[This place is truly awful,] Xaphan remarked.
[Too much like that prison?] Leon asked.
[Too much like that fucking prison…] Xaphan muttered.
[Well, we’ll only be here a few days,] Leon said.
[But there’s still the worst place to see before we can go,] Xaphan said bitterly, causing Leon to frown a little. [Whatever,] Xaphan continued, [don’t mind me, do what you will.]
Leon could understand Xaphan’s antipathy for the Giants’ sense of architecture, as they seemed quite taken with the trapezoidal hallways he’d seen in the prison and archives. This extended to more than just their hallways, too, as much of the furniture the Giants built for themselves had slightly wider bases to ape that style. Of course, it was all built out of black and grey basalt and the odd piece of shiny granite rather than the clean grey metal of the prison, but Xaphan still couldn’t help but hate that shape.
But the demon would have to suck it up, as there was no way Leon was going to miss out on the chance to explore the Cradle, no matter what the Stone Giants had to say about it. However, he wouldn’t be able to go anytime soon, as the diplomats had gone into a flurry of activity upon getting settled into the guest room in Rakos’ hall. Alix and all of the diplomats’ squires were organizing papers and putting the finishing touches on the sleeping arrangements while Leon and the diplomats were sitting around a table going over their negotiation strategy—as well as giving Leon a late introduction to Giant politics.
“The Stone Giants are relatively simple, politically speaking,” Aquillius explained to Leon. “Rakos is their Chief, though I suppose it might be more correct to translate their word for his title as ‘King’, but our official word is ‘Chief’. Here in this crater, his word is law.”
Picking up on something Aquillius just said, Leon asked, “Is it ‘he’? Do Stone Giants even have definable sexes or genders?”
“Oh,” Aquillius said, slightly surprised at Leon’s question. “Actually, I don’t think they do. I just said ‘he’ because it’s easier, I suppose. Regardless, you are to treat Rakos like royalty, even if you don’t follow his directives.”
“Got it,” Leon responded.
“Good. We call this the ‘Crater Tribe,’ and it has more than eight subordinate tribes of Giants underneath it. They collect tribute from these subordinate Giants, though we’re not sure what form that takes. It could be the reason for many of the raids on the Eastern Territories is these subordinate tribes need to pay tribute to the Crater Tribe, but again, we’re not quite sure. I do know that the occasional human slaves they take certainly aren’t kept here…”
“I would suppose any slaves they take wouldn’t last long here,” Leon said. “There are hardly many farms in the area, so what would they eat?”
“A good point,” Aquillius replied with a smile, glad to see that Leon was thinking about the problem. “Assuming we’re able to clinch this non-aggression pact, the next treaty we hope to get with the Crater Tribe is the repatriation of these taken slaves, if any are still breathing.”
“Would this non-aggression pact with the Crater Tribe extend to the subordinate tribes?” Leon asked.
Rather than Aquillius, it was Lucilius who replied, “Yes. You can think of these subordinate tribes as a lot like the noble vassals of the Bull King: semi-independent, but still subject to the decrees of the Crater Tribe. If Rakos orders them not to attack our Eastern Territories, then attack our Eastern Territories they will not.”
“Mmm,” Leon hummed, absorbing this quick briefing as best as he could.
“We would’ve given you a much more comprehensive briefing if time allowed,” Aquillius said, “but unfortunately, you came to us quite late. So, we’re going to have to leave this where it is for now. Sir Lucilius, I’m going to put you in charge of getting Sir Leon up to speed once we return to the Horns.”
“Yes, Sir!” Lucilius responded.
“Good. Now, it’s getting to be about time for us to meet with the Giants, make our formal introductions, and give our gifts. This should probably take three or four hours. We’ll convene here afterward and go over our agenda for the next few days.”
Everyone nodded in acknowledgment of Aquillius’ schedule, and soon enough, a Stone Giant opened the door of their guest room and it was time for them to go. The soldiers stayed in the room, while the diplomats and their squires departed. Their destination was the throne room at the end of the hall, with a throne carved out of the same trap rock pillars that the mountains were made of, and merging seamlessly into the gigantic wall behind it. This wall sparkled with bits of granite, and the pillars were warped and distorted, creating spectacular waves of glittering pillars behind the throne.
Upon the throne was Rakos, waiting for them in a pose that Leon honestly didn’t think the Giant could make, given that its body was made entirely out of rock—one arm rested on the throne, while Rakos rested its head on the other. It even had one leg crossed over the other, with what Leon identified as an ankle resting on what passed for Rakos’ knee.
The Giant rumbled in its language as Aquillius slightly bent at the hip with his right hand over his chest and his left hand behind his back in a respectful—but not submissive—bow.
“Chief Rakos,” Aquillius began, “I, Marcus Bellius Aquillius, Knight of the Bull Kingdom, present to you my party…” Aquillius quickly listed off all of the names of the diplomats and their squires. “… and humbly thank you for your generous hospitality.”
The Giant on the throne rumbled again and almost seemed to shudder in laughter. Or at least, so it seemed to Leon. The Giant spoke for several long minutes, occasionally gesturing with its enormous arm and causing every ruby embedded in its stony skin to sparkle in the light of the four massive pits of fire flanking the throne and door that illuminated the room.
Leon and the diplomatic party were there for as long as Aquillius guessed, a little over three hours. Aquillius was the only diplomat who spoke, but Rakos’ throne room was filled with several dozen Giants that often quaked and rumbled with their Chief at certain things either Aquillius or Rakos said. Leon tried to follow their conversation as best he could, but since he was could only understand Aquillius and Rakos seemed particularly verbose, he quickly found himself lost and struggling to keep his attention focused.
Finally, though, after presenting the gifts of gold and silver to Rakos and several of the stronger Giants in his ‘court’, the diplomatic party left the throne room to return to the guest room.
“Man, how much did those things cost?” Leon heard Lucilius wonder out loud, referring to the gold and silver bands that, to a human, would be an absurdly ostentatious crown, but were barely rings to the Stone Giants.
“If it helps us buy peace, then it doesn’t matter,” Aquillius said, hearing the junior diplomat and shooting him a glare to shut him up until they returned to the guest room.
Lucilius quickly quieted down, but he glanced over at Eleanor, who had arranged for the gifts, and she mouthed, “More than twenty million.”
The former diplomat almost reeled in shock at the staggering sum. The Giants had seemed pleased with the gifts, at least.
Aquillius sat all the diplomats down and began their post-introduction meeting. There truly wasn’t much to say, as everyone already knew the agenda, but Aquillius liked to make sure everyone was on the same page. Half an hour later, the meeting was adjourned.
As the other diplomats went their own ways with their squires, Leon quickly caught up to Aquillius before he could disappear somewhere in the enormous guest rooms.
“Sir Leon, is there something you need?” Aquillius asked politely.
“Actually, Sir, there is,” Leon answered.
“What is it?”
“Well, I’m not too comfortable being this far underground, Sir, so I was wondering what the rules were regarding whether or not we could go outside.”
Of course, despite asking this, Leon wasn’t going to stay there if Aquillius said he couldn’t go for a walk, but it was always better to ask first, he thought. If something went wrong, it would be better if someone knew where he was, and that he had someone’s permission to be out there.
Aquillius thought for a moment, weighing the risks. After several quiet moments, he said, “… It… should be fine. The Giants here aren’t particularly hostile, especially with our negotiations and friendly meetings lately… Sure, you can go outside. Just be sure to be back before… let’s say ten o’clock.”
“Got it, Sir,” Leon agreed. That would only give him about three hours, but they would be there in the crater for several days, so he suppressed his impatience and accepted the time hack.
But, just as Leon was about to end the conversation and head outside, Aquillius said, “Oh, and make sure to check in with me when you get back.”
Leon had to fight to keep his face in its usual stoic expression instead of frowning, but he managed a “Yes, Sir.”
Aquillius then nodded to him, and Leon turned to go. On the way, he stopped to tell Alix to relax and meditate, and that he’d be back in a few hours. His squire wasn’t happy being left behind, but she accepted his order and went back to their tent.
With everything taken care of that needed to be taken care of, Leon hurried out of the door and walked as fast as he could down the hall without seeming suspicious. He passed a few Giants in the hall, and though they gave him odd looks—or, at least, their ‘heads’ seemed to track him a little—they didn’t stop him, and he soon found himself back outside of the hall.
The crater stretched out before him, and he took a few minutes to just stand at the edge of the entryway and admire what the Giants had built. Their ‘tribe’ was, Leon guessed, as big as the entire noble quarter of the capital, and every cave that the Giants had cut into the walls of the crater would be considered a palatial estate in human civilization. But, Leon hadn’t gone outside to sightsee, as he reminded himself when his gaze eventually wandered back to the raised platform in the center of the crater where the Cradle sat waiting for him.
Leon’s instinct was to immediately run over and begin his exploration, but there were still plenty of Giants milling around the stairs and platforms around the edge of the crater, despite the sun having set more than an hour before.
‘If these things don’t go to sleep at night, then this’ll not be easy…’ Leon thought to himself in dismay. As he thought more about it, he didn’t even know if the Giants needed rest at all, let alone stick to a human-like sleep schedule. Needless to say, Leon quickly found himself rubbing the emerald ring on his hand, fighting the urge to disappear right then and there.
The bottom of the crater was a rough and broken landscape, which only grew more so the further away from the crater walls one would go. Leon decided to leisurely stroll around the fissures, crevices, and pillars for a while, and if he felt like he could get away with it, then he’d activate his ring and make for the Cradle. It was only the approach to the Cradle, where the landscape evened out, that was off-limits to outsiders.
He started walking away from Rakos’ palace. The entrance was large enough that Leon had no fears of getting lost, as he could simply climb up one of the bigger pillars in the crater and check his bearings—plus, the Cradle platform loomed over everything, so he figured he’d always have a landmark in sight. Leon was grateful for these things, as the center of the crater turned out to be a warren of cracks and crevices in the mass of pillars, and Leon found himself turned around more than once whenever he took his eyes off the Cradle for too long.
There weren’t any Giants in the pillar-maze, and the noise of the tribe didn’t penetrate that far into the maze. This silence nearly brought a tear of joy to Leon’s eye as he felt himself unconsciously relax in the darkness. The only thing he could hear was the sound of his own footsteps on the step-like basalt hexagons beneath him.
After about ten minutes of wandering, Leon realized that he was deep enough in the maze that he could activate his ring and none of the Giants would notice. Or at least, none of them could see him, assuming they had eyes.
He began to channel his magic power into the ring. He hadn’t used it since leaving Fort 127, so he was looking forward to seeing how long he could hold the invisibility almost as much as he was looking forward to exploring the Cradle. The emerald flashed green, light bent around him, and he slowly faded from view.
With a smile on his invisible face, Leon began to quickly walk in the direction of the Cradle.
However, barely five minutes before he arrived, a massive shadow passed over him, blocking the moonlight for a brief moment. Leon froze, his first thought being that a Giant had seen him and come to stop him. A few seconds later, he heard a dull thump come from not too far away, and with his eyes now turned to the sky, he saw what had made that shadow: a massive griffin.
He only got a quick glance at the beast, but he could still tell that it was strong and powerful, with an aura that was far too strong for Leon to make an accurate guess as to its relative tier. It had the body of a lion more than twelve feet long, with claws that looked like they could shred steel, a lustrous golden coat, and a deep brown mane. The mane slowly gave way to the golden-brown feathers that covered the griffin’s eagle-like head and wings.
Leon could only stare and mutter, “Shit…” at the majesty of the creature that was strong enough to fly through the middle of a tribe of Stone Giants with no obvious fear. But, as beautiful as the beast was, Leon considered it no more than a mere distraction that he could tell Elise about when he saw her again rather than a thing of any consequence. And then he heard some shuffling and pained squeaks coming from where the griffin had momentarily landed.
The sounds didn’t seem to be coming from too far away, so Leon decided to indulge his curiosity and check them out. He took a turn away from the path he was following, squeezed through a pair of pillars blocking his way, and emerged in a small clearing. In the center of the clearing was a tiny white bundle that twitched and squeaked; whatever it was, it was clearly in pain and started to panic, but it wasn’t strong enough to do more than lay there.
Leon apprehensively approached the bundle, and his eyes widened when he got close enough to clearly see what it was: a newborn griffin, white as fresh snow and no larger than a house cat.
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