The next morning…
Old Vista and his grandchildren approached Cloudhawk’s small apartment. Craig stood in front of the doorway, eyes filled with appreciation.
Never would he have dreamed that dragging a stranger from the forbidden area would result in ridding them of Python and standing up to Red Banner. Cloudhawk had even helped them reach a very favorable agreement with Beck Roth.
He had been a real blessing in disguise. Not only would Red Banner stop harassing their small company, but thanks to Cloudhawk’s intervention they would actually bring Summer-Autumn under their wing. Craig and his family no longer had to walk on eggshells around Chosen and endure their insults.
Cloudhawk did what he did in thanks for saving his life. But today, they were here to thank him.
Summer knocked on the door frame and called out, but after a few moments received no response. Was Cloudhawk not here? Craig nodded at his two young charges and Autumn pushed the door open. Inside they spied a figure.
“Master Cloudhawk, you -”
He wasn’t wearing his cloak, so for the first time they saw him wrapped tight in his bandages.
Autumn saw that they were stained with spots of blood which sometimes seeped from below. He was seated quietly on the bed, drenched in sweat, clearly suffering.
Was he hurt? Or did he have some terrible illness?
Obviously, whatever his condition it was clearly in a bad stage.
And indeed things were not going well. From the moment he’d woken from his coma Cloudhawk felt like there were a million ants gnawing holes in his bones. The pain drilled through every part of his body, coming in waves or jolts of electric current. He felt like he was on the precipice of collapse.
Besides the various medicines from Nox, the only thing keeping Cloudhawk on his feet was the virus he’d contracted years ago. Trespasser was able to main some semblance of balance in his frayed nerves and keep his organs going. Without it he’d be a corpse already.
Judas said he had a year at best. It didn’t feel like it.
The demon wasn’t necessarily wrong. Cloudhawk would get progressively weaker over the course of a year, but in six months he would be bed ridden. In other words, his time was very short.
Autumn saw how terrible his condition was and that he had lost his grasp on the outside world. She hesitated for a long time before gathering the courage to tip-toe closer. Stretching out a hand she tried to press it to his forehead.
Cloudhawk sensed a presence drawing closer. Suddenly alert, his eyes shot open. Dark pupils took on a dull gold hue and a fire burned deep inside. The young girl saw her visage reflected in the flames and knew that she could be consumed by them at this man’s whim.
“Ah!” Autumn stumbled backward in fear. Every hair on her body stood on end. She’d never felt anything like that sensation before.
It was like peering into the eyes of some divine creature; grim, regal, and unassailable. It made her feel as small and insignificant as an insect.
She caught him with his guard down, unable to hide what was within him. The full extent of his terrible power was revealed to her.
He was utterly different from this girl. Cruel ruins and blasted landscapes were his bedding growing up, not the snow-blanketed land of a fallen god. From his very first memory life was a series of struggles, violence, blood, and death. He was like them, a beast down to his bones.
Over the last five years Cloudhawk had experienced incredible things.
He met gods and demons, trained with a secret army, commanded one of his own, fought Master Demonhunters, became a leader of the wilds, and dropped a mountain on a fortress. The power he’d wielded and the adventures he’d undergone were more than most could even imagine.
At first, Autumn was skeptical that he’d fought a dracobat. But in that instant she understood that he was ten times more dangerous than the most terrible divine beast. He was a monster who crawled here through a mountain of corpses. So how could he have been so badly injured?
Craig and Summer had heard her well and rushed into the room. They saw her on the floor with her face pale from fear like she’d seen her own death. Even Autumn couldn’t believe she could feel so afraid just by looking into someone’s eyes.
Cloudhawk quickly composed himself. He rose and slipped on his cloak. “What do you need?”
He surreptitiously reached out with his senses. The Khan of Evernight was not here. Where was he hiding? Always such a mysterious character, appearing and disappearing like a shadow. He didn’t know how he did it, but Cloudhawk didn’t feel like wasting the mental energy to try and find out. He only had a year left and there were already a thousand problems for him to mull over. That was enough to keep him busy.
“I’m fine!” Autumn scrambled to her feet but felt her legs were weak and shaking. She answered Cloudhawk’s queery. “We came to thank you.”
Craig called to a group of people outside the door who ushered something inside. He was presented with several large boxes.
“Take a look, brother. These treasures have been in our family for a long time. I know it probably doesn’t mean much to you, but they’re the pride of our company.”
The boxes were opened. Inside were piles of scrap metal. Judging by their style and composition these were very, very old. Definitely not form Redleaf.
“These are fragments we pulled out of the forbidden area and brought home.” Craig approached Cloudhawk with a look of deep appreciation. He even hunched a few inches to make himself lower. “Our company is small and our abilities are limited, we don’t have much of exception quality. But these items are at least enough to serve as a fitting tribute to the king.”
Cloudhawk’s response was unexpected. “Your king wants this stuff?”
The members of the Summer-Autumn Company shuffled awkwardly. Cloudhawk was clearly not impressed with their offering.
Craig sputtered an answer. “I know what we gathered isn’t the most impressive, but it has reached the threshold of what is considered a tribute. If you present this to the King you will surely be rewarded. Perhaps he may gift us with a couple relics, or a divine beast.”
That caught Cloudhawk’s attention. He thought it strange that all these cities were fighting so hard to be allowed to pay the king tribute. Now he understood. Citizens of the Silver Kingdom gathered their items and presented them to the king because he had some special power. An ability to fix the broken relics they dug out of the old ruins.
The King saw these tributes as precious raw material. With crates of this stuff delivered to him regularly, he never ran out of what he needed to build relics. In the end he gave some back to make his people more appreciative and motivated.
This really was an interesting place. Regular folk provided for Chosen and cities provided for their king. Like a pyramid scheme.
He had to admit, he was intrigued. Everything he saw in these boxes was utterly destroyed. He had some experience building relics himself, even create some. But from what he could gather of this junk there wasn’t a single recoverable object in the batch. That had to mean this king had a much deeper understanding on relic repair and construction than he did. If that were true, Silver Kingdom’s monarch had the ability to outfit his own demonhunter army.
“I don’t need any of this.”
Cloudhawk refused the Summer-Autumn Company’s gift. As far as he was concerned they were square, he didn’t want to feel indebted.
As for getting into Imperia? If he really wanted to appear a king, all he had to do was pull out the gathering of relics he had stored in his dimensional warehouse. There were things in there he’d collected from all over, even other worlds. A far sight better than this garbage.
Craig Vista was filled with regret. He recognized that Cloudhawk saw it as merely so much rubbish. It had been his final gambit to try and entice Cloudhawk to stay and serve as their Chosen. Judging by his expression, however, it was clear he did not succeed.
It wasn’t unexpected. If not even Red Banner could lure him in, what hope did their small company have? Sorry though he was, Craig understood. When he spoke there was no note of disappointment. “Are you really going to represent Red Banner in the Council?”
Cloudhawk nodded. “I need to get into Imperia.”
“You hope to stay there.” Craig nodded, convinced of his interpretation. “But listen to these words from an old man. You must be very careful during this contest. Red Banner’s nemesis, Seven Leaf, is a dangerous and underhanded sort. The last two years has seen them grow in strength. This year’s council is sure to see violent clashes.”
“Seven Leaf? What about them, are they stronger than Red Banner?”
“The two are Redleaf’s most influential groups. Red Banner has been rising in prominence for the last twenty years but Seven Leaf has been around for at least a hundred. Red Banner is on track to catch up, but so far they still cannot face up to Seven Leaf.” Here Craig heaved a sigh. Organizations like these were so far above the dreams of his tiny outfit. “As the name implies, Seven Leaf has seven powerful Chosen in their employ, who they call Venerated. Even Red Banner’s Standard Bearers have perhaps a thirty percent chance of winning against one of the Venerated. I’m sure Beck saw your strength and decided you would be a fine representative.”
A group comparable to Red Banner. Was that supposed to pass as powerful here? Cloudhawk couldn’t help but smirk. “Save your concern for the Venerated.”
Craig and his grandchildren left without accomplishing what they’d hoped. They took their crates and departed. As they did, Summer’s young face was full of adulation.
“Cloudhawk is so relaxed!” He said in excitement. “We showed him crates of great finds, and he was completely uninterested.”
Craig shook his head. Why hadn’t Cloudhawk been impressed? Because to him it was so much garbage.
“One day I’ll be just like him!”
Autumn cut him off. “Summer, you should stay far away form him.”
This earned a sour look from her brother. “Why are you still so distrusting of Brother Cloudhawk? After all he’s done for Summer-Autumn, you act like he’s a threat. His strength and character are obvious to everyone except you. Why stop me!”
Autumn stopped and fixed Summer with a solemn look. “Because we come from completely different worlds.”
Craig regarded his young granddaughter. “What do you mean?”
“To us he might as well be form another reality. The place he came from is so far beyond ours. It was good he didn’t accept our offering because he can’t stay here. He wouldn’t help us by working on Summer-Autumn Company. He would destroy us.” Autumn turned back to her younger brother. “Remember, the closer you get to the sun the more likely you are to get burned. If you want to live a happy life you stay away from him.”
Craig had never heard Autumn speak like this, nor had he ever heard her regard anyone in such a fashion. Craig knew better than anyone that Autumn had a sharp eye. If that’s what she thought of Cloudhawk, then there was no doubt in his mind that he was just as dangerous as she claimed.
Summer opened his mouth to protest but Craig stopped him. “Listen to your sister.”
Two weeks later…
Cloudhawk had spent most of his time preparing in his room. He’d remained behind a closed door while turbulent currents ran through Redleaf.
The next Chosen Council was soon to begin.
It would determine who had the right to present themselves before the king. Although as many as six companies sent their champions, only Red Banner and Seven Leaf were expected to rise to the top.
The two companies were used to conflict and now it was finally going to be public, during what to the rest of the city was a fine spectacle.
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