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Book 5, Chapter 71 - Redleaf

 The Silver Kingdom which Cloudhawk gazed upon was in fact one large colony.

There were perhaps several million inhabitants altogether, gathered in settlements of various sizes that numbered in dozens. In the center was their capitol, a place they called Imperia.

Why Imperia? Well, as the name implied it was the imperial seat of their King.

Legends said the one called king had lived for fifteen hundred years. They wielded some great and mysterious power that dissuaded enemies from threatening their kingdom. This strength dominated the nearby beasts and kept threats from Nox and the forbidden area from approaching.

Of course the legends were doubtful, to say the least. But...

Cloudhawk had seen Nox's strength for himself and it definitely wasn't something to thumb your nose at. Judas was ambitious, anxious to gain more people to expand his power. Meanwhile, the Silver Kingdom was just a larger settlement with a population one tenth the size of Skycloud's.

Why didn't Judas just take advantage of their relative weakness? Surely if he did Nox would gain many more capable fighters. If he accomplished that, wouldn't their next conflict with Skycloud have a higher chance of victory? The natives claimed that their king was a powerful warrior, comparable to a god or demon. Cloudhawk, however, doubted that this failed godly state could have as many mighty fighters as Skycloud.

Could this local despot even hold a candle to Judas or Arcturus? It seemed unlikely.

Yet in Cloudhawk's experience, behind every anomaly was a lurking devil. There was probably more to this place than it seemed from the outside. The merchant company continued its trek across the snow-laden fields of the Silver Kingdom for another five days, while Cloudhawk asked them about Redleaf.

It was an average city with a unique environment. Situated in a basin, the geographic landscape made it so that the city was captured in a low-lying haze of clouds. The permanent blanket made the air humid and raised the temperature. As such, foliage that was not seen elsewhere grew on the valley walls. Like maple trees.

These dicotyledonous trees bore red leaves all year long. Because their leaves were a constant staple of the city it came to be known as Redleaf. In addition the temperate locale was geothermally active and boasted many mineral-rich hot springs. Thus Redleaf was also called the City of Springs.

Maybe it was because this used to be the domain of a god, but the degree of pollution and destruction was far better than the outside world. It was more than suitable for people to settle and multiply. The only thing that stopped it from being considered a paradise on earth was its proximity to the forbidden area. Divine beasts would wander out from time to time and harass the citizens.

As they approached Summer bounced excitedly on the back of their pack animal. "This is our hometown. Beautiful, don't you think?"

Cloudhawk had no words.

"Brother Cloudhawk, you should stay a while and try the fruit wine we distill here. We also have great hot springs. If you ask me there's no better place in the Silver Kingdom, except Imperia of course."

Such a quiet town, wrapped in mist. Something about it filled Cloudhawk with a sense of disquiet.

It wasn't the sort of feeling he got when threatened by something. Rather it was like being out of place. Like he didn't belong here.

It was such a beautiful, peaceful place. Rare to find its like in this world. Five or ten years ago Cloudhawk would have been ecstatic to show up here.

After experiencing so much, Cloudhawk realized that he'd changed. He was a harbinger, a bearer of bad luck. Everywhere he went chaos and destruction seemed to follow. That's why he felt like he shouldn't be here, because he ruined nice things like this. He didn't want to responsible for the loss of another beautiful thing in this world.

While Cloudhawk had been learning over the last few days, Summer had also carefully investigated this unfamiliar man. He learned he didn't like to talk much.

Most of the time he just sat in silence, thinking about things. Cloudhawk didn't seem much older than him, but his dark eyes had a sort of exhaustion and guarded look of a much older man.

He must have plenty of stories, he thought. He must have seen all sorts of places, lived through many strange things.

This sort of bearing was especially interesting to the young like Summer. So, though Cloudhawk was less than welcoming, Summer found any excuse to chat with him.

The geezer watched it all with a small smile. Cloudhawk kept a lot to himself, but Craig had lived long enough to be a good judge of character and he sensed nothing evil in the stranger. He treated his grandson well enough.

That being said, it was curious that he was so reticent to talk...

Summer's dream had always been to grow strong and travel the world as an adventurer.

The old man was not without wits. He understood that bringing a stranger into his home came with risks, but this stranger was Chosen. His merchant company was lacking someone like him. Anywhere in the world strength was important. The stronger you were, the more you could take for yourself.

***

Redleaf City, Summer-Autumn Merchant Company headquarters.

The somewhat clumsy name was chosen by Craig to honor his twin grandchildren, Summer and Autumn. He started this company with the sole hope of delivering a better life for the people he lived. As such he used the name of his treasured grandchildren to bring the company, and them, good fortune.

Autumn was the elder sister, and the two couldn't be more different.

Summer was a dyed-in-the-wool optimist and sunny as his namesake. Autumn also took a cue from her name, and so was demure, introverted and intense. Her personality was better suited to a homebody, so she remained in the city and managed the business while Summer went with their grandfather on his excursions. Even at her young age she displayed a keen intelligence that surprised most. It was thanks in part to her efforts that their small company had grown in recent years.

"Sis! We're back!"

Autumn come out to meet them, wrapped in the traditional wide-sleeved dress of Redleaf. She had thick, flaxen hair that hung passed her shoulders. Her skin was a healthy bronze, and her eyes were vibrant green. Slim and graceful, quiet and shy, she was young but presented herself as a mature woman.

Autumn's eyes immediately sized up the stranger who was traveling with her family. Expected and unavoidable - Cloudhawk didn't look like anyone else around here so he was strange from the moment eyes were laid on him.

She could tell he wasn't from around here, and his presence seemed to make her unhappy. Her delicate eyebrows scrunched together. "Why are you bringing strangers to our home?"

The geezer told them to bring their new friend inside to rest. He then approached Autumn to speak with her. "Child, you shouldn't be so on guard with everyone you meet. We found him in the forbidden area, he was wounded and lost his memory. A dracobat almost killed him. He's Chosen."

"I saw the dracobat get wounded and flap away like a scaredy-cat!" Summer was just as firm in his vetting of Cloudhawk as Autumn was against him. "Cloudhawk isn't just Chosen, either. He's also a beastmaster. He has a divine beast with him!"

Chosen were the realm's strongest warriors. The Summer-Autumn Company used to employ one, and every month half of their profits went to him. Alas, they didn't expect that one day another company with deeper pockets would entice him away. Angry as they were to lose an asset, there was nothing the company could do.

"Those dracobats are some of the fiercest divine beasts in the forbidden area. Even Redleaf's best Chosen are no match for one. How did he survive? Did you see him fight the monster yourselves?"

Summer paused. He'd asked him about the fight but being brought down by a critter like the Dracobat wasn't Cloudhawk's finest moment, so he wasn't very forthcoming. Besides he didn't want to let slip that he was from Nox, for to these people the city of Evernight was an evil place in the forbidden area. Cloudhawk kept it close to the vest.

Craig interjected. "Whatever the circumstances, he is certainly Chosen. If our company wants to make more connections and gain more resources, we need a Chosen's help. We will be friendly, and respectful."

Chosen were so named because they were born with special talent. They could command divine beasts and use relic treasures to aid them in battle. The laws of the Silver Kingdom were clear, meaning society here was not as direct as the wastes. Various organizations vied for power, but it usually didn't result in bloodshed.

As such, the kingdom had a special sort of competitive manner.

Each organization did whatever they could do entice and cultivate their own Chosen. They then relied on these warriors as champions to fight in their name, and such tests of combat were often used to settle disagreements. It was important, then, that resources were allocated to their care. Since the last Chosen in the company's employ jumped ship, they were forced to look for another.

As one might imagine, Chosen were held in very high regard. Every group had to take their chances and recruit the best Chosen they could find. As for Cloudhawk and how strong he was? In truth, Craig and his grandchildren had no way of knowing. But to a small outfit like theirs even the weakest Chosen was a breath of life-giving oxygen.

Cloudhawk sat in the room they'd arranged for him, far from the old man but not outside of earshot. What a strange place, he thought. Demonhunters were well respected in Skycloud as well. Merchants, though, were bottom of the social ladder. Even the richest and most respected merchants like the Lunae family could only entice a handful of demonhunters to serve.

Why would noble demonhunters debase themselves in the service of a merchant family?

Until recently the Lunaes were Skycloud's paramount merchant family, to the extent that most businesses in the city were in some way involved with them. But even such a successful family could only recruit one or two demonhunters. Ultimately, the only way to alleviate this deficit was to use their vast resources to train up their own.

It was not hard to see how respected the mythical warriors were to the common man.

Here, in the Silver Kingdom, Chosen were also respected but not out of reach. They were connected to the citizenry in a different way. Organizations of all sorts and sizes could spend their resources to recruit or train Chosen of various skills.

Chosen, on the other hand, strove for the best organizations and benefits. This symbiotic arrangement provided Chosen with the resources they needed to get stronger. Once they grew passed what their employer could provide, they broke contract and looked for work higher up the ladder.

It was a relationship purely built on mutual benefit.

Clearly, this was a fallen realm of a forgotten god. Its divine rules and influence had long since passed into history. Chosen were not sanctimonious holy warriors, but a class with a unique set of highly sought-after skills.

Night fell, the sky grew dark. Cloudhawk spent the hours planning his next move.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sound from the other side of the door. "You're making good progress."

The door was pushed open and a figure dressed in pitch black armor strode inside. His long, black cloak wrapped around him like a living shadow. The Khan of Evernight.

What was he doing here? Cloudhawk made no effort to hide his surprise. "Are you following me?"

The Khan answered in that robotic, soulless voice. "I told you we would remain on the periphery and serve where we could. If we left you to your own devices in the state you're in, you would surely fail to retrieve the Demon King's blood crystal."

"Whatever. The information you gave me was sorely lacking, you know. This place is huge, I don't even know where the blood crystal is kept much less how to retrieve it."

"Imperia is surrounded by a powerful enchantment, a remnant of the Great War. The magics are even more potent than those that protect Woodland Vale. Even Judas' vast power cannot pierce it. It is there the Demon King's blood crystal is being kept. Your next step is to integrate with these people, find a way into their capitol, and disable its enchantment from within.

"And then?"

"We act. Kill their King. Take the blood crystal."

The Khan's tone never changed, cold and mechanized, as though he were discussing the weather.

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