Virtuous Sons: A Greco Roman Xianxia - 2.2
Sol, The Raven from Rome
I moved silently through their ranks, looking the sailors up and down. They stood frozen, waiting for something, the same thing that I was searching for in them. The closer that I looked, the more wretched that they seemed. Still too thin. Still too filthy and unkempt. All of them too crude, and not a single awakened soul to be found among them.
“I told you not to come back,” I said, and the man closest to me jerked back as if I’d slapped him.
“But the eagle came to us-!”
“And how far did he have to fly to find you?”
The men shuffled their feet, ducking their heads or casting their eyes to the side.
“We told you to make better lives for yourselves,” I said. “We told you to be free. Twice we offered you your choice of tomorrow, and twice you chose to stay instead.”
They shrank away with every word, unwilling to accept my message but unable to speak out against me in the wake of what they’d seen me do to Olympia’s dock city.
“You’re all too weak to sail the course I’ve charted for myself.”
Their backs hunched. Their fists clenched and unclenched. Impotent. Undisciplined.
“You should have followed Kabhur’s example,” I told them frankly, because it needed to be said. “You should have gone home.”
“What home?” a boy snapped. The unruly pirate child, the one that had shot my brother with an arrow the day we assaulted the slavers he’d kept company with, glared down at me defiantly. Beside him in the crow’s nest, Selene looked down with clear concern.
“Whatever home you chose,” I answered. “You should have sailed this ship to paradise and sold it once ashore. You could have lived comfortably. You could have done anything you desired, lived any life you wanted.”
“Not like this!” The pirate child heatedly denied, banging his fist on the edge of the crow’s nest. “We sell this ship, we’ll never see her like again! We sell her and we’ll spend the rest of our lives shoveling shit for slave wages anyway! We’ll never be a part of something like this again! We’ll die old and fat, wishin’ that we’d stayed!”
Bit by bit, I watched conviction straighten their spines. Not one of them disagreed with the irreverent child that had once had a hand in their enslavement. Not one of them had been swayed. They raised their eyes to mine once more, and though the terror and the awe made their pupils shake, they did not turn away.
They were the castoffs and the dregs, as Griffon had so kindly put it once before. They were men with nowhere to go, and nothing to their names. The only strand connecting them to one another was a desire for a greater purpose. Their only common ground was an insatiable hunger, a desire to be a part of something larger than themselves.
Emboldened by the pirate child, they added their voices to the mix.
“Don’t toss us out, captain!”
“Don’t leave us for the waves!”
“Let us stay, cap’n!”
“We can serve!”
“We want to live-!”
Amidst the gently rolling waves, a monster exploded out of the foam.
Selene shouted a warning while Sorea beat his wings and took flight. The oarsmen screamed, flinging themselves away from the creature as it surged over the ship’s rails. But it was too late, and they were far too slow. The monster reached out with nails like sweeping daggers, each one of them a killing blow.
I caught the siren by her throat and crushed her slender neck.
The men tumbled over rowing benches, over each other, and failing that, over their own feet in their panic. They stared up at the foul creature, wide-eyed, as she thrashed against my grip and slammed her glossy scales against the deck.
“And they say fishing’s hard,” Griffon chuckled, appearing by my side while forty hands of his intent swarmed across the siren’s body, holding her in place.
The monster was half woman, half creature of the sea. She was nothing quite so terrible as the drakaina that we’d seen the Aetos brothers fight, more fish than serpent woman, and she had missed her opportunity to sing. Though she struggled harder than any fish, her snarling lips could do little more than hiss with my hand around her neck.
Of course, she was still a monster. No matter how hard I clenched my fist, my mortal strength was not enough to break her neck. She knew it, too. And though she was in no position to sway us with her song, that didn’t stop her from speaking out.
“Captain of salt and ash,” the mermaid hissed, her tone as intimate as it was cruel, “you have no place on this earth. There is no room in heaven for you, no punishment cruel enough that yet exists below. Look into my eyes and know that your luck will never turn. Look into my eyes and know that every word I say is true.”
“I recognize that ugly voice,” Griffon leaned in, golden hair shifting in the sea breeze. Golden light shone behind his eyes. “Hello again, Melpomene. I was hoping you’d bleed out.”
The mermaid’s expression became something truly ugly then, and her voice grew twice as venomous to match it.
“Son of scarlet sin-“
Griffon slammed the Scarlet Oracle’s adamant dagger up through the underside of the siren’s mouth, hooking her like a fish. Ichor like molten lead spilled from her split tongue, and for a moment the siren’s black hatred turned to terror. Then the muse returned, and the siren dislocated her own bones in an effort to slip free and tear my brother’s eyes out.
A holler split the air, and a plain old skinning knife scattered off the monster’s scales. Undeterred, one unawoken sailor threw himself bodily onto her tail and tried again, searching for a gap that his mundane knife could cut into. He was joined by another, this one hurriedly winding a length of rope around the thinnest part of the monster’s tail and the rail of the Eos, seeking to tie her down. Then came another, rushing across the deck with a rusty harpoon in hand. Then two more, each of them working together to raise a heavy rowing bench above their heads and bring it down on the siren’s back. Another, and another, all of them surging forward to lend their hopeless aid.
Not a single one of their attacks did anything but incense the monstrous woman. Yet they fought, and they struggled, knowing all the while that it was in vain.
“Useless,” the siren slurred in Melpomene’s voice, contorting her sinuous body in a violent snapping motion. It wasn’t enough to shake my grip or Griffon’s, but it was enough to break the rope and send the swarming sailors crashing back across the deck. “Useless!” she said again, her voice rising mockingly as she directed her scorn at us. “Now, as then, forever more, useless-!”
Selene buried her spear in the monster’s naked chest, scarlet eyes burning bright, and the siren shrieked in ear-splitting agony.
The oarsmen staggered to their feet, spitting bloody phlegm and broken teeth, and surged back across the deck in a roaring tide. They threw themselves upon the shaft of Selene’s spear, adding all their strength to hers as she drove it slowly through the siren’s heart.
“Look closely, all of you,” I demanded, calling upon the Greek captain’s virtue and wrenching the Siren’s head down further onto Griffon’s knife. The siren made unimaginable sounds, a nightmare made manifest. With my empty hand, I gripped the shaft of Selene’s spear and forced it deeper through the monster’s chest.
“This is what we’ve earned for all of our exciting living,” I told the straining men behind me. They stared at the monstrous woman, undying to the end, their eyes wild but intent. “This is what will follow us until the day we die. This is our reward – a sea of monsters, and a storm on every horizon. This is our fate, and it is yours should you persist.”
The siren screamed at the top of her lungs. The sailors’ ears began to bleed.
“Let go of the spear,” I urged them. “Step down, and this will be the last monster you ever see.”
I waited for them to waver. I waited for them to break.
Instead, they planted their feet and screamed back in the siren’s face, struggling with all their strength to press forward.
The pirate child’s bolted arrow shattered against the siren’s open eye, and Griffon burst out laughing. He twisted the adamant knife around, dragging it down and sweeping it sideways out of the siren’s throat in a spray of liquid lead. We held her still as she twisted and thrashed in her death throes, until the deck was coated in metallic lifeblood that shimmered in the sun.
When the life went out of the creature’s eyes and the specter of the Muse had left us in temporary peace, the men threw up their hands and cheered in heady disbelief. They screamed their defiance at the sea, beat their skinny chests with clenched fists, and embraced each other in relief. Selene joined them, bruising more than one poor soul with the strength of her embrace.
I threw the monster’s corpse to the deck and their celebrations stopped dead.
“Unacceptable,” I snapped. The smiles vanished from their faces.
Selene hesitated, looking between Griffon and me. “Solus-?”
“Your bearing, your weakness, the rusted state of your arms and your utter lack of armor, all of it is unacceptable.” I stalked over the siren’s corpse and bore down upon the ragged group of sorry souls. They watched me come like I was death itself.
Still, they held their ground. One man grit his yellowed teeth and forced himself to speak.
“We may not be worthy, sir, but we still-“
“No.” I seized him by his filthy chiton and heaved him up, forcing him to straighten his spine and rise up from the hunch he’d learned while chained to an oar. “Worth has nothing to do with it. You aren’t ready.
“Straighten up!” I barked, and they all strained for the skies. “You should have listened when you had the chance.”
Their teeth came together. I stepped back and looked them up and down. They were wretched. They were lost.
But they wouldn’t be forever.
“Listen to me, and listen well – this is the last chance anyone will ever give you, and one more than you deserve,” I informed them, and their confusion turned to sudden hope. “Sit down, cast aside your suicidal ambitions, and accept the life that the Fates prescribed you. Leave this ship at a port of your choosing and live a peaceful life.”
Sorea swooped down onto my shoulders, dagger-sharp talons digging into my chest and back as he spread his wings wide over my head.
“Or stand,” I told them fiercely, these hopeless men at oars, “and condemn yourselves to my company. Know that you will suffer like you have never suffered before. Know that the only reward for one backbreaking labor will be two more in turn. Know that no matter where you go, no matter who you come to be, you will always be marked by my association.”
I stood straight and squared my shoulders, clenching my hand into a white-knuckled fist. Within myself, my pneuma roiled like deep sea waves, crashing and rattling the foundations of my soul. I let none of it show. That wasn’t an officer’s way.
“Stand proud here and now,” I told our ragged sea dogs, “and you will be a son of Rome until the day that raging heaven strikes you down.”
I raised my fist and slammed it to my chest, the sound like clapping thunder. Together as one, the castoff crew of the Eos shouted out and struck their fists against their chests in a proper Roman salute.
All at once, like the lifting of a curse, I felt the weight on my shoulders lighten. Not entirely, not even by half, but enough to ease the strain. As it did, a new awareness exploded across my senses. Ten lives, ten worlds, each one mind-boggling in its scope. I felt them coalesce under me, submitting to my command, and I felt them take a portion of the weight off my shoulders and onto theirs, carrying it alongside their own. With my naked eyes, I saw their knees buckle and their shoulders bow as they struggled to adjust, gritting their teeth and straining without complaint.
Beyond that, deeper than I had ever seen before as the captain of the Fifth, the enhanced perception of Prometheus’ golden ichor showed me the bounty of their hearts. Each reserve of blood was a fraction of what I’d had before Olympia fell, but far more than what I posessed today. With this, I could do it. With their lives, I could survive. More than that, I could make myself strong. Strong enough to-
I crushed the ichor’s whispering urges in my hand.
The oarsmen straightened back up as my added weight was lifted from their shoulders, gasping in tense relief. Then I took the rest of their weight as well, and their relief turned to shock and wonder.
The weight of ten worlds joined the forty on my shoulders, and the liquid lead coating the ship’s deck began to boil as the Eos’ eagle formation burned itself out from the inside. I clenched my jaw, unwilling to let my weakness show. I felt the boards of the deck begin to bow and strain beneath me. Alone, I couldn’t yet carry their weight with a proper captain’s bearing. But if the weight was divided, cut in two, could I withstand it then? I could.
I sacrificed a single moment of my future to the golden burning embers of my heart. The specter of my mirror image, stolen from that frozen moment, shouldered himself beneath that weight and helped me raise it up. Then the moment passed and he was gone. So I sacrificed another moment. And another. And another after that.
With this, every moment of my life from here on out would cost me double. In exchange for carrying their weight, my shriveled lifespan would be cut in half. It was the easiest trade I’d ever made.
One of the deck boards cracked in two beneath my heel. The light of rosy flames shone through the cracks, glinting beneath pools of boiling lead. Though I could bear their weight like this, I was still a burden on my surroundings.
It was time I put an end to this particular annoyance.
Without burning my heart’s blood, the Greek half of my virtue could exert the pressure of forty men. While my heart was burning like this, moment by moment, that number doubled to eighty. I invoked the Greek captain’s virtue on myself, willing myself to fall up into the sky, and matched its magnitude exactly to the weight upon my shoulders. The Eos’ burning eagle formation dimmed back down to its dormant state as my burden upon the earth returned to normality for the first time since I’d left the Orphic House.
I exhaled slowly, and met the eyes of my conscripts.
“My fellow soldiers,” I addressed them with unbowed shoulders and soaring spirits, “welcome to the Fifth.”
Their sleeping souls awoke.