Dawn lit up the city. Imperia’s Enforcers had arrived.
Cloudhawk wasn’t surprised. Desmond was strong, and to be defeated in a small place like Redleaf was abnormal. Whether or not they found Cloudhawk’s identity suspicious, the Enforcers had to come and see what was going on. The two Chosen Enforcers who came to him were the same two who Cloudhawk had spied on the night before.
Right away he knew the calm was one their leader. The other was the lone female in their Enforcer group.
They were both dressed in standard mail armor, but Cloudhawk could sense the weak hum of relic power. They were likely the standard relic equipment for Chosen in this place. Silver masks concealed their faces but their gait was telling enough. The man was in the prime of his life, and the woman with him quite young.
Red Banner, as the local power, had the run of this small town. They’d never encountered people like this before. They scrambled around like obedient dogs.
The male Enforcer paused a moment to gather the measure of Cloudhawk. “You are the Chosen who defeated Desmond?”
“That’s right, Desmond underestimated me and I managed to capitalize on his mistake.” Cloudhawk adopted a subservient, humble appearance. “I had no idea he was a traitor from Imperia, or that he was here to try and exact vengeance on Redleaf. Now we have Master Enforcers in our humble town.”
“Desmond is a public enemy in the eyes of Imperia. He was cunning and left false trails to try and throw us off. We were surprised to learn he was here. If you hadn’t had defeated him it is very likely Desmond would have escaped.”
His tone suddenly changed.
“Desmond is strong and not an easy one to defeat. Even if he was careless it would take someone with considerable skill to deal with him. We’ve spoken with several citizens who witnessed the fight and they tell us you more than defeated him – you also killed three of the city’s strongest Chosen in a single blow.”
“Hmph!” The woman slammed the table suddenly. “You must be crazy to kill three Chosen like that. Are you not aware that all Chosen are under the King’s protection? If you don’t explain yourself immediately then you will be arrested!”
Cloudhawk was quick to his defense. “They tried to kill me first. I was defending myself and it all got a little carried away.”
“Carried away?” She sounded incredulous. “I’ve seen the bodies. They’ve been totally carbonized! This is ‘a little carried away’? If you ask me, you intended to murder them!”
The man raised his hand, reigning her in. “Injuries during the Chosen Council are expected, it isn’t a matter worth discussing. I only have one question for you: How did you defeat Desmond? I would ask that you are clear and honest in your response.”
It was a poignant question he couldn’t escape.
“Desmond is a lot stronger than me. I was only able to beat him because...” In a flash of inspiration Cloudhawk threw Oddball under the proverbial bus. “Because of my divine beast!”
“Because of this bird?”
“That’s right. I found it six years ago during one of my travels. I don’t know much about it except it’s very strong. If you spoke to the witnesses then you know Desmond had me on the ropes. If it wasn’t for my divine beast I’d probably be dead.”
The Enforcers indeed had pieced together what happened during the Chosen Council. Descriptions of the giant golden bird of fire were consistent among several witnesses. Was this pudgy little thing supposed to be that titan? That seemed… unlikely.
The Enforcers peered intently at the small golden thing.
Oddball was like some strange sort of owl, about the size of two fists side by side. He was slightly pudgy-looking and covered in golden feathers. Big round eyes looked back at the Enforcers. It looked like a curious little pet, hardly a mighty divine beast.
OF course, experienced Chosen knew that a divine beast’s real power wasn’t revealed on the surface. The pudgy bird’s unassuming exterior didn’t mean it wasn’t fierce when it needed to be.
“There is no divine beast like this in Registry. It must be some new species.” The man muttered to himself. “Glawyn , you brought the grade-stone, yes? If we identify the beast’s rank we can learn its strength.”
Cloudhawk’s curiosity was piqued by their exchange. “Divine beasts have ranks?”
“Five, in fact, in ascending order from fourth rank, third rank, second rank, first rank and S – or special – rank. Detecting which rank a divine beast falls into is simple.” The one called Glawyn opened her back and retrieved a small wooden box. Inside was a round crystal which she took into her hand. “Place a drop of the divine beast’s blood on the grade-stone and it will grow with a strength corresponding to the creature.”
It was the first time Cloudhawk had heard anything like it. Oddball twittered its disapproval but obliged when its master pricked its leg for a drop of blood.
The Enforcers held out their crystal to receive the drop. After a few minutes a bright, blinding light burst from within the relic like someone had turned on a light bulb.
“This...” The results clearly surprised the Enforcers. Oddball’s rank defied expectations – first grade at least, maybe even the cusp of S-rank. Such a creature was rare throughout the kingdom, to say nothing of a small city like Redleaf.
“How the hell did you get so lucky! You just stumbled on this divine beast?”
Divine beasts were different from relics. Relics were only given out by the king, and the higher-grade ones were restricted to Imperia. If Cloudhawk had revealed the strength of his relics the Enforcers would certainly have arrested him and brought him to the capitol. Who knows what would happen to him then.
The female Enforcer looked again at the pudgy little bird, both jealous and amazed. “It doesn’t look like much at all. No wonder you were able to beat Desmond.”
“Do you have any more questions for me?” Cloudhawk pressed.
“No, we have other pressing matters to attend to. We won’t trouble you any further.” It hadn’t been their intention to come her and put Cloudhawk’s feet to the coals, they were just trying to get a feel for what had happened and get to the truth of things.
Oddball’s obvious strength put their suspicions to rest. As far as they knew, Cloudhawk was just a very lucky man. He had average strength but a mighty divine beast had come to call him master. Once that was the case there was no changing it, they could only look on with jealousy.
No more questions. Imperia’s Enforcers saw nothing else worth their time. They were just here to bring back a fugitive. To avoid complications they had to leave Redleaf as soon as possible.
As they were leaving the Enforcer called Glawyn offered Cloudhawk a final word. “The tributes will be conducted soon. If you’re lucky maybe we’ll meet again in Imperia. A beast like yours is a real find. You’re a lucky man, take good care of it.”
With that the Enforcers took their leave.
Cloudhawk scratched Oddball’s neck. “Hell, it seems you’ve got a lot more potential than I thought little one.”
He didn’t know how accurate these grade-stones were, however, and divine beasts evolved with time. It could very well be the special feed Dawn had given him, or the eboncrys, or the otherworldly spirits that made Oddball so strong.
The next day.
Second Bearer brought a crowd of new recruits before Cloudhawk. They presented themselves in orderly fashion to Red Banner’s new president. Among them were former enemies, suddenly eager to follow Cloudhawk’s lead. It was no surprise, since Cloudhawk’s display of strength had been obvious to everyone who witnessed the Council. No one dared lift their head in defiance.
Second Bearer and the others had been busy. Over the last two days they’ve systematically gone all throughout the city. No opposition to Red Banner’s dominance remained.
If Cloudhawk had been willing he could make this beautiful land of hot springs his seat of power. If he was still the person he was years ago – with no ties or responsibilities – he would have done so gladly. Yet Redleaf held no interest fro the Cloudhawk of today. He had a mission to complete and promises to keep. Redleaf was a step-stone on his path to Imperia. He didn’t intend to stay here any longer than was necessary.
“Redleaf is in a special period where we must prioritize stability. We need restraint, so I do not want to hear about rivalries or retaliation.” Cloudhawk got right to the point. “I don’t have any experience in managing things from day to day so I’m going to make a proposition. We join with every family, company and faction and establish a Redleaf Assembly. Each chooses standing members and a president is selected from among the delegates. This group is responsible for representing the people of Redleaf, consolidating resources to look after the city, and maintaining unity.”
It was a stunning proclamation. An assembly? Did that mean Cloudhawk wasn’t planning to run the whole show himself? Eyes lit up as the more ambitious realized the implications. They rubbed their greedy hands together at the thought. If they could earn a spot in the assembly they would have real power.
Cloudhawk’s intention was to create a body to help Redleaf through this transitional phase and prevent the city from falling into chaos after the death of its leaders. Once there was an established system of governance things wouldn’t fall apart when Cloudhawk left.
Before he wouldn’t have cared about leaving a mess. These were tiny fish in a little pond. However, as Cloudhawk grew stronger and he grew close with others, he learned that there are responsibilities one has to adhere to in life.
Even though he had no interest in staying here, now that he was in a position of power he had to take that seriously. That was the duty power imparted, the requirements of it. If for no other reason than peace of mind and carrying less burdens forward into the future.
Cloudhawk couldn’t help but think of Adder. He still remembered the man’s dying words. Some people were born to be leaders, others were born to be traitors. Maybe Adder was right.
“From today onward we must spare no effort and prepare out tribute for the king.” He paused before adding, “I want to introduce someone who will help us with the preparations.”
The eyes of the crowd turned toward a dark figure. He was strange, dressed from head to toe in metallic black armor. Even his face was hidden behind a full mask. A heavy black cloak made him look like a lumbering shadow. Not as ragged as Cloudhawk, yet undoubtedly an outsider.
None of them would have believed it if they were told this was Nox’s Governor, the Khan of Evernight.
Here, Nox was a place of legend. Ever swathed in darkness, it was a den of evil and demonic forces. Its denizens were beast-like monsters that ate creatures raw and gorged on their blood. The leader, their King of Evernight, was said to be a monster with three heads and six arms. Or so that’s the story these people heard.
But who would pay any mind to a nobody Cloudhawk threw into the mix?
Cloudhawk had needed to find some method to get the Khan into Imperia with him. Now that Redleaf was essentially under his control, he didn’t need to force it. Solving the issue was as easy as putting the Khan in charge.
For the next few days everything ran smoothly. Cloudhawk established the Assembly and elected members.
He paid special attention to Summer-Autumn Company, lifting Craig Vista up as a permanent member. He went further by gifting Summer-Autumn Company with a number of Chosen previously sworn to Red Banner. It was his last act of thanks for how they treated him.
Once everything was ready Cloudhawk set off for Imperia with an entourage and the items prepared for tribute. His deteriorating condition could not be ignored any longer. He had to finish what he came here to do.
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