9.58 O – The Wandering Inn

9.58 O

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(We have temporary issues with the commenting system on the back end. We’re trying to fix it…good thing I asked for a webmaster, huh? That’s called…foreshadowing. Or prescience.)


It was snowing over Chandrar, but the snowflakes melted before they touched the ground as the Strongest—no, Orjin—dreamed.

He dreamed, at first, he was a young man staring from one of the stone spires of the oasis of Pomle. Later, when he had become Strongest, other [Martial Artists] had knocked down the ancient pillars by practicing their Skills on the weathered, red rock.

But that was not the younger man who stood, tall and gangly, arms and chest scratched by the tough stone, scraped bloody on one arm. He had barely made it. He had climbed with only the strength of his hands to the top, and now, he was watching the sun rise. And someone else.

Collos, the First Strongest, was waiting on the cliffs surrounding Pomle as Orjin caught his breath.

Collos was looking into the horizon, coughing every few minutes, his magnificent body ruined by the sickness that had consumed him.

Yet it felt like Pomle breathed as he did. Orjin could feel the air moving as the Strongest inhaled and exhaled, and when he lifted his hands, the air stilled as if afraid to lie between him and his target.

First, it was memory. The memory turned into a dream as Orjin looked down and realized he was older now. A man stood on the pillars, and they fell to dust, and he leapt, arms reaching. He shouldn’t have made it—but he caught the hand of someone reaching down for him.

Collos pulled him up without a word. Orjin caught his breath and turned to thank…no one. Collos was gone. But instead of the familiar landscape, Orjin saw it was Pomle again.

A corrupted, blackened crater of land. A hissing, bubbling tar that had been the waters. But he also saw the buildings, the refugees’ huts, had multiplied. A sprawling, dirty city infested Pomle with no [Martial Artists] in sight.

Only the bodies of dead [Soldiers] littering the ground. Corpses bloodied by war, and vultures feasting on the dead. He tried to look away, but Collos was there.

Then he seemed like the Strongest that a child had seen, the hero who had beaten Nerrhavia’s Fallen on his own. He stood facing Orjin, and the former Strongest’s hands shook. He tried to make them into fists, but there was no strength in them.

He took a stance, and Collos looked at him, and Orjin’s arms fell as he bowed his head.

One last time, the dream changed. Then, Collos was standing in the desert, and a ring of steel surrounded him. Legions of Nerrhavia’s warriors in their burnished gold armor. The sky was filled with fire and smoke. Arrows fell, and the Strongest spread his arms. He was the emaciated figure that Orjin remembered last. A sickly, wasted body held together only by will and strength that no longer had an outlet.

Orjin walked over the ashes of Pomle, passing by bodies as he moved. Salthorn, Xil, Yesq, Salii—all of them. From Raul to Mendi, and at last, he saw Vandum.

Vandum was raising his fists, as Orjin had done, armor covered in blood, facing down Collos without fear. The [Strongest of the Martial Age] faced Collos, and the withered man ignored Vandum. He looked Orjin in his eyes, and Orjin’s heart pounded wildly. Fire fell from the skies, and a wave of ash rose, covering Orjin and the world.

Then he was buried under it, trying to dig up to the sun. When he emerged, he found himself in the Great Desert, surrounded by ash and a bare, bleak sky. There was nothing in sight any longer. Just Vandum’s shattered gauntlets. Salii’s broken clipboard. A palm leaf. Broken metal.

Nothing. Orjin inhaled and tasted nothing but dry oblivion. He looked around, and the horizon was endless. A child’s hands picked up some sand. He knelt there.

Then he woke and knew his time in the Lantern Lands had come to its end.




The mansion that Torreb the Undefeated so carelessly called his home lay in the Light-City of Meneretorre within the Lantern Lands of Chandrar, a region on the southwestern coast where the mists contained horrors and the only safety lay in the ancient posts that shed magical light.

A strange place. It felt quiet to Orjin. There was great power here, but it was not that it was unwielded; the lanterns were everywhere. But the ambition was gone.

Perhaps it was the company of Torreb, the greatest Named Adventurer of Chandrar and the highest-level [Warrior] in the world according to many.

It was here he had come to die. Like Collos, he looked like a withered shell of an old man, bare chested, ribs showing, naked except a single loincloth even in the cold winter winds that Winter Sprites had brought. His hair was wispy and white, and liver spots coated his dark, tanned skin that looked tough as leather, cracked by years of journeying under the sun.

Pale scars covered his body; even from the teeth of a Jaw of Zeikhal, massive marks that showed his triumphs. He still carried the great axe-club nicknamed ‘Torreb’s Fist’, and he was still mighty.

He was drinking from a bottle that was already three quarters empty at dawn, when Orjin woke. Liquid carelessly ran down his chin and onto his chest, and his eyes were pale and grey, like slate. He didn’t even look at Orjin. The Strongest, likewise, just had a simple, colorful skirt on, gifted to him by Itkisa, Torreb’s eldest daughter and caretaker.

“You smell like a man going to war, Strongest. I can taste death on your shoulder. Battle clings to you.”

“I have not begun to fight, Torreb.”

Torreb’s voice was as cracked as his body, but his hand was steady as he offered Orjin the bottle. The Strongest made no move to it, so Torreb threw it.

It flashed out of the garden, into the air, over the city that lay below, glittering with the lanterns, and farther still. Orjin shaded his eyes, and it was a long time before it began to drop.

“Then you are preparing to. You’re leaving.”

It wasn’t a question. Orjin nodded. Torreb exhaled once.

“Collos’ last successor will die or take up his mantle by the turning of the year.”

Once more, Orjin shook his head, frowning, and looked at Torreb.

“I am not the Strongest of Pomle anymore. Pomle is gone. Vandum leads the remnants of Pomle to war.”

Torreb took the handle of his weapon and thumped it against the mats of his home. The sound was light, but the tremor ran through the ground and woke the city below.

“I have spoken. Are you ready?”

The Strongest bowed his head. His hair was tied back, black braids caked with sand and dirt after days of sparring with the Fury of Winds, Soloxenethn, in the grounds outside the city.


“Then say goodbye to Itkisa before you go. When you die, Strongest? Do it so they remember you.”

In silence, Orjin bowed as Torreb stared past him. He walked, barefoot, through the mansion, and an hour later, he was gone. Returning back the way he had come. But he sensed Torreb’s eyes on his back for days thereafter.






The days he spent in the company of Torreb, the Named-rank adventurer, were pleasant in ways that Orjin had never dreamed they could be.

Each day, Orjin woke on the ground, not on the silk mattresses or in the gigantic beds that Torreb had bought, in the vast mansion open to the elements that was his resting place in the Light-City.

“Strongest. You truly cannot abide by an inch of comfort, can you?”

And each morning, Itkisa, the woman who was both housekeeper and minder to Torreb, his eldest daughter, would scold him with a laugh, and Orjin would be embarrassed.

“I cannot rest on the mattress.”

“No. Torreb sometimes sleeps on the ground to remember what it was like. Of course, he comes in the day after grumpy and tired. I won’t have the servants change the sheets, then. The Fury of Skies is already eating with Spitty and Father.”

Only Torreb would think it funny to have breakfast with a camel. But he claimed Spitty had the mark of true intelligence on him, having the blessing of the Empress of Tiqr, Nsiia. Orjin began to walk to the dining room when he turned.

“I am not the Strongest of Pomle, Itkisa.”

The stout, plump woman with faintly orange eyes and hair tied back, looking more like a [Maidservant] than the daughter of a legend, would smile at him, and those eyes would glint.

“Of course. Orjin. I forgot.”




Those days had lasted longer than Orjin thought. At first, he had meant to go travelling and meet and challenge a hundred different experts, circumnavigate Chandrar.

But he had stopped with Torreb because he had realized how few would welcome the former Strongest’s challenge. And also because, in Torreb, Orjin had both opportunity and an answer already.

At least, so he felt. Torreb was so famed he could call upon other adventurers, even Named-rank ones, and he had no care for money; he would call for a carriage or demand whatever he wanted, and it would come.

After all, he was the legendary warrior who had fought everyone and everything, the last living story before the King of Destruction’s tale. He was a safeguard for the city of Meneretorre too.

Not only did he attract adventurers and visitors, his presence meant that the few times he swung his club-axe per year, it was to kill monsters. Frankly, his very aura kept most far away.

Orjin, Soloxenethn, and Spitty’s presences were hardly intrusions. Each day, Torreb would have old friends, his many sons and daughters and their families, people trying to ingratiate themselves to him, [Merchants] looking to use his name, aspiring warriors, and more paying him visit.

Itkisa managed it all, and Torreb’s cantankerous personality meant that it was more like a gamble, anyways. Even his sons would hurry off if Torreb showed signs of anger.

He was no carefully controlled [Monk]; once, Orjin had seen him seize a [Merchant] in anger and break the man’s arm in a single second. He had thrown a doll of himself at one of the [Bodyguards] so hard that it broke the man’s ribs as it exploded everywhere, and he would have done worse had Orjin not grabbed him.

Well, the next thing Orjin remembered was hitting a building in the city below. Torreb’s strength exceeded any being Orjin had ever met; he’d thrown Orjin over a thousand feet, and the Strongest had returned to see Torreb punching holes in the walls of his mansion until he tired and the servants dared clean up.

Only Itkisa didn’t fear her father’s wrath. He never harmed her, and she, like Orjin, seemed to be an exception to his whims.

“You remind me of Collos. I would tire of your ‘Fury of Skies’ and the camel. But you? I will be bored next year, but you and I know you will be gone by then. I want to see whether you can discover what Collos could not.”

He was the most…professional? No, relaxed, at ease, even thoughtful around Orjin. Torreb’s temper came out when he dealt with people lower-level than he. With Orjin, he would get angry, but only throw something at the force of someone regularly tossing an object, snap, argue, but not rage.




Orjin asked Torreb about it, once. Each morning, he and the Fury of Winds would travel out of the mansion, descend down the slope past the guards of the large estate, and practice outside the city in the sand.

Soloxenethn would spend the first ten minutes ‘centering himself’, which involved standing on one foot and making various poses as he shifted the wind currents.

Orjin just sat cross-legged and thought about what he needed to improve on. Invariably, he would rise first and begin his own workout routine, which was less showy than the Fury of Winds’ kicks and chops.

Sometimes, they had an audience. Often, the two would spar or incorporate the other’s workout routine into their attempts to improve. Even Spitty would do some pushups next to Orjin, or go for a long run and come back tongue lolling, trotting over to lap up water. What was amazing was that Orjin wasn’t convinced any other camel in the world had ever had the muscular strength or will to do pushups. The spirit of Pomle had infected even Spitty.

After that, they had breakfast. Torreb didn’t exercise and would greet them and talk of his dreams, or what he intended to do. After sixteen days of staying there, Orjin asked about his bad moods.

“Why do you rage around your sons, Torreb? Have they displeased you?”

Each one of Torreb’s sons was highly placed in some way or another. One was a civic leader, a mayor of a city. Another was a Gold-rank adventurer. A third, retired from war, but a former [Soldier] who had risen to high rank and was old enough to rest on his laurels. Torreb had so many children he lost track of them all; he had never been discreet. Ironically that meant most of his children were not Stitch-folk; because Stitch-folk had to share lifestring to reproduce, his children were Human and other species that sometimes resulted in Stitch-folk. Regardless, he gave them all gifts lavishly.

His grandchildren were seldom the targets of his ire, Orjin was pleased to note. But his family treated him like a wild beast, prone to tempers.

“My sons? None of them are like you, Strongest.”

“I am not the Strongest, T—”

The old man flicked some pickled radishes at Orjin, and the Fury of Winds caught them with his chopsticks, looking pleased. Torreb glared, and Orjin dropped the eternal refrain. Torreb chewed some radishes on the side of his mouth with his remaining teeth and grunted.

“More radishes, Itkisa.”

“Stop throwing them then, Father.”

He glared at her until she handed him a bowl. Then he greedily added as many as he wanted to some rice, one of the softer things that he enjoyed, and took a massive bite before responding.

“My sons aren’t real. If I strike them, they’ll die. These [Diplomats], people sent to entreat me—my grandchildren, as of yet, are young, and while some have promise, no one is real. Don’t you tire of a world of people and things made of cobwebs? If I raise my hand and wave it around, they vanish.”

He did just that, and the Fury of Skies shuddered, turning pale. Itkisa just stared at her father, her eyes bleak and slightly exasperated.

Orjin…thought about it.

“They are real, though, Torreb. Just not strong as you are with all your Skills.”

“No. They are a dream I had.”

“Even your grandchildren?”

The old adventurer munched on, thinking, and nodded.

“The most pleasant of dreams. You are real. You could never kill me, but if I strike you and you strike me, we bleed. That is why I suffer your presence and I enjoy my old friends so much. My words matter to you. If I give any wisdom I have to my sons—and I have none!—what would they do with it?”

He laughed hugely, and Orjin asked no more questions. So that was how Torreb viewed his family. And the world, Orjin supposed.

No wonder he was so lonely as to put up with the others.




The third thing Orjin did, after breakfast, was to sit and talk with Torreb. The day varied after that, but they would retire to an open room or the sun, as Torreb liked, sometimes with drinks and snacks, and discuss. The topic was inevitably the same.

“The strongest warrior. You have said it cannot be one person. It may be a [Mage]. Or a spear-user. Or someone with a bow. How better to kill a foe than with a weapon that does all the work?”

“That is not a warrior, then. But someone wielding a weapon.”

Orjin objected, and Torreb shrugged.

“If there is an art to the weapon? I agree, though. There is merit to this. I train my arm. I swing a sword. I learn to cut the sky, and the sword grows in my hands. But that may be a future of warriors. Men, women, even things spitting arrows.”

“How do you know?”

The Strongest was curious. He recalled the Earthers who had been at Pomle and wondered where they were. Salii assured him she was doing her best, but Pomle’s warriors had gone to war, following Vandum. He had heard the refugees had fled to Tiqr, who continued to fight from the steppes to liberate their home. They were gaining momentum, and they had seized parts of their nation, but Nerrhavia’s armies came endlessly.

But for the King of Destruction, Pomle and Tiqr would have been buried. He had invaded from the north, and it was said this war was truly harkening back to Flos Reimarch’s days of war. His Seven, from Amerys to Gazi, and Orthenon, now numbered among them, were fighting in unison.

Raul had told Orjin, quietly, that he had come from a land of great weapons and his friends were lost. Orjin had promised him he was welcome to stay; he could make no decisions on another place like that. It was not his duty. They needed help. Pomle was open to them.

Yet it seemed Torreb had heard of the same, if strangely.

“The question was posed to me a month before you came, Strongest. A sly, yet flattering [Slave] came to me asking about an army of soldiers armed with a weapon like a crossbow, but more fearsome. Their master wished to know how I would battle them.”

“What did you say?”

Torreb shrugged.

“I speculated. It was an enjoyable day. If such armies plague Chandrar, they will not kill me. My skin is proof against mundane arrows. But is that your strongest warrior?”

Orjin shook his head.


The topic of the ‘strongest warrior’ was slightly reductive with how Torreb looked at it. Orjin just meant…

“Salii wished to practice martial arts, once.”

“Your [Secretary]?”

Orjin nodded.

“Yes. And she asked which style she should learn. My own is made up of many others and self-taught. But Xil is the [Peerless Spearmaster]; no greater exists in all of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Perhaps all Chandrar. With a spear, he claims, a warrior can do anything, be anything. And Salthorn is a grappler.”

“One is better than the other. A spear can take down a charging warrior. What can her hands do?”

Torreb sneered at the idea of using the submission arts in combat. Orjin raised his brows.

“She can pin a man in armor, even enchanted armor. She can subdue a foe without killing them.”

“And that is power?

Torreb’s braying laugh was accompanied by him tossing an empty saucer into his garden, where it smashed to bits. He turned his head, and Orjin met his eyes with his blue eyes, like the waters of Pomle. Now, the color was in his stare alone.

“It is.”

The Undefeated held Orjin’s gaze.

“—Then the ‘strongest warrior’ has no form. And he looks like you. He is endlessly adaptive, and each weapon he holds—or a lack thereof!—is for the situation he finds himself in.”

“That is what Vandum believes. I…dislike the theory.”


This interested Torreb. Orjin nodded. He rested his hands on his knees and frowned.

“It is an easy answer. I dislike it.”

A smile crossed Torreb’s lips, and he leaned forwards.

Collos thought his bare hands could defeat any foe. He was right…save for time and disease. You enjoy using your fists and feet to break enchanted metal, don’t you? To shatter artifacts and prove your body is superior to all their bought blades?”

“…I would not put it like that. But I do think that [Martial Artists] practice something that matters. I must. Or I would not devote my life to mastering this class. If a spear, no, that weapon that you spoke of is better, why does my class exist?”

The two men mused until Itkisa came by to sweep up the pottery shards.

“Anyone can become a [Beggar]. Or a [Warrior] might fight with a stick instead of an enchanted artifact. Is it so wrong to have a class that is not perfect and superior?”


Torreb snapped. Orjin was about to say the same thing and hesitated, the word on his tongue. Itkisa rolled her eyes. Torreb explained, overly-patient.

“It is fine if it is difficult to master some weapons, hence their rarity. But if a class is inherently lesser, it will fade away. That is what Orjin wishes to know, Itkisa. He is asking me if Pomle deserves to exist. Do you understand, girl? He asks with words what Vandum, the current Strongest, asks with battle and the lives of his followers.”

Itkisa sighed.

“I understood that, Father. But that seems like it is a debate that you can talk over eternally, like whether you or Mars would triumph in battle. And the answer will be easy to tell afterwards.”

Torreb fell silent, angry. Orjin shook his head slowly.

“But I want to find it. And return it to Pomle. My class, and our practice must matter. If we become superior warriors to [Soldiers] but drown amidst their numbers, that is Torreb’s answer: each thing matters differently.”

[Soldiers] could slay [Martial Artists] who devoted years to superiority, but the balance was there. Yet he was dissatisfied with that conclusion. Torreb tilted his head.

“Then what, Orjin?”

“There must be something more. More to [Martial Artists] that separates them from [Warriors]. That is the nature of the strongest warrior that I seek. That is why I am here.”

He stood, and Itkisa leaned on her broom as Torreb tired of the talk and rose to do something else. But that was indeed Orjin’s question, and it helped to learn it.




“Soloxenethn. What is the strongest warrior to you?”

The Fury of Winds and Orjin were touring the Lantern Lands with Itkisa one day—her father didn’t have the same appetite for the sights that attracted tourists, so she had volunteered to guide them.

They were walking along, admiring the streets where lanterns were being made. Less powerful than the ones of old, but an entire industry and culture demanded the carefully-made frames of cloth and wire, wicker, or other materials be light and sturdy.

The light of the candles within was also subject to many variations. They burned tallow, waxes, woods—Itkisa was haggling over a lantern she liked shaped like a cat with two flames in the eyes.

“The greatest warrior can split the skies with a single punch and call a hurricane where he walks. He can fly into the air and have no storm of arrows touch him. He can dodge lightning and land like a whisper.”

The Fury of Skies answered instantly. Orjin sighed.

“I wonder what you base that on?”

The former leader of the Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath, who had lost his followers after the People of Zeikhal had bested him, sniffed.

“One day, I will become that great warrior.”

“And then?”

“And then what? I will rebuild my flock of followers and teach them how to reach my greatness.”

Orjin tried to imagine it. Even if Soloxenethn got to that level…

“Let us assume that power exceeds Torreb. What can you do with it?”

The Fury of Winds gave Orjin a searching look.

“…Best any foe? Right any wrong?”

“Can you?”

Orjin was watching Itkisa test the lantern. He pointed to it.

“That [Lantern Crafter] can make a lantern. Few in Pomle could do it a tenth as well. But I have seen Xil use his spear to carry water, carve his name into stone, and countless things. Pomle has always been poor. Your cult—”

“My following.

“Your cult. Was it profitable? Did your teachings help anyone?”

The Fury of Winds got angry at the suggestion.

“My followers could punch with the wind’s fury! Even if they lost to Pomle, they were better than your average warrior! I taught them discipline, and my following made a living.”

“You told your supporters to give you their possessions. They gave up all they had and often worked to support you. Families paid for your disciples to live and be clothed. That is not your teaching. That is someone working for you.”

“And Pomle is better? Until Salii, I heard tell that it was impoverished. She made you money by showcasing your fights. Is that the true doing of Pomle or the clever Drake?”

Orjin had to admit the truth.

“The Drake. She and the Earthers did that.”

He thought long and hard as Itkisa came back to him. She stowed the lantern on Spitty’s back, and the camel made to spit until she tapped it on the nose. Then it glumly trotted after her as she joined them.

“…Perhaps we are too much alike, your Windcaller’s Wrath and Pomle.”

Orjin spoke after a long moment. Soloxenethn smiled widely, and the Strongest touched his chest.

“That is a terrible thing.”

The comparison left him more rattled than any punch he had taken in months. Itkisa chortled along with Spitty at the Fury of Winds’ expression. She took his arm and pointed him down the street.

“You are far better than Soloxenethn’s cult, Orjin. Do not mistake the similarities. That one is closer to a locust. The Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath always moved from place to place, or so I understand, because new disciples would come and enrich it…but it would always need more and more. Pomle? More like a lonely Needlehound or coyote or something. It might be skinny, but it took nothing, foraged for what it needed. Not a coyote, then; an ox. Hungry, but self-sufficient.”

Orjin appreciated that perspective. Soloxenethn was still spluttering, but Orjin spoke to himself.

“Yet we gave little. To those who came, training.”

Itkisa gave him a sharp look.

“Didn’t I hear you took in Tiqr’s refugees? Didn’t the war in Pomle begin because you freed [Slaves]?”

Orjin’s head bowed.

“Yes, but we did the first with Salii’s help. The second was because I felt it was right. Nothing in my training taught me to do that. We gave the refugees nothing; many warriors of Pomle would have turned them away.”

Itkisa’s grip tightened on his arm.

“Was it wrong?”

The [Martial Artist] felt her let go and rubbed at his arm as he thought. Spitty halted, getting in Soloxenethn’s way, and the Fury of Winds walked into his behind. Orjin shook his head after a long moment.

“No. I think it was right.”

“Then that is part of your question. Don’t look to my father for more than knowledge on how to fight; he has never wondered.”

Itkisa advised Orjin, and he nodded. The Fury of Skies strode forwards, the winds whistling around him.

“And you will give my followers more respect, woman! We were not Pomle, but it was built in my lifetime.”

“You might have been more dangerous than your average [Bandits], but my father only heard of you as a nuisance and braggart. I will not respect that.”

“You will.”


They strode forward, arguing. Orjin trailed after them, lost in thought. He felt like the answer was still there. After a while, Itkisa turned her head.

Spitty, come!

The camel had stopped in its tracks. He started and began to gallop ungainly after the others. But Spitty’s eyes alone had been focused on Orjin’s arms, and the groove that Itkisa’s fingers had left in his flesh.




Orjin did not spend his time at Torreb’s mansion idle. He also sparred. Sometimes, it was against a [Warrior] that Torreb summoned, other times, learning from an adventurer or even dodging spells a [Mage] tossed at him.

Torreb didn’t care if he damaged the garden, so Orjin would throw punches, dodge a swinging sword that could cut him to the bone, and practice with his body on the line.

He found his opponents were a mix. Some would challenge him, push him to his limits; others would have some trick he couldn’t defeat.

Most went down with one punch.

Why? Itkisa leaned on a broom as she watched a big Gold-rank adventurer charging at Orjin with two axes raised. A [Berserker], a Stitch-man who roared without ceasing for a minute, swinging ever-faster as he lashed across the lawn.

A strike at Orjin’s head, which the [Martial Artist] dodged; Spitty was gulping. A single blow from the enchanted axes might sever his head from his neck! The second axe swung down in a vertical chop, and Orjin wasn’t able to move out of the way, but a fist struck the flat of the axe, knocking it away.

The former Strongest’s leg entangled with the [Berserker]; Orjin grabbed a shoulder, and the adventurer bit his arm. He tried to toss the [Berserker] but couldn’t.

Stabilization Skill. It felt like the man was four times too heavy. So, Orjin pivoted, swinging the [Berserker] around before letting go and stepping back, establishing distance.

Another charge, and the scream continued. The Gold-ranker was Abrichej the Unhinged: a Silk-caste noble’s son who had taken to adventuring. Despite all his riches, he had thrown it away and proven himself a great warrior who feared nothing for his safety.

Torreb liked him. But Orjin treated him like a novice. The other adventurers were shouting encouragement as Orjin ducked away from the swings, deflected another axe strike, then hit Abrichej with a palm that barely slowed him.

One strike, Abrichej!

“He’s not doing any damage!”

They were calling for their teammate, but Soloxenethn sneered.

“Fools. He’s—”

“He’s testing how hard he needs to hit him.”

Itkisa finished his sentence, and the Fury of Winds looked annoyed. Orjin hadn’t been hit once, but it wasn’t because the [Berserker] was a fool. His seemingly overly-careful defense was both practical and difficult to achieve.

How many warriors could dodge a [Berserker] like that in close-quarters combat? Many could boast they’d slay Abrichej quickly, but few had that courage or mastery. More than that—Orjin’s breathing was steady.

He was ahead of many of his opponents in more ways than mere technique. The [Berserker]’s scream was a mistake. He might terrify a monster or another opponent, but he was gasping for air even as he roared; Orjin had yet to sweat.

Concentration. Then—Itkisa saw Orjin take his moment. As the axes rose and parted, to swing at Orjin from both sides, the [Martial Artist] stepped forwards.

It seemed like Orjin’s entire body exploded forwards in a single step. His weight shifted forwards from one foot, swinging as he twisted his body, throwing his weight and momentum behind a single fist.

Abrichej saw it coming. He was gritting his teeth, and Itkisa saw, in the flashes of time in the milliseconds it took for the blow to come, how his jaw was closing.

His teeth hadn’t even come together when the fist struck him. His face distorted; she saw all the flesh pull as his jaw depressed and clicked, and his bones moved back. But his skin forgot to keep up.

His armored boots left the ground, and the fist kept going, refusing to let the [Berserker]’s body slip away. Then the head was snapping back, and Itkisa saw a string on the man’s neck snap with the force, and his frame slanted back.

Amazingly, his arms kept moving. There was nothing in his eyes but oblivion, yet his muscles still obeyed their last commands. Orjin blocked one axe, and Abrichej’s body flailed wildly before the axes dropped from his hands.

Abrichej hit the ground. Bounced, rolled over twice, kicking up dust as the cheering stopped. He lay on his face, and Orjin bent over him. He made sure the man was alright by checking his jaw; it was cracked, but a Stitch-man could replace bones.

His mind…well. Itkisa was sure he had taken worse blows. She watched as a swearing adventurer leapt over, thrusting Orjin aside to cradle Abrichej in his arms and give the downed adventurer a healing potion.

Soon, the [Berserker] was up and swearing and admiringly bowing to Orjin. But that blow…that was why Torreb laughed and mocked Abrichej for challenging Orjin at all.

You think you were going to best him? 

Strongest of Pomle. Orjin hadn’t even been punching as hard as he could. If he had, Abrichej would be dead.

That was why it took one punch. [Mages]. Gold-ranks. It was actually easier for Orjin to fight [Mages]; once he punched through a barrier spell, he didn’t hit them and called it his victory by just tapping them.




Orjin lost more often than he liked, though. After one particularly long match, he was sitting, pulling magical needles from his skin. He’d been told they would vanish, but he wanted to inspect them. Itkisa identified the magic.

“[Venomous Needles]. A phantom spell. Do you need an antidote?”

“No. I shouldn’t have been as wary of that. I am immune to most venoms.”

“You had to shield your face. That [Battlemage] is Groithe; Torreb calls him one of the more deadly [Mercenaries] on the continent.”

Orjin nodded slowly. He hurt all over.

Normally, he won by getting close to a [Mage], but after setting up, Groithe had invited him into a dance against magic to show Orjin the difference between a [Mage] that was unprepared and one that was.

Orjin had beaten him almost instantly the first time; the second, he had run into that needle spray from fifty feet away.




A stinging hail of needles, each one long as his thumb, that made him cover his face. They sank into his skin, if not as deadly as they would be to a regular person, and he regretted asking for a true battle.

But that was just a distraction; he didn’t see the landmine spells until a blast of fire kicked him in the chest. Burning flesh, a [Mage]’s laughter—and a lance of ice.

Orjin was shielding his eyes, and only the change in air and a glimpse of it as it was mere feet away from him told him it was coming. He leaned under it, grasping the ice with his fingertips and swinging himself around the projectile, faster than he could remember moving, eyes closed as a needle stung one eyebrow.

He leapt, dodging more spells arcing after him, punched through a jet of darkness that the alarmed [Battlemage] threw at him. Circling, closing in like he had on the Siren of Savere.

Then he ran into a [Water Sphere] spell that enveloped him. Orjin made to punch through it just like last time—and a bolt of lightning crackled past the orb.

A [Mage]’s taunting smile.




“I cannot see magic coming.”

It wasn’t a complaint or excuse, just an observation. Itkisa put the tray down, and he saw she had a potion; he didn’t want to use it. They were expensive, even if Torreb could get them, and the injuries were a reminder of his losses.

“Torreb hates [Mages] too. If it helps, he claims that pure strength makes a mockery of all their spells. They can teleport and make walls and hide, but one blow kills them all.”

“Mm. But I lost before I had that one blow.”

“You’d suffer the same with an [Archer]. Why does it look so personal with you and Father when you lose to a [Mage]?”

Envy, probably. The way they stood there, staffs raised, casting spells and yawning, speaking a word and undoing all the training you had gone through with that single word. Orjin knew this was not fair; they practiced with their minds and magic. But it seemed so simple.

“I understand a fist and how it strikes hard. I don’t understand how the electricity appears and lightning, even weaker lightning, comes into being. If it defeats me, though—I should learn.”

That was what mystified Torreb; Orjin would go and speak to everyone he beat or lost to, invariably. He was tending to his injuries first, but he’d go and ask the [Battlemage] about his spells, just like he’d swung axes and tried to emulate the [Berserker]’s style.

He learned everything, or wanted to. Torreb did not. Itkisa sat behind Orjin and began to pluck needles out of his back with some tweezers she’d found.

“Father claims he never thinks about his foes aside from what they might do. He’s fascinated by your wanting to copy them. Especially the ones you beat.”

“Have they nothing to teach me?”

She added a balm to his injuries that soothed the prickle of the venom giving him a rash. Itkisa chuckled.

“No, I agree they do. I’ve seen Torreb swinging blindly against a Gold-bell [Duelist] until he wins on his own terms. But he gave up trying to copy their footwork long ago.”

“That is his right. Torreb is a victorious style that has proven himself in the eyes of the world. But I…my martial arts is made up of every person I have met. If I find something new, I try to master it. Pomle is about learning and improving.”

Orjin hesitated and felt awkward. He half-twisted to meet Itkisa’s gaze.

“Not to say Torreb does not, but—”

“I understand. Hold still. You know, I would like to know that odd way of walking you have. The way you circle someone so effortlessly?”

She meant the way his feet would cross and how he could pivot so quickly in a fight. You had to learn to walk sideways such that you could reposition on the balls of your feet, like a cat or how Xil struck from all angles. Anyone could walk left to right, but Orjin made it look simple.

“I could teach you. Though Soloxenethn does it better.”

It was, annoyingly, one of the few things the Fury of Winds did better than Orjin; he was a mobile strike-and-away specialist who disliked being hit or giving his opponents time to strike him. In the few matches he’d taken, he’d done very well, though he’d sidestep a charging foe, then shower them with wind slashes and punches while mocking them.

Itkisa rolled her eyes.

“I would rather learn from you.”

“Later, then. Thank you, Itkisa.”

Her smile deepened, and Orjin looked at her and saw she had a pile of needles that were already starting to vanish next to her. She was practiced at cleaning wounds and tending to warriors. She had journeyed with her father many years, and still…Orjin went to greet the [Battlemage], who was enamored of Torreb, respectful of him, and yet.

Did no one notice Itkisa but Orjin? Not even Soloxenethn seemed to. But then again—that was hardly surprising.




The Fury of Winds and Itkisa did not like each other. To be fair, you could flip a coin on whether Orjin would tolerate the man that day. And Spitty clearly had a one in five chance of liking Soloxenethn.

The problem was, the man was tenacious. Even after Orjin had ‘sparred’ with him every day, he’d kept up. He was also, annoyingly, sometimes brave, as his fight against the city guards to defend the Fox Beastkin proved.

He might have a flashy style of martial arts that lacked for practicality, but he had refined his attacks after training with Orjin, and he was Level 41, or even higher these days.

True…some of that was probably because he had been a [Cult Leader] as well as a [Windtouched Martial Fist], but he still stood head-and-shoulders above most warriors.

Yet Itkisa barely gave him the time of day. Orjin supposed Torreb’s daughter feared no one, but she had a special disdain for the Fury of Skies.

One day, he saw why.




“The mists are deadly. Never go into them when they cover everything. Stay indoors; even a strong [Martial Artist] like you will likely die.”

When he had first come to the Lantern Lands, Orjin had been told much the same. Itkisa showed him an emergency lantern along with the huge ones that Torreb had, all of which had special effects.

But while he understood the mists had magical effects, some quite deadly, he had never seen what they did. He’d run down the roads in relative safety, but the Light-City was deeper into the mists and therefore, at night, anywhere not in a lantern’s aegis was deadly. You couldn’t hop between lanterns if the mists were bad.

On a particularly misty night, Itkisa challenged the Fury of Skies to walk into them. This was after a long debate where he had needled her with Torreb’s help over dinner.

For all he doted on his daughter, Itkisa’s role as caretaker and the only person who could tell Torreb ‘no’ meant that he got grumpy with her, especially because he couldn’t bully her physically.

Soloxenethn found the perfect way to get back at her, which indicated his social abilities…even if he had all the caution and morality of a termite.

“What will Itkisa do in the future if you pass, Torreb?”

He had gotten Torreb drinking, and often, the old Named-rank [Warrior] would muse about death, his glories, or his oath that if he should ever lose a battle, he would die. At this rate, he was looking to die from old age, and Torreb stopped.

“I told her to make her own fortune after that. She’ll get most of my possessions; she can divide them up amongst my sons and daughters. She’s wasted too many decades looking after me!”

He laughed nasally into his drink and then sighed.

“Nor married! When I was younger, each daughter was a fortune in dowries, and my sons gave me back some of the time spent raising them.”

“So…something for nothing?”

Itkisa was looking exasperated, and Torreb laughed and then glared at her along with Soloxenethn. Orjin didn’t like the drinks and the clouding of his judgment or effect on his body; he had many [Monk] Skills and had inherited their approach to libations.

“At least they’re self-sufficient! I would do without you.”

“You’d live in squalor, and no one would be able to suffer your company. Every [Servant] would run away after three days.”

“You see what my daughter is like?”

Torreb complained to the Fury, and the other man nodded. Then Torreb looked suddenly at Orjin.

“If the Strongest forgets his quest to succeed Collos, he could stay here and marry Itkisa. The two wouldn’t be a bad pairing. She’s not the most beautiful, but she would be rich, and they get along. That would make me happier.”

“Do you hear this, Orjin? Do it! Then we shall truly know Torreb’s hospitality!”

A drunk Fury of Winds egged Torreb on. Itkisa did not react except to sigh and say one word.


“No, do you hear this, Itkisa? This is Torreb and I in agreement! One should not live for another. Or else it’d be like my cult, eh?”

Soloxenethn had the same smile that made Orjin want to practice his Skills on the man’s face. Yet, Torreb had gone quiet.

“He should do it. If you’re not already sleeping together, go ahead. Give her a child. That’s the only way you slow a woman down. Otherwise, they want more and more…a man can be satisfied by one thing! A woman, never.”

“Hear, hear!”

The Fury of Winds chimed in. Soloxenethn, Torreb, and Spitty all began drinking and comparing past—and definitely ex—loves.

Orjin was surprised to hear Torreb speak so about his daughter. He had heard the same sort of thing, far more rarely, in Pomle, but there were those who saw it as a daughter or wife’s place to be with children.

Yet Torreb? The Named-rank adventurer was staring at Itkisa, who returned the gaze steadily.

“Father, I don’t want children, and whatever I do is my choice. Leave Orjin be.”

Orjin glanced at her, and she smiled at him politely. Yet Torreb seemed riled by her response. He was drinking hard, enough for even his constitution to be affected. Maybe it was the black liquid he claimed he’d had imported from Izril—exclusively on the black market and dangerous as could be.

The old man snarled back at his daughter as he looked at Orjin.

“You see? Look at how she sits there. If she had a son or daughter, she’d be caring for them. Instead, she cares for me…waiting. I should have married her off and had her give me grandchildren. Slow her down. I must, or they’ll take everything from you.”


Soloxenethn had tried the Rxlvn tipple and was unsteady already. But Orjin didn’t think Torreb meant women, now. He was looking at Itkisa, and she met his gaze.

Orjin had limited experience with his aura, but even he felt two things clash. The weight of Torreb…and something invisible which refused to yield. Torreb drank and drank—until he threw a cup away and rose without a word to use the restrooms. The party lulled until he returned, and Itkisa apologized as Torreb silently sat back down and began to eat.

“My father gets overinvested in my future when he drinks. I apologize for that. As for you, Fury of Skies…do you know why I call your cult so inferior to Pomle and dislike you? It’s because you’re not my father, who did raise me a bit. I tolerate him only because of that. You? I don’t need to. I would rather have Spitty as a lifelong guest than you.”

Torreb laughed and fell over as Soloxenethn turned red.

“Then explain to me how I am that much lesser—no, your father is.”

He wagged a finger at her, and she pointed. The moon was out, and it was so cold they’d started a fire, though Torreb had kept one of the screens open so he could see the outside. It was wasting heat, but he didn’t care. The mists hung low over the city, obscuring almost everything as if they sat above clouds.

“If you want to find out, go walk in the mists without a lantern, Fury of Skies. Your guilt will come for you.”

“Ah. An assassination attempt. I won’t fall for that.”

Soloxenethn tapped at his nose a few times, and Itkisa’s smile was so calm it made Orjin remember a dagger he’d once tested that had nearly cut off his thumb. It had been like that. So sharp he hadn’t felt the cut at first.

“My father survived. He could walk down there, and I imagine Orjin would also survive. You could level.”

“Yes, the mists don’t really scare me, at least the ones that judge. They just annoy. She’s right. You could level up tonight! You too, Orjin.”

Torreb was highly amused by his daughter’s comments and looked up, a twisted grin on his face. Drunk on arrogance and himself, Soloxenethn fell for it.

“I shall, then! Perhaps not tonight since my aim is off, but upon my class, I will! And then I shall see these…sins? What sins have I?”

His question went unanswered, and Soloxenethn looked around and then into those mists as the fires guttered out in a breeze. Orjin stared deep into those mists and saw not the outlines of cities nor anything else. But he wondered if something moved in them.

Then, Orjin wondered whether he was right in thinking that Torreb feared his daughter more than anyone else. Who was being shackled to whom, exactly, here?




The next night, a far more sober Fury of Winds had cause to regret his boasts. The mists were as thick as ever, and he hesitated at the edge of the three great lanterns on Torreb’s property. Where the lights ended, mists began. Ten feet in and you’d lose your way.

“The road is still there. If you can walk down, you’ll soon reach the Lantern Lands’ roads. Make it there and I have no doubt you’ll see your sins. The mists around here show you what you have done; there are harsh lanterns, like a Lantern of Sin, but this will do. Orjin, you needn’t go with him. I doubt you’ll see much.”

“But it is dangerous?”

Itkisa shrugged.

“The danger grows with you—to a point. My father won’t ever die. Children will wander in and survive. But there’s a reason why the Lantern Lands are so close to Roshal and yet so few [Slavers] linger. They dislike this place and stick to the roads.”

Her smile was aimed at Soloxenethn, and the [Martial Artist] hesitated.

“I…I assume I’m allowed to cut the mists with my fists?”

He punched, and a gust followed. Itkisa nodded.

“If you’d like, here’s a lantern you may light to keep you safe. Without magic, the effect is weaker. We love lanterns here. Only Menorome in Noelictus is said to have anywhere near as many flames, though they love candles. I’ve heard the Lantern Lands kingdoms and Noelictus have both asked to buy flames from that [Innkeeper] in Liscor. The one who asked Orjin about the [Garden of Sanctuary]?”

“Salii researched her for me. She is a fascinating person, or so I am told. She is the one putting on Christmas, soon.”

Orjin shrugged, mostly intent on the lantern.

It was the cute cat lantern, and Soloxenethn eyed Itkisa’s teasing smile. He refused it.

“I shall make it to the main road and see what threats there are. You needn’t come, Strongest.”

“I know.”

Orjin sighed, but he couldn’t just let the idiot go. Actually, he could, and Itkisa looked slightly disappointed he was going with.

“We could have tea together, Orjin.”

She suggested as the Fury of Winds stomped into the mists, on-guard, pivoting every few paces, hands raised for combat. He vanished, and Orjin heard nothing of him aside from his loud footfalls. He turned to Itkisa and shook his head.

“Soloxenethn is not a pleasant man to deal with. But he can change. He is also not a coward. Lastly…I wish to see what his guilt looks like. And witness my own.”

She pursed her lips.

“Oh, very well. Remember. It is real enough.”

She grabbed Spitty before the camel could follow the two, and Orjin followed Soloxenethn into the mists.

Instantly, Orjin got lost. The air turned into a white haze, and he felt like the world lightened a bit, despite the darkness. He was walking through fog, carefully making sure he knew where he was stepping, and he called out.

“Soloxenethn. Fury of Skies. Where are you?”

His voice echoed slightly, and Orjin heard what might have been a voice in the distance.


That was definitely him. It seemed like the Fury of Winds had found something because Orjin felt the slightest gust on his skin. He moved faster, but slowed instantly as he felt a pricking on his shoulders.

There was some magic around him. Orjin slowed and turned.

One great weakness of all [Martial Artists] was that they were unable to counter many spells. Vandum had, apparently, gained a fist that could break Skills. Orjin had turned down one that would kill magic. If you had both, would that make you…complete? Perfect?

Was he what a [Martial Artist] was? He was walking Collos’ path; he could equalize all battles until it was just the logic of fist meeting body. Yet Orjin rejected his conclusion.

Even so, he would have liked that [Magicbreaker’s Fist] right about now. Orjin pivoted as he sensed something behind him—thrust out with his palm, a probing thrust. He passed through the air, but sensed it to the side next.

He whirled—and a gust of wind blew apart the mists. Orjin saw something vanish, and as the air cleared, he heard the Fury of Winds’ voice.

This is my guilt? None of this is my fault. They were weak! I defy it!

It seemed like he was under attack. Orjin strode forwards, alert for more tricks, but he found none in the time it took to find the Fury of Winds.

It took five minutes, and the Fury’s confidence became a rage of blows that Orjin felt from afar. Whatever he was fighting—there were a lot of his guilts. And his anger grew audibly less certain.

It wasn’t—stop it. This is a pathetic trick—[Windcaller’s Fist: Howl of the Vortex]!

He activated his Level 40 Skill, and the mists actually vanished for a second. He was growing desperate, and Orjin quickened his steps.

Then he ran into one of Soloxenethn’s guilts and stopped.

A man wearing tattered, old clothing in the style of the Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath leapt out from the mists, and Orjin punched him. At first, he held the blow, thinking it was a person, and the figure landed, twisted around, and his legs torqued—then propelled himself back onto his feet. Showy, but still difficult. Orjin grunted, recognizing the style instantly.

“Wonderful. One of you.”

The showy style and ineffectual jabs of wind blades meant it had to be one of the disciples. Yet Orjin knew it wasn’t a real person; there was blood all over the man’s chest.

It looked like he had been gored by something. Maybe a monster or wild animal? Either way, he wasn’t an undead either; he attacked with decent speed, thrusting light blows that cut the air, and the gashes tried to tear Orjin’s skin—but the [Martial Artist] was too tough. The apparition leapt at Orjin, and he pivoted and threw an elbow.

The blow snapped its neck, and Orjin sighed with relief as he saw the apparition fade to mists. So it was that, was it?

Guilt. He guessed the [Disciple] had died in some way due to the Fury of Winds’ actions. Maybe he’d challenged a rhinoceros.

Given how much fighting the Fury of Winds had been doing—Orjin bet he had a lot of deaths on his conscience.

“…But where are mine?”

He’d killed enough people to have a small army, but the mists were either concentrated on Soloxenethn or Orjin didn’t meet some criteria. Yet even though it seemed like the Fury should be able to beat his foes if this was the criteria…his voice was growing panicked.

Stop! Not—that is not my fault. Enough! Enough tr—

“Fury of Winds!”

Orjin picked up the pace. Another [Disciple] came at him, and he ducked a swinging sword and struck through their chest with a palm like a dagger. He spun past two more, clipping them with blows that sent them down—but since they were apparitions, they couldn’t be rendered unconscious, and he dispatched each one.

This was actually excellent training. Foes you could fight at all your might? Why hadn’t Itkisa told them before? They could train every night! Maybe in Torreb’s case he might run into Collos’ shade, which was a threat, but this?

Then Orjin found Soloxenethn, bloody, backing away from more apparitions, a stricken look on his face. He was shaking his head, a hand raised, and the tattered clothing of lesser disciples, the poorest members of his cult, had been on most of the fighters Orjin had met.

Each one had a death-wound; a few had looked poisoned or sickly. Corpses seldom looked good, but they had made sense.

One had looked cut to death by wind blows, and Orjin had wondered who had done that. Perhaps…challenging Soloxenethn for leadership?

Guilt indeed. But then he halted and saw why Soloxenethn had ceased fighting.

Children were clawing at him. One, which he weaved away from, looked emaciated. A woman swung a dagger, her face purple and swollen. The Fury of Winds backed up.

“It wasn’t I. Stop—”

Soloxenethn made to snap-kick one of them and hesitated. Orjin himself hesitated as some of them swung towards him. There were…too many.


“Orjin! Look at these apparitions! They’re—none of them are my fault. Do you hear me? I cast out my disciples! I didn’t—you’re not dead.”

He was staring at a girl grabbing at him. Staring and stumbling until one planted a dagger in his leg, and he shouted.


He scythed around him, and they vanished, but more were coming. The hanged woman—Orjin saw the Fury of Skies turn.

“She could have come with her husband into my cult! It isn’t my doing that she refused to change! Stop! These are not my sins. I don’t even know them!

On and on they came, dozens, hundreds of people that he knew. Now, Orjin saw what Itkisa meant. How many lives had the Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath ruined? How many families?

The Fury had never counted them. Now? He was drowning, and there were so many his flustered moves were failing to erase them. He was bleeding, being pulled down as they dragged at him, biting, stabbing—

“I thought I saved them.”

Blood was running down his face, and he stared at Orjin with the most uncomprehending look of horror on his face. He stared as a young man he had cast out stumbled at him, cheeks hollow with hunger, a rock raised to cave in his head. Orjin stared at the Fury of Skies.

[Aeriform Shockwave].

The punch blew the apparitions and mist apart. It tossed the Fury of Winds, at the center of it, across the ground, and he lay there, stunned, as Orjin saw the rest of the apparitions fade. Sure enough, the mists enabled their creation. Orjin turned, raised his voice.

“What about me?

Now, he wanted to know. He waited, and the mists drew around him as the Fury slowly got up. At last, Orjin saw someone walk forwards, staff spinning, and nodded.


The [Martial Artist] he had killed as a boy looked as strong as ever. A Stitch-girl, light on her feet, using a staff—though they had fought with fists at the end.

She had hit him so many times before he’d given into rage that his eyes had been covered with blood. Then—

Orjin blocked the staff as it tried to dance the same tempo, striking, whirling up, down, a promising potential in each steady blow. His heart ached.

“Yes. Who else?”

He deflected one strike hard, saw the figure stagger, and his palm shot out and struck her throat. The figure vanished, and Orjin turned.

Now came soldiers. He saw each one racing at him. Frightened Nerrhavian [Soldiers]; the Strongest remembered each blow he had killed them with. He was panting harder by the end.

“Where are the [Rogues] of Savere? Where’s…send them at me. Now!”

He called out, and the mists whirled. Orjin waited. There were so few for him—it seemed like those pale waves of fog hesitated. Then the mists parted—and Orjin had a second before an arm like steel locked around his throat and a hand tried to wrench his neck and break it.

Behind—he threw his head back, but whoever had him had anticipated that. Orjin’s desperate move didn’t free himself, and the arm was twisting—

[Full-Body Throw]! He used a Skill he’d learned from Salthorn—on himself, and the two went tumbling apart. Orjin received a dizzying strike to the face from an elbow, and he struck back, trying to secure a hold, then a kick knocked him backwards. He rolled onto his feet, set his guard, and saw his opponent feint.

Orjin hesitated as he saw his opponent at last—and then the giant man with braided, black hair and blue eyes grabbed Orjin’s arm and tried to break it.

Orjin had one second before a second Orjin twisted it, and he grabbed the arm.

[Delayed Blow]!

He used it on the copy of himself and kicked—the other Orjin dodged backwards, an arm deflecting the kick, and Orjin jumped back. Then he twisted his body, grunting as he felt his arm spin—but it didn’t break thanks to moving his arm with the twist.

“Me? Is th—”

He had no time to ask what was going on. The second Orjin came at him, moving from a cautionary jab at his eyes to attempt to bring him to the ground in a grappling fight.

He was…just as fast as me. Maybe a hair slower? And, Orjin realized, perhaps less strong.

Maybe Level 40 was too hard a bar for the mists to conjure, but the other Orjin was still skillful—and he was trying to blind Orjin, take out an eye, sever a tendon, break a bone—

The two fought in dead silence as the Fury of Winds stepped back, looking around. The difference between the two didn’t come down to luck or help, but rather a simple factor.

[Quake Palm].

Orjin’s palm struck a shoulder. He took a blow to the cheek, but the thumb was knocked down. [Automatic Deflection]. He grabbed the other Orjin’s stomach, and his fingers dug into the fake flesh, tearing open a bloodless wound. He felt a moment of surprise, seeing his stomach laid open, and wondered how accurate it was. Then—they stepped together, and Orjin’s fists pierced through dissipating mists.

His capstone Skill blew apart the other Orjin. In the end, one had Skills and the other was a copy. Orjin stood, panting, bloodied slightly, but mostly bewildered.


Why…why had the mists chosen himself? He whirled, looking for another version of himself, before bending over Soloxenethn.

The Fury of Winds was on his knees, bleeding bad. When he looked up, his face was confused.

“I thought I helped them. It lied. It…”

His lips were as bloodless as the liquid running down his side. Orjin knelt.

“No. It showed me what I thought when I met you.”

The look of betrayal turned to confusion and then a flash of regret, and Soloxenethn closed his eyes—then slowly pushed himself up. His eyes were angry, but his stance was firm as he turned.

“We are leaving.”

Orjin would not disagree with that. The two walked backwards the way they’d come, ready for any foe, but either they had exhausted the magic of the fog or…Orjin raised his palm, ready to use [Aeriform Shockwave] rather than fight another foe as he saw a shape, then grabbed the Fury of Winds’ arm.

“Wait! Light!”

Someone had a lantern. The two nearly attacked the figure on the road, but the woman looked as shocked as they were.

“What are you two doing? I have never met fools who walked into the mists and lived. Come here, now!”

Her voice snapped, and Orjin hesitated—then strode forwards. He saw the mists parting, and a woman waved to him.

“With me, warriors. Ah—”

She noticed they were wounded and hesitated. Orjin saw her eye him, then Soloxenethn. She lifted the lantern higher, a simple one with the faint glint of magic; nothing more.

“You are fortunate my eyes were upon you. The mists might be weaker tonight, but they grow and feed off of what you believe and what others believe of you.”


The two looked at each other, and Orjin saw the woman tsk as she noticed Soloxenethn clutching his side. She handed the lantern to Orjin.

“Your friend will bleed out. Hurry to safety. That way.”

“Thank you. But what are you doing out so late?”

Orjin took the lantern and saw she was pointing up to Torreb’s mansion. But when he raised his gaze—Soloxenethn hissed.


She had vanished between the time both glanced away. Orjin felt his skin crawl. He debated dropping the lantern, but the mists did part from them, and without the light…

“Back to the mansion. Now.”

Soloxenethn did not argue, and by the time they made it through the garden gates, the light from the giant lanterns provided safety. The Fury of Winds collapsed, and Orjin hurled the lantern back the way he’d come without a word. Thus, they survived.




The trials of the mists left the Fury of Winds bedridden for two days. When they got back, Itkisa had already had a poultice ready.

“It’s still just mist. If Spitty went in there, wolves would try to eat him. You know Children, the monsters that look like people? I’m told they came from these very mists; they join the apparitions, but they eat the poor souls who can’t bring themselves to defend against them.”

“Oh. So that’s why I ran into myself. I was told it was a reflection of my guilt and how others saw me.”

Orjin was cleaning one wound with a cloth, grimacing as he tended to the wounds his copy had given him. He wished he wasn’t so good at piercing skin; a thumb had dug straight into his wrist and bruised tendons.

Itkisa paused as she sewed closed the cut in the Fury’s leg.

“…That might be so. Was it a strong copy? Father can’t be killed by the apparitions; he claims that they can’t get beyond high Level 30s.”

“It wasn’t as strong. But it was me. I wonder why.”

“Perhaps the mists think you let yourself down more than anyone else? That is strange. Who told you that?”

“The woman on the road.”

Itkisa’s sewing slowed, and she gave Orjin a troubled look. When he related the encounter to her, she shook her head.

“You shouldn’t have taken the lantern. That sounds like a mistwraith, a trick. No one would regularly venture out like that. What did she look like?”

“…I don’t recall.”

Orjin couldn’t deny he was shaken by that encounter knowing it wasn’t accidental. Soloxenethn was obviously far worse off, but Orjin wondered what that had meant. Torreb put it down to the mists looking for an opponent that could kill the Strongest, but the [Martial Artist] wondered.

Had he died, in a sense, when Pomle fell? The Orjin who had come at him was a pure reflection of what Orjin knew: how to strike a body hard enough to kill. How to turn a palm into a stabbing spear or tear flesh and break bones.

Was that who Itkisa, Torreb, Soloxenethn, and others thought he had the most guilt for? Surely it was for others, yet…the mists may have just chosen the only person they thought could kill Orjin. Himself.

Perhaps that was his strongest warrior. Why, then, did Orjin think that reflection of his was so hollow? Just battle. Just war.

…Was that what Pomle was?




When he grabbed her arm, it felt like it was the trunk of Nsiia’s Grand Elephant, Thef. Orjin had been allowed to greet the mighty beast once.

He had been saddened when he heard it died. But now he remembered it and felt her arm flex.

His feet left the ground. She tried to throw him, but he tumbled across the mats, redirecting the force—yet still skidded. Again, he came forwards, trying to bring her down like Salthorn would. Her hand tried to grab one sweat-soaked arm and slid free.

The [Martial Artist] saw it make a fist, and he stopped. He stepped backwards, arms raised in a guard, and Itkisa halted.

She looked exasperated as she lowered her hand.

“Again! I’m sorry, Orjin. I don’t care for these throws and joint locks.”

She had agreed not to punch. Without a word, the [Martial Artist] nodded.

“You are your father’s daughter.”

That was his comment, and her raised brows made her smile rueful.

“I should be. I was the eldest daughter, perhaps not the first he had, but the first one he took an interest in. He taught most of his oldest children how to fight. And they would fight, to get his attention.”

She sighed; she was in undergarments, and it was late. They were practicing in a far-off room in the mansion so as not to wake the others.

“I am sorry, Orjin.”

He was surprised.

“Why? You learn faster than most students of Pomle.”

“That makes me feel better. It doesn’t come naturally to me. It feels like it did when I first tried to cook, as a girl, or how anything else I try without practice does. I suppose that is normal, but I thought I would pick it up quicker.”

Her frustration was an echo of so many voices he had ever heard, including his own. Orjin corrected her stance.

“Salthorn’s style is rarely practiced, even in Pomle. But Raul told me it is hugely admired in his homeland. She may lack for the showy strength of other schools, but I have seen her defeat every single [Ironbody Martial Artist]. When she has you in a lock, you are helpless as you would be in Torreb’s grip.”

She snorted at this praise of her father.

“He’s not the King of Destruction. Sometimes, I wonder who is the stronger of the two. Did you see Flos Reimarch freeing that Djinni? I doubt Torreb could. Plus, my father is ticklish.”

Only she would mock the Named-rank adventurer so. But then, for all her willingness to mock others, she rarely spoke of herself as talented.

Despite the fact that she had still managed to copy one of the throws within two hours’ practice. Orjin took hold of her arm again and felt the memory.

Comparing her arm to an elephant’s trunk was probably not appropriate, but he wanted to make it as the highest compliment. When she twisted or forgot herself and made ready to strike, he messed up the exercise by stepping back to dodge or block.

“Have you fought before?”

They collided in the center of the room, and his feet slipped until he overbalanced her, shifting their positions by lifting her and rotating her, using the momentum to try and throw her. She landed hard—

“Only a bit.”

After trying to escape a pin and then ending up doing it Torreb’s way, she helped him to his feet. And he asked again.

“Were you ever an adventurer?”

Her eyes danced as she caught his fist, then remembered she was trying to deflect them. He tried to do the same, and she called out to him as he got back up and stepped forwards.

“For a year or two. I am my father’s daughter.”

She spoke like that. With the great reserve that told him there was a secret behind each word. Perhaps he should ask—but he saw a guard like a wall up. Not hostile. Just—she did not want to tell him yet.

He asked one final question as he finally knocked her down and locked her arm. As they struggled, panting, and she finally had to give and admit Salthorn’s techniques would have taken her arm.

“Why don’t you ask for respect from Torreb’s friends? From Soloxenethn or anyone else? Including me?”

She rose, massaging her arm, looking slightly frustrated and amused. At length, Itkisa flicked sweat from her brow.

“Because, Strongest. I inherited a Skill from my father. My mother gave it to me, but it was his. I never earned that, never worked for it. Surely you understand how that feels? Every other thing I have made mine, but for that, I will always be his child, and I remember it. Isn’t all this fair? Look at his lovely home. I want for little, and he—he’s happy. Especially since you came along.”

She gestured around. Orjin looked at the rich mansion that had so many old trophies and so many empty rooms. All the riches Torreb ate or played with or broke, the legacy of Chandrar’s greatest [Warrior]. Then at Itkisa.

He bowed slowly, hand clasped in his fist, and she smiled. Orjin had met an ancient beast of Chandrar when the Empress of Beasts came, in her splendor, before her nation turned to rubble, an abundance of knowledge no person could ever unearth in those huge Grand Elephant’s eyes.

The second beast stood there, donning clothing, hiding the sinew under her skin with simple, bright cloth. If he closed his eyes, it felt like the roots of a vast tree shifting, or unbreakable metal like Adamantium leaving striations in the world from its inexorable passage. Then he opened his eyes, and she smiled at him, like some prowling creature with gleaming fangs hiding them and curving her lips up.

And Soloxenethn wondered why Orjin liked her.




On the day of Christmas, Orjin celebrated with Torreb, though the Named-rank really didn’t make a big fuss.

“I buy what I want. Itkisa was the one going about giving presents. I have a pile from my family meant to impress me. I gave gold out like water. The [Merchants] will love this holiday. But this is for you, Strongest.”

He presented Orjin with six potions, all healing, all of a high grade. Orjin thanked him and handed Torreb something that made the old man laugh.

“And what’s this?”

“A brownie…thing. It’s sweet. Itkisa found the recipe in a [Mage]’s guild, and I helped her make it.”

It had been mostly her, but the old man tried the crusted sweet and demanded the entire pan. Getting a gift for Torreb was easy if you knew he just wanted to eat or drink something novel. No trinket would do, no magic.

Spitty had been given a full treatment by a high-level [Handler], and he was groomed and looked sharp. The Fury of Winds, looking quiet and pensive, traded some fistwraps with Orjin for a travelling set with gels for his hair and a comb and toothbrush and so on.

It was a decent day made stranger when Erin Solstice appeared. She was very flustered as Orjin sat there, and he had to admit, he was maudlin.

He had been following the war in Pomle and heard another fortress had fallen to them. Wonders of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was the new channel that covered the war, but they never had anything bad to say; only glorious victories and repositioning of armies for strategy’s sake. If Wistram News Network covered it, or another continent’s television, it was rare. There was also the Empire of Sands’ news network, but Torreb didn’t have it as he didn’t care for the news that much.

The Chandrarian journalist, who wrote Chandrar International, painted a very different image of the war. He had published an image that he claimed was a Mage Picture of the aftermath of the battle.

It showed a lot of dead Stitch-folk…but Orjin had seen the cloth of [Martial Artists]’ robes and improvised armor among the bodies. He felt his home calling to him, even though…

Even though Pomle was gone. What would he do? He could not rebuild it, not with the oasis ruined. That single Tier-whatever spell had obliterated it, and he had been too weak to stop it. In a way, Pomle deserved to end if it was too weak to protect itself.

And yet…Orjin could not help but think that wasn’t his fault. And he knew that was running away from reality. How dare he refuse to take full responsibility? Yet that destruction…even if I had thrown myself in the way of that spell, I couldn’t stop it.

So that was how Erin Solstice found him.




“I am lost. If you come here seeking knowledge of the previous Strongest, or wisdom for this holiday—I have no right to speak any.”

What a strange person. Erin Solstice looked, to Orjin, like Salii did. At first, she seemed weak as a kitten and audacious as Xil. She appeared in front of Torreb to ask a question about Christmas.

Yet, as he had observed with Salii, her power was just not in a way he could openly see. It was in her magical theater.

Pomle would never respect her. Just like Salii. Yet she has the power to create a holiday and appear in front of me in person. How is this not a strength to match or exceed my own?

Still, to her question, he could not help her and explained who he was. She looked incredibly embarrassed and shuffled her feet, almost like she was dancing. She was light on her toes, and he thought she would have made a good [Martial Artist]; she had an excellent sense of balance, and her footwork wasn’t random but shifting smoothly between forms.

“Right. I am so sorry. I’ll just, um—be going. Sorry again. For bothering you. And Mrsha and Nanette calling you.”

Don’t bring us into it!

Orjin stared at the little girl with pigtails and the white Gnoll he vaguely recognized, who were giving him guilty looks. Children, too. He remembered the Fury’s opponents and saw Soloxenethn had been forced to excuse himself.

Pomle has few children, too. Is that a weakness? Why am I asking?

The Cult of Windcaller’s Wrath and Pomle both had little use for children; until the refugees, children were a liability. They could not survive.

Then we are both locusts who need outsiders to come in and support us, no matter what Itkisa says. This place…is a far better home than Pomle ever was.

For proof, look no further than behind Erin! In the image of her, he saw men and women who were clearly strong. A Goblin no less! Torreb was eying a Goblin with a crimson crystal sword that was glaring at him, and Orjin saw a massive Drake with incredible, perhaps overly abundant muscles. How could anyone move like that? Let alone how much you’d have to eat to support that body…

He was curious, so he recalled Erin’s other contacts with Pomle.

“You are the one who asked about the previous Strongest’s garden, aren’t you? Salii mentioned it. May I ask what you saw in his garden? Collos. What did he make of it?”

He had to know and listened intently as Erin replied.

“It was—it was a lot like Pomle, actually. Identical, really. It had this room where you could spar with people who’d been warriors of Pomle, but it—”

She hesitated. Orjin’s mind flashed to the mists. Of course. That’s what he’d want. A way to test himself earnestly against his foes! It made sense, and yet…the [Innkeeper]’s next words crystalized something in his head.

“—I think he forgot why he needed it.”

Why would she say that? Orjin had reason to know that there were many owners of the [Garden of Sanctuary]; Salii had done digging when they’d first gotten that question, and many, many people had owned it. Not hundreds, but still.

Why would Erin Solstice, the current owner, believe Collos of all people had squandered it in some way? The former Strongest of Pomle considered this and then bowed his head.

“I thank you for that. At least some part of Pomle remains in memory. I am on a journey to discover what was missing. What I lack. I regret that I cannot answer you in turn with ideas for your party.”

“I, um…please forget it.”

The [Martial Artist] stretched out his feet slowly as Torreb kept laughing, clearly enjoying Erin’s look of actual pain. He bowed to Erin, and Torreb began squabbling with a Drake he recognized. The image winked out, and Orjin looked at Torreb.

“Who was that Drake?”

“Someone who is as real as you or I—though they are no warrior in the sense we are. An [Alchemist]. I heard a funny tale about them. He—or she?—found the company of Stitch-folk more agreeable. Although even my own people don’t change every aspect about themselves. We used to, but Nerrhavia’s Fallen banned…politics.”

Torreb indicated his worn thread, and Orjin didn’t know what that meant. He bowed his head as Itkisa disapprovingly came over with gingerbread cookies.

“That [Innkeeper] is powerful, isn’t she, Father?”

“Orjin’s level. They’re both on the cusp of something. She may never be better. I met Larracel the Haven, and she stank of complacency.”

“Like you, Father?”

“Just like me!”

He laughed and began drinking, which he did when they brought up the fact that Torreb was Level 69 and claimed he could not grow any more. Orjin felt like he was onto something with Erin. If Collos’ garden was just a copy of Pomle…

Maybe it was forgotten. If he had a [Garden of Sanctuary]—I knew him when I was a boy. Why did he never let us train in there? Was the water real? I think I have seen the other ones Erin Solstice has. Why did he not turn it into an orchard or somewhere with grass?

Perhaps he thought Pomle should be harsh, to make us stronger. But Collos…at the very least, it could have housed twice as many of us. Did you think it was a crutch?

Orjin could see that, actually. If Pomle was a dream and Collos had one day made that dream into reality, the [Garden of Sanctuary] lost its meaning. But Orjin would have given it to Salii and asked her to do something with it. Collect water, house the refugees…

Collos had never accepted refugees or anyone else to Pomle. Only those willing to train. Orjin…wasn’t like Collos, he realized. Vandum was.

Perhaps Collos was wrong. If Orjin and Collos had been alive and Collos had refused the Earthers like Raul’s company, or ignored the [Slaves], or refused the refugees, he, Orjin, would have challenged the Strongest. Even knowing he would lose.

In that realization was something that Orjin realized was at the heart of his journey. He reached for it—and nearly punched the air as Erin reappeared.

“Hey, sorry—”

Torreb’s club scythed through her face, and she recoiled.


“Oops. What is it, girl?”

“I, uh—I am so sorry, again, and I don’t want to take up any of your Christmas time. But if I could just ask one teensy favor?”

Erin put her hands together. She looked at Orjin, and he nodded, cursing internally.

“What…is it, Miss Solstice?”

She was exactly like Salii after all. He sighed, and she nervously edged to the side.

“You’re on, you two. Don’t get cold feet! This is, um—she’s written to you before, but she’s shy—this is Garia Strongheart, a [Martial Artist]! She’d love some tips, and here’s Touma the Great! They’re huge fans of yours.”

Erin pushed two people into view, and Orjin blinked. He saw a young woman with another fairly unorthodox body—she was quite thin and muscular, aside from her chest and hips, perhaps overly so—and an Antinium Soldier.

They looked stunned as he half-rose.

“Um! I’m Garia, a City Runner, and it’s an honor to meet you, Mister—Master Orjin! I am so sorry to interrupt, but I had to ask Erin—could you critique me? I’ve been self-training with Ryoka, a Courier, but she doesn’t know more than a certain level, and I—I—”

Touma was waving two hands and clasping his fist with the last one in a [Martial Artist]’s greeting. Orjin stared.

An Antinium who is a [Martial Artist]? How can he use all four fists? He must have a completely different set of balance. His shell is round on the back! Can he even grapple?

And a City Runner?

“You—gained the class by yourself? Who taught you? Is this Courier a [Martial Artist] as well?”

He had no idea so many were in Izril. Garia shook her head.

“Ryoka? No. I just practiced, and—I got the class. I was doing this punch, for fun, every day, a thousand times at first, and then—”

And then she got the class. Something about that was so stupid, yet quintessentially Pomle that it made Orjin smile.

The smile made Touma and Garia relax.

“That is the spirit of Pomle—the Pomle that I knew. I am not the Strongest, but I have trained with many [Martial Artists]. Are you two strikers? Do you follow any particular school? If you show me, I will tell you what I can.”

That was all he could do, but Garia bowed and, red-faced, showed him a few punches. Once she warmed up and forgot her nerves, he saw her form was good—if slightly alien to him. It looked like Raul’s form, too, but he quickly saw her footwork and transitions into more complex blows were completely mismatched.

Apparently, she’d learned from Grimalkin, who understood fighting, but it meant she was chaining together footwork and different styles. She had tried to make it fluid, but Orjin’s tips on how to hold her shoulders and adjust her stance made Garia instantly look far more dangerous.

As for Touma, he was trying to copy Ryoka and Garia, but he was using a Human’s balance, and when he began to pivot and use his body—he couldn’t really twist his hips like a Human—Orjin saw a fearsome form emerge.

Like a relentless boulder punching forwards. For some reason, it made Orjin think Touma could be even larger, some kind of massive Antinium who relentlessly advanced, using all four arms to block and beat down a foe at the same time.

He’d make the entire Ironbody School nervous. Once Touma integrated the punching with his observations of the Crimson Soldier, Orjin saw it.

Something new. Beyond the martial arts he knew, a fusion between Antinium combat and the notions of Pomle’s fighting.

“These are only tips. You must improve now that I have shown you how. Self-critique. Use glass mirrors. Test everything, and discard what is not practical. That is Pomle’s way.”

They bowed, and Orjin bowed too. Unlike his conversation with Erin, this left a deep joy in his heart that he didn’t realize until that evening when Itkisa smiled.

“You haven’t stopped beaming since you met the two young [Martial Artists].”

Orjin reached up, felt at his face, and blinked.

“I haven’t? It’s…good to see. So long as new [Martial Artists] emerge from the wild, it makes me believe what Pomle is will never truly die.”

“So perhaps my daughter is right and there are people who choose sub-optimal classes. Two of them, no less! Then again, a City Runner can’t wield a blade, and that Antinium’s fists can’t be delicate. So it was made for them.”

Orjin’s head turned as Torreb, in a good mood, called out. His family was around him, trading gifts, but the real gift to Orjin was that moment of insight.

Yes. Touma’s fists couldn’t hold a quill, and Garia had said she bore no sword—nor considered herself a warrior who wished to kill.

They had come to martial arts for that. One, because it was not a killing art. Yet Pomle…

Salthorn would approve. There is something here! Something…it is not suboptimal. Or if it is? 

Orjin’s mind hurt, and he couldn’t figure it out throughout the dinner. Then, afterwards, he was pacing around, trying to figure it out, when he nearly ran into Itkisa.

She was holding a sprig of mistletoe she was taking down, another Christmas thing she’d put up because the instructions had said it was a tradition. He blinked at her, and she hesitated.

“Oh. The tradition.”

He nodded thoughtfully.

“I wonder when it began.”

“Perhaps it was a silly excuse? Some take it far too seriously.”

Itkisa commented as Orjin tapped the red, spiky plant and wondered what in it engendered the power of kisses. He nodded, then he looked down and smiled. It did not mean it was wrong to exist. Itkisa held the mistletoe up as Orjin bent over.




The next day, Orjin had his dream. He awoke, the day after Christmas, and knew it was the time to go.

Whether it was chance or something else, he took it as a sign. Torreb watched as Orjin found Itkisa, and she rubbed at her eyes.

“I don’t suppose it was me?”

“No. Why would it be?”

He looked at her so blankly she smiled, and he realized her eyes were glistening. He hadn’t seen her cry once, and she didn’t, not really. But her head lowered.

“Then the same destiny that my father believes in is calling to you.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I wish to speak with him one last time. All I know is…”

Orjin hesitated, and his head turned east.

“I must find Pomle’s people before they are gone. I am told the war wears at them. I must go. I do not know what the answer Collos and I searched for is. But I know—I believe I know—that I disagree with what his vision was. I need to speak to Torreb once. I am sorry. I wish I could have stayed.”

She just shook her head, her face closing off a second, then she strode over, beckoning him.

“No. Your instinct isn’t wrong, Orjin. Pomle is facing General Thelican, and I have heard his armies are a sandstorm. No matter how many times they break through…you will need to move fast to get back.”

“I will run. I can make the journey from the Lantern Lands to Tiqr in less than a week.”

If he ran without slowing like last time, it’d only take four days. But he had barely slept, and Orjin doubted he wanted to do that to himself. At this, Itkisa snorted.

“You sound like my father, but he only talks like that. He is a Named-rank adventurer. Take a flying carpet or a Djinni. If we need to catch up to you, we could do it in a single day. I will have one ready in two hours. Talk to Torreb. And Orjin?”

She caught his arm gently and pulled him back. Orjin had never asked, nor did he think the Fury of Winds or even Itkisa’s family knew, but she was strong.

“…I think it might be the last time you speak to him.”

“I understand.”

She gave him a slight smile and turned, but this time, Orjin caught her arm. His feet skidded on the ground, and he stopped.

“Itkisa. May I ask you a personal question?”


The woman turned, and Orjin didn’t ask about her class. Or anything else so banal, though he was tempted. He looked her in the eyes.

“…Why did you take care of him all these years instead of pursuing your dreams, whatever they were?”

She met his eyes for a long time, and when she replied, he felt his skin tingle and the hairs on his head rise.

“He asked me to. When Father passes—he swore to give me Torreb’s Fist. Otherwise, he said he’d toss it into the sea. And besides.”

She gave him a rueful smile.

“I do love him for all his failings.”

“I see. Thank you.”

Orjin stepped back, and she looked at him. Then she raised her hand and made a gentle fist. She struck his shoulder lightly, and he saw her gaze sharpen. Her eyes were a cloudy orange most times, but it felt like the skies were parting.

A strange dawn rose in them, and he was reminded of his dream. A storm of snow and sand was passing across the Lantern Lands, yet the doors and windows of Torreb’s mansion were closed.

However, a breeze still blew, and it lifted her housekeeper’s shawl off her hair and blew it away. She made no move to pick it up, and, Orjin knew, she never would again.

Gently, Itkisa undid a braid of her hair, then another. She looked around as her hair fell loose, and she realized she didn’t care for that.

Orjin pulled a band he used to keep his own hair tied back without a word and offered it to her. She used it to tie her hair back and then nodded to him. A smile like the land he stood on, from a strange beast’s eyes. Then she looked around the mansion, as if it were suddenly confining, too small to contain her. Her roaming eyes found his, and his skin developed goosebumps as Itkisa struck his shoulder harder.

“We will see each other again, Orjin. So long as the Strongest of Pomle survives. Go find your answer.”




They met one final time, after breakfast, and Torreb sat cross-legged in the falling snow, staring over the Light-City of Meneretorre. He looked wistful, his white hair blowing in wisps.

Yet the axe-club shone with ancient magic, and he smelled like old blood and sweat and metal. The battlefield had taken the shape of a Stitch-man and decided to rest here.

Below, Orjin saw the lanterns of the city glowing, unwinking dots, like the eyes of a creature upon the sands, tall and hunched together, tall buildings of stone rising like some artificial strand of trees, streets and houses sheltering and growing.

Yet it seemed tiny against the vast landscape beyond. A whirling mass of sand and snow blew across the Lantern Lands, roiling, limbs writhing around, swirls of shadow—illuminated by the sun’s faint rays.

Light and dark.

“The very continent seems to wish to make your journey difficult, Strongest. Take a carpet or Djinni.”

“Your daughter said the same.”

“Did she? Good.”

That was all the two said for a while. Orjin sat facing Torreb, but the Named-rank adventurer was distracted. He was looking at the sandstorm as if it were a foe, a hand gripping the handle of his weapon so hard Orjin saw it was white.

Then he relaxed, blinked, and laughed, as if he hadn’t known what had scared him. He turned his head and gave Orjin that half-mocking look he had had from the very start.

“So did you ever find what the ‘strongest warrior’ was, Strongest?”

“Perhaps. At the very least—I know who the strongest warrior is not. It occurred to me, Torreb, to think of it like that.”

“Oh? Then who is the strongest warrior not?

Orjin’s answer was certain, yet he hesitated—because it was hard to say. He bowed his head as he rested his hands on his knees.

“The strongest warrior is not…Vandum.”

Torreb the Undefeated began laughing. His mouth opened wide, and a guffaw burst from the red depths of his throat and his remaining yellow teeth. He cackled, and his laughter drifted down to the city below, wild and loud as the storm.

Then Orjin said the next part.

“It is not Collos either.”

And the laughter faded. Torreb sat back upright, and his head swung slowly to Orjin.

“Collos was the Strongest of Pomle. You—all of you have followed in his great shadow from the moment he won Pomle’s freedom. He was not the strongest warrior?”

“No. That is what I feel, Torreb. And I…feel…one more thing. The strongest warrior, the greatest ideal I follow, is not you, either. The strongest warrior is not Torreb the Undefeated.”

“So you said. You seek the path to them.”

Torreb looked amused, and Orjin nodded.

“Yes. But now I understand this, Torreb: my greatest warrior will never appear if they follow your path, or Vandum’s. This, I believe.”

A silence fell over the veranda, and Torreb’s eyes flashed. Orjin saw a spark out of the corner of his eyes, and a bolt of dry lightning flashed through the sandstorm.

“So you claim this strongest warrior will arise and defeat me? And prove that all I have done is inferior?”

Torreb did not take a hold of his club, but his aura swirled like a second hurricane around the two, and Orjin felt a great weight on him. The Strongest didn’t avert his gaze.

“It is not that your path is flawed, Torreb. Whether they challenge you or not, they cannot be you. The way you became the greatest warrior of Chandrar is not the path I seek. That is what I have realized, Torreb. You see. We have spoken wrongly this entire time. You and I speak of the strongest warrior as if they might be you or I, or appear out of the sands like the Hero of Zethe. From potential and luck.”

“And this is wrong…how?”

Torreb’s head curved sideways, and he frowned. Now puzzled. Orjin’s breath was steady, but his heart was beating faster.

“This is wrong because I understood the truth, or part of it: the strongest warrior is not one among millions. They are not the one who has the talent and ability to become the greatest warrior Chandrar and the world have ever known. The strongest warrior can be, must be, anyone.

Each word rang true. Torreb slowly let go of his weapon and leaned forward.

“Without talent?”

“Without talent. Regardless of who they are. That is martial arts. It must not be one emerging from millions. Instead, it is my belief the millions may all become that one. That is what I seek to create.”

“An ultimate style, then. What a simple conclusion.”

Orjin ducked his head, admitting it.

“Perhaps. Yet it took me a long time to come to this simple conclusion. I thank you for your hospitality, Torreb.”

The Undefeated looked so puzzled as Orjin made to stand. He turned again towards the storm blowing across the desert, pale beige-red grounds turned frosty, touched by the shadows of the clouds come down and the light ascendant.

“Surely there was more you understood, Strongest. Just that?”

Orjin hesitated. He levered himself up and stood there as Torreb looked at him.

“Perhaps. I understand, now, that if all Pomle can do is kill, my practice has little meaning. Vandum believes the victor of every battle is the one who survives at the end. But Salthorn is a master of Pomle. She does not believe in killing.”

“So your ideal warrior is bloodless.”

Torreb’s lips made to spit, and Orjin shook his head.

“No. But they understand when to kill. The act of it is something they weigh, like a stone in my palm. It is not a conclusion, but a choice. So long during my war with Nerrhavia, I thought of it as an inevitable outcome. A necessity.”

He showed Torreb his palms.

“These hands have done nothing for Pomle but cover themselves in blood. Until my oasis was destroyed, I did not realize how much I took from it and gave nothing back. Salii has done more for Pomle than I ever could. Many call her changes for the worse, but in a way—she was a truer master than many of us. The strongest warrior, Torreb, knows more than war.”

The Named-rank adventurer sat there, looking at Orjin with his weary gaze. A strength in their depths, weary, and a fire banked, smoldering down to a single core of embers. A cornered monster, waiting, perhaps, for Orjin or someone else to try and end it and ready to snarl at the land.

Now—confused. Torreb shook his head at Orjin.

“I do not understand you, Orjin of Pomle. You are not Collos. The first Strongest was…no.”

He passed a hand across his face, wiping time away from his eyes. Torreb looked up at Orjin, and the Strongest saw a younger man staring out at him.

“When we last met, he and I were the same sort of person. But he was never stronger than when he fought for Pomle. Maybe…he lost sight of your path.”

Restlessly, Torreb got up, levering himself to his feet. He leaned on his club, then turned abruptly.

“Go. Go, Strongest. You won’t find what you’re looking for. Not here. War has swept through your beloved lands. To get to Pomle, you’ll have to fight through Nerrhavia’s Fallen and Tiqr. If you can hold onto that vision—I want to see if you find your strongest warrior.”

Again, Orjin bowed. Then he turned and looked across the desert, through the sandstorm, across the horizon, his gaze tracing ever eastwards, towards the sun still rising. He felt it calling him back.





The air smelled like acrid smoke and dust, as it always did. It smelled like damp rain and spice. The cloth shifted under Orjin’s crossed legs, and he felt a dizzying nothingness below him. Every piece of him felt the ripple pass through the carpet as it shifted, and he knew that if they turned the wrong way, if the [Carpet Rider] so much as twitched wrong, they would fall.

His eyes were closed, but when he opened them, the ground below was passing so slowly…yet he knew they were flying faster than he could dream of running.

It was no small carpet either; this was a huge one, enchanted to let trade goods and even passengers—and even Spitty—safely sit in the center.

One of the few remaining, this one chartered by the will of Torreb to take only three passengers to the borders of Tiqr.

The [Carpet Rider] was fourteen years old. He was just a boy, and he smiled with all the fearlessness in the world. His father had died flying this carpet. So had his mother and older sister.

Yet the boy sat, half-looking at the silent man with his hair tied back in a ponytail with a band of gold given to him by Torreb’s daughter. Of the many passengers he’d had, the Strongest looked calmer than them all.

Many tried to look tough. Many were fools. Yet this man was afraid. You could see it in the way he forced himself to untense, his bare chest chilled by the winds, sleet pelting him.

But he mastered his fear, and when he returned the gaze, his blue eyes were steady. If they fell, he would have his eyes open on the long drop.

That made the [Carpet Rider] faintly ashamed. The boy turned to the camel sitting dead-center in the carpet, shivering. A brave animal; many had bolted and fallen, even ones lashed in place.

The craziest, like himself, was the laughing, long-legged man. He had been silent and sad at the start of the trip, and guilt was written over his face. But he sat with the winds howling, tugging at his long clothing, and bent over the edge of the carpet.

The [Carpet Rider] was having to account for how far Soloxenethn leaned over the edge. The Fury of Winds had never flown a carpet, for all he had been rich.

His eyes were wide, and he was holding a hand out, only a single hand anchoring himself to the fabric. As if he were trying to catch a cloud. He exulted in the sky.

One day, the air would claim both of them. The boy didn’t blame the carpet; they were not meant for the sky. The wind would one day dash them out of the air as it had his family. Perhaps this very storm would be it.

But the boy flew because of that. Because when he looked down over Chandrar, he had a right to this vision that only Djinni and Garuda possessed.

He could have steered this carpet in his sleep, storm or not. They were well above the winds, flying to Tiqr, and the boy knew it would be seven more hours still. So he glanced back once at that silent man, wind whipping at his face, his breathing controlled.

The boy realized he had met so few who breathed normally this high up. Even the bravest had been excited, yet if he went over and touched the man’s wrist, he was sure he would find the pulse steady. However.

The man that they had whispered was the ‘Strongest of Pomle’ in the Light-City was afraid. You could see it in his eyes.

Gold-rank adventurers had become children and wet themselves a hundred feet from the ground. When Torreb’s daughter had come and demanded he take them, the [Carpet Rider] had wondered if he’d have to turn back or they would become a speck on the ground, losing control of their mind.

The Guild of Skies would not be happy that the [Carpet Rider] who flew Reizue’s Dream—that was the name of the carpet and far more important than the boy’s name, based on the tapestry of a man who had dreamed he was a Djinni, woven millenia ago—was diverting from their course.

But so what? Who cared? They would not take this carpet from him; few were brave enough to fly, and the fools who thought they could died.

One in a hundred carpet fliers lived a year. With training, and if they were from a family or had had mentors, like the boy, it was one in seven who lived a year.

Few lived a decade. Even so, he would be in trouble, and they could take gold from him or just hit him or make trouble for his work.

Yet he had to do it. For they said this was the Strongest of Pomle. They said there was another one who had made great war against Nerrhavia’s Fallen, for Pomle was dead and gone. Sometimes, ‘they’ got it wrong and the Strongest had died, another had arisen—but then who was Torreb’s guest?

Rumors were confusing, gossip often wrong. The truth the boy knew was that this was the Strongest of Pomle. That was how he would say it.

The carpet wobbled as they hit a pocket of air and dropped fifteen feet. The boy heard a cry—and clung to the carpet.


He turned—and the Fury of Winds was gone. The boy closed his eyes and looked wretchedly at Orjin. He hadn’t sensed it; they were invisible pockets. The camel was sliding and beginning to scream, but the carpet righted. The boy stared at Orjin, but the Strongest’s head just turned, and he pointed.


Then the boy turned and saw, instead of a screaming figure plummeting—a man with spread arms flying slower to the ground. He was—whirling.

His arms were whirling like some strange turning mechanism from the Flying Gnoll of Pallass’ silly contraption the [Carpet Rider] loved so much. Soloxenethn’s face was taut with concentration—yet he was still smiling.

And the wind! Disbelieving, Reizue’s Dream turned, and they felt the wind that was howling against them change as they drew near. It was buoying him up!

He was controlling it! As they dove towards him, the Fury of Winds looked over—then kicked downwards. The boy let the carpet’s velocity slow—and Soloxenethn landed light as a feather.

He was panting, sweat rolling down his face as the boy stared at him—even the camel looked impressed. But the Fury of Winds just fell to his knees, then spoke to the Strongest of Pomle.

“I…thought I would fall to earth.”

“If you had, you would have hit Level 50 when you landed.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps you should have let me fall!”

He threw his head back and laughed. Then he looked seriously at the boy.

“You—rider! Are there no [Featherfall] scrolls for us?”

The boy ducked his head, expecting a blow, but called back.

“I am sorry, honored sirs. But this carpet does not carry any! You may buy your own, but it matters little.”

The Fury of Winds was incredulous; the Strongest just tilted his head, thinking.


Well, because [Featherfall] only made you fall slow. If the carpet went down, the boy would hit the ground trying to save it from destruction. And if lightning struck them or they ran into a sandstorm or a Roc savaged them, falling slow didn’t matter.

If they hit anything at this speed or altitude, they died. They were flying faster than any ordinary horse in the world could gallop. A bird had hit a [Carpet Rider] the owner of Reizue’s Dream knew, and the beak had gone through their skull.

The Fury of Winds was panting, and the boy apologized as he corrected their course.

“Hold on, honored sirs. Cling to the carpet or use the straps if you wish to be safe. Like the camel does!”

The camel was using pieces of rope sewn into the carpet to anchor itself, even holding one in its mouth. They were terrible things, sewn into holes cut into Reizue’s Dream, ruining the art.

Neither Orjin nor the Fury of Winds moved. This truly was a worthless ride. The boy patted the carpet lovingly. It was faster than a wagon, but less reliable. It was deadly. It would kill him, and there was a reason [Carpet Riders] were rare and this wasn’t the conveyance of the modern age.

But it was a thing of legends, and he would ride it and never have children. If the last flyer was him, that was well.

“What is your name, rider?”

The Strongest spoke to the boy as they levelled out again, wary of more pockets, and the boy jumped.

“Me? I am the Rider of Reizue’s Dream. If you speak of me or need my services, say it like that. The rider changes. The carpet will not.”

“I see. So that is how it is done.”

“Yes, Strongest.”

“I am not the Strongest of Pomle. I have relinquished that title. I am simply Orjin.”

“And I am the Rider of Reizue’s Dream. We are what we are, Strongest. They spoke of you all this month. It is why I flew so many times to Meneretorre! I wished to see the Strongest of Pomle, who is Torreb the Undefeated’s guest. He has ridden this carpet, you know! To the side of where you sat.”

Again, the boy hunched his shoulders, waiting for a blow, but the [Martial Artist] just looked at him appraisingly.

“Is the Strongest of Pomle known to others in Chandrar?”

He sounded surprised, and the boy almost laughed.

“Pomle? The place of the greatest [Martial Artists] in the world? Pomle, who was destroyed? You tell funny jokes, Strongest. I have bet money on the fighting ring—before Pomle was destroyed. They say you bested the Siren of Savere and a Great General of Nerrhavia’s Fallen in combat.”

“This is true, but there are far greater warriors in Chandrar than I. What of the King of Destruction? His Seven? Mars? Torreb himself?”

“Aye, each one I would be honored to meet, Strongest. And when I say their names, I say yours, above even the greatest [Gladiators] of the Coliseum of Monarchs! Except maybe the Silver Killer, who they say killed ten thousand guards with her bare hands.”

“Yvlon Byres? She claims she killed no one.”

The Strongest looked hugely amused by this, and the [Carpet Rider] twisted.

“You’ve met—”

The carpet dipped accidentally, and he corrected them hurriedly. The Fury of Winds cursed.

“And what about me? The Fury of Winds?”

The boy hesitated.

“Eh, I, ah, do not know you, but your mastery of the air is powerful! What is your name?”

“I am the Fury of Winds! The Windcaller’s Wrath! Have you never heard of it?”

“I…have heard it is a good way to lose money. Did not two of your disciples go to an arena in Nerrhavia’s Fallen? One was defeated in the first round. The second lost to the champion.”

Soloxenethn scowled, but in truth, the boy had heard of the Fury of Winds, now he mentioned it. Orjin’s gaze was steady.

“If you treasure meeting me, I am honored. What is your name, Rider of Reizue’s Dream?”

“I…Buler. Buler, then.”

Buler muttered. He would prefer to just be known as the rider of the carpet, but the Strongest was looking at him.

“Are all [Carpet Riders] as young as you?”

“Some! Some are younger! I knew one who was eight!”

Buler’s jaw jutted out. Nothing would do but he explain the circumstances that had led to him becoming the [Carpet Rider], and his guests listened.

“It is the honor of the Guild of Skies, in the Shield Kingdom of Merreid, the Bazaar of Fables, to be the last guild of [Carpet Riders]. You are privileged to ride Reizue’s Dream, old and slow as she is.”


The Fury of Winds stared at the ground in disbelief, and Buler laughed.

“In the days when she was first sewn, they said she could race any Djinni of the skies and win! She has seen war and deaths, and legends sat on here. There—there sat the Hero of Zethe, who was never dead, as my father said! He bore him there. And the King of Destruction has never ridden this carpet, but Drevish once sat there—”

He knew every spot and pointed as he stared at the fabric, so worn that the tale of Reizue—a man changing into a Djinni and working wonders in a day of magic until he was bound in chains and brought to Merreid—danced upon the old fabric. The Strongest listened. He was a good guest.

“What do you do with the money, Buler?”

Surely a carpet rider was paid well, and Buler was, though his seniors earned far more. He shrugged.

“I give it to the ones who raised me, to children of Merreid. Sometimes, I throw it down from the bridges and watch people pick it up.”

“Why? Don’t you save it to buy something? A scroll or…better clothes?”

The Fury of Winds was cold due to the sleet and shivering. Buler shrugged once more.

“I have nothing to save for. I will die riding this carpet. This is my one dream.”

He answered the Strongest’s next question, and Orjin looked at him.

“Nothing more?”

The question went through the boy’s back. He felt words rise, unbidden, and bit back the desire to be a famous rider, to carry the King of Destruction to wars. To see the carpet repaired and see the Guild of Skies kick out the fat fools who’d never flown a day in their lives and rebuild the network of the skies.


The Strongest knew he was lying. But Orjin just closed his eyes, and Buler hunched his shoulders and, for a while, thought less of his guest as Soloxenethn tried to eat some dried Yellat chips and watched them fly off the carpet.

But after twenty minutes, Orjin’s eyes opened, and the cross-legged man revealed he had just been thinking, not that the conversation had ended.

“I wish Salii were here. I have nothing to give you, be it words or deeds, Buler of Reizue’s Dream. This is another weakness of the Strongest of Pomle. Another flaw in the great warrior I strive to be. I see it now. How useless we are, Soloxenethn. You, at least, could survive a fall. I am a passenger, unable to do anything.”

What strange things he said! Buler grew more fascinated by the Strongest.

“You need not do anything for me, Strongest.”

“Perhaps not. But I would like to. I cannot even offer you Pomle’s hospitality, for it is gone. I fly towards war and the ruins of my home and to find my people. Do you know this?”

Buler grew excited and nodded.

“I do! If you see Pomle, they are in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, warring against the Great General Thelican. They say he has brought so many legions that even Pomle’s warriors drown among cloth-flesh. Tiqr and Pomle can barely keep ahead of his armies.”

Belatedly, he realized this was not good news for Orjin, but the Strongest asked him to say more.

“They say that Nerrhavia’s armies to the north fight against the King of Destruction and hold despite lightning and fire coming down at them. They even say…Djinni fight. Which would be a terrible thing if true.”

His voice lowered in a hush, and even Soloxenethn shuddered.

“Nonsense! Nerrhavia’s Fallen would not dare.”

“They did once.”

Orjin’s words made Buler and Soloxenethn look at him in disbelief. The Strongest shrugged, unmoved. He glanced at Buler.

“Buler, will you tell me more of Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”

Because he was developing such a great admiration of the man, Buler told him all the stories.

“They say that the shadow of the Tyrant herself is upon the kingdom, though anyone saying her name in earnest is put in chains or to death. Yet they say it—and that many cities suffer from a plague of metal insects! They say that there is rebellion in the streets, that two [Princes] war with each other. Prince Zenol, who is much beloved but not by the Court of Silks, has sworn to fight the King of Destruction, which is a death sentence. Too, many [Gladiators] from the Coliseum of Monarchs are in trouble at the capital. But the worst problem besides the King of Destruction, they say, are the freed [Slaves].”

“Free [Slaves]? Surely Roshal would capture them.”

Buler nodded, for all knew Roshal was merciless.

“Yes, but one of the [Bandit Ladies], Merr the Storm, rides with the Bane of Roshal himself! You know him, surely, Strongest. He was at Pomle. He slew [Slavers], and he has killed more each passing week, and [Slaves] flee, and Roshal shudders at his name.”

Orjin frowned.

“I did not speak to him. But that man is in Izril. Khelt’s own Scourgeriders of Emrist took him.”

Their name gave Buler a thrill of delight. So they had been real, that dread legion! He wished he had seen them. But then he ducked his head.

“You say it, Strongest. But I have heard his name spoken. That great [Necromancer], Pisces Jealnet! I have met men on my journeys who swear, swear, they have seen him—and a Skeleton Lord riding a giant bear—laying waste to Roshal’s own!”

“Interesting. I doubt I shall meet many of them. We will pass through Tiqr; the skies are too dangerous to fly further, aren’t they?”

Buler had to admit they were.

“Only Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s Garuda and their own carpets, the slow cowards they are, are allowed in their skies. They would hunt me down, Strongest. They fear, rightly, the Loquea Dree or that we would be spies or worse. I am sorry.”

“Do not be. I can cross Tiqr quickly. You save me a week or more of hard travel. If I do go through Tiqr, I may meet the Empress of Beasts, though she is busy as well in her war. What of her?”

He knew them all! The boy grew so delighted he had to deliberately focus on his flying. Here he was. The Strongest of Pomle, whether he admitted it or not, on a journey to his home.

The ride was long, and Buler talked so long he was hoarse the first two times he had to set down so they could stretch or relieve themselves. The camel ran around in circles, braying, and Orjin told Buler his name was ‘Spitty’—and he was no less than the same camel that Ksmvr of Chandrar had ridden!

Another legend! Buler was so amazed by then that he made a detour on the second stop.

They had to anyways; he had a delivery to put down at the city of Thoive, and the Fury of Winds had been taking a nap, amazingly, while holding onto a strap.

Aha! A level!

He sprang up as they descended, and Orjin grunted.

“I thought so. That makes one for each of us.”

“Wh—are you Level 48?

“Yes. No Skills. I gained it while sparring with Itkisa.”

Torreb’s daughter? Buler and Soloxenethn stared at Orjin, and even Spitty looked impressed. Of course, Reizue’s Dream attracted attention, even though it was late in the day and cold outside. But since he trusted Orjin to keep the carpet safe—the Strongest didn’t want to go out and stretch his legs and had promised to watch the carpet—Buler dared to run down to the market.

“I am carrying the Strongest of Pomle, Spitty who is Ksmvr of Chandrar’s camel, and the Fury of Skies! The Strongest—he is here! And he is going to Pomle, then to fight against Nerrhavia’s Fallen to avenge his home!”

He shouted, and heads turned, and people flooded out of an inn. First, of course, they just thought he was another urchin shouting nonsense, but when one recognized a badge he had on his turban, they knew him as Reizue’s Dream’s rider. Then they began to believe.

The Fury of Skies helped; he was stretching his legs and buying provisions, and he raised a fist and punched the skies, and the winds whipped upwards.

By the time twenty minutes had passed, Orjin was surrounded by people calling questions, and he looked annoyed. Slightly worried he would be mad, Buler hid, but Orjin just glanced at him and stood.

“I am not the Strongest. I am only Orjin of Pomle. I am going home.”

“Through a war?”

An incredulous man demanded. Orjin shrugged.

“If I must.”

“And were you training with Torreb?”

“I was his guest.”

“He was, he was! I saw it myself! His daughter asked for my services!”

Buler hollered, and Orjin tried to clarify.

“He did not train me. We only sparred once. As I said, I have no authority; Pomle is gone. I am simply returning home. And I look for my people. Does anyone know where Pomle fights?”

“In Nerrhavia’s Fallen, of course! Will you go after them?”

A woman looked disbelieving as she held her son up to see him. Orjin stared at the boy, who stared back, and nodded.

“I must find them. If that is where they are—I will follow.”

He spoke like a story! And the more he told people he was not the Strongest, why, the more they saw he was. A swaggering fellow came up to challenge Orjin, clearly annoyed that everyone took him so seriously. The Strongest sighed, and the Fury of Winds offered to take the fight. Spitty spat on the man’s front, and the enraged fellow drew a mithril blade.

Then Orjin punched him. Buler had seen many blows, but never someone collapse like Orjin had knocked his very soul out of his head! The [Martial Artist] checked he was well, then looked meaningfully at Buler.

“Time to go?”




Buler stopped two more times on his journey to Tiqr. He had to. Orjin and the Fury of Skies had to take two more challenges, and the Strongest looked meaningfully at Buler the second time they descended, but the [Carpet Rider] had to.

Not just because he wanted to show off, no. He was gathering intelligence for Orjin about where his people were and the state of things.

But also, Buler realized, the Strongest’s name was too many places. Even for a famous place like Pomle—it felt like everyone had heard of him. One of the [Secretaries] in the Merchant’s Guild leaned over as he asked about the Strongest.

“There were [Merchants] talking about the Strongest of Pomle. Orjin, not the one they call Vandum. I hear even the Empire of Sands has heard of him.”

“How? Because of the Horns of Hammerad? Because of the war?”

“No…at least, not because of that. It is a strange thing. Every [Guildmaster] I speak to has heard of him. From the Merchant’s Guild to the Adventurer’s Guild, they are looking out for him or know of him. I hear the Guild of Scriveners especially is paying for news of him.”

The Guild of [Scribes]? When Buler relayed this to Orjin, the Strongest just sighed.

“Salii must be up to something.”

“Who is she, Orjin?”

“The greatest [Secretary] in the world. A legend of the Walled Cities. More famous than you, I, or anyone else, in truth.”

Buler’s eyes went round. Before Orjin could do more than lift a hand, the boy was running off to shout this to the crowd.

And the legend continued!




The last city they came to was a Bazaar-City, so named because it had a permanent bazaar. It was no Merreid, but the city of Fawasmed was still home to hundreds of thousands, sprawling, the largest city next to the Glass Straits, which mined glass and sent it across Chandrar for windows, shopfronts, and so on.

Buler knew it well, and by the time he landed, there was a crowd from this city who knew Orjin must surely pass by and fly through the Kilalle Steppes to Tiqr, the last part where Buler could follow.

In truth, he wanted to stow his carpet and follow Orjin, or fly into Tiqr and risk Nerrhavia Fallen’s wrath. But Buler was just the small rider in stories. He was proud to even be the ‘Rider of Reizue’s Dream’ in great tales and terrible ones.

He still had nightmares about Drevish’s last flight to the Empire of Sands and how he, Buler, had unwittingly sealed the Architect’s fate. The Strongest had to have a better ending.

He had to.

If only Buler were not so sure Nerrhavia’s Fallen would kill him with an [Assassin] for daring to help Orjin—and they could kill him a hundred ways before that, with a Garuda, flaming arrows, or just a jet of wind to send him plunging out of the skies.

Buler was not the only one! Orjin had gotten a few requests, growing with each city, but now, armed men asked if he wanted an escort through the desert.

“No. I cannot pay you, and I am entering into a war. It is deadly, and my companions…”

Orjin hesitated as he looked at Spitty, but the camel just harrumphed fearlessly, and the Fury of Winds clasped his fist into his other hand.

“I have sworn to go with the Strongest, and if we must fight armies—we have bested a city before between the two of us! Pomle shall be avenged!”

His fiery words made a great cheer rise, and Buler saw the disappointed people begging Orjin again. The Strongest looked so puzzled! Did he not know how many people went to Pomle to train?

“We have many who come for a year or a month or two to learn. Xil grew annoyed with all the spear-trainees; his apprentices weed them out, and he only teaches the ones who impress him.”

“Xil the Spear of Nerrhavia’s Fallen? The greatest spearmaster living, or so it’s said?”


Against his will, the Strongest was sucked into challenges. He was shaking his head, annoyed, as a [Swordsman] begged him for a duel when someone called out.

“Watch out! [Assassin]!”

Orjin looked up, and a figure, a motherly [Baker], or so she seemed to Buler, cursed. The Stitch-woman threw two knives, then tore her face off and leapt into the crowd.

The Fury of Winds tried to pursue, then spun to Orjin. The Strongest didn’t move; Spitty would have been hit, or someone else. He had caught two bladed discs of metal perfectly in the center and was eying the dripping tips. Soloxenethn kept running, and Buler shouted.

“Now Nerrhavia’s Fallen sends assassins after him! The Strongest must go, soon! Back, back! No one on the carpet!”

The boy produced a knife and swung it as the crowd moved back. Orjin called after Soloxenethn.

“Solo—Fury of Winds, give up! It’s a trap. Argh. Stay here, Buler. Spitty, you too. Be careful—I thought I saw someone familiar in the crowd.”

His eyes had narrowed, but whomever he saw—he was gone and running after the Fury of Winds before Buler could ask. Spitty stayed back, looking around, ready to spit or kick, and Buler danced from foot to foot. What a story to tell!

“If only I could be part of it. Hey, you—away from my carpet!

He spotted someone meandering near his carpet, inspecting it, and ran forwards, dagger raised. The young woman backed up.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I was just admiring it.”

She’d been sitting on it! Outraged, Buler produced a little brush and swiped at it before spitting at her.


“You do not have the right to touch this carpet! It is Reizue’s Dream. And you—”

He realized she was the one who’d shouted the warning and shook his finger at her.

“I will forgive you since you helped the Strongest.”

She smiled at him, and her eyes lit up. She was older than him, maybe even twice as old, which said little because he was young, but she walked over and sat on a stone railing leading up to the place where flying carpets came to rest.

“Sorry. Again. It sounds like everyone’s talking about the Strongest of Pomle. Orjin, I mean.”

“He is the Strongest. You…you’re interested in him too?”

Spitty was eying the young woman, and Buler wondered if she were another [Assassin]. It would be just the thing! While Orjin was distracted—he grew nervous, and the dagger in his hand was unenchanted, and his palm was sweaty.

She had scary eyes. They flashed at him with too much knowledge of things, and they were a killer’s eyes; he saw that serious light in them, too, that he had observed from his many guests.

“I’ve been watching him for a while. I don’t think he’s noticed. I feel partly responsible. Though I’ve never met him in person. Oop!”

The young woman backed up as he waved the dagger. Buler gritted his teeth.

“He is my passenger, and if you harm him—”

“I wouldn’t do that. Even if I could. I want him to succeed. Really. What’s your name?”

“I am the Rider of Reizue’s Dream. I’ll defend this carpet with my life. Back!”

She eyed him, then put her hands on her hips.

“What’s your name?

In that moment, she sounded like Orjin. So Buler hesitated.


If she was some famous [Assassin], he would do well not to make a foe of her. She walked around him, admiring the carpet.

“You’re awfully young to be flying this thing by yourself. I was told [Carpet Riders] didn’t have long lives. Why are you doing this?”

He jutted out his chin.

“Because only I can fly Reizue’s Dream! If I die in the air, I will follow my family, and my legend will be part of this carpet. Do you not see my guests, woman? Don’t touch it!

She had put her hand on the carpet. The figure straightened and looked at Buler thoughtfully, and her eyes…seemed to shine. She shook her head, and her brown hair did not blow with the winds gusting through the city. He realized her skin was far paler than most people of Chandrar. And…here he grew disconcerted.

He could see through her. Just slightly, but she was semi-transparent! The woman raised a hand and inspected it.

“I wish I could. Don’t worry, Buler. I don’t mean Orjin any harm. He knows me, as I said. I don’t know if I should be here, but I caught one of my little guests spying on him. Well, two. Nanette and Mrsha. They’re fans of him. And then I started watching. Now? I’ve seen what lies ahead. I don’t have much time—but I feel partly responsible, as I said. My friends owe him a debt. So I’d like to help.”

“Who—who are you?”

Buler licked his lips, unnerved. Was this a ghost? Then he saw her smile, and she reached up.

The people of the city of Fawasmed turned and saw the [Innkeeper] tip her hat to Buler. It had not been there before, but her hat blazed with glorious fires a second, like the very color of Djinni. Then his mouth opened, and he realized the Strongest’s journey was being watched by more than even he had known!

“I am Erin Solstice. [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn. I suppose I’m fascinated by people like Orjin. He reminds me of the best of people I’ve met. I can’t be here except in image. But if I can help, I will. I think…his journey and mine are at the same place. I want to see what he does.”

Her eyes shone with wonder. They were a killer’s. They had magic in them. She looked ordinary, only for a second, until you saw her magical hat and caught the depths of that smile.

When Orjin and Soloxenethn came back, fresh from escaping the [Assassin]’s trap, Erin Solstice waved at Orjin.

“Erin Solstice. What brings you here?”

“A [Secretary] asked me to check on you. Well, that and a nosy little Gnoll and witch were spying on you. But I’m here because I want to help, Orjin. In any way I can. Is that alright?”

The Strongest looked uncertain as he glanced at Erin, then Buler.

“I would not turn it down, but this is not your battle. I would not want you to sacrifice anything for me.”

He meant Buler as well, and the [Carpet Rider] hung his head. But Erin? She raised one eyebrow.

“Sacrifice anything? What about what you’re giving us?”

Orjin looked puzzled and stared at his hands and spread them.

“I have nothing to give. My journey has shown me that, Erin Solstice. Just as I gave you nothing for your Christmas. My martial arts, my very existence, is empty except in what it can take, the damage I do. I am trying to find an answer to that.”

She nodded and looked him in the eyes.

“Want to talk about it? I may not have any good answers, but I am good at listening and giving my opinion. I think you have something to give, anyways. It’s just not something you can see. The best things never are.”

Buler held his breath as the [Innkeeper], friend of Khelt, who they said spoke to the Quarass and made the King of Destruction laugh—who had poked out Gazi’s eye, they said, and these were the legends Chandrar respected—waited for a response from the Strongest of Pomle. He closed his eyes in thought, then nodded.

“If it helps me find my answer, I am grateful, Erin Solstice.”

The [Innkeeper] nodded, and Buler thought she chose her own words carefully. For she was not some [Innkeeper] of Izril, not here. She was in Chandrar and came to the continent of old empires and stories properly.

And like that, Buler found his carpet had a new passenger. The wind touched her not, and she rose into the sky with them, speaking to the Strongest. Then—Buler saw her eyes flick to him, and he realized he was no longer the unnamed [Carpet Rider] in the story.




“Do you have any other family?”


“Who took care of you?”

“A [Dancer].”

“Is she still alive?”

“Yes. I give her gold.”

“If you bought this thing called a ‘seatbelt’, or a [Featherfall] scroll, would you—”

The awe and wonder of Erin Solstice seemed to have worn off fast on Buler. He was hunched in the driver’s seat as Erin sat in front of him in the air. No matter how fast or erratically he flew the gigantic carpet, she didn’t move, and Buler stopped—if only for his passengers’ sake.

Orjin was getting airsick. Spitty already was. Yet he didn’t stop Erin Solstice, because she was saying the things he thought Salii would ask.

The things…he wanted to ask. But he looked at Buler and didn’t see a world where Erin Solstice talked him out of flying. Yet she tried.

“What if you had some rooms and didn’t always live on the road? How long do you work? What did you say the Guild was? The Guild of Skies?”

“I am a [Carpet Rider], and the Guild of Skies is powerful! No one can stop me from flying; no one would dare! I have no home, and I will die flying. What could you offer me?”

He snapped at her. Erin Solstice paused.

“I just don’t want you to die.”

“You’ve met me for five minutes.”

“Yes. And I can’t ask you to come to Izril.”

“Hah! A land of Drakes and cities and too much green? Or the north, which has arrogant nobles and poisonous [Ladies] and assassins?”

Buler spat over the edge of his carpet, showing what he thought about that. Erin shrugged.

“Is there any city you like?”

He gave her a gap-toothed smile full of young defiance, enjoying his argument with her now that he thought he was winning.

“None more than Reizue’s Dream. You could offer me a room in a palace, and I would not take it, woman. My purpose is to fly—there is no greater calling!”

“Yes…but what if you had a good purpose? Better than just doing deliveries for your guild? And a nice room. Palaces suck.”

“You could not offer me a better home than Merreid! Even the humblest room—even the streets are better than anywhere else!”

He shouted at her, and the [Innkeeper] gave him a sunny smile.

“Not even a house in Khelt?”

He hesitated, and before Erin could press him…Orjin was watching it all with fascination. If she was a [Martial Artist], she was one who did with words and emotions what he did with his fists. She had swept a leg and was preparing to mount and beat Buler to death; or perhaps she’d just strangle him or take him down with a single incredible blow from a surprise attack?

Orjin put nothing past her. Yet someone else was listening and grabbed Erin Solstice making Buler nearly take them into a nosedive in shock. The sight of a disembodied hand reaching out like that…

“Psst. Erin. Erin—”

A stranger’s face popped into view, and she looked odd. Drathian? Orjin stared as Ryoka Griffin tugged Erin to the side, but their conversation was audible to his ears, even over the howl of the wind.

Ryoka. What are you doing? I promised to talk to Orjin, and he’s not got long. But I have to also talk to Buler. Maybe I’ll follow him if I can’t convince him now.

Buler had the haunted look of a [Carpet Rider] realizing an annoying [Innkeeper] could pop out of the air no matter where he flew. Ryoka Griffin, who Orjin vaguely recalled being the Wind Runner of Reizmelt, whatever that was, was whispering back.

Erin. You can’t just walk into someone’s life a continent away and start giving them a pep talk and telling them what to do.

The heck I can’t. Are you saying to just leave him alone after hearing all that? The Guild of Skies is full of jerks, too—

Erin. Let me talk.

An arm pushed the [Innkeeper] gently aside, and someone else walked into frame. Orjin recognized her.

“Sorry about that. She cares too much, too quickly. What she should have asked was something else. I’m sure no one wants to tell you what to do—Buler, right? I’m Ryoka Griffin. A Courier.”

Buler’s mouth opened wide. If he had been annoyed by Erin, he was taken off-guard by Ryoka and blurted out.

“You’re the woman who tried to murder Archmage Eldavin! I saw your magic sword! The one who defied the [Assassins]!”

Ryoka turned red. If Erin was just an [Innkeeper]—she was a Courier. But he grew defensive.

“I am like unto Couriers of Chandrar! The Guild of Skies is older than most Runner’s Guilds. So you would not tell me what to do, right, Courier? That woman does not respect me.”

He gave her a challenging look, and Ryoka didn’t blink.

“Don’t call her ‘woman’. Erin Solstice has spoken to the Quarass of Ger and Fetohep of Khelt. She stabbed Gazi’s eye out with her finger; that isn’t a rumor because I was there. If she cares or says unbelievable things, it’s because, annoyingly, she makes them happen. Or haven’t you heard her stories?”

She squatted down, and the boy’s mouth fell open. Ryoka had dancing eyes, and she spoke like a storyteller that Orjin had once heard come to Pomle.

If Erin Solstice had the air of one who could speak to anyone normally, Ryoka was even more fitting to Chandrar. She sat, cross-legged, and the boy warily ducked his head.

“Then she is an important woman, but she still lectures me.”

“Oh, and you know everything and have all the wisdom of a [Sage] at your age?”

Ryoka looked amused, and the boy flushed. But she knew more about how to speak to children.

“You know, Erin Solstice knows some of the mysteries of the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets. It would do well to listen to her.”

“She does? I suppose…but I am fine! I am fine, and I am happy each day, whereas the sweating man digging fields or hawking his wares is miserable. I dance with the winds. Even if it is dangerous, no one will stop me.”

Buler thrust his chest out, and Ryoka’s eyes revealed her sadness—but her tone was gentle, and Orjin admired the way in which she subtly disarmed the boy.

“Of course. A Courier has to recognize her kin. You fly. But how will you ever fly that carpet to Izril, or go on a great journey or quest if you don’t live to be older.”

“To Izril? No [Carpet Rider] has survived a sea journey in—the Guild of Skies would never allow it!”

“The [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn—would. She’s called on Couriers before, or do you not know Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier? He’s staying at this inn now. Tell me more about yourself, Buler. And perhaps I’ll put in a good word for Erin. One only gets one chance to speak with her, you know.”

Now the boy was completely confused, and he hesitated. Ryoka turned her head, and Orjin caught the edge of a subtle wink. Erin came back, looking amused, slightly annoyed, and impressed all at once.

They got to talking as Erin gave Orjin an apologetic wave, but the Wind Runner interested Orjin, too. Besides, her company yielded an unexpected boon within moments, not just how she spoke to Buler.

This journey they were on wasn’t just Orjin’s. The Fury of Winds, Soloxenethn, had never spoken about what he’d seen in the mists, but it weighed on him. Yet that was his own quest for redemption that he had finally realized he was on.

His journey to complete his training? Ryoka Griffin was part of that. When he told her he was the Fury of Winds and she allowed she knew a tiny bit of martial arts, they got to talking.

The argument started about five minutes later.

Talk to the wind? Why would I do that? Observe! [Windcaller’s Fist: Howl of the Vortex]!

He demonstrated, and a huge gust of wind blew off the side of Reizue’s Dream. Buler screamed insults as he steadied the carpet. Ryoka was red-faced.

“That’s not real mastery of the winds! You’re just creating a giant gust! You’ll never fly if you don’t respect the wind!”

“And you will never do anything under your own power, Courier. You beg the winds to ferry you around; that is as much mastery as a leaf claims to have over the breeze.”

His sneer made Ryoka turn redder, and she whirled to a hovering blob of green, which turned out to be…Orjin squinted.

“Shaestrel! Back me up!”


“Yer not a master of the winds, ye daft cunt. I never said you was. Did Ivolethe say it? Because she was lying if that’s what you thought. You’re a friend of the wind. Nothing more. Yon fool might not be smarter than you are…but you’re no better than he. You’re both about as connected to the winds as a fart of mine.”


Ryoka and the Fury of Winds looked incredibly insulted by this. Yet Orjin had to agree.

“Soloxenethn. You command it. Ryoka, you speak to the air itself. Yet it seems to me neither one of you understands the powers you control. I understand the ground I stand on, how a rock falls, and my own body. The wind and air seem complex and deep, and I have talked to Garuda and felt it and observed the movement of clouds and leaves. The Ironbody School of Pomle seeks to become like metal. Neither of you embody the dancing breeze in your way.”

They turned to him, speechless, and the green blob laughed.


“He has the right of it! He’s closer to understanding the wind than the two of you!”


Orjin felt an approving look, and Ryoka walked off. Soloxenethn would have done likewise if it didn’t mean falling off the carpet, but he looked back at the Wind Runner, and she traded a glance with him. And perhaps Buler learned the most of all of them.

“Sorry, Orjin. Where were we?”

Erin sat back down, and the Strongest of Pomle spoke.

“I told you I was on a quest to understand what the strongest warrior of Pomle was. The vision Collos never attained. I understood—more of it. Or at least, what it’s not.”

“Not Torreb. I understand. So you want to make a school of martial arts that can lead to this? That is versatile and adaptable?”

Orjin hesitated.

“…No. That is too vague. Rather, I understood what I liked about [Martial Artists]. The class. Anyone can become one. It has something to offer everyone. Perhaps it is not optimal. But anyone can practice it. In the same way, anyone can become the greatest warrior. That is the promise of Pomle that I always knew, though I could not give it voice until now.”

He was proud of that, and yet, the [Magical Innkeeper] wore a troubled frown. She sat there, and he spoke to her as he had spoken to Torreb. She might be far lower level than Torreb, but in a way, she was counterpart to his mastery as a [Warrior].

And she challenged him.

“No. I don’t think this is true, Orjin.”

The Strongest of Pomle paused.

“How so?”

Erin was giving him a troubled look, but something had clearly occurred to her, and she bowed her head in thought. Then she looked up.

“—I don’t think it’s true everyone can become the ‘greatest warrior’, Orjin. If you think a [Martial Artist] class can come to anyone and they’ll be the best, isn’t that a lie? Anyone can get it, maybe, but if I trained every single day as hard as you, and had the best teachers, I don’t think I’d be a better puncher than you.”

“Striker. I…see.”

Erin indicated her body and Orjin’s, and he might weigh twice what she did and had height and reach on her. Which mattered. The [Innkeeper] gave Orjin a sympathetic look, knowing she was poking holes in his theory.

“Maybe I could get Skills, but without them—the claim doesn’t work. Can a Centaur even learn some of the techniques you have? What if a Selphid just jumps into a powerful body?”

He sat there, not denying any of it. Yet Orjin didn’t feel like he was defeated. Just that he needed to restate his beliefs.

“Then…I believe that martial arts has something for everyone. Even if you were missing an arm—even if you could only blink and breathe, I want to believe what I practice has something for you. Yes. That is it. The great warrior of Pomle must offer more than the ability to kill.”

Her eyes brightened, and Erin Solstice offered him a smile.

“I believe that.”

This was better. This was…Orjin confessed something to Erin as they flew downwards, into the Kilalle Steppes. Their journey would continue on foot, and they were close to Tiqr, Pomle, and wherever his people had gone. But this was important.

“Erin Solstice. I have always taken pride in my ability to fight. Which all of Pomle’s warriors do. But I felt something different when the refugees came to Pomle and Salii offered them a place. That—was something I, as Orjin, could never do. But it was right. When I freed those [Slaves], I drew Pomle into war.”

He closed his eyes, and some part of him regretted it. But another part could not.

“…I think I did it, knowing what would happen. But I wanted them to have what all who come to Pomle have: a chance to improve. A chance to be free. That is what Pomle was. It was what I was proud of! The Peace of Pomle!”

How could he forget? First, they had come to Pomle to negotiate, the leaders of nations! That had been his pride to officiate, even though he pretended it was just work. It meant something.

Erin’s eyes were bright and understanding.

“Your great warrior has to give them something. But all the martial artists and warriors do is…”

“Kill. Vandum is good at it. Even if not killing…is this all my class is?”

Orjin stared at his fists. If he was a [Warrior] like Torreb, he could accept it. He looked at Erin and asked her a question because he was lost.

“Erin Solstice. What is a [Witch]?”

He knew she was one. The [Witch of Second Chances] thought about it and came back with an answer in a few seconds.

“A [Witch] is…a vibe.”

“A what?”

Spitty stared at Erin, and the young woman tipped her hat up.

“A vibe. A look. It’s a pointed hat, a dress, a bubbling cauldron. A witch is what you look like.”

Orjin’s heart sank. Was this another joke? Yet Erin seemed to be taking his question as seriously as could be. Her eyes flashed, and the hat flared orange a second, then jet black. Then she did look like a [Witch].

“It is how you look, Orjin. It’s not a joke. A [Witch] is a woman in a crowd. A [Witch] is a word: no. She is an outsider. She is a question. She is not what makes you comfortable or happy or keeps everything the same. She is…trouble. It’s all of that and more. Do you understand? A witch is a [Witch]. She is an idea.

She gave Orjin an embarrassed smile, and the [Martial Artist] nodded. Erin took a breath.

“So I guess when you asked me that…what’s a [Martial Artist] to you, Orjin?”

He found the answer was easy. Perhaps Salthorn, Vandum, Xil, all had their own answers, but Orjin’s was this:

“[Martial Artists] are…not [Warriors]. We are part of that class, but we are more than the artful swing of a sword or even the perfection of a strike. These are the qualities of our class. Not the nature. To me, martial arts are about control. Knowing yourself. Mastering your body. Understanding…”

He looked up suddenly.

“Understanding. That is what we are. My foes, myself. How I breathe. How stepping matters. I want to understand the world and then change it deliberately. The gift of martial arts is a kind of mastery. Not control. And the mastery will never be perfect. But it is the tool by which the world moves for me.”

And then the [Witch] and [Magical Innkeeper] gave Orjin a huge smile. She looked at him, with appreciation, and nodded.

“I envy that. That sounds—when you say it like that, it sounds good.”

He bowed his head to her.

“I understand it more, now. Thanks to you.”

She nodded and rose.

“One last question, Orjin? Where’s the magic in it?”

The [Martial Artist] paused.

“Magic? We have none.”

He thought she meant in the class, but Erin meant…

“Wonder. The excitement. Is it in when you hit something or pull off a move? My own magic—not a [Witch]’s, but an [Innkeeper]’s—is when my friends come together. When I witness their triumph or I do something for them that matters. Where is it in Pomle?”

“I don’t…know.”

He was troubled by her words. If she meant the adrenaline, the victory like when he sparred—no.

Magic? The joy of perfecting a move, the feeling of accomplishment, these were all good answers. Yet he felt like he knew the answer and it eluded him.

“Magic. Coolness, I guess. I know that’s a silly word, but—”

The [Innkeeper] laughed self-consciously.

“That’s what I think you should look for, Orjin. The ability to kill people?”

She paused, shook her head.

“I know a lot of people like that. That’s not cool. It might be impressive or terrifying or—even needed. I might respect someone who has the power to do that, and mastered it, but many classes have that ability. But that’s not the point. If you’re looking for that—”

Erin held Orjin’s gaze.

“I think there’s part of your answer.”




Then they landed. Erin talked more with Orjin, but he felt like his conversation with her had already yielded another clue.

When did being a warrior of Pomle matter? Never more than when he had defended Pomle or the people within. When he had declared the Peace of Pomle.

That was when he was truly Strongest.

Orjin realized something as Buler stood by the carpet and bowed.

“I am sorry, Strongest, Fury of Winds, Spitty. I cannot fly further.”

“You have done us a great service, Buler. Please. Take this.”

Orjin handed him all the coins he could spare, but the boy refused them.

“I have been paid by Torreb himself, Strongest. I could ask for nothing more.”

Slowly, the Strongest knelt. He looked in the boy’s eyes, and he had not quite dared. Erin had. But if Orjin did dare, he would look at this boy courting death and feel…helpless.

“You should. If I could give you anything, I would, Buler. But I have nothing. Erin Solstice is right. In her way, she exceeds me with kindness, no matter how misplaced. I have never envied my [Secretary], Salii, more than now. I would help you if I could, to repay you.”

The [Carpet Rider] looked away shyly.

“I don’t wish to be saved or given a place for free, Strongest. This matters. Reizue’s Dream is more important than me.”

“Then—I wish I could give you something that let you achieve those dreams.”

The Strongest made a fist. And those words were true. Yes. This is…he looked in Buler’s eyes, then held the fist out.

“You will always be welcome in Pomle, Buler. So long as the spirit of it endures. I am going, now. I could not have come here without Buler of Reizue’s Dream. Nor will I forget his name.”

Slowly, the boy held out a fist, and they tapped them together. Buler had tears in his eyes, and he wiped at them. But Orjin just clasped his fist to his palm and bowed. It was the only expression he had.

Now they were so close to Tiqr, he saw the last oasis in the Kilalle steps. Deserted, small; it was a watering hole with water that the others could drink from, but only Spitty would truly find potable.

Beyond there lay Tiqr, at war with Nerrhavia’s Fallen and other nations for independence. Buler had heard Nsiia’s forces were roaming the borders. Beyond there—and Nerrhavia Fallen’s armies were in force.

Orjin would have to cross all of it to get to Pomle and enter into the great empire itself to find his people. He was ready, or so he thought he was.

“Soloxenethn. Are you truly prepared to come with me? You do not have to.”

The Fury of Winds was sitting, cross-legged, and he opened his eyes slowly.

“Orjin. I have understood now that my Windcaller’s Wrath was always corrupt. It deserved to be destroyed. I have…perhaps I have let down my disciples, myself, and everyone I have met.”

For a second, it seemed like Soloxenethn did not believe his own words. His eyes flashed with that arrogance Orjin knew was in him. Then—the Fury of Winds turned and looked at Buler. And his gaze was uncertain.

“—I have always thought I made their lives better. But I only looked at my disciples. How many…?”

He didn’t finish the sentence and stood there until the [Carpet Rider] shifted and looked uncomfortable. When Soloxenethn’s head turned, he looked at Orjin as if seeing a landmark while lost, and his eyes firmed. Then he nodded.

“Pomle offered me its peace even in war. I am going. You may leave me, but I will follow. If the Fury of Winds perishes to let the Strongest of Pomle find his answer, so be it. That is the spirit of Pomle and martial arts. And that is still where my heart blows true.”

He struck a pose, but his eyes were as serious as his antics were not. Orjin looked at him and held out a fist. Soloxenethn hesitated—then they struck their fists together.

Two [Martial Artists], now, locked eyes, and Buler saw them bow. Orjin felt like his back was no longer unguarded. Armies?

He did not fear them. But his mind strayed to one last person in his company that he had taken for granted. Orjin looked at Soloxenethn, at Buler, and then turned.

“I speak so much about Pomle, which I let down. About [Martial Artists]—whose teachings should be for all. I want Pomle, the Pomle I seek, to give. Yet I have never thought of you. You, who came here of your own will. I can give you nothing either. But I can at least spare you this fate.”

He turned, and Spitty the Camel stared behind him, then realized Orjin was undoing the bridle on his face. The [Martial Artist] removed the reins and pointed.

“You are free, Spitty. Go. There are armies, and I cannot protect you.”

The camel stared at Orjin. Then sidled around in an ungainly manner. He looked around, then at the oasis, where enough grew for him to eat. When he turned to Orjin, his mouth was pursed.

Orjin waited, and Spitty, true to his nature, spat. But the glob of foul camel spit didn’t hit the man, nor did Orjin move to avoid it.

Spitty spat to one side, out of the corner of his mouth, and glared at Orjin. As if angered by Orjin’s words. Slowly, deliberately, he lifted a hoof, and Orjin stared at it.

Gently, the [Martial Artist] touched his fist to it, and when he bowed, the camel bowed back. Somehow, that was the most strange and touching gesture of all.

“We camp tonight. Then—we leave at morning. Buler, you are welcome to sleep here until we wake.”

The boy agreed. Spitty, Soloxenethn, and Buler were preparing a dinner out of the rations the Fury of Winds had bought when the winds picked up.

Orjin was standing at the edge of the oasis, staring into the heart of Tiqr. He turned his head once as he began to trot forwards to get a look in silence.

The winds rose—and then went silent. The Fury of Winds rose slowly to his feet; a great gale had been blowing across the steppes. Now, it swirled to silence, and a barefoot Courier stood there.

Even if it was only her projection—she bowed and lifted a hand. Orjin felt the air whirl around her, and his eyes widened. He turned as Ryoka Griffin looked at the Fury of Winds.

Slowly, the [Martial Fury of Skies] lifted his hand and took a stance. He made a slow gesture, his striking pose, and Ryoka copied it.

The air was moving again. Orjin looked at them, and part of him wanted to copy the two—but this was for those who sought the wind alone. Buler was imitating them, and Spitty was sitting on his haunches, watching.

A great storm of wind blew behind Orjin as he walked forwards. And he had part of Erin’s answer already.

That was Soloxenethn’s magic. Soon, Orjin would find his.




The steppes ended at last, and Tiqr began with that final oasis. Accordingly…Orjin could pick out distant outposts by the night’s darkness.

Too many burning lights to be a city, and the smell that came to him on Tiqr’s border was of steel. Metal.

The land felt both empty and overworked. Filled with strife. Here, Orjin knew, would be Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s armies.

Salii might have given him a reputation, but she had not made his journey back to Pomle easier. Well. So be it.

He touched his chest, wishing he could feel some of the things Erin Solstice ascribed to him. But there was no…goodness or justice there.

Just anger.


He was going, and if the armies got in his way, the [Soldiers] might be innocent of General Thelican’s deed. They might love their country—but Orjin would not stop.

This was in him. A duality of what he wanted to do for others like Spitty or Buler or…anyone, and the death in his soul.

It was much like Erin Solstice herself, he realized. But the peace, the balance of the two? No. He didn’t feel that.

Yet he admitted, as he stood on the edge of the border, that while he might not deserve the name, he was one of Pomle’s masters. He would come back to Pomle as one. He did not intend to hide or walk quietly home, either.

That was surely why Erin Solstice had come to talk with him. She expected great things of Orjin of Pomle, and in truth, so did he.

“I will find my answer in the coming days or die. I will not come back the way I have gone until I have found Pomle once more, no matter where they lie. This, I vow.”

He spoke in the way of the Monks of Sottheim and the ones who had taught him, though he did not swear it upon a Skill; there was no need.

The promise was in his heart. He refused to let it be a mere Skill or thing of levels. Orjin stood outside the oasis and realized he had walked miles past the border. The sandstorms that had been blowing cold sand and snow all throughout his long carpet ride eastwards had not abated, yet.

They obscured the skies and clouds as one blew across him, but he ignored the stinging particles on his skin. He was about to turn back when he realized he was not alone.

First had come the [Innkeeper] with what wisdom she had and the kindness and whatever courage and aid she could lend. But Orjin was not being watched alone by her.

A woman stood in the middle of the sands, a veil across her face. She had not been there before a storm covered the air. Nor, in truth, did Orjin know if she was really there now.

It was in the way she walked forwards, an odd jerkiness to her movements, and the sand her feet displaced suggested she was far lighter than a person should be. When he looked at her, he smelled a medicinal balm, and he detected no breath.

The [Martial Artist] thought she was dead. Yet something spoke through her, and it was that presence that gave her life and made him think she was beautiful, that suggested the keen eyes that pierced him, or the high, lilting voice that had all the arrogance in the world behind it.

“So you are the heir to Pomle. A tiny oasis that dared challenge the bloated empire of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. When you were a boy, I was told Pomle won its freedom. That it is a tiny nation of simple warriors whose legacy is but one generation long. You are Orjin of Pomle.”

“Yes. I am not the Strongest.”

He said it unconsciously, reflexively, because everyone else had said it. And the woman’s cold smile pierced him like a blade.

I know. It is good you understand what you are. Yet Erin Solstice sees what I taught her to find; what she has always known. Worth. You are one man among these sands which bleed lives into them. Yet I have found you worthy enough to set foot upon my homeland once more.”

Orjin had heard that voice before. His eyes narrowed, then he blinked.

“You were the one who gave me the lantern when I entered the mists. Now you are here. I saw you in the crowds, before. You have been following me. Who are you? An agent of Khelt? A spirit?”

She threw back her head and laughed at this—then stepped forwards and slapped him. Orjin raised an arm to block—and the slap went through his arm. His head jerked around, and he stumbled. Blood in his mouth.

What was that? 

Khelt? Do not insult me. These lands were mine. When I stood here, everything you could see was mine. That pitiful empire that you see is a shattered remnant of my glory. Yet it is still a remnant, and you challenge it with your bare fists. A man without legacy or deed, without even a great class or the title of ‘Strongest’. You have no army. Nor are you that sort of leader.”

She studied him as Orjin stepped back, warily, and thought. After a long moment, he spoke.

“I think I know who you are. What do you want? I am indeed only Orjin, without a home or any importance. Others seem to believe I am, but I am not anything special.”

The woman tossed her head back, and her smile widened.

“That’s right. You know you have no greatness to your name. No history behind you. But that is always how legends of Chandrar arose. Erin Solstice sees it. I see it. You may fail, and if you do, your bones will be covered in sands within a day, your name forgotten.”

“I know.”

He met those eyes, though it was hard, and her smile widened.

“Good. I expect to be entertained. I came to judge you; if you were unworthy of even the attempt, you would not have taken a step further.”

His hands rose at this, and he prepared to leap backwards, but she just waved his arms down, and he felt a great force pressing on him. Her aura? Orjin relaxed his guard, though he kept ready to move.

“I allow it.”

That was all the great Tyrant of Chandrar said. Orjin blinked.

“You allow…me to return home?”

Yes. You, and the rest of this continent, have forgotten to beg. I will give you no succor, nor aid. But I permit this. Whether or not they lay the blame of it at Erin’s feet—you will remember this, Orjin of Pomle. They will know. Go on your journey and remember me. One day, if you triumph, if you rise ever higher, I will permit you the chance to kneel.”

The emaciated hand of her puppet rose, and the [Tyrant], Nerrhavia, grasped at the air. Then—Orjin felt a trembling in his bones. He realized the very land was shaking.

What are you—he didn’t say it, just sprang away. Her laughter followed him, delighted and carefree as she pulled at the very firmament of the continent and demanded it to move.

So it did. And Orjin saw a flash, which baked into his retinas, and saw her pull something out of the skies. Much like Erin Solstice could pull wonders out of her hat.

But the [Innkeeper]’s counterpart…no. Was Erin the bright reflection of the Tyrant of Chandrar? If so. She could not match this. The words flashed across the skies, and every citizen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen woke from a nightmare. Orjin stared upwards and knew…

She had truly prepared his way. When he looked down, the figure was gone. But the sky still held the glowing words.



<Mythical Quest – The Fate of Pomle>

Limits: The warriors of Pomle, the forces of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

Turn your eyes across the Great Desert and see his return. Listen, for I command you. Orjin of Pomle returns to his home, seeking the answer to his question.

A pretender bears the title of ‘Strongest of Pomle’. Neither is worthy of it. Armies assail Pomle, and the warriors bleed out upon the sands. 

Only greatness shall endure. Let it come to the worthy. Either the Strongest of Pomle shall emerge and remake it, or the name shall die. Chandrar has always been made of deeds. Let the worthiest rise.

Conditions: The Strongest of Pomle shall receive this reward—or the ones who end Pomle forever.

Posted Reward: My favor and attention upon you.

Quest Reward: One <Class> or <Skill> worthy of Pomle.

Rise, warriors of the sands, and remind the world of Chandrar’s stories. For so long as they whisper your names in glory or infamy, you shall never die.




‘Worthy of Pomle’. Even the great legend paused afterwards.

Because Nerrhavia had not written that. Yet it was spoken, and the words made even her soul thrill with delight. For it meant something.

Yet thence it was done, and she relinquished control of the puppet her ally had made and let its bones fall into the sand.

Then she waited. She knew it would make Orjin’s journey no easier; but it should not be. This last part was his, and his alone.

The Strongest of Pomle would arise or die. A man called Orjin stood on the borders of Tiqr and felt his class flicker in his mind. But not even the will of the world knew how it would change.

Then—he began walking forwards, unable to sleep or wait another second. Followed by the bravest of camels, the Fury of Skies, and the eyes of so many people for and against him.

At last, then.

Orjin of Pomle went home.





Author’s Note: I plan on finishing Orjin’s arc next chapter. I had planned to a while ago, but it took a while and it was hard.

This next chapter may be big, and I will take a long break after that to edit and rest. I have been pushing very hard and feel the exhaustion—but I am also nervous about this arc.

I have an ending, but I am not sure if I have foreshadowed it well enough or whether I can tell it. I will try. I may write it off-stream, and if necessary, if I feel I can’t do it justice, delay it or even make it two chapters.

I will try not to, but as you surely agree, a story should be good. That’s why I intend on rewriting the Book 12 arc with the [Witches] at Riverfarm by the end of the year. Andrea is going to record it for an audiobook, and I am not satisfied with the quality.

Hopefully, we will find the story I picture in my head written out by Saturday. But for now, I will rest and prepare for it. This chapter might have been the setup for the finale, but hopefully it has the atmosphere and gravitas I think is deserved. It is not always my style. Sometimes I make mistakes or forget what I do best, but I’m trying to improve.


TWI Talks – Chapter 9.57 B! (The channel will keep updating even if I don’t always shout out the videos. The best part about the discussions is that we have readers from all over. I enjoy listening to it.)


MaidAnts by Wowabublord commissioned by Calruz X Horns!

Tumblr: https://wowa-bublord.tumblr.com/post/725698360793841664/im-opening-commissions


Windy Girl, Liscor, and High Passes by ReliaOfDreams!


Erin and Bubbles by dydreamr!


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