Escape from Hell – chapter 4 – The First Cycle

Escape from Hell is a fictional, faith-based novelette I’ve written, chronicling the journey of one man into Hell. It is a creative piece where I’ve let my imagination unspool and is intended for adults. Aspects of the subject matter will be unpalatable to some; while it is not my intention to inflict the reader, I have portrayed Hell graphically.

This is chapter 4. Begin reading from Chapter 1: Death.

Copyright © 2019 by Ben Ezard. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

I woke up with a jolt as though free-falling in a nightmare. Only this time the sensation didn’t end until after I’d hit the ground with a break-and-burst-everything squishy thud. Though it hadn’t physically happened, it still left me momentarily disorientated.

The sun was bright and hot, and I covered my face with my arm while I collected my thoughts. My back and bum let me know I was laying naked on a dirt road with abundant pointy gravel. And then I remembered everything since arriving in Hell. I hadn’t woken from a nightmare, I was still in the nightmare. I scrambled to the ditch at the side of the road as fast as I could go. I lay still, waiting for any indication that someone or something might have seen me. I’d felt the fear of billions of humans. I didn’t know what the danger was, but I knew it existed. I wanted to see the threats before they saw me.

Laying in the ditch was no more comfortable than the road had been. Where was I? And why were I here? Was I supposed to do something? What were these rules the demon-Priest had spoken of? What was the cost of not knowing the rules? I had plenty of questions and exactly zero answers.

I gingerly reached up to my head and was relieved to feel hair and skin again; my scalp was restored. I had no clothes, was completely lost and without a clue… at least I had a full head of hair again. Small win: counting it.

Boredom and sunburn eventually overcame my fear. Doing my best to imitate a shy meerkat, I poked my head above the ditch to look around. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected: there was no fire, brimstone or demons to be seen. It looked like a nice spot on Earth. I was in a grassy valley dotted with trees. To my left was a sheer cliff with a small waterfall, surrounded by a large patch of yellow tulips. Further down the road on the horizon, obscured by haze, was the silhouettes of rooftops, the only visible man-made structures. There were no people or animals in sight. I couldn’t shake a vague feeling of déjà vu regarding the location.

In my peripheral vision I saw a flicker. I turned toward it, suspecting I’d imagined it. The road behind me continued on until the horizon. But no, there the flicker was again. I tentatively reached for the flicker.
“Aargh,” I cried at a sharp pain ran up my fingers. While my fingers looked unharmed the pain had been enough to recommend I didn’t do it again. Looking left and right I could see the faint shimmering extending in both directions. Whatever the barrier was it meant I couldn’t go any further in that direction, while still maintaining the illusion of freedom. The other directions seemed real and unrestricted.

My throat was parched with the not-so-subtle early signs of dehydration. With the waterfall so close it made sense to quench my thirst before doing anything else. I was nearing the knee-high tulips when I suddenly thought of my wife, Sarah. Yellow tulips had been her favourite. A sharp lump expanded in my throat and grief leapt onto me. I’d never see her again, never hold her, never tell her I loved her. And my daughter, Maddie: I’d miss her first steps, teaching her to ride a bike and walking her down the aisle. So many moments in their lives that I’d never share… I sat in the grass and wept, small tears growing into the grieving wails of a mortally wounded animal. Tears for all the hopes and dreams that would now be unfulfilled. I wept for their pain and for my own.

The list of things to grieve was unending, and yet hours later my eyes had run out of tears. It only then occurred to me that the memories of my former life had returned. Unlike before, when they had been fleeting, now the memories and grief remained to weigh me down. How nice of Satan to allow me to remember all I’d lost.

Those thoughts kept my mind preoccupied, and so it took me a while to notice that the tulips were swaying against the breeze. It was disconcerting. I was twenty paces into the patch and had forty more to go before I’d reach the waterfall. Growing fearful, I began to retrace my steps outwards. As soon as I began to retreat the tulips movement became aggressive, striking out with the ferocity of cobras. Their petals were as sharp as razors.

Encouraged by pain I leapt back the way I’d come in long, albeit faltering, strides. By the time I escaped the tulips my feet and legs were a checker-board of cuts both shallow and deep. Welcome to Hell, I thought as I grimaced at the stinging sensation. The tulips had returned to a placid state, but I suspected that would only last until I was at their mercy again.

I added sore legs and feet to my body’s growing list of complaints. This place was still governed by rules, the demon-Priest had said. I had to learn the rules, then I would know what could hurt me. Clearly one rule was not to trust something as benign and beautiful as a flower. From first impressions of Hell, none of the rules were likely to be favourable to humans. I needed to be far more cautious, and I’d be safer if I had a weapon, I decided.

After finding nothing useful on the ground I carefully selected my target: a small, isolated tree. If a flower’s petals could cut, what damage could a tree limb do? I approached the tree one tentative step at a time. When under the low-hanging branch I leapt up and used my weight to snap the branch. As soon as it broke I ran clear. The tree hadn’t come alive to hurt me. Trees not alive then? Not this time, anyway. I wasn’t willing to place any future bets. I stripped my broken branch of leaves and smaller offshoots. Hefting it in the air I found it pleasingly solid and heavy.

I returned to the tulip patch with a smug smile on my face. Mankind had a long and proud history of tool-making to conquer nature. I used the branch like a scythe and cut a path through any tulips in my way. I enjoyed a sense of revenge as I whacked the flowers to smithereens.

Finally I reached the waterfall with a great sigh of relief. I knelt down and cupped my hands, ready to savour the reward of my efforts. I took one giant gulp. And then threw up.
“Salty!” I yelled in frustration and hit the water with my makeshift scythe. All my effort had been for nothing. Technically a waterfall should be fresh water, though that was according to Earth rules, I realised. I added a rule to my internal list: Even if it appears satisfying, it might not be. Both rules I’d discerned so far could be summarised as ‘assume the worst’.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I found a few more tears at this point. I was frustrated, angry and upset. What was I doing here? I didn’t deserve to be in this place. I hadn’t done anything to warrant this punishment. It sure felt like punishment, no matter what Abdon had said. This place kicked you until you were down, and then just kept on kicking.

Maybe this was what Hell would be like: endless hardship? The demon-Priest had said they would see the new arrivals soon, but who knew what ‘soon’ was? Time hadn’t existed in heaven, did it in Hell?

Strong thirst and the first inklings of hunger coaxed me from depression. Buildings were a logical place to find a food and drink. And hopefully other people. Which posed another problem: I was still naked. After a few minutes of thought, I surprised myself with my own ingenuity. Using the salt water from the waterfall I mixed it with dirt to make mud. I then patted on small pieces of grass and held it in place while it dried in the hot sun. It did the job, the important bits were covered, or at least obscured. I still hoped to find proper clothes though.

With determination, prompted by necessity, I started hiking toward the silhouetted buildings, walking along the edge of the road. I used my branch as a walking aid, keen to have a weapon handy. I was halfway to the buildings when a man burst out of shrubs ahead of me. He’d spotted me before I could hide.

The approaching man continued to run toward me. He was constantly looking around, which made him look more afraid than I was. I hoped he wasn’t dragging trouble toward me. I felt self-conscious and jealous; he was wearing proper clothes. He was a small man and looked like an accountant, gold-rimmed glasses upon his face. He was sweating hard by the time he reached me. I gripped my branch tighter, ready.
“Hi, friend,” I called, hoping it to be true. “Is someone chasing you?” What I meant of course was should I be running too?
“I hope not,” he wheezed between gasping breaths. He shook his head and took off his glasses to wipe the sweat from his face.
“I apologise for being naked,” I said with embarrassment and told him my name. He was too busy looking around and fidgeting with his wedding ring to hear me. I introduced myself again and he blinked, perhaps truly registering my presence for the first time.
“Oh, I’m David,” he said as though it didn’t matter. I had the distinct feeling that he had an agenda and was fixated on it. “Have you seen a tall woman with red hair this way?” he asked nervously, the words rushing out of him. He gestured along the road I had come down.
“No, you’re the first human I’ve seen. I was beginning to wonder if I was alone.”
“I should be so lucky,” David said, though I suspect it was said more to himself than to me. “Bye,” he dropped the farewell over his shoulder as he ran off the way I had come.
“I, ah… “ I hadn’t expected him to run off so abruptly. There were things I would have liked to ask. I had plenty of questions when I’d woken up here, and the hours just seemed to add to them. Not to mention the company might have been nice. “Stay away from the tulips… the waterfall is salty too,” I yelled.

I trudged along the road for hours more without seeing anyone. It’s amazing how much longer a walk feels when you’re not wearing any shoes. My bare feet were reaching the point where every step was painful. I kept myself moving by the fact that each step took me closer to the buildings; civilization, where I hoped to find food, rest and answers.

I was entering the outskirts of the town when I heard the distinctive sound of a woman’s scream. It was close. Clenching my jaw against the pain I ran around the corner. A long-haired man was pinning a woman against the bonnet of a rusted car. As I got closer I saw he was raping her. With my sixth sense I felt her fear, pain and disgust at what was happening to her. I also felt his perverted delight.
“Stop that!” I yelled. He didn’t hear me above the woman’s scream. I raised the branch above my head, moved in closer and yelled again. He turned toward me and confusion momentarily played out on his face. He struck the woman with a vicious backhand and turned to face me, black and rotten teeth filling his unwelcoming smile. I’d hoped the distraction would enable the woman to run; but noticed she had a deep cut the length of her thigh. She wouldn’t be going anywhere. If I was going to rescue her, I had to scare this scumbag off.
“New here, aren’t you?” the man said, flexing his neck and shoulders and pulling a military knife from his belt. He looked prepared. What had I gotten myself into?
“I don’t want any trouble,” I said, trying to sound tough. “You need to leave her alone, and go away.” I backed up as the man stepped forward. He tossed his knife from hand-to-hand to demonstrate his proficiency. I’d been in a fight or two over the years, but never serious enough that anyone had used a weapon.
“Too late, you’ve found it.” I sensed his confidence and worried he knew of my apprehension. I took a step back, and the man scoffed. “You won’t escape. It’s my pleasure to be your first.”

I didn’t have time to work out what he meant because he charged with the courage of a seasoned fighter. I brought the branch down aiming for his head. In adrenalin-filled slow motion I watched as he ducked his head and leaned into the blow with his shoulder. I heard him grunt as I struck him, but any sense of success or achievement lasted only as long as it took for the neurons to fire in my brain.

It was too late and he was too close.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I felt his knife going into my chest, the pointed tip working its way through skin, chest muscles, ribs, lungs and then into my heart. I experienced every millimetre of the knife’s journey with hyper-sensitivity as it passed through every tissue and fibre, in and then out of my body.

I fell backwards with the inertia of his attack and felt the hot blood fountaining out of my chest. I tried to get up and found my body unable to comply. Breathing was painful, my heart beat furiously and my chest cavity filled with blood. As the death stare froze my vision, I saw the man returning to the still-screaming woman.

My body was useless and my vision and hearing faded; my brain lasted a few more seconds. I couldn’t save the woman at all, hadn’t even been close to succeeding. The man had called himself my first and said I wouldn’t escape. That was the same thing the tall demon had said… No wait, he’d said ‘wouldn’t’, not ‘couldn’t’. The Orangutan demon had said no one would come to save me. Could I save myself? Was it possible there was a way to escape Hell?

My arms hurt. And there were rattling chains. My rattling chains, I realised as my consciousness returned. I was standing spread-eagled with arms and legs chained to a stone wall. I looked over my shoulder to find myself back in Satan’s throne room and someone was behind me. Or rather something. In my peripheral vision a demon moved closer. The demon’s skin was a mottled green and a gaping cavity sat where it’s nose should have been.

“First, I want you to know that I despise you and every one of your pathetic kind,” the demon said as a welcome. It was caressing a cruel-looking whip as though it were a favoured pet. “God was mistaken when he made humans; they are not the pinnacle of his creation. You’re of no more value than any other animal. In fact, there are many animals that are smarter, stronger and more useful. You’re not worthy of the status God gave you. You’re semi-sentient creatures at best.

“For the next one hundred cycles I’ll be your Inquisitor. I’m making it my mission to personally demonstrate how flawed and weak you are. I’ll show you how limited, how base, how entirely feral you can become.”

There didn’t seem to be anything I could say in response, and I didn’t think the nose-less demon was looking to start a discussion.

“Tell me everything that you did in your first cycle; from the time you woke up until the moment of death. I will know if you lie or withhold anything, and increase your punishment if you do.”

I wasn’t sure how I should answer. Given its warning I decided to be honest and forthright. Whatever ‘punishment’ I was about to receive, I didn’t want more. There was a part of me that still hoped this was some kind of purgatory; where you ‘do the time’ for your sin and then, once you’ve worked off your cosmic debt, you get into Heaven.
“Ah I don’t know quite what to say.”
“Did you hurt anyone in any way?” It prompted.
“No, not at all,” I said, and wondered if that constituted a lie. I quickly corrected, “Well, maybe… I was actually killed while fighting, because I was trying to stop a rape.”
The demon paused mid-caress of his whip, “You stopped a rape?”
“Yes. Well, I tried to. I fought with the rapist and he killed me.”
The demon laughed aloud.
“21 lashes for you then, my good man,” it said with scorn placed upon the word ‘good’. The demon unfurled the whip. The lashes were tipped with nails and glass and began to writhe as though alive, and eager to get to their work.
“Our Lord Satan created this whip,” the demon said with the inflection of a tour guide, as though I should be impressed. “It’s named ‘Master’s Fang’ and it’s a marvellous design; specially created to inflict the absolute maximum pain humans can endure. They say you haven’t known pain until you’ve felt the Master’s Fang. Have a taste,” the demon said cheerily and whipped me.

The pain defied accurate description; skin being peeled off, acid washing raw nerves, a hot pin to the eyeball… nothing would describe it adequately. As my body convulsed in unimaginable pain I knew there was no way I could endure 21 lashes of this. Surely Satan was wrong, no human could endure it without being pushed into insanity. The pain was raging, a forest fire, it scourged me absolutely as though being dipped in molten metal.

There was no concept of time; surely each strike of the whip took weeks, if not months, to recover from. Gradually the pain would dull to mere gasping agony and then there would be another strike of the whip and the pain would begin anew.

Finally, after an eon of suffering I heard the demon’s bored voice,
“See you next cycle.”
My vision faded to darkness.

I heard the rapid pitch-changing warbles and knew exactly where I was. I caught my breath; I was living out a memory! I couldn’t alter it, but I was overawed to be experiencing all of it through my own eyes. I heard the warbling again, as I had countless times in my life, but this day had been when it had firmly lodged in my mind.
“Isn’t that bird call beautiful?” I said, as I turned to Sarah, keen that we enjoy everything about the day and the beauty around us.
“It’s a Townsend Solitaire, a male by the sound of it. Females tend to be a bit softer.”
“Thanks, bird-nerd, ” I said with a cheeky smile. She repaid me with a playful elbow to the ribs. I’d never met a girl – or anybody actually – who liked bird watching. I’d always thought it was something old people did. Sarah though, had wanted to be an Ornithologist when she was younger. Her interest had broadened, and now she was close to finishing a degree in Environmental Management. Still she had a thing for birds. It was a nerdy quirk, and I liked that she wasn’t ashamed of it. I liked everything about her.
“Let’s take a breather,” I suggested. We were nearly at the peak, with only one more hard-push to go before we would reach it. I physically quivered with excitement.
“Oh it’s cold,” I said. I looked out over the valley below, filled with thick vegetation before giving way to green farmland halfway to the horizon. The air was clean and smelled strongly of pines. “You don’t get air like this in the city.”
“No, you don’t,” Sarah agreed. “Come on, we can rest when we reach the top and enjoy the view even more.”
“Okay,” I said. Honestly somewhat reluctantly. I actually wanted a break but I could hardly admit that now without sounding soft. The climb to the summit was hard and we both had to channel our inner mountain goats in the steep points. We were both sweating heavily when we made it. The view was entirely worth the effort. We put our arms around each other and looked out at the commanding 360 degree view. It was literally stunning.
“Wow. That’s breathtaking,” Sarah said.
“Completely. It’s incredible.”
“I mean… wow.”
“This is how you make me feel, every day,” I said. Sarah snuggled under my arm a little more.
“I’m serious. What we have together is incredible, and I want to keep it, forever,” I said as I got down onto one knee and pulled the ring case from my pocket. I’d only looked at it about a hundred times in the last 48 hours and now Sarah was looking at it, her eyes glistening with tears.
“Will you marry me?”

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