What utter pretentiousness!
Red Banner’s four Standard Bearers were the best of Redleaf! No one in the city had the ability much less the gall to challenge them!
The four men were worshiped – adored! - and at least in this city they were the very best around. How could they stomach such disrespect from some nameless outsider?
The leader of the Standard Bearers fixed Cloudhawk with threatening eyes. “Kid, you’re way too uppity for your own good. Do you really think you can fight the four of us together?”
He was the tall, burly one and strongest of his companions. Cloudhawk figured his strength was about equivalent to his classmates back in Hell’s Valley – and not the good one’s, either. The average ones. After a year of honing they all surpassed a fellow like him.
“Why are you wasting your time talking to him, big brother? If he wants to die then let’s send him on his way!” The second Standard Bearer didn’t quite reach five feet. As he spoke, long black claws peaked from his fingers. “I want to see if he’s got the talent to block my Cerberus claw!”
The third Standard Bearer was the one on the heavier side. He was also a capable beastmaster in command of a black lizard with purple stripes. Its two scaly cheeks were puffed out with faint sparks of electricity dancing around it. This was a famed thunderlizard, much stronger than the fourth Standard Bearer and his pet. As Beck had said, the fourth member of their group was clearly the weakest.
Any one of the other three could handily beat the fourth Standard Bearer in single combat. Their leader was especially superior, as he not only had a mighty divine beast but also used relics. He was one of the three most powerful men in the city and everyone knew who he was.
Cloudhawk had succeeded in thoroughly pissing them off. Four Standard Bearers together… was there anyone in the city or anywhere else that could survive those odds?
But Cloudhawk was quite pleased. One after the other would be tedious. He raised his right hand and waved, summoning a wreath of green fire. Orbs of sickly green light hung in the air around him, each one about the size of a fist. The unsettling display was all the more strange as the fires created no warmth.
The Standard Bearers were ready with their attacks. Cloudhawk was prepared to answer with Castigation Fire.
Beck spoke up, his voice soft but commanding. “Did I say you four can attack? Do you have such little respect for me?”
His words caught them by surprise. They immediately backed off from their threatening postures, though they were far from pleased in having to.
Beck turned his attention to Cloudhawk and looked him over, at the fires which danced around him like fireflies. The unnatural green light set his tattered garb and dirty bandages in stark shadows. He looked like a creature that clawed itself out of the grave. Everything about him oozed danger.
Now, he could feel it. This man will kill them all.
Beck wasn’t the most powerful man in a fight, but he hadn’t climbed his way to the top of regional power by being clueless. He had a keen eye for ability and there were few in his many years he couldn’t see straight through. The man before him was one of them.
Just the like the weird, ghostly fired that surrounded him. They didn’t look like they were all that dangerous…
But Beck had a good sense for things. Something told him that any contact with the fire – even the slightest touch – would result in absolute destruction. No way to escape. The stifling danger was all around so President Roth made the executive decision to stop this conflict now, before it got worse. How strong this stranger was precisely, he couldn’t say. But in defeating the fourth Standard Bearer he proved to be strong enough.
He could not venture to guess how Red Banner would suffer if he put all its resources into destroying this man. Losing more men or having key members of his organization injured, just to save face and vindicate the loss of a subpar Chosen was not an erudite business decision.
Cloudhawk didn’t expect the old man to remain so calm. But his cronies were backing down so it wouldn’t do him any good to keep pressing the fight. Anyway, killing a few scrubs wasn’t going to make him feel good about himself. The motes of Castigation Fire were allowed to fade away and he did as requested. Might as well hear what else this old man had to say.
They sat now at the only table in the tea house that remained whole. Cloudhawk and the Standard Bearer had managed to destroy almost everything else.
“Obviously, you are no ordinary man. This has all been a misunderstanding.” Beck took a sip of his tea. “Python was nothing of consequence. He was greedy, lascivious, arrogant… he was a member of my organization for less than six months before revealing himself as the sort who bites the hand that feeds. He attempted to strike at his former employer, and that is precisely the sort of person I loathe. Red Banner would never debase itself by associating further with a man like him.”
The Standard Bearers glowered as they listened. Summer and Autumn looked as though they could hardly believe what they were hearing. The president of Red Banner Company had changed his tone in a hurry. They were even less sure what would happen going forward.
“But Red Banner cannot shut its eyes to the murder of a Chosen who came to us for refuge. We have our reputation to consider. This may cause other Chosen to hesitate when considering us for employment in the future.”
Cloudhawk snorted. “So? What’s the deal.”
Autumn chimed in. “As I said, our company is willing to provide compensation.”
“Compensation? For a slain Chosen and to repair Red Banner’s reputation, I’m afraid Summer-Autumn Company doesn’t have the means to make us whole.” Beck paused for a moment. “I have a better suggestion.”
Cloudhawk kept a straight face. He wanted to know what nonsense the old man would come up with.
President Roth slowly pushed his cup of tea toward Cloudhawk. “Red Banner would sincerely like to offer you an invitation to join our company.”
He raised a brow. “What’s this?”
“You are a rare talent. If you join my organization you would be worth ten Pythons. I agree to pursue no further action against Summer-Autumn Company and will even offer them assistance. So long as Red Banner exists in this city, Summer-Autumn Company will never struggle. I can also promise that you will be well treated and provided everything you need in my company to grow in your profession. A benefit to all parties.”
Summer and Autumn hadn’t expected the offer. This was a fierce and powerful magnate, and the only reason he was willing to forgive Cloudhawk’s transgressions was because of what Cloudhawk was capable of.
Yet what room was there in a small temple for a dragon of his size? Beck could be ten times the business genius and his organization would still be crushed like insects before the likes of Nox.
Cloudhawk was silent.
Beck took it as a sign he was considering the offer. “Right, it might also be worth mentioning the Chosen Council occurring in a few days. I should think a man of your abilities would be a fine representative for our organization.”
The Chosen Council. As the name implied, it was a meeting of the realm’s Chosen. Every organization in each of the kingdom’s cities sent someone to represent them. These representatives then competed with the winner earning great renown for their organization. It earned them the opportunity to enter Imperia and pay tribute to the king. Such Councils occurred once every three years, so it appeared Cloudhawk had shown up just in time.
“You should know that the threshold to enter into the Redleaf competition is quite high. Summer-Autumn Company simply doesn’t have the resources to put forth their name. However, if you agree to join Red Banner as one of our Chosen I can ensure you a spot.”
Cloudhawk hadn’t thought there would be a ‘threshold’ to pay tribute to a king, but perhaps the old man was right. Summer-Autumn Company was such a small outfit they didn’t seem the sort to be worth a king’s attention.
Beck continued. “The importance of the Chosen Council to Chosen such as you is self-evident. Winning conveys fame, fortune and an opportunity to present yourself before our king. Appreciation and rewards from our monarch would be laid at your feet. With luck, you may even be chosen as an Imperial Bodyguard – the dream of every Chosen. Such a pity I never reached such heights.”
Cloudhawk did need to get into Imperia. But Cloudhawk still wasn’t willing to give in to the old man’s conditions. For one thing, Cloudhawk would not submit to working for Beck in any capacity. The geezer was barely worth his attention.
He wasn’t interested in putting down any roots here or leaving behind any loose ends. He only agreed to help Summer-Autumn Company because its old patriarch had pulled him out of the ruins. Once he dealt with this situation he considered the favor returned and that was that.
This wasn’t Cloudhawk’s world, he wanted to get back home as soon as possible.
Beck had fallen silent, waiting for Cloudhawk’s response.
If Red Banner were to offer such a generous incentive, only to have the hand slapped away… could Cloudhawk really promise them safety forever? How was he supposed to make sure they stayed safe?
Cloudhawk banged something onto the table between them. Beck looked down to see a fist-sized crystal.
Cloudhawk got to the point. “I’m sure this will compensate you for your loss.” He pulled back to show the black crystal in its entirety, fully the size of a man’s fist. When it was revealed to everyone’s eyes even Beck stared in astonishment.
Eboncrys? A huge piece of eboncrys! What a treasure!
If such a tribute were given to the king it would please him greatly. He might even reward them with a relic.
Summer and Autumn also knew what something like that was worth. Incredible to think he’d been hiding that all this time! Or that he would simply give it to Beck to pay off their debt.
Beck did not reach for the eboncrys right away. He looked at Cloudhawk with a slight frown. “Don’t you wish to consider the offer, young man?”
“I’ll represent Red Banner in the Council,” he answered, “but I do not work for you.”
Represent Red Banner? But not join… so he would essentially be working for my organization for free. What was he after? Beck Roth mulled it over.
How many eboncrys was this man hiding on his person? Was he using Red Banner as a way to get into Imperia, so that he could offer tribute to the king in his own name? It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened.
No matter. Beck was not opposed. He understood that Cloudhawk had no interest in joining Red Banner, but if he would agree to help them, then the president had no opinion on the matter. After all, their opponents were only getting stronger, and with Cloudhawk in his corner it increased their chance of winning.
As for whether he was hiding any more treasures? It didn’t matter! He’d use Cloudhawk against Seven Leaf Company first, then see what happened.
“In that case, there is an agreement for you to sign.”
With the matter settled, Cloudhawk led Summer and Autumn from the tea house.
The Standard Bearers watched him go with sour expressions. It was humiliating, like being forced to swallow an insect in one’s food. They could not grasp why their employer would agree to this nonsense.
After Cloudhawk had left, Becks’ face returned to its uninviting, frigid norm. “I cannot be certain of his strength, but he is at least as strong as I am. You four might have beaten him but not without suffering for it. Soon we will be in open conflict with the Seven Leaves. We can’t afford any missteps at this juncture.”
The four understood now why he had stopped them. The Council was nearly upon them, and if they lost their chance to pay tribute to the king because of injury over such a piddling conflict, it would be terrible sacrifice.
In Redleaf there were two large merchant groups; the Red Banner, and the Seven Leaves.
Seven Leaves was a powerful outfit. Where Red Banner had a core of four Standard Bearers, Seven Leaves had seven elite warriors. They put enormous pressure on Red Banner, but with the wild card Cloudhawk in the mix it at least saved Beck having to risk his own men. Who knows, he might even improve their chances.
Late at night. Cloudhawk was alone in his dark room. He hadn’t turned on the light and instead simply sat there in silence. In his hands was a very plain-looking metal mask. His calloused fingers were tracing the lines of it.
The mask of a thousand faces, a gift from Selene. The feel of the mask’s rough surface brought back old memories.
Selene’s uniquely beautiful face swam through his mind. Every time he looked at the mask he remembered the old times. No matter how important or glorious or sad, everything slipped into the past. Experienced once then gone forever, transformed into a dead picture fuzzy in the mind’s eye.
He sighed, set the mask aside and muttered, “You’re here, so just come on out.”
A piece of the shadow separated, creating an inky silhouette in the darkness. The blinking red eyes came to life, fixed on Cloudhawk with no emotion or indication of anything at all. They flicked toward the mask. “That is a very special item.”
“Of course,” Cloudhawk was dismissive. “It was a gift from someone very special to me.”
“I believe you must be very special to her as well.” There was something more behind the Khan’s typically flat voice. “You carry this mask but do not know what it is really capable of.”
The claim wasn’t strange, but what did surprise him was that the Khan seemed to know about this item.
“It is, in fact, a powerful defensive relic. In former years, when under mental assault it can protect the bearer with a psychic fortress that counteracts such attacks. So long as your strength remains, in theory you are protected from any psychic damage.”
“How do you know about this mask?” Cloudhawk frowned at the cyborg. “And why are you telling me?”
He answered without any change in his robotic tone. “Because you will find it shall come in handy in the future.”
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