‘We give thanks to you, oh Father, who are in Terra, for this festival we are to partake in. Bless the hands that wrought it and toiled in its making. We offer our prayers and ask you to guide our young princes, our noble scions of thunder, tomorrow when their birthright shall lead them to join your heavenly host.
Illuminate them in this most blessed of pilgrimages, this holiest of crusades. So they may become worthy vessels of your Judgement, and deliverers of your Wroth.
Let us pray.’
‘Let us pray,’ millions of voices thundered in reply, the sound of the faithful’s prayers bouncing off the colossal walls of The Great Alcazar of Tizon: the ancestral seat of House Trastamar. One could spend a lifetime studying the exquisite artistry of the fortress. Arabesques and reliefs depicting the liberation of Tizon, and a thousand other events of Imperial History, were carved into every corner of the cyclopean main hall. Frescoes of the Primarchs Dorn and Sanguinius, along with their Astartes sons, looked down from gilded domes upon the guests of this most hallowed of ceremonies. Colossal pillars were placed half a kilometre from each other, all carved into the likeness of Angels of Death or various Imperial Saints. A true diamond in the Emperor’s Crown, and the pride of the House of Trastamar.
A pride my hands will never hold, thought High Prince Iago of House Trastamar bitterly. The old but vigorous Cardinal gave his sermon from a gilded pulpit sustained by arcane grav-suspenders, his voice amplified by the vox-speakers of cherubs hovering over the assembled multitude.
Iago held his hands together as if in prayer, like the rest of his peers at the High Table and the millions of guests. Unlike them, the High Prince had no intention of praying, content to admire the exquisite legacy that his family had built over their millennia of rule; a legacy that would be denied to him.
A legacy that was so removed from him that he might as well be an underhiver on some lesser backwater world. For in the great kingdom of the Hesperian Corona, the Firstborn sons of every noble family would inherit a more “glorious” birthright than any mundane crown.
They inherited the right to become warrior kings of the stars, Black Knights of the Emperor.
Angels of Death.
And Iago hated the Emperor for it.
Look at these superstitious fools, reciting empty platitudes as if their false god could hear them.
The prince scanned the crowd, seeing several members of his household and thousands of Firstborns from other houses. He saw another boy, maybe two years his junior. He had flaxen hair, with fair but tanned skin. The boy clumsily stumbled and stuttered over words of the Hymnal everyone else was reciting. Mixing words from different prayers and litanies.
In the past, he would have considered such carelessness as nigh-on blasphemous.
‘You are saying it wrong,’ he whispered.
His mind grated in annoyance at such poor oratory.
The younger noble almost jumped when he realised who was addressing him. ‘Yo… your R… Royal Highness?’ he stuttered.
Iago did his best not to cringe. ‘You are mixing the words from two entirely different compositions. You are confusing words from the Litany of Cleansing Indignation, and the Hymn of Unflinching Judgement.
We are reciting the Hymnal of the Emperor’s Anointment,’ the prince explained.
The younger man looked at him in amazement and then in shame, his cheeks turning red.
‘Th… thank you, Your Roy-’
‘That is quite alright. There is no need for that. Now pay attention,’ ordered Iago.
The boy nodded vigorously as Iago returned to his thoughts.
Joining his hands close to his mouth to hide that he wasn’t reciting the prayer, his mind wandered. The fool zealots would be too distracted by their adoration to notice his disinterest.
What was that? Why do I care if some fool from a low house is saying the wrong prayer? I don’t care for that nonsense anymore.
His thoughts turned to a maiden with a mane of chocolate hair. A sad smile graced his lips.
The High Prince failed to notice the three pairs of eyes that watched him with worry.
‘We need to talk now!’ Alphonsus barged in with unusual aggression, his broken nose adding to the effect.
‘Why must you do this? Today of all days? For the love of the Emperor, you will get yourself burned as a heretic, and your entire lineage disgraced. The Corona’s honour before Emperor and Imperium will be tarnished!’
Iago glared at the door where his three sworn brothers stood. He was seated at a small table, goblets and a jug of wine laid close to his reach. The four walls of the study were lined with bookshelves, and at the far end of the room was a gilded fireplace whose flames cast a warm glow over the room.
‘Well, well, I think you were born for the wrong profession. You have a talent for acting,’ taunted Beltran, who took a seat on his right side. ‘Or maybe you should be an Administratum rat since you spurn your inheritance.’
Big-mouthed idiot, thought Iago.
‘I have to say, Al, if you wanted penitence out of me, you could have done better finding someone that could inspire repentance. The only thing Beltran can ever inspire is pity.’
Beltran’s emerald eyes glared back at him as he poured himself some wine. Annoyed, Alphonsus took a seat, his hazel eyes doing their best to drill holes into his skull.
‘Beltran is your friend, your sworn brother. Same as Rodrigue and I. If fear of the punishment that this foolish decision can unleash on you is not enough to make you come to your senses, then I pray that we can make you open your eyes.’
Open his eyes.
Open his eyes, he said.
‘I don’t need my eyes opened. My eyes are open!’
‘They are right, you know?’ interrupted Rodrigue in monotone irritation. Sitting across from them, his contempt was hidden behind a mask of apathy.
An unknown feeling, like acid burning through his veins, made itself known to the High Prince. A cold pit settled in his stomach. Here he was surrounded by his sworn brothers, who had been by his side since boyhood. The same that had been through the crucible with him, and here he was without a grain of their support.
He was not expecting it, but it was still a painful realisation. The fools were too indoctrinated in the Imperium’s dogma.
The young nobles were all from ancient lineages that traced their roots to before the Great Crusade.
All of them were Firstborn of their houses, trained in survival and the art of war since they could walk. And none of them was even fourteen summers old.
Alphonsus of House Montalvo.
Beltran of House Fiterron.
Rodrigue of House Alcantar.
High Prince Iago hailed from the ruling House of Trastamar. He was onyx of hair and had grey-blue eyes that burned with resolve and zeal.
Already, he was advanced in the way of the sword and an exemplar of piety amongst his peers.
Or so it used to be.
Iago gave his fellow Firstborn a hard look. ‘So that is how it’s going to be?’
Alphonsus took a drink of wine from the goblet set out for him. ‘You leave us no choice, Iggy. The trials are upon us and, rather than join us in prayer, you act like you are waiting to die. If you don’t focus on the challenge ahead, that’s exactly what will happen. Do you want that?’
Iago tried to hold Alphonsus’s gaze. It was a difficult feat to achieve. Alphonsus had an uncanny ability to look at people like a disappointed father. It was frustrating how someone his age could make him feel small. To add insult to injury, that look was more often than not reserved for Beltran’s immature antics. To have it turned on him was a blow to Iago’s pride.
Rodrigue was absentmindedly balancing a table knife with one of his fingers, his auburn hair blazing in the firelight’s glow. Whether he was doing it to tune out the discussion or out of boredom, Iago didn’t know.
He turned to look from Alphonsus to Iago, all without dropping the knife, his previous mask of apathy slipping. ‘I can’t understand how you plan to throw away years of training, millennia of tradition, and the greatest honour a man could ever receive over a fancy that could never be. Instead of dying by the sword with honour, you wish to perish crying of heartache? Iago, we have known since childhood that we would never inherit. We would never marry or hold lands. Think of the glory our destined path has prepared us for.’
Rodrigue talked like his words were the most obvious thing in the world, while Alphonsus kept his paternal gaze locked on Iago.
It made him sick.
It made him sick that his friends were so blind to the weight of that which was being denied to them. All of a lifetime of glory and joy would be forever lost to them. The legacy of their blood, taken from them along with their young lives.
Iago rubbed his eyes with both hands. ‘I do not understand how you don’t realise how pointless all this tradition is. Think! Think for a second! Giving up our futures to become immortal warriors? To fight against daemons and witches? Don’t you see these fairy tales, these Ecclesiarchal fabrications fo-’
Beltran smashed his fist on the table. ‘Watch your blasphemy, coward!’ Indignation was written clear on his olive face.
‘Make me, you fool!’ the Trastamar heir snapped.
Rodrigue and Alphonsus could only watch in frustration at how their two friends quickly started firing insults at each other.
It was sad to see their High Prince reduced to this. Iago had been an ideal prince for most of their short lives. Charismatic, intelligent, and with a clear affinity for the sacred arts of war.
Iago had been the most pious of them all, one of the best students of Cardinal Idelphon in matters of theology.
Ironically, the High Prince was now convinced he’d seen through the lies of Imperial dogma and their false god.
Rodrigue could sympathise with the reasons for Iago’s rebellious streak. In any other place, they would have grown to inherit their family’s titles and marry. To have families of their own, children of their own. But they were born to the Great Realm of the Hesperian Corona; here the Firstborn were called to something greater.
Most of them had already made peace with it.
Some with more difficulty than others, but what are marriage and children compared to battle and glory amongst the stars? thought Rodrigue with excitement.
Unfortunately for Iago, he’d had the ill-fortune of meeting the young maiden he could have been betrothed to under normal circumstances.
That was the catalyst for his little apostasy.
Alphonsus had briefly been in a similar dilemma in the past. However, unlike the High Prince, the golden-haired heir of House Montalvo had a finer hold on his passions.
He had chosen duty, and that choice had been quite simple.
Too often, Iago thought he fooled everyone with that mask of intelligence and rationality. He was as stubborn and bullheaded as all of them; he just liked to think himself above such things.
‘If you think you can take me, Fiterron, you are very welcome to try!’ challenged Iago.
Beltran stood, fire in his eyes.
‘There is little honour to be gained in defeating a faithless, weakling cur!’
Rodrigue dropped the knife, interrupting them.
‘Shut up you two! We didn’t come here to listen to your pissing match!’ barked Rodrigue, finally having enough.
Nodding his thanks, Alphonsus gave his goblet another drink and spoke.
‘Iago… we have tried to be patient with you, for you are our sworn brother, but this apostasy of yours has gone on long enough. It’s over; the trials are upon us.’
Iago’s icy eyes blazed into Alphonsus’s soul. They looked like those of an animal that had just realised it was cornered by a predator.
‘So you betray me, your friend and your prince?’ said Iago in disbelief.
The pit in his stomach widened into a chasm, and the burning acid flowed ever stronger.
‘No, of course not. But you will not escape from the trials, not really. Dishonour and heresy aside, what is your plan? Sneak Monserrat away in a freighter bound for some garden world where you can farm the land? The entire Corona has its eyes on you. The idea that the High Prince could vanish on the eve of the trials along with the heiress of another great house is laughable.’
‘It’s possible,’ denied Iago.
Beltran snorted. ‘No, it’s not! Face it, Iggy, even if you ran away with that witch at your back, even if you managed to book transportation off-world, even if you could shake off the knives that would be sent after you, the journey itself will cost you your life. Not that it would be worth much by that point.’
Iago turned sharply towards Beltran. A sneer on his peachy face.
‘Never refer to her like that again unless you want me to strike you down!’
Beltran sneered right back, ‘Ah, so you will not defend the honour of your family and your Emperor, but you will defend that witch!’
‘Last chance Beltran, your disregard for chivalry shows.’
‘You speak to me about chivalry? I’m not the apostate traitor! Besides, why are you so scandalised? I thought you said witches are an invention to control us. Surely if we are talking about fairy tales, then you shouldn’t be offended?’ challenged the brutish boy.
‘Why you basta-’
‘I told you we’re not here for your pissing matches!’ interrupted Rodrigue.
‘Piss off matchstick!’
A fist slammed into the centre of the table, ending yet another spat between the heirs.
All turned to look at Alphonsus.
‘Thanks for your attention,’ he said sarcastically, ‘Now if you would allow me to finish what we came here to do.’
The trio stayed silent.
‘Good.’ Once again, giving Iago his signature look, he took a deep breath. ‘Iago, you know you cannot escape from this. It’s our honour, our duty, our destiny. There are things more important than our desires.’
The High Prince remained silent, so Alphonsus continued.
‘I am on your side; we all are,’ he said, signalling to the other two. ‘We keep insisting because we do not want you to lose your honour, nor damn your soul. You need to put this infatuation with Monserrat to rest. You need to rekindle your faith because you are going to need it. You cannot run nor hide from this.’
Alphonsus’s hazel eyes hardened.
‘We need your faith back, your skill. Brother… We need you back. Remember the Oath,’ Alphonsus said with finality.
Silence was his answer.
Without uttering a word, the onyx-haired prince stood up and walked past the trio, leaving the room.
‘Brother wai-’ Alphonsus began.
‘Leave him, Al,’ muttered Beltran. ‘We have done all we can. Only he can choose now.’
Alphonsus sighed in exhaustion. Rodrigue patted him on the back.
‘Let us pray he comes to his senses,’ Rodrigue said.
Iago wandered through the vaulted hallways of the Alcazar.
The acid in his veins burned stronger now, and the icy chasm in his stomach yawned wider.
Remember the Oath, the prince kept repeating in his mind.
The Oath Alphonsus referred to was the traditional Hesperian swearing of a vow by the Firstborn. A vow to survive the lethal training, to reach the brutal trials of the Astartes, and to crusade together victorious as Angels of Death.
They are traitors! They abandon me for their false idol! he raged within his mind.
No… am I… the traitor? I would be breaking the Oath…
Doubt churned in his mind: doubt and fear.
I do not want to leave her but… but they…
Iago hated feeling fear and doubt. He had been raised with the burden of leadership branded onto his destiny.
Indecision had been the downfall of kings and generals far more often than their enemies, his late mother had taught him so.
The prince’s mind lashed in self-doubt, in a conflict of faith.
My friends, my peers… are they my enemies? Yes! They are, they must be! A pounding headache threatened to split his skull.
Monserrat… if I try to leave with her, she will… she will…
Alphonsus and the others are right, it’s folly!
Curse them! Curse the Corona and the Imperium!
Curse the Emperor! The Prince blasphemed within his anxious mind. Shame hit him like a stampeding grox. Iago took a deep calming breath, a flash of determination welled up within him.
He remembered the sweet girl that had smitten him, and how he must now hurt her for her sake.
He reminisced about the Oath he and his friends had sworn, boyish pride filling their hearts.
He thought of the Emperor.
Of the hope and the joy that prayer once filled him with.
The unshakable faith that the love of the Master of Mankind ignited in him.
No obstacle was too great for Mankind to overcome, no despair strong enough to bow down to; for The God-Emperor of Mankind was with them, they would fear nothing.
But why would he need to fear nothing?
Iago wanted to pray, ask for guidance, and beg the Emperor to forgive him.
He wanted to shout his hatred at the fate chosen for him.
Then he saw Monserrat and his worries vanished.
She was as pretty as a rosebud. A rosebud ready to bloom. Chocolate brown hair cascaded down her back like a waterfall. Fair-skinned with blushing cheeks and ample cheekbones, a heart-shaped face, small nose, lustrous mouth, her exotic eyes the colour of burgundy adding the final touch.
When she blooms poets will write songs of her grace and beauty, thought the smitten prince.
She wore an elegant purple dress that was befitting her station as a daughter of House Yriart.
A smile of anticipation appeared on her lips.
She waved at him, beckoning him to come over.
He felt a rush of happiness, as earlier thoughts vanished. She wasn’t alone. A near-identical girl was talking to her.
Ximena was her name, her twin sister.
Where Monserrat had brown hair, Ximena had a mane of scarlet, and where Monserrat was sunny, Ximena was haughty and aloof.
The moment he came close, Monserrat all but tackled him and kissed both his cheeks in an affectionate greeting.
He smiled like a fool.
A sudden clearing of a throat snapped the would-be couple back to reality.
Ximena looked at the entire exchange with sadness; she greeted him much the same as her sister did.
Ximena gave the young couple a stern look. ‘I will leave you two alone. Please don’t do anything dumb.’ She tried to sound mature but could not help a childish cadence from leavening her mouth.
That was Ximena, always desperate to look and sound lady-like. Something troubles her, the prince thought as he locked Monse’s hand with his own.
‘You are the dumb one,’ muttered Monserrat darkly.
‘Pardon?’ replied Ximena.
‘Nothing. Leave us alone, Ximena!’
Ximena’s eyes darkened at her sister’s words. She looked like she wanted to say something, but insecurity lurked in her eyes. She suddenly turned back and hugged him.
‘Take care, Iago. May the Emperor guide you and keep you,’ she whispered into his ear.
Monserrat yelled something, but he could not make out what.
He suddenly felt Ximena’s arms being yanked from around his shoulders.
‘Get off him!’ shrieked Monserrat. ‘Leave us alone! Go! Leave now! You will not take him from me!’
‘Sister, I do-’
‘Leave!’ shouted her twin.
Ximena’s eyes filled with unshed tears. She looked at them one last time, lifted her skirts, and ran away.
Iago looked at the heiress of House Yriart disappear wearily.
I guess I can not blame her for being distraught. The heir of House Trastamar felt touched that Ximena seemed worried about his well-being, even though he did not care for her prayers.
The chasm in his stomach opened once more. The boiling acid in his veins made mocking circles through his system.
Now that he was here next to his love, the impossibility of his plan for elopement hit him.
‘Iago!’ Monserrat said.
He snapped back to reality.
‘Yes, sorry Monse, what was that?’
She looked at him with an excited gleam in her eye. He knew what she would say.
The words of his friends echoed within the cavern of his mind.
This was insanity, no matter how much he wished otherwise.
‘So… when do I see you?’ she asked in a hushed voice.
‘Why did you treat your sister like that?’ asked Iago.
Monserrat looked back in confusion.
‘Because she is a pretentious harlot! She is just like the rest of them; all of them against us. We can trust no one, only us.’
Monserrat wrapped both her hands in his. Her wine-blood eyes stared deeply into his pale blue. He could not bear to look away.
‘She is your sister. You shoul-‘
‘Oh please, forget my sister, would you? Well? You have not answered my question,’ the heiress accused.
Iago took a deep breath. He hated this, he hated doing this more than he could describe. But his friends were right.
This course of action would only end up with Monserrat dead, and myself along with her. I cannot be responsible for her demise. Iago steeled himself, a bead of sweat ran down his face.
Monserrat noticed this and reached into her sleeve, pulled out an embroidered handkerchief, and gently wiped the sweat from the Prince’s brow.
A light giggle escaped from Monserrat’s mouth. She looked at him sweetly.
‘This is a gift for you. I made it myself. I did not think you would be using it this early.’ She handed him the handkerchief. The embroidery was exquisite; in the corner of the handkerchief stitched in red, were Monserrat’s initials.
Wrapping the handkerchief deftly around his left arm, she stared proudly up at him, ‘There, a valiant Knight should have a lady’s colours.’
The acid in his veins boiled ever stronger.
‘Monserrat… I need to tell you something. It’s important…’
Monserrat’s eyes blinked at him owlishly.
‘Oh? What is it dear?’
He took a deep breath. The air was heavy.
‘I cannot elope with you.’
‘What?’ Her face fell.
A sudden chill fell across the room.
Iago could see the crystalline beginnings of tears well up in the corners of her eyes.
‘If we run away, it will be our deaths. People will come looking for us. And there is the journey itself. I could not live if I were the cause of your death.’ His harrowing declaration left a bitter taste in his mouth, yet a strange sense of relief.
‘But… You do not want to be with me? You promised me we would be together!’
‘You said you would never leave me!’ she shrieked.
‘I know what I said!’ He shouted.
Bitterness and grim resolve clashed on his face. He would not cry. He would not. Monserrat would shed enough tears on her own.
He took a deep breath and spoke words he swore he would never utter. His blue-grey eyes filled with sorrow.
‘I will never forget what little time we had together… I have been very happy with you. And it’s because of that… that I have to leave you be. We cannot run and hope to live, and I… I am a dead man walking. You have so much to live for, you should not be tied down to someone like me. Forget me. Please.’
Iago could not meet her gaze. In his cowardice, he looked away, at anything but her.
The tears in Monserrat’s eyes failed to spill. Locking his eyes to hers once more, Iago felt a sense of unease at the hint of mania in them.
Suddenly Iago felt a burning sting across his left cheek, a hand rose to where he had been slapped.
His eyes widened at her rage.
‘You told me we would be together! You cannot leave me; you will not leave me!’ she screamed, her hands clenched into trembling fists.
The temperature of the room dropped. Emperor’s name, what is going on? thought the onyx-haired young man.
‘This is not a debate! I wish you the longest, happiest of lives. Forget about me; I’m a dead man walking!’ he said, frustrated.
‘You will not leave me. You will not. We will be together,’ she muttered. Without saying anything else, she walked away.
Iago had braced himself for a farewell filled with sorrow; now he only felt confused and unsettled. He shook himself from his stupor and returned to his chambers. The chill stayed with him until sleep claimed him.
The ceremony of the Nigrum Iuramentum was like a dream he half-remembered. Moments of clarity faded into periods of haze in a circular fashion, nothing mattered.
He and his peers were dressed in their finest garments, like kings attending their coronation. A Mass was officiated for the occasion.
His father, the Grand Duke, his sister, and his little brother stood in a place reserved for the ruling family.
His little brother waved at him happily, not old enough to understand the situation. His father and sister gave him proud smiles.
As per tradition, families were heavily encouraged to keep a certain distance from their firstborn sons; since they would not be with them for very long.
If only I had been born somewhere else, then I could have known them better, the Prince lamented.
Ximena and Monserrat were there too; both radiant as ever. Monserrat had given him a look he didn’t like. It had been both cold and intense; he suddenly felt the temperature drop once more.
Rodrigue breathed into his hands to warm them.
I’m not imagining it, Iago realised.
They took a final Oath upon the reliquary of Saint Tiagoran and left the Alcazar in a triumphant procession.
Hundreds of billions of people cheered from both sides of the Aquiline Path.
The Firstborns were transported in a gilded grav-train. All 10,055 aspirants wore their family’s heraldry on their chest and wielded weapons specifically made with their stature in mind; he had chosen a sword.
They were escorted by Sisters of Battle, resplendent in their sacred war plate. Iago saw how some of his peers gave shy looks to the fairest amongst them.
The mood amongst the Firstborn seemed high. Most of them tried to look proud and determined: doing their best to hide their fear.
Looking at his friends, Alphonsus and Rodrigue had stoic looks. Their only sign of dread was Rodrigue’s left foot, which tapped anxiously against the floor, and Alphonsus’s hand that shook nervously. Beltran seemed impatient, hands running through sweat-slicked brown hair.
Iago felt no fear, not from any virtuous courage, but in dejected resignation.
If you truly exist, then why must you do this to me?
Give me a sign, please, I beg you.
And then they arrived at Tolosa.
The Keep was not even half as large as the Alcazar, and yet Tolosa still loomed above the encroaching youths. Proud and vigilant, it was built into the ancient mountain that bore the same name.
The once site of a great victory.
Each Firstborn fell silent.
They suddenly realised that the spectators had been left behind a while ago; only the Sisters remained.
Iago’s dejected mood evaporated at the sight of the edifice, his mind alert, his sorrows suddenly forgotten.
It was magnificent.
A pure blend between chivalrous devotion and cold pragmatism.
Exquisite Bas-reliefs of Knights slaying daemons decorated the barbican, while machicolated battlements towered over them.
A wide chasm served as the castle’s moat and a steel bridge connected the castle to the other side.
They were expected.
Iago’s breath caught inside his throat as he first laid eyes on the Angels. From behind hundreds of robed serfs, they approached.
Several doubts were laid to rest within the Prince’s mind. No tale or legend could ever hope to do them justice. They were here before his eyes.
The Angelic Knights.
Are we… to become like them? How could we ever hope to? They are… unreal.
There were three of them, all clad in god-wrought armour.
One wore a skull-helm, signs of death covered him from head to toe.
The other wore armour of pure ivory, contrasting the grim reaper.
Both of them flanked the obvious leader.
His armour was the most baroque of the style. Sable armour, and blood-red shoulder trim, he was covered head-to-toe with wax seals of oaths and red ribbons of vows.
The armour was engraved with memento mori and scripture, while a mighty sword hung sheathed at his hip, chained to his wrist. A martyr’s tabard covered his front, bearing a red heraldic cross consisting of four arrowheads converging on a central point. This same cross was echoed on his pauldrons.
That heraldry was everywhere, from the bas-reliefs to the floor tiles.
‘Scions of The Imperium, Sons of Thunder, I am Castellan Arnhar Havillan of The Black Templars,’ thundered the lead Angel, his voice metallic and ethereal.
Iago could hear how some of his peers whispered prayers, begging for forgiveness. The Prince was petrified. He was sure the Angel would strike him down for his apostasy. All other concerns were forgotten.
The crowd of youths fell silent in the presence of His Angels.
The Castellan spoke once more.
‘I welcome you to the end of your world, and the beginning of all others. Welcome to the end of time.’
Deep within the dungeons of Tolosa, a psyker lay shackled in agony. The Hexagrammic Wards that lined every inch of the fortress, the blessings of the Corpse-Emperor, burned and seared and bit and cut into both mind and flesh.
It was then that a foreign presence made itself known to the wretch. It was young. So very young. Innocent and so very angry.
It had been slighted and needed vengeance against the ones responsible.
The Witch opened his mind to the presence. It would serve as an anchor for his escape. He coul-
The psyker’s eyes bubbled. His blood boiled. The burning of wards, chains, and blessings increased a hundredfold. The presence latched itself to his mind and overwhelmed him; body and soul.
The fell soul raged in its new suit of flesh. This was no place for one of its ilk, it burned and seared. But the new soul would not allow herself to be left behind; her beloved would join her in the grave if needed.
The holovid displays showed different groups of aspirants facing a challenge designed to cull those unworthy of joining the Chapter. Out of all the trials the aspirants could be subjected to, Castellan Arnhar always considered those related to their four sacred vows as the most important of all.
Arnhar watched in rapt attention as one group was led to one such trial.
The trial consisted of the aspirants fighting a rogue psyker. The purpose of the trial was the elucidation of the danger and blasphemy the witch represented.
‘Abhor the witch, destroy the witch,’ Arnhar mouthed to himself.
‘It’s finally here. Can any of you believe it?’ said Rodrigue as he fell in line behind Iago.
They had all passed the genetic compatibility test. Out of 10,055 aspirants, their numbers had dropped to 853. The incompatibles were taken away by the Chapter serfs.
The surviving aspirants were being guided to the place where their trial would take place.
Though silenced by his awe, doubt held onto Iago with as much obsession as a hug from Monserrat.
Iago turned to look at his friends. They were all hiding their fear of what the trial would be. Alphonsus used a calm smile, Rodrigue held a fox-like look of excitement, and Beltran a cocky smirk.
Just like they always did.
‘You did the right thing, you know?’ said Beltran.
Iago blinked in surprise, then frowned once more.
‘Did I? I broke her heart.’
‘You kept your honour; you upheld the Oath,’ encouraged Alphonsus.
‘Who cares about honour when facing oblivion?’ asked Iago.
‘You still are not convinced? How! Look around you, the Angels are more than we ever could imagine. What do you not believe in exactly?’ Rodrigue asked incredulously.
‘Why would a loving Emperor deprive us of happiness? What enemy could justify this sacrifice? And those kinds of warriors?’ muttered the Prince somberly.
Surprisingly it was Beltran who approached him and clapped him on the back, drawing the attention of one of the serfs that guided them through the fortress.
‘There you go again, playing the sad poet. Here we are congratulating you and you keep moping. If I have to listen to your whining any longer, you will kill me before we join any battle.’
Iago’s lips slowly twitched upwards. ‘Well, Beltran, I have to kill you this way. Slaying you by the sword would be too easy a task,’ jested Iago.
They all laughed.
Beltran looked at them all, ‘Have faith. We can do this.’
The onyx-haired prince felt his humour balance a little.
After everything, they are still my friends.
They were brought to a sealed gate of reinforced ceramite, carved with thousands of blessings and plastered with purity seals.
Two Templars stood guard on either side of the gate, swords at their hips, bolters chained to their wrist.
What sort of beast could garner this sort of precaution? thought the prince.
Dozens of gun emplacements and flamer turrets operated by gun-servitors were trained on the gate.
Iago could see that his friends´ high spirits had suddenly dimmed.
As the gate opened with a sinister slowness, their group was ushered into the chamber by the serfs. As Iago passed through, he heard one of the Templars speak.
‘Have faith, little ones.’
A chamber was lined with colossal pillars as far as one could see. Every other pillar was surrounded by a great brazier with razor-sharp ironwork; giving the impression that the pillars were emerging from the fire.
Stained glass windows depicting The Emperor and Primarchs cast kaleidoscopic light across the chamber.
Their group consisted of 50 aspirants. They all looked around nervously as the gate closed behind them.
Hidden vox-speakers crackled to life.
‘If you presume to join the Knights of Dorn, you must learn to uphold our vows. You will be illuminated to the nature of one should you live. Emperor be with you.’
As soon as the message finished, a hidden compartment rose from the ground, and out shambled a creature.
It was a wretch of a man, dirty and unkempt, chains shackled both his hands and feet. The scent of burning flesh filled the air, smoke rose where they met skin.
The temperature dropped to freezing.
Unnatural light burned from the psyker’s eyes.
A witch, a horror he had dismissed as tall tales.
Iago felt the thing’s gaze on him, unnatural and blasphemous.
The thing’s flesh bubbled. Its muscles bulged and twisted. Fell burgundy eyes emerged along its arms. Its mouth widened to an impossible length, while several other mouths filled with razor-sharp teeth opened all over its form.
Fingers grew into barbed tentacles, bones and nails curved into wicked talons.
The Abomination wailed in inhuman, spitting eldritch fire of indescribable colours that incinerated seven aspirants.
The Aspirants scattered in all directions, Iago was not among them.
‘YOU… LEFT… MEEEEEE! IAGOOO… NOT… LEAVE,’ wailed a warped voice—one that Iago had loved, a voice that intoned sweet songs and poems.
It could not be. The girl whom he wanted to give his heart to was a-
‘Snap out of it, idiot!’ Alphonsus said as he pulled him towards cover. Rodrigue, Beltran, and a dozen others ran ahead of them.
The Abomination lunged onto the nearest prey and feasted.
‘Something is wrong,’ said Apothecary Vornus, watching as the aspirants were slaughtered by the mutated witch.
‘Agreed, the abomination should not be this strong,’ said Chaplain Bernard. Their astropaths had reported an anomalous spike in Warp activity just before the trial; something had manifested within Tolosa.
‘Hexagrammic wards are intact.’
‘This is too much. I’ll dispatch a-’
‘No,’ said Arnhar. The Apothecary and Chaplain fell silent.
‘The power of the enemy is inconstant and insidious. This is what the Emperor has willed, this is how war will be. Why should the trials be any different? The trial continues,’ announced Arnhar with finality.
‘By your will, my liege,’ chorused both Chaplain and Apothecary.
Their group hid behind a pillar, catching their breath while their peers were slaughtered.
Nothing made sense to Iago anymore. Monserrat was that thing! He had been in love with a witch, under his nose!
He hugged his knees and pressed his head against them.
He felt something in his pocket.
He fished the item out and saw an embroidered handkerchief, and… another embroidered handkerchief?
This was the one that Monse gave to me, but the other? Iago’s thoughts were interrupted as one of the other boys looked at him.
‘What do we do? What do we do? Please, I do not want to die,’ muttered the boy hysterically.
‘Shut up. It will hear us,’ whispered Beltran.
‘My Lord, what do we do?’ spoke another voice. It was the stuttering boy from yesterday. From the ceremony.
It was here for him; they would all die because of him.
‘We cannot fight that thing. We are dead,’ he despaired.
He found himself on the floor with a bleeding lip. Alphonsus stood over him, his foot had been the one to deliver the kick.
All kindness was gone from his hazel eyes, his broken nose making him look feral.
‘Enough! If that thing wants you, that means you have a duty to face it in battle. Face it or face dishonour!’
‘If we do not do anything, we are dead anyway. We must fight,’ said Rodrigue.
The normally smug Beltran looked down on him in pity.
‘None of us could have foreseen this… I’m sorry,’ Iago sighed. It was pointless, he had no resolve left.
‘Everyone follow me,’ ordered Alphonsus, and the aspirants left to face the witch, leaving him alone.
It felt like minutes stretched into days. Everyone would most likely be dead by now.
‘Why am I here?’ croaked Iago, ‘What can I do against that? What can anyone do?’ he lamented.
He was a coward, a faithless deserter.
They would die because of him.
Lead them into battle as you are meant to, a voice spoke in his mind.
He jumped, hearing that the voice was in his head and his ears. The voice was sublime, opulent, imperious, and yet gentle and wise.
But I am too weak, he replied.
Have faith, the voice said.
In what? The Emperor? It’s because of him that we are here.
‘You were placed here for a purpose, to teach you my Judgement.’
He raised his eyes and immediately squinted at the golden radiance. And he would have welcomed it a billion times over.
There in the fires of the brazier, where the coloured light of the stained windows cast their light, stood a giant bedecked in gold.
Blood pooled on the floor, viscera making dark islands in crimson springs.
The aspirants were being slaughtered. Despite their training and tenacity, despite their numbers, they could not compare to the unnatural strength of the abomination.
They had tried surrounding the thing, but it had simply smashed through them. Furthermore, it seemed to be able to anticipate everything they did.
Finally, they ran for cover while the mutant massacred another group of Firstborns.
The remaining boys wavered, resigned to their grim fate. If their High Prince believed there was no hope, then what could they do?
Throne! There must be a way to get it to expose itself! What do we do? thought Alphonsus, nearing panic.
Then Iago emerged from the pillars.
‘Abomination!’ he bellowed in challenge.
‘DEAAAR… COME!’ gibbered the mutant.
The Prince narrowed his eyes, forcing himself not to look away from the beast.
‘YOOU… AND… MEEEEE… TOGETHER… NO… SPELL… NO… FIRE!’
The Prince raised his left hand into the air, a handkerchief held between his fingers.
All the while, he made several gestures with his right hand, which the hidden Alphonsus immediately understood.
‘Your sister made me a handkerchief too. I must say that hers is far better!’ taunted Iago.
Never had any of them heard a roar of such inhuman hatred.
Iago sprinted away with the abomination hot on his heels.
The mutated thing crashed and broke pillars in its ungraceful and rabid pursuit. It wanted to rend the flesh and flay the soul of the one that scorned her.
Iago ran, dodging pillars and jumping over mangled corpses. Not stopping. Not looking back.
He prayed that this would work. He had faith that it would.
His objective came into his gaze, the pillar surrounded by a brazier: where He had spoken to him.
Heart pounding in his ears, sweat running into his eyes, he halted in front of it and turned back to see the creature catch up.
He pulled out the other handkerchief. ‘Look, witch! Your blasphemous claws “embroidered this”.’ He raised the piece of cloth.
The abomination halted. It looked mesmerised at the sight of the silken cloth.
‘MY… MY HEART,’ it croaked.
Iago tossed the handkerchief into the fire of the brazier.
‘NOOOOOOOOO!’ wailed the mutant as it lunged after it.
Iago slid between its legs as the thing impaled itself on the brazier’s ironwork, leaving itself at the mercy of the flames.
Drawing his sword and with righteous fury in his heart, Iago gave the order.
‘Attack! For The Emperor!’
Dozens of aspirants emerged from behind other pillars, hungry for vengeance.
They hurled themselves at the abomination with reckless fury and courage. Meanwhile, the mutant howled in agony as its face and malformed body became fuel for the flames.
Swords, axes, and maces sank into the thing’s foul flesh, drawing geysers of foul-smelling blood.
The witch had impaled its torso, stomach and arms, meaning the only danger came from its tentacled digits and hooves. Despite this, the unfettered parts of the beast still claimed the lives of several Firstborns.
Beltran sank his axe into the Mutant’s thigh. Rodrigue severed tentacles with practised swings of his sword. Even the flaxen-haired boy hacked and cleaved the foul thing’s meat with a short gladius sword.
It howled and shrieked in agony, its upper front being immolated, while its would-be dinner ripped and cut at its flesh like a colony of ants feasting on a bigger creature.
Alphonsus hammered his mace into its twisted legs and he looked to Iago. He gave him a proud grin.
‘I knew you woul-’ One of the mutant’s trashing tentacles whipped Alphonsus with air-cracking force. His torso and legs flew in different directions, showering those close by in crimson.
The world went silent for Iago.
He could not hear the howls of the creature, nor the cries of the dying.
His sword grew heavy.
He felt the warm lifeblood of one of his oldest friends stain his face.
He took his sword and plunged it into the nearest maw. He slashed and blinded the corrupted eyes. He cut malformed bone and rent gibbering flesh.
He did not let himself go into the arms of blind rage. Instead, he prayed. He prayed with a burning vigour. He offered his anger to the Master of Mankind; begging to be made pure of purpose and righteous of fury.
He ripped and tore until his sword broke, and then he kept stabbing with the broken blade.
Burn the heretic, kill the mutant, purge the unclean!
‘Iago!’ Beltran and Rodrigue’s voices snapped him back to reality.
Blinking, the Prince saw that the mutated witch was dead, a mass of cut and charred flesh. The holy fire of the brazier began to consume its upper back and onto what little remained of the lower trunk.
Iago saw that he had climbed the back of the creature, the rest of the surviving aspirants looking on with fear and admiration.
Climbing down, Beltran said something, but he ignored him. Iago walked past his friends and towards where the upper half of Alphonsus lay in a pool of blood.
His friend’s face was surprisingly intact. Same broken nose and hazel eyes, but the spark of life had been extinguished.
He took the handkerchief, the one that was a gift from Ximena and laid it gingerly over Alphonsus’s face.
The fine white cloth slowly turned crimson, the embroidered silver script contrasting with the scarlet vitae.
-Emperor, guide your steps, Son of Thunder-
`’He never stopped believing in you, even after everything.’ Rodrigue laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘He always had faith that you would recover yours,’ he finished as Beltran joined them, his eyes glassy with grief.
Iago turned to Beltran, laying a hand on his shoulder. ‘Do not cry brother. Our brother now stands beside Him on the Golden Throne; one cannot ask for a most worthy death,’ he said solemnly.
Doing his best to contain his grief, Beltran wiped his eyes. ‘How do you know this?’
A smile grew on Iago’s blood-splattered face, his icy eyes ethereal. ‘I have faith.’
Iago walked back to the group of surviving aspirants and knelt before the charred abomination.
‘Brothers, join me in prayer. Let us pray for our fallen, and give thanks for this victory.’ Rodrigue, Beltran, and the rest of the aspirants followed his example. The blue-eyed prince noticed the stuttering boy kneeling close to him.
‘What is your name, brother?’ he asked softly.
‘Olivier, your majesty,’ the boy replied.
‘An honour to fight beside you, Olivier. Please lead us in prayer; the Canticle of the Vindication of The Martyrs, if you will.’
Olivier smiled, ‘Yes, brother, that one I know.’
Brother-Initiate Hubrecht found the boys in solemn prayer, kneeling in front of the burnt husk of the slain abomination. He did not interrupt them as he counted the dead. The butcher’s tally had been high; only 24 aspirants remained.
He voxed Castellan Arnhar, and silently joined the boys’ prayer.
Upon arrival, Castellan Arnhar addressed the bloodied aspirants.
‘This was a test of faith, to reveal if you are worthy of becoming Knights of the Emperor. We of the Eternal Crusade follow four sacred vows, based on what you have seen and done. Could any of you illuminate me on what the tenets of one of these vows might be?’ He looked down on the aspirants expectantly.
‘The tenets must highlight the importance of the scouring of the taint of witchcraft from the Emperor’s realm, for it is the weapon of the damned,’ said an aspirant without a moment’s doubt. A boy of onyx hair and icy eyes.
‘Excellent answer, boy,’ praised the Castellan. ‘Its name is: Abhor the witch, destroy the witch.’
About the Author
Hailing from Mexico, H.M. Rojo is a historian and a lover of all things Warhammer and everything related to Knights. He spends his days boxing, trying to read his ridiculously large collection of books, and finishing his equally ridiculous amount of miniatures.