The night passed in a blur of celebration, good food piled high on symposia tables and cups overflowing with spirit wine. This ordering of events was deliberate for the new blood. A salt water shock to the senses to prime them, an introduction to the spirit and vigor of their senior initiates and the martial prowess that was expected of them, and now a night of reveling for those triumphant.
Life in the mystery cults of the Mediterranean was vibrant. But it was also intensely dangerous and cared little for those who couldn’t handle the rigors of cultivation. The first day of the rites was a gut check. More than a few new initiates had withdrawn meekly down the mountain when they thought no one was looking, unable to handle the intensity of the trials. They were seen, obviously, but the mystikos let them go.
Better they leave on the first day. After the second there was no going back.
“Mystikos!” A philosopher hollered, voice easily carrying across the pavilion. He looked to be in his twenties but wore the attire of an honored elder. He cast a hand to the east and all eyes followed. “Rise and greet the dawn!”
Hundreds of mystikos all across the mountaintops rose and cheered as the sun breached the far horizon, throwing cups of spirit wine and all manner of olives, figs, meats and cheeses into the air. Nearly to a man they were all roaring drunk. It wasn’t a state of being that the elders would normally tolerate. Today, though, it was encouraged.
Kykeon was an elevated spirit wine, a cultivator’s drink, but it was still wine. It overpowered the senses in excess. The definition of excess, however, changed depending on one’s familiarity with it. A tolerance could be built up to the more intense cognitive influences of the spirit wine with enough exposure.
For that reason, among others more obvious, it was a heavily restricted luxury. Only on nights like these were initiates allowed to truly indulge themselves. The absence of a built up tolerance made the experience all the more spectacular.
I considered the dawn, sat at a long cypress table with a cup of kykeon in my hand. Sol sat across from me. His eyes were lidded and fatigued. The night had come and gone, and we hadn’t exchanged another word.
Drums began to pound as the rosy fingers of dawn reached across the sky. A low chant was taken up at the edges of the central pavilion, philosophers and senior initiates that hadn’t taken part in the festivities advancing into the final stage of the rites. The new blood looked around in drunken bewilderment as their intoxicated senior brothers began shouting and clambering from their seats in excitement. It was time.
A new initiate cried out in terror, pointing up at the sky. Eyes followed, the new blood shocked and disbelieving while those who had lived through this day before watched in anticipation.
A meteor was falling from heaven.
The new blood, ranging from boys my littlest cousin’s age to young men nearly grown, spilled out of the pavilion in a panicked tide as the ball of fire fell. The intoxicated juniors and seniors in attendance made way as well, but there was no fear in their eyes. The meteor hurtled down through burning clouds, and soon its low roar overtook the drumbeats and chanting of the philosophers.
Sol watched it fall in stunned wonder. I tilted my cup back, spirit wine spilling down my chin.
The falling star struck the central pavilion like the fist of an angry god.
“We’re going,” I declared once the world had stopped shaking. I stood from the ruined table, blown to shrapnel and shards save for the small section that I had reinforced with my pneuma. Idly, I brushed marble dust and small debris off my ceremonial attire.
“Going where?” Sol asked incredulously. He looked pointedly around.
The Rosy Dawn’s central pavilion had been utterly devastated. The stone steps were shattered, the tables and benches blown clear off the mountain by the force of the impact. The pavilion itself was a cratered ruin, its once flawless stone crushed to pieces small enough for use in a mosaic.
The only structures left standing, miraculously so, were the marble statues of the heroic cultivators that lined the outer edge of the pavilion. They stood as they always had, proud and tall, gazing up as if tracing the path of the fallen star back to heaven.
“Into the mountain to finish your rites,” I informed him, striding towards the heart of the crater.
Where there had once been a grand central fountain with a faceless statue of a man standing in its waters there was now a yawning chasm. The falling star had punched clean through it and the mountain both, leaving a tunnel of stone that spiraled down through the mountain. Emanating from its depths, impossible for the eye to clearly see at this distance, a rosy glow illuminated the stone.
The rest of the initiates would be close behind us. Already, the sober mystikos and philosophers were herding the new blood and their drunken seniors into a manageable crowd, preparing them for their descent. It was a chaotic press of terror and excitement, but cultivators were experts at imposing order on chaos.
We reached the edge of the chasm. The meteor had seemingly struck the mountain at an angle, providing a steep but navigable slope down. Sol peered dubiously into it.
He snorted. “You Greeks are mad.”
Together we traversed the depths.
The rosy glow had long since faded, leaving us in pitch black with only the distant sounds of the initiates at our backs and our cultivators’ eyes to guide us. The benefits of cultivation allowed us to see, even in oppressive darkness, but only just. We felt our way along the walls as we descended, the stone miraculously cool to the touch.
Eventually, a new light appeared. This was the dull orange flickering of torch light, seemingly emanating from the walls of the mountain themselves. It wasn’t until we got closer that their true source became apparent.
Stone hallways, carved out of the mountain on either side of the tunnel. Torches mounted to the walls illuminated their paths, winding and curving at a shallower decline until they both eventually turned corners out of sight. In contrast to the main tunnel which continued seemingly endlessly downward, these were clearly man-made.
“All of that to open a path that was already here,” Sol said. I hummed, confirming his suspicion. “A locked door would have sufficed.”
“No,” I said. “It wouldn’t have.”
I grabbed a torch from off the wall and continued down the main tunnel. Eventually, the dim noise of the drums and chanting behind us faded entirely as the initiates and their minders split off to follow the hand-carved halls.
“The initiation rites exist to convey something that’s impossible to directly describe,” I said, crouching and sliding down a particularly steep path of slick rock. “Think, slave. They’re called mysteries for a reason. How could I explain the terror of drowning to you if you had no need to breathe? How could I explain the beauty of a woman if you had no eyes to see?”
“Indirectly,” he realized. I nodded.
Even my father couldn’t truly describe what lay at the heart of these mountains, or how they came to be here. The greater mysteries of heaven were something even a Tyrant couldn’t wholly grasp. He could show us, though. And so he did.
“The halls we passed wind through the entire mountain range,” I explained. “The mystikos will be walking them for the rest of the day and through the night. It won’t feel like it, because they’re all blind drunk on spirit wine and the rest of the cult is inside the mountains with us, carrying on the show.”
“The show?” Sol echoed.
“The falling star was only the beginning,” I said. “The walls of those man made tunnels are inlaid with mosaics that visually approximate the genesis of the Rosy Dawn. There are staging caverns carved into the stone at intervals throughout, where initiates are waiting to act out the events for the benefit of the new blood. Members of the cult spend months perfecting virtuous techniques in preparation for their performances.”
“Then why aren’t we following those paths?”
“Because they’re worthless,” I answered easily. “There is value in my father cracking open this mountain like a tortoise shell. It imparts a sense of scale if nothing else. The acting and the wall art, though? The song and dance? It doesn’t matter.”
He grunted, annoyed. “What does?” he asked. I smirked and tossed my torch down the path.
Sol watched it careen down the mountain vein, nonplussed, and was about to speak when it suddenly plunged into a massive opening and vanished. In that moment, that split second before it was snuffed out, something was illuminated that stole his ability to speak. In the silence that followed I could almost hear the hammering of his heartbeat. My own was a rolling thunder in my ears.
We crept like thieves towards that gaping precipice. Tension and something else, something thick and overpowering, permeated the stone as we approached. When we finally reached its edge, looking down into a massive cavern that glittered with sourceless light, Sol hesitated. I slammed a hand down on the back of his neck and dragged him with me into the abyss.
The cavern was warm, the stone itself seeming to radiate heat. Those bizarre lights that we had seen from the edge of the tunnel were embedded in the cavern’s floor and walls themselves, stones that I had no name for and had never seen above the surface. They converged in a spiraling pattern towards the center of the cavern, towards-
“What,” Sol breathed, “is that?”
A bisected corpse. Sprawling, almost languidly, across a dais of shattered stone.
It was a sight I had seen exactly seventeen times before. One for each year of my life. And from the first to the last, each memory was as distant as the one that came before it. Indistinct, nearly formless. There were nights that I woke up and wondered if this place was a dream, an elaborate delusion. And then the rites would come, and I’d delve into the mountain, and I would remember.
But even here and now, crouched beside a shell-shocked slave, the details were slipping away from me as I observed them. My eyes traced the body but it was utterly featureless.
Tan skin. Chiseled jaw, a high and defined cheekbone. Blond curls the color of the sun and an eye that burned-
- was eerily flat, smooth like the demolished statue within the pavilion’s central fountain. The body-
Leanly muscled, perfectly sculpted. A constellation of stars tattooed across the chest, severed-
- was the same. Not a single defining feature.
The corpse had been severed cleanly down its center, from crown to groin. The right half was nowhere to be seen, though I suspected I knew where it could be found. The innards, in defiance of all natural forces, remained perfectly contained within their half of the corpse. Somehow, the organs-
- half a brain that crackled and flashed like the center of a lightning storm. A spine that had fractured as if it were made of marble, trailing threads of sensory veins that almost floated in the air, reaching. Something in the liver, written or spoken, or both or neither. And the heart-
I realized, with a start, that the cavern was suddenly full of people. All of the initiates, new arrivals and juniors and seniors, honored elder philosophers, my uncles and cousins. How much time had passed? How long had we been staring? They all looked upon the mysterious entity in the center of the cavern. My incomprehension was reflected in their own eyes. None dared approach.
None but my father.
Damon Aetos stood over the bisected corpse of the fallen sun god. He was speaking, had been speaking for some amount of time that I couldn’t possibly name. But I only now heard him, as he looked across the cavern at me. Me and my slave.
“Rise,” he commanded. We rose. All of us, the Rosy Dawn. “Initiates old and new. For the third and final time, rise and greet the dawn.”
And there, within the corpse’s palm, light bloomed.
The sun rose.