It is commonly known that there is a gap between birth and the first conscious thought. During this infancy one simply exists, entirely at the mercy of the elements. Then there is a singular event, a spark of true thought, that every man and woman can recall as the moment the veil was lifted and they could finally see. The moment they ascended from the realm of animal instinct and into humanity. The inception of a cultivator is much the same. A spark, a lifting of a veil, and pneuma is revealed.
I experienced both in the same moment. I was three years old when I first witnessed the initiation rites of the Rosy Dawn. My father was holding me in the crook of his right arm, calling down heaven’s wrath with his left. It was the impact that shook awake my sleeping soul. He held me in that arm as we descended alone into the depths of the Scarlet City’s eastern mountain range. He held me as he approached the bisected corpse of the fallen sun god.
My father held me as the corpse reached up and laid its palm over my face.
“This is justice,” he told me. “Remember its face.” But I never could.
I’d decided to show Sol the city. It was as good a time as any for it. The streets of Alikos were alive with citizens, metics, freedmen and slaves all bustling around in preparation for the games. Foreigners abounded, leading carts and waving cloth and ornaments enticingly to passing citizens. They were like a flood, streaming in from every no-name village within the geopolitical orbit of the Scarlet City.
Despite the press of bodies, Sol and I were given a comparatively respectful berth as we walked the street. I was well enough known among the citizenry that deference was a given, and Sol’s freshly issued mystiko attire caught the eye long before his slave manacles did.
Naturally, he found reason to criticize it anyway.
“This isn’t practical in the slightest,” he grunted, yanking the trailing edge of his tunic out from under the feet of a passing Alikon. We were given more space than most, but in the narrower streets at this time of year there was only so much that could be done. The female citizen fell to the street, already shrieking in outrage, only for it to die in her throat as she spotted the distinctive uniform of the Rosy Dawn.
“Wearing it properly is a skill,” I said airily. The furthest edges of my cloth were pristine, unmarred even by the dust of the roads. He scowled as I shifted just so, avoiding a passing metic with careless grace. “You’ll learn eventually.”
He shifted his next step just enough to catch the edge of my tunic. Unfortunately, I’d known him well enough to expect it and he missed by a finger’s width. His scowl deepened.
“You Greeks make everything more complicated than it needs to be.”
“Yes, because a toga is so much more practical,” I said, rolling my eyes. “It’s easy enough to criticize, but don’t act as if you’re any better. Half your city’s greatest cultural achievements are the product of Greeks that happened to be passing through, and that’s being generous.”
“The best parts of Rome have never been touched by Greek hands,” he said. It was likely a common saying among the legions. They had to tell themselves something to maintain morale, after all.
I sneered. “The best parts of Rome are salt and ash.”
His expression darkened. Luckily for the public order, we’d just reached our destination. I slipped into a thermopolium, and with nothing in his hands to throw, the slave initiate had no choice but to follow me. He entered with eyes blazing but was immediately distracted.
Thermopolia were commercial developments, glorified bars where work-weary metics and freedmen could gather to drink and gorge themselves on poorly made food. A well to-do citizen wouldn’t be caught dead in one, and for that reason they were ideal havens for scum and all manner of assorted criminals. If an elder were to discover a member of the Rosy Dawn had been patronizing such a venue, they’d be given a sublime lashing. It was that sort of place.
And this one, in particular, was even worse. It wasn’t just full of low class wretches and conniving thieves. It was also seething with foreign cultivators, come to challenge the mystery cults of the Scarlet City in the games.
“What are we doing here?” Sol asked in a low voice, assessing the room. More than a few unfriendly eyes were doing the same. Our attire was rather distinct.
“I told you. We’re here to eat.”
They were the usual suspects. Men from low-born villages on the edges of enlightened civilization, clothed in rags just a step above what our own slaves wore. Too far from the free city-states of the Mediterranean to regularly benefit from their patronage, but arrogant enough to think that they could challenge us in spite of that.
The hue of their skin tended towards leather more than bronze. Their hair was often worn in locks or shorn off entirely. They were the children of poor farmers and fishermen, uneducated in all but the most plainly apparent matters of natural philosophy. Their cultivation reflected this. And their pankration was invariably atrocious.
“Grab us a few bowls of stew,” I bid my slave and junior brother, nodding towards the masonry counter at the far corner of the establishment. “I have a hunger.” He eyed me, still simmering over my comment, but nodded once and split away.
I walked up behind a seated cultivator and set both hands on the back of his chair. His fellows across the table glared murderously at me. They all wore wind-worn cloth, a faded yellow dye winding over their torsos in the symbol of whatever hovel they had sprung from. The two across the table wore their hair in locks. The one beneath my hands was shaved bald, with a powerful build and weathered skin that spoke to a life of hard labor.
“You’re in my seat,” I told him simply. He tilted his head back to look up at me.
“I don’t see your name on it.”
The audacity of these country dogs was something else. “What does that matter? You wouldn’t be able to read it if it was.”
The dog bared its teeth. “Go to the crows.”
I swept the chair back, spilling him from it and stomping him down when he tried to rise. His sworn brothers shouted and lunged across the table at me, one tossing a half-full bowl of fish stew at my face while the other pulled an obsidian dagger of all things and threw it at my chest.
I leaned away from the flying stew and flicked the broad side of the knife, embedding it in the far wall. With my other hand I caught the neck of the faster of the two and swung him viciously into his sworn brother, striking their skulls together hard enough to daze a bull. They both crashed through a nearby table and collapsed bonelessly. The residents of that table started shouting and drawing weapons over their spilled drinks. Off to my left, a group of what looked like regular patrons were eyeing me with vile intent.
My pneuma rose and everything stopped.
“I’ll spare your dog life this once,” I told the man beneath my foot pleasantly. The whites of his eyes were plainly apparent, filled with that wild fear of cornered prey. “Because even if you could read, you wouldn’t have been able to see my name from here. You’d have to climb the nearest mountain and look down to see it written across this whole city.”
It’s said that as a man progresses through the stages of his cultivation, it is only natural that his renown and his hubris grow in equal proportion. Tribulations are heaven’s way of reminding men that for all that they covet the stars, they will never stand among their number. Vice is as inherent to a cultivator’s lifestyle as his virtue, and attempting to avoid it outright often leads to even worse retribution than the norm.
I’ve lived what most would call a privileged lifestyle. I enjoyed a position of power and influence that the vast majority of even enlightened citizens would never experience in their entire lives, even with the longevity that cultivation provided. That I coveted more on top of that? That I had chosen to trawl through dive bars in the city and scope out challengers to harass rather than prepare for the Daylight Games the correct way, the virtuous way?
That was cause for correction.
A man in a hooded cloak lunged from a shadowed corner of the room, pneuma blazing as he lashed out with a technique that I didn’t recognize, could not predict the effects of. His cloak had obscured the color of his tunic underneath, the same faded yellow of the men I’d singled out. The intensity of his pneuma was such that his technique, many-times magnified, was far too dangerous to block. I shifted on my feet, only for the cultivator I’d stepped on to wrap himself around my leg with a vindictive grin.
I watched what might have been my death approach. It is the way of heaven to strike down those who revel in hubris. It is an inescapable truth that men were born mortal, and die mortal. The peak of Olympus Mons was nothing more than an ever-distant fantasy. The cultivator’s eyes were a cold grass green.
Sol appeared in the empty space behind the cultivator and slammed his head through the stone table. He spasmed once and went limp.
Of course, we defied the heavens anyway. It was what one did.
“Ho, took you long enough,” I said, stomping viciously on the bald cultivator’s throat. He gagged and heaved, scrabbling at his windpipe. I righted the chair and sat down. Sol sat across, setting down two bowls of stew that he’d balanced in his other arm.
I've lived my life by the terms of the cult. Where were the edges of those boundaries, my father's will and that of heaven? How far could I push them?
When would my tribulations come?
It was time to find out.