“I told you to focus! Look at what you’ve done- a block of the Rosy Dawn’s finest marble is wasted!”
There was something profoundly comedic about watching a nine year old boy so flagrantly berate a boy older and larger than him, and for that older, larger boy to cringe as if death itself was hanging over his head. There was sense to it, of course. The nine year old may have been younger and smaller, but his cultivation was also advanced beyond most initiates double his age. The older, larger boy, was hardly a cultivator at all. Certainly, he was no mystiko.
It was the final day of the qualifying week that prefaced the Rosy Dawn Cult’s annual initiation rites, and hopeful cultivators of varying ages had been coming in droves from far and wide to test themselves before their would-be seniors.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Mryon demanded of the boy, who looked to be a few years older than him. Stout and muscled, he’d honed his body well. Alas, his cultivation evidently left much to be desired. “Well? Speak! I, your father, will decide your fate!”
The would-be mystiko shook, eyes darting frantically as he struggled to find an answer that would save his life. In the distance, amidst the crowd of parents and other relatives, his father took his sobbing mother into his arms and turned them both away. Myron’s pneuma rose as the silence grew long, expression darkening with affected rage.
“Ho, the young kyrios is fierce,” I said, planting a hand on my littlest cousin’s head and ruffling his hair vigorously. I smothered his pneuma beneath my own, and the young applicant gasped in a breath.
“Lio!” he cried, embarrassed. “You’re interrupting!”
“Is it not a senior initiate’s imperative to advise his junior when he errs?” I asked rhetorically. Ah, the boy was still here. “Begone,” I said, and he went sprinting back to his parents.
“I wasn’t erring,” Myron said, crossing his arms and glaring petulantly at the failed applicant’s retreating back. “That’s how father said seniors are supposed to handle failures. I was even letting him explain himself first.”
My uncle had surely been thinking along a different path than my littlest cousin. In his own way, Myron had been attempting to help the would-be initiate by giving him a chance to explain himself. I could easily imagine him procuring a second marble block for the boy if he’d managed to explain his first poor performance. Unfortunately, my cousin underestimated the effect he had on his juniors.
“Have a seat, cousin,” I told him, and he reluctantly obliged.
“Who would join the Rosy Dawn?” I called, and the crowd of hopefuls at the edge of the pavilion roiled and heaved. Another young boy was spat out, urged forward by his parents. He approached with visible anxiety.
I snapped my fingers. “Marble.”
Sol dropped a block of marble the size of a man down in front of the applicant. The boy flinched as stone slammed against stone.
“You’ve come here to pursue one of life’s greater mysteries,” I declared. The applicant nodded as if it had been a question. “The Rosy Dawn Cult has neither the time nor the inclination to polish every filthy scrap of bronze that presents itself to us. Lay your hands on this marble block and chisel it in your image.”
He forced himself to meet my eyes and knew I found him wanting.
“Let us see your soul.”
The boy grit his teeth and stepped forward, pressing both hands flat against the block and splaying his fingers out wide. His pneuma rose and pierced the stone, suffusing it from edge to edge. The boy eye’s clenched shut as he focused, whispering soundlessly to himself as he manipulated his life’s essence.
“You didn’t ask for his name,” Myron whispered crossly.
I blinked, confused. “Why would I want to know it?”
The stone groaned and cracked, hairline fractures appearing on its surface and spreading like the veins of a lightning strike. The applicant gasped, eyes flying open, and all at once a portion of the marble block simply fell away. Chunks and shards littered the ground around what now stood where before had been a formless pillar.
A statue of the applicant jutting proudly from the earth, the only immediate difference from the boy whose pneuma had carved it being that it was naked. Its expression, as well, was far more confident and assured, marble eyes staring wantonly up to heaven. It stood, back straight, one hand on its hip and the other clenched into a fist at its side. It was a strong pose, well conceptualized.
There were small inconsistencies, issues of refinement. The nose was not quite the right shape, and the right ear was chipped at the tip. The musculature was off in several places. That being said, it was far better than the mangled wretch that the previous applicant had managed.
“Crude,” I observed, and the boy’s shoulders fell. “But I suppose I’ll accept it. Your fate is in the elders’ hands, now. Take your spirit marble and go find someone who looks too old to be alive, tell them the Young Aristocrat sent you.”
The boy’s face lit up and he frantically thanked me before heaving the spirit marble over his shoulder with some effort. He moved deeper into the pavilion in search of a philosopher. In the crowd, his mother jumped up and down in joy while his father accepted clasped hands and words of praise from the other men around them.
The pavilion that the qualification trials took place in was the central point of the Rosy Dawn Cult, from which its gymnasiums, bathhouses, and various estates branched out along the mountaintop. It was built in the same style as the grand agora within the Scarlet City where citizens gathered each day to do the majority of the city’s business, and was of a comparable size despite seeing far less daily traffic.
Pristine stone steps on each side led up to a massive alabaster plaza, framed by pillars in the shape of the cult’s greatest heroic cultivators, each one gazing longingly up to heaven. Within the center of the central pavilion was a grand fountain that gushed crystalline water from the open palm of a faceless man.
On an average day there might be a few dozen initiates and merchants scattered around the grand agora, but today it was packed nearly full.
“Did you see the difference between us?” I asked my littlest cousin. He was watching me intently. “The senior initiates ridicule and threaten applicants because they can, and because they were ridiculed and threatened when they were applicants. It’s an assertion of what small renown they’ve gained since then.”
“It’s also an application of pressure,” Sol observed, having stayed back to watch. He had that distant look in his eyes, reliving some memory or another. “There are parts of a man that you’ll never see unless you push him to his breaking point.”
I scoffed. “The Rosy Dawn isn’t the legions, and these children are no soldiers.” He shrugged, conceding the point.
“The trials are pressure enough as it is,” I said. Myron nodded. “And you are a pillar of the Rosy Dawn, whose cultivation speaks for itself.” Another, pleased nod. “So why are you barking like a dog?”
“I’m not! I’m just…” He frowned.
“Copying the other initiates, who are beneath you in every way,” I finished.
“But Heron does it this way.”
I raised an eyebrow. Myron looked away, chagrined.
“There is a reason why senior initiates are enlisted to screen applicants,” I explained, sitting down and picking up a stray chunk of marble the size of my head. I exhaled, permeating it with my pneuma. “It eases the burden of numbers on the elders, but not by much. The true purpose is to introduce future juniors to current seniors.”
A fine stone powder drifted off the marble chunk as my pneuma wore it down. Within moments I held a fierce marble eagle in my hand, its wings spread wide. I tossed it to him.
“Today is the day that future initiates will pass judgement on your character,” I told him. “So, since you are their superior in all things, act like it. Leave the barking to the dogs.”
“And leave the preening to your cousin.” Sol offered his opinion, unprompted as usual.
I sneered. “Fetch us another block, slave.” He snorted, but obliged.
Myron brushed down his cult attire and gathered himself. “I’ll do my best,” he declared.
“I know you will,” I said, ruffling his hair fondly. I wandered off, and I heard him clearly as he called out to the masses.
“Who would join the Rosy Dawn!?”
By dusk, the last of the year’s applicants had been accepted or rejected and processed accordingly. Successful applicants were given time to bid their families a joyful farewell and then ushered into one of the outer estates where they would be living as fresh initiates. The beginnings of many sworn brotherhoods would be forged in those first few hours as soon-to-be initiates excitedly spoke to one another about the rites to come.
The rites began in the dead of night, hours before the dawn. The men and women of the Rosy Dawn, however, began preparations much earlier than that. It was an event that every single member of the cult took part in, from the lowliest junior initiates to the pillars themselves, Damon Aetos and his brothers.
Every cultist had a role to fulfill as the sun dipped below the western mountain range. Many took to the mountain trails in their ceremonial robes with ornate clay jugs in their arms, racing through harvested wheat fields towards the sea. Others lined themselves along the peaks of the eastern mountain range, torches burning brightly in their hands. The challengers, junior initiates looking to ascend to senior rank, gathered in a crowd amongst each other and exchanged barbs in tense anticipation. The estates were alive with shadowed motion and excited whispers.
The rites lasted for two full days, ending as the sun dawned on the third. Due to the confidential nature of the initiation they were two of the most restful days a slave would experience in service to the Rosy Dawn Cult. Every single servant was confined to quarters for the entirety of the rites.
Most of them, anyway.
Dozens of men shouted and flinched as I kicked down the door to their quarters, woken from what had no doubt been blissful sleep. I grinned brightly, stalking across the room towards the one man who had the audacity to glare at me. The slaves in my path hurriedly threw themselves out of the way.
“What is this?” Sol demanded, voice rough from sleep.
I dropped a leather sack over his head and cinched it tight, and then I threw him over my shoulder.
“Don’t fight it!” I told him cheerfully.
Traditionally, the qualifying trials were a prerequisite for initiation to the cult. However, the pillars of the Rosy Dawn enjoyed the unique privilege of being able to sponsor one initiate of their choosing each year, regardless of cultivation or status, so long as they personally saw them through the rites. They could choose anyone.
Even a slave.