The mysteries. Greater or lesser, they were the foundation of enlightened society as the Mediterranean knew it. The phenomena that eluded all explanation and drove men to maddening heights of cultivation in pursuit of an explanation. No man, no matter how sublime his cultivation, had ever found a satisfying answer to even the least of the divine mysteries. They were the questions that had plagued humanity for as long as there were written histories.
But we pursued them anyway. It was our hubris that drove us. Our fundamental audacity, that we could look upon the deepest complexities of creation and decide that they were within our understanding. To be incensed that there were things in this life that were not already known to our collective conscious.
Cultivators were nothing more and nothing less than stargazers reaching desperately up to heaven, trying to catch divinity in our hands. It was the only way to part the cosmic veil. The only way to know.
What lay at the peak of Olympus Mons wasn’t something mortal eyes could see.
We stole the new initiates from their rooms as the moon fell out of the sky, covering their heads with leather sacks and coaxing them down the far side of the mountain range. More than a few panicked, stumbled, even tripped and fell. A senior mystiko was always close by to catch them, though they received an earful for the trouble.
It was a chaotic process, meant to disrupt and disorient the new blood. Several mystikos carried drums that they pounded as the new initiates staggered past, and a low chant was carried from the peak of the mountain all the way down to the harvesting fields. The chaos centered them. Forced them to focus on the rites, here and now, and not whatever delusions of renown they had been dreaming of after passing the qualification trials.
We walked them down the mountains and through the fields, until the smell of soil and livestock gave way to the salty tang of the Ionian Sea. A line of fire stood out on the beach, senior initiates patiently waiting with torches in hand and clay jugs filled to the brim with seawater. Their eyes were bright, underscored with scarlet paint.
I dumped Sol into the sand, rolling my shoulder while he cursed. One of the senior initiates approached us, walking out of the ocean shallows and offering me their torch. I accepted it, kicking the back of Sol’s knee when he tried to rise. He snarled another curse.
The senior mystiko, a man a few years older than me with scarlet-painted hair, hesitated. His eyes locked onto the manacles around Sol’s wrists, the severed halves of the chain that had connected them coiling in the sand. He looked askance at me.
“Why is the morning tide sacred?” I asked him. His expression firmed.
“Because it is the first to greet the dawn,” he said, and tore the leather sack off of Sol’s head.
The irritated Roman hardly had time to blink before the senior’s jug of salt water was upended over his head. He coughed and spat, shaking seawater from his eyes.
“Son of a-”
“Repeat after me-”
“Repeat after me!” the senior initiate snapped. “I have fasted.” Sol glared at him.
“Say the words, slave,” I ordered him. “I didn’t carry you down that mountain for nothing.”
“I have fasted.”
“I have drunk the kykeon,” the senior initiate continued, procuring an animal skin from the folds of his ceremonial attire and holding it out. Sol considered it dubiously. I sighed, plucking it from the mystiko’s hand and taking a long pull from its contents. The spirit wine was sweet and potent, heavily spiced.
I tossed it Sol’s way and he reluctantly drank the rest. His pupils dilated.
“I have drunk the kykeon.”
“Then prepare to greet the dawn,” the mystiko intoned, and led us into the sea.
A man’s first experience with spirit wine was always a memorable one. Doubly so if he had the mixed fortune of experiencing it during the rites.
Sol knelt in warm waves, transfixed, along with all the other new initiates as the scarlet sun breached the far horizon. He’d drunk all but the impure lees at the bottom of the wine skin, and I knew from experience that his every essence was alive in this moment, his pneuma coursing through his veins in a way he had never felt before. It was a powerful resonance even to the most undeveloped of cultivators.
For someone on his level it was something truly profound. It was a shame about the manacles. I could only imagine how infuriating it must have been to feel his pneuma in such a state, begging to be unleashed, and having no way to reach it.
The dawn broke fully through the waves. The rites had begun.
“What makes you think I want to join your cult?” Sol asked, later, as juniors and seniors alike hiked back up the mountain. Rising clear-eyed with the dawn. His pupils were still dilated but he had shaken off the haze that came with overindulgence of the spirits. He was lucid enough to sneer.
“What makes you think you have a choice?” I countered. “Be thankful. It’s by my grace alone that you’ll witness one of heaven’s greatest mysteries.”
He frowned, looking back and raising a hand against the rising sun. “What are we expected to do for two days straight?”
“The first day is more about the established members of the cult than it is about you.” I withdrew my own wine skin from the folds of my ceremonial robes, dyed entirely red with white trim along the edges. The kykeon burned pleasantly down my throat. Sol eyed it warily, shaking his head when I offered him a pull.
“You’ve witnessed your first rosy dawn. Now we return to the pavilion, where you’ll observe the cult’s finest cultivators seeking renown before their peers. A truly inspiring sight,” I said wryly. “There are three trials a junior can advance by, one for each element of the tripartite soul.”
Trial by logos, thymos, and eros. Reason. Spirit. Hunger.
“What are these trials?” Sol asked as we crested the mountain.
I waved a hand. “See for yourself.” He stopped short and stared.
The Rosy Dawn was at war.
There was no other description for the chaos that had overtaken the mountaintop while we were out greeting the dawn. Hundreds upon hundreds of mystikos, from the young prodigies to the fully grown seniors, were locked in a riotous melee that had originated in the central pavilion and quickly spilled out onto the pathways that connected the estates. Fine ceremonial tunics and robes were marred with dirt and blood as mystiko battled mystiko with furious zeal.
Two factions warred at the center of the mayhem. Sixteen men, eight on each side, heaved and pulled with all their might on a rope as thick around as their forearms. Helkustinda, the pulling war. The men of both teams snarled and gnashed their teeth, muscles straining visibly as each team struggled to pull the other’s furthest member past the central point of the pavilion - the faceless fountain statue’s open palm.
They were surrounded by a roaring crowd armed with jugs full of kykeon. When a man began to lose steam, the crowd doused him in spirit wine so that he might rally his pneuma. Meanwhile, man-to-man brawls raged along the pavilion’s edges. Already, its pure gray stone was slick with blood and wine.
“This is mad,” Sol said, wide eyed.
“This is trial by spirit,” I corrected. “Every mystiko within the Civic Realm is welcome to take part and test themselves against another cultivator of civic rank. The elders are watching, obviously. Advancement to senior status is decided by martial prowess, strength of will, and stamina.”
Up on the pavilion, a flagging member of the pulling war’s western team shouted in furious determination. He threw his head back, mouth open wide, and his fellow mystikos were more than happy to oblige him with a deluge of spirit wine. He gulped down as much as he could and shook himself like a dog. Eyes blazing, muscles flexing. His efforts redoubled.
Off to our left, a junior mystiko came hurtling through the air, flailing wildly with a dagger in each hand. Sol moved, snatching him out of the air and slamming him down on the stone steps. The boy choked clutching his side in agony.
“That was hardly necessary.”
“He approached me,” Sol said, prodding the boy with a foot. The mystiko groaned and rolled pitifully away from it. I raised an eyebrow.
“He was thrown.”
“He approached me,” Sol repeated. He watched the other brand new initiates stream past, rushing after their senior chaperones in search of safety from the chaos. “What of the other two?”
And so he was answered.
“Trial by hunger,” I supplied, amused, as Heron stormed through the press of combat to reach us. He was as of yet untouched, his ceremonial attire pristine. Though perhaps not for much longer. His pneuma rose precipitously as he laid eyes on Sol.
“Slaves are confined to quarters,” he snapped. “Arrogant wretch. I should lash the skin off your back.”
“That’s no way to speak to a new initiate, cousin,” I chided. Blue eyes widened in rage.
“You can’t possibly be serious. You would taint your father’s Rosy Dawn with this filth?” Heron jabbed a finger into Sol’s chest. The Roman didn’t move, and he had no ability to flex his pneuma, but the look in his dilated eyes made clear his intent. My dear cousin was tempting the Fates. “Are you out of your mind, Lio!?”
“I thought you’d be pleased,” I said mildly. “With this, you can say it was a future mystiko that savaged you in chains.”
At last, my cousin found his manly side. His face hardened. His hands burned brightly as he assumed a pankration stance, disdaining the slave entirely.
“There are certain privileges that a member of the Rosy Dawn is afforded as they gain renown,” I explained for Sol’s benefit, shrugging my shoulders out of my ceremonial robes. A belt of white cloth around my waist kept them from falling away completely. “Certain benefits. Certain affections.” Heron’s expression didn’t change, but his pneuma flared wrathfully.
“It’s a man’s nature to desire what he does not have. That is the trial by hunger. During the rites he can take it by force. If he’s able.” I grinned savagely, throwing my arms out wide for my cousin.
“You want this status? Come try and take it.”