“Sir?” Masterson’s voice cut into Desslok’s alternate reality.
“What?” he said, a bit less agitated than Masterson had expected him to be.
“It’s almost two in the morning. I must be getting home.”
The prince shrugged. “Go on then.” He shooed his friend out the door without a word of protest.
As he walked one door down to his family’s quarters Masterson’s brow furrowed. Was that fatigue he had seen in the prince’s face? Genuine tiredness? He’d never seen that on Desslok’s face before.
When the door had sealed, signaling Masterson’s departure the prince let out a sigh. Would this never cease? Would his mother – though beyond the grave – never stop trying to persuade him of her Faith? The Guardiana followers were beyond dangerous. How could one insignificant religious group unseat a militant cult?
He shook his head, a wave of tiredness washing over him for the first time in days. Perhaps he would sleep tonight – a rare luxury these days. Too many thoughts were jumbled in his mind. In order to unravel them he would have to let his subconscious work.
He carefully retrieved the tiny message capsule from its current perch, crossed the room, and set it on the unoccupied bed before preparing to spend the night in slumber instead of restless pacing. Before he got into bed he tucked his mother’s last gift to him into a small hidden pocket on the clothes he had donned for the night – just in case the device’s existence needed concealing.
Before he realized he was losing consciousness he was asleep. Then he remembered why he hated entering this state of unaware hyper-subconsciousness. There were far too many memories here, but not only memories – dreams and fears also lived here – things he saw night after night that he wished he could forget. He saw the deaths of so many – friends, enemies, loved ones, strangers. Rapha’owr was at peace now, but it had not always been so. The city of healing light had once needed healing of its own. The uprising against his father, Deun right after Talonka’s death had wreaked havoc on the unsuspecting city. Its beautiful streets, gleaming towers, forested parks, crystal streams had been polluted with blood. That was when the Guardiana followers had amassed here in the capitol. That was when the jihad had begun – when his family had been targeted for destruction by those zealots.
When the first amulet-bearing soldier had breached the palace walls, the prince had known that his life would never be the same again. That was when he had learned to be always aware of everything. He’d picked up computer hacking and communications jamming along with a healthy dose of learning how to build several breeds of weapons from scratch.
His paranoia was warranted. He knew that someday – whether it be today or another day – they would come for him. When that hour was upon him, he had vowed to himself that he would be ready and they would be sorry that they had ever considered him a target.
Desslok’s mind raced around the cluttered landscape of the thoughts he had collected since last he had slept, trying to make sense of them all at once. Then, abruptly, his mind skidded to a sudden halt as it called up another memory – distant but distinct – a memory he hated because it plagued him to this day and he had yet to understand it.
His father stood with his handgun at the ready, a short sword clenched in his other hand, ready to either shoot or cut down anyone who would try to come through him.
“Desslok!” his twin whispered intently. “Get back here; you want them to see you!?”
The younger prince waved a dismissive hand back towards his brother who was crouched low farther back in the hiding place their father had unceremoniously tossed them into just before the zealots had beaten down the door, Besides, those strange warriors hadn’t even so much as cast one glance in this direction. If worse came to worst, he and his brother could always slip out through the plentiful air ducts that dotted the upper walls and ceiling of every room in the palace, including this one.
Desslok’s gaze was still on his father as the Leader stood bravely between the enemy and his offspring. Certainly his father was done for. Ten enemy soldiers were staring him down. There was seemingly no way out of this one.
One of the soldiers stepped forward, letting his weapon drop to his side in a show of temporary peace. Then he spoke. “You’ve taken our hope away from us!”
There was smoldering silence surrounding the Leader before he spoke. “I’ve taken nothing – you’re the ones who’ve done the taking!” his father snarled at the soldier.
“We only did what we had to do.” Came the cold reply.
“Taking a loved one from someone else is seldom justifiable. Taking them to fulfill some unrighteous religious end is doubly condemnable. May Adonai Himself strike you down for what you have done.” Deun seethed.
“Do not get self-righteous with us, Leader,” he spat the title at Deun, “You do no even follow your own Torah. At least we deign to obey the mandates of the faith we profess.” He gave the Leader an evil grin.
“She was not yours to take! Curse that snake my love called her mother! Curse all of you for condemning your own faith to become heirless, but do not lay that transgression at my feet, devil worshipper! I’ll not bear the blame for something you yourselves have done!”
The passion in his father’s voice stunned Desslok. Never had he ever heard his father speak this way or refer to his mother in such overtly endearing terms. The prince sensed in his heart that this was a glimpse of the man his father had once been… many years ago…
“We will see who is cursed, leader of fools.” The soldier declared before pointing his gun straight at Deun’s already broken heart. Just as he was about to pull the trigger the palace guards swarmed in, mowing down the zealots, beginning with the one who was standing before the ruler of Gamilon.
Leader Deun’s impassioned face melted back into stoicism.
The morning dawned brightly, breaking through some of the darkness that the prince had spent the night sifting through.
“Nothing could make this day darker than it already is…” he thought as he sat up in his bed, dreading to leave it. Then another thought returned to him and he smacked himself in the forehead, wondering how he could have forgotten about the exam he was expected to pass in roughly an hour and a half. Cursed tests. Who decided that students had to take language exams anyway?
It was no use denying it, Masterson had been right about him needing to take more time to study the night before, but he arguably had had more important things to sort out. Not that Admiral Talan would accept that as an excuse – he never accepted excuses, not from him or from Masterson. The Admiral had said once, “An excuse is merely the skin of reason stuffed with a lie.” Ever since then the prince hadn’t dared offer any excuses.
“Computer,” he said hesitantly, “the time, please.”
“It is zero six twelve hours.” The female voice droned in reply. “Report to the testing room in one hour, eighteen minutes.”
“I didn’t ask for the second part, Mintrael*.”
“I am aware, sir.” The computer replied.
“You always give me more than I ask for.” The prince rebuked the A.I.
“’Better too much information than too little.’”
“Quoting me will get you nowhere, Mintrael.”
“I know, sir.”
“Good.” the prince slid out of bed and with one last longing look abandoned thoughts of rest for those of preparing for the day ahead. “Make sure the water is hot;” he chided the computer, and then added under his breath, “I’ve got a few stray thoughts I need burned away this morning…”
Surprisingly the test was less painful than he expected it to be. Perhaps the night of sleep had done him some good after all. Masterson had still outscored him by an embarrassing margin, but the prince had passed well within an acceptable percentage range. The Admiral nodded in approval as both Desslok and Masterson left the room. Both young men were silently rejoicing that they would not have to return to their formal studies for two months. During the break they would focus more on the hands-on skill sets they needed to continue developing: hand-to-hand combat, piloting, target practice, running through the woods like idiots trying to lose the guards assigned to tail them.
Breaks for the two teenagers were irregular and much anticipated. Neither young man thoroughly hated his studies, truth be told, they both rather enjoyed the mental gymnastics, but, as with all things, it did get old after a while.
On rare occasions, breaks meant excursions to outlying worlds with Masterson and the Admiral, and since Leader Deun didn’t seem to really care what his younger son did these days no one protested when Desslok tagged along with the Talan men for couple months of “off-world exploration” – otherwise known as camping.
“The usual place?” Masterson asked as they walked more slowly than usual down the deserted palace halls.
“If you want.” The prince shrugged.
“I’ll meet you there, sir.”
Desslok nodded and continued his slow progress as Masterson disappeared down a connecting hallway.
The prince did not have any fondness for this tradition that the two of them had begun five years ago, but he honored it for Masterson’s sake. The prince did not understand his friend’s fascination with the sight at all.
“Has it begun yet?” the prince asked as he sat down beside Masterson on a small hill overlooking the Temple of Adonai as a host of people crowded within the allotted space inside the walls of the structure. Many more, waiting outside the walls watched the proceedings via holographic projection.
This scene would be played in every city, town and village across the entire planet.
“He has only just begun to cast the lots for the goats. You haven’t missed much.”
“Why does all this have to be such a bloody ritual?” the prince muttered.
“Because without the shedding of blood… there can be no remission of sin –”
“I know, I know.” The prince held up a staying hand, “You’ve said it before. ‘The people still believe that Mashiach is yet to come, so they still perform this ritual every year.’”
“You’re going to miss it.” Masterson said, looking back on the scene unfolding inside the Temple.
“I rather wish I would miss it…” Desslok said so that Masterson could not hear him.
The high priest – the only officiator for Yom Kippur – drew lots to designate the two young he-goats before him as either Yehovah or Azazel.
The Azazel goat received a piece of red cloth tied around his horn; the goat that was to be the sacrifice received one around his neck.
The priest then retrieved some of the blood from the sin offering he had made for himself and his family before casting the lots. The holy man turned and entered the Makom Kadosh, taking some of the burning coals from the altar found in this first inner portion of the biet mikdash and placed them into his censor. The high priest poured incense onto the small altar and into the censor he was carrying. The sweet smoke rose from both censor and altar, filling the innermost part of the house where the Kapporeth was. Once the cloud had utterly filled the rooms, the holy man continued his journey into the house of Adonai, stepping through the veil and into the Kodesh HaKadashim, the holiest of places within the Temple of Adonai.
The projections outside the Temple walls and one inside it showed everything as it unfolded inside the innermost part of the house of Adonai. Despite the all-encompassing smoke, onlookers could see the priest as he took the blood from the sacrifice and sprinkled it on and before the Kapporeth - the ark's mercy seat - seven times. After he had done this he left the Kodesh HaKadashim, his white linen garments standing in stark contrast with his azure skin tone.
The prince and Masterson looked on as the second sacrifice was made – the goat upon which the lot of Yehovah had fallen – and the high priest returned to the Kodesh HaKadashim one last time to sprinkle the blood of the goat upon the Kapporeth seven times. After this blood cleansing the priest reemerged from the inner biet mikdash and performed a second cleansing of the altar he had used for the sacrifices.
Then, as the two young men watched, the priest laid his hands on the head of the Azazel goat and confessed the sins of the people, begging Adonai for His mercy upon them all despite their sins against Him. Then the man led the goat he had just prayed over out to the outermost gate of the temple and handed it off to a hired foreigner who would oversee the banishment of the animal into the wilderness, symbolically sending away the sins of the entire nation.
After all of this the final sacrifices of the atonement day were made – the burnt offerings for the priest and for the people. The final ceremonial washings and cleansings were completed within the hour and then the people dispersed from the Temple courtyard, going back to their work, their homes, and their lives.
As soon at the ceremony was over Desslok stood up and turned to leave, but Masterson’s voice stopped him.
“You’re not going to stay and watch?”
“Watch?” he turned back to Masterson, “Watch what? Everything’s over for another year. Thankfully.” He whispered the last word.
“The incense cloud.” The Admiral’s son replied, “it hasn’t dissipated yet.”
“It’s a cloud, Masterson, just like any other cloud.”
“It’s a cloud, yes. But it’s not just a cloud. The ceremony may be needless now, but it still represents truth, my friend. That cloud fills the Temple as the very Shekinah glory of Adonai once filled it… centuries ago.”
The prince sat back down slowly, looking more thoughtfully at the scene before them as the smoke continued to dissipate over the course of the next hour. The two friends were silent, but it was a comradely silence.
Later in the day, when Desslok and Masterson had returned to the palace the prince looked at his ever-present friend and asked, “It all really means something to you, doesn’t it?”
“It does. Not the same thing it means to the followers of the Torah though.”
The prince shook his head. “I’ll never understand you, Masterson.”
Masterson smiled, “Maybe one day you will understand.”
The prince didn’t bother to argue. Every time they had this conversation – every year on the Day of Atonement – Masterson would tell him the same thing, “Maybe one day you will understand.” Thus far, Masterson’s prediction had not come to pass.
“We should get back to that history of yours now, I suppose.” Masterson said.
“We should.” Desslok nodded.
If Masterson hadn’t known better he would have said that the prince had a hint of dread in his face. He started to ask but thought better of prying and let the subject vanish entirely.
Fifteen minutes and a rushed meal later, the two found themselves again seated in the prince’s suite, facing the re-materializing image of Talonka.
“So you have returned again.” The queen said with a smile, “I trust you do not find this telling too fantastic to believe, my son. Bear with me for just a little while longer and I promise you will understand.”
The look on the prince’s face was hesitant now.
“She wouldn’t have left it for you if she thought there was a chance it could be lies.” Masterson encouraged. “She left you the truth. I don’t doubt that – you shouldn’t either.” He paused, then added, “Besides, reality is often more unbelievable than any work of fiction.”
The doubt in Desslok’s face seemed to lift somewhat at this and he addressed the hologram. “We are ready to continue.”