Nothing was ever simple.
Griffon’s youngest cousin stood just outside the room where I’d hidden away to tune my lyre. Half-concealed by a marble pillar, he stared bewildered at my ruined manacles. I’d grown fond of Myron Aetos during my time as a slave. He was a powerfully gifted boy, yet still so young. Trusting. His sky blue eyes looked first to me, then his cousin.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Why’d you leave the feast?”
“Sol and I are taking a walk,” Griffon said easily. Utterly shameless, as always. “Care to join us, cousin?”
Myron visibly relaxed, suspicion giving way to curiosity. “Where are you going?”
It was cruel, forcing a boy into this position. He could have lied. It was well within Griffon’s ability to give a plausible excuse, send his cousin away. But that wasn’t in his nature. His virtuous heart wouldn’t tolerate such a thing. I rolled my wrists, considering my broken manacles. My pneuma was trickling in through their cracks, slowly, but not enough to manifest. I would have to tear them fully off.
Salt and ash. I clenched my fists and dropped them.
Myron looked like a deer before a lion. He backed up a single step.
“That’s not funny,” he whispered.
“No,” Griffon agreed. “It’s not.”
Myron took off running, feet slapping against the marble floors of the junior mystiko estate as he fled. Griffon made no move to stop him. Only glanced at me, raising an eyebrow challengingly.
“Well? It’s now or never again.” He strode out of the empty room, content with the audacity of what he’d come here to do. I hesitated, glancing back at the room’s bed and its mound of woven wool blankets.
I lifted them carefully and met Athis’ wide eyed stare.
“Are you going with him?” she whispered. My heart lurched in my chest. Three thousand dead men whispered through the cracks in my manacles.
“I don’t know.”
Yet, even as I said it, I was picking up the lyre that I’d dropped and placing it on the bed. She reached desperately for my hand, her fingers slender and calloused by slave work. I squeezed her hand once and let it drop. Before I had consciously decided to do so, I was jogging down the hall to catch up with the arrogant Young Aristocrat of the Rosy Dawn.
“They’ll never let us go,” I said. My pulse pounded. The estate was all but empty, save for the slaves like myself and Athis that had disdained sleep but couldn’t attend the party.
“Naturally. But tragedy of tragedies, my father and all my uncles and aunts are currently at the bottom of this mountain, inducting our honored guests into the greater mystery of the Rosy Dawn.” He flicked his right hand, shooting rosy streamers of light through the air. “I trust you understand what that means.”
Memories of glittering light and a bisected corpse with no face, not a single defining feature. Time slipping through my fingers like sand as I stared into the rising light held in its palm. The dawn. Every legendary cultivator on this mountain, and the patriarch himself, would emerge only after the rites were concluded. We had until the dawn.
“There are dozens of philosophers in this cult,” I warned him. The elders of the Greek cult were men that could have been officers in a typical Roman legion, or senior legionnaires in those led by the tyrant of the west. They weren’t soldiers, of course. Not even close. But they had strength of heart to spare.
“Ho, are you scared?” Griffon asked jeeringly. My virtuous heart throbbed. “Where’s your courage? Where’s that audacity? We’re on the precipice of adventure and you’re worried about a few old men?”
It was the prerogative of a cultivator to tempt the Fates. And in return, it was the prerogative of the Fates to strike them down for their transgressions.
An elder cultivator appeared at the end of the hall. He was tall, ornately clothed in layered robes of philosopher threads. His beard was long, bone white, his eyes a dull blue that spoke to blindness yet intently traced every detail of us. His body was strong, if not tan or rugged. And as his eyes fell upon my manacles, his pneuma flooded the marble hall.
“Young Aetos,” he thundered. “What have you done?”
“Nothing at all, honored elder!” Griffon called, never once breaking stride as he approached the philosopher. I felt a tension long-buried reassert itself in my soul. I heard the marching drums. “This lowly sophist was just fetching his junior brother for the wedding festivities.”
“His shackles are broken!” The philosopher stalked towards me, thundering retribution in his steps. “This is beyond audacity! There are limits, Young Aetos, even for you. Be assured that your father will be hearing about this, and as for you-”
He wasn’t given the chance to finish. Griffon lunged forward with pneuma flaring, closing the remaining five steps between them in a single bound.
Cultivation was an odd thing. Throughout the known world, there were nearly as many interpretations of man’s relation to heaven and earth as there were cities and kingdoms. The barbarous Gauls had their own primitive understanding of the virtuous realms that lead up to heaven, as did the Celtics and the Numidians across the sea. The Greek interpretation was in many ways similar to the righteous path of the Republic, but even then there were notable differences.
I couldn’t intuitively grasp the immensity of the gap between a captain of the Civic Realm and an elder several ranks deep into the Sophic Realm. These were not my cultural touchstones, despite the efforts of my old mentor. My tongue may have been fluent in their chosen language, but my soul was not.
Still. No matter the culture, some things were simply absurd.
The elder reacted with speed far beyond the mortal limits of a man his age, and it was not enough. Griffon slipped his grasping hand with a snake’s grace. His clenched fist rose, burning with the mark of his cult’s foundational virtue, and drove up into the elder’s gut.
Audacity wasn’t a strong enough word to describe it. The elder’s gasped in disbelief as much as pain, and his pneuma exploded in a wordless virtue. Wind howled through the halls, his dull blue eyes flashing as he drove an open palm down onto Griffon’s outstretched arm. My sense for pneuma was still restrained, but through the cracks in the shackles I could feel the immensity of the force behind it. It was a blow that would shatter bone.
Griffon had already withdrawn from the blow, already driven his knee up to meet the palm strike. An invisible thundercrack of force rocked the hall, rending the marble beneath their feet. The Young Aristocrat was no faster than the elder - if anything he was slower - but he moved as if their fight was choreographed.
He stomped his raised leg down onto the elder’s foot, pivoted to avoid his attempt at a grapple, and latched onto the elder’s outstretched arm. He exhaled sharply, and slammed the philosopher over his shoulder. The old man’s back struck the marble.
Griffon fell with him, driving the weight of his body and soul into his elbow and smashing the elder philosopher’s head through solid stone.
For a moment no one moved. The elder because he was unconscious, maybe dead. Griffon and I because the immensity of what he’d just done required a moment of proper appreciation. We locked eyes.
“Now we run,” he decided.
Drum beats and the pounding noise of a thousand dancing feet hit us in a wave as we came charging out of the junior mystiko estate. The layout of the Rosy Dawn Cult was such that we could have disdained the central pavilion entirely, skirted its edge or simply doubled back around the estate we’d just left and descended the mountain into the city of Alikos. Griffon had other plans, though. He ran headlong into the masses, countless initiates celebrating the wedding that was being consecrated beneath our feet in the heart of the mountain.
Flickering torchlight and stars lit the ruined mountaintop. The initiation rites had been outrageous enough the first time I’d experienced them, but watching hundreds upon hundreds of men and women, young and old, dancing without care across a shattered pavilion that had been struck not an hour ago by the fist of a falling star defied belief. Greeks.
I threaded through the crowds at a less frantic pace, tracking the Young Aristocrat as he speared through. He moved with confidence, and when grace failed him he adapted quickly. A woman in fine cult attire bumped into him as he passed, and he turned the collision into a graceful spin, twirling her into another initiate’s arms and swiping her cup of spirit wine in the process. He downed it in one mouthful, scarlet liquid spilling past the corners of his mouth and trailing down his throat. He didn’t once break stride.
My waxing senses traced the initiates around me, but there were too many cultivators packed too closely together, and I was still too restricted by my shackles to meaningfully distinguish between them. I couldn’t feel the ire of any approaching enemies, but that did not mean they weren’t there.
My eyes were drawn to the center of the pavilion where the falling star had struck. Where there should have been a yawning chasm, there instead was the fountain. Reconstituting itself stone by stone in a bizarre example of passive cultivation. A faint mist hung around it, moisture being drawn out of the air itself and into the basin of the fountain in thin spiraling threads.
The faceless statue had yet to reform. Instead, the fountain was filled with dancing women. As the drum beats rose and the chanting wedding song rose to a new peak, they whirled and spun through its waters, kicking up waves. I counted nine before a shout drew my attention away.
Griffon waved an arm from the edge of the crowd, lips moving silently. I read them easily enough. With purpose, slave.
I burst out of the crowd, sprinting after him.
“Can you hear it!?” He called over his shoulder. “The call to adventure screaming in your ear? It’s deafening!” His mania was infectious. I opened my ears, casting out for such a sound.
All I heard was howling.
We sprinted through the mountaintop trails that connected the various estates to the central pavilion, pounding up the marble steps of the Aetos estate. Past its grand columns, the night horizon was slowly lightening to gray. Pre-dawn was giving way, the dead moon falling unseen from its peak. We were nearly out of time.
“Why through here!?” I shouted as we blew through the halls of the main estate. The courtyard with its gardens and pools flashed by on our right, the past patricians of the Rosy Dawn standing timeless watch in their pools.
“I forgot something!”
Worthless, thoughtless Greek.
We ascended the steps to the second level of the estate and sprinted down the shadowed halls. Past the room that I knew to be Griffon’s own quarters. Past the chambers of his male cousins, and those of his uncles. He planted his feet and slid across the marble as we reached a room with a heavy wooden door at the end of the hall, and as he reached it he reared back and kicked it off its hinges.
The office of the cult’s patrician, Damon Aetos, was militantly furnished. It evoked memories of Gaius’ personal quarters while on campaign, those simple tents with their cots and unadorned trunks. Shelves were carved into the smooth pale stone of the wall, filled end to end with rolls of papyrus and clay tablets. A desk of rich dark wood was central in the room, a dining table balanced on three legs and a reclining dinner couch next to it positioned in the far right corner, with an open terrace showing a view of the central pavilion. Tapestries hung on the walls, depicting battles and landscapes that I had never seen or heard of. Carved into the side of the desk itself was a scene of four men, three locked in furious combat against one.
Griffon disdained the desk and whatever its contents may have been, ignored the tablets and scrolls in their shelves. Instead he crossed over to the far wall, where a sheathed blade was mounted between two tapestries. He lifted the blade off its hooks and gripped the sheath in one hand, the pommel in the other. Gently, he eased it just slightly out of its sheath.
I saw a sliver of bronze that burned even to my dulled senses, and then he slammed it back fully into the sheath and hooked it to his belt.
The sound of running feet drifted through the broken doorway.
“It seems we are found out,” Griffon said, rolling his shoulders. He stepped up beside me, shoulder to shoulder. “Is it time for the Son of Rome to show what he’s made of?” I clenched and unclenched my fists. I couldn’t bring myself to tear those shackles off. I dreaded what would come next too much.
Griffon snorted coldly. “Perhaps he already has.”
He walked past me.
The Fates were truly cruel.
Myron hadn’t simply run off. Of course he hadn’t. He’d known his limits well enough to understand he couldn’t stop his older cousin alone, so he’d enlisted help. The young generation of the Aetos family had come to stop their wayward cousin.
Lydia Aetos’ gaze slid from Griffon for a bare moment when I exited the patriarch’s study, sky blue eyes flashing hatefully. They refocused in the next instant.
“Lio,” she repeated, softer. “Tell me Myron heard you wrong. Tell me the things he said were lies.”
She stood in the middle of the hall back the way we’d come, with Myron and her younger sister, Rena. The other two, Heron and Castor, were currently sprinting around the other side of the rectangular second floor to prevent us from running the other way. Castor had his blade, Myron’s hands were fidgeting on his daggers, and the Young Miss herself held a spear longer than she was tall in one hand.
Griffon tilted his head, amused. “Seems you already know that’s not the case.”
“Don’t do this,” Lydia pleaded. “You only have to wait a little longer. We’ll travel the world like Niko did, like our parents did. Together.”
“Lio,” Heron seethed, skidding to a stop just a few feet behind us with Castor at his side. “This isn’t another one of your games. There’s no coming back from something like this!”
“Think of what you’d be throwing away,” Castor urged. His eyes flickered, meaningfully, to his older sister. “And for what? A privilege you’ll be given anyway in a few years? All you have to do is be patient.”
“Who says I want to travel with any of you?” Griffon asked curiously. My eyes narrowed. The impact of his words was a visible thing. Myron flinched like a kicked dog. Rena’s expression crumpled in grief. And Lydia…
“You son of a bitch!” Heron lunged forward, but Castor caught him under the arms and wrenched him back. “You don’t deserve any of what you’ve been given! None of it-”
“Enough!” Lydia snapped, pneuma lashing through the hall. Heron’s teeth clicked together, even as he continued to glare. The Young Miss sighed explosively, mastering herself into something resembling calm. “Lio,” she said, one last time. “I won’t let you throw your life away for a slave.”
“For a slave?” Griffon echoed, confused.
“Don’t be coy!” Lydia leveled her spear at me. “You’ve been obsessed with that wretch since he arrived here. I don’t know what it is about him that fascinates you, and I don’t care either. Whatever it is, it’s not worth throwing us all away!”
“You think this is about Sol?” He shook his head, untenably long hair waving with the motion. His shoulders shook with mirth. “How could a slave have anything to do with it? I’ve hated this city since I was a boy. I’ve spent every day of my life watching the horizon and wishing I was on the other side of it, anywhere but here.
“I won’t suffer another day with you. My virtuous heart won’t tolerate it.”
Griffon told the truth, as he always had, and in doing so he lied.
I watched the shock, the hurt, and the fury rippled through the sons and daughters of the Aetos line in grim resignation. It was delivered with no particular heat, no emotion. Matter of fact. Spoken by the man that had ascended in cultivation out of pure spite for the city he lived in, and then chose to suffer that city for another four long months thereafter. The same man that had spent every waking moment of those four months in the company of his cousins, in some way or another.
That man told them the truth, that his cultivator’s heart could not bear another moment of this life. But in so doing he lied. And they believed him.
I’d known from our first encounter that Griffon possessed a terrible charisma.
His cousins moved as one. Heron roared a curse and rushed past me with fists of burning red, Castor’s sword flying from its sheath as he leapt clear over my head. Myron rushed in low with his knives, teeth grit in frustrated grief. Rena moved in his shadow, her fingers curved like claws. Lydia came at him head on, without any attempt to feint. Her eyes were resolute, her spear blazing with pneuma that whirled in a helix of light around the tip.
Griffon didn’t reach for his new blade. His pneuma rose, his scarlet eyes blazed, and he exploded into motion.
Heron was the first to reach him and the first to be struck. Griffon whirled and laid the heel of his foot across his cousin’s face, staggering him against the wall. He lashed out with both hands, diverting Castor’s descending blade with the back of one palm and burying his other fist in the young man’s gut as he fell, driving the breath out of him. He pivoted, gripping Castor firmly by his wedding attire, and slammed him down on top of Myron.
Rena was just far enough back to avoid the tangle of limbs. Everything I had seen of the girl, shy as she was, spoke to the kindly nature of a mother. But that was all gone as she dove into Griffon’s guard with - clawed fingers, crackling with beast lightning - elongated nails enhanced by her pneuma. She swiped raked furiously at him, moving with a fluidity that could only come with practice.
With that same fluidity he deflected each and every swipe, turning her aside with a blow to the temple and then sweeping her feet so she fell on top of her brother and cousin.
Griffon leaned sideways, and the cyclone of light and heat whirling around Lydia’s spear singed a few golden hairs as it thrust past.
“Good!” He grabbed the spear and drove a knee up into Lydia’s stomach. When she twisted her hips and blocked it with her thigh, he swung the spear and her with it, tossing her into Heron as he approached. The rosy light coating the young man’s hands flickered and died out so he could catch her.
The Young Aristocrat tilted his head to the right, dodging one thrown dagger and catching the other between two fingers. Myron was already midair as he did, body a blur as he spun into a roundhouse kick that Griffon had leaned his head directly into the path of. Scarlet eyes flashed and Myron slammed sideways into the wall.
“Even better!” Griffon exclaimed, stepping through a whirling series of coordinated strikes between Rena’s claws and Castor’s blade. He diverted one into the other, laying a kick into Castor’s side when he yanked back to avoid skewering his sister. “Show me what the young pillars are made of!”
Griffon turned and backhanded Heron across his face, sending him spinning through the air.
“I won’t suffer another day in this life, so take me by force!” He dodged back as Lydia laid into him with quick, shallow jabs. Not far enough for him to grab anything but the flaming tip. She swept it from side to side, herding him back into the others. “Give me all you have!”
“So be it!” Lydia snapped. Her pneuma rippled and flared around the tip of her spear, a searing point of light gathering at its tip.
The other four followed suit. She’d herded Griffon into the middle of them, and as one their pneuma rose like a tidal wave. Five separate virtuous techniques flared like the dawn, on steel blades and clenched fists.
They moved together. Griffon sucked in a breath.
External manipulation of pneuma is the mark of the truly advanced and the even more truly gifted. Shaping the vital essence of the self into a physical thing, something that can be touched and felt, is a lesson in frustration. A cultivator must catch their breath and mold it like clay, must wrestle it into shape with their will alone, make order of it where it had once been nothing but formless chaos.
When properly done, a man could manifest through intent alone a blade, a spear, even arrows. The best could manifest many at once, and control each individually. Swords of Intent. Spears of Intent. Arrows of Intent. What a man chose to shape his soul into said as much about him as any words could.
Griffon exhaled, and his Pankration Intent flooded the hall.
Ten arms of purest pneuma burst from the sea of his soul, noticeable even through the haze of my manacles, and struck each of his cousins mid-technique.
They grappled. They punched, slapped, and elbowed. They gripped Lydia’s spear and forced it up, where it discharged its pinprick of light in a beam that shot up to heaven. They struck the thinner bones of Castors wrists and shattered them, forcing him to drop his burning blade. They locked grips with Heron, pushing him down the same as they had before, in the Trial by Hunger.
Myron was wrestled down, and Rena’s shining claws raked ineffectually at arms that could not bleed. Griffon walked out of the circle untouched, one hand on his hip and the other resting negligently on the pommel of his stolen blade. His cousins struggled and thrashed in his wake, fighting against the manifestation of his unwavering soul.
“You can’t keep watching forever,” he said. He glanced back over his shoulder, a single scarlet eye leveling me with his contempt. A single arm of his intent lashed out at me across the hall.
I caught it in my hand and crushed it.
“So strong,” he said mockingly. “I can feel your soul straining against those shackles. Desperate to run free. When will you allow it? For how long are you going to run from your failures? How much of your future will you throw away for your past?”
I grit my teeth, fists clenching and unclenching. They were too heavy to raise. Salt and ash. Salt and ash.
A hurricane pillar howled up from the courtyards below, and on its winds rose four more cultivators. But these ones did not wear the tunics of junior mystikos, or even the fine scarlet clothes of seniors and favored children.
They wore the philosopher threads of elders, every single one. From the eye of the hurricane emerged a fifth, the same one whose head Griffon had planted through the marble floor. His nose was a broken ruin. The man was livid.
“This ends here!” The elder philosopher roared, and the hurricane followed his voice as it carried down the hall. “Your father was always too lenient with you. Come, vile boy, I will teach you the way of things in the real world you so covet! Attend.”
The pneuma of all five elders flooded the estate. Griffon’s eyes flickered back and forth, the hand on the pommel of the patrician’s blade tensing. He drew it, just a sliver, from its sheath. Then he snorted and slammed it back home. His cousins slumped and gasped as the arms of his pankration intent withdrew, whirling around him.
Griffon glanced back at me.
“So you were a slave after all.”
He dismissed me, turned and advanced into the tide of rosy light and hurricane winds.
What does it take for a man to lead?
The children of Aetos, each in the process of recovering, slammed flat against the floor. The marble groaned and cracked, spiderweb fractures fanning out across its length.
What is it that calls others to him?
The head elder’s hurricane virtue guttered out, dispersed, and was reformed. It whirled, like a cyclone, around a new central point.
What gives them faith?
Griffon grinned victoriously as my shackles clattered to the stone.
“I knew it.”
I raised an empty hand and clenched it.
Five elder philosophers staggered beneath the gravity of the captain’s virtue. Two of them fell entirely to their knees, unable to resist the pressure of my will. My pneuma did not rise. It did not pierce, or thrust, or harry. It fell like a blanket across every shoulder, and pressed them all down. Three of the philosophers, and somehow Griffon himself, remained standing. But it was an effort.
I cast forward my empty fist and opened it, like I was throwing a knife. Gravity changed, sending Griffon’s cousins tumbling and driving the five philosophers back across the marble. Griffon planted his feet, ten arms of pneuma gripped every banner, column, and railing they could to hold him in place. He laughed wildly.
My virtue carried down the hall, past the philosophers, and struck the furthest wall. It groaned and cracked, and just barely held. I narrowed my eyes and flicked a finger.
The eastern wall of the Aetos estate screamed as it flew apart.
“What-” Lydia gasped as I passed her on the floor. She struggled to rise against my gravity, shoving a trembling arm beneath her. A few feet away, Myron had managed to come to one knee, barely. “What is this?”
I kicked the end of her spear, flipping it up into my hand.
“This is virtue.”
I raced down the hall, and Griffon threw himself into a sprint alongside me. He grinned like a madman all the while, as we weaved and leapt over and across one another in the press of the fight. His pankration intent was a storm of fists that shattered every guard, his own hands bloodied and scraped as they drove into the bones of men with bodies enhanced far beyond his own. I whirled my stolen spear with Gaius’ virtue affixed to its tip, drawing virtuous techniques into it and away from us as it swept through their ranks.
Scarlet light bloomed on the horizon, visible through the gaping hole I’d blown through the wall. Griffon and I locked eyes, and words weren’t needed for what came next.
I planted both feet and reared back my spear. It was too long to be thrown like a javelin, unwieldy and poorly balanced. It didn’t matter. I shouted and threw it with all my strength, and gravitas led it straight and true. It struck one philosopher and produced a shockwave that threw him into another. In the same moment, all ten of Griffon’s pankration arms swarmed the final elder that stood between us and the end of the hall, dragging, beating, and grappling him through the air. Griffon cast him bodily over our shoulders, into the two elders behind us.
And the path revealed itself.
“Lio, please! Don’t go!” Lydia cried out. There were tears in her eyes.
I was the only one that saw the moment he hesitated.
But this choice had been made for him long ago. His cultivator’s soul would accept nothing less. “It’s Griffon!” He shouted joyfully, and took off in a dead sprint. I matched him every step of the way.
We reached the precipice together and leapt out without hesitation.
The sun breached the Ionian Sea. The rosy-fingered dawn reached out across the heavens.
Griffon spread his arms against the wind, laughing in pure and honest joy as we plummeted through open air, off the mountain entirely. His pneuma rippled and pulsed. His soul rejoiced, and in the light of the cresting dawn the wings of his pneuma flew wide for the first time. He ascended.
My own pneuma rushed back to me in a flood, everything that had been locked behind chains since that day. I felt it all in excruciating clarity. The memories. The funeral ash and the sea salt. The corpses. Crows. Three thousand men laid hands upon me, clawing, pulling, dragging me back to the mountaintop. Back to enslavement.
I wouldn’t let them. Not yet.
The battle was yet to be won.