Desmond

They don’t deserve this place.

He wished this moment could last forever, but he knew in several minutes the entire church would fill with people and the peace and quiet would be lost until nightfall.

He didn’t like the noise of the worshippers.

They don’t deserve to feel safe.

Desmond Fleischer opened his eyes, taking in the emptiness of the sanctuary. The sacred emptiness and silence. He wished it could remain this way.

The lines of pews stretched far back, punctuated by the vibrant red of the velvet. The soft morning sunlight through the stained glass windows created an almost otherworldly look. Floating in the rays of light, dust danced slowly, adding to the calming environment. The sanctuary was its most beautiful in the early morning.

Sitting on the steps leading up to the altar, Desmond wore the traditional black cassock with a blue velvet fascia. He was the only one in the church who wore the blue fascia, the symbol of one who lived in a church, but not a priest, in training or otherwise. The strict rules of the church didn’t bind him, which many women of the town were relieved to know.

At twenty-five years old, Desmond was young and handsome in many of the townsfolk’s eyes. He was also a commodity in Grenda. His rich, black hair and deep green eyes set him apart from the blonde haired, blue and gray eyed people of the town.

To Desmond, his differing appearance made it blatantly clear he was an outsider. Even if the other priests acted as though he were family and the people of the town welcomed him, Desmond knew he didn’t belong.

And he hated them for it. He hated everyone and wondered what would happen if one day he simply chose to ki—

“Are you thinking of something sinful, Desmond?” a light, soothing voice said from behind.

Turning away from the sanctuary, Desmond stared at the tall man standing behind him.

Though an older man of fifty years, Father Reginald, the head of the church, had the body and spirit of a twenty year old. Strong muscles could be seen even through the cloth of his cassock. His brown hair faded to gray at his ears and back of the neck. His eyes, once almost as dark as Desmond’s, were bright green. When he smiled, decades melted from his face.

“I’ve a lot on my mind today, Father,” Desmond said, turning back to the sanctuary.

Reginald sat next to Desmond and sighed. “Does that include thoughts of leaving us?”

Quickly turning his head, Desmond’s eyes widened. “How did you—?”

“You’re a young man who’s been trapped in one place his whole life. I’d be more surprised if you didn’t think about leaving. I always thought it wrong of your mother to abandon you here at the church instead of the orphanage. I assume she meant for you to take on the cloth and never have the urge to search for her, but you weren’t meant to be a holy man. The church isn’t an easy mistress to give your unconditional love to, especially for a young man like you.”

“Like me?”

“Don’t make me spell it out, Desmond. Some men are meant to venture across the land in search of their life’s calling. Others, like myself, are happy to find one place to settle down and spread fortune to others. I’m not saying you haven’t done fine work here in the church, but when I watch you doing your duties or talking to the people, I can see you’re hiding something in your eyes. Something you don’t want anyone to see.”

Desmond leaned his head on his knees and stared at the floor, feeling his earlier thoughts try to come out.

“That’s the look I’m talking about,” Reginald said.

Desmond’s eyes narrowed and he turned his head so he could see Reginald’s face. “You’re the only one who could ever see through me, Father.”

Reginald smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s gotten harder as you’ve gotten older. Sometimes that can be a burden of its own.”

Desmond raised a questioning eyebrow, but Reginald didn’t continue.

“Father Reginald,” a voice called.

Both turned to see Father Michaela enter from the back room with a lighted candle. “We’re ready to begin,” he said, lighting candles for the sermon.

Father Michaela was a short, lean man with blue eyes, but his muscular appearance gave Desmond the impression the man hadn’t always been a priest. His straw colored hair was kept back in a ponytail, but when it was loosed it reached past his shoulders. The other priests constantly badgered him to cut it, but he refused. He kept it long in memory of his murdered family and vowed to only cut it once the guilty party had been caught and punished.

“Thank you, Father Michaela,” Reginald said, standing. Michaela bowed his head and headed for the doors of the church. A few more priests entered the sanctuary, lighting candles down the aisles or placing flowers on the altar. Gregory, no more than twelve years of age, walked down the long aisle to the back of the church.

Desmond turned away from the growing activity in the church and his eyes found their way to the stained glass window closest to the chancel.

There were twelve windows in all, six on each side of the sanctuary. Each represented different moments from the Old War through Lady Giselle’s victory against the Snake King. An anonymous donor donated them a few days after Desmond’s eighth birthday.

Reginald watched Desmond, hesitating a moment before he spoke. “Many changes are occurring in Phalandria. I just hope when it’s all over everything will be better.”

“Phalandria is a country of many conflicting beliefs and power. It would be a miracle if anything good came from those changes,” Desmond said, meeting Reginald’s eyes.

“Then it’s only an old man’s dream for everything to be better, but you have to admit, I’m a special old man.”

Without responding, Desmond glanced back at the stained glass window closest to the chancel. The window, mostly blue, showed the image of a beautiful woman at its center. Long blonde hair framed an enchanting face with emerald green eyes. She held a sword above her head while a large snake curled around her, baring its fangs at her viciously. Desmond had always been drawn to this window. Something about it pulled him in.

Following Desmond’s gaze, Reginald smiled knowingly. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“She is.”

“I was talking about the window.” Reginald laughed. “So you were thinking about something sinful.”

Blushing, Desmond dropped his eyes to the floor. “Father.”

Reginald placed his hand on Desmond’s head. “It’s alright, Desmond. You aren’t bound to this church as I am. A few earthly desires are allowed.”

Desmond quickly stood, slapping Reginald’s hand away. “Are you jealous?”

“A little bit.” Desmond’s eyes widened and another fit of laughter overtook Reginald and he patted Desmond on the head. “I’m only joking.”

Desmond stepped away from Reginald, but stopped when he saw the window again.

Reginald sighed. “That window is the most beautiful in the sanctuary. It’s no surprise since she was the most beautiful woman to have ever lived. That’s who our Lady Giselle was. A beautiful, strong woman.”

“Father Reginald,” Michaela called, annoyed, from the doors of the church.

Groaning, Reginald waved his hand at Michaela. “I know, I know. Go ahead and let them in.” He leaned close to Desmond. “Sometimes I wish the sanctuary could remain just as it is. Peaceful and quiet.”

Looking at him surprised, Desmond caught the small smile on Reginald’s lips as he turned away to head for his seat on the chancel. Desmond hesitated then moved to his seat at the far left end. It was as though he read Desmond’s mind.

But of all the people in Grenda, Reginald was truly the only one who seemed to understand Desmond…even his darker thoughts. Michaela was afraid of him, even as a child Desmond had frightened the man.

The other priests chose to ignore him, but whispers often found their ways to Desmond’s ears. He knew they were both afraid and jealous of Desmond. Jealous at how much freedom he was granted and afraid of what that freedom allowed him to do. Rumors from the town involving Desmond rarely were positive.

Fear, Desmond enjoyed their fear. It meant his freedom was secured. Only Father Reginald had a hold on him, but it wasn’t as strong as when he’d been a child. If he left, it would be gone.

As he sat in his chair, Michaela opened the doors allowing the people to enter. Some waited hours for the church doors to open and they hurried to the front, securing their place. When they sat in the pews they immediately bowed their heads and softly prayed.

Others who arrived after these eager for salvation, fought to find seats as close to the front as possible, a few even arguing. But the arguments never devolved into actual fights. They were still able to realize where they were and often the one with the weakest faith ended up losing and moving back.

The pews filled quickly and Michaela had trouble making his way back to the chancel. He sat in the chair beside Desmond, leaving one chair empty between him and Reginald. Another empty chair was on Reginald’s other side as Fathers Gerard and Nico sat in their respective seats. The two empty chairs were for the two new priests sent from the capital.

With the threat of another war growing, the people became more fearful, as well as the High Church in the capital. As fear grows, negative feelings about the ones meant to protect the people grow. A decree made by the church’s council ordered priests from the churches located in the capital to be sent out across the country to smaller churches far from their “guiding hand”.

The council feared the smaller churches would turn against them, causing the people to revolt and dethrone all of the powerful bishops, but if they could have their own leaders guide the “lost souls” then a revolt wouldn’t be possible or would be stopped long before it could become a threat.

The two priests assigned to this church were from the High Church itself, but it was clear from their presentation of themselves they weren’t high in the clergy. Though they believed themselves to be just as superior.

“The church has really become a lot more popular lately, hasn’t it?” Michaela said, leaning close to Desmond. A thin veil of annoyance entered his voice from having to fight his way through the mob.

Shrugging his shoulders, Desmond smiled his usual smile. The smile he wore for everyone except Reginald. He’d been practicing it for years to make sure those who saw it believed they had his respect or could feel safe around him. Of course, only Reginald had gained his respect, but even he couldn’t tell the difference.

“I think they just want to see priests from the High Church.” Desmond eyed the crowd of worshippers still filling the sanctuary. The entire town had shown today making it a full house, standing room only.

“You think too cynically, Desmond. Now is the time for the church to welcome those who live in fear of the threats to the country.”

“Interesting how they turn to the church only when something may be a danger to them physically,” Desmond snapped back.

Michaela guarded his emotions, which meant he agreed with Desmond, but couldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing. Desmond sighed and his eyes moved slowly over the hundreds of heads bowed before them.

Many of the worshippers came today due to fear, fear of the threat to the north and fear at the growing power of the one who gave himself the title of Demon King.

Hundreds of years ago, during the Old War, a monster power was birthed when the first Demon King begun his ruthless campaign to control all of Phalandria. Thousands of innocents were slaughtered before the High Church and the legendary warrior Glain stopped the Demon King’s campaign. After the war the Demon King disappeared, no one knowing for sure whether he lived or been killed during the final battle.

Now a new Demon King, claiming to be a descendant, rose to power in the north. He was even carrying out the same campaign, attacking any town, village, or city in his path. Hundreds had already been mercilessly slaughtered or taken prisoner for unknown reasons. Those who survived his attacks were left homeless with nowhere to turn to except for the capital.

But the true fear came from the rumors. Survivors claimed their homes were destroyed not only by the Demon King’s army of men, but also by the guardians and the generals of the Snake King, the lord of all demons. If the rumors proved to be true than it would mean the two greatest evil powers to ever exist in Phalandria not only returned, but joined forces.

No surprise then people were afraid and no shock when they appeared in the church having found his or her religious selves again. Most of the people in the church hadn’t been to a sermon in years, but the new threat filled their minds and they came in swarms.

Destroying the peace and quiet of the sanctuary and dirtying it with their selfish desires. Praying for the first time in months, for some years, as though one moment of confession could so easily wipe away the sins of their lives. Some churches in the larger countries believed confession refreshed the soul, but as far as Desmond was concerned, confession was only to make the people feel better. It meant nothing once they left this world.

“Pointless,” Desmond whispered under his breath.

“Desmond?” Michaela asked softly. He stared at Desmond with furrowed brows, unsure of what he may or may not have heard.

Turning to him, Desmond shook his head. “Nothing, Father.”

Michaela kept his gaze on him a moment longer before turning back to the worshippers. Desmond’s smile faded into a sneer before he made his face blank.

Twenty-five years Desmond lived and was raised in the church by Father Reginald. All he knew about his family came from Reginald. His mother and father were from the capital, but his mother was married when she met Desmond’s father. Though it didn’t stop them from giving birth to him. Therefore, to avoid scandal, they gave Desmond to this church far from the capital. Reginald raised him and loosely taught him the teachings of the church.

For twenty-five years Desmond watched the people of this town forget their faith and just as easily come crawling back begging for forgiveness and expecting retribution. For twenty-five years he stood in the sanctuary, alone, seeking answers and guidance, receiving nothing but silence and darkness, darkness that filled Desmond’s soul, consuming him.

The church’s teachings meant nothing to him. He acted the part well enough, the good honest man not really of the cloth, but respectful of it, but behind it lay nothing but an empty, hollow darkness. Even the ones who came to the church for enlightenment, forgiveness, or safety, those who sought him and the priests out for comfort, were nothing more than insects that didn’t deserve his attention.

Insects he wouldn’t mind squashing.

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