It was a strange day. War had begun in Belchan. Well, there were a number of concurrent wars, some of which were more of wars in name only—declarations between countries without fighting.
But in Belchan? Oh yes, it was war. And Wistram, despite having had many complaints, was still broadcasting it.
“—Hours into the first proper day, and we’re not seeing the King of Destruction’s army slowing. Their advance has been much slower than projected—”
“They’re not racing, Noass. Rather, they’re systematically destroying each group they’re coming across. We’ve seen two local forces routed in minutes—”
The advance of Flos’ armies as the two Drakes spoke in their broadcasting studio—which was still just a table with props—was visible through a second scrying mirror as they spoke. And indeed, Flos’ armies were moving slowly.
Slowly, yes, at least given the initial rampage. But that was only because the two [Commentators] had been speculating how fast Flos would gallop towards Belchan’s capital. Which was an idiotic idea. The King of Destruction was enraged, but he was at war.
And he knew war. His infantry were marching fast, boosted by his [Rapid March] Skill, but conserving their strength. The cavalry, meanwhile, was moving ahead, clashing with small groups but mainly scouting for opponents. [Mages], casting spells from afar. Of course, the [Commentators] had had [Strategists] giving their opinions on what Belchan could do.
“We’ve uh, seen the suggested hit-and-away tactics attempting to be employed by Belchan’s [Mages]. They have a good school, and they may have seen the broadcast. But uh, they’ve been quite thoroughly destroyed—”
Sir Relz murmured, adjusting his monocle uncomfortably. Noass nodded.
“—by the King of Destruction’s [Steward], among others. It uh, appears that the level differential is too much. Even the ones attempting to use [Invisibility] or [Lesser Teleport] were killed. Quickly, too. Which is why…er…this broadcast is not definitive strategic advice.”
His words were accompanied by the scrying [Mage] in charge of the broadcast focusing on a group of a hundred some [Riders]. All elites, led by the [Steward] himself. And they were moving fast.
In fact…they were getting larger as the viewers and Drakes watched. Rather quickly, too. They were, in fact, heading for the Wistram [Mage] deployed to the battlefield.
“Uh oh. I think that our watcher has been spotted—”
Noass stared as Orthenon rode down on the [Mage]. And instantly, the [Seer] panicked. He began putting up shield spells and shouting as the [Steward] rode down on him, spear readied.
“Wistram! I’m from Wistram! I—”
The barrier spell flashed and stopped the [Steward]’s charge for about half a second. The man screamed and Orthenon’s spear flashed towards his head. The butt of it, though, not the blade. The last sound and sight was of a thud and the view tilting—and then the scrying mirror went dark.
“That would be the third [Mage] covering the battle in Belchan down, ladies and gentledrakes, if you’ve been keeping count. Um. It appears the King of Destruction is not viewing any outsiders as non-combatants, although he has not, as of yet, slain any of them. To our knowledge. Er—and the situation in Belchan’s capital is chaos, apparently. While—while we try and get another viewpoint, let’s switch to one of our other broadcasts. Sir Relz?”
The other Drake nodded.
“Thank you, Noass. I believe we have an event shaping up in—Terandria? Yes, some kind of [Knight] order. Challenging…a [Lord]? Well, we’ll cut to that while we try and find another [Mage] willing to broadcast the events.”
With that, the scrying orb went dark. There was a sigh from the Mage’s Guild, and the audience watching the orb—one of many across the world—relaxed and began to chatter a bit.
Ryoka Griffin ate a popcorn kernel. It was unpopped, but she liked eating the kernels as well as the popped ones. It was a habit.
“Odds are one to eighty-six that Belchan survives the war. If they make it past a week, anyone with a gold coin bet walks away rich.”
Fierre murmured from the side. She and Ryoka were watching from a bench in Reizmelt’s Mage’s Guild. There were few scrying orbs in the city, and one of them was being used to display Wistram’s broadcast. Everyone who could be here, was. More were peering through the windows, in fact, but Fierre had gotten Ryoka in on a bench. She had connections.
“Pass me some popcorn?”
Ryoka did. Fierre munched as the two waited for something to happen. Ryoka glanced sideways at Fierre.
“Did Alber and Madain not want to come?”
“Nope. He’s practicing your weird punches. And Madain doesn’t like crowds. Plus, no one’s allowed to drink in here.”
“Huh. Well, there are kids.”
Ryoka glanced around. The Mage’s Guild did indeed have kids, and Ryoka wasn’t sure if letting them see people literally being killed was…well, good. But this was a reality here, and she wasn’t going to argue with the parents.
In fact…Ryoka was a bit perplexed that the two kids sitting on her bench hadn’t tried to get any popcorn. They were staring at the blank scrying orb, but even when she offered her pail over, they barely looked at it.
The people in the room were silent, in fact, apart from a low murmur. And when the broadcast began, it would be dead silence. People went outside to sneeze. They had a reverence for the televised broadcast that people from Earth had forgotten.
So, the Mage’s Guild was quiet, but for the occasional crunch as Ryoka waited for more to watch. She and Fierre were there. Eating popcorn. And yes, Ryoka had made it herself, after asking Madain for permission to use his kitchen.
She wasn’t bringing it to this world, and she wasn’t making a stink about it. It was just popcorn and butter and salt, alright? With an optional bowl of delicious, meltable parmesan flakes for taste. If you wanted it.
Besides, Erin had already brought popcorn to this world. Although she ate it with—the City runner had to shudder—nutritional yeast on top. Who did that?
Anyways, Ryoka could still cast normal magic spells, and she could warm up the popcorn whenever she pleased. She stared as the two Drakes reappeared.
“Sorry, everyone. A minor technical issue—we’ll try not to cut the broadcast again! We’re back, and we have what I understand to be a challenge to the ah, infamous [Lord] Belchaus Meron, who is known of course, as the most eligible bachelor, and best [Lord] in the world as ranked by Sir Krsysl Wordsmith. Of course, that list has been disputed, but the Lord of the Dance as he’s known is a Terandrian force, and his navy has defeated—what’s that, Sir Relz?”
“I believe, Noass, this isn’t a challenge per se as we understand it. Um, this appears to be some sort of traditional…competition? By the Order of Savellia.”
“Ah one of Terandria’s ubiquitous [Knight] orders. We er, saw a few orders yesterday, Sir Relz…”
Noass had a slightly supercilious tone as he spoke. In the Mage’s Guild, Fierre snorted. She elbowed Ryoka.
“Savellia? This is going to be good. Have you heard of Lord Bel, Ryoka?”
“Best [Lord] in the world? Lord of the Dance?”
“That’s just what some Drake wrote. But he is one of the best [Lords], in combat and other aspects. But do you know what the Order of the Knights of Savellia are known for?”
An image was appearing in the scrying mirror, replacing the two Drakes. Ryoka leaned forwards, glancing at Fierre.
And then there was light. Ryoka looked up and saw…well, a ballroom.
That was what she assumed it was at first. Marble floor, an expanse of smooth stone decorated in some pattern she couldn’t make out—and people, standing in near darkness.
The ballroom was vast, the kind of place where you could see hundreds, perhaps thousands of people mingling, eating, dancing—or book it so two people could dance obnoxiously in the center with a film crew.
But it was poorly lit at the moment. And Ryoka could see people in shadow. Whomever had control of the viewpoint was sweeping it across the silent room. There must have been at least four hundred people, all…waiting.
And then, the view tracked towards two double doors. Ryoka heard a sound from outside. Voices. Marching footsteps, the sound of armor en masse. Then the doors blew open, spilling light into the room, and the Order of Savellia swept into the room.
They were [Knights]. And yes, they wore armor. Plate, among their more senior members, but chainmail, even cloth mixed in with their clothing. Oh yes—and they were colorful.
Ryoka had seen the Order of the Seasons, who decorate their armor brightly, with the colors of the summer or spring. But the Savellian [Knights] had style. They’d decorated their armor with art, not just a layer of paint. Ryoka saw one [Knight] sporting a motif of flowers along his armguards and breastplate, which twined down into vines along his legs.
Another had on an armored…dress. Which was exactly like what it sounded; a knee-length skirt and armored leggings and guards on his arm, yes, but more suited to a court than a battlefield.
But they were armed for battle. All the [Knights] had helmets; none went without, although few were full-visor. And they wore weapons, mostly quick ones, like shortswords and bucklers, few battleaxes or huge maces. There were about a hundred on this…raid? Challenge? And one of them had just kicked the door open.
They stepped into the ballroom slowly. And the light that slowly illuminated the room was aided by a series of magical [Lights] that sprang out around the room. Ryoka saw the hundreds of people in the room stir.
And she realized they were [Dancers]. They were dressed in free clothing, and more than that, they had a certain athleticism and way about how they stood and moved. They were lined up as the Order of Savellia slowly gathered on their side of the ballroom.
And then Ryoka saw Lord Bel. He stood at the far end of the room. And he was distant, but Ryoka saw him surrounded by a court of the best-dressed people. She stared at him, and then the [Knights]. And she blinked.
“Are they carrying…drums? Is that a trumpet?”
The [Knights] at the back of the group were holding instruments. Not weapons, unless you thought you could kill someone with a trumpet. Which you probably could, but—Ryoka saw a pair of cymbals, a kind of violin—she stared at Fierre.
Then the [Knights] began to stamp. Ryoka saw the armored figures began to stomp, their armored feet hitting the ground in perfect unison. At first, they did it slow, ominous, a rhythmic thump and clash of metal. But only for a few seconds. Then they began to speed up.
The Savellian [Knights] began to stamp faster. And behind them, the ones carrying them began to beat on their drums. But—the atmosphere was all off. If this was meant to be intimidation, they were going too fast. And then some of the [Knights] began to play on their instruments. And Ryoka realized this wasn’t a display of intimidation. This was a beat.
The [Knights] swept forwards as a wailing brass horn began to play. And Ryoka saw an armored woman shoulder her way forwards.
“The Grandmaster. That’s her.”
Ryoka stared as a woman dressed in armor stepped forwards. The [Knights] spread out behind her. She raised a hand as the shrill horn grew louder. And then she began to dance.
The grandmaster raised a hand and her [Knights] streamed forwards. They began to step down the ballroom as the music continued to play. Dancing, not just step. Ryoka had seen good dancers before. And she saw the [Knights] spreading out to the left and right, gliding down the floor.
They were men and women in armor—in almost equal number, she realized—but they didn’t move like it hindered them at all. They sauntered forwards, tracing a pattern with their footwork.
Left, right, cross-step, right, left—turn. The [Knights] each held out on arm and Ryoka saw they’d made a tunnel with their bodies, towards Lord Bel. The Lord of the Dance waited. And Ryoka saw him smile.
The music went silent abruptly. And the audience, silent, saw the grandmaster stop. She locked eyes with the Lord of the Dance. And then she motioned. Four seniors [Knights] lined up. And they stopped moving. There was silence. Then—the grandmaster raised two fingers and pointed.
The four [Knights] and the grandmaster slid forwards. They advanced, dancing, and Ryoka saw they were stepping, a quick march with high knees, they stopped, did a sideways step, twisting their heels in. And the [Knights] on their left side began to move with them. They advanced again, four steps, paused, twisted, pointed.
At the Lord of the Dance. And the music punctuated their movements, rising, stopping—the right side of the Order of Savellia came forwards, throwing up their hands and shouting. Again, in rhythm with the music. All the [Knights] halted again, and then the music picked up.
They advanced, raising their hands and stepping with their right foot. With each step they threw up their arms, and Ryoka saw the four [Knights] and the grandmaster turning, pirouetting, beckoning, challenging.
The [Knights] were halfway down the ballroom. They paused, then swept out their legs, doing what looked to Ryoka like a low attitude-turn. She wasn’t a dancing expert! The most she knew was tricking. But the [Knights] were dancers.
They swept forwards, in a mix between what looked like classic ballroom dancing moves and a faster, freer dancing style not meant for the ballroom specifically. Performance dancing.
And just as they seemed like they’d keep dancing until they ran into Lord Bel, his [Dancers] began to move. A stir at either side of the ballroom; Ryoka saw the closest [Dancers] spring forwards. They tumbled forwards, half doing handsprings, the other half leaping like ballerinas, incredibly nimble. The [Knights] paused as the other [Dancers] surrounded them. The [Dancers] began to snap their fingers.
And Lord Bel stepped forwards. The Lord of the Dance paused, and the Savellian [Knights] waited. Then he sprang forwards.
“Hold on, that’s not—”
Ryoka choked on some of her popcorn as Lord Belchaus advanced. And his steps looked nothing like classic waltz. His [Dancers] were like a modern team, and Lord Bel was dressed in something close to a dancing suit at home from a more modern era.
He and his group came down the ballroom, stepping fast. It was a modern dance! Or else—Ryoka saw them stepping fast.
Advance, half-step, turn, cross-step forwards, left sides facing the [Knights], arms extended, head tilted sideways, chin up just so—
At some point Ryoka realized she was watching a dance battle. A choreographed, dance battle. Lord Bel’s troupe paused as the [Lord] advanced forwards, and did what she could only term a complicated forward step on the tips of his feet. He was in releve, a term Ryoka knew from the few classes she’d had to take. But she couldn’t have described the rest.
What was the grandmaster doing? She was side-stepping forwards to, then a heel pull turn? Glissade back—Ryoka stopped trying to catalogue the moves and started just watching.
“Oh my god. They’re good.”
“I know, right? I’ve never seen them dance! But they’re famous for it? Both Lord Bel and the Savellian [Knights]! They fight in perfect formations in the battle—and Lord Bel is said to be better than most [Strategists]!”
“But that dancing! It’s so—modern!”
Ryoka stared at the grandmaster and Lord Bel. They were having a dance off in the center, surrounded by clapping and cheering [Dancers] and [Knights]. She had a more traditional dance, accompanied by her [Knights] who moved in synch with her, extending their arms, stepping back, turning, all with perfect form and order.
They surrounded her, and she extended an arm as they moved around her in a spiral. Behind her, [Knights] with brass instruments played while striking poses, moving forwards and pushing the [Dancers].
That was more like a performance. But the Lord of the Dance? He refused to bow to the Order of Savellia. He was moving forwards in a slow step, with his [Dancers]. Pausing before their feet touched the ground, halting the energy of the [Knight]’s dance. And then Lord Bel began to advance in a faster step. The baller shuffle! His fast-moving footwork made even the [Knights] break from their choreography.
“Who taught him how to do that?”
Ryoka choked on her popcorn.
But she had to ask—the Lord of the Dance was grooving, and yes, that was the term for it. Even the grandmaster looked surprised by his style of dance, that was at odds with the slower, more deliberate dances. Because yes, he was boogieing, switching into a tap dance—his feet were moving so fast that if you missed it, it looked like he was just sliding, rather than taking individual steps.
And then he did a moonwalk. Just for a second. Ryoka pointed.
“Look! Look! There’s no way—”
Perhaps it wasn’t that he’d been taught. Lord Bel just seemed to have the most free, energetic dancing that Ryoka had ever seen. And he was good. The grandmaster stopped, putting her hands on her hips as her Order began to look dismayed. Faced with the energetic style the Lord of the Dance and his [Dancers] were using, their more deliberate, ostentatious dance was struggling to keep up.
And he was smiling. As if he was gently mocking the Savellian [Knights]. The Lord of the Dance spun backwards, and some of his [Dancers] raised wands. For a second Ryoka thought it would turn ugly, but they shot magical streamers, and some of his [Dancers] leapt forwards.
There were [Tumblers] and other [Performers] among them; they began to leap and cartwheel through the streams of light and other illusions. Or not. A leaping beast made of fire leapt as a young man did a handspring over it.
A dance-off, indeed. The Order Savellia conferred. And then sixteen of their dancers stepped forwards. Lord Bel motioned, and sixteen from his side did likewise.
The two met in the center as the music grew slower. And some of Lord Bel’s people were playing as well, matching the [Knights]. The thirty two dancers in the center began a fast waltz. It was a competition, perhaps to see which side would match the other. Because it definitely hadn’t been rehearsed. One side would move into a move, like a hip lift and turn, and the other side would try to keep up. Or up the ante.
Ryoka was beyond entertained. She saw Lord Bel motioning at the grandmaster, inviting her to a dance. She was smiling—she was, in fact, a woman in at least her fifties, with greyer hair. She tilted her head, eying him. They clearly knew each other.
“Does this happen all the time?”
“When he’s not defending his lands, he entertains ‘challenges’ like this all the time. I’ve heard he’s studied dancing from every species, and he pays to meet new dances or people who’re really good. He’s also unmarried, by the way.”
Now both sides were dancing with each other as partners. Bel’s dancers were good. Savellia’s [Knights] were incredibly acrobatic and swift for people moving in armor, but they were fighters before [Dancers]. The [Dancers]? Well, they’d even implemented some of swing dancing’s more aerobatic lifts and flips into their dances.
The music was moving into an upswing, and Ryoka saw Bel pointing, ordering more of his [Dancers] forwards. It looked like they were going to do a huge choreographed number, which Ryoka was all for—with the grandmaster being invited into the inner circle with Lord Bel.
However, one of the Savellia [Knights], a young man, seemed unable to take the apparent superiority of Lord Bel’s dancing. The music faltered as he leapt forwards. Lord Bel looked up as the [Knight] slid sideways, doing a fast four-step into what looked like a circle slide. He was copying Lord Bel’s movements.
And he was good. If he was in a club or anywhere else, he might have been one of the best, but he was up against The Lord of the Dance.
However, his fellow [Knights] seemed to like his display of audacity. They cheered him on and the [Dancers] and [Knights] alike made a circle as the young knight-errant went up against Lord Bel. He kept dancing, locking eyes with Lord Bel, clearly taunting him—
And the [Lord] jumped into the circle. The [Knight] recoiled, mid-step, surprised that the [Lord] had interrupted his challenge. And he slipped. His body, overextended, made him overbalance backwards. He began to stumble backwards—
And Lord Bel reached out and caught him. He caught the [Knight] at the lower back, like he might a female [Lady]. The young [Knight] blinked as the Lord of the Dance effortlessly caught him. For a second—they looked like some scene from a movie, the young man staring up at the grinning Lord Bel.
The Lord of the Dance winked. He let go of the younger [Knight], and the [Knight] righted himself. He eyed the Lord of the Dance, then, laughed and held out a hand. Ryoka saw Lord Bel laugh. He took the hand—
And then the two began to dance. The music halted, shifted as the musicians found a different song. They took on a courtly, slower theme, like one of the Victorian-era songs for the ballroom. But of course, this being Lord Bel’s home, it was more upbeat, and with a melody and harmony that made you want to move.
And the young [Knight] took Lord Bel’s hand and they began a waltz. Like the very ones Lyonette had taught to Pawn, although Ryoka couldn’t know that. But she grinned as the two men danced towards. The other Savellian [Knights] were clapping lightly to the beat and their grandmaster was whirling one of the female [Dancers] onto the floor.
They just loved to dance. That was all of it. Be it courtly, fast, newfangled or traditional, on-the-spot—Ryoka stared at the people in the image. And she wanted to move her feet. She wondered if Lord Bel had ever heard of tricking. No—how good could someone in this world with a dancing class be?
Certainly, she saw Lord Bel effortlessly hoist the younger [Knight] in a classic ballroom move, as if the armored person were a light [Lady] in the dress. He even made it look graceful, which should not apply to someone wearing plate armor. Yes, it was light, but…
The theme was set. Male dancers paired off with male, and female with female. They whirled around, dancing as the music began to pick up. Ryoka was smiling and Fierre laughing. And as Lord Bel turned to walk hand-in-hand with the [Knight] of Savellia, tracing their steps carefully and delicately across the ballroom floor—
The image went blank. The scrying orb darkened, turned into crystal. Ryoka’s jaw dropped. What happened? She stared at the [Mage] attending the scrying orb. He was staring at it, confused. And then—
The image of Noass and Sir Relz’s broadcast flipped back on. But the table was empty. The audience, bewildered, stared at it. Then, they saw a Drake—not one of the two [Commentators], but one of their assistants, hurry onscreen.
A little placard was hastily placed in front of the empty desk by a Drake assistant who hurried offstage just as fast. Ryoka read it slowly.
We apologize for the short intermission. This broadcast has been cancelled due to issues of possible obscenity.
There was a moment of silence. And then Ryoka threw her pail of popcorn at the scrying orb.
“What? That was the best part! You sacks of shit!”
Ryoka and Fierre went nuts from the back of the crowd. The audience erupted into shouting as the Mage’s Guild tried to restore order. The worst part was that not everyone was with Ryoka. Some people looked disgruntled.
“They can’t be real! That was just two guys dancing! And doing it better than I’ve seen!”
Fierre looked unhappy, but she tried to shush Ryoka as the [Mage] glared at her.
“I bet there are Terandrian nations already complaining.”
“For what? It’s just—”
The scrying orb came back to life as Ryoka was about to rant. Noass appeared in the screen, hurrying forwards and looking unprepared. He brushed crumbs off his tunic.
“Sorry for the delay, folks. Er, we apologize for the scene, and we’ll uh, immediately cut to—”
There was another voice in the background. Sir Relz, and someone else.
“Those Ancestors damned—there are children watching! Talk about impropriety! We’ll have to broadcast—no! No one’s ready! Cut to the Titan! What do you mean, he’s not teaching class? Cut to—”
Ryoka just stared. Drakes too. She knew this world had problems, but she realized—was it Terandria and Izril? She looked at Fierre. The Vampire-girl seemed just as annoyed as she was.
Really, though? They weren’t even saying they were…anything. But two men dancing—or two women—was enough? Ryoka sat, fuming, as the scrying orb changed again. She stared darkly at the orb.
A rather flustered [Mage] was standing in an empty classroom. He conjured a glowing ball of orange fire in one hand and spoke to the camera.
“And now, we shall begin a study of magic spells for those neophy—er, self-taught [Mages] abroad. I am Mage Rievan, and I will be going through one of our advanced lessons in spellcasting. Which is but one of the many of the magical theories taught in Wistram—”
“Bullshit! Give me my dancing!”
Ryoka was then ejected from the Mage’s Guild. She found herself outside, and raised two fingers to the guild’s doors, and then the sky to express her vexation. She stomped away as Fierre hurried after her.
“Hey Fierre, do you have another scrying orb?”
“It’s on my to-buy list, but I don’t have one, Ryoka. Most of my money went to rebuilding my shop and getting more contacts—why were you so mad?”
The young woman was about to have a talk with Fierre about gender—did she even know half of what was common knowledge on Earth?—when she caught sight of a [Fistfighter] striding her way.
Alber hadn’t come for the scrying orb. He was in fact, bare-chested, and he was sweaty. Ryoka eyed him. Fierre eyed his neck. Alber waved at Ryoka.
“Griffin, there you are. Are you going to show me the rest of those punches yet? I tried that other technique you showed me. But I need a sparring partner.”
Ryoka relaxed. This at least was a welcome change of late. She had begun teaching Alber some of the boxing theory from her world that she knew. And he had obliged her by knocking her flat a few times. He was a [Fistfighter] and she had no class, after all, but the two had a mutual appreciation of hitting things.
They were almost like friends. And it was an easier relationship than with Fierre. Ryoka grinned at Alber.
“Sure. Give me one second? Can you do a flicker jab already? Really?”
Alber grinned. He was already good enough to fight with Silver-rank adventurers—barehanded—and Ryoka teaching him about the priority of using jabs first and so on meant that he was getting more dangerous with each practice session.
“Like snapping a towel? I think so. Come check my form.”
She nodded. Alber jogged off—the importance of roadwork was something else that Ryoka had told him about. Strong lower body. Fierre glared at his back.
“I could knock him out, fancy moves or not.”
“Vampires don’t count. If you boxed, you’d be even more dangerous than you are.”
“Hmf, well, I guess they won’t let us back in there.”
Fierre looked at the Mage’s Guild. She sighed as Ryoka began to stretch.
“You and Alber like hitting each other too much. At least the kids are gone.”
Ryoka paused and grimaced. That was true. There had been…difficulties of late. And she was grateful for Fierre and Alber’s forbearance in hard times. She said as much and Fierre scowled.
“Don’t talk to me about them. They’re probably dead three miles south of here. Ambushed by rabbits.”
The City Runner began to defend them. Then she gave up. She shook her head.
“…I should probably send Erin a [Message], telling her…damn. I should probably send a [Message]. And gold. And ask about Mrsha.”
She sat down heavily as that thought struck her, as it sometimes did. She’d left Mrsha behind. And yes, it was because Ryoka thought—no, she knew she brought death. Better for Mrsha to be safe…safer with Erin. But she should send a [Message]. Or perhaps it was best if Mrsha forgot all about Ryoka. After all, if she and Ryoka had never met…
“I’m a terrible person.”
Fierre noticed Ryoka’s suddenly despondent look. She hesitated, and then squatted down and laid a comforting hand on Ryoka’s shoulder. Since her hands were ice-cold, that really just made Ryoka shiver, but Fierre tried her best.
“Hey. You couldn’t ever be as bad as them.”
At the same time as the disappointing broadcast was taking place, another event was occurring. Only, no one was broadcasting this. And only a few were even aware of its existence.
In Pomle, the warriors gathered by the oasis. They did so seldom, save for when the Strongest of Pomle called them. For war, or momentous occasions.
Such as this. The [Martial Artists]—those who obeyed the call, some were simply loners—gathered. Some hadn’t seen each other in months. They trained as they pleased, lived as they pleased.
This was Pomle, one of the heights of the martial-arts in the entire world. And it had to be said, in a world like this, where magic swords and spellcraft were common, anyone willing to challenge that with their fists or bodies alone was brave indeed. The warriors had resisted all other nations, created a sanctuary where there were few rules.
You lived and did as you pleased here, so long as it fell within the basic rules of Pomle. The [Martial Artist] community would shelter people who had committed murder, so long as they did not break the peace here. And it was the Strongest of Pomle who enforced that rule and shaped the tiny nation.
At the moment, that person was Orjin. And he had allowed many outsiders in. Refugees, fleeing the war in Tiqr. Many had left, but a lot of non-warriors had created a small settlement. The [Martial Artists] weren’t happy about it—but neither were they unduly upset. The Strongest made the rules, until someone challenged him.
And this, at least, was something Pomle was used to. The [Martial Artists] had gathered for a fight. An organized one, but a fight nonetheless, and they’d honed their bodies—or brought weapons, if they had them.
Not all of them used bare hands of course. Orjin knew eight different weapons well enough to use in combat, and there were a number of experts, such as a [Peerless Spearmaster], a pair of [Fencers] in training, a retired [Assassin], and a few [Weapon Experts]. But most were [Martial Artists], albeit with unique specializations and variations of the class.
“Strongest. Who challenges Pomle today?”
“Visitors from afar. Two groups, I think. The regular ones and some…expert.”
The dark-skinned man answered a Selphid [Martial Artist]’s question. She nodded, looking intrigued. Her body was old, and would have been rotting but for the fact that it was desiccated.
She was the only Selphid in Pomle; few would have been able to survive given how hard it was to find new bodies regularly. As it was, her Skill allowed her body to move and keep active with minimal wear over the years.
She was one of Pomle’s masters. If there were many who came to Pomle to train, or learn, there had to be masters who wanted to teach, be alone, or perfect their craft. The Selphid was an expert in grappling. Orjin would rather jump into a nest of giant flame ants than let her get an arm around him.
The Selphid nodded. She had brought someone with her. A…Dullahan. Female, like the Selphid’s body. It reminded Orjin of a Garuda he used to train. Well, hit every time she challenged him and then teach a few new moves to.
Peki. He wondered if she’d ever made it to Baleros. Orjin dismissed the thought. If she was strong, and she was, he would see her again. She had promised to return when she met the Titan.
He indicated the young Dullahan. Well, ‘young’—she was in her mid-twenties. But young in terms of ability. She was restless, drawn in by the sight of all of Pomle’s warriors gathered. Orjin and the Selphid by comparison were calm.
“Mendi. Introduce yourself.”
“Strongest. I hope to fight today, if I am able. Master Salthorn has taught me for eight months.”
The Dullahan bowed to Orjin. He nodded.
“You seem like a grappling-striking expert. Correct?”
He eyed her muscles and posture. The Dullahan nodded. Orjin was able to tell how his opponent fought most of the time. He remembered another Drake who’d come by when Orjin wasn’t the Strongest. He’d been interested in learning, too.
Perhaps it was the visitors today who were prompting so many memories. Orjin looked at Salthorn.
“The challengers are a large group. The Windcaller’s Wrath. I think.”
“They follow their great leader, who is a master of [Martial Arts]. He has come to challenge me, I think.”
Salthorn looked interested. Orjin had been too, when he’d heard that.
“A great master indeed. What is their name?”
“I don’t know. Salii informed me they were coming, along with others. So I gathered everyone here.”
It was a regular event in Pomle. At the Strongest’s whim, or for a challenge from afar, the warriors of Pomle would gather to spar. To learn. Even if Mendi did not get to spar the outsiders—and sometimes it was adventurers, or foreign warriors who would come to pit themselves against Pomle—she would get to fight other disciples.
“Here they come.”
One of the Garuda [Martial Artists] had spotted some of the newcomers. The warriors of Pomle turned, and saw a vast group heading their way.
“One thousand, two thousand, three…”
Orjin’s brows rose. To see so many challengers was incredible! But he quickly realized that the group converging on Pomle’s oasis weren’t all martial artists.
“It looks like a nomadic tribe.”
“But not Garuda. And they dress well.”
The Strongest of Pomle eyed the group with confusion. There were indeed civilians, following a smaller group of [Martial Artists]. Some kind of…support? They were carrying packs, while the [Martial Artists], dressed in silk, strode forwards.
Not just dressed. Some were silk. Stitch-Folk. And their acolytes, the followers, were cotton and hemp. Orjin stared. Some were former-Cotton or even former-Hemp. He could see by the cloth-skin of their heads, which was hard to change. But these [Martial Artists] were clearly above the pack-carrying others.
Which was odd. The stronger one should have carried the packs. Orjin frowned. Were they conserving their strength? They’d never build muscle if that was how they lived. But he only waited, appraising.
“Odd forms. Look at how they walk. Unguarded.”
Salthorn murmured. The [Martial Artists] did indeed have a strut about them. They glided as they walked, which Orjin allowed looked good, but left them open if someone were to attack them.
Then he realized. Some of them weren’t touching the ground. Their feet was hovering over the arid ground and dust.
“An air-walking Skill?”
A murmur ran through the warriors of Pomle. One of interest. Orjin frowned.
“They’re showing off.”
He didn’t know why they’d do something like that. Orjin sat on a rock with Salthorn as the group approached. But he didn’t see anyone that looked like a great [Martial Artist].
“Orjin! Orjin! There’s trouble!”
Someone ran up towards the gathering. Orjin’s head turned. Salii, the Drake [Receptionist] appeared, waving her clipboard. She looked unusually worried.
“Salii, the guests are arriving for the sparring. Can this wait?”
“No! it’s about them! Remember how I said some foreign martial arts group was challenging Pomle? The Windcaller’s Wrath?”
Orjin nodded towards the group. Salii, nodded, desperately.
“Yes! But Orjin—I didn’t realize! They’re not just a group of [Martial Artists]! They’re a cult!”
The word made some of the [Martial Artists] look over. Orjin frowned.
The Drake pointed at the non-fighters.
“They follow their leader, the Fury of Skies. He’s a master [Martial Artist] who promises to make his disciples into the greatest warriors! Everyone else gives money to him and his way of life, leaves their homes—”
“How would giving money to him help them?”
“It’s a way of life! I mean, a cult! It doesn’t have to make sense, Orjin!”
Salii snapped. Orjin just looked at her blankly. Then he noticed something. Someone was walking towards the oasis. Through the air.
There was a murmur. Orjin looked up and saw the Fury of Skies. Walking. And he was no Garuda.
“That’s a powerful level of air-walking. I wonder if he can fly or if that’s his limit?”
Salthorn leaned on one of her training swords as she watched, raising her rotted brows slightly. Orjin just shrugged.
“He’s pretty slow.”
“Orjin! This is important!”
The [Receptionist] snapped. The [Martial Artist] looked at her.
“Why? He asked to fight Pomle’s warriors and their strongest. So he will. That is how we do it, Salii. There is nothing to worry about, even if he has a cult. I don’t have any money to give him.”
“Orjin, he’s a [Cult Master] as well as a [Martial Artist]. This—group follows him blindly, and he’s started chaos in several nations before. If he starts talking to the other experts—”
Salii cut off as the cult stopped at the oasis. The people carrying packs fell to their knees as their leader walked slowly over them. They shouted, as the [Martial Artists] behind them bowed.
“Fury of the Skies! Fury of the Skies!”
And he descended. He was, Orjin saw, a thin Human. His body was covered by silk robes, etched with magic sigils. For protection? He moved slowly, nodding at his disciples and studying Pomle’s warriors with urbane interest. But that wasn’t what made Orjin, Salthorn, and some of the masters stare.
“He’s out of shape.”
The Selphid stared at the Fury of Skies. Orjin corrected her.
“He doesn’t have much muscle.”
“I see baby fat. His body isn’t like yours, Orjin! Or like half of Pomle’s warriors!”
She meant muscular. And yes—Orjin saw some evidence of muscle on the man, but he lacked, well, the pure athleticism you got by training all day. He looked—off. But he was walking in the air.
Without introducing himself, the master of the Windcaller’s Wrath descended to the ground in front of the warriors of Pomle. He spoke in an authoritative voice.
“I am the Fury of Skies. I have come to challenge Pomle’s Strongest, and to show the world of my power. My martial art is powerful. I have mastered the ability to cut the air and sunder the earth!”
He struck a pose, and Orjin saw him inhale. Then he exhaled and shouted.
His fist punched—and Orjin saw the air move. A blast of air hit one of the few palm trees around the oasis, a hundred feet distant. The explosion knocked bark off the trunk, tore apart the leaves.
Orjin waited. The Fury of the Skies leapt. He soared into the air, higher than some of the flying Garuda. His disciples oohed, and stared as he landed. Light as a feather. Next, the Fury of Skies touched the earth with his shoe, just the tip at his toes. He pressed once, walked away.
The [Martial Artists] waited. After a second, the ground split where the Fury of Skies had touched the earth. A crack and burst of dust floated upwards, about six feet wide.
The people of Windcaller’s Wrath waited. Their [Martial Artists] looked smug. Pomle’s warriors stared. Orjin waited, and then turned to Salii.
“Should I punch a rock or something?”
The [Receptionist] stared at him.
“That wasn’t impressive? I haven’t seen you punch the air!”
“I don’t practice that. I could have dodged that. Half of Pomle’s warriors could have, even closer.”
Orjin shrugged. Salthorn was nodding. She leaned over as the Fury of the Skies waited, looking triumphant and cool. Triumphantly cool.
“I think he’s insane, Orjin. Why did he show you his Skills ahead of your spar?”
“Perhaps he’s that confident? Maybe those are just feints. That would be cunning.”
Some more of the masters walked over, eying the Windcaller’s Wrath. The other warriors went back to sparring. The smug atmosphere of the other group faltered a bit.
“Well? Will you not answer us?”
One of the silk [Martial Artists] leapt forwards, slamming a foot into the earth. There was a large impact—[Tremor Blow], Orjin guessed. He looked over.
“The others have not come yet. We may have to wait a few hours.”
The Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath stared, and the Fury of the Skies stared at Orjin. He went back to sitting on his rock. Salthorn greeted the other masters.
“Looks like a lot of challengers today. Will your disciples be fighting?”
“Perhaps. I just came to look at the Fury of the Skies.”
An old Garuda, the [Peerless Spearmaster], leaned on his staff. He eyed the Fury of the Skies, who was being attended to by his flock. Orjin waited.
The [Peerless Spearmaster] snorted.
“I’m going back to sleep. Wake me up when he leaves.”
The sparring began an hour later. That was how long it took for the others to arrive. The cult weren’t the only group coming to Pomle today, as Orjin patiently explained to one of the angry senior [Martial Artists], or Hurricane Fists as they were apparently known. Pomle got people who wanted to join the warriors, or just train.
And in this case, it was what they offered Pomle that was important. Not every [Martial Artist] in Pomle fended for themselves. Anyone who wandered in was expected to do whatever they needed to survive. That meant find shelter, food, and attend to medical emergencies on their own.
But what if you sucked at finding food? Or found it cut into your training time? Then, you could offer Pomle something.
A new Skill. A way of fighting. The ability to make swords or weapons to train with. Some of the warriors better suited for fighting would find you food in that case, in exchange for some training, or just because it benefited all. Of late, Salii had been pushing Orjin to expand this impromptu system, but for now you had to come here and demonstrate…something.
Usually that meant sparring with one of Pomle’s warriors, if what you offered was your abilities. The masters would decide and they’d tell you if Pomle would feed you or not. You could stay either way, but some aspiring warriors came in hopes of getting that treatment.
As was the case this time. A group of Humans had arrived, looking travel-worn and nervous. Some had decent muscles, though. Nothing like the Windcaller’s…something. Orjin had already forgotten the name.
“Sparring. Who will challenge the first of Windcaller’s…the visitors?”
Orjin called out. One of the better members of Windcaller’s Wrath was already standing in the sparring circle. A Silk-bodied Stitch-Man, one of the Hurricane Fists.
The warriors of Pomle looked at each other. A few lifted their arms or called out briefly.
“Send your best! My Hurricane’s Fists will challenge your masters and I, your Strongest!”
The Fist of the Winds or whatever he was called shouted. Orjin ignored him. Perhaps the Hurricane’s Fist was better than he looked. Either way—Orjin looked at the Dullahan who’d come with Salthorn.
She nodded and walked forwards. The Hurricane’s Fist began shouting as she walked towards the circle in the dirt that had been drawn.
“Beware, my opponent! My fist splits the air! I cannot guarantee your life if you enter this ring!”
He demonstrated with a punch, then a kick that did indeed cause ripples in the air and dust. Mendi paused as the cult oohed and the Humans stared. She looked at Orjin as the Hurricane’s Fist smirked.
“Do I have to show one of my Skills?”
“I don’t think so. He showed you of his own free will. Looks like a passive Skill, anyways. Go ahead.”
Orjin shrugged. Mendi nodded and walked into the ring. She had on a light, cloth armor, which made sparring more fair and gave her quickness of her feet. The Hurricane’s Fist sauntered into the ring, on the other side.
The masters waited next to Orjin. Some of them were murmuring, inspecting the Hurricane’s Fist.
“He split the air with a punch.”
“That was my question. He split the air with a punch? What does it do?”
“It looks good. But what’s the damage? It didn’t go very far.”
“Too arrogant. Let’s see how they do, though. How good is Mendi, Salthorn?”
“Slightly above average. No better than many.”
Salthorn was a tough master, but she might be right. Mendi was new to Pomle. Orjin nodded.
“I will count. From three. On one, you begin. You fight for a minute, stop for a minute, fight for a minute until one is finished or gives up. You will try not to kill each other, or leave the ring.”
“I can make no promises!”
Orjin ignored that too. He counted.
“Three, two, one—go!”
At once, the Hurricane’s Fist stepped forwards and punched the air. The air rippled, and the blast of wind shot at Mendi, like a physical thing. She instantly guarded, bracing hard. Orjin saw Salthorn nodding.
The blast of wind hit the Dullahan and the spectators. They coughed, and the Hurricane’s Fist punched again. Again, air blasted the Dullahan. She kept blocking, covering her eyes, shielding her nose and other extremities.
The Hurricane’s fist punched again, and then leapt into the air. He paused, standing in the air for a moment, and then dashed forwards. He dropped, foot dropping at Mendi’s head—
And she dodged left. The kick missed her, struck the earth hard. Without missing a beat, the Dullahan dove in and hit the Hurricane’s Fist in the side. He staggered back.
“Why didn’t he begin dodging?”
Mendi paused. The Hurricane’s Fist staggered back, and Orjin saw him wince. He punched again, without the wind this time.
“Mendi’s on guard. She’s feeling him out.”
The masters watched as the Hurricane’s Fist struck Mendi. She blocked, dodging some punches and kicks, and then backed up. Orjin saw her glance at Salthorn—until a punch made her put up her guard.
Salthorn had seen it too. The two [Martial Artists] watched as the Dullahan continued to block. She never took a direct punch, although the cult was cheering as the Hurricane’s Fist blasted her with wind and struck relentlessly. Twice, Mendi hit him, one in the side, then in the chest. The other [Martial Artist] stumbled, and then went back on the attack, snarling.
“She’s not pressing him.”
At the end of the minute, the Fury of the Skies stood up. He shouted at his disciple.
“My Hurricane’s Fist! Use a pressure point!”
Instantly, the young Stitch-Man went at Mendi, two fingers aiming for a point along her neck. She backed up. He advanced—and struck. Mendi deflected the finger. She stared at the way the other [Martial Artist] was aiming at her with both hands.
“Hard to hit a pressure point on a Dullahan.”
“What’s that? Like a blow to the groin?”
“Why isn’t she fighting?”
The other of Pomle’s masters were watching, mystified as Mendi backed away. She kept glancing towards them. Then a minute passed.
Orjin shouted. The two warriors went back, the Hurricane’s Fist to thunderous applause. Mendi walked over to the masters.
“Mendi, what’s wrong? Why didn’t you hit back?”
The Dullahan took her time in replying. Then she pointed at the Hurricane’s Fist.
“Master, is that a [Martial Artist]? He has too many openings. And his punches are weak.”
The masters looked at each other. Orjin frowned.
“What do you mean, Mendi?”
“The wind kept blowing in my face when he punched, so I thought it was a feint. But aside from his drop-kick Skill—he’s not hitting me hard. And he has terrible form, even if that is a Skill.”
Orjin had noticed that too. The pressure point poke looked weak. Salthorn glanced at him.
“What do you think, Strongest?”
Slowly, Orjin inspected the Fury of Skies. The other [Martial Artist] was staring at Orjin, challengingly. He looked supremely confident, but Orjin had a thought.
“I think…these might be show-masters. I’m sorry for calling you.”
He turned. And the other warriors of Pomle groaned. Two of them got up at once and walked off. Salii, who had been worried, looked around.
“What? What’s a show-master?”
Salthorn sighed as Mendi looked disappointed.
“It means they practice, but not for a fight. Those moves—splitting the air? Walking on it? Breaking the earth? It looks good and it might be…decent. But they don’t prepare for a fight. Mendi?”
“His guard isn’t there. I hit him three times, and he was all attack. He doesn’t seem to know I can ignore the dust and fight blind.”
The Selphid nodded unhappily.
“Show-master. The Fury of the Skies sounds like one. A [Cult Leader]? Orjin, you don’t think—?”
“They may be tricked. By his abilities.”
Orjin agreed unhappily. The Hurricane Fists had decent Skills, but he’d give a fight to a Silver-rank adventurer with experience any day. As for the Fury of the Skies—he just looked too weak to actually hurt Orjin, who was large and heavier than him by at least twice without a Skill.
Orjin’s enthusiasm for this moment drained out of his feet. He looked at Mendi—the time was running out.
The Dullahan looked at Orjin, warily. Was she expecting him to ask her to throw the fight? Salii was whispering at Orjin about something. The Strongest ignored her.
“Teach him a lesson about fighting. Go all out. But don’t kill him.”
The Dullahan grinned. Salthorn pushed her forwards and the Dullahan stepped forwards.
“Three, two, one—”
When the fight started, the Hurricane’s Fist punched and blew wind and dust at Mendi’s face. It was a good move—if you hadn’t seen it. Mendi just charged in. She took a blow across the head and chest as she did and Pomle’s warriors murmured. That was reckless! She had to close her eyes to go through the wind punch. But Mendi took both hits—
And then raised both arms, away from her face. The Hurricane’s Fist hit her across the chin and chest. And the Dullahan [Martial Artist] took both blows.
Salii looked aghast.
Salthorn agreed, but for different reasons. Orjin closed his eyes. If Mendi took both hits, it meant that was because she didn’t care. He opened them as the Dullahan baited a punch. Then she hit the Hurricane’s Fist in the head.
The smack was a thud that silenced the cult of the WIndcaller’s Wrath’s cheering for a second. The Hurricane’s Fist stumbled backwards. He tried a few punches, woozy, and Mendi let him hit her. Then she kicked at his leg.
It was a fast kick. The Hurricane’s Fist kept attacking as Mendi dodged backwards, kicking again. That happened five more times. She just blocked the punches and two kicks and hit him sharply. It didn’t look like it hurt the Hurricane’s Fist, but Orjin winced with every blow.
“I think she shattered his femur. Cracked it, at least.”
Then Mendi began hitting the Hurricane’s fist with heavy, body blows. He kept moving, striking with the wind, but she just covered her face. After a minute, Orjin called a stop. He noticed the Hurricane’s Fist moving backwards slowly towards his side. The cult and his fellow Hurricane’s Fists were calling encouragement and abuse—the Fury of the Skies looked…furious. He clearly wanted the match to have been over two rounds ago.
Mendi and the warriors of Pomle were just silent. Orjin stared at the Hurricane’s Fist as Mendi walked over. He spoke, briefly, as the other masters looked at each other.
“Don’t hit him in the head again. He doesn’t know how to take the blow. You’ll kill him.”
The Dullahan nodded. The way the Hurricane’s Fist hadn’t moved or seemed to know how to react when he was struck told Orjin he hadn’t sparred properly before. He was…all show.
“He’s coming back. He has spirit. Although I don’t think he understands how badly he’s outmatched.”
One of the other masters observed. The others nodded.
“Mendi, take him out.”
The others nodded. Mendi walked forwards and Orjin counted down.
This time, the Hurricane’s Fist punched hard. He couldn’t kick with his broken leg, but he was determined to keep Mendi away. The air rippled, and Mendi advanced with her guard up. The Hurricane’s Fist punched and she—
Got him in a headlock.
“Ooh! A clinch!”
The shout came from some of the Humans watching. Orjin looked around, intrigued. He didn’t know the term, but Mendi had the other Hurricane’s Fist in a close grip. He was punching at her, awkwardly, trying to get free.
“That is not martial arts!”
One of the Windcaller’s warriors cried out furiously. Orjin stared at him.
And indeed, Mendi knew how to grapple. It wasn’t an on-the-floor takedown; she didn’t seem to think she needed it. She just kept kneeing the Hurricane’s Fist in the chest. Each blow made Orjin wince. Then Mendi punched the [Martial Artist] in the ribs, paused, and let him go. He sagged over.
“His ribs are broken. I think—many of them.”
Indeed, the young Stitch-Man wasn’t moving. His fellow [Martial Artists] ran over. Mendi walked over to Orjin, shaking her head. She looked around at her fellow warriors.
“Not worth fighting.”
Then she walked over to her master and sat down. Some of Pomle’s warriors murmured. They’d picked up on what Orjin had learned in Round 2. Some got up to leave.
“Outrageous! You call that fighting? That was—grappling! Like a [Fighter] would use!”
Some of the Hurricane’s Fists were furious. Orjin just sighed.
“I think this match serves no purpose. Pomle has no interest in dueling your people, Windcaller’s Rest.”
Most of the warriors were indeed walking away. But the Fury of Skies leapt forwards. He ran through the air, and halted in front of Orjin. And when his eyes flashed, the wind blew at his back and his cult stared up at him in awe and trepidation.
“Do not think you will flee our duel, Strongest of Pomle! I challenge you! My disciples may err, but I do not. Accept, or be shown as weaker all your days!”
Orjin looked up at the Fury of the Skies. And he felt a bit sorry for the man. But mostly annoyed. He looked at the people all following this man and wondered how he would do on a battlefield.
“I do not wish to fight you. If you do not wish to be humiliated, walk away, Fist of the Skies.”
The Fury of the Skies’ eyes blazed. He pointed into the ring and punched up. Wind blasted around the oasis, and some of Pomle’s warriors looked back.
“I challenge you, Strongest! You and any other master! Come!”
He leapt into the ring, as light as a feather. Which probably meant he had all the weight of it in combat too. Orjin looked at Salthorn.
“Kill him. I could use a new body.”
The Selphid suggested. Then she paused.
“Although mine is better. Let him live.”
The fight, as it went down, was watched by the Humans who’d come to Pomle. Not the Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath, but a separate, smaller group.
“Iratze, who will win? You said that—armored girl was better.”
One of the young people whispered to their leader. The [Martial Artist]—and yes, he was one, if new to the class—grimaced.
“The big dude will. He outweighs the other one by twice. Maybe even three times!”
“But the Fury of the Winds has a Skill—”
“So? Skills aren’t everything. If this was a ring back home—he’s going to die. I could have taken down the Hurricane’s Fist, even without a Skill.”
One of the cultists heard him. A young woman with fervor in her eyes shouted in fury as the Fury of the Skies took a fighting pose. Orjin just rubbed at his head, looking annoyed.
“The Fury of the Skies won’t lose to anyone! It’s his [Windcutter Strikes]! He can slash his opponents from afar by moving the air like blades!”
The small group turned to him. They were, in fact, from Earth. They were following Iratze, who was indeed a [Martial Artist]—but from their home. The group was a gym’s younger members, two of them aspiring fighters, a girl visiting her father, and eight from outside, walking down the street—one who had been in a car.
There had been nearly twice that number, teleported. But these were the ones who’d stuck together. And survived.
“That could change things. But the Strongest has Skills too, right?”
The young man from Mexico eyed the Strongest of Pomle as he stretched. The Fury of the Winds was exhorting his cult and Iratze had a sense of how this was going to go down. But he saw the Dullahan who had fought earlier was walking over.
“The Strongest won’t use a Skill. He doesn’t need to.”
The cult looked outraged. Iratze just nodded.
The fight, as it happened, went like this. The Fury of the Skies launched a blistering series of punches and chops as Salii called down the count. The air rippled, and slashes of wind burst across the ring. They were sharp blades, so much so that the other warriors ducked out of the way, shielding themselves as they did.
Orjin covered his face. The blades of air lashed his skin, cutting, even drawing a bit of blood. But it was superficial. He held still as the Fury of Skies kept attacking.
“See! He can’t move! He bleeds!”
The [Cultist] shouted. But Iratze noticed how superficial the wounds were. Indeed, Orjin had let the first one hit him as a test. He’d been prepared to dodge, but after realizing they weren’t that sharp, he just waited for the real attack.
Since it never came, Orjin began to dodge the cuts of air. He moved fast, and the Fury of the Winds kept striking at him. The blades of air missed, and the warriors of Pomle blocked or dodged. But…
The blades of air weren’t that powerful. Salii deflected one from afar with her clipboard. They could cut, but with his guard up Orjin’s scarred, enhanced skin couldn’t really take much damage if he guarded his vitals. And he closed in.
Tremor punch. That was the good Skill Orjin had seen. He was waiting for it, but the Fury of the Winds actually got tired of attacking. Literally, tired. Because he dashed in and struck at Orjin. The [Martial Artist] slapped the arm down.
And the Skill missed. The Fury of the Skies ground his teeth; Orjin was sure he couldn’t use it for at least another minute. So he grabbed the Fury of the skies over the head, under the armpit.
The man wasn’t expecting that. Such an ignoble hold! He tried to hit Orjin, but the [Martial Artist] was bigger, had a better position, and the Fury of the Skies had no idea what to do. So he shouted as he aimed a finger at Orjin’s stomach.
“[Pressure Point Bl—]”
Orjin threw him. The Fury of the Skies hit the ground hard. He scrambled up—
And the cult went silent. He lunged at Orjin, finger poking—and Orjin hit him in the face.
“Ooh. He doesn’t know how to take a hit either!”
Iratze saw the Fury of the Skies’ head snap back. He hadn’t tried to cushion or dodge—he just reeled there as Orjin watched him. Then he tried for a punch.
Orjin clinched again. He hit the Fury of the Skies twice in the face, threw him before the pressure point could hit him. Then, as the Fury of the Skies tried to get up, Orjin got on his chest and locked down his arms with his legs. He began to punch the Fury of the Skies in the face.
“That’s a fucking mount. He can’t get out of it!”
The other Earthers who knew anything about fighting groaned. Some had to close their eyes. Orjin was a heavy fighter and the Fury of the Skies had the ability to walk through the air, cut the wind, and shake the earth. But with Orjin on him, he couldn’t move.
So Orjin punched the Fury of the Skies in the head until he stopped moving. It wasn’t a fight. It wasn’t martial arts as practiced by the Cult of the Windcaller’s Wrath, who had gone deathly silent. But it did work. If you wanted to beat an enemy, you could slash their face with wind from afar or hit them with a paralyzing pressure point blow.
Or you could kneel on them and break their jaw and teeth. Orjin stopped at the teeth and jaw. Then he got up, shook his head, and walked off.
“I think he’s dead.”
The Earthers stared at the Fury of the Skies. He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t dead, but neither was he getting up either. The cult—perhaps soon to be former cult—stared at their master. And not one of them challenged Pomle’s warriors. Not that Pomle’s warriors were interested.
“Iratze—maybe we’re in the wrong—”
The other Earthers were whispering as the last of the Pomle’s warriors lingered about the oasis, setting up their own sparring. Salii was conferring with Orjin, looking pleased, and he was looking bored as he wiped the blood from his arms and knuckles.
It was Mendi who looked at Iratze, noting his body.
“Are you with them?”
She nodded at the cult, which was retreating fast, bearing their master with them. Iratze shook his head.
“We—all of us—heard this place gives people food if they can teach something.”
“If they have something to offer. Do you? You look like a disciple, not a master.”
Mendi was a bit overconfident, or a bit tired of foreigners after today’s letdown. But she knew the rules. Iratze nodded.
“I…studied a different school than I think you know. Mixed Martial Arts. It’s called MMA. It’s similar to how you fight, but I think I can teach. A bit.”
He was a bit unnerved by how similar, actually, but he’d spotted weaknesses in even Orjin’s moves. Although he clearly hadn’t been trying hard. Mendi shrugged.
“If you think you can fight—I will let you spar me.”
She took her place in the ring as a few of Pomle’s warriors watched. Mendi was a bit too overconfident, but Iratze was not. He took a lower stance. She was going to try to let him hit her, he could tell. She didn’t even have her guard up. Which was a shame. For her.
He was better at grappling.
Orjin was annoyed, and ready to go off and practice by himself. He was just telling Salii that he’d order the [Martial Artists] training at Pomle’s borders to watch for reprisals from the cult—or rather, not to kill the Hurricane Fists who might try to get revenge. That was when he heard a roar from the ring.
He spun. The other warriors of Pomle were gathered around Mendi and one of the foreigners who’d remained. She was on the ground and he had her in a perfect arm bar, legs tangled around her arm. She was trying to get out of it, but Iratze could snap her arm.
Salthorn pushed forwards, jumping over the heads of the other warriors to find her apprentice on the ground. She turned and one of the others explained.
“He beat Mendi on the ground!”
One of them exclaimed. Orjin stared at Mendi. Overconfident or not, one of Salthorn’s disciples had lost while…?
Then he stared at the arm bar. Which was new. And practical. He stared at Iratze, as Mendi tapped out and rose, panting. She looked at him, and then she bowed. And Iratze was surrounded by Pomle’s own, demanding to know what that move was.
Because Pomle respected skill. Real skill. Not fake Skills. It was Orjin himself who approached Iratze.
“Where did you learn that, warrior?”
“From a long ways away. We hoped—not all of us can fight, but if some of us can at least get something to eat—”
The young man had an accent Orjin couldn’t place. The Strongest nodded.
“If you can teach us anything more like that, there is always a place for you.”
The other Humans sighed in relief. Some sagged, and Orjin saw they were well worn out.
“Thank god. We’ve been travelling for so long!”
“You must hail from far indeed.”
Orjin noted their paler skin, and the oddness of their clothes.
“You have no idea. We’re from so far away it’s insane.”
One of the other Earthers grinned weakly at the Strongest of Pomle.
“Really? Where, exactly?”
Salii pushed forwards, eyes lighting up. The young man hesitated.
“¡Oye, Raúl! ¡Cállate la puta boca!”
Iratze snapped. Raúl stiffened and Orjin heard a different tongue. Drathian? He stared, and that was how he met the strange visitors from afar. And he was grateful for this day. After all, even the Strongest of Pomle loved to learn.