Beck rose from his bed, untangling himself from the limbs of serving women. They helped him get ready for the day, and once he was washed and dressed they brought him breakfast. His housekeeper used breakfast time to deliver the day’s schedule and other important information to the master.
“Cloudhawk refused the women you sent to him.”
Beck was enjoying a meal of crabapples, bread and fried eggs. When he heard of Cloudhawk’s refusal his forehead wrinkled in a frown and he set his breakfast aside.
There was no such thing as a man who desired nothing. There was to be something Cloudhawk wanted.
He didn’t care about wealth, women, or status. Did such a man really exist? No, it didn’t make any sense. There was only one possibility, and that was whatever he wanted couldn’t be obtained here. It was nothing Beck Roth could give.
The housekeeper posed a question in a quiet voice. “Cloudhawk seems to have a special relationship with the members of Summer-Autumn Company. Since we can’t seem to buy him, perhaps we can threaten his friends to get what we want. It would be a shame if we can’t keep a man of his talent for ourselves. He would be a great help in our conflict against Seven Leaf Company.”
Beck drank from a cup of hot milk, giving himself a moment to think. Next he unhurriedly wiped his mouth with a napkin. Finally, he rose to his feet and answered with no expression on his face. “No need.”
When Beck wanted to control someone, the best and most direct method was to figure out what they wanted and use that to his advantage.
Women? He could provide scores of the most beautiful women in the city!
Money? He could shower people in more money than they could imagine.
He had ways to scratch all manner of itches, including more specific hobbies like collecting and art. Of course loyalty could not be bought, but he could purchase time.
Anyway, Cloudhawk had only been here a couple times. That was not long enough that he would develop enough of a relationship with Summer-Autumn Company where bullying them would get the intended result. Better to abandon that plan than possibly suffer retaliation.
The housekeeper was at a loss. He couldn’t understand why someone so strong seemed committed to living a frugal and uninteresting life. People had a hundred years at best to walk this earth – thirty thousand days. Fortune was fickle and no one knew what tomorrow would bring. A man who was delivered a safe and comfortable life on a silver platter only to turn it down… well, such a man was flat-out stupid.
Beck walked outside and saw a group of several people milling around.
Cloudhawk, his two top Standard Bearers, and several others where in the courtyard. The sight of them made his brows furrow, for he realized the Chosen Council was not going in his favor. In the first round he’d lost most of his delegation. Seven Lead Company was firmly in an advantageous position.
If not for Cloudhawk’s participation, Red Banner would have no hope of winning. Twice already they’d lost the opportunity to present themselves before the king. If they lost again, the gulf between his company and Seven Leaf would be too vast to overcome. He could forget about ever receiving the king’s blessings ever again.
Something suddenly clicked in Beck’s brain.
Cloudhawk’s ultimate goal was to see the king. No amount of money or women caught his eye but he had a dogged wish to visit Imperia. But why? There was so much that was unknown about this mysterious stranger. It wasn’t clear whether he was a blessing or a curse – best to kill him before any ill came.
Of course, before he died he could still be useful.
The Chosen Council was in full swing, the second day of a raging contest.
The first fight to capture people’s imaginations pitted Seven Leaf Company’s Seventh Leaf against Red Banner’s second Standard Bearer.
The two were among Redleaf’s strongest fighters, so their contest would certainly be a spectacle. What made it more interesting was the recent death of Fourth Leaf. Everyone wanted to know how Seven Leaf would respond.
“Look, it’s Master Seven!”
“Master Seven is taking the field!”
Venerated Seventh Leaf slowly walked onto the field. His especially robust frame struck quite a figure. At least two meters tall, with hard features and a shaved head he was especially intimidating. For weapons he bore a pair of metal gauntlets.
The ground shook with his every step. Onlookers saw him less as a man and more like a giant.
When Seventh Leaf took to the field he reached up and tore off his cloak. The fine material stitched with seven pristine leaves fluttered to the ground like as graceful as a butterfly.
When he was revealed in full the crowd whispered in surprise. Master Seven was an older man in his fifties. Yet despite his age he was in incredible shape. His corded muscles were taught and ready to burst into motion at any moment. His skin had a healthy, burnished hue and the cut of his muscles were as perfect as a masterwork sculpture.
Every movement was like a tiger, ready to pounce. He was as thick and sturdy as an iron fortress.
Redleaf’s Venerated Master Seven! To the general public it was widely accepted that he was the strongest man in Redleaf. They’d given him the title Demolition Man.
Stories went that his steel-like body could take blows from all manner of weapons and remain unscathed. But with a single punch, he could turn half a man’s body to bloody paste. There was no one faster, stronger, or more mightily defended in all of Redleaf.
There were only two or three men in the city who could even come close.
Seventh Leaf stood in the center of the field and slammed his gauntleted fists together. Bloodlust gleamed in his eyes. “Come, Red Banner garbage! Let’s see how strong your bones last before they’re ground up into powder!”
The ferocious warrior was ready and eager to ruin every inch of his opponent in front of everyone. He would underline Seven Leaf Company’s might and fury by turning this foolish Standard Bearer into mush.
Beck looked at the domineering Seventh Leaf, then toward Cloudhawk and his prime Standard Bearer. He made a calculated decision and relayed the decision with a glance at his second Bearer. The warrior, though reluctant, got the message.
Seventh Leaf prowled the field, almost out of patience when a voice called out. “Red Banner forfeits!”
Seventh Leaf froze in his pacing. He felt like someone punching at puddles, with no resisting force offered. He’d been aching for a good fight with the finale being ripping his foe limb from limb. Well, he got his victory much easier than he would have liked.
“Coward! Red Banner is a bunch of cowards!” In frustration Seventh Leaf hammered his fist into the field. The blow caused a fissure ten meters long to open before him. He glared at Beck. “You think you can avoid my fist by giving up? I will break every one of you. Especially that fucking child! He will pay in blood for killing one of mine.”
The scene was one no one could have predicted. The various presidents looked at Beck in surprise. Red Banner was simply admitting defeat?
Their Second Bearer didn’t have much of a chance against Seventh Leaf, but it wasn’t hopeless. By forfeiting the match Red Banner was taking one of their most important fighters out of contention. It meant their odds in the final were greatly reduced. Red Banner’s representation in that final fight was slim.
“My Second Bearer is unwell. He has asked to give up his spot in the competition.”
Otus Blanc’s face was dark with anger. It was unexpected, but it made no difference. Vengeance would eventually be had. Right now, victory in the Chosen Council took precedence.
The remaining fights proceeded and their victors settled. They were;
Group one – Red Banner’s First Standard Bearer. Group two – Fifth Leaf. Group three – Cloudhawk. Group four – Seventh Leaf. Group five – Sixth Leaf.
Cloudhawk was not surprised with these results. He suspected this would be the circumstance before the fights even started. The last fight was the sixth group, which was about to begin and captured Cloudhawk’s full attention.
The six groups had seen a number of elimination rounds, and now it was down to the final two.
They weren’t terribly exciting match-ups. Seven Leaf Company’s Second Leaf was matched with a group of nobodies. It had ended up that most of the sixth field’s contenders were weaklings, so that Second Leaf and his abilities handily won the day.
Seven Leaf Company was poised to win the group, just as they had for groups two, four, and five. Four representatives would be going to the final in contrast to Red Banner’s two.
Four on two. Things were looking very good for Seven Leaf Company.
Opposite Second Leaf for the final fight was a man in his twenties or early thirties. He had dramatic eyebrows that looked like splashes of dark ink and a knife-like hairline. A completely nobody, someone who no one recognized.
Second Leaf regarded him with contempt. “If you got this far, it means you’ve got some strength. But this time you’re way out of your depth, shrimp. I don’t want to waste my time with you, so forfeit and we can all move on.”
The combatant, named Desmond, stood facing the illustrious Second Leaf without flinching. There was no fear or much expression at all on his face. He merely shook his head. “I have never backed away from anything in my life. I’m willing to give it a try.”
“You’ve got backbone. But the stiffer the backbone, the more it hurts when it’s snapped.” Second Leaf was calm. “If you’re so eager to hurt, I won’t deny you. Blackbolt, go.”
Second Leaf pointed with his finger, and a panther dark as shadow dashed forth.
When the leopard first appeared it was only the size of an average dog. By the time its feet touched the ground the first time it’d swollen to the size of a wolf. It leaped ten meters and the second time its feet made contact with the field, it was as big as a rhinoceros. The feline reached Desmond’s position and towered over him.
It’d taken less than half a second to cross several dozen meters.
Once in front of Desmond the panther raked at him with ten dagger-like claws. Even before they made contact their biting edge was almost palpable.
Desmond did not move. The crowd begun to gasp, certain he would be gobbled up. They watched the panther bear down on him, jaws wide and ready to take him into his gullet with the sound of tearing flesh. This idiot was so weak, but determined to throw himself into the Chosen Council?
Cloudhawk was watching with eyes focused.
As everyone was certain the man had become panther food, a surprise turn shook their expectations. The panther noticed it first, that the body it tore limb from limb was cold as clay and did not squirt the satisfying gouts of blood it was hoping for.
Second Leaf’s expression changed from derision to surprise. “This...”
It was clear. Desmond had set a trap.
He’d set up a puppet that looked just like him to grab his opponent’s attention. It had worked to confuse Second Leaf, and with his beast preoccupied he realized his mistake too late.
Relative to his beastmaster skills, Second Leaf was physically weak. He relied on the speed and strength of his panther to win fights. Without Blackbolt by his side he was left exposed. It would take a moment for his protector to return.
Desmond appeared behind Second Leaf. He hefted a mid-sized shield and slammed it as hard as he could into the back of the Venerated’s skull.
Second Leaf’s vision went black. He collapsed onto the ground.
The sixth group’s winner had been decided and it was… the nobody, Desmond?!
Such an outcome was unthinkable. For the second time Otus Blanc was left grinding his teeth in rage. Cloudhawk was a problem, but not insurmountable. Now this second unknown fool was embarrassing his company? What were these foreigners doing poisoning their Chosen Council?!
Otus growled. “You blind shit! This is one of yours!”
“Don’t blame me, Master Blanc. I didn’t know he could do that.” The old blind man’s face was a carefully concealed mask. “If I had known I wouldn’t have put him forth as a representative.”
For all Otus’ rage, there was nothing he could do. What was done was done. But no matter, being short one man didn’t make a difference.
Cloudhawk watched the one called Desmond with narrowed eyes. He’d felt from the beginning that this one carried at least for our five relics with him. He was actually quite strong – at least strong enough to kill the other representatives.
Using Skycloud’s standards as a yardstick, he was probably equivalent to a veteran demonhunter.
The man was strong enough that once, Cloudhawk would have had to fight hard to beat him. Of course, ever since the battle at Sanctuary Cloudhawk’s mental abilities had neared the likes of a Master Demonhunter. He was strong, but not strong enough to make Cloudhawk worried.
What made him curious was what a man of his caliber was doing in this tiny place.
He’d kept a very low profile this whole time, hiding his strength. It certainly made things a lot more interesting.
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