Murderous glares transfixed the boy looking around the arena. Broken bones sliced his naked soles, freshly spilt blood oozing across crusted gore. Cold sweat rolled down the golden paint criss-crossing his skin. The other aspirants were all sizing him up. They would kill the weakest first, for that was the natural order of the galaxy.
But his master had prepared him well.
The First Acolyte’s brushwork was flawless. Applied to the boy’s alabaster skin, the golden cuneiform of Colchisian script covered nearly every inch with blessed incantations. Racka Utó murmured each holy passage with rapture as he continued to paint.
The boy stood motionless but for intermittent shivers, his master’s whispered words sent down his spine. The meaning of the words eluded him, for it was in a language not meant for mortals, yet he felt each syllable crawl across his skin on myriad segmented legs. Revulsion tightened his stomach, and dizziness assaulted him. Utó noticed the growing laxity of his posture and stopped.
‘What ails you, Jarebiah?’ the First Acolyte asked, his transhuman baritone making the boy’s lungs vibrate. Jarebiah gathered his courage to reply.
‘I feel them, Master. Your words. And they… tickle,’ he said. It was a half-truth. Not as bad as a lie, but far from the true terror of reality. His master’s golden eyes shone with an inner fire colder than the lightless depths of the deepest oceans. Then Utó smiled without warmth, his bright white teeth glistening behind wet lips on the giant’s dusky tattooed face.
‘Praise the Gods, Jarebiah. Grovel before them and beseech their blessings, for they will give you power you never dreamt of. And I will make you, transform you, into one who can wield that power. But before I can do that, you must pass your final test,’ Utó intoned in his strangely accented Low Gothic.
Jarebiah nodded and took a deep breath to still his shaking, mouthing a prayer to appease the Great Ones beyond the Veil.
‘Good boy,’ Utó said and resumed painting. Jarebiah closed his eyes to focus on his inner peace, but the darkness behind his eyelids was where the words had come to nest. They skittered from their hiding places, cavorting across his eyeballs, the tips of their clawed feet sinking into his corneas. Their inky forms twisted and warped as each shape gained one meaning after another, tantalisingly close, yet just out of his grasp.
‘There, finished,’ the First Acolyte announced. Jarebiah opened his eyes, blinking several times to rid himself of the afterimages still dancing across his vision. His master put aside his brush and stood with a growl of servos. Sacred scriptures similar to those covering Jarebiah’s body adorned his crimson powered battle plate. At his hip hung a massive book on heavy black chains bound in human skin.
‘Now go forth Jarebiah, and make me proud. Fight the others and kill them. Drink their blood and swallow their souls, but never forget to dedicate your kills to the Pantheon.’
Jarebiah nodded and turned towards the door leading to the chamber where the ritual battle would occur. Utó placed a gauntleted hand on Jarebiah’s frail shoulder and said something in ancient Colchisian.
‘What does that mean, master?’
‘You will know soon enough, Jarebiah,’ the First Acolyte said, nudging the boy towards his trial. ‘Trust in the Primordial Truth.’
Khait of Prospero watched the children file into the arena from the gallery; Utó’s protégé was easily recognised by the Word Bearer’s brushwork. The First Acolyte had made an interesting choice, for the boy was the puniest among the aspirants. The others were obviously larger and stronger, with hard glints in their eyes and weapons concealed under rags.
‘How do you find my choice?’ Utó inquired as he stepped next to Khait, unperturbed that Khait’s Rubric marines were training their bolters on him.
‘Like a loyalist at Istvaan V. He’ll be dead before he knows what killed him.’
‘You’re surprisingly short sighted for a son of Magnus,’ responded Utó.
‘I can see he’s a psyker,’ Khait replied, exasperated. ‘But that won’t save him.’
‘You’re blinder than I thought,’ laughed Utó. Khait despised the sound but did not rise to the bait. Despite himself, he was intrigued.
The Chapter’s Dark Apostle delivered a rousing speech to the aspirants, but Jarebiah couldn’t pay attention. Painful pressure was building inside his skull, drowning the world in the white noise of torment. Sunken memories of his past life resurfaced as physical impressions: icy winds on his skin, saltwater on his tongue, and the tremor of distant thunder.
Roars brimming with bloodlust snapped him back to the present and the mortal peril he faced. Almost every aspirant came at him, daggers clutched in filthy fingers; Jarebiah didn’t know which way to look. Something slithered in the corner of his eyes, drawing his attention to where his master’s last words lay waiting in the darkness of his memory.
Finally, they made sense.
‘The storm will unmake the weak, so become the storm that unmakes others.’
Khait stood witness to the boy’s final moments at Utó’s request. He chalked it up as one of the First Acolyte’s cruel jokes, yet Utó didn’t seem fazed as the blades flashed for the boy’s naked flesh.
Suddenly he sensed the dormant souls of his Rubric bodyguards come to the fore, psy-roaring warnings. One surprise followed the other as Khait heard the howl of wolves. Ten millennia of dread gripped his hearts.
A bright flash came from the arena, followed by ear splitting thunder. The Thousand Sons sorcerer grabbed the gallery’s railing and looked below. Untamed lightning crawled across the boy’s skin, channelled by Utó’s holy scripture. Corpses smouldered around him, charred meat sloughing from cracked bones. Exploded eyes dribbled over blackened teeth twisted into rictus grins as phantom wolves howled in the distance.
Khait stared at the boy in disbelief, gauntleted fingers gouging the stone railing.
‘What do you think of my apprentice now, Khait of Prospero?’ asked Utó with a smug grin.
About the Author
Daniel was born on a sunny, peaceful spring morning in Budapest, Hungary. He preferred watching television over reading books. That changed when his school took him to the public library and everyone was forced to pick a book to read. He chose The Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Despite his initial disdain, our hero devoured the book in a few days and hasn’t stopped reading since. If you got this far, please send help, his budget (and shelves) can’t handle more books! Oh, and he occasionally entertains the idea of being a writer. The fool.