Slayer of monsters.
It was a title he’d been given the day he ascended, a title most cultivators within the Heroic Realm received, sooner or later. A natural consequence of the lives they lived. He took pride in it, as he knew his wife and their companions did. The life of a hero was fraught with dangers, both internal and external, but that was what made it so rewarding.
Celebrating success was important. It wasn’t always the case that the monsters lost, after all. He’d seen that particular reality for himself. Lived it, since he was a boy.
There were some monsters that even heroes couldn’t slay.
Damon Aetos stood in the gaping entry to his office. His door had been kicked cleanly off its hinges. The force of the conflict that had taken place in the hall had carried through the open entry, shattering the dining couch and table entirely. The contents of the wall-carved shelves were scattered around the room - some had been blown clear off the terrace, into the central pavilion outside.
The Tyrant of the Rosy Dawn stepped into his office and righted his desk. It had been thrown up against the back wall, but unlike the other furniture it had weathered the blow. Lacking a proper seat, he leaned back against it, arms crossed.
Niko entered the ruined office with his bride at his side, a bracing hand on the small of her back. She was tense, understandably so. The initiation rites were an interesting experience, even to a cultivator of her stature, and the mystery at the bottom of the eastern mountain range baffled the mind no matter where you stood among heaven and earth. Niko had wondered, as they descended, whether it would be different now that he’d reached the same realm as his aunts and uncles, if there would be any greater clarity. But no. It had been just the same.
Then they’d exited the mountain, reeling from the mystery of the bisected corpse of the fallen sun god, and found the cult in chaos. It hadn’t been hard to guess who was behind it.
Niko’s stomach sank as his cousins slunk into the office like beaten dogs. They had the marks to match their posture, too. Bruises, split lips, and black eyes abounded. The entire right side of Heron’s face was already darkening into an ugly purple bruise, leftover from a vicious backhand. Poor Rena’s left eye was almost entirely swollen shut. Castor gingerly cradled a broken wrist, and Myron walked with a noticeable limp.
Lydia was the worst by far. She had escaped with the least physical damage, but her expression was haunting. She looked utterly lost. As the five of them knelt in front of the kyrios, she was the only one who didn’t look shamefully at the floor. She stared straight ahead.
“What happened here?” Damon asked. His voice was level. Iphys inhaled quietly, circulating her pneuma. Niko shook his head. She glanced at him, hesitated, but released it.
If it came to that, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
“I saw Lio leave the pavilion,” Myron said. The other three cousins that were paying attention to the conversation visibly relaxed. “He’d been acting strange since Niko arrived, so I followed him. He went looking for Sol-”
“Sol?” Damon interrupted. Myron swallowed.
“The slave, uncle. The one that Lio sponsored for initiation.”
“Why do you know this slave by name?” Damon asked.
“We used to spend time together, the three of us,” Myron admitted.
“And why were you spending time with a slave?” It was asked with no particular inflection. Even so, the dread it invoked was palpable. Heron grit his teeth, warring with himself, but he was beaten to the punch before he could speak up on his younger brother’s behalf.
By Myron himself. “He’s skilled, uncle. I tried to ambush him when we first met and I couldn’t touch him, even in chains. He’s wise, too. He and Lio helped me get through my bottleneck over the summer. And… Lio acted like he used to, when he was with Sol. It was fun.”
Not for the first time since returning home, Niko marveled at the boy his youngest cousin had become in just a few short years. Only nine years old and already facing challenges that his elder cousins balked at. He was growing at a prodigious rate, and it was clear that it hadn’t gone to his head. Though perhaps there had been another hand involved in that.
“I see,” Damon said. His nephews and nieces waited nervously. “Continue.”
Myron exhaled. “He went looking for Sol. When he found him, he broke his manacles. I asked what they were doing, and he said…”
“Olympia,” Lydia murmured. “He said he was going to Olympia.”
Myron nodded miserably. “I should have tried to talk him down, at least stall for time until the rites finished, but I panicked. I went and found Lydia and then we split up to get the others. I found Castor and Rena while she went after Heron. By the time we joined back up they’d already made it here.”
“So you tried to fight him,” Damon stated. Nods. He hummed. “Elders, a moment.”
Five honored philosophers of the Rosy Dawn entered the kyrios’ office with what dignity they could. For all that they dwarfed Niko’s cousins in rank of cultivation, they had been savaged far worse in the escape. Three of them, philosophers Niko had not personally known before he departed from the cult, were covered in the inflamed red skin of coming bruises. The fourth was cradling a broken jaw. He was a younger man that Niko remembered vaguely as being a senior of his back when he was a mystiko. Was it Dymus? Pollio, maybe?
The fifth philosopher was a man Niko knew all too well. Old Chersis the uncharitable. The infamously surly tutor that every young pillar of the Rosy Dawn had to suffer at some time or another. Niko had been the first to receive his wisdom, and it had not been a pleasant experience for either of them. Before he’d left, Lio and Lydia had just started their lessons with the old philosopher.
He supposed the broken nose summed up Lio’s opinion of his tutor rather succinctly.
“Who did this to you?” Damon asked the wise men of the cult.
Niko liked to think of himself as a virtuous man, on his good days at least, and his wedding day was better than most. Still, there was a not insignificant part of him that enjoyed every single moment of old Chersis struggling to explain how the little lion of the Rosy Dawn had thrashed him not once, but twice in the span of an hour. There was some pride there as well. It was a complicated feeling.
When the story was fully told by all those involved, Damon closed his eyes in silent deliberation. Tense moments passed. He sighed.
“In summation, my son defeated the five of you alone and unarmed, simultaneously,” he said, addressing the children. “Then,” he continued, “He made a mockery of the elders that this cult holds in such high regard, that are showered with resources and renown in exchange for their competence and wisdom. Not once. But twice.”
“Lord Damon,” Chersis protested. “I did not expect him to do something so...”
“Bold,” Niko offered. His old tutor looked sharply at him.
“Cheeky. I did not expect the son of the kyrios to so brassly strike at his own tutor. The second occasion he was not alone.”
“Ah, yes,” Damon said. “He had a slave.”
“He was no ordinary slave, Lord Damon,” one of the horrifically bruised philosophers insisted. “His pneuma was in the Sophic Realm at least, and his virtue was incredibly potent-”
Ah, there it was.
The tyrant’s fist.
Niko held his bride firmly to him, lest she crumple to her knees beneath the weight of Damon Aetos’ pneuma. She reached back and grabbed his hand tightly. Her eyes were wide and intent, the way they always were before a fight, but her grip was white-knuckled with panic. Iphys was strong enough to know just how far beyond them the kyrios of the Rosy Dawn cult was. It was an all too familiar feeling for Niko.
“The slave’s virtue was too potent for you,” Damon repeated. “And those bruises, those were his work as well? He did that to you with his spear?”
“No, Lord Damon,” the unfortunate philosopher said through grit teeth. His head bowed, as surely as the sun set, before the kyrios’ pressure.
“The Young Aristocrat,” Old Chersis bit out. “It was a joint attack between them.”
“I believe I’ve heard enough excuses,” Damon said quietly. The philosophers shut their mouths and awaited judgement, and in that moment they looked little different from the children kneeling on the floor. “Return to your estates. Do not leave them for any reason until I’ve come for you myself. And, if you so choose, take this time to contemplate tonight’s events.”
His smile was an executioner’s blade. “It might be wise.”
The philosophers fled the room, and the tyrant pulled back his fist. Niko inhaled slowly, marveling at the sudden lack of pressure. How long had it been since a cultivator’s sheer presence had driven his soul into such a corner like that? How long had it been since anything, monster or man, had filled him with such unshakeable dread?
Since he’d first ascended to the Heroic Realm, Niko had been walking on glass. He was still acclimating to the changes in his tripartite soul, still worried even when interacting with his cousins who were all deep into the Civic Realm. They still felt like baby birds in his hands. He couldn’t trust himself to rough house with them like he used to, let alone truly spar. He’d become far too strong in too short a time.
Was that how a tyrant felt, to look at a hero? At what point did the entire world feel as if it was made of glass?
“Nikolas.” Niko straightened. There was something in his uncle’s eye. “I’m sorry. He took your father’s sword.” Iphys looked back at him, concerned. She knew the story, of course. He’d told her.
“I see,” he rasped.
“That impudent child,” came a voice from the hall. The twin eagles of the Rosy Dawn and their wives entered the office. Niko’s aunts went to their children at once, raising their faces and checking them for serious or disfiguring injury. Stavros Aetos placed a hand atop Heron’s head, his expression a storm as he locked eyes with his brother. “We warned you for years. Years, Damon! How many times has that boy spit on the name of the Rosy Dawn while you sat back and watched him fondly? How many times has he shirked his duties as heir? And now this?”
Damon’s eyes narrowed. “You want to do this now?”
“He took Iskander’s blade.” Fotios Aetos stood beside his brother, rigid with outrage. “He beat our children like dogs and discarded my daughter three months before their marriage! We’re doing it now!”
“What would you have me do?”
“I want him disowned!” Fotios snapped. Niko had never seen him so furious. Watching Aunt Chryse attempt to console Lydia, still slumped on the marble floor, he found it hard to hold it against his uncle.
“Never,” Damon said immediately. Fotios’ expression darkened, and Niko wondered if this was the day he’d see a tyrant fight. But Stavros clamped a hand on his brother’s shoulder, stopping him before he could say something he wouldn’t be able to take back.
“Disinherited, then,” Stavros said. When Damon didn’t immediately respond, he went on, “Look at our children, brother. Look at what your son has given them in return for their love. A kyrios’ hands didn’t leave those marks. This isn’t justice.”
Damon stared at his younger brother for a long moment.
“Chryse. Raisa. Take the children, please.”
Niko’s aunts looked worriedly between their husbands and their brother-in-law, but ultimately complied. Niko whispered assurances to his cousins as they passed, squeezing Rena’s shoulder and pulling Castor into a quick one-armed hug. Then it was only the pillars and them. Niko decided that was still two too many, and quietly ushered Iphys towards the door.
He looked back, confusion and a low dread in his gut. “Uncle?”
“My brothers demanded we do this now, so we will.” Damon said. And then, simply, as if observing the weather, he declared, “As of now, my son is disinherited. I have no other children, so the burden of the kyrios falls to the next best candidate among my nephews and nieces.”
The dread rose.
“What does that have to do with me?” Niko asked, though he already knew.
Damon smiled faintly. “Congratulations, nephew.”
Niko looked to his other two uncles for help. Both of them had sons, surely they’d rather one of them take on the role? But no, while Stavros and Fotios were both scowling ferociously at the blatant snub, when they met his eyes they only nodded in agreement. No, no, no. He didn’t want their blessing! He didn’t want this!
In that moment, he understood perfectly what his little cousin had been feeling. And he decided he was going to do exactly the same thing about it. As soon as his uncles entered their closed door cultivation, he was going to jump in his ship and sail far, far-
“Niko!” Philon shouted, his voice carrying from outside. The fastest of their companions leapt up and through the gaping hole in the eastern wall of the Aetos estate, sliding down the hall in the blink of an eye and catching himself roughly on the door frame. He was heaving for breath, his eyes wild. The heroic cultivator held up a length of severed rope.
“They took the Eos.”
Son of a bitch.