Where am I? The uncertainty is an unfamiliar feeling to me as I stumble down the well beaten path laid before me; the grasslands beside it are overgrown and beaten by the cold northern winds. Each blade of grass standing resolute against the onslaught of the wind, each tiny grass pod gently caressed by the magnitude of the winds; I can see their elegant dance as each pod is caressed by the violent wind with each updraft. But still, the uncertainty of this place that is wholly unfamiliar to me is the most dominant thought within my being.

Instinctively, I reach to my chest, where that wound should be, where blood and gore should be dominant only to find nothing amiss. I feel no pain save for the one that the bitter wind drives into the core of my being; I can feel my bones rattle as they too face the coldness. My feet, weary with the elements, move as if filled with lead. Each step I take is a trial onto itself, a strange pain shoots from the center of my foot and upwards into the pit of my stomach. I understand the pain; I have understood pain all my life.

From the very first days of my life, I had been molded, tailor suited to fit a role that fell upon me like a blanket, and covered my entire future with its black strands. My rebellion was to walk away from a life that I was well suited for but deep in my heart did not want. I had seen what that life could do to well-meaning individuals, I had tasted the blood of innocents, and even to this day so many years later their voices still haunt me. I understood pain, of that there is no doubt, but this pain was beyond reasoning.

The few people that know where my life was headed always asked me the reason why I walked away. It is far simpler to tell them how due to my actions a number of innocent people were killed for the sake of family honor, but even that is a thin veiled lie designed to stop the questions. I did not feel anything for those people then, and all I feel for them today is an empty feeling and a haunting that does not release me. Not even in my waking hours. But even that, while troublesome now, would not have been enough to deter me from that life.

As my self-induced death march continues, my mind wonders to events from the past, things that I have seen and done which led me to that fateful place that brought me here. My mind filled with thoughts of both despair and resignation, this place had been spoken of in many legends that I had heard growing up. My father often spoke of it in hushed whispers, always filled with dread and sorrow, knowing that he too would walk these paths when his time came. As had his father and his father before him. Ours was a violent people, and this was just another step in our evolution.

“You are here early, Daemon,” the ethereal voice said, its tone masked by the wind but still very feminine. “You should not be here,” the voice continued, “not yet anyways.”

“I didn’t think they would go as far as they did,” I replied with chattering teeth, my already slow pace becoming more labored.

“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” the voice continued, this time closer to me as if it was whispering those words in my ear. “Your father prepared you well, I see.”

“He did his best,” I replied, this was a fact. I knew better than to lie to this entity, this too had been a warning that I had received from my father.

“The men in your family have become wise,” the voice said just as a warm gush of wind caressed my face, I could swear that I felt the very fingers of the unseen hand gently running through my bearded face. “I am not sure if I am pleased with that, it takes away some of my joy.”

“We have a short memory,” I replied, “I am sure that it won’t be long before someone forgets the proper ways.” As I spoke, the air around me warmed a bit, and my footing became easier to manage. The pains had almost disappeared, I knew she was the reason for this and I was truly grateful for this moment of reprieve.

“You remind me so much of your great grandfather,” she mused, “he too knew how to properly speak to a lady.” The wind shifted and I could feel something like an arm wrapping itself around my own arm. “But tell me, Daemon, why are you here so early?”

“I played a game,” I replied, “it looks like I lost. Took a round to the chest,” I looked down to see a stain of blood begin to puddle where the gunshot had entered my body, “yes, something like that.”

“Why would you play such dangerous games, boy?” The warmth of her presence would fool other men into breaking her most solemn rule, but this was not the time to change who I had been and become a man I never was, “why risk so much for so little?”

“Family,” I replied. As we continued our walk our conversation slowed down, the wind seemed to die when a large wall appeared before the horizon. I had also been told of this part of the journey, but beyond that none knew the answer. “We do what we must for Family.”

“Just like your great grandfather,” she giggled, “so much like him. Tell me, Daemon, how wise has your family become then?”

“Like I said, we have short memories,” I replied, “but you also know that none have made it further than this and returned.” Melancholy gripped me, I knew she felt it as well as her arms took shape and embraced me into a warmth that brought me comfort.

“None have returned,” she replied, her voice taking a motherly tone, “out of their own choice. The same choice I will place before you, Daemon, just like your forefathers you have earned the right to make it on your own. But be warned, if you fall here you will never rise again.”

“For the first time in a long time,” I began as we approached a large chasm that divided the path I had been walking on and the large wall before me, “I am scared.”

“I know, child,” her tone again comforting, “but this is the path your family chose to take so very long ago. Like them, you too must walk those same footsteps, and face the same questions, the same doubts.”

“What is beyond those walls, milady?”

“Paradiso,” she replied, “that is where you want to go, is it not?”

“Heaven,” I whispered, “we don’t belong in heaven, milady. We have too much blood in our hands, not all of it comes from evil men. Some came from innocents, from people that should not have been there.”

“Yes,” she replied, her form taking a more visible shape, yet still she remained featureless. “You are a violent people, your family more so than others in the world. Perhaps you are right, and there should not be a place in Paradiso for you and yours.” Her eyes took form, the grey she decided to use pierced into my core like the sharpest of daggers. “Yet, each and every one of you does great deeds almost as great as your evil deeds. Each of you has proven time and time again how important it is to not underestimate the human spirit.”

“Does the little good that I have done balance out the terrible events that I have orchestrated?”

“That is the question you have to answer for yourself, Daemon,” she replied, her features continuing to become less transparent and more tangible. While she was not skinny by any means, none would dare call her fat. Her shape was full as she stood just an inch taller than me, the air caressing her short red and black hair that one would say was carefully manicured. Her grey eyes stood against the paleness of her skin, almost as porcelain yet completely flawless. “Have you done enough good in your life to make up for the lives you have taken?” As she spoke, her voice took on an accent, each syllable pronounced in a regal manner.

“I don’t think so,” I replied as she pulled away from me, her embrace which had warmed me now helped the chill in the air drive deeper into me like a shard of ice. “But I am not ready for what comes next.”

“No,” she replied, once again taking me into her arms, “I do not think that you are. This was not your time, and because of that I am not sure if you can overcome the challenges ahead.” She drew her face closer to mine, her lips almost touching my own, “I am afraid that you will fail, child.”

“Just as well,” I replied, “I would only taint a place like heaven. Still…”

“…still you’ll try,” she finished, “because that is what your blood is telling you to do. I can hear it, screaming at you to get ready for everything, I can feel your muscles priming themselves, your breathing is increasing to feed them.” She gently caressed my chest, right where the wound should have been, “no matter how many from your Family come through, I am still amazed at how primal your minds are.”

“Tell me what I must do,” I replied.

“Death, child,” she began, moving around my body while her hand remained on me, she moved it along just as she moved, the trail of her touch lingering for a second. “Death is exponential, yet at the same time it is abrupt. When a man kills, he takes the essence of his victim with him and therefore the essence that he had taken before.” She stood with her back to me, my instinct to wrap my arms around almost took over my entire being, her soft laugh told me she could sense this as well. She arched her back and looked over her right shoulder, “every life you have taken, Daemon, takes with it the lives they too have taken.” She looked back at the wall, the chasm dividing the ground from the wall itself began to fill with a dark liquid that resembled blood but for its black color.

“I understand,” I replied, “each of their kills is now on me so to speak.”

“In a way,” she turned to look at me, “you have taken the essence of those deaths onto you, the blood has followed you and so the chasm before you fills.” As I became lost in the magnitude of the blood, she continued, “this is the path you have made for yourself, Daemon. The first step for you to overcome the journey and perhaps earn your way into Paradiso, and a testament of the good you may have done in the world.” In the blink of an eye, her form disappeared and then reappeared behind me, her arms wrapped around me as I had almost done to her. “Like I said, death is exponential. You must make it to those shores, with the weight of your sins weighing you down.”

The warmth of her dissipated, suddenly I felt more alone than I had ever felt before. The air around me grew heavier, almost as if a fan had been turned off inside a sauna but with no heat. As my feet moved, the heaviness I had felt earlier had returned, much heavier than before, and with it the pain. I was used to dealing with pain. As I neared the crimson shores, the winds that had been haunting me violently made waves that took the shape of a large mouth. I could see that this red sea was hungry as it eagerly awaited my invasion. I drew a series of breaths, each longer and deeper than the previous and without another thought I jumped into its embrace.

The warmth of the blood was shocking, I could feel the plasma sticking to the fabric of my tattered clothes, and the weight upon my feet which I hoped would placate, instead drove me deeper. My hands became heavy as unseen shackles joined the weights in my feet in their struggle to drive me deeper into the crimson oblivion that promised rest. I reminded myself not to scream, it would amount to little more than a waste of the precious oxygen reserves that my body held. But the combination of both the pain and the ever increasing weight on my extremities made it almost impossible to restrain myself.

I did my best to kick my legs in a scissor-like fashion much as I had been instructed in my military days, remembering the many drill instructors that screamed and shouted orders at us. “You will allow your body to relax” one would scream, “you will remind your body to move only as necessary” another would shout. They would order us onto the ground, using hoses to ensure that each of us was well soaked before we would have our turn in the pool. “To survive, maggots, you must think. Panic and you will die.” The more they screamed the more those instructions registered into our minds, their shouting did not stop while they placed the restraints on our hands and feet. Their shouting did not stop while they placed the blindfold and hood over our heads. It wasn’t until the silence of their last command that their shouting stopped, “live” they would whisper as they would toss us into the waters.

But those drills were different, while their intent was to familiarize us with the panic of being submerged while in complete confusion, it was also designed to help us learn to swim with restraints. As we moved, those restraints would eventually become lose, allowing us more freedom the more we struggled against them. But these restraints were not the same, these were not designed to become lose as I struggled, these were not designed to allow for eventual freedom. These were solely designed to drown me, even as I contemplated my own situation. It was not until this point that I wondered if I was truly dead, more specifically I wondered if I could die. I knew I was not in the real world, and I did not understand the physics of the place. But as I moved the way I had been instructed to move through muscle memory and repetition, I made progress through the heavy liquid that wrapped itself around me like a velvet glove.

But I had been struggling for too long and my short supply of oxygen was almost at its end. Stubbornly, I continued my desperate pace as my brain continued to shout orders to my body much like the drills had done so many years ago. They were desperate reminders, urgent notices not to exhale yet, to hold on even as the pain in my lungs alerted the rest of my being to a situation that I was well familiar with. The sharp reminders of my own mammalian need to exchange gases was fast becoming a loud voice in my mind, it demanded attention. My arms were becoming weary, the combination of oxygen deprivation and exhaustion were beginning to take their respective effects. A cramp in my left leg caused me to grimace, the shakes in my arms were making the already difficult task an impossibility. My already darkened vision became like a tunnel, with darkness collapsing onto itself as my movements became slower.

Cowardly, my body betrayed me and allowed the air I had been greedily holding onto escape, soon I would embrace the cozy arms of shallow water drowning, I would lose consciousness much like I had so many times in training. But this was not training, there would be no arms to jostle me from this liquid and onto dry firmament. There would be no corporal punishment to reinstate in me the ability to push my body more and more. There would be no second chance to try again, no instructor reminding me of my failure. This time, it would only be the darkness. My lungs demanded that I breathe, the muscles in my abdomen readied themselves as the darkened tunnel in my eyes became almost a pinpoint of blackness. Just then, my fingertips touched something hard, an uneven surface.

Urgently, the rest of my body joined and as I followed the structure upwards, fighting with what little remained of my strength, my head broke the surface and the cold wind that I had cursed almost an eternity ago greeted me. My first breath was long, it truly was a banquet for a starving man. Madness radiated through me and escaped in a long, drawn out laugh. Crimson tears flowed through my eyes, my lungs coughed more of the substance as they tried to fill itself with precious oxygen. I held on to the surface while trying to regain my strength, no longer needing to move my legs as desperately as I had before. After my body was satisfied with its fill of air, I managed to pull myself onto the shore, exhaustion holding me firmly against the ground.

“For a second I was wondering if you were going to make it,” she asked, her voice reinvigorating me.

“For a second I was wondering the same thing,” I replied, “I almost didn’t.”

“But you did,” she gestured for me to stand up, the weight on my extremities gone, along with the pain. “You overcame the weight of your sins. Already, you have gone farther than many of your ancestors, Daemon. You stand in the same shores that only three of your ancestors conquered, through similar challenges that you just overcame. Albeit, their weight was not nearly as heavy as yours.”

“That’s what that was? The weight of my sins?”

“Yes,” she replied, “the burden that only you can carry, threatening to drown you in the sea of blood that you created. Both with the blood of your enemies and victims alike, those that you destroyed in the name of whatever earthly justice you invoked. This is how the tradition of baptism was started by the people in your world, Daemon, through a similar rite.”

“I had a thought while down there,” I began.

“Such thoughts are dangerous in a place like this,” she immediately replied, “this is not a place that can be so easily identified as life or death. Not for you at least. As we speak, your mortal body rests in a comfortable bed, tubes and other machines have you tethered to that land where the rules of life and death are far clearer.” Her grey eyes bore into me as if they tried to look into my very soul, “if you fall, here, you will never rise again.” She moved toward the wall, motioning me to follow her.

“Then what will happen if I succeed in whatever task has been laid out for me?”

“Then, the gates of Paradiso will open to you, and eventually you will return to your world,” she replied, her tone taking a bit of irritation. “Unless,” she said before she could stop herself.

“I am brought to life,” I concluded.

“Yes,” she continued, “with your technology it is possible that you may yet return to your world, and as I have said, this is not your time. That might still yet pass, however you cannot remain here for very long. As you are still tethered to your body, this place will feed off your soul until nothing of it remains. You will become little more than a shadow that will forever haunt this place, until eventually your screams of madness become another breeze that will chill the next unfortunate soul that finds themselves in this place. Perhaps that might still happen,” sadness replaced the irritation in her voice.