He had grown up in Pomle all his life. Some of the [Martial Artists] were like that. Others had come from far away. But from his birth, from the time he could walk, into the prime of his life—which included your later thirties thanks to Skills—Orjin had been practicing martial arts.
The man knew he would not live forever, even if he never took another wound in sparring and never contracted a disease. He might live longer than most Humans if he stayed away from fighting, but [Martial Artists] did not reach immortality. At least, none that Pomle had ever known. Better to seek it through alchemy, magic…
He had never thought of that as a bad thing. Nor, obviously, did he consider perfection of martial prowess inferior to magic or any other force in the world. It was certainly harder to beat an opponent who had armor and a weapon. No one would deny that. But in Orjin’s world, any amount of power could be balanced by training, skill as well as Skills.
Yet—the Strongest of Pomle had a thought. How would he kill a Kraken?
By that, he meant the largest of the species. Fleet-killers. So vast that they devoured entire pods of whales. Orjin had heard stories of them. They could eat entire Grand Elephant herds if they were a land-based threat.
The Strongest of Pomle had, in a wilder, less contemplative youth, fought a Grand Elephant and beaten it. He had killed Crelers with his bare hands—not an Adult because he hadn’t found one—but he had challenged a nest of smaller ones. He had fought gigantic sand worms, chimeras, and of course, people.
But a Kraken? Orjin tried to imagine it one day. How would he even begin? Assume the Kraken just lay on the land. It didn’t attack him. It didn’t move. Could he even beat it to death? He’d have to go for the brain; he could punch one of its arms all day and not kill the thing.
In the same way—magic. How did you kill a foe that attacked from beyond the clouds? Orjin looked up. Let’s assume he could dodge the lightning bolts, magical pillars and fight off the army of spectral warriors. That his foe just waited for him up there.
How did he reach her? The Strongest of Pomle tried to picture the Deathless of Demons. The Death of Magic. And he calmly saw his death.
Just as Lacten of Pomle had shown him. The [Martial Artist] had been weaker than Orjin. But he had trained hard, in Pomle’s spirit. He had been strong. And he had died without killing a single foe. Fighting illusions.
Orjin finished his training with a single leap. He leapt from the top of the canyon, aiming up.
His punch and the shockwave blasted up. Orjin had concentrated, creating a projectile with his Skill. Across Pomle, [Martial Artists] looked up, sensing the attack. Orjin landed, breaking his fall on the ground, a distance that would have killed another man. It still hurt a bit; he’d gone for maximum height.
So how high had he reached? The Strongest of Pomle watched the invisible shockwave by the way it moved the air, particles of dust. A hundred feet, two hundred…it began to lose cohesion.
He could have made someone stagger at three hundred feet. That was his best, longest-range attack. Not even close to a cloud. And the counterattack…
The Strongest of Pomle walked off. The sky was higher than he’d supposed.
That was all.
“It reminded me of the Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath. And the Fury of Skies. I think that was who it was. Do you recall?”
The [Peerless Spearmaster] blinked. He yawned, and Orjin wondered if he’d been actually listening. The Garuda was a [Spearmaster]—perhaps the best in the world if you believed his class.
His name was Xil. And he was old. So old his bright feathers had lost some of their color. But he hadn’t lost much of his plumage. Orjin could mainly tell in the way Xil acted. He had fought in wars before Orjin had been born.
“Hm? Well, you don’t train to fight in the skies. What was that about the Windcalling idiots?”
“Windcaller’s Wrath. Remember the Fury of the Skies?”
“The one you beat down? Hm. Hm…yes? So what?”
“What is the difference between him and me in the end, Xil? I beat him. But he would do better against an aerial opponent. The Death of Magic. Perhaps I was wrong to make light of him; I cannot fly.”
“He was a fool, Strongest.”
Xil dismissed that with a flap of the wings. He turned over; he was resting in a little bit of shelter. Some leaves he’d attached to some sticks in order to make a safe haven from the heat. From there, he could watch his students training.
He had six right now. More than usual. Orjin doubted Xil knew their names. The [Spearmaster] took pupils like other people drank water and if he remembered their faces, it showed they had real talent.
“It concerns me, Xil. When Lacten returned, we beheld our weakness.”
The Garuda sat up and drank from a bit of water in a bowl. He sighed.
“He showed us nothing. There are strong people in this world. Some fly. Orjin, you did not train to fight enemies in the sky. Consider—if I challenged you now.”
He moved. Xil’s staff shot at Orjin’s forehead, a flash of wood hard enough to shatter bone and pulverize Orjin’s brain.
The Garuda missed. Orjin had leaned sideways, parrying the blow with a hand. It still stung. Xil smiled.
“—it would be hard. I might lose. But now imagine if I flew and refused to come down. I kept throwing rocks at you from afar. What would you do?”
“…Wait for you to tire? Or throw rocks at you. But if you flew that high…”
Orjin grimaced. Another flaw. Xil shrugged.
“But imagine I won, because you tired. Or gave up. Would Pomle accept my victory?”
That was a puzzle. Orjin had to shake his head.
“No. They would not.”
“Exactly. There are limits on how one can defeat the Strongest of Pomle. That would be seen as trickery by some. However, if I flew only to perform my deadliest attacks, to regroup—that would be fine, wouldn’t it?”
“…Yes. What is your point, Xil?”
“We are not equal, you and I.”
The [Spearmaster] tapped Orjin on the chest lightly with his staff. It was just a bit of wood, but he was deadly with it. He had no need for the enchanted spear he had used to set up his bivouac lean-to; a semi-permanent campsite these days. Xil gestured to his spear now.
“With my spear, I would have a better chance of beating you, Orjin. But Pomle would not accept that. With my wings, I could evade you forever. Also unfair. But I was born a Garuda. If I fought the Death of Magic, I would stand a better chance than you because I could fly.”
“I am not complaining that it is unfair, Xil. You have lighter bones. A different structure. I am asking how to make myself better.”
The Garuda sighed.
“My point, Orjin, is perhaps that you don’t. Not today. Or this year. You are pitting yourself against a flying foe. The strongest [Mage] in the world. Against gravity, which Humans have never defeated as a species since your people existed. Aim smaller. Master the ground first. Then the skies. It’s like my apprentices. If they don’t learn how to hold a spear, they don’t deserve to practice with it!”
He threw his staff like a javelin and one of the apprentices went flying. Xil sat down as the staff was brought back. Orjin sighed.
That was one perspective. Salthorn had another. The Selphid was teaching her pupil, Mendi, a [Grappler]. As another of Pomle’s masters—that number including Orjin—she had a different take.
“Xil has a point, Strongest. But if I had to fight the Death of Magic, I would buy a flying artifact. Train with that. Your weakness isn’t the lack of the ability to fly—focus on your fighting techniques. And dodging. If I touched the Death of Magic and broke her magic shields—I would never let go.”
And if Salthorn grabbed anyone, they were probably dead. The Selphid had locked Mendi down and the Dullahan was immobilized, even with the Dullahan’s unique ability to detach limbs, including their heads.
“This is how you subdue a Dullahan. Their arms and legs can come off. And heads. So. To immobilize them, you need to grab the head. Either it comes off and they’ve given you their head, or you apply pressure like this—”
Mendi groaned as Salthorn applied a hair’s more pressure. She was explaining to a new pupil, well, a new member of Pomle.
Iratze. He and a few of the strange Humans were watching. Iratze had a very respectful look on his face.
“That makes sense. But how would you stop a Selphid, Master Salthorn?”
The Selphid grinned. Submission holds were a lot harder with multiple species like Centaurs, Drakes, Dullahans, to name only a few. But she had mastered them all.
“I could lock down a Selphid from inside their body. You, as a Human, would need to break their body down. Tear muscles—here. Let me show you.”
She was teaching Iratze. And the young man with a mixed-martial arts background had shown Pomle’s [Martial Artists] what his world had come up with in their development.
Of course, he hadn’t told Orjin that. Iratze watched the Strongest of Pomle out of the corner of his eye. Everyone knew Orjin, the leader of Pomle. You could usually see the man training. He was impressive. But he seemed out of sorts, especially given he’d come to consult the Selphid.
Salthorn spoke and Mendi stopped the maneuver designed to take out a Selphid’s muscles and break down the body—the only real way to stop them. She turned to Orjin.
“Orjin. Strongest of Pomle, if you want to fight enemies like the Death of Magic, I can’t help you. Go to Wistram and punch every Archmage in sight. Magic is very different to the things [Warriors] understand. But as far as I’m concerned—flying is the only reason a [Mage] would survive an encounter with you.”
“Thank you, Salthorn. I will think on this.”
Orjin rose with a sigh. The question that had consumed him the last few days subsided. He was not content of course; he never was. But perspective mattered. He’d begin training with Garuda, try to develop combat techniques like fighting on palm leaves or something.
The Wrath of the Wind or whatever he’d been known had used a light-foot Skill like that. At the very least, Orjin could work more on balance and jumping.
The drive to improve would see Orjin level further. Push himself harder. That was the basis of Pomle’s strength. They trained, with a dedication matched by few peoples across the world.
A [Soldier] trained until they were fit enough to fight. [Mages] studied, [Knights] honed their skills, but few classes were as dedicated to perfecting their abilities as [Martial Artists]. And it showed when the classes collided, sometimes regardless of levels.
Pomle was a haven for this rare type of person, one of a few places where you could find this kind of community. Orjin, as the Strongest of Pomle, ‘ruled’ it. But his job was mainly to break up conflicts, protect Pomle now and then—that was most of what the Strongest of Pomle did. Pomle’s training warriors had been content with that.
Right up until today. Orjin paused in his training, which was constructing a little rockslide trap when a group of warriors approached. The rocks would roll over the edge of the cliff there—and he’d have to leap on the moving rocks and use the uneven footing to get himself up into the air. Practice for, say, fighting on loose terrain, or in the air during a heated fight.
“Strongest of Pomle. There is a problem!”
One of the [Martial Artists] spoke up. Orjin turned and saw a Centaur. He was one of a group of nearly fifty warriors from across the oasis. Orjin sighed.
“What is it?”
“We have come to ask you to deal with a problem.”
Of course. And if all of them had come representing more, then it was serious. Orjin wondered if this was something that would take words or violence. But he was Strongest so he nodded.
“What is it?”
The Centaur frowned. He was brash, talented, but brash. He had challenged Orjin once, trusting that his enhanced hooves would mean his kicks would beat the Human down. Orjin had broken his hoof by accident.
“Salii. Strongest, you must stop Salii.”
“What has she done this time?”
The Centaur pawed at the ground and looked towards the collection of homes near the oasis. The other warriors of Pomle muttered angrily. The Centaur pointed, furious.
“She is—she is making us money.”
The other notable leader of Pomle was Salii. The [Secretary], a Drake woman who had appeared in Pomle one day, found Orjin, and begun acting as his…secretary. No one had stopped her. But she was a curiosity.
She was also high-level. Orjin knew that; he had once seen Salii block a wind-slash with her clipboard. And she had a number of powerful Skills. Including the ability to copy any object of a secretarial nature once per day. That was how she made more paper, sometimes ink.
The Drake had a clipboard, as always. And it wasn’t hard to find her. Orjin walked towards the oasis, the only body of water in Pomle from which everyone drank. He normally didn’t come here because of the crowds.
Refugees from Tiqr, visitors—there was now a community set up at a decent pace from the oasis. There were houses, even agriculture. Orjin stared at a budding vineyard, some sheep with golden fur that crackled with static electricity—and the houses.
Houses. Pomle’s warriors sometimes made places to sleep that wouldn’t be hit by sandstorms or were comfy, but they didn’t make houses. But here was something new.
Pomle’s warriors had endured Salii. And the refugees displaced by the war. They had grumbled, but some had even helped feed the desperate people. Others just ignored the groups, only coming here to drink. But Salii had apparently done something that had infuriated Pomle’s warriors.
The Drake jumped as Orjin appeared. He’d been jumping from treetop to treetop, trying not to rustle the palms.
“Orjin. There you are. How have you been?”
They hadn’t seen each other in about three weeks. Orjin had assumed that meant nothing was happening; Salii usually bothered him for all kinds of things. He should have known the silence was suspicious.
“I am well. Salii, the warriors tell me you are doing something troublesome. Making money.”
He was not one for small-talk. Salii adjusted to her superior. She swished her tail in the dirt.
“Is that what they’re complaining about? Oh well, I’ll explain. Will you walk with me, Orjin? I have to pay for a shipment. A [Trader]’s waiting with healing potions. It’ll be good for you to show your face.”
“Yup. From Nerrhavia. Cheap, bulk—I ordered them with funds from Pomle’s treasury.”
“Yes…that’s what I’m calling the vault over there. I have a key. If you want money, I can give it to you. Need a healing potion?”
The Drake strode across the ground, but Orjin kept pace easily.
“Salii. What are you doing?”
The Drake gave him an innocent glance.
“Making Pomle better. Have you noticed our budding economy? Hold on, I’ll explain. Excuse me! Are you Trader Melkhit? This is the Strongest of Pomle. I’m Salii. I contacted you about our order—are those the potions?”
Orjin watched as Salii greeted a Stitch-Man [Trader] with a large shipment of healing potions in crates. Hundreds. Orjin blinked as he saw the crates opened for Salii to inspect them. But the [Trader] was paid; Salii handed him a bag of gold coins and the [Trader] counted them greedily.
It was a lot of gold coins. More than Orjin thought he’d ever seen. Probably more than all the warriors of Pomle had between them if you didn’t count artifacts. He waited until the [Trader] had talked with Salii and promised to bring more of the things she wanted. Then the Strongest folded his arms.
“It’s all paid for thanks to our treasury. Economy, Orjin.”
Pomle wasn’t just poor, it was destitute. It didn’t have an economy. The area was a tiny oasis and dry canyon. Part of the reason why the nations of Chandrar had left it alone was because it was economically unviable. Also because Pomle’s warriors were not worth fighting, but that was beside the point. Oh, the oasis was important, but what else did the area have?
Warriors. Dirt. Orjin’s narrowed eyes made Salii turn. The [Secretary] had a pleased look on her face.
“We have an economy now. I set it up these last few weeks. You didn’t notice the sheep? The cute Shockwoolies?”
Orjin glanced at the ‘cute’ sheep. The Shockwoolies could, in a herd, generate enough electricity to stop the heart of anything that attacked them. Their fur was wonderful for insulation though. They were cash-animals.
“Salii. Where did you—”
“—you get the money for those sheep? I have no money. Pomle has no money. Did you buy it yourself?”
“Pomle did. I just acted on the nation’s behalf, Orjin.”
He glared. He was running out of patience. Salii sighed.
“Okay, I charged all of the refugees that stayed a fee to buy land around the oasis or compensate the [Martial Artists] who had to move. That, as well as for services like the members of Pomle who went out and got food for everyone. I leveraged that coin with some [Merchants] who’ve been saved by [Martial Artists] before to help us buy some of the animals and crops and after I found the highest-leveled expert in each field, I gave them the produce and animals at a very reasonable loan. It’s paid off in dividends. Pomle now has a budget.”
Orjin rubbed at one ear. Even hearing about that process hurt his head.
“You…made money out of selling land?”
“Well, I moved money about. It’s not hard if you know what you’re doing. Put it in the right objects, and it grows, Orjin. I am a [Secretary]. It wasn’t hard for me. And I’ve negotiated to use the money to buy other things. Like the potions.”
“Negotiated. With [Traders]?”
“Yup. I’m better at it than most. So I make a profit selling and buying most of the time. But that’s my side project. The real income that paid for the potions—and the upgrades to the oasis that the others are so mad about—is over here. You really haven’t noticed?”
“I’ve been practicing jumping. What upgrades to the oasis?”
The [Secretary] led Orjin over to the water, partly clouded by dirt and debris, but perfectly sanitary; you had to watch a water supply like that. Or…it should have been.
Orjin had taken enough water to last him for weeks; he had a Skill that reduced the amount he needed to intake, a valuable Skill most of Pomle’s residents got. He saw now that someone had altered the oasis.
Drastically. There were now rocks around the outside of the oasis, preventing erosion. Someone had installed a few long-handled dippers and even a kind of pier to let people draw larger buckets of water from. And there were signs, instructing people not to take more than a certain amount of water per day.
But that wasn’t what made Orjin frown at Salii. It was the fountain.
It sat in the middle of the oasis, dribbling water into the existing water there. It was…well, a fountain. Stone, basins shaped to let the water flow down. And mounted in the center, dribbling the water was a large, gently glowing aquamarine jewel. Not perfectly spherical, but close. Water was condensing, running down around the sides.
“Salii. What is that?”
The Strongest of Pomle looked at the [Secretary]. He looked at the magical stone. He shook his head.
“Tell me what that is. And what you’ve done, Salii. Now. Or…”
“Or I will throw you into that oasis.”
The Drake considered the threat. She nodded at last.
“Alright. It began when I was measuring the decrease in the oasis’ water levels, Orjin. I noticed it was going down day after day and started marking the sides. Do you know what I found?”
She pointed at the oasis. Orjin thought the water level was higher than it had been in a long time, but he conceded that it had been quite low a while back.
“We were running out of water?”
“We were running out of—you knew?”
The Strongest shrugged.
“It’s happened before. I was considering what would happen when it ran out. People would die. Many of Pomle’s warriors would have to leave for a time.”
The Drake nodded seriously.
“If the water runs out, Orjin, Pomle dies. Only the best [Martial Artists] would be able to survive without access to water. And with all these new people, we would have run out of water in…67 days. Here are my calculations.”
She offered a clipboard to Orjin with some notes. The Strongest pushed it away.
“It has happened before. It would have been inevitable with the people who were staying here. So what did you do?”
“I stopped it. I’m not going to let you say that it’s fine and a challenge for Pomle’s people to overcome, Orjin. There are children, people who can’t survive. We needed water. So I made arrangements. Setting up an economy—organizing everything—it was all to that end.”
The Strongest of Pomle didn’t think he liked that.
“Pomle exists fine as it is. You didn’t ask me about this, Salii.”
The [Secretary]’s offended look made Orjin hesitate. Salii slapped her clipboard with an exasperated claw.
“Orjin, you’ve told me every day since I came here that you don’t care about managing Pomle. ‘I’m Orjin. [Martial Artists] come and go. They train or die. It is the way Pomle is.’ Why do you care now?”
“You did something that’s disturbed the warriors. Is that it? They said it was the money…”
Orjin didn’t see how the sheep or houses would bother all the warriors. Some, of course, but not enough to gather that many representatives. Salii shook her head.
“I’m getting to that. Back to me doing this. I had to, or the oasis would run out of water. Do you agree that me doing something was better than nothing?”
The Strongest eyed the jewel producing water. He had to admit—a full oasis was nice. And the water was clear. Salii smiled, seeing his look.
“We might even have enough to wash with now and then. I’ve put on a limit to how much water everyone gets to prevent overuse, but—”
“It is good. But how did you do it? You can’t create water like gold, Salii.”
The Drake snorted.
“Spoken like someone who’s never participated in a market economy. Obviously, if you want an oasis to be more productive, you make it more productive. You see that stone?”
The stone kept dripping water. How was it doing that? Salii nodded.
“Condensation stones. Khelt uses these. They leech water out of the air. Good in humid climates to keep an area drier. Here? It’s gathering all the water in the area and redirecting it here.”
“Are they expensive?”
“Oh yes. You could bankrupt a lot of people buying one.”
“How did you buy one? How much did it cost?”
The [Secretary] gave Orjin a flat look.
“Orjin, do you want to know about my job? Are you interested in managing Pomle?”
“Then don’t ask how much it cost. That’s my job.”
Salii waited to be thrown into the lake, but Orjin didn’t react to the challenging comment. That was what she liked about this boss. She could speak her mind.
“Anyways, I didn’t pay for this stone, in point of fact. It was a gift. Well, again, I’m being inaccurate. It was more like a lost wager and a gift. Fetohep of Khelt bet and lost, and when he heard about the oasis issue…”
Orjin picked Salii up. The [Secretary] flailed.
“Stop, stop! Aright, I’ll show you! Don’t you dare throw me! All my good paper is attached to this clipboard!”
He put her down. Then Salii pointed with a sigh.
“Over there. One of Tiqr’s people was an [Earth Mage]. That’s like a [Geomancer]—different names, sometimes different levels of talent. I can’t believe you didn’t hear about it. One of the matches should begin soon. I think Iratze might be watching. He helped me come up with it.”
When you had a place like Pomle, what was your economy, really? Well, a bunch of [Martial Artists]. Salii, much less Orjin, would have trouble ordering them about.
But there was a way to make money off them. Lots of money. The kind of money that bought the healing potions now being dragged into the underground chamber. And in the middle of the chamber, outlined in an area of smoothed stone covered by a tarp…was a ring.
Orjin stared at the ropes. They were set up—it wasn’t a cage since buying fencing wasn’t high on Salii’s list of priorities. But neither was this a boxing ring; it was a larger space, contained, and empty—
A fighting arena. Like the gladiatorial pit, the Antinium’s exhibition area, fencing grounds, the ring of bodies like where the King of Destruction and King of Duels had fought—a timeless spot.
The Strongest of Pomle saw a Stitchwoman in the contained area. She was waiting, stretching, as one of Xil’s apprentices who had ‘graduated’ or perhaps gotten sick of the instruction, waited on the other side.
He was a Garuda, like his master; and he was carrying a staff. It was as long as a spear, only lacking the cutting edge. Now, the [Spear Warrior] faced off against the [Martial Artist] who went barehanded.
And right there was a departure from anything that would have been allowed in Iratze’s world. Also—there was a heavy weight advantage.
On the Stitchwoman’s side. She was of the Hemp caste, and tough. The Garuda had light bones and a slimmer body. But he had the staff.
Raul was announcing. The young man was reading out the two’s levels—well, the Stitchwoman’s, as the Garuda had declined to give it, classes, and odds of the match.
“On one hand we have a [Spear Warrior], Ureca, versus a Level 23 [Martial Artist], Octilla Hemp. The odds are set at…let’s see…2.3 to 1 on Ureca’s victory as he will be using a spear. Bets end in the next minute when the match begins and open up with each round—”
He was speaking into a scrying mirror. And another was trained on the match. Orjin’s eyes narrowed. He knew those devices.
Salii was investigating a second ring, this one clearly in the process of being built. The conceit in this one was a series of obstacles—including a central pillar that combatants would be able to use. As the two fighters began to move forwards and Raul began the countdown for the betting to end on the sides of the invisible watchers—she explained fully.
“I considered Wistram. But honestly, I don’t like negotiating with the academy. They like controlling everything. So I went to Nerrhavia and Khelt. Wistram isn’t the only group that can set up a scrying network if they work at it. There’s a lot to work on; betting’s simple and this is a private system. You have to be invited to watch. We have about three hundred different viewers so far.”
She said that like it was a small number. Orjin watched the two step forwards, then instantly move back. The fight began, but he was more interested in the entire conceit here.
“Three hundred? And who watches?”
“Anyone who likes betting, sparring matches—there were a lot of people who liked seeing the games at Daquin, Orjin. I saw the opportunity after talking with the newcomers. Iratze and the others? They have…interesting ideas. The point is that it’s already made money. We take a fraction of all bets. It goes to the fighters; both of them will earn money just for participating. The winner earns a lot more, obviously.”
“Well, it depends, but the pot for this fight on the fighter’s side is…fifty nine gold coins and sixteen silver. Two copper. Loser gets six gold coins. But both sides get healed afterwards. Hence the healing potions.”
That was a lot of money. Orjin did not understand. Salii looked up.
“It’s small compared to what’s being bet, Orjin. Fetohep of Khelt—he’s one of the spectators, likes to bet—usually bets thousands of gold pieces. And that condensation stone? That’s how we afforded it. Well, he likes this idea.”
“Betting. So they want to watch the others fight and see who wins?”
“Yup. It’s exciting. Don’t you think it makes sense, Orjin? For instance, Uerca has a 2.3 advantage to win this fight, so bets on him are worth less…there’s a better system, but it’s what we came up with. And the chance of it all makes things fun!”
The Strongest of Pomle shrugged. He glanced at the whirl of the Garuda’s staff-spear as he attacked Octilla’s legs, trying to slow her down so he could lead her on a slow retreat across the cage, attacking with his superior reach.
“I don’t understand it. Two point three odds on Ureca? He’ll probably lose. Octilla is going to break his staff.”
The Strongest’s voice was a bit too loud. Raul winced as the scrying orb lit up. And Ureca hesitated—Octilla leapt in.
Crack. Orjin nodded as the Garuda went stumbling backwards and Octilla swarmed him with punches. Salii covered her face with her clipboard.
“Orjin. That’s called interfering with the fight. And yes—it’s imbalanced sometimes. The viewers who know fighting have made a lot of money over the ones who don’t. It’s—why don’t we leave before we interrupt the next match?”
It explained why the warriors of Pomle were annoyed. Betting on matches? Fighting for money? It went against what [Martial Artists] were here for. They confronted Orjin as he left the underground arena and Salii hurried off to ‘refund the betters due to interference’ or something.
“You see, Strongest? What she’s doing?”
“I see, Irre. But I do not see your objection.”
Orjin had thought about it on the way back up. The Centaur looked aghast.
“But Strongest! Fighting for money? Making this a sport? How is that acceptable? Pomle’s spirit is to train, not to be…exhibitionists.”
The other warriors murmured agreement. But they listened as Orjin spoke. The Strongest of Pomle indicated the arena. It was a sloping tunnel leading down, barely more than a hole in the ground at this point. Given how sandstorms sometimes hit the oasis, it made more sense than a structure. But Salii had said the building would come in time…
“When you called for me, Irre, you did not talk about the arena. You said that Salii was making Pomle money. Do you object to that? Answer me before I speak of the arena.”
The warrior hesitated.
“I do, Strongest. Money is not something that Pomle needs. Salii is making it using—tricks. She charges the newcomers money for land that anyone can take. She gives it to [Merchants], somehow makes it grow with numbers. How is that right?”
Orjin shook his head.
“She is good at her job. Salii uses numbers like we use our bodies, Irre. If she makes money, does it hurt you?”
“She has changed the oasis.”
“I saw. More water for all. Without it, the oasis would run out. Is this wrong?”
“More water means less effort for some, Strongest.”
Another [Martial Artist] spoke up. Orjin nodded.
“This is true. But it does not affect you. Drink less water.”
A ripple of humor through the crowd. A few nodded and walked off. But the rest waited. Irre pointed at the arena.
“What about fighting for coin?”
“[Mercenaries] do it. They are welcome in Pomle. Isn’t that right, Xil?”
The Garuda [Spearmaster] had alighted on a palm, overhead. He grinned.
“True. What is gold to us? Gold is gold. It matters if it affects you.”
More nods. And the others were listening, thinking on this issue which affected Pomle. After all—it was more than training just the body. Orjin summarized his thoughts for all to hear.
“Salii’s arena does not affect me. I did not know of it until today. Her alterations to Pomle do not affect me. If she puts on these show-fights here—what does it matter? Does it affect Pomle or your training except in your mind?”
A rumble of thought went through Pomle. It was a [Blademaster] from Drath, an exile, who spoke up.
“It makes Pomle easier to live in, Strongest. It draws attention. Visitors will come. People thinking to train who have not the will or spirit for it. Who look down on what martial arts is, like the Sect of the Breeze Fists or whatever they were named. The Windy Fists.”
This time the looks were sour. Pomle did not need more of that sort. Orjin agreed. But he still thought the argument was invalid. He pointed at the arena.
“The newcomers, the Humans with the new techniques say that they participate in this sport. Yet, they do it to make money, to live as well as challenge themselves and each other! To improve! Are they worthless? If it is easy—if what these others do is not martial arts—prove it. Defeat them all in that ring for the world to see. Defeat me. And make Pomle what it should be.”
“Will you participate in those matches, Orjin? I might. For coin as well as the sport of it!”
Xil’s eyes glittered. Orjin shrugged.
“If the mood takes me, or there is something to be gained, perhaps. If I need money, yes. Think of it like this. Does anyone object further? If so, speak. I have my training to return to.”
Pomle’s warriors looked at each other. One last issue came up. And it came from the [Blademaster].
“All of what you say is wise, Strongest. This does not affect us except in the mind and the mind is something to be honed. What does affect us is space. With so many around the oasis, we must go further and further. What if Salii makes all of Pomle verdant? Soft? Some of us came for the harshness. Already—we are tempted by drinks, amenities she has brought. We can ignore them, but we would like privacy.”
Salthorn nodded. Even she and Mendi had come to observe. Orjin agreed. He thought for twenty two seconds, in the baking sun, as the others waited. Then he nodded. He had come to a decision. He did not second-guess himself, or waste time. It was why Salii said she liked him.
“I say—those who wish to train in harshness shall. Salii!”
She hurried out of the arena. Orjin turned to her. With all to hear, he spoke.
“One complaint has been made that I agree with. As Strongest of Pomle, I allow the spectated-fights on one condition. Because you have made this, you must make something else. Make a place for those who wish to train in isolation. In harshness.”
The warriors nodded. They looked at Salii. The [Secretary] blinked.
Make a harsh place? Give those who wanted privacy that? It was a harsh imposition. Orjin waited for her to complain, or argue. He saw the Drake check her notes. Then she nodded.
“Very well. Is that all?”
The people of Pomle looked at the [Secretary]. She gave them a toothy grin.
For the first time since its inception, Pomle expanded.
It wasn’t just her having the ability to move numbers around. Orjin saw Salii writing a note on a glowing piece of paper which vanished.
“What is that?”
“[Memo]. It’s like a free [Message] Skill, Orjin. And before you ask—it does have limits on range, but I’m high-enough level to use it. Oh, and to get my messages priority-delivered to anyone I want. Even monarchs.”
“I see. And what is this?”
They stood outside of Pomle. Salii finished walking him around the area of lowland hills, some arid land, a single, much smaller oasis. They had been travelling for hours—Orjin had walked or run. Salii was riding a pony. Salii had been writing notes nonstop.
“This is Pomle, now. As we head back I’ll show you the northern section.”
Orjin turned his head. Pomle’s canyon was far, far in the distance.
“This isn’t Pomle. This is part of Tiqr.”
“I know. Now it’s Pomle. I just bought it.”
The Strongest stopped.
“Say that again.”
Salii winked at him. The Drake’s tail swished back and forth, making the pony restless. It picked up the pace and Orjin followed it.
“I bought part of Tiqr.”
“I bought…part…of Tiqr. You know, the nation bordering us to the west?”
The [Secretary] grabbed a [Memo] and replied to it with her quill as she spoke.
“Easy. Tiqr was defeated and the lands seized, remember? It’s ‘conquered’, but the other nations have to garrison it to keep their control. And Tiqr’s army is still attacking from the Kilalle Steppes. So I made an offer to the nearest area of control—that’s Lamullt, who got a piece of the border, and bought it from their king. He gave it to me cheap. Relatively speaking.”
“Was it exp—”
Orjin saw her smile and stopped himself from asking. He jogged on, after the pony. Salii gestured around the border she’d travelled. An invisible border, for now. A line on a map. She would make it a reality.
“We’ll expand the canyons. I can hire [Geomancers] to alter the ground, which will create natural defenses. This new area will be a perfect place for anyone who wants to train in real isolation. Also, they can train in the caves. There’s at least one underground area. Probably with monsters. They’ll love it.”
The [Martial Artists] didn’t love it. They were…concerned. When they heard Salii had not only created money out of virtually nothing, created water, and now expanded Pomle, they were restless.
“She is bringing Pomle change.”
Orjin nodded to one of Pomle’s masters as they sat around, eating some bread, dates, and water. He spoke slowly, looking at the half-Giant, his hair uncombed, his body tough.
“Is that a bad thing? We are [Martial Artists]. If we cannot change—what do we train for? If you learned tomorrow that there was a way to punch stronger, faster, and all it required was a change in your form, would you not take it?”
“I would. But it is one thing for me to change how I act—another to walk over there and say ‘this is our land’.”
“True. But it was done according to their rules. Salii gave the [King] money. And he had taken it from Tiqr. Like the new techniques that the Humans have brought. I do not think it is wrong.”
“You say it Strongest, but some will challenge you.”
The half-Giant sighed. Orjin nodded. That was inevitable. However—he wasn’t going to stop Salii.
“We remember the past because of what it created. This. But the future we should always look towards because of what it could improve. We strive to be the best. Whatever that is—we should embrace. And watch, to make sure it is for the best.”
The other masters sharing a meal nodded. That was the attitude Pomle needed. They could not languish in the past. That was foolishness. And perhaps…
It was the Drathian [Blademaster] who spoke up, thoughtfully. They had been so resistant to Salii at first, but after this—her opinion had changed.
“If Salii can bring more [Mages] to Pomle, Orjin, I wish to ask her to bring a [Battlemage]. Few of Pomle’s [Martial Artists] can cast magic. Some weave spell with fist. But I wish to challenge true magic.”
Now that was thinking with secretaries. The others stirred at the idea. Orjin smiled.
“So do I. Would you all wish Salii to find you a [Mage] that you might challenge yourself against them?”
They nodded. The Strongest of Pomle took a date and chewed on it. He liked dates. Eating sparsely was good sometimes, but nutrition also mattered. He nodded to the others.
“Good. Then let her work.”
The last conversation Salii had with Orjin was in her tent. And it was her tent. Orjin knocked on the flap and studied the interior.
Salii had brought a tent, and supplies to Pomle when she had come here. She had brought lots of paper, ink, enchanted quills…even wax. Certainly, water bottles, and rations. She still hadn’t been fully prepared, but it occurred to Orjin that she had been prepared.
“Why did you come here, Salii?”
The [Secretary] smiled as if she’d been waiting for the question. She put down the quill and sat back on the cushion as she replied.
“If you must know, Orjin, I come from Zeres. I wasn’t ever one of their commanders, but I served under the best. I organized everything, from shipping manifests to goods coming in or out…I was the best [Secretary] in Zeres. Perhaps, the best in Izril. It wasn’t enough.”
Now it made sense. The Strongest of Pomle was silent as he digested this. The best in all of Izril? It wasn’t a light statement.
“So you came here. That is why you were able to do all of this so easily.”
“Not easily. But yes.”
Her smile widened. Orjin nodded.
The Drake met his eyes. And when she grinned, it was with all of her teeth. Salii’s response made Orjin sit up.
“I want to be the best in the world. So I came here. I’m leveling. I want to become the highest-leveled [Secretary] in the history of this world. I came here because there is no worse place for me that I could imagine, besides organizing Creler eggs.”
Her raw ambition and drive…Orjin looked at the Drake with respect. He understood.
“You do belong here.”
Of course she did. The Drake inclined her head. The [Secretary] waited, but Orjin was done. He rose; that was all he had wanted to know. He walked towards her tent flap, opening it and letting cool night air in. Then Orjin had one thought.
“Salii. What is your level?”
“Higher than yours.”
The Drake winked at him. Orjin blinked at her, and then he grinned.
Of the many things Salii had ordered, bought, or traded in for favors like the condensation stones for the oasis, one of the things she did not buy was a weights set.
Not one. Not a single barbell, bench pressing kit, or any of the other objects that was on offer. And of course, she’d heard about them.
She just didn’t have time to waste on some Pallassian invention. Oh yes, she kept up with Walled City news. Of course she knew about Grimalkin of Pallass. She just didn’t know if his muscle-building mantra squared with Pomle’s ‘let’s actually win a fight’ mindset.
And that was unkind and probably stemmed from some inter-city rivalry. But…it was not a unique problem. In fact, aside from Grimalkin’s gifts, only a few people had ordered weights from Pallass’ [Smiths]. Erin Solstice had her weight room, but that was a gift.
Did that depress Grimalkin, the [Sinew Magus] of Pallass? Of course not! He knew the value of his work! Was he upset?
Yes! Absolutely! Manus, Fissival—okay, Fissival wasn’t a surprise—Oteslia, and Zeres had all declined to invest in his project.
Even Manus! They were ‘incorporating’ his work into their soldier units. Experimenting.
Slowly. That was the way military bodies worked. They tested, and for wholesale change like this—it was going to be slow.
Even so, it grated on Grimalkin’s nerves. He knew that the weights were superior.
“Look at these muscle gains!”
He had Ferkr and some of his apprentices posing for the scrying orb as Drassi covered his new project one day. Some of the Drakes and Gnolls were blushing as they flexed.
It wasn’t the widest of coverage and there were people who signed off as soon as they saw a sweaty bicep. And some who signed on just for that bit. Grimalkin knew that. But he gave it his one thousand percent to tell people about his product.
“Superior, safe working environments! Quantitative gains! If you have the gonads, buy a set!”
He roared into the scrying orb. This was Grimalkin at his best. Inspiring people. Drassi was covering her earholes.
“Sinew Magus! A little quieter? Okay, I think—I think we’re good! Back to you, Noass!”
“Thank you, Drassi.”
The [Commentator] growled. He was back. So was Sir Relz—not because Drassi had lost popularity, but because Wistram News Network needed more people. The academy wanted 24/7, live coverage at all times and Drassi just couldn’t do it herself.
She was, however, the Drake on the spot to interview Grimalkin. As they switched back to Noass’ coverage, Grimalkin sighed.
“I think some people will really like it, Grimalkin.”
Drassi smiled encouragingly at him. The Fist Mage of Pallass nodded.
“One can hope. However, the numbers tell another story. Thank you, Miss Drassi. Apprentices! Pack up! We’re done for today.”
The Drake strode away, without waiting for a response. He knew the advertisement might have some effect, but it took more time for widespread change. He knew that.
He was not depressed. He was going to have a mood-stabilizing cup of tea and get to work. He had other, even more important things to do, after all.
His notes on Project Earth were expanding, and it had a title. Oh yes. He had of course reported everything to Chaldion. Grimalkin was efficient.
“A time so advanced that only stories about Dragons remain. Complete devastation of every species. Note—look into advanced geological spells. Potential for moon-destroying Tier 9 spells? Tier 10? What wipes out magic? Or…”
The Drake was taking verbal notes with a spell when the [Message] came for him. It came via Street Runner, as usual. The Drake signed for it, tipped a silver coin—and read it while absently thinking aloud.
“Second—multiple worlds theory? Just as unlikely; how would that work? Separate dimensions? No—wait—”
He cracked open the letter and read. Grimalkin frowned.
It was just a string of numbers. But the missive was addressed to him. Each number had a line; there were about twenty entries. The first was underlined.
“247. And below it…200? 154…what is this?”
That wasn’t how it read, of course. It read like this:
It was some kind of list. Grimalkin stared at it, turned the message over, scanned it for any other signs of anything, and then balled it up and went back to his notes. The problem with Troy and Leon was that their explanations had holes in them and they couldn’t present a cohesive narrative to save their lives.
He got back to work and forgot all about the lists. The next day—they came again.
By the end of the week, Grimalkin had received the lists three times. They didn’t come every day. It was some kind of code. But he was so busy conferring with Chaldion, getting answers from the two young men and fulfilling his side of the bargain that he didn’t inquire about the lists until the third time.
There was…an upward trend. And more entries at usually a lower number. Grimalkin spotted a ‘300’ there, and then—
411. Underlined multiple times.
But what did it mean? Grimalkin pointed at the Street Runner, who backed up.
“You there. Who is sending me this nonsense? Inquire at the Mage’s Guild and report back! Move!”
The frightened Dullahan girl fled. She came back timidly with an answer that made it all make sense.
“It—it comes from House Ulta, Magus.”
Ulta? Grimalkin looked at the lists and suddenly the numbers were obvious.
They were weights. Maximum bench-press numbers. Grimalkin snatched the notes and tossed the girl a gold coin.
“Four hundred and eleven? The one at the top must be Lady Pryde? Or…”
She’d been one of the few to actually order his weight sets. Grimalkin investigated. Two hundred and forty seven pounds was a high number for a [Lady]; Humans had less muscle mass than Gnolls for instance, and the female gender…four hundred and eleven? That had to be the product of a Skill!
This was good data. By the looks of it, Pryde had put nearly sixty people on the list by the end of the week, mostly in good shape. There was a line separating the higher numbers from some very low ones. 140, 100, 76…new recruits? It had to be.
Grimalkin smiled. But why was she sending these lists to him? He pondered it, and then, almost instinctually—took the list with him to consult a…friend.
It wasn’t Erin Solstice. Grimalkin watched as Lasica read over the list. The [Chef] was pregnant and now the entire floor had heard the news. Rufelt practically advertised it, and the long-time acquaintance of the [Sinew Magus] was practically waited on by her husband. Anyone bringing alcohol near her got smacked.
Lasica seemed to be putting up with the overprotectiveness well, or at least, she tolerated it. Now, she handed Grimalkin the lists back after hearing his explanations.
“Sinew Magus, she’s showing off.”
Grimalkin blinked at the lists. Lasica smiled.
“She’s demonstrating how fast her group is improving. Probably with exercise, potions, supplements—I bet she wants you to send your apprentice’s numbers over.”
“Does she? Well, it would hardly be fair. With my training, those numbers would be…well, at the start when the growth is most significant…”
The muscular Drake investigated the lists, muttering about data trends. Lasica rolled her eyes.
“You know, this is the only person who seems interested in your weights.”
The [Sinew Magus] leaned on his table, heavily. The [Chef], who had still to really show her pregnancy, knocked away Rufelt.
“Rufelt, I can still serve food. Stop doing my job and get back to the bar! Grimalkin, you should think of it as a compliment. Now—are you going to eat the mountain of food you ordered?”
Proud. Grimalkin looked at the lists. And part of the fatigue he felt over the lack of interest…faded. Yes. In those numbers he could almost see the gains, the effort Pryde was making with whomever she was training. He picked up the one relic of his achievements.
“I am proud. Hmm.”
The first list appeared on Erin’s gym wall a little bit later. It had the beginnings of a statistical model attached, and, after Grimalkin had requested it, data on the lifter to correlate with their max rep.
Human, female – 247 lbs. Date…
Human, male – 220 lbs. Date…
“Who’s putting stuff on my walls?”
Erin groused, but the little list had attracted the interest of some of the weight-room group. It was a small number, and since Relc was gone, she didn’t know a lot of them. But after Erin had wandered back in with Lyonette to see about some air-freshening charms—or just more windows—she noticed something else.
There was a second list, with max-reps by the patrons of her gym.
Gnoll, female. 272 lbs. Date…
“Whoa. Dat’s a lotta muscles.”
Raekea smirked as the others crowded around the list. The [Blacksmith] had claimed one of the higher numbers. Which of course, made others decide to place themselves.
When Grimalkin came back the next day, he found the second list, to his surprise. And another list as well, waiting for him via [Message] spell. It had a note.
“Sinew Magus. As per your copied data of Human lifting numbers, Manus has benchmarked our group’s capabilities.”
The Drake [Mage] stared at the reply and the list. And then another Street Runner came by.
“List from Oteslia, Magus Grimalkin! And Zeres, Fissival, Salazsar…”
They had all decided to make their own lists. And…Grimalkin couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the numbers at the top just so happened to beat Lady Pryde’s numbers. Of course, she’d only been doing it with probably a sample group.
But Grimalkin of Pallass was no fool. So he copied over the numbers to Pryde and created a master-list. He also attached one to Erin’s weight-room.
The next day, Lady Pryde sent a list with a number at the top.
Human, male. 500.
The [Lady of Pride] did not cede anything to Drakes. Of course, Grimalkin posted that. And he immediately got a demand for the next logical step.
So that was how Salii found herself watching a bunch of sweaty Humans cheering an exceptionally ripped Human with [Enhanced Strength] and two other strength Skills lifting five hundred pounds on the scrying orb.
“We can do better.”
Lady Pryde was dressed in work-out clothes. She looked around, imperious.
“This was just a sample. We’re going far beyond five hundred pounds. I say—it’s possible to break one thousand, without magic. With the right Skills, diet, exercise—we’re making it happen! Not Minotaurs, not half-Giants—a Human-only record!”
The crowd around her cheered. Salii stared at the sweaty bodies, the rippling muscles, and turned.
“Do you want these things?”
Orjin and the martial artists of Pomle looked at each other. They eyed the Humans, as the broadcast cut to Manus, who had a bunch of angry Drakes ready to get ripped. Orjin nodded.
Salii shook her head. Magus Grimalkin smiled as he watched Lady Pryde challenging him. The orders began to pick up. Of course, the important thing was the academic and material value, not the popularity of his work.
It just made him a bit happy.
Author’s Note: I had another perspective planned rather than Grimalkin, so this interlude was titled ‘Unfair Advantages’ originally. Well, it would still sort of fit, but I didn’t include Minotaurs or other races.
Day Three! Tomorrow, I’ll be shouting about The Last Tide, which is coming out tomorrow! But we have four more chapters before my long break! I hope you’re enjoying this! And of course, the shorter narratives means I get to dance around more. Do fun little stories.
Is this better? I still like the longer chapters because having to write means I have to focus harder. Twice a week, albeit much longer, works. But it’s nice to shake things up. I’ll leave it at that. Lift weights! Or write memos! I’m going to rest for tomorrow! Thanks for reading!
Today’s art is the rooms of The Wandering Inn, commissioned by Reverend Carl and drawn by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!