Chapter 179 - The Crater

Much like the Border Mountains themselves, the Stone Giants looked nothing like Leon imagined.  He’d thought they would appear to be extremely similar to humans, only much taller and with an exterior similar to when an earth mage uses their magic to harden their skin into stone.

However, the six Giants that emerged from the dark crevice only resembled humans in the most general sense; they had two arms, walked on two legs, and had a ‘head’, but they lacked visible sensory organs.  Their bodies were entirely made up of boulders that groaned and crunched with the Giants’ every move, creating a noise that reminded Leon of a distant avalanche.  Their height also greatly varied; the smallest being around ten feet tall, and the tallest towering over the rest at what Leon estimated to be more than twenty feet.

The Giants moved relatively slowly, with the ground shaking beneath their every step communicating their immense weight and power.  As they walked closer, Leon tried to see if there was anything between the boulders that made up their body, but he couldn’t see anything; the Stone Giants appeared to actually be big stones stacked in a bipedal form and somehow animated.

‘What are these things?!’ Leon asked himself as he stared at the great lumbering creatures.  After a few brief moments, he decided to ask that question to Xaphan.

[Hmm,] the demon thought.  [It’s hard to say without taking some time to properly study them, but I’d guess that those things are earth wisps inhabiting stone bodies.  Just a guess, though, it’s not like I’m the font of all knowledge, despite my undeniable greatness.]

[An ‘earth wisp’?  What’s that?] Leon asked.  He remembered Xaphan saying something about wisps before, back when he saw the bronze golems in his family’s archives beneath the palace in Teira, but with the flight from the archives, Leon had completely forgotten about it until now.

[A sufficiently powerful mage can split off a portion of their power and use it to animate some kind of artificial body, like a suit of armor or something.  However, it requires an extreme amount of power to do so, enough that I doubt anyone on this plane could ever hope to create one.  Anyway, if the wisp is left in its body for long enough, it can potentially develop a modicum of self-awareness and sentience.  If I could hazard a guess, I’d say that’s what these Giants are.]

[So there might be some cataclysmically powerful mage creating these Giants?] Leon asked, his eyes starting to widen in panic and his hand starting to twitch closer to his sword.

[Mmmmm, not likely,] Xaphan answered.  [Creating a wisp and allowing it to grow to full sentience is a lot like creating life, which is why it requires a mage of extreme strength to do so.  I’ve never done it, as I’ve never had the need to, but I’ve heard stories that occasionally these wisps grow smarter and eventually figure out how to reproduce.]

[And that’s what these Stone Giants are?  Self-aware wisps of magical power capable of thought and reproduction?] Leon asked.

[That’s indeed what I suspect they are.  Probably left over constructs from when your Thunderbird Clan was here.  The mage that created them is probably dead, and the constructs slowly developed self-awareness over the resulting millennia, creating the Giants you see before you.]

The massive Stone Giants continued to lumber forward until they arrived at the mountaintop.  There, they stood motionless, creating the same atmosphere as if they were staring unblinkingly at the hundred or so soldiers and diplomats.

Aquillius walked forward and said, “Lapis!  It’s good to see you again, my friend!”  His tone was light and seemed to Leon to be genuinely happy and cheerful, but given that it was a diplomat speaking, Leon took his impression with a grain of salt.

The giant responded with a series of low rumblings that sounded like rocks crushing and grinding against each other, which Leon had no hope of understanding.

Aquillius, however, seemed to understand the giant perfectly fine, as he laughed good-naturedly and said, “We’re committed to peace between our peoples!  Something like that is hardly enough to scare us off!”

The Giant rumbled again, then it and its comrades turned to start walking back toward the crevice.

“Let’s go!” Aquillius ordered, and the entire group started following.

The mountaintop was relatively flat and open, but the crevice was much narrower, though still big enough to allow the largest Giant.  Still, the group only entered two or three at a time, and Leon noticed that the diplomats were spreading themselves out among the soldiers.  Aquillius led the group accompanied by the company Centurion and a Prefect, Lucilius walked with Antonius in the center of the group, and Eleanor and Juliana walked near the rear with the other two Prefects.

Most of the diplomats’ squires joined Lucilius and Antonius in the center, but Leon and Alix walked near the back, just ahead of Eleanor and Juliana.

“This is so cool!” Alix gushed to Leon.  “It feels like we’re on our way to a hidden village!”

“A hidden village filled with Giants made of stone that could crush us all with little effort,” Leon cynically reminded her.

“They don’t seem that scary to me… Besides, Sir Aquillius and Sir Lucilius have stated multiple times that they’ve made a great deal of progress with them, so there shouldn’t be any violence,” Alix said.

“What should be and what is aren’t always related,” Leon countered.  “Look, just don’t let your guard down too much until there’s an actual non-aggression pact in place.  Until then, there’s no guarantee that the Giants will remain so cordial.”

“You really need to lighten up,” Alix stated with a slight pout.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly excited to see where we’re going,” Leon said, “but I’m also trying not to make any assumptions that might put us in danger.  I’d rather any surprise I suffer to be pleasant, as opposed to not.”

From behind them, Eleanor spoke up, saying, “A wise policy, but don’t forget that levity always has its time, and it’s oftentimes best to take the opportunity to relax when it presents itself.”

“Levity is all well and good,” Juliana said, glancing over at Eleanor as she did, “but so is caution.  Technically speaking, we’re still walking into enemy territory, at least until our non-aggression pact is finalized.”

The two lady knights then began a heated debate over whether they should be cautious, or relaxed.  After walking a mile into the crevice, neither had managed to gain any ground against the other and yet they argued with such passion that Leon and Alix were hardly able to get a word in edgewise.  Eventually, the latter two simply accepted that they were no longer a part of the conversation and turned their attention back to their surroundings.

The crevice eventually turned into a long tunnel.  The walls weren’t smooth and had a kind of zig-zag pattern from the hexagonal basalt pillars that were present even here.  The ceiling was more than three stories tall, and the Giants had built the tunnel in such a way as to leave the ceiling stylishly vaulted from the remains of cut pillars.

The group continued down this tunnel for more than half an hour.  Leon was starting to wonder just how long it was when he saw a faint light at the end.  That light was the exit, and it opened onto a platform that overlooked an enormous crater in the side of a basalt mountain.

The platform was more than large enough for the hundred soldiers, diplomats, and Giants, and the group paused there to wait.  Leon and Alix took the opportunity to walk closer to the edge, as the view was spectacular, and they wanted to drink it in—despite Leon’s words about remaining cautious.

The crater was deep and unnatural; it seemed to be entirely of the Giants’ making, as it was a long oval shape and had hundreds of caves cut into its sides.  But, to call them caves would be something of an understatement, as they had elaborate entrances that suggested something more than just a dark damp cave, something closer to a bright, spacious, and comfortable home cut into the side of the mountain.  Many of the entrances had covered stone porches, with the coverings held up by gigantic pillars covered in the giant’s strange script.

Leon soaked in the sight, but when his eyes drifted down to the bottom of the crater, he froze.  He saw a large formation of pillars serving as the foundation for a building that, based on the architecture, anyone could tell hadn’t been built by the Giants.  However, Leon didn’t need to compare architectural styles to know that the building hadn’t been built by the Giants, as it was possessed of a style familiar to him.

It had been built in the shape of a cross, with an enormous dome at the center and entirely made up of black granite.  There was an entrance at each end of the cross, sealed with a trapezoidal plate made of grey metal that had a gently blinking dark red runic circle in the center.  However, the building wasn’t in great shape, as the roof had a great many dents and damage marks and one entire branch of the cross had collapsed.

Around the edges of the entrances were friezes and sculptures that Leon had to squint and channel some magic into his eyes to see, but he could tell were depictions of numerous birds of prey.  In several other places around the building and on the roof above the entrances were huge stone statues, each showing a predatory bird in a different pose.  Some of the statues had been broken when portions of the building collapsed or worn down with age, but Leon could still tell what they were supposed to be: Thunderbirds.

“What is that place…?” Leon wondered aloud.

Aquillius, who was not too far away, heard him and came over.  He quickly placed his hand on Leon’s shoulder and said, “Stay away from that place, Sir Leon.  The Giants call it something like ‘The Cradle’, and it is an extreme taboo for them.  If any outsider were to approach, the Giants would fly into a rage and kill them instantly.”

“I see…” Leon muttered, but his eyes never left the building, and he began to unconsciously rub the ring of invisibility on his finger.  He had already made the decision to investigate the ruined building at the first opportunity, despite Aquillius’ warning and direct order to stay away.

While they were staring at the building, another group of Giants approached.  Leon was able to easily guess that the Giant leading them was someone important, as its limbs were studded with thousands of tiny rubies and flecks of gold.

Aquillius hurried over to the giant while saying, “Rakos!  Wonderful to see you, it’s been too long!”

The giant responded with its deep and rumbling voice, then turned around and began to walk away.  Aquillius turned and gestured to the rest of the group, indicating that they should follow this important giant.

“I’m guessing that’s the chief of the Giants?” Alix asked, whispering to Eleanor.

“Chief of this tribe of Giants,” Eleanor corrected.  “There are dozens of tribes in the Border Mountains, but this one is the closest and arguably the most powerful of the tribes for hundreds of miles.  Many of the other nearby tribes are even subordinate to this one, which is the main reason why we’re here instead of somewhere else.”

As he listened to this, Leon glanced over the side of the platform again.  When he’d heard that the Giants had formed tribes, he’d been expecting something akin to the Valeman tribes, but the architecture and building materials, at least, gave Leon enough of an impression of organized civilization that he wouldn’t describe the Giants as tribal.  He had to admit, though, that he hadn’t much of an idea of how the Giants governed themselves.  He’d been assured in the last few weeks, though, that had he arrived a few weeks before he’d have gotten a comprehensive briefing on the situation, instead of just a crash course in the Diplomatic Corps’ standard practices.

Along the edges of the steep crater were pillars that had been cut into stairs, facilitating travel between clusters of cave-houses.  Since they had been sized for Giants, even the narrowest set of stairs were several dozen feet wide, making for a relatively comfortable journey for Aquillius’ party.  They eventually arrived at the bottom of the crater, with the raised platform the Cradle was on to one side, and the crater wall to the other.  Here, the largest and grandest of the cave-houses was found.

This was the home of the Giant chief.  The roof over the doorway was supported by more than a dozen pillars, and many pillars more had been left artfully cut in a half-circle around the door, with the shortest pillars up front and the taller decorative pillars closer to the door.  The door itself was an enormous slab of black basalt and looked like it weighed more than all of Aquillius’ party combined, but the Giant chief pushed it open with apparent ease.

Leon clenched his teeth at the show of strength.  It may not have been the chief’s intention, but it clearly demonstrated its titanic strength that far exceeded even Leon’s own fourth-tier strength.  This gave Leon the impression, despite his inability to read most of the Stone Giants’ auras, that the chief was probably stronger than even Aquillius, the only sixth-tier mage in the entire party.

The group hurried inside, and Leon was in for another surprise, as the immense entry hall had been built in an enormous trapezoidal shape, extremely reminiscent of Xaphan’s prison and his family’s archives, if fairly crude.  There weren’t any bright white fires lit in the bottom corners—Leon guessed this was because the Giants didn’t have eyes—and there were dozens more hexagonal pillars holding up the crater wall above them along the upper corners of the trapezoid.

The group was escorted about a quarter mile underground.  The hall was staggeringly large and much longer than a quarter mile, but that was where their guest rooms were.  The guest room had been built for visiting Giant Chiefs, so there was more than enough space for the entire group to comfortably set up camp.

“Rest up,” Aquillius said.  “We’ll be speaking with Rakos again in several hours, and it’ll be all business for a long while, so don’t plan on getting much rest tonight.”

Leon’s thoughts turned back to the Cradle.  He, for one, wasn’t planning on getting any sleep that night, as it was an enormous building and just begging for some exploration.



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Chapter 180 - Exploring the Crater

Chapter 178 - Diplomatic Mission