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The Young Griffon

Twenty arms of pankration intent pulled me from the sea, a crawling mass of grasping hands heaving me up and over the bow of the encroaching ship. I spat sea water and raked a hand through my soaked hair, surveying the deck.

The galley was a shallow thing, hardly fit for trade - a proper trireme would have dwarfed it. Even the Eos was a bit larger. It was a vessel built for speed and agility over deep waters and shallow coastlines both. A beautiful racing girl, despite her ragged sails and sparse oars. Her keel had been lashed by rough strokes of white and blue paints, and up at the front I could see her figurehead. No woman or beast. Just a single grasping hand.

A shout went up and down the deck as my presence was noticed. There were ten men at the oars, five on each side, and all of them twisted and jerked on their benches at the sight of me. There was a pitiful mix of terror and hope on their grubby faces as they tried to get away. They couldn’t move far, unfortunately. They’d been shackled to their oars.

The slavers in charge of the vessel pounded down the deck towards me. I leapt fully onto it, rolling my neck and striding forward to meet them. The wings of my pneuma unfurled, blanketing the vessel.

The Eos was still a distant blot on the horizon. It was only just barely possible to make out the silhouette of a man crouching on the ship’s figurehead.

The Eos dipped sharply, rocking in the water, and the man was gone.

“Well now, this is hardly fair,” I said, spreading my arms wide. “I don’t even have a blade!” Indeed, my late uncle’s sword was still in its sheath back on my cousin’s ship. I was utterly defenseless before these sea thieves.

The pirate that had been closest when I boarded the vessel growled a curse in a language not my own, a curved kopis in his right hand and a braided lash in his left. He cracked the whip in an effort to disorient me, the edge of the cord kissing my nose, and swept in with his sword.

The backs of twenty palms struck his cheek at one moment, throwing him spinning into the ocean.

“Have any of you been to Olympia recently?” I asked, continuing forward while the rest of the pirates staggered to a stop. They eyed me warily. “I’m on my way to visit and I want to make the most of it. Any suggestions?”

Unfortunately for me, they didn’t get a chance to respond. A shadow passed over the ship in that instant, and two of the pirates looked up just in time to be smashed flat against the deck by a falling Roman. The slave galley rocked as Sol discharged his virtuous technique at the point of impact, arresting his momentum and driving the two hapless pirates cleanly through the wood. He stood, rolling his shoulders.

“My uncle said that two things were universal when it came to pirates,” Sol said, holding out an empty hand. His virtue called and a blade leapt to his palm, courtesy of one of the thieves he’d just flattened. “They cheat at dice no matter what, and hunger endlessly above their station. One is a symptom of the other. The punishment for both is the same.”

“You kill people for cheating at dice?” I asked, confused.

“No. We crucify them.”

The deck groaned and cracked beneath the weight of a gravity that had not been there before. The remaining slavers, seven strong and armed to the teeth, fell to their knees. The slaves slumped over their oars, unable to bring any pneuma to bear in defense against the Roman’s virtue. Their eyes rolled wildly in their heads.

“You crucify people,” I repeated. “For cheating at dice.”

One of the pirates spoke furiously, struggling to raise his head.

Sol frowned. “What did he say?”

“Just bring your own dice and they can’t cheat,” I reasoned.

“They said that?”

“No, I said-”

Hngh.

I looked down, surprised, at the bolt protruding from my stomach. Where had that come from? I touched it experimentally, wincing at the sharp stab of pain it invoked. It was real. I heard seven slavers roar and lurch across the deck at Sol, hoping to overwhelm the lone cultivator while I was stunned. I squinted at the bolt. It had entered through my back.

Behind me, a loose plank slid near soundlessly back into place. I inhaled, eyes rolling back into my head. Ow. Twenty hands of pankration intent smashed through the deck of the ship, pulling a thrashing young boy from underneath. He wiggled like a fish, fruitlessly trying to kick and bite the arms of my soul. He was small, around Myron’s age if I had to guess, and he was clutching the most bizarre bow I’d ever seen.

I pressed him to the deck and slapped his face twenty times with my pankration intent, leaving him stunned. I took the bow in my hand, and when he lurched up with it like a barnacle I gave him another twenty slaps. He fell back, clutching his face and moaning. I laid a kick into his ass for good measure, inspecting his weapon.

It was a bow and yet it was not. It had been mounted to a shaft, and at the shaft’s end there was a curved brace with wooden handles on either side. The string was attached to a sliding mechanism which the brace at the end of the handle was used to prime. I recognized the design. This was the first time I’d ever seen such a thing in person, though. It was a crude, inefficient weapon for a cultivator. The Rosy Dawn cult had no need for such a thing.

Though it clearly had its uses. I tossed it into the sea, ignoring the boy’s protesting cry, and reached behind my back. I snapped the back of the shaft, took another breath, and pulled the arrow out from the front in one swift motion.

The boy shrieked as my pankration arms rained slaps upon his face.

Wood shattered and the ship rolled dangerously beneath my feet, doing wonderful things to my wound. Worthless Roman. If you wanted to sink the ship, you should have just done so to begin with. I stalked across the deck, catching a pirate with pankration arms as he hurtled through the air and planting him through the boards next to the other two.

Sol was either taking his time or was atrociously bad at fighting on a moving ship. He wielded the pirate’s unfamiliar blade with admirable dexterity, parrying and casting aside multiple blades at once, but his opponents were wily on the deck. They moved between the shackled oarsmen, striking only with short, weaselly chops and stabs.

They were all too susceptible to the Roman’s virtue, but so was the ship.

“It occurs to me-” I paused, coughing blood. Embarrassing. I seized a man that was inching towards Sol’s blind spot and hurled him bodily over the ship’s rail. “We never asked these men what their intentions were, or if they were even targeting the Eos to begin with. For all we know they’re perfectly friendly slavers.”

“Beardless boy whore!” One of the pirates spat in their vile language, lashing a whip at me. I caught it around my own flesh and blood arm, rolling my wrist and gripping it tight. The pirate had the good sense to let go when I yanked back, but it didn’t do him much good. I whipped him with the handle’s end and shattered his teeth, sending him tumbling into the lap of an oarsman.

I rolled my eyes. “Never mind.”

We wrapped the rest of them up in short order, and Sol promptly started breaking chains. I reclined on a bench, eyeing our captives. The man I’d thrown overboard had clambered his way back onto the ship and been swiftly pummeled into submission, and I’d caught the red-haired boy before he could jump off the ship in turn. It wasn’t hard to guess his intent. He’d been diving in the direction of the Eos, the cheeky wretch.

The rest of our captives were either fully unconscious or near enough to it. I kept them in the corner of my eye anyway- I’d already been given a kiss for my hubris. I wasn’t eager for another.

“Who gave you that, by the way?” Sol asked, nodding to my wound. I’d tied the excess cloth hanging around my waist about it, stymieing the worst of the bleeding. A little salt water to cleanse it and I’d be healthy and whole tomorrow. My robes, though…

The pirate child flailed as I laid a dozen pankration slaps across his face. At this point his cheeks were about as red as his hair.

“A boy?” Sol asked. His lips twitched.

“A gastraphetes,” I corrected him sourly. “The boy just happened to be holding it. He was hiding under the deck.”

“I see,” he said, taking another set of chains in hand and snapping apart the links. His expression was stoic. I saw the mirth in his eyes, though. “Bad luck, I suppose.” I snorted, fighting my own smile.

When the last of the slaves were set loose, Sol crossed his arms and looked to me. I raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t speak their language.”

“And what do you want me to say to them?” I asked, curious. We’d broken the back of the slaving crew, and likely consigned them to death by releasing the oarsmen they’d been whipping like bulls for who knew how long. As far as I was concerned, the work was done. Our path to Olympia was clear once more.

Sol looked over the assembled oarsmen. They bowed their heads as his eyes fell upon them, murmuring thanks and prayers in a different tongue than the slavers had been using.

“Tell them where we’re going. Ask if they’d like to come.”

“I’m not taking my throne apart,” I informed him. “They’ll have to stand.” Sol rolled his eyes, waving me on. I obliged, raising my voice in their tongue. “Hear me, slaves. My brother and I sail for Olympia. Which of you dogs wants to be free?

Ten men were added to our number, and one struggling boy pirate. We left the slavers with their ship- they wouldn’t be rowing after us anytime soon. As we swam the distance between the slave galley and the Eos, my captive spluttering and cursing as my pankration arms dunked him beneath the waves more than was strictly necessary, I addressed the Roman swimming beside me.

“Over dice?”

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