as she became engulfed by a swarm of vengeful shadows.
The thing that used to be Holly wanders alone in the grey realm. It has a vague memory of what it was before, of what life was, and how it had chosen to live as a human being.
All it knows is pain and suffering. An endless bitter regret and despair. It travels a single realm, deeply in search of something it can never find, a way out. It knows that this is its eternity. Every shadow that crosses its path frightens it, it spends every moment afraid and terrorized. It does not know why, only that it is.
Repeatedly and without warning, a monstrous claw reaches from a burning abyss of fire and grabs it. It snatches it and holds it down in the water, while it writhes and thrashes, desperate for an escape.
The thing that used to be Holly can sense its existence is a punishment, it can sense its shame and damnation. It can sense it will remain in the grey forever.
H is for Hell is available for Kindle and in paperback here.
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