Bonus chapter 1 of 3 thanks to my generous supporters on Patreon.
The first thing Aquillius did upon returning to Rakos’ hall was to point at a chair and say to Leon, “Sit.” Leon complied, with an apprehensive Anzu hiding behind his legs. Aquillius then turned around and left the guest room to meet with Rakos, with Juliana, Antonius, and half a dozen soldiers in tow.
The others gave Leon a wide berth, giving him nothing but the occasional curious or slightly hostile look. Even Alix and the other diplomats avoided him, with Alix choosing to quietly read—or at least, quietly stare at an open book—and the two diplomats whispering to each other in a private alcove. Leon didn’t mind this treatment, as it allowed him the time to take stock of the changes in his body.
Perhaps the most obvious was that he could now change his magic power into lightning, meaning he was a fifth-tier mage. This was the only distinction between the fourth and fifth-tier, so after a few breathing exercises and some silent meditation, he realized that his mana reserves weren’t that much greater than they were before he ascended tiers.
One thing that he wanted to check, but was more than a little hesitant to, was Xaphan’s fire. The demon had told him months ago that he would be able to use his fire with impunity once he was fifth-tier, but to test it around so many other people was something he wasn’t willing to do. There were quite a few people who knew he could use some kind of fire, of course, but he still only wanted to rely on demonfire when there was no other choice.
Plus, he figured it would be a little rude to suddenly call forth fire or lightning right in the middle of Rakos’ guest rooms with about a hundred other people around.
While he was getting a rough idea of his new capabilities, Leon asked Xaphan, [How are you doing, demon?]
[Hmm? What do you mean?] Xaphan asked in confusion.
[How are you on getting to the sixth-tier, or whatever you demons call it?]
Xaphan’s face twisted in anger and embarrassment, and he said, [I’m doing just fine, boy.]
[I’m sure you are, but is ‘just fine’ all you want to be?] Leon replied, forcing a joking tone.
[I’m still fifth-tier equivalent, and I will be for a while unless you have some kind of idea for speeding things up…?]
[No, I guess I was just curious as to whether you were worried at all that I’m about to pass you up in power.]
The demon quietly sighed and said with a heavily controlled tone, [The only thing I’m worried about right now is what is going to happen to you. Even if the giants let you leave this crater alive, I can guarantee that your fellows are none too happy with you right now.]
[Ahh, you used your stellar powers of observation to notice that, did you?] Leon asked sarcastically—even a blind person would be able to see the rejection in the eyes of everyone around Leon. There were, however, a few curious looks given to Anzu, who was still huddled behind Leon’s legs and glaring back at anyone who looked at him, and no one was willing to approach Leon and ask about the griffin.
Before Xaphan could respond to Leon’s comment, the doors to the guest rooms burst open, revealing a serious and unsmiling Aquillius, who looked directly at Leon and said, “Come with me.” He then turned around and left, not even waiting for Leon to comply.
Leon almost leaped to his feet, startling Anzu a little, and followed Aquillius out of the room. Anzu scurried after the two as fast as his little legs could carry him.
The walk to the throne room almost went by without any conversation, with Aquillius setting a quick pace and not looking at Leon even once. However, he knew that simply dragging Leon into the room without giving him some kind of heads-up about what was going on would be a bad idea, so he stopped just outside the throne room and finally faced the young man following him.
“The giants demanded your presence, and they wouldn’t hear anything I had to say without you,” Aquillius explained in a carefully controlled tone.
Despite this, Xaphan still picked up on some concealed bitterness, saying, [I think this guy finds this entire event to be insulting…]
[I can understand,] Leon replied. [He’s put so much time into this, and now he has a new guy putting it at risk and the giants he’s built a rapport with won’t even speak with him without said new guy. I’d be furious as well.]
“Sir,” Leon said with as much respect as he could to acknowledge Aquillius’ explanation.
“I’m going to try and smooth over any ruffled feathers in there, so you just stay quiet and don’t make a sound unless directly spoken to, got it?”
“Got it, Sir,” Leon tersely responded.
Aquillius then pushed open the massive giant-sized door and led the two into the throne room. Rakos, Lapis, and the dozen other lesser chiefs were waiting for them, as was Juliana, Antonius, and the other guards Aquillius had taken. Everyone was standing—even Rakos, who was standing in front of its throne.
Rakos rumbled, and Aquillius responded with an odd look and asked, “What exactly do you want with my knight? I understand he encroached on your sacred gr-“
But, before Aquillius could continue, the rest of the giants in the room seemed to kick up a fuss, rumbling and grinding and preventing the diplomat from getting a word in edgewise. Rakos quickly reasserted control but waited a few seconds for Aquillius to understand that the giants wanted him to be quiet and not continue speaking out of turn.
Rakos spoke again, and this time Aquillius turned to Leon and said, “They want you to step forward and stand in front of them.”
Leon nodded and slowly took a few steps forward, preparing himself for the battle that he felt was inevitable. He felt like he was on trial, with all the giants in the room seemingly staring at him, and the group behind him boring holes in his back with their eyes. Needless to say, this social pressure had put Leon on edge, and it was all he could do not to rest a hand on his sword for comfort.
He came to a halt about halfway between Aquillius and Rakos. The latter spoke to him, but there was no way he could understand. Leon realized that Rakos asked after that very thing, as Aquillius quickly replied with, “He does not, but I can interpret.”
However, instead of continuing, Rakos turned and spoke to one of the other chiefs. This stone giant, thinner and shorter than most of the others, replied with a few only a few words, then stepped forward. Again, Leon had to repress his instinct to reach for his sword, as he wasn’t too keen on the giant getting closer, but it also hadn’t made any overtly threatening movements.
After another few rumblings from Rakos, Aquillius said, “That giant wants to give you something… I have no idea what, I couldn’t understand what Rakos meant when he described it…”
Leon frowned, but he stood still as the giant lumbered closer. He heard the clinking of chainmail as the soldiers behind him shifted into more defensive stances, ready to act if the giant harmed Leon in any way; he may have gotten them into a mess, but Leon was still a knight of the Bull Kingdom and a member of a diplomatic mission, and he’d be defended even if they had to make permanent enemies out of the Crater Tribe in doing so.
The giant approached Leon, but stopped a few feet away, far enough that it didn’t seem hostile–not that that did anything to help Leon or the soldiers relax. Slowly, as if it understood everyone’s apprehension, the giant extended one of its hands. Like all giants, it had six thick fingers, each equidistant from the others and opposing one of the others. In the center of its palm, however, it had something none of the other giants did: a pale-blue crystal, about the size of one of Leon’s eyes that looked tiny in its massive hand.
The giant rumbled something, but its tone and cadence were slow, quiet, and somber compared to Rakos’ more forceful and authoritative voice.
“It says, ‘touch the crystal’,” Aquillius interpreted.
Leon glanced back at the senior diplomat apprehensively. Aquillius seemed just as nervous and on edge about what was happening as he was, but the diplomat nodded to Leon to go ahead. So, Leon took a deep breath to steel himself for whatever was to come, and he reached out and touched the crystal.
Immediately, he felt a sharp pain right between his eyes, as if he was being stabbed in the forehead, and he fell to the ground just barely holding in his screams of pain. The soldiers behind him drew their swords, while Aquillius, Juliana, and Antonius waved their hands and pulled their own weapons out of their soul realm—a spear, a thin saber, and a war hammer, respectively.
However, the giants did nothing to respond to their actions; they simply stood there, frozen, quietly watching Leon. The giant with the pale-blue crystal even retreated to fall back in with its comrades.
After a few seconds, the pain in Leon’s head went away, and he knelt on the floor gasping for air. He didn’t panic, however, as he’d actually recognized that pain from several experiences he’d had before: whenever Xaphan had given him information, it had always come with a similar, but much more subdued pain.
And what the giants had given him became clear once Leon struggled back to his feet.
Before any of the knights behind him could inquire after Leon’s status, Rakos boomed and thundered, speaking to Leon.
“CAN YOU UNDERSTAND ME, YOUNG HUMAN?”
Doing his best not to show any of his surprise, Leon responded, “I can.”
Aquillius’ eyes instantly swiveled away from the giants to stare in shock at Leon, but the giants ignored him and continued.
“WE WELCOME YOU TO OUR HALLS, AND APOLOGIZE IF OUR HOSPITALITY HAS BEEN LACKING.”
Leon hesitated a bit before responding, as he didn’t quite know what to make of this situation. “… Thank you,” he said with a great deal of uncertainty.
“IT IS AN HONOR TO HAVE ONE THAT WIELDS THE POWER OF THE GODS AMONG US,” Rakos continued. “IF IT IS AGREEABLE TO YOU, WE’D LIKE TO SPEAK FURTHER WITHOUT THE REST OF YOUR COMPANIONS.”
Aquillius, already thoroughly confused as to what had just happened and what was being said, suddenly said, “I am not comfortable leaving one of my people alone here, we still haven’t agreed on that non-aggression pact yet…”
“THEN YOU MAY CONSIDER US AT PEACE. THERE WILL BE NO MORE RAIDS UPON THE LANDS OF THE GREAT BULL.”
The diplomat stared at Rakos, stunned. He’d spent three years of his life trying to get Rakos to say those words, and here they’d been said just to get him to leave the room!
“… I-I’m grateful for your agreement, Chief Rakos, but certainly, this would be better if we got it down in writing first, no?” Aquillius said, tripping over the first few words in his surprise but quickly finding his usual bearing.
“MY WORD IS ENOUGH, NO OTHER CHIEF WILL CROSS ME,” Rakos said. “NOW, PLEASE EXCUSE US, WE WON’T KEEP THE YOUNG HUMAN FOR LONG.”
The other giant chiefs made noises of agreement, confirming that they would not continue their raids, and Aquillius was too flustered to think of any other excuse to stay that wouldn’t insult the chiefs and put that agreement in jeopardy. After a few seconds of frantic thought, Aquillius was forced to lead the others out of the throne room. Just before a pair of giants closed the door behind them, the senior diplomat shot one last conflicted look back at Leon, his eyes conveying a mix of anger, elation, and a hint of jealousy.
Leon was left with Rakos, Lapis, and the other giant chiefs with no one there but Anzu, who was shivering in fear behind his feet. The tiny albino griffin was barely able to lift his head from the terror, but fortunately, the giants didn’t seem to pay him any mind.
“Sooo,” Leon awkwardly began, “what did you mean by ‘power of the gods’?”
“YOU POSSESS THE POWER AND STRENGTH OF OUR CREATORS, OUR GODS. WE HAVE BEEN WAITING CENTURIES FOR ONE WITH THAT POWER TO VISIT US HERE, AND NOW, HERE YOU ARE.”
[I see,] Xaphan whispered from Leon’s soul realm, [they worship the Thunderbird Clan, and they recognized the lightning you used on that giant. This could actually be extremely beneficial, I’m sure they’d do whatever you ask!]
[… Let’s not jump to extremes just yet,] Leon cautioned, [I’m still doubtful as to what their intentions are, and I don’t think they’ll come right out and say it to my face… Besides, their assistance would hardly be practical anywhere that isn’t the Border Mountains…]
“Why did you want to speak with me alone?” Leon asked.
“THAT OTHER ONE HAS BEEN PRESSURING US TO STOP OUR RAIDS. WE HAVE BEEN RELUCTANT TO ABANDON A SOURCE OF WEALTH, BUT NOW THAT WE KNOW YOU ARE ALLIED WITH THE BULL, THEN WE WILL DO SO AS WELL. TRIBUTE SHALL BE GATHERED FROM OTHER SOURCES.”
Again, the other chiefs rumbled to acknowledge Rakos’ order, affirming their intention to no longer raid the Bull Kingdom.
“Ah…” Leon whispered. Rakos didn’t explicitly answer his question, but the implication Leon got was that the giants were well-entrenched in their love for raids, even if the giants in the south weren’t as frequent about it, and they didn’t appreciate Aquillius’ efforts to get them to stop.
“Well,” Leon continued, “I’m hoping that we can all be friends. That would be great, wouldn’t it? Peace for everyone? We can then open up trade, and defend each other from our enemies…”
“IT WOULD BE AN HONOR TO FIGHT ALONGSIDE A DESCENDANT OF THE GODS!” Rakos roared, and the other giants roared in approval. “FROM NOW ON, YOU MAY CONSIDER US YOUR FRIENDS AND ALLIES, YOUR ENEMIES ARE OUR ENEMIES!”
Leon smiled at the thought of hundreds of fifth and sixth-tier giants besieging Tiberias and his father in Aurelianorum, but he knew that most of his enemies would require a subtler, more personal touch. He didn’t want the Bull King to think he was invading with an army of stone giants, after all.
“I appreciate the gesture, Chief Rakos. In that case, you may consider your enemies my enemies as well,” Leon declared.
[Whoa, whoa, whoa!] Xaphan cried out. [Let’s not get dragged into some petty squabbles between giants, now! Especially since you’ve dragged us into the local Kingdom’s army as well!]
Leon immediately regretted his choice of words, but Rakos seemed to laugh and said, “WE APPRECIATE THE SENTIMENT! IN RETURN, ALLOW US TO SEND SOME OF OUR WARRIORS BACK WITH YOU AS A SIGN OF OUR PACT!”
With an awkward smile, Leon said, “… Thanks, but that might attract a lot of attention…”
“WE MUST PROTECT AND SERVE THE DESCENDANT OF THE GODS!” Rakos thundered. “SHOULD YOU EVER REQUIRE IT, OUR TRIBES WILL FIGHT ALONGSIDE YOU!”
The other giants again roared in agreement, and Leon was left feeling far too awkward to try to refuse. He resigned himself to the thought of a stone giant following him around wherever he went and hoped that his assumption of how this would play out was wrong. However, there were a few things that he could think of that would be much easier with stone giants backing him up, but he figured that bringing more than a handful into the Bull Kingdom wouldn’t be a wise idea until he was more politically powerful.
Leon stood there and endured more flattering words from Rakos for about fifteen more minutes before he insisted, for Aquillius’ sake, that the non-aggression pact be made official with some kind of document. The giants reaffirmed their commitment to peace, and Leon and Anzu finally managed to leave the throne room after Aquillius was called back in.
The other diplomats were staring at Leon with complex expressions as he left the throne room, but by this point, he was far too mentally exhausted to care. He only shuffled back to the guest room and collapsed into his bedroll.
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