Ikan breathed shallowly, hands stretched out in front of him. He moved much slower now. Cautious of the rising stairs, cautious of the huge drop on the side. That hadn’t been a problem before, but it felt almost as if the gigantic golden pathway was narrowing. He doubled over, using his hands and feet to climb.
Ahead of him, the fog began to lift. The stairs slowly became visible. He was right – the path was narrowing. He gulped. It was a good thing he had been so careful.
He broke out of the fog, emerging onto flat, golden ground. Ahead was Adoc temple itself, a pyramid of gigantic blocks stacked so perfectly that they rested in place without needing mortar of any kind.
Between Ikan and the temple was an altar. It was a plain slab of grey rock that didn’t fit into its golden surroundings. On it rested linen wrappings, bound together with some sort of glue to form a hard, faintly glowing shape. With a shudder, Ikan realised that it was in the shape of a human.
Standing next to the altar, with his back turned towards Ikan, was the High Priest of Sayil. In his right hand was a dagger made of – was that bone? It was pearly white, with a jagged edge.
“Step forward,” the High Priest said, startling Ikan.
He steadied himself, took a deep breath, and moved cautiously forward.
“Ikan, son of Bachue, take this dagger.”
The High Priest, still facing away from Ikan, held out the dagger. Ikan, hands trembling, reached out and took it.
“This cast represents your immaturity, your irresponsibility, your childhood. Use the dagger to rid your future of this.”
Ikan obediently walked to the altar. He raised the dagger above his head.
Was it him, or was the cast’s chest moving? Shifting up and down like someone in heavy sleep? He lowered his dagger slightly.
“Strike,” the Priest ordered, a note of annoyance in his voice.
Ikan raised his dagger back up. The cast couldn’t possibly be alive. He must have been muddled from the altitude.
No, a voice in the back of his mind said. Don’t do it!
“Strike!” The Priest said, the annoyance was becoming replaced by anger.
“I said STRIKE!” the priest yelled, turning purple with rage.
The voice in the back of Ikan’s head faded. He gripped the dagger of bone and plunged it into the chest of the figure.
A loud shriek filled the air. The cast wriggled off the altar. It flopped to the floor with the sharp sound of breaking bones. Ikan’s legs gave out. He pushed himself away from the writhing cast, more frightened than he’d ever been before.
The High Priest laughed a cold, high laugh. He walked over to the squirming bindings, pulled out a dagger of bone, just like Ikan’s but tinted red, and plunged it into the cast’s neck.
The screaming stopped. The High Priest turned towards Ikan, his eyes full of malice and amusement.
“Thank you,” he said. “You have done us a valuable public service.”
The Priest bent down and ripped the linen wrappings, now stained with blood, off the cast’s face.
The bruised, broken and gagged face of Puch stared back at them, jaw slack, covered in blood, and very much dead.
If Ikan had been standing, he would have fallen again. His face drained of whatever colour was left in it. He grabbed his dagger and waved it weakly in front of him. It was no longer gleaming white. It was covered in Puch’s blood, stained up to the hilt.
The High Priest laughed again, and knocked the knife to the floor.
“I’ll forgive that,” he said, casually rolling Puch’s body off the edge of the platform. “Usually, you get a slightly easier task.”
He looked over the edge with a calm expression.
“But sometimes you need to cut the weed if you want the wheat to thrive. What Puch did was completely unacceptable. Older than me and still not a man! He should have gone to live in the desert.”
Puch’s limp body hit the floor, far, far below. The High Priest smiled and turned back to Ikan.
“Oh my, I’m going off on a tangent. Kneel.”
Ikan nervously got to his knees. He looked at his hands. They were shaking. The High Priest placed the flat of his knife on the top of Ikan’s head.
“You have renounced your childhood. You have proven yourself to the tribe. You are no longer Ikan. Rise, Ayamarca. You are now a man.”