Leon departed from Vale Town early in the morning. Torfinn watched as the young man quickly walked out of the longhouse and down the hill, and hoped he would be alright. He didn’t have any specifics, but he knew that without Artorias, Leon no longer had any family to rely upon. He was very tempted to accompany Leon, to make sure his best friend’s son was safe, but he had a tribe of thousands to look after, and he couldn’t just leave them.
Leon much preferred going off on his own, though, as his time in the Forest of Black and White had made him someone who wasn’t very comfortable around other people.
So, down that hill he went, through the streets, past the merchants haggling over the silkgrass they were gathering to bring south, and straight out of Vale Town.
After a few hours had passed, and he had put some good distance between himself and Vale Town, Leon pulled out his map. Five years ago, Artorias had taken him south through a cave system that ran straight through the Frozen Mountains, connecting the Great Plateau to this vale. He did have maps that gave him three other choices, including going through Clear Ice, but this was the route that Leon planned to take, as it was the one he was most familiar with.
His route had him following the road south for several more hours, turning eastward as he entered the forest that surrounded the central plain.
He made camp as the sun fell and kept going the following morning. He guessed that it might take the rest of the day to make it to the mountains, and maybe another to find the right cave entrance. The mountains in that area were absolutely pockmarked with caves, but he was confident that he would remember the correct one.
Things went about as expected, with Leon arriving at the foot of the mountains by nightfall. The next day, he began his search. The environment was rocky and very uninviting, as the forest ended hundreds of feet from the base of the mountains.
There was one mountain in particular that he remembered climbing five years ago, so that’s the one he made for. The ground was broken and rather unstable, with small rocks frequently sliding out from under his feet as he made his way up. There were a few caves on the way up, but he didn’t stop. Those were far too big for them to be the entrance he sought.
He didn’t need to go too far up, only about a quarter mile, an easy task for a third-tier mage. The slope became steeper as he ascended, eventually requiring him to climb with hands and feet, and he slowed considerably. But, not long after midday, he finally located his cave.
It was about a hundred feet up a sheer stone cliff, with very few handholds, but ending in what could only be described as a large platform about as large as the platform he was on when he awoke his bloodline just at the mouth of the cave.
This was the part Leon was most worried about because when they had gotten to this point last time, the then sixth-tier Artorias had decided to pick Leon up and jump straight to the platform. Without his father there, Leon was forced to make the climb.
As he was a third-tier mage, Leon was able to jump about thirty feet. He attempted to display this ability, but the boulder he was standing on rolled out from under him. Leon floundered in the air, just barely grabbing onto a rocky protrusion about fifteen feet up and preventing him falling back down.
The boulder rolled back down the mountain, disturbing other rocks and boulders and causing them to fall. Leon grit his teeth as he watched this cascade into a small avalanche, crashing down into the forest with a deafening roar.
Leon took a deep breath and turned his eyes back skyward. It was a hard climb, with handholds he reached out for giving out under his weight twice. But, after about a quarter of an hour, Leon pulled himself over the edge of the platform and found himself at the mouth of the cave.
Taking a few minutes to rest, Leon walked confidently into the cave. The entrance wasn’t that big, only just big enough for Leon to enter without tucking in his extremities.
The air grew colder as he advanced. It was nice and warm out in the sun, but that heat died out not too far from the cave entrance. Leon continued on despite the chill, tightening his coat without missing a step.
The heat wasn’t the only thing that disappeared the further in he went, with the light vanishing soon after. This didn’t affect Leon all that much, as he could channel enough mana to his eyes that he could see. His vision wasn’t as clear as it would be outside, but he wasn’t stumbling around blind.
The tunnel grew larger further in, to the point that Leon began having trouble seeing the walls and ceiling. About five hundred feet in, the floor began to gently decline, so Leon was walking down into the mountain, rather than through it.
The last time he was here, he wasn’t strong enough to see. Artorias had to conjure a constant stream of lightning in his hand to use a makeshift torch so Leon wouldn’t trip on any loose rocks. Leon smiled bitterly as he remembered Artorias’ mostly helpful but also slightly mocking smile when Leon had finally admitted he needed the help to see.
The cold grew worse. There was frost on the walls, and even the occasional patch of ice on the floor. The ceiling had faded from view, but not too much, as Leon could see icy stalactites looming out of the darkness.
Half a mile in Leon came to a fork in the cave, with three paths ahead of him. He knew from the map that the path on his left hit a dead end several hundred feet in, while the path directly ahead of him continued down into the depths of the mountain. The path on his right was the one he wanted. It also continued further down, but would eventually even out and give him nearly a straight shot right through the Frozen Mountains. The tunnel was so straight, in fact, that Artorias had theorized that the entire cave system had been man-made.
So, down the right path he went. This tunnel was much narrower than before, like a side passage as opposed to the main hallway. The slope eventually evened out about a mile in, just as Leon knew it would.
But, Leon started to get a bad feeling as he went. This tunnel wasn’t in the best of conditions when he was here last, but the walls and floors looked positively dreadful now, with innumerable cracks running throughout the stone. The air was getting colder, too, far colder than what Leon remembered. A few hundred feet later, Leon found out why.
“… Shit,” he muttered, as he stared at the cave in. Large chunks of stone and ice now barred his way forward, completely blocking off the tunnel. He wasn’t stupid enough to try and move some of it, as that could easily cause other cave-ins, but there wasn’t much else to do.
He pulled out the map again. There wasn’t any other way through marked on it, and if he wanted to find another way through the Frozen Mountains without going past Clear Ice Fortress, he would need to go all the way back to the ruins of the fort in the Forest of Black and White and unearth the other buried maps.
Leon walked back a comfortable distance from the cave in, and sat down, leaning against the wall. He scoured the map, looking for anything. Nothing jumped out at him, so he pulled out his map of the Great Plateau, to see if there was anything there that could help. All he saw on there was Clear Ice.
He sighed. There was no way he was getting through here. The cave in obviously showcased this tunnel’s structural instability, and he had no idea how far down the cave in went. He was far too weak to just go through the Frozen Mountains on his own, there were a great many monsters of snow and ice that would just love to devour a warm-blooded young man, assuming he didn’t just freeze first.
Leon looked back at the map again. He didn’t see anything obvious, but something did catch his eye. Back at the fork in the tunnel, there was another path that led deeper into the mountains than the one he took. His map didn’t show where that path went; it just stopped. There was a very old rune next to it and a messily written note next to that. The note simply said what he already knew, that the tunnel led deep into the mountain. But that rune, he knew that was something else.
Near the exit on the other side of the Frozen Mountains was another fork in the tunnel, but that only had two available paths. One led to the exit, and out of the tunnel, but the other was the same as the tunnel on this side. It clearly descended into the mountain and ended with the same rune.
Leon struggled to remember the meaning of this particular rune. Artorias had made him study runes, especially since Leon had an interest in enchantments, but it was mostly the modern runes that he studied.
Modern runes are similar to an alphabet, with only several dozen runes in total, but each rune having a corresponding sound that can string together in various patterns to form ‘words’, which are better described as glyphs. These glyphs are utterly incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the language of enchantments, but those who practice the enchanting arts can even speak these glyphs out loud. In fact, most of the written alphabets in Aeterna were based at least partially on these runes.
On the other hand, much older runes—like the one seen on this map—represent ideas or concepts rather than sounds. As a result, these runes could be far more powerful when used for enchantments, but also far more limited. They could be identified by their distinctive series of wedge-shaped scratches and bore little resemblance to modern runes and letters.
For example, the enchantment placed upon the training sword Leon used to spar with Artorias that glowed in accordance with the magic Leon channeled into it was made with the newer, more common runes. There are several different runic glyphs that can make that particular enchantment, not unlike using multiple spellings for the same word. To do the same thing with ancient runes would require a specific rune, and if that rune wasn’t known, then the enchanter is out of luck.
With all that in mind, it makes sense that Leon couldn’t remember every single ancient rune he’d seen in Artorias’ textbooks, but the one he saw on his map was certainly very familiar. He’d seen it before, he knew it.
He sat and pondered it for a while. He figured that the implication here was that these tunnels both went down into the mountain towards the same place, which could potentially mean a way through, bypassing this cave in.
Leon wasn’t that eager to go down there, however, as he still couldn’t remember what the rune meant. It wasn’t ‘death’, he knew that one. It wasn’t any of the seven elements of magic, as he knew all those as well.
He stood back up. There was little point in staying here, and he was getting a little cold despite his coat, so he started walking back to the tunnel fork, where it was warmer.
But what was that rune? Leon could just kick himself for not bringing along his book with ancient enchantments, but he had left it in the sealed box he had buried, alongside those other maps.
Leon glanced down at the map again, examining the rune again.
‘Box? No, that’s not it. Locked, I think, something to do with locks. Box and lock. Lock and box. Safe? Vault?’ He mulled it over for a few minutes until it finally struck him like lightning.
Prison. The rune meant prison. But, a prison for what, he wondered.
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