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The entire crater was silent. The stone giants were like crude statues, watching Lapis and Leon face off. Eleanor, Antonius, Alix, and the rest of the party still by the edge of the maze watched just as transfixed; they had no idea what was going on, and suddenly a stone giant and Leon were squaring off with one another!
‘I guess this is the punishment, then?’ Eleanor wondered. ‘Sir Leon trespassed on their sacred ground, and so they now wish to make a show of his execution…’
The lady knight watched in fascination, worried only for the future of their diplomatic mission and not for the young man who had put it in jeopardy.
Alix, meanwhile, stared in horror. She was certainly furious with Leon for leaving her behind, but she didn’t want to see him crushed beneath the feet of a stone giant more than three times his height. Her immediate instinct was to run to Leon’s side and defend him, fulfilling her duty as his squire. However, she never lost sight of the ring of giants surrounding the Cradle platform, and she doubted she’d get close enough to fight—assuming her first-tier power was capable of rendering any assistance.
Everyone had to stand and watch, silent and unmoving, as the duel between Leon and Lapis began.
Leon slowly drew his sword and waited for the signal for the duel to begin. Lapis seemed to do likewise, with the giant stepping forward and taking an aggressive stance. The giant chiefs stood behind Lapis, while Aquillius, Juliana, Lucilius, and Anzu—the baby griffin was frozen in fear of the giants—stood behind Leon, all waiting for the first blow.
The stone giant towered over Leon, being over twenty feet of solid rock. Leon speculated that its body was made of some kind of dark granite, and it seemed to be highly polished because Lapis began to sparkle as the storm clouds above finally dissipated. In the resulting late afternoon sunlight, Leon could also see thin streaks of dark blue around the giant’s joints, which he assumed was what prompted Aquillius to give it the name ‘Lapis’ in the first place—its name in its own language was completely unpronounceable with a human mouth, unfortunately.
The two combatants stared at each other—or at least, Leon stared at Lapis’ head—for what seemed like an eternity. Then, Rakos raised its arms into the air and clapped, creating a sound as sharp and loud as the thunder of the just-passed storm.
Leon guessed this was the signal to begin, and so lunged forward a few steps while calling upon his magic power; Lapis, however, remained standing still, and Leon came to a halt in confusion.
“Sir Leon, the fight has started! Keep going!” Aquillius called out from behind him.
Leon wanted to turn and give the senior diplomat a questioning look, but he wasn’t about to take his eyes off of Lapis. So, instead, he decided to give Aquillius the benefit of the doubt, and he surged forward again, with his sword raised and his aura soaring.
And yet, Lapis continued to not move, even when Leon closed the distance between them and brought his sword down with all of his strength on Lapis’ leg. For a moment, Leon was terrified that this was some kind of trap, and his suspicion intensified when his sword bounced right off the giant’s leg without leaving so much as a scratch. Leon hurriedly pulled back, expecting the giant to follow up with something, but still, Lapis refused to move.
Leon glared at his opponent, then lunged forward again, striking the other leg this time. Unfortunately, his attack had the same effect as the previous did, which is to say none at all.
‘I see what you’re doing,’ Leon thought bitterly. ‘You’re looking down on me, thinking that with that body made of stone, I can’t harm you!’
Looking at the seemingly nonchalant giant, Leon had to admit that he didn’t see much of a way to actually harm the thing. Most soldiers that fight stone giants in the Eastern Territories do so with huge crushing weapons, such as mauls and hammers. His sword was painfully unsuited to the task of causing the stone giant damage, so rather than continue to wail ineffectually on the giants’ stony exterior, Leon sheathed his blade and decided to take a different approach.
Calling forth his magic power, Leon expelled it from his body to sense his surroundings, just as he had practiced in the past. This time, however, was quite different in that it actually seemed to work; Leon channeled magic into his spine where he could feel it resonate with the magic outside of his body. It was a confusing feeling, but he could vaguely perceive his surroundings. Using this technique, he felt relatively comfortable taking the risk of scanning the ground with his eyes while keeping his rudimentary magic sense fixated on the giant.
Glancing around, Leon found a few fist-sized stones, and he picked one up.
[You… What in the name of all the Gods and Devils are you doing?] Xaphan asked exasperatedly.
[I don’t want to damage my sword on that giant’s skin, so I need to use something else,] Leon answered. He then channeled a great amount of magic into his arm and hurled the rock at Lapis.
The giant stood there completely unfazed as Leon’s stone almost exploded from the force of the impact. Lapis was completely unharmed.
[This is embarrassing,] Xaphan complained. If Leon looked behind him at the knights watching him, then he’d have noticed that Aquillius seemed to be thinking along the same lines as Xaphan, as he was struggling not to face-palm when Leon threw the stone. [Now, I know what I’m about to say is going to be some kind of revelation, but try to wrap your tiny mind around this concept,] Xaphan continued, layering as much sarcasm into his voice as he could. [How about you use magic?!]
[I am using magic,] Leon retorted.
[You know what I mean!] Xaphan shouted back.
[I’m not sure I want to,] Leon explained. [I used quite a bit of magic power when I was invisible, and though all that lightning feels like it charged me up, I still want to be economical with this.]
[The only reason you’re getting a chance to be ‘economical’ is that that giant isn’t moving!] Xaphan countered. [That thing is about equivalent to a sixth-tier mage! If you don’t open up with something a little more substantial, then when it moves, you’re going to die!]
[Mmm,] Leon hummed, deliberately not giving a definite answer.
He glared at the motionless Lapis. ‘You’re not going to give me the courtesy of effort, so why should I?’ he bitterly thought.
But then, with far more speed than Leon expected given how big it was, Lapis lunged toward him and raised its fist in preparation for a punch. Leon’s eyes widened in slight surprise, but his magic sense had given him about half a second of extra time to react, so he was already diving out of the way when Lapis’ fist impacted the ground right where had been standing several moments before. Lapis’ fist fractured dozens of pillars beneath the giants’ strength and weight, creating a small pit in the Cradle platform big enough for a full-grown man to curl up inside if he so chose.
Leon knew that he couldn’t be hit by one of those punches. Even with his newly-ascended fifth-tier strength and his magically strengthened muscles and bones, he doubted whether he would be able to survive a blow like that. Lapis rushed toward him again, the giant’s punches ruining not only the pillars beneath the two combatants but also the sense of levity Leon had when the giant was standing still.
Understanding that it was past time to get serious, Leon immediately began to call upon his newfound power. He had an opportunity to test his strength, but only if Lapis didn’t kill him first.
Leon dodged another of Lapis’ blows by throwing himself to the side. The giant’s massive size made turning on a dime impossible, so Leon kept himself relatively close to it, just outside of its reach. Lapis swiped out for him, but the giant grasped nothing but air. With his magic power flooding his body and his attention firmly fixed on the giant, Leon was able to easily dodge, duck, and dive out of the way of all of Lapis’ attacks.
In fact, he found it a little easier than he expected, but with Lapis keeping the pressure on, Leon couldn’t spare the time to think too much about it. Instead, he devoted everything he could into compressing his magic power and allowing it to flow into his right arm, just as he’d learned to when he was being struck by lightning in the Cradle. He felt the magic power change into lightning, and his fingers began to spark and crackle with power. As the power flowed through his arm and into his hand, Leon held it there a tightly as he could. He did not, however, leave the lightning without a place to go, as this ball of magic power began to elongate and slip out past his thumb and little finger.
In less than two seconds, Leon’s upper body was illuminated by a silver-blue lightning spear held in his right hand. It was incredibly bright, so much so that Leon struggled to keep his eyes open. The spear vibrated in his hand, but he wasn’t worried about accuracy; Lapis was far too close for him to miss.
Leon hurled this spear as hard as he could at Lapis, shouting with exertion as it left his hand. The spear crossed the short distance between the two faster than even Aquillius’ sixth-tier eyes could track, and exploded on the giant’s rocky skin, showering both combatants in sparks and causing small arcs of lightning to appear all over the giant’s body. The force behind the attack sent the giant skidding back across the platform several feet, while Leon struggled to maintain his own balance from the reaction force of throwing the spear.
The lightning cleared up after a few seconds, and a scorched and blackened Lapis paused in its attacks while Leon stood and stared at the giant. The latter was circulating his magic through his body, getting ready to continue the fight, but something had started to bother him: Lapis was the equivalent of a sixth-tier mage, but it wasn’t using any magic at all.
Suddenly, Lapis broke its silence, shouting something in its grinding voice back at Rakos. Aquillius tried to listen in, but Lapis spoke in the same ancient dialect that the chiefs had used when they were debating what to do about Leon which the diplomat couldn’t understand. Rakos responded by lumbering forward, with the flecks of gold and rubies in its skin glittering in the sunlight.
Rakos spoke, this time directing its voice at Aquillius, who hurried forward to interpret.
“He says the… ‘the fighting is over, there is to be no harm done to you’.” The diplomat said to Leon. The younger mage relaxed somewhat, allowing his magic power to be slowly pulled back into his soul realm. He didn’t take his eyes off either Rakos or Lapis, though.
Again, Rakos spoke, and Aquillius responded with, “I understand, give me a few minutes and I’ll be right there…”
In one last surprise, as the giant chief and the diplomat parted ways to organize a new meeting, the rest of the hundreds of assembled giants roared. The humans watching were startled and put on alert, with many of the soldiers that were there to guard the diplomats reaching for their weapons.
Antonius, however, halted their hostile behavior by simply raising his hand and wordlessly telling them to halt.
The giants continued to roar. This cacophony of crashing, grinding, and crushing rock sounds echoed throughout the entire crater and was loud enough to even shake the Cradle platform.
“Are they… singing?” Juliana asked as she and Lucilius approached Leon and Aquillius.
“That they are,” Aquillius confirmed.
“They’ve got a hell of a bass section, have to admit…” Lucilius said with a hint of a smile and an expression of complete relief at the giants’ apparent lack of hostility.
“We’re returning to Rakos’ hall,” Aquillius said in a tone that brokered no argument. “I’m going to speak with Rakos afterward, and then we’re going to have a long talk, Sir Leon.”
Aquillius sent a chilling glare Leon’s way, and the younger mage could only nod in acknowledgment. The diplomat then led the four of them—followed by Anzu, who only started moving again when Leon turned and waved to him—back to the rest of the party. The giants finished singing after several minutes, and they, too, dispersed, with none of them getting in the way of the diplomatic party.
As Aquillius’ group fell back in with the rest of the party and began making their back to Rakos’ hall, Alix moved to walk alongside Leon.
Remembering the betrayed look she gave him when he was first revealed, Leon quietly said, “I’m sorry…”
“Sir,” she curtly replied, shooting him a look that could almost kill before turning back to watch where they were going.
Leon took a deep breath and tried to steel himself for what he was about to face. If he were to be honest with himself, though, he was far more apprehensive about the talk he would need to have with Alix than with Aquillius.
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