"God protects you. Church protects you. City protects you. Absolution is the only way."
"Faith, Work, Security."
Words echoed through the damp ash filled air, mingling with the noise of a thousand souls, the belch of hundreds of smoke stacks and the decaying of an old city long past its prime. The jingle of armaments from the ever present guards. A group of monks rushing past for their next prayer. Traders, miners, shop keepers. The endless stream of humanity parted before me as I walked. Even now they feared me. Even after all I had sacrificed for them, they would not accept me.
The visit to the confessional had been a reminder of just how disconnected I had become. Forgetting that these things were automated. Created only for the masses to fill a service the Clergy were no longer interested in. I should have felt anger, I should have felt something when I remembered; but I left that booth resigned. The doubts that had been plaguing me a constant reminder that all was not well.
Doubts. These were things I never felt during the war. My belief in the Church had been absolute. I wonder now if I had been fooling myself, giving in to their teaching to try and forget. It had been different then. We had a sense of purpose. We wielded the hand of God, and protected mankind. Knowing that I was needed, that my skills held value and that the sacrifice I had made was worth it, had kept me going through those years. And they had taken it all away.
Forbidding us from contacting each other had made it that much harder. Not being able to speak, not being able to just be with fellow Priests who understood what it was like. This isolation was a form of torture that I think broke quite a few of the Priests that had survived the war. I had heard whispers of the suicides, of the madness that had gripped some Priests driving them into killing frenzies. They had been put down like dogs. The Clergy feared us, and knew that by keeping us apart, they controlled us. Together, we were a threat. To deny me access to the one remaining person who I knew could help me, was the reason I stopped truly trusting the Clergy.
And I needed her to keep the madness and loneliness at bay. It was just enough to know that somewhere in Cathedral City she was alive.
During the war, after each battle I'd seek solace with my close friends. Being with my brother and together listening to our sister. The words she spoke expressing all I wish I could have said, but never knew how to put word to. This was what gave me peace. In her innocence I found a quiet release from all the pain and heart ache. After I'd lost our brother in the Hive on that fateful day, it was she that had sat with me as I mourned; quiet tears running down her own cheeks as her small hands held mine, giving me what comfort she could.
A part of me had gone mad that day. I blamed myself for his loss, and in that final attack on the Hive I let loose all my anger. All my anguish and fear. Dawn was barely peaking over the horizon when the fighting ended, the Hive and the dunes all around it littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. Looking down at myself I saw all the blood and gore that I was covered in. All around me were dead vampires, dead Priests... the ground soaked through and red with blood.
My first coherent thought was of her. Was she still alive? Where was she? I remembered battling with her in the beginning, but had lost her in the midst of vampires that had rushed us. I finally saw her near our camp, moving between the rows of injured and dead. The relief that swept through me shook me to the core; the first real feeling other than the pain and anger I had felt since I had lost our brother. I wanted to go to her, I wanted to do the unthinkable and hold her in my arms. Hold her tightly against me and try gain back that feeling of life, of goodness she had always given me.
Looking down at myself in that instance I knew I couldn't. I couldn't be anywhere near her. Not with the madness still pushing against my thoughts, the desire to hurt and kill still pulsing through each vein of my body. This creature that I had become had no right being anywhere near her, defiling that purity. I think I was also afraid of what she might see in my eyes, how she would react. What she would think of me. So, coward that I was, I stayed away from her.
All this time I hadn't been able to think rationally, and did the motions of servitude without truly understanding. The victorious Clergy and their warrior Priests, returning to the cities as saviours, and all the celebration and fanfare that went with it. When the madness finally cleared, I found myself alone in Sector 12. Not able to speak with the other Priests, not able to find her, not knowing what to do with a life that had, for so long, been devoted to war.
Returning to Shannon and Lucy hadn't even been an option. I had wanted to, but it hadn't felt right. It had been years since I had left them. All the things I had seen and done had turned me into a completely different person. I wondered if Shannon would have even recognised me, or whether I was still able to love her. We were strangers to each other now. It would also have been unfair to my brother Owen who had loved Shannon, and promised to give her the life I couldn't. As for Lucy? Owen was her father in all the ways that mattered.
It didn't stop me from remembering though. Those halcyon days when Shannon and I had fallen in love, married and when Lucy had arrived. Working with Owen in Augustine so we could save up for our own outpost of land. These memories would mix with other memories. Of my days training, of the nights spent with my brother and sister. His laughter and love for life. Her soft words and gentle smile. Then, there were also the nightmares. These were what woke me most nights, drenched in sweat. My body ready for battle, my heart racing, and my eyes searching the darkness.
It was these dreams that had me walking the streets, had me wondering. I couldn't shake the feeling that something was waiting, that the war truly wasn't over and that we had missed something. These doubts were what had driven me to that confessional, and now haunted me as I returned to my quarters. I wondered if these doubts were just a reflection of my subconscious desire to be fighting again. An excuse to have purpose and to feel needed. To be doing something more with my life than shovelling coal into a burning furnace.
Going up the one remaining elevator in the tenement building I lived in, the only other occupants were a mother and her son. The boy was staring at me. He hadn't been born when the war ended. He wouldn't know about whom I was, what I had done. I wondered what he saw when he looked at me?
He pointed to me, and whispered to his mother "Mom...?" She quickly lowered his arm "Sshh, don't point." The boy was persistent. "Mom, what's on that mans face?" She replied "It's a tattoo." There was a silence, and then the boy looked directly at me and asked "Did it hurt?" At that moment the elevator ground to a stop, and fear flashed through her eyes as she glanced at me to see my reaction, then quickly led the boy out. "Why can't I talk to him?" he said, looking back at me. "You don't talk to Priests."
As the elevator doors shut, I felt the loneliness of my existence keenly. They never heard my quietly spoken "Yes."
To be continued...