Writing Prompt ~~ Penance

Song: “Wrong Side of Heaven” by Five Finger Death Punch

~~We’re going to ignore the 3-5 paragraph stipulation, because I’m wordy and I’ve wanted to write something for this song for a while. Enjoy!~~

 

 

An unfamiliar sky greeted him when he opened his eyes. Roiling black clouds were heavy with the threat of rain, and their thunder was rumbling like rocks in an avalanche. The storm was so close, the reverberations of sound were a concussive pressure in his chest. Lightning flashed, and its fingers of electricity reached greedily across the sky, as though trying to grab the clouds and pull them back to the storm’s center.

Despite the severe menace the weather presented, his chest ached at the sight; it reminded him of home. The nostalgia it generated was a bone-deep throb. Though it wasn’t generated by any physical pain, the psychological anguish still manifested itself in a very real, very visceral way. It was so unlike the desert he’d been in more times than he cared to remember or count. He closed his eyes against the burning tears, but he couldn’t keep them that way forever.

Wherever he found himself, it wasn’t the place he closed his eyes as he went to sleep last night, and the thought should have sent panic racing through him like a wildfire. It didn’t. His body was lighter than a feather, and the air around him was a serene cocoon. Something in him, something he recognized as not being a wholly healthy reaction, tried to grab for the familiar anxiety and anger to throw in front of him like a shield. It wasn’t there. There was…nothing.

“Finally awake, I see,” a soft, kind voice spoke from somewhere beyond his feet. It was both familiar, and yet not. Something he could grab onto for some measure of recognition and control, but different enough that there were no lingering emotions attached. It was unsettling.

When he sat up, the peaceful cocoon remained, but the place he found himself was anything but. He’d been laying on some kind of stone wall, much like the one he’d seen in pictures of the Great Wall. When he shifted his weight and put his hand down on the stone to help him stand up, it was as though he connected to some kind of awareness in the stone. While his comparison to the Great Wall may have been accurate in looks, whatever this was far older than anything he’d ever heard of—anything on Earth, that is. The sheer age of what he stood on was crushing him, and he couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Whatever had maintained the cocoon before shattered, and panic flooded him like the breaking of a dam.

A small hand touched his shoulder and the connection to the wall broke. He fell backward, landing on his ass, and his neck nearly snapped from how quick he looked up to whoever had touched him.

“It is okay. The first time anyone connects with the wall is a uniquely terrifying experience,” the same voice from earlier spoke. “The purpose for which it was built make it a very unique structure.”

He scanned her face, and just as with her voice it was familiar yet not, as though someone had taken different features from the women in his life and created another person altogether. They blended beautifully: his mother’s kind smile, his daughter’s dancing grey eyes and long brown hair, his wife’s elegant nose and eyebrows, and his gran’s heart-shaped face and single dimple on the right side. She wore some kind of flowing white dress that was far too pristine for such a place, and to top it all off she was also barefoot.

“Who are you?” he asked, speaking for the first time. His voice was raspy, as though from disuse or screaming, though it didn’t hurt. In fact, for the first time since he was in high school, nothing hurt. If he hadn’t already been sitting, that shock may have knocked him back down. His knees weren’t aching, there was no revolving sharp and throbbing pain from his lower back, and his ears weren’t ringing. Though he’d worn glasses since second grade, when he reached up there were none on his face yet he could see perfectly.

“I am many things to many people, but I think you know who I am.” This time there was an edge of sadness in the voice and smile, and it nearly broke his heart to see such sorrow in eyes so like his daughter’s.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” He barely managed to get the words out, nearly choking on them.

When she nodded, he clenched his fists at his sides, and ground his teeth against the sob trying to break away from the knot of anguish lodged painfully in his chest. Though his mourning was silent, he couldn’t hold back the tears that streamed unchecked down his cheeks.

His thoughts were a maelstrom, slowly pulling him toward a central and overwhelming realization. When he reached that pivotal conclusion, he stood on shaking legs, turned his eyes away from hers, and looked beyond the wall to see what lay beneath such a violent sky. Desolation. Barrenness. Craters and scorch marks littered the rocky ground, as though countless battles within thousands of wars had been waged there.

Yes, he knew who she was, or rather She, and he also knew where he had to be. He looked back at her.

“I…I’m in Hell, aren’t I?” The question was a whisper, and no query had any right to contain the number of emotions this one did: regret, shame, rage, woe—the list was endless.

“Yes.” The word held no righteous anger and no condemnation. It was more like a bittersweet wine, laced with sadness, understanding yet disappointment, and resignation.

He wanted to rail against the word, howl against the injustice, and beat the reality of his situation into submission. He hadn’t been a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination. He knew he had flaws just as every human had flaws, but he never thought he’d be here. Flashes of other things outside his time in battle moved through his mind. Things he’d said in anger to loved ones, his pride getting in the way of good sense and advice at times, and other things that he wasn’t proud of. Maybe there was more to come to grips with than just what was at hand. He swallowed back his anger, though his breathing was quicker and laced with panic.

“No, no one is perfect, and when I gave you free will I never expected perfection; just the very best each of you was capable of. I could ask no more than that. There are many stories and beliefs about what I am, and what I allow and will not allow, but there are a few rules that one is never justified in breaking no matter the circumstance. Killing takes away the life and free will I bestowed, and passes judgment that none hold the right to pass except me,” She said softly.

A thousand scenarios tumbled through his head in an effort to justify ending someone’s life in one circumstance or another, and She tilted her head in consideration as though She could hear each thought.

“There is no leeway to be found here. There is always a choice. Human justification holds no weight in divine decree.”

This time he could see Her thoughts, and each held a counter to the ones he’d had. He bowed his head in shame, and his shoulders sagged beneath the weight of it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. Not in a pleading way, like a child offering apology to avoid punishment. He did feel remorse, but there was also grim determination that lined the amends like the lead lining of stained glass. “I’m not sure I would have changed anything,” he admitted. “I did what I thought was right. What needed to be done. I held no joy in killing or malice toward my enemies. I simply did what I thought was best to protect those I loved.”

She nodded, but there was no change in Her eyes or resolve. “I know. I have heard those words countless times from a myriad of beings across endless worlds. There is no changing this. As I said: there is always a choice.”

“However, there is a middle ground to be found here,” another voice said this time.

She had been so captivating, he hadn’t looked beyond Her during their conversation. The other one was male and held the same dizzying mixture of features from the men in his life: the coal black hair of his father, the grim line of lips like his grandfather, the hawk-like nose of a favorite superior, and the sky blue of his son’s eyes.

“Middle ground?” he repeated the question.

The other man nodded. “Yes, a middle ground between righteousness and damnation. A path for those who cannot pass beyond the shining gates yet do not deserve the endless suffering visited upon the wicked. Well,” he amended thoughtfully, “at least not the suffering beyond that of their own making.” The blue of the man’s eyes were hard and unforgiving. “This road is not an easy one by any measure. It takes a strength of will and soul few possess. Some cannot take it and they break. Others do their due diligence and find salvation on this road. So, shall you hear the options?”

“Is there even much of a choice?” he asked, and then almost smacked his forehead when She laughed in amusement and smiled a small smile. The man huffed his own amusement and shook his head.

“There is always a choice,” they all said together.

His amusement faded as the reality of what was going on settled about him like a heavy blanket.

“What is this middle road?” he asked.

She clasped her hands in front of her. It couldn’t be from nerves, but the gesture was so very human. She looked over the battlefield with a measured gaze and lifted her chin toward it.

“All forms of existence, no matter what they are, require a balance. Light and dark, yin and yang as some of your spiritualists believe. Whatever you call it, everything has an equal and opposite. I have existed from the beginning, I am the Light. God, Elohim, Allah, Gaia, Almighty, Thor, Zeus, and countless others, to name a few just from your Earth. And from the beginning there has also been the Darkness.”

When the final word fell from Her lips, something in his soul trembled. It was a fear born from the primal part of his brain, something understood and innate in his very being.

“Just as there are soldiers of Darkness, what some call demons, there are also soldiers of the Light: angels.” She turned from the battlefield and gestured toward the man, who nodded. “Your humans have interesting concepts for not only me, but for others associated with me as well. Sometimes things get jumbled, misinterpreted, and misrepresented. You might know him by the name Lucifer—” he stiffened, and Lucifer’s eyes hardened further, “—among others. However, I could only give this task to the best of my followers. I asked my strongest, and most pure and trusted to take on this task. He has borne the burden with grace, humility, and resolve, despite any misunderstanding some beings may have of him.”

When She smiled this time at Lucifer, it was like the first spring sun breaking over the horizon after a long, hard winter. Lucifer bowed his head, the picture of humility.

It made him feel as though he were intruding on a terribly private moment. However, he didn’t have to wait overlong for her to continue.

“He guards these walls, keeping the Darkness at bay as best he can, ensuring all manner of evil does not run rampant through the worlds. Such a task would take an army, however, and not all those of the Light have the constitution that Lucifer has. As such, when a warrior of certain specifications dies they are sent to this limbo, to be offered a choice.

“You can join the denizens in the pit, be cleansed by fire and pain so that your soul may once again be fit to join the cycle of souls moving back into the world. How long one spends in the pits is up to them to work out, but generally it takes no more than a few hundred years. However, you will not rejoin the souls of those you cared for in your previous life. Most of the time souls move within the same general circles. If you choose the pits this breaks that circle, and you join a different one.”

She paused. He thought of his family and friends, and how, no matter how screwed up things got, they always felt right. Good. More goodness than he deserved, in fact. He closed his eyes against the threat of tears.

“And the other choice?”

“You join Lucifer in his battle here on the front lines for a no more or less than a thousand years. Once you have completed your penance, you may rejoin your circle of souls from this previous life. There is a risk with this choice just as with the other. Sometimes souls are destroyed in battle just as readily as the fire, in which case you cannot rejoin the cycle. These are the things you must consider before you choose.”

A thousand years of battle, or the pits. Could he handle that? He wasn’t sure. Perhaps, with the context of this particular war being different, maybe he could find solace in the battle instead of turmoil. There was no question of right or wrong here, and such clear lines were a saving grace in their own right.

He made to speak, but stopped and licked his lips, wondering if his request would be too forward.

“You are not allowed the peace of mind that comes with reuniting with your loved ones in the Beyond or watching and guarding over the ones still alive from above. Not even for a moment to, ‘check up on them one last time’,” Lucifer said, his voice hard and words grim, reading the man’s thoughts. “This is a road you must travel alone. There is no comfort along the way, save at the end if your soul does not break under the strain or perish in battle. You are here to atone, and there are no rewards until you have properly done such.”

The words sank in, and for the first time since he’d woken up here he felt utterly alone. Adrift. Then something wormed its way at the back of his mind. It was as though he had heard those words before. Maybe at church? But that didn’t seem right…

When he looked at Lucifer, something shifted in the angel’s eyes. “I’ve traveled this road before?” he asked.

The corner of the angel’s mouth twitched, or maybe he was seeing things, because his expression was just as harsh as before. “Some souls,” Lucifer said, looking down his nose at him, “are more stubborn than others, and have been through this process a few times,” he acknowledged.

He had always been stubborn, as his father could well attest. “You would test the patience of a Saint,” his father would say at times. Or an angel, he thought now, looking over at Lucifer. It might have been more amusing if he wasn’t staring down the barrel of a thousand years of fighting demons.

“Maybe it’s time to take a different path,” he said slowly, testing how he felt as the words fell from his mouth.

Lucifer tilted his head, scanning his face. Then Lucifer strode the few steps that separated them and lifted a single finger to rest on his forehead.

“That is your choice to make. Just know that the cleansing by fire, while atoning and humbling, can leave an impression on the soul. A…fear if you will. You will still be you, but somewhat not, which may not be a bad thing.” Lucifer shrugged noncommittally. “It may be what you’re looking for. However, you have been through two cycles with me, warrior, and I can say with certainty you are more suited to this form of repentance. Still, let me give you a taste of the fire and then you can decide,” he said.

Something rose in the man’s eyes, as though the brightest and purest of flames licked the edges of his irises. Then he was consumed by that fire, and there were no words for the complete and utter agony that encompassed his body, mind, and soul. Then Lucifer lifted his finger and the flames retreated. He fell to the floor and lay in a pile of shaking limbs and shuddering breaths. Intellectually he knew it had only been seconds, but it felt more like hours.

“Lucifer, that is cheating. He needs to make this choice free from influence.”

“I know his soul, and the flames might cleanse him, yes, but he has the soul of a warrior. There is a reason he keeps ending up here, time and again. He is not weak, and the pits are far worse for those like him. Stubborn. He might never rise from it. He would break before he bends.”

“He does not seem to be learning much from these cycles, though. Maybe he should be tested by the fire,” She suggested.

“He is learning, though slowly,” Lucifer countered. “Some take more time. He has proven worthy of this choice despite coming back here again, or he would not be here as per the magic binding this place. Plus, he is only on his third cycle. Patton, or whatever his name was this time around, is far worse than him. He is on, what, his eighth? Either way, it is his choice. We are as bound to these divine rules as they are.”

By the time Lucifer had finished talking, he had managed to get to his feet. He couldn’t help but feel their conversation was more for his benefit, giving him time to weigh the pros and cons. He took a deep breath and looked slowly between the two of them.

“I have made my decision,” he said, and then locked his eyes with Lucifer’s. “I will fight.”

Lucifer nodded, and this time a small smile did grace his lips. He then spun to face Her and bowed. “Thy will be done.”

She nodded, and then turned and smiled one more time at him. “May you find penance and peace with your choice.”

He nodded back, at a loss for words, and then She disappeared in a small flash of warm light. The man and the angel waited until the warmth of Her presence faded, and then the two of them locked gazes. After a moment, Lucifer huffed out a breath as though coming to some conclusion.

“Welcome back to front lines of Darkness, warrior, now take my hand and we will leave this place of limbo and visit the real battlefield,” Lucifer said, and held out his hand.

When he took the angel’s hand there was a moment of darkness and suffocation, and then noise exploded around him. Men and women of a dizzying number of races were moving around, going about the business of war. The clash and din of battle beyond the edge of the wall made him set his shoulders back in grim determination.

Though he was sure the next thousand years would test his resolve and soul, and were sure to be gruesome and potentially permanently fatal, for the moment he could see the light at the end of the very long tunnel.

Despite the misgivings lurking at the back of his mind, when he approached the man Lucifer said would be his commanding officer, he couldn’t help but feel as though some part of him had found home.

I can do this, he thought and smiled a fierce smile, maybe the third time is the charm?