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Book 5, Chapter 78 - Frog In A Well

 Cloudhawk watched the battle from nearby.

This Mr. Six character wasn't all that much stronger than the Fourth Bearer. In fact these Seven Leaves and Four Standard Bearers were all in the same league. Some were a little stronger, others a little weaker, but none were overwhelming. They ranged from standard demonhunter material, to maybe senior level. They still had a long way to go before they'd be considered veterans.

So how did Mr. Six win so easily? It was simple. He had his divine beast and a relic.

When Mr. Six released his beast and summoned the energy barrier everyone was stunned. Other Chosen looked at him with envious eyes because he could both control divine beasts and use relics in a fight.

Cloudhawk was... unimpressed. After all, he'd come from Skycloud. Arcturus' Ruin, Selene's Sublime Transcendence, Adder's mirror crystal, and Castigation fire were the grade of relic he was familiar with. He'd learned, used and encountered a plethora of epic-tier weapons over the years.

When he got here, the oddities never ceased. This was a fallen kingdom, but a former godly realm nonetheless. Why was there no mark of that fact whatsoever? These Chosen had no idea what demonhunters were or what they were capable of.

Their relics were low-grade and sub-par, nothing like the ones from the hands of gods. As for the divine beasts? While it was true the prevalence of them here was an eye-opener for Cloudhawk, the quality was still way below expectations.

Cloudhawk had seen two other divine beasts - besides Oddball - before he'd got here; the Temple's defender, and Autumn's crystal dragon. The former had the incredible ability precognition, knowing danger was coming to Skycloud before it arrived. It was sort of able to see into the future to warn of dangers ahead.

The latter was able to breed an army of dragons and control them through an unseverable mental connection. It was the source and commander of its own army.

Both of them were incredibly strong, evolved to their highest point.

So what about these critters? From Python's snake to the Fourth Bearer's condor - even Mr. Six's wolf - they were... mediocre. A fairly sturdy relic could cut them down. He didn't see anything irreplaceable.

Forget the super beasts like the crystal dragon and the Temple's protector, these things didn't even come close to Oddball. The resonance he sensed from them was weak but the power of a divine beast wasn't inherent, it came from its master. That was something to consider.

The first thing Cloudhawk knew was that divine beasts were a class of relics, special ones. He'd recently learned that relics could be created, so... did that mean divine beasts could be made?

He knew the Silver Kingdom was under the control of a person they called the 'King.' Summer had talked a little about him, claiming he'd been alive for thousands of years.

If that wasn't an exaggeration, then this king sure as shit wasn't human. No human could have lived from the time of the Great War.

Beyond that the king was said to have achieved several things: One, after taking control they erased any sign of the gods. Demonhunters were not inexplicably called 'Chosen.' Two, whoever this king was they had the ability to create relics and he was better at it than Cloudhawk.

This power was the foundation of what built this kingdom and the Chosen. In addition he appeared to have some way to make or breed divine beasts. That would explain why there were so many around here and why they were of inferior quality.

But most importantly of all, whoever this king was he knew Judas.

The elder demon was wary of the king, or for some other reason wasn't willing to just steamroll this place. If that wasn't the case whatever enchantment they had here wouldn't matter. Nothing he saw could stop Nox's forces from breaking through. Judas would at least be able to surround the area and take its people to bolster his army of Black Knights.

If there was one truth about Judas, it was that his was an ambitious heart. He wasn't going to leave this place alone if there was a chance to take it for himself. Cloudhawk was sure if he did a little digging he could dig up more information...

... but right now even knowing the whole story wasn't going to help him very much. Wherever this king came from or whatever sort of creature it was didn't change the fact that Cloudhawk needed to get to Imperia.

The Master of Ceremonies' booming voice returned.

"Field five will host our next fight!"

"Cloudhawk, representing Red Banner and Seven Leaf Company's Venerated Fourth Leaf!"

"This Cloudhawk fellow is not a member of Red Banner, it is noted, but a strong foreign supporter. Will he be able to stand against the illustrious Gentleman Four? Let's watch and find out!"

Cloudhawk's contender reached the field first. He was not a very tall fellow with a burly build and a neanderthal brow with the hair at his temples receding. From head to toe he was like a heavy blade that could cut you with a glance.

The leather cape he wore flapped in the breeze behind him. The four leaves stitched into her shimmery and impressive and earned oohs and ahhs from the crowd.

Gentleman Four, the Venerated! One of Redleaf's most lauded talents! He had been given his first leaf when he was just twenty years old. Now in his early thirties he didn't show any signs of slowing down. In fact many thought he was a good candidate to one day rise to Seventh Leaf.

Fourth Leaf walked onto the field and pulled a pair of daggers form his belt. The sinister-looking blades glinted with a dangerous light but they were not colder than the glint in his eyes. Everyone knew that Fourth Leaf wasn't just a talented Chosen, he was also a skilled warrior.

Word was he could cull an angry bull in half with one swipe of his knife. Once those daggers left their sheaths most of Redleaf;s mightiest would be easily defeated. The sight of him made Red Banner's men tremble.

One of their great tigers had just been defeated. Their morale had taken a serious blow and now they were faced immediately with a second confrontation with Seven Leaf Company. Only this time it was a stranger carrying their banner into battle.

Was there any doubt to outcome of this duel?

While Fourth Leaf was in the middle of the rest of his companions, he was no weaker than Fifth Leaf. In fact he could probably take Sixth Leaf in a scrap. Besides the Standard Bearer's eldest brother, there was no one who was his match.

"Where is he?!" Fourth Leaf glared around the ring. "Has the Red Banner lost their nerve? Get the fuck up here and fight like a man!"

The Master of Ceremonies repeated the call. "Representative Cloudhawk, make your way to field five!"

When Cloudhawk finally appeared there was a collective mutter of disappointment.

This asshole didn't look special, hell he could even be described as shabby, like some kind of vagabond wanderer. How was a respectable Chosen supposed to react? No one gave Cloudhawk an ounce of hope from the get-go and now they were even more disappointed.

Seven Leaf company's president snickered. "Clearly, Red Banner ran out of representatives. You could have borrowed some of mine! You didn't need to snatch up some waif from off the street. This wretch is a disgrace to proper Chosen and a disgrace to the Council."

"You are right that he is a foreign wanderer. No name or renown, no one knows him." Beck took a sip of his tea, his face calm and words measured. "But nothing is certain, and the outcome of this fight hasn't been determined yet. Saying otherwise now would leave you open to disgrace if it ends up you lose, Mr. Blanc.

"Nonsense!" Otus spat.

Beck didn't say anything more. His eyes narrowed as his attention returned to the field.

Summer shouted and cheered from among the crowd, filled with excitement and anticipation. His cries drowned out the murmurs. If these idiots couldn't look past his ragged exterior, then they were just stupid!

At the same time at another corner of the arena, Craig Vista had brought his granddaughter as well to watch the festivities.

Craig hadn't seen Cloudhawk fight with his own eyes, only heard what happened from Autumn. He was sure Cloudhawk was no ordinary man, but some things had to be witnessed firsthand. Was he really capable of defeating one of Seven Leaf Company's best?

Cloudhawk finally took to the stage. Oddball was perched on his shoulder, idly pruning its feathers. There was nothing in this man or his little pet that spoke of urgency.

Fourth Leaf took it was disrepesct and he felt his anger flare. He growled at his challenger. "You... you're wasting my time!"

"What of it?"

"You runt! You have the balls to make me wait? I'll show you wait my time costs!"

Cloudhawk couldn't help but smirk at how ridiculous this was. Humanity's capacity for arrogance and stupidity was something to behold.

Sometimes they were like frogs at the bottom of a well. Looking up from the depths, all they could see was a little circle of sky and believed that was all the world was. Little did they know that if they hoped out of their little well a whole vast existence would be revealed, destroying their silly preconceptions.

But until they did, men remained ignorant and shortsighted. They were the center of their own little universes, measuring everything based on their limited experience. Here in Redleaf, Fourth Leaf was one of the bigger fish. It never occurred to him that the city he lived in - actually the entire kingdom - was such a little pond. When he realized how big the rest of the world was maybe he might understand that he was practically microscopic.

But while Cloudhawk pondered these things, he reminded himself not to scorn Fourth Lead too much. How would he be any different from him, then? Cloudhawk may have seen more of the vast universe, but what if there was more? There had to be more. He thought he'd met the greatest creatures in the universe, but what if there were more he couldn't even imagine?

Cloudhawk had hopped out of his well, only to land in a slightly bigger one. It was important to keep a little awe and humility.

Fourth Leaf saw that his threats failed to inspire fear in the vagabond. Worse, he was just standing there absent-mindedly! Like he did not consider Fourth Leaf a threat at all!

Bastard! How dare this nobody strut around with such disrespect!

Gentlemen Four was a bundle of fury. He whipped his sleeves arm and a streak of great was released. The pocket-sized thing quickly expanded in midair until it was the size of a bull. The arena was filled suddenly with a deadly air, pouring off this now lumbering creature.

Gasps rang out through the crowd.

"He released it! Gentlemen Four's Hurricane Mantis!"

The shift in atmosphere brought Cloudhawk back to the present. He saw the hulking insect which did indeed look much like an overgrown mantis. Its spindly body was covered in a vibrant green carapace and it swiped through the air with scythe-like arms. Serrated pincers chittered in the center of its face and were stained a deep red.

This... was a unique divine beast. Cloudhawk was a little surprised. Was there a way these creatures could be modified - either through some strange method or even scientifically - to give it new powers?

"You shouldn't be risking yourself for Red Banner." Fourth Leaf looked down at Cloudhawk with a cruel glare and called to him in a commanding tone. "Kneel, grovel! Renounce Red Banner and I'll spare your life!"

Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes behind the mask. "If I refuse?"

Fourth Leaf's patience had run thin. He had no more time for words. "Then you will die!"

His Hurricane Mantis bound into the air, causing a powerful gust of wind to sweep across the field. Its shadow fell over Cloudhawk as, scythe-like arms extended, it blocked him from going anywhere. It was poised to chop him in two.

While the divine beast attacked from above, Fourth Leaf charged from the ground. He was pretty fast, too.

Before Cloudhawk had a chance to counter, he was cornered. He seemed to have nowhere to turn; either he could be cut apart by the mantis or diced into pieces by Gentleman Four. His fate was sealed.

This was the power of Fourth Lead? The spectators watched, wide-eyed.

Fourth Leaf's attack style was simple, in contrast to many other Chosen. If they didn't rely on relics then they relied on their divine beasts. Fourth Leaf, however, was a warrior of some skill. Each pump of his legs was like a catapult shooting him forward, increasing his momentum with each stride.

Meanwhile Cloudhawk was as still as a mountain. With a flick of his wrist a crude exorcist rod appeared. A subtle step to the side and the Hurricane Mantis' swipe went wide. He pushed off his toes and darted forward. Nothing fancy, nothing stunning.

He raised his arm. The exorcist staff jabbed forward.

Every move looked so ordinary, unhurried. Like he'd done them a thousand times before and could perform each movement with the same result.

Fourth Leaf hit the ground with a triangular-shaped wound in his throat.

A veritable river of blood gushed from the new hole and each beat of his heart was slower than the last. The Chosen's face was both pale and frozen in shocked disbelief.

The lively, boisterous scene was now one of complete silence. A sea of eyes looked first at the corpse lying in the dirt, then at the masked man who'd done it. He stood over the body without even breathing heavily as blood dripped from the end of his weapon.

An errant wind blew through, rustling the stranger's tattered gray cloak - like the banner of a warrior who had fought through countless wars.

Cloudhawk didn't spare the crowd or the body a second look. He walked away from the field like nothing had happened, wordless, as dumbstruck eyes watched him go.

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