The Young Griffon
Olympia. The holy city, where heroes became champions and oracles came to die.
The oarsmen eased the Eos into the city’s dock town with careful precision. My cousin’s vessel was sleek and agile, well-suited to just about any maneuvering, and coasted through bobbing forests of merchant vessels without issue. She slid smoothly up onto the beach sands and the oarsmen scrambled off the ship to start pushing her the rest of the way.
I vaulted the rail and landed in knee-deep sea water at the stern of the Eos. I laid both hands upon her rear, and twenty hands of pankration intent joined me to heave the Eos fully onto the beach. The oarsmen whooped and hollered at the display.
“What do we do about the ship?” Sol asked, landing adroitly in the warm white sands. He still had a conflicted air about him, but he’d stopped brooding for the moment.
“Do?” I asked. “We don’t do anything.”
The winter waters of the Ionian were deliciously cool, so I gathered them up in twenty pankration palms and flicked droplets at my body from every angle. Sol watched with furrowed brows as I basked in the refreshing shower. Envious, no doubt.
“It’ll be gone in a day,” he finally said, glancing up at the Eos. She was a beautiful vessel, I’d give her that much. From her scarlet sails to the sleek curve of her keel, she was a vessel fit for a heroic crew. A shame that we’d stolen her. “Surely we could pay to have her kept.”
“We could,” I agreed. “If we had the funds. Tell me, Sol, did you bring your drachma with you? Any denarii from your final legion remittance? Myself, I didn’t bring anything but the cloth around my waist.” I had a thought and called out to our crew. “Dogs! Your father needs coin. Who among you is the richest?”
Ten hands pointed up at the ship’s deck. Ah, right. The child. Sol and I leapt back onto the deck, and while I wrestled the boy down the Roman went questing through the ship itself.
The pirate boy spat in my face. Pankration arms spiked him into the shallows of the beach and I dove in after, dunking him mercilessly.
“Nothing,” Sol said, landing beside us. “You said your cousin and his companions were all in the Heroic Realm, yet the ship might as well be empty.”
“Of course it is.” The vile little red-head reared up out of the water, gasping. I dunked him back down. “Cultivators at that level have other ways of storing their possessions. We’re lucky one of them didn’t store the Eos whole into a fold of their tunic.”
“What about the boy? What does he have on him?”
I pulled the little pirate out of the water. He choked and gasped for breath, unable to put up more than a token resistance as I slapped him down for coin. Predictably, the vagrant child didn’t have a fleck of gold on him. I shook my head, tossing him up onto the beach.
“So we’re utterly without funds.”
“We have a ship we could sell,” I pointed out.
“You told me your father and his brothers built this ship,” Sol said, incredulous. “And you want to sell it?”
I considered the Eos. She really was a pretty thing.
“Selling her would be cruel,” I mused. “I suppose there’s no choice. We’ll have to return her to Alikos and find another way.”
Olympia was a gathering place. It was the home of the Olympic Games, the cradle where champions of the Mediterranean were born and nurtured, and had been so for nearly eight hundred years. Throughout our most tumultuous eras it had stood as a beacon, untouched by war and universally coveted. It was where living legends came to test their might against one another. It was where epics began, and were mercilessly concluded.
It was also home to the most powerful cult in the free Mediterranean.
The Cult of Raging Heaven was an institution that every man and woman with even the faintest spark inside their soul dreamt of one day joining. Vastly influential and boasting heroic and even tyrannic cultivators in absurd numbers, the Cult of Raging Heaven was as much a place of elite congregation as the city itself.
The cult’s influence over its host city, from what I had been taught, was nearly as complete as my father’s own control over Alikos. There was a suggestion of separation, of course, a citizen class that had nominal control through democratic rule. But the masses were easily swayed, and it was only natural that the best orators would come from the strongest grouping of cultivators in the city.
On the surface, Olympia and Alikos were vastly different entities. The former was the heart of the free Mediterranean, the place that all Greek citizens with the means to do so flocked to during Olympic years. The latter was a simple colony nation, isolated from the rest of the enlightened world by the Ionian Sea and pressed up against the barbarian state of Rome.
It was perhaps only natural that a cultivator of sufficient renown would take the Scarlet City in their hand to ensure its prosperity, with only the heartless sea and a horde of barbarians as their neighbors. That my father was one of only two Tyrants in the Scarlet City said enough about its strength relative to Olympia, or even most of the other eight city-states.
Still, something told me it wasn’t quite so simple. That beneath the surface of the skin, the bones were all the same. That in the end, their offal smelled no better than ours.
Perhaps I’d been listening to my father for too long. Cynical old bastard. Regardless of any alleged political influence, though, the Cult of Raging Heaven had left an undeniable mark on the city. On the world entire.
As the sun set on the sanctuary city of Olympia, Sol and I beheld one of the world’s eight wonders.
It was a statue, in so much as such a thing could be called a statue. Ensconced in an open-faced temple, beneath a sloping roof, sat an entity in the shape of a man. The statue was large beyond anything I’d ever seen, lounging on a throne of ivory and gold and only just fitting beneath the temple’s roof. Were it to stand, it would break through entirely.
The statued man was carved from the same ivory as his throne, inlaid with the same gold, and the detail chiseled into his bare torso was utterly sublime. He wore around his waist a tunic of solid gold, decorated simply with gemstone roses. His legs were crossed at the ankles, ivory feet wrapped in fine golden sandals.
The curls of his hair were accented with gold and a crown of emerald laurels sat proudly atop them. Every detail was so finely wrought, it made the statue’s utterly blank face all the more jarring.
Sol stared, awe-struck, at the statue as it glistened in the sunset lights. It was covered in olive oil- a precaution against the elements, among other reasons. As we looked upon it, that olive oil dripped off the giant in small streams into a square pool at his feet, surrounding the base of his throne. The pool was painted the deep blue of clear skies and its walls were inlaid with gemstone mosaics, depicting men and women dancing and frolicking without care. Each of them was without a face.
“Who is this?” Sol breathed.
I smirked lightly. Only heaven knew the answer to that question. Still, I gestured for him to follow me and ascended the marble steps up to the temple.
In the hour of coming dusk the temple was nearly empty. Metics and freedmen, noticeably poor, hovered in the gaps between columns and the corners of the temple, gazing reverently upon the seated king. But there was no press, and we were unimpeded as we approached the king’s dias. A low whisper hung in the air as we drew close.
Carved into the sky blue stone of the pool upon which he sat was the king’s name.
I, Your Father
“They say the founder of the Cult of Raging Heaven constructed this wonder alone over the course of eight years,” I said, my voice carrying low through the temple. “They say he gathered its gemstones, its golden plates and its ebonies, all from the parthenon of his own cultivator’s heart.”
The chryselephantine king held a vast golden scepter in his left hand, nearly as tall as he might have been standing, topped by an eagle with folded golden wings. In his left hand, raised to eye level, stood a golden woman with ivory wings. Whether or not this woman had a face impossible to say. A smaller set of ivory wings covered it.
“Incredible?” I finished, gazing up at the great king’s splendor. A single look from afar was all it had taken to take my breath away. This close, it was if all my earthly troubles were falling away.
“Well, yes.” Sol frowned, considering the king and his scoured face. “But it’s also familiar.”
“Ho, so you have eyes after all.” I chuckled and turned away from the king in heaven, bare feeting padding silently across the stone floors of his temple. Sol, after one last lingering glance, followed.
“What we saw during the rites,” Sol said in a low voice, his eyes troubled, “That wasn’t unique to the Rosy Dawn?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted freely. “I’ve never been within the walls of another mystery cult, let alone participated in their rites.”
“But what do you think?” he pressed. I smiled, barely restrained excitement making my heart and pneuma thrum.
“I think,” I said, drawing out the sound, “That the cults of greater mysteries exist for a reason. I think they are a reaction to an event, or many events, and their aftermaths can be seen. Can be felt.”
I lifted an arm and pointed, into the far distance, at the home of the Cult of Raging Heaven.
As we’d approached the coastal edge of Olympia earlier that day, it had appeared as if a storm was coming from the east. The truth was something far more bizarre.
There was a storm, alright. A storm that the Raging Heaven’s mountain wore like a crown, shrouding its peak in ruinously dark clouds. It did not bleed naturally through the heavens as a storm was meant to. It hung in the air above the Cult of Raging Heaven, tightly packed and seething with lightning.
“I think if what you’re imagining exists, it’s at the heart of the cult.”
“Is that why you wanted to come here?” Sol asked, gray eyes locked on the storm that never ceased. “To see it?”
“Not at all.”
Sol blinked and looked at me, surprised. “For what, then?”
I laid a hand upon the pommel of my uncle’s blade, running the other through my hair. There was a long trek ahead of us and night was nearly here. We didn’t have a single chip of silver between us, and we’d given our only other asset to a motley group of slaves. Still, our spirits were high and our bodies were strong. We had all that we needed.
“How else do epics begin?” I asked rhetorically, striding for the city.
I was here to see the Oracle.