Cloudhawk was struck by a fundamental truth; that be it in Skycloud, this fallen kingdom, or the vast wastelands, humans were similar everywhere they existed. In even the most beautiful places there were liars, cheaters, greed and violence. Man stood for himself, even in the face of condemnation. The idea of a pure utopia was a fallacy. Such a place could not exist if man lived there. Where there was light, there always existed darkness.
However, it was obvious that one’s environment effected them deeply. With the right cultivation, even those dark habits with the deepest roots could be dug out. Faith, the rule of law, military force, culture and morality were all ways to impose constraints on the inherent wild nature of humans.
Cloudhawk understood that. It’s why he established Greenland, in search of an unrealistic ideal. But it was better to try and fail to create one, then to leave mankind to wallow in squalor. The pursuit of this ideal inspired Cloudhawk to keep seeking his purpose in life, to look for happiness where there was none. It was the first time in his life he was really committed to doing something well.
There came a moment in everyone’s life when they woke up, when the life they led to up this point became insufferably boring, and the thirst for change arises. They hope for something to devote their lives to, a cause that becomes everything to them. Cloudhawk had grown up simple, ignorant, pure. Life propelled him along a tempestuous current where he experienced corruption, confusion and reckless disregard. Through it he discovered what it was he wanted. He saw it begin to be realized in Greenland. And with every new change the city underwent, Cloudhawk felt a sort of joy and satisfaction he’d never known before.
He wanted desperately to go back. He wanted to return to his home, his friends. He couldn’t die out here in the cold, alone. It didn’t matter if Judas was using him. It didn’t matter that the Khan was scheming. He needed to survive, get the blood of the Demon King and control that enormous power. When he returned to his people he would do it as a new man, reborn more powerful than ever before!
And the dilemma Cloudhawk promised to bring to the kingdom? Not worth worrying about, at least not right now. He would deal with that problem when he got to it. Everyone kept telling him that the Silver Kingdom was protected by powerful people and enchantments. So powerful even the elder demon couldn’t overcome them.
He had to find a way to insert himself with the locals and find a legitimate way to enter the Imperia. He was confident that once he was inside, he would have no trouble retrieving the Demon King’s blood.
For himself and for the people who took him in, Cloudhawk decided to stick around for a little while.
The next day.
Redleaf Tea House. It was practically empty in and around the facility but for a cadre of burly men who stood before the doors like a human shield.
In contrast, there were only three representatives from Summer-Autumn Company. They were the siblings Summer and Autumn, and Cloudhawk who looked very foreign and out of place. As they approached the towering men, Summer felt a lump of fear creep into his throat and his legs trembled.
Red Banner was not an organization to mess with. What an overbearing presence it had! The four emissaries had the sort of strength that shook the foundations of the city.
Summer had only a handful of years on this earth, he’d never met people like this. He didn’t know what to expect once they walked inside. What could he do? What? Why did this have to happen! He felt so afraid and helpless.
Summer’s eyes darted to his sister’s stoic expression, then to Cloudhawk’s calm one. He felt shame rise up from within.
He was always talking about what a man should do but at the end of the day he was the one who was almost too scared to move. Could he expect to face frightening monsters and daring challenges like this? If he was so frightened could he make his living wandering the land and chasing his dream?
Autumn felt all the fear, too. But she kept it bottled up tight. They were about to face the biggest threat since their small company’s inception.
If Red Banner wanted to crush Summer-Autumn they could, as easily as crushing an ant beneath their boot heel. She was painfully aware that all her hopes had been pinned on a man she knew nothing about.
She even questioned whether Cloudhawk was genuine in his offer to help…
He had killed Python easily, that at least proved that Cloudhawk had some strength. But Python was second tier among Red Banner’s Chosen. He didn’t even rank among their top ten. Did Cloudhawk have the ability to protect them from Red Banner’s four emissaries? Each of them individually were big names in this area.
Cloudhawk approached the large men. He regarded them calmly and with little interest, as though they were hardly more than air.
As he neared the thugs sought to call him to a halt, but a faint and sinister light flickered to life in his eyes that flooded them with an unassailable will. They were frozen stiff, too terrified to move. So they stood there as though they were made of wood while Cloudhawk led the two siblings inside.
Only one of the many tables in the establishment was occupied. Cloudhawk took a seat opposite his hosts without asking for leave. “You lot are from Red Banner, or whatever it’s called?”
“You are the outsider who killed Python?” The first to speak was an older man with a raspy, captivating voice sitting directly opposite Cloudhawk. The gray in his hair marked him as fifty or sixty years old. He was wrapped in an elegant vest of with swirling patterns of white and yellow and draped around his shoulders was a luxurious mantle of deep red, stitched with leaf patterns.
Four men stood on either side of elder; one was tall, one was short, one was fat, one was thin.
Outwardly they were very different, but there was a uniformity to each. That was the stifling aura that they all bore. By Cloudhawk’s estimation they were equivalent to standard demonhunters.
Not bad, but hardly elite material. His own people – Claudia and Barb for example – could beat them to a pulp without much effort. All in all he was a little disappointed. It was too easy.
Summer and Autumn remained standing behind Cloudhawk. That was the measure of their confrontation, one which was dramatically stilted in one side’s favor. So vast was the difference that Red Banner’s emissaries couldn’t even sense how far out of their depth they were.
“This is the president of Red Banner, Elder Beck Roth. He is one of the most important men in Redleaf.” Summer was stunned at Cloudhawk’s lack of decorum, sitting before a man like this without waiting for permission. He gave his new friend whispered introductions. “The men with him are Red Banner’s strongest emissaries. They’re all famous here for their strength. Be careful, they aren’t pushovers.”
“President Roth, we’ve come here today to negotiate with Red Banner.” Autumn took the initiative. “In regards to the matter with Python, we are prepared to admit some fault but Python instigated the conflict. Our company is prepared to offer reparations, as long as we -”
“The nerve!” The skinny emissary glared at Cloudhawk with incredulous eyes, completely ignoring Autumn. “Did the president tell you to sit? Who the hell do you think you are? You think you deserve to sit with Mr. Roth?”
He and his three companions glared disdainfully at the raggedy outsider. But Beck waved a hand, and the motion alone was enough to silence his subordinates.
Cloudhawk could sense the company’s president was also a demonhunter – Chosen, he supposed they were called here. He was weaker than the other four, but they listened to him with deference. Obviously, he knew how to command people.
Beck Roth spoke. “I can see you’re young. Not from around here. In fact, I have contacts in several of the nearby cities and I’ve never heard of a man like you from any of them.”
Cloudhawk offered an unenthusiastic response. “Where I’m from is not important. What is, is how we plan to settle this matter. Talk or fight, get to the point. I don’t want to waste too much time here.”
The skinny one’s face darkened considerably. “You worthless nobody with no backing. What makes you so confident that you can stomp around Redleaf like you own the place? What gives you the right to speak to Mr. Roth like that?!”
Summer and Autumn were equally stunned. Cloudhawk, however, almost looked bored. Did he really not fear these men at all?
For a stranger he really was bold, but whether it was arrogance or madness it really didn’t matter. Whatever the root of his attitude, it did not reflect well for Summer-Autumn Company. If he continued to antagonize Red Banner, would their small business ever know another day of peace? This was their home and he was burning bridges!
A small smile remained on Beck’s face, but the lines at the corners of his eyes had deepened and a dangerous glint lived inside them. Red Banner’s president was a man who earned his station, certainly. Even though Cloudhawk was a nobody in this town, Beck did not underestimate him.
“You have slain a man in Red Banner’s service, a Chosen of the Silver Kingdom. Whether in regards to my company saving face or the laws of our nation, this is not a matter to be taken lightly. So I imagine you understand why this needs to be addressed today.”
Cloudhawk’s face remained unchanged. “On with it, then.”
“I can see you are a confident man. Perhaps there is something to you we are not seeing, but I wonder if you’ve considered how this will reflect on your friends. They live here, but are you willing to protect them for the rest of your life? This town belongs to Red Banner, and here we have no less than a hundred ways to dismantle Summer-Autumn company and take every asset they have.”
“This is how you choose to threaten me?” Cloudhawk’s gaze became a few degrees colder but then returned to normal. He continued to speak as though he hardly cared. “It doesn’t matter, because I will make sure your Red Banner will be wiped form the face of the earth before you can cause any more trouble.”
When the words left his lips, faces around the table changed. That was a direct provocation against Redleaf’s eminent merchant company!
Summer and Autumn were so shocked by his claim that the color drained from their faces. He had gone too far! Did he not understand he was asking for death?
In the face of such naked threats even Beck found it difficult to keep his composure. Talk was done. He motioned with his hand, and it was all the excuse the skinny man needed to shut this fool’s mouth permanently.
Cloudhawk looked genuinely surprised. “Just him?”
“You have a very inflated view of your capabilities,” Beck rasped at him. “He is weakest of Red Banner’s four Standard Bearers. Word is you are a capable beastmater. As it happens, so is he. If you can best him then maybe we will have more to say. Do you consent?”
Perched on the skinny man’s shoulder was a bird something like a condor. A divine beast, the relic he used to fight. Cloudhawk shook his head in a sign of utter disregard.
If he didn’t need to find some way into Imperia he wouldn’t have even bothered with these fools. After all, bullying rarely won anything of worth and it wasn’t in Cloudhawk’s nature.
“Hmph, you think you beat Python and suddenly you’re undefeatable?” Instead of the fear he was hoping for, the skinny man saw contempt and disregard in Cloudhawk’s response. He would suffer it no longer. “Today you’ll see what a real Chosen is like!”
He said nothing further, summoning the power of his wil.
His condor took to the air with gleaming eyes. Strange black mist poured off its body as it took flight, quick as lightning. Suddenly it took a ninety degree turn and dashed toward its target with dagger-like talons.
The momentum was enough to cause the ground beneath it to crack as it passed overhead. Such power! This man was head and shoulder above the likes of Python.
Summer and Autumn felt the hopelessness creep through their heart, almost enough to make them throw themselves to the ground in terror. They were sure tragedy would come – after all, he was but one Red Banner Standard Bearer, the weakest of the emissaries!
Cloudhawk remained seated and never moved a muscle. One hand was wrapped around a steaming tea cup as though he didn’t even notice the bird.
A primary difference between this failed Elysian land and Skycloud was the prevalence of divine beasts, but that was the only advantage it had. Comparing average strength, as far as Cloudhawk had seen this place was greatly lacking.
The pudgy bird on Cloudhawk’s shoulder burst into action.
Cloudhawk’s fist-sized companion leaped up and its relatively tiny wings kept it aloft. It looked like a little balloon, especially as suddenly it swelled to ten times its size. The two divine beasts were about equal in size, then.
Both sets of talons collided. It sounded like metal grinding on metal, or swords clashing mid-battle.
Sparks filled the air and their violent confrontation filled the tea house. The orderly establishment was quickly ruined, and if it continued for long there would be little left.
“That’s all you got? Let me show you something!”
The skinny man cackled as he poured more mental energy into his creature. From beneath the condor’s feathers spouted tongues of black flame until the whole bird as aflame. The unassuming condor was now a sinister black phoenix.
The fires hugged close to the beast like armor. There was no heat but the power in it was unmistakable. Anything that came into contact with it would suffer a devastating blow, increasing the destructive force of this divine beast considerably.
Oddball beat its tiny wings. Golden spine-like feathers shot at its opponent in the dozens.
They streaked through the air like shooting stars, sharp as daggers and just as deadly. Not only were they flung out with the force of a high-caliber bullet, but they were all also surprisingly precise. They fluttered out and converged on the black condor. However the black fires devoured them before they could cause any harm.
The skinny man’s voice was filled with pride. “Your lowly bird is no match for my Blackfire Condor! Die!”
It was the condor’s turn to beat its wings, causing gouts of flame to jettison forth. They drilled through the air toward Oddball.
The power of blackfire was something others had seen before. Could this skinny golden bird withstand such an attack?
Summer and Autumn watched, eyes wide and filled with fear. It was the first time they’d ever seen a conflict like this. Was this what all beastmaster battles were like?
Oddball didn’t panic as the waves of blackfire approached. Its beak opened and from its maw shot a bolt of golden energy that split the darkness. The two opposing powers battled for an instant before a resulting explosion sent motes of light cascading through the tea house. It appeared to have ended in a draw.
Oddball dashed forward, quickly breaking the sound barrier. Its beak slammed into the condor, piercing through flesh and feathers. A shrill cry of pain answered and was silenced when the condor slammed through a distant wall. Outside in the street it hit the ground hard enough to dig a trench several meters.
The Standard Bearer howled in outrage. “No!”
Oddball fluttered back over to Cloudhawk and plopped onto his shoulder in a fashion that could be described as self-satisfied. By the time it was situated the bird was back to its tiny, original state. Its beady bird eyes looked at the skinny man with… was that scorn?
This piddling little creature had defeated his condor? It’d done it without Cloudhawk’s aid as well. The brief fight was done using nothing but its own power, and still Oddball had easily defeat the man’s so-called Blackfire demon condor.
The others stared at Cloudhawk and his small companion in disbelief. It was unthinkable that the tiny bird would command such strength. This was definitely not your normal divine beast, it was a lot more than it appeared.
Cloudhawk, of course, was not surprised in the least. He’d raised his golden friend for years. They traveled together to Woodland Vale, to other worlds. It’d munched on eboncrys and hunted demonhunter spirits. If a lousy matchstick like that condor could defeat it, then Cloudhawk was a shitty owner.
The skinny man’s face was a thunderhead. His three companions could hardly hold themselves back.
“Alright.” Cloudhawk rose to his feet. A faint flicker of scarlet danced in the depths of his eyes. “It’s too much of a pain in the ass to deal with you one by one. All four of you, let’s go.”
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