Six victors. Three from Seven Leaf Company; two from Red Banner Company; and Desmond.
These six men were poised to battle for the realm’s great honor – Champion of the Chosen Council.
An envoy from Imperia was the one responsible for holding this Council. He addressed the crowd. “The strongest six of all the Chosen have been revealed. We now ask all of our contestants to approach the main stage!”
Excitement rose among the crowd who pressed in from all directions. Be it Red Banner, Seven Leaf or Summer-Autumn, or any other normal citizen – everyone’s attention was fixed on this field where a great battle was about to take place.
Seventh Leaf, the Demolition Man with his heavy gauntlets, was said to be capable of punching a man in two. No one had ever been known to survive his ire. Without a doubt he was the strongest Chosen in Redleaf.
Being leader of the Chosen for Red Banner was no easy task either. For twenty years the First Bearer had been a big name in the city, and his power was also vast. He was likely the only person able to challenge the Venerated.
The others were also special, in their own way. This was especially true for Desmond and Cloudhawk.
Both men were total unknowns in this city but were shaping up to be this year’s dark horse. They had defeated all contenders in their respective groups, and easily. Now they appeared on the same stage with four famous Chosen of Redleaf. They were mysterious outsiders, especially compared to the lauded men they knew as apex Chosen already.
People wondered but did not know what special abilities they kept up their sleeves. But that just made this fight more uncertain, and more interesting.
But despite the wild cards things still seemed firmly within Seven Leaf Company’s grasp. Besides Master Seven there were two other Venerated on the field. Three people working toward the same goal gave them a significant advantage.
But those were the rules.
The purpose of the Chosen Council wasn’t just to weed or the strongest Chosen. It was also to determine which of the city’s organizations held the most sway. Those who proved themselves were qualified to present themselves before the king and pay tribute. In order to avoid a small of medium-sized organization form sweeping the contest by inexplicably hiring an especially strong Chosen, the rules were set up like this.
The final contest was a six-man melee.
Seven Leaf Company and Red Banner Company were perennial powers in the city so five of their representatives were on the field.
It wasn’t unheard of for smaller groups to get one or two representatives in the final fight. This year Desmond stood as an island, alone and under siege. Odds of him coming out on top were practically nil.
The main field was easily five times the size of the smaller arenas. Easily large enough to accommodate two or three thousand people standing close together. The six contestants, all well-rested, entered the field from different places. The final contest of this year’s Chosen Council was about to begin.
“Who do you think will be the last one standing?”
“What kind of question is that? Seventh Leaf, of course!”
“No doubt. Not only is he super fast and super strong, he’s also got great defense and supernatural power. He’s the perfect warrior!”
“I’m not so sure. Red Banner’s First Standard Bearer is no scrub. They say his relic is a spear that spits fire. One stab and his victim melts away in an instant. He’s also got a flaming phoenix that breathes and attacks with fire. Not even someone like Seventh Leaf can survive that kind of onslaught.”
Everyone was looking forward to see who would end up being right.
But there wasn’t a whole lot of suspense about it, either. If it wasn’t Seventh Leaf, it was the First Bearer. Fifth and Six Leaf were strong, but far inferior to Master Seven. As far as the citizens were concerned, Desmond and Cloudhawk were just background noise.
Cloudhawk was only the source of some talk because he’d killed one of the Venerated. But besides that, he hadn’t displayed very much strength. He hadn’t even shown off any strong relics or showed off his divine beast. All of his opponents had been defeated with his three-edged rod. Because he’d only used fighting skills, the crowds all figured he was average in psychic ability at best. He was more like a warrior, not a Chosen.
Desmond was even less impressive. They didn’t even understand his fighting style. The only way he’d beaten Second Leaf was through trickery, and someone who had to rely on trickery couldn’t be very strong.
The six contenders walked in close.
Seventh Leaf fixed his eyes on First Bearer, but only for a second. They slid over to Cloudhawk and sized him up. “Kid, I’m honestly surprised you’ve agree to get in this field.”
Cloudhawk stared back. “Why wouldn’t I?”
There was a dangerous glint in the older man’s eye. “Do you have any idea what’s about to happen to you?”
Cloudhawk’s face was still hidden behind the mask, keeping both his features and expression a mystery. He didn’t bother to answer Seventh Leaf’s rhetorical question. He wouldn’t be wasting time here if it wasn’t his best chance at getting into Imperia.
Since the battle for Sanctuary, Cloudhawk’s mental resources had risen to nearly Master Demonhunter levels. It would be no exaggeration to say that he was like a god among these people. Yet there seemed to be no end to these idiots jumping at him like they were worth a damn. None of them had any understanding of what real power was. They all thought the piddling strength they bore was something to be proud of.
Little did they understand that if they took all these ‘mighty Chosen’ and threw them into Skycloud, they wouldn’t even be considered a halfway decent demonhunter squad.
When Cloudhawk didn’t respond to him, Seventh Leaf’s face grew cold. Now that this nameless fool was here, he would make sure he wouldn’t get away. There was no hurry to deal with him in this instant, he turned his attention to Desmond.
Desmond looked like he’d yet to hit thirty. A promising young man.
Whether it was luck or skill, standing among these other men meant he had some merit. But before members of Seven Leaf Company could speak, First Sandard Bearer offered the first invitation.
“You’re not bad. On behalf of Red Banner, I want to offer you a chance to join our company. Pledge service and help us defeat Seven Leaf, and you will earn yourself a respected position.” He wasted no time extending the proverbial olive branch. “President Beck Roth is the wisest and most talented man in Redleaf. More than worthy for a man of your skill.”
Red Banner’s First Standard Bearer was a fine figure of a man. He was dressed in simple armor and in his hand was a red spear. His presence was no less domineering than Seventh Leaf. For him to personally offer Desmond an invitation was a sign of respect.
Seventh Leaf’s expression was sour. He looked to the left and right.
It was Sixth Leaf that responded on behalf of his company. “Red Banner is weak. They have only two Bearers left. If you side with them, it isn’t even certain you’ll walk off this field. But if you join Seven Leaf Company our victory is certain. I swear on their behalf that no consequences will come to you for what you’ve done. You can enjoy the fruits of victory with us.”
“That’s right!” Fifth Leaf joined in. “Only we can help you get to Imperia. You don’t know what the city is like. It is full of opportunities and temptations. It can change your life!”
Red Banner’s First Standard Bearer listened with a dark glower. Things did not look good for him or the company he served. If this Desmond character agreed to their terms, it would leave him and Cloudhawk against four opponents. He didn’t think they could overcome those odds.
First Bearer hurried to outline more of his offer. “Otus Blanc is petty and domineering, he cares only for himself. But President Roth has a sharp eye and knows quality when he sees it. He can provide you anything you could want. Join Red Banner and I will personally see to your training. We will turn you into our Fifth Standard Bearer!”
Both sides were eager to underline the virtues of their camp. Yet as they continued to yell over one another, Desmond kept his head down and didn’t respond. When they were finally done the corners of his mouth twitched into a grin. Deep in his throat, despite efforts to surprise it, came a derisive chuckle. It certainly was not the time to be laughing at these men.
What was he laughing at? What was so funny? No one had an answer.
“Seven Leaf Company? Red Banner Company? Me… join? Did I hear that correctly? You think I would even consider the offer?” Desmond slowly raised his head, revealing bloodshot eyes. In the time since they made their offers, this strange man’s aura had changed completely. That lowly, unassuming profile had vanished. In those eyes was an insanity that wasn’t there before. He roared at them. “All of you, trash! Garbage! You think you can convince me to join you?!”
When he screamed the insults everyone – with the exception of Cloudhawk – were taken by surprise. Not just the fighters, either, but their bosses seated within earshot. Was this worthless Chosen insane? Did he know what he was saying? For a man like him with no backing or reputation, it was a great honor to be offered an important role in either of these organizations.
But he didn’t accept. Not only that, he openly belittled them. He was beyond crazy, he was asking to die.
“Imperia? You pathetic, ignorant fools. You think Imperia is worth your reverence?” Hate seethed in Desmond’s gaze when he mentioned the kingdom’s capitol. “You insects don’t know anything about the king or his true nature. You have no idea what sort of monster he is! I would rather die than go back to that place!”
Cloudhawk listened intently to his ramblings. If his words were true, then this stranger had been to Imperia before. Something inspired him to leave, now here he was.
This was a completely unforeseen turn of events. Imperia’s emissary, who was sent here to hold the Council, was completely flabbergasted.
What’s more, it was obvious now that this crazy stranger was hiding power – more power than they could have imagined.
“Who the hell is this guy?!” Otus shot to his feet in anger, furious at the sudden change. To allow such a powerful person to spoil their Council would not work in his favor. “He dares stir up trouble in Redleaf! He curses our monarch’s good name! These are capital crimes!”
“His name is Desmond Prestwich.” The elders turned toward the raspy voice and were surprised to see it was the old blind man. “Bastard son of the Prestwich family, and the only one to escape its destruction over twenty years ago.”
The revelation took Beck and Otus by surprise. Of course they’d heard of the Prestwich family.
Twenty years ago, when Red Banner was still a second-rate company and Seven Leaf Company had yet to reach its peak, the Prestwich family held the reigns of Redleaf’s power. Unfortunately, political strife ruined their family practically overnight.
Seven Leaf Company had benefited most from their fall. It swooped in to fill the power vacuum in short order, and Red Banner also took the opportunity to rise up from the ranks of obscurity. In the following decades, this leg up was what paved the way for Red Banner to reach the heights it enjoyed today.
But these two companies were not the only ones to enjoy the fruits of Prestwich’s destruction. Every single organization present at the Council profited from this tragedy in some fashion.
Beck’s face grew solemn. “Then, blind man, you are...”
“That’s right, I also carry the last name Prestwich. I was their steward. I watched our magnificent house crumble and could no nothing. But I did have the chance to save young master Desmond. I changed his name to protect him, then stole the resources of the fractured bits of our family to build the company I run today.
His revelations were met with anger from all the rest of the company leaders. They stood up, shouting curses and calling their men to arms.
Yet the blind man did not move from his seat or fear for his safety. He flippantly took a sip of his tea while their angry words washed over him. “As the years passed I lived in quiet hatred. But I hobbled around, a helpless old blind man – until today. Now that the young master has returned I don’t need to pretend any longer. In fact, I’m so tired of secrets I’ll reveal another one to you. I’ve slipped a little something into everyone’s tea. Something I prepared specially for all of you. You have only yourselves to blame for dismissive this old man.”
“You crazy bastard!”
Beck started to feel something was wrong. Poison… this old lunatic poisoned their tea. He’d had several cups himself. Was he going to die with the rest of them?
Cold, raspy laughter hissed at them from the blind man. “It’s time. Time for you to pay for all of your crimes!”
“It was you Red Banner bastards that killed my mother years ago!” Desmond’s fury filled the field. He made no more effort to hide his identity as the surviving member of the cursed Prestwich family. His hawk-like eyes first pierced the First Standard Bearer. “You want to train me? Show me, if you think you can!”
First Bearer’s face was twisted in anger. He thrust his spear of flames directly at Desmond.
In the face of so fierce a strike, Desmond did not flinch. With a cold and crazy laugh he groped forth, his hands wrapped in silk-thin gloves. But thin as they were, they stopped First Bearer’s spear like they were made of iron.
“Is this all you got? Red Banner’s guardians are pathetic!”
With his hands wrapped around the spear Desmond cackled uncontrollably. For too long he’d waited for this moment. Today he would expose to everyone the evil deeds of these criminals and earn vengeance for his parents.
The metallic spear was snapped in half. First Bearer felt his anger surge.
The spear had been awarded to him a decade ago when he went with President Roth to Imperia. For ten years it was his treasured weapon, practically a piece of him. He’d lost count of how much blood it’d drank in that time, only to be broken in the hands of this crazy idiot.
With the pieces of the broken relic in his hands, Desmond charged forward.
“You die first!”
Fast! First Bearer didn’t even hear the words. Before they reached his ears the jagged shaft of his weapon was driven through his skull. The weapon pierced through the other side, stained with blood and brain matter. It continued all the way through and lodged into the dirt several dozen meters away.
Boom! A crater now scarred the field at the point of impact. Spectators screamed in fear and shock at the scene. Was he a man or a monster?! He’d killed the First Bearer in a single blow!
But Red Banner Company had one more representative. As First Bearer’s headless body slumped to the ground, Desmond’s eyes locked onto Cloudhawk. “You’ve only just joined Red Banner. I can see you’re hiding your strength. You’re better than these pieces of shit, at least.”
Cloudhawk hesitated. “Oh? So what’s your plan.”
“Any trade of Red Banner or Seven Leaf must be destroyed. Every man, woman, child, infant and elder!” Desmond was here to eradicate these organizations from the earth. The suffering his family had endured would be visited upon these fiends tenfold. “You’re strong. You have no connection to Red Banner. I’ll give you a chance to live.”
“What chance is that?” He asked calmly.
“I will be leaving the Silver Kingdom and I need people. Join me, be my henchman!” Desmond’s fervent eyes never wavered from Cloudhawk’s masked face. “This is my gift to you. You’re one chance. If you refuse you will die here with the rest of them.”
In Desmond’s eyes this stranger had no choice. He might be hiding power, but Desmond was on another level. He was the only person to escape Imperia in defiance of the king. No one in this shithole town could stand in his way.
“I’m sorry.” Cloudhawk shook his head and gave an unhurried response. “I can’t accept. I need to win this council and go to Imperia.”
“Go to Imperia?” Desmond’s face darkened further. Something in the depths of his memory spurred his anger to burn hotter. “You dare refuse... you will regret your choice!”
“I don’t give a shit about whatever feud you all have.” Cloudhawk’s words grew hard and serious. “But I will give you some advise. Do not get in my way, or you will be the one regretting your decisions.”
“Ignorant fool! I’ll show you what real power is!”
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