The Khan never moved a muscle. He didn’t seem to be a living thing at all, just a sentient machine. The shadow of death, standing in Cloudhawk’s doorway.
His black mask concealed his face, leaving nothing revealed but cold and flickering red eyes. His gaze was chilling.
Cloudhawk looked back with his own dark eyes, just as frigid and unwelcoming. “So I’m just a tool you’re using to break through this place’s defenses. To feed your ambitions to take over. Don’t you think you’re being a little obvious about it?”
“No. Your worth to Judas is a hundred times greater than all the people of this kingdom put together. At least when it comes to the blood crystal, the elder demon has not deceived you. Once the Demon King’s blood is yours, not only will all your wounds melt away, you will also finally be able to access your full inheritance.”
Cloudhawk was frank. “I hate being used. Why the fuck should I agree to this?”
“You don’t want to live? You don’t desire to make Arcturus pay for his crimes, to protect Greenland? What about saving your friend’s life?” The Khan turned away, but left Cloudhawk with a final thought before disappearing. “Remember that in any situation, you have a choice. Think carefully.”
Humans were selfish by nature. A drowning man would grab whatever was stretched out to him if it meant survival, even if it meant dragging someone else under the waves.
Humans were also greedy. Wealth, rights and rank – those were the goals, and it often didn’t matter who got hurt in its pursuit. When it came to these fundamental things any righteous-sounding excuse was just so many words. The Khan was right, there was always a choice. The question was always which one you chose.
There was definitely more to Judas’ plans than he was letting on. The demon was a crafty and ambitious thing. But how did that knowledge change anything? Conspiracies were pointless, Judas schemed in the open without concern.
Even the Khan could tell there was a lot Cloudhawk still wanted to accomplish. He was eager to destroy Arcturus, protect his companions, build his nation, rejoin his family, and know the truth behind this whole mess. A man like Cloudhawk would not accept death and go silently to the dark in this frozen, lonely place.
He had his back to a cliff and the ground was crumbling beneath his feet.
As far as Cloudhawk could tell, he had two clear paths before him. Only they were two very different routes that led to very different places. Whichever he chose, the consequences were serious and irreversible.
“Cloudhawk, Redleaf has a pub called Cloudtop. Let’s go knock back a few!” Summer had tracked him down to make the suggestion.
She wasn’t convinced he would accept, so It was a pleasant surprise when he did.
Cloudhawk wasn’t an iceberg. He didn’t keep people at arm’s length forever. All the callousness and unfriendly mannerisms were to keep himself hidden and protected. But who knew what the future would hold, and Cloudhawk figured so long as he was here, he might as well try to blend in.
Cloudtop was a famous waterhole in the area. It was both a hot spring and bar, and dripped with local character. One could say it was the city’s main landmark.
The bar itself was surrounded by pools of steamy water giving it all a very heavy, aquatic feel. In that way it was very different from Skycloud and the wastelands both. Singing girls regaled the patrons with local ballads and everyone milled around, relaxed and content.
“First you need to try our fruit wine.”
Cloudhawk did as he was instructed, but could not share his opinions because the wine didn’t actually taste like anything. He appeared to have lost that sense – and not only that, after awakening he felt numb all over.
Summer saw his eyebrows drop and figured he was struggling with amnesia again. “Most of the people in Redleaf are really friendly. You could stay here until you recover your memory.”
If he didn’t only have a year to live, if he didn’t have so much he had to do, Cloudhawk would really have considered it.
“Drink up!” Summer held up a glass, his face bright and cheerful. “You know, I really respect you Chosen. One day I hope I can be able to wield the sort of power you do. Then I could leave this sleepy little village and adventure across the world. I could build my own name and write my own legend!”
“Why do you want to leave?” Cloudhawk asked. “You don’t like it here?”
Summer chortled, but his expression was determined. “Redleaf is my home, of course I like it. But I’m a man! And a man who spends his whole life never leaving where he grew up is a coward. We’ve only got a few decades to live our lives so I need to get out there and live it to its fullest. Men are meant to do something with our time on earth!”
Cloudhawk had nothing to say to that.
Summer was left awkwardly scratching his head. “You think it’s wishful thinking too, eh?”
“No. Everyone has untapped potential, ambitions, dreams, desires… those aren’t bad things. But a real warrior always knows why they’re fighting, and what they’re fighting for. Only when you’re confident and believe in what you’re doing will you have the passion to see it through, and the courage to face the hard times. If you don’t, the weapon in your hand will quickly eat you up.”
Cloudhawk muttered the wisdom into the red liquid, sloshing around in his cup. It looked like he was talking to the young man, but really the words were directed at himself.
“Remember that not ever pursuit will end in the result you want, or even any result at all. Everyone has their limits and when you’re out reaching for what you want, you’re going to lose some things, too. If you want to make a living adventuring, you have to be prepared to give up safety and comfort. When your feet hit the road you better be prepared for every storm that comes your way.”
“You’re young. You don’t know what it costs to go after your dreams. Maybe one day you’ll succeed and suddenly realize that everything you gave up to get here. That’s why it’s important, before you start, to ask yourself what’s most important. Then you never let that go.”
Summer didn’t understand. Was he saying that chasing one’s dreams required sacrifice? Brother Cloudhawk couldn’t even be thirty, why was he talking like a grizzled old man?
“I’ve done too much talking, don’t listen to me.” Cloudhawk lifted the glass and took another sip. “Real life is like a glass of booze, I guess. Warm, cold, bitter, sweet, mild, strong – everyone’s got a preference, but they don’t know till they try them all. I’m just sharing my opinion.”
“Brother Cloudhawk’s experienced a lot.” Summer was even more convinced Cloudhawk’s history was a complicated one.
What Cloudhawk asked next almost made him spit out his wine. “Have you met your king?”
“How would I do that?” Summer’s eyes were wide. “Our King is the amazing protector of our kingdom. Every few years citizens from the different cities do a pilgrimage to Imperia to pay tribute, but normal folk don’t actually get to meet the king. A nobody like me, I don’t even have the chance to visit the capitol.”
An idea was starting to percolate in the back of Cloudhawk’s mind. If what the Khan said was true, then the Demon King’s blood crystal was somewhere in Imperia. Cloudhawk didn’t know anything beyond that, but why kill the king to get to it? With his skills, he could find a way to slip into the capitol and take the crystal without spilling any blood.
If he found out Judas was lying to him he could return the crystal – no harm no foul – and maybe even get revenge for being used. If the demon was telling the truth, then Judas couldn’t stop him, with his body healed and the Demon King’s inheritance firmly in hand.
At that point Cloudhawk could do whatever he wanted. It was as good a plan as any.
“You’ve got to try the hot springs, and the ones around Cloudtop are the best. I’m telling you, it’s the most relaxing feeling in the whole world and there’s nothing else like it anywhere. Let’s give it a try.”
In fact it was Cloudhawk’s first time seeing anything like a hot spring, much less experiencing it. Water was such a treasure where he came from! It was unthinkable to him that water would endlessly spill up from the ground, and that people could just sit in it and lounge. If he told this to anyone back in the wastelands they’d think he’d gone crazy.
Summer stood and began leading Cloudhawk to the pools. But they were stopped when a figure stepped into their path. “So sorry, the hot springs are reserved. You can’t go in.”
Summer wasn’t happy at being denied and his temper flared. “What?” He said incredulously. “We came here but you’re going to give it to someone else?”
The waiter gave an apologetic smile. “Young master, I am very sorry. As a means of apology, please consider your drinks on the house.”
But he didn’t want a refund. Summer had brought his new friend here for an experience! If they turned him back it would be an embarrassment!
A voice reached them then. “I should have known it would be you making all that noise, useless boy. The whelp of a small company on the verge of going out of business, and here you are wasting money. Honestly I,’m amazed at your thoughtlessness.”
A middle-aged man flanked by a group of burly men stepped forward.
Summer’s face turned red with rage and his eyes spat fire. He shouted back, almost instinctively. “You ungrateful traitor!”
The middle-aged man was on the thinner side, with prominent cheekbones and sunken eyes. A black snake was curled around his shoulders.
His aura was strange, dark and malicious. When the younger man flung his insults he responded with a dismissive laugh. “Traitor? Do you know who you’re talking to? Do you know the consequence of saying something like that to me?”
Summer’s face turned white. He ground his teeth for a moment, but eventually turned to Cloudhawk. “I’m sorry, Cloudhawk. Today I didn’t treat you as I expected...”
Cloudhawk shook his head. “Not a problem. Let’s go.” Obviously, Summer could not afford to offend this stranger.
“Hold it right there!” The man’s cold voice called after them. “You’ve offended a Chosen. You think you can just say what you said and leave? But since Ol’ Vista is a former client I don’t want to hurt him too badly. I’ll just take your legs as payment.”
His cruel words surprised everyone who heard. Was he so arrogant and vicious as to threaten a boy? Summer was so young! If the stranger made good on his threats it would ruin the rest of the boy’s life.
Fear gripped Summer when he heard it and he knew he was in serious trouble. He also knew that more than likely the Chosen’s presence here was deliberate. It was too late to get out of it now.
However, this man was taking it too far! Summer shot back. “Do you have to burn all your bridges? The Summer-Autumn Company treated you well for years, and this is how you treat us? If this isn’t ingratitude, I don’t know what is.”
“You’re wrong. People like you should worship people like me. You should thank me! I don’t owe you anything, but you owe me everything. Now cut off your legs and give them to me. It’s what I’m owed.”
Everyone else in the bar was dead silent out of fear. The organization the man worked for now was a significant one, and no one dared offend his handlers.
Summer was at a loss and cast his eyes toward Cloudhawk. He regretted this trip. All he’d wanted to do was show Cloudhawk a good time, and this was the result. He knew he shouldn’t have answered, shouldn’t have offended this man. But maybe this strange man they found in the forbidden area could help him.
But could he? This man was a famed local villain, and a mighty Chosen!
Cloudhawk sighed. He was again reminded that anywhere people lived, these sorts of things followed.
He stretched out a finger and flicked it. One of the big men guarding the scoundrel was struck by an unseen power. He staggered back as though struck by a lightning bolt, and all the strength in his arms was lost. Numb fingers dumbly dropped his weapons. Onlookers had no idea what had happened.
“Where did you dig up this cockroach?” The middle-aged man sized up the odd-looking stranger. “If you’re willing to stand up to me, Python, then you’re obviously bored with living!”
Cloudhawk was silent as he looked over the other man. Nothing about him seemed threatening. At best he was like a demonhunter fresh out of the academy. Cloudhawk could deal with this scrub with one hand tied behind his back. What the hell did he have to be so conceited about? Were Redleaf Chosen really so lacking?
“You’re willing to chop his legs off for a few words. Don’t you think that’s a little much?” Cloudhawk was still trying to avoid starting a fight. “Leave, I don’t want any trouble. Let’s all just pretend nothing happened.”
Python was nothing if not prideful. If he walked away with his tail between his legs, how could he ever show his face around town again? Cloudhawk’s attempts to mollify him only made him more angry. “You lot, bring me all of their limbs! They are going to spend the rest of their lives as useless cripples!”
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