Leon stared at the Cradle ruins, conscious of every second that passed. He had about five minutes to get into the Cradle before he decided to call his exploration off while he still had enough magic power in his blood to return to Rakos’ hall unseen. His eyes wandered over as much of the ruin as he could see, searching for a way to get inside.
After another minute, he decided to get closer and ran up to climb onto the ruins of the collapsed hall. Over the top of every hall was an enormous statue of what, to Leon’s eyes at least, appeared to be a Thunderbird. The statue over the ruined hall was still mostly intact, with only a single leg and a wing missing, but it still gave a good view, so Leon climbed onto the statue’s head and looked around.
[Looks like the doors to the other wings are still intact,] Xaphan observed.
[Yes…] Leon replied, [but I would prefer an entrance that has a less likely chance of being locked.]
[You don’t know if those entrances are locked, though,] Xaphan responded, urging Leon to check them.
Seeing no other way in his quick scan of the building, Leon took off running to the hall on his left, which was slightly closer than the one on his right. Upon arrival, he wasted no time slapping the red runic circle on the trapezoidal plate, causing it to vanish and reveal a more conventional door as well as dissipate his own invisibility.
The door was huge, almost three stories tall. However, when Leon impatiently threw himself against it to minimize his exposure, it opened with startling ease. In fact, Leon was expecting much more resistance, so he tripped and fell when the door opened.
Leon scrambled to his feet to the sound of Xaphan’s laughter and hurried to close the door behind him; the last thing he needed was for a Stone Giant to see the open door and missing plate. Just before the door closed, the plate reappeared with another runic circle in the center. Leon sighed in relief and allowed himself to relax. But he couldn’t afford to wait too long, so he turned and took his first good look around.
The hall he found himself in wasn’t dark, which came as a bit of a surprise. The ceiling was adorned with an enchantment to look like the sky and was awash with the deep blues and blacks of late evening, illuminating the hall with the light of millions of stars. There was no moon, though, which tipped Leon off to the fact that the enchantment was a projection of light rather than somehow making the distant ceiling transparent.
The rest of the hall was just as lavishly decorated with additional, if somewhat less functional, light enchantments. The floor had been constructed of pale blue marble tiles, and enchanted to have a mirror sheen to them, though only about a third of the tiles were still reflective with the remaining being dull and dirty.
There were dozens of large columns supporting four hallways stacked over the ground floor on each side, forming galleries that protruded and opened into the hall. Leon could see even from his own low point of view that the walls on each floor of the gallery were angled, forming part of the now-familiar trapezoidal shape that was so common in the Thunderbird Clan’s old facilities that he’d been in. Much like he’d seen in the prison, murals made of light were projected off of these slanted walls, but whatever was powering them didn’t seem to have much power left, as the projected murals were flickering too much for Leon to clearly see their details.
At the opposite end of the hall was another set of doors, though they were only about half the size of the doors Leon had just walked through—still huge, but not absurdly so. Leon guessed from having seen the exterior of the building, that these doors led into the central domed part of the structure that connected the four wings.
[So, demon, where do you think we should start?] Leon asked.
[I would check out the central dome, but that’s just me,] Xaphan answered. Leon agreed, and so he ignored the doors in the galleries and made for the other end of the hall.
The doors swung open as easily as the others did, but with the previous embarrassing experience, Leon pushed much more gently and kept his balance. Walking through the doorway, Leon found himself standing in a spacious rotunda with the domed ceiling above. At its highest, the ceiling was probably ten to twelve stories high, and what he could see was made entirely of some kind of concrete similar to what the wall between the Bull’s Horns was made of.
Another light enchantment covered the inside of the dome, but instead of just projecting a night sky, it also showed brilliantly spiraling and multicolored nebulae and bright celestial bodies too distant for Leon to see clearly. In the center of the dome, the enchantment faded out, leaving only a massive glittering pale-white diamond set into the center of the dome, backlighting three nearby constellations. Two of these constellations were of humanoid figures, each with a sword and a crown, while the last was of a bird, which Leon guessed to be the Thunderbird.
The rotunda was in much better shape compared to the hall Leon had just left, as the black marble tiles were clean and tastefully reflective, and the light projections on the walls were steady and stable. However, Leon still couldn’t see the projected murals clearly, as around the rotunda’s edges were trees, bushes, and flowers, contained in long trenches filled with dirt and kept alive through what he guessed was nature magic.
Leon drank in the marvelous sight, admiring everything that he could. However, his eyes were eventually drawn to the center of the rotunda, where he could see a gleaming shallow pool filled with crystal-clear water, and in the center of the pool was a raised marble platform. Upon this platform were eight grey metallic rods, perfectly cylindrical and without a single blemish to mar their polished shine. This platform was directly underneath the diamond ‘moon’, which in the simulated night seemed to cast a spotlight on the platform.
[There is an enormous amount of magic flowing through those rods,] Leon observed.
[I can sense it too,] Xaphan responded.
Leon approached the platform, walking across the pool using several small marble steps that formed pathways for anyone coming from the halls to reach the platform without getting their feet wet.
Upon arriving on the central platform, Leon cautiously examined the rods from a few feet away—the extreme amount of magic he could sense flowing through them made him wary of getting too close too hastily. The appearance of the rods wasn’t particularly noteworthy, save for the bright red ruby set into the top of each one. What was more eye-catching was the platform itself, as its marble tiles were so reflective that they created the illusion of glass separating two nearly identical worlds. Below the surface, within that optical illusion of a reflected world, Leon could see thousands of glowing runes spiraling and flowing into each other in the air surrounding the platform, and especially concentrated around the rods.
Looking up, Leon couldn’t see the runes that the tiles seemed to reflect; the air around the platforms and rods were devoid of any hovering runes.
The platform had nothing else except the rods; no consoles of control runes, no tables with instructions or notes, nothing explaining what the place was supposed to be, so with a degree of confusion, Leon turned to Xaphan. [Given their name for this place and the way they guard it, I was assuming that this place was where the Giants were built by the powerful mage that created them…]
The demon in his soul realm was quick to defend himself, saying, [It was only a guess on my part, obviously I can’t know for certain what this place was built for or where the Giants come from.]
Leon frowned, then murmured, [Maybe the answer is somewhere else in this place…]
Leaving the platform for the time being, Leon started exploring the rest of the building. Since he made it inside before he ran out of magic power, he could stay for about an hour before he had to turn back—enough time that he didn’t feel rushed, but also not enough for him to justify staring at something he couldn’t comprehend.
The other two intact wings of the building were much like the one he’d entered from, being large five-story-tall halls with dozens of rooms on both sides accessed from galleries. However, the enchantments in these parts of the Cradle were much more decayed than the ones in the hall Leon had entered from, as none of the floor tiles were reflective, the walls projected no murals made of light, and even the fake skies had started to dissolve in places, revealing the bare concrete of the ceiling, which he could see was cracked and in poor shape due to lack of maintenance.
There weren’t any rooms on the ground floor of the halls, with the few doorways instead leading to stairways that provided access to the galleries above. There were plenty of rooms branching off from the galleries, though, which Leon eagerly started to explore until he realized that all of these were devoid of anything of interest. A few had a few pieces of stone furniture—a granite desk with extraordinarily elaborate geometric engravings, several chairs, a couple tables—but nothing caught his eye.
[Looks like this place has been completely mothballed,] Xaphan observed. Leon couldn’t completely disagree, as it seemed like whoever had built the Cradle abandoned it in an orderly enough manner as to take everything of value. However, there was something that bothered him about that idea.
[If they were going to mothball this building, then why didn’t they take whatever was powering the enchantments?] Leon wondered. [There was a huge diamond in the center of the dome, why didn’t they take that?]
[I can’t say,] Xaphan admitted.
[There’re still rooms to check, maybe we’ll get lucky and find some answers,] Leon said.
The rest of the rooms in the last hall he had to check were just as empty as the others, but Leon did find something of interest on the highest floor of the last gallery he had to search: a inscription upon the only door on the top floor of one of the galleries.
[Look at this,] Leon muttered as soon as he saw it. [This room has been labeled…]
[Well, check it out, it might have something nice inside if it were important enough to have a label,] Xaphan urged.
Leon did so, but the rooms behind were just as empty as he’d come to expect—though it was clear they would make for a palatial residence if they were fully furnished—so he returned to the inscription. It was the only writing he’d found in the entire building, and he didn’t find anything else left to investigate except for the rods and their accompanying enchantment back in the dome.
[Can you read it?] Xaphan asked impatiently.
[It’s an old script,] Leon said, a little annoyed that Xaphan was being so lazy as to make him do the work, [but it’s still based on the runes as far as I can tell—and not the ancient runes, thankfully.]
[But can you read it?] Xaphan repeated.
[Give me a damned moment!] Leon responded. He stared at the letters on the door, trying to discern their meaning. As most written languages in Aeterna were based on the runes, it didn’t take too much work for two different peoples to read each other’s language, but Leon found this a little more complicated.
After about thirty seconds, he said, [It’s a heavily stylized script, but I think I can understand it… Let’s see, ‘P’, ‘R’, ‘I’, I think that’s an ‘N’… Ah! Prince!]
[These rooms were a residence for a Prince…] Xaphan said, his voice subtly growing lower from restrained anger. [Does it say which Prince?]
[Ummmmm, ‘Nestor’,] Leon answered. [‘Nestor’, I think I might know that name, it sounds familiar…]
[That bronze golem back in your family’s archives name dropped him as its creator,] Xaphan said.
[Right!] Leon exclaimed. [So then… I guess this Prince Nestor must have been the one to create the Stone Giants!]
[If I was correct in my guess as to their origin, which to be fair, we haven’t found any hard evidence of yet,] Xaphan said.
[Maybe I’ll find some, I’m not leaving the Crater for a few days anyway,] Leon said. It was time to leave the Cradle, but he intended to return the next night to study those enchanted rods—especially since it seemed the Giants were created by the Thunderbird Clan.
Leon made for the exit. He’d been in the Cradle for a little over an hour, which had been enough time for him to recharge plenty of mana for his return journey. He slipped through the door, vanished from sight, and hoped that no one saw him.
He raced back to the stairs, slowing only he came close to the guardian giants. He didn’t think they’d moved an inch since he’d snuck past them earlier, but he was still cautious of moving past them just in case they could hear his footsteps.
His caution was rewarded when he managed to return to the maze of tall trap rocks without incident, and he made his way through it as quickly as he could, dispelling his invisibility when he started drawing close to the exit closest to Rakos’ hall.
The return journey was swift and uneventful, but that almost changed when, just as he was leaving the maze, Leon saw a small white blur in the corner of his eye. When he turned to get a better look, whatever he’d seen had disappeared, but he could still make a guess as to what it was. He reached into his satchel and pulled out some travel rations of dry meat. It was enough to be a hearty meal for a small animal, and he left the food just inside the maze, where nothing else would see it.
Leon then turned and left with a proud smile on his face, returning to the diplomats’ guest rooms minutes before Aquillius’ time hack was up.
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