“Take care, cultivator. Your heart is not your own.”
Selene cast off her golden veil, rising before a broken man. The whisper of shifting cloth and his own ragged breaths were the only sounds to be heard in the temple. Her shawl fell away from her shoulders, revealing an armored breastplate of purest gold. An ornately crafted spear came to her hand, its shaft a bone-white wood inlaid with carved prophecies, and its head a glimmering bronze.
The cultivator’s fine tunic was drenched in sweat, his traveling cloak draped over his hunched body like a funeral shroud. He had attractive features, as most powerful cultivators did, but they were made grotesque by his anguish. His gold was scattered across the floor between them- he’d barely had the strength to dump it out of his purse.
“I beg the Oracle,” he gasped, pupils quivering. “I will pay any price. Just make me whole again.”
In the beginning, when the first man was molded from clay by a titan with no face or name that could be remembered, order was made of chaos. The titans and their children, the gods of Olympus, were the first ordered existence to emerge from the primordial sea. Humanity, then, was made in their image. An imposition of order on the earth mother’s materials.
To cultivate virtue was to make order of a chaotic soul. It was humanity’s long march towards the light of enlightened civilization reflected in a single man’s journey. Cultivators rose on the principles that had built the strongest empires of history, and they fell in just the same way.
Internal strife had toppled more than one great empire. If she did not step in here, it would soon topple another.
“Have hope,” Selene told the cultivator, smiling softly. “You’re not alone anymore.”
She drove her spear through his chest and dove into the sea of his soul.
Virtue was a winding mountain path. A man could walk it in the light of day or the darkest night and never stray from it, and he could just as easily be lost. Or, if he was truly unfortunate, driven off of it. By wind, by rain, or by virtuous beasts. It was an easy thing to lose course in the slightest of degrees. Over time, those minute diversions might not amount to more than a few grains of sand slipping through cupped palms.
But it was a cultivator’s nature to seek greater heights and ascend Olympus Mons. With every ascending step, a cultivator became more of what they were. Their every essence grew exponentially. Those grains of sand became stones, and those stones became boulders. Even the greatest cultivator could only carry so much weight up the divine mountain.
Souls deviated in those small moments. That is how heart demons were born.
The souls of cultivators were said to be grand things, marble cities built by their unwavering souls. A soul plagued by a heart demon, though, was a ruin. Selene stepped into the cultivator’s soul and looked upon a devastated landscape. Broken pillars and crushed marble were all her eyes could see. The parthenon of the cultivator’s heart, the central edifice of his cultivation, had been torn down to its foundation and set aflame. The demon of the cultivator’s heart watched with satisfaction as it burned.
“You,” The cultivator said, suddenly at her side. Here, within the sea of his soul, he stood unhindered by the agonies that had incapacitated him in the waking world. Not for much longer, though. Even now sweat beaded on his brow. His hands faintly tremored.
“Me?” The heart demon echoed, turning away from the vast conflagration. He was a mirror image of the cultivator, save for a scar that ran from the bottom of his square chin to the corner of his right eye. It was a wound that his cultivation had long ago healed externally. Superficially.
“Demon of my heart,” the cultivator seethed. “I’ve come to kill you.”
“Of course you have.” The heart demon sneered, strolling down the parthenon’s broken steps on light feet. The smoke and miasma of the burning wreckage whirled and coiled into his palm, forming a blade that matched the one in the cultivator’s white-knuckled grip. “It’s what you do, after all. Man, woman, or child. The old men snap their fingers and you go hunting like a dog.”
The cultivator bared blood-stained teeth. “Vile imposter. A man of the cult does what he must. I refuse to accept that any part of me could be as cowardly as you.”
“And we are brave, aren’t we?” the heart demon mused, whirling his dark blade in hand. “These hands of ours built such a fine monument. Any of the free cities would have been proud to lay claim to such a monolith. What a tragedy that it fell so quickly.” He smiled faintly. “The foundations always were weak.”
The cultivator shouted and leapt forward, locking blades with the demon of his heart in the ruin of his soul. Before his deviation he had been a man of wide renown for his martial prowess. It showed in the ferocity of his bladework, the intensity of his pneuma.
But to call it an even fight would have been far too charitable.
“Here he comes, the butcher with his blade!” The heart demon taunted, parrying lightning quick strikes with horrible ease. “It’s been some time since you’ve faced an opponent that could fight back, hasn’t it? It shows!”
The heart demon lashed out, once, and opened up a gouge across the cultivator’s face. From the bottom of his chin to the corner of his right eye, a perfect match to the heart demon’s own. The significance of the wound staggered the cultivator as much as the pain of it. The memory likely hurt him more.
“Don’t lose heart now,” the heart demon spoke, advancing with his grimacing smile. “Remember your virtue, dog. Remember the path you made slick with blood. What was it the old men said?”
The cultivator gripped his blade with both hands and snarled, swinging with all his strength. The heart demon blocked it with one hand on his sword. With the other, he took the cultivator’s throat in hand and lifted him from his feet.
“Courage,” the heart demon snarled. “Courage, until the job is done-”
The demon choked. He looked down at the bronze-headed spear buried in his gut, confused. For the first time, he seemed to see her. And then the burning light in his eyes faded, and he slumped over the bone-white shaft of her weapon. The cultivator fell to the ground, choking and clutching his face, while the demon of his heart slid slowly off her weapon.
“Is-” The cultivator coughed. The heart demon’s grip had left bruises on his throat. “Is it done?”
Selene looked sadly down at the corpse. She shook her head once. “Cast the body into the fire, cultivator. Else it will rot inside your soul.”
He grunted and forced himself to his feet, dragging the twin corpse over his shoulder and trudging up the steps of the burning parthenon.
The cultivator heaved the corpse of his guilt into the flames.
“There is nothing else I can give you? Truly?” The cultivator was on his knees before her, back in the temple that housed the Oracle. His eyes were shining with relief. “This lowly sophist swears he’ll fulfill any wish, no matter how steep!”
It was terrible, watching them fall back into the same habits that had brought them to her. Selene only smiled and donned her shawl and veil of gold, obscuring her features more than the mists already did.
“Focus on the wishes of your own heart first,” she advised him. Most didn’t listen, of course, but that didn’t mean she would stop trying. “Live so that I never have to see you again.”
The cultivator bowed his head deferentially. Almost as an afterthought, he pulled another purse from the folds of his traveler’s cloak and dropped it at her feet. It chimed, drachma against drachma, as it struck the marble. A small fortune, but to a cultivator of his renown it was hardly a day’s labor.
“Then you have my undying thanks,” he said. He rose to leave, hair matted to his skull and still drenched with sweat, but already he looked stronger. Healthier. The only lasting remnant of his near death were the strangling marks around his throat, and the gouge across his face. Selene hoped he’d let it scar. Some things needed to be remembered.
The cultivator hesitated at the temple’s entrance. She waited patiently for the question he was trying his best not to ask.
“... Honored Oracle,” he finally said. “Have you seen my fate?”
“I’m sorry, cultivator,” Selene said. “You know the gods don’t speak to us anymore.”
The cultivator sighed, nodded, and left.
Selene sat on the sacrificial tripod of the temple of the oracle and closed her eyes. The echo of the fallen sun god’s death throes were deafening in her ears.
The free cities of the Mediterranean had long forgotten the names and faces of the Greek pantheon, and the gods no longer whispered prophecies in their ears. But that didn’t mean the oracles stopped listening. It didn’t mean there was nothing left to be heard.
That night Selene dreamed of a war that would shake the heavens, and a serpent with the sun in its mouth.