Leon raced out of the collapsing dome with a terrified Anzu in his arms. For a brief moment, he thought that he would be safe enough in the great hall he’d run into to take things a little slower and sneak back outside, but one look at the ceiling told him how wrong he was; just like in the dome, the projected sky in the hall had dissolved, showing hundreds of widening cracks that threatened to bring the concrete ceiling crashing down on his head.
Without missing a step, Leon sprinted through the great hall to the sound of the rest of the dome giving out behind him. He was so focused on getting out of the building that he barely even registered the hall starting to collapse behind him, or the clamor of rain and wind that now made its way inside. The only things he paid any attention to were the thrashing Anzu he was holding to his chest, the doors in front of him and the ring on his right hand.
“Settle down, damn it!” he shouted in frustration at Anzu, and the griffin must have picked up on something in his voice as the tiny beast settled down, though his eyes were still wide with fear.
The collapse of the dome had jostled the door somewhat, and he could see through the crack that the plate was gone. This small piece of good fortune, however, went unappreciated in his desire to get outside, and the emerald in Leon’s ring pulsed with power—opening the plate would’ve broken his invisibility, so with the plate gone, he didn’t hesitate to activate his invisibility ring. Leon had to wait for a brief few seconds at the door of the hall for the light around him to bend and for his body to fade from sight.
‘Faster… Faster!’ he thought with increasing panic as he looked back and saw the hall crumble. The ceiling was disintegrating, and the largest pieces of concrete were destabilizing the walls and columns supporting the galleries on both sides, which also started to collapse. As soon as the ring fully activated and his body faded from view, Leon burst out of the doors, leaving the devastated Cradle behind.
Aquillius and the rest of his team watched in awe as the lightning struck the top of the dome again and again. The rain that soaked their clothes and the wind in their ears were minor annoyances, but they weren’t going to leave as long the giants were still there and whatever was happening with the Cradle continued. And then, about an hour after the unnatural storm first began, there was a tremendous cracking sound, and the storm immediately began to clear up.
“What the hell…?” Juliana said in confusion.
The sheets of rain thinned out to a gentle downpour, while the wind slowly died down from the howling gale into a brisk breeze.
“That thing’s going to fall apart…” Lucilius observed, noticing the cracks visible in the dome even from where they were standing once the clouds had thinned enough to let a decent amount of light through.
Sure enough, only a few seconds later, the dome began to sag and crumple, and the plates on the doors disappeared. Aquillius started to alternatively stare at the dome and at the giants, but the latter watched the collapse of their sacred Cradle in complete silence. In fact, most of them weren’t moving at all. He expected them to show some kind of anger, but he’d also never seen a stone giant angry, so for all he knew, they were seething with rage and he just couldn’t identify it.
‘Best to keep our distance until I can get a better read on the mood… And until we can locate Sir Ursus…’ he thought to himself. Again, he scanned the crowd for Leon, but he still couldn’t see the younger knight.
The dome finally gave out, crumbling in pieces right before everyone’s eyes. The force of the dome coming down then caused the three deceptively unstable great halls to begin their own rapid destruction, with the ceilings going first followed by the walls and columns tipping over and falling apart.
“Fucking hell…” muttered Antonius, the knight in charge of the company of soldiers acting as security for the diplomats. “It almost looks like that place was designed to fall apart all at once…”
“That can’t be entirely true, or else that other ruined hall would’ve brought the whole thing down centuries ago…” Eleanor responded.
As they spoke, they saw the door of the closest hall burst open. Everyone focused their eyes on the door for a moment, but when they didn’t see anything, they turned their eyes back to the building as a whole. Most of Aquillius’ group assumed that the force of the Cradle’s destruction had simply caused the door to open.
Rakos, however, did not make that assumption. The stone giant began to move, drawing Aquillius’ attention, as none of the other giants had moved an inch since the storm began. Rakos took two steps forward, then drove its fist straight into the ground. The Cradle’s platform shook with the impact and cracks spread out from the giant’s rocky arm.
Leon practically flew out of the Cradle once the door was open, and he was concentrating so completely on getting out of the collapsing building that he didn’t notice the hundreds of stone giants surrounding the Cradle until he’d put ten or fifteen feet between himself and the door. The sight was intimidating as hell, and Leon couldn’t help but come to a near-instantaneous halt.
The young mage stared out at the sea of giants in front of him, frozen and thinking fast about what he should do. However, he also saw Aquillius, Alix, and the rest of the diplomatic party standing on a large outcropping of pillars near the edge of the maze. Leon began trying to make his way over as quietly as he could, without disturbing the giants.
Suddenly, Rakos surged forward and punched the ground, sending cracks in Leon’s direction. Leon’s eyes barely had time to widen in panic and surprise before the pillars beneath his feet began to crack and vibrate, sending their shockwaves into his legs. As soon as these vibrations touched his feet, Leon’s invisibility was immediately dissipated, leaving him completely exposed before all the giants and Aquillius’ party.
Aquillius could hardly see with anger and fury clouding his eyes. Rakos’ magical attack had caused a cloud of black dust from the basalt pillars that made up the Cradle’s platform to be flung into the air. The figure that was revealed, however, was still perfectly visible even in this dust cloud.
The diplomat could see Leon plain as day, as could everyone else.
The watching crowd was stupefied into silence as the shock of seeing Leon revealed on the platform, and there was almost an audible clunk from their jaws hitting the ground. It was Antonius who broke that silence with an eloquent, “… The fuck?”
“What is this?!” Lucilius furiously demanded of Alix. “Why is your knight over there?!”
“What was he doing in the Cradle?!” Eleanor added, glaring at Alix as if it were her the giants had caught instead of Leon.
“How was he invisible?” Juliana asked, striking a far more curious tone than angry like the other two.
“I-I… don’t…” Alix stammered. She backed a few steps away from the enraged knights, desperately trying to think of something to say that would deflect their ire.
“You’re his squire! You had to know what he was doing!” Lucilius said, advancing at Alix.
“We’ve put years of our lives into this!” Eleanor said, but as she was about to continue, Aquillius interrupted her.
“Enough! All of you, shut up!” He turned from watching the giants only to glare at his junior diplomats who had lost their composure in public, ensuring that his order was followed instantly; Lucilius and Eleanor froze instantly.
“The giants aren’t doing anything…” Aquillius observed. “Sir Leon trespassed on their Cradle, and yet they’re not doing anything…”
Rakos’ attack had knocked Leon to the ground, and Anzu had scrambled out of his arms and stared at him from several feet away. Leon knew that his invisibility was gone and that everyone could see him, but it took several seconds for him to work up the nerve to push himself off his stomach and to his feet. But, once he did, he rose with as much dignity as he could.
Inside, however, he burned with shame and a little bit of anger at being caught. In the distance, he could see Aquillius calmly watching him, but the diplomat was clearly curious if the way he glared at Leon was anything to go by.
Alix’s expression, however, was something completely different. Instead of anger, her face showed more hurt and betrayal, and it cut right through Leon. She was his squire, and someone he considered a friend, but he’d left her in the maze and he couldn’t imagine that she’d get off lightly after this, despite her lack of involvement.
With his invisibility disrupted and hundreds of giants surrounding him, there wasn’t anything Leon could do other than wait for whatever came next. Fortunately, that seemed like it was going to come sooner rather than later. Most of the giants remained standing stock-still, but Rakos began to lumber toward him, as did Lapis and several of the visiting chiefs of other giant tribes. With a determination to own this, he confidently strode forward to meet them halfway.
As soon as they came into speaking distance, they halted and began rumbling in their speech that, to Leon, was completely incoherent.
‘At least they don’t seem to expect me to respond…’ he thought to himself, as the stone giants only spoke amongst themselves. It was obvious that they were talking about him, however, as all of their ‘heads’ were still watching him. In fact, when Leon took a look around, he noticed that all of the giants in the crater seemed to be staring at him, which was only made creepier by their lack of visible eyes.
About five minutes after the giants met with Leon, Aquillius arrived with Lucilius and Juliana, leaving Eleanor and Antonius with the rest of the party. The three ignored the giants, brazenly walking right past them to corner Leon between them.
“What in the name of all the Ancestors were you doing in there?’ Lucilius demanded, leaning in closer to Leon and keeping his voice under control so as not to make a scene in front of the giants.
Aquillius and Juliana stared at Leon, awaiting a reply. Leon thought for a long moment about what to say, and in the end, he only said one word: “Training.”
“Trai- you were training?!” Lucilius asked, clearly taken aback.
“You ascended to the fifth-tier…” Aquillius observed, finally noticing Leon’s much stronger aura. “Hmm, we can deal with you later, but for now we have to present a united front to the giants. However, know this, Sir Leon, you have placed all of our efforts in jeopardy. We have spent three years trying to put a stop to the giant raids that have killed thousands. We are going to have words later.”
“Understood,” Leon responded.
With that, the diplomats no longer penned Leon in, and the four knights stood side-by-side before the giants.
Leon noted that the talking giants seemed exceptionally animated; they had always moved relatively slowly, owing to their enormous mass. Now, however, they were moving much quicker and with greater energy, which he suspected was due to an argument about what to do with him.
[I think we’re in trouble, demon,] Leon muttered in a voice far more nervous than he would ever care to admit. He was not looking forward to what the consequences for this would be.
[We’ll deal with it as it comes,] Xaphan replied. [Don’t stress too much over it now—in fact, it would be better if you were to conserve that energy, rather than wasting it on worrying about the future. Prepare for something violent, as I doubt this will be solved in any other way.]
[You’ve a fair point…]
Leon quieted down and trying to not listen to the deep rumblings of the speaking giants. Instead, he concentrated on figuring out just what changes to his magic power ascending to the fifth-tier would bring. He knew what would happen from a theoretical standpoint, obviously, but he needed to feel it in order to understand it in more than just an academic way.
The other knights, however, weren’t quite so willing to ignore the dozen or so fifth and sixth-tier walking mountains in front of them.
“Can you understand what they’re talking about, Sir?” Lucilius asked Aquillius.
Aquillius looked troubled, and he did his best to listen in. “It’s hard to follow, they’re using a dialect I can’t quite understand,” he said. “It actually sounds a lot like their formal speech, and yet different. Maybe it’s more formal than usual…?”
“I don’t suppose we can just ask?” Juliana suggested.
“That’s always an option,” Aquillius replied. After another minute or so of listening to the giants talk amongst themselves, Aquillius stepped forward and addressed Rakos.
“Chief Rakos, I would like to apo-“
Before Aquillius could finish his apology for Leon entering the Cradle, Rakos thundered something at Aquillius, and the diplomat instantly stopped talking in shock. He stood stunned for several seconds, then returned to the other three, taking a few furtive glances at Leon as he did so.
“… Sir?” Lucilius hesitantly asked, seeking an explanation for what had just happened.
“They’re arguing about who Leon is, not what he did and what they’re response should be… I think…” Aquillius interpreted. “For now, let’s just wait and see what happens—Rakos certainly did not appreciate me interrupting…”
“Have you ever seen something like this before, Sir?” Juliana asked.
“No. I was under the impression that Rakos’ word was law for the subordinate tribes, but now they seem to be debating…” Aquillius answered.
Leon couldn’t help overhearing their conversation, despite his attempts to remain calm. He subconsciously began to grip his sword, taking to heart Xaphan’s warning about violence being the only way to get himself out of this mess.
The group waited for about five or ten minutes in silence. All four knights were growing increasingly nervous, despite their attempts to stay calm, as the giants were only growing more vigorous in their dialogue, with a couple even waving their arms at them as they spoke, as if to emphasize a point they were making.
Finally, Rakos quieted the contentious dispute with another thunderous roar to assert its authority and stepped forward to address Aquillius. The diplomat also took a few steps forward so the two could comfortably speak without shouting.
“I see…” Aquillius replied after Rakos was finished speaking its piece. “I don’t suppose there’s another way to-“
Rakos interjected with more sounds of stones harshly grinding together, and Aquillius nodded while glancing at all of the rest of the soldiers and diplomats that he’d brought with him.
“Then that’s what we’ll do if there’s no other way…”
The two parted, with Rakos returning to the other giants, and Aquillius walking back to Leon, Juliana, and Lucilius.
“What’s the plan, Sir?” Juliana inquired.
“Sir Leon will battle a giant,” Aquillius replied with an ugly look on his face.
“… To what end? Is this an execution?” Juliana asked.
“I’m not sure. However, Rakos insisted, and said that we would not… be welcome in this crater if this was refused.”
Juliana, Lucilius, and even Leon could read into what Aquillius had just said: if the duel was rejected, then their entire party would have to fight the giants. The company of soldiers they brought with wouldn’t help against the full might of the near-thousand stone giants in the crater.
“I guess we have little choice then,” Lucilius said. “Sir Leon, you have gotten us all into quite the predicament.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about that. Assuming we get out of this, I’ll take full responsibility,” Leon said. There was no talking his way out of this, even if he had the skill or desire to try. Instead, he had a look on his face that Aquillius found exceptionally curious; Leon almost seemed to smile in anticipation, and any worry he had seemed to vanish into that smile.
After Rakos returned to the rest of the giants, Lapis stepped forward. Leon steeled himself for battle against the giant, then started walking forward to meet it. The giants were not going to wait for this battle, as whatever question would be answered with Leon’s performance seemed like it was exceptionally important. Given what the Cradle seemed to be for the giants, Leon could understand.
Lapis stopped about twenty feet away from Leon, and the latter did likewise. Slowly, he drew his sword and waited for whatever would signal the start of the duel.
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