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He was drunk. And not supposed to be on air, clearly. The soothing broadcast of late-night music from the string quartet turned off, and there he was.
He was leaning on the desk of Wistram News Network, Channel 1, and he glared, red-eyed, into the camera.
He was a [News Anchor], so he had very good diction despite his clear intoxication thanks to his [Understood By All] Skill. Even Goblins liked watching him—though some of them threw things at the scrying orb because it was dislike-watching.
“I’m sick and tired of it. I’m calling a broadcast because we’ve been flooded—this channel—with comments from the audience. [Messages] day after day claiming Sir Relz and I are ‘biased’ as Drakes. Well, you know what?”
Noass took a huge drink out of a canteen and exhaled. You could practically see the fumes drifting from his mouth.
“—The truth is we’re not wrong. We’re Drakes, so what? The truth is that all these nations we cover? The…Balerosian kingdoms that pop up and go down? Cities that fall apart when someone sneezes on them? If they stopped fighting, killed some bandits, and their rulers could stop having incestuous relationships for five seconds, they would be miserable places to live in. Miserable, compared to a Walled City.”
He slapped the desk as someone tried to pull him off-screen, but Noass refused to go.
“And that’s still better than the shitholes they are! Like Pomle. Are they the ‘heroic’ martial artists or a bunch of idiot savages who poked the bear and got hit? They wipe their asses with sand. They don’t even have toilet paper! You want me to talk about bugs in your stupid Nerrhavia’s Fallen? Get a broom and put down some poison. It rains in Desonis, and you’ve got mold? Go bug your [Queen]! Oh wait, you can’t. She’s asleep. Taimaguros? Stupid name. It’s two nations that can’t stop fighting each other. Like an idiot who slaps himself in the head. So stop complaining if I spit facts at you—your nations are bad, and that’s the truth—now let me tell you what I think of Lizardfolk.”
Someone tried to tackle him. The new Dullahan, Theice, went to grab Noass as he flailed drunkenly at him. The audience heard a few snippets—
“—off me—Nagas are as suspicious as—the average Lizardfolk has half the intelligence of a Drake and—Gnolls—”
Then the broadcast shut off. Needless to say, Eldavin wanted to know who in Wistram had allowed the broadcast to go through—they’d had ten minutes to stop it. He announced Wistram would be investigating the incident, and he shook Telim’s hand and treated the [High Mage] to a lavish dinner that evening.
After all…it was great television. The numbers on Channel 1 were never higher. Noass’ reputation? Well…Sir Relz had an interesting next morning by himself taking viewer calls all day.
But what was more important? The numbers or the commentator? Noass had said what he’d said. How regrettable. Wistram disavowed it. See more on Channel 1, live.
That morning, Noass’ regrettable comments sparking worldwide furore and condemnation…never reached some of the people he had insulted.
Mostly because they didn’t watch the news. Which he probably would have claimed proved his point. But said sand-wiping savages of Pomle were busy.
Orjin, the Strongest of Pomle, was sitting in a mud-brick hut that had a cheap roof, it was true. He’d collected the water and mud from the oasis. Found palm leaves, occasionally dueled some of the other members of Pomle over scraps of wood or tumbleweeds, and painstakingly figured out how to make a hut.
Not by himself. He had copied a kind of design that had been there since Pomle had been founded. You put it along the canyon walls; the old members often had huts like this, if only to store something. Some buried their possessions or dug out part of the canyon to create a cruder cave.
These days, thanks to Salii, there were houses. These days, thanks to the war and refugees, there was a kind of village. These days…Pomle was not as small as it used to be.
It had been larger when it was first founded. About thirty years ago, the first Strongest had won this nation’s freedom by defeating every challenger that came against him.
Orjin didn’t know his name. He didn’t know the war. And he realized now how ignorant he was of the past.
It hadn’t mattered to him, growing up here. They of Pomle had saved what mattered: how to step and punch, the culture.
Thirty years was such a short time. Now—within half a century, Pomle might cease to exist. He thought of such things. He was, in a sense, the only generation to have grown up and lived in Pomle his entire life. No more fitting Strongest could emerge than the founder or someone who believed in the simple principles of this place.
But the first Strongest was dead. He had died aged 76, though even the Strongest had acknowledged his count might be off.
Orjin thought of that night. They had not mourned him with wailing or grief—but Pomle had gathered as they burned his body. Some of the Selphids had asked to take it but declined when they thought of the risk.
The Strongest who had won Pomle’s freedom had been…weaker than he should have been. A simple cold had not been his end. His years, a sandstorm choking the air, and his wounds had all combined into that quiet morning when someone walked past his hut and found him dead. His scars, that had gone into his lifestring itself, were magical.
After all, the Strongest had dueled [Mages] in war. Walked through firestorms. Fought foes armed with artifacts with his bare hands. For the [Strongest of the Martial Age]—it had proved Pomle’s way was right.
Orjin had been fifteen when he died. All he remembered was the old Stitch-man, who didn’t bother with combing his whitening hair, always noticeable among the younger [Martial Artists] from the huge, pale scar on his chest. He would stand there, watching the younger fighters practicing, often declining challenges.
Orjin had seen him fight thirteen times in his entire span at Pomle. Two—formal challenges to the position of Strongest. Other times against monsters or in sparring sessions.
It had never been a challenge. The last person to put up a fight that lasted more than thirty seconds had been Xil, the [Peerless Spearmaster]. He had flown in thirty years ago, having just been dishonorably discharged from Nerrhavia’s armies, and demanded they settle a score from Pomle’s war for independence.
He had lost.
There was nothing hard to understand about what made a good fighter as Pomle reckoned it. One element was the condition of the body.
Were you strong? Were you fast? That made as much of a difference as how skillfully you could fight. The other element that the [Martial Artists], [Warriors], and other people of Pomle coveted was their technique.
Palm versus spear. Sword against throwing technique. None of this was practical as other nations saw things. [Martial Artists] were not a respected class anywhere but maybe Drath and the House of Minos. A sword was sharper, could be enchanted; a fist was shorter, broke against steel, and all that training got you what?
Perhaps a body that could not be stolen like a blade. The mentality to go through life’s trials. Refinement of more than just how to punch.
Higher ideals and simpler ones. It was an argument Pomle had never settled. Were you here to train to kill or fight more effectively or were you in pursuit of some greater meaning?
Some, like Xil, claimed that the prowess of his students had nothing to do with morality or philosophy. A bastard could master a blade. If there was beauty, it came from practice, and talent still separated many apart.
Others, like Salthorn, the [Grappling Master], taught more than how to throw someone from any position. The Selphid was no killer, and her aspiration was to create a form of throwing so adaptive it took its place alongside swords, spears, and other weapons that any aspiring [Warrior] might decide to learn.
Orjin…had heard it all. And he was the Strongest of Pomle. If there were those here that could theoretically take his position, no one wanted the role. Especially now. If he was glad of one thing, it was that the debate still raged even a world away.
Earth was a funny place. Iratze, Raul, and the other children that Salii had uncovered had told the fascinated [Martial Artists] of their world. Demonstrated techniques that Pomle’s warriors had eagerly tried out and found good and practical.
A world of knowledge. From medical to how to train muscles to their own understanding of how to minimize injuries or…lift weights.
There was one of those ridiculous workout sets from Pallass that some [Warriors] used every day instead of sparring and swore by. Orjin had expected the thing to rust overnight, but he had given it a try and acknowledged it might work.
He disliked it. But he had not forbidden it; like everything in Pomle, it was a choice. What he had thought more of, though, with concern, was how Iratze had explained mixed martial arts or boxing and other disciplines in his world.
Some [Soldiers] apparently took lessons on how to defend themselves in close-quarters combat. There was knife-fighting and, yes, submission holds and similar moves that warriors practiced. Beyond that?
No martial art, no style of fist or throw had endured. The world of Earth was ruled by a different kind of weapon. And it was faster than Orjin could see, deadlier than any arrow he could loose from an unenchanted bow. Golem-machines could do more damage than any member of Pomle.
Even him. This bothered the Strongest, today. More than Noass’ comments, if he could have heard them. He did not mind using sand—not that Pomle’s folk actually did that.
He did not care where he slept. Or if his food was sometimes roasted scorpions or the meat of a palm fruit or cheap grain. He had never cared if Pomle was rich or poor, so long as the rules endured.
But inferiority? The thought that he was perfecting a kind of dead-end? That Pomle’s struggle and training was ultimately worthless when compared to actual armies and soldiers and weapons?
He disliked that intensely. The problem was…
This war might be proving Pomle had never needed to exist at all.
Orjin sat in his hut, thinking upon all of this as he mixed sand together. Then separated it. If that sounded like a child’s game…you did not see the faint colors in this room.
It was his habit, which he did not think of as traditional—just something he had been taught as a boy. When his calluses were bleeding, his arms would not rise for another punch, and he had sweated so much he needed to drink from the oasis until he was bloated—
The [Martial Artists] had taken him aside and taught him a way to pass the time until he slept. Which was to find a bucket, gather sand, and then haul it into a hut or crevice out of the wind.
You could do this in the open, but you’d lose your work, and it was fun to do this over a month or a year.
The sands of Pomle were reddish; the canyon walls were made of a red sandstone that gave it that color. But because the oasis was often struck by windy sandstorms, the sand was far more multi-colored up close.
From the Glass Straits came bits of glass flaked off. Zeikhal sent its sands here—and Orjin had heard some of the sand might come from coastal nations like Savere.
It mattered not…except that you could see tiny grains of green, blue, brown, red—all kinds of stone or gemstone mixed in together.
Take a bucket and walk the long way to your hut from the oasis. After all, the best sand often was found there. Or maybe it was just good muscle training; it was how he did it, regardless. Put the bucket down in your quiet hut, upon a floor stomped smooth of red clay. So thoroughly it was no longer ‘ground’, but a flat, clean surface of its own. Then he would spread the sand around and…sort it.
Green to green. Red to red. Browns…sometimes he was lazy and didn’t separate the shades. When he was a boy, he’d used his finger, a foot, or just blown it around with his mouth.
If this sounded insanely boring, well, it was a kind of way to meditate, something the [Monks] who came here liked. It let your mind drift off, and you could reflect on your training or just zone out.
Orjin would do this for hours, and even Salii, who had once seen his hobby, had called it the most mind-numbingly boring accounting in the world. After all, Orjin would take a bucket of perfectly sorted sand and toss it out every few months. He didn’t need it.
But he had a secret. And that was that…the sand was sort of fun.
More than the pellets of dried mud that Xil would make and have his students deflect—or he’d nail them like a fastball in the ‘baseball’ game. More than the pieces of colored sand-art that Salthorn made, which eroded within a year.
At this moment, Orjin had taken two buckets of sand he had ‘distilled’ into one color each over two years of work.
He poured them out around him as he sat, cross-legged. His side hurt. He had been slashed there by a sword in the last battle.
[Steel Skin] had meant that the enchanted blade did far less damage than it might have. [Enhanced Natural Healing] meant that the wound had already clotted. No potions. He would be ready to fight again when they came.
Nevermind that. Nevermind thinking of Earth…Orjin regarded the colorful sandpiles. The boy of fifteen would have been proud to have so much. He? He looked at the closed door of his hut, sealed so the wind had not a breath of air here. Then he took two handfuls of green and blue sand and threw them up.
He held his breath as two plumes of sand rose and showered down slowly; the grains could be very fine. Now that was beautiful. Orjin watched each individual grain of sand fall—in a scintillating cloud.
Then he clapped his hands. The sound of it rang, for he had clapped his hands with [Monks] who trained to make such sounds, to stomp like thunder and strike like the weight of an avalanche.
The air in the hut followed the movement. Orjin had learned [Aeriform Punch], and he could throw a wall of air at a foe. This—was far less powerful, but it still made the drifting sand in the air billow as he willed it.
A cloud of blue and green burst against each other in the center of the hut along the path of his hands. It covered the Strongest, and he saw how it looked.
Two colors like a sandstorm, meeting. He was seeing himself as well; he had a tiny shard of polished metal he liked using as a mirror. Then the Strongest stood in one motion and began to move.
Two colors. He could add three or six—swirled around him as he slowly performed one of the first routines he had been taught. The exaggerated poses, sweeping an arm up to block an enemy’s strike, a pivot with the feet as economical as possible—
This was the kind of martial arts that many warriors did not like. Because it emphasized forms that were not used in combat. But it was beautiful. Orjin could not remember ever using this stance in a fight—it was almost like the thing that cult used, all artifice.
But it did take effort to perform. And here?
Here, he watched blue and green billow over his arms. When he turned—sand flew up around him, a cloud of blue dust he cut through with a palm like a blade. When he stomped, it fell out of the air, but it rose once more as he drew a hand up.
Proof there was something here. If only the passage of air, the force of his movements. Beauty.
Orjin touched the wound on his side. Pomle had always striven for perfection at arms. They were a practical lot. When Iratze had shown them a better way to fight, disavowed some of the old forms as inefficient, they had abandoned them. The cutting edge of combat in how to jab, punch, avoid being taken down to a ground-fight was mechanical and logical.
This was more the stuff of…what was his name? [Fist of the Western Wind]? Orjin couldn’t remember. It bothered him greatly because he had a personal distaste for whomever that was. But it gave him simple pleasure, the enjoyment of seeing the colors in the air.
A boy’s game. He added a plume of red and ‘caught’ the red dot within the green and blue. Kept it moving without losing most of the red dust by moving his hands carefully, adjusting the currents of the air so it didn’t swirl out and blend together.
He had a lot of practice doing this. Perhaps this was how he had learned [Aeriform Punch]? He could almost…sense where each strand of color would go. Make an orb of the red and have it swirl around him if he moved his hands in the right pattern.
How long he did this, he didn’t know. It was only when he felt the change in air that he stopped. Salii coughed.
The blue, green, and red—still in one clump—drifted down as Orjin turned. The Strongest looked like someone had hit him with a bucket of dye. He exhaled—then stomped, and most of it fell off him like rain.
“No. No, I’m sorry to bother you, Orjin. It’s a weird [Message] we’ve gotten. It can wait. And I was going to go over the Empress of Beast’s last [Message]…”
“I will hear it. This is my duty now.”
He felt weary as he stepped towards the door. Weary, for thinking of Pomle’s finances, corresponding, analyzing the progress of a war was not what he enjoyed or was good at, and it gave him a headache.
But he was the strongest and Pomle was at war, so he went. Salii gestured at the colors of sand on the floor, now mixed together.
“What will you do with that?”
“Sort it when I return. It will keep.”
Millions of grains of sand on the floor. The [Receptionist] looked at the three buckets and shook her head. Not in disbelief or scorn. She glanced at Orjin, his black skin sun-darkened further, a long scab reaching from his ribs down to his hip on his bare chest, black hair still colored green and blue. More athletic and honed than any warrior she had seen in the Walled Cities except perhaps the Sinew Magus himself.
Barefoot, he walked out of his hut, back into the busy Pomle now filled with warriors training by the thousands, freed [Slaves] and soldiers and even an animated Skeleton Lord swinging its sword around.
But he was Pomle.
The life of the Strongest was—challenge. And it was hard because you were the Strongest. So you challenged yourself, because you knew that every single person was preparing for the day they bested you.
Some stayed true to a style. Xil had been the Strongest for a decade with his spear until he had given up on the post. Orjin had been there. He had seen the [Peerless Spearmaster] let his best apprentice tap him on the chest—and then the new Strongest had lost the title within the hour.
Six months of fighting had resulted in the new Strongest. Orjin was more careful with his role. Unlike other Strongests, who’d demanded the challengers be a certain level or work their way up to him, he answered every opponent. When someone challenged him, he answered. If he lost any ‘serious’ match, he would resign his title.
So, Salii had to speak as the first challenge of the day began. In this case, it was the Skeleton Lord.
Chandrarians were not as afraid of undead as most continents’ folk, but such a powerful one made them uneasy. It—or was it he?—would patrol around the oasis by night, and the bright green, glowing eye-flames would accompany the scimitar blade he carried—armor looted from his foes. In his off-hand, he held a simple, round shield.
Or a weird piece of glass. A rock, which he would throw at his foes. It kept coming back. He could, in fairness, throw the ammunition hard enough to dent in a steel helmet.
He tried it now on Orjin. The Strongest saw the skeleton flick the stone so fast that one of the watching people cried out.
“Hey Ivery, don’t hurt—”
Eloque was taking a break from jabbing with a spear. Her scales, slightly pockmarked but returning to normal, shone under the sun as the faintly purple, semi-opaque piece of glass flew at Orjin’s chest.
The Strongest caught the piece of stone at about 90 MPH as Iratze calculated it. Almost as fast as a professional pitcher—straight at his chest. With no gloves or mitts. From fifteen feet away.
Ivery faltered—but he raised his sword and charged in without fear. Orjin waited for the slash to come.
He hadn’t seen the other one in a melee. Pomle did have them—but the chaos of a battlefield had shown them they didn’t prepare for a fight. It wasn’t having enemies all around that made things hard.
It was having enemies and allies—and being unable to track them all. Orjin closed his eyes. Sometimes, he almost felt like he could sense the flow of the blow in the air.
Was it…here? He struck out definitively, a sweeping blow that would knock the sword to the side if he were right.
No. He felt a searing line of pain down one arm—and reacted.
[Automatic Deflection]. His arm twisted out of the swing—then flicked the flat of the blade back. Orjin had to know how to deflect the blade for his Skill to trigger.
It was probably one of the best examples of how actual talent with the sword and practice informed a Skill. Ivery’s sword went wide as Orjin, sighing, opened his eyes. His arm was cut—a line of red.
Ivery’s jaw clattered as he whirled the blade up. His free hand flicked a dagger out, and the Skeleton Lord lunged, as fast as a striking snake. Salii had clocked him as well above a Silver-rank adventurer without artifacts in terms of pure combat ability.
Below a Gold-ranker armed with artifacts. Possibly just as dangerous in terms of sheer reaction and strength. His current armaments and ability to regenerate from wounds—and lack of organs or blood—meant he was a dangerous foe, one of the recognizable champions of Pomle that Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Savere, and other nations had learned to be wary of.
Orjin punched Ivery in the face, and the skeleton collapsed. He didn’t use a Skill. He was just faster than the Skeleton Lord. His other hand came up, ready to knock the sword aside—but Ivery was down.
A lot of fights went like that. It may have been embarrassing to the Skeleton Lord, who lay on his back until Eloque fussed over him and Rophir tried to shovel sand over him and bury him—the little half-Elf liked doing that—but it was how Orjin settled most fights.
Every [Warrior] who thought they could use their capstone Skill on him and score a point off the Strongest forgot that half of a match was defense. And if you didn’t have defense, you didn’t have offense.
If you couldn’t survive, block, or dodge one punch from Orjin, there was no point continuing. To be fair—he was the Strongest of Pomle.
Level 47 [Strongest Martial Artist of Pomle]. Exactly the same as you would guess. ‘Strongest of Pomle’ and similar classes had appeared when their nation had been founded. Some had claimed the first classes ever received were…
Whatever that meant. Orjin was not proud of his level. It put him above Ivery by sheer might of levels and passive Skills, but it was not like the first Strongest. He exhaled as Salii finished the report on food stocks.
He pretended he’d been listening. He hadn’t heard it.
“What was the level of the first Strongest? Has anyone ever said that in your…attempt to recover the history of Pomle, Salii?”
It had been one of her projects. The [Secretary] put a bookmark in her checklist and exhaled.
“Level 59. Which means you are one capstone away from him. If a big one. But you’ve levelled three times over the course of this war, so I have high hopes for you.”
Orjin’s head turned. He stared at her. The [Secretary] adjusted her spectacles.
“Are you certain? Who knew that? Xil?”
“No. Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] I just told you about. Because you were definitely listening, not punching one of our war assets.”
Orjin’s impassive face was virtually a Skill on its own. Unfortunately…Salii knew him. She spoke in a patient voice.
“I just received a missive from her. She’s the woman who owns The Wandering Inn. The one who was posting quests?”
“Finding the City of Stars? I remember that.”
“Friends with the Horns of Hammerad. Pisces Jealnet.”
“He’s the [Necromancer] who made Ivery. Friends of Eloque and the freed [Slaves]?”
The Drake rolled her eyes. She was very good at her job, though. One of her Skills was the most powerful Skill any subordinate—or superior—could ever want. The envy of corporate Earth.
[Did You Understand That?]
It was amazing—and depressing—how many false returns you got on that every day. Even with simple things. But the greatest [Secretary] of the Waning World—now the Journey of the Living—didn’t waste time.
“Level 59. He was also the last owner of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. A fact that Xil knew of and didn’t see fit to inform me of. A Skill Erin Solstice now has, because the [Magical Innkeeper] has possession of the garden. And she found his personal garden and diary. Including some of his personal techniques and a training room he possessed.”
Orjin stared at Salii. He got what she was saying, but the [Secretary] was moving in real-time as Eloque sat up.
The Drake sighed.
“Shall we take it from the top? I’m in communication with her now, but I think she’s waking up for breakfast. Happily—there’s at least one fellow mind over there. Always more fun than halfwits.”
Of course, she knew Yelroan, and he knew her. Unfortunately…Salii had to talk to Erin Solstice. Their conversation went something like this:
Erin: Heyhey! Sorry I was delayed! I was having a bruschetta. Yelroan told me you’re representing Pomle? Is the Strongest there? Can I talk to someone important?
Salii: That would be me. Can you elaborate and send copies of all the documents you claim to have uncovered? We are interested in anything you can copy over. I have a [Message]-capable [Mage]. Printing may take time as they are not proficient in image-copying, but we would deeply appreciate any information you can tender us, thank you.
Salii: May I confirm you have:
- Diary of the First Strongest, Collos.
- Personal technique scrolls of the above. Exact number?
- Description of training room within the [Garden of Sanctuary]?
Are there any other details or items you have missed? Can you confirm he was Level 59?
Erin: Whoa. Bullet points? A list? Uh, yeah, he said he was Level 59, so I believe him. Can I talk to the current Strongest? How’s it going over there? I have this friend, Pisces, and he might know someone in Pomle…?
Salii: I have been in communication with Adventurer Pisces.
Erin: You have? Well—how’s things?
Salii: We are currently at war with Nerrhavia’s Fallen. With respect, will you kindly send us what we need? Each [Message] exchange is burning coins and time.
Erin: Oh. Sorry. Let me just—
To Salii’s credit, this exchange worked. The embarrassed [Innkeeper] actually presented everything in order and without a fuss. The [Secretary] managed to bully Erin into being helpful in five minutes, which put her ahead of the Blighted Kingdom, Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and most of Erin’s acquaintances on the efficiency scale.
The part Salii didn’t anticipate was where Erin Solstice physically appeared. The Drake was scribbling in her clipboard as she and Orjin went to find some of the oldest members of Pomle.
One was Xil, the aforementioned [Peerless Spearmaster]. He was an old Garuda, one of the oldest in Pomle. His wing feathers were ragged, and he stayed on the ground a lot because seventy years had made his bones brittler than he liked.
“Xil! Tell me you’re not injuring our best warriors.”
“We’re training. If they take wounds, they won’t die in combat. And we have lost over two hundred of our own.”
Orjin’s pace slowed as he heard the old Garuda speak. He was standing on top of his training quarterstaff, planted in the ground, as if it were a balance poll.
There had been terrible losses. More than Pomle had ever taken—since its inception. Most were junior [Martial Artists]—but they had awoken to a reality of war in the months after their first battle alongside Tiqr.
Xil hopped down as a body moved. Eighteen warriors were lying on the ground, most bruised and some bloodied from the thrashing. Salthorn wasn’t down; she was rubbing at her arm.
“You dislocated my arm, Xil.”
“Get another body. They’re cheap in this war.”
The Garuda looked…active now. He was a former [Soldier], and he had come out of his semi-retirement. He had over eighty students, not the six he’d kept before, and he had even clashed with some of Pomle’s other best fighters.
Orjin knew that, because he saw the welts on the arm of the Stitch-woman, the Hemp-caste Sorron. She and Jalte, a Garuda, were thickset—in fact, Jalte was the biggest Garuda that Orjin had met, including the fearsome members of the Loquea Dree, the crow-type Garuda.
They were both members of one of the predominant schools in Pomle. Spears, Salthorn’s grappling—
Or the [Stonebody Martial Artists], who emphasized amazing defense, sometimes at the cost of mobility. Orjin had trained with them, hence his own [Steel Skin] Skill; he studied everything. But he had not—stepped into their class.
Stepping into their class meant accepting Skills that changed you fundamentally. For instance, Orjin had [Steel Skin] which did not change him fundamentally.
Jalte had [Ironmarrow Bones], which did. He no longer flew, and he was so heavy that Xil could flit around him. But the [Peerless Spearmaster] had put his entire force into the spear-strikes, and the fragile Garuda body whose bones normally broke easier than any other species—
Hadn’t even shifted. Xil just spat.
“That didn’t save your people from being hit by [Fireballs].”
“We will block them too. Caneriq did well in the last battle.”
Sorron retorted back. She and Xil did not get along, and Orjin used to have to mediate their arguments, which sometimes spilled forth in their apprentices. She had been at the head of over a hundred disciples before the war started.
Now? He saw Caneriq nursing his injuries that stood out on his arms and legs. He’d covered his face with an arm-guard as he advanced; arrows and spells had burnt the Stitch-man’s skin—then he had punched and kicked his way through Nerrhavia’s [Soldiers].
The result was nicks in his cloth-skin. Despite him being Cotton, that was all. He could replace the cloth and be ready for another fight.
It certainly spoke to the efficiency of the couple’s methodology. Neither one had been here at Pomle’s founding, but they had learned from an expert who practiced the same style and adopted it.
Their training, though, included making their apprentices hold up a guard as they were literally beaten with pieces of wood or punched and kicked until their bones broke and healed. It made them strong. Xil called it madness.
“The power to endure an avalanche isn’t as impressive as avoiding one.”
“Let’s save this old debate. Strongest. Do you need something? Is it another battle?”
The two [Stonebody] experts turned with perhaps eagerness as Orjin shook his head.
“The First Strongest of Pomle. Salii has questions for you, Xil. And anyone else who remembers him well. Salthorn?”
The Garuda rolled his eyes. Salthorn scratched at her head.
“I never knew him that well. Who else here would know?”
The Selphid snapped her fingers, then looked sidelong.
“Vandum. But he hates you, Orjin.”
The Strongest grimaced. Sorron and Jalte muttered; Salthorn had just named the last great expert who was almost definitely above Level 40.
Vandum had been the Strongest twice; Orjin had never taken his spot, but Vandum had challenged Orjin three times. He had lost each one, to the older [Martial Artist]’s disbelief. But it had not been an easy battle any time.
The last time, Orjin had broken nine bones and been forced to use his ultimate Skill, [Dulav-ra: Tetrad of the Solar Aura]. He had wounded the Stitch-man so badly that Vandum had been forced to leave Pomle for four months to have his body resewn. Then he had not shown his face near Orjin.
The last time Orjin remembered Vandum, he had been staring at the other man’s arm as the [Martial Artist] tried to get to his knees. It had lain there, torn off from a socket as the disbelieving warrior looked up, blood pooling onto dry sand. He had thought he would win—maybe he should have.
Even then, he had refused to relent or back down. Orjin had told him to stop before one of them died. Vandum had not. He had only stopped when he realized Orjin could have killed him and was holding back.
Then he had left, to retrain himself, and returned with a new arm, trying to build on his mistakes. He, too, was exemplary of Pomle’s ideals. But his fighting was intense, and he believed grievous wounds were an acceptable outcome to a duel. Orjin had forbidden it in Pomle when he was Strongest.
“I know where Vandum is. I’ll get him.”
Incredibly, Salii marched off towards the far end of Pomle. She had no fear. She returned in less than three minutes as the younger warriors got up. Orjin looked up and saw another man with brown skin from years in the sun. Red hair, and he had gotten thinner since he had lost the battle of strength with Orjin.
Vandum had reinvented himself with a Stitch-person’s ability to change their body decade after decade since Pomle. He had been only twenty when Pomle was freed. Now? He was in his fifties.
He actually nodded to Orjin. Xil raised his brows as Salii explained.
“Vandum has been testing my training areas. Not that we’re doing that during the war—”
“There’s always time to train during the war. Battles aren’t every day. They should be. We should be pushing Nerrhavia. Three of my [Sparkfist Warriors] went out and took a patrol of fifty to pieces.”
Vandum was a weapons-expert as well as a [Martial Artist]. His class was [Bridge of the Martial World].
He wore gauntlets made of mithril and offered his students gloves enchanted with runes. [Sparkfists] fought with these weapons, and their punches could electrify foes in armor. Especially in dry Chandrar. They often caused trouble when they fought with unarmed [Martial Artists] and won—or hurt their opponents badly.
Yet Orjin respected Vandum. He was unsure if the reverse was true, but Vandum had acknowledged Orjin’s skill in battle. He was, perhaps, the embodiment of Pomle’s ideals in one sense.
Striving for superiority in combat. Vandum’s bare fists were deadly weapons in themselves; the gauntlets of mithril made him more so. If there was a technical edge armor or magic could give him, he tried to work it into his fighting.
“Why are we bringing up the First Strongest?”
“Someone found his journal. Did you know he owned the [Garden of Sanctuary], Vandum?”
The older [Martial Artist] had been looking bored at Xil’s beaten trainees, but his head snapped around.
“Has someone recovered that?”
“Alright. Who else knew?”
Salii glared about. Xil raised a claw. Salthorn, a hand. Orjin raised a hand, and she nearly threw the clipboard at him. Sorron, having been here before Jalte, lifted one finger.
Erin Solstice raised one hand, and Vandum threw a dagger at her. Xil’s spear went up, and he deflected the dagger, which whined as it went careening to one side and blew up in a shower of flames. Orjin nearly punched her before he realized it was an illusion. Salthorn shouted warningly.
“Is it an enemy attack?”
The [Innkeeper] ducked in her wheelchair.
“Holy—geeze! Maybe this is why I don’t leave my inn! That wasn’t even a crossbow! Hi—”
Salii’s reaction was slower than the [Martial Artists]’. She leapt into Jalte, slammed into the Garuda like an iron wall, and fell down, scattering her clipboard’s papers. Erin Solstice stared at the [Secretary] and then around at the [Martial Artists].
She winked out of sight as Salii began to curse.
“…And that’s everything. Can you copy this?”
Erin was having Yelroan hold up the scrolls as [Martial Artists] gathered around, copying or memorizing the forms. Orjin was busy reading from Salii’s clipboard. She had the contents of the First Strongest’s journal. The rest of the information was being passed around.
“So the garden looks like Pomle? Exactly?”
“Yup. Not a hidden thing. I went back and checked. Just the fighting room and his hut.”
“Sounds right. It used to be different. Collos would visualize ‘our place’, to learn where to fight. To have enough space to train. First it was there. When he found Pomle, he said it wasn’t valuable.”
Vandum actually looked nostalgic as he leaned against a palm tree. He was staring at Erin, who was staring back at his fiery red-hair.
“You’re the most, uh, interesting guy I’ve ever met. Vandum? Can you do a kame—no, can you change forms? Does your hair stick up if you get powered up?”
He stared blankly at her. He had no context for it, but Iratze had described him as the most anime-style member of Pomle. To be fair, he had the most expensive cloth-armor of the bunch with enchanted chainmail underneath, the mithril gauntlets, and fighting weapons of a magical nature.
“Is that something else you Earthers claim I should do? Raul told me about it. Secondary forms? I can adjust my limbs and appearance, but so can every Stitch-person.”
Erin’s mouth opened.
“Are…are there Earthers here?”
“That way. They said you were one.”
The [Innkeeper] was disconcerted by how many people knew her—and she turned her wheelchair.
“Can I speak to them?”
“First things first. What does this training room do? I don’t think we can use your garden to get to Izril, can we? That would be too powerful.”
Salii was muttering, and Erin shook her head.
“Nope. Sorry. And the training room is cool! Sort of. All kinds of people will appear around your level. You can ask for strong ones, weak ones…Jewel and Normen—they’re two of my employees, I guess—have been training with them. They get their butts kicked a lot. And Jewel’s a Gold-rank adventurer!”
Vandum looked pleased at this, and Orjin smiled. The two shared a nod, for once on the same page.
“Of course they do. They’re Pomle’s warriors. Exactly as Collos knew them. I am probably there—far lower leveled. And so would Orjin.”
Erin blinked at him.
“I am the Strongest of Pomle. I would have been fifteen if Collos’ memory of me was accurate. A [Soundstep Martial Artist]. I might have used a spear.”
“I forgot you practiced that.”
Vandum growled. Erin snapped her fingers.
“Hey! Relc might have fought you! He challenged a bunch of spear-dudes. I think I saw you?”
“How did I do?”
Erin scratched at her head as Orjin looked interested. Salii was practically tearing her neck-spines out at the fighting-talk, but she had walked over and was talking to a blonde Gnoll with some irritating sunglasses.
“Oh, Relc summoned like eight of you because he said he could win against all the best spearmasters in Pomle. Some angry Garuda dude got him before he could fight you all.”
“Hah! So your garden can pull out at least some of my potential. But Collos wrote he tired of it? It makes sense. He was beyond anyone else in Pomle.”
The journal’s brief notes made sense to Orjin. Most were mundane, but those end lines about searching for more…Vandum was staring at the words himself.
“The end to his path. Is that merely Level 60? No…magic in combat. Perhaps it is. After all—he was only content to use his fists. And he paid for it.”
He gave Orjin an intense look; his eyes were pale grey-yellow and seemed to spark with lightning in and of themselves. Orjin said nothing at first. Then exhaled.
“Perhaps you’re right. We will see.”
Erin looked from man to man, as if not comprehending what she had brought them.
“I…I hope it helps. I’d like to talk to those Earthers, and I know some of my friend’s friends are here. Is it…going badly?”
She looked around, but there were many [Soldiers] in Pomle. Tiqr had left a guard and was using this as one of their bases. To Erin, it might seem like Pomle was more powerful than it had ever been. But the truth? Orjin looked at her as Vandum assured her they were far from done fighting. His response was simple.
“This is not Pomle’s war for independence. Nerrhavia has made war on us because we freed slaves. Because we have supported Tiqr. There is no winning this conflict. Just enduring a storm.”
The other people of Pomle turned their heads. Xil nodded, and Salthorn’s grimace was pained. Sorron and Jalte’s faces were blank, for Orjin had begun this war, and yet they found something in it. Vandum? He shook his head.
“We are seeing if Pomle is worthy to endure, Strongest. This…is how we should have continued for thirty years. We are refining our techniques.”
“Or—seeing the very flaw in our ideals.”
You could hammer your bones and crack them, break them, and build them up tougher and tougher again, like Sorron and Jalte promised. But…sometimes, you just broke them to dust. Shattered them, and nothing would fix them ever again.
Which was this?
Pomle was not a huge part of the war. And it was not one war or one front, either. If there was a protagonist of this story for a history book, it was the King of Destruction bearing down on Nerrhavia’s Fallen from the north, Nerrhavia itself, contested on multiple fronts, or—Empress Nsiia of Tiqr, fighting to reclaim her home.
Pomle would be one of the minor factions of nations taking sides here—on the level of the Monks of Sottheim. And they, arguably, were a more cohesive force.
This was not to make light of Pomle’s abilities in battle. In fact, their unassailability in direct assaults had forced Nerrhavia to draw back around them as Nsiia took more and more land and built up an actual presence.
Three times, Nerrhavia had tried. The first was remembered as much for the Horns’ presence as Khelt swooping in. After the disastrous engagement where Illivere fought Savere who fought Tiqr and Pomle and Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the gigantic superpower had withdrawn in disarray.
That had not lasted long. They had come back for a second round, this time supported by Savere in a formal attack.
Pomle’s canyon cliffs were a bigger battleground than the canyon passages itself. Garuda came up—and went down as Tiqr’s [Hunters] shot them down. They only stopped when Nerrhavia and Savere’s Garuda refused to go up there and die.
Meanwhile, the Hemp [Soldiers] were climbing alongside [Rogues] from Savere—or trying to tunnel through and create a breach into Pomle itself.
Tiqr’s [Druids] were reforming the earthen walls as [Mages] tried to break them down. Meanwhile, the [Soldiers] were literally face-to-face against Tiqr’s, pressing in and trying to breach one of the entrances by weight of numbers alone.
Tiqr had few [Mages] and Pomle almost none, so Nerrhavia feared no fire; the Siren of Savere was raining down water as she shot spells from her palanquin.
They almost came through the canyon walls. Almost. But Pomle had seen the sappers boring in and decided if they could not hold their home—they would go out.
[Martial Artists] leapt over the canyon walls and descended down cliffs as the soldiers vanished. One fell like a lightning bolt amongst terrified [Soldiers] armed with spades. A punching, kicking whirlwind who dented armor with each blow and sent over a dozen figures sprawling down—until a shower of arrows hit friend and foe alike. The [Martial Artist] fell with a cry—but the [Archers] barely had time to celebrate.
A Golem with a glowing dome crashed into their ranks as the [Empress] of Beasts broke down one of the walls of [Soldiers] herself. A glowing Relic in her hand—they fell back.
Bloody. So bloody—but Pomle’s individual fighters were strong enough to break the sappers’ lines time and time again.
So they fell back.
The third time, Nerrhavia was alone. Savere had agreed to fight Tiqr as the Siren’s grudge against Nsiia was rampant, and she wanted Tiqr’s lands. However—Illivere and Savere were clashing hard enough for her to withdraw.
Domehead. The Magus-Crafter had not declared for Tiqr, and Nerrhavia’s [Generals] had decided this was not the time to make an enemy of the states of Illivere.
Nevertheless, they were armoring their front along Illivere’s border just in case, and several minor kingdoms had ‘coincidentally’ declared war on Illivere, taking Savere’s side for the first time in…ever. Nsiia had used the Loquea Dree’s fearsome air superiority and the Monks of Sottheim to seize Savere’s lands along Tiqr’s northwestern border.
So Pomle had only a garrison of her troops when Nerrhavia tried them a third time.
This time, they didn’t reach Pomle’s canyons. The [Martial Artists] went out and held the mouths of the canyons rather than let themselves be encircled.
It was…not one against a hundred. Simply because you couldn’t encircle someone with a hundred people except at a great-distance, and this was hand-to-hand.
Nerrhavian [Soldiers] ran in entire battalions, turning into chaotic melees where pockets of Pomle’s warriors fought, surrounded, withdrawing or falling to blades and spells. But it was—difficult for Nerrhavia.
[Stonebody Martial Artists] refused to break, punching and kicking like stones around eddies of flesh. Bloody stones, hands breaking bones.
The gore weltering on the tip of a spear was only present on some, though. Xil’s [Speardancers] and the most high-level warriors of Pomle did the most damage by far. While the low-level ones held the pass—
Vandum went hunting. His apprentices snuck up on some [Mages], breaking through their guard-divisions, and broke necks and sundered flesh with punches that left blood and sinew hanging from their metal gauntlets.
[Officers] tried to push Pomle, push until they were broken and forced to retreat, but it didn’t—work—
Salthorn threw a screaming [Captain] to the ground so hard he dislocated an arm. She turned—and Orjin hit his second [General] with an [Aeriform Punch]. He landed, scattering [Soldiers], as the [Bodyguard] tried to attack him. But the [Martial Artist] simply drew back, taking them two-at-a-time, blocking them with their own soldiers. He threw a spear, saw it lodge in a chest—
An enchanted blade cut him down the side, and he grimaced—then, as a flaming sword aimed at his neck, he struck.
Palm like a blade. A Silk Stitch-folk [Bodyguard] went down, choking, windpipe crushed. The [General] was getting up when a spear went through his head.
Xil had thrown it from over three hundred feet away. Orjin saw the [General of the Line] go down—and the entire wing of Stitch-folk faltered—then began to flee. The [Great General] sounded a full retreat ten minutes later.
There was a lesson here. What Pomle lacked in numbers—they made up for in officer-killers. The prized leaders of Nerrhavia’s Glorious Hordes could inspire thousands under their command—but they could not best one of Pomle’s warriors in a straight fight.
And once a [General]’s Skills were lost, or a [Captain]’s—the [Soldiers] fell behind.
What Pomle learned was that any warrior under Level 20 would die if left alone. Even with potions. Even with training…they lost nearly two hundred of their own. All the practice of six years, ten, in Pomle’s oasis didn’t matter.
One low-level [Warrior of Pomle] versus eight Nerrhavian [Conscripts] might go either way. But either way—the warrior of Pomle found a hole in their side where a spear had gone straight through their flesh and came out dripping with blood. Perhaps lodged there if it was serrated, tearing the flesh outwards like a blossom of blood.
The Strongest had thought long of that. Vandum had relished the fact that his warriors—along with Sorron’s—had demonstrated they could take on overwhelming numbers of Nerrhavia’s low-level soldiers without fear of falling.
So three times Nerrhavia had failed to take Pomle, and the other battles were smaller in nature—engagements in the thousands, not tens of thousands. Both had bled, and Nerrhavia far more than Pomle.
But now it was time to understand someone on Nerrhavia’s side, for his actions dictated the course of this front of Nerrhavia’s war. While his counterparts were desperately summoning all their forces to repel Flos Reimarch…
The entire Pomle-Tiqr front was being managed by the overwhelmingly, incredibly—adequate—General Thelican.
General Thelican. An adequate man. Adequate.
Adequate. Adequate for his position. Adequate for what he did—by the standards of Nerrhavia’s Fallen today. Not by the standards of the greatest [Generals] to live—by his nation’s need for leadership at his level.
Adequate in his personal combat ability, which could equal a Gold-rank adventurer—with his personal armaments, of course. Adequate at politics, which had carried him to the Court of Silks and the Court of Steel in the highest position of Nerrhavia’s government.
Adequate in bed. Yes. You wouldn’t hear complaints to his face. He might get vague compliments. No one was spreading the word.
If the man had one power, it was patter-songs…in that he was probably in the top ten in Nerrhavia’s Fallen for them. As a [General]?
He was good enough. And that mattered. Because Thelican was adequate. He knew how to run a war.
“Pull up another six legions. I will have six legions, you understand, within the month on Kotol’s front. Past the city or each [Magistrate] will answer to the Court of Silks. Hemp. They can spare the Hemp. I’m not asking for them to be garbed in steel plate, even! This is doable, and it certainly is, [Chancellor].”
He was speaking to the Chancellor of War, who coordinated such things. Not over a drink or in person, which would have been far better, but Thelican didn’t have a few weeks to ride back to Tyrant’s Rest and meet the man there.
The [Chancellor] looked unhappy.
“The Court of Silks is not impressed by the way the war has gone, Thelican. Nsiia seems to grow in power each week—”
“She has the luck of five [Gamblers] and a populace who loves her. I will win this by the end of spring. Her people have a finite limit. Nerrhavia? The courts always complain when we lose an army. And—I hate to admit it, Chancellor, but so do I. But I know how to win.”
Thelican leaned in with a pained look on his face, and the Chancellor leaned in as well. Thelican was a [Great General] of Nerrhavia after all, and he spoke as a man taking one into his confidence. Adequate for Nerrhavia meant that as a [General], he was a better politician than a war leader.
“Chancellor Loqi. If I may be honest—Nerrhavia does lose too many wars. We could win them—and sometimes it’s foolishness we don’t.”
“Like the entire northern offensive against Flos?”
Thelican compressed his lips.
“I will not impugn my fellow [Generals], Loqi. They are facing legends, and that is the truth. You will hear no words against them from me.”
Especially not over a [Communication] spell. He went on smoothly.
“—But the fact is, we can arm one of our Silk Regiments with Icehowl Blades and put them upon our foes with enough chariots, high-level [Archers], and such to make even Flos Reimarch flinch. We do not. They are spread around, spread around our great empire. They must be.”
Nerrhavia’s Fallen was the largest nation in Chandrar, probably the world. The [Chancellor] pulled a face and grimaced.
“It’s never easy to move them. Which is why six legions—back in the days of Queen Merindue and the legendary [Kings] and [Queens], they had the Skills to muster a hundred thousand across the nation in a week! A week from the furthest corner!”
“Ah, well. Those are legends. That is why, though, Loqi, I am saying we lose. We lose—and learn—and when our enemies celebrate, they don’t realize they’ve bled to break one army. And another is coming. That is the power of Nerrhavia’s Glorious Hordes. They are endless.”
Loqi knew this, of course. But he was taken in by Thelican’s speaking, and the [Great General] was warming to his topic.
“I feel for the Hemp, you know? Poor folks. Cut poorly into their cloth—but I will send six legions of them armed with bronze at Tiqr—and they will do a fine job even if they trade one-to-three. [Troops: Commoner’s Offensive]. When I push them, they cut even Grand Elephant hide. But I do require more of them.”
“It didn’t work on Pomle.”
The [Chancellor] observed with a bite to his tone. Thelican had been ready for that and waved it off with a laugh.
“Learning, Loqi. I am learning how to fight them. They did beat us thirty years ago, and now I’ve been reading the history books. I have a new strategy, and this is why I am going to convince you to give me what I need.”
Another [General] would have been fired off the walls of Pallass for losing half of the [Soldiers] Thelican had. But even Chaldion would admit that Thelican was a slow learner—not a dunce who learned nothing at all. Thelican tapped one side of his nose as his servants filled a cup with water.
Interestingly—a beautiful wooden cup. Carved out of some expensive smokewood, which left amazing whorls in the white-black design—but wood. Thelican had observed the [Chancellor] using a wooden cup and demanded one himself so as to not rile the man further.
“Mage Throwers. I need them—and ballistae. No [Mages].”
“No [Mages]? The Hundred Thousand Tomes Academy will be happy about that. They were not pleased by their losses.”
“Well—not more than I would ask for six legions. But give me siege weapons. We didn’t bother because I was putting down a rebellion—but I will adjust my tactics against Pomle accordingly.”
“You need to give me more than that.”
Loqi was tapping his fingers on the desk—then he jerked, swatted at something, and Thelican heard a metallic buzz. He winced as a copper beetle flew away, and Loqi raised his voice.
“Servants! Another one! I will tell you this, Thelican. It almost beats living in the capital, serving on the front lines.”
He scowled, and the [Great General] managed not to roll his eyes. As if a few bugs were the same as conducting a war. Idiot. A Stitch-woman filled his cup as he spoke.
“The best of us suffer eternally, Loqi. Very well, you want tactics? I plan on drawing Pomle out of their oasis if I can. They are allied with Tiqr and must defend themselves from an encircling siege.”
“—And when they come to fight you?”
Thelican spread one hand.
“I let them. No more mass-assaults. No more charges. I reviewed how we fought Pomle last time, and this time, I shall park my siege weapons and let them charge me—if they dare. Hold my troops. Let them deflect arrows with their fists. I have tens of thousands.”
“They do too well in a massed army. Bombarding them worked. I could use a [Champion] if one is available. Perhaps a [Gladiator Champion]?”
Nerrhavia also fielded famous warriors who battled foes at the heads of their army. In fact—Mars had been one such until she met Flos Reimarch and decided to work for him. The [Chancellor] looked happier after understanding Thelican’s plan.
“That…seems better than the far-fetched plans I’ve heard to defeat the King of Destruction. Very well, I will submit your proposal before the Council of Steel. Do you have any other tricks?”
“Ah, Loqi. I always have another trick.”
Thelican tapped his nose again and smiled—and the [Chancellor] gave him a cooler smile, but nodded. And the truth was—
This too was mostly adequate. Thelican kept the smile until the spell ended—then he spat and rose.
“Damn [Martial Artists]. But it will be a feather upon my helmet the size of a Roc to best them.”
Not even the [Generals] of thirty years ago had done that. Setbacks were inevitable. He stroked his chin—then glanced to one side.
Being a [Great General] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had some perks. He had to demand troops from the [Chancellor], but he had a few keys to…weapons of Nerrhavia’s Fallen he might not technically be allowed to have. Yet the Court of Steel was incautious, and the throne wasn’t as overbearing as it had been in older times.
They were embroiled with the pest problem and that fight between the royal bloodlines.
“Ah, Prince Zenol, you choose your friends poorly.”
Thelican shook his head as he inspected a weapon of resort. As in—he would resort to it if he had to. He touched the glass tubing and jumped and swore as it shocked his hand. Then he decided he had better not touch it.
If it went off, even a Stitch-folk like him wouldn’t be reconstructed from the damage it would do. Thelican then decided he would have some fine company and settled back to wait for his reinforcements. He found a map and began circling the flattest, most open ground spots he could find around Pomle. No valleys, no foliage for cover, no rivers or nuisances like that.
Textbook. His history books had told him that his predecessors had tried everything on the old Strongest of Pomle—but had deemed Pomle not worth the effort of going the full margin. Thelican? It had occurred to him multiple times he could simply sue for peace and quash the insult to one of the [Princes]. But why would he?
He always thought he was going to win. Every single battle. And as statistics showed if he bothered to compile them—
Half the time, he was right.
The most powerful asset on Pomle’s side was not the [Empress of Beasts]. Nor was it Orjin. The most powerful ally Pomle had was called Salii.
She created Pomle’s economy. She was responsible for healing potions, food, the refugees and freed slaves having places to stay. Without her, there was no war front, just a bunch of hungry [Martial Artists] and starving people fighting with each other and looking around for a ten-year-old potion or slapping mud-bandages on injuries.
She had taken Orjin’s side because she wanted to counter-level. Because she got rewards for [On The Job Training], actual Skills for giving her employers good service.
And because she rather liked Pomle, for all it was crazy. It was a kind of successful crazy.
The problem was this: Salii was also good at math. She was logical, made few mistakes, and could calculate where odds intersected with willpower and effort. She was no machine of math, but she used it along with a sense of people.
So she knew Pomle was going to lose.
It wasn’t hard to calculate. Even given their victories and Tiqr rising…even if you assumed counter-levelling would change things—
Let’s assume you had a thousand Orjins. Which they did not have. Let’s assume none of them died. To beat Nerrhavia down, you would have to have each Orjin kill a thousand soldiers. And that…would wear down their standing forces.
Not their conscripts. Those thousand would have artifacts, some of them, be [Mages], and fight you all at once.
The only way to win this war was when Nerrhavia sued for peace. And the problem was…
[Intercept Communications: Yordv Cotton]. Salii yanked a piece of paper out of the air and read it grimly as she paced around one of the homes she’d had built and commandeered.
“Six legions? Magic throwers…this isn’t good.”
She noted down the numbers. Yordv Cotton was one of Thelican’s [Strategists]. Not a high-level one; he reported to a superior, and Yordv was an idiot.
If he were smart, he’d question why one-in-twenty of his reports went missing. But he didn’t and instead just told the [Mages] to resend them and issued a complaint. It was nice going up against amateurs.
Salii had calculated that Nerrhavia would try to destroy Pomle just because they hated losing. But she had hoped Flos and the other issues would make them sue for peace.
She had a weak spot, it seemed, against unpredictable opponents. Like Erin Solstice. Or General Thelican’s asinine ego.
Sometimes, Salii wished she had the power to just—fight. Not manage. It would make her life simpler since people would manage her. She considered her options.
“I could leave.”
She did not want to. That gave you a bad reputation. Plus, it would be losing, and she hated losing. Yet the time was right.
[Spiritguard Deflection] was one of the Skills her big Level 50 capstone—[On The Job Training For Services Rendered]—had given her. It was a free Skill that was awarded for her efforts, not her level.
As an example—Salii’s [Intercept Communications] was a Skill that came from working from her previous job in a corporate setting. It was one of three she had gained.
She had just gained her second Skill here from working for Pomle during the war. Ahead of schedule by a year, but she’d take it.
[Martial Arts Proficiency: Style of the Roving Wall].
What a mouthful. But it technically meant that Salii was 2 out of the 3 Skills she thought she wanted from each of her employers. Not a bad time to cut her losses.
“…Not yet. Not yet. This is far better than working for the company.”
The power of her employer, Orjin, or the necessity of her work in Pomle might have upgraded her Skills. Salii wanted to test out her Skill—she’d gotten it just last night.
She made a fist and punched the air. She had never been a brawler and immediately felt stupid. How did Pomle’s warriors do that without turning red? Salii coughed—then picked up her clipboard and went to find Orjin.
Ironically, she didn’t need to make it to him to find a reason to use her Skill. The Drake took one step outside her home and ducked so fast it saved her from being clocked in the head.
Salii’s claw came up, and she blocked a kick going towards her face. An off-guard [Martial Artist] blinked at her—then someone grabbed the surprised Human and threw him.
“Someone get the Strongest! Stop fighting—enough!”
“We will settle this now! Master Vandum’s Disciples—to me! To me! Pomle is under attack!”
“W—warriors of Windcaller! Fight these fools!”
There were four different sides in here! Salii could [See Allegiances]. She saw Vandum’s so-called Disciples of the Martial Era fighting with their enchanted gauntlets against Sorron and Jalte’s [Stonebody Martial Artists]. But there were two more groups in the mix.
One was…a group of bald-headed warriors defending themselves with staffs and only robes for armor. They were doing well—but there were only eighteen of them in a melee nearly a hundred strong. The most numerous side by far—which made her remember them—were losing to all three other sides.
Windcaller Wrath. The cult that had tried to challenge Pomle had nearly forty members—who were getting punched, thrown, or knocked flat. Mind you—they weren’t entirely incompetent. Some were throwing wind-based punches and landing a few decent blows. Unfortunately—the melee was engulfing anyone who looked like a threat.
And it was right in front of her house! Salii ducked a jet of wind, and then her body started moving for her. She raised her clipboard—
—And knocked down a punch from a surprised [Sparkfist]! He recoiled—then saw her.
“Secretary? You can fight?”
“No—stop fighting. Don’t make me get Orjin—”
But it was too late. The fight-loving idiot raised his fists and punched again experimentally.
Salii had no idea how her new [Martial Arts Proficiency] Skill worked. As it happened—it was like a [Weapon Proficiency] with a warrior. She somehow knew how to fight—and her clipboard thwacked down the fist.
“Ow. How did you do that?”
The Garuda looked puzzled as he rubbed his gauntlet. His fist had hit something like steel.
“[Indestructible Clipboard]. Don’t—”
He jumped into a flurry of punches and even a stomp meant to catch her tail before ending with a side-kick. And Salii—blocked.
One hand shoved aside a blow coming for her face. Another step took her tail lashing back—and her clipboard deflected a punch before she spun it down. The kick hit the clipboard’s edge, and Salii saw the [Sparkfist]’s face tighten a bit in pain as it dug into his bare flesh. He stepped back, struck his gauntlets together, and they ignited, shooting electricity everywhere. He grinned—
And Orjin tapped him on the shoulder. The [Sparkfist] whirled, blanched, threw a fi—
Orjin’s throw was faster than Salii could follow, proving that her Skill had limits. He grabbed the [Martial Artist] with one hand along his arm—the other on his opposite leg. Then he spun the [Sparkfist] straight into a group of brawling fighters.
Throwing nearly two hundred pounds of flesh at someone that fast stopped the fight. Orjin turned and began to throw out jabs. He walked between two [Grapplers] trying to knock each other down and punched them both. Salii watched people fall down and, panting, lowered her clipboard.
Someone clapped. Salthorn grinned as she stared at Salii, and the Drake realized half of Pomle’s guests and fighters were staring at her.
“Did you always move like that? Were you hiding it, [Secretary]?”
“New Skill. Same Drake. What do you think? Am I challenging the Strongest tomorrow or next year?”
Salthorn laughed, and the Selphid casually walked over to one of her students. The Dullahan gulped and lowered her fists as Salthorn stared at Mendi, her best student, but it was too late.
Salthorn’s [Weightless Throw] sent her apprentice thirty feet. Up. Salii saw Mendi twisting to land right—but the thump still made her wince. The Selphid dusted her hands off.
“Battle ability that comes from a Skill is genuine—but you’ll be a cut behind anyone in Pomle who’s reached…oh, Level 20? At your level, you can probably count on it to keep you safe from a mugging in a big city. It’s very defensive. Lots of parries. I wonder if I—”
She came at Salii suddenly, jabbing in strikes, punching—Salthorn was a [Grappling Master], so she wasn’t as fast—
But she was still over Level 40. Salii, yelping, called for her to stop, but the Selphid’s onslaught didn’t reach her. Salii’s hands knocked down punches, and she used her clipboard as an impromptu shield—right until Salthorn spun, kicked it as Salii held it two-handed, and launched her into the wall of her house.
Salii slid down, dazed, and Salthorn lifted a hand.
“Oops. Sorry. Your body’s not that enhanced. But you did very well. A Level 15 [Swordsman] might not touch you that easily in an actual fight with a bared blade. And with your deflection Skill, you could survive a battlefield. Though you should wear armor.”
Salii lay on the ground for a bit and decided she was not going to show off among Pomle’s lot. But Orjin’s rather amused look made her get up and smile.
“On the job training?”
He knew her Skill, and the Drake dizzily nodded.
“Next Skill should be something that gives me either muscles or tougher scales. But I’ll take it.”
“You looked adept. Six years, or three if you were gifted, would give you those kinds of innate reflexes. A Skill did it overnight.”
He sighed, and Salii shook her head.
“Don’t let’s start. Thank you for beating up the idiots. Now—who did Vandum and Sorron’s people attack? If it’s who I think it is, they might deserve less punishment.”
She pointed, and Orjin frowned as he stared at the forty-some beaten disciples and the [Monks]—whom he had not punched. One bowed to him, and Orjin looked at the Cult of Windcaller’s Fury as the Fury of Skies himself lifted a trembling hand from the stretcher on which his people were bearing him.
They looked—beaten. And the Fury of Skies’ face showed that more than anyone else. Salii stared at the [Monks] and Orjin at the cult who came back far humbler to Pomle. He leaned over to Salii and whispered.
“…The wind-ones look familiar. Do I know them?”
She covered her face with one claw and sighed.
“T-they called themselves the People of G-god. Not dead gods. G-o-d.”
It took the Fury of Skies a bit to explain. Partly because someone had broken a third of his teeth and his face was incredibly bruised—and they had no healing potions. Partly because the word itself was hard.
“They kept coming, more and more. Calling our cult a—fakery. Then they said that the Prophet wouldn’t allow us to keep spreading lies. And we fought. At first, we won—but they ignored wounds. They healed, and some had strange powers. More than magic. The Fury of Skies faced their best warriors and laid them low. Sixteen—”
They were describing a fight along Zeikhal, the Great Desert. Both the ‘Prophet’, whom Salii had heard about, and the Cult of Windcaller’s Fury were liminal groups in the eyes of any nation.
Both took donations and had—apparently—very devoted followers. As Salii understood it, Windcaller’s Fury was, uh…not that discerning where their income came from.
They lay on the edge of a protection racket, and their followers gave up homes and all they had to learn from their spiritual leader, the Fury of Skies, who did have a decently high level. At least mid-thirties—but his brand of ‘martial arts’ was more show than anything.
He could conjure the wind—but Orjin had proven what actual battlefield technique did. Yet his cult did fight [Bandits] and preach a kind of way of life. The Prophet had objected.
“Let me guess. The first sixteen you fought were amateurs, and then they sent an actual warrior against you.”
Vandum sneered. The Fury of the Winds glared—but the fight was out of him. He flinched his eyes downwards.
“They were not. Whatever you think of me—they were decent enough. Strange powers. Blinding…one conjured a weapon of light, but I avoided it. But then I beat the sixteenth, and the Prophet sent against me what he called a [Bishop].”
“Who is the Prophet?”
“Just a man.”
One of the weary followers of the Windcaller’s Fury said that derisively, but the others looked nervous. The Fury of Skies himself shook slightly.
“He might be man. But that [Bishop]…called something. It was not a summoning spell. It had a burning gaze and wings, and it bested me. They called it a miracle, and then they fought us.”
Again. And again. So viciously that they stripped the Cult of Windcaller’s Fury of their possessions—including healing potions—and the battered Fury of Skies ended up in this state.
“That’s a lack of honor in combat. Practical, but it makes them sound like [Bandits] in their own right. Interesting abilities, though.”
Xil seemed interested, but no one in Pomle was about to go out and avenge Windcaller’s Fury. Salii pressed the Fury of Winds.
“Are they coming for you? Is that why you came?”
“No. No…they took everything. We came because we were defeated. We—I came because I must retrain.”
Again, Vandum snorted, but Orjin glanced at him, and he fell silent, rolling his eyes. Salthorn looked amused, but no one among Pomle’s seniors said anything.
“That is why Pomle exists. But where did the Prophet go if not here?”
“North. North…to a promised land. A deserving land to preach his…faith. Where his words will echo. I do not envy any nation he goes against. My own cult listened to his words, and over half my people went to him.”
“His is hardly a standing army. Even if they can summon…whatever that is.”
Salii was going to get details, but the Fury of Skies just looked—scared.
“They had more powers than just that. Healing without potions.”
Really? Well—Orjin broke the short silence.
“We could use that. If you wish to stay, Pomle is open to all. But we are at war…Fury of Skies. If you want to remain, you may need to fight. That is one thing. Why have the [Monks] of Galam come?”
Salii knew that name. She slowly reached for a clipboard, thinking of her Skill.
[Glossary of Salii: Galam].
She was returned with several pieces of information that flickered onto her clipboard. Everything Salii knew, neatly organized in her own writing and thoughts.
Galam. Monastery of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Independent. Affiliations—Emper, Stitch-man [Monk] of Stargazer’s Promise.
Of course. The leader bowed.
“Our [Abbot] bid us make this journey, Strongest. To come to Pomle and support you. One of the few remaining homes of martial arts should not fade without support.”
“Now there’s a warrior to listen to. Do you fear reprisal?”
Vandum’s eyes lit up. The [Battle Monk] shook his head.
“We have always chosen the side we feel is right. If Nerrhavia’s Fallen decides Galam need not exist for our actions here—so be it. We are staff-fighters mostly, Strongest. Some of us are trained with throwing bolas, and we have taken oaths of poverty. We are not Sottheim—but we do practice the Way of the Willow. Half our number have learned [Perfect Arrowstorm Guard] with the staff.”
Learned Skills! Pomle was instantly fascinated, and so was Salii. It took a lot of training to guarantee the passage of a Skill, and half the [Monks] had it? It turned out the junior ones weren’t high-enough level to gain it; every single [Monk] who reached Level 30 invariably got it. One of them could block entire volleys of arrows in a fight.
They were, thus, instantly welcomed in Pomle, not least for having the courage to oppose the nation from which they hailed. Another group might welcome them with suspicion; in Pomle, [Monks] were a known class who did well.
The Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath was not welcome, though. If it was just the idea of free, semi-useless shields for arrows and blades, then even Vandum would have accepted them.
However, this lot needed food, bandages if not healing potions, and they would strain Pomle’s already overfull community. Orjin was clearly reluctant to accept them too, until Salii ferreted some information out for him.
“Let me just write down a summary of the event…[Confirm Document]. Nope, that part is false.”
She crossed it out with a bit of red ink and then read out a truer summary for the Strongest.
“Windcaller’s Wrath did not start that fight, Orjin. Some of Sorron’s people spotted them coming in and assumed it was an attack. Vandum’s disciples did not make things better and tried to force the cult out before they could speak to you. On the premise that Pomle didn’t need useless fighters.”
Orjin frowned, and Sorron and Vandum both stirred at this. Neither one seemed ready to apologize, though. In another time—
In another time, half the senior warriors would ask ‘why do you care?’ And that would be that. Pomle would take care of itself, and a large group would either survive or vanish like the rest without aid or hostility. If they caused trouble, Pomle would take care of it.
Now, though, Sorron was first to speak. The Stitch-woman crossed arms covered with scars.
“Strongest, I object to this cult joining us. Even if they fight with us—they will spread this Fury of the Winds’ teachings.”
“It’s inferior. If they come amongst us, at least have them join a master who can teach them how to fight. Xil, myself, Vandum…”
Orjin’s eyes found Vandum, and the [Martial Artist] said little to the Strongest directly—but from the way he and Sorron looked at each other…
“Something tells me the reason I found Vandum’s people and yours brawling outside my hut didn’t have to do with the cult at all. Plus—you involved the monks. That was no accident.”
Salii’s voice was crisp as she put something together. She shot the two masters a look.
“Are we having infighting now? Really? That’s the most Drake thing I’ve ever seen in the middle of a war.”
Both reacted to the accusation at once. Sorron explained herself, looking embarrassed.
“We were simply—proving what is effective. In a war. Testing the newcomers.”
“Pomle’s law is not to attack those who do not wish to fight.”
Orjin’s frown was deepening. Vandum returned with a soft tone that was too calm.
“Nerrhavia is doing that already. And Savere. If the newcomers were better than we were—better to know and learn from them.”
He was not going to apologize. Orjin’s method of resolving this challenge to his rules was to grunt.
“The next time someone coming to Pomle in peace is attacked, I will have Salii investigate. If a master is behind it…I will challenge them.”
Vandum’s head snapped up, and Sorron blinked in surprise. He’d challenge them?
“And if we—win, Strongest?”
Sorron kept blinking at him until Orjin’s level tone made her freeze slightly.
“Then you would be Strongest.”
“And if we lose?”
“Then I would be Strongest. And I would tell you to leave Pomle that day.”
A deep silence fell over everyone present, and many of Pomle’s warriors looked disconcerted by the ultimatum. Salii—thought it was well done. Orjin was no [Politician] or [Statesman]. Sorron held his gaze before nodding.
Vandum…waited a beat before nodding and turning away. He was going to challenge Orjin someday, Salii knew. She would prefer to work for Orjin. She hoped—he would wait until this war ended.
But then she had to tell the cult of Windcaller’s Wrath where they could settle, give them a run down on the rules and see if there were troublemakers, and figure out how to incorporate them into Pomle.
It was never—easy. Salii could manage that. But she couldn’t help Pomle with what she sensed. This war was doing more than just killing Pomle’s folk. That was…something that could never be undone.
But it was also shaking their convictions and changing the martial artists within.
Iratze was a former MMA trainer from Earth. He was not a professional fighter. He was an amateur middleweight, and he had gone into the cage—the term for the fighting area, though sometimes they would use an actual boxing ring—enough times to know he’d never have a professional career.
But he was definitely good enough to help an amateur train, and the gym he’d worked at had seen actual professionals ranked at the top of the sport train there. One of the larger gyms in San Francisco.
That was his life until he was transported to another world. Iratze had considered he might someday have to use his training to defend himself in a fight—and he was aware of the legal ramifications of being associated with a sport.
—In that if a professional baseball pitcher threw a rock in a fight or any setting and hurt someone, that was assault with a deadly weapon. In the same way, if a boxer punched you, it was not the same as some random person, because their fists were among the most dangerous ones on the planet. So he had actually been cautious.
And he had understood the truth that his own trainer had taught him and his class on day one. He had pulled out a video—back when they used DVDs—and showed them a recording of a blackbelt getting beaten in a street fight by four people who’d never taken a martial art.
You did not pick fights. Learning MMA or any martial art did not make you bulletproof or able to take on four-to-one odds. With that said—there were absolutely Human beings who Iratze would put money on being able to take down four of anyone because they were 6’5’’ monsters who could end someone’s world with a single punch. But he bet they would be nervous in that situation too because someone could pull out a gun. Or just a knife.
So, the practitioner of Earth’s most advanced and modern form of hand-to-hand combat stood there, posture set, arms raised in a guard, giving his opponent less of him to look at. Side-on—it meant instead of his entire body, you got only his bare shoulder and one side of his body.
He felt naked—not that he wasn’t used to going in with only pants and wraps on—but naked here because there were over a hundred people watching him. But what made him feel uneasy—the crazy part…
…Was that he was staring at a man holding a spear aimed right at him. The challenge to Earth’s martial artist was simple. The [Soldier] of Tiqr had a spear and a shortsword. He was wearing plain iron armor, some kind of overlapping layers of thin plate metal on his arms, legs, and head. Chainmail across his torso.
The spear was steel—and sharp. It was seven feet long, though the [Soldier] was choked up a bit on it. It even had a guard, so that if someone ran onto it, they wouldn’t slide down the shaft and could be kicked off. The guard was also sharp and could be swung sideways to hammer a nail through the side of your head.
Iratze hadn’t seen the shortsword, but it was definitely sharp. He was sweating already. The goal posed to the representative of MMA was this:
Here is a soldier of the medieval age. Pretend you’re not worried about arrows. Pretend it’s just one soldier, not a battalion. Forget magic and Skills.
Take him out with your bare fists.
If one of Iratze’s trainees had come up to him and given him this scenario, Iratze would have told them it was almost certainly suicide. You did not fight a sword with your bare hands. Yet if he had to?
“…I’d put on some armor.”
It was the first thing he could think of. The [Martial Artists] watching stirred, and some made noises of discontent.
“You won’t even try?”
“He’s got a spear aimed at me.”
Every time Iratze moved right or left, the spear would track him. If he jumped in—it would slash, and he had to run down seven feet of it. True, once you got past the tip and guard, you weren’t in danger of that—but the [Soldier] would draw his sword.
And he was fast. All he had to do was swing that sword once and Iratze’s bare skin would fly open. There were no practice weapons here.
Vandum called out impatiently, and Iratze panted for air as someone found him some plated armor like the [Soldier] was wearing. It instantly slowed Iratze down, but the metal over his arms and legs made him feel like he had more of a chance.
He had only one way that he could see to take down that [Soldier]. No striking. No letting the other guy swing with the sword or draw a dagger. Iratze waited until they were both ready—then went for a takedown.
He had to get the other person on the ground. Nevermind that he might be stabbed with the sword or dagger—he would never punch them out with a helmet on, even with gauntlets. Take them down and then—armbar.
Iratze actually made it past the tip of the spear. He had his arms raised in a high guard, like a boxer, one fist to either side of his head. He also came in low, so low the spear had trouble tracking him from above.
Most people didn’t realize how close to the ground you could get—and it was the scariest thing to see nearly two hundred pounds coming at you from that angle. Iratze saw the [Soldier] lower the spear and draw the sword.
A Skill. The blade came out fast. Too fast. He had it in his hand, and the blade went down—and skated over the armor of Iratze’s back in an uncoordinated slash. Iratze grabbed a leg and heaved it up as he slammed into the [Soldier]’s midsection. The double leg takedown worked.
They went down in a crash of metal, and the sword was still in the other man’s hand. He refused to let go of it, and the hilt slammed into Iratze’s cheek so hard he feared he’d cracked a tooth. But he was rotating his head down—swinging his legs up around the sword-arm, and pulling with his might.
“Aaaah! Aaaaa—stop! Stop-stop-stop—”
The shout of agony from the trained soldier in Tiqr’s army made everyone stare. It looked—ridiculous to them, Iratze bet.
It seemed as though the man from Earth had crawled onto the [Soldier]’s arm and was curling his legs around the arm and pulling it straight. A ridiculous position that few of Pomle’s [Martial Artists] would even consider getting into. Iratze’s head was aimed at the ground—he didn’t have the [Soldier] in a choke or pin.
But he was currently about to dislocate the man’s elbow or fracture the bone in half. What he was doing was an armbar—a move where his weight and strength was all overextending one very weak spot on the Human—or humanoid body.
The elbow. If Iratze pulled—he let go as he realized the sword was resting against his chest and the [Soldier] was crying out. He felt shaken as he stood. That—he’d almost just pulled the arm out of the socket in his fear.
He won, but as he rose, feeling at his bloody cheek, and Pomle’s [Martial Artists] stomped, the first words from Iratze’s mouth were—
“I’m not doing that ever again. Trying that in an actual battle would get me killed, I’m certain. I didn’t have a better way to take my opponent out. Swords…MMA doesn’t account for swords.”
He wasn’t sure if there was any hand-to-hand style in the entire history of Earth that had a good answer for how to beat someone with a sword or dagger—aside from having one yourself. If you could get someone on the ground in a grappling match, MMA might make up for not having a weapon—but a dagger would kill you before you got that armbar or pin off.
Vandum clapped Iratze on the shoulder as he offered him some water to wash his bloody mouth.
“What a strange maneuver. Armbar? It crippled him in a moment. He could have struck you or reached for another blade—but the pain was too much?”
“The pain was too much.”
“Yet if you broke his arm, you would lose some leverage. And I have known men who lose a limb and keep fighting.”
Vandum was one of them. If it were him—Iratze wondered if he would twist, breaking his own arm, and come for Iratze with a dagger in hand and nothing to lose.
The thought chilled Iratze’s blood and reaffirmed a truth he had realized the moment he’d come to Pomle and seen Orjin fighting the Fury of Winds.
Pomle did not practice the same kind of martial arts from Earth. Theirs were not…combat sports or self-defense. They were aspiring towards a type of hand-to-hand combat that could be used in a war and against blades.
He would have called them crazy. The best athletes and masters from his world would have said it was impossible, and it probably was—without Skills.
“I don’t like how exposed the armbar makes you. But I will admit—Sorron! Can we have one of your [Stonebody] disciples here? Iratze, try that on them. No one has managed to twist their arms.”
The first disciple of Sorron was a Drake, rare in Pomle—and had arms twice as large as Iratze’s. The [Grappler] gulped.
Iratze was a Level 18 [Grappler]—a fast rise in his levels for such a short time. Mostly due to being forced to spar with literal masters of Pomle, but he hadn’t fought in any war. He didn’t want to, and the other Earthers didn’t either.
Compared to this Level 31 [Stonebody Martial Artist]—he was outlevelled, and there was not a little bit of arrogance in the Drake’s eyes as he let Iratze grab one arm.
He was not prepared for Iratze to execute a standing armbar, though. This was a variation where Iratze captured the arm and twisted up, using his body weight to pull the Drake into him and pull his arm up—while forcing his head down.
Another way to break it. It—did not go the way Iratze wanted. He got the move off, and the surprised [Martial Artist] either let it happen or didn’t react right away. Then he pulled up—
And the arm wouldn’t move.
Iratze couldn’t believe it. He had control of the wrist! The muscle of the grimacing Drake might be inferior to his entire body’s strength—
But his sinew and bones were tough as iron! Iratze pulled—and the Drake shifted—but refused to tap.
“I—need to use my other arm. I can’t free it. Do I try, Master Vandum?”
“Hm. No. Iratze’s failed. You can’t move it, can you?”
It was the most unsettling feeling in the world. If Iratze had an armbar like that on someone even twice his weight, he expected it to work. Yes, an expert could reverse it or get out of it—but that body scared Iratze.
It wasn’t natural. Yet—when he and the Drake got on the ground and he pulled him into a full armbar with his legs, the weight and advantage there caused the gasping [Stonebody Martial Artist] to tap out.
“Give! I give!”
“Ah! His full weight did it. Sorron, we’ve finally found someone besides Salthorn who can out-grapple your people!”
The Stitch-woman was scowling—but only a tiny bit. And she and Jalte came over and both patted Iratze on the shoulders. You could tell they loved training and learning in and of itself, because the defeat to their style meant compliments from their mouth.
“It is a superior way of holding someone. All that weight…it looked silly to me and required so much flexibility to even get in position for it. But now I see. The question is—will it work on Jalte?”
The second highest-level [Stonebody]—and his class was [Ironbody]—felt like a rock. When Iratze pulled with all his might, Jalte admitted to a bit of pain. A tiny bit—and he then stood up with Iratze hanging off him and swung the [Grappler] around a bit until Iratze let go.
“Level difference. Orjin could pull your arm out of your socket. Or I could. But even Earth’s armbar won’t stop a Named-rank with the right Skills.”
Vandum observed calmly. He was already breaking down how the move that would incapacitate practically every Human on Earth…just failed here. The [Bridge of the Martial World] ticked off points on his hand.
“It would not work on Selphids. You’d break their arms but nothing else. Dullahans would just give you their arm, which is a weakness, but you cannot joint-lock them. Nagas don’t have the right body type. An Oldblood would succumb—but they can breathe Dragonfire at close range. This would not work on a monster without limbs like ours, and Skills can throw or remove you. Magic likewise. But if you get it off—the agony will incapacitate most.”
In fact, he made Sorron do the armbar on him, and his face contorted in agony until he tapped out. When Vandum stood, he was impressed. And yet also disappointed.
“You don’t have a martial art that can solve a lower-level fighter’s issues of closing with the foe? Nothing in Earth’s thousands of years?”
He pressed Iratze, and the young man shook his head.
“We don’t have—levels. We do self-defense. We don’t have hand-to-hand fighting. We have knife-fighting, but that’s a last resort.”
“Hah. You hear that, Sorron? Earth’s best warriors combine blades or ‘guns’ with our discipline. Grappling like Salthorn’s is perfect for duels—but we need to incorporate everything into our lofty ideals. You asked for armor when facing a spear. That’s proof enough.”
Vandum clapped Iratze on the shoulder again, and the young man realized he was being drawn into the debate engulfing Pomle. Sorron shot back.
“Yet his techniques did not work on our style entirely. Iratze, there isn’t anyone on Earth who has skin like steel, is there? Wouldn’t that change how your people fought?”
She looked around, and Raul finally saved his friend. He was another member of the gym that Iratze had been working at—who had been taken to this world in a huge mass.
“We actually, uh, do have that idea. Powered armor. It’s mostly a concept because we can’t make it, but if we did—”
Iratze rolled his eyes at him, but Sorron walked over, and nearly a dozen Earthers all tried to explain it was fiction, superheroes—the woman smiled as she turned to Vandum.
“Our way isn’t outmoded. What say you, Salthorn?”
The Selphid had been watching it all, including Iratze’s moves. She was the greatest master in throwing and grappling in Pomle, and Iratze had tried the armbar on her—only for her to literally reverse it on him in a flash. Then for fun, she’d let him do it, dislocated her arm, and laughed at his expression.
Now, though, the Selphid looked troubled.
“I say—Mendi should not have fought to prove any style was superior, including my own. Orjin was right. We all practice what we believe to be true.”
“But some of our methods fall behind. With greatest respect, Salthorn. You are peerless when we are close—but your apprentices cannot execute your maneuvers in battle.”
She nodded tiredly. Vandum was being gentle—for him—but it was true. Mendi had survived as Salthorn’s best apprentice, but the war in Pomle had killed a lot of fighters—and Salthorn’s grapplers, who had to get skin-to-skin to fight their enemies, had suffered badly in the melees.
This demonstration was already pulling ‘neutral’ [Martial Artists] towards Vandum or Sorron’s camps. And away from Salthorn and even experts like Lemocles. But then—the [Martial Artist of the Foiren Style] was silent, watching.
He was a lightning-fast striker. Someone who had loudly espoused a punching and kicking style that darted in, unloaded three or more blows in the time it took others to throw a single punch, and leapt away. It had been a popular thing for [Martial Artists] to train under him to improve their speed.
He had been one of Pomle’s masters who had gone out to fight during the three sieges of Pomle. His noisy training—some punches literally sounded like they cut the air, and the kicks snapped—was no longer echoing around Pomle. Nor did he have more than two apprentices left. The reason was simple.
Lemocles was missing one of his hands. A [Swordmaster] had lopped it off in battle. All that training and expertise—gone.
Vandum and Sorron were moving up, Lemocles’ ideals being forgotten. Salthorn watched as one of her apprentices never met her eyes and spoke with Vandum’s pupils. The [Bridge of the Martial World] noticed and leaned over to Iratze to murmur.
“It’s not a competition. Nor should we ignore the other methods. But we are always stealing. Always building our own comprehensive methods. Sorron is all about defense. I? I adapt. Thank you for demonstrating your own knowledge.”
He moved on, and hundreds followed him immediately. Lemocles sat there—until a man who had been speaking to Salii and the Fury of Winds walked over.
Orjin had been watching everything, and the Strongest of Pomle always caused a kind of hush when he appeared. But he had no apprentices. He trained alone and claimed no style. Vandum looked back from his own training grounds, and Sorron stopped. But all Orjin did was halt next to Lemocles.
“Have you put on the fake fist Salii found for you?”
The gaunt [Martial Artist] had not eaten or moved much. He looked up and replied slowly.
“—Slower. Slower and weaker, and it shatters.”
“Then use your good fist. Train with me.”
Lemocles would not move, but Orjin stood there like a shadow as people moved around them. Ten minutes, twenty—
Twenty-two minutes later, as Iratze was speaking to Gospe, another Earther, Lemocles leapt to his feet and threw a punch with a shout of annoyance.
Orjin blocked it. The other man set his pose—and his hand blurred in a jab—no, two! So fast Iratze thought he would have ruled Earth’s boxing world—any world involving striking if he had gone there, one hand or not.
Orjin couldn’t block them all, but he tried. A few punches landed, and he counted.
He began using one hand, and then they stopped to debate whether or not Lemocles should stand side-long with his good arm outstretched or if he could use his off-hand in a defensive position. Then they were calling Raul, who was a boxer, over to debate form. And that was Pomle.
Different kinds of Pomle, moving in different directions. Iratze wiped blood from his face, and someone spoke to him.
“Iratze, what are we doing here? There’s no way they’ll win a war like this.”
Gospe looked worried. She had just been visiting the gym with some friends—she was no [Martial Artist] at heart. Iratze…shook his head.
“They took us in when we had nowhere to go. Do you think we can make enough gold elsewhere? Where would we go?”
He looked up, and she turned. Some of the other members of his group looked at Iratze.
“We’re from Earth. We tell the Crafter-Magus—it’s rich. It’s safe. They’ve got Golems and—all we need to do is get there. We could go back whenever Domehead runs away again.”
Iratze hesitated. He looked at her and saw how miserable she was. He? He stood there, in this fascinating place where Pomle had decided to change the world and challenge magic and steel with their fists. It called to him. But she?
“Talk to Salii.”
He patted her shoulder with one arm, and she gave him a sad look.
“You should come with us. You don’t want to fight in this war, Iratze. You’re not—they’re not invincible.”
Masters losing limbs. Pomle’s warriors falling—Iratze looked around and saw Orjin, slowly speeding up as he blocked strike after strike. His arm and Lemocles’ were blurring.
A punch faster than you can see. Lemocles had introduced himself to Iratze by releasing sandflies and then catching them, one by one, with two fingers. Iratze shook his head.
“Maybe it’s not perfect. But I want to be like them. They’re onto something here.”
He stared at Orjin with more admiration than he had ever given even the best fighters in his world. Because Orjin could do what was literally impossible. Split the air, leap to the top of the canyon walls, balance on a shifting pile of stones—until Gospe replied.
“They can’t beat guns! Or armies. They’re a thousand [Martial Artists] against a million soldiers. They’ll lose.”
Thwack. Lemocles punched Orjin in the chest—the loudest and clearest impact. The Strongest’s focus had shifted. He looked over—and Gospe flinched, but the Strongest just replied in a clear and steady voice.
He was not blind or deaf.
The most deadly, nefarious, and unassailable enemy to Pomle came at them again and again. Not Nerrhavia.
The Siren had declared war on Pomle, and Tiqr, for the battle involving the Horns. And her forces…did not fall as easily as Nerrhavia’s. She had bested Vandum—though the Stitch-man had replaced his wounded limbs.
She had forced Sorron back and nearly killed her. Salthorn couldn’t get close. When the four masters came back, half-dragging Sorron, Orjin knew she had returned.
The Siren of Savere.
“It was a trap. Her [Rogues] were launching poisonous gas…we went out, and she was upon us. But for Sorron blocking her spells and Vandum throwing his trinkets—we would be dead.”
Xil landed like thunder, and the [Peerless Spearmaster] spat.
“You idiots. I told you time and again—leave her to me.”
None of them said anything. He should have moderated his words; they were all bleeding badly. Sorron had holes in her flesh.
Literal holes bored into her skin. Round and torn like…there was no equivalent weapon that Orjin had ever met. They had gone through Salthorn’s body, leaving gaps in her corpse’s frame, and Vandum’s armor was torn.
Water had done that. Jets of water, thousands of pounds of force concentrated into pinpoint jets that could tear metal apart.
“She’s come for Pomle?”
“I think…she’s been hired by Nerrhavia.”
“More poison! Wind spells, wind—”
Orjin looked up, and a puff of what looked like yellow dust appeared just inside the lip of the canyon. Another appeared—and then he saw an arrow being shot over the walls.
Savere was more difficult to fight than Nerrhavia because they did not send armies. They sent saboteurs, stealthed [Rogues] who shot poison and tried to snipe Pomle’s [Martial Artists].
In fairness, Pomle’s warriors were better at dealing with them than most. But the Siren—was another story.
“She has bested over half of Pomle’s masters who tried to go after her. No wonder she rules Savere with an iron fist, even with the [Pirates] and [Bandits] who come to her lands. Water. You had better watch out for her too. A shame the Empress of Beasts didn’t kill her when they came for Pomle’s peace.”
Xil murmured to Orjin. The Strongest just murmured back as he watched Vandum helping replace Sorron’s damaged limbs.
“None of them are poor at dodging. Even Sorron. How is she that unassailable in your mind?”
“Magic has always been a warrior’s bane. Ask them yourself. I’ll keep watch.”
He strode off. Orjin walked over and sat down next to Salthorn. The Selphid was grimacing.
“She blew off part of my body. Orjin—she wants you.”
“She said that?”
“She said, ‘bring the Strongest out to face me’. She wants to humiliate you or even claim Pomle. She might not understand how our system works.”
He doubted that. If he fell—who else in Pomle would stand against her? Xil had confidence, but the Siren was demonstrating her superiority in magic.
The Selphid closed her eyes.
“We tried to close with her. If we got close—”
They won. That was the logic of a [Martial Artist] versus a [Mage]. But they hadn’t managed it.
“She summoned a Water Elemental. Not a real one—but it blocked us. Walls of water—and those jets of it stopped Sorron cold. I tried to throw a water elemental. I had nothing to pin, nothing to grab. All my tricks—useless.”
She smiled painfully at him, and Orjin knew how much that hurt her ego.
“I managed it. [Holdless Throw]. Then she put a hole in my stomach.”
She said that as if throwing thousands of pounds of water was a light thing. But that moment had given Vandum an opening. He’d charged, intent on electrocuting the Siren—and she had raised a dome of water around herself.
“He tried to zap it with one of his artifacts, but she laughed at him until she nearly puked. It was—layered so whatever lightning struck it never reached her. He would have had to swim practically thirty feet, and he saw we were sitting ducks, so he fell back.”
Of them all, Vandum looked the least hurt. He was calmly taking a scroll out of one of his personal chests and equipping it to his belt.
“[Steelskin]. The next time we meet—she will have to try harder. But she is a vexing foe. Will you meet her, Strongest?”
Orjin sat there and thought a while. When he looked up, his blue eyes were blank.
“I have already beaten her in the first siege of Pomle. If she comes against us—I will find her.”
He stood and walked away. The other masters glanced up, and Vandum called out.
“What about her challenge?”
Orjin barely turned his head.
“She is not a warrior of Pomle.”
He killed an [Assassin] that night. They were a good one.
Orjin was in his hut, staring at a pile of unsorted sand when he exhaled and sensed the air moving. Though he had not heard the door open or close.
“You came through the wall. Vandum will be upset his people didn’t notice you.”
Silence. The shadows in his hut were almost all-encompassing because he had no glass or lights here save a single candle lantern. Then someone spoke, though Orjin could not tell from where.
“I am one of Savere’s Stilettos. If a low-level [Martial Artist] found me, I should kill myself on the spot.”
Orjin said nothing—but his legs were tensed in their sitting position. He was in a bad spot and couldn’t locate the [Assassin].
“You didn’t laugh at the name. Savere’s Stilettos? We didn’t choose it.”
“Was it meant to be funny? I—”
A blade pierced the back of his neck, but he was already twisting. The [Assassin] had expected him to duck—not for Orjin’s hand to go for the arm holding the blade itself. The deflection of the blade meant it ran down his spine and laid his skin open. Orjin felt the cut was too—wet.
It was such a fast attack. How had they done that? Orjin was on his feet, and the cramped hut was still.
“[An Opening Slash]. If you had laughed, it would have become [Uncontrolled Laughter].”
A fatal weakness. Orjin wondered how many people had died like that, chuckling only to find themselves guffawing when their guard should be up.
The voice fell silent, and they waited. Orjin felt blood running down his back—then clotting. Then…
The [Assassin] was waiting for him to keel over. Or show any sign the poison was working. Orjin had his hands raised.
Then they began to get—nervous. Because they realized Orjin was immune.
He’d trained with [Monks]. He had [Resistance: Poison]—so he was not immune, but he also had [Constitution of Half-Giants]. It took a lot of poison to take him down.
Stalemate, though. The blade could pierce his flesh. The [Assassin] might be preparing something else, and Orjin…Orjin stared at the sand floating around his hut. It did not leave a helpful imprint of where the [Assassin] was like he’d hoped. But it didn’t matter, did it?
He could sense the air around where the figure was breathing almost like a physical thing. Orjin’s lips moved as the silent figure tensed against the wall left and behind him.
“Lay down your weapons and surrender. I will not warn you again.”
And the voice—male or female he didn’t know—sounded almost sympathetic.
“I heard you were a monster of combat. A master shouldn’t hesit—”
Then a crunch. Then—the gurgling drip of something tearing—and he felt tiny ropes tearing. Strands—sinew wet and warm parting as he drew his hand back. Bone that had cracked like drywood against his hand.
He lowered his hand, and the [Assassin]’s head fell over. What remained of his neck—
Orjin stood there for a long time. Then he bent over and saw the [Assassin] had been lifting a wand. He lifted the body in his arms and walked outside of his hut as blood ran around the falling sand.
It caused no small commotion, and the masters agreed whomever this [Assassin] had been, they were good. At least Level 30—Salii pinpointed them as one of Savere’s Stilettos, the Siren’s own personal killers.
Not a Named-rank—but they’d had the drop on Orjin, and he’d won. After they’d applied their antidotes, Orjin sat in his hut.
He had a fever that night. A bad one that left his skin clammy and himself covered in sweat as his body fought the toxin in his bloodstream. He focused his breathing and forced what of it out that he could.
He wished he had [Expel Poisons], but all he could do was inhale, exhale—and focus as if he were preparing for a battle. It worked…but the smell of blood and the feelings of killing the [Assassin] lingered.
The Strongest took no pleasure in it. And he thought, not for the first time…Orjin gave vent to the emotions at last, finding just how to say it.
“I did not train in Pomle this long, or with this much passion, to kill more efficiently.”
He—disliked killing, he realized.
The second [Assassin] did not go after Orjin. They laid in wait and ambushed targets of opportunity. Sentries, off-guard warriors of Pomle.
Six were dead before Xil hunted that one down. Six—each one a good warrior. One had been in Pomle for eleven years, since he was a child.
The day after that, Orjin left Pomle. He walked out along the dusty road that connected the oasis to other waystations, across the roads of dry Chandrar that stretched across the southern coast and stood there, arms folded.
He waited there for three hours, staring into the distance. Orjin had brought only two things with him. The first—his spear, which was strapped to his back with a thin cord he could break with ease. The second? A sack of stones, the size of shot puts, each one rounded enough to his liking. That hung from his belt, weighing him down a bit on his right side.
When he sensed movement, Orjin lifted one of the stones.
“I know you’re there.”
Undeterred, the figure tried to keep crawling behind a three-foot high dune of sand. Only for Orjin to throw the stone so hard it blew the top of the dune into a plume of dust.
“Aah! Alright! Alright! Don’t attack! The Siren’s not here!”
“Where is she?”
The figure got up, and he saw it was a terrified woman, a [Rogue] who’d made her way close enough to where he sensed her presence and spotted her shadow—if not her body.
“She’s on her way. Tomorrow—east. Know that flat expanse beyond—fuck, this place is all desert—the one with the broken spires?”
“The training ground? Yes.”
“Well, she’ll be in the flat part of it. Right up where it turns into Zeikhal’s dunes. It’s not a trap. Uh—it’s not.”
Orjin just stared as the figure tried to backpedal away.
“Honest! Take your other masters. Take the Empress or that fucking Golem. She knows they won’t interfere. It’s you versus her. It’s not a trap. It’s not like we can hide ten thousand [Bandits] in this asscrack of a desert. Showdown. Got it?”
“I will be there.”
He turned away, and the [Rogue] shouted at his back.
“You will? Because she’ll be there, and it’s my head on the line if you don’t come! Seriously—show up! Not a trap! She’ll keep sending [Assassins] if you refuse to take her challenge! She’ll win, too! She’s got tons of water magic! Bets are 3:1 on her! So, uh…I’d send someone else if I were you!”
Only Savere’s Siren would place bets on a duel. And only she would be so confident in her combat abilities as to duel the Strongest of Pomle. Who else would dare?
Yisame? Even Nsiia knew the dangers of fighting someone like Orjin. The King of Destruction? Raelt of Jecrass? Fetohep—
Okay, maybe a lot of [Rulers] had the ego. But the truth was that when Xil finished his third flight above the location, he landed with a gigantic frown.
“I think it’s not a trap. At least, I can’t see anyone hiding there. Which means she probably has a teleportation spell ready to send them in.”
“She’d only be able to do a hundred even if she’s using a lot of money. She’s no Archmage. Odd. I don’t see any troop movements besides her bodyguard. Mind you—there’s two thousand of them on horseback. Her best—and I am not using quotation marks.”
Salii shaded her eyes with her clipboard, and the two turned to Orjin. The Strongest exhaled.
“So this is a proper duel.”
“No. It’s a trap.”
Both Xil and Salii instantly chorused. When Orjin raised his brows, they clarified.
“It’s just one we can’t see. Maybe the Siren thinks she can defeat you. The other masters couldn’t get close.”
“I beat her on the battlefield the first time.”
Salii bet the Siren did not appreciate that and it was one of the reasons why she wanted a rematch. She sucked in her cheeks and peered over the ridgeline down into the dueling area.
“Yes…but this time she’s ready. Orjin—aside from the trap we know she has—she’s really ready for you.”
The Strongest looked up. He had his spear and the sack of shot puts. The Siren?
Two Water Elementals were moving back and forth over the dusty ground. The Siren sat on her golden palanquin in her [Dome of Water] spell, layered several times deep. She had a floating reservoir of water around her, like a lake in the dry ground—and floating orbs of water ready to fire.
She looked like an artillery position all on her own. To Iratze, who poked his head up as Pomle’s warriors waited for the Strongest to make his move, he wondered how she would fare in a war. Could you actually even hit her with a bullet through those shields of water?
Compared to that, the Strongest really was practically unarmed. He didn’t even have armor on! Vandum was trying to get him to take some.
“Just wear this charm at least! It’s [Water Resistance]. She’ll hex you, Orjin.”
“No. If this is not a trap, I will fight her as she thinks is fair.”
“She’s using magic. She’s layers deep in enchantments—this is like a [Martial Artist] digging traps and drinking potions before a battle!”
“Nevertheless. If I best her, Savere may fall back. Vandum—you go back to Pomle. I do not trust the Siren not to attack. We are close enough that we will be able to race back if an army appears. Xil—”
“If she tries anything, I will run her through. My spear won’t be slowed by that amount of water. If she’s wise, she knows it. At sea would be different. Here? She thinks she’ll take you, though, Orjin.”
The Strongest was speaking to the others. Vandum strode back towards Pomle, not far in the distance, as he shook his head. Orjin just stared down into the bowl where the Siren waited.
Her bodyguard and the small army were jeering and calling for him. Taunting Orjin, claiming odd things they thought might rile him up about his genitalia, appearance, bravery—
He walked over the dune, and they fell silent a moment, then the raucous shouting grew louder. He just tuned it out. The Siren swiveled on her palanquin, then raised a finger—before catching herself. She beckoned, smiling.
He had thought about this. Orjin paused a moment as Pomle’s warriors, an equal force to the one that lay below, stood on the dune, waiting. They said nothing—cheered not at all for him.
Their silence made the [Bandits]’ voices falter. They kept shouting for a minute, two—and then the voices faded out awkwardly. The Siren glared—but the silence became oppressive.
Two kinds of warrior stared at each other. One feared no challenge, made no insult or jibe. Orjin began to walk down the dune, a stone in hand, unhooking the heavy bag from his belt and casting it down at his feet. He looked at all the Siren’s magic without fear.
But he thought—as he stopped there, nearly two thousand feet away from her—that for some reason hers was the purer warrior.
What a strange betrayal of Pomle. How were her [Bandits], drinking wine like they were on a picnic, sneering, laughing, who trained little if at all and fought with poison and cheated and lied better warriors than Pomle’s?
Perhaps because they were not conflicted. The Siren was not conflicted. She had come for one reason: to kill Orjin.
She raised a finger, and he nodded at her. He was ready. The Siren’s eyes were cold, and she was focused. He?
He did not want to kill. This war was meaningless to him. To her?
Two kinds of warrior. At least he was not so hidebound he expected a signal to start. When the first beam of compressed water, thin as a needle, shot towards his right eye, it would have punctured the eye and blown it into shreds.
Orjin leaned left, and it missed. The stream of water cut off in half a second, and the whining sound of it striking a dune made the others jump in surprise. But that was how much force had gone into that deadly [Water Jet].
The Siren fired another jet and another with her finger, pulses of water at his chest—then his groin. Orjin twisted out of the way of another, then stepped left. Two misses.
“I meant what I said, Strongest! A fair duel! Fair as it can be with your grimy fists versus my magic. You’d do well to surrender!”
Revine Zecrew shouted, half-rising from her palanquin. For reply—Orjin threw a rock at her.
In fairness, he twisted, spinning his body to add centrifugal force and heaved it, not tossed it with only the muscles in his arm. Revine flinched as the stone hit the first barrier of water and cracked.
It was hard! Orjin didn’t understand the physics of water, so he couldn’t fathom how the watery dome was moving so fast as to present a kind of barrier against projectiles. All he knew was that the stone literally cracked into pieces and sank through the water shield.
—And there were four more till the Siren. She laughed, pointed a finger, and sent a tidal wave racing at him—and one of her Water Elementals. Orjin picked up another stone, but let the bag lie. No way for him to win a ranged war. He wasn’t going to throw his spear; he was sure it would break even with the few Skills he had.
The wall of water was seven feet high, taller than he was, and came at him fast. It might be heavy enough to knock him flat and slam him down—but he just walked towards it, keeping his eye on the Water Elemental.
“Orjin, the water, the water!”
Salthorn was shouting at him. Orjin saw the wave surging at him—and jumped it.
A ten-foot jump straight over the wall of water, carrying him to the wet ground beyond. He had been a [Surefoot Martial Artist]; he feared no muddy ground. Orjin was ready to meet the Water Elemental.
What he was not prepared for was for the tidal wave to halt—then turn around and surge back at him. The Strongest didn’t know magic. He had assumed—
It crashed into him, and he kept his footing.
[Immovable Stance: Manticore].
To shift him, you would have to overpower the weight of a Manticore, thousands of pounds. The tidal wave tried—his feet shifted, and he grimaced at the impact.
Only to realize it was now swirling up to engulf him. The Strongest tried to jump—but it was around him, weighing him down like lead—
And he did not train long in the water in dry Chandrar.
The Siren’s bandits were laughing as the Strongest was engulfed in a sphere of water and began to drown. He was moving fairly fast even underwater—but so what?
There was nothing to fight. Nothing to break. Just water—the Siren could literally hold him there until he drowned. The Water Elemental was fifteen feet tall and had fists of water that could smash people down with ease. It could best a Grand Elephant—and it waited as the Siren laughed and watched Orjin flailing.
“Is that all? The other Masters were better than this. Come, Orjin!”
He was aware the moment he broke free the Water Elemental would be upon him. The Strongest looked out, still holding his spear and the stone. His muscles tensed, and he grimaced.
Then…as he drifted up in the orb of water constricting him, Orjin crossed his legs, folded his arms holding both weapons, and sat there.
The laughter broke off. The [Bandits] stared as the Strongest just sat there in the bubble of water.
“The fuck? Is he holding his breath?”
One of them whispered to her leader. Omusc, the Drowned Woman who was part shellfish, stared in confusion.
That was a valid tactic if Orjin was like her—but even some Drowned Folk couldn’t just breathe water! The Siren looked as perplexed as everyone else.
“Does he think the spell will run out? Is he stupid?”
“He’s definitely stupid—but—okay. If this is how the boss wins, it works.”
He couldn’t do this forever. How long could you hold your breath? A minute? Two? The [Bandits] watched as the Strongest floated there. They waited, and one pulled out a looted timepiece.
…Three minutes passed. The Strongest floated there, staring out of the water blankly. He didn’t look like he was starving for oxygen yet. He didn’t move, blink, or twitch a muscle. He just…
The Siren lost patience first. After thirty more seconds, she pointed, and the water began to constrict around him. The Strongest was being pressurized as the water pulled in on itself, like someone deep underwater.
He didn’t move. The water pulled in—and then halted. It must have been the maximum pressure that Revine could do with that much water. The Water Elemental’s fist stayed raised—and the Strongest didn’t move. His eyes didn’t pop from the pressure, and not a single bubble of air left his lungs.
“Is he dead?”
No one knew the answer. Revine blinked—and then decided to test it out. She took aim with another jet of water and spoke.
It fused into ice—slowly—and she aimed the huge lance of it at Orjin. Ice magic…which showed how much she wanted to kill Orjin.
She had been so furious after the Ice Squirrel betrayed her—Orjin didn’t move as the ice spell aimed at his chest. The water in the orb drew back, thinning to create a vector for the [Ice Lance] to travel by.
Revine fired the lance at Orjin. It shot across the distance, past the Water Elemental—and Omusc saw the Strongest move. His frozen body jerked as the lance spun at him—
Then he caught it, and the momentum blew him out of the orb. He landed, inhaled, and punched.
[Aeriform Fist]. Omusc’s eyeballs compressed with the force of the wind-explosion, and she wasn’t even close! The orb of water turned into rain, and Orjin dodged the Water Elemental swinging at him. He threw the stone and blew the top of its head off with the force of the throw. Then he was sprinting past the Water Elemental, running so fast that the Siren began firing her jets of water in a panic as he curved towards her.
He’d really been in trouble there for a second. When he’d been engulfed by the orb of water, Orjin had considered how hard it would be to break free. He had feared he might struggle and become a sitting duck, so he’d decided to gamble on a trick.
[Stasis Metabolism]. Another [Monk] Skill that most [Martial Artists] considered worthless, a downside of their class. When he used it, so long as he didn’t move—he didn’t need any air. He didn’t need food—he could just exist and think.
The ploy had worked. Revine had tried to crush him with the force of water, but Orjin’s body was stronger than that. It had been slightly uncomfortable, but she hadn’t managed to even give him the bends.
Her [Ice Lance] had been a bad idea. He had used it to free himself. He could not be caught again, though.
Magic-users. How had the First Strongest beaten them? The journal said—
He was faster. So he had not beaten magic itself. Orjin took a page from that book. He ducked as a jet of water a hundred times larger than the others fired at his head with enough force to probably tear his flesh from his bones.
[Martial Art: Sandflea Run].
Another Skill he had possessed since he was first starting this class. Nothing was worthless. And there were a hundred different running styles and Skills. His?
Hop. His foot touched the ground, and it propelled him with all the explosive force of a tiny insect jumping. It was not the same as [Flashstep]—his was a jump, a skip—
He kicked left, and a trio of [Water Jet] spells flashed past his face. Right—and ducked under another. A blade of water sliced horizontally at waist-height—
Hop—two legs over it, and he kicked. The water spell turned into a downpour of water as he severed the connection.
It was impossible to catch him! The Siren’s pinpoint aim turned wild as she unleashed jet after jet of water. Then she realized he was getting too close.
“[Watery Floor]! [Cauldron of the Salamander].”
Water spread below Orjin’s feet, and he stopped warily. But rather than turn it to ice and freeze him like Ceria did, Revine was nastier. The water erupted, going from cool to boiling in a second. She had boiled enemy soldiers by the thousands like this, and the steam and rising heat—
Orjin jumped. Revine saw him flying above her dome as the second Water Elemental went at him. She had him! She aimed straight up.
She knew more than water spells. The bolt flashed up, and Orjin—skipped sideways.
The [Sandflea Run]! Did he have—
[Aerial Foothold]. He had thought long and hard how to fight the Death of Magic. And in his last three level ups—
The Strongest came down as the bolt of lightning, slower than true lightning but almost as deadly—missed him. He landed next to the dome, stuck his hand into the raging current of water—and grimaced.
The water grabbed his hand, and Orjin felt like Revine’s own grip had him. He tried to move back—and then the water dragged him up, over the top of the dome, and slammed him into the ground on the other side so hard he cracked the earth.
[Water Dome of the Deep Sea Currents]!
The [Bandits] were cheering as Salii stared, hopping from foot to foot with nerves. Orjin rolled to one side—but a water jet tagged him for the first time.
It hammered his shoulder back into the ground and pierced his [Steel Skin]—but superficially. He was tougher than Revine thought.
Her magic was more adaptive than he thought. He had no conception that she could use the dome of water offensively like that. Stick a sword in and it would be ripped apart. His arm should have been torn off—
Point-blank, the Siren lanced him three more times with [Water Jet] as he rose, shielding his face. Each time, his skin rippled—and tore with the force of the spells.
“Just die, you obstinate pest!”
Revine was not so happy about their proximity, though. Her Water Elementals were rolling back to Orjin, but the terrors of her other foes were practically useless against him. He just ignored them. Orjin ducked a swing from one, and as it raised its hands for an overhead slam, he just raced around the dome’s other side. Then he raised his spear.
[Spear Dance: Crashing Rapids]!
Appropriately, the water-themed attack slashed into the dome, leaving tears that made Revine recoil with the force of Orjin’s slashes. But—his spear tore a second layer of the dome open, and the three remaining—
He couldn’t even reach that far in. Orjin leapt back, and the water dome recomposed itself, sealing the wounds he’d caused at once.
And he had just used a Skill.
“That fool. I taught him the spear, but he’s diversified his Skills! He’s only got one more spear dance!”
Xil groaned. Orjin, the expert in multiple fields, couldn’t fight long in one speciality.
“She’s concentrating all her magic. It must be one of her best Spells. Tier 5? Tier 6? She’s betting he can’t reach her. Salthorn. Could you get in?”
“I—don’t know. I’d have to throw the water somehow. Throw her from thirty feet away. I could try, but…”
The [Master Grappler] looked uncertain. Revine’s magical power was making the best of Pomle nervous. She was unto the same level of mastery in magic that they had achieved with their fists. And their Strongest was…
Unable to reach her? If she had trouble hitting him, he couldn’t get to her. Stalemate, and Orjin would inevitably take too much damage over time. He had to break through.
Orjin had one ultimate Skill left that Salii knew for a fact.
[Dulav-ra: Tetrad of the Solar Aura]. A close-combat attack that hit you four times with such intensity and heat that it could literally burn you. She knew he had to use it. So did he.
And so did Revine. She was muttering a spell, and as Orjin twisted, ducking a [Scythe of Blackwater] that passed overhead in the shape of the weapon—he moved.
His arms blurred together, and he kicked his spear into the dome of water, where it spun around crazily. Orjin’s arms rose to both sides, like he was imitating a bear—but they were already moving, ready to strike from four angles. Then—they glowed.
Dulav-ra. The style he had combined out of Pomle’s teachings. And—
[Tetrad of the Solar Aura]. A Skill that took from flame. Flame—heat encapsulated in glowing skin—so hot it turned water to steam.
He punched and struck four times, stepping into the first punch—sliding it into a two-palmed strike, a flying kick—each one carried him into another barrier of the water dome.
Each blow created a geyser of water that blew the spell apart. Revine’s eyes grew round with terror as her barrier evaporated.
Five! Four! Three! Two! Then Orjin was at the final barrier, barely ten feet between her palanquin, held up on its bed of water, and him. He had used his Level 40 Skill. He raised a fist for another [Aeriform Punch]—
And the Siren laughed at him. She laughed—and popped out of place on her palanquin. She appeared eighty feet away, and her two Water Elementals halted in front of her. She raised a hand and spoke.
“[Water Dome of the Deep Sea Currents]!”
She had just—teleported. [Lesser Teleport]. Orjin turned, panting, as the water around Revine and his spear whirled back towards her. All the water she had shot in their fight—returned to Revine and reformed that deadly dome.
And then he was back to square one. Pomle’s warriors groaned, and some shouted—but Revine just laughed.
Laughed—with a slight strain to her voice as she lifted a mana potion and drank greedily. She had burned through a lot of her magical power. But Orjin? He had used his best Skill.
“Round two, Strongest. I don’t need to win with more than my magic. The trap was in you ever thinking you could best me one-on-one! Even Nsiia was too smart for that!”
She shouted at him. Orjin, panting, began to run forward, dodging jets of water. He was slower, though, and his running Skill—
He took a [Water Jet] to the knee and slid behind some earth that had been upheaved by Revine’s spells. She rolled her eyes, and her two Water Elementals surged at him. Revine took careful aim as the largest [Water Jet] yet gathered in her fingers. If he didn’t move, she’d blast his cover and him into dust—then trap him with the water orb spell again. If he did—she’d wait until he was flatfooted and snipe him.
“Anything else to say, Orjin? No surrender. Not in Savere.”
And strangely, the Strongest did have something to say. He raised his voice.
“You took my spear.”
Revine’s brows crossed. Then opened in a sudden, paranoid instinct. She looked around, and there, swirling around her [Dome of Water] spell, was Orjin’s spear. His spear, which he’d kicked into her dome and she’d drawn back into her protections. And the tip was—
It was a [Weapon Expert]’s Skill. A [Monk]’s Skill. For someone who practiced multiple weapons. It was called—
[Imbue Skill]. A simple thing you could use to translate a Sword Skill into barehanded combat. Or vice-versa. Orjin had another one.
“[Delayed Blow]. [Aeriform Shockwave].”
The whumph of sound was followed by him leaping up and running. Just running past the dazed Water Elementals, through the rain of water falling down, towards the Siren. She was on her knees, shaking her head, trying to focus and cast—
He had her head in his hands. She was making a sound, guttural, at the back of her throat, and her neck was twisting, twisting.
Snap it. No move Iratze had taught him. No fanciful technique. Just strength and bone that would splinter like the [Assassin]’s neck. Orjin knew he should. Savere followed the Siren. He—
Refused. He held Revine’s neck and spoke, as he always had, to Vandum, to anyone who had ever challenged him.
“I surrender. I surrender!”
She screamed it, and he let go. Orjin felt her neck twist back, and Revine was clutching at her neck.
“Strongest! Kill her!”
Xil shouted. He flew up, and Revine stumbled back from Orjin. He didn’t. He just lifted his spear overhead—and she blinked back towards her bandits. They engulfed her in a protective mob, shouting, swords drawn as they flinched back from him—but Orjin just stood there.
“This challenge is over. Siren. Draw your forces back.”
She stared at him, eyes murderous, as Xil cursed. Revine coughed.
“You—you really are too soft for your own good, Strongest of Pomle. Do you kill [Soldiers] and spare [Generals] like that?”
“I have tried to kill no one. Even in battle.”
Her face went slack. Orjin looked at her. And it was true.
In battle, he had knocked [Soldiers] senseless, punched and fought his way towards enemy officers, and yes, killed both leader and subordinate. But he had not tried to murder them.
Thelican. The Siren when she had first met them—he could have slaughtered battalions of them. He did not.
The Strongest of Pomle waited, and Revine laughed. Laughed—and laughed—and then gave him a shake of her head.
“You really are a fool. Savere! Fall back. I’m done fighting with muscle-bound fools. Our foes are Illivere and Tiqr. You win, Strongest.”
She turned, and Xil hesitated, spear ready to throw. Where…
“Where’s the trap?”
Salii shouted, cupping her claws to her face. The Siren looked back in great annoyance, but stopped when she saw the famous [Secretary].
“I was supposed to win. Win and take Pomle and you and end this stupid war with you fist-loving freaks. Instead—we’re out. Do you think [Bandits] don’t understand duels? Fool.”
She whirled around. Then stopped dramatically and pulled down one eyelid as she glared sardonically at Orjin.
“The trap is all Thelican. Be grateful, Strongest, that I know he’ll come after me just as soon as he finishes with you and Tiqr.”
What did that mean? Orjin stared at Revine—then he whirled. Whirled and turned to Pomle. He raced up the dune, so fast that Salii was still turning when he got there.
Then he saw it. Orjin expected to see an army bearing down on Pomle again, but Thelican had learned his lesson.
Adequate. An adequate [General] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen with the keys to the vaults. If you could not take an enemy by force of arms—then you did the other principles of war. And though you might condemn him—
Sometime during their duel, the sky had turned black. Black…despite it being day. Orjin looked up and saw streaks of light in the sky.
Lightning. Far more than Revine’s [Lightning Bolt] spell. Moving artificially, crackling, flickering a hundred thousand times each second at the speed of true lightning. [Grand Lightning]. But so fiercely even the greatest storms wouldn’t match it. Orjin’s eyes saw people fleeing the oasis—and no army. No army—save for a small group with a huge canister of glass that had unleashed the spell.
Then he saw the lightning writing something in the air. A message from another era, a bygone time traced a million times to form the glowing words that blinded everyone’s eyes.
Straight from Nerrhavia’s vaults to you. To Thelican’s real target, which he had hoped would hit the Strongest and a bunch of his enemies—but just the oasis would do. The writing said:
From the Emperor of Storms to you. A gift:
[Blighted Bolt of the Forsaken Lands].
It came down, twisting, larger than a redwood tree across. Black and yellow—but if electricity itself could turn putrid, that would be how it looked. Straight down—and it touched Pomle, and Orjin’s home vanished.
The first objective in war, Great General Thelican would later claim to the Council of Steel when he was summoned to explain the use of a Relic-grade weapon of war reserved for atrocities like Crelers or last-resorts, was to deny the enemy resources.
It could be land. It could be soldiers or materiel. Pomle were fearless [Martial Artists] of great levels. They had held off armies—but the one thing they could not defeat was thirst.
“That was a failsafe reserved for the likes of the Gathering Citad—for the worst emergencies! We have not even used them against the King of Destruction! Djinni are more acceptable than this! There is a limited supply, Thelican! They were to be held for things like another Tyrant!”
The furious [Chancellor of War] had to shut up when someone covered his mouth. Thelican responded calmly.
“This is true, Chancellor, but we may find another Relic or even create one. What I have done—what we have done is weaken a great foe in a single stroke. The Strongest was not killed due to—chance. But now they have no home.”
He smiled, and his allies took his side while his detractors called for a censure. But the truth was that the Court of Steel did not want to admit they hadn’t authorized using the weapon. To do so would imply Thelican or a [Great General] could pull from the armories unchecked. Queen Yisame’s glower made Thelican nervous, but she was a player of this game.
And he? He had won his war.
Vandum stood over what remained of the oasis. The precious water-collecting gemstones, all the water they used for the refugees of Roshal, the soldiers of Tiqr, and which gave Pomle life?
Orjin stood there too. He was the victor. He was the Strongest.
He had triumphed over the Siren, and his home was gone. It seemed to him as though the air was…screaming.
The ground too. Not in a loud voice, but a kind of unspoken agony in the tendons of the world. The air smelled wrong.
Greasy. As if something had stained it. Shadows seemed too long, here, and the smog that rose from the black earth kept rising. The earth too…
It was more than charred. If it had just been fire, the natural groundwater in the precious oasis might have mixed to create filthy water—but something. Instead, the few [Martial Artists] who had touched the ground had backed away, some literally scraping off the tar of the ground. It tried to eat their skin.
A toxin in the very ground itself. It seemed, even now, to be spreading. Corruption in the firmament.
Screaming in the air. No one else said anything. They stood around the gaping wound where the oasis’ waters had run, and it seemed like a mouth opened in agony. Orjin could hear it screaming. He felt the ground—melting slowly and wondered if this would become some kind of sinkhole like A’ctelios Salash in time. Like Rhir.
All from one spell. The malice that remained here was a dripping candle of rot into the ear of the world. Then—Orjin could look at it no longer. He turned away, still silent.
Vandum, though, spoke.
“We must leave Pomle.”
That was not a question. Soon, the desert would dry this place further. All the trade that came through here? Gone.
Even if the waters returned, the land was twisted from the spell. Orjin would not trust anything that came from the greasy, blackened earth. Vandum continued.
“We must leave—and join Tiqr fighting. Or fight Nerrhavia for what they have done. Some may call this the end of Pomle. I? I say this is best.”
Many warriors who had been staring at the blackened hole looked up. But the [Bridge of the Martial World] was staring with a fire in his eyes he had not had since the beginning.
“I was there when we first fought and won our independence. When Pomle fought—many died—but we were the highest-level then. We waned when we achieved victory. Collos waned without a foe. Pomle was never this one place. It was an idea. Where we go, Pomle endures. I am going to make war on Nerrhavia’s Fallen and surpass the First Strongest. Come with me. Water, bedding, all of it—lies ahead.”
He pointed east, and Sorron and Jalte, Salthorn, Xil, the other masters and apprentices looked at him. Sorron was the first to call out.
“We do not agree on much, Vandum—but I will see Nerrhavia pay for destroying this place.”
They were preparing for war. A bitterer war—a bloodier war and far more personal than before.
His hut was still standing. He wished it had gone instead of the oasis. That almost anything had gone. He looked around as more voices rose. Pledging to fight and reclaim another Pomle.
But Orjin looked for…Eloque, the nervous Lizardwoman. Bearig, Rophir—Merr the Storm had continued her battle with her people, but she had trusted Pomle to keep her people safe.
They, too, were preparing to go. Orjin found them—and Iratze—talking.
“Where are you going to? I am sorry. The Peace of Pomle cannot protect you any longer. You are welcome to stay, but Pomle has been broken.”
They looked at him, and Bearig answered for the freed [Slaves].
“We will join Merr. She’s able to protect us. Nerrhavia’s no friend to us—but I may try to find my family. We’ll survive.”
“I’m joining Pomle.”
The [Grappler] met Orjin’s eyes. He seemed—uncertain why he didn’t find the same fire and outrage there. Gospe shook her head.
“We’re going to Illivere. We hope—we can be safe there. Or Tiqr if we can find Nsiia.”
“If you go with her soldiers, you may be safe.”
They were preparing to move out too. Orjin saw nods—until Eloque’s eyes fixed on something behind him. She froze—and then he heard a voice.
Orjin had always known that Vandum would challenge him again. Now—the big [Martial Artist] stood there, feet planted in the earth.
Mithril gauntlets on both arms, still red with blood; he had killed the Nerrhavian [Soldiers] who had unleashed the spell. He had daggers at his belt, a blade in one hand—and he looked at Orjin.
“I challenge you.”
Pomle turned to Orjin as the undefeated Strongest stood in his ruined oasis. Xil and Salthorn had not immediately promised to join Vandum. The man could leave, and he would take much of Pomle—but so long as the Strongest did not lend him his support, there would be a rift.
They both knew it. Orjin stood there until Salii shouted.
“Wait! Orjin just dueled Revine Zecrew! The Siren herself! Is this fair?”
“The Strongest answers every challenge. He always has. I will use no Skills. But I will use blades. Our Strongest eschews change. He treated every style as fair. Even Windcaller’s Wrath? He may be right. If he is—Pomle will fight as it has and win. If I am—we will change and hone ourselves again and again, getting rid of excess. Let’s find out.”
Vandum was waiting. Orjin could see it in every line of his body, ready to explode in an attack. Pomle waited as Vandum called out.
And Orjin said this:
It was such a shock that Vandum was mid-attack, assuming it would be a battle, when his fist froze. He halted, mid-leap, and Orjin stepped to one side.
Never once had anyone heard Orjin refuse a challenge. Vandum whirled.
“Are you mocking me because you have beaten me before, Strongest? Do you want Skills? Then let us rest and come back at dawn—”
“No. No challenge.”
The [Bridge of the Martial World] was getting angrier. He pointed at Orjin, and now spit flew from his mouth as he shouted.
“Are you bored of this, Strongest? You do not seem to take it with the passion we have! This is a war—and you refuse to kill! Do you have so little attachment to Pomle?”
He pointed at Orjin, and the man stood there. His eyes were unmoving in his face; he did not cross his arms, but even Vandum set himself warily. When Orjin spoke, it was that same—apparently flat tone that had little emotion in it.
Until you realized—perhaps—that it was not because he was bored or emotionless. It was because he was weighing his words before he spoke. When Orjin said something, it was because he had thought of what he meant to say and then said it. He was always…one hundred percent engaged.
“It is not boredom. I did not train myself to kill. This war has had no meaning for me. Not the bloodshed. Not the causes. I began this war out of a simple desire to do what I willed. As Pomle’s Strongest has always done. And I have seen what it cost us. I have never taken my duties as Strongest lightly.”
Vandum struck his chest and left a bloody imprint, waiting. He held his arms out, as if beseeching—and Orjin shook his head.
“No. I triumphed over the Siren this evening. I defeated her—and Savere. But as I did, Thelican—Nerrhavia—struck Pomle. Struck it, and I could not parry it nor stop it or even see it coming. Pomle…I am the Strongest, and I did nothing. So.”
He stood there, and Salii realized what he meant first. She murmured, and Vandum looked at Orjin.
“You are still the Strongest amongst us until you lose.”
He raised his blade, as if to goad Orjin, but the man…just the man, the [Martial Artist], no longer the Strongest, turned. Orjin walked away slowly, and his voice drifted back to them.
“No. I already have.”
And that night—they fought. Fought even as the oasis died—and two voices spoke—to two men.
To Vandum, it said this:
[Conditions Met: Bridge of the Martial World → Strongest of the Martial Age!]
[Level 50 Strongest of the Martial Age!]
[Skill – Body: Skillbreaker’s Fist obtained!]
[Skill – Resistance: Magic obtained!]
Just two Skills. Just two—but he rose with a wild laugh, and Pomle followed. And to another man, who had once been called Strongest—now Orjin—it said this:
[Conditions Met: Strongest Martial Artist of Pomle → Magicbane Superior Martial Artist!]
[Level 48 Magicbane Superior Martial Artist!]
[Skill – Body: Magicbreaker’s Fist obtained!]
For a legend continuing Pomle’s story—the same Skills as the first. For the man also on that path, something fitting in the same vein. Orjin opened his eyes without the whoop of laughter, the cry of joy.
Orjin looked up and spoke again.
[Level Up Canceled]
[Conditions Met: Strongest Martial Artist of Pomle → Superior Martial Artist.]
The next morning, Orjin packed what few possessions he had. He had some gold, food—he left the sand behind and his hut.
“So you are leaving Pomle. I thought so.”
“And you two are continuing the battles?”
Orjin looked at Salthorn and Xil, his two greatest friends among the others. Salthorn smiled sadly.
“I thought I would die in Pomle. I am not so perfect as to take their deeds silently—and my apprentices go to battle, so I will follow. Xil?”
The old Garuda leaned on his spear.
“I fought for Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I was a soldier, and they discharged me for reasons that are petty and behind me now. I, too, thought Pomle would be a fitting place to rest among company. Now I feel the battlefield calling. I wish to throw myself into it—and it will be my grave, but Vandum calls to me. I will see Pomle rise out of these ashes. But you, Orjin…I would have thought you’d fight.”
This was his home, more than the other two. And he was angry. Angry—but Orjin lifted a hand.
“I was taught all my life to master fury. Master it and never let it control me. Now, I see my old mentors and friends giving vent to it. If not immediately—Nerrhavia has destroyed the oasis.”
“Yes. But no one in it. Vandum got the children and refugees away when he sensed the danger. For that, he deserves to be Strongest. How many did he defeat?”
“It had to be…over twenty. But Orjin, they destroyed Pomle.”
“This war was already killing us. Is the sensible thing to do after this not to find a Pomle elsewhere, rather than carve it out of our own blood and flesh and Nerrhavia’s?”
He spoke a kind of sense that no one wanted to hear, not right now. Salthorn was disturbed, but Xil smiled and leaned on his spear.
“You were the Strongest of Pomle in heart. But another one has arisen. You can still challenge him.”
Vandum was over there, but he was ignoring Orjin. Yet if Orjin turned—the man would put aside all else, even with his class. All of it on the line, including his life. In a heartbeat.
Part of Orjin wanted to step forwards, but he shook his head.
“I am uncertain. I do not know what the Strongest should be. Let Vandum lead Pomle. I…am going. I am sorry. I hope I will return alive. If I do, with an answer, I will seek out Pomle wherever it is. But I must go.”
They looked at him, and Salthorn grabbed his arm. Orjin returned the gesture. Xil spat again into the sands, but not in disgust.
“Then take this. I have no use for it. I demand it to weed out some annoying apprentices—but you have never cared for gold. So you might as well use it.”
He handed over a bag of holding. Orjin didn’t have one, and when he delved into it, it had more gold coins than he could ever remember seeing.
“I don’t need—”
“Take it. Or that Drake will make your life miserable.”
Then Orjin turned, and Salii strode over.
“How much gold am I working with? Well, I’ll take some of that, thank you. It’ll help Pomle, and the rest I can use better than you, Orjin. Just send me a [Message], and I will arrange it.”
She took the bag and promptly dumped half into her own bag of holding. Xil glared, and Orjin turned to her.
“You’re helping Vandum?”
“I promised to support Pomle, and frankly—you will all die of thirst if I don’t keep things in order. Besides. I’ve finally just begun to get busy now that I have to work for two employers at the same time. Where are you going?”
She made no motion to go with Orjin, but she tilted her head. Part of him felt bad about that, but he had not expected it. The Drake stood there as Xil flapped away and Salthorn walked off. That was all the goodbyes Pomle’s folk had. Yet Salii and Orjin, the duo who had shared so much time, stood there a moment.
Then he realized what she’d said.
Salii held up two claw-fingers with exaggerated patience.
“I know you can count. Vandum is the Strongest now. That’s one. You make two. If he’s anything like you, the work won’t be egregious.”
“But I’m no longer the Strongest. I cannot pay you.”
“You never did. And I won’t be following you around, but I can certainly enable and support whatever you’re about to do.”
She gave him a clear-eyed stare and a half-smile. Orjin hesitated, but his heart rose a bit in his chest.
“Are you—sure? It won’t be too much?”
At this, she actually tapped him on the chest with her clipboard.
“I am capable of multi-tasking. Do you really think a dozen Strongests could tax my abilities? Running Pomle by myself was easier than one of Salazsar’s corporations. Have you tried paying Drake tax? Don’t worry about me. I chose my employers, and you need help. So where are you going, Orjin?”
The Drake somehow knew his thoughts. The Stronge—the man smiled at her, then looked at the greatest [Secretary] in the entire world. He had never really made use of her talents, ever.
Pomle had, but—
“I’ve made you angry because I needed nothing, haven’t I?”
“Furious. All my other employers have wanted something, but you were infuriatingly hard to work with. Now, the day I’m no longer working for you, you need something. Name it.”
Her eyes glinted, and Orjin…bit his tongue before he spoke.
“It may be difficult. Even for you.”
“Orjin, this clipboard can deflect [Fireballs]. I once had someone test an Adamantium pickaxe on it. It is the strongest thing in Pomle aside from your thick skull. I will hit you with it if you don’t tell me. Ask.”
She waited, and so Orjin turned to the [Secretary].
“I must find out what I have been working towards. Why—and the fallacies in my thinking and art that this war exposed. So…I need you, Salii, to find me someone. And gain me an introduction or…”
“—A letter of recommendation? A meeting with them and pave the way for it? Accommodations too, likely, and a destination and map.”
Salii was already making notes. She almost felt annoyed. This was [Secretary] work, but low-level. She sighed.
“Alright. Let me guess. It’s…Izril and Erin Solstice. No, wait. The King of Destruction? Your mother? Rhir and the Death of Magic would be interesting.”
Her lips quirked. Orjin gave her a rare smile and responded.
“No. I would like you to introduce me to Torreb. Torreb the Undefeated. The highest-level warrior on the continent, wherever he has retired. If not him—Mars the Illusionist. If not her, the Hero of Zethe or Fedorgon the Citybreaker.”
Salii’s claw slipped, and she nearly dropped her quill. She looked up at Orjin and coughed.
“He’s eighty years old and—I know where he is. You want to meet the greatest [Warrior] of Chandrar? He—he’s Level 69.”
“Yes. Just like Collos.”
“You mean—ten levels higher than Collos. The Strongest may have bested him once—but Torreb outlived him.”
“I need to ask him my questions.”
Salii scrubbed at her neck-spines.
“It’s not easy. He would have thousands of daily supplicants if his kingdom didn’t keep him safe—I don’t have many connections—”
“If you can’t do it, I’ll try to meet him myself.”
Orjin saw the Drake’s head rise with wrath—until she saw his smile. It had faith she would find a way. Salii exhaled.
“—You’ll have to go west to start. Past the Empire of Scaied. Into the Lantern Lands. Take a [Message] scroll. You know how to work it? How fast do you want to travel?”
“If you can do anything faster than my feet? I’ll start running.”
He did not intend to stop. Orjin turned, and Salii began to hurry as he strode off. Faster, and faster as she told him what to do, not to fight any [Slavers], to tell them he was from Illivere if they stopped him because that was the best place to claim nationality, and—
And then he was gone. Leaving Pomle behind, searching for the answer. He left a war behind.
But he would return. First—Orjin had to know what lay ahead. Or how else would Pomle walk towards it? He looked back only once at that burnt oasis and whispered.
“It was my fault. I should have left the slaves alone.”
Then he paused and shook his head.
“No. I did what I thought was right. But my martial art, this path—there has to be something else. I swear, I will find it.”
Collos had searched all his life for it at the end. He had stopped at Level 59. At the very least, perhaps—
Torreb might know more. So Orjin ran.
Author’s Note: Taking it easy, taking it easy…ah, who am I kidding? I feel busy.
Volume 1’s first rewrite is done. I am going to be going over the notes with Diana Gill, the [Expert Editor] who helped me with the Interlude – Pisces chapter and Gravesong, later this week. Once I get my notes in, I plan on taking two updates off—on top of my regular week—to get a second draft done.
Then Volume 1 will be ready to go. I have added several smaller chapters with perspectives like Rags and Pisces in. I have completely added a new, 1.14 R chapter which makes Ryoka’s entire Bloodfields saga feel stronger.
Persua now has friends…yes, let’s call them that. But that is all for later and for now, look forwards to at least one more chapter before I engage in editing. Also, note the request at the top. I need a book promoter and I’m searching my surprisingly qualified readerbase for anyone interested.
I mean that. I’ve asked for technical help and some of you know, apparently Olympian-class martial artists. Others are far-too-accredited medical experts to be reading this story. Lawyers and way too many foodies…I hope you enjoy this if you like anything to do with martial arts. Or just in general. This is not the end of the arc, but I may intersperse this with other chapters. We’ll see. Thanks for reading and remember…stretch. And drink water.
Silvenia Stocks and Maidvenia by butts, commissioned by Linu!
MouthyMaven (Andrea Parsneau) recording art made by ArtsyNada! She has a server and records live. You knew that, right?
Handshake by Eurayle!
Nanette, Heavy Hat, and Garbichug by jawjee!
The Garbichug is probably accurate but…eugh. It’s so nasty you need to click on this to see it. And it is nasty. Be warned. Great art, but nasty subject. I’d say kill it with acid, but it’s acid-proof.