Cloudhawk had not anticipated Beck Roth’s death. Not just Beck. Seven Leaf Company’s Otus had also succumbed to poison and several more elder company leaders. All dead.
Cloudhawk looked down at the corpses with their puffy, blue-black faces dripping with oily sweat. Grim faces were twisted in the pain, anger and fear they’d felt in the moment they died. This was definitely a situation Cloudhawk had not expected to find himself in.
Beck and Otus were Redleaf’s most powerful men. Their ambition kept them striving for more, but who’d have thought their ambition would be their undoing. All their lives the two had struggled against one another. Everyone had thought one day they would be the death of each other. Funny how that worked out. Never in their wildest dreams did anyone think that death would come from without, especially Beck and Otus.
Man was never safe from misfortune. No one knew what the future might hold. If these men had known their willful efforts and ambition would all be for naught, would they have changed their ways?
No one would ever know.
Cloudhawk scratched his head, at a loss for what to do. It was a marked change for him, but ever since the battle for Sanctuary and the coma following, he preferred to think on things a little more.
Maybe the meaning of life was just that, to think. Or maybe it was thinking that caused people to grow up.
Cloudhawk’s attention was drawn to another wrinkled old body. It was the blind man. He’d also succumbed to the poison tea, but he’d been cut down and ravaged before the poison could take him.
But even though he was a mess of hacked off limbs and exposed guts, there was a smile on his face. That was the smile of a man who was convinced he was the only winner. A man who felt his death was a good one.
He’d waited and struggled for so many years. Finally the young master had returned, stronger than anyone. There was no question in his mind that Desmond would win vengeance for their family. He would bring the Prestwich family back to the fire. That was a fine reason to sacrifice himself. If his life was the cost for sweeping away all obstacles before the young master, then it was more than a fair trade.
He’d died before he saw what became of Desmond. Burned, beaten, crippled. Far from winning vengeance, he himself was in danger of fading away.
Did the blind man’s sacrifice mean anything? This was a false premise.
Death represented finality. Death was nothingness. When one died, their world died with them. Nothing that happens afterward means anything to them. The mightiest of men, the greatest of heroes, the vilest of villains – all up in smoke when they stop breathing. The most admirable, the most incomprehensible and the most ignorant thing a man could do was self-sacrifice.
As Cloudhawk sat, deep in thought, a small figure approached with a group behind him. He had a frightened look in his eyes when he regarded the stranger. To him this man wasn’t just an outsider anymore, he was their ruler. With a flick of his wrist he could claim any life he liked.
Cloudhawk regarded him with narrowed eyed. “Second Bearer?”
Without a moment’s hesitation everyone fell to their knees before him.
“Pres… President Roth is dead!” Second Bearer lowered his head and addressed Cloudhawk reverently. He did his utmost to show this man in rags humility and respect. He pressed his head to the ground. “Myself and the others wish to beg for your support, to be our new leader. We will do whatever you command!”
Cloudhawk looked at the two surviving Standard Bearers, Second and Third. He saw the panic in their eyes. In the end it was the iron fist that always won. The truth that strength bought power was true anywhere. After Cloudhawk defeated Desmond and ended the Venerated with one blow, these men understood that they were less than nothing in the eyes of this man.
A handful of days prior, Second and Third Bearer had been clamoring to fight Cloudhawk. Just the thought made them break out in a cold sweat. He was no man, but a monster that would have gobbled them up in an instant.
Nothing about this small city enticed Cloudhawk, however he could use Red Banner’s resources to get him into Imperia. As their president, it would give him the prestige he needed.
So he agreed.
The decision thrilled Second and Third Bearer. They hadn’t expected him to accept.
Second Bearer practically tripped over his tongue as he spoke. “Otus Blanc is dead along with the Venerated. With your support and the other companies in chaos, shouldn’t we...”
Cloudhawk wasn’t the least bit interested in consolidating power. He waved at the two men dismissively. “From now on you two are my proxies. Do what’s needed in my name. If anyone disagrees, come find me.”
“Thank you, boss. You are peerless.”
“Who in this city would dare stand against you?”
“Yes, yes! All the riches, businesses, and women are yours!”
Second and Third were like completely different men. All of a sudden they were tail-wagging mutts begging for scraps. In making this far it didn’t prove they were the smartest fellows, but they weren’t stupid either. It was clear as day that Redleaf was standing on the cusp of a new era. The only person with the power to make any sort of decisions was this man before them.
If they could use this historic change in Redleaf to become this stranger’s right hand, they would surely see huge benefits to both personal status and wealth. Compared with that, what did the loss of a little dignity mean?
Cloudhawk dismissed them and the two men left happily.
They quickly set about their business. They called together the members of Red Banner and had them go door to door, claiming the right to nearly every business in the city. Almost everyone had seen what Cloudhawk was capable of, so there was a healthy fear surrounding the man. The combined leadership of Redleaf’s six major companies had all died as well, so there was no one to stand in Cloudhawk’s way.
The five other companies in Redleaf all came under the auspices of Red Banner. Merely the suggestion of force from Cloudhawk was enough to make his company a domineering entity. Any resistance was ground to dust.
Of course such a traumatic change in circumstance was sure to throw the city into chaos. Luckily Red Banner was already large and strong, so fierce opposition was not expected. In the end this transition of power went relatively smoothly.
And Cloudhawk could not care less.
He didn’t care whether he was welcomed in the city. He cared even less about Second and Third Bearer and their schemes to increase their riches. In fact, the only thing in this city that Cloudhawk was at all interested in was Desmond.
He had to pick this guy’s brain, learn what he’d seen and experienced. With his level of strength he surely did well for himself in Imperia.
After all, this fallen kingdom could not compare to the likes of Skycloud. Out there a veteran demonhunter reached about the mid-levels of prestige. Here, however, a talented man of this age had to be worth his weight in ancient tech.
Desmond had to know a lot about the capitol. And something he discovered prompted him to want to leave.
Cloudhawk was likely to be facing an unknown and unpredictable opponent. He couldn’t afford to be rash or underestimate his foes. There were guards at the door to where he was keeping Desmond, and though they were nothing to Cloudhawk he couldn’t afford to take any chances. With a snap he summoned a field of power, the earlier ability he’d learned to absorb – a field of silence.
This parlor trick was sometimes invaluable.
Desmond’s body was burned black. He was dripping with dozens of thick, heavy chains to keep him bound, but his ragged breathing indicated how weak he was.
Cloudhawk had held back as much as he could. However, such an injury to a man with Desmond’s constitution was enough to leave him at death’s door. If he didn’t receive help he would die before the night was out.
To this end, Cloudhawk produced a mirror from his clothing. This was Rekindling Lens he’d taken from Archbishop Zoren Leclair. A relic of this caliber went far beyond what these Chosen could imagine. In fact, in Cloudhawk’s stern opinion these Chosen would cower before a demonhunter equipped with scraps.
When he reached into it with his mind, the Rekindling Lens began to glow. Its line shown down upon Desmond’s body and with the relic’s miraculous healing abilities he started to recover.
Before long the man’s eyes fluttered open.
Cloudhawk had returned the relic to his clothes and vanished from view before he could be noticed.
He watched unseen as Desmond struggled against his bonds. These were special chains, however, strong enough to keep an angry bull restrained. A Chosen with no artifacts was hopeless to break free.
Right now Desmond was about as threatening as a foot soldier.
Cloudhawk’s growling voice called to him from the ether. “I have questions.”
“Who’s there! Who’s talking!” Fear turned Desmond’s face white. “Come out and show yourself!”
Of course Cloudhawk would not oblige. Even his voice came out as a raspy, guttural snarl from behind the mask. It made it impossible to tell anything about him. With Cloudhawk’s invisibility powers there was no way Desmond could know his identity. “Your king. What is he? What are his weaknesses?”
When he first heard the questions Desmond paused. Then his face began to change.
If these were the questions this mysterious voice was asking then he certainly wasn’t from the Silver Kingdom. An outsider, with such powerful stealth abilities… he had to be some sort of foreign assassin.
“What are you? Did you come from the Forbidden Area? Why do you ask these questions, are you going to kill him?”
Cloudhawk thought for a moment. “You wouldn’t be incorrect in assuming as much.”
“Hahahaha! You absolute fool! You’re asking for death, no one can kill the king! He has no weaknesses! Even your Noxian Governor, the powerful Khan of Evernight, can’t kill him! Do you think you’re some kind of threat with your tricks and invisibility?” Desmond’s mad laughter suddenly cut off and his tone grew desperate. “Let me go! Get me out of here! Take me to Nox and let me meet the Khan, I’ll tell him everything I know! Quickly, let me free!”
Cloudhawk scowled. “What do you know?”
Desmond struggled and screamed. “Let me go!”
Suddenly, outside the prison doors there was a light and the sound of approaching footsteps.
Cloudhawk’s mastery of the field of silence was profound, he had perfect the art of controlling what noises he liked long ago. No one outside could heard what was happening inside, but those inside could hear the outside world perfectly. In addition the power of the field so absorb more intense sound had also grown. Cloudhawk could detonate a bomb in this chamber and no one would hear it.
“This is it,” a voice said. It was Imperia’s emissary, the man they’d sent to oversee the Chosen Council. The way he spoke sounded respectful, deferential. “The traitor should still be alive, but badly wounded.”
A raspy voice answered. “Desmond is strong. Who wounded him so badly?”
“As far as I have learned,” the emissary replied, “It was a member of the local power.”
“This place can produce a man of such strength? Desmond is not a foe easily defeated!”
“Enforcers! Imperia has sent its Enforcers!” The sound of footsteps came closer and each step made Desmond more frightened. “The king sent them here to get me. Let me go! Get me out of here!”
This was very inconvenient. Cloudhawk frowned. “I can’t.”
It wasn’t that he couldn’t save the man, the question was why should he? If Desmond were to suddenly disappear the king’s men would be crawling all over this city. Cloudhawk’s identity was built on toothpicks and if he came under scrutiny it wouldn’t hold up.
“I can’t go back!” Desmond twisted against the chains. “Kill me! Please just kill me!”
Cloudhawk was taken aback by his reaction. What was he so afraid of?”
To avoid Desmond causing a fuss Cloudhawk released another burst of psychic energy. It struck Desmond full force and knocked him unconscious. He’d be out for at least two or three days. He wouldn’t be causing any problems for now.
The door opened.
Cloudhawk watched as a cadre of silver-masked men filed into the prison cell. They were all clad in fine cloaks and vintage chain mail. Formidable strength wafted off each of them, about equal to Desmond. They were a pretty capable unit.
“Did you say he was near death? He hardly looks injured at all.”
The emissary looked at Desmond’s unconscious form in disbelief. “Eh… impossible. I saw it myself, he-”
“It looks like the idiot was just careless. He thought he’d be unbeatable outside of Imperia. He overestimated someone and got knocked on his ass.” One of the Enforcers, a woman, made her determination in a contemptuous voice. “Whoever beat him isn’t as strong as you seemed to think. Lucky, more like.”
The leader’s voice was calm and calculating. “Whatever the case, collect him and let’s go.”
Cloudhawk remained hidden in the corner, frowning, watching it all unfold.
He was strong enough to do what he wanted without these people getting in the way, but now wasn’t the time to be causing himself more problems. He needed to get into Imperia as soon as possible.
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