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Book 5, Chapter 79 - The Lone Wanderer

 How... how did it happen?

The fight was over before the crowd had time to react.

It was obvious Fourth Leaf had launched into his attack with great force. Cloudhawk watched him come, still as a statue, until at the very last second. A simple wave of his hand and he'd opened up the Chosen's throat.

There were no words to describe it. Cloudhawk didn't move much faster than Fourth Leaf. It was almost like Fourth Leaf had just thrust his neck into the rod. In the next second he was dead.

Absolute silence hung in the air for a full minute. Then chaos erupted. Fourth Leaf had lost! Fourth Leaf was dead!

Such a sudden and unexpected turn blew their minds! It went against everything they knew!

How could the illustrious Fourth Leaf lose so terribly to this unknown stranger? It was nothing short of mind-blowing! More staggering was the fact that he straight-up murdered the man without a second thought!

Chosen were a rare and precious commodity in the Silver Kingdom. Especially those of Fourth Leaf's caliber. Whatever animosity existed among Chosen, the Chosen Council was a contest between organizations. They were representatives and the fight took place in front of hundreds of spectators. It was customary to show one's opponent some face. There were lines one should not cross. Killing one's opponent was rare unless something went wrong.

Red Banner's Fourth Bearer, for example, might live the rest of his life as a cripple but was not dead.

Cloudhawk was a man who kept a low profile. He wasn't loud loud, but amazed with his actions. He rarely lifted a hand, but when he did he did it with lethal efficiency. And the man he'd killed was one of Seven Leaf Company's very best.

More than just a capable man, Four Leaf was widely considered to one day be the current Seventh Leaf's successor. He was being groomed to lead Seven Leaf Company's Venerated as their best. Cloudhawk severed that thread of fate before Seven Leaf's president, and all the citizens on Redleaf.

Without question, this was a declaration of war! Cloudhawk had left them no other choice. These two giants of industry would be forced into open conflict, maybe even a blood feud.


The tea cup in Otus Blanc's hand had shattered. Boiling hot fluid splashed every which way.

On the surface he showed nothing. His face might as well have been carved from stone. But his eyes blazed with an unparalleled fury. He slammed his fist on the table and shot to his feet. "Beck, you go too far!"

Seven Leaf Company's men all drew their weapons. Their face were twisted in an anger to match their president.

Beck, however, remained seated. In fact, he was just as surprised at the outcome as everyone else. He hadn't thought Cloudhawk would go so far as to kill a man. But, that's what happened. No changing things now. He had to stiffen his upper lip and swallow this thorny pill.

What did they expect? For him to apologize for the death of his man? In the last fight they very well might have permanently crippled his own fighter. Where would Red Banner's pride be if he bowed and scraped? Red Banner might not be quite the match for Sven Leaf Company, but they were still of equal standing.

Beck fiddled with his tea cup. "Why are you upset, Mr. Blanc? Sometimes there are unfortunate happenings, it's the nature of the Council. It's a shame but there is no helping it."

Otus was so upset he was visibly shaking. "Your man murdered Fourth Leaf on purpose!"

A cold laugh whispered in Beck's heart. So what? Nothing he could do about it. But his answer was measured. "Very well, consider it my mistake. I will ask him to come and apologize when the Council is done."

Apologize? Beck might agree to something like this but Cloudhawk, a mysterious outsider, was more likely to wipe his ass with the suggestion. Beck knew that without question.

Otus was all the more irritated by Beck's pointless lip service and had to hold himself back from flipping the table between them.

But before it could escalate further, a timid voice interrupted. "Don't be angry, fellows. The king's men are in attendance and if you cause trouble the King will have a word. No one wants to be blamed for starting a ruckus."

It was the old blind man who was the voice of reason. For him to rise to prominence as president of one of the city's six major powers, he had to have a clever head on his shoulders. He pretended at being a timid old man, but most knew better.

His warning cut through Otus' anger. He was so upset he could rip Red Banner leader to pieces but with his Chosen in attendance he knew it would not end well.

After a moment he calmed down and allowed his mind to work.

If Seven Leaf Company engaged in open war with Red Banner they had a fair shot of coming out in top, but it would be costly. If things went poorly it would mean mutual destruction. But if he didn't demand justice in some way how would he explain it?

Beck knew it, too. It was easy to understand.

Beck put the cup down after a moment's thought. "I understand your position, Mr. Blanc. You're in a difficult circumstance. So, to make you whole, how about I deliver Cloudhawk to you to do as you wish when the Council is over?"

Otus was taken aback. It was obvious by his showing that Cloudhawk was incredibly strong. Who would have believed Beck would simply agree to hand him over to Seven Leaf Company for a gruesome death? But from the perspective of Red Banner Company, it was indeed a fine plan.

Cloudhawk was an outsider. If he refused to join Red Banner, what difference did it make if he was taken care of by Otus?

Cloudhawk's insultingly brief murder of Fourth Leaf proved he was an exceptional fighter. His command of divine beasts was better than Beck's own Fourth Bearer, as well. What's more, he appeared to be carrying a number of his own special relics. He was stronger than Beck could calculate.

Otus wanted revenge? So be it! Cloudhawk wasn't a pawn of his to use anyway. If he was the last to employ his power, then all the better! Of course, he would not agree to lead Cloudhawk to his doom until after the Council. In that way they could really see what he was made of.

Cloudhawk had several fights to follow. In those he did not kill his opponents but still beat them handily.

Cloudhawk wasn't that violent by nature nor that contemptuous. He'd been holding back. Yet Fourth Leaf's arrogant, mouthy, threatening stance wasn't something Cloudhawk was going to stand for. No one else he fought was seriously wounded.

Each time he took to the field, Cloudhawk did not reveal even a fraction of what he was really capable of. He only used a relic of Oddball a couple times.

Everyone could see that Cloudhawk was defeating them with martial skill and battle talent. His victories were won by his own strength and physical abilities which were enough to thoroughly overwhelm the Chosen. If it wasn't for the little bird on his shoulder people would wonder if he Chosen at all.

The remainder of the Venerated saw that Fourth Leaf had vastly underestimated his enemy.

But how could someone like Fourth Leaf, with his divine beast and relics, have lost so easily? It was because he had thought himself so superior. He hadn't paused to think that the man in tattered armor would be his equal. Cloudhawk also had the combat skills to recognize the flaw and take advantage of it, stopping the fight in one blow.

The first day of the Chosen Council had come to a close. Tomorrow would bring new challenges and in the end winners from the six fields would be selected for the final.

"Cloudhawk, you were amazing today!" Summer was thrilled when he saw Cloudhawk again. He bounded over to him with a beaming face. "You killed him in one hit! Incredible! Fourth Leaf was so arrogant, he got what he deserved."

Cloudhawk removed his mask and look at the young man with a lopsided smile. "You think so? Aren't you afraid of getting yourself into trouble, talking like that here? From what you keep telling me, Seven Leaf Company is the top brass around here. Even under Red Banner's protection, Summer-Autumn Company won't be safe if you piss them off."

Summer was currently Cloudhawk's greatest fan. He didn't care if anyone heard, not when he was in front of his idol.

"So what?" Summer's eyebrows shot up. "I put my family's whole fortune on you to win. Thanks to you, Brother Cloudhawk, I'm going to be rich! All the wealth we could have gathered from future dangerous trips can be made right now in one swoop! So I want to thank you. If you're free this evening come to the family estate and eat with us. Let the Summer-Autumn Company throw you a victory party!"

Cloudhawk looked at this pure, hot-blooded youth.

Truth be told, the kid was beginning to grow on him. Like most his age he was full of piss and vinegar, ready to reach for his dreams. It was the greatest time of a man's life. Life hadn't kicked him down yet so it was still full of expectation and possibility. He hadn't gone through the rough patches yet that would scar him along the way.

Life would be great if no one grew ever up past that pure stage.

Cloudhawk didn't know what the future had in store for Summer, whether or not he'd ever have a chance to embark on his grand adventure. What he did know was that he had to stay away from the boy. The longer he remained, the higher the chance destruction would come for Summer-Autumn Company.

"You know what, Summer. I envy you."

"You envy me?" Summer's eyes were wide. "How could someone like you envy me?"

"You have a sweet, mature sister," Cloudhawk began. "You have kind and caring grandfather. You have a family that loves you. Hell, you have a family. I've never in my life experienced what you have. No family, no one who cares for me like that. I wouldn't even know what it feels like. All my life all I've seen is the shittiest parts of this world. So I envy you. Really, I do."

Summer didn't know how to respond. Cloudhawk was so strong, why did he care about such mundane things?

The sun was setting and its fading light turned the whole sky gold. It filtered through the mist onto these two figures, stretching their shadows long. They stood and stared for a time, two contrasting lives examining one another.

One was ragged and depraved. The other young and vibrant.

One beaten by the elements, the other fresh and immature.

One immensely strong. The other, weak and ordinary.

"Weak and strong are just a matter of comparison. From the mightiest king to the humblest beggar, the wisest sage or the uneducated commoner - everyone experiences happiness and troubles the same. The joy a king feels when he's gifted some rare treasure is no greater than a beggar's when he's handed a loaf of bread."

Cloudhawk patted Summer's shoulder. "You'll understand one day. To live is to envy others. Likewise, in other ways, others will envy you. But remember what I told you back in the bar; a real warrior always knows what they find to be most precious. That's what gives you the strength to stand up and protect it."

"I have a little gift for you. If one day you think you're ready, use it."

Cloudhawk didn't accept the young man's invitation for dinner. He was planning to stay at Red Banner's headquarters from now on.

Summer watched his hero walk away. In his hand was the gift Cloudhawk left - a rolled up piece of paper. He unfurled it and saw a detailed map. In the center was marked a place called 'Skycloud.'

Summer had never known there was a place called Skycloud. Was that where Cloudhawk had grown up? Summer heard someone approaching so quickly rolled up the paper. When he turned around he saw his white-haired grandfather and his older sister behind him.

They were both looking at him with anxious eyes. Suddenly, Summer knew what Cloudhawk had been talking about.

Even the most ordinary things could be precious. To Summer, the most important thing in his life was this family and the love they shared. He knew that no matter where he went or what happened, that knowledge would give him strength.

Autumn's brows furrowed. "Cloudhawk, he..."

Summer responded to the unasked question. "He isn't coming with us."

Both Autumn and Craig sighed with relief. Craig had pulled Cloudhawk from the rubble because he wanted a Chosen to raise Summer-Autumn Company's profile. Who would have thought he'd fish out so much more than that. This stranger was stronger than anyone he'd seen before. If he stayed with them, it would eventually mean their doom.

Summer looked back down the street where Cloudhawk had disappeared. "Sis, you were right. He isn't from our world."

She looked back at him. "You finally understand?"

Summer nodded. "I can feel his loneliness. He walks in a dark world full of struggle. A rough road, always scrambling for a glimpse of light."

Autumn sighed. Her brother understood.

Craig regarded his grandchildren each in turn. "Come, let's go home and eat."

Summer tightened his hand around the map in his grip and smiled. "I could kill for a taste of Autumn's roasted pork!"

"All you think about is food!"

The three laughed as they made their way back home.

Cloudhawk made his way back to the residence prepared for him in Red Banner's headquarters. By now the sky was dark and his body had begun to ache. His old injuries were like poisonous centipedes chewing through him, creeping out from the shadows when he was calm and resting.

Red Banner was nothing like Summer-Autumn Company.

Beck Roth had prepared a luxurious room for Cloudhawk. Outside his door was a large courtyard with delicate, well-manicured flowers and a personal hot spring. Cloudhawk had respect for the man. He was clever, had ambition. But for all that he was still a small player in a small town. What could he achieve?

He pushed the door open. He was about to walk in when he sensed something wasn't right.

Standing on the other side of the door was a dozen beautiful women of different sorts. Each one of them was obvious a rare and hand-selected beauty.

Redleaf was a place with a pleasant, humid climate. The women that were brought up here were as soft and alluring as water.

"Master Cloudhawk, it's fine. We are here especially at your service. We just want to make you happy, and we are at your command."

Each of the women was dressed in nothing but a robe of translucent gauze that left nothing to the imagination. The flimsy fabric clung to their fingers alluringly, invitingly.

"Dinner will be ready soon. Would you like to relax in the hot spring while it's being prepared?" One of the women stepped forward. "We can bathe with you if you like. We've been... specially trained to make you feel comfortable."

Another one of the women added, "We are at Master Roth's command, but have never been touched by another man."

It appeared as though Beck had not given up entirely on trying to entice him. This scene was certainly his latest attempt. A dozen beautiful woman? He was pulling out all the stops.

"I don't need any service." Cloudhawk's voice was cold, and curt. "You can all go."

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