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The tiny white griffin had been badly hurt, as Leon could see trickles of blood staining its downy feathers and newborn fur. It was still struggling to move, but it was far too weak to do anything more than twitch. As Leon cautiously approached, he noticed that the griffin was so young that its eyes were still stuck closed.
[You’re stopping for this beast?] Xaphan asked Leon in slight confusion.
Leon didn’t answer, choosing to instead crouch down and examine the injured griffin.
[Be careful, you don’t want to get fleas or something from touching this filthy creature,] Xaphan said derisively.
After taking a few minutes to gingerly check out the baby griffin, Leon guessed that most of its injuries were probably related to the older griffin pecking it a few times to prevent it from trying to follow it out of the crater. Leon thought that it needn’t have bothered, as the tiny griffin was still blind and its wings were too small to fly yet.
Back in the Knight Academy, a few hours had been spent on griffins during the mandatory classes that focused on monsters within the Bull Kingdom. There had been a tremendous amount of information thrown at the trainees during those classes, so Leon couldn’t quite remember them all, but he did recall enough to guess that the griffin was less than two weeks old, as that was usually how long it took for them to open their eyes.
And then, suddenly, Leon realized something.
[FFUUUCK!] he bellowed at Xaphan. He almost had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from screaming out loud.
[What?!] the demon responded, clearly startled. [What’s wrong?! What’s the problem?!]
[I’m a moron is the problem!] Leon shouted back. [I’m a stupid, dumb… stupid idiot!]
Leon fumed in frustration. He was so angry at himself that he didn’t even care that his fingers gently brushing through the down of the griffin’s head had dispelled his invisibility.
[Ever since I was born and my father named me ‘Leon’, I have found myself associated with lions,] Leon explained to Xaphan as calmly as he could. [My father called me ‘little lion’, I awakened my blood by hunting and drinking the mana of a snow lion, and when I came to the Knight Academy, I was assigned to the Snow Lions unit.]
[Uh huh…] Xaphan said, still not quite following.
[This led to me deciding to take the lion as my own personal sigil,] Leon continued, glancing down as best as he could to glance at the silver lion in the center of his cuirass.
[Yeah, that’s actually a little strange. Most of those with Inherited Bloodlines would take their ancestor as their sigil…] Xaphan added.
[They would,] Leon agreed. [Now, let me ask you something, demon, what is a griffin?]
[Why would you assume I know the answer to that question?] Xaphan asked. [This kind of shit isn’t my forte. If you were to ask about fire beasts on the other hand…]
[It’s a beast with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle!] Leon shouted.
[Oooh,] Xaphan said, finally understanding the connection. [Ok, so an animal you associate yourself with and a bird that’s kind of similar to your ancestor are combined into one beast. What’s your point?]
[That’s what my sigil should have been!] Leon said, glancing down at the silver lion on his cuirass. [As soon as I get back to the Bull’s Horns, I’m finding a smith and I’m changing this from a lion to a griffin!]
Xaphan was quiet for a few moments. [… This is what you’re worked up about?] he asked in disbelief.
[I’m upset because I’m dumb! I should’ve made this connection before and not wasted my damned time!]
[Hmm. So, what are you going to do about this tiny thing?] Xaphan asked, turning Leon’s attention back to the baby griffin so the mage would stop yelling.
[Don’t know. It looks to be an albino, and it's probably a runt if the mother griffin was so willing to abandon it.]
[I’d say it’s best to just move on. The thing is close to death, anyway.]
Leon frowned. The way the tiny creature twitched made him think the griffin wasn’t quite done with life, that it wanted to live.
[You would advise me to abandon this little griffin, but it’s so young it hasn’t even seen the world yet!] Leon said, a hint of anger appearing in his voice.
[What would you do to help it, then?] Xaphan asked.
[… I don’t know,] Leon admitted. [My healing spells should work for it, but since it isn’t human, I won’t make any guarantees. Beyond that, it’s still a griffin; I don’t think it would have any trouble surviving after a few months.]
[If it can even survive those months…] Xaphan cynically added. Leon couldn’t disagree with the demon, but he also didn’t want to just leave.
[I wonder…] Leon murmured as he began to fish around in his satchel for an emergency healing spell.
[What are you wondering?] Xaphan asked curiously.
[It’s just a thought, but since this thing hasn’t even opened its eyes yet, if I’m the first thing it sees, maybe it will imprint on me—think I’m its parent…]
[You want to raise this thing?]
[If it’s possible…] Leon responded. He finally extricated the healing spell from the satchel and gently pressed it against the griffin. There was a quick flash of golden light, and the wounds on the griffin slowly began to seal. It didn’t improve the creature’s appearance much, though, as the healing spell didn’t clean up the blood that had already been shed.
Leon waited there for a few minutes, watching the griffin slowly stop twitching and squeaking.
[I have a question,] Xaphan began, [how are you going to get this beast to imprint on you?]
[If I recall correctly, a griffin’s eyes shouldn’t open for at least two or three weeks after birth, as their eyes aren’t quite fully formed yet. The healing spell might accelerate this, so the griffin might be able to see in just a few minutes…]
[But only if you recall correctly,] Xaphan said.
[Yes, thank you for fixating on that part,] Leon said sarcastically. He continued to wait there for fifteen minutes, and his eyes began to be drawn from the griffin back to the Cradle. He’d certainly waited long enough to turn invisible again, but he was also hoping that he was right about the griffin.
And then, the griffin began to raise its head and squeak. Leon hurried over and crouched down so that his face would take up the griffin’s entire field of view if its eyes opened. The creatures eyelids cracked open, giving Leon a brief glimpse of bright red albino eyes before they snapped shut again.
‘Shit…’ Leon thought to himself.
[Looks like it didn’t work,] Xaphan said, striking a tone that almost gave Leon the impression that the demon was gloating.
So, instead of responding, Leon simply sighed and turned back to look up at the Cradle. He channeled his magic back into his ring, and he took a few steps back to the path he was following.
However, something made him stop and turn around. It was just a tiny little thought, one small regret that he wasted a healing spell on a wild animal, but when his gaze fell back upon the griffin, he froze. The glittering green emerald in his ring stopped shining when, in shock, he stopped channeling his magic.
He saw two bright red eyes staring back at him. The griffin had lifted its head again and made another attempt to open its eyes, and it and Leon made eye contact.
[You were saying, demon?] Leon asked, gloating with a much less ambiguous tone than Xaphan had used.
[Talk when the imprinting works, boy.]
Leon hurried back over to the griffin and took the creatures head in his hands. It was ugly, with fluffy down that was tattered and covered in blood, and a beak that was barely a nub in the center of its face. But its red eyes sparkled with life, and neither the griffin nor Leon broke eye contact for more than a minute.
[Is that all you’re going to do?] Xaphan asked.
[It’s really all I can do,] Leon answered.
[Where’d you learn this, by the way?] the demon continued.
[Read about it,] Leon replied. [The first thing most newborn animals see is their mother, so hopefully, this griffin can be tamed now that I’m the first thing it’s seeing.]
However, as if the griffin could hear Leon’s reply and felt spiteful, it immediately broke eye contact, struggled to its feet, and started running away. Leon wasn’t committed enough to it to chase after it, though, so he just stood and watched as the griffin disappeared into the dark pillar-maze.
“Damnit,” he whispered.
[Mmm, if only it were so easy to tame a wild beast,] Xaphan chided.
[Laugh it up demon. It was worth a try, at least.]
[I’m not going to blame you for it, but don’t lose sight of the more immediate concern…]
[I’m not, trust me. But, as I said, worth a try,] Leon replied as he turned his gaze back to the Cradle. [Although I’m surprised that you would be so quick to spur me onwards, demon, I thought you weren’t looking forward to being in there…]
[I’ve had to look at your clan’s mind-bogglingly terrible architecture for far too long, and the prospect of seeing more of it isn’t appealing. That being said, what might be hidden away in that ruin certainly piques my interest. So, be quick, and find whatever is in there!]
Leon smiled and didn’t waste any more time. He immediately reactivated his invisibility ring and started hurrying in the direction of the Cradle. He was actually quite close to it and exited the maze of pillars about five minutes later. However, the sight in front of him froze him in his tracks: five stone giants, standing guard over the approach to the Cradle.
The mass of trap rocks that the Cradle had been built upon could only be effectively approached from the direction of Rakos’ hall; all the other sides were too steep for Leon to scale before he ran out of magic power and his invisibility gave out. His only option was to take the stairway that had been cut into the rocks that the giants now stood guard over.
Fortunately, they didn’t seem to be able to sense Leon’s presence, as they had made no reaction to his appearing from the maze. Slowly, and as quietly as he could, Leon inched forward, suddenly becoming quite conscious of how much magic was still in his blood. He guessed that he could hold his invisibility for about twenty more minutes, but he still had to keep in mind the return journey. He figured that it would take about ten minutes to get back through the maze again, so he’d have to get past the giants and into the Cradle in the remaining ten minutes. If he did, then he would have about an hour or so to explore the ruin before he would have to leave in order to return in the time hack Aquillius had given him.
Leon took one valuable minute and continued to inch closer while keeping his eyes on the giants and looking for a way to get past them that didn’t involve walking underneath their legs. His options were hardly plentiful, but he eventually came to the conclusion that the Giants truly couldn’t perceive him, so he started to speed up. Just in case, though, he made sure to restrain his aura as much as he was able to.
He was heartened to see that, despite coming almost close enough to touch the giants, they still hadn’t reacted to his presence. Unfortunately, the stairway was so narrow that all five standing shoulder to shoulder was all that was needed to block the way; he wasn’t going to get through without walking between some legs.
Before he did so, Leon stopped and took one last look at the stone giants. They had merely stood there, as still as statues, guarding the Cradle. They were so still, in fact, that Leon might’ve guessed that they were statues had they not been emitting powerful magical auras.
Leon, feeling his magic drain with every passing second, slipped past one of the giants as carefully as he could. He then began to climb up the enormous stairway, grateful that the wind and the ambient noise of the crater kept him from needing to be too quiet. Several seconds later, he reached the top of the stairway and was left with only one last problem for the immediate future: how to get into the Cradle, as it was the wing of the building that was facing the stairs that had collapsed.
He wasn’t deterred, though, and he eagerly began his exploration.
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