The 8th Olympic Century is nearing its end and the Mediterranean is as peaceful as it can be. The free city-states have not engaged in all out war with one another in decades, and at times their relations can even be called friendly. Crops are bountiful and trade thrives. The barbarian nations of the far east and west are as they ever were, snarling beasts fighting for scraps at the foot of Olympus Mons. The life of a free citizen is a decadent existence.
Naturally, it is not enough. The climb to the peak of the divine mountain is one wrought with ruinous tribulations, yet men climb it all the same. Wealth and pleasure in outrageous quantities are all too often cast off like dead weight from a man’s back as he reaches, perilously, for the next handhold. It is a mad thing. It is utterly against the will of the Fates.
It is cultivation. And it is what separates men from beasts.
Our story begins in the city-state of Álikos on the coast of the Ionian Sea, home to the Rosy Dawn Cult of greater mysteries. At its heart is the vast personal estate of the Rosy Dawn’s kyrios. His name is Damon Aetos, and he is the father and head of the cult.
On this night his honored son is throwing a party, a dazzling symposia with some of the cult’s most promising initiates in attendance. The night sky is clear and bright with starlight, a half moon bathing the courtyards in its silver glow. Spirit wine flows freely and laughter fills the halls of the estate. The young men of Rosy Dawn Cult are in high spirits.
Our story begins with a slave fighting for their entertainment.
The Young Aristocrat
I accepted a fresh skyphos of spirit wine from a coyly smiling hetaira, reclining with my head resting on one hand while my cousin traded blows with a slave.
Jeers and taunts flowed freely from those in attendance, each of them initiates of the Rosy Dawn Cult and sons of respected citizens besides. The chambers were just small enough to see the whites of a man’s eyes from across the way, an intentional design for nights like these - the young men of the cult lined all four walls.
As such, we all had a clear view of the spectacle in the center, as my older cousin swung with all his might and missed his mark again. The slave ducked and thrust forward boths hands clasped in a single fist, driving them into his gut and knocking the wind from him. He pressed his advantage, bludgeoning my cousin with the manacles affixed to each of his wrists.
A chain linked the wretch's manacles together. He couldn’t pull his hands far enough apart to throw a real punch, and yet Heron was the one spitting blood. I drank deeply of my spirit wine, savoring the taste and the sensation of it flowing down my throat and seeping into my core, where it mingled with my pneuma.
“Do you think this is the learning experience he had in mind?” the hetaira asked mirthfully, seating herself behind me and threading her fingers through my hair. A particularly vicious blow to the side broke bone, sending my cousin staggering sideways. “Somehow, I think not.”
“A lesson is learned regardless.” The fool had no one to blame but himself. His pankration was atrocious, the time he spent toiling between the legs of whores instead of the gymnasium made plainly apparent. In an ideal world this would serve as a wakeup call. But I had known him too long to hope for that.
Heron’s supporters had been the first to fall silent while the rest of the initiates and their companions heckled and cheered, but as the brutality mounted even the drunkest of the lot grew quiet. The sound of my cousin’s grunting filled the chamber, along with the dull noise of the slave striking his flesh.
Finally my cousin’s patience reached its limit. He swung furiously, forcing the slave back, and then held an open hand out. Palm up. My eyes narrowed.
“Arrogant filth,” Heron snarled, baring blood-stained teeth. “You think you’re fit to trade blows with an initiate of my stature? You were called on as a joke.” Light bloomed within his palm. That rosy glow crept, slowly but inevitably, to the tips of his fingers.
“But so be it. If you want to act like an initiate, I will treat you like one!”
My worthless cousin lunged forward, striking at a slave with the Rosy-Fingers of Dawn. Had it connected as it should have, I may have taken him to task myself for the insult. It didn’t, though. It didn’t even come close.
The slave lunged beneath my cousin’s grapple with unreasonable speed, diving into his legs and sending them both to the marble. Those rosy fingers never found purchase, the slave riding him through every tumble and roll with undeniable alacrity. And then it was over. The slave took his back and wound the chain around my cousin’s throat, hauling up and choking him.
Silence gave way to shouts of outrage as Heron scrabbled at the chain, his most ardent supporters among the cult coming to their feet. The slave ignored them all and wrenched harder, standing and dragging Heron up with him. My cousin’s eyes bulged.
For a moment the slave did not respond. My pneuma rose.
Heron collapsed to the floor, staining the marble red as he heaved for breath.
“You’re tempting the Fates!”
My eyes rolled. The young men of the Rosy Dawn blustered and spat at a lonely bonded slave, no doubt feeling quite righteous about themselves. It took an embarrassing amount of time for one to pluck up the courage to actually approach him, and only then with the company of two others. The slave shifted his feet, hands flexing.
“I said that’s enough.” The three mystikos froze in their tracks, looking my way. I waved them off. “He’s learned enough from my cousin, don’t you think?”
The heteira in attendance tittered and laughed, and only a few of the other initiates kept their silence on my cousin’s behalf. The trio hastened back to their lounges and the comforting hands of their hired companions. The hetaira that had hitched herself to me chuckled softly, reclining further so that her thighs were pressed against my back and her bosom rested over my head. Bold, even for a whore.
Heron recovered soon after, thunder in his eyes. His pneuma, pitiful thing that it was, roiled with murderous intent. I smothered it beneath my own, meeting his glare with dull amusement. For a moment it almost looked like he would make something of it, perhaps call me out, but no. That would be too manly of him. Instead he found his feet and stalked back to the lounge beside my own, shoving his prostitute from the bench and reclothing himself in stony silence. The chatter of drunken young men and women soon filled the chambers.
“It was a valiant effort,” I offered my cousin. His jaw clenched. “You’d surely have won if his legs were bound too.” He held silent, and that was the only credit I’d give him. The fool deserved the loss in standing. I drained the last of my cup until all that remained was the impure lees, closing my eyes and tracing the essence of the spirit wine as it coursed through me.
The hetaira’s stroking hand stilled. I opened my eyes to find the slave standing in front of me. Looking at me.
Looking down at me.
My pneuma flooded the symposia chambers. Mystikos choked on mouthfuls of spirit wine while hetaira trembled and hid behind them. The whore behind me did not move, did not breathe. Even my cousin’s rage gave way to immediate unease. I raised an eyebrow at the bonded man who had dared to place himself above me.
He was unphased.
“How may I serve the Young Aristocrat?”
His tone, his bearing, his expression. They were all utterly unacceptable.
“I should kill you where you stand,” I told him honestly.
“If that is your wish.”
I considered him. He was worn and tattered, but not how you would expect of a lifelong slave. His body was muscled in the sculpted way of thinking men, and his skin was only lightly tanned. A product of conquest, then. His duties had not yet turned his body grotesque, made leather of his skin or warped his frame. His eyes were defiant.
I lashed out with a hand and he did not flinch from it. The chain connecting his wrists parted like a strand of silk.
“It is not my wish,” I decided. “Leave us. You’ve had enough fun.”
The slave dipped his head just enough to not offer insult. Then he turned and strode out of the chamber on bare feet.
Hours later I stepped out into the courtyard, the midnight breeze a more than welcome reprieve from the symposia chamber. I inhaled deeply, and then sighed, exhaling my frustration and impatience into the open air.
I could only entertain the other mystikos for so long before their sophistry began to grate. It was a duty that I couldn’t ignore as the first and only son of the Rosy Dawn Cult’s kyrios, and that was the only reason I suffered it. They were so dull. Their ethos, their discourse, and especially their cultivation. They were so far from Olympus Mons that I doubted they could even see it.
“Even you must be better company, slave.”
The slave who had no business being in my father’s courtyard did not look up from his work, though to call it that was a stretch. He was tuning a lyre. It was a crude thing, the arms and crossbar made of twisted reeds and the tuning pegs of carved bone. Certainly nothing that a member of the cult would have paid to have made. I moved to get a closer look.
Our courtyard was of the same scale as the rest of the estate- that was to say, massive in every way. Where the average citizen might take pride in a small pavilion in the center of their home, we enjoyed a vast expanse of vibrant green gardens and marble statues carved with divine precision in the likeness of the Aetos family’s past fathers, each standing proudly in a pool of crystalline water.
The slave had sat himself on the edge of one of those pools to do his work, and had even gone so far as to dip his feet into its pure waters. Being in the courtyard like this for his own pleasure was already cause for a severe lashing, but that? That was cause for execution. Had anyone else found him, he would already be dead.
It was clear that he didn’t care.
“How may I serve the Young Aristocrat?” he asked again, as unperturbed as before.
I was leaning against a pillar covered in winding vines before I knew it, looking over his shoulder while he tuned his crude instrument. Each plucked string sounded sweeter than the last.
“Play for me,” I decided.
Minutes that had dragged on torturously slow in the symposia chamber flowed like water in the courtyard while he plucked his strings of sheep’s gut. It was an instrument crafted from a slave’s materials, but it was not a slave’s hands that made it sing. For the first time in hours I found myself smiling fainty.
“You’re skilled,” I told him during a lull. He only nodded, as if my praise was to be expected. Perhaps it was. A suspicion that had been seeded in my mind earlier, the moment he arrived with the other slaves to deliver food and spirit wine, took firm root.
Fortunately it was a simple thing to confirm.
“Tell me, slave,” I said, looking up at the celestial glory. “Were you born in this city?”
“Where do you come from, then?”
“The greatest city in the world.”
“Ho? Those are fighting words.” My arms crossed as I considered. “Go on, then. Let’s hear the name of the great city.”
The slave’s jaw clenched.
I knew it.
The slave’s music stopped, his shoulders tensing. He watched me from the corner of wrathful gray eyes. I was smirking, I realized. It hadn’t been my intent. Yet even so, I found myself going a step further and voicing the first thought that had come to my mind.
“I don’t know any city by that name. Only a salted ruin.”
The peasant’s lyre shattered to pieces against the marble pillar where my head had been leaning a moment ago, the tortoise shell flying apart from the force. I spun from my crouch, putting the pillar between us as the slave surged out of the pool.
I inhaled deeply, feeling my pneuma race through my body. From the first blow, Heron should have recognized his mistake. He was a fool, but even fools had eyes. But he had insisted on treating his opponent like a bonded slave, even after his body felt the truth of the matter, and he’d paid for it.
This slave was no slave at all.
Clenched fists lashed out with deliberation and speed, each a potentially debilitating blow if landed. I weaved through them, tracking the motion of his hips as he drove me furiously back. Even outraged as he was, his movements were deliberate and brutal. His anger was cold. His pankration was not.
Pankration, the bonded art of striking and grappling, had as many styles and faces as there were stars in heaven. It was the first thing a cultivator learned and the last thing he mastered. It was not flashy, and it could not, by design, withstand an armed phalanx or a cavalry’s charge. It was a simple art, yet it was infinite in its little complexities.
I caught a jab on raised forearms and lowered my shoulders, driving forward and throwing us both into the pool. At some point, my smirk had become a wild grin.
The realm where pankration truly shined was in single combat. One man against another. There, it became something divine.
My pneuma flared and wound its way through my body, strengthening my muscles and enhancing their flexibility as we wrestled for control in the clear waters of the pool. It had been clear to me from the start that there was something off about this slave, something unique from the others. His performance against my cousin had just made it obvious.
Pneuma was the vital force that gave men their strength, the circulating breath that facilitated all life. It was present in all living things, even those that didn’t breathe in the traditional sense. Only a select few could control their pneuma. Even fewer could focus it, concentrate it, and bid it to multiply.
A slave once bonded in chains could not even control his own destiny. How could he possibly control his pneuma?
I drove a forearm up under the slave’s throat and flipped us both, winding one leg around his own and bracing the other against the bottom of the pool. I applied pressure that no common citizen could match, enhanced by my own vital life force. The slave twisted and bucked like a bull, snarling, until the slick marble at the bottom of the pool betrayed me and my footing slipped. We rolled, water filling my nose and throat. I was laughing.
In the end, there could only be one word to describe that unique quality. That formless thing that had caught my cousin’s eye, compelled him to call out a slave for a row in full view of his peers. That special characteristic that allowed a man chained and robbed of all control of his life to lunge fearlessly at a far stronger opponent.
To disdain me with his eyes, and strike my face with his clenched fist.
“The audacity!” I exclaimed in purest joy, and struck him right back.
We sat side by side, leaning back on our hands as we heaved for breath beside the filial pool. Its waters were tinted red.
“What’s your name, slave?” I asked him. He grimaced and spat blood.
Of course. What else could it have been?
“King of nothing. King of no one. I’ll call you Sol.” I said, letting my head hang back. I was bruised and bleeding. I’d never felt better in my life.
“Call me Griffon.”